Monday, September 21, 2009

The Rainbow Glass is Half Full

What a vein-popping summer! Such anger, such hatred. This vitriol is mainly centered on the tug-of-war battle concerning health-care reform. Other interest groups are still angry and frustrated because their priorities haven’t been acted upon in the first 8 months of this administration. LGBT activists, immigration reform folks and environmentalists all have gripes with this administration and Congress.

It’s not a happy time with a slow economy and joblessness serving as the backdrop. And health-care proposals—fact and fiction—are keeping the dialogue hot.

We hear the contradictory epithets of "Nazi!" "Fascist!" "Radical!" "Socialist!" "Communist!" and "Terrorist!" Many nasty signs have been hoisted and yes, some messages were racist—all being ascribed to President Obama. Some have even taken to calling Obama "homophobe." It makes me long for the days when "Liberal" was considered to be a dirty slur, the former ultimate insult aside from "faggot."

Everyone is in a sour mood it seems, including me because of the idiots dominating the debate. But I was uplifted when I recently saw the images of Ellen DeGeneres interviewing her guest Neil Patrick Harris on her show.

It was a needed burst of fresh air for sure and a calming influence. Two out gay people on national television, comfortable in their own skin and wildly successful both in their personal lives and professionally. They have reached the heights in their respective careers and have broad appeal across most demographic groups.

And add the fact that Ellen has been named as a judge on American Idol—the highest rated show on TV—and Harris was handed the high-profile hosting job at the Emmys, following his splendid performance emceeing the Tony Award extravaganza this spring. Wow!

I reflected upon the progress that we are making when you see these two gay stars on the set together during a popular TV show. This would not have been possible 40, 30 or even 20 years ago. Is this symbolic of our finally turning the corner and on the path towards equality? We’ll find out, won’t we?

Gay activists, impatient with the workings of government and the political sludge that gums up the gears of progress, will be taking to the streets at the National Equality March on Washington October 10-11. Using Obama’s campaign pledges and the current lack of substantive results as the fuel, the marchers and demonstrators will be calling for several main initiatives that are at the top of the must-have list.

Among them is the Matthew Sheppard Hate Crimes bill. Introduced once again, the bill has passed both houses in Congress and is awaiting a conference committee to iron out the details. This should pass this year and the President will sign it.

The Employee Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA was also introduced in the 111th Congress by Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in the House with 117 original co-sponsors. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Again, the President will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

A bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA was just introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Jared Polis (D-CO). Again, despite the administration’s all-too-vigorous defense of DOMA during litigation, Obama had campaigned to repeal the entire law.

This measure will have to navigate through tricky terrain, however, as legislators can and will be politically attacked for supporting the weakening of the institution of marriage as well as the other canards to be expected during the debate.

Frankly, I am surprised this bill was introduced this soon. It could very well be as a result of the anger that LGBT activists have levied towards the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress for scant progress.

As reported in the Washington Blade, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) expects that House hearings on the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy will begin early next year. On the Senate side, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), announced plans this summer for a fall hearing, according to the Blade. Rep. Barney Frank predicts that Congress will repeal the law in 2010.

These are all promising signs. Nonetheless, we must be cautious about our optimism because ENDA, for example, has been languishing in Congress for three decades. We need all of us to keep the pressure on Congress and the President to act swiftly on these measures. We must not let up.

But the prospects are certainly brighter today. Public opinion is on our side on all of these initiatives and that helps our elected officials who are not dominated by right-wing dogma to make the right decisions.

We have a President, who despite the misplaced anger by some of our lgbt friends, will do right by us. We have openly gay celebrities not just taking up our cause but maintaining high visibility without threatened boycotts and other anti-gay backlash.

At this point in time, I say our rainbow glass is half full, and filling up more day by day, albeit slowly.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Can Ellen Save American Idol?

When it was confirmed that Ellen DeGeneres, arguably America’s favorite lesbian, replaced Paula Abdul as the fourth judge on American Idol’s fabled panel, media observers were wondering if this was a smart move for the show or not.

Can someone who is not a music expert adequately judge singing contestants (in the early rounds) and critique (in the final 13)? Will Ellen overplay her incredible personality and dominate the panel? Will she blend in well with the other panelists? Will the audience miss Paula by the sixth week?

In my view and having been an Idol fan since Season 2, I think the choice was a coup for the show. Ellen DeGeneres has a sparkling wit and smooth charm matched by few others. While not a music expert despite her frequent dancing on her daytime show, Ellen, what she brings to the table is the perspective of the average audience member, if there is indeed such a category.

Randy "Dawg" Jackson is a loveable, colorful record producer and musician whose musical props are well established. Last season’s new (but unnecessary) judge, Kara DioGuardi, is attractive and spunky and also has a strong musical background.

Caustic Simon Cowell—the true draw on the show with his brutal honesty—has been a TV producer for years and has a keen ability to recognize talent—good or bad.

These are all exemplary qualifications for the panel. Ellen will be able to critique, however, from a fan’s point of view—something that hasn’t been tried before.

In replacing loopy Paula Abdul, Ellen offers sharp, droll unpredictability contrasted to Paula’s sappy predictability. Rarely did the oft-verbose Paula choose to zero in on the obvious flaws of a contestant. Rather, she usurped her time by praising the wardrobe or hairstyle of a contestant whose performance may have left a lot to be desired.

Paula sought to be liked. And that irked her acid-tongue foil on the panel, Simon, for his mission was to be disliked.

Being an out lesbian on the panel may mitigate the all-too-frequent homophobic jibes that Simon launches at Ryan. While not mean in its content, it once again reinforces those pesky stereotypes that are still out there.

Although American Idol has topped the ratings charts each season, there is a sense among the producers that the show is in decline. To be sure, the actual viewership is eroding if you look at the raw numbers.

There is a palpable concern that the audience is experiencing American Idol "fatigue" and that the show has a limited life span. Indeed, the panelists’ contracts are always a source of drama, and if a mainstay like Simon Cowell should depart, which has been a real threat for the past two or three years, it could sink like a stone.

For these reasons, the producers have tinkered with the original winning formula and added the fourth judge among other tweaks. What they have not remedied is the flawed and seemingly unfair voting process whereby "tweens" and others can text in their votes by the hundreds because of their passion towards a particular contestant.

There have been unconfirmed reports that Clay Aiken’s home state of North Carolina was virtually blocked out of the voting during the finals due to "technological" reasons. Similar horror stories surfaced concerning the voting in this past season’s final between the charismatic and talented (and yes, gay) Adam Lambert and the boy-next-door crooner Kris Allen. Some have even suspected the outcome is rigged.

Nonetheless, notice how all the buzz on the recent Idol tour was about Lambert as opposed to Allen. Look at the commercial success of Aiken compared to Ruben Studdard—his competitor and winner of Idol’s second season. Does winning the title actually matter? Or is talent and popularity the real winning formula?

As we embark on Season 9, Ellen DeGeneres is expected to create buzz of her own. In show business, buzz, especially if positive, often equals success.

Ellen should save American Idol, at least for now.