Gnomes, Smiley Faces and the LA Gay Debate

I was one of the 250 people invited to attend the televised LOGO / HRC Democratic debate in Los Angeles, which focused on lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. From my second row seat, I spent a good deal of time bobbing around the head of a husky Department of Homeland Security officer in order to get a view of the stage. He told me that he had a mission: to protect Senators Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. I don’t think “pissing me off ” was part of that mission, but I could be wrong.

There was one benefit to my seat: witty gay men surrounded me and editorialized on every issue. Like smart, lovable gnomes, they guarded the gay agenda. They opined when they thought a candidate had fumbled or advanced the ball, and revealed the show’s behind-the-scenes happenings. This included details about how half the crew had volunteered without pay to help with the production—putting in hundreds of hours—simply because they were thrilled the presidential hopefuls were addressing the LGBT community.

I got the skinny on Bill Richardson’s aim to get skinny; the New Mexico Governor had asked that no snacks be placed in his dressing room. He didn’t want to be tempted off of his diet. One gnome said to me, “If he can be tempted by Chex Mix, can we trust him when corporate campaign checks get tossed into the mix?” I couldn’t quite grasp the connection.

Sitting in the audience were Arianna Huffington, Doogie Hauser’s Neil Patrick Harris, and California Assemblyman Mike Feuer. LA City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl rushed to his seat and apologized for his tardiness, explaining how he’d been backstage coaching his candidate, Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

The Democrats were questioned in the order they RSVP’d for the event; Obama was first, and Clinton was last. I could not help but think Clinton had planned it that way, as part of an “I’m experienced, unlike my opponent” strategy to get the last word. I could just hear her practicing in front of the mirror: I refuse to meet with leaders of rogue nations. I refuse to RSVP until after my rogue, I mean, esteemed competitors have done so…

Obama—following the “separate but equal” line and discounting the importance of the word “marriage”--argued that the rights afforded married couples should be given to the LGBT community. He described himself as a “supporter… of a strong version (of civil union);”a platform that did not produce smiley faces in the crowd because they felt the word “marriage” was central to true equality. I felt Obama’s biggest error was to suggest gay issues and homophobia are less important than inner city jobs, but the interviewers threw him a towel and let him walk.

The second victim tossed into the ring was Senator John Edwards--the “barbers union” and “scissors lobby” favorite—who also shied away from supporting same-sex marriage. Edwards blurted out, “it’s not true” in response to a rumor that he was uncomfortable around gay people. I heard my neighboring gnome mumble, “Thank goodness for that, Senator. Cause it looks like we’ve got you surrounded.” The audience was tightly wrapped in a U around the stage.

Governor Bill Richardson made the most pronounced blunder of the evening when he said that being gay was based on choice rather than genetic factors, a comment that surely came from a deprivation of brain food, most notably Chex Mix. Following the debate, his campaign sent an emergency email to the press, reversing his position.

Richardson—who also refused to support gay marriage--pounded the line, “I’ll do what’s achievable,” so many times that those around me wondered if yanking him off the stage would be achievable.

Senator Clinton—who wore a festive coral jacket--was not immune from the innocent “candidate bashing” game. One gnome said, “she’s dressed like one of us,” and another mused, “I almost wore the same outfit.” Like Obama, Edwards and Richardson, Clinton did not support the LGBT threshold issue: gay marriage; and like her opponents, she could not explain why. She merely called it a “personal position.” Clinton’s greatest stumble came when she said the LGBT community’s fight for equality “has not been a long term struggle yet,” implying that a group needs to suffer for a prescribed number of years before a politician takes notice. Could this argument be applied to the 2008 election? Is there a particular junior Senator from New York who has not struggled long enough in politics to be taken seriously as a candidate for President?

Former Senator Mike Gravel, the candidate I affectionately call the “grumpy outsider,” was not so grumpy that night, nor was he an outsider. The crowd loved it when he tossed his support to same-sex marriage, and predicted “five years from now, the marriage issue will be a non-issue.”

At first the gnome to my left said Gravel’s shoes were not up to par, “I am judging all candidates on their shoes and this one fails. This is a gay forum. He should know better.”

However, after Gravel proved himself to be an advocate for LGBT issues, the gnome altered his harsh position on footwear, ” I’ve changed my mind. I like what he said, so I’ve decided his shoes are ok.” I’m sure Gravel is relieved.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich strolled into the room as if he was the reigning champion of the LGBT agenda and gave his unwavering support to same-sex marriage. Like a cross between Tarzan and a Vermont Teddy Bear, he radiated a cuddly and caring confidence while beating on his chest that “the federal government (should) be the agent for change” and that as president, he would be a true leader, always taking a stand on principle. The panelists gushed over him, saying, “They told me not to fawn over you” and “you’re so evolved for a member of Congress.” My gnomes were all smiley faces and applause.

I feel Kucinich won the debate due to his sincerity and passion for the issues, while Gravel earned second place.

The gay debate was about the LGBT community “arriving” and formally entering the hallowed political halls. The gay debate was about fun and making tasteless jokes at the poor candidates’ expense. The gay debate was about moving towards a necessary equality.

