Thursday, July 16, 2015

“B” — The Forgotten Letter


Copyright © 2012, 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On the eve of San Diego’s Queer Pride celebration — known, as has become the regrettable custom, by the ugly and risible acronym “LGBT” — I can’t help but think of an article I recently downloaded from the Internet, a report of a study from Rice University in Houston, Texas which, according to the university’s July 1 press release (, shows, “Bisexuals tend to have worse health than Gay men and Lesbian women.”
According to the study, 19.5 percent of Bisexual men and 18.5 percent of Bi women rated their own health as “poor or fair.” By contrast, 14.5 percent of straight men, 15.6 percent of straight women, 11.9 percent of Gay men and 10.6 percent of Lesbian women said their health was “poor or fair.” The study found Bisexual respondents were less likely to be college-educated or earn more than $25,000 per year. It found that Bi people were more likely to smoke cigarettes: 23.8 percent of Bi men and 21.9 percent of Bi women smoke, compared to 14.9 percent Gay men, 16.6 percent Lesbian women, 11.1 percent of straight men and just 8.3 percent of straight women.
Justin Denney, assistant professor of sociology at Rice and director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Urban Health Program, argued that Bisexuals have poorer health and lower income prospects because they’re “minorities within the minority and experience unique and more extreme forms of discrimination.” That’s an academic’s understatement if there ever was one. Despite the sham inclusion of “B” and “T” (Bisexual and Transgender) into the name of virtually every organization serving the Queer community or every event it puts on, Bisexuals remain the odd men and women out of the Queer community, at best paid lip service and at worst openly derided, mocked, ignored or denied altogether.
And this is the case even though, ironically, more Americans identify themselves as Bisexual than as Gay, Lesbian or Transgender. A report issued in January 2011 by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s LGBT Advisory Committee included a study, published the previous year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, that showed 92.7 percent of adults surveyed — 92.2 percent of males and 93.1 percent of females — identified as heterosexual. The percentages of people identifying as Gay or Lesbian were 2.5 percent of all adults, 4.2 percent of men and just 0.9 percent of women. The percentages identifying as Bi were 3.1 percent of adults, 2.6 percent of men and 3.6 percent of women — indicating something I’d long suspected from anecdotal evidence: women who have sex with both women and men are more likely to acknowledge their desires for both and less likely than men to decide that one same-sex encounter or relationship brands them as “Queer for life.”
Among adolescents, the numbers were even more striking. In the survey, 93.5 percent of adolescents — 96.1 percent of men and 90.5 percent of females — identified as heterosexual. Just 1 percent of adolescents identified as Gay or Lesbian (1.8 percent of men and only 0.2 percent of women), versus 4.9 percent who identified as Bi: 1.5 percent of men and 8.4 percent of women. Another poll, taken in 2007 by Hunter College of City University of New York (, showed similar numbers. Focused exclusively on people who identify as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, its tally indicated that among the men, 33.4 percent said they were Gay and 15.4 percent said they were Bi — but among the women, 33.5 percent said they were Bi versus only 17.8 percent who said they were Lesbian. Yet another survey, from the U.S. government in 2002, said that 56 percent of all Americans who say they’re Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual identify as Bi rather than Lesbian or Gay.
“Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible in both the heterosexual world and the Lesbian and Gay community,” said the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s report. “Often, the entire [Bi]sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral or irrelevant. Despite years of activism and the largest population within the LGBT community, the needs of Bisexuals still go unaddressed and their very existence is still called into question. This erasure has serious consequences on Bisexuals’ health, economic well-being, and funding for Bi organizations and programs.”
Bisexual invisibility turns up in some of the oddest places. One year I was volunteering at the Bisexual Forum booth at the Pride Festival, and a man came up to the booth wearing a T-shirt with an alleged list of “Famous Gay and Lesbian People in History.” With a disbelieving air, he asked the people staffing the booth, “Are you really Bisexual?” “Yes,” I said, grabbing the teachable moment, “and so was just about everybody listed on your T-shirt.”
More recently I found myself incensed by a retrospective article in the July 7, 2015 Rolling Stone ( on the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer and one of the principal songwriters for the rock band Queen. The author, Mikal Gilmore, acknowledged that “Mercury sustained a passionate relationship with his partner of many years, Mary Austin, a glamorous young woman he met at Biba, a London fashion house. … Mercury would remain close to Austin for the rest of his life, employing her as his personal secretary and adviser, and despite his numerous subsequent relationships, he referred to her as his common-law wife.” Later, Gilmore said, Mercury had another “passionate relationship” with German actress Barbara Valentin — but, despite these and the other female lovers Mercury had, because he also had sex with men Gilmore referred to Mercury throughout his article not as Bi, but as “Gay.”
In a recent commentary for the British Queer publication Attitude (, James Dawson listed a number of the enduring prejudices Gay men in particular have towards Bisexuals: “Bisexual men can’t be trusted in relationships; they will always want the other sex.” “There’s no such thing as a Bisexual.” “I wouldn’t date a Bi guy because there’s too much competition.” What unites these stereotypes is the sense that Bisexuals aren’t “really” part of the Queer community because they can always “run for cover,” always duck into the seeming safety and protection of dating opposite-sex partners, and therefore they don’t have as much at stake as we do. Yet at the same time they’re considered interlopers in the straight community as well — and the advent of AIDS ramped up the level of Biphobia among straights by stoking a fear that Bi men would be the “vector” that would poison straight women, and ultimately straight men as well, with the “Gay plague.”
The anti-Bi stereotypes Dawson cited — and attacked — have a few needles of truth concealed in haystacks of prejudice and bigotry. Many Gays and Lesbians (including this author) have briefly claimed a “Bisexual” identity as a sort of way station between a heterosexual lifestyle (including a serious relationship with an opposite-sex partner) and a final Gay or Lesbian identity — leading to yet one more sour anti-Bi joke: “Bi now, Gay later.” And in a community whose most recent political priority was winning marriage equality for same-sex couples, the fear of Bisexuals and the whole idea that they can’t be content with one partner — or even one gender — at a time runs counter to the message from our community leaders that in order to win marriage equality, we have to prove ourselves worthy of it by committing exclusively to our same-sex partners and not “cheating” or “straying” (words we’ve imported from the heterosexual community, along with the vicious moral judgments they imply) with anyone else.
But I’ve long thought there’s an even deeper reason for the fear and prejudice many Gay men and Lesbians feel towards Bisexuals. The official leadership of the Queer community has for decades rested much of its case for equal rights on the idea that sexual orientation is “immutable” — that, like one’s racial identity, it can’t be changed. We’ve attacked so-called “reparative therapy” programs, not on the basis they deserve to be attacked — they’re generally sponsored by anti-Queer religious groups who put psychological pressure on people to “change” their sexual orientation from Queer to straight by threatening them with eternal damnation if they stay Queer and offering them eternal salvation if they date and marry someone of the opposite sex — but on the demonstrably false idea that people never change their sexual orientation.
Nonsense. There are plenty of people in the world (including, once again, this author) who lived for years in a relationship with an opposite-sex partner and then said a sad farewell to that person in order to live as an “out” Gay or Lesbian. Why should we assume that it never happens the other way — that a person who has lived for years as Gay or Lesbian might find and fall in love with an opposite-sex partner and want to live with, and even marry, that person? I remember vividly the fracas Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon went through when, after a 15-year marriage to a man, she started a relationship with a woman in 2004. Eight years later, in an interview with Alex Witchel of the New York Times Magazine, Nixon went afoul of the Queer Thought Police big-time.
“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a Gay audience, and it included the line, ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been Gay, and Gay is better,’” Nixon told Witchel. “They tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my Gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered Gay and who is not.”
Nixon didn’t stop there. Witchel described her as waving her arms and turning red in the face as she expressed her antagonism towards the “born this way” orthodoxy of the Queer community. “Why can’t it be a choice?” she said. “Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was Gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.” Later she back-tracked, saying that it had been a choice for her because she is Bisexual, but she had still “chosen” to be in a relationship with a female partner. (See my commentary from 2012 at
What’s scary to me is that the Queer leadership has staked so much on this nonsense about “immutability” and has built so much of the case for our civil rights around it that our adversaries on the Right, especially the radical religious Right, think that if they can prove it isn’t so they can invalidate our claim to equality — “See, they can change! Therefore they’re not being discriminated against and they don’t deserve civil-rights protection.” As much as I applauded the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges establishing a federal Constitutional right to marriage equality, I must say I got upset when Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion that the same-sex couples bringing the suit deserved to win because “their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.” Read literally, that would mean that a state couldn’t deny marriage equality to Gay and Lesbian people but could deny it to Bisexuals because same-sex marriage would not be their “only real path” to the “profound commitment” of being married at all.
I don’t for a moment believe that anybody’s sexual orientation — including mine — is “immutable.” I was gifted (though some people would believe it was a curse) with a primary attraction to members of my own sex, and I recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of my relationship with my husband and the seventh anniversary of our legal marriage. I don’t for one minute believe in the opposite of the “immutable” myth — the idea that I or anyone else can change our sexual attractions as easily as we can change our shirts — but I do believe that nature may deal us the cards of what sorts of people we’re attracted to but it is we who decide how we will play that hand. And since we’re human beings who move about in a social world, the happenstances of who we meet, when, whether we’re attracted to them and they’re attracted to us determine how we express our sexuality as much or more than whatever we’ve been handed in the gene pool.
One of the reasons I’ve been so appalled at the “LGBT” designation for the Queer community — aside from the simple fact that it’s ugly, and it’s all too easy to ridicule (Queer humorist David Sedaris has said it makes us sound like a sandwich) — is that instead of rethinking the fundamental assumptions under which the Queer movement was founded and has been operating for decades, we simply stuck the letters “B” and “T” onto the end of everything. We didn’t think that the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people gives the lie to the whole silly idea that Gays and Lesbians are “born this way” — which is a great Lady Gaga chorus line but lousy science.
The existence of Bisexuals threatens the whole idea that sexuality is immutable — that we are biologically limited in our attractions to one and only one gender — and the notion we’ve picked up from the straight community that not only should we limit ourselves to one and only one gender but the ultimate sign of our sexual maturity is to limit ourselves to one and only one partner in a marriage. And the existence of Transgender people makes the “born this way” notion even harder to defend. After all, it’s hard to think of a more “immutable” characteristic a person could have than the physical configuration of their body as male or female — but if the Trans community has taught us anything, it’s that the physical configuration of their body doesn’t necessarily determine a person’s psychological sense of gender as male, female or — increasingly — something new, strange and wonderful in between the extremes of the gender binary.
This odd situation — the community’s official acceptance of “B” and “T” as part of its identity and the real struggles actually existing Bisexual and Transgender people face overcoming the prejudices of Gays and Lesbians, as well as straights — is evidence that the sexuality-as-race metaphor we’ve embraced for decades has reached its limits. Instead I’ve long thought the more accurate metaphor for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is religion, not race. The U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to believe in whatever they want in matters of faith — including, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “20 gods or no god” — even if it’s not only not the religion they were raised by their parents in but is diametrically opposed to it. The New Age movement of the 1970’s taught us that we were “body, mind and spirit”; the First Amendment historically granted Americans the freedom of mind and spirit, but it has taken until the 21st century and the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges decisions to extend that to the freedom of body.
America’s Queer community, in its 65th year of continuous equal-rights activism (there was an ongoing Queer equality movement for at least 19 years before Stonewall!), has gradually evolved from a celebration of people’s right to express themselves in terms of their sexual orientation and gender identity however they liked, as long as they didn’t harm or infringe on anyone else, to a narrower view in which we proclaim ourselves identical to heterosexuals except for who we love. I rejoice in the success of the marriage equality movement — after all, my husband Charles and I took advantage of it ourselves — but I also find myself concerned that by setting marriage as a goal for all Queer people, we’re putting Queer folk who either can’t find a partner for a long-term committed relationship or simply don’t want one at risk of the same social ostracism the heterosexual community has long imposed on straight people who can’t or don’t want to get married.
Yes, we as Queer folk and our allies should defend the right of Queer people to marry same-sex partners “because of their respect — and need — for its privileges and responsibilities,” as Justice Kennedy wrote. We should also defend the rights of Queer people who don’t want to get married, don’t want to commit to one person, don’t necessarily want to commit to one gender of partner, the right to express themselves sexually with whomever they wish as long as it doesn’t involve coercion or underage partners. And we should defend the right of people to live as men or women regardless of the hand their DNA dealt them — and indeed, as a small but growing minority of Transgender people are doing, to reject the male-female gender binary altogether and live somewhere in between, or apart from, the two. A full acceptance of Bisexual and Transgender people by the Gay and Lesbian community leadership means a movement that defends and expands people’s options in how to live and express their sexual orientation and gender identity — not one that locks them into a “you’re born this way” orthodoxy and tells them biology has choked off some of those choices forever.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Supreme Court Finally Does the Right Thing

