This is Where . . .

Autumn pond.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Autumn pond. Photo by Callen Harty.

This is where I find my god–in the woods and the prairies, in the birds and the flowers all around me; in the bowing grasses and wind-bent trees that surround me; in the rivers and streams that never cease; in my stream of consciousness. In the rippling and light-dappled pond I see a reflection of that god and fall to my knees in prayer and reflection.

This is where I lay my sorrows–at the base of a bent and gnarled tree, at the horizon where the grass meets the sky; in the clouds that envelop me; in the hand of a hill reaching down for me.

This is where my peace resides–in the soul of a robin and the sound of a cardinal; in the flight of a dragonfly and the humming of hummingbird wings.

This is where I am alive, where I connect with my ancestors and where I better understand my brothers and sisters. This is where I pray, simply by being. This is my church, my synagogue, my place of worship, and my place in the universe.

This is my temple. This is where my god speaks to me–in the breath of an autumn breeze, in the roar of a winter wind; in the silence where I face myself and my own nature. This is where I find my god.

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About Choices

Man on a bench.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Man on a bench. Photo by Callen Harty.

Life is about choices.

All of us have had bad things happen to us. Life is filled with tragedy, hurt, pain. Some of it may seem insurmountable and some of it passes faster than we might expect. Some of it stays with us forever.

On the other hand we have all had good things happen to us, too. Life is filled with little kindnesses, smiles, love, and incredible beauty. It is a matter of focus. Do we focus on the ugly or the beautiful, on the evil or the good?

As noted, life is also about choices. If someone does something horrible to me I can choose many paths out of that horror, or I can even choose to stay in it. I can choose to wallow in the event and live there, never getting past it or growing in any way. I can choose anger and retribution by lashing out and doing horrible things to others. Or I can choose a path on which I grow from the experience and become a better person, even if those around me do not make the same choice. The latter path, the “road less traveled”,  is the more difficult, but it is also the most rewarding.

I could choose to go down a path of destruction and blame the perpetrator for putting me in the frame of mind where that becomes a choice. But it is still a choice. The person who hurt you can hurt you badly and can even do so repeatedly, but they cannot make you choose a particular path in your life. Only you can do that.  You can make a bad choice and blame them for it, but it is your choice, not theirs, and the consequences are upon you, not them.

So the question is, what path do you choose? Do you take the hurt and the pain and impose that upon others because you were hurt? Or do you choose to try to create a life and a world where less people get hurt? Do you choose a life of hatred and anguish or do you choose a life of love? I fall on the side of love because I believe that love is more powerful than hate and hope is more powerful than despair. I choose to live in the power of love.

This is not some pollyanna vision of the world where making such a choice leaves nothing but rainbows, unicorns, and smiles in your life. Realistically bad things will still happen–it is part of life–and evil will still rear its ugly head on occasion. But you can still choose how you handle these things and how you move forward. You can choose to accept the bad things that happen as part of life, whether it is the loss of a loved one or an abuse perpetrated upon you, and you can look for the lessons it may teach you. You can do your best to ensure it doesn’t happen again and you can do your best to grow as a compassionate human being.

You can choose the easy path where you have no responsibility and lay it all upon others or you can choose the more difficult path that has greater rewards at the end. I choose to walk the long path of love. My strength is in love. My power is in love. My recovery and my hope are in love. Come, walk with me.

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Hazing and Other Misconceptions

High school football field.  Photo by Callen Harty.

High school football field. Photo by Callen Harty.

Sometimes the news media irritate the hell out of me with their lack of professionalism and how little attention to detail they pay to anything. They ignore stories of great import, misidentify the real issues, and sensationalize other stories to make them more appealing to the readers. They develop a collective interpretation of something and hold onto that interpretation without understanding the impact they have. A journalist’s interpretation of a story can have implications beyond their initial article and can be the basis for everyone’s understanding of the story for days or even years to come. It can be incredibly difficult to go back and correct something once it is out there. It is irresponsible not to do homework or to have a full understanding of an issue before deciding on an angle or deciding which words to use. Words are critically important and every journalist should understand that.

