Commentary Religion

When the Politics of Hate Comes Home: A Lesbian Couple Grapples with How Politics Affects Their Critically-Ill Child

Jaime Jenett

Jaime and Laura are a lesbian couple in California whose son suffers from a serious heart condition.  Without legal protections, their family would have suffered far more hardship than they did. Jaime addresses supporters of Prop 8 in a letter. 

This commentary is part of a Mama’s Day series by Strong Families, published in partnership with Rewire in our Mother’s Day 2011 series.  Follow Strong Families on Facebook and Twitter.

As Mother’s Day approaches I have been thinking a lot about what life is like as a non-biological lesbian mother of a child with severe medical issues.   Before my wife Laura gave birth to our son Simon, gay marriage was mostly a political issue for me. On principal I wanted me and all other queer people to have the same rights and privileges as straight people.  However, when Simon was born in 2008, and especially when he got critically ill and spent 4 months in the hospital, policies designed to prevent same sex families from having legal protections took on a whole new meaning for me.

I realized that in another state, as his non-biological mother, I could very easily have been denied leave from my job when he got sick.  In another state, I wouldn’t be allowed to adopt him. I could have been denied access to visit him in the hospital by hospital staff.  When Laura was forced to quit her job to take care of him, they could both have been without health insurance because they wouldn’t be legally linked to me.  I realized, on a really visceral level, just how cruel and destructive these types of policies are and what they’re really about.

I’m not hung up on the issue of marriage versus domestic partnership versus civil union. What I am stuck on is this category of policy, that says same sex couples are inferior and do not deserve the same recognition under the eyes of the law.  I could totally survive if gay marriage doesn’t fully pass in California. It feels like a luxury.  We are very, very lucky to live in a state that offers quite a few legal benefits to same sex couples.  But the Prop 8 campaign reinforced for me how many people really do harbor animosity towards families like mine and that they’re trying (somewhat successfully) to shape policies that hurt us.

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I walk past this house 3-4 times a week, and every time I see that sticker it hurts.  I can tell they have children by the toys in the yard and their huge passenger van. I can tell that they’re Christian by their Catholic radio sticker.  And I can tell that they have some feelings about queer people.  So I did the best think I could think of.  I wrote them a letter introducing myself and left it in their mailbox.

Here it is:

Hello,

You don’t know me but I walk past your house 3-4 days a week on my break from work. Every time, I’m struck by your “Yes on Prop 8” sticker. I’m guessing this may not be your intention, but every time I see your sticker, it feels like someone is standing in my face, yelling “I hate you and I hate your family.” I wanted to let you know what kind of an impact it has.

I thought the most constructive thing to do would be to take this opportunity to introduce myself. I’m guessing (maybe incorrectly) that you don’t know any Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) people and in particular LGBT parents. I have found that actually meeting or knowing about a real live person who is happy, healthy and well-adjusted AND gay can sometimes change things for people who seem to feel the way your family does about people like me.

I can tell from your house that you have children. I am also a parent and the issue of Proposition 8 has taken on a whole new meaning for me since having my son, Simon.

I have known I was a lesbian since I was 17. When I came out to my family, they were distressed because they were very concerned for my safety. They knew that people who have been taught to be homophobic do and say terrible things to people like me. However, my entire family including my parents and grandparents, were also very clear that they loved me unconditionally and would support me in leading the happiest, healthiest, most fulfilling life I could live, even if I were gay. That meant more to me than probably anything in my life.

I met my wife, Laura, over 8 years ago through a mutual friend. We were good friends for some time before we fell in love. A year and a half later, when Laura asked me to marry her on the Ponte Neuf bridge in Paris with an antique diamond ring, I gleefully said yes. Our family and friends were thrilled and we had a large, beautiful wedding in Tilden Park, at the Brazil Building, with over 120 family and friends.

Laura has known her whole life that she wanted to be a parent. I was a little more reserved about the idea, but after overcoming my fears that I would not be the kind of present, attentive parent I wanted to be, we moved forward with our process. A year and a half after we were married, Laura gave birth to our son, Simon.

Simon became gravely ill with a serious heart condition when he was almost four months old. He was in the ICU at Children’s Hospital Oakland for four months and nearly died numerous times. One of the things that sustained us as parents through that time was love. Love for each other, love for Simon and the love that so many other people showed us. Our doctors and nurses, friends of friends and relatives of friends prayed for us, sent us emails, gave us hugs, brought Simon toys and supported us as a family.

We were later shocked to learn that many of the people who were so kind to us in the hospital were evangelical Christians. They were able to treat us with kindness, love and compassion AND be Christian. They supported us as a family even though they may have had issues with us being gay, because they knew it was the truly good and kind thing to do. They did what Jesus would have done.

Which brings me to Proposition 8.

The only thing Proposition 8 and policies like it does is hurt families. It doesn’t do anything to strengthen your family or those of any other straight people. It just hurts families like mine, especially families with children.

