“Pain should not be wasted”— Deep Gratitude to Three Parents Who Have Not Wasted Their Pain

Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard.

Holocaust survivor, Gerda Weissmann Klein said, “Pain should not be wasted.”

And I am deeply grateful to three parents who live that wisdom.

Karen Ball began the Sturge-Weber Foundation when her daughter, Kaelin, was born with Sturge-Weber Syndrome accompanied by a significant facial port wine stain.

Because this Foundation was there when my son, Byron, was born with the same syndrome, we were not alone.

Karen continues to blaze trail after medical trail in service to others.

The Shepards of Casper, Wyoming

And then there are the Shepards.

Their son, Matthew, was murdered 20 years ago this month.

It was a hate crime for being gay.

Judy channeled her anger and pain and created good:  The Matthew Shepard Foundation.

And for two decades, she and her gentle husband, Dennis, have traveled the country and the world erasing hate, promoting tolerance, and heralding human rights for all.

“This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.” – Judy Shepard

We spent this week-end in their presence.

On October 26, 2018 at 10 a.m., a public celebration of Matthew’s life will precede his interment at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

His remains are still not safe in Wyoming.

And that is unimaginable.

The Shepards model both public anguish and resilience as they counter the injustice of Matthew’s death.

And though their service to humanity cannot be measured, award after award attempts to quantify the shift their work is creating.

As Judy said during the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice in Laramie last spring, “This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.”

And for me, a mother still fighting for me children — sometimes out of fear, occasionally from anger, and mostly out of love — I spill tears every time I’m close to the energy that swirls like tornados around Judy and Dennis.

Because beyond the LGBTQ community, the work they do emphasizes justice for all human life on the planet.

“Pain should not be wasted.”

And for Judy and Dennis and Karen it hasn’t been.

•  •  •

An excerpt from Dennis Shepard’s trial statement:

“You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone . . . First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time — one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming . . . And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind — the ever-present Wyoming wind — for the last time. He had one more friend with him. He had God.

“I feel better knowing he wasn’t alone.”

Take Action!

•  Learn more at the Sturge-Weber Foundation

•  Help Erase Hate at the Matthew Shepard Foundation

•  Read about growing up in a moderately-tolerant town

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and has been practicing Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy since 2013.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

 

Take Two: Why the Singular, Non-Binary “They” Pronoun is Darned Difficult to Master

If you read no further, delight in watching John E. McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun video on the indisputable appropriateness of the singular, epicene, pronoun “they.”

The third-person, singular “they” he talks about was the 2015 American Dialect Society Word of the Year.

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionaries agree.

And the Washington Post style guide, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style do, too.

So why is speaking “they” when we’re referring to one person so difficult to master?

Even — and especially — if someone has told us “he” or “she” just isn’t who they are.

Logic says this should be easier.

Most of us have lived through a few language changes in our time.

Think no further than “groovy.”

We used it, then shuttered and moved on.

Yet tell me that they/them/their are your pronouns, and I’ll stumble, fall, get up, and do it again.

“As shorthand for any thing or concept, pronouns are used so often and so unconsciously that they are more like hardware.

Linguistics May Hold the Answer

Why I slip up so often can, at least partially, be explained by linguistics.

John McWhorter, an English and literature professor at Columbia University, says we are flexible with changing nouns, verbs and adjectives, and it can even feel natural to add, subtract and revise them.

Like software, he said, we can adapt moderately easily to new versions of what’s called, “open class words.”

But other parts of language are different.

“Pronouns are closed class words,” he said.

“As shorthand for any thing or concept, pronouns are used so often and so unconsciously that they are more like hardware.

“A new object or practice is one thing — but a new “you” or a new “him” or “her”?

“It’s harder to wrap our minds around changing something so cognitively fundamental, just as one does not pop up with new prepositions.

“ . . . nouns and verbs are lightbulbs; prepositions are the wiring inside the walls.”

He said the origins of our language can be traced back 6,000 years.

And even then people spoke pronouns that sounded similar to “me,” “you,” and “we.”

