Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Discovering BCAM

I spent a pleasant afternoon visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), including the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), designed by Renzo Piano. It's a cool new addition to LA's architectural scene. The basic form of the building is large and rectangular, with sand-colored stone walls, making it coherent with the adjacent Ahmanson Building (the original part of the evolving LACMA campus), but the walls are dramatically sliced by the diagonal lines of exterior staircases and the vertical lines of their steel girder supports, all painted a bright orange-red. These are visually complimented by the greens and organic lines of palm trees and ferns. The extrusion of the structural forms made me think of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, where the stairs, plumbing and venting are all exposed on the exterior. But the Pompidou Centre is gritty and industrial looking, while BCAM's whimsical colors and architectural lines render the idea with beauty and charm. (I didn't realize until later that the Pompidou Centre was a much older project by the same architect.)

An escalator leads from the entry plaza right up to the top floor, inviting you to enter the building in an unconventional way, preparing you to expect something different. Upon entering, one of the first things you see is a kind of graphic mural lining a large shaft from the top of the tall ceiling dropping below the floor. When looking down and seeing an orange metal platform way below us rising up, we realized with a small shock of revelation that we were looking at an elevator shaft. The glass-doored elevator car is monumental (21 feet tall and wider than tall), and moves through that artwork. (As my friend Kraig remarked, it's almost worth the price of admission to see the elevator.) The galleries on the top floor were generously large, open, and well-lit, and nicely presented an collection of modern sculpture and paintings. (Many of the works themselves are quite sizeable, so it is helpful to have such an ample space to view them in.) Some of them are amusingly whimsical (like the giant blue balloon dog and the giant cracked red egg shell), some are just odd (a bust of Louis XIV in chrome), some are classic (the Warhols and Lichtensteins), and some are just not my thing (like the blank canvas with plain block letters that said something like "There are no ideas in this painting", to which I thought, "clearly true"). The middle floor of the museum is not open yet, and the bottom floor contained a pair of monumental sculptures by Richard Serra called "Band" and "Sequence". While it may seem extravagant to have a 20,000 square foot gallery dedicated to just two sculptures, they are seriously cool. The sculptures are giant ribbons of brown steel that wind around and in upon themselves, creating surreal spaces and corridors. The curving flow of the steel walls invites you to follow them around to see where they will lead, and the walls lean in at times and out at others, playing with your sense of space. (The curved and leaning walls are reminiscent of the Disney Hall, but on a more intimate scale, and with a softer more organic color and texture rather than gleaming shiny aluminum.) With "Sequence" especially, the continuously curvy corridors were surprisingly long, making us feel like we were walking on some kind of hyper-Moebius strip. That was definitely worth the admission.

The BCAM is connected via a promenade to the old Ahmanson Building, creating a new entry plaza. The plaza is graced by an art installation by Chris Burden called "Urban Light", an arrangement of streetlamps placed unusually close together to form colonnades by their repetition and variation. The Ahmanson Building has been reconfigured to facilitate movement between a new west entrance (from the new campus) to the old east entrance (to the Times Courtyard) on a higher floor. The central atrium now has a grand staircase between those two, and the open multi-floor atrium is now dominated by a cool monumental Tony Smith sculpture called "Smoke". One thing I do miss is that where the upper floors used to all open onto the atrium, they are now closed off. But overall, I'm liking the new additions to LACMA.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tackling the Pope on the Proper Ecology of Man

Earlier this week, the Pope delivered a Christmas meditation on joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. But as is becoming a Christmas tradition with him, he couldn't pass an opportunity to scold against homosexuality as a sign of all the world's ills. Last year, we were an obstacle to world peace. This year, we're an ecological disaster, akin to the destruction of the rainforests. Like last year, the Pope's blind spot about gays leads him astray from the proper implications of his own words.

He starts from a graceful exposition of Natural Law doctrine:
The ultimate foundation for our responsibility towards the earth rests on our beliefs about creation. The earth is not simply our possession which we can plunder according to our interests and desires. It is rather a gift of the Creator who has designed its intrinsic laws and with this has given us the basic directions for us to adhere as stewards of his creation. The fact that the earth, the cosmos, mirror the Creator Spirit, clearly means that their rational structures which, transcending the mathematical order, become almost palpable in our experience, bear within themselves an ethical orientation. The Spirit which has formed them, is more than mathematics, he is the Good in person, using the language of creation, and points us to the way of right living.

Since faith in the Creator is an essential part of the Christian Credo, the Church cannot and should not confine itself to passing on the message of salvation alone. It has a responsibility for the created order and ought to make this responsibility prevail, even in public. And in so doing, it ought to safeguard not only the earth, water, and air as gifts of creation, belonging to everyone. It ought also to protect man against the destruction of himself. What is necessary is a kind of ecology of man, understood in the correct sense.
Unfortunately, that's where Benedict takes the traditional wrong turn, with the overly simplistic claim that bonding in heterosexual matrimony is a universal moral imperative. His analogy to forest conservation calls to mind the evolution of that science. Where we once approached conservation with the idea that we should protect the trees from all threats, we have since come to realize that some "threats", including fires, are actually a part of the natural process, essential to the long-term maintenance of the forest ecosystem. If we were to apply Benedict's philosophy to forest conservation, we would take every possible step to put out forest fires (including naturally caused ones), and we would do all we could to ensure that every acorn that fell had the opportunity to germinate into a full-grown tree. But this would be completely unnatural. In the delicately balanced complex ecosystem, undergrowth keeps too many acorns from sprouting too densely, while occasional fires keep the undergrowth from getting out of hand and allow certain other plants to germinate. We understand this now.

With such an understanding in mind, the more rational approach for a "proper ecology of man" would be to recognize that man thrives in a complex society where different people make different contributions using their different talents, and not all people are called to the same end. With regard to the propagation of a societal species like ours, there is no justification for the claim that each and every individual has a duty to mate and reproduce. Many mate and reproduce, but some make other contributions to the furtherance of humankind, like teaching, caring for the sick and infirm, creating works of art, progressing science, and otherwise supporting families and society. Need I mention priests? It is really the height of blind arrogance that a celibate man addressing a curia composed entirely of celibate men could pontificate so obtusely about the moral call of all humans to mate, with such a glaring counterexample right in front of him. And as if this weren't enough, Benedict, in his 4th point of this very speech, cites 1 Corinthians 12. That whole chapter is an eloquent conceit on the Church as the body of Christ, with each member working with different gifts, just as each part of a body contributes differently to the whole:
If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
It defies reason how Benedict can cite this very scripture in a speech insisting that all parts of the body should be reproductive organs.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

BOOKS: The Wordy Shipmates

I'd always enjoyed Sarah Vowell's segments on This American Life, so I expected I would enjoy her books as well. Reading her latest, The Wordy Shipmates, I was as delighted as I hoped to be. Vowell has a deep appreciation for history, a keen eye for irony, and a sharp wit. Her distinctive charm is her voice, both figuratively and literally. Her speaking voice has the innocent earnestness of a Peanuts character, while her "voice" is incisively sardonic commentary, rich with wacky metaphors and ironic juxtapositions. The combination is masterful deadpan. My only worry was that even great deadpan, unbroken, would get monotonous, but it was not so. Her wry observations were leavened with sincere ones, and her passion for the subjects of her study was all the more contagious for her truly earnest moments.

The subject of this book was the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts, a subject made quite fascinating by her expositions of different facets of their story. I learned much (for instance, I never before appreciated the differences between the Pilgrims and the Puritans), and was introduced to great characters -- John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson -- of whom I had known little more than their names. Vowell's sketches, while sardonic, are also well-grounded in source material, which is often quoted. In the audio book, read by Vowell herself, the quoted parts are read by actors, an interesting effect, as you get to recognize the voices after a while. Rather than a strictly chronological sequence, she presents a series of expositions on different characters and themes, which interlock and reinforce one another to paint a full history by the end. Unlike most historians who endeavor to be objective and detached, Vowell wears her distinctive point of view on her sleeve. She relates personal anecdotes and sentiments reflecting her subject, and at times makes ironic juxtapositions with more modern events with an unabashed subjectivity. For instance, her meditations on the theme of a "city on a hill", articulated in a famous sermon by John Winthrop, recur in accounts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but also jump to Reagan and Kennedy and other brief excursions into American exceptionalism. I don't see this as detracting from the history at all, in fact, it makes it more memorable. Just as a columnist with an explicit viewpoint can be just as illuminating and credible as an "objective" journalist, so is Vowell's style of history as illuminating and credible as a drier scholarly history. Her distinctive retelling of their stories brings these historical characters to life. A greatly entertaining and educational read.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Boycotts, Betrayal, and Business

Over the weekend, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about Margie Christofferson, the unfortunate longtime manager and hostess at El Coyote Café on Beverly. Following the instruction of her Mormon church, she donated $100 toward the Yes on 8 campaign. When her name was discovered on a donor list, a disproportionate barrage of gay outrage was directed at her and at El Coyote, leading to email and website calls to boycott the restaurant, and protest demonstrations outside the landmark venue. I have a variety of mixed feelings about this.

