( – promoted by Colorado Pols)
Waiting to testify at the CO Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Civil Unions, I was reminded of something that happened when I was a little girl. We lived three miles outside of Detroit in a small house with eleven residents (my parents and nine children), and my dad had occasional weekend poker games in our garage. The garage was a real working garage with a grease pit to fix cars (a six-foot-deep rectangular hole), which he covered with several layers of plywood, in order to have his friends over for a poker game on top of it. (Ever seen the Roseanne show? It was just like that, only our kitchen was much smaller than theirs.)
Dad was deaf from a childhood accident, but he heard the language of the streets through beer, cigarettes, cars, and frequent “gut checks.” Everyone from the shop was invited to poker night, no matter what their faith, color, ethnicity, language, bank account, religion, etc. The only rule to be invited to poker night was you couldn’t drive a foreign car. (I previously wrote about that here.)
We had one television, one telephone, and ten people fighting over them, so I read often, and listened to Canadian public radio, where my liberal curiosity was nurtured. I loved meeting all my dad’s friends from “the shop” — each had a different accent, a different smell, a different look. When I studied Native Americans, my dad had a friend who was a Native American chief, and my dad asked him to teach us. Chief Red Bird, a local volunteer at a state park, brought his daughter and some friends, and had a mini-pow-wow in our living room. He even made us leather slippers, which we wore when we visited him at Detroit Metropolitan State Park.
Dad didn’t discriminate, at least not in the usual ways. Although my father quit school in the eighth grade and only later went back to finish the eleventh grade (there was no special education offered for poor, deaf kids in the forties), he was an expert at people. Dad made friends with everyone — literally everyone — and he brought them all home for poker. Jewish friends, Italian friends, Greek friends, African-American friends, German friends, Asian friends — didn’t matter. As long as they didn’t drive a foreign car, they were all his friends.
At our local drug store, there was a woman with numbers tattooed on her arm, and when asked, she told us in a very thick accent how she had escaped Nazi Germany. My mother would not have approved of me asking such nosy questions, but when I was alone, I asked them of everyone I met. Ethnic Detroit in the 70s was the perfect place to learn about the world.
I remember being intrigued by one of my Dad’s poker-playing friends, “German Joe.” Joe’s wife was the best baker, and he frequently brought over German anisette pastries. He also had an adorable schnauzer named Snoopy that did tricks and followed commands in three languages. I was about eight years old when I blurted out to Joe, “Are you a Nazi?” My dad’s friend became very serious and quiet, kneeled down to be eye level with me, and said (something like),
“When I was sixteen, I joined Hitler’s army because I loved planes and they said I could fly them. I did not hate Jews. I did not hate anyone. I just wanted to fly planes. I worked for Hitler until I escaped and came to this country. Every day of my life, I pray to G-d to forgive me for being on the wrong side.” With tears in his eyes, Joe continued, “When you grow up, remember to ask a lot of questions… because if you don’t, you might end up on the wrong side, like me. Sometimes I wish I died in the war. You should never live like Old Joe.”
I sensed Joe’s deep shame and never forgot it. I also never shared Joe’s secret with my parents (my dad was deaf, remember). Many of my father’s nine brothers fought the Nazis in World War II — it wouldn’t have gone over well. How could someone who appeared so kind have been part of something that was so unspeakably cruel?
Later, as a teenager, I started attending a synagogue and eventually converted to Judaism. In shul, I heard many more horror stories about the Holocaust, and often thought of Joe — Joe with the sweet dog, the delicious cookies, and the horrible secret. Joe the Nazi, who flew planes for the most murderous regime in human history.
I learned as a kid, to talk to everyone, to assume nothing, and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to hate people; it’s much more difficult to understand them. I studied psychology in college for this reason.
I was thinking about all of this yesterday at the CO State Senate Judiciary hearing on Civil Unions. A young woman representing the Anti-Defamation League testified that people who opposed Civil Unions were motivated for many different reasons, but among them were bigotry and prejudice. A very tense exchange between the young woman and Senator Lundberg went something like this:
Lundberg: “Are you saying that anyone opposed to Civil Unions is a bigot, or is prejudiced?”
Woman from ADL: “No, I am saying there are many motives to oppose equality for gays and lesbians. Among those reasons is bigotry and prejudice. That’s why I’m testifying on behalf of ADL.”
Lundberg repeated his question in slightly different words, and the woman repeated her answer in a similar fashion. As the proverbial saying goes, you could cut the tension with a knife.
I thought about German Joe, and I thought about the woman with the numbers on her arm. I thought about Rosa Parks, whom I met when I was sixteen; my high school social studies teacher invited her in to speak to our class. I remembered her saying how important it was to the civil rights movement that white people joined the cause, too. I thought about one of my best friends who killed himself while struggling with his sexuality and the homophobic world around him, and I thought about Senator Lundberg.
When it was my turn to testify, I said,
“I’m sorry Senator Lundberg is out of the room…” (he and Senator King left the room frequently during the hearing, each missing approximately half of the testimony. Even while there, Lundberg rarely looked up from his laptop or iPad, apparently doing his taxes, or something else equally more important than listening to the pain of gays and lesbians for hours). I continued, “because I wanted to tell Senator Lundberg I do not believe every person who opposes gay marriage or civil unions is a bigot, or is prejudiced.”
On the break, I gave Senator Lundberg a copy of my testimony, shook his hand, and told him the same thing. And I meant it. I don’t believe he hates gays.
In my testimony, I spoke of being homophobic while in high school. When I heard gay jokes as a kid, and laughed at them, I meant no harm to anyone. Like my Dad, I didn’t hate gay people, or Jews, or Muslims, or African Americans, or Italians, or anyone else. Hate has never been a part of my heart, even a little.
And yet, by not speaking up, by not showing up, by not standing up, I was part of the problem. When my friend Bret killed himself, and left a note, I found that I, too, in high school, shared something with German Joe.
Never again. Never again. Never again.
I will listen to all sides. I will strive to understand. I will assume everyone has good intentions unless I can prove otherwise. And I will never, ever stop asking questions. I will never stand quiet when those around me are persecuted. I owe it to the woman with the numbers on her arm. I owe it to Rosa Parks. I owe it to my friend Bret, and to many other millions of people who have been persecuted because of the (literally) thoughtless actions, or inactions, of others.
Senators Lundberg and King gave their reasons for not supporting civil unions. For King, he essentially believes civil unions are a veiled attempt at gay marriage, and defining marriage is the right of the church. To quote King, “Separation of church and state is there to protect the church.”
Lundberg’s argument was similar. He believes the civil unions bill is no different than the gay marriage attempts of the past. Because of the fact Lundberg only actually listened carefully to a few minutes of the five hour long Senate Judiciary hearing, he managed to avoid hearing all the reasons why the Civil Unions bill is very different from earlier gay marriage legislation (I sat immediately to his right in the completely packed chambers and watched him surfing the net for five hours — that is, when he was even in the room). The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and will now continue on to the entire Senate, despite King and Lundberg’s opposition.
“Ask questions, Senator Lundberg”, I thought. “Listen. Engage. Understand. Feel what it feels like to walk in the shoes of another.” That’s how Colorado will know you are not a bigot.