Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chuggin' Along in Indiana

Rainbow flag at the Statehouse in Indianapolis
What?  There are gay people in Utah?   Oklahoma?  Indiana?

Like many, I’m watching the state-by-state battles for and against the right of same-sex couples to marry.   

There are three ways rights are granted, or taken away.  By referendum – a vote of all the people, – by the courts, or by the legislature.  Whenever the people of any given state try one way, opponents cry foul and insist it should be another way.  LGBT people have looked to the constitution as the most reliable source of authority for equality and federal or Supreme Court judges bear that out.  Only they can overturn majority rule when the majority is less concerned with fundamental rights than with an ideological victory.  By the same token, ideologues with the majority behind them argue that there is no better way to determine right or wrong than by majority rule, and insist the decision should be made by popular vote.   Never mind that majorities sometimes fail to give minorities their due.  Alternatively, when a group has a majority in the legislature, these same forces make the argument that the legislature speaks for the people as duly elected representatives, and they should make the decision.

So far, six states (CA, CT, IA, MA, NJ, NM) have granted same-sex couples the right to marry in the courts; eight states (DE, HI, IL, MN, NH, NY, RI, VT) have done it in their legislatures;  and three (ME, MD, WA) have done it through popular vote.  DC got same-sex marriage rights when the major signed a bill by the City Council in 2009.

Because support for same-sex marriage hovers at around the 50-50 mark, a decision is not always a decision.  A federal court judge found Utah’s ban unconstitutional, for example, but a couple weeks later (on January 6 of this year) the U.S. Supreme Court put a stay on the judge’s decision because the state appealed. 

And sometimes, things go the other way.  Or, as in the case of Maine, first one way and then the other.  In Maine, the legislature legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, but it was repealed within the year by popular vote.  Three years later, in 2012, voters showed a change of heart and same-sex marriage was passed by popular vote.    A history of the strategies used in each state is available here.  

Most surprising is the speed with which support for same-sex marriage is showing up even in the red states.  Utah is an example.  So is Oklahoma.  In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist seems to have his finger in the wind.  Once a proud anti-gay rights Republican, he first switched and became an independent.  Now he’s gone all the way and is a declared democrat and unequivocally behind same-sex marriage rights.  

Indiana, in contrast, seems to be moving backwards.  A panel of thirteen lawmakers on the House Elections and Apportionment Committee just voted 9-3 along party lines to send an amendment, known as House Joint Resolution 3 (HJR-3) to the full House for a General Assembly vote that would ban same-sex rights - just in case some federal court judge should decide in the future that their current law already banning gay rights is unconstitutional.  The ban was approved in 2011 but must by law be approved a second time.  It will likely make the ballot in November.  

Now what the hell is the Elections and Apportionment Committee doing proposing anti-gay legislation in the first place?  Why isn't that a job for the Judicial Committee?   Here you see American democracy at work.  It was in the Judicial Committee originally, but they were not inclined to push it.  (You have to wonder why - too much evidence that anti-gay laws don't pass muster in the courts?)  So the GOP leader of the House took it away from them and turned it over to Elections and Apportionment precisely because he knew they had the Republican anti-gay votes.  Once in the legislature it is likely to pass and come up for a vote in November in the general election.

Not only is the Indiana Legislature being crafty; they are being particularly mean about it.   Polls show support for same-sex marriage in 2013 at around 55% nationally, up from around 51-53% the year before, and it’s clear that many more people would vote for civil unions than for same-sex marriage rights.  Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Wisconsin have civil union rights but not yet marriage rights.  Yet Indiana seems to be lining up with the red states of the South, and following North Carolina’s lead.  North Carolina approved a ban on same-sex marriage in 2012 by 20 percentage points and then went on to ban civil unions, as well.  Ironically, though, this move could backfire.  The decision to go all the way and prohibit same-sex civil unions may just end up being perceived as too hostile to gays and turn Indiana voters off.  It's possible the GOP designers of HJR-3 are shooting themselves in the foot by wanting it all.

I decided to take a closer look at the meanies, these nine Indiana legislators, to try and learn something more about where they are coming from.   What I found came as no surprise. If you read their official web sites you see a picture of ordinary Americans, people with families and jobs and a good work ethic, as well as a desire to go into politics to make the world a better place.  But among these would-be banners (and this is not a contradiction to what I just said) there is Woody Burton, winner of the “legislator of the year award” given by the Indiana Bankers.  Something else he’s known for is his sponsorship of the “In God We Trust” license plate. 

