Love. Photo by Callen Harty.


There was an ad on television a moment ago for a new series called “Spouse House”, set to premiere on July 9. The premise is that seven men and seven women will live in a house together with the idea of finding that one elusive true love. If nobody gets engaged on an episode then two of the housemates get kicked out and new potential mates get invited to join the house.

The series joins multiple other similar reality television shows such as “The Bachelor”, “The Bachelorette”, “Bachelor in Paradise”, “Married at First Sight”, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire”, and probably countless other knock-offs that are even more forgettable. It’s a multi-million dollar industry that pairs up people who don’t know each other and expects them to marry and live happily ever after. Because, you know, marriage is a sacred covenant.

The divorce rate in the United States is somewhere between 40 and 50 percent, meaning nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. According to the National Center for Health Statistics the marriage rate in this country per 1,000 population is 6.9 and the divorce rate is 3.2 per 1,000. Because, you know, “until death do us part”. Certainly divorce is better than a couple staying together in an unhappy and unhealthy relationship, whether it’s for the children or some other reason, but don’t preach that marriage is sacred under the eyes of God or that it’s an important social contract when the divorce rates are that high. Clearly, the idea of marriage binding a couple together on this earth and into eternity is no longer relevant.

Meanwhile, after intense pressure from right-wing constituents and conservative politicians, and fearful of not getting elected the next time around because of implied payback, the justices of the Texas State Supreme Court recently reheard a case on same-sex marriage rights that they had already dismissed. This time around they handed down a decision that attempts to undermine the U. S. Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide and also granted the same rights and benefits to same-sex married couples that opposite-sex couples enjoy. The Texas justices pretty much said that the U. S. Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v Hodges, does not apply to state spousal benefits. In the Obergefell decision the court made it clear that same-sex married couples should be accorded the “constellation of benefits” accorded to opposite-sex couples. This was further solidified on Monday of this week in a case (Pavan v Smith) about same-sex parents in Arkansas. In that case the U. S. Supreme Court reversed the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision that the state did not have to include the same-sex partner on a birth certificate.

We can expect more of these cases coming forth, all trying to chip away at different aspects of the legality of same-sex marriage, because its opponents simply do not want to give in and admit what is now the law of the land. They are also emboldened because they have a new friend on the highest court in Trump’s appointment, Justice Neil Gorsuch. According to a Time magazine article from March 18, 2017 Gorsuch’s 2004 doctoral dissertation at Oxford University revealed that to him it was “obvious that the United States Constitution did not protect a right to same-sex marriage.” Many sources have noted that Gorsuch wrote an opinion piece in the conservative National Review a year later in which he pretty much blasted liberals for trying to advance a political agenda of same-sex marriage through the courts. Now on the Supreme Court he has already shown his true colors (and they’re not rainbow) with his dissent on Pavan v Smith. He is clearly no friend to the LGBT community or an interpretation of the Constitution that would uphold same-sex marriage.

The tradition of marriage is clearly important to some. The networks continue cranking out shows that are the equivalent of arranged marriages that everyone thought had died out in our culture a long time ago. And countless politicians and preachers who support the overturning of Obergefell v Hodges continue to marry and divorce, marry and divorce, marry and divorce (a marry-go-round) because, well, one man and one woman, and they will live happily ever after–as long as the queers don’t get to do the same.

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It’s Just a Stage: The Evolution of Gay Theater


Scene from Proud Theater’s year-end show, 2005. Proud Theater is an LGBT+ youth theater group. Photo by Callen Harty.


In today’s theater the “love that dare not speak its name” is finally being spoken, loudly, and in speech after speech, play after play. As Time magazine opined after the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, “the love that once dared not speak its name now can’t seem to keep its mouth shut.” It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when there were no “gay” plays, when the only gay characters were merciless stereotypes, and when playing a homosexual in the movies or the theater signaled the death knell of an acting career. Only desperate actors, hoping for some kind of break, would take on such desperate characters.

One of the goals of the theater as art is to “hold a mirror up to nature”, as Shakespeare said, to look at ourselves by looking at others. But if nature is denied, if we are told there are no canaries in the forest, then we don’t go bird watching. So it has been throughout most of theatrical history. When it came to finding gay and lesbian characters in drama, they were nowhere to be found. Until very recently queer characters in plays simply did not exist. Thus, there was no chance to examine them and see what they told us about ourselves. When they did start to appear it was as doomed beings, emotionally strangled to death, or as outrageous caricatures, prancing queens with wrists that fluttered more than Tinkerbell’s wings. Over time, gay roles slowly advanced from caricatures to characters, but for years their essence still lurked somewhere in the subtext of their lives.

