Looking out at the contemporary scene through an LGBT lens.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Among the many myths being repeated in the wake of the killings in Arizona this past week is that we can not protect ourselves from the evil that emerges from a lone madman like Jared L. Loughner. In this view, such havoc as this pathetic young man wreaked is at once both unexpected and inevitable, operating like some act of God for which we can’t find insurance coverage: there will always be crazy people and crazy people will always do crazy things. Go figure.

The body count had only barely been calculated, and the dead were not yet cold in their final resting places, however, when Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik had the temerity—I would rather say chutzpah—to suggest that the poisonous public discourse emanating from radio and television, involving figures in both the media and the political realm, might well have acted as a spur to the mad young assassin. And the fact that Dupnik placed radio and television commentators high on his list made it probable that he was referring to the current crop of right-wing rabble-rousers—the unnamed Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and that irrepressible sob-sister, Glenn Beck—for whom confining themselves to civil discourse would be career suicide. Their entire modus operandi is to gin up the incipient anger of their audience with visions of apocalypse just around the corner.

Soon enough, others also charged that Loughner’s rampage could not have succeeded to the extent it did had this twisted soul not been able to purchase an automatic weapon and the ample ammunition needed to feed his need for—What?: vengeance? masculine self-esteem? infamy? The National Rifle Association (NRA) has such a lock on the Second Amendment, given its recent interpretation by the Roberts Supreme Court and the new Tea Party Congress’s supine regard for so-called gun rights, that any regulatory suggestion was immediately attacked as a “politicization” of the current national tragedy—never mind that the tragedy might well have been mitigated if a law hadn’t lapsed a few years ago making the size of the reloading magazine, 30 rounds, free once again for easy purchase by the nut-job Loughner. The right to own a gun in this country under any and all circumstances has become an unquestioned mantra, and questioning this right is now treated as a provocation, like continuing to believe in a woman’s “right to choose,” a position that seems now to suggest such moral turpitude that it is hardly ever invoked in so-called polite circles. Nicholas Kristof had an excellent piece in yesterday’s Times on the issue of gun control, framing the issue—as it should be—as a national health crises, and reminding Americans that we are second only to Yemen (Yemen! Bastion of democracy!) in our per capita ownership of guns. I suppose this is another instance of American exceptionalism.

Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Congresswoman who was the purported target of Mr. Loughner’s rage, is herself a defender of Second Amendment rights, which may well have made her particularly sensitive to Sarah Palin’s website, on which appeared, prior to the mid-term elections, crosshair “target” symbols pointing out districts which Palin’s allies were encouraged to win back for the Republicans. This included Giffords’ district. The lock-and-load former governor of Alaska is often one to use gun and rifle iconography to prove she has the biggest balls in the room. Poor Todd Palin! His wife’s little target symbols were mentioned by Representative Giffords weeks ago on TV as just the kind of rhetorical flourish that politicians should realize could have “consequences.” In the aftermath of Giffords’ being shot, while six other innocents were killed and still others wounded, a number of commentators picked up on Giffords’ weeks-old comments about being “targeted” online as a clear indication that Eva Peron Palin (my locution) was perhaps the most prominent example of the kind of “incivil discourse” feeding the popular frenzy for easy solutions and sworn enemies.

The myth, then, of this having been an unexpected tragedy is one that certainly needs to be put to rest. Nothing is more to be expected on a regular basis, as night follows day, than that another of these lone madmen with private demons driving him to distraction will buy himself a cheap weapon to murder or maim whatever unlucky group of American citizens happens to be in his line of site as he shoots his way onto the front pages. This is surely the easiest way to achieve that fifteen minutes of fame about which Andy Warhol was so prescient. Though Andy might have noted that infamy was just as good as celebrity, the former being a way to achieve the latter.

For her part, Sarah Palin would not accept any responsibility, as if she was being charged with the crime itself. No, she was being held up as an example of borderline extremist discourse. Still, she managed to make online public comments in her own defense which once again showed how very mean-spirited and small-minded an opponent she can be. She tried to turn the tables on her crosshairs critics, making it seem as if she was unfairly becoming collateral damage from the Tucson shootings. Said Our Lady of Self-Pity in tight-lipped smugness:

Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

Her use of the term “blood libel,” the Middle Ages-old canard that Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake their Passover matzos, and since used with reckless abandon by anti-Semites throughout Europe and the Middle East, immediately revealed one or all of several possibilities: 1) Palin’s total misunderstanding of the term “blood libel”; 2) her ignorance of Christian-Jewish history and the etymology of the phrase; 3) her willingness to feign innocence while stooping to any extremes of language or symbolism to put her opponents on the defensive. She is the Alfred E. Newman of politics: “What? Me, vicious?”

