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Friday, June 20, 2014

Every state line

Thank you, readers, for your comments. One of you has asked what The Discreet Traveler thinks about the irony that same-sex marriage is now recognized by the U.S. government, but not by many state governments. The bewildering array of state laws and the layers of state vs. federal government confuse even Americans. But never fear—TDT is here to be your guide.

The clue to American history is in the name of the country: The United States of America. Historically, the nation was a federation of states, former British colonies, and the individual states have been very wary of ceding their powers to the federal government. The U.S. Constitution, minimally amended since 1789, clearly lays out the powers of the states, including any government power not explicitly granted to the federal government. This is why, for example, the upper house of Congress (the Senate) has two senators from each state, no matter the relative size or population of the states.

If you’ve seen enough American movies, you’ll have seen wedding scenes where the minister, or other officiant, says, “By the power vested in me by the State of New York—” or wherever. States are responsible for most family law, including marriage licenses. And those jurisdictions’ laws vary. Nevada, for instance, famously has no residency or advance requirements for getting married in that state, hence all those movies with impulsive Las Vegas weddings.

In a sense, there is no national U.S. law recognizing marriage. The U.S. simply recognizes marriages that have been performed in various jurisdictions, whether those are states, territories, or outside the U.S.

The federal government rarely intervenes in the definition of marriage, but on certain historic occasions, it has. One was in 1967, the Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia. In this case a loving couple—famously named Loving—sued Virginia for sentencing them to prison for the crime of marrying each other. Because Richard Loving was a man classified as “white” and Mildred Loving a woman classified as “colored” by the state*, Virginia said their marriage was illegal, even though they had been married in a different jurisdiction (Washington, D.C.)

The U.S. Constitution has another important principle, which is that a contract under the law of one jurisdiction is binding in all other states—a principle that Virginia was clearly violating. The case went to the judicial branch of the federal government, the Supreme Court, which ruled that “anti-miscegenation” laws such as Virginia’s were racist, and that people’s right to marry could not be infringed by the state in such a way. Those laws still on the books in other states became unenforceable, because interracial marriages were now recognized at the national level.

Loving v. Virginia is an enormously important precedent for marriage equality, and in recent years Mildred publicly pointed this out herself (Richard died in 1975). But the legislative and executive branches of the federal government overstepped their constitutional bounds in 1996. That year, Congress passed the “Defense of Marriage” Act, and President Clinton signed it into law. DOMA’s section 2 says that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed by another state. Section 3, the part that was ruled unconstitutional in 2013, said that the federal government only recognizes “marriage” as meaning between a man and a woman, and only recognizes “spouse” as meaning someone of the opposite sex.

(If you think section 2 sounds at least as unconstitutional as section 3, you have a point! States are required by the Constitution to recognize each other’s contracts, but the Supreme Court did not address this issue in the 2013 ruling. We’ll get back to this.)

In 1996 when DOMA was passed, no state allowed same-sex marriage; the law was a pre-emptive measure. But then same-sex U.S. couples began getting married in other countries, notably Canada from 2003. Historically, a couple married elsewhere in the world is considered married in the U.S. without having to get married all over again, but DOMA made same-sex couples an exception. And from 2004, individual states, beginning with Massachusetts, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples too.

Suddenly, couples found themselves married for state purposes, but not federal. This created some absurd situations. For example, most states have state income tax, meaning Americans have to file both a federal tax return and a return for their state. The state taxes are based on the federal return, so the federal has to be filled out first. But because of DOMA, a person in a state with same-sex marriage had to fill out her federal tax return (according to which she was not married), followed by a “phantom” federal return as if she was married, in order to be able to complete her state tax return according to which she was married!

When the Supreme Court overturned section 3 of DOMA one year ago, all that changed. Now, if you’re married anywhere the federal government (including for tax purposes) agrees that you are. Essentially, the burden of deciding who is married was shifted back to the states, where it always belonged. But because the Court ruling did not overturn DOMA section 2, states can still refuse to recognize each other’s marriage contracts. There is as yet no national requirement to recognize same-sex marriages everywhere, as with Loving v. Virginia.

