First They Come for Your Language: Part One of an Interview with Robert Oscar Lopez

By Anika Smith Published on April 22, 2015

Sometimes you have to see something up close in order to understand its threat. Consider how photography during the Vietnam War changed the way Americans thought about the conflict. Stories like Robert Oscar Lopez’s do the same thing — they show us what we don’t want to see, or what we wish weren’t true.

Robert Oscar Lopez doesn’t fit the pre-existing categories of the debate over same-sex marriage. He is an associate professor of English and Classics at Cal State-Northridge. He specializes in American literature and loves Michel Foucault. He identifies as bisexual and is married with two children. And in August 2012, he published “Growing Up with Two Moms” in Public Discourse, which described his life growing up with a lesbian mother and her partner. Because he shared his story, he was labeled a homophobe and became the target of a silencing campaign to keep him off the air and off college campuses.

From his own experience, Professor Lopez writes provocatively that the debate over gay marriage isn’t a debate — it’s a war that has already had high casualties. The children of gays (COGs) have stories that read like dispatches from the front lines.

Professor Lopez talked to The Stream about his new book, co-edited with Rivka Edelman, Jephthah’s Daughters: Innocent Casualties in the War for Family “Equality.” The first part of our interview follows.


The Stream: Your book’s title refers to one of the most disturbing stories in biblical book of Judges (and there are plenty to choose from), where a father sacrifices his daughter after making a rash vow. Why use filicide as an analogy for children in the same-sex marriage debate?Robert_Oscar_Lopez

Filicide is a helpful analogy for a number of reasons, particularly the incident described in Judges 11. What is so disturbing about the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter is the fact that theologians still have no way of explaining away its atrocious aspects.

First, there is the fact that Rivka Edelman and I come from different faith traditions, and we wanted purposefully to begin with an allegory that draws from both our faiths without rubberstamping either Jewish or Christian arguments in a facile way. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is so rich in topics that mean something to us — how we treat outsiders, exile, courage, sacrifice, children, gender, and family — but much of the richness is basically unresolved. I have read the work of people like Kierkegaard and Mieke Bal when they tried to analyze Jephthah’s story, but nobody can truly resolve it for us.

While many Christian thinkers have tried to see her as a harbinger of Christ’s self-sacrifice, there is still the matter of Jephthah’s rash vow and the fact that the girl is expected to do harm to herself in order to comply with her father’s reckless promise. The allegory for the gay marriage movement really spoke to me: Jephthah is, like the gay community, an exile seeking to be treated well by the society that formerly shunned him. Gay marriage is like the “rash vow” from Jephthah, an idea concocted in the midst of panic and adrenaline, with innocent people having to pay the price to see it fulfilled.

The ritualistic nature of the daughter’s sacrifice brings us back to what I see as the key problem in the gay marriage debate: There are the semblances of holy rites and even sacredness, but everything is perverted and turned upside down. The father is sacrificing his child for his own glory, yet convincing himself that somehow God demands it. I see a parallel to the idea that “marriage” is a holy commitment that the gay community wants to enlist to serve gay adults, convincing themselves that they are embracing a higher purpose, when in fact, their marriages are actually carried out only at the high cost of other people.


The Stream: Let’s dig into that a little more. Who are the others who must sacrifice for the sake of gay marriage? Are we talking about the coercion of businesses and vendors to support gay marriage or are you talking about something more personal?

I would say both. That’s why we split the book up along those fault lines: women; children; society — that is, our national community; the globe — that is, the international community; the gay community; and then free speech itself. All these domains end up having to be sacrificed because, for two men or two women to get married, it’s not only that children are going to lose this very important protection, which traditionally has guaranteed them some kind of relationship with the people who gave them life. All of society has to give up that protection and the language that refers to it.

A lot of what we looked at in the book was the effect on language in Spanish, in Welsh, in Gaelic. Gaelic only has 20,000 speakers, and yet the activists want to go in and completely change the pronouns and the articles and the gender and all these things.

Basically, our whole system of meaning has to be sacrificed for this cause.

The easiest way for people to visualize it is by focusing on businesses, because that’s where it actually trickles down to everyday life. You’re minding your own business, you’re running your bakery, and you don’t want to be dragged into this. You don’t want someone coming in, because when the person comes in who says, “Make a cake for my wedding,” it’s not just you having to do the work. They’re taking away your language. They’re taking away what the words mean to you.

It’s a really invasive practice, if you ask me. For instance, in Spanish, which is a very widely spoken language, in Spain and in some other countries they had to change all the marriage certificates so that they would be gender-neutral. And so they had to find a word that didn’t end in “o” and didn’t end in “a.” They found a preexisting word called cónyuge, which literally means “spouse,” and I think it can be either gender. But it’s an ugly word! Why would you want somebody to take away the word marido from me? That’s what I am, I’m a husband. But I don’t even have that word anymore. I’m a cónyuge, which is ugly and silly.


The Stream: You certainly capture the breadth of this in 500 pages.

I wanted to produce something that would jump out. This is big, this is a huge change and it’s worth 500 pages. I know it’s a lot to take in, but the thing is, none of it is speculative. Everything in there is documented stuff that’s already happened.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview later this week.

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