Marriage Equality Decision Tops a Roller-Coaster Week


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Standing-room-only celebration at the San Diego “LGBT” Community Center, June 26, 2015

As I’m writing this, it’s been one week since June 26, the day the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, making marriage equality for same-sex couples the law of the land nationwide. Today is Friday, July 3, the eve of the seventh wedding anniversary of my husband Charles and I. We got married on the Fourth of July, 2008, partly because we liked the symbolism of making America’s Independence Day our own Interdependence Day; partly because the room we wanted — the Joyce Beers Community Center in the Hillcrest shopping mall then known as the Uptown District and now called The Hub — was available; and partly because it was a pretty good way to ensure that we would never forget our anniversary.
When I first met Charles in 1982 I was living with a woman (who’s still one of my closest friends and was a witness at our wedding) and neither of us knew the other was Gay. We met at a political reception — which ought to have been a warning of what our lives together were going to look like — and Charles recalls that that night I seemed more interested in talking to his mother than to him. A few months later I had come out as a Gay man and Charles and I briefly saw each other, albeit non-sexually. Then I lost track of him until we suddenly re-met in 1995, began dating, got serious … and have been together ever since.
I first found out about the Obergefell decision on Friday morning, June 26, as I was checking my e-mails and writing my journal as I got ready to go to work. The outcome was hinted at in the subject lines of some of the e-mails in my inbox, and with a certain degree of trembling in my heart I started opening them to see if it was true. Later I logged on to and downloaded the decisions — all 103 pages of them, containing not only Justice Anthony Kennedy’s luminous opinion but the four, count ’em, four dissents the Republican-appointed justices on the losing end had penned.
Those four dissents are perhaps the most remarkable part of the decision. While the Democratic-appointed justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — all joined Kennedy’s majority opinion, the ones on the losing side all felt an urge to write themselves. It’s as if the four dissenters — Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — needed to play a one-upsmanship game with each other: “You think you hate them? Well, I hate them more!”

Scalia’s Venom

Not surprisingly, given how the Court’s three previous decisions vastly expanding the rights of the Queer community (and I’ve long preferred the still inclusive term “Queer” to the hideous neologism “LGBT,” which Queer humor writer David Sedaris said makes us sound like a sandwich) went, with Kennedy writing the majority opinion and Scalia writing a flamingly rude and sarcastic dissent, Scalia won the one-upsmanship game. Deriding Kennedy’s statement that “the nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy and spirituality,” Scalia writes, “One would think freedom of intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask any hippie.” Just what decade does Scalia think it is?
Scalia’s statement at the start of his dissent that “the substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me” is belied by the sheer venom of what he wrote. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so,” Scalia said. “That resolves these cases. … Since there is no doubt whatever that the People never decided to prohibit the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples, the public debate over same-sex marriage must be allowed to continue. But the Court ends this debate, in an opinion lacking even a thin veneer of law. Buried beneath the mummeries and straining-to-be-memorable passages of the opinion is a candid and startling assertion: No matter what it was the people ratified, the Fourteenth Amendment protects those rights that the Judiciary, in its ‘reasoned judgment,’ thinks the Fourteenth Amendment ought to protect.”
It gets worse. Scalia dismisses the court on which he has sat for nearly three decades as “only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast states. Only one hails from the vast expanse in between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). … But what really astounds us is the hubris reflected in today’s judicial Putsch.” For some reason, any case upholding equality for Queer Americans seems to evoke from Scalia German words used by such defenders of liberty and individual rights as Bismarck and Hitler. When he dissented from Kennedy’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas opinion striking down laws criminalizing sex between same-sex partners, Scalia wrote that the court majority had “mistaken a Kulturkampf [culture war] for a fit of spite.”
And in the final paragraph of his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts seemed bound and determined to match Scalia in sheer snottiness. “If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” Roberts wrote. “Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

