Thursday, December 14, 2006

Top to bottom: Jeeni Criscenzo, Gloria Daviston, Michael Kuzart, Aïda Reyes.

Progressive San Diego Rallies for Impeachment


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“If we dwell on the negative and all the terrible things, we’ll give power to all the negative things and feel overwhelmed,” former Congressional candidate Jeeni Criscenzo told about 70 people at a Progressive San Diego event at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest December 9. Though the announced topic of the forum was “presidential accountability,” it was obvious even before the speeches began that its real purpose was to build support for impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney.

All along the side walls of the room, volunteers sat at tables inviting people to sign petitions calling for impeachment. The tables also contained e-mail sign-ins so people could get on mailing lists and send online appeals to their Congressmembers urging that the House of Representatives begin impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney. A yellow leaflet handed to all attendees listed 10 grounds for impeachment, including the war in Iraq, the torture of captives in Iraq and Afghanistan, arbitrary detentions of persons (including U.S. citizens) without due process, the recently passed Military Commissions Act that denied the right of habeas corpus to anyone detained by the government as an “enemy combatant,” and the Bush administration’s negligence and failure to respond to warnings of an impending al-Qaeda attack in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The event’s opening speaker and MC, Judy Hess of Progressive Democrats of San Diego, made the agenda clear in her initial remarks. “When we impeach Bush and Cheney,” she said, “Nancy Pelosi will become president of the United States.” Acknowledging that Pelosi and other Democratic leaders slated to take over Congress in January have said that impeachment is “off the table,” Hess said that the purpose of the meeting — and of similar events taking place nationwide — was to build a groundswell of popular support for impeachment that will prevent the Democrats in Congress from continuing to duck the issue.

What will turn the tide and make impeachment feasible, Hess explained, is the promise of Democratic leaders in Congress to hold hearings and conduct investigations of Bush’s and Cheney’s policies and conduct. Through Bush’s first six years in office, the Republican Congressional majorities had basically given him a free pass. Not any more, said Hess: “Rigorous investigations will reveal wrongdoing. The facts and truth will be on the table, and put impeachment back on the table. Our children must be taught that you cannot subvert the Constitution and get away with it. We all have the power to give political cover to our Congresspeople.”

Hess explained that the impeachment campaign’s goal is to collect one million signatures nationwide by the end of December. “As they do investigations, our Congressmembers will have those signatures at their backs,” she said. “We are working to form grass-roots impeachment committees in every Congressional district in the country. Our desire is to let our Congressmembers know they have popular support as they do the right thing.”

“We are not looking at impeachment as a form of vengeance,” Criscenzo, the first speaker, said at the start of her talk. “We have a vision of what our country could be and Bush is standing in the way. Global warming, our standing in the world, and the budget are all on the precipice. We started by electing Democrats [to a Congressional majority] and we have to hold their feet to the fire and remind them of why we elected them. Number one is to get out of Iraq. In October, Congress approved $70 billion for Iraq. This spring Congress will be voting for $160 billion more, enough money to keep U.S. troops in Iraq until George W. Bush’s term ends — and the Democratic leaders are telling their members, ‘Don’t stand in the way of that appropriation.’”

Despite the wide-ranging agenda in the call for impeachment issued at the meeting, most of the presentations focused on the war in Iraq and the so-called “war on terror.” Criscenzo grimly noted that in August she’d met with officials from the Iraqi government and survivors of torture at Abu Ghraib. The meeting took place in Amman, Jordan one month after the Iraqi leaders had held a “unity summit” in Cairo, Egypt. According to Criscenzo, that’s one telling indicator of the failure of Bush’s war: the Iraqi government, supposedly democratically elected under U.S. auspices, can’t even hold meetings in its own country because life is so dangerous for them there.

Criscenzo said she went to that meeting in Amman convinced that Iraq’s partition into Shi’ite Arab, Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurd states was inevitable — but meeting with the Iraqi leaders changed her mind. “They came back from Egypt with a reconciliation plan and nothing had to do with greed, hatred or power-grabbing,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Don’t partition Iraq,’ because that would condemn them to eternal warfare. We had Sunni and Shi’a sitting next to each other, and they said, ‘We’re friends. We’re neighbors. We’ve lived together for hundreds of years.’”

According to Criscenzo, the Iraqis themselves want the war to end. Who wants it to continue? “Defense contractors are making a killing in Iraq, and they don’t want it to end,” she said. “Congressmember Dennis Kucinich said that 500,000 barrels a day of Iraq’s oil are being stolen. Nothing else works in Iraq, but the oil is being pumped without the meter running.” Criscenzo claimed that U.S. oil companies are draining Iraq’s oil reserves and “pumping nonstop,” partly to make as much money as they can in a hurry without having to pay anything back to the Iraqi people, and partly to realize their long-held dream of breaking the OPEC cartel and the hold OPEC’s largest producer, Saudi Arabia, has over world oil prices.

“The Bush administration has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Aïda Reyes of the World Can’t Wait organization, which held a mass event in downtown San Diego October 5 as part of an international mobilization. “Over 650,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. The U.S. has taken over thousands of prisons in Iraq and tortured people. It has killed people with chemical weapons like white phosphorus. Every day we stay in Iraq is a living hell for the Iraqi people. The U.S. has spread 100 times as much radioactivity in Iraq than it used in Japan at the end of World War II [presumably a reference to the routine use of depleted-uranium ammunition by U.S. troops in both Gulf Wars], and the half-life of this material is 100 million years.”

Quoting British playwright Harold Pinter’s comment that “the Bush administration is the most dangerous force in the world’s history,” Reyes added that if the American people allow Bush and Cheney to serve out their terms, “We will be remembered as the people that allowed the atrocities to happen. Iran will be next, and then Venezuela. Will we be the people that allowed all forms of torture to be legal? Will we be the people that allowed habeas corpus to be revoked? The ‘war on terror’ is the rubric under which the Bush administration demanded and got increasing state power. Bush is not stupid. This was a plan at least two decades old to remake the world, and they used 9/11 as the pretext to do it.”

As she had done at the October 5 World Can’t Wait action, which she M.C.’d, Reyes ridiculed fellow progressives who put their faith in the electoral process in general and the Democratic party in particular. “There’s no indication that the new Congress will stop the Bush agenda,” she said. “The only force that will stop it is the people, millions of us. Our sentiments will not be felt until we form a mass movement of millions. The government didn’t listen to the protests, but the world listened and saw there was a section of people in this country who knew the war was unjust. It opened up more room for people to think and take a stand. As the lies were exposed and Iraq descended into unwinnable civil war, Bush’s popularity dropped from 80 percent to 30 percent.”

Perhaps the most powerful speaker on the program was Michael Kuzart, a recent veteran of the “war on terror” and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He said he knew that there would be a U.S. attack on Iraq as early as June 2002, when he was based in Qatar and involved in sending military supplies to Afghanistan. “Then I was moved to another equipment supply store so we would have material ready in case there was another war in the Middle East,” Kuzart said. “I started to turn away from the war in June 2002, when I noticed a lot of equipment was accumulating in Kuwait. I had a bad feeling, and when I went home on leave and heard all this stuff about Saddam Hussein supposedly having weapons of mass destruction, I knew that we were going to invade Iraq.”

Kuzart recalled the 13 days of what he called “cakewalk duty” he served in Afghanistan. “I volunteered to help out the civil affairs unit,” he said. “We would go to villages where there had just been fighting, and I would wait outside with the vehicles while the officers would go in, negotiate and pay off the warlords. Now there’s more violence in Afghanistan because the warlords would rather spend money on weapons than on rebuilding schools. This was the first time civil-affairs units would go in on missions with active-duty soldiers, and we got medals for it, but it was really a drive-through reparations program. There was no intent to rebuild Afghanistan.”

One of Kuzart’s main motivations for joining the impeachment effort was to see President Bush held accountable for the lies he told to win U.S. support for the “war on terror” and the attack on Iraq. “I don’t think the President should be allowed to lie to us,” he said. “We’re told the women in Afghanistan don’t have to wear burkas anymore, but during the time I was there I never saw a woman’s face.”

“Raise your hand if you knew about the $55 million contract to Kellogg, Brown and Root [a subsidiary of Halliburton] for constructing detention camps in the U.S.,” said Hess, who took the podium at this point to introduce a videotaped presentation by National Lawyers’ Guild president and Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Marjorie Cohn. “There is a U.S. Army Rapid Action Deployment System for civilian detention on unused Army basis in the U.S. It says it’s for civilians to be in those camps, labor camps or detention camps. It says ‘persons of note’ should be held there.”

Cohn’s taped presentation had been filmed on December 6 at a Progressive Democrats of America event in Clairemont. She discussed the Military Commissions Act and a potentially even more far-reaching law, the John Warner Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush the same day: October 17, 2006. “The Military Commissions Act allows the President to declare anyone, including U.S. citizens, ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ and detain them indefinitely,” Cohn said. “It’s so broadly defined that anyone who donates to a charity that turns up on Bush’s list of ‘terrorist organizations,’ or speaks out against government policies, could be declared an ‘enemy combatant’ and lose habeas corpus rights.”

The Defense Authorization Act allows the President, solely on his own authority, to declare martial law and put the National Guard units of the various states under federal command “to restore public order and defend the United States.” While the ostensible purpose of this act is to give the President power to respond to another 9/11-style attack on the U.S., Cohn warned that under its language, otherwise legal, peaceful protest could be used as a pretext for martial law and the establishment of a Presidential dictatorship.

“In a November 2006 speech at the Air Force Academy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez warned that anyone who says Bush’s surveillance program stifles freedom ‘poses a grave threat to the liberty and security of the American people,’” Cohn said. “Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show that military officials labeled anti-war and anti-recruitment demonstrations as ‘threats to the national security.’”

Cohn drew a parallel between the Military Commissions Act, the Defense Authorization Act and the USA PATRIOT Act and earlier attempts by the U.S. government to suppress political dissent, including the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the “extensive surveillance” of the so-called McCarthy era in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. She also pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1944 decision ruling that the government had the power to order all Japanese-Americans into internment camps is still on the books — and quoted then-Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who in his original dissent in the case warned that the court’s ruling would be available to any future government that wanted to set aside the Constitution to punish American citizens and legal residents for arbitrary reasons.

