Except, alas, large parts of our conversation. My friend is gay and a former Roman Catholic priest. I met him 35 years ago in Minnesota when I profiled him, with his reluctant cooperation, after he was fired from his position at a Newman Center. He then became a source for other stories about church and political issues. He was an important doorway to the gay rights movement as I covered HIV-AIDS. I still remember the click of understanding that came when he explained the exhaustion of constantly having to self-censor to protect himself and, at the same time, translate the mainstream culture — books, movies, conversation — to see himself. Simple things like pronouns loomed large and dangerous in his life.
Years later we both found ourselves in Washington state and got to know each other not as reporter-source but as friends. Nine years ago he asked me to stand witness at his “legal” wedding to the man he has been with for almost 30 years. Sometime along the way, he and his partner owned a destination restaurant. He told me once that greeting customers, providing them with food and wine and comfort, was his post-priest way of serving communion. He’s a relaxed cook and conversant, and we share a passion for the news that makes it fun to linger long over a cluttered table.
So why was our dinner salted with tears? Much as we promised each other an evening of happy — he’s the designated grandfather to a two-month old; I’m watching my Seattle yard paint itself in spring colors — we find it impossible, when together, to ignore the news. One of his employees shot in an attempted carjacking. Continued horrors in Ukraine. Fifteen million dead of COVID. And now, the near-certain toppling of Roe V. Wade.
Shocked by the inevitable
When Politico gained access to a draft decision circulating among U.S. Supreme Court justices, the surprise was that it leaked but not, really, what it said. That’s the other thing about following the news: It’s really hard to be surprised. But, as when a loved one dies after a long illness, you can still be shocked.
As my friend and I talked that night, I remembered again his description years ago of what it was like to self-censor (hide) and translate your way through life. He felt erased.
I can’t presume that I feel the full reality of his journey. In immersion journalism — this thing we often call narrative — I can walk next to someone and listen and try to understand, but I can’t be in their shoes. The other thing I can do is look for echoes that help in that understanding: How does the experience of someone else reflect that lived by others?
I found that connection in an analysis of the Roe V. Wade draft by Jessica Winter in The New Yorker. While most journalists are chasing reactive and speculative stories — Who leaked the draft and why? What will happen in a post-Roe America? How will this affect the midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race? — Winter asked a different question: Not just what’s in the draft signed by Justice Samuel Alito, but what’s not in it? Her conclusion: women. Winter’s assessment is that Alito, in building his anti-Roe argument around a literal reading of the Constitution, found no mention of women or their rights. And, as they used to say in my con-law class back in college, ergo…
Ergo is front and center in my friend’s life. As the U.S. and much of the Western world wrestle with deep political divides, hard-fought progressive rights are under attack. My friend has long feared that his marriage will be sent back into the closet, and maybe made criminal.
Paranoid? Maybe. But as Esquire politics writer Charles P. Pierce made clear, dominoes do fall. Behind Roe wobble Griswold (1965), which gave married couples the right to privacy about the use of contraception; Lawrence (2003), which granted privacy to intimate acts, essentially ending the sodomy laws that were used to criminalize homosexuality; Obergefell (2015), which legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S., and even Loving (1967), which decriminalized interracial marriage in the United States. In the days since the leaked Supreme Court draft, I’ve heard interviews speculating that even integrated education should not be taken for granted. Nor should safe contraceptive methods, like medical abortion pills and copper IUDs.
As I waded through this history, I was struck anew by how recent it is. And how fragile. If this movement — I’ve heard it called “ultra MAGA” — steams forward unchecked, the U.S. might not only erase the progressive gains of the last 50 years, but push them to pre-Suffragette extremes. For once I found it hard to laugh during the Saturday Night Live Cold Open.
In a recent story about how Washington state likely will become a safe haven for women seeking reproductive health care, the Seattle Times published a map from the Guttmacher Institute. It is straightforward and effective visual storytelling, showing a state-by-state breakdown of abortion rights and restrictions. If I were doing that journalistic brainstorm process of naming the theme of a story in a word or two, I would slug this one “dis-United States.”
Some may read this as non-neutral journalism, or even a feminist treatise. Maybe I simply need to say “Guilty as charged.” But after more than a few decades in this work, and even more on the planet, I know that I can’t do honest journalism without being honest with myself. I also have a deep and unapologetic belief that to serve our mission we need to find those who have long been erased, and hear their stories.