Courthouse Mocks, but Love Wins.

1013393_10100169247693522_310450197_nI moved to Kansas in July of 1999 with my mother and her fiancé. A few weeks later, they were to be married in an outdoor garden ceremony. I don’t recall many of the particulars that surrounded their wedding, but seared into my mind are all of the details regarding their marriage license. I went with my mom to pick it up at the historic courthouse downtown. Once inside, we climbed several stories of stairs to get to the office where it would be processed. As we trekked up those wide, marbled flights, I ruminated on a single thought: I will never be allowed to do this.

That courthouse was mocking me. Seventeen years old, I dreamed incessantly about getting married.  I wanted to share my life with someone and eventually start a family of my own. That vision was more like a fairytale, though, because I wanted to marry a man.

Gay marriage was banned in most states and the ink was still wet on the Defense of Marriage Act. Having sex with another man was a statutory offense in my new home on the range, a “crime against nature.” I knew enough about American history to understand that the scales of justice were titled to eventual equality, but at the time there was no true movement for same-sex marriage. Gay rights were a radioactive topic in most circles. I would be well into my Medicare years before I’d ever be able to legally marry. Or so I thought.

Discrimination affects everyone differently. Most teenagers aren’t as politically conscious as I was. Most gay people don’t let the limits of the law limit their ability to love. Somehow, though, I internalized the climate around me. When we left the courthouse that day, I decided I would give up on the idea of ever getting married, or ever being loved for that matter. What good is a relationship when it isn’t even real, I though to myself. There’s no use in wanting what you can’t have.  I’d go into politics and fight for the rights of others to have what I couldn’t. Somehow that would make up for what I was being denied.

That’s an extreme reaction, I know. It’s likely difficult for most people, even many who are LGBT, to understand why someone so young could get jaded so fast. Inferiority builds up over time. Discriminatory laws foster intolerant societies that ultimately bully the spirit of the people they are oppressing. Do we ever fully comprehend the aftershock of a gross wrong? Everyone who is gay has been affected in some way by the laws that limit our love.

That’s exactly why last month’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and allowing a return of same-sex nuptials to California is so epic.  The next generation of gay kids will grow up in a world where their rights are rapidly expanded and their love is openly celebrated. They’ll never have to give up on love because they’ll see it all around them. For people like me—who came of age thinking that marriage and family would be out of reach—there’s a whole new world of possibilities.

When the court handed down their ruling, I was seated at my desk live streaming the text feed of the decision on SCOTUSBlog.com.  As soon as I understood the jest of the opinion, something happened that I was not expecting. The dream I let die a decade and a half earlier at that courthouse was revivified. Optimism had returned, and at the age of 30, I knew that I was destined to be loved. I savor the hope that I will have my own husband and my own family. I look forward to one day marching up the stairs of a courthouse and getting my own true, valid marriage license.

That day hasn’t yet arrived in Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas, but it’s coming! In the meantime, we must stop letting limits on justice mock us. We—and we alone—are love; freedom will only grow when we boldly and openly embrace who we are and whom we were meant to love.

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Pride Colors

ImageI did something last week I never thought I would do: I bought an American flag tank top. It was more than a surprise purchase; procuring that patriotic-chic garb signified both a personal mind shift and a collective new reality. Compulsory acts of consumerism may not seem like parallel signs of social progress, but in this case they are. This June will mark the first time that red, white, and blue—not the rainbow—will be my colors of choice!

The rainbow flag has long been synonymous with gay pride celebrations. It’s understandable that we would want to have our own symbol of freedom. Liberty has often been an illusive concept for those of us who are LGBT. History, though, is being written more rapidly than most of us can write. The NBA has welcomed an openly gay player. The Boy Scouts are toying with entering the later half of the 20th century by allowing gay scout members. Three new states have passed marriage equality laws in a matter of weeks.

As progress abounds, it’s important to realize that only one scheme of colors has truly made this possible: those hues that are star spangled! Gay rights have galvanized support from much of the hetero-USA because of a long-evolving American tradition of us becoming a more perfect union by broadening the scope of who is “united” in the states of America.

