Friday, March 14, 2014

The Power of Words


Simple characters on a page (or computer screen). Yet at the same time, when they are strung together, they evoke a wide range of human emotion – from pleasure and happiness, to anger and disgust. Even though we may claim that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, in reality, words DO have an immense impact on individuals and groups. Words can bring a man to his knees or propel someone to stardom. In essence, words are among the most powerful tools of humanity. 

Because words have these impacts, it is unsurprising that the hiring of certain "writers" gets everyone up in arms. For example, take the kerfuffle over Ezra Klein’s most recent hire of Brandon Ambrosino for Klein's new venture Vox. Though the hire may be puzzling (I don’t care about the hire per se), I am more concerned about the impact that Ambrosino’s words have had and will have on the LGBT movement.

But Kyle, you may say, if the pro-equality side on the “right side of history”, it shouldn't matter what a professional contrarian claims. This is true…to an extent. Though our side can withstand even the most intellectual arguments – as can be seen in both the legal and academic realms - the reason why Ambrosino gets under the skin of LGBT activists is not because of what he says, but instead because he is a gay man making these arguments. Even if Ambrosino’s beliefs emanate from a deep seated insecurity as well as display a lack of intellectual rigor, these facts don't matter to those fighting against our community. The opponents of equality (whether on the Right or Left) will naturally engage in the fallacy of extrapolating what one person says as being what a large segment of people think. “Look”, they will say, “here is a gay man who doesn't think that if you oppose gay marriage you are a homophobe…ergo, we are not” and “here is a gay man who says he chose to be gay, hence, ALL gay people choose to be gay”.

Ambrosino’s thoughts may be acceptable for debate in the realm of academia, after all, queer theory has been fighting against the “born this way” narrative for some time now, but Ambrosino is not in academia and he isn't writing to an academic audience. He is writing to broader society, a society which still contains a large percentage of people who DO believe that gay people are bullies, that we can change our sexual orientation, and that it isn't wrong to deny gay couples equal marriage rights. Ambrosino’s words will give (and likely have given) credence to the parents – like mine – who believe that gay people choose their sexual orientation, to send their children to reparative therapy. His writing gives legitimacy to the claims that those of us who are fighting for equal rights are the actual haters. And he gives a pass for religious groups to change their belief structure – because it isn't homophobic to deny gay couples equal treatment under the law.

Ambrosino doesn't seem to understand the responsibility of the platform that he has been given. His words do not exist in a vacuum, but instead are part of the overall narrative of equality and the place of LGBT people in the broad fabric of our society. His words have the power to help (or to hurt) not only our movement, but also the young man questioning whether his parents hate who he is because they think that gay couples are disgusting. This is the reason why there has been so much blowback by the LGBT movement on his hire, and why Klein should seriously reconsider giving Ambrosino a platform to disseminate his views. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

America Should Learn From Medicaid

Today in the Washington Post, Ezra Klein analyzes the biggest success of the Affordable Care Act – Medicaid – and how we are unfortunately not hearing much about this programs success.  Klein goes into an analysis of why he believes that Democrats have not been trumpeting the expansion of Medicaid as much as they should. He claims (and I agree) that Democrats are hesitant to sign Medicaid’s praises because of America’s hesitancy towards expanding the social safety net. Because “Obamacare” was sold as a program by which individuals who were not able to purchase private health insurance (whether that be for pre-existing conditions, the unaffordability of an individual plan, etc.) can now do so, one wouldn't want to use as a support for the Affordable Care Act the expansion of a government single-payer system. Further, because about half of the State have refused to expand Medicaid, the success of the program is limited to certain States (mostly Democratic ones).

This reluctance of Democrats and the Obama Administration to emphasize the success of Medicaid is unfortunate, as something like that program is actually where we should be headed as a country. Studies have shown that Medicaid costs have not increased a substantial amount compared to private insurance and Medicare and further studies have also shown that Medicaid is more cost-effective on a per capita basis than private insurance. This makes complete sense, because Medicaid, as a government program, has greater buying power with healthcare providers than private insurance companies do. This difference in buying power between government and private insurance companies is why almost every other developed country that has a form of single-payer spends less than the United States. Medicaid also has access to False Claims Act qui tam suits for fraud, which private insurance companies do not have access to outside of California and Illinois. These are just two of the reasons why Medicaid is more cost effective than private insurance. 

