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Equality Forum Update

April 30th, 2010 No comments

Posts to come:

Early tonight or tomorrow morning: History panel.

Tomorrow evening: Recap of Saturday panels (conversation with Dan Choi; discussion with LGBT folks appointed by Obama Administration).

Sunday: Interview with David Boies (litigating marriage equality case with Theodore Olson; of Bush v. Gore “fame”).

Monday: Recap of Sunday out, including same-sex commitment ceremonies.

I’m also hoping to interview Brian Sims, who was a big hit at the Sports Panel last night.

————

Of course, this is subject to change….

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National Legal Panel at Equality Forum: Opening Wide for a Fire Hose of Information

April 29th, 2010 No comments

Did Lambda Legal’s Executive Director, Kevin Cathcart, really “start the LGBT movement for legal rights,” as National Law Panel moderator Brad Sears playfully suggested at the opening of last night’s Equality Forum event?

If he didn’t, he certainly has a deep understanding of what most people think of as the legal “movement” – the litigation that’s been waged for the past several decades in an effort to give LGBT people liberty and equality. Cathcart and Sears, who is Executive Director of the Williams Institute, the LGBT think tank at UCLA School of Law, were half of a predictably stellarly credentialed and excellent panel that’s always a well-attended highlight of Equality Forum. (I’d guess there were easily 100 people present for the discussion).

Sears, who certainly could have added much of substance himself, rarely used his prerogative to do so and instead devoted himself to effective moderating. On the one occasion that he stepped out of role, it was to commend the Obama Administration for “taking a chip out of DOMA” by making a real effort at counting LGBT households in the current census.

Cathcart, of course, focused mostly on the impact litigation that Lambda currently has underway. Among the highlights is a recently filed case in New Jersey, asking the state’s supreme court to declare that the civil union compromise they had permitted several years ago doesn’t confer true equality, and that full marriage rights are therefore needed.  There’s also a case in the court of appeals asking whether the DC marriage equality law can be placed on the ballot, and another in Hawaii asking the court to recognize civil unions for LGBT couples (since a constitutional amendment in that state prohibits full marriage equality).

During a second round of questions focusing on emerging issues, Cathcart found himself in a good mood after yesterday’s oral argument before the US. Supreme Court in Doe v. Reed, in which the losing side in the recent Washington State ballot initiative to remove full domestic partnership rights for gay couples sought to keep private the signatures on the ballot petitions.

“Butch up!”, Cathcart said in summarizing “Justice” Scalia’s reaction to the side that sought privacy. Politics is rough and tumble, and if you’re signing ballot petitions, you should expect some criticism. No big deal.

In this woe-is-us context, Cathcart spent some time dissecting the anti-equality force’s latest strategy, which is to argue that they are the ones being discriminated against and harassed,  and seeking to turn us into the aggressors. He aptly summarized this tactic as an effort to “turn around the facts of real life.”

James Esseks, who is Director of the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project, summarized his work on challenging foster and adoption bans in Florida and Arkansas, and noted that it’s important to win these cases on constitutional grounds so that other legislatures don’t get the idea that these kinds of pernicious laws can work.

He then spent some time on the very hot case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in which the University of California is pitted against CLS in a case that balances the equality interest of the LGBT (and non-believing) students excluded against CLS’s effort to keep them from full voting membership. (California stands with the excluded student by refusing to fully sponsor any group, including CLS, that discriminates.) Esseks’s worry – and mine – is that a decision favoring CLS could in principle, lead to the end of all anti-discrimination laws. Things look ominous in that case, although Esseks thought that the Court might find that the liberty and equality issues hadn’t been “well teed-up” and might punt the case back downfield (OK, not a very effective or comprehensible sports metaphor).

Esseks also mentioned the ACLU’s role in defending the vile Westboro Baptist Church in a case where the father of a soldier whose funeral was protested by these sociopaths had won a judgment for emotional distress. Soon, I’m going to write a post that might be titled: “How I Learned to Hate the First Amendment.” For now, I’ll just refer you to this excellent criticism of the way that freedom of speech has become a sort of secular religion. I don’t like it and I don’t buy it.

Toni Broaddus, who is the Executive Director of Equality Federation, which is described as a national network of more than 60 statea-based LGBT organizations, naturally focused on the level where much of the real action in marriage equality and non-discrimination has been taking place.

