Tales of a wandering lesbian

Category — Politics


I think Salem has one of the strangest, and perhaps ugliest, perhaps prettiest Capitol buildings ever.  The outside is strange, the inside is strange.   It’s just strange.  And totally Oregon.

I’m sitting in the House chambers right now, where the floor is covered in carpet adorned with images of the White Pine, Oregon’s state tree, and the wall behind the podium is covered in a mural showing the state’s organizational meeting – the first “Wolf Meeting” at Champoeg.  When they recarpeted the building, people bought sections of the old stuff to hang on their walls.  But it’s the doornobs I love.

I’m here for one of my favorite events:  Tribal Government Day.  It’s one of the big three food days that happen at the Capitol.  The other two are chicken day (poultry lobby) and beef day (beef lobby).  As a state worker, you become plugged in to what is going on in “the building,” especially when it involves free stuff.  And when it comes to free stuff, Tribal Day is the pinnacle.

Here’s how it works:  the tribes and confederated tribes of Oregon come to the Capitol for the day.  They set up information booths and give away things.  Info pamphlets, pencils, brightly colored shopping bags emblazoned with tribe insignia, playing cards, etc.  Most of these booths have upright displays, whether it’s poster board with pictures of tribe members walking, and hand-lettered captions like, “exercise!”  Or an enlargement of an 1855 unratified treaty.  The tribes may be sovereign, but they’re not missing out on the commercialism that plagues the nation as a whole.

At the same time, the Casinos set up spectacular food displays, usually including ice or butter sculptures, and great trees of chocolate-covered fruit kebobs.  White-jacketed catering staff replace plates of melon, while ice cream scoopers work the line of hungry state employees, doling out tastes of the huckleberry/hazelnut ice cream that Umpqua  dairy makes exclusively for the casinos.

The food is great, but my favorite part has always been the performance in the house chambers.  With the entire legislature seated in the chambers, and the galleries packed with visitors, the morning session is opened with the drumming and chanting of tribe members.   Seated around a large drum, beautiful people bless the proceedings.  I cry every time.  With the legislators sitting at their desks, their seats of power, little American flags standing sentinel over their day’s agendas, the tribes bless the chamber, bless the state, and bless the working relationship of those who make the decisions for the state.

The tribes and confederations are recognized as sovereigns.  They have the right to govern their lands – the ones covered by treaties – for the most part, and to protect the health and welfare of their people.  (I know this is a super-simplified statement.)  Once a year the tribal leaders are invited to stand at the head of the legislature, symbolic equals.

In years past I’ve heard the governor and the senate president speak eloquently about the tribes and the relationship between the Oregon government and the Tribal Councils.  I’ve seen beautiful performances by high-school students proud of their heritage.  I’ve heard tribal elders speak about the tragedy of high-school drop-out rates.  I’ve watched as people queue up to get their free bag and pack of cards, and wait for an hour to walk past the butter sculpture.

It used to be called Tribal Information Day.  Now it’s Tribal Government Day.  I wonder if next it will be called Casino Food Day.

This year is an off-year.  The legislature isn’t in session.  I’ve never been here for Tribal Day in an off-session year.  I came for breakfast, walked through the smaller than ever information area, and came into the House chamber to sit and think about the years when I’ve been inspired by the spirit of cooperation demonstrated here.

The truth is, I’m here for the food, and the speeches, and the performances.  I’m here to feel hope that all peoples can come together and work toward the good of all members of all societies.  I’m here to feel a little better, knowing cultures as beautiful as those on display today aren’t completely erased.  But I don’t know how to do more than watch.  How do I talk with a woman about tribal health centers?  How do I start a conversation about unratified treaties?  How do I acknowledge my privileged guilt without letting it hobble me?  There are no pretty speeches to distract me this year from this question.

Now I’m off to listen to this year’s performance, and to seek out  my other favorite part of Tribal Day.  It’s a tad cliché.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit it.  It’s the fry bread.  If you keep your eyes open, there’s usually a spot in the corner of a table of casino food where authentic fry bread hides.  Sometimes it’s paired with fresh marionberry preserves.  This isn’t from the casino.  It’s from members of the tribes.  It’s made by families and shared lovingly.  If it’s an extra lucky year, someone will have brought smoked salmon.  The real deal.  Caught in our rivers and smoked by hand.  You have to look carefully, or it’ll slip by.  A mess of fish and bread out of character from the polish of the ice sculpture.  But for those who know, it makes the hour-long line worth every second.

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May 14, 2010   1 Comment

Hearts and Minds Remix

A few years ago a local paper asked me to write a piece discussing the status of Domestic Partnership legislation in Oregon.  I was super excited by the opportunity.

I’d been working in the field of GLBT politics for a few years through some really tough times.  And I felt like I had a voice – something interesting to say.  I’d been writing on the topic for a political blog, discussing the ins and outs of what was going on with the legislature, the electorate, and the community.  And I’d been asking questions.

