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Equality Forum’s History Panel: Spotlight on Religion

May 1st, 2010 3 comments

Social justice

You couldn’t swing a rainbow cat at Equality Forum’s History Panel without hearing that phrase. In fact, social justice has been one of the recurring themes at the panels I’ve attended so far, suggesting that the movement is entering a newer, more mature phase and looking toward the day when we can move beyond the identity politics that circumstances have required of us to date.

Of course, one is entitled to expect that the panel of religious leaders would emphasize social justice, and the LGBT rights movement within that context. Although some misguided religious folks seem to spend most of their time on the attack against everything from our community to Obamacare to women’s reproductive rights, any religion (or part thereof) that takes its founding messages to heart invests both belief and blood in ameliorating the difficult conditions in which many people live.

But I was nonetheless heartened (not quite amazed, but…) at the panelists’ willingness to be as direct and forceful as they were. Perhaps the most progressive of the lot were Timothy Safford, who is the Rector at the historic Christ Church Episcopal Church in Old City, Philadelphia. I’ve been there. Two of our closest friends are congregants, and when my partner David had the honor of being named godfather to their second child we attended the baptism. Safford, who’s straight and married, will be one of the three officiants at tomorrow’s blessing of some 100 same-sex unions.

The Episcopalians, of course, are known and celebrated (well, by some) for their progressive stand on women’s issues and for being increasingly welcoming to the LGB (and, to a lessser extent) T community.  Safford and his gay twin (at least as far as dress was concerned — they looked as though they’d decided to confuse us by selecting almost identical clothing for the event) Rodger Broadley, Rector at St. Luke and the Epiphany, had a nice sort of back and forth on issues ranging from the debt the LGBT movement owes to the women’s movement (Safford is particularly eloquent on this point), and on the on-going struggles between the U.S. church and the “home office” back in Britain. With a second gay (lesbian, in this case) bishop to be ordained soon in L.A., both men expect that the U.S. church will be “voted off the island” and made to forge ahead, alone. But that didn’t seem to trouble them, and — oddly, to some — they thought it important not to walk away from the table no matter how exasperated and angry they became. Safford expressly decried his own “moderation” in supporting the compromise reached a few years ago, by which Bishop Gene Robinson’s ordination was “traded” for a promise to ordain no more openly gay or lesbian clergy. As Broadley so movingly put it: “Who are we to tell God who can serve?”

Approaching issues of history and faith from a more academic perspective was L.A. Rabbi Denise Eger. She explained the evolution of the various movements (less formally, “branches”) of Judaism on LGBT issues; as might be expected, the Reform and Reconstructionist sects embraced their LGBT fellow worshippers decades ago, with Conservative Judaism by now fairly far along on that path. She also mentioned that even the Orthodox branch had recently begun discussing our issues, and not in the kind of negative dismissive way that might have been the case earlier, but in a real effort to come to terms with the reality that can no longer be ignored.

Interfaith matters are an area of special interest to Eger, and she described the efforts of a female Muslim cleric in L.A. who is now trying to apply reform principles to that religion. Her comment reminded me that all four of the panelists — as good as they were — represented only the Judeo-Christian tradition. The panel would have been even more compelling had it showcased clergy from Eastern religions.

Rounding out the panel was Francis DeBernardo, who is Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, which has been described as a “national Catholic ministry of justice and reconciliation for lesbian and gay Catholics. I’ll confess that I have trouble understanding why anyone who identifies as LGBT would consider himself or herself Catholic, but that’s my issue. Obviously, not all Catholics (in the U.S. or elsewhere) follow every pronouncement from the Vatican, and many see the Church’s undeniable good works (social justice, again, at least for the poor and the sick) as reason enough to stay. Thinking of what’s going on at the very top of the Church hierarchy these days (do I really need a link here, people?), DeBernardo said that reform within the Church has come at precisely those times when the Vatican leadership seems most ossified and out of touch. Perhaps the Church can get out of the sucking vortex that’s pulling it down, but I doubt it.

———

This post is a bit later than promised. I ended up attending the Tribute to Brian Sanders last night, staying out late, and then running from event to event today. The good news is that I’ve got tons to write about, and will be busy doing it well into next week.

BTW, the interview I did with David Boies earlier tonight will run on 365gay.com, not here — although of course I’ll provide a link and a summary when it posts.

