Friday, July 12, 2013

Countryside tour, includes dead body!

The church Stew and I attend, a non-denominational enterprise with a sketchy doctrinal corpus but a strong commitment to good works in small villages surrounding San Miguel, had organized an outing to Fajardo de Bocas, located about ten miles from our ranch, to inspect a domestic gray-water treatment plant some members had built at a Mexican family's home.

So we took off for Fajardo in the pickup this morning, with Stew at the wheel and Félix giving directions from the backseat. Félix, who must have been a party-hardy boy in his earlier years, knows every town within a ten-mile radius and specifically when each holds its annual fiesta.

Chapel at the entrance of Fajardo de Boca,
home to many Rubio's—one of them perhaps dead. 
The morning began amid a dense fog that by nine o'clock had dissipated, creating a dazzling spectacle: The vegetation, freshly green after two weeks of rain and covered with dew, glistened under the breaking sunlight as if someone had sprinkled sparkle dust on the landscape. The moisture heightened the smells too, mostly of manure and mowed grass. Time to turn off the air conditioning and open the truck's windows.

We hadn't even arrived in Fajardo, though, when we ran into the alarming sight of police and other government vehicles, and officers wielding machine guns, officiously pacing around a body lying in the ditch on the left side of the road.

The crime scene could have been the opening shot for TV's C.S.I., for all the forensic props. A yellow police tape had been tied to the trees that surrounded the body, which was covered in a white sheet except for the toes, next to which someone had placed plastic marker with the number "01". A guy in a white, hooded hazmat suit walked around the scene and whispered to the other officers.

Unfortunately, the results of this or any other police work in Mexico are bound to be far less impressive than the paraphernalia. The country has an abysmal arrest and conviction record, so the chances of catching the guy who killed the poor bastard under the white sheet, much less sending the culprit to prison, are very near zee-roh.

We came close to another stiff a month ago, when we gave a ride to a young couple, three children and an older woman, all neatly dressed and each clutching small bouquets of flowers, headed for the home of an uncle who lived in La Campana, another small town about a mile from us, until the night before, when his brother stabbed him to death.

The mourners clambered on the bed of the truck and thanked and blessed us so profusely at the end of the ride that Stew and I thought we might be sucked up to heaven right there. Félix had heard of the stabbing—Félix is a one-man news/gossip organization for the area surrounding our ranch—but didn't know if the surviving brother had been jailed. Don't assume he has, cautioned Félix, ever the skeptic.

In Fajardo the search for the gray-water recycling project went about as well as Mexican police work. All we had was the last name of the family, Rubio, like the Tea Party U.S. senator from Florida. But Rubio is the most common name in town a woman explained to us, there are lots of Rubio-Rubio's in Fajardo (with the same paternal and maternal last names) and even more plain Rubios. Welcome to Rubioland.

This pattern of one or two dominant last names is pervasive in many of these insular towns where intermarriage among family members is common, along with genetic problems. Félix's last name, Arzola, is one of the most common in his town of Sosnavar; his full name is Félix Arzola Arzola.

After asking several pedestrians and owners of tiendas—tiny storefront markets—for about an hour, we finally gave up our search for the gray water treatment plan and returned to the ranch.

On the way back, the stiff was still lying on the grass, the police were still buzzing about, but a newspaper reporter was racing toward the scene of the crime in a tiny car with a sign "PRENSA" that took up about a third of the windshield.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

All of a sudden yet so late in coming

The coincidences almost added up to a trifecta. On June 26 the U.S. Supreme Court announced two decisions that greatly advanced, though not quite endorsed, marriage equality for same-sex couples in the U.S. Two days later was the forty-fourth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, an event that many regard as the beginning of the gay liberation movement not only in the U.S. but worldwide. And on June 20, six days ahead of the Supremes, Stew and I went out for a fancy dinner in town to celebrate our forty-first anniversary.

In truth our anniversary date is arbitrary because unlike straight couples our relationship began more like a midnight elopement, without any wedding, paper-signing at the courthouse or other ritual. June 20, 1972 was just the day Stew and I finished graduate school at Indiana University, Bloomington, packed our belongings in Stew's dark green 1970 Mercury Montego and headed almost straight north to the bright lights of Chicago to look for work, find a place to live and nail down other details of two people starting a life together.

Following the Supreme Court's twin decisions many commentators marveled how quickly the gay rights movement had surged forward, catching almost everyone by surprise. It's true that before the Stonewall riots big-city police departments routinely raided gay bars, hassled and extorted money from the patrons, almost for sport and with complete impunity: Most of the victims were too afraid to push back against the constant harassment. One's picture or name appearing in the newspaper after a raid surely would be a career- or marriage-ender.

