Monday, October 31, 2011

I Have Now Found a Photographer AND a Wife

"Long-time readers"  know that I posted back in July about my search for a wedding photographer. Those who know me well, including my thankfully-non-judgmental fiance, also know that at the time I had an Excel spreadsheet of over 40 photographers I was researching. I always struggle with making decisions, but this went above and beyond my usual ambivalence. Finding a balance between cost and talent was proving to be nearly impossible, and the search was made more complicated by my insistence on only hiring vendors who support marriage equality. (Yes, five photographers out of the 15 I actually contacted never even responded to my inquiry, which included a short paragraph about our gayness and desire to hire people who support marriage equality. Yes, I emailed them all a second time to make sure the email wasn't lost.)

Enter Ms. Heather Jowett. She's a UM alum. She takes stunning photos. She facilitated IGR dialogues, for crying out loud. In short, she is the perfect choice.

I knew she was the right choice for us after reading this in her initial response:

"I'll address the issue of same-sex marriage first.  I am definitely a supporter of marriage equality and when I first got into this business, I vowed not to turn someone away because of who they were marrying, even though I recognize that it could create a backlash for my business.  To be honest, I don't want the sort of people who would hold my decision to shoot a same sex wedding against me as clients.  I am a self proclaimed bleeding heart liberal and have friends of all attractionalities and gender identities, so I would definitely be comfortable shooting your wedding, and pleased as punch to do so.  If you facebook stalked my profile, you would find plenty of evidence to back that claim up."

In case you didn't catch that, she used the phrase "attractionalities and gender identities" in her first email to us. SOLD. Of course, the photos are gorgeous too--I picked out some of my favorites from her blog and have included them here (clearly I have a thing for black and white photos).

And so, hooray! Photographer has been booked. Check out her website (she just posted a lovely mission statement!) and stay tuned for our engagement photos in December :)

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Hate and Progress

The state of Michigan has many things to offer (lakes that are great, cider mills, Bell's, etc.), but progressive politics is not one of them. There are currently FOUR bills that have been taken up by the Michigan House or Senate aimed at taking away rights and protections for LGBTQ people. A quick overview:

1) A bill to ban public/state employers from offering health care benefits to domestic/same-sex partners of their employees has passed the House and will move to the Senate soon. It will likely pass, and Governor Snyder has already pledged to sign it.

2) A Rep from my hometown introduced House Bill 5039, which would void local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

3) Both the House and Senate have introduced their own bills to allow counseling students to deny assistance to clients if they feel that treating them would violate their religious freedom--meaning, of course, they can leave the gays out in the cold with no repurcussions, despite their obligations under the ethical codes of every counseling profession.

4) A bullying bill is on the Senate floor--which is better than nothing, but includes no protected categories (including sexual orientation and gender identity) or reporting requirements.

Needless to say, it's a scary time to be gay in Michigan. These bills are based on and justified by hate and bias--our families are not families, and our rights are liabilities. In an attempt to fight this onslaught, my friend Laura and I decided to go beyond the usual letters and phone calls and set up meetings with two legislators (or rather, their staffers) in Lansing on Friday. I was super pumped to make it rain rainbows all over that town, but once we were actually at the table, I offered nothing but word vomit. I stupidly underestimated how emotional I would be. There was no organization to my thoughts--only desperation and personal anecdotes. Luckily, Laura was much more able to lock it up and present a reasoned argument, and we both left feeling like the trip was worthwhile.

The lesson in all of this for me is one that I've heard many times and will need to hear again and again: It is difficult to set aside anger for the sake of a constructive conversation, but it is the only path to progress. My younger sister Steph seems to have taken this to heart far earlier in life than I've been able to. She recently spoke at the Day of Reflection, an event on the U of M diag with the purpose of showcasing and networking students working for social change. We can all learn from her words, which I've shared below. I have found renewed inspiration for this work through my experiences on Friday and through her example.

I’m gay. Like, really gay. But I’m not here to tell you my coming out story because quite frankly, I’m privileged in that it’s boring and uninspiring. I told my dad and he gave me a warped version of a sex talk to ensure that I understood that even though I couldn’t get pregnant, I was still too young to be having sex at 18 years old. Noted.

