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2030

I’m afraid.

Lately, my fears for the future have been regularly realized.

Every little news headline seems to reinforce how corrupt we are as a species, how doomed our planet it, and how without hope we are. Some days, I have to work hard to find the hope that will reinstate my faith in humanity. Some days, I have to dig very deep.

Nothing is quite as infuriating as politics and religion. These issues charge me up and fill me with outrage. Hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor from an adult makes me angry; hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest and then learning that case was willfully ignored by men who claim to speak for God, well, that fills me with rage. Hearing a boss or a neighbor or even a parent say they hate gay people, that hurts my heart; seeing a straight elderly white man stand up and say that God says gay people are sinners and apostates, and then hearing about suicides that take place afterward, well, that fills me with dread. Seeing a man post on Facebook about how times are tough for men right now and how alleged victims of sexual assault need to come forward with proof, that makes my heart ache; seeing an elected official who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times and who is a known sexual philanderer appoint another man accused of sexual assault to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court and then afterwards talk about how difficult men have it, well, that fills me with hopelessness.

And, as I write this, I realize I willfully take part in this outrage. I recognize that the world around me has learned how to capitalize on it. Logging into Facebook recently, I clicked a few buttons and realized that the computer algorithms have labeled me as an extreme liberal. I get fired up over transgender rights, and gay marriage, and fair wages, and victim advocacy, and #metoo. And entire political campaigns seek out my information and run ads that will get me fired up. The content that shows up on my page, in my Email, in my mailbox, it is often targeted just for my eyes. And it isn’t just me,  this is everyone.

I have a habit of waking up in the morning and checking CNN, or Rachel Maddow, or the New York Times, and I look for evidence that my beliefs and affiliations are justified. I want facts and figures that back up my beliefs. I want to feel validated. I want my hope back. And sometimes I find it. “See! There is a new trial for Paul Manafort! I knew Trump was corrupt! I knew Obama was the best president! I knew Russia was behind it all!” And sometimes I don’t find it. “Oh. Oh! There isn’t enough support to impeach the president, and there weren’t enough senators to keep Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. How could they! What is the world coming to! Why do I even try!” And then I realize that every one of these places runs on advertisements that are geared toward me. And I realize that the same thing is happening on the other side, too.

Recently, I had a long, several-hour drive through central Utah, and I could only get one radio station to play, and it was broadcasting the Sean Hannity show. And I thought, well, why not. The show opened with something like this. “On today’s show, we provide evidence that there isn’t one single decent Democrat among the whole bunch! They are all extreme liberals! And we will show you how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to influence the efforts of Donald Trump, the greatest president of the greatest country on Earth!” And then an ad came on featuring a man saying something like “I love what I love. I love my woman. I love my children. I love my trucks. And I love my guns.” And I didn’t stick around after that because I wanted to pull over and vomit.

With compassion, I realize that there is someone not that unlike me who wakes up across the country somewhere and brews his coffee and checks his Fox News and Breitbart headlines, where he finds stories that reinforce his own hopelessness and outrage. He talks to his friends about it, posts some things on social media, and wanders around wondering if the world will ever stop being so broken.

And so, to clear my head, I went on a long walk. I set aside the outrage, the pain, the hopelessness, and I focused on the beauty of the world. The changing leaves, the crisp fall air, the hilarious photos my children sent me the night before, the progress I helped one of my clients make in our latest session, the way my boyfriend snuggled me tight last night. The world is okay. The world is okay.

Except it isn’t! My reassurances weren’t working. I can’t just explain the feelings away, or even just breathe through them. The issues I am passionate about are real issues for me! Gay kids are committing suicide! Trans women of color are being brutally murdered! Sex trafficking numbers are higher than ever! Human populations keep growing and consuming, and entire ecosystems are critically endangered if not on the verge of extinction! People of color are still fighting for equality and recognition! Survivors of sexual assault are still not being believed! The air is being poisoned, and the icebergs are melting, and the hurricanes are growing bigger, and the climate is rising! It makes me want to scream! I’m afraid for the future! What kind of world are my sons going to grow up in! What world will be left for them to have a future in! (And those on the other side are outraged about their own issues, I realize. Abortion! Religious discrimination! The fall of basic morals and values! Sigh.)

And then it is another deep breath. I think of the protestors, those who fought against the Iraq War in my youth, those who fought against the Viet Nam and Korean Wars in the youths of my parents. I think of the hippies, and the feminists, and the Freedom Riders, and the Suffragettes, and the Underground Railroad, and I realize that things are changing. They are. And my heroes have always been those who rose up against impossible systems and made change. Gay marriage is legal now, and the Berlin Wall came down, and segregation was deemed illegal. Sally Ride went into space, and Barbara Jordan got elected, and we had a black president for eight years, and Elizabeth Smart survived to tell her story, and there is a street down the road now named after Harvey Milk. There will always be something to be outraged about. But only if we have a planet and a society in which we can be outraged at all.

I woke days ago to a headline that basically said, from a scientific standpoint, that we have until the year 2030 to get our shit together as a species or the planet is doomed. That’s basically what it said. We can cut back on plastic, and stop mass-slaughtering animals, and quit fracking the earth open, and shift to solar energy. We can take care of our air, and our water, and our animal habitats, and our trees, and our mountains, and our soil, or we can realize that they simply won’t be there any longer to take care of at all.

