I can earnestly say that testifying in a federal court, to a federal judge, with the ACLU and against the United States government was not only utterly painless, it was really, really quite enjoyable. It’s like being wary as hell to get on a big scary rollercoaster, going on anyway, getting kid of sick but having a really good time all the same, getting off, and begging to get right back on again.
I’m employing some tact in the following portrayal of my testimony, believe it or not. I feel it’s a bit inapporpriate to take the “I kicked the government’s ASS!” approach right out here in the public eye. Oh. Oops. Anyway.
I can say that while providing vitally necessary testimony, which no other plaintiff but me could have provided (which is pretty dam cool, right?), to help protect our first amendment rights, I not only got through it and didn’t bungle anything at all, I — merely in being truthful, brave, and in being myself — totally, utterly kicked righteous ass and had a profoundly good time doing it.
I expect to be nervous with all things home-leavy and public-speaky, because I always am, and the fact that my left thigh was covered in hives the night before I left for Philly last Tuesday appeared to be clear evidence of this. I never get hives.
The the flights were utterly unremarkable and painless, to the point that somehow, by the second flight, I forgot I was a smoker. (This happened twice this trip: and I have no explanation for this whatsoever: I could more easily find a fine explanation for a Mystery Spot than I could for how a 25-years-addict forgets she is one.)
It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon, several hours before my evening prep for the trial the next day that I started to realize that I wasn’t actually at all nervous. By the time Thursday morning rolled around, after I had woken from having almost zero sleep and my babymaking dream (we have now named the infant in my dream Slimerella: when you don’t intend to have kids of your own, you forge attachments to the symbolic ones, I guess); as I was walking the eight-block dead-girl-walking trek to the courthouse with Ben, my ACLU lawyer and the brother I really should have had, who found my dream highly entertaining, I felt just fine.
For those new to my adventures, I hatehatehatehateHATE public speaking. Doing it makes me weak in the knees, lightheaded, and totally nauseated. More than once during a speaking venture, I have nearly fainted, and more than once I have almost wet my pants. Hours and sometimes days before a public speaking engagement I am a completely neurotic mess who spends all her available time praying for every kind of natural disaster to prevent the engagement from happening. I have turned down — to my great shame — a couple of gigs I was really honored to be asked to do, which would really have benefitted me, because of this stupid phobia. Needless to say, then, I fully anticipated it hitting me like a bag of rocks when the public speaking I had to do was to defend the constitution quite literally in front of the ACLU and the federal government, the latter of which I had a very healthy fear of instilled into me by my commie pinko father at a very early age, drills to hide from them should they come for us and all.
During this walk, I wondered if maybe going without sleep, food and even coffee was why I felt okay. Or if I had someone just become completely delusional per the import of what I was about to do. Or if the orgasm I had the night before had made me just that stupid.
As I entered the courtroom, anticipating that the nerves would finally, hit, they still didn’t. I gotta tell you, though: if ever in doubt that we live in a very rich country, check out a federal courtroom. Swanky business, this.
So, the day’s testimonies start. First up was this intensely wonderful school librarian as an expert witness on filters and how they — and bonafide guidance and supervision — work just fine if someone wants to be sure minors don’t have access to certain content. This woman also got in a closing statement that was the Rocky moment of the morning. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Norma Rae, and standing up and cheering was not appropriate.
(Iris Tava Smathers) I think the
4 best filter is librarians and teachers and parents who pay
5 attention and who talk to kids and say, you know, this is
6 good information. Here’s how you decide what’s good
7 information. Here’s how you decide what’s not going to
8 accomplish your task. And there are things that are bad
9 decisions for you to look at. But I think you need to, I
10 think you need to tell kids why and, you know, teach them to
11 reason because if we throw up a lock on the door and they
12 don’t know what is on the other side, when they get into a
13 position where they have to be on the other side, how are
14 they going to navigate if they don’t have those skills. And
15 I think that is my job and a teacher’s job, and then
16 hopefully the parents’ jobs to teach them to discern in cases
17 like that.
I heart librarians this much. Always have, but my adoration exponentially increased that morning.
Then came (sorry, expert witness-guy) a bunch of insanely boring testimony explaining filtering software for PDA devices. This would have been the one period of time in which I did start to feel the profound lack of caffeine and nicotene in my system.
And then came me. And I still felt fine. I went up, I sat down in a very cooshy chair (though I’d not advise, should you ever find yourself in this position, wearing double-lined wool trousers when sitting for some time in a leather chair, just FYI). Before I was supposed to, actually: I underestimated the importance of standing formally while putting my hand on the Bible, possibly in part because the one in the drawer at the hotel had the traveling dildo on it, so it seemed pretty casual to me.
The judge had a great vibe. I adore my ACLU lawyer, and we’ve had these conversations for a couple of years now. So, during his questioning, I blame my unfamiliar feelings of calm and competence on familiarity.
