Short takes on politics, culture and life.
On Thursday night, Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sponsored a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Bill Richardson all participated. Columnist Margaret Carlson moderated the proceeding, joined by the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, HRC's Joe Solmonese and lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge. Unlike the recent contretemps at the YearlyKos convention, this affair was decidedly more civil. It had to be. The candidates showed up, one by one, to chit-chat with Carlson and friends in a rather antiseptic, faux-talk show studio. The audience was small, peppered with B-list gay celebs and mostly quiet. The candidates never crossed paths, and so, there was never any real debate.
Nonetheless, there were some interesting moments: Bill Richardson's supposed gaffe in response to the nature vs. nuture question (are you born gay or do you choose to be gay?), Etheridge's attack on Hillary Clinton's record and the general, totally gay enthusiasm of Gravel and Kucinich. I sat down to watch and discuss the forum with queer critics Lisa Duggan, Tavia Nyong'o and Alisa Solomon.
Richard Kim: So what did you folks think? The Human Rights Campaign has been promoting this event as an "historic" forum, the first of its kind. Did it feel historic to you?
Alisa Solomon: I have mixed feelings about the forum. My attitude going in was kind of cynical, yet I found myself moved at some points. But not only is it not historic, because it happened before, but it's actually worse than the last one. [HRC hosted a similar event in 2003 on CSPAN, moderated by Sam Donaldson.] This forum was on a queer cable network. It's not even on a mainstream network. It didn't involve mainstream interviewers. It's much more ghettoized. With all of these forums and debates, it's great that supposedly there's an opportunity to ask the candidates to go into depth on specific issues, whether it's labor or African American issues or gay issues. But there's something really balkanizing about it too. It's the worst kind of niche marketing. Are candidates going to discuss LGBT issues only before a queer audience, labor issues only before an audience of union members, and so on? And are union members the only people who are supposed to care about labor issues, and so on?
Tavia Nyong'o: The forum was what I expected it to be--circling back and forth on the question of marriage equality with some minor excursions to other issues like healthcare or employment. But part of what I found moving about the event was the raw political need emanating from interviewer Melissa Etheridge. Counterbalancing the insistence on marriage was this more general hunger for public recognition. It was almost a subtext of the whole forum. Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge indicated that they've had these conversations about gay issues in private, that they have this ongoing relationship with Hillary, with the Clintons, with some of the other candidates, and it was like they wanted these inside conversation acknowledged publicly.
Lisa Duggan: I felt cynical about it too. It wasn't historic, and not only was it ghettoized in terms of its circulation and broadcast, but the definitions of "gay community" and "gay issues" have become so narrow. Marriage equality has become the absolute litmus test. It's like seeing the women's movement reduced to abortion rights. It's like marriage is the only question and the other questions were raised on the side.
RK: Well, how do you think the candidates did on the question of marriage? There seemed to be two camps--Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who support full marriage equality now, and the rest of the candidates [Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson], who want some form of civil union and perhaps marriage equality later on.
AS: I absolutely agree with Lisa that gay marriage has become a litmus test issue. But, even though it's not the major issue for me, and even though I don't share the view that marriage is the way to secure health and other benefits, when I heard the candidates dancing away from it, it pissed me off. You want them to stand morally for equal rights and then make the progressive analysis that would call for a different relationship between marriage and the state in general.
RK: What would that sound like?
LD: Well, there was no question about marriage in this forum. The only question was about gay inclusion in it. It was up or down on gay inclusion. Full inclusion now or some incremental progress to full inclusion later, but the desirability of one size fits all marriage, over and above any reworking of options, was completely unquestioned. It was only about who we let in or out. Only Obama suggested some readjustment in the landscape of possibility. The really amazing thing about his answer was the idea that civil unions should include full federal benefits, and that marriage should be considered a purely religious practice. He advocated separation of church and state; religion should be over there and federal civil unions should be over here…
AS: But only for gays and lesbians. There was no follow up question that said--Do you think that's how it should be for straight people too?
LD: Obama almost went there. He more or less said that marriage is a religious institution and that civil unions should have full federal rights. It had more of a progressive edge.
AS: Well, Edwards tried to go there when he said he wouldn't impose his faith on the nation.
LD: But his answer to the marriage question was the worst in some ways, totally self-contradictory. Clinton's answer was similar in content, but it was much more polished and practiced. She had clearly thought about how to respond and how her answer would be reported in the press. But Edwards seemed nervous, unthinking. It's like no one coached him at all. I was really sorry to see that because in some ways his positions, especially on poverty, are more progressive than the other candidates. His whole speech about homeless gay youth…
AS: That was pathetic! It's 2007, and it's like the first time he's ever heard of gay kids getting kicked out of their homes. Though I do give him credit for bringing it up --along with adoption and anti-discrimination in employment and other issues that the questioners weren't bothering to raise.
