What I Learned at Wendy's: An Accidental Meeting with Small-Town Gay America

Let’s talk about Garfield County, Washington, population 2,060. To my knowledge, I’ve never been there. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea Garfield County existed. Currently it holds the record for the greatest percentage of voters to reject Referendum 71, the everything-but-marriage referendum. More than 77% voted to reject R-71.*

But nearly 22%, 192 people, voted to uphold the law. Doesn’t sound like much, it’s true. How about this number? 219,897–that’s the number of people who voted to approve R-71 in the yellow counties, the ones like Garfield County, in which a majority of voters rejected R-71.

Let’s talk about Garfield County, Washington, population 2,060. To my knowledge, I’ve never been there. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea Garfield County existed. Currently it holds the record for the greatest percentage of voters to reject Referendum 71, the everything-but-marriage referendum. More than 77% voted to reject R-71.*

But nearly 22%, 192 people, voted to uphold the law. Doesn’t sound like much, it’s true. How about this number? 219,897–that’s the number of people who voted to approve R-71 in the yellow counties, the ones like Garfield County, in which a majority of voters rejected R-71.

In Washington, as is the case in many other states in which one area’s population is massive and the rest of the state’s just isn’t, the Puget Sound area of Western Washington and its left-leaning voters usually win statewide elections. This creates a lot of bitterness in the eastern part of the state, and I guess I can understand why. It would suck to feel like your vote didn’t count.

And in case I didn’t remind you yet today, we are winning in Washington. Approve R-71 holds its lead. Sorry, Eastern WA (not really).

219,897. That’s 37% of the current count of votes in favor of R-71. That’s 219,897 people in the more conservative areas of Washington who didn’t succumb to the pressure of their neighbors to reject the rights of same-sex couples. As much as it mattered that King County and other Puget Sound residents sent in their ballots this year to put R-71 over the top, it mattered that these people did, too. I want to thank each one of those 219,897 people, but I especially want to thank the 192 Approve voters in Garfield County. You are my heroes of the day.

A few days ago we were in Clayton, Georgia, population 2019. We drove up from our campsite at Talullah Gorge State Park about 10 miles south to visit Wendy’s. No, it wasn’t because we wanted a Frosty. Wendy’s is one of the few places in Clayton, Georgia that has free WiFi for its guests, an amenity usually missing from state park campgrounds.

We were there for about a half hour when another WiFi user, a guy, came in and sat across from us, next to the only visible outlet in the place. We exchanged pleasantries, and almost immediately my gaydar went off. No, Ruby. This is small-town Georgia.

We started talking with him about Frances, and several times he dropped hints about his sexual orientation. Still I argued with myself. What were the odds? We were nearly the only people in the place. But when he said, “Well, I’m not going to have children unless they figure out a way for men to give birth,” I had to admit it: this guy was gay.

We spent hours in that Wendy’s, talking to Brandon and eventually his friend Kristen, a straight ally. We talked about the difficulty of being out and gay in a small town, worrying about your safety. We agreed that the recently-passed federal hate crimes law was a good thing.

Then Brandon and Kristen told us about other gay people in the area. There was a gay couple who owned a restaurant that we could see through the window from where we sat. Down the road was a bar owned by a lesbian couple, an LGBT hangout. And nearby, Brandon told us proudly, was an all-LGBT church. Just over the border in North Carolina, he said, was a small town that had one of the highest per capita gay populations in the country.

We were kind of floored by this. I think I used to believe that part of the coming out process for everyone who wasn’t born in a big liberal city was to move to one. And maybe that’s usually true. But some people stay, or come back. And they have friends.

In Garfield County, Washington, they have 192 friends. Brave, wonderful friends who vote with their hearts to protect our rights throughout the state of Washington.

*Note: the numbers change frequently as remaining votes are counted. All numbers quoted are as of 6:39 a.m. PST on 11/5.

Marriage (and Other LGBT) Rights in Florida

We didn’t plan to come to Florida. In fact, knowing what little I did about Florida’s laws concerning LGBT rights, I would have preferred to avoid the state altogether. But it was hot today in Alabama, and that got us thinking about the beach. And there we were, directly north of Pensacola. So we veered left and made our way into the Sunshine State.

I was driving as we passed the sign welcoming us to Florida. Having grown up in New York City, I feel like Florida is a relative of mine. Indeed, I have at least two retired or semi-retired aunts who spend the winter months on the Barrier Islands. So I am particularly disappointed in Florida for being so hostile to us, the way you might be when you find out Grandma voted Republican. I mean, aren’t the Keys just one big gay party?