Turn to 2013 and we saw several openly gay television reporters—a good-looking bunch, too—barely able to contain their glee at the news about marriage equality.

That's lightning progress unless you'd actually lived through those decades—four decades and one year for Stew and me—waiting to be recognized and respected as a couple by family members, neighbors, coworkers, fellow churchgoers and ultimately society at large. Not celebrated, just treated as equals. From that personal viewpoint the march toward equality has been excruciatingly slow: It consumed a bit more than two-thirds of our lives.

Certain incidents stick in my mind from that time, like filling out an application for a government security clearance, required for a job at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, that included a routine box asking you if you were a homosexual or had been treated for "other mental illnesses," or words to that effect. So of course I checked "no," held my breath and hoped the background checks didn't unearth anything queer in my 24-year-old life, like my participation in a gay organization at Indiana University.

For most of my working life my relationship with Stew couldn't be allowed to rise above "roommates," you know, just a way for two guys to cut down housing and living expenses. In retrospect, this daily hide-and-hide game at work was embarrassing, ridiculous and demeaning for both of us, yet true to the times.

At the wedding of Stew's brother Knute I attended not as member of the family but some unspecified "friend of Stew," which left me feeling like a opera supernumerary who stands around silently holding a spear while the divas and tenors warble and the elephants saunter by. I don't blame Stew for not offering a toast to introduce me as his husband, boyfriend or any such weirdness—not at a small-town wedding in northern Wisconsin in the 1970s.

To their credit Knute and his wife Judy, who've been married almost as long as we have, were the first to accept us as more than, ahem, "buddies," though I don't remember any explicit discussion of our relationship. We've become good friends.

But the one event that kicked me out of the closet was the AIDS catastrophe that began during the 1980s and hit large cities like Chicago particularly hard.

I watched two friends named Bob Stark and Bill McIlwain, whom I had met through the Windy City Gay Chorus, and had been together more than ten years, get sick and die in quick sequence. I realized that as gay individuals or a gay couple they had no rights whatsoever.

Bob's parents flew in from New Jersey and pushed Bill aside, a quiet person to start with, who discovered he had no say in the medical decisions concerning his spouse. And when Bob died, his parents picked through the couple's communal belongings which included a piano and some expensive stereo equipment which, absent a will—or any marital inheritance rights—Bill could not legally contest.

In the eyes of the law, their ten-year relationship did not exist. Their relationship meant zero.

Later in my career as I moved up to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, a conservative, Republican battleship of a newspaper, a moment of truth dawned. At the end of the year each member was asked to write a small piece mentioning special interests, the name of the spouse and children and other such trivia, accompanied by a smiling portrait. I was ready to put down "single" as my marital status when the Angel of Gay Liberation, the memory of Bill and Bob—or a sudden surge of self-respect—whispered to me: "Al, that's a lie."

How could I claim to be single when Stew and I already had built an intricate life together that included a variable number of dogs and cats, jointly-owned real estate, cars, bank accounts and other stuff couples accumulate? So I put down that I lived with my partner of twenty-some years, named Stew, and some dogs and cats, in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood, and thus gave the paper's readers and colleagues a little peek into my life as a gay man.

The reaction from the editor of the paper down to my colleagues was positive though sometimes sprinkled with odd comments like "Thank you for your courage." Courage? It was just telling the truth.

In San Miguel we have encountered not only a sizable gay community, but an accepting community in general, including a non-denominational church to which we belong and has celebrated the relationships of gay couples and the passing of one or two gay church members. The warmth and acceptance of everyone around is one of the things that has made living in San Miguel really cool.

As to the Supremes in Washington, D.C. I say: "Thanks gals and guys, despite the long wait."

Illinois, our nominal home state, is expected to pass marriage equality in the next legislative session, and afford Stew and I a chance to formalize our relationship in the eyes of the law.

But if not Illinois, there's always New York, or any of the New England states, through which we plan to drive in the fall, up to Canada, which come to think of it, approved same-sex marriages in 2005.

A week ago though, I received some alarming news from our tax preparer. I asked him how much in taxes we would have paid in 2012 if we had filed as a married couple or as a couple filing separately. I expected a tax break or bonus for being married.

Wrong-o: We would have paid $1,500 more as married couple and more again if we filed separately, thanks to some sort of "marriage penalty" built into the tax code. Say what? 

So now that we've got the marriage equality pretty much sorted out, I guess Stew and I have to move tax reform up in our list of political priorities, though we're not ready to wait another forty-one years.

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