I sometimes feel like modern society is far too much like the one in the Game of Thrones. The people slaughter each other in political games, playing dirty and wiping out the well-meaning, all while the Apocalypse rises from the north, ready to consume them all. They have a limited time to get their act together if they want to survive at all. And even then, it may be too late.

In 2030, I’ll be turning 52 years old. My sons will be 22 and 19. (They are 9 and 7 now). This is not a far future. This is the amount of time from 2008 to now. It’s the simple difference between ages 20 and 32. It’s barely more than a decade. And no matter the state of the world, I’m sure humans will still be arguing, screaming, and protesting with each other about their personal outrages. But I don’t know if this is a future where the oceans are choked by plastics, garbage, and poisons, where massive storms ravage our coasts, where animal habitats have been almost entire consumed, and where humans have to wear masks outside to breathe. Or if this is a future much like the one that presently exists, damaged but salvageable, where convenience is somewhat sacrificed in the name of preservation. Will my sons get college, careers, families? Can they plan vacations? Can they breathe fresh air, see sunsets, climb trees, ride on a boat to see whales diving in the ocean? And can they raise their children to do the same?

Or is it too late?

I’m afraid.

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Wrong Sides of History

I believe in the fundamental goodness of people. I believe that even when people act in a sense of self-preservation for self or family, that they believe they are doing the right thing. I also know that there are individuals and organizations in the world that are fundamentally evil, that are willing to exploit, corrupt, steal, and murder to gain power. I recognize that all individuals are not part of these organizations, yet that these organizations, at times in history, influence public opinion in such dangerous and terrible ways.

As an American citizen in 2016, I sit with a sense of panic about the days ahead. This week, Donald Trump was officially put in place as the President Elect by the Electoral College of the United States. I am not the only person to be outraged and saddened by an election. I am not the first person to see progress seemingly stunted or halted temporarily. I look backwards at some of my heroes, like Gloria Steinem, who fought for the perfectly reasonable Equal Rights Amendment, tirelessly and for years, only to see it ultimately fail. (It still hasn’t passed). Abraham Lincoln had to take the country to war to end slavery, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, yet racism still exists in many forms. Malala Yousafzai only recently became an icon after being shot in the head for being a Muslim girl who wanted the right to learn, yet many Middle Eastern girls are still denied access to education.

Ultimately, we only dwell in the present. In the present moment, we experience and feel, looking backward to the past, while fearing and hoping for the future. And in the present, we justify our actions, our votes, our decisions with our present reality, and can only look back later with hindsight.

We sometimes throw around the phrase “the wrong side of history”. What that fundamentally means is there are a lot of people, looking backwards, who made decisions in their present realities, things that with a slight amount of historical perspective can no longer be understood.

Overlooking for a moment the corrupt organizations referenced above, let’s look at the individuals along the way who have been fundamentally good, who were only dwelling in their present and wanting to do so with as much ease and grace as possible, but who ended up on the wrong side of history.

Look at the bus driver who told Rosa Parks to give up her seat at the back of the bus to a white person, and called the police when she refused to.

Look at the first President of our country, George Washington, who made sure to move his group of slaves South every so often, to make sure they didn’t qualify for freedom by staying the North for too long.

Look at the county clerk in Kentucky who simply refused to give a marriage license to a gay couple, choosing jail over compromising her personal principles.

Look at the German family who turned in their neighbors for harboring a Jewish couple in their basement, afraid for their own lives if they didn’t speak up and were thus held as complicit.

Look at the young black female who turned in her older brother to the plantation owner after hearing her brother’s plans to run away, knowing that her brother would be punished, but not wanting the rest of her family to be punished after he fled.

Look at the early American settler who believed it was more humane to sterilize the Native American population, to force them to become Christians, in an attempt to save them from their own savagery.

Look at the house wife who scoffed at the Suffragettes for fighting for female equality, chanting that these women should know men were better suited for the work outside the home, that women should know their proper place.

Look at the judge who found the young man innocent of savagely stabbing a gay man who had flirted with him, believing that the gay man should have known better and not wanting to ruin a young man’s life for one moment of insane and violent passion.

Look at the woman who served lemonade to her friends and neighbors, smiling and laughing at jokes while the tree branches strained to hold the bodies of two lynched black men above them.

Look at the schoolteacher who told her students to never shake hands with a gay man or they would get AIDS, the disease God sent to punish sinners on Earth.

Look at the father who dropped his pregnant teenage daughter off at the nunnery, crying as he hugged her goodbye forever, unable to forgive her for the unpardonable sin of premarital sex.

Look at the nurse who performed her twentieth clitorectomy of the day on a five year old African child, mutilating her genitals, knowing the girl would heal and develop scar tissue and then save herself for her husband, never enjoying sex as the custom dictated, the same procedure the nurse had undergone as a child.

Look at the young small town man who stood guard at the gates of the internment camp, making sure no Japanese American citizen could escape as they might be a spy and could forever endanger American lives.

