Saturday, June 27, 2015

Women, Gays and Barack Obama's Ear -- A Repeat

Yesterday the Supreme Court shot down state bans on same-sex marriage, effectively making marriage a federal affair, free from the capricious natures of the various legislatures or the rigid mandates of those who want to ignore the fact that legal marriage isn't of the bible, but is a civil, official, yes, secular matter.

The fuss against the ruling is about what you would expect, and it's all out there, of course, but here I want to revisit the evolution of the president; how he came to see that when two adults who love each other want to commit to marriage it's not a sin or a crime, it's a reason for celebration.

This piece was first published on May 10, 2012:

The big news yesterday -- no, the HUGE news -- was President Obama's interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, set up specifically so that he could air his own personal views about gay people being able to marry their same-sex partners:  After much soul-searching and a couple of decades of "evolving", he was finally ready to say out loud that he's all for it.

He did go on to say that it should be left to the states to decide their own policies concerning the legalities of such unions, but the die was cast; the mold was formed:  A sitting president took a positive, personal, public stand on the issue of gay marriage.

As might have been expected, the fundie leaders in the Right Wing Religiousphere took it hard.  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was all over the airwaves protesting the president's comments.   (Kudos to CNN's Soledad O'Brien, the product of mixed-race parents who married when most states outlawed such marriages, for turning an interview into a real debate, thus punching bloody holes in Perkins' many lame arguments.)

Small-government advocate and current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney came forward like the good soldier he is and said, no ifs, ands, or buts (for now) -- no, no, no to gay marriage, or even civil unions, or anything else that might require Big Government (that would be him if he wins) to step in and make more rules disregarding civil rights.

 Leaders of states that probably weren't going to go Obama's way in November anyway jumped in to remind him that he was committing political suicide over this.

Some Black church leaders voiced their opposition to Obama's views, sending a message that might possibly still resonate in November.

So, yes, even though his comments to Robin Roberts won't amount to a hill of beans in the legal world and won't change a thing in the states that are rabid about banning gay marriage (Two days ago, North Carolina became the 30th state to ban same-sex unions), Obama's admission of his own personal feelings is the stuff dreams are made of.   Both sides will see it as a world class political haymaker.

But what made the president's comments so memorable was the fact that, while he would have preferred to sidestep this particular bombshell of an issue forever if need be, it appears it was his wife and his daughters who ultimately convinced him that, while he might be president of these United States -- an all-powerful position requiring the wisdom of Solomon and the unbiased judgment of, say, the theoretical Supreme Court, his earlier published views on the subject were about as wrongheaded as it gets.

They talked to him about love and how it works in mysterious ways, and his daughters let him know how much it hurt them that, by his own admission, the best he could come up with was that he was still 'evolving' on that particular issue.

There were many juicy quote-bites one could pull out of that interview, but this one got me right where my heart beats loudest:
"You know, Malia and Sasha, they've got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I-- you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin' around the dinner table. And we've been talkin' and-- about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would-- it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently. It doesn't make sense to them. And-- and frankly-- that's the kind of thing that prompts-- a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated-- differently, when it comes to-- the eyes of the law." 
 Okay, I'm a sucker for a good dad, no matter what kind of house he lives in, so it's understandable why I might latch onto that one particular part of the conversation.  But I watched the entire interview; I watched the body language and listened to the tone of voice.  I saw an everyman wrestling with his ethos, not a politician striving to convince, and I rejoiced.

