When I showed up for an advance screening of Focus on the Family's documentary, Irreplaceable, about one man's attempt to define what makes a family, I had a knot in my stomach. I was entering hostile territory.
See, I'm a parent. I identify as a man; my partner identifies as a woman. So far, so good. On the surface, we look like we stepped right out of a Focus on the Family script.
At the screening, as I wrote down my partner's name and noted that I had one child, I felt disturbed by how easily I was fitting into the religious right's ideal family structure. I was passing as a heterosexual dad. The PR people seemed to dig it. I didn't provide additional details.
My partner and I both identify as queer, by which I mean I romance and sleep with men and she romances and sleeps with women. We are in an open relationship. When we aren't too busy, we have other partners. I view gender as a social construct and see absolutely no meaningful relationship between assigned sex (penises, vaginas and whatnot) and my experiences of romance, sexual pleasure and family structure.
Our way of living would not work for everybody, but it sure works for us, and I'm happy to say, our kid is doing well.
The night of the screening, in the name of journalistic objectivity, I stuffed myself into the closet and tried to keep an open mind. There weren't many press types there. Almost everybody seemed to be a perfumed Christian looking to use the film in a small group setting, a highly personal form of persuasion that right-wing religious types have perfected. My head started aching from the collision of artificial fragrance. But I stuck it out, and finally the show began.
A few glad-handers spoke to the audience before the screening. The projector rolled. The movie played.
The documentary stars Tim Sisarich, an intrepid New Zealander, the wounded son of an absentee dad, who travels the world trying to figure out what family is, why it's important and how people can fulfill God's design.
To embark on his quest for truth, he temporarily ditches his own children and his wife. Sure, in a few tender scenes, he Skypes with them. He misses them. He even addresses the irony of abandoning them as he explores why dads are necessary, but through most of the film, his kids are abandoned like Jesus on the cross: "Father, why have you forsaken me?"
Both Father God and Sisarich could have answered: "To save the world, kid. Isn't it a father's archetypal duty to ditch his children for a higher purpose?"
After speaking with a frightfully homogenous bunch of so-called experts, sociologists, scientists, prisoners and others who all happen to believe dads matter, men and women are fundamentally different and heterosexual monogamy is God's design, he comes to a conclusion: A family without a father is likely doomed.
Have the poor Sisarich kids been sacrificed for Focus on the Family's higher cause?
By the end of the film, Sisarich has reconnected with his own absentee father, and his family is reunited in patriarchal bliss. Ah, fatherhood, how important.
With this film, Focus on the Family jerks tears from the audience, cites data, interviews academic wonks and constructs a seemingly watertight argument by neglecting all dissenting research and opinions.
Of course, Sisarich's exploration of family is just dogma in disguise, and Focus on the Family wants the audience to take the same journey he did, a trip with an inevitable outcome: Kids need dads.
If kids need dads, how many? Are two dads better than one? What about three? Do kids not simply need people to love them consistently?
In Irreplaceable and Focus on the Family's broader religious and political projects, the organization clings to a desperately antiquated mythology that their one and only God designed a perfect family structure: Dads matter, heterosexuality is the sole ethical sexuality and monogamy is the only moral way families can be built. These outdated tropes deserve nothing but contempt.
Should our society focus on the family? I believe it should. But to do so in a meaningful way means moving beyond perpetuating the toxic lie that there is one legitimate model for family.
Our society should finally embrace the radical plurality of family experiences and encourage all families to focus on love. To do so, we need to create a broader dialogue that includes single parents, co-parents, people in various types of open relationships, families where there are no fathers or mothers but loving relatives or guardians.
As long as Focus on the Family maintains its commitment to prescribing patriarchal monogamy as a one-size-fits-all-family model, their mission will fail to be socially relevant. Irreplaceable needs to be replaced with a less prescriptive, more balanced film that allows audiences the space to have an authentic intellectual and spiritual journey through a diversity of family structures.
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