Protect us all, or let it be

Since the Supreme Court affirmed that the execrable calumny produced by Fred Phelps’ clan (Westboro Baptist Church) is protected speech, Congress is considering passing laws that would expand the exclusion zones of time and space around military funerals. Unfortunately, I think this is a bad move on many levels, most of all because Congress should either protect all funerals or acknowledge that enduring some truly vile speech is the price we pay for freedom of speech.

My partner got into a passionate discussion with someone the other day because the other guy was insisting that members of the military are extra-special, better people, overall, than non-military. My spouse, who has made his career in the military, disagreed. He doesn’t think he’s anything special, and certainly not a better person than non-military people. He also knows first-hand that people in the military are a lot like any other kinds of people: they screw up and do bad things. Honor is something they strive for, not something that automatically accrues to them when they join.

I said afterwards that the other guy was trying to express a deeply-felt sentiment (mostly gratitude) but that he kept translating the depth of his feeling into hyperbole, but not realizing the difference between his hyperbole (with respect to the facts) and his feelings. Regardless, it deeply disturbed my partner because he does not want to see the country put the military on a pedestal to the point where that attitude could destabilize our democracy.

This potential law is an example of that kind of attitude. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad most citizens have learned to separate their feelings about the members of the military from their feelings about the national policy those members are enacting. But my partner is right that perpetuating the idea that the military is sacrosanct is dangerous.

If I saw this sort of legislation being sought to protect the funerals of high-profile QUILTBAG people* (which are the Phelpses’ other favorite target), I would still be concerned about it as a potentially unconstitutional limitation on free speech. But as it is, this proposed legislation is an insult to all the other grieving families that the Phelpses target. If grieving families are worth protecting, and the speech can be limited in this way, then the law should protect us all. That’s what the military lives and dies for.

*QUILTBAG is an acronym that arose on The Slacktiverse’s comment threads. It’s intended to capture the alphabet soup of the ever expanding GLBT… acronym. It means Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transsexual/Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, and Gay.

What going to the Hill is really like

Before I went to lobby for women’s rights and health care, I did training with the coalition of groups that cooperated to put together the entire effort. The training was focused on having groups attend scheduled visits with lawmakers or their policy staff members, and on working with undecided or opposing politicians at least as much as with those who already support the position.

When I got there, I was handed a packet with a list of three lawmakers in my state who consistently vote pro-choice and advised that I could individually to go to their offices and thank them for their efforts. I thought this approach was not the best use of my effort, and when I asked if there was something more active I could do, the NARAL folks helped me make a list of Republican members of the House in my state so that I could go to their offices.

I still ended up doing “drop-in” visits to offices, not scheduled visits with lawmakers or staff members, and I was still working on my own, but I thought it was a better plan. I got the impression that volunteers who signed up through Planned Parenthood had some different organization going on; all the ones I saw were working in groups, at least, and I think some of them had appointments. I’m not faulting NARAL’s work, I’m just wondering what I could have done differently to be more active in the lobbying work.

Anyway, the training had mentioned drop-in visits but didn’t really focus on them. Here’s what I wish they’d told me, and what you can expect if you ever decide to drop in on your legislator’s offices – it’s easier than you might think, actually.

You go into the Congressional office building (not the Capitol; there are a number of office buildings arranged around it) and walk through a metal detector, but the setup is not as strict as airline security. (No pat-downs.) Then you’ll find the office, which is usually behind an impressive and old-looking wooden door with a sign on it or next to it. The door is usually shut, but you don’t need to knock; just let yourself in. There will be a reception desk of some sort near the door, and the person sitting behind it will be a young person, possibly of early college age, who doesn’t know much more about what’s going on there than you do. You have a few minutes to talk to that person, and then you leave.

The training reviewed talking points with us, but I found on the first couple visits that in spite of that plus all my individual preparation, I didn’t have a ready-to-deliver introduction or opening. So I sat down and figured one out for myself.

What I ended up with was a very brief introduction about how I urged the legislator to support women’s reproductive rights and health care, and then I would ask if there was a staff member available to talk to me. It was a very busy day on the Hill, so there were few, but even if that didn’t get me a face-to-face, it generally got the receptionist to pull out a piece of paper and write down a short bit of what I had to say, as well as instructing me to sign the guestbook.

My final complaint about the preparation was that we should have had handouts. Several receptionists would have been happy to take printed material to pass on along with my contact information, but I hadn’t been supplied with any, so they and I generally compromised on them jotting down a few notes, but prepared material would have been much more effective.

Finally, I can’t say this enough: Practice. Practice until you can say your opening while whistling Dixie in your head or wondering who told that young man that a lime-green bowtie was a good idea for anyone, ever, because it’ll happen. Stop outside the door and repeat to yourself the title and name of the lawmaker you’re going to be talking about. (“Senator, um, Smith, I mean, Bowles, um…well, your boss, anyway, he or she really ought to…” doesn’t quite cut it.)

Practice fragments of your talking points, or sentences, over and over again so that you have them on the tip of your tongue. That way you don’t sound like a Chatty Cathy doll who can only say one thing, but you stay on-message even while extemporizing. You can fit your message to the time available, because you have to stay responsive and adaptable all the time. I didn’t have to do much responding to counterarguments, but that’s another place to practice until your brain can go faster than your mouth, which is harder than it sounds.

