How I Learned About Gender Issues
So, I asked Toni if I could speak about gender issues when I came here. I say gender issues because to me, sexual inequality, for women, for the LGBT community, has forever been a central issue in humanity and in the past 150 yrs or so has finally gotten some air time on the political stage. You know it took women 72 yrs to get the right to vote back in 1920. Seventy-two yrs! It was that difficult for the minds of men to comprehend treating women as equal, treating everyone as equal, was a reasonable idea. But you know men. There was a lot at stake. When you are the dominant force in society, treating others as equal means giving up power.
In communication theory, they talk about the concept of “the other.” The Other is someone outside the approved group, someone it is OK to pick on, to marginalize, to ignore, to exploit. The other is always mysterious and not part of the community of the “understood.” Being mysterious, the Other always provokes distrust and suspicion. Essentially unknowable, or supposedly so, the Other’s methods are concerning, their intentions suspect, and their hidden savagery and selfish intention always a given. Because of this,the Other is forever being attacked. They’re ripe for subjugation, they must be controlled, kept away for the switches of power. It is for everybody’s own good if we define them and keep them in their place.
Now I tried to write this to make you think of the way the mainstream looks at, say Muslims, or marijuana users, the poor, the pagan, sundry brown-skinned people of varying ethnicity or, most recently, Guatemalan teen-age immigrants, but you know I am talking about the way society, meaning our male-dominated society, treats women and the LGBT community.
Now I know I do not have to tell you about what it is like to be marginalized in your own society. If we are dealing w stereotypes here then I am the stereotype oppressor: a hetero old white guy. I only know stories of women’s lives, you guys live them. I don’t need to tell you about the grand or the everyday struggles of being a woman, a mother, or a daughter in a society that presents women as a commodity to be consumed and a social force needing to be corralled, nearly 100 yrs after women got the vote and the idea of equality, but it’s not reality yet. Though I myself have never been a woman, I can plainly see that. Though I have been a man, a father and a son and intimately and socially involved w women my whole life. Heck, I like women so much I used to live in one.
But seriously. Women’s issues in specific are not something I will ever know from the inside out as it were. But I can tell you about some of the women I’ve known, the things I’ve seen them face. My mom, Patsy Ann Perrodin, was a nightclub singer. She never quite liked being thought of as a “Patsy” and changed her stage name to Pattie Weisser when she married my step-dad, a rough and tumble hard drinking electrical contractor literally named Bud Weisser. But before they met I was raised by a single mom, who shaped my life more than she lived to know
She kept a professional music career going for nearly 20 yrs despite being in and out of the hospital repeatedly for umpteen surgeries, even as the world of live music was leaving her style behind. She made sure I understood that politics was important, that the world operated in ways we must pay attention to or else the powers that be will take care of their own wants at our expense. We championed Martin Luther King. We cried when Bobby died, opposed the war in a part of the US where it was not safe to do so, and watched the Watergate hearing together intently in the summer of ’73.
She quietly overcame a mountain of medical complications that repeatedly halted her momentum as a performer, constantly reinventing herself, a writer, a painter, a small-town, small-time business woman. When I returned from being a teen runaway, we went to college together. My dad fought against it. He needed a ditch-digger; but she persisted and we went to school, 40 miles each way for my first semester back into quote real world after living on the road. Her health dropped off and dropped her out of school at some point in our second semester; and my early taste for misadventure derailed me before too long. But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell you about her.
When I was very little, she spent some time in a mental hospital. As you can guess, when she returned, to my little baby’s mind, she seemed a superhero to me and I really never changed in my mind after that. In my childhood, in her youth, she lived her life a star. But my mom’s ancient local celebrity isn’t the point here. The point of the story here is I remember her being afraid … and taking on the world anyway. I mean she literally sang for our supper in a time when working in a nightclub made her a marked woman. She focused on her gifts. She focused on her hope and never stopped; and those are skills that men do not teach each other.
So, I honor women’s issues because I honor my mom. I also fight for women’s issues at least as intently to honor my surrogate mom during my teens, Susanne Nicholson, a take-no-nonsense Viet vet nurse who was way more butch than most drill sergeants. She fought for every activist issue you could imagine in the early 70s and for about five yrs lived w us while she worked as a social worker and put herself through college at Pan American University in Edinburg, TX same nearby college my mom and I would go to. Later when she went onto grad school, in the booming city of Houston where she got her doctorate in gerontology, I got to spend summers w her and see what the world outside my tiny town of five thousand was like.
Later, Suzanne returned to Edinburg to create nutritional programs for nursing home in South Texas, I got to live w her and actually be a student on the campus where’d I’d spent my teenage summers. It was a dream come true … for a couple of semesters then I moved on and that is a whole other story but, it was Suzanne who introduced me to the politics of gender equality in a way my mom never could. Suzanne was a buzz-cut butch. This was back in the 70s, back in the day when the straight culture, especially the rural straight culture, had no qualms about being openly hostile to gay culture. This was in a time when stories like Matthew Sheppard were routine.