For one, I think it's clearly disproportionate. While any donation toward injustice is regrettable, a great many people gave much larger donations than Christofferson's $100, and few if any have received the same focused wrath. Moreover, her donation was personal and not made on behalf of El Coyote. True, she is the daughter of the owner, and the public face of the restaurant. But the restaurant, as Lopez notes, has 89 employees, many of them gay. A couple of other managers pooled together a several hundred dollar donation to Equality California, and the donations of other employees to No on 8 may well have outweighed Christofferson's $100 for Yes. Because business is down 30%, likely the result of the boycott, many employees have had their hours cut and may be laid off. So this boycott has unjustly caused harm much more widely than its intended target.

I can sympathize with those who are angry at El Coyote, and can understand why this particular donation incurred such wrath. A friend recently noted that there's a strong sense of betrayal, because for so many gay people, El Coyote has seemed to be a safe and welcoming place for us, a part of "our neighborhood". And El Coyote has certainly done a significant share of its business from its gay clientele. Thus, this particular donation came with a sense of betrayal. We expected people like Howard Ahmanson and Rick Warren to be donating heavily to Proposition 8, and donations from people in Kern and Orange counties were expected. But here, in a gay-friendly restaurant, in the gay-friendliest part of town, where we always thought we were among friends, even a modest donation was an unexpected betrayal. It was a violation of an unspoken trust, and shattered the feeling of comfort and safety that many gay people felt at El Coyote. And for gay people, that can hit especially hard. Many gay people have been estranged or kicked out of their natural homes and families, which makes their feeling of adopted "home" in gay-friendly neighborhoods and venues like El Coyote have much greater import. I don't think this justifies the harsh response, but I think it explains the emotional logic of it. It was a betrayal that cut especially deep and close to home.

On the other hand, Christofferson seems oblivious to the injustice she has helped to perpetrate. It's one thing for people who claim not to know anybody gay (or who disown those they know) to advocate such things. But these people, like Sarah Palin and apparently like Margie Christofferson, who claim to have gay friends, yet still advocate against our equal rights, that's just galling. How can you claim to be someone's friend, and then vote to infringe their rights? That's as nonsensical as saying "Oh, I have lots of black friends, but I just don't think they should be allowed to drink out of the same drinking fountain as white people." Sorry, Sarah, sorry Margie, but you're not our friend. We've gone on too long letting you get away with pretending that you are. Are we just supposed to roll over and say, "oh well, you helped pass the revocation of my civil rights, but let's let it go, and pour me another margarita?" I don't think so.

Philosophically, I have a bit of discomfort with the fairness of a boycott, given the asymmetry in our laws. In "libertopia", everyone would have unfettered choice about who they do business with. But here in America (and especially in California), we recognize the power of a majority to economically tyrannize a minority, and so we have created laws against discrimination in public accommodations. Businesses are generally not allowed to discriminate (at least based on a variety of protected classes like race, religion, etc.) in choosing their customers. But customers, on the other hand, are allowed to choose their businesses. For instance, while it would be illegal for a restaurant to refuse to serve black people, it is not illegal for black people to organize a boycott of a restaurant. There's just something asymmetrical and unfair about that. As evidenced by El Coyote's empty tables, boycotts can have a powerful effect. The freedom of businesses to serve or refuse to serve whoever they choose has been sacrificed for the good of keeping economic cudgels from pummeling unpopular minorities, thus preserving liberty across the board for a diverse society where it might otherwise be practically infringed. It would seem a fair bargain that organized consumers not pick up that same economic cudgel, for the same reasons. Obviously, there's no practical way to legislate such a thing. But it is a philosophical qualm I have about boycotts in general.

On the other hand, Christofferson made a choice that had obvious ramifications for the business that she manages (and that her mother owns). One of El Coyote's significant assets was the "good will" that it had cultivated over the years in the gay community. It would be impossible for Christofferson to be oblivious to the value of gay good will to her business, and foolish to think that her position on Prop 8 wouldn't put that asset in jeopardy. And any businessperson ought to understand the value and the fragility of that intangible asset. While she has every right to her own political views and donations, when her advocacy goes against a constituency prominent among the clientele of her business, she has no right not to be responsible for the consequences. She has the right to insult any customer she pleases, but not the right to expect that customer to come back.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Change We Can Subscribe To

During his historic campaign, President-Elect Obama broke new ground in his use of new media -- social networking, YouTube videos, web-based organizing. Since the election, the execution of his transition has been impressive, and has been documented and even conducted through an Internet presence called He's been giving public addresses at least weekly, which are being published on YouTube (the 21st century equivalent of "fireside chats"), and can be subscribed to via RSS in audio or video. (Me, I've added Obama's weekly address to my podcast subscriptions via iTunes, so I can get it on my iPod during my commute to work.) And they're exploring ways to make a place not just for dissemination but for engagement. Obama will be our first truly 21st century president.

FOOD: Cobras y Matadors

After the movie on Sunday, we checked out a longtime trendy eatery that we'd never tried: Cobras y Matadors, a tapas bar on Beverly at Curson (near The Grove). We had a great meal there and would definitely go back. They had traditional Spanish tapas as well as some trendy creations. (Think AOC: Spain edition.) It's all tapas (appetizers), so you just start ordering plates for the table and take things as they come. We started with "lomo embuchado", stuffed dates, and an assortment of Spanish cheeses (properly served with quince, marcona almonds, and tapenade). The "lomo embuchado" was a thinly sliced Spanish ham with slices of a mild tres leches cheese, served with raisin toast, and a tomato/caper salsa that just made my tongue stand up and applaud. (Even though the large proportion of tapas are served on bread, our waiter and the kitchen did a nice job of bringing us things with the bread on the side so my gluten-intolerant husband could enjoy them too.) The dates were stuffed with almonds and cheese, and wrapped in bacon, delicious morsels. We added a skirt steak, perfectly cooked in orange juice and paprika, a mushroom and asparagus paella (really more like a risotto, but an impeccable flavor), and "pintxos" -- lamb/beef meatballs covered in a piquant red pepper sauce, toothpick-skewered together with a small double-bent green pepper. Everything was a delight to eat. We finished with a flan, which was rich and firm, like the flans we had when we were in Spain. The place has its quirks -- it gets noisy (it's a small place and they fill it up), there's an open-fire oven in the back corner which is charming but occasionally a bit smoky, and they don't have their liquor license. However, they happen to own a wine shop next door that sells a selection of Spanish wines, which we wandered over to, purchased a charming bottle of Bierzo Mencia (young and fruity, something like a Beaujolais) for $21, and were charged no corkage fee. Not a bad compromise set-up. The whole meal for three people, tax tip wine and all, was $125. All in all, it was a delightful meal.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