I haven’t always felt so connected to my American heritage. I came of age in the era of George W. Bush, when the flag stood more for intimidation than it did liberation. After 9-11, it seemed as though everyone rushed to plaster their cars with American flag decals and decorate their bathrooms in patriotic motifs. A few ambitions folks even painted their houses with stars and stripes. Meanwhile, the government passed laws allowing our phones to be tapped, tortured people, and lied about why we were going to war. Those with flags on their cars were on the side of freedom; those without might just be terrorists…or so it felt!

I have always considered myself to be patriotic, but I usually prefer to act on my patriotism, not wear it. As I was involving myself deeper in politics, I become more offended by the brass assertion the administration in power was making that freedom really shouldn’t be afforded to everyone. It was nine years ago that Bush campaigned for re-election on the platform of amending the U.S. constitution to permanently ban gays and lesbians from marrying.  Many of us in the LGBT community felt our country was turning against us. It’s an assault to one’s loyalty when the very framework that is supposed to protect rights is used as fodder for taking them away. Bush succeeded in using the issue to win re-election, but as eleven states voted to ban gay marriage in 2004, and more did so in years to follow, a funny thing happened. America got American on gay rights!

There have been thirty-six statewide campaigns centering on gay marriage. We’ve only won three of those referendums so far. The stinging defeats in the earliest years of this century have given way to a promise for later. Each time the issue has been put up for a vote, everyone in the state has been forced to have a conversation about not just gay marriage, but gay individuals. Many people have come out and many, many gay Americans have had difficult conversations with their friends, families, and colleagues as a result of these political fights. Discussion and deliberation are hallmarks of American democracy. So, too, is the freedom to change your mind–or evolve as it’s fashionably called now.

We still have a long way to go in becoming that more perfect union we strive to be. Even when we get there, the rainbow and its symbolic multi-hues of diversity will remain relevant. But we now have a first lady who tweets “we got your back” when a sports hero says that he’s gay instead of a president who wants to roll back the constitutional rights of LGBT Americans. And that’s exactly why I’ll be rocking my American flag tank top this month for pride!

Truth, Bader Ginsburg

36731070I didn’t know that milk could be a metaphor for life; then I listened to the oral arguments in the DOMA case that were before the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Now I understand the parallel between dairy and destiny. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg purported that because of laws that limit marriage to heterosexual couples, unions between gay people are not quite whole. They’re skim milk, not full cream.

It isn’t just gay relationships that aren’t on par. When laws and social etiquette treat same-sex couples differently, they’re denigrating the gay individuals that make up those pairs. The moment that you admit to yourself that you are gay is a triumphant instant of self-realization. It’s soon followed by the jarring reality that you are not equal to your heterosexual peers. Equality is about more than just laws; equality really is about about dignity. When you know you aren’t afforded the same rights as everyone else, it takes a toll on your self-worth. This effects how you live your life.

Unconscious decisions that seem extremely personal are often engineered by a larger social order. Gay people don’t have higher rates of drug use, alcoholism, and STDs because we are inherently sinful. Often, we make destructive personal choices because on some level we don’t think we deserve anything better. How many times have you hooked up with someone you barely knew and didn’t wear a condom? Have you ever texted a risqué photo of yourself to a stranger on Grindr? How many times have you gotten blackout drunk at a club? How many pills have you popped in one night just to feel a temporary high?  There’s a lot of behavior that is normalized or excused in a large part of the gay world that would never fly in most straight circles. What does it matter, though? It’s not like we can get married or anything!

There’s that skim milk again, squirting us in the face, reminding us of our inherent inferiority.

Gay Americans are not the first class of people to be undervalued. Study the history that lead up to Brown v Board of Education decision and you’ll find that subordination was key to why the Supreme Court stepped in to desegregate public schools. In the early 1940’s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark did research that measured internalized racism and self-hatred. Their “dolls experiment” involved African American children being presented with two dolls, both identical save for their skin and hair color. One doll was white with yellow hair; the other was brown with black hair. The children were asked to play with one. There was an overwhelming preference for the white dolls…from black kids! When probed, the kids revealed that the white dolls were prettier, more attractive, and had better hair than the black dolls. Those children learned to hate themselves at a very young age.