“That’s how hardy pronouns are,” he said.

Comfort in Knowledge

So let’s drop some of the judgment we put on ourselves for making mistakes with “they.”

Slipping back into “he” or “she” when someone says their pronoun is “they” is what can happen when you have hard-wired parts of the brain.

And as a result, this is going to take time.

What we’re seeing is a rapid evolution in English.

But John McIntyre cautions against taking too long to adapt, “The tide is running against you, and it’s coming in,” he said.

“. . . Resistance is futile.”

Take Action!

•  Read  the CNN Opinion by John McWhorter, Goodbye to ‘he’ and ‘she’ and hello to ‘ze’?,” October 14, 2015.

Read  New York Times magazine article, “Who’s ‘They’? by Amanda Hess, March 29, 2016.

•  Watch John McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun video on singular ‘they.”

•  Read last week’s blog, The Evolving World of Pronouns, and My Struggle to Keep Up.

•  And You Might Enjoy  Growing Up in a Town Hospitable to Lesbians and Others with Non-Binary Lifestyles 

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

The Evolving World of Pronouns and My Struggle to Keep Up

October 17th is the first-ever International Pronouns Day.

That means that organizations and individuals are acknowledging and supporting — celebrating, even — nonbinary pronouns.

And I’ve already signed up.

What has been she/her/hers, he/him/his in me/mine/my language is expanding.

English pronouns are becoming they/them/their, ze/zim/zir, sie/sie/hir, ey/em/eir, ve/ver/vis, and more.

Other languages have far more pronouns than we do, so this change isn’t revolutionary, but it’s happening quickly, and it’s confusing to me.

Dizzying and disorienting better describes where I am with all this.

Last year my husband and I took lunch-time classes at the University of Wyoming to become better-informed LGBTQIA+ allies.

The topics were LGB 101, gender identity, and how to be a visible ally.

But even after being encouraged to ask people their pronouns, I couldn’t.

I haven’t been able to say to a single person, “Hi, I’m Ellen. My pronouns are she/her and hers.

“What about you?”

I fear I’ll anger some people while offending others.

My own history foreshadows the perils of good intentions.

At least once I called someone’s husband by her former husband’s name.

And then there’s the personal anguish of anonymity that I experienced with my chronically-sick child.

In hospitals I was seldom summoned by any name other than “mom.”

It was as if I didn’t exist.

And not being seen doesn’t feel good.

So I really do get that this pronoun upgrade is important.

But I don’t want to be shamed or humiliated or seen as disrespectful if I mess up.

Yet that’s exactly what recently happened.

An Email Exchange

Last week I wrote an email suggesting that when I don’t know someone personally I can ask, “What are your preferred pronouns?”

A swift reply arrived from my colleague, a self-described, non-binary human who uses the pronouns they/them/their.

My offenses were itemized.

First, they said, “Being trans is not a choice. One does not just choose to not be cis.

“In this vein, the pronoun that people use is not a ‘preferred’ pronoun . . .

“There is no preference here. I am not a woman, therefore they/them IS my pronoun — not a preference.”

So noted.

In the same email they said it’s impolite to ask a personal question about a relationship.

But wait a minute.

Isn’t asking about someone’s pronouns a really, really personal question?

They also told me to “refrain from using the word biological.”

“Assigned Female/Male at birth (AFAB, AMAB) is the word choice at the moment (these things change!!)”

And for me that’s the fulcrum of the problem; I feel the rules keep changing.

Being warned that changes are coming isn’t exactly the rally call I need to go forward with confidence.

So what I’m now trying to understand is if the comments I received are the reaction of a single person, or are the points they make typical of a wide range of people asserting rights to their own pronouns?

I Could Use Some Empathy

What they didn’t seem to consider [and here I’m using “they” as a personal pronoun for one individual] is that every single time I take a risk with the intention of being respectful and empathetic, I am leaping flat footed into vulnerability where criticism is poised to pounce.

But ok.

I accept the feedback and will learn from my errors, innocent as they may be.

I have another chance at success.