Granted, many conservatives claim that there are fundamental problems with Medicaid. For example, because the government is able to bargain for lower payments, and because those payments are significantly lower than the payments that doctors receive from private insurance plans, doctors are hesitant to accept Medicaid patients. Because of this lack of access to a primary care physician, that increases the usage by people on Medicaid of Emergency Rooms, as the recently released Oregon study showed. But these critiques are deceiving, because in reality the critique only works if you look at Medicaid as the outsider in the “private insurance” market.  I could use the same data, look at it from a different angle ,and say that it is not Medicaid that has the problem. Instead, I could just as legitimately claim that it is the private insurance market which is the problem. It is because the private insurance plans pay more than Medicaid that doctors will not see Medicaid patients. It is because of private insurance plans that Medicaid patients who cannot find a primary care physician use Emergency Rooms more.

Democrats need to up the ante. We need to emphasize to America that compared to the rest of the world we DO have a substandard healthcare system. Does it look great on the outside? Yes. We have gleaming new operating rooms, state of the art equipment, and doctors paid out the wazoo. But does that mean that we, as a society, get better care? No. In fact, other countries spend substantially LESS on healthcare, and have better outcomes. Democrats need to shout this from the rooftops; and we need to move to a form of single-payer.  

Gay Marriage Stopped in Utah - I'm Not Surprised.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, issued a stay of Judge Shelby’s opinion striking down Utah’s Amendment 3 (gay marriage ban). As much as members of the LGBT community are upset about this development, I’m not at all surprised. I was actually more surprised that the 10th Circuit didn't stay the decision itself.

Judge Shelby’s opinion, though good, enunciated a lot of ideas that have either been rejected by many Courts (same-sex marriage bans are discrimination on the basis of sex – which he really didn’t get too because he found the ban failed rational basis review) or are pretty weak to begin with (that same-sex couples have a “fundamental right to marry” – I don’t think that we do based upon Due Process jurisprudence). The opinions strong points – the nature of “responsible procreation” etc. – haven’t really had an opportunity to be analyzed by Circuit Courts and in many cases such reasoning by the State has been upheld by Courts around the United States. Granted, most of these unfavorable opinions were issued prior to the landmark Supreme Court case of Windsor v. United States, but I don’t personally see Windsor as a useful case to argue against state same-sex marriage bans (given its very limited focus and federalism issues).  Therefore, because the issues in Judge Shelby’s opinion were rather revolutionary in the Court system, it SHOULD HAVE been stayed by the 10th Circuit. Granted, the State of Utah botched the stay request, and its briefs to the 10th Circuit were laughable, but that doesn't hide the fact that the Court should have granted said stay.

Regardless, I want to take this opportunity to remind my readers that the Supreme Court had an opportunity to deal with marriage equality on a nationwide scale last year in the Prop 8 case. But they punted, instead deciding to issue an opinion based on standing issues. Read into that what you will (I have, and I read that Kennedy isn't ready to legalize marriage nationwide), but that fact must be remembered. 

So now what we have is a case being appealed in the 10th Circuit (UT), one being appealed in the 9th Circuit (NV), and many going to trial this month and next around the country. 2014 will be a fun year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

We Are Winning

Tonight A&E announced that they would not be suspending Phil Robertson, the (now) infamous patriarch of Duck Dynasty who last week derided gay men and inferred that black people were a-ok in the Jim Crow South. Understandably the LGBT community was horrified, with many LGBT people taking to social media and denouncing A&E’s decision.  

From the Christian Right’s announcement that they would be holding a “Chick-Phil-A” Day to support Phil Robertson’s “right to free speech” (because clearly, that was violated here), to GOP members from all over the country coming to the defense of Phil Robertson (including Sarah Palin, who actually admitted that she didn’t even read the interview with GQ that cause all the ruckus), the voices of bigotry seem to have won. It is still socially acceptable to call gay people sinners and that we are “full of murder” and must change our sexual orientation.

But have they won?

This week we saw two more states added to the list of states which will recognize the legitimacy of our marriages. I have seen people I know, people who I never thought would be on our side, being vocal allies against the oppression that we face as a community both legally and socially. Religious groups are starting to recognize that the love that we have for our spouses, partners, significant others, is just as a valuable as the love that a heterosexual person manifests. The culture is coming to our side.

Is it coming as fast as many of us want? No. I personally find it shameful that A&E would rather make money than to do the right thing. I find it shameful that in the majority of States we STILL can be fired for who we are, that we STILL are restricted from marrying the person we love, and that in all but two States, LGBT children can be forced into professional therapy which tries to change their sexual orientation. But where we are now, in comparison to where we were ten years ago, is stunning.

We are winning the hearts and minds of Americans. The bigots may scream. They may yell at the top of their voices that we are persecutors. They may demand tolerance for their hate. But they are losing, and because they are losing, we are seeing the dying breath of the anti-equality movement.

