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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dousing the Flames

Gay firefighter earns respect from colleagues, and it’s mutual

Brian Cox, an openly gay man in the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, was quick to point out he chose this profession not because he wanted to slide down poles or play with big hoses, as he put it.  It wasn’t because he knew life members of the fire department and they pushed him into it.  The Laurel resident bluntly admitted that he had a lot of free time with no real hobby that he enjoyed, so he figured it couldn’t hurt to check it out and see what it was about.

It took a while to be processed given the required paperwork and a physical exam, but on March 4 of this year Brian finally was voted in.  It wasn’t long before he received his Baptism by fire, so to speak. “I came up [on duty] the Wednesday after I got voted in and we had a big fire in the 100 block of Main St. in Laurel.  It ended up being an impressive two-alarm fire,” Brian said.  “Normally people that were as new as I was are expected to sit on the sidelines and just watch. I decided I couldn't and ended up pulling and racking hose, helping clean up and a few other things. I think that gained me a lot of respect starting out.”

He was not about to be idle.  If he was going to get into this, he wanted to make sure he did it all the way. “From that night on, after seeing the fire and everything that was happening on the fire ground I was hooked. I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

Since then Brian’s burning desire was to get through all the training and learn as much as he could as fast as he could.  He is attending EMT classes now with a lot to learn and should have his full fire training completed by this coming spring.

As much as Brian enjoys the excitement of being a firefighter, he also gets pleasure from the camaraderie that’s associated with it.  “I’m the type of person who likes to be around people,” Brian states. “The firehouse gives me that.” At his regular job performing IT Security work for the National Park Service, Brian sits in a cubicle all day at work, where the most human interaction he gets is calling someone out in the field.  

“I love working with people so this [firefighter work] is my release, my fun time, my time to decompress from work. The people at the firehouse are great and when riding on EMS calls, you get to talk with the patients, do some good for the community, and help them. It’s rewarding and an adrenaline rush especially when you are rolling down the road with the lights and sirens on.”
After only five months on the job at Station No. 10 in Laurel, Brian was nominated for and received the Member of the Month award. “That was a real boost,” he says. “I'm up there 2 to 3 days a week and sleep in for an overnight almost every Friday. I find myself being there for 24 to 36 hours at a time some days and it’s like it was nothing.”

Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Chief’s Award
When they aren’t running calls they train, wash the apparatus, and train again, and then eat, and then train more.  “It’s hard work; it’s not just a hang-out and we take it seriously. It’s really made me have more respect for our first responders, EMTs, and firefighters. You don’t realize all they do until you are one.”

As a gay man in an environment such as a firehouse, one would think there would be some sparks and concerns about fitting in. “That has been the most surprising part for me and I think for the other members as well,” Brian points out.  “It's been an educational experience, I'll admit.  I was under the impression that the fire department was a bunch of hard-ass guys that hung out there, worked out, and talked about fire all day. WRONG! It's a real family, dysfunctional and full of drama, but a family nonetheless.”

Brian made no attempt to conceal his sexual orientation. “They thought, walking in, that I was straight,” he explains. “I didn't hide it, and when asked if I had a girlfriend, I said no, I have a boyfriend. It took a couple people by surprise and I think I caused a few double-takes. I'm not flamboyant and I don't wear daisy dukes to the firehouse or whatever the gay stereotype is today. I think it was, for some, a little surprising that a gay guy could keep up. But when I proved myself and showed that I'm just like the other guys, it seemed like the gay thing went out the window. It's not an issue and no one seems to care.”
He still hears some conversations that may not be “politically correct” but that doesn’t bother him. “I could tell that people would change how they talked and what they said when I was in the room,” he notes with amusement. “People will call things ‘gay’ or say ‘that's so gay’ or other things... it's a firehouse, use your imagination.  I don't want people to think they say derogatory things—not at all—but terms people might use that might be politically incorrect were avoided and they would rephrase things when I'm around to make it politically correct. I didn't want them to change how they speak or how they talked just because I was there.”

Brian cites an example. “So one night on duty crew, I noticed it was happening again. Someone said something and immediately addressed me making sure I didn't take offense to it. I responded by telling them to ‘grow a pair and get over it.’  People are going to say what they are going to say and talk they way they are going to talk. I'm not going to be offended by firehouse talk. As soon as I said that I think about half the jaws dropped to the floor and a few started cracking up. I think I got through to them with that and since, it’s been like I’m just another guy.

