Friday, May 25, 2007

Gay Man Announces City Council Bid

By Steve Charing

A bright, comfortable spring afternoon in Lafayette Square provided an appropriate backdrop for Fred D. Mason III to announce his candidacy for the 11th Council District in Baltimore City.

In many ways this event on May 21 resembled most local political announcements. Other politicians, such as Carl Stokes; union officials; friends from his church; and community residents gathered to hear Mason’s strong speech. The candidate’s father, Fred Mason, Jr., who is head of the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO, was also present as was his campaign chairman Bob Moore of the Service Employees International Union.

On the surface it seemed like your garden-variety political announcement, but this one was far more unique than the others. Because also attending this event was Phillip Lovett, the candidate’s gay partner of almost nine years.

Should Mason win this council seat vacated by mayoral hopeful Keiffer Mitchell by defeating a field that so far counts at least four other opponents including a former state delegate, it would be historic. If elected, Mason said he would become the first openly gay person to be a member of the Baltimore City Council and would be the first openly gay African-American to hold an elected office anywhere in Maryland.

Indeed, Mason does not conceal his sexuality in this endeavor. He pointed out in his speech that he and Phillip have been residents of Reservoir Hill for seven years. And he acknowledged the value of diversity: "We are a mix of incomes, races, ethnicities, creeds, sexual orientations, and national origins."

The 11th District encompasses Baltimore’s downtown business district and spans Reservoir Hill to Federal Hill and the Jones Falls to Harlem Park. It includes the heavily gay populated neighborhoods of Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill.

With a crowded field of candidates Mason, 35, feels he can distinguish himself from the others. "I believe that my broad background and ability to relate to the diverse communities that make up the 11th District separates me from the other candidates," he told Baltimore OUTloud. "I have a vision for the district. I want a safe community where the people can learn, earn and build." He added, "I can build partnerships and coalitions with those that do not always cooperate."

And he knows what is needed to be successful as a council member. "A city council person must be a great advocate, a bridge builder, and a problem solver," he said in his speech. "The 11th District needs a councilperson who can hit the ground running—someone who can relate to all parts of the district and build effective relationships."

A strong supporter of marriage equality, Mason told OUTloud that he also wants to "improve the stature and funding of the Mayor’s GLBT Task Force."

Fred Mason III, a project architect, received a Bachelor’s degree in Political Economy from Tulane University and holds Masters degrees in Public Policy from Georgetown University and Architecture from Morgan State University.

A native Baltimorean, Mason, while working for the state, was involved in the financing of the Hippodrome and the Inner Harbor Welcome Center, and was on the construction management team for the first building of the University of Maryland Baltimore BioPark, and the Baltimore School for the Arts.

He had internships with Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Senator Paul Sarbanes, which provided him a good understanding of how government serves its citizens and how to form coalitions.

Mason is a strong believer of community involvement. Besides his lifelong involvement with Saint James Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, he has worked with HERO and Sandtown Habitat for Humanity.

"I live, work, and worship in the 11th District, and I want to place all of my knowledge and experience at the service of our diverse communities," he writes on his website .

His love of his community and his strong educational and professional background will make Fred D. Mason III a strong contender for the seat. And a win would be a historic breakthrough for the lgbt community.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Two Deaths, Opposite Reactions

By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst

I admit that when the news flashed across my computer screen on May 15 announcing the death of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death at age 73, I pumped my fist and shouted, "Yes!" To some, I suppose that reaction would be considered irreverent, but I will not apologize for it. I am delighted he’s dead, and to paraphrase our esteemed president when he referred to the fall of Saddam, the world is a better place without him.

On the other hand, news of the death of Yolanda King later the same night caused me sorrow. The civil rights activist and eldest daughter of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King left us at age 51, but the world, unlike Falwell, is more diminished from her departure.

What these two individuals shared in common is that both appeared to have died from heart-related problems. But it was Yolanda who actually had a heart.

For nearly three decades, Jerry Falwell was enemy number one to the lgbt community and its supporters. Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, aptly characterized the man as "a calculating charlatan who cruelly demonized and scapegoated gays and lesbians throughout his twisted career."

The founder of the Moral Majority evolved into a larger-than-life figure, literally and figuratively, and became a major force in U.S. politics. Falwell, who was in favor of segregation early on, is widely credited for helping Ronald Reagan capture the White House in 1980, but I believe that’s an exaggeration. Reagan was poised to win it anyway, with help from then President Jimmy Carter, Iran, and double-digit inflation and interest rates.

Nonetheless, Falwell galvanized religious social conservatives to the extent they did vote in strong numbers, particularly in the election cycles beginning in 2000. But to do so, Falwell demonized gay people with reckless abandon. Bigoted rhetoric is one thing; exploiting tragedy is another. And he did so for personal, financial and political gain. This is why I am celebrating his passing.

