Friday, April 17, 2009
Since I started out the last blog post by stating I was angry, I suppose I might begin this one by saying I'm hopeful about the future. And that this even shook me to my core personally. It's interesting how one social event can bring up two very different emotions in a person in a short period of time. Oddly the shaken part happened first, but I'll tell it second.
Tonight I drove down to Lewisburg (soon to be its own post) for a reception for FairnessWV which is our nascent gay rights organization here in WV. I discovered them on Towleroad while I was still in Miami. That surprised me - we homos are everywhere in WV, but I never expected to see us lobbying the legislature. So I signed up for their mailing list, and joined in on the action alerts. They managed to kill a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, but fell short on passing a non-discrimination law after the Senate sponsored bill died in committee, ironically because of backlash to the Iowa decision.
Oddly, the email that announced our defeat on the non-discrimination bill also announced a reception in Lewisburg, WV for the group. That's about an hour from where I live now, so I waited until the last minute, RSVP'd, and drove down after obsessing about what one wears to this sort of thing. I'd done them in D.C. when I lived there, and that would have required my to have my tuxedo cleaned. I went more hipster, which turned out to be O.K.
The reception was in this cool little art gallery in Lewisburg, right on the main drag in the historic section. Lots of local artists, and some of the stuff was really good. One artist in particular worked with layered acrylic with trowels, creating some cool textured art. Grand piano being played in the middle of the gallery. The place wouldn't have been out-of-place in a major city, other than the woman who painted all the pictures of the cows. Seriously, she had a really amazing style, but her subject of choice was cows.
They had a group of about 30 people I'd guess. I was greeted warmly by a board member when I entered the door and signed in (more on that greeting later). I was introduced to a few people, and spoke for a while with Stephen Skinner, the president of the organization, and talked to him how the group had been working independently for a few years, but decided this year was the time to organize and hit the legislature formally. Then I largely walked around by myself looking at art. Everyone really knew each other, which made moving socially as a single more than I could manage on my own.
I was stopped by a lovely lady who owns the theater in Lewisburg. And by theater I mean the type with actors on a stage. Who knew? And it's an Equity theater. Seriously. An actual Equity theater in Lewisburg, WV. I've got to get down there. My conversation with this lovely woman was cut short for the speeches.
First we had Coy Flowers, who organized the event. Successful OB/GYN, cute husband, and most of the energy behind the group. I suspect a lot of the money, too. Which is a good thing. The whole thing seems to be funded and run by three very dedicated people - Coy, Brian Ball, who owns several restaurants at Snowshoe Mountain Resort and Stephen Skinner, and attorney. These people took a few friendships, and formed a movement. Coy talked about the importance of being out, and of community.
Stephen Skinner got up to speak next - with all they managed in this now-over legislative session, they only formally became an organization 75 days ago. They have 2000 members on zero publicity. They hired a professional lobbyist to push their agenda at the capitol. They dropped their lives for the 60-day session to drive between home and Charleston to push for Fairness. They financed it all themselves. In other words, they're heroes whose song needs to be sung.
Like Mr. Skinner said in his speech, people in West Virginia actually don't hate GLBT people. They just don't know us. They know us, because we're their doctors, lawyers, and we pump their gas. We're everywhere, but we're not visible. Not all of us leave the state, but when a gay WV native finds another in Atlanta, Charlotte, or DC, it's an instant bond, instant friendship. I know this is true because I've done it. You know what you're getting with a West Virginian, and we're good people. All of us. And as Stephen said, if they only knew their lawyer or doctor was gay, they wouldn't think much of it. Same person as before they knew.
The legislators are a different story. They don't give West Virginians enough credit for being the good people they are. Some of them acted shocked when Stephen or Coy sat down with them. As Stephen said, he's known the Speaker of the House for years, but when he sat down for a meeting with him and said "I'm gay and I'm here to talk to you about my rights" they guy visibly freaked. They don't think the good hearted West Virginians I know can handle anything gay. And the point is that we need to be more visible so that our politicians don't have to be afraid of the reactions back home.