Now, lest I be charged with incivility toward Ms. Palin, let us remember how many very incivil commentators have for years spewed defamatory steretypes about the LGBT and other communities like noxious environmental fumes that fall on the living and the dead without the least harm to their public reputations. Indeed, at least some of them have been provided ample opportunity to continue sounding off in the public square. William F. Buckley never lost the respect of his journalist peers despite his suggestion in the mid-1980s that People with AIDS be tattooed as a mark of identification to prevent them from having sex; Pat Buchanan, whose comments about gays have in the past sent shivers down my spine, is treated as an eminence grise of the Right on any number of round-table panel talk shows; Rush Limbaugh’s conflation of feminists with Nazis hasn’t hurt his career; and the dripping sarcasm of Bill O’Reilly toward anyone with whom he disagrees, now outdone by the dripping tears of Glenn Beck, is in fact his stock in trade. Yes, Don Imus was called out for his unsavory “’ho” comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, but he was long known for crossing the line, yet still managed to get perfectly respectable public figures to chat with him on his radio show as if he were a fount of wit from the Algonquin Roundtable circa 1928. Well, he’s back on the air, although perhaps mildly chastened. How does this explain Ann Coulter continuing to get publishing contracts despite her high-profile disparagement of 9/11 widows?

So can anyone doubt that if Father Coughlin of blessed memory—that ranting anti-Semite of radio in provincial 1930s America—were still alive, he’d be interviewed on Fox TV, exchanging pleasantries with Sean Hannity and Mr. O’Reilly, in order to expound on the Ground Zero Mosque, the Israel-Palestine dispute, and whether or not Gabrielle Giffords, as a Reform Jew, can expect to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without benefit of baptism?

Alas, the irony of Sarah Palin’s use of the term “blood libel” is probably lost on her, for the blood of Christians and Jews was spilled that day in Tucson and she is not the victim in this tragedy. Nor were the rest of us directly implicated in the carnage, although only members of Congress were asking for laws to keep guns at a distance from their public appearances. What about the rest of us? We will not always be far from the scene of the crime. Gun sales in Arizona and elsewhere have skyrocketed, everyone having forgotten the heroic response without guns of the woman who prevented Loughner from reloading and the men who jumped on the alleged assassin to hold him down while waiting for the police to arrive. And one loyal intern with a Hispanic surname who applied pressure to Giffords’ wound and is probably responsible for saving her life. I suppose we should immediately investigate when and under what circumstances his forebears crossed the border.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

J'Accuse ...!

It is a stretch to compare the current tug-of-war over the military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) with that of the Dreyfus Affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century. After all, the latter case involved the brutal incarceration of an innocent man, an Alsatian Jew, on the trumped up charge of selling French military secrets to the German Embassy. Indeed, in the wake of France’s loss of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, French national honor was so diminished that the military used the Dreyfus Affair more than two decades later as a means to prop up its bona fides.

With DADT, we have a military mentality, however, that is not far distant from that of the French. Two drawn out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done little to confirm American military superiority, and the fact that we are at still at war is being used in some quarters to argue that now is not the time to institute a significant change in the way the armed forces go about their business. Having openly gay men and lesbians serve in the forces, of which a majority of Americans now approve, is still widely discussed, especially among old guard military men, as a threat to “unit cohesion.” It hardly matters to them that some of our partners in the Multi-National Force invasion of Iraq—defense forces from other countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Great Britain—allowed openly gay troops. (There’s just no explaining what those Socialist Europeans will do!)

But if we have not incarcerated an innocent man, the military has certainly destroyed thousands of careers of young people who have done nothing more than live the truth of their own natures. DADT has been a disaster any which way you look at it. It has been enforced arbitrarily so that even gay men and lesbians in uniform doing their best to keep their homosexuality secret have been subject to witch hunts worthy of the McCarthy Era. The services have lost talented volunteers whose training cost the government substantial sums of money and whose excellence has rarely been called into question. Crucial skills, like Arabic-language expertise, have been lost through dismissals; this has compromised intelligence gathering.

