Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sunday Reading

Invasive Pythons — Charlie Pierce on the GOP shenanigans in Florida’s recount.

Before we descend into the madness that is Florida and the way it conducts itself during elections, we should get a bit of a look at what’s at stake so we can understand a) why the Republicans are fighting so hard; b) why the Democrats should match their ferocity, and c) why Marco Rubio is peddling his self respect one Tweet at a time on the electric Twitter machine. As part of the latter effort, Rubio tweeted out a video from a guy who was a Seth Rich Truther. But we are concerned at the moment withother swamps and other critters therein. From the Miami Herald:

In a series of morning tweets, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg claimed “the public deception is underway” as a South Florida Water Management District government board meeting started in Miami. Eikenberg accused officials of trying to derail the project by tying up the land for two more years and failing to give adequate notice for the decision. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast echoed those concerns during public comment, saying Ron DeSantis, the Republican who has railed against the sugar industry and maintains a narrow lead in a state governor race facing a recount, asked him to deliver a message: Postpone the vote. “The governor-elect as well as federal legislators would like to be briefed,” said Mast, a fellow Republican whose district includes coastal communities along the St. Lucie River repeatedly slammed by blue-green algae blooms ignited by polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.

DiSantis [sic], who is headed for Recount City with Andrew Gillum, and Rick Scott,who is presently tied up pretending to be Juan Peron in his battle against Senator Bill Nelson, both have opposed extending the leases on the land held by the literal sugar daddies. Everybody—including Senators Nelson and Rubio—have argued for the necessity of letting the leases run and then establishing the reservoir on that land. The state has been an environmental catastrophe this year, so much so that even Scott, who would sell his grandmother for parts if he thought the old girl would bring a price, got concerned.

This past summer, that outrage was compounded by a saltwater red tide, also fed by coastal pollution, that littered beaches with dead marine life and became a central issue in a heated election. DeSantis, who claimed to be the “only candidate who fought Big Sugar and lived to tell about it,” and voted against sugar subsidies while in Congress, has been embraced by some environmentalists. His opposition to the industry helped him win an endorsement from the Everglades Trust and a hearty congratulations from the Everglades Foundation, which does not endorse candidates but has lent support, including a press conference with outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the closing days of his race against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. The tight Nelson-Scott race is also going to a recount. District officials said they complied with meeting laws and would have listed Thursday’s vote in the meeting agenda sooner but only reached a deal with Florida Crystals late Wednesday. Board chairman Federico Fernandez, who seemed genuinely surprised by the negative reaction, said he was assured the decision met requirements.

This is part of the reason why the fight in Florida has gone to knives as swiftly as it has. Along with the climate crisis, quick-buck development scams and environmental predation have been devouring Florida for decades and the political establishment there never has been able to unite against these threats to the ordinary citizens.This time, apparently, it has. So the reservoir now becomes something that may be at stake in whatever backroom maneuvering is undertaken in the pursuit of the two contested political offices. And, my lord, is that becoming a tangled disaster. Once again, Broward County is haunting the nation’s dreams and, once again, we find ourselves in the preposterous position of having one of the candidates controlling the process of settling an election in which he is involved. The count in the Senate race has closed to within the state’s requirement for a statewide hand recount, and Scott went into a frenzy trying to stop it. From the Tampa Bay Times:

Rick Scott filed suit against Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes over the county’s delay in completing its count of the votes from the midterm election. Scott sued as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, not in his capacity as governor of Florida. Scott followed up by lashing out at Snipes in an extraordinary press conference at the Governor’s Mansion on Thursday night. Broward County lags the rest of the state in completing the first, crucial phases of counting ballots from Tuesday’s midterm election. As of 8 p.m. Thursday, the same time the governor summoned reporters to the mansion, Broward County was the only one of the state’s 67 counties that had not reported to the state that it had completed its tabulation of early votes. Early voting ended Sunday in Broward.

Scott, acting in his capacity as governor in furtherance of his attempt to become senator, sicc’ed the state police on the election officials in Broward. Armed police officers were headed to the counting houses. In a late-night press conference, Scott wentall the way up the wall.

“I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida,” Scott told reporters on the front steps of the stately Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee. The targets of Scott’s wrath were Brenda Snipes, the Broward County elections supervisor, and Palm Beach supervisor Susan Bucher. Both officials are Democrats; Scott is a Republican. Scott unleashed the attack as his slim lead over Democrat Bill Nelson in the Senate race continued to evaporate. It stood at 15,092 votes, or .18 percent, on Thursday night. President Trump chimed in on Twitter, describing, without any evidence, a “big corruption scandal” involving election fraud in South Florida. Scott took the unusual step of delivering a partisan political attack from his taxpayer-funded residence, which is reserved for official state events.

A reminder: what we are talking about here is the counting of votes, which is the basic fundamental process for every election. We are not talking about recounts and chads and all that other nonsense that is surely coming down the pike because this is Florida, man. We are talking about counting the votes. And Scott is using his authority as governor to ratfck that process with armed law-enforcement personnel. Somebody get this guy a white suit with some braid, and a balcony on which to stand. And he’s doing so with the entire Republican political apparatus up to and including the White House supporting him by enabling and weaponizing what are so far baseless charges. There is a great deal at stake here. We should wait and see what gets traded away and what gets held hostage and which firmly held political positions are used as currency. The gators and cranes and invasive pythons in the Everglades should be watching, too.

The Queer Coming-of-Age Film Comes of Age — Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic.

“My God, are we gonna be like our parents?” That’s the fear voiced by one of the five motley high-school students locked in detention in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club—and that’s the crucial question underlying most movies about adolescents coming of age. The onscreen antics of teenagers might take the form of giddy flirtations (Grease), drunken ramblings (Dazed and Confused), or feisty self-renaming (Lady Bird), but the kids’ objectives are usually the same: to fashion an identity by rebelling against the authorities—and expectations—that raised them. This quest is, however, circular. The losing of virginities and conquering of cliques may require transgressions in the moment, but by the time the credits roll, the teens have generally started prepping for a productive adulthood against which their own children might someday revolt.

For some kids, though, rule-breaking is less a route toward self-definition than a requirement built into existence. That’s the reality recognized by a recent crop of popular films centered on the queer teen, a figure who until now has been cinematically marginal: casually stigmatized in crass banter, relegated to playing sidekick in someone else’s rites of passage, or claiming the foreground only for small art-house audiences. The first major-studio movie about adolescent gay romance, Greg Berlanti’s spring hit, Love, Simon, uses teen-comedy tropes to portray homosexuality as no big deal in a well-off, relatively woke slice of America. But other recent films, set in less tolerant places and eras, hint that integrating queerness into a schema that has been overwhelmingly straight isn’t so simple.
Two prominent depictions of Christian gay-to-straight “conversion therapy,” the star-studded Boy Erased and the Sundance winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post, forgo the notion of puberty as a full-circle journey. So, in more oblique ways, did Moonlight, the Best Picture winner at the 2017 Oscars, and the 2018 Best Picture contender Call Me by Your Name. Whether persecuted or nurtured by their surroundings, queer teens fundamentally flip the Breakfast Club script: Their fear is not that they’ll become their parents, but that they face a future in which that isn’t a possibility. If that sounds potentially freeing, it is also, in these movies at least, a special kind of terrifying.

In literature and elsewhere, the go-to queer narrative is the coming-out story, which might seem well suited to the on-screen LGBTQ teenager on the brink of autonomy. After all, high-school movies are always, on some level, about outing: The protagonist struggles—nervously or defiantly or both—to announce who she really is to the world. But the queer teens now taking center stage are understandably gun-shy about this rite. Almost in passing, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird highlights the difference in what’s at stake. For Saoirse Ronan in the title role, bucking the dutiful-teen image is a performative thrill; her boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), who she discovers is gay, isn’t ready to upend parental expectations in what feels like a more irrevocable way.

