Incomplete History

Dear Reader,

I know this blog is a bit later than the first Friday, but I was asked to write a guest post for HoCoPoLitSo (Howard County Poetry and Literature Society) to mark LGBTQ History Month, and I wanted to let that post get published first there before I published a slightly different version of it here – so much has happened since I submitted the blog to them, and I kept thinking/writing.  Now that it’s up there, here it is.  You can also check it out on HoCoPoLitSo’s blog.

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October is LGBTQ History Month. When I think about LGBTQ history, I am of two minds and the poems included in the LGBTQ collection on Poets.org perfectly reflect that split. Some of the poems are so absolutely ordinary in their subjects, like the poem, “our happiness” by Eileen Miles, and on one hand, I think, that’s progress: the lives of LGBTQ people are written and expressed in the same way as other lives. That’s equality, right? Being a gay poet doesn’t mean that you have to write every poem about the experience of being gay. Not every aspect, every moment of my life is about that, but my experience is most definitely shaped by it and so is my view of history.

If we’re really talking about history, the conversation is incomplete unless we acknowledge that nothing is really the same. Some might say, hey, you won the right to get married, so what are you complaining about? That reminds me of the poem, “On Marriage” by Marilyn Hacker where the poet talks about the way in which LGBTQ people “must choose, and choose, and choose / momently, daily” to affirm their holding handscommitment to one another, “Call it anything we want” when society doesn’t quite know how to accept or handle this kind of “covenant.” We talk a lot about “White Privilege” in cultural discourse, but we don’t talk a lot about “Mainstream Heterosexual Cisgender Privilege.” It exists. MHCP allows folks to do very ordinary things like hold hands in public without having to do a quick check of their surroundings. MHCP allows you to use whatever bathroom you want without being harassed or shamed or threatened.  It allows you to feel “normal” out in the world. Put it this way: there are times when showing affection to my wife in public – just a peck on the cheek – feels like a dangerous political act.

It hasn’t always been this way for me.  In fact, I enjoyed MHCP for most of my life.  I went to a conservative Christian high school, and though there were probably gay people around me (I’m pretty sure a few of my teachers were/are), since none of them were out, I feel as though I didn’t meet a gay person until I went to college. Riding through my high school years and my twenties as an MHCP was easy.  Being white made it even easier. Realizing I was gay later in life when I care less what the world thinks has made the sting of discrimination sting a little less.  Still, it was surprising to realize that the world had changed. Is it weird to say that I want to have it both ways? As Uncle Walt says, “Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” I want everyone in the world to see LGBTQ people as just normal, and I want everyone to know that our experience is different.

If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that being an LGBTQ person is a unique and still unequal experience in this country. There are subtle and unsubtle ways that society is set up to exclude and marginalize us. And some of the poems I browsed on Poets.org do address that fact. I find myself drawn more powerfully to these poems because I do want to acknowledge the difference that exits. A great example of this is “A Woman Is Talking to Death” by Judy Grahn. The poem was written in 1940, and the lines that jump out to me are:

“this woman is a lesbian, be careful.

When I was arrested and being thrown out

of the military, the order went out: don’t anybody

speak to this woman, and for those three

long months, almost nobody did: the dayroom, when

I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they

were afraid, they knew the wind would blow

them over the rail, the cops would come,

the water would run into their lungs.

Everything I touched

was spoiled. They were my lovers, those

women, but nobody had taught us how to swim.

I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down

when I signed the confession of what we

had done               together.

No one will ever speak to me again.”

LGBTQ history is a history of fraught silence.  A friend of mine, Rob, hid the fact that he was gay the entire time he was in the Navy – it wasn’t just that he feared for his job, he also feared for his life, that other soldiers might threaten or harass him for being openly gay. He hid it until he completed his tour of duty, and then he came out to all of his friends. You might think that passing a law abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would end this discrimination, but you would be wrong. This discrimination still exists in the military – though now the target has shifted from being gay or lesbian to being transgender. Grahn’s poem was written in 1940; it is 77 years later, and we are not there yet. And because we live in the age of vindictive executive orders, we are too afraid that the next step in the movement will be a step backward.