FILM: Doubt

I had doubts about whether even Meryl Streep could live up to Cherry Jones' galvanic stage perfomance as Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, but we saw the film version today, and my doubts on that score were dispelled. Streep was really terrific, creating her own ferocious version of the rock-of-certainty nun, paying tribute to the character created by Cherry Jones, but making it her own. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn (the new priest with new ideas), and Amy Adams as Sister James (the young innocent nun) also gave strong performances, as did Viola Davis as the mother of the school's first black student. The film adaptation was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, so it is not surprising that it tracks the play very closely, and Shanley does a nice job of exploiting the new medium. There are some nice visuals unique to the film -- the repeated theme of the blustery winds, Father Flynn stopping to regard an "all-seeing eye" in a stained glass window, the parable of the slashed pillow (sermon on gossip), a bit more of the neighborhood and the parishioners. But there were some surprising differences from the stage play too. While I can't put my finger exactly on it, I left with the strong impression that the stage play was somehow more delicately balanced. With the play, I left truly uncertain even at the end whether Father Flynn was guilty or not, a result of the masterful finesse of Chris McGarry's stage performance and the role Shanley created. In the film, it somehow didn't seem as balanced, and I can't put my finger on whether the play gave Father Flynn just a bit more chance to voice his side, or whether it was just that Hoffman was just a bit more suspicious and overcome by Streep's certainty, but none of us left the film with much doubt about Father Flynn's guilt. The other surprising difference is the very end. (*** spoiler alert ***) The film ends with the same line as the play, but I took it completely differently. When I saw the play, the final line seemed (to me at least) to refer to Sister Aloysius's doubts about whether she rightly accused Father Flynn. In the film, I didn't think she seemed at all uncertain about Father Flynn, and the final line seemed to refer to a more general crisis of faith. A close shot of her cross being pulled to her chest seemed to reinforce that interpretation. A friend we saw the film with had the same impression, and further saw it as a reference back to Father Flynn's first sermon on doubt, and a kind of bond between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. I also think Sister James came across differently in the final scene. In the play, I recall her being more critical of Sister Aloysius, while in the film she seems more supportive and admiring. On stage, I also remember the confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Ronald Miller's mother being much more powerful and critical of Sister Aloysius. Perhaps the criticism of Mrs. Miller and questioning of Sister James were part of the more successful counterbalance to Sister Aloysius's certainty in the stage version.

The movie is well worth seeing for its powerful performances and provocative story, especially for those who did not see the play. But the film is not as powerful and provocative as the play. This is especially surprising to me since the playwright did his own adaptation and directed it too. I'm wondering whether Shanley has changed his mind about the sorts of questions he wants to challenge his audience with, or whether he just balked at being so provocative to a wider audience. In any event, the film adaptation subtly but profoundly alters the play.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tapping the Zeitgeist

When writing the online version of our annual holiday newsletter, I've often added a little bit on new technologies that have affected our lives in the past year. This year, I cited two technologies: the iPhone and social networking. The iPhone has been a big part of our life this past year. That was my gift to my husband last Christmas, and as my Mom often says, that was the best Christmas gift ever. With social networking, while that's been around for many years, I opined that it seemed to have reached a tipping point this year. However, I cautioned that that may just be my own skewed perspective. I only just joined Facebook a few weeks ago (careful, it's addictive!), and have been running into all sorts of friends there, most of whom are also relatively recent. I think the kids have been onto it for quite a while, but perhaps it's just opened up for the over-forty crowd. Well, it turns out I do in fact have my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, at least according to Google, who just released their 2008 Year-End Google Zeitgeist report, showing "iphone" and "facebook" as #2 and #4 fastest rising search terms. Social networking is called out on their "top trends". I guess I'm not so late to the party after all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

FILM: Milk

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a group of us saw Milk, and we're betting on Sean Penn to win an Oscar. He did an amazing job of absolutely transforming himself into Harvey Milk. You know how sometimes with big star actors, you can't ever quite stop seeing the actor as opposed to the character. Not here. I didn't see Sean Penn at all, I only saw Harvey Milk. And now I feel as if I knew him. And lost him. It was a powerful film with strong resonance especially given the recent Prop 8 battle. (The battle against the Briggs Initiative was a signal event in Milk's career.) The whole film was very well made, a great biopic. An opening montage of actual 1970s film of men in gay bars being busted and harrassed by police establishes the context, and the use of actual film footage from events spliced into the film helps establish a documentary credibility. An emotional verisimilitude is created by the device of framing the film with scenes of Milk reflecting on his life, talking into a dictaphone, in contemplation of the possibility of his imminent death. I learned a lot of things I didn't know (I was oblivious to the gay world and being gay myself in 1978), and what a moving history lesson it was. It's inspirational to see the impact of a man who made a life-changing decision at age 40, and changed so much for so many in the eight remaining years of his life.

One nice touch that really hit home with me was a scene where a scared gay teenager, about to be sent by his parents to some horrific anti-gay deprogramming camp, calls up Harvey Milk just because he'd seen him on TV, and Milk was the only gay person that boy knew. And Milk gave him the self-confidence to run away (quite possibly saving his life, given the high gay teen suicide rates). Fortunately, I have wonderful parents and I never had to deal with that nightmare, but I can remember a similar experience. When I was just coming out senior year in college, I read in the newspapers about a guy who was an engineer working for TRW, who was gay, lost his security clearance, sued, and won. Since I had already accepted an offer at TRW, when I read that, I was fearful and wanted to talk to that guy. I called that total stranger, my voice trembling (especially over the "I'm gay" part), and thankfully got some good advice and reassurance about my future as a gay man working at an aerospace-defense contractor. Seeing that scene in the film took me right back to the memory of that phone call, the scene rang so true to me, and in that moment I appreciated even more deeply how much Harvey Milk meant to a whole generation of gay men and women just a couple years older than me. How much he changed everything.

I also didn't know anything about the Briggs Initiative at the time (I was sixteen). The film did a great job of building up the wave of anti-gay ballot initiatives that was sweeping the country then, with Anita Bryant as the spokesperson, and the feeling of embattlement that created in the gay community. It was such an eerie resonance between those events and the events of the past couple months, us feeling embattled by sign-waving protesters wanting to vote down our marriage.

The cast in this film were uniformly excellent, and there are surely Oscars in its future. Sean Penn, for sure, is getting Best Actor. But Josh Brolin, another actor who completely melted into his character, also did an impeccable job as Dan White, the traditional working class guy with a psychopathic undercurrent. And James Franco gave a solid performance as Milk's boyfriend (despite all the "eww, what was it like?" brouhaha over whether two straight boys could convincingly kiss), and Emile Hirsch really brought Cleve Jones to life. Kudos to director Gus Van Sant for finding the ideal balance of documentary factuality and emotional genuineness, both elements required for a masterful portrait of a hero.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Anglican Splinters

My friend Mark forwarded me the latest news on the Episcopal schism. For the past few years, a patchwork of restless conservative priests and bishops in the Episcopal Church have been more and more boldly cutting their ties with the Episcopal Church USA, ever since that church ordained an openly gay bishop and won't renounce him. Four dioceses and a number of other parishes have "broken communion" with the Episcopal Church, while still trying to claim the mantle of "true Anglicans", by claiming to be ecclesiastical exclaves of Uganda or Nigeria, where they find archbishops more to their liking. The renegades and their African abettors have also been cool to the Archbishop of Canterbury (traditionally, the leader of the worldwide Anglican communion), as Canterbury has been desperately trying to hold the communion together and not take sides. Today comes an announcement that they are forming the "Anglican Church of North America", to peel off their remnant 100,000 members from the 2.3 million member Episcopal Church. This is sad because of the strife it will cause. There are divided congregations, and there will be inevitable legal battles over whether church property belongs to the denomination or the individual church congregations. But it takes a mighty summoning of Christian charity not to simply say "good riddance" to those who would prefer to divide the church, and line up with the thugs who call themselves Christian archbishops in Nigeria and Uganda.

A couple of things in the NY Times article about this latest announcement jumped out at me. The breakaway denomination would like to be embraced by Canterbury as part of the Anglican communion, but apparently they've decided that they'll go with him or without him. "Bishop" Martyn Minns, of the Falls Church in Virginia, was quoted saying, "One of the questions a number of the primates are asking is why do we still need to be operating under the rules of an English charity, which is what the Anglican Consultative Council does. Why is England still considered the center of the universe?" What does he suppose that "Anglican" means, if not that England is at the historical and ecclesiastical heart? That's like asking why Roman Catholics think everything revolves around the Bishop of Rome (a.k.a. the Pope). Moreover, that is the long-established tradition, how it's been since the beginning of Anglicanism. Hypocritically, "tradition" and "that's how it's always been" are their favorite argument against same-sex marriage, but when they're the ones making a radical ecclesiastical change, tradition is no longer compulsory.