 “I think I’ve also dispelled some rumors and misconceptions about the gay community along the way. The atmosphere is basically this: when you have to put your life on the line and you have to rely on the guy or girl next to you to get out alive, you don’t care who they love or what they do in the bedroom, you care that they are trained to do the job, and that they have your back when shit hits the fan.”

His boyfriend of two years, Daniel, has been very supportive of Brian and his new line of work. “He is always asking about what I'm doing and what I'm training on. He has been a major supporter and that has made being a volunteer easier. I have heard from a lot of guys that volunteering takes a lot of time, and it does. It can stress a relationship quite a bit and because Daniel has been so supportive, it's made being a volunteer easier since I do spend a lot of time up there.” [* See Postscript below*]
Brian’s efforts have paid off.  On October 12 at their annual banquet, he received the “Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Chief’s Award” in appreciation of his dedicated service, commitment and performance.

Brian Cox is enjoying his time at the fire department and finds it fulfilling to him as a person. “It's a great place and has been an eye opening experience. I have learned some life skills and built relationships that I hope will last and endure the test of time. It's like a second family and I'm proud to be a part of something so great.”

Daniel (l.) with Brian
Postscript: One week after this article was published in Baltimore OUTloud , Brian’s partner and the love of his life, Daniel Campbell, died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 33.  His obituary can be seen here.  

Unlike many families of gay couples as in the film Bridegroom, Brian partnered with Daniel's mother to make funeral and burial arrangements.  Brian's colleagues at the firehouse showed up at the service in full formal uniforms to pay their respect to Brian, family and friends.

R.I.P. Daniel, and Lord please give Brian the strength to pull through this.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Looking Beyond Marriage Equality

Having just viewed the poignant and heartrending film Bridegroom on the OWN network, I’d be hard pressed to find a better case for marriage equality.  The documentary, produced by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, known best for her creating the TV series Designing Women and her close association with the Clintons, tells the real story of two young small-town men Shane Bitney Crone and Tom Bridegroom who fall deeply in love and remained together for six years until Tom’s fatal accident at the age of 29 in 2011.  
Using interviews and footage from Shane’s video diary, the film presents the intense love between the two men and the reactions from family members as their relationship blooms.  Sadly, Tom’s parents were not accepting. 

Following the accident, the hospital staff initially would not permit Shane to visit him as he was not “family” under hospital rules.  After he died, Tom’s parents cut Shane off from making funeral arrangements and being a part of the services.  His life and relationship with Tom was completely eradicated as if it never occurred.  Of course, if marriage equality was legal (they were living in Prop 8 California at the time), the couple would have been married according to their stated plans, and Shane would have had the right to make the funeral arrangements. 
This story is among countless others that illustrate why it is so important to keep up the momentum in forging the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the country.

It’s a sexy and appealing issue in that many gay and lesbians’ dreams include settling down with the person they love and being committed to that person in a lasting relationship with all the legal rights, benefits and responsibilities conferred upon heterosexual couples. LGBT organizations have capitalized on the significance of marriage equality; many have flourished by raising funds to fight the good fight.
But as same-sex marriages become the law in state after state through the courts, legislatures and the ballot box (keep in mind that in 36 of the 50 states it is still not legal), what’s next for the LGBT movement, and in particular, those statewide LGBT organizations who have been in the forefront of the struggle?

Perhaps not as sunny as the thought of colorful weddings and a lifetime of bliss is the reality that there is a ton of work to do to achieve full equality for LGBT folks.  Senator Ben Cardin at Equality Maryland’s 25th anniversary celebration said, “We will not be satisfied until we pass the Employment Non-discrimination Act,” popularly known as ENDA.
How important is this?  In no less than 29 states, a person can be fired from his/her job just for being gay.  The bill, which has been languishing in Congress for three decades, has been gaining steam over the years but can’t find its way to passage.  While the Senate is expected to consider a comprehensive ENDA by Thanksgiving, the tea party-controlled House of Representatives will create more obstacles despite overwhelming public support to end job discrimination based on sexual orientation.  That’s what they do.

