Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Misfire Saved and Changed Josh Deese’s Life


At a recent meeting of the Howard County chapter of PFLAG, a handsome young man named Josh Deese, who was celebrating his 21st birthday, introduced a short film named Trevor.  The movie described how a gay youth named Trevor had been bullied to the point of suicide but then recovered to live, hopefully, a better life. 

Among the audience at this screening were a couple of dozen of members of the chapter’s Rainbow Youth and Allies group, ages 14-22.  The normally energetic youths sat riveted in stone silence throughout both the film and Josh Deese’s powerful post-film discussion that described a similar path he himself traveled and how it ultimately led him to be a compelling spokesman for The Trevor Project— the nation’s leading LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization.  Most young people who turn 21 go out partying to celebrate; Josh decided to help educate the community.
Josh’s life has been anything but easy.  Openly gay, he grew up in a small town in South Florida called Clewiston with all of its Southern charm hovering over the town’s sugar cane, orange farms and alligators.  “Clewiston is every Southern boy’s dream – if he were straight,” says Josh.
His parents were of modest means living in a 2-bedroom mobile home where he shared a twin-size bed with his little brother.  He was always treated differently beginning with elementary school.  Josh watched CNN in the 2nd grade, read newspapers and followed the 2004 Presidential election hoping to impress his teachers.  His friends traveled a different road, and the differences between Josh and them were beginning to widen.

“In middle school, I was treated differently because I was the kid who everyone thought was gay,” Josh recalls. “The teases and insults turned to slight shoves and slaps. Eventually, it got worse. The school administration never did anything to those responsible. I remember crying to my father in 8th grade asking ‘Why? Why don’t those kids get in trouble?’” He looked at me and ultimately said, ‘Well, that’s just how the world works. They’re at the top, and we’re not.’ Then he said something that really stuck: ‘But you can be… you can be. And one day, you will be.’”
As the only openly gay student in high school, he was known as “Josh, the faggot.” “Not “a faggot,” but THE faggot,” he emphasizes. School life was filled with isolation and fear. “From the members of my wrestling team, who hazed me intensely in an effort to get me to quit the team, to the rest of my peers, who threw insults, as well as punches.”

Josh was constantly taunted, books were slammed out of his hands in the hallway, and he was shoved into lockers.  All the usual epithets were hurled at him.
After staying after class one day to speak with his English teacher,  he decided to take a shortcut home and noticed three guys following him.  He tried to move faster but it was too late. 

“A swift yank from a strap of my backpack and a stinging smack to the face knocked me to the ground. No one was there to help me. The three guys punched, kicked, and slammed me. I recognized one of them – a boy on my wrestling team; someone I trusted and confided in. ‘Deese,’ he said, calling me by my last name, ‘I’m sorry man, but we’re doing you a favor,’ he concluded, as he kicked me square in the gut. I got up, bloodied and bruised, and limped my way back home.

“My parents were furious. My father wanted blood. My mother just wanted the violence to end. My nose was fractured, my jaw bone suffered injury, and I had a busted lip – a hearty reward for the boy who just wanted a friend.”
Josh had begun looking for resources for LGBTQ youth on Google. He found The Trevor Project, which has a website full of resources and tips. “They had a 24-hour lifeline that LGBTQ youth could call if things ever got too tough and an awesome website – TrevorSpace – a social networking site, where LGBTQ youth from all around the world could talk to each other.”

He created a TrevorSpace account and began speaking to some of the first gay guys who he ever had interacted with. “It was refreshing to see so much diversity on the coming out spectrum. People on this site made me feel accepted, safe and happy.”
Through this site he made some friends. “I even found a boyfriend: a beautiful boy named Kyle. He was from Missouri. His parents were Baptist preachers. His beautiful blonde hair, radiant blue eyes and gorgeous white smile had taken me aback. I was in love. WE were in love.”

After a month of chatting on Skype, Josh and Kyle began dating.  They talked about their dreams of being together.  “Kyle suddenly went missing,” Josh says.  Over three weeks later Kyle’s sister contacted Josh to tell him that their father found out about Josh and discovered gay porn on Kyle’s laptop.  They were forbidden to speak to one another and Kyle was sent to a gay-reversion clinic.
“Three months later, I received a message on Facebook.  It was Kyle – he was back. I remember quickly rushing through my computer to get to Skype, so I could see his beautiful face again. My eager excitement turned to worry and deep concern. For the next few weeks that we talked, he wasn’t the same anymore. He wasn’t smiling anymore. His voice was monotone. His eyes looked sad and empty.”

After exchanging goodnight kisses through the webcam, Josh never heard from Kyle again.  The friend who had introduced them on TrevorSpace messaged Josh.  He asked if Josh was OK and asked him if he heard about Kyle. The friend attached a newspaper article from the Internet that indicated Kyle had hung himself.
“This beautiful boy felt so upset and hated and depraved by his parents, that he felt the only way out was to take his life. I lost it – I cried uncontrollably and felt hopeless. I didn’t know what to do,” Josh recalls.

“The next few days went by like a blur. I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to be happy.  My parents didn’t understand me, I didn’t have any friends, and the first love of my life was gone. I had nothing else to live for. So I planned, and I waited.”

Since Josh’s father was a police officer, there were many guns in his house.  One evening when he was alone, Josh went to his parents’ room and took his father’s service pistol back to his bedroom.