I'm good with that. I burned down my closet years ago. I couldn't go back if I wanted to. But I can be fired for that. Kicked out of my home for that. Denied the right to be a foster parent for that. And faced with the thought that a single bigot can ruin my life, and how I feel about my fellow West Virginians, who I know don't feel that way, that breaks my heart.
FairnessWV needs some help. They need members to be counted amongst the voters, so they can get politicians to listen. They need donations for lobbyists. And they need us to stand loud and proud so that people KNOW us, and can't discriminate against their friends, only against a faceless idea that might scare them.
P.S. - I promised a shaken with my hope, but I like how I ended it. Let's just say I knew someone there in that room, someone from back in my very wild party days. He had no problem acknowledging it, even with his hubby present. I'm not proud of those days, they were wild and reckless. I don't hide them, but I don't broadcast them either. He doesn't live far away from me, and he's really completely respectable at this point, a pillar of the community even. Never would have thought it from our past. He knows how to contact me now - we'll see if it happens.
Monday, April 13, 2009
First, let me say that I'm blogging angry, and I'm not sure that's a good idea. I actually have been trying to sit, let the issue settle in my mind, get some feedback from a trusted source or two, then react. That's just not working for me right now.
I'm visiting, indefinitely, family in West Virginia. It's altered a lot of my life, including my TV viewing habits. I'm missing shows I like, and find myself viewing shows I don't really care for. Of the Monday night comedies on CBS, I really enjoy Big Bang Theory, and find that How I Met Your Mother has moments of brilliance. Tonight, I didn't flip the channel before Two and a Half Men came on, I just kind of sat there and watched it. It's produced by Chuck Lorre, the same guy behind Big Bang, and is insanely popular. I've got the syndicated reruns, but tonight's the first time I watched a new episode. That was probably a mistake. Now it's after 10 pm, and my heart is racing, and I'm pissed off.
The episode was fairly normal for the show - focused on Mommy Issues. Even occasional viewers will tell you the funniest episodes and when Charlie and Alan's mother, Evelyn, is on the show. She's a self-centered, egotistical priss who dashes off one-liners trashing her family with aplomb - much like Christine Baranski on Cybil. I love her. The show was largely about her finding out Charlie is engaged long after the fact, and Charlie's fiance bonding with her over Charlie's objections that she's evil. Some silly jokes, some one liners, no harm not foul.
A subplot runs that Evelyn is great, according to the fiance, and Charlie would be grateful for Evelyn if he'd ever met fiance's mother. So of course, Charlie flies in fiance's mom secretly to have dinner with them. Mom's from Illinois (Illinois citizen's really ought to protest this woman's existence as a character), and she's got less than 3 minutes of screen time to make you understand why she's worse than Evelyn. Oh, does she deliver.
She talks about the "Jew lawyer yapping the whole flight" and follows that up with the flight attendant in first class being "a coloured homo" and she's glad "they make him use the tongs on the dinner rolls, because she can't risk the AIDS"
I'm not without a sense of humor - this woman had to be convincingly repulsive in minutes for the viewers to hate her more than they do Evelyn after a decade of her snark. They had to make something about her repulsive. So they made her a hick (Iowa) anti-Semitic (Jew Lawyer), racist (coloured - in 2009) homophobic (homo + AIDS joke). Somehow this managed to go too far for me.
You can poke fun at me for being gay - there's truth to some of the jokes. I may even tell a few myself. I can't say that I was personally offended by the anti-Semitic and racist jokes (but they flipped my humanity alarms). I could probably laugh at a well done gay flight attendant joke - I've known quite a few, so make the joke original, I'll laugh.
A joke about getting AIDS from a gay man handling your food? Told in 2009? Seriously? I'm sorry, but are you f&cking kidding me? That wasn't funny in 1985, and back then we weren't sure how the disease was spread. Since when is AIDS a punch line? There's nothing funny there, not even coming from a character you're trying to paint as hateful. That's just wrong.
For that matter, string together the other jokes, and that's pretty wrong too. I can only imagine how I'd feel if a were a gay Jew of color. My head would have exploded.
