Wednesday, July 27, 2016

That Time I Sat Behind Bella Abzug and Her Fabulous Hat at the DNC Platform Committee Hearings

I slipped quietly into the back of the conference room at the Bond Court Hotel in Cleveland. A woman a few rows in front of me wore an enormous, beribboned hat. It was May 1992, and not many women, aside from fully turned-out church goers, wore hats during warm weather.

"Who is that?" I whispered to my companion.

"Bella Abzug," she replied, "Congresswoman from New York."

I was still learning. Learning the people, the issues, the talking points. I was a newly elected member of the executive board of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the National Organization for Women and I was attending the platform committee hearings for the DNC. I was rapt, listening to Nancy Pelosi, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Madeline Albright and Jesse Jackson.

Most everyone has a moment, a moment when the political becomes personal and the only option is to join the fray because staying silent is no longer possible. My moment came during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. I was not yet married and newly moved to Chicago. As I unpacked boxes and organized our apartment, I listened to the hearings on NPR.

I heard Professor Hill calmly and clearly describe the behavior of Clarence Thomas, betraying no emotion. She spoke as women speak who have learned to erect walls around themselves in order to go about their daily business unscathed by the leers, jeers and fears of men. There was no doubt in my mind that she spoke the truth. She had no motive to lie; everything to lose and nothing to gain by giving this testimony.

I listened in disbelief as the Senators questioned her, disrespectfully and disdainfully. I learned what "gaslighting" meant that autumn. And I was pissed. I had recently finished my first full year of practicing law and during that year, I was subjected to plenty of nonsense from the men I worked for, the judges I worked with, and my adversaries. It was not as though I did not know this sort of thing happened. I was, however, shocked to see it happening so publicly, even proudly, by men who were supposed to uphold the Constitution and directed toward a woman who was smart and dignified and composed.

Enough was enough.

I registered to vote in Illinois that week. I located a local chapter of NOW. I voted for Carol Mosely Braun for Senate. And I studied for the Illinois bar exam.

When we moved back to Ohio a few months later, I swung into action. I joined Greater Cleveland NOW. I studied the issues. I spoke at local events. I spoke at legislative hearings at the Ohio Capitol. I wrote to my legislators. I marched, I rallied and I picketed. And I attended the Democratic National Committee platform hearings.

(That's me, right in the middle!)

Later that year, I met Hillary Clinton. She was campaigning for her husband and when I heard her speak, all I thought was, "I want to vote for her!" I asked her, as I shook her hand, when she would be running for President. She smiled and laughed, and said "Not any time soon."

Last night, with my daughters by my side, I watched her win the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. I doubt they understand why I had tears in my eyes, and maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that means something: to them, it's not such a big deal that a woman was nominated for President of the United States of America. 

But it is to me. 

It is to me.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I Am So Very Sorry

I love you, you know that, right?

My sister, my sister-in-law, my friends from church, my writing buddies, my friends from the old days in NOW, my former clients, my neighbors, my friends from law school, my friends from college, my friends from high school and elementary school, friends of my friends who became my own friends - I'm picturing your faces, each of you, as I last saw you in person or as I see you on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.

And I am sorry. So sorry.

Because I don't see you as "other" in your gayness, and because you choose not to dwell on the awful things that are said to you and about you, and because I see you smiling with your partners, husbands and wives and children and pets as you go about your everyday lives, I assumed, wrongly, that the hate out there in the world was more trivial than it truly is. That it was annoying, but not life-threatening. Because of the way you live your lives, I assumed that it didn't touch you.

I was wrong. I was myopic.

And I am sorry. So sorry.

I am sorry that it never occurred to me that you have to decide, on any given day, if you are willing to withstand comments, stares and rudeness by simply holding your partner's hand in public. An act of love and affection has greater weight for you, and I never realized just how much. Even simple, personal choices like your clothes, your hairstyle, your make-up (or not) are loaded with the amount and type of attention they might draw.

And I am sorry. So sorry.

I see you as my friends, my family, my colleagues: witty, smart, handsome, and beautiful; loving, compassionate, and generous, and all those other amazing things that you are.  I don't see you as victims.

