Saturday, January 22, 2011

An open letter to an Iowa State Representative

When I was in middle school, I earned spare money by babysitting for a lot of the neighborhood kids. One of the parents I was employed by was Kim Pearson, one of the sponsors of the bill in the Iowa House to amend the Constitution to ban not only gay marriage, but also civil unions and domestic partnerships. This is my letter to her. (edited somewhat with the recognition that this is now going to a lot of folks who don't know me as well as Kim did, and who likely don't care what I've been up to since I spent a summer taking care of her kids)

Dear Kim,

This is your former neighbor, Stephanie Bell, writing you from a long ways away—Oxford, England, to be specific. I hope this letter finds you, your husband, and your daughters well. I know it’s been a long time since we were last in touch, but my mother suggested I reach out to you and let you know what I’ve been up to since you knew me as a middle schooler, over a decade ago. I went on to high school at Valley, and really thrived there. I got involved with a number of activities, from debate and orchestra to the Principal's Advisory Council. I got my first taste of what it means to serve and have an impact when the school district adopted a solution to its 2003 budget crisis that I had helped to develop with a coalition of students, teachers, and community members.

Those initial forays into community involvement really set the stage for my activities in college. I went to the University of Chicago, and spent part of my time there continuing to coach Valley’s debate team. The political consciousness and sense of equality and justice I had gained over the course of growing up in West Des Moines led me to join a movement to increase access to HIV/AIDS treatment throughout the developing world. I’m thrilled to say that we succeeded—in my junior year of college, we received word that our work led to a major drop in the price of a highly needed treatment in all countries where the median income is less than $2/day. We were a ragtag bunch of college students, learning what we were doing as we went along, with little more than youthful energy, drive, and idealism on our side. We were nothing short of dumbfounded by the impact we were able to have halfway across the world.

I also spent a great deal of time focused on the issues in my own backyard. The University of Chicago is located in a pretty rough area in Chicago’s impoverished South Side, and the surrounding neighborhoods are far worse. Tensions between the community and the University run high, and there are many unmet social needs in the area. Wanting to be a better neighbor, I took a part-time job with the area alderman. I helped her connect residents with city services, and sort out their complaints with the city and with each other. In the alderman’s office, I saw why the University inspired such anger—not only did it demand a lot from the surrounding residents, it attempted to dictate how they ran their lives as well. The University’s interactions with the community were contentious, borderline coercive at times. One well-funded, extremely powerful institution with a unified understanding of what was “best” could carry a lot of weight in the fragmented realm of local politics. Yet the University had no mandate or right to determine what should be considered “the good life” by the rest of the residents. It was no wonder the University’s involvement bred such resentment. As much as I loved the University and the intellectual rigor and the opportunities it afforded, it was still clear to me that the University of Chicago was sometimes a terrible neighbor to people in need of a compassionate community member—a neighbor that would listen, support in times of need, but never be so arrogant as to forcefully impose its view of the world.

My focus on communities like those on the South Side didn’t end in college. After graduating, I spent the next two years of my life working to improve the education system for disadvantaged kids. I think you'd agree that it’s shameful that in the richest society in the world, we’re content with a 70% high school graduation rate, and content that the rate is 20% higher for whites than for blacks. It’s a disgrace that our country has 2000 high schools in which kids literally have a coin flip’s chances of making it through. And it’s horrifying and maddening that out of all of the Latino boys that start school in Chicago at the age of 4 or 5, only 3% of those kids will graduate from college. Three percent. I spent the past couple years of my life doing my best to improve those odds—and you know, I think my colleagues and I made a dent in it.

I’m at Oxford now, honored to represent the state of Iowa on a Rhodes Scholarship and studying international development. I intend to spend my life figuring out how to empower people to make their lives better—whether that’s improving the education system in the US or working on public health abroad, I’m not sure yet. I am pretty sure, however, that I got here by being a good neighbor—by making good on all of those values I learned growing up in Iowa. While I may have left Iowa awhile ago, it’s never left me. In the most recent snowstorm in England (you might have heard about all the flight cancellations and such in Heathrow—the English are not a hardy people compared to Iowans), I was stunned by the condition of the sidewalks in Oxford. No one shoveled them, and in a day or so, they became dangerous sheets of ice, some four inches thick. This never happened where I grew up. People cleared their walks for the convenience and safety of their community, and if there was someone nearby who wasn’t able to clean their walk, their neighbors would do it for them, no questions or future favors asked.

I have an immense fondness for Iowa, and pride in my state for reasons that are exemplified in that somewhat silly anecdote. There’s a certain pragmatism about life in Iowa, a stoicism in folks’ willingness to go out and take care of business, regardless of how cold it is. But most importantly, there’s a sense of responsibility to each other, an understanding of oneself as a part of a bigger community, a community that is more than just the sum of its parts. And one of the things I love so much about Iowa’s sense of community is that it, too, is pragmatic. It’s a sense of community that recognizes that people are different, and so have different needs, different aspirations, different desires. It’s a community born of understanding that what’s good for the goose might not be good for the gander—and in that pragmatism, it’s respectful. The Iowa I know, the Iowa I grew up in was one that celebrated the diversity it had. The Iowa values I was raised on included everyone in that community—and the ties that bound us were stronger than the divides created by our differences.

