Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Hot, Humid Sunday

Yesterday my wife and son went to the bank less than a mile from here, and it was raining like crazy there, but we didn't get a drop here at the house -- isn't that weird? You can almost throw a rock from here to there. In these stifling summer days we have little storm-cells that pass from left to right across the map, some people get rain and thunder and lightning and some don't. Sometimes you can see the storm on the horizon, hear the thunder, and it just passes by. Right now it's hazy out there, and I haven't been out but I just know what it's like. Think I'll stay in and have a cup of coffee before I get the paper.

A couple of things in the news this week jumped out at me. One was the deal that the government made with the guy they suspected of mailing anthrax to people a few years back.
The U.S. Justice Department agreed to a $5.8 million settlement with scientist Steven Hatfill, ending his lawsuit that claimed the government improperly identified him as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

As part of the deal, the agency will pay Hatfill a $2.8 million lump sum and will purchase an annuity that will provide him $3 million through 20 annual payments of $150,000. Hatfill Lawsuit Settled by U.S. for $5.8 Million

Yes, they improperly identified him as a suspect, and they hassled the poor guy to death.

Remember -- somebody sent anthrax to some people in 2001, it all happened in the fog of confusion following 9/11 when we thought America was swarming with terrorists. Anthrax powder got sent to some journalists' and Senators' offices, and a package broke open in the Brentwood post office; five people were killed altogether and another seventeen were infected with it but survived. Hatfill had worked for government "biomedical" laboratories, and he definitely had some shady stuff in his background, but rather than investigate him as a regular suspect, the FBI decided to make a big publicity stunt out of it all. They invited journalists along when they searched his house, for instance.

To give you an idea what this guy's life was like -- he was parked on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown and the FBI had their van parked right behind him. He got out of his car and was going to take a picture of them, and as they took off they ran right over his foot! The DC cops came and he ended up with a a ticket for "walking to create a hazard" on Wisconsin Avenue. If that isn't being hassled ...

So this week, he and his lawyers quietly closed the case. He will now be receiving nice checks, courtesy of the taxpayer (that's you). I don't know if he mailed the anthrax or not, but this is a perfect example of the deterioration of our sense of justice. In the US we have laws that regulate how the government can investigate a crime and pursue a suspect. They have to gather evidence and build a case, decide whether to charge the person, then there is a trial where the evidence is presented and finally a judgment is offered. You know, I shouldn't have to say this, it should just be what we do. But somebody at the top of the federal government decided along the way that we don't need any of that -- harassment, torture, and interminable confinement should be good enough. Now, finally, at least in the this case the arc of justice is beginning to bend back, and the FBI is going to pay the guy a lot of money.

This reminds me of the case of Richard Jewel, remember him? Somebody set off a pipe bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. Jewel saw a suspicious backpack, cleared the area, saved lives, and the FBI harassed him mercilessly. I can remember seeing live TV shots of his apartment all lit up, swarming with FBI guys trying to find evidence that Jewel was actually the bomber. Another guy, Eric Rudolph, later confessed. Turns out Jewel was a hero, not a terrorist, he was just a security guard doing his job and in the end he sued every newspaper and television network that had said he was the bomber, bringing in a pretty penny.

Again, there is a process, and it works. You think the guy committed a crime, charge him. By all means, investigate, find the bad guys, catch them, bring them to trial. There is nothing like "coddling criminals" in either of these situations. The fact is, we have a criminal justice system that works. Maybe sometimes somebody gets away, and maybe sometimes somebody gets charged wrongfully, but a balance has been found in American justice between protecting citizens' rights and maintaining order. Harassing people and denying them representation doesn't make it any more likely that they are guilty. There is plenty the FBI can do to investigate somebody, and they should do all of it, but the press plays no part in it, hassling people isn't part of it. Invite the journalists to the courthouse, not to the suspect's house when you're searching it. Announce the verdict to them at the end of the trial, don't tell them before you've even charged the guy.

I can't say I like the idea that we're going to pay Steven Hatfill a nice pension for life, but I really don't like my tax money to be subsidizing a federal government that hassles people without having any evidence on them either.

Another thing in the news suffers by having the most boring name ever: FISA. The federal government can listen to your phone calls without a warrant for 72 hours, if they think you're a terrorist and they don't have time to get a warrant. Okay, I think that probably sounds fair to most of us, there is some oversight by the courts and some accountability, in the end if it turns out to be a false alarm they have to throw out the information they gathered.

But for several years the federal government was just listening to everybody, you and me, everybody. They went to the phone companies, asked them to let them listen in, and a number of the big telephone companies did give them access to people's phone calls. They weren't supposed to do that. It is against the law to do that. You aren't suspected of terrorism, are you? Why are they listening to you then?

This week Congress debated what they call a "compromise," and it looks like it's going to pass. The new FISA bill will give the phone companies immunity for giving away our privacy. There is some wording in there that says it's okay to break the law if the government asks you to. I really don't like the sound of that, and lots of other people don't either.

I know, nobody really cares. So the government listens to your phone calls -- you've got nothing to hide, right? What if they caught everybody who ever did anything wrong? If they listen to enough phone calls, they could do it. They could catch kids planning pranks, adulterers, maybe you call somebody when you're stoned or you admit running a red light to somebody. It isn't me, my life is so boring they can watch me every second of the day without catching me at anything, but I think people need to have privacy when they talk to each other, it's just part of being free. Just a second, cussing isn't against the law, is it? Okay, I still don't want them listening to my phone calls.

(Man, some soprano is singing the Lord's Prayer on WPFW -- this is goose-bump stuff!)

In other news that came out this week, HIV rates have gone up in young gay males, especially blacks. The Post:
The number of young homosexual men being newly diagnosed with HIV infection is rising by 12 percent a year, with the steepest upward trend in young black men, according to a new report.

The double-digit increase in young gay men is about 10 times higher than in the homosexual community overall, where the number of new infections is going up about 1.5 percent a year.

The report, released yesterday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appears to confirm impressions that a "second-wave" AIDS epidemic is underway in gay America. HIV Rate Up 12 Percent Among Young Gay Men

I'm pretty sure I can predict how the nuts will play this, whatever, there is a serious epidemic in our community and we need to fight it with education and good practices.

There was one aspect of this that jumped out at me:
Previous studies have found that gay black men on average have fewer sex partners, are less likely to use drugs and are no more likely to have unprotected intercourse than gay white men. Consequently, their higher rate of infection does not appear to arise from riskier behavior.

Instead, it reflects the higher prevalence of HIV -- as well as syphilis and gonorrhea, which increase a person's susceptibility to HIV -- in the black population.

Some people would like to argue that anal sex is a risky behavior that increases your probability of getting HIV/AIDS -- but anal sex with an uninfected person is no risk at all. Some people would argue that "homosexual sex" is dangerous, but in fact "homosexual sex" with an uninfected partner is no riskier than any other kind of sex. This seems obvious but it is important: you risk getting HIV when you have any kind of sex with an HIV-infected person, and you do not risk getting it if you have any kind of sex with someone who doesn't carry the virus.

These warnings about gay sex and anal intercourse only make sense if you assume a person is having sex with strangers. In that case, you don't really know the HIV status of your partner and the laws of probability come into play: it's Russian roulette. This goes for women as well as men, white as well as black, straight as well as gay. Indiscriminate promiscuity equals risk.

In America, the black population has been hit with HIV harder than the rest of us -- the HIV rate for black women, for instance, is twelve times higher than for white women. A CDC web site says, "Of the estimated 18,849 people under the age of 25 whose diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was made during 2001–2004 in the 33 states with HIV reporting, 11,554 (61%) were black " So even though black gay men are more careful than whites, the probabiliity that a new partner is infected is higher. The real problem is that this is also a population that is less likely to have access to medical services, including testing.

The point is that it is not promiscuity that causes the increase in the statistics, but simply the fact that there is a higher probability of a partner being HIV-positive. This is a nasty trap. Well, we know our bigoted friends are going to use this information to "prove" that gay people are disgusting, and it won't bother them if black people look bad at the same time.

I guess the Big News this week had to do with guns. The Supreme Court ruled that people in DC can have guns in their homes for self-defense and hunting, even loaded ones. A couple of people came by to talk to me after the ruling was announced, as if suddenly Washington DC is going become dangerous.

I was in China a year or two ago, and my translators and I went through a rough-looking neighborhood. I said, "Is it safe to walk here?" They just laughed. They said, "Nobody has a gun, they're illegal here. You might be careful of pickpockets though." That's just how it is, where guns are outlawed even outlaws don't have guns. Sometimes I go to Europe, and the people there are absolutely baffled by American gun violence. I have tried to explain about the Constitution, I tell them there is just no way people are going to give up their guns. They look at me like I'm insane, oh well, we are a strange country in some ways, aren't we!

Oh - how about Louisianna and their "academic freedom" idea! This is just great. They passed a bill down there, the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), to ensure what they call "academic freedom." Ars Technica explains it:
The text of the LSEA suggests that it's intended to foster critical thinking, calling on the state Board of Education to "assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories." Unfortunately, it's remarkably selective in its suggestion of topics that need critical thinking, as it cites scientific subjects "including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Love the way they twist freedom around to mean the freedom to teach kids stupid things. I mean, there's enough irony there to hang a magnet on. Just watch for a new group in our county: Citizens for a Responsible Academic Freedom.

