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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why the Jason Collins Signing is Big News

By the time you read this, NBA player Jason Collins will have nearly completed his 10-day contract he signed with the Brooklyn Nets on February 23.  But his impact on organized sports, society as a whole and perhaps most importantly, on gay kids in the U.S. will live on, even if Collins’ contract is not renewed.
Jason Collins becomes first openly gay pro male in big 4 sports
When Collins stepped onto the Staples Center court in Los Angeles that evening, he became the first ever openly gay pro male athlete in North America’s big four sports leagues, which include the NFL, MLB, NHL and the NBA to play in a game. 
“Today Jason Collins tore open the last remaining closet in America,” Brian Ellner, a founding member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about homophobia in sports. “This is a piece of history, an important point on the continuum toward justice and a moment to celebrate.”

Others disagree.  For some reason, they don’t recognize the significance of this landmark that frequently draws analogies to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947 with another Brooklyn team. 

When I posted a complaint on Facebook that the local TV sports reports failed to mention this breakthrough that night, I received this perplexing response: “Why is someone’s sexuality an issue anymore?”  That individual, who is a straight, supportive friend of mine, was probably thinking of what SHOULD be rather that what reality is.
Another opined that the signing was merely a “publicity stunt” in an effort for the NBA to beat the NFL for bragging rights of being the first league to have an openly gay player.  In addition, TV time was too “precious” to include the story especially since Baltimore doesn’t have a NBA team.

These are bogus arguments.  The Nets stated unequivocally they needed a defensive back-up center and Collins was available.  The sports report on WBAL-TV included the Olympics (of course), a NASCAR race, a golf tournament and a Calvert Hall-Loyola high school basketball game footage.  All well and good, but to sidestep this historic event is dubious at best.  It should be noted that WJZ also failed to mention it.
I hope the reason for not reporting the story was based on “it’s no big deal” even if that decision means blindness towards history rather than a conscious effort to exclude it because of any discomfort about the subject in the station’s sports department.  We’ll never know and I will give them the benefit of the doubt.
Yet, I won’t forget how one of the Baltimore Sun’s beat writers for the Ravens tweeted (and quickly deleted) a response to a story on LGBT advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo’s work:  “Hopefully, we have seen the end of the Brendon Ayanbedejo [sic] stories and his crusade.  Enough already.  Actually, way too much.” 

With gains for LGBT Americans happening almost routinely, one can see how folks could be suffering “gay fatigue” or shrug off an openly gay player entering the macho-centric culture of organized sports.  But that would be misguided. 
Yes, there have been some victories on the marriage front, but we’re on a treadmill on other matters.  Pressure had to be applied to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (the one who once disrespectfully poked her finger at President Obama) to veto an atrocious bill that would have codified discrimination against gays and lesbians based on nebulous religious reasons.  As obnoxious as that is a D.C. lobbyist who is seeking Congressional legislation to ban gay players from the NFL.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues to hold up a Senate-approved bill to end discrimination against LGBT folks in employment. Bullying against gay youth in schools and in cyberspace persists.  Globally, we’re witnessing the horrific laws enacted in Russia and Uganda.  And gays in several Middle Eastern countries face death sentences if caught.
I point these out to counter the erroneous thinking that gays are doing so well that playing a professional sport as an openly gay man is no big deal.  Barriers still remain, and for a player to overcome them, it would require courage, an even-keeled temperament, thick skin and likability.  Both Michael Sam, the heralded Mizzou pass rusher who came out prior to the upcoming NFL draft, and Jason Collins clearly possess these attributes.  And it doesn’t hurt that these two men are blessed with camera-loving good looks.

There will be more opportunities in the other sports for gay athletes to come out.  The suspected “media frenzy” following Collins’ first game did not materialize.  Sure, Michael Sam drew substantial media attention recently at the NFL Combine.  But a frenzy?  Not so much.  And as more enter the scene, less attention will follow; the novelty will have worn off.
Players throughout the Big Four leagues have publicly expressed support for a gay teammate—not all, but enough—to quell any feared backlash.  The locker room issue is a red herring; gay players are not going to do something stupid especially when their actions will be under a microscope.  Such unfounded fears surfaced during the process in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Again, no barracks or showers-related incidents have surfaced, to my knowledge.

While the circumstances were far different nearly 70 years ago, Jackie Robinson had to endure vitriol and death threats to succeed, which opened the door to other African-American kids to realize their dreams.   Collins and Sam will be role models for gay kids.  They won’t feel alienated and will have the knowledge that the hard part had been accomplished by these two trailblazing athletes.   
That may be reason enough that this is indeed a big story.