At the same gala, Equality Maryland executive director Carrie Evans—and later echoed by Sen. Rich Madaleno—promised to work hard for passage of a statewide bill that would extend protections based on gender identity and expression.  Such laws exit in Baltimore City as well as Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties but no state measure has been enacted yet.  Many expect it can be accomplished if not this upcoming General Assembly (an election year) then 2015.  It’s way overdo.
Another area that local LGBT organizations can help considerably is the plight of homelessness among LGBT youth, a condition which Sen. Madaleno said cannot be tolerated.  Despite general gains in acceptance, young people are being tossed out of their homes by parents or family members for being gay or transgender or that the home environment is so rough that these kids have no choice but to leave.

Homelessness is a catastrophe to begin with; it’s even more acute for youth.  They are vulnerable to: poor health leading to disease, crime both as a victim or perpetrator, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse—all tragedies considering their whole lives are ahead of them if they live that long.
In my interview with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, she acknowledged the tragedy of homelessness.  “It is even more heartbreaking when it involves our LGBT youth. They face extra challenges, such as being rejected by their own families,” she said.  “My administration is aware of the many barriers that they face and we are working to create a safe place where youth can receive services, as there are several non-profit agencies willing to collaborate with the City to help address the concerns of our LGBT homeless youth.”

The Frederick Center, rapidly becoming a template for LGBT community centers, is also making a concerted effort to provide services to LGBT youth and mitigate the risk of homelessness.  A strong effort is needed in Baltimore by such organizations as the GLCCB and Equality Maryland to raise funds for the cause and work with the city on this mission.  It’s vital.
And you don’t have to be an organization to do your part.  Local drag performer Shawnna Alexander is putting together an event to feed homeless LGBT youth on Thanksgiving Day.  It will take place from 1 pm. to 5 p.m. at the Metropolitan Community Church, 401 W. Monument St. in Baltimore.  Shawwna is raising money for this project by asking local establishments to hold 50-50 raffles, and from what I’m hearing, there has been great success. 

Therefore, worthwhile causes can attract interest and money if cases made for these initiatives are well-articulated.  There are many other needs to be addressed, such as improving police relations, dealing with domestic violence, the aging population and on and on.
Marriage equality, extremely important as it is and a magnet for donors is one thing.  The less glamorous issues are another, and they must be dealt with and soon.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

At the Center of LGBTQ Frederick

On a recent cool Saturday morning, there was a flurry of activity at the public library on E. Patrick Street in the heart of the historic district in Frederick, Md.  Several people were lugging pamphlets, name tags, business cards, beverages and pastries into the library’s community room while others were setting up tables and chairs and preparing a Power Point presentation. 
Outside the building, one can peer through the famous spires of Frederick and see the autumn colors on Maryland’s mountains in the distant west.  The foliage may as well have been rainbow colors as the folks performing these tasks inside were getting ready for the 2nd annual general meeting of the LGBTQ Frederick Center or simply The Frederick Center (TFC).

Fifteen years ago, the idea of a gay center here would have been considered unimaginable.  Alex X. Mooney, a virulently anti-gay conservative Republican from Frederick was elected to the state Senate in 1998 using, in part, a message warning voters of the “homosexual agenda.”  He once said, “Homosexual activists have managed to gain legal recognition as a minority, based solely on their lifestyle choices, through so-called ‘hate crimes’ and domestic partnership laws.”
Employing divisive rhetoric like that, Mooney was elected two more times, reaffirming Frederick’s conservative leanings, but with decreasing margins each time.  Yet, with the help of changing demographics and a solid push by Equality Maryland, Mooney was finally unseated in 2010 by pro-LGBT former Frederick Mayor Ron Young. 

Frederick County, an exurb of Washington D.C. and Baltimore—a distance roughly equidistant to both—has seen a growth in population of around 25 percent since 2000.  Much of this increase is attributed to an influx of young married white collar workers and professionals or singles moving into new housing developments.  Indeed, the median age in the county is seven years younger than the rest of the state.
With the arrival of younger, more educated residents, a less conservative tilt exists, but the political landscape has not shifted to the point where it is like Montgomery County or Baltimore City.  Brian Walker, the president of TFC board said while there has been progress inside Frederick especially due to the increasing number of affirming churches, “the attitude towards LGBT folks outside of Frederick has been spotty.”

Nonetheless, a pro-LGBTQ mindset is on the rise.  Although in 2012 Romney defeated Obama by a 50% to 47% margin in Frederick County, voters affirmed Question 6 on same-sex marriage by 2,400 votes or 51% to 49%.
With positive support in Frederick increasing, it is no small wonder that The Frederick Center emerged; yet it did so because its founder realized something was missing.   “I felt there was a need for an LGBTQ center in Frederick because of my experience,” says Austin Beach, 21, who is also the Executive Director of TFC. “As a young man discovering my identity I had no resources that were easily available to me and I felt firsthand how that affected me. I didn't want anyone else to go through that same process of feeling there was no one there to help them.”  In January 2012, TFC was born.

