Thursday, January 16, 2020

Too Gay

Implicit bias” refers to the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our decisions, actions, and understanding without our conscious awareness or control. Project Implicit was founded in 1988 by scientists from the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases, and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data about implicit bias.

Project Implicit’s simple online tests use your individual reaction times to measure how easily your subconscious connects particular attributes with either positive or negative terms. Their website has collected data from hundreds of thousands of people regarding traits from skin color to weight. Go ahead, try a couple of implicit bias tests for yourself. It's worth ten minutes of your time.

Years ago I took the tests for sex, race, and sexual orientation. This week for the first time I took the test measuring implicit bias regarding disabled and abled people. 

Like 14% of participants, my responses “suggested a slight automatic preference for Abled Persons over Disabled Persons.”

Our implicit biases can reveal themselves in other situations, from stroke-damaged brains to tense sporting events and enraged video gaming. Until recently, my favorite examples of personally outing implicit bias all happened during my appearances on Chicagoland talk radio shows. 

When I worked at the American Civil Liberties Union during the 90s, hot-button issues included Illinois’ so-called “Defense of Marriage” bill, as well as our lawsuit challenging government sponsorship of scouting programs because they excluded atheists and “avowed homosexuals.” Occasionally conservative radio hosts would invite me on their shows to discuss my cases. My presence acted as a primitive form of “click-bait” for some of their most rabid listeners. I found that by calmly presenting a few simple legal analogies I could provoke callers into spewing openly racist and sexist sentiments.

I’ve already written thousands of words on this blog about my family’s experiences since I moved to Bellingham to take a job with the State at Western Washington University. As an English Major, I usually see the story as a “dramedy.” The A Plot is about how poorly prepared we all are to deal with mental illness, both individually and as a society. Nevertheless, there’s also a B Plot about the mostly comic challenges facing a gay dad. 

On good days, I’m "Gay Sitcom Dad" instead, and my disability becomes the tragicomic B Plot. On bad days, I can’t help noticing how implicit and explicit homophobia amplify the effects of disability discrimination.  

For example: 

One day at work when Id been in my new job with the Washington Attorney General’s Office for a couple of months, we were heading to a meeting with Bruce Shepard, then the President of Western Washington University. I was waiting outside President Shepard’s office with my supervisor and three academic employees. I’d already worked closely with all four women. One of the client representatives took this opportunity to ask me about my family. I told her I had a 7-year-old son and two 10-year-old daughters. 

As invariably happens, someone asked if the girls are twins. As usual I said no, they were born two weeks apart and adopted separately, one at birth and the other from the foster system three and a half years later. The girls are very different, and I described one as “ten going on six and still playing with dolls,” and the other as “ten going on sixteen,” then made a comment about wishing I could delay puberty. I’m sure I am not the first father, gay or straight, single or married, who has told someone at the office that part of him wishes his daughter could stay a little girl just a little bit longer.

Afterwards my supervisor took me aside and told me my oversharing was unprofessional. Months later, when my employers were looking for ways to get rid of me, they sent a belligerent letter to my PTSD therapist asking for her opinion on whether this puberty episode demonstrated my judgment was too impaired to practice law. When the State illegally fired me at Western Washington University’s behest, this incident outside President Shepard’s office was one of their stated pretexts. 

Here are some other examples of both innocuous and noxious experiences I had while I was working at Western Washington University for Attorney General Bob Ferguson:

1.     Annual conference for all of the State’s education attorneys. During discussion of campus anti-fraternization and sexual harassment policies, a veteran Assistant Attorney General quoted a faculty member at his college as saying “If we can’t have sex with our students, who will we sleep with?” No one complained about this anecdote or criticized the speaker.

2.     Washington Attorney General’s Office annual all-attorney conference. The conference theme was diversity. Two keynote speeches were by a black attorney who made jokes about stereotypes, and by the new President of the University of Washington. Then-Chief Deputy Attorney General Dave Horn introduced UW President Anna Cauce. I was discouraged when he described her background as a celebrated woman, Latina, and immigrant – but not as an out lesbian. I wondered how many of the 550 attorneys present realized Dave Horn himself is openly gay.