Kathy Richardson’s accomplishments include amending House Bill 1283, which deals with libraries, to declare the Grouseland Rifle the official state rifle. 

Then there’s Milo Smith.  The Bilerico Project, an online group of LGBT activists, pointed out in 2007 that Smith, despite having a gay son, voted for an earlier incarnation of this homophobic bill.  Despite claims that he would not deny gay people the right to civil unions, he is now coming down once again on the side of the homophobes behind HJR-3.

Then there is Ed Soliday, who one year ago introduced legislation to require doctors to perform an ultrasound before prescribing an abortion-inducing drug.

This is “church country,” and Jeff Thompson advertises his membership in the Northview Christian Church among his affiliations, and Richard Hamm is a trustee in Calvary Baptist Church.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, except for the fact that the discovery of church affiliation in America more often than not signals simultaneously the discovery of a social force to define gays and lesbians as sinners first, and citizens with equal rights second.  Timothy Wesco, the home-schooled son of a preacher has posted a website in which he states, “I recognize that ultimately I will be accountable to my Savior, the Sovereign, Omnipresent and Omniscient God of the Universe.”   When a politician tells you his ultimate guide is his religion and not his state and federal constitutions, it sends a shiver down the backs of gay and lesbian people.

It’s telling that the cultural battle between those on the one hand who would impose their religious guidelines on the rest of us, and those of us, on the other, who would place the value of equality for all above all else, is often fought indirectly.  Opposition in Indiana to HJR-3 is coming from places like Indiana University, Eli Lilly and Co. and Cummins Inc.  Representatives from these organizations all testified that they believe HJR-3 would have negative repercussions on their ability to attract and keep a diverse work force.  Aha!  The financial argument.  The way to find common ground with religious people who are nonetheless practical.  One can only hope it has sufficient persuasive power.  

Working with the religious and otherwise conservative legislators are the usual suspects.  There is Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, and Ken Klukowski, a law professor at Liberty University, among others.  Liberty University, in case you can’t place it, is Jerry Falwell’s baby.   Also Kellie Fiedorek of the Alliance Defending Freedom, Ken Klukowski of the Family Research Council, Glen Tebbe of the Indiana Catholic Conference, Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana, Ron Johnson of the Indiana Family Institute’s Indiana Pastors Alliance, and Eric Miller of Advance America.  All those organizations with the patriotic names fronting for religious-based homophobia.

The Indiana Family Institute is making the same argument the Catholic hierarchy likes to make – what the gays are up to is limiting their religious freedom to discriminate.  According to them,

Efforts by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are underway to restrict our right to hold to our religious beliefs at work, on a school or university campus, at church, or even when you turn out to vote your values. If successful, these attacks on our religious liberty could greatly restrict our ability to respond to the Great Commission and share the Gospel. At Indiana Family Institute (IFI), we are committed to protecting the right of every Hoosier to freely live their faith.   

Somehow passing a law preventing people from marrying the person of their choice gets twisted into an attack on the freedom of other people to express their religion.  What a mindset it must take to swallow that line of reasoning.  Yet, the illogic must work.  Why else would the Catholics and fundamentalist protestants be using it?

The Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom are both organizations set up under the hand of James Dobson.  You remember him – the founder of Focus on the Family.  Dobson, you may remember, argued that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School  was the result of America’s turning its back on God.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the American Family Association as a “domestic hate group.”

Advance America is a conservative legislative watchdog association.  To see what they are about, watch this speech  by Indiana’s conservative governor, Mike Pence, where he quotes a Heritage Foundation claim that “families” reduce childhood poverty by 85%.  No mention is made of the fact that gays and lesbians are battling for the right to become families and to have their children grow up in legally recognized families.  Just as the argument that religious freedom is under threat by the formation of gay and lesbian families turns truth exactly upside down, so does the argument that gay and lesbian families are in competition with mommy and daddy families and therefore a threat to them.

But such is the level of discourse in America where the struggle for same-sex civil rights marches on.

One step, one state, at a time.

Hope you’re settled in for the long run.

As Betty Davis (as Margo Channing) said in All About Eve, “fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be a bumpy night.”

But bumpy is the bad news.  For the good news, consider the direction we’re moving in.

 photo credit

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia

A half-hour documentary by online magazine has just come out on the struggle the LGBT community in Russia is undergoing just trying to keep their heads above water, to say nothing of achieving some semblance of civil rights and freedom from bullying and other oppression by thugs and by state authorities.  

