The Debate Over Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights

About this Episode

Guests
Daniel Rivers, Clayton Howard, J. Brendan Shaw

The rapid shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage in the United States has been one of the most dramatic cultural transformations in recent memory. But with these changes have come many questions and tensions. Is the focus on the politics of marriage limiting to broader rights movement? How have popular representations like those in Modern Family, crime procedurals, or even Levi’s jeans commercials changed the public’s perceptions, and has it always been for the better? How has the study and teaching of gay and lesbian history changed? What is the relationship between sexuality and neighborhood transformation (often termed “gentrification”)? In this month’s episode of History Talk there’s something for everyone as hosts Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins discuss the historical background behind the news headlines with three experts: Daniel Rivers and Clayton Howard are two Ohio State history professors, and J. Brendan Shaw is a doctoral candidate in the Ohio State University English department.

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Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "The Debate Over Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
July, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/debate-over-same-sex-marriage-and-lgbtq-rights?language_content_entity=en.
July, 2014

Transcript

Leticia Wiggins 

Welcome to History Talk, the history podcast for everyone, produced by Origins: Current Events and Historical Perspective. This is your cohost, Leticia Wiggins.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And this is your other cohost, Patrick Potyondy. We have three guests joining us today.

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

Sure. My name is Clay Howard and I'm an assistant professor of history at Ohio State.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

My name is Dr. Daniel Rivers. I'm also an assistant professor at Ohio State.

 

J. Brendan Shaw 

And I'm J. Brendan Shaw. I'm a PhD student here at Ohio State University in the English department.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Great. Thanks, everyone. Um, so to get started today, gay rights and LGBT rights more broadly have consistently been headline news for a long time now, particularly in the United States. Activism has picked up and attitudes have changed rapidly and dramatically.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

The shift in people's attitudes is reflected in polling data and in the number of recent court rulings. As of late March 2014, 33 States still ban gay marriage, but 17 states have legalized it either through the courts, legislatures, or popular vote. According to Pew in 2001, 57% of the general American public oppose gay marriage with 37% in favor. By 2014, those numbers have essentially flipped with 58% for legalizing gay marriage. These figures would have been unthinkable it seems only a little over a decade ago.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So in this show today, we aim to explore the background of these changes. We'll look to the difference and the significance of popular media and shaping attitudes, and how the study of LGBT history has changed the centrality of gay marriage as a defining issue and urban gentrification. So stay tuned.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And starting off today, we'd like to refer to this cultural shift we've seen in which LGBT relationships and identifications have been increasingly explored and represented by television, music and the media in general. So how should we look at this shift? And J. Brendan we will throw this question to you first.

 

J. Brendan Shaw 

Well, one of the things with that sort of question, I think it's sort of a mixed bag. So I think in maybe the last 20 years, we could argue that there's sort of an increase in, especially maybe the last 10-15 years, in representations of sort of very normal gay relationships on television. So like right now in the sort of current TV shows, sort of Scandal and Modern Family, which are really successful, both of them center these white, upper middle class, male, same sex relationships. So there's a very normal sort of mainstreaming of that sort of representation. And I think you can point to a lot of more gradual representations and other media. So for example, Netflix's Orange is the New Black has Laverne Cox, who's an African American trans woman who's one of the sort of central characters there, and she's used that platform to do other things as sort of as far as activism, and appearing on a lot of sort of popular interview TV shows. But I think it's sort of a mixed bag because the thing with representation is always that if you get represented, it's for folks out there who are looking for someone sort of, quote unquote like to them, it's really heartening. But it also at the same time can mean then you can be very limited. You can be, like you said, sort of very stereotyped. If you think about for like the AIDS epidemic and the AIDS crisis and the early, mid 1980s, groups like Act Up, were really trying to make things more visible, because visibility is what often leads to sort of changes, and the legislature changes in public opinion. But again, that's a mixed bag, sort of a complicated thing. I don't know what the rest of you think.

