The LGBT recoil

The Thinker by Rodin

It looks like North Carolina is the latest state to discover the pitfalls of trying to govern from the extreme. HB2, passed in a special one-day session, specifically overwrote a Charlotte, North Carolina ordinance that allowed people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity. The hastily signed law by now-chagrinned Governor Pat McCrory requires North Carolina citizens to use the restroom aligned with the sex assigned to them by birth on their birth certificate or face the penalty of law.

The ink was hardly dry before the ACLU was filing a suit. And then the real recoil began. PayPal canceled plans to build offices in the state, at a cost of some four hundred jobs. The Boss (Bruce Springsteen) canceled plans for a concert in the state. North Carolinians can perhaps take some comfort in knowing that they are not the only state dumb enough to pass laws like these. Georgia’s governor vetoed a bill with similar intentions. Mississippi looks primed to follow North Carolina’s example with a “religious liberty” bill that gives permission to businesses to discriminate against people they don’t like because of God or something. It’s not even law and it’s promoting a backlash, causing Sharon Stone to move the location of her new film out of the state and the governor of Oregon to move the christening of the USS Oregon’s sister ship to his state. Of course Indiana got bitch slapped on similar issues last year, and even Arizona saw that light when convention bookings slowed down.

Why do these states do this? It’s like they have a death wish. In most cases there is no groundswell of constituents demanding these laws, but there are often fundamentalist groups who have the ears of legislators instead. The answer in part is because legislators in these states have their ears keenly tuned to hear messages from these groups who sustain their hold on power. But the only reason they have so much power is because states like North Carolina are gerrymandered to provide extremely disproportionate representation for conservatives. The nature of gerrymandering is that it is an artificial construct that cannot survive for long because it is unfair. A backlash was inevitable. Worse, these laws were entirely preventable and there were plenty examples of states who had already suffered the consequences. That would have at least suggested some caution, perhaps the governor shelving the bill for a few weeks to let tempers cool.

So much stupidity but perhaps the stupidest thing is that these laws try to solve problems that don’t even exist. Let me ask you what would be more disruptive: a trans man using a ladies restroom because his birth certificate says he is a woman, or a trans woman using a men’s restroom for a similar reason. The latter sounds the more dangerous to me; if I were a trans woman I’d literally prefer to pee in my pants before going into a men’s room. Of course that’s part of the problem. It’s hugely challenging when your gender misaligns with your sex and particularly during and after the transition process. It’s only now after a couple of decades that the trans community is starting to get some sympathy from the general public, mainly because most of us haven’t tuned into it. It’s a complex issue as I discovered some years back.

But the religious freedom arguments really sound shallow. Religious freedom in this case is basically government-approved bigotry. Doubtless there are passages in the Bible that suggest black people are evil (curious as most Jews are Semites and if not quite black have dark-hued skins.) Under the guise of religious freedom then anyone can assert they have a right to run a business that caters only to non-blacks. If it’s not in the Bible, it’s still no big deal. Create your own religion where only white people are holy and there you go. You can assert it’s your sincere religious belief and who can doubt you? These laws protect not the richest 1% but allow the most bigoted 1% to selectively shame people they don’t like with impunity.

The good news for bigots is that they have every right to be a bigot in their private lives. However, a business cannot be called public if it does not accept all comers. If I own a bakery and don’t want to bake wedding cakes for gay couples, I can get out of the bakery business. Or I can decide that I understand that being public means everyone can ask for my services and baking one doesn’t mean I support gay marriage but it does mean I have sanction to profit from anyone who walks in my shop door.

There is some concern that these laws will require ministers to marry gay couples or face the penalty of law. I’m not sure where this comes from but it’s a specious concern. You might as well worry that a Catholic priest will be required to perform a Jewish wedding. Religious marriage ceremonies require parties to agree to the marriage rules of the religion. I suppose it is possible that a state law might require any legal “celebrant” to perform a civil marriage, and that celebrant could also be a minister. In this case though the ceremony would be purely civil, does not have to be performed in their church and would have no religious connotation.