On more thing, this was kind of nice. Adam at Maryland Politics Watch has been reviewing Maryland political blogs. They got web statistics for several of the bigger sites, but not for us. Well, he could have emailed me, I would've sent him some numbers -- actually, after I saw this I did send him out server stats. But it is interesting to see how they see us there:
One blog for which we do not have data is Jim Kennedy’s Vigilance blog. Kennedy is President of Montgomery County’s Teach the Facts group, which advocates for a liberal, open curriculum on gender identity issues in the county’s schools. Kennedy acts as a patient ringmaster in the Chuck Barris mold while dozens of mostly anonymous liberals and conservatives battle it out on everything from nature vs. nurture to the origins of religion. MPW friend Dana Beyer even made news there by announcing her 2010 candidacy for District 18 delegate against a crowded forum of hostile anons. Vigilance must get tons of visits judging from its comment counts but Kennedy seldom strays into non-gender issues.

Chuck Barris? Uh, okay, I guess I do feel like this is the Gong Show at times. I have gonged a couple of Anons over the years. And actually, I do feel like a "patient ringmaster" at times. People are always telling me to ban this or that troll, and it is tempting, but I've only had to do it once, the one we called "Illiterate Anon" was just unacceptable, all the time. Oh, I've deleted a lot of comments, there is one guy these days who just doesn't understand the concept of civility, but generally he does us a service by demonstrating just what it is we're up against. I'd have to say it's kind of fun being the patient ringmaster, I post something here and people comment and the issues really do get debated thoroughly. Every comment comes into my email but I don't read every word of it unless something catches my eye. It's also interesting to see the server stats for some of the other blogs. If I'm reading these right, we get a few more visitors than any of the liberal blogs the MPW has reviewed.

I went outside a little while ago to take some pictures, and man it is humid! It's a good day to stay indoors. Of course, having said that, I am going to get my keys and go do some honey-do stuff.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

They Want to Tell Us What Marriage Is

Journalists in the "real" media like to joke about blogs, as if they were somehow inferior to corporate publications. Yes, blogs are amateurish, by definition. The Internet has created a situation where anybody in the world can post a news story and comment on it, and lead a discussion if they want. There are literally millions of blogs, most of them posted by teenagers documenting their daily lives, whatever, the way it works is that end-users decide what they want to read. Blogs don't advertise, they just exist, and if enough people keep coming back then they are a success. There are a few hugely successful ones, and a lot like this one that have a limited but consistent, specific readership interested in a certain kind of issue. We get a fair number of readers, but really the fascination with Montgomery County, Maryland's internal controversies is going to be less widespread than, say, Boing-Boing's "Directory of Wonderful Things."

But here is a perfect example of how the blogs can out-do the corporate media.

Some Senators have proposed an amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Here's the whole thing (after some "resolved" - type boilerplate):
`Section 1. This article may be cited as the `Marriage Protection Amendment'.

`Section 2. Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.'.

I don't really know why there are two periods at the end of it.

We recognize this familiar kind of ugliness. Some "conservatives" want to force their personal views on everybody. It's typical and hardly worth commenting on.

Now, the blogs have tuned in to the list of co-sponsors. Here they are:
Sen Wicker, Roger F. [MS] (main sponsor)

Sen Allard, Wayne [CO]
Sen Brownback, Sam [KS]
Sen Craig, Larry E. [ID]
Sen Enzi, Michael B. [WY]
Sen Inhofe, James M. [OK]
Sen Roberts, Pat [KS]
Sen Shelby, Richard C. [AL]
Sen Thune, John [SD]
Sen Vitter, David [LA]

In particular, in case this didn't jump out at you, the blogs have noted the presence of Senators Vitter and Craig on the list of sponsors of the bill telling the rest of us what marriage is.

About a year ago, Vitter's name came up when the late "DC Madam" published a list of phone numbers that her escort service had done business with. Vitter immediately asked for forgiveness from God and his wife. Now, here's the thing that gets me with these guys. Wouldn't he be asking for forgiveness from God immediately, while he's zipping up his pants? Why did he only realize he'd done something wrong before God when he got caught? Okay, his wife, I see that, you go to see a hooker, you lie to your wife. But did he lie to God, too? Man, getting caught will give you a conscience real quick.

Another woman, the "Canal Street Madam," also said Vitter had been a customer. In his defense, she was quoted as saying that Vitter "was not a freak. He was not into anything unusual or kinky or weird." I don't know about you, but that's almost disappointing to me. And let me say, I don't really care if a guy goes to see a prostitute. My personal view is that it's a dumb thing to try to make illegal, but whatever I don't expect everybody to agree with me. I just tend not to be too judgmental when a person, male or female, lets their emotions get the best of them in that way. But it does bother me a bit when the same guy goes to work at the Capitol Building and tries to get everybody else to sign up for his view of what marriage should be. Senator, this will seem weird to you but some people actually believe in having sex exclusively with their spouses.

I notice that sexual fidelity was not mentioned in the Amendment.

And then Larry Craig, what can you say there? Trying to play footsies with an undercover cop in an airport bathroom: bad idea. And it's the same thing, I really don't care if a guy wants to hook up with a stranger someplace. I think it's creepy to do it in an airport restroom, mainly because I fly pretty often and I don't want to have to wonder about the guy in the next stall, or what those sounds are. But for a married guy to be doing that while he's telling other people they can't get married because they don't meet the overly-simple definition in the "Marriage Protection Amendment" -- uh, can I get through this without using the word "hypocrisy?" I guess not.

See, both of these guys want the world to live and let them live. They screwed up and they want to be forgiven, or in Craig's case, they want the world to accept their obviously false denials. But they don't want anybody else to have the right to screw up. So Adam and Steve want to settle down and establish a home, how is that possibly worse than joining some stranger in a stall in a public restroom for oral sex? How is the love between two men or two women morally more repugnant than partying with hookers behind your wife's back?

I have said before, part of the issue here might be the quality of the gay people that conservatives and liberals know. Being involved in this blog and these controversies, I have gotten to know a lot of gay people. They're regular folks, they have their personality traits like the rest of us, they look you in the eye and speak plainly and they are out-front about who they are. It appears that conservatives only meet the kinds of gay people who lie about their orientation and then hook up in bathroom stalls. Look how many preachers and politicians have fallen out of the closet, still denying everything, in the past few years! What if somebody like Larry Craig or Ted Haggard just said, "I'm gay, and I'm glad to get it out in the open." If they're a liberal, they do that, everybody absorbs the new information, and it's no big deal. If they're a conservative, they have to lie, they have to do these creepy things in inappropriate situations, and -- here's the problem: in the end, conservatives think that all gay people are like that.

My original point: if you search the news, you will find that no major news source says anything at all about this obvious irony. What are they afraid of? C'mon, this is funny! It's like the corporate news people are embarrassed, they're covering up for these hypocrites. David Vitter and Larry Craig want to amend the freakin' Constitution so people can only have the kind of marriage they have! I don't think so.

You'll only know about this if you read the blogs.

Friday, June 27, 2008

House Committee Hears About Transgender Issues

Yesterday the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing on the topic of Discrimination Against Transgender Americans in the Workplace, working toward adoption of a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that is inclusive of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Some of our friends went to it, it sounds like it was really an inspiring hearing and we hope that good things come out of it. This was the first Congressional hearing ever on the subject of transgender rights.

Some members of Congress testified first. Barney Frank, who is openly gay, said he "lived a lie for a long time" and now is sorry for it. He said people might be uncomfortable around transgender people at first. He got a laugh when he added, "When I discovered I was gay, it made me uncomfortable." But he got used to it, and so did other people.

Frank made the important point that giving equal rights to transgender people doesn't mean you have to take them to dinner or go to the movies with them, you judge them by how they do their job. The proposed nondiscrimination act does not give anyone the right to misbehave or be bizarre; this is simply how a compassionate society responds.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc) said that workplace protection is necessary for transgender people so we do not "leave behind the smallest and most vulnerable part of our community." Setting the stage, she defined gender identity and discussed how it differs from sexual orientation. She described everyday discrimination that transgender people face, and said "the importance of non-discrimination laws cannot be overstated." These laws tell people to "judge your fellow citizen by their integrity, talents ... rather than their sexual orientation or gender identity ... that irrational fear, irrational hate, have no place in our workplaces."

Chairman Robert Andrews (D-NJ) called Col. Diane Schroer to address the committee. As a man named David, Schroer went into the Army in 1978, went to Ranger and Airborne school, was in the Special Forces, made 450 parachute jumps, and served in Panama, Haiti, the Middle East, and other places, retiring in 2004. He had top secret security clearance at the Department of Homeland Security, and in 2004 applied for a job at the Library of Congress and was hired. David then had a meeting with the supervisor who had hired him, and told her of his plans to transition to a female gender identity and start work at the Library as Diane. The next day the supervisor called him and said "You're just not a good fit" for the job. As she said, she went from "Hero to zero" in twenty-four hours.

