Monday, November 3, 2008

Why I Oppose Proposition Eight

These were done for the missus's business card back when she was the one trying to make it as an artist. They're based on two of her porcelain sculptures.

Last night I saw that Rory Harper of Eat Our Brains had posted a link to this video of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. I immediately sent Mayor Sanders an email of support and I'm posting this essay in order to affirm my solidarity with his position.

If I had my way there would be no laws at all regarding marriage. It is usually a religious ceremony and as such the principle of separation of church and state seems to cover the matter...

But since there is special legal treatment of married couples, it's only right to make legal marriage available to anyone. Here's an essay I wrote a couple of years back that should make my feelings clear.

Book People was losing money, and it didn’t look like that was going to change any time soon. That was the basis for my position. Book People was a book distributing company that had an unusual structure. It was an employee-owned corporation, which was different than a co-op. The employees were also stockholders, so if the company turned a profit, we all got dividends. Rather than having corporate decisions made by the company as a whole, we elected a board of directors.

Book People had originally acted as a liaison between the small press and independent booksellers. During its glory days, the salaries that people were paid were insignificant next to the yearly dividends. I had heard stories of people taking their dividend checks and buying cars, cash, or making the down payment on a house. Those days ended shortly before I started working there.

The book industry was changing. The mom and pop booksellers had to compete with big chain bookstores, and they weren’t doing well. As a result, we were doing a lot more business with businesses like Borders and Barnes & Noble. At first this was heralded as Our Next Big Break, but it soon became obvious that things didn’t work like that. We were acting as an interface between companies that were in a position to dictate terms to us, and now we our profits were whatever was left over after the big boys took their bite. I hadn’t seen a dividend in the four years I’d been working there, and there had been a freeze on raises for the last year.

So when the question of whether or not to extend health insurance benefits to unmarried partners of employees was brought up, the answer seemed pretty clear-cut to me. We weren’t making money, and all of a sudden a very large expense is being proposed, an expense that has nothing to do with the business itself. It was just more money being spent. It just didn’t make sense.

I thought that was the only factor affecting my opinion on the situation. That wasn’t true; I hadn’t examined myself and the question thoroughly enough to really understand it.
Part of my position was due to the fact that I hadn’t really made use of our insurance program. We had full dental and full optical, and I never made use of either. At that time, my only major health crises had been mental, so I didn’t know how important it was to be able to deal with a health issue without having financial issues come into play. It was all abstract to me, except for the drain on the company’s cash.

I wasn’t as bad as some people were. At least my concern was for the company’s well being. I knew a few people whose position was based on selfishness and resentment.
“I don’t wear glasses,” Gary the Receiver said. “Why should I have to pay for your glasses? Hell, I don’t have kids. Ron’s kid broke his arm, and I had to help pay for the cast. Why doesn’t he have to take responsibility for his decision to have the kid? What makes it my problem?” He stamped the packing slip for the shipment he was processing and counted the boxes, pointing with his finger and moving his lips, then wrote down the number on the slip.

“You’re looking at it wrong,” I said. “You aren’t paying for a pair of glasses, or a kid getting a cast put on his arm. What you’re paying for is a quality of life. I mean, if you’ve got to see benefits from your perspective, you want people driving forklifts with glasses they’ve been wearing for five years because they don’t want to pay for new ones? You want to have to listen to Ron complaining if in addition to worrying about his kid he’s also blown a few thousand dollars on doctor’s bills? And what if something happens to you? You want us to walk around talking about how much you cost?”

“Whatever,” Gary said. (Of course, he got his. Kidney damage brought on by overconsumption of liquor store vitamin pills. Two weeks in the hospital. And I got to hear Dave from Returns asking why we were paying money because Gary was a drunk and an idiot…)

“What I’m saying is, you aren’t paying for any specific item. You’re paying it so that you can live in a society where you and everybody around you is taken care of. Basic compassion, dude.”

“Whatever,” Gary said.