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

You know, one of the things I was thinking when I heard the question is, you know, on one hand, you've got the sort of like model minority representations of Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family, but I was also thinking, you know, there's like this long standing queer figure in American popular culture, and not at all a model but a rebel, right, like Little Richard, or Madonna, and Lady Gaga and so forth. And they're popular I think, not in spite of their kind of gender transgressions. And so I was wondering what you guys think about how like on one hand, you've got this seemingly conservative representation of gay couples, right, as parents, as married, as monogamous, alongside the frequently, like musicians or performers who have these kinds of over the top kind of queer personas that are that are really the opposite of that kind of image.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

That's a that's a great question, Clay. I mean, I guess, when I think about that, there are a couple of different answers. I mean, if you think about the history of camp and drag as a cultural form or forms throughout the 20th century, a lot of what you're talking about the sort of rebellious or transgressive cultural queer accesses, those are really coded, right, so that part of that is the notion that someone, there's still a sort of politics of the closet and guesswork and moving in two different worlds, right for sure. If we think about somebody like Madonna, she both used the idea of her queerness, and then would sort of be able to step away from it at times, right, and adopt heteronormativity, if you will. So, so I think that that has been a fundamental part of the way that camp and drag and queer cultural forms in it relates with straight society historically. And yet, you're absolutely right that in the last decades, those walls are broken down specific. Think of somebody like RuPaul right. RuPaul a sort of very, defiantly and openly queer and definitely is utilizing those transgressive sort of rebellious camp and drag forms. We might argue to a more marketable in though it might be that when you step away from the code and the veil, right, then you become much more or you possibly might become much more mainstream or more marketable, right, or less transgressive. And I was thinking about your great comments on cultural production during the early years of the epidemic and you had stuff like an early frost, which was, it was Aiden Quinn, the made for TV movie, that was the first sort movie on AIDS. And that got a lot of play in the American public. But then of course, that movie was predominantly about the suffering of the heteronormative family as they dealt with the fact that their son was positive, right, and what that meant and the sort of way that that eventually brings them all back together and is the suturing healing for the homophobia that has rift. That was about AIDS as a concern for the American public more than it was actually about lived experience of people who were HIV positive, but then you get something like As Is, which was a much less well-known gay community play that was very much about two men wrestling with one of them lovers, with one of their positive diagnosis and that in there that really didn't get much play at all. So I guess we always have to watch out for what is making the main stage in America. I think about the character of Lafayette on True Blood. He's certainly empowered and he, but at the same time, there is still a bit of the hyper sexualization of a queer man of color there. I guess I wanted to throw that back to you all. Do you think that as we see increased production of queerness in American culture, that it is sort of facilitating tropes of race and class that we that we might not want?

 

J. Brendan Shaw 

I mean, I think it's complicated. I think the Lafayette example or even Little Richard right are both examples where race is also happening there in a way that someone like Little Richard can also be read by the American public and was especially earlier in his career as also a result of his sort of black masculinity, run roughshod in a different way than like someone like Lady Gaga or Madonna, who can go back to the fact that at the end of the day, they're a white woman and very blonde and their careers are very much about them being white women who are very blonde. They can sort of escape to that place. I mean, what you were saying made me also think of like, black blues singers, right, like Bessie Smith, who were very explicit about perhaps what you might call bisexual or queer desires and how again those get picked up in mainstream, to mainstream listeners as like, well, this is what black female sexuality is like. It's dirty, it's different. And the other thing I think, too, is that those sorts of queer figures that Clay is pointing us to that are sort of playing also can be read as just strange and different and niche, right? If you think about RuPaul, and RuPaul's drag race, RuPaul's drag race is sort of allowed for, by a sort of rise of sort of niche culture. And there's a way that we can market to people in different ways than when there's, you know, just four networks, you know, 30 years ago. And I think also the sort of queer figures I've noticed more and more on TV that queerness is also associated with like the rise of like, death, and shows about serial killers and shows about the procedural right that these queer figures are exciting and they're rebels, which is exciting, and I always watch the shows of it, "Oh, I love this...oh, he's also a serial killer." Well, that was disappointing.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And kind of moving us in a little bit different direction as an undergraduate at the University Colorado, Boulder, I had the chance to take a class on gay lesbian history with Professor Peter Bogue. But as I learned more about the field of history, I realized that these concerns weren't always available to students. So my question is, how is the study of LGBT history and issues changed? And what new approaches are being used by researchers? So we'll throw this question first to Daniel.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