If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that we’re still in the middle of the story right now. What started with Alan Turing, Barbara Gittings, Christine Jorgenson, Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, the Stonewall riots, James Baldwin, and Harvey Milk has led us to the defeat of DOMA, the rejection of Proposition 8, the victory of Edith Windsor, the success of Tammy Baldwin. But this complicated history also continues with events like the shooting in the Pulse nightclub and pronouncements that threaten the rights of transgender soldiers and that reinterpret Civil Rights laws to exclude protections for

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Photo from Cleveland.com
LGBTQ employees. For all the poems that are out there, some things about the LGBTQ experience just defy expression.  Not everything is just about the right to get married or or what sports we can play or what bathroom we’re allowed to use – those things are important, but there are even heavier questions on our minds than whether you see us as equal – like whether you see us as human.  We’ve seen in the last week or so of our history that LGBTQ youth are not safe on college campuses around the country.  At Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio, flyers have appeared encouraging LGBTQ students to commit suicide, taunting them with the statistics that mock the loneliness and desperation that LGBTQ people feel with the disgusting tag “Fascist Solutions.”  There is no poem that expresses what I want to say to the monsters that distributed these flyers.  There is no poem that says want I want to say to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, the men who have given these monsters a voice in our society. This history is so raw, so painful, so new.  Current events are going to write these poems, and I want to read those poems too, not just the ones that try to normalize our experience.

One of the happiest days in my life was November 6th, 2012. That was the day that voters in my home state of Maryland affirmed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, and I knew that I would marry my wife. Then, on June 26th, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that we should be seen as equal under the law. In a stunning closing paragraph, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” To read

Blog Photo
My wife and I at the Jan. 20 Women’s March – photo by Tara Hart
that, you’d think that we are living in a new era, but in reality, it isn’t quite true. We are living in a time that feels, in some ways, more dangerous than ever. In “Love Song for Love Songs,” Rafael Campo writes that it is “A golden age of love songs and we still / can’t get it right.” That’s what I think: If we’re going to talk about LGBTQ history and celebrate equality, we have to admit that, despite so much progress in the last few years, the last ten months have shown us that we still have so far to go. Sharpen your pencils.

 

 

© Ryna May 2017

 

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This I Believe – Part One

Dear Reader,

The title of this month’s blog is inspired by the NPR Podcast Series “This I Believe.”  If you have never listened to it, I highly recommend you check it out.

This I Believe: Civil Rights are Equal Rights

This month, the Supreme Court will rule on marriage equality. In the court of public opinion, the issue has already reached the tipping point. In 1996, the first time Gallup polled on the issue, only 27% of the public thought that same-sex couples deserved marriage equality, but in 2014, the poll showed that 55% of the public now believes that civil marriage is a civil right for all people.  (A separate poll by the Wall Street Journal has 58% in support of marriage equality.) That’s an amazing shift, and I can only really attribute it to one thing: people have realized that gay people are not trying to destroy them! That’s right: gay people are just people trying to live their lives.  They do not want to wreck your life or your marriage.  I am in a same-sex marriage (Thank you, Maryland!), and I can attest that there is nothing about my relationship that adversely impacts the heterosexuals around me.

marriage_equality

I believe the experience of actually knowing a gay person is what changes minds and hearts. I did not meet an openly gay person until I went to college, and since I went to college pretty late in life, that was when I was almost 30 years old.  It caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. On the one hand, I grew up in an environment that told me that homosexuals were abhorrent – that God hated them.  On the other hand, I knew this nice, funny, creative, and warm man who would become one of my lifelong friends.  How could he be abhorrent?  Worst of all, he knew I was “religious,” and the idea that he might think I hated him for who he was sickened me.  Most of all, knowing him got me to think about what I had always heard and been taught.  I always say, if you want your faith to mean anything, it has to be your own – not merely an uncritical repetition of what has come before.  I ought to know why I believe what I believe.

There are some who argue that the Bible defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman.  Actually, this is not consistently true.  In various places in the Bible, marriage is defined as the union between a man and “at least” one woman.  Men with multiple wives are described as “highly blessed” in their marriages.  Abram cheated on his wife, and the servant woman that he took as a second wife bore him a son. That’s not exactly what traditionalists think of as a traditional marriage.

