Thursday, January 30, 2020

Set Theory

Everything I ever needed to know I learned from Anne of Green Gables.

Of course, the question is which Anne of Green Gables – the original novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery? Or the classic CBC miniseries from the 1980s that I’ve already gushed over?

For example, in the television show Anne’s delightful schoolteacher mentor Miss Stacy is the one who delivers this inspirational line:

“Tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it... well with no mistakes in it yet.”

In the 1908 novel, however, the corresponding dialogue actually occurs after Anne serves a fresh-baked cake to the new minister’s wife. Anne accidentally replaces the vanilla called for in the recipe with arthritis rub. 

Even though the scene isn’t in the television series, when I run the dialogue in my head I nevertheless hear Megan Follows playing Anne and Colleen Dewhurst as foster-spinster Marilla:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"
“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla. “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”
“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully. “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla? I never make the same mistake twice.”
“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”
“Oh, don't you see, Marilla? There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them. That’s a very comforting thought.”

Like classic children’s literature, the sporting world provides a variety of mixable metaphor alternatives. When do our missteps haunt us forever? Or when can we cut our losses, close the books, and make a fresh start? 

In most ball games, like basketball and football, scoring is cumulative. When you’re down 50 points at halftime, they still make you slog through and finish the game – even when everyone knows youre never going to catch up. This is one of the many non-gay reasons I abandoned Little League and turned to the theater at a young age.

On the other hand, sports like tennis offer a stark contrast to cumulative-scoring ballgames. 

A tennis player who wins a substantial majority of individual games or even most of the individual points can nevertheless lose the match. Regardless of whether the score is 6-0 or 7-6 with a three-hour tiebreaker, all that counts is the up or down thumb at the end of each set. That's the elegance of Set Theory for English Majors.

This week a friend noticed I’d been writing about AIDS and HIV, and asked what today’s blog essay would be about. I realized the answer was simple:  it was time to come out as HIV negative.  

I became an activist in an era when HIV was associated with brutal medical outcomes, horrific discrimination, and crushing stigma. I don’t think I’ve internalized that hostility myself. To the contrary, I’ve always been surrounded by friends on both sides of the HIV divide, regardless of where we landed by “luck or circumstances,” as David France puts it in How to Survive a Plague. I’ve dated men with either sero-status. I am always honest. But I seldom discuss HIV publicly, mostly because I’m burned out. Plus I’m actually quite shy. (Strangers reading this blog might be surprised by this assertion.)

One of the overarching themes of my writing is the tyranny of the closet – regardless of whether unhealthy secrecy involves sexual orientation, mental health, or other important aspects of one’s identity. Various recent experiences have chipped away at another layer of writer’s block. So when I was inspired to write about AIDS, I knew I couldn’t approach the truth without addressing this particular issue.

Once in a while, life offers you a new beginning. You can fake your death, transition genders, or join the French Foreign Legion. Bankruptcy lawyers like Nevada’s “Fresh Start Law Firm” can help you crawl out from under a hopeless mountain of debt. Perhaps this is the year when Valentine’s Day or the arrival of spring will usher in your personal season of renewal.

In my gay life, the most vivid experience of closing the books has come from regular and sometimes irregular HIV testing. As I recently wrote in “OK Boomer,” my generation of gay men was the first to come out into a world where we knew AIDS was waiting to kill us. We were years away from an effective treatment for the virus. Untreatable opportunistic infections still ravaged weakened immune systems. All we had was a primitive blood test for HIV antibodies, an inexhaustible supply of condoms, and a deafening safer sex message.

I got my first HIV test in the late 1980s, at a public health office in New Haven, Connecticut. I still hadn’t had “sex” yet (at least as the word would be used by a gay male epidemiologist, then or now). But I was very earnest, the counselor was very polite, and none of us knew very much about how the HIV virus works. 

Back then they sent your blood sample out to a laboratory, which added two or three weeks to the process. Half of the people who chose to test anonymously never returned for their results.

My most remarkable HIV testing experience occurred in Chicago in the mid-90s. Three weeks after getting tested at Howard Brown Health Center, I received the result:  “indeterminate.” At the time, that essentially meant a 50/50 chance of either a recent HIV infection, or a lab error. The “expedited” follow-up test involved a mere 48-hour wait. Interestingly, during those two days I experienced all the nasty flu-like symptoms that most patients get when they seroconvert. My symptoms disappeared as soon as I got the reassuring results. Hmm, perhaps my melodramatic hypochondriac daughter has inherited something from her father after all – a heightened placebo effect.

Nowadays my Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic usually just includes an HIV test as part of my routine bloodwork. But I prefer to also make an appointment with the excellent STI folks at Seattle’s Gay City. As soon as you arrive, the punk receptionist sends you to a interactive computer terminal. You get to answer nonjudgmental questions about what you’ve been doing since your last visit. (Try not to fudge your numbers too much, it messes with their statistics.) I usually get the same experienced counselor. We chat about life, then take some samples. He puts a drop of my blood into the well of the plastic rapid test device. We watch together for the unsurprising but nevertheless reassuring result. 