The annual meeting on October 19 drew about 25 people from in and around Frederick.  It began with a report from TFC’s treasurer Peter Brehm where he proudly announced that during this fiscal year that will end December 31, there has already been an exponential increase in the fledgling organization’s coffers.  “Most of the money came from Pride where about 1,000 attended and through donations by couples in the name of marriage equality,” he explained.
Maureen Connors and Cindie Beach (Austin’s mother) discussed TFC’s upcoming anti-bullying campaign that will include a presentation of the film Bully and panel discussions from a legal and mental health perspective. 

Cindie heads up TFC’s youth group where “over the past two years, there had been a total of 70 youth and of those, seven were at one time homeless.”  She also performed four suicide interventions. “To succeed, the youth must have a roof over their heads and food in their mouths,” Cindie says passionately.   “We need emergency housing and long-term housing for these kids and a support system in place. Some get thrown out for being LGBT and appear at my door.  It breaks my heart.”
A survey conducted at Frederick Pride, which takes place at Utica Park, indicated an overwhelming desire for TFC to be in the forefront of youth services.  Among the activities for the youth group are topical educational events, socials, games and discussions.  They meet weekly, mostly at the Grace United Church of Christ.

Although LGBTQ youth is a significant focus for TFC, there is still a desire to reach out to LGBT adults and try to get them involved. Katherine Jones chairs the Adult Services Committee where such activities as social events, bike rides, hiking, plays and brunches take place. 
Austin announced noteworthy progress in improving relations with the Frederick police and LGBTQ folks. Three training sessions on LGBTQ issues have occurred and more will come.  Topics to be raised include: parental abuse of LGBTQ children, searches and pat-downs, handling domestic violence cases, searches of gender-variant people and those transitioning. 

“The police are very forward-thinking due to efforts by current chief Tom Ledwell and Training Coordinator Lt. Dwight Sommers,” adds Cindie.  “They seek us out for sensitivity training.  Sommers wants to connect us with security personnel at Frederick Community College, Ft. Detrick, and others.”
Jackie Zirkin announced the formation of a sexual abuse survivor peer support group called Peaceful Connections.  A Facebook page with that name exists so that people can connect.

Keiden Bren Stamoulis briefly discussed Trans-Variant—a leading support services provider in Central Maryland for trans-variant individuals—followed by a Power Point presentation on gender roles and identity using the “Genderbread” diagram.  Later Keiden and Ahlea Gavin appeared on a panel moderated by Katherine Jones that discussed a range of transgender issues.
So much progress has already been made including writing bylaws, and more is on the way.  TFC is filing for 501(c)(3) status.  A directory of businesses in and around Frederick that are either LGBTQ-owned or -friendly is being developed.  Also, a directory for LGBTQ-friendly health services, gyms, dentists and physicians is being compiled.  And the group is thinking of partnering with businesses in such ventures as a gay wedding expo.

“I have been incredibly proud of all we have accomplished in the first couple years,” says Austin. “We are way ahead of where most organizations are expected to be at this point in our development and what we have managed to accomplish through the hard work of a dedicated local community is creating a solid foundation for an impressive presence in the local community.”
TFC does not have a permanent home as of yet.  They hold events in Frederick’s affirming churches and other pro-LGBTQ business establishments.  But that could change.  “I envision the center being a focal point of support, resources, and education for Marylanders LGBTQ community both inside, but especially outside of the DC and Baltimore areas,” Austin points out. “I hope to soon see us having our own space, offering transitional services, counseling, shelter space, etc. to the LGBTQ community and if all goes well, being on the forefront of LGBTQ advocacy in Maryland in the ever-growing area of Frederick.”

For more information about The Frederick Center, click here.
PHOTO: The Frederick Center’s leaders, from left: executive director Austin Beach, board members Diane IƱiguez, Rev. Dr. Robert Apgar-Taylor, Katherine Jones, Brian Walker, Cindie Beach, Maureen Conners and Peter Brehm

Monday, October 21, 2013

Revenge, Justice or Insanity in 'Death and the Maiden'

Photo: Ken Stanek Photography
Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman felt compelled to write about his own experiences as a witness to the ghastliness of the General Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in his country from 1973-1990.   He penned Death and the Maiden in 1990 to convey those horrors, especially the effects on the minds of the victims stemming from the torture and rape of political prisoners. 
Death and the Maiden first appeared in London in November 1990.  The original Broadway production opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York on March 1992 and ran for 159 performances. It was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Glenn Close, Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss. 