“Original Intent” vs. “Living Constitution”

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion answers Roberts’ preposterous charge that the court’s decision has “nothing to do with” the Constitution. “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” he wrote. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”
It’s a debate that’s been going on both in and around the United States Supreme Court virtually since the Court’s first justices were appointed by President George Washington. Scalia’s so-called “original intent” or “originalist” view argues that the court should base its decisions on a strict reading of the actual words written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers and the people who came after them — including John Bingham, the Republican Congressmember from Ohio who was the principal author of the 14th Amendment. Since it’s highly unlikely anyone in the Congress that passed the 14th Amendment, or the states that ratified it, even thought about Queer people as a class (the term “homosexual” as a name for something a person was, rather than for sex acts a person did, wasn’t coined until 1865), much less thought that the 14th Amendment would protect the right of men to marry men and women to marry women, Scalia and his fellow “originalists” said the court was prohibited from construing it that way now.
Kennedy’s opinion is an example of a contrary view of constitutional interpretation called the “Living Constitution.” It argues that as our understanding of the world around us and of our own natures grows and changes, what we think of as fundamental freedoms also must change. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that imposing segregation on African-Americans — forcing them to study in separate schools, eat in separate restaurants, pee in separate bathrooms and travel on separate railroad cars — didn’t violate their right to “equal protection of the laws” as long as the facilities were equal (though in fact they weren’t). In 1954 the Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that this was hogwash, that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” What changed? Our understanding of the impact of racial segregation on the people subjected to it, white as well as Black, and an increase in our overall level of compassion as a society that made segregating African-Americans seem as indefensibly evil as enslaving them.
Not, of course, that this change in understanding and compassion was at all spontaneous. It was well planned for, organized and fought for by activists, white as well as Black, who joined together to challenge the idiotic prejudices behind segregation and push both government and private businesses to treat people equally, regardless of color. Indeed, the most intense period of civil rights activism in U.S. history came in the 10 years between the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling in 1954 and the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in 1964. African-American leaders — including some who distrusted and even hated each other — knew that the Supreme Court had not given them equality. At best it had given them a hunting license for equality; it was up to them to bring down the beast of racism and turn equality from a judicial promise to an on-the-ground reality.

Reality and the “Brandeis Brief”

Closely allied to the idea of the “Living Constitution” is one first propounded by attorney Louis Brandeis, who from 1890 until 1916 (when President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court himself) radically changed the idea of how appellate courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular should handle cases. In addition to being the first attorney to argue that the U.S. Constitution gave people a “right to privacy” — which would later become the heart of Court decisions allowing women to use birth control and abortion — Brandeis said that justices shouldn’t base their decisions on crabbed, restrictive readings of the founding documents. Instead they should look at how their rulings played out in the real world.
A typical “Brandeis brief” — a phrase which entered the legal vocabulary to denote cases presented this way long after Brandeis himself died in 1939 — might have a page or two on his legal theory of the case, and hundreds of pages of social-science research and other hard evidence of how workers’ health and safety, the environment or civil rights would be affected by the Court’s ruling. The fact that the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision is called Obergefell is itself an example of the Brandeis tradition. Though the case the court ruled on was consolidated from four lawsuits, each brought in a state that didn’t permit same-sex couples to marry, James Obergefell was picked as the lead plaintiff because he had the most moving backstory — and the most compelling one in terms of demonstrating the evil of barring same-sex couples from marrying. As Justice Kennedy put it in his opinion:

Petitioner James Obergefell, a plaintiff in the Ohio case, met John Arthur over two decades ago. They fell in love and started a life together, establishing a lasting, committed relation. In 2011, however, Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. This debilitating disease is progressive, with no known cure. Two years ago, Obergefell and Arthur decided to commit to one another, resolving to marry before Arthur died. To fulfill their mutual promise, they traveled from Ohio to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. It was difficult for Arthur to move, and so the couple were wed inside a medical transport plane as it remained on the tarmac in Baltimore. Three months later, Arthur died. Ohio law does not permit Obergefell to be listed as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate. By statute, they must remain strangers even in death, a state-imposed separation Obergefell deems ‘hurtful for the rest of time.’ … He brought suit to be shown as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate.

That’s about as heart-rending a story as you could imagine — and as vivid a justification for ruling that the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of “equal protection under the law” and “due process of the laws” require American states to give legal recognition to the marriages of same-sex couples. Ohio basically said to James Obergefell that he had no legal right to his relationship with John Arthur — not as his husband, and not as his widower either. I think much of the abrupt turnaround in public opinion on marriage equality has come from just such stories: not only the Ohio couple whom the state insisted in separating not only in life but even in death; the Michigan plaintiffs April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, who out of both love and public spirit took children with “special needs” into their home and then found that they could not legally adopt them as a couple; and Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe, who fought for the U.S. in Afghanistan and then found that his husband, Thomas Kostura, whom he’d married in New York before DeKoe was deployed, ceased to be his husband — or any legal relation at all — when they returned to DeKoe’s home state, Tennessee.

A Beginning, Not an End

It’s indicative of how quickly Americans’ attitudes towards same-sex marriage have changed in little over a decade: from 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s ruling for marriage equality became a cause célèbre and the Republicans pushed through state bans on same-sex marriage and called for a Constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman; to 2015, when polls show 62 percent of Americans support marriage equality and Wisconsin Governor (and undeclared Republican Presidential candidate) Scott Walker’s call for a Constitutional amendment banning it sounds very much behind the times. Even I, a long-time activist on this issue as well as part of a married same-sex couple, didn’t realize we’d come so far that on June 26, 2015 only 13 states still banned Gay and Lesbian couples from marrying.
What makes that even more ironic is that on the date the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, in 29 states you can still be denied employment, housing, public accommodations or other civil rights for being Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual, and in 32 states you can still be denied these rights for being Transgender. The Queer community celebrated the lifting of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on Queer people serving openly in the U.S. military — but the ban was only lifted for Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, not Transgender people.
It’s important that Queer people, and especially Queer community leaders and activists, commemorate Obergefell v. Hodges as a beginning, not an end, and that we follow the example of the African-American activists who waged their most intense nonviolent direct-action campaigns for civil rights in the decade after Brown v. Board of Education because they realized (as the feminists who worked so hard for Roe v. Wade in 1973 did not) that U.S. Supreme Court decisions are not self-executing. Not only do court decisions expanding the civil rights of oppressed minorities (or, in the case of women, an oppressed majority) happen only when an activist movement has created the groundwork for them, they take full effect only when activists keep up the pressure and force both government and the private sector to live up to their obligations under the law.