UPDATE: Collins to be offered a second 10-day contract, which would sign him through the season.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Rainbow Appears Over Harford

No one will ever describe conservative Harford County as the hub of LGBT life in Maryland.  Voters have sent homophobic legislators, such as Sen. Nancy Jacobs and Del. Richard Impallaria to Annapolis to represent them.  The county’s public school system had once tried to block LGBT-themed websites from the school’s computers.  The voters in the county opposed the marriage equality referendum in 2012 by a 56 to 44 percent margin.
Photo: Randy Billings

Despite this history, LGBT folks in Harford County are seeing progress, albeit slowly, as some have been taking matters into their own hands.  There is a welcoming church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Harford County led by the Rev. Lisa Ward.  A PFLAG chapter has existed as well the Rainbow Youth Alliance support group.  And openly gay Havre de Grace Councilman Joseph C. Smith will be seeking election to the Harford County Council this year.
While the political winds have been swirling, if not completely shifting in Harford, and not many gay happenings going on, a group of LGBT county residents had formed a social group six years ago this month.  “Four friends (two couples) decided that we were tired of having to drive to Baltimore to do anything ‘gay,’” says Calvin Wheatley, an Edgewood resident and one of the group’s founders.  “We wanted some local fun and decided to form what we called ‘Harford Rainbow Society.’ Members have since dubbed it HRS and we more or less use that name more frequently that the full name.”

Assuming this project would take off on its own, the guys designed a logo and flyers even though there were no other members.  They didn’t know how to go about reaching out to the LGBT community.
“We ended up posting ads in Craigslist in the Groups section but that was a flop,” Wheatley admitted.   “With not a single response we went to the Personals (M4M and W4W) and that worked for us… our first meeting pulled in about 12 people.”

Every meeting after that the membership increased as they scheduled dinners, happy hours, parties, bowling events, cookouts, movies,  and visits to theme parks.  Word of mouth took over and soon they could boast nearly 500 members.   “They were mostly inactive but they were getting our emails and notices and a single event would pull in between 20 to 60 people,” Wheatley recalls. 
Along the way, two of the original founders decided that they did not want to continue to participate and have moved on, leaving Wheatley and his partner to do all the work.  “Our group was becoming a huge success but after several years I started tiring of running everything especially during those frustrating times when events would fail,” he said.  “However, after giving up the group it began to implode under a weakened less committed leadership as well as ‘drama’ that the group had never known prior.  Membership fell to under 100 members on Facebook and even those had little interest in attended events.” 

Undaunted, Wheatley decided to return to the leadership of the group last July that had now gone nearly a year with no active events and began posting dinners and happy hours.  Membership has grown again and with those who are on their Gmail list and Facebook, which has about 155 members, there are nearly 400 people on the HRS mailing/notification list.
However, Wheatley senses a loss of confidence by the group members who think the “drama” may return as individual events typically attract 15-20 people.  In an effort to change the course, Wheatley has published two upbeat newsletters called the Harford Gay-zette since the last quarter of 2013 with the hope that it will bolster confidence once again.

In the first issue, Wheatley wrote: “We enjoyed many good times and made so many friends. It cannot be denied that many of our members have developed incredible friendships and relationships that they may not have experienced without HRS bringing them together so let’s hope that we can once again return to that valuable aspect of the group, as friendship and local experiences had always been the original intent of the group and still remains the goal.”
He went on to reminisce about all the successful events and candidly pointed out the “fails”.   Wheatley highlighted individual members and listed upcoming birthdays and events to boost camaraderie.

The next issue, a 10-pager, Wheatley highlighted several couples who tied the knot following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. He also used the opportunity to welcome the new members by first name and first initial of last name, spread the word about the Harford chapter of PFLAG as well as other articles including the Affordable Care Act.
The Harford Gay-zette is a professional quality newsletter with abundant information to keep the membership informed and in good spirits.  Now if the members show up to the local events in greater numbers, it would be a big shot in the arm to the LGBT folks living in Harford County.

They’re off to a good start.  Despite the snowy night on February 12, HRS had a successful Happy Hour at MaGerks Pub and Grill in Bel Air.  Further opportunities will soon take place as there will be Bingo Night on February 25 at Pulaski Bingo in Joppa and the monthly dinner will be held on February 27 at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace.
For more information about the Harford Rainbow Society, visit the group's Facebook page or email HarfordRainbow@gmail.com.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It's Time to Walk the Walk, NFL

When one looks at two photographs of the sky with one taken at sunset and the other at sunrise, it’s hard to distinguish them with the same combination of oranges, reds and blues swirled together amidst wispy clouds.  But the difference in time—sunset or sunrise—makes it significant.
Michael Sam
The same can be said when comparing the latest coming out announcements from the world of pro male sports.  Last spring, NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay, and in doing so became the first active male professional athlete in a major North American team sport to come out. 
At no point in his career was his average point total over 6.4 per game. Since the 2006-2007 season, he never played more than in half the game. And now at age 35 and having been a marginal producer, it is questionable if another NBA team would be willing to take a chance on this free agent.  He is still waiting for that phone call.

