Friday, August 29, 2014

Baltimore, Baseball and Gay Love—'Queen Henry' Touches all the Bases


Begin with a straight, homophobic, narcissistic, womanizer who happens to play for the Baltimore Orioles.  Add to that his out-of-the-blue discovery he is gay, which is followed by his falling head over spikes for a man.  Toss in the swirling rumors of a gay player on the Orioles and the inherent clubhouse homophobia from his manager, some of his teammates, and his father, and you have the recipe for a glorious, deliciously written work of fiction, Queen Henry, by local author Linda Fausnet, a lifetime Orioles fan.

A successful screenwriter and a professed ally for LGBT rights, Fausnet announced that all proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Harvey Milk Foundation. 
Set in Baltimore, Henry Vaughn, Jr., who has a thing for Peach Schnapps, is a rather fun-loving outfielder who is immensely popular with the fans mainly because, as a self-described “attention whore,” he leads them in the seventh inning sing-along to Y-M-C-A while standing atop the dugout.  After a game, Henry carouses with his teammates, and since he is attractive, famous and single, he effortlessly finds a different woman to take home each night.

Despite his macho image, Henry secretly longs to be a Broadway performer.  His homophobic father, manager and teammates instill the anti-gay dogma in him, and he frequently uses the f-word primarily because this is the environment in which it is expected and accepted. 

Weakness or the perception of same is one of the greatest fears of a male athlete.  That is why Henry hides the use of an inhaler to deal with his asthma and instead decides to participate in a clinical drug trial at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  After taking the drug, administered by a medical technician named Sam, a gay man, Henry finds out shockingly while jogging the next morning he is attracted to men and lost his desires for women.  Just like that.
Panicky and confused, Henry tries to explain the situation to Sam who vehemently denies the drug had anything to do with this condition and that Henry must have been suppressing his true sexuality all along.  They don’t hit it off well as Henry’s homophobia comes through loud and clear; the tension between the two remains throughout a good portion of the book.

Nonetheless, Sam introduces Henry to a close friend and colleague at Hopkins, Thomas, who has helped people come to grips with their sexuality.  They experience a deep attraction to one another and ultimately fall in love. 
Like any good author, Fausnet seductively draws the reader into the romance and sexual steaminess with great skill, describing the relationship between Henry and Thomas with sensitivity and emotion. To her credit, the passionate sexual scenes are tastefully conveyed—full of affection and heat without seeming tawdry.

The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along and the career and family choices he will be confronted with or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
Without proceeding further to reveal the outcome, I can say that some readers may be disappointed with the ending (as I was initially) but others may like the ending (as I did eventually). 

Fausnet’s writing is extraordinary in this fluid, fast-paced tale.  Narrated in the first person by Henry, the story reads like his own journal as he reflects upon each conversation he has and reveals his inner thoughts.  We get to delve into Henry’s psyche enabling us to not only understand the challenges and quandaries he faces, but also to enthusiastically root for him.  He wins us over.
Fausnet demonstrates an uncanny understanding of gay male emotions and sexual desires (she is a happily married heterosexual mother of two) and will keep you absorbed as Henry and the other characters in the novel navigate through the events shaping their lives.

Her character development is splendid.  You feel that you know each one intimately, and most of the characters are endearing and sweet.  This is especially true of Alice, an attractive bartender at a bar Henry frequented to pick up women, sidestepping Alice by not recognizing her myriad appealing qualities.    
The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along ... or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
I suspect Fausnet purposely left out specific physical descriptions of the characters other than vague images such as beautiful eyes, muscular arms, etc. so as not to distract the reader from the underlying messages in the novel.  But I think it would have been fun and would have added context to be able to visualize each person as we turn the pages.

Fausnet’s references to Baltimore provided additional enjoyment to the storyline especially for us locals.  Besides Hopkins and Camden Yards, the Hippo is frequently mentioned throughout.  The Pride parade is a turning point scene.  The Baltimore Sun plays a vital role, and even Baltimore OUTloud is mentioned albeit as a support group marching in the Pride parade, not the wildly popular LGBT newspaper that it is!
Though there are many cleverly written light moments throughout Queen Henry—one that is particularly hilarious is when the Orioles players were speculating as to whom the gay player may be—Fausnet touches upon key social messages that are in play today. 

Despite the revelations by Jason Collins, Michael Sam and other athletes that they are gay, there is still great concern by gay male athletes to come out and face the potential hostilities.  Fausnet effectively describes the homophobia that exists in the locker room and the pressures that result. 

She began writing the novel a few years back when the environment for gays and lesbians was not as favorable as today. Therefore, I don’t think the current local media would be in the “gotcha mode” as portrayed in Queen Henry.  The same is true for the teammates who now would be wise not to publicly utter the f-word in dealing with the subject.  Moreover, the real Orioles today would not be inclined to openly express any anti-gay epithets as owner Peter Angelos, who was a substantial contributor in the fight for marriage equality in Maryland, would put the kibosh on that.
The other main theme is how Henry recognized his own homophobia, and once he learned he was gay understood how other gays and lesbians can be easily hurt and their lives wrecked by this bigotry and hatred.  He transformed his attitude once he saw himself as a victim.  It is a powerful message.