“Bitter-Enders” and Corporate America

There’s another parallel between Obergefell and Brown: the bizarre bitter-ender reaction of state authorities, especially in the South, who seem to think they can evade the Court’s decision by sheer force of will. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas) made a bizarre statement that almost seemed to be a call for treason against the Constitution: “The Supreme Court has spoken with a very divided voice on something only the Supreme Being can do — redefine marriage. I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat. … The only outcome worse than this flawed, failed decision would be for the President and Congress, two co-equal branches of government, to surrender in the face of this out-of-control act of unconstitutional, judicial tyranny.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seemed to be channeling Alabama Governor George Wallace’s defiant attack on the U.S. government in his 1963 inaugural — “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” — when he told all the county clerks, justices of the peace and anyone else involved in his state government’s marriage process that if they didn’t want to marry same-sex couples and had “deeply religious” reasons for their distaste, they didn’t have to. Paxton, who according to a recent Raw Story dispatch ( is facing first-degree felony prosecution for alleged securities law violations, told refusenik clerks that “numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro bono [free] basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”
Of course, there’s the little matter of the oath all public officials in Texas, from county clerks and judges to Ken Paxton himself, have to take to support and defend the U.S. and Texas Constitutions before they can assume — and get paid for — their jobs. But this so-called “moral exemption” is the next step the radical “Christian” Right is pushing to try to blunt the effect of court rulings upholding Queer rights: just because you may have a right to get married, adopt children, buy or rent a home together or do any of the myriad things married couples, straight or Queer, do, doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific person who works for the government is obliged to help you. Legislatures in Indiana and Arizona actually passed bills carving out “moral” exceptions to the civil rights laws so government officials with “deeply religious” objections to homosexuality don’t have to serve Queer people on the same basis as everyone else — but the Arizona bill was vetoed by that state’s Republican governor and the Indiana bill had to be modified because, not progressive advocates, but corporate America rose up against them.
Frankly, that last one scares me. As a long-time democratic socialist, I’m scared when corporations start telling governments what they may and may not do. That’s why, in a week when I was heartened by the Supreme Court’s rulings not only on marriage but the Affordable Care Act as well (John Roberts upheld a badly drafted portion of Obamacare on the basis of a common-sense reading of what the whole bill meant, not a typically crabbed Scalia “originalist” reading of a few words), I was also disgusted by the race-motivated shootings in a Black Sunday school in Charleston, South Carolina and by Congress’s vote to give the president so-called “fast-track” authority to pass “trade” treaties that are really blueprints for a future in which corporations routinely tell governments to what extent they may regulate the economy, the health and safety of workers and consumers, or the environment.
That’s what I meant when I said in my subhead to this article that the week of June 19-26 had been a roller-coaster — so I’m not heartened when companies like Coca-Cola, Maytag, Kellogg’s, Jell-O, Proctor and Gamble, AT&T, Smart Cars and American Airlines attack states that pass “moral exemption” bills and, in some cases, threaten to boycott those states. I’m as scared by that kind of corporate power when it’s being used on behalf of causes I support as I am when it’s used to push causes I oppose, like wantonly polluting the environment, destroying all legal protections for workers and eliminating their right to organize unions.

What We Do Next

So Charles and I move into the bright new world of nationwide marriage equality, joining the U.S. to such traditionally morally conservative nations as Ireland (my father’s ancestral homeland) and Spain. I think we, the Queer community, will do about as good a job with marriage as straight people will have. Some will marry in haste, some will marry for pecuniary instead of romantic reasons, some will marry on whims and divorce almost as fast — and some will form beautiful, enduring relationships.
One thing I hope — and this is a concern that kept me from fully embracing the marriage equality movement for some years — is that we won’t attach the same kind of social opprobrium to Gay and Lesbian people who choose not to marry that straight people who choose not to marry have had to deal with for many years. If people don’t want to form long-term committed romantic relationships — or if they do, but they choose to do without the benefits of marriage, social as well as financial — that’s their business. I still remember New York comedienne Fran Lebowitz joking decades ago that the only people left in the U.S. who wanted to join the military and get married were Queers!
What do we, as a people, as a community, as activists, do next? One thing is to start taking more seriously the idea that we are indeed a community not just of Gay men and Lesbians, but of Bisexual and Transgender people as well. Transgender people have been stuck 30 years behind the social progress made by Gays and Lesbians; they’re still routinely bullied at school, bashed both by criminals and police, discriminated against in housing and employment, made miserable on a day-to-day basis by social prejudice and, all too often, killed just for being who they are. And Bisexual people suffer shameful levels of stigma not only from straight but Queer America — see James Dawson’s commentary, “Gay Men and Biphobia: It’s Real and It Needs to Stop” ( for an especially good commentary on the persistence of anti-Bi prejudice among Gays and Lesbians as well as heterosexuals.
Indeed, one of my personal prejudices against “LGBT” as a designation of our community (aside from its ugliness) is that instead of re-examining some of our foundational assumptions about who Queer people are and how they come to be that way, we simply stuck the letters “B” and “T” on the end of all our organization names without looking at how the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people challenges the essentialist “born this way” idea of sexual orientation and gender identity. Even Justice Kennedy fell for that one when he wrote in his opinion about the “immutable nature” of Queer people, which “dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”
I don’t for a moment believe that the reason people should be able to marry others of their own biological (or psychological) gender is that they couldn’t be happy with an opposite-gender partner. All too many Queer people, including me, have lived in reasonably happy long-term relationships with members of the opposite sex, and if it’s possible and legitimate for someone to have a long-term relationship with an opposite-sex partner and then end it amicably because he has realized he’s Gay, or she that she’s Lesbian, why can’t the opposite happen? Why can’t a person who’s lived for years with a same-sex partner meet, fall in love with, and seek to be with — and to marry — an opposite-gender partner instead?
Some of the tasks that remain for the Queer movement include winning the same basic protections the 1964 Civil Rights Act established for other socially oppressed groups — which is what the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would do. Some of our unfinished agenda includes reaching out to, and fully signing onto the struggles of, our Bisexual and Transgender brethren and sistren (and anything-in-betweeneren). Some of the tasks involve broadening our own understandings of ourselves and each other, and being more compassionate not only to the straight majority but to our own. Now that we have been entrusted not only with the rights of marriage but also its responsibilities, we need to be as good as we can be in making our own marriages work, and at the same time acknowledging that marriage equality also means marital diversity and not all married Queer couples are going to look like a same-sex version of a 1950’s sitcom.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Transgender Activist Maddocks Speaks to Queer Democrats

