Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Monday, February 24, 2014


The Discreet Traveler was in Phoenix just a few weeks ago. Indeed, we spend more time (and money) in Arizona than any other American state. Rather improbably, all three of the children in my family met our partners in Arizona; T. and I first met in person in Phoenix, and my brother and sister both live there, with my two sisters-in-law. Apparently, this is a problem for some other Arizonans.

I admit to having been blindsided by the Arizona state legislature's passage of Senate Bill 1062. In these days of social media and instant news updates, this is the first time I remember being so completely surprised by such an anti-gay development. The day the legislation was passed, the usual e-mails arrived in my in box from gay rights campaigners, but there was no mention of Arizona. It was self-congratulatory "look at all the progress we've made on marriage" blah blah blah, along with a small footnote about the anti-gay bill in Kansas, which didn't pass. Where was everybody while SB1062 was being debated in Phoenix? Legislation is a matter of public record; this should not have been hidden under a bushel, in the New Testament metaphor.

I'm bringing the New Testament into this because we are told that this bill is anti-discrimination. Those who voted for it say that it is the only way to protect sincerely believing religious people from being discriminated against, by gay people who want to pay them for their services. As absurd as this sounds, I'm trying to address this on its own terms: What makes this a bad piece of legislation for everyone, quite apart from its targeting of gay people?

The religion that is being protected here is, of course, Christian. And one particular strand of Christian belief--not all Christian views, let alone the views of all Christians. This is important:
"According to a poll by Third Way and the Human Rights Campaign 69 percent of Americans don’t think a business owner should be allowed to refuse to provide products or services to an individual because that person is gay or lesbian, compared to an incredibly small 15% that do. And when asked about small business owners in particular, a full 68% of Americans don’t think they should be able to refuse service to gays or lesbians, regardless of their religious beliefs. This supermajority included 55% of Republicans, 75% of Independents, 67% of people without college degrees, and 68% of Christians"* (emphasis mine).

As others have pointed out, there is nothing in the law that wouldn't equally protect a Muslim taxi driver from refusing to accept a woman passenger on her own, for example, but that is not the "sincere belief" we are talking about. We are talking about the sincere belief that homosexuality, and same-sex coupledom, is wrong.

However cynical I suspect the lawmakers of being, let's not underplay the fact that this is a sincere belief. Many Americans hold it, and the right-wing talk show circus has convinced them that they are being persecuted by us. This is a crucial understanding. Unlike in the old days of black-white segregation, everyone now agrees that discrimination is unacceptable. What the supposed beneficiaries of this legislation believe is that they are the ones discriminated against, rather than LGBT people.

Now, this is interesting because it is the businesses of Arizona who are being protected by SB1062--not the customers. If a lesbian customer goes to a florist, say, and discovers that the florists are uncomfortable providing flowers for her same-sex wedding, what is she going to do? (Though to be sure, a homophobic florist is hard to imagine.) She will take her business and spend her money somewhere else. Those of us who were gay in twentieth-century America have always done this. We assumed that people were going to have a problem with our sexuality, and we sought out gay or gay-friendly businesses who were the exception. Remember the maxim of TDT’s last post: Tolerance of sexual difference is always the exception. It has never been the rule.

Increasingly though, in the past two decades, it has become the rule among American businesses. After all, we have money to spend, and more and more Americans agree that our sexuality is, well, our own business. The Republican party is always saying that it is the party of business in the U.S., that it’s there to look after the interests of business. Why do businesses need protecting from the dollars of gay Americans and Americans who think there is nothing wrong with gay people?

If a business consistently turns down customers because it doesn’t like dealing with them, that business is in trouble. But that’s not discrimination, any more than a top 40 radio station is “discriminating”against Peter, Paul and Mary by not playing folk music. Good business means moving with the times, and trying to get as large a share of the customer base as possible. If a person’s sincere belief is that they should only serve some people, may I suggest that s/he is not going to be a very successful businessperson.

