Sunday, July 30, 2006

“Spirit of Stonewall” Rally Kicks Off Queer Pride

Event Followed by Parade, Two-Day Festival


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

Under the slogan “Equality: No Turning Back,” San Diego’s 37th annual LGBT [Queer] Pride events kicked off with a sparsely attended “Spirit of Stonewall” rally on Friday night, July 28. Attendance at the much more popular parts of Pride weekend — the parade through Hillcrest on July 29 and the festival in the Marston Point area of Balboa Park off Sixth Avenue July 29 and 30 — was strong despite some concerns that the unseasonably overcast and humid weather might keep people away (it actually rained briefly the morning of the parade).

The Pride celebrations featured some political activism, mostly around the demand for marriage equality for same-sex couples, but it was also promoted as a major tourist attraction for San Diego, Mayor Jerry Sanders, who rode in the parade, told newscasters before the event that Pride brings in about $21 million to the city, much of it spent by Queer tourists attracted to San Diego for the event. The Friday night rally took place under a giant banner announcing that in the last 10 years Pride had raised an estimated $1 million for various Queer community organizations and causes.

The rally was hosted by Lesbian activist Laura Jean Willcock and opened with introductions of the Pride organization’s board chairs, Philip Princetta and Anne Hewett, Pride executive director Ron deHarte, board members, community notables and City Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Donna Frye. Atkins and Frye were there to present the annual proclamation from the City Council of “LGBT Pride weekend,” which hadn’t been forthcoming in 2005 even though Atkins had been the city’s interim mayor during the pride events.

The 2005 proclamation was withdrawn at the last minute following a controversy started by radical-Right activist James Hartline, a self-proclaimed “ex-Gay,” HIV-positive recovering crystal addict, who had looked up the names of all Pride’s 10,000 volunteers on a state database of registered sex offenders and found four people listed. Openly Lesbian San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis refused to participate in the 2005 parade unless all the former sex offenders were removed from the volunteer rolls, and the Pride board decided to withdraw their application for a city proclamation.

This year, though Hartline and fellow radical-Right activists packed the final City Council meeting before the events and said that city sanction of LGBT Pride would encourage the spread of pornography, drug use and AIDS, the proclamation not only went through, it was passed unanimously. What’s more, the usual section to the side of the parade cordoned off for religious-Right protesters drew a far smaller crowd — less than 10 — than usual.

“We continue our fight for equality in the courts, legislatures and at the ballot box,” Atkins said at the rally. Citing the recent appointment of Traci Jarman to head the San Diego Fire Department, Atkins added, “Who would have thought that the city of San Diego would select a Lesbian as our new fire chief, and not only would her sexual orientation not be an issue in her selection, it was hardly mentioned except by our community.”

Atkins’ comments set the assimilationist tone for much of the rally, which featured four major speakers. First up was Rev. Troy Perry, who founded the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Los Angeles in 1968 after being kicked out of the Baptist ministry for being Gay. Perry built up the MCC into an international federation of nondenominational Christian churches that became the largest Queer organization of any kind in history. Though he recently retired as pastor of the L.A. MCC, Perry showed off in his speech at the rally that his “preacher chops” are alive and well, delivering a sort of secular sermon in the familiar rising and falling cadences of Baptist preaching.

Rev. Perry recalled an attack on the MCC in Atlanta, in which there were three attempts to burn the church down. When he went to Atlanta to see what he could do to help, he found the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had editorialized on behalf of the MCC members’ right to worship as they chose. What’s more, when he went to the church, “there were 40 butch dykes from the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Association, and they said, ‘We are here to make sure nothing happens to this church.’ Who would have thought that God would send his angels in the form of biker Lesbians?”

Another one of Rev. Perry’s anecdotes took his audience back to the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the syndrome was still called GRID — Gay-Related Immune Deficiency — and he got his first phone call from a member of his congregation who had been diagnosed with it. In those days, he recalled, hospital staff members routinely put AIDS patients in isolation, left their food by the door of their rooms rather than entering with it, and dressed up in protective suits for fear of catching the syndrome casually.

When Rev. Perry first went to the hospital to see Dean, his sick parishoner, “he was isolated as if he’d been in a nuclear accident,” Perry recalled. They said I needed to wear a mask and hooded suit, and I said, ‘Dean doesn’t need to see me this way.’ I went in and hugged him for 15 minutes. He said he was going to die in six months and I told him, ‘Say with me: “You’re going to live with it, not die with it.”’ He told me he couldn’t get out of bed and the hospital refused to feed him. They left his food outside his door and wouldn’t bring it to him.”

Furious, Rev. Perry charged into the office of the hospital’s director and, waved in by a secretary who called him “Father Perry” — a mistake he didn’t bother to correct — “I told him, ‘I have a member of my church on the first floor and the staff won’t feed him. You don’t know much about publicity, but I’m telling you, I’m the one who can give it to you.’” According to Rev. Perry, from that time on the hospital’s attitude towards Dean turned 180°, to the point where when he was released he complained that the staff had been in his room with food trays so often — every two hours — he worried about getting fat. Dean lived four years after his initial hospitalization, and the last time he saw Rev. Perry he said, “You see, I lived with it. I didn’t die with it.”

Rev. Perry also told of his joy at the Queer community’s two big court victories in late 2003 — the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas declaring sodomy laws unconstitutional and the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling ordering that state to marry same-sex couples on the same basis as opposite-sex ones — as well as the legal victory for marriage equality in Canada, in a case actually filed by a Canadian MCC. “I told everyone I was going to marry Philip” (his partner), Rev. Perry recalled — then said he’d suddenly realized that the one person he hadn’t mentioned it to was Philip himself. After a classic movie proposal with Rev. Perry literally on bended knees in front of Philip asking him to marry him, the couple went to Canada despite warnings from reporters that they still wouldn’t be legally married in the U.S. Rev. Perry’s response paraphrased the famous National Rifle Association slogan: “They will take this ring off my cold, dead hand.”

Lavender Lens publisher and Lesbian activist and historian Bixi B. Craig had the unenviable task of following Rev. Perry. Craig’s talk was a surprisingly scholarly account of the evolution of the Queer struggle for equality from the early post-Stonewall days of “Gay liberation” into what she called “a more moderate, strategically rational movement.” Parts of Craig’s talk acknowledged more radical tendencies in the current Queer movement — including younger Queers’ growing tendency to reject the idea that they are “just like everybody else” and refuse to define themselves with hard-and-fast sexual orientations or gender identities — but most of her themes described a community becoming more integrated into the social norms.

