It can be difficult to live with an artist. Poe’s classic short story “Oval Portrait” details the tragedy of a beautiful young woman married to a painter. She sits so obediently as he tries to capture her in a state of youthful perfection, she seems not to allow herself to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom. By the time the painter completes the painting, he looks at the body of his bride and realizes that she is dead.
By coincidence, I was teaching Poe’s short story to my university students the same week that war broke out between England and Italy. Not an actual war with artillery and rifles, mind you—a family feud, as in a battle over the meaning of family.
On one side we have Stefano Gabbana, who with his famous business partner Domenico Dolce has decided to express his commitment to an Italian vision of family through his art—fashion. Judging from the footage of his most recent men’s fashion show, nobody can deny that Dolce and Gabbana’s current vision of family is heartfelt, profound, and essential.
People who make clothing know that they garb us in a certain vision. Coco Chanel and Gianni Versace both knew that garments imprinted something significant upon the bodies that wore them. Chanel wanted to liberate women from the gaudy accessorizing of a male-centered society that fetishized women, so she designed sleek and simple but elegant dresses that women could wear without feeling ornamental. Versace splashed jolting colors onto his apparel, believing that life should be an event, and people—men just as much as women—could experience epic proportions in their daily affairs if they wore dramatic things.
For Dolce and Gabbana, the word “synthetic” and its troubling connotations are very meaningful. They are fashion designers, and artists. They do not believe that clothing should be entirely contrived to the point of being dishonest. This reflects their view of people and most importantly, families. They bristle at the thought of gay couples’ raising children. I suspect that this is not because these homosexual men are anti-gay, but rather because they know the limits of artistry. The designer must observe boundaries and show some humility. One can drape and decorate a house, but one cannot dislodge its foundations so forcefully and recklessly as to destroy it. Their view of family seems to fit in with this deeper vision of life. For this reason, though they were gay and might be tempted to form a family through assisted reproduction technology, they abstained from such practices, and told the magazine Panorama their reasons.
Gabbana’s comment was received poorly by another outspoken gay artist. On the other side we have the British Elton John, a musician. He sings words set to music. He is accustomed, in a sense, to putting words in other people’s mouths. His songs become jingles that other people hum and whistle all over the world. He knows this and takes his craft very seriously.
Music is his art. Somewhat differently from Gabbana, Elton John seems to believe that the creator—the artist, the composer—has total power over the final product. The words and music must be harmonized to meet the creator’s vision. Despite his own reservations about his children’s lack of a mother, Elton John saw his vision of a new kind of family as a legitimate form of creativity. He was being innovative and bold by authoring a different script. Venturing into the world of playwrights, Elton John needed other characters to sing his new song. He wanted the whole family’s existence to be as harmonious, both internally and to outsiders, as his music. To him, building a family out of purchased eggs and with a borrowed womb makes sense, as long as he is a skilled conductor and can ensure that all the players in his script stay on cue and in tune. Outsiders’ singing of a different tune threatens the whole performance.
One gay man’s artistry is tactile and physical, while the other’s is more aural and abstract. They speak different languages and come from different nations. We forget sometimes, in a globalized age, that communicating across such lines of diversity comes with awkwardness. Where does all this leave the child? Who is right? I would like to say, “I can see both sides,” and position myself as a midway point between two extremes, but I cannot.
I am not neutral. I agree with Dolce and Gabbana. Elton John is wrong. This is not to insult his children or take away from their humanity; nor is it to demean the character of men who love men everywhere. I am just as queer as both of these men. I have been out as bisexual since 1989 and have withstood a great deal of hostility from both the LGBT community and conservative Christians for refusing to use the label “ex-gay” to describe myself.
I also grew up with a lesbian couple without much connection to my father. In the process of writing my most recent book, Jephthah’s Daughters, I dealt with countless testimonials from children of same-sex couples all over the world. Stefano Gabbana gets us. Part of this is because his craft leads him outside of language to the ineffable world of instinct.
You can tell a child in such a home every day, “we are your fathers,” but our bodies and the rest of the visual environment around us will always reveal such words as false. The day-to-day rhythm of life, that quotidian routine that Gabbana must understand for his art but which Elton John does not have to, acts upon the language of same-sex parenting like a trickle of water wearing down a rock. With each day, in all the small gestures and emotional moments, the child puts together a picture of herself in the world and eventually realizes that the same-sex parents have created a world that is . . . what can we call it? Let’s use the language of theater critics: Contrived. Forced. Implausible.
I knew something was missing. I knew that there was a father out in the world to whom I had a deep emotional connection even if I did not have a bond. That is why I went out and rebuilt a relationship with him at the age of twenty-seven. Stefano Gabbana gets it. Elton John doesn’t. The artistic achievement of both men is great, but one has failed to translate his art into true human understanding. Music and lyrics were Elton John’s domain. Yet with the word “synthetic,” Gabbana said it all and stole the show.
Robert Oscar Lopez is author of Jephthah’s Daughters: Innocent Casualties in the War for Family “Equality.”