3.     Opening my mail while standing in the doorway next to my supervisor’s office. In Fall 2015, like many other folks affiliated with Western, I received an invitation to President Shepard’s annual holiday reception that included typical “Plus 1” language. As we stood there casually chatting about the Shepards’ annual social tradition, I asked the other attorney in the office if I should take a college freshman to the party as my date. In light of our prior communication problems, I thought that joking about the party invitation would give me an opportunity to demonstrate that I can distinguish between “can” and “should.” (Even if, like Stephen Sondheim or Christopher Isherwood, I someday fall in love with someone thirty years younger than myself, I can’t imagine a situation where I would take this new beau to my first major social event at a new job.) She was not amused. At the end of our short discussion, my supervisor asked me in an exasperated tone why I blurt out things like this. Based on our prior discussions, I understood her to be referring to her concern that I over-rely on humor in awkward social situations. I explained that such impulsiveness is a typical symptom of stress and anxiety.

4.     Holiday lunch for the folks who work in Western Washington University’s law and compliance office suite. We walked down the hill together to a waterfront restaurant located in a local hotel and spa. As my supervisor and the rest of us walked through the lobby, a straight colleague joked that we should all get massages instead. As far as I know, no one suggested he should be subject to discipline for this comment.

5.     Washington Attorney General’s Office finally approved a process for creating employee affinity groups. I contacted the lesbian Assistant Attorney General who was organizing the LGBT group. I described my community advocacy background, and signed up for the affinity group. She asked me to review a draft of the group’s proposed charter. I objected to offensive wording that suggested LGBT people are more likely than others to act unprofessionally. She agreed the office's draft language was improper.

Let’s zero in on the party invitation incident described in Item No. 3, which occurred a few weeks before my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD in November 2015. In hindsight, I recognize my disability was already exacerbating my awkward behavior in stressful social situations. In any event, I did not mean to offend my supervisor, Bellingham Education “Team Leader” Kerena Higgins. I certainly did not believe my rhetorical question warranted harsh employment sanctions – particularly in light of comparable non-gay workplace comments like the above examples. At the time, my employers didn’t suggest they believed so either. 

So I didn’t think any further about our brief private conversation regarding the party invitation. Until my long-delayed performance evaluation on January 7, 2016, when Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch and Division Chief Michael Shinn included this incident in their shocking and hyperbolic list of accusations about my conduct. They revealed for the first time that the State had included the party invitation episode among its bases for denying me the $3,000 raise given to every other attorney in the office – on the previously undisclosed ground that Ms. Higgins complained about being offended because she has a high-school-aged son.

If Ms. Higgins had said something about her teenaged son during our conversation months before, I would have apologized for unintentionally offending her. I would have expressed empathy as a fellow parent. But I would also have used the opportunity to gently educate her about how singularly horrifying the “pedophilia libel” is to gay people, especially to someone who has spent three decades as an outspoken advocate both for the LGBT community and on children’s issues. 

I’ve been doing this kind of legal work for long enough to recognize clear evidence of sexual orientation discrimination. In particular, I can hear the homophobic dog whistle linking every single gay man to accusations of pedophilia. If there are other employment lawyers out there who think I’m mistaken, feel free to leave a public comment or to email me privately.

As directed by my employer’s written anti-discrimination policy, I drafted a complaint regarding the State's handling of the party invitation incident. I also identified numerous corroborating examples of workplace homophobia I had observed and experienced since my arrival in Bellingham, including some of the above examples.

I did not want to file a formal complaint without first giving my novice supervisor an opportunity to respond to my concerns. Before meeting privately in my office, I gave her a draft describing the substance of my sexual orientation discrimination complaint. 

When we met, I was surprised by Ms. Higgins’ insistence that she had done nothing wrong in connection with our discussion about the holiday party invitation six month earlier. She did not appear to understand me when I explained how much harm the "pedophilia libel" has caused to gay men. She said I was the one who owed her an apology. (I of course apologized for unintentionally offending her.) And she told me I was the one who needed to do a better job of having empathy and putting myself in other people's shoes. 