When Barack Obama ran for the presidency, DADT was on his hit list. Yet in his ever so cautious manner, he is now having his Department of Justice defend the policy in the face of Federal District Judge Virginia A. Phillips’ ruling of early September that said “The 'don’t ask, don’t tell' act infringes the fundamental rights of United States service members in many ways ... In order to justify the encroachment on these rights, defendants [United States of America and Robert M. Gates, Secretary of Defense] faced the burden at trial of showing the 'don’t ask, don’t tell' act was necessary to significantly further the government’s important interests in military readiness and unit cohesion. Defendants failed to meet that burden."

Like me, you may remember how early on his tenure, Secretary of Defense Gates announced that he would have the Pentagon conduct a study to see how best to institute a new policy. The moment I heard this, I thought “the fix is in.” The study will find what it wants, I thought, or barring that, it will find a way to drag out a policy the Pentagon is too embarrassed to change. Then earlier this year, in February, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said it would take more than a year to lay the groundwork for repealing DADT, but meanwhile, the Defense Department would enforce the policy “in a fairer manner.” Yet as Judge Phihllips’ opinion made eminently clear, there is no fair manner to enforce a policy whose “restrictions on speech not only are broader than reasonably necessary to protect the Government's substantial interests, but also actually serve to impede military readiness and unit cohesion rather than further these goals.”

Her opinion was based on the sometimes heartbreaking testimony of young men and women who had suffered under extraordinary psychological pressures, had private e-mail communications read without authorization, witnessed but been unable to report sadistic conduct by superiors or heard sexist and racist slurs by others in violation of the military code, and otherwise been unable to engage in daily social conversations which might tip off their comrades. Many of those who testified in her court ultimately arranged dishonorable discharges through the sympathetic intervention of superior officers who sometimes provided written testimony of the witness’s excellence while in uniform.

All right. I will vote in the current election for anyone but a Republican, despite the fact that President Obama, Democrat-in-Chief, is arguing that he must maintain the DADT policy and have his Department of Justice appeal and defend it because he does not want to have the policy changed by judicial fiat but by an act of Congress. This is a veiled allusion to satisfy conservatives who have been lamenting, ever since the Earl Warren court of the 1960s, any decision with which they disagree as an instance of “judicial activism.” That the Roberts’ court engages in conservative judicial activism is never acknowledged by the right-wing, for courts whose decisions serve their purposes, even by the most twisted logic and ignoring of precedent, are taken on faith to be disinterested and to serve the cause of, pun intended, blind justice.

So, j’accuse. I accuse the Obama administration of playing politics with the lives of young men and women in uniform whose homosexuality has no effect on their military readiness and worthiness. I accuse Secretary of Defense Robert Gates of obstructing justice by continuing to enforce a policy which has ruined careers, perhaps even lives, on hearsay evidence, rumor, gossip, and through the illegal acquisition of private communication. I accuse the Obama Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder of defending the current policy in order the grant the President political cover: Obama can always say, on the one hand, I’m personally against DADT; it is Congress that must act, not the courts. He will say this knowing full well that if a Republican-controlled House of Representatives emerges after the mid-term elections, it will place obstacles in his path on all fronts. Thus, if DADT is not repealed under such circumstances, he will say “I was ready to sign a bill repealing it, but Congress would not vote for repeal.” I accuse veteran military men, like Commandant General James Conway, retiring commandant of the Marine Corps, of encouraging defiance toward any change in policy by publicizing unreliable anecdotal evidence indicating that repeal will not work. "When we take a survey of our Marines,” Conway said recently “by and large, they say that they are concerned that it will cause potential problems with regard to their order and discipline -- that it will impact their sense of unit cohesion.” He cited no scientific study, no expert poll, only what his Marines presumably have said “by and large.”

I accuse the U.S. military of propagating a hoax on the American public. If its servicemen and women are so afraid of a chance glance by a member of the same sex in the shower, how can such a person be fit to withstand withering conditions in desert outposts and crumbling towns,in rocky outposts and parched valleys encircled by Taliban snipers or Al Qaeda operatives? How can such a military be publicized as the best in the world, the most prepared? From the Halls of Montezuma to the bathroom urinal—the Marines can fight any enemy to the teeth but their manhood is unmanned by a mere sideways glance? Is the gay marine at his side so powerful a temptation that he will not be able to resist?