“I sat on the bed, holding the gun, and began to cry. This is what my life had become: one of sadness, and sorrow, and fear. I put the gun to my right temple, counted to three, closed my eyes, and squeezed the trigger. My eyes still closed, I thought, ‘Is this death? I didn’t feel a thing.’ I opened my eyes, and saw that I was still in my room. No pain. No blood. No bang. I was alive. It appeared that the gun was loaded, but the firing pin didn’t strike the bullet properly – crazy odds.”
He put the gun down and began to cry again. “There had to be a better way to solve this… a safer, more peaceful resolution. I began to think and that’s when it hit me – The Trevor Project. I called the lifeline and was relieved to find a warm, caring voice on the other end of the line. His name was Adam who was a counselor for The Trevor Project. I told him about everything that had happened in my life and why I felt the way I did. He was supportive, caring, and accepting. He assured me that my life was full of value and meaning. He made me feel special and significant.”

"There had to be a better way to solve this… a safer, more peaceful resolution."


Josh continued to call the lifeline for the next few months and began his road to recovery. “It was around this time where I was approached by a friend I had met on TrevorSpace, who told me that The Trevor Project was looking for LGBTQ youth who had leadership potential to join a special youth council. I applied and was accepted.”
He persuaded his parents to allow him to fly to Los Angeles to attend his first Trevor Project training. “I spent the weekend meeting with a group of LGBTQ high school and college students who had also been admitted to The Trevor Project Youth Advisory Council. We shared experiences and stories with each other, gave each other advice, and allowed each other to grow.”

Josh learned LGBTQ 101, the basics of sex and gender, suicide prevention and crisis intervention strategies, as well as more background information on The Trevor Project’s programs and services. He was able to take all of the information that he had learned back home to Florida and did what he was taught to do: educate.
“I started with my parents. Now, they had never disagreed with me, they just didn’t understand – and who would, in a small town where no one talks about sexuality and gender? I explained the basics of LGBTQ 101 and it all began to fall into place. My parents understood and were full of questions, which I happily answered.”

Josh is proud and grateful for his family’s support along his journey.  His success with his parents led him to take that experience to school.  “People started to understand. People started to accept me. This was the first time where I had finally met some actual friends, in the flesh, who wanted to actively participate in my life. What my Youth Advisory Council advisor told me was true, ‘Education trumps ignorance.’ This is when I began my journey as an activist for LGBTQ rights, suicide prevention, and mental health awareness.”

Josh found his final two years of high school to be amazing.  He had friends, boyfriends, and many fun experiences.
At his graduation, Josh  presented his last act of defiance by “doing the Cat Daddy” next to his principal, and walked off a proud graduate of Clewiston High School’s Class of 2012.  “One month later, I’d be on a plane to Washington, D.C., starting my new journey as a freshman at the University of Maryland, to pursue my passion for politics and public service.

Josh found the past two years in the D.C. area to be both rewarding and challenging.  His work with The Trevor Project allows him to speak at events and fundraisers, meeting Members of Congress, sharing his story and  explaining the importance of legislation that would benefit and increase LGBTQ education and life-affirming services to LGBTQ youth everywhere.
“I’ve had the privilege of being invited to the White House and working with President Obama’s staff to discuss important initiatives and programs for LGBTQ people. I was also humbled last year to win The Washington Blade’s Best of Gay D.C. Award for Most Committed Activist. I’ve even met an amazing guy that I’ve grown very fond of.”

Unfortunately for Josh, last semester he lost his co-signer for his student loans and was unable to pay for school, thus, forcing him to withdraw from the University of Maryland.  The financial worries have contributed to his anxiety. 
“I’ve been stuck working full-time in order to pay my living expenses, but am currently facing eviction. I’m unable to have a social life or see any of my friends because I’m not in school.”

 “As I said, happiness, or the lack thereof, has been the focus of my life. I continue to clutch closely, my father’s words to me. ‘But you can be… you can be. And one day, you will be.’ I think of this in my mind every night before I go to bed, thinking of a way out. Someone once said, ‘Some men aren’t meant to be happy. They are meant to be great.’ I intend to challenge this and prove it wrong. I know it’s possible. I don’t know how… but I’ll prove it wrong.”
Hopefully, he will. Josh deserves happiness.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Begonia People


Another interesting panel discussion took place at the Columbia Democratic Club on November 12.  This meeting featured four excellent representatives from Howard County’s myriad non-profit organizations to discuss the scope of the problems experienced by the low income citizens of the county and the challenges facing the organizations in attempting to provide needed services. 

One point raised at the meeting that really struck a chord with the audience is that people don’t notice the low income housing that exists in places around the county.  They drive, bicycle, jog or walk past these buildings oblivious to the folks inside the dwellings because they don’t appear to be in that situation.  Why?  These structures typically have landscaped flower beds in front—begonias to be specific—that create a sort of mask, which hides the economic realities of the tenants.
The problem of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues all exist in the county and begonias or not, the problem is very real.  Some parts of the county are affected more than others as Howard has a wide range of income disparities.  To be clear, the county’s strong government addresses many of these needs through their own services, but more must be done. That’s where the non-profits come in to strengthen the safety net.

We hear during election campaigns how Howard County is one of the wealthiest in the nation.  That its school system is second to none in the state, its parks rank among the best in the state and the library system is a model for the country.  Magazines tout the county as one of the best to live in.  These are all true and politicians should emphasize the positives if they are smart; there is nothing wrong with that.  One would not brag about the number of homeless people there are in the county unless, of course, the number is zero.   #hocopolitics

So we hear this refrain over and over how great the county is.  While this is accurate, it is imperative for the non-profits who provide needed services for those not mentioned in speeches—the begonia people including the homeless—to effectively vie with that messaging and educate a rather uninformed populace. 
Non-profits must compete among a crowded field of 1,600 similar organizations for resources and volunteers, but they must also battle the perception that the county is brimming only with rich people who send their kids to top-rated schools and play in superior parks. 