 But--I'll grant you--it didn't hurt that Joe Biden, our beloved, wacky veep, got to gushing about his own feelings on gay marriage on Sunday's "Meet the Press".  The next day the Washington Post's Dana Milbank called it a "gaffe" (a word that seems to cling to Biden as tightly as his own shadow) and the press took off running.  (Note to Joe:  It's far better to be gaffe-prone than to be mean-prone.  So far, you're okay, man.)
The vice president said he is “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, committing the classic Washington gaffe of accidentally speaking the truth. This bit of straight talk made Obama’s position — neither for nor against such unions but in an evolutionary state, not unlike the Galapagos finch — all the more untenable. On Monday, Biden took off for a campaign event in Tennessee, leaving Carney on cleanup duty. But the more Carney swabbed the mess, the more it spread. 
I frankly don't get it.  How exactly did Joe Biden's own personal views on gay marriage conflict with anything the president might have said about that same issue?  There is no actual blending of the pair, simply because they're Leaders One and Two.  They aren't contractually obligated to agree personally on all issues.  I didn't see it as "one-upping" the president, I saw it as Biden being Biden.  Especially when he got to the part about "Will and Grace".  (Debra Messing ("Grace") says it's right up there in the top five moments of her life, so you see, it's striking chords everywhere. )

Well, apparently even the president felt that Joe had overstepped "his skis" or some such.  But publicly he's okay with it, and I get the feeling that he, like me, loves old Joe, gaffes and all.  (And who wouldn't?)

Immediately after the Sunday news hours, it was out there, people were talking, and the entire White House had to grind to a halt and address the elephant in the room.  Does the president support gay marriage or doesn't he?  So on Wednesday, President Obama sat down with Good Morning America's Robin Roberts and talked at length about the issue he had so studiously worked to avoid.

Yes, it was calculated and ultimately political, but the essence of it, the way the president chose to address it, was as much heaven to me as it had to be hellish for his political opponents, those so intent on ousting Barack Obama they have no problem casting him as evil incarnate--the devil himself

I saw a man who might finally understand that there are times when it's not only essential but soul-satisfying to separate the thoughts of the person from the decisions of the presidency.  And that "evolution" doesn't work as a handy substitute for equivocation.  And that sometimes political expedience isn't all it's cracked up to be.

My mother was Finnish-Lutheran and my father was Italian-Catholic.  They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just nine months before my mom died, and they loved each other to the end.  What if the powers-that-be had arbitrarily decided that Finns and Italians couldn't marry?  Or that Lutherans and Catholics couldn't marry?  How different is that from deciding that blacks and whites couldn't marry or that same-sex partners couldn't marry?  They're all consenting adults with the capacity to love one another, and if marriage is the desired tie that binds, it's a sad and sorry law that seeks to outlaw fidelity instead of celebrating it.

I think the president always got that.  He only just now, thanks in part to the women in his life, found the cojones to say it out loud.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Goodness and Mercy and The Charleston Massacre

On Wednesday evening, June 17, a 21-year-old White Supremacist sat for an hour in a prayer meeting with the good people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and, when the hour was up, opened fire with his .45 caliber Glock.  He slaughtered nine innocent church members for no other reason than that he held such a deep, abiding hatred for blacks he wanted to be the one to kill them.  His goal was to start a race war.

Later, after he was caught, he admitted to the police that the parishioners were so nice to him he almost didn't do it.  It was the twist of the knife for those of us already grieving over his murder victims.  One single second of conscience, one deviant drop of human kindness, and the people who welcomed him into their fold might have been saved.

He deliberately targeted the "Mother Emanuel" African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, a revered historic black church, in service both publicly and secretly since 1822--the oldest of its kind in the south. A landmark. A haven. But if he thought his actions would destroy the church, he was as delusional as he is evil.

After Roof was caught, surviving family members were given the chance to talk to him about their losses, about what he did to them when he took the lives of their loved ones.  Roof stood silently, barely moving, as each one took the microphone.  He must have been expecting the screaming rage I would have felt had he killed one of mine.  He no doubt could have identified with that. But what he got instead was forgiveness.  Merciful forgiveness.

One by one, the mourners, still in shock at what he had done, described to him how they felt, and then, one by one, they offered their forgiveness. Their goodness and mercy finally broke through.  This morning Roof is on suicide watch.  There are reports that he is remorseful.

The pity of it is, it doesn't matter now.  He can't bring back the nine people he murdered, no matter how much he may wish it.  And he'll never be anything but what he is: a vicious racist murderer.  He planned it, lived for the chance to do it, bragged about doing something hurtful to blacks, because he is a white supremacist and white supremacists are honor-bound to act on their hatred toward people of color.