This time it’s a commitment to myself and a nod to Pronouns Day.

By October 17, 2018, I promise to look someone in his/her/their/zir/hir/eir/vis eyes and say, “Hi, I’m Ellen. My pronouns are she/her and hers.

“What about you?”

Take Action!

•  Sign Up to Support International Pronouns Day.

•  Read Lindy Westenhoff about and her simple ideas for updating language in college classes.

• Read my experience of growing up in a town friendly to multiple-gendered people.

•  Take free online LGBTQIA+ ally classes through the Safe Zone at the University of Wyoming.

•  Read “Understnding Non-Binary People: How to be Respectful and Supportive” on the Transequality.org website.

•  Read a CNN article by John McWhorter, “Say Goodbye to ‘he’ and ‘she’ and hello to ‘ze’?” .

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

Positive Roadside Messages: Won’t You “PassItOn.com”?

I noticed a billboard on Interstate I-25 in Cheyenne, Wyoming with the then child Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai’s photo and quote, “Girls should learn history. And make it,” PassItOn.com

I saw it again in Laramie along I-80.

And a similar one a few miles away that featured a 13-year-old boy who started a nonprofit when he was 5.

Today in Tucson, Arizona I drove past a bus stop with a picture of Garth Brooks and lyrics from his song.

“When there’s only one race, and that’s mankind . . . We shall be free.”

And each billboard and post included, “PassItOn.com.”

The Foundation for a Better Life is the nonprofit that began in 2000 to promote positive values through public messages.

It is a 501(c)(3) that has, it says, “zero political or religious affiliations.”

They don’t accept financial contributions, and not a single thing is for sale on their website.

Rather, the Denver-based nonprofit that offers free billboard copy, radio and TV spots, posters and daily emails is funded entirely by Philip Anschutz through the Anschutz Family Foundation.

Its website says it “. . . exists solely to create and share uplifting messages . . .”

According to Variety, though, there has been significant criticism surrounding Philip Anschutz’s funding of conservative groups including pro-gun, anti-abortion and those touting anti-LBGT values.

A Gift to the Elton John AIDS Foundation

Yet earlier this year, Anschutz donated $1 million to the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Isn’t passing it on what we human beings do really REALLY well?

He said, “My gift to the Elton John Foundation is intended to emphasize that we support freedom of all people to live their lives peacefully, without interference from others.”

Each passiton.com message includes a red rectangle identifying the value in its story.

Inclusion, inspiration, courage, service, soul, persistence, compassion, soul, optimism . . .

 

 

You could be driving across country on I-80 or getting on the same interstate to travel to the other side of Laramie.

It doesn’t matter.

Most of us can use a reminder now and again that we have it in us to do and be better.

As imperfect humans we look to one another for stories of encouragement and inspiration, even stories that fit on billboards.

And passing those stories on is something we do really REALLY well.

Take Action!

•  See someone — really  see someone with the eyes of appreciation, then tell them what you see.

 Access the entire passiton.com collection

 View Garth Brooks’ full We Shall Be Free video on Vimeo

•  Read about Rooted in Wyoming‘s efforts in Sheridan, Wyoming to bring people together through community gardening.

•  Get to know why Wyoming Untrapped‘s work to keep bobcats alive could be a tourist draw for the state.

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West

“The world needs more cowboys” — Self Discovery in the University of Wyoming’s New Slogan

Recently the Trustees of the University of Wyoming voted unanimously to adopt as the new recruiting slogan, “The world needs more cowboys.”

It has attracted negative press as well as praise, including from the Wall Street Journal for its unapologetic rebuff of political correctness.

I’m going to take a minute and think out loud.

I don’t have a deep connection to cowboys (we moved to Laramie less than a year ago).

So maybe that’s why I am flummuxed by the lack of unity I’m finding in those five words.

And specifically because of how I felt when I heard this slogan out loud, as I did last week-end.

Awful.

I ached and pinched back tears that threatened to give me away as a dissident of the slogan while it was cheered by a room of supporters.

And, yet, like so many things in life, at the core of my discomfort was a chance for self-discovery.

