In the early 1990s, residents in a section of Los Angeles erupted following the acquittal of police officers accused of exerting excessive force against motorist Rodney King.
A few weeks later, the fictional TV character, Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, gave birth. Vice President Dan Quayle, in his own inimical fashion, concluded that the riots in Los Angeles were caused by a deterioration of “traditional family values” as represented by the unmarried Murphy Brown.
My dearest wish is that he produces only the straightest, most indefatigably cisgender spawn who have ever walked this green earth.
Ross Perot, Texas billionaire and would-be independent presidential candidate, declared on ABC’s 20/20 in 1992 before his withdrawal from the race that if elected he would not appoint “adulterers or homosexuals” to high positions of government.
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“No, I don’t want anybody there that will be at a point of controversy with the American people. It will distract from the work to be done,” he said.
In the fall of 2011, as I watched from my home in Ames, Iowa the political TV ads by the candidates running in the all-important Republican Iowa Caucuses, a recurring theme emerged. In their attempts to appeal to the estimated 60% of Iowa Republican caucusgoers who define themselves as Evangelical Christians, most of the candidates emphasized their “so-called Christian family values,” which, by the way, opposed marriage for same-sex couples and were in favor of banning LGBTQ+ members of the U.S. military.
We could see this theme most clearly exhibited in Texas Governor Rick Perry’s TV ad, “Strong.”
“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” Perry said, “but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”
At that time, the right-wing political and theocratic groups attempted to ban books geared toward students on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes over the accusation that these books do not promote “traditional family values.”
The rhetoric coming from the political right today, especially from certain Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Mike Pence, is even more intense and inflammatory than the words and policy initiatives uttered by Perot and Perry.
One does not have to look far to see a basic confusion (more like “deception”) in terminology between “family” (denoting a configuration of individuals) and “values” (related to intrinsic human principles and qualities).
In addition, the term “traditional family” – currently defined as a family constellation composed of two married parents (a cisgender man and a cisgender woman) with biological children – is even more problematic because it is a relatively modern invention constructed during the rise of the industrial age.
The political right holds it up as THE standard against which all others are judged, even though a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau report found that a mere 18% percent of children currently reside within a “nuclear family” with a married cisgender birth mother and father. This is a big drop from an already relatively low 40% in 1970.
In truth, the concept of “traditional family values,” as used by the political and theocratic right, has nothing to do with tradition, family, or even with values. It has more to do with politics, with separating people into distinct and discrete camps of “us” versus “them,” while blaming and scapegoating “them” for the problems facing our country and our world.
At one time, the political right scapegoated “communism” and the “communists,” using scare tactics to recruit members into its organizations and bring donations in to fill its war chests.
After the decline of communism around the world and the fall of the Soviet Union, the right needed other villains to scapegoat to further its own political agenda. It has thus targeted those who fall outside its current definition of the “traditional family,” which include lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, trans folks, people who favor and advocate for protecting reproductive freedom, and even heterosexuals who either choose not to marry or choose not to bear children.
These politicians, educators, and clergy seem somehow to have forgotten the warning given by poet Walt Whitman: “I say of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn – they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”
Progressive people are standing up to the terrorism of false and fraudulent definitions of “family” and we are expanding the parameters. We are removing from our vocabulary words that delineate people according to relationship status, for example, the value-laden terms “unwed mother,” “illegitimacy” and “illegitimate child,” “bastard” and “bastard child,” “out of wedlock,” “bachelor,” “old maid,” “Miss,” “Mrs,” and other exclusionary terms.
We are consigning these words to the archives of history because when currently used, they continue to separate people from one another, and they result in lowered self-esteem.
Human diversity is a true gift as evidenced by the fact that “families” come in a great variety of packages, with differing shapes and sizes, colors, and wrappings. If, however, we still need to cling to a common definition of “family,” I would remind us of one offered by singers/songwriters, Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips, who tell us, “the definition’s plain for anyone to see. Love is all it takes to make a family.”