Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reality Check: What Not to Expect in 2008

By Steve Charing

‘Tis the season that most people are brimming with optimism and high hopes that the coming year will be an improvement over the current one on various levels. While no one is suggesting that will not be the case in 2008, there are areas that require a reality check to tamp down false optimism. Conversely, those who maintain a "doom and gloom" mindset may be in for a pleasant surprise in 2008. Here are a few issues that call for a reality check:

THE SMOKING BAN WILL NOT DOOM GAY BARS. Come February 2008 much-needed relief for non-smoking bar patrons in the form of a statewide smoking ban in indoor public establishments will be a welcome arrival. While some bar owners in Baltimore have bemoaned the ban as the first step towards bankruptcy, their pessimism seems unjustified.

As I see it, smokers will, by and large, continue to patronize bars and clubs, as they don’t want to forgo the culture of the bar scene and the social outlet they provide. These folks will find a way to cope, as they have learned to make do in restaurants and in the workplace.

At the same time, people who have for years eschewed the bars, in large part because of the smoky environment, should return. And potentially new younger patrons who have avoided that atmosphere may give bars a look since there will be a healthier environment.

The result of the ban should be a net gain for the owners, and definitely for the customers and employees as well.

DON’T GET SIZED FOR A WEDDING RING YET. Despite the courageous and determined efforts of Equality Maryland and others who are seeking the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland, don’t expect to throw a bouquet 2008. This hot button issue is one that Democrats would prefer to avoid and Republicans want to exploit.

Naturally, Republican state legislators oppose marriage equality; it is in their DNA. But Democrats, who command a huge majority in the General Assembly, are split according to a report by The Gazette.

"It will be an issue, but I think it's an issue whose time has not yet come," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. "For a law like that to move forward, there needs to be a strong body of public opinion, and I don't think it's there yet in a state of moderate temperament like Maryland."

But 2008 should be a year in which we must continue the push to educate the public on marriage equality, separate the issue from religious dogma, and keep the pressure on skittish legislators to do the right thing. In time it will pass but not this coming year.

Take heart, however, that the Dwyer-led threatened constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage won’t make it to the floor for a vote.

WAIT ‘TIL 2009 FOR FEDERAL GAINS IN GAY LGBT RIGHTS. Don’t expect to see Federal hate crimes and employment nondiscrimination legislation to be enacted in 2008. Nor will any possible repeal of the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy take place. Although public opinion is trending towards acceptance of these measures and more members of Congress are supportive, Mr. Bush and his ilk will not allow them to pass on his watch.

It’s also an election year. A better chance for passage will occur in 2009 should Americans elect a more gay-friendly president and the Democratic majority in each chamber increases.

THE GAY MARRIAGE DEBATE WILL NOT DOMINATE LIKE IN 2004. Presidential candidates from both parties will trip over themselves to boast about their devout faith. And neither party will nominate a candidate who will support same-sex marriage since there aren’t any. (Sorry, Dennis. We love you, but you’re not going to be nominated.)

Aside from Iraq, the predominate issue of the upcoming election campaign will be Immigration. This is tricky for Democrats who hope to reel in the Hispanic vote in greater numbers by advocating a more humanitarian approach with dealing with the issue. At the same time, the voters see illegal immigration as a problem. Republicans foam at the mouth like a rabid dog at the mere mention of illegal immigrants.

PULL THE LEVERS ELSEWHERE. If you are like me and enjoy playing the slot machines, don’t expect to see slots pass by referendum in 2008. Our legislators abdicated their duty by throwing the issue out to the voters.

Most Marylanders do not play slots, and there is a concerted, organized effort that crosses party lines to defeat it. Very few sympathize with the racetrack owners, so there won’t be a successful lobbying effort. States that had placed slots on the ballot have seen it lose on four out of five occasions.

People will continue to drive or take buses to neighboring states to enjoy this pastime. The downside of the defeat: taxes will have to increase again to make up for the lost revenue.

NO RELIEF FOR LOCAL SPORTS FANS. And in the world of sports, do not expect to see any relief in the Orioles this coming year. In fact, last place is almost a cinch. The Ravens are unlikely to improve upon the 4-12 season they will have had in 2007. Thank Goodness for Hopkins lacrosse.

Cheers! Despite all this, may 2008 bring good news to write about.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Separating State from the Church

For gays, keeping Huckabee out of the White House is a must.

by Steve Charing

THIS COUNTRY, AND specifically the LGBT community, does not need an Ayatollah sitting in the White House. And that's exactly what we would get if the current flavor-of-the-week, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas should, in comeback fashion, meander his way through the primaries to win the GOP nomination and then upset the Democratic candidate in November of 2008.

