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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Friday, August 30, 2013

In Memoriam - Darren Manzella (August 8, 1977 – August 29, 2013)

In remembrance of Darren Manzella who was tragically killed in a traffic accident on Aug. 29, 2013 at the age of 36, below is a re-post of my article I wrote when he was a guest presenter at PFLAG- Howard County on November 11, 2008.

Darren Manzella
Outfitted in a sharply pressed dark suit and flashing a megawatt smile that illuminated his square jaw, former Sergeant Darren Manzella spoke before nearly 70 people at the Veterans Day meeting of Columbia/Howard County Chapter of PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Darren Manzella, 31, helped mark the event by sharing his personal story and discussing the impact of the travesty known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT)—the military’s policy that prohibits openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the Armed Forces.

Manzella is a Policy Advocate and Major Gifts Officer for the
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, of which he had been a client for two years. His moving soft-spoken presentation was at times somber, but it was also sprinkled with a few humorous asides and anecdotes.

“I enlisted the U.S. Army in 2002 following the attacks of 9/11 when there was a nationwide wave of patriotism,” he told the audience. Manzella, a medic, eventually deployed to Iraq in 2004 where he provided medical coverage, emergency treatment and evacuation during more than one hundred 12-hour duties on the streets of Baghdad.

While under fire, he gave medical care to his fellow soldiers, Iraqi National Guardsmen and Iraqi civilians. His care during an attack in Iraq earned him the Combat Medical Badge, and he is also the recipient of several other awards recognizing his courage and duty to service in the war zone.

It was while Manzella was serving in the Army that he realized he was gay. Sgt. Manzella had come out first to his roommate, then his other friends, and finally to his parents. Eventually his fellow soldiers and superiors knew, and their reaction ranged largely from indifference to fully supportive.

But there were exceptions. Following threats of outing and a DADT investigation by his command, Sgt. Manzella wrote in a letter that, “I don't think most people can understand how hard it is to have to hide their true self; to have to pretend to be someone that they are not; to be scared that you'll be ostracized for being different; to be told that you're wrong if you live a certain life . . . that concerns no one else but yourself. . . . I am proud of myself and of the accomplishments I have achieved in my life.”

To his surprise, the investigation into his personal life was closed, and the Army deployed Sgt. Manzella later that year for a second tour of duty in the Middle East - again in Baghdad and then Kuwait.

After receiving word that Leslie Stahl of CBS News 60 Minutes wanted to interview him in Kuwait with regards to DADT, Sgt. Manzella was conflicted. He knew that telling his story on such a public stage would likely end the career he loved.

On the other hand, this was an opportunity to help other gay and lesbian service members by publicizing the discriminatory nature of the policy in an effort to gain public support for its repeal. He decided to go through with it; the interviewed
aired in December 2007.

In March of 2008 his commander at Fort Hood, Texas informed Manzella, that he was being recommended for discharge under DADT. A copy of the 60 Minutes transcript was attached to the discharge recommendation. On June 10, 2008, Iraq War Veteran and Army Sergeant Darren Manzella was separated from the military with an Honorable Discharge.

The repugnant DADT policy is responsible for the discharges of 12,000 able service members since its inception in 1993. At a time when the military is actively recruiting those with sub-standard intelligence as well as felony records to meet enlistment quotas and beef up troop levels, fully competent patriotic gays and lesbians continue to be shown the door, which impacts our efforts in the war on terrorism. Nearly 800 specialists with critical skills, for example, have been fired from the military under DADT, including several linguists who speak Arabic.

And the costs of the policy are staggering. U.S. taxpayers have paid $250 million to investigate and root out patriotic servicemen and women under DADT and as much as $1.2 billion in lost recruiting and training costs.

But the issue will always be about discrimination. “DADT impacts all families who have gay children,” said PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County chapter chair Colette Roberts. “It's horrible being told your son or daughter who is trying to serve in the military is being treated like a second class citizen, hiding who they truly are.”

Darren Manzella, who now resides in Washington, D.C. working with SLDN to continue the fight for the repeal of DADT, is optimistic that an Obama Administration will take a serious look at the policy and try to gain consensus among the military’s brass. “Polls are showing greater acceptance of gays and lesbians openly serving in the military,” he pointed out. “It is the older generation in the military who is resistant to the change.”

Indeed, more than two-thirds of civilians support allowing gays to serve openly in the military. And despite the fear-mongering about unit morale, nearly 3 in 4 troops say they are personally comfortable serving side-by-side with gays and lesbians.