One of her sobering points is that it’s getting harder to pass LGBT legislation, like anti-discrimination laws, in part because the “easier” states have already been accounted for. She also noted that it’s been very tough to get gender identity protection passed as a “stand alone” – it works better when it’s folded into broader legislation for the entire LGBT community.  That lesson, she noted, was passed along to ENDA advocates, who belatedly saw the light and came to insist on protection for trans-people in this law, which, you may happen to know, still has not been enacted.

She also noted that LGBT legislation is increasingly building in broad religious exemptions, and that now such exemptions are global – notably in an Ohio law that says, quite directly, that “religious organizations may discriminate.” It perhaps goes without saying that such an exemption would be laughed at in the context of legislation protecting any other historically despised minority, but never mind.

There were also discussions of litigation challenging DOMA, the likelihood of ENDA passing this year (maybe), and a law that would repeal DOMA entirely (don’t hold your breath, but it does have more than 100 sponsors in the House).

I could go on (yes, there was still more), but that’s about enough for a blog post, don’t you think? I do want to close by saying that even though I teach law for a living, blog obsessively and now do a weekly column on legal issues of importance to our community, I always learn a great deal from this panel. There’s so much going on, and so many good people doing so much, that it’s hard to keep up. But that’s a good thing, right?

Mara Keisling: A Panel of One (Part Two)

April 28th, 2010 No comments

2010 John Culhane blogs from Equality Forum,  Mara Keisling: A Panel of OneIMG_1780 by Widener Law.

Mara Keisling and Stephen Glassman (facilitator) at Equality Forum (4/27/10). Courtesy of Cassandra King.

For me, the most compelling part of Mara Keisling’s one-woman show last night at Equality Forum was her rare foray into the personal. Typically, she doesn’t share this story with media (am I media? discuss!), because she’d rather leave that to other trans-people who otherwise don’t have a forum. This generosity and emotional maturity seemed to me a natural outgrowth of her personal journey.

I was glad to have heard about that journey, because it placed into helpful context what she’d said earlier. When asked to assess the struggle for LGBT rights from an historical perspective, Keisling said that the movement had “started out much more privileged” than others — notably, we weren’t property and we could vote. From my perspective, the transgender community has been one of the most vilified, marginalized and just plain loathed groups in our history. Look no further than the long-standing reluctance by many in the mainstream gay rights movement to embrace our trans brothers and sisters for the underlining to this point.

Why isn’t Keisling…angrier? It’s risky (and negative comment-inviting) to do too much psychoanalyzing based on the few snapshots of the transitioning process that she described, but it’s too much fun to resist trying. On the “what’s in a name?” front, Keisling said that she couldn’t settle on in her new life as a female. At one point, after she’d nervously consumed “76 rum and Cokes” — taking the Andrew Sisters’ invitation too far — she sat at a table filled with trans luminaries,1 and those present voted from a list of ten names she’d been considering. But her parents, in a moving show of support that many of us can only envy, got together with her and said that they wanted to name her.

If that’s not moving enough, consider this story, which Keisling guaranteed would bring us all to tears. It didn’t, stony asses that we were; but it is very moving. At her place of employment, the principals of her company gathered everyone together for a lunch at which the topic of her transitioning would be discussed. Understandably, she was nervous — especially about one “demographic”, a middle-aged white guy who had “a family and a mustache.” Before she got too far into her presentation, the guy stopped her to ask a question. She feared the question, but took it nonetheless. Here it is, in dramatic block quote style:

“Are you going to be OK?”

How could anyone not come out of such shows of support without charity of spirit? That, Keisling has in florid abundance. Perhaps because of that, she understands the frustration of those who want to scream and march in the street even though she’s not one of them. Sometimes, she allowed, that’s what you have to do.

  1. A great band name if ever there was one.

Mara Keisling: A Panel of One (Part One)

April 28th, 2010 1 comment

It’s good to be back blogging about the many events at Equality Forum again this year. Honestly, with my life much busier than at this time last year, part of me was wondering whether I’d made a good decision to re-up. But last night’s transgender panel was just what I needed.

Prompted by “conversation facilitator” and good friend Stephen Glassman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, featured speaker Mara Keisling held forth for well over an hour on a range of issues relating to the legal and social status of the TG community. Keisling, who is the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) is amusing,1 self-deprecating,2 and insightful3 – but perhaps a bit too gracious.

