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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Top 20: How blessed am I?

I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism lately, and nationality, and what it means to be a citizen. Particularly this week, after yet another senseless attack in the United States—not just on America, but on people from all over the world. A marathon like Boston is an international event. Long-distance runners are a global community.

The American and Canadian flags evoke different emotions in me; I feel I belong to two countries. From many discussions, I know that binationality is as difficult a concept for some people as bisexuality used to be for me (and I’m sure there are more posts in that). But the way I’ve been feeling lately, it seems very important to dispel the notion that one country must always be defined against other countries, or that love for one country means loving another country less.

I challenged myself to come up with some personal “Top 10s.” I can tell you right now that laws and policies like health care, same-sex marriage, immigration, or gun control are not on these lists. Not only because there is plenty already out there about those important issues, but because I wanted to make these lists personal. I am very aware that a place can look very different “on paper” than it looks in real life, when you’re actually living there. The things that make a place worth living in, and a country worth loving, are often not the way its government behaves—in fact, quite the opposite. This is not a “X is better than Y because” post. You might as well ask someone to pick one of their children over another.

So here are the Top 10 of the country I was born in, and the country I chose:

10 Things I Love About America

1.            The Statue of Liberty. My all-time favorite monument. Lady Liberté (I love the story of French schoolchildren sending in their pennies to build her) is the one patriotic thing that moves me to tears. Because of all she stands for, and how far we still have to go.

2.            “America The Beautiful.” The song, in this case. It describes exactly what I love about America and I never stop at the first chorus, which everyone knows; I always go on to the second: “America! America!/ God mend thine ev’ry flaw,/ Confirm thy soul in self-control,/ Thy liberty in law.” Thank you, Katharine Lee Bates.

3.            America the beautiful. The national parks. The Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, the grand everything.

4.            Following on from #3: I think that Wyoming and East Tennessee, where I come from, are the two most beautiful places in the U.S.A., if not on earth. And I am sure that I could walk up to any house in either rural location with an American (or Confederate) flag out front, knock on the door, and not agree with the residents about anything other than their right to fly said flag. And so %$$! what? Which brings me to

5.            The U.S. Constitution, more specifically the Bill of Rights, and most of all, the First Amendment. Free speech is one thing I think America gets 100% right. If you disagree, please, feel free to say so!

6.            The people. We’re friendly, we’re loud, and you can always tell we’re coming from a mile away; we’re generous too. Come to think of it, generosity is a feature of both my countries’ people.

7.            Project and process and above all, progress. We pronounce them all with a short o. How could I ever pronounce progress except the American way?

8.            Fahrenheit. Not the cologne (well, that too) but I've never been able to get used to any other temperature scale. But, if you can stand the cold getting down to 40 degrees below zero, that is the point where Fahrenheit meets Celsius (or, given the weather, where America meets Canada).

9.            My family. Sure, I wasn't the first Knowles to migrate up north; my ancestors were Crown Loyalists, and my great-great-grandfather was born in Nova Scotia. But today, my relatives are all American.

10.          See Canada #10.

You might notice that a lot of what I love about America is—wait for it—freedom. Freedom of choice, even to a fault, is a big American value. It’s because I’m American that I love having choices, that it’s such a blessing to have more than one country in the world where I am absolutely free to live and work and...ironically, that’s what I love about Canada. No one made me be Canadian; I chose Canada freely. In fact, Canada doesn’t make me do much of anything:

10 Things I Love About Canada

1.            Canada doesn’t tax me no matter where I live in the world, or make me file paperwork unless I live in Canada.

2.            Canada doesn’t limit me, as a Canadian abroad, from investing (overseas financial institutions have closed their doors to “U.S. persons” because they don’t want to comply with the onerous filing requirements of the Internal Revenue Service).

3.            Canada doesn’t require me to have a Canadian passport to leave or return to the country (though I'm happy to have one).

4.            Canada doesn’t restrict me, as its citizen, from traveling to any country. (For the record, there are lots of countries I’m more interested in traveling to than Cuba; but isn’t it communist states that are supposed to restrict their citizens’ travel?)