It is our obligation and duty to vigorously help spread that message. We need to raise the consciousness concerning the folks behind the begonias and those who live on the streets so that the county can fully be proud.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Seeing Red: The Dems and the Election Bloodbath


Typically, the color red signals danger, such as a red light at an intersection or a red flag.  In other cases, red has a negative connotation like in red-handed, red tape, redneck, red herring and an undesirable ink color on a balance sheet.

To Democrats, by the time midnight rolled around on Election Night, the nation in general and Maryland in particular had been soaked by a splash of red as if a bucket of pigs’ blood was emptied from above like in the horror film Carrie.
 Republicans, who are associated with the color red as in red states, counties, etc., pulled off a stunning string of victories from the U.S. Senate to council offices down the ballot that painted the map a sea of red.
This phenomenon is not unusual as the party not occupying the White House in the sixth year of a second term of a presidency historically makes gains—sometimes substantial and transformative as one we just experienced.  It was expected that the prevailing mood of national discontent with President Obama for reasons still beyond my comprehension would result in a changing of the guard in the Senate and an increase in the ever-growing conservative gerrymandered district-rigging of the House of Representatives.  #hocopolitics

Democratic candidates treated Obama like he was kryptonite with some even blaming him for the Ebola outbreak that consisted of one death here.  That the nation’s voters would ignore the fact that unemployment is down to 5.8 percent and the 214,000 added jobs in October means that employers have added at least 200,000 jobs for nine straight months, the longest such stretch since 1995 is pathetic.  
The stock market has reached new heights.  Gasoline is at relatively low levels. Obamacare, so reviled by those who didn’t have a clue what was inside the law, now allows uninsured citizens access to health care.  Oh, and Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive (even if some of their drivers aren’t).  Nonetheless, the Dems ran away from all that—a sure-fire losing strategy.

Yet, Democratic voters and candidates also seem to have forgotten how the Republican Party with the lowest approval ratings on record, shut down the government, nearly allowed the U.S. to default on its obligations, and stifled reform on immigration, sensible gun control and any job package the President sent up the Hill. 
It makes me see red. 
Not that the results would have been much different but Democratic candidates virtually conceded the election to the GOP by distancing themselves from Obama.  It wasn’t just a surge of anti-Obama folks that descended on the polls that shaped the outcome; reliable Dem voters stayed home.  That’s how you lose if you’re a Democrat.
In Maryland it was a similar playbook for the Republicans: tap the electorate’s perceived discontent and hope that the Democrats field less than stellar candidates so Dem voters, too, would pass on this off-year election.  That formula worked in the Governor’s race.

Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, the heir apparent to Governor Martin O’Malley, skated through the primary to defeat two other LGBT equality advocates, former delegate Heather Mizeur a lesbian, and Attorney General Douglas Gansler.  The LGBT community was divided among them but Mizeur garnered the most enthusiasm.  Dissension spiked when the Equality Maryland PAC made a curious and controversial endorsement of Brown so early in the process.
It wasn’t just a surge of anti-Obama folks that descended on the polls that shaped the outcome; reliable Dem voters stayed home.

Brown avoided specifics during the primaries—a deficiency that would later haunt him in the general election—and squashed his two rivals by depending on the formidable O’Malley “machine” that attracted huge amounts of cash, paid worker bees, numerous volunteers, union support  and a host of other endorsements.  Don’t knock that machine, however; we wouldn’t have achieved marriage equality without it being cranked up at the right time when the Question 6 campaign was floundering in the early stages.

In the Brown vs. Hogan match-up, Brown failed to present any kind of vision for the future and instead trusted his “campaign strategists” by attacking Hogan as a bogeyman thus raising the profile of the relatively unknown former appointments secretary in the single-term Ehrlich administration.
Larry Hogan was far more effective in face-to-face debates, staying on message about the multitude of tax hikes under the O’Malley administration and the disastrous rollout of the state’s new health care exchange of which Brown had been assigned the lead.  Armed with witty quips and zingers, Hogan scored big during these contests and Brown’s failure to defend the administration or Maryland’s economic posture for that matter helped seal the deal.

Though Republican voters in the state sniffed a huge upset, the ultimate outcome was not decided by them but the tens of thousands of eligible Democrat voters who rode this one out.  Call it voter self-suppression.  Baltimore City, an anticipated boon to the Brown election map, had a 35 percent turnout.  Ouch.
Fortunately, marriage equality and transgender protections were achieved in Maryland before this election.  Hogan, although he promised not to try to turn back these settled issues, probably would not have signed a same-sex marriage bill into law, let alone fight for it like O’Malley did.  He said he has since “evolved” on marriage equality (sound familiar?) but stated he opposed the transgender non-discrimination bill—the Fairness for All Marylanders Act.

Nationally, the more conservative entrenched Congress will not act on finally passing the Employment Nondiscrimination Act or ENDA, which has been languishing in Congress for decades.  As has been the experience in the past, the GOP will probably misinterpret the election results as a mandate, and will hamper their being a national party when its leadership will revert to appealing to their shrinking base of white, male, older, rural, Protestant and heterosexual Americans, believing there is no need to reach out to LGBT folks.
The next two years will be seen as a pause in our struggle for progress on many levels.  If we can wait it out, perhaps all that the red will turn into a rainbow.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

LGBT Support Split in Howard County Executive Race


Riding the red wave that splashed across the country and Maryland on November 4, former GOP State Senator Allan Kittleman stunned Democrat councilwoman Courtney Watson and her supporters in the race to succeed term-limited Ken Ulman as Howard County Executive. In doing so, Kittleman became only the second Republican to be elected to that office in the county’s history. 
Allan Kittleman with Carrie Evans during a fundraiser at Pride
Ulman lost his chance to be Lieutenant Governor as part of Anthony Brown’s failed bid to be Maryland’s first African-American governor. The 51.3 % to 48.6 % margin in the Kittleman-Watson contest was closer than the Larry Hogan margin over Brown in the county suggesting that Brown’s poor performance was a drag on Watson’s quest to be the county’s executive.
The race in Howard was distinguished by the fact that two strong LGBT advocates faced off against one another.  Although marriage equality and transgender non-discrimination were settled issues and were not the focus of the campaigns, each side tried to woo LGBT voters by touting their respective records. 
Watson’s campaign, for instance, held at least two LGBT-specific events.  Kittleman enlisted the support of Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, to boost his campaign.  Evans recorded a video extolling Kittleman’s accomplishments for LGBT equality.