The Supreme Court in 1954 saw the wisdom in doing away with “separate but equal” on matter of race in part to rectify this inferiority complex. They would be wise to do so again on matters regarding who can get married to ameliorate a different, though equally potent, inadequacy today.

I’m assuming that the 80-year old Justice Ginsburg has, at best, a limited grasp of modern gay social mores. Her comment about skim milk fortuitously highlights the central issue in this debate, though. It’s why people stood in line four full days before the doors even opened to allow them inside the chamber to view the hour-long proceedings. It’s why more and more Americans are coming around to the idea of marriage equality. The more people get to know us, the less they want to see us skimp on our own happiness, and the more they want our lives to be whole.

Whatever the outcome of this court case, that sentiment alone should do wonders to improve our individual self-worth. We don’t need a court’s permission to live a “whole milk life”. We just need to value ourselves!

Range in a Homo Change of Mind

protest 02142008 cdb 19737Homo on the Range is more than a jarringly ironic name for a column about gay life in the Midwest. It’s larger than any one individual LGBT person living in Middle America. At its core, homo on the range is a frame of mind. It’s the notion that a person can be their true, authentic self anywhere.  It’s also the realization that progress can only happen with honest conversation.

Progress is, in fact, happening on the range! In 2005, Kansas’s voters were asked if they wanted to amend the state’s constitution to limit marriage and all of its legal benefits to only heterosexual couples. 70% said yes. According to a new Public Policy Polling survey, the number of Kansans who remain opposed to allowing gay marriage is down to 51%, with only 34% saying there should be no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. A majority support either marriage or civil unions. Given the conservative political dynamics of Kansas and nearby states, marriage equality isn’t coming to the heartland anytime soon. This poll underscores something more important, though: the power of dialogue.

The first time I truly felt “out” wasn’t when I was a pimply 15 year old, awkwardly confessing to my best friend that I’m attracted to boys. It was about 3 years later when I recalled that incident to a classroom full of strangers while speaking on a “gay panel”. In the early 2000’s, myself, along with several friends I met through PFLAG (Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays), would speak to groups of people about being gay. We’d talk to college sociology and human sexuality classes, social workers in training, would-be teachers in diversity programs, medical professionals, employers, and even sometimes members of the clergy. We’d share with them our personal stories—how we discovered that we are gay, how having a different sexual orientation has impacted our lives, and how political debates over our rights have very personal impacts.

I lost my gay-panel virginity at Butler Community College. I felt raw, naked, and exposed. I was sharing intimate, painful stories about peer rejection, suicidal thoughts, and emotional strife to a roomful of about 30 complete strangers. It wasn’t easy. But half way through speaking, I realized it was so worth it. Glares of disgust were turning into gazes of empathy. Heads turning horizontally started to vertically nod. There was a palpable energy shift in the room; people who walked in prejudiced to a certain way of thinking about gay people were reexamining their assumptions. I realized then that these panels were the single most effective way to create change. They humanized the issue and invited in conversation with our Q&As after each talk.

Since then, I’ve spoken on close to 100 other panels. My words aren’t why Kansan’s views are shifting on gay civil rights. But they are part of why. The other part—or rather other thousands of parts—are the many more people who have had similar conversations in even more intimate settings. It’s the collective dialogue that is nearing us to a tipping point. One day, we will live in a state where we not only have the same rights as everyone else, but we will also enjoy the same dignity as our peers.

Don’t let the conservative, Republican political climate scare you into thinking such machinations are impossible, either! Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who almost became Mitt Romney’s running mate, just announced that he now supports gay marriage. The first Senate Republican to change course did so for a simple reason: his son is gay. Kitchen table issues and gay issues are really one in the same when it comes to family. The more dialogue those of us who are gay have with people like Sen. Portman, the better it’s going to get.