I’ve never been Catholic. But every time I walk out of Gay City to finish the rest of my Seattle errands, I feel like I’ve been to Confession. And received gay Absolution. 

Next: “After the Fall” 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A Lifelong AIDS Walk and Picnic

I didn’t go to the AIDS picnic in Seattle this year. Or to the Florida AIDS Walk and Music Festival. Or to the Louisville AIDS Walk & Pet Walk. Or to Dining Out for Life. Or to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s “World of Chocolate.” I didn’t even make it up to Canada to sing with my chorus at the sparsely attended Vancouver AIDS Walk. 

I intended to go. But I’ve already been to a lifetime of AIDS fundraisers, conferences, protests, and rallies. 

The celebrated 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague tells the story of ACT UP – the “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power” – during the late 1980s and early 1990s. A generation of gay men and their allies responded with unprecedented passion both to a fatal pandemic as well as to unconscionable societal neglect. The movie combines archival news footage with contemporary interviews.

I was worried the film might be triggering, so I watched it at home on the couch with the dogs. We were fine. It looked like history  preserved in newsreel amber, just like the recent documentary about Apollo 11’s trip to the moon. Most viewers of How to Survive a Plague would never guess that people are still living these stories.

The director of How to Survive a Plague, David France, was a young gay journalist in New York who witnessed ACT UP’s heyday. A few years after completing the documentary, France published a book with the same title. 

When I encountered his book in an enticing display at the library, I expected something similar to the film – lots of pictures and nostalgic anecdotes. Instead, France 513-page narrative is a detailed account of medical, political, and personal developments at ground zero of the AIDS epidemic. France relies on both meticulous research as well as his close relationships with the larger-than-life figures at the center of the movement.

The book begins with a prologue describing a memorial service in 2013, two decades after the ACT UP era. Spencer Cox became a key figure in ACT UP’s treatment advocacy when he was barely twenty years old. Here’s how France describes the attendees at Cox’s funeral: 

“Even the nimble among them wore haunted expressions. If you knew what to look for, you saw in their faces the burden of a shared past, the years and years of similar services. This was what survivors of the plague looked like.”

ACT Up is not my story. 

I was in Utah, New Haven, Seattle, and Chicago during the plague years – not New York or San Francisco. 

And I’m not that kind of activist. While I was in law school, one of my openly gay classmates was arrested at ACT UP’s most notorious protest – after accosting Cardinal O’Connor during communion at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. That’s definitely not my scene. 

Instead, I was a suit-and-tie guy. I’ve repeatedly described myself as a longtime LGBT rights lawyer. In the early years that mostly meant I was an AIDS lawyer. My first pro bono cases as a young attorney came from VAPWA – the local bar association’s “Volunteer Attorneys for People With AIDS.” When I moved to Chicago to work for the ACLU, I was the Director of the AIDS & Civil Liberties Project. I’ve been doing this work for a long, long time. 

My contemporary Andrew Sullivan reviewed How to Survive a Plague for the New York Times. Sullivan observes that France’s “granular” account “feels so real to someone who witnessed it that I had to put this volume down and catch my breath”:

Here again are the manifestations of terror: the purple cancerous lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, fatal when they migrated to your lungs; toxoplasmosis — a brain disease that turned 20-somethings into end-stage Alzheimer’s patients; pneumocystis carinii, which flooded your lungs until you drowned; cytomegalovirus, which led to blindness, so that young men in AIDS wards were “hugging walls and scraping the air to find their nurses”; molluscum contagiosum, covering the body in “small, barnacle-like papules” that oozed pus; peripheral neuropathy, with which a mere brush of a sheet against your skin felt like an electric shock; and cryptosporidiosis, a parasite that took over people’s gastrointestinal tract, slowly starving them to death. It’s been over a decade since those Latin nouns were household words in gay life, and reading them still traumatizes.

Ultimately, however, How to Survive a Plague is an epic, not a tragedy. Here’s how Sullivan concludes his review:

What lingers in France’s book is the toll that memory took and still takes. These young men both witnessed their friends and lovers dying excruciating deaths, knew that they were next and yet carried on…. This is the first and best history of this courage, and a reminder that if gay life and culture flourish for a thousand years, people will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

France's detailed account of the ACT UP era concludes in 1996, at the community meeting in New York where doctors and scientists described patients’ astonishing response to the new combination therapy. That same week I attended the Chicago version of this meeting.

This is France’s description:

             When the room emptied out, I found myself standing in the sun-creased lobby watching the men in the audience exchanging hugs and tears. I noticed how incongruously young everyone looked. Most were, like me, not yet middle aged. I was thirty-five years old. I’d lived my entire adult life in the eye of unrelenting death. We all had. The feeling of relief overwhelmed me….  It was not over. It would never be over. But it was over.

I was thirty-one years old.

