Summer’s Labors Lost (and Won)

With the pride and satisfaction that comes with homeownership, there are also those inevitable moments of despair, self-doubt, and trepidation at the mountain of work that accompanies a disaster. During the summer of 2013, in the midst of what I had proclaimed would be “the good year,” Jaxon and I were tested twice—“consecutively” might be the better term—by our 1886 farmhouse, a home that has always been more a source of joy than vexation. But, this summer almost tipped those scales. As the year comes to a close, and as I kick myself a bit for not writing more on this blog, memories like this are important for reminding myself what, exactly, I was doing other than writing.

The first setback, though worse than we had expected, had been anticipated. Last year, we noticed water seeping in underneath the French doors that open out onto the backyard from our bedroom. Exploring things a little further, Jaxon found that the back deck, which had been attached by a previous owner, was pulling away from the house. We planned accordingly, knowing that we wouldn’t see the full extent of the damage until the entire wooden structure—deck and pergola—had been dismantled. But, the warning signs were pretty glaring, including a steady stream of carpenter ants into our kitchen during a very wet spring.

What we found

What we found

After the fix

After the fix

In mid-summer, we started the arduous task. On weekends, we began pulling off the lumber, discovering to our annoyance that it had been tacked together with an assortment of different screws and nails, most of which had begun to corrode since they were apparently not galvanized. Flush against the limestone foundation sat a pile of leftover hardy board side, left to rot and thus seep moisture into the basement walls. When it was all stripped away, we gazed in silent horror at a small, soggy gash in the side of our house—the rotted flesh of 300 year old redwood, with ants pouring out onto the sunbaked dirt on a 90-degree Sunday afternoon in July. The immediate tears and sagging shoulders gave way, though, to a plan of action. A contractor friend helped us with the work—replacing the damaged rim joist, installed a new sliding door, and adding a support beam in the basement that, inexplicably, had been removed at some point in the house’s past. The worst was over within a matter of a few weeks, and by mid-August we actually were excited about the prospect of re-imagining our backyard before snowfall. Not so fast.

The second disaster was a total surprise, and a demoralizing one at that. Just a few days after the sliding door had been installed, we both arrived home late in the afternoon, another high heat day when we planned to do some cleanup in the backyard and maybe grab a swim at the beach before nightfall. Instead, we were greeted by a cascade in the basement, a gushing stream of water that actually didn’t show a trace of damage behind the wall where it originated—everything just poured straight down through the floor.

What could we do? In short order, we tore out the wall, removed the sink and toilet, and found a plumber in the neighborhood who would repair the damaged piping. It was clear, though, that if we just patched the leak, we would be doomed to future recurrences, given the age of the galvanized pipes behind the wall. So—although exhausted already from the backyard and having spent most of our reserves already—we had little choice but to plunge into rebuilding and remodeling the bathroom. Another two months passed, but thanks to Jaxon and our plumber’s due diligence, the job was done right and the wall was rebuilt. Jaxon took his time to beautifully tile the bathtub and shower walls, and we hung a new sink (replacing the ancient fixture with a wobbly hot water tap that liked to splash our crotches). The wooden floor, slightly worn and burnt from the soldering of the pipes, was stained to look like planks from an old barn. In mid-October, with much relief, we moved back into our bathroom. I had no idea that such a displacement—sharing the upstairs facilities with our housemates and seeing our dining room filled with various toiletries for week after week—could have such a psychological effect. And, as is true with everything my beloved partner does, the end result was far better than what we’d had before the damage.

On that glorious August day...

On that glorious August day…

Better than before

Better than before

With new paint, lighting, and sink fixture to boot

With new paint, lighting, and sink fixture to boot

Did I mention the exquisite flooring?

Did I mention the exquisite flooring?

As for the backyard, we piled up the leftover lumber, shored up our temporary back steps, and let it sit until next spring. We’ll take the time to think through a more complete vision for the space, and then we’ll do it the right way. (I still want a hot tub.) I can’t help but love this house even more than before. Despite the best efforts of the shortsighted humans who have owned it over the years, this old structure—with bones of redwood—continues to endure and survive these slights. Part of why we both want to grow old here is the sense of obligation we feel toward this humble but grand old house. According to the abstract, the original structure was classified as a barn in 1886. In 1894, it was completed as a homestead. In 1897, the foundation and basement were added. Plumbing and electrical wiring were installed in 1907. A great deal of the original woodwork remains intact, and it’s beautiful. Moreover, our relationship to the house, and to each other, continues to grow richer both from the work we put in (especially Jaxon), and by the stories we gain from taking what was left to us and turning it into something better than we had before.