The military in this country is under civilian command. The President has the power to act by not defending the untenable DADT act which has been declared unconstitutional in Federal District Court. An immediate order to end any investigation into a uniformed man or woman’s sexual orientation should go out with dispatch, making all commanders, from the highest levels on down, responsible for its enforcement. Maybe Jack Nicholson can resurrect Colonel Nathan R. Jessep from “A Few Good Men” and do a USO tour, checking up on enforcement policy. If you give orders that no one is to touch Santiago, then no one is to touch Santiago. Well, it didn’t work out so well for either Santiago or Jessep, but you get my point. The military can make this work. After all, in the face of Jim Crow, it managed to integrate blacks into the services under Harry Truman’s command.

If you reply that gays and lesbians have no business fighting America’s imperialist wars—an argument I do not dismiss, but do not find persuasive—I tell you that this is a separate matter. A volunteer army must be open to all comers. At such time as we return to the draft, gays and lesbians who do not wish to fight will have to rely on the same moral arguments or pacifism as everyone else. Conscientious objection, like volunteering to serve, must be a privilege and responsibility available in equal measure to all. Till then, I say, give these kids the honor they deserve—for the denial of the right to serve is just one more of America’s ways of keeping LGBT citizens second class. And it is a discussion in the public sphere which young LGBT kids hear all too clearly. It translates: “you aren’t worthy.” Children will listen. I accuse DADT proponents of aiding and abetting the murder of spirit and self-esteem among our LGBT kids. J’accuse ...!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Requiem for Strings

Not since the murder of Matthew Shepard more than a decade ago has the death of a young gay person attracted so much attention as last week’s suicide of Tyler Clementi. In the methods that motivated the boy’s public ‘shaming,’ the tragedy is uniquely one of our times: the video-feed intrusion into the boy’s private sex life by his college roommate; the boy’s discovery of this betrayal, and his roommate’s second attempt to peep into Tyler’s activities; Tyler’s written ruminations on a computer gay-chat site; and the boy’s final decision to jump to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

The ultimate agony belongs to Tyler Clementi’s parents who, with remarkable forbearance and dignity, issued a statement that read in part: “Our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.” They issued their remarks amid a media frenzy and outraged calls for increased legal penalties against the roommate, Dharun Rhavi, and his accomplice—perhaps unwitting—Molly Wei. To a great many people, the simple charge of invasion of privacy seemed inadequate to the horrible consequences that had been set in motion by what may have seemed to the perpetrator(s) nothing more than a prank via video-feed.

In the wake of Tyler Clementi’s suicide, we have learned of some six recent cases of cyber-bullying against gay youth, one as young as thirteen, that also resulted in suicides, thus placing the story in a horrible national context. To my mind, this reveals less the evils of cyberspace and more the moral vacuity of our entire media culture, where nearly everyone feels obligated to broadcast every kernel of his and her existence, and nearly no one thinks this is, to use a nineteenth-century word, unseemly.

To be sure, we discuss many things publicly that no one even fifty years ago would think seemly, and that includes homosexuality. Indeed, one of the more remarkable features of the broadcast coverage of this terrible and sad story was how little was made of Tyler’s being gay, in the sense that although it was the fulcrum of the tragedy that ensued, no television reporter I saw misunderstood the horror the boy felt at being ‘outed’ against his will.

As reported here in New York City, the story I saw was always, and properly, about the terrible betrayal a musically talented and shy teenage boy felt at having his private life invaded, and no one questioned why he would, of course, not wish to have one of his sexual encounters with another man broadcast for all to see. The possibilities, though never enunciated, seemed endless: Perhaps these were his first tentative forays into his sexuality. Perhaps he was not yet out to his parents or relatives. Perhaps, as seems to be the case, he was not out to most living in his college dorm and wasn’t ready for that disclosure. He was, by all accounts, a particularly shy young person, a sensitive and talented violinist, and had not yet established a strong social network in the first week’s of his freshman year at college.

He did have the presence of mind to report this virtual home invasion to Rutgers University where he was in attendance as a freshman, although the exact nature of the college’s response is unclear. And he was self-identified enough as a gay youth to know which gay-chat site to use in order to vent his frustrations and perhaps get some useful feedback.