Look at the proud father who refused to share his wife’s bed after she had given birth to a third female child, forever shaming him in the eyes of the community around him, now seeking a new and worthier wife who would deign to give him a son.

Look at the teenage girl who carefully watched her classmates for signs they might be a Communist, looking over the checklist of signs given out by her school, scared that one of them might be among her.

 

My politics are not the politics of all good and decent people, I know this. Nor are my morals, my values, my ethics, my beliefs. I will not vilify someone for not wanting change, for wanting peace and security for their family, for voting for someone who stands against the things I hold dear.

But I will dwell in my present and stand firm. I will look backwards at those who sought the easy way for themselves and their families and who ended up being on the wrong side of history. I will learn from them as I view the world around me.

And I will look forward with hope, knowing that the future has yet to be written.

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Black Lives

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“The hardest part is seeing all these parents with their children.”

Gloria folded her arms and nodded. “Yes, but there is no other way. The children have to know.”

My eyes scanned the crowd, looking over a veritable sea of African Americans of all ages and sizes. In front of a large display of a man being lynched, a mother clutched her son tightly. I saw her place her hand over his eyes initially as if to shield him, then she slowly took it away and leaned down to explain why this had happened. I heard two ten year old boys near her debating whether or not the man in that photo had escaped his noose. A bit earlier, I had heard a boy of 12 brag to his teacher that “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War!” Although he had a few too many ‘greats’ tacked on, I was both thrilled and saddened that he knows his family heritage. I watched a mother hold hands with her two daughters, one on each side, reading a display about a black woman who was raped by policemen, men who were later acquitted of the crime, and wondered how she felt.

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I looked back at Gloria. “I was never sure I wanted children,” she said. “And then I had my daughter, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. She changed my whole life. And I learned that I couldn’t raise a black daughter without her knowing her history. Thing is, you can’t hide from history, and you can’t make the mistake of not teaching it.”

I nod, sullen. “I’m a dad, too. I try to teach my sons the things they need to know. I taught them about Martin Luther King, and they just can’t understand why another man would try to kill someone who stood for something so good.”

“I know. But our children go on to do amazing things. We teach them right, we raise them right, and then they surprise us.” A proud look came over Gloria’s face. “My daughter, she works in the White House now. That’s why I’m here in D.C. from my home in Atlanta, to attend some events with her. Just the other day, I got to meet President Obama, and let me tell you, he was the nicest man.”

“He has surely been our finest president.” We shared a smile.

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And that had been the very best part of being in this museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It had been an hours-long wait to get in. A large crowd of us had been lead into the deep basement level, where we learned about black history in the Americas from 1400 on. Beautiful and stirring displays, with perfect music and ambience and light and shadow, showed peaceful industrious families in African villages being kidnapped and forced on to slave ships. Those who survived the journeys were then owned for life, whipped and raped and beaten and killed and worked, for generations. Displays told stories of poets and statesmen, soldiers and teachers and martyrs throughout the sordid and violent history, through the Civil War and into freedom, through poverty and segregation, through the fight for Civil Rights to mass imprisonment. A woman on the ground floor had told me it would take a full 22 hours to go through the entire museum, reading everything. I had been here for 3, and my brain and heart were in a spiral. Yet at the top, I got to see black families standing in front of pictures of the Obamas, in a massive hall lined with black celebrities and powerful figures from history. I could feel the pride emanating there.

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I confided in Gloria a bit, as her friends stood near her. “I can understand all of this, but only on my own level. I am a gay father to two sons. They are amazing and wonderful and individual, but they are growing up with a gay dad. It sets my family apart, gives us difficulties. My own family doesn’t always understand me, and I’ve faced discrimination. But my skin is white. I could never understand what it is like in this country to face all of this. And I cant imagine how it feels now that Trump has been elected. To go from seeing the first black couple in the White House to seeing a candidate endorsed by the KKK.”

Gloria put a hand on my arm, less to console me and more to get my attention. “Look. You understand more than you think you do. People are people and should be treated as people. It’s 2016 and this museum is just now getting built. It should have been here years ago.”

My eyes lit up. “I can’t believe it is as close to the Washington Monument and the White House as it is!”

She kept on topic. “As far as Trump’s election goes, I fully believe that everything happens for a reason. We are going to learn the lessons we need to learn, and we are going to keep on going on, because what else can we do? We have to, and that is just the way it is.”

I nodded in agreement, but I couldn’t help but think of how different this place would be in a few weeks. Now it felt celebratory. Would it be like this after the White House was staffed with nearly all white millionaires? I sighed.

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The line shifted forward. I was glad it had moved slowly, because I wouldn’t have met Gloria otherwise. We finally entered the room where Emmett Till’s coffin was on display, with no body inside it. Emmett had been 13 when he had allegedly whistled at a white woman. A group of white men had kidnapped him and savagely beaten him before tossing his mutilated body in a river, where it was later found. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had allowed the bloated body to be put on display for the public to witness the atrocity. The murderers were put on trial and all exonerated in the courtroom. Being here now, feeling this now, 1955 didn’t feel all that long ago. I could still feel the outrage.

