Letter to Scott Walker on the Movement Toward Equality

Standing on the Side of Love.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Standing on the Side of Love. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Governor Walker,

You were quoted recently as saying that you sense no “significant movement” toward legalizing gay marriage in Wisconsin and you justified fighting whatever movement there is by stating that as an elected official it is your duty to uphold the Constitution.

So I must ask a few questions and point out a few details.

Is upholding the Wisconsin Constitution the reason you supported amending it back in 2006? Previously it had guaranteed equal rights to all Badger citizens, but the amendment you supported changed it to specifically prevent same-sex partners from marrying in the state of Wisconsin. It singled out one class of citizens for legalized discrimination, despite it clearly being in violation of the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. Not only did the Wisconsin amendment prohibit same-sex partners from marrying it disallowed anything “substantially similar” to marriage. It became the most regressive anti-marriage amendment in the nation. It was also the first time in our state’s history that the Constitution was amended to deny rights rather than to expand them and you supported that. You should be ashamed. You allowed your personal opinions and religious beliefs to trump your duty to the Constitution and to protecting all citizens of this great state.

Was your deep and abiding respect for the Constitution also the reason you had your palace guards at the Capitol arrest more than 400 singers for expressing their political points-of-view in song? Were you not aware that we enjoy the right to political speech by the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances? Just this week a judge threw several cases out of court by citing the arrests as unconstitutional. Have you called yet to thank the judge for protecting the Constitutional rights you hold so dear? If not, you should do that soon. Why would you have allowed the Capitol Police to continue their illegal arrests if you cared so much about the Constitution and your duty to uphold it? Simply put, you allowed your political agenda to override any concerns about the legality of the police actions. You seem to have a habit of disregarding the Constitution when it is convenient or to your advantage.

Aside from your supposed reverence for the Constitution your assertion that there is no “significant movement” toward marriage equality is an outright lie. It is simply not true. You may have learned the Karl Rove technique of repeating a lie until people believe it, but nobody is buying it on this issue. Nine states in the last year alone legalized marriage equality. Ten years ago not a single state allowed same-sex marriages. Illinois passed a marriage equality bill last year and when it takes effect in June there will be 17 states and the District of Columbia that allow it, with legal decisions in New Mexico and Utah temporarily on hold while the courts decide on citizens’ lawsuits against those states. Other states are also considering passage of similar bills. In addition Scotland just passed a marriage equality law and joined Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Iceland, parts of Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and Wales. You say there is no movement toward marriage equality? Really? You are either lying or misinformed. Even the United States Supreme Court is clearly moving closer to it with their recent decisions affirming the rights of gays and lesbians in California to marry, along with the decision to strike down the clearly discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act.

Perhaps you were only considering marriage equality in Wisconsin when you spoke. Or perhaps you were only considering your limited world-view. When the Legislature passed the anti-marriage amendment and then presented it to the public as a pro-family idea rather than as the discriminatory anti-gay amendment that it really was supporters of the amendment managed to convince 59% of the voters that the amendment should be passed according to an article in the Sheboygan Press. However, the article goes on to note that only six years later, by October of 2012, a Marquette University poll showed that 44% of Wisconsinites supported marriage equality. A mere one year later, by October of 2013, that number was up to 53%, the first time a majority of the state’s citizens expressed support for same-sex marriage and a nine percent increase in one year. Perhaps you didn’t take statistics before you suddenly left Marquette University, but those numbers show a significant movement toward marriage equality. What stands in the way is the anti-marriage amendment that you supported so strongly half a decade ago. I presume that you would be aware that there will be a movement to overturn that amendment. However, I realize I should probably not presume any awareness on your part. The reason you are not seeing it now is that everyone knows that as long as you and your Tea Party associates are in control of the governor’s office, statehouse, and courts, it will have to wait. But it will happen. You, sir, are on the wrong side of history.

I do not need you to approve of me personally. If you choose not to grow as the rest of the country has done that is your choice. As for your personal beliefs you are welcome to live in a world of your choosing. But as the governor of my state part of your job is to ensure that I will be afforded the same rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as all other Wisconsinites and Americans. As the head of our state you should be the one taking the lead to protect all citizens and to guarantee the rights of all, particularly minorities. If you can’t take the lead at least step out of the way of progress and let the rest of us move Wisconsin forward.

