Friday, June 17, 2005

The Dangers of Apathy

Scores of Pride-goers bragged about being non-political. That’s not a virtue, and here’s why.

By Steve Charing

On a given night, hundreds would cram the city’s streets, some carrying a gay periodical, and patronize the dozens of gay bars, cafes, nightclubs, pornography shops, cabarets and bathhouses. Adding to the crowd was an ample supply of hustlers that was visible along the dim, nighttime corridors.

Inside the buildings, female impersonators, clad in lavish brightly colored garb, performed amidst a foggy, smoky cloud that enveloped the jammed rooms. Toe-tapping songs were played to the resounding joy of the gay and straight audiences of the packed nightclubs and cabarets with the music drifting outside into the streets.

In other establishments, men freely danced with men; women danced with women. They openly embraced. An anti-gay law on the books was seldom enforced. Gay life was colorful, free and vibrant. Gay neighborhoods were established throughout the city. It had the most active gay culture on the entire continent, and it was a sexual Mecca.

Does this scene describe New York? San Francisco? Washington, D.C.? Or even Baltimore? Not hardly.

It happens to be Berlin, Germany, just prior to the Nazis’ rise to power. Indeed, it was estimated that there were more gay establishments and periodicals in 1920 Berlin than in 1980 New York. Not only was homosexuality tolerated, it flourished.

But as the music played inside Berlin’s gay clubs, sweeping political and social change was about to unfold that would rock the world. The patrons (and owners) of these establishments were oblivious to the new political reality; they continued to dance, seek out sex partners and lived in their own secluded, care-free world, unsuspecting of the emerging satanic forces and the horror of what was about to befall them. It sneaked up on them, and when they realized what was happening, it was too late.

As fast as a snap of a whip, there was the accession of Nazism and Hitler and the enforcement of the infamous Paragraph 175 that severely criminalized homosexual behavior. All gay clubs, hotels and other similar establishments were closed down. Known homosexuals were ordered to appear at police stations and were pressured to identify other homosexuals. School children were asked to inform on teachers who were suspected of being homosexual, employers on employees, and vice-versa.

Their tragic journey had begun. Gay men in Germany were sought out and rounded up with most being shipped to concentration camps for imprisonment and extermination. They were forced to wear a pink triangle for easy identification and lived in separate blocks apart from the other prisoners. The prisoners wearing the pink triangles were brutally treated by the guards and by inmates from other categories.

Homosexuals and those supporting abortion were seen by the new government as a threat to the Nazis’ dream of world dominance. It was as much about the lack of procreation as the lack of morality. For gay men it was also about their lack of masculinity—it did not fit the Aryan paradigm. They joined Jews, gypsies, criminals, political enemies, Communists, the disabled, epileptic and other outcasts that did not conform to the Third Reich’s master plan.

Approximately 100,000 gay men were arrested, 50,000 sent to prison camps, and hundreds were castrated. All told, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals, mainly those who were deemed "incurable," were exterminated in the death camps. Their death rate was said to have been three to four times higher than other non-Jewish categories during the Holocaust.
As you can see, apathy can be a perilous thing, and unfortunately, it is not confined to history.
Although there were numerous political groups represented at the recent Baltimore Pride celebration, there were an astonishing and disturbing number of folks who are oblivious to politics and seemed proud of that. Randee Wilding and his partner Josh Sullivan had volunteered to steer people to the Equality Maryland table to dispense information about the organization and sign up new members. Equality Maryland is the state’s leading gay civil rights advocacy organization.

But what Wilding and Sullivan noticed was stunning. "We encountered several people, including vendors and volunteers for other organizations who said they weren't political and were reluctant to even speak to us. I was in disbelief," said Wilding. "What do people think being political means? What is it going to take to get people motivated and involved?"
Even more shocking was Wilding’s observation that "there were also a staggering amount of folks at Baltimore Pride who didn't know what the Human Rights Campaign was, or for that matter, the [name of the] Governor of Maryland."

The people who attend Baltimore Pride represent a pretty good slice of the LGBT community. There are all sorts of reasons for folks to share in the celebration, but if that lack of political interest was typical of the crowd, then the drive towards equal rights or fending off anti-gay initiatives will be problematic. And there is certainly no reason to be proud of it.
"Apathy is one of our greatest enemies," said Jay Smith Brown, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization. "Political issues are always personal. You need to find out the area that make individuals most passionate and reach out to them," he told Baltimore OUTloud. "Last year's battle over the Federal Marriage Amendment got more people involved than ever before."

Clearly the horrors of Nazi Germany are not likely to be repeated here. I am not suggesting we have a government that is sympathetic to such thinking. Nor am I correlating our government to the atrocities of the Nazis or diminishing the human tragedy of the Holocaust.

But it is worth taking a look at some frightening similarities: We basically have an anti-gay government at the federal and state levels that is at risk of being hijacked by religious, homophobic extremists. Gays and pro-choice people are also vilified by extreme right wing elements. There are hate groups all over the country that would like nothing else but to see gays remanded to concentration camps or exterminated. Many, in fact, have thanked God for the onset and scourge of AIDS. Hate crimes directed towards LGBT individuals are on the rise.
Who is to say for certain that some day these modern-day extremists will not come to power at a given point in time? A good barometer will be the upcoming Supreme Court battle. The gays in Berlin surely didn’t expect such terror to envelop their nation. The anti-gay, pro-life forces in this country are well funded, well motivated and well represented. That is why the LGBT community cannot afford to sit back in their own comfort zones while progress towards equality is slammed shut or worse, our rights are being beaten back.