The fifty or so folks in the rapt audience were treated a variety of topics, well-guided and supported by Glassman’s deft but low-key questioning. Much of the discussion, of course, focused on the role of her organization and other LGBT lobbying groups, none of which she spoke disparagingly of (and where’s the fun in that?) Without naming organizational names, she did acknowledge that not all of these groups were on board with the importance of equality and justice for the TG community at first, but said that by now “almost everyone has been won over.”

And things are further along in Congress than most of us realize. The votes are already there, she said, for ENDA, the repeal of DADT, and something called the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend benefits to the spouses of federal employees. So Keisling, who referred to several bills by the acronym “MARA” (example: ENDA should be called the “Marginalized Americans Rights Act”), has reason to be gracious and optimistic, despite recognizing the truth of this pithy aphorism attributed (but apparently erroneously) to Eric Hoffer:

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

Upon hearing that, I thought: “Well, enough about the HRC.” But Keisling, who did state a willingness to slam the group, did so only in the spirit of fun; in substance, she avoided criticizing any of the groups, probably because, as she flatly declared: “We’re winning. Sometimes I forget that, and I think we’ve already won.” Keisling, who founded NCTE and brought her background in public relations and media consulting to the job (as well as training as a rookie activist on the state level here in PA), has long understood the value of collaboration. As she said, her organization does almost nothing alone. That’s smart politics from the leader of such a marginalized group, but it also seems to reflect a deeper personal philosophy about the importance of education, friends, and alliances.

Perhaps because her background also included some work on public health messaging, Keisling also gets the importance of the administrative and regulatory environment that usually goes unreported. If a sixteen-year-old kid transitioning from male to female can’t get identification papers, how can she get a job? Her organization has worked on creating national standards for dealing with issues like birth and death certificates for transgendered people, and then communicates with groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City to get those standards implemented on the local level. More changes are apparently on the way, including one that would make this situation disappear.

Keisling, who doesn’t usually discuss her own story of transition in the media, did so last night. I’ll post separately on what she had to say about it later today — after some sleep and a vat of coffee.

  1. There was a particularly funny and bizarre reference to ownership of a mustache. It wouldn’t work here; trust me.
  2. Example: “Most of the citations I’ve gotten are for bad parking.”
  3. She claims not to be a theorist, but has clearly thought out complex social and legal issues on both the practical and the meta-level.

Blogging This Year’s Equality Forum

April 25th, 2010 1 comment

Once again, I will be the “official” and very busy blogger for Equality Forum. Although I won’t be able to cover almost every single session as I did last year, I do expect to hit many of them, including panels on transgender issues, legal developments, LGBT history, and several of the many Saturday programs (a delicious yet daunting menu of options). See the full schedule here.

I really enjoyed the experience last year, and it kicked off a mutually respectful and (I hope!) mutually advantageous correspondence and sharing of information with Michael Ginsborg over at Prop 8 and the Right to Marry. I also had the chance to meet some of the signal figures of our movement, including SF Mayor Gavin Newsom and Bishop Gene Robinson. (You can check out the reports by clicking on the Equality Forum category on the left of this page.) This year promises to be equally interesting; I’m especially looking forward to meeting David Boies at the International Equality Dinner on Saturday.

A Conversation with Alex Nicholson

May 19th, 2009 No comments

Here’s something to think about:

Getting married, or civilly united, as a same-sex couple can get you discharged under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. As the New Jersey Civil Union Commission Report pointed out, declaring that you’re in a civil union is actually “worse” (read: more hazardous) than saying “I Got Married!” — since civil unions are limited to same-sex couples, that simple speech act will do you in. You might be able to get away with saying you’re married, at least until someone asks you “to whom” (and you dare to answer truthfully) or until someone finds out that you’re “gay married.”

At least these acts of commitment are solid evidence that one has a same-sex orientation. Contra the reading of Anne Rice novels, or the possession of art that’s seen as “too lesbian”; these have also passed for “evidence” in the administrative hearings that often lead to discharge for “violation” of this policy.

This last bit of information came courtesy of Alex Nicholson, former Army (multi) lingual “human intelligence collector” discharged under the policy when another soldier discovered his “gay” letter — written in Portugese. He’s the founder and Executive Director of Servicemembers United (“SU”), the primary mission of which is to advocate for the repeal of the DADT policy.

