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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Thoughts on “The Interview”

Orpheum marquee. Photo by Callen Harty.

Orpheum marquee. Photo by Callen Harty.

The Sony Pictures cancellation of the premiere and other showings of “The Interview”, a new film that revolves around two Americans recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean President Kim Jong-un has citizens on all points of the political spectrum up in arms. I understand that for those on the right it’s an affront to American pride and heritage that we would let North Korea, or any country, dictate what films we watch because they threatened dire results to movie-goers. I also understand all those artists and intellectuals on the left who are irate about the apparent surrender of freedom of speech–one of our most cherished rights–to unspecified threats that were not even taken seriously by the F. B. I. I get both points-of-view and understand that it seems like a dangerous precedent. Will anti-abortionists start calling in bomb threats to movie theaters that show sex outside of marriage? Will animal rights activists poison the popcorn at movie houses that show films in which the characters are not all vegetarians? Will right wingers set fire to movie palaces that show Disney movies until Disney ends its benefits to same-sex partners? Will enemy nations unleash germ warfare in California each time Hollywood releases a film glorifying the U. S. military (which seems like about ten to twenty times a year)?

I also understand the fear of movie theater owners who would likely be held responsible if they showed the movie in their theaters on Christmas Day and it turned out that all the patrons were killed in an act of terrorism, although my bet is they are more concerned about the potential loss of revenues from lawsuits than the loss of human lives. I even get those who want to go see the film just to show that we will not be cowed by vague threats and that we will stand strong for our right to determine how we define our culture. We do not want to be a nation of Salman Rushdies, all hiding for fear of our lives because of our artistic choices.

Normally when a movie is boycotted or causes a storm of controversy it does better in the box office. Producers do not typically cave in to demands or boycotts; they open the movie up in more markets and use the controversy as a promotional tool to sell more tickets. As recently as October the Metropolitan Opera in New York was picketed for its premiere of Death of Klinghoffer, an opera that many said promoted terrorism and anti-Semitism. More than 500 demonstrators protested the opening performance, but the show opened despite the controversy with the Met defending their right to produce art that not everyone will find palatable. They did cancel the live broadcast as a sort of compromise, but the show went on as scheduled. So this is a little different. We have become a more diffident society since 9/11. We react more often in fear than in strength and resolve. If “The Interview” never plays in real theaters we are pretty much guaranteed to have more threats of a similar nature in the future and more voices that will not be heard.

Long before the Sony Pictures hack, long before the threats started, long before any of the controversy over “The Interview”, the previews would come on television and irritate the hell out of me. My partner and I would look at each other ask, “Why would you make a movie about assassinating the living leader of another country?” It’s one thing for Jon Stewart to poke fun at him on T.V., quite another for a major motion picture studio to suggest an assassination plot involving the CIA, even in a comedy. Not even the “South Park” guys–who generally seem to have no filter or fear–went that far in their satire of King Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, in “Team America”. Imagine, if you will, Iraq releasing a comedy about beheading George Bush and Barack Obama for bringing war to their land. There would be immediate calls for retribution and I would bet a fair number of calls for nuking the hell out of them.

Granted, it has historically fallen to artists to reflect the public’s feelings and the American public has been led to believe that Kim Jong-un is an insane despot. I’m sure many in and out of government believe he should be killed. But I’m still not sure you should do that in a movie, regardless of what we think of his country or his leadership. Obviously you have the right because you have freedom of speech, and most Americans will defend that right even when they disagree with the words. But just because you have the right doesn’t mean you should take it that far. There are better ways. Shakespeare skewered the nobility with some of his thinly veiled characters. Other writers have done the same over the years. Typically, though, artists will create characters that look like someone they want to tear apart. If the intent was to lampoon Kim Jong-un it could have been done the way Charlie Chaplin lampooned Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator”. He looked and acted like Hitler, though his name was not quite the same, and the political commentary was incisive. But his film did not suggest going to war with Hitler or killing him either. It simply exposed him in a brilliantly comedic way. If the intent of “The Interview” was only to focus on the story of two bumbling Americans who are conned into killing a foreign leader by the CIA it could have been done by creating a fictional foreign leader, even one who bore a close resemblance to the ruler of North Korea if they wanted, and it would have made its point without the depiction of government-sanctioned assassination.

