The Day That Hallmark Forgot

A History of Differences

I had once been given a pen without asking. When I was a teenager, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a citizenship prize, awarded to the highest scorers on a history test they administered. On Philadelphia's tony Main Line in the early 1970s, the D.A.R. was still a going concern, even though the high WASP barons who built their famous estates there had long since given way to middle-class ethnics in modest ranch houses. Several of the interbred and overindulged descendants of the old guard remained, sitting stuporously in the back of my classes in junior high school. But they could not have passed a blood-alcohol test, let alone one that required some knowledge of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. So it was no surprise to me, though it must have been to the D.A.R., that the winners from my school turned out to be two Jewish boys and a black girl. That the award luncheon was held at the Merion Cricket Club -- a vast red-brick pile infamous for its policy restricting the admission of Jews and blacks -- was an irony not lost on our kindly hosts, one of whom, remembering at the last moment that the entree was pork, whispered to me in a fluster, "Do you mind being Jewish?" I think she meant to put a comma in there somewhere.

I didn't mind. In fact I was unreasonably delighted by the whole experience of infiltrating an exclusive club, especially when I was handed a prize for doing so. The rectangular white box tied with a blue ribbon turned out to contain a nice silver pen, which I proceeded to use, as much as possible, to write things that would surely have made the delicate ladies of the D.A.R. faint.

Many years later, at the Municipal Building, signing our domestic partnership forms felt like another infiltration of mainstream life, albeit a compromised one. Gay people are accustomed to that compromise: accepting the imprimatur of normalcy when it is helpful and available, while making the rest up on our own. For me, it has always been a badge of honor that I needed no borrowed ceremony to prioritize and solemnize my human engagements; I can choose whom to love, and understand the responsibilities that choice entails, without governmental or religious approval.


But badges of honor are often really badges of injury, purple hearts for the disaffected. I remember the bruise of Bowers v. Hardwick, the notorious 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding state laws that criminalize private, consensual gay sex. A majority of the justices found the argument that such conduct falls within the nation's tradition of liberty to be "at best, facetious." Facetious? So be it. If the law could disregard me as a joke, I could return the favor. What was the law anyway but another exclusive club, the kind I declined to join because it declined to have me as a member?

So I stopped looking to the law to give me the recognition it gave other people, and began to disdain the celebrations concocted in honor of such recognitions, which now seemed merely snobby and frivolous. This freed up my social calendar, for the days we observe as a matter of tradition are with only one exception artificial inventions, not byproducts of biology. Anniversaries are made possible by the civic fact of marriage. Bar Mitzvahs, brises, christenings, and Sweet Sixteens sanctify entirely random moments in a child's life. Graduation, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Fourth of July: all are mere commercial or calendrical oddities, and I began to resent them. The only modern celebration that life itself insists upon is the day a child is born.

And that was the day, once I had children -- or rather once they had me -- that finally began to matter.

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