Last week, my son and I were trundling up the hill from the Washington Metro station to our hotel when he spoke a line that has been ringing in my ears ever since.
We had just passed two women, one carrying a baby in her arms, the other pushing a three year old in a stroller. We had been eavesdropping as we passed, and so we had heard the two of them talking about schedules for later that day. I subconsciously read these two women as either two friends or as a woman with her nanny. But my son, who had just turned eleven, read them differently. As soon as we cleared them, he said to me, "They might be lesbians. They're legal here."
He'd obviously been thinking about lesbians and their "legality"-or more specifically the existence of marriage equality in Washington. I had been, too. We had just arrived on the Acela from New York, where the legislature was locked in a pitched battle over marriage equality. He and I had both been following that in the press. Like me, my son is a civil rights geek and a New York Times addict.
I'm sure it mattered too, when he spoke that phrase, that we had just come to Washington in part to visit my friend Sonya whom my son knew had married her wife shortly after same-sex marriage became legal there. Although he understood Sonya to be pretty much like any other mom-friend of mine, we were both still getting used to the phrases "her wife" and "his husband." I sensed he was also fascinated by the idea that Sonya's children had two mothers, and no dad.
The next morning we had breakfast with Sonya, and somehow the topic of her marriage came up. She reminded us not to mention her marriage in front of her kids when we met them at the pool later. Sonya and her wife hadn't yet told their young children that they had gotten married.
It wasn't that they were embarrassed; it was rather than they didn't want their children to figure out that, until recently, their mothers had not been allowed to get married. To tell the children might well make them suddenly aware of the unsafe systems that surrounded their family. Sonya and her wife thought it better to wait a bit, to keep their young children feeling safe for now.
Made sense to me. It reminded me of the way I had once protected my son from the facts of war, waiting until he was a little older. Still, I found I had to explain Sonya and her wife's decision to my usually-sharp son three times before he really got it. Having to go over it again and again made me realize just how much he takes for granted the systems of social and legal protection that exist around our straight family. He simply couldn't compute the idea that this family was not as legitimate-and not as safe-as ours.
It all made me remember a day back when he was in preschool and he came home very upset about something a classmate had told him. I asked him what was wrong.
"George says two men can't get married!"
I knew exactly which gay-couple friends of ours he was worried about, the ones he wanted to protect from George's reality. Those two men had essentially been uncles to our son.
I explained to him that what George had said was legally true in most places, but legally untrue in others. We pulled out his globe and talked about where two men or two women could be married and where they could not. I made sure he understood things were changing in the right direction. And I was careful to make a distinction for him: Legally two men cannot get married in most of our country, but emotionally they could.
Emotional marriage was, after all, all our preschooler knew of his own parents' marriage. It was the only marriage that mattered to him when he was little. In fact, although we had gotten legal before our son came along (we'd gotten married because one of us was running out of health insurance and marriage solved that), the specific legality of it never had apparently really registered for him, even at age eleven.
All the sanctions and safeties and legitimacies that come with heterosexual marriage had blurred together for him, so that the legal distinction had been invisible, until he saw the politics of Sonya's marriage. Straight privilege.
Now, almost a decade after George's preschool proclamation, my son was working out the math of knowing that a mom pretty much just like me was having to hide from her children that she is married to their other parent.
So many times I've heard people say that the right to marry for gay and lesbian couples won't really change anything other than some legal and financial stuff. It's a dumb argument: those legal and financial effects matter. But more importantly, it's a dumb argument because the truth is that a world of legitimacy and social safety comes your way when the state allows you to be legal. Eleven-year-old boys suddenly see your life, your family, your identity, as "legal."
And to state an obvious point, eleven-year-old boys grow up.
We're back home now. Six of our neighbors are coming over tomorrow for an informal dinner on our back porch, to celebrate the summer solstice. Among them will be a lesbian couple who just moved in two houses down. And although my son really likes our new neighbors as much as I do, I can't help but wonder what it means that he apparently thinks of them as illegal.