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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Monday, October 31, 2011

Getting Their Ducks in a Row

The recent autumn snow was a stark reminder that the 2012 General Assembly that begins in January is not far off. With it comes the hope of passing a marriage equality bill and a comprehensive gender identity non-discrimination measure. Both fell short in the 2011 session but had advanced further than any time before.

A new dimension has since been added to Maryland’s upcoming battle for marriage equality. The revised redistricting plan, drawn up by state leaders and signed by Governor O’Malley, if not overturned in court, puts the 6th Congressional District in play for Democrats for the first time since Beverly Byron last held the post in 1993. This tilt was aided by adding Democratic-rich D.C. suburbs to the district that was once confined to Western Maryland.

The 10-term incumbent Republican Roscoe Bartlett, 85, will be facing a formidable challenge from, among others, the lead sponsor of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, State Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola (D-Montgomery). Though he will be running in a district that still contains many conservatives, Sen. Garagiola will not shy away from his strong advocacy for marriage equality.

“If someone asks me a question out in Allegany County about same-sex marriage, I’m going to talk about it and explain my reasoning for it,” Sen. Garagiola told the Baltimore Sun. “Hopefully, those who are like-minded will be appreciative of it, and those who aren’t will at least understand my reasoning for it.”

Accordingly, marriage equality will be a hot button issue in 2012—not only in this congressional contest but it is also likely to find its way on the ballot should the bill be passed and signed into law during the upcoming session. A significant pushback is expected from a variety of religious and secular groups to thwart the legislation, and if that effort is unsuccessful, a petition to referendum is a virtual certainty. Marriage equality advocates must be ready to counterpunch in what could be the big election story of 2012 besides the presidential and congressional races.

Following the financial and leadership implosion by Equality Maryland—the heretofore principal LGBT rights organization in the state—a new group, Marylanders for Marriage Equality, was launched this past July to lead the effort to advance a marriage equality bill. MME is comprised of a coalition of progressive statewide and national organizations that should help raise money and muster volunteers to fight the battle.

The coalition includes the NAACP-Baltimore Chapter, SEIU, ACLU-Maryland, Progressive Maryland, Equality Maryland, Human Rights Campaign, National Black Justice Coalition, Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Family Equality Council, Catholics for Equality, Maryland Faith for Equality, PFLAG and Maryland NOW.

Equality Maryland, which is a key component of the coalition, has begun a turnaround. “From a structural standpoint, Equality Maryland is making steady, stepwise progress on the short-term strategic plan that we developed earlier this summer,” said Lisa Polyak, the acting chair of the Equality Maryland, Inc. Board of Directors. “We solidified our financial position by eliminating debt and improving our development efforts. We seated 16 new members to our Equality Maryland Foundation (C3) and Equality Maryland, Inc. (C4), and we are now in the process of screening suitable candidates for the job of Executive Director.”

She added that a significant Equality Maryland event will take place in Baltimore before the end of the year, which will be “headlined by more Maryland champions for LGBT equality.”

For its part, the umbrella organization, Marylanders of Marriage Equality, is also getting its ducks in a row. Similar to New York’s successful efforts in achieving marriage for same-sex couples, MME has so far garnered two local celebrities to advocate in videos for the cause: Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Baltimore native Oscar winner Mo’Nique.

"We are so grateful Baltimore native Mo'Nique is speaking out on behalf of all Maryland families," said Elbridge James of Progressive Maryland. "People from all walks of life, including gay and lesbian couples, want their children to live in a loving, stable, committed home and be protected under the law."

The video campaign is designed to raise the profile of the diverse support for civil marriage equality in advance of the 2012 legislative session. Governor O'Malley kicked off the effort last month.

MME is developing additional strategies to get the message across. “The coalition has been ramping up our grassroots efforts in recent weeks, including a Lobby Day in Annapolis, regular phone banks, which enable constituents to call their legislators, letter-writing campaigns, and using social media an as organizing tool,” said Sultan Shakir, the campaign manager for MME.”

The Lobby Day event, which occurred during the special session that produced the redistricting plan, was a targeted effort and did not include a public rally on this occasion. The coalition mobilized people of faith, parents and LGBT people to speak with their respective lawmakers about supporting civil marriage equality.

“The active participation of pro-equality supporters is vital to getting this bill over the finish line. We would encourage LGBT people to ask their moms and dads, friends and co-workers to get involved in this campaign,” said Shakir.

It’s going to require legions of volunteers and significant fundraising to realize success in the General Assembly and in the potential referendum battle. Marylanders for Marriage Equality’s coalition partners are positioning themselves to win on behalf of the LGBT community by getting their ducks in a row now.