The next day I submitted my formal complaint that the State had discriminated against me on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination. As I've discussed at length elsewhere, attorneys for the State made a bad situation even worse. They retaliated against my discrimination complaint by using it as a pretext for illegally firing me based on separate supervisor criticisms regarding my workplace conduct – even as they stonewalled my employment attorney's repeated attempts to seek a reasonable accommodation of my disability. Meanwhile, their investigator was so busy executing his secret assignment (i.e., vilify Roger while white-washing the State) that he never got around to the job he was actually hired to do, which was to investigate my well-documented complaint of sexual orientation discrimination. This is what homophobia looks like in action.

But wait – here’s one more example.

Early in my employment with the State, too many high-ranking folks at Western and at the Attorney General’s Office concluded I was a “bad fit.” Unfortunately for my supervisors, they had a Human Resources problem – everyone also acknowledged I was providing exceptional legal services. To justify my termination, the State had to rely on dubious examples regarding my workplace conduct. Like this gem, which I recently shared with the Board of Trustees of Western Washington University at their December 2019 public meeting:  

When the lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office destroyed my life, they did it to accommodate then-Western President Bruce Shepard’s malice and prejudice. I look forward to sharing the detailed evidence I’ve gathered regarding President Shepard’s role. For now, I’ll point to one specific example, because it happened here in this room. 

I sang with Seattle Men’s Chorus for fifteen years. The Trustees were aware of my participation in the chorus; several of you had attended our concerts. SMC is one of the nation's oldest gay choruses, and one of Washington’s most successful arts organizations. During a public meeting of the Board in 2015, I compared the Trustees’ momentous task of choosing a new university president to the Seattle Men’s Chorus search to replace its conductor for the first time in thirty-five years. 

Documents produced under the Public Records Act revealed that the Washington Attorney General’s Office took adverse employment action against me because President Shepard told them he was offended by my LGBT arts analogy. 

Let that sink in. Bruce Shepard had me fired, in part, because he thought the real-world analogy I shared with you Trustees was too gay. 

As I saw with my talk radio opponents in Chicagoland during the 1990s, scraping the bottom of the logical barrel often reveals underlying prejudice.

During my time at Western Washington University working for Attorney General Bob Ferguson, I was shocked by the “closety” workplace culture, despite the presence of numerous LGBT employees. This attitude reflects deeply rooted societal bias, and too often results in illegal discrimination. Employers generally cannot intrude into employees’ personal lives, and many of my former colleagues are fiercely protective of their own privacy. For example, unlike me, my supervisor did not have numerous large portraits of her children hanging in her office at Western. But inclusion means LGBT state employees, just like employees with nonobvious disabilities, are entitled to reveal our identities and refer to our families during conversations with colleagues and with the public if we choose.

In contrast with visible traits like race and gender, a gay dad has to come out every day. The quintessential “heterosexual privilege” is that a straight lawyer is free to casually refer to meeting his wife and kids after work without raising eyebrows, but if I mention going on a date with a man or describe my family or my chorus, I risk being accused of “flaunting my sexuality” and “bringing up personal stuff.” 

As we saw with the military, “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” is an unworkable and immoral disaster. Nothing does more harm to the dignity and mental health of LGBT people than living in a society that explicitly and implicitly demands we stay in the closet.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Pick Your Battles

Joy-sparking tidiness expert Marie Kondo says “I now keep my collection of books to about thirty volumes at any one time.”

Leishman homes have the same rule – except we apply it on a per shelf or per stack basis. Any more books would be structurally unsound.

Whenever we visit my parents’ house for Grandma food or a technology house call, I check out my mother’s various stacks of current library books and new acquisitions. Tonight when we go over for family dinner I need to remember to return some Tupperware as well as Mom’s copy of Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.

This cultural exchange has been going on ever since I left home for college. I vividly remember returning for Winter Break one year and discovering my mother had recently acquired a copy of a book called How To Raise Teenagers.

