It’s About More than Money

Wisconsin State Senate. Photo by Callen Harty.

Wisconsin State Senate. Photo by Callen Harty.

Wisconsin is in danger of becoming the 25th “right to work” state by early March, with hearings held today, a Senate vote coming later in the week, an expected Assembly vote at the beginning of March, and an assured signature from the governor as soon as possible after that.

It’s possible to convert one of the Republican Senate votes so that it doesn’t pass and one would think that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin would be doing everything they could to make that happen and to educate the public and encourage contact with legislators.

One would think.

Instead, I got the following e-mail today from Mike Tate, chairman of the state party:

“It’s today, Callen.

“The state Senate is set to take up legislation that would make Wisconsin a right-to-work state. They’re attacking our state’s working families. We HAVE to fight back before Scott Walker and his GOP allies succeed.

“But we can’t fight back alone. We need your help. We have to raise $5,200 before COB today if we want to keep the pressure on the GOP to stop them from passing right to work legislation.”

That was followed by several links allowing me to instantly donate money to the cause and then a signature of “Solidarity, Mike”.

I was so irritated I hit reply and sent the following response:

“Dear Mike (or whomever reads this for him),

“Must you use every bill that comes up, every event that occurs, every possible angle there is in order to continue raising money? What do you do with all that money? I would think you could use it to actually fight the things that you use as excuses to raise more money.

“Perhaps you could occasionally send an e-mail to those on your lists that serves to educate the public about the nuances of a bill or how to get in touch with their legislators.

“You say that Republicans are attacking working families, but you don’t say how. Maybe there are people who need to understand the issue better. You put in bold letters that we have to fight back, but you neglect to mention what the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is doing to fight back. You note that you need to raise $5,200 before the end of the business day in order to keep pressure on the Republicans over this, but you don’t tell us what you are doing to put pressure on them.

“I wish you would please quit appealing to our emotional responses to bad legislation in order to raise more money and instead tell us what you are doing to fight bad legislation. If I knew that you were at the Capitol today protesting with my brothers and sisters, or that you were meeting with one of the handful of Republican senators who could possibly be convinced to vote against their party, then I might be willing to send you a check without you even having to ask.

“The only communications I ever get from you are pleas for more money in order to fight the evil Republicans. I will not be sending you a check until I know what you are doing with the money (other than throwing it at hand-picked candidates who have no realistic chance of winning) and what you are doing (other than campaigning) to seriously fight the draconian actions of the governor and legislature.

“I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels this way. Your requests for donations would be far more effective if they weren’t the only things you ever sent. Mix it up a bit. Tell us what you are doing for us. Show us concrete ways that the money will be used. Maybe then my first reaction would not be to hit the ‘trash’ button on my computer.”

 

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On the Budget and “Right to Work”

Protect Workers' Rights. Photo by Callen Harty.

Protect Workers’ Rights. Photo by Callen Harty.

I know someone who voted for Scott Walker for governor of Wisconsin three times–his first election, the recall, and his most recent gubernatorial win. She is not a big fan of unions even though her husband is a union employee. Despite her husband’s union status she thought that Walker and his cohorts did the right thing four years ago with Act 10, a bill which stripped public employee unions of the right to collectively bargain. Of course, her husband is not in a public employee union, so I don’t believe she was thinking of the larger picture when Act 10 was passed. A devotee of Martin Niemoller she is not.

But now they are coming for her. Now, Walker and his Republican allies in the State Legislature are going after the unions again–this time by scheduling an emergency session to fast-track a bill making Wisconsin a “right to work” state. Now she is angry. Walker’s union bashing antics are going to affect her more personally this time around. Now she is talking about taking off work so she can go to the Capitol to protest. Now she is upset with Scott Walker for this latest action (even though she made it clear she still supports much of what he has done over the last several years). It’s possible that people like her may now join those who fought Act 10 in a desperate bid to stop “right to work” from coming to Wisconsin.

Even with new fighters against this latest attack on Wisconsin the battle against the bill may still not have a chance and Scott Walker may fare well no matter what happens. The Republicans apparently have the votes in the Senate to pass the bill. The Assembly is so overwhelmingly Republican there is no question of its passage in that house. Walker has already promised to sign it, regardless of all of his public statements about it not being right for Wisconsin at this time (and those statements were despite the fact that he himself introduced a “right to work” bill in the Assembly back in 1993). If it passes there could be legal battles but the Wisconsin Supreme Court is controlled by conservatives who could easily beat back most challenges. It looks like win/win for Walker and his allies. On the opposing side there is talk of a general strike, but almost everyone has to be on board with that and it is not an easy thing to pull off. It can be done, but it would take a lot of work, and it may not have much of an effect. Check that. It would have an effect, but it may not change anything in the long run. There is also talk of protest. If tens of thousands of union members and allies come to the Capitol again and the bill still passes then Walker has scored another talking point about how he fought down the evil unions in 2015 after already defeating them once back in 2011. If nobody protests and the bill just glides through to passage then it looks like nobody has the will against him anymore. Either way he looks good to those like the Koch Brothers who support his time machine ride back to the nineteenth century days of the robber barons and poorhouses.