How California’s Landmark School Protection Bill Isn’t Being Implemented


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Connor Maddocks

Transgender people may seem “all the rage” today after Caitlyn (nèe Bruce) Jenner’s media blitz on ABC and her stunning Annie Leibovitz cover photo on Vanity Fair, but they and their issues are old news to veteran Trans activists like Connor Maddocks. Maddocks, coordinator of Transgender services at the San Diego LGBT Community Center,  spoke to the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality in Hillcrest May 28 and talked about how far Trans people have come in their struggle for equality — but also how far they still have to go, especially in making sure landmark laws like AB 1266, a bill to protect Transgender public-school students passed in 2013 by the California legislature, actually get implemented.
“When I first transitioned in 2003, there was very little [legislation] on the books in California for the Transgender community — yet California was still ahead of most states,” Maddocks recalled. “We had in place a process to change our names and gender markers on our drivers’ licenses. Most states wouldn’t do that 10 to 12 years ago. Then there was kind of a lull in which not much happened, until the Transgender community started to join together. With the Internet, people became more outspoken and less afraid to be ‘out’ as Trans. Our community built enough momentum to become our own powerful little force all across America.”
One issue Maddocks remembered that kept a lot of Trans people in the closet was the legal requirement that in order to have your name changed legally — which you needed to do to have other documents like birth certificates and drivers’ licenses altered to reflect your correct gender identity — you had to have your name and address published in a newspaper. That, he explained discouraged a lot of Trans people from having their legal ID’s changed — which meant they could be harassed or even arrested if they were stopped and their ID’s didn’t match the names they were using or the gender they were presenting. Maddocks said the Trans community’s first legislative priority when he became active in it was to have the law changed so you could do a legal name change without having to “out” yourself in public print.
“The next big one was AB 1266, which means all public-school students can go to school and be themselves,” Maddocks said. “If they identify as male, they can use the men’s room, use the male locker room and join the male sports teams.” It was the prospect of Trans-identifed students using the “wrong” restrooms that particularly incensed opponents, including many of the same radical religious-Right groups that had put Proposition 8 on the ballot in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage in California. “They tried to get it on the ballot and repeal it” with a referendum, Maddocks said. But they fell short of the number of petition signatures required, and the Trans community and its allies heaved a collective sigh of relief.
But, as Maddocks told the Democrats for Equality, just having AB 1266 on the books doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being enforced. The law left it up to each local school district to pass policies to implement the new law — and, Maddocks said, San Diego is lagging behind Los Angeles in putting the policies in place to make sure Trans students actually benefit from the law. “The San Diego Unified School District is dragging their feet,” Maddocks said. “Our kids are being bullied and harassed by teachers. I have got letters from kids who said their teachers have mis-gendered them on purpose and stood by while other kids bullied them.” Maddocks said the district has had a “Safer Schools Task Force” in place for four years, but “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Despite the advances — at least on paper — in securing protection for Transgender people, Maddocks said the community continues to lose people to bullying and hatred. “We lost a Transgender teen to suicide three weeks ago, and part of it was being bullied online,” he explained. “We can’t let our kids continue to be bullied. Passing a law is not enough; we need to see policies implemented at every grade level. It comes down to the individual districts. The state passed the law but there wasn’t a timeline on how soon they had to pass these policies.” According to Maddocks, the California School Boards Association adopted a model policy in February 2014, available online at, which any school board in the state could adopt — but many districts are dragging their feet.
Veteran San Diego Queer attorney and activist Rob DeKoven called for legislation to make it illegal for teachers to bully students. He said State Senator Ricardo Lara  (D-Long Beach) has actually introduced a bill to do that, but it’s been blocked by the California Teachers’ Association, which doesn’t want to set a precedent that teachers can be punished legally for anything they say or do on campus. According to DeKoven, a number of legislators who would ordinarily support a law to protect the Queer or Trans communities have backed away from Lara’s bill because they don’t want to go against organized labor. Another audience member asked Maddocks why it was so difficult to get a policy out of the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) when all five board members are Democrats and the board president, Kevin Beiser, is Gay.
“It’s not like nothing has been done at SDUSD, but there are many schools that still have far to go,” Maddocks explained. He conceded it’s even worse at other districts — including Fallbrook, where a Transgender student committed suicide and a delegation of students went to the school principal and said he hadn’t done enough to stop the bullying.
Former San Diego County Democratic Party chair and San Diego Democrats for Equality president Jess Durfee warned that there still could be a campaign to overturn AB 1266 at the ballot box. He said the reason it failed before was “they tried to put it on the next ballot after the 2012 Presidential election and they needed 505,000 valid signatures.” Since the number of signatures required is based on a percentage of the vote in the last general election, Durfee said, “now it’s only 350,000” after the low-turnout November 2014 election. “The bar is much lower, they’ve got the names from last time, and they’ll probably get the number of signatures they need to put it on the ballot in 2016.”
“SDUSD does have policies in place to protect Transgender students,” said Susan Guinn, who ran unsuccessfully for county clerk/recorder in 2014 and was elected the club’s vice-president for political action at the meeting where Maddocks spoke. “They’re the first district in the county to take the Athlete Ally Pledge,” available at, which requires its signers “to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
According to Guinn, Torrey Pines High School was “notorious for bullying” when its Gay-Straight Alliance “created a ‘Rainbow Week’” and brought out Athlete Ally founder and executive director Hudson Taylor to speak on campus. “SDUSD is responsive and wants to work on these issues.”
But Rob DeKoven pointed out that there are limits to what even the best-intentioned school district can do to teachers and athletic coaches who either ignore or openly defy the law. “The teachers and coaches who are doing this are tenured,” he explained. “If we push the principals, they’ll say we’re attacking their free speech.” DeKoven also said the solution to the bathroom issue is to make all school restrooms gender-neutral — an idea that drew shocked gasps from many people in the audience, especially women, who thought it was going too far.
“They’re doing [gender-neutral restrooms] in Europe, and having great success,” Maddocks said. “Our bathroom issues are really big. There’s a group trying to pass a bathroom bill in California that people would have to use the bathroom for the gender on their birth certificate, and if they find a Transgender person using the ‘wrong’ bathroom in a state-owned building, there will be a minimum $4,000 fine. It’s a crazy law, but crazy laws sometimes pass. It’s something to keep on the radar. There are some very butch women in the Lesbian community that are often mistaken for male, and they’ve been hassled when they’ve used the women’s room.”
Asked by DeKoven where students can go to complain when they’re being bullied for being Transgender, Maddocks said, “My parents and I are compiling a list of really good schools, including some charters. Hi-Tech High [in San Diego and Chula Vista] is doing great things for our community. There was a kid who was being bullied in sixth grade, and eight days later I and a group were giving them a hug.”

Friday, May 29, 2015

Review of PBS “Frontline” show “Obama at War," May 26, 2015

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Tuesday night, May 26, PBS showed a Frontline documentary called “Obama at War,” the title itself being an oxymoron of sorts because the portrait they painted of President Obama was basically that of a wimp who doesn’t want to get the U.S. involved in any more wars over the Middle East, particularly having troops on the ground in places like Syria that don’t have that much discernible importance to the U.S.’s national interest. The title was a calculated bit of irony, obviously evoking the name of Bob Woodward’s first book about the George W. Bush administration, Bush at War, and the extent to which “national security” issues and particularly the hysterical response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks came to define the second Bush presidency (and incidentally almost certainly saved him from the one-term fate that befell his father). Obama, as is well known, won the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008 to a large degree because he was, and apparently always had been, against Bush II’s ridiculous and counterproductive invasion of Iraq in 2003, whereas his principal rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, had been a sitting Senator when the war was being debated and had voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to make the attack. Though the collapse of the U.S. economy probably had more to do with Obama’s ultimate victory in the 2008 general election than his stand on foreign policy in general and Iraq in particular (John McCain was actually catching up to him until the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 reversed the trends in the polls almost overnight and gave Obama his victory margin), Obama still took office with the self-image of someone who gets his country out of wars, not into them — and even when he has escalated he’s tried to do so “on the cheap,” getting other countries to contribute. Indeed, under Obama the U.S.’s principal tactic against real or alleged terrorists has become the air strike with drones, which has the obvious political advantage of not putting any U.S. servicemembers directly at risk — though given how much more sloppily the drones have been targeted than the hype surrounding them suggests (including wiping out an entire wedding party in Pakistan) it seems highly likely there will be “collateral damage” from them as terror organizations find new recruits among the surviving relatives of civilians killed by drone strikes and engage them to mount terrorist attacks against Americans, either here or (more likely) abroad.

What was most amazing about “Obama at War” is that, despite all the hype from the Right that regards PBS as just another part of the “liberal media Establishment” they regularly denounce, the attitude the show takes towards the Obama administration almost exactly lines up with the Republican propaganda line denouncing Obama as a dangerous wimp whose actions, or rather non-actions — failing to keep a U.S. military presence on the ground in Iraq and failing to intervene on behalf of the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria (whose existence was actually a collective fantasy on the part of the U.S. military-industrial establishment — there are basically two sides in the Syrian civil war, the Bashir al-Assad government and the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, including but not limited to ISIS, and to the extent that there are fighters who aren’t aligned with either of those camps, there are so few of them they are basically irrelevant; indeed, the show itself notes that the so-called “moderate rebels” are abandoning the struggle altogether, I suspect because they know that they are likely to be executed either by the al-Assad government if it survives or by ISIS if it takes over, and they figure quitting altogether is the best hope they have to live through the outcome, whichever of those it is) — basically created ISIS and allowed it to survive, thrive and take over cities like Mosul and Ramadi the U.S. already laid down a lot of blood and treasure to capture in the first place in the 2003-2011 war. One of the most interesting exchanges in the program was this one, regarding the pull-back from Obama’s “red-line” position that he’d launch air strikes against the Assad government if it used chemical weapons against its citizens to the position that he’d accept a proposal from the government of Russia (i.e., president Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister) to broker a peace deal in which the Syrian government would turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in exchange for not being attacked by the Americans:

DEREK CHOLLET, Asst. Sec. of Defense, 2012-15: It was the right decision. Had we conducted the military campaign that had been planned, we would not have taken out a high percentage of his chemical weapons. The credible threat of force brought about an opening for diplomacy to come in, which then led to something that no one thought was possible.

AMR AL-AZM, Syrian Opposition: No. I think it was a terrible, terrible error on the part of this administration. I mean, it’s not just a red line. This is the president of the United States, this is the White House, and a tinpot dictator challenges that and gets away with it? Who’s going to believe you next time?