Next Mr. Andrews called Diego Sanchez, who is Director of Public Relations and External Affairs for AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and is a founding board member of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Born female, Sanchez told his parents at the age of five, "I'm a boy." He says his mother let him read a book about Christine Jorgensen, who was the first widely known transgender personality, having made a male-to-female transition in the early 1950s. He says his parents supported him through his childhood, and that he had about the same number of tutus and Tonka trucks.

Next called was JC Miller, a partner at Thompson Hine. She made legal recommendations to the committee, such as:
  • Have a clear definition of "gender identity," "transgender," and other key words, and avoid unclear terms such as "mannerism;" she noted that a firm handshake may be considered a masculine mannerism
  • She recommended using the word "restroom" to be clear, and not something vague like "facilities"
  • Notification: the law should specify what an employee should do when they are transitioning, when they should notify the employer, etc. -- this should all be spelled out
  • Jurisdiction: federal courts handle discrimination cases better than state courts
  • Costs: legal fees, she said, heap up for employers, who are sued when discrimination is alleged; this needs to be addressed in the law

Bill Hendrix, Chair of Gays, Lesbians, and Allies at Dow (GLAD) for Dow Chemical Company testified that Dow has had a transgender nondiscrimination policy for nineteen years. With 43,000 employees, they have had no problems resulting from their inclusive policies. Retaining LGBT employees, he said, has been good for espirit de corps in general. Dow has training for all employees each year in relevant topics, for instance sex education, same-sex domestic partnerships, and gay and lesbian issues.

Next up was Glen Lavy, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defense Fund, the same law firm that petitioned to represent the Citizens for Responsible Whatever here in Montgomery County in fighting our new nondiscrimination law. He said that some employers have deeply held religious beliefs that forbid them hiring transgender people. Forcing them to do so would amount to a moral judgment, he said. He complained about the difficulty of such concepts as "actual" versus "perceived" gender identity, and argued that because of its subjective nature, gender identity is unlike race. He also complained that the proposed law makes no religious exemption, and that employers should be able to refuse if compliance is too expensive. There is also, he said, a risk of violation of privacy. Lavy went on about that terrible "restroom" issue that so worries them, complaining about the problem of "men who are are allowed to use womens restrooms before having gender reassignment surgery." I think the technical term for these men would be "women," not to put too subtle a spin on it.

Lavy argued that if this law passed, a woman could complain and sue her employer because her privacy had been violated by a transgender woman seeing her naked in a bathroom or by seeing a naked transwoman in the bathroom. He was saying this invasion of privacy would be an unfair financial burden on the employer because they would have to defend against such lawsuits.

Lavy told the committee about our situation in Montgomery County, and asserted that the biggest question here is who goes into what bathroom. It is interesting that the shower-nuts have the nerve to go to this level of visibility with this lame argument. In fact, the biggest question in Montgomery County is discrimination. There is nothing in our new law about bathrooms, and doesn't need to be.

I am quoting from somebody's notes here, and am suppressing most of the ironic and other satirical comments that I am thinking as I type this.

Sabrina Marcus Taraboletti, Former Space Shuttle Engineer (and founding member of NCTE) testified next. She is the parent of two children, was raised in a strict Italian Catholic family, has an engineering degree and worked on the space shuttle, worked for United Space Alliance (a company owned jointly by Lockheed Martin and Boeing which manages the NASA space shuttle and International Space Station), and in 2003 was fired six weeks after announcing that she was going to transition from male to female. She was, she says, the fourth person there to transition; the first one was harassed until they left, the second one was reassigned to a dead-end job and quit, and the third one was harassed until they committed suicide. Taraboletti was finally fired.

Shannon Minter, Legal Director for National Center for Lesbian Rights and a transgender man, was the last witness. He argued we "need more than a patchwork of state and local laws and policies." He described numerous cases of individuals who lost their jobs simply because they were transgender. Twelve states and the District of Columbia, plus 100 localities and many employers do offer protection to transgender people, but "the brutal reality" is that transgender people are abused by employers. They are not protected by Title 7, and need legislation to protect them

After the testimony, Mr. Andrews, the chair of the committee, noted that the ADF's attorney, Mr. Lavy, seemed to think that accommodating a transgender person was like "making an Orthodox Jew eat pork." The Chairman wanted to know if Mr. Lavy believed an Orthodox Jew could refuse to employ a Catholic. Lavy said no. Then he asked about pacifists -- could a pacifist group refuse to hire a Marine veteran? Lavy did think they should be able to refuse. So Andrews asked, what about a white supremacist group? Should they be able to refuse to hire a person of color? Now Lavy said no. Those on the scene tell me that the crowd was not cheering for Mr. Lavy at this point, you might say. In fact laughter broke out a couple of times.

There was some discussion of the term "perceived," compared to "regarded as," in describing a person's gender identity. "Regarded as" refers to the overt conduct of the manager in how they relate to the person; "perceived as" can be totally internal, subjective, not overt.

There was a goose-bumpy moment when Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill) told Mr. Lavy about a man who lived a couple of thousand years ago who hung around with people nobody liked. He concluded by noting that there is a moral obligation to protect others, that we're all equal, and that "we can legislate what is right, what is just and what is fair."

A great line from Rep. Hare: "We put people in space, we can figure out the bathrooms."

The hearing ended with the transgender witnesses describing what they do to make a living. Most of them have had a hard time since their transition.

This was a historic event. The transgender population has never been invited to testify before any Congressional body before. We hope that something will come of this, in particular the goal would be for ENDA to be revised to include gender identity as well as sexual orientation. At the end of the hearing, Mr. Andrews noted that the day before, debate had resulted in a vote to change the Americans With Disabilities Act, and he seemed confident that ENDA would be going the same direction. He noted that the hearing was an important step for all people, not only transgender, but other groups who suffer from being unpopular as well.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cheap Gas

This seems like a kind of story that you'd see in the news more often, with gas prices what they are.

The other day I mentioned that Saturday my wife and I went yard-saling. We drove all over Rockville and Aspen Hill, even Potomac, just enjoying the beautiful morning and socializing with people. At some point I glanced down and noticed we were almost out of gas.

We have three cars and four drivers in our family. For some reason dad is the one who pops for gas, I don't remember how that happened, kids ought to be making their own money but for some reason they come to me. I'm too good to them, don't you agree? It seems like every other day I'm pulling out the bank card and putting another fifty, sixty, seventy bucks on it, filling some tank. Naturally I am happy as a patriotic American to be contributing to the record profits enjoyed by our oil companies, and I am glad to support those entrepreneurial CEOs who deserve those multimillion dollar bonuses for their hard work and selfless motivation. Naturally.

Our neighborhood gas station was recently bought by a bigger company, and the prices took a leap at that time. It's nearby, but when you're talking about a nickel a gallon difference it might be worth it to drive over to Kensington, or up on 355 near town center, to fill up at one of those cash-only places. It's nice to have a place right around the corner, but my customer loyalty doesn't extend to gas stations that are owned by huge companies that are getting rich off my dependence on their product.

We were driving up Veirs Mill and noticed that another gas station in the neighborhood had prices a few cents cheaper, so we stopped in there. I stopped taking my car to this place years ago when the mechanics left grease all over the steering wheel, failed to secure the battery, and also didn't fix the mechanical problem I'd brought it in for. The one thing I'd go there for was free air -- can you imagine these guys get seventy-five cents for air?! That's worse than paying for bottled water, paying for air.

Filled the tank, took the car home.

Later my wife mentioned it had made some kind of noise when she was driving it. Well, that car -- it's a 2002, just paid off -- recently had some work done to it, timing chains replaced, and I wasn't really surprised if it was still settling in. Like, there is now a puff of smoke when you first start it in the morning, which I figure will go away eventually. I didn't give it much thought.

Later we were going to go somewhere, and I was driving. I went to pull out of the driveway and the car stalled right there, with the front bumper sticking out in the road. I started it again, and the motor sounded like a kid dragging a stick along a picket fence, clattering and banging. I opened the hood to see, hopefully, if maybe there was something in the fan or something loose under there, but no such luck, this noise was coming from inside the motor somewhere. I backed it into the driveway and we took a different car.

Later I started thinking about it, and decided to take it around the block, just to see if it might magically work itself out. Sometimes that happens.

I'll tell you the truth. Every payday, it seems like, I have a thousand-dollar car repair. Last paycheck went to fix a car that my kid had rear-ended at a stoplight, he barely tapped this Lincoln Town Car, there was not a scratch on it but it broke some kind of sensor in the bumper: a thousand bucks (the kid is paying me back for that one!). I mentioned the timing chains: eighteen hundred dollars. Before that, the little car needed an alternator: another thousand. The '96 Crown Vic needed front-end stuff and two tires, fourteen hundred bucks. You see what I mean? This is eating me alive. So if the car would just, y'know, fix itself, I'd be happy.

It could happen.

I got it to start, and it crawled around the block. Flooring it, I couldn't get it to go even fifteen miles an hour. It sputtered and died several times. I eventually was able to back it into the driveway.

