Connie Walker on Telling Indigenous Stories

 


IVF Is Back in the Legal Spotlight

 

This time in Texas ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌


From Porn Star to Star Witness

Stormy Daniels takes the stand ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌


Everyone is Having Fun Talking About Drake and Kendrick Lamar

A long-time music critic tackles a darker truth at the core of their beef: the expendability of women’s trauma

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Kendrick Lamar and Drake have spent the better part of the past month in a rap beef, which you might already know if you spend time on social media, where they've been trending for days. The origin of their acrimony is vague—the former collaborators turned on each other around 2013—but this recent round was kicked off in late March with a song called "Like That" from Future and Metro Boomin's latest album, We Don't Trust You, on which Kendrick, guest-rapping, essentially called Drake a poseur and a chicken. That provoked some peripheral fallout, including a Drake diss by Rick Ross coming from the sidelines and a very weak response track by J. Cole, which he later walked back, apologizing to a stadium full of his own fans. 

Confused? There is a lot of minutiae here and even more menergy; all of this feels like a desperate display of testosterone in an era when women rappers are finally flourishing. But there are larger issues here that go beyond which rapper has the better flow, and it might not surprise you that women have ended up as collateral damage. 

Rap beef is rooted in the Dozens, a traditionally African American game of insults. The Dozens, in turn, influenced the freestyle battles that have flourished since hip-hop's inception, in which two rappers diss each other to flex their superior lyrical talents, not unlike a verbal boxing match. In the Drake versus Kendrick battle, Kendrick is obviously superior; he has a better grasp of the language overall—a skill for which he once won a Pulitzer—and is more capable of varying his writing style. There is a comfortable consensus, too, that he's winning the battle due to how deeply his insults cut, to the point that I keep imagining him as the X-Men character Psylocke, wielding a particularly sharpened psychic knife.

DRAKE ON STAGE (VIA GETTY IMAGES)

But as far as rap beefs go, this one feels increasingly gnarly. When Kendrick first asserted on "Like That" that respect is better than money or power, implying that Drake had the latter but not the former, it was fairly standard fare. Drake responded with "Push Ups," which dissed Kendrick's star power, and also with "Taylor Made Freestyle," which claimed that Kendrick's releases were being controlled by Taylor Swift. The idea that a man is in servitude to a woman is a pretty standard insult—but in retrospect, it was also an indicator of where this was all going. 

Over the course of four more Kendrick songs and two more Drake songs, all released in the short span of seven days, the rappers hit one another with an escalating series of basically criminal accusations. (On Monday evening, a security guard outside Drake's Toronto mansion was shot, though authorities are currently investigating.) Drake accused Kendrick of hiring "a crisis management team to clean up the fact that you beat up your queen." My stomach fell upon hearing it—it's a shocking accusation, especially when it’s brought up so lightly in a rhyme.

But even worse was the fact that Kendrick's response was released only 30 minutes later, and so the accusation of violence barely seemed to register. Besides, Kendrick's barbs were just as nasty: that Drake is a pedophile, has a sick interest in underage girls, and that his record label might, in fact, be a ring of pedophiles. Kendrick suggested that Drake should be locked up alongside Harvey Weinstein, who at this moment is awaiting a new trial after a New York court overturned his rape conviction. Obviously, rapping it doesn’t make it true: As a written art form, a lot of rap lyrics are fantasy or narrative construction—that's part of why it's an infringement of First Amendment rights when those lyrics are used as evidence in trials. But does assuming that these allegations are simply lyrical shivs make them any better? Actually, the idea that women and girls are simply pawns in a brawl implies that neither artist cares too much about their well-being—unless they can be used as a weapon.

MEG THEE STALLION (PHOTO BY GETTY)

And if these accusations have even a kernel of truth to them, they reflect the way the entertainment industry keeps secrets to protect its own (and the way the #MeToo movement barely touched the music industry.) I keep thinking about Megan Thee Stallion, one of the most talented rappers in the U.S., who spent two full years being excoriated by male musicians and internet trolls after she accused Tory Lanez of shooting her in the foot; she was in a desperate enough place that she later rapped about her thoughts of suicide. Before Lanez was convicted in December 2022, even 50 Cent was forced to apologize for his ill-treatment of Megan.

But throughout the case, Drake was one of the worst offenders against Megan, rapping, "This bitch lie 'bout gettin' shots but she still a stallion," one line in a trilogy of Drake albums that seemed to trace his further descent in the darkest crevices of misogyny. (His latest, For All the Dogs, seems at times to just be a list of grievances against women.) As Vulture's Craig Jenkins wrote in a wide-ranging piece about the violence and sex trafficking allegations against superproducer Diddy, "We can’t keep picking and choosing whose abuse we’re willing to buy, turning support for survivors into a contest of whose abusers made the most beloved songs. We can’t let wealthy men treat everyone in the vicinity like chattel."

