Sandy: Here, There, Everywhere

Hurricane Sandy: On the Deck, Micro View. 10/29/12.
Photo Credit: The Madwoman

We are fine, darlings. All is well here in the place formerly known as Roxie’s World. We spent most of yesterday sitting around waiting for the power to go out, because it does “every time a butterfly flaps its wings,” as the Woman Formerly Known as Goose quipped this morning. Incredibly, it did not, despite fierce winds and relentless, driving rains. We had dutifully cleaned out gutters and set out candles and checked flashlight batteries and even cooked up a batch of chili that we were prepared to live on through days of grim, sad darkness. I filled my Facebook feed with jokes about getting ready to start killing neighbors as soon as the lights went out, because that’s what I’ve learned about how to survive a power outage from NBC’s utterly ridiculous Revolution. (Yes, I do hereby declare it ridiculous. I kept watching, hoping the show would get less gory and more political, but the bodies keep piling up and the story, such as it is, isn’t especially compelling. So far, Revolution, you are no Hunger Games and certainly no Homeland. Call me if you ever get past the whole Lord of the Flies thing.)

So, we were lucky. The lights stayed on. The neighbors are all, so far as we know, alive. If the chili gets eaten by candlelight, it will be because we are feeling romantic. We can go back to worrying about the election and the fact that, according to one new poll, our humanity has suffered a setback and may lose next week in Turtle Country. (Our humanity fares better in another poll, but it’s suddenly hard to feel confident that marriage equality will win anywhere, despite recent gains in support.) We can go back to work. The university will reopen tomorrow. Syllabi will be modestly adjusted, deadlines slightly extended. We can laugh lightly in the hallway with colleagues over how rain days are just like snow days, without the shoveling. We can make a quick trip to the store to stock up not on bottled water but on treats for Halloween.

Others, of course, will not have those luxuries, will not return so quickly and easily to anything like their normal, pre-Sandy lives. The news and images coming out of New York and New Jersey are devastating. My Facebook feed today is full of anxious queries and brief reports: How are you? . . . . I’m trying to reach my parents . . . . Lights out in Jersey City . . . . No latte in my neighborhood bodega . . . . Come see us if you need power or a shower . . . . Post-hurricane rainbow, as seen from my balcony in Brooklyn . . . . 

You can see that lovely rainbow here, along with Tenured Radical’s eloquent analysis of how helpful Twitter was for those living through the disaster unfolding in New York. TR is right. Twitter can’t be beat for real-time sharing of information in moments of crisis. Facebook, as my string of quotes and paraphrases above suggests, is better for making more personal connections, sharing feelings, carrying on conversations. And so the Hurricane Sandy story is, like all storm stories, a tale of disparate impacts and the vagaries of weather, but it is also, like so many large-scale events of the twenty-first century, a tale of disparate social media — of what we use when, how, and why and how we are used by them; of how having such tools changes our experience of such events by shrinking distances and giving us access to stories traditional media might miss. The cliches of techno-culture are validated in such moments: We are all reporters, producers, and broadcasters, as long as our smart phones don’t get swept away in the flood and we can manage to transmit data.

Really, though, the Sandy story is the oldest story in the book: Humans are social animals. We crave connection and will find it, in raging storms and seas of tranquility, by whatever means are available to us. Including public pay phones, which, apparently, still exist. I know: Who knew?

Wherever you are, I hope you are warm, safe, dry, and connected. Feel free to tell us your storm stories or to weigh in on the whole Twitter v. Facebook debate, unless you don’t use either of them, in which case you are not allowed to have an opinion. (Looking at you, PhysioProffe. Be nice.) Peace out.

The Unbearable Weirdness of Being Voted On

My humanity is up by nine points in Turtle Country, according to the latest Washington Post poll on the referendum that would extend the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples.  The poll of likely voters shows that 52% intend to vote yes on Question 6, while 43% say they don’t have a homophobic bone in their bodies but are pretty sure the Lord God Almighty thinks that Edith Windsor should have had to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax after her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. Wow, who knew the Lord was such a micromanager?

My humanity is also leading in Washington state, by the way, and doing well in Maine. Things are little shakier in Minnesota, but it’s possible my humanity will prevail even there, depending on turnout and how the undecideds go. No lead is comfortable, of course, because the Not Homophobes Opposed to Civil Equality tend to lie to pollsters about how they intend to vote on questions regarding my humanity. Funny how that goes, isn’t it?