Some simply conclude that his age and his lack of production are the reasons no team has taken the chance.  Others surmise that his sexual orientation would be too much for a team’s front office, coaching staff, players and fans to cope with.  He is still “active” in that he had not retired, but Collins is unemployed in the NBA nonetheless. 
Being in the “sunset” of his career probably had a lot to do with the reluctance by the NBA’s teams to deal with the media frenzy that would surely follow.  Worse, they would fear a backlash, and for what?

When collegiate football star Michael Sam announced he was gay to the New York Times and ESPN, he did so in the “sunrise” of his career.  A star defensive lineman for the University of Missouri with a penchant for sacking opposing quarterbacks, he is an All-American and named the top defensive player in the Southeastern Conference, considered the nation’s best league. Teammates named him the Mizzou’s most valuable player.  And his teammates not only knew he is gay, they supported him wholeheartedly. 
While this was kept under the lid for the most part, there were still rumors floating around.  Sam wanted to come out on his terms.  “I came to tell the world I'm an openly proud gay man,” he said in the ESPN interview.  His announcement was met with encouragement and praise from the President of the United States and the First lady among many others.

Given his shining record, Sam would have been a near certain draft pick in the NFL’s draft in May.  Experts projected him to be a third to perhaps seventh round selection.   Now there are questions.

Some anonymous coaches, players or team officials have stated that the NFL is not quite ready for a gay player.  Others said his stock had dropped even with the talent the 6-2, 260 pounder possesses. 
Any breakthrough in professional sports of this magnitude immediately conjures up the history of Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 when Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey took a chance and signed the talented, multi-sports athlete.

Robinson was told to turn the other cheek amidst taunts, attempts to injure and death threats from fans, opponents and even his own teammates.  He endured and demonstrated his superior inner strength and athletic prowess during a Hall of Fame career.  Robinson’s courage cannot be overstated.
Though we are in the 21st century, society still has its bigots and homophobes.  If a team drafts him, the locker room will take care of itself.  Though there will be some exceptions for sure, the players are warriors and want to win and will accept Michael Sam sooner or later.  Management, on the other hand, is concerned about “distractions” that could include negative fan reactions. 

Here are examples of such vitriol already posted on a FOX Sports comment thread:
From Toyhunt: “Now if he fails to get a job, he can play the gay card. See how this scam works gang. Just like the d party, run a half black man, object to anything, play the race card. This is getting old fast. The right seems to fail to use the same tactic.”

From BigMark1954: “I am so fed up with the LGBT community cramming their propaganda down our throats. The media is sensationalizing Sam's perversion, or should I say affliction. Will it ever end! And what about the players that have to be in the locker room with Sam, how comfortable will they be.....knowing full well they are ‘eyecandy’ for his perversion. Let alone his team mates that have a moral code, and some human decency?”
Sam will see and hear this and worse, but his character, strengthened by what he has suffered already with his family in his young life, will keep him focused on winning and will eventually earn the respect of his teammates, coaches and fans. 

The NFL had instituted a non-discrimination policy that states in part: “Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player's sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.”
Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass offered support.  “I don’t think his being gay would be an issue at all for the Ravens,” Cass told baltimoreravens.com. “We’re all about winning. If he’s a good football player who can help us win games, he will be welcomed here. I was impressed by the report he received from his teammates and coaches at the University of Missouri. He obviously knows how to be a good teammate.”

It will certainly be a most interesting draft in a few months.  Michael Sam could be another Jackie Robinson-type trail blazer.  What we need, though, is another Branch Rickey.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Moving Forward

The GLCCB’s relocation signals renewed hope for the organization.

Waxter Center: New home for GLCCB  Daniel McGarrity Photography

The long anticipated move of GLCCB’s headquarters will have finally taken place by the time you read this.  The GLCCB sold the venerable off-white, brick, four-story edifice at 241 W. Chase Street just weeks before Pride after serving as its home since 1980.  Its new digs, effective February 5, are located on the 4,700 square-foot third floor of the familiar red-brick Waxter Center on Cathedral Street—a mere couple of blocks away—where it’s being leased by the Center.
The older building outlived its usefulness and required tons of money to make it ADA-compliant as well as other needed repairs and upgrades.  The best option, despite protests from some old-line traditionalists, was to find a new place rather than sinking scarce resources into a deteriorating structure, which had once been converted from a warehouse to the current office building.