So don’t be afraid to come out to your conservative parents or traditionalist peers.  Family values are a big deal here on the range. Over the last decade, more and more families have discovered that they have to value all of their children. Sometimes, that means changing some beliefs. An evolution of values based on bedrocks of love: that is very homo on the range.

As Goes Maine, So Goes The Dialogue

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Mainers say “I do” to marriage equality on Nov. 6, 2012

As goes Maine, so goes the nation.

That’s the political expression dating back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt-era that prophesized a national victory for his 1936 challenger, if only he could clinch the New England state’s electoral votes. Thought to be a bellwether for how the nation was trending as a whole, this idiom turned out to be quite idiotic. Al Landon secured Maine’s coveted votes that year, only to see Vermont be the lone state to follow suit. Roosevelt went on to win the biggest Democratic Party landslide in history. As went Maine, so went next to nothing else.

But as goes Maine, so goes marriage equality? Perhaps it’s safer to say this: as goes Maine, so goes the national dialogue.

Three years ago, Mainers said “no” to marriage for same-sex couples. This year, they joined two additional states in saying “I do” when asked to ratify this right at the ballot box. That same night, voters in two Kansas towns had their own proposition. When Hutchinson and Salina were asked if gay people deserved protection from being fired from their job because of their sexual orientation or from being evicted out of their home because of who they are, they said “no”. The reasons why have little to do with red state/blue state schizophrenia. They have everything to do with a basic tenant of democracy: dialogue.

After voters rejected Maine’s gay marriage law in 2009, gay rights organizers shifted focus. Rather than talk about “rights” and “benefits” LGBT folks felt entitled to, the conversation shifted to something much relatable: “love”. It turns out that straight people get a bit confused and rather uncomfortable when we start demanding our civil rights; but when we talk about the universal need of love, we can win over their sympathy. The reason why is simple. Love is something everyone can understand. If you frame the issue as saying “yes” or “no” to someone’s own personal happiness, you sort of look like an asshole voting in the negative.

We’re a long way from joining the nine states that have enacted marriage equality here on the range. Given the current political dynamics in our states, we’re a ways off from basic civil protections, too. What we do have is something quite potent: our voices! When these two small cities in Kansas voted on gay rights this past November, it was the first time either community had ever talked about who LGBT people are. There were LOTS of misconceptions, fears, and stereotypes; but there were also a lot of minds opened up, conversations had, and attitudes changed. When we step out of our comfort zones and start talking about who we are, we let people see our lives. We demystify misconstructions, alleviate anxieties, and tear apart typecasts.

Neither city should have voted the way that they did, but the fact that the pro-equality side garnered 46% in Salina and 42% in Hutchinson is measurable progress. Ten years ago, support would likely have been mired in the low to mid-30% range. The Kansas Equality Coalition, the only statewide LGBT advocacy group, is only 7 years old. The states that legalized marriage equality all have had persistent gay rights movements that date back three of four decades. We’re really just starting the dialogue in Kansas and in many of the surrounding states.

November 6, 2012 was perhaps the best night ever in American LGBT history. Three states legalized marriage equality by popular vote, and voters in one state beat back a proposed ban. The first sitting President to support marriage equality was re-elected. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Voters sent five openly gay men and an out bisexual woman to Congress. This was the night when “the new normal” ceased to just be a wittily crafted sitcom and started to be how Americans feel about LGBT people.

In that regard, the country is now taking Maine’s lead. We’re going to have to be a bit more patient and a lot more persistent here on the range. But, we will get there. As went Maine on November 6, 2012, so, too, will one day go the entire Midwest—but only with lots of dialogue. So open your mouth and start having those conversations!

In the 21st Century, the Gay Experience is the American Experience

Michelle Obama addresses the DNC, bringing gay Americans into the fold of the American dream.

“…and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love, then surely, surely, we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American dream.”

After a series of equally moving assertions that paid tribute to how women, labor workers, immigrants, and African Americans have augmented the American experience, Michelle Obama finally brought LGBT people into the national fold with these words. Uttered by the First Lady during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, their inclusion in a prime-time address proved that the contributions of gay Americans have now become part of our public consciousness. It was an understated moment that capsized a history of our collective story unfolding in the shadows. In the 21st century, the gay experience is the American experience.