Kittleman had been a vocal supporter of marriage equality in Maryland’s Senate the last two years the bill came up for votes.  He also vigorously campaigned to protect the law that was signed by Governor Martin O’Malley in 2012 when it was petitioned to referendum.   
In addition, Kittleman supported and voted for this year’s successful passage of the Fairness for All Marylanders Act (FAMA) that provided anti-discrimination protections in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit based on gender identity. Those actions, which cost Kittleman his position as the Senate’s Minority Leader because they bucked party dogma, did not go unnoticed by the LGBT community.

For her part, Watson, as councilwoman, played a significant role in getting a similar transgender non-discrimination measure passed in Howard County.  She took that success to Baltimore County to persuade wavering lawmakers, and it passed just a couple of months later.  Watson went to Annapolis two years in a row and testified on the statewide bill’s behalf during House committee hearings.
Through the years, both candidates had regularly appeared at PFLAG-Howard County events to demonstrate support for the county’s LGBT citizens. Most notable of these was a joint appearance at a PFLAG-sponsored forum in July.   In October both candidates addressed the crowd during a celebration held by PFLAG and Gender Rights Maryland on the effective date of FAMA.
Though no data are available as to how LGBT folks and allies voted during the election, it is clear that each camp can claim support from key LGBT leaders. 

“Allan Kittleman was a champion for LGBT issues over the last few years in the General Assembly, and I know that he will continue fighting for fairness and equality in his new role,” said Equality Maryland’s Carrie Evans.   #hocopolitics
Watson had a staunch advocate as well. “We’re concerned about ensuring continued improvement in our quality of life as well as bullying in schools, affordable housing, and public health,” said Byron Macfarlane, the county’s Register of Wills and the first open LGBT person to hold elective office in Howard. “I hope now that the election is over, the vagaries and generalities of the Kittleman campaign will give way to concrete plans to address these very real concerns. I congratulate him on his victory and hope that the LGBT community and the new county executive will have a productive working relationship in the years ahead.”

Friday, October 31, 2014

First Drag Show in Columbia Scheduled


For a number of years, drag shows have been one of the popular entertainment features at PW’s Sports Bar in North Laurel—Howard County’s only gay bar.  Many of these shows are held in conjunction with charitable events and causes in which PW’s participates.
Now some of the drag acts will be traveling up the road to Columbia where they will perform in a straight bar named Second Chance Saloon in the village of Oakland Mills.  When the performers hit the stage on November 8 at 10 p.m. it will mark the first time a public drag show takes place in the city of Columbia, Md.

Titled “Sugar, Spice and a Little Something Nice,” the event will be hosted by Anastacia Amor, a well-known drag performer at PWs.  Co-hosting the show will be another drag celebrity Shawnna Alexander.  In addition, local performers Ariyanna Myst, Onyx D' Pearl and Krystal Nova will entertain.

“This is exciting because it’s a new venue that has never done a drag show and the establishment reached out to me,” Anastacia Amor said.  “This is something that they are excited for and want to embrace the community and provide another place to enjoy a night out. You can expect a great show, a wonderful establishment and an all around great time.”  #hocoarts
Indeed, management from Second Chance Saloon did seek out Miss Amor to put on this show.  “The owner Declan Wood and I would often go to PW’s in Laurel to watch the drag shows because it’s always a blast,” said Jacquie Ramsey, the manager of Second Chance Saloon.   “I arranged this night by knowing the bartender at PW’s who set me up with Lovell (Anastacia Amor’s boy name).  I’m looking forward to this event and I hope that we can do it more often!”

The Second Chance Saloon is located at 5888 Robert Oliver Place, Columbia, MD 21045.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Vote Frederic, Not Bates


Ryan Frederic, who is in a tough fight in District 9 for Maryland State Senate, would bring a fresh perspective to Annapolis on job creation, growth and fiscal responsibility.
His opponent, Gail Bates, does not reflect the values of Howard County.  She fought tooth and nail to derail any attempts to pass legislation that would allow marriage for same-sex couples and nondiscrimination protections for transgender individuals.  In fact, she has opposed every piece of legislation that would benefit LGBT couples and families.

Mrs. Bates continued her assault on equality during the referendum in 2012 but to no avail.  The law conferring same-sex couples the same rights, benefits and responsibilities that heterosexual couples take for granted was upheld during the referendum battle despite Gail Bates’ unabashed opposition.  In Howard County voters supported the measure by nearly a 3 to 2 margin reflecting Howard County’s values of inclusion, equality and diversity.
Several years ago when the struggle for marriage equality was in its infant stages, I, along with a bunch of good people from PFLAG, testified before the Howard County delegation at the Howard Building in support of the cause.  While all the other legislators, regardless of where they stood on the issue, listened attentively with respect to each person testifying, Gail Bates, sat with her head bowed, averting any eye contact and seemingly paying no attention to what county citizens were saying.  #hocopolitics

This lack of courtesy and respect, which was clearly noticed by all of us who testified, further demonstrated Mrs. Bates’ eschewing the values of Howard County.
With her poor record on equality Mrs. Bates does not deserve another election victory.  We should support Democrat Ryan Frederic.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Battling Through Voter Apathy


It was a cool wet morning on October 1 when my husband and I volunteered at a voter registration table in Howard Community College’s Duncan Hall.  This is one of the growing number of buildings at HCC, which is regarded as one of the best community colleges in the nation.  The semi-annual drive representing the Columbia Democratic Club is non-partisan; we just try to get the kids to register to vote and do not discuss candidates or parties unless we’re asked.  