Post Script: After sending the above letter to Scott Walker two more events of significance occurred in Wisconsin. The ACLU, on behalf of four Wisconsin couples, sued Governor Scott Walker and the State of Wisconsin, among others, over the constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and civil unions in the state. On February 13 the Democrats in the Legislature introduced a bill to overturn that very same amendment. While the prospects of success on overturning the amendment are slim due to Republican majorities in both houses and holding the governorship it is likely that the law suit (or another one in one of the many other states being sued) will be decided by the Supreme Court and force the issue on Wisconsin judicially. It seems clear the Supreme Court understands the historical shift and is little by little moving toward marriage equality for all. One of these cases will likely serve the LGBT community the same way that the Supreme Court’s Loving vs. Virginia case overturned laws against interracial marriage in 1967. And still, Scott Walker believes that there is no “significant movement” toward marriage equality. It further demonstrates how out of touch he is with the pulse of Wisconsin citizens.

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Let It Be

My mother in her bed.  Photo by Callen Harty.

My mother in her bed. Photo by Callen Harty.

Three times in the last month or so I had intentions of driving to my hometown to see my mother and all three times the weather conspired to instill enough fear in me to keep me from the trip. I feel guilty about it in some ways and in other ways I feel relief because it is so hard to see her in her current condition. She is about a 70 or 80 pound weakling now and can’t even get out of her bed. The last time she tried she fell to the floor. Fortunately she hasn’t tried again since that time. She eats sparingly and her mind comes and goes. Conversation can be incredibly hard because of memory issues, repetition, and an inability to find the right words.

Hospice has been coming in for nearly a year already and about half a year ago she was already given last rites. Still, she keeps hanging on even though it must be very difficult for her. We can’t know why she’s hanging on and we can’t predict when her body or God will decide it is finally time. For the longest time I thought she must have unfinished business to take care of but her mind is so rarely good these days I can’t imagine that she would even know what that business is any more. Maybe she’s afraid of what’s next. Maybe she doesn’t want to leave the comfort of loved ones. Maybe . . . maybe I simply don’t know. And it’s silly of me to even try to guess. Maybe the mystery of this is beyond my comprehension. To be blunt I don’t know what she has to live for at this time, but I am not in her mind and cannot know. Maybe she is finishing up unfinished business in her head or in prayer. There is no way to know. So my choice is to get stressed over trying to figure it out or to just let it go. I have chosen to let it be and to be okay with that.

My sister told me the other day that last week was bad. Mom goes through some rough weeks and some good days here and there. Apparently she wanted to get out of bed, but she really doesn’t have the strength to walk any more, even with a walker and someone helping her, and she doesn’t have the strength to push herself to try to get out of bed and fall again either. With assistance she can still walk with some difficulty but it uses up precious energy reserves and leaves her absolutely exhausted, and all it gives her is a slightly different view of an incredibly small part of the world for a short while. After my sister convinced her to stay where she was the other day she apparently got a little irritated and started saying things like, “I might as well be dead.”

It’s hard to hear that she is saying things like that but honestly I believe I would feel the same way in that position. And yet I think I would somehow hang on, too. I can be very much like her in some ways. In fact our entire family has a history of being very strong and very stubborn and nobody else is going to tell any of us when it’s time to let go. A person has to arrive at those moments in their own time and in their own way. I have chosen to be okay with that, too. When my mother is ready she will let go. In the meantime I will let it be.

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I Am Rising

Sky.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Sky. Photo by Callen Harty.

I am rising because silence is not an option any more. I was silenced too long by threats, social pressures, and my own shame and fear. It took me years to realize that keeping the abuse a secret helped no one but the one who abused me. Speaking up, sharing my story, has given me the strength that he took away from me as a child. I am no longer alone and I have gained my strength. I will not give it back.

I am rising because men have been taught to hide their emotions and male survivors have been taught to believe that we will be perceived as weak if we admit abuse or talk openly about feelings. I believe that admitting our pain takes more courage than stoicism does. By facing what happened to me I have gained the courage to talk about it and move past it. I will not return to a perception of masculinity that doesn’t allow me to be honest and real.

I am rising because we must all rise together to end sexual and physical violence in our world. Only when we face it can we overcome it. But we can’t do it alone. We must stand side by side–men and women, young and old, of every creed and color–if we are to end the violence. When a billion or more of us stand up we can end it. When a billion or more of us rise up we will not be put back down again.

This piece was written for the event, One Billion Rising, that will be held world-wide in February. In Madison, Wisconsin there will be an event at the Brink Lounge. Survivors were invited to submit poems and essays that were to take off on the theme of “I am rising because . . .” The submissions will be featured on a “Wall of Rising” at the event.

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Brian Boitano is Gay

Ice Rink.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Ice Rink. Photo by Callen Harty.

So Brian Boitano came out recently and nobody is surprised. And that is irritating me.