Sure, thanks. You know, LGBT history is still really a nascent sub field within the discipline of history. It's really just in its beginnings, we can trace it back to the early 1970s, where a kind of grassroots concern for lesbian and gay history emerges out of the liberation era, and the struggles of those years and we saw the first community archives organized during those years and what people would do is they would, they would develop these slideshows, and they would take them all over the country and they would stay in a town in somebody's living room and, and show the slideshows of LGBT history. And so it was really grassroots, very much separated from the mainstream. The first wave of LGBT history really begins in earnest in the 1980s, and in that wave of history was very much a reck- a wave of Reclamation. The desire was to reclaim an invisible history of lesbian and gay lives. They really stepped back and sort of wanted to lift the veil on what homophobia had made obscure. But then in the 1990s, we really saw a turn towards a community history-based work in LGBT history. And we saw for the first time on LGBT history, we saw people really trying to strive to include bi and trans folks into a historical narrative. We got some really incredible local community regional histories out of the 1990s, I think moving forward, and it's been a really wonderfully productive time in LGBT history in the last 10 years. I think, what some of the best work is doing is that it's incorporating into new, more nuanced and complex intersectional understandings of what LGBT history can be, histories of sexuality as well.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Is there room then, is there space for all this popular culture to really surface in this scholarship? And do you think that's an interesting way to use as like a teaching tool or?

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

One of the things that when I teach is that, you know, LGBT history is like a hot political issue. So whenever you teach it, you always have the potential for controversy. You also have people who take the class in part because they're, they want to know more about the larger issue. And one of the challenges, going back to what Dan was saying, is that people come in with preconceived notions that can be difficult to challenge. And very often, sometimes they come in with the idea that modern, the Modern Family representation of, of sexuality, gay or straight, is somehow representative and to convince them to see it otherwise can be really difficult. And your question about popular culture made me think of that there are these, there used to be these like ads for men's jeans. I think it was like Levi's. I mean, it was something like pretty mainstream. Really, it had like a guy in the laundromat, and he like, takes his pants off and throws it in the washing machine, and he's like a very good-looking man. And I have my students like watch a clip of it. And I asked my students like who the audience for this ad is? And the answer, of course, is men. And I was like, well, gay men, right? And they were like, well, maybe, but it's Levi's, so presumably, so like, they're really thrown by the idea that these commercials are kind of queering their lives every day in ways that they hadn't even thought about If you look at so called straight male fashion, there's a lot of looking at naked men going on whether it's wrestling, or Old Spice commercials or.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

You know, that's really interesting Clay. You know, it makes me think that to some degree, if we're thinking about the popular culture question, that might be at that level, the stuff that actually affects the most change, right, because to see, to see queerness leveraged in such a, such a sort of normalizing or everyday way, you know, a laundromat or a jeans commercial, right? Or even a Subaru commercial with a rainbow flag sticker and a family loading groceries into the car, right? Although that was a while ago and was charged but in these ways, I think that that actually, at a sort of mainstream massive cultural level, has a certain kind of impact. Whereas, if we're talking about the inclusion of openly gay characters on TV shows, there certainly are now TV shows that are quite complex, where the characters do a lot of different kinds of work. And I think that that is really powerful. But I am suspicious of the way American culture has actually always incorporated something that I would call "queer minstrelsy"' into American cultural production. There have been queer characters and queer cultural production in American since the 1940s, at least before and they have been quite homophobic. If you look at something like the Queer Eye for the straight guy, right? I think there's a real danger of homophobic play with this queer minstrelsy, right? With some kind of like notion of queerness that actually comes from straight society. So I think that with overt representations economic, there's always a danger to watch for. But with some of this, this sort of more everyday stuff, I think that's actually pretty powerful.