Within my pain resides an awareness that I want things to be different than they are.

And its that very discontent, I understand from Buddhist friends, that feeds my misery.

Moving Away From Separation

Pistol Pete is the University of Wyoming mascot.

But still, I want there to be less separation in the world.

I want to live where there is respect and acknowledgment for others’ feelings.

I want to be in a place where attitudes of “that’s just the way we do things” is periodically checked and reconsidered.

Even if it’s uncomfortable and takes work.

Because that’s how and when real connection is made.

I  pinched back tears that threatened to give me away
as a dissident of the slogan . . .

I can trace the lump in my throat to lost possibilities for meaningful ways to connect with:

  • Bright Native Americans youth
  • Other peoples of color
  • Ideas that promote women and men moving toward balance
  • LBGTQ folks contributing vibrantly while assured safety in their lives

It seems introspection about this slogan is absent, though I can’t say that with certainty.

Most of us know that self reflections isn’t for the faint of heart because what you find can be hard to face and harder to remedy.

It’s lonely business.

Yet meaningful change and seeing the world in bigger ways can result.

So when I hear, “The world needs more cowboys,” I wonder. . .

If I stay the course with my feelings, especially the hard parts, will it lead me to understanding and empathy or deeper dissension?

It’s too early to tell but I’m willing to stick with it and find out.

.  .  .

Take Action!

•  University of Wyoming’s promotional video that accompanies the slogan.

•  “Higher Ed Needs More Cowboys: The University of Wyoming sticks to its guns against politically correct faculty,” Wall Street Journal, opinion, 7/13/18.

•  Safe Zone at the University of Wyoming.

 

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West

 

Growing Up In a Town Hospitable to Lesbians and Others With Non-Binary Lifestyles

 

I’m pretty sure the central-Maine town I grew up in was modestly hospitable to lesbians and other women who didn’t fit neatly into a heterosexual mold.

There were the two close friends who worked in Newberry’s.

The egg lady who made deliveries smoking a pipe.

And the Page sisters in Burlingon I visited with my grandfather.

In hindsight it didn’t seem to matter if these and so many other women I knew were lesbians or fell somewhere else on the LBGTQIA+ spectrum.

Rugged Little Town

Lincoln is carved from a forest of white pines and birches.

Many of the 13, grey-blue lakes that dot the landscape are framed in pink quartz and granite.

It’s much closer to Canada than any major American city.

And it is still the place my heart calls home.

 

It’s a rugged little town whose sole industry, making paper, closed down as reading became digitized and competitors in China and Finland prevailed.

Overt femininity peaked for many of us in the experimental years of high school.

Perhaps it tapered as the practicalities of living in a remote part of the state took over.

Where snow gets deep and stays.

And summers are breathtaking but require a certain no-nonsense approach to black flies and mosquitoes.

Yet it seemed as long as you were white, Christian (though not necessarily practicing), Republican (as evidenced by not declaring to be a Democrat), a hunter or recipient of the hunt (as my mother was with the necks of deer for mincemeat canning), you were  accepted.

My decade of influence was the 1960s.

Lesbianism and other lifestyles weren’t talked about, but in hindsight they sure seemed to be accepted.

Especially if you were a lone woman or part of a quiet, female couple.

Anti-discrimination in Wyoming and Maine

The second-ever Pride Week just ended in Laramie, Wyoming, the town my husband and I have lived in for the past 11 months.

It’s where Matthew Shepard attended college and was brutally murdered 20 years ago by being beat up, tied up, and left for dead at the base of a fence.

Laramie now has a city ordinance – the only such one in the state – that prohibits “discrimination of any person based upon his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.”

Unlike Maine, Wyoming doesn’t yet have state-wide protection laws.

State anti-discrimination laws
Grey = no state protections; dark purple = states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; the rest of the state laws are somewhere in between.

Women’s Alternative Lifestyles in Lincoln

Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins
Olympia Snowe (left), represented Maine in Congress for 34 years – 16 as a House Member and 18 as a Senator. Susan Collins (right) has been a Maine U.S. Senator for 22 years.

