Lesbian and gay families meet the nation on the White House lawn
The presence of 100 LGBT families at the White House on Monday for the annual Easter Egg Roll was significant for its uneventfulness and gained more visibility for a group of Americans increasingly besieged in state capitals nationwide than in anyone’s memory. While President and Mrs. George W. Bush made sure that they were not on hand by the time that lesbian and gay families were allowed in with their kids, the press focus on the event which began in 1878 was on the people in rainbow leis that the Bushes were avoiding.
“It was surprisingly inspiring,” said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of Family Pride, about being on the iconic lawn with her partner, Cheryl Jacques, the former head of the Human Rights Campaign, and their twin four-year-olds, Tim and Tom. Her group had organized the participation of gay and lesbian families in the event, mixing with the crowd of 16,000 that attends each year.
“This administration is not long on kindness to gay families,” she said, citing Bush’s attempt to ban same-sex marriage through constitutional amendment among other issues, “but it was great to be there with my kids. I never thought I’d live to see the day when gay and lesbian families would be on the White House lawn.”
Colleen Gillespie and Alisa Surkis, partners in Park Slope and moms to Ella, age three, thought of the idea last year when Bush’s new education secretary, Margaret Spellings, prevailed on the Public Broadcasting System to pull an episode of “Postcards from Buster,” a children’s show, because it showed the cartoon rabbit visiting a family headed by a lesbian couple in Vermont.
“Spellings said that not all families would want their children exposed to ‘that lifestyle,’” Gillespie said. “It was a clarion call to us. What does she expect us to do? Hide who we are when we pick up our daughter at school? We have a right to participate.”
Gillespie and Surkis went to Washington and got timed tickets for 10:30 a.m. last year, but the event was rained out just before they were to be admitted.
This year, with attempts in many states to ban adoptions by gays and lesbians and more state constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage, about 200 LGBT families responded to Family Pride’s call for participation, with half that number going through the process of standing on line all night the Friday before to obtain the tickets on Saturday for the Monday event.
In a story broken by PageOneQ.com, even the families at the front of the line were given admission tickets timed for after the opening ceremonies with the Bushes which was limited to White House staff and their kids, youth volunteers, and children affected by the Katrina disaster that the president handled so badly.
The White House denied any conscious attempt to exclude gay families from the opening. LGBT participants this year were worried that they might be excluded entirely if a 2003 precedent was followed, limiting admissions entirely to military families.
The administration tried to stop the press from covering gay participation, shooing them off the lawn after the opening ceremonies. But after vociferous complaints, the press was allowed back to cover what turned out to be the story of this year’s Egg Roll.
While five or six anti-gay demonstrators picketed outside the White House, there were no reported confrontations between gay and non-gay families during the event, though some of those at the front of the line reportedly blamed the gay participants for ruining their chance to be at the opening ceremonies with the Bushes.
Chrisler and Gillespie said that they had no interactions with non-gay parents at the event about the significance of their rainbow leis or LGBT family issues.
“Everyone was really low key,” said Gillespie, “and all were focused on their children” and the kids in turn were focused on rolling the eggs and meeting Clifford the Big Red Dog and the Easter Bunny. They did get thumbs up from passers-by when leaving the grounds.
What would they have said to the Bushes if they had the chance? Gillespie said she would tell them, “‘Look at what a great time we’re having.’ I hope they saw the footage of gays and straights together and realized that it was no big deal.”
Chrisler would tell him, “Thank you for letting us come. Hope you get to meet lesbian and gay families And hope you’ll think twice about pushing proposals that harm my children.” She believes that while the anti-gay adoption proposals are not gaining much steam this year, the right wing is saving them for state ballots in the 2008 presidential election year.
Cathy Renna of Brooklyn Heights, the communications consultant for Family Pride, was also there with her partner, Leah McElrath, and their baby Rosemary. She thinks that the small anti-gay protest backfired because signs about “anal sex” and “homo sex” as an “abomination” offended families with small children.
Family Pride got agreements from the LGBT participants no to try to carry signs or wear T-shirts with slogans that might get them banned from the event. All families with a child under age eight were welcomed.
“This was one of the most visible weeks for gay and lesbian families ever,” Renna said, citing stories all over the country. “It’s a simple story: We are families. Get used to it. We exist.” She noted that some straight families wore the leis in solidarity and gay people were helping straight people take pictures of their families on the lawn and vice versa.
Most press coverage was fair and positive. Yahoo ran a snarky headline, “Gay parents quietly crash White House Easter party,” but the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Gays and Lesbians Join White House Tradition.”
The kids were certainly oblivious to any controversy. Tommy, one of the twin sons of Chrisler and Jacques, was asked on camera what he was most excited about. “I want to talk to the Easter Bunny,” he said. Asked why, he replied, “I think he could put in a good word with Santa Claus.”