We have already experienced a devastating seven years with George W. Bush at the helm, who some have dubbed the "minister-in-chief. While the federal government is technically secular, this president has seen to it that administration policies and personnel meet with the approval of the Christian conservatives who, in no small way, helped to elect him twice and embraced him as one of their own.

You can point to the disproportionate number of Department of Justice employees who have graduated from none other than Rev. Pat Robertson's law school as an example of this influence. Then there was the inappropriate White House-backed intervention in a personal family matter in the Terri Schiavo case. Add that to the successful appointments of two very conservative Supreme Court justices as well as other anti-gay administration appointees who were the darlings of the religious right.

Not to be forgotten and just as egregious for gays was the cynical use of faith-based dollars and other incentives to influence church leaders, including African-American ministers, to rail against "gay marriage" during the 2004 campaign, especially in the battleground state of Ohio to help bolster Republican turnout.

After this Bush presidency you would think the electorate would yearn for a return to secular and competent governance. But on the strength of a friendly persona that contrasts with an immigrant-hating, terrorism-obsessed angry field of GOP competitors and a well-timed but not necessarily funny quip during the recent CNN-YouTube Republican debate, Huckabee, an ordained minister, is seeing his stock rapidly rise.

This is scary, particularly for gays.

HUCKABEE ONCE ADVOCATED for the isolation of people with AIDS from the general population. "If the federal government is truly serious about doing something about the AIDS virus," he wrote, "we need to take steps to isolate the carriers of this plague."

Although he recently backtracked somewhat from that earlier stance saying that there was uncertainty with respect to the transmission of the virus, his pronouncement occurred in 1992, not 1982. By that point in time there was a much better understanding of how HIV was transmitted, that is it cannot be spread by casual contact, but that didn't alter his archaic, bigoted stance.

And why would it? "I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk," Huckabee wrote then.

The religious right has yet to coalesce behind a particular candidate for a variety of reasons. But they are taking a second look at Huckabee and are impressed by his virulent anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage positions. They are beginning to view him as one of their own and with good reason.

TO THIS POWERFUL voting bloc that is crucial in the GOP primaries, John McCain cannot be trusted. Flip-flopping Mitt Romney is a Mormon, which many Christian conservatives regard as a cult. Fred Thompson has had a checkered past with respect to the issue of abortion. And Mr. 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, is way too immoral because of his moderate positions on choice and civil unions, not to mention his two divorces.

They're a sullen bunch, but the sunny Huckabee (read: Reaganesque) with his clergy status and his unabashed Christian dogma is catching on with evangelicals in Iowa, and fast.

Here is a man who admitted on national television during one of the earlier debates that he does not believe in evolution and, therefore, by extension, science. That has to be discouraging to those who have witnessed a president since 2001 who has placed little value in science.
And since Huckabee eschews science by believing in Creationism, how is this going to help solve the global warming crisis that is looming? Or energy independence? Is he simply going to pray for these critical problems to be solved?

The next president will have the opportunity to potentially appoint two, perhaps three justices to the Supreme Court. With a possible Huckabee presidency, you can expect such nominees to be anti-choice and anti-gay. For it would be those positions that will have helped to elect Mike Huckabee.

We cannot afford to have an Ayotollah leading our country—again.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

PFLAG Supports Families, Not Rape

Letter Published in the December 6, 2007 edition of the Baltimore Examiner

I decry The Examiner for publishing the vitriolic letter by Ed Connor on the Dec. 4, “Examiner Spreads PFLAG Propaganda.” PFLAG and Colette Roberts in particular work hard trying to keep families together by supporting parents and families of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered children. It is completely false that PFLAG promotes an agenda or indoctrinates children. Where does Mr. Connor get this? And to equate homosexuality to murder and rape? Clearly this man harbors extreme, irrational views and has cloistered himself in a hateful, bigoted world of yesteryear’s thinking.

Steve Charing
PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County

Monday, December 03, 2007

Why Should Iowa Matter to Gays?

By Steve Charing

The distant state of Iowa will have a profound effect on who will be our next president. For gays and lesbians the 2008 general election will present an opportunity to elect someone to the White House who is not only gay-friendly, but also possessing the will to enact change.

And hopefully a victory will translate into much-needed influence on Capitol Hill for repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT), nondiscrimination in employment (ENDA) and hate crimes legislation among other issues.

The Iowa caucuses on January 3 will be huge for both political parties but more critical for the Democratic candidates. The key state for the GOP will be South Carolina.

Even though Iowa, a small agricultural, mostly rural state, does not have the election-tipping number of electoral votes (7) that presidential candidates covet during the general campaign, it is ground zero for the nominating process simply because it’s first on the calendar. And being first sets the psychological tone as to who is perceived to be a winner and hence, electable.

