Some days, honestly, I feel like a feminist version of Rip Van Winkle (Wrinkle?) or maybe it's Ripley's Believe It Or Not, waking up in a world that would have once been unthinkable after so many battles fought and won for contraception on demand, reproductive freedom, women's equality and gay rights.
Here we are in 2012, and it's been a big week for "family values," a politically loaded phrase that brings to mind the now legendary Newt Gingrich kiss-off – "pious baloney" – that he used in another context.
I have inveighed against this loathsome phrase since the late 1980s, even though, in the eyes of those who promulgate it, I might look like a member in good standing within that particular gated ideological community – a straight woman, happily married to the same man for 28 years, with two grown children. Of course, when I open my mouth and support reproductive freedom, gay rights and same-sex marriage, all bets are off, no matter what pretty family picture we make.
The U.S. Republican presidential contenders have been breathing new life into the family-values franchise. After yet another defeat, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum intoned on CNN, "We need someone to stand up and fight for the family" – by which he arrogantly means the "sanctity" of a strictly defined nuclear family: one man, one woman, and many offspring, hopefully none of them gay. Mr. Santorum has likened homosexuality to bestiality, and thinks even the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child" is morally seditious.
Pope Benedict XVI has been busy too, warning that "liberal family values" are threatening the future of humanity, which news reports suggested was a "veiled reference to homosexual marriage and adoptions by gay couples."
But the Pope, presiding over a church that undermined the family worldwide by covering up the sexual abuse of young children by its priests, spawning cycles of suicide, abuse and post-traumatic stress, has even less moral authority on the subject of family values than that member of his flock, Rick Santorum, who at least appears to walk his virulent talk.
And let's not feel morally superior here in Canada. We legalized same-sex marriage way back in 2004, and regularly elect "out" officials who don't conform to a rigid definition of family values.
But as the headlines this week suggest, our federal government may be moving to nullify the same-sex marriages of people who came to Canada to marry, from jurisdictions where such marriages are illegal. If the Justice Department's legal opinion is upheld, it could throw thousands of lives into chaos. (God, I hope they don't go on a rampage on another kind of technicality, say marriages where women hold forth on Gloria Steinem at the dinner table, and nullify mine.)
Once again, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is saying he has "no intention" of reopening the same-sex marriage debate, just as he doesn't wish to disturb the sleeping lion of abortion. (Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Thursday he will move to clarify the situation.) But the Harper government's actions, and those of his backbenchers – one of whom is fighting for a "personhood" law, which would challenge the right to abortion – tell another story.
In this scary new world, which is starting to resemble the dystopia of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, not only do most U.S. Republican candidates swear they will ban any access to abortion under any circumstances, they are even challenging the right to birth control. As legal reporter Jeffrey Toobin recently wrote in The New Yorker: "It is chilling to believe that the Constitution could allow a state to ban married couples from buying birth control" – yet that law was precisely what was discussed during a recent Republican presidential candidates debate in one pinch-me-is-this-really-2012? moment.
I have no idea why we have to keep saying this but we do: The so-called "family values" espoused by these decriers of modernity are above all, exclusionist values – they want to keep people out, not bring people in.
That was the case in the 1980s when the phrase gained traction, and it's still the case now as family values continues, in the 21st century, to be an ideological domestic fortress, built by an unsavoury alliance of bewildered but essentially well-meaning people who can't cope with the societal changes, especially within their own families, joined with bigots, religious extremists and reactionary politicians, who understand all too well that people reject what they fear.
Among Canada's family-values advocates is Charles McVety, a leading evangelical mover and shaker, who is spearheading a campaign against Dalton McGuinty's sex education agenda in Ontario: "PLEASE! I'm a boy, don't confuse me" implores one ad on Mr. McVety's Institute for Canadian Values website decrying "Ontario's new state-decreed morality – homosexuality." Mr. McVety and others like him clearly hope that society can be returned to, well, the way it was, once upon a time.
But guess what? The barbarians are already well inside the gates. Even in the conservative United States, a growing number of its citizens are either actively supporting same-sex marriage (like former U.S. first lady Laura Bush) or shrugging their shoulders. Who cares who can marry anyway, when you don't even have a job or a roof over your head?
And families everywhere are adjusting to their children being gay or "other," realizing their emotional ties only get stronger when they support and accept and love each other and each other's partners, with all their differences.
We need to deep-six that hoary phrase "family values" or make it so inclusive it refers to anyone – gay, straight or other – who yearns to be part of a family, with or without children, and works hard to make one happen. That's the only family "value" that matters.