Thursday, March 5, 2009

We Got on Our Boots

My senior thesis, written in the psychology department at Reed College for my B.A., was titled "Know Me and I'll Love You Back: Investigating the Marriage Shift in Same Sex Couples." It was an empirical study of nearly 200 gay and lesbian partners in the Portland area who described themselves as either "dating" or in a "lifetime commitment." Previously, a psychologist named Bill Swann had done a study with straight couples that had a curious statistical pattern only predicted by whether a couple was married or not--not how long they'd been together, gender, etc. He made some broad claims about the effect of marriage on romantic relationships that simply couldn't be extrapolated to same sex couples, as there were no states with legalized gay marriage at the time. I thought this was both morally and scientifically erroneous, and my thesis was an attempt to bring some equity to the issue.

What I found was that legal marriage wasn't required for this statistical pattern to show up--only a stated "lifetime commitment" shared by both partners. In the gay community in Portland these commitments had taken many forms: ceremonies, buying houses, adopting children, etc. The only piece of real continuity was the couples' certainty that they'd agreed to be together for life. So to me, and those reading my findings, it seemed the fight against marriage rights was, in addition to being morally wrong, woefully uninformed: psychologically/emotionally, gay couples are already getting married.

Roughly eight years later, which was this week, I walked through downtown Riverside with a small cadre of demonstrators carrying signs and yelling anti-Proposition 8 slogans. That Proposition 8 (which effectively took back the right to same sex marriage California had so recently granted) passed in my home state made me ill even on the night of Obama's election. In addition to it being important for the cause to be another body at the demonstration, I thought it would give me some hope and solidarity with others who are trying not to become exhausted by the difficulty of this struggle.

But it didn't. In fact, the whole tone of the vigil seemed surprisingly off to me. There wasn't enough acknowledgment of the anger we felt. There weren't any people in downtown Riverside to witness our gathering. We were alone, and we felt it. The organizers were not nearly as powerful in presence or conviction as a demonstration really needs. Although it was heartening to see many of Riverside's younger GLBT community present, overall I felt sadder about the issue of civil rights in our country at the end. The lack of real effect, the sense of beaurocratic totality--we were reminded many times to stay on the sidewalks--hurt.

Then today, I listened again to U2's new album No Line on the Horizon. In "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" Bono sings: It's not a hill, it's a mountain/As you start out the climb/Listen for me, I'll be shouting/We're gonna make it all the way to the light/But you know I'll go crazy if I don't go crazy tonight

They played this song on Letterman last night, and got a tragically hip New York audience out of their seats, waving hands in the air. Letterman walked out at the end and said "Now that is what I'm talking about!" Earlier he'd described U2 as a band that "makes everyone better." And I remember the Black Panthers again, saying "you don't need everyone to show up, you just need a few people who are ready to make a real commitment."

What is brilliant about U2 and is expertly demonstrated in No Line on the Horizon is a process my professor at Emerson Maria Koundoura used to call the "women's work of making change." It's not the moment of the coup, it's the months of meetings to plan it. It's using every conversation as an opportunity for discovery and exchange. It's having such utter commitment to principles that they are undeniable to your family, friends, bosses, children, because you embody them every day. The trick is acknowledging your "private" life as inherently political--because you are living out an ideology whether you are aware of it at this moment or not. The reason why Koundoura called it "women's work" is because it is constantly undone, like a bed. You must always be revisiting and reengaging the things that matter. I think the main reason why the Prop 8 march saddened me is that I think of that kind of activity as a more dramatically proactive one compared to writing my senior thesis, talking with my classes, my parents, or whomever about how marriage equality is an issue of civil rights--and the march was neither dramatic nor effective. (Although it did have a few wonderful moments, like when Max and I shortened the chant "Gay, Straight, Black or White, we deserve our civil rights" to just a repetitive demand of "Rights! Rights! Rights!" because we and our new comerades thought the first line was too limiting.)

But if I can recast it: just like having many conversations in a day where important ideas come up, or voting, or writing my thesis, the demonstration became part of this continual process of every day moving closer to the goals, what U2 has called "one step closer to knowing." Our showing up and being bodies with voices, our conversations with new people during the march, our thinking of ourselves as people who do these kinds of things because it is right--all this is valuable. And we're living in a new age, anyway, where my many signatures on online petitions might be having a more dramatic effect on the politicians than a march could. We just have to keep doing it all. I feel a disgust towards the opposition and impatience about this issue, in particular, that has to be channeled creatively if I'm to live through it. If I can do what U2 does with their impatience, which is write a song like "Love and Peace," I think I can consider myself a real artist.

I could write for days about how fanatically I love No Line on the Horizon, and how it has already helped me stay motivated to write more experimentally, incited me to more courage in my relationships, and offered me a kind of restorative pummeling of the soul. It's like a deep tissue massage: it is intensely pleasurable and it hurts horribly because you must get into those tightened layers in order to be limber enough to dance. I think people who write nasty reviews of it are desperately compensating for the fact that they are too cynical to feel moved. Don't be afraid to face your moment of surrender. And don't think the world will stop once you do face it--you will still need to get up the next day and climb the mountain!

In "Breathe" Bono sings: Every day I have to find the courage/To walk out into the street/ With arms out/ Got a love you can't defeat/ Neither down or out/There's nothing you have that I need/ I can breathe

And I'm emboldened by this, more than I was by a hundred people on a vigil. It's offering an acknowledgment of the fact that one doesn't just enter a state of sublime power and acceptance as an artist or citizen. One has to continually restore one's courage, continually raise one's arms, continually return to the street. The process of "remaking the bed," of demonstrating again and again what matters, is a lifetime project. We're lucky we have heralds of greatness like U2 to set the bar, and we're lucky that they can talk to us about these issues in such brilliant flashes of light and sound like No Line on the Horizon. They're right--we have to get on our boots (soldier's boots, work boots, sexy boots) to feel truly beautiful, once we've made the commitment to living in a state of excited incitement. Incite! Catalyze! Shake it up! And hold hands while you go!


  1. I love the way this blog wanders effortlessly back and forth between local community action and the biggest commercial band in the world. That itself is a lesson in thinking outside the box.

    Objection, though to your account of the Prop 8 vigil: it's true that we were shouting to virtually noone, but as Brian averred, the moment of solidarity for those THERE is invaluable. And someone will report on it in the paper. Finally, the blame belongs less with the organizers of the vigil than the organizers of American cities, which have no piazza!

  2. The revolution needs a mouth. Bono's got it on the macro level, but we need them on the local front too. Aaron Sorkin once wrote that all the governing that ever happens that really matters to anybody gets done at the local level. It is my hope that U2 can help us all remember that the mountain those of us with a mission are climbing the same mountain, international exposure or not.

  3. That's right Ted! And remember, "those who claim not to have an idealogy only further the dominant idealogy."