Megan eventually was able to bite back—her January 2024 diss track "Hiss," which in part takes aim at Drake, is the most listenable of all the songs in this rap beef—but the scars are right there on her album, called Traumazine. The unnamed women in Drake and Kendrick Lamar's beef tracks surely have their own scars, too. While hip-hop battles can sometimes feel like a sport, this one has become increasingly nihilistic. One wonders if either of these men is invested in what they’re saying or can even fathom what’s at stake for the lives of the people they are talking about, real or fictional.


“I Did Not Think This Change Would Come in My Lifetime”

A seminary dropout on the latest decision from the United Methodist Church

By Bailey Wayne Hundl

For the last 25 years, pastors in the United Methodist Church (UMC) have faced losing their jobs and having their ordination revoked for officiating same-sex weddings—even when doing so for their own children. The UMC bylaws have also prohibited “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained as ministers—or appointed to serve in any capacity—since 1984

All of that changed on Wednesday. With an overwhelming majority and no debate, the denomination’s highest legislative body voted to overturn these policies.

For me, this is personal. For the better part of a decade, I was one of those pesky “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” causing trouble in the UMC. (That link has my deadname, but I’ll be cool about it if you will.) While I was in seminary, I even sought ordination through the UMC—though admittedly, I didn’t make it very far. And when I think about all the shit I’ve seen, I have to be honest: I did not think this change would come in my lifetime.

When I was 19 years old, I interviewed for an internship with a youth pastor at a UMC church. It went phenomenally (mainly on account of me being awesome and a Capricorn rising). The youth pastor even told me, “I have other people to interview, but if I’m being honest, you’re perfect for this and this is perfect for you.” I said that that was great, but that before we finished, there was one last thing he should know about me; I told him I was gay. And he asked me to leave.

I went home fuming but undeterred, a feeling that, over the years, became all too familiar. When I was 20, I attended a UMC legislative session reviewing the church’s restrictive bylaws against gay people. Before the vote, anyone could come to the mic and speak for or against the issue—and the lines for both were long. I remember the burning of my ears and the tight grip of my friend’s hand in mine as one woman droned on about the dangers of the “demon” of homosexuality and how we must do anything in our power to stop it. In that same room two years later, at a conference for queer Christians, I watched my friend break down in tears as he described being exorcized by his foster parents, who later disowned him.

I carry too much pain from these experiences to expel in one short article. Do I mention my first pastoral internship, the one I accepted before I came out, where I waited for my host family to fall asleep so I could whisper over the phone to my boyfriend that I loved him? The otherwise progressive church who kicked a gender-nonconforming member out of their choir for being “too distracting”? Or hell, what about the responses I received just yesterday when I tweeted in celebration?

WWJD? Not this. (Screenshot via Bailey Wayne Hundl)

For years, I grew more and more battle-hardened, staying in the fight (and the church) for three reasons: my love for the faith, my love for queer people, and the notion that somebody had to clean up this mess. Eventually, I made the choice so many have: I left for my own sanity.

I know that for many people, this seems like the obvious choice. “If the church is homophobic, why don’t you just leave?” But when we buy into the false dichotomy of Religious vs. Queer (a dichotomy invented by homophobes, mind you), we force queer people to sever themselves from a crucial aspect of themselves, something that gives their life meaning, community, and hope. And I’ve watched too many people—people I love, people I miss—pick the former.

But now, thanks to this monumental decision brought about by the stubborn hopefulness of queer Methodists and their allies, fewer of my family will be forced to leave themselves behind. It’s a good day.


Remembering Hind Rajab

Columbia protestors rename building after the six-year-old slain in Gaza ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌


The Inside Woman at the Obama White House

Social secretary Deesha Dyer is sharing her real life behind the scenes—her imposter syndrome, her abortion, and what she wants young Black women to know.

BY REBECCA CARROLL

Back in 2009, as a 31-year-old part-time community college student inspired by the election of America’s first Black president, Deesha Dyer applied on a whim for a White House internship. Much to her astonishment, she got it. She went on to become the White House social secretary during the last two Obama years, curating large-scale events, meeting royalty, the Pope, and her hip-hop heroes. She managed her spectacular successes while fighting off a severe case of imposter syndrome and dealing with the daily microaggressions a Black woman faces in the historically whitest of houses. Dyer tells her extraordinary story in her new memoir, Undiplomatic: How My Attitude Created the Best Kind of Trouble, and we sat down to talk about all of it.   