The black community in Charleston is in mourning.  In this country where racism keeps rearing its ugly head, we are grieving, too. We show it in our anger, in our determination to avenge these deaths, in our renewed resolve to do something about guns in this country, in our attempts to force our leaders to call this massacre what it was: a racist hate crime.  But the people closest to the attack are honoring their dead by singing freedom songs, by celebrating the lives of the dead, and by calling for forgiveness. They are the reason this one event, horrific and tragic as it is, will be a catalyst for change.

Just as the September, 1963 bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, causing the tragic deaths of four young girls attending a Sunday school class, gave the Rev. Martin Luther King a more authoritative voice and moved the Civil Rights Movement forward, so will this latest attack on innocents bring about the kind of dialogue that demands change.

We can't be distracted by calls for better gun control or more attention to mental illness.  We'll get to them.  For now, the conversation has to stay on racism.  We need to work on eliminating it.  Not just diminishing it or hiding it under the carpet, but eliminating it.

It'll take all of us who care  We have to do it in a way that honors those who have died, and in a way that is satisfactory to the mourners left behind.  We have to do it in such numbers there is no question that those who oppose racism are in the majority.  We have to do it now.

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Liberaland)

Friday, June 12, 2015

No More Making Fun of the Iowa Straw Poll. Except This One Last Time

Just got the news that Iowa has decided to dump their traditional GOP fundraiser, their presidential-hopeful-quasi-indicator-of-nothing, their old-fashioned, hilariously awful Iowa Barbecue and Straw Poll .  I thought I would be happy when they finally took my advice and got rid of that thing, but now I feel sad.  I've laughed so much over their shenanigans, I feel the way I do whenever a favorite comedy show bites the dust. Sad, but so glad for the memories.

Here, then, is my memory of the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll festivities, first published the day after the Party's big party. 

There will always be Iowa. . .

Political Tiddly-Winks in Iowa.  The Corn Dog Won

Good God and Lordy, people, is there anything more ludicrous on the political scene than what happens in Iowa whenever the Republicans don't have a Grand Poobah candidate for President?  This year it was a big barbecue in Ames where just under 17,000 people 16 1/2 years old and over got to pay their $30 to "vote" for a candidate and then party afterward.  Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul were the "winners".  And, not surprisingly, the emperor wore no clothes.

The main function of the Iowa Straw Poll is to draw in money for the Republican Party and for the towns in Iowa that hold the straw polls.  That should be enough for those folks, but even given proof of the historical insignificance of the poll and it's non-role in the winning of presidencies, the press falls all over itself to turn it into something it's not now and never will be.  As a political forecaster, it's record is pitiful.  Rarely if ever does the Straw Poll winner win the Iowa Caucus, much less the presidency.  So let's just get over the "importance" of yesterday's vote in Ames, Iowa and have a little fun with it, okay?

Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker:
Calling the results of today’s Iowa straw poll “alarming,” Standard and Poor’s took the unprecedented action of downgrading Iowa’s IQ.

While the effects of such an extraordinary measure are hard to predict, experts say the IQ downgrade could result in Iowans having difficulty completing sentences or operating a television remote.
“This downgrade would be very upsetting to Republicans in Iowa,” said an S & P spokesman.  “Fortunately, there’s no way they’ll understand it.”
 At the Fairgrounds, where the Big Barbecue was going on, Ron Paul had something called the "Prosperity Playground", where you could slide down the "Sliding Dollar" slide and just be a kid again.

Ujala Sehgal writes about it and more in this piece in the Atlantic.  Man, those kids had fun!

The Ames Patch took to judging the candidates' tent sizes. (Link no longer available.)  Thaddeus McCotter's may have been the smallest, at an embarrassing 30x30 feet,  but Tim Pawlenty's took the prize as the largest, at 200 sq. ft. over Michele Bachmann's 10,000 foot air-conditioned whopper.

I'm hearing rumors this morning that Pawlenty is already thinking of dropping out of the race, so I hope he had a great time there in Ames.  Something should come out of all that effort, at least. (News flash:  It's true.  Pawlenty has dropped out.  Of the entire presidential race! All because of the Iowa Straw Poll!  Am I going to have to rethink this whole thing?  Am I just not getting it??)