 

J. Brendan Shaw 

What that makes me think of as far as teaching also, in a slightly different direction. I think this kind of goes back to what you were saying earlier about history, and the histories of certain groups as the rise since the late 80s, of documentary films about these different groups of people. And the way that documentary film has exploded, independent documentary film, but something like the aggressive, or even something as classic as Paris Is Burning, these provide a window for students that I think they might not otherwise have, because otherwise, these are groups that students might have no concept of. And this is sort of a beginning of a conversation in a way that students might not otherwise have that.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So politically speaking, LGBT issues are perhaps garnering the most attention in kind of the political sphere, right. And so especially with recent discussions of court rulings and legislation. But within the activist community, there's some unease with defining gay rights by modern marriage alone. So has the focus on gay marriage limited the conversation of a broader gay rights movement? And again, if Daniel wants to start us off here.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

Sure, and I'll have to be careful not to talk for a half an hour on this one. You know I just published my book "Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers and Their Children Since World War Two" in September. And in that book, I sort of intervene in some of these current struggles and conversations. And I guess I would say, I would say first, that it's important to keep in mind that the struggle for domestic and family and parental rights, that that struggle, you know, showing radical relations goes back to the early 1970s in the emergence of the liberation struggles, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, but even more than that, before that period, lesbian mothers and gay fathers were raising children underground since World War Two in the United States, and they knew full well that they'd lose their kids. If their sexual orientation was known, right, they understood completely the politics, right? So that underground history, that actually is also a part of the first gay and lesbian civil rights organizations where there were lesbian mothers and gay fathers who talked about fighting for rights of adoption and rights of marriage. So if we keep that in mind, it helps us to put the current struggle for same sex marriage in a historical context so that we don't see this as a kind of assimilationist late in the game, opportunistic turn towards a particular right that's going to play well on the American stage. That's just not historically true. It comes about because family, children and sexuality are fundamentally linked in American society, both in terms of how people's lives get policed, and in terms of how people struggling and stop policing, but that said, what happens on the ground is that there was struggle in the late 1980s for family rights for domestic partnership. And that domestic partnership I found in my research was envisioned far more broadly than the way same sex marriage is currently envision. Even by 1991 and 92, we only had a handful of municipalities in the United States that had domestic partnership legislation, very small number, and the gay and lesbian activists who were struggling for domestic partnership did so with a very broad vision of domestic partnership. They were fighting for domestic partnership laws that would be applicable to almost anybody, that two people could enter into a domestic partnership relationship. There's always issues with limitations, but domestic partnership in the early 90s was much more broad than same sex marriage. And then when the Hawaii decision comes down in 93, the Baehr decision, it shocked everybody. That's hard for us to remember, how actually that was a shocking sort of decision that came from left field. And all of a sudden, overnight, LGBT activists across the country said same sex marriage is the goal, right? That's the thing. No one thought that we were anywhere near that in the early 90s. And then all of a sudden, overnight, the parameters of the game changed. And so what had been a pretty expansive and very interesting push for domestic partnership became a push for same sex marriage. Now do I really think that domestic partnership as a separate system, you know, against a marriage that that would have stood or that that was a viable system? I don't actually I don't think that the American constitutional system would actually have allowed that to be functional. But in 93, everything changed in a pretty drastic way. And all of a sudden, one of the difficulties is that a lot of diverse political commitments that had been a part of the struggle for domestic partnership that again, comes out of this long, you know, 70-year history, those commitments were, they got forgotten, right. So the same sex marriage as it increases up towards the national scale as a struggle as a political struggle often gets decomplicated, if you will, right. It gets simplified, but the history gives us a context for understanding how we get here, I think.