RK: What did you think about the way Obama addressed the analogy between marriage equality and the civil rights movement?
TN: I appreciated that he pointed out how gays are being scapegoated as a threat to the black family. Family values rhetoric resonates strongly in black political settings, and I'm thrilled Obama is willing to take it head on in venues like the Howard University debate, and not just in front of a gay audience. I also think he's figured out where the comparison between gay rights and civil rights falls apart and becomes unproductive. The whole tagline of "separate but equal" that the questioners kept bringing up, they kept talking about it as it if were just a tagline instead of a whole institutional structure of segregation.
LD: When the questioners asked Obama to compare marriage equality and civil rights, he first balked at the question, then he said we're not talking about Jim Crow here. We're talking about inequality, but we're not talking about Jim Crow, so he did reference the structural difference. But it's like people aren't familiar with the basic history of the civil rights movement, that there's a debate and discussion over the failure of purely formal civil rights to produce substantive equality. It's like the questioners were totally unaware of that discussion.
TN: In some ways nobody seemed to have watched the Howard debate because that was the context of the whole debate--the fact that formal quality doesn't match up to substantive equality. That's why we still need the black debate now, to address all the issues of racial inequality that are still around. That wasn't the language of the Howard debate, but that was the context.
AS: What did you think about Obama saying that if he had been counseling the civil rights movement at the time his parents got married, when they wouldn't have been able to do that in some states, that he would have advised that the more important issue was voting rights laws, not anti-miscegenation laws?
TN: I feel that he came up with that just to short circuit the comparison between anti-miscegenation laws and bans on gay marriage. He's been asked that question a lot because he makes his personal story so central to his own candidacy. He can use this personal narrative to diffuse the one-to-one analogy between marriage rights and civil rights.
LD: He's the one that gets pressured the most on that analogy. So he has to come up with a response to that analogy in a way that the other candidates just don't.
RK: There were a couple times in this debate where the Howard debate and the AFL-CIO debate were referenced. This debate could be seen as just another one in the identity politics primary. What do you think about that and the way gay issues play into identity politics? It's not clear to me that, in fact, this forum is the same as the AFL-CIO one, which has a real institutional base, or the Howard debate which had a constituency the Democrats really need.
LD: Labor politics can be translated into a kind of identity politics, as if it's a special interest politics, but it's not fundamentally. Meanwhile, the kind of sexual politics that exceeds the terms of identity politics--that wasn't represented at all tonight. The Howard debate had a lot of depth about economic issues intertwined with racial inequality issues. This one did not. The people who brought those structural issues up tonight were the candidates, not the questioners. And when the candidates were advocating employment nondiscrimination or improvements in health care, the questions would just come back to marriage.
RK: What did you all think about the way Bill Richardson answered the question, posed by Melissa Etheridge, about whether you are born gay or choose to be gay?
AS: I thought Richardson's failure to grasp that question was one of the most poignant moments of the entire forum. It honestly didn't matter to him. It just wasn't computing. Why would it matter? Why would protection from discrimination be appropriate for people who were born Jewish but not for people who converted to Judaism? It makes no logical sense whatsoever, and I think that's why it wasn't computing with him, and I found that kind of endearing and also heartening.
LD: I think it was the inadvertent best moment in the whole forum because his answer was basically so good. He said it doesn't matter, that equality isn't a matter of choice or biology. It's when he said, "I don't want to characterize people according to some standards of science that I don't understand."
AS: It was his least political, most direct answer. You could really see him processing the question and trying to think it through because for once, he didn't have a prepared answer. It was very naked and honest--and right-on.
LD: They pushed him on it over and over again. Margaret Carlson followed up and explained to him that saying you are born gay is the ground on which equality can be claimed. But he was clearly, absolutely resisting the language of choice versus biology. It's not clear to me why he was, but he was.
TN: That marks a certain political shift. I thought it was a positive sign.
RK: Do you feel like the questioners treated Clinton, Edwards and Obama differently than they treated the other candidates?
AS: I think HRC felt that with Gravel and Kucinich, they [HRC] were doing those marginal candidates a favor by letting them participate. Gravel even called Joe Solmonese on his decision to exclude him at first. But with the other candidates, the vibe was more that those front-running candidates were doing HRC a favor just by showing up--sort of feeding the tacit expression of need that Tavia mentioned earlier. Melissa Etheridge kept telling candidates how honored and grateful she was that they came, as if we don't have every right simply to expect candidates to show up.