I pointed out that it was too late – I’d already entered my twenties, after spending my teen years as an overachieving (and thoroughly repressed) eldest child and good little Mormon boy.

My mother sighed. “Before I had a son in his teens. Now I have teenagers.”

I’m the oldest of four brothers. After leaving the dorms, I lived either alone or with gay male partners and housemates. As I wrote in Puberty So Far, “female secrets remain a mystery to me – particularly all that sex and hormones stuff.”

My daughters are now high school freshmen. It turns out adolescence is an exciting time of change for everyone in the house. Id like to characterize my parenting approach as “Getting to Yes!” Hopefully I’ll get to finish that upbeat essay someday. No one likes “Nagging Papa” or “Angry Papa,” especially me.

In the meantime, however, my parenting strategy is primarily defensive. It can be summarized as “Pick Your Battles.”

While writing this essay, I examined a wide variety of books about parenting teenaged girls. Sadly, I only had time to review the book covers. Parenting Teenage Girls is a typical example. The cover pictures a hugging mother and daughter, and offers an “Easy guide to connect with your teenage daughter.”    

Fortunately, I already did my research years ago, after the ultrasound revealed our birth mother in Puyallup was having a girl. Most parenting books describe a common dynamic of teen girls butting heads with their mothers, while staying Daddy’s little girl. Our darling daughters have two fathers. My secret plan was to subtly redirect all their hostility toward my ex, while encouraging them to stay Papa’s little girls. 

Unfortunately for my clever scheme, this August my ex and his husband filed for divorce, and my ex moved to the Midwest to start a new life. The kids look forward to visiting Daddy and his new partner during school breaks, but otherwise they’re are staying with me fulltime in Bellingham.

After five months of solo parenting, I’m still groping for a Plan B.

I saw my first musical on Broadway in 1988. I was in law school, and Manhattan was just a 90-minute train ride away. My voluminous collection of Playbills begins with the program from the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The incomparable Bernadette Peters played the Witch.

Near the end of the show, just before the Witch sings “Children Will Listen,” the ghost of the Baker’s Wife appears to him. (She was crushed by a giant in the previous scene, after philandering with Cinderella’s Prince Charming.) The Baker is alone in the woods with their crying baby.

BAKER:  Maybe I just wasn't meant to have children--

WIFE:     Don't say that! Of course you were meant to have children.

BAKER:  But how will I go about being a father … Alone?

Her answer is a line that’s been stuck in my head for the last few months:

       “Be father and mother, you’ll know what to do.”

I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

The most accurate book cover I found was for Parenting Teen Girls: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Teenage Daughters Today. It shows a girl alone, staring at her smart phone.

My children are part of the first generation to grow up permanently attached to their iPhones. (As McSweeney’s petulant "Teen Yoda" says, “Connect me to all living things, it does.”) We are only beginning to understand the disruptive impact of this technology. I have an upcoming series of “Unplugged” essays exploring the science and sociology of cell phone and internet addiction.

In addition to rewiring human brains, the advent of iPhones fundamentally changed parenting. Today I control a nuclear weapon that is far more powerful than anything in the primitive arsenal of my parents generation – grounding, chores, bread and water diet, beatings, car privileges, whatever. Nothing compares to the threat of taking away a twenty-first century teenager’s cell phone.

The new Apple operating system makes this part of my job even easier. My kids and I are on the same “Family Sharing” plan. As the “Family Organizer,” I can use my own iPhone to remotely impose individualized time or content limitations on each of my kids, or to disable their internet access completely. Wailing and gnashing of teeth are just one click away.  

My parents’ and my nephew’s phones are also part of the same AT&T account. Fortunately, I haven’t had to use the “Screen Time” function on them.

With really great power comes really great responsibility.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Not Gay Enough

I never wanted a goatee until I couldn’t have one.

December 1998

I didn’t used to be a facial hair person. Nevertheless, every Christmas for the last twenty-five years I stopped shaving in honor of Winter Break. It’s become a combination time-lapse photographic record / sociology experiment.

