Two Americas

ImageWhen we hear the phrase “there are two Americas”, we generally think about wealth disparity or economic inequality. In the post-Windsor world there’s a new divide: those who live in states with marriage equality and those who do not. It may seem like a simple matter of public policy that effects only a small segment of the population. It’s actually creating a large chasm, though, that threatens to drain talent from states clinging to old traditions.

There are now thirteen states where same-sex couples can legally marry and subsequently have their marriage recognized by the federal government. The Gayly is not distributed in any of them. That means if you are reading this paper, you are in the lesser of the two Americas, at least in terms of rights that you are afforded. There’s nothing inferior about the people and the aptitudes of our communities, though. That’s an important point that business leaders, opinion makers, and politicians need to remember.  With equal rights and basic freedom offered in multiple places now, why should anyone who is gay continue to live somewhere where they aren’t treated equally under the way?

That’s a question a lot of people are starting to ask themselves. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, too, because how many people really want to leave their home? All of us have a certain pride in our states. We understand that the Mid-western queer brand of stubborn independence is its own unique phenomena. For a lot of LGBT folks, personal responsibilities and economic realities will keep them exactly where they are. Others, especially those who are young and single, will choose to get educated or start their careers in locales where they won’t have ridiculous burdens placed to their love, though.

There’s a reason our states adopted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Right wing politicos correctly predicted that this day could arrive, and they wanted to “safeguard” their states when it did. They’ve actually set us up for failure, though.

In his 2002 book, “Rise of the Creative Class” urban studies theorist Richard Florida laid out a formula for building a booming city that centers around supporting and developing a creative workforce. A big part of the equation is laws that promote inclusion and diversity, along with a thriving gay community, which is often at the epicenter of creative ingenuity. He found that companies choose what cities to bring their operations to based in part on this because they know that their educated, accomplished employees will want to live someplace where everyone is respected.  Gay rights have become a values centerpiece among the millennial generation because the issue is really a proxy for a more open, multi-faceted, and diverse world.  As this generation rises, states who treat gay people like second-class citizens are starting to look less and less attractive.

Each of us will make our own decision regarding how we operate in this new divided reality. There won’t be an immediate mass-exodus to marriage equality states, but there will be lots of individual choices about where to work and live that will add up and have big effects. A broad, national ruling establishing the right to marry is needed, but we can’t expect the US Supreme Court to save us. We have to liberate ourselves. For those who stay—and I assume that’s most of you—that will mean having some very honest conversations with a lot of people about how this new reality effects you and your family. Midwesterners are great listeners. So let’s talk! It’s a conversation that will ultimate make all of our states stronger.

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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.

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!