The play, as part of the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre’s 52nd season, is a potent psychodrama that under the direction of Anthony Lane Hinkle and the sterling cast consisting of Kate Falcone, Steven Shriner and Mark C. Franceschini, keeps the audience spellbound throughout and wondering what will happen next—even following the play’s denouement.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Interview with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

“We must be diligent in protecting all people”

With the Mayor at the 2012 Creating Change Conference
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been a longtime ally to Baltimore’s LGBT community. From her proclamations in support of LGBT Pride to her staunch backing of marriage equality, the Mayor has consistently been there for us.  She recently won an ICON award at Baltimore Black Pride’s 11th annual gala in recognition of her contributions to the LGBT community. 

The Mayor has graciously set aside time from her busy schedule to speak with Gay Life on a wide range of issues.  They include: performing the first same-sex wedding ceremony in Baltimore,  homelessness among LGBT youth, non-discrimination based on gender identity and expression, her thoughts on the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance, bullying in schools, what the city is doing to help curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a personal message to our community.
Steve Charing: Madam Mayor, on October 12 you received special recognition from Baltimore Black Pride as part of the organization’s 11th annual ICON Awards gala.  How do you feel about that honor?

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: As an avid supporter of the LGBT community and a champion for equal rights for all, I am extremely humbled to have received the ICON award. It gives me great pleasure to be the first elected official to attend Baltimore Black Gay Pride.  It’s important for the LGBT community to know that they have the support of their government and political leaders, who took an oath to defend the rights and freedoms of every citizen.  I take that oath seriously and I’m very humbled to know the community is appreciative of those efforts.  I look forward to working in partnership to accomplish much more.
SC:  You have been one of the most popular elected officials among the LGBT community—from your recognition of and your participation in Pride celebrations to your unwavering support of marriage equality.  Was there any one person or event that led to your involvement in our community?

MSRB: The concept of civil rights for all was instilled in me from a very young age. It is an innate part of me and has made me the person who I am today. It was and still is, a part of my family’s belief system. If any person's rights are being denied based on race, creed, ethnicity, gender identification and expression, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religious beliefs, or national origins, then it affects all of us.
Marriage Equality ensures that our LGBT brothers and sisters can express their love in the same way as everyone else. I applaud Maryland residents for voting for Marriage Equality. Hopefully, we can inspire other states across our great nation to do the same.

SC:  How fulfilling was it to you to have officiated one of the first, if not the first, same-sex marriage ceremony at City Hall on New Year’s Eve?
MSRB: Words cannot express my feelings. I was beyond elated to officiate the City’s first official same-sex marriages at midnight on New Year’s Day in City Hall. It was beautiful, amazing, loving, and gave me a sense of pride knowing that same-sex couples, including one of my staff members and his significant other, were able to be married legally. It was an historic moment in my career that I will always cherish.

SC:  Even with the success of achieving marriage equality, there is clearly more work to be done.  One such problem is the issue of homelessness among LGBT youth.  There is strong evidence that LGBT youth comprise a disproportionate number of all homeless youth with many of these being rejected by family members because of who they are.  What steps can the city take to address this issue?
MSRB: It breaks my heart, in general, to know about the many challenges that our homeless residents face. It is even more heart breaking when it involves our LGBT youth. They face extra challenges, such as being rejected by their own families like you mentioned. My administration is aware of the many barriers that they face and we are working to create a safe place where youth can receive services, as there are several non-profit agencies willing to collaborate with the City to help address the concerns of our LGBT homeless youth. I look forward to these collaborations to meet this urgent and critical need here in Baltimore.

My Administration is focused on ending homeless in Baltimore all together. I am excited to have Adrienne Breidenstine join my team recently as the director of The Journey Home, Baltimore’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. It is my desire that everyone have a roof over his or her head each and every night.
SC:  In addition to potential rejection by family members, a good number of LGBT youth experience harassment and bullying.  Baltimore City Public Schools has a mechanism in place to curtail bullying.  Are there any other measures that can be implemented to alleviate this problem?