I have to wonder how the women who chose alternative-lifestyles managed in Lincoln back then.

How did they deal with inheritances, hospital visits, and the whole next-of-kin thing?

And more generally, how much of who they were did they have to keep secret?

Still, I don’t recall — even once — anyone making a face or a fuss over how someone else chose to live.

And this was a time before precedence, formal laws, ordinances or activists for equal rights having much of a voice.

Maine Congresswoman and Senator, Margaret Chase Smith, 1940-1973.

It may simply have been a case of getting along with one another.

Through my eyes it was a matriarchal community, starting with my grandmother, then my mother and her strong, funny friends.

And might that be part of the answer?

When not goaded to separation by hateful media and cruel religious takes on right and wrong, could it be that people naturally accept one another?

Even act kindly?

Maybe as time has passed and Maine continues to elect centrist, independently-minded, female leaders,  Lincoln’s ease with people just as they are continues to grow.

I know my own has.

Take Action!

Read about Lincoln, Maine

Learn about aging LBGTQIA+ in Maine. “AARP Maine/SAGE Maine: Statewide GLBT Aging Project Report,” by Jane Margesson, March 22, 2013.

Learn about SAGE: Advocacy and services for LGBTQ elders

Support  Wyoming Equality.

Learn about EQMaine – Equality Maine

Learn about non-discrimination in Maine

Read about Wyoming’s Safe Zone, free online trainings for LBGTQIA allies.

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West

 

Lindy Westenhoff Leads Wyoming’s Safe Zone LBGTQ Ally Trainings with Vulnerability and Empathy

Lindy Westenhoff, coordinator of University of Wyoming’s Safe Zone LGBTQ ally trainings.

As coordinator of the University’s Safe Zone LGBTQ ally trainings, Lindy Westenhoff models vulnerability and empathy.

Lindy prefers “they and them” pronouns to my “she and her” and my husband’s “he and him.”

Why is that important?

Because, as I learned in Safe Zone classes, respectful communication in the LGBTQ community is easy.

“Just ask,” Lindy said. “You can say, ‘I go by they and them. What pronouns do you go by?’”

Safe Zone is a campus educational program geared to allies of the LGBTQIA+* community.

“Social justice is about access and changing the status quo to something that’s fair for everyone.”

Lindy defines an ally as “someone who supports, uplifts, and advocates for a marginalized person or community without taking on that marginalized identity as their own.”

And some of us need help knowing how to be good allies.

The classes, combined with Lindy’s willingness to answer uncomfortable questions, helps ensure that we have ways to support members of this community.

Lindy says, “Social justice is about access and changing the status quo to something that’s fair for everyone.”

Which is why Safe Zone’s role is to give participants the knowledge needed to go out and make those changes is so important.

LGBTQIA+ is often abbreviated LGBTQ. It stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexuality and all of the other sexualities, sexes, and genders that aren’t included in these few letters.8

Lindy Westenhoff’s LGBTQ-Friendly Campus
and So Much more

Don’t miss this interview with Lindy that includes:
•  her vision of LBGTQ-friendly campuses
•  the biggest LGBTQ stumbling block in Wyoming
• and her own story 

 

Take Action!

•  Attend live Safe Zone trainings: Offered as three, 1-hour free luncheon classes twice a semester on the University of Wyoming campus (including free lunch). Class details.

Class 1: LBG 101
Where empathy is established. Check for next date.
Class 2: Gender Identity
Becoming more comfortable with complex terms.
April 4 – 12:00 p.m. in Big Horn (Union 203)
Class 3: Visible Ally
How to be both aware and supportive
April 11 – 12:00 p.m. in Big Horn (Union 203)
Additional class
Navigating Academia as an Underrepresented Student
April 25 – 12:00 p.m. in Big Horn (Union 203)

•  Watch Safe Zone classes online
Free from anywhere in the world. Includes downloadable handouts.
Suitable for individual and group learning.

•  Attend the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice
April 11-14, 2018 in Laramie

•  Additional Resources


•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West