In fact, there were a variety of marriages that were permissible in the disparate cultures that produced the Bible.  Titus 1:6 describes a monogamous relationship.  But Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has a less romantic view of marriage wherein rape victims are given by their fathers to marry the man who raped them – after, of course, the rapist pays the girl’s father 50 pieces of silver.  In another passage of Deuteronomy (25:5-10), a man is commanded to marry his brother’s widow – even if he himself is already married.  This is also mandated in Genesis and Ruth. These are just a few examples of how marriage was practiced in these distinct moments. But we might also argue that as members of a pluralistic society, it doesn’t matter what the authors of the Bible thought.  We are a society of many religions and many beliefs – the beliefs of one religious group should not define the rights for all people, especially for an institution that has long been more secular than religious.

I think the key to understanding this is acknowledging that the definition of marriage has always been produced by culture, and culture changes.  Now, our culture does not look favorably on polygamy.  We do not think a rapist should be able to buy his victim or that having sex before marriage makes a woman unworthy of marriage (and thus more inclined to marry the man who raped her).  We don’t think a man should be compelled to marry his brother’s widow.  We do believe in marital monogamy.  And as we have seen, we are now culturally ready to believe that loving same-sex couples deserve a chance at happiness.

It’s about more than just happiness though.  It’s about rights and dignity.  When opponents of same-sex marriage argue for civil unions instead of marriage, they perhaps don’t realize that what they are asking for is a version of the “Separate but Equal” fallacy that suppressed African-Americans for so long in this country.  They are right about this: our culture views marriage as a sacred right.  This is precisely why same-sex couples should share it.  We don’t get to pick and choose who gets rights and who doesn’t – in our society, we demand equal rights.

we the people
We the People, in order to form a more perfect union…

You might not know that much of our country’s philosophy was influenced by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke advocated for natural rights – the basic rights of all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect by virtue of their very humanity. Locke wrote that all human beings are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights. That is, rights that are inherent to every individual and can never be taken away. Locke also argued that individuals should be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as they do not interfere with the liberty of others. Thomas Jefferson thought these were pretty good ideas – so much so that he put them into the Declaration of Independence.

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Awful, Ugly Speech is Still Free Speech

Marriage is not the only right we are talking about.  For example, free speech is a civil right we are all entitled to.  What’s hard is that we have to honor free speech even when we don’t agree with what is being said.  The Westboro Baptist Church’s message is abhorrent, but we have to respect their right to be abhorrent. We have to respect them because we also respect the rights of union workers and Million Mom Marchers to picket, assemble, and protest.  Everyone gets the same rights or else they are not sacred.  And we believe that our rights ought to be sacred – that is the society we want to belong to.

In his book, A Theory Of Justice, philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine that we belong to a group of people who are gathered to plan our own future society, a just and fair society that operates under a Social Contract.  Rawls calls this scenario the “Original Position.”  In the Original Position, we don’t know who we will be in society, what status we will have.  So, we must design our society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance:

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

The goal, then, is to create a society in which you are guaranteed to be treated fairly.  You might be gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, male, female, transgendered, fit, or physically limited, but it will not matter.  If you have created a truly just and fair society, everyone will have the same opportunities, the same challenges, and the same freedoms.

You might be thinking: but the people who wrote the Bible never imagined that people of the same sex might want to get married.  For the most part, I think you’re right: they couldn’t imagine it.  Just like there was a time when we in America could not imagine people from different races getting married.  We could not imagine that African Americans could be more than slaves.  We could not imagine that women ought to be allowed to vote.  We could not imagine these things – until we did.  Culture evolves because people change.  In every instance, we lean into inclusion.  I believe we have crossed the Rubicon now with marriage equality and other gay rights, but there are still many important issues for us to consider on our way to a fair and just society.  For example, Bruce Jenner’s recent interview and transition to Caitlyn Jenner has pushed transgender issues, finally, into the national conversation.  It’s a dialogue that is long overdue and will be difficult.  But I have faith that as long as we consistently do the human thing, that as long as we consistently value the natural rights of individuals, we will find our way.  As Dr. King so wonderfully said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe – Part Two

© 2015 Ryna May