To be sure, these traditionalists recalled the joyous days when Harvey Schwartz, then the executive director of the Center, led the effort to raise money in a grass roots appeal to the community and purchased the building.  Baltimore then became one the first cities in the country with a gay center—a place the community could call its own—with unlimited potential.  So when news of the building’s sale broke last June, there was a mix of sadness, anger and resignation among those who, over three decades ago, helped coax Baltimore’s gay community out of the closet and into its own space.
Sadly, for reasons discussed in earlier commentaries, that potential was never realized at 241 W. Chase Street.  The Center had a rocky history with some bad apples running the place and with some good apples making bad decisions.  But the thing about history is that it is just that, history.  The future is a separate matter but a successful future depends on learning from the past and building on it.

That’s what the new leadership of the GLCCB plans to do: not ignore history but learn from earlier miscues and start anew.  It’s patently unfair to blame past mistakes on the current leadership when the original building was purchased before most of the leadership were born.  Trust me; they have a very good notion as to what went wrong over the years and are dedicated to not repeating the same errors.
The move, of course, does not automatically wipe the slate clean.  But if the community gives the GLCCB a chance, that earlier vision of a center that fully embraces our diverse community can not only be realized but exceeded.  There’s a lot of work yet to be done, and the Center can and should play a major role.

To be successful, the GLCCB needs to gain the confidence of the community and the community needs to get involved.  The way the Center’s leadership can accomplish this is to follow through on its stated pledge for more transparency and accountability.  Nothing says you’re welcome more than complete openness and encouraging the community’s input on everything from planning to programs and how best to utilize its new space.  If the various components of the community feel that it is respected, it will invest in the Center with volunteer work and hopefully, much needed donations. 
Another way to succeed is for the Center to do what it can to encourage women and minorities to be included.  This has been a difficult challenge over the years because a wide swath of the community believed they had not been welcome. That certainly had been the case for much of the Center’s history.  On the other hand, efforts to attract more women and minorities have been thwarted by a feeling of “why bother?” by these very groups.  To fix a problem, one needs to be part of a solution and not just grouse from the sidelines.

This pattern needs to stop.  I know the new leadership is earnest in their desire to have a flourishing Center that is sensitive to the needs of the entire rainbow and truly wants diversity. 
A number of years ago, the Center’s leadership had a conflict with those running Black Pride.  It wasn’t pretty as the ensuing dispute divided the community.  Last year, the new leadership at the Center reconciled their differences to the extent that both components became partners in their respective endeavors.  That accomplishment cannot be overstated as it led to a better relationship between LGBT African-Americans and the GLCCB and serves as a template for future unity.

The Center should continue this path in forging relationships with the community.  Many LGBT folks who regularly attend Pride aren’t aware that the annual celebration is run by the GLCCB and many weren’t even born when the Center was formed or even knowledgeable of its troubled past. 

The best way to attract this new pool of energy is to hold a series of well-publicized community meetings at the Waxter Center.  There should be a different subject or theme at each.  For example, a meeting on community activities, or one on issues of concern to youth, or transgender issues, or seniors could attract folks interested in solving problems.  Yes, these community meetings often lead to shouting matches, and individuals like to promote their own agendas.  But the Center needs to prove that it is worthy of being the focal point for the LGBTQ community and may have to undergo some painful moments to demonstrate the leadership is sincere.  No pain, no gain.
And the community should step up and get involved.  Attend these meetings. Serve as a volunteer.  Be a board member.  Donate to the cause.  Make the original vision a reality. 

As the Center leaves the ghosts of West Chase Street behind, the new headquarters will afford an opportunity for the Center—hopefully with a new name—to make a fresh start and move forward.  We need it to.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Olney Theatre Finds Success in 'How to Succeed...'

I don’t think anyone wants to return to the time when the workplace was rife with sexism and sexual harassment was a normal occurrence.  Nor does anyone want to see a business setting where the only upward mobility for a woman is limited to being a secretary to the highest male executive in the corporate hierarchy. 
Photo by Stan Barough
But the hilarious musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying currently playing at the Olney Theatre Center takes us to that place in the early 1960’s, and for nearly three hours, we can laugh aloud and appreciate the fact the era is relegated to the dustbin of history. 
While those sexist days may be gone in most places, the office in-fighting, politics, back-biting and ruthlessness cloaked in ambition, as exhibited in the show’s fictional New York City-based Worldwide Wicket Company, alas, remains in the real world even today.  
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a musical by Frank Loesser with a superb book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert that is based on Shepherd Meade’s bestselling book with the same title.  The show opened on Broadway in 1961 and the next year captured seven Tony Awards including Best Musical.  The success of the show spawned winning revivals in 1995 and 2011 and a film adaptation in 1967.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.