Saturday, October 28, 2006

Back from vacation

This is just a quick post to note that yes, I'm still alive. We were out-of-town for a bit and while we did have some internet access, it wasn't much and I didn't have a good opportunity to blog.

We were in Texas visiting Alan's 96-year-old grandmother and his aunt that lives next door. From there it was a hop to New Orleans to visit Alan's parents and some of our friends.

I'm still feeling like I'm getting settled. Plus, I have to find work. And I have to follow up on our kitty's urinary problem. So my mind isn't very focused.

I have a lot of catching up to do; I haven't visited my blog haunts for a couple of weeks. Anyway, just wanted to say boo for now and I hope to write a real post soon.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Coming Out

Today is National Coming Out Day, so I thought I'd write my coming out story. This is the first time I've thought of these things as one story, connected, as opposed to separate memories of my life. Or, at least, it's certainly the first time I've tried to write it down.

I have memories of being different as young as four or five. I always looked at boys differently than I looked at girls. But much of my different-ness was expressed more by who I wasn't than by who I was. I was never a rough-and-tumble child and I never had much interest in "boy things." To this day, you can't get me more bored than by bringing up sports. Oh, I did/do like some parts of the summer Olympics: male gymnastics, swimming, and diving. (God, did I have a crush on Greg Louganis!)

My mother is a feminist, so she was pretty cool about the not living up to gender expectations. Still hurt by not being able to get a train set when she was young because it was a "boy's toy," Mom gave me an Easy Bake Oven. I was five or six and the only boy I knew with one. When I was eight, I had a hamster that I named Liza Minnelli. Swear to God. What's amazing to me is that this was all on my own. At the time, I had no idea I was a stereotype. It really is an interesting mystery how many (though I'm well aware not all) gay boys find their way to the same cultural icons.

When I was in the fourth grade, I made the mistake of sharing that I had a crush on a boy. I don't think I fully realized that this was not the norm and that this particular difference was not looked upon with favor. I'm not sure how I lived that one down.

In fifth grade, bookish library-dweller that I was, I first made connections and started to look up "homosexuality" in the index of books. By sixth grade, I felt apart from my peers, in my own isolated world. Not that I was willing or able to take on the label at that point.

It was seventh grade when I first started confiding in a female friend; we used to compare notes about cute boys. Some days she was fine with it; others, she would freak out. It was also around this time that I had a "girlfriend," who was a friend that I held hands with. I had no interest in anything else physical, although I did confess to her that I thought I may be "bisexual." (With many apologies to bisexuals everywhere. But, really, I was 13.)

Is there any way to describe junior high that would really give you an idea of what it was like for me? I lived in constant terror. The taunting began at the bus stop and was pretty much non-stop until I was home. (Which was not that much better, but those pleasant stories can wait.) I have to say that I wasn't beat up very often, but I lived in fear of my safety all the time and, of course, the ritual humiliation. I remember that my mantra inside my head is that I just wanted to be left alone. There was a particular tormentor whose name I can still remember.

I had a couple of misfit friends that weren't there in eighth grade. Picture a lunch room filled with those long tables that hinge in the middle so they could be folded upright. And there I was, sitting at a table to myself like I had leprosy.

There is no doubt in my mind that the 12-14 age group is the cruelest. Kids are trying to find out who they are, working to fit in, wanting to know their place in that microcosm of society. How I managed to not attempt suicide: I had a teacher, who became a mentor, that was very important to me. I do attribute my survival to her.

I kept a diary off and on. What's more interesting than what is in there is what isn't. No mention of same-sex feelings and other heavy-duty emotional things going on in my life. I was too terrified. But I did find an entry that, to me, brings up a larger question. On this day, I expressed a desire to see some of my tormentors dead and I was very serious. It was chilling to read this in a post-Columbine world. Why didn't I act on these feelings? Well, first, I didn't have access to an arsenal. And, second, while my parents were not very involved in my life, I did know that my mother loved me and that meant something to me.