Deesha Dyer, President Obama, and Pope Francis in the White House Blue Room
President Barack Obama introduces White House Social Secretary Deesha Dyer to Pope Francis (Courtesy of the Obama White House)

Rebecca Carroll: For many people, but especially for Black folks, the Obama years were not just an eight-year presidency; they were an era, like the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Arts Movement. It was a collective glory. What was it like to be such an integral part of that?

Deesha Dyer: What made it so wonderful for me is that I wasn't in this world before, so I had no preconceived notion. The same wonder I had when I started encountering [Barack Obama] on my television in 2007 was the same way I was for eight years.

Yes, they were President and First Lady, but also they were Barack and Michelle Obama—community activists, Black folks who had student loans at some point. It was an everyday tussle in my head of being like, “Remember, they're President and First Lady; they're not just Barack and Michelle.” I wanted to look at them as regular people, but I had a job to serve them. And they are people that I respect and revere. To this day, sometimes Barack Obama will joke with me, and in my head, I'm like, “Oh my God, I’m living this moment, I'm a witness to this,” and it's just a joy.

In your book you write that you identified with President Obama’s non-traditional family background. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?

Number one, we always saw white presidents—but also, when I got to know Barack Obama's background, it was just like, “He didn't have a mom and dad both in the home; he lived with his sister, and he lived in Hawaii. He moved around, so it wasn't like this cookie-cutter background.” [Dyer spent most of her childhood away from her parents while she attended a boarding school for low-income students.] And I had that excitement like, “He understands what some of us go through…This person will maybe get some things that are not traditional.” 

One of the very real joys of your book is its realness and humor. When you write about your interview with Mrs. Obama for the job of social secretary, and she asks you how you’re doing—I mean, you were all of us when you said in your head: “I am out here fighting for my life!”

I’m fighting for my fucking life! Like, “What do you mean how am I? How would you be sitting here for an interview with Michelle Obama?! How would you be sitting with yourself? Clearly, I'm not okay.” I can see it like it was yesterday. 

Deesha Dyer with the Obamas after the State Dinner in 2015
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talk with Social Secretary Deesha Dyer following the State Dinner (Courtesy of the Obama White House)

Were there other instances with Mrs. Obama that you left out of the book and might want to share?

Oh, there were millions. But [she] would always tell me to tell my story. One time, we were in Miami, and I was working, so I wasn't at the dinner table. She said, “Deesha, come over here, sit down, and tell them your story.” And I'm like, “Erm.” I knew her friends, but I held a very clear distinction: If I'm working, I ain't drinking. I'm over here. When y'all leave, that's when I'll eat and drink, right? 

We had a lot of just small moments, fun moments, laughing moments. She's a human being, but she's also one of these people that—you prepare for a meeting with and think you’ve thought of everything, and she asks the one thing you didn't think of. 

You write very candidly about having had two abortions, one while you were working at the White House—ironically, you wrote, just after you met the Pope. You say that that second abortion ended up being kind of a breakthrough in your life. Did that surprise you?

It really did, because I was still very thick in the imposter syndrome: “I'm a fraud, blah, blah, blah.” When I had the abortion, there were no regrets. I've always been on the side of reproductive rights. I had a medical abortion, so I did it at home. But I went back to work when I was still bleeding and wearing Depends. And I was just like, “What the literal fuck am I doing here with a fucking diaper on? This is crazy.” That breakthrough for me was huge because I just couldn't believe that I thought I had to go back to work wearing a diaper after an abortion.

Because if you didn't, it would further fuel your sense of fraudulence?

One hundred percent. The culture of work is different now than it was then, and I think I was afraid somebody would be like, “Why is she taking [time] off?” And so, I was like, “I'm going to go back just to prove I can do it.” Because when you're in your fraudulence, you do anything to prove that you can handle it. Which is why we see Black women in the workplace with hair loss, diabetes, high blood pressure, and strokes: because we're trying to prove that we're not a fraud, that we're supposed to be there, that we can handle it.

It's the way in which imposter syndrome is so symbiotic with the historical stereotypes that have been put upon us.

Say that! I know that we've come very far with mental health and workplace culture, but please. If a Black woman is like, “I'm going to take some time off,” when you come back, it’s like, “Are you okay?” Treating me like I'm a child. I never really [encountered] anybody who did that in the White House, but it still was the White House. It was still people [who did not believe] I could do the job. And so, I thank goodness something didn't happen to me because I would’ve probably died for that job. For what? Now, I'm like, “No.”

