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National Coming Out Day – 2014

It is National Coming Out Day. In my opinion, this is not simply about reiterating what most people may already know about many of us, but also about creating and enlarging a space of comfort and safety for those who still struggle to understand themselves – to say nothing for hoping to help others to understand them. This is complex because everyone’s environment – on both macro and micro levels – varies so greatly that we cannot juxtapose our own experience onto the life of another person. I was extremely fortunate and blessed that while I did experience questions and concerns from my own circle, I never had to doubt that there was always love, compassion, and respect. That was 17 years ago. It’s a much different world from even a few years ago, let alone 17 years ago, let alone a 35 years ago when I was born. Even in the time since I was willing to make this peace with myself – a greater struggle than telling anyone else – my understanding has drastically altered. The binary that can be so easy to refer to, with a single middle ground, is not really as cut and dry as many would like to think. There was no switch; there was just recognition. It is not not a set of distinct plot points on an axis with easy labels and definitions; it is a continuum that is anything but static. The more readily that fact is understood and respected, the more easily people will begin to accept not just others but perhaps their own ever-changing continuum. Just as my own relationship with another man does not mean I need to fear the occasional recognition that a woman may appeal to me (Emma Watson perhaps), so too a “straight” person need not fear a fleeting appreciation for one of their gender identity, or anything in between for that matter. Coming out should not be looked on as a single act of declaring just one of the many characteristics that make us human. It should be a state of mind. Sociologists are always working to understand more how people relate to one another. However, this should be a reasonable endeavor for everyone to take on.

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On Struggle…and Robin Williams

Among the many details featured in media coverage about the life of Robin Williams is the fact that he was voted least likely to succeed in high school. I’ve seen a few comments that express surprise about this fact. How did his classmates get it so wrong? I say this is no surprise at all. The most tormented of people tend to be the most gifted of artists. This high school label – a poor message to send someone out into the world with – tends to find itself branded on the social outcasts. It is likely that the qualities which led his classmates to label him as such are the same that fueled his talent. It’s not surprising because this kind of talent is not really acting. It is real and honest because personal struggle develops the most intimate understanding of the human experience. Today, those same classmates may remember things differently because their perspective is biased by the years since.
I’m no Robin Williams, but I get it. A few days ago, I received a marketing email from classmates.com informing me that an unknown classmate remembers me as ambitious. I’m not a paying member, so I don’t know who it is. The tease is an effort to get me to pay. My first reaction is confusion. No, they do not remember me as ambitious. What they see is who I am striving to be today, and using that image as a translucent layer to modify the memory of me in high school. I was awkward, reserved, and emotionally stunted. I was a student getting A’s and B’s until midway through high school when the allure of the larger social life I barely had to that point caused me to make some poor decisions, and I only graduated high school on time with the help of night classes during my senior year. I couldn’t be remembered as ambitious because I am surprised I am barely remembered at all.
Now, this is not meant as a pity party. I am proud of what I am accomplishing today and I appreciate my struggles because I believe they keep me grounded in the face of today’s successes. I respect struggle.
So did Robin Williams. He made people laugh because he wanted to laugh. He played struggle well because he knew struggle and pain.
Rightfully, many point out that people leave us every day due to personal struggles and they do not get the attention that celebrities get. It’s fair.
I think that a part of it is that in death, it is one of the rare moments that most average people can truly identify with them as just as human as themselves. It’s good to relate because it brings us together. The key is not to throw attention their way simply because they made some movies we liked, but because they draw attention to lives the rest of us are living. God speed to Robin Williams, and to the rest of us living the daily struggles quietly away from the lights of the cameras.

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Principles and actions

Like many Americans, I have found myself in conflict over how I feel about the actions taken by Edward Snowden. A poll discussed today on the news shows that 74 percent of Americans view him as a whistleblower, and not as a traitor. I can understand the sentiment behind that kind of opinion. In this country, we value our privacy. We have an inherent distrust of any government actions taken without our knowledge. We champion those with the courage to put their own livelihood on the line to bring to light what they believe is too important to be left in the dark. That poll, the survey showing the 74 percent recorded as believing Mr. Snowden is one of those champions for transparency, is a snapshot of how principled actions are seen.

I believe that snapshot is too general and fails to dissect the details of the situation. I also believe that, knowing how much I personally have been conflicted,  the poll misses an analysis of how strongly people feel, how sure they are of their opinion, and why people see him in that light. Do they believe in the concept of a whistleblower in general and believe in any actions that bring out truth? Do they know what actions he took since his release of information? Are they able to separate their disdain for government intrusion with the specifics of this situation?

Here is how I see it. I am all for anyone standing up and saying “I know this, I believe it is wrong to keep it quiet, and here is what you all should know!” When a corporate employee at Bank of America knows of institutional issues that are unethical and possibly illegal, by all means, let it out. However, you do not take what you know and run to Wells Fargo, or TD Bank, or Citizens. You don’t run with the information and tell others players in your industry.

In the case of Edward Snowden, you don’t run to China or Russia and tell them what you know. Yes, he began by giving information to the press. An article in the Guardian first gave us a peek into a government program where phone records — not wiretapping and recording of actual phone calls, mind you — were being collected for comparison and flagging. I’m still on the fence about this program, to be honest. But that will require further consideration. My issue with him is that what he did next was flee to countries that are not among the most friendly with the United States, begged for protection while proclaiming he had juicy information, and touted himself as a defender of American principles.

