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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Stare?

While recently watching the most excellent documentary Ask Not on MPT, which presented a terrific overview of the origin of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy and its impact, a clip by a soldier made me think back to when I served. During one of the interviews following President Clinton's attempt to ban the discrimination of gays and lesbians in the Armed Forces, the young soldier said, and I'm paraphrasing: "In the military we live in close quarters with no privacy. I would feel real uncomfortable if a homosexual was staring because he was attracted to me."

His rejoinder brought back memories to my days of service. It was while I was in the Army many moons ago that I experienced my first gay sexual encounter, which took place off the post and with another gay soldier. Following that, I knew I had to remain in the closet, and any further trysts would have to again occur off the post, off-duty and discreet beyond comprehension.

But I also remember quite clearly how I lusted after some other soldiers, who were straight, with whom I shared barracks, the workplace, and after-duty recreational venues. I didn't act on these feelings for fear of being beaten up in a "blanket party," snickered at, turned in during witch hunts, arrested, or ultimately discharged from the Army. Nonetheless, the thoughts remained and the fantasies lingered.

When I heard the soldier's comments from 1993 on the TV program and recalled my own personal experiences, I was thinking, hmmm, does he have a point? Let's be totally honest here. No one enjoys being "checked out" or stared at by someone he or she is not attracted to. Undoubtedly, most of us have experienced that. We have done it, and we have been the target. At a minimum it feels awkward or perhaps repulsive at the other end of the spectrum. So I think we can relate, even if we disagree with his generalization.

But this is the overriding argument expressed by opponents of the repeal of DADT, and it's a weak one. They maintain, with total certainty, that a unit's morale, cohesion and readiness would be adversely affected because of the close living arrangements that include openly gay colleagues ready to prey on the straight troops. In their minds, the policy change would lead to "recruiting," unwanted fondling, displaying rainbow flags, sex in the next bunk, etc., etc. etc.

That's what the opposition will continue to spew, and it's bogus for several reasons.

While some gays and lesbians in the military may "check out" colleagues, with few exceptions they smartly do not take any further steps. And it is doubtful that such restraint would change with the repeal of DADT. Therefore, the fear of staring is overblown and exaggerated.

For the record, straight soldiers frequently ogle their opposite sex colleagues. And it's perplexing that the unseemly number of sexual assaults and rapes committed by straight service members hardly surface during the DADT debate, even in the context of discussing unit cohesion and morale.

It's also important to note that of the tens of thousands of discharges from the service that occurred prior to DADT, rarely were they a result of sexual conduct. They stemmed mostly from fellow soldiers or sailors ratting on them or they were asked a question during a security clearance.

Moreover, the military has specific rules governing sexual conduct—gay or straight—so any violation would be dealt with under the auspices of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The worry that openly gay and lesbian service members would turn the barracks into a bathhouse is absurd by its naiveté and homophobic stereotyping.

There are an estimated 66,000 gay men and lesbians in the Armed Forces. No evidence exists that supports the notion that the inclusion of gays in the military would, in fact, negatively impact morale. This was supported by the findings of a 1993 study by the RAND Corporation, and an update is expected in the near future.

Many troops in the new modern military (post-1993), who are decidedly more accepting of gays and lesbians than in previous generations, have come forth saying they are aware of gays or lesbians in their units and it has no effect on them. Most will tell you that when they are in a combat situation, the last thing they are worried about is being hit on or stared at by a gay colleague. And a gay soldier will say the same thing: "We are trying to defeat the enemy and survive, and that is where our focus is and should be."

Still, opponents rant about how gays in the military would be disruptive to combat readiness. To meet recruitment goals, however, the military had no problem admitting an influx of unfit enlistees while at the same time, discharging qualified gay and lesbians—over 13,500 since DADT was implemented—many of whom with key linguistic skills that are paramount to our national security.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, "Conduct waivers have been given for recruits with records of bomb threats, sex crimes and negligent or vehicular homicide. And yet, qualified, smart, law-abiding and fit youths who want to serve are being excluded merely because of their sexual orientation."

