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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community. I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ jo...

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Trans Students, Allies Fighting for Safe Schools in Frederick

Lawsuit takes aim at protections passed by school board

Mark Procopio, Executive Director of FreeState Justice
Kaden is a 27 year-old transgender man (FTM) who works in Frederick, Md.  As part of the transgender student-led “Support FCPS [Frederick County Public Schools] Trans Students” Facebook page , Kaden posted that trans people from all over the U.S. face difficult challenges, such as “violence towards the community, employment discrimination, bullying” among others. 

He feels that these issues “stem from the mindset that trans people are the ‘other’ and maybe we don’t need to respect them or we can view them as inferior because they are different.” 

Visibility, advocacy and education, says Kaden, are the keys for Frederick residents to support their transgender neighbors.  This is especially important for transgender students.

To help foster this visibility as well as educate the public and build support, the “Support FCPS Trans Students” Facebook page has served as a platform to launch a campaign last spring called #IAmFrederick. The effort is aimed at bringing together trans students, family members, and allies to work towards better safe schools for transgender students.

    Kaden urges visibility.
Photo courtesy of Facebook
Kaden is among a diverse group of people—trans students, allies, family members, educators and counselors—who have participated in this campaign on both Facebook and Instagram whereby supporters are photographed holding up a certificate labeled #IAmFrederick and underneath write why they support trans youth.

This alliance successfully lobbied the Frederick Board of Education for Policy 443, a policy which would protect trans and gender non-conforming students by affirming their student rights.  More specifically, the policy allows students to choose the restroom based on their gender identity as well as participate in sports that are consistent with their gender identity. It would also allow students the opportunity to room with others according to their gender identity. The Board saw to it that privacy rights for all students are protected.

With overwhelming community support, Policy 443 was approved in June. 

“This policy, one of the most affirming of any county school system in the state, protects students from bullying, supports student privacy, and ensures that Frederick schools are safe and welcoming for all students,” said Mark Procopio, Executive Director of FreeState Justice, a legal advocacy organization that seeks to improve the lives of low-income LGBT Marylanders.  “It is a great victory for the student leaders who led the effort.”

A trans youth. Photo courtesy of Facebook
As I reported in the Washington Blade in August, a federal lawsuit in response to this action was filed in the District Court of Maryland by a 15-year-old girl under the pseudonym Mary Smith, and her mother, identified as Jane Doe against the Frederick County Board of Education and Superintendent Theresa Alban.

The lawsuit argues that the policy approved by the Frederick County Board of Education violates the girl’s fundamental right to bodily privacy, and her mother’s fundamental parental rights regarding the care and upbringing of her child.

The content of the complaint is filled with vitriolic hype that lacks a basic understanding of what it means to be transgender.

For example, the suit’s language compares the School Board to a totalitarian regime and likens the School Board’s adopted policy to “child pornography” and “Nazi death camps.”  It also specifically maligns the sexual orientation of a School Board member.

It must be pointed out that the attorney representing the plaintiff, Daniel L. Cox, Esq. of the Emmitsburg, Md.-based Cox Law Center admits to be affiliated with the ADF—The Alliance Defending Freedom .  That fact is stated on the firm’s website(See image below.)

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society, the Alliance Defending Freedom has been identified as a national anti-LGBT hate group. 
SPLC states that the Alliance Defending Freedom “supported the recriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. and criminalization abroad; has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad; has linked homosexuality to pedophilia and claims that a ‘homosexual agenda’ will destroy Christianity and society.”

Undaunted, allies and advocates are determined to see that the policy is upheld.

“Every child in Frederick County Schools deserves a welcoming and safe environment to learn,” says FreeState Justice’s Mark Procopio.  “Policy 443 ensures that transgender students are protected from bullying and harassment and guards the privacy of all students.  It should be defended vigorously against this frivolous suit.”

Plaintiff's graphic on Frederick social media
The Board of Directors of The Frederick Center, a non-profit organization that serves the LGBTQ community in Central Maryland, weighed in as well with the following statement:

“[Members of] The Frederick Center Board of Directors were dismayed to learn of the lawsuit filed [in August] by Jane Doe in an attempt to block the implementation of FCPS Policy 443. Policies like 443 greatly benefit our Transgender community through its affirmation of their identity. The claims in the filing against the Board of Education appear to be baseless and desperate attempt to continue allowing discrimination in our schools and against our children.”