Sad to say, I have the tow-truck company listed in the Contacts in my cell phone. I called them, and they came and took the car to the garage. I also have my mechanic's cell number in there. It was Sunday, but I'm sure he doesn't want to hear from me but I wanted to tell him why the car would be at the shop when he got there the next day. Since he'd just done a ton of work on it, of course, the implication was that his guys had screwed something up. He said if that was the case, he'd pay for the towing. We did not discuss what else he would pay for, but we both understood that it could get contentious. You can see, I'm a good customer, he wouldn't want to lose one like me. I basically just sign my paychecks over to him every two weeks.

Next day he called me at work to say he couldn't find anything wrong with it. He said the compression was good, he'd driven it all around, it was fine. I expressed, shall we say, incredulity. We discussed it and I told him about filling the tank. He said he guessed it could be bad gasoline or a clogged fuel filter, hard to say. I actually half-suspected that he had found something they'd done and had fixed it, and was covering so I wouldn't know.

Before quitting time he called me again. He'd been out test-driving our car again, and suddenly it sputtered and started running badly. After a minute it came back to normal, but at least now he knew there was actually something wrong. He had planned to give it back to us but asked to keep it, to look at the next day.

Next day, all tests were good, it ran fine. Now and then it would sputter, that's it. We decided to empty the gas tank and put in some kind of gas treatment. He said there could have been dirt in the gasoline, or more likely water. This was funny, the receptionist called me and said there were two things they could do, and they didn't know if either one would help. One of the things cost a hundred twenty dollars, the other one cost twenty dollars. What would you do? It felt like a test, they were seeing what kind of customer I am. I went with the twenty dollar option. That's what you would've done too, right? That evening we got the car back, and now it seems to run perfectly.

Cost: four hundred dollars.

If the gas I bought was five cents a gallon less than where I usually go, and say I put twelve gallons in, that means ... <scribbles on back of envelope> ... it cost me four hundred bucks to save sixty cents.

There's no way to prove, of course, that this gas station sold me bad gas. Maybe that's why you don't hear these stories more often. As prices are ridiculous now, people are doing what I did, buying cheaper gas. I was talking to someone else recently whose "Check Engine" light has started coming on and they aren't getting the acceleration they expect, even with premium gas. And yes, they go to one of those one-of-a-kind cash-only places.

When the price of steak goes up too much, people eat chicken. I think the same thing is probably happening with gasoline. Good, name-brand gas is just too expensive -- I know people with big SUVs who are putting a hundred dollars' worth in! I know I'm real old, but does anybody else remember pulling up to a pump and asking for a dollar's worth of regular? And that was with somebody else pumping it. And they'd wash your windshield and check the oil. Listen to me, I sound like an old guy. But really, I know I can spend seventy dollars just filling my tank. A dollar's worth, imagine that.

These gas prices are having all kinds of effects. Any product you buy at the store had to be shipped there, now when you want to go somewhere you have to think about what it'll cost. Have you looked at airplane tickets recently? If people are buying crummy gas their engines are going to have more wear and tear, their repair bills will be higher, it's just another way that the private citizen loses while the corporations profit.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Couple May Be Arrested For Marrying

This story is relevant to some things that are going on in our county, where a certain group of "people" are trying to promote a referendum to repeal a law that prevents discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The couple walked into a Norfolk courthouse on a spring day, exchanged a few words, and within 10 minutes, were seemingly husband and wife. It was an unremarkable ceremony — except that several weeks later, officials realized the shapely bride might not have been a woman.

Now authorities in Virginia, where same-sex marriages are illegal, are weighing whether to file misdemeanor charges against the couple, Antonio E. Blount, 31, and Justin L. McCain, 18. An announcement is expected this week.

A prosecutor says the decision to press charges could turn on whether the pair knowingly misled officials when they applied for a license and later, traveled to a courthouse for a ceremony. If the bride was transgender, and identified as a woman, it is unclear whether the marriage would be considered illegal.

The pair went to Newport News Circuit Court on March 24 to obtain a marriage license — McCain appearing as a woman and saying the name "Justine" before a deputy, said Newport News Circuit Court clerk Rex Davis.

McCain produced a Virginia driver's license, but a design quirk — the 'm' or 'f' for male or female appears directly against a darkened state seal — meant nobody noticed McCain's gender, Davis said. Va. says groom and 'bride' deceived officials

My first thought when I read this was -- wha? They're going to arrest these people for getting married? That's a crime?

Your Tax Dollar At Work.

I'm going to skip down a little bit -- you might want to follow that link and see the stuff in between.
Activists say the case highlights the difficulty in trying to fit transgender individuals into rigid legal definitions of what makes one male or female. Less than one percent of Americans is transgender, a fluid term that can apply as much to a person who has had gender reassignment surgery as to those who take hormones or wear clothing to resemble another sex.

Most state courts have been silent on the issue of whether marriages involving a transgender person are valid, transgender rights advocates say. Most case law involving transgender rights, meanwhile, surrounds discrimination, not marriage.

Transgender people are increasingly recognized by courts as matching their "gender identity," or internal sense of gender, said Cole Thaler, an attorney with gay rights legal group Lambda Legal, a gay and transgender civil rights group.

That means "it's not deceptive for a transgender person who lives their life as a gender different from the gender they were assigned," said Thaler.

Complicating the issue is a confusing system for how a transgender individual changes gender on legal documents. All but Tennessee, Ohio and Idaho typically change one's gender on their birth certificate following gender reassignment surgery, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. But local, state and federal agencies have their own standards for defining male or female, according to Paisley Currah, founder of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. The result: One person's sex may vary from birth certificate, to passport, to doctor's office.

"You could have a driver's license in New York state that says you're a male and have a birth certificate from New York City that says you're female — there's no simple answer to the question of someone's legal gender," Currah said.

Here's a something for you. Before the Citizens for a Responsible Government decided to try to re-legalize discrimination, the same exact group of people were called the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, and they wanted to keep information about sexual orientation out of the Montgomery County Public Schools' sex-ed curriculum. The president of the CRG, you might know, is Ruth Jacobs, that is Doctor Jacobs to you. I mention that because I am going to quote something from the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum web site. Dr. Jacobs was a member and spokesperson for that group, too, of course, source of many memorable moments at the school boards' public comments sessions.

I'm not saying she was the "Dr. J" who posted this statement in 2005 at the CRC blog. Whoever it was, they have the perfect solution to this complicated legal problem. Here's how they put it:
Same sex attraction does exist, and people have a choice as to whether or not they act out on those attractions or not, but there are only two genders, male and female.

Oh and by the way, here's a hint: if you have a question about your gender, look in the mirror after getting out of the shower next time.

Whoa! Why didn't I think of that? Call the judge! Tell him the problem's been solved!

All questions about your life can be instantly answered by your genitalia. Just look down, there's your answer to everything. Whatever you see, that'll tell you who you are, whether you should act like a lady or a gentleman, what kind of person you should fall in love with and marry, what kind of clothes you ought to wear.

Look how easy life is when you're stupid.
How a court might view the case isn't clear. In 1999, a Texas court threw out a wrongful death lawsuit a transgender woman filed after the death of her husband, ruling that while the plaintiff had undergone a sex-change operation, she was actually a man and her marriage invalid. But in 2004, a Kansas court ruled in favor of a male-to-female transsexual who identified as a woman to apply for marriage.

Newport News investigators will decide whether there was false information on the marriage license application, said Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn. Though Davis said applicants must swear to the truth of the information on their marriage license, the application mentioned "groom" and "bride," not male and female.

That has been changed to say "male applicant," and "female applicant," Davis said.

It makes you long for the good old days, doesn't it, when life was simple and good. For some people. Let's keep moving forward, let's see if the future can't be good for everybody.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Is Gone

Celebrities die. It's kind of a routine, you open the paper, get a few pages into it, see the story. If my wife is nearby I'll say, "Wow, So-and-so died." We'll exchange a comment on that, finish our coffee. You lose track -- one of the core sites on the Internet is Dead or Alive, where you can look up people and see if they're still alive or not. I wanted this yesterday, I heard a guy on the radio and couldn't remember if he was dead. He's not, it turned out, but I wasn't sure. Sometimes you just can't remember if the person is still alive.

Sometimes, though, one will hit you. I'm sure it's different for everybody, but hearing that George Carlin had died really got me. I remember him as a clean-cut young man on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, just a little bit over the edge -- he was not as radical as Lenny Bruce and some of them that couldn't get on TV, but he definitely challenged the status quo, let us say. Then at some point he showed up with long hair, and the cat was out of the bag. From there on he grew into the model Cranky Old Man, the guy who simply refuses to grow up and accept the ridiculousness of life. He was old-school and progressive at the same time, without contradiction, a guy who loved his culture and participated in it to the hilt, without being suckered by the illusions.

Hullaballoo has the perfect quote today for remembering our friend George:
"Religion convinced the world that there's an invisible man in the sky who watches everything you do. And there's 10 things he doesn't want you to do or else you'll to to a burning place with a lake of fire until the end of eternity. But he loves you! ...And he needs money! He's all powerful, but he can't handle money! [...] I've begun worshipping the sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the sun. It's there for me every day. And the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, a lovely day. There's no mystery, no one asks for money, I don't have to dress up, and there's no boring pageantry. And interestingly enough, I have found that the prayers I offer to the sun and the prayers I formerly offered to God are all answered at about the same 50-percent rate. [...] Religion is sort of like a lift in your shoes. If it makes you feel better, fine. Just don't ask me to wear your shoes. And let's not nail the lift to the natives' feet."