We were talking earlier about your abortion—how surreal is it now to think about having had an abortion while at the White House, which is two miles from the Supreme Court where Roe was overturned?

I'm not surprised, especially given the last President [and his] Supreme Court justice [appointees], but I would say I'm angry. I'm angry in a way that makes me have to watch my wellness. As somebody who's had abortions and somebody who has a fucking vagina and ovaries and everything else, it's kind of just like, “How are we so discounted that we can't make our own decisions?” It's the reason why I talk about [my abortion] in the book: I want people to understand that abortion is a normal thing. We have sex, and [if] we don't want to have children, we have abortions. Let's move on. 

But did I think we would ever be here? I don't think I did. But when Trump came, I knew it was a possibility. I remember running to my OBGYN and getting my IUD because I knew what was going to happen. I got it in February 2017 before I lost my federal health insurance, and I was like, “Let me get the real good one, the one that will last through his presidency.” 

By the way—and I don’t know if this is a spoiler or not—but I didn’t realize that the whole Melania Trump bringing a gift for Mrs. Obama on the “transition of presidential power” day was an act of defiance. Everybody saw Melania step out of the car holding a blue Tiffany’s box, and that it was immediately awkward when she handed it to Mrs. Obama, but you write that you had actually confirmed with Trump’s team that there wasn’t going to be a gift exchange. 

The Trumps meet the Obamas. (Via Getty Images)

Yeah, we confirmed that there were no gifts coming. Otherwise, we would've planned for me to be right there so she got it. But you could see on Mrs. Obama's face like, “Damn.” Legit like, “What's happening? What are we doing here?” I think that was [the moment] for me when I was like, “I'm done. This is it for me. These people have lost their everlasting fucking minds.” How do you come up here with a fucking Tiffany's box? Are we sponsored by Tiffany’s? But it was also so on-brand for them.

I understand what you mean by on-brand, but even so, why do you think [Melania Trump] would do that?

I'm going to be for real. I don’t think Mrs. Trump had a clue. I honestly think she had no idea about the protocol. I think she was shocked to be there. I think they were both shocked to be there for all four years. I think maybe they knew where the White House was, but that's about it. I don't think that they had any idea [about protocol], but their team should have known.

In keeping with our idea of fighting and wellness, your story includes a lot about your “unexpected path,” and I wondered how your definition of an expected path has changed since you worked in the White House.

My definition has changed in the sense that I don't have one anymore. But I think that the world's definition is still the same. There aren't a lot of companies that are going to hire somebody with great experience and no college degree [as the Obamas did with me].

President Barack Obama meets with Social Secretary Deesha Dyer in the Oval Office (Courtesy of the Obama White House)

Just to bring it full circle: Towards the end of the book, you write about an experience you had after the White House where you thought you had this new gig you’d applied for in the bag, but you didn’t get it. You were very hard on yourself about that, and I thought you could have been kinder.

The first thing I did [when I didn’t get the job] was go back to the comfortable place of, “You did that all wrong.” [That experience] did knock me down, but it didn't keep me down. Before, I would be like Eeyore; I would just wallow in it. But [this time], I was like, “Okay, let me wallow. All right, let's go get a drink.” I want to be real with people; I'm not going to pretend that I don't still have these [feelings of doubt] that come and go. But I know how to manage it better, and I think that I am more kind to myself. 

But this also goes back to the whole notion that Black women are only recognized if we’re Beyoncé or Breonna Taylor— either a superwoman or a statistic. It's like, can we have some middle ground?

Can we just exist? And in any which way we want to? Sometimes we want to be a superhero, and then sometimes we're like, “No, I want to sit at home and watch movies all day.” For so long, I thought [that desire] was me being lazy or wrong. No, fuck that. Now I'm laying in this bed, child.

 

 

Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and podcast creator/host. Her writing has been published widely, and she is the author of several books, including her recent memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. Rebecca is Editor at Large for The Meteor.


What the Columbia Protests Teach Us

And a Passover message ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌


They Waved Her Underwear in Front of a Jury and Called Her a "Slut Puppy"

THEY WAVED HER UNDERWEAR IN FRONT OF A JURY AND CALLED HER A "SLUT PUPPY"

Now Brenda Andrew is on death row, and the Supreme Court could weigh in

BY NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI

April 19, 20248 Minutes

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide this Friday if it will hear the case of Brenda Andrew, the only woman currently on death row in Oklahoma. The Andrew case is the second Oklahoma capital punishment case vying for the court’s attention this term, and it has potentially far-reaching ramifications—not just for the state, but for the rights of women and queer people everywhere.   