A quote from Mamie Till on the wall brought me to tears. “Two months ago I had a nice AnAn ouapartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was.”

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An hour later, I walked away from the museum, after hours inside, contemplative and deeply moved. Images of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Bayard Rustin and Harriet Tubman and Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm and Martin Luther King and Crispus Attucks and, most of all, Gloria, ran through my head. I thought of the real American history, and legacy, and the present, and the future.

I looked at the gorgeous architecture of the museum behind me. And then I looked at the placement of my feet on the ground beneath me. And then I looked up at the skyline ahead.

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a message to white people who are tired of talking about hard things

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This election matters to me. For many reasons.

Candidate one: a woman. A woman who is respected in many countries all over the world as a powerful and effective and respectful leader. A woman who has been called the most qualified candidate in American history. A woman who is a strategist, with a multi-ethnic team at her side, who runs on causes of social justice. And a woman who is being torn to shreds by her home country’s media (on one side) over scandals and lies and secret plots, all things that have been willfully overlooked in nearly every other presidential candidate across time.

And Candidate two: a man. A narcissistic, egomaniacal billionaire who avoids paying taxes, who marries super models and then cheats on them, and who refuses to pay people for the work they do for him. An overweight 70 year old man who has insulted basically anyone who is not rich and white and what he considers pretty: the handicapped, the overweight, women, veterans, the elderly, the mentally ill, the refugee, LGBT people, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and nearly every other ethnic group. A man described as the least qualified candidate in American history.

I mean, look at their very campaign slogans. Her: Stronger Together. An invitation for everyone to work together, share, invest, and build, celebrating everyone. His: Make America Great Again. An invitation to forget the progress of recent years and go back to a time when white men could go back to being comfortable as white men, and where everyone else knew their places.

From even some of my closest loved ones, I keep hearing these bizarre arguments and frustrations about the election. Things like “I just want it to be over. I’m tired of them hearing about these things. I’m tired of people being mean to each other.” And “I get that Donald Trump is gross but I don’t trust Hillary. She is so dishonest.” And “I’m not voting. It doesn’t matter what the outcome of this election is. It doesn’t have any impact on my life.” And “I wish we could go back 50 years when things were easier and happier.”

These comments aggravate me to no end for many reasons, and they tie directly in to why the election matters so much to me in the first place. Every one of my personal values is on the national stage. Rape culture and gender equality. Systemic racism and its impact on minority groups. LGBT rights and teen suicides. Christian privilege and the hate speak about other religions or belief structures. Gun violence without sanction.

People in privilege have a habit of being faced with unpleasant topics, and then getting tired of hearing about them. “Okay, okay, I get it, women get raped. Let’s teach women how not to get raped. Now can we please stop talking about it?” “All right, I understand, prisons are disproportionately full of black people. But black people commit more crimes, so they should stop doing that. Let’s move on.” “I got it, another gay kid killed himself. But suicide isn’t just about sexuality, he must have been mentally ill. Did you see the Voice last night?”

And that is the very essence of privilege! You get to stop talking about it! Because it isn’t staring you in the face every day! If YOU were getting raped, if YOUR paycheck was less than your coworkers, if YOUR loved ones were being attacked by police, if YOUR son was pushed toward suicide, if YOUR family were being called rapists because of their last name… if it was you, and everyone around you just shrugged and told you to stop bringing it up, would you stand for that?

The very fact that it is 2016 and we are still having arguments about whether or not racism exists, that people are still learning what rape culture is, that children are putting guns to their heads because churches and families say they don’t fit in, and that a country that was founded on freedom of religion is debating entire religions from crossing the borders… I just can’t wrap my brain around it. It infuriates me.

Also, fifty years ago, things were not that great! That was the middle of the Civil Rights movement, with the country still coming out of the segregation era! Gay people were being sent in for shock treatments, and women were expected to housewives!

And if you are longing for the politicians of previous eras, well, stop white-washing your history. First of all, ALL of them have been white men. And NONE of them are beyond corruption. John Kennedy colluded with the mafia. Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS crisis. Bill Clinton lied to the public about his affairs. And George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Life was only better back then because you didn’t have to talk about hard things, not until you were forced to, and then you started to pay attention. Years later. (Have you ever heard of Selma? Stonewall? The Suffragettes?)

Our government has long been dominated by white men who shrug off things that don’t bother them directly. I remember legislation in Idaho years back, when a group petitioned that the locally named Squaw Canyon should be renamed because ‘squaw’ is an incredibly offensive words to Native Americans. The local white government officials shrugged off the legislation, saying it would be inconvenient and that it didn’t bother enough people. These are the attitudes that exist in every corner of American government, in every state and county and city. The simply cannot be the basis for our government decisions any longer.

It is long past time we had a representative government, filled equally with men and women, black and white and Latino and Native and Asian, Christian and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight and transgender. Our government should reflect every shade of human diversity.

And for those of you who are sick of seeing difficult things talked about, and shrug it off with an annoyed muttering about ‘political correctness’, well, you may have the luxury of not being impacted by the topics you seek to avoid. But you don’t get to avoid them just because they make you uncomfortable.