LD: Kucinich went down the list of economic issues, peace and war issues, all the big issues in this election that matter to everyone. He went down the list of gay issues too, but he also mentioned universal healthcare. He used the words "not for profit" and "Medicare for all," and he was the only one to do so.
AS: Those were the points that got no applause. His answer to the question about health benefits for same-sex partners was that there should be healthcare for all. If he had said marriage rights, everyone would have clapped. But they didn't clap for universal healthcare. It was the same thing when he said he voted against the war. Silence.
RK: What did you think about the format of the forum? What about the audience?
TN: The audience was salted with former and current Logo talent and the cast of Noah's Ark. It's like, they didn't even go outside the building to get the audience. It was a talk show format instead of a political debate or discussion.
AS: There was no idea of collectivity or movement because of the format.
RK: Who do you think won?
LD: Substantively, I think Obama won. But in terms of positioning and media savvy, I think Hillary Clinton did.
TN: I thought Hillary was a clear winner in the Howard debate, which was surprising. She did so much better than Obama and Richardson, and she really connected with the crowd, which was huge there. Here there was no crowd, a tiny studio audience, so it was harder for her to do that. I thought she did well and was very polished, but I think the performances evened out here. She did better than Edwards. The hardest question for her to deal with was when Melissa Etheridge asked her why her husband had abandoned gay people in 1996…
AS: She said, "You threw us under a bus!"
TN: Right, it was the toughest question of the night because she has a record to stand on, when her husband was in the White House and her votes in the Senate. I think there's some kind of spell that Hillary Clinton puts us under. Because if you follow the logic of her reasoning, her narration is that we've been steadily moving along a progressive path since the ‘90s in this country, and that's totally counterfactual.
AS: I think what she said was more complicated and calculated. She said we had been in a horrifying moment, and when anti-gay politics was used cynically and viciously, and it got personal. It was ugly, and we really had to fight against that and it was a big setback for us. She used that description to define a difference between Democrats and Republicans as well as to excuse some of her questionable earlier support for such legislation as DOMA, which she characterized as a bulwark against the riled up pressure for a marriage amendment.
LD: What about when she was asked why, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, why she didn't introduce legislation to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
AS: You didn't find her answer persuasive?
AS: Why didn't you? Not that I did, necessarily. But where do you see the flaw in her being strategic as a legislator and asking--Why bother under a Republican Congress, under a completely hostile President?
LD: Because there are other reasons than winning to introduce legislation. If you accept her pragmatic terms, the kind of politician she is, then that's the answer. But if you were a different kind of politician, then there's another kind of answer.
TN: Bill Richardson tried to get domestic partnership rights in New Mexico. That's the one thing I really responded to in his attempt to say he has a progressive record. I found myself sympathizing with him when he said that he's been trying to get this done in a Western state, not Massachusetts, but spending political capital in this area. What irks me about Hillary's progress narrative is that it re-writes her own history. She could have actually taken a symbolic stand on a bill in the Senate to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But she's not prepared to do that kind of thing. Richardson was willing to call a special session and lose.
LD: Going back to the progress narrative…the problem is that it frames as inevitable something which requires political will. So rather than saying we need political will, we just say we should trust in inevitability or in the goodness of the American people. So it lets everyone off the hook in terms of the risks and efforts that are required to organize political will. One of the central tricks of American liberal discourse is to frame political progress as inevitable. So you let everyone off the hook.
AS: That's one way to read it, but another way--which the candidates at the forum also invoked--is to applaud the LGBT movement, to say what you are doing is admirable. You are on the streets. And I'm right there with you. Still another way of using the progress narrative is to stir people, to say that the train is going, and you should get on, and you should help push.
RK: Kucinich and Gravel said things similar to that…
TN: Here's where I miss Al Sharpton. Al Sharpton would have said, "I support gay marriage. I've performed gay marriage." But then he would have turned it around and made the conversation much more political. And I think, even Kucinich, he kind of resorted to a kind of "I love gays" argument.
LD: I miss Sharpton and Jesse Jackson too, because they were the kind of candidates who would turn things around and challenge the questioners and challenge the audience. They would turn around and say, "Well I'm for this, but what are you for? Are you standing up for other people too?" And none of these candidates did that tonight.
On Thursday at 9PM (ET), Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign are sponsoring a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack, Hillary, John, Dennis and Bill will all be there. So will some guy named Mike who was so poor loves gays so much that he originally wasn't invited. Margaret Carlson, Jonathan Capehart, Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge will pose questions. The whole queer klatch will be televised on Logo and streamed live at this website.