I hope that helps anyone who is thinking about trying to engage in a little active democracy. If you have other tips, I’d love to hear them.

Standing up for Women’s Health

Gray tabby cat sitting on corner of a poster that reads "I stand with Planned Parenthood"

Bianca stands for Planned Parenthood

Yesterday’s rally and lobbying effort was an exciting day for me. I walked the halls of Congress, mostly looking for the signs with maps of the buildings, and stood up for human rights, sometimes in front of people who disagreed with me, with interesting results.

The lobbying I did was to visit the offices of Congresspeople from my state. I would introduce myself, say what I was there to discuss, and then ask the receptionist if there was a staff member to whom I could present my position. I got to talk to a couple of staff members, but usually the receptionist just let me sign the guestbook and noted my position and that was it. (I wrote about the nitty-gritty of that in another post.)

I visited ten lawmakers’ offices, and although it took me the first few visits to figure out how to begin to present myself effectively, I felt that by the end of that, I had made an impact in two or three offices. In one, I noticed that the receptionist was recording my words verbatim, and her manner changed a little bit when she was writing down the most personal part of what I said. It wasn’t huge, but I think she suddenly realized that this is a life-or-death issue for me, personally and individually.

I achieved my personal goal for the day when I was telling a staff member about why I’m opposed to the “conscience clause” exception to EMTALA that’s in one of the bills under consideration right now. I told him very honestly that I’m afraid of that exception because it means that if I need emergency medical care but get taken to a hospital or a doctor with a religious objection to abortion, even to save the life of the mother, they can literally stand there and let me bleed to death. I’m afraid of that. His face paled slightly, and he said very quietly, “That’s a good reason.” I can only hope he tells my story to the representative.

After that, I decided to do something that is either the best or worst thing I did all day, and possibly both: I went to counter-counter-protest.

In training, we were advised that there would be counter-protesters out in a few locations with anti-abortion messages, and were advised to ignore them. The group that I saw had large banners set up with bloody, misleading, and despicable propaganda, plus a gentleman with a megaphone and three or four people trying to hand out flyers to passerby. The outright lies on some of the banners (“If you have an abortion, you’ll get breast cancer!”) irritated me, and I had this lovely giant pink sign that said “I stand with Planned Parenthood” from the lunchtime rally, so I took the sign over to the corner with the anti-abortion banners and did what it said: I stood.

I stood just barely off the sidewalk with my back to the banners, facing the corner where a lot of staffers and a some lobbyists were walking by to get from one office building to another, and held the sign, silently. The man handing out flyers approached me once he realized what I was doing, and he was joined by another woman; they lectured me and harangued me, insisting at first that I must not know how awful Planned Parenthood really is. That actually heartened me; the fact that they were peddling outright lies made me more sure and certain in what I was doing. The big sign also helped – at first I was holding it up almost like a shield between me and them.

I had been trying not to make eye contact, and after a few minutes, I started repeating a short chant to myself very, very quietly. That especially helped me ignore them when they were throwing rhetorical questions at me.  Suddenly one of them saw my lips moving and said, “Is she…praying???” The other one said, “Oh my god!” as if they couldn’t imagine prayer was possible for anyone who didn’t share their convictions. They looked at each other, horrified, and backed away.

After that they mostly left me alone, although one woman with a heavy Eastern European accent came over and walked around me in a circle chanting parts of the rosary a few times. It was the first time I’d ever been prayed at by someone, but I had expected it, so it didn’t so much bother me as make me vaguely amused, especially that they were addressing Mary while I was thinking of my own image of the Goddess. (More reflections on the spiritual aspects of my work are in a subsequent post.) A cop came over and made sure I intended to be peaceful and quiet, and had no problem with me when I assured him that I did. Later on, once they decided I wasn’t going to respond to them, a couple of the anti-abortion crowd actually came over and had each other take pictures of them standing next to me.

Then came the guy with the videocamera. He said he was independent; I didn’t exactly believe that, but I decided, bravely or stupidly or both, to let him interview me. It was simultaneously terrifying and exciting, and while I’m sure I screwed up many, many times, I think I did okay at achieving my goal, which was to provide a different and hopefully more reasonable example compared to the anti-abortion protesters with megaphones and bloody banners. I was extremely glad that I had read some material on how to deal with the media, and that I had done so much personal preparation and putting together talking points and responses and so on. I learned a lot, very quickly, about dealing with videocameras and the people behind them. Finally, note to self: Next time I go out to save the world, I should wear sunscreen. I hope I wasn’t as pink on camera as I was later in the evening.

Overall, it was an exhausting and exhilarating day, and I’m glad I did it. I think I made a difference. I know I made a difference by standing in front of the anti-abortion banners, because half a dozen women who walked by made eye contact and smiled and nodded, or gave me a thumbs-up, or thanked me aloud. And for even more, I saw a little bit of relief in their eyes that I was there, silently telling them that they did not need to feel isolated or overwhelmed when faced with the ugly pressure and lies of the anti-abortion protesters. For those women, on that corner, I made a difference, and it was worth it.