“Our movement continues into the future with a ripening mood of integration into the popular culture,” Craig said. “We have learned to understand that spirituality is an integral part of people’s lives and our opposition is not rooted in church. … Another thing we have learned is that capitalism is not a bad thing after all. It has given us spaces in which to thrive: our own bars, restaurants, hair stylists and other businesses — and it has opened certain spaces for Gay and Lesbian life.” Craig described the marriage equality issue as a battle over “property rights” and the rights of same-sex couples to “procreate and raise children with the same rights as others, including full rights to adopt and foster.”

Craig wrapped up her speech with a laundry list of assimilationist demands: “Let Gay and Bisexual men have the same right to donate blood as everyone else [homosexually active men were barred from blood donations in the early 1980’s because of AIDS concerns and the ban remains in place to this day]. Let our military men and women serve not only proudly but openly as to who they are. Let our youth be guided in houses of education and everywhere else. Give same-sex couples the same access to the legal system as everyone else, not only marriage but family court and sexual-harassment litigation. Give us security in retail establishments. … As activists, we work for full LGBT rights in society. The language has changed but the message has not. Either we are fully equal or we are not.”

The following speaker was Neil Giuliano, former mayor of Tempe, Arizona and current executive director of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a nationwide organization which lobbies for positive depictions of Queers in the media. Giuliano said that he had come to a San Diego Pride event in 1996 and had been encouraged by the experience to come out as a Gay man. He joked that when he finally did so, early in his second term as Tempe mayor, the stories in the local papers began, “Ending years of speculation … ”.

“I really believe that the way the media portray our lives doesn’t make a bit of difference: it makes all the difference,” Giuliano said. “The visibility of our issues is greater than ever before. There is no turning back from the issues, and the way the media talk about those issues and frame those issues is very important. Public policy changes as public opinion changes. I share the frustration of activists that we haven’t won everything yet, but we have to balance the frustration with the strong successes we have had in just the last five years.”

Giuliano mentioned various issues GLAAD has been involved in, including the full-page “Marriage Matters” ads in the New York Times and other papers, which he said were actually started not by Queers but by straight allies, including the mayors of Salt Lake City and Boston. He also warned that, though polls show that young people are more sympathetic to Queer issues generally and marriage in particular than any older age group, we can’t take it for granted that they’ll stay that way.

“Our young people are being targeted by the fundamentalist religious Right,” Giuliano warned. “They’re going after them with targeted programs at high schools and colleges, and we’re creating a youth media program of our own aimed not only at LGBT but straight youth.” He also said that GLAAD is aiming another program at “people of faith and religion,” specifically at finding and highlighting the voices of “those who are in inclusive communities of faith.”

The final speaker was Juba Kalamka, African-American Gay activist and rapper with the Deep Dickollective, one of the leading groups in the so-called “homohop” movement of Queer and Queer-friendly rap. Alone of the speakers, Kalamka addressed the class issues of Queerdom as well as the racial ones, devoting most of his time to reading an intensely moving poem he wrote to the memory of Rocky Williams. Williams, a close friend and mentor of his in San Francisco, had headed the African Program of the STOP AIDS Project until his suicide July 24. According to Kalamka, Williams killed himself because he’d suffered financially, could no longer afford to pay San Francisco’s notoriously high rents, and had ended up homeless.

“This is the first time this has happened to someone who I was close to and who was as active as he was,” Kalamka explained. “I can’t leave without talking about him. Randy was not isolated in terms of lack of access to resources, but he was isolated in other ways. For me, it’s about remembering that because I don’t want to have to deal with that again.”
Israel’s Racism


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

Once upon a time Jews were among the world’s principal victims of racism. For centuries the Jews of Europe were locked in ghettos, forbidden employment in most businesses or trades, and routinely murdered, and their property destroyed, in state-sanctioned pogroms. Vicious lies were spread about them to justify these policies, from the myth that Jews sought to have sex with non-Jews to spread STD’s to the infamous “blood libel” that Jewish rituals required the sacrifice of Christian babies. Eventually, in the 1940’s, a major world power, Germany, sought to exterminate all the Jews in the world — and, at least in Europe, they came all too close to succeeding.

But that, as the saying goes, is so-o-o-o-o 20th century. Today it is the Jews — at least the ones currently running the so-called “Jewish state” of Israel and their faithful supporters and apologists in the U.S. — who are perpetrating and facilitating these kinds of racist abuses against Israel’s Palestinian and Arab neighbors. It is Jews who are locking Arabs into virtual ghettos where they can’t sustain themselves economically, making them pass through humiliating checkpoints on a daily basis, revoking their right to work without notice, sometimes leaving their sick to die by barring ambulances from traveling to hospitals, and often — as now — physically attacking and killing them with rockets, bombs, tanks and bulldozers. They haven’t built killing centers to murder the Palestinians en masse — at least not yet — but the Jews who run Israel have done everything else to the Palestinians that the Nazis did to the Jews.

The turnabout from Jews as victims to Jews as perpetrators really began in 1895, when an international Jewish congress founded the Zionist movement to set up a Jewish-run state in historical Palestine. For 50 years, with a few exceptions (like the British government’s Balfour Declaration in 1917), the rest of the world treated Zionism as the madness it was, an arrogant attempt by one group of people to displace another group from a country the Jews hadn’t lived in for nearly 2,000 years. That changed with the end of World War II, when the victorious Allies — genuinely surprised by the scope and extent of the Holocaust and rightly feeling guilty at having done so little to stop it while it was in progress — were guilt-tripped into giving Zionist militias the “right” to conquer 78 percent of Palestine and use it to establish Israel. The formation of Israel was a perfect example of the proverbial second wrong that doesn’t make a right.

The Zionists took the land that is now Israel from its Palestinian and Arab occupants with the same no-holds-barred fury and viciousness their forebears had used in stealing the same piece of real estate from the Philistines and Canaanites 5,000 years earlier. They launched endless artillery attacks and acts of terrorism to drive the Palestinians from their homes and force them into exile, often into squalid “temporary” refugee camps where many of their descendants live to this day. Indeed, one of the leading Jewish terrorists of the late 1940’s, Menachem Begin, became prime minister of Israel 30 years later.

