“I worked hard and sacrificed to get what I get, Ladies, it ain’t easy being independent.”
- Destiny’s Child, Independent Women
The election is days away, President Obama and Mitt Romney are still – incomprehensibly – tied in the polls, and I’m having flashbacks from the bad acid trip that was the George W. Bush presidency. Nobody I know is laughing at a Mitt Romney win in that “it could never happen” kind of way we did back in 2000, because it absolutely did happen then, and it happened again in 2004. And if George W. Bush could be re-elected after the first four years of his presidency, anything is possible.
Halloween is over, but how fitting the season. Like the zombie’s hand reaching from the grave at the end of the horror movie, just when you thought it was finally over, I fear that gays, blacks, women, will be dragged back down, kicking and screaming, by another Republican presidency, the gains of the last four years lost as if the Obama years were all just a dream.
There has been a strange calm over the Republican Party in the last couple of months, like a lake without ripples, yet something seems to be lurking deep under the surface, waiting to emerge. After the Republican primaries, it was almost as if the Tea Party and their bat-shit crazy agenda just disappeared. Mitt Romney was made the Republican presidential candidate, and someone locked the Tea Partiers in the Political Makeover Cabin and told them to keep their mouths shut until the coast was clear.
(You know the Political Makeover Cabin — the cabin in the woods where Barbara Bush took the Bush twins after they kept getting drunk in public; they went in party girls and when good ol’ Grams was finished with their asses they left as librarians. Michelle Obama had a brief stint in there too. After her, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country” comment during the election in 2008, campaign officers took her in hand; she went in as Angela Davis and came out as the black Mary Tyler Moore.)
In fact, none of the usual suspects was anywhere to be found on the campaign trail. No George W. Bush speechifying, making us feel superior with his malapropisms; no guttural growls from La Cheney straining on his leash; Condi Rice was there, but as comedian Jim Earl tweeted during the Republican National Convention, “WOW!!! Condoleezza Rice is a GREAT speaker. Oh wait, I’m on crack.”
I don’t know whose decision it was, but in three debates with the presidential nominees, we didn’t get a single question about marriage equality or civil rights for gays and lesbians. Perhaps both sides were relieved. But at least President Obama mentions gays in the campaign trail, and no matter what politics was involved, on May 9, 2012 he became the first sitting president in history to come out in support of same-sex marriage. I’ve had my disappointments with the President, as many of us have, but I feel that in that moment and many others he showed leadership; change we could believe in. I still have no idea what Romney is going to do for our country, and I’m not the only one. The problem with Romney is that even when he doesn’t make any sense, he still looks the part. Sent from Central Casting, ready to have his face etched on Mount Rushmore. And he’s got the mannerisms, he’s perfected his tone (although I still find it a little grating), and he becomes more presidential with each appearance. Maybe looking the part is all that this country requires anymore.
Trump, Giuliani, Akin, Mourdock. Their comments might seem ludicrous and easily dismissed if these men were standing in the middle of Times Square, ranting in trench coats stained with breakfast egg and trying to direct traffic. But as politicians who vie for power and the ability to control other people’s lives, it’s beyond disturbing. And no matter how Romney attempts to distance himself from these comments, the fact remains; these are members of his party.
If Mitt Romney is elected president four years from now, he will be accountable to all these people if he wants to be re-elected.
The circus grinds on. Donald Trump is up to his usual; asking for birth certificates, and passports, and shopping lists, and whatever the hell else he thinks will prove that Obama isn’t American. It’s beyond offensive; it’s racist, and disrespects and undermines the office. Like a mutant Dennis the Menace, Trump needs to be spanked off the national stage by a mommy, anyone’s mommy. Giuliani has peeped out from under a rock to ask Obama to resign for mishandling Libya and Hurricane Sandy. Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock has now famously said that when a woman becomes pregnant after she has been raped, it’s God’s will. We know now that he was arrested a total of eight times for trespassing outside medical clinics in the 1980s. This comment came on the heels of Missouri Candidate Todd Akin’s determination that in “legitimate” rape, a woman’s body won’t allow her to get pregnant. Their comments might seem ludicrous and easily dismissed if these men were standing in the middle of Times Square, ranting in trench coats stained with breakfast egg and trying to direct traffic. But as politicians who vie for power and the ability to control other people’s lives, it’s beyond disturbing. And no matter how Romney attempts to distance himself from these comments, the fact remains; these are members of his party.