Today that is not necessarily the case. There are not only queer characters, but entire plays made up of nothing but gay or lesbian characters or themes. Somewhere along the line, very much like African-American theater, we went from invisibility to stereotyped appearances to acceptance to occasional celebration. In February of 1999 the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation released figures noting that there are now more than two dozen gay and lesbian characters on television, a medium where only about a dozen years ago Tony Randall was not able to survive even as a closeted gay man in Love, Sidney. The theater has always been ahead of television. There are many more than a scant two dozen gay characters from which to choose in the modern theatrical canon. We are now far enough along, in fact, that we may now begin to create gay plays of critical self-examination.

How and when did this change? When did it not only become okay to have gay characters and gay-themed plays, but to celebrate gayness, to show it to the world in almost all of its manifestations? Could Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi have been performed in 1910? In 1920? Definitely not. It couldn’t even have been conceived at that time, though there was at least discussion of homosexuality in intellectual circles by the 1920’s.

Corpus Christi in 1930, 1940? No, but by then some writers at least had the idea that they should explore homoerotic issues. That was the period of poet Hart Crane and others who quietly and bravely examined their lives in the secret languages of their own souls and even, occasionally, of the well-hidden gay subculture. Lillian Hellman’s monumental work, The Children’s Hour, was produced in 1934 to wide critical acclaim and huge popular success. Though others had preceded it, most notably The Green Bay Tree, Mae West’s The Drag, and a few other minor works, The Children’s Hour was really the first successful “gay” play. Interestingly, most of the early “gay” plays were about gay men or lesbians, but not by gay men or lesbians. Perhaps America didn’t believe we could be trusted to tell the truth about our own experiences and lives.

In the 1950s Harry Hay and friends were beginning the gay rights struggle in this country with the Mattachine Society. Allen Ginsberg was howling about naked madmen and cocks and endless balls. Novels were highlighting gay characters. But there was also Korea and Joe McCarthy and in that atmosphere live theater wasn’t quite ready to deal with all the gayness in its own midst. Certainly Corpus Christi could not have been written then, although there was at least room for Tennessee Williams’ closets full of masks and a gay sensibility the likes of which had never before been seen on stage. There were at least hints of a gay theater to come.

1960? Probably not even in the turbulent and radical 1960s or during the 1970s sexual revolution could the play have been written. The decade of the Sixties was a time of major societal change and the decade that saw the beginnings of the modern gay rights movement with the Stonewall Riots. But the gay movement was fledgling and still a fringe movement. For most of America there were larger issues to resolve. There was no time to listen to gays demanding rights. While America was occupied with black civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate, the Sixties and Seventies did at least see the beginning of a move toward a gay theater with plays such as The Boys in the Band, by Mart Crowley and, by the end of the Seventies, Bent, by Martin Sherman.

1980? Perhaps, but not likely. 1990? Barely. 2000? Yes, with the right group, in the right city, with the right promotion and political maneuvering.

Corpus Christi would not be possible today were it not for all of its predecessors, even if they were works hammered out in the closet. Contemporary lesbian and gay theater runs parallel to the political climate. It stands as a mirror, reflecting the political advances of society. The problem with this, of course, is that true art paves the way. It is ahead of its time, not parallel with it or behind it. Historically gay theater has lagged behind the time it lives in and for which the performances are given. It takes each new advance in the political arena and expresses it in theatrical form, after the fact. It doesn’t anticipate. That is why, since the advent of the modern gay rights movement, there has been a proliferation of gay plays and playwrights, primarily in the more accepting 80s and 90s.

A couple decades ago, the 1970s saw a large number of one-act plays by openly gay writers such as Robert Patrick. There were also a large number of independent, small theaters scattered all over the country, like The Magic Theater in Omaha, Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin, the Organic Theater in Chicago, Changing Scene in Denver, and on and on, places that were willing to take on controversial subjects without apology. Most of these theaters, however, premiered works that were often never again seen anywhere else and oftentimes with good reason.

Similarly, the 1980s saw the development or growth of specifically gay theater groups, such as the Madison Gay Theater Project, San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros, Chicago’s Lionheart Theater, and others. These groups performed only gay and lesbian works by gay and lesbian writers, in order to provide a place for the gay voice to be heard.

Many of these kinds of groups have already died off after outliving their usefulness. In a period of assimilation, gay and lesbian patrons now demand that gay works are performed in conventional theaters and conventional theaters are looking for more audiences. They will go where the money is. When March of the Falsettos is one of the biggest plays off-Broadway, it is a sign that there is money to be made, and producers will follow the parade.

It is not only gay patrons that will go to gay plays though. General theater audiences accept gay plays now because the larger society is more generally accepting of gay and lesbian people now. Gay theater can thank political advances for its existence. As gains have been made in the society, gay theater has fared better. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better fare. Much of it, in fact, has been fairly uninteresting. In retrospect, the Tony-award winning Torch Song Trilogy is not a great play. It’s fun, and entertaining, but not great theater. It won the Tony for daring to be unabashedly gay, not for being great theater. Harvey Fierstein is known more for being an open queen and for historically thanking his lover on the televised Tony awards than for being a playwright.