The final speaker at the event was Gloria Daviston from San Diego Veterans for Peace, a local chapter of a national organization which called for impeaching Bush and Cheney as early as 2002. She joined the Army at 19 and served seven and one-half years during the Viet Nam era, and talked about how the military appeals to young people to get them to join — and then lets them down. “The call goes out to them to ‘be all you can be’ and do their patriotic duty, and they expect the military to do right by them,” Daviston said. “Under Bush, that has not happened. They have been misused and abused.”

Daviston spoke in support of war resisters like Lieutenant Ehren Watada, who is scheduled to be court-martialed in January for refusing an order to deploy to Iraq — the first commissioned officer to do so. She said the evils of the Bush administration started “when he hijacked the election in 2000” — one of the items in the bill of particulars against him and Cheney in the event’s leaflet — “and it’s been downhill ever since: the breaking of the Geneva conventions, the threats on Iran, the degradation of the United States Constitution. The Bush administration has committed unconscionable acts, and we must speak out. A dalliance with Monica Lewinsky is not an impeachable offense; Bush’s acts are.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Kyle Snyder, War Resister, Speaks to Peace & Justice Coalition


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At first sight, Kyle Snyder seems like a quite ordinary young man. He’s short, slightly built, and when he came to speak to the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice at the Church of the Brethren in City Heights December 4 he was dressed unassumingly in a red hooded sweatshirt and baggy blue jeans. He’s 23 now; four years ago he joined the U.S. Army “for the usual reasons a 19-year-old joins the Army: for the $5,000 signing bonus, college money and medical and dental benefits.”

Snyder didn’t sign up specifically to fight a war, but he was aware enough of the news to realize he might have to. His recruiter was honest enough to admit that Snyder might end up in Iraq, so Snyder asked to be assigned to a construction and engineering unit so at least if he got sent to Iraq he’d be cleaning up the country and helping to rebuild it instead of just destroying things and killing people. According to Snyder, when he went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training, “I weighed 25 pounds more than I do now.”

Once he made it through basic, Snyder recalled, “I got advanced training in construction and road-building, which was the only time I actually got to do what I’d signed up to do. My fiancée lost our baby because the military denied her medical care because we weren’t contractually ‘married.’ I tried to get out on medical disability for depression but I wasn’t allowed to because I was assigned to a unit that had already been deployed to Iraq, where it had built the prison at Abu Ghraib.”

More unpleasant surprises were in store for Snyder when he arrived in Kuwait, the dropping-off point for units about to go into Iraq. He was told that instead of doing construction work, his unit had been reassigned and would now do patrols with 50-calibre guns. Snyder got just four weeks’ worth of training on how to use the guns. In addition to doing armed patrols, Snyder recalled, “I became an escort for high-ranking military officials, including a two-star general, moving around Iraq.”

Snyder’s unit was stationed in Mosul, in Northern Iraq near the Turkish and Syrian borders. “My unit did no construction or engineering,” he said. “I saw kids flipping us off and sniper fire, and began to question America’s presence in Iraq after three months. I wanted to reconstruct and bring Iraqi civilians what they needed, and instead we patrolled with a Stryker division.” When he did escort work, Snyder said later in response to an audience question, he wasn’t told where the officer he was escorting was going until they got there.

The last straw for Snyder was when he saw a new member of his unit shoot an Iraqi civilian. “He was not killed, but he was crippled for life,” Snyder recalled. “I asked for an investigation under my rights as a soldier, and was turned down on the ground that they could not question this soldier’s judgment that our convoy was in danger.”

Snyder’s unauthorized departure from the U.S. military took place in April 2005, when he got off a plane in Kuwait, supposedly on his way to a leave to visit his family — and instead made his way to Canada to seek political asylum as a U.S. war resister. “It was a hard decision to leave Iraq and my cadre and friends whom I had fought for and would have died for,” he recalled. “I told them in advance I was considering this decision. I went through a breakdown for one week after my plane went back to Kuwait.”

According to Snyder, he’s one of 28 people currently petitioning the Canadian government for asylum as war resisters. He’s not optimistic about his chances; the Canadians have been considerably tougher on antiwar U.S. immigrants than they were during the Viet Nam war, and while Canada is not involved in the Iraq war they do have Canadian forces fighting as part of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. One beneficial quirk of the Canadian constitution is that it gives Snyder and his fellow resisters the right to stay in the country until their cases are heard — and many of them, including Snyder, have been waiting over a year for a hearing.

Snyder said that the U.S. military estimates that there are currently 8,000 servicemembers absent without leave (AWOL) in the U.S., and he said up to 40,000 have gone AWOL at some time or other since the Iraq conflict began. “Eight thousand people are AWOL in the U.S., hiding in the shadows, and all they want to do is to be discharged and get on with their lives,” he said. “One-third of all homeless people on the streets in the U.S. now are Viet Nam-era veterans. I don’t want to see people my age living on the streets. I don’t want to be part of the next generation of homeless people.”

On October 31, 2006 Snyder crossed the border back to the U.S. and went to Fort Knox, Kentucky “because Major Brian Patterson had promised me orally that I would be discharged,” he said. “Instead, I was refused because my unit is stateside and it is being deployed to Iraq a third time.” Fearful that he’d either be court-martialed or forcibly returned to his unit for another stint in Iraq, Snyder went AWOL “and since then I’ve been fearful and hate the things that have been said about me.”

The things that have been said about Snyder include the usual hate letters — “People have sent me e-mails saying I should be hanged or shot,” he said — as well as the total rejection of his parents. While the foster parents who actually raised him “are really for me,” Snyder explained, “My father thinks I’m a disgrace, and my mother thinks my leaving Iraq was a sin and I should repent. It’s been 4 1/2 years since I’ve seen them. The first thing I would have done if I’d been discharged was to go to a Thanksgiving dinner with my family. But I don’t want to see them when I’m in this position.”

One thing Snyder did when he returned to the U.S. was hook up with Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and join the bus tour they’re taking around the country. Indeed, the bus was parked outside the Church of the Brethren while Snyder spoke and some fellow resisters, including Darrell Anderson and Ethan Crowell, attended the meeting. Anderson briefly took the microphone himself while Snyder was wrapping up an interview with an Associated Press reporter.

“Kyle and I both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’ll be difficult for us to go back to school,” Anderson explained. “We lost our benefits and I’m a disabled veteran. We have this bus and we need to build our own society with our own housing projects, because I can’t relate to people who haven’t served. When Kyle’s resistance is done we’ll need to pick him up from prison — if he’s had to serve time, which we hope he won’t — and take him home.”

So far, IVAW’s own housing project has meant basing the bus in New Orleans and, when it isn’t out touring the country putting Snyder and other IVAW members out as speakers against the war, helping the ongoing cleanup effort more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. Contrary to popular belief, IVAW volunteers said that most of the homes in New Orleans that flooded during the hurricane are in basically good shape and can easily be made habitable again; they don’t have to be bulldozed and replaced by upscale, gentrified redevelopments, as the city government is planning. Snyder savored the irony that he’s finally putting the construction skills the Army taught him to good use and fulfilling his original ambition to benefit people by cleaning up their environment.

Snyder and Anderson were both introduced by a much older participant in the IVAW bus tour: Gerry Condon, a former San Diegan who worked on Latin American solidarity issues in the 1980’s but before that was himself a war resister during Viet Nam. “I actually trained as a Green Beret medic, was given a general court-martial and sentenced to 10 years,” Condon recalled. “I escaped during the trial and spent three years in Sweden organizing against the war and for amnesty for war resisters. I came back in 1975 and went on a 50-city speaking tour. “ He thanked former President Jimmy Carter for granting an unconditional pardon to Viet Nam-era draft resisters — though not to people who went AWOL — as his first act in office in 1977.

Condon’s presence not only provided background on the histories of both Viet Nam and Iraq-era resistance but offered a living link between the two eras. He said he first met the people on the Iraq Veterans Against the War bus in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he and they both came for the annual demonstrations against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas (SOA), a U.S.-run training center for combat troops in Latin American countries. Peace activists target this school for protests every year based on accusations that the U.S. is teaching its “students” how to torture civilians and suppress activist movements that threaten U.S.-friendly governments in the region.

After the anti-SOA protests, Condon recalled, he joined the IVAW activists in New Orleans for their ongoing post-Katrina cleanup work. “Then we went to Chicago, where Kyle spoke at 20 schools, including campuses with heavily African-American and Latino student populations where the military recruits heavily,” Condon said. “There are a lot of veterans showing a lot of support. We have the young generation coming together with a lot of us greybeards.”

Condon stressed that he’s under no illusions as to the difficulty of actually stopping the U.S. military involvement in Iraq. “The 2006 election was, more than anything else, a rejection of the Iraq war, but President Bush is only making minor changes and is even considering sending more troops,” he explained. “The antiwar movement needs to step up to the plate like never before. Civil disobedience is necessary, and the veterans are the most important resisters. We need to make it possible for more and more people in the military to stay no to this war and end it.”

“I don’t regret going to Canada, and I don’t regret coming back and becoming part of the war resistance movement,” Snyder said. “There’s not a day that goes by without me thinking about the 500,000 Iraqis and 3,000 Americans who have died. I support the troops but oppose the war. I want my friends home so I don’t have to question anymore. I don’t believe in the Bush administration. One minute I’m looked at as a hero, and the next as a traitor. It’s difficult for me to understand that kind of logic.”

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Architect: Too Much of Too Many Good Things


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There’s the germ of a good movie in The Architect. In fact, there are the germs of quite a few good movies in The Architect — and that’s precisely the problem with it.

Written and directed by Matt Tauber from a play by David Greig — though the film’s action moves so peripatetically around Chicago it’s hard to imagine the piece being played on stage — The Architect is a sort of anti-Fountainhead. For those of you who aren’t up on the collected works of Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead was a heavy-breathing 1943 novel, filmed five years later with Rand writing the script herself, about an idealistic super-architect who ghost-designs a big public housing project for a hack colleague, blows up the project when the people paying for it change his design, goes on trial, makes a long speech about the need to protect the individual against the masses and is acquitted.