Sex-Deprived Kenyan v. Lysistrata’s Daughters, NGO

May 9th, 2009 1 comment

I find myself unduly interested in the sex life of a Kenyan man.

A while ago, I compared the political courage of Liberian women to the moxie shown by Lysistrata and company. Lysistrata, a creation of the comic playwright Aristophanes, was an Athenian woman who led her Greek sisters in a sex boycott until the men stopped their childish and destructive Peloponnesian War. The brave women of Liberia didn’t withhold sex (any more than usual, I guess) but put themselves in harm’s way to make their point.

But the comparison I drew pales beside the real thing: Since I posted that story, Kenyan women were urged to follow Lysistrata more literally — by withholding sex. The difference is that the scales are now balanced by a different concern on the other side; the increasingly fractured coalition government in Kenya. How riveting! If women are going to withhold sex because political parties can’t get along, expect an immediate and permanent decline in the U.S. population.

Perhaps in recognition of the stakes’ being less dramatic than those raised by the Peloponnesian War, the women’s groups organizing this “boy”cott called only for a one-week moratorium on the conjugal act. As far as I know, the groups issued no detailed regulations as to what counted as forbidden sex for purposes of satisfying the moratorium. Former President Clinton could have driven a truck, inter alia, through that lack of precision.

Apparently, though, even that ill-defined, short-duration prohibition was enough to drive one James Kimondo into a litigious frenzy (and perhaps other frenzies). According to this story, he has now filed what would once have been called, at least in the U.S., an “alienation of affections” claim against an entity called the G-10, a sort of collective that houses a group of women’s activist groups. His lawyer said that the suit alleges that the ban “resulted in stress, mental anguish, backaches and lack of sleep.” (Backaches?)

The tort of alienation of affections is mostly a relic today. Its gist is that a third party’s meddling caused a husband (always a husband, of course) to lose the “affection” (sex, mostly) of his wife. It didn’t require adultery, because the idea, to quote Norma Rae, was that the intruder was “in [her] ha-id “(“head,” in Standard English). The tort has little traction in our age and culture, where women are believed to be “people” —  capable of deciding for themselves, thank you, whether to alienate themselves from their husbands. Along the same lines, sort of, men are no longer allowed to rape their wives, either. Male privilege has waned as female autonomy has waxed.

Speaking of waxing (or its absence), Kimondo’s lawyer must believe that his client’s inability to obtain such waxing for his naughty bits still has some legal merit in Kenya. Maybe it does, which would thereby suggest that women have yet to gain the same status there as here — the activists overcame his wife’s fragile will, poor thing. They are to blame, not her. This position is inherently unstable, though, because it changes the alienation of affections narrative to render it self-contradictory. The tort only works if men are the ones o’erbearing frail female will, not if it’s a sister-to-sister thing. Then, who’s empowered as between this woman and these activists? Who can say?

Naturally, I’d like the case to proceed so we can learn about the couple’s sex life, which Kimondo has decided he’s willing to put on display for a possible payday. And how big a bonanza is possible, really, from a week’s worth of missed sex? Admit it — by now you want the details, too.

Joe’s Journey

May 8th, 2009 No comments

I’d hardly intended to begin a journey-themed series of posts, but I welcomed this title with “open arms” when I received my door prize yesterday: a coffee table book, “Joe’s Journey,” about the 47th Vice-President of the United States. This lovely parting gift, to use the parlance of game shows gone by, was bestowed on the 500 or so of us who’d attended Joe Biden’s return to Delaware yesterday. As Delaware’s first vice-president — a long time coming, considering that it holds the distinction as “the first state” — the six-plus-term Senator was given the “History Makers Award” by the Delaware Historical Society.1

My attendance at yesterday’s gala luncheon (albeit in a room illuminated to invoke a nightclub’s ambience) was one of the l’il benefits of having been a colleague of the veep’s; to use the term “colleague” very broadly. (Biden and a full-time faculty member co-taught a course in constitutional law at Widener on Saturdays for many years.) Another benefit  is that I can prove I was there:

biden award group

(See? I’m third from the left. Biden’s the one with his hands on the shoulders of the Dean, Linda Ammons. Note the inky black background; I was serious about the nightclub comment.)