Queen Henry is a truly well-written novel with potent drama with campy humor laced throughout.  Though it contains important messages to LGBT folks and others, it is also a gorgeous love story and one that should not be missed.  Fausnet swung and hit a home run.
___
Queen Henry, Linda Fausnet, published by Wannabe Pride; July 2014; 360 pages; paperback (ISBN: 978-0-9916525-0-1); $10.62 on Amazon.com or wannabepride.com, her website to promote writers and books; $2.99 on Kindle.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Next Big Thing


Photo: Brion McCarthy Photography
There was an abundance of symbolism on the day the report from the Youth Equality Alliance (YEA) was released, which revealed that many LGBTQ youth in Maryland are facing difficult challenges including homelessness.  The unveiling of the report Living in the Margins  took place in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Central Library where homeless individuals frequently enter to gain shelter.  It also occurred during the record-breaking deluge, which reminded people of the deplorable conditions the homeless must endure on days like that.
On that waterlogged August 12 morning, ten YEA coalition members and LGBTQ youth spoke passionately about the experiences of bullying, harassment, and discrimination that tend to lead to negative outcomes.

Most of us are aware that LGBTQ youth are bullied and tormented in school or online.  We have a sense that some parents kick their kids out of their homes when they find out their child is LGBTQ.   We realize that homeless children (as well as adults) are at great risk on numerous levels.  We recognize, too, that foster care is not a good solution to homelessness when the child is constantly discriminated against, bullied or abused. 
We know these problems exist; therefore, it’s time to finally turn our attention to the plight of our LGBTQ youth.  Aaron Merki, the executive director for the FreeState Legal Project, which is one of the founding members of the YEA coalition, agreed. “Although the Maryland LGBTQ community has recently secured several new rights, including marriage equality and the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, there is much work to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth.”

Indeed, we’ve achieved goals in equality and transgender nondiscrimination that were seemingly unimaginable five years ago, and we are proud of that.  Those have been powerful, sexy issues that attracted generous contributions, volunteers and the work by elected officials to make it happen.  These matters were the subject of conversations from dinner parties in Bolton Hill and Silver Spring to the pews in Baltimore’s churches to the sands of Rehoboth Beach. 


Are we ready to tackle the gritty, less glamorous task of helping our youth?  I hope so.”
They were historic, monumental achievements.  Are we ready to tackle the gritty, less glamorous task of helping our youth?  I hope so.  It’s time, and it’s the next big thing, although much work is still needed to ensure our safety, combat HIV/AIDS, address the needs of the burgeoning aging population and deal with other concerns. 

The YEA coalition, consisting of a number of advocacy groups and individuals, is searching for additional members to join in and participate in workgroups formed to implement the recommendations outlined in the report.  Many of these initiatives require policy, regulatory or legislative changes to help LGBTQ youth, and the process is expected to take several years. 
As YEA constructs the coalition, hopefully those joining will not simply lend their name as we have seen at times before, but rather they should roll up their sleeves and work.  And YEA should ensure accountability in that regard.

In the coming weeks, YEA will assign tasks to those best equipped to carry them out.  Much of the changes are political and enlisting the support of top elected officials is paramount to implementing the recommendations.  Our LGBT caucus in Annapolis, fresh off of the previous two big victories, would be helpful in championing this cause as well.
Photo: Brion McCarthy Photography
One recommendation, however, is a non-starter, in my judgment.  Under the section for Education, there is this: “Teach students about LGBTQ rights, issues and history in a K-12 curriculum.”

While that would be great, it will unlikely fly politically.  Those who opposed marriage equality will get on their soap boxes and say, “We told you that if gays were allowed to marry, the next step is teaching homosexuality in the schools.”  That’s how it would be painted no matter how noble and desirable the goal is.  I’m concerned that the whole effort to make changes in the Education piece could be derailed if this recommendation is included in the package.
Nonetheless, the other recommendations are ambitious and solid and could go a long way towards alleviating the misery experienced by LGBTQ youth.  The rest of us should get behind the effort by lobbying legislators and other officials, and at a minimum, raise awareness about problems facing our youth.  Moreover, the YEA needs to keep our communities informed through the LGBT press of any progress so that their efforts could gain momentum by enlisting additional support.

“Maryland LGBTQ communities are called upon to take notice of their youth,” said Diana Philip, Policy Director for FreeState Legal Project. “We are asking adults and youth to read the report and select the recommendations that they feel they can best contribute knowledge, contacts, and resources to influence administrators, policy makers, and legislators in their home counties.  I am hopeful that we will have youth in the room to help inform discussion and decision-making.”
To that end, Philip pointed out that YEA has begun reaching out to Gay Straight Alliances and LGBTQ youth community groups throughout the state to see if they can partner to hold Speak Up, Speak Out events—public discussions where LGBTQ youth can share their experiences in schools, foster care, and juvenile services.  “We want to capture information about the parts of these three systems that are supportive of these youth as well as the parts which undermine their wellbeing - what works, what doesn’t, what we should fix,” she said.

This is going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach from our communities. Rev. Olu-Moses Moise from the Apostolic Catholic Church said as much at the Pratt Library event, “I’m glad we are saying ‘enough is enough.’  This is a call to LGBTQ communities to come out to support LGBTQ children.”
While other work is needed and should not be brushed aside, helping solve the challenges facing our LGBTQ youth is the next big thing.  They are the future; we must join in.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Laugh a Lot at Beth Tfiloh's 'Spamalot'

#hocoarts
Cast of BTCT's 'Spamalot'  Photo: Dave Stuck/Baltimore Jewish Times

For a musical to be successful, all the components must jell.  Of course, there must be a good a score and lyrics as the starting point.  But then you need a solid ensemble, good technical elements and staging and proficient direction to put it all together.  The Beth Tflioh Community Theatre’s (BTCT) professional-caliber production of Spamalot (“A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) under the direction of Diane M. Smith succeeded on all fronts.
The book and lyrics were by Eric Idle who also composed the music with John Du Prez.  Mike Nichols directed the original Broadway production of Spamalot in 2005 garnering three Tony Awards including Best Musical among 14 nominations.   It ran for over 1,500 performances, and the show has been seen in over a dozen countries.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Center at the Crossroads


Because the GLCCB was holding only its second or third public town hall meeting in 12 years, it was no surprise that there would be pent-up criticism launched at the Pride coordinators and the Center’s board.  Only two of the five current board members were present on the raised stage on July 23 to field questions and comments about the recently concluded Pride festivities, but it wasn’t a stretch to expect that angry critics of the Center would eventually capitalize on this rare opportunity.