Likewise the slew of anonymous and oftentimes ignorant commenters on news stories and Internet sites worldwide can be equally irritating. They are given a forum to express their point-of-view and often do so without the least understanding of the subject at hand. They simply spew nonsensical garbage with no basis in reality.

This is not to say that all journalists and all Internet commenters do this, but it is shocking how prevalent it is. The recent reporting (and subsequent commentary) on the Sayreville High School football team case is what is prompting my irritation at this moment, but I’ve seen it with the Michael Brown case and others as well.

With that in mind let me set the record straight on some issues surround the Sayreville case.

  • What happened to the four freshmen on that football team was not hazing. Hazing is teasing, humiliation, harassment, little tricks that embarrass an individual, and things along those lines. It can be something like making the initiate do chores or carry a senior’s books for him. Those freshmen boys in Sayreville suffered sexual abuse–not hazing–and in at least one case it was rape. Holding a student down, stripping him, and inserting a finger into his rectum is rape. It is sexual assault. Taking that finger and then putting it into the boy’s mouth is not hazing. It is sadism, perhaps, but not hazing.
  • Yes, it is possible for a group of as many as seven boys to work together to sexually assault someone. The idea that one ringleader could not convince half a dozen other boys to join in on what happened is wishful thinking at best. The term “gang rape” was not invented as a fantasy term. It unfortunately describes very real actions. Groups of people can and do get together and sexually assault or physically assault others. It is not a rare occurrence.
  • The perpetrators of this abuse are not necessarily gay because they sexually assaulted someone of the same sex. One or more of them may be coincidentally gay, but that is irrelevant. Rape and sexual assault are separate from gender and orientation. They are about power and control.
  • The case is not an isolated incident. Reports are that it took place over the course of about ten days and there were at least four known victims. On Saturday, October 11, the New York Daily News reported that several days after the story broke a sophomore admitted to his mother that he had been molested as a freshman football player, though she said he would not give the names of the perpetrator or perpetrators. This kind of abuse does not occur in a vacuum. It is very likely that it has been going on for years and passed on from class to class.
  • The likelihood of four different kids making up the same story because they didn’t like the kids who were arrested or were mad at them for something is highly improbable. According to a 1989 article by M. Everson and B. Boat in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “It is estimated that only 4 to 8% of child sexual abuse reports are fabricated. Most of the fabricated reports are made by adults involved in custody disputes or by adolescents.” While it is possible that the Sayreville stories are made up the statistical probability is very limited, particularly given the number of victims.
  • While things like the Sayreville case may not happen in every school in the country, or even in most, it is possible and maybe even likely that similar cases could be revealed. When I was in high school I heard a story about a neighboring town: The senior class, both boys and girls, took the freshmen boys somewhere out in the country and made them strip and then made them all perform oral sex upon each other while the seniors watched and laughed. It was a small town and there were probably no more than a dozen or so freshmen boys and perhaps it wasn’t all of them and maybe it wasn’t even all of the senior class, either. But if it was even a small number of them and the story was mostly true it is horrifying to think about that happening to those kids..

Perhaps with the reporting on the Sayreville case some kid in the middle of the country will read about what happened and understand for the first time in his life that what has been happening to him not only is something that hurts or makes him feel bad emotionally but that it is illegal and the perpetrators can be stopped and punished. If this story awakens even a few kids to a new understanding then the reporting on it will have been worth it, despite the lack of understanding by some of the writers and editors.

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Supreme Court building, Washington, DC.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Supreme Court building, Washington, DC. Photo by Callen Harty.

Yesterday one of my conservative friends expressed anger–perhaps even outrage–that the United States Supreme Court would dare to overturn the will of the people of Wisconsin by putting a halt to the new voter ID law for the upcoming November election. He asked how they could dare to overturn something that the people of Wisconsin voted into law. I was appalled at his lack of understanding.