The 22 percent of historic Palestine that hadn’t been conquered by Jews in the late 1940’s fell to them in the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel took vast swaths of land from the Arab states it had defeated — Jordan, Syria and Egypt — and in the West Bank and Gaza (formerly parts of Jordan and Egypt, respectively), Israel launched an ambitious program of settlement-building that steadily continued under both “liberal” and “conservative” Israeli governments. Israel’s aim was the same as the Nazis’ had been: to create Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Jews to occupy permanently, driving out or exterminating the previous occupants — and, like the Nazis, the Jews justified these actions by making racist claims of superiority over the people they were displacing.

Yes, Israel later gave back some of the land they conquered in 1967 — but only when U.S. presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton pressured them into it by reminding them that the U.S., which gives more foreign aid to Israel than any other country, essentially keeps Israel afloat economically. But until former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon announced his sham “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005, they held on to all of Palestine and continued to move in Jewish settlers. The “withdrawal” from Gaza was part of Sharon’s plan to “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian crisis by annexing virtually all of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians a non-viable rump “state” in Gaza and bits of the West Bank where few or no Jews had settled. The idea was to create a greater Israel that would still have a Jewish majority — and prevent the Palestinians from someday taking over Israel the way the Blacks took over South Africa: by demanding inclusion in the political process and voting themselves in and the Jews out.

The current crisis in Israel, Lebanon and Gaza can’t be understood except as part of Israel’s ongoing quest for domination of the entire region — and the racist prejudices that underlie it. It began in late June when a small band of terrorists affiliated with Hamas, the ruling political party in what there is of a Palestinian state, staged a minor cross-border raid into Israel, killed two soldiers and kidnapped a third. Israel’s response showed that, despite their pretense of having “withdrawn” from Gaza, they still considered themselves boss: they sent in troops, tanks and bombers, burned the headquarters of the Palestinian government and arrested its ministers.

While more rational people called Israel’s response wildly disproportionate, Israel’s apologists made clear their real racist agenda. In a column in the July 6 Los Angeles Times, Alan Kaufman said that Israel’s critics didn’t realize that, “in Israel, the loss by death or abduction of a single soldier is an utterly devastating national event.” Like New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, who had justified a previous Israeli atrocity by saying Israel needed to show the Arab world that “Jewish blood does not come cheap,” Kaufman’s statement revealed the racism at the root of Israel and the entire Zionist project. “Jewish blood,” “Jewish lives,” the justification of killing hundreds or even thousands of Palestinians or other Arabs over the death or abduction of one Jew: it’s a weirdly reversed version of the Nazis’ monstrous ideology in which the Jews have put themselves where Hitler put the so-called “Aryans” — on top as a “master race.”

As in Gaza, so in Lebanon: Israel’s attack on a country they supposedly “withdrew” from six years earlier was prompted by the kidnapping of two Jewish soldiers, and at press time had been so asymmetrical that Lebanon’s death toll was 234 — almost all of them civilians — while Israel had lost just 34 people, 19 of them active-duty servicemembers and therefore legitimate targets in Lebanon’s war of self-defense. While the U.S. media generally gave an account of these events heavily slanted in Israel’s favor (radical Israelis frequently say that their own country’s media are freer to criticize Israel’s policies than ours are), bits of the truth have leaked through — notably a CNN report that many Lebanese believe Israel’s attack on their country is the first step towards conquering it, driving out its Arab Muslim and Christian inhabitants and resettling it with Jews. What’s more, they think that once Israel conquers Lebanon they will turn north and do the same thing to Syria.

Far-fetched? Not when you realize Israel has done the exact same thing at least twice before, in 1948 and 1967. It’s become clear from Israel’s history and policies — pursued with equal fervor and determination under “liberal” Labor, “conservative” Likud and now “moderate” Kadima governments alike — that the United Nations General Assembly had it right in the 1970’s when it proclaimed that Zionism was racism. Israel’s apologists like to say that the reason the Middle East is still in crisis is because groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and the states that sponsor them — Syria and Iran, respectively — have never reconciled themselves to Israel’s “right to exist.” Why should they? Every square inch of Israel was taken at gunpoint from its Palestinian and other Arab inhabitants — and as long as Israel continues to justify both its existence and its policies on the racist lies of Zionism, its neighbors will have every right in the world to fight to gain their land back.


Hot Desert Knights Owners Re-Establish the Bareback Video


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

Once upon a time — from the mid-1970’s, when the above-ground Gay porn business got started, to the late 1980’s — the men who had sex with each other in porn videos were blessedly condom-free. That all changed in the early 1990’s when, at the height of AIDS consciousness, Gay porn producers began to incorporate condom use into their films as well as prefacing them with safer-sex lectures. The condoms wouldn’t have been so bad if the filmmakers had figured out any way of integrating them into the action; if they could have managed to eroticize the act of putting a condom on, their movies might have been more entertaining and also more effective in propagandizing for safer sex.

Instead, they took the easy way out and created what Hot Desert Knights owners Bill Gardner and John Singleton call “the magic condom” — the one that just suddenly appears on the top partner’s cock right at the moment when foreplay stops and actual penetration begins. The whole concept is so ridiculous that even one porn star who refuses to do anal sex scenes without a condom nonetheless jokes about the director calling, “Cut for condom!,” when The Moment is reached.

In 1998, Gardner and Singleton, a retired Gay couple in Palm Springs, stumbled into porn production and created a new market for “bareback” — condom-free — Gay videos. Today, judging from the catalogs of porn retailers, videos showing Gay men having sex with each other as nature intended them to, without condoms or barriers of any kind, are once again in the ascendancy.

But ditching the “magic condom” wasn’t the only innovation Gardner and Singleton made; they also got rid of the pretentious attempts at plot and acting that had crept into the productions of the Gay porn mainstream. Hot Desert Knights films often begin right in the middle of hot, heavy sexual proceedings, and for a company that’s staked out a market niche in on-screen barebacking their movies are in a real sense middle-of-the-road productions. Their models are neither skinny, hairless twinks nor big, hefty bears, but ordinarily attractive men you can imagine being willing to go home with you, and the sex is often spiced with appealing bits of kink without going all-out into potentially off-putting hard-core S/M.