Yet at the same time, the show acknowledged towards its end that there aren’t really any good options on how to deal with ISIS. The irony is that ISIS has gripped the world of Sunni Islam like the proverbial prairie fire, catching the imagination of hundreds of thousands of potential recruits. I’ve noted the irony of President Obama saying recently that as part of his strategy against ISIS he wants to recruit and help train a new Iraqi army, which will fight … the last Iraqi army the U.S. trained, whose Sunni members have deserted en masse and joined ISIS, giving the guerrilla group (and ISIS is really much more a guerrilla group than an al-Qaeda style terror organization — indeed, it was precisely over the issue of whether the way to bring about the revival of the Islamic caliphate was to stage spectacular 9/11-style attacks in foreign countries or to take and hold territory in Muslim-majority states that ISIS broke from al-Qaeda in the first place) the backbone of its fighting power just as its success in holding oil-producing regions of Iraq has given it its financial clout. There doesn’t seem to be any good way for the U.S. to counter ISIS; trying to create puppet states in the region to limit its influence (as the U.S. did with Iran from 1953 to 1979 and with Iraq from 2003 to 2011) hasn’t worked; drone strikes have created havoc but haven’t harmed ISIS long-term because their “bench” is strong enough they can easily replace anyone we kill; and while I suspect the fooforaw about ISIS allegedly using social media to recruit terrorists worldwide is largely propaganda bunk, it’s true they’ve been able to turn up people in surprising locations even though most of the people who are claiming allegiance to ISIS and citing it as a motivation for terrorist idiocies like the attempted attack on an anti-Muslim rally in Garland, Texas probably have no more to do with ISIS than I do. ISIS is going to be a headache for the U.S. for years, and is probably going to get a lot stronger before it gets weaker (and the example of Iran, where a Fundamentalist Islamic government has kept a stranglehold on power for 36 years and shows no signs of letting up despite an increasingly restive population, many of whom — particularly their younger people — want to break free of Islamic restrictions and be part of the same world as the relatively cosmopolitan West, doesn’t encourage the thought that ISIS’s excesses, especially where it actually rules, will provoke a successful revolution against it) — and neither claiming that Obama hasn’t been “tough” enough (I’m convinced the next President, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or a Republican, will put U.S. troops in the ground in yet another ill-starred campaign in the Middle East, this one with the avowed purpose of defeating ISIS) nor continually blaming the Bush administration for the mess (yes, they made the mess, but it’s still the responsibility of America’s future leaders to clean it up) is going to be much help.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Over 2,000 March and Rally in San Diego for $15 Minimum Wage

SDSU Event One of 230 in a Nationwide Mobilization April 15


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Teachers and Students United

Rev. Cornelius Bowser and Mark Jones

Rallying the Crowd

Upside-Down Sign

United Domestic Workers

Clapper and Fist in the Air

Lyrical Groove hip-hop band opened the program

In All Languages

Fight for $15 for All

Richard Barrera (center)

Rev. Beth Hansen (center)

Taking It to the Streets

Reclaiming SDSU for Justice

April 15, 2015 was more than just the day federal and state income taxes were due. A nationwide mobilization bringing together labor unions, faith-based groups, civil-rights organizations for people of color, and student and teacher groups staged actions in 230 U.S. cities to highlight the growing inequality of wealth and income in this country and propose a $15 per hour minimum wage as one part of a solution. Various events were held throughout San Diego, including an informal march through North Park at 7:30 a.m., but the big rally and march were scheduled for 4 p.m. at the vast plaza that serves as the entrance to San Diego State University (SDSU).
Organizers of the SDSU event put together an unusual rally program. Instead of inviting elected officials and prominent community leaders, they used ordinary workers to tell their tales of how hard it is to live on today’s wages. Richard Barrera, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Federation, led off the program, but he was virtually the only traditional “community leader” on it.
Barrera explained that the “Fight for 15” movement being pushed at the rally began with the heroic struggles of workers at fast-food restaurants, many of whom lost income and put their jobs at risk by picketing their employers during business hours demanding minimum-wage increases. “These courageous fast-food workers are now joined by the United Domestic Workers (UDW), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), janitors, laborers, construction workers and people all over the labor movement. Our message — the fight for a living wage and to organize and join a union — is a struggle the public supports.” Barrera called the “Fight for 15” movement “the rebirth of the labor movement, the middle class and democracy.”
“All my life, I thought if I worked hard I’d get what I worked for,” said Sarah Martin, adjunct professor of English at San Diego City College. “I went to college, got a master’s degree and accumulated $60,000 in student loans, but there just aren’t that many jobs for teachers.” Martin said that 25 percent of adjunct professors — who not only get paid considerably less per class unit they teach but don’t have tenure or any other guarantees of job security — “are enrolled in at least one public-assistance program.”
Another professor, Alberto Macias, said he has to have three jobs to make ends meet: a part-time lecturer at SDSU, an adjunct at City College and a staff position at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. He said his pay at SDSU is $63 per hour — but only for 10 hours per month, no matter how much time he actually puts in at his job. He linked his own struggle to the decline of the percentage of American workers in unions, which was 20 percent 20 years ago and is now just 11 percent. “The union jobs have left the country,” he said.
According to Macias, universities are doing major cost-shifting that’s harming both teachers and students. “More universities and colleges are taxing students with the bill for their education,” he explained. “Education should not be for sale. It’s a fundamental right. Especially in the U.S., with the greatest accumulation of wealth in the world, education should be free.” Macias said the U.S. could easily afford to fund a college education for all students who could benefit from one if it cut back its defense budget and abandoned its imperialist agenda overseas.
Macias was followed by Jeanette Corona, an SDSU senior who talked about her own struggles to survive and stay in school. “We need to raise wages, roll back fees and end student poverty,” she said. “I’ve struggled with my housing. I’ve had to manage my bank account very carefully because I don’t know how I’m going to get food the next day. I’ve been told it’s all my fault, that I should just take out another student loan. I don’t want another loan; I want everyone who’s been humiliated and shushed to stand up. Education is a right, not a privilege.”
“I’m 22 years old, an undocumented immigrant, Chicano and Queer,” said another SDSU student, Jesus Daniel Mandel Carvajal. “The issue is larger than us. Students are exploited daily and have to take one, two, even three low-wage jobs to survive. I don’t just want to survive; I want to thrive.” Carvajal said he spoke for “folks who don’t have access to health care and have to take pill after pill to cope with their headaches, heartaches and soulaches; folks who can’t afford good food and have to resort to 99-cent noodles. We must hold this university and others like it accountable to providing job protections and living wages.”
The program also featured people in more traditional “working-class” jobs, including janitors Ricardo Cortez and Rosa Lopez. “I live paycheck by paycheck, and that’s not making it for me,” said Cortez, a member of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU). “We as union members need to stand up and fight.”
“Everyone who works hard deserves to make a good wage and be treated with respect,” said Lopez, who like Cortez is a janitor represented by SEIU. “I work 365 days a year. I can’t afford to miss a day. I have to decide what bills to pay. I go to school, work seven days a week and take care of my family. That makes this work really hard.”
Contrary to the stereotype many people have that the only workers making minimum wage are young people just entering the labor force, the rally presented single parents — both women and men — who are trying to support their families on minimum-wage jobs.
“I have three children, and the money I make is just not enough,” said hotel worker Joanne Corona. “It’s a very hard, difficult job. They pay us every two weeks and give us barely enough to make the rent. We still have other bills, including gas, food and clothes. Our children ask for recreation that we can’t afford to give them. I am a single mother because the Border Patrol assassinated my husband. Sometimes I have to leave my children alone at home because I can’t afford day care. That’s why I’m in unity with you. We need a dignified salary because it is a heavy workload.”
“I’m a single dad with three children,” said Armando Teyes. “I’m a veteran. Many of us have been deployed and come back unemployed and homeless. We are protecting our rights in this community. Many veterans may not know it’s important to continue the fight.”
Among the most aggressive supporters of “Fight for 15” are the in-home caregivers for people with disabilities. They are represented by the United Domestic Workers (UDW), a strong participant in the “Fight for 15” coalition. [Full disclosure: this author is an in-home caregiver under the public In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program and makes $9.85 per hour taking care of three clients.]
“I’ve been a proud member of the union since 2012,” said Victoria Lara. “Before that I was a food worker, so this fight really hits home for me. You work hard and are paid so little because they can get away with it. I get $9.85 per hour for three clients, including a quadraplegic. Don’t we all deserve dignity? Yes, we do. Today I am proud to stand with all workers. We will tell the corporate CEO’s, lawmakers and university officials we will continue to fight for a union for all workers.”
Doug Moore, executive director of the San Diego local of the UDW, also spoke. “Home-care providers make an average of $10 per hour,” he explained. “We’ve been in negotiations with the County of San Diego for two years for us to get a 25-cent raise. Rallies are good, but we need to make broad changes that will take control of this country and take our democracy back.”
Mark Jones, president of the Black Students’ Coalition at SDSU, made the connection between Martin Luther King’s well-known commitment to civil rights for African-Americans and his much less-known work for economic equality and labor rights. (When King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968, he was there to support a strike by municipal garbage workers against the city.) “As Martin Luther King realized, you cannot have social justice without economic justice,” Jones said. “Social and economic justice are the same thing to me.”
The faith community was represented by Reverend Beth Hansen of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (IFCWJ) and Pastor Cornelius Bowser of Charity Apostolic Church in Santee. “You are not alone,” said Rev. Hansen. “Faith communities stand with you. Clergy stand with you. We are fighting together because this is a struggle for all of us. This is a wave that will not stop because it is a struggle for justice. The stories we’ve told today are accounts of the battle for justice. Everyone who works should be able to live with dignity. No one should be forced to live in their cars.” Rev. Hansen said she’d already committed civil disobedience last September to awaken the consciences of corporate officials, and promised she’d do more.
“In 19 years as a pastor, I’ve seen people doing two or three jobs and not being able to participate in the community,” said Rev. Bowser. “A low-wage worker is like a man in water up to his nose. If anything happens, they will drown. I’m proud to be with all of you to stand and fight for $15. Low-wage jobs and irregular work schedules hurt our families. Parents can’t participate in their children’s lives. In my church I have a parent of two children who works at a fast-food restaurant, and after nine years she still makes barely more than minimum wage. She needs a roommate to survive.”
After Carvajal’s presentation — which he billed as a “poem/speech” — the organizers led the crowd on a march through the SDSU campus and onto the streets. The mood was determined, and the sight of wave after wave of people — many of them dressed in purple, blue, green or red shirts with the logos of the organizations they were in — pouring through SDSU’s hallways and under arches emblazoned with the names of 1-percenters who’d donated to the university was inspiring. After the march toured the campus, it hit College Avenue and poured into the streets. Though attendance at the 4 p.m. start of the rally had been sparse, enough people joined it in progress that by the time the group was ready to march, over 2,000 people were on hand to support a $15 per hour minimum wage and basic justice for working people.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Class War in San Diego?