MSRB: I believe that knowledge is power. I think that much can be gained by taking the time to educate people that are not accepting of the culture because they are merely unfamiliar with it. Having been a public defender for 10 years, I know that we must be very diligent in protecting all people, especially our youth who suffer discrimination and abuse because of their sexual identity. We must continue to change people’s attitudes. My Administration will continue to work to ensure respect and dignity for all.
SC:   In 2002 Baltimore City was the first of four jurisdictions in the state to enact protections based on gender identity and expression.  It appears that the experience in Baltimore and the three counties has not been problematic for the public.  How can we use this experience to achieve a statewide law?

MSRB: Hopefully, other counties in Maryland can look at Baltimore City and the counties that followed our lead as prime examples of the importance to protect all of our residents. Too many people have been denied the right of being treated with fairness and dignity because of gender identity and expression. I have faith that once people recognize the many positive contributions of the community, local and state laws will reflect a positive change toward equality.
SC: The 15th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance is coming up on November 20.  As you know, it began as a memorial to trans woman Rita Hester who was murdered in 1998 and now it serves to memorialize those who have died at the hands of anti-transgender hatred and violence.  Please share your thoughts on this occasion.

MSRB: Transgender Day of Remembrance is extremely important. It gives transgender individuals and LGBT community advocates an opportunity to raise public awareness about this special group of people, bring attention to crimes against them and honor the memories of those whose lives ended due to issues relating to their sexual identity or expression. Transgender people deserve love and respect. Therefore, each year on November 20th, I take time to think about and honor the victims of violence rooted in hate.
SC: Recognizing there has been progress in combating HIV, the epidemic continues.  Given the climate of tight budgets, what more can the city do to stem the tide of HIV?

MSRB: That's a great question. It's 2013 and we still face many challenges in combating HIV here in Baltimore City and across the globe. The Baltimore City Health Department, along with numerous non-profit agencies, has been doing a tremendous job of reaching out to our most vulnerable communities. Highly accessible mobile testing centers provide free and confidential testing throughout the City. However, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Government alone cannot do it. With the support of the community leaders, the faith-based community and caring residents, we can win the fight. Just like the Phoenix Bird, we will rise again and beat HIV!
SC: In light of our achievements politically, the growing movement towards acceptance in our society and the problems that still need to be solved, what message would you like to send to Baltimore’s LGBT community?

MSRB: First of all, I want to applaud the LGBT community for their perseverance and strength to withstand the challenges they face on a daily basis. The LGBT community inspires and gives me hope that our society can overcome fear and bigotry with love, compassion and understanding. Continue to be the beacon of strength. Together, we are strong. Apart we are weak. I know at the end of the rainbow, there is something more valuable than gold and that is love.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tarnishing the Memory of Matthew Shepard

Courtesy of NPR
It’s been 15 years since the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21 year-old college student.  For those who do not recall this seminal event in the LGBT rights movement, Shepard was in the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6-7 when he met two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Apparently, Shepard told these men he was gay, and needing a ride, they offered to drive him home. 
McKinney and Henderson left the bar with Shepard, robbed, pistol whipped and tortured him at a field on the edge of town, and left him to die, tied up to a fence.  He was so badly battered and bloodied that the person who discovered Shepard 18 hours later, Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist, at first thought he was a Halloween scarecrow.   He died on October 12 , never regaining consciousness.
The belief was that this murder took place because of Shepard’s being gay.  McKinney at one point even used a “gay panic” defense during the subsequent trial asserting that he had been so shocked by Shepard’s alleged sexual advances, he was somehow not culpable.  Both convicted killers are serving life sentences.

We do not have to look too hard to find a silver lining through the dark clouds of hatred, bloodshed and death: this heinous crime led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that was signed into law in 2009 by President Obama.  In addition, many locales around the U.S. also expanded hate crime statutes to include sexual orientation.

The needed legislation was accomplished mainly through the tireless work of Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, as well as by LGBT organizations and activists.  The rest of society saw the image of this fragile-looking young man and imagining his being beaten senseless by two jerks who seethed with hatred.  This horror felt by ordinary citizens enabled the law that President Obama strongly favored to be passed in Congress.  Fortunately, it was accomplished before the Tea Party crackpots were voted in the following year.
This 15th anniversary of the murder was supposed to be a poignant remembrance of the tragedy, a reflection on the hatred and violence that LGBT people have faced and continues to face at the hands of virulent and ignorant haters.  And yet, we note that not all of society has fully embraced tolerance of gays or the facts of history for that matter.  In the latter case, it is simply denial, and it’s used for political purposes.