Putting that apprehension in the foreground, this year’s gay-teen movies summon external forces to yank identity struggles into the open. In Love, Simon, Simon (Nick Robinson) is blackmailed by a classmate who discovers the secret Simon had hoped to keep through high school—and the kid eventually outs him anyway. Family members, peers, and school staff rally in support of an almost caricatured romantic-comedy finale for Simon: Young lovers ride a Ferris wheel, happily ever after. Simon never dreamed he’d remain in the closet; he just wanted to time his emergence to his arrival at college. That the mortifying disruption of this plan turns out to be kismet is not unlike what happens to the straight teens of Sixteen Candles and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, who have their private crushes revealed against their will.

The recent conversion-therapy movies redraw the blueprint more radically with the simple recognition that for a lot of queer youths, exposure really can spell catastrophe. In Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, set in the 1990s, the title character (Chloë Grace Moretz) is furtively hooking up with another girl at prom when the car door is flung open by Cameron’s male date. In Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, Jared (Hedges again), the Arkansas son of a hard-line preacher (Russell Crowe), diligently resists acting on his same-sex attractions—but is still outed, in extremely traumatic circumstances, when he goes to college in the early 2000s. The unmasking of these characters doesn’t represent a capstone of self-actualization; it kicks off a communal effort to constrain who they might become—to stop same-sex attraction before it “gets worse,” as one Boy Erased church elder puts it.

Change, usually the liberating mantra of coming-of-age movies, represents oppression and conformity in these films: It’s what the Christian brainwashing camps insist is possible for gay teens, something very near the opposite of the discovery of a true self. The comic pop-culture trope of the regimented high school morphs into a grimmer setting of hapless yet powerful adults and trapped kids. Even the homework is a perverse twist. For The Breakfast Club’s crew, being forced to write an essay about “who you think you are” offers each teen a pretext to break out of a stereotyped public image. But mandatory self-analysis, when truly futile, begins to resemble torture: Jared must annotate his family tree with the sins of his forebears (alcoholism, gambling, gang affiliation), and Cameron draws an iceberg showing all the supposedly malign influences below her surface (enjoyment of sports, lack of positive female role models). “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” Cameron asks.Seeing through the quacks in charge and confirming the truth of their own desires—which both of them ultimately do (Jared with the eventual support of his mother)—isn’t a prelude to fruitful rebellion or an upbeat transition away from home. Jared the earnest church kid frets about his parents’ love more than anything else. Cameron takes on light punk airs, joining ranks with the pot-smoking skeptics in the program she’s sent to, but she’s not fighting the system to achieve acceptance. Though both characters end up as runaways of sorts, they don’t seem to be running toward any particular adulthood they may be dreaming of. Survival has to come first.

Set further in the past, the breakout queer-teen movies of the previous two years each consider—from opposite perspectives—how a person’s initial environs might follow them forever. In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the black youth Chiron (played in turn by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) suffers bullying and parental abuse as he grows up amid Miami drug dealers and addicts in the 1980s. Moments of grace and fellowship are precious, and he’s shown acting on his same-sex desires in only one fleeting teenage encounter. In his high-school years, he does rebel—but by savagely beating a classmate, making a display of masculinity that brings him in line with the heterosexual status quo. Years later, he hasn’t diverged from the script that shaped his youth—he’s become a drug dealer—and whether he may belatedly be ready to pursue his desires is left open. Life itself may have erased this boy.

A contrast to Chiron in so many ways, the white and wealthy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name avails himself of a few different scripts over one blissful ’80s summer in the Italian countryside. Like a stereotypical 17-year-old, he sneaks around in pursuit of sex behind his worldly parents’ backs, at first with girls and soon with Oliver (Armie Hammer), the handsome graduate student spending the summer at his family’s villa. Yet what looks like brave same-sex exploration on his own terms is suddenly cast in a very different light at the film’s close: Elio’s father indicates that he’s been aware of the affair all along. In fact, he’s been jealous of it, having yearned in vain for similar experiences.

Can Elio be who his father wishes he’d been? The film holds out, for a moment, the utopian possibility that a queer kid could be propelled forward by the possibility of fulfilling unmet parental dreams, rather than disappointing deeply entrenched ones. Yet a shadow flits across that uplifting prospect. Elio is soon heartbroken to learn that Oliver, who has returned to his grad-student life, is marrying a woman. “You’re so lucky,” the older man tells the younger one over the phone while reflecting on their tryst. “My father would have carted me off to a correctional facility.” In the film’s pointedly open-ended final scene, Elio just sits and cries. Presumably he’s contemplating the mystery of his future, one in which the men who might have been his role models appear to have surrendered some part of themselves. Even in Elio’s liberation, there’s no clear path for him to walk.

Most teen stories, of course, are open-ended on some level. Puberty breaks everyone’s life in two, and what comes after graduation is necessarily unwritten. But for gay kids, a ready synthesis between the old order and the new sexual self doesn’t obviously await. Willingly or not, they’re swept into an unfolding historical saga. These characters thus come to inhabit their misfit status—a dislocation that’s permanent and deep, rather than fleeting and cosmetic—reluctantly, quietly, and often with gestures toward external conformity.

In look and feel, these movies mimic their muted heroes. Mostly gone are the hijinks and raunch of typical teen comedy, eclipsed by struggles to belong that tend toward stately, notably pretty melodrama. A sensitive camera eye helps capture teens’ interiority, a social vista, and the chasm between them. Yet the critic D. A. Miller has convincingly argued that mainstream gay movies’ “mandatory aesthetic laminate, which can never shine brightly enough with dappled light,” is also a sop: meant to make homosexuality palatable for a broad audience.

Certainly it’s curious that in an age of unprecedented visibility for LGBTQ communities, the queer teens chosen for the cinematic spotlight appear so allergic to, well, seeming gay. Simon is self-mocking as he at one point indulges in a daydream of being accompanied by a rainbow-clad cheering squad when he leaves the closet, and he keeps the only out kid at school—sardonic, femme, and black—at arm’s length. Elio pokes fun at the flamboyant older gay couple who visit his parents, and Jared’s arrival into a life of writing New York Times op-eds and attending Brooklyn dinner parties is shown glancingly, in an epiloguelike time jump. Whether the implied assimilationist impulse reflects the filmmakers’ or the characters’ caution is up for debate. Either way, the caution serves as a reminder: There’s a reason slogans like “It gets better” have tried to give queer kids the kind of optimistic narrative arc that pop culture has offered straight teens for so long.

And even in their mannered quietude and their relegation of politics to subtext, these films carry a disruptive message. Boy Erased ends with Jared telling his dad that he, not Jared, is the one who needs to change. When Simon’s father repents for all the gay jokes he’s told over the years, the gesture is warm but wan. The parental apology suggests why coming of age feels so heavy in these movies: It’s the world, not just the teen, that’s struggling to mature.
Doonesbury — Veterans Day.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sunday Reading

The Return of American Anti-Semitism — Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker.

The violence that took place this Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh is the fear of every synagogue, Hillel, day school, and Jewish community center in this country. It is the ancient Jewish expectation of persecution—when, where, has it not been with us?—married to American reality: a country saturated with guns and habituated to quotidian massacre, plagued by age-old racism and bigotry, which have lately been expertly inflamed by the holder of the highest office in the land.

For the past few years, American Jews have glanced warily at Western Europe, where anti-Semitism, never dormant, is once again on the rise. The British Labour Party has been riven by accusations of anti-Semitism among its leadership. French Jews have emigrated to Israel in unprecedented numbers. In Sweden, synagogues and Jewish centers have been firebombed. After 9/11, American synagogues and community centers became barricaded spaces, outfitted with concrete sidewalk barriers and metal detectors, so that going to services felt like going to the airport. The concern then was an external threat.

There has long been a casual assumption that homegrown anti-Semitism could not happen here, that “The Plot Against America” would remain the fantastical counter-factual that Philip Roth intended it to be.

