Monday, February 25, 2008

Sometimes stereotype is the enemy, and sometimes it’s us

By Steve Charing

Following our last Pride, a letter writer to this publication found it embarrassing to bring his straight friends to the parade because of the antics and attire of some of the marchers. In a column that responded to this and other criticisms, I had agreed with him that some over-the-top parade participants could be detrimental to our cause. They play into the hands of our opponents.

Footage of these events that focus on the more extreme attire and flamboyant behavior has been co-opted by religious and social conservatives in an effort to suppress our progress towards equality. They use these images primarily to shock "middle America" and instill fear. Some of it is in bad taste, I opined, and not conducive to a parade that has increasingly attracted children.

What appears to be lost among those who buy into the stereotype that gays and lesbians are obsessed with leather, cross-dressing and other fetishes, is that heterosexuals are far more likely to engage in that activity. But straight people do it privately and do not march in parades that showcase their fetishes.

This is one among various stereotypes that hurt us. At a time when the General Assembly is currently considering several bills that would legalize same-sex marriage or offer some intermediary measures to provide legal protections for gay and lesbian couples, the opposition clings to stereotypes to counter the arguments for fairness, equality and justice.

Republican State Senator Janet Greenip of Anne Arundel County is a staunch opponent of anything that provides recognition to gay and lesbian couples. Recently, she expressed her views on WAMU’s radio talk show and was quick to grab onto a stereotype to bolster her feeble arguments. "Children do not do well with one parent. Children need to have two parents: a mother and a father," she said.

While it is true that children do appear to have less developmental problems with two parents, there is no evidence whatsoever that they would be hurt by having two same-gender parents. Sen. Greenip would not agree. The stereotype, of course, is that gay or lesbian parents would be unhealthy for children, and it is used frequently by other opponents of same-sex marriage.

Our adversaries embrace other stereotypes as well. The Larry Craig restroom episode last year solidified the thinking that gay men will go anywhere to have sex, even in public facilities. The problem is that the vast majority of these incidents, according to police sources, involve either straight men on the down low or others that simply would not admit they are gay, as Sen. Craig alleged to a skeptical public.

For years, gay rights opponents berated our community by pushing the stereotype that we are promiscuous animals who lead a dirty, unhealthy "lifestyle." Strange that when nearly 8,000 gay and lesbian couples in Maryland, who in a study, indicated they would marry if permitted, that level of commitment isn’t acknowledged by the opponents and instead, they use other forms of stereotyping to blunt our message and progress.

One of these is that gay men are predators and seek out pre-teens or teens for sex. Unfortunately, there is some truth to that but not anywhere as prevalent as our opponents think.

The problem is that they confuse pedophilia with being gay, but make no mistake, there are a number of gays who either are pedophiles or seek out teens. This reputation was boosted by the sex scandals plaguing the Catholic Church and the high-profile revelation that former Congressman Mark Foley, a gay man, made advances to a 16 year-old through the Internet. His actions were not technically illegal, but the ramifications were considerable in that it was a stain on our community, and it cost him his job in Congress.

Although incidents of improper sexual conduct in schools far more often than not involve straight teachers, many parents tend to object to gays or lesbians teaching in schools. Not only do they assume and fear that gays will accost the children, they are also concerned that these teachers would "promote the homosexual lifestyle" and legitimize it in class. This, too, is a painful and damaging stereotype.

When a high-profile figure is nabbed for illegal sexual conduct with an underage individual, the immediate knee-jerk reaction by the public is that it must be gay-related, even if the details of the victim and circumstances are not revealed. People seem to be more comfortable blaming gays for perverted acts and not as outraged when the culprit is heterosexual.

But every time a gay man is accused or charged with engaging in sexual activities with a minor, it reinforces the stereotype and gives more comfort to an ignorant public. The gay involvement could represent a small percentage of such incidents, but that doesn’t matter. The imagery of gays preying upon the young is what the country generally perceives, and it hurts us all.

Most of these stereotypes have a degree of truth in them. It doesn’t matter how small. The fact is our opponents depend on them to make their case against us. As long as we live up to the stereotypes, our mountain will be that much steeper to climb.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Democrats have their flaws, but they are our best chance for progress.
by Steve Charing

SOME GAY ACTIVISTS and observers continue to wring their hands and wag their fingers at the Democrat-led Congress for failing to achieve any substantive results midway through the term. They condemn the tepid LGBT-related stances taken by the DNC and accuse the Democrats of taking our community for granted.

