Friday, May 30, 2008

Traveling and the human condition

Well, I have just returned from some research-related travel, and I had a great series of seatmates on my flights.

As I made my way onto the plane for my first flight, I saw my seatmate already sitting in his assigned seat. An older teen boy with earbuds pumping out music loud enough I could already hear it and a classic black rock t-shirt, he looked awkward and nervous. And, I thought, possibly he seemed a little developmentally delayed or autistic. Sure enough, as soon as I sat down, he blurted out, "This is my first flight by myself." He went on to tell me about his fear of takeoff, so we chatted and channeled his interest elsewhere... favorite band, favorite Harry Potter book, why he was traveling, etc. We talked about his plans for college, where, he noted incredulously, "they will pay for me to go, as long as I keep my grades up!" He was sweet and funny, and we chatted on and off throughout the trip.

Once we landed at the hub, it turned out we were on the same flight to our final destination. We went to the food court and ate supper together, and then took our seats apart (mine towards the front and his in the back) for the flight. As we made our way back on the plane, he said, "My parents were so worried that I was traveling alone. But I'm not. I'm with you!"

When we landed, I was one of the first people to disembark. I saw a woman crying as I came up the jetway. She approached me as I came off the plane and demanded, "Which flight is this? Where are you coming from?" When I confirmed that it was the flight she was waiting for, she began crying anew, saying that she had been so worried that she would miss her son, who was arriving on this flight. "He is a 19-year-old autistic boy, for God's sake, and he is flying all alone!"

"Is his name [X]?" I asked.

Her eyes grew wide and she nodded. I assured her that he was on the plane, towards the back, and that he should be deplaning shortly. She was still surprised, but happy, and I left her waiting for him. I saw them together later, when we were all getting our bags. He sat by me as we waited for the bags to start down the carousel, but I never actually got to introduce myself to his mother.

As I stood waiting to board the first leg of my flight home, I spoke with another woman passenger at the gate. It was a short, friendly conversation, the kind you have while passing time in a small space together. I was surprised when I approached my seat to see that the same woman was actually my seatmate. Following up on our earlier conversation, we discussed politics, family stuff, and the cultures in different parts of the US. She told me about her late husband, who had died fairly young 2 years earlier, and how her young adult children were making sure she continued to travel and stay engaged. She noted how much she sometimes envied her friends who were traveling and enjoying their retirement with their spouses. She told me how she felt cheated out of those "golden years" with her spouse. Nonetheless, she was funny and kind, and I enjoyed her very much.

My last seatmate was something of a surprise. When I first came onboard, he was in my seat. When I pointed that out, he noted that he had changed seats with another passenger who had a friend onboard, and he wasn't sure which seat he was supposed to take. As we settled in, I looked him over--ball cap, casual wear, tan lined face--and immediately thought, "I'll bet he's a farmer." I also assumed that he was likely a conservative. It turns out I was wrong on both accounts; I came to find out that he was a retired minister in a denomination I am familiar with, and he was at least liberal in his politics.

When I came out to him, he disclosed that his adult son was gay. We discussed another minister we both knew to whom he felt a special connection because his children were also gay. He explained that he didn't have a religious issue with homosexuality.

He has faced a number of obstacles in his life. He quit the ministry when his wife fell ill, and he currently holds 2 jobs while he provides support for his adult daughter who is developmentally delayed. "She doesn't like to be called retarded," he confided. His shyness and Western reserve showed through when he noted, "People don't normally like me right off. It usually takes a few months before church members get to know me, before they get comfortable with who I am." He was glad not to be serving a church any longer.

I came home so impressed with all three of my seatmates, each making their way through a world that has probably hurt and challenged them in different ways. Their stories were poignant and led me to consider how much people can manage and overcome. These experiences made me think about human frailty and resilience, the commonalities we share, the ways we differ, and the companionship we can provide for one another by recognizing one another and sharing a conversation.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The politics of conferencing

Well, this is an interesting conundrum. The Chronicle has an article about the debate going on in the American Political Science Association (APSA) about an upcoming conference in 2012 scheduled for New Orleans. The "gay and lesbian activists" are raising concerns and asking for a change of conference venue due to the extremely harsh nature of the Lousiana anti-gay defense of marriage amendment (DOMA) that "forbids state agencies to recognize 'marriage or the legal incidents thereof' for homosexual couples." This could mean that a gay man in a domestic partnership in New Jersey who falls ill at the conference could not depend on hospitals to recognize the rights of his partner.