Most of them. The spelling of things out loud occasionally got me flustered, because I had traumatic spelling bee flashbacks.
- 17 A I operate Scarleteen.com, Scarletletters.com.
18 Q Maybe you should spell each one when you mention it for
19 the first time.
20 A Sure, scarletletters is S-C-A-R-L-E-T-L-E-T-T-E-R-S.COM.
21 Then there is also Femmerotic.com, that’s F-E-M-M-E-R-O —
22 yeah, see, spelling bee — E-R-O-T-I-C.COM. And then
23 heathercorinna.com, spelled like my first and last name. And
I wasn’t as witty in this trial as I was in my deposition last year — mostly because I was not as nervous, and thus not suffering from verbal diarrhea, and because it’s a lot more formal a setting — but I did get a few zingers in, and had a few priceless moments (which don’t translate as well in court reporting, sans my imitable charm):
- 12 Q Why did you decide to publish scarleteen online instead
13 of in a print magazine?
14 A I can’t for the life of me figure out how I would be
15 allowed in a print magazine to publish scarleteen.
A much better answer, I’d say, than “Are you high? What effing country do you think we live in, anyway?”
- 7 Q Do you believe any of the contents on scarletletters,
8 scarleteen or femmerotic might be prohibited by the act?
9 A Absolutely.
10 Q Why do you fear that?
11 A Because even as I function under the Government that I
12 live in in this country, they have made clear that the sex
13 information that I give to teenagers isn’t what they want in
14 schools and isn’t what they’re willing to pay for. So, if I
15 were to (define) community standards just as my federal
16 government and no one else, I’d be told right there and then
17 that what I do is inappropriate and not sexually appropriate.
Take that, federal government!
- 5 Q Would scarletletters link to a site like hustler.com?
6 A No.
7 Q Why not?
8 A Because I don’t want to. Because a lot of what is done
9 at hustler, to me, is not sexy, it’s sexist and misogynist
10 and it doesn’t support my goals…
Take that, Hustler!
- 21 Q And is the journal section ever sexually explicit?
22 A Not often, but every now and then, yes.
23 Q And why is it sometimes sexually explicit?
24 A Because my life isn’t always sexually explicit.
In retrospect, a better answer might have been, “Because I have sex sometimes. Don’t you?” However, I was trying to be good, and mind my lawyers comments to me from an earlier date that unlike most of my life, what was most important was the earnest, true answer, not the most clever earnest, true answer.
- 3 MR. WIZNER: Your Honor, at this time, plaintiffs
4 would like to move exhibit 42 into evidence.
5 THE COURT: Any objection?
6 MS. ULRICH: Your Honor, defendant has an objection
7 to just a few of the pages. Specifically, defendant objects
8 to page 1 and page 2. These pages are blow-up images that
9 appear elsewhere within the exhibit. The image on page 1 is
10 a duplicate of page 17 and as the witness explained, page 17
11 is how that image appears when somebody clicks on the link.
12 The image on page two is a duplicate of a photo on page 26.
13 And it’s defendant’s position that those other pages are more
14 representative of the actual images on the website. And so,
15 defendant does object to pages 1 and 2.
Let the record show that this was a discussion about a photo of my breasts, being held up and on video screens while I was both attempting to still appear professional, and not take a woman objecting to my breasts for the first time in my life personally. I have never had a pet name for my body parts, but I’m seriously considering calling my tits Exhibit 42 from now on.
- 25 Q Have you ever considered using an age verification system
1 for scarleteen?
2 A No.
3 Q Why not?
4 A Because it’s like saying I’m running a coffee shop, but
5 I’m turning away people who drink coffee. I can’t serve my
6 user base that I’m intended to serve if I put that up there.
Maybe I was starting to want that coffee after all.
- 17 Q What would you do if COPPA were to take effect?
18 A It really depends on, it depends on the site. You know,
19 I’d say I’d move to Canada, but I said that when Kerry lost,
20 too. And here I am. So, it’s a hollow threat coming from
21 me. You know, so given, I probably wouldn’t do that. You
22 know, in scarleteen’s case, I would keep doing exactly what I
23 do. I’d feel like I was at risk. I’d know that I was
24 choosing to take those risks.
That was the big laugh of the day, even from the judge. I’ll be here all week. Nah, scratch that: after this, I am so outta here.
(These portions are from the cross-examination by the Department of Justice lawyer)
- 8 Q And Plaintiff’s Exhibit 42, page 9, is the splash page
9 for femmerotic, is that correct?
10 A It’s a bad scan of the splash page, but yes.
Hello, my name is Heather Corinna, and I’m an annoying little perfectionist.
- 10 Q If you have photos on Femmerotic that show — would show
11 people having sex, those would be for subscribers only,
13 A It really depends on how you define sex.
Watching the straight people in the room try and work that one out was pretty amusing.
