One ad in the campaign centered entirely on a married gay male couple with two adopted children and an adorable dog. The son describes his two dads, the two dads narrate how they met one another and fell in love, and all speak to how they have made a family. Indeed, the ad focuses so much on detailing the family that a viewer might forget that the product around which it is centered is a graham cracker, for there are only the briefest moments in which the family sits together munching on the delicious and wholesome treat.
The ad campaign ends with the tagline, “This is Wholesome.” The context of the ad provocatively relies on the dual meaning of wholesome, first as productive of or beneficial to good health (so eating graham crackers is good for you), and second, morally good. In representing family as morally good, the ad is hardly controversial. In showcasing a gay family as equally morally good to a straight family, the ad counters harmful yet consistently prevalent conceptions of gay identities as immoral.
The first ad to feature a gay couple was aired 20 years ago, in 1994, when Ikea launched its then-controversial commercial depicting a gay male couple considering the purchase of a dining room table. In contrast to the Honey Maid ad, the Ikea ad treated the men tentatively, highlighting how they were investing in a table that could be expanded by addition of table leaves. Their relationship was loving and playful, but it was also contingent, perhaps dissoluble at any moment. Like the IKEA furniture the commercial was selling, a relationship can also be split up or sold off in the event of a break up.
The Honey Maid ad hinges on longevity and stability. The couple has adopted two children. The ad shows their wedding bands. And, the men themselves speak of the permanence of their union; they are married, a status hardly conceivable even a few years ago as the men admit. Their marriage was, for them, unimaginable. In telling the story of how they met and fell in love, one remarks “what’s interesting is that you said you knew you were going to marry me, but that wasn’t in our thought then.” And the other comments, “Like having a mortgage together was what marriage used to be for gay people, so that’s what I thought.” What it means to be a gay citizen has expanded: you can now be recognized by the state and others as legally married, at least in some states and by federal authorities.
Nevertheless, the advertisement highlights the contemporary boundaries and privileging of certain gay identities. Indeed, the men describe themselves as traditional. “Marriage, and a family, and having kids was always important,” they tell us.
These men are white. This family is affluent. And they are men; their gender presentation is normative in no way conflicting with traditional conceptions of masculinity. Without denying that the ad reveals the tremendous progress made in the achievement of gay rights and recognition, it simultaneously demonstrates the limits.
In other words, the ad reveals how certain gays are progressively included into the community of citizens, recognized as having the same rights to wed, have children, and be gainfully employed; these are the criterion to be welcomed into the fold of the straight majority. It brings to the fore how much our contemporary politics privileges particular conceptions and presentations of gay identity, those which are the least transgressive and threatening to popular conceptions of gender, sexuality, race, and class, above all others.
And, it also demonstrates how equality as a status of citizenship is deeply contextual and hardly universal. If this loving family carries the markers of permanence, it is because they live in certain states that enable the security of such stability. If these men are recognized as married, perhaps they live in one of less than 20 states that currently recognize that marriage. Or, if they are married and live in one of the over 30 other states that have legally banned their marriage, perhaps they are affluent enough to travel to a state where they could be married so that they could at least access federal recognition and the benefits and responsibilities of publicly-sanctioned marriage if not the state recognition. The United States v. Windsor ruling the Supreme Court handed down last June hardly created full equality for gays and lesbians (let alone trans people) even as it made accessible the community of full citizens to certain gays.
Or we might take from this ad that this family does not live in Arizona or the many other states that once considered legislation permitting religious justification for anti-gay discrimination. Of course, even if without such laws, the ad should force us to assume that this family lives in one of the only 21 states that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and not the other 29, so that they are financially secure enough to maintain a healthy home for their two sons.
This ad should force us to assume that this family lives in one of the only 21 states that explicitly allow joint and step-parent adoption thereby enabling gay adoption and permitting this happy family to eat their wholesome graham crackers together. Or, at least, that they have the financial wherewithal to draft and pay for enough legal documents so that they can privately secure their responsibilities to one another when the state denies them this.
Ultimately we should celebrate that the ad marks progress, and the popular depictions of gay families are beneficial not only to the children and parents they represent but also to the myriad others who would benefit by recognizing that these families do, in fact, exist.
But the ad is also a reminder that we have a long way to go. It showcases the limits of gay acceptability. It should force us to recognize how gay families remain fundamentally unequal and insecure due to state maintained regimes of discrimination. It should force us to recognize that those gay families closer to equality and security are whiter, richer, and more gender-normative than others within the LGBTQ communities. In short, the ad should bring to light how, in many ways, what we might first view as evidence of liberal progress is actually fraught across many different dimensions and is, perhaps, more exclusionary than inclusive.
Stephen M. Engel is Assistant Professor of Politics at Bates College and a Visiting Research Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. He is author of The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2001), American Politicians Confront the Court: Opposition Politics and Changing Responses to Judicial Power (Cambridge University Press, 2011), and the forthcoming Fragmented Citizens: Developing LGBT Identities and Regulatory Power in the United States from NYU Press.