If a general strike can be organized that may have enough of an effect that other citizens end up demanding change and killing “right to work”. The other possibility is that the threat of a general strike or the impact of protests, letters, phone calls, and other actions will create enough pressure that a couple of the Republican Senators turn against their bosses and vote with the people (an unusual concept, but I’m an idealist at times), stopping it in its tracks. The Republican leadership, in fact, is clearly afraid of this one possibility, so much so that Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald admitted in an interview that he fast-tracked the bill specifically so that there would not be enough time for opponents to put pressure on Republican senators.

An interesting side note to this whole sideshow is that the Republicans do have the votes to pass “right to work”. The timing, however, seems suspect. They could do it now or they could do it during the regular legislative session, or they could even wait until after Walker has become the unchallenged front runner as the Republican candidate for President (dear God, I never thought I would hear such horrifying words; then again, it’s the Republican party and it’s often a question of which clown is the least terrifying to the greatest number of people under that circus tent). So why now? Perhaps one only needs to look at the budget. Suddenly there is no news reporting about the cuts to the University of Wisconsin or public education. There are no stories about cuts to recycling, borrowing money for highways while delaying debt payments, eliminating dozens of state jobs, rearranging the Department of Natural Resources Board, or any of the countless other awful proposals in Scott Walker’s latest budget, many of which have nothing to do with budgetary considerations at all. In fact he doesn’t seem very concerned about the financial situation of our state as he continues to give tax benefits and other gifts to his supporters. As noted he has already delayed one debt repayment to try to help balance a budget that has gone totally out of control on his watch. With that, he is “kicking the can down the road”, as so many Republicans like to say about the Democrats, and leaving the debt for others to deal with in the future. The reality is that it is not just one debt repayment. He is doing the same with the entire economy, and “right to work” is just a small part of it. What does he care what happens to our economy if he has already satisfied his corporate puppet masters and gained more Tea Party notoriety in his bid to destroy the country the way he has destroyed one state? Suddenly all of the surprising budget items and economic issues are back page news or no news at all. Perhaps that is an unfair consideration, but I don’t put anything past the villains in power in Wisconsin right now.

Those who don’t see how they will be affected by both the budget and this sudden “right to work” proposal, directly or indirectly, need to open their eyes and join the fight. They need to lose their myopic vision and see beyond their own insulated worlds. The “right to work” law will affect more than just the unions. Studies have shown that those states where “right to work” legislation has passed have a lower average wage for workers. It brings the whole economy down. The only ones who benefit are the owners and shareholders of large manufacturing facilities and those who hire men and women in the trade professions, the kind of people who donate massive amounts of money to candidates like Scott Walker who will act as lap dogs in return for the money and the perception of power. Those who suffer would include pretty much everyone else. Workers with less money to spend will not spend it at small businesses that need the income. They in turn will have less disposable income. All of that will also bring the tax base down and the state will have to cut more money from critical budget items like education just to stay afloat.

The current budget seems to be remarkably similar to 2011’s “budget repair bill”, in that it is a hodgepodge of right-wing dreams that have little to do with the budget that were snuck into the middle of a huge proposal. When the 2015 budget was released the university folks were all upset with the cuts to the UW system. Public school teachers were trying to decide how to fight cuts to public education. There were things for every special interest group to fight, so everyone was trying to figure out how to save their piece of the pie. The only thing that caught everyone’s attention was the attempted sleight-of-hand undermining of the Wisconsin Idea which was quickly withdrawn with lies about it being an oversight. Everyone wanted to save that piece of pie. The problem is we should all be fighting for the whole pie. This is the lesson of Niemoller and the lesson of the power of unions. If I only fight for the things that directly affect me then I might save those things for now–but they also might fall next. We need to look out for each other. The citizens of the state need to act like a large union. We need to fight to keep our piece of the pie, but we also need to fight to help our friends and neighbors keep their pieces of the pie as well. If we all fight individually we will lose–if not today, soon. If we all fight together we can win. At least it gives us a chance.