The plaintiff is demanding a jury trial. 

UPDATE:

From FreeState Justice, Maryland's leading LGBT advocacy group:
Today, a Frederick County transgender student filed a motion to defend his school board’s policies that seek to prevent discrimination, harassment, and stigmatization of transgender and gender nonconforming students in the school system, and that seek to ensure students are free to use school facilities in accordance with their gender identity. He is represented by FreeState Justice, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Maryland.
The student filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit currently pending in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, in which a non-transgender student seeks to overturn the Frederick County School Board’s policy protections for transgender students.
The school board’s policies, adopted in June 2017, were welcomed by community members from all over Frederick County. James van Kuilenburg, an honor student at Governor Thomas Johnson High School and the transgender student who moved to intervene today, explained that the policies “gave me the ability to finally be myself and access all parts of my education.”
The lawsuit against the Frederick County School Board was filed anonymously by a non-transgender student and her mother who claim that allowing transgender students restroom and locker room access infringes upon student privacy rights. However, the only privacy violation alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint is by a non-transgender student. The lawsuit also seeks to invalidate policies preventing harassment, and protecting the confidentiality and privacy of transgender students.
In the wake of the lawsuit, the Frederick County group “Support FCPS Trans Students” has started a social media campaign #IAmFrederick to show support for their transgender classmates.
According to van Kuilenberg, reversal of the policies would be “devastating.” “There is an epidemic of trans students feeling unsafe, depressed, and suicidal,” he explained, and a removal of the policies in place to protect them would “create a culture of fear and misunderstanding.”
“It’s important that trans students are given the opportunity to defend themselves against these shameful attempts to isolate and stigmatize them,” said Gabriel Arkles, senior staff attorney at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project. He added, “Schools can and should provide extra privacy protections or private restroom or changing areas for any student who requests it. But no student has a right to demand that transgender students be segregated from their peers.”
“The Frederick County School Board did the right thing: they created policies that affirm and respect their students’ gender identity.” said Jennifer Kent, Managing Attorney of FreeState Justice, “We intend to vigorously defend these policies in the interests of our client and affected students in Frederick County Public Schools.”
Said ACLU of Maryland Senior Staff Attorney David Rocah, “Everyone seeking an education, including those who are transgender like James, should be treated fairly and equally under the law. Frederick is joined by hundreds of school districts around the country that allow transgender students to use school facilities based on their gender identity. These policies include transgender students as equal members of the school community while still protecting the privacy of all students.”

Counsel on the motion to intervene also include Leslie Cooper and Gabriel Arkles of the ACLU, David Rocah, and Nick Steiner of the ACLU of Maryland and John Hayes, Brian Whittaker, and Kenneth Nichols of the law firm Nixon Peabody, LLP.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Tragedy of Politicizing Disasters

Some pastors were quick to blame gays for this
As we commemorate the events of September 11, 2001 and remember the loss of innocent lives of ordinary people and first responders, it is a vivid reminder how some who have a forum to disseminate information, abused that privilege to politicize the horrors of that day. 

In a mean-spirited attempt to manipulate grief-stricken Americans to fall in line with his orthodoxy, Rev. Jerry Falwell told fellow Christian conservative Pat Robertson, “[T]he 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,” Falwell continued, “I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.’” Robertson agreed.

A few days later, Falwell, after receiving a severe dose of backlash, released a statement saying his comments were taken out of context. “I hold no one other than the terrorists and the people and nations who have enabled and harbored them responsible for Tuesday's attacks on this nation,” he said.

For his part, Robertson denied blaming gays or atheists for the attacks.  Nonetheless, they made their points.

More recently during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump insisted that “thousands and thousands and thousands” of people in the Arab neighborhoods of Jersey City, N.J. openly celebrated the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.  This was a naked attempt to throw red meat to his xenophobic, anti-Muslim base to gain their support.  Of course, it was a blatant lie as much of what Trump says usually is; however, we are still awaiting his “correction.”

Who should we blame?
Of course, over the years, disasters—man-made or natural—have been blamed by clergy on groups as a manifestation of “God’s wrath.”  