The event started out with a cocktail hour — at 10:30 am! This is early, even for me, and it was a real cocktail party– no coffee, just drinks. So I had a bloody Mary, then another, then another, then another.2 By now it was 10:35 and I was wondering what I was going to do until lunch. At about 11:30, a cry went up as the VP entered the enormous room and was quickly surrounded by throngs of adoring admirers. Biden really is loved in Delaware, but he must have been taken aback (he never seems ill-at-ease, though) by the uptick in adoration since changing jobs. He could barely move.

The lunch finally began. Valerie Biden Owens, sister to The Man a Heartbeat from the Presidency, showed that eloquence and public grace were distributed abundantly to the Biden family. Without announcing what she was doing, she began mentioning a series of little moments — quickly it became apparent they were from her brother’s life as a public servant — actions, she said, that “were gathered up and stacked on top of each other over many years” to describe and (in so doing) honor her brother. One that stuck was the image of Biden racing for the train to Washington, but looking back in parting to his family. “Am I here, or there?” cries the perplexed protagonist in a Hawthorne short story. The thirty-six years of Amtrak commuting must at times have made him ask that question. And the importance of that train ride resurfaced, as you’ll see.

Then Biden fairly raced up the stairs, to a standing-ovation homecoming.3 Roughly, his speech divided  into two parts. The second part, while eloquent and inspiring for the political speech genre, wasn’t as moving or heartfelt as the first. That’s where Biden spoke to his homies in a voice from deep within. Whatever role speechwriters may have played, the personal message and feeling broke though. He began with a brother’s loving but playful tribute to his sister, saying that, while he’d heard her speak many times before, he’d “never heard her so loving.”

He then told a story that visibly moved him, and furthered deepened his connection to the audience. When asked to consider the most significant moment in his many years of political life, he had no hesitation. “Without a doubt,” he said, it had been the train ride from his native Wilmington to D.C., on the Saturday before the inauguration. In sight of the Third Street Bridge, he’d thought back to many years ago, when, as a young man, he’d been the only white employee at the pool located on the other side of that bridge. This, in turn, reminded him of the segregated society in which he’d grown up. And now, here he was, just about forty years later, boarding train to Washington with our nation’s first African-American President, with whom he was lucky enough to work. Reciting this story  was almost more than he could emotionally bear.

Biden’s reputation as a “gaffe machine” is probably deserved (and came out of hibernation recently with his impolitic and biologically inaccurate remarks about the flu), but anyone who hears Biden in full flight understands that  “gaffes” are the inevitable flip side to a kind of authenticity and honesty rarely approached by our political figures. It’s “small wonder” Delawarans have loved this guy for so long.

  1. Of course you’re wondering: But has Delaware ever sent a President to Washington? I didn’t know whether the fact that the question didn’t come up yesterday meant anything (if Delaware had sent, say, FDR and three other guys to the White House, it might have made the historical first celebrated yesterday accurate but…odd). But no, there have been no Presidents from this three-county state that touts itself, variously, as “The First State” (good), “The Diamond State” (inexplicable), “Small Wonder” (cloying), and… “The Home of Tax-Free Shopping” (practical, anyway). When it added this last nickname, Delaware surely claimed an additional distinction as the only state with more sobriquets than counties. But you don’t necessarily want a President from your state in any case: Just ask Iowans, who still look at the ground and absently kick pebbles when anyone mentions native son Herbert Hoover.
  2. Not really.
  3. I’m omitting extended discussion of the gauzy biopic that preceded Biden. Perhaps the book and a DVD can be packaged and wrapped together for future events.

Equality Forum Day 1: From VIP Kickoff to the Margins

April 27th, 2009 2 comments

Imagine this life: You’re not safe at school. The very sight of you makes people uncomfortable, sometimes angry. Your family disowns you, but no one else will adopt  you or take you in for foster care. Without mooring, and unsure of your own identity, you turn to drugs and alcohol, perhaps landing in jail. You can’t find a “legit” job, so sex work becomes your “best” option. You contract HIV, or Hepatitis, but have no access to health care to pay for your treatment. Low-level bureacrats decide whether to honor your chosen gender on identity documents, making routine transactions an occasion for recurring humiliation.

This nightmare is reality for many transgendered people. Even the “mainstream” gay and lesbian community has only recently begun to wake up and recognize these realities. The National Transgender Panel — significantly, the first substantive program of this year’s Equality  Forum — was an energizing, often moving conversation about the legal, social, and political obstacles that block the full citizenship and dignity of the transgender community. Indeed, the story told  above was pieced together from the comments made by both panelists and audience members, whose input the panelists constantly sought — and received in effective abundance.

