Sometimes you are able to gain perspective when you are able to compare and contrast different experiences, life events, or facts against each other. That opportunity presented itself recently when I had the chance to connect with an old friend and learn more about his upbringing while at the same time reading interviews given by Mary L. Trump, regarding her upbringing and life experiences.
I met John Paul Horn, now Dr. John Paul Horn, during my first trip to Washington D.C. I had won an international writing competition and was there as a guest of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law. We became fast friends. At some point, during one of our many discussions over the year, John shared with me that he had grown up in California’s foster care system.
Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting John as a guest on my Facebook Live Discussion that takes place every Thursday at noon CST (@gay50states). It was great to catch up and get to learn more about him on a more personal level. From ages eight to eighteen, John lived in eighteen different care placements and spent time in both the child welfare system, and the juvenile justice system as a crossover or dual-status youth. Early on, John was placed with his two younger siblings, but they were later separated. There is no way this could have been easy, let alone coming out as gay at the age of sixteen.
During our discussion, John introduced me to the concept of “family privilege.” First coined in 2000, family privilege recognizes that some families are the beneficiaries of unearned advantages in our society, simply based on how they are configured. I was introduced to the writings of John Seita, an Associate Professor at the Michigan State University School of Social Work, who specializes in child welfare, foster care, and foster care transitions. He’s written some extensive articles on this topic and defines family privilege as “the benefits, mostly invisible, that come from membership in a stable family,” and “an invisible package of assets and pathways that provides us with a sense of belonging, safety, unconditional love, and spiritual values”. This reminded me of discussions during the marriage equality debates pre-2015 when it was widely circulated that married couples receive some 1,138 benefits, rights, and protections that cohabiting couples do not receive.
This left me to reflect on what family privilege I had benefited from over the years. My father purchased my first car, an orange 1976 VW Super Beetle. When the Great Recession occurred, and I needed a cosigner for my student loans or risk not being able to attend my last year of law school, I called my mother for help. After graduating law school, I was able to return home and spend three months focused on my studies so I could pass the bar exam on my first try, which I did. Since buying my first home, I can just pick up the phone and call my dad or stepfather for “fix-it” advice regarding the house. I always have a place to go for the holidays. These are just a few of the first things that come to mind when thinking about my family privilege.
Then I reflect on Mary L. Trump’s experience. She’s the niece of President Trump. Her father died when she was sixteen of a heart attack caused by alcoholism. According to her tell-all book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, her family was never accepting of anything or anyone who was “different.” Mary L., not to be confused with her grandmother Mary Anne MacLeod Trump, relates a time when her grandmother referred to Elton John as a “faggot.” This confirmed in her mind that she could not come out as a lesbian to her family.
I highly recommend reading Mary L.’s interview in the Advocate Magazine, since this is where she dives in the most on this issue. Even though she grew up in one of America’s wealthiest families, the presence of homophobia and rejection of anything/anyone who was “different” was ever present in her family dynamic. Although she benefited from family privilege more than, let’s say, my friend John, there was still significant psychological damage/trauma she had to endure that was not at all healthy.
We all have different areas in our lives where our lived experience has provided us with a privilege that others might not have had. I am thankful to have learned about yet another opportunity where I could show empathy to those who were not raised as I was. With this knowledge, I hope to serve as a better advocate and ally for those who may need my support.