Political apathy allowed the Nazis to rise to power, but I’m not implying that gays’ indifference alone was responsible. I’m pointing out that apathy by all segments of the population can allow for a country to be blindsided by tyranny. Gays and lesbians have a lot to lose if we’re not vigilant and active politically. Apathy is nothing to be proud of, and as history has taught us it can be dangerous.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Essence of Pride

By Steve Charing

As we approach the annual Pride festivities and all the color and hoopla that goes along, one can easily to lose sight of the meaning of Pride. The younger generation may not fully appreciate the significance of Pride celebrations. Lucky for them, they didn’t have to endure the threats of bar raids, arrests and other oppressive tactics that permeated the gay scene prior to Stonewall in 1969. But they should try to understand the tough journey that brought us here today.

On a sultry June weekend that year, a coterie of gays, lesbians and drag queens revolted against police harassment stemming from yet another raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village. For once, gays fought back. To many, that historic event triggered the launch of the modern gay-rights movement and planted the seeds for Pride parades and celebrations all over the world each year during the month of June.

Many see Pride as a big party, and that’s fine. Older lgbt citizens, I believe, have a keener awareness of the history and symbolism and can better assess the progress the lgbt community has made in the 36 years since the Stonewall uprising.

The parade up Charles Street sets the tone with the wide variety of lgbt and allied organizations and businesses marching and riding amidst shouts, cheers and waves from the festive crowd on the sidelines. The block party, as always, is a social carnival and a reunion of old friends and a chance to, um, bump into new ones. Entertainment on the sound stage plus the dancing in the street provides a fitting backdrop. The aroma that blends smoke, food, cologne, sweat and alcohol makes for a distinctive odoriferous cocktail. At certain points in time, moving around does not appear to be an option.

The Sunday-in-the-park event affords the opportunity for folks to trot out their dogs and for couples to stroll about the tree-shaded paths hand-in-hand. Music fans are entertained by the eclectic performers; the colorful crowd will indulge the numerous food vendors and get acquainted with the myriad lgbt organizations that are trying to make life better for all of us.
Some question the purpose of "Gay Pride." What’s to be proud about? Being gay isn’t an accomplishment like performing a heroic act or succeeding at your job. True enough. It isn’t about accomplishment so much as a self-recognition that this is who I am and that I refuse to pretend I’m somebody else. Nonetheless, there are as many ways to interpret the meaning of Pride as there are people doing it.

While the lgbt community has had to endure political setbacks and destructive divisions within the community itself during the post-Stonewall era, there were many victories, too. Through the years, our goals have evolved from tolerance to acceptance, and now our fight is for full equality in society. Pride should be about pointing to the positives. I, for one, use this occasion to reflect upon our history and the reasons to be proud:

I am proud that the climate is such that so many more people are coming out of the closet, especially at an earlier age. This helps them discover their true selves and allows the heterosexual population to get to know lgbt individuals as human beings—not some abstract stereotype.

I am proud that more and more lgbt politicians are out as well, thus giving us a voice, albeit a small one, in government at all levels. And it is heartening to see a growing number of government officials not shying away from taking a pro-gay stance on issues. However, there is much work to be done in the political arena.

I am proud of such organizations as PFLAG, Equality Maryland, GLSEN, the ALCU and other effective groups for fighting the fight for all of us. They are on the front lines and in the trenches in an effort to gain equality for the lgbt community. We should salute these groups and support them mightily in every way possible.

I am proud of the way the lesbian community rallied to help gay men in need during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. This was inspirational in light of the fact that many gay men and lesbians had experienced an uneasy relationship up to that point.

I am proud of all those organizations who have given comfort to HIV/AIDS patients, those who keep trying to educate the public about the disease and those individuals conducting research to find a cure.

I am proud that lgbt businesses, newspapers, websites, resorts and other establishments have proliferated over time, which helps to weave us into the fabric of society. And it brings us an enormous amount of economic clout, as lgbt individuals typically have a higher percentage of disposable income.

I am proud that so many schools have a Gay-Straight Alliance, which presents a safe haven for lgbt youth to meet and discuss their lives without fear of intimidation. Moreover, many PFLAG chapters and community centers offer lgbt youth support groups at a time in their lives when it is critical to realize that they are not alone and it is OK to be gay.

I am proud that even the subject of same-sex marriage had entered into the dialogue, which would have been inconceivable just 5 years ago. I am also proud of the over 6,100 gay and lesbian couples who have married in Massachusetts so far—also a remarkable feat.
I am proud of our diverse community and hope that some day we will realize that we are all stronger for it.

Finally, I am proud that we have come such a long way that I’m able to openly dance with my partner at a straight wedding.

We all view Pride through the prism of one’s experiences. I see Pride as a celebration of life, of what we accomplished as a community, and how we will succeed in the coming years. Here’s to rainbows, balloons and triangles. Here’s to us all.