And that should make us all proud. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thank You Obamacare!!!

On December 24th, I was finally able to afford health insurance. After haggling with the exchange for months, I figured out what I was doing wrong (I had a glitch in my original application, so once I started over, it went smoothly), and was able to sign Nathan and I up for a health insurance AND dental insurance plan through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. We have a $300 deductible and $1000 out-of-pocket maximum for our health insurance and a pretty decent dental plan. Yes, we only have in-network privileges here in Michigan, but that is ok, as we generally don't travel outside of Michigan, and we have coverage for emergency room visits out of network. All in all, we are paying less than $30 per month for insurance that we would only have been able to dream about a year ago. We were also allowed to register for health insurance as a married couple, in a State which doesn't recognize our marriage as valid. 

Why is this important to me? Mainly because I have been without health insurance for a number of years. Some of that time, I was lucky to have access to the Canadian system (when I was living in that country), the rest of the time, when I lived in Tennessee and here in Michigan, I had to fend for myself.  I often made the decision NOT to go to the doctor, when I likely should have, because on my limited income, it was not economically feasible for me to pay up front or go into debt. Obamacare changed all that. On January 1, I can pick up the phone, go to the doctor, and pay a low out of pocket fee. I can be assured that if the doctor finds anything that needs to be taken care of, that I will not go into exorbitant debt that will take me years to pay.

Is Obamacare perfect? No, it isn’t, and if anyone says that it is, they are full of bull. But is Obamacare, in allowing those who cannot afford health insurance to access our healthcare system, in allowing those with pre-existing conditions (like myself) to not be priced out of the market, in ensuring that people do not go into bankruptcy because of lifetime coverage caps, worth it? I think so.  

This post isn't meant to be scientific and it isn't meant to be a "gotcha" post that says the Affordable Care Act is working. Anecdotes don't give us a broad picture of reality. But in my world, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has worked, and I am thankful for it. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Chick-Phil-A Day - Because Supporting Bigoted Chicken and Supporting Bigoted Beliefs Is What Jesus Would Want

We have had an amazing weekend in the LGBT community; from marriage equality coming to Utah on Friday, to that decision not being stayed by the District Judge today, to an Ohio judge invalidating Ohio's marriage ban for purposes of death certificates. That being said, it is hard for the LGBT community to forget what happened last week with the Phil Roberton/Duck Dynasty fiasco. And it is important that we don't, because social conservatives, still smarting at the cultural reaction, have not forgotten. Because these individuals cannot fathom that their their bigotry cannot be voiced without criticism, they have created  "Chick-Phil-A National Support Day", which already has over 13 thousand Facebook likes.

With the line of "Stand for Free Speech. Sit for Good Food", on January 21, 2014 the "persecuted" will eat at the "great" food chain Chick-Fil-A and wear Duck Dynasty/Duck Commander paraphernalia. Though I do not want to give this "protest" attempt any more clout than the 13K likes that it currently has, I am sure that organizations like the National Organization for Marriage will soon issue a press-release urging its supporters to join in the "protest". In fact, the group is encouraging its members to contact people like Mike Huckabee to let them know this is happening.

Because you know, nothing pleases Jesus more than eating at a greasy fast food restaurant and supporting a man who compares gay people to murderers, says that they can "pray away the gay" (if you want to see how that worked out for me look here) and infers that blacks were better under Jim Crow. Yes, Jesus would be super pleased.

Update: Yes, it looks like this will be a thing. Over 28 thousand people have indicated that they will be frequenting Chick-Fil-A on January 21. Hopefully Chick-Fil-A repudiates this event but I'm not holding my breath.

h/t to @randyrpotts

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Does Being Anti-Gay Marriage Make You Anti-Gay: A Response to Brandon Ambrosino

In The Atlantic yesterday, Brandon Ambrosino, an author and an individual who I respect, deeply disappointed me with his article “Beingagainst gay marriage doesn't make you a homophobe: some people just aren't’t sureabout marriage equality – but their reasoning isn’t necessarily a reflection oftheir character”. The article has been retweeted by the likes of Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson as well as many others within the conservative wing of Christianity, and for good reason, as it is a reformulation, by a gay man, of the typical religious cliché “love the sinner hate the sin”.

     Fair warning, I come at the issue of LGBT equality from a legal perspective, I am after all, a law student. But at the same time, I recognize the larger social and religious fight for full equality for LGBT people, and I have often fought for LGBT equality within the religious/cultural realm. Even with full legal equality, the socio-cultural norms within a community impact the way that gay and lesbian couples feel about their relationship. For example, marriage for same-sex couples has been legal in Canada since 2005, yet my husband and I still encountered social bigotry and disgust when we lived in the Niagara region of Ontario. Just because marriage is legal for same-sex couples doesn't mean that a same-sex couples marriage magically becomes equal to a heterosexual marriage. Legally? Yes. But because marriage is a cultural institution, to be truly equal, LGBT advocates must fight the religious and cultural beliefs that stigmatize same-sex marriages.