I hope that Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, vetoes this bill. "I think anybody that owns a business can choose who they work with or who they don't work with," she told CNN in Washington on Friday. "But I don't know that it needs to be statutory. In my life and in my businesses, if I don't want to do business or if I don't want to deal with a particular company or person or whatever, I'm not interested. That's America. That's freedom."

If Governor Brewer does not veto SB1062, there is little doubt that it will fail in court eventually, because it violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—equal protection under the law. What hasn’t been said enough is that it also violates the First Amendment, by privileging one religion (in fact one strand of that religion) over others and attempting to establish that religion by the state.

The U.S.A. was founded by people who distrusted the establishment of religion. Christianity, and other faiths, have flourished in America in large part because their expression is free, and to the extent that people of different faiths can still work and do business with one another. Legislating in the name of the Christian religion is bad for business, and it is bad for Christianity.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Rain on your wedding day

One of the many pleasures of reading Alison Bechdel's epic cartoon series, Dykes to Watch Out For, was the little details lovingly drawn into the pictures. For example, the newspaper headlines she penned in to the strip characters' local newspaper, The Distress. Not long after Osama bin Laden had become a household name, Bechdel drew the headline "They hate us! They really hate us!" Presumably she was also alluding to Sally Field's embarrassing Oscar speech, but the message hit home. Americans had been suddenly, brutally reminded that there are people who really hate us, and what are we going to do about it?

You will be relieved to know that this post is not about Osama bin Laden, but rather, the people sometimes hyperbolically characterized as an "American Taliban." Please note that I regard "Taliban" as an unacceptable exaggeration. No American lawmaker, as far as I know, has yet suggested stoning homosexuals to death, but they are after us with their interpretation of the Bible, and we've all read Leviticus, right? If you want it, it's in there.

"Anti-gay bills" might make you think of Russia or Uganda, but I am talking about Kansas and Tennessee. To recap, the bill passed by the Kansas House, HB 2453, states that any person or religious entity with sincerely held religious beliefs would be able, without fear of legal consequences, to refuse to provide service to any same-sex couple or treat their marriage (or civil union) as valid.* The Tennesssee bill, HB 600/SB 632, "would bar local governments from instituting anti-discrimination policies that are stricter than the ones in force at the state level. Under state law, it is not illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation."**

Ever since "gay marriage" started being mooted as a real legal possibility in North America, I have shared many queer activists' skepticism about it. I absolutely support a person's freedom to marry, whether that person is Mildred Loving or you; and I am very happy for the many couples who are finally getting married, some after being partners for decades. What I've been skeptical about is the (often implied) belief that now that we are getting marriage, that will be it--there is no more room for discrimination. In Canada, there is some evidence that it has broadly worked out that way, legally if not in fact. In the U.S. it is a dangerous falsehood.

The most life-altering legal change in the past year, as I see it, has been the Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA. Among other things, this enables Americans for the very first time to sponsor their spouses of other nationalities to come to the U.S. It was not, however, necessary to make marriage central to this legal change. Other countries, like Canada and Great Britain, accept for immigration purposes partnerships that are not actually called marriage. As I have argued before, marriage is essential in the U.S. gay rights advance because it is so important in the U.S. generally.

With delight, we note that in more and more states, marriage is being won. While we are celebrating this, though, theocrats in the state legislatures are thrusting new segregation upon us. We know, but perhaps do not pay enough attention to the fact, that job discrimination and bullying of kids are still huge problems for LGBT Americans. Marriage does not help those people. The new wave of anti-gay laws will permit anyone to turn away same-sex couples if they do not religiously approve of us. It is taking us backwards.

Who are these people, who would bring back the twentieth century to gay Americans who have already survived it? Certainly not all, or even most, straight people, or Christians, let alone the majority of Americans. But those who do support these measures are powerful, and they can be found in many areas of public life. "The bill would apply to government employees, raising fears that even police officers could refuse to come to the assistance of gay couples, pleading religious differences."* Suddenly, it does not seem so far-fetched that such laws could cost gay people their lives. What do you think used to happen, and still does in places where we don't have the protection of the law?