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Beyond Same-Sex Marriage?

Following the victory parties of May and the Pride parties of June, in Minnesota the wedding parties begin this week on August 1. Jaxon and I won’t be doing ours for at least a few years, but the sight of so many people celebrating, many who have been in relationships for decades, was incredibly moving. For me it was especially worthwhile to see the work started by activists in decades past—Jack Baker here in Minnesota, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon even before that—come to some fruition. Amid all the celebrations though, reflecting on this historic achievement has me fearing that for some, the achievement of marriage equality (both here and across the nation) represents the high point or ultimate goal of all those years of work. I fear that other important issues brought to light by GLBT organizers and advocates may be overshadowed, when history tells us something very different about the “homosexual agenda” in total.

A year ago, I did some historical research on the efforts of gay and lesbian activists to establish their own community centers and social services between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. I looked at news articles between 1969, when Stonewall occurred, and 1976, by which point it’s presumed that HIV had entered the U.S. and was spreading rapidly among gay men. Almost everyone who advised me on the project said, “I don’t think you’ll find much information.” Their assumption was that in the era of militant activism, bathhouses, and bars, far less attention was paid to the community’s health and social service needs. The article is due out in a journal this fall, so I won’t say much more about what I found. But—needless to say, I came across plenty of material. Almost from the moment Stonewall occurred, the impulse to build community spread across the nation, fueled in part by coverage in The Advocate and a small handful of other national publications as the time. The focus on human rights undoubtedly led the way, but it felt essential for many gay men and lesbians at the time to build space—community centers, gay-identified treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, sexual health clinics, and more.

What does that history tell us about today? I think it signifies that gaining acceptance in mainstream society is not enough. Queer communities still need spaces imagined, built, and opened for queer-identified people across a spectrum of ages, identities, and experiences. I had a respectful disagreement earlier this winter with a gay service provider, about ten years older than me, who said that among today’s youth, “It just won’t matter, everyone will be accepted. They don’t care if their friends are gay!” The limited information I’ve seen from queer youth studies—especially transgender youth—says something very different. School-based supports were helpful, but in at least one study, Asakura (2010) found a persistent desire among youth to have their own, dedicated queer-identified youth spaces. A recent report on the experiences of older LGBT adults in long-term care facilities details some of the difficulties our elders face as they experience declining health combined with the struggle to be “out” in the world of senior care services. There are still numerous unmet needs out there, and plenty of people who don’t have the support of a middle-class income, an affirming community, or family who welcome their GLBT identities. Marriage equality without a doubt helps many, but not all of us.

The campaign to gain marriage equality (and in Minnesota the preceding fight to oppose constitutional discrimination) served a valuable purpose in educating the larger public about the all-too-human challenges of living a queer-identified life in a heteronormative society. I think, however, there is more to learn. GLBT-identified support services gained their reputations in the community by emphasizing nonjudgmental, empathetic care delivered by people who could relate to the challenges their clients faced. Even in the age of Obamacare, reform of the health care system doesn’t guarantee that someone will find medical or social service support that is knowledgeable and affirming of a GLBT identity. If stigma and discriminatory attitudes among providers already play a role in determining whether queer people utilize the health care system (they do), then reforming the market system alone is not likely to diminish the numerous health disparities queer people still face. For me, the health and human service sector is the realm with the most immediate examples, but I know there must be others as well—social discrimination in the workplace, for example. But, I’ll save that for someone who is more knowledgeable in that arena.

So, beyond same-sex marriage, what is there for GLBT communities to do? Keep building, for starters. Despite the advances of social media, there is still a need for physical spaces, where our more vulnerable members can find safety and acceptance. There are organizations tackling a plethora of issues (HIV, sexual health, substance abuse, homelessness, etc.) that need volunteers, cold hard cash, and energy and imagination. Marriage equality has altered the course of history, in Minnesota and 11 other states at least. People of all ages have the opportunity to learn about the real ways we struggle and triumph in the context of non-traditional relationships. But, I humbly suggest we consider this to be a moment to celebrate before getting back to the long list of challenges still ahead.

What I Meant to Write Last Week, Only Surlier

Before the tragedy in Connecticut last week, my intention was to write about our short mid-week trip to Iowa. I was also going to get a wee bit political. Let’s see if I still can.