As written by Kimberly Winston in the Salt Lake City Tribune, when Superstorm Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey region in 2012, pastors were quick to explain the phenomenon.  

“God is systematically destroying America,” the Rev. John McTernan, a conservative Christian pastor, said in a post-Sandy blog entry that has since been removed. The reason God was so peeved, he asserted, was “the homosexual agenda.”

Writes Winston, “Usually, their logic revolves around LGBT themes — Buster Wilson of the American Family Association insisted God sent Hurricane Isaac to stop an annual LGBT festival; the Rev. Franklin Graham blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ 'orgies'; and Catholic priest Gerhard Wagner called Katrina 'divine retribution' for New Orleans’ tolerance of homosexuality.  Other times, the scapegoat is gay marriage, abortion rights or foreign policies seen as harmful to Israel.”

Many have argued that these events cannot be attributed to a vengeful God because God does not want to see people suffering.  Yet, the pastors will further their untaxed but political advocacy by using God as a weapon to punish people, activities or events anathema to them.

Two can play that game.  I can say with equal authority that the states affected by the deadly hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s wrath against them because they voted for Trump. 

See how silly that sounds?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Soaring to the 'Heights' at Olney

Robin de Jesús leads the talente company of 'In the Heights'
Photo: Stan Barouh
Qué gran espectáculo! 

Any successful musical offers at least one great moment for audiences to remember.  Kicking off the 2017-18 Season, the Olney Theatre Center partnering with the Round House Theatre in presenting “In the Heights,” there may have been 96,000 such moments.  A sensational cast and crew under the meticulous direction of Marcos Santana have delivered a winning musical lottery ticket to local theatergoers.

Tony Award-nominated Robin de Jesús, who portrayed Sonny in the original Broadway production of “In the Heights,” stars as Usnavi on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center.  Lin-Manuel Miranda who played Usnavi in the Broadway production and received a Tony nomination for that role composed the music and lyrics and won the Tony in that capacity. Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book. In all, the show captured four such statues including Best Musical.  Miranda’s success with “In the Heights” propelled him to mega-stardom in “Hamilton.”

The story unfolds in the gritty, largely Hispanic working class Washington Heights barrio or neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, near the George Washington Bridge during a typically sultry three-day period surrounding July 4.  Each character has his or her story, but they are all connected in some fashion. 

A youthful vibrant ensemble clad in hip street clothing designed by Frank Labovitz adds spice to this rich mixture of contemporary urban hip-hop, salsa and other Latin rhythms that tell the story of family drama, financial struggles, community spirit, love, devotion, expectations, dreams realized and those not fulfilled. And one of the characters just won a $96,000 lottery prize adding another element to the story.

All the action takes place on a magnificent set designed by Milagros Ponce de León.  The barrio depicted in the set consists of businesses, such as De La Vega Bodega (convenience store), Daniela’s Beauty Salon and Rosario’s Car Service as well as apartment buildings, entrances to the buildings and fire escapes.  The creative and functional multi-tiered set even includes the 181st Street “A” train station with the subway grate on the sidewalk, with, yes, steam bellowing out of it before the show as the sound of a train is heard barreling down the tracks underneath.

That set provides the backdrop to most of the story.  But when the scene shifts to a dance club, no problemo.  Fast and seamlessly, the transformation occurs.

So detailed is Mr. Santana’s direction that the actors not performing as principals in a particular scene are engaged in background activity or conversation in any of these businesses or meandering about in the apartments.  Cheerfully, none of this background staging becomes a distraction; instead, the subtle movements add realism and dimension to the visuals.

Enhancing the eye-pleasing set is the extraordinary lighting design by Cory Pattak.  A highlight is the fireworks display where the lighting effectively simulated this activity.
Robin de Jesús as Usnavi Photo: Stan Barouh
   

“In the Heights” contains many high points in the way of individual musical performances, either as solos or duets.  The main performers along with the rest of the ensemble also burnish their talents in the stirring high-energy production numbers like the title song and opening number “In the Heights,” “96,000,” “Blackout,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.” 

Mr. Santana also choreographed the show, which presents solid, realistic urban Latino dancing to the thumping beats supplied by the superb nine-member orchestra led by Christopher Youstra.