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To Mom on Your 90th Birthday

Mom on Christmas Eve, 2014. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom on Christmas Eve, 2014. Photo by Callen Harty.

You were born in 1925. February 19, 1925 and you came into this world as the youngest of nine children. And now, it is 2015. It is nine decades later. It is ninety years later and you are still smiling and full of love.

You lived through the Great Depression, through World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan. And still you smile and still you love.

You have outlived two husbands, one of your children, all of your brothers and sisters, your friends. Still you are grateful for what you have. Still you laugh. Still you love.

If you are ninety then I am no longer a child. You no longer tuck me in at night or hold me in your arms in a rocking chair while I sit on your lap. You no longer comfort me when I am sick or scold me when I do something wrong. But you still love me and you will always be my mother.

You taught me right from wrong. You gave me a moral compass. You passed on compassion, empathy, generosity, and a sense of justice. You gave me laughter and you gave me love. You filled my life with love.

At ninety you are still my mother. That will never go away. Everything else might fade, but the love of a mother for a child does not. It cannot. But I want you to know that it goes both ways. You still make me smile and I still love you for all that you have been and all that you are.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you more than you can know.

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To Scott Walker on the Budget

Wisconsin Capitol Reflected. Photo by Callen Harty.

Wisconsin Capitol Reflected. Photo by Callen Harty.

2/4/15

Dear Governor Walker,

Once again I must write to you to express my displeasure at your continued dismantling of the Wisconsin I know and love. Just as your initial “budget repair bill” was not about repairing the budget but about destroying unions your proposed 2015-2017 budget is less a budget and more of a blueprint for destroying key aspects of what many of us believe is best about Wisconsin. I understand that for the most part you are following marching orders from your billionaire backers and the advisers who are trying to prop you up as a Presidential candidate, but I must beg you to listen to the citizens of the state that you govern and reconsider much of what you have proposed.

Here are a few of the things that are in your budget that are, to put it simply, just wrong. I hope that you take a moment to consider what true Badgers expect of our leaders and set aside your aspirations long enough to realize that much of what you are proposing will destroy our state as a leader in education and in many other ways.