If Mitt Romney is elected president four years from now, he will be accountable to all these people if he wants to be re-elected.
Part of the problem with our continued fascination with reality TV and competitive programs is that everything within their reach gets subsumed; Dancing With the Stars and American Idol blend seamlessly with the presidential debates. The tweets about Candy Crowley’s hairstyle are woven between Romney’s comments on women in the workplace, Obama’s commitment to education. If we lose the election, many will blame it on the first debate. Obama was judged mercilessly for his “performance” and “looking tired”; the actual content of what was said was secondary. Someone shoot the make-up man.
To some, it may not seem very much is at stake, (except reproductive rights, health care, and our status as a world power) because there will be another competition next week, and if you don’t like what you see, you just change the channel. Americans are resilient; we bounce back, often because we have short memories. But we aren’t invulnerable to a changing world, and it is possible that everything that has been gained in the last four years (or longer) could evaporate right before our eyes.
I don’t know who these people are, the Independents who have suddenly changed or made up their minds and created such a close race. Perhaps they will never read these words. But I fear they are for Romney because he became the sexy candidate in this, the final stretch, and we know that America loves an underdog, because we were one once. Romney is the loser who bounced back and became a “winner,” sharper and more focused at least as far as the first debate was concerned. He finally became what he’d never been before: coherent. But he doesn’t deserve the presidency for that; he deserves a cookie. And he certainly doesn’t deserve to decide what happens to a woman’s body, or the future of gay and lesbian rights in this country. He’s a handsome guy, he probably has a strong handshake and who knows, maybe he’s fun to share a beer and a baseball game with. The same could have been said about George W. Bush. But two wars later, the country was brought to its knees by that man and, as we found out, being president is more than just having a pretty face, holding babies and shaking hands. You need a plan, and no matter how many times he’s been asked, Mitt Romney can’t articulate his. A Romney presidency must be stopped.
A friend of mine is getting dressed to go out for the evening. I’m sitting on her toilet lid, as she stands looking in the mirror, a black bra against her brown skin, concentrating on her reflection as she puts her make-up on. She runs a black line under an eye with a pencil, steps back, blinks, and turns her head this way and that, evaluating her art. Not completely satisfied, she resumes her technique. I am fascinated by the precision involved in becoming beautiful.
I consider the straight men who would love to be sitting where I am, the magic of watching a woman getting ready to go out on Saturday night, the clouds of powder, the mists of perfume. Perhaps they would be focusing on the small of her naked back, the shape of her buttocks, and, distracted by sex, wouldn’t see the mixture of strength and vulnerability it takes to create oneself for the public. Marilyn knew. No, a straight man wouldn’t appreciate this. In fact, I am only allowed this backstage pass because I am a gay man, and because I listen to women.
“Frankly, I don’t see how any woman can vote for Romney,” she says. She lipsticks, blots, examines, reapplies. The blotting tissue is thrown in the trash, the contrast of red against white is almost obscene. “Don’t they realize what’s at stake here? I’m not jumping for joy over Obama at the moment, he’s made mistakes, but he has daughters, at least. He’s not going to make us go backwards. I’m tired of these men making decisions about women’s bodies.” She adjusts a strap on her bra with irritation and exposes a line on her skin where the powder didn’t reach. “Just leave me the fuck alone and I’ll make my own decisions, thank you.” Blusher, applied aggressively.
I think about Romney, classical, patrician. He is attractive, and can make you forget that a president isn’t a just a man who sits in the Oval Office posing, he’s the face of a party, and an ideology. I have to hand it to him. It was no small feat to rise to the top of the heap of Republican contenders and away from the contempt of the GOP, to satisfy the Tea Party enough to win that dubious race and now, somehow, appear to be moderate enough to engage independents before the final showdown. In fact, he’s moved so far to the middle, that if this election had another month, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with a flower in his hair, wearing a leather-fringed jacket, and singing “Give Peace A Chance.” What frightens me is that along with Romney comes a party that even considered Cain, Bachmann, Perry, Huckabee, Gingrich as presidential.