Interestingly nobody is talking or complaining about the fact that the movie is centered around the idea of the CIA ordering the death of a foreign leader, and that is telling in itself. Many decades ago citizens would have been aghast at the suggestion and would not have believed the possibility. Now we are so inured to the idea of our government killing individuals or masses of people and justifying it as national security that it doesn’t even occur to us to think that the concept is wrong in the first place. We accept it as a plot device in a movie, and are okay with it as comedy as well.

Going back to “The Interview” previews the other thing that struck me about them was that not even considering the assassination story it simply did not look like a good movie. Putting it plain and simple: from the previews I have seen the film looks like overacted sophomoric drivel, the kind of film I might have enjoyed (emphasis on might) in 7th or 8th grade. The Wikipedia description of “The Interview” notes that the writers “aimed to make a project more relevant and satirical than their previous films while retaining toilet humor.” Seriously. This is the “art” that freedom of speech defends today. Reviews of the film, even the ones that found the movie entertaining, all mention the barrage of erection and anus jokes. The highlight of the previews was one of the characters with the canister of poison stuck in his ass. I have to admit that as a gay man I tire easily of Seth Rogen’s movies, which in addition to the toilet humor generally contain at least one or two homophobic jokes. Asses and gay guys seem to fascinate him and although Kim Jong-un and James Franco’s characters seem to have a homoerotic relationship the dictator ultimately doesn’t have a butthole, “because he doesn’t need one.”

It seems to me that the real threat to America is not the saber-rattling of the Guardians of Peace, North Korea’s protectors, but the possibility of films like this continuing to be released and defining our culture (or lack thereof). If the best we can offer the world in cinematic political discourse is rehashed anus, penis, and potty jokes then maybe the poison offered to the North Korean dictator in “The Interview” should be offered to us.

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Letter on Torture to My Congressional Representatives

U. S. Capitol. Photo by Callen Harty.

U. S. Capitol. Photo by Callen Harty.

This letter was written and sent on Friday to my Senators, Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, and to my Congressional Representative, Mark Pocan.

12/12/14

As an American citizen I am appalled by the recent release of the Senate’s report on CIA torture (or, as the Orwellian government department known as the Central Intelligence Agency likes to call it, “enhanced interrogation techniques”). It is not that it is that surprising. Everyone knew that as the White House (Bush, Cheney, and their Cabinet members), the military, and others in government were denying the use of torture techniques that we were at the same time torturing prisoners in the hope of garnering some sort of valuable information on our enemies. It was one of those open secrets where everyone knew it was happening while the government and its agents engaged in “plausible deniability” (a term coined by the CIA back in the 1960s), subterfuge, and outright lies.

I am horrified that we would treat other human beings this way, regardless of the reason for it, what kind of enemy combatants they might be, or what intelligence is gathered by it. It is, plain and simple, wrong. It is state-sponsored terrorism aimed at an individual rather than an entire populace. There is no place for it. The United States used to be a leader in the international struggle for human rights. We were among the leaders in designing agreements to eliminate torture, oppression, and war crimes worldwide. We used to have a moral leg to stand on and now we can stand on nothing. Our credibility is shattered. That is the other horrifying thing about this. Others can now simply ignore us when we talk of human dignity, when we demand human rights from countries that oppress their citizens or torture their enemies. Who are we to demand anything when we cannot abide by international agreements that we signed onto or even helped design? How can we now call for justice when others torture or kill our citizens? If we are a Christian country as so many of our leaders claim then we are destined to be the victims of “an eye for an eye” because of our own actions.

We have led war tribunals and convicted the leaders of other countries for crimes that are similar to what we have done in our “enhanced interrogation techniques”. How can we refuse to extradite George Bush and Dick Cheney, among others, when countries that have worked alongside us come to us and demand they be tried for war crimes? I don’t think we can and I don’t think we should.

As an American citizen I do not want my name associated with the behavior outlined in the Senate report on torture. My government tortured prisoners but they did not do so with the consent of me or the majority of this country’s citizens. This is not the kind of government I want. It is not the kind of government most of us want. It does not represent who we are as a people. I find it abhorrent and disavow the actions undertaken in the name of this country and its people. When we have lost our moral compass and have traveled so far from our roots because of it those in power cannot say they were acting on behalf of the American people.

