Why I am a member of the ACLU.
By Annise D. Parker
As part of my public responsibilities, I am regularly asked to attend ribbon cuttings and fundraisers, to present proclamations and to offer pertinent remarks about a variety of subjects. In April I was asked to give opening remarks for a benefit performance of the play I Am My Own Wife at Stages Theater. The Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had reserved the house as a fundraiser. I was unfamiliar with the play, but happy to oblige the organization. I had a chance to review the script before composing my talk (always a plus in these circumstances. You’d be surprised at the stuff I’ve had to revise on the fly!), and it in turn prompted me to think more deeply about why I am a member of the ACLU.
I apologize for discussing a play that is no longer running in Houston, although I would recommend seeing it should you encounter it. The one-man, 40-character play mesmerized Broadway audiences before winning the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and a Tony. But this article isn’t intended as a review of the play or even a biographical sketch of the central character.
That said, you need a little context. The play is based on the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Germany’s iconic transvestite, celebrated antiques collector, and founder of the Grunderzeit Museum. Unlike so many others, the very visible cross dresser survived both the Nazis and the brutal East German regime. On Sunday afternoons, German GLBTs took refuge at East Germany’s only gay bar, the basement of her home/museum.
Supporters hail Charlotte, who died in 2002 at the age of 74, as a cultural hero. The reunited German government even awarded her a medal for preserving a significant piece of the country’s cultural heritage. But controversy surrounded her later years as newly revealed documents detailed her cooperation with the infamous Stasi, the East German secret police, who wanted her help to keep track of Charlotte’s GLBT patrons. She also “rescued” antiques for her collection from the homes of Jewish deportees and, in her teens, served a sentence for murdering her violently abusive father.
Charlotte’s autobiography is actually entitled I Am My Own Woman, a title I find much more evocative of the nuances and contradictions of her life. She truly was her own woman, even in the sense that she constructed her public persona piece by piece, from choosing a name to a manner of dress to carefully editing the past she revealed.
Individuals can be complex, complicated, confusing, contradictory. They can be heroic and selfless, or venal and self-serving, sometimes at the same time. Few individuals, however, embody this as much as the central character of this play. Was she a heroine or a villain? Yes. She was also a murderer, collaborator, manipulator, creator, nurturer, and crusader.
There are very few of us who embody both saint and sinner to such an extreme, but we know that each of us has the potential to be either. (Most of our faith traditions incorporate the tenet that the redemptive power of belief can move us from one pole to the other.)
We also know that part of what defines us in a civil society is how we deal with the issues that incite our passions and the individuals who dwell at the margins, and how we balance the needs of the many and the rights of the few. Many of us depend on an organization that champions justice and defends our liberties—whether we agree with it or not, whether we understand the position or not.
The ACLU looks beyond the individual to the issue, beyond the personal to the principle. We must ensure that it stays strong to protect our future.
Annise Parker is the second-term city controller and the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houstoncontroller.org. Parker’s television program, Money Matters, airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (Time Warner Cable) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m.