[Here at The Nation, we've lined up queer critics Lisa Duggan, Alisa Solomon and Tavia Nyong'o to watch the event from a safe, Melissa Etheridge-free location and comment. Their remarks will be posted after the forum.]
HRC (that stands for Human Rights Campaign in gaycronym, not Hillary Rodham Clinton) has been promoting the debate as an "historic" event, the "first time...the major presidential candidates will address a live GLBT television audience." As Chris Crain points out on his blog, this is a lie. In fact, HRC hosted exactly such an event in 2003, but this is presidential electioneering, so there goes accuracy.
Despite my qualms about HRC (again, that's the gay HRC, not the Wellesley graduate) and my general low expectations for the forum (marriage and gays in the military will likely dominate), I agreed to write up a short piece for Logo's website on what I think the most important issue in this election is for gay people. (Just to preempt sniping, I wasn't paid, and I was free to say what I wanted.) For those who've followed my take on same-sex marriage before, this will be nothing new, but it's cross-posted below.
From Visible Vote '08:
For years now, I've followed the plight of same-sex couples denied the right to marry. Many of their stories are heartrending. A lesbian couple was forced to sell their home in order to pay huge health care bills because one of them was in an accident and wasn't covered by her partner's health insurance. After his lover died, a gay man was evicted from his apartment because he wasn't on the lease, and even if he was, he couldn't pay for the place on his own. Elderly gays and lesbians have kept working long past the age of retirement, or even taken second jobs, because social security benefits and pensions aren't transferable and often don't cover basic necessities--food, housing, utilities, medication--in the first place.
The more of these stories I hear, the more they sound like the stories coming out of the "other America"--married, heterosexual America.
Take Donna and Larry Smith, featured in Michael Moore's documentary Sicko. Married for over 30 years, the Smiths worked hard and raised six children in South Dakota. They had each other, and they had health insurance, but that wasn't enough when cancer and artery disease struck. Facing massive debt from expensive medical treatments, they filed for bankruptcy, sold their home and were forced to move into a cramped storage room in their daughter's house.
Or take my grandmother. When my grandfather, her husband, died, she was entitled to his social security benefits. But still, as a single widow, her total household income shrank dramatically. For the last few years of her life, social security was the only check she got, and it wasn't enough at that. Her experience is common; women live longer than men and so often age alone. Almost a third of all unmarried elderly women rely on social security as their sole source of income, and if it weren't for social security, 54 percent of all elderly women would be living in poverty.
Whether from gay or straight, married or unmarried Americans, stories like these are powerful reminders of the human costs of growing economic inequality in this country. For the last 30 years, the incomes of the wealthiest Americans have skyrocketed while incomes for the bottom 50 percent have remained essentially static. According to 2005 IRS data, the top tenth of 1 percent of Americans (300,000) made almost as much as the bottom half (150 million). The income gap hasn't been this bad in our country since 1928.
All of this news is kind of a downer, and nowhere near as cheery as thinking about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards or any of the other candidates presiding over festive gay weddings or civil unions. But the hard-boiled economic reality is that as long as the class gap continues to grow in America, the rights of marriage will be of little consolation to the millions of gays and lesbians who find themselves unemployed, sick, downsized, outsourced, homeless or just plain down on their luck. After all, marriage didn't protect happily betrothed folks like my grandparents or Donna and Larry Smith from feeling the economic squeeze.
This is why, for me, the increasingly stark gap between the super rich and everyone else is the most important issue in the next election. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has talked about the "two Americas" in his 2004 campaign and now again in this election. Other candidates have piled onto the populist bandwagon, and most propose meager economic reforms (a slight increase in minimum wage, closing tax loopholes, college loan reforms). But in my opinion, none have announced a real economic agenda that would halt the widening gap between the mega-wealthy and the rest of us, much less begin to reverse the trend. It will be important to see which of them come closest.
I've argued in The Nation that gays and lesbians should think beyond the issue of same-sex marriage as a legal right and get at many of the underlying economic issues (healthcare, housing, job security) that make married and unmarried people alike vulnerable in the first place. According to recent census data, the majority of Americans now live in unmarried households. Some live this way because they are legally banned from marriage, but most people, including many gays and lesbians, do so by choice. Beyond marriage then, what are the economic policies that will help all households (including single people) live better, less deprived, less financially anxious lives?