The Architect is also about an architect and a public housing project, but the time is the present, the project is already several decades old, and it’s become so decrepit and dangerous to the people who live there that Tonya Neeley (Viola Davis), an African-American woman who lives there with her daughter, granddaughter and the memory of her son, a suicide, becomes an activist and organizes a drive to have the buildings torn down. She confronts the architect who designed the place originally, Leo Waters (Anthony LaPaglia, top-billed), hoping that if he agrees that the project is no longer workable as a living space, she’ll have the support she needs to get the Illinois state government to pay for its destruction and replacement by smaller, more “homey” housing.

By far the best scene in The Architect is the one in which Leo and Tonya actually meet. The setting is Leo’s own home — which, like virtually all houses movie architects design for themselves, is beautiful but soulless and uncomfortable to live in — and the prop is an elaborate model Leo has constructed to show how the existing project buildings can be rehabilitated as an alternative to tearing them down. Tonya rips apart all her ideas, noting that all the decoration he wants to add to the site won’t make one bit of difference in terms of their lives and the great “communal patio” he wants to add to the site will just make it even easier for the neighborhood gangs to terrorize and dominate the project residents than it is now.

Anyone who remembers The Fountainhead and catches the obvious reference to it in this scene will be jolted by the realization that in Rand’s tale of a battle between an architect and the people who commissioned the housing project he designed and then destroyed, neither side gave a damn about the priorities of the people who would actually live there. As Leo, speaking from the ritzy home he’s designed and built himself with the profit he’s made from similarly well-heeled clients, snarls that the project was designed in the first place as “mass housing” and it wasn’t supposed to be nice — and Tonya fires back that his intent in designing it wasn’t to build people houses but to “house people,” leaving unspoken but nonetheless making the obvious point that Leo’s project “housed people” the way animals are housed, or the way its African-American residents’ ancestors were “housed” when they were slaves — we’re being confronted with a clash not only of race but even more of class. The scene makes the radical point (just the opposite of Rand’s ideology) that poor and working-class people are just as deserving of decent, comfortable living spaces as those above them in wealth, income and status.

If there were more of that knife-edged class consciousness in The Architect, it would have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, writer-director Tauber and original playwright Greig can’t leave it at that. The architect has to have a dysfunctional marriage with Julia (Isabella Rossellini, looking surprisingly frumpish after Guy Maddin’s marvelous glamorization of her two years ago in The Saddest Music in the World, where she hauntingly resembled her mother, Ingrid Bergman), who breaks plates and flowerpots to express her frustration in ways that seem awfully atavistic 42 years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. He’s also saddled with a son, Martin (Sebastian Stan), who’s just dropped out of college over a malaise that turns out to be confusion about his sexual orientation; and a daughter, Christina (Hayden Panettiere), who’s written as a Freudian textbook illustration of the Electra complex, taking her dad’s side in all her parents’ arguments, giving him a hug that stops barely short of out-and-out incest and so mechanistically throwing herself at virtually every other white male in the film she might as well be wearing a sign saying, “Take my virginity — please!”

The Black characters aren’t any better off — or any more realistic. Tonya actually had three children, one of whom, daughter Cammie (Serena Reeder) she sent off to live with a more affluent African-American family, headed by a doctor, to get her out of the ghetto and give her a chance at the education and material success she deserved. She and her other daughter, Missy (Marsha Stephanie Blake), continually argue over Tonya’s motives for mounting the campaign that, if successful, is going to render them at least temporarily homeless. In one scene Tonya literally attacks a young man Missy is talking to before she realizes that he’s just her old childhood friend, Big Tim (Malcolm Goodwin), even though he’s dressed like an extra in a gangsta-rap video. As if that weren’t enough dysfunction — the plot of this movie seems to be aimed at proving that whites and Blacks are equally susceptible to mental illnesses of all sorts — there’s also the character of Shawn (Paul James), a Black Gay teenager who lives in the neighborhood of the project and falls in love with Martin — whose confused unwillingness to reciprocate precipitates a fate so dire for the Gay character Brokeback Mountain looks like a bundle of laughs by comparison.

Writer-director Tauber, making his feature-film debut — his only previous credit was The Great New Wonderful, a micro-budget film shot (like The Architect) on high-definition video and dealing with multiple New Yorkers in the year after 9/11 — simply isn’t good enough at structuring his various plotlines to make this sort of film work. He has the misfortune to be opening his movie right after the death of Robert Altman, a master of the multi-character, multi-story film who actually had the knack of blending plural storylines in a way where the various plots reflected and added to each other. In Tauber’s movie, by contrast, they clash. The Architect is less a movie than a war zone in which various story threads, dramatic issues and themes fight it out for dominance, and an ending that Tauber no doubt intended as daringly inconclusive comes off instead as simply sloppy and a cheat. Tauber does share one of Altman’s talents — the ability to get good performances out of his actors (perhaps a legacy of his years in live theatre, where he didn’t have to worry about story structure because a playwright had already taken care of that, and he could concentrate on working with actors, the directorial function he clearly does best) — and maybe with time and experience he’ll acquire the knowledge to construct this type of film and make it work, but he’s not there yet.

What’s more, as a writer Tauber has an annoying tendency to leave loose ends lying around, tying them up either later or not at all. When we see in Tonya’s front room a framed picture of an African-American teenager with a cross draped over the front, indicating that he’s dead, our first thought is that he’s the father of Missy’s child and that he was killed in gang violence. Only later are we told that he was really Missy’s brother and that he committed suicide by jumping off the roof of one of the project buildings. When another character commits suicide similarly, we’re left to wonder if the scenes involving him were flashbacks and if he was Missy’s brother, and only later does Tauber’s dialogue nail home the point that these were two separate people.

Landmark Theatres is making a big to-do about the format in which The Architect is being shown. Instead of film, it’s being projected from a Samsung Blu-Ray high-definition DVD via a system not coincidentally owned by the same people who own the Landmark chain itself, Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. The resulting image is spectacularly clear, perhaps a bit too clear; scenes that on film would have seemed more artistically shadowed register with the sharpness and meticulous color definition of a very good picture postcard. Still, it’s a film to reassure the doubters (including anyone who’s suffered through a screening of an ordinary DVD or VHS tape on a standard-issue PowerPoint projector) who worry that digital projection can’t be as good as film. The Architect is a technological triumph; it’s the human aspects of the movie that fall short of what they could have been and make this a regrettable disappointment.

The Architect opens December 8 at the Landmark Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2100 for showtimes and other information.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Wet: Adams and MOXIE Do It Again


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Chris Walsh as Jack the cabin boy; the cast of WET (L to R: Liv Kellgren, Jo Anne Glover, Chris Walsh, Laurence Brown, Don Loper and Jennifer Eve Thorn); WET playright Liz Duffy Adams and director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg

MOXIE Theatre’s latest production, a world premiere play by Dog Act author Liz Duffy Adams rather awkwardly called Wet: Or, Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes, begins with a raging storm that sinks Isabella’s ship and claims the lives of all but four of her crew: Isabella herself (Jo Anne Glover), the gutsy take-no-prisoners pirate captain; Jenny (Liv Kellgren), her even more bloodthirsty (and butch) enforcer; Sally (Jennifer Eve Thorn), whose body is electrically charged from having been struck by lightning in a previous storm; and Viscountess Marlene (Don Loper), a male-to-female Transgender with fantasies of nobility. In a scene Adams admitted was inspired by the opening of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the four unlikely pirates stand in front of a drawn curtain and hurl their hopes and fears at the audience in high-energy dialogue reflecting Adams’ skill at evoking the timbre of Shakespearean language without sounding like an undergraduate’s bad parody.

The opening sends a clear signal of what sort of show we can expect: one which will play with both high-culture and mass-culture symbolism, upsetting the audience’s expectations of gender and sexuality. Even people who come to the play with an acceptance of Queer sexuality and an openness to the possibility that not all the characters are going to be paired with partners of the other gender are going to be thrown by a few of Adams’ curveballs. After the anxious monologues at the start, the curtain rises on a damaged but still seaworthy ship, a naval vessel which likewise got caught in the storm and whose authoritarian captain, Joppa (Tom Deák), has likewise lost all but two of his crew: cabin boy Jack (Chris Walsh), who clearly has a crush on him despite his solemn warnings that sodomy is “a hanging offense,” and Horatio (Laurence Brown), a Black former slave who’s still feeling out how much of a difference his supposed “freedom” can make and how far he can push the rules.

Adams’ script for Wet, though not as strong as Dog Act — the exposition is clunkier and it takes longer for it to settle into a groove — provides a field day for a company interested not only in defying the stereotypes of what women can be and play on stage (MOXIE’s stated mission) but in exploring all sorts of dramatic and philosophical conflicts. The play pits straight against Queer, Black against white, male against female, authority against anarchism, war against peace and prescribed hierarchies against freedom. Its ideal is the fantasy island Isabella was hoping to find and settle — sailor’s legend or reality? Adams’ script leaves that question powerfully unanswered — where, tired of the life of a pirate and finding outlawry less free than she thought it would be, Isabella and her hand-picked crew hoped to set up a commune that would fulfill the anarchist ideal of “free association” and create a society that could function without coercion.

In the meantime, the seven motley sailors from two crews with two very different missions have to function together, and as the power shifts from one faction to the other, characters change sides and undergo wrenching emotional changes that leave them confused and disoriented. One of Adams’ strengths as a playwright is being able to write characters who are intensely theatrical, so obviously constructed to the needs of her dramatic design that you can’t imagine anyone like them existing in real life — while still involving us in their lives and emotions and getting us to care about them as if they were real people. As Jennifer Eve Thorn put it, “The characters are so intensely who they are, you can’t have any fear of being over the top. You have to abandon any thought of realism and just let yourself be this huge character every step of the way. I had so much fun with both plays (Dog Act and Wet), and now I can see people in the real world and say, ‘Oh, she’s a Jenny, all right.’”