My being gay and being in a happy, healthy relationship doesn’t actually hurt other people. It won’t make your kids gay and it won’t make my kid gay. Anyone who has spent any amount of quality time with gay people knows this. Prop 8 isn’t going to make it any less likely that someone is gay or that gay people will create families together.

Instead, it just makes us sad and feel scared that someday someone may hurt us or our families. And it makes the people that love us feel the same way. Fear and hurt are the opposite things that I would I hope loving Christian people like the ones that you seem to be, to bring to the world.

I am lucky enough to live in a state that has some policies that help me provide for and protect my family. I am the sole breadwinner right now because Simon is too medically fragile to be in daycare so Laura stays home with him. In other states with policies that seek to deny LGBT people the basic privileges straight people have, I might have been denied the right to visit my own son in the hospital while he appeared to be dying or he might be denied health insurance through me. That is simply cruel.

Denying Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people the same privileges heterosexual people have doesn’t actually help anyone. It just creates a culture in which people are fired, injured, killed and isolated for being gay. I know the goal of these types of policies is to somehow strengthen society but what they really do is divide us and hurt us. All of us. It hurts my parents when someone treats me badly for being gay and it will hurt my son when someone is cruel to his parents for being who they were born to be. It hurts me and I venture to say that in some ways, it also hurts you.

In the spirit of love, I want to reach out and invite you to learn about my family. We have a blog that we started at simonlev.blogspot.com that tells our story about living as a family with a critically ill child. You will probably laugh, you will probably cry and you may find that you come to see us as three of God’s perfect creatures.

Jaime Jenett

We actually got a response to this letter. 

To read the response, go here.

Photos of Simon, Jaime and Laura:

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.

Analysis Politics

Donald Trump and Mike Pence: The Anti-Immigrant Ticket

Tina Vasquez

“My greatest fear is that this ticket doesn’t seem to realize immigrants are actually an incredible resource that fuels our country," Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council told Rewire.

On Friday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, giving legitimacy to concerns a Trump presidency would be anti-choice and decimate LGBTQ rights. As Rewire reported last week, Pence has voted against nondiscrimination efforts, signed a so-called religious freedom bill, opposed marriage equality, and attemptednumerous times—to defund Planned Parenthood, something Trump has promised to do if elected president.

But the two Republicans also have something else in common: They are brazenly anti-immigrant.

Despite a misleading article from the Daily Beast asserting that Pence has had a “love affair with immigration reform” and has “spent his political career decrying anti-immigrant rhetoric,” the governor’s record on immigration tells a different story.

Let’s take a look at Trump’s “xenophobic” and “racist” campaign thus far, and how closely Pence’s voting aligns with that position.

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Donald Trump

For months it seemed, Donald Trump’s talking points in the media rarely drifted away from anti-immigrant rhetoric. During his kickoff speech, he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “killers” and in the months since, has promised to build a 2,000-mile-long wall along the United States-Mexico border to keep “illegals” out, a wall the billionaire has promised that Mexico will pay for.

Despite being called “racist” by members of his own party, Trump’s immigration plan is largely consistent with what many Republicans have called for: a larger border wall, increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, requiring all U.S. companies to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of employees, increasing the use of detention for those who are undocumented and currently residing in the United States, and ending “birthright citizenship,” which would mean the U.S.-born children of undocumented parents would be denied citizenship.

Again, Trump’s proposed immigration policies align with the Republican Party’s, but it is the way that he routinely spreads false, damaging information about undocumented immigrants that is worrisome. Trump has repeatedly said that economically, undocumented immigrants are “killing us by “taking our jobs, taking our manufacturing jobs, taking our money.” 

Market Watch, a publication focusing on financial news, reported that this falsehood is something that a bulk of Trump supporters believe; two-thirds of Trump supporters surveyed in the primaries said they feel immigration is a burden on our country “because ‘they take our jobs, housing and health care.'” This, despite research that says deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently call the United States home would result in a “massive economic hit” for Trump’s home state of New York, which receives $793 million in tax revenue from undocumented immigrants. A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy also found that at the state and local level, undocumented immigrants nationwide collectively pay an estimated $11.6 billion each year in taxes.

Trump has also been accused by Muslim Americans and members of the media of engaging in “reckless, dangerous Islamophobia” at every opportunity, using terrorist attacks to call for a ban on all Muslim immigration, while also using terrorism in a self-aggrandizing manner. In a statement released after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Trump said, “I said this was going to happen.”

These dangerous assertions that all U.S.-based Muslims are secretly harboring terrorists or that undocumented immigrants are killing “thousands of peoplea narrative he continued to push at the Republican National Convention by having the families of three Americans killed by undocumented people speak—can be deadly and inspire hatred and violence. This was made all the more clearer when in August 2015 two white brothers cited Trump when they urinated on and beat a homeless Latino man. According to Huffington Post, the men “alegedly [sic] told police they targeted the man because of his ethnicity and added, ‘Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.’” Trump’s response? He said that his supporters are simply “passionate” people who want America “to be great again.”