You are justified in wondering why a Madwoman Opposed to Marriage But in Favor of Marriage Equality has come to see the election in such dramatic terms, as a referendum on her very humanity. Oh, well, you know, that’s what happens when one’s fellow citizens — neighbors, friends, coworkers, and relatives as well as millions of strangers — hold one’s rights in the palms of their kind or unkind hands. The stakes feel both high and personal, because they are. One cannot not care, even about a 15-year-old African American boy whom one reads about in the (online version of the) newspaper, whose mother explains his opposition to same-sex marriage this way: “He is very accepting of people with alternative lifestyles, but doesn’t believe they should be able to get married.” Fifteen-year-olds cannot vote, of course, but wouldn’t it trouble you to hear one so blithely judge what you should or should not be permitted to do? Wouldn’t that make you want to meet this young man, look him in the eye, and ask why and how he came to make such a judgment on your humanity or lack of it? You might briefly imagine such an encounter, mightn’t you, before you sensibly shifted the focus of your questioning to why that young man lives in a world where such matters are subjected to popular votes?

Yes, that is the question, but I can’t stop thinking about this young man. And I can’t stop thinking about my neighbors, the ones with the impossibly manicured lawns and the spit-shined cars and the “No Pooping” signs in their yards. I have known them for close to 20 years. We are on friendly terms, warm ones even. We don’t just wave and exchange greetings. We pause to talk as they rake the mulch to the edges of their perfect beds and I take Ms. Ruby out for her twice-daily constitutionals. They dote on my dog and assure me she is welcome to poop in their yards — because she is adorable and they know I will clean up after her.

We do not speak of politics, my neighbors and I. There are no campaign signs in their yards, and they don’t mention the “Vote For Question 6” sign in my yard. As the election approaches, I wonder if I should broach the subject of the referendum. I feel that I ought to, and yet I hesitate, worried about how such a conversation might go and what its aftermath might be. The threads that connect us across multiple lines of difference — of race, class, sexuality, structures of intimacy — feel enduring yet delicate. I worry that such a conversation, if it went badly, could irreparably damage something I value highly: the pleasantness of encounters I have nearly every day with individuals who are a part of my lifeworld.

I realize that my anxiety may be unfounded and that it may do my neighbors a terrible injustice. It is possible that the conversation I am avoiding would go swimmingly if I summoned the nerve to start it. Most of my neighbors don’t seem to be churchgoers, and many of the households are sustained in part by the devoted care of unmarried adult daughters. For all our front-porch friendliness, I haven’t a clue what really goes on in my neighbors’ houses, so I shouldn’t presume to know anything about their politics. I shouldn’t, and I don’t really, but still I hesitate, because my humanity feels at stake and I’m not sure I could bear knowing that my neighbors would vote against that, against me.

In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler writes eloquently of the task of LGBT politics as “a remaking of reality, a reconstituting of the human, and a brokering of the question, what is and is not livable? So what is the injustice opposed by such work? I would put it this way: to be called unreal and to have that call, as it were, institutionalized as a form of differential treatment, is to become the other against whom (or against which) the human is made. It is the inhuman, the beyond the human, the less than human, the border that secures the human in its ostensible reality” (30). Further on she notes, “[W]hen we struggle for rights, we are not simply struggling for rights that attach to my person, but we are struggling to be conceived as persons” (32).

I taught Butler this week and found myself moved by her emphasis on livability, precarity, norms, and intelligibility. Happily, many of my students seem to have had similar responses. Instead of hearing complaints about the denseness of the writing and the complexity of the ideas, I heard enthusiastic affirmation: “She is rocking my world,” declared one convert. Even in the classroom, I hesitate to bring up Question 6 as an example of the kind of injustice Butler has in mind when she writes that “no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor.” I need the students to see this parallel for themselves. I cannot name it. I cannot say it. I feel overly implicated in the analogy and don’t want them to worry that their grades and their votes might have anything to do with one another.

My humanity is on the ballot, and that feels deeply estranging and acutely uncomfortable to me. Between now and election day, I will try to find a way to make these conversations happen, because I need to do everything I can to help secure a just outcome. In the meantime, I hope my students and my neighbors recognize that in important ways their humanity is at stake in this election, too. What kind of person are you, after all, if you would deny the personhood of others? Think about that as you consider your choices on November 6.