What does Mitt Romney have against France? Campaigning this week in Iowa, Romney warned that, even though America's unhappy with the war, it's "not about to take a sharp left turn and put somebody in the White House who would turn America into a European-type state." The day before, in New Hampshire, Romney trotted out the old GOP red flag against "big government, big brother, big taxes." "That's where Europe went," he added "That's what got them the economic challenges they had." Old Mitt's sticking close to a campaign strategy memo, written by his top advisers and reported in the Boston Globe earlier this year, that advised him to make "European-style socialism" the enemy. "That's where Hillary and the Dems would take us," the memo said, "Hillary=France." (Romney's also taken to comparing Hillary Clinton to Karl Marx.)
Perhaps he could me more grateful to his one-time host country. As a young Mormon, Romney received a missionary draft deferment and spent two plus years attempting to convert the residents of Bordeaux and Paris to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. According to his one-time fellow missionary, Dane McBride, the usual answer was "Non, merci."
Though Romney organized the 2002 Winter games in Salt Lake City, he's apparently lost the Olympic spirit of global goodwill. Meanwhile, the Americans in Paris featured in Michael Moore's SICKO seem quite happy with France--fries and universal healthcare included.
Bush's nominee for surgeon general, Dr. James Holsinger, has come under fire this week for his anti-gay politics (first documented by Bible Belt Blogger Frank Lockwood). By day Holsinger teaches health sciences at the University of Kentucky where he was chancellor of the Chandler Medical Center. By night, however, the good doctor is a bible-thumping Reverend with a degree in biblical studies from Asbury Theological Seminary and a seeming
fascination of antipathy towards homosexuals.
Holsinger founded the Hope Springs Community Church, a "recovery ministry" that caters to alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts and those seeking to "walk out of that [homosexual] lifestyle," according to its pastor Rev. David Calhoun. When not busy endorsing ex-gay conversion therapy, Holsinger served on the highest court of the United Methodist Church where he voted to remove a lesbian pastor from her position.
And today, the Human Rights Campaign released a document Holsinger authored in 1991 as a member of the United Methodist Church's Committee to Study Homosexuality. Titled Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality, Holsinger's religious tract-cum-scientific paper is a fascinating window into the perverse imagination of homophobia. In essence, Holsinger argues that male-female "reproductive systems are fully complementary" because "anatomically the vagina is designed to receive the penis." The remainder of his paper is a graphic account of the "delicate" rectum which is "incapable" of "protection" if "objects that are large, sharp, or pointed are inserted" into it. From there Holsinger continues to discuss what he imagines are the pains (and pleasures?) of anal sex, from "fist fornication" and "sphincter injuries" to "lacerations," "perforations" and "deaths seen in connection with anal eroticism."
Sharp objects! Deaths seen in connection with anal eroticism! Gadzooks! Now, I've been around the block one or ten times, and I don't know any gay men who have put scissors up their ass, much less died from it. Of course, the barely mentioned but palpably anxious context in which Holsinger connects "death" with "anal eroticism" is the AIDS epidemic. And it should come as no surprise that his paper was part of a larger, pseudo-medical, moral discourse in which gay men's mode of sex (and by extension gay men) were blamed for AIDS - the death we deserved, the sexual suicide we courted.
The flip side of Dr. Holsinger's lurid speculation is the dangerous presumption that because heterosexual sex is "natural," it is safe -- safe from HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases and the trauma and injury that Holsinger seems so feverishly eager to attribute to gay anal sex. We now know, tragically and beyond any possible doubt, that heterosexual sex is not safe unless one practices it as such. And no amount of wishing and praying by our next Surgeon General on the "complementarity of the human sexes" will make it so.
A few years after Dr. Holsinger wrote his little brief against male-male anal sex, then Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested, at a UN Conference on AIDS, that masturbation might be taught to young people as a mode of reducing sexual risk. On this point she was absolutely correct, but for even daring to mention the M-word, she was lampooned by the Christian right and eventually asked to resign by a cowardly Bill Clinton who, in retrospect, might have paid more attention to Dr. Elders and spent less time inserting foreign objects into inappropriate places.
But no matter. The doctor who gave sound, clinical medical advice was fired, while the doctor who engaged in wild, graphic and unsubstantiated fantasies about gay sex will most likely assume the helm as "America's chief health educator." And you wonder why we have a health care crisis in this country.
In an era when every Ann, Isaiah and Tim can bask in the toxic green glow of homophobe fame just by throwing around the F-word a few times in public, it's nice to know that some people still have standards. To commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia (May 17), my friends over at Human Rights Watch have assembled a Hall of Shame. And they are not messing around with this GLAAD-Entertainment Tonight-Rehab-Apology bullshit.