And yet, the warning signs have become increasingly clear. Since the 2016 Presidential campaign, anti-Semitic vitriol has exploded on the Internet. Neo-Nazis tweet swastikas and Hitler-era propaganda of leering, hook-nosed rabbis. Holocaust deniers discuss “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in plain view. Jewish journalists and other public figures have had their profile pictures Photoshopped onto images of lampshades and bars of soap. The name “George Soros” is no longer invoked as a dog whistle, but as an ambulance siren. “The Jewish question” is debated on alt-right blogs and news sites. In the run-up to the election, anti-Semites began to put Jewish names in sets of triple parentheses—a yellow star for the digital age, by which to un-assimilate the assimilated. Jews rushed to claim and defang the symbol, turning it into a voluntary declaration of pride, but the scar of its origins remains. For a time after Donald Trump’s election, I collected screenshots of racist and anti-Semitic hate speech I came across. Then I stopped. The proof was everywhere, plain as day.

It seems clear that anti-Semitism has burrowed into the American mainstream in a way not seen since the late nineteen-thirties and early nineteen-forties, when it also fused easily with conservative isolationist fervor and racism. In “These Truths,” her masterful new history of this country, my colleague Jill Lepore writes about the anti-Semites of that period, who saw “mass democracy and mass culture as harbingers of the decline of Western civilization.” In 1939, the German-American Bund held a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, attended by twenty-thousand people; you can watch footage of it here, and, as vile as it is, I suggest that you do. Amid the sieg-heils, you will see Fritz Kuhn, the Bund’s leader, railing against the “Jewish-controlled press” as he lays out his vision for a “socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States.” “We, with our American ideals, demand that the American government shall be returned to the American people who founded it,” he says, to cheers.

Not long ago, I came across a description—published in the March, 1939, bulletin of the men’s club at New York’s Ansche Chesed synagogue—of a counter-rally held a couple of weeks later, at Carnegie Hall. “Stressing that racial intolerance was un-American, speaker after speaker denounced the activities of the German-American Bund,” the bulletin reports. “The need for protecting our democratic processes was on the lips of everyone and strong sentiment of solidarity to protect democracy and racial and religious freedom that goes with it was prevalent throughout.” That sense of solidarity, which, for me, as for many, is at the moral center of the American-Jewish experience, was explicitly attacked in Pittsburgh on Saturday. It has been reported that, a few weeks ago, the alleged gunman furiously railed on social media against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was founded, at the turn of the last century, to help the waves of Jewish immigrants who left imperial Russia for America. The organization later worked to resettle Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and currently serves immigrants and refugees of all backgrounds. It is a bitter irony that that sense of common cause has now been further strengthened, as the Tree of Life joins Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center, in Bloomington, Minnesota, and so many other houses of worship as points on a dark map of ongoing American tragedy.

Single, Gay, and DadAvichai Scher in The New York Times on the trend of gay fathers going it alone.

Julius Ybañez Towers was taking a walk around the Harlem Meer in Central Park with his twin 10-month-old sons and two dogs. A woman stopped to compliment him for giving his wife a break.

“There’s no wife,” he told the woman. “I’m a single gay dad from surrogacy.” He smiled at the confused look on her face.

Mr. Towers, 40, is still rare, but he is part of a growing movement. Surrogacy agencies across the country report a surge of interest from single gay men in the last few years.

Shelly Marsh, a spokeswoman for Men Having Babies, a nonprofit that helps gay men navigate the surrogacy process, said that the increase in interest from single men is part of a broader surge in gay families.

“Our volume has increased substantially over the last few years,” Ms. Marsh said. “But more so, single men are learning that they do not need to wait to find someone to fulfill the dream of having a biological child.”

Most single gay men pursue what is known as gestational surrogacy: the surrogate is implanted with a fertilized embryo taken from a separate egg donor. The surrogate is not genetically related to the child. She also has no maternal rights, so intended parents are legally protected from her keeping the baby.

For that legal protection however, the birth must happen in a state where it’s legal to pay a surrogate and that recognizes the contract. New Jersey recently approved compensation for surrogates; Washington State’s announced it would do so in January. New York, along with Michigan and Louisiana, are the only states where it remains illegal to pay a woman to be a surrogate mother.

Where it is legal, the total cost of the procedure — from paying the agencies, the donor, the doctors, the surrogate and the birth — can be anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000. None of this is covered by insurance.

But for Mr. Towers, having biological children was a long-held dream that he was willing to work toward.

He grew up in what he called a humble home in Palm Bay, Fla., where he said he was bullied at school. “Growing up gay in a homophobic town, and in tough financial times, it was hard to see how I’d have my own kids,” he said.

His parents strung together several low-wage jobs, and he’s the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. He put himself through law school at University of Pennsylvania. He was a corporate attorney in Manhattan for 15 years and is now pursuing a master’s in public health at Columbia University.

Gradually, after the death of his mother, a failed relationship and two dog adoptions, he realized that he was ready to take on fatherhood, even by himself.

“I wanted to have children more than I wanted a partner,” Mr. Towers said. He viewed being single as a positive because he alone would control the decisions about surrogacy and parenting. Yet control was still an illusion.

Because it is illegal to pay a surrogate in New York, Mr. Towers’s quest to become a father began all the way across the country. Through an agency in Portland, Ore., Northwest Surrogacy Center, he found a woman there who was willing to carry a fertilized embryo. The embryo itself was made with the eggs of an anonymous donor from an agency based in California. These eggs (which, according to the agency, came from an astrophysicist) were fertilized at Oregon Reproductive Medicine, a clinic in Portland.

After a failed transfer of a single embryo, Mr. Towers and his surrogate decided to transfer two embryos in hopes that at least one would take. They knew it could mean twins.

“I realized I couldn’t control everything,” Towers said. “I left it to fate at that point.”

Nine months later, he traveled to Portland for the surrogate’s scheduled C-section and held his sons, Asher and Galen, for the first time. Asher had a short stay in the intensive care unit, so Mr. Towers stayed in Oregon for three more weeks, until the twins were ready for the long flight home to New York.

As unpredictable as the medical prospect of surrogacy may be, some gay men prefer that to the possibility of facing discrimination in adoption.

Dennis Williams had his son, Elan, via surrogacy four years ago. Mr. Williams, who is 46 and black, said he chose surrogacy because the prospect of persuading a woman to allow him to adopt was daunting. “As a single, gay black man,” he said, “I figured I’d be at the bottom of the list for most women.”

Mr. Williams and his former partner had a failed egg donation from a woman they met through a friend. After he and his partner broke up, Mr. Williams still wanted to be a father. The donor, a black lesbian who didn’t plan on having children, agreed to try again for Mr. Williams.

Once he became a father, Mr. Williams said, he felt as if he finally fit in with his big family in Kansas, where he grew up. “I was no longer an anomaly to them,” he said. “Once I had a son, it drew me closer to the tribe.”

For Mr. Towers, the race of his twin sons was more difficult to control. Both his parents are mixed race: his mother half-Filipina, and his father part Native American. He hoped to find a multiracial egg donor, but most of the donors, he found, were white.

“Some accused me of whitewashing my kids’ skin,” Mr. Towers said. “In the end, I don’t care about skin color. I’ll just have to work harder to make them understand their multiracial roots.”

One son, Asher, has the blond hair and blue eyes of the donor, while the other, Galen, has the dark brown hair and complexion of his father.

During the surrogate’s pregnancy, Mr. Towers enrolled in a twins class, did a daddy boot camp and took a baby-dog home-integration class. Even though he has a nanny seven days a week, he is on his own nights and mornings. Like any new parent of twins, he’s overwhelmed at times.

“I don’t like the feeling that I can’t do it all on my own, but sometimes I need help, even with a nanny,” he said. “Because I signed up to be a single father of twins, some people tell me I can’t complain. It contributes to the feeling I’m alone in the wilderness.”

The little moments keep him going.

After the walk around the Harlem Meer, Mr. Towers, with the help of the nanny, returned home and put the boys in their cribs.

He leaned in to kiss each of his sons on the forehead. “Daddy loves you,” he whispered.

As the boys drifted to sleep, he exhaled and stood watching them. He mentioned that he just renewed another year of storage for his remaining frozen embryos. Through a genetic screening test, he knows one embryo is female.

“Who knows?” he said. “One day, when the boys are out of diapers, maybe I’ll have a little girl.”

Doonesbury — Getting a leg up.