And don't get me started on the fact this is on CBS - which, while I have nothing against them, is known as the "old people's network" and while I don't think that's completely fair (I'm watching, after all), the older generation is probably more likely to believe something like this is fact. I can probably throw a rock in any direction from my home here in WV and hit a person who thinks you could get AIDS from touching someone. Education isn't the same everywhere you go on the subject. And now the #1 sitcom, Emmy Award winning, thinks that's a joke.
I love free speech, but where the hell was Standards and Practices when this got pitched? Hitting craft services? In the john?
Some irony here - Chuck Lorre's worked on some shows that have pushed boundaries, sometimes in big ways for minorities. Grace Under Fire, Rosanne. They were groundbreaking in their time, and helped gays and minorities with some edgy humor. Chuck puts Vanity Cards at the end of his shows where most companies put logos for 2 seconds. They have his history, his politics, his thoughts laid bare - you have to pause the DVR to read them. He's sent in cards for CBS, and had them refused - and he runs a "Censored" card and you go here to read them. He's spoken up for women's rights, gay rights, gay marriage. How the hell did he think this was funny?
To try and tie an angry mind to the title of this post - why can you make a joke about a taboo subject or minority group sometimes, and it's funny, and yet other times, it's incredibly offensive? When does it step from laughing with us, to laughing at us? And are some subjects, like AIDS, just off limits? What is edgy humor, and are there actual rules people can follow so that this travesty from tonight on Two and a Half Men from happening again?
P.S. - The episode isn't online yet from a legitimate source, or YouTube for that matter. I'll try and find it tomorrow.
Monday, April 6, 2009
This one is really something I'm going to crib from another source. I just moved back to my home state of West Virginia after years travelling the world and living in cities. My little state is a pretty odd mix of politics - mostly Democratic, thanks to a strong union base in the coal mines, the biggest employer. But it's right in the Bible Belt, and leans conservative socially, which probably surprises no one. The people here are good people - heck, even the people at the DMV today were friendly and nice. But they're a little behind the times with GLBT issues. Sometimes they surprise you - they defeated a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage just last week.
West Virginia is one of the places on the map where it is still legal to discriminate against GLBT people in employment, housing, and even public accommodation. It doesn't matter how kind the people at the DMV are about a license, you can still be fired for being gay. And I'm in the job market right now. A lot of people are. And I simply want to be assured I can be treated like everyone else.
The WV Senate has passed S.B. 238 again this session. And the bill is stalled in committee in the House of Delegates. And the legistlative session is nearly over - it's only 60 days in WV. So if you know me, know my family, know the families of all those gay kids I went to school with and left because they don't feel safe here, call Speaker Thompson and tell him to move SB 238 out of committee and give it the vote it deserves on the floor. Tell him that for the sake of industry, jobs, and WV families, we need to make fairness the law of the land in WV.
If you want to email, there's a great form set up at fairnesswv.org you can use. And join FairnessWV - they're a new organization, and they need members and funds to help make a difference.
I'm going to post the office numbers of the Rules Committee members that can move this bill to the floor. Call them. You're all good people in WV, you believe in fairness, I know - because I grew up here.
Speaker Rick Thompson’s office at (304) 340-3210
|Brent Boggs |
H. Keith White
Saturday, April 4, 2009
The disastrous Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy on gays serving openly in the military has been much in the news lately, and has got me thinking about my own experience in the Air Force. A great friend, QueerMuser wrote up his own tragic experience of being gay in the U.S. Navy, and that's where the idea for this post about my own time in the Air Force came from. It's hardly as emotional as his own story, which I encourage you to read, but it really shows how DADT undermines trust in the military when it just doesn't have to if we'd wise up and let gay men and women serve openly.
The year all this started was 1992, and I was miserable in college. I won't bore you with the details, but I'd come out of high school with a perfect GPA, offer letters from schools like University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern, and a single rejection from my dream school, Dartmouth. But I didn't have the money for the big schools, and financial aid wasn't going to cover it. So I'd gone to West Virginia University, realized my big plans wouldn't work with a state school diploma, and fallen hard into partying, and completely forgot my studies. Even in my constantly inebriated state, I knew this wasn't a life plan I or my parents could accept. I came home Thanksgiving of 1992, went and met an Air Force recruiter, took my ASVAB, got a score the recruiter had never seen before, picked a career, signed the papers, and sat my parents down and told them. It wasn't their plan for me, but they thought it was better than what I'd been up to. At this point, I'd never even said that I was gay, never done anything with a guy, and basically considered myself asexual.