Ah, the questions.

It seems that people don’t always like it when you ask questions.  But I’m rather inquisitive.  And sometimes sarcastic.  In truth, I think the paper wanted me to write a piece, because I’d stirred up some stuff with my questions about the importance of language.

What they got instead was a discussion about the importance of humanity.

GLBT people have great love and compassion in our lives, regardless of how you label it. We would have to in order to keep our relationships intact through things like constitutional amendments and second-class citizenship. When we share that love we truly touch the hearts of others, because we share with them something fundamental—our humanity.

So here’s my question:  How do we move forward, in a context where the lives of GLBTQ people are considered political and language around those lives is measured, weighed and analyzed to such a great extent?  Is it more important that we consider our words carefully, or that we share our lives fully?  Or can we do both and remain authentic?

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May 3, 2010   3 Comments

Yes Ma’am

Okay, I’m in a ranting mood today.  I apologize up front.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to being called “sir”.  It’s not that it’s too formal, or anything.  It’s just that I’m a woman.  And generally I’m not all that concerned about the gender thing.  I mean, okay, if I’m dating you I care, but other than that, I’m not too concerned.  But, for some reason, people I don’t know are terribly concerned with the gender question.  I know it’s not their individual faults, necessarily.  I’m sure there’s a social norm that I’m violating that dictates the way some people react to me.  I guess that makes me gender-nonconforming.  I guess.  Who knows?  I don’t try to be difficult, you know.

And I want to say up front, no, I don’t think it’s just the hair.  I don’t know if this is an experience unique to lesbians, or short-haired women, or women with a certain energy/sensibility, but it doesn’t seem to depend on the length of my hair, in any case.  I get far more compliments when I have a shaved head than I get “sirs,” but they still sting.  And I’m not sure what it is that is more stinging, the fact that the airport smoothie clerk thinks I’m a man or the fact that she cares.

Honestly, it happens much less often than it used to.  I used to correct people.  I got to a point where I could smile and in a Zen-like state engage in a conversation about gender-norms.  I’m not there anymore.  Maybe I’m just out of practice.  I’d like to get back there.  It’s a much more healthy place.  But I feel like something snapped.  I remember when it happened.

I was walking into a Wal-Mart, something I very, very rarely do.  I was working, and I had to pick up a donation check.  I’d put myself in the best mood possible for the venture (I don’t like going into Wal-Mart for a variety of reasons), but in the parking lot someone turned my smile upside-down.   I’m someone who tries to smile at everyone I meet.   My family is often warning against this.  But I like to engage people – to make their day better in the smallest, simplest of ways.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the same goals.

I saw the woman walking toward me from about 20 yards away.  She was coming out of the store with a full basket – and her mouth gaping open.  I fixed a smile on my face and looked at her warmly.  After all, we were neighbors of sorts, living in the same town.  As she drew closer, she actually aimed her cart in my direction, apparently caught in my tractor beam.  Her mouth was wide open, and she was unabashedly staring.

Now, I AM quite beautiful, so I’m used to being stared at.  But this woman didn’t seem to be stunned by my striking good looks.  In fact, she seemed horrified.  I tried to keep the smile on my face as she slowed down and turned her head as she passed, now about a foot away from me, craning around to look at me.  I maintained eye-contact and said something like “hi” or “good morning”.  Evidently, that was what she was waiting for:

“I’m just trying to figure out if you’re a man or a woman.”  It wasn’t said with malice.  But it was also more than mere curiosity.  I tried to tell myself that it was okay, at least she was honest, but I was totally thrown by the fact that she’d said it out loud.  I’m used to having kids ask their parents, “is that a boy or a girl?”  Those conversations are easy.  I just answer the question and ask the kid the same thing.  Usually they smile, think about it and tell me, and then we’re best friends.

But this, a grown woman gaping at a stranger and declaring that she wanted to know my gender was unnerving.  Why did it matter to her?  And how could she not tell?  “I’m a woman, thanks.”  I probably could have been more gentle, but I was shaking.

“I was just wondering!”  Came the retort.  I considered the fact that I was there on business; that I was wearing company logos; and that I have a general policy to be kind to anyone who asks questions of this sort.  I find I can answer pretty much any question from someone about my sexual orientation, no matter the motivation or the language used, but when it comes to gender, my patience is much more thin.  I really wonder why that is.

This must be something that people going through transition from one gender to the other deal with every day.  It must be incredibly trying.  Or maybe, like answering orientation questions for me, they grow used to it.  I don’t know if there are a lot of people who deal with this, or who choose to think about it much.  Although it gets me all riled up, It’s pretty fascinating to me.