Photo: Phone banking at the GLCCB

Courtesy of the GLCCB

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Street Smarts

It may have been game 4 of the World Series between the Orioles and Mets at Shea Stadium, but on Wednesday, October 15, 1969 in New York City there was a much more significant occurrence going on. It was Moratorium Day whereby anti-Vietnam War protesters took to the streets of New York and around the country in an effort to persuade our government to end the war. These historic events took place on 300 college campuses with marches, rallies and prayer vigils nationwide. In all, 2 million participated.

It was my first such demonstration, and I recall us singing the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” while we chanted and listened to speeches at the rally I attended. This was something I never thought I’d do, but the realization that the Vietnam War needed to stop motivated me. Having tasted the experience of a protest demonstration as a young man, I participated in several gay rights marches in Washington, D.C. in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Those memories were summoned back to me in a flash when I noticed how the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, which began somewhat quietly on September 17 in lower Manhattan, spread like wildfire across the country, from Boston to Anchorage, including Baltimore, to eventually become a worldwide phenomenon.

Indeed, on October 15—the 42nd anniversary of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam—this newest entry in the protest movement officially went global with over 950 cities spanning 82 countries and hundreds of thousands of people involved. The intention was to be non-violent but, alas, there were reports that violence and destruction erupted in some locales.

This country has seen a plethora of marches and demonstrations for social, economic and political justice during the course of its history. In the modern era we had numerous (and at times bloody) civil rights marches, demonstrations, sit-ins and rallies. There was a clear objective: end discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement based on race. Through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the goals were largely met.

We had seen demonstrations and sit-ins on college campuses particularly in the mid 1960’s to early 1970’s. Most of them were tied to the Vietnam War protests and the individual college’s policy of allowing the ROTC to recruit students on campus. These as well as the general anti-draft, anti-Vietnam War protests ended when the war ended. Again, there was a specific goal that had a clear remedy.

Gay rights marches also sought specific objectives that ranged from equality in the workplace to ending discrimination in the military. With the stroke of pens at the local, state and federal levels, while still incomplete, many goals have been achieved.

The Occupy movement is quite dissimilar from these other examples. Not only are the participants railing against government dysfunction and the inequities it spews, they are also fired up against corporate America and its associated behavior and influence. As such, there is a broad mix of grievances stemming from individuals representing myriad backgrounds and viewpoints.

While most of these gripes are economic-related, they have been boiled down by many Occupy participants and the media to these: corporate greed and income disparities (one percent of the population controlling most of the wealth).

Here’s where it gets complicated. Unlike those other aforementioned protests, there is no single outcome that will alleviate their concerns. Greed is a human trait, similar to hate, that cannot be legislated away. Income or wealth re-distribution likewise cannot be corrected simply; the rich will certainly not part with their money voluntarily.

What needs to be done, what would be smart, is for the Occupy movement in the U.S. to follow the model of the right wing’s protest counterpart, the Tea Party, and delve into electoral politics whereby these complaints could be effectively addressed by a government that’s sympathetic to its causes.

While I believe the Tea Party’s vast success will be short-lived, mainly because its ideology runs counter to mainstream thinking as well as its deliberate strangulation of government, the movement already had an oversized impact. They sought and backed like-minded candidates using the economic downturn, health care reform, an anti-Obama, anti-big government and anti-debt mindset as catalysts and succeeded spectacularly in taking over the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections.

Though the Occupy movement consists of a loose array of political allegiances and goals, the preponderance of the ideas are left-leaning and are opposed to the inequities promulgated by Republicans. The Occupy movement needs to harness its own good energy and do more than protest.

I realize many, if not most, of the Occupiers are turned off by both major parties. But these folks would be wise to develop a political strategy with support from other progressives and bring in national and local Democrat organizations that can help with logistical support, fundraising and targeting opponents.

To be fair, Democrats have had a role in creating some of the conditions that the Occupy participants are protesting. But overwhelmingly the fault lies with the Republicans for advancing tax breaks for the wealthy, opposing regulation of Wall Street and big banks, and allowing corporations to escape paying their fair share of taxes. The Tea Party-controlled GOP is also responsible, strictly for political purposes, for preventing President Obama from implementing a jobs bill to help get some of the unemployed back to work.

Protesting is fine but there must be a mechanism to realize goals. Politicization would be the key strategy to give the movement its best chance at righting the wrongs. As John F. Kennedy said, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spotlighters Serves Up 'Tea and Sympathy'

Baltimore’s Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre kicked off its 50th season with a well-staged mounting of the Robert Anderson classic Tea and Sympathy. Ms. Herman, the person for whom the theater is named, appeared as one of the play’s principal characters, Laura Reynolds, at the Spotlighters back in 1968.