  • Three hundred million dollar cuts to the University of Wisconsin system. First of all, this cut is proposed due to a projected two billion dollar shortfall. That shortfall is not the fault of the UW system, but is due to your short-sighted policies and previous budgeting exercises, such as two billion dollars in tax cuts that you and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed in the last budget and that interestingly almost matches the amount of our current budget shortfall. The University of Wisconsin in Madison and the satellite UW schools around the state are the cornerstone, along with public education, of Wisconsin’s future. If anything we should be putting more money into education, not less. An uneducated electorate leads to lower-paying jobs and professional flight from the state.
  • Two hundred million dollars to the Milwaukee Bucks through bonds issued by the state in order to build a new arena. Yes, the NBA is threatening to move the professional basketball team from Milwaukee if the team does not build a new arena and yes, the team does generate revenue for Milwaukee hotels, restaurants, merchandisers, and associated businesses. It would be a loss in both revenue and image if the team left the state. However, it is a private enterprise owned by millionaire investors. If they want to invest in a professional basketball team they should expect to shoulder the costs of doing that business along with the profits they reap from it. The amount proposed is two-thirds of the amount you are proposing to cut from the university system. I ask you, which is more important to our future and our image–a professional basketball team or a professional and highly respected university system that educates thousands of future teachers, scientists, and world leaders? I have been following the Bucks since they came to Milwaukee and as much as I love them my money would be on the university system.
  • Borrowing more than a billion dollars for highway improvements. Infrastructure throughout the United States, including Wisconsin, is in desperate need of repair. This includes bridges, power grids, highways, water and sewer systems, dams, and more. We need to find ways to repair these things, but further borrowing when we are already facing a huge budget shortfall is short-sighted and as Republicans have tended to say the past few years is “kicking the can down the road”, leaving the debt to future generations to cover what we are enjoying now. Granted, many of your biggest campaign supporters are highway builders but we cannot afford to pay them with our grandchildren’s nickels and dimes, especially when we are already endangering their futures with your proposed university cuts.
  • Ending the Wisconsin Idea. Your budget proposed changing the law to reword the University’s mission to make it about training workers instead of giving every student a fully-rounded education that teaches them how to think, encourages service, and partners the universities in our system with the communities (and the state) in which they exist. After about a day of mostly negative feedback I see you have already backed off on this proposal. My hope is that you will reconsider other aspects of this budget as well.
  • Expanding school vouchers. Your plan removes the cap on school vouchers. Vouchers are anathema to our long and proud tradition of local control of public schools and should not be expanded any further than they already have been. It takes money away from public schools where it is badly needed. While I understand the Supreme Court has upheld the use of vouchers I also do not believe the state should be paying for parents to send their children to private schools, particularly religious schools. In addition testing has consistently shown that voucher schools do not perform better than public schools, even though one of the arguments for vouchers is that the free market economy competition would elevate standards. Often the vouchers go to parents who would send their children to the private schools anyway, saving the parents money, but taking it away from public schools.
  • Elimination of the Educational Approval Board. This board oversees the authorization of for-profit educational institutions. This part of the budget shows your continued lack of concern for the quality and future of education in our state.
  • Fifteen million dollar cut to Senior Care. This plan was eliminated from one of your previous budgets. It would force seniors to sign up for Medicare Part D and have drugs covered under that plan rather than by the state. While it would save the state money it appears that it may cost seniors more for the same drugs. Along the same lines your continued refusal to accept federal money for Medicaid, despite every other state in the upper Midwest doing so–including other Republican-controlled states–is simply hard-headed stubbornness that is contributing to our budget woes.
  • Cuts to the Educational Communications Board. One source I read quoted two hundred million in cuts and another put it at five hundred million. Either one is close to a death knell for public television and radio in the Badger state. I understand that Republicans have long hated both and believe them to be liberal mouthpieces (which, by the way, is ridiculous), so I understand that cutting funding for public radio and public television will probably gain valuable Tea Party points. But public broadcasting is important to citizens throughout the state. I remember growing up in southwestern Wisconsin the first time I ever heard a symphony was on a public radio station. Wisconsin Public Television has produced consistently quality programming specifically about Wisconsin history and culture. Public television and radio are vital to our cultural heritage and understanding and virtually eliminating them is as mean-spirited as it gets.
  • Cutting almost 450 state jobs. My guess is that the bulk of these are union jobs given your unyielding attacks on Wisconsin unions. While I understand that some of these jobs are currently vacant more than half of them are not, meaning that while you spout off about being a job creator you are willing in your own budget to put over 250 workers out of a job and take their earnings out of circulation. Dozens of the proposed job cuts are Department of Natural Resources researchers. You have repeatedly proven your aversion to science and education, so this is not surprising. However, it is also short-sighted as DNR research is vital in protecting our natural resources and wildlife for future generations. The elimination of dozens of third shift tower guard positions at Wisconsin prisons just seems odd. I’d like to see more information on why that decision was made.
  • Converting the Department of Natural Resources Board to an advisory board. This proposal places more power in the hands of the director of the DNR, a position appointed by the Governor. While current director Cathy Stepp is in step with you on this move she has been a yes woman throughout her tenure with the DNR. This move puts too much power in the hands of a political appointee and allows less meaningful public input on important decisions that affect the future of our environmental heritage. My bet is that despite her words to the contrary Secretary Stepp would value the Board’s opinions about as much as you value citizen input in your decisions–meaning not at all from the evidence I have seen.
  • Cutting property taxes. Why in heck would you cut property taxes at all when we are facing the huge deficit we are facing and when you are cutting jobs and educational funding, especially when the expected benefit to homeowners is a meager $5 per family for a home valued at $150,000? I would gladly pay $5 or $20 more a year if it helped to preserve the quality of our university system. Please raise taxes on me instead of making some of the cuts you are proposing.

Though I don’t expect that you will hear my pleas on this budget any more than you have heard me on any other issue I have written you about I felt it was my duty as a Wisconsin citizen to let you know how I feel and to ask you to reconsider most of the highlights of your proposed budget. I also ask that you focus more on Wisconsin and its issues than on your ego and run for higher office. While I’d prefer not to have you leading my state I sincerely hope your aspirations are crushed so that you don’t destroy my country the way you are destroying my state.

(This letter was e-mailed to Governor Walker today and cc’d to my representatives, Senator Mark Miller and Representative Robb Kahl)

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Disposable

Franco Shoe Repair, Madison, WI. Photo by Callen Harty.

Franco Shoe Repair, Madison, WI. Photo by Callen Harty.

I have been thinking lately about our disposable world and how virtually everything in it is designed to be used and tossed. Maybe I’m getting old and waxing nostalgic for a simpler time, or maybe for some reason I’m just being particularly sensitive about the issue right now.