What is happening in Russia is a sadly familiar story.  A man rises to the top and sets about consolidating power for the long term.   Putin is an expert at the game.  He knows how to use the tools of manipulation.  Long oppressed under communist rule, the Orthodox Church, Russia’s nationalistic state religious entity, has worked its way back among the masses.  The collapse of the Soviet empire has also unleashed Russian nationalist sentiment in the public at large, as well.  Put the two together and you have a perfect combination for manipulating Russian hearts and minds.  One should never underestimate the readiness of a people to be manipulated by patriotism and religion.  Only one thing is missing to bring that sentiment to a laser-beam focus and flame insecurities just beneath the surface – a common enemy.  A scapegoat. 

Other than an occasional wacko like Russian Orthodox monk Brother Nathanael, who still pushes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,  the Russian church is not likely to foster anti-Semitism any more.  The Holocaust has inoculated most people these days against that inclination.   Can’t go for the Jews. 

Enter the  gays and lesbians.

Were it not for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, the anti-gay campaign recently unleashed in Russia might have gone largely unnoticed internationally.  Unfortunately for Putin’s policy planners, though, homophobia has come to be recognized in the West as a religion-based bigotry, and in one country after another, it is going the way of the other bigotries of racism and sexism.  Gay rights are now recognized in most modern countries as civil rights, and have been supported officially by the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations since 2011.  Putin doesn’t have the free hand he might have had a decade or two ago.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t trying.  Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia captures a vivid picture of what gay activists in Russia are faced with.  Particularly informative are the now familiar prejudices of the homophobes.  Whereas advocates of stoning and the like are now at the fringes of society in the West, in Russia under the new laws crazies now have police protection.  Moreover, often it is the police themselves carrying out beatings and intimidation.  One spokesperson claims that in the West things have gotten so decadent that they are now setting up brothels for sex with animals. 

Chief author of the anti-gay legislation criminalizing gay behavior in Russia is Vitaly Milonov, a member of the “United Russia” faction of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg.  He is shown near the end of the documentary in his office under the portrait of the Metropolitan Patriarch Kirill of  the Russian Orthodox Church.  “In Russia the majority of the people follow Christianity,” says Milonov, clearly intending that fact as justification for his political actions.  “And according to all the surveys, 85% or Russians support the law.” 

The New York Times reports a different set of figures.  They cite a study in which 45% percent of Russians surveyed thought gay men and lesbians should enjoy the same rights as all other Russians.   A slightly smaller number – 41% – declared they should not. (15% were undecided.)  

In an ABC News interview a couple days ago, George Stephanopoulos asked Putin about these laws.  Putin shot back with an aggressive counter-attack, saying, essentially, “Put your own house in order before you criticize us.”  He also attempted to make a distinction between protesting a law, which he insists is legal, and advocating homosexuality, which is not.  What the documentary shows is there is no practical way of making that distinction.  Russian police are breaking their own laws by arresting individual protesters standing alone.  They are supposed to be allowed to make their points without hindrance.  One activist carries a sign that reads “It’s OK to be gay.”  His sign is torn up and he is marched away.  Apparently if he had said simply laws saying it's not OK to be gay should be changed, he would not be breaking the law.  I wouldn't bet on it.  

Gay activist and lesbian Masha Gessen expresses concern that under the new laws children could be taken from their families.  The law affects her personally, since she is the mother of a young boy she adopted when he was two years old.   Because of her activism, she knows she could be targeted, and charged with one “administrative infraction” after another.  Once enough charges have accumulated, the state could step in and declare her an unfit mother and take her child away.   They could do this with biological children, just as easily, actually.  In the interim between her interview in the documentary and the Stephanopoulos interview, Masha Gessen has left Russia.

Putin may claim all he likes that Russian citizens are free to express themselves.  When gays and lesbians vote with their feet and emigrate out of fear, his words ring hollow.  It’s actually useful to watch the Putin interview and Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia back to back.   Beating gays up in the street and subjecting them to the “urine cure” could be dismissed as the work of thugs.  But watching the police dealing with protestors makes it clear just how hollow are Putin’s claims and removes any doubt that the international protests against Russia’s anti-gay laws are justified – if you still needed persuading.

