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    Ann Rostow: Chugging the Pierian Spring

    By Ann Rostow–

    Chugging the Pierian Spring

    I was struck by an op-ed in Tuesday’s The New York Times written by a Ukrainian woman of Polish descent who has been living in Poland for several years. She is from Lviv, a previously obscure town in western Ukraine with which we are all now familiar. The author, novelist Zanna Sloniowska, describes leaving Ukraine during the dissolution of the USSR and subsequently having been torn between her Polish and Ukrainian identities. As Russia’s bullying increased over the last five or ten years, Ukrainians of all stripes began to emigrate to eastern Poland, where Sloniowska felt Ukraine’s diversity of thought and culture start to infuse the border communities. Now, she writes that Poland’s powerful and welcoming stand is something to see. 

    I was struck because Poland is a country that I have managed to dislike and stereotype over recent years, despite having dangerously little learning in this regard. After all, what more did I have to know about a country that encourages (symbolic) “LGBT-free zones” and debates a ban on pride parades? Plus, several years ago I read a chilling article in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum about the rise of xenophobia and extremism in Poland, which I promptly tossed into a simmering stew of Bad-Things-About-Eastern-Europe on the back burner of my mind.  

    Glancing back at that 2018 article just now, however, I’m reminded that Applebaum was really writing about deep political divisions; divisions that turn differences of opinion into chasms that cannot be spanned through dialogue or compromise. These are, of course, the same divisions that are destroying our own political systems where childlike conspiracy theories and mindless nationalism compete with complex policy, long-range thinking, and international cooperation. With no common ground, we can’t even begin construction on a bridge.

    It’s too early to say, but it seems as if support for Ukraine is providing a glimmer of hope. I am prepared to suspend my dislike of Poland, where the xenophobes appear to have been supplanted by those in solidarity with their neighbors. I’m wondering as well if the good people of Applebaum’s Poland won’t start fighting their way up from the back benches and whether the relatively gay-friendly Ukrainian refugees won’t improve opinions on the other side of the border. 

    I said “relatively.” Ukraine is no San Francisco, but it’s a damn sight better for our community than Russia, where “propaganda” in support of GLBT rights is against the law. “We all live together in an open society where each one can choose the language they want to speak, their ethnicity, and [sexual] orientation,” Ukraine President Zelensky told an antigay heckler a few years ago. “Leave those people be, for God’s sake.” 

    I’m now seeing a bunch of headlines about how antigay Russia is poised to put a beat down on Ukrainian GLBTs, who will be stuck between the Russian rock and the Polish hard place. But maybe our community will help turn the scenario around by showcasing Russia’s hatefulness and Poland’s generous side. 

    And if the war in Ukraine can unify good Samaritans in Poland, maybe it can do something positive over here as well. 

    Don’t Say Florida

    Speaking of Russia, the state of Florida has just managed to pass its own version of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, perhaps not as pervasive as the Russian law (which basically shuts down any public discussion of sexual orientation or gender) but still—who thought an American state would even approach this level of censorship and discrimination? 

    On the surface, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill sounds innocuous, forbidding K–3 elementary school teachers from raising the subject of orientation or gender in a non-age appropriate way. Really, who wants your 8-year-old discussing sex in the classroom to begin with? The last thing you need at a chaotic dinner is little Mandy asking the family in a loud voice why girls don’t have penises. But the statute grows vague, also outlawing any public school teaching at any level “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” In addition, the bill requires school staff to inform parents of any changes in a student’s mental or physical status. I don’t have that language handy, but it basically calls for teachers and counselors to tell parents if the child is gay or transgender or uncertain, even if the parent is hostile and the child is scared.

    Now that the state senate has passed the bill, it goes to the desk of you know who, where it will be signed into law in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Meanwhile, GLBT allies are frustrated with Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who made excuses rather than come right out and denounce the pending law. Disney, obviously one of Florida’s biggest employers and an iconic Florida brand, is considered a GLBT-friendly company with a 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign. Yet Chapek contented himself with a public letter where he repeated the company’s commitment to gay rights while avoiding actually taking a stand.

    “As we have seen time and again,” Chapek wrote, “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds. Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame. Simply put, they can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change.”

    He added: “I do not want anyone to mistake a lack of a statement for a lack of support. We all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world. Where we may differ is in the tactics to get there. And because this struggle is much bigger than any one bill in any one state, I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support.”

    Not exactly the epitome of courage, n’est-ce pas? Nor is Florida the only state to flirt with Orwellian restrictions. Other red states are banning books and outlawing discussions of race in American history. In Idaho, the house just passed a measure to hold school and museum librarians criminally responsible for lending books considered “harmful to minors,” an expansive description that basically translates to GLBT titles. One lawmaker told his colleagues: “I would rather my 6-year-old grandson start smoking cigarettes tomorrow than get a view of this stuff one time at the public library or anywhere else.” 