You may be wondering why, over a decade down the road, I decided to contact you with what I've been up to and my meditations on and pride in my home state of Iowa. Part of it is to congratulate you on your election to the House, and to thank you for serving our state. And the other part of it is to make a plea, from one good neighbor to another.

Kim, I’m gay. I figured it out in the middle of my senior year of high school, and I stayed in the closet until I graduated. I adored Valley, but I also knew it wasn’t the most tolerant of places. My life was running too smoothly to rock the boat. I was so honored when I was elected to speak at graduation and I was on friendly terms with nearly everyone in my class. I was afraid all of that would end if I came out. I told my mother before I left for college, and I waited two years before telling my dad because I was so worried about how he would react. I don’t think you know my parents well, but my dad is fiscally conservative and we rarely talked about social issues. I think he’s voted Republican in every election since the age of 18. I’d seen friends of mine come out (or be forcibly outed by others), and have their parents reject them—refuse to pay for college, kick them out of the house, tell them they were worthless. While I didn't think my father would react as badly as that, I spent two years of my life too scared to tell him. My uncertainty of his reaction meant I stayed silent, to ensure that I didn't destroy a relationship with someone I deeply love and respect. I shouldn't have been so scared. Both of my parents were immediately supportive when I told them. In that regard, I'm tremendously lucky.

Coming out to my parents was hardly easy, but thankfully, they know what I know: that I’m the same person I was before I realized I was gay. I have the same sense of humor, the same love for my family and sense of responsibility toward them. My relationships with my parents and sister are stronger than they've ever been. The fact that the one time in my short life I was in love, I was in love with a woman has done nothing to change my personality, or my belief in the value of service that I know you and I share. I remain the same good neighbor—to you, and to the world—that I’ve always been. I thought Iowa understood this too. April 3, 2009, when the Supreme Court unanimously and courageously fulfilled their sworn obligation to uphold the constitution, and legalized gay marriage, was the day on which I was proudest to be an Iowan. I recognize that the way I lead my life makes some people uncomfortable—just as the ways others lead their lives sometimes make me uncomfortable. But on April 3, Iowa moved past that discomfort, or so I thought. The justices voted regardless of their political opinions, because that’s what the law demanded of them. That’s also what a true sense of justice and equality demands: equal civil rights for all.

When I was working after college, I lived with my girlfriend, Cheryl. Cheryl is easily one of the most compassionate and bravest people I’ve ever metsomeone I was proud to introduce to my family. She works as a special education teacher in one of the worst performing and most violent districts in the country. Her school draws from multiple gang territories. Kids bring weapons to school routinely, sometimes for aggression, and sometimes for self defense. Serious gang fights break out on a regular basis. One night she came home to the apartment that we shared and told me that a massive riot had broken out that day in an assembly. She was one of three teachers present, and they had been barricaded in by students. As you might imagine, Kim, it was chaos, and a number of the kids were injured. In addition to being so, so thankful that Cheryl and her fellow teachers were all right, and that nothing worse had happened to the students, I was forced to think about the fact that if anything had happened, I wouldn’t have been able to visit her in the hospital—the State of California didn’t recognize our relationship. Lesbians and gays across the country are literally putting themselves in the line of fire for the rest of society, as school teachers in gang territories, as police officers, as fire fighters. Yet their partners lack the security of knowing that if anything goes wrong, they’ll be able to see them in the hospital, to reassure them that they’ll be all right, or, heaven forbid, to see them alive one last time.

But what deeply worries and outrages me is that I shouldn’t have to justify having the same rights as the rest of society on my attempts to be a good citizen. Like you, I serve because I think it's the right thing to doit's how I was raisednot because I think that's how I'll get equal rights. It shouldn’t be relevant that the people we’re depriving of their rights are police officers, fire fighters, and school teachers. No other group has to justify their rights by pointing to all that they’ve contributed to the world, something gays are repeatedly challenged on. The rest of society has the right to marry because they’re part of society, period. The openly gay San Francisco City Councilman, Harvey Milk, gave a moving speech on equal rights, which opened with the idea that a young person in Des Moines who recognizes that he or she is gay has two options: to move to San Francisco, or to stay and fight for an equal world, for a better tomorrow. I’ve done both. I was living in San Francisco when Proposition 8 was passed and banned gay marriage in California, and when Iowa surprised the nation by making a courageous move to defend the civil rights of all people in its borders. Over thirty years after Milk was assassinated, I thought Iowa had moved beyond pushing its LGBT youth to live elsewhere when it recognized that depriving gays of their right to marry was fundamentally discriminatory and wrong. It’s an offense to our understanding of democracy and freedom to remove the rights of some because they make others uncomfortable, or because others disagree with the ways they lead their lives. It goes against the Iowan values I was raised on, which were founded on sensibility and respect. There’s nothing sensible about legislating bigotry. And nothing about it is neighborly.

Respectfully yours,

Stephanie Bell