Adams’ decision to make the play about pirates and set it in the past — typically, she says it takes place “many, many years ago” rather than limiting herself by specifying an actual period — gives her a rich mythology to fall back on. Adventure stories about pirates have been a stock-in-trade of popular fiction since the real-life prototypes of the characters in Wet were actually trawling the seas for booty-laden ships — and their continuing popularity is shown by the fact that both Pirates of the Caribbean movies, starring Johnny Depp, went to number one at the box office their first week in release. However the pirates may have really lived and worked, the popular imagination about them as it’s been expressed in books, plays and movies galore gives Adams a rich vein of pop-culture mythology to mine — and she brings in a mother lode.

MOXIE’s production and casting are all Adams could have asked for. MOXIE’s four plucky co-founders are all involved here: Glover, Kellgren and Thorn on stage and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directing. Turner Sonnenberg’s direction ably captures the shifting moods and power relationships between the characters, and gets evocative performances from MOXIE and non-MOXIE cast members alike. Thorn’s performance as Sally is especially commendable. Playing a character whom Adams literally electrified to avoid the cliché of the highly sexual woman with a mental illness, Sally’s wrenching “human compass” routines (Isabella presses her into service to determine which way north is, and every time she does that it takes an awful toll and causes her to faint) and her anxiety over being untouchable — she still mourns for the boyfriend she accidentally electrocuted when he tried to kiss her — give Thorn plenty to work with. Glover’s Isabella — a role she said was challenging because she had to come from “a place of living in total arrogance” — is compelling in full pirate-queen mode and even more so when her guard comes down and we see hints of her softer side. Kellgren, playing the most one-dimensional of the woman-born women in the script, still finds depth and shows us the pain underlying the character’s violence and rage.

Of the male performers, Laurence Brown stands out, particularly if you saw him in the title role of 6th @ Penn’s compelling adaptation of Sophocles’ Ajax. The two parts couldn’t be more different — Ajax an intensely physical expression of machismo become madness; Horatio a self-described philosopher who, having known both slavery and freedom, ponders the difference between the two and wonders whether it’s as great as had been advertised — and it’s a tribute to Brown’s rangy acting skills that he is equally convincing in both. Walsh’s Jack is especially strong in his expression of hurt pride — at one point Adams has Jack bitterly resent still being called a “cabin boy” when he’s biologically a man — and his goop-eyed admiration for the captain, though he overdoes the latter enough that almost from his first appearance one wants to whisper in his ear, “Kiss him, you fool.” Deák, playing the closest thing this play has to a villain — Adams’ jaundiced view of current events comes through loud and clear when he says he needs to get his ship back to port so it can be repaired and he can return to the war, and Marlene says, “There’ll always be a war somewhere!” — manages, despite having Adams’ most weakly written role, to be convincing as an authority figure and to soften when the script gives him the chance.

MOXIE’s physical production also does justice to Adams’ compelling play. Eric Lotze’s lighting and Rachel Le Vine’s sound vividly bring Adams’ Tempest-tossed opening to life. The set by Jerry Sonnenberg (director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s husband) is remarkably elaborate and solid, looking genuinely like a ship and not a pile of pallets or a raised disc. Like Dog Act and most of MOXIE’s productions, music and song figure prominently — the second act features two concerted vocal numbers, both with lyrics by Adams and music by Cliff Caruthers, and the final song, “Wet,” actually ties the plot together and brings about the resolution — and vocal coach Steve Gunderson works magic with the nonprofessional voices. The costumes by Fred Kinney and Amy Chini are appropriate to the audience’s expectations of how sailors and pirates would dress, and though fight choreographer Tim Griffin has less to do here than he did in Dog Act, he does it convincingly.

Adams admits that it took her an unusually long time to write Wet. She began it in 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, and only recently finished it. (Indeed, MOXIE meant to use it as the opening production of last year’s season and did Dog Act instead because Wet wasn’t ready.) “While I was working on it, it was operating on two different levels,” she explained. “One was thinking deliberately about the immediate post-9/11 era and the buildup to war. At the same time, I was thinking more broadly, more philosophically, about hat is the moral way to live in the world right now.” The result was a play that works as a political allegory but doesn’t turn preachy or wear its heart too blatantly on its sleeve. MOXIE’s production is fully alive to the strengths of Adams’ script and covers for its occasional clunkiness. Wet is a theatre experience not to be missed.

Wet: Or, Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes plays through Sunday, December 10 at the Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza at Fourth and Broadway downtown. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 Friday through Sunday, $15 on Thursday. Discounts: $15 for seniors, $10 for students. For reservations or other information, please call (619) 544-1000 or visit


Artist Opens “Weirdo Art Gallery” December 9


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For decades the storefront at 2925 Lincoln Avenue, half a block west of 30th street and one block north of University Avenue in North Park, housed a sedate little violin making and repair business. That all changed in late November, when the space was taken over by local artist Kelly Hutchinson for a business he calls the “Fish Out of Water Weirdo Art Gallery.” Hutchinson, a tall, gangly — too tall and gangly to agree to be photographed for this story with his shirt off to show off his tattoos — young Navy veteran originally from Cheyenne, Wyoming, seems to regard “weirdo art” much the way the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously spoke of obscenity: he can’t define it but he knows it when he sees — or makes — it.

Hutchinson’s gallery has been attracting goop-eyed spectators since he opened its doors, but his official opening celebration is on Saturday, December 9 from 6 p.m. to midnight. Its centerpiece will be an actual gas-chamber chair from Salem, Oregon, and he’s anticipating that works by at least nine “weirdo” artists will be hanging on the gallery walls for his event. Zenger’s interviewed him one unexpectedly busy Monday afternoon, when he was working on a painting of two chickens dressed as Batman and Robin — “the Caped Clucker and Chick Wonder,” he calls them — and receiving potential customers and at least one artist who’s going to be showing at his opening.

Zenger’s: Kelly, why don’t you just tell me a little about yourself, what your background is and how you got into art.

Kelly Hutchinson: I’ve always been drawing since I was a little kid, My background with art, I think, probably started out in desperation. I was working a graveyard shift at a gas station, and I just felt like my life was going nowhere. I picked up a paintbrush and started experimenting and painting on a lot of found objects. I used to sell a lot of weird junk at the swap meet, and I started selling some of my art because people were getting into it. I’m completely self-taught as an artist. I haven’t gone to any type of school. It’s all experimental.

I got tired of the cost of living in San Diego and thought the grass would be greener on the other side. I met my wife, Crystal, and we both moved to my home town, Cheyenne, Wyoming. We lived out there for about three years and practically froze to death. So we came back here and decided to start all over again. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been back.

Zenger’s: You call this place the “Weirdo Art Gallery.” How do you define “weirdo art”?

Hutchinson: To define “weirdo art” is almost like trying to define “art.” What I’m referring to as “weirdo” is anything unusual, anything bizarre, outsider art. I have a particular fondness for surreal art. I want to create a gallery where, when you walk into the door here, it just blows your socks off with pure insanity and madness, with a bunch of outsider artists and outcasts that have bound together and put something together. So far the neighborhood has reacted pretty positively. I’m excited about where we might go.

Zenger’s: Can you tell me about some of the pieces, particularly the Wal-Mart on fire?

Hutchinson: It’s funny you mentioned that, since there are two or three other people who’ve just walked in the door who’ve loved it. When I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, it was full of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. It felt like a weird Leave It to Beaver-land type deal. When I joined the Navy, I left Wyoming for four years and traveled the world, and did my thing.

Then, when I got out of the Navy, I came back and Wal-Mart had moved into town. It was a complete culture shock. They had really wiped out a lot of mom-and-pop organizations and businesses over there. The mentality of the people who shopped at Wal-Mart and promoted it was kind of sickening, because it’s like the loss of any culture or any independent business whatsoever. So it’s on fire, and I call it, “Let It Be.” Let’s just leave it at that.

Zenger’s: I’ve also noticed a definite political streak in some of the pieces. Do you want to talk about what about current politics inspires you, and why these particular images?

Hutchinson: Our current state of affairs right now scares the hell out of me. Someitimes I paint out of frustration. The painting right here, “Having Your Cake and Eating It, Too,” is a portrait of George W. Bush sitting on the back of the blue-collar working class. He’s got a slice of cake and he’s eating it, with the American flag sticking out of the cake. The sheep in the background are a portrayal of the people that voted for him and had faith in the Republican Party. The blue-collar man is shoveling crap, and it’s almost like he’s been stuck in a world of crap. The cut-down trees represent the Republican party’s disrespect for the environment.

Zenger’s: How did you get such a political orientation? I mean, you’re a nice, white straight boy from Dick Cheney’s home state, or one of them.

Hutchinson: Yeah, it’s funny. When Dick Cheney was governor, I actually met him. I was about 16 and I was doing the lawns, mowing the Capitol grounds out there. He was a really nice person, but his wife used to yell at us for stepping on her flowers as I was trying to pull weeds out of the flowerbeds.

When I got out of the Navy I started working at a gas station and took on odd jobs. I started being a shuttle driver over at the airport. I did that for about two or three years and really got involved in listening to talk radio. In between my rides, I used to doodle, and a lot of it got inspired that way. I still love listening to talk radio and hearing different aspects of everything.

Zenger’s: How did you listen to all these Right-wingers and not become convinced they were right?

Hutchinson: I don’t know. It’s a good question. It’s just that they sound so silly. I can’t explain it. I don’t want to put people down because they are Republicans, but I’m not, no question about it. There are too many stances they take that scare me about them. But the gallery is not about being Right-wing or Left-wing. The gallery is about being weird and having a place where people can interact with strange and unusual imagery.

Zenger’s: Who else is exhibiting your gallery, how did you get in touch with them, and what makes you decide, “Oh, yeah. That stuff belongs here”?

Hutchinson: I’m particularly proud about the artists that are being involved with the December 9 show. The headliners include Extremo the Clown. He lives in Portland, Oregon and he is a professional clown. He’s run for mayor. He’s just great and hilarious. He does sign painting, and he creates art cars. And he has a Mazda that’s maybe 14, 15 feet tall, and it’s a sculpture of strange demons and skeletons and everything else coming out of his car. On top of his car, he’s got a working fountain. Right now he’s working on a van on which he’s creating a Never Never Land.

Extremo the Clown takes his car on the freeway and does puppet shows for people. I think that would be the most hilarious thing. Every town should have a jester in that sense, someone who does that, who breaks up the monotony. I’m excited to have a lot of his work here, just because of who he is and what he’s all about.