To make a point, these folks consider "punishing" the Dems by withholding contributions, not voting for the party’s candidates or worse, voting for GOP candidates. But they are doing so at their own peril. They truly need to see the bigger picture, which is that of a giant elephant in the room called the Republican Party.

As we hear every four years, this presidential election will be another significant one for the LGBT community. But this time around, we are on the cusp of actually making substantive progress in the Federal arena.

An acceptable version of ENDA would be welcome for starters—something that has languished for over three decades. A repeal of the insidious "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy has a good chance. And a hate crime bill that will include sexual orientation is ever so close.

But absolutely none of these will succeed if John McCain is our next president. A Democratic victory—either by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama—could be part of a Democratic movement that may bolster their existing but not yet dominating majorities in both houses of Congress.

Despite the debatable accusations that the Democrats take us for granted, who would gays rather see in the White House? For their part, Clinton and Obama back those potential initiatives. Moreover, they would like to see at least the nefarious portions of DOMA repealed (even though that’s a pipe dream). While they do not favor same-sex marriage, both indicated support for civil unions with Federal benefits.

OBAMA CHIDES THE Republicans in his stump speech for dividing the electorate and specifically cites "gay and straight" as an example of these divisions. He has also tried to address, in a public way, homophobia among African-American ministers. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, maintains strong popularity among gays.

Nearly all of the Republican candidates had been generally anti-gay, especially in their pronounced support of the Federal Marriage Amendment. McCain, to his credit, had opposed the FMA. But watch out!

John McCain is held in suspicion by many of the GOP’s hard line conservatives; they simply don’t trust him based on his record on taxes, immigration and gay marriage. To goose up the enthusiasm within the party’s faithful and placate his critics, McCain will either veer to the right on these issues or select a vice-presidential candidate who can shore up the potent religious right wing.

Mike Huckabee—you know, the man who would have "quarantined" AIDS patients—is still in the race as a way to burnish his vote-getting ability and to impress upon McCain and the party’s big shots that he is the best choice for VP. That’s not likely to happen though.

While Huckabee is the darling of the evangelicals because of his clear views on abortion, gays and marriage, he lacks other conservative credentials regarding immigration and taxes. Plus his populist views on the economy don’t sit well with deficit hawks.

BUT SOMEONE WHO has a broader conservative appeal, especially a person who is Huckabee-like on social issues, will be on McCain’s ticket. Gays again stand to be demonized, and it will be more evident should the California State Supreme Court rule favorably on same-sex marriage during the campaign. You know where a McCain-Huckabee-clone ticket will stand.

On the surface, the GOP is in trouble moving forward. While Clinton and Obama duke it out in the coming months, the Republicans can coalesce, albeit unenthusiastically, behind McCain. But they must face an electorate who winces at the prospect that the war in Iraq could go on for as much as 100 years as McCain believes would be necessary to "win." Furthermore, the country’s economic woes will easily be tied to President Bush’s stewardship of the economy.

Nonetheless, a Clinton candidacy will mobilize the GOP faithful like no other, and with McCain’s ability to draw independents to the fold, the Republicans could overcome the policy weaknesses and still pull it out.

That would be horrific for the LGBT community. It would mean one term of McCain, and his right wing VP in position for eight more years.

If nothing else would bother those LGBT activists who deride the Democratic Party, the thought of McCain and Co. selecting two to three more justices to the Supreme Court should.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Warnings of Atacks an Election-year Ploy

Letter Published in the
Feb. 19, 2008 issue of the Baltimore Sun

You know we're approaching election time when President Bush sounds the alarm about the prospect of an imminent terrorist attack ("President warns of fresh attacks," Feb. 14).

Recall in 2004 when, as Mr. Bush was in a tight presidential race with Sen. John Kerry, we were treated to frequent color-coded alerts that were aimed to instill fear in the American people.

Then recall how those alerts have all but disappeared ever since that election.

But in trying to persuade Democratic members of the House of Representatives to support the version of legislation that would renew the surveillance law that Mr. Bush supports, the president said, "At this moment, somewhere in the world, terrorists are planning new attacks on our country. The goal is to bring destruction to our shores that will make September the 11th pale by comparison."

New attacks being planned somewhere in the world? How can that be?