Because for the rest of us, it’s part of our daily lives. And our primary problem? It isn’t so much the sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia, etc, that you get tired of hearing about. Our primary problem is your unwillingness to do anything about it because it makes you uncomfortable.

And for every topic you have grown tired of, there are a dozen more that haven’t yet hit the media at those levels: limited treatment options for the mentally ill, the violent murders of transgender women of color, Native American land rights, human trafficking, the real truth about poverty and homelessness, and on and on.

So woman up, open your ears, listen, and do the right thing. Then maybe we’ll quiet down a bit. Maybe.

that time in 1872 when a feminist and an escaped slave ran for president

In 1872, a woman ran for President of the United States with an escaped slave as her running mate.

Victoria Clafin suffered abuse at the hands of her father as a child.  He was a con man who pulled his daughter out of school when she was 11, and he was run out of town shortly after when he burned down his own home and tried to collect the insurance money.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in his grandmother’s shack. Though he never knew his father, it was believed that his owner had fathered him biologically, but because of his black skin, Frederick would be property rather than an heir. As a child, he witnessed slaves being whipped, interrogated, worked to death, sold, and murdered.

At age 14, Victoria met and soon married Canning Woodhull, a doctor twice her age, and she had two children, a son and a daughter, Byron and Zula Maude. Canning liked alcohol and women a bit too much, and Victoria divorced him. Though she later took a second husband, she later advocated for free love, the idea of having sex as the heart dictates, not strictly confined to marriage or commitment. She kept Canning’s late name, Woodhull. She saw a society where women either belonged to a man in marriage, or were ostracized for being divorced, and she loudly proclaimed that women should be given the right to own their own bodies and choices. She was jailed for speaking too loudly.

Frederick was sold to a new master, and the man’s kind wife taught him to read, but when his master found out, the lessons stopped, as it was believed that an educated slave was a dangerous one. Frederick taught himself to read after that, through guile and dedication, and he fell in love with the New Testament. He began teaching other slaves to read in Sunday School. At 16, he was given to another new master, who beat and whipped him regularly, promising to break him.

Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, opened their own stockbroking firm in 1870, and were hailed as “the Queens of Finance” as they coached their clients toward riches. Victoria used her money to start her own newspaper, which she ran for six years. Its primary purpose was spreading the message of feminism, and it advocated for legalization of prostitution, sex education, women’s suffrage, women’s right to choice, and spirituality, and it even printed Karl Marx’s Communism Manifesto. Victoria used her influence to expose a church leader’s marital affairs, a man who had advocated for monogamy and marriage over the pulpit.

In 1837, Frederick met a free black woman, Anna Murray, and fell in love. It took several months, but he ran away, risking his life, and escaped into the north to be free. He took Anna as his wife and they remained married for 44 years, and had five children. Frederick became a preacher, an abolitionist, and an author. His first book, about his time in slavery, became an international bestseller, and Frederick began traveling the world to speak about his experiences; he was still subjected to violence and hatred at times. He spoke loudly against the hypocrisy of Christianity in the South, Bible-reading men who prayed and paid tithes and then beat and raped and sold and killed their slaves under the protections of religion. He started a newspaper and began giving speeches, like one called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He also advocated for women’s rights, and stayed very politically active through the Civil War.

Deciding to run for president, Victoria stood before Congress and argued eloquently that since all citizens were equal, women already had the right to vote. She ran on the ticket of the newly formed Equal Rights Party, and Frederick Douglass, through no initiative of his own, was voted as her running mate for Vice President. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1872. Women would receive the right to vote approximately 50 years later, and the Civil Rights Movement would take place closer to 100 years later.

After the death of his wife Anna, Frederick took a second wife, Helen Pitts, a white feminist nearly 20 years younger than him, a union which caused much public scandal. He died in his late 70s, fighting for equal rights for others until his last breath. Before his death, he made peace with his original owner, the man believed to be his father.

Victoria lived into her 80s and lived overseas for a time, taking a third husband in England. She remained much quieter in her later years.

A black man, Barack Obama, was first elected president in 2008, and a woman, Hillary Clinton, was first put on a presidential ticket in 2016. Gender and race equality remain ever-present issues in today’s politics. But it was 1872 when a black man and a woman first teamed up, unwittingly, to run the country. We are long overdue.

 

 

 

Two White Guys Talking About Privilege

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Hey, professor, you wanted to see me?

Yeah, Mark, close the door, let’s talk for a bit. Have a seat.

What’s up?

During class today, when we were talking about privilege, you got quiet.

That’s because I didn’t have anything to say.

I think that is unlikely. You are usually very talkative and insightful during class. And you were more than just quiet, you were uncomfortable and closed off.

Nah, I’m good.

Mark, look, you aren’t being graded on this. You showed up to class and got your work done. Grade already recorded. This is just a discussion and a check-in. What happened today?

Look, I–I just learned early on in this program that when it comes to topics like this, no one wants to know what I have to say.

And why do you feel that way?

I’m a white guy. I’m the minority here and no matter what I say is going to be wrong. And when I have tried to share things in this program, I’ve been attacked.

