Thursday, March 28, 2013

Castration, Mutilation and Labels

In 1664, British Colonial Maryland ordered the enslavement of any white woman who married a black slave. In neighboring Virginia, whites who married blacks were “exiled,” which usually meant killed. The Supreme Court put an end to all that in 1967. Or should I say the Supreme Court did not finally put an end to it until 1967.

An early gay basher.
In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law to the Virginia State Assembly that would have mandated castration for gay men and mutilation of nose cartilage for gay women. Sodomy was a felony in most states until the Supreme Court got around to striking down those laws, in 2003.

Now the Court is considering whether a marriage of gay partners is not only not a crime but a fundamental right that may not be denied. During oral argument this week, Chief Justice Roberts said to the advocate for gay marriage: “All you’re interested in is the label.”
Roberts was addressing the case that arose in California, where civil unions are legal for gay men and women. With that option available, Roberts apparently thinks the label “married” shouldn’t be that important.
I doubt the Chief Justice has been called many unfavorable names in his life. I doubt he has been stigmatized. Perhaps he truly doesn’t understand the significance of labels in a culture. “Kike.” “Spic.” “Boy.” The little woman.” The way we use it today, to connote a lesser moral status than “married,” “civil union” is almost the language of hate.
Gay men and women are out of the closet now, but in broad swaths of the country they are about as well respected as were newly freed slaves in the Old South. Plenty of people still hate them. Thomas Jefferson proposed castration, for Pete’s sake. That’s a tough legacy to outlive.
The culture is changing. It will continue to change. One thing that will speed the process is for us to stop calling gay unions something different than heterosexual ones. Labels matter. They perpetuate stereotypes. They carry with them the sticky taint of disapprobation. John Roberts needs to come down off the high bench of his condescension and open the window to the fresh air.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Originalist Sin

Let’s say you and I move in together. We’ve been living with our parents, but we’re sick of them telling us what to do. And what do they know anyway? It’s blissful at first, all that freedom, but after a while little things need to be settled, and a few big ones. We make some rules. We mostly follow them.

The years go by. Children come and go. Jobs and cities come and go. One day we look at one another and everything but our affection for each other is different than it was on that fateful day when we took the plunge together. You’ve developed a chronic limp. I’ve got a bad shoulder. You need help getting down the stairs. I need help getting down the dinner plates.

Through the years, though, we’ve stayed together. We’ve had a spat or two, some rocky times, but we’ve always worked it out. We’ve adapted. In fact, if I had to point to one thing besides our love for one another as the key to the durability of our union, I would say it is our ability to adapt.
We are no longer the young people we were, and I’m not talking about our bodies. We are the same in some ways, but we have gained wisdom and perspective. Our ideals have stayed with us, but they are tempered now by the lessons we have learned about what life really is, about what it means to live together, to stay together, to care for one another. Much as I loved him, I would not want the young man I was when we met to make decisions for us today.
Perhaps it is too sentimental a perspective, too personal, but I look upon our country the same way I do two committed people living together. We made our rules when we are young and, by and large, as the centuries have gone by we have adapted in ways small and large to accommodate our changing circumstances. We had that pretty serious disagreement we called the Civil War, but we worked through that, if you can call killing so many of us working through it. I’d have to say that the country we took forward after 1865 has not, still, fully gotten over the pain and disillusionment of that bitter fight. But we have stayed together.
Big issues divide us still. Should government interfere in our businesses? Should it dictate our morals? Should it tax us to spend for programs that we don’t support or that offend our religious views? These are the national equivalent of who does the chores, who manages the money, who stays home from work when a child is sick. Anyone who has been involved in a domestic tiff at two in the morning knows how tough these issues can be, how emotional.
What domestic partners also know is that arrangements made when there were no children, before one partner got an amazing job offer in another city, before one got cancer, aren’t always well suited to those new circumstances. Before you have children, no one has to stay home with them. After you do, you have to make new rules.
Our system of laws works like that. Legislatures make new laws to deal with new circumstances. They repeal laws that turned out to be a mistake. But there is one set of rules that is not so easily changed: the Constitution. Generally, that’s a good thing. It has stood us well. It has held us together. But it does present this challenge for our courts: it must govern us as we are today, not as we were in 1787.
It must do that, unless, as a judge, you decide it’s just too hard to adapt our founding document to modern times. You can lighten your judicial burden considerably by deciding that the Constitution means what the Founding Fathers intended it to mean and that’s that. This is an intellectually and morally lazy approach masquerading as judicial modesty. It is called “originalism,” and it is the governing credo of at least two of our current Supreme Court Justices: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Working with that cramped view requires stubborn determination. There were no assault weapons in 1787. There was no electronic surveillance; not even any electricity. No woman was saying it ought to be her legal right to get an abortion, although many died trying; and it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been saying that, they couldn’t have made it happen because they didn’t have the right to vote. There must have been gay men and women, but they weren’t clamoring for the right to get married. They weren’t clamoring for anything; they were slipping around in the shadows. Interstate commerce was conducted from a horse drawn wagon.
The changes the country has gone through are similar to those families go through. And let me just say: I would not like to be married to an originalist.
Who cares what Madison thought? Or Jefferson (the slave owner who made a mistress of one of his slaves). Sure, they were smart guys, but they are long dead, as are their times. The Constitution works today by common consent. Not because the landed aristocracy of the eighteenth century gave us a bible. Our form of government is a political compact, not a religion. And as a compact, the parties who are governed by it must want to be, or it will fall apart.
As a nation, we have grown and changed. If the rules that ease our coexistence are to be effective, and therefore to last, they must address our present circumstances. We have children in the house. Someone has to stay home with them. Sacrifices of individual liberty must be made (the right to bear arms), accommodations of changing norms (gay marriage). Are those sacrifices worth it? The answer to that can be found in any home? Are you a better person for the sacrifices and accommodations you have made for your partner and your children? Or would you be happier if you could do whatever you damn-well pleased?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Social Insecurity