Toward the end of November, I had a pleasantly surprising phone call from a very dear friend. I’ve known Tony for about 10-plus years, going back to when we both interned/worked on contract for a small AIDS organization in Michigan. Although about 25 years my senior, he and I easily bonded and in some ways over time our relationship evolved from mentorship to something more fraternal as we both moved, changed jobs, and had various ups and downs with our relationships.

He and his partner Joe now live in upper Michigan, not far from Lake Superior and not too removed from Minnesota. With my school commitments, we haven’t seen much of each other in the last few years, but Tony called to tell us that they were traveling to Iowa to officially get married. With the latest election results, he concluded, federal recognition of same-sex marriage is an inevitability and, the sooner they have official paperwork, the more likely that in the future, social security survivor benefits will have to recognize that official marriage date. Additionally—and this was the most touching piece—Tony and Joe asked if Jaxon and I would come down to Iowa and serve as their official witnesses. It seemed fitting, both for our relative proximity and the way our personal and professional lives have been woven together over the past decade. To say the least, Jaxon and I were humbled and moved. We said yes.

The ceremony was pretty straightforward. The judge was extremely kind and cordial, and the recitation of vows went smoothly. To summarize: Tony and Joe promised to enter into a publicly-affirmed, legally binding (in Iowa) declaration of their commitment to one another. They promised to care for each other through hardship. They affirmed their intentions to remain committed to each other for the rest of their lives. They put their love for each other on paper, in a court of public law. To witness our friends make this commitment was a privilege.

Of course, a few days prior to this, one Supreme Court Justice, who will soon cast a vote determining whether or not the United States should recognize same-sex marriage, used the opportunity of a public confrontation (by a very brave gay college freshman) to re-affirm his view that the public has a right to label same-sex intimacy as morally reprehensible as murder. Now, I am not a Constitutional scholar, and without a doubt Antonin Scalia can argue me under the table when it comes to the Founders’ true intentions. Given the horrible nightmare Newtown, Connecticut, just endured, perhaps Justice Scalia simply needs a refresher in a couple key qualitative differences between same-sex coupling, and murder. Now I am aware that Scalia directed his comments toward “homosexual behavior,” but given how the arguments around homosexuality before the Court have coalesced around marriage equality, I am going to stick to that framework for my points below.

Difference #1: One involves consenting adults, agreeing to mutually support each other through life’s difficulties and highlights. The other involves taking human life, presumably without their consent.

Difference #2: Over time as people have gotten to know and grow familiar with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in their own families and communities, support for same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination measures have generally increased. Support for murdering other human beings (with the exception of our confounded tolerance of post-colonial warfare and the death penalty) has generally remained low over time, even when people have gotten to know the murderers in their communities.

Difference #3: There doesn’t need to be a Difference #3. But, apparently the distinction isn’t clear enough for others who share this man’s views. In the wake of Netwon, both James Dobson and Mike Huckabee boldly declared that society’s growing tolerance of gay people bore some of the blame for a twenty year-old, mentally ill loner taking several automatic weapons into an elementary school and hunting down its children, faculty, and staff. In their estimation, America (and we gay people specifically) have turned our backs on God.

I’m going to offer a slightly different interpretation: people who seek the right to marry a partner of the same gender (and frankly, people whose gender identities have changed since birth as well), and people who support these efforts may or may not recognize the God of Messrs. Scalia, Huckabee, and Dobson. But, increasingly I would say that Americans are turning away from huckster capitalists who use their increasingly outmoded platforms to try to bully and intimidate people into believing something that is contradicted by the evidence we collect in our own lives and experiences. Believe what you will about the Bible or any other sacred text. People have the ability to determine with their own eyes, ears, and feelings whether or not same-sex intimacy is morally reprehensible, and increasingly that evidence is making lay people question the unyielding authoritarian (yet increasingly desperate) huffing from evangelical radio and TV (or Rome for that matter). Where previously people could be bullied into believing warped depictions of individual misbehaviors or social outcasts, more and more they recognized their loved ones. Where people had previously viewed those who were different as somehow diseased and depraved, more now recognize and empathize with very human struggles and triumphs. Ultimately, in my opinion the depravity these men now rail against is in fact the continued withering irrelevance of their own overinflated control over a society that, while certainly flawed, is growing more keen to recognizing authentic struggles and basic unfairness. Those who are most threatened, I believe are those who have gained the most from systematically maintaining these inequalities.