My friend at the mirror has a young son who is now three. Tonight he is with his father. She is going through a separation that will soon end in divorce. Her friends are taking her out to cheer her up; it’s been a while since she had a girls’ night out. Her bedroom is filled with baby pictures of her son. I remember how excited she was when she found she was pregnant, how her life changed.
I look at the curve of her body as she leans forward, and have a strange thought about who owns it, who decides what happens to it. Once upon a time, it would have been her husband. I think about the politicians, vocal white men like Ryan, Mourdock, and Akin, and it feels surreal. Listening to these men talk in the abstract, looking at her brown body, I think of the entitlement of slave-owners. I wonder if these Republican men just say these things at press conferences and podiums to impress their religious constituents, or if they think about their own families. When their own daughters smile at them at dinner, reaching for a glass of milk, smiling with a missing tooth at Daddy, do they think about what their words mean to actual women’s lives?
For the women who have been raped in my own family, rape isn’t just a talk-show topic, a statistic, a political point to score votes. It’s a mother, sister, aunt, best friend, grandmother, who sometimes wakes up calling for help from the room next door, who still has night terrors even though it’s been ten, fifteen, twenty years. It’s a door that can’t have enough locks, a declined dinner invitation because you’ll get back too late, and you don’t feel safe traveling at night. Life becomes something you watch from a window, like a child being kept in at recess, as the rest of the world participates.
Or maybe it’s anger, or rage, or leads to addiction or eating disorders. Or maybe it isn’t any of these things. I haven’t been raped. But I am the son of a survivor. And whatever the fuck rape is, it affects a woman and her children and her family, and should be a closed conversation until the survivor decides to open it. The final insult after a violation like that is to have a man on the political stage telling you that it’s God’s will and not biology, if you become pregnant after an assault. As if the first act of violence wasn’t enough.
When I think about Romney’s indifference, I could tear this world apart. His words wash over us; we are anesthetized to sound bites, unable to connect his views to actual people’s pain. One can forget how much work it took to get here.
Mitt Romney tells us hospital visits for gay partners are benefits, not rights, and should be decided by the states, unlike Obamacare which requires hospitals to afford same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals. When I think about Romney’s indifference, I could tear this world apart. His words wash over us; we are anesthetized to sound bites, unable to connect his views to actual people’s pain. One can forget how much work it took to get here. Gay marriage, which means gay equality, is legal now in six states. A miracle, a beginning, and long overdue. All the fighting it took so that in a handful of states, a lesbian woman can watch her partner die in the hospital without having to beg from the waiting-room, her final goodbye left to a stranger’s discretion.
In the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, about the election of San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, and his assassination by supervisor Dan White, there are images of the peaceful candlelit vigil for Milk and Mayor George Marscone, who was also murdered by White, a sea of light slowly moving in the dark. Activist Tom Ammiano remembers the hypnotic grace of that night, and how it was interrupted by a black man on the corner shouting at the crowd: “Where is your anger? Where is your anger?” Romney and Obama are neck and neck in this race; we shouldn’t be talking about ties in the polls, we should be in the streets, outraged at the mere suggestion reproductive rights could even be threatened, much less overturned.
Where is your anger, where is your anger? My friend finally zips her dress, checks her hair one more time. Her look is almost wistful as she holds onto the end of a curl with the tips of her fingers, releases it. “People think their rights can’t be taken away. They’re wrong. They have no idea. Idiots. Let them vote for Romney. They’ll see what happens.”
I don’t know if it is bitterness about the divorce that makes her sound so cold, but I am chilled by her words. As I follow her out of the bathroom, she pauses for one last evaluation of her work. It doesn’t quite meet her approval but will have to do because it’s time to leave. She cuts off the light.
There’s blood on the battlefield. In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the character Ofglen (we never know her real name) remembers a time in her past when she was not “Of Glen” – Glen being one of the men of the Religious Right that controls America, and now also controls her reproductive system, as she has been assigned to have a baby for him and his wife. Ofglen recalls a time when women’s bodies belonged to themselves and not the State. Holding onto her sanity through memory, she remembers an evening in her past life when her mother came over for dinner, as Ofglen’s then husband helped prepare the meal.