The ghosts of the Center’s past permeated the first floor community meeting room of the Waxter Center, the new digs of the GLCCB since February.  Charges of racism, classism, unresponsiveness, the lack of transparency and accountability in its finances and business matters, failure to reach out to minorities and transgender folks, noncompliance with the organization’s bylaws, and the question of its purpose all but obliterated the concerns about the beverage garden at Pride and other comparatively mundane matters.
While the critics were few in number in relation to the thousands in the community who were invited to this event—there are several ways to interpret the overall attendance—the points raised were largely valid and have obviously been held in the back of the throats of the detractors for a long time until this chance to voice their concerns presented itself.

Most but not all of the charges are applicable to the Center’s past leadership during its over 35- year history; some are legitimately appropriated to the current board.  Kelly Neel, the interim executive director (not a board member), acknowledged these deficiencies and promised, with community help, to work hard at correcting them.  
Indeed, for the first time in memory, the GLCCB at the town hall was forthcoming with the financials connected to this year’s Pride.  It revealed a modest profit of $64,000, which, to me, is not sustainable over the course of the year considering the other overhead expenses needed to maintain the organization.   Neel emphasized that with scarce resources, the Center’s staff cannot do it alone and needs an abundance of community support to keep the Center alive.

The GLCCB is currently at the crossroads.  Significant as the issues raised at the town hall are (and they are vital in winning the confidence of the community), the GLCCB’s fundamental challenge is establishing a rationale for people to support the cause. 
Perhaps former GLCCB board member John Flannery said it best on a recent Facebook post.  “As it stands, most people just don’t know what the Center does outside of Pride...so getting them to donate is a losing proposition. Donate to what?” he asks.  “The days of assuming that the community needs the Center based on general principle alone are over. The community has changed and so have our needs.”

And so has the Center.

As the founders of the Center visualized and after the Chase St. building was purchased, the GLCCB was to be building-centric.  That is, community leaders saw it as a vibrant place to hold public board meetings, house offices including the important Switchboard and provide a safe space for community members to drop in. 

That changed over time as the Switchboard was disbanded and the health clinic broke away from the GLCCB.  Lambda Rising bookstore rented the ground floor meeting area for a decade thus eliminating the space that the founders had envisioned. The building eventually lost being the focal point of the community, its center.
Other deficiencies surfaced.  The GLCCB fritted away the opportunity to be part of the marriage equality and transgender non-discrimination battles.  While some on the board eschewed political issues, the Center could have demonstrated some relevancy and be part of history.  Instead, it sat on the sidelines.

Another miscue was that the eventual sale of building was botched in that Center leadership was not forthcoming as to the actual reasons for the sale. It played into the narrative that the people running the Center leadership lack openness and honesty.
An opportunity to reconnect with the community with the move to the current space was also squandered as the Waxter Center office space was and still is in need of work so it was not ready for an “open house” to re-generate enthusiasm.  It could have been a welcome shot in the arm.

For years the Center has been saddled with the reputation of existing solely for Pride.  To be sure, much of the Center’s visibility has occurred during the run-up to and including Pride.  Afterwards, not much seems to happen.
Can the GLCCB experience a renaissance or is it a lost cause?  The hill is steep but there are actions that can be taken to get back on track.  Some suggestions:

Consider a name change of the GLCCB to something like the more general Baltimore (or Maryland) Pride Center so as not to exclude sexual and gender minorities.
Piggybacking off the financial disclosures at the town hall, continue that path of transparency.

Reactivate the Advisory Council to encourage broad community perspectives that seem to be lacking.
Vigorously recruit historically underrepresented minorities to fill board seats; don’t just wait for applications to roll in. 

Adhere to the Strategic Plan that cost the GLCCB thousands of dollars to develop; don’t simply post it on the website.
Comply with the bylaws to hold open board meetings on a regular basis.

Make better use of Gay Life, Baltimore OUTloud and social media to convey results of board meetings and other important information.
Develop a speakers’ bureau to go out to schools, businesses and government agencies to discuss LGBT issues.

Play “small ball” regarding fundraisers.  Make events affordable and diverse to add visibility to the Center.  The Orioles outings are a fine example.  Partner with other organizations.
Recruit and train grant writers to help raise needed revenue.

And most importantly, identify those projects to secure grants.  Consider areas such as LGBT youth homelessness, school bullying and senior issues and activities, just to name a few.
These are all do-able albeit challenging, but when you’re at the crossroads, choosing the right path is key to finding your way.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Whacky Pirates Take Over Toby's


The Pirates of Pittsburgh may be having an off-year, but The Pirates of Penzance, currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, looks sharp and is likely to have a strong summer.  This take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 good-humored, mischievous work is an enjoyable experience filled with frivolity and tinges of slapstick that will keep you laughing throughout. 

David Jennings (foreground) as Pirate King Photo: Kirstine Christiansen
The comic opera’s music was written by Arthur Sullivan and the clever libretto penned by his co-collaborator W.S. Gilbert.  The Pirates of Penzance was one of the duo’s most popular works—others including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Sorcerer—and is one of the very few productions from that era still being performed. 