Isn't part of Mr. Bush's current rationale for continuing his war in Iraq predicated on his mantra that if we fight the terrorists there, we won't have to fight them here?

Why, then, should we fear that terrorists elsewhere are planning an attack?

Which is it, Mr. President?

Steve Charing

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jay’s on Read Sold but Nothing Will Change

By Steve Charing

David Nash (r.) and Linda Swift (c.), a straight couple from Boston, visited Baltimore last year on business. They happened to come across Jay’s on Read, the popular upscale Mount Vernon piano bar that has been a mainstay in the local gay scene since August 2006.
The couple returned several times as customers. David noted, "We enjoy the crowd here. It’s a good place to have fun."

The couple fell in love with the tavern-style, warm atmosphere and the mixed, mature clientele that Jay’s featured. They had been looking at some 20 bars and pubs in the Baltimore area that had been on sale and were seeking one to call their own. "This is it," said Linda following their visits to Jay’s.

The problem was, Jay’s wasn’t on the market. But by sheer coincidence, the realtor for the Nash-Swift couple knew the realtor of Jay’s owner, Jay Lamont (l.), and both happened to be customers of Jay’s as well. The two realtors met several times about a possible transaction.

"They made an offer I couldn’t refuse," said Lamont. He wasn’t planning to sell the business this soon but realized that at his age he would like to stop working 70-hour weeks and do some relaxing of his own.

Jay Lamont had always wanted to buy a building downtown and start a business—especially a place where the clientele would feel more comfortable in a quieter atmosphere. When the offer was made during the Christmas holidays, he thought, "I achieved that goal and want to enjoy the rest of my life," he told OUTloud. "Now I want to be a customer." Lamont will continue to own the building where the bar is housed.

As the new owners officially take over on March 3, it is important to note that there will be no changes on the horizon. That also includes the name of the bar, which will remain Jay’s on Read.

All the employees and performers will be retained, and the transition should be seamless. "Jay has been a big help getting us acquainted with the business and customers," said Linda. "Jay has done a terrific job, so there’s no need to change anything." Added, David, "If it’s not broken, don’t fix it."

David Nash and Linda Swift are very much in tune to the gay scene having visited many gay establishments over the years, particularly in Provincetown, and have quite a few gay and lesbian friends. They know the market.

Prior to the official transfer of ownership, Jay’s will launch Karaoke on Wednesday evening, February 20. It will be emceed by Steve Smith who has successfully performed the same role at the Hippo for over two years.

Otherwise, Jay’s on Read will continue its tradition of cheerful piano entertainment and sing-alongs with no cover charge during its regular hours 4:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday.

Linda, who also runs an antique shop in Edgemere and lives with David in Sparrows Point, is so happy and excited about this new opportunity. "We just want people to come in and be comfortable."

That, too, will not change.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cold Lobby Day Heats Up Annapolis

Activists take the fight to lawmakers

By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst

The bitter, sub-freezing temperatures pushed down further by a wispy breeze failed to chill the hearts and determination of several hundred marriage equality and lgbt rights activists at Equality Maryland’s annual Lobby Day on February 11. Over 500 had pre-registered for the event.

On a day that ironically marked the 50th birthday of Delegate Donald H. Dwyer, Jr. (R-Anne Arundel), a diehard foe of gay rights, people from all over the state and from all walks of life descended upon Annapolis. The rally, which took place at its traditional location at Lawyer’s Mall in front of the State House, saw for the first time all four of the openly gay lawmakers address a Lobby Day crowd.

Senator Rich Madaleno (Montgomery) and Delegates Maggie McIntosh (Baltimore City), Heather Mizeur (Montgomery) and Anne Kaiser (Montgomery)—all Democrats and sponsors of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act (SB 290 and HB 351) that was recently introduced— assured the shivering throng that they will fight for marriage equality. "The only resolution is full civil marriage," Senator Madaleno proclaimed to the cheering crowd as a signal that the less effective concept of civil unions is not the goal.

The bill takes on added significance as the state’s Court of Appeals, by a razor thin 4-3 ruling last September, upheld the 35 year-old state law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The decision left the matter to be decided by the legislature.

Bill sponsors Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery) and Delegate Todd Schuler (D-Baltimore Co.)-both straight-also addressed the rally and explained that nothing short of civil marriage would bring equality.