I'm not sure that adults really understand how bad it can be. Social conservatives love to make fun of programs that try to make schools safer by working on underlying causes, like bullying and intolerance. They want military- and prison- style solutions. (And that is the direction my high school went in.) They have no problems with kids living in a hell, they just want to avoid bloodshed. The rest of us are just wimpy knee-jerk liberals that don't want to hold people responsible for their actions. We should just wait for something horrific to happen and then try the teens as adults. Such a shame that we can't put them to death anymore. And don't you dare suggest sharing the blame with adults who keep uzis lying around: These young people must learn that there are consequences to their actions.

We now return to our previous program.

High school was somewhat better, although I was called "faggot" every single day and I'm not exaggerating. Taking higher level classes meant that many of the other students had more important things to do than bother with me. Gym class was, as it is to so many gay boys, the bane of my existence. I made avoiding gym an art form. First, there are the forged notes. But that only goes so far without a doctor's note. I learned how to go AWOL. I still had to face the horror that is the locker room, but once attendance was taken, I would make myself scarce until the end of the period. I wasn't missed. (My God, how can we play whateverball without our star player?)

WAIT! All is not without hope. Within a couple weeks of graduation (the exercises I skipped, of course), I was at my first Gay Pride celebration in New York. There I was walking down the middle of Fifth Avenue with Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York holding hands with a guy who would become my first boyfriend. It was an unbelievable feeling of liberation. I had never seen so many gay people, never knew how diverse we are, never knew that this many people were willing to proclaim their identities in public. Not much could compare to the high of that day. (college graduation, our wedding)

I first started to tell people I was gay when I was 16; it was to the girl I went to a prom with (her prom, not mine -- shudder) to explain the lack of activity after the prom. It was all tearful and dramatic. She refused to believe me. (Because it was so out of character and people always say they're gay when they're not.) I told my mother a few months after and she more-or-less accepted it; it took a year or more to fully accept it. Of course, she wanted me to be celibate, presumably because of AIDS. (But what parent wants to acknowledge the sexuality of their children regardless?)

I didn't go "public" until I went to college. I deliberately chose a small uber-liberal school where I would feel safe. Those were my training wheels in being out. One of my favorite stories was when I was with another student after class and we continued a conversation back to my dorm room. He looked at the posters of boy candy (come on, I had a whole adolescence to make up for) and asked, "Is your roommate a faggot?" "No, I am." He had the decency to be deeply embarrassed. But, really, it wasn't about his question, it was about my answer.

[Another memorable exchange was when a campus doctor was taking a throat culture from me because an ick was going around and he very innocently observed that I was the first person that hadn't gagged. I looked him in the eye and said, "no comment." One would think that someone who had been to medical school wouldn't blush over something like that.]

I found my first college limiting academically, so I transferred to Huge University, close to where I grew up, after a year. I not only was out, I became an activist. The first thing to go up in my dorm room was a big pink triangle, much to the horror of my brother who helped me move in. Despite various dramas, I loved college. I loved the freedom, I loved learning, I loved the diversity and the exchange of ideas. I was in the running for BFOC.

I made the front page of a local paper, the one most read in the area where I grew up. (Granted, it was a Saturday, which I think has the lowest circulation.) My mother had a friend who never talked to her again after that day. Wow, bigotry by association. What a world.

What was cool is that I could see that my activism made a difference. I challenged the campus bookstore on the ridiculous wording on their job applications and they were forced to change to align with the university's non-discrimination policy. I had other students ask questions in response to the pink triangle I wore. At a meeting with university administration, I challenged their view that discrimination against LGBT people was not the same or as bad as race discrimination because we could "hide it." (I asked if they would ask Jews to remove yarmulkes if they were harassed or felt threatened.) I produced surprisingly well-attended forums on homosexuality and religion.

(By the way, I wasn't a one-issue person. I was also involved in protesting U.S. foreign policy, but I can wait to bore you with that another day.)

As out as I think I am, there are always challenges. Which people do you correct? Is this situation worth it? When do I say something that would out me in a new job situation? And I've learned that coming out isn't just about being gay; it's about the ongoing journey of living an authentic and integrated life.