During the 2004 election cycle, Gov. Howard Dean was heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination until his fall from grace in Iowa (remember the scream?). Sen. John Kerry’s surprisingly strong showing there led the Party to believe that his decorated military service would prove him electable against the hawkish Republican incumbent. Alas, Mr. Kerry and his campaign advisors fooled us all.

The Democrats face a similar scenario in Iowa with Sen. Hillary Clinton solidly ahead in the national polls, and an Iowa victory will ostensibly seal the deal.

But not so fast.

Sen. Barack Obama has gained some palpable momentum heading into Iowa on the wings of a more aggressive campaign. Currently, he leads both Clinton and Sen. John Edwards in the Iowa polls although it is within the margin of error. But an Obama victory there followed by a strong showing in New Hampshire only a few days later could substantially change the dynamic, and the "invincible" label will be peeled off Mrs. Clinton.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, as a gay man, I will support that candidate over any Republican in the field. The GOP offers a group of goofy contenders who basically trip over themselves to show how much they oppose same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT.

Only Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel favor same-sex marriage, but they aren’t given any chance of capturing the nomination. The other Democratic candidates support civil unions or similar arrangements so that gay and lesbian couples can reap many of the benefits that are accorded heterosexual married couples.

That may fall short of our goals, but it is a monumental improvement over anything the Republican candidates have to offer. Notwithstanding same-sex marriage, all the Democratic candidates maintain gay-supportive stances in varying degrees and have disclosed their positions publicly.

But the key issue in the Democratic primaries and caucuses remains electability.

Should any one of the Republican candidates win the presidency, our hopes for any progress will be dashed for at least another four years. Not only would that person have an anti-gay mindset and would be beholden to the religious right for helping him get elected, he will also be in a position to potentially appoint two more justices to the Supreme Court, who, as expected would be conservative and anti-gay. It would seem like the Second Coming of George W. Bush.

John Edwards might do well in Iowa, but he lacks the fundraising capacity to remain competitive elsewhere. Assuming the two leading Democratic candidates remaining are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I must support Mr. Obama. Keeping in mind the dangers of a Republican win, Hillary, in my view, is not electable.

She has more baggage than a Heathrow Airport luggage carrousel and is not likable—big time hurdles in trying to win an election. The Republicans’ hatred of her husband; her sometimes abrasive personality, her ever-changing policy positions that do not seem to be borne from conviction, and her perceived "liberal" stances are problematic except for those on the left. Hillary is polarizing, as polls already indicate that half the country wouldn’t vote for her under any circumstances. In polispeak, she has too many negatives.

Although the GOP is dispirited, and rightly so, from the incompetent and devastating two terms of the Bush presidency, nothing will fuse them together better than a run at Hillary. They have already amassed an arsenal of smear attacks to do her in.

The far more likable Obama faces the uphill struggle of being an African-American seeking the top job and having limited Washington experience. But I think he can beat any GOP nominee in this weak field, especially if he can knock off Hillary and her mighty political apparatus. He is fresh, he is seeking to effect needed change, and he could garner a majority of the ever-important independent and moderate vote.

Yes, Obama demonstrated insensitivity to the LGBT community when he allowed the so-called ex-gay and now anti-gay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin to join him on a campaign tour in South Carolina. He did express his disagreement with the views of McClurkin as it pertains to gays and lesbians. And I also understand Obama’s need to share a stage with a popular gospel singer to appeal to gospel-loving African-Americans whose votes he must court and are crucial.

But overall, I do like his positions on gay-related issues as well as the other important issues of our time. I believe Obama is sincere with his religious rationale for not supporting same-sex "marriage," but he has been clear in advocating all the benefits that could be available through civil marriage. Moreover, he not only supports a repeal DADT, but he has been explicit as to what means he will undertake to oversee its demise.

The Republicans already have an appalling record on equality for gays and lesbians and ending discrimination. They have demonstrated that they cannot be counted on to help our cause. Instead, they created a wedge issue like "gay marriage" to bludgeon gays and lesbians and set us back.

While nowhere near perfect, the Democrats provide our best hope. The Democratic nominee must come to terms with the major issues facing the country and articulate solutions. At the same time he or she must be able to duck the mud the GOP is known for slinging. Such a candidate must be strong and electable.

While nothing is definite, I believe the results of the Iowa caucuses will give us a pretty good idea as to who that candidate might be. And personally, I hope it’s Barack Obama. We need to nominate an electable Democrat because we simply cannot afford the risk of another Republican in the White House—for the sake of the lgbt community and the country at large.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Steve Smith: Hitting the Right Notes at Karaoke

by Steve Charing

There are no American Idol-style judges. Nobody gets booted off the show. No one is forced to embarrass him or herself unless it’s by choice. Yet Friday night Karaoke at the Hippo has become a fun tradition for several years.