Okay, I started this out absolutely refusing to even consider including that truly awful, truly obscene un-Photo-Shopped photo of Michele Bachmann deliriously munching a very long corn dog, but I changed my mind.

No, wait. I can't. Just can't. You can Google it. You know that, right?

But I will say this:  What happens in Iowa should have the decency to stay in Iowa.  Really.

Friday, June 5, 2015

What's Next For Caitlyn Jenner?

Olympic gold medal winner Bruce Jenner, known more recently as the beleaguered stepfather to the Kardashian clan on the reality show, "Keeping up with the Kardashians", has begun the transition to become a woman, choosing "Caitlyn" as her female name.

News of the transition was, let's be honest, mind-boggling.  Some saw it as nothing more than a weird cry for attention.  Jenner was, after all, the odd man out on a reality show based almost solely on sheer vanity.  Female vanity.

I know almost nothing about Bruce Jenner's past history and I've never watched more than 10 minutes of the reality show, but if Jenner says she never felt comfortable as Bruce, I have no reason to doubt it.  It could be that, now, at age 65, the need to be the person she really is became all the more compelling.  As we age we look forward, not back.  We get it that time is running out.  If we're ever going to do the things we've always wanted to do, we should have started yesterday.

It takes guts to open up to the need for a gender change. It means a complete and total make-over, the likes of which most of us can't even imagine. Intensive psychological testing is required, often for years, before the last radical change--genital surgery--takes place. But the transition begins the moment the candidate accepts that their birth gender is not and never has been who they are.

Hormone therapy begins the transition and the results can be startling.  The voice changes, the body begins to transform, the mind gets comfortable with this new person.  But, because they live among other people, and because what's happening will require some explanation, it's the beginning--the coming out--that requires the most courage.  Not everyone will understand.  Some will laugh at such a thought.  Some will be sickened by the whole idea.  Knowing this, many of the mis-gendered will take the steps to change, anyway.  It's hard enough for folks who aren't famous, but, for someone like Jenner, the public transition requires skin as tough as hide.

Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of this month's Vanity FairBuzz Bissinger wrote the story.  Annie Leibovitz took the photos in a session kept secret until the photos were released just days ago. Jenner has breasts and a sculpted waist.  She has long hair and feminine cheek bones.  She looks like, and is, a beautiful woman.

So why am I troubled by the Vanity Fair feature?  Maybe because I had hoped for a piece that might have celebrated Jenner as a whole woman and not just a sex symbol.  I understand wanting to feel feminine and sexy--even or especially after having to hide that part of you for over six decades.  I'm not suggesting a modest cover-up until the world gets used to the idea.  The part of the world that isn't used to the idea will never get used to the idea.  But am I the only one who saw the cover and immediately thought "Ack! Kardashian"?

I read that Annie Leibovitz was in tears at the end of the photo session.  She wanted to get this most important unveiling right and in the end she felt she nailed it.  Leibovitz is a brilliant photographer and the photos are beautiful.  But there is still, for me, an uneasy feeling that unless Caitlyn moves in another direction her appearance will be all there is.  And it won't be enough.

I was in high school in 1952, when George Jorgensen went public with the news that he had undergone multiple sex-change surgeries in Denmark and was now a woman.  Her new name was Christine.  The New York Daily News cover story was headlined, "Ex-GI Becomes Blond Bombshell". The circus that followed was unrelenting, and the poor woman became the subject of ridicule and outright hatred far beyond what should happen to a person whose life had caused nary a single hurt to another living soul.

It dogged her for the rest of her life.  She wondered at one point if the doctors had made her a woman or a freak, and that line became the headline on a poster advertising the dreadful 1970 movie about her life.  She opted for glamour and was always photographed perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed, perfectly made up.  Being a woman was her full time job.

But it turned out she was much more than that.  She was a pioneer in transgender awareness and acceptance.  There have always been gender identity issues, but Christine Jorgensen allowed every aspect of her transgenderization to go public, not for titillation but for science.  She wanted people to understand both the need and the process, and there is no doubt that her honest approach opened the doors and made it easier for others to follow.