(For the morbidly curious, here’s the whole transcript of the day, by the way.)
Here’s the thing. When the cross started, this is where I figured I’d muck things up, talk too much, annoy the judge, forget the decorum, say something totally idiotic, like “Yes, I recognize Exhibit 42, I’ve seen them every damn day since I was 11.” My inner prankster also kept wanting to do something like plainly say “Frootloops,” to a yes or no question, or to pretend to break down and confess that I was a dirty, dirty lady who suddenly realized the great error of her ways in corrupting all the wee children, just to see what would happen.
The DoJ lawyer was the same woman who deposed me for an ungodly number of hours (which translated into around 260-some pages of transcript). We’re all still a little bitter about that. I didn’t dislike her at all during that deposition, save that she was making me stay answering questions that seemed redundant and foolish to me, when I really wanted some air, a dirty martini and a smoke. But I was so frazzled that day, I couldn’t see anyone’s strategy.
This time was different. From the minute she came to the stand, whether it was so or not, I got the distinct impression she thought she was smarter, more powerful, than I was. Again, fact or fiction, the effect this had on my was apparently quite visible. Mark said that my whole body language shifted: from sitting prim and upright in my chair, to leaning back, opening my arms and clearly sending out, “Oh THIS is how you want to play it? Well, you just bring it ON” vibes. I realized in that moment that this was just like boxing, and that my boxing partners have usually been larger and stronger than me, still never knocked me out and I’ve always been able to throw them off balance. I imagine the pinstriped vest I was wearing and that body lingo may have made me resemble an old school mafioso, especially since my lawyer made some offhand remark at dinner later about me and bloody horses heads.
Setting aside my cement shoes, here cometh the cheeseball bits. I need schmaltzy theme music: I need violins, dammit!
Did you ever read The Monster at the End of This Book? You know, the Sesame Street book where Grover is terrified of that monster — mortified, fearful throughout, knowing one is at the end — but he discovers at the end that the monster is just loveable, furry Grover? That’s how I felt about the federal government that day. There’s something really awesome about being an activist and suing the U.S. government. It is a substantially groovy thing. And it’s even better when you’re up there, doing it actively, with them in the room. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life mastering bravado, I am the macha queen in many respects when it comes to that. But when bravado translates into balls-out brave in a context like this, it is an intensely empowering thing. It’s seeing the Grover behind the monster, and having moments where you feel like it’s YOU no one is seeing the Grover in. Feeling the feds intimidated by you, when you always felt so under their thumb? This is FABULOUSNESS, especially when you’ve worked as an activist for a really long time, and your winning moments are few and far between, and buried underneath an awful lot of frustration and helplessness.
When I finished, then we all walked out into the break room, I got loads and loads of judos. I was so damn high on myself that I couldn’t even take a compliment properly. “You are a rock star,” got responded to with “I KNOW!” “You were awesome,” with “You bet your ass I was…..umm, oh, thank you.” I was tempted to ask at a certain point that everyone stop paying me compliments, because it was inflating my ego in a way I was not accustomed to and clearly unable to graciously manage.
And I couldn’t. I’d turned some sort of corner. It’s so weird, really. I wasn’t actually prepared for this particular feeling. That’s not to say I didn’t know I was doing something really important, I did. But in my mind, no more or less so than what I do every day: I think what I do every single day is just as important as this was.
So, it’s a little confusing to me as to why I feel so….different. Pardon my sounding cheesy, but I haven’t really had any time to myself since this happened to even really process it, and I suspect the delay in that may have upped the ante here.
(Which I hope also excuses my behaviour at the shoe store down the street the other day. I was returning a pair of clogs I bought one size too small — not my fault, though, the shoe-fitter needed to have told me about how to fit them properly — and the owner looked at the bottoms and said, “Oh, you wore these outside?” To which my response was, “To defend your freedom of speech, buddy! You could BRONZE those shoes!” As it turned out, I think he was more inclined to make my exchange because the shopgirl overcharged me than because of my totally uncalled for snippy retort. Thankfully, jumping right back into mounds of editing and fixing my umpteen mistakes is very humbling.)
Maybe I feel like this because something I’ve done — and a something that is about the value of all the work I do, and the vital need for it — feels earnestly recognized for a change. Maybe it’s because I don’t often get the opportunity — the gift, really — to do the important things I do and have a roomful of people I respect witness and applaud that so directly. Maybe because given the medium in which I do my work, the effects aren’t really something I see very directly, and so seeing it, feeling it, was pretty unusual. Maybe it’s because more often than not, other people have more faith in me than I have in myself, and having a moment where I understood why they have that faith, and had it for myself for a change, was pretty intense.
Or maybe it’s just because I kicked the government’s ass.