I’m sure that a lot of it stems from a simple thing–my reading glasses. I bought a cheap pair at Dollar Tree at South Towne Mall a while back. They were a dollar and apparently worth about that. Within a couple weeks the temple, or arm, had broken. I threw them away and got another pair for a dollar and the same thing happened again. The third time I went to Walgreen’s and bought a $25 pair that I figured would be sturdier and last a little longer. I kept the other pair at home as an emergency backup. It took several months but the same thing happened to the $25 pair. I taped them up and continued to use them because I wasn’t about to keep spending $25 every couple of months when the lenses were perfectly fine and I just needed them for close work on the computer or for reading.

Since taping up the glasses I have probably had at least one person every day make comments such as calling me a dork, asking when I was going to get new glasses, or just generally poking fun at the tape job. I keep wondering why everyone else is so concerned about it. It’s not that I can’t see with them this way, or that it hurts those people in some way. I have been genuinely perplexed by the apparent concern.

It occurred to me that maybe it is a class thing. It’s not that I can’t afford to spend another $25 on a new pair of glasses these days, but I grew up in a lower middle class family with a mother who grew up in the Great Depression. We went without all the fancy new toys and gadgets that neighbors and friends had. We had enough, but we didn’t have a lot and we didn’t really waste much of anything in our home. We ate what was on our plates and had leftovers. We wore hand-me-down clothes and because I was the youngest in my family, with a mother who was the youngest in a family of nine, some of my cousins were old enough that I got hand-me-downs that were hand-me-downs and would sometimes wear clothes that were already a generation old by the time they came down to me. We fixed things rather than threw them away.

When I was a boy there were two shoe repair shops in my little hometown of just over a thousand people and we used to give them business. I think there may be one left in Madison and I doubt they do a great business. These days when a heel breaks the shoes are tossed by most people and a new pair is purchased. Sometimes that happens before there is any significant wear or tear; the shoe is simply out of fashion and needs to be replaced. My mother had a couple tins (salvaged from Christmas gifts of candy or cookies) in which she stored buttons to replace lost ones. She sewed patches on pants and shirts. These days the clothes are thrown away the moment one little thread starts to show and then new pants or shoes are brought home. Mom saved ribbons from wrapped gifts and used them again in following years. Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t a hoarder, but she did do her best to hold onto useful items rather than throwing them away. When it finally came time to get rid of things she thought of those who might have even less and would offer to give the hand-me-downs one more generation’s worth of service.

We don’t think that way anymore. Now a huge number of products are designed to last a short time and to be disposable. If someone buys a lighter that can be refilled that lighter is only sold once and can be refilled hundreds of times before finally wearing out. But a disposable lighter, with butane already inside a plastic tank, can only be used so many times and then has to be replaced, and it doesn’t matter what condition it’s in when the fuel runs out. It is a boon for the corporations that manufacture them because it creates a steady demand. We have disposable lighters, shavers, cameras, and more and somehow as a society we have been convinced that those who try to keep landfills from filling up faster and who may try to avoid spending more money by taping up glasses or using old-fashioned razors are dorks, cheapskates, or just plain look stupid. We’re not encouraged to repair, but to replace. I can’t remember the last time I saw a patch on a pair of pants.

The real problem with the disposable attitude is that it extends beyond products into the realm of human interaction. Employees are no longer employees, workers, or part of the company’s “family”. They are nothing but “human resources”. There is an implication that the employees are as disposable as dirty plastic diapers. Their value to the company is as a resource and once the resource has been used up it is expendable. With a disposable attitude permeating our culture then everything runs the risk of being valueless and disposable as well, including relationships. If there is anything that should be repaired and saved rather than tossed aside too lightly it is the relationships we have with our families and friends. When it comes down to it those are the things that really matter in this life. On our deathbeds it won’t really matter what kinds of clothes we wore or products we used. It won’t matter if my glasses are taped. What will matter is how much love was in my life. Hopefully it will be a lot and the nice thing about love is that it can be replenished; the more that is given the more there is to give and the more that is given back. If only our manufacturers could figure that out we’d all be in a lot better shape.

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On the Mormon Church’s Love of Me

Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City. Photo by Callen Harty.

Today the Mormon Church made headlines by holding a press conference in which three of their apostles and one of their women leaders stated the church’s unequivocal support for protections in housing, employment, and public accommodations for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) citizens.

The media and others seem to be incredibly impressed by this. Me, not so much. Unlike unquestioning newspaper types (I long for the days of real journalists) I do not take everything at face value.

