Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘activism’

07 OCTOBER, 2013

Edie Windsor, Patron Saint of Modern Love

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“The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.”

At the 2013 New Yorker Festival, I had the existential thrill of meeting the magnificent and humbling Edith Windsor — beloved patron saint of modern love, who invested years of legal battle and decades of personal struggle in making marriage equality a constitutional reality for all of us, and subject of the soul-stirring 2010 documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement. During her conversation with the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy — whose beautiful profile of Windsor remains a masterpiece of magazine journalism, an absolute must-read, and a lamentable case of paywalls robbing culture of culture — 84-year-old Edie spoke with remarkable wit, wisdom, and bravery about her journey and her monumental win for universal love as she was losing the love of her life. Thea Spyer, her spouse of 42 years, who died in 2009 and her death imposed an outrageous estate tax of $363,053 on Edie, which precipitated the landmark United States v. Windsor case that resulted in overturning DOMA.

Portrait of Edith Windsor by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

Here are some of the most memorable highlights from the talk.

On being gay and in love in the 1950s:

It looked impossible.

On the elegant humanity of how acceptance happens:

The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.

On reconciling rejection from family and friends — something Edie knows a grim lot about, given her own homophobic sister didn’t speak to her for thirty years:

You just have to live your life, and the people who can’t catch up, can’t catch up.

On the rewards of her pioneering role in the LGBT rights movement, despite the personal tragedy:

I can’t think of a better position to be in and I can’t think of a better life for myself to have. There’s so much love and such a sense of community.

Her relationship advice to all couples, gay, straight, and varied — a wonderful addition to history’s greatest wisdom on love:

Don’t postpone joy.

But the moving moment, for me, came when I got a chance to ask Edie a question about love and mortality. Her answer, simple and honest and immutably human, was pure goosebumps:

Q: My partner is older than I am, so the prospect of mortality, of eventual and inevitable grief, always haunts the back of my mind. How do you keep love alive after death?

A: I sometimes wish I knew how not to.

Thank you, Edie, for everything.

Try not to tear up at this trailer for Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement:

Complement with Windsor’s Reconstructionist profile and Debbie Millman’s illustrated account of Edie’s historic phone call with President Obama.

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28 JUNE, 2013

After Stonewall: The First-Ever Pride Parades, In Vintage Photos

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“There were no openly gay policemen, public school teachers, doctors, or lawyers.”

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, violent protests and street demonstrations took over the streets of New York after a police raid of Stonewall Inn, the now-legendary Greenwich Village gay bar. Known as the Stonewall Riots, these protests are commonly considered the tipping point at which the LGBT community coalesced into political cohesion and the birth of the modern gay rights movement. On that June morning, equality for all seemed a distant but necessary dream — a dream that has finally become reality a day shy of 44 years later.

In Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (public library), David Carter contextualizes the remarkable delta of progress that the Stonewall Riots precipitated:

It was only a few decades ago — a very short time in historical terms — that the situation of gay men and lesbians was radically different from what it is today. At the end of the 1960s, homosexual sex was illegal in every state but Illinois. Not one law — federal, state, or local — protected gay men or women from being fired or denied housing. There were no openly gay politicians. No television show had any identifiably gay characters. When Hollywood made a film with a major homosexual character, the character was either killed or killed himself. There were no openly gay policemen, public school teachers, doctors, or lawyers. And no political party had a gay caucus.

In 1970, to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings, the very first Gay Pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Digging through the New York Public Library archives, I unearthed some goosebump-inducing photos of the first-ever Pride parades around the world:

New York City Gay Liberation Day, Christopher Street, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Diana Davies via NYPL)

Gay Liberation Day march and dance, New York City, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

New York City Gay Liberation Day, Christopher Street, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Diana Davies via NYPL)

Gay Liberation Day march and dance, New York City, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Gay Liberation Day march and dance, New York City, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally and march, June 11, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Annapolis students at Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Chicago Gay Pride celebration, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Toronto Gay Pride march, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Gay couple at Toronto's first Gay Pride Week, August 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Lesbian couple at Toronto's first Gay Pride Week, August 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

For the complete cultural context on this tidal change, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution is indispensable in its entirety.