Zenger’s: So he builds a car that’s 15 feet tall and then he actually drives it?

Hutchinson: Yes, he actually drives it, and he has these strange, unusual puppets. He does puppet shows for people. Another artist that’s participating is R. S. Connitt, who runs, formerly known as A lot of his work is really out there. It’s a lot of demon work. It’s hard to explain, but it’s colorful, surreal and almost perfect for the direction in which we want the gallery to go.

Another artist that we’re featuring, Mitch O’Connell, lives in the Chicago, Illinois area, and is very prolific with tattoo flash designs. I believe he’s done two Newsweek covers and tons of other various publications with his artwork. He’s pretty amazing.

There are literally 17 other artists, a total of 20 artists combined for this show. There are quite a few local artists, including Kelly Orange, David Russell Talbot and myself, dark vomit or Kelly Hutchinson.

We really want to be a fun gallery. We don’t want people to come and be snooty. The only thing I want to be taken seriously on is the purchases that can be made here. Everything here is a sincere investment. We wouldn’t carry it if we didn’t believe that in five or 10 years you could double your money.

Zenger’s: That’s one of the things that attracted me: the work is a lot of fun. Some of the pieces remind me of the old Famous Monsters covers, that sort of thing. I can see we’re both wearing T-shirts in that vein.

Hutchinson: Yeah, Rat Fink. I guess I came out of the Mad magazine generation, inspired by old Looney Tunes.

Zenger’s: So what is the obsession with the superhero chicken?

Hutchinson: It’s funny that you should mention that. The first one was Superman turned into Superchicken. I like how chickens walk with their chests poked out. It makes them look so proud when they walk around. It almost reminded me of Superman, the way he poses himself, so I think it was a funny mix.

I liked the way Superchicken, came out so well that I’ve already gone on to the next painting, which is the Caped Clucker and Chick Wonder. I’m starting to think of doing others. I think chickens are cool. Chickens are fun.

Zenger’s: I noticed that for the chicken superheroes you created a digital image to use as a model. Do you ever paint someone from life?

Hutchinson: No, I can’t say I have. I’ve drawn people from life, but in this day and age with modern technology it’s much easier to take a digital shot of someone rather than have them going through the painstaking process of having them sit there for four or five painstaking hours while I whip out a painting for them. But I do like doing portraits. Once I get a little bit settled here, I want to start offering weirdo portrait services, and also pet portraits, in which your animal can be dressed up in a three-piece suit, or as a joker, or whatever his personality would be.

Zenger’s: Aside from the ones we’ve discussed already, what would you say your inspirations and influences have been?

Hutchinson: I like to bounce off a lot of artists. I guess what inspires me, in so many ways, is seeing where other artists are going, more or less their attitude. Not necessarily their technique or what they’re putting out. I’ve been painting for eight years, and I think I’ve molded my own technique at this point into a recognizable style. I’d like to stick with that and experiment with that, but I don’t know.

It’s partly the neighborhood. There are a lot of weirdos in this neighborhood. Right down the street — I could keep going with these stories forever, all the craziness. It’s funny to bounce off of that, and a lot of modern pop culture.

Zenger’s: Would you tell me about the event on December 9?

Hutchinson: On December 9 we’re going to do our grand opening, from 6 to midnight. We’re excited to have a chair in here which came out of the gas chamber in Salem, Oregon’s penitentiary. Eighteen people have been executed in this very chair. It’s going to be displayed in the middle of the room, and patrons are welcome to sit down in it if they like. Part of the weirdo experience.

One reason why we have that chair and are bringing it in for this particular show is that in October, we had a show called “Fear of Clowns” over at the Art of Framing gallery in Normal Heights. We displayed an original John Wayne Gacy painting which went along with the theme for that show, “fear of clowns.” So it’s ironic that we get the chance to open up our own gallery with a show right after, and get to put in an execution chair.

Zenger’s: How’d you get it?

Hutchinson: From the twilight zone. I’d like to leave it at that. I think it was just a person who was at the right place at the right time.

Zenger’s: So what else is going to be here on the ninth?

Hutchinson: Hopefully, lots of people. Lots of people will buy lots of artwork to help us put. One thing that we’re very proud of is nothing here is going to be above $300. Everything here is below $300. There’s stuff as you walk in the door for five bucks, on up. We want to be fun, but affordable.

Fish out of Water Weirdo Art Gallery is located at 2925 Lincoln Avenue, just off 30th Street one block north of University, in North Park. Kelly Hutchinson can be contacted through his Web site,, or via e-mail at


Photographer Exhibits at Pleasures & Treasures Through Dec. 15


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Photo by David Laurito, copyright © LP Communications/Laurito Photography, Inc. • All rights reserved

“My first dream was to be a musician, to write music and record and do all that,” photographer David Laurito said. But a circuitous route through life took him away from his artistic ambitions, threw him into the corporate world, then pushed him out again and into an artistic career in a different medium. Laurito’s works, on display at Pleasures and Treasures, 2228 University Avenue in North Park, through December 15 and on an ongoing basis at the Club San Diego bathhouse, 3955 Fourth Avenue in Hillcrest, run the gamut from non-explicit but intensely erotic male studies to shimmering landscapes and abstract patterns inspired by Japanese origami.

After a successful but unfulfilling stint as an electronics marketer — “I hated it, really hated it,” Laurito admitted; “Everybody in the whole corporate world is scary” — Laurito “went through a series of things,” he said. “I owned a CD store for a while, got out of the CD store and then started getting heavily into writing music.” Though he didn’t become a performing musician, he started developing a reputation as a composer and a record producer — and then his life got sidetracked yet again, this time when both his parents fell ill. Laurito put his own life on hold for “about three or four years” until his parents passed away — and then, looking for another way to make a living, he hooked up with a friend to start a company to make greeting cards for Gay men.

“At the time,” Laurito recalled, “there weren’t any — I wouldn’t say ‘Gay’ greeting cards, but male greeting cards, the kind of cards that I could give to my partner and not be embarrassed. I didn’t like the kind that had some naked guy on there that was disgusting. I wanted something that made some kind of deep sense, basically a male-to-male card like you would give to your wife, but between men.”

The original plan was that Laurito would run the business end of the enterprise and his friend would do the photography. “He was a photographer, but he was also in the corporate world,” Laurito said. “He was where I was 10 years before, caught in the middle.” Caught between the demands of his corporate job and the time needed to get a business off and running, Laurito’s friend bailed — and Laurito’s life partner Jimmy told him, “Why don’t you take the pictures?”

At the time, Laurito said, he’d been “basically fiddling around” with amateur photography for about 10 years, but “within a week or two I was taking cover shots. We would take the pictures and have them laminated right on the cards to give it a very hurried, one-of-a-kind type-ness, signing and numbering each card like a limited edition. Actually, we still do that now. One part of the company does that. We’ve got a good, solid base of people and companies I do Christmas cards for, and every year they want to know what picture they’re going to have. They get to pick one out from the Laurito Hall of Fame, and they’re really big on trees.”

Branching Out

Laurito’s next step into full-time photography took place on one of his frequent visits to Great Britain. “A couple of friends of mine there basically wanted someone to take portfolio pictures for them,” he recalled. “So I told them I’d do it for them.” Stewart, one of the friends who wanted Laurito to photograph him, hedged his bets by inviting another photographer to the same session.

“This other photographer took the same set of pictures, and Stewart, this perfectly built little Welsh guy, this little baby muscle monster, whom I’d known for years, was really impressed with the fact that I didn’t show genitalia and I didn’t show full frontal nudity,” Laurito said. “That was my own subconscious mind, I think, from all that Catholic upbringing: you don’t do that.”

Wherever it came from, Laurito’s reluctance to show dick and his use of artful cropping to make his pictures what he calls “classic,” instead of pornographic or specifically erotic, became a trademark of his style. “We tend, as a species, to gravitate towards those things that arouse us, and it arouses me too, but the facial expressions that you’d see in his eyes when he was talking were phenomenal. They were so sexy and so cool. When we were talking I said, ‘I would like to shoot you,’ and he said, ‘I’m not model material.’ He said, ‘You really are. You’d be surprised.’”

Stewart, with his pride in Laurito’s pictures of him, proved to be a valuable contact. Stewart was close to the people running Positive Nation, a British magazine for HIV-positive people similar to POZ or Art & Understanding here, and the man he worked for was a close friend of Mark, the man in charge of the British branch of “Mark said he wanted to start up exhibitions and give photographers the chance to express themselves on line,” Laurito recalled. “He said, ‘Send me a bunch of pictures. Let me see what you can do.’”

At the time Laurito was beginning his explorations with the Adobe Photoshop software — a tool that has since become so ubiquitous that its name has entered the language and “to photoshop” has become a verb — which he used, he said, to “put models in scenes and doctor the scenes up to give a kind of science-fiction type look to it.” Laurito had begun doing this for the greeting cards, and when he showed these to Mark, Mark used them in the on-line exhibitions.

In Control

From his earliest days as a photographer of people, Laurito made it clear to his models who was boss. He recalled he’d done that even before he became a professional photographer, when he was producing recording sessions. “When I wanted to get a rough sound out of their voice, it would really piss them off,” he recalled. “Then I’d say, ‘Let’s do a take,’ and I’d get the rough voice. They’d be pissed off, and I’d say, ‘No, fuck it,’ because it was important. I wanted to get that take, and they’d know exactly what I was doing.”

Laurito’s favorite photographer, the late Herb Ritts, would act similarly when he shot his famous album cover photos for Madonna. The first time they met, Laurito said, “she started doing the Madonna thing with him, and he got up and walked away. She said, ‘But that was a good one!’ He said, ‘You know what you’re doing. You don’t need me here.’ And he stopped. She said, ‘Fry an egg. Go ahead.’ He said, ‘Are you sure?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I heard the arrogance in your voice.’ She said, ‘There’s always going to be arrogance in your voice.’ He said, ‘Good, because that’s what I want to hear. I wanted you, not somebody else.’ From then on they were best friends.”