This leads to the absurdity of a cross-country trip where a couple is or is not married, every time they cross a different state line. To be sure, this is better than the previous situation, where a state could grant a marriage license but it didn’t have any federal “teeth.” Most notably, because immigration law is a federal matter, it makes all the difference to binational couples that the federal government now recognizes them as married. And if an American couple still lives in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage, it is a lot more feasible for them to move to a friendlier state than it is to emigrate to another country!

It’s an absurd situation, but a familiar one from U.S. history. Black citizens used to have to worry about “Jim Crow” segregation laws when they crossed into certain states. Before that, of course, was the even more infamous era of “slave” vs. “free” states, where on one side of a state line a black person was just property, to be captured and returned to his owner or sold.

The shifting legal balance isn’t necessarily a social one. I don’t remember Canada in 2003 having a province-by-province fight, or demonstrators claiming that same-sex marriage would destroy the Canadian way of life. (In my view, it is the Canadian way of life.) But the U.S. is a very different country. At one level, it's fifty different countries.

The states, and the American people, remain far from united.

*Although Mildred Loving is often referred to as a “black woman,” she was in fact of mixed African–American and American Indian descent (Rappahannock nation). The point was that it mattered to Virginia that she wasn't white.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The customer is always wrong

Every once in a while The Discreet Traveler rants. What follows, though, is supposed to be humorous. I am sending up the country I happen to live in, but if I traveled through yours, sooner or later I would have something to say about that place too. Enjoy.

In the U.S.A., there used to be a saying that "The customer is always right." I don't know if anyone else remembers that saying now, let alone lives by it, but it's an American saying. And every once in a while, no matter how long I've lived "abroad," I find myself getting all American and writing obnoxious letters of complaint. Because if the saying was ever true in the United States, it is pretty much unknown outside.

Twenty years ago, when I lived for some months in Great Britain, I wrote a little piece called "The customer is always wrong." (It was meant as entertainment, too.) I had a whole host of little anecdotes like the one that follows, but this one happened only last month. Picture the scene: It is midday, a beautiful sunny day, about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (see, I'm getting American). A van with the words HOT DOGS printed prominently on the side is open for business. Lest there be any mistake, a sign propped outside the van--obviously put out this morning--also proclaims HOT DOGS for sale.

Nonetheless, there are no cooking smells, and I approach the van with caution. I have learned to expect to have to ask:

"Do you have hot dogs?"

Now, let's leave aside that "hot dogs" means something very different in England than it does in America. I do know this. I don't expect the same experience in a different country than I would have at "home." What I do, partly, still expect is that the merchandise for sale in a place might match what it says on the tin (as the British themselves say).

"No," the saleswoman tells me (I have to say, with a look of some incredulity). "We don't have hot food." Then, by way of explanation, "It's hot."

Now first of all, it is by no stretch of even the British imagination "hot." It is warm enough not to wear a jacket, but that is another matter. Second--did no one ever eat hot dogs in hot weather? One might rather ask, when else would one eat them?

"Well it's just that--" I gesture to the words HOT DOGS permanently imprinted on the van, but it's no use.

"You're the first person today who's asked for hot food," she adds, almost reproachfully.

Yeah, but there's still the temporary sign. You'd think at least that bit of false advertising might not have been set out for the day, or that a bit of paper might have been stuck over the words HOT DOGS--something. But no, the saleswoman would rather apologize, not just to me, but (as I hear) to each subsequent customer who also asks for the products she does not have for sale.

It happens. It happens a lot. I, culturally, would much rather cross out the sign than have to keep apologizing--or hey, sell my products! But the hot dog incident pales by comparison to what followed a few days later, and unlike this poor non-hot-dog lady, this is a named business that is trading on its brand.

So I am going to name names here: The Globe Theatre. Shakespeare's Globe. Audience full every performance, visitors from around the world. Antony and Cleopatra and, as luck would have it, the poor actor playing Antony is sick. So far, out of the theatre's control.

Now, what I would expect to happen in this instance, and what has happened numerous times at plays I've attended in my life, is some hardworking young actor (probably paid a pittance) has understudied not only Antony's but another couple of parts. He gets his big break, steps into the role of Antony, and the audience applauds. Win, win.

Not at the Globe though. No, the Globe has no understudy. No one? Not even for Antony, the lead role?