Between classes, the millenials bustle about enroute to their next destination, perhaps English, History, or a Political Science course.  They form an amazingly vibrant tapestry of diversity reflecting virtually every race and nationality under the sun.  The students shuttle through the hall alone, in pairs or in groups toting backpacks with many of them plugged into their electronic devices.
“Are you registered to vote?” one of us calls out to a young woman in a tan jacket. 

Some good news: “I’m already registered.”  “Great,” we say approvingly.

“Are you registered to vote?” we ask again to a group of four, a little damp from the rain, coming through the doors from the quad.  
“Can’t now, on the way to class.” Okay, that’s understandable.

“We’ll be here ‘til 2,” we point out, but we suspect they’re not coming back.
To another, “Would you like to register to vote?” 

Now the bad news: “I’m good,” says a young man trying to breeze past our table to anyplace but.
“Don’t you want to vote in the election?”

“Not really.”
During the four-hour span we managed to sign up 20 students, and with some it was a hard sell.  The election was a month away yet there was no enthusiasm among the students.  It’s not unusual. 

Ever since the voting age was changed to 18, this age group historically had low turnout at the polls.  Most have not yet been wired to politics and are oblivious to the issues of the day.  The Obama candidacy generated considerable electricity throughout the nation’s college campuses, and turnout spiked among this demographic, especially in 2008.  In 2012 it was still better than the norm but declined somewhat from the previous presidential election.
Now we are facing the dreaded mid-terms, and I’m not referring to the exams these kids zipping through Duncan Hall would soon be facing.  These off-year elections when no presidential contest is in play typically attract a paltry fraction of all registered voters, not just the eligible youth.

The phenomenon of only a minority of the electorate choosing our leaders has a consequence. George Jean Nathan, a collaborator with H.L Mencken, once said, “Bad officials are the ones elected by good citizens who do not vote.”
Low voter turnout has long been analyzed by political pundits, and so far no one has been successful in ensuring a consistently strong turnout at the polls.  Even with early voting in many states including Maryland, the results are the same.  Campaigns have programmed hefty amounts of money from their budgets to implement sophisticated Get out the Vote (GOTV) mechanisms that would encourage their computer-identified supporters to head to the polling places.

Even presidential elections produce disappointing turnouts.  Between 1960 and 2008, the percentage of eligible voters who have bothered to cast their ballots during these elections have ranged from about 49 percent to 63 percent. This means that as much as half of American voters don’t care enough to decide which candidate would make a good chief executive.
Locally, there are consequential elections taking place.  Besides the gubernatorial race, the entire state Senate and House of Delegates are up for grabs not to mention Congressional seats. Plus, there are numerous county-level races with the county executive election in Howard County between pro-LGBT candidates Courtney Watson and Allan H. Kittleman figuring to be tightly contested.

“Bad officials are the ones elected by good citizens who do not vote.”


Yet, with so much at stake there has seemingly been a lack of voltage during this cycle.  Much of this can be attributed to the ho-hum campaigns of Lt. Governor Anthony Brown and Larry Hogan.  Neither has caught fire either because of their style, the negative ads, the bland debates or a lack of a singular burning issue.  The Governor’s race at the top of the ticket typically drives voter turnout, not local Orphan Court judge races or other down ballot contests.   #hocopolitics
Whether you’re stoked for this election or not, one thing we can do is pay back our elected officials who supported marriage equality and transgender non-discrimination measures during the past term.  We owe it to them for making the tough votes and speaking out not knowing how such controversial stances would affect their political careers. 

If you are progressive, you should check out Progressive Maryland’s voter guide.  In this way, you can reward those who stood for us whether you ever plan to marry or not or whether you’re transgender or not.  These folks deserve our votes.   #hocopolitics
There are many reasons for voter apathy.  They include a lack of awareness of the issues, a disdain for politicians in general, not believing their vote matters, feeling politically alienated, dislike for the specific candidates, and other factors.  Any or all of these plus weather conditions or ill health will keep folks home.

Accordingly, many people decry the disturbingly low turnouts.  You hear them say, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”  Well actually one does have that right. But as Abraham Lincoln commented, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Charles Brings 'Pride' to Baltimore


Recall the film and musical Billy Elliot, the delightful heart-warming story of a young ballet dancer trying to fulfill his dreams with Great Britain’s arduous miners’ strike as the backdrop.  That strike, thirty years later, is thrust to the forefront in another sweet movie that also shines a spotlight on courage, humanity, warmth, friendship and triumph. 

Pride, a BBC-produced film directed by Matthew Warchus and written by Stephen Beresford, was screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival at which it received a standing ovation.  The venerable Charles Theatre, situated in Baltimore’s Station North arts and entertainment district, is presenting this treasure of a film, whereby audiences—gay or straight—should eat up like an English crumpet. 
I understand the reason for the movie’s title Pride given that the plot of the film is bookended by London gay pride parades in 1984 and 1985 and that there is a sense of accomplishment among many of the characters in the film despite challenges.  But it seems a bit simplistic and non-descriptive since the word “pride” is so generic.  Perhaps, Pride and Prejudice would have been a more suitable title, but unfortunately, it was already taken.   #hocoarts

That is my only quibble about this excellent film.  Based on a true story with a few fictional characters thrown into the mix, Pride follows the travails of a group of lesbian and gay activists who felt the need to support the striking British miners in 1984 by raising money for the strikers’ families.
While initially the group questioned why they should support a bunch of macho guys who have historically been unfriendly to gays, their young, outspoken, charismatic and handsome leader Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) argued the miners’ struggles were not that different from their own.  He pointed out that gays and lesbians and the miners have common enemies: Margaret Thatcher, the police and the right-wing tabloid press. 