For most of my 30s and 40s, the beard barely lasted the two weeks of break. One year, very long ago, the beard survived until October. (There were extenuating circumstances – I was afraid my boyfriend would dump me if he saw my chin.) A couple of other times I made it to March before the itchiness drove me crazy.  

As you can see from the vintage photo, my beard wasn’t always so white. I blame my children. As usual.

November 2019

When I reached my 50s, I began keeping the beard until spring. I've decided it works for me. When you’re basically chinless, a beard is a useful framing device for your round face. (Apparently, like everything else, Shakespeare figured this out much earlier in his writing career.) Once you get past that prickly initial phase, beards are nice and soft. And you soon appreciate the freedom from shaving every day. 

I also felt a duty to provide truth in advertising. Even though in my mind I look like a bohemian grad student, in reality I’m a middle-aged dad who drives a minivan. It was time to embrace my true identity. 

Fall 2019

The last couple of years I started the beard in September. It’s okay to wear white after Labor Day. 

However, the early beard means I’m already bored with it. Over the weekend I decided I was ready for a break. As usual, I used the shaving process to experiment. For example, last year I tried a 70s porn mustache. For one day. 

This year I realized I’m the only gay man in America who’s never had a goatee. So I emerged from the bathroom looking like this:

January 2020

Everyone in the living room shrieked, even Oliver and the dogs. Eleanor said the dark patch in the middle made me look like I’d drooled gravy.

January 2020

Shaving off the white bits made my children shriek even louder. So now I’m clean shaven once again.

Sigh. By the time I get to have a goatee they’ll just be for straight people.

Previous facial hair essays:

"Keep the Beard?" (2/10/18)

"Shaving the Beard" (5/10/18)

Trim the Beard?” (11/18/18)

BYU December 1986
(front row center in fake beard - it's a long story)

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Hindsight and 2020

Last January I published a “Year in Review” blog post listing my favorite movies, books, etc. for 2018. Over the holidays I started writing a similar post covering 2019, but eventually I abandoned the attempt.

I also tried listing resolutions for the new year, like I did the year before in “Resolute.” Once again I found myself with nothing but padding. 

On the 2019 arts side:   I saw very few movies in 2019. No one ever invited me out other than my son. As a result, any list of favorite movies would have convinced you I have the cinematic taste of an eleven-year-old video gamer.

On the 2020 resolutions side:  I didn’t have the heart to measure my expectations against 2019’s many frustrations, adventures, and surprises. The future is even more of a mystery. Nevertheless, right now I feel healthier and happier than I’ve been in my entire life.

Favorite television shows I saw in 2019:

1.     Fleabag

4.     Bojack Horseman

5.     The Expanse

Favorite books I read in 2019:

1.     Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence

2.     Louise Penny – the complete Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries 

5.     Leslie Jamison, The Recovering:  Intoxication and its Aftermath 

6.     Isaac Butler & Dan Kois, The World Only Spins Forward:  the Ascent of Angels in America

7.     Esme Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias

9.     Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

10.   Michelle Obama, Becoming

11.   Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

12.   Sheila Weller, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge

13.   Judith Grisel, Never Enough:  the Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction

14.   Craig Brown, Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

15.   Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50

17.   Dana Schwartz, Choose Your Own Disaster

19.   P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Offing

20.   Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

Last year my reading list included several memoirs by writers living with mental illness. I’ve already started 2020 with another example of the genre, John Elder Robison's Look Me in the Eye:  My Life with Asberger’s

The author’s younger brother is Augusten Burroughs, the crazy gay memoirist who wrote Running With Scissors. In his foreword to Look Me in the Eye, Burroughs shares the advice he offered as his brother began chronicling life on the autism spectrum. “I gave him the oldest rule in writing:  Show, don’t tell.”