Led by the self-described “Barbra Streisand stalker,” Steve Smith of Arbutus, this good-old-fashioned Karaoke party has enjoyed a successful run. The dim lighting in the Club Hippo’s Video Bar plus the small stage that stands in front of spread out cocktail tables provide a nostalgic cabaret atmosphere.

Over the years, there have been great and not-so great performers. But no matter the level of talent, everybody comes to Karaoke to have a good time, unwinding from a week of work. They come to sing and/or hear others entertain while sipping cocktails. They sing along to the lyrics of songs that are displayed all over the walls and screens that encircle the room. It’s high energy and good times. And the emcee, Steve Smith, is as integral a reason for the success as anything else.

“He’s makes [Karaoke] a lot of fun,” says Alan from Baltimore who has been a regular for at least two years and enjoys the atmosphere. “Steve is very funny behind the mic and keeps the show moving at a good pace.” Adds Gary of Baltimore who is a long-time regular at Karaoke, “I like the way he makes the show for the crowd. He does it for them, not just for him.”

Indeed, Steve separates himself from others who have performed similar roles in Karaoke. While many Karaoke emcees are in full drag or dominate the stage during the performances by cutting in to sing along with the performer or otherwise focus the attention on themselves, Steve has the knack of letting the vocalist singularly relish the spotlight.

Steve, who is by day a bartender at Outback Steakhouse, simply introduces each singer and applauds upon the song’s conclusion regardless of the quality of the rendition. His wit plays well during the transitional moments between numbers, which keeps the energy level up and the pace steady. “He is friendly and wants to keep the regulars happy,” says Rachel from Towson who has been a patron of Karaoke at the Hippo for six months and a frequent singer on the stage.

Although the show is billed as “Carol and Friends,” referring to another one of Steve’s heroines, Carol Burnett, he does not do the show in drag. He does, however, dress up as Carol, in particular the character Eunice, on Halloween.

Steve will sing a couple of numbers himself as part of the show. Though no one will mistake him for Josh Groban, Steve is a serviceable vocalist who radiates warmth and passion as he performs.

He was never trained classically, but all of his music education came from the television, radio and his record player. While his brother was listening to Kiss, Zeppelin and the Stones, his sister was listening to Barry Manilow and the Beatles. But it was his parents’ collection that held his interest. “Dionne Warwick, Vikki Carr, and of course, Streisand. These women sang! I wanted to do that,” he explains.

“There is a lot of angst growing up gay,” says Steve. “But when I heard these bombastic voices that could turn to a gentle caressing whisper, none of the angst was there. Then the first time I tried to sing with them, I didn't know or care if it was good or bad, but it was the most comfortable liberating thing I had ever done. There was something therapeutic about releasing all my emotions through song.”

He never really sang too much around people when he was younger. Steve says he was very shy and continues to be so to a degree, but he felt liberated by Karaoke.

“The first time I sang Karaoke was the same place I work for now,” Steve says. “Many years ago when Mary Costello was the hostess, I got up the nerve and did it. It was really bad, but it felt really good. It was a new beginning of sorts. I was at the end of a painful separation and trying to get my bearings again. Although singing didn't fix all my problems, the joy I got from it put them more into perspective.”

He has been running Karaoke at the Hippo for just over two years. Hippo owner Chuck Bowers told OUTloud that he “considers ‘Carol’ (Steve) to be an asset to the community with his energy, personality and talent.”

Born and raised in South Baltimore, Steve’s childhood was fun and filled with the normal activities, such as sports and games. “I found myself to be the happiest however, when I was doing something musical,” he says. “My family loved music—all kinds. My grandmother and uncle were a nightclub act: he played the sax and she sang in a beautiful soprano voice. As a matter of fact my grandmother introduced the great song ‘My Buddy’ to Baltimore radio. She sang on radio many times.”

Steve adds, “My mother and father were jitterbug champions and my mother was a dancer on the Buddy Deane show, she sang with the Maryland State Choir. Music was always there.”

He carries this background and desire to entertain to the stage. He is humble and grateful that Hippo owner Chuck Bowers afforded him the opportunity to do his thing.

“My show is at times a reflection of myself,” Steve points out. “Sometimes disheveled, but with a single purpose of creating fun and happiness through music. You don't have to be a great singer to sing at my show. You can be horrible, and I'll still applaud you. My show is fun and all-inclusive.

“Come enjoy the cathartic experience of singing your song,” he implores. “Whatever song it is, sing it strong, proud and loud! Music is everyone's gift to enjoy!”

And Steve Smith, er Carol, will make it fun.