Friday, September 17, 2004
"Who's Your Mama?" and Boycotting Virginia 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
My friend Cindy has an excellent article the the latest issue of Out In Mountains detailing the interstate child custody battle between Janet and Lisa Miller-Jenkins, a former Vermont couple. Their case could set an important legal precedent regarding the parental rights of same-sex couples, when one or both members of the couple lives in - or moves to - a state with strongly codified anti-gay statutes, such as Virginia:
Who's Your Mama?
Vermont Custody Case Tests Virginia's Anti-Gay Law

by Cynthia Potts

"We'd met through mutual friends," said Janet Miller-Jenkins, of her former partner, Lisa. "We started dating. Fell in love.""Even at the beginning, we both had a great love for children. Lisa was working as a nanny, while I was an accountant. We talked about opening a preschool, something that had been a dream for both of us."

A preschool wasn't the only dream the couple shared. "We both wanted children," Janet asserted. "We had a five year plan." Initially, the couple explored adoption. Living in Virginia made this difficult. "They wanted us to lie about our orientations," Janet explained. "And Lisa wanted to go through the pregnancy experience."

The couple moved to Vermont, and entered into a civil union. "It was a conscious decision that we were going to have a family, and that we were going to have our family in a committed relationship." After consultations with several doctors, it was decided that Lisa would be the birth mother of an artificially inseminated child. "She is five years younger than me, which was a major consideration." Several expensive procedures later, Lisa was pregnant. Baby Isabella was born in 2002.

"We'd had a very hard pregnancy. Lisa was on bed rest for a while, which was very difficult for her." Nevertheless, the couple desired another child, and went through another round of insemination. Lisa became pregnant upon the first try. "We were elated!" Janet explained. "No one gets pregnant by artificial insemination quickly, and here we were on the first try." Two weeks later, tragedy struck, and Lisa miscarried the baby.

Sorrows never travel alone. "She froze up after that," Janet explained. "She wouldn't talk to me, nothing." Janet suggested professional help, but Lisa had another idea. She took Isabella, and moved back to Virginia. [continue reading "Who's Your Mama?"]
Remember those old dark green "Virginia is for L♥vers*" bumperstickers? Someone should resurrect them, with an asterisk and footnote that reads: "*heterosexual." Come to think of it, someone's already done better than that: check out "Virginia is for Haters," a site that details the state's pervasive anti-gay laws, and calls for a tourism boycott:
On April 21, 2004, The Virginia General Assembly passed the nation's most restrictive anti-gay law--a law banning all contracts between same-sex couples. Not just marriage, all contracts. At the center of HB 751 is this language (emphasis ours):
A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited. Any such civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction shall be void in all respects in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby shall be void and unenforceable.
Virginia outlawed civil marriage between same-sex partners in 1997. The so-called "affirmation of marriage act" goes recklessly far beyond that and seeks to invalidate any and all legal contracts between these individuals. All of the private contracts entered into by couples looking to attain any measure of stability and protection under the rule of law are at risk--including durable powers of attorney, health care directives, even wills and property contracts.
[read the Washington Post editorial review] While it is a personal family tragedy for this couple, it also spotlights the underlying issue of an individual's use of discriminatory state laws as legal refuge and court leverage.

Boycotting Virginia is another matter...a tough call personally because the in-laws live there (and it is a nice place to visit, especially in the fall). Maybe my partner and I just won't spend any money while we're there. We'll tell Mom we're boycotting, perhaps... ;)

I support the concept of boycotting, in spite of some people's arguments saying it economically hurts uninvolved parties and workers more than the companies involved; however, to be effective, boycotts must be applied in an educated and judicious manner. The targets sometimes call them a form of "economic terrorism," but I disagree. Consumers in a free-market system shouldn't be constrained in how they allocate their spending, regardless of whether their choices are dictated by brand preference, price, product features, or other factors such as company politics, employment policies (sweatshop labor, for example) or ideology. It's interesting how buying decisions based on the former are hailed as "free market choice" while the latter are often disparaged as activist propaganda; I see no essential difference between the two. Shunning a product or service because it is morally objectionable or undesirable in some way, as well as choosing one because it is desirable are both legitimate consumer choices.

Here's an example of something being called a boycott that isn't. I've had people say I should buy and consume cow's milk, which I don't enjoy, because it's "good for dairy farmers and the American economy." Sorry...that's a little too un-libertarian for me. I prefer soy milk, so what's wrong with my supporting soybean farmers and their contribution to the American economy instead? That's not a boycott: that's freedom of choice. Some might say that boycotts are inherently un-libertarian, but that's only if one boycotts because of peer pressure or external motivation - ideally, one should always choose to boycott based on personal conscience.

That said, boycotts based on falsehoods or misconceptions are not true organized consumer choices - many well-known boycotts have been based on "urban legends" or hoaxes. We've all heard preposterous word-of-mouth calls to boycott along the lines of "don't buy KFC - it's not really chicken, but genetically-engineered beakless flesh chunks!" or "don't buy Bubble Yum - it's got spider eggs in it!" Those aren't bonafide boycotts, either - they're childish scare tactics.

Like most U.S. states, Virginia depends on tourism for a large chunk of annual income, but even if all gays and lesbians and their supporters opted to not visit Virginia until oppressive laws are overturned, their market choice might not make enough of an impact to make a difference. Then again, it might.

The argument that "the only people you're hurting with a boycott are yourselves and the little workers" doesn't really wash. As a consumer, I have other choices of where to spend my tourism dollars - Virginia is not my only option. If it were, I'd probably still forgo the trip there, visits to the MIL aside. On the other hand, while the workers at boycotted companies may be hurt in the short term by poor business, there are many other demand-side factors that could contribute to poor business besides a boycott.

That's why it's critical the boycott be publicized, so that the boycott-ees know the reason why they are the subject of the action. Also, a brief personal or group letter to the boycotted party is always nice: "Dear [name]; the reason we are not spending the $5,000 we would have spent on our vacation in Virginia is...."

But there's more at stake here than ideology. Why should my partner and I give our tourist dollars to a state that utterly negates our relationship and any efforts we make to give it legal protection? Say, for example, [heaven forbid] one of us was involved in an accident and taken to hospital while vacationing there, and the other was not permitted visitation or allowed to make lifesaving decisions - simply because Virginia does not recognize contracts [such as powers of attorney and healthcare proxies] because the parties are of the same sex? That's just plain wrong, and we'd be foolish to put ourselves in that situation.

Realistically, boycotts usually end up being more a statement of principle than a source of genuine financial hardship for the boycotted party. But sometimes they do work, and they occasionally effect serious change. To me, they're simply a way of "putting your money where your ♥ is." Remember - boycotts are a great American tradition.

Ethical Consumer.org: a UK list of companies being targeted by boycotts, and the stated reasons why.
Co-op America's Boycotts.org, a U.S. listing