Among the “human intelligence” Nicholson was able to collect surely would not have been a justification for the DADT policy; in fact, there’s not a shred of evidence in support of it. No, this document from former officers no longer serving isn’t evidence; worse, the embedded “Issues Overview” is a distressing hash of homophobic arguments that I’ll address in an upcoming post. For now I’ll just mention that the world is changing more quickly than some retired soldiers know or want to acknowledge. As explained here, that other bastion of presumed heterosexuality, the Greek fraternity/sorority system, has also undergone rapid transformation. (The writer describes her experience at the College of William and Mary, which I also attended. When I was there, in the 1970s, we were all living under “don’t ask, don’t tell. That doesn’t mean there were no same-sex acts. In fact, one of the fraternities had a reputation as being the one to join if you were so disposed! Is this a digression? Not really; a socially enforced (then), or legally required (now, under DADT) invisibility doesn’t “solve” “the gay problem”; it simply drives it underground.)

I recently had a long sit-down with Alex Nicholson, whom I’d briefly met a couple of weeks ago at the Equality Forum event for which I was blogging. Between an appearance on National Public Radio, a screening of the documentary “Ask Not” (which features him among others; see it June 16 on PBS) and a likely appearance on Campbell Brown’s CNN show, he graciously spent a couple of hours with me discussing all manner of things; some related to his organization and its mission, some about his life and background, and some general chitchat (a mutual specialty, it seems).

Alex grew up an only child in South Carolina, the son of a military dad, and left college after one year to join the Army. I asked the obvious question: “Did you know you were gay then?” Yes, he did. Well, then, why on earth join the military? His answer should have been unsurprising: “It was a non-issue in my head.” He knew of the policy, but wasn’t educated about it and somehow didn’t think it would be much of a problem. He might have been right, even though it didn’t turn out that way. The DADT policy is unclear, and randomly enforced. Some can go years with many fellow soldiers knowing they’re gay, while others are pushed out quickly. This inconsistency itself is enough to alert reasonable people that the policy ain’t right.

Alex Nicholson and his colleagues at Servicemembers United are doing something about it. When he founded the organization three years ago,  he followed the “do it yourself” model that seems to be the signature talent of millenials. Without funding,  SU established a website toehold, and then leveraged its influence through a series of ad hoc projects and initiatives co-sponsored by different, better established organizations. For example, SU created “the 12000 Flags for 12000 Patriots” campaign and then invited participation from the Human Rights Campaign, the (evil) Log Cabin Republicans, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “12,000 Flags” marked the shameful fact that 12,000 able servicemen and servicewomen had been discharged within fourteen years of the enactment of DADT. Here’s Alex, speaking at the event:

SU work is more of a calling than a job. Alex and his partner, co-founder Jarrod Chlapowski, work well into the night — for no pay! (There is no paid staff, still.)  It seems as though their work is starting to claw its way into the collective consciousness. The issue is everywhere, lately, and Presidential press conferences and briefings continue to feature awkward circumlocutions on when and how DADT will finally be given an indecent burial. (Jon Stewart is predictably devastating on the issue here; points out absurdity of our different policies on torture, release of torture videos, and DADT). In the midst of this, Alex Nicholson continues to work on his Ph.D. dissertation in Political Science for the University of South Carolina. The topic is one you might have expected to interest him: How people move from passive to active support of social movements, with emphasis on the involvement of non-affected supporters (e.g., men for feminism, straights for gay rights).1

So, does he want to become a professor? He’d much rather…rejoin the military. He hopes to attend law school, preferably in D.C., where he’s now located, and then join the JAG Corps.  After our long and interesting conversation, I somehow didn’t find this surprising at all. SU exists because Alex Nicholson and others have not given up on an organization that, even now, would rather not acknowledge their existence. That’s persistence.

  1. I’d say that everyone is affected by whatever happens to everyone else, but I understand the point to be about direct effects.

Equality Forum: Picking up an Important Piece on Health Services

May 4th, 2009 No comments

On the day after Equality Forum’s week-long stampede finished trampling me, I’m able to stagger back to my computer and pick up a piece from last Saturday’s collaborative programming that I didn’t want to leave behind. (Tomorrow I hope to be able to post on the National Equality Rally that took place on Sunday.)