Those in the packed meeting room, which included some from the chapter’s Rainbow Youth Alliance, were captivated by the compelling personal journey traveled by Darren Manzella.

“Darren's story about a small town boy who joined the military to see the world only to become a man was truly inspirational,” said Sean McGovern, a member of the PFLAG chapter’s Advocacy Committee. “It struck me funny that the one institution that discriminated against him helped him realize who he truly was and that his fellow soldiers had become honorable men of tolerance with him.”

Nothing would vindicate Darren Manzella’s sacrifice more than the repeal of the ban and the liberation of his fellow gay brothers and sisters.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Mystery Solved: A Lively 'Drood' at Beth Tfiloh

If you ever wanted to be part of solving a murder mystery then you will have that opportunity if you attend the Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre’s production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  The “solve-it-yourself musical comedy” skillfully directed by Diane M. Smith, is playing through August 25 at the Mintzes Theatre/Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.  Given the short run and the high quality of the production, you would be wise to get your tickets fast.

This five-time 1986 Tony Award-winning farce (including Best Musical) is based on the novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens.  The well-known English author died before he could complete this work, and a variety of writers and playwrights attempted to create their own endings to resolve the unfinished mystery.   
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

To Boycott or Nyet

The current attempt to boycott Russian vodka and/or the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in response to that country’s stringent anti-gaypropaganda law signed by President Putin in June, calls into question the effectiveness of such actions.  There have been successes in the past, but the current proposed boycotts will not succeed.
In 1977, homophobe and singer Anita Bryant effectively led a well-publicized effort through a group she headed “Save Our Children” to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida that covered sexual orientation.  The vote was a lopsided 69-31 margin. That outraged the gay community, and in response, activists organized a boycott of Florida orange juice because Bryant was a spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission. 

According to Eric Marcus, in his 2002 book, Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights, gay bars all over North America took screwdrivers off their drink menus and replaced them with the “Anita Bryant”, which was made with vodka and apple juice.  Sales and proceeds went to gay civil rights activists to help fund their fight against Bryant and her campaign.
The boycott didn’t kill off the orange juice industry, but its high-profiled effort brought awareness to the plight of lesbians and gays in Dade County.  Activist Harvey Milk pointed out, “The entire nation finally opened up and talked about Gay people.”   

It took twenty years, but Dade re-authored the anti-discrimination ordinance.  Opposition again tried to repeal it, but the voters of Dade County said “not this time” and backed it with 56 percent of the vote.
In this case, the boycott served as a vehicle to rally progressive groups and individuals to a cause, and it diminished Anita Bryant’s career.  And although the change in law occurred two decades later, the boycott was deemed a success.

Another example was the boycott of Coors beer that began in the 1970’s but ended successfully by the mid-90’s when the company changed their anti-gay policies.
Not all boycotts lead to victories.  Many are divisive and come off as reflexive counterpunches to a wide range of provocations.  They make one feel good but they’re not always successful and could even induce a backlash.

Such was the case in the Chick-fil-A debacle last year.  CEO Dan Cathy had made public statements opposing same-sex marriage and we later learned that the restaurant chain had donated large amounts of money to anti-gay organizations.  Activists urged a boycott of the restaurant as a result.

However, anti-gay Mike Huckabee organized a show of support for not only the positions Cathy had taken but also his right to express them.  On August 1, 2012, “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” resulted in record sales as over 600,000 RSVPed on Facebook to back the Huckabee event.  Not only was the company rewarded by exceeding the effects of the LGBT-led boycott, but it also emboldened the opposition to marriage equality.
Nonetheless, Chick-fil-A has since taken steps to re-examine its treatment of LGBT employees and its donations policies.

The proposed dual boycotts involving Russian vodka and the Winter Olympics seem to be knee-jerk reactions and short-sighted.  Dade County in Florida may have felt the impact of an all-out boycott of orange juice, but Russia will simply laugh off a similar protest, urged by author Dan Savage, against their vodka.  Stoli, the most mentioned brand, is not based in Russia though it uses ingredients from there.  A boycott of that company is pointless since they did not craft the law nor do they support it.

Russia’s economy is pumped up by their exports of oil, gas, palladium, nickel, iron, chemical products, autos, military equipment and timber.  The country has vast reserves of natural resources and they maintain a consistent trade surplus.  The exportation of vodka does not even create a blip.   Do you think that a handful of American gay bars’ refusing to sell vodka drinks will have any effect on the Russian economy?  Do you think Putin would buckle under such minimum pressure?
The proposed boycott of the Olympics in Sochi created more of a controversy.   Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein called for a boycott in an op-ed in the New York Times.  But many disagree.  Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis who could not compete in 1980 because of the boycott called by President Jimmy Carter a year following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and tennis champion Martina Navratilova believe the athletes should be allowed to participate.