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04 MARCH, 2013

Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and the Shared Dignity of Giving and Receiving

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“When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

“It would be a terrible calamity,” Henry Miller wrote in his meditation on the beautiful osmosis between giving and receiving, “for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches.” And yet, we live in a culture that perpetuates the false perception of a certain power dynamic between giver and receiver, and — worse yet — stigmatizes the very act of asking as undignified.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the wonderful Amanda Palmer who, besides being an extraordinarily talented musician, is also a fellow champion of open culture and believer in making good work freely available, trusting that those who find value in it will support it accordingly. Disillusioned with the questionable success standards of the music industry, she recently left her record label and set out to self-release her next album in what became the most heartily funded music project in the history of Kickstarter — but not without some harsh criticism by those too attached to the crumbling comforts of the Olden Ways. In this brave talk, easily my favorite TED talk of all time, Amanda invites us to reclaim the art of asking from the insecure grip of shame and celebrate it instead as the sublime surge of mutuality that it is:

Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists — they don’t want to ask for things. It’s not easy to ask. … Asking makes you vulnerable.

[…]

I don’t see these things as risks — I see them as trust. … But the perfect tools can’t help us if we can’t face each other, and give and receive fearlessly — but, more importantly, to ask without shame. … When we really see each other, we want to help each other. I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’

Given how close to home Amanda’s eloquent words strike, I chatted with her about what seems to be the greatest challenge to this cultural shift toward destigmatizing asking:

MP: As someone who’s been called an “internet pan-handler” for asking my community for support, I’m astounded by some people’s cynicism in failing to see the dignified mutuality in these exchanges. What can we do to shift the culture around them from pan-handling to daisy-handing?

AP: Well…this is the problem with doing a 12-minute TED talk instead of writing a 220-page book. There’s a lot of simplification involved. The concept is more or less that when you trust people to help you, they often do, and artists have done this from the dawn of time. I’m sure the early-days minstrels were epically talented couchsurfers. Maybe there were cave-surfers way back in the day, who knows.

I saw a comment on the TED website that basically said, “this model is bullshit… would you feel OK if Justin Bieber decided to crowdsource teenage girls to be his maids and clean his room, etc.,” and that got me thinking. First of all, it isn’t about the theoretical, it’s about what artists/people actually do. I doubt Justin Bieber would think it was a wise idea to let a giddy little fan into his pad and clean up his stuff, it’d be a huge pain in this ass for him and his privacy, etc., since he’s a celebrity and all he’d need is that one fan tweeting a picture of the joint and used condom by his bedside and he’d have a PR nightmare on his hands.

And the Bieber example is odd, because it involves children, but let’s say the example was, I don’t know, Ozzy Osbourne. Let’s say Ozzy puts out a call for crowdsourced maids. If an adult raises his or her hand and says, “Hell yes!!! I’m happy to spend X time being Ozzy’s maid, this’ll be interesting,” isn’t that a fair exchange between two consenting adults? Don’t people do weird shit all the time for each other, for free, just for the experience? The story? The feeling?

What if we replaced Ozzy with … I don’t know … the Dalai Llama? Would we judge it differently? A lot of young monks give up their possessions, go study with a master, and do their master’s dishes … and we think of this in a kind of gentle-hearted karate-kid sort of romanticism. …

The idea is to let adults make their own rules, their own exchanges, their own decisions. We all value different things and experiences in different ways — and we can get very creative about it, and about the ways we help each other.

To partake in the architecture of this new paradigm and revel in the two-way street of this glorious mutuality, support Amanda’s music and ethos on her site, where you can download her fantastic new album — for free or for however much you’d like — and go see one of her shows if you get a chance. For more of her spirit of fierce openness, follow her Twitter.

Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED

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