Okay, let’s look at the big picture here. You are working on getting a Masters degree in Social Work. You are in a cohort of primarily women, in fact about 80 per cent of the students are women, and it is safe to say that all of them are feminists.

That’s fine. I’m a feminist too.

So am I. Now why do you feel like you are attacked when you share your opinion on the topic of privilege?

I don’t feel attacked, I am attacked.

Why do you feel attacked?

Okay, okay. Look, a couple of weeks back, I tried sharing my opinion on gay marriage in a class where the topic came up. I don’t have a problem with gay people, I really don’t. I have gay friends, I believe in gay rights. I know you’re gay. And I’m not Mormon like most of the people here, but I am Christian, and it’s not so easy, you know? I see gay people at my internship and I was talking to my pastor about that once and he told me that any time I choose to provide service to gay people, then I am choosing them over God. And so I shared that in class, that I felt divided, and a bunch of the students interrupted me and got angry and told me that if I wanted to be a social worker, I would have to quit my church, and no one would listen. They attacked me for being a Christian white guy. So now I just don’t share my opinion any more.

Okay, to start, you have heard me talk about the ‘yes, and’ principle in class before. Two realities can co-exist at the same time. The sun can warm me, and it can burn me. Food can nourish me and make me gain weight. My mom can have two gay kids that she loves and supports and still not know where she stands on gay marriage. And you can be a Christian white social worker whose religious beliefs and professional beliefs don’t always line up. There is room for contradictions in all of us.

Yeah, I get that.

So I’m going to be tough on you before I am supportive. Is that okay?

Yes, I trust you and your intentions.

There is an absolute irony about you feeling attacked.

An irony? How so?

Be fair, be strengths-focused. Why do you think your comments upset the people around you?

Because they are women with strong opinions, and anything but the answer they want is the wrong answer.

I don’t think that is the case at all. Try again, why do you think they are upset.

I honestly don’t know. Help me out here.

You understand the concept of privilege, right?

Sure, those in the majority have inherent privileges in their day to day living that those in minorities don’t have to deal with.

Give me a few examples.

As a man, I can be hired and expect a fair wage, where women often get harassed and paid way less than men for doing the same job. As a white guy, I see my majority represented everywhere in American leadership, I have better access to scholarships, jobs, pay, legal representation, college opportunities, etc.

Excellent. We had a conversation about privilege on the first day of class. The more majority statuses you fall into, the greater your privilege opportunities. White, Christian, male, young, fit or thin, able-bodied, gender-defined, straight, healthy, middle class or above.

Yeah, I remember. We talk about it in all of our classes a little bit.

Since your legs work, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a wheelchair ramp is available to your second floor classes. Since you were born male, and you define as male, you get to use the men’s room without having to worry about what people think because you are transgender. Since you are young and not elderly, you can drive a car without everyone around you assuming you are slow or lacking purpose, everyone being impatient around you.

Right, I get all that.

You get it in the head, not sure you get it totally in the heart. They don’t always line up.

Okay, what does that have to do with all this.

You are in a graduate program in a field that advocates for social justice. This is one of the few programs that actually has a lot of material on privilege and its implications, one of the few programs that has a majority of women. This program actually gets you to think about and confront difficult ideas on these topics.

So what makes my experience here ironic?

Mark, when it comes to big conversations like this in the public, who do you think has the most to say? Who do you think gets the final say?

The majority. Men. White men.

Absolutely. And who feels silenced?

Women. Gay people. Everyone that falls into those non-majority categories.

Absolutely. But it is about more than feeling silenced. It’s different on almost every level. Let me give you an example. You are married, right?

Yeah.

Okay, when you go out in public, do you hold your wife’s hand?

Yeah, sure. All the time.

And do you feel watched, criticized, discriminated against?

No, why would I?

I’m a 36 year old man. I am dating a guy. A few Sundays ago, we are out walking, and we are holding hands, nothing else. Just walking, talking, and holding hands. And I hadn’t done that in a while. But everyone we walk by, I feel a nervousness creep up in my chest. I’m watching them to see if they notice us holding hands, every person we pass. And I’m expecting them to say things like ‘gross’ or ‘fags’ or ‘disgusting.’ I’m expecting someone to just look up and say ‘we don’t care what you do in your home, but do you have to do that out here?’ And I’m walking around and I’m nervous, even though I’m trying to relax.

Look, I–

Wait, I’m not done. So this guy and I, we see this couple sitting on the concrete stairs in front of us. An older white guy with a beard, and an older black woman, and both of them are in dirty clothes and look like they have probably been using drugs recently. As as we get closer, they both sit up and I’m waiting for one of them to say something rude to us. The lady, she says loudly, ‘Hey!’ and I take a step back, nervous, not sure if she is going to ask for money or say something rude to us. And I say ‘yeah?’ and she says ‘I just wanted to say, I think you two are cute.’ And I say ‘thank you’ and the guy I’m holding hands with and I both smile and laugh about this.