My top television and book picks for 2019 both were British imports. Here’s the Wikipedia synopsis for Fleabag, which you can stream on Amazon Prime:

Fleabag is a British comedy-drama television show created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Waller-Bridge plays Fleabag, an angry, confused, sexually voracious young woman living in London. Sian Clifford and Olivia Colman also star. Andrew Scott joined the cast in the second series [as “the Hot Priest”]. The programme frequently breaks the fourth wall with Fleabag providing exposition, internal monologues and a running commentary to the audience throughout.

This weekend Waller-Bridge added a couple of Golden Globes to her Emmys. Go ahead and jump on the critical bandwagon – Fleabag’s writing and acting really are exceptional.

Folks are less likely to be familiar with Geoff Dyer, an English writer now living in California. He published Out of Sheer Rage in 2009. I ordered the book from the library last year after seeing it described as “the best book ever about writer’s block.” Steve Martin's blurb hails it as “the funniest book I have ever read.” Here’s the Amazon synopsis:

Geoff Dyer was a talented young writer, full of energy and reverence for the craft, and determined to write a study of D. H. Lawrence. But he was also thinking about a novel, and about leaving Paris, and maybe moving in with his girlfriend in Rome, or perhaps traveling around for a while. Out of Sheer Rage is Dyer's account of his struggle to write the Lawrence book – a portrait of a man tormented, exhilarated, and exhausted. Dyer travels all over the world, grappling not only with his fascinating subject but with all the glorious distractions and needling anxieties that define the life of a writer.

In addition to its stream of consciousness noodling about the writing process, Out of Sheer Rage resonated with me for several additional reasons. First, Dyer and I come from similar-ish backgrounds. As an American English Major who grew up in Canada during the 1970s, I get an alarming percentage of Dyer’s references and jokes, including his adolescent obsession with the oeuvre of hack thriller author Alistair McLean. Second, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Dyer writes with a wit that is incisively funny without descending into snark, candidly self-lacerating but deeply humanistic. Third, and most importantly, both Dyer and Waller-Bridge successfully create and sustain an unique voice that connects directly with the members of their audience.

Voice happens to be one of my obsessions as a reader and writer. Not just because I’m a first person writer myself, but also because I’ve come to embrace a model of human brain function that relies heavily on the metaphor of the sometimes competing, sometimes collaborating voices in your head. Or at least the voices in my head.

Fleabag and Out of Sheer Rage pose the same artistic question:  As a writer, how do you find your individual voice and then use it to both show and tell?

On to 2020. 

Two of the Leishmans of Bellingham are known for their fierce but contrasting commitment to television. My younger daughter has very broad taste:  she will repeatedly binge-watch every TV series you’ve ever heard of. Currently she’s revisiting Smash, while simultaneously cooking dinner, making a TikTok, and Snapchatting with three friends.

In contrast, my nephew is utterly obsessed with a single show:  The CW channel’s long-running Supernatural. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Supernatural lore, and an impressive collection of artifacts related to the show. Tragically, the series is in its final season. 

Before Christmas I was reading my weekly email newsletter from Village Books, Bellingham’s marvelous independent bookstore. There was an author book signing announcement for The Adventurous Eaters Club, a newly published book about making healthy family meals together. I thought to myself, “Hmm, someone recommended this book for me as a single dad, maybe I should stop by Village Book and check it out.” However, I noticed the meet-the-author event was that same evening, when I would be in Vancouver for chorus.

The author’s name and picture looked familiar. Who’s Misha Collins? Then I recognized him as one of the actors from Supernatural. Collins and his wife wrote The Adventurous Eaters Club.

Grandma wasn’t home, but I left her a message about my last-minute discovery. That put me in a moral quandary. Do I create irresistible pressure by also texting the news to my nephew during his day at high school?

I am the best uncle ever.

My friend BJ Fogg is a behavior scientist at Stanford, and an expert on habit formation. As classmates at Brigham Young University, BJ and I were among the cofounders of Student Review, BYU’s pioneering independent student newspaper.

Last week BJ appeared on the Today Show to discuss his new book Tiny Habits: the Small Changes that Change Everything. Here’s a link to BJ's book page at Amazon.