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

Yeah, I mean, listening to the debates about same sex marriage can be really exciting and really frustrating at the same time. I mean, for those of us who were alive in 2004, and that Presidential election It is like crazy to hear the Supreme Court and these poll numbers that there has been this this huge change. It is it is like frustrating to, you know, to hear discussions whether from, you know, allegedly straight people or gay people talking about the issue, say things like, you know, this is about love. And no one sort of raises the question like, do you need to be married to love someone? Or, you know, this is about health insurance or hospital privileges, which is very true, but no one raises the question, why do you need to be married to get health insurance and, and so forth? And so it's a little, it's like a little saddening, because I think there's very little room outside, you know, some certain very small circles to kind of raise those issues. That said, there's always unintended consequences with political activism and just throw out something kind of random. For most of this debate, people frequently let the government fall out of the picture right that this is not about, this is about marriage licenses, but most people talk about the private relationship between two people, but the federal government in particular has often been involved in marriage going back all the way to the Mormons in the 19th century. And it's kind of interesting to me how polygamy has resurfaced not just from conservatives who oppose same sex marriage, but from Mormons in particular in places like Utah who are taking the consenting adults, logic to say we are all consenting adults, we want polygamy, we want the same marriage rights, so in some ways, the same sex marriage debate which seemingly has nothing to do with Mormonism, or what you would think about, you know, how Mormons would view the institution of marriage. And yeah, I think it's opened a can of worms.

 

J. Brendan Shaw 

I think the thing about the gay marriage, if we call it gay marriage or same sex marriages, there's like an affective piece there too. If you look at sort of the polling numbers that are in the increased support, its support for an affective idea like you're saying, that isn't about the government. It isn't about the fact that this is a three-way contract between two people and the government that gives you certain rights, and then can take them away. It's about two people in love. Right. And this is a sort of popular cultural representation. And it also is attached to the idea sort of, like Daniel was saying, that this is a popular presentation of the people I can identify with are these upwardly mobile white, same sex, same, there's this sort of same, same affective work that's being done that sort of argues then that the only people we can really identify with are these people that look just like us, which then means only certain people get discussed, right. And so what that leaves out, are all the folks for whom marriage is not their most pressing concern. All the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered folk for whom marriage is the last thing on their minds, marriage would change very little. And obviously those things are part of what is concerns for their lives, but their lives might be as concerned and more concerning to meeting housing, needing shelter, needing to stop police brutality, right. In these different situations where they need other kinds of legal protections and other kinds of broad approval and assistance from the rest of the, you know, United States people. So I think in gay marriage, I think is an important issue. And I think I think that that leaves a lot out. I mean, I think that's my worry. When I think about these discussions, I think it's important to think about the history. But I think it's also important think about these other histories that are sort of intersecting with that history at the same time.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

That's like a perfect segue, actually into our last question, because we'd like to look at the importance of these intersectional identities and address the issue of gentrification in particular, which is making the news as of late, with urban studies looking to gay couples moving into poor and neglected neighborhoods. So how does one consider aspects and issues of race and class while, looking at LGBT history in this area? And we'll have Clay start us off here.

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

Yeah, sure. So I think when you talk about an issue like gentrification, it's really important to look at it at a regional or a metropolitan level, because it's, you can talk about whether or not you or I or someone else who has the means should move into x neighborhood or y neighborhood, but ultimately everyone knows the individual decision of one consumer or even 20 consumers won't make a difference. So the historical backdrop of sexuality and gentrification is competition between the suburbs and the cities. And so throughout the 1950s, suburbs  advertise themselves to factories, businesses, places that would pay tax revenue for schools, that they were family friendly, that then that meant, you know, married with kids and so forth. And a lot of large tech companies just like in the Sun Belt in the south and the West move to California to the suburbs, because in part, their workforce was fit the model of the surrounding community. And then since the 50s Americans have married later in life, and now there's about 10-20 years between when educated middle class Americans finish college and when they actually marry and have kids, which has created a space and cities for a market of people who now are unmarried who don't have kids who don't necessarily want to pay taxes for schools, who who tend to move into older neighborhoods. And so throughout that process, you know, where does race and class fit into this, whether it's suburbanization or gentrification, there's people, business elites, political elites, who have a set idea about who they want living in the surrounding neighborhood, what they consider to be safe, what they consider to be good for business. And therefore they encourage wealthy professionals to move into poor neighborhoods because they see it as a form of relief.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Anything to add to Clay's answer?