I began working at the University of Michigan Hospital soon after they opened their first gender clinic in the mid-1970s.  We shared offices for a few months while ours were being renovated and there I met many of the men and women seeking to find their gender fit.  The doctors were heroic mavericks, constantly fighting against both personal and funding threats in order to establish that gender identity is not fixed in stone; that God and/or Mother Nature can get it wrong.  I never saw such longing, such determination, such bravery.

What Caitlyn Jenner needs to understand is that there is more to being a woman than the sum of her outward parts.  True womanhood isn't what is shown on a reality show featuring beautiful creatures obsessed with how they project themselves to a sector obsessed with outward beauty and not much else.

For all intents, and because she says so, Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, but what will she do now?  How will her womanhood manifest itself?  Who will she become now that she knows who she is? 

A reality show is already in the works.  On the trailer, Caitlyn says, "Isn't it great that maybe someday [I'll] be normal?  Just blend into society. . ."  A voice off camera:  "You are normal."  Caitlyn:  "Put it this way:  I'm the new normal."

It's all up to you, Caitlyn.  Now it's up to you.

(Cross-posted at The Broad Side.)

Monday, June 1, 2015

Beau Biden: What Might Have Been

I awoke yesterday to the news that Beau Biden has lost his battle with brain cancer.  The pain I felt, even though I didn't know Beau Biden personally, was a visceral as if I had lost a dear friend.  It's no secret that I adore his father, Joe, and much of what I'm feeling, I'm feeling for him.  (I wrote about him here.)  The grief, the sorrow, must be awful.  He lost his first wife and his small daughter in a tragic car-truck accident, and nearly lost Beau and his brother, Hunter. He should not have to endure another loss of a beloved child.

I grieve for Beau's family--his wife, his two daughters. A good man, loved by many, is dead at age 46.   But I've been thinking about this:  I grieve for all of us. We've lost a man who, under the right circumstances, might well have risen through the political ranks and helped to bring goodness and mercy to our besieged land.

He saw combat in Iraq.  He was a JAG lawyer.  He played it fair in every aspect of his life, and, as far as I know, never sought to harm anyone.

In 2011 he gave a speech to the law school graduating class at his alma mater, Syracuse University.  He titled it,  "The Means Matter".  In it, he said this:
Nearly ten years ago, an assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice wrote a now famous memo that defended his client’s desire to use ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as the means to achieve an end that was indisputably important.

At [the] same time, military lawyers (jags)—those who not only know our interrogators but also know the American troops who could one day be interrogated by the enemy—disagreed with their client’s desired means and wrote a strong repudiation of these techniques.

Together, these two legal opinions, from very smart and patriotic lawyers, form an excellent lesson: it is exactly when the stakes are the highest that the means matter most.

Or, as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, himself a military lawyer said at the time, ‘That there are certain corners you cannot afford to cut because you will wind up meeting yourself.’

The question of ends versus means is presented all the time in the practice of law. When the world thinks of lawyers, not everyone thinks of Atticus Finch, but they should. We want counselors who fight for what’s ‘right,’ but we live in a culture where lawyers too often fight for what the client demands, and the more powerful the client the more compelling the demand. Our ability to rationalize cannot be underestimated.

As Senator Graham, and the military lawyers know, if the rules are not clear, a slope has been oiled. And when slopes are oiled, you can only ride them in one direction. Do not rationalize.

He was on his way and he was on our side, and now he's gone. My hope is that we'll remember him as a true public servant--a hero for the working class, for the disadvantaged, for the misunderstood, for the people he spent his short life working to protect--and keep his legacy alive.
"That was the most striking thing about him. He was just innately kind. He had a complete aversion to ever hurting anyone's feelings," said Terry Wright, who worked for Joe Biden as a special assistant and has known Beau since 1982. "Politics is a rough business and Beau just never wanted to hurt people's feelings.
Rest in peace, dear man.  May your goodness shine on.

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Liberaland)