The article also noted that this splinter movement, which has only a handful of bishops, can't all agree on just how conservative they want to be. At least one of the splinter dioceses has ordained women priests, but a couple of the others have said they refuse to recognize women priests. You've got to see where that leads. Without the constraint of reasonable moderate leaders in this new denomination, there will be a rush to the right to see who can out-conservative whom, alienating more and more people in their wake, and the splinter will dwindle or split into smaller splinters. In a few years, look for the announcement about Dallas and San Joaquin splitting off to form the True Anglican Church of North America Except Pittsburgh and Canada, leaving behind the Anglican But Not Anglo-Centric Church of the Northern Part of North America.

Monday, December 01, 2008

STAGE: Spring Awakening

We heard about Spring Awakening when it splashed across last year's Tony Awards so prominently, so we were eager to see it now it's come to LA. It's an intriguing concept, taking a 110-year old play and adding a contemporary musical score to it. But then again, Rent (perhaps my alltime favorite play) was the same notion. The notion works because some themes -- love, loss, and in this case, teenage angst and burgeoning sexuality -- are timeless. In this instance, the play's timeframe and characters are not modernized. The students are drilled in Latin lessons in their conservative academy, the costumes are period 1890s, and the characters' names reflect their small German village. All that contrasts with how remarkably identifiable these characters and their young passions are. Like an arc of electricity linking 19th century Germany to America 2008, these quaintly clad characters grab microphones and belt out rocking tunes by Duncan Sheik. (And those tunes were totally rocking. Both at intermision and at the finale, I left with the music continuing to pump in my head.) I expect those of late teens and twenties will connect directly with the feelings of the characters presented, while us older folks have memories of those years vividly recalled by the emotional authenticity of the play. The visual aesthetic was in the style of Rent, a spare set with few props and a few things to climb on, and unabashed use of microphones rock-band-style. Some scenes were minimally but movingly visualized (a funeral scene in particular), some explicitly visualized, while others left tastefully to the imagination. The use of one male and one female actor to play all of the adult roles was brilliant. The adult women are variations on the same template (though with emotional differentiation), while all the adult men seemed indistinguishable, a strict emotion-repressed Teutonic authority figure, "the man", as they say. It was the theatrical equivalent of the adults in the Peanuts comic strip who all go "wah, wah, wah" to the kids' ears. There were a couple of minor detractions. The choreography is rock-band-style rocking, jumping, and climbing, except for a couple of puzzling exceptions, where one of the main characters breaks into these odd frantic arm movements looking something like Village People semaphore, except I couldn't tell what he was trying to spell out. The other detraction is the final number. The haunting emo number suits musically, but the lyrics fail. Just where an anthem of emotional summation is needed, we're given some incoherent abstraction about "purple summer". Fortunately, the dramatic arc was essentially closed in the song before, and the finale is just an excuse to get the whole cast on stage and send the audience out in the right mood. Overall, the whole production is so strong that I'm more than happy to overlook those two minor detractions, and we came away moved and humming. This is a great play for those who are young (but not too young -- high school and up) and those who remember being young. Parents taking their high school children should have some interesting conversation after the play.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

FOOD: Pumpkins Aren't Just For Pie

One of the autumn foods I've learned to get excited about is pumpkin. I can't remember who first inspired me to think of pumpkin as being about more than just pie (and jack o'lanterns), but I think it was a couple years ago. I know Cliff's Edge served a great pumpkin ravioli, and somewhere I had a really good pumpkin soup. It makes sense when you think about it. We love acorn squash and butternut squash, and pumpkin is just another winter squash, like those other two, but with a slighly earthier flavor. The size is perhaps daunting if you only think of them as jack o'lanterns, but it's important to realize that the "sugar pumpkins" that you want for eating tend to be much smaller than the ones they sell for Halloween carving, and the smaller ones taste better too. You can find nice ones as small as one pound, certainly less than two. They're not too hard to prepare. Just put a few slits in them and stick them in a 350 degree oven for an hour or so. When you remove them, they're quite soft, and it's easy to scoop out the seedy mess in the center and peel the skin away from the flesh. (I haven't messed with the seeds, but I've heard those are good too, toasted.) I cut up the pumpkin flesh into small chunks which can be refridgerated for a few days, or can be put in a ziplock bag and frozen.

I had this notion that it would be really nicely complimented by corn and onions. So I got a couple ears of fresh corn and some cippolini onions from the farmer's market. (Cippolinis are those ones that look wide and flat, like a regular onion squashed flat, and they have a nice sweet bite to them.) I cut the corn off the cob, chopped up the onions, sauteed them in butter, then added some pumpkin chunks when they got soft. I added only salt and a little pepper, as I wanted the taste of the fresh ingredients. I thought it was marvelous. My husband though it was a bit bland and didn't like the texture of the pumpkin. He loved the corn/onion mix though. So the next week, as I still had half the pumpkin chunks in the freezer, I thought I'd try the same concept as a soup. I'd made some good pumpkin soups before, usually cooking the chunks with chicken stock and a splash of cream, and putting it all in the blender. But I thought I'd try something a bit different. I was thinking a light sweet curry theme might be good, so I heated some coconut oil and added the pumpkin chunks and a splash of soy milk, until they were soft. I then used a masher to mash them up like mashed potatoes. (An immersion blender would have been better, but I don't have one.) I continued to add the soy milk until I got a nice soup consistency. I added salt, pepper, curry powder, and some cinnamon. I still liked the idea of sweet corn and onions as a compliment, so I sauteed those up just as I had the week before, and added them into the soup, leaving them unblended so the soup would have some bits to bite into. It was delicious. Pumpkin is definitely a reason to be happy about fall.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

FILM: Slumdog Millionaire

What an amazingly original movie we saw on Thanksgiving Day. Slumdog Millionaire tells the tale of a boy who, with his brother and a young girl are all orphaned at an early age in the slums of Mumbai. The tale is told through the novel framing device of the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", where the main character, Jamal, is a contestant and is defying all expectations by answering all the questions, despite his unlikely background. The questions all touch off flashbacks to experiences in his life which lead him to know the answer to that question. His life is an amazing tale of pluck, faith, and fortitude in the face of all kinds of wretched circumstances. Jamal and his brother Salim have a touchingly strong loyalty to look out for one another, and though they get separated from the young girl Latika early on in their childhood, Jamal never gives up his love of her and his faith that they are destined to be together. Even though you know the inevitable Bollywood ending, the twists and turns in their life to get there are unpredictable and utterly engrossing. The characters are wonderful. Despite his remorselessness about fraud and stealing when he needed to just to live, Jamal also has an earnest forthrightness than he never loses throughout his hard life. There are three actors for each main character for childhood, youth, and adult scenes, and all of them are well-cast and terrific. The childhood actors are completely charming (without trying too hard to be so), and the youth and adult actors carry their characters forward with natural transition and increasing complexity. The cinematography is straightforward and real, with some wide shots that are beautiful at the same time as unflinching about the pervasive poverty depicted. The director keeps a very realistic viewpoint through it all, not going all Bollywood until the very end. Ultimately, we found the film outstandingly original, transporting, and even inspirational.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

FILM: Antarctica

The week before last, we caught the Israeli film Antarctica, an amusing though at times confusing slice of gay life in Tel Aviv. We meet a bunch of characters and watch how their paths cross, as the men all meet one another through online hook-ups and the women all meet in a popular coffee shop. The film opens with a clever visual of the screen divided into four quadrants, and scenes of a guy's apartment move across the quadrants, meeting a new guy at the door, inviting him in, messing around, kicking him out, getting dressed for work; lather, rinse, repeat. The visual is a clever way to tell a story about one guy's revolving door sex life. The film is very much an ensemble story, though the character who is the "Kevin Bacon" of this one-and-a-half degrees of separation network is a gay man with a lesbian sister and with their mother played by a drag queen (but unironically, as in Hairspray). By the end, he's dated or slept with most of the other male characters, and those he's dated or slept with have dated or slept with the rest. You have to pay close attention though, because after we meet half the characters in the first 15 minutes, there's a "three years later" fast-forward, at which point we meet new characters and the ones we've already met have new haircuts. (I had a couple of the characters mixed up for two-thirds of the film.) The women have their relationship issues too, but that's a lesser running subplot. We see a lot more of the men (double-entendre intended). There are also a couple of bizarre subplots. One of the women in a lesbian once (and future?) couple has some fascination with Antarctica, as in "I had to break up with you, because you wouldn't come with me if I decided I wanted to move to Antarctica". Or something like that. It may have been a clever metaphor for something, being the title of the film and all, but all I could think of was Harper Pitt, the pill-popping Mormon wife in Angels in America, who had similar Antarctic fantasies. The other bizarre subplot concerns a bunch of UFO fanatics who are convinced that the aliens are going to land in Rabin Square on Friday night. (Silly people. Don't they know that aliens would be prohibited from landing in Israel on the Sabbath?) Perhaps the UFOers were meant as a metaphorical comment on guys looking for love through online hook-ups. In any case, these quirky elements come together to make a satisfactorally amusing film.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