I guess the church’s new-found determination in this area might be impressive if you are a Utah legislator sitting on a bill for the last several sessions that would have provided for the kinds of protections the church leaders finally stood up to support today. It might be impressive if you were waiting for the church to signal to legislators that they are okay with it so that it could finally be passed. It seems likely that now that the Utah bill has official church backing in a land where separation of church and state is the law it may finally pass.

My home state of Wisconsin passed the first bill like that, prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations back in 1982. Perhaps today’s press conference would have been more impressive if it had been a little less than thirty-three years after Wisconsin’s landmark legislation.

It would also be more impressive if the Mormon Church were not so vociferously against same-sex marriage while at the same time professing their church’s love for us queer folk, or if they weren’t for other kinds of discrimination against us. They can probably see that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a national bill that would do what the Utah bill will do but on a national scale, is destined for eventual passage. They can also see that marriage equality is inevitable, especially given that there are only fifteen states left without it. According to the apostles at today’s press conference the scriptures are clear about marriage being reserved for straight men and women only. While the fight against marriage equality is clearly being lost and they know there is nothing they can do to stop it they are standing their ground on that issue. Today’s little press conference makes them appear to be genuinely loving toward us. Until you read between the lines.

According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints website’s Same-Sex Attraction page (yes, there is such a thing, at https://www.lds.org/topics/same-gender-attraction?lang=eng) there is nothing wrong with someone being attracted to the same sex, unless and until they act upon it sexually, at which point it becomes a sin because it is sex outside of marriage. And, of course, marriage is reserved for a man and a woman. So there is a Catch-22 there, where queer Mormons are destined to live lonely lives attracted to members of the same sex but unable to do anything about it, or they act upon it and live in sin according to the teachings of their church. This explains the closeted gay men on television’s “My Husband’s Not Gay”, a show where Mormon men who are clearly interested in other men get married to women because of social and religious pressure and then act as if they are okay with sublimating themselves like that. The show is laughable in that a person cannot just change the essence of who they are by making such a decision. They can deny themselves, but they can’t change themselves. Like the Catholic Church hating the sin but loving the sinner the Mormon Church loves us dearly, but with qualifications and strictures based on scriptures.

Because Mormon church doctrine says that all people should be loved and that same-sex attraction is okay (again, as a reminder, as long as it’s not acted upon) the apostles today positioned themselves as enlightened bearers of truth and justice. But at the same time they pushed for the ability to discriminate against LGBT people in other ways in the guise of religious freedom. There are laws being proposed around the country that pursue a very similar agenda–they allow cake makers, civil wedding officiants, and any other businesspeople who have a moral issue with queer customers to discriminate on the basis of “religious freedom”. This part of today’s statement is being glossed over by the media in favor of the major announcement of support for discrimination protections. The media are clearly forgetting that discrimination against African-Americans was justified with Biblical arguments as well. If we had allowed that kind of religious freedom to supersede anti-discrimination laws such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 we’d have a lot farther to go in our civil rights struggles (not that we don’t have a long way to go still, but it would be an even much harder climb to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mountaintop).

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Elder Dallin Oaks also talked about “the steady erosion of treasured [religious] freedoms that are guaranteed in the United States Constitution.”

The paper went on to say that he elaborated by relating several specific cases. The first was a case in California where Christian student groups were not recognized because they required their leaders to be Christian. To me, that makes sense. I might want to join the chess club because I have an interest in chess even if I don’t play. If the chess club could disallow me because of that it wouldn’t be right. Likewise, every gay group I know allows non-gay members to be part of the group. The likelihood is that a non-Christian is probably not going to want to join the high school Christian club any more than most straight boys would want to join the high school gay club (with the exception of gay-straight alliances, where that is encouraged).

The second was a case in Texas where subpoenas were served for sermons and notes of ministers who opposed a particular law based on moral grounds. I would agree with Elder Oaks that such a request seems a violation of privacy and constitutionally suspect. What he did not tell the assembled reporters was that the subpoena was ultimately withdrawn and the ministers were not required to give up their notes.