Councilmember Gloria Attacks Business Community’s Use of Referenda to Reverse Progressive City Legislation


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria

Out of all the issues facing San Diego — ensuring livable incomes and affordable housing, fixing the city’s infrastructure, restoring cuts in city services, expanding the Convention Center, keeping (or not keeping) the San Diego Chargers in town — City Councilmember Todd Gloria named “reforming the referendum” as the most important political concern when he spoke March 26 at the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality in Hillcrest. He admitted that to most of his audiences, this is pretty much insider baseball — “mostly when I talk about this issue, the group is pretty uninitiated,” he said — but he stressed that the achievements of the hard-won Democratic City Council majority are at risk from Right-wing business interests who can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on referendum campaigns to get them reversed.
The referendum is the flip side of the coin from the initiative, which far more Californians are familiar with because it’s the source of the long lists of propositions that frequently clutter up the state’s ballots. The initiative allows citizens to write their own laws, overriding elected legislatures, if they can get enough signatures to put them on the ballot and get a majority of voters to cast ballots for them. The referendum allows voters to overturn a law already passed by a legislature. If the referendum organizers get enough signatures to put a law on the ballot, the legislature that passed the law in the first place has two options. Either they can repeal it themselves, or they can put it before voters — and if the voters choose to override their representatives’ decision, out it goes.
Along with the recall — the ability of voters to circulate a petition to get rid of a sitting elected official and have another election to replace them — the referendum and initiative were originally added to the California state constitution as part of Hiram Johnson’s reform movement in 1912. Back then, they were sold as ways for citizens to attack the power of well-financed special interests in general, and the Southern Pacific Railroad in particular, to control the political process through campaign contributions. But Gloria and other opponents of the referendum argue that this original purpose has been turned on its head; now, most of the referenda being pushed in San Diego and elsewhere in California are being pushed by big corporations and developers to reverse progressive legislation that might cost them money.
“It really reflects a lot of what Senator [Elizabeth] Warren and others are talking about,” Gloria told the Democrats for Equality. “It’s really a separate set of rules for wealthy folks. We’ve seen that in the tax code and in various different things, but to see it in our democracy that if you cannot get the outcome you want through the normal legislative process, if you have a couple of hundred thousand dollars, you can purchase the result you’re looking for.”

A Tool for the 1 Percent

The transformation of the referendum and initiative from tools to control the 1 percent to strategies used by the 1 percent has been going on for decades, especially as getting measures on the ballot has itself become a major business — and a source of quick money for homeless and other economically marginalized people, who can circulate petitions and make from $2 to $12 for everyone they get to sign. But the current spate of corporate referenda in San Diego really began in November 2010, when a Democratic-majority City Council passed a law aimed at controlling the expansion of Walmart and other large big-box stores. Fearful that Walmart would crush local businesses and damage the city’s economy, the Council overrode Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders’ veto of a bill that would require an “economic impact review,” as well as an environmental impact review, before the Council could approve such stores.
Walmart reacted with both barrels blazing. According to Gloria, who wrote the economic-impact law, they spent up to $2 million to circulate a referendum to put it on the ballot. “At the time,” Gloria told the Democrats for Equality, “the city’s ordinance said the election had to be called within 90 days” of the County Registrar of Voters’ certification that the referendum had enough valid signatures to qualify. With no regular city election scheduled for 2011, the cash-strapped city would have had to spend $3.4 million just to have an election on Walmart’s referendum. So Gloria joined seven other Councilmembers and voted to repeal his own ordinance because “there was no way I could justify spending that kind of money” on a special election, especially a low-turnout one in which Walmart could vastly outspend the ordinance’s supporters, appeal to more conservative voters and likely win anyway.
At the time, Walmart’s local opponents in the small-business community and organized labor were hopeful that their problems would be solved at the state level. Then-State Senator Juan Vargas, a former San Diego City Councilmember, pledged to introduce a bill that would impose the economic impact review requirement on big-box superstores statewide. He got it through both houses of the legislature, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it — and Walmart began building superstores all across California, including one in Sherman Heights that wiped out an historic farmers’ market and caused a number of small businesses in the neighborhood to close even before Walmart moved in, so sure were they that the giant chain would destroy them financially.
Walmart’s success in getting the city to back down from an ordinance that would have put the brakes on their expansion plans in San Diego led other businesses to copy the strategy. Jerry Sanders, the Republican mayor who had vetoed the economic-impact bill in the first place, was hired as president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce after he was termed out of the mayoralty, and under him the Chamber became aggressive at using referenda to impose their will on the city and thwart the efforts of a Democratic Council to hold businesses accountable.
In the face of referenda, the Council bailed on at least two other pieces of legislation, one to raise the fees developers are required to pay the city to fund affordable-housing programs and one to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries. The latter backfired on the dispensaries, Gloria told the Democrats for Equality. “It hurt patients,” he said, because the Council ultimately passed “a more restrictive ordinance” than the one the dispensaries had challenged by referendum.