If gay theater were truly bold and powerful as art rather than commerce, it would have been created with or without greater political acceptance. In fact, it would have preceded the political advances that allow it now to flourish.

I believe that theater is political (indeed, that art is political), although I am currently trying to make my own art more personal. If that includes politics, so be it. But a theatrical troupe that consciously avoids controversial material so as not to offend anyone is offensive by its very nature. The theatrical globe is large enough to have room for insipid musicals and inane melodramas as sheer entertainment, and there is joy in performing and watching them as such. But a conscious decision to be apolitical is a political decision, and a cowardly one at that. One does not create gay theater in a political vacuum. The act of creating gay theater is a political choice. As long as any minority group is oppressed by the larger society in which it exists, any art from that group has to be political art, simply by looking at the oppressed group, and thus, examining the oppression, even in some small way.

So gay theater, even trite gay theater, is by its very nature political. But gay theater has never been comfortable embracing its political nature. There have been exceptions, of course. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is extremely political, albeit reactionary. The politics of the play, however, despite Kramer’s good intentions, is also its downfall. The playwright allows himself, through his main character of Ned, to not only get up on a soapbox, but to stand on a carton of soapboxes, screaming at his audience to wake up. Didacticism may be necessary on the Village Square, but it doesn’t play well in the theater. For theater to be anything but an intellectual exercise it must have characters made of flesh and blood rather than cardboard. Words must come from the hearts and minds of the characters rather than be imposed by the author. Characters that are political mouthpieces are political mouthpieces and not characters.

Despite this, audiences still went to see The Normal Heart and made it a success around the country. Today, however, I don’t believe it could be successfully produced. Like Torch Song Trilogy, it doesn’t hold up very well. In retrospect the play was successful because it gave people the chance to actually identify with gay characters. It was didactic and emotionally manipulative, but for one of the few times in history the gay characters were sympathetic without being pathetic. Audiences, especially gay audiences, who supported the play very well, were hungry for sympathetic gay characters. Also, and perhaps more importantly, for the many, gay and straight, who had already experienced the horror of watching friends die of AIDS, the play served as a purgation, a support group, and a call to arms. It was an expression of anger and a catharsis.

Politically and as gay theater it was progress. Compared to the underlying simmering sexuality of Tennessee Williams’ closeted characters in the 50s or the nasty, self-hating (but bitingly funny) queens in Boys in the Band, the characters in The Normal Heart were characters one could like and with which one could identify. Kramer’s extremism forced identifiable and likeable gay characters onto the American stage and once that was done there was no retreating. Other playwrights could then write dramas in which they didn’t have to worry about the fact that the characters were gay. They could concentrate on the play itself because by then the acceptance of gay characters had been established.

Martin Sherman’s Bent also gave us characters that were real, and did so half a dozen years before The Normal Heart, though like most of the gay characters in 20th Century theater and literature, they were tragic characters. Without Bent, Larry Kramer probably could not have succeeded at getting The Normal Heart produced. But the characters in Bent, aside from their tragic natures, were placed in a historical context and thus removed from the modern audiences watching them. Though Bent was essentially a political cry for acceptance it was almost anthropological in its approach, unearthing and studying its characters from a distance and after a significant passage of time had elapsed. While the characters were real they were also of the past, which allowed the play’s straight audience to separate itself from conspiracy or guilt and its gay audience to believe that the same thing couldn’t happen to them. Kramer’s play, on the other hand, threw the guilt at the feet of its straight audience and forced its gay audience to acknowledge that, yes, the play’s events could also befall them. The characters were mostly human, modern, and likeable. I believe, faults and all, it may have been the watershed play of gay theater.

Between the triteness of Torch Song Trilogy and the tragic characters of Bent, between the untruths of the straight writers who used to speak for us and the soapboxes of Larry Kramer and the gay theater groups, between the closets of Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams and the in-your-face shock value of Corpus Christi, lies a challenge for today’s gay theater. The challenge is for gay theater to come into full maturity, to just be, to hold a mirror up to nature and look deeply at the reflection, to see the smiles and the tears, the youthful lustful abandon and the wrinkles of age, to look at ourselves fully and honestly and to truthfully reflect what we see and what we are. We no longer need to be accepted. We no longer need to shock. We no longer need to explain ourselves. We no longer need to write gay theater for straight audiences, to inform, shock, or justify ourselves. Instead, we need to write gay theater for ourselves, to use the theater to examine the stages of our own lives and the spirit of our souls.

Note: This was originally written as a speech to be delivered to Frontiers, a gay men’s social group, for their annual meeting. It was written sometime around the year 2000.

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Obituary for My Mother

My mother, Kathleen, as a young woman. Photographer unknown.

My mother, Kathleen, as a young woman. Photographer unknown.