Other speakers included Dan Furmansky, Executive Director of Equality Maryland; Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland; Rev. Andrew Foster Connors (Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian, Baltimore); Civil Rights leader Elbridge James, co-founder of the Maryland Black Family Alliance; and June White Dillard of the Prince George’s branch of the NAACP who announced her organization’s important support of the legislation.

Lead sponsor Del. Benjamin Barnes (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George's) and Co-Sponsor Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) stood behind the podium to demonstrate their solidarity in backing the bill.
In addition, transgender activist Mara Drummond made a moving plea to end discrimination based on gender identity and expression. A bill to accomplish that died in committee last year by a single vote when Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) backtracked from an earlier commitment and voted against the measure.

To accomplish this agenda, the lawmakers urged gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered folks plus supportive straight allies to educate the other legislators about the fairness that civil marriage would bring to some 15,000 lgbt couples in Maryland and to press for an anti-discrimination measure for transgendered citizens.

In that regard, over 115 meeting appointments were scheduled to help persuade wavering lawmakers by detailing how the status quo is harmful to individuals and their families. They also thanked those who are supporting the cause. Letters (especially hand written), e-mails and phone calls are among the other tools that were encouraged to educate the legislators on the issues and express support for these bills.

Following the rally, the crowd dispersed to meet with their district legislators. There have been reports that positive impressions were made even on opponents of marriage equality.

In Districts 5B and 9B (Carroll County), for example, a petition supporting same-sex civil marriage signed by over 400 students from St. Mary’s College—more than a quarter of the total enrollment—was presented to Republican Dels. Wade Kach and Susan Krebs. "We see no reason why there is an issue here," said one of the students. "Our generation supports marriage equality."

Although the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act is the centerpiece of Equality Maryland’s agenda during the 2008 General Assembly, other efforts to secure rights and legal protections for gay and lesbian couples are underway. And a bill to end discrimination based on gender identity and expression will be introduced once again.

These initiatives include Health Care Facility Visitation and Medical Decisions (HB 733 and SB 566), Recordation and Transfer Tax Exemption (HB 746 and SB 597), and the Inheritance Tax Exemption (HB 668 and SB 523).

Moreover, Del. Dwyer and his homophobic colleagues have, as has been the custom, introduced legislation to enact a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman (HB 1345 and SB 169). Other forms of same-sex partner recognition would also be banned in the bill. Experts do not believe that this effort stands much of a chance of making any headway.

(Information concerning the background and status of these bills as well as ways you can help are on Equality Maryland’s website

Kudos go to Equality Maryland for its organizing Lobby Day and arranging its line-up of distinguished speakers, who, because of the uncomfortable temperatures, kept their remarks brief. The organization deserves much credit and gratitude for setting up a warm sanctuary inside the Senate Building and providing refreshments between legislative appointments.

And praise should also be heaped on the hundreds of lgbt activists and fair-minded allies for supporting the event and enduring the weather conditions to make their voices heard. One participant noted, "It was extremely cold, but I’m glad I was here to put some heat on my legislators."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

PFLAG Works to Keep Families Together

Published in the February 2008 issue of The Business Monthly

by Steve Charing

Most businesses target their marketing strategies towards families. Myriad services and products are offered the consumer with the family in mind. From restaurants to tax services, appliances to health care, the effects of these goods and services on families are keys to success.

Families that remain intact better serve the general economy. Strong families are the engines that make the economy run. A fractured family, whether it is caused by domestic conflict, economic uncertainty, substance abuse or poor health, will reduce the likelihood that goods and services, other than essentials, will be sought.

At the Columbia/Howard County chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) - an all-volunteer organization - the overall mission is to keep families together through support, education and advocacy. But even in a progressive area such as Howard County, there is family discord stemming from homophobia.

Dealing With Cries for Help
Over the years, PFLAG chapter chair Colette Roberts, who is the point of contact for most inquiries, has taken countless phone calls - many during the middle of the night - from parents who have difficulty in dealing with the discovery that their child is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT). In addition, there have been frantic, emotional and sometimes desperate calls from teenagers who found that not only were their parents not accepting of this new information, they also were hostile.

Using her 12-plus years of experience in dealing with such cries for help, Roberts - a recipient of Howard County's 2007 Human Relations Commission award - attempts to diffuse the emotional trauma that triggered the call. In most instances, the parents are invited to a PFLAG support meeting. There they can meet other parents who initially had experienced consternation and have ultimately found acceptance of their child's sexual orientation.