Mike Pence

Wendy Feliz, a spokesperson with the American Immigration Council, succinctly summarized Pence’s immigration approach to Rewire, saying on Monday that he “basically falls into a camp of being more restrictive on immigration, someone who looks for more punitive ways to punish immigrants, rather than looking for the positive ways our country can benefit from immigrants.”

After Trump’s announcement that Pence would be his running mate, Immigration Impact, a project of the American Immigration Council, outlined what voters should know about Pence’s immigration record:

Pence’s record shows he used his time in Congress and as the Governor of Indiana to pursue extreme and punitive immigration policies earning him a 100 percent approval rating by the anti-immigration group, Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In 2004 when Pence was a senator, he voted for the “Undocumented Alien Emergency Medical Assistance Amendments.” The bill failed, but it would have required hospitals to gather and report information on undocumented patients before hospitals could be reimbursed for treating them. Even worse, the bill wouldn’t have required hospitals to provide care to undocumented patients if they could be deported to their country of origin without a “significant chance” of their condition getting worse.

Though it’s true that in 2006 Pence championed comprehensive immigration reform, as the Daily Beast reported, the reform came with two caveats: a tightening of border security and undocumented immigrants would have to “self-deport” and come back as guest workers. While calling for undocumented immigrants to self-deport may seem like the more egregious demand, it’s important to contextualize Pence’s call for an increase in border security.

This tactic of calling for more Border Patrol agents is commonly used by politicians to pacify those opposed to any form of immigration reform. President Obama, who has utilized more border security than any other president, announced deferred action for the undocumented in June 2012, while also promising to increase border security. But in 2006 when Pence was calling for an increase in border security, the border enforcement policy known as “Operation Gatekeeper” was still in full swing. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Operation Gatekeeper “concentrated border agents and resources along populated areas, intentionally forcing undocumented immigrants to extreme environments and natural barriers that the government anticipated would increase the likelihood of injury and death.” Pence called for more of this, although the undocumented population expanded significantly even when border enforcement resources escalated. The long-term results, the ACLU reported, were that migrants’ reliance on smugglers to transport them increased and migrant deaths multiplied.

There are more direct ways Pence has illustrated a xenophobic agenda, including co-sponsoring a congressional bill that would have made English the official language of the United States and as governor, blocking Syrian refugees en route to Indiana, saying he would not accept any more Syrian refugees out of fear they were “terrorists.” The governor also added Indiana to the Texas lawsuit challenging expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). And he praised the inaction by the Supreme Court last month to expand DACA and DAPA, which leaves millions of undocumented immigrants living in fear of deportation.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, “when a child who is not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian is apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Federal law requires that ORR feed, shelter, and provide medical care for unaccompanied children until it is able to release them to safe settings with sponsors (usually family members), while they await immigration proceedings.”

The ORR added that these sponsors “live in many states,” including Indiana, which received 245 unaccompanied minors between January and July 2014. Pence was reportedly unaware that unaccompanied minors were being placed in his state by the federal government, something he said he was made aware of by media reports. These are asylum seeking children, often girls under the age of 10, escaping violence in their countries of origin who arrive at the United States-Mexico border without an adult. Many, including advocacy organizations and the Obama administration, have contended that the circumstances surrounding unaccompanied minors is not simply an immigration issue, but a humanitarian crisis. Not Pence. In a letter to President Obama, the Indiana governor wrote:

While we feel deep compassion for these children, our country must secure its borders and provide for a legal and orderly immigration process …. Failure to expedite the return of unaccompanied children thwarts the rule of law and will only continue to send a distorted message that illegally crossing into America is without consequence.

In the four days since Pence was named Trump’s running mate, he’s also taken a much harsher stance on Muslim immigration. Back in December when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Pence tweeted that banning Muslims from entering the United States was “offensive and unconstitutional.” However, on Friday when Pence was officially named Trump’s VP pick, he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “I am very supportive of Donald Trump’s call to temporarily suspend immigration from countries where terrorist influence and impact represents a threat to the United States.”

Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council told Rewire that while Pence’s rhetoric may not be as inflammatory as Trump’s, it’s important to look at his record in relation to Trump’s to get a better understanding of what the Republican ticket intends to focus on moving into a possible presidency. Immigration, she said, is one of the most pressing issues of our time and has become a primary focus of the election.

“In a few days, we’ll have a better sense of the particular policies the Republican ticket will be pursuing on immigration. It all appears to point to more of the same, which is punitive, the punishing of immigrants,” Feliz said. “My greatest fear is that this ticket doesn’t seem to realize immigrants are actually an incredible resource that fuels our country. I don’t think Trump and Pence is a ticket that values that. An administration that doesn’t value immigrants, that doesn’t value what’s fueled our country for the past several hundred years, hurts all of us. Not just immigrants themselves, but every single American.”