Hunger, Food Stamps, and Social Stigma

When the new numbers about food insecurity came out a few weeks ago, they shocked even the people who expected the statistics to be bad. The number of people struggling to put food on the table is frightening. The recession is challenging more and more families to make ends meet. The result is that many families who have been solidly middle class for generations are now seeking assistance from local food banks and applying for food stamps.

On Thanksgiving weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the soaring use of food stamps and the fading stigma. The other night when I was watching TV, a lead for a story that would be airing on the local news cast later that evening stated that the users of food stamps was increasing and “looking more and more like you.”

I am gratified to see that the social stigma of food stamps is going away, but why is it there in the first place? Families who are chronically hungry, who have struggled for generations to survive are fighting systemic poverty, and the greater society always blames the victim. People are shamed when they need to turn to social agencies for help, and those who stand back and judge accuse those in poverty of milking the system.

Suddenly, with the rising unemployment numbers, more people are close to the struggle. Either we are close to someone who is struggling, or we are struggling ourselves. More of us can relate directly to the struggle, and that makes people realize that there is no shame in it.

When times get better, I hope that the shame doesn’t return.

Heartbreak in New York

Once again, being on the right side of history is proving to be cold comfort when one’s civil rights are at stake. I am so tired of waiting. I am so tired of feeling like I have to justify my existence and my life. I am tired of paying unfair taxes. I am tired of hearing about the growing violence against my LGBT brothers and sisters. And I am tired of people not copping to the hate they feel in their hearts for us, insisting that they not be called bigots while they deny a woman the right to be by her dying spouse’s side in the hospital.

I am tired of bigots claiming moral high ground while they are silent about the outrageous proposed Ugandan law that would put gay HIV positive people to death in that country. I am really tired of people claiming that they love us, when it is clear that hating the “sin” is equivalent to hating the “sinner”.

The real sin is hate and not taking responsibility for one’s own ignorance and fear.

New York missed an opportunity to be on the right side of history today. what a shame.

A Plea for Decorum and Civility

Since the Presidential debates of 2008, I have been a believer in the potential of the Internet and social networking tools to be productive tools of public discourse. It was so exciting to come home from work every day and watch the news or the debates and connect online with people all over the country about issues.

I am decidedly left of center politically, a proud liberal dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and I am guilty of conversing with others who more often than not share my convictions. It is not that I don’t want to debate the issues, with people on the right, but I will admit that I don’t relish the conflict.

I would be interested in civil public discourse, but I have to say that the extreme views of the Tea Party led by Rush Limbaugh and the Fox Network are not conducive to such constructive discourse. And now it seems that some social networkers on the right are interested in public discourse, but only anonymously and only to be personally insulting and abusive to individuals who oppose them. At least that has been my experience.

It is natural for debate about important issues to make people angry, but if we can’t commit to treat each other with respect, and only resort to trying to intimidate each other by yelling down people with insults at town halls or tweeting cruel insults anonymously at people we disagree with, we’re never going to be able to find sustainable solutions to major problems.

I have invited conservatives to productive and respectful dialog here before, and I am doing it again. I continue to believe that finding common ground is possible, but this is a two way street, and people on both sides have to be willing to meet in the middle. Clinging to opposite extremes is only going to keep us stuck where are instead of moving productively forward.

Minding the Semantics of Marriage Equality

I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines in the press, mainstream and LGBT, about marriage equality framed in the term “gay marriage.” Here is an example from a tweet from the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

I it unfortunate that “gay marriage” is the term that has stuck in the popular vernacular. My wife and I were on the front lines in the beginning of this civil rights movement when it began in 2004.  At that time, we were coached by the leading activists of the movement, including many folks from NCLR, not to talk about “gay marriage,” but rather same-sex marriage or marriage equality. There are many good reasons not to use the term “gay marriage.

On of the reasons I am opposed to the “gay marriage” frame is that many lesbians, myself included, don’t identify as “gay.” “Gay” is by and large a term used to describe homosexual men, and as a woman, I simply don’t identify. Gay is gender specific and exclusive of women.

Perhaps more importantly, the term “gay marriage” frames the civil rights issue as if the institution of marriage would be different for same-sex couples. Someone once said to me “we don’t want a disco version of marriage! We want equal marriage rights!”

I also understand the fact that “gay marriage” is the dominant paradigm, and that when people do a news search about it they are not going to search for marriage equality. Bloggers, journalists, and activists want their web pages to appear in the search, so they have to use the terms, too. I know, also, that “gay” is three letters and will take up far less real estate in a headline or a 140-character tweet.

However, is is too much to ask the queer press to at least make an effort to frame the national conversation differently? The example of the tweet that I cited before from NCLR didn’t take up nearly Twitter’s 140-character limit.

I understand the reasons why so many in the queer press write and talk about same-sex marriage using the frame of “gay marriage,” but I see plenty of opportunities where people can be mindful and talk about marriage equality instead. I fear that “gay marriage” has become so pervasive that we in the marriage equality movement have fully adopted it, too.

I sincerely hope that people will be more mindful and change the frame of the conversation whenever the opportunity arises.

Wanting Better from the Media on Race

As representatives of the fourth leg of democracy, I wish that reporters had framed differently the coverage of President Obama’s meeting with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley. Framing the meeting as a “beer summit” is immediately dismissive of what could be an important turning point in the public discourse on race. The intention of this meeting wasn’t to solve the problem of racism in this country, as some of the questions from the press may have suggested.

I think that President Obama is smart enough to understand that one meeting over a beer isn’t going to provide the necessary platform to heal the nation of it’s wounds about the legacy of slavery. However, I think that an informal meeting over a beer can diffuse a painful situation on a topic that many Americans have been quick to respond to and have many difficult conversations about.

No one is perfect in this conversation; I have no problem believing that Gates lost his cool when it probably wasn’t appropriate; I don’t think that Obama chose his words well when he said that the Cambridge police acted stupidly; I have no doubt that Sgt. Crowley would never have arrested Dr. Gates had he been a white man. These are all actions that are going to provoke justifiable anger.

The ugliness of racism is a reality that we all live with. White people can’t know what it’s like to experience racism, and people of all colors are burdened with the guilt of racism, try as we might to resist it within ourselves. We may not be racists, but we sometimes act in racist ways, most times with the opposite intentions.

We have to come together in honesty, empathy, and forgiveness for ourselves and each other. Whether it’s over a beer,  a cup of coffee, or over Facebook, I think we need to risk saying stupid things, be ready to apologize, and be ready to forgive. This is the only way we’re going to be able to foster real healing on the issue of racism.