When one is a white male in America (even a gay one) it sure is good for the soul to occasionally be the oddball in the group. At my job there aren’t too many folks who fall into my demographic. Turns out my nickname around the Center is “Ken,” as in “Ken Doll.” Heck, I’ll own that one. Besides, all those demographical categories stop meaning anything when no one is the majority.
Bear that in mind when I recount the adventures of the catch-as-catch-can group that assembled last week for an “educational” visit (“lobbying” is verboten under some circumstances about which I was not entirely clear) to several of our state legislators up there in Albany. It was National AIDS Awareness Day so we figured it was a good time to approach the representatives about funding for various AIDS causes. The halls of the Legislative Office Building were a-swarmin’ with folks who had one axe or another to grind. Some clever organizations donned eye-catching garb (the Yellow Hat brigade made an especial impact) but most were like my group: average citizens who felt strongly enough about their cause to take the time and trouble to visit their elected reps.
It was my first time and, to be honest, I was a tad nervous. On the walk to the capitol I mentioned this to one of the women in my group. “I’ve never done this before,” I winced. “Sure you have,” she replied. “Just not in this setting.” Wow. Insightful, huh? (Which reminds me of one of my favorite Woody Allen jokes: he's being dragged back to a room in a brothel by Kathy Bates. "Wait, I've never paid for sex before," he protests. "You just think you haven't," she answers as the camera cuts back to the street.)
The visits were more structured than I had anticipated and Scott, our group leader (who has quite a story of his own,) did a great job of ringmastering the proceedings once inside the offices. We saw only legislative aides on Tuesday; the only encounter with an actual legislator was with the minority (which is Republican, here in New York State) Leader in the hallway outside of his office on the way to our meeting. (On the wall in the Leader’s waiting area are about 45 headshots of the statewide Republican Caucus. Lily-white every last one of them and only a few women besides.)
Scott gave a brief rundown of why we were there and we took turns introducing ourselves. Then Scott would bring up a particular issue and throw it to one of us to tell our own story. The two women in my group… well, let’s just say they wouldn’t win extra points for grammar and vocabulary on Oratory Day at Miss Porter’s School for Young Ladies. But they both firmly disproved the notion that “articulate” and “command of the language” are one and the same. I sat there, rapt, as I listened (for the umpteenth time) to their personal stories. I felt like some whiny, spoiled white boy when I took my turn and described how tough it can be for people “when their insurance lapses between union contracts” in a show. Ugh.
All three aides we met with during the day were attentive and seemed to understand that—in these times—funding for AIDS programs sort of morally outweighs, say, keeping city parks in tip-top shape. No one that day was asking for more money in the budget. We all were just hoping to have the cuts restored to previous levels. Things like parks are actually very important to me, but at my job I’m seeing people who maybe wouldn’t have lunch at all some days if they didn’t have it—for free—at the Damien Center. So, the legislators' aides conceded that restoring that fountain might just have to drop a little on the list of priorities.
Of course, money really is tight now, so the most we got from anyone was "we're going to try to see what we can do." But even so, it was all--to use one of my least-favorite buzzwords--empowering.
On a related political front, Kirsten Gillibrand, who succeeded Hillary Clinton into the Senate, is my Congressperson. I went to a meet-and-greet for the Democrat who’s running to replace her in the upcoming special election (against, by coincidence, the minority Leader who I met in the hallway last Tuesday) sponsored by my local Democratic committee. It was at a local restaurant and was attended by what you might expect a political meeting in upstate New York to look like: completely white, pretty old and pretty fat. I mean, here in Greene County, even the Democrats are kind of Republican. I introduced myself to a bunch of people who returned my greeting and then walked away. Not especially welcoming or friendly. (I forced a conversation with one surprisingly young fellow who told me—after what felt like pulling teeth—that he was the mayor of the neighboring town. No worries about the hard sell from that guy!)
After some committee business the candidate arrived and did a generic this-is-who-I-am speech that probably would have gone over just as well at the Republican meeting. Then came questions. My hand shot up in the air and I rose to ask my question. Not quite sure how it would go over with the crowd I took a deep breath and said:
"I'm glad to see from your website that support for families is a priority for you. Families are important to me, too, but my definition of family also includes lesbian and gay couples with and without children. If you succeed in inheriting this district you will have many constituents--both gay and straight--for whom LGBT rights are a priority. The good news is that supporting LGBT rights doesn't cost anything. In fact, if the state marriage equality act passes this year it could actually save taxpayers money as more spouses and children would be covered by private insurance. So, I'm hoping tonight, before we all say goodbye, that we can get a commitment from you to fully support LGBT rights and an acknowledgment that all families--even those that don't necessarily resemble your own--are worthy of the full rights and protections your own family enjoys, including marriage equality."
Much to my pleasant surprise, before I finished the final words of my speech, the crowd burst into applause.
And the candidate’s response? One word: “Absolutely.”
It’s gotta be Obama, right?