Photo credits:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Two Lives (Zwei Leben) - A Review

I attended the opening night last night of this year’s Berlin and Beyond film festival, sponsored by the Goethe Institute of San Francisco and by Lufthansa.  The film chosen for the opening was Georg Maas’s Zwei Leben (Two Lives).

The film is not light entertainment.  It is exceedingly dark, right down to the shooting technique of placing characters in a claustrophobic setting and lighting little more than their faces, leaving most of the screen pitch black.  If you have the patience, however, the film will reward you in the end.

There is a good review of the film by Boyd van Hoeij available on The Hollywood Reporter, giving film details and explaining what the viewer is up against going in.  Because filmmaker Maas chose to make the kind of film that doesn’t insult an audience with too much explanation and simplification, and doesn’t tell a story chronologically, the audience has to work hard to figure out what’s going on.  That approach probably appeals to the sort of people who enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles.  For many, though, it’s a stretch.

There are other layers of difficulty.  The film addresses a historical wrong it clearly wants to put right.  That will lose the folks who will feel they are watching a message movie.   It’s a fictional account of a child born to a Norwegian woman and her lover, a German soldier of the occupation in 1941.   It was originally based on a considerably reworked unpublished book by Hannelore Hippe.  Full comprehension of the plot depends on a knowledge of the Cold War and the conflict between two divided and antagonistic Germanys, and events that took place at a time when twenty-five-year olds today were not yet even born.   Given the surprising number even of young Germans who cannot tell you who was on the two sides during the Second World War, and the fact that half of American high school kids cannot identify the Holocaust, this, I expect, will severely limit accessibility.

How many Americans under thirty know, for example, that Germany was divided into four zones and occupied by the British, Americans, French and Russians, that the zones of the first three became the West German Federal Republic and the Russian zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR – or DDR, in German.)  And that the west experienced an “economic miracle” early on, while the communist GDR became a police state with a “security service” known as the Stasi, which kept particularly close track of the comings and goings of its own citizens and brooked no dissent.

We know a lot these days about the NSA and their spying activities in the Warsaw Pact nations, including the GDR, but we know much less about how the West was infiltrated by GDR agents working abroad.

Zwei Leben is the story of a woman taken as a child from an orphanage and groomed to make her way to Norway to spy for the Stasi.  They were aided in this program by the fact that German soldiers had occupied Norway during World War II and left behind some 11,000 children from relationships with Norwegian women.  And because Hitler saw these children as useful in building the future of the Reich, he had them taken from their mothers and sent to Germany to be raised.  The birth rate in Germany wasn’t sufficient to his plans and these children, born to Aryan mothers, helped fill the gap.

An organization known as Lebensborn was set up outside of Munich in 1936, and in 1941 the first branch was set up in Norway.  Unmarried mothers, shunned by their family and neighbors for being collaborators, could find shelter and pre-natal care and give birth without social stigma.  The mothers were commonly “persuaded” to give up their children for adoption.  In the absence of any alternatives, most did.    There were nine such facilities in Norway (as well as two in Denmark, seven in Poland, and one each in France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg.)

Once you get past this exceedingly challenging wall of historical detail, the film opens into a powerful drama of a family dealing, forty-five years after war’s end (the film takes place in 1990), with having its wounds reopened, as it becomes the story of a girl who made her way across the Baltic first to Denmark and finally to Norway in search of her mother.  The mother, Åse Evensen, now a great-grandmother, is played by Liv Ullmann.  Watching her face throughout is one of the reasons one goes to the cinema. 

She is not the main character, though.  That role is the character of her daughter, Kristine, who we eventually discover has been working as a Stasi agent, played by Juliane Köhler (Aimée & Jaguar, Nowhere in Africa – she also played the role of Eva Braun in Downfall).   Also in this superb cast are the German action film hero Ken Duken (Max Manus, Inglorious Basterds) and Rainer Bock (White Ribbon, War Horse, Inglorious Basterds) and Norwegian actress Julia Bache-Wiig (A Somewhat Gentle Man, Max Manus), and one of Norway’s top-ranked actors, Sven Nordin (Elling).  

We have to choose between condemning Kristine for her deception and sympathizing with her for her growing sense of moral responsibility for it.

The clear villain of the story is the GDR.  They are no more, and cannot defend themselves, and no doubt that’s just the way everybody involved wants it.  What’s to defend of a country who might have exposed the Nazi crimes in its past, but manipulated them to its advantage, instead?