Unfortunately, we also cannot change the past. The crimes have been committed. We cannot undo what has been done. But we can look toward the future. We can work to make sure it never happens again. We need to make sure that it does not. We need to make sure there are reparations of some kind to the victims or their families. We need to make sure those responsible are held accountable for their actions and serve as an example to future generations to show that we as a people will not tolerate those acting in our names committing these kinds of acts. We must work toward transparency and we must do whatever we can to ensure that the government abides by all international agreements.

I do not know what laws may be proposed to guarantee that our government will no longer engage in these kinds of actions in the future or to try to make up for what already happened. If something is proposed I strongly encourage you to sign onto it and support it through the process of becoming law. If nothing is proposed by others then I plead with you as a representative beholden to the people to draft a bill that will do so and secure support for it. If we don’t do something now then we have not only lost our way for one moment of our history, we have lost our destiny and are well on our way to our own decline and fall.

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From Dreams

Nightmare scene from a play at Broom Street Theater, Madison, WI. Photo by Callen Harty.

Nightmare scene from a play at Broom Street Theater, Madison, WI. Photo by Callen Harty.

Yesterday morning I woke up from a hard dream and it stayed with me all day long. In the dream I was at work when my cell phone rang. It was my sister calling and all she said was “She’s gone.” I knew immediately that she meant that after several years of suffering and being bedridden my mother had finally passed away. I asked her if she needed me to contact relatives or if there was anything else she might need me to do right away and she said she’d get back to me about that. I hung up the phone and sat at my desk in the office and broke down sobbing. There were co-workers around, but none of them seemed to notice and I was doing my best to hide it. A couple people, including my boss, were not in and the others were having some kind of conversation about something. When I regained my composure I got up and quietly announced I was leaving and why and nobody seemed to hear me. As I was about to head out the door one of my co-workers, Carol, who is a very sweet person, caught me in the hall and told me she was very sorry and gave me a big hug.

That was all I could remember about the dream. I’ve been curious if a person can actually cry in their sleep because it felt like I had been crying very hard when I woke up. The rest of the day was sort of surreal. I was feeling down all day and have to admit I was afraid to go to work for fear that the call would happen and the dream would come true. The emotions in the dream had felt so incredibly strong that I was very fearful that it may have been a premonition of some sort. Twice in my life I’ve had dreams that were so strong that I knew they were true and in both cases I was right. One was the birth of a baby boy to a friend of mine. I had woken up about the time the child was born and told my roommate the next day that Renee had given birth to a boy (she didn’t know the child’s sex before he was born). Dan asked me if she had called and I told him, no, it had come to me in a dream that was so strong I knew it was true. The other was about an old friend reappearing and that came true, too, the same day I woke up from that dream. This dream was strong, but it wasn’t as strong as those two; I didn’t feel confident in it being a premonition, but I still feared it all day long.

I haven’t seen my mother in a while and there have been no reports from home that her condition has worsened or that anything has changed. She has been pretty much the same for months. She received last rites about a year and a half ago and still keeps going. In fact, she was also getting hospice care and they left because she was doing so well–how often does that happen? While she was frail the last time I saw her she knew who I was–which isn’t always the case–and her mind was very sharp. We have honestly not expected her to make it to Christmas each of the last couple years or to her birthday on February 19. If she makes that again she’ll turn 90 years old this time around. She has been tenaciously hanging on, so there is no reason I can think of for why that dream would have come into my head now.

Maybe it’s because I just finished a production and my mind has been consumed with that and now is open to other things. Maybe I’m feeling guilty that I haven’t seen her in a while. Maybe because it is the Christmas season I am thinking more deeply about family and those who are the most meaningful in my life. Maybe it’s simply because I love her and somewhere in my mind is the realization that the more time that goes by the closer we are to that inevitable day and phone call. Each Christmas or birthday that comes and goes is one less to look forward to and one closer to there being no more. As tough as she is I understand that she cannot last forever and one way or the other that dream will one day come true. Maybe the dream and everything that has happened to her over the last few years is helping me to be a little bit better prepared for that moment. Maybe, but I know that you can never be prepared enough. I only hope that when I sleep tonight that I’ll dream of better things.

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