The timing on this is important. This was November 1992 - Clinton had just been elected, and part of the platform was letting gays serve openly. When I went to the recruiter and filled out the questionnaire, the question about homosexuality was on the form, but it had a line through it. I was told they weren't asking that in anticipation of the rules change. The recruiter spent a bit of time talking about the policy change. My recruiter, Scott was a nice guy who was actually from my home town, and I knew his sister. It was Christmas, and I wasn't scheduled to leave until April. To kill the time, I worked tending bar at the local ski resort, and volunteered part time in the recruitment office. That would prove to be my first vaguely gay experience in the military, and I wasn't even in yet.
Scott, through his sister, and my work in the recruitment center, became friendly. Nothing big, but we'd have a beer at the ski resort, where his sister also worked. He took me to lunch one day when I was volunteering, and on the way back, we stopped by his house to let his greyhound out in the back yard. Little things. So when spring came, and he asked me and another waiting recruit out on his boat at the local lake. Had I been wiser, I might've smelled a rat, because it was still cold, but neither I nor the other kid were that wise yet, and we both agreed.
I was volunteering that day, and I left my car and rode out with Scott in his truck, pulling the boat. Other Guy met us at the lake. We got the boat in the water, ran around the lake, pulled into a cove and swam a bit in the icy water. I still remember the contrast - Scott, mid-thirties, hairy, decent shape, and Other Guy, a smooth, super-skinny twink, a lot like a shorter version of me at the time, but with a better chest. I'm remembering this in a lot more detail than I expected. We got out of the water and it was freezing, we slipped out of our trunks and into dry clothes. In retrospect, this was Scott's plan - getting us naked at some point. But there on the lake nothing panned out. We were cold, took the boat to the dock, and Other Guy left. Scott and I loaded the boat on the trailer, and drove off.
We weren't very far from the lake, on a back road, as is common in West Virginia. Scott pulls over and stops the truck. I assumed he was checking the trailer. He turned sideways in the seat of the truck (yes, my recruiter), and blurted out "Have you ever had a guy suck your dick?" Honestly, I must've have visibly jumped when I stuttered "No!" because he started the truck and off we drove. My departure was just a week away, and we never talked about that moment.
At the time, I had no idea what to make of that moment, but in retrospect, I see the whole day for what it was - a seduction. It's kind of dirty, if you think about it, a recruiter preying on young recruits who are terrified of boot camp and all. It probably paid out for him a lot. Modern me wishes I'd let it happen for me - I wasn't as naive as some, and probably wouldn't have found it predatory. Other Guy, I suspect, would have frozen if he'd been in my place, and Scott would have had him. Odd, since I'm the gay one. Pretty sure he wasn't. But he was younger and a lot more malleable.
I packed up and went to boot camp, maybe the least erotic way to have 50 guys living, sleeping, and showering together one can imagine. I don't remember a single errant erection or anything from anyone that would have screamed gay during that six weeks. But I do remember the psychological aspect of it. See, the physical stuff in boot camp is an afterthought. The main thing is the mental shaping they're doing. True, it's brainwashing, but I believe it creates soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that the military needs. But it involves breaking down everything you think you know about yourself, then rebuilding you. Four and a half weeks in, I remember lying in my bunk, lights out, staring at the ceiling, and thinking "Oh, shit. I'm gay." It just totally slammed into my brain and was so true, so real, there was no denying it. So I was finally honest with myself. I was also practical. I just tucked that piece of information away, and told myself I'd deal with that in three years and 47 weeks, or if Clinton came through.