First he shamelessly exploited the AIDS crisis by blaming it on gays or declaring that it was deserved. He said, "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals." Without any evidence of a medical background, Falwell relentlessly attributed the scourge to gays. He never changed his views even with millions dying in Africa and worldwide of AIDS—the overwhelming majority being heterosexual.

Then he ridiculously—almost insanely—blamed gays and lesbians, among others, for the ills of our society, which led to the attacks on September 11, 2001. "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’" He later apologized, but not without first firing up the religious right and gaining the attention he so desperately sought.

Even more troubling was his ongoing preaching of animus towards homosexuals. He did so in a calm voice and cheesy grin that highlighted his double-chinned bloated face. But he taught lgbt kids growing up that homosexuality was immoral and they are destined for hell. These attacks on gays and lesbians brought dollars to his coffers thereby raising his political viability and influence.

How many families have broken up because of Falwell’s hate-filled diatribes? How many kids attempted suicide because of his degrading messages? How many gay people were attacked and killed using his brand of hatred and Bible-waving as a rationale? That is the legacy of Jerry Falwell.

While Falwell sought to divide Americans, Yolanda King was the polar opposite. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson put it, she had civil rights in her DNA. Yes, Yolanda King was lesser known than Falwell, but she was far more beautiful spiritually and in her view of mankind. She was an actress, producer, motivational speaker and civil rights advocate.

Yolanda King modeled her words and deeds after her revered parents in trying to end discrimination and was pro-gay rights. "If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you do not have the same rights as other Americans. You cannot marry . . . you still face discrimination in the workplace, and in our armed forces. For a nation that prides itself on liberty, justice and equality for all, this is totally unacceptable," Yolanda had said.

According to PlantOut, Inc., Yolanda King was among 187 arrested in a Cleveland in 2000 during a peaceful protest to end discrimination against lgbt people by the United Methodist Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Conversely, her younger sister, Rev. Bernice King, an evangelical, opposed same-sex marriage in a high profile manner by participating in an anti-gay marriage march.

I am saddened by the passing of Yolanda King because she embodied the spirit of her parents and others trying to advance civil rights for all. Jerry Falwell with his dark legacy is the reason we still need people like Yolanda King.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Christians and Hate Crimes

Letter Published in the Baltimore Sun--May 12, 2007

It is appalling and ironic that "a coalition of evangelical, fundamentalist and black religious leaders" staunchly opposes the expansion of hate crimes laws to cover crimes based on sexual orientation ("Christian leaders oppose bill on hate," May 4).

The bill passed in the House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote of 237-180, with all Maryland representatives except Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voting for the measure.

Among the arguments cited to explain the opposition to the legislation was the fact that the bill didn't include such groups as U.S. soldiers and rich kids, and therefore should not cover victims of hate crimes motivated by the victims' sexual orientation.

That is a ridiculous red herring. The opposition to the bill is really all about the obvious homophobia of its foes.

The latest FBI statistics, for 2005, indicate that hate crimes based on sexual orientation ranked third among all categories of hate crimes, behind only crimes motivated by the race and the religion of the victims.

The fact that one out of six victims of hate crimes is victimized because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity clearly demonstrates that hate crimes laws need to be expanded to cover such crimes.

Nobody has been able to point to any documented message from Jesus Christ in which he condemned homosexuality.

Instead, Jesus promoted tolerance and acceptance of all mankind.
What would Jesus say to these Christian leaders' opposition to the hate crimes bill?

Steve Charing


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Gravesite Battle Causing Financial Hardship

Baltimore man struggles to keep late partner’s gravesite

By Steve Charing

For Kevin-Douglas Olive of Baltimore’s Seton Hill, the battle only began once his partner Russell Groff (l.) died from staph infection in November 2004 at the age of 26. Groff was buried in a rural Tennessee cemetery that the partners had agreed on in a will and burial agreements. Both were from Tennessee.

But Groff’s parents, Lowell and Carolyn Groff, had challenged the burial site and the right of Olive to be executor since July 2005. The expensive legal battles that have ensued and are continuing to strap the finances of Olive to the point he must sell his car and try to raise funds to ward off the Groffs’ challenges.

Russell Groff’s parents have been virulently anti-gay, which is ostensibly motivating them in their pursuit to deny their son’s expressed wishes. They even did a Fred Phelps-like protest during Knoxville, TN’s LGBT "Come Out Knoxville" celebration.

According to the Knoxville Metro Pulse, Carolyn Groff blames the "destructive gay lifestyle" for the death of her son, an aspiring playwright. "He wasn’t like that until he got involved in the theater group at Maryville College," she explains. Several other members of her Bible Baptist Church brought signs denoting that gays are destined to hell. Their brand of Christianity drove Russell away from the Christian church and joined Kevin as a Quaker after they met.

Conversely, Kevin-Douglas Olive parents were active in the Greater Knoxville PFLAG chapter where his mother served as treasurer. Kevin, too, was active in the chapter. But his family does not have the financial means to help Kevin in his series of lawsuits.