Other countries with tough military forces such as the U.K and Israel had no trouble assimilating gay folks into the ranks. The U.S. military overcame fears as blacks and women were integrated into the Armed Forces.

The retiring General Stanley McChrystal said it's all about competence. "If you're competent, it doesn't matter who you are...If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pride 2010: So On We Go

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I'm strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain't heavy, he's my brother

The Bobby Scott and Bob Russell ballad, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" was first released by the British group The Hollies just three months after the famous Stonewall uprising in 1969 that most, if not all, historians believe was the birth of the modern gay-rights movement. The pop classic, which attained enormous popularity when Neil Diamond released it a year later, had nothing to do with that iconic weekend in New York's Greenwich Village. But the message applies to all of us as we celebrate four decades of gay-pride parades, festivals and the rest of the traditional hoopla that mark the anniversary of Stonewall.

So much has happened since 1969 in the struggle to achieve tolerance initially, then acceptance, and now equality, we couldn't possibly list all the events, breakthroughs and setbacks that have brought us to this point in 2010.

That road along this 40 year-plus journey had been laden with obstacles, potholes and roadblocks. Yet, as the LGBT community continues this historic expedition by helping one another, it is slowly but surely overcoming the burdens that have challenged us.

Time and time again, members of our community have pulled together to reach a goal or to right a wrong. During the scourge of AIDS in the 80's, for example, lesbians stepped up to help their fallen brothers in the community. Organizations formed to provide critical services to the sick and dying to help maintain dignity for the stricken and their families.

In culture, politics and business, our battles have been fought—sometimes bitterly—and when we have won, it was because we supported each other, donated time and money and even spilled blood on this road to equality over several generations. Of course, there are numerous differences among us; that cannot be changed because we are a slice of the general population.

But we can and should pull together as a community and not allow our differences to prevent us from reaching the goals at the end of the road. As the song says, "While we're on the way to there, why not share?"

We have so much work left undone. Transgender protections must be in place. Federal legislation on workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity needs to be passed. Gay and lesbians who volunteer for military service must be allowed to serve openly in defense of our country. Funding to help treat HIV/AIDS must be sufficient. People should be legally permitted to marry the person that they love.

All of these can be accomplished if we pitch in and help. Do not rely on organizations to do the heavy lifting. It is incumbent upon us to share the burden to fight these battles. We live in a democracy and we do have access to lawmakers. Make your voices heard and be proud of who you are. The era of second-class citizenship must end now.

I wish you a happy Pride. We urge everyone in the LGBT community to be strong enough to carry your brother or sister as we navigate this road together.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

We Take Pride in Our Allies

By Steve Charing

Our front page feature interview of straight collegiate athlete Hudson Taylor was intended to highlight the importance of having straight allies on our side in the quest for equality. As we celebrate Pride and reflect upon why as members of the LGBTcommunity we should be proud, one of the major reasons is the fact we have many straight friends and allies aiding our cause.

The inconvenient truth is that if we try to go it alone, we will get nowhere. Simply put, the LGBT community by itself does not have the numbers to affect the outcome of policy decision-making or alter elections. With estimates that indicate we comprise anywhere from 2 to 10 percent of the U.S. population, it is clear the math isn't there.

For us to succeed in the myriad unresolved LGBT-related issues, we must attract straight allies to bolster our numbers to influence lawmakers at all levels. Aside from Hudson Taylor who has stuck his neck out to publicly support LGBT rights and advocated for the end of homophobia in sports at the expense of losing some friendships along the way, there are many other straight folks who have also courageously taken a strong stand for equality and continue to do so.

Representative Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, an Iraq war veteran, spearheaded the efforts in the House of Representatives to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Being straight and a combat veteran, Mr. Murphy possesses the credibility to persuade his colleagues that the policy as it exists is discriminatory and has hurt national security.