And there’s absolutely nothing the matter with that.


Confessions of an Adopted Child

I was born in the backseat of an Oldsmobile. My mother was in labor for 15 minutes, not long enough for my father to drive us to Grady Hospital in downtown Atlanta. I popped out during the Drifters’ song “There Goes My Baby;” and moments later, there I went. In the emergency room parking lot, I was whisked away by a nurse, complying with a pre-arranged adoption pact and who was under the assumption—as were most adoption “experts” in 1960--that cutting ties should be done in an abrupt and swift fashion like pulling off an old Band-Aid. I would never see my natural parents again. At least that’s what everyone thought.

My adoptive family always had the appropriate number of cars, boats, housekeepers and country club parties; they were skilled at complying with “old money” standards. Those who had “new money”--such as show business folk or overnight get-rich schemers--were naturally inferior to us, or so I was told. By adopting me, my parents were on track for procuring a suitable number of children for a respectable family: two. My brother was adopted a couple of years later.

To the neighbors, everything looked primed and painted, but I was well acquainted with the wood filler and industrious termites beneath the surface. Partly, my negativity stemmed from a perception that I was an outsider with an entirely different value system. I did not qualify as the black sheep of the family for only one reason: sheep tend to be followers. I was more like the independent, black cat, who went my own way.

From grade school to high school, my classmates regularly criticized me for supporting the civil rights movement, for rejecting communism conspiracy theories, for failing to be enamored with all Republican candidates, and for not accepting Jesus as my Redeemer, despite the fact that I attended religious services six days a week.

It galled my friends when I lusted over the flashy, sequined evening gowns that the “new money” movie stars would wear to the latest premiere. Then I’d show up at the school dance wearing one and watch the whispers percolate throughout the room.

I felt ideologically out of place regardless of whether I was at home, school or the local mall and wondered why. Many studies point to a connection between biology and criminal behavior, but what about biology in relation to simple, run-of-the-mill beliefs? Could a person have a genetic predisposition towards particular moral values and favored activities? Could “nature” make a person more likely to support universal healthcare, gay marriage, educational vouchers or the National Rifle Association? Could DNA be a factor in a person’s distaste for vintage automobiles or her attraction to sports?

The answer seems to be yes. British and Australian researchers determined that twins who are reared apart think similarly on subjects ranging from sex, religion, politics, divorce, apartheid and tough-mindedness; and twin research at the University of Minnesota confirmed the finding. “Nurture” has little influence on a child’s personality. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker makes the case that as much as 70% of the variation between individuals, in areas such as political leanings, personal philosophy, intelligence and personality, are derived from genes.

According to the Washington Monthly, a study conducted by Bruce Sacerdote found that biology rather than environment correlates with income. He learned that “being raised (as an adoptee) in a high-earning family doesn’t seem to have much effect (on the income of the child when she grows up), while being born (as a natural child) to a high-earning family does.” Did this mean I might have to give up those big-ticket gowns and go from being “old money” to “no money?”

Adult children often seek out their natural parents in order to address health concerns, such as to determine whether cancer or heart disease runs in the family; but I wondered if it could help a person better understand herself? I aimed to find out and started the search for my natural parents at the age of 25.

The process was jammed with roadblocks. Adoption records were closed; in other words, I was not supposed to gain access to names or identifying information. Although the bulk of my detective work took place by phone from my home in Los Angeles, at one point I traveled to the Atlanta adoption agency that had placed me and persuaded an employee to divulge the names of my mother and father.

When I was told “Wilson,” I anticipated a needle-in-the-haystack search and realized I had not even arrived at the farm. Today, there are two and a half million listings on Google with my father’s exact first and last name.

As I sleuthed after data, I picked up helpers along the way. Amiable strangers in Georgia, Maryland and Virginia—most of who lived in residences that were once occupied by my mother or father--volunteered to devote investigative hours and legwork to my pressing mission. I made calls. They made calls. In the end, I found my father’s former college and got his contact number from alumni records. I located my mother via a Baltimore school that had employed my grandmother.

I learned one parent is a university professor and author, and the other works for the U.S. Government in Washington D.C. They gave me up for adoption because they were in graduate school and did not plan to stay together. They didn’t.

In the end, I found parents—as well as aunts, cousins and a grandmother—who have values and interests akin to my own. They study philosophy, are environmental advocates, teach aerobics, have similar taste in art and suffer from the migraine headaches that have plagued me since I was a child.

My mother’s religious path detoured in the same way as mine. We were both raised Christian, then attended a Unitarian church for a while, and eventually converted to Reform Judaism.

Although my natural family is rich in heart, their pockets are not totally bare; so genetically speaking, it looks like I may be able to feed my “frock habit” for a few more years.

The ongoing connection with my kin has taught me why I am the way I am, and why I am unlike those who raised me. I appreciate my adoptive parents’ efforts, but have learned that one can never have too many parents.

