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I wore a lot of buttons in high school, but none of them excited so much comment as the pink triangle.  At the time it was rare for anyone who wasn’t gay, lesbian or bisexual to wear the symbol, and national progress toward justice was slow.  The Supreme Court had just ruled sodomy laws constitutional, and the right to marry was a distant dream.  The AIDS epidemic in the United States was at its deadliest moment, and the enduring image of the time, created by AIDS activists, was a big black poster with a pink triangle and the words “SILENCE = DEATH.”

pinktriangle
The pink triangle itself came from Nazi concentration camps, in which gay men were identified with a pink triangle on their shirts.  Tens of thousands were imprisoned, many were killed, and some were not released even at the war’s end.  (Lesbians were not identified by pink triangles, but many were arrested for “antisocial behavior” and made to wear black triangles in the camps.)  In the 1970s, the triangle began to appear as a symbol of gay pride and a warning of the dangers of oppression.

During the 1990s, the pink triangle began to fade from use.  The rainbow “welcoming flag,” celebrating diversity, appealed to straight allies as well as bisexual, lesbian and transgender people.  It was a less harsh, more positive symbol, a way of saying, “all kinds of people are welcome and valued equally.”  Today the pink triangle seems all but consigned to history.

With the news of draconian anti-gay measures in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda, a new ban on gay sex instituted by the Supreme Court of India, and nouveau Jim Crow laws proposed in Arizona and elsewhere, I wonder if it might be time to bring back the pink triangle.  While the world has made great progress in the struggle for equality, the current backlash is proving powerful and dangerous.  In the United States, measures permitting discrimination on the basis of “religious freedom” will inevitably prove unable to withstand constitutional scrutiny by even the current Supreme Court.  More pernicious are the American religious extremists who have given up on the United States and turned their energies toward countries that offer no such protections, or who have weak governments in need of distraction or scapegoats.  Ironically, both Russia and Uganda have couched oppressive new laws as reactions to colonialism by Western gay culture when the truth is exactly the reverse.

I love the welcoming flag, and fly it proudly – but maybe we need to hold onto the pink triangle as well.  Maybe we need a reminder of the cost of hatred, in real human lives and livelihoods.  Maybe we need to remember that silence really does equal death, and the worst thing we can do is remain silent in the face of oppression.

Our voices matter, and we can save lives.  Sometimes what matters most is a word of encouragement and welcome to a teen just coming out.  Sometimes it’s our support of equal marriage rights, and equal protection in housing and employment.  At other times we need to raise our voices for those around the world whose sexual orientation places them in far more immediate jeopardy.  We can do this not only by campaigning against anti-gay laws, and supporting sanctions towards nations (and states) that pass them, but also by calling to account those who would export hatred.

I pray for a world in which a symbol like the pink triangle is can be a historical curiosity, when people are simply regarded as people, whoever they are and whoever they love.  I believe in my heart that such a world is both possible and likely – but it will take years of work, and history must never be forgotten.

Meanwhile, it’s time to find that old button.

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Note – the video doesn’t play directly from the blog, but does from YouTube.  Click the link and watch it; you’ll be glad you did.

Veteran’s Day can be a challenging observation for those of us in the peace movement. As a committed pacifist, I deplore all war. The very existence of armed conflict is, in my view, the most colossal and self-defeating waste of resources ever devised by humanity. At the same time, I recognize the sacrifices of women and men who have gone to war – some voluntarily and some not so. I’ve seen minds damaged and families destroyed by the aftermath of battle. I’ve seen good people walking around with physical and emotional injuries that will never show. And I cannot help but honor these women and men, not because of the injuries, but because of the sacrifices they made out of love of country. I may not agree with the need for those sacrifices, but I surely honor the people who made them.

Utah Phillips once said that the way wars can end is when soldiers start talking about what it was really like. He has said that his time in Panmunjom immediately after the treaty was “absolute life amid the ruins.”

On today’s Morning Edition, National Public Radio’s political commentator Cokie Roberts talked about the effect of fewer veterans serving in Congress. “You see it in debates about taking the United States into military actions where you don’t hear the voices of those very experienced veterans.” I wondered how eager politicians would be to enter wars if more of them understood it better.

I’ve always appreciated A. L. Lloyd’s Seamen’s Hymn. In its brief simplicity it captures both the honor of sacrifice and the cruelty of war:

Come all you bold seamen
Wherever you’re bound
And always let Nelson’s
Proud memory go round.