Other situations can be more critical. Because some parents actually have evicted their children, Roberts has worked with community services and individuals to seek placement for these children until stability was restored within the family. In cases where the crisis appeared to be acute, referrals were made to social service agencies such as the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

A large number of parents have attended PFLAG meetings over the years and have learned that they are not alone. They have been comforted by others who have traveled the same journey. The parents come to the realization that it is OK if their child is gay - that their love is unconditional. The same love and respect they have for their straight children also applies to their GLBT sons and daughters.

Legal and Social Disadvantages
PFLAG's interest in keeping families together extends to GLBT couples. Today's families are no longer exclusively in the "Ozzie and Harriet" model. There are various types of family arrangements that contribute to the economy: single-parent families, blended families, extended families, foster families and adoptive families are examples.

There are also same-sex couples that are linked by love and commitment as well as economic ties. According to Susan Leviton, founder of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth, there are more than 15,000 same-sex couples in the state of Maryland and between one-quarter and one-third are raising children. But in Maryland there is no marriage equality under the law.

Lacking the more than 1,100 benefits, rights and responsibilities that are afforded heterosexual couples, not only are same-sex partners denied legal protections, but the children who are being raised are also at a major disadvantage. Aside from the social consequences from families being relegated to unequal and second-class status, the economic impact must be considered.

Stable Families Contribute Economically
Corporations have seen the economic benefits of stable families, regardless of their composition. The Human Rights Campaign, a nonpartisan GLBT civil rights organization, reports that, of the 500 companies which compose the Fortune 500, nearly 90% have anti-discrimination policies in effect with respect to sexual orientation, 30% prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and more than 50% provide domestic partner health insurance benefits to their employees.

Moreover, the higher a company ranks on Fortune magazine's list of the most successful businesses, the more likely it is to provide comprehensive protections and benefits to GLBT employees.

Howard County government, the Howard County Public School System, the Columbia Association and Howard Community College are among the public and private institutions that recognize the contributions stable families bring to the community and have offered domestic partnership benefits.

"Employees are far more productive when they don't have to sit and worry at work about how they are going to cope financially with a partner's illness," said Dan McCarthy, co-chair of PFLAG - Columbia/Howard County's Advocacy Committee, who has performed research on the issue. "It makes good business sense to allow the employees to concentrate on their jobs and perform at the desired levels. Plus it allows companies to compete with others in recruiting and retaining highly qualified employees." He added, "All this at a relatively nominal cost."

PFLAG - Columbia/Howard County, through its advocacy work, was instrumental in gaining these benefits. It is another way the chapter strives to keep families together, and it's good for business, too.

Legal Clinic Representative Visits Howard LGBT Youth Group

by Steve Charing

Aaron Merki, a student at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, spoke before the Rainbow Youth Alliance (RYA)—the youth group under the auspices of PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County—on the evening of January 22.
Some 20 members of the RYA heard Merki discuss the formation of a new legal clinic in Baltimore currently called the Free State Law Project, which will serve LGBT youth in need as well as other members of the community who are facing discrimination.

Merki, a Free State steering committee member, sees the clinic as a way of ending a pattern of neglect for the underprivileged. "If there is a neglected, forgotten community in Baltimore, it is this one; especially the hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless lgbt youth in Baltimore City and around the state," Merki told OUTloud. "Often they are sick, malnourished, abandoned by friends and family, and forced even to prostitute themselves in order to shower and eat."

He added that the problem is especially acute with transgendered youth. "They are typically not accepted in or kicked out of foster homes and must survive on the streets."

The members of the RYA were clearly moved by Merki’s portrait of their lgbt peers in distress and they wanted to do their part to help. One girl said she would ask her father, who is a dean of a local community college, to assist with outreach to the many transgendered students in the school.

Others filled out a sheet of paper with their names and services they could provide Free State. They offered such assistance as web design, fundraising, paperwork, needs assessment and community outreach. All told, over a dozen RYA members indicated their willingness to help Free State in a variety of ways. RYA co-facilitator Jason Hillis presented Merki with the list of volunteers following the discussion.

"The RYA was warm and engaging, inspirational," said Aaron Merki following the meeting. "I was able to share about our project and hear their ideas. Many of them are interested in volunteering, in one way or another."

If all goes well with funding and other issues, the legal clinic is scheduled to open in September 2008.

Photo: Aaron Merki (l.) accepts list of volunteers from RYA co-facilitator Jason Hillis.