An obituary cannot contain a life.

Words and pictures cannot contain a life.

Not even memories can contain a life. Each life is its own story and no one can know the full story of it except the one who lived it.

An obituary gives dates, organizations that a person may have belonged to, relatives who preceded them in death and those who remain behind to grieve. But it can’t define what happened between those beginning and ending dates, the service provided to those organizations or to others, the real relationships that were shared, or the fullness of being.

I can’t do that either, but I know that my mother was more than a few words and dates, so I decided to write my own obituary of her from my point-of-view. It, too, will fail to capture her essence. We all know our loved ones in different ways and the things that were important to me may not have been noticed by others and I know that I cannot know much of what she meant to my siblings, her friends, her townspeople, and others.

My mother was born Kathleen Townsend in 1925 in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, two years shy of a century after her great-grandfather settled there in the same year the city was founded. There are four generations beyond her who still count the town as home. From everything I know she loved her alcoholic father although she didn’t like it when he drank and she loved and admired her mother as much as I have loved and admired mine.

She grew up Catholic at a time when the parish priest’s word was law. She was throughout her life fiercely devout to the church. I remember often walking into the living room to find her sitting in the chair with her eyes closed and fingers on a rosary bead or saying a novena. When she prayed I don’t know that it was ever for herself. She prayed a lot for others who were less fortunate or might be in some kind of need, be it financially, spiritually, or emotionally.

A few short years after her birth the stock market crashed and my mother’s already poor family became even poorer. I recall stories of the children going to school in all seasons wearing ragged shoes with holes, having to huddle together in bed at night to stay warm in a cold, drafty house, and living with the shame of having to wear old and tattered clothes when other children were dressed in their best school finery. The family lived next to the railroad depot and often itinerant men would stop and ask for food. Her mother would always share what little they had and I know this example of Christian spirit impacted my mother as she was one of the most generous people I have ever known. Our family was comfortable although we never had much, but Mom always shared, too. She also gave back in other ways. I remember her taking care of the needs of several elderly women in our town–driving them to appointments, picking up their mail, taking them groceries, spending time with them when their families would not or could not visit. She loaned or gave money to others when she had little. When a neighbor had a fire the woman and her son moved in with us until their house was fixed. My Great-Aunt Leona lived with us, too, when she was ill. Friends and relatives could drop by any time to talk or ask for favors.

I know from her stories that my mother was shy and felt awkward as a youth. She may not have known it, but she was a beautiful young woman, a beautiful young mother, a beautiful middle-aged woman, and a beautiful old lady. The beauty emanated from within and shone through her physical being.

Mom had eight siblings and she loved each of them in their own ways. Like all siblings they might sometimes argue or not understand each other but they were all pretty close. My mother spent a lot of time with my Aunt (and godmother) Gen, Uncle Bergen, and especially with my spinster aunt, Avene, the eldest child in their clan. We would often drive across the border into Illinois to visit Marge and Bill, Evelyn and Harold, Phil and Ruth. About once a year we would see Ed and Fran from Milwaukee and occasionally my bachelor uncle, Lyle, would stop by; while he lived in Shullsburg we didn’t see him that much. Mom and Vene were the closest. Vene would join us every Sunday at noon for a big Sunday dinner and was always part of our holidays. She was like a second mother to us. My mother always believed that Avene was a “saint on earth” as she often said. She admired and loved her so much and missed her dearly after she passed. Mom was the youngest in their family and outlived them all.

She graduated from high school in 1942 during the middle of America’s involvement in World War II. After the war she met my father, Chuck Harty, a man whose picture she had previously admired as she thought he was incredibly handsome. She told me recently that she always thought he was handsome. The picture stayed with her throughout her life, even through her second marriage years later. Mom and Dad danced. They went to big band shows with Lawrence Welk, Bunny Berrigan and others. They danced a lot. She often went to a place called The Palace in Galena, Illinois. From what she told me she used to love to dance. One of my favorite memories of her is that of her kicking up her heels and dancing crazily in the basement as Aunt Leona pounded out “Turkey in the Straw” on the piano.

My dad and mom had a whirlwind romance. They were engaged within a few months after they started to date and were married shortly after that. She loved him dearly. From what I understand (I didn’t witness it as he died when I was two) they had their share of fights, too. He would go for days without talking to her when he was angry. Still she stood by him and I believe she loved him until the day she died. His picture hung on the wall where she could see it from her bed at the end.

They had five children. The oldest, Loras, was born with spina bifada at a time when there was nothing doctors could do about it. He lived to be about two and a half years before he passed away and that was one of the great tragedies of my mother’s life. She carried the heaviness of his painful life and his death with her throughout the rest of her years. She talked about him often as I was growing up, about what a beautiful baby he was, and how he endured his suffering with such grace. She told about how she walked in on him shortly before his death and saw a beatific smile and knew that he was at the end and that he would be at peace with God. His picture also hung on the wall where she could see it at the end.