The show’s revival opened on Broadway in 1981 and ran for 787 performances.  It earned seven Tony Award nominations while capturing three including Best Revival plus winning five of eight Drama Desk Award nominations including Best Musical.
Five-time Helen Hayes nominee Mark Minnick ably directs and choreographs the Toby’s production.  As he always seems to do, Mr. Minnick stirs all the ingredients together in a terrific blend of staging, performing and pacing.  The ensemble moves about flawlessly with great quickness and purpose—an indicator of the show’s many strengths.
The Pirates of Penzance is a light-hearted story whose main theme throughout is obligation to duty.  It centers on Frederic (played by Nick Lehan) who upon reaching his 21st birthday is freed from his apprenticeship to a band of pirates who deep down are a bunch of softies.  He had been mistakenly given this indentured status by Ruth (Jane C. Boyle), a piratical maid, who was Frederic’s nursemaid when he was young.  Through an error in communication from Frederic’s father who wanted his son to be apprenticed to be a ship’s “pilot,” Ruth understood the word to be “pirate.”

He meets Mabel (Laura Whittenberger), the daughter of Major-General Stanley (Robert John Biedermann 125), and the two fall in love.  Ruth and the Pirate King (David Jennings) explain to Frederic that he was born on February 29; technically, he only has a birthday each leap year. His indenture states that he remains apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday, and so he must serve for another 63 years. Bound by his own sense of duty, Frederic’s only comfort is that Mabel agrees to wait for him faithfully.
Also part of the storyline is that the Pirates of Penzance, all being orphaned, has a soft spot for other orphans and will free anyone captured if that status is disclosed.  Unfortunately for them, their reputation is well-known and those who claim to be orphaned are released making their efforts unprofitable.  Major-General Stanley had been captured by the pirates…well you can imagine what transpired.

Under the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra, the leads and ensemble turn in highlight-reel performances.  With every member of the cast blessed with talented vocal skills, it is providential that there are so many group numbers, which amplify the music with resounding success.
Hunky Nick Lehan, plays the role of 21 year-old (or 5 if you do the other math) Frederic with such cuteness one could melt. Solid acting abilities and a fantastic singing voice enhance his performance.  Mr. Lehan’s onstage chemistry with Laura Whittenberger as his love interest Mabel is effectively genuine and adorable. 
"The performances are as powerful as they are entertaining and makes for a wonderful summertime experience." 
Ms. Whittenberger owns a robust operatic voice that reaches notes that haven’t even been discovered yet.  Her renditions of “Poor Wandering One!” and “Sorry Her Lot” are worth the price of admission alone.  One would fear that her vocals are so powerful that anybody else would be cast under her shadow.  That was not the case as her duets with Mr. Lehan proved the combination melds beautifully with his clearly being up to the task.  The number “Stay, Frederic, Stay!” is illustrative.
David Jennings, who shined in Toby’s recent production of Spamalot, showcases his marvelous baritone as the swashbuckling, debonair Pirate King.  “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die,” a song he performed with the Pirates, is a standout.  “Now for the Pirates’ Lair” is another fine example.  His powerfully resonant speaking voice and commanding stage presence are evident throughout. 

Robert John Biedermann 125 (yes, that is his name) as Major-General Stanley is perfectly cast for the role.  Despite his lack of military knowledge (a related theme in H.M.S. Pinafore), the character displays his authoritative nature as well as his vulnerabilities.  Mr. Biedermann 125 skillfully performs the iconic number “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” the way I would suspect Gilbert and Sullivan would have hoped for.  It brought the house down.
Other cast members are outstanding as well.  Veteran actress Jane C. Boyle, who killed it at Toby’s Nunsense and Fiddler on the Roof, puts on another strong performance as Ruth.  Comedic, bouncy and with good quality vocals, Ms. Boyle is an excellent addition to the production.

David James as the Sergeant of Police is his usual sprightly self as he is full of misbehavior and camp.  He always keeps the audience laughing.  Jeffrey Shankle as the loveable pirate Samuel also turns in a fine performance.  Both sing splendidly and let their comic instincts come through in their performances.
Rounding out the talented ensemble that sang and danced so wonderfully and with great energy are Tina Marie DeSimone, CobyKay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck, Jeremy Scott Blaustein, MaryKate Brouillet, Ricky Drummond, Amanda Kaplan, Darren McDonnell, Ariel Messeca, Jonathan David Randle, Russell Sunday, Louisa Rose Tringali and Carl Williams.

The ensemble was neatly fitted in wonderful costumes designed by Eleanor B. Dicks.  An array of authentic pirate garb and keystone cops-like uniforms for the male characters and an assortment of scarlet red rompers with bonnets and colorful Victorian-era gowns for the seven daughters of the Major-General add great visuals to the spectacle.
David A. Hopkins designed a smart set depicting an isolated island with a pirate ship complete with a rope ladder, swings and mast for the first act and a beautifully crafted ruined chapel setting for the second act.  Coleen M. Foley was creative in designing the lighting effects.

This production of The Pirates of Penzance is brilliantly synthesized under the direction of Mark Minnick.  The performances are as powerful as they are entertaining and makes for a wonderful summertime experience.  Bring your appetite, too; Toby’s famous buffet has never been better.
Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.    #hocoarts

The Pirates of Penzance plays through August 31 at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 3900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  For tickets, you may call the box office at 410-730-8311 or visit online.
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Friday, July 11, 2014

Elliott Brager: A Major Force Passes On


To be sure, Elliott A. Brager, a well-known attorney in the Baltimore area, had his detractors.  He displayed a brash, caustic often overbearing personality, which many folks in his personal and more likely his professional life could not deal with.  However, I am confident that an overwhelming number of people who truly knew Elliott loved him.  Count me in the latter group.

