Friday, June 26, 2009

When will we stop inflicting pain on the children?

Not too long ago I spent a few days in the Beverly Hills/West Hollywood area. As I tend to do when visiting a city where I have friends I try to visit with them. And that afternoon I was meeting a collective of them for a Sunday dinner and discussion. Oddly many of them were people I knew from different cities in the past who had migrated to the Los Angeles area.

Most of them were friends from between 20 and 30 years ago. The longevity of these friendships was truly shocking. One friend from the East Coast I had seen since he was student in law school. Now he produces films. Strangely I had come across his name numerous times never realizing it was he—a new nickname threw me off previously.

But, most of the time that day was put aside to visit with Barbara Branden, the biographer of Ayn Rand, and Rand’s former friend and confidant. I first met Barbara around 23 to 24 years ago. Her biography of Ayn was still in manuscript form when I first read it.

So that Sunday afternoon I stopped by Barbara’s and spent a few hours with her before we drove to a restaurant in Beverly Hills where many of my friends had already gathered. But before we got stuck into a crowd of people I wanted some time just to socialize and talk.

Barbara thought she would mention that she made sure that she voted against Prop 8. And we talked about the pernicious effects of bigotry and prejudice in the world. At this point Barbara drew my attention to a Star of David broach she was wearing. I had noticed it but not given it any thought. Had I stopped to think about it, I might have. Barbara is an atheist. So the broach, on one level seems contradictory.

Barbara pointed to it and said: “You may wonder about this. It’s not that I’m religious….” And then she told me a story that I had known. I think I should note that Barbara just recently turned 80. And what she was doing was recounting a story of when she was a young girl. I am guessing this would be during the late 1930s or early 1940s.

Barbara spoke about how she and her mother took a trip to Minnesota one summer. Barbara’s mother had asked a friend to make a reservation for her at a resort, which the friend had done. For some reason the friend had made the reservation in her own name. But when Barbara and her mother arrived the resort learned that their last name was Weidman.

To me this would have meant nothing. But Barbara says it is a name that many people see as Jewish. Barbara then recounted how the resort insisted that they had no rooms vacant in spite of the reservation that was held. The resort offered to find a resort that could “accommodate” them. Barbara said her mother stood firm. She insisted she had a reservation and informed them that she had no intention of going anywhere else. She had immediately clued in on the fact that the resort didn’t want “those kind of people” on the premises.

Barbara’s mother informed the resort that she had every intention of getting the room she had reserved. She told them that if they persisted in refusing to honor the reservation that they had made with her that she would go to the local newspaper. She said she would sit down with the paper and inform them how the resort was behaving in this case. She would make it clear to all and sundry that what was going on was just anti-Semitism. The resort reluctantly found the reservation and the vacant room.

Barbara said that the memory of that encounter with bigotry, and her mother’s refusal to accept it, was something she never forgot. Clearly that event was one from her childhood that she always remembered. She explained that the Star of David she wore had no religious significance but she wanted the bigots to know that Jewish ancestry is nothing for which one should be ashamed. The broach was one way this diminutive 80-year-old could still voice opposition to bigotry and prejudice.

This is one of the few times I’ve heard Barbara talk about her childhood. And the story she told me stayed with me for some weeks now. I’ve periodically thought about it and pondered it.

One aspect of the story that upsets me is that I am angry that anyone has a childhood memory of this kind. That is, no child should ever have to face prejudice and bigotry at that time of their life. Decades later the memory of it is still there. A good aspect of this was that Barbara saw her mother’s determination to stand up to bigotry. She simply wasn’t going to accept it.

This was a passion we both shared. I had said to Barbara that some years ago I had made the conscious decision that I was getting too old to tolerate bigots. I didn’t have the patience to deal with that sort of bullshit in my life. If I witnessed it I would oppose it and oppose it loudly.

I am not arguing over whether or not idiots have the right to be bigots. They do. But I have the right to not tolerate it, the right to denounce it, and the right to fight it. I will exercise those rights.

In the world I yearn for, Barbara would never have the memory of experiencing anti-Semitism as a child. No one would. That world does not yet exist. Bigotry is still rampant. It may be unacceptable to voice anti-Semitic views today, unless you are Mel Gibson on a bender, but those views still exist. There are still individuals who denounce others based on their race, their sexual orientation, their gender identity and so forth.

I was thinking of how bigots inflict such memories on children when I watched an Idaho news report the other day. A lesbian couple, with their children, went to their local water park for a day of fun. The park offered a “family” discount. When the couple and their children arrived they were pointedly told that they are not a real “family.”

I remember one of the women telling a news crew that they would not be going back because the children didn't’t want to go back. One of the children apparently was rather upset about being told that he’s not a member of a real family. He wanted to know why they were saying that. This child is younger than Barbara was when she faced something quite similar. I can only hope he will forget.

The Lava Hot Springs Park did not break any law. No one said they did. But they have said they will change their policy. The new policy will be to deny family discounts to everyone rather than to consider having to give it to a gay couple and their children. This state-owned park refused to give the discount because they say the adults must be either “legally obligated to the care of the dependent children or are married to the adult” that is. Since gay couples can’t marry, their families are not “real” families and the discount does not apply.

This government-run park would rather deny every family a discount, and is happy to blame this change of policy on that nasty couple that thought that they, and the children they were raising, were a family.

I just can’t understand the hateful mind. I don’t know why some people feel compelled to despise other people who have done nothing to them. Why inflict such memories on children? I had really hoped that our nation had moved beyond inflicting memories of prejudice on children. Barbara told me her story a few weeks back but only days ago I learn of these children facing the same sort of memory.

While I personally believe that Prop 8 in California will be repealed, and that decency and right will triumph, there were aspects of that vote which broke my heart, and which brought tears to my eyes. I read newspaper articles from across California and several times I came across accounts of children in gay families confused by the vote. One was afraid that this meant his family had to break up, that they were not allowed to be family anymore. Dr. Jan Gurley blogs for a San Francisco newspaper and she wrote of a friend’s son, in elementary school, who had been “furious for weeks that the state could even consider taking such a violating step against his moms. Then I found out from another professional friend that her three kids (also all young elementary-school aged children) asked tearfully in the car, “Are we still married?”

Older children better understand but are still furious about such things. Josh Lay, a teenager, spoke to a school newspaper before Prop 8 was upheld. He said such a ruling would make him “extremely mad. I don’t even know what kinds of beliefs people have in order to think that my parent’s marriage is not OK.” His brother Jeremy, also in high school, told the paper the ruling would make him feel “that his family was inferior.” One girl told the school newspaper of how her younger brother felt when he saw “Yes on Prop 8” signs in people’s yards. The boy became upset and told his sister and fathers: “They hate our family and they don’t even know us.”

But that’s really it, isn’t it? What it comes down to is that bigots hate people they don’t even know, not because of anything these people have done to them, but merely because of who they are. I find it all very depressing. When will get beyond this?

Photo: a photography of Barbara on a previous visit.