Monday, October 22, 2018

It Isn’t Binary

I find this disturbing in a lot of ways.  From the New York Times:

The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.

A series of decisions by the Obama administration loosened the legal concept of gender in federal programs, including in education and health care, recognizing gender largely as an individual’s choice and not determined by the sex assigned at birth. The policy prompted fights over bathrooms, dormitories, single-sex programs and other arenas where gender was once seen as a simple concept. Conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, were incensed.

Now the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times.

The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.

“Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” the department proposed in the memo, which was drafted and has been circulating since last spring. “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

The new definition would essentially eradicate federal recognition of the estimated 1.4 million Americans who have opted to recognize themselves — surgically or otherwise — as a gender other than the one they were born into.

“This takes a position that what the medical community understands about their patients — what people understand about themselves — is irrelevant because the government disagrees,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, who led the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in the Obama administration and helped write transgender guidance that is being undone.

The move would be the most significant of a series of maneuvers, large and small, to exclude the population from civil rights protections and roll back the Obama administration’s more fluid recognition of gender identity. The Trump administration has sought to bar transgender people from serving in the military and has legally challenged civil rights protections for the group embedded in the nation’s health care law.

I will be the first to admit that I do not have the scientific, medical, or psychological background to speak about this in any way other than what I know based on my own life, but just in that experience I know that gender is defined in far more many ways than what equipment I was born with.  I also know that even within the area of defining male versus female there is such a range as to make it fluid — filling the vessel it is carried in — that a mere biological definition doesn’t begin to define one or the other.

But the biggest and most important part of all of this is: what business is it of the government to define it?  I thought we were all supposed to be treated equally regardless, and the laws should be blind to such factors as race or gender.  Or, to put it more succinctly, it shouldn’t matter.  Period.

Obviously, though, it has and it does to a certain group.  What Trump and his collection of ignorant tight-asses are worried about is the undoing of prejudice and fear so that we are not focusing on some kind of binary definition of gender so that they can be comfortable knowing who’s in the next stall when they go to pee.  And frankly, if my Grade 10 psychology text book was right, people who worry inordinately about how they perceive other people are having a great deal of difficulty accepting how they perceive themselves.

If they’re going to persist in demanding that people be defined by the kind of genitalia they are born with, then I suggest we also add that we define people by the color of hair they are born with and it cannot be changed “unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Reading

LGBTQ Refugees In Turkey — Masha Gessen in The New Yorker on the plight of getting out of oppression in the Middle East.

When you are a refugee, you learn all about the hierarchy of compassion. There are the people from war-torn countries—refugees from humanitarian catastrophes so enormous that they upend the world’s imagination, such as those who have escaped from Syria. There are people who have fled a sudden campaign of violence and hatred, such as the gay men who have been escaping from Chechnya for the past year. And then there is you: unlucky enough to have suffered the kind of misfortune that can’t seem to hold onto a headline. From the officers of U.N.H.C.R.—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that runs refugee-resettlement operations around the world—what you hear is this: “There is no country for you.”

Ali (he asked not to use his full name) is a gay man from Iran who reached out to me on behalf of L.G.B.T. refugees in Turkey. We have corresponded and talked on Skype during the last few days. When we spoke, he tried to make clear that he doesn’t begrudge the world’s focus on the refugees from Syria. Nor does he begrudge the activism that has helped more than a hundred queer Chechens flee their country for the safety of Canada, France, Germany, and other destinations. Ali wants everyone to make it to safety. But he and other L.G.B.T. refugees currently living in Turkey feel like they have been forgotten.

Refugees usually flee their country for one where they can apply, at an U.N.H.C.R. office, to find a third country in which to resettle. The process is not the same as entering a country directly and seeking asylum there—which is an option most refugees don’t have—but it does mean that people have the legal status of refugee when they finally arrive in their destination country. And, in theory, refugees are safe while in the care of the U.N.H.C.R. But U.N.H.C.R. facilities in Turkey have been overwhelmed since the current refugee crisis began: there are more than three and a half million refugees from Syria in the country, along with more than three hundred and sixty-five thousand refugees from other countries. This means that processing times to receive refugee status, which is required before resettlement can begin, have stretched from several weeks to a couple of years. Refugees receive little to no financial or housing assistance while they are in Turkey.

When I asked Ali how old he was, he was momentarily stumped. “I’ve stopped counting the years since I came here,” he said. He did know his birthday, though, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that he was thirty-five. He grew up in Iran. He told me that he was detained by security services, held overnight, and tortured, in 2004—he would have been twenty-two at the time. This scared him so much that, for a couple of years, he stopped blogging on L.G.B.T. topics; in fact, he stopped writing altogether. But then he returned to writing, and even organized some clandestine meetings of gay men. When Ali’s parents found out about his homosexuality, they had him committed to a psychiatric hospital. When he was released back into their care, they kept him under lock and key for a year and a half, and then tried to force him into marriage. He took part in elaborate charades in order to secure a small measure of freedom. He even began making a documentary about gay life in Iran. But, when several of the friends with whom he was making the film were arrested, he realized that he had to flee. “I could be arrested and hanged at any time,” he said. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran.

In 2010, Ali and his partner, who is from India, moved to India together. Ali felt safer, but soon his partner was being harassed and blackmailed by neighbors, who threatened to turn him in to the police. (In India, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment.) In 2014, the two men went to Turkey in hopes of finding their way to a safe country. Like many gay refugees—and unlike perhaps any other group of refugees—Ali would have preferred to go to a country where he didn’t have relatives. But when the men finally had their refugee status, a year and a half after arriving in Turkey, they asked to be resettled anywhere, in any country that would take them.

They knew, however, that only two countries—Canada and the United States—resettle L.G.B.T. refugees as a matter of practice. By the time Ali and his partner were eligible to be resettled, it was late 2016. Canada had announced its commitment to taking in more Syrian refugees, which still made barely a dent in the number of refugees needing resettlement; it also meant that refugees from other countries were no longer getting resettled in Canada. And Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. Almost as soon as he was inaugurated, he would impose a ban on refugees from eleven countries that he considers “high-risk,” Iran among them. (The ban has since been lifted—or, more accurately, relaxed slightly, but the U.S. has also drastically cut the number of refugees it accepts over all.) These events led to how Ali and other L.G.B.T. refugees came to hear the phrase “There is no country for you.” This is what they hear when they inquire about their cases at U.N.H.C.R., Ali said.

Ali estimates that between seven and eight hundred L.G.B.T. refugees are now stuck in Turkey without the prospect of resettlement. Most of them are from Iran, with some from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East. Over the past couple of years, as their hopes of finding a home in the world have dwindled, their life in Turkey has grown harder. Ali was careful to again acknowledge that things are hard for all refugees—all of them have to fend for themselves; all face ever-increasing bureaucratic hurdles to securing work permits; all face increasing impatience, and sometimes hostility, from local residents. Still, Ali said, “if we were from a war-torn country and we entered Turkey, we would be safe in Turkey because there is no war here. But we are fleeing homophobic and transphobic attacks, and we face them here.”

The U.N.H.C.R. assigns refugees to small towns in Turkey, where they are expected to stay as long as they are in the country; the Turkish authorities require them to check in weekly in their assigned town. Far from the thriving queer scene in Istanbul, small towns and cities in Turkey tend to be socially conservative, and have grown only more so during the country’s recent political crackdown. Ali told me that, during the first ten days of June, five L.G.B.T. refugees were attacked in Yalova, a small coastal city on the Sea of Marmara where many of Istanbul’s secular élite historically kept summer homes. One of the victims, a trans woman, had to be hospitalized for three days following a stabbing. This is not unusual, Ali said: “People are beaten up, raped, gang-raped.”

The hopelessness is its own kind of violence, too. “We have seen people commit suicide, go into severe depression,” Ali said. “One lesbian single mother couldn’t get medical treatment for her small child here, and had to go back to Iran for it. She committed suicide there.”

Earlier this month, a number of the L.G.B.T. refugees gathered to try to figure out what to do. “After losing hope for U.S. resettlement, we see that there is no option ahead of us,” Ali said. “We decided to show our own desperation.” This was no small decision. Under the provisions of the state of emergency that has been in effect in Turkey for nearly two years, protest is effectively banned. Refugees have every reason to fear being deported if they protest.