That is a very real concern, I suppose, but aren't there similar DOMAs in states all over the country? HRC notes that as of January of this year,"39 states have DOMA-like laws and three have state constitutional amendments that define marriage as between a man and a woman." So, we only hold conferences in Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, and Hawaii--along with five others in the northeast and DC? I mean, that could be okay, I suppose, if not a little redundant after a while. And those of us who live in the Midwest will be paying VERY HIGH plane fare to get to all these coastal conferences. And we lose the opportunity to learn about new places, experience different cultures, and get some good travel in.

And I am not sure that all the change of venue makes sense or is appropriate. A durable health care power of attorney is recognized throughout the US. You can identify anyone as the power of attorney. We should all have these if we travel, even if we are lucky enough to be married queers in Massachusetts. (I say this acknowledging that as I travel now, I have not completed even the most basic necessary legal paperwork--will, power of attorney, etc. I know, I know...It is on my to-do list. Note to the gf: Honey, should you need this, this blog is a declaration that you have my healthcare power of attorney!!)

But I want to ask the (predominantly white???) queers in APSA: What about helping out the economy of the ravaged New Orleans community? What about going and participating in some community development and rebuilding in low-income, predominantly black communities? If you would volunteer to go as a part of a work team, why wouldn't you go for a conference? And you can even focus on the needs of LGBT folks. Queer folks in New Orleans need support and community as well. But more important to me, we need to be allies to one another--not just focused on queer issues. The experiences and needs of low-income straight people in New Orleans matters to me, and I need to sometimes make decisions that focus more on their needs than my own. I am especially moved by the recent writing of the Urban League and others on the travesties of Katrina and the ways they have differentially affected low-income African American residents. Our government has not done what is needed; shouldn't we go and do what we can, and educate ourselves about what needs to be done, so as to better advocate for these residents?

Perhaps this is different for me, because I am not from California or New York, where those quoted happen to live. I am in the heart of a red state, and our relationships are already unrecognized. We live with these issues every day.

My own discipline has an upcoming conference in New Orleans, and I will most certainly attend. (Perhaps that will spur me to complete the damn paperwork.... Yet, my own state does not promise me legal protections or recognize my relationship. So, traveling will not make a difference in this way.) It does offer a way to contribute to the New Orleans economy, to join in on some service projects while I am there, and to see myself in solidarity with people in need. And perhaps I can raise awareness about the issues facing LGBT people in New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana with my straight allies while I am there!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Saying goodbye to ALL the graduates

It is that time again... students are leaving after completing their degrees. I have had three graduation events this weekend, and I am both inspired and pretty tired! I am always touched by the ceremonies where we get a better and deeper sense of who our students are and what makes them tick by seeking them with their families and friends.

Students speakers are instructive, as well. We usually hear confirmation of our suspicions about hastily written papers, excessive partying, anxiety about the future, etc., but we also learn about their hopes and dreams in a new way.

When I spend time before and after these graduation events greeting the students and their families and friends, I am struck by how different the students are from one another. Academically, however, they tend to fall into groups for me: the plodders, the stars, the lucky, and the surprises.

Most students are plodders. I don't mean this naming in a negative way. These students make their way through the program in a fairly straightforward manner: going to classes, turning in assignments done fairly well and on time, and negotiating the pressures of partying and personal issues to get through with their heads above water. Some have to work a little harder than others to get by, but they are solid A/B students.

There are a few stars that clearly excel--turning in work that is incredible, seeking out opportunities to gain extra experience in research or workplace settings, doing copious amounts of volunteer work, etc. Straight A students, they are the ones who receive awards, scholarships, and kudos in every arena.

Then there are those lucky few every year who I am surprised to see on the graduation stage, as we recognize that they managed to finish the program. Just a little more industrious than their brothers and sisters who have failed, they get by with C's and D's on the weakest effort and/or battling the fiercest demons. Sometimes I am proud of them, especially if they overcame very difficult circumstances, but most often I am reminded how low the bar can be pushed.