The other four of us were born after Loras had already lived and died.

When I was two my father died of a massive heart attack. My mother was left in her mid-30s with four children ranging in age from two to eight. I was the youngest. She made a conscious decision not to date anyone else the entire time we were growing up because she didn’t want any other man telling her how to raise her children. It was her job–housewife and mother. It was her career. It was what she devoted her life to and what she did as well as she could. When my father died we received government checks which my mother used to feed, clothe, and house us. He had worked for the government and had served in the war so she got Social Security, Civil Service, and Veterans’ benefits. She was frugal and managed to buy a house and pay for it in about ten years or so. We never had a lot but we had what we needed and a little bit more.

Most importantly, we had love. While Mom didn’t always know how to deal with all of her children she did the best she could with the tools she had and she loved all of us unconditionally. She didn’t always know how to show it, but I think we always knew that she loved us and that she was proud of us. I know we all failed her in various ways and yet I know also that she was proud of every one of us for our essence. She saw beyond the surface flaws. She focused on our successes, on who we were deep in our souls, and loved us all. She endured while we all went through those phases where friends are more important than family. She withstood that period when children realize their parents aren’t perfect and remove them from their pedestals. She loved us even as we made the mistakes young people make when they are growing up (and plenty of them as adults as well). She accepted us even though she was disappointed that none of us followed the teachings of her church. While she never explicitly said it I believe that she felt this was her failing as a mother, that she must have done something wrong in how she raised us. But while we may not have followed in the faith we all learned morality from her. I think we turned out to be good people. We all know right from wrong and we try to live ethical lives of meaning. I believe she succeeded as a mother and I think that she knew she had instilled in us a clear understanding of right and wrong.

Mom was tough. She survived several hardships in her life. As an elderly woman she survived falling down a set of stairs and breaking her hip, another fall where she lay for three days with no food, water, or medicine. She survived months after all of us thought she had maybe a couple weeks left to live. She lived for more than two years after she was given last rites. At the end her mind was almost gone. The woman who used to start every day with the newspaper and crossword puzzle was not able to even recognize the people around her much of the time. She was likely in pain but also likely refused to admit it because she truly believed that suffering was a gift and part of life and something that a person must bear and offer up to God.

I am missing so much here.

There were the short trips to the drive-in over in Benton for ice cream treats, picnics, candy treats hiding under plates at dinner every so often, her Yahtzee obsession, family gatherings, her dedication to elderly relatives, waking up together to watch thunderstorms in the middle of the night, long conversations in the living room, sitting under the stars out in the front yard while pondering the enormity of the universe . . . This is a never-ending list. My memory cannot begin to contain all that it should.

Even this summary of my mother’s life is simply that–a summary. It doesn’t begin to capture her smile, her insecurities, her dedication to her family, her laughter (with big snorts when she really got going), the breadth of her generosity of spirit, her deep spirituality, and more. Like all of us she wasn’t a perfect person, but she did her best to live her life authentically and she did her best to not just believe the doctrine of her church but to live it. She gave me life and then taught me how to live it right. I am glad that she is at peace after several years of winding down and losing strength and I am glad that while she lost her physical strength and mental acuity that she never lost her spirit. I am glad that whatever suffering there was is now ended and it all ended very peacefully. And I know that she will live on in the actions of others whose lives were impacted by her living. Her legacy will be in the kind acts of others who learned the true meaning of love from her.

The other thing an obituary can’t contain and that I can’t capture in a few sentences or paragraphs is the depth of my own sorrow. Regardless of the time I had to prepare for it one can never be fully prepared to lose a parent. I will miss her deeply and love her always and that deep, deep love also cannot be contained by anything.

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Dreams of Justice

LaFayette County Courthouse

Lafayette County, Wisconsin Courthouse. Photo by Callen Harty.


Last night I had a disturbing dream. I was at a restaurant. In a booth near me sat a man and a boy. I overheard the boy tell their waiter that he and the man were “together”. He mentioned that he was 15. The man looked to be in his 30s or early 40s. I knew that I needed to do something to protect the boy and bring the man to justice. After they left I found evidence in a bag that was left behind that the man had put ads in the paper looking for someone to be with in that way. I called the police and asked them to come to the restaurant.

I saw two officers in the restaurant, but when I went up to them they wouldn’t acknowledge me because they were there to investigate another issue. Two other officers responding to my call showed up and said they had to wait to talk to me as it was too busy. It was closing time and a huge line of people was leaving the restaurant. By the time it quieted down the officers were nowhere to be found. I desperately wanted to get them back to the restaurant but was unable to get my phone to work to try calling them back. I asked a cook to help and she said she had to leave in a few minutes. Another friend tried to help me but couldn’t get her phone to work either. As time passed I got more and more frustrated and was never able to report the incident before I woke up.

