The Indigo Girls and their Boy
I was 12 when I first heard the Indigo Girls. I know it’s probably the worst cliché to begin an essay about the need for equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans by talking about the Indigo Girls, but dammit that’s where the story begins for me. I came to know about gay and lesbian people like most other sensitive kids who were into sensitive folk rock and came of age in the early 90s: through Emily Saliers and Amy Ray.
My cabin’s counselor was an undergrad at University of Georgia in Athens. It was 1990, and the Indigo Girls were touring the South while using Athens as their base. Each night, counselors were supposed to give devotionals to the campers before bed—a time for reflection. Ed, our counselor, mostly just played us Indigo Girls songs. The first song he played us was “Prince of Darkness.” Penned by Amy, it’s a song about deciding to use your life for something beneficial. It’s an obvious choice for a devotional.
My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark.
By grace, my sight grows stronger.
I do not feel the romance. I do not catch the spark.
By grace, my sight grows stronger.
And I will not be a pawn for the Prince of Darkness any longer.
Damn, that’s pure.
When you’re twelve, each day is a revelation; the world as you know it changes almost daily. I remember laying in my cot under the stairs of Pine Lodge, listening to their harmonies in the dark, flooded with their earnestness, thinking, “This changes everything.”
And, in some ways, it did.
On my way home from camp, I made my mom stop at a CD store (remember those?) and I bought the album for myself. I have bought every one of their 17 albums in the 21 years since then. It’s not overstating things to explain that the Indigo Girls have had more of an influence on my politics and worldview than any other band. I should probably explain that this is a high bar: if a band is not singing about current events, our shared obligations to one another, love, or politics, I’m not interested. In fourth grade, (my mom and) I did a report on musicians with social consciences. This is what happens when “We are the World” is one of the first songs a boy falls in love with. In high school, I was the guy listening to Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.
I don’t remember anyone explaining to me that the Indigo Girls were lesbians for a few years after I started listening to them. I can’t remember, but I don’t think Ed framed their music that way. I think I told someone they were my favorite band and they mentioned something about them being lesbians because I remember thinking, “WHAT? How did I not know that? I’m like their number one fan!” By the time I learned Amy and Emily were lesbians, they were too important to me to care whether they swung this way or that way. If liking, accepting, and admiring lesbians was wrong, I didn’t want to be right.
I grew up in Ashland, Kentucky. It’s not a backwards place, but it’s also not kind of place where a 12-year-old would know a bunch of gay and lesbian people in 1990. Not because there weren’t gay and lesbian people in my life; looking back, it’s obvious to me that I knew bunch of gay and lesbian adults. They just were never going to be out of the closet in Ashland, Kentucky in 1990.
Even though I didn’t know any gay or lesbian people personally, by the time I was in high school I knew enough (thanks to the Indigo Girls) to know bigotry and stand up to it. Our newspaper, the Ashland Daily Independent, often ran these “Heard on the Street” columns where reporters would go down to the Ashland Town Center Mall and ask regular people what they thought about an event in the news. Somehow, this counted as journalism. One time they asked people whether homosexuals should have the right to marry. I don’t remember all the responses, but I don’t think they were able to find someone who answered in the affirmative. I do remember one woman’s answer: she didn’t agree with gay marriage because if you allowed gays to marry each other, pretty soon people would be marrying their dogs.
(My mom and) I wrote a letter to the editor. I tried explaining that heterosexuals had proved to be pretty rotten at marriage (domestic violence, divorce rates, etc.) and speculated that it was time to give somebody else a shot. I tried explaining the logical fallacy in the woman’s opinion. And, I said I would much rather have a loving gay couple is my neighbor than a guy who beats his wife. Fifteen years later, I’m still proud of writing that letter.
A Jethro and his Boy
Jethro Nededog (his real name) was the first openly gay person I ever knew. After my freshman year in college, I studied Spanish at a New York University program in Madrid. Jethro was an NYU student who needed foreign language credits to graduate. I think I told Jethro he was my first gay friend. I think he took it upon himself to show me how ordinary gay people were. I think that’s why when I suggested camping out in an olive grove above Toledo, Jethro was the only one of my friends who took the bait.