Elliott Brager (L.) with close friend Steve Shavitz at a 2012 AIDS Action
 Baltimore fundraiser
I was deeply saddened by the news that Elliott passed away on July 7, just two days after his 72nd birthday from heart failure.  Elliott was a good friend to Bob and me, and he was the only other person whom I ever entertained in each of my three domiciles spanning nearly 37 years in Maryland.  While he could come off as gruff, passionate and aggressive— traits he took full advantage of during his lengthy law career—there was virtually nothing he wouldn’t do for you if asked.
His work in the early days on behalf of the then named Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore as a principal fundraiser is probably the reason the Center still exists.  He would aggressively push people to buy tickets to the many fall fundraisers and spring brunches in support of the Center.  So intimidating was he, that I was pressured to buy a couple of tickets in 1985 even though I was scheduled for near-emergency eye surgery the next day!

He believed in a number of other causes with AIDS Action Baltimore among them.  And when he attached himself to a cause, he went in with both feet.  Don Davis, owner of Grand Central, aptly called him a hero. 
You can read about some of his efforts in the splendid obituary by the Baltimore Sun’s Jacques Kelly here.

The thing I loved Elliott most besides his passion to do good deeds was his amazing, if acerbic, sense of humor.  It was a challenge to keep up with him, but I tried.  He never missed an opportunity to remind me when we were in a public setting how much shorter I was than his 6 foot 4 inch frame.  I found areas to counter-punch him, but won’t mention them here.  My attacks, though, were good-natured.
We were neighbors in an apartment complex in Randallstown, and on a sunny Saturday we were relaxing by the pool.  He offered me a peach as a nice gesture.  I told him I am allergic to fresh peaches (among other fruits), and if I ate one, I’d go into anaphylactic shock and likely die.  He replied (I think jokingly), “Have two!”

One day when visiting his apartment, I noticed he had huge stacks of newspapers on the floor.  I asked Elliott why he was saving the papers.  He said that he is behind in his reading and needs to catch up.  I promptly informed him that Truman upset Dewey in 1948.
As an attorney, Elliott was most helpful to me in the early 1980’s when he provided legal input as part of a story I was writing for the Baltimore Gay Paper on the police crackdown on hustling in the Patterson Park area of Eastern Avenue.  He outlined in clear, explicit terms the dangers a “john” would face in such an encounter and what would happen if arrested in terms of being incarcerated and how it could affect the john’s career.  It was a compelling, instructive part of the article, and hopefully, if people read it, that contribution from Elliott may have steered them away from such risky actions.

Until recently, I had never seen Elliott in action in court, but I had heard his antics were legendary.  One could actually feel sympathy towards judges, opposing counsel and people he had cross-examined over the years, if his reputation was accurate.    
Elliott Brager in 1986
As fate would have it, we were both appearing in a Howard County District courtroom fighting speed camera citations.  It turned out it was the last time I saw him.   

I was called ahead of Elliott to plead my case (to no avail) but had the good sense to hang around and watch this legal lion in action.  His defense was that the camera was not functioning properly.  While he lost his case in the end, observing the way he went about his business and going toe-to-toe with the judge—respectfully, of course—was literally worth the price of the ticket.  He was a gem.
Regrettably, our lives drifted in different directions, and we did not see each other as often as we once did.  Nonetheless, each year we’d exchange holiday cards to stay in touch.  His cards were always risqué during the years Lambda Rising was still in business.

We shared a lot of laughs and I totally enjoyed his company.  We shared a mutual respect for one another with Elliott being such a force in our community and him being an avid reader of my work.
Beneath his tough exterior, Elliott was a sentimental sweetheart.  He loved Bob and was so thrilled that he and I enjoy a happy relationship.  Back when Bob and I threw a combination Valentine’s Day and 6th anniversary celebration, although we expressly requested that the guests do not bring us gifts, Elliott still gave us a bottle of Mouton-Cadet Bordeaux (1983).  We were so moved that we decided not to open it.

It’s still with us, and when Bob and I celebrate our 35th anniversary in February, we’re going to finally pop the cork and toast Elliott Brager.  It’s time.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Journey from Stonewall To Marriage



Text of remarks made to Maryland EEO professionals at Baltimore City Community College, July 10, 2014

 

Greetings!  It is an honor to speak before such an important group of professionals, and I appreciate the opportunity. 

When I was first invited to do this, I was asked to provide an overview of “gay. ”  So I Googled “gay” and came up with 1 billion, 880 million pages.  In trying to craft a presentation based on that many references, I estimated my talk would last 9 months and 22 days.  Clearly, it needed refinement or a different topic. 
Eventually, the subject of “same-sex marriage” was suggested, and I found 134 million pages on the Internet.   My presentation would have been reduced to merely 3 or 4 weeks in length but still that could be an ordeal for me as well as you, the audience.

Therefore, I decided to whittle that down to a brief description of the journey to achieve same-sex marriage and discuss how we reached the point whereby we’re just a Supreme Court decision away from making marriage equality the law of the land.
Before I begin this discussion, I want to introduce you to the end result of the quest for marriage equality for me personally—my husband Bob, whom I married in Massachusetts nearly 5 years ago.  All told we’ve been together over 34 years.

Pre-Stonewall.  To appreciate how far we’ve come, we must briefly examine how the world existed before the famous Stonewall uprising that occurred the weekend beginning June 27, 1969.  As you may be aware, in this historic episode, bar patrons fought back against the police after yet another raid saying in effect, “enough is enough.” 
Although this was a seminal event, and is arguably the launching pad for the modern gay rights movement, the Compton riots in San Francisco in 1966 involving transgender and transsexual folks may have really kick-started the movement but it didn’t generate as much publicity over the years as Stonewall did.