Closer to home, Maryland's Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has been another true advocate for LGBT equality. In February he issued an opinion against vitriolic opposition from conservatives that allowed Maryland to recognize valid same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

The law and precedent were on his side, and Mr. Gansler could have left it at that and continued to carry out his duties. Rather, Mr. Gansler demonstrated the political courage so sorely needed by elected officials—especially Democrats—to not only be on the right side of fairness and equality but to go out and fight for it. Mr. Gansler has not just talked equality, he is trying to do something to achieve it, and he does it in a public way.

Since the opinion was issued, Mr. Gansler spoke before a number of LGBT political groups and religious and civic organizations encouraging those in attendance to keep up the fight for marriage equality. Considered a likely candidate for Governor in 2014, some pundits have speculated that Mr. Gansler is taking a huge political risk in championing this issue. Undaunted, he believes it's the right thing to do. And he could be encouraged by the fact that the recent Washington Post poll indicated that more Marylanders, by a narrow margin, support same-sex marriage than oppose it.

We expect the margin to widen by 2014 as young voters who tend to regard marriage equality as a no-brainer enter the voting pool and replace the older conservative voters. Having an increasing number of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools across the country is a major contributor towards this goal as does the GLSEN-led National Day of Silence that brings awareness to the need for safe schools and other LGBT issues.

The efforts in Maryland have also been bolstered by the Maryland Black Family Alliance—a civil rights advocacy organization consisting of mainly straight African-American individuals. This group has been highly visible and outspoken in their beliefs that marriage equality is indeed a civil right and condemns those preachers who cherry pick biblical passages to oppose LGBT equality.

Then you have the good folks in PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Although the organization is not just for parents anymore as more and more lgbt people have hopped on board, it is the first group of straight allies to help our cause when it began in 1972. Now there are over 500 chapters in the U.S. What better ally could one hope for other than a parent of an LGBT child?

Furthermore, PFLAG has a program called Straight for Equality, which is a national outreach and education project that empowers straight allies in supporting and advocating on behalf of LGBT people. PFLAG offers the tools and strategies needed to attract more straight allies to the cause.

Added to the mix is the growing number of people in the entertainment industry who are coming out for LGBT rights. The battle over Proposition 8 in California served as a catalyst for this activism, and it hasn't waned. From the world of movies, television and music we are seeing more personalities unabashedly supporting our cause. Allies such as MSNBC's Keith Olbermann have been invaluable in the struggle to repeal DADT and advance other LGBT issues.

And let's not forget the number one ally-in-chief, President Barack Obama. While many activists have criticized him, and I believe unfairly, for not acting swiftly enough on lgbt initiatives, he has proven to be the first and only President who has not only talked the talk but in several significant instances, walked the walk. Read his Proclamation of LGBT Pride Month for a summary of the key actions the President has taken on our behalf.

We can increase our efforts to attract allies by having more LGBT folks coming out when feasible. When family members, co-workers, employers, friends and neighbors know that someone is lgbt, the odds are they will want to help secure rights for that individual. Almost immediately one can increase support exponentially just by coming out.

And education on important LGBT issues by political, religious and social justice groups is needed to garner further support in the straight community.

The wind is at our backs now. We are gaining momentum during this slow-moving battle to achieve full equality. And with more allies to give our movement a crucial boost, we will get there.

As we celebrate Pride, we should not only be proud of ourselves but also those wonderful allies, elected officials or not, who are helping us big time.


Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Tea Baggers in Hot Water and Other Good News

As we approach that wonderful weekend called LGBTQIA…Pride, it's nice to celebrate some good news for a change. And it couldn't come too soon. With the economy still not recovered, a major oil spill ruining the environment, North Korea girding for a fight, and the usual assortment of maladies that makes us question why we bother to wake up in the morning, let's look on the bright side.