Let me start by saying that I believe that the law is a (bad) solution to a non-existent problem and I do believe it would disenfranchise voters. I feel that instead of passing laws that restrict voting the government should be doing everything in its power to make it easier for people to vote. Democracy works best when people are actively and deeply involved in it. I understand that some people have bought into the notion that a person needs an ID to cash a check, get a loan, use a credit card if it’s over a certain amount, rent a car, get student or senior discounts, etc., so why shouldn’t they need to have one to cast a vote. I get that it sounds like it makes sense and does not sound like much of a burden. However, the reality is not that easy. According to several recent articles (including one by Ruth Coniff on The Progressive website on October 9 and one by Liz Kennedy on October 10 at the Huffington Post) 300,000 eligible Wisconsin voters do not have the proper identification required by the new law. That is a lot of people to keep away from the polls, especially given that Scott Walker won the recall election by only 171,105 votes and his first election for governor by only 124,638 votes (Wikipedia).

In addition, Wisconsin’s law requires a photo ID. If the new law were in effect for the upcoming election that would mean that someone who has a birth certificate and/or other identifying documents, but does not have a driver’s license, state-issued identification card, or a current student ID (along with proof of enrollment) may not be able to vote. Those needing to get an ID have seen Department of Motor Vehicles hours cut and other impediments put in the way of getting the necessary identification. It seems clear that the Republican legislators and Governor Scott Walker are doing their best to keep people from voting rather than encouraging it.

My friend would disagree with my assessment about voter ID. He has been convinced by Fox News and other conservative sources that there is widespread voter fraud and that thousands upon thousands of illegal immigrants are voting in our elections when they are not citizens and have no right to do so. He actually brought that up as one of the reasons why we need voter ID without, of course, citing his source for such a claim.

Nearly as irritating to me as the racist take on immigrants (he specifically mentioned the Mexican ones as being the issue in American elections) was his general ignorance not only of the specific issue but of basic civics, things that he should have learned in high school. First, I had to explain to him that the people of Wisconsin did not vote on voter ID. I told him it was the Legislature that passed the law that Walker signed. He said something about liberal activist judges undoing laws that are rightfully passed. I had to remind him that the U. S. Supreme Court is a conservative court, that there are four liberal justices and five conservative justices, but that even then the vote on temporarily halting Wisconsin’s voter ID law was 6-3. Further I had to tell him that they didn’t overturn the law–they may still decide to uphold it or overturn it down the road–but simply put a temporary hold on the law taking effect due to the confusion that would ensue by instituting the new law with only a month to go before the election.

He repeated that the court should have no right to do that or decide later on that the law should be tossed out. I then had to explain to him that it is the Supreme Court’s job to decide whether any law, whether passed by lawmakers or voted on by the people, is constitutional. I reminded him that it is part of our system of checks and balances. Otherwise Congress and State Legislatures could pass any bill they wanted without regard to its constitutionality.

After that he turned his attention to the age of the justices stating that they should all have a mandatory retirement age. I responded that I would love to see younger justices who might not be as conservative as the current group, but that I would certainly hate to think that when I get to be 89 or 90 years old (or any age between now and when I die) that people would no longer allow me to voice an opinion, work a job, or do other things simply because of my age rather than my capability. My friend is older than me, by the way. He said he thought the justices should be voted into office and shouldn’t have life terms. I suggested that if they were voted into office then that would likely lead to decisions based on whether they could get voted back into office rather than whether it was the right decision. With no limit on their terms and no elections to stay in office they ideally remain an independent judiciary. The one thing he said that I agreed with was that they were not independent. I concurred, stating that clearly they can be classified as liberal or conservative, so they are going to make decisions based on their personal opinions and interpretations of the Constitution, but at least they would still not feel compelled to make a decision in order to stay in office.

I really don’t mind if someone disagrees with my political opinions. I often welcome conversation around such things. But I must admit it bothers me when that disagreement comes out of ignorance. It is not just conservatives who do this, either. I have seen many liberal friends repeat things from liberal sources without objectively reading the source material. If you are going to argue a political point-of-view there should be something more to back it up than opinions, feelings, or regurgitated talking points. My friend has the right to believe that we should have voter ID, and I have the right to disagree with him, but he really should understand the role of the Supreme Court in defending the Constitution of the country he professes to love so dearly. He should understand how his government functions before he gets angry about the way it is functioning at the moment.