Looking back on it, I don’t really understand how I could have failed to apply that argument to the issue of partner support. For that matter, if I was so concerned about expenses, why wasn’t I trying to have health benefits cut? There was an inconsistency in my position.

But the last big influence on my position was ignorance. I didn’t understand what the “unmarried partners” thing meant. There was part of the situation that I didn’t see at all. And I still feel guilty, because I should have seen it.

Book People culture was to a considerable degree lunchcentric. It had been decided a long time ago that it made more sense to hire a cook and have lunches prepared every day than it was to have people going out for lunch, skipping meals, having to spend time at home making lunch – this was our lunch money, and this was how we chose to spend it. There were a lot of divisions inside the company; the offices vs. the warehouse, returns vs. the order department, and so on and so on. The lunchroom was a place where those barriers broke down. There were the people you worked with, and there were the people you ate with.

I have to wonder why Wendy decided to sit at my table. I call it “my table” because, well, I’m a bit of a loudmouth and a semi-high dominance individual, and if you ate lunch with me, the conversation was going to tend towards the weird and the loud. In fact, we were described by others as ‘the loud table.’ Not everyone is going to appreciate a mealtime discussion of the reproductive habits of the Guinea Worm, or why the Schwarzenegger Conan bore no resemblance to the real thing as written by Robert E. Howard and no one else.

Wendy was a soft-spoken woman, one of those people whose gentleness forms an element of charm. If you were really sick, you’d feel better if she was in the room. Usually, I feel a little uncomfortable around those types. I have to hold back, soften myself. I’m always afraid that something grossly offensive is going to slip out of me.

Wendy seemed perfectly comfortable with the tone of conversation we had going, and when her devotion to decency was brought into the mix, it didn’t dampen things. She was able to check my tendency to hypothetically slaughter vast numbers of people without being a drag. It was nice to have her with us. These days, niceness is seriously underrated. It’s associated with wimposity. I disagree. In this world, being nice takes strength. I may not be nice myself, but I am militantly pro-nice.

Wendy was a mother, and was raising her daughter along with the two children of her unmarried domestic partner. Her unmarried domestic partner was a woman, and this was where I had failed to understand the hidden meaning behind the phrase ‘unmarried domestic partner’.

The insurance question was going to be decided by the Board of Directors, but before that happened, there was to be a company wide meeting so that everybody could have a chance to make their opinion known. Towards the end of the meeting, I raised my hand and made my point. We’re in debt, this will cost money, end of argument.

And then Wendy spoke. “There are people in this room who are in gay or lesbian relationships,” she said. “We aren’t allowed to be married in the eyes of the state. Our relationships,” and here I could here her voice crack, the way it does when your throat aches from tears that you’re holding back, “our love, isn’t recognized. It’s as though it doesn’t exist.

“Book People prides itself on being a community that accepts people as people, that treats all people equally. If Charise and I could get married, we would, and Book People would give Charise coverage. By denying the partners of gay employees coverage, Book People is supporting the way the state treats us. It’s a way of saying that we don’t matter.

“I just don’t think that’s right.” And then she sat down.
I raised my hand. “I withdraw my opinion. I was wrong. I agree with Wendy.”

After the meeting, I went to apologize to Wendy. “I feel like a complete ass,” I said. “I still think that we can’t afford it, but if Book People can’t afford to do what’s right, then maybe we should go under.”

Wendy seemed angry. I couldn’t tell if she was mad at me, or at the whole situation. “Thank you for saying sorry,” she said. “It’s just so… I thought that Book People was supposed to be a place for people who were more,” and she waved her hands. “You know. Conscious of things.”

It wasn’t the logic of what Wendy said that changed my opinion. I agree with the logic, and I’d like to think that it would have been enough to make me change my mind. But it was the sound of her voice that got to me, the way it made me feel that this wasn’t a matter of dollars and cents. It made me think about all of the people who felt that kind of pain, and it made it intolerable for me to think of myself as someone who would support the conditions that led to that pain. The logic worked for me; Wendy’s argument made sense. But in the end I was swayed because I felt that her love mattered.

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