The ensemble sing and dance with dazzling energy to the music that in some instances contains a mix of Spanish and English lyrics.  However, the songs were composed in a way that one didn’t have to know Spanish to understand their messages. 

While some of the songs are not necessarily melodious, they are all solid because of the powerful and affecting lyrics as well as the amazing vocals by the cast members. 

Numbers, such as “In The Heights,” “Breathe,” “Inútil,” “No Me Diga,” “Paciencia Y Fe,”  “When You’re Home,” “Piragua,” “Sunrise,” and “Everything I Know” stand out.  Most of the high tempo songs (and the better ones) are performed in the first act while more ballads can be heard in the second—a distinct change in mood.

Robin de Jesús is remarkable in the role of Usnavi, a Dominican-born owner of the bodega who is a central character throughout.  His passion and hopes, which include returning to his native Dominican Republic, are conveyed with great skill.  Most of his dialogue and songs are performed in rap, and he is wonderful at it.

Rayanne Gonzales is moving as Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia who practically raised Usnavi after his parents died.  She is the barrio’s loveable matriarch, the moral anchor.  Her stellar voice is evident in the tender “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Stunning Linedy Genao plays Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, who is looking to escape the barrio and move downtown but can’t afford it.   She possesses a glorious mezzo-soprano voice, and her performance in “It Won’t Be Long Now” shines.

Also spectacular with her vocals is Mili Diaz as Nina.  Ms. Diaz’s Broadway-caliber soprano voice is as good as it gets with memorable selections as “Breathe,” “Everything I Know” and “When the Sun Goes Down.”   

Nina was the one member of the barrio who went off to college (Stanford University) on a scholarship only to fail in her first year, deeply disappointing her parents, Kevin and Camila.  She develops a relationship with Benny much to the chagrin of her father.

Danny Bolero plays Nina’s overprotective father Kevin and the owner of Rosario’s Car Service which he feels compelled to sell to help Nina with her tuition. Mr. Bolero is sturdy in both acting and singing with his commanding baritone voice on display.  His emotional solos in “Inútil (Useless)” and “Atención” are stellar.  Vilma Gil is enjoyable as Nina’s steadfast mother Camila. Skillful in her acting, she does well in her powerful rendition of “Enough.”

Another standout is Marquise White as Benny, who is in love with Nina and an employee of Kevin’s taxi service and is the only non-Hispanic character.  Also demonstrating strong acting and musical ability, Mr. White is particularly effective in the duets “When You’re Home” and “When The Sun Goes Down” with Ms. Diaz.
Photo: Stan Barouh
Natascia Diaz as Daniela, the chatty, gossipy owner of the beauty salon, is effective in that role and also demonstrates her vocal prowess in “No Me Diga.”  Her employee, Carla, is played well by Melissa Victor.

Tobias A. Young, yet another strong vocalist, plays the role of Piragua Guy who pushes a shaved ice dessert cart in the barrio and competes with the Mister Softee truck.  He truly has one of the most beautiful voices in local theatre and is a joy to listen to. Mr. Young participates in the group numbers and sings the aptly named “Piragua” as a solo—and does it twice!

Then there is Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, who works with him at the bodega.  Played fabulously by Michael J. Mainwaring, the character provides most of the comedic moments in the show.  Mr. Mainwaring’s comedic timing and stage movements excel. Juan Drigo Ricafort rounds out the stellar cast as Sonny’s good chum Graffiti Pete whose artistry leads to an inspirational ending, tying a bow on this gift of a show. #hocoarts

There is an abundance of talent, technical expertise, a solid score, and humanity in the story that makes “In the Heights” a must-see experience.  Thank you to the Olney Theatre Center and the Round House Theatre for putting together such an extraordinary cast and crew helmed by a terrific director.

Qué gran espectáculo!
What a great show!

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.


Advisory: “In the Heights” contains adult language and sexual situations and is not recommended for children under age 13.

“In the Heights” runs through October 22 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online .

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Living the ‘Dream’ at Toby’s

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
From the moment the proverbial curtain was raised at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia for the start of Dreamgirls, there was a burst of energy that was unabated throughout the nearly three hour production. 
#hocoarts
This force is evident in the lightning fast and efficiently executed scene and costume changes, soulful rhythm & blues and pop music, and the enthusiastic singing and dancing by the large and talented cast who perform like their lives depended on it.