Such was their despair, however, that, on June 4th, several of the refugees went to the offices of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, a Turkish organization that is largely funded by the European Union, in two cities—Yalova and Denizli—and stood in silent protest. They held placards with summaries of their stories (“Gay refugee. 5 years. 60 months. 240 weeks. 1680 days. Still in Turkey. Future: uncertain!!!”) and slogans (“We demand urgent resettlement of all LGBT refugees to a safe country!!”). More than two hundred of the refugees also signed a petition addressed to European, North American, and international officials. The online version of the petition is titled “Save LGBT refugees in Turkey who are abandoned in unsafe conditions for years with no help.”

For all the courage the protest took, it received no media coverage. A few days later, Ali reached out to me. “We are requesting the world to help us reach to safety before its too late,” he wrote.

Cartoon Censorship — Samantha Michaels on the firing of Rob Rogers.

On Thursday, veteran editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers was abruptly fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a string of anti-Trump illustrations were spiked from the newspaper.

Rogers, who joined the Post-Gazette in 1993, says 19 cartoons or proposed drawings were killed by the paper over a three-month period, including six in a single week shortly before he was fired. “After so many years of punch lines and caricatures, skewering mayors and mullahs, the new regime at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decided that The Donald trumped satire when it came to its editorial pages,” he wrote in an op-ed on Friday.

The Post-Gazette’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block—who boasted about joining Donald Trump on his private jet at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign—defended the decision. “It has little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump,” he told the Washington Post. “It has mostly to do with working together and the editing process.”

Below are some of Rogers’ recent cartoons going after some of Trump’s most divisive and disturbing actions as president. “The paper may have taken an eraser to my cartoons,” Rogers wrote in the op-ed. “But I plan to be at my drawing table every day of this presidency.”

Full disclosure: I went to high school with John Robinson Block and his twin brother in Toledo in the late 1960’s.  His family has been running The Blade, and now they have the Post-Gazette.  (They’re probably still running “Mary Worth” on the comics page.)  They’ve always been stuffy old bores with no sense of humor or an appreciation for sharp wit.  It surprises me not at all that he would fire a cartoonist, and I’m not surprised at all that he’s a shill for Trump.

Doonesbury — She’s a natural.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Out In The Open

Ria Tabacco Mar, the lawyer for the gay couple in Colorado that were denied a wedding cake by a Christian bakery, has an op ed in the Washington Post about something I’m familiar with: staying in the closet.

Charlie Craig, one of the men that Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bakery, turned away because they are gay, said something about shopping for a wedding cake that stuck with me: “That day,” he said, “I really let my guard down.”

I knew exactly what Craig meant. Not just because he’s my client but because I keep my guard up most days, too — just like nearly every LGBT person I know.

[…]

My spouse and I sometimes commute together. Do we kiss goodbye on a crowded subway car, risking a negative comment — or worse? Or do we wave goodbye as if we are just friends who happened to run into each other on the way? Some days involve just one or two decision points such as this, but other days require many, many more. I pick up two coffees, and a friendly barista asks which is for me and which is for my presumed husband. When I’m out with our kids, fellow parents refer in passing to their imagined dad. Is it really necessary to correct all of these people, I wonder? If I don’t, what will my children think of my casually erasing our family? And each time I let faulty assumptions slide, am I making them more likely the next time?

These calculations — weighing the risk of censure or even violence against the personal and political costs of invisibility — happen in a split second. But they exact a toll — a mental burden that can’t be quantified.

I know exactly what she’s talking about.  Thirty-four years ago next Sunday I met the man I would spend the next fifteen years with, sharing house, home, and life until we parted in 1999.  Both of us were out to our friends and family — hey, it was 1984; who cared, right? — but we still kept our guard up.  We never held hands in public, we avoided using endearments when talking in public, and if asked by an inquiring landlord or curious straight neighbor, we were housemates, nothing more.  Both of us are by nature not outwardly demonstrative so it wasn’t a large burden to keep our relationship out of the public eye, but it still inhibited us and may have indirectly led to our break-up.  There were a few other factors in play, including dealing with addiction and recovery, but who’s to say that keeping up our guard up constantly didn’t contribute to it as well.

I’ve been single ever since, and while I’m openly gay to anyone who asks and I’ve never denied it either at work or with friends, it’s still something I guard.  Like Mr. Craig and Ms. Mar, it would be nice that if I do meet someone and we feel the need to hold hands in public or share a kiss when saying goodbye at the front door, not to have to wonder if it’s going to cost something.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

It’s Not Just A Cake

David Brooks does his kumbaya business on gay rights, wedding cakes, and not making a scene.

Five years ago, Charlie Craig and David Mullins walked into a bakery in a strip mall in Lakewood, Colo., to ask about a cake for their wedding. The baker, Jack Phillips, replied: “I’ll make you birthday cakes, shower cakes, cookies, brownies. I just can’t make a cake for a same-sex wedding.”

As Adam Liptak of The Times reported, Phillips is a Christian and believes that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. Phillips is not trying to restrict gay marriage or gay rights; he’s simply asking not to be forced to take part.

Craig and Mullins were understandably upset. As Mullins told Liptak, “We were mortified and just felt degraded.” Nobody likes to be refused service just because of who they essentially are. In a just society people are not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

At this point, Craig and Mullins had two possible courses of action, the neighborly and the legal.

The neighborly course would have been to use this situation as a community-building moment. That means understanding the concrete circumstance they were in.

First, it’s just a cake.  It’s not like they were being denied a home or a job, or a wedding. A cake looks good in magazines, but it’s not an important thing in a marriage. Second, Phillips’s opinion is not a strange opinion. Barack Obama was elected president arguing that a marriage was between a man and a woman. Most good-hearted Americans believed this until a few years ago. Third, the tide of opinion is quickly swinging in favor of gay marriage. Its advocates have every cause to feel confident, patient and secure.

Okay, let me stop you right there.  Would you have told Rosa Parks “It’s just a seat on a bus”?  It’s not just a cake.  It’s a symbol of Mr. Phillips’ purposeful disregard for the laws of his state, which prohibit discrimination in public accommodation.  That includes baking a cake.  So Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullin had every right to take him to court.

Given that context, the neighborly approach would be to say: “Fine, we won’t compel you to do something you believe violates your sacred principles. But we would like to hire you to bake other cakes for us. We would like to invite you into our home for dinner and bake with you, so you can see our marital love, and so we can understand your values. You still may not agree with us, after all this, but at least we’ll understand each other better and we can live more fully in our community.”

The legal course, by contrast, was to take the problem out of the neighborhood and throw it into the court system. The legal course has some advantages. You can use state power, ultimately the barrel of a gun, to compel people to do what you think is right. There are clearly many cases in which the legal course is the right response (Brown v. Board of Education).

But the legal course has some disadvantages. It is inherently adversarial. It takes what could be a conversation and turns it into a confrontation. It is dehumanizing. It ends persuasion and relies on the threat of state coercion. It is elitist. It takes a situation that could be addressed concretely on the ground and throws it up, as this one now has been, to the Supreme Court, where it will be decided by a group of Harvard and Yale law grads.

And I’m sure that if the students at Little Rock in 1957 had said, “So you don’t want us in your school?  Well, come on over and let us show you that we’re just folks; we’ll make a nice dinner and sit on the front porch and watch the lightning bugs and you’ll see that we’re no different than you,” Central High would still be segregated, the buses in Birmingham would have back seats for coloreds, and we’d still be hearing how our nation would evolve to natural integration where everyone would get along without all that outside agitation and messy lawsuits.

It’s not just a cake.  It’s not about baking a cake.  It’s not about the freedom of religion, either, because the right to exercise your religious beliefs has to end when it tramples the rights of others to live their lives without being made to feel as if they are somehow less than the rest of society.  If you don’t want to bake a cake for gay people, then don’t open a bakery that is licensed by the state to serve the public.