And pray that the wars
And the tumult shall cease
For the greatest of gifts
Is a sweet lasting peace.

May the Lord put an end
To these cruel old wars
And bring peace and contentment
To all our brave tars!

There are several videos of performances of “The Seamen’s Hymn,” but to my ear this recording from a pub sing captures it best. This is how the song should be sung – by the people, often and loudly.

On this Veteran’s Day, may we honor sacrifices made in war, recognize its cruelty, and join together in prayer for the greatest of gifts – a sweet lasting peace.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but the news of the week has had me calling my Congressman and Senators, more than once.   The prospect of a government shutdown appalls me.

I grew up in the Washington, DC area. My parents worked for the government, as did my neighbors and our family friends.  I remember the last shutdown, 17 years ago, when my family had to go without a paycheck from my stepmother’s job at the Agency for International Development for three weeks.

This time it’s worse. This time federal workers have already had to suffer higher workloads and unpaid furloughs because of the sequester. Whatever cushion they might have had to help get them through a week or three without a being paid has already been used up.  There is no fund to help them; they will still be responsible for paying rent, covering bills, buying food, putting gas in the car to get their kids to school. For someone who lives paycheck to paycheck,  as many government workers do, a shutdown could be devastating.

There’s been a lot of attention to the 1.4 million military service members who would normally go without pay during a government shutdown, and the House and Senate have agreed to pay them.  Very little attention has been paid to two million civil servants – almost half of whom will be sent home, and all of whom will remain unpaid.  (It is worth mentioning that in the event of a shutdown, members of Congress still do get paid.  Civil servants do not.)

We don’t hear very much in the national media about the people who will be directly hurt when the government shuts down. This isn’t just about whether we’ll be able to visit a national park or go to the Smithsonian; it’s about ordinary working people’s lives. Nobody should have to lose their credit rating, or heaven forbid their home, or go hungry, because a group of politicians decide to throw a temper tantrum.

I’m glad the Senate has held firm, and hope they continue to – anything else would only encourage a dangerous and destructive pattern in politics. The issue at hand is not the health care law, it’s whether it is ethical to hold ordinary civil servants, the economy, and the American people hostage to unrelated policy demands.

After the last shutdown, Congress voted to make federal workers whole and give them back pay. I can only hope that when the shutdown is over, this Congress will remember the people who did nothing to deserve this punishment.  Unfortunately what I’ve seen does not give me much hope. And it does nothing for the damage that will have been done to peoples’ lives.

Tonight many civil servants are working unpaid overtime to prepare for a shutdown – and they will do so again to clear the backlog of work when the situation is finally resolved.  I’m grateful for their service.  What’s being done to them is morally repugnant, and we owe it to them and their families to treat them well during the days and weeks ahead.

If you care about this issue, as I do, please contact your member of Congress and Senators.  Remember that the people who live in Washington, DC have no vote in Congress. That makes it all the more important that the rest of us make our voices heard.

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Today is the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. The first moments of that war were heavily televised, though we saw very little that our government didn’t wish us to see.  Cameras placed on the bottoms of planes gave us the illusion that bombs could be “smart,” hit only their targets and would never hurt the general population – with whom, we were told, we had no quarrel.  Even those of us who protested the war thought it would be over quickly – though many raised concerns over its longer term impacts.  The nightly television coverage seemed to confirm these predictions, as we dropped bomb after bomb after bomb on Baghdad.  Hearing the blasé attitudes of television reporters chatting cheerfully over footage of death raining on human beings sickened me, and I wrote this poem, which now I give to you:

Windows onto the destruction
propped open in the living room;
Almost game-like in precision;
horrific in carnage.
Only 56 killed, we hear through narrow cracks.
It is a half truth.
When we turn to the window,
pry open the jammed frame,
the smell sickens.
It isn’t the 56 young Americans,
not mostly.
It is the stench of a hundred,
a thousand
two thousand
men
children
women,
fighters or lovers,
death knows no distinctions of
innocence or guilt.
The 20 megatons that would
pulverize a palace
destroy a slum.
“Regrettable.”
The lives of our soldiers
more precious than their children,
our integrity dies in the furnace.

They told us we lost our innocence
the day two towers fell.
It was a lie.
We found our innocence
the day we died.
We lost our innocence
the day
we killed.

– Dan Schatz
March 2003

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