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More than Benefits

Handfasting.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Handfasting. Photo by Callen Harty.

Often when the subject of marriage equality comes up there is talk of the financial benefits of marriage, especially in America where everything is typically reduced to the bottom line of expenses and profits, where people often look most to whether something can make them money regardless of their moral position on an issue. The wedding industry, photographers, vacation spots all will see a boon to their business with same-sex marriage, so that makes it more acceptable. With any issue in this country proponents have to prove what it can do economically rather than whether it is ethically the right thing to do. If business makes money from something like same-sex marriage, if the queer folks want so spend thousands of dollars on lavish weddings just as most of their heterosexual counterparts do, then let’s go for it. It’s good for the economy!

For the individuals getting married there can be huge benefits also, both financially and in other ways. Among the many financial benefits are the following: the ability to file joint income tax returns, which can save both partners money; being the one to inherit the spouse’s property in the event of a death; qualifying for survivor benefits from Social Security, Veterans’ Administration, retirement accounts, etc.; exemption from gift or inheritance taxes; getting family rates for insurance, health clubs, and more. There are hundreds of financial benefits to marriage–these are only a handful of the more important ones.

In addition marriage offers protection in other ways. For example, if one partner of an unmarried couple gets ill and is hospitalized the next of kin are the ones who can make important medical decisions. They can also prevent an unmarried partner from even seeing their loved one. The partner has no rights in this case. The family can plan a funeral without consulting the loving partner if the two are unmarried. While same-sex couples can adopt in some states it can be much more difficult as single partnered parents and in some cases it can be next to impossible to qualify to adopt as unmarried partners. This list could go on and on also.

But to fully appreciate the incredible impact of marriage equality one has to look not just at financial and other benefits. There are emotional benefits as well. One has to look at the history of living life as a queer person in this country to get the full picture of how important the securing of marriage equality is to a gay person.

A little more than half a century ago it was illegal in many places for gay people to even congregate together. A man could be arrested for going to a meeting with several other gay men. Gay bars were raided regularly and those arrested had their names published in newspapers and faced the loss of their jobs and families as a result. Gay men and lesbians were regularly fired from jobs simply for being found to be queer. The government refused to allow homosexual men and women to serve in the military or in any kind of position with security clearances. The government spied on queer organizations. Magazines that promoted the “homosexual lifestyle” could be confiscated and the publishers jailed on obscenity charges. Young gay men and women were hospitalized in mental institutions and treated with electroshock therapy. They were considered mentally ill simply for being who they were. It wasn’t until 1973–just forty years ago–that homosexuality was delisted as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, but the stigma of it lingered for years.

The Stonewall Rebellion, considered the watershed moment of the modern gay rights movement, was in 1969, not even fifty years ago. At that time the vast majority of gay men and lesbians were in the closet. Many families would disinherit children suspected of or known to be gay. Friends would sever the friendships. Queer people faced vitriol from every quarter. Most of us who are of a certain age have known people who were either beaten or murdered or have been threatened with violence or suffered it ourselves.

I came out in 1979 in the small town of Platteville, Wisconsin. It was ten years after Stonewall and in that decade queer people had started to come out publicly, but we were still not accepted by society at large. It took more than a quarter century of additional work and thousands upon thousands more people coming out in order for others in the country to realize that there was pretty much no one who did not have a family member, co-worker, or friend who was gay. That national coming out process humanized gay people, but it took time. We were no longer hidden in secret gay bars where patrons had to enter through back doors with elaborate passwords. We were finally seen as part of the human family.

Despite that there is still much work to be done. Laws still stand on the books that allow for discrimination against LGBT people. While marriage equality has now come to the majority of the states (or at least will be there very shortly) equality in general is still lacking. There are still queer people, especially transgender people and queer people of color, dying every day from violence against them. There are still protesters at gay funerals. There are still those who believe AIDS is God’s punishment against us. There are those who hate queer people with every fiber of their being.

