just a little bit of a new one

ceuwr0muyaqwkfhThe only one who has the best thing ever is when you have to be a good day to be a good day to be a good day.

I love you so much fun and I was just a little bit of a new one is the best thing ever is when you have to be a good day to be a good day to be a good day.

My computer started this piece for me. Some freaky ghost in the program’s machine: when I hit “ESC” on a blank page, the cursor suddenly offered me up a cascading list of words, with the top one highlighted, auto-complete style. I hit Enter, accepting its first suggestion, then hit Space – and it did it again. Over and over again, ESC Enter Space, and suddenly the computer composed two lines for me.

It was eerie, seeing full sentences emerge of apparently their own volition in the predawn gloom I prefer for writing. Maybe a message, maybe an automatic writing comment on the proliferation of words and their meaninglessness before mute facts we can’t topple. Or maybe an oracle affirming the truth and ever-emerging possibility of the best thing ever: a good day, love, just a little bit of a new one.

I’ll take any of these options to get me started, because I don’t know another. I don’t know how to start writing about this week’s North Carolina General Assembly special session, where my state’s lawmakers gave lie to the story that government is slow and bloated and unresponsive by undoing a fifty-year arc of civility and humanity in eleven hours.

Just a little bit of a new one: what can we do with majorities in both Houses and the Governor’s Mansion that we couldn’t ever ever otherwise? What could we do if we responded right now, lickety-split, to our darkest unfounded suspicions about people we don’t understand and who they might be, who knows? What could we do if we took the inchoate fears of some and stoked them high enough to seem like a mandate?

I don’t want to descend into purple prose: I want to be clear. But I do want to communicate how fully we North Carolina citizens woke to a different world than the one we went to sleep in. “Well, I’m illegal again,” a dear friend in Charlotte posted on Facebook.

Have you ever been erased? Unfairly maligned, set aside, left to your own devices in a moment when you were completely unprepared to be?

This is deep, childhood stuff. That’s where someone like me has to go to begin to glimpse the experience of my friend, or that of the thousands of LGBT people whose human rights to dignity, safety, and inclusion in society were functionally erased on Wednesday.

I remember the first “It Gets Better” video, when Dan Savage’s husband Terry reports on the message he was given in school:

My school was pretty miserable. I lived in Spokane, Washington, which is a mid-sized town with a small-town mentality. And I was picked on mercilessly in school. People were really cruel to me. I was bullied, a lot, beat up; thrown against walls, and lockers, and windows, you know, stuffed into bathroom stalls; people shit on my car, people scratched my car, broke my windows.

And my parents went in once to talk to the school administrators about the harassment I was getting at school, and they basically said: if you look that way, talk that way, walk that way, act that way, then there’s nothing we can do to help your son.

I have the passage mostly memorized, because I teach the video each semester, to rooms of students who plan to teach in North Carolina public schools. I teach it because it rings with the simple power of specificity; the plain truth said, as it was lived by someone not you, in a place that you know well. He was thrown against walls, AND lockers, AND windows.

It tells us that the halls and parking lots and football games and locker rooms that some of us remember fondly, as places we belonged and could carry on with whoever we were trying to be when we inhabited them, were quite different places for others of us. That these school places were, and are, battlefields, where some of us could not – cannot – navigate a day of school without a constant, thrumming vigilance to where the next imagined threat might materialize, within an institutional world that asks some not to ask and not to tell and, when something happens, probably won’t do anything about it anyway but make you the problem.

I heard last month about a student who was called a racial epithet in the halls of the middle school (or maybe high school – I don’t remember, doesn’t matter, there’s plenty of these stories to go around). When the student went to the principal, she was told that in order for any step to be taken to protect her, affirm her safety, or achieve any redress, she would first have to produce three witnesses who would independently corroborate her story.

Let that sink in for a moment, if you would. Consider its echoes in our growing understanding of our cultural tendency to shift the burden of proof in cases of assault to their victims. Note if you will especially how manifestly common-sense such a solution feels, from the principal’s side: how can we possibly proceed unless we know what really happened? These are serious accusations, miss. Reputations are at stake. Note how sane and deliberate and okay this response is.

Note also how completely wrong, how worse-than-useless, since it returns the wounded to the place of the wound unhelped, unhealed, and, if anything, weakened as the world that created the wound is automatically, subtly affirmed.

This is the way power works in culture. Some responses just feel right, warm like bath water, and so are chosen by supposedly well-meaning school leaders who, let’s face it, have plenty else to do that day, other fires to put out.

This is how the status quo gets affirmed; this is how culture is created, in microdecisions that are measured out in coffee spoons by people who of COURSE aren’t racist, or misogynist, or homophobic. They just need to get along with it. (Lisa Delpit can explain this way better, if you don’t like how I’m talking about it. Also Peggy McIntosh. Also Ta-Nehesi Coates. Just look it up. It’s not a novel concept, by a damn sight.)

In 2009, our state passed the School Violence Protection Act, which explicitly included sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical appearance as categories of people protected in public schools from harassment and bullying. One completely-unremarked side effect of our legislature’s turning the table over this week is, apparently, its erasure.

For a few years there, those in our schools who sought to interrupt an institutional culture in which some were always unsafe (predictably, empirically unsafe) had the law on their side. Could backstop against the knowledge that, if they encountered an administrator who told them what Terry’s parents heard, the policy would strengthen them. Now, that’s gone – and in its place, the worse-than-zero affirmation of “biological sex” as a protected category (whatever that is, as knows anyone who knows anything about what a slippery characteristic gender really is).

Well, I’m fuming now, though I tried not to. I’ll have to take this energy and go do what so many of us will now do: teach, organize, vote. This law won’t stand. For all I know, it was never meant to. Maybe it’s just a feint in some legislative power game whose players and purposes will remain invisible. I’ll continue to believe the arc is long but bends toward justice.

But I hope I never forget the corrosive power of what so many legislators in that whirlwind session appealed to as “common sense.” Which, at core, is nothing more than the stupid, bovine belief that one’s gut check should supersede another’s, especially when what your gut says is, for the moment, in the majority.

What vast swaths of damage are done in a civilization by those who can’t imagine they are doing it. They can’t imagine because they are not working to imagine. What it might be like. To be behind another’s eyes, in another’s body; what it might be like if the thousands of voices trying to make the larger culture know what it feels like to be lesbian, gay, bi, trans…are right.

They can’t try to imagine what tiny steps those of us who don’t feel those things might take to allow a life more livable for those who do.

The people who did this sleep well. It feels OK to them. It’s just common sense. That’s the problem. We can do better. I have to believe we will. We have to.

Just a little bit of a new one is the best thing ever. When you have to be a good day. The only one who has the best thing ever. I love you so much. I love you. I love you.

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