The panelists, themselves all members of the community, spoke authoritatively about legal issues (Benjamin Jerner); the national political landscape (Kathy Padilla) and the hugely complex public health challenges faced by this community (Ben Singer).

Perhaps because of my own interest in public health and the legal issues relating to it, I  found Singer’s presentation particularly compelling. He’s a smart activist who understands the need for data-driven results; as he puts it, if you’re not on the public health radar (and you get there by showing a problem affecting a population), you don’t exist. But the issues facing the transgender community are more than a “blip” on any morally defensible radar; they amount to an on-going emergency. A few of the sobering examples confronting this community will have to suffice here: (1) Violence against them is epidemic, and the situation becomes graver as the categories of oppression pile up. Thus, transgendered women of color are at the greatest risk. (2) HIV/AIDS are at levels otherwise associated with sub-Saharan Africa. (3)The community faces high levels of medical uninsurance, a problem connected to joblessness and homelessness, themselves endemic.

Against this backdrop,  many of the issues of formal equality that many of us (including your humble blogger) most often concern ourselves with seem less vital. Really, do you think people facing the kinds of issues I’ve just mentioned have marriage equality on their plate? Again, Singer:  “We talk more about these grand legal issues and not these other ones.”

But “these other” issues were thoroughly chewed over — by the audience. In a wonderfully  generous move, Singer invited the audience to answer a question about the kinds of problems routinely faced by transgendered youth. The answers should pain any person with a halfway developed sense of empathy. One young woman was thrown out of her home and not adoptable. A young man ended up abusing drugs and doing time in prison. Several regarded every day of school as a kind of torture. Of course, any kid growing up gay — or different in any way, really — can share painful experiences. But these really did seem different in kind, not  just degree.

“Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.”

Yet not all transgendered people are in the desperate situation Singer describes, and, for some at least, it would be very helpful if the state were to grant them basic legal rights, including the recognition of their marriage. Jerner discussed a case with which I’m familiar, in which the Kansas Supreme Court idiotically declared null a long-term marriage between an opposite-sex couple (where the wife had been born a male), thereby disinheriting the surviving spouse in favor of an evil offspring. Although I have a quibble with his reading of the case,1 his point about the need for legal remedy is sound.

The panel ran over time. The audience was large; about 100, I’d guess, many of them young, bright activists.  They didn’t seem to want it to end, and that’s not surprising. There was a great deal to be said. Afterwards, I had a chance to speak to Singer, Padilla, and moderator Joelle Ruby Ryan, a warm and gentle giantess who ran an open and generous forum. Singer and Padilla are very interested in the untold story of transgender activism (newsflash: Stonewall wasn’t the first time members of the GLBT community rose up in protest). Padilla showed me some of her materials, and I’m sure I’m only one of many encouraging her to turn these into a book, or at least a long article. In the meantime, I’m hoping to do a follow-up blog on this issue of the history of transgender resistance — with help from Singer and Padilla,  who are enthused, knowledgeable, and in possession of all kinds stuff that’s by turns really cool and very moving.

I couldn’t have asked for a better blogging assignment to get me excited about the rest of the week.

———

Before this amazing panel, Equality Forum kicked off, as always, with the VIP Party in City Hall. This year’s event was staged, aptly, in the grand Conversation Hall. Probably a couple of hundred folks were VI enough to have garnered invitations, and most of the people I spoke to were impressive leaders of various organizations, or were directly involved with Equality Forum.

Dwight Evans, the Pa. State Representative who received a distinguished service award for his legislative efforts on behalf of the LGBT community, is a gregarious man with an expansive view of equality and opportunity. His charter school has been around for more than a decade, and he’s been a consistent advocate for GLBT rights in Harrisburg, where  the political winds don’t reliably blow in a favorable direction. I enjoyed a brief conversation with him, in which he showed himself to be a member of a rare and beautiful species: the pol without affect. His view of equality? “You don’t have to convince me.” His acceptance speech spoke to the need to “get past typical barriers and walls,” and concluded, quite sensibly (yet somehow movingly) with: “Thanks. And let’s move on.”