And if you think that baking a cake for a couple somehow demeans or diminishes your faith, then perhaps you should take the time to re-examine your faith.

Readers of this column know that I fervently support gay marriage, but I don’t think bakers like Jack Phillips are best brought along by the iron fist of the state. I don’t think the fabric of this country will be repaired through the angry confrontation of lawyers. In this specific situation, the complex art of neighborliness is our best way forward.

Then perhaps Mr. Phillips would be well-advised to remember the biblical admonishment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  And bake the cake.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Why She Won

There’s been a lot of talk about the election of Danica Roem to the Virginia House of Delegates because she’s the first transgender person elected to statewide office in the country.  Not only that, she did it by beating Republican Bob Marshall, one of the state’s most conservative delegates who proudly labeled himself as “chief homophobe” and authored an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” that thankfully died in committee earlier this year.

I’d like to think that the reason Ms. Roem won had nothing to do with her gender or how she identifies herself on her driver’s license.  I’d like to think that it had to do with the fact that she ran a campaign about doing things in her district that needed doing.  There are potholes that need to be filled.  There are schools that need to be funded.  There is healthcare that needs to be provided, and the rest of the day-to-day problems that crop up that need to be dealt with and then moving forward.  What was Bob Marshall doing?  Freaking out about where people urinate.

I’d also like to think that the people in her district have grown up enough to realize that the abstract worries about things such as LGBTQ issues and walls in Texas are less important than taking care of the potholes and schoolrooms.  It doesn’t matter what bathroom you go into as long as you are ready and willing to do the job when you come out.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

National Coming Out Day

In a way it’s too bad that we still have to make a deal out of coming out of the closet even with all the advances that have been made in both the LGBTQ community and life in general.  But when we still have active oppression on the part of government entities and sex-obsessed busy-bodies who are railing about retribution based on fables and superstition (all the while some of the most ardent opponents of gay rights are paying off their rent-boys), attention must be paid to those who are still dealing with both their true nature and their place in our society.

I hope for the time when National Coming Out Day is as big a deal as National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.  That would be something to celebrate.

For the record, my coming out day was over 40 years ago, so you kids have fun.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On Hold

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis puts the freeze on the transgender ban.

The Pentagon confirmed the move in a statement attributed to Mattis, saying that he will first develop a study and implementation plan “as directed” by the president in a memorandum released Friday. Soon-to-be arriving political appointees at the Defense Department “will play an important role in this effort,” Mattis added. The plan will address both the potential for transgender people looking to serve in the military for the first time, and transgender troops who already are serving.

“Our focus must always be on what is best for the military’s combat effectiveness leading to victory on the battlefield,” Mattis said. “To that end, I will establish a panel of experts serving within the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to provide advice and recommendations on the implementation of the president’s direction.”

You mean someone in the Trump administration is actually thinking something through?  Wow.

That doesn’t mean that the Pentagon won’t eventually go along with the ban, but at the very least they’re going to look at how this garbage policy will effect the troops.  And of course they’re going to weigh the political implications of it; that’s how they do things at the Kremlin, which seems to be the business model they’re following now.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Oh Look At The Kitty – Part Infinity

Trump bans transgender people from the military:

Trump made the surprise declaration in a series of posts on Twitter, saying he had come to the decision after talking to generals and military experts, whom he did not name.

The sweeping policy decision was met with surprise at the Pentagon, outrage from advocacy groups and praise from social conservatives. It reverses the gradual transformation of the military under President Barack Obama, whose administration announced last year that transgender people could serve openly in the military. Mr. Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, also opened all combat roles to women and appointed the first openly gay Army secretary.

The shift was announced with such haste that the White House could not answer basic inquiries about how it would be implemented. Chief among those questions was what would happen to the thousands of openly transgender people currently serving on active duty.

Well, I guess that rules out “Caitlyn Jenner, USMC” as the new hit sitcom this fall on Fox.

Jokes aside, this nasty, brutish, and cruel attack on a segment of the population that has done nothing to engender this hatred and loathing from an alleged man who never served one day in the military serves two purposes: it shores up his creds with the homophobic base in the electorate and the halls of Congress (where a goodly number of them have an unhealthy obsession with other peoples’ bathroom habits and use of gentialia), and it distracts from the fact that his attempts to pull down Obamacare are going down like a turd in a well and the walls are closing in on the Russia investigation.  Quick!  Find something to throw attention elsewhere!

Maybe because I’m getting up there in years and have been openly gay for over forty years, but I was neither shocked nor surprised by this move on the part of Trump.  I fully expect there to be calls for his impeachment for this and it will go nowhere; after all, the number of LGBTQ people who actually supported and voted for him wouldn’t fill the Velvet Spike on a Tuesday night, and the assent from the knuckle-draggers will be enough to carry him through the debacle of the Senate melt-down and budget battles.  Gay-bashing is the default mode for these bigots and he knows the chattering classes on the TV — which he claims to never watch — will cover it wall to wall, but I’m getting a little tired of being the go-to scapegoat for bigotry.  The only saving grace is that if he’s coming after my tribe, he’s not going after the Muslims, the Asians, the Mexicans, or the bicycle riders.

Oh, and speaking of Caitlyn Jenner, she was so disappointed that the man she supported and has turned on him:

There are 15,000 patriotic transgender Americans in the US military fighting for all of us. What happened to your promise to fight for them?

So you’re just now figuring it out that he’s a lying, cheating scumbag?  You really are new to this whole dating-men thing, aren’t you?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Monday, June 26, 2017

Peaceful Pride

For some reason I didn’t get my Sunday New York Times yesterday so I missed the special section they had on the gay pride parades and events.  That’s okay; I called them and they’ll credit my account.  Besides, I spent most of the morning at a playwriting conference wrap-up, and if that’s not a place to demonstrate solidarity with a community — gay, straight, or however one identifies — than I don’t know what is.

The thing is, though, that I’ve never been big on going to a pride parade.  It has nothing to do with being closeted or ashamed or even self-conscious about being gay; I got over that back in the Carter administration.  I’m just not a parade-type person.  The last pride parade I went to was over a decade ago up in Wilton Manors, the enclave in Fort Lauderdale, and while I had a great time, it was more fun to simply watch the people enjoying themselves and speaking out.  (I did participate in the gay pride parade on Miami Beach in April, but that was as a favor for a friend driving a car with a political candidate.)

I wholeheartedly support the pride movement and everything it stands for.  I also know that these events are gaining more support from the communities that don’t identify themselves by their gender or orientation; religious groups that push back against the institutionalized homophobia of other religious organizations who use gay-bashing as a cudgel and control mechanism.  Corporate America is mainstreaming their message of LGBTQ inclusion with gay couples seen in commercials and their marketing.  It’s not that they’re suddenly open-minded; it’s that they realize gay people have money, too, but the days are gone when a nation-wide boycott can be ginned up over an ad showing two men hugging after buying a house.

But I also think that gay pride lasts beyond the parades and the Facebook picture profile frames and becomes gay peace.  Not that peace means quiet; it means understanding.  It goes beyond acceptance; it becomes the norm.  Peace is not just the absence of conflict, it is the process of living within a community or a country with the understanding that while there may be different ways of doing things, of having a family, of spiritual seeking or worship, we are all on the same journey and the best way to get there is to be at peace both with oneself and with the person in the next seat.

Just as the Quakers don’t celebrate religious holidays because every day is a holy-day (hence the term), for me every day is gay pride day.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Proud Papas

Via NBC:

Two male griffon vultures in a long-standing relationship have successfully hatched an abandoned egg at an Amsterdam zoo.

Artis zoo said in a statement Wednesday that keepers who found an egg found on the floor of the vulture aviary initially put it in an incubator but later placed in a nest that the two male birds built together in the enclosure.

The zoo said the vultures, which have been a couple for years, took turns sitting on the egg until it hatched. Now, the new dads are taking care of the chick by feeding it regurgitated food.

The zoo says it is not unusual for animals, particularly birds, to form same-sex couples, but it is the first time such a pair has hatched an egg at the Dutch capital’s zoo.