But it would seem he was too young, too untested and untried in life’s vicissitudes, to have the full register of perspective and fortitude to simply ‘gut out’ what must have felt like the most awful shaming to which he had ever been subjected. No one has been named or come forward as the man with whom he was intimate during that first video entrapment, and for that young man’s sake, we can only hope he will not be forced into the brutal glare of media attention simply to slake our age’s unquenchable thirst for every dirty detail.

If this story shocks the conscience of America, so much the better, but some of us are not so much astonished as deeply dismayed and aggrieved. LGBT youth suicide has long been known to be unacceptably high, and the incidence of bullying at all educational stages has only in the last few years finally been understood to have moved beyond the schoolyard into our children’s homes. I am all for youngsters in grade school having cell phones close to hand in case of emergencies, but I am equally fixed in my belief that both etiquette and the law must keep up with the misuse possible with cell phone cameras and related digital communications. Etiquette is too weak a word for what I mean; if children don’t learn ethics as they relate to private and public behavior, then we are risking the rise of a generation whose moral anomie will pervert our sense of common citizenry.

LGBT youth are and have always been all our children. We must hold the feet to the fire of those politicians who believe they can drape themselves in the flag and make excuses for the inequalities enshrined in law—“don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) a prime example, but then so many others come to mind. Young people internalize the hate messages they hear in the public square; they need to know that others, straight and gay, find them unacceptable. If it were only the outrages of a Fred Phelps with his sick demonstrations at the funerals of American soldiers, it would be bad enough. That demented devil is so over the top as to seem as hysterical as Father Coughlin was toward the Jews in the 1930s. Alas, worse are the not so subtle betrayals of our LGBT youth by "respectable" public figures like Senator John McCain, for whom DADT is merely a political football to be played to whatever goal line works best for the Republican Party.

But let us not lose sight of Tyler Clementi, a boy whose loneliness in those last hours must have felt inconsolable. Yes, we have anti-bullying media campaigns under way, like Dan Savage’s which presents queer celebs and achievers tell in a series of short videos how they were once bullied but have been able to move past it—how their adult life has gotten better and they are doing what they were always meant to do. I don’t mean to dismiss these out of hand, but ironically, they enforce the fake intimacy our young people mistake for the real thing. I wonder how effective these will be. It seems to me that in the absence of real personal support with adult authorities both gay and straight, and in the absence of institutions assuming the responsibility of in loco parentis, and in the absence of serious penalties for bullying of all kinds, lonely queer kids under extraordinary peer pressure will continue to have their self-esteem steamrolled, crushed, replaced by an overwhelming sense of shame. Their emotions will be pulled taut as a string. A violin string. And tightened just ever so much too much—they snap.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


The news from The Atlantic Online is that President Bush’s 2004 campaign manager and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, has come out. That’s right; he’s gay. Yet reading Marc Ambinder’s article forces me to come to a brutal conclusion: I’m not a nice person. If I were nice, I’d have a more sympathetic reaction to Mehlman’s statement:

"It's taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life ... Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey, and for me, over the past few months, I've told my family, friends, former colleagues, and current colleagues, and they've been wonderful and supportive. The process has been something that's made me a happier and better person. It's something I wish I had done years ago."

Instead, I want to scream: what took you so f***ing long? (And by the way, everybody has his own path and her own journey.)

This means that six years ago, when Ken Mehlman was running Bush’s campaign and was thirty-seven years old, well beyond the age of reason, he proceeded as if he was unaware of the Republican Party’s longstanding history of anti-gay posturing, its anti-black Southern Strategy, and its AIDS-phobic culture wars against LGBT artists. He managed to ignore the party’s Let’s-Use-Every-Social-Wedge-Issue-We-Can-Find-To-Cynically-Round-Up-Votes politics. With specific reference to LGBT issues, as Marc Ambinder writes, “[Mehlman’s] tenure as RNC chairman and his time at the center of the Bush political machine coincided with the Republican Party's attempts to exploit anti-gay prejudices and cement the allegiance of social conservatives.”

So now we are being asked to find Mehlman’s personal plight as a public figure at war within himself to be the occasion for a generous welcome to the fold of the LGBT community. Indeed, he is now working against California’s Proposition 8 on behalf of the American Foundation for Equal Rights. Apparently, he has become a “de facto strategist for the group” and has “opened his rolodex” to connect AFER with GOP donors. Gee, it’s such a big-tent party.

