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Bon Bons

May 29th, 2009 No comments

“Let’s Form A Big, Strong Line”

That invitation is made towards the end of “Dancing in the Streets” (By now-Detroit Citycouncilwoman Martha Reeves and “the Vandellas”) and reminded me that little nuggets are often hidden at the end of songs.

  • At the end of “Rock the Casbah,” Clash vocalist Joe Strummer shouts “You know he [the sharif, natch] really hates it” as the musicians fade out.
  • Suzanne Vega’s throwaway “didididi didididi” at the end of her a cappella song “Tom’s Diner” became the glorious grounding for DNA’s Dance Remix of the song.
  •  Most startling: “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys seems to end in a celebratory way, but then, after two minutes of silence, there’s a sad coda not imagined in the original Village People song: The full-throated utopia celebrated by the chorus and reedy vocalist Neil Tennant turns out to have been, well, an illusion (with the hindsight gained at the tragic cost of AIDS). You can’t even find the words in most internet lyric versions. Who wants tragedy and grim reminders after all that uplift?  Yet that’s what makes the chorus-less, quiet closing so effective.

So too, in a way, did the marriage utopia promised by the California Supremes turn out to have been illusory; at least for now. But we’re forming a big strong line, forming a chain to push back against state-sanctioned inequality. Will we get help from…?

Strange Bedfellows

To the open consternation of several gay advocacy legal entities, former Bush v. Gore antagonists David Boies and Theodore Olson have teamed up to bring a federal lawsuit challenging Prop 8, and, in effect, the whole constitutionality of banning same-sex marriages. Given the make-up of the current Court (where Souter=Sotomayor on this issue), the question will come down to this: What does Justice Anthony Kennedy think? On issues like this, there’s effectively one Supreme Court Justice, with the rest sitting as four-to-a-side window-dressing, there to remind us that, yes, there are nine members on the Court.

Boies and Olson say they’re confident, and they have some reason to be. After all, Kennedy wrote two very expansive decisions in two major gay rights decisions (Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas). But as this article points out, his commitment to an expansive  definition of “liberty” under the substantive due process guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment isn’t reliable. And given the ferment over marriage, it might be unlikely he’d want to get too far ahead of public opinion; which, lest we forget, still opposes marriage equality (albeit by a quickly shrinking percentage).

Not worried yet? Consider, then, what he had to say, during his confirmation hearings, about the evolution of due process. Questioned on the limits of substantive rights, he remarked that “we are very much in a stage of evolution and debate” about these, and staked out a (probably necessary) populist position, noting that the debate was one to which “the public and the legislature have every right to contribute.” That’s right, but when does the “contribution” run up against the Constitution. Who knows?

Emotion in Motion

Speaking of perhaps soon-to-be Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, David Brooks had an an excellent observation about the non-issue of empathy in today’s Times:

“[D]ecisions are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances. It is incoherent to say that a judge should base an opinion on reason and not emotion because emotions are an inherent part of decision-making. Emotions are the processes we use to assign value to different possibilities. Emotions move us toward things and ideas that produce pleasure and away from things and ideas that produce pain.

“People without emotions cannot make sensible decisions because they don’t know how much anything is worth. People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.

“Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world.”

Need we continue to debate this?

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Three Acts on Prop 8: III (B)

March 6th, 2009 No comments

This slog through all things Prop 8 is about to close on a much more positive note, as promised in today’s earlier post.

If I were shaking one of those magic eight balls , asking the question: “Will marriage equality in the United States be achieved within the next thirty years,” I would expect to see the answer above. (That is, assuming the accursed thing worked and didn’t stall between responses, as it often does. But I digress.)

I’m optimistic enough to think — although I’ve been burned by every President so far — that it all could start with President Obama. Although he nominally opposes marriage equality, a recently unearthed interview from the 1990s with Chicago’s Gay Weekly, The Windy City Times, suggests that his opposition was a necessary and limited political position. Like most mainstream Democratic politicians, he favors civil unions with full marriage rights, the repeal of the malevolent Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) which defines “marriage” as the union of a man and a woman (for federal purposes), and a comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”) that would include the transgendered community. (You can find his positions on gay rights issues here.) Now, whether he’ll use his bully pulpit to aggressively push for these measures, I can’t say. But if he does (and if people haven’t starting hating him for an economic mess that he didn’t create and will be well-nigh impossible to fix in the short term), we’re already moving in a great direction.

Indeed, it was doubtless Obama’s ascendancy to the White House that fueled the recent filing of a lawsuit challenging DOMA. The case was brought by several same-sex couples legally married in Massachusetts, but whose marriages are federally useless under DOMA. Wisely, the suit challenges only the provision of DOMA that takes the unprecedented step of federalizing the traditionally state law of marriage. It may well succeed.On a related note, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (“GLAD”), the New England-centered gay rights legal organization that filed the DOMA suit has launched their 6×12 campaign, which aims to combine legal, political and electoral strategies to achieve the ambitious goal of marriage equality in all six New England States by 2012. They see this as a way not only to achieve their goal in progressive New England, but also to provide a road map for similar successes across this great land of ours.