Dreamgirls tells the fictional story during the 1960s and 1970s of three friends from Chicago who wanted to make it big in the music industry. Their rise to stardom and the inevitable professional and personal conflicts closely resemble that of the Shirelles and the Supremes.

Effie White is the lead singer of the Dreamettes who has a plus-size figure and a plus-size talent. C.C. White is her brother who writes music for the group. Deena Jones is the beauty who eventually takes the lead vocals for the later-named Dreams. Lorrell Robinson is the group’s peacemaker.  She is in love with James “Thunder” Early, an R &B star for whom the Dreamettes sing backup. Curtis Taylor Jr., the manager of the group, is the hub of the story’s drama and tension.

With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls first opened on Broadway in 1981. The production was a smashing success winning six Tony Awards.  A successful movie that was adapted from the show opened in 2006.

The lively and at times intense production at Toby’s was ably directed by Kevin McAllister while Shalyce Hembey choreographed the vigorous dancing.  Under musical direction and orchestration of Ross Scott Rawlings, the seven-piece orchestra sounded lush as usual.

Inventive props are on display, and the creative scenery making full use of Toby’s in-the-round stage, designed by David A. Hopkins, offers a place for the projection of images—some actual, some abstract— on the walls surrounding the stage to augment the production.

The period costumes besides a wide array of sports clothes and casual wear feature stunningly colorful show gowns with feathers and loads of wigs for the female singers and splendid matching formal suits for the male singers,  all designed by the incomparable Lawrence B. Munsey. There must have been a thousand such costumes pieces worn by the company, but I stopped counting at five hundred.

Lynn Joslin designed the lighting which is a step above the norm seen locally and may have been the most creative use of lighting at Toby’s in my memory. With so many rapid-fire scene and venue changes, the stage has to be lit in various corners with accompanying fade-outs. The work of the technical crew in general is outstanding, and it includes the excellent sound system designed by Mark Smedley.

With the fine work of the technical crew as support, the majesty of this high-octane production revolves around the performers and the music.

Crystal Freeman as Effie is outstanding in both her strong soprano voice and in her acting.  She lends her heart, soul, lungs and entire being into the show-stopping conclusion to the first act with the immensely dramatic torch song  “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” where she laments the loss of her love and how the group is moving on without her.  She also soars with “I Am Changing.”

As Deena, Sequina Dubose looks and sounds like a Dream especially in the title song “Dreamgirls” and my personal favorite “One Night Only.” Ashley Johnson aptly portrays Lorrell as the glue that keeps the Dreams together. She shines in a duet “Ain’t No Party.”

DeCarlo Rasberry as Curtis, the driven and sometimes unscrupulous manager who makes dreams come true, excels with a strong rich voice particularly in “You Are My Dream.”  Da’Von Moody as C.C. White, the conflicted songwriter, robustly sings “I Miss You Old Friend.”  

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Bryan Jeffrey nails it as James “Thunder” Early and instantly becomes an audience favorite.  He plays Jimmy, the soul singer, with the intensity of James Brown that Curtis was trying to mold into the next Perry Como. His performance spotlighting boundless energy, comedic moments and style is a highlight of the show.

Anwar Thomas as Marty, Jimmy’s manager, is also on target with solid acting and performs well in several songs.

There are several sensational production numbers throughout in which Ms. Hembey’s precise rhythmic choreography is on display.  This is especially evident in such numbers as “Goin’ Downtown,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” and the reprise of “Dreamgirls” all executed flawlessly by the spirited ensemble.

Dreamgirls depicts the many highs and lows of the music business in the mid 1960’s.   The personal sacrifices of the stars, the payola, the cutthroat nature of the managers, the sexist and racist carryover from the Jim Crow era, come into focus.

Toby’s sizable talented cast will entertain you with a fusion of rhythm and blues, soul and a new pop sound from an era a half century ago, and the superb technical crew creates a dazzling spectacle worth experiencing. It is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours and fifty-five minutes with an intermission.

Dreamgirls at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through November 12, 2017.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit tobysdinnertheatre.com or ticketmaster.com.