The last two examples were cases where individuals were pressured to resign positions due to their opposition to marriage equality. According to Oaks the first was a Mormon gymnast who resigned as the symbolic head of the U. S. Olympic team in London and the second was the Mozilla executive who resigned after a public outcry. However, these cases are examples of church equivocation as much as state-sanctioned religious discrimination. While Oaks made it sound like anyone who opposes marriage equality risks losing their jobs and livelihood both of these are not examples of law run amok, but of free-market economics at work. When you are in positions of power (whether symbolic or not) and you make public statements about volatile issues you take the risk of a potential backlash. It is true that people have lost jobs and respect as a result of using racist language, homophobic and transphobic language, and more, but it isn’t because of a lack of religious freedom. I believe that these individuals have the right to speak their minds but they also have to understand that if the public doesn’t like what they are saying and enough pressure is put on their companies or organizations they run the risk of losing those positions. If I’m the President of a company in Utah and we are losing customers and money because one of my top employees is spouting off anti-Mormon rhetoric you can bet that employee will be looking for a new job soon. It is the way of the world, and it has nothing to do with the Constitution or our laws protecting or not protecting anyone. It is the nature of boycotts and citizens putting their dollars where their business and politics meet. I don’t go to Mel Gibson movies, buy Ted Nugent records, or watch Fox “News” because I believe in making consumer choices that match my worldview. Ted Nugent is free to speak his mind. I don’t have to support him in that.

Oaks was quoted by the Tribune as saying, “When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser. Such tactics are every bit as wrong as denying access to employment, housing or public services because of race or gender.” To that I would say Elder Oaks is dead wrong. It is not the same. He needs to be reminded that race, gender, and sexual orientation are not choices, whereas choosing to make public statements that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic leaves you open to scrutiny by people who may decide to boycott your employer or organization. This is not to say that people do not have a right to state their opinions; just that the public has a right to respond to those opinions, particularly when the person stating them is in the public eye.

While I appreciate the Mormon Church supporting non-discrimination laws I don’t believe it is entirely altruistic and I don’t fully believe that they are on board with queer equality in all its manifestations. As a gay man I will credit them for this step forward while still holding them to task for the distance they have yet to come. The Salt Lake Tribune article about today’s announcement ended with a quote from the Latter Day Saints’ news release about the issue that begged for compromise with the quote, “Neither side may get all they want. We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values.” This is a little unnerving. I would agree that we must learn to live with others who might not share the same values, but if the Mormon Church really wants me to believe that they love me and care about my rights they might start by not referring to me as the other side. That is as telling as anything else they said today.

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Maybe the Best Christmas Present Ever

Mom, Brian, and me.  Photo by Coleen Harty.

Mom, Brian, and me. Photo by Coleen Harty.

Even as a little boy Christmas for me was never mostly about the gifts and the commercialism that mark the season in this country. As a child in a strict Irish-Catholic family it was about the celebration of the birth of Jesus, though I certainly never complained about the gifts from Santa Claus. It was also about family and friends being together in love and fellowship. Some of my best memories are of Christmas eves at home with my mother, siblings, and Aunt Avene. Although my spirituality has taken me in a different direction from those early days I still enjoy the season. While some people overspend and over-want it seems to me that for most of us the holiday is not about ourselves, but about giving to others. Although I believe that spirit should be year-round it is nice to have a holiday that stresses the importance of giving as a reminder. Sometimes we can get so caught up in our worlds that we can forget the importance of giving of oneself to others. Sometimes in our fast-paced society it can be helpful to have a reminder to slow down a bit, get off the merry-go-round of work and other activities, and just spend time with those we love the most.

This year my partner Brian and I drove down to my hometown of Shullsburg to visit. We called my brother Kerry who lives in Madison and doesn’t drive and asked if he wanted to go along, and he was very thankful for the offer. My sister Coleen and my oldest brother Kevin and his partner Ken live with my mother in the house in which we all grew up, in the town where Mom grew up and where generations before her grew up, going all the way back to 1827, the year the town was founded. My father’s side of the family arrived during the potato famine of the 1840s, so both sides have been there since before Wisconsin became a state.

Whenever I drive from Madison and start getting into the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin with its rolling hills and valleys I feel the pull of the earth and the pull of my heart in the land. It looks like Ireland and it is easy to see why so many Irish settled in the area. My blood runs deep in the soil there and I am moved by it whenever I go. Even without snow this year Shullsburg itself is like something out of a Currier and Ives painting and is an idyllic place to celebrate Christmas. Coming close to town we passed several Amish buggies and it made it seem like we were viewing Christmas from a century or more ago. Christmas trees were in virtually every house as we drove into town. If home is where the heart is I was definitely at home on Christmas Eve this year.