I know that for most kids, gender is really interesting, and important.  “Is that a boy or a girl?” is a useful shorthand.  It’s a box to put someone in so you know what kind of birthday present to get – truck or doll.  But it does more than that, too.  Checking one box or another means it’s okay to wear a skirt, or it’s okay to have a certain haircut.  It means it’s okay to cry, or not.  And for some reason, we really seem to care which box a stranger has checked, even if it’s so that we can choose the correct greeting.  Or maybe it’s just me.

Every time someone calls me “sir” I bristle, which must mean that I’m not so evolved that it doesn’t really matter to me.  And maybe that’s what bothers me most.  I’m just as guilty.  What does it matter, really, if someone thinks I’m a man?  I think I’m beautiful and intelligent and super-charming.  I am incredibly proud of the woman I am.  This is the conclusion I come to after every “sir” incident.  Maybe next time I can smile, gently correct the other person and be grateful for the moment of contemplation that I know will follow.  Or maybe I’ll start shaking and run off to blog about it.  Either way, really.

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January 19, 2010   3 Comments

On health

I’m going to talk about my boobs. So, if you can’t handle it, now’s the time to look away.

Generally speaking, I’m a really healthy person. I eat well, I exercise regularly, I don’t drink, smoke, engage in recreational drugs, and I even do my monthly breast exams. Other than surgery a couple of years ago, that I’m pretty sure was necessary because of the miserable and stressful situations I’d placed myself in at work and generally, I’m an insurance dream. I’ve always had insurance, even when I was unemployed (except for two days between coverage when I stayed home from softball practice, just in case). Even without a job, I was able to get a super-cheap individual policy because of just how healthy I am.

So, that brings me to my boobs.

About 6 months ago, after returning from my first trip to Italy, I found a lump. Well, I wouldn’t call it a lump, I guess, but it was something new and strange. I freaked me the hell out. I ran in to Leigh to have her confirm. “That’s not normal, right? I mean, I don’t want to overreact, but that wasn’t there before, right?” Then I found another.

For anyone who has had a similar experience, you will understand the terror that ripped through my head, my body, my everything. There is no history in my family of anything that would lead me to think the worst (knock on wood). And still here I was, poking myself with my ex-girlfriend, trying to figure out if I should call the doctor at 10PM or if I could wait until the morning. And I cried. I slept in Leigh’s bed that night, looking for some kind of comfort, and she did her best to give what she could. The memory is making me tear up now.

The next day I called my gyn, and when she wasn’t available until the next day, I called my GP, desperate for an answer.

I don’t even want to imagine what women go through when they get bad news in this type of situation. My GP poked around, told me not to worry – to come back at the end of the month, but not to worry. My gyn was totally unconcerned as well. I spent about 5 mins in the room with her and she sent me on my way with a smile and a shrug. I went back at the end of the month, and it was the same. There was a thickening of tissue, but nothing to worry about. In the middle of the exam I realized that I had noticed the change after coming back from Italy…where I had been drinking coffee for the first time in about 2 years. I’d continued after I returned. Relief washed over me. I mentioned my theory to the doc, and she nodded. Crisis averted.

Flash forward. It’s 5 months later, and I’m preparing to leave for Italy. I’ve left my job, and with a couple of weeks of insurance remaining I’m applying for new coverage under an individual policy. I’d been covered by this company before under an individual plan. In the background raged the debate over US healthcare policy. Literally. In the background, on the tv while I filled out the online application, the President delivered his healthcare speech to the nation.

While in Italy I’ve had occasion to discuss health care with my friends. It comes up every so often and I patiently try to describe our system. Or I translate the code on the insurance cards that I unintentionally carried to Italy in my wallet – proof in the US that I was part of the elite, those with a good job, able to afford insurance, able to pay for medical services. Here they are meaningless oddities.

Insurance oddities

“Yeah, so if you get sick, you find an in-network doctor, and then you show them this card, which tells them how much your insurance company will pay and how much you will pay.” “How much you pay?” They look baffled. “Yeah, you have to pay a percentage, depending on what your policy is. You might have to pay like the first $2,500, depending on your deductible, and then 20-40% depending on whether the provider is in-network or out, and then depending on whether the service is covered, and the usual and customary cost of the service. And then you pay your co-pay and insurance is billed. Then you get a bill for what’s left-over. Unless you have a secondary insurance…” Blank stares.

Yesterday I got an email from Leigh. “Regence denied your request for insurance.”  Interesting. The reason? “Unresolved gynecological issue.” Really. Well, my surgery was for fibroids, but they’re resolved. The one thing the underwriters asked for? More information regarding my boobs.

When I was filling out the online application, I reached a point where my lawyer alarm sounded. Buried in a long list of common and not-so-common health issues, the form wanted to know if I’d had any consultation with any medical personnel regarding breast health. Now, I realized that, if I checked the yes box, I’d be prompted for more info. I also realized that, if I checked the no box, I was potentially committing insurance fraud, and jeopardizing any coverage I might secure. So I said yes.