What they do instead is ask another actor, who obviously knows but has not memorized the part, to read it from a pile of paper, complete with yellow highlighting. And so we are treated to the (admittedly well-blocked) spectacle of Antony running about with these notes in his hand, which he reads from as he sword-fights, as he kisses Cleopatra...even, most memorably, as he dies. There lies Antony, shuffling up the ramp, reading his dying lines as he shoves the paperwork before him towards the stage.

You couldn't make it up, or possibly have predicted such a fiasco--I thought. I was not even wholly surprised, though disappointed, that the audience was offered nothing at all in light of this disappointing performance--no discount on tickets or even merchandise in the shop. Oh well, perhaps it was hot dogs and they didn't have any either.

But when I wrote my (very American) letter of complaint later, what did I get? The policy of the Globe is not to have understudies. Surely I (the customer) can appreciate this. The Globe is a charity.

Now, I know what this means. The definition of "charity" in Great Britain is incredibly broad; it emphatically does not mean do-gooders. You could be raking in millions of pounds in profit and still be a charity, as long as your ends are artistic or something like that. So no, I do not appreciate this. A professional theatre company without understudies? How often do they expect such substandard performances?

And did I get a £3 token or the kind of thing I might expect to get even from the tightest of British businesses? No, twenty years has rendered even those gestures too generous. I am only a customer, after all, who paid for my tickets (not cheap, by the way). I should be supporting the "charity" that is the world famous, name-brand Shakespeare's Globe.

I should be grateful this has-been hot dog stand was offering any product at all.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My writing process

Today I'm taking a different kind of tour—the #MyWritingProcess blog tour.  I was generously tagged by Cheri Crystal, author of the forthcoming novella Across the Pond and many other entertaining, sexy stories. You can find her at Authors blog about their writing process and then tag someone else to do the same. We all answer the same four questions. Hope you enjoy.

#1 What am I working on?

I am at work on my third novel. The main character is a young woman called Spark who keeps falling for the wrong person, but that is the least of her problems. Her father, grandmother, and best friend are each struggling with a different health crisis, and the only thing that gets Spark through is music.

#2 How does my work differ from others in the same genre?

If the genre is “lesbian fiction,” my work tends to the more mainstream or general fiction end of that spectrum. There is same-sex desire in most of my fiction, but in the novels, I tend to work best with a variety of characters, including male characters. There are certainly other writers who deal with some of the same themes I do, such as family, spiritual faith, and humor! But I try to make a contribution that is a little bit unique.

#3 Why do I write what I do?

Writing is a habit and if I don’t write, I get withdrawal—it’s part of my life. But once I create characters, I care about them as if they were real people, and my aim is to get that across to my readers. When readers say they were moved by something I wrote or it made them think or made them laugh—that is the best feeling. I love that experience as a reader, and so I love to share it with others.

#4 How does my writing process work?

I write best in a kind of half-conscious flow, before I can start self-editing and blocking myself from just getting it all out on paper. And paper it is—I write with a pencil, ideally before I’ve turned on a computer at all, as early in the day as possible. I do sketch out plot ideas and have some idea where the story is going, but that’s only a guide. I listen to music the whole time. Only at the rewriting stage do I start putting a version of those paper drafts into typed form, so I can share them with my writing group and get their help.

The “Reading” page at has published stories that you can read for free. There are also links to my books, and a contact page, because I always love to hear what others are reading. Thanks!

J. E. Knowles is the author of The Trees in the Field and Arusha, a 2010 Lambda Literary Award finalist, and editor of Faith in Writing. She also blogs at The Discreet Traveler:

Next up, we’re keeping it in Canada! Here are a couple of terrific writers you should read:

Liz Bugg (lizbugg.comis a Toronto-based writer best known for her Calli Barnow mystery series. Her first novel, Red Rover, won a Goldie Award for Debut Author from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and Yellow Vengeance is short-listed for this year's Goldies in the Mystery/Thriller category. Liz also writes short stories, and is presently working on a novel based on the life of her grandmother.

Nadine LaPierre ( is a playwright, novelist, and composer. Her novel The Slayer, is the first in a mystery-thriller series set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and featuring Constable Danielle Renaud, an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Her follow-up, Verity, is coming soon.