Representative Misunderestimation

Barrett Pryce, Mike Hewitt's legislative aideWalla Walla’s Washington State Senator, Mike Hewitt, is not known in progressive circles for being a friend to the queers. Trans people aren’t even on his radar. His office caused a ruckus in the blogosphere (a.k.a. The Huffington Post in this case) when some as-yet-unnamed staffer told an angry caller that gays should “grow their own food” if, under his co-sponsored bill, any business owner decided to deny service to LGBT people because of “a sincerely held belief.” The “grow their own food” was apparently an option if any LGBT person living in a rural area with few grocery stores (as is actually the case in large swaths of Washington State) was denied as a customer by store owners.

Of course this was an angry caller from Seattle, not Hewitt’s district. Of course this was a stupid off-the-cuff remark from the staff member, not the Senator himself. And to further contextualize things, this Senate Bill 5927 is in response to a florist from a nearby city who refused to serve a couple looking to get gay married. She is now being sued. But that’s the point of anti-discrimination statutes. A florist is not a church. And flowers seem unimportant–as in, they’re not food–but even small moments of ignorance and bigotry cast wide ripples. For SB 5927 doesn’t limit lawsuits, it opens the floodgates for any individual with a product or service to refuse access, solely on the basis of dislike. It’s a total negation of including sexual orientation as a protected category in the state, setting up a hierarchy of communities based on which ones have unstoppered protection and which ones fall under this proposed law’s exception.

Certainly this isn’t the first time some sort of “philosophical” exception has made its way into the laws of the land. Extreme right-wing organizations actively recruit close-minded people into medicine and pharmacy now in order to have more “soldiers” on the front lines of the battle over reproductive rights in order to use their “sincerely held beliefs” to say they won’t supply Plan B to women, or offer pregnancy termination when it’s requested (or hey, needed). There is now so much room around these moral objections that the very notion that any of us in the general public finds these exceptions problematic is itself an assault on religious freedom.

This is how a misinformation campaign works: muddy the terms of conversation, introduce reductive logic, add a few critical inaccuracies, and ratchet up the stakes. Then sit back and watch as conversation morphs into “debate,” people declare they’re offended over unrelated issues that are not germane to the original discussion, and we all lose sight of the boundary around concepts like “victim,” “oppression,” and the right to have an opinion, no matter the content of said opinion.

Not all points in a conversation or debate are equal. Not everyone has the same level or kind of privilege as everyone else. For a florist to deny making an arrangement for a lesbian couple because she thinks they’re sinners is more offensive than the gay couple thinking she’s a douche for her opinion–in this case she’s denying them a service and they’re feeling ill will. Let’s say floral arrangements are trivial, luxury items. What do we think when it’s a physician withholding wound care treatment from a gay man with AIDS? When he’s the only physician this individual can find for 150 miles? Or on the bus line?

When Senator Hewitt’s staffer dismisses a non-constituent caller with a “let them eat cake” line, he betrays many prejudices and ignorances, some of them more complicated than others:

  • Not everyone has time, money, and, land to grow the kind of garden that would feed them for a lifetime
  • If small government advocates want the free market to attend to feeding the public, then private businesses can’t have easy lines of opting out of market transactions whenever they feel like it
  • LGBT people vote and don’t like laws like this
  • Rural areas cry about a lack of resources because rural areas are faced with A LACK OF RESOURCES and it’s the job of elected officials to lessen those burdens on their citizens
  • It hurts the feelings of LGBT people when people refuse to treat us AS people
  • Hewitt’s office didn’t think through the logical extensions of this quickly written bill

Many readers of mine know I work on HIV issues in Walla Walla; it would take more than the fingers on both of my hands to list the stories I’ve heard about doctors, dentists, and pharmacists withholding services from HIV-positive people here in the valley. I’ve got even more examples of LGBT people facing hostility in Eastern Washington. Even without SB 5927 becoming law, expectations out here are that folks can deny providing their wares to LGBT people at any time, with impunity. They may think it has the effect of driving queer and trans people out of this region, but for the most part it doesn’t–LGBT people may be from this area originally, or they’ve returned to care for their parents (because hello, we do understand commitment), or their partner is employed here, or they have a fondness for small-town life.  Much more likely is that the lives of LGBT people living here are degraded. We’re not as happy as we could be. We fight through more stress because of someone else’s unoriginal and inaccurate opinion of how valuable we are to our families and this society. We don’t earn as much money, and we have a harder time finding housing, and we have a ton of trouble getting through school.

If Mike Hewitt were interested in the long-term welfare of the Walla Walla economy, he would be more supportive of LGBT people. Our success is Walla Walla’s success. Certainly one of our two state representatives, Maureen Walsh, gets that message. It’s not an impossible chemistry, then.

I’d like to make two last points here: The write up in the local paper about those who are criticizing Mike Hewitt, and the criticism itself, are fine, but ultimately, it’s not about whether the image of Walla Walla is sullied by the staffer’s remark. It’s that the proposed law is offensive and wrong, and it should be left to die on the floor of the chamber. For his part, Hewitt seems to be backing away from the bill, saying he hadn’t read it carefully enough. (You THINK?)

My departing point is this: the identity of the staffer who made the “grow their own food” comment has been carefully hidden throughout this whole affair. In a country in which we’ve leaked the names of the Chinese graduate student who died in the Boston Marathon bombing, and the names of a series of rape survivors who were underage, why are we so protective of this guy? A finite, small number of people work for the Senator, after all. Not many of them take phone calls from the public. What is this protection about?

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, ponderings

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