We seem to be over the worst of it now—the endless daily reports of Michael Jackson’s death seemed to go on for weeks and weeks after his demise on June 25. Sure, there are still bulletins of the ongoing homicide investigation and the role his personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, may have played in his death, but these feel like the after-story. In retrospect, Jackson’s death seems completely expected. Years, decades actually, of bizarre activity and irrational behavior add up. His strange marriages, his trials for child molestation, and his addiction to plastic surgery were all signs of something.
Since the late 1970s, and especially during the trials for molestation, Jackson was called any number of things—a self-hating Black person, a repressed homosexual, a not-so-repressed homosexual, a child rapist, delusional, sociopathic, and even psychotic. "Wacko-Jacko," as the tabloids put it, was once loved and then the object of ridicule. Given this, the apparently sincere outpouring of grief at his death was surprising. As comedian Paula Poundstone pointed out: "I don’t know, I just think that if you love someone it’s nice to tell them before they die."
Yet with all of the extravagant post-mortem praise of Jackson—who was an extremely talented artist in his field—nothing seemed odder then the endless tributes at his memorial service and, later, about his role as a wonderful father and family man. Overlooking the 2002 incident in which Jackson dangled his newborn third child, Prince Michael (aka Blanket), over the fourth floor balcony in Berlin—an incident that Jackson later called a "terrible mistake"—these eulogizers insisted that his relationship with his children was a loving and caring one and that his own investment in his family was the most important aspect of his life.
Now that we know Jackson was deeply medicated most of the last decade and that his endless flow of prescription drugs—many of which were prescribed for him under false names—rendered him officially, according to the LAPD reports, "an addict," it is difficult to think that he was as attentive a father as he might have been. But in death much is often forgotten or forgiven and it was possible for many guests on "Larry King Live" to speak movingly and at length about "Michael’s great legacy as a father."
Objectively, Michael Jackson had a statistically non-normative family. After his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley ended, he married Debbie Rowe in 1996, a nurse in his dermatologist’s office, and had two children with her. Many people close to the couple have indicated that they were not a conjugal couple, but that Rowe, out of great fondness for Jackson, decided to have children by him for his sake. Some reports allege that their children’s biological father was actually Dr. Arnie Klein, Rowe’s boss. (Klein has stated, when asked point blank by Larry King that to "the best of my knowledge I am not the father.") Rowe and Jackson divorced in 1999, a few months after the birth of the second child, and she gave up all parental rights and received a settlement of $8 million.
In 2002, Jackson had a third child by an unnamed surrogate mother who played no part in his or the children’s life. Jackson claimed that all of the children were biologically his, although rumors abound that he was not the biological father of any of them. Some sources name close Jackson friend Macaulay Culkin as the father of some of the children. According to the London tabloids, another friend, Mark Lester, child star of the 1968 film Oliver!, has claimed to be the father.
None of this, however, is really anybody’s business. What is clear is that Jackson was the legal parent of these three children and that he seems to have loved them. They also seemed to love him and be pretty psychologically healthy, despite living in what must have been a household in crisis. What is remarkable, however, is that the structure of Jackson’s non-traditional family is similar to many lesbian and gay families (only without the addiction, the insane compulsive spending, the plastic surgeries, and the child molesting charges). You know, those families where lesbians have children by gay friends with whom they are not sexually or romantically involved and not going to marry or gays who raise children they had with a paid surrogate or adopted or have with lesbian friends and are raising together.
To a large degree, these queer families are considered bizarre or not healthy by the bulk of Americans. Several states have outright prohibitions of an openly lesbian or gay person adopting children and many more have unstated prohibitions that make it difficult for LGBT couples to adopt together or even have a second parent adoption.
There is no doubt that, after 20 years of heterosexual families facing divorce, remarriage, blending, extending, mixing, co-adopting, and adapting to completely new forms of family life, the idea of the "gay family" is less shocking than it was in the 1970s or even the 1980s. But even with these changes, there is still an ongoing culture war against gay families. A great deal of the right-wing attacks on same-sex marriage revolve around the "best interest of the children" arguments. Spokespersons like Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, evoke endless nightmare scenarios about how badly kids will fare if queers get the right to marry: "Same-Sex Marriage sends a terrible message to the next generation: alternative family forms are just as good as traditional families, children don’t need a mother and a father, and marriage is about adult desires for affirmation or benefits, not about the well-being of children." Amy Wax, a professor at Penn Law, conjures even scarier scenarios: "First, whether we like it or not, a big part of the gay agenda for decades has been to repudiate what are regarded as overly restrictive expectations of monogamy and sexual fidelity." Well, that’s pretty much the end of the world.
Yet, as far as I can tell, neither Gallagher nor Wax have had anything to say about Michael Jackson’s family. Since they are both marriage "traditionalists," I am sure they actually don’t approve of Jackson’s choices, but it is curious how same-sex marriage and queer families can become so demonized at exactly the same moment as the rest of the world is lauding a deceased pop star who has an extraordinarily non-traditional family and was known for years to be, well, slightly wacko.
The Jackson story is essentially an American media freak show. The homicide twist is just the newest headline that has almost nothing to do with the lives of actual, everyday people. Families in all configurations are complicated and they need a lot of support—social, medical, legal being just the tip of the iceberg. If the media spent one fraction of the attention they lavished on the Jackson fiasco actually looking at the lives and needs of queer and non-queer families, maybe we could be convinced that the Jackson family was actually both queerer and more normal than any other family.