One of the panels I stopped in on, Health Care Reform: What Does it Mean for the LGBT Community?, ended up ranging over a wide swath of issues concerning the community. This wasn’t surprising, because the panel was conducted by the Mazzoni Center, an organization that delivers a staggering array of health-related services to the community; mostly for free. In addition to primary care, the Center: does anonymous HIV testing (and services for those infected with the virus); offers mental health counseling; provides a smoking cessation program as well as an array of support  groups; and has a number of education outreach programs, importantly including “The Collective.” This is a collaborative effort that does culturally targeted HIV prevention and services for gay and non-gay identified men who have sex with men (MSM, in the accepted public health acronym). This approach is generally recognized as the only one with a decent chance of working in communities that, for historical reasons, harbor a deep distrust of public health.

In short, the Mazzoni Center stands at the intersection of private health care and public health, recognizing that the prevention and education efforts at the center of the public health mission can reduce the need for chronic and acute medical care that consumes much of the health care time and dollar. So it was natural that the conversation was similarly expansive.

Listen to Nurit L. Shein, Executive Director, speaking of the need for coverage of services that are specific to the transgender community: “This is an issue that the LGBT community needs to coalesce around.” Is it reasonable to believe that whatever health care reform is on the table at the federal level will address this issue? Not unless advocates, like the Mazzoni Center and those they serve, get in touch with their officials, show up at public hearings, and agitate. Thus far, the LGBT response has been, too often, to let the “T” kind of dangle from the end of the alphabet string.

Mazzoni’s vital work, though, is often frustrated by the failures of public and private health elsewhere. Robert Winn, the Center’s Medical Director, somewhat surprised me by stating that he’d lost track of how many times patients had come to him after being informed by their former primary care providers that they didn’t want to care for gay people. (I  just checked my iPhone’s calendar; yes, it’s 2009.) Of course, this is a strictly illegal position in Philadelphia, but most people don’t sue: they just find another doctor. But until those with a public health, population-based approach combine with the AMA to drive these homophobic views out of existence, private prejudice will continue to negatively influence the medical and mental health outcomes of the community.

It’s well known that sexual, racial, and other minorities have much worse health outcomes than the majority. Every day, Mazzoni’s dedicated workers try to push a very large boulder up a very steep hill.

Equality Forum: The International Equality Dinner Starring the One and Only Gavin Newsom

May 3rd, 2009 No comments

Talk about your gala events! 

Well, for $200 a plate, Saturday night’s International Equality Dinner needed to be a fabulous, star-studded affair, and it was. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a true ally of the gay and lesbian community since forever, was Honorary Chair and delivered his usually warm, amusing, and affirming speech. With no elections left to contest, Rendell was even more forthright than usual — and that’s something. But no one wants to talk about him, or even about The New York Times Company, winner of Equality Forum’s 7th Annual Business Leadership Award. This is an honor the Times richly deserves for: its fair and extensive coverage of our issues; its pioneering inclusion of same-sex unions on its “Weddings” pages several years ago; and the stalwart support of the LGBT community from such columnists as the Pulitzer-Prize winning Maureen Dowd and the known homophile Frank Rich. (Read this, if you haven’t already.)

The dinner also featured an open bar, great food (how, with so many people?), impressive videos by and about EF, and a huge and friendly crowd. But these aren’t the story, either.

No, it’s all about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a true rock star of the LGBT movement. You could have heard a mozzarella ball drop during Mr. Charisma’s inspiring keynote address. But first let’s back up twenty-four hours.

On Friday night, I attended a screening of Pursuit of Equality, a documentary that focuses on Newsom and the “marriage month” that took place, by his direction, in San Francisco in early 2004. The film, produced and co-directed by Geoff Callan, Newsom’s brother-in-law, can be criticized as hagiography, but it captures and holds for posterity the vertiginous emotional journey of all involved: the mayor and his committed staff; the Repent America joes who camped out at City Hall in protest at what was going on; and, of course, the couples who traveled from (as the Mayor is liable to repeat) forty-eight states to become the first same-sex couples to marry, only to have their unions voided by the California Supreme Court.1

The film reminded me of the inspiration for Newsom’s act of civil disobedience (the best label for it, really). Just after taking office, he’d been invited by fellow Californian and now Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to attend the 2004 State of the Union address. The now (mercifully) Ex-President cooked up a stew of inane “priority items”: steroid use in baseball (I can’t make this up); the need for abstinence-only education; and, critically, the imagined urgency of passing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage unions.