George Carlin's passing really does seem like the end of an era. I'll leave it at that.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Your World Is Not The World

It's already getting hot outside, at nine o'clock in the morning. Last night I saw lightning, the wind kicked up, but whatever storm that was blew right past us. The summer solstice is past, days are getting shorter -- not that you can notice. Really, this week has had some of the most beautiful sunshiney days. Today has sunshine, but it looks like it may be an uncomfortably warm one.

I'm going to give a talk in the fall to a group of biologists in Australia, and I have been thinking about some things. I hope you don't mind if I ramble a little. Well, it is Sunday morning, I guess it won't be the first time!

We went to yard sales yesterday. We went to different neighborhoods in Rockville, just wasting an hour of a beautiful Saturday morning visiting with people and seeing if we spotted anything we needed. I suppose I should put that in quotes: "needed". I ended up getting a new case for my camera for fifty cents, and a flash for a dollar. The case I needed, I already have a flash but this one looked good, and I like to set up a shot with light from different angles. Sometimes I use something called a "slave flash," it's a device that can tell when your flash has gone off, and it instantly sets off another flash unit without being connected to your camera, so you can get light from two or more points. I didn't really need this, but it was only a dollar.

At a yard sale you stop your car and get out and some people are there, and you talk to them, and it's sort of like dropping in and sitting in their living room with them for a few minutes. There's usually some initial stuff about the weather, you picked a nice day for this, or we picked a terrible day, it's too hot, or whatever, there is some talk about whether there are a lot of sales or they have had a lot of customers. But after a minute or two you might find out something about them, or they find out something about you, and you talk a little bit. Typically, somebody knows somebody from the same place that the other person knows somebody from. It's not usually anything personal. I think the main times I've seen it become very personal is when people are selling stuff that belonged to a family member who died. Usually there is some joking and conversational interaction, small talk.

One thing you notice is that people assume you're like them. Maybe you haven't seen me, my hair is long, I'm in my fifties, I tend to wear jeans and cowboy boots (standard manly footwear where I come from, not so common out here in The East). I carry myself like a respectable citizen but I think people might not know how to take me at first, from looking at me. I joke with them, if I hear them speaking Spanish I might try to get a little practice in, I enjoy small-talking with the people. It seems to me that as soon as I have said something to somebody, they tend to be friendly with me -- it doesn't mean I'm a nice guy, people are just like that.

So say, there was a couple sitting along the sidewalk in folding chairs, in the shade of a big tree. You look at their stuff, they're selling their old kids' clothes and toys. There's an unopened bottle of wine for sale, some camping equipment they never used. See? You get a feeling for what they like and what they think is important. There is a chest of drawers, and they forgot to empty one of the drawers, so you see what they had in there. You look at their old CDs and albums, the books they're getting rid of. One guy had a whole shelf of L. Ron Hubbard, who would have guessed that? The way they talk to each other, the way they talk to their kids, you get an idea about how they live -- I find this so interesting!

We were at a yard sale in a rather snooty part of town, I won't say where. It was near downtown Rockville, they had better-quality stuff than some of them. I actually considered buying one of the guy's ties, except I remembered I have about a hundred ties already, and I never wear one. But they were only a dollar, and they were nice. These people had Christmas ornaments, some books from law school, nice clothes, lawn equipment, lots of picture frames. I didn't buy a tie.

A little girl was selling lemonade for a quarter. I went over to get two glasses. She might have been five, she had pink lemonade. I asked her, "What is lemonade made out of?"


"What color is a lemon?"

"Yellow," she said. (I grew up in citrus country with lemon trees in the back yard, but don't know if kids Out Here know what an actual lemon looks like.)

"But the lemonade is pink," I said. "How do you get pink juice out of a yellow lemon?"

Usually kids that age giggle or ask you a question or something, they engage you when you throw them a curveball like that. This little girl looked at me like she didn't comprehend. Just blank, calm eyes looking at me, as if there was something unnecessary or frivolous about my question. Did I mention she was five?

I tried to make it easier. "Where do lemons come from?"

"A lemon tree."

"So you got your lemons from a lemon tree?"

"No, this juice came from a can."

"Oh," I said. "Well, maybe it grew on a lemon-can tree."

At this point the girl's mother came over to bail her out. She said, "She's a girl, she likes pink things, she wanted pink lemonade, and that's how it came out."

"Wow, so whatever she wishes for, it happens," I said.

The mother looked at me, the girl looked at me. It was clear the conversation had died. Usually it goes better than that, though I got a certain rewarding kind of amusement out of the awkwardness of the situation. Well, my wife and I had our dixie-cups, the little girl had her two quarters, her mother reminded her to thank us and she said "You're welcome." It was time to leave.

Clearly, I hadn't been joking in a kind of way those people appreciated, and they didn't really want to hear any more of it. I'm sure that family has its way of joking, things that are in-bounds at their dinner-table, but it appeared that absurdity is not part of their day-to-day dialogue, questioning reality and the meanings of things. Things, for some people, are as they appear to be, and there is no fun in turning it all inside out, or in trying to understand why somebody else would. Words are not toys, for some people.

I said something here the other day about people who think their world is The World. People see things from a particular perspective, but everybody to some extent realizes that other people may see things differently from them. Most of us accept other people's perspectives, to varying degrees, but some people just seem to think that other people are wrong. For instance, someone may accuse you of "moral relativism" because you allow that something you don't approve of is all right for somebody else. Appreciating that someone else may have a valid point of view, even if you don't understand it yourself, is called "respect."

One thing that people do better than any other animal is to take the perspective of another person. Like, if you are with a chimpanzee and you look at something, the chimp might look at it, too -- it is identifying with you and looking at what you're looking at. A study a few years back found that dogs are good at that, too, even better than chimps. But people are most excellent at it -- when somebody expresses an interest in something, we think about it too, when something happens to someone we imagine how we would feel if that thing happened to us. If somebody does something, we understand it by imagining what would impel us to do that thing, we feel what it must have felt like to be them doing it. One word for this is "empathy."

This kind of shared-perspective thinking turns out to be really useful for problem-solving. You think of a problem solution, somebody else thinks of one, you put them together and you can come up with an innovative and successful way to solve the problem. We tend to think of people as isolated, autonomous individuals, but when people have something they can't understand or a problem they're trying to solve, the thing they do is to discuss it with other people. Nobody really thinks alone, inside their head, thinking itself is mostly imagined interactions with other people. You might not know this about me, but I have published many papers on a topic sometimes called "swarm intelligence" or "particle swarm optimization," that builds computer programs based on this simple concept. The dynamical process of sharing perspectives is a powerful way to solve hard mathematical problems, and it is a crucial part of human intelligence.

But there are people who see the world from one point of view, they know their own experience and that's it. They surround themselves with people whose experiences are similar to theirs, and they build relationships on the overlap, ignoring the differences or even discouraging people from differing from them. People who share their perspective are good people, those who don't are bad people. Does this define conservatism in our time? It seems possible.

Well, everybody does that to some extent. You could never communicate with people without making some assumptions about their subjective experience, and you have to assume that their experience is something like yours, because that's all you know, that's all you can go on. And that's what makes this hard.

It seems to me that civilized people must know that other people's lives are different from theirs, and their thoughts and beliefs are different. Living in a round world, we have to know that there are people in other lands who think in different concepts from us, marry a different way, walk and talk differently from us, believe differently -- we are just one people among many. But of course it is not reasonable to consider other people equally with one's own perspective -- you do have to look out for yourself. It seems necessary that there is always a balance between self-respect and respect for others. And some people's ideas can be rejected outright as being unreasonable, false, or dangerous -- can you reject those ideas and at the same time retain respect for the person? I'm not even sure if that's worth doing. We recognize a bad idea, and we somehow automatically attribute badness to the person, maybe there is some value in that, and maybe we do it inappropriately sometimes. These are all traps that derive from being embodied, seeing the world from a single point in space. You can walk around and try things, you can sample a range of experiences, but you can never actually see the world from somebody else's point of view, because of the straightforward limitations of existing in physical space.

Nobody ever solves these problems, nobody ever really figures these things out. If you are going to engage the world you are going to live in a fluid state where boundaries shift all the time, you will have your ways and you will also question yourself sometimes. Of course it is possible to live disengaged. I think a lot of people probably do that.

I just heard a tune on WPFW, it was Danny Gatton's band Funhouse, live at the Birchmere in 1988. I was sitting here typing and spacing out, and all of a sudden I heard this guitar that just went crazy, off the deep end, the guy went outside the key into some insanely fast lick that basically sounded impossible to play, and you knew right away it was Danny Gatton. It's terrible what the music business does to you. You wish that every person's talent could be appreciated in its proportion, but it rarely works out that way. You have to find a "market," you have to stick within a genre or at least some perceptible permutation of one. You have to please the crowds, first the drunks in the nightclubs and later the politely applauding audiences in the concert halls, and then if you're lucky the roaring masses in the arenas. Hardly anyone passes the Darwinian test of adapting to all those environmental extremes. So an outrageous talent like Gatton meets with enthusiasm, appreciation, on a local level, people who heard him recognized his skill, his expressiveness, but somehow he stayed stuck in a local rut. I won't speculate about his suicide, I don't think it makes sense to try to find the "reasons" for such an act, but the pressure of being a local demi-god at fifty bucks a night or whatever is not going to be easy on a guy, especially after some number of years. I think I'm going to try to find that mp3 on the Internet, I'd like to learn that lick.

