America gets a puppy

22 Nov 2008

The title of this blog refers ostensibly to the news media’s continued fascination with the Obama family’s quest for a dog to bring to the White House. But it also refers to the code name that was given to an episode of the Ellen DeGeneres show, years ago, when the producers decided to have Ellen come out of the closet on her show. The code name was “Ellen Gets a Puppy.”

So, in 1996, Ellen got a puppy: she came out. And you know what? That feels like a million years ago. Yeah, it’s true that a number of celebrities (and millions of everyday people) still don’t feel safe enough to come out of the closet. But I remember that, back in 1996, when Ellen got a puppy, my students were still apt to believe everyone was straight until absolutely proven otherwise. One of my students in my “Science, Medicine, and Sex” class, a lovely guy named Michael Shutt, had rainbow flags and queer rights slogans all over himself and his book bag. Michael regularly invited our class to LBGT events. Still, the day he specifically mentioned he had a boyfriend, my students gasped. When I told Michael later that day that he had apparently just come out to the class, we both had a really long laugh.

Nowadays, my students ask me to explain objections to same-sex marriage. And after I do, they ask me to explain again, because the objections still don’t make any sense to them.

Yes, as Obama was elected—perhaps because Obama was elected—Prop 8 passed in California. And that was awful. But it only passed by a little bit, and it has galvanized not only people who are queer, but also lots of people who are straight and disgusted. When we invited our friends to our fourteenth annual wedding under the theme “Yes on 14! No on 8!”, most of our straight friends got the reference, and all were moved by what our friends Brian and Steve said, while performing our ceremony, about love and partnership. No one we count as friends doubted Brian and Steve have what Aron and I have emotionally, and that they should have the same as what we have legally and socially.

We shall overcome.

Because, ya know, there’s that little matter of seeing a black family choose a dog to bring to the White House.


The Friday before the election, I was in Columbia, Missouri, to do interviews for the book I’m working on, a book that is a vigorous defense of freedom of inquiry and of science. As I was packing for and traveling on this trip, I was reading editorials endorsing Obama that specifically talked about why we need an unashamedly intellectual leader in the White House. So many editorials talked specifically about the way the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific stance of the Republican leadership has gotten us into a load of trouble. It was thrilling to think reason might again come to power. And truth, too.

It turned out Obama came to Columbia the very day I was there. Sweet. The next morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, I walked out of Gate 1 at the tiny airport there, and there right behind my wee little prop plane was Obama’s huge plane! “Change We Can Believe In.” I was so stunned I literally dropped my suitcase. The Secret Service guy standing there started laughing at me. All I could say was, “That is so exciting!” Secret Service Man agreed, with a big smile. As my little plane taxied around Obama’s big plane, in my head, I heard Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And then, in my head, I heard Obama in Grant Park, saying, “We’ve had a dream....and now we are there.” By the time of my connection in Memphis, I was a ball of happy tears.

I spent Election Day in Flint, Michigan, helping to get out the vote, because my own town had too many volunteers. The Obama office down the street from my house just handed me directions to the Flint office, and sent me on my way with two other volunteers, strangers to me until that day. On the ride to Flint, we talked about why we believed in Obama. I told them how it felt like, for one day, all the racism I had watched my black brother personally live through lifted and disappeared. Corny as it sounded, I felt I was campaigning for my two black brothers, for my brother Paul and for my brother Barack.

In Flint, as I walked from house to house with a clipboard, knocking on doors, a lot of black people didn’t want to open the door to me. When I shouted through the window that I was working for Senator Obama, a number opened the door and said, “Really?” Really, I answered. Why would I want to vote for McCain when Obama represented the change we need? And then they smiled, and nine out of ten told me they had already voted, and I thanked them for electing the man I believe in. The rest said they were on the way to vote.

All except one woman who told me she wanted to vote but hadn’t because she didn’t have a car. I gave her the number to call for a free ride. She confessed she didn’t have a phone. So I called for her and arranged a ride. It was hard, as I looked at her three little kids, not to think about what else she didn’t have. But it felt bearable knowing the guy who would be elected by the next day would actually care about this woman, and not simply see her situation as her own damned fault.

As for half the nation and perhaps half the world, for me the next few days were a blur of emotional exhaustion and political celebration. My email and my phone filled with joy, relief, astonishment. My student, MK Czerwiec, who works with an organization called Sit Stay Read, wrote to me:

I had the opportunity to be in a 98.9% African American grade school yesterday morning on the West side [of Chicago]. There was a feeling of joy that was palpable. Though the kids and I didn't talk about politics or the election (instead I read them a book called “Badly Drawn Dog” and taught them how to do a narrative cartoon), you could feel it. I'd been in this classroom before. The kids heads were held higher, their answers were more confident and creative. It was magical.

For months before it all became reality, I had been talking with Roger Webb, a psychologist at University of Arkansas, Little Rock, who was utterly pro-Obama and utterly sure that Obama would lose, for all the wrong reasons. As it turned out, I visited Roger in Little Rock the week after Obama’s election, to give some lectures at his university and at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. While I was there, my friend Dan Savage wrote in the New York Times about how, in Arkansas, hatred directed against queer people had been transformed into a family-busting, child-hurting law. Roger and his colleagues were talking much about this sad development in their home state.

Before I went back home, Roger took me to Central High School. You know, the place where the Little Rock Nine became the bravest young people on the face of the planet. As I told Roger, it made me remember that, when our child was still in the womb, we had considered the name Rosa Parks for a girl and the name Ernest Green for a boy. (Green had been one of the Nine.) And my mate had joked, maybe we should just name the kid “Green Parks.”

Roger laughed. And I said, “It really happened, Roger. We now have a black president.” And we both kind of choked up. What would Rosa have thought!

The day after the election, Roger had written to me:

I am the happiest wrong guy in America. I really did not think that so many people would, when it came down to the act, touch the screen or mark the ballot for a black guy. Maybe if the economy had not tanked so visibly or McCain picked that redneck pageant girl (I am ethnically qualified to call people rednecks), people would not have been so willing. Still, I'm happy to take it any way we can get it—and once you do the behavior you have to adjust your head to rationalize it.

Roger’s a psychologist. He knows of what he speaks. So, now that we, as a nation, have acted as if race does not matter that much, now that we have begun to act as if being queer doesn’t matter that much, we will all have to adjust our heads to rationalize it. And then it will hold. And maybe, someday, those differences will not matter at all in terms of our democracy....

It’s kind of like a puppy. After a little while, you can’t remember that you had a life without it.

For the first time, I find myself feeling I need two flagpoles on my house instead of just one, so that with my rainbow flag, I can fly my American flag. For the last eight years, I’ve only been putting up the American flag, in place of our rainbow flag, on the Fourth of July. But now, now we’re really getting ever closer to living the Founding Fathers’ core dream.

With liberty and justice for all. Through reason and truth, through individual and collective bravery, through action and eloquence and meaning.

Sheer puppies.