    You Put a Spell on Me

    You think that’s bad? There’s more nasty tea brewing down in Texas. But I just don’t have the stomach for it right this minute. Thankfully, my wife just informed me that the cast of the old sitcom Bewitched actually drank real alcohol during scenes that involved cocktails.

    Now there’s a tidbit you needed to know, dear Readers. And why not! Cinema verite and all that. More power to them. This led me to a series of little-known facts about Bewitched, including the revelation that star Elizabeth Montgomery was a gay rights supporter back in the day and served as Grand Marshal of the LA Pride Parade in 1992 along with her TV husband, Dick Sergeant. Listen, our community was not that popular back in 1992, so good for Liz and Dick. Montgomery died three years later, two months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. 

    She was married four times. That’s not bad for a woman who died at 62. Or it’s sort of bad, but you know what I mean. 

    And in random, unrelated news, I just read that gay men and boys do much better at school than straight males, while lesbians fall behind their heterosexual peers. (We are seeing these and other interesting GLBT data points because it’s only fairly recently that we’ve started to ask people if they’re gay or straight or whatever on the generic surveys that are repeated over time.)

    The most sensible theories explain these patterns by looking at gender stereotypes. If academic excellence and attention to detail is considered a feminine trait, it is not illogical that effeminate boys would excel while masculine girls would not. It’s also possible that gay boys and young men, more likely to be bullied than gay girls, might hit the books in order to prove themselves to all the haters. Of course, these factors will stop operating to the extent that gender stereotypes fade. 

    At any rate, over half of gay men have a college degree, versus 35 percent of straight men and women both. Around 45 percent of white gay women graduate from college, but gay women as a whole come in below the other groups, and gay male couples make an average of $30,000 more than lesbian couples. 

    Cha-ching! Guys? Dinner’s on you next time. 

    Austin, We Have a Problem

    God, I don’t want to write about this Texas story. Part of the reason is that the premise is ridiculous. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a despicable buffoon, recently published a meaningless (and totally unenforceable) “legal” opinion, which claimed anyone who helps a transgender person under 21 with various aspects of transitioning or counseling might be guilty of felony child abuse under preexisting Texas statutes. Paxton’s partner in idiocy, Governor Greg Abbot, took the ball and ran with it, issuing a directive to the Department of Family and Protective Services to look into situations where parents or others participate in gender-affirming care. 

    The announcement had the desired effect of stirring up a media storm, with our side exploding in outrage and the far right sitting back with smug expressions on their smug jowly faces and hemming and hawing about whatever. I cannot be bothered to even read this stuff, because frankly it’s the sort of stunt that GLBT activists would be well advised to ignore rather than amp up. 

    Now, the state officials are preening their Trumpian feathers while Lambda Legal and the ACLU have been obliged to file a lawsuit in Austin, where a state employee with a transgender child is under investigation. For all my eye rolling, however, who knows how far things can go these days? Where once I could flap my wings at the Chicken Littles of our vibrant community, I now must check to see if the sky is indeed still intact.

    Meanwhile, just as versions of Don’t Say Gay bills are proliferating, anti-transgender health bills are now making headlines. A bill heading to the Alabama house would make it a felony to treat transgender minors with jail time of up to ten years. Another bill in committee in Idaho calls for life in prison for anyone who prescribes hormones or puberty blockers to a minor. (I should really check the text of this measure, but I’m trusting The Advocate.)

    Finally, Iowa has become the 11th state to force transgender women and girls to compete against boys and men, even after they have gone through a year or more of hormone treatment. 

    Readers, we have not faced this kind of onslaught in 20 years.

    Been There, Done That

    I don’t really have enough time or space to do justice to a lawsuit out of Michigan, where the state supreme court has just heard arguments in favor of interpreting the state’s laws against sex discrimination to also cover sexual orientation and gender bias. And, yes, of course the supreme court also heard arguments against the idea, an idea that was decided in no uncertain terms by the United States Supreme Court in a 6–3 decision in 2020. 

    I’m no lawyer, but I have covered a lot of legal news of interest to our community. So, I like to pat myself on the back at times when I recognize a famous precedent or have an interesting legal thought. But I can stumble as well. Please, Real Lawyers out there, who may be reading my words: Explain to me how the Michigan supreme court can simply wash its hands of a straightforward high court precedent, decided less than two years ago by a sizable majority, directly on point. Can it? 

    Assuming it cannot, it will be useful to see our somewhat bizarre gay and trans rights victory bolstered by a state high court. Any other decision out of Mitten Land will be disturbing, to say the least.

    Published on March 10, 2022