Traditional Families

    It’s “that time of year.”


   No—I’m not talking about Halloween, or even Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Christmas. For the eleventh year in a row, from November 3d through the 19th, approximately 100 organizational partners will invite us to the civic conversation known as the annual Spirit and Place Festival. The festival revolves around a different theme each year; this year, it is “Tradition and Innovation.”


One of the most timely programs is being co-sponsored by PFLAG, the acronym for “Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays,” although I’m quite certain the co-sponsors had no idea when they planned their program just how newsworthy their subject-matter—“Traditional Families, Fact or Fiction?—would be.

    When the news broke about creepy Congressman Mark Foley, gay-bashers resorted to one of the oldest fictions—suggesting that all gays are pedophiles. As Frank Rich noted dryly in a New York Times article, saying all gay men are like Mark Foley is like saying all heterosexual men are like Joey Buttofucco.

    There are plenty of “fictions” about human sexual identity at any time, of course. I recently was mailed a book as a “gift” from a gentleman who described himself as a reader of my columns. The book (written by an “eminent scholar” who is neither eminent nor a scholar, according to colleagues in the fields of psychiatry and genetics)  purported to “prove” that sexual orientation is just a choice we make. (As I told my husband, I sure don’t remember “choosing” mine!)

    Rich’s column was actually a reflection on a somewhat different tradition—the ritual use of gay-bashing as a political tool by the GOP (or “Gay Old Party,” as Rich described it) while employing numerous self-identified, out-of-the-closet gays in major staff and administration positions.  Rich focuses on the political hypocrisy involved, and doesn’t speculate about the psychology of those gay individuals who work for publicly homophobic office-holders. It’s hard not to see such people as either self-loathing or opportunistic—or both—but such behaviors are not uncommon among members of socially marginalized groups.

    Ultimately, it is precisely that social marginalization that is the target of the Spirit and Place program, to be held on Saturday, November 18th at the Unitarian Universalist Church on

West 43d Street


    The description of the event begins with a question: “What defines a family in 2006?” It’s a good question, and a timely one: just in the last couple of weeks, a census report showed that married couples currently represent slightly fewer than half of American households. Both same-sex and opposite-sex couples are increasingly living together without getting married—some by choice, some because it is an avenue legally foreclosed to them.

    We need to understand the reasons for—and consequences of—these changes in social norms. How do they affect children? The elderly? What are the implications for public policies? Who are the real people who make these choices, and how does the disapproval of others affect them and their families?

    Which “traditions” are worth saving—and which aren’t?