We didn’t plan to come to Florida. In fact, knowing what little I did about Florida’s laws concerning LGBT rights, I would have preferred to avoid the state altogether. But it was hot today in Alabama, and that got us thinking about the beach. And there we were, directly north of Pensacola. So we veered left and made our way into the Sunshine State.

I was driving as we passed the sign welcoming us to Florida. Having grown up in New York City, I feel like Florida is a relative of mine. Indeed, I have at least two retired or semi-retired aunts who spend the winter months on the Barrier Islands. So I am particularly disappointed in Florida for being so hostile to us, the way you might be when you find out Grandma voted Republican. I mean, aren’t the Keys just one big gay party?

When I heard the story of the Langbehn-Pond family’s experience in Miami, I was afraid, angry, and deeply sad. In 2007, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond, a lesbian couple who happened to live in the Washington city of Olympia, took three of their adopted kids to Florida to embark on an R Family cruise. You know, a Rosie cruise.

They never sailed. While they were still in port, Lisa Pond suffered a brain aneurysm. She was rushed to the Ryder Trauma Center, and Janice and the kids followed behind her. When they arrived, Janice was told that she was in an anti-gay state, and would not be allowed to see her partner. The rest of the story is the stuff of gay nightmares.

As we crossed into that same anti-gay state where Janice Langbehn was denied the right to be with her partner during the last moments of her life, I gripped the steering wheel a little harder and went over our plan. We haven’t paid to have power of attorney documents written up, so we would, in the case of such a tragedy, enact plan B.

“Remember,” I said to Ami, invoking our friend Jenny’s wise advice, “if something happens to one of us, we’re sisters.”

“I know,” Ami said, in the tone you use when someone’s reminded you of something a hundred times.

“And whichever one is healthy is Frances’s mom.” I stopped. “Biological mom.”

Ami and I look enough alike that if you didn’t know us and we told you we were sisters, you’d believe us. Who cares what the consequences of such a lie are in that situation? Sue me. Bring me up on charges. I know what’s right, and being by my wife’s side in a time of danger trumps just about everything else. I probably don’t need to remind you that if we were heterosexual, nobody would blink if we said we were married–which we are. There would be respect and empathy shown to the spouse, as there should be in times of mortal fear and grief.

Florida

  • In 2008, in a 62 – 38% landslide [via Ballotopedia], Florida voters approved this anti-marriage equality amendment to their state constitution: “Inasmuch as a marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.”
  • Recognized only as a close friend, and in the absence of relatives to take precedence, medical decisions may be made on behalf of a partner. An advance directive may also be written and signed by two witnesses to grant a partner medical decision-making rights. But this is, it seems, subject to interpretation by hospital administration.
  • “Homosexuals” may not adopt in Florida. Period. I’m glad there are no foster children in Florida who might need a permanent home with a loving family.
  • After sex reassignment surgery, a Florida birth certificate may be amended.
  • Florida hate crime laws cover sexual orientation but not gender identity. For gender identity, it’d be the Feds who’d have to prosecute.
  • Gender identity has been interpreted in case law as covered by the prohibition of discrimination based on disability. There is no law protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
  • Florida safe schools laws do not mention sexual orientation or gender identity. The teachers’ code of ethics prohibits harassment by teachers because of sexual orientation. [via HRC unless otherwise noted]

The good news? We’re leaving Florida tomorrow.

The Morning After the 2009 Election

It’s too early to say for sure, but it looks like the first ever win for a pro-gay initiative on a state ballot. And it’s our state, Washington, that will claim it. The voter-approved law, Senate Bill 5688, will change Washington’s definition of spouse–in every law in which it appears–to include registered domestic partners. For that reason, it’s nicknamed the “everything-but-marriage” law.

We don’t know for sure, though, because too many ballots are still pending. Washington became an all-vote-by-mail state this year, and ballots had to be postmarked, not received, by November 3.

Dawn also finds us at status quo for same-sex marriage on the ballot. Maine, where the results are essentially final, saw a “Yes” answer for Question 1, the challenge to their legislature- and governor-approved law granting same-sex couples marriage rights. That means the law allowing people like us to marry will never take effect.

Washington's Referendum 71 results as of the morning after the election
Washington's Referendum 71 results as of the morning after the election

It’s too early to say for sure, but it looks like the first ever win for a pro-gay initiative on a state ballot. And it’s our state, Washington, that will claim it. The voter-approved law, Senate Bill 5688, will change Washington’s definition of spouse–in every law in which it appears–to include registered domestic partners. For that reason, it’s nicknamed the “everything-but-marriage” law.