LGBT advocacy groups All Out and Athlete Ally concur.  And the LGBT Sports Commission said in a statement, “Rather than talk about boycotts, the LGBT Sports Coalition is focused on participation. Whether or not an athlete is a member of the LGBT community, everyone who qualifies for these Games deserves the opportunity to compete safely…We did not choose Russia to host these Winter Games. However, we can use it as an opportunity to showcase the damage of repressive governments like that of President Putin.”
Then there is the question of why Russia’s treatment of gays deserve boycotts while other oppressive nations do not.  Local activist Rev. Meredith Moise illustrates the discrepancy.  A transgender young woman was brutally murdered in Jamaica, hacked to death,” she told me. “Jamaica [as well as Uganda and South Africa] has been hell for LGBT people for years.” 

The point is well taken.  Do we hear about any boycotts of Jamaican rum?  LGBT folks are literally executed in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries.  Do we boycott their oil?
Rev. Moise adds, “This has led many LGBT people of color to speculate and conclude that if a crisis doesn't involve gay white males, it will never get the attention from gay inc. establishment it deserves. Is this really justice or just us?”

International and diplomatic pressure is the only path to change the situation in Russia and elsewhere.  That’s an Olympic-sized challenge but has a better chance of succeeding than boycotts.



Monday, August 12, 2013

'A Chorus Line' Makes the Cut at Olney

Photo by Stan Barouh

It may have been 1975 with the birth years of the dancers auditioning for a fictional Broadway musical ranging from 1942 to 1955, but the competition for such chosen roles by “gypsies,” as show dancers are described, is as fierce today as it was then.  Many talented performers, few openings are available. That hasn’t changed over the years.  The Olney Theatre Center, acclaimed for its lusty musicals, succeeds with its entertaining re-creation of the timeless hit musical A Chorus Line, which humanizes these seemingly anonymous dancers.
One singular sensation  (Photo: Stan Barouh)
Veteran Stephen Nachamie, in choreographing and directing, stays true to the original production that featured music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, a book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante and originally choreographed by Michael Bennett.  In doing so, Nachamie helmed a tight production on a mostly bare stage that boasts a diverse array of talented dancers, singers and actors that performed some of the best-known songs on Broadway.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Editorial cartoon shows unfair politician-bashing

Letter published in the Howard County Times

I must take exception with the editorial cartoon appearing in the Aug. 8 issue. It depicts a hog at the Howard County Fair asking, "Eww…what's that smell?" and a sheep standing adjacent to it responding, "They're judging politicians over in the show pavilion." Yucks all around. Clearly, the cartoon's point is aimed at jumping on the anti-politician bandwagon with an attempt at humor.

Without question the dysfunctional government in Washington, D.C., especially Congress, and the never- ending battles in Annapolis have soured a public with a good dose of cynicism as evidenced by recent polls. But it is unfair to paint all of our elected officials in such broad strokes to signify disdain, even from barnyard animals, for all politicians.

Before readers get riled up and say, "Geez, it's only a cartoon; lighten up," lest we forget, editorial cartoons have been a powerful visual device for newspapers to express an editor's (or board's) position on political matters since the mid-19th century though such cartoons have been in play for a longer period of time. Readers tend to view them and are influenced by them. That's why they are published.

Let's be fair. There are many elected officials in this county and elsewhere who work hard for the common good. Even those I disagree with (and there are plenty) deserve respect for their chosen path of public service, frequently at personal sacrifice, and who sincerely try to make things better for the citizenry.

Messages as portrayed in this cartoon could have an adverse impact on young people who are expected to be our leaders of the future. If the editorial board of the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier chooses to deride politicians, dedicated individuals may pursue a different route and leave those leadership positions to less-qualified folks. Moreover, the percentage of those voting is alarmingly low as it is. Don't make it worse by pouring fuel on the cynicism fire.

One of a newspaper's civic obligations is to encourage participation in the political process, not degrade it, however lighthearted the message is conveyed. If an individual elected official "stinks," by all means call him or her out. Some do, for sure, but definitely not all as the cartoon implies.