Showing Their True Colors. Tea Party darling Rand Paul who in a Kentucky primary defeated a "mainstream" Republican, if there is such a thing anymore, made a huge gaffe when he questioned aspects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The hint of racism may have thankfully triggered some more scrutiny towards the movement.

It is completely unfair to call all Tea Baggers racists; not all of them are. Ask the 5 or 6 African-Americans who identify as Tea Party members. But come on, when they say "we want to take our country back," what do you think this coded phrase actually means? Hint: Obama is our president. Also check out those signs at rallies.

This movement has been propelled by a hungry media starving to see a good old-fashioned political conflict and strife. Do they really believe that a group of "angry patriots" can be a serious force with Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman as the faces of the Tea Baggers?

DADT's Enough. The real good news lately is clearly the action taken by the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," This is a major breakthrough and an historic endeavor by Congress when it comes to gay and lesbian rights. It's not a certainty that it will be repealed but the metrics seem favorable. This will be a big-time win, and it couldn't come soon enough. And 80 percent of the country backs repeal.

Walking the Walk. Speaking of winners, we have to salute our Attorney General Doug Gansler. Not only did he offer an opinion that allows same-sex marriages performed elsewhere to be recognized in Maryland, but he has been an unabashed supporter for marriage equality. A couple of years ago he testified in front of legislative committee support of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act during the General Assembly session.

Since releasing the opinion, Mr. Gansler had appeared in different parts of the state in front of religious and LGBT groups promoting marriage equality. He is a genuine and valuable ally—the kind we truly need—and we should not forget his courage and steadfastness in pursuit of equality.

Political pundits speculate that Mr. Gansler will run for governor in 2014. If elected, we may actually see the legalization of same-sex marriage here because he has already laid his cards on the table and will not hide behind the veil of political expediency.

Winning the Exacta. We have a real good chance of two openly gay candidates in Baltimore picking up seats in the state legislature in 2011. Both Mary Washington (District 43) and Luke Clippinger (District 46) are extremely competent, smart and hard working individuals who will represent their constituents well. The election possibilities are strong, and if they do succeed, that will bring the total to 6 gay or lesbian legislators working for us and building support among their colleagues.

A Badge of Courage. Rep. Frank Kratovil, a conservative Democrat running in a tough race to retain his seat in the 1st Congressional District against arch-conservative Andy Harris, should get a big thank-you from our community. Although he voted against the health care legislation probably to appease dyed-in-the –wool conservatives in his district, he voted for the repeal of DADT.

In a statement, Rep. Kratovil said, “At a time when we are engaged in two wars and facing security threats from around the globe, it is both unfair and unwise to deny brave, qualified Americans the opportunity to serve our country."

McCain-iac. On the other end of the spectrum lies the despicable Senator John McCain, arguably the biggest sore loser ever in presidential politics. Running to save his political life (it's really time to retire, Mr. Maverick), he is attempting to out-conservative his right wing opponent for U.S. Senate, Rep. J.D. Hayworth. McCain is spearheading the effort to derail the repeal of DADT by encouraging a filibuster, even though spending to support the military would be squashed as a result if the tactic is successful.

The homophobic McCain cannot fathom the idea of gays serving in the military (wake up, they're there already), and he is not only going against his own family members' sentiments but also his hero the late Barry Goldwater. Considered the "father of the conservative movement," Goldwater once said, “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.” Apparently McCain doesn't buy it. What's the good news in this? He chose a gay man, Mark Buse, to head his re-election campaign. It makes you wonder.

Idol Chatter. On the culture front, American Idol finished its season with a spectacular finale bringing in a boatload of superstar artists to entertain, led by the Bee Gees, Chicago and Christina Aguilera. The good news here is that we went the entire season without questions of homophobia popping up. Lesbian Ellen DeGeneres had replaced Paula Abdul on the judge's panel and did an OK job—not great but not bad either. The only references to anything gay were by Ellen herself when she declared on a couple of occasions that she "loved women." You see, I never knew that.