Okay, but–

Just a minute, I’m almost done. So I’m walking away, and I’m thinking about how terrible it is that in 2015, I have to be nervous about something as simple as holding hands with a guy that I like, and how straight people never have to think about it. And that’s privilege. And then I realize that because I’m in the middle class and I have an apartment and a bank account, I see this couple and I automatically assume they want to ask for money, and they probably think that every person who walks by them thinks they are going to ask for money. People avoid eye contact, treat them rudely, get scared when they say ‘hey’ because they assume these things about them. And they have to live with that. And this woman, she’s not only poor, she’s a woman, and she’s black, and she has all these other things in her mind. I’m worried about what people will say because I’m gay. She’s worried about sexual assault and judgments and where she is going to sleep tonight. And that is privilege. And it sucks that we live in a world based around it.

I… okay. Yeah. That sucks.

So here is the irony. You are feeling marginalized in one class by a few people who didn’t like what you had to say. You felt attacked by some students in your cohort in a program that is all about social justice.

What makes that ironic?

Well, simply put: that feeling you felt in class? Feeling silenced, disrespected, like no one around you wanted to hear what you had to say?

Yeah?

That’s how I felt all the time as a gay kid growing up. Every day. That is how many of the women in your class feel in this patriarchal world of men. That is how everyone who doesn’t fall in the majority feels all the time.

Whoa.

Yeah. And you felt it once. And so now you aren’t talking any more.

I–yeah–that–wow. Okay. So that’s what it feels like to not be privileged.

Exactly.

Okay.

Now let me give you credit. You have a good brain. An intuitive mind. You care about people. You advocate for others. You are a good student and a good social worker. And this is a ‘yes, and’ thing again. You are privileged. You are going to have to learn how to listen to others. How to feel marginalized and be okay with it. How to share your experiences and conflicts with others, and listen when they don’t agree with you, and ask questions, and learn how others feel, not just with your head but with your heart. You don’t get to shut down. You get to be uncomfortable and learn. Because…

Because that is how others feel all the time.

Exactly. So next time the conversation starts, I want you to join in, because we need your voice. It’s a good one.

Thank you, professor. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Thank you for being willing to think about it. See you next week, Mark.

Yeah, see you next week.

Why Barbara Jordan is My Hero

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On July 13, 1976, a New York Times article read:

“It is a classic American success story: A poor child of extraordinary intellect, driven by parents who sought a better life for their offspring; an ambitious student who turned to the study of law because it seemed to provide the key to influence; a young politician who, not despairing after defeats in two attempts for public office, was elected on the third try; a state senator and then a member of Congress, who sought out and gradually won the confidence of the powerful and who was not beneath compromising and making deals to win some of that power.

It was, in short, the road to success that white men had traveled since the country was founded.”

A few months ago, I had never heard of Barbara Jordan. I started doing daily posts on an LGBT history site that I created, and one day I came across Jordan. I clicked on a few links and watched her powerful and moving speech at the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon, where her mix of clear-headed and unbiased focus, social justice, and powerful oratory skills stirred my soul, and then I saw her moving speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention and had to sit down I was so impressed. Then I learned that both speeches are considered in the top twenty of best American speeches given in American history. So I quickly sought to learn more about her.

Born in 1936, Barbara Jordan grew up in the poor sections of Houston, where segregation ensured lower education standards, poverty ran rampant, and unadulterated racism often resulted in lynchings, violent mobs, and unfair legal sanctions and punishments.

Barbara’s hero was her grandfather, her mother’s father, John Patten. Despite a meager upbringing, Patten married and had a family, and opened a candy shop, establishing a business with which he planned to provide for his family for their entire lives. When a young black man robbed Patten’s store one night, Patten grabbed his gun and chased the man into the streets. When white policemen saw Patten with a gun, Patten put up his hands to surrender, but one of the officers shot him in the hand. Patten was later put on trial, where the police claimed Patten had shot at them multiple times, and an all-white jury convicted Patten to ten years in jail. Patten served 8 years in filthy, undernourished conditions. He lost his business, and one of his children died while he was gone. Upon his exit, he began peddling junk, and he taught his favorite granddaughter, Barbara Charline, how to work hard and how to stand up for herself.

Barbara witnessed the impacts of racism and segregation on a daily basis growing up, but she was able to view the entire system with a keen mind. She excelled in school, learning how to emphasize her talents and challenge her shortcomings, and pushed herself through Harvard Law School. Settling back in Houston, she began running for public office, and quickly learned how the local white politicians wanted to take advantage of her talents and race to further themselves. She lost two elections before staking her own claim and digging in on her own terms.

Over the following years in her terms of government, first in the Senate, and then in Congress, Barbara developed the unique ability to stand firmly for African Americans, and for women, while maintaining alliances with the white politicians around her, particularly one with Lyndon B. Johnson during his time in office as president. She was sought out hundreds of times for public speeches, was considered for the vice presidency by Jimmy Carter (though she ended up turning down an offer in his White House unless he offered her the position of Attorney General; he didn’t), and had a group of national followers who wanted her to run for President, but she felt the time was not right.

Jordan had the unique capacity to remain in the moment, something I strive for on a daily basis. She could take insurmountable tasks, like researching and dusting off old policies and procedures, without the benefit of the Internet, and spending weeks and months compiling notes to form clear-headed arguments. She addressed her needs, formed boundaries, celebrated life, valued her friends and loved ones, and maintained a balance of self-care, career aspirations, and personal relationships. She lived, and she lived large, and she lived well.