Well, we all know what happened. Everybody got up in arms, Don't Ask/Don't Tell was launched, and you could serve if you kept it to yourself. The funny thing was, this actually made me feel safe. I'd gone 21 years without a guy, I wasn't in a rush. If I didn't do anything, I wasn't telling, and I could serve my time and move on. I actually had a pretty good life in the Air Force - it's not like I was trapped on a ship or camping in the desert. I ended up on Langley Air Force Base, outside Norfolk. I was a computer programmer with a ridiculous security clearance - my first real lie to the military about my sexuality was for the clearance - I hadn't had to answer to enlist, and hadn't really known anyhow. But they ask flat out about your sexuality for a security clearance. I had to lie, but told myself since I hadn't acted on being gay, and they were really worried about blackmail situations, I was good. That's when I made a decision that had a huge impact on my military and gay life, even if I didn't know it at the time.
Langley was crowded. They were always pushing people to take the allowance and life off-base. I'd been out of the dorms in college, and in an apartment. I wanted out quick. A guy I worked with and I became roommates, and moved off base, and began basically a good solid friendship. I found out much later if I'd stayed in the dorms on base, I'd give up privacy, but man, would I have gotten laid! Missed opportunities!
As it was, I settled in to domesticity. Gunnar (roommate) and I spent a lot of time hanging out with a couple that had transferred in from Germany, Darron and Tracey. It was the joke around the unit, on weekends it would always be Darron & Tracey hanging out with Gunnar & Ed - just like two couples. It made some sense though - Darron and Tracey were a blast, bought a cool new house. We all had a thing for wine, and we all went to a lot of wine tastings and festivals, which were more common than one would expect. And other than the fact that Darron & Tracey slept together at night, in a lot of ways, they were no more a couple than Gunnar and myself. They just had fun, drank, went to concerts. We did it all with them, and crashed many nights at their house on the couches. Darron had a love for exotic beer we picked up, Gunnar bought a boat we spent time on. I cooked a lot. We had a super-size kiddie pool in their backyard we'd lay in and drink during the summer. We worked together on the same projects, were best friends - we knew everything about each other. Except that I was gay.
The fact that I didn't date wasn't weird, per se - a lot of people didn't date a lot, though they probably hooked up. I didn't stand out, not being on base with the single boys, that I never had a girl. I was a couple steps removed from the debauched sex (gay and straight) that went on in the barracks. That is, I didn't stand out until Gunnar starting dating a Marine. She was an officer. We weren't. This is about as big a no-no as boys liking boys to the military. The way Darron, Tracey and I closed ranks to give them safe space to be together away from prying eyes should have been a clue to me that I could have come out to my friends. We protected Gunnar and the officer, they would have protected me. But it wasn't a topic on the burner for me at the time.
The Gunnar & Marine thing lasted about three months. This is where it starts to hit home. Darron, Tracey, Gunnar and I spend a lot of time drinking away Gunnar's heartbreak. Occassional questions pop up about when I'm going to start dating, when is it going to be my turn. I brush them off, they're not being mean or anything - it would be a logical topic of conversation. In our quest for a buzz, we head off to a smaller wine festival (Virginia was really pushing its young wine industry at the time). We got really trashed, nothing unusual, and we got really silly, laughing and carrying on with these three women, today, we'd call them cougars. Darron was always really flirty, Tracey was OK with it if it didn't go too far, and Gunnar and I were single, drunk, young and in shape. When the festival ended way earlier than we wanted the party to, we invited the women back to Darron & Tracey's house to keep drinking.
Somehow, I ended up in Darron's car, him driving, cougar in the front seat, me and cougar in the back. Tracey, Gunnar and cougar in the cougar's car. Our car stopped for wine & beer. I get out, go buy a mountain of booze. I come back, and find Darron in the car making out with both cougars. This was way over his allowed line I knew. I slipped into the backseat, and tried to gently diffuse the situation with a simple "What's going on here?" thinking Darron would snap out of the alcohol haze and behave. That's not what happened. Instead, he looked drunkenly at me and goes "Aww, Ed, are you feeling left out?" and leans back, grabs my head, and kisses me deep - I mean, seriously, to this day, one of the best kisses I've ever had. Cougars loved it, cat calls all around. He then pulled back, put the car in drive, and off we went to meet the others.