And as passionate as I am about rainbows, Necto, toolbelts and coming up with witty signs at marriage equality rallies, my heart belongs to Kenya. I’ve made the trek to Kenya two times and seen my fair share of mudhut shacks, bloated bellies, ethnic violence, drought-ridden farms and positive HIV tests. But the pictures hanging on my wall have no evidence of that – come into my room and you’ll see Katana, my 9 year-old host brother climbing a tree at dusk. You’ll see his sister Pendo rockin’ my lime green shades while she carries around the family’s baby goat. You’ll see Ruth and Yvonne, two students in the writing workshop I facilitated, doing the chicken dance with me. And you’ll see me hugging Anthony, my host father, during our tearful goodbye.

This is the same Anthony that told me he couldn’t vote for Kenya’s constitutional referendum because it had a clause in it allowing homosexual marriage. The same Anthony that responded to my challenging his statement with “Well, it’s just unnatural and God made man and woman for a reason, it’s gross”.  Up until this point, I’d done a great job avoiding the subject. I had begrudgingly removed my rainbow PRIDE wristbands and left my plaid shorts in the comfort of Ann Arbor’s acceptance. I regrettably refrained from disclosing my identity out of a legitimate fear for my life.

How could I even begin to reconcile the fact that I’d flown across the world, depleted my savings and sacrificed a summer to work for people that would want me dead if they found out who I loved? How did I expect to be a voice for the voiceless when I found myself silenced by the very people I hoped to help?

Ubuntu. A simple word to describe an exhaustingly complex answer. I am because we are. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for she has a self assurance that comes from knowing that she belongs to a greater whole and is diminished when others are diminished, when others are oppressed.

When I’m on this Diag working for the ONE Campaign, asking for signatures to pressure US administration to give smarter, more efficient and effective aid to Africa, I hear “there are enough problems here in the US, why should we waste our time helping people across the world?” I used to get frustrated by this perspective and resort to spewing off a list of talking points about our national security, global economy and human morality. But many years and frequent flier miles later I understand what this all boils down to. Why Anthony thinks homosexuality is disgusting and why Americans think Africans are helpless – a lack of connectedness. If I’ve learned one thing through my efforts it’s that we are all connected on more levels than we could ever imagine.

I spent the majority of my time in Kenya facilitating writing workshops in secondary schools. We asked the students to write about themselves – love, loss, friendship and dreams. Once they got over the shock that someone actually cared about what they had to say, let me just say shit got real. One girl wrote about the death of her mother. As I sat there trying to capture the moment on my flipcam, I lost it. My mother passed away when I was 12 and after the session, I sat with the girl and we talked about our cycles of grief. In ten years, I hadn’t had such a valuable conversation about loss as I did that day with Patra. I came to Kenya and learned more about my identity as a gay woman and as a motherless daughter than I did in three years in IGR dialogues at Michigan.

The students poured their hearts out to a point that my partner and I decided their stories could not fall on deaf ears. This was big. Skipping ahead to the ending, a publisher in Florida just finished printing hundreds of copies of Till Human Voices Wake Us, named after a T.S. Elliot poem, an anthology of all these students’ stories. The philosophy and passion we put into editing and compiling the book is the same that allowed me to sleep under the same roof as Anthony after he spewed such blatant hatred towards my community. We are all human, we all have a story and we cannot expect others to understand unless we share. Just as Americans cannot be expected to understand the potential and the hope spread all over the African continent, Africans cannot be expected to understand the LGBT community if none of us are brave enough to tell them our story.

There are literally oceans between us, but if none of us take a risk and do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, those oceans lay dormant. The water may seem calm and peaceful, and who can blame us for wanting to keep it that way. But calm and peaceful doesn’t lead to progress. We face this great divide – between the East and West, developed and developing, gay and straight. Only when we stir things up by talking about identity, challenging hate speech and making sure we don’t go to sleep at the end of the day without having learned something, those oceans start to move. Sure, there will be conflict and it will be uncomfortable. But as we open ourselves to others, those waters rise and we begin to conquer the divide between us. It may sound silly, but I learned a lot from Hanson, yes the mm bop band, when I met them two years ago. One of their lyrics says “I find hope in your hate for me.”