Tea and Sympathy opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on September 30, 1953 and ran successfully for 712 performances under the direction of Elia Kazan. In 1956 it was made into a movie that was directed by Vincent Minelli.

Over a half century later, Director Fuzz Roark does a splendid job of capturing Anderson’s pioneering message through the performances of the excellent cast in the Spotlighters’ production.

Set in a 1953 New England boys’ boarding school, the play’s theme, applicable today, is school bullying, especially if a student is perceived to be gay with the key word being “perceived.” Hardly any gay student would dare to come out in such an environment, particularly during a point in time when homophobia was prevalent.

In Tea and Sympathy, the student is Tom Lee, played earnestly and passionately by Justin Johnson. Rumors about Tom’s sexuality are rampant because he is a sensitive person and eschews the macho-jock ethos that dominates the students and the male faculty members.

Instead, Tom wears his hair long, enjoys music and drama and was readying to play a female role in an upcoming school play. His detractors have judged him to be a “fairy” based on this stereotype as well as by his mannerisms and walk.

Fueling and perhaps validating the suspicion, Tom was spotted swimming naked at the dunes with another teacher, David Harris (Jose Teneza). Tom credibly and strongly denied any wrongdoing. “Nothing HAPPENED!” he implores. The gossip spreads wildly throughout the school, affecting Tom. The audience was left wondering why he was with Mr. Harris under those circumstances in the first place.

Isolated from his peers and faculty members, Tom’s only source of comfort is the wife of a teacher, Laura Reynolds, played expertly by Karia Ferry. Bucking the advice repeated by the fun-loving headmaster’s wife (Lisa Libowitz) that "you have to be an interested bystander...all you're supposed to do is every once in a while give the boys a little tea and sympathy," Laura immerses herself in Tom’s plight, which becomes the emotional center of the play.

Skeptical about the rumors, she rebukes her domineering and hyper-masculine husband Bill (Todd Krickler) who is firmly a passenger on the Tom-is-a-fairy bandwagon.

Laura had once married an 18 year-old who was killed in World War II in an attempt to demonstrate his courage and burnish his manliness. Accordingly, she feels the connection to the embattled Tom, who, himself, is just shy of turning 18.

At the same time, her current marriage to Bill is deteriorating, and she questions Bill’s own masculinity because of his over-the-top machismo that leads to his assuming the worst in Tom. Laura asks, “Did it ever occur to you that you persecute in Tom, the thing you fear in yourself?”

Tom does not receive comfort from his gruff father, Herbert Lee (Bob Ahrens). Hearing the rumors, too, and discovering the gown Tom was to wear in the play, the elder Lee orders Tom to abandon his plans to perform.

Tom is constantly being taunted and bullied by three fellow housemates. Shawn Naar, Kevin D. Baker and Dennis Binseel who plays Tom’s roommate Al, inject considerable energy into the play. Al, however, is conflicted between going along with his peers and his slightly more tolerant nature coupled with his loyalty to Tom. Binseel deftly conveys this welcome sensitivity and helps Tom develop a “manlier” walk as a way to mitigate the taunting.

Being sexually innocent, Tom withdraws and becomes confused as to what his sexual orientation really is. This leads to an escapade with a local girl that doesn’t go well, resulting in a potential expulsion from the school. At no time during the course of the play did Tom ever admit to being gay.

Laura continued to pull away from Bill and had decided to leave him. At the same time she takes even more of an interest in Tom. In an attempt to make Tom feel like a man, Laura discreetly offers herself at play’s end. As she prepares herself for the ultimate good deed she tells Tom, “Years from now—when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.”

Tea and Sympathy was one of the first American plays to address homosexuality and its resulting prejudice. The core message is the prejudice, not Tom’s actual sexual orientation, which remains unknown.

This production benefitted from wonderful acting performances with Karina Ferry, Justin Johnson and Dennis Binseel and Todd Krickler heading the list. The other cast members performed quite admirably as well.

As with other productions of Tea and Sympathy, a split set designed by Roark for this production is used: one depicting the Reynolds’ living room where students can come downstairs and cavort with the housemasters and the other set in the stage’s corner representing Tom’s bedroom symbolizing his isolation. The action alternates between the two.

Period furnishings in both Reynolds’ study and Tom’s dorm room were authentic, as was the mood music from 1950’s records featuring such artists as, Debbie Reynolds, Patti Page, Frankie Lyman and Peggy Lee.

All in all, this play is highly recommended for its skilled production and prevailing message, which has transcended over a half century.