But in 2004, when Mehlman was thirty-seven, apparently still struggling with his sexual identity, he didn’t recognize any solidarity with the pain of young men and women a decade or two younger than he was, and with even less experience of life, whose parents, cheered on by a Republican party eager to throw verbal stones at sexual minorities, used God and religion to vilify their own children and make them feel like strangers in their own communities. In other words, despite his professed sexual confusion at the time, he still believed he had wisdom enough to run a presidential campaign and advise other people to vote for the head of a Republican party whose best record on Civil Rights probably ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Mehlman claims that President Bush “was no homophobe.” What a comfort. But was Bush willing to speak against the anti-gay virus which had infected his party in all matters, from national AIDS policy to “don’t ask, don’t tell” to marriage equality to free speech rights for artists in the LGBT community?

Ambinder tells us that Mehlman is now living in “Chelsea, a gay mecca in New York City.” And his new gay friends in the higher echelons are egging him on in his new identity as a gay advocate. According to the Atlantic article, Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award winning screenwriter of Milk, said, "Ken represents an incredible coup for the American Foundation for Equal Rights. We believe that our mission of equal rights under the law is one that should resonate with every American. As a victorious former presidential campaign manager and head of the Republican Party, Ken has the proven experience and expertise to help us communicate with people across each of the 50 states."

Excuse me while I frow up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


What does the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” have to do with LGBT rights? I am certainly in dispute with fundamental Islamic precepts on homosexuality, gender roles, and the rights of women. There have been several prominent cases in the recent past where local Islamic counsels and courts, or national governments in the Middle East, have revealed a total disregard for the rights of gay men, women accused of adultery, and young girls seeking an education. To say nothing of female children subjected to genital mutilation as part of indigenous local custom. But I hope we can agree that in this country, we hold sacrosanct the right to worship one's religion freely.

Apparently, not so much anymore. The sensitivities of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 demand that nothing mar the sacred space that is the last site of the 2,751 men, women, and children who died there. A mosque “in the shadow of” Ground Zero is, in the minds of some, a desecration of hallowed ground.

The arguments in support of the “mosque” do not hold the same emotional resonance as those above, and the right-wing punditry and politicians are happy to parlay the genuine heartache of surviving families into fundraising heaven.

The following facts don’t rouse the populace to defend the Constitution above all else: The mosque in question is both not a “mosque” and not at Ground Zero. It is an Islamic cultural center in which prayer space will be but a part of the entire complex with library and swimming pool.1 As for its being at Ground Zero, it is two blocks away. This means, at least in the densely packed neighborhood in question, that a vast number of other businesses will be closer to the hallowed ground over which people like Newt Gingrich cry crocodile tears. The men’s clothing emporium, Century 21, for example, will survey the quiet and ordered calm of the commemorative spot. Deep discounts on suits and underwear will beckon tourists on their way from moments of quiet contemplation. Surely there is a New York deli/bodega situated somewhere closer to the Ground Zero that developers took years to negotiate than will the Cordoba Center, as the proposed Islamic cultural center is named (although the more innocuous Park51 is now usurping even that nomenclature). "A bagel with cream cheese, thank you," and some young prospective titan of industry will be on his way to his hedge-fund company high in the sky of one of the office buildings on the perimeter of the sacred space.

Somehow, making money will easily co-exist with the spot on which a murderous band of Islamic fundamentalists killed citizens of many countries. Indeed, the majority of them were American--but some were also Muslim. And yet, the Cordoba Center near Ground Zero is the one “business” expected to be exempted from lots of real estate anywhere in the vicinity by those draped in the American flag. Thankfully, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has stood for first principles and defended the Islamic Center's construction on the site of a building the Landmarks Preservation Committee refused to designate a "landmark" just to satisfy obstructionists.

Here are just the first of the Center's "dangerous" stated goals:

Uphold respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people

Cultivate and embrace neighborly relations between all New Yorkers, fostering a spirit of civic participation and an awareness of common needs and opportunities

Encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance to New Yorkers, Americans and the
international reality of our interconnected planet

Revive the historic Muslim tradition of education, engagement and service, becoming a resource for
empowerment and advancement

Now, unless someone proves this is all just a front for planning the next terrorist attack in the Big Apple, we ought to be lauding, not slandering, their efforts at dialogue and establishing a moderating Islamic influence in the city where the worst face of Islam showed itself.