It is against this backdrop that I celebrate marriage equality coming to Wisconsin. When I came out 35 years ago my struggle was whether I would still have a family and friends left after doing so. It was whether I could survive without getting beaten or killed because I would not stay in the closet. Perhaps the last thought in my mind was that I might find someone to marry. That wasn’t even a thought that entered my mind. It was out of the realm of possibility, beyond consideration.

I did know then that like everyone else I knew, gay or straight, I wanted to find love. I wanted to find a person with whom I could share my life and live out my days. With or without marriage I could dream of that and with or without marriage I found that in my partner, Brian. I have shared that life with him for more than 23 years now and we have not yet begun to grow old together. We are officially in a domestic partnership, but that is not the same as marriage. It confers a second class citizenship upon us. It offers us some of the protections of marriage, but not all of them.

More important than the protections and the benefits is the acceptance. I want to be able to declare my love and commitment to Brian in a public ceremony as my straight friends have done. I want a public celebration of that love and partnership. I want to be accepted as a full citizen in every sense of the word. And I want that bond of matrimony, that lifelong commitment.

If you are straight try to imagine that your love for your partner could not be honored in a wedding ceremony if that’s what you wanted. Imagine that bakers refused to bake a cake for you or caterers refused to provide the food. Imagine that members of your family or circle of friends refused to come because of who you had decided to marry. Imagine that you could not get a license and the government would not allow you to wed. Imagine going to legislative hearings to talk about how your love is as real as anyone else’s and then to have that testimony ignored and the push for marriage equality quashed repeatedly over the years. Imagine a majority of the people in the place where you grew up, where your mother and father and ancestors grew up, voting to say that your love does not have enough meaning to qualify as equal to theirs. This has been the story of my love for more than two decades. We have waited patiently, sometimes tearfully, not expecting that it would ever really happen in our lifetimes but hoping nonetheless. When it became legal in other states we chose not to move or try to get married elsewhere because we both wanted the legal recognition of our relationship from our home state.

Now it is reality. Now the engagement has an end in sight. Now we can, like generations of people before us, like millions of people around us, celebrate our love by gathering family and friends and having a somewhat new-fashioned old-fashioned wedding. We are planning on waiting until our 25th anniversary, which is in less than two years, and then we expect at least another 25 years as an old gay married couple loving each other into the sunset of our lives.

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Supreme Un-Decision

Pride.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Pride. Photo by Callen Harty.

I am a bit breathless at the moment.

Earlier this morning marriage equality became the law of the land now in the District of Columbia and thirty states, including my home state of Wisconsin. This is a moment I did not ever expect to see in my lifetime. My body, heart, and soul don’t know how to react. One moment I am beaming in elation and the next I am almost crying. Something as simple as the ability to get married has been denied to me my entire life and now, at 57, that door has opened.

But my elation about that is tempered with the knowledge that in twenty states people like me are still denied this most basic of rights. In a couple dozen states people like me can be fired from their jobs for no other reason than the fact that they are gay, and that is legal in those states. There are still transgender citizens who cannot marry their partners. It is also tempered by the fact that the reason same-sex marriage is now legal in Wisconsin and an additional ten states is that the Supreme Court declined to hear five cases about marriage equality that were before it. They had the opportunity to make an historic decision along the lines of Loving vs. Virginia and declined to act.

Declining to hear the current cases left the lower court rulings standing and in all of the cases involved the most recent court rulings had affirmed marriage equality. It was the easy way out for the Court. It meant they did not have to decide once and for all–which both sides were encouraging them to do–whether states could deny the right of marriage to certain citizens. They haven’t yet released their reasoning, but given that it is a conservative court my bet is that they will say that marriage has always been something left to the states. What this means is that there is a chance that the other twenty states can continue to disallow marriage between partners of the same sex. The court had an opportunity to go down in history on the side of human rights and justice and instead simply passed. They could have made marriage equality the law across the nation and instead chose to remain silent on the constitutionality of marriage bans.