I spent most of my high school and college years as a plodder, though I would also say that I was occasionally one of the lucky ones who made it by the skin of my teeth. It was not until my doctoral program that I began to stand out (and feel smart and capable) in any way. I would never claim to be a star, but I do think that I am at my best--in terms of scholarship, administration, and leadership in the field--in the last 5 years.

I am perhaps my own best example of the fourth type of student: the surprise. That student changes over the course of their time in the program, often from one of the lucky, to a plodder, and perhaps, to a star. What is best about surprises is that they remind me that no one is stuck (or safe) in the category they may embody at graduation. Stars can sometimes fall, and the lucky student who barely got through may find a job in which they become a star. College was just one phase of these students' lives; there will be so many more.

I wish all the best of luck to all of our graduates. Whoever you are, this is an achievement.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A "suspect class" a good way!

I am so pleased with the California Supreme Court's decision, I could just smile all weekend!

This decision reminds me of the Lawrence v. Texas majority decision by Justice Kennedy, who noted, "The (gay male) petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime." That important US Supreme Court decision reversed the execrable decision in Bowers v Hardwick and recognized the humanity of lesbians and gay men.

This decision in California is the first to recognize that gay men and lesbians are (1) targets of discrimination, whose (2) identities as gay and lesbian people are not just based on some random or flawed decision or behavior but actually an identity like race, ethnicity, gender, and religion, and (3) that discrimination against us in the law should be reviewed using the most stringent critical view. This approach is called "strict scrutiny."

The Court explains:
Because sexual orientation, like gender, race, or religion, is a characteristic that frequently has been the basis for biased and improperly stereotypical treatment and that generally bears no relation to an individual’s ability to perform or contribute to society, it is appropriate for courts to evaluate with great care and with considerable skepticism any statute that embodies such a classification.

Using this approach to review, the Court asks the state to have an especially compelling reason for enacting and maintaining a law that discriminates against a specific class of its citizens. A majority of the California justices found that the state's rationale was just not good enough.

The California Court states: contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual’s
capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with
another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not
depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation, and, more generally, that an
individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not
constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights. We
therefore conclude that in view of the substance and significance of the
fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the
California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic
civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex
couples as well as to opposite-sex couples.

In some ways, this case was a double loss for our opponents. Not only did they lose on the marriage issue, they lost on their desire to promote homosexuality as only (aberrant) behavior. Sexual orientation and identity include sexual behavior, but they are not limited to sexual acts or even sexual desire. The Court acknowledged this in their recognition of gay men and lesbian as a "suspect class."

Further, the decision recognized what many same-sex couples in New Jersey, California, and Vermont have known: marriages and civil unions are not the same. Even when steps are taken to provide the practical benefits of marriage to members of a civil union, such as hospital visitation and medical decisionmaking rights, these do not equal marriage.

To read more from people with much more legal knowledge than I, check out Slate magazine's blog.


As we discussed the decision, the gf and I were reminiscing about our history together and the development of gay and lesbian rights in our country. We got together shortly before the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in DC, which we attended together in our best dyke t-shirts and fanny packs. It was a heady moment: flush with new love and the election of Bill Clinton into the White House, we felt that change was sure to happen. We will both forever remember riding up the escalator from the Metro with hundred of other LGBT folks, chanting and shouting as we made our way to the march. It was an amazing sense of community and opportunity.

It didn't all work out, of course. Yes, Clinton issued an executive order outlawing discrimination against federal employees based on sexual orientation, appointed a gay man as an ambassador, and a lesbian as the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a pretty big fiasco, and ENDA and other bills just never made the cut in his administration. But at least we believed that we had a friend in the White House, someone who wasn't completely freaked out by our identities. Eventually, we grew more and more disillusioned with what seemed to be a sqandered Presidency. Yet, even during that time, the gf and I saw our relationship grow and flourish. We held a commitment ceremony during his administration, attended by more than 100 friends and family.