Earlier in the month, while presenting The Laramie Project—a widely produced play about Matthew Shepard—at the University of Mississippi (better known as “Ole Miss” in the sports vernacular), some 20 athletes who were required to take a theater course, heckled the actors, calling them “fags” or “faggots” and insulting their body types.  This was an act of disrespect that was characterized by a faculty member as “borderline hate speech.”  The heckling was ironically disheartening given what The Laramie Project is all about.
“I was disappointed to see that a number of Ole Miss football players and others in the audience decided to interrupt a performance of the play using anti-gay slurs,” Judy Shepard told Queerty. “Using hate-filled words to interrupt a play about anti-gay hate is a sad irony that only reminds me of the work we at the Matthew Shepard Foundation and each of us as individuals must undertake to help stop hate.”

Though a single apology representing the students did not come off as sincere, driving one of the actors to tears, the school has taken steps to rectify the situation. The Chancellor and Athletics Director issued a joint statement pledging that the individuals involved will be “held accountable.” They concluded by saying: “On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize.” 
Officials see this incident as a learning experience.  “We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential,” they said in a statement. 

Ole Miss has just celebrated LGBTQ month and held a Pride celebration as well.  The reaction to the incident and the measures taken should not to be shrugged off given the university’s less than stellar history with civil rights. 

Another stain on Matthew Shepard’s memory was the release last month of The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard by Stephen Jimenez.  He was the producer of the ABC News program 20/20 segment that aired in 2004 that claimed that Shepard’s murder was not because of his sexual orientation but rather a drug-related robbery that went violent.
The book revived and amplified those claims, which are contrary to the generally accepted version of events. Additionally, Jimenez claimed that Shepard and at least one of his killers (McKinney) had been occasional sexual partners.  Of course, many people have discounted Jimenez’s version citing McKinney’s earlier “gay panic” defense.

Seizing an opportunity to rail against gays, radio host and Fox News contributor Sandy Rios on October 12 spoke at the Values Voter Summit in Washington spouting anti-gay rhetoric.   She regurgitated the right-wing myth contained in Jimenez’s book by labeling Shepard’s murder “a total fraud” and that the murder was being used by liberals to foster acceptance of gay people by society.
There have been some reports that Matthew Shepard had been involved with drugs and that he may have known McKinney.  However, none of that was brought up at the trial.  I will continue to go with the police investigators and prosecutors that Shepard’s brutal murder was an act of hate based on his sexuality and I won’t allow revisionists or right wing extremists besmirch his memory.

To read more about discrediting  Jimenez’s version of history, visit here.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Federal Workers are Victims, Not Villains

Letter Published in Oct. 5, 2013 Edition of the Baltimore Sun

Dan Shannahan’s letter (“Federal workers shouldn’t complain about shutdown,” October 2) is as ignorant as it is callous.Writing that federal workers receive Flag Day as a holiday is blatantly incorrect and the Sun should not be publishing such a falsehood.  At least he didn’t mention Halloween.

Yet, I’m curious to know what he means by “all the federal holidays they enjoy that the civilian work force doesn’t get.”  Is he referring to New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc? The private work force does not get to enjoy those holidays along with federal workers?  He brings up, along with Flag Day, Presidents Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day. While it is true that most private sector businesses do not treat those occasions as holidays for employees, the fact is that many do.

More to the point and what is disturbing most about Mr. Shannahan’s letter is his cavalier attitude about federal workers’ losing a few days’ pay.  It is more likely than not that the shutdown will last two weeks or more, not a few days.

Maybe Mr. Shannahan has oodles of money to endure such a hardship, but most federal employees have families with many sending their kids to college, have mortgages and must deal with myriad other expenses that yes, even the private sector must confront.  Losing that much income would be problematic for a significant number of these workers – a situation they did not cause.
And perhaps someday Mr. Shannahan will actually need the services federal employees can provide. I’m betting he already has.

Steve Charing

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Mount Vernon's Safety Net

“The door to safety swings on the hinges of common sense.”—Author Unknown 

In the aftermath of a car slamming into a pickup truck containing white paint and then immediately the exterior of Grand Central on September 16, passions bubbled to the surface concerning safety in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.  Folks on both sides of the issue did not hesitate to register their opinions on blogs, Facebook and other social media.
Some allege the neighborhood with its sizable LGBT population that includes five gay bars (earning the moniker “Gayborhood”), several cultural venues, and a host of shops and restaurants, is becoming more and more unsafe while others don’t see a problem.  It’s an emotional tug-of-war with perceptions, rather than facts, driving the debate.