This year's inductees include: Pope Benedict (for politicizing the Catholic Church's theological views on homosexuality), George W. Bush (for threatening the health of LGBT people by mandating abstinence-only sex education) and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (for launching a campaign against "public immorality" that has led to the arbitrary arrest of thousands). As HRW's Scott Long put it, the Hall of Shame "highlights leaders who have lent their authority to denying basic human rights." Jerry Falwell, may he rest forever, would be proud. You can check out the full list of dishonors here.
Speaking of Falwell, I'm just passing along news (via queerty) that the Lesbian Death Angels have claimed responsibility for hexing Rev. Falwell into the afterlife. This coven of self-described "pro-choice radical lesbians" seeks justice "one hex at a time." And they are looking for their "next target for early karmic justice." Ladies, I'm not sure human rights and witchcraft are compatible, but see HRW's list!
Last year I wrote a long article on the execution of two teenage boys in Mashhad and the firestorm that erupted when they were identified by some gay activists and bloggers as "gay teenagers." Suffice to say, since homosexuality and radical Islam are irresistible topics these days, the story did not end there.
Sometime Nation contributor Doug Ireland has written often on his blog and in Gay City News about what he considers a "vicious pogrom against Iranian gays." The New Republic's Rob Anderson chirped up and attacked US gay rights groups for not taking a harder line. Britain's Peter Tatchell (who publicized the original story) has organized a global protest against Iran. He's been supported by Anderson, Ireland, Michael Petrelis and a bevy of other activists (see Ireland's blog for the full list).
Missing from this list are Paula Ettelbrick of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Scott Long of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Division. They've both been criticized by Tatchell in an open letter for their non-endorsement. (Full disclosure: I serve on the advisory board of HRW's LGBT rights program). Some of the dispute centers, still, around whether or not the two teenagers were gay and were executed for consensual gay sex (see my piece). But in the larger sense, the controversy represents two different strategies for pursuing sexual rights in precarious and fraught locations such as Iran. As Long puts it in his response to Tatchell, "I urge people to think very carefully about what the demonstrations are meant to achieve...What happens after July 19? How are these demonstrations meant to affect the Iranian government? How are they going to be seen in Iran? Are they only about publicity, consciousness-raising, the self-purifying effect of protest? Do you have a plan for change, or just for catharsis?"
It would take me another 5,000 words (and more strong coffee, cigarettes and vodka than my stomach can handle) to describe and explicate how the story has moved since I last wrote. So instead I urge readers to make up their own mind. New Yorkers can attend the protest outside of the Iranian Mission to the UN (622 Third Avenue at 40th St.). It's happening, like, now (5PM), so start lacing up those shoes.
And when you are done there, please attend the following event at the LGBT Center.
THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING LOCALLY:HUMAN RIGHTS, IRAN, AND LGBT ADVOCACY
WHAT:The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Amnesty International OUTfront, Al-Fatiha and SoulforceNYC invite all interested advocates to participate in Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Human Rights, Iran, and LGBT Advocacy, a community dialogue about the persecution faced by LGBT people in Iran and how activists in the West can responsibly engage in supporting our colleagues in Iran as well as Iranian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in New York and elsewhere.
WHO:* Scott Long, Director of LGBT Rights Program, Human Rights Watch* Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director of IGLHRC* Parvez Sharma, Director of the new documentary film "In the Name of Allah"* Hadi Ghaemi, Iran Researcher, Human Rights Watch* Kouross Esmaeli, Iranian filmmaker* Ayaz Ahmed, Al-Fatiha* Moderated by Hossein Alizadeh, IGLHRC
WHY:Numerous reports and stories of persecution faced by gay men and lesbians in Iran have been circulating. In particular, the executions of two young Iranian men last year on July 19 have been reported as gay-related deaths, prompting some activists to call for demonstrations in local communities to draw attention to these issues on the year anniversary of their hangings. This call raises important questions for human rights and LGBT advocates concerned about human rights violations globally, but unsure of how best to engage and respond.
* How do we situate campaigns for LGBT rights in the context of other human rights issues such as the death penalty and women's rights? * How do we respond in situations where facts are contested and documentation difficult? * What are the responsibilities--and dangers--for Western campaigners wanting to think globally and act locally? * How do we avoid reinforcing stereotypes and playing into hostilities prompted by our own government?
These are not abstract questions or ones relevant only to activists for sexual rights. While Iran will be emphasized in this discussion, the questions are relevant for all human rights advocates as we grapple with how global calls for justice can be made meaningful in the face of persecution and global hostilities.
While IGLHRC had initially offered to coordinate a public vigil to protest the use of the death penalty as a punishment for sexually-based crimes in Iran and elsewhere, conversations with colleagues have made clear that in New York City, dialogue, not demonstrations, would be the most productive way to build longer term strategies and understandings of how best to respond to human rights violations around the world.