Terps Against Marriage for Marriage Equality (1.0)

[An edited version of this post was published yesterday in the QTU campus newspaper, The Diamondback. Like all authors, I prefer the unedited version, so I’ll exercise my blogger’s right to do it my way, with links, right here in my own little corner of the non-peer-reviewed and gatekeeper-free Interwebz. I was motivated to write the column in part because The Diamondback published an article last week in which leaders of the campus undergraduate LGBT organization announced that it wasn’t taking a position on a measure that would extend the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples in Turtle Country because “there are differing opinions on marriage, and we don’t want to invalidate one person’s stance.” And because “Queer relationships are not recognized even if gay marriage does become legalized.” True, I thought, but, oh, boy, this is what we get for teaching the children all that trouble with normal stuff. A little knowledge  can be a tricky thing. So I sat down at ye olde laptop and banged out a cranky old queer reply. See what you think. I’ve got a busy day on tap — There’s a civil rights battle to be won here, darlings, and apparently I’m helping to lead the charge. Peace out.]

I have lived happily in a state of unlicensed love with a same-sex partner for more than twenty-eight years. She and I have been fortunate in that we’ve never needed marriage to give us access to health insurance. We were both born in this country, so we also didn’t need marriage to ensure our rights to live and work here. When we reached middle age and realized we needed to give some thought to long-term planning, we could afford to hire an attorney to draw up wills to give our relationship protections similar to those enjoyed (for free) by married couples.

We haven’t needed marriage, and in many ways we didn’t want it. Indeed, you might say that we hated marriage before hating marriage was cool, though we are not really the hating types. As feminists, however, we have tended to view marriage skeptically, as an institution that oppressed women and shored up the social and economic powers of patriarchy and heterosexuality. We were proud of having built a secure, loving, mutually supportive relationship that was in many respects like a marriage yet remained outside the institution. Years before queer critics of marriage railed against the unfairness of forcing couples to marry in order to prove their worth or secure a set of rights and benefits that ought not be tied to relationship status, my partner and I were happy to sing along with Joni Mitchell that, “We don’t need no piece of paper/From the city hall/Keeping us tied and true” (“My Old Man”).

That’s what I mean when I say I am a Terp against marriage, much as I respect particular marriages and anyone’s desire to be married. Now let me tell you what I mean when I say I am a Terp against marriage who is also emphatically for marriage equality.

Marriage equality is a matter of civil rights, plain and simple, and as such I am committed to fighting for it, heart and soul, without a shred of doubt or ambivalence. If the state is going to be in the business of licensing relationships, then it cannot discriminate against same-sex couples that want to be civilly married. To do so is to set up classes of citizens and to engage in sex discrimination, which are in my judgment both abhorrent and unconstitutional. I may not want to be married, but that is my business and my decision. Legally, however, I should have the same right other citizens have to marry whomever I choose. The state should not deny me the right it extends to others. Grant me the right, and I will decide whether or not to exercise it. That is called freedom, and LGBT citizens cannot be denied the same freedom that non-LGBT citizens enjoy.

In a few weeks, Maryland voters will be called upon to uphold or reject the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would extend the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples and protect the rights of clergy not to perform marriage ceremonies in violation of their religious beliefs. If the law is upheld by an affirmative vote on Question 6, Maryland would be the first state in the nation to approve the right to same-sex marriage through a popular vote. (Three other states – Maine, Minnesota, and Washington – will vote on similar measures on Nov. 6, but polls close first in Maryland, which is why we have a shot at being the first in the nation to win on marriage equality at the ballot box.)

I am opposed to subjecting the rights of minority groups to a popular vote. It violates my sense of fairness and a core conviction that rights are, as the authors of the Declaration of Independence put it, unalienable. They cannot be granted or taken away because they are part of our equipment as human beings and as citizens.

Nonetheless, my hope is that this time a majority of voters will recognize that same-sex couples deserve no more and nothing less than what opposite-sex couples have in the eyes of the law. My hope is that voters in the state I’ve been proud to call home for twenty-six years will vote out of love rather than fear and in support of justice rather than injustice. Polls currently show that a majority of likely voters say they will vote for Question 6, but we can’t take anything for granted. We need to work hard in the coming weeks to educate voters on the issue and to mobilize them to vote in support of it.

This Thursday, Oct. 11, is National Coming Out Day, a day when we celebrate being open about and inclusive of sex and gender diversity. There are two Question 6 events being held on campus that day: a panel discussion with four of Maryland’s openly gay legislators who helped to pass the Civil Marriage Protection Act in the general assembly and a rally with Sen. Ben Cardin and other leaders in support of marriage equality.

I hope you will consider attending these events and that you’ll support the cause of equality regardless of how you feel about marriage or homosexuality. I am not asking you to approve of me. And I’m not saying that marriage will be good for LGBT people or that LGBT people will be good for marriage. All I am saying is that no group of people should be denied equality before the law. If you agree with me on that single, enormously consequential point, please vote yes on Question 6.

Because this Terp who is against marriage but for marriage equality looks forward to the day when her decision not to marry the woman she adores will be legally meaningful in the Free State.

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