Let’s start with the episode that triggered the latest round of hand-wringing over safety.  This unfortunate, rather freakish incident, which inflicted extensive damage to the bar’s entrance and patio, could have occurred anywhere.  Grand Central was clearly not targeted; it just happened to be located at the point where the accident took place.  

On that Monday night at around 9:30, there weren’t many customers inside and luckily no one at the time was sipping drinks on the outside patio, which is otherwise very popular on weekends. Accordingly, the only injuries sustained (and they were minor) were to the drivers of the vehicles involved.  Everyone else was safe and the building’s repair work is well underway. The odds of a repeat occurrence are probably equal to or less than being hit by lightning.

Of course, Mount Vernon had been the scene of several high profile crimes over the past year or so.  The most significant that comes to mind is the double shooting on August 10 of last year in front of the Empire House Bed and Breakfast on East Chase Street whereby a gay man, Joseph Alexander “Alex” Ulrich Jr., died and another, Leon Peterson, was critically wounded.  The shooting took place just before 4 a.m., and police determined the motive to be robbery.
That incident plus the garden variety of lesser crimes don’t make the neighborhood generally unsafe.  Indeed, indications are that Mount Vernon has a lower crime rate than most other areas in the city.  That doesn’t call for complacency, however, as crime does and will continue to occur.

Acknowledging that probability, a safety net has been put in place.  The Mount Vernon Belvedere Association (MVBA), a neighborhood community organization, maintains a vigil with its Citizens on Patrol program or COP. 
“MVBA with our partner, Midtown Community Benefits District, continues to provide safety patrols throughout our neighborhoods by hiring off-duty police officers to ride with citizens on segways,” explains Jason Curtis, president of the MVBA.  “This COP program is very beneficial, and there are statistics which show this program has reduced crime in our neighborhoods by some 80 per cent over the past few years.”

Curtis adds, “Anyone interested in participating in the COP program should contact me at safety@mvba.org to arrange segway training then sign up for actual rides.”
The Baltimore City Police Department is also keeping a watchful eye on the Mount Vernon district.  Lieutenant Eric Kowalczyk, who is the liaison between the LGBT community and the city’s police, noted there have been an increase in foot patrols and surveillance in the neighborhood.  “It’s not because there is more crime,” he points out. “Mount Vernon is considered very important to the city.”

Both Lieutenant Kowalczyk and Jason Curtis agree that Mount Vernon, despite incidences of crime, continues to be a safe, pedestrian friendly place for residents, students, visitors and tourists.  “Mount Vernon, and more broadly Baltimore City, is no different than any other larger city in the U.S.A.,” says Curtis.  “One must always be aware of their surroundings and one must report any suspicious activity to 9-1-1.”
While there have been a few specifically targeted cases of violent crime, a majority of the crime in Mount Vernon continues to be cell phone robberies and auto larcenies.  “Pedestrians not paying attention to their surroundings or individuals sitting at bus stops texting have become easy targets by having their phones snatched,” says Curtis.  “Everyone is vulnerable, and the best way to prevent such an event is to be alert and know who is around you.”

MVBA will continue to work with the Baltimore Police Department to be as proactive as possible in communicating events that happen within the neighborhood.  Police representatives attend all of the MVBA meetings, which are held the third Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at The Belvedere.
Indeed, this safety net in Mount Vernon provided by the COP program and the police can only work if the citizens exercise common sense.  The best suggestion is not to be incapacitated by being intoxicated or high.  You lose reaction time, become oblivious of the surroundings and could be seen as vulnerable to a would-be mugger.

You should travel in pairs or in a group, if possible, and venture down well-lit sidewalks, continually being observant.  Curtis advises residents to close and lock their windows when they are not home.  “It is that time of year when we open our windows to get fresh cool air and often forget to close our windows before leaving for work or school,” he says.
Marty Hoegg, a 25 year-old resident of Pasadena, Md. visits the area regularly. “I haven’t ever felt not-safe in Mount Vernon but I’m also smart about traveling in groups and staying away from isolated areas,” he says.  “Don't look like you're lost and keep your guard up.  Pay attention to your surroundings.”