Once she moved away from Raymondville, TX, Suzanne immersed herself in the suddenly emerging LGBT culture and she showed me that being LGBT, though a rich culture, was more than a whim. Much more than the ridiculous messages my pop culture was telling me at the time. In some cases it is a biological imperative, in all cases it was a battle against a society that has no qualms about marginalizing and even killing the LGBT, the queer, the weirdo. I know about that first hand as well, remind me to tell you sometime about surviving my very own gay-bashing, but that is a different story.
Yes, Suzanne gave me so much and taught more than me about acceptance of gay culture. After I moved on, she continued to help and house other awkward youth. Later on when she died , she and her partner were together at home. They had to be. Lesbian couples were not allowed together in hospitals back then. No wonder she taught me to fight. She was the person who taught me that feminism wasn’t just a lesbians’ issue or a woman’s issue. Gender equality frees straight males from sexual stereotypes just as well. Making sure all children are wanted, get health care, get educated, get loved, these aren’t just women’s issues, female stereotypes, these are the values that make life worth living. These are the values we want from good government. Feminism or no, these values matter more than who has the biggest army, or has accumulated the most wealth.
So, when Suzanne told me about the development of the battle for the ERA and the development of NOW, I had no hesitation wearing a NOW pin to college and that is why I met the 3rd person I work to honor, my late wife Lisa Weisser. In that redneck time in South Texas a young man who would go to college w his mom and wear a NOW pin was pretty rare. Let’s see, on that campus there was probably … me.
A 20yr Montessori teacher till mental health issues took her life, Lisa Weisser was also a life-long liberal, a feminist, peace activist, secularist, environmentalist, and educator; but she was always troubled. In and out of mental hospitals her whole life, at one point she chose to have an abortion rather than bring a 2nd child into her unstable world. It wasn’t a decision I loved, but she was the woman I loved and it was entirely her body. It was a hard choice, but we never doubted it was hers to make. And I still believe that, as Roe v Wade declared, until a fetus is viable, the life of the mother is the primary concern. I certainly believe that standard safe medical abortion is not murder, and neither is birth control. Birth control is the essence of responsibility. Even more importantly access to safe birth control is the best way to curb abortion and men who try to limit it, are trying to use your own ovaries as chains.
And I have to wonder, being a man and knowing how men think, I have to wonder if the religious rush to illegalize abortion and even prohibit access to birth control is about controlling your ovaries, or controlling your vaginas. I wonder, the way some male dominated cultures, some religiously dominated cultures veil women and shame them for the lustful thoughts men don’t want to take responsibility for having, for hateful actions they explain away as lust. And that’s actually the story I want to tell you about Lisa Weisser and what happened when she was raped once in a mental hospital. I don’t want to tell you about the rape. That is an awful story.
I want to tell you what happened afterward. I want to tell you how, when we discovered the state of Illinois’ budget cut for mental health operations led directly to dissolving the sexual predator ward at the state mental hospital and sending a serial rapist to a unit full of the easy victims, the depressed and the medicated, she fought back against the stupidity in a way she could not fight back against her attacker. When she discovered a bureaucratic decision to save a dime and cut the quality of a government service led directly to her rape and others we found, she filed a landmark lawsuit for placing budget above human concerns. She fought that lawsuit for the rest of her life. And in the end, the State of Illinois was found liable for negligence and endangerment. And the state hospital system changed back to a system that put patient safety first and not nickels and dimes. The case only took 14 yrs. Lisa only lived 11 of them.
I don’t have to tell you the details of this story. You can actually read them in a series of articles in Springfield, Illinois’ Illinois Times. And it is somewhat unfair that I am not telling you stories of Beth Weisser, my wife for the past 8 yrs, the woman who inspired me every bit as much as any of my other great heroes, who is every bit the activist I am and fighting her own campaign in Mohave County for the LD5 House race. But I don’t have to tell you stories of the women face. You live them. I only have the ones I share.
But I can tell you this: while I may never be a congressman, as a candidate, as a man, as a human, I can tell you I will never be OK w an America that does not respect gender equality. I owe it to the women who taught me what it means to be an American, what it means to be human.I promise you I will never be OK w treating any group of Americans as “the others.” I will fight for the single moms out there singing for their suppers. I will fight to make sure they get every dime they are worth and every dime equal to a man. I will work for laws to protect women and children from domestic violence, from violence against women in the military and from the violence of bullying in our schools. I will work to make sure every child get a chance to experience the way education changed my life, whether it be keeping college in reach of the average American, fully funding full day kindergarten and keeping child care within reach of working moms; so when parents dream of their child’s future, there is a way to make those dreams come true.
I pledge to work for that ERA Constitutional amendment, especially now that it is being revived. I pledge to work for equality for the LGBT community; because if you can’t marry who you want and you can’t adopt when you want and when you can’t be w the one you love at their time of life or death crisis, well, that not even like being a citizen is it? I promise I will never say a woman is not allowed to control her own reproductive rights. I promise as a male, I will NEVER be OK w any kind of restrictions on access to birth control. (& Hobby Lobby, you have not convinced me your right to be greedy heartless bastards trumps the rest of America’s commitment to protecting a woman’s right to have access.
I will never put budget cuts ahead of public safety and most of all I promise to fight for gender issues with all the strengths these women have given me. That I can promise, that I can tell you. But I don’t have to tell you stories of the lives women face. You live them. I only have the ones I share. Thank you for letting me do that.