After taking perhaps three-fourths of the movie or more to set this all up, when the full complexity and the moral challenge of the daughter’s character are brought to the surface, the last half hour becomes a thriller.  I won’t spoil the ending, except to say you are brought back in a big way to the cause on which the plot is based.  So much of war’s injustice involves the shame of victims for just being victims.  Like the “comfort women” of Asia, to use the word preferred by the brutalizers (because it is also the word used by the media), pressed into prostitution by the occupying Japanese army, the “love children” of soldiers and women in countries they occupy, as well as the women themselves, are still climbing out of the shame.  With Nazi war criminals in their 90s, we feel a statute of limitations is nothing more than a further injustice, so we keep after these criminals till their dying day.

The women (also now in their 80s and 90s) and children of occupied nations torn from each other and forced to live a lifetime of shame are no less worthy of our dogged efforts to put right a wartime wrong.  Such, at least, is the message of Zwei Leben. 

The film was highly acclaimed in Germany, where it opened last September.  It has been nominated as Germany’s candidate for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming Oscars.   According to Maas, who was present at last night’s showing, it was less well received in Norway.  When asked why this is, the filmmaker could only speculate.  One Norwegian complained that he portrayed them as more vulnerable to espionage than they actually were.  That may have something to do with it.  And it would come as no surprise if the shame of so many Norwegian women still lingers.  Audiences were sparse, compared to audiences in Germany.  Which leads me to speculate that the shame associated with being part of an invader nation doesn’t rise to the level of shame associated with being part of a nation that is invaded.

When the movie comes to a close you are hard put to identify its genre.  It is a psychological drama, and a thriller.  It’s part action film, part didactic historical documentary, part courtroom drama.  And in the end, it’s a human drama about the yearning for family, love and security at all costs.  One that leaves you wondering whether it’s a cost you yourself would be willing to bear.

Photo credits:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

All good things

In 1996 I went to Italy with several friends and had one of the more memorable vacations of my lifetime.  Back in the 1960s, when I was in the army, my friend Jerry and I had traveled there.  We had little money and traveled on the cheap.  Jerry looked up one time at the villas in the hills outside Florence and said, “Let’s make a promise.  When we get rich, we’ll come back and stay in one of those villas.”  I agreed.

Early in 1996 Jerry wrote and asked me, “Are we rich yet?”

It seemed that we were.  At least I had a well-paying job and more money than I had ever had in my younger life.  It’s now or never, we decided.

For eighteen years, I have had a memento of that trip.  While in Florence, we came across a shop selling products by Labor Deruta.  I’d seen them around for years, and decided I’d buy one.   I chose a serving platter.   It was an extravagant purchase – cost me several hundred dollars, and the price of shipping it to Japan virtually doubled the cost.

I’ve treasured that plate all these years.  A couple of years ago, it got a chip in it.  That didn’t phase me.  The chip gave it character, and the imperfection made it fit better with my less-than-neat-and-tidy lifestyle.

Yesterday, the platter broke.  Don’t know how.  It doesn’t matter.

I had treated it with special care.  It got lots and lots of use.  I decided it was time to say good-bye to an old friend.  Taku wants to glue it back together, but I understand there’s a risk to putting food on chipped dishes.  I could put it on the wall, of course.  But that strikes me as an unworthy end for such a useful member of the household that gave us such pleasure.  I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I’ll find some proper way to dispose of it, I expect.  Maybe break it into tiny pieces and toss it off the pier at the Berkeley Marina, as we do with the ashes of friends.

I hate saying good-bye.  I've never been good at throwing away old shoes or giving old clothing to Goodwill.  This good-bye comes in the same week that I got the news that my first great love just died of a heart attack.   My first experience of going weak-kneed over another human being.  And it's hard to concentrate.   My head is filled with memory tapes running from nearly sixty years ago.  I'm surprised to find they're in such good condition.  I’m mourning the loss of one of my oldest friends.  And I’m mourning the loss of a treasured object that lived in my kitchen.  Time for some meditation on the fragility of life, on how all good things come to an end, and on the importance of making the most of things while they’re with you.  For the importance of counting blessings.  For recognizing how easy it is to see people as things and things as people.  For appreciating the heightened awareness than comes with melancholy.

And for showing some attention to the other chinaware in my kitchen now terrified they are about to be sacrificed along with their leader.

Wish I had never said aloud, “Time to throw all this junk out and buy new.”