Then it asked me for my diagnosis and treatment. Bastards. I didn’t have diagnosis or treatment. I had a smile and a shrug of the shoulders. Does that count? Where’s the check box for that? I wrote in something like “N/A. Diagnosis: healthy” and pushed the submit button. But the letter I received from the underwriters said that wasn’t enough, so my doctor sent over 45-pages of chart notes. Let’s just pause for a moment. I’m a bit curious to know what, exactly, my doctor was talking about in 45-pages. My boobs are pretty great (really they are), but 45-PAGES?!?! I mean, come on.

When I left for Italy, the underwriters were still considering my request (probably debating how great my boobs must be to have my doctor write 45-pages about them). I left for Italy without insurance. I brought a bike helmet and a safety vest, but not insurance.

I’m lucky. I’m an attorney, which means I can pay the $35 or $50 to join the ABA and then I’m eligible for group insurance. It only cost me three years of law school for that privilege. I’ll be fine. What about my friends who have to compromise their happiness to stay in jobs that make them sick, in order to keep insurance for their kids? My softball coach determines who will play which position based on who has health insurance at any given game.

Maybe I should stop doing my monthly exams. I mean, If going to the doctor when I find something disqualifies me from insurance coverage, even when it’s nothing, why check? Maybe I should have consulted the world wide web and made my own medical determination as to whether it was a lump or not. Maybe I should have made an economic determination as to whether removing the fear that kept me awake that night was worth the insurance I would potentially lose.

I’m done explaining the US healthcare system. From now on all I’m prepared to say is “it’s bullshit.”

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November 14, 2009   6 Comments


WARNING:  Political Content.  If you don’t want to know my political views, stop reading here.

When President Obama announced his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, he outlined the qualities that he admires in judges:

“First and foremost is a rigorous intellect, a mastery of the law, an ability to hone in on the key issues and provide clear answers to complex legal questions.

“Second is a recognition of the limits of the judicial role, an understanding that a judge’s job is to interpret, not make law, to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent, and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand.

“These two qualities are essential, I believe, for anyone who would sit on our nation’s highest court. And yet these qualities alone are insufficient. We need something more. [Emphasis mine.]

“For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience; experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.

“And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.”

President Obama’s “empathy standard” has caused an uproar in some political and legal corners.  That standard was articulated in 2005 when then Senator Obama voted against the confirmation of John Roberts.  Here’s – in part – what he said:

“[W]hile adherence to legal precedent and rules of statutory or constitutional construction will dispose of 95 percent of the cases that come before a court, so that both a Scalia and a Ginsburg will arrive at the same place most of the time on those 95 percent of the cases — what matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 percent of cases that are truly difficult. In those cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the 25th mile of the marathon. That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one’s deepest values, one’s core concerns, one’s broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.

“In those 5 percent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision. In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country or whether a general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions or whether the commerce clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce, whether a person who is disabled has the right to be accommodated so they can work alongside those who are nondisabled — in those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.”

Here’s what I find interesting.  In listening to the Sotomayor hearings, especially the opening remarks of the Senators, I hear two distinct groups.  One group talks about the importance of a person’s background and the perspective that informs the decisions of a judge.  One group talks about the dispassionate application of law that is critical to our system.  Both have a point.  But here are my two cents.

I’m a lawyer.  I love the law.  I loved studying the law. I loved applying the law.  I drafted legal opinions for a living. It was a fun game.  I was not, however a great lawyer.  The great lawyers and judges that I worked with weren’t the ones that could plug facts into a formula and come up with the answer.  If that were all that is necessary to be a great judge, any first year associate could do it.  The great judges and attorneys that I knew were the ones who understood how the law would impact people’s lives.

That doesn’t mean that they didn’t apply the law.  It doesn’t mean that they bent the law to their whims.  It meant that they had the empathy to understand, in situations where the law did not dictate a specific answer, (this happens far more than you might think) how the law would impact all people.

For me that’s the interesting thing going on in the Sotomayor hearings.  Some see empathy as a weakness – akin to bias.  They have plapable and articulated fear that someone who has empathy will have it for a particular party or policy position.  That is not empathy.

Those who see empathy as a benefit understand that a justice who has empathy has it for ALL parties and for NO policy positions.  A justice who has empathy makes decisions in the murky grey middle based on an understanding of how all people will be impacted.  They use the law, and they use rules of construction to get as close to a dictated result as possible.  And if they are then left without a clear result, they look at the possible results and how they fit into a broader picture.

For me, this is a critical piece.  I was able to apply the law directly, suscinctly, and absurdly.  I did it repeatedly.  It made me a good gamesman.  It did not make me a good jurist.

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July 14, 2009   3 Comments