I guess raising a baby vulture doesn’t require a lot of heavy baggage; all you need is a little carrion.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunday Reading

Lessons Not Learned — Russell Berman in The Atlantic on what the Republicans should have learned from the Democrats.

Appearing on “Morning Joe” on Friday morning, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana didn’t flinch when host Willie Geist asked him a direct question about what would happen if the American Health Care Act—which the House narrowly approved a day earlier—became law.

“So everyone with a pre-existing condition right now who is covered under Obamacare will continue to have coverage?” he asked the congressman, who as House majority whip is the third-ranking Republican in the chamber.

“Absolutely,” Scalise replied.

“Everyone?” Geist pressed him.

“Everyone,” Scalise confirmed.

From off camera, Mika Brzezinski let out a sound that was somewhere between a groan and a gasp. In the interest of reassuring the public about the GOP’s plan, Scalise had made the kind of blanket commitment that could come back to haunt the party in the future. While Republican leaders were careful to maintain the federal requirement under Obamacare that insurers offer coverage to anyone, including those with pre-existing conditions, their bill would allow states to wriggle out of the mandate that insurers charge those customers the same price. As a result, people with pre-existing conditions could find insurance unaffordable in states that get a waiver to opt out of the federal law.

Did Republicans learn nothing in the last eight years?From making unrealistic promises to cutting back-room deals, Republicans are ignoring many of the lessons they should have taken from the Democrats’ experience selling a complicated health-care plan to the public.

Don’t Over-Promise

“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” That one concrete pledge repeated dozens of times by former President Barack Obama—and many other Democrats at the time—became an albatross for his party once the Affordable Care Act took effect in 2013. They had made the commitment to try to sell the public on the plan and get it passed initially, having seen how the fear of change illustrated in ads by the fictional couple “Harry and Louise” torpedoed the Clinton health-care bill 20 years earlier. But although Obamacare did not directly force people off their insurance, many had to change their plans because insurers stopped selling due to the new coverage requirements under the law. That broken promise helped the GOP expand its House majority and retake the Senate in the 2014 elections.

Republicans, however, have ignored that lesson repeatedly in 2017, making all kinds of assurances about their health-care bill that will be all but impossible to keep. Most egregiously, President Trump told The Washington Post in January that his Obamacare replacement plan would provide “insurance for everybody.” In fact, Republicans made no attempt at universal coverage; their bill cuts Medicaid deeply, and the Congressional Budget Office projected that it would result in 24 million fewer people having insurance after a decade.

In recent days, House Republicans like Scalise have made claims about people with pre-existing conditions that are unlikely to stand up over time. Like Democrats before them, GOP lawmakers may genuinely want their assurances to bear out, but they are putting themselves at political risk by not being forthright about the tradeoffs involved in health policy and the potential consequences of a sweeping new law. If the American Health Care Act never gets enacted, it’ll be a moot point. But if it does, Republicans better watch out.

Read the Bill

Or at least don’t admit publicly that you didn’t.

After Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Republicans succeeded in making a couple of key quotes infamous as they rallied opposition to the law. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi uttered one of them just two weeks before final passage: “We have to pass the bill,” she said during a speech, “so that you can find out what’s in it.”

No matter the context, the comment perfectly encapsulated the GOP’s criticism of the bill—that at nearly 1,000 pages, it was too long for members of Congress to read and understand, much less the general public, and that Democrats were intent on jamming it into law before people found out what it would actually do. (Just watch then-House Minority Leader John Boehner make the case right before the final vote.)Republicans did take heed of Obamacare’s length when they wrote its replacement. As Sean Spicer passionately demonstrated, the American Health Care Act is just 124 pages, and even after the amendments Republicans added, it comes in at less than 200 as passed by the House.

But even that was too long for some GOP lawmakers. “I fully admit, Wolf, I did not,” Representative Chris Collins of New York told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when he was asked if he had read the complete and final text of the AHCA. Two other Republicans admitted as much to CNN, although they noted that their staff read the bill and briefed them on its content.

The lawmakers have a point when they say they rely on policy experts on their staff to fully read and summarize to them the legislative text of legislation, particularly when it comes to massive spending bills that the House and Senate vote on just days after they are unveiled. But it seems that Collins’s team didn’t even fully explain the impact of the GOP health-care bill to him. As the Buffalo Newsreported, the congressman was unfamiliar with a provision that could decimate a state health plan that serves 635,000 New Yorkers.

Unlike staff, it’s the members of Congress themselves who are elected by the public and accountable to their constituents, and it’s not too much to ask that they personally read bills that could affect health care for the entire country. Failure to do so just feeds the perception that Republicans rushed the AHCA to passage without sufficient scrutiny, especially after the House adopted late changes that had only been public for a few hours before the vote and after the GOP spent years accusing Democrats of doing the same thing.

Avoid Back-Room Deals

The Cornhusker Kickback.

The Louisiana Purchase.

Democrats relied on these side agreements benefiting individual states to secure the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate’s version of Obamacare in late 2009. The additional Medicaid money for Nebraska wasn’t even included in the final bill, but the back-room deals helped sour the public on the new law. Republicans seized on them to argue that Democrats were buying off senators in secret, undermining a bill that actually went through months of public scrutiny and debate.Eight years later, the GOP resorted to the same kind of tactic in the “Buffalo Bribe” (or, if you prefer, the “Tammany Haul”)—a provision the House leadership added to the AHCA at the urging of five members of the New York delegation that would shift the Medicaid tax burden away from upstate counties.

But there’s a reason this kind of horse-trading is a time-honored, if unsavory, part of legislative politics: It helps to win votes, and members of Congress have a legitimate responsibility to look out for their constituents. The New York lawmakers publicized their victory, so it wasn’t a secret, but the provision’s inclusion after Republicans reported their bill out of committee underscored the legislation’s relative lack of public hearings or lengthy formal debate.

Just Stay Away From Health Care Entirely (Or Don’t Tackle It Alone)

Maybe Republicans were doomed from the start. “The mover on health care loses; to do something is to lose,” the always-blunt Democratic strategist James Carville reportedly told party donors earlier this year. Twice now, Democrats have lost their House majority in the next election after pursuing a major overhaul of the health insurance system. With their vote on Thursday, Republicans could be at the same risk next year.

As the president recently discovered, health care is incredibly complicated. But more than that, it is intensely personal. The trade-offs between cost and coverage will always cause controversy. The economics of private insurance necessarily require younger, healthier people to subsidize the care of those who are older and needier. And changes in policies will almost always mean some will pay more so others can pay less.

Republicans may be missing a lesson the Democrats learned in another way. The party that controls government might not be able to avoid touching health-care policy entire, but it doesn’t have to do so alone. Bipartisanship doesn’t guarantee a better result, and it can’t happen if both parties don’t agree to cooperate. But like insurance itself, it’s at least a way to share the risk.

Equal Rights Under The Law — Michelle Chen in The Nation on why the Equality Act is essential.

Segregated schools were outlawed long ago, so why are trans students still shut out of the bathroom? And why, if sex discrimination is illegal, are workers fired because their spouses are the “wrong” gender? The language of the Constitution in many cases fails to contemplate gay, trans, and queer identities, and rights advocates say an update is way overdue.

So a much-needed addendum to the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act has been reintroduced in Congress, providing explicit protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, in line with the framework that has applied to categories of sex and race for decades.

The Equality Act would leave no ambiguity that the fundamental foundation of equality under the Constitution applies equally to LGBTQ communities as it does to women, people of color, immigrants, and religious groups. Moreover, the legislation would amend the existing 1995 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which rolled back civil-rights mandates for individuals and institutions claiming religiously based exemptions, so that the new law could prevent religion from being used as a pretext for discrimination “on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” While the RFRA remains on the books, the Equality Act would at least shift the burden of proof onto the employer or institution claiming a religious exemption rather than on the individual to prove they’re entitled to full constitutional protection.

The amendment would effectively change the Civil Rights Act, along with the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Jury Selection and Services Act, and other anti-discrimination laws related to public-sector employment and access to public facilities, to cover “sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.” It would officially expand protections for public spaces and ensure equal access to federally funded programs, including health and social benefits.