This year I’m taking BJ’s advice. I won’t be revisiting my 2019 resolutions, and I won’t be making a long list of new resolutions for 2020. Instead, I’m going to focus on a single goal:  Prepare and eat more healthy family meals. Everything else will follow. Fortunately, my parents gave me a signed copy of Misha and Vicki Collins’ The Adventurous Eaters Club for Christmas.

In spite of everything, I can already tell 2020 is going to be a great year.

Postscript - Happy Birthday Dad

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Peacekeepers in the War on Christmas

"Making Spirits Bright" 2019
(Photo by Mark Burnham)

Vancouver Men’s Chorus is a nation of immigrants.

Almost half of our 100-plus singers were born outside of Canada. We have native speakers who can coach our pronunciation of lyrics from Afrikaans to Yoruba. However, currently I’m the only member of the chorus who commutes to rehearsal from another country.

Each December during the run of “Making Spirits Bright,” VMC’s Asian-Canadian cohort assembles for their annual group photo. If you’re wondering, the membership of the “Vancouver Gaysian Men’s Chorus” is not co-extensive with the tenor section of VMC. This year’s VGMC photograph includes two Basses, five Baritones, five Second Tenors, and five First Tenors. Yogi, who is missing from the photo because he was busy selling raffle tickets during intermission, breaks the three-way tie. Yep, Yogi is a First Tenor.

VGMC 2019

Vancouver Men’s Chorus presents its major concerts in December and June, with six or seven shows spread over a couple of weeks like glitter. Many community choruses rehearse for months in preparation for just one or two performances. I prefer doing a show multiple times. Opening night offers a thrilling adrenaline rush, but it’s more fun to achieve a smooth routine. Eventually you have the words, notes, and even the choreography down. The audience gets a polished, unterrified performance. The conductor zeroes in on artistic details. Everyone else spends their extra time taking selfies and flirting.

Nevertheless, before each performance we still gather on stage to warm up and review problem spots. Now that the concert run is over, I can reveal my own hopeless causes from Making Spirits Bright XXXIX:

Firstthe Second Tenors remained tentative to the bitter end on the entrance for our countermelody in “The Holy and the Ivy.” Unfortunately, the song is a complex six-part canon with too much going on, so the conductor sometimes forgot to cue us. Fortunately, the song is a complex six-part canon with too much going on, so no one in the audience noticed or cared. 

Second, by opening night I accepted I would never memorize every line of rapid lyrics from our Haitian Creole carol. Frankly, there’s no way I can squeeze any more nonsense syllables into my brain without deleting whatever’s left of the seven-times multiplication table.

MSB 2017

After the Gaysian photo session last year, we had time to arrange portraits of various other VMC caucuses. The Australian and the Irish contingents each had three singers, which together equaled the six Americans. 

One of the other American singers moved to Vancouver with his Canadian husband a few years ago. Mike sang in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus when I was singing in Seattle Men’s Chorus. Every time our conductor Willi casually refers to Making Spirits Bright as “the Christmas concert,” Mike and I exchange glances. 

No one from an American gay chorus has referred to singing in a “Christmas concert” since sometime in the last century. In Seattle and Portland, we always carefully called it “the Holiday concert.”

Seattle Men's Chorus, "Play it Again, Santa" (2013)
(I'm behind transgender Santa)

Despite its No. 1 ranking, Yale Law School is notorious for lax graduation requirements and the absence of real grades. As the Dean said in his welcome address to now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, me, and the rest of the Class of 1990, “Our goal is to get 90% of you into the top 10%.”

In our day, law students were required to complete one “substantial writing” project at some point before graduation. I did mine for a seminar on religion law, where I compared the American and Canadian constitutions. In the United States, the First Amendment includes two separate clauses guaranteeing the “free exercise of religion” but prohibiting any “establishment of religion.” Everyone agrees American religion jurisprudence is an incoherent mess.

In contrast, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms simply recognizes “freedom of conscience and religion” among the nation’s fundamental freedoms. Canada’s religion jurisprudence can be summarized as Be More Chill.