For anyone considering camping out in Spain, here’s what you need to know: it gets ass-cold at night. Jethro and I were woefully—woefully—unprepared and it was all my fault. We had a couple of thin foam camp pads and a couple sheets. It must have been fifty degrees by 10 o’clock. This is how a kid from eastern Kentucky ends up spooning with a heavy set Californian of Guamanian/Filipino descent under an olive tree in Spain. To add to the absurdity, at around midnight, a discotheque just over the hill from us started bumping, so we shivered the night away to “Dancing Queen” and the medley from “Grease.” Amazingly, Jethro remained my friend after that disaster and we keep in touch through the magic of Twitter.
People like Jethro are the reason Republicans and social conservatives will lose. Jethro is funny, kind, up for any adventure, and quick to laugh; he’s a great storyteller and he listens well. In short, he’s exactly the kind of guy you want as a friend. As Jethro’s friend, I want him to enjoy the same rights and share the same obligations as I do in America. As more and more gay people become openly gay in America, more straight people like me realize just how many of their friends’ lives are affected by institutionalized, systematic inequality.
The Price of Being Gay
The ways in which our systems treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens have been well-documented elsewhere. They are not allowed to visit ailing partners in hospitals. They are not allowed to adopt children. Their marriages are not recognized in most jurisdictions and are not recognized by the federal government. They pay more for health insurance for their partners. They pay more in taxes. Until recently, they were not allowed to serve openly in our armed forces. This is how we treated men and women who are willing to die for a country that treats them like inferiors.
Each person is chafed by different aspects of the existing inequality. For me, it’s in the tax code. Erin and I paid $1,825 less in taxes last year because we filed as a married couple.
One-thousand, eight-hundred, and twenty-five dollars.
Just for being straight and getting hitched.
A gay couple, whose union is not recognized by the IRS, will pay a Gay Tax every year when they file their tax returns separately. Chuck Hendrix—the guy who prepares our taxes each year—has been filing separately from his partner for 27 years. I think this chafes me so badly because this Gay Tax is quantifiable. There it is: $1,825—the value the federal government places on me being straight and suave enough to get a girl. Over the next 35 years, if I invested $1,825 at 7% (the average rate of return of the S&P 500 since 1950), I would have an additional $289,000 in my retirement account. Just for being straight. No telling how much less Chuck has in his retirement account because he can't file jointly with his partner.
"Today, this is news. One day, it won't be."
Because our government treats homosexual couples differently than heterosexual couples, the ministers (Derek and Ryan) at my church asked the congregation’s blessing to stop signing civil marriage licenses until they could sign civil marriage licenses for couples regardless of their sexuality. The church Erin and I go to is an Open and Affirming Church in the Disciples of Christ denomination. It was one of the reasons we joined.
As an Open and Affirming community of faith, we believe God calls all people, regardless of sexuality, into communion with God and welcomes them into a life of discipleship. Christianity has been used to exclude, marginalize, and oppress for centuries and we think it’s time that stopped. Erin and I think the Bible is pretty clear on that point.
So, one afternoon after church our congregation voted to endorse our ministers’ decisions not to participate in a secular system of marriage that is only available to some of our members. If we can’t confer the civil benefits of being married on all our members, we won’t confer them on anyone. We’ll marry anyone in the eyes of God, but straight people can go to the courthouse to get their civil marriage licenses.
We voted and we wrote a press release. The Courier-Journal wrote an article. The LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer) wrote about it. A local TV station interviewed our ministers. And then the story hit the wires. Emails of support and gratitude came in from around the world. Think Progress wrote a nice article. And then MSNBC called. Five days after we voted, Contessa Brewer interviewed our minister on her daytime show. As I told my minister, “Today, this is news. One day, it won’t be.”
I believe that. I believe that one day—hopefully one day soon—the fact that a church treats everyone the same regardless of their sexual orientation will not be newsworthy.
But, it’s not guaranteed. That’s what’s hard for me to remember. Too hard for me to remember.
Not There Yet
The long march toward equality for homosexuals can seem almost inexorable, inevitable. Polling among young people shows that it is apparently only a matter of time before bigotry becomes politically untenable. When a Republican (admittedly, a Republican from New York, so not really a Republican) says something like this, it feels like victory is assured:
You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I’m trying to do the right thing, and that’s where I’m going with this.