Tea and Sympathy is being performed at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore and runs through November 6. Tickets are $20 for Adults, $18 for Seniors and $16 for Students. They can be purchased online .

Photo: L-R: Tom (Justin Johnson, Al (Dennis Binseel), Ralph (Shawn Naar)
Credit: Ken Stanek


Friday, October 07, 2011

My Question Used on MSNBC's 'Last Word' with Lawrence O'Donnell

My Tweet to Lawrence O'Donnell's Last Word on MSNBC, October 6. Question posed to Herman Cain who responded "...it was a matter of opinion."

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Why Obama Can Sleep at Night

As President Barack Obama left the podium on October 1 to a standing ovation at the 15th annual Human Rights Campaign dinner where he was the keynote speaker, his reminders of his accomplishments on LGBT issues during his first term were still resonating among the crowd of 3,000. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ his call for the end of the Defense of Marriage Act, the passage of a comprehensive Hate Crimes bill, non discrimination in hospitals, lifting the HIV travel ban, and a continued focus on bullying head the list.

It was also a stark reminder that this progress for LGBT Americans may not continue after the 2012 elections. “I don’t have to tell you, there are those who don't want to just stand in our way but want to turn the clock back; who want to return to the days when gay people couldn’t serve their country openly,” the president warned.

Fresh off eight years of failures of the Bush administration, Obama burst onto the electoral scene with the mantra of “hope and change” as well as his opposition to the war in Iraq. He steamrolled over the favored and more experienced Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. And then Obama, as we know, handily defeated a one-time decent independent-minded Senator John McCain who, sadly, veered sharply to the right in the general election.

Obama—African-American, inexperienced and liberal—was seen by the electorate as the anti-Bush and one who can lead the country from the economic morass the previous administration left as a legacy.

But things did not work out well for the new president. He made health care reform the centerpiece of his legislative agenda early on and galvanized a relatively small, noisy bunch of folks who despised Obama from the outset to lead an unsuccessful nationwide crusade against the proposed reforms. This group, who never understood the rudiments of the complex legislation, simply opposed it and protested vehemently at town halls, on the airwaves and on the blogosphere.

The protests gave rise to the “Tea Party” movement that consisted mainly of far right, debt-obsessed, anti-government, white Republicans, who charge that Obama is a big-spending socialist, and they pledged to “take the country back.” With the unemployment rate excessively high and a slowing economy that did not respond effectively to the stimulus that Obama and Congress implemented, the Tea Party faction gained in numbers and strength and wound up shaking up Congress in the 2010 elections.

As the calendar turned to the 2012 election cycle, Obama is considered very vulnerable, especially with an unemployment rate hovering at 9 percent, and forecasters do not see an appreciable drop by next November. His poll numbers have been tanking steadily—even after the debt ceiling debacle, which was largely blamed on intransigent House Republicans beholden to Tea Party members.

Recent history points to incumbents who failed in a bid for a second term because of poor economic conditions. Jimmy Carter and Bush 41 are good examples. But with the relentless vitriol leveled at Obama from the 2008 campaign to the present fueled by 24-hour news cycles, unaccountable blogs and social media, the economy’s woes became magnified—and personal.

There are 13 months until the general election and it appears that there will be insufficient time to right the economy especially because it would not serve the GOP’s political interests to cooperate with the president on job plans and other measures to get people back to work.

So with these toxic conditions, poor poll numbers, and an erosion of the base, how can Obama sleep at night with these seemingly insurmountable odds? The answer: he can because he will have a Republican opponent to face off against.

Many, if not most, political pundits view the current GOP field as weak. Moreover, polls clearly show a much worse approval rating for Republicans than the president. As a result, Obama’s goal should be to make the 2012 election a choice and not a referendum—although he had amassed an impressive list of legislative and foreign policy accomplishments to tout.

Governor Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are the so-called front runners at this juncture. Romney is disliked by the Tea Party crowd largely because they doubt his conservative chops. Gaffe-prone Perry lacks the confidence of GOP establishment and Wall Street types.

A new Quinnipiac poll in Pennsylvania shows that just 43% approve of Obama’s job, while 51% say he doesn’t deserve a second term. However, in head-to-head match-ups, he leads Romney (45%-43%) and Perry (46%-40%). And a new Quinnipiac poll in Ohio finds similar numbers for Obama in the Buckeye State: just 42% approve of his job, and 51% say he doesn’t deserve re-election. In head-to-heads in Ohio, Obama leads Perry (44%-41%) and Romney (44%-42%).