So, to return to this blogger’s basic question: what does any of this have to do with the LGBT community? Well, even the august Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has seen fit to side against the “mosque,” not out of any animus towards Muslims—indeed it has on many occasions forcefully spoken out against anti-Muslim prejudice--but out of a heightened sensitivity to those 9/11 survivors who have had their emotions manipulated by those making political hay over this matter. Said ADL’s National Director, Abe Foxman, "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

In other words, their irrationality and/or bigotry gets a free pass. Tell me, is there no way to square deep respect and sympathy for their anguish with the Bill of Right’s First Amendment?

Because if there isn’t a way to acknowledge their pain and yet say, despite this, that it is also our sacred duty to uphold the most essential founding principles of this nation, then guess what? The next time an LGBT center is being built in a part of this city or any other and some group of citizens is deeply offended that queers are to inhabit their turf, who will stand with us on the basis of our right to free expression? True, an LGBT center is not a house of worship, but planning to build one can raise all the same objections as the Cordoba Center has. Perhaps the LGBT center will be situated too close to a public school, too close to a Roman Catholic Church, too close to your Orthodox Jewish grandparents’ cemetery?

And don’t ya just love all those reptilian right-wing politicos who have taken such an interest in the uses of real estate in New York City, the city they were once happy to tell to go “Drop Dead” in the midst of our financial crisis of the 1970s? To them, we were the Gomorrah of the East Coast to San Francisco’s Sodom. It’s so nice to know they care. They really care.

1. The Cordoba Center’s website describes the facilities of The Community Center at Park51 as follows:

•outstanding recreation spaces and fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court)
•a 500-seat auditorium
•a restaurant and culinary school
•cultural amenities including exhibitions
•education programs
•a library, reading room and art studios
•childcare services
•a mosque, intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
•a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all

Thursday, August 5, 2010


There may have been dancing in the streets after U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker declared California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional, but the media I viewed seemed instantly caught up in reporting that the proponents of Prop 8 were certainly going to appeal. The anchors on the major networks and cable can’t resist reporting everything like a gladiatorial fight. If someone is for, someone else must be against. If the gays and lesbians win one round, they will face defeat in the next.

What was missing in so much of the reporting I saw was any sense of the breadth of Judge Walker’s opinion. It is striking in its thoroughness. It’s Findings of Fact run over 50 pages, detailing reports of psychologists, sociologists, and historians. These findings give evidence of continued discrimination against gays and lesbians while, at the same time, affirming that same-sex couples are substantially the same as different-sexed ones. The children of same-sex couples do as well or better than those of straights. Gays and lesbians are productive members of society, but discrimination against them adds serious stress to their lives. Hate crimes against gays and lesbians have not abated, and they are often likely to be violent in nature. “Domestic partnerships” are by any measure seen as distinctively less than “marriage.” On the basis of studies in Massachusetts, there is no evidence that marriage equality for same-sex couples has affected the rate of traditional marriage, divorce, or out-of-wedlock births in that state.

You would think a few of these findings might find their way onto the airwaves, but no. The broadcasters are too interested in the really sexy issue of how quickly Judge Walker stayed his own decision and how fast the Prop 8-ers filed their appeal. That Judge Walker dismantled the internally contradictory evidence of the Prop-8 defendants is hardly mentioned, unless you are watching Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann. You know, the biased liberal media.

The larger point is this: news coverage in America is, with rare exception, superficial, biased not necessarily right nor left but in favor of conflict and sound bites, which is necessarily a reactionary mode. Those who are in the LGBT community—like those in other minority communities—learn the lesson that we can hardly expect the media to represent us credibly. Television is a visual medium: easier to get pictures of us dancing in the streets celebrating a still premature victory than to explain the rigorous argument of a U.S. District Chief Judge for the Northern District of California that “Proposition 8 is unconstitutional under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.” That would require explaining the meaning of those terms, the history of the 14th Amendment in which those terms are inscribed, and crediting moral weight to the LGBT movement. This last would be in contradistinction to the high-horse morality of people who pretend no animus toward gay people but do everything in their power to deny us daily dignity. Think of all those Republican Senators (Jeff Sessions, anyone?) who raked Elena Kagan over the coals because she disputed the military presence on the Harvard campus over “don’t ask, don’t tell” which was an affront to Harvard’s own LGBT anti-discrimination policies.