Bill Gardner and John Singleton came down to San Diego to be the guests of honor at the opening of Pleasures and Treasures, the new erotica and novelty shop owned by Bill Freyer and Tim Melodick at 2228 University Avenue in North Park. Zenger’s caught up with them there and did the following interview. For more information on Hot Desert Knights, or to purchase their films, please call 1-(800) 300-2002 or visit on the Internet — a resource Gardner and Singleton claim they were the first Gay porn producers to use.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you start by telling me a little about yourselves and how you got into the adult video business?

Bill Gardner: We’re still trying to figure that out! John and I have been together for, what, 15 years now, coming in August. We moved to Palm Springs about 11 years ago. We were actually retired, and we started having parties at our house, bareback sex parties. At the first party we had about 15 people, and the next party we had 30, and the next party we had 60.

John Singleton: And 75, and it kept growing.

Gardner: After the second or third party, we were all sitting around one night, just smoking and having a beer. Somebody said, “You guys make videos, don’t you?” Actually, the company we had sold when we retired and moved to Palm Springs did make videos — transportation safety videos. So we told him yes, and he said, “Why don’t you make fuck videos? Why don’t you make bareback videos?” Our response at the time was, “We never thought of it.”

I was getting tired of retirement and so was John, so we started thinking about it and about a couple of months later we made our first two films. We didn’t know whether there would be a market for it. We didn’t know whether it would be profitable. But we thought we’d give it a whirl, we’d try it and see what happened. So we created a Web site, and all of a sudden we found out that there was quite a market for that type of video. Sales just went through the roof, and the rest, as they say, is history. That was back in 1998.

Singleton: They liked our genre, and they specifically liked the type of men that we use.

Gardner: Our goal from the very beginning was not to use the Catalina or Falcon style model, you know, blond hair, blue eyes, smooth —

Singleton: Cookie-cutter.

Gardner: We wanted guys that were just average guys; that if you saw them in a bar at night, you wouldn’t be intimidated and you wouldn’t have a problem going up and talking to them, and maybe making a connection. Just average guys. We felt that our customers would be able to relate to those kinds of guys. We’ve used some quote-“porn stars”-unquote that have come to us, but for the most part we still use average guys, good-looking guys, nice guys. They’ve become our friends. When they come into Palm Springs, they stay with us.

Zenger’s: How did you find them and get them to appear?

Gardner: I belonged to a lot of groups from an Internet company called OneList, which has since been bought out by Yahoo and become YahooGroups. The groups all had different topics: fetish, fisting, bareback, or whatever. We simply sent out an e-mail on the OneList groups, and we said, “We don’t know if there’s a market for a film like this. We don’t know if customers want it. We don’t know whether it will sell, so we can’t pay you. We will pay your transportation to Palm Springs. We will pay your meals while you’re here and we’ll pay your hotel while you’re here, so you’ll get a mini-vacation.” And We ended up with about 400 responses from guys from all over the world, actually. There were so many that when we flew them all in —

Singleton: We didn’t fly in all 400.

Gardner: No, but we did fly in enough to make two films that weekend. So we made our first two films, Bareback Buddies and Bareback Raunch, that weekend. And we released them about a month apart.

Zenger’s: What was the response to the films?

Singleton: It was overwhelming.

Gardner: Tremendous. I think we released it on a Thursday, and by Friday morning— I don’t even know how many orders we had, but we were absolutely amazed. We didn’t know how we were going to get these videos duplicated fast enough to get them out on Monday. And it hasn’t slowed down since.

Singleton: We said on our Web site that if you order before noon it will ship the same day. That was tough, keeping up with the first order.

Gardner: Yes, it was tough. But there really was — and still is — a desire in the marketplace for those types of films. Guys are over the “magic condom,” the condom that all of a sudden just appears in the scene. They’re really over looking at blond-haired, blue-eyed muscle hunks that don’t look real. They’re over looking at very tightly scripted and edited films.

So when we came out with ours, I think the guys were just amazed. It wasn’t over-edited, it wasn’t over-scripted. What we told the models was, “Do what you do best. Do what feels good. We’ll keep the cameras going, we’ll capture it, it will be in real time, and it will be a real video. It will be real sex between the two of you.” The marketplace wanted that. That’s what our customers wanted. And they’ve been very, very loyal over the years.

Zenger’s: Have you had any controversy surrounding the concept of bareback porn?

Gardner: You know, it was really funny. We thought there would be a tremendous amount of controversy. We really thought that we would be attacked by the various AIDS organizations, health departments and whatever. We certainly had an attorney that checked into it and made sure that what we were doing was legal, and all that. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to it, because there’s an old saying about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And had we created a lot of controversy like that, it probably would have been good for sales.

But we never got a complaint. We never got an e-mail, we never got a phone call. In the eight years now we have been in business, I can only think of two complaints that we’ve ever gotten, where someone has called the office and complained that we were making bareback films.

The one group of people we have got complaints from have been our competitors. There are a lot of film companies, and some directors within the adult entertainment industry, that don’t agree with what we do. We understand that. The bottom line is that they have the right to disagree and we have the right to disagree. They don’t have to make our kind of films, and we’re not going to make their kind of films. Chi Chi LaRue is the biggest outspoken critic of barebacking. And we know Chi Chi. We respect Chi Chi.

Singleton: She has the right to say whatever she wants.

Gardner: She certainly has the right to her belief. And she is very adamantly opposed to it. That’s fine. We understand that.

Singleton: That’s her choice.

Gardner: But she is a competitor. We’ve heard there was some kind of symposium back in New York a couple of years ago, and during the symposium, if I remember right, Chi Chi was on the panel. Something was said to the effect that one of the problem now with the bareback producers is they’re becoming very professional with their quality, and that’s going to create a lot of problems for us. They looked at us at first as just a bunch of amateur studios, but our quality is up there now with their quality.

But what upsets us most is when they try to accuse us of encouraging the spread of HIV because we make bareback films, and [when they say] we are encouraging young Gay men to go out and bareback simply because they watch one of our films. We don’t believe that. We think that young Gay men are more intelligent than what these folks give them credit for, and they’re not going to go out and participate in unsafe sex just because they’re watching one of our films, any more than they would watch Law and Order and then go out and shoot somebody because that’s how Law and Order started off on Thursday night.