We have a good friend who went into the hospital this week. She had a cold that dragged on and then they said it was bronchitis, and now the tests are showing that she has cancer. This has affected everything we do this week in a strange way, sorry if I seem gloomy or more introverted than usual. All the tests aren't in, but it sounds like the doctors are optimistic about this, though it will definitely be a hard go for her. We will have to circle the wagons a little bit here and get her and her family through this.

Man, I just walked the dog and it is really nice out! We walked over by the woods and the sunshine is clear and good, there are some clouds and I understand there could be a thunderstorm later but this is perfect. Montgomery County really is a cool place to live.

Friday, June 20, 2008

BTB: The Nuts Are Losing Everywhere

Box Turtle Bulletin had a post yesterday that seemed so cheerful that I just had to reproduce the whole thing here for this sunny Friday morning.
Anti-Gay Activists Surrender From Coast to Coast

Anti-gay activists in Maine and Oregon have abandoned efforts to repeal nondiscrimination laws.

First in Maine, where an effort to repeal that state's anti-discrimination laws have floundered:
An initiative campaign to repeal Maine's gay rights law and put in place roadblocks to gay marriages and adoptions is being abandoned, leaders of the campaign said Thursday.

"We're pulling the plug," said Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine. Heath said the evangelical group failed to attract voter, volunteer and financial support it needed to continue its campaign.

This is yet another indication that the tide may be turning. As we reported on Monday, Oregon anti-gay activists abandoned their efforts to repeal two state laws. One initiative targeted a state law banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. The other initiative sought to repeal that state's domestic partnership law. Now they've conceded that they can't collect enough signatures in time:
Organizers conceded Monday that their initiatives to repeal two Oregon gay rights laws will not make the November ballot.

The fact that the initiatives are stalled offers more evidence that opponents are losing support, say gay rights activists, who were also celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriages in California on Monday.

But conservatives and church groups that are pushing the Oregon initiatives say their support is growing. "We're just getting stronger," said Marylin Shannon of Brooks, a former Republican state senator and chief petitioner in the initiative drives. "The network is growing daily."

Marylin's bluster is so precious, isn't it?

In Montgomery County we are awaiting a court ruling to see if they lose here, too. It would be ironic if this progressive county was one that put a referendum on the ballot to take away rights for transgender citizens that were passed into law unanimously by the County Council.

As far as the court proceedings I have seen, it appears that there is not much of a question that there are lots of bad signatures on the petitions gathered by the Citizens for Responsible Whatever, and the Board of Elections is mainly just saying it isn't their job to check them. They say they're only supposed to see if the names correspond to registered voters, not whether they were signed by the actual person.

It seems to me that it would be a little weird if the judge ruled that the Board was off the hook because they really aren't expected to check whether signatures met the legal requirements. It might come down to an interpretation of the word "verify." Maybe "verify" just means look up the name and see if there is a voter registered with that name. Maybe verify means to make sure that laws were followed in collecting the signatures. I would not presume to guess what the court is going to decide, this fancy legal stuff is too much for me.

Well, BTB is showing a trend across the country. Our local MoCo anti-gay nuts lost the battle over the sex-ed curriculum, and now they're trying to re-legalize discrimination against transgender people, and I hope they lose here, too, like they are everywhere else.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

AMA Supports Transgender Care, Hormones, Sex-Reassignment Therapy

From PageOneQ:
The American Medical Association is calling on health insurers to cooperate with doctors in providing proper care to meet transgender patients' needs.

Resolutions 114, 115 and 122 were passed by the AMA's House of Delegates at its annual conference in Chicago, which concludes today. Noting that Gender Identity Disorder is an internationally recognized medical condition, the Delegates highlight the need to combat the emotional pain and physical incongruity associated with gender dysphoria with proper access to mental health services, hormone treatments, and surgical procedures.

The National Center for Transgender Equality has hailed the resolution. "America's physicians," said NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling, "are saying that transgender people, like all others, deserve competent medical care based on what individual doctors and their patients determine is healthiest for each person." American Medical Association: Stop discriminating against transgender patients

You can read those resolutions in Word format here: 114, 115, 122.

More from PageOneQ:
The AMA asserts that when discriminatory financial barriers are placed between the transgender community and proper health care by dismissing treatments as "cosmetic" or "experimental," even when covered for other patients with other recognized medical conditions, more expensive problems can develop as a result, such as depression, substance abuse problems, and stress-related illness.

"Doctors and patients, not insurance companies, should be making those choices," Keisling added. "We are so glad that the AMA has taken a leadership role against the rampant discrimination that transgender people have faced for so many years in receiving appropriate medical care and equitable insurance coverage."

Just for fun, I'm going to paste one of the resolutions in here. This one is 122, titled Removing Financial Barriers to Care for Transgender Patients.
Whereas, Our American Medical Association opposes discrimination on the basis of gender identity; and

Whereas, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is a serious medical condition recognized as such in both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th Ed., Text Revision) (DSM-IV-TR) and the International Classification of Diseases (10th Revision) , and is characterized in the DSM-IV-TR as a persistent discomfort with one’s assigned sex and with one’s primary and secondary sex characteristics, which causes intense emotional pain and suffering ; and

Whereas, GID, if left untreated, can result in clinically significant psychological distress, dysfunction, debilitating depression and, for some people without access to appropriate medical care and treatment, suicidality and death ; and

Whereas, The World Professional Association For Transgender Health, Inc. (“WPATH”) is the leading international, interdisciplinary professional organization devoted to the understanding and treatment of gender identity disorders , and has established internationally accepted Standards of Care for providing medical treatment for people with GID, including mental health care, hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, which are designed to promote the health and welfare of persons with GID and are recognized within the medical community to be the standard of care for treating people with GID; and

Whereas, An established body of medical research demonstrates the effectiveness and medical necessity of mental health care, hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery as forms of therapeutic treatment for many people diagnosed with GID; and

Whereas, Health experts in GID, including WPATH, have rejected the myth that such treatments are “cosmetic” or “experimental” and have recognized that these treatments can provide safe and effective treatment for a serious health condition ; and

Whereas, Physicians treating persons with GID must be able to provide the correct treatment necessary for a patient in order to achieve genuine and lasting comfort with his or her gender, based on the person’s individual needs and medical history ; and

Whereas, Our AMA opposes limitations placed on patient care by third-party payers when such care is based upon sound scientific evidence and sound medical opinion , ; and

Whereas, Many health insurance plans categorically exclude coverage of mental health, medical, and surgical treatments for GID, even though many of these same treatments, such as psychotherapy, hormone therapy, breast augmentation and removal, hysterectomy, oophorectomy, orchiectomy, and salpingectomy, are often covered for other medical conditions; and

Whereas, The denial of these otherwise covered benefits for patients suffering from GID represents discrimination based solely on a patient’s gender identity; and

Whereas, Delaying treatment for GID can cause and/or aggravate additional serious and expensive health problems, such as stress-related physical illnesses, depression, and substance abuse problems, which further endanger patients’ health and strain the health care system; therefore be it

RESOLVED, That our American Medical Association support public and private health insurance coverage for treatment of gender identity disorder (New HOD Policy); and be it further

RESOLVED, That our AMA oppose categorical exclusions of coverage for treatment of gender identity disorder when prescribed by a physician. (Directive to Take Action)

Fiscal Note: Staff cost estimated at less than $500 to implement.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

California's Newlyweds

For some reason or no reason at all, we haven't been focusing much attention on the topic of marriage equality. But this week gay and lesbian Californians got the right to marry, and lots and lots of them have been taking advantage of the opportunity.

The L.A. Times:
After all the angst and hoopla, the first full day of same-sex marriage in California on Tuesday turned out to be almost placid, if you discounted the whoops of celebration or the courthouse crushes of brides and brides, and grooms and grooms.

The weight of history, the sense that this was a signal moment in the decades-long battle for gay rights, was lightened by joy and relief as couples -- some of whom had waited decades to marry -- took their vows amid smiling friends, proud relatives and beaming government officials.

Aside from a few low-key demonstrations, opponents of same-sex marriage largely stayed away from the celebratory scenes being played out at county buildings statewide, concluding that acrimony would probably detract from their November ballot measure to change the state Constitution to outlaw the practice.

Behind the scenes, though, the seeds of what could be an epic political battle were being sown.

For hundreds of gay and lesbian couples, Tuesday was a day that intertwined the personal and the political.

Chelsea Thompson, 24 of Anaheim and Bonni Millon, 24, of Long Beach arrived at the Los Angeles County clerk's office in Norwalk at 10 p.m. Monday to save their place in line.

"It's a monumental day," Millon said shortly before the clerk's office opened Tuesday morning. "We're changing history and we wanted to be a part of that and support the other people." Gay marriages begin with a day of hope and hoopla

To me, this "controversy" is a perfect example of the kind of divisive issue that has tied our country in knots in recent years. The issue is ... what again? The issue is that a majority of people are heterosexual, they can't imagine loving someone of their own sex, and so they don't think it should be allowed. There's no other sense in opposing it.

