January 2005

First published January 20, 2005, in Between the Lines

Some of the nastiest mail I receive is not from right-wing homophobes, or even bitter ex-boyfriends, but from members of our own community who think I’m not progressive enough. For example, shortly after I argued in Second Thoughts on Civil Unions that we ought to fight for civil unions now and marriage later, I received an e-mail message with the following subject-line:

“Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?”

There was no text to the message, and no signature — just the subject-line. With some ambivalence, I wrote back:

“I received a message from you with the subject-line ‘Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?’ but no text. Was there supposed to be text, or did the question in the subject-line exhaust what you have to say on the issue?”

I didn’t expect a response: I just wanted to remind the writer that there was a person receiving his e-mail on the other end of cyberspace. Not that it did much good: a few weeks later I received a message with a similar subject-line and a long tirade accusing me, in the most obnoxious terms possible, of selling out our rights.

That kind of attack is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not least of which that it distracts us from the productive dialogue we should be having instead. I’m the first to admit that I could be wrong in the strategy I proposed for securing equal marriage rights. But if you’re going to attack that strategy, please try first to understand it. In brief, I argued that:

1. Properly crafted civil-unions legislation could grant all of the legal incidents of marriage (albeit under a different name). I am not talking about “watered-down” civil unions here; I’m talking about the full legal enchilada.

2. The difference between such unions and marriage, since it is not a difference in legal incidents, appears to be a difference in level of social endorsement carried by the “m-word.”

3. Our best strategy (in most states) for securing the tremendously important legal incidents is to fight for them under the name “civil unions.”

4. Our best strategy for securing the social endorsement (i.e., marriage under the name “marriage”) is first to secure the legal incidents. Then people will look at our civil unions, realize that they are virtually indistinguishable from marriages, start calling them marriages, and gradually forget why they objected to doing so before. That’s what happened in Scandinavia, and it’s happening elsewhere in Europe.

5. Attempts to force the social endorsement too quickly (by demanding the name “marriage” above and beyond the legal incidents) may backfire, resulting in state constitutional bans not only on gay marriage but also on civil unions. The upshot would be to delay both the legal incidents and the social endorsement.

Any of the above points could be debated by reasonable people, but (4) and (5), especially, merit further discussion, including careful analysis of countries where similar strategies have been attempted. But rather than providing such analysis, my critics accuse me of endorsing a “separate but equal” line akin to that espoused by racial segregationists. Why should we settle for the back of the bus?

The segregationist analogy is a poor one. First, while it is certainly objectionable that we should ride on the back of the bus, we are barely even at the bus stop yet, much less on the bus. Let us not forget that in most places in this country, our relationships have no legal recognition whatsoever.

Second, and more important, I have argued that we should fight for identical legal incidents to those of marriage. This is not the back of the bus or a different bus: it’s the same bus with a different name.

Is that name difference silly? Yes, it’s silly — maybe even insulting. But when health benefits are denied to committed same-sex couples, when a person can’t get bereavement leave upon the death of her same-sex partner; when loving couples are split apart because one partner is a foreigner and can’t get citizenship, that’s far worse than silly or insulting — it’s downright cruel. I contend that we have a fighting chance at ending such cruelty, and that once we do so we’ll have an even better chance at ending the silly name-difference (again, see Scandinavia).

I could be wrong, but calling me nasty names doesn’t show why I’m wrong. More to the point, it doesn’t get us any closer to the front of the bus.

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First published January 6, 2005, in Between the Lines.

New Year’s is a time for looking at where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s a time for resolutions, such as “I resolve not to eat so much and spend so much during next year’s holiday season.” (Yeah, sure.)

As a college professor, I tend to organize my life in terms of the academic calendar, not the regular calendar. Years begin in September and end in May, and June through August is “free time,” sort of. Actually, it bugs me when people tell me I have summers “off”: just because I’m not teaching doesn’t mean I’m not working, okay? Or do you think my articles and columns write themselves?

(Memo to self: resolve to be less defensive in 2005.)

So when New Year’s rolls around, the “year” I look back on has really been only four months long. And how has the last four months been?

Pretty lousy, actually.

Before reacting, do me a favor. Please do not tell me “Yes, I understand. That horrible election…”

I agree that the election was upsetting. But to give you some perspective, let me tell you about my life over the last few months:

Early September: I am harassed by a large, armed Texas state trooper who after seeing me kiss another guy tells me that “homosexual conduct is against the law.” Although I cite Lawrence v. Texas and point out that Texas state law never banned mere kissing, he maintains his position. I relent, he lets me go, and the following week I file a formal complaint. (More on that later.)

Late September: A close friend commits suicide. 32 years old, bright, attractive, talented. Now dead. Turns out that, among various other problems, he had become involved with crystal meth.

Early October: My grandmother dies. Certainly more expected than my friend’s death, but still a terrible blow. She was one of the first people I came out to, and she’s always been one of my great supporters. Grandma Tess, rest in peace.

Late October: One week after burying his mother, my father is fired from his job. He and my mother decide to leave New York and retire to Texas, close to my sister, where the cost of living is better. (Be sure to say hi to my favorite trooper!). I am briefly reminded that Dad, my hero, is not invincible.

Early November: the election. Yes, it’s bad. But by comparison with other things happening in my life, it seems like a minor blip.

Late November: my sister undergoes surgery. She’s fine, but Mom and Dad — who have had their share of challenges in the past month — are further drained emotionally.

Early December: I discover that I need a new roof on my house — soon. A very costly new roof. (Better not ask Dad for help.)

So, how am I doing?

Just fine, thank you.

Abraham Lincoln once said that most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. He was right.

This is not to say that we don’t face challenges that threaten our well being. But if we constantly dwell on the challenges, and never look at the “bright side,” we’re guaranteed to be miserable.

Admittedly, there is no “bright side” to a friend’s suicide. But I am thankful for my own health and well being. I’m thankful, too, that my sister is recovering well.

I’m thankful for 35 years of knowing a wonderful grandmother. Some people never know their grandparents. I knew all four (two still living) as well as five of my eight great-grandparents.

I’m thankful that my parents, who worked hard for many years, are able to retire comfortably. I’m thankful that, although I’ll have to tighten my belt in 2005, somehow I’m managing to pay for my new roof.

I’m thankful that I live in a country that holds regular elections. I’m thankful that my partner and I have a wonderful life together, even without recognition from the shortsighted Michigan voters who supported Proposal 2. I’m thankful we have the freedoms that we do.

And I’m thankful that the ignorant trooper who harassed me is being put on six months probation, was given a formal written reprimand, and will be required to take additional classes on Texas state law. Sometimes the system does work.
2004 wasn’t so bad after all. Resolve to be happy in 2005.

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