Steve Charing


'Les Misérables' at Toby’s est Magnifique

Photo by Kirstine Christiansen
If you bought a ticket simply to hear the magical tenor voice of Daniel Felton who plays Jean Valjean in the stellar production of Les Misérables currently at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, it would be worth it just for that.  The same could be said for experiencing the performances of Lawrence B. Munsey as Javert or Theresa Cunningham as Madame Thenardier or the rest of the ensemble or even the scrumptious buffet.  But there is more, much more.
This version of Les Mis at Toby’s in-the-round configuration maintains the high level of brilliance expected from such a great work with its outstanding score and orchestration, magnificent individual performances, creative and efficient staging and spectacular costuming.  All these elements were overseen by co-directors Toby Orenstein and Steven Fleming who not only met the physical challenges of mounting such a complex, lavish production in this venue but exceeded it.

Les Misérables, a classic sung-through musical based on the novel by the French poet/playwright Victor Hugo, has been entertaining audiences throughout the world for decades.  The Broadway musical, whose score was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, opened in March 1987 and ran until May 2003, closing after 6,680 performances. It is the fourth longest-running Broadway show in history.  Les Misérables was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
The storyline with its adventure, drama, love, generosity, redemption and tragedy has many moving parts to it, but it essentially follows the life of a peasant Jean Valjean in early 19th century France.  He had been imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to help his starving sister’s child.  Valjean broke parole and started his life over with the benefit of a helping hand from a kind Bishop.  He was relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert whose sense of justice did not allow him to believe that a man could change for the better.

As a town mayor and factory owner eight years later, Valjean rescued a dying woman named Fantine from the police and promised her to care for her young daughter Cosette, whom he liberates from the abusive innkeepers-turned-street gang leaders, the Thénardiers.    

Years pass by and Valjean is still being dogged by Javert, and a student uprising begins in Paris.  One of the revolutionaries, Marius, falls in love with the grown Cosette who reciprocates, and they eventually marry.  Valjean, who rescued Marius from an injury sustained at the hands of the French military at the barricades, ultimately reveals his identity before he passes on. 
Much occurs in between as this is merely a general summary.  Since there is no dialogue, the entire plot is revealed through music, and the performances were characterized by top-notch vocals with clear enunciation of the lyrics to illuminate the story.  The six-piece orchestra led by Christopher Youstra provided the musical support to help allow the performers to excel. 

Most of the ensemble are Toby’s regulars and are accustomed to the contours of the theatre and the stage presence required of the actors.  They performed superbly led by Daniel Felton as Valjean.  Possessing a powerful voice that is pitch perfect combined with his ability to hold long notes, Mr. Felton is a standout.  “Who Am I” and “Bring Him Home” are two of the noteworthy numbers in which Mr. Fenton shines.
Toby’s mainstay Lawrence B. Munsey turned in one of his best performances yet as the intense Javert.  Not only does he burnish his vocal chops in “Stars” and “Soliloquy,” but his dynamic acting skills come into play as well.

Janine Sunday as the tragic figure Fantine also performed nicely, and her main song, “I Dreamed a Dream” was performed well.

Jeffrey S. Shankle as the student revolutionary Marius and the love interest of Cosette, though not quite as young as one would expect from the role, is excellent in both acting and vocals.  He is convincingly passionate and sings effectively in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and in a duet with Mary Kate Brouillet as Eponine, the daughter of the Thénardiers (David James and Theresa Cunningham) in “A Little Fall of Rain.”
Helen Hayes award winner for her role as Sofia in The Color Purple at Toby’s, Ms. Cunningham, as Madame Thénardier, adroitly demonstrates her vocal prowess and funny facial expressions in her scenes.  The Thénardiers are a conniving couple who provide what little comedy the show offers. Mr. James, who leads my personal favorite number, “Master of the House,” was a bit understated for such a campy, energetic song.  He does it better, however, in “Beggars at the Feast.”

Another vocal standout is Ben Lurye as Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries and Marius’ friend.  His rendition of “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” with other members of the ensemble is fantastic.
Other noteworthy mentions are young Jace Franco as the street urchin Gavroche, Katie Heibreder as Cosette, Andrew Horn as the Bishop of Digne and David Bosley-Reynolds as the Factory Foreman.  The remainder of the company, including the revolutionaries, are also strong.

Costume Designers David Gregory and Shannon M. Maddox set up the cast in magnificently accurate period attire.  Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin proficiently used lighting effects to augment the mostly dramatic scenes.

Scenic Designer David Hopkins utilizes large props and furnishings as well as the iconic barricades made of scaffolding to provide dimension to the solid production—no small feat considering the confines of the theatre.  Scene changes occur rapidly and seamlessly.
This production of Les Mis is tout simplement spectaculaire and worthy of the rollicking standing ovation it received at show’s end. 

Running time: Three hours with an intermission.
Les Misérables at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through November 10.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit online or Ticketmaster.