Small victories are all around us—but big injustices still exist. Ironically and inappropriately, instead of being emboldened to become more active in the gay rights movement, I find myself reacting to the movement’s small victories by adopting a mindset that says it’s only a matter of time until everyone in America enjoys equal justice under the law. Seeing progress as inevitable is seeing myself as unnecessary. Seeing progress as inevitable justifies my own inaction.
In many ways, it feels like we’ve already won.
We haven’t. I find myself needing to remind myself that progress is not guaranteed. Human societies often take a leap forward in the expansiveness of their thinking, adopting new understandings of community, family, and the role of government, only to fall backwards for decades or centuries. I know that the arc of the moral universe is long and that it bends toward justice, but it’s the humans that do that bending. That’s what I have to remember to remember.
That’s what this essay is for. This essay is to remind myself of the gays and lesbians I have loved and still love and to remind myself that my love for them is not enough. America and Kentucky still treat them with distain, still codify their difference, still tax them for who they love. And, this essay is to remind myself that despite America’s great strides forward, continued progress forward is not guaranteed but is my (our) responsibility.
So, what am I going to do?
1) I’m going to publish this essay.
2) I’m going to keep going to an Open and Affirming church.
3) Each year, I’m going to ask my tax guy how much Erin and I saved by filing as a married couple and I’m going to donate that money to organizations (like Fairness Campaign) and churches (like Douglass Boulevard Christian Church) and politicians (like John Yarmuth) who support equal treatment for all Americans, regardless of their sexuality.
I’ll go to marches. I’ll lobby in Frankfort. But, money matters. Money allows Fairness to hire more full-time staff; money allows Douglass to continue to minister (both to people and other Disciples of Christ churches); money allows John Yarmuth to stay in Washington, ready to vote to repeal DOMA when the votes are finally there.
The $1,825 Erin and I saved last year for being straight is ill-gotten gains. It’s a kickback from an unjust system. If every straight person who supports the equality of their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers gave this money to like-minded organizations and politicians, we would rapidly expand our capacity to extend justice to gay and lesbian Americans. We would make bigotry politically untenable much more quickly.
The day can’t come soon enough. Not just for gay and lesbian people, but for straight people, as well. The persistence of injustice reduces us all.
The Power of Two
Erin and I recently attended a wedding on the top floor of the Muhammad Ali Center. Today, Muhammad Ali is remembered in his hometown as much for his peacemaking work and his attempts to make America confront its unjust and oppressive systems as he is for his fighting. Before the ceremony, Erin and I were enjoying the sunset on the balcony overlooking the Ohio River. Somewhere in the muddy foundation of the river was Muhammad Ali’s gold medal. Perched above Louisville, an orange light, a warm breeze, my wife: the scene was perfect.
Except six stories below, gays, lesbians, and their allies had gathered for their annual Pride Festival. As Mark and Sarah swore their life-long commitment to one another, thousands of gays and lesbians stood, literally, in the background hoping one day for the same opportunity. I felt like a rich man in a developing country must as he stands at his penthouse balcony and looks across his city at the oppressive slums below.
For me, Erin’s love and our marriage is a daily miracle. It is my only wealth.
I know that some opponents of marriage equality say that gay marriage will destroy the value of their marriage. I feel the same way, except opposite. That I enjoy socially-conferred and state-sponsored benefits that my gay and lesbian friends cannot diminishes my marriage. As I survey the landscape from my penthouse of privilege, I want to see opportunity, not oppression.
We will not end the government-sanctioned marginalization of gays and lesbians without pain and effort. More gold medals need to hit the water and more gold coins need to hit the coffers of those organizations that support equal rights for all.
It is clear that we are turning the tide—quickly—in this fight. Much of it is due to the bravery of gays and lesbians who live their lives and love openly. Knowing that you have a friend or family member being directly harmed by the government’s unjust policies forces people to reconsider their apathy or antipathy.
More and more, people are beginning to see the moral poverty of the current arrangement and longing for justice for their co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Life, we know, is hard enough without unfair tax structures and government-sanctioned marginalization. Everyone should have a partner to help bear their burdens and magnify their joys. Everyone should be able to multiply life by the power of two.