Another Form, Another Indignity
The other night I went to the middle school orientation for incoming fifth-graders. I still cannot believe that my son, Avi, is going to be in fifth grade. The school offers a wonderful after-school program in which students can play sports, take fun classes and get their homework done. I picked up an application form on my way out of the school building.
At home that night, I looked over the brochure and began to fill out the application. Before I could even put pen to paper, I was asked for the names of Avi’s mother and father. Now, for most people such questions are not stumbling-blocks. For most, they are not small acts of discrimination that over time chip away at one’s soul. Nor are they reminders of how far they have come in their struggle for civil rights and yet how far they still have to go. You see, Avi has two dads. And while I sometimes still cannot believe that I am a parent (or a rabbi), I am still reminded of how far away LGBT people are from complete acceptance and civil rights.
I have long since stopped worrying about coming out. But almost every time I am faced with some sort of form, my own invisibility becomes glaringly evident. Will I check off “married” or cross it out, and write in “partnered?” As any parent knows, you are always completing forms. Do I cross out the word “mother,” or do I write a polite note suggesting that the form be updated? Or, tired of what often feels like a daily struggle, do I simply refuse to complete the form?
It is no different for an LGBT couple joining a synagogue. Will the membership form ask for the names of the husband and wife or for “Adult1″ and “Adult 2?” Will the religious school forms be similarly updated? Many congregations like to say they are welcoming but may not have thought about what that means in practical terms. Given the costs of synagogue membership can we really expect a family to pay thousands of dollars a year when a membership or registration form does not recognize their family?
This time, for my son’s sake and my own sense of dignity I sent a strong, yet polite email to the director of the program, copying both the school principal and the superintendent of the school district. I complemented him on his presentation at the orientation and told him of the many fine things I had heard about the program. I explained that I was looking forward to enrolling Avi in the program but I felt unable to complete the enrollment application in its current form.
Considering that over the course of a school year, my family would have to pay a considerable sum for this program, I explained that I did not think I should have to amend the form. That is akin to telling me that I can dine in a restaurant but can only sit in a designated area, or that I would have to bring my own silverware.
I called his attention to what we know about the current make-up of families in the United States. Data from the 2000 Census indicates that 25% of households headed by same-sex couples have children. Estimates suggest that this represents 2 million children. Single parents account for 27% of family households with children under the age of 18.The 2000 US Census found that 2.4 million grandparents are the primary caregivers for the children in their families. I wrote that given this information, updating the forms would benefit a number of families in our town.
So, I sent the email out. Not knowing if I would even receive a response, I at least felt that I had done my part not to be invisible. In only three hours, I received a response from the program director. He wrote,
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We should have picked upon this long ago. We have already started to change our registration materials to reflect Parent/Guardian 1 & 2. We will look over all our materials to make sure we make this overdue change. We will not be handing out any more of the “old” forms.
I could not have asked for a better response. My Facebook friends offered great encouragement and advice: Debbi encouraged me to stick to my guns; Ellen predicted that a gentle approach would produce exactly the response I received; and Ruth suggested that gay pride has arrived at Edgar Middle School. Another small battle won! And I am actually feeling rather proud of my son’s new school.
Spotlight on Diversity: This June, the URJ highlights a variety of resources to help congregations welcome and support diverse members. Download: 18+ Ways to Make Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Members Welcome in Your Congregation, and find more diversity resources on our website.