Matt Lauer interviewed him on the Today Show a couple days ago and made a joke about not being shocked by the news. Boitano graciously smiled and replied that he had always been open with friends and family about his personal identity but has also always been a very private person. Lauer’s insensitivity bothered me. I admired Boitano’s class in his response.

Years ago the South Park creators poked fun at Boitano in their song “What would Brian Boitano do?” in which the figure skater takes on bears, Kubla Khan, and others because he doesn’t “take shit from anybody”, all while skating around an ice rink. It was meant to be absurd because almost every male in figure skating is presumed to be effeminate and queer. When Boitano came out there was a collective yawn and most people said things along the lines of “Duh. Wasn’t it obvious?” Even those in the queer community–maybe even moreso than others–reacted with the “everyone knew it” idea. I think I may have even done the same thing, but that doesn’t make it right. We really need to check ourselves on assigning identity to others.

Not everyone knows this but in the early 1900s parents dressed boys in pink and girls in blue. Somewhere along the line that changed and now boys who like pink are considered feminine simply because of a fashion decision made about a century ago. In the late 1800s boys often wore skirts and had long hair. That, too, changed somewhere along the line. It is ridiculous that something as benign as a color or an article of clothing is used by others to define someone.

When I was in college I had a friend everyone thought was gay because among other things he liked to shop and his voice was higher-pitched, so he was considered to be somewhat feminine. In reality he was straight and dated more girls than the other straight guys in our group. Meanwhile, because I liked sports and more traditionally masculine things, I was presumed to be straight even though I wasn’t. I find it both stupid and maddening that these exterior, meaningless aspects of our identity are used to define us rather than who we know ourselves to be at our core. Of course, gender identity and sexual identity are two completely different things anyway.

There are biological differences between male and female, but masculinity and femininity are largely a social construct. A boy likes the color pink or enjoys playing with dolls and is automatically considered feminine and a large majority of the time perceived as gay by his playmates because of that. Boys or men who like figure skating, acting, hairdressing, and a host of other activities that our society has labeled as more feminine or girls who like working on cars, football or other activities that our society has labeled as more masculine are automatically assessed and labeled because of that. The reality is that they might be gay, they might be trans, they might be straight. Only they can know for sure and it is up to them to figure that out.

As a society we create stereotypes and then put people into boxes because of those stereotypes. What I’m reacting to with the Brian Boitano story is the box into which he was thrown. Prior to his coming out he wasn’t allowed to define himself. Society defined him solely by some of his actions and they could have been wrong. We should all have the right to define ourselves and we should all avoid presumptions of identity when we really know nothing at all.

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A Dream Realized

Cover of my first book, My Queer Life.  Design and photo by Callen Harty.

Cover of my first book, My Queer Life. Design and photo by Callen Harty.

When I was in about second grade or possibly third I remember sitting at the feet of my Great Aunt Leona, listening to her talk about writing. She was a poet, composer, and a stringer for the Wisconsin State Journal, one of the three daily newspapers everyone in our hometown subscribed to and read. I loved books already by then and admired her for being a writer. I knew then it was what I wanted to do with my life. In third grade the teacher was already posting my poems on the bulletin board for the whole class to see (thank God those have been lost). Being a published writer was a lifelong dream.

The reality is that I have realized that dream for years. I have had poems, essays, and articles published. I have had two dozen plays produced. I have been paid to write and have won awards for the writing I’ve done. But the big dream was always to write a book and now–just now–that dream has been realized. My first book, My Queer Life, is now available on my own web page, createspace.com, and on Amazon.com and hopefully in bookstores and elsewhere soon, too. Holding a copy of it in my hands is indescribable. Knowing that it is my work inside the cover of the book hasn’t even really sunk in yet. Pretty soon others may be holding it in their hands and reading my words after buying a copy of it. It’s sort of mind-boggling to me that people might buy and read a book that I wrote and I can barely contain my giddiness over it. I have been smiling and ecstatic all night.

The book is a literary collection of various essays, poems, pieces of plays, speeches, and more that I have written over the last thirty plus years around the topic of living an authentic life as a queer man in a straight society. I believe it is universal. My friend, Arno Michaelis, who wrote the foreword, has dreams of straight kids carrying copies of it around and learning more about all of us getting along. I think it has the potential to create more understanding or I wouldn’t have published it.

The average number of books that an author sells is 500 copies. That’s it. That takes into account those that have sold a million and those that have sold none. But the vast majority of books don’t sell more than that. I’m hoping I sell thousands, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll be happy with anyone who decides they want to purchase one.

And I’m not going to stop there. I’m already more than 125 pages into my second book. It will be called Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story and will be an autobiographical book about surviving childhood sex abuse. I’m also about 230 pages into my first novel and have another couple ideas roiling about in my mind already.