We are a renegade nation, set free by our own will from a regime that once oppressed the essence of who we are. When the thirteen colonies rebelled against England and fought the Revolutionary War, we established a precedent no one alive in 1776 could have begun to comprehend. In winning independence from our mother country, we unknowingly won the war on self-determination for all groups of people. Of course, the white, Angelo men of that time never dreamed that this feat would one day foster a nation where a black man would lead the free world only after dislodging a powerful, savvy woman as his primary competitor. Though immigrants themselves, our founders could not have fathomed that two centuries later we would be a multi-hued nation where people of all races and cultures inter-mingle, inter-marry, and melt together to form one united front. It goes without saying that this same group of men, many of whom helped author the original sodomy laws, would not have understood the concept of gay rights. There in lines the true American experience: the capability of a smart and determined people to evolve.

When we shift collectively, we allow for transformation individually. Though a student of American government and an active participant in the democratic process for well over a decade, I’ve never felt that I was part of that coveted American dream. Accepting the fact that I’m gay meant coming to terms with the reality that I’d be shortchanged the ability to have my own family. Sure, in a free society individuals can make whatever arrangements they want, but most honest gay people will tell you that legal equality and social acceptance are fundamental to basic feelings of self-worth. No one should ever believe that they need the approval of others to live their life; nobody should ever live knowing that their life in an anathema to the very fundamentals of their family or their community, though.

For too long, that was the gay experience. Being out meant you were an outsider. That basic American ideal that we can come from anywhere and build our own success—with the people want to share it with—has long eluded us. Legally it still does. Only six states offer marriage equality.  It’s legal to be fired from your job because of your sexual orientation or your gender identity in many locales.  Socially, though, America seems to be having a rendezvous with our own destiny when it comes to LGBT folks. There’s a reason Michelle said those words in her address: she knows they finally resonate.

Today, gay rights don’t just matter to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They matter to our parents, who watched us struggle to come to terms with who we are and just want us to be happy. They matter to our siblings, who want our families to be seen as equal to theirs. They matter to our grandparents, who might not understand everything about our lives, but who nonetheless understand the meaning of unconditional love. They matter to our co-workers, who value our talents and contributions and want us to have the same quality life they are afforded. And they matter to our friends, who choose to be in our life because they celebrate the unique sparkle that makes us who we are perhaps better than anyone else.

We are still very much in the troughs of this transformation. We have a long way to go before we are truly able to fully claim the American dream. We have, however, reached a critical point where that dream is within sight. I never believed I would have the chance to boldly stand at an altar with the person that I love. In fact, I never really believed I was worthy of love. When you aren’t included in the collective value of your community, it’s easy to downgrade yourself and your potential. That’s why collective shifts are so important; they can alter the tectonic platelets of individual’s psyches. Today, I look forward to one day standing at my own altar with pride.  I hope you do, too.

Political Bullying

Mourning a Loss
Image Credit: Jerry Wolford/AP

We’ve all become more familiar with the issue of school bullying. What we may be less aware of, though, is the fact that bullying abounds on several fronts. It’s commonplace to use politics to intimidate the LGBT community; last night’s passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina is the latest example.

Anti-gay legislation is political bullying.

Every time a state amends their constitution to limit marriage to one man and woman, every man and every woman who is gay feels as though they’ve been personally attacked. Just as people are affected by the abuse of bullies in the hallways of their schools, there are very real effects on people who get beat up at the ballot box. The results in North Carolina were far from surprising. What caught me off guard, though, was the reemergence of a long-forgotten feeling.

Punched stiffly in the gut. Knocked down with the wind blow out of me. Stabbed in my abdomen by people I thought were my friends. My intestines slowly eviscerated by hordes of strangers. Nowhere to go for help. Wanting to run away. Lacking the physical strength or mental constitution to pick myself up from off the ground.