At the time of Stonewall, frequent gay bar raids occurred with police demanding ID’s under the threat of arrest.  
Entrapment by the police was astonishingly commonplace especially in what are called “cruising areas.”  So was blackmail.

Names of the arrested were published in the newspapers: Jobs lost.  Tenants evicted from apartments.  Families were torn apart. 

Gays were beaten up by straights with alarming frequency.  Same-sex dancing was prohibited, as was touching.  Gay sex was criminal behavior.   

There were no laws on the books to protect against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations.  

Gays and lesbians were banished from the military following extensive witch-hunts. 
There were no domestic partner benefits or any rights based on same-sex relationships at major corporations and few universities. 

There were no openly gay elected officials, and anyone in the public eye remained in the closet. No officeholder supported an end to the harassment, much less advocated for equality.  The thought of marriage between same-sex partners didn’t even exist.
A television show with a major gay character was unthinkable, as well as an openly gay actor.  Any gay characters portrayed in movies were either depressed, suicidal, flamboyant or a victim of some sort. There were few, if any, gay-related periodicals.

Homosexuality was viewed as a psychological disorder; queers were considered sick and fair game by a hostile, homophobic society.  
Most chose to remain in the closet. 

Partners were introduced as “roommates.”
And because of family pressures, so many gays and lesbians were virtually forced to date or marry members of the opposite sex to deflect any suspicion of being gay.

Post-Stonewall.   In the ensuing years, gay people had to endure a phenomenal amount of setbacks but overall, we have come so far as a community, it defies imagination.  We have progressed from merely hoping for tolerance to later seeking acceptance, and now full equality is within our grasp some day.
The complexity and scope of the gay rights movement at both the national and local levels cannot be appropriately captured by a simple chronological timeline. Events and legal outcomes have spanned over decades.  Instead, it is more instructive to highlight the progress and setbacks according to a few key landmarks and issues.  There are, of course, numerous other victories and defeats, but these have been the key turning points in my opinion.

American Psychiatric Association. One of the early breakthroughs in the post-Stonewall era was the finding from the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, which removed homosexuality from the official manual that lists mental and emotional disorders. Two years later, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution supporting this removal.

HIV/AIDS.  Though there was some degree of momentum heading in the 1980’s a setback of catastrophic proportions devastated the gay community with the discovery of HIV/AIDS. 
Gay and bisexual men by the tens of thousands were infected by the disease in the U.S., and thousands died from it.

In the beginning of the scourge, the public saw it as a “gay disease” although HIV can be transmitted by intravenous drug users and tainted blood transfusions. 
Politically, the AIDS epidemic was used to bash gays and their so-called lifestyle by homophobes, religious and other social conservatives. Funding for dealing with the crisis was unconscionably insufficient. 

Military.  In another key development, President Obama signed a law that ended the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had been in effect since 1994.   Then President Clinton, who sought to end the ban on openly gay and lesbian individuals serving in the armed forces, settled on a compromise fashioned by Congressional and military leaders known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
In the 16 years that transpired under this policy, over 13,000 service members were discharged, a significant number of whom held critical jobs for our national security, such as Arabic linguists. 

Furthermore, a study conducted by GAO and later by an expert commission found that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had cost taxpayers $363 million during the first 10 years alone.
Hate Crimes.  When 21 year-old Matthew Shepard was kidnapped and brutally beaten to death in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, the crime had garnered national and international attention to the dangers that gays are exposed to at the hands of those who are hateful.

During the next 11 years, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, tirelessly lobbied around the country and in the corridors of Washington to secure legislation that would add extra penalties to those convicted of a crime based on hate.
In October 2009, the aptly named Matthew Shepard Act was passed so that the Federal Hate Crimes statute was expanded to include crimes motivated by a victim's gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.  President Obama signed the measure into law.

Decriminalization.  The decriminalization of gay sex marked another turning point.   This occurred on June 26, 2003   when the U.S. Supreme Court by a 6-3 decision, struck down the sodomy law in Texas in the case Lawrence v. Texas. 
The majority held that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Lawrence effectively invalidated similar laws throughout the United States that purport to criminalize sodomy between consenting same-sex adults acting in private. It also invalidated the application of sodomy laws to heterosexual sex.

At the time, the decision was considered by many as the most significant legal victory in the U.S. for gays and lesbians.

Marriage.   The subject of same-sex marriage hardly made it to a national conversation until the late 1980’s when the AIDS crisis brought questions of inheritance and death benefits to people’s minds.
In 1993, opponents of same-sex marriage  had started to rev up their rhetoric following a Hawaii State Supreme Court ruling that found the state’s refusal to grant marriage license
is to same-sex couples was discriminatory.
 
DOMA. In 1996, in what appeared to be a move to squash any efforts to achieve marriage equality by the states, Congress passed a veto-proof measure, which President Clinton reluctantly signed into law.  It was called the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA.
DOMA’s main provisions were to give the states the right not to recognize same-sex marriages in states where they may occur and to deny federal benefits to same-sex married couples.  The House Judiciary Committee, however, expressed the true intent: to “reflect and honor a collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality”.

Massachusetts.  On November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that barring same–sex couples from marrying was unconstitutional.
Given 180 days to take whatever action was deemed appropriate, then Governor Mitt Romney ordered clerks to issue marriage licenses on May 17, 2004.

Accordingly, the controversial subject of gay marriage was one of the major issues during 2004 presidential election.  Religious and cultural conservatives denounced the prospect of same-sex marriages as a threat to the sanctity of the institution and would destroy society.
Criticizing “activist judges,” they had successfully heightened the fears of the public and used the issue as a fundraising tool.