We don’t know for sure, though, because too many ballots are still pending. Washington became an all-vote-by-mail state this year, and ballots had to be postmarked, not received, by November 3.

Dawn also finds us at status quo for same-sex marriage on the ballot. Maine, where the results are essentially final, saw a “Yes” answer for Question 1, the challenge to their legislature- and governor-approved law granting same-sex couples marriage rights. That means the law allowing people like us to marry will never take effect.

I had a similar personal experience last night to my experience watching election returns in 2008: there was elation (R-71, Obama) and heartbreak (Question 1, Prop 8).

The Seattle P-I has a summary of what will change when the law in Washington goes into effect:

Some rights and responsibilities that would be extended to gay and lesbian families under the latest legislation are:

  • Workers’ compensation coverage.
  • The right to use sick leave to care for a spouse.
  • Victims’ rights, including the right to receive notifications and benefits allowances. Business succession rights.
  • Legal process rights, such as the ability to sign certain documents, the requirement to join in certain petitions, rights to cause of action, and ability to transfer licenses without charge.
  • The right to wages and benefits when a spouse is injured, and to unpaid wages upon death of spouse.
  • The right to unemployment and disability insurance benefits disability insurance issues
  • Insurance rights, including rights under group policies, policy rights after death of spouse, conversion rights, and continuing coverage rights.
  • One they don’t mention concerns our family directly. We have been waiting for this legislation to finally take effect so Ami can adopt Frances without the insult and expense of a home visit by a social worker. Originally it was scheduled to take effect shortly after she was born, so it wasn’t much of a wait. And we didn’t really believe that Referendum 71 would wind up on the ballot. So we waited, and waited. We will be thrilled to celebrate Ami’s adoption of Frances as soon as this law takes effect.

    In today’s Seattle Times, Danny Westneat wrote:

    Gays can’t win at the ballot box.

    That has always been the harsh reality. Put the subject of equality for gays and lesbians to a vote of the people — practically any people, in states from deep red to dark blue — and the people have always said: “No. Not here. Not yet.”

    Until — it appears — now. Right here.

    There’s a week’s worth of ballot-counting remaining in an election everyone is saying is too-close-to-call. But it appears Washington state will be the first in America to approve a gay-equality measure not by court fiat or legislative action, but by the direct will of the people.

    Let’s ignore for the moment the outrageous inequity of other people voting on your personal rights. Because no matter how very wrong it is, it’s happened again and again in this country, in state after state. I don’t believe it’s right to vote on this issue, even when we win.

    Let’s do a tiny dance of joy in praise of the voters of Washington. Not so big, because our victory is very mixed–and unsure. Maybe a little wiggle in your chair would suffice.

    Then let’s personify Maine for a moment, and ask him a few pointed questions:

    1. What happened to your young voters, who probably support equal rights for all?
    2. Yes to medical marijuana, but no to same-sex marriage? Yes to late-term abortions, but no to same-sex marriage? I’m confused about you, Maine. Civil liberties get approval, but so does discrimination. I’m not sure how to read that, or whether to invite you to my cocktail party. You’ll probably be a load of laughs, but you won’t call me in the morning.
    3. You’re not going to convince us not to be homos. So why not impose your traditional values by allowing us fair access to the hetero-normative marriage we are forced to beg you for?
    4. Do you really think that we’ll still remember you tomorrow as the first to recycle?
    5. For a state that so relies on tourism, how do you think this will effect your bottom line? Not smart, Maine. The leaves change color in Massachusetts and Vermont, too. Next year, we’ll take our veils, our tuxes, and our fat gay dollar there, instead.

    Yes, today I’m angry with Maine.

    But mark my words, National Organization for Marriage, Faith and Freedom Network, Yes on 1, the Vatican, and the LDS Church: when we win in Washington, it will be the first victory of many.

    Election Fever: Maine and Washington State Referendum Watch

    Here at our hotel room in Auburn, Alabama, it’s quiet except for the sound of the TV. My wife and daughter are napping.

    In Alabama, Ami would be considered my roommate. My “friend.” And that would probably be how the nice people described our relationship. We’ve left the Promised Land, and it’s a long way to California.

    Here at our hotel room in Auburn, Alabama, it’s quiet except for the sound of the TV. My wife and daughter are napping.

    In Alabama, Ami would be considered my roommate. My “friend.” And that would probably be how the nice people described our relationship. We’ve left the Promised Land, and it’s a long way to California.