Barrio Logan Loses Its Plan

But, according to Gloria, the issue that most vividly showed how the referendum has become a tool of “the wealthy versus those who are not” was the battle over the Barrio Logan Community Plan in 2014. “We spent millions of dollars and years updating the community plan for Barrio Logan,” Gloria told the Democrats for Equality.”All of that just went up in smoke when you basically had three defense contractors decide that it wasn’t to their benefit. So they were able to purchase the result they weren’t able to get from the City Council. … They spent money and got signatures telling people a whole bunch of lies, like about how the Navy was going to leave San Diego.”
Gloria, who was serving as interim mayor at the time following the resignation of Bob Filner, brought the Secretary of the Navy to assure voters that the Navy wasn’t going to abandon San Diego if the Barrio Logan Community Plan was passed. Supporters of the plan went to court to stop the referendum organizers from having their signature gatherers lie to voters to get them to sign — and the judge ruled that they indeed had lied, but they had a constitutionally protected right to do so and so the referendum qualified for the ballot. In the June 2014 election, voters overwhelmingly rejected the Barrio Logan Community Plan on the basis of a six-figure TV ad campaign that repeated all the lies the referendum supporters had told to get the petition on the ballot.
“It really just comes down to money,” Gloria told the Democrats for Equality. “If you have enough money, you can get this other result. People talk about ‘this is about the citizens having the right to petition the government,’ and I just say, ‘Baloney.’ If the roles were reversed, does anyone in this room seriously believe that the residents of Barrio Logan could marshal the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to overturn the City Council’s action? No, of course they couldn’t. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen time and time again.”
The next referendum campaign to get on the ballot in San Diego is to repeal the proposal Gloria pushed through the City Council when he was its president to raise San Diego’s minimum wage to $11.50 per hour. The original proposal was for a $15 per hour wage, but that got talked down first to $13.09 and then to $11.50 after owners of small businesses — real small businesses — convinced Gloria they couldn’t support $13.09 but would be O.K. with $11.50. This time, however, the plan ran afoul of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, which organized a political action committee called the “Small Business Coalition” to sponsor a petition drive to qualify a referendum to stop the minimum wage increase.
What the Councilmembers and public supporters of the minimum wage increase didn’t know until after the referendum qualified was that the so-called “Small Business Coalition” had only two bona fide small businesses among its members. “The rest were the big hotels, the National Restaurant Association, the National Franchisees’ Association,” Gloria told the Democrats for Equality. “Big lobbying groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to delay the minimum wage. What I thought was really ironic was that we got reports that they were paying up to $12 a signature to defeat a $11.50 per hour minimum wage. I mean, this is insane. But they’re business folks, right? Ultimately they looked at it and made a business decision that it would cost them more actually to increase the minimum wage than to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars to delay it.”
The not-so-small businesses in the “Small Business Coalition” have already delayed the minimum wage increase until June 2016, when it goes on the ballot, and it’s anybody’s guess whether San Diegans, faced with a major TV and direct-mail ad blitz and with a history of economic conservatism at the ballot box, will vote for it. Meanwhile, as veteran San Diego political reporter Matt Potter wrote in the April 1 Reader (, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce has quietly put the “Small Business Coalition” out of business now that it has served its purpose.

When Elephants Fight …

Meanwhile, San Diego is seeing another no-holds-barred referendum fight over a planned development in Carmel Valley called One Paseo that has the distinction of having big-money interests on both sides. The developer of One Paseo was a company called Kilroy Realty Corporation, and once their plan got through the City Council on a 7-2 vote (with Gloria one of the Councilmembers who voted for it), a supposedly grass-roots organization called “Protect San Diego’s Neighborhoods” arose to start a referendum petition to block its construction. Only it turned out that “Protect San Diego’s Neighborhoods” was largely funded by Donahue Schriber, a rival developer who owns a shopping center next to One Paseo and developable land nearby.
Schriber, worried that his land would be less valuable if One Paseo were built, launched a referendum drive and got current City Council President Sherri Lightner, San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts, and San Diego Community Planners Committee chair Joe LaCava to appear at the press conference announcing the campaign. Once the “Protect San Diego’s Neighborhoods” signature gatherers hit the streets, however, Kilroy fought back. They launched an advisory petition to support keeping the San Diego Chargers in town, allegedly to hire so many signature gatherers that the anti-One Paseo forces couldn’t find people to circulate their own petition. Kilroy also sent out 27,000 postcards to people who’d signed the anti-One Paseo petition asking them to take back their signatures.
The anti-One Paseo referendum is currently before the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, whose staff have the unenviable task of figuring out not only how many signatures are invalid for the normal reasons (like people not being registered to vote at all, or not being residents of the city of San Diego) but also how many people who signed the petition originally used Kilroy’s postcards to take their names off. This rare spectacle of seeing big-money interests on both sides of a referendum campaign recalls the ancient proverb, “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” It also puts the two most prominent Gay male elected officials in San Diego, Todd Gloria and Dave Roberts, on opposite sides.
Gloria’s proposals to reform the referendum process are modest, largely because most of the rules regarding referenda are set by the state constitution. “But there are two things we could do locally that I think would be really meaningful,” he told the Democrats for Equality. “Number one is with regard to disclosure. … As candidates for elective office, we have to disclose who’s contributing to our campaigns. Towards the ends of our campaigns those disclosures have to be on a 24-hour basis.” Gloria said “the same rule should prevail” for referendum campaigns, especially since they only have 30 days to collect the estimated 33,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot.
“At least give the citizens the information,” Gloria told the Democrats for Equality. “You can choose to sign it or not, but if you’re being told that this is being sponsored by small businesses when it’s really just Fortune 500 companies and big corporate CEO’s, maybe that would make a difference in the decision-making process of those who are asked in front of Trader Joe’s or Ralph’s to sign this.”
Another change Gloria would like to see in the referendum process is to allow the elected officials whose decisions are being challenged by referendum to be in the room at the Registrar of Voters’ offices when the signatures are being validated. “Currently, only the people who are proponents of a referendum can be in the room,” Gloria explained. “I’m not allowed to be in that room to say, ‘That signature does not match the voter record. I challenge that one.’ There’s no one there on the opponents’ side to represent that point of view. I don’t think that’s fair; I don’t think that’s right. We need to change that.”

SDG&E Encourages Climate Change

Gloria fielded audience questions on various other issues facing the city, from the huge gap between the need to fix its infrastructure and the money available — “at least $3 billion, probably more like $5 billion … far larger than the pension debt,” Gloria explained — to the prospects for a new Chargers stadium (the current proposal, he said, is for a $1.4 billion stadium of which the Chargers and the National Football League are committed to only $200 million each, leaving a $1 billion shortfall they’re expecting the public to pay), the status of the Balboa Park Centennial and the condition of the park’s rose garden.
But the issue that most engaged him besides the referendum was yet another case of a giant corporation trying to sabotage one of the progressive issues Gloria pushed through the City Council when he was its president. That was the city’s historic plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and other sources of human-caused climate change. This time the culprit is San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), whose new proposal to restructure electric rates would actually penalize people for using less energy.
Currently, Gloria explained, “SDG&E has four different tiers of charges. The lower your tier, the less you pay. If you have your lights on all the time, you pay more; that’s tier 4. They’re arguing to collapse it into two tiers instead of four, and make it so there’s not as much differential between the two tiers.” What’s more, Gloria said, SDG&E also wants to impose a flat “base fee” of $5, later raised to $10 (“and if you believe it stays at $10 I’ve got some beautiful properties somewhere in Florida to sell you,” Gloria joked), on all customers, no matter how much they use.
“Pretty much everyone in my Council district will end up paying more,” Gloria said, “because we have smaller homes, we’re closer to the coastline, and most of our homes aren’t particularly air-conditioned.” He added that when he asked an SDG&E representative what the impact would be in his district, the SDG&E rep said “roughly 70 percent of my constituents in Old Town are in tier 1” — and therefore they’d be hit by the “base fee” and the higher rates from collapsing the tiers. What’s more, the SDG&E rep couldn’t or wouldn’t give him a straight answer when Gloria asked just what that arbitrary “base fee” was for.
SDG&E’s rate proposal now goes before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which is supposed to regulate utility rates but over the last two decades — especially since the appointment of former Southern California Edison (SCE) CEO Michael Peevey as its head — has acquired a reputation as a rubber-stamp for whatever utilities want to charge. The CPUC is currently in a state of flux as Peevey resigned following allegations that he received favors from utility executives.
Gloria tried to get the City Council to approve a resolution not only asking the CPUC to vote down SDG&E’s rate proposal but to ask SDG&E themselves to withdraw it. He had Council support for the resolution to the CPUC, but several Councilmembers balked at the idea of a government agency actually making a request to a private corporation to change a business decision. The Council passed the watered-down version 7-2, but Gloria and former Mayoral candidate David Alvarez voted against it because they didn’t think it went far enough.
“I don’t understand how this was substantive,” Gloria told the Democrats for Equality. “I don’t understand why we couldn’t ask SDG&E, our franchisee — we provide them a franchise to do this in our city — to ask them that. I didn’t see any harm in doing that, and I still do the head-scratcher as to why that happened.”