We’ve also been cautious about how we make them. We talk to the models quite a bit. We do get a lot of models who write to us and tell us that they’re HIV negative, and they want to do a film where there’s barebacking, and they want to become positive. Obviously, we aren’t going to ever do that or use a person like that. The models all know that the other models in the videos are in fact HIV positive.

We’ve never advocated bareback films. We’ve simply said that adults have a right to participate in the type of sex that they want to participate in, as long as it’s consensual and it’s between adults. None of us have the right to say you cannot do that, any more than the straight community has the right to look down on the Gay community and say, “You can’t be Gay.”

What we do say to people — and we say it in our films, we say it on the box covers of our films, we say it on our Web site, and in virtually every interview that we’ve ever had — is that if you are HIV negative, you need to do everything that you possibly can to stay that way. The best way to stay that way, obviously, is number one, don’t have any sex. That’s not going to happen, so the next best way is use a condom. We really do believe that. We tell people that all the time. Besides, the largest increase in HIV right now is in the 18- to 25-year-old Gay community.

Singleton: Because of the lack of education.

Gardner: There’s more of an increase in the Latino and the Black community, but still it’s the 18- to 25-year-old Gay men. What you have to understand is that this month AIDS is 25 years old. So many of these 18- to 25-year-olds don’t even know someone that has HIV, and have never known anyone that has died of HIV or AIDS. They’ve looked at AIDS as an old Gay man’s disease.

Singleton: Or if they get it, it’s advertised in every magazine, “Take a pill, you’re fine.” They don’t see the side effects.

Gardner: Right. If they read the Advocate magazine or almost any Gay publication, they’ll see the ads from the pharmaceutical companies showing very, very healthy-looking men, with the insinuation that there’s a magic pill out there that keeps it under control.

Singleton: Take a once-a-day pill — but they don’t show the side effects or anything.

Gardner: So when you take that into consideration, and the fact that since we’ve been under the Republican administration, the public-school system cannot teach condom use in any public school in this country without losing their federal funding. All they are allowed to teach is abstinence.

So when you take into consideration the fact that there hasn’t been any true education in the public school system about HIV and STD transmissions, and that the pharmaceutical companies are doing all this advertising, showing all these healthy men and leaving their readers with their impression that if you get HIV, all you have to do is take the magic pill each day and you’ll be O.K., and you take into consideration that this young 18- to 25- crowd hasn’t grown up understanding HIV the way we understand HIV, and then when you consider that the AIDS organizations out there today are not doing the education that was done at the beginning of the HIV or AIDS epidemic, because they don’t have the funding —

Singleton: Or they’re losing their funding.

Gardner: You don’t see posters out like you used to. You don’t see the PSA’s on television like you used to. So the kids growing up today haven’t been exposed to any of this. You take all of that into consideration, and it’s really easy to see why there’s an increase in HIV transmission between 18- and 25-year-olds.

Singleton: Twelve years ago, when we started with the HIV education and support groups, everything was volunteer. Now everything’s paid for.

Gardner: Right. John and I used to run an AIDS organization back in Delaware, and We ran an AIDS support group, and we didn’t have any paid employees. It was all volunteer. Today that same organization still has volunteers, but now they have an executive director that makes over $100,000 a year, and they have outreach staffs. All these folks are paid, and a lot of the money they receive goes into their salaries. They’re buying their own building. There’s not a lot of incentive to reduce their client load, if you will. And I think that’s true of a lot of the HIV/AIDS organizations in this country.

Singleton: So much money would be lost if HIV were cured or a vaccine were created.

Zenger’s: Right. Which is why you don’t hear about that anymore. Which is why instead you hear the goal is to make AIDS “a chronic, manageable disease.” Meaning a disease for which the drug companies can sell people drugs for the rest of their lives and make money off them.

Gardner: Absolutely.

Zenger’s: In fact, I too run a volunteer AIDS organization. It’s somewhat different because our take on it is that AIDS really isn’t caused by HIV or any other viral infection: that it’s a long-term toxic breakdown of the immune system; and I would add to your list of things affecting young people the fact that they’re not really being educated about the horrible health risks of recreational drug use.

Singleton: That’s true.

Gardner: Absolutely. We’re probably the only adult video company, Gay or straight, that has a written drug policy. Our models have to sign on to that. Even though they’re independent contractors, we have the right to test them when they show up to appear for the filming. Our big concern is crystal meth, but if they look to us like they’re under the influence of drugs, then we send them down for a drug test. Now, obviously, they never show up for the drug test.

Singleton: And they never show back up on the set.

Gardner: They never show back up on the set. But we have a great concern about that in this community. We’ve had a drug-testing policy at our company for years. That does contribute to the spread of HIV, obviously: guys getting under the influence of various drugs, but specifically crystal meth. We’ve had friends that have gone through rehab several times before they’ve been able to get off of it. It’s an insidious drug, and it’s going to ruin this community.

Singleton: We’re very, very up front in the interview process with our actors/models, telling them that we do have a drug policy and we do not tolerate the use of drugs on the set.

Gardner: And we don’t tolerate attitude on the set.

Singleton: No drugs, no attitude, have a good time.

Gardner: Everybody has to have a good time.

Singleton: We’re all there to have fun.

Zenger’s: If you make a porn movie, especially if you make a porn movie about some sort of sex that is in some way dangerous or risky, are you encouraging people to duplicate those things, or are you sublimating it, allowing them to fulfill their desire for it vicariously so they don’t have to do it for real?

Gardner: I think that a lot of people who are in the adult entertainment industry think more highly of themselves than they ought. They think they have a great deal of influence over what other people do, which they don’t. The bottom line is that what we do is entertainment. We create fantasy. Many of our customers tell us that they’d love to be able to bareback. Because of HIV and the risk of getting HIV they don’t, but they can live vicariously through our films. And that they do. We’ve had lots of people tell us that. I’ve never had any customer say to me, “I’m HIV negative, and I want to stay that way, but because I watched one of your films, I figured it was safe to go out and have unsafe sex.” I’ve never had any customer say that.

It really boils down to the freedom that you have in this country. You can’t take away any freedoms. For example, I think that the Ku Klux Klan are just despicable. I don’t agree with anything that they agree with. But I do agree that they have the right to march down the street in a parade, provided that they follow the law and they get a parade permit and all that. Because if we allow their rights to be taken away, then what’s going to prevent our rights, either as Gay men or our rights to make a bareback film, or do whatever we want to in this country?