BOOKS: World Without End

I had greatly enjoyed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, and so I was looking forward to World Without End. While not exactly a sequel, his second medieval novel picks up in the same town of Kingsbridge two and a half centuries later, so that his first novel is the local history and its characters the ancestors of the characters of his second novel. It completely lived up to my expectations, and held me rapt. Once again he has woven a fascinating tale of love, ambition (both lofty and venial), and intrigue around an engaging set of characters, and enriched with a depth of historical context. While engrossed in the struggles of an independent-minded woman, an excellent architect with a poor start in life, a brutish knight, and a scheming prior, I inadvertently learned a heap of history, such as the economic development of medieval English boroughs, the wars of King Edward III in France, and the principles of medieval medicine. It was fascinating to me to learn things like how the wool trade gave way to the cloth trade, how feudal lords lost control of their tenant laborers, what the experience of the Plague was like, and how brutal the English invaders were in France. (That last item gives me a new appreciation for the famous Rodin sculpture The Burghers of Calais.) These historical details are not the least bit pedantic, but are vividly described, forming integral background to the rich tapestry of Follett's gripping characters and story. Through a span of a generation, the story explores, among other themes, the interesting question of what options were available for a smart, independent woman in the mid-14th century. I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating historical tale.

Monday, November 24, 2008

FILM: Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist

Okay, enough about Prop 8 for a little while. I've got a backlog of films and books to catch up on. Though my blogging has been patchy, I'd like to make it through the year having blogged every film I saw and every book I read.

About a month ago, we saw Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. While nothing profound, it was a fresh and entertaining film, capturing the feel of an all-night music-driven bar-crawl across New York City. Anyone who's been clubbing all night knows that the energy of the night has its ebbs and flows, moments when the stimulation breaks and the tiredness catches up with you, but then moments when the right tune or word re-energizes you again. This film did a great job of capturing that feel of an all-nighter, with the lulls capturing that dull feeling reminiscent of Lost in Translation, but then the next moment bringing a crazy energy like Go. Michael Cera and Kat Dennings bring authenticity to the title characters, making me truly remember (for the first time in over a couple decades) what it felt like to be in high school, when you cared what eveyone else thought even when you pretended not to, and when you first discover how powerful it can be to share your vulnerable self with someone else. Sure, Michael Cera is making a career of playing more or less the same soft-spoken earnest character as in Superbad and Juno, but it's a good character, and subtly deeper here. (Besides, I can think of other great actors who made a career playing more or less the same character. Richard Dreyfuss, for example.) There's a larger network of characters who have various links, some obvious and some hidden, and who cross paths in some unexpected ways, and there are some amusing subplots involving a lost drunk friend and the amazing travels of a piece of gum. But this film isn't quite as plot-driven as Go in that regard, it's more about characters and texture and music. And director Peter Sollett mixes these elements masterfully. Like a great playlist.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Prop 8 Leads to Teaching Gay Marriage in Schools

The big theme of the Yes on 8 crowd was that gay marriage would be taught in schools. The irony of course is that Prop 8 itself probably did more than anything else could have to get kids talking about gay marriage. With even further irony, they may also have made it a legitimate part of the curriculum, especially if the Cal Supreme Court does the right thing and invalidates Prop 8. This would make it a very fitting topic for Civics class. It's quite clear from all the noise being made about "four judges overturning the will of the people" that there are quite a lot of California citizens deficient in their Civics education, or at least in need of a refresher. Remedial topics include the Bill of Rights, the founding fathers' views on the "tyranny of the majority", the role of constitutions in protecting the fundamental rights of minorities against abridgement by majorities, and the role of supreme courts in enforcing that protection. Historical highlights in the curriculum include Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Griswold v. Connecticut, Romer v. Evans, and Lawrence v. Texas. For California students, study should also include the role of the California Supreme Court as an independent guarantor of rights. Highlights include Perez v. Sharp, Mulkey v. Reitman, and In Re Marriage Cases.

UPDATE: The LA Times editorial board was on the same wavelength: "Maybe schools need to strengthen their civics lessons so that future voters will understand that supreme courts specifically are charged with ruling on constitutional questions -- and it is a sacred and historic role of the courts to protect minority rights as enshrined in state and federal constitutions. Indeed, if courts merely existed to ratify the will of majorities, they would add little to our society." And the spate of ensuing letters showed plenty of citizens needing those remedial civics lessons.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Prop 8 Court Appeal Watch

As expected, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the petitions filed against Prop 8, but denied the request to stay its enforcement in the meantime. The Court requested both sides to prepare arguments on three questions:
  1. Is Prop 8 invalid because it is a revision, rather than amendment of the Constitution?
  2. Does Prop 8 violate the separation of powers doctrine (i.e., does it usurp the role of the Court in protecting minority interests in fundamental equal protection rights)?
  3. If Prop 8 stands, what is the effect on the marriages that have already occurred?

Interesting that the Court took the initiative to take on the third question, as I don't believe any of the petitions raised it. In the Marriage decision, Justice Kennard wrote a separate concurrence to elaborate on how that decision could be consistent with having previously struck down the "San Francisco marriages" of 2005 as unconstitutional (an opinion she disagreed with). But speaking of Justice Kennard, I'm not sure what to make of the fact that she alone dissented from accepting the petitions, and would have preferred a separate petition to deal with the issue of the pre-Prop 8 marriages. Does that mean that she would have completely dismissed the petitions, or does that merely mean that she thought it inappropriate for the Court to request a hearing on that issue without really having been asked? If the former, that doesn't bode well at all. I'm suspecting it's the latter.

In the one other tea leaf to be read, Justice Moreno alone would have granted the stay of enforcement.

One last bright note, the Court denied the request of the Campaign for California Families to intervene. CCF President Randy Thomasson is the guy who tried to put up an even harsher ballot initiative that would have tossed out domestic partnerships as well. Only the original Prop 8 proponents will be allowed to intervene.

Briefs are due in January, and oral arguments could be heard as early as next March under an expedited schedule.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Prop 8 Court Appeal Update

As of today, there are now six petitions filed with the California Supreme Court to overturn Prop 8. In addition to the three filings I wrote about yesterday, there are now three more. The basic argument, that allowing Prop 8 to stand as an initiative amendment enacted by a bare majority of voters is a horrible precedent, is the same in all the petitions. But some compelling perspectives are added. One is a joint filing by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the NAACP, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), voicing their concern that if a bare majority of voters can revoke a fundamental right, California voters could enact laws to revive racial covenants in real estate, prevent Asian-Americans from owning land (as had been law nearly 100 years ago), or revive laws preventing mixed-race marriages. (As a sign at a recent protest said, "You may not be gay, but you may be next.") Another is a joint filing by the California Council of Churches, the Universal Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and the Episcopal Bishops of Los Angeles and California, who argue along similar lines that this precedent could allow voters to infringe on fundamental rights of religious liberty, especially of minority denominations. This is compelling stuff.