Shortly before going to bed last night two articles had caught my interest. One was the story of Bill Cosby’s mistrial. A jury of twelve could not reach a consensus about the case and was unable to reach a verdict. For now, at least, he remains free. I believe Andrea Constand and the nearly 60 other women who have accused Cosby of assaulting them. Their stories are too similar and there are too many of them. However, hers was the only one within the statute of limitations, so the court case was not about the other five dozen women. Believing them and seeing justice done are two different things. In a court case sexual assault often comes down to whose version of the story is believed and sexual assault can be very difficult to prove, particularly when years have passed and there is no physical evidence. Also, sex assault victims sometimes do things that make no sense to those who have not suffered sexual abuse. The behavior is interpreted through a different lens. So for now, Cosby has escaped a guilty verdict and sentencing.

The other story was about a school police officer in Texas who fondled a 14 year old girl and got her to perform oral sex on him in a bathroom at the school. While he pleaded guilty his attorneys also arranged a sweet plea deal in which he only got five years of probation. If he follows the orders in the probation agreement he will not serve any time and he will not even be required to register as a sex offender. His only real punishment was losing his ability to serve as a police officer.

These kinds of results are all too common in sexual assault cases. The victim is victimized again by having to recount the horrid details of the assault repeatedly (to whomever they entrusted with it first, to the police, to attorneys, to the court) and then are revictimized when they aren’t believed or when the perpetrators are let go with a slap on the wrist and a warning to be a better person.

This is the kind of frustration often felt by victims of sexual assault. People don’t pay attention. Authorities don’t take it seriously. Cases fall through the cracks. Sentences are too lenient. And on and on. This is what played into my dream last night, the realization that of all the possible crimes the ones that most horrify our society besides murder are sexual crimes such as child sex abuse, rape, and sexual assault. But while we gnash our teeth at the horror of it and in a very generalized way feel sorry for the victims we don’t consistently deal with the perpetrators and we don’t believe the victims when it gets down to specific cases.

Cosby may be found guilty in a retrial and the cop in Texas may violate his probation and go to prison at a later date, but I wouldn’t count on it, any more than I could count on the police and the citizens in my dream last night. In another dream world those who commit crimes against children and who rape others would have to answer to society. In reality, the justice system is a nightmare for victims of sexual assault. We need to wake up.


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An Open Letter to Mitch McConnell

U. S. Capitol

U. S. Capitol. Photo by Callen Harty.


I’m sorry, but I can’t start my letter with “Dear” because you are not, and I don’t respect you enough to address you by the title of Senator (and believe me, I deliberated that longer than most bills get deliberated in the Senate these days). There are other words I could use but I respect reptiles enough not to do so.

Now that we have that out of the way: I am writing to call you out for what I recently read in the newspaper. The report was that you intend to block any attempt to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Donald Trump, Russia, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, or, I’m guessing, anything else that might make your party look bad. Of course you can’t block the worst elements of your party from speaking or being themselves so they’ll look bad despite your best efforts. But hey, as the Majority Leader you have to try, right? Then again, you are one of the worst elements of your party, so there’s that.

But back to the issue at hand: The newspaper report was not really all that surprising. You’re going to block something, they said. Ooh, shock, I thought. You block more than a starting lineman on a professional football team. You spent the better part of eight years blocking anything (everything) that President Obama tried to do. You remember him, don’t you? Our first African-American President? African-American? You obstructed everything he attempted. Coincidence? I think not. You most recently spent nearly a year blocking hearings on a qualified Supreme Court nominee, longer than any nominee in history had to languish. And then, as soon as your side got into power you changed the rules to rush through the Trump nominee. Blocking things is what you do best. Somehow you are still blocking the devil from taking you home.

In politics blocking is a negative approach rather than a proactive, positive one. It stops things instead of moving them forward. It prevents rather than creates. It also gives you that smug old white guy look of someone who loves power for the sake of power.

Please get over your smugness.

Please know that you will fail.

Please know the truth will prevail.

In the last dozen years or so our government has passed bill after bill chipping away at our rights. Each time you and your flag-waving Jesus-praising small government-loving hypocrites defended things like spying on American citizens with arguments telling us that if we have done nothing wrong then we should have no fears about such things. While I don’t have anything to hide I disagree with the logic of your argument. Still, it is your argument. So I would counter that if Donald Trump has done nothing wrong, if he has nothing to hide, then neither he nor his party should have anything to fear from an independent investigation. If he is truly innocent then an independent investigation will clear him of any wrongdoing and allow you and your fellow Republicans the freedom to lash out at Democrats for pursuing the Russian story as heartily as the Republicans pursued Benghazi or Bill Clinton’s misdeeds.