AL WALZ: Powerful Gay Art Now on Display in North Park


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

For over a year, a plucky little gallery called the Arts & Entertainment Center has nestled in a storefront at 3026 University Avenue, surrounded by hole-in-the-wall diners, coffee shops, hardware stores, optometry offices and the like. Enter the space, however, and it blossoms into not only a full-fledged art gallery but, behind it and to your right, a performance space called Peacock Alley. The gallery is open from 1 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and features some quite stunning, provocative shows — including the one that’s running now, themed to tie in to the LGBT [Queer] Pride events, “Gay Seduction.”

Though nine artists are featured in “Gay Seduction” — including Mark O’Keefe, interviewed in the February 2006 Zenger’s, as well as Suzy Koenigs, Arturo Mestizo, Tom Adkins, David Ezzidine, Keith Anderson, Francisco Villa and Michael McKeon — the artist whose work stood out at the opening reception July 15 was Al Walz. Partly that was because his pieces were by far the most sexually explicit in the show — ranging from a collage called “Nice Dick” that featured photos of naked men cut down to just their torsos and cocks to a strongly themed work depicting a glory hole with authentic-looking men’s room graffiti surrounding it.

But beyond the sex there was an unflinching honesty about Walz’s works, a willingness to confront the darker sides of the Gay male experience, that made it virtually impossible to turn away from them. Meeting him at the Hillcrest apartment he shares with his partner — a large, roomy space tastefully furnished with antiques, sculptures and a comfortable couch — it was hard to reconcile the earnest young man with the art on display at the Arts & Entertainment Center.

It soon became apparent that today’s Al Walz is quite a different person from the one who created those pieces. He’s quieter, more thoughtful, less sex-obsessed and interested in exploring other media besides visual arts. He’s working on a novel and also writing, singing and recording his own songs. In a corner of his room there was a painting he was working on — in a similar medium to the Arts & Entertainment works but with a very different feel — celebrating his family, as a 45th anniversary present for his parents. (Walz said he wasn’t entirely satisfied with it but was going to give it to them anyway.)

To contact the Arts & Entertainment Center, please call (619) 260-1731 or visit their Web site at

Zenger’s: Why don’t we start with a little of your background and how you got into art?

Al Walz: I’m from the East Coast, Pennsylvania. I grew up in a very small town called North East, two words. Everyone always asks us, “Where’s North East?” It’s the name of the town. It’s in northwest Pennsylvania, which is kind of odd, right on Lake Erie. I came from a very conservative family, middle-class parents, Presbyterian, went to church every Sunday, good upbringing.

I’ve always been a creative type of artist, since I started drawing at the age of six or seven or whatever. I took art classes in high school, and after college I felt I needed to break out of the town, sort of get away. I knew I was homosexual right away, and that I needed to come out for myself. So I moved to Orlando, Florida, came out there and did a bunch of odd jobs.

That’s where the type of art that I’ve been doing now originated, in which I’ve been using styrofoam for the medium. I was working at Blockbuster Video at the time, and the inserts for the cover boxes of the videos were styrofoam pieces. We would throw them all out, and since I was pro-environment at the time I thought I should try to reuse them instead of throwing them away. So I told everyone at the store, “I’m going to take these home and do something with them artistically creative, “ and everyone said, “Oh, no, you’re not going to do anything.”

I would take these big bags of small pieces of Styrofoam, the size of a VHS tape box, home. My first thought was to sculpt them into something. I was trying to glue them together and maybe make towers. Then I started gluing them together four by four, or maybe six by four, and making a big canvas-like surface on which I could just paint on, or do collages or whatever. I do a lot of collage and acrylic painting, and that’s how it all evolved.

It was at a time when I was feeling very low about being Gay. The pieces you saw that are hanging in that art show, the “Die, Fag!,” the pictures of all the nude men, and the other one with the blood, are kind of the first three I did. They were a series, and they got me through a lot of hard times. It was very therapeutic.

The “Die, Fag!” originated because I had thought that I might want to be a model at one point. Those were actually head shots of me on that painting. I never did anything with them. I’s spent hundreds of dollars to get them taken, and I was depressed about that. I didn’t know where I was going to go in my life, and how I was going to turn out. So I put them on the styrofoam.

At the time I hated being Gay, and I hated that we were not equals. I hated that I spent all my time looking for sex. I just felt like I was going nowhere, but this art piece came out of it. It’s one of the pieces that I’m most proud of, the first one I did, “Die, Fag!,” just because I knew that if people thought a straight person did it, everyone would be up in arms about it. But once they know it’s a Gay person, I think it takes it to a different level for them.

I think as Gay men, and homosexuals in general, we all went through a period where we didn’t want to be Gay, and we repressed it. I repressed it in college. I knew it was going to be a hard life. I wasn’t ready for that. Being an artist and a homosexual are both very hard routes to go by in life, to get over and make something out of yourself. It’s hard enough to be an artist, to live and survive, and then I knew I had to come out, too, to be true to yourself. So that piece was very cathartic.

The other two that go with it came about because I felt like there was a way that we all sort of evolve as homosexuals. Not everybody does this, but a lot of us do. First we’re the homosexual in hiding. Obviously we like dick, we like cock, and we look at nude pictures, whether we’re doing it in privacy and nobody knows about it, or whatever. That’s what we are, and that’s what we’re supposed to be. That’s why we’re homosexuals: because we like the same sex.

Then maybe we get to a point where we’re screwing around a lot, maybe going out too much and getting into drugs. We don’t really like ourselves for that, even though we continue to do it to escape. It’s all about escape. The sex is about escape, the drugs are about escape, and so that’s the second point in that painting. First you see the dicks, and then you see the self-hating.

Then it gets to the point where for some people — and I’m not saying all homosexuals go through this — but the third one is supposed to be suicide. It’s blood against a wall, and somebody sticking a gun in their mouth and killing himself. I think a lot of homosexuals have gone this route. It’s sad to say, but we’re still in a country that doesn’t take us seriously as equals. Many Gay people are still growing up in these small towns in America, and their parents are turning their backs on them. I feel sorry for these young men.

