A Humanizing Moment

I have a story about my Nana. Her name is Margaret, and I switched to calling her that as soon as I could pronounce it and she would let me. Margaret was home with my sister and I between when school let out and when my parents got home, helping to do some chores but mostly watching us play and bringing us goodies

Margaret is Italian and Catholic. She takes both very seriously, and we always knew it--whether she was cooking up a frittata or giving me a book on the story of Christmas as a Chanukah present, which fed my early interest in all sorts of religions. We would receive Easter baskets and she would come to the family Passover seders. Margaret is definitely family.

Naturally, when someone becomes a part of your family, you learn about their family. I knew Margaret's two grandsons as soon as I met her, each a few years older than me. Margaret would sometimes call me by their names and then chide herself for getting older and forgetful.

I bring up my Nana to talk about April, or rather, April as Gay Pride Month. Margaret probably would never associate herself with the concept--at least not before last year. One of her grandsons shared a house with another young man; that made sense to Margaret because he was an unmarried twenty-something, and it made sense that he wouldn't tell his grandmother anything more. But last summer, when the grandson and his partner decided to adopt a child, it was time someone spilled the beans.

Margaret is a regular at Mass as well as at the diocese's bingo; her beliefs are deeply rooted. When she learned that not only was the roommate not just a roommate but also that she was about to become an adoptive great-grandmother, it all came as quite a shock.

But what is most remarkable is what happened next.

Last August, after being briefed on all these developments by my mother, I went out for brunch with Margaret, a ritual for the age who still respond as her "babies." The conversation turned to the adopted great-grandson. She admitted at first she had been shocked by it all and somewhat repulsed, but she said now all of that was brushed aside by a more pressing concern: How would this be for the baby?

Margaret told me that she considered her opinions of her grandson's lifestyle almost irrelevant. It wouldn't be the choice she would make, she said, and it did disappoint her somewhat, but that was water under the bridge at this point, after the surprise. Now what she worried about was the little boy, and how he would grow up. After all, she said, doesn't every child need a mother?

Last week, I called Margaret and asked how her great-grandson was. She said she had seen him earlier in the week, and that he was "just adorable" (correct great-grandmother intonation is impossible in print) and seemed to be growing up happy and healthy. She said she was even a little jealous of the fathers' relationship with the boy. "When he sees me he cries and wants to go with one of the two daddies," she said.

I find it moving that someone so close to me, who in the abstract would find homosexuality wrong, even sinful, honestly reconsidered her position when it became personal. Margaret's thoughts are mostly with the child, but her thoughts about homosexuality in general have changed too. She has been convinced that these two men can serve as good parents--quite an endorsement in child-rearing, to be approved of by such an expert.

Her story came to mind last week when I was on the bus with two friends and one casually mentioned her sister and her sister-in-law. The third friend asked about a brother, but I had already caught it: "'Sister-in-law' just sounds more human than 'partner,'" she explained.

It may be hard to think in these terms--subtle, private, human. The most visible part of Gay Pride Month at Harvard was the racy, shocking posters put up in the Yard by the Bisexual Gay Lesbian Transgendered and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA), and though I think they had a point, I feel too that the piece of the BGLTSA agenda pursued in these posters was put forward at the cost of humanizing the issue--of confronting homosexuality via your sister, say, or your roommate.

And humanity is of the essence. Whether it is Margaret and her grand-son-in-law or my friend and her sister-in-law, it is our common humanity that can bring us to dialogue. Even rabid conservative Phyllis Schafly has reconsidered her positions somewhat by knowing that her son is gay; candidate Bush came away from meetings with gay Republicans last week more "educated" on the issue.

With her grandson, Margaret has looked beyond doctrine and politics to see people. In that case, her grandson and family have made tough decisions, and tried to live with the social and religious backlash they can expect and the family backlash they feared. Margaret decided to see the grandson she has always loved and to welcome his partner and child into their family. In the waning days of Gay Pride Month we should consider how we, can look at the challenges the gay rights movement faces and see the opportunities for change it creates--and how our words and actions affect people and not just issues.

Adam I. Arenson '00-'01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.