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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Friday, June 22, 2007

Rights of Minorities Not Subject to Vote

Letter published in Baltimore Sun--June 22, 2007

The Massachusetts legislature, with the full-throttled support of Governor Deval Patrick, was correct in defeating a move to overturn the state's existing marriage law that includes same-sex couples (Challenge to gay marriage in Massachusetts falls short, June 15).

The backers of the proposed constitutional amendment to reverse the 2004 court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage are lamenting the outcome because they prefer the voters to decide on who should be entitled to the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

The problem with that position is that it would put minority rights up for a popular vote, which historically would be un-American. Had such a vote taken place in the past, interracial couples would not likely be allowed to be legally married today.

These same opponents have argued that expanding marriage to include same-sex couples would destroy marriage as an institution. Approximately 8,500 same-sex couples in Massachusetts have been married since 2004, and the state maintains its position as having the lowest divorce rate of the 50 states.

It is fair to conclude, based on that fact, that same-sex marriage does nothing to harm the institution, but in fact strengthens it by allowing a broader portion of the population to participate. The sky did not fall as many of same-sex marriage opponents had feared.

Steve Charing

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Massachusetts Gave Our Pride a Boost

Defeating a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage sets a great example for Maryland and beyond

By Steve Charing

Merely two days before the first set of high heels clicked down Charles Street to kick off Baltimore’s annual Pride celebrations, we got a big time boost from our friends in Massachusetts. My guess is that not many here were aware of it or even cared, as most seem to view the Pride hoopla as a big circuit party on Saturday and a more laid back stroll-in-the-park on Sunday.

But for those who view marriage equality as a goal to strive for, at least to have the option of same-sex marriage, then the news emanating from Massachusetts was a sweet way to get us off and running, and I don’t mean in high heels.

Their legislature found a way to preserve same-sex marriage in the Bay State at least until 2012 by defeating by 5 votes an attempt to get the measure on a statewide ballot in 2008. That could have resulted in a constitutional amendment and reverse a significant victory: the first state in the U.S. where same-sex marriage is legal.

This was an awesome development. Quite a few in the legislature who previously supported the amendment changed their minds and saw that the sky did not fall from the experience of three years of same-sex couples—8,500 in all—marrying in Massachusetts.

Not only did the Massachusetts legislature see the light, but their governor, Deval Patrick, was unabashedly supportive of marriage equality and lobbied hard to defeat the proposed ban. “In Massachusetts today, the freedom to marry is secure,” he told a cheering crowd following the announcement of the results. “Today's vote is not just a vote for marriage equality. It was a vote for equality itself.”

On top of that, New Jersey, which has just joined those other states that have legalized civil unions, added transgender protection to the state law. These victories in the Garden State were also helped out by the backing of Governor Jon Corzine.

The efforts by these two state executives and their legislatures set a great path for Maryland to follow. Massachusetts was key.

Equality Maryland’s executive director Dan Furmansky perhaps summed it up best. He told me, “Victory in Massachusetts is important for us in Maryland, as legislators need the example of a similarly situated state that has weathered the battle for marriage equality and kept it as the law of the land.”

Most Democratic legislators are especially apprehensive about being too supportive of “gay marriage” even in blue states. They need political cover, as well as leadership, and that is what Governors Patrick and Corzine provided.

Governor Martin O’Malley has stated through his staff that he opposes a constitutional amendment in Maryland and would veto such a measure. Unfortunately, he does not have the authority to veto it, as it could go on the ballot if passed by the General Assembly with a 60 percent vote. It would mean minority rights would be put up for a popular vote, and that’s not a good thing.

Instead, it would be great if Mr. O’Malley followed the path of his fellow governors and begin to take the lead to help thwart an amendment initiative before it gains any footing. Should the Maryland Court of Appeals issue their long-awaited decision on the marriage lawsuit favorably, it would set off a chain of events that will result in a predicted cowering of some legislators and demagoguery from others—all pointing to a constitutional amendment try.

The state’s top officials failed us during the past General Assembly when a bill to protect transgendered individuals from discrimination died in committee when it appeared it had the floor votes to pass. Many blame the Senate leadership for allowing that travesty to happen. Others blame the Governor for not being more vocal, although he supported a similar measure while he was mayor of Baltimore.

Elected officials like Governors Patrick and Corzine have triumphed over “Rove-phobia”—the fear that if one supports anything gay the candidate will lose the next election—to speak out and push for fairness and equality and advocate for what is right and just.

They set out the path. We need our elected officials here to follow it without fear.

Monday, June 18, 2007

UB’s OUT Law Rides Back into Town

By Steve Charing

When Matt Feinberg (pictured) recently met to talk about OUT Law, the University of Baltimore School of Law’s lgbt student association, you could easily visualize his arguing a case in a courtroom. He was dressed in a sharp business suit, had a confident stride, friendly personality and an ability to clearly express himself. And behind his glacier-blue eyes, one can immediately sense the passion he has for the lgbt community and his organization of which he is president.

OUT Law was resurrected during Coming Out Day this past October 11 after a four-year hiatus. "Our paramount goal was to create a place for lgbt students and their families to call home at UB," Matt Feinberg, 25, a rising third year law student, told Baltimore OUTloud. "Certainly there are great ‘outside resources,’ but law school ends up becoming your life, and you don’t have the opportunity to use those outside resources as much as you would like. We needed a resource in the school, and the formation of OUT Law was the natural solution to that need."

Added Professor Odeana R. Neal, the group’s faculty advisor, "The resuscitation of a group focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues is important not only for the University of Baltimore School of Law, but for the citizens of Maryland as well."

On Coming Out Day, according to Matt, OUT Law distributed information about coming out as a member of the lgbt community, being gay in Maryland, same sex marriage, educational safe havens, community events and resources and some other tolerance-based brochures.

The group is open to all gay and straight supporting students in the University of Baltimore and beyond. "OUT Law is pretty much a group for everyone," Matt said. "We are a resource for the students, the school and outside UB, but a lot of our focus is on legal issues."

OUT Law’s mission statement says their goals are to "foster acceptance, promote education and awareness and advocate on the University of Baltimore Campus and in the community at large on legal issues facing members of the LGBT community, LGBT families, and their allies."

A key priority is to educate the students and the community. "We are dedicated to promoting our message," Matt emphasized. "To educate is most of the battle. Education promotes tolerance, which hopefully will lead to equality."

The education initiative also points out areas of law that are not covered in class. Said Prof. Neal, "Law students are often not trained in dealing with legal issues that lgbt people face regularly."

As part of this effort, OUT Law is compiling a pamphlet of cases, law review articles, issue statements, news blurbs and articles, commentary, and editorials and submitting them to professors for certain subjects. "This way, if nothing else, we have made the information available to the professors," said Matt. "If they choose to use it in class, great. If not, we at least made them aware."

One of OUT Law’s two vice-presidents, Stacie Harris (pictured), is a mother of three children, ages 8 to 14, with a warm, natural smile. Stacie has found happiness with her lesbian partner Shamika Hawkes over the past three years.

Besides her several jobs that includes being a substitute teacher in the Baltimore County Public School System as well as an undergraduate at UB, Stacie is involved primarily with coordinating events and social functions for OUT Law. "We want to provide a safe haven for the community," she said. And as part of her responsibilities, Stacie is also promoting the Office of Diversity within UB. She will be a peer advisor at the school in the Fall.

OUT Law’s other vice-president and a founding member, April Nelson, is responsible for outreach beyond the walls of UB. In that capacity she sees connecting with the larger community as essential. "A key goal is increased partnerships with our straight allies among the student body and faculty who are a crucial part of the work in changing the perception of lgbt issues as ‘gay issues’ to ‘equal rights issues,’" she said.

During the short timeframe since its reincarnation, OUT Law has been a viable, active organization and saw its membership increase from 12 founding members to a total of 40 making it among the largest groups at UB. Matt Feinberg had succeeded Julie Ridgeway as president, whom he says "really took the burden of starting this group on her shoulders and made us what we are and paved the way for us to grow."

There have been some major events recently that have certainly added prominence to the group. "Our primary purpose has always been visibility," April points out.

At a same-sex marriage debate held on April 10, which was co-sponsored with the UB Federalist Society, faculty advisor Professor Neal spoke on behalf of same-sex marriage while Professor Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania spoke against it. Over 100 people attended the event.

In addition, there was a speaker panel, which featured Sharra Greer, Director of Law and Policy for the ServiceMembers Legal Defense Network, who discussed the consequences of the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.

There was also a panel on "LGBT Issues in the Classroom" that featured Mark Scurti, a well-known attorney in the lgbt community; Professor Margaret Johnson; Chris Edelson of the Human Rights Campaign; and Dr. David Haltwinger who is Director of Chase-Brexton.

And just last month, OUT Law sponsored the First Annual COBALT (Celebrating Our Baltimore Area LGBT Trailblazers) Awards, where they honored Judge M. Brooke Murdock of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and Mark Scurti. Judge Murdock had ruled favorably in the marriage equality lawsuit, whose ruling was stayed pending a decision from the Maryland Court of Appeals. Both were honored as UB distinguished alumni for their support and efforts on behalf of the lgbt community.

"We look forward to another year of sponsoring panel discussions and bringing in national speakers to address topics affecting lgbt families," said April Nelson. Such plans include an event surrounding the on-campus interview program whereby Army and JAG corps representatives interview perspective law clerks.

This will be an opportunity to make a statement against the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. "We feel that allowing a group to interview on campus that makes discrimination a part of their daily mission isn't acceptable," Matt Feinberg explained.

OUT Law will also hold a World AIDS Day event, and will have a table at the National Coming Out Day. They will also have a presence at the orientation for incoming students for the first time. And, of course, there will be the 2nd annual COBALT awards when they will honor 2-3 leading members of the community.

While trying to balance their busy academic, professional and personal schedules, the officers and members of OUT Law are attempting to make lives better for the broader lgbt community. In such a short time, the group is already successful with a bright future ahead.

Anyone interested in seeking volunteers from OUT Law, co-sponsoring an event, nominating someone for a COBALT award (doesn’t have to be a UB alumnus) or to obtain additional information, may contact the group at ubalt.outlaw@gmail.com.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Legacy of Stonewall

We celebrate Pride because of the courage of heroes 38 years ago

By Steve Charing

Fortunately today’s generation of lgbt folks do not have to face the conditions that pre-dated the historic Stonewall Riots that began June 27, 1969. In fact, this new generation wasn’t even born then.

Frequent bar raids occurred with police demanding ID’s under the threat of arrest. Entrapment by the police was astonishingly commonplace especially in "cruising areas." So was blackmail.
Names of the arrested were published in the newspapers: Jobs lost. Tenants evicted from apartments. Families torn apart.

Gays were beaten up by straights with alarming frequency. They purposely sought out queers to beat up outside gay establishments. Same-sex dancing was prohibited, as was touching. Sodomy was criminal behavior.

Mafia-owned bars serving overpriced watered down drinks whose owners often worked in collusion with the police and cared not one bit about the gays and lesbians who were their customers as long as they can make money off of them. Thugs acting as bar bouncers roughed up drunken gays.

There were no laws on the books to protect against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations. Homosexuals were banished from the military following sadistic witch-hunts.

There were no domestic partner benefits or any rights based on same-sex relationships at major corporations and few universities. There were no openly gay elected officials, and anyone in the public eye remained in the closet. No officeholder supported an end to the harassment, much less advocated for equality. The thought of marriage between same-sex partners didn’t even exist.

A television show with a major gay character was unthinkable, as well as an openly gay actor. Any gay characters portrayed in movies were either depressed, suicidal, flamboyant or a victim of some sort. There were few, if any, gay-related periodicals.

Homosexuality was viewed as a psychological disorder; queers were considered sick and fair game by a hostile, homophobic society. Most chose to remain in the closet.

This was pre-Stonewall.

As we prepare to gather for the annual Pride parade, block party, and festival in the park, it may be difficult for the younger members of the community to relate to such pre-Stonewall conditions. While that is good for them, it is important that they reflect upon the courage of their brothers and sisters from earlier generations who helped pave the way for a much smoother gay experience.

The Stonewall Riots occurred in New York’s Greenwich Village on a sultry Friday night-early Saturday morning and lasted on and off for the better part of a week. It resulted from the second police raid of that week at the Stonewall Inn, New York’s largest gay club. The patrons, many of which were transvestites and young homeless gay men and hustlers, resisted the police’s actions inside the club.

As patrons were being expelled from the bar, chaos developed in the streets immediately outside. The crowd swelled to hundreds, and many began hurling bottles, bricks and other objects as well as an uprooted parking meter towards the police vehicles and the bar itself. The embattled police, who never encountered such resistance to any previous raids, were forced to take refuge inside the Stonewall Inn until reinforcements showed up.

Although the riots received relatively little play in New York’s daily newspapers at the time, this became a turning point—a seminal event—in the long and frustrating struggle for gay and lesbian rights. By the courageous actions of these individuals—often maligned and shunned as fringe people by even the gay community—a statement was made that "enough is enough."

The ensuing commemorative marches, parades and festivals that have been celebrated around the world since 1970 have emboldened the lgbt community to come out and stop being ashamed of who we are.

Yes, it is true that footage focusing on the more bizarre costumes that are typically on display at such celebrations have been used by religious extremists and political opponents to denigrate the gay community. They have been tools in the effort to keep us down, often succeeding.

But on balance the parades and other events are beneficial. They are an affirmation of our self-identity. The gruesome conditions of pre-Stonewall gay America that were described earlier have virtually flipped around in the decades that followed.

While we have had to endure a phenomenal amount of setbacks politically during this period—including the politicizing of HIV/AIDS—we have come so far as a community it defies imagination. We have evolved from merely seeking tolerance to seeking acceptance, and now full equality will hopefully be within our grasp some day.

Since those riots support groups and political advocacy organizations abound. With the publication of countless gay and lesbian newspapers, books and magazines and the advent of the Internet, an infinite amount of resources are available to those seeking information on gay and lesbian life.

Attitudes towards gays and lesbians are improving and reached a high-water mark according to a Gallup poll taken last month. The nation’s younger generation is leading the way. They constitute the beacon for the rest of society to follow.

We should enter Pride with the optimism from what we have accomplished as a diverse community and as individuals and how we will succeed in the future. There will be battles lost and won over the years, but the tide is with us.

The heroes of Stonewall helped make all this possible. That is their legacy. And this is our Pride.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Dangers of Political Apathy

Text of Speech given to G & L Jewish Group at the Havurah Brunch in Mount Washington,
June 3, 2007

Let’s see if you recognize this place:

On a given night, hundreds would cram the city’s streets, some carrying a gay periodical, and patronize the dozens of gay bars, cafes, nightclubs, pornography shops, cabarets and bathhouses. Adding to the crowd was an ample supply of hustlers that was visible along the dim, nighttime corridors.

Inside the buildings, female impersonators, wearing lavish brightly colored costumes, performed amidst a foggy, smoky cloud that enveloped the jammed rooms. Toe-tapping songs were played to the resounding joy of the gay and straight audiences of the packed nightclubs and cabarets with the music drifting outside into the streets.

In other establishments, men freely danced with men; women danced with women. They openly embraced. An anti-gay law on the books was seldom enforced. Gay life was colorful, free and vibrant. Gay neighborhoods were established throughout the city. It had the most active gay culture on the entire continent, and it was a sexual Mecca.

Does this scene describe New York? San Francisco? Washington, D.C.? Or even Baltimore? Not hardly.

It happens to be Berlin, Germany, just prior to the Nazis’ rise to power. It was estimated that there were more gay establishments and periodicals in 1920 Berlin than in 1980 New York. Not only was homosexuality tolerated, it flourished.

But as the music played inside Berlin’s gay clubs, sweeping political and social change was about to unfold that would rock the world.

The patrons (and owners) of these establishments were oblivious to the new political reality; they continued to dance, seek out sex partners and lived in their own secluded, care-free world, unsuspecting of the emerging satanic forces and the horror of what was about to befall them. It sneaked up on them, and when they realized what was happening, it was too late.

As fast as a snap of a whip, there was the accession of Nazism and Hitler and the enforcement of the infamous Paragraph 175 that severely criminalized homosexual behavior.

All gay clubs, hotels and other similar establishments were closed down. Known homosexuals were ordered to appear at police stations and were pressured to identify other homosexuals. School children were asked to inform on teachers who were suspected of being homosexual, employers on employees, and vice-versa.

Their tragic journey had begun. Gay men in Germany were sought out and rounded up with most being shipped to concentration camps for imprisonment and extermination.

They were forced to wear a pink triangle for easy identification and lived in separate blocks apart from the other prisoners. The prisoners wearing the pink triangles were brutally treated by the guards and by inmates from other categories.

Approximately 100,000 gay men were arrested, 50,000 sent to prison camps, and hundreds were castrated.

All told, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals, mainly those who were deemed "incurable," were exterminated in the death camps. Their death rate was said to have been three to four times higher than other non-Jewish categories during the Holocaust.

Many factors contributed to this tragedy, but there is no question that apathy was among them.
I’m not saying that gays were the only apathetic group in Germany nor am I blaming them for the rise of Nazism. Apathy afflicted all segments of society, and the rest of the world was blind-sided as well.

But we must never allow that to happen again. To do so, we must fight apathy. Apathy creates a vacuum for extremism to take hold.

Today we do have large numbers of people in the gay and lesbian community who are politically indifferent. Sadly, many are even proud of that.

From a survey taken at a Pride festival a couple of years ago, few knew what the Human Rights Campaign was. Many didn’t even know who Maryland’s governor was. Almost as astonishing is a friend of mine—a Jew, no less—who doesn’t even know what Hamas is. Incredible.

Clearly the horrors of Nazi Germany are not likely to be repeated here. I am not suggesting we have a government that is sympathetic to such thinking. Nor am I correlating our government to the atrocities of the Nazis or diminishing the human tragedy of the Holocaust.
But it is worth taking a look at some frightening similarities: We basically have an anti-gay government at the federal level that has been obviously hijacked by religious, homophobic extremists.

Gays and pro-choice supporters are vilified by extreme right wing elements.
There are hate groups all over the country that would like nothing else but to see gays remanded to concentration camps or exterminated.

Don’t believe me? Read their websites. You’ll see.

Just last Monday, there was this article in the Baltimore Sun that told of a website for the Alabama Department of Homeland Security. It named gay rights groups among others as potential terrorists. And this is a state government agency!

There is a definite rise in the number of white supremacist organizations, which target gays and other minorities.

Many individuals and groups, in fact, have thanked God for AIDS. They have blamed gays and lesbians for natural disasters and terrorist attacks. These so-called people of God, like the late Jerry Falwell, profited from their hateful rhetoric.

Hate crimes directed towards LGBT individuals are increasing and are now the third largest target of hate crimes committed.

These hate crimes are rationalized based on the extreme, hate-filled condemnations of gay people by the religious right who use the Bible as a weapon.

Who is to say for certain these modern-day extremists will not come to power at a given point in time?
The gays in Berlin surely didn’t expect such terror to envelop their nation.

The anti-gay, pro-life forces in this country are well funded, well motivated and well represented.

That is why the LGBT community cannot afford to sit back in their own comfort zones while progress towards equality is slammed shut or worse, our rights are being beaten back.

What can we do?

There is no shame in being active politically. It doesn’t matter which Party you want to align with. For example, the Log Cabin Republicans—a gay group—have been doing good work in trying to stop the extremists within their Party who want to crush our rights.

Join a civil rights organization like Equality Maryland or the Human Rights Campaign. Write your representatives at the Federal and State levels to tell them where you stand on issues that affect you as a gay man or lesbian.

Read the gay press and stay informed on these issues.

Don’t take anything for granted or wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting for you.
Even on the heels of the Stonewall riots in June 1969, which many believe was the launch of the gay rights movement, there was a concern for apathy.

Merely two weeks after the uprising, a flier distributed by Mattachine-New York—a gay political organization—called for gay people to end their isolation and apathy by attending a gay liberation meeting so that "homosexuals are no longer going to sit back and be apathetic pawns for every politician who comes along."

Even then they had to fight apathy.

Apathy is nothing to be proud of, and as history has taught us it can be dangerous.