We celebrated Lawrence v. Texas a decade after that national march in June 2003, crying at the recognition of our humanity by the highest court in the country, and shouting at the reversal of Bowers, which had been decided when I was in my late teens and she was in her early twenties. That decision had left an ugly mark on our lives, one which we still strive to erase from our psyches. A few months later, in November 2004, we watched as the Massachusetts Supreme Court announced that barring same-sex couples from marrying violated the State Constitution. And then today, she called me at work to let me know about the California decision. We rejoiced with friends over supper, noting the importance and meaning of being recognized as a "suspect class," as people who deserve equality under the law.

The state and federal courts have been important in our lives as lesbians in the US, even though we have not ever lived in a state that allowed gay marriage or even civil unions. These decisions affect our well-being, our relationship, and our sense of ourselves as valued and respected residents and citizens of the US. These positive decisions bolster us in our lives, in our love, and in our connection to our community and our country.

Today, I am hopeful.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Party time--or not?

Well, school is almost out for me. I always wonder how to spend the last class. (A note: I rarely if ever give finals, so there is no need for a last class review session.) I have done everything from (1) treating it like just another class--often a time for final student presentations and course evaluations, (2) using it as a time for reflection and celebration (in class), (3) inviting students to my home, or (4) going out for lunch/dinner/snacks.

Students do seem to like doing something special for the last class. I like it very much myself, because it helps give a sense of closure. We often talk about next steps in their lives, questions they want to ask about the discipline and academic life, ideas for improving the course, etc. It is lively, fun, and allows us to engage more about who they are--and not just their academic performance--for a short time. I still maintain my role as teacher and facilitator, but I am more jovial and open with them.

In one of my earliest courses, we had a party in the classroom on the last day where everyone brought food, and I wrote short notes for each student describing their strengths and ways in which I had seen them grow. The class went well, but it took a lot of energy and creativity to write 25 different notes. Therefore, while it is a wonderful idea, I have not repeated that exercise.

The in-class party is fun, but it is sometimes a challenge for students to bring food anyone actually wants to eat. Many first and second-year students don't have much access to kitchens, and even some older students cannot cook. Further, if they are on campus, they have trouble storing food until the class actually meets. I find these gatherings wind up with 14 different kinds of chips and cookies... anything easily bought. It takes my coordination to insure that we actually have some stuff that works. And, to top it all off, I don't like cooking, either.

I have gone with students to restaurants, but issues always arise about what students can afford. I usually purchase some appetizers for everyone to share, but I won't cover the costs of meals or alcohol (ever).

Actually, alcohol raises a particular issue. I have gone back and forth about whether to allow students to drink at these out-of-class, end-of-semester gatherings, and whether to drink when I am with them. I used to be a hard-liner on this issue: I would never drink with students. But as I have to encounter students in so many settings, including picnics, award ceremonies, and fundraisers at a local restaurant or bar, it has gotten a little harder to enforce. If I feel the drinking is a problem or the students are drinking too much, I will often try to leave early. I also will try to mention to my undergrads that these are professional settings in many ways, and that they should not drink like they are partying with friends. (Of course, there are times when I wish I could say the same to my colleagues.)
I feel less concerned about sharing a drink with students who are older--doctoral students, nontraditional undergrads. But even when I know my undergrads are of legal drinking age, I worry about the message it sends. It feels wrong to have a drink during what would have been a class period, even though (had we stayed in the classroom) it still would have been a party and not a class, per se. It also makes me concerned about people in recovery and the idea that I might be furthering the social agenda of booze purveyors--i.e., it isn't a celebration unless we are drinking. I don't agree with that at all. That said, I am not Carrie Nation, and I am okay with people drinking responsibly.
Ah, well. The answer to my alcohol question could be to stay on my alcohol-free (except for approved special occasions) campus. Or perhaps I should just lighten up and not worry about policing my students' behavior. But I think I will still try to walk that line between responsibility and celebration. It is a pretty thin line.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The gods must be crazy

Okay, I don't normally write about personal things... and that trend will continue. :-)

But I do need to say that the gods seem to be conspiring against me getting anything done--including blogging--or (I can hardly imagine) getting ahead of the game. So, I will get back to meaningful blogging as soon as feasible.

Hope your semester has ended/ends well!