Their newly formed group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was born in London’s Gay’s the Word—the U.K.’s only gay and lesbian bookstore—a venue where these gay folks hung out.  LGSM attempted to raise money and donate through the national miners union only to notice the discomfort on the part of the union leadership from the public relations risk of being associated with a bunch of puffs. 
Undaunted, LGSM decided to take their donations to a small mining village in the bucolic Dulais Valley lodge in Onllwyn, South Wales. It was there that the odd alliance was formed.  The initial meetings were fraught with tension and awkwardness with the villagers being apprehensive towards “the gays.”  But through the sheer force of getting to know people on a personal basis, minds opened up and bonds were gradually created and fortified. 

As a culmination of their efforts, LGSM formed a wildly successful benefit concert called “Pits and Perverts,” smartly co-opting the word “perverts” that was derisively printed in the tabloids to use as a rallying device.  When that event actually occurred, the group Bronski Beat headlined.   
In actuality, this was a national movement but Bereford funnels it into this London-based group.   What transpires is a beautiful blend of empathy, solidarity and friendship that is both moving and inspirational.  And Pride’s climactic conclusion, which will not be disclosed here, is guaranteed to leave you teary-eyed.
#hocoarts
Besides the New York-born but London-trained Ben Schnetzer who turned in a strong, focused performance, the remainder of the talented cast brought to life Bereford’s poignant and humorous script that entails several sub-plots.  They include the onset of AIDS, the tense discovery by parents that their son is gay, and another gay man who reconnects with his estranged family. 
George MacKay as Joe, the closeted 20 year-old, was convincing and played the role with sensitivity.  Others who were part of “the gays”—Dominic West, Andrew Scott, Joseph Gilgun, and the colorful token lesbian, Faye Marsay as Steph—are solid actors.  

Equally strong were the Welsh characters including Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine and Bill Nighy.  Staunton as Dulais community leader Hefina provides a good deal of the humor especially when she wields a large pink dildo—a scene not to be missed.
Considine as Dai, the representative from Dulais, provided a soothing, amiable contrast to some of the homophobic characters.  His performance was splendid.

Pride is a must-see uplifting film.  Director Warchus beautifully takes us on an historic journey from the streets of London to the lush South Wales countryside and back while Bereford’s writing shows exquisitely how disparate groups of people can shrug off their differences and meld together for a common goal in this true story.     
The Charles Theatre is located at 1711 N, Charles St., Baltimore 21201.  Tickets and show times are available by calling 410-727-3464 or visiting thecharles.com.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nice Guys Finish First


During the heat of an election campaign we hear some people deride an opposing candidate as being a “nice guy” as if that’s a liability. (For the purpose of this post, the term “nice guy” in the vernacular applies to both genders.)  The context being the person has different values, positions and a faulty record, but his being a “nice guy” might carry him through the day. 
It could if history has anything to do with it.

One of the many axioms in politics is not to downplay a candidate’s likability.  This is not to suggest that likability is sufficient to win an election. Stances on specific issues, party affiliation, the current political environment, the opponent, oratory skills, the amount of money raised and spent, endorsements, record, biography, and voter turnout are among those factors in shaping an election.  #hocopolitics
But likability is a major strength especially if voters are not engaged on the issues or are not informed regarding the candidates.  It could be decisive with other factors being equal, and all politicians would be wise to make that an asset for themselves.

Throughout history, likability has frequently been a rationale for voters.  It became more prevalent starting with the Kennedy-Nixon contest in 1960 when television, for the first time, was a major element in the election campaign.  Most pundits opined that the televised debate between those two candidates was the turning point.  Nixon looked nervous, sweaty and pale on black and white television though he was the more experienced politician, while the young John F. Kennedy seemed alert, fresh and vibrant.  Of course, Nixon had been suffering from a cold and eschewed using make-up, but he won the debate on the merits.  Nonetheless, Nixon lost the night because of the optics.    
Voters around the country gave Kennedy a closer look and liked what they saw.  They fell in love with his beautiful, glamorous wife and young daughter, and Kennedy himself possessed strong oratory skills, charisma and was inspirational.  In short, enough of the voters liked him, his personality and his family to hand him a slim margin of victory at the polls.  Nixon, seen as glum, was doomed to falter to the more pleasant Kennedy.

There are exceptions, of course, but other presidential contests demonstrated how likability may have been a determinant.  There was the affable, sunny Ronald Reagan winning over the turgid Jimmy Carter.  Folksy, down-home Bill Clinton defeating the privileged George H.W. Bush (with a little help from Ross Perot).  Jocular George W. Bush losing the votes but winning the Electoral College over the stiff and sighing Al Gore (assisted by Ralph Nader and the Supreme Court).  And Bush again edging another stiff one, John Kerry.
Then you have the historic candidacy of Barack Obama—a far more likable chap than the cranky John McCain and mega-rich snob Mitt Romney—winning two terms.  He even gave a nod to the likability factor as he famously told Hillary Clinton during a primary debate, “You’re likeable enough Hillary.”  But that retort backfired on the political neophyte as it was seen as patronizing.

Those likable candidates mentioned above would have won those elections regardless of likability because there were overriding issues that interested and engaged the electorate. But there is no doubt that favorable trait played a role in their success. 
Any political advisor or consultant worth his or her salt would tell you that it is critical to be likable.  This is especially applicable in local contests when issues typically don’t rise to the level of national security and other broad concerns.  It could be a difference maker. 