That’s the message Laurito sends to his own photographic clients: if they’re paying him for his talent and expertise, he, not they, is going to control the session and decide what will make them look good. “I’ve turned down a lot of clients for personal photography, because if they’re coming to me they’re coming for my viewpoint, my perception of how to shoot them,” Laurito explained. “I tell them if they want their own viewpoint, they can take their own pictures. They don’t need me to take their pictures. They don’t need to waste their money on me. And usually I’m right. I’m always right in that respect.”

Laurito recalls being amused whenever he’s been on a shoot with another photographer taking pictures of the same subject but from different viewpoints and angles. “A really good friend of mine got me a photo shoot for Calvin Klein in the U.K.,” he said. “I usually don’t use anybody that muscular as the model. Short guy, too, and so beautifully built he scared me. You’ve heard of an ‘eight-pack’? He was a ten-pack! And the nicest guy.”

In this case, the other photographer working the session was Joanne, the model’s agent and also his wife. She casually asked Laurito if she, a professional photographer, could shoot during his session. “There must have been this look in my face like, ‘I’m going to kill somebody,’” Laurito recalled. “She said, ‘I won’t bite. I’ll sit behind you. I want to see if you shoot at the same times I shoot, and what we both shoot.’ Joanne went through three or four rolls of film; I went through about 10, because I was taking four shots for every pose, and it astounded me that when I was zooming out, she was zooming in. We’d be in the same general vicinity, and we had basically the same general idea, but we’d get a whole different angle to each picture. This was the first time it really dawned on me that two people taking the exact same thing can see it in totally opposite ways.”

Breaking the No-Nude Rule

Laurito said that one reason he generally avoids full frontal nudity and obviously sexual poses was that he wants his pictures to have an air of ambiguity — “like the Mona Lisa, where you see that smile and wonder, ‘What is she thinking?’” he explained. “I really try to create pictures that make people looking at them think, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s neat, because 99 percent of the time I think I’ve got that. It’s usually trying to pull that thing out of a person that they’re hiding, that little secret side that they don’t want to show. The Indians say that a camera pulls out your soul, and it’s true. If you’re the right person taking the picture, you can pull out that side of a person that they’d never actually be willing to show.”

According to Laurito, he’s “actually become good friends with, I’d say, 90 percent of my models, which is a really nice feeling to know that you haven’t pissed them off in the process of photographing them.” He talked about two men who regularly sit for him every six months or so. “They’re typically very buff, bearish, manly, rugged, fuckin’-A type guys,” he said. “But the pictures they come out with in the sessions are very gentle. It’s the side of them that I know. It’s not the side that I see them with when I run into them in public, but when I’m in the studio with them I see the insecure and gentle people they really are.”

Photography, said Laurito, is “the kind of business where when you’re working with people, you can insult somebody really easily by not using something from the session, or especially when I won’t show things. I do a lot of shadowing, and some guys are very proud of their private parts and they want to show that. I explain to them, ‘It’s not what I take.’ But somebody else takes pictures of that, and they show it.”

Laurito recalled one model, Daniel, with whom he broke his no-full-frontal and no-dick rules. “The main reason I did that was because when I cropped it, it didn’t look like shit,” he said. “So I left it all in there. In the color version I cropped it, you didn’t see it, and it fit. But for the black-and-white version I needed a wide-angle lens because he’s a very tall guy and he had that long, kind of forlorn, look on his face.” When he couldn’t get the picture to look the way he wanted it to with his usual just-below-the-waist crop, he left Daniel’s cock in place, printed the photo and sent it to his agent, who forwarded it to Daniel.

Three weeks later, Laurito said, he got a phone call from Daniel’s wife Ann. “She said, in this wonderful British accent, ‘I just noticed he’s nude!’” Laurito recalled. “I said, ‘Ann, you gave me the best compliment you possibly could have. You’d hung the picture for three weeks and never noticed the guy was actually nude.’ She said it never even dawned on her. She was looking at the picture, not at his body. I came away from Ann with the best feeling that I’d ever had, that I’d accomplished what I really wanted to accomplish.”

Laurito’s less-is-more approach attracted business from a client whose aesthetic would seem as far away from his as one could imagine: a pornography producer. “They wanted to have what they considered classical pictures of their porn stars for the covers of their DVD’s, rather than the porn shots with X’s and all that,” he recalled. “They wanted something that would pull people in, so they asked me to do the cover shots for them. It was a session with a series of trolls. I couldn’t do anything with these people. They’re not cover material. They’re not going to pull in the public.”

The session was saved from disaster only when, as Laurito remembered, “a couple of them started coming back towards the end. They started realizing what I was getting at, that you can pull people in without showing the whole thing.” That’s one reason why Laurito rarely uses professional models, especially Gay men: because they’re too used to posing a certain way and it’s too difficult for him to shake them loose from their preconceptions of what makes them look good. “The message that I basically want to get through is you don’t have to make a nude body pornographic,” Laurito said. “You can leave it beautiful, leave it the way it is, crop a portion of the face and that’s perfect.”

Art in a Bathhouse

One of the unlikeliest places Laurito has exhibited is inside the Club San Diego bathhouse in Hillcrest. “I’m not really sure” how he got the invitation to hang his work there, he admitted. He thought it came from Jason, a manager at the bathhouse who’d seen Laurito’s exhibit at David’s Coffeehouse a block away from Club San Diego. “He came to me one day when I was in the club and said, ‘I want to spruce things up in here. We’re going to be repainting in here, and I could use some art on the walls, real art, rather than posters and such,’” Laurito recalled. “’If you have anything left over from any of your exhibits, please bring it over.’”

Initially Laurito saw the idea of hanging his photos in a bathhouse more as business promotion than anything else. “I always like hundreds of prints floating around to be seen by people interested in investing money in art,” he explained. But after a while he started seeing it not only as a commercial platform but an aesthetic one as well. Club San Diego’s owner rigged up some frames originally used for advertisements, which Laurito’s pictures could easily be slid in and out of to rotate the exhibits. Laurito returned to the bathhouse and, without revealing he was the photographer, started asking some of the people using the bathhouse what they thought of the pictures.

“One guy said, ‘It’s about damned time we started seeing some good stuff here,’” Laurito recalled. “’If I’m going to be walking around bored, I can look at something rather than a bunch of naked men.’ That’s exactly what the people running the bathhouse wanted. Jason wanted something on each wall between each room, so they painted the walls more often and it looks really cool.” In September Laurito took his camera into the bathhouse to take pictures of his pictures, and boasted that “it doesn’t look like a bathhouse. It looks like a high-class hotel. You’ve got real art on the walls, the painting looks nice and everything looks classy.”

Landscapes and Abstracts

Not all Laurito’s work involves the male form, even cropped, shadowed and made “classic.” He’s also an accomplished landscape photographer — something you have to be in the greeting-card business, he explained, where among the major demands of his clients is for stark, artful, shadowy pictures of trees. Laurito recalled one year he was shooting the annual benefit for the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network on the deck of the U.S.S. Midway (an abandoned aircraft carrier turned naval museum and party venue on the Embarcadero downtown) and, because it was too dark to get good pictures of the people at the benefit, he started shooting the scenery.

“Every year I get the most phenomenal pictures of the sunset,” Laurito recalled. “I’ve got one of a seagull sitting on a jet, and made it look like the jet is flying.” Jason of Club San Diego invited him to exhibit some of his landscapes at the bathhouse, “and I’m glad I have because it stimulates people’s brains. One guy said a picture of a tree reminded him of Death Valley.”

Laurito has also taken a series of particularly striking photos that are totally abstract, repetitive patterns inspired by the disciplined paper-folding technique the Japanese call origami. According to Laurito, the abstracts “developed themselves” out of his reliance on the image-manipulation technology of Adobe Photoshop. “Very rarely will I take a perfect picture,” Laurito admitted. “I’ll be tweaking it with color or contrast or brightness or whatever.” Soon Laurito became especially adept at using the “filters” in Photoshop, which are ways to distort a photo so it looks hand-painted or solarized, and also the “duplication” feature, which allows you to reproduce the same image again and again in a single frame.

“I would take a hillside, chop it in half, duplicate it, put it back together seamlessly, and create a myriad amount of phenomenal effects,” Laurito said. “Things came out of the images, like faces or whatever, which is kind of spooky when you look it it. It’s like, ‘Whoa! Is there something in there that I didn’t see?” His raw material for these images were the photos he took pretty much at random whenever he was finished with a project and was dealing with the post-deadline boredom and burnout.

Then he experimented with doing the duplication effect on the origami patterns a friend of his was folding. “I’ll take pictures of whatever he’s made and then crop it in half and dupe it, so I’ll have two halves of the same side,” Laurito explained. “I’ll put them together seamlessly and see what effect that produces. I might do that 15 to 20 different times and create a bigger picture in general. I’ve started with a small one, and it’s expanded from there. When you look at it overall, it’s scary what actually comes out.” But he doesn’t stop there; Laurito will then use some of the other controls in Photoshop, including a “metalflake” filter that “makes the edges look metallic,” to add even more “amazing” effects to the pictures.

Originally Laurito created the abstracts for his own amusement, “because to me it was just experimental,” he said. “It’s not photography; it’s just playing with it.” But one day he fished them out of the drawer where he’d stashed them, “and when I looked at them I said, ‘Jesus Christ! That’s beautiful!’” After a friend urged him to release the images and exhibit them publicly, “I talked to my agent and showed them to him. He said, ‘They’re tremendous! What are you going to do with all this stuff?’ I told him I’d either erased or thrown them away, and he said the best things people have done are usually the ones they’ve thrown away. It’s the ones you don’t think are good that other people like.”

The reception Laurito’s abstracts have received from people who’ve seen them in exhibits inspires a rare degree of philosophizing from him. “I’ve made them, but I don’t look at them as if I’ve made them,” he said. “I’m very objective with what I do. I look at it as if somebody else had done it. I’m proud of it, but I’m also critical of it. If there’s something that’s the most minutely wrong, I’ll toss it. I won’t use it. It bothers me. It makes me crazy. I’ll try to fix it if I can, but I’ve noticed that it starts to pull people in. They look at it, their brain is saying, ‘What’s this?,’ and their brain is interpreting it in its own way.”

