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The right to roll

The right to roll


Will the White House find a way to stop over 100 gay- and lesbian-led families from participating in its annual Easter Egg Roll?

In mid January the Associated Press published a report on the controversy brewing between America's religious right and families headed by gay parents. The issue? Whose children should be allowed to participate in the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll in April.

The Family Pride Coalition, a national advocacy group for LGBT parents and their families, invited such families to attend, and numerous religious fundamentalist groups sprang into action. Even the White House weighed in.

"Will the president take any measures to prevent these activists from using this nonpolitical event as a way to push their agenda on the rest of us?" asked a pool reporter for at a White House press conference. The response by White House spokesman Scott McClellan included, "We'll talk about it as we get closer. I've seen a couple of reports about it; I don't know how extensive that reporting has been. But this has been a family event for a long time and the president always looks forward to this event."

Spearheading the rhetoric from the Right are the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, two religious think tanks. The latter considers the organizing of gay-led families as an effort to "exploit" the Easter Egg Roll "for political purposes." However, the Family Pride Coalition calls the gathering an opportunity for Americans "to see us as real families, participating in a great American tradition."

No doubt, the issue is political. But then, gay parents and their children simply going out in public as a family on any day might be considered political in today's environment of cultural warfare over "values."

Whether manifested as legislative bills seeking to outlaw same-sex marriage, summer camps aimed at "curing" homosexuality, or letter-writing campaigns that rally to rid the airwaves of positive portrayals of gays, the religious fundamentalists' efforts to define American morality are in full swing.

In reality, families come in every different shape and size. The traditional nuclear family is in the minority in the United States. Some kids are raised by primarily one parent; others have complex configurations of multiple stepparents. Many gay people are choosing to start their own families by raising children, resulting in what has been called a "gayby boom." As their children grow up, people who do not have experiences seeing such family configurations will have a choice: Expand their definition of family, or insist that these parents and children simply do not qualify.

But opinions of gay and lesbian-led families are changing quickly, as more and more gay people come out to their friends and families. According to a 2001 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 73% of the general population in the U.S. knows a gay man or a lesbian. The same poll reports that approximately three quarters of the general public support laws that protect gays and lesbians from prejudice and discrimination in employment and housing. They also overwhelmingly support inheritance, health insurance, and Social Security benefits for gay partners.

Compared to these necessities, the Easter Egg Roll is insignificant--nonetheless, it is still an American tradition, presided over by presidential administrations since 1878. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president to invite children to spend the morning playing Easter games on the White House lawn. First ladies have added personal touches over the years. Lou Hoover added maypole dances. Eleanor Roosevelt greeted the nation via radio from the event in 1933. Pat Nixon introduced the tradition of a White House staffer dressing up as the Easter Bunny. It was under her watch that spoons used in the egg roll race were borrowed from the White House kitchen!

Since 1878 the event has grown tremendously. With 16,000 tickets issued last year, the White House considers it to be its largest public celebration. It has been restricted only in times of war and inclement weather.

Some have suggested that our current president might cancel the Easter event or attempt to "de-gay" it by restricting attendance--such as to military families only, as he did in 2003. Let's hope that he does not politicize the event to serve this very narrow, but vocal, faction of his political base.

I am not surprised to see religious fundamentalist organizations shift into overdrive by organizing to exclude gay families from the event. If, however, the White House joins them in their effort, it will show just how embedded these interests are in the current administration. Often called "the people's house," the White House is the ultimate symbol of our government's ideals, the legacy of Americans' struggle for independence and liberty. If gay families are not equally welcome there, the ominous message will resonate far beyond just us.

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John Crabtree-Ireland