On the other side, there are five parties opposing these petitions. A few of them make respectable arguments on the core revision vs. amendment issue, pointing to the precedents they view as most analogous, and pressing the "voice of the people" argument, but ignoring rather than addressing the equal protection arguments. A fourth party, the Pacific Justice Institute, offers only weak arguments around the margins (like an argument that the Cities of LA and San Francisco lack standing to file a petition). A fifth party, one D.Q. Marriette Do-Nguyen, claims to be speaking on behalf of the Almighty Eternal Creator, as His Heiress. For the edification of the Supreme Court Justices, she reveals the message of the Almighty Eternal Creator, as revealed to her in a dream last week, concerning not only Prop 8 and abortion, but also the Iraq War, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer, and other gems of received wisdom. I kid you not. (As one friend commented, something about opposing same-sex marriage really brings the nutcases out of the woodwork.) The arguments of the Almighty notwithstanding, I'm hopeful that the Court will find the petitions as stirring and compelling as I do.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Prop 8: The Court Appeal

When I first heard that there were going to be court appeals against Prop 8, my first reaction was that was really going to be a stretch. It's perfectly appropriate for the Court to find a statute to be unconstitutional, but it's rather problematic to ask the Court to find a constitutional amendment (which is, by definition, now part of the Constitution) to be unconstitutional. However, having read the briefs that have been filed, I see there actually is a claim to be made, and I'm cautiously optimistic that the court may go for it. (Of course, I also cringe now just saying "cautiously optimistic", as I used that same phrase often in expressing my hope that Prop 8 was going to fail at the ballot box. I guess with me, cautious optimism springs eternal.) The gist is that the California Constitution has two different processes for being changed, one called an "amendment" and one called a "revision". An "amendment" (which is how Prop 8 was filed) simply requires a bare majority of the voters, while a "revision" requires a more cumbersome process, first a two-thirds majority vote in both legislative houses and then going to the voters. The notion is that items of limited scope are "amendments", while those that make more substantive changes in the constitution of the government must be "revisions". The Constitution itself provides no more clarity on exactly what makes something rise to the level of a "revision". That distinction is left up to the Court to interpret. And historically, the Court has invalidated a couple of previous ballot initiative amendments, saying that they were too fundamental to be an amendment and really needed to go through the revision process. That's what Prop 8 opponents are asking the Court to do with Prop 8.

There's a good argument to be made that a change to the Constitution that actually repeals fundamental rights is substantive enough in scope to warrant the revision process, and the three appeals that I've read (I've heard there may now be a fourth) have made that argument. This would actually vindicate the intuition of many people that it's outrageous that the revoking of a fundamental right could be put to a ballot initiative for a bare majority. For those who care about constitutional forms of government, Prop 8 sets a frightening precedent (and it is indeed unprecedented). If that precedent is allowed to stand, then any unpopular minority group could have its constitutional rights revoked by a bare majority of the voters. Conceivably, we could put up an initiative that Mormon marriages would no longer be recognized by the state, or even more egregiously, California could legalize slavery again. Is it reasonable to think that California voters could enact such changes with just 51% of the voters on a ballot initiative? Undoubtedly, such measures would be struck down on appeals to the US Constitution, but one would hope that the California Constitution's guarantee of fundamental rights would stand on its own in this regard. Our constitutional government provides for "checks and balances" in separate branches of government, and one of the important duties of the Supreme Court is to safeguard the constitutional rights of minorities against what the founding fathers termed the "tyranny of the majority". A measure like Prop 8 defies that fundamental separation of powers. That's the gist of the arguments being made, and the Court may well find them compelling. Governor Schwarzenegger has advocated as much, and 44 California Senators and Assemblymembers have signed on to an amicus brief in favor of that position.

Of course any Supreme Court decision ultimately comes down to the seven Justices making the decision. The decision last spring recognizing a fundamental right to equal recognition of same-sex marriages was made by the minimum of four Justices, with three dissenting. For the original four concurring Justices, if they really believe what they wrote last May (their language was pretty clear and strong in terms of fundamental rights and protecting a minority group), then they would stand up for their opinion, and strike down Prop 8 as an insufficiently enacted constitutional revision. Those Justices were courageous in the face of what they probably knew would be substantial popular backlash (protecting minority rights, as the Court has noted, is often an unpopular job), and we can hope their courage does not falter. Unfortunately, ominous rumblings about their re-election prospects, and calls to remember Rose Bird, are being made by the Prop 8 backers (who have proven how ruthless they can be). Then we have the three dissenting Justices. The underlying issue for them will be whether they take the earlier decision as established precedent when evaluating this claim, or whether that precedent (that they didn’t agree with) is still open in their minds. Technically, this is a new and purely procedural issue (i.e., whether the initiative was inappropriately put forth as an amendment) that doesn't invite a revisiting of the earlier decision (whether there is a fundamental right to marry the person of one's choice), but in practice it may be hard to resist the opportunity to implicitly revisit the earlier decision in deciding this one. On the other hand, if I recall correctly, when the Prop 8 proponents requested a stay of the final Marriage decision pending the election, I believe that was unanimously denied by the Court, indicating that the dissenters are swayed by at least some arguments for proper procedure and not revisiting settled matters. Judging by the opinions filed in the Marriage decision (in addition to the decision, there was one concurrence and two separate dissents), I'd say the most likely outcome is that Prop 8 is invalidated by the same 4-3 decision as the original Marriage decision, since the four concurring justices spoke strongly about the role of the Court in protecting rights of minorities, while the three dissenters spoke strongly about the Court not overturning the will of the people expressed at the ballot box, and those same issues arise here.

The filings can all be read here (update: I just heard there are now six separate filings).
Of those I've read, the NCRL brief does the most technical work in discussing the various precedents on the revision vs. amendment issue, but the brief by the Cities makes the most readable and very eloquent statement of the issue. If you read only one, read that one.

There are rumblings that the Court will take some action on Wednesday, making initial decisions whether to even hear the case (I think they will, since both sides are urging that), and whether to issue an immediate stay in the meantime (I suspect they won't). Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Shape of the Cocoon

This map shows how Los Angeles County voted on Prop 8, precinct by precinct (green is yes on 8, purple is no on 8, the darker the color the larger the margin). The results of this election surprised many, and even traditionally solid liberal LA County went for Prop 8 by a slim majority. (The LA Times generated this map, and you can see it interactively on their web page.) I had always figured we lived in a bit of a cocoon, surrounded by friends and neighbors who tend to be more like-minded, and giving a false impression of what "everybody" thinks. This map gives a good idea of the shape of the cocoon. Locally, "our" turf seems to be the West Side, across through Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Eagle Rock and Mount Adams to Pasadena (but not Glendale); the South Bay beach cities but not Torrance or Palos Verdes; the south and west San Fernando Valley plus Northridge, but not the east and most of the north. We knew we didn't have a lot of support in Santa Clarita and Palmdale. Not so much in the inner city or the Inland Empire either, except for a few pockets like Whittier and Claremont. A similar statewide map by county can be viewed here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A DOMA Change We Can Believe In

With Obama heading to the White House and Democratic majorities in Congress, it seems hopeful that we may progress on federal legislative goals for gay equality in the next four years. Obvious top priorities are getting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) enacted, overturning the ban on gays in the military, and repealing or modifying the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA, passed in 1996, has two basic provisions. Part 1 provides that no state is required to recognize the same-sex marriages of another state, meaning that Alabama is not required to recognize same-sex marriages even if a couple traveled to Massachusetts and got a legitimate marriage license there. Part 2 specifies that the federal government shall not recognize same-sex marriages for any federal purpose, which means that even legally married same-sex couples in Massachusetts aren't entitled to spousal Social Security benefits, or tax exemptions for spousal inheritance, or any of the 1,138 marriage-related rights in federal law. There has been talk of repealing DOMA: Hillary Clinton said she would have repealed Part 2, and Barack Obama said he would repeal both parts. I had thought repeal was a great idea, but I'm now thinking that modification, rather than repeal, of both parts may be the right thing to do.

In reflecting on the wake of Prop 8 and the great marriage debate it stirred up, I am impressed how significantly the line of scrimmage has shifted. Even same-sex marriage opponents generally claim that they support equal rights, just not "redefining marriage". For example, the Mormon church, in a statement this week, said "the Church does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches." And in national polls, those who support same-sex marriage, combined with those who oppose it but support civil unions, comprise a growing majority. Politically, at the federal level, same-sex marriage opponents such as John McCain espouse a federalist ("leave it to the states") policy. A pragmatic approach to modifying DOMA would build on this consensus.