One thing that is clear is that these laws are toxic. Generations X and Y have made it clear that everyone must be treated equally under the law, so at best these laws will prove to be short-lived. Perhaps it’s possible these legislators don’t understand how hurtful and shaming these laws are, but more likely they do understand and that’s part of their animus in voting them in. They will get their comeuppance in time. In North Carolina, a recent poll puts Governor McCrory four points behind his LGBT-friendlier challenger.

When you make it your business to shame others, you will inevitably find that it will shame you instead. Give it a few months as more businesses leave the state and I think North Carolina legislators will find a reason to quietly repeal HB 2. Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and other states in this boat will too in time but sadly are likely to look for less overt ways to discriminate instead. There are always those Voter ID laws.

The real price of discrimination

The Thinker by Rodin

Today’s Martin Luther King holiday actually has me reflecting on Martin Luther King. That’s in part due to the annual news stories about the holiday and snippets of his most famous speeches that always show up on social media on the holiday. Most churches reinforce his legacy, as mine did yesterday. The bloody march he led to Montgomery, Alabama, which began at a bridge in Selma, Alabama (it happened fifty years ago this March) killed some and injured many more innocent people who were simply demanding that blacks be treated equally.

One of those killed was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that’s important to me because I am a UU. The Reverend Jim Reeb was one of many UU ministers who hustled down to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. White men with clubs attacked him and others on the march. He likely died because he could not get to a hospital in time, as he could only be transported in a black ambulance (which also got a flat tire en route), even though he was white. Also among the UU ministers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was the UU minister Reverend John Wells, then of the Mount Vernon, Virginia UU church. He married my wife and I thirty years ago. He spoke proudly of his participation in the march when we met with him for some pre-nuptial planning.

2014 sobered many of us up who were beginning to believe we lived in a post racial society. After all we had elected a black president not once, but twice. Things are certainly better racially than they were fifty years ago in Selma. Yet if we have come a long way to end racism, it’s now undeniable that we still have a long way yet to go. Quite obviously though it’s not just racism that divides us. Martin Luther King spent most of his ministry trying to bring about racial justice, but he was certainly aware that injustice had many aspects. Racial injustice was easy to see and impossible to ignore. Dr. King also helped open the door to expose other forms of discrimination. While I feel aghast at how much work remains to create a racially just society, I can also feel satisfaction in how far we’ve come in other areas. Later this year it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same sex marriage a right. Fifty years ago homosexuals were barely acknowledged. This is tremendous progress.

There may be a reason that homophobia receded so quickly. Whereas skin color is impossible to ignore, someone’s sexual preference is impossible to know unless it is disclosed. It might be inferred but it’s hard to say with certainty. Whereas many whites may know few blacks intimately, most of us have a gay sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle in the family (and maybe several). This has the effect of forcing us to confront our prejudices. It is easier for us to identify with others when they are close to us. I think this principally explains the stunning advancement of marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians. As gays and lesbians gain rights and broad acceptance in society, it is becoming easier for other queers to gain acceptance too. The brave new oppressed social group these days seems to be the transgender community. It’s not hard to predict that this community, which already has rights in some localities, will gain full equality relatively quickly as well as specific legal protections. Many of us have now encountered an openly transgender person in the workplace and they no longer seem scary. I have known three.

We don’t think of whites looking down on fellow whites, but in truth whites do this all the time. The whites that populate most of Appalachia, particularly the lower class whites, are targets of discrimination and ridicule too. Terms like “white trash” should be just as offensive as “nigger”. This is an area I need to work on, as I have lampooned Walmart shoppers in a few posts, although it’s not just whites that shop at Walmart. Sites like peopleofwalmart.com and whitetrashrepairs.com cater to those who like to look down at what we perceive as the faults or eccentricities of lower class whites, but really just those with lower incomes in general or that strike us as intensely peculiar.