The way to deal with that during a campaign is to either drive up the likable opponent’s negatives or improve their own favorability.  Those already holding elected office could look back and note that their likability may have helped put them in those jobs. 
The value of likability should never be underestimated even if elections are rarely won or lost based on that alone.  However, on most occasions it seems that nice guys do finish first.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Supreme Court's Punt Gives Us Good Field Position


When the U.S. Supreme Court unexpectedly decided on October 6 not to take up several appeals of lower court rulings that struck down the existing bans on same-sex marriages, many believed the justices “punted.”  That is, less than four of the nine justices chose not to review these cases and will likely not be part of this term’s docket. 

Both sides had hoped for a sweeping decision by the Court to settle once and for all whether the right for same-sex couples to marry is protected by the U.S. Constitution.  Rather, by choosing to sidestep these cases they allowed the lower court rulings to stand.
To use football parlance, because the Supreme Court punted the hot button issue for a likely date sometime in the future, marriage equality advocates did not score a touchdown they were hoping for but instead found themselves in good field position.

By refusing to review cases from the Fourth Circuit, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, same–sex marriages are no longer prevented from occurring. The Court also did not take on cases arising from the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, and in the Tenth Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. 

And in the Ninth Circuit, marriage bans were struck down in Idaho and Nevada by a panel of judges the next day.  This ruling also applies to Arizona, Montana and Alaska.  Nuptials may be delayed in some of these states because of specific legal procedures, but eventually they will be allowed.  In all, the number of states permitting same-sex marriage would jump from 19 to 30 plus D.C. representing states with 60 percent of the U.S. population.  
Though the Supreme Court offered no explanation for their action, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who once officiated a same-sex wedding, indicated last month that for the justices there is “no need for us to rush” unless a split emerges in the various federal appeals courts and one of them decides to uphold a state ban on same-sex marriage.   

Had there been a split, the justices may have taken a look at it. That can happen in that the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati is thought as one of the few that could uphold the bans.  Therefore, the Court put itself in a place where they would likely have to tackle the issue once and for all.
Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy organization Freedom to Marry, said while the October 6 action provided “a bright green light” to same-sex marriage in more states, marriage equality advocates do want the Supreme Court to intervene and provide a definitive ruling covering all 50 states. “The Supreme Court should bring the country to a nationwide resolution,” Wolfson said. 

Those opposing marriage equality do as well and will continue to defend the bans in court (though stalling would appear advantageous to them if a Court vacancy is filled with a conservative).  They strongly believe that the people should decide the definition of marriage, not judges.

Opponents should note, however, that the people are not as against marriage equality as they think.  Ever since 2004 when the first same-sex weddings took place in Massachusetts—an occurrence that became a winning strategy for Republicans during the presidential campaign—support for marriage equality swung dramatically.  In fact, poll after poll indicate that a majority of Americans now support marriage equality.
During the 10 years since gay marriage was used as a political wedge issue, clear evidence of a transformation in attitudes began in 2012 with the startling first-time victories at the ballot box in three states that included Maryland.  Since then, legal challenges to a swath of state constitutions were launched claiming that the denial of same-sex couples to marry was in violation of the U.S. Constitution under the Equal Protection Clause.

As these cases meandered through the lower courts whereby one ruling after another found for the plaintiffs, federal appeal courts have upheld those rulings in a stunning wave of victories, adding great momentum to the movement.  The rationale  for these decisions had been bolstered in 2013 by the Supreme Court’s striking down key provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act. 
What was once a political weapon for Republicans nationwide, the changing attitudes towards same-sex marriage has pushed most Republicans to a hands-off approach.  This is consistent with their alleged attempts to demonstrate more acceptance towards gays and other minorities to improve their general election chances.   Indeed, a vast majority of Republicans remained silent following the recent Supreme Court announcement.

Senator Ted Cruz from Texas who many regard as an extremist, was one of the exceptions to have lashed out against the Court. “The Supreme Court’s decision to let rulings by lower court judges stand that redefine marriage is both tragic and indefensible,” he said.   He pledged to again introduce a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman.  Good luck.
Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, in an effort to keep his job, threw a bone to his base by condemning the Supreme Court’s decision.  He said that if gays were allowed to marry, “America will ultimately collapse.”

As we have witnessed in the states where marriage equality is in place including Maryland, the sky has not fallen; society has not been destroyed; and the institution of marriage has not deteriorated.  Instead, children of same-sex couples are now protected, couples receive the same benefits, rights and responsibilities as their heterosexual counterparts; and the local economies have received a much needed boon.
As same-sex marriages continue to take place across the land, it will become increasing difficult to invalidate all those nuptials should that day eventually arrive when the ball lands in the Supreme Court justices’ hands.  Too much chaos would result.  Accordingly, we’re in a good position now to ultimately take it to the end zone.

Monday, October 06, 2014

4.48 Psychosis at Iron Crow


In keeping with the Iron Crow Theatre Company’s tradition of staging unconventional, thought-provoking, often dark dramas, the kick-off to their three-play 2014-2015 Season did not disappoint.  You know you’re in for a signature Iron Crow theatrical experience when before the play begins the audience observes a body dressed in white, highlighted by occasional red lighting, lying prone on the otherwise darkened Theatre Project stage with some gloomy New Age music droning in the background prior to its presentation of 4.48 Psychosis.   #hocoarts

Nick Horan (L.) and Katie Keddell  Photo: Zachary Z. Handler
Though Iron Crow bills itself as Baltimore’s queer theatre company, 4.48 Psychosis by British playwright Sarah Kane stepped aside from past Iron Crow plays that usually have LGBTQ themes woven into the scripts.  Research reveals, however, that Kane had affairs with women, so this presentation does have an LGBTQ connection even if the subject matter was mostly devoid of it.
In fact, 4.48 Psychosis doesn’t even have a plot, structure, timeline or staging directions.  Iron Crow’s artistic director Steven J. Satta attests to that fact in a press release announcing the season: “The play is written in a manner, which is not realistic or linear but rather abstract and disjointed, which is appropriate when dealing with issues of mental health—the rational does not apply.”