Personally, I’ve been lucky. My parents have been very accepting. My family is very accepting. But still I had thoughts of suicide. I don’t know if a lot of people did. I didn’t go that route, but that’s the explanation there for those three paintings right there, how that all evolved.

Zenger’s: I must say that when I saw Mark O’Keefe, whom I’d previously interviewed for the magazine, he and I were actually joking, saying, “Of course, we’re looking at the dick pictures first.”

Walz: Right, right. You see? It’s all about the dick first! But, yeah, I was trying to push buttons a little bit. I knew that they were going to be a little bit controversial, and maybe even a little shocking. I never even thought I’d ever get to hang them up in an art gallery, and when I approached that gallery, I had actually heard from another guy who was doing a show at the Center. First I tried to get my art into the Center, and the guy who was running that show said no, they wouldn’t work for there, but he recommended me to go to the Arts and Entertainment gallery. I didn’t even know if he was going to put them up, but I went there that Saturday, and he had them up. I was glad. I was very excited to see them.

It’s something I think people need to see. I mean, as homosexuals we don’t really talk about that. We cover it up. We try to pretend we’re happy or whatever, but I know there’s a part of us that’s not. Maybe not everybody feels this way, but I think because I grew up in a small town of 10,000 people in northwest Pennsylvania in the 1980’s, I was never prepared to come out. I never thought I was going to if I continued to live there. It wasn’t really spoken about. I knew people who were Gay in my high school, but we just didn’t talk about it, or it wasn’t a big thing.

I just wanted to take my art to a new level and I wanted to speak up for Gays. I think I’m sort of a Gay activist, politically aware, and I’m strongly for equal rights and the whole Gay marriage movement. I knew that this art was going to be a little bit controversial, but at the same time I think it’s something that a lot of people need to see, or should see. Not all my art is that way. I have some that are more abstract. I have a couple of other ones that are kind of political. But that’s pretty much how it’s evolved.

Zenger’s: Where did the “Nice Dick” pictures come from?

Walz: Playgirl magazines or other porn magazines, mostly Playgirl at the time, I think. I don’t remember if they were mine or a friend of mine was throwing them out. I don’t know if you noticed, but there was a conscious effort not to put their faces on, not just for the fact that I didn’t want to show who they were, but I feel that as Gay men, we don’t concentrate on what they look like. We concentrate on bodies and dicks. We’re very visual as a culture, and it’s all about the sex, and we don’t really care what the person looks like. We care if he’s got a nice ass or a big dick. So that was the reason for my conscious effort just to show naked bodies and dicks.

Zenger’s: What was the inspiration behind the glory hole piece?

Walz: The glory hole piece was another thing that had never been shown before in art — or at least I’d never seen one. I wanted to try to do something new, and I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of artistic.” When you see a glory hole, and when you go into a bathroom, and there’s writing all over the walls, it’s sort of an artistic thing.

I had never seen anyone do a glory hole for an art piece, so I thought, “Why not?” I thought that would be interesting, maybe a little provocative, shocking, but also something that people had never seen yet in art. And why not? That’s my whole theory, I suppose.

I did the same thing with the piece called “Religion,” in the window. As Gay men, our religion seems to be either dicks or asses, and I think I was trying to push the button there, too, with the cross shape and the naked body. I’m not trying to say I’m against the religious community in any way. I’m just trying to show that everyone’s got their own religion; and to some Gay men — or to me at the time — my religion was sex.

Zenger’s: You said that the pieces in the Arts and Entertainment show represent some of your earliest work. How would you say you’ve evolved as an artist since then?

Walz: I’ve always tried to do different media. I’m not always just a painter. I’m a writer, too. I’m a singer/performer. I’m actually getting back to painting on styrofoam now, but I’d like to pursue more of a “nice” approach, maybe not so shocking or daring — but still thought-provoking. I have a song out called “Gay Cliché.” I have a demo of it, which I was very proud that I made, and I sang that last year on, or one of the Gay stations that has a talk show in the afternoon.

I’m always trying to do something to get people to think a little bit more about out community. I’ve always been bothered about the whole breakdown of the community, about the different levels — the Bears, the circuit queens, etc. Even in our community there’s no community. We’re kind of hypocritical when we say we want equal rights, but we don’t even accept each other sometimes. I comment on the farce in my song, “Gay Cliché,” which is sort of poking fun at the community, and that this is what we’re all about: “Where is the next circuit party at?” Or looking good, or working out.

Zenger’s: When you say you want to comment on the Gay community, is your audience straight people or other Gay people or both?

Walz: Mostly geared towards the Gay community. If straight people get something out of it, great. More power to them. But as a Gay man, it’s what I know more about, and what I want to speak about as a Gay artist, the community and the things that have upset me in our community, good and bad, I suppose. I’m an advocate for safe sex, and I’m against crystal, the things that people stereotype us for. That’s not just what Gay people are. I hate that that’s what we’re stereotyped as somehow, sometimes.

Even on TV, in the media, like for instance Jack [on Will and Grace], or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, we’re not presented as typical Gay men who just lead their lives, and the only thing we’ve got that’s different about us is that we like other men. It doesn’t define who we are. We’re not all queeny, and we’re not all Transsexuals or drag queens or whatever. We don’t all listen to circuit music. But somehow that seems to be what the media have picked up upon to show or present us as, somehow, in the past, from what I’ve seen. Hopefully, there might be a turnaround sometime.

I think we had a great year in entertainment as far as we go, and I thought for once we were going to be taken seriously, with Brokeback Mountain being nominated, and TransAmerica, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was, like, the Year of the Gay in the Oscars. But then we still didn’t get it, which kind of makes me wonder. The picture of the year was still not given to us. I don’t know what that means. Who knows? Maybe people liked Crash better than Brokeback Mountain. You still have to think: was there a conspiracy?

I mean, you’ve got to believe that half the entertainment business is made up of Gays, so why are they not voting for us? Why aren’t they coming out? When that type of thing continues to happen and Gays in the entertainment industry stay in the closet, it doesn’t give us a strong, solid voice to say that we’re everywhere, and we’re just like you. We’re not going to break any ground until these people start coming out.

Zenger’s: So what are your plans for the future?

Walz: Continue to work on my art, try some new ways of voicing my opinion, getting it out there, getting people to think in a different way about Gays, about homosexuals, about life. Maybe take it away from homosexuality for a while. I’ve always thought that all the stuff I’ve done — and people have told me — is very honest work. It’s all truth. Yet people just don’t think about these things.