In an epilogue to How to Survive a Plague, France returns to Spencer Cox’s 2013 memorial service. He reveals what subsequently happened to the band of brothers at the center of the book’s narrative – my near-contemporaries and fellow survivors from the trenches. Some moved on to new types of activism. Others retired to the country. Many descended into substance abuse and depression. Some of us had kids. One guy my age got busted for falsely claiming to be HIV-positive all along – he just wanted to be part of something important.

Spencer Cox himself choose to go off his meds and die. According to France, in his final months Cox “spoke out forcefully about the depression and PTSD that the surviving generation of gay men from the plague years often suffered from, regardless of HIV status. While many of us, through luck or circumstances, have landed on our feet, all of us, in some way, have unprocessed grief, or guilt, or an overwhelming sense of abandonment.”

That’s what happens when you survive a plague.

Previously:  “OK Boomer

Next:  “Set Theory

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

OK Boomer

Contrary to my children’s vicious accusation, I am not a Baby Boomer. Not quite.

Technically you’ll find me on the cusp between the Baby Boom and Generation X. My precise status depends on where statisticians mark the beginning of the baby bust. 

In any event, generations aren’t merely about the numbers. No doubt many other people born in May 1964 happily identify as Baby Boomers. But they probably exhibit some of the key demographic indicia of Boomers, such as having parents who got serious about childbearing after the end of World War II. In contrast, my parents were born during the war. They sailed through life just ahead of the Baby Boom. Meanwhile, I bobbed in the polluted wake left by the Me Generation. 

In addition to my lack of a Boomer attitude, I'm also missing key Boomer credentials.

For example, I am not a Boomer because I don’t remember the Kennedy assassination. Nevertheless, I can tell you exactly where I was when JFK was shot:  in the womb.

I am not a Boomer because I never heard the Beatles before they broke up.

However, I remember when we gave up hoping for a Beatles reunion. John Lennon was killed when I was a senior in high school. 

I am not a Baby Boomer because I didn’t realize there was a war in Vietnam until it was already over. 

As a factual matter, I know my uncles served in the military. When I moved to Utah in junior high, I discovered my peers had older brothers who fought in Vietnam, or who gamed the draft. But I don't recall seeing anything on television about the war while it was still going on – one of the many benefits of growing up in Canada. And clueless.

As a parent, I am not a Boomer because my children are not Millennials. Thank God.

As a gay man, I am definitely not a Boomer. That’s something I figured out the first time I saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt.  

The Names Project began curating the quilt in 1987. Individual panels are three feet by six feet – the size of a grave. The names on the quilt represent a cross section of the epidemic’s impact, with individual panels now stretching over fifty miles. It’s the largest piece of communal art in the world.

When I started my legal career as a closeted young lawyer at a big law firm in Seattle, I lived alone a small apartment in a pre-gentrified and still-gay Capitol Hill neighborhood. My office was in a brand new office tower next to the Washington State Convention Center. The already massive AIDS Quilt was on display in the Convention Center as part of a national tour. 

I have three vivid memories from visiting the quilt on my way home from work:

First, I was taken aback to encounter the panel for a young man who was born on my birthdate in May 1964. He’d died a couple of years before, when we were both twenty-four years old.

SecondI began sobbing uncontrollably when I read a panel that consisted of the following text:


When I located this particular quilt panel in the Names Project database yesterday, I was surprised to see the cloth was red. I didn’t remember that. But I remembered that the nameless Mormon quilter left out the hyphen in “Latter-day,” and misspelled “anonymity.” More importantly, thirty years later I remember weeping as I walked up Capitol Hill.

My third reaction as I read the birthdates on panel after panel was alienation:  this was not my generation. Instead, I recognized the AIDS Quilt told the story of the gay men who came out of the closet right before me. They overcame oppression, thrived after Stonewall, found love and freedom – then watched half a generation die from a horrifying plague no one saw coming.

The first handful of American AIDS cases were reported in 1981, the year I graduated from high school in Utah. The average time from diagnosis to death was eighteen months. 

HIV tests became available in 1985 – the year I returned from the protective bubble of my Mormon mission in Korea, and began the long process of coming out to myself and everyone else. 

In 1990, I graduated from Yale Law School and moved to Seattle. After nine years of genocidal neglect from society and the government, life expectancy had increased by a whopping four months, to an average of twenty-two months from AIDS diagnosis to death. 

The number of AIDS deaths continued to increase each year, peaking in 1995. Then in 1996, protease inhibitors became available as part of new combination therapies. Thousands of patients who were on the brink of death – the lucky ones – leapt out of bed and walked into new lives. They called it a “Lazarus Effect.” 

As a consequence, my generation of gay men in Canada and the United States was the last to live in a world where HIV was an automatic death sentence. That almost makes me a Baby Boomer.

But not quite. Unlike the Boomers, I never saw a gay paradise like San Francisco and New York in the 1970s and early 80s. Instead, my generation came out into a world where we knew AIDS was waiting to kill us.

Up next in "HIV is Not a Picnic":   A Lifelong HIV Walk and Picnic

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.