One would think that as Kentucky’s longest-serving Senator and a long-time Washington insider (or denizen of the swamp, as some might say) you might remember the Watergate era. The more that the Nixon administration tried to hide the facts the deeper was the hole that they dug. But that’s okay. Ignore history the way you ignore the Constitution. Do your best to block any investigations from happening. Sooner or later, you will fail. Sooner or later, the truth will prevail. And sooner or later the devil will come to visit and carry you home.

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Without Memories


Dad (Chuck Harty). Photographer unknown.

There was one recurring dream that I had when I was a child. I would be standing just outside the side door of our house where there were a number of steps leading up the hill to the door. Looking down the street I could see a column of soldiers marching up from several blocks away, in perfect formation, covering the pavement from one curb to the other. As they reached the corner where our house sat the first several rows would all do a sharp turn and start coming down the side street, and then stop at the bottom of the stairs and turn sharply toward me. It was then that I would see that the man at the head of the column was my father, coming home. It was also then that I would wake up and the dream would end. No fanfare, no three-gun salute, no hugs or words from my dad. I would open my eyes before any of that could happen and wish that it were not a dream, that if I ran from my bedroom to the side door of the house and looked he would be standing there with his fellow soldiers, waiting for me.

The only memory I have of my father is that one dream that would never come true. The only images I have of him are my memories of photographs of a man forever young. Still, I know he is part of me in some ways and I am like him.

My father died of a massive heart attack when he was only forty-one years old. I was just days past my second birthday. As a result all I know of my father is photographs, some items from a scrapbook, and stories told by others. I grew up without memories of him. I think I knew the word deceased much earlier than most kids because I often had to write it on school forms under “father’s occupation”. The entire time I was growing up, in a different era and in a small school system, I was the only one in my class from a single parent household.

For some reason I have been thinking about him a lot lately and I’m not sure why. He has come up in conversations. Someone posted a photo the other day of the place where he worked at the time of his death–the Savanna Army Depot–and many, many people posted about working there or that their fathers or grandfathers had worked there. I posted asking anyone who may have known my dad to contact me to share stories because I want to know what he was like. Nobody did, but I still know instinctively that I am like him in many ways, even without those stories. As a child I always wanted to know more (and I guess I still do). I would ask my mother questions about him until I’m sure she tired of answering them. It didn’t occur to me that she probably suffered with each question being a fresh reminder of what she had lost.

My mother now is 92 and even when she looks at her favorite picture of him, as a handsome young Army man, a picture she fell in love with even before she met him, she doesn’t know who he is. She most often doesn’t know who I am, though I can usually tell she knows I’m someone close to her and someone she should love. The other day she told my sister she was going to heaven, so maybe underneath it all I’m thinking that she and my father will be rejoined in whatever realm lies beyond this one, and maybe I wish that for her. She has been without that love for so long. She deserves to have her suffering end and be bathed in nothing but light and love.

Maybe these thoughts about my father are also or actually about my mother, whose time has been slowly winding down for several years now. Maybe they’re about me. I had my own heart attack nine years ago and I’m now nearing sixty years old. Maybe they’re about mortality in general, about how we are all going to die and even when there are memories they fade like old photographs. One day you can’t remember what the person sounded like any more. Sometimes your thoughts of what they looked like are fuzzy and are influenced by those old photographs. Generations down the line the lives we lived may be nothing more than names and dates on fallen tombstones or a brief mention in a Bible or genealogical work. And a thousand years from now we’ll all just be unnamed parts of the mass of people who lived during this particular historical epoch.

That idea of there being nothing left of us but dust is so final and so scary in some ways.

But then I think of my father again, and I know that even without memories he lives on in me and my siblings, my nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, and even in my great-great nieces, none of whom ever knew him except for my generation, but all of whom carry on some of his features, his humor, his loves and likes in their genes. I also know that those who influence our lives are carried on in the way we influence others and they influence others on down the line. This, I guess, gives me comfort. When my mother’s time finally comes it will only be the end of her physical presence. Her spirit will continue. She will live on in so many ways through so many people and we will do our best to honor her by carrying her influence for generations to come.

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On “Religious Freedom”

Alabaster Jesus. Photo by Callen Harty.

Several states have either tried or succeeded in passing bills over the last few years that are supposedly “religious freedom” bills. Many have been blocked from getting through or states have suffered boycotts and loss of business before or after passing these bills. But proponents keep trying and the more they try and succeed even a little bit the more inured the general population gets to the idea and the less resistance there is to such draconian bills. Now Donald Trump, who held up a rainbow flag during the campaign and who swore that he would stand by the LGBT community, appears to be on board with the idea. Multiple sources are reporting that he is set to sign an Executive Order tomorrow that does just that. Apparently he thinks that it is in the best interests–not of his country, but of his political life because you have to keep those wacky right-wing Christians happy and in the Republican base–to sign an order promoting the idea of “religious freedom.”