Here’s a fun fact: As to same-sex marriage being the ruin of the institution of marriage, Massachusetts, the state where marriage for same-sex couples has existed longer than any other, has the lowest divorce rate in the U.S.

Also, I know of no documented case whereby a heterosexual couple sought a divorce because a same-sex couple became married.
2004.  In 2004 Republican political guru Karl Rove exploited the ruling in Massachusetts to drive a wedge among Democratic voters—particularly targeting African-Americans.  Republicans managed to place constitutional amendments on the ballots in 11 states that would prevent same-sex couples from marrying.  They all succeeded.

Many believe that the scare tactics and ballot initiatives worked in the presidential election in that a higher than normal turnout among evangelical voters in the swing state of Ohio may have been the difference.
Also, there was an effort to propose a constitutional amendment called the Federal Marriage Amendment which, if passed by both houses in Congress and ratified by 38 states, would define marriage as between one man and one woman.  The measure failed in July 2006 in the House of Representatives. 

Prop. 8. At the state level, one of the more publicized contests, however, took place in California in 2008 where voters approved Proposition 8 that denied the right for same-sex couples to marry after the legislature had previously passed the measure.
This setback sent tremors among LGBT folks worldwide.  Not only was California the most populous state but a high Democratic turnout in support of Barack Obama during the election was seen as a way to overcome largely Republican opposition and the measure would fail.  It wound up passing for a variety of reasons including heavy funding from outside organizations and well-timed and poorly answered scare tactics through TV ads.

Maryland.  Since 2004, advocates in Maryland have sought civil marriage for same-sex couples, whereby religious institutions are exempt from being forced to marry couples if they do not want to.
Roughly 40 percent of couples in Maryland are married in city halls, town clerks offices and by justices of the peace.  Those marriages are still valid even without a religious ceremony.

A lawsuit was filed in July 2004, which charged that excluding same-sex couples from marriage violates the state constitution’s guarantees of equality but the state’s Court of Appeals ruled against the 19 plaintiffs in 2007.  The decision upheld the 1973 law which states that marriage is between a man and a woman but signaled that the legislature can address the issue.

However, various attempts to gain marriage equality through the legislature had failed.

In February 2010, Maryland's Attorney General Doug Gansler issued an opinion that Maryland law could recognize valid same-sex marriages performed in other U.S. states.
In 2011 for the first time the Civil Marriage Protection Act passed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and then went on to pass in the Senate.

However, after realizing there were a couple of votes short of passage in the House of Delegates, supporters of the bill voted it back to committee, thereby ending the effort in 2011.
2012.  Then came 2012, which became arguably the most pivotal year in the fight for marriage equality. Never before had voters supported same-sex marriage at the ballot box.  In that year’s General Assembly, Governor O’Malley reversed his long-held position and stated he now supported marriage equality in Maryland.  His leadership was instrumental in enabling the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act to pass both chambers, and the governor promptly signed the measure on March 1.

Opponents immediately vowed to gather enough signatures to petition the law to referendum.  Emboldened by the success of Prop. 8 and believing the trend would continue where a vote on same-sex marriage would again be defeated at the ballot box, opponents of the law easily reached the required number of signatures .
Along with other issues such as the Dream Act and gambling, marriage equality was placed on the November ballot and was called Question 6—a Yes vote meant that the law would stand.
The battle to defend the law was led by a coalition consisting of a wide array of social justice and LGBT organizations as well as unions and civil rights groups under the umbrella organization Marylanders for Marriage Equality. 

A heated political battle ensued.  Opponents claimed as they did during the campaign for Proposition 8 that if this law is not overturned, homosexuality would be taught in the schools, overlooking the fact that local school boards determine curricula.

They also used the outdated notion that being gay is a choice.  The term “sexual preference” rather than the more accepted phrase “sexual orientation” was used.  I don’t think there is a gay or lesbian person on earth who would state that they chose to be gay…any more than straight people can admit that they chose to be heterosexual.
They say that marriage is for procreation.  There are thousands of married couples who cannot or do not want children and their marriages are valid.  Furthermore, legalizing same-sex marriage would not impede a heterosexual couple’s desire to procreate.

Opponents argued that children do better with both a mother and a father.  Credible studies have demonstrated that children do better with two parents rather than one, and that the children of gay parents are as well-adjusted and healthy as children of opposite–sex parents.

And, of course, there were plenty of references to the Bible to argue against same-sex marriage, but I will not comment on those here.
Proponents of Question 6 received an unexpected but welcome boost when Vice President Biden followed by President Obama endorsed marriage equality in the spring of 2012. Additionally, the NAACP followed suit.  More public officials, including some Republicans, indicated support, and momentum was swinging towards equality.

Ultimately, Marylanders for Marriage Equality outraised and outspent the opponents, and the other ballot initiatives crowded out much of the available TV air time to allow opponents to use their tried and true scare tactics.
In the end, Maryland, along with Maine and Washington, became the first states to win marriage equality at the ballot box.  Until then, voters in 30 states had denied same-sex couples the right to marry and to enjoy the dignity and security that goes with it not to mention the over 1,100 benefits and rights that are afforded heterosexual married couples.. 
At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2013, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake officiated the first same-sex wedding in Maryland in Baltimore City Hall.

Momentum was clearly gaining.  Polls show that 10 years ago, less than 40 percent of the U.S. population supported same-sex marriage.  Now it is close to 60 percent and counting.  Never has a movement progressed with such speed as the quest to achieve marriage equality.
Supreme Court.  The next big turning point occurred last year when the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 decision in Windsor v. the United States ruled that the portion of DOMA that denies federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples was unconstitutional.  The Court also dismissed the appeal of Prop. 8 in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry based on jurisdictional grounds so that same-sex marriages may resume in California.