That, said Laurito, is the effect he wants all his work to have on the viewer. “I’m supposed to make you think, to make you look at things not so much objectively but almost subjectively,” he explained. “You’re trying to make a determination, not so much of what the artist was saying — most people say, ‘I want to see what the artist was saying,’ but I don’t believe that’s true — but of what you think of it. Because you know what the artist is saying. He said it. It’s right there. I want to learn what other people are seeing in my pictures.”

David Laurito may be contacted by phone at (949) 510-5664 or via his Web site, He will donate a portion of the purchase price of any work bought at the Pleasures & Treasures show to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and local AIDS service organizations.
Election ’06: Mixed Blessings


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

An excerpt from this article appeared as the “First Word” editorial in the December 2006 Zenger’s Newsmagazine

I must confess I didn’t see the November 7 election result coming. As I noted in these pages, I was sure the Republican Party couldn’t possibly lose. Despite the obvious screw-ups — despite Iraq, Katrina and the “culture of corruption” in Congress — I didn’t think the poor, pathetic Democrats could possibly overcome the institutional advantages the Republicans had built up at least since Ronald Reagan won the presidency. After all, the Republicans had quite a lot going for them, including a quarter-century of omnipresent propaganda about how, in Reagan’s (in)famous words, “Government is not the solution to your problems; government is the problem.”

They also had a meticulous system of targeting sympathetic individual voters in hostile precincts, infrastructures in socially conservative churches expert at building massive turnout, a whole alternative media system anchored in talk radio and Fox News (by far America’s most popular cable news channel) to keep the faithful indoctrinated and give them their marching orders, and control of the actual machinery by which the votes are counted. Only three companies manufacture computer equipment and software for American elections, and the CEO’s of all of them are major Republican contributors.

Well, for once none of that was enough this November. Not even the best efforts of Karl Rove and his cadre of Republican apparatchiks either to seize on or manufacture an “October surprise” could pull out the 2006 election for them the way they did in 2002 and 2004. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and the “court” of Iraq’s puppet “government” duly convicted Saddam Hussein of genocide and sentenced him to death — and the American voters couldn’t have cared less.

What motivated enough of them to vote Democrat to give the opposition party control of both houses of Congress was, first, their frustration at being stuck in a Viet Nam-like quagmire in Iraq — the sort of war former Secretary of State Colin Powell once warned against, the kind with no clear goal or criterion to let us know we’d won (or lost) — and second, the horror at seeing the Republicans not only take dubious “campaign contributions” from corporate officials and then faithfully do the corporations’ bidding, but their utter lack of shame about it.

The Democrats played the game expertly, neutralizing the so-called “social issues” by which the Republicans had killed them in 2000 and 2004 by picking candidates who were just as socially conservative as the Republicans they opposed. Twenty years ago, the notoriously anti-choice Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, was denied a chance to speak to the Democratic convention. This year Casey’s son, equally strident in his opposition to abortion rights, was the party’s consensus candidate for U.S. Senate and his anti-choice convictions instrumental in his victory over Republican incumbent Rick Santorum — and the Democrats’ capture of the Senate by the bare minimum, 51 to 49.

The nationwide poster boy for the new breed of Christian-Right Democrat was Heath Shuler, former National Football League quarterback and congressional candidate in North Carolina. His Web site proudly described him as a conservative Southern Baptist and a “pro-life Democrat,” and other reporting on the race indicated that he would favor a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Shuler also took a Right-wing position on the immigration issue, attacking President Bush’s guest-worker program as “amnesty” and indicating he would have voted with the House Republican majority on an immigration bill that concentrated on border enforcement only without acknowledging the rights of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

Whatever the motives of voters for repudiating the Republicans, it certainly had nothing to do with liking the Democrats any better. Polls on the eve of the election revealed that 60 percent of the voters felt they knew what the Republicans stood for as a party, while only 46 percent felt the same about the Democrats. The 2006 election was a perfect example of what the late political scientist V. O. Key meant when he wrote 40 years ago, in The Responsible Electorate, that Americans do vote on issues, but “retrospectively and negatively.” The Democrats didn’t win because they were offering Americans a better alternative to the Republicans; they won simply by being, to paraphrase the old 7-Up ad slogan, the “un-Republicans.”

The Democratic triumph in 2006 is already being compared to the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994, but the comparison is unfair. The Republican insurgents in 1994 ran on a nationwide platform, Newt Gingrich’s so-called “Contract with America,” and made it as clear as they possibly could — given the biases in America’s political and media systems against any serious discussion of issues — what they stood for and what they would do if elected (not that they kept all their promises). The Democrats of 2006, by contrast, tailored their message so closely to whatever district they were running in that they really weren’t a national party at all, just a collection of interest groups across the country united by nothing but the desire to get the Republicans out and enjoy the perks of power, especially in the House, after a 12-year drought.

This was the main reason why the national Democrats didn’t do what David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat, suggested they do in one of his editorials: put forth a comprehensive House ethics reform package that would make the kind of corruption the Republicans engaged in impossible. Rolland missed the point: the Democrats didn’t want to become a majority in the House to get rid of the opportunities for corporate contributions and selling public policy the Republicans had exploited so effectively. Rather, the Democrats wanted a majority so they could get the money and the corporate perks for themselves. Despite the number of voters who said they were specifically upset about “earmarks” — Congressmembers’ practice of sneaking into bills provisions specifically setting aside money for projects in their home districts — the Democratic Speaker-elect, Nancy Pelosi; the new majority leader, Steny Hoyer; and the man Pelosi endorsed for the majority leader position, John Murtha, all turned out to be A-number-1 earmarkers themselves.

The newly ascendant Democrats need to realize that America remains a profoundly conservative country. They must avoid both the temptation of pursuing an overly liberal economic and social agenda and the temptation of thinking that the voters’ new-found concern over political corruption will dissipate and let them collect the boodle as usual. The worst thing the Democrats could possibly do in office, in terms of their ability to hold on to their majority and have a shot at regaining the White House in 2008, is to play the same pay-to-play games with corporate contributors and public policy the Republicans played during their 12 years in the majority (and the Democrats played in the years before that). If they yield to that temptation, voters will decide that both parties are equally corrupt, and that government is not to be trusted to serve the people — and they’ll go back to electing the Republicans who’ve been telling them that for at least 42 years.

The corruption issue is all the more important for Congressional Democrats because the other big issue that got them their majority — the war in Iraq — is, paradoxically, the one about which they can do the least. Donald Rumsfeld may have lost his job as a result of the election, but George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are still very much in command, still true believers in the “mission” in Iraq and still confident of overall “victory,” whatever that means. The administration shows every sign of continuing the war in Iraq indefinitely and possibly extending it to Iran, and short of cutting off the funding for the war — which ain’t gonna happen because any Congressmember or Senator who proposed it would be accused of “not supporting our troops” — there isn’t a damned thing Congress can do to stop them.

The November 7 election and its aftermath should have one more important effect: it should destroy forever any illusions about the U.S. having a “liberal media.” Not only did a conservative paper like the San Diego Union-Tribune headline the story “Democrats Seize Control of Congress” — as if they’d staged a coup d’état rather than winning a free and fair election — but even a supposedly “liberal” paper like the Los Angeles Times has been covering the Democrats’ election of their Congressional leaders and committee chairs in a blatantly patronizing way. The battles between Steny Hoyer and Jack Murtha over the position of House majority leader (won by Hoyer though speaker-elect Pelosi endorsed Murtha) and between Jane Harman and Alcee Hastings for the chair of the House Intelligence committee are being covered like playground disputes, and Right-wing outlets like Fox News are already declaring the Democratic Congress a failure more than a month before it even takes office.

Aside from the idea that a party whose members march in zombie-like precision to the dictates of their leaders is somehow better than one in which the members have their own minds and vote for the people they want — one would think a country that proclaims itself a democracy would celebrate the Democrats’ independence of thought over the Republicans’ rote obedience — the message American voters are getting from the mainstream media is, “You made a big mistake November 7. You let a bunch of kids take over Congress. Fortunately, you’ll have a chance to fix that error in two years and put the grownups” — i.e., the Republicans — “back in charge.”

State and Local Disasters

Whatever good might have come from the 2006 elections nationwide, for the most part the returns in California, and especially in San Diego, were disastrous for the progressive cause. I may have been wrong about the national battle for Congress but I was dead right about Arnold Schwarzenegger; while others were solemnly declaring him politically dead after the debacle of his special-election initiatives in November 2005, I had no doubt he would get re-elected, partly because he’s larger than life — he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, damnit — and partly because, just as he started making comedies like Junior and Kindergarten Cop in the early 1990’s after the spectacular failure of his film The Last Action Hero, so he switched scripts as a politician, embraced an image as a moderate and undercut any possible Democratic challenger by cutting a deal with the Democrats in the legislature for his five “Rebuilding California” bond measures, all of which passed.

That astonished me — I’d thought the embers of the Proposition 13 tax revolt were still sufficiently hot to burn down any major new effort at state spending — but the combination of a bipartisan campaign and the siren song of “free money” turned the trick. The phrase “no new taxes” appeared so often in the campaign ads for Propositions 1A through 1E, it amounted to a deliberate deception. Given the addition of whopping new debt to the California state budget, on top of years of borrowing under both Schwarzenegger and his recalled predecessor, Gray Davis, just to pay the state’s operating expenses, the question is not whether state taxes will have to go up, but when, by how much, and whether the additional burden will fall primarily on corporations and the rich or (more likely in today’s political climate) on the working and middle classes through sales taxes, state fees and other regressive levies.

Only two other statewide ballot measures passed. Proposition 83, a draconian new batch of laws aimed at individuals convicted of sex crimes, sailed to victory by a 3-to-1 margin. It’s true that pedophiles aren’t exactly the most popular people in society, but the measures imposed by 83 — including sweeping restrictions on where they can live and a requirement that they wear global positioning devices and be monitored for the rest of their lives — not only offend against the basic principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence that people should be punished for what they’ve actually done, not for what somebody thinks they might do in the future, but in practice has only driven them more deeply underground and forced them on rural areas ill-equipped to handle them or provide them the therapy they need to keep from re-offending. Proposition 84, a water-quality bond measure, squeezed out a victory probably in the wake of 1A through 1E.