For anyone who did not already know this–and I’m guessing with his views on Frederick Douglass, Andrew Jackson, and how little he understands other historical facts, Trump probably doesn’t–freedom of religion is already enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It guarantees that all Americans have the right to worship as they choose, if they choose. Nobody is stopping conservative Christians from praying. Nobody is stopping them from joining together in community. Nobody is even stopping them from believing that abortion, gays, contraception, and more are evil. But someone needs to let them know that they are also free not to get an abortion, practice a “gay lifestyle” (as if there were only one gay lifestyle), or use contraception. It is their choice.

What they are not free to do is to discriminate against fellow Americans because of their beliefs and their hatred. Big surprise, but blacks can sit at the counter now. They can join formerly white country clubs. Women can join formerly all-male country clubs. Muslims can build mosques in America, but they can’t discriminate against others and neither can Christians. What these laws and Trump’s Executive Order do is to allow discrimination based on hatred under the guise of “religious freedom”. A shop owner who is a right-wing Christian who believes that homosexuality is evil will be able to refuse service to someone because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Don’t think it would happen? Wrong. We have already all heard the stories of photographers, cake makers, and others refusing to work on gay marriages. Last year Mississippi failed to pass a “religious freedom” bill and a funeral home there still allegedly refused to cremate the body of a gay man because, according to the nursing home where the man died, the funeral home “did not deal with their kind”. A lawsuit is currently pending. Just imagine how many businesses there are that might refuse certain potential customers but don’t go that far because they are afraid of getting in trouble with the law or don’t want to face a potential lawsuit.

Trump’s Executive Order essentially says to them, “Go ahead. It’s okay. Follow your beliefs. You don’t have to serve sinners in your business.”

Of course those same people will happily provide cakes, flowers, or whatever their business offers (even cremation services) to adulterers, idolaters, murderers, thieves, men whose god is money, those who don’t keep the Sabbath (in fact, these days most of those Christian store owners are probably open and doing business on the Sabbath), those who lie, steal, dishonor their parents, take their own God’s name in vain . . . But if you’re queer, “we reserve the right to refuse service” because of our heartfelt beliefs.

I am saddened beyond belief that in this country bills like this and an Executive Order like this are even considered. This does not represent the land of the free or the nation where all men are created equal.

The moment Trump’s pen signs the order there will be lawsuits filed against it as an unconstitutional approval of discrimination and an unconstitutional elevation of one religion over another. In the past, even with conservative courts, I would have had utter faith that the plaintiffs would win, but we are not living in a rational world any more. I fear that our current Supreme Court justices could bend the arc of their moral universe toward injustice.

If this stands LGBT citizens, women who want or need an abortion, and those who wish to purchase contraceptives will just be the first. Don’t kid yourself that it will stop at that. The Bible teaches that women should be subservient to men–would it not be freedom of religion to beat and rape women to keep them in their place? Likewise, those who do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior are doomed to hell, so what good Christian shopkeeper would not refuse service to Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and anyone else who did not subscribe to their beliefs? If a person’s belief system tells them that murderers, those who practice the occult, and other sinners should be stoned to death how dare the government infringe upon one’s right to do just that? These are extreme examples, but the far-right in this country is as extreme as the radical Muslims they so hate. They would like nothing better than a theocracy that honors God’s literal law (as long as it’s their god). The Constitution is meaningless to these people. The only law that matters to them is the law of their god (and their specific interpretation of it).

What the people who promote these kinds of laws don’t understand is that as an American people we have decided that the Constitution is the law of the land, not any one person’s religious beliefs. We have also decided that the Constitution and its amendments are not so black and white as they appear on paper. As a people we have decided it’s not okay to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We have said that those whose religions do not believe in medicine are not allowed to let their children die because of their beliefs. We have said that there is freedom of speech and press but that a person is not allowed to spread untruths about the subjects of that speech or the press. We have given freedom of religion to our citizens but we have not required anyone to believe in a particular religion and we have not let the beliefs of a specific religion infringe upon the rights of other citizens. We have done our best as a society to balance the rights of one group against the rights of others, with certain ideas implicitly understood and accepted.

These “religious freedom” bills and Trump’s Executive Order turn those long-held understandings upside-down. They make it possible to rob me and others of the pursuit of happiness. If this happens and it stands liberty will be the next to go. And then I fear for my life.

Note: Today (Thursday, 5/4/17) Trump signed an Executive Order on “religious freedom”. The part that would have allowed for discrimination against LGBT citizens that appeared in earlier versions was removed, likely because it was so clearly unconstitutional. What was signed, however, loosens IRS enforcement of the law that prevents ministers and other religious leaders from tax-exempt churches from endorsing candidates or promoting political viewpoints from the pulpit. Not a good thing for those who believe in the separation of church and state. It also appears to allow companies to prevent employees from obtaining contraception from their employer-provided health plans based on religious reasons. This is also a blurring of the lines between separation of church and state.

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