Desperately Seeking DNA

Maybe the recent Connecticut home invasion didn’t mesmerize us for months like the cable news soap operas I affectionately call “The Guiding Light of Anna Nicole Smith” and “As the World Turns around Natalee Holloway,” but it still got entangled in the media’s “news flash” net and held our collective attention for a full 48 hours. In the end, two men were arrested and charged with robbing, raping, and killing a suburban family as well as torching their home.

I was not overly surprised by the villainous events of that day. A 2005 U.S. Department of Justice report reveals there is one rape for every 1,000 Americans per year and six murders for every 100,000.

I was also not shocked when the story became the centerpiece on the marketplace of ideas dinner table that night. A review conducted by the Project for Excellence found that media outlets tend to replay the same select news pieces. This gives the stories a life of their own.

What perked my ears about the home invasion crime was the media’s obsession with a particular, seemingly out-of-place detail: one of the alleged perpetrators, Joshua Komisarjevsky, had been adopted. One newspaper went so far as to title its story, “Alleged Connecticut Killer Adopted as Baby.”

Why not title the story “Alleged Connecticut Killer Ate Lima Beans for Lunch?” Is it because lima beans rarely cause an average Joe to explode into a lawless rampage? Can “defective” genes be a precursor to crime?

Clearly, the adoptive family, the press, or both, accepted the premise that biological factors can trigger violence. It’s possible the family, hoping to distance themselves from the heinous act and convey that they have “good DNA,” pitched the “he’s not related to us” angle to reporters. It’s equally possible that members of the press decided this detail was somehow meaningful. Whatever the case, the idea was embedded in multiple articles, although there was no outward mention of a possible link between hereditary factors and criminal behavior.

Newspaper pieces and Internet blogs revealed how Komisarjevsky’s family struggled for years to straighten out the wayward boy, who became a burglar at the age of 14. Attempts to make him feel like part of the family were futile.

This reminded me of a disturbingly similar story from a 1999 60 Minutes segment, which described the case of Jeff Landrigan, a young man who was adopted at birth by a law-abiding family, but who now sits on death row for murder. Landrigan’s adoptive sister speculated that her brother had bad genes, adding, “I personally think that the day by brother was born, his fate was probably sealed…”

While on death row, Landrigan found out his birthfather was imprisoned on death row in another state and that his family tree was peppered with felons. He told 60 Minutes he believed crime was passed down in his family “like cancer or heart disease.”

A body of evidence supports Landrigan’s theory, although environmental influences are likewise powerful and should not be discounted. In Change Your Brain /Change Your Life, psychiatrist Daniel Amen states that the cingulate gyrus, curving through the center of the brain is hyperactive in murderers. Other researchers have determined that violent males have low levels of serotonin, a condition that has a high rate of heritability. The National Institute of Health conducted a study on the serotonin levels of prison inmates and determined with an 84 percent accuracy which ones would return to crime upon their release.

Dr. Sarnoff A. Mednick’s study of 14,427 adopted children, as discussed in the New York Times, reveals how a propensity to chronic criminal behavior may be passed through the genes. Although Mednick does not believe criminal behavior is directly passed down, he holds that certain biological factors that might be associated with crime can be inherited. He cites a biological predisposition towards substance abuse as an example.

What does this theory mean for the person looking to adopt? And what are the chances a newly acquired child will have gene-related difficulties? Although there do not seem to be any studies on this topic, it is possible there are a greater percentage of adoptees today with problematic tendencies. In the more puritanical past, a woman was more likely to give up her child simply to avoid stigma and social ostracism. She may have become pregnant while unmarried or involved in an affair, but beyond that was law-abiding and well adjusted. A woman who puts a child up for adoption today is arguably more likely to do so for pressing reasons, i.e. due to problems with illegal substances, imprisonment or family abuse, factors that could be hereditable. In addition, celebrities, such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie, make it fashionable and more common to adopt infants from foreign lands whose biological predispositions are unscreened and unknown.

On the other hand, it is possible there are a smaller number of adoptees today with so-called genetic flaws. Abortion is now an option for “troubled” women. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner say crime has declined over the past twenty years because “the pool of potential criminals (has) dramatically shrunk,” a fact they attribute to Roe vs. Wade. Although these authors are not arguing for biological connections to crime, they say women in adverse family environments are more likely to have children who grow up to be criminals, and these are typically the women who get the abortions.

In addition, adoptions have become more open and cooperative. According to the LA Times, adoptive and natural parents meet at least once in 90% of all infant adoptions, and 25% of these adoptions are completely open. This means an increasing number of birth parents and adoptive parents come together in some way, review each other’s physical and personal history and stay in contact. Genetic secrets are less likely to be locked away in bureaucratic clinics; problems can be confronted and resolved to some degree through positive environmental reinforcement.

Most scientists and psychologists will tell you the nature vs. nurture debate is complex and by no means resolved. Landrigan promoted the “my genes made me do it” argument in several court appeals. In the end, he lost. The US Supreme Court made the final ruling against him three months ago, and he is likely to be executed soon.

Komisarjevsky’s case is next and inquiring minds want to know: Will he desperately seek his DNA, or do what most defendants do and blame it on his “nurture” resume?

Unfortunately, the “lima beans defense” rarely works.