5.            Canada the beautiful. Cape Breton Island, Northern Ontario, canoe trips, getting thrown out of a dogsled in the snow.

6.            Canada is my land of opportunity. Canada gave me a chance, when it was the most important thing in my life, when doors were closed to me in every other country of the world. As with other chances I’ve taken, things didn’t ultimately work out the way I’d started off hoping; but I would never have known what was possible if I hadn’t had that chance.

7.            In Canada, I found work that I liked and that could support me in all the things I really wanted to do in life. I’m not saying that this, or #8, would never have happened if I’d been living somewhere else, but Canada is where they happened for me.

8.            And directly following on #7: Canada is where I finally started taking my writing seriously, and launched a career, with the support of some of the same people I still rely on.

9.            Speaking of whom: I’m fortunate enough to have friends all over the world, but the place with the biggest concentration of people I really value as friends is the Toronto area.

10.          I was living in Toronto on September 11, 2001. Thankfully, I had no television, so the news of what was happening in America came to me first from a friend (one of that rare breed born and raised in Toronto) who has said, and not just to me, that he’s never met an American he didn’t like. People that day stood together, Canadians, Americans, and indeed people from all over the world. We felt a strong sense that our common humanity was so much more important than our different nationalities. Sadly, that sense does not always remain strong among people; but like other Americans, I will never forget that day. And like other Canadians, I will never forget how united we felt that day.

If I hadn’t had all these experiences in Canada, I might not forever link being American and being Canadian together in my heart. But I’m very blessed to do so. And on top of that, I have twice as many things to love.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Separate or Equal: A Non-Wedding Story

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education

England and Wales are legalizing same-sex marriage. If the House of Lords does not scupper this bill, lesbian and gay couples will be able to choose to have a minister of religion conduct their wedding, or have it in a church, or not, like any other couple getting married. Unlike civil partnership, marriage is a term that means something outside this country. It is not “separate but equal.”

Inevitably, this made me think about my non-wedding day. The day itself was happy, but beforehand I was acutely aware that civil partnership was separate and not equal. Not just because I had to ask my sister to pray in a separate building, after the legal ceremony was over, so as not to contaminate the gay with God. The town hall room itself made discrimination hard to miss. There was a big sign right up front, where it would be seen by everyone. “MARRIAGE ACCORDING TO THE LAW OF THIS COUNTRY IS THE UNION OF ONE MAN AND ONE WOMAN...” it proclaimed, to the polygamists, barnyard-animal-marriers, and queers.

This was like something you’d see in America, I thought. I wanted to protest, but I’m a foreigner, at the mercy of British immigration authorities. That’s why I was there in the first place. (Well, and to have a massive party in the other building.) I couldn’t afford to rock the boat.

In the excitement of non-wedding preparation, I happily forgot all about this. With a great deal of difficulty, seven members of my family, including my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) Elizabeth, traveled from the U.S.A. to celebrate with us. But until the ceremony, and my sister’s blessing in the Indian restaurant, were over, I knew nothing about the most boat-rocking moment of the whole day.

“Now that you’re legal,” Elizabeth said over dinner, “we can tell you what we did.” Turns out I may have forgotten about the offensive sign, but my aunt noticed it right away.

This won’t do, she thought. My brother’s pictures document her striding right to the front of the room and removing the sign. Then she and Elizabeth hid it behind a curtain. Unbeknownst to me, they kept worrying that a town hall employee was going to find it and put it back.

When I heard what had happened to the sign, I was retrospectively thrilled that it hadn’t been there to spoil our non-wedding pictures. But I was more proud of my family’s actions. They weren’t afraid to ask for discrimination to be taken out of the picture. They didn’t even ask.

Resistance to British authorities is why America is a country in the first place. Civil disobedience is what we do. My straight American relatives couldn’t make equality happen in this country, let alone in their own. But when and where they could, they struck a blow for equality.

And that brings us closer than ever.