Concerning Part 2, rather than simply repeal it, it should be modified to recognize civil unions. The pragmatic compromise of civil unions currently exists in some form in at least four states (Vermont, California, New Jersey, and New Hampshire), and it would be consistent with the apparent consensus on providing equal legal treatment that these should be recognized as equivalent to marriage for the purposes of federal law. I think most Americans, regardless of their approval of gay marriage, would see the injustice of two life partners not having their earned Social Security benefits protect their partner in the event of one's death, or having a surviving partner have to pay a whopping "gift income" tax on half the value of a jointly held home. Thus Part 2 should be amended as follows:
In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means a valid marriage or relationship substantially equivalent to marriage (e.g., a civil union) as recognized by law of the state of residence, and the word ‘spouse’ refers to a person who is a party to such marriage or substantially equivalent relationship.

Concerning Part 1, while some would proclaim same-sex marriage by federal fiat on all 50 states, I don't believe that is prudential at this time. I think it's better to give the controversial issue some breathing room by supporting the federalist position, that states should be allowed to determine their own policies. However, there is an important modification that should be made here. While states should be given latitude to set their own marriage policy for their residents, federal law should provide a guarantee of "safe passage" for visitors to the state. Nobody should ever again suffer the fate of Lisa Pond, who collapsed while vacationing in Florida and ultimately died in a hospital that actively prevented her partner from seeing her, directing her care, or obtaining her death certificate. I hope few Americans would see that as good public policy. Thus I propose the "Family Safe Passage Amendment" to DOMA Part 1. The distinction should be quite workable. Consider that each state has different license plates for automobiles, and different requirements for licensing cars. When I as a California resident drive my car into Arizona, I don't immediately have to take my car to get an Arizona state vehicle check and an Arizona license plate. That would be ridiculous if I'm only visiting. On a temporary basis, Arizona accepts a California-registered vehicle. However, after an appropriate period of time, if I'm still in Arizona, then I do have to register my car there, and bring it into conformity with local requirements. It should be the same for a marriage (or equivalent). If I have a California domestic partnership (a "marriage equivalent"), and I go into the emergency room while on a business trip in Virginia, my partner should be recognized appropriately at the hospital there, despite Virginia's own draconian marriage policies. Isn't that a change we can all believe in?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking The Long View

As I contemplated the feeling of profound disappointment last Wednesday morning, exhausted from having fought so hard for a cause and come up short, I knew I had felt that feeling before. It came to me that it was the same feeling that I felt last February the day after "super Tuesday", when I had poured a heap of time, sweat, and money into Obama's primary campaign in California. He had been leading in the polls in California, and at least within my horizons, there had seemed to be a vast surging tide of enthusiasm for Obama then that seemed to assure victory in the California primary. On February 6, I awoke to the news and that same feeling of exhausted disbelief and crestfallenness. But the similarity of those days suggests a lesson to me. One of the things I have admired about Obama is his uncanny ability to remain calm and steadily focused on the long goal despite blows and setbacks. While first Clinton and later McCain kept reinventing themselves to fit the focus group of the moment, and kept changing their strategy like a supermodel changes shoes, Obama kept his steady eye on the prize and didn't waver in his vision or in the execution of his strategy. Prop 8 was a setback, but we need to remember that just as sure as Obama lost California on super Tuesday and still went on to win the election, the cause of equal treatment under the law for citizens regardless of their sexual orientation will win out in the end.

I haven't participated in any of the large protests going on since the election. I understand people feeling like they want to vent, and a few demontrations are probably a good thing to signify the passion behind this issue. But I don't think expressions of outrage are the most productive means of changing anyone's mind. We've made a huge amount of progress in the eight years since Prop 22, and I attribute that progress primarily to gay people from all walks of life being more open and visible. Not as angry sign-waving people or folks marching in a parade, but as co-workers, as parents of school children, as fellow churchmembers, as soldiers, and in all the ways that anybody encounters their fellow citizens in our society. Just living our lives in quiet but open and unapologetic dignity does more than anything else to open our fellow citizens' eyes to the injustices in our current government policies. Some of those policies need to be explained to people (e.g., unequal tax treatment and social security benefits), but they can be explained calmly. The observation of injustice speaks for itself far more loudly than demands for justice can be shouted.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hope Overshadowed

It's hard to describe the mixture of feelings I felt this morning. There was a base of exhaustion, both physically, the hoarse voice and aching back and feet from standing for 13 hours near polling sites (a legal distance away) passing out "No on 8" cards to poll-bound voters, and emotionally, from having invested so much money, time, and sweat in the No on 8 campaign, only to come so close and miss. I should have been absolutely exuberant at the Obama landslide, a campaign I also devoted much energy to earlier in the year, but emotionally, the cloud of Prop 8 overshadowed what should have been a dawn of triumph. "Yes We Can" rang hollow when it turned out that here in California -- California! -- no, we couldn't quite. When I step back and try to be dispassionate about it, I appreciate it's a great day. If I were given a choice between Obama winning or Prop 8 losing, and I couldn't have both, I'd definitely take the outcome that we got. Obama's victory is huge, and I have great hope that he will live up to his promise of being the greatest president in my lifetime. And the fact of a black man winning the highest office in the land crowns a trajectory of equality traced by Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I should be dancing in the street and singing hallelujah. Maybe tomorrow the Yes We Can spirit will reinspire me with hope, but today I'm just feeling spent and a bit dazed, like someone who won a big lottery and lost a loved one all in the same day. (Obama himself may be feeling that way too, having lost his grandmother on the eve of his victory.) I can't help but ponder the bitter irony that the overwhelming black turnout for this historic election may well have been decisive in passing Proposition 8. And I can't help but feeling a twinge of resentment that Obama didn't come out more forcefully against Prop 8, which could well have made a big difference for black voters. Of course I understand full well why he didn't and why he shouldn't have, but emotion has its own logic. And Prop 8 was so much more personal than the presidential race. The proponents succeeded in turning it into a referendum on the unworthiness of gay marriages as a moral example for children. While individual marriages vary, I'm personally convinced that gay marriages can be as morally praiseworthy and exemplary as straight ones. I'd like to think that my godson and goddaughter, whether they turn out to be gay or straight, might find some qualities to admire and emulate in their uncles' marriage. I respect the right of Californians to disagree, but it's demoralizing to find that 52% of them do. But what's worse is to find that 52% of Californians are willing to translate their moral disapproval into constitutionalizing our unequal treatment by the law. To anyone who doesn't understand why this is so personal, I ask: how would you feel if your marriage were on the ballot, subject to the approval of voters? And how would you feel if your marriage were voted down?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Every Major Newspaper in California Opposes Prop 8

