Monday, April 25, 2011

Growing Pains

There’s a world of hurt and confusion in this story, as well as the de rigeur Tennessee connection:
Federal authorities last week arrested and charged a Tennessee pastor with aiding in the “international parental kidnapping” of a girl who has been missing since late 2009 and is at the center of a lengthy custody battle between her two mothers — a onetime lesbian couple who were in a civil union.

The two had a bitter falling-out after one became an evangelical Christian and denounced the other’s continued “homosexual lifestyle.”


Lisa Miller, the girl’s biological mother and a newly fervent Baptist, was championed by conservatives for her efforts to shield her daughter from homosexuality. A Vermont court had granted her primary custody of the daughter, Isabella Ruth Miller-Jenkins, after Ms. Miller split with her partner, Janet Jenkins, in 2003. But the court also declared Ms. Jenkins to be a legal parent with liberal visiting rights, and Ms. Miller, who had moved with the girl to Virginia, defied repeated orders to permit the visits.

The case took a turn in late 2009, as the Vermont family court, citing Ms. Miller’s noncompliance, shifted primary custody to Ms. Jenkins. Ms. Miller and Isabella, who is now 9, disappeared. A warrant was issued for Ms. Miller’s arrest, and they have not been heard from since.

I’ve always said that the reason we need to have legal gay marriage is so we can have legal gay divorce. Even under the best of circumstances, divorce is an ugly business but if you’re gay, breaking up really is hard to do. Gay divorce is truly a legal nightmare for lots of reasons related to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, differing state laws, and all sorts of complications.

The Miller-Jenkins case is a perfect example of this. As I read the story in Sunday’s paper, I thought about how this whole situation reflected the cultural shifts of the past few decades -- changes we’re still coming to terms with in society at large. The issues at play are those same cultural issues which surface every election and are a major factor in our politics.

Once upon a time in America a situation like this would never exist: there would be no doubt as to whether a court would award custody or visitation rights to an avowed lesbian, there would be no question as to who was right or wrong in this scenario. For that matter, it would be pretty much a given that a same-sex couple would be infertile. But the past 30-40 years have seen major cultural changes, not to mention medical advances. Not all of these changes have been embraced by the totality of our religious and legal institutions. We're still sifting through it all, and I'd say it will take about a generation for all of this stuff to finally settle out.

And I have no doubt which way it will go. The culture wars are over and the right has lost; they just don't know it yet. Throughout its history America has always expanded its table to invite ever more groups of people to democracy's banquet; we've never taken seats away. That doesn't mean it's been an easy or effortless thing, far from it. And I think a lot of the knee-jerk legislation we see in places like Arizona and Tennessee attacking GLBT citizens and immigrants and the poor are all just a response to this societal shift we're going through right now.

We live in a post-Christian, post-racial, post-Roe-v-Wade, post-internet, post-biomedical engineering, post climate change, post-you-name-it age, and that's a lot of change for one society to handle. It's inevitable that we've splintered as we have, it's a predictable response by a large group of people to a lot of change. But I have great expectations for the next 20 years.

We're just going through some growing pains, that's all.