Barbara died just short of the age of 60, after a years long battle with multiple sclerosis and, later, leukemia. At her side until the end was Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist, a white woman, and Barbara’s best friend, lover, and partner for 30 years. Barbara lived in a time when she could not come out as lesbian, and likely had to introduce the love of her life as her “roommate” or “friend” in public. They weren’t allowed to marry, but they lived as if they were. Earl and Jordan loved each other deeply and fully. They owned a home together and traveled together, an interracial lesbian couple in Texas, keeping their home life a secret from the public. This both delights me and makes me sad.

Barbara Jordan was the first southern black woman elected to the House of Representatives, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after the Reconstruction, the first black woman to address the Democratic National Convention, and the first black woman to be buried in Texas State Cemetery. Since her death, Jordan has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has been put on a postage stamp, has been placed in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and has had numerous schools as well as a main terminal in the Austin airport named for her.

Barbara Jordan broke down barriers for women, for African Americans, and for LGBT people, in the face of oppression and impossible obstacles. Her skills and talents led her to rise above. Now envision a world in which all are given equal opportunities for success, when systems of oppression and privilege are not in place to hold others back. What have we missed out on because we favor the majority and make it easier for them to succeed?

I am proud to call Barbara Jordan a personal hero. My world is better because she lived.

Man in a monkey cage

The sign read:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September

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On September 8, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City added a new exhibit, a small coffee-skinned African man named Ota Benga. Placed with the monkeys, the man had an open cage to sleep in. Delighted visitors came by the thousands, the tens of thousands, bringing their friends and children to see the African man. Many of the spectators believed him to be some sub-species of man, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between monkeys and human children. And the spectators didn’t just want to see the man, they wanted him to perform. They wanted to see him hunt, play with the orangutan, dance and climb trees. If he hid, they threw rocks against his cage to draw him out. If he sat, they yelled racial slurs and insults to spark him into action, something their children could clap over and tell their friends about later. “Dance, monkey, dance,” they seemed to yell as an adult man sat behind bars, listening to their unfamiliar foreign words, yet their intent all too easy to understand.

Word spread quickly, throughout the country and then internationally: the Americans had an African man on exhibit with monkeys. New York had been a free state long before the Civil War, seeing African American citizens as deserving of equality and equal rights. And now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, a man was in a cage.

It took them time to figure out what had happened, and language barriers, direct lies, poor record-keeping, and time have kept many of the details hidden.

The man who came to be known as Ota Benga grew up in the Congo, then under Belgian rule. Under harsh sanctions from the Belgian people, the Congolese tribes were exploited and forced into labor. Samuel Verner, who had served as a Christian missionary in the Congo previously, and who had also spent time in a mental institution, was sent to the Congo to acquire willing men to be brought to America to be put on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Benga was among them.

A bizarre series of events led to Benga being placed in the Museum of Natural History before he was placed on exhibit at the zoo, exploited and stared at.

Verner told story after story, each contradicting the others, in an effort to make himself sound heroic. He told how he had rescued Benga from slave traders, how Benga trusted only him, how Benga had asked to come to America and be placed on display. Yet in truth, Verner was a swindler and a liar. Not only had he fathered children with women while he was in Africa, he had racked up debts and exploited money. And Benga was not the first Congolese boy he had brought to the United States.

I learned about Benga only recently, when I chose a book about him at random off of a shelf. I read ravenously, devouring the words and images of this story that I had never heard before, these forgotten horrific moments of American history.

How could this have possibly happened, I wondered, in a country that is founded on Christian principles, equality of all men, and dignity of each person. And then I recalled the very founding of our country, a mix of declaring liberty from foreign powers while asserting our foreign power over the Native Americans with violence and blood; a mixture of welcoming foreigners, while building the country on the backs of foreign slaves.

The violent opposition of it all makes my head spin. We who consider ourselves the great democracy, founded on the principles of free speech and choice and religion, the greatest country in the world with equality and opportunity for all, priding ourselves on the American dream, yet we have entire presidential campaigns running on premises of refuting gay marriage, opposing women’s health care options, restricting immigration by building walls, and banning religious groups.

Ota Benga was a small man, but he was not a child nor did he have limited intellect. He had filed his teeth to fine points not because he was a cannibal or a savage, but because that was a custom among his tribe, a rite of passage for men. He communed with the monkeys in the exhibit not because he considered himself one of them, but because they were his only solace and support as the white Americans jeered.

After Benga was released from the zoo, he was taken in by an educated group of black Americans who gave him companionship and work and taught him the language. Benga lived among these citizens, whose ancestors had been forced from their homes to be slaves, belonging and yet not belonging; they had history in America, he was a refugee. It is believed Benga had lost a wife and children in the Congo, a result of cruel white men, before coming to America. He lived in relative isolation here for years, using an American-ized version of his name, Otto Bingo.

Until, in 1916, Benga found a gun and shot himself through the heart, a poetically tragic end to his story.

As I finish this story, and reflect, I’m left to wonder how we, as an evolving society of Americans… how much have we really changed?

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