WHEN: Wednesday, July 19, 20066:00 PM – 8:00 PM
WHERE: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center208 West 13th Street between 7th & 8th AvenuesNew York, New York
When the New York Times redesigned its website, I started to worry -- so dumbed down, so much white space, so many bells and whistles. Was the Times having another identity crisis trying to keep up with the Ipod-Slvr Phone generation?
This weekend's papers confirmed my concerns as the Times went VH1 over allegations that New York Post "Page Six" contributor Jared Paul Stern attempted to extort California billionaire Ronald Burkle. Over 48 hours, the Times relentlessly deluged readers with multimedia graphics, photos, charts, sexed up backstory and snarky quotes from irrelevant pundits. It doggedly tracked down former co-workers and associates who lurked in the "dark corners of nightclubs and parties" with Mr. Stern sipping on "champagne with supermodels." It obtained a copy of the key evidence (a grainy security tape of Stern with Burkle) and expertly analyzed it. It camped out at Stern's Catskills home and uncovered this vital piece of information: "he paid $220,000 for it." This revelation, however, paled in comparison to the bombshell that Mr Stern claims to "be the only child at his northern Ontario camp reading Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City." Ah hah!
Meanwhile the paper devoted far less space to Scooter Libby's revelation that Bush personally authorized intelligence leaks in the Iraq/WMD scandal -- referring to it as "no shock to official Washington" before launching into a numbingly dull rehash of previous coverage and intelligence leak history. The stories broke within 24 hours of each other, and here's the recount for the weekend:
Articles about Scooter Libby: 2 (plus one op-ed by Maureen Dowd)
Articles about Jared Paul Stern: 5
Number of reporters contributing to Libby coverage: 4
Number of reporters contributing to Stern coverage: 9
Total word count for Libby articles: 2,872
Total word count for Stern articles: 5,468
So on a story involving national security and the lies and misconduct of the President of the United States, the paper of record seems to be saying, "It's hard. And difficult. And boring. You wouldn't be interested anyway." Meanwhile, it practically launches a special section on a freelance gossip columnist for a rival daily. Gee, could the Times be trying an old trick publicists use to keep juice on their clients out of the news (give the reporters "better dirt on somebody else")? Could the Times be trying to deflect attention away from the prominent role a certain disgraced, former staff reporter had in the scandal that really matters? And why didn't the Times devote these kinds of resources to investigating the administration's case for war instead of relying on said reporter's tainted sources and canned information?
Only in New York, kids, only in New York.
If you want to see the pathologies plaguing the gay marriage movement in action, you need look no farther than this article penned by Jasmyne Cannick. Titled "Gays First, Then Illegals," Cannick's editorial spews the kind of xenophobic rhetoric now rarely heard outside of right-wing radio and white nativist circles -- unless, of course, it's coming from the mainstream gay press. Pitting gay rights against immigrants' rights, Cannick -- former "People of Color Media Manager for GLAAD" -- considers it a "slap in the face to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people" for Congress to debate immigration reform when same-sex marriage remains unrecognized. For your pleasure or fury, here are some of her greatest hits:
"Immigration reform needs to get in line behind the LGBT civil rights movement, which has not yet realized all of its goals. Which is not to say that I don't recognize the plight of illegal immigrants. I do. But I didn't break the law to come into this country. This country broke the law by not recognizing and bestowing upon me my full rights as a citizen."
"America needs to take care of its own backyard before it debates on whether to take care of its neighbor's backyard. Lesbians and gays should not be second-class citizens. Our issues should not get bumped to the back of the line in favor of extending rights to people who have entered this country illegally. Bottom line."
And in my favorite passage, Cannick quotes Audre Lorde, child of immigrants, on the necessity of speaking difficult truths before concluding, "While I know no one wants to be viewed as a racist when it comes to immigration reform, as a lesbian I don't want to move to the back of the bus to accommodate those who broke the law to be here."
Honey, if you don't want to be viewed as a racist, then don't write like one!
As my friend Terry Boggis, Director of Center Kids at the NYC LGBT Center puts it, "As long as we're dragging poor Audre Lorde into the fray and misusing her wisdom to make a point utterly contrary to all she represented, we should be compelled to resurrect her tried-and-true 'There is no hierarchy of oppressions' line. It's hard to believe that in this nation of incomprehensible, dazzling, shameless abundance, we still get this kind of paranoid thinking that rights for some will mean fewer rights for others. Social justice isn't a zero-sum game."