A healthy Coming Out Day to you and yours. Next year in Canada!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

USA is #1 -- or Why? Part 3

A while back L-girl of we move to canada wrote that to her politics was personal, that behind policies were people whose everyday lives were affected. (I wish I could find the reference, but I can’t figure out how to search correctly.) I couldn’t agree more. Part of the reason why politics would ruin me is because I do take things personally. And that’s why, although it’s been on my mind for quite a while to write about this subject, I haven’t done so until now. Because when I try to force myself to systematically think about this, I feel like my head is going to explode.

The United States of America, home of the free and the brave, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 738 per 100,000 population in prison. The next highest is the Russian Federation with 607. China has 118, Cuba is approximately 487, Iran 206, Libya 207. Canada, by the way is ranked 121 with a rate of 107/100K, which puts it more in the company of the U.K., Spain, Australia and Italy. The U.S., is not only number one, but it stands alone – as it often does in many areas, but not ones that I’m proud of. Think about this: The United States has more people in prison – not just the rate – than anywhere else on Earth. About 600,000 more than China, although they have, what, four or five times the U.S. population. Two million, one hundred eighty-six thousand, two hundred thirty individuals; please stop and consider that number. Are you horrified?

It is very difficult to talk about this without spinning off onto tangents, each of which is worthy of study on its own. The crime rate in the United States is NOT higher than other industrialized nations, with the exception (natch) of violence, especially murder. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without strict gun control and guns make it easier to kill people. But still, only about half of those in prison are there for violent offences. So that alone does not explain the U.S.’s unique status.

The U.S. gives far harsher sentences for non-violent property crimes, such as theft and burglary. Part of this is the American idea of individual responsibility: do the crime, do the time. I’d rather call it lack of social responsibility. We’d rather incarcerate people than educate them – most inmates do not even have a high school education – even though the latter is far cheaper, not even including social costs. There’s also been an attack on an independent judiciary and, in the name of getting tough on crime, legislators have tied the hands of judges in sentencing.

President Eisenhower warned us of the Military/Industrial complex; we’re pretty familiar with how that money and power drive our foreign policy (if it can even be called that). But how about the prison industry? The latest trend is to have private companies run prisons. Prison guard unions are strong. There are company towns where the “industry” is imprisonment. And prison labor is “leased” to all sorts of businesses. Technically, this is not slave labor, as the inmates are paid, although well below minimum wage and with as much as 80% of earnings paid back to their “hosts’ for room and board.

Of course, non-“whites” are much more likely to receive a jail term. This is, unfortunately, true in almost every country, including Canada. But when you look at the numbers in the U.S., it boggles the mind. We have institutionalized racism and called it “justice.” I am literally nauseous just thinking about it.

But let’s talk about the biggest reason for the incarceration rate increase in the United States since 1980: The War on Drugs. Remember that one? – it was before the War on Terror. Apparently, the White House is not happy unless we are at war. It doesn’t seem to matter to them when the wars are on our own citizens (or on peaceful citizens of other nations). I’m too young to remember President Johnson’s War on Poverty; it seems unreal to me that there was a time when a politician actually wanted to address a social issue without attacking people. Now we have the War on Poor People, especially those darker skinned than most politicians.

Persons in jail for drug offenses have increased more than ten-fold since 1980. Despite rhetoric from talking heads in Washington, these are not kingpins: most are for simple possession – and most of that for marijuana. I’m afraid I’ll start frothing at the mouth and become incoherent, but I’ll try to control myself. HAVE WE LEARNED NOTHING SINCE PROHIBITION? It didn’t work! Almost all organized crime in the U.S. can be traced to that time. The social costs were enormous. It turned us into a nation of hypocrites. When laws don’t make any sense and are routinely ignored, people lose respect for law in general (IMHO). IF ALCOHOL AND TOBACCO ARE LEGAL THAN WHY NOT MARIJUANA? I’ll answer my own question: classism, racism, business, and history. Peter McWilliams covers this topic very well (and very readably) in Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society. (A great book, except I disagree with him about guns – a topic for another post.)