That’s how I felt the night of April 5, 2005. That’s when Kansas passed its own version of an anti-gay constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. It passed with 70% of the vote statewide, with the same percentage supporting it in my home city of Wichita. I emphasize the word home for a reason; this is the first place where I ever truly felt at home. I came out of the closet in North Carolina and walked into a tumultuous year of being physically and verbally assaulted everyday at school. I felt rejected by the state I had grown up in. I moved to Kansas the next year; when I did, I decided I would never lie about who I am. Honesty is a seminal Kansas value, and I’ve always been able to find a home here on the range being my homo self. That campaign and the political machinations that precede it caused an odd diaspora of sort. I’ve never truly trusted my community or the people in it ever since.

The Kansas legislature first debated the constitutional amendment in 2004. At the time, I was the 22-year-old Executive Director of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party and a rather central figure in local Democratic Politics. We had a 12-member delegation of Democratic legislators, including 9 state representatives and 3 state senators. I had worked closely with each of them for several years, and considered them all to be friends and mentors. Every single one of them knew of my sexual orientation, and it was never an issue. In fact, nearly all of them had voiced their support for gay rights to me.

Yet, when it came time to vote, 3 members of the house delegation (including a very liberal member who I regard as a very good friend) voted to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage. Two of the three called me in tears to apologize. I greatly appreciated that on a personal, but it did nothing to change public policy or their voting record. Nor did it ameliorate the hurt feelings of countless others. The other member also called me, but he did so to lecture me on the politics of being pro-gay marriage. He told me that if I had any true political instinct, I would understand that this was a losing issue. I was told to be happy that he voted the way he did because that meant he’d keep that seat in Democratic hands. He also implored me to defend him to party activists who would be angered by his vote.

I should have hung up on him. I should have told the other two exactly what I thought of their post-vote water works. Instead, I just took it. I continued being a soldier for the Democratic Party because they at least gave me a home, even if some of our members went on record to say I didn’t deserve to have one. After that vote, though, I felt homeless.

A key part of political bullying is the constituency getting used to taking the hits. Politicians only beat up on groups who don’t fight back. For too long, we in the LGBT community haven’t fought back. It wasn’t until after the anti-marriage amendment passed in Kansas that we had a truly effective statewide LGBT civil rights organization. Today, The Kansas Equality Coalition holds people accountable who don’t have the backbone to stand up for what they believe in.

Twenty-nine states have had battles similar to the ones in Kansas and North Carolina. Each time they have, lots of people have been hurt. They’ve felt disenfranchised by the political process. They’ve felt left behind by their communities. They’ve felt betrayed by their friends. When you’re getting harassed at school, you wish that someone would stand up for you. Often times, you find out that the people you thought were your buddies are too afraid to take a stand; in fact, they sometimes join in just to fit in. Our lawmakers are supposed to champion our safety and well-being. Yet, for LGBT folks, they’re often the ones who take away a sense of security. We look for those few allies who will stand up for us, just like we looked for those friends back in school to be our defenders. Cowardice legislators who hold quiet sympathy yet fail to stand up to anti-gay prejudice are just as culpable as the bully lawmakers.

I’m happy to report that two of the three lawmakers I mentioned above switched their votes and voted against the marriage amendment when they had the chance later than session. The other one? Well, recent polling showing a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality show he was definitely on the wrong side of history. This issue is so much larger than them or me or any single state. Political bullying is an affront to the very core of who we are as Americans. This is a country where we’re supposed to enjoy the freedom of attachment—to people, to communities, and to the process that governs us. When we take away other people’s rights, we deny them the dignity of what it means to be a whole person.  Beaten up and disembowel, those of us who survive political assaults do so without our full spirits. We’re left with only part to offer. All of our state—from North Carolina to Kansas to California—deserve fully engaged, healthy populations of people from all walks of life.

Just as we’re having conversations about how to end bullying at schools, I hope we can start talking about how to end the bruising battles like the one that just occurred in North Carolina. President Obama’s announcement today that he personally supports marriage equality is a step in the right direction. We need to take many more giant leaps. Political bullying leaves scars. It’s time we heal all of our wounds.

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