Although he is facing financial ruin, Kevin, 35, a French teacher, is determined to win for Russell what he had wanted. "He was the most important person in the world to me," he told Baltimore OUTloud. "I owe it to him that his wishes are carried out."

The legal battles, which are sapping his funds, are a two-pronged approach: one to impeach Kevin as an administrator of the estate and the other to overturn the will. He had won the initial round in a Baltimore City Orphans Court but Groff’s parents have appealed the decision so that they may move their son’s body to a family cemetery. During the appeal, the entire case must be presented from scratch.

Kevin says the legal fees are currently running $22,000. Thus far, he has raised only $5,000 to meet those obligations. He can use whatever financial help is available.

Contributions can be made to:
Kevin Olive Defense Fund
c/o Homewood Friends Meeting
3107 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218

Monday, May 07, 2007

Back and Forth

Equality struggle shifts back to Federal arena

By Steve Charing

While the lgbt community and its allies anxiously await the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling on the lawsuit that may ultimately legalize same-sex marriage here, the latest front in the struggle for equality has shifted for now back to the Federal government.

On May 3, the House of Representatives passed on to the Senate the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, (HR-1592), in a bi-partisan vote of 237 to 180. This bill covers crimes committed based on sexual orientation and identity as well as gender, race, color, national origin and religion. The Senate will be considering a similar bill called the Matthew Shepard Act to memorialize Matthew Shepard, the high profile victim of a brutal hate-filled murder in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. It is likely to pass the measure.

Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother and a major hate crime legislation activist, Joe Solomonese, head of the Human Rights Campaign and other interested observers were present as the historic vote was taken.

"This is a historic day that moves all Americans closer to safety from the scourge of hate violence," said Solmonese. "Today legislators sided with the 73 percent of the American people who support the expansion of hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity."

However, President Bush, in a predictable bow to the religious right that includes a significant number of socially conservative black clergy who have applied major pressure in opposing the bill, threatened to veto the legislation. A White House statement said that state and local criminal laws already provide penalties for the crimes defined by the bill and "there has been no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement." The bill would add resources to prosecute hate crime cases and increase sentences.

Less than two weeks prior, legislation had been introduced in the House to prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill, Employment Non-Discrimination Act (HR-2015) or ENDA, was introduced by openly gay legislators Barney Frank (D-MA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) as well as Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Deborah Pryce (R-OH).

The outlook for passage of this bill is uncertain, to be sure, but I believe it will make it through both chambers and might even survive a presidential veto if "religious" organizations are exempted.

And even before that, in February, The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (HR-1246) was reintroduced in the House of Representatives. This bill would repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and replace it with a statute banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

While all these legislative initiatives hold some promise, and the fact that they may pass either or both houses is sign of progress, the role of the Federal sector on marriage equality is less encouraging.

True, with a Democratic controlled Congress the infamous Federal Marriage Amendment will not be brought up. But DOMA—the Defense of Marriage Act—will stay in tact for now. DOMA restricts Federal benefits to same-sex couples and offers the states the option of not recognizing same-sex couples from other states.

(Oddly, nowhere in the "Defense of Marriage Act" does it ban divorces, out-of-wedlock births, poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and myriad other factors that contribute to a successful marriage rate of only 50 percent.)

Of the 18 declared presidential candidates from both parties, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), a marginal candidate, supports same-sex marriage by saying that no state has a right to abridge basic rights to privacy. The rest of the Democratic candidates scatter from the issue as if a skunk was dropped from a tree at their feet.

The GOP contenders—and boy is that a weak field—will never support it, but Rudy Giuliani at least backed civil unions. He will have difficulty with that issue plus abortion during the Iowa and South Carolina primaries, so look out for a "conversion" or yet another flip-flop from flip-flop prone Republican candidates.

With political fright preventing even traditional supporters of lgbt rights from taking a marriage equality stand and DOMA forever likely to remain in place, where do we go to secure the same rights, benefits and responsibilities that heterosexual couples receive?

The answer may lie in chipping away at the resistance state-by-state. While many states have passed constitutional amendments, most haven’t. Some have civil union arrangements in place or marriage itself as in the case of Massachusetts. Little by little, rights can be gained at the state level and efforts can be made at the Federal level to secure benefits for same-sex couples from such agencies as the IRS and the Social Security Administration.

"Creating a change at the federal level will take some time," said Dan Furmansky, Executive Director of Equality Maryland who, along with the Maryland ACLU, is in the forefront of the quest for marriage equality locally. "A victory in Maryland for marriage equality will be a tremendous step forward nationally for the marriage equality movement, which is far from over."

He added, "The passage of relationship recognition laws in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Oregon are important steps towards marriage, and Connecticut’s judiciary committee just passed a marriage equality bill. There are baby steps, toddler steps, and giant marathon sprints. We hope Maryland will take home the gold."

The battle for equality will be an evolving process from states to the Federal government and back and forth. Historically, that is how rights are gained, and that’s why it’s important to push hard both locally and at the Federal level.