Also effective was Mayor Michael Nutter, the poor guy stuck with a job that no reasonable person would have taken had he known of the economic collapse to visit the city within nanoseconds of his inauguration. On radio, he comes across as bright and logical, but a bit stiff. In person, he’s witty and relaxed – but just as compelling. The short: He’s on our side. And Equality Forum founder and Executive Director Malcolm Lazin, to whom I must give props for giving me this “forum” to blog about the event, closed the proceedings with an inspiring call to take part in this Sunday’s Equality Rally and March, linking these events to a courageous march here in Philadelphia forty years ago led by gay pioneers Frank Kameny and the late Barbara Gittings. Very effective — now let’s hope the event is the success it needs to be.

Well, it’s late and I’m almost blogged out. But here’s a light moment from the Kickoff Party. Having just speared an unwilling olive after a too-epic struggle at the hors d’oeuvres table, I was standing near it (catching my breath), when a jovial fellow spun around and bumped into me. He was so apologetic that I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d sent my only olive spinning out of my hand and through the air. I was reminded of the Seinfeld “Junior Mint” episode, and only hoped that the escaped refreshment hadn’t had a similarly calamitous result. Alas, I believe (but do not know for sure) that it landed in a scoop of perfect, high hair — unknown to the “victim.” If so, I’d like it back. No questions will be asked.

  1. He says the court declared that transgendered people couldn’t marry anyone — I think that reading is possible but not compelled. The case is In re Estate of Gardiner,42 P.3d 120 (Kan. 2002).

The Invention of Air(!)

March 31st, 2009 No comments

Reading about the Revolutionary War, the “Founding Fathers,” and the political insights and courage of those times can be numbing. The creaky mythologies that surround our forebears’ efforts (on our behalf, naturally) can become suffocating to the point that one only wants to hear about, or visit, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, or even the very cleverly designed, state-of-the-art Constitution Center when there’s some independent reason for doing so: out-of-town visitors, educating your young children — whatever.

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air is a mostly successful effort to, well, breathe new life into these men (women rate barely a mention, even for Johnson). Focusing on a (now) little-known polymath of the period, Joseph Priestley, Johnson cheerfully illuminates the intellectual vigor of the time. Priestley was a rock star in three areas: science; politics; and religion. But, of course, his more famous contemporaries also straddled fields — Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin come to mind as men whose contributions to science and invention rivaled their importance in our political history and development.

But by homing in on Priestley, Johnson encourages us to take a fresh look at this period and the climate that fostered the political developments that we now tend to look at in isolation. In so doing, the author reveals himself to be a master at synthesis of seemingly unrelated developments. For example, the introduction of coffee supplanted the centuries-old preferred drink — alcohol. When people move from booze to caffeine, they tend to get smarter. And Starbuck’s and its jealous imitators are but distant (dismal?) echoes of the coffee-house societies that sprang up soon after coffee reached London. The Club of Honest Whigs that counted both Priestley and Franklin among its members was the best-known of these, and was fertile ground not only for the sharing of scientific information but also for spirited debates about religion.

So, what did Priestley actually accomplish? Well, you’ll have to read the book to get a full sense of his field-hopping genius.1 But, among other things, Priestley was:

  • an amateur scientist who wrote a book on electricity that popularized the field and became the standard reference work (he also was largely responsible for the mythological status granted Franklin’s kite-flying experiment)2
  • a theological “heretic” who questioned the divinity of Christ, the existence of the Trinity, and founded the Unitarian Church;
  • a politician so vocal that he was first driven out of his native England and then, because of his strong political opposition to John Adams (both before and after the signing of the evil Alien and Sedition Acts), once again a political pariah.

Well, so what? Johnson is a gifted enough writer that he can deliver insight without (too often) being blatant about doing so. And there are several good take-away points here. First, I think the Priestley story, seen within the context of the fragile liberty in the early day of the Republic, is a reminder that patriotism assumes its highest form when it is critical of government — not when it moves slavishly behind it.

Second, the tendency towards ever-greater specialization comes at a cost: These intellectually curious men of the time were effective and influential in a number of fields at the same time, and the cross-fertilization doubtless helped their thought processes.

Third, the protection of intellectual property comes with a price. Priestley and other scientists of the time were the spiritual forebears of the open-source internet, freely sharing information for the collective benefit.

If you’re looking for a fresh perspective on these times, this is a book I’d recommend.

  1. I recommend the book highly. Johnson is an engaging writer, if not an especially disciplined one, who isn’t shy about tying his observations about his subjects to broader conclusions about how social trends and technological advances enable the flowering of intellectual virtuosity at different points in history.
  2. Did he also “invent air”? Read the book and find out!
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