Along with former Clinton apparatchik and media whore Keith Boykin, Cannick is on the board of the National Black Justice Coalition, an organization ostensibly dedicated to "fostering equality by fighting racism and homophobia," but which so far seems mostly devoted to persuading black churches and civil rights groups to support (or at least not block) the drive for same-sex marriage. If the other board members, some of whom I respect, take NBJC's mission seriously, they'd publicly denounce Cannick's editorial.
Sadly, Cannick's perspective may only be exceptional in its forthrightness. As public health activist Debanuj Dasgupta points out, "the 'gay rights movement' is largely dominated by an analysis that is rooted in the premises of citizenship and LGBT identity," without realizing how "citizenship status is a site of major oppression and social control." Moreover, from the enforcement of the Espionage and Sedition Acts to the McCarthy hearings, sexual dissidents and foreigners have historically been caught up in the same dragnets, and the regulation of marriage has long been a focus of racist U.S. immigration policy.
Next month Human Rights Watch's LGBT division will publish a report on binational couples in support of the Uniting American Families Act (formerly the Permanent Partners Immigration Act) which would add same-sex "permanent partners" to the Immigration and Nationality Act. Let's hope that debate starts a more generous, less invidious discussion about reforming both immigration and marriage.
I've long thought that the anti-war left makes a mountain out of a moron when they bend over backwards to praise right-wing ideologues who now criticize the Iraq war. Still, it's been a hoot to watch pro-war bloggers and pundits froth from one corner of the mouth and offer faint praise from the other as the list of conservative icons-turned-defectors grows longer and longer. The latest double-speak comes from Peter Wehner, deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives, in today's Wall Street Journal where he takes on "Messrs. Buckley, Will and Fukuyama."
Cheerily repeating the administration's line, Wehner writes that "In 2005, Iraq's economy continued to recover and grow. Access to clean water and sewage-treatment facilities has increased. The Sunnis are now invested in the political process, which was not previously the case. The Iraqi security forces are far stronger than they were." Is this the same Iraq that the NYT described Sunday in its lead article?
Meanwhile, for those who take faith in such signs, Bill Buckley's latest critique is reported by Bloomberg news. Charles Krauthammer's latest slap-down of "ex-neo con Fukuyama" is here. And over at townhall.com George Will tries to "face facts."
On behalf of all the angry Nation readers who protested Bernard-Henri Levy's "Letter to the American Left," I wish I had had a pie -- or at least Levy antagonist and pie-thrower Noel Godin in tow -- at Skidmore College's conference on "War, Evil, the End of History and America Now." The good folks at Salmagundi usually put on a good show, and this weekend was no exception. Bob Boyers brought historian Jackson Lears, poet Carolyn Forche, Jihad vs. McWorld author Benjamin Barber, "just war" theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain and Nation regulars Jonathan Schell and Michael Massing to reflect on the aforementioned themes. Too bad that the conversation was centered on the French buffoon in an expensive suit.
I'd never seen Levy in person before, though like most of you I found his writing vacuous, masturbatory hot air. I have to admit though that his keynote address was at least an amusing spectacle. His hair artfully askew, his English dramatically broken, Levy's most frequent words were "I" and "myself" and "my book" -- that is when he's wasn't referring to himself in the third person ("Bernard-Henri hates two things..."). His talk was mostly a self-hagiography and rehash of his book War, Evil and the End of History, and it was perversely satisfying to see his American interlocutors attempt to maintain civility while also upbraiding this self-styled Tocqueville in their midst. Lears objected to BHL's facile use of the word "evil" as akin to the neo-conservative expression "Islamo-fascism." Barber criticized BHL's evacuation of power and history from his classification of certain wars as "nihilistic, black holes of non-meaning." And even Elshtain -- whose latest book provides a morally bankrupt rationale for the Iraq War dressed up in ponderous and irrelevant philosophizing -- took Levy to task for the voyeuristic impulse of his reportage.
The most amusing, and in some ways most revealing, moment of the evening came, however, when BHL recapitulated his Nation article and excoriated U.S. left intellectuals for their impotence and docility. According to BHL, during the Vietnam War, America had a left intellectual class that mounted fervent, thoughtful and serious opposition to imperialism and war mongering -- unlike the present moment. Back then, BHL claimed "America had the kind of intellectual Martin Luther King...the writer Norman Mailer....and Jean Fondue."
"Jean Fondue?" I wondered. Who is this "Jean Fondue," and how come I haven't read her? About fifteen seconds later, the audience and I realized BHL was talking about Jane Fonda. Now I'm Kinda Fonda Jane myself, but I have to wonder: Does BHL admire and envy Fonda as an anti-war intellectual or as a the star of Barbarella?