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The GLCCB's Mounting Challenges


The resignation of interim executive director Kelly Neel from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) further brings to light the mounting challenges facing the 35 year-old institution.  In a candid email sent to 180 friends and colleagues, Neel, who served in that capacity for about five months following the resignation of her predecessor Matt Thorn, wrote, “It has been a tumultuous time for the organization, which has been in transition for quite some time now. While I believe that we have navigated the past year to the best of our abilities, I no longer feel that my values and my vision align with those of our leadership.”
Kelly Neel at 2014 Baltimore Pride
Prior to the resignation, a search for a permanent executive director was underway.  Neel saw the handwriting on the wall: she was not going to win the job through a competitive process.  Neel told me that she did not receive support from the board of directors; there was a decided lack of communication between the board and her; she did not feel valued or respected; and there was a “disconnect” regarding her vision on financial strategies and event planning.
A member of the board acknowledged she was not likely to be offered the permanent position though she would have been considered along with other candidates.  For their part, the board was dissatisfied with her handling of the job, managing and presenting budgets, and the manner in which she interacted with board members. 

Without getting into the he-said, she-said details, one thing is clear: they didn’t get along, and she resigned on her own terms without having to go through the process of inevitably losing out to another candidate.  Cohesion is critical in any organization, and perhaps a better effort could have been undertaken by both sides to improve the relationship.
To be clear, Neel was just one person given formidable tasks to manage the Center. As she had previously pointed out in an open letter, “it takes a village.” All the essential operations and programs of the GLCCB should not be the responsibility of one person.  The board should not simply supervise the executive director but to also assume an “all hands on deck” posture to actively help out as well.  That has not happened.  

To the public (and the executive director is indeed the public face of the Center) Neel demonstrated a calm temperament and demeanor during the contentious town hall meeting at the Waxter Center in July.  She was among those in the cross-hairs during that event, handling the barbs with professionalism, class and respect.  She pledged and followed through on the prevailing theme of establishing transparency by posting minutes of previous board meetings (to the extent that they were available), financial reports, and board applications (since removed) to the GLCCB’s website.  She also arranged for open board meetings of which two have taken place.
As Neel pointed out, she functioned in an environment that she termed as “tumultuous,” – a generous characterization.  She assumed the post of interim executive director just a couple of months before Pride whereby decisions had already been made to shift the location.  Her task was to implement those decisions in a tight timeframe, and despite some cracks in the walls, she and her staff of volunteers pulled off the huge event quite well. 

Prior to Neel’s appointment, the GLCCB’s move to new digs at the Waxter Center last winter did not go over well.  The new venue was and still is not physically and cosmetically ready for prime time depriving the Center from holding a welcoming open house to help reset their image. And the sale of the previous building as well as the move itself was controversial because of the lack of transparency and community input.  
During the town hall and since, Neel issued a public warning that the Center needs the community to survive.  The financial picture for the GLCCB looks dismal with mounting debt and a lack of a reliable income stream to sustain a minimum of $10,000 per month for operations and personnel.  This doesn’t even include program-related expenses.

Neel rightly acknowledged there is a growing apathy among the LGBT communities towards the Center, which would take an enormous effort to reverse. Two months ago I outlined some common-sense suggestions to right the ship.  If followed, there is a chance the Center could build a brand that will provide a rationale for its existence and the donations would possibly follow.
The key to success is community buy-in.  The GLCCB must express a vision that it rightly has a place in Baltimore and whose mission is not centered on Pride alone.  It needs to extend their hands to all communities and allow representatives to help formulate and act on the Center’s mission. It needs a diverse board with a broad range of experiences that would be willing to roll up their sleeves and work.  The Center should continue what Neel was beginning to accomplish by holding small, inexpensive and affordable events to raise money and to show more visibility and relevancy.

Instability at the top (and that includes the revolving door on the board) is not the way to maintain rapport and business relationships with other entities nor will it help bolster confidence in an organization that is in need of it. Kelly Neel was not the problem and a search for a permanent executive director could have waited.
The focus should be on developing a clear strategy to deal with the financial crisis and fast.  Perhaps most importantly, however, the communities must feel there is a reason to keep the GLCCB going.

These are challenges, to be sure, but if not met, the doors could shut down for good.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Awake and Sing! at Olney Theatre Center


Anyone who had lived through the Great Depression could tell you how difficult and scary that time was.  Not only was there real concern that one day you would lose the roof over your head or not being able to put food on the table but that these real fears and pressures could tear a family’s fabric to the point that dreams are tossed aside in order to live for the day.  The Depression meant a severe economic downturn but it also meant a state of mind that resulted from it.
#hocoarts
Rick Forcheux (L.) and Alex Mandell  Photo: Stan Barouh
Such was the backdrop in Clifford Odets’ potent Depression-era drama-comedy Awake and Sing! that is now playing at the Main Stage of the Olney Theatre Center.  In 1931 Odets, as an actor, was a founding member of the Group Theatre, a highly influential New York theatre company led by Lee Strasberg.  Group employed a new acting technique in U.S. theatre that eventually was called “Method Acting.”  Odets became the Group Theatre’s principal playwright, and in 1932, experiencing the financially bleak conditions during that period, began working on I Got the Blues, which turned into Awake and Sing!
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.