This wasn’t the America Newsom wanted any part of. In my interview with him, he credited his Catholic school education for implanting in him the simple dictum that couldn’t abide this divisiveness: “When one suffers, we all suffer.” Almost immediately upon his return from D.C., he asked his clerks what it would take to change the form to accommodate same-gender couples, and it was, well, almost nothing. (Are you reading this, Social Security Administration?) By then in office for just more than a month, Newsom allowed the Gay Marriage Parade to begin; the Grand Marshals were Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, lesbian pioneers who’d been together more than fifty years. (The film captures Lyon’s terrific sense of humor; when given the standard counseling for newlyweds about family planning, the septuagenarian doubles over laughing.)

Within a few days, San Francisco was mecca for many long-term, committed gay couples. By homing in on a few couples, the filmmakers capture their sheer joy and disbelief at the dignity they’ve just been able to seize. Of course, that joy turned “to bitterest wormwood” (to quote the Mighty Thor) when the California Supreme Court put a stop to the party about a month later. In a strange and unsettling sequence, the film captures a lesbian couple running down the hall in a doomed effort to get their marriage licenses before word of the order reached the clerk. Confronted with a sign telling them they were too late, they performed the remarkable act of remaining in line and being denied. Other couples are seen reading the court’s decision, having it sink it, and — losing it.

Watching these emotional flame-outs, I felt compelled to ask the mayor on Saturday whether these reactions — which one can understand only so deeply, if not directly affected — had made him question his strategy. After all, he knew the likely outcome of this bold Experiment in Equality. Newsom, as articulate and comfortable a speaker as it’s possible to find, answered by sharing his view of the affirming side of it: “People left City Hall with a deeper sense of self and purpose. For that moment, they knew what it felt to be treated with dignity.”

Then I asked Newsom whether he felt he’d done enough to let people know what might happen. “I think people came in with their eyes wide open. They recognized that they were challenging the law, and were there to make a statement, to advance a principle.” He added that he hadn’t received a single email or letter from people saying “How dare you?”

I was using my few questions to gain some measure of Mayor Newsom’s depth and understanding of the issue’s layers, and I came away from the interview and the speech that followed convinced that he really does “get it.”

“Activist courts”? He wants more of ’em, basically. Imagine what would  have happened in 1967 had we allowed a popular vote on interracial marriage. 70% of the population was opposed to it. The history of civil rights, he noted, is “hardly the majority celebrating the minority. No. Courts protect the minority in a constitutional democracy.”

In case you’re sighing impatiently at this elementary civics lesson, it’s worth remembering that equality opponents don’t acknowledge these points when it comes to this issue.

What about civil unions as some kind of compromise that might appeal to a politician with good instincts but a healthy sense of self-preservation (even more so in 2004)? After all, Newsom is now running for Governor of California. If anything, his view of this “virtual equality” substitute is more contemptuous than his take on those who oppose any and all gay rights. At least the latter group is consistent. Civil unions are “separate but equal.” He is unimpressed by events commemorating the 55th anniversary of  Brown v. Board of Education, where speakers “wax eloquent” about equality and the overdue  demise of  the “separate but equal” doctrine, only to embrace that same expedient when marriage equality is the issue.

Newsom, a “fifth generation Californian”  is impatient with his home state on this issue. “I never thought I’d say this,” he concluded, but “as Iowa goes, so goes the nation.”

  1. Many of these couples remarried after the California Supreme Court declared the law banning same-sex marriages unconstitutional. Will their marriages again be voided? I very much doubt it, but we’ll know within a few weeks.

Equality Forum Day 6 (2): All About Me

May 2nd, 2009 1 comment

OK, I’ll ‘fess up: I attended the program From PTA to GSA mostly because, as the parent of four-year-old twins, I wanted to hear strategies for navigating what I assumed to be the dark waters of the school experience for my kids. As soon as I walked in, I knew I’d made a good decision; in typically academic fashion, the organizers of the panel had strewn a table with a wealth of useful materials for LGBT parents of school kids. These materials addressed the tough questions I suppose I’ll have to face once my kids are old enough to realize, as my partner David says, that “some people are mean to their parents.”