I'll never know if it was what happened in the car, or if it was more that the cougar in the other car turned bitch on Tracey (NOT a good idea), but the cougars didn't stay very long. It was just the four of us, standard Darron & Tracey, Gunnar & Ed, sitting around drinking. At one point, Darron looks at me, out of the blue, and says "Ed, are you gay? Because it's totally cool if you are." And honestly, at that moment, I knew that to these three people it would be completely cool if I was gay. They wouldn't love me any less. I think they would have loved me more, for taking down that wall and opening up to them. And I almost said it. And then my fear kicked in.
We worked together, same unit. I had an insanely high security clearance and access to computer systems and data that were beyond vital, and I'd lied getting that clearance - that's a military equivalent of a felony, jail time. Darron had recently been promoted to staff sergeant. This mattered. By the rules, it might be one thing for Gunnar and Tracey, same rank as me, to turn a blind eye, but I knew the rules said Darron had to report it. Never mind that not two hours before, his tongue had been all the way down my throat. I knew the rules, and rules scared me. I'd made it nearly four years. I'd never acted on being gay. I'd never told anyone. I was withing the rules of DADT - if I stayed in the rules, they couldn't touch me, I could get out in a few months with an honorable discharge. I was a gay guy living DADT, by the rules. I looked a loving friend in the eye, tears in my own eyes, and lied to him. I said no. I said it in that frat boy, adolescent way. And they all knew I was lying.
My friends, my coworkers weren't asking me to march in a pride parade. They were asking me to be as honest with them as they were with me. To trust them with my secrets, like I was trusted with theirs. Darron knew I wasn't going to tell Tracey about the cougar kisses. He was asking me to trust him. And I didn't. I was too scared of losing it all, being dishonorably discharged, to trust my closest friends, because they were in the military, and I worried about their loyalties when I shouldn't.
Granted, Gunnar & I were getting out shortly after that. Tracey got pregnant. Darron went into dady mode, the drinking slowed. The hanging out dropped off. A house that I'd spent 4-5 evening a week at became somewhere I never went, and it was almost immediately after that lie. Maybe it was the other stuff. Maybe it was the lie. I'll never know. Everything just changed.
And that brings me back to what DADT does to the military. Opponents to gays serving openly say that it will destroy unit cohesiveness. Soldiers won't trust each other. I'd put forward that soldiers lying to each other is what destroys trust. Darron, Tracey, and Gunnar weren't just my friends, they were my fellow airmen, people that I was expected to serve next to, and trust with my life. And when I lied to them, trust was destroyed. We stopped spending time together. Lunches weren't taken together. It messed up the whole dynamic.
So the argument is that gay soldiers serving openly destroys unit cohesion. What the military drills into you when they're doing their brainwashing in basic is exposing the soul. That's what was going on when I had my "Oh, shit, I'm gay." moment in the darkness. My soul was laid bare and I saw myself. From that point on, you're bonded with fellow soldiers - you're all bare, answering to an absolute authority, and those connectors are put out there - you bond and trust other soldiers. It's there to make you trust your buddy in a foxhole. As a social experiment, it's brilliant, and they've got it down to a science. And it can be destroyed with a lie. When are we going to make our soldiers stop lying to their fellow soldiers? When are we going to let trust reign?
I've been gone from my small town life for a while. I grew up here, Crab Orchard, WV, and had a lovely life. I also left when I was 18 for bigger towns - living in Hampton Roads, VA, DC, San Diego, and Miami. I've travelled all over the world, Hong Kong, Beijing, Japan, Australia, Brazil, etc.
Now circumstance and the global financial apocalypse has me back at home, where The Small Town Boy who became Big City Homo will attempt to become Hillbilly Homo. I'll try and do this while getting to know my extended family again, find a job, and figure out what life is like back in a small isolated town. I'll be documenting my life here, plus commenting on my past, and throwing in some of my politics and whatever else comes to mind.
I don't expect this to be incredibly interesting to read for anybody - it's more a way to organize my life as it is, and my history that led me here. Some will be more profound than others. Much will be absolutely dreary. Read along if you like. I'll be posting here and on my Twitter account. Sometimes daily, sometimes many times a day, and sometimes I bet I go weeks with nothing. We'll just have to see how interesting life is. Thanks fo dropping by.