All six other statewide initiatives lost. The good news for progressives is that took down Proposition 85, San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman’s latest attempt to swing the state against choice on abortion by imposing a parental notification requirement for minors; and Proposition 90, a deceptive initiative ostensibly curbing the abuse of eminent domain to benefit wealthy developers but really aimed at gutting all zoning restrictions and environmental regulations on land use. The bad news was that Propositions 86 and 87 — to impose new taxes on tobacco to fund health care and on the oil industry to bankroll alternative energy, respectively — both fell victim to blatantly deceptive ad campaigns paid for by the industries that would have been affected.

But the worst blow to California progressives was the sweeping 3-to-1 rejection of Proposition 89, the so-called “clean elections” campaign reform that allows grass-roots candidates to run for office and professional politicians an alternative to begging for millions of dollars from the corporate rich and other special interests. Every attempt at enacting any sort of public financing of elections in California has failed at the polls — and until the citizens of this state get wise and realize that the only workable alternative to private campaign financing and the “pay-to-play” politics that result is public financing, meaningful campaign reform is a dead issue in this state. It’s clear from the results on 86, 87 and 89 that California progressives can forget about the initiative as a means of achieving their political goals any time soon.

Locally, the election news was even worse for progressives than it was statewide. Propositions B and C, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ two initiatives to decimate the city’s work force and turn its jobs over to private companies (which usually hire the same workers but pay them about half as much and don’t offer health care, pensons or any other benefits), passed by sweeping margins. Voters in the 50th Congressional District in North County once again made it clear they prefer a corrupt Republican to an honest Democrat, and openly Gay Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla lost his bid for re-election by a landslide 60 to 40 percent margin. The silver lining in the Padilla race was that his sexual orientation had nothing to do with his defeat; even the famously homophobic paper La Prensa San Diego endorsed him.

Same-Sex Marriage: The Nail in the Coffin?

One of the ironies of the 2006 election is that it may have brought the passage of a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage nationwide closer, not pushed it farther away. Just before the election I published a long article on the Zenger’s blog,, called “The Game, Not the Name,” in which I argued that the Queer community needs to abandon the demand for marriage under that name and concentrate on winning domestic-partnership and civil-union rights for their relationships. Inspired by the New Jersey state supreme court decision that its Lesbian and Gay couples were entitled under its constitution to all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, but not the term “marriage” itself, I argued not only that polls show a far greater level of political support for granting rights to Queer couples without calling them “marriage,” but that the term “marriage” itself carries a lot of social, historical, psychological and spiritual baggage that makes it inappropriate as a description for how Queer people actually conduct their relationships.

The results in the November 2006 election offered mixed results for this strategy. In 2004, 13 state initiatives had sought to ban same-sex marriage, and every one of them passed — regardless of whether they also contained bans on domestic partnerships or civil unions, and regardless of whether the state had gone Republican or Democratic in the Presidential election. This year, the six states that had up-or-down votes on banning same-sex marriage without also banning domestic partnerships and civil unions — Wisconsin, South Dakota, Virginia, Idaho, South Carolina and Tennessee — all passed the bans, though in some cases by smaller margins than expected.

In Colorado, voters gave Queers the double whammy on the marriage issue: they passed a marriage ban and they defeated a measure that would have allowed for recognition of domestic partnerships. On the other hand, in Arizona, the one state in 2006 where a ballot measure combined a marriage and a domestic partnership/civil union ban, it was defeated by a razor-thin 51 to 49 percent margin. This indicates not only that the home state of Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O’Connor and John McCain retains a share of cussed libertarianism in its conservatism — a sense that the term “limited government” means lassiez-faire not only in the economy but in people’s private lives as well — but that it’s possible to defeat a marriage ban if its proponents get too ambitious and try to deny any form of legal recognition for Gay and Lesbian couples.

All those new Congressional Democrats from conservative districts are going to be very concerned about “making their bones” on the social issues — persuading the voters back home that they’re not going to abandon their anti-choice, anti-Queer convictions as back-benchers in a party whose national leadership is still pretty liberal and whose newly elected speaker comes from “Queer Marriage Central,” San Francisco. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the House Democratic leadership to schedule a vote on a hot-button social issue, and a good chance that Republicans and conservative Democrats will come together to give the radical Right something of a national victory.

The issue is unlikely to have anything to do with abortion for one simple reason: there are a not more straight women in the U.S. than there are Queers, and a blatantly anti-choice bill from the Democrats is going to piss off a lot more core voters in the Democratic coalition than a ban on same-sex marriage. I think a vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment is likely to come in the current Congress, and rather than continuing to fight it, the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the Queer community should negotiate the language so the amendment only restricts marriage to one man and one woman, while continuing to allow states to recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions.

This sort of “grand compromise” is hardly ideal. It essentially means acknowledging that in the United States emotional commitments between people of the same gender are perpetually going to be considered less significant than those between opposite-gender couples. It also means that the struggle for relationship equality is going to be a long, hard, multi-decade slog on a state-by-state level, and that the best we can accomplish on the federal level — an amendment to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (passed by bipartisan majorities and signed into law by a Democratic president) providing that for purposes of federal benefits, domestic partnerships and civil unions in the states that have them would be considered functionally equivalent to marriages — will probably be at least 50 years away.

But I remain convinced that if the Queer community puts all its eggs in the basket called “marriage” — if it continues the insane political strategy of pursuing a goal that only one-quarter of the American people support — the result will be a sweeping Federal Marriage Amendment that will ban all legal or contractual recognition of Gay and Lesbian partnerships anywhere in the U.S. As the comic novelist Leonard Wibberley put it in The Mouse on the Moon, you can’t always snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but sometimes you can achieve something even more difficult; you can snatch compromise from the jaws of disaster. That, I’m convinced, is the best we can hope for on the “marriage” issue.

Who Really Outed Ted Haggard?

One of the quirkier aspects of this year’s election was the weird morality play that got acted out in the last month or so of the campaign. First, Republican Congressmember Mark Foley of Florida, whose party leadership had put him in charge of a subcommittee on protecting children from sexual exploitation via the Internet — and who had pushed various versions of a bill to do that so draconian the U.S. Supreme Court twice declared it unconstitutional — was caught sending sleazy e-mails and instant text messages to teenage Congressional pages. (“Do I make you a little bit horny?” wrote the 52-year-old Congressmember to a 17-year-old page.)

Then Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who had built a church in Denver from 12 families meeting in his basement to a mega-church drawing 14,000 members and filling a giant auditorium every Sunday, found himself “outed” as a crystal-using Queer by a 49-year-old man he’d paid to have sex with him and supply him with the drug. At first Haggard offered some of the usual dog-ate-my-homework excuses — he’d only hired the man for a massage, and he’d bought the drugs from him but never actually used them — but eventually he gave a blurry but unmistakable statement of no-contest to the charges and accepted losing his job at the National Association of Evangelicals and as pastor of the church he had built.

Queers across the country celebrated these stories as classic examples of the hypocrisy of the radical Right, blasting away at homosexuality in public while enjoying the forbidden joys in private. In both cases, the truth is a little more complicated. First of all, while Foley’s sexual approaches to House pages were disgusting and flagrant examples of sexual harassment, they weren’t illegal. The age of sexual consent in the District of Columbia is 16, and all the young men Foley approached with his sorry little missives were 16 or 17. What’s more, in 1973 a newly elected Democratic Congressmember from Massachusetts named Gerry Studds had actually had sex with a 17-year-old page — not just talked about it the way Foley had — and he’d kept the secret for 10 years before the former page who’d been his lover outed him.

What was different was that the Democratic majority in power in the House in 1983 held Studds — and a Republican who was caught at the same time having had sex with a female teenage page— to account. The House passed a resolution of censure and Studds apologized for his actions, acknowledged his Gay orientation and moved on, serving in Congress until he retired in 1997. Indeed, in one of those macabre coincidences a movie producer wouldn’t let a writer put into a script for fear the audience would find it unbelievable, Studds died this year just as the Foley scandal was at its peak, after having been off the radar screen of the American media for years.

Foley’s antics reminded me more than anyone else of another hot-pantsed Republican, former Oregon Senator Robert Packwood, who was a reliable vote for women’s rights on the Senate floor but in private never seemed to meet a woman he didn’t want to grope. On this particular “moral” issue, the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Democrats tend to take sexual harassment seriously whether it’s Queer or straight — while the Republicans, with a few courageous exceptions, have invested so much political capital into demonizing Queers as a class that a Mark Foley seems more heinous to them than a Robert Packwood simply because his victims were the same gender as he was. Besides, at least one page who interacted with Foley actually did have sex with him a few years later — and went to the media with fond memories of the experience as an important milestone in his own coming-out as a Gay man.

As for Ted Haggard, his story is even more complex than Foley’s. Despite the statement of the man who outed him that he was motivated by Haggard’s support of the ban on same-sex marriage on the 2006 Colorado ballot, Haggard was actually a relative moderate within the world of evangelical Christianity. He was a key figure in a campaign within the evangelical movement to get the Christian Right to take global warming seriously, and along with his vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik (who, ironically, had the task of announcing to the media that Haggard had been relieved of its presidency), had joined a group of evangelicals publicly challenging the government to do more to stop global warming.

What’s more, while Haggard endorsed the ban on same-sex marriage, he refused to take a position against the Colorado initiative to recognize Gay and Lesbian couples as domestic partners — thereby staking out the most pro-Queer, or at least Queer-neutral, position one could expect from an evangelical Christian leader. He made some powerful enemies, including such big guns on the radical Christian Right as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson — and he also threatened the coalition between pro-business lassiez-faire Republicans and the radical Right that had made the Republican Party the dominant force in American politics for a generation.

An evangelical movement that started questioning its own marriage with the pro-business Right — that started harking back to the traditions of William Jennings Bryan and wondering whether “bash the environment” and “bash the poor” are truly Christian moral values — would be a threat to business interests in general and the energy industry in particular. With a Republican Party so in thrall to the energy industry that the president, vice-president and secretary of state are all former executives of it, it’s certainly conceivable that some energy-industry lobbyists spread money far and wide to come up with some dirt on Ted Haggard … and did.