When my children were growing up, I hoped they wouldn’t be gay. I grew up in the South. I was one of the privileged ones, a WASP from a well-to-do family, but I didn’t feel like that. I felt like I didn’t fit in. Not at the country club where I played golf, not at the roadhouses I hung around in with my high-school friends. In both cases, the reason was rednecks.

The rednecks in the roadhouses were terrifying. They made me feel they would just as soon kill me as look at me. The good old boys at the country club weren’t as threatening to me personally, but they made me nervous too. In that society, at the very top of it, they had a combination of power and disdain for others that, even to a boy, seemed wrong. With power should come guardianship, not cruelty.

I think it would surprise you, even shock you, to hear the way men who were the pillars of local business and society talked about people they considered inferior. Blacks of course. So imbedded in the culture was the color caste system that jokes at the expense of blacks were not even whispered. You could hear the punch lines ringing out in the men’s grill. Jews, too: “Jew” was a verb. And homosexuals: light in their loafers; don’t drop your soap in the shower.
I see now that their behavior was a kind of cultural circling of the wagons against attacks of otherness on their way of life. At the time, they just seemed like bullies. Like the KKK. Like those men who tied Mathew Shepard, a gay teenager, to a fence in Wyoming and beat him to death. Those roadhouse and country club rednecks of my youth were my introduction to social bullies.
Like all parents, I wanted my children to have friends. I wanted them to fit in and be accepted. I didn’t want them to be the butt of jokes. I didn’t want them to be bullied. Not for their sexual orientation, not for anything. I wanted them not to be gay for the same reason I wanted them not to have some other target on their backs that said “Mock me, ostracize me.”
As a society, our attitude toward gays is changing. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage. But there is entrenched opposition in parts of the culture. I don’t know how high the correlation is between opposition to gay marriage and opposition to abortion, but I suspect it is high. Perhaps religion unites them, but that would be painting with broad brush: there are fundamentalist religions of all stripes that are intolerant; there are tolerant people in all religions. In any event, religion does not belong in politics. This country was founded by pilgrims trying to avoid religious persecution.
Lately, however, there is a kind of banding together under one roof of those who disapprove of what I would call social progressivism, of those who believe that homosexuality is an abomination and abortion is murder. That roof does not have a cross on it. Instead, over the doorway is the banner of the Republican Party.
My father was a Republican. He was a doctor. He hated the idea of socialized medicine, even though he delivered many babies for apple pies and country hams. He hated paying taxes, even though he overpaid people he hired to help him with remodeling projects. But one thing he didn’t hate was people. Black, white, gay, straight, he took them all as they were. He might not like you, but it had nothing to do with the color of your skin or your sexual preferences. I don’t think he would recognize today’s Republican Party. I think he would wonder, as do I, how what we call social issues became their rallying cry.
If you think, as I do, that a lot of the objection to gay rights and reproductive rights stems from traditional ways of looking at our relationships with one another, and from feeling threatened when those traditions are challenged, then you might well ask yourself, as I think my father would ask today if he were alive, what are those issues doing in politics? Dad was a smart guy, and a bit of a con man himself. I don’t think it would take him long to come up with the answer: Callous manipulation.