For today, though, I’ll enjoy holding my first book in my hands and knowing that I have fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams.

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Peace on Earth

Peace.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Peace. Photo by Callen Harty.

In the Christian tradition this is among the holiest of eves. But one does not have to be a Christian to appreciate the man of peace who was Jesus.

If one simply takes him at face value, as a man who walked the earth and taught his followers some lessons about the nature of man there is reason enough to celebrate. We celebrate many men who have walked this earth and have been part of a long line of teachers who preached peace, generosity of spirit, and kindness. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others in our lifetime have preached the idea of peaceful change in a world where peace is often a fleeting moment here and there. Jesus was their forerunner.

He came into a world that was corrupt and where men did not treat each other very well. We live in a similar world. He said that he came to replace the old law with a new law. We are in a time where the old ways need to give way to new thinking. What he taught was that we should all love one another. He taught the Golden Rule, to treat others as we would wish to be treated. He taught peace: “Happy are those who make peace, for they will be sons of God.”

But we have not learned our lessons very well from any of the wise teachers in our human history. On this day, on the eve of Christmas, 2013, there is bloodshed in Syria, in Sudan, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, in drug-related killings all over Mexico, in cities all over the United States, in countries the world over. The bodies pile up and we continue developing new and more powerful weapons to kill more people with less risk to the killers. The shortest verse of the Bible is “Jesus wept” and I imagine that if he were here today he would still be weeping uncontrollably.

My wish on this night is for a world of peace, a world where Christians and Muslims break bread together, where Buddhists and Hindus connect, where believers and unbelievers can believe in each other, where life-long enemies can stop for a moment and somehow find their common humanity rather than their common enmity. We are all more alike than we are different. We all want to be happy, we want to live, and we want to live in peace. None of the world’s great teachers ever got us to lay down our arms and use our arms to reach out to those who are on the other side of whatever man-made barriers we have created. But they opened the door. They nudged us in that direction. Neither Jesus nor Mohammed wanted a world of war any more than any of us who have to fight them want it. It is only the rich and powerful men who Jesus warned us about who gain anything by poor men killing each other for them and for cynical ideals of patriotism and glory.

There are no borders when two hearts connect in the world. There is only understanding that can cross borders. We are all children of God or some greater presence that we haven’t identified yet or simply the creation of accidents in the universe. However we came to be, we are all far more alike than we are different. We just need to sit down at the table and get to know each other. Jesus knew that, just as Nelson Mandela knew that. The celebration of Christmas is a good reminder that peace is a goal worth striving for whether one believes in the divinity or the humanity of Jesus. It doesn’t matter. The lesson of peace is valid either way.

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Northern Lights and Smiles

My mother, Kathleen.  There is beauty in the lines of her face.  Photo by Callen Harty.

My mother, Kathleen. There is beauty in the lines of her face. Photo by Callen Harty.

Several years ago I was driving back to Madison from my hometown of Shullsburg, Wisconsin in the southwestern corner of the state. It was winter and as I was driving I suddenly noticed incredible colored lights in the sky, shifting around, almost dancing, and as I drove further north they got brighter and moved even more, swirling against the black backdrop of the night sky. I was overwhelmed. It was only the second time in my life that I had seen the Northern Lights, and the first time I had seen them the display was nowhere near as breathtaking. It was indescribable. The beauty and power of it left me dumbstruck. I was overcome with joy and tears came to my eyes. Seeing such a thing makes one realize the smallness of a single life on a single planet, but can also renew faith that there is a power or energy or something far greater than us.

As I was driving home along the same road this evening I was reminded of that night. There were no Northern Lights tonight. Sometimes the miracles in our lives are not so grandiose, but they are miracles nonetheless. Earlier I had been at my infirm mother’s bedside chatting with her. I took pictures of her, studied the lines–the deep lines and wrinkles–in her face, listened to her carefully for clues about how she is really doing because she has been on the precipice of life and death now for a couple years or more. Yet, she hangs on, she survives. Those of us who love her don’t know how or why and maybe we never will. It doesn’t matter. And somehow in the midst of her weakened state she still smiles. She still laughs. Despite her dementia, whatever pain she might be in, despite all that she has been through, she still has a sense of humor. She made me laugh often when I was growing up and she still does, even though her mind is often distant. That miracle brightens my emotional sky far greater than the Northern Lights ever could and it somehow reinvigorates my faith. I look to the sky knowing that some day I will see the Northern Lights again and I look in the rear view mirror and know that my mother’s smile will always be in my mind’s eye.

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