    Effectively, it’s just me and Keith Olbermann in the room. I would rather be at a No on 1 or Approve R-71 party. And party is what I expect them to do in Maine and Washington. Preliminary numbers in Maine are good–if close. I’ve been refreshing the page on the Bangor Daily News site devoted to referendums and bonds.

    It’s almost time to turn my attention to Washington, our home state, where shortly we will have a significant expansion of our rights. Or we won’t.

    For now, I am quietly waiting. Tears will fall, either way. And either way, tomorrow we will be in Alabama, where we are NOT married.

    Meeting with Rep. Inslee on the Respect for Marriage Act – Act II: You Again, Barney Frank?

    After the crowded waiting room, it was a relief to enter Inslee’s office, where there was plenty of seating. David Bahar, Inslee’s legislative assistant, was deaf and had an ASL translator, so for a little while it was just the four of us: David, the translator, Frances, and me. They assured me we had time to wait for Ami before beginning. I said she’d just be a few minutes, but the truth was I had no idea where–or if–she’d found parking or how long she’d be. I explained our mission and our journey, and talked about why we were running behind.

    Lucky for me, Ami arrived a few minutes later, just about the time that the representative’s new communications person arrived, too. He said that he always tried to sit in with David, since he was so knowledgeable. I wondered if this was a way to make us feel like we were meeting with someone important, even if it wasn’t Inslee. We rearranged for the best translation vantage point, and got started.

    After the crowded waiting room, it was a relief to enter Inslee’s office, where there was plenty of seating. David Bahar, Inslee’s legislative assistant, was deaf and had an ASL interpreter, so for a little while it was just the four of us: David, the interpreter, Frances, and me. They assured me we had time to wait for Ami before beginning. I said she’d just be a few minutes, but the truth was I had no idea where–or if–she’d found parking or how long she’d be. I explained our mission and our journey, and talked about why we were running behind.

    Lucky for me, Ami arrived a few minutes later, just about the time that the representative’s new communications person arrived, too. He said that he always tried to sit in with David, since he was so knowledgeable. I wondered if this was a way to make us feel like we were meeting with someone important, even if it wasn’t Inslee. We rearranged for the best translation vantage point, and got started.

    We explained our trip, and got to our talking points. I’ll admit, we did some research and rehearsed them beforehand so we wouldn’t forget any. We talked about inheritance, and how we are unequally taxed for property we inherit from one another. We talked about how we can’t have a family business as far as taxes go. We talked about hospital visitation and medical decision making. We talked about the fact that we don’t get Social Security benefits from one another, and how we can’t claim a non-working spouse as a dependent on our taxes. Ami said, “I’m forced to lie on my taxes. I say I’m a single person when I’m married.”

    We didn’t want to draw out the conversation unnecessarily, but we were invested in waiting to see if Inslee would show up. I kept feeling like if we said just the right thing it would make a difference. I couldn’t read David’s reactions to us and what we were asking him to relate to Inslee, but I decided he was on our side because he had cool glasses. I won’t say that conservative people have bad glasses, but I will say that the better your glasses are, the more likely I am to think you vote left.

    Sooner or later, David brought up Barney Frank. I hope he didn’t take my reaction personally, because I’m sure the disdain I feel for Frank’s position on the Respect for Marriage Act–and the National Equality March, for that matter–was evident on my face. I tried to explain that his lack of support for the bill was not popular amongst LGBT people. But it was frustrating, because I didn’t have anything specific to quote or point to in order to prove my assertion.

    So finally I said, as respectfully as I could, “With all due respect, Mr. Frank doesn’t live in Washington, and isn’t represented by Mr. Inslee.” Barney Frank lives in Massachusetts, where should he choose to marry, he could have state-level benefits. Must be nice.

    The conversation started to wind down, and maybe I panicked a little. “Is that Mr. Inslee’s grandson?” I asked, pointing to one of the many pictures of an infant boy in the office. There must be something more to say!

    And before David had a chance to answer, in walked the man himself.

    He looked a little like Superman, only with grey sideburns. He asked us to call him Jay, and quickly sat down with us, apologizing for being late.

    I was stunned for a minute. At this point, I hadn’t expected him to show up. I realized that until he did, I didn’t really believe that he was held up in another meeting. I thought that was an excuse, politics-speak for us not being important enough.

    In my next post on our meeting I’ll talk more about what it is to be an ordinary, reasonably informed person meeting with an experienced politician. But for now I’ll just give credit where credit is due. Representative Inslee showed up to meet with us. You don’t have to be a guy in a suit. You don’t have to be a lobbyist. You can be a couple of dykes in jeans, ragged and road worn, and you can talk to the people who make the decisions that affect your life.

    If we can do it, so can you.