The results in these important states show that while Obama has been beaten down and the economy stinks, his opponent is perceived as worse. This is critical because the “independent” vote will determine the election, and they reject extremes. Helping Obama’s cause are the outrageous reactions from Republican audience members during their debates including the horrific booing of a gay soldier in Iraq.

But what is even more essential is Obama’s ability to bring back and fire up his base. His speech at HRC is a good first step.


Monday, October 03, 2011

The Verdict is in on 'Witness For The Prosecution'

As is the case in most of Agatha Christie’s works, Witness For The Prosecution, currently being staged at the Olney Theatre Center, is another deliciously fascinating whodunit. The three-act play has more twists and turns than a plumber’s snake.

British born Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and along with William Shakespeare, the best-selling author of any type. Christie penned The Witness For The Prosecution as a short story in 1925. It was published in the U.K. in 1933 and then appeared in the U.S. in 1948 as part of the collection The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories.

Based on the short story, Witness For The Prosecution premiered as a play in London in October 1953. Its success motivated the production to be brought to Broadway’s Henry Miller Theatre in December 1954 and closed in June 1956 after 645 performances.

It was created into a film in 1958 starring Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich and later adapted into a television film by Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Set in 1952 London, the play centers on Leonard Vole (played by Jeffries Thaiss), a married unemployed charmer who was arrested for the sensational murder of wealthy 62 year-old widow Emily French whom he had befriended. Vole made periodic visits to Mrs. French, helping her deal with her loneliness and with her tax matters—much to the chagrin of her live-in housekeeper Janet Mackenzie (Monica Lijewski).

Mackenzie had told police that Vole, a much younger man, was in the company of Mrs. French right before the murder. She was the person who discovered her body. Adding another reason to suspect Vole was the fact that Mrs. French named the virtually financially broke Vole in her will as the sole heir; therefore, he stood to gain the most from her demise.

Vole’s wife, Romaine (Andrea Cirie), an enigmatic German actress, first informed Vole’s defense team, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Bob Ari) and Mr. Mayhew (James Slaughter) that she would provide the critical alibi, although these erudite attorneys received an odd and inexplicable vibe from her. But when the trial proceeded, Romaine reversed course and became a witness for the prosecution. She testified that Vole was not home during the time the victim was deemed to have been killed.

What then transpired was a wild ride through the dramatic intensity of trial testimony and cross-examination coupled with a fascinating guessing game regarding the guilt or innocence of Vole. That which appears as obvious isn’t—the true core of Agatha Christie’s genius. The climactic ending was a shocking twist upon a twist and will not be revealed here.

Veteran director John Going, a regular at Olney (The Mousetrap, Doubt, and I Am My Own Wife among the 30 he helmed) and a four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee, deftly guided the actors (and the audience) though the plot’s labyrinths. The British dialect throughout was clear, precise and well-timed and the actors’ movements on the stage were crisp and purposeful.

While I was hoping that the passionate Leonard Vole was innocent, Thaiss didn’t present Vole as a sympathetic character who may have been wrongly accused of the crime. Charming, maybe, but likeable, not so much.

Andrea Cirie seemed to relish the role of the cunning, duplicitous and mysterious Romaine. She is the catalyst that makes the plot work, and Cirie, who has significant Shakespeare background as well as TV appearances, played her character to the hilt.

The best of the best were Bob Ari (Frost/Nixon, Bells Are Ringing, Laughter On The 23rd Floor on Broadway) as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, the trial counsel, and James Slaughter as Mr. Mayhew, his associate.

Ari, in particular, was a standout as the esteemed lawyer. The characters they portrayed were credible and fun in trying to discredit the mounting circumstantial evidence and the calculating Romaine. Although I wasn’t moved to get behind Vole in his quest to be exonerated, I easily felt connected to Robarts and to some extent, Mayhew.

The remainder of the cast performed admirably, and some added a dose of comic relief to break the tension. Most notable was Justice Wainwright played mischievously by Jim Scopeletis, a multiple Helen Hayes Award winner.

James Wolk, the Scenic Designer, warrants major kudos. The staging had two sets—Robarts’ chambers (office) and the courtroom. Both were excellent in their design, which authentically and meticulously reflected the décor from the period.

Olney’s presentation of Witness For The Prosecution benefitted from a great story, expert direction, solid acting performances, a superb set, good British costuming including trial wigs, and the other ingredients needed for an outstanding play.

Olney’s Main Stage audience delivered its verdict with a justifiable standing ovation at the conclusion.

Witness for the Prosecution is running at Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Springs Rd., Olney, MD 20832 through October 23. For tickets and information call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

Photo: Bob Ari as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, James Slaughter as Mr. Mayhaw and Jeffries Thaiss as Leonard Vole

Credit: Stan Barouh