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

Well, not a whole lot. It was a great answer, Clay, but…

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

Thanks, Dan.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

I guess, I guess I would, you know, I would say that there has long been in, in queer communities, this kind of notion that, you know, I grew up in the same physical barrier and there was always this notion that gay community pushed poor communities of color out when they came in, and that they were substantively different in their cultural forms. And they think that this was a way of expressing a lot of anxieties in the Metropole, in the 1970s. For one thing, we now know historically, that a lot of those gay men who went to the Castro, because they wanted to find a place where they could be true to their own desires, were poor gay men, or were gay men of color who got there and felt pretty alienated and change the Castro in the ways that they could, protested racist policies at gay bars, for instance, right. And those histories get lost if we in a notion that the Castro was only a white gay male enclave that gentrified and pushed other communities which are implicitly not gay in that equation, out to the margins. The notion that, you know, gay male communities don't have children, so have more income capital as well is totally false. Gay fathers lived in those neighborhoods as well, formed the first gay fathers’ groups and struggled to, you know, have everyone acknowledge that they were gay fathers. And that was a possibility and quite a struggle actually. So I think in all kinds of ways, that notion that was a notion where gay lesbian communities also self-criticized their own perception that they were overly white and not focused on the issues of race and class, have clouded I think, to a certain degree, the real, real complex realities of these metropolises.

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

I think that white gay men in particular have sort of unfairly been painted with the brush of gentrification in the sense that the people moving into older neighborhoods don't mostly self-identify as gay, some do. But you know, that's a much larger process. And I think that this question of like Gaytrification and kind of, it's sort of scapegoating to a certain degree because it's a much wider group of people who are part of that process.

 

J. Brendan Shaw 

I mean, listening to both of you, I mean, obviously, this is your area, Clay, and so I think your answer was really spot on. I think the thing I think it's interesting as about just the language and how when we say like gay communities and communities of color, then we sort of set up these demarcation lines, right. And it's complicated for anyone who's talking about this, because then that assumes, by back formation, that gay communities are not communities of color, or that communities of color haven't had vibrant, queer presences in different ways that aren't maybe as readable or as legible as the sort of the scapegoat that you're describing, right? This sort of like two upwardly mobile gay men that have a lot of disposable income because they're never going to have children. And there's a weird space and that that that gay couple, this sort of fantasy gay couple is both the ideal consumer and the ideal scapegoat at the same time, right? I mean, we have and it plays into a larger narrative of queer folk as people who, because they don't have children or because they're not on a sort of more normal timeline are just delayed, it's a delayed adolescence that never ends, right. And the idea that that's bad, and there's obviously very capitalist things going on there, right? If you have all this endless disposable income and you don't do the work of, you know, adopting a child or having children, and you don't buy into a system where you reproduce yourself, then you're not doing the right kind of work, but at the same time, it is okay, if you go do this work and the sort of neighborhoods that we've already socially decided aren't, you know, desirable for anyone. So then there's also I mean, in all these discussions we've been having there's all these desires, right? So does the individual desire like Clay was saying, like, does one person choosing to move into this quote unquote, undesirable formerly of color neighborhood mean that they are participating in gentrification, right? When, when what are the desires that we all have to move to different places or purchase different products or buy into certain representations? Right, I think those are all really interesting questions to think about.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

We'd like to thank our guests Clay Howard, Dr. Daniel Rivers and J. Brendan Shaw for joining us today on History Talk.

 

Dr. Daniel Rivers 

 Thank you.

 

Dr. Clay Howard 

Thank you.

 

J. Brendan Shaw 

Thank you, guys.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center History Department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle, our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer, our audio editors and cohosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu and you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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