Moreover, one doesn’t have to travel too far beyond New England to find other promising signs. For anyone who is able to (or cares to) travel from New York to Connecticut, Massachusetts, or an exotic place called “Canada,” marriage equality is already a reality: New York State recognizes same-sex marriages validly entered into anywhere else. The legislature may or may not take up an equality bill this year, but in New Jersey, marriage equality — already significantly advanced by the civil union statute enacted in 2006 — may be close at hand.

I could go on: New Mexico is likely to pass a civil union bill this year; Hawaii may do the same; Washington might be ready to expand its limited domestic partnership law; and the Iowa Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in a marriage equality case, in which the court is being asked only to uphold the lower court’s decision that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates fundamental guarantees enshrined in the Iowa State Constitution.

This brings me back to where this Three Acts on Prop 8 discussion began, two days ago: California. The political energy in that state pushing for marriage equality has spread like kudzu throughout the country, spawning demonstrations, protests and vigils. The Prop 8 forces have unwillingly acted as a sort of alembic through which the dormant power of the LGBT community and its countless millions of straight allies has been unleashed. Marriage equality will be achieved in California, soon — and once and for all. And as goes California, so will eventually go the nation.

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February 12th, 2009 No comments

Among the questions the California Supreme Court must decide is whether Proposition 8 invalidates those marriages already entered into. This video makes a compelling statement against that result:


This video is exploding: People are passing it around virally via email, and it’s quickly up to almost 30,000 youtube hits (with scarcely more than 200 comments, suggesting many think: “‘Nuff said.”)

The video works very well with Regina Spektor’s song. (She was one of my Pandora artists for awhile but I eventually found her kind of grating; this effort restores her to the QuickMix List.)  But in the main its power resides in the cumulative effect of its countless images– all of that happiness, and all of that pleading from couples, their friends, family, and kids: Don’t divorce us. Is it really necessary to cause all of that heartbreak?   

Viewing it, I was reminded of the first time I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was the cumulative effect of all of those names, stretching on and on, that gave it strength; and it was the focus on the individual names, when one slowed down to look and to touch the etchings, that gave it poignancy.

So too here. The strength of this video derives from Spektor’s musical repetition: “It breaks my heart,” played against scores of  (now) happy couples flashing before us. But the deep poignancy is realized at the human, family level: “Why do you want to divorce my parents?”

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment, and the video husbands its power wisely, deploying the most arresting images at the end. Let’s see if it matters.    

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The Legion of Super…Somethings

February 8th, 2009 No comments

As a kid, I was the kind of voracious comic book reader who would haunt the local store in anticipation of my favorites. At the top of the heap was “The Legion of Super-Heroes,” a 30-century group of teenagers whose clubhouse was a retro-future looking space ship impaled into the ground.

Legion Clubhouse

Cheesy, no? Well, so was the whole Legion, really: They started with a powerful trio but soon expanded to take in about thirty(!) heroes, with increasingly absurd super powers. This tendency reached its apogee with characters with the (unfortunately) self-explanatory names of Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad (from the planet Bismoll). By this time, the powers seemed little more than elaborate parlor tricks.

Somehow, the subject of the Legion was recently exhumed through a series of e-mails among friends; two of us went on about distressingly obscure tidbits (“Triplicate Girl became Duo Damsel after one of her ‘selves’ was killed by Computo…”) while the others peeled away from the list at increasing speeds. But it did get me thinking about our political equivalents in the spaceship-challenged 21st century. Here are some examples, drawn exclusively from the Senate. See if you can guess their secret identities (answers at end of post):

Pork Boy:   Can derail any piece of legislation by crying “Pork!”

Clueless Kid: Confuses foes by making increasingly inscrutable references to such events as “little green doctors pounding on [his]  back.”

The RINO Lasses:  Frustrate their party by joining their powers to prevent filibusters.

Shadow Lad 59: Hovers menacingly just outside of Washington frightening Republicans, the humor-challenged, and really everyone else.

The Triangulator: Confounds Democrats and Republicans with political gyrations to the left, right and center. Can’t be defeated by any known enemy.

Clayface: Destroyed enemies with unearthly death gaze:

Henry Clay

By the way, after the writers ran out of uses for Matter-Eater Lad’s power (this took about two issues), he became…a Senator. Apparently his new power was the ability to suck every molecule of oxygen out of a room.

Answers: John McCain, Jim Bunning, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe,  Al Franken (OK, not officially a Senator yet), Arlen Specter, and Henry Clay (OK, he’s not from the 21st century, but his outfit is very a la mode).

Scoring:   6-7:  fivethirtyeighter;   3-5:  wonk-in-training;  0-2:   amazed you’re still reading

Daughters of Bilitis

February 3rd, 2009 No comments

Here’s an arresting photo, taken in 2004 just after San Francisco began its ill-fated recognition of gay and lesbian marriages: 


Well, this celebration didn’t last long: The California Supreme Court ruled (correctly) that the city had overstepped its authority; all marriages, including the one  pictured above, were voided.This setback was just one of many slights, indignities, and humiliations endured by the pioneering lesbian couple pictured above, Del Martin (right) and Phyllis Lyon. Yet in contrast to the self-sequestering communitarians discussed in the previous post, Lyon and Martin were fully engaged in the on-going struggle for equality for virtually their entire adult  lives. 