When we rang the doorbell at the house and my sister opened the door she was genuinely surprised and delighted to see the three of us. She opened her arms wide for hugs and invited us into the house. Kevin was downtown but we were told he would be home shortly. My mother has dementia, is about 70 or 80 pounds, and has been bedridden for a long time, so the first thing we did was go to her bedroom to say hi and wish her a Merry Christmas. She did not know it was Christmas Eve until we told her. Some days she doesn’t know who we are and doesn’t remember much of anything. Other days her mind can still be pretty sharp. It was one of the sharp days. She remembered us and beamed with happiness throughout our visit. She remembered I was the youngest. She talked about her mother from a picture on the wall. We got some pictures with her and all the siblings, the first time all of us had been together for about two years. She smiled, a lot. She joked around with us. She always had a great sense of humor and it shone through as bright as a Christmas star that evening. At one point when Brian had stepped out of the room she said, “He’s really a nice guy.” We agreed and then she asked his last name. Coleen and I both answered “Wild.” She took a moment and then very slyly said, “Oh, my.” It was clear she wasn’t just saying things that made us laugh at her, but was making jokes and understood the humor and the timing of them. I remember so many times at the kitchen table or in the living room where she would make me laugh so hard I couldn’t stop, and then she would get laughing and when she did she would start snorting, which would make us both laugh even harder. Our laughing jags could go on for fifteen minutes or so.

Besides humor Mom also instilled a sense of right and wrong, a sense of justice and the importance of standing up for it, the importance of honesty, and more in me. It was because of this that I was able to come out thirty-five years ago in another southwestern Wisconsin city, Platteville, join the newly-formed campus gay organization, and begin to advocate for gay rights at a time and in a place where that was not always the safest thing to do. But it was the right thing to do. It was also the right thing to do to come out to my mother once I had figured it out because I had always been honest with her and wanted her to know the full me. I also knew that being out publicly that it would get back to her eventually and I wanted her to hear it from me, not from some gossipy neighbor.

One night I came home drunk and told her that I needed to talk to her. We went downstairs where we often sat and played Yahtzee until the wee hours of the morning (Mom was a Yahtzee addict and could play for hours at a time). Coming out to her was very scary because she was a devout Catholic and the teachings of the church were that homosexuality was wrong. I knew she would love me even if she hated my “sin”, as that is what the church taught, but I didn’t want her to hate the essence of who I knew myself to be. In my mind that would be akin to hating me. I always desperately wanted my mother to love me and to be proud of me. As a result I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject but eventually I came out with it.

The first thing she said was, “Do you want to see a psychiatrist?”

I responded with, “I’m perfectly fine. If you can’t deal with it maybe you could make an appointment to see someone.” I didn’t mean for it sound snotty. I meant it. I didn’t believe I had reason to need to see someone, but felt that it might be helpful to her to understand things better and I wanted nothing more than for her to understand and accept me in the fullness of my being.

We talked about it a little bit and the last thing she said was, “Do you want to see a priest?”

The last thing I wanted was to see a priest. I answered with, “No, I don’t. I can’t believe in a religion that won’t believe in me.”

Mom pretty studiously avoided the issue after that. For Christmas, 1980 I bought her a book called A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality. I wrote a note on the inside cover about how I wanted her to read it to get a better understanding of me. I didn’t want to lose the close relationship we always had, but I felt it might be lost if we didn’t talk about things and if she didn’t try to learn more. Several months later, after hearing nothing, I asked if she had read it. She said she had tried to but that she couldn’t, she just didn’t understand it all.

Some time later I got my ear pierced as a political statement. Back then the only men who had their ears pierced were gay men, an occasional sailor, and those few who just liked it and didn’t give a crap what anyone else thought. Mom got upset over that. After a couple days she finally exploded and said something along the lines of, “I don’t mind if you’re that way, but do you have to advertise it?” I told her yes, and why it was important for me to be out. She didn’t really get that either.

As time went on more family members, children of friends of hers, and public figures came out and while she still never really talked about it she seemed comfortable when I would introduce a new boyfriend, except for one who was a jerk and about whom she didn’t mince any words in letting me know he was no good. She was right about that. She met Brian years ago–we have been together for going on 24 years now–and liked him immediately. She always treated him like one of the family, as she did with my brother’s partner after he came out.

All of this is background to sharing a moment from this year’s Christmas Eve. As Brian and I stood at the end of the bed she did not remember what our relationship was; I think she may have thought he was just a good friend. So she looked at us both and asked if we were engaged yet. It took me by surprise because I didn’t realize at first that she was asking if we had girlfriends, but when Coleen explained to her that Brian and I did get engaged this past year and that we were together she seemed confused. Coleen told her, “Men can marry men and women can marry women now in many states.” We told her that included Wisconsin.

She looked at Brian and me and said, “Oh. Well, in that case I give you my blessing.”

Thank you, Mom. I can think of no better gift than your blessing and your love. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

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