The unspoken animus is that while we can afford our lifestyle, they cannot and therefore there must be something wrong with them. In truth, what is “wrong” with them is mostly our refusal to help them raise their economic status. These people are actually much stronger and resilient than those of us further up the economic ladder, they just don’t have the resources to ascend the ladder. If the rest of us were forced to live on a quarter of our income, we would not fare nearly as well, although we like to think we could. More about this is a subsequent post, perhaps.

There are many other ways we overtly or covertly discriminate, but they generally have “ism” in common. Most upper class whites are fine having blacks as neighbors providing they adopt our values, maintain their houses real well and don’t raise any problem children. Racism and ethnic discrimination usually amounts to classism. We gain perceived social status roughly based on our income, which we then parade in the quality of our neighborhoods, the skinniness of our trophy wives and the costs and brands of our cars.

The Irish are as white as any group of Caucasians from Europe, but they were ruthlessly discriminated and ghetto-ized when they came to America, as were many other white ethnic groups. They were not so much melted down as grudgingly accepted into the culture if they could find a golden ticket to the middle class. After a while someone’s ethnicity did not matter, but class still did. Sexism is going through something similar. One of our most glaring “isms” doesn’t quite have a word yet. I call it attractiveness discrimination. There is no question that attractive people in general have privileges and opportunities disproportionate to those perceived to be less attractive. Those judged to be plain or ugly are frequently victims of discrimination: in employment, in insurability, in wages and in many other ways. We project onto attractive people qualities they may or may not have, and sometimes discriminate against attractive people as well by assuming they can do things they cannot simply because they are attractive.

I don’t know how we fully rid ourselves of these biases and discriminatory tendencies. It is an ugly side to our species. Dogs to not appear to be classists by nature, so in that sense they are superior to us. What matters is only how they are treated, and sometimes not even that. What is hard to measure is the true cost of all this multilevel, multi-variable discrimination. Whatever the true cost is, it must be catastrophically high. When I read stories like Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamp benefits or trying to take Medicaid away from the working poor, at best I wince and at worst I cry. To make people whose lives are already so miserable even more miserable seems like a crime worthy of being sent to hell’s lowest level. Our world is so miserable and the misery seems likely to only increase. Yet the classism within us makes the situation exponentially worse. It denies so many of us the ability to achieve their potential. Imagine what our country could be if everyone could live up to their potential. Imagine how enriched society would be.

This is the true cost of discrimination. Those of us who discriminate may do so overtly or covertly, but when we do it we stick the dagger not only into those we discriminate against, but also into ourselves. We empty ourselves of the values we need to have a loving and caring community.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is part of his message that so often overlooked that I am pondering. It leaves me feeling melancholy and fighting despair.

Processing Petrina

The Thinker by Rodin

I found myself sleeping poorly on Monday night. I tossed and turned for hours and when I stumbled into sleep I returned to the same dream I could not escape. My name was Pete and I was coming out, not as a homosexual, but as a transgender. I was going to become Petrina.

This would be a strange dream for me to have, since I am quite comfortable being a male. I have from time to time acknowledged my feminine side, but it has never manifested itself as an obsession or even a mild concern. I don’t read Vogue. I don’t secretly (or overtly) dress up in my wife’s clothes. I don’t dress in a subtle or not so subtle feminine manner. The only reason I was dreaming I was Pete becoming Petrina is because earlier that day the real life Pete (not his real name) in my life told me confidentially he was divorcing his wife, moving into an apartment, and was planning to spend the rest of his life as a woman. He would soon announce himself as a she, and she would be Petrina. In fact, he already had his name legally changed.