Oh, dear. I write all this and I don’t even think marriage is such a sacrosanct institution in the first place—but I sure can smell a rat when an option is denied me because I’m light in the loafers.

For the full decision, go to this New York Times site:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Mess of Sex, the Dance of Death

Inter faeces et urinam nascimur
We are born between the piss and shit

Saint Augustine

The news out of South Africa—I’m not talking about the World Cup—is promising if not yet definitive: a vaginal microbicide gel containing a retroviral drug used to treat AIDS has been shown to be effective in blocking transmission of the H.I.V. virus. A two-and-a-half year study of nearly 900 women showed that those used the gel with consistency reduced their rate of infection by nearly 54 percent.

What is exciting about this news, including the fact that the drug is not expected to be expensive, is that it will give women, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and other locales where poverty denies them power, greater control over their own health. They will not need “permission” from their husbands or lovers to vaginally apply the topical gel 12 hours before having sex; intercourse will not have to be stopped, the man will not have to be wheedled into using a condom, and the dark cloud of sexual health will not have to intrude on the moonlight of “romance.”

Indeed, those who apply the gel on a daily basis will have even greater overall protection. But as I read about this report in The New York Times, and as I watched the PBS Newshour where Dr. Anthony Fauci (Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) was interviewed by Margaret Warner about this latest development in the long war against AIDS, I couldn’t help thinking how pernicious are our sentimentally seductive notions about sex as life’s great elixir. Yes, it may well be. But sex is also damned messy.

Our movies never show the mess—the condoms and gels, the intrauterine devices, the towels, the occasional accidents, the wiping up after—so it is hopeless to expect that our television programming will. This, to say nothing of negotiating the responsibility for who buys which products. And that’s just for couples in relationships. Think of how much harder it is when we are in thrall to impulsive moments with one-night stands; men and men as much as men and women, or women with women for that matter, must learn by trial and error how to get over the communication hump before the desire to hump goes ... soft. (A phallocentric way to put it, I know. I beg the forgiveness of women readers.)

All such secret knowledge is taken to be assumed by the adults in the audience, and is withheld from our children at first to protect their innocence, and then to protect us from our embarrassment when we know their innocence is soon to be plucked. I hardly ask for grade schoolers to know the varied uses of KY, but if we are in fact interested in seeing our children adopt responsible attitudes toward sexual pleasure, then we need to wipe the romantic mist from our own eyes.

It’s not that condoms never make an appearance in the movies. But if they do, they are usually a comic device in a teen comedy, a sly reference to STD and pregnancy prevention that signals some basic sense of duty on the part of the loopy kids on screen. Do we ever see anyone actually applying a condom—or at least talking about it while the camera looks elsewhere? Well, yes: Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl miscommunicate about using a rubber in Knocked Up! And tell me, if Ellen Page in Juno was such a wise, world-weary teenager—a Thelma Ritter of the suburban high-school set—how come she didn’t know how not to get knocked up?

We are nearly into the fourth decade of a sexually transmitted pandemic and the last thing our public media wishes to address is the specifics of prevention. It’s not glamorous. Oh, sure, it’s fine for teenagers to watch their silver-screen-stand-ins be bitten by vampires—our current AIDS metaphor in the Twilight series and HBO’s True Blood—but who wants to have these same pretty protagonists dealing with spermicidal gels or ribbed Trojans being put on wrong side out? (Well, if they ever get around to actual sex.) In gay coupling on screen, neither in our DVD pornography nor in our indie flicks, when was the last time one man literally “fucked the shit” out of another, with the consequence of a slightly harried, and perhaps even hilarious, clean up campaign?

The mess of sex is all too human. We are born between the piss and shit. And until we are capable of depicting this, or candidly discussing it, in our narrative art forms—our TV shows and our movies and our novels and our public service announcements—then we are not going to see a sufficiently robust response to the AIDS pandemic which has created orphans in Africa, seen a generation of gay men in their prime disappear, and become a cultural and political fault line wherever religious moralizers and right-wing zealots combine in a Devil’s dance over the graves of the dead.

To read further on the scientific study in The New York Times: