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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Slippery OUTfield

A gay baseball player coming out would have to face tough challenges.

By Steve Charing

When the steroids scandal first hit major league baseball several years ago, I theorized it provided a convenient distraction for a gay player to finally come out. I had believed that cheating in a game that depends so much on tradition and integrity would overshadow any pesky disclosure that one of the players is gay. Or so I thought at the time.

I feel differently today.

No question, the steroids scandal is serious enough. Superstars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who are suspected of using steroids will most likely see their dreams of being admitted to baseball’s hallowed shrine—the Hall of Fame—dissipate.

But as long as a player in question didn’t lie to Congress or a law enforcement official, an apology here and an apology there would generally get the player off the hook, especially if he’s popular. Alex Rodriguez’s recent mea culpa tried to accomplish that even if he, too, could be spurned by the Hall of Fame voters.

Baltimore Orioles’ second baseman Brian Roberts is another good example. A couple of years ago he had been named in the Mitchell Report, which identified major league players who had allegedly taken steroids. Roberts apologized and insisted he made this mistake only once in 2003.

Brian Roberts is a favorite of fans as well as the team owner, Peter Angelos, for a variety of reasons. He is one of the premiere leadoff hitters in the game and a defensive stalwart. He works hard for charitable causes in the Baltimore community and is also easy on the eyes. Fans love him. Teammates love him. The owner loves him. He snagged a $40 million contract extension despite the steroids admission.

An active baseball player who publicly comes out that he’s gay would face greater challenges. My earlier opinion was that after a brief media circus surrounding the gay revelation, the hoopla would eventually fade away. For instance, if he was a good player, the fans and teammates might see past that and concentrate on team goals, as depicted in the Tony Award-winning play Take Me Out [see photo].

Although the general environment for gay acceptance is improving and the fact that each year several cities hold "gay days or gay nights" at major league ballparks, we’re not there yet. A gay ballplayer’s coming out may spark celebrations within the LGBT community and among progressive-minded folks, but that’s it.

More likely a firestorm from conservative religious organizations with their predictable sanctimony and threats of boycotts would ensue. "What examples are we setting for the children?" "Depravity has seeped into our American pastime."

This faux outrage could easily apply to the players embroiled in the steroid scandal, but nary a protest had been fired off by Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council or like-minded groups in that regard. You never hear them threaten boycotts when disclosures of adultery and criminal behavior surface among the major sports even though the Bible condemns those acts as well. To them, homosexuality is the bottom rung.

Besides the noisy clatter put forth by these groups, the gay ballplayer’s biggest hurdle is calming down a potentially hostile clubhouse. While it is likely that one teammate will stand before the bank of microphones and proclaim his loyalty to the gay player and extol the virtues of team unity and mission, the majority of the team will probably not be as embracing.

The issue is exacerbated by the fact there are many devout Christians in major league baseball (some have been steroids users) who see homosexuality as a sin. Added to that is the players’ fear of gays being in the same locker room.

Then there is the increasing number of Latino and Asian ballplayers in the major leagues. This is not to say that they are all homophobic or that American-born players are not. Yet the traditional macho-oriented cultures of these groups tend to revile homosexuality.

These challenges alone might keep a gay baseball player in the closet. But then there is the question of product endorsements and other financial considerations. Olympics hero Michael Phelps retained most of his endorsement deals but Kellogg’s dropped his contract as soon as the photo of Phelps’ smoking a bong flew around the world.

How would corporate America deal with a gay athlete? While many of the Fortune 500 companies have anti-discrimination policies for gays and lesbians as well as domestic partner benefits on the books, I imagine they will succumb to the threatened boycotts of the well-organized and well-financed conservative flame throwers and not offer endorsement deals.

The best hope for a gay ballplayer in coming out will rest with the fans. A gay player, especially one who is good at his craft and is popular, has a decent chance to be favorably received over time. Fans tend to be ahead of the players when it comes to social issues.

I suspect, however, the noise from the zealots and the fear of a dysfunctional locker room will keep the athlete secure in his closet for a while longer. We’ll just have to wait for a gay version of Jackie Robinson who can courageously negotiate the slippery terrain of the OUTfield.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where's the Passion?

Small Lobby Day turnout signals possible declining interest

By Steve Charing

On a balmy February 2, a crowd estimated by the Washington Blade to be 250 assembled at Lawyers Mall in Annapolis for a rally during Equality Maryland’s annual Lobby Day event. This compares unfavorably to the previous years when, according to Equality Maryland’s figures, approximately 500 attended in 2008 and nearly 1,000 did so in 2007.

What’s going on?

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to the paltry attendance. For one thing, Equality Maryland’s legislative agenda is not as ambitious as in previous sessions.
Realizing that same-sex marriage cannot pass during this session, there will not be a full-throated push for the legislation.

Instead, the goal is to work with legislators to increase sponsorship of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act this year, according to statements made by new Equality Maryland Executive Director Kate Runyon. In addition, the organization will be pursuing once again passage of the Gender Identity and Expression Anti-Discrimination Act as well as other initiatives.

Another factor could be a general decline of interest. Following the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling, which upheld the state’s law that restricted marriage to be between one man and one woman, there was plenty of anger to go around and fire up the LGBT community as well as allies.

But lack of leadership from Governor Martin O’Malley on this issue and opposition by the powerful Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller may have dampened the spirits of many gay and lesbian couples. These couples may be of the mindset that it’s a lost cause for now.

Another factor for the disappointing crowd is the prevailing lack of interest in these issues and politics in general on the part of large segments of the LGBT community. There are approximately 15,000 same-sex couples throughout the state. Add to that the tens of thousands of unattached folks, family members and other straight allies. All told, this is a significant number of people to be reckoned with. And with the media present, it would have made a great picture of the mall jammed full of LGBT activists.

But they didn’t show up. As is the case in previous Lobby Day rallies, Baltimore City, which comprises the largest number of LGBT people in Maryland, was woefully underrepresented. The areas of Charles Village, Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon—strong gay population centers—never seem to turn out in large numbers. In fact, the majority of Lobby Day attendees hail from Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard Counties.

One would think that the devastating passage of Proposition 8 in California would spur on more people to rally and meet with their respective delegates and senators. Apparently that did not happen in Annapolis this year—at least not with the numbers that would impress those persuadable legislators.

Weather cannot be used as an excuse this time around; the temperature was in the 50’s—fully 30 degrees warmer than at last year’s bone-chilling Lobby Day.

Immediately following the Prop 8 debacle, nearly a thousand people, mostly from the Baltimore area, managed to gather outside City Hall on five days notice in November to express their displeasure at Prop 8 as part of a national Join the Impact movement. There was a lot of passion at that event.

True, it was a Saturday as opposed to Lobby Day being on a Monday—a work day for most—but still. It only took five days by the organizers using Internet social networking sites to pull off such a huge crowd. Did Equality Maryland tap into the Join the Impact network?

Equality Maryland is not solely to blame for the lack of turnout at Lobby Day. The director is new but capable. The organization dutifully publicized the event in area LGBT papers, but it’s not their fault if people aren’t reading them.

There seems to be a persistent lack of involvement and leadership from certain Baltimore-based LGBT organizations to get the people out. Imagine if even a small percentage of Pride-goers turned up at Annapolis. Imagine the impression that would make on legislators that this community is vast and they care. The lawmakers may pay more attention.

Clearly, Equality Maryland will have to recognize that there are varying degrees of interest within the community and that stronger efforts are needed to spark more enthusiasm. Attempts to obtain a comment from Equality Maryland’s Kate Runyon were unsuccessful.

Those who did attend enjoyed the speech made by Bishop Gene Robinson. But there was criticism levied at the speakers’ not being visible because there was no riser or stage. And the sound system was not up to par.

Logistical issues have plagued Lobby Day rallies in the past and may have tamped down attendance. These are technical glitches that can easily be fixed in the future.

Following the rally, the attendees split up to visit and meet with their respective legislators. Some of these delegates and senators were welcoming, supportive and courteous. Others were plainly rude or ignorant, or they simply declined to meet with their constituents.

When people tell their personal stories to lawmakers and relate how the lack of protections affect LGBT families, it can be productive in educating these officials.

And a large crowd on the mall will signal a strong determination to succeed. Let’s hope we can get that passion back.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

‘Boys Will Be Boys’ on Sizzling Atlantis Cruise

By Steve Charing

After experiencing two straight cruises, my partner and I decided to try a "gay cruise" and signed up with the folks at Atlantis. Chartering the Royal Caribbean’s "Freedom of the Seas"—currently the largest cruise ship of all—Atlantis managed to jam some 3,600 passengers to sail for a week at the end of January that departed from Miami and covered the ports-of-call of Labadee (Haiti), San Juan and St. Maarten.

With a handful of exceptions, the passengers were all gay men, representing a vast array of ages, body types, and personalities, and they hailed from all over the U.S. and 24 foreign countries. Most were couples, but in many cases you would not know it.

The alleged incidents of sexual liaisons on the ship’s top deck in the wee hours of the morning and the "popularity" of the steam room adjacent to the gym made for colorful gossip and chatter. As a way of reinforcement, these activities were acknowledged and made light of by the two hilarious cruise directors and entertainers. In fact, most of the comedians on board included this phenomenon as part of their material.

Those who are still trying to secure marriage equality may feel discouraged by the fact that "boys will be boys" and wonder if gay men seriously want to make a lifelong commitment through marriage.

Putting that aside, the differences between a gay cruise and a straight cruise are as stark as say, being gay or straight. For example, on a straight cruise, a hot body on a man might be one in which his belly doesn’t protrude through his beater. On this cruise, there were several hundred who seemed to fall off the pages of fitness magazines and materialized into passengers. A large number of these donned Speedos sporting their own version of a stimulus package.

I haven’t seen so many six packs since my last visit to a liquor store. And not all of them were in their twenties. There were plenty of hard, ripped bodies shown off by men in their 40’s 50’s and yes, even 60’s, so take note.

To that point, on a straight cruise one can routinely enter the ship’s expansive gym and use the workout equipment without any delays. On this gay cruise, you’d almost have to make reservations just to enter it with so many gym bods on board. Indeed, it was fairly crowded even at 7 in the morning!

On a straight cruise there will be daily or nighttime dances and parties on the pool deck. And they can be fun. But please…do NOT attempt to compare them with these events on a gay cruise. OMG!

The "Dog Tag" party was smoking hot. You want gays in the military? Well here they were in their olive-colored garb with lots of flesh displayed. There was also a disco party with imaginative and colorful costumes to reflect the era. An undersea party took place in the indoor ice rink (that’s right, an ice rink) where it was so crowded and shirtless you were eventually doused by the sweat of all the men around.

And the crème de la crème of all parties: the notorious "White Party"—billed as the largest such event in the world. By the look of the exceptional and creative white costumes (well, a lot were just clad in tighty whities or less), one would think every big-name fashion designer was on board. To say the costumes were amazing is like saying the ocean is wet. And the soiree lasted until 11 the next morning (from what I was told!).

In all of these parties, the guest DJ’s were spectacular and kept the ship throbbing throughout the nights. Drinks flowed. Glistening bodies on display and gyrating to the relentless beats heard through the superb sound system.

Another distinction between a straight cruise and this one was the fact that upon embarking the ship at the outset, there was a drug-sniffing dog checking out each passenger. Some 20 were unfortunately caught and were arrested. Not only did they have to spend a night in a Miami jail facing possession charges, they lost their investment in the cruise. Ouch!

From what I heard the Atlantis organization filed a complaint with Royal Caribbean for "profiling" gay men. We’ll have to see where that goes.

On a straight cruise, you won’t normally see a thousand or more shrieking men jumping to their feet applauding the performances of a multiple Tony award winner as they did when Patti LuPone ("Evita," "Gypsy") gave a surprise concert. There was also a concert by openly gay Andy Bell, the front man for the 80’s group Erasure.

Gay and lesbian comics were all over the cruise. Ugly Betty’s Alec Mapa was outstanding. So was Comedy Central’s Jim David. Lesbian comic Poppy Champlin was polished and funny as all hell. The venerable Miss Richfield 1981 was her usual crazy self.

The ridiculously gorgeous TV personality Scott Nevins superbly entertained with comedy, impressions and song. He even had the chutzpah to trash Streisand as part of his act—on a gay cruise no less!

Two cute newcomers—the VGL Boys (Jeff Self and Cole Escola) tried their acts out. They had been billed as 21 year-olds, so predictably the youth-obsessed passengers packed the cabaret room to see them, even though the duo had no heretofore-known track record.

And then there was the ageless Charro who amazed everyone with her talent and endurance.

There were wonderful magic acts and piano and other musical performers. But my favorite of these was Matt Yee, a muumuu-clad, frenetic, exceptionally talented piano player/singer/comic whose audience resembled a cult. The Honolulu resident was the cult leader. Yee led them in frequent toasts, ordered the audience to denounce talkers in the group with expletives, and repeated the mantra over and over: "Asian men are huge!"

Straight cruises also provide outstanding entertainment, but with gay cruises there is a clear knowledge of the audience, and they target their acts accordingly. They definitely speak to the choir. And of course, both types of cruises offer abundant and tasty food.

But the gay cruise has the bodies, the attitude, the parties and the campiness that will not be found on your bread and butter straight cruises.

All three of my cruises have been arranged by Cruise Planners.