Does anybody deny that gay people can love one another? That gay couples can stay together for a lifetime? That gay couples can raise children and love them and have them grow up to be good, respectable adults? There's really no doubt about any of this.

And there really is no case that allowing gay people to marry will somehow affect the strength of anybody else's marriage. It seems to me that the simplest step of logic proves that there is no causal relationship at all between one couple's marriage and the stability of another couple's. And the "institution of marriage" -- so it changes, opposite-sex couples will continue to fall in love and marry, start families and fight over the remote, gay people marrying doesn't change any of that. There's no threat to the institution of marriage.

There are those who think it's not a real marriage because gay couples can't reproduce without outside help. But I doubt those same people would believe that individuals who are sterile for some reason -- say a war veteran who has been injured and can't produce sperm or ova -- shouldn't marry, or older people, say widows and widowers who are unable to have children, or don't want to. That's not much of a reason to stop people who want to marry from doing it. The stability of a family seems like reason enough, the commitment and the responsibilities and the privileges of the promise of a lifetime together, you don't have to have kids to have a marriage.

I think the bottom line is that it's just hard for people to imagine a life different from our own. We expect people to be like ourselves, and when they aren't there is some tendency to judge them negatively. And this egocentric tendency forms a kind of cornerstone for the belief system that has in recent years been called "conservatism:" it's the identity politics of the majority.

Most of us realize, at some level, that we do tend to favor our personal point of view, and we correct for that. It takes some effort to grant someone the benefit of the doubt, but we do that, we realize that our own personal world is not The World.

Californians will be voting on the legality of same-sex marriage in November. I used to live there, I know there are a lot of conservative and small-minded people there, besides the stereotypical hippies and cosmic New Age space-cases. Besides LA and San Francisco there is a huge inner valley of small towns, farmland, oilfields, it is an oversimplification to think of California as a Blue State just because of a couple of coastal cities. The vote could go either way, but I think that a few months with these marriages being recognized by law will make it easier for people to accept the reasonableness of marriage equality. California will not likely we wiped out by acts of God before November, life will not change for most people in any noticeable way as our society evolves, as the arc continues to bend toward justice.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Interesting Flyer Proposal

Australian blogger Zoe Brain has been tracking our Montgomery County gender-identity discrimination situation, and has posted a proposed "flyer" to help us out. Some of the photographs may be proprietary, so I'm not going to copy the whole thing here. You can see Zoe's idea by clicking HERE.

The Citizens for Responsible Whatever want voters to believe that transgender people have some dark sexual motive, that they are dangerous somehow. Zoe's flyer makes the simple concrete point that transgender women are just women, transgender men are just men. For some reason, a handful of citizens in our county believe there would be something offensive about treating such people with the same respect that the rest of us expect.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Stuff That Goes Around the Internet

You know that there is a nutty group here in Montgomery County that wants to re-legalize discrimination against transgender people. They are opposing a new nondiscrimination law by saying that it will let perverted men go into the ladies locker-rooms. Their web site is called, though they like to say it's not all about the showers.

Somebody recently asked me about something strange on their site. Well, it's not there any more, but they did have a big page that said "Join Team 777." Here's what it said:
We're looking for 777 individuals and organization who will pledge to gather 50 signatures each. Are you up for the challenge? Join Team 777 today and get started toward your goal.

You can find this in the Google cache HERE, at least for now.

There was no follow-up on the site anywhere, and it didn't seem to make any sense.

Well, it does make some kind of sense, in a weird way. It turns out there was a bill last year in California, the Student Civil Rights Act, Senate Bill 777, which makes sure that schools monitor the treatment of gay and lesbian students, to prevent harassment and bullying. Naturally the nuts in California -- and there are more than a few of them -- are screaming bloody murder over this development. For instance, the World Net Daily quoted a guy saying:
..."This means children as young as five years old will be mentally molested in school classrooms.

"Shame on Schwarzenegger and the Democrat politicians for ensuring that every California school becomes a homosexual-bisexual-transsexual indoctrination center," he said.

We've heard that kind of talk before, right here in our suburban county.

Oh, and listen to how Free Republic played it -- this was October 15th of last year:
Governor Schwarzenegger has signed into the law the highly controversial SB 777 (Kuehl) that will permit transgender students to enter the locker rooms and restrooms of the gender with which they identify.

Under the guise of preventing discrimination and bias against homosexuals, transgenders and other sexual variants, SB 777 will force innocent school children to accept alternative lifestyles.

It is interesting to see that the locker-room angle was being explored back in October, in California, in regards to a bill completely unrelated to the one we have in our county. Our local shower-nuts only registered their Internet domain in December. And here I had given them credit with making this idiocy up!

So somebody asked me about this Team 777 business recently, and I looked at it and said that I would bet there is a web site in California somewhere that looks exactly like our shower-nuts' site. This morning it started to haunt me, and I wondered if there really is such a site. Turns out there is.

Do this. Go to Now go to Look at that red menu across the top, the blue banner below that with the faint stars on it. Look at the "Action Center" on the left.

It appears that the Citizens for a Responsible Government took this California group's web site, copied it and changed some wording. If you look at the source code you'll see the same scripts, the same code, on both sites.

The "Save our Kids" site was registered in October, 2007, before our local shower-nuts site, which was registered in December. "Save Our Kids" (what a name!) exists to oppose SB 777. They have a section on their site that says:
Join Team 777 Today. We're looking for 777 individuals and organizations who will pledge to gather 1,000 signatures each. Are you up for the challenge? Join Team 777 today.

Interestingly, the California group wanted you to get 1,000 signatures, our guys only wanted you to get 50. Also, our shower-nuts made the word "organization" singular, though it's grammatically incorrect. I can see why they'd lower their expectations on the number of signatures, but don't know why they'd screw up the grammar like that.

Actually, you can find the same grammatical error on a half-Russian, half-English site HERE. Not sure who took it from who, though. It appears that the Russian site posted it on December 9th, 2007, about a week after the MoCo shower-nuts registered their domain name.

Aren't you curious to know how this happens? The idea that you can get the public to oppose gay and transgender people by talking about bathrooms didn't originate here, we've seen it on Free Republic before our guys started saying it, and we have seen the Colorado groups pick it up and use it in their case. People don't like the idea of perverted men going into the ladies room, and though it has nothing at all to do with any law preventing discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people it does turn out to be a good way to inflame the community and get petition signatures.

And the shower-nuts' web site was something they simply downloaded from the Internet, they changed a few words and there it goes. Out in California they oppose a law that protects kids in school, out here they oppose a law that protects transgender people, it's all the same. Change a few words and let it go. Amazingly, they even tried to use the "Team 777" stuff, though 777 has no meaning in our controversy, it's purely a California bill.

I don't think there's anything wrong with stealing stuff from the Internet, by the way. The fact that digital information can be reproduced easily is what makes the net so powerful, there's nothing wrong with "borrowing" somebody else's source code. It's nice to give credit, but we all understand that stuff goes around the Internet without credit given. I'm not criticizing the shower-nuts for stealing code, that's a time-honored Internet tradition.

I do wonder how much collaboration there is between these groups. Is there some newsletter they send around, that says "Tell people that men will go into the ladies room, that really works"? Did our shower-nuts ask these California anti-gay nuts if they could borrow their web format, or did they just take it? And what did they think "Team 777" was, really, when they put that on the Internet?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Courthouse Action, Day Two

I was at the courthouse for a couple of hours yesterday, but the hearing was being conducted backstage, you might say, and I left a little before noon. I have been told that lawyers argued their positions before the judge in the afternoon, and that the case will continue later in the month. In the meantime,The Gazette kept a reporter on the scene, and they have a wrap-up of the day's events.
A Montgomery County judge ruled Wednesday that opponents missed a February deadline to oppose the first batch of signatures introduced to put to referendum a new county law intended to protect transgendered individuals from discrimination.

However, the court battle continued Thursday as parties argued whether enough signatures were valid to put the issue up for a vote.

Jonathan Shurberg, an attorney representing Equality Maryland, argued the Montgomery County Board of Elections erred in calculating 25,001 signatures were needed because it calculated ``active voters" instead of ``registered voters" as appeared to be required by state law.

In addition, Shurberg argued that many of the signatures validated by the elections board should not be counted. He introduced a sheet showing several signatures from different people that all appeared to be signed by the same person who circulated the petition. State law also requires those signing petitions to sign their name as it appears on the voter registration form with either the person's full name or middle initial.

Attorney Kevin Karpinski, representing the elections board, said that the state board only requires the county board to verify the signatures by making sure they are registered voters.

It is not their job to determine if the signatures were all signed by the same person, he said. Opponents of new transgender law win first round

Read that last sentence again. The Board of Elections is saying it's not their job to "determine if the signatures were all signed by the same person."

This is an interesting situation. Everybody on both sides understands that the petitions for a referendum to re-legalize discrimination are bogus. I've looked at them, lawyers on both sides have looked at them, the judge has seen them, they are full of bad signatures. The Citizens for Responsible Whatever did not have enough legal signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, and neither side wants to say they did. The Board of Elections certified the signatures because the names corresponded to names of registered voters, that's all.