I have no doubt how Antonin Scalia will vote in the arguments pertaining to same-sex marriage. His “originalist” perspective certainly affords him the opportunity to sit comfortably behind an orthodoxy that emphatically views the Founders’ words as final (even though they quite nakedly punted the moral issue of slavery down the field for future generations to resolve). But, the next time I see someone equate queer people to murder, I’ll remember last week. I’ll remember Tony and Joe, embracing before the judge and their two admiring friends, promising to love and honor each other for every day of their lives. I’ll remember the horror of Newtown that came too soon after. And, morally speaking. I am pretty confident that an increasingly abundant number of citizens will be able to recognize that the two events are not remotely equivalent.

Part 2 on Same-Sex Marriage

People who know me well won’t be surprised that I’m especially curious about the “collateral” impact of same-sex marriage fights on LGBT communities, so I’d love to hear if anyone has seen actual data on the issue as I’m describing it here. A couple months back, the executive director of a local nonprofit– one that was founded by and still heavily serves the LGBT community– commented to me that his organization was likely to see about a $200,000 drop this year in charitable contributions. Most of that money, he said, was going to the Vote No campaign, which we both agreed was necessary but raised a really vital concern for me, namely this:  When a community already has limited resources to care for its own, what is the impact on supportive services when capital is diverted to political defense efforts?

I can see a couple areas worth exploring. The first is charitable donations, which in a highly politicized climate often go to the most visible and widely covered causes. Second is health outcomes, where I know some research has been published previously on HIV/STI incidence in states that passed same-sex marriage bans. Recently when I did some historical research on early gay and lesbian social services (post-Stonewall through pre-AIDS), it really stood out that these charities survived on small donors and volunteers (often service consumers) until big grants arrived, but the private support would then become precarious because donors would move on to the next big problem area. With just my anecdotal observations to go on right now, it doesn’t seem all that different from what I see today.

I do think that the moment presented here is interesting in that same-sex marriage is closer to becoming a fact in Minnesota (and across the U.S.) than ever before. Yet, how much impact will that have on queer people who experience multiple stressors such as family rejection, homelessness, poor health, addiction, etc.? Forty years ago, activists were making the case that services were needed “by us and for us,” yet the resources to fully sustain them were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of need that turned up. Today– 31 years after AIDS was discovered– there are some channels for funding LGBT-affirming services, but not many. Aside from this point, I think that as queer communities continue to develop– in physical as well as online spaces– there is an inevitable conversation looming about what we most need in order to adequately take care of each other. I just hope that we don’t lose sight of these numerous health disparities in the public arguments ahead.

On the Minnesota Marriage Amendment

Although my academic schedule kept me out of the action for this past election, like most queer Minnesotans I watched the results with a mixture of anxiousness and anticipation and felt deeply proud when we became the first state to reject one of these divisive ballot initiatives.  I’m especially in awe of the organizers, volunteers, and donors who pulled off a smart, well-focused campaign.  A few thoughts linger with me in the aftermath, which I’ll try to share here as fully as possible.

I remember when my home state of Michigan passed one of these amendments, after I had already moved away.  Seeing the returns and the wide margin by which it passed felt like a shocking punch to the stomach– something that left me unsettled on several return visits afterward because I couldn’t help but wonder– who would be part of that 60% that voted to permanently deny same-sex couples equal marriage rights? On those trips I would quietly look around at strangers, at family members during reunions, at fellow football game attendees, and absorb that they had likely voted with the majority. It felt creepy– undermining my confidence in a number of ways and making it difficult to spend time in the state for very long.

Fast forward to the present, when yesterday my partner and I walked our dog through the neighborhood and noted several lingering orange “Vote No” signs lining the blocks. I wondered, how would today feel if Minnesota had followed the 31 other states to put LGBT marriage rights to a popular vote? Together we couldn’t quite come up with the words that would describe our feelings if this place– where we met, bought a home, and started building our careers– had made discrimination a constitutional mandate. There is still a lot of work ahead to get same-sex marriage legalized here, and I have lots of opinions on the other “unfinished” work of building a community that raises and nurtures healthier queer people from youth through old age. Today though, on a sunny afternoon with pleasant fall shadows hanging around me, what lingers is the sensation of a close brush with something deeper and more jarring, a narrow escape from the perilous prospect of waking up to question whether this home was still truly a home.