Since then, one state after another—some of which are “red” states—had legal challenges to their bans on same-sex marriage reversed by lower courts with many of the decisions based on the majority opinion expressed in the Windsor case.  Some of these rulings have not been challenged by the states in question; others are appealing.  Consequently, every state in the U.S. where bans are still in effect now has a legal challenge in this matter.
The Supreme Court did not issue a broad, sweeping ruling last year that negate the state bans on same-sex marriage.  But it will likely face that opportunity in the near future as one of the challenges—probably Utah—will wind up in the highest court of the land.

In conclusion, we have traveled a long, sometimes bumpy road to be where we are today, but the journey is far from over.  The voyage has been exciting but the destination is most important. Much work needs to be done in obtaining a federal ban on discrimination in the workplace that is based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  We need to continue to curtail bullying of LGBT kids in schools and over the Internet.  We must address the needs of the growing LGBT senior population and to effectively deal with the homelessness problems facing some LGBT youth.
There is a lot to do yet, but these problems are not beyond our reach.  For no one ever thought even 10 years ago that we’d be discussing the success of same-sex marriage today.

Thank you and I welcome any questions.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Pride Shows Us the Distance Traveled


With most of the Pride celebrations throughout the world now in the rear view mirror, it is beyond amazing how far we have traveled down the road to equality.  Keep in mind there is so much unfinished business needing to be addressed throughout the U.S. and the world, but what has transpired over the 45 years since Stonewall should definitely put a smile on our faces.

To put it in perspective, here is what the gay world looked like before Stonewall:
Frequent gay bar raids occurred with police demanding ID’s under the threat of arrest.  Entrapment by the police was astonishingly commonplace especially in what are called “cruising areas.”  So was blackmail.

Names of the arrested were published in the newspapers: Jobs lost.  Tenants evicted from apartments.  Families were torn apart. 
Gays were beaten up by straights with alarming frequency.  Same-sex dancing was prohibited, as was touching.  Gay sex was criminal behavior.

You had Mafia-owned bars serving overpriced watered-down drinks whose owners often worked in collusion with the police and cared not one bit about the gays and lesbians who were their customers as long as they could make money off of them.  Bar bouncers roughed up drunken gays.
There were no laws on the books to protect against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations.  

Gays and lesbians were banished from the military following extensive witch-hunts. 
There were no domestic partner benefits or any rights based on same-sex relationships at major corporations and few universities. 

There were no openly gay elected officials, and anyone in the public eye remained in the closet. No officeholder supported an end to the harassment, much less advocated for equality.  The thought of marriage between same-sex partners didn’t even exist.
A television show with a major gay character was unthinkable, as well as an openly gay actor.  Any gay characters portrayed in movies were either depressed, suicidal, flamboyant or a victim of some sort.   There were few, if any, gay-related periodicals.

Homosexuality was viewed as a psychological disorder; queers were considered sick and fair game by a hostile, homophobic society. 
Most chose to remain in the closet.  Partners were introduced as “roommates.”  And because of family pressures, so many gays and lesbians were virtually forced to date or marry members of the opposite sex to deflect any suspicion of being gay.

The world then was hardly decorated with rainbow flags and pins.  For those of us who have experienced it, we know all too well how depressing and lonely it was. 
When the first Pride took place in New York a year after Stonewall, it was all about trying to gain rights and not to be treated as second-class citizens.  There were speeches, signs and banners proclaiming liberation (or at least hoping for it).  There was no celebrating; it was a coming together of people who had suffered indignities and to demand changes.

Now fast-forward to today and just think of how much has changed.  Without going into the myriad significant achievements, particularly over the past 10 years, all one needs to do is to take a look at Pride 2014 here and elsewhere, and it will be mind boggling.   
Today, Pride has mirrored LGBT acceptance to the point that politicians are falling over each other to be seen in a Pride parade.  Candidates at all levels proudly march with LGBT supporters at their side.  The President of the U.S., governors, mayors and aldermen routinely issue proclamations denoting LGBT Pride month.

Mr. Obama stated in his proclamation: “As progress spreads from State to State, as justice is delivered in the courtroom, and as more of our fellow Americans are treated with dignity and respect — our Nation becomes not only more accepting, but more equal as well.”  By contrast, 45 years ago Richard Nixon was president. 
Banks, airlines, breweries, credit card companies and numerous other corporate entities see the business advantages of participating and/or sponsoring Pride events to cash in on the trend.  They want their brands associated with Pride.

Over a million attended New York and San Francisco’s Pride events.  A Pride flag flew at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv during that city’s Pride week celebration.  Professional hockey players marched in the WorldPride Parade in Toronto.  Burger King rolled out its own Pride-themed “Proud Whopper” wrapper in SF that says, “We are all the same inside.”  How cool is that?
For the first time in 82 years, a Chicago Cubs baseball game was not scheduled on a Sunday in favor of the huge Chicago Pride parade that would snarl traffic near Wrigley Field.  A tradition of that magnitude yielding to LGBT Pride would have been considered inconceivable just a few years ago.

In Baltimore, the big debate was not how to achieve basic rights but whether Pride attendees should be allowed to openly consume alcohol during the Pride festival.  It seems so trivial when you think about it, but it’s also a statement of how much has been achieved insofar as this was the burning issue of the day.
Through the spirit of the celebratory nature of Pride around the world, we must also recognize that there is much work that needs to be done.  Nonetheless, the comparison between the conditions existing before the first Pride and the Pride events of 2014 poignantly illustrates the distance traveled on this incredible journey.