Her mother says, “You young people don’t appreciate things…You don’t know what we had to go through just to get to where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?” The novel is at once a heartbreaking and terrifying account of freedoms assumed and lost, and a woman who must survive in an unrecognizable America, while containing her bewilderment of how things could have changed so suddenly and completely around her. Joni said it best: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
I’ll say it again: For every gay or lesbian couple who will finally be afforded proper visitation rights because of legalized gay marriage, there is a partner who can’t be at the bedside of his lover because he isn’t “family.” And for every woman who makes the decision, for whatever reason, that she is going to have an abortion, there are thousands of women whose only resource was the back alley, the kitchen table, or the wire coat hanger, when abortion was illegal.
For every repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there are the Matthew Sheppards, the Gwen Araujos, the Sakia Gunns, whose blood still stains our land from hate crimes against gay, lesbian, transgendered people, hate crimes encouraged by homophobic lawmakers. There are the names you may know, and the ones you will never hear about. The suicides due to “stress,” the cover-ups because of a family’s shame. I’ll say it again: For every gay or lesbian couple who will finally be afforded proper visitation rights because of legalized gay marriage, there is a partner who can’t be at the bedside of his lover because he isn’t “family.” And for every woman who makes the decision, for whatever reason, that she is going to have an abortion, there are thousands of women whose only resource was the back alley, the kitchen table, or the wire coat hanger, when abortion was illegal. The women who died from these abortions had families, they had dreams, and they just wanted the legal right to terminate a pregnancy, and they shouldn’t have had to die for that right. And the insane thing is that the law will never stop women from having abortion, ever, and everyone knows this. Rich women will always have the money to get an abortion, even if they have to leave the country on extended “vacations” to do it. What we are really talking about are middle-class and poor women being denied safe abortions, so that they don’t have to put their lives at risk. And the idea that we might not care enough to protect a group of Americans because they don’t have enough money to pay to break the law is beyond despicable.
Paul Ryan doesn’t agree with Romney’s stance on abortion and he’s said so, but if elected, he said in the debates, he will support his president. Yet if anything were to happen to Romney, we would have a President Ryan, a Ryan who would be in a position to nominate Supreme Court justices, no longer having to reconcile his views with anyone. Independent voters, please think about that. While this may not be as disastrous to some as a potential Palin presidency four years ago, it’s not too far off.
What message do we send our daughters and sons, when we elect a president who basically says a few weeks’ or months’ cluster of cells inside a woman’s womb is more important than the woman herself, that basically God created women as breeders to make more men; men who will run for office, betray their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and create more laws to control a woman’s choices. The issue of reproductive rights is about so much more than just whether to terminate a pregnancy. It’s about agency and self-determination, and in this way, Romney and Ryan may have more in common with the repressive forces we are supposedly trying to “liberate” around the world. Welcome to the American Taliban, brought to you by Wonder Bread. If you really think America is supposed to be such a shining example, Governor Romney, show them the true meaning of democracy, that whether you agree with the decision of abortion or not, you will protect a woman’s right to choose it for herself. And that you will take a stand based on the principles this country was built on, rather than using your religious beliefs to manipulate our system for your own political expediency. America deserves a leader who, whatever his flaws, at least upholds our constitution.
As a recovering addict, I have had the benefit of being exposed to one of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, Principles before Personalities. And while Mitt Romney may have personality and even talent in the marketplace, making money and being a good businessman isn’t enough. We must give our children the gift of a country they continue to be proud of, one based on principles. When Marian Anderson, on Eleanor Roosevelt’s invitation, was denied the right to sing for the White House in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black, Roosevelt resigned, and arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead. The law was changed soon after. The world watches courage and remembers. Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Harvey Milk, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Ella Baker: sometimes these just seem like names in history books, names that are almost clichés, until we remember that they faced decisions every day of their lives, whether to accept the status quo or to commit to change.
If we can have six states that are true to democracy when it comes to their same-sex couples, we can and will have more. We must demand equality for everyone. We must not endanger a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body. The true experiment of America hasn’t yet been realized. And it is bigger than Romney, or Obama, or you, or me. And while we may not lead a major movement in our lifetime or guide enslaved people to freedom, we do have power. In fact, we have all the power in the world: the power to vote.
Max Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.
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