I would rather the government spend money on education and health care (including addiction treatment) than on prisons. My way would probably be cheaper over all, despite my liberal ways – but then the Republicans would lose their favorite activities of making sure resources stay with the rich, white, and powerful and intimidating everyone else.

The fair-minded like to believe that if people are in jail that there is a reason. In the United States, the problem is that those reasons are just as likely to be unjust laws as it is the commission of a crime. In a previous post, I asked how the United States has the nerve to call itself a democracy. Today I ask: How can we call the United States a free country?


Incarceration Nation: The US is the World’s Leading Jailer, by Michael I. Niman, Buffalo Beat, January 4th, 2000

International Centre for Prison Studies (Click on “World Prison Brief” to look at statistical comparisons among nations.)

Comparative International Rates of Incarceration: An Examination of Causes and Trends, Presented to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, By Marc Mauer, Assistant Director, The Sentencing Project, June 20, 2003

The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s, by Ryan S. King and Marc Mauer, Research Associate and Assistant Director, respectively, of The Sentencing Project, May 2005

Sunday, October 08, 2006

2 Parties & 0 Choices or Why? Part 2 of ??

While catching up on my New Yorker reading this weekend, (why, oh, why does it have to be a weekly?), I found this nugget in a piece about post-presidency Bill Clinton (The New Yorker, Sept. 18, 2006, "The Wanderer," David Remnick, page 66):

... a recent report in the Chicago Tribune revealed that the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, began his career in Congress with a net worth of three hundred thousand dollars and now has assets of six million, owing largely to an almost fantastical increase in the value of land near a highway project that he helped push through Congress.

Where is the investigation? The disgust and outrage? When Clinton was president, Congress spent years and years and dollars and dollars investigating "Whitewater," which turned up NOTHING. But that didn't matter because the Republicans got what they were after: to almost completely stall the Clinton presidency. Money, time, and effort that could have gone to solve very real problems were wasted. The Republicans also hardly allowed votes to approve or deny appointments for the federal judiciary. It didn't matter that the system was backed up and the courts were unable to do their job and all the sitting judges complained. Because it's all about power.

And when the Democrats were in power, they pulled crap, too.

I don't think either party, Democrats or Republicans, really care about making this a better country. Their job is to maintain or re-gain power, to be re-elected. And they're very good at it. Together, the two parties do everything in their power to shut out other voices, other parties. The Democrats and Republicans need each other because all they have to do is wrest power from the other, usually by showing how bad the other is. On any issue, they don't need to formulate a policy, they only have to position themselves in relation to the other party. They don't actually DO anything because they don't have to. In fact, it's often better to let a bad situation get worse, so that one party can use the issue in the next election. Do we wonder why we have such a horrible rate of voting in the United States? Our Congresspeople are office seekers and office holders, not representatives.

I do believe that the Democrats are the lesser of two evils, but I'm not excited about voting for an evil, even if is the "better" one. If we were allowed to have a multi-party system, other voices could be heard. It might force the parties to actually have to say and do something real. I don't see it happening any time soon. The ones in power like it this way.

Besides, they've gone around the whole "voting" issue anyway; do you feel confident that your vote is accurately counted? And the tricks are getting dirtier and more subtle for suppressing the vote.

This is a capitalist nation first and foremost. More money = more power and more power = more money.

I can't believe we have the nerve to call this country a democracy. True, on the whole, we enjoy more freedom and greater wealth than most of humankind throughout history has ever seen. I feel lucky for that. But the United States falls far, far short of the ideals that are espoused. And too often our freedom and wealth are built on the poverty and servitude of others in the world. Forgive me if I don't take pride in that.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Why? Part 1 of ??