     Now back to Brandon’s article. And before I start on the main thrust of the piece (that you can be anti-marriage equality and not anti-gay), I want to address an argument that he makes. First, he says that if “homophobic” is used to argue against those who do not believe in marriage equality, then “what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them? Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction”. Brandon argues as if these things are mutually exclusive, but I would beg to differ. The latter is the same as the former; the only difference is that the latter is an outward manifestation through action of an animus towards gay people. For example, someone may be a racist and believe that black people are inferior, yet not beat up black people or discriminate against them in employment. But they are still are a racist. Just because they do not manifest their racism through action does not mean that they are not racist. Just because you will hire women, yet believe that women are inferior to men, does not make you less misogynistic. The same thing with homophobia and anti-gay bigotry.

     So why do I take issue with the main thrust of Brandon’s article? Because, as I said, he has walked into the idea of “love the sinner, hate the sin”. In this context, one’s sexual orientation is not what is bad. A Christian can still “love” a gay person. But the conduct associated with that gay person – their marriage - is “less than” and is the action that is “hated”. Conservative Christians do not believe that marriage can be between two people of the same-sex, because they religiously believe that God made marriage for people of the opposite-sex. This isn’t anti-gay, Brandon exclaims, because these people are not opposing gay people, they are opposing calling the relationship “marriage”. Even in the secular context, he claims, those individuals are not opposing gay people – they are opposing a relationship in which natural procreation is not feasible.  

     I feel that Brandon’s analysis here is lacking, mainly because he doesn’t seem to analyze the place that marriage has in our culture. Marriage is not just a religious sacrament or a legal status in which “procreation” or “what God intended” can be the determining factors; instead it is a cultural norm that has become the pinnacle of what it means to be in a relationship. All other relationship regimes are below marriage. Is that a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. But it cannot be denied that marriage is THE status within our broader culture that signifies commitment, love, partnership, family, and for many, religious obedience. We don’t see people in movies getting “civil unioned” or “domestic partnershiped”, we see them getting married, and we understand WHAT that means. Love songs are not written in hope of cohabitation, they are an expression of deep love to lead to marriage. To take someone’s justifications for marriage outside of the broader culture in which that person exists doesn’t allow us to truly analyze that person’s position. We are not isolated entities whose views are solely shaped within ourselves; our perspectives are shaped by our interactions with others.

     But how does this comport with harboring animus towards gay people? I think Brandon would agree that a relationship status for same-sex couples such as “civil unions” demeans those relationships within our broader culture. That has been, in fact, the entire thrust of the legal push against civil unions. But that wasn’t his argument. His argument was that if you are anti-marriage for same-sex couples, you are not therefore anti-gay, you are only anti-gay marriage. But this argument fails to acknowledge how an individual often manifests the ideas of commitment, love, and religious value to the outside world. They get married. Thus, if an individual believes that same-sex people are not deserving of marriage rights, they are attacking the individual themselves because they are saying that that person cannot reach the level of commitment, love, and religious value in their relationship that a heterosexual person can in their relationship. Remember, a marriage is not an isolated entity, it is a cultural entity made up of individuals; individuals who have sexual orientations. To the people who are anti-gay marriage, there is something “different” something “better” in a heterosexual relationship than in a homosexual relationship, based upon the identity of the persons IN that marriage.

     Finally, Brandon assumes that if you are a bigot, then you are, by necessity, a bad person. Yet is this an accurate assumption? Can a racist, homophobe, misogynist, etc. be a good person outside of these areas? Yes. Does harboring such beliefs and values impugn a person’s character? Yes. But that fact doesn’t necessarily make them overall a bad person. This is one area where I do believe that our community needs work. We rush to call out those who are anti-marriage equality as bad people. But, as Brandon said, that is more nuanced, and not always true. Homophobic? Anti-gay? Bigots? Yes. Bad people? Not necessarily.

     Overall, I enjoyed Brandon’s article as it gave me something to think about, but at the same time, I found that it gave another quiver in the arrow of people like my parents who can say “we love our gay son and his “partner”, but they are not married”. Because he didn’t address the deeper cultural ramifications of what marriage means, Brandon was able to make the distinction between being anti-marriage and anti-gay. A conclusion that was, in my opinion, just another formulation of love the sinner, hate the sin.

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