Both Seattle Men’s Chorus and Vancouver Men’s Chorus actually perform songs from an eclectic mix of holiday traditions and in a variety of musical styles. One perennial favourite of Seattle audiences is “A P.C. Xmas,” composed by the talented Eric Lane Barnes. Eric moved to Seattle from Chicago the same year I returned home to the Pacific Northwest, so we ended up working together during both my five years in Windy City Gay Chorus and my fifteen years in Seattle Men’s Chorus.

“A P.C. Xmas” is narrated by Marge Williams, the Pacific Corporation human resources manager organizing this year’s office holiday party. Her verses consist of increasingly frustrated company-wide emails, beginning with her announcement that a local chorus will be entertaining employees with traditional Christmas carols during the office party. 

After the Second Tenors sing the first chorus, “Gloria in Exelcis Deo,” Marge responds to employee complaints by assuring folks the party will also feature a selection of secular Christmas songs. For the second chorus, the Lower Baritone section therefore joins the Second Tenors’ “Gloria” with a contrapuntal “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” 

After each bewildered email from Marge, the other choir sections add new layers to the chorus. The Upper Baritones provide a suitably minor-keyed reminder of Hanukkah. The Basses sing about Kwanzaa. The First Tenors offer a devout solstice hymn to the Moon Goddess.

Ultimately, the P.C. office holiday party is canceled. An overwhelmed Marge takes the rest of the year off.

In Canada, Marge would have been chill.

"A P.C. Xmas," as sung by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles
(here's the YouTube link)

This winter marks my fourth anniversary both as a person living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and as a member of Vancouver Men’s Chorus. In writing about my experiences with SMC and VMC, I hope I haven’t left you with a negative impression about either organization. Both choruses are deservedly respected around the world as exceptional arts institutions and vibrant gay communities. Both choruses have saved countless lives, including mine.

Four eventful decades after their founding, the two organizations have chosen very different paths. SMC has a $4 million annual budget, a large professional staff, and a successful younger sibling in Seattle Women’s Chorus. In contrast, VMC still relies primarily on member volunteers and collaborative governance. At the announcement break in each regular Wednesday night rehearsal from September to June, we sing a rousing “Happy Birthday” to all the guys with birthdays. If there aren’t any birthdays that week, we sing to some of the members with summer birthdays. And when someone becomes a citizen, we sing “O Canada.”

These days Vancouver rather than Seattle is the ideal commute for me, literally and figuratively. As I keep noticing, everything is better in Canada.

MSB 2017

Even after a quarter century of gay choruses, I’m too much of an introvert to audition for an actual solo. Nevertheless, the last two years I confronted my anxieties by volunteering for a four measure micro-solo in VMC’s Christmas show. Each occasion involved a primarily dramatic rather than musical role. It turns out the contemporary choral repertoire includes a striking number of holiday songs where a lonely Jewish singer attempts to sing “The Dreidel Song” before being shushed by white supremacists. Even though my heritage actually is Mormon, in both “Making Spirits Bright 2017” and “MSB 2018” I was faux typecast as the outnumbered Jewish guy.

Sadly, despite the best efforts of VMC’s diligent Music Selection Committee, we couldn’t squeeze any jovial anti-Semitism into this year’s MSB theme of “The Colours of Christmas.” It’s probably for the best. This was my first chorus concert as a fulltime single dad, so I wasn’t sure whether I could commit. 

In the end I crossed the border for five out of VMC’s seven performances, plus the tech rehearsal, as well as outreach performances in both Victoria and Vancouver. Nevertheless, as usual I skipped the wrong performance. I missed seeing longtime SMC conductor Dennis Coleman in the audience for a rare Vancouver visit. And regardless of your “Where's Waldo?” skills, you won’t find me in the chorus photo at the beginning of this essay. 

Here’s what I posted to the internal Facebook page for chorus members:

Once again, I’m missing from the official VMC picture. I blame my children. For everything. (Or being American. Or Jewish.)

It’s important to perpetuate stereotypes, even false ones.

MSB 2018

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah
from Bellingham and Vancouver