I always saw the Kim Davises and the Pat Roberstsons and the Westboro Baptist Church folks as outliers, kooks, and fanatics; well outside the mainstream. And then a hate-filled man with a gun invaded a space where you could be free from the weight of the hate in the world, for just a little while. He killed and injured innocent people: human beings who just wanted to relax and have a good time in a safe place. I never saw it coming.

And I am sorry. So sorry. For the loss of lives, for the pain of the injured survivors, for the terror everyone in that club went through. For the pain and sorrow of their families and friends and the entire community. And I am sorry for how this affects you personally, because I know that it does, in ways that are different than the horror I feel.

I am sorry for being so clueless. I should have known better.

The good news is that, at 52, I am still learning. The bad news is that, at 52, I still have so much to learn.

Photo credit: Therese Fanta

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Scary things in Bathrooms

We were on our way to a family party.  We had been driving all morning. The girls were about 4 and 6 and it was just the three of us. Somewhere along Interstate 77 in rural West Virginia, the alarm call came from the back seat of the minivan.

"Mama! I have to go potty!" the four year old announced.

"How bad?"


"Bad like you can wait a little while or bad like you need to go right now?" I asked, checking her face in the rear view mirror.

"Bad like really soon."

I scanned the road ahead. We had just passed Parkersburg, and it would be a while until we reached the next populated area with fast-food restaurants and more-likely-than-not clean restrooms.

"Okay, honey. I'll find a place to stop."

A few minutes passed.

"Mama, I really need to go."

I spotted an exit sign that boasted a lone gas station logo. Off the ramp, it was several miles of winding road before we came to it. I pulled in and unbuckled.

"Okay, girls. This one might be a little dirty, so hold my hands."

As we entered, I caught the eye of the girl behind the counter. I didn't even have to ask; she pointed to the far corner. One lavatory, unisex. Ugh.

I opened the door to a spacious, if grubby, restroom, with a formerly white tile floor and a big condom dispenser on the wall, alongside a tampon machine.

"Do not touch ANYTHING," I told my girls. "If you need something, I'll take care of it."

As I was settling my younger daughter onto the toilet, lined with paper to protect her little tuchus, the other began to make use of her budding reading skills.

"Fem, fem-i-nine, fem-eye-nine sup, sup-please? Is that what it says?"

"Feminine supplies. That's what it says."

"What is that?"

"The machine has supplies in it that keep underwear clean."

"Why would you need supplies to keep your underwear clean?"

"It's for teenagers and grown up ladies, not for little girls."

"Are teenagers and grown up ladies dirty?"

"No, honey, not at all. Bodies can get a little messy sometimes when they get older. How about we talk about it when we get home? I can explain it better then."

"Okay, Mama. What's this one? Rib-bed for please-yoor? What does that mean?"

Pretending not to hear her, I ask my little one if she's done.

"Almost, Mama. I really had to go."

"Hurry up, please," I request, as daughter number one continues sounding out words.

"What is this Mama? Rib-bed for please-yoor? Lay-text? What IS this?"

"They are supplies to keep people from getting pregnant, from having babies."

"Why are they in the BATHROOM?"

"That's a very good question, honey. I'll have to think about that."

"Can we buy one? I want to see it."

"Sorry, sweetie, I don't have any change."

"Yes you do. I saw it in your purse."

"We don't need those today, so the answer is no. Do you need to use the toilet while we are here?"

"No, Mama."

A relieved sigh escaped my lungs.

"Let's get going, then!"

Hands washed, I opened the door, propping it with my foot as the girls stepped out ahead of me.

Another patron stood just outside waiting to enter.

"I'm sorry if we kept you waiting," I said. "Sometimes we take a while."

"No problem at all," she said with a smile, in a surprisingly deep voice. I returned her smile just as a little voice popped up.

"Mama? That lady talks like a man."

"Yep. She does."

"She was nice, though."

"Yep. She was."

"I liked her dress."

"Me, too, Mama. It had polka dots."

For a mother with small children, there are far scarier things in restrooms than a male in a dress.