The Republican Party does not, as a governing manifesto, care about social issues. What it cares about is preserving an economic status quo that has permitted men of business to shape the rules to benefit themselves; and which, incidentally, has kept gays, women and the poor in their place.
Many of the people who identify as Republicans because of perceived affinity on social issues could use the economic help their party doesn’t want the government to give them. They need social security and Medicare. They sometimes need unemployment benefits. They need job training. Their children need early childhood education and decent day care. Their party has sold them snake oil. It’s promises deal with things that don’t really impact their daily lives while it’s actions ignore their needs, or worse, make their problems worse by widening income inequality and reducing government spending on the social safety net.

That should be enough to cause anyone who is not rich to think twice about wanting to be a Republican. But if you’re not convinced, if the threat to your own economic self-interest is not sufficient to move you, think of your children. Ask yourself this question: What if my son or daughter turns out to be different from others? Maybe he’s gay. Maybe she’s fat or skinny, pale or dark, or just nerdy? Do I want her to be scorned and bullied? Do I want him to feel ashamed of who he is?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The M Among Us

I watched the movie “Skyfall” a few days ago and realized that one of my good friends is a dead-ringer, in character, for M. Here’s the plot of the real-life terrorist attack my friend thwarted:

Suzie Stewart, in front (as always)
Setting: late afternoon in Palo Alto, California, outside a children’s theatre that has been a community treasure since 1932. Children who have come for rehearsal watch with shock and confusion as police escort the director, assistant director and two other staff members out of the building. Travelers’ checks are missing. Or maybe found. No one is quite certain. The staff members are suspended by the city. No formal charges are brought, but the police chief gives interviews in which she says they have proof of "serious financial misconduct and other possible criminal activity."

It’s not just the kids who are shocked. The four staff members have been at the theatre for most of their lives. They put on plays with homemade costumes. The kids are the stars. No adults permitted onstage. No one knows just what is going on. The police are secretive, using innuendo rather than particulars. The city manager says that his hands are tied, that he can’t interfere with a police investigation. Ditto the city council. It listens mutely as community members fill the council chamber to beg for fair treatment for the theatre staff. The mayor (whose grandson is a child actor at the theatre) says privately that if he tries to interfere he could lose his council seat.

Two weeks after being shut out of his theatre, the assistant director dies. At his funeral, a state senator, who has said many times that the theatre saved his life when he was a lost teen, gives a eulogy in which he says sometimes good people make mistakes. The feeling the experience gave me at the time was that the Gestapo had come to town and rounded up a few citizens to make examples of them while the local officials looked the other way.

But my friend, the one like Judi Dench’s M, didn’t look the other way. She had spearheaded a major addition to the theater a decade before. Her daughter had been an actor in the theatre. She knew the theatre staff. She knew their foibles, their eccentricities, but she also knew they were not capable of stealing from the institution to which they had given their lives. While the city government played Pilate, she waded into the fight.

She spoke at city council meetings. She visited council members privately. She led marches. She raised money for a legal defense fund for the suspended staff. She rallied crowds at fundraisers and protests. She wrote op-ed pieces for the local newspaper. She pushed the city to appoint a police auditor to look into the investigation. Miraculously, it did.

And when the city council got the police auditor's report, they wrote a letter of apology for “the errors and injustices committed during the Palo Alto Police Department's investigation.” “The Auditor concluded that the investigation seriously violated proper police protocols and ignored extensive exonerating evidence,” they said. They repudiated the police report and ordered that the public record be set straight.

Lives had been ruined by then. The director, who had been in that post for fifty years, did not return. The assistant director, who wrote or co-wrote twenty five plays and musicals during his thirty years at the theatre, died under suspicion of being a crook.

My friend who stood up to what can be not unfairly called a terrorist attack is Suzie Stewart. Like M, she fights for what she knows is right even when others doubt, even when others shirk. And in the end she gets it right.

Suzie is dying now. She is gravely ill. She will not recover. But her face and life shine before all who know her even as her body weakens. I’ve never known anyone who better embodies the lines from Tennyson that M quoted in “Skyfall.”

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.