I don't want to dampen happy couples' enthusiasm--I completely understand why couples in California and many other states started getting married as soon as they had the chance. But while all this was going on, the people who hate us--who really hate us--have been busy.

We'd better get busy ourselves. Wherever you live in the world, remember this: Tolerance of sexual difference is always the exception. It has never been the rule.



Saturday, February 1, 2014

Days 42-50: Adelaide to London via Sydney, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A.

Day 42 (over the International Date Line) was the Australia to America leg of our around-the-world journey, and Days 49-50 comprise America to England. We have circumnavigated the globe. In between we spent a week in Phoenix, and this gave me an opportunity not only to readjust to the northern hemisphere in not bad weather, but to consider. Could I live again in the country of my birth?

It felt inexpensive, especially after Australia, but that can be deceptive. There's the whole health care thing that we don't have to worry about in other countries, and I don't really know about the new alternatives. I haven't had any reason to research them. Then there's the gun shop around the corner from where my baby niece lives.

Arizona might not be the best example; it has pretty outdated laws, gay-wise, and not my favorite culture. Standing in line at the post office, I saw a gift display with lots of cutesy signs you can hang in or around your house. About half of these pictured and/or referred to firearms being used to shoot trespassers. To be fair, I didn't actually see any hanging around anyone's home.

Getting to America via the Pacific was a new one for me. The longest flight of our trip, Sydney to Los Angeles, went straight across the ocean, and took about 13 hours. Luckily it wasn't a full flight so we each had extra seats to stretch out in. I realized, as I watched the flight path, how little I knew of the geography of the South Pacific. I'd heard of some of the islands because my grandfathers were here during the Second World War. At one point we passed Christmas Island and the Ella Fitzgerald song of that name came into my head. Hers was the only carol we listened to over Christmas that actually seemed seasonal!

Because it was still Day 42, we arrived in LA "before" we'd even left Adelaide, never mind Sydney. It sure didn't feel like it, though. Happily, we had plenty of time for our connections--not a simple process as we first had to clear exit immigration in Australia, then entry into the United States in LA before starting all over again at another airline for our domestic connection. (We went through security three times on this trip--I am telling you, our last plane was safe from jam, A1 sauce, and my bag of change that a sick Transportation Safety Administration employee thought "looked like a hand grenade.")

There was not a long line to enter the U.S. (for citizens), and the Customs and Border Protection guy was incredibly chilled. "You guys family?" "We're a couple." "That works." Imagine if every American had such a laissez-faire attitude.

Pancakes. Strangers chatting to you and it seems normal. The whole "Hi, how are you?" routine with an employee before you can get anything done. Actually the last of these was very Australian too; I got quite used to it over six weeks, and am really going to miss it back here in the good old United Kingdom.

Somewhere by the time of our return flight to London, we had ceased to be security risks because we were mysteriously waved through "TSA Pre-check." This means not having to remove our shoes (something you don't have to do anywhere but U.S. or U.S.-bound flights in the first place). I'd also put so many miles on my frequent flyer card that I've become "Gold" and got extra leg room seats without asking for them. I never thought it would make any difference what class, as we're all on the same plane, but on a nine-hour flight little comforts make a difference.

I remember being on a street in Melbourne and seeing a rugby pub advertising the Six Nations. The Six Nations is the big rugby competition among England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy that must be starting right about now. It is funny to think of rugby fans half a world away watching Twickenham on TV, while we're here bemoaning the traffic.

So for now, so long, America. I miss sheets and blankets (rather than duvets), and washcloths as well as towels. I miss hearing Patty and Paddy pronounced exactly the same. I miss reports about how many degrees Fahrenheit it is going to be at the Super Bowl. Mostly, I miss family, as again it's family and friends that make a place worth going back to.