I do what I often do when confronted with one of these minor shocks in life. I breathed in sharply. I found myself blinking rapidly. I also found myself a little slack jawed. It was one of those few times in life I was truly at a loss for adequate words. It was hard to know what to say. I could not give empathy because it was outside my experience. I could not offer a handshake or a hug, in part because I see Pete only a couple of times a year and the news came via instant message with details in a private email. “Congratulations,” seemed a bit weak, as he was in the process of renting an apartment and divorcing a wife of more than thirty years, a woman who was presumably completely blameless in this matter. “I’m sorry,” seemed weak too because Pete had been struggling with being a woman in a man’s body all his life but like so many in the transgender community had kept it deep under wraps. Yet there was potential great good about moving to a healthy space where he could openly be a she.

In retrospect, there were signs that if I were paying more attention to them might have triggered the thought that Pete might really be Petrina. There is his long and clean hair that went halfway the waist. There is the soft voice, the gentle nature and the nearly flawless complexion for someone in their sixties. No wonder I liked him because I am gentle by nature and about as far away as you can get from the masculine, beer-drinking NASCAR-watching male stereotype.

Then there were the months he spent off the job for reasons that were not explained but were at least partially spent in a hospital. I thought he had been battling some terrible disease, like cancer, that he wanted to keep private. It sounds like he spent his whole life suppressing his feelings and confiding them in no one, knowing that doing so would only breach unbelievable pain for others, a problem a woman seems better able to understand. The conflict apparently came to a boil after many decades where the choice became quite simple: he would either become a she or he would end his life. After so much time he simply had to be publicly the she he was on the inside.

That’s why I was sleeping poorly. Because I really liked Pete, it was easy to imagine myself inhabiting his world, now that I knew he harbored this private pain for so many decades. As my brain wrestled trying to live inside his body, I could feel nothing but an overwhelming and relentlessly painful disconnect of the soul and spirit. How could anyone endure this pain for even a day, let alone decades? And yet even with the burden of such pain, where did he find the strength come out? He doubtless has many friends and a social and familial circle that extends into the hundreds. He is asking all of them to make a big leap of the psyche, and see him as a her, not to estrange themselves from her and knowing that probably most of them will anyhow. The vast majority of us simply cannot look much beyond our sexual orientation. It frames so much of our lives and the assumptions we make interacting with someone. How can we not resent in some way a man who falsely presented himself as a man? How can we not feel some level of visceral distrust?

What Pete has done has changed everything in his life. It is like a neutron bomb exploding, leaving everything living dead but structures still standing. At the price of estranging himself from almost everyone who he has known and loved, what he receives is only the ability to openly be the gender he is on the inside, not the sex he is on the outside. To reconcile the difference in the months and years ahead there will be hormone treatment, lots of psychotherapy and sex change surgery. Peter will be Petrina, but will Petrina find the acceptance of herself in society that she also craves? Or will society mostly look, if not run, the other way?

Petrina will be the third openly transgender person I have come across in the workplace. My first experience back in the 1987 left me completely flummoxed and tongue-tied. I feel ashamed now of how badly I reacted back then. I did my best to avoid her, although she apparently never underwent the surgery. The second occurred in the early 2000s when John became Georgina. I did not handle that change very well either. In part this was because Georgina looked ridiculous as a woman, perhaps because she was six foot two inches tall and retained the shape and stock of a male.  I thought of Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H. In her case though I simply could not make the mental transition. In my eyes, John became John in a dress, not Georgina. The Georgina rendition seemed false. Again, I dealt with Georgina probably like lots of us ordinary people do, by minimizing my contact with her simply because I could not process the feelings and felt intensely awkward about the whole transition.

With Petrina, my relationship is far closer than it was with Georgina. Because it was, I think, some part of me could empathize. I could feel some of the pain that she felt. It both overwhelmed me and made me feel deeply sad. This time though I could process it better. I could feel for the person. And I knew that this time, at last, I could handle it without shirking Petrina and without smirking. At last I could reach out in sympathy and friendship. And I vowed that at least this time I would not be one of those who when she came down the hall ran in the other direction. In fact, I have vowed to treat Petrina no less well than I treated Pete, and to reach out to her in kindness and compassion, as one human heart who has known his share of turmoil to another.

I ended our IM conversation with, “I am so glad you told me about this, Petrina.”