Here is America, we believe in transparency, in courage of convictions, in a press willing to report without fear of retaliation, in singular Americans loving their country more than they love their government.

Here is America, you get to call yourself a whistleblower when you fight for more transparency, display courage of your convictions, work with and for a press willing to report without fear of retaliation, when you love your country more than your government.

Here in America, I call you a traitor when you use those principles and give away what you know to another country halfway around the world. I believe in transparency and standing up against overreach by our government, but I don’t excuse using that belief as a reason for turning against the country you proclaim to be standing up for.

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The slow, sad implosion of the U.S. Congress

I just finished watching a Daily Show segment in which they talked to a Democrat in California who had been approached by the national party about running for a U.S. House seat. She turned them down, feeling that her desire to be productive and successfully represent her community would be stifled by such a role. To use her words, “I don’t want to be in a place where I have a good, fancy title but I’m not actually able to deliver for people.” The story continued by highlighting a current House member that characterized his experience with words like gridlock, sad, frustrating, etc. He explained that he serves under House leadership that was more concerned with getting the best of the other party to stay in the majority than actually getting things done.

With this kind of environment, what idealistic up-and-coming future leader of this country would want to be a part of it? Congress — where good ideals go to die and good public servants lose their way or give up in frustration. One problem I have observed in the course of seeing how these people conduct themselves, these servants elected to represent the best interests of the American people, is how they treat the deal makers. These are the mavericks, the gentleman from Arizona willing to reach across the aisle, the Congresswoman from Maine searching out room for compromise, the Senator from Connecticut finding a working partner with another even though he may not share the same letter in between two parentheses. They are both celebrated and vilified.
The problem is that establishment party insiders turn their backs on their own members that seek out solutions with the opposition, but congratulate and welcome with open arms an opposition player coming their way. It happens on all ends of the spectrum.

How can we expect good people with hopeful intentions to want to take on important roles if it means toeing the line or towing your career away? It is the height of hypocrisy that Republicans pushed Arlen Specter out for occasionally disagreeing with their public platform, but welcomed Joseph Lieberman to their convention as a man of principle. For the Democrats, it was the exact same two men and the exact same hypocrisy — minus the convention invitation.

The Daily Show is satire, but our history is marked by the humor of satire managing to bring out serious points. The story made a valid point, and the solution is not easy. It requires a big shift in how the parties conduct themselves, a large swelling of new candidates willing to stand firm against the attitude that says play like we play or you won’t get far, and an American public willing to give them the support they need to stay courageous and keep fighting for a D.C. worthy of our support again. Principled leadership does not require dogmatic obstructionism. Unfortunately, not enough are willing to recognize that.

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Different Perspectives Versus Evil Intentions

It is no secret that our political atmosphere feeds off of divisiveness and inflammatory statements. The loudmouth gets the attention. Whether or not we need to accept this as a fact that will always be is a subject matter for another day. Overwhelmingly, most voters find this environment to be a big problem. Unfortunately, most voters are also highly likely to respond to the same political tactics they claim to despise. One problem is that it is dirty when the other guys are doing it, but it is simply truth telling when our own team plays the game.

What I truly have a big problem with is the assigning of ill intentions behind the actions or policies we disagree with. People on all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of it. To the conservative, a liberal wants to take all of the money from hard working Americans and give it away so that the poorest do not feel compelled to add to society. The evil liberals hate innovation, hard work, and good ole’ American values where everyone can be vastly successful by simply pulling up their bootstraps and getting a job. To the conservative, it’s not that the liberal simply has a different perspective on what is the best way to help everyone live the American dream, it’s that they hate American values and hate the rich and the successful.

To the liberal, the conservative wants to hoard all of the money and has no interest in caring for those who fall through the cracks. The conservative hates minorities, want to see their rich friends make more and more money, and only see the working class and the poor as commodities to be exploited until they die — there will always be more having babies to keep the cycle going. To the liberal, it’s not that the conservative may simply have a different perspective on how best to make the decisions that will benefit our future, it’s that they only care about their own interests and everyone else be damned.

And we all feed on it. Pundits encourage this attitude. The media gives the most vile examples of so-called “leaders” the most attention. And we emulate it by repeating what we hear without any attempts to verify what is claimed to be fact, and repeating the personal attacks about the caricatures created in the place of the the flesh and blood human beings putting themselves out there as public servants.

The liberal wants to see the government take away everyone’s guns because they hate the Constitution. It certainly couldn’t be that too many tragedies have lead to a desire to evaluate what can be done and what the causes are.

The conservative wants to be able to own whatever weapon they please and collateral damage in our society be damned. It certainly couldn’t be an honest concern that the taking of rights can be a slippery slope.

None of these points are meant to express that the perspectives are the proper way to move forward. That is why honest, respectful, reasoned debate is what we need more than ever, and what is painfully lacking. The first step is facing someone you disagree with with respect and an honest expectation that they come from a point of real desire to see their community and their country served best. You may differ on what that path looks like — and we need disagreement to keep extremes in check. However, assuming the worst of intentions are behind their ideas is not productive. It is not mature. It is not how we get past an environment where the opposition is treated like the enemy.

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