Seems crazy, but it is real. If we can work a little harder to find hope in hate, to see it as an opportunity for growth and progress, then we will move forward. Hate exists all around us but it doesn’t exist alone. For those that choose to challenge it, it’s coupled with hope.

I found hope in someone’s hate for me. My being silenced by my Kenyan family allowed me to better understand the value of giving a voice to the voiceless. Empowering students in Kenya to share their stories will create a ripple effect of understanding, of dialogue and of massive change. I know that. And how could I let someone’s hate stand in the way of such a hopeful possibility? So, members of the Generation Found, I promise you that progress will come when we stand up to hate with compassion and courage. When we believe in the power of stories and when we see the impact to be made by simply sharing our own. Thank you and GO BLUE!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dear Mom,

Fall is here, and the crisp air reminds me of you. It reminds me of all the time we spent back-to-school shopping at BP, it reminds me of you leaving work early so you could take us to Office Max for all of our school supplies before dinner, it reminds me of you yelling at us from the yard ("Get out here and help your dad and I rake all these leaves!"). You brought home pumpkins for us to carve and would only let daddy use the carving tools. You worked from home for the first week of school so you would be there when we got home to hear how everything went. You dragged us to high holiday services and told us to hang up our fancy temple clothes. You asked dad to make chili.

Today, the falling leaves take me to different memories that I wish I could forget: flashes of hushed phone calls, a fire truck, a worried neighbor, a crying aunt. Eleven years ago today you slipped away from us while Steph and I slept on the couch. Hours later, I sat in my room alone looking out the window, waiting for Kristen to arrive, watching the leaves fall off the trees. Since then, fall has always brought a bittersweet flood of emotions.

But everything seems harder this year. We went to yizkor services on Yom Kippur, like always. My usually numb reactions abandoned me and were replaced with an hour of slow tears. Your yahrzeit service this past Friday used to be an opportunity for me to respect your memory with a Kaddish and a visit to our family shuel. This time, I was overwhelmed by you. I could hear you singing every song. My heart ached during the Mi Scheberach, which I unsuccessfully sang for you countless times while you were sick. I could barely speak the words of the Kaddish through my tears. I asked Lindsey to drive by our old house and lost it. I see you in every inch of that space.

And I think that maybe this is all because of Lindsey. Lindsey, who drove two hours two weeks in a row to support me and honor your memory. Lindsey, who told me she talked to you during the silent prayers. Lindsey, who watched the video you left me and cried and said "I understand you so much better now". I know that you know Lindsey well by now, but I wish you could know her. I wish you could see all the things she does every day to keep me safe and make me happy. I wish you could hear her talk about the students she works with; her compassion reminds me so much of you. I wish you could see her yell at me when I'm mean to Steph, push me to prioritize family, and drive me two blocks to my car so I don't have to walk alone at night. I love her madly, and you would love her too.

Getting married makes me miss you more. I feel more like a "grown-up" than I ever have, and I want you here to help me with that. How will I know what it means to be a good wife? How will I know how to be a good mother? It's heartbreaking to picture myself moving through these beautiful milestones without you. I'm so lucky that you chose the partner you did--he shows me every day how to be a patient and supportive parent. But I need you too.

Please make your presence known this year. Give me signs that you're with me at the dress fittings, the vendor meetings, down the aisle and under the chuppah. Please help me stay focused on the marriage and not get caught up in the details of the wedding. Come to me in moments of stress and whisper "Mommy loves you", like you always did. I promise to listen.

I love you forever,

A glossary for the non-Jews:

Yizkor: Memorial
Yahrzeit: Anniversary of death
Kaddish: A prayer recited in honor of those who have died
Shuel: Synagogue
Mi Scheberach: A prayer for healing
Chuppah: The canopy a couple is married under