Mountain Meadow is a summer camp that has also worked with GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) to produce research documenting what we all know: Kids from same-gender families have it tougher in school than their classmates from other homes (whether “traditional” or single-parent). The fruits of that collaboration are in a research paper called Involved, Invisible, Ignored: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parents and Their Children in Our Nation’s K-12 Schools.

That paper demonstrates just what you’d think it would: Kids of LGBT parents have it tough, and of course it gets worse as the kids get older. But the anecdotal  information has more punch: For example, one kid was told he could only make one Mother’s Day gift, even though his teacher knew he had two moms. (Who on earth was this teacher, btw? Nice job.)

After Stephen Duffy, the Executive Director of Mountain Meadow, presented this case, the panel turned to two kids for their stories. One was a thirteen-year-old boy named Nicholas, who admitted to being kind of a bookworm. He had told only a few of his friends that he had two moms, for fear of reprisal  (not his word — he’s a bookworm but only 13, for heaven’s sake!). Nicole Reyna, a local high school junior who lives with her  mother most of the time, but sometimes with her dad and his partner, represented Nicholas’s story at a later point; in middle school, she, too, had  been “out” about  her parents to only a few of her closest friends, but now she’s a true activist, having traveled to San Francisco to march in the Gay Pride Parade there. In her words: “Equality should just be there. We shouldn’t have to fight for it.”

I was surprised to learn that often schools’ Gay-Straight Alliances are less than welcoming to these kids, because they’re not gay. But what about the “straight alliance” part of GSA? To the extent this exclusionary impulse is a reality, it cements the point that a great deal of work remains to be done.

Some of that work is being done by people like Erika T. Garnett-Wootson, a teacher and GSA Advisor for Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King High School, who might with  accuracy be called “The Reluctant Activist.” For reasons she didn’t articulate fully, Garnett-Wootson served for a while as a sort of “underground advisor” for LGBT students with sufficiently developed gaydar (when’s the last time you saw that word, incidentally?) to have sussed her out. Then she just jumped in and formed a GSA, serving as its advisor. This began about four years ago.

Her story stands as a kind of universal lesson about the risks and joy of taking a tough stand. At first ridiculed or ignored, her school’s GSA is now a part of the furniture. Conditions are better for everyone at the MLK school, and students  and Garnett-Wootson can thank each other for that.

Do I need to start worrying about this stuff now? To an extent, yes, but the Garnet-Wootsons and steadfast students in GSAs throughout the country allow me the fantasy that perhaps my concern will amount to little.

Equality Forum Day 6 (1): “Would Jesus Discriminate?”

May 2nd, 2009 No comments

Today the orderly procession of Equality Forum that held sway all week breaks up: This afternoon, there were four EF panels — two at a time — and eighteen “collaborative” programs, running six at a time. Even as I write this, there’s a political strategizing reception going on. The week’s glamor event, the International Equality Dinner, then runs from 7-10, followed by a couple of mega parties (that I won’t be attending.)

I will be attending the dinner — a chance to interview the honoree, San Fran Mayor Gavin Newsom — and will report on that tomorrow. Before that, I’m offering a few “mini-blogs” — blogettes, if you wish — on a few of the collaborative programs. I darted among them, panning for gold.

The first one I attended asked the question raised in the title, above.  A large and diverse crowd squeezed into a rather small,  warm room to hear Rev. Karla Fleshman, who preaches (although the word isn’t quite apt) at the Imago Dei Metropolitan Community Church. I showed up mostly because I knew least about the subject.

What I heard was so clearly stated, persuasive, and ultimately obvious that one might leave the session amazed that fundamentalism has any hold at all. Let’s start with this dictum by Fleshman: “People who say: ‘The Bible says….’ aren’t talking about the Bible as much as about themselves.” The Bible says many  things to many different people, and in any event it’s not even clear what it literally says, or means.

In a few minutes, Fleshman ran through all of the problems: It was set down in writing centuries after it began as an oral tradition; what was written down was written in unreliable ways (animal skins, for example); the translations are hugely problematic (is a compound word just the sum of the two words it contains? not always, Mr. “Chairman”); etc., etc.

So what does that leave? A choice between loving affirmation and separation/exclusion; the Bible itself provides examples of both. Fleshman, of course, chooses the Bible that gets its inspiration from St. Paul: Nothing separates us from the love of God. We were reminded that the Bible is to inspire us, “not to terrify us.”

“Love the sin, hate the sinner”? Fleshman wants to hear a new song. Amen.

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