This has been hard for me to start because I don’t know where to begin and I don’t know where to end. But I’ve been meaning to take a stab at it for months, so here goes and I hope I have some coherence:

First, it’s important to know that Alan and I are wanting to relocate to Canada because of what’s happening and happened in the United States and because of what’s happened and what’s happening in Canada. Could the United States be worse? Yes. Could Canada be better? Yes. Are we extremely lucky to be born in the United States and have the possible opportunity of moving to Canada? Yes. And I think I’ve said all of the above before, so now you’re saying, “OK, and …”

Well, one of the reasons I got the courage to tackle this post is because L-girl at the blog we move to canada wrote this post that gives this summary:

Some things Canada does better, relative to the US, by differences of kind. Health care, personal freedoms (abortion rights, same-sex marriage), justice (no death penalty). A fair election system. Democracy! Some things Canada does better only by degree. Those degrees are important, they represent real progress.

Also, I’ve been reading Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the myth of converging values by Michael Adams. I’m fascinated because it makes a lot of intuitive sense and it’s giving me a vocabulary to discuss what I’ve been observing and feeling. I can’t do it all justice, which is OK because Mr. Adams wrote a whole book about his studies and theories. :-) Basically, what he is saying is that society in the United States is going in one direction and the rest of the “first world” is going in another. Alan and I are in the latter category, which, I suppose, can help explain why I feel like an alien in my country of birth.

What is remarkable about social change in America is the society’s absolute failure – or refusal – to postmodernize. Nothing is more striking about the socio-cultural portrait of American social values than the country’s wholesale retreat from the idealism and fulfillment side of the map. Americans are moving en masse from the trends associated with civic engagement and social and ecological concern.

The author, based on many questions and the patterns of answers, categorizes society into four groups. Two of the groups are easy to describe because it’s the dichotomy we’re all used to: what we would call the religious right and progressive left. (I’m simplifying.) But there are two others. There are the famed “soccer moms,” suburbanites that believe in following the rules and maybe not questioning much, but aren’t so big into the judgment thing. They are the swing voters that the other two groups try to lure.

And there’s a fourth group which Adams identifies as “Exclusion and Intensity” and that is where society in the United States has been drifting, unlike the rest of the first world which is moving to “Idealism and Autonomy” (which I labeled progressive left above). (Note that when Michael Adams refers to left and right quadrants, he is referring to his own chart and method, NOT the traditional usage of political left and right.) This is more than a bit frightening:

It seems, then, that much of the culture war rhetoric has gotten one of the armies wrong. The group against whose cultural pull religious conservatives are struggling is not the aging hippies with their casual Buddhism and blended families, but the nihilistic denizens of the Intensity and Exclusion quadrant with their Everyday Rage, their Acceptance of Violence, and their general hostility toward the world around them. These findings would discomfit both the liberal progressives and the religious moralists. The political war in America is being waged between the upper-left (Status and Security) and lower-right (Idealism and Autonomy) quadrants, with both sides vying for the votes of the nice, “regular” people in the upper-right (Authenticity and Responsibility) quadrant. What few have realized thus far is that the team that’s winning the cultural war (the one that really matters) isn’t even wearing jerseys: the nihilistic lower-left (Exclusion and Intensity) quadrant is the fastest growing group in America, and they don’t vote.

Some people find solace in seeing the world in black-and-white and will cling to that view because they believe that anything else is chaos. Others, when discovering that the world includes many shades, just throw their hands up and decide that it’s everyone out for themselves. I guess I feel that too many Americans fall into those categories.

Canada, on the other hand, seems to have evolved more into a place that can embrace diversity. For example, there are many types of families and recognizing that is not anarchy or weakness, it’s a strength. Of course, that’s an issue near and dear to my heart, but as I’ve said before, it’s not the only one.

It drives me crazy when the religious right in the U.S. refers to “morals” and “values” when what they mean is THEIR morals and THEIR values. What’s worse is when the media picks up on this usage and refers to “values voters” meaning social reactionaries. I vote based on my values and my morals. I have a brain and I use it; that doesn’t make me a hedonist or an anarchist.

I just hope that the current Conservative minority government in Canada is the voters' punishment to the Liberals for their misdeeds and not a move closer to their neighbo(u)rs to the South.