It would both simplify and complicate our current legal crisis surrounding the rights of, for example, trans teens shut out of the locker room that fits their gender, or same-sex couples barred from insurance coverage, under an administration that has shown unprecedented hostility to the idea of equal justice.

The struggle for equal protection is more acute than ever because Trump has just signed a major executive order on “religious freedom” aimed at expanding the power of the religious right to influence federal politics. A more sweeping leaked draft version that The Nation published earlier this year had aimed to grant broad legal exemptions for legal and workplace discrimination under the pretext of acting on religious belief. Though the version signed by Trump today does not include those most severely discriminatory provisions, it would enable religious institutions to participate more directly in electoral campaigns, potentially opening the path to further rollbacks on LGBTQ rights, driven by religious hard-liners fueling Trump’s Christian, right-wing support base.

The Equality Act would not, of course, remedy the worst violations that disproportionately impact the poor, people of color, and youth and the elderly within the LGBTQ community. It would, however, provide basic legal recourse for the estimated half of LGBTQ individuals who reside in states without any civil-rights protections that include their gender or sexual identity categories.

Currently, fewer than half of states explicitly protect people against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and just 19 maintain explicit anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

So in most states it’s often perfectly legal to get fired for insisting that your boss identify you by the right gender at work, or facing unequal access to medical care for a gender transition, or being denied equal rights as a married couple or adoptive parents in a same-sex relationship. For youth facing abuse at school, only 14 states protect their rights explicitly in the education system. Trump’s anticipated executive order, if fully implemented, would pose an even more direct threat to the hard-won but limited rights LGBTQ communities have fought for through civil litigation and public advocacy.

The act would also underscore the ongoing legal resistance to discrimination laws and practices targeting the LGBTQ community. While the courts have in recent years upheld LGBTQ protections under existing laws—most recently with a landmark Appeals Court ruling affirming that anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination against an Illinois college professor is a form of sex discrimination under federal law—Lambda Legal says it is “ready to take the fight to the courts” for further legal challenges to Trump’s “religious refusal” decree.

According to Sharon MacGowan, director of strategy with Lambda Legal’s DC office, the Equality Act, previous versions of which have won bipartisan support, “makes clear that Congress agrees that these terms should really be understood as just a subset of what sex discrimination already covers.”

While Trump purports to champion a silent majority of cultural conservatives, the Equality Act articulates what rights advocates see as a generational culture shift toward embracing LGBTQ identities. That, MacGowan argues, is undeniable, regardless of Washington’s current political clashes:

To stand in the way of this clarification and development in the law is symptomatic of the fact that there is a small, really ideologically driven group of people who are getting in the way of progress that this country as a whole is squarely behind.

While other marginalized groups, including women, Muslims, and immigrants, have been more blatantly targeted through Trump’s demonizing rhetoric, MacGowan warns that the Trump administration is imposing a kind of “death by a thousand cuts” through subtler policy changes—for example, cutting back on demographic data collection for LGBTQ groups. So rights advocates seek to affirm both within and outside the LGBTQ community that defending their rights remains as crucial as ever to defending the basic tenets of equal protection. While bracing for an attack parallel to those Trump has waged against other marginalized groups, MacGowan warns that activists need to affirm their allies and know their common enemy.

Whether or not the legislation advances, “now more than ever it’s important for those who stand on the side of equality to plant the flag, to make sure that everybody knows who’s on the side of this issue,” MacGowan says, and in Washington and beyond, “keep up the conversation about…how the values that are embodied in the Equality Act are really who we are as a country and not what we hear coming out of the White House.”

Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes about the social media grip.

IT is now official. Scholars have analyzed the data and confirmed what we already knew in our hearts. Social media is making us miserable.

We are all dimly aware that everybody else can’t possibly be as successful, rich, attractive, relaxed, intellectual and joyous as they appear to be on Facebook. Yet we can’t help comparing our inner lives with the curated lives of our friends.

Just how different is the real world from the world on social media? In the real world, The National Enquirer, a weekly, sells nearly three times as many copies as The Atlantic, a monthly, every year. On Facebook, The Atlantic is 45 times more popular.

Americans spend about six times as much of their time cleaning dishes as they do golfing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets reporting golfing as there are tweets reporting doing the dishes.

The Las Vegas budget hotel Circus Circus and the luxurious hotel Bellagio each holds about the same number of people. But the Bellagio gets about three times as many check-ins on Facebook.

The search for online status takes some peculiar twists. Facebook works with an outside company to gather data on the cars people actually own. Facebook also has data on the cars people associate with by posting about them or by liking them.

Owners of luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedeses are about two and a half times as likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook as are owners of ordinary makes and models.

In the United States, the desire to show off and exaggerate wealth is universal. Caucasians, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are all two to three times as likely to associate on Facebook with a luxury car they own than with a non-luxury car they own.

But different people in different places can have different notions of what is cool and what is embarrassing. Take musical taste. According to 2014 data from Spotify Insights on what people actually listen to, men and women have similar tastes; 29 of the 40 musicians women listened to most frequently were also the artists most frequently listened to by men.

On Facebook, though, men seem to underplay their interest in artists considered more feminine. For example, on Spotify, Katy Perry was the 10th most listened to artist among men, beating Bob Marley, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Wiz Khalifa. But those other artists all have more male likes on Facebook.

The pressure to look a certain way on social media can do much more than distort our image of the musicians other people actually listen to.

Sufferers of various illnesses are increasingly using social media to connect with others and to raise awareness about their diseases. But if a condition is considered embarrassing, people are less likely to publicly associate themselves with it.

Irritable bowel syndrome and migraines are similarly prevalent, each affecting around 10 percent of the American population. But migraine sufferers have built Facebook awareness and support groups two and a half times larger than I.B.S. sufferers have.

None of this behavior is all that new, although the form it takes is. Friends have always showed off to friends. People have always struggled to remind themselves that other people don’t have it as easy as they claim.

Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.

I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

Sometimes the contrasts in different data sources are amusing. Consider how wives speak about their husbands.

On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase “My husband is …” are “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.” On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also “amazing.” So that checks out. The other four: “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”

While spending five years staring at a computer screen learning about some of human beings’ strangest and darkest thoughts may not strike most people as a good time, I have found the honest data surprisingly comforting. I have consistently felt less alone in my insecurities, anxieties, struggles and desires.

Once you’ve looked at enough aggregate search data, it’s hard to take the curated selves we see on social media too seriously. Or, as I like to sum up what Google data has taught me: We’re all a mess.

Now, you may not be a data scientist. You may not know how to code in R or calculate a confidence interval. But you can still take advantage of big data and digital truth serum to put an end to envy — or at least take some of the bite out of it.

Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always …” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, “I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.

As our lives increasingly move online, I propose a new self-help mantra for the 21st century, courtesy of big data: Don’t compare your Google searches with other people’s Facebook posts.

 Doonesbury — Nice tweet.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

What Did You Expect?

When Trump said he would be supportive of LGBTQ rights, did you believe him?  I sure didn’t.  Here’s why:

Trump on Monday signed what Lambda Legal called a “very disturbing” order that will give federal contractors a large loophole through which to discriminate against LGBT people.

The White House on Monday afternoon released a copy of an executive order signed by President Trump. The order revokes all or part of three previous executive orders concerning federal contracting.

Of greatest concern to LGBT people, President Trump’s executive order revoked Executive Order 13673, signed by President Obama in 2014. That order, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, required that companies receiving large federal contracts be able to demonstrate that they have complied for at least three years with 14 federal laws, several of which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender stereotyping, or gender identity.

By taking away the requirement that federal contractors be able to demonstrate that they have not violated these federal laws, says Camilla Taylor, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, “this administration has made it extremely difficult to enforce these federal laws as applied to federal contractors.”

“It’s sending a message to these companies,” said Taylor, “…that the federal government simply doesn’t care whether or not they violate the law.”

Oh, he paid a lot of lip service to being gay friendly and even included his support of the LGBTQ community in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Cleveland.  But like a lot of that speech, along with building the wall and “I alone can fix it,” it was all bullshit and most of us knew it.