That's their case.

A group of citizens sued the Board, saying they should not have allowed the referendum to go forward because the Board didn't really check the petitions, and the Board's defense is, so what? It's not our job to check them.

You gotta admit, that's pretty bold.

The good guys come back at that one, too.
But Shurberg argued that some of the names approved on the petition by the county board were not even registered voters.

If Circuit Judge Robert A. Greenberg decided upon either issue in favor of Equality Maryland, the Citizens for Responsible Government would not have enough signatures to have the referendum on the ballot.

The group opposed to the county’s discrimination law, passed unanimously by the County Council and signed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), collected about 32,000 signatures though the elections board said it needed 25,001 to have the necessary 5 percent of the county’s active voters. He also contended previous court cases require election boards to base the number of signatures off registered voters and not active voters.

The list of registered voters would be significantly higher than so-called active voters so the amount of signatures required also would be much higher.

There are a lot of issues on the table here, aren't there? This last thing is interesting. There are registered voters, and there are active voters. As I understand it, if you don't vote for a couple of years you're still registered but they don't consider you "active." So next time you go back you'll have to show some ID, sign up again, I don't know what. Anyway, it turns out that the Board of Elections told the CRW they needed 25,001 signatures, based on the number of active voters in the county, when they were supposed to use the number of registered voters. That could turn out to be a big deal.

The Gazette summarizes from the first day:
Shurberg argued roughly 12,500 of the 32,000 signatures collected by the group failed to meet all of the requirements of the state for a referendum petition.

But Greenberg’s initial ruling that the challenge was issued too late for the first batch of signatures turned in knocked the number of disputed signatures down to 6,250.

Equality Maryland would appeal if it loses on the other issues because the elections board had not notified the public it had validated the first batch of signatures until well after the 10 days allowed to challenge them had passed, Shurberg said.

‘‘How do you know when you’re supposed to act?” he said. By not informing the public the first batch of signatures had been validated, it violated the due process rights of the public.

State law only requires the elections board notify the sponsors of the petition that it had certified the signatures and not the public, Karpinski said.

Greenberg also threw out a challenge to the referendum that the wording from the Citizens for Responsible Government was confusing and incorrectly stated what the county had passed.

It's not mentioned here, but I have been told that Judge Greenberg also ruled to give the Citizens for a Responsible Government standing in the case, which the Board of Elections wanted. I missed the arguments on that, but maybe somebody will brief us in the comments.

It seems to me that this story has become quite interesting in a surprising way. The Board of Elections was sued because they hadn't really checked the signatures. Their defense is that it's not their job to check the signatures.

That means that anybody can pick up a phone book and copy the names onto a sheet of paper, submit it to the Board and have any law put to a referendum vote. If you copy enough of them, there will be a sufficient number of registered voters, and that's all that matters.

The interesting thing is that even the Board of Elections refuses to argue that the signatures are in fact good ones. Everybody knows they're junk, the legal question is whether the Board of Elections is supposed to ensure that only legitimate signatures are counted. You'd think that'd be part of their job, wouldn't you?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Two Rulings, More to Come

We spent a fascinating day at the old courthouse in Rockville today, listening to arguments in the suit against the Mongtomery County Board of Elections. The Board verified petition signatures for a referendum pushed by the Citizens for a Responsible Whatever to re-legalize discrimination against transgender people. Equality Maryland looked at the petitions and found eighty-seven kinds of violations on them, and a group of citizens sued the Board, saying they verified the signatures without checking them thoroughly.

The Board of Elections took an interesting approach. Their lawyer suggested it's not their job to see that the Citizens for Whatever collect signatures correctly, they don't have an investigatory staff and they can't check on every little thing. Anybody can pass around petitions, the Board doesn't have people to go around and see that the signature-gatherers are truthful about what the petition means, that the people who sign are really who they say they are, and so on. In fact, the Board seemed to be saying that they are only charged to make sure that signatures correspond to registered voters. The lawyer pointed out that the Board doesn't have handwriting experts to confirm that the actual person signed the petition.

Nobody wanted to take the position that the CRW had done the right thing. I didn't hear anybody on either side imply or assert that the signatures were actually all right, that wrongdoing had not occurred. It seemed to me that everybody understood that there were problems.

At one point, Judge Robert Greenberg used an example in a question, he asked the Board's lawyer what would happen if they looked at a sheet of signatures and they were all signed in the same handwriting. There wasn't much of an answer to this, the Board doesn't seem able to do much even when the signatures are obviously fake. A few minutes later, when the plaintiffs' attorney Jonathon Shurberg got his turn, he immediately put up a slide showing a petition where exactly that had happened -- the whole page was signed in the same handwriting, and it was the same handwriting as the person who certified the page! And, he said, that person had submitted a hundred thirty two pages of signatures, which should all be presumed fraudulent and thrown out.

It appeared that the Board was making an effort to get the CRW involved in the case, but the judge wasn't buying it. It doesn't matter who collected the signatures, this lawsuit says that the Board failed to check them properly before verifying them as being valid. The judge also made a good point: the Board and the CRW both want the same thing, they both want the referendum to be on the ballot in November. For different reasons, of course; the CRW wants to make it legal again to discriminate against transgender people, and the Board doesn't want the blot on its name for having lost this suit.

On the other side of the room, a couple of lawyers from Lambda Legal were introduced and accepted by the judge at the plaintiffs' table.

Judge Greenberg did rule on two issues before lunch. He actually said at the start of the day that he thought he knew how he would rule on a couple of things. First, he ruled in favor of the Board on the "sufficiency" of the petitions. The plaintiffs had argued that the wording on the top of the petitions was inaccurate and may have misled people, the judge said, no, it was okay. Second, he ruled that the plaintiffs had missed a 10-day deadline for filing a complaint about the first batch of signatures.

Let me back up. Referendum petitions are submitted in two batches. In this case, it was determined that 25,001 signatures were needed in total to get this on the ballot, for five percent of the registered voters. The CRW needed to have half that amount by a deadline. The group met that deadline and the Board agreed that there were 12,500 valid signatures and authorized them to get the second half. The plaintiffs had said that signatures from the first batch should have been thrown out, but they had ten days to file that complaint and they missed the deadline. Their argument was that no one told them that the first batch had been submitted and verified, even when they called the Board's office, so how could they know when the ten days was up? The judge saw it the other way, he said the Board shouldn't have to notify everybody in the world, it sent a letter to the County Council and that's all they had to do. There is an honest problem in this part of the law, as the law is written for people to complain when their petitions have been turned down, ignoring the case where the petitions are verified but somebody else wants to complain. Well, he had to rule one way or the other, and he did.

So the judge ruled in the Board of Election's favor on two technical issues. Now they're working on the big issue, which is whether the Board properly certified the second batch of signatures. There's no deadline there, and no technical issues. There is a question about the strictness with which the law should be applied. The law is clear, middle initials have to match the voter registration and other picky things, but there is also a part of the law that says that the idea is to verify that the person signing the petition is the same person who registered to vote, a commonsense thing. Will the judge require all the details to match up, as the law requires, or will he accept anything reasonable?

The plaintiffs' attorney, Jonathon Shurberg, ended his presentation with a good point. He handed the judge a paper that appeared to be a petition all filled out. He said that he had gone to the white pages of the phone book and found all the information he needed to fill out the petition. He noted, however, that the phone book doesn't have middle initials. "Anybody can get this information," he said. "This law makes sure somebody doesn't do that."

I thought it was good, and it seemed to throw the judge, too. It does appear that in some cases somebody just wrote in names, maybe they got them from the phone book, maybe somewhere else. Shurberg made a good point that sometimes you have to use your actual formal name when you sign something. In this case, people are trying to overturn a law that was unanimously adopted by our elected officials, and the rules should be followed strictly.

The afternoon was not so interesting. Mainly the people in the courtroom -- there were about thirty five people there for the morning session, fewer in the afternoon -- watched lawyers and paralegals carry boxes of petitions back to the judge's chambers, where the lawyers were meeting and discussing with the judge. Somebody said they saw the lawyers from the two sides having a long talk outside by the fountain, I'm sure there's a lot of negotiating going on.

You know I'd love to tell you what I think is going on, but I'll wait. I don't know anything anyway.

This courthouse is cool, I think. It was built in 1891, the plaque says. This room had stained glass windows with sunbeams streaming in, cherry and oak furniture, it looked like. It was like something out of Perry Mason, with fifteen jurors' chairs swiveled along an old window and a dumb-looking picture of George Washington on the front wall. I remembered it being hot in there, and thought maybe there was no air conditioning, but it was nice and cool. There was a bit of an echo off those high ceilings but you could hear almost everything that was said clearly enough.

Today there were a few CRW supporters in the courtroom, mostly they sat on the left-hand side near the back. There were quite a few supporters for our side, several transgender people who really care about how this comes out, some gay activists, volunteers who have helped with the petitions, people with transgender relatives and friends, and curious people. We sat on the right-hand side.

Tomorrow there will be more arguments, I think, and everybody seems to expect a ruling. The judge can't wait too long, because they have to print up ballots for the November election.