So far as I can tell, every major newspaper in California has come out against Prop 8. Not just the supposedly liberal "big city" papers, but in more Republican strongholds like Orange County, San Diego and Contra Costa County, and in the inland cities like Fresno, Stockton, Redding, Bakersfield, and Tracy. I have yet to find a newspaper anywhere in California that has come out in favor of Prop 8.
  • "Fundamental rights are exactly that. They should neither wait for popular acceptance, nor be revoked because it is lacking."
    Los Angeles Times endorses NO on Prop 8
  • "it is only fair that it afford equal protection to all who choose to make loving lifelong commitments to one another. We recommend a "no" vote on Prop. 8."
    Orange County Register
  • "Should we use the state constitution to take the right to marry from a particular group of people? We believe that notion is wrong, and recommend a "no" vote on Proposition 8."
    Fresno Bee
  • "To approve Proposition 8 is to codify discrimination. Californians cannot let that happen."
    Stockton Record
  • "Californians need to move beyond the divisiveness that Prop. 8 has engendered and embrace tolerance and reconciliation. Live and let live. We recommend a NO vote on Prop. 8."
    Bakersfield Californian
  • "Just as an individual's sexual orientation is not a legitimate basis on which to deny housing or a job, it is not a legitimate basis on which to deny individuals the right to marry. Californians should reject the call to amend the state constitution to exclude some people from marriage. That would be a black mark on the constitution, just as past exclusionary acts remain a stain on California's history."
    Sacramento Bee
  • "Gay and lesbian couples deserve the same dignity and respect in marriage that heterosexual couples have long enjoyed. We urge a No vote on Proposition 8."
    San Diego Union-Tribune
  • "We strongly urge voters to carefully consider the harm Prop. 8 would do not just to gays, but to all Californians, and reject the initiative. "
    Contra Costa Times
  • "The idea of using a ballot measure to single out a certain group of Californians for denial of individual rights - based on their sexual orientation - would represent an ugly distortion of the very purpose of a constitution. ... Californians should reject Proposition 8."
    San Francisco Chronicle
  • "The state constitution should never be amended to limit Californians' right to their own personal and religious beliefs. It should scrupulously uphold equal rights under the law. That is what it now does, based on a state Supreme Court ruling this year affirming a right to same-sex marriage. Voters should not take the extraordinary step of amending the constitution to take a right away. They should reject Proposition 8."
    San Jose Mercury News
  • "The Star urges a "no" vote on Proposition 8, which would embed discrimination in the California Constitution."
    Ventura County Star
  • "Same-sex vows cause no harm to our families. The reasons given for Proposition 8 just don’t stand up to scrutiny."
    Redding Record Searchlight
  • "The decision to marry is those couples' business, and no one else's. There is no compelling public policy reason to reverse that arrangement, and voters should say no to Prop. 8."
    Riverside Press-Enterprise
  • "In our view, Proposition 8 is a misguided and unconstitutional proposal. We urge voters to reject Proposition 8."
    Napa Valley Register
  • "Same-sex marriage does not diminish marriage between a man and a woman. It's a basic civil right that everyone - regardless of gender - should have. The time has come. Therefore, we oppose Proposition 8."
    Palm Springs Desert Sun
  • "The freedom to marry is fundamental in our society, just like the freedoms of religion and speech. Our laws should treat everyone equally. No on 8."
    Tracy Press
  • "Even people with reservations about same-sex marriage should consider the import of voting against a legal right. We support the right under California law for gays and lesbians to marry. Vote no on Proposition 8."
    Santa Cruz Sentinel
  • "All loving, committed couples should have the right to marry, with all the benefits and obligations that relationship incurs. That's the law now in California, and it should remain the law."
    Merced Sun Star
  • "The arguments against same-sex marriages seem close to arguments against mixed-race marriages you'd hear back in the '60s. Hopefully we'll get beyond all that some day. Vote no on Proposition 8."
    Chico Enterprise-Record
  • "The California Supreme Court has quite rationally decreed that the state has no power to take away anyone's right to marry the partner of her or his choice. We agree. Vote "no" on Proposition 8 on Nov. 4."
    San Gabriel Valley Tribune
  • "Advocates of Proposition 8 offer several arguments, but none of them stand up to close scrutiny."
    Santa Rosa Press Democrat
  • "No sea aceptable imponer estas creencias a toda la sociedad y, mucho menos, cambiar la Constitución de California. Estamos con el NO a la Proposición 8."
    La Opinión
  • "Vote NO on Proposition 8"
    La Prensa San Diego
  • "8 NO. Our California Constitution guarantees the same freedoms and rights to everyone - no one group should be singled out or treated differently."
    Asian Week
  • "Reject Proposition 8. California is better than that."
    LA Daily News
  • "Who gets to define marriage? If it is the state, then constitutionally, we all must be treated the same."
    The Daily Breeze
  • "It is morally deficient to codify intolerance, and wrong to deprive certain citizens of basic rights on no higher grounds than the prejudice of others. But the presence among Prop. 8 detractors of major California companies like PG&E, AT&T, Google and Levi Strauss illustrates that this issue speaks to economics as well, if somewhat more quietly than to equity and civil liberty. Prop. 8 fails this test, too, pointing California toward a less promising future."
    San Francisco Business Times
  • "NO, NO, NO"
    San Francisco Bay Guardian

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Conservative, Virtue-Based Path to Same-Sex Marriage

The following was originally written as a letter in response to someone who felt that same-sex marriage was only about the selfish indulgence of base inclinations, while traditional marriage was modeled on the Christ-like virtues of self-sacrifice and selfless love of another.

I appreciated your thoughts about the purpose of marriage. I agree that marriage ought not to be about the fulfillment of selfish desires, but about the cultivation and practice of the virtues of altruism, serving others, and love (the "agape" kind as famously described in 1 Corinthians 13). Ideally, of course, we should be altruistic, loving and of service to all others, but being the fallible imperfect humans that we are, we can best only strive to come close to that in the context of one other person we devote our life to in marriage, and hope that the altruistic and loving tendencies that we practice within our own family might spill over a little bit into the rest of the people around us. Theologically, as you have expressed, a marriage of two fallible people should be a symbol and an imperfect reflection of the perfect love of God for his creation. God by his grace working through such marriages can inspire others and spread his grace.

The way I was raised, these ideas weren't spoken of much outside of the officiant's remarks at weddings, but I think I absorbed them more strongly by my parents' living example. I grew up with a picture in my head of what my life should be like, and there was no question that it should be centered around a marriage. Thus, at age 20, when I discovered that I was gay, the most difficult part was that my picture I'd always had, of what my life should be, seemed irreparably shattered, and there was nothing but an empty dark unknown in its place. Over time, blessed by the strong support of loving friends and family, I was able to integrate a new picture, one that preserved all of the essential values that I was raised with, but put together in a new way, in the kind of a life I would be able to live with integrity. That new picture also centered around a marriage, with all the same core values I was raised with, except that it involved two men rather than a man and a woman.

I realize that's a radical idea for you. It was a radical idea for me at one time too. But try to imagine my experience. You'll note I said I discovered that I was gay. It's certainly not something I chose. I was raised, like everybody else, thinking I was straight. I was shocked and resistant when I first realized that I wasn't straight. But I know now that being gay is profoundly who I am, and I know that I was created this way. Given that realization, there are four basic paths I could have taken:
(1) live a life of selfish hedonism
(2) marry a woman anyway, and force myself to live a "straight lifestyle"
(3) live a celibate life of monkish asceticism
(4) marry a man, and live in a completely traditional marriage aside from the gender of my spouse

Let's dismiss option 1. Hedonism would be completely untrue to who I am and the values I was raised with. I think we can agree it's not a good option.

Option number 2 is the naive solution, but we've seen too much wreckage from people who have tried that path. Marriage is challenging enough when our instinctive attractions are harnessed in the same direction as our higher goals. To lack that part of the "glue" in a marriage at the same time as attractions are pulling you in a different direction is an invitation for failure. Moreover, that choice is in conflict with the value of self-integrity (I would always being lying to myself and to others at some level), not to mention the value of putting my spouse before myself. How would that ever be fair to the woman involved, since there would always be some part of me I can't fully give her in the way she deserves, and she would be denied the opportunity to have a man who could love her in every dimension? That type of marriage is built on a rotten foundation.

Some would recommend option 3, celibacy, but that's a sad option for someone who finds themselves capable of loving commitment, to have every channel for expressing it with fidelity and integrity prohibited by legalistic moralists. I by no means wish to disparage those who find themselves called to a life of celibacy, which can be noble and rewarding. But it's frankly cruel and misguided to urge that life on those who are not called to it. I was created with a rare capacity to love another man, in the way that most men love women. None of us knows why. But wouldn't it be blasphemous to claim that God made a mistake in his creation, or that God were unable to work his grace through me as I am? I firmly believe that my capacity to love is something that can be used for good purposes, in ways that God would bless, and that it is a kind of blasphemy to squander God's gifts by letting them wither in us unused. Which leads me to option 4.

In thinking about marriage (and believe me, I have thought about it a great deal), I came to realize that there was nothing in the essential concept of it that two men couldn't undertake. Two men are as capable as a man and woman of exchanging vows of lifelong loving commitment, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and faithfully living out those vows. Two men are as capable as a man and woman of striving within their marriage to put the other first, striving to copy the example of our parents' faithful marriages, striving to be a good example for the younger generation. Two men as are capable as a man and woman of being a symbol and a vessel for God's grace.

That's the kind of marriage that George and I had in mind when we exchanged our marriage vows, and that we have been endeavoring to practice in the seven years so far that we've been living out those promises. The vows we exchanged were the same in content as yours or as any married couple, and equally solemn. Our marriage is no more a selfish indulgence in physical attractions than yours is. We're striving toward the same marriage ideal that you are, as best each of us can with the particular gifts and limitations with which God created us.