The background on the case is this: Andrew, along with James Pavatt, her former partner, were found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2001 shooting death of Andrew’s estranged husband, Rob, but the jury rejected the state’s charge that Andrew would be a “continuing threat to society.” Nonetheless, both Andrew and Pavatt were sentenced to death. Throughout Andrew’s 2004 trial, her sexuality, her dress, her demeanor, and, ultimately, her behavior as a wife, mother, and Christian were dissected and condemned. In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court, a former federal judge, 17 law professors, and four domestic violence advocates argue that the Andrew case was rife with gender bias that unfairly prejudiced the jury against her. 

“At a time when women’s rights generally are on the chopping block—also the rights of queer people and civil rights of minority communities—we’ve got a case that’s at the extreme end of what it means when we dehumanize these communities when we strip people of their humanity,” says Nathalie Greenfield, a lawyer with the non-profit firm Phillips Black, which filed the writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court on Andrew’s behalf. She argues that if the Supreme Court does not review the case, the justices would sanction using “assumptions, stereotypes, and tropes about people who dare to transgress perceived norms,” especially when it comes to gender, race, and identity. 

Brenda Andrew as a young woman. (Image courtesy of Phillips Black)

The trial transcript, for example, reveals that witnesses were encouraged to describe Andrew’s appearance in detail, from her dresses (“very tight, very short, with a lot of cleavage,” said one) to her make-up choices (“gothic”), and also to say whether they thought those choices were appropriate. Prosecutors also waved Andrew’s underwear in front of the jury and called her a “slut puppy,” one of the last things members of the jury heard before they began to deliberate. 

“There [were] just so many recorded instances of gendered evidence being presented every single day [of the Andrew trial],” says Greenfield. “And a lot of this was about her appearance and her extramarital affairs. The focus was on the fact that this was a woman who was transgressing gender norms by not being this chaste Christian wife.”

Oklahoma is a particularly deadly state: It has executed 124 people since 1976, when the U.S. lifted its moratorium on capital punishment. (Only Texas has killed more people.) Of these, just three were women—two of whom were prosecuted by district attorney Bob Macy, who is considered the second deadliest prosecutor in United States history. He’s responsible for 54 death sentences—more than any other prosecutor who was practicing law between 1980 and 2001. He resigned in 2001 after evidence of prosecutorial misconduct was found in 18 of those 54 cases, resulting in three exonerations. 

However, his shadow still stretches over Oklahoma’s justice system—and Macy’s assistant district attorney and protege, Fern Smith, was a prosecutor in the Andrew case. According to transcripts, Smith repeatedly asked witnesses to describe Andrew’s dress, opine over Andrew’s behavior, and state whether or not Andrew was, in Smith’s words, a “good mother.” 

This isn’t the first time a case Smith has prosecuted has been challenged. She has been repeatedly accused of failing to disclose exculpatory evidence—evidence that could be favorable to the defendant—and even of destroying evidence. In fact, she was accused of prosecutorial misconduct by name in the case of Richard Glossip, the other Oklahoma capital punishment case that will be in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

At a time when women’s rights generally are on the chopping block—also the rights of queer people and civil rights of minority communities—we’ve got a case that’s at the extreme end of what it means when we dehumanize these communities when we strip people of their humanity.

The Supreme Court has already delayed deciding whether to hear Andrew’s case twice. Tomorrow, they could do one of three things: agree to hear it, decline to hear it, or “vacate and remand,” which means the Supreme Court could return her case to the appellate court to reconsider without hearing an oral argument. 

Since Andrew was sentenced, she has been the sole woman on death row; consequently, she has served the majority of her sentence—more than 16 years—in solitary confinement. According to the United Nations, prolonged solitary confinement, or more than 15 days without meaningful human contact, is defined as torture

In February 2020, Andrew was moved to the general population, where, according to her lawyers, she thrived. She got a job and joined a quilting circle. In January, two days after her attorneys filed the writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, Andrew was returned to solitary. She wasn’t given a reason.

 

Brenda Andrew, second from left, and members of her quilting circle. (Image courtesy of Phillips Black)

“The gender bias is just so finely woven into the trial that you can’t extricate it,” argues Jessica Sutton, another attorney with Phillips Black. “It’s unique in that way. However, the real issue implicates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. We have to ensure that trials are fundamentally fair. We want to make sure that, for the ultimate punishment, we have a reliable trial, a reliable process, a reliable conviction, and sentencing. What the prosecution did is undermine every aspect of the entire trial.” 


 

Neda Toloui-Semnani is an Emmy-winning journalist and the author of They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents.


SCOTUS Just Made Protesting Much Harder