The last time I hoped Arizona Governor Jan Brewer would do the right thing was in the summer of 2010. I was sitting in my Principal’s office, only half-enjoying a visit from a former student – each of us was tense, awaiting announcement regarding SB1070.
Surely our state’s Governor would do the humane and right thing? Surely she would refuse to sign an insidious and un-American piece of legislation that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and would require state and city police officers to check the immigration status of a detained, stopped or arrested individual, if they reasonably suspect he or she could be an undocumented immigrant.
Surely a Governor of these United States in 21st century America would veto any legislation that had the potential to institutionalize racial profiling?
She didn’t. In an instant, Governor Brewer showed us that the lessons of history do not apply to her.
Swiftly and proudly, she signed an inhumane bill into law, and the world finally paid attention to an Arizona that, measure by measure, would continue to make the American life unlivable for immigrants.
What I found most harrowing then, with my personal baggage as an immigrant from Northern Ireland living in Arizona, was the prospect of immigrants being required to have their immigration papers on their person at all times. Shades of my home country in the 1980s, during The Troubles, when it was not uncommon for me to hand over my driver’s license for inspection by a member of the British Army or an RUC officer at random road closures and checkpoints.
I well recall a snowy afternoon at the top of the Ligoniel Road in Belfast. A student teacher, not yet twenty-one and heading home for Christmas, I was moving out of the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College. My little Datsun weighed down with library books and lecture notes, clothes and toiletries, boxes of vinyl records and cassette tapes, a collection of concert posters wrapped in rubber bands, my prized hi-fi, and a violin, I somehow looked less like a university student and more, perhaps, like an IRA terrorist.
Even though I had my license and could answer politely and truthfully, the young soldiers’ questions about where I had been and where I was going, still I had to step aside in the slush and the snow, watching and waiting as they rifled through the contents of my car, looking under the seats and in the trunk, emptying out my make-up bag, disturbing the folders of college papers. All in the name of security I know, but to this day I question the randomness of it.
I remember raging inside – seething – that I was being subjected to such treatment in my own country. My. Own. Country. I said nothing. Of course, I said nothing, and I was soon sent on my way, but I never forgot it or the way it made me wonder about what it was about me on that particular day, that would cause British soldiers with guns to interrogate me and have me step out of my vehicle and search its contents? Did I fit some profile? Did I look like a terrorist? What was the ‘reasonable suspicion?
Fast forward to 2014, and we find ourselves waiting again to see if the Governor of a beleaguered Arizona will do the right thing. SB 1062 has passed both chambers of the Arizona legislature, and only Governor Jan Brewer can stop this discriminatory rule from going into effect.
Under the bill introduced by Republican State Senator Steve Yarborough, individuals and businesses would be granted the legal right to refuse services to individuals or groups if they claimed that doing so would “substantially burden” their freedom of religion.
In other words, business owners acting on sincerely held religious beliefs, can refuse services – discriminate against – groups that they perceive act in ways contrary to their religious beliefs. If signed into law, the bill would essentially legitimize discrimination against the LGBT community. Come to think of it, there is the potential for discrimination against other protected groups including non-married women. You get the picture, and it is a distressing picture, given that we are, after all, in America in the 21st century. Well, we’re in Arizona, which often is very far from the noble, inclusive idea of America itself.
I’m a straight woman, a single parent, an immigrant, a widow, a cancer patient. I often represent everybody’s worst nightmare with my dead husband and my cancer, reminding folks of what they fear the most – disease, loneliness, their own mortality. So why do I care so much about SB 1062? Because it has such potential to hurt good people, to deeply wound families who want nothing more than to get up every day knowing they are valued in their homes and schools, by their churches, and by their elected officials; knowing they are not “less than.”
A bill like SB1062 terrifies me because it signifies a hardening of the heart in Arizona, an indelible mark we find in deeply wounded faraway places. Places like my Belfast. Like Sarajevo. Like Johannesburg. Like Gaza.
But tonight I’m wondering what to say to my hairdresser? A gay man, not yet thirty years old, a restless soul who came to Arizona – like me - in pursuit of sunny days. By all accounts, he is doing well. He has been promoted four times in one year, he has a full clientele, and he is contemplating owing his own salon. In Arizona. As more states legalized gay marriage, he and his partner, Ian, changed wedding plans and finally settled on Hawaii, an intimate ceremony in front of close family. He wants to raise children with the man he loves, and until today, he envisioned doing so in Arizona. But at what cost?
As he styled my daughter’s hair this evening, I asked him what he thought of SB 1062. He told me he was shocked. At the beginning of the year, he was beginning to believe that the times really were a-changin’, that we were genuinely celebrating each other’s differences, and slow as it was, change was being embraced.
As a boy, he had been bullied, beat up, and ridiculed in small schools in small towns in Indiana. At about 10 years old, he knew he was different, but he wasn’t sure how. By 13, he knew he was gay and the snide comments and the name-calling taught him that who he was, was somehow not okay in our world. In school, the place where he should have been safest, he was scared all the time. His teachers never intervened to halt the bullying. Not once. He was kicked out of his church youth group. Then one night, when he was about 15 years old, two big men came to the basement where he slept and took him away to a behavior modification program. For twenty-two months, he was assigned to a “family” of 25 boys. Constantly under surveillance, he started with nothing. His shoelaces were taken away, he had to earn salt and pepper and the right to make a phone call, and occasionally a candy bar; he had to request permission to speak, to go to the bathroom. He was designated to “the black cloud,” a kind of solitary confinement where essentially, he didn’t exist. He wasn’t taught how to operate in the real world and so even after being released to his family home, he would call out “crossing” when he crossed the line from hallway to bathroom.
Four times, he attempted suicide. Four times. He failed. Why? He tells me that, of course, he didn’t know what he was doing, but more importantly, while he doesn’t subscribe to institutionalized religion, he believes there’s something to be said about the undaunted human spirit, and his just wasn’t ready to leave. He forgives the Mormons who coaxed him to “pray the gay away.” He forgives the teachers who turned a blind eye to his tormentors. He says all of it has made him a stronger, better man, one who can champion for other children today, children who deserve a place at the table. Barely a month after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it pains me to know we are having these discussions in Arizona. It’s wrong. On so many levels.
When I look at this young man, his easy smile tempered by doubt, I could weep for those who don’t know him, who will designate him as less than acceptable, put him in a box where he is neither seen nor heard.
Really. I traded Northern Ireland for this?