They weren’t stupid about it. “Daughters of Bilitis,” the name they  and three other lesbian couples chose for their newly formed group — in 1955 — was a purposely obscure reference to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho. Thus, they could claim the  group was a “poetry  club” if the situation seemed to require discretion.  

But Martin and Lyon, together since 1952, remained  fixed on their goal of helping lesbians (who too often were ignored by gay  men in their  own quest for justice and acceptance) gain acceptance. They were assimilationists in a broad sense, as they proceeded incrementally and came to work with mainstream rights groups, such as the National Organization For Women, over the years. They also understood that legal rights, while important, were limited tools in the project of social justice. Lyon-Martin Health Services, a clinic founded in 1979 to serve lesbians’ health needs in a culturally sensitive way, reflects their wide and deep influence. 

The story ends oddly. In May of last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated their constitutional rights. Then, on June 16, 2008, Martin and Lyon married again — the first and only couple to be issued licenses by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom on that day, just after the California Supreme Court’s decision. By then, Martin was 87 and Lyon, 83. 

Two months later, Martin was dead. 

Two months after that, California voters approved Proposition 8, which purports to deprive same-sex couples of marriage equality. (The measure is currently the subject of a court challenge.) But Martin and Lyon’s marriage is now beyond anyone’s reach. I think so, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Prop 8 forces want this marriage posthumously unraveled.     

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“Got” “Milk”?

January 30th, 2009 No comments

President Obama:  “Got” “Milk”? OK, that teaser tagline is way too cute. And here comes a discussion of a controvesy that many of you were doubtless thinking – hoping, even – was  already consigned to the oubliettes of history. But I did think when I saw “Milk” and again last week when the Academy Award nominations were announced that maybe, just maybe, had the then-President-elect not been too busy picking nits like putting together a team of adults to tow this nation out of its multi-rutted ditch, he might have made time to see Milk. And had that happened, I’m still Obam-awed enough to think that he would have “gotten” it. And then, continuing this imaginary tale, the unctuous Rick Warren would not have been tapped as the Great Symbolic Invocator.  This decision, of course, led in turn to the appointment of Rev. Gene Robinson, the — all together now!)– first openly gay minister of the Episcopal Church to speak at the Sunday celebration that preceded the inauguration. (And that somehow wasn’t important enough to be covered by the news media, just to revive and fan the controversy.)

 The arguments against Rev. Warren were made too well and too clearly to dwell on here. In a debate on CNN, Hillary Rosen really said everything that needed to be said: the issue wasn’t about the marriage debate, but about basic civility and respect; had Warren said about any other group (for example, I don’t know, African-Americans) what he said about gay people, we wouldn’t have had what turned out to be a drain-the-oxygen-out-of-the-room discussion. Despite the magic of that day (“I won’t weep! I won’t…weep! I…{sob} {choke}”), something was lost because of the needless firestorm.  Milk gets beyond this sort of back-and-forth (“Robinson cancels out Warren!” “No he doesn’t!) to present the joy, courage and stress of the gay right movement as it pushed forward in the ‘70’s. Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk holds the screen with primal force, but the film is as much about the giddy and scary era in which he rose to prominence. No one of the President’s background and intelligence could fail to be affected by a film of this strength, even if he already “got” the statements Milk makes in a more analytically detached way. The difficulty and sacrifice made by so many should not be casually brushed aside with an invitation to “find common ground” – a request seemingly pitched to make those opposing it feel at least vaguely unsporting.

 Milk makes an emotional statement as much as a political one, not unlike the Warren choice did: He didn’t just participate; he called the country to religious order in a highly freighted and symbolic movement. At the not inconsiderable risk of straying off topic, it amazes me that so few of the mainstream media outlets that I saw, heard, or read at the time so much as questioned the whole idea of wrapping the inaugural proceedings of our secular democracy in an “invocation” and a “benediction.” (Here’s an exception.) 

 While I really could not care less about the vacuous “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill and other similar symbols not worth the time to fight about, doesn’t it seem at least debatable that Christian – and only Christian – prayers are part of the inauguration? It’s more than that, too: These moments are not just “part” of the proceedings, but a sufficiently central pillar of them that this debate over the chosen clergy became so fraught. Maybe at the next inauguration, the incoming President could spin a giant, Wheel of Fortune-style wheel, with various slices representing options along the fundamentalist-to-atheist continuum. Various clergy ranging from a fire-breathing, end-of-world preacher to an inoffensive Unitarian to an expansive Buddhist to a secular humanist could be standing by to speak if the ticker stopped on their portion of the wheel. The crowd could be expected to cheer for their favorites – even the home version of the game might be popular. Democratic? Yes, in a weird way (provided each slice were appropriately sized).

And we’d still be able to fight about who’d get to spin the wheel. 

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