The Supreme Court could still take up a case later, particularly if a federal court becomes the first one to deny marriage equality, as then there would be federal courts disagreeing with each other and that would then make it more likely and necessary that the Supreme Court intervene. In the meantime, though, they took the easy way out. Either way marriage equality was advanced. If they had agreed to take the cases they knew they could not decide against equality. This way they just slowed it down a bit.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in declining to hear the cases the fact is that marriage equality is now the law in thirty of the fifty states. It may not be the most important issue in history–maybe not even to the queer community–but it is nevertheless hugely significant. While some queer people and liberals thought it was a waste to pursue marriage equality instead of some other basic rights (such as employment) the marriage issue resonated not just with gay folks but with the general public. Everyone knows someone who is gay or lesbian and to see committed couples, those with children, people who clearly love each other be denied the right to marry didn’t make sense to most of the public. Advancing marriage equality also advanced understanding of other discrimination and it humanized the LGBT community.

I am still going back and forth between joy about the situation in Wisconsin and the other ten states that now have marriage equality and my sadness that the Court refused to take a definitive stand. Marriage equality across the nation is clearly inevitable. It is now just a question of how much longer before the entire nation is in agreement on this. Then the question becomes how long before queer people are equal in every sense of the word. There is work still to do.

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Cradle to Cradle

My mother with her friend, Quacky, the stuffed duck.  Photo by Callen Harty.

My mother with her friend, Quacky, the stuffed duck. Photo by Callen Harty.

Some people never live long enough to get old. Others who do live to old age live a little slower physically but with their full mental capacity until the day they depart this realm. For many, though, they fit the idea of coming full circle, from the total dependency of infancy to a similar dependency in their waning years. My mother is in her second infancy.

Life is full of cycles. Nature moves that way.

Like a young child my mother often does not have the words that she needs. She is unable to move on her own (in fact, she cannot even get out of bed anymore). She wears adult diapers because she is bedridden. She is dependent upon others to feed and bathe her. She sometimes does not know who the people around her are, she can’t remember who is living and who is dead, and she sees things that others do not see. At times it can be hard to see her like that. She was the provider when we were babies. She was the strong woman and our protector when we were children. To see her so incapacitated, knowing how strong she has been her entire life, can be so hard.

Yet, there is life in her eyes. She still smiles and enjoys what life there is for her. She accepts her condition with grace. None of us can know what is really in her mind because her ability to share those kinds of things is limited these days, at least to us. My mother has several stuffed animals that have become her friends. She talks to them and they understand her better than I do. They come to her every day and watch over her and it makes her happy that they care so much. There is a certain kind of joy in this. Like a child with an imaginary friend or a favorite Teddy bear these things comfort her and make her life so much easier. We accept these things in children. Why can’t we accept them in adults?

Most of us are so worried about our jobs, families, and making ends meet that we have little to no time for our imaginations. At some point in our growing up we let go of the Teddy bears and comfort blankets. We take on a seriousness and a stoicism that gets us through the difficult days of adulthood, but I think we lose something in the process. It is very young children and very old men and women, as well as some of those with what are called mental issues, and perhaps a handful of others, who are not bound by what most of us consider reality. They can talk with stuffed animals, they can see things that we can’t see, they can talk with those who are no longer here. They accept a reality that the rest of us cannot see or even begin to comprehend.

I have often worried about losing my mental faculties. When I can’t come up with the right word or I can’t remember something I should be able to remember I start to question whether I am in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I am far less worried about losing physical ability than losing my ability to communicate. But then I look at my mother’s smile and I see a depth in her eyes and I think it may be okay. She is happy and when I look into her eyes she is still there. She is still the same woman who always loved me, and I can see that love resonate from her. I kiss her forehead again and tell her how much I love her. She tells me that she loves me, too, that she always has. I say goodbye to her, and make sure that I say goodbye to her friends as I leave.

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