I’d like for people to be more honest with themselves, and in their lives, and just quit with all the other bullshit that goes on in their heads. I would love to continue to show people that they don’t have to be in hiding so much, and maybe break ground there and get people to accept each other as whatever we are.

World Mobilizes on Anniversary of Iran’s Execution of Gays

Small Crowd Turns Out for Anti-Iran Protest; Leftists Question Timing


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

The turnout for San Diego’s event was small — only 10 people showed up for the protest vigil at Front and Broadway across the street from the U.S. Federal Building July 19 — but they were part of a worldwide movement that chose the first anniversary of the execution of Iranians Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni to mobilize against the anti-Queer laws and policies of Iran’s Islamist government. Carrying signs that included blow-ups of video frames showing Asgari and Marhoni, both 17, being hanged for having consensual sex with each other, the protesters mostly kept silent, waved their signs at passing cars and talked with journalists about why they were there.

Most of the protesters were not part of San Diego’s usual activist crowd, but ordinary citizens who’d seen and been shocked by the video of the executions of Asgari and Marhoni and remembered their initial reactions when the call for a worldwide mobilization came down a year later. A number of the participants carried placards criticizing the death penalty in general and its application to children and teenagers in particular, as well as signs calling on the government of Iran to repeal its laws that allow homosexuals to be punished by death.

The principal organizer was a young man named Michael Mussman who, asked why he had called the demonstration, said, “First of all, being a Gay man, I can sympathize with Mahmoud and Ayaz. But on a much deeper level, I feel that with everything going on in the world right now, it’s time for Gays and Lesbians to take a stand for each other around the world. It’s not just American issues, it’s not just issues here in California. There are actual human-rights issues involved with Gays and Lesbians everywhere, and especially in totalitarian nations like Iran. We who are so fortunate in the United States need to be doing more to support our brothers and sisters in those other countries.”

Surprisingly, the worldwide call for the July 19 mobilization aroused a good deal of controversy in the Left-wing press and on radical Queer e-mail lists. Opponents raised at least three major objections. First, a number of writers repeated claims made by the Iranian government after the original executions that Asgari and Marhoni were actually put to death for raping 13-year-old boys, not for having sex with each other. Second, they questioned whether Asgari and Marhoni should really be considered “Gay” in the Western sense when the Iranian cultural norms surrounding sexuality and its expression are different from the West’s.

Third, and most significantly, they questioned whether progressives should be mounting demonstrations against Iran right when the U.S. government is threatening a war on Iran, including the possibility of a nuclear attack, to force it not only to abandon any plans it might have to develop nuclear weapons but to give up its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to manufacture nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. Though the official call to the action worldwide included a statement opposing foreign intervention in Iran — “regime change must come from within: by and for the Iranian people themselves,” it read — opponents like Leslie Feinberg, writing in the July 20 Workers’ World newspaper, claimed that many of the organizers supported a U.S. attack on Iraq and said that a U.S. invasion would be far worse for Iranian Queers than their current situation.

“Imperialist-instigated regime change, invasion or occupation of Iran would usher in neocolonialism — a form of enslavement that the 70-million strong Iranian population as a whole would certainly fight with the same tenacity as the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine,” Feinberg wrote. “The Pentagon is no vehicle for Gay liberation. The CIA is using anti-Gay and anti-Trans humiliation and rape — from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo — as bedrock components of its science of torture.”

Barbara MacKenzie, medical marijuana activist and participant in many local demonstrations against the U.S. “war on terror,” joined the July 19 protest against Iran and bristled at the suggestion that the action would somehow encourage the U.S. to launch a war against Iran. “Standing up for human rights is not going to push us any further into a war with Iran,” she said. “If that excuse is used, then we should all just expose it as an excuse. I don’t think anyone is that stupid out here to really believe that George Bush would have a war over Gays’ rights. Over oil, yes.”

But one participant in the action, Iranian Kurdish émigré Dara Rizgari, said he supported a U.S. attack on Iran. Rizgari said he fled Iran 17 years ago — 10 years after the revolution that ousted the pro-U.S. Shah and installed the “Islamic republic” that has governed Iran since — because he and his friends “were being hunted. Many of my friends were cut up, hanged or shot.” Rizgari said he and his friends, who were teenagers at the time, were also afraid of being drafted to fight in the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq, and that he personally knew some Gay Iranians “but they never dared to say anything because they knew they would be killed.”

Rizgari said he hoped the demonstration would “make people aware that this [Iranian] government is a killer government,” and said that his family and most of his Iranian-American friends joined him in supporting a U.S. attack on Iran. “I hate war, but to be honest with you, we support that,” he said. Asked how he could back a U.S. invasion of Iran given the current situation in Iraq, Rizgari said that things had been worse for both Iraqis and Iranians when Saddam Hussein was still in power and the two countries were at war. “Saddam Hussein killed in his own hands more people every day than are killed there now,” Rizgari claimed.

Another participant, Mark Kenner, said he was inspired to join the action because he himself was Queer-bashed just a few days before the executions of Asgari and Marhoni in Iran in July 2005. “It happened in San Ysidro,” he recalled. “I was coming home in the early morning hours … [when] a young man attacked me all of a sudden. He punched me in the face [and] called me ‘fucking faggot.’” According to Kenner, he was able to restrain his attacker and call for a police officer — police routinely patrol the area near the U.S.-Mexico border — but “instead of arresting my attacker … they were very homophobic to me.” Kenner said the officer who came to the scene said that if Kenner persisted in pressing charges against the attacker, the officer would arrest him.

“I insisted that my attacker be arrested for what he did, for a hate crime, and they said, ‘If you insist, we have to arrest you, too.’ I said, ‘I’m the victim. Look at my shirt and my face. It’s full of blood.’ They arrested me, as I insisted he be arrested, and they treated me horrifically.”

Kenner said his experience encouraged him to participate in the demonstration against Iran because “it’s the same type of hatred. It’s the same type of bias. It is the same type of no existence of objectivity in a person when they look at a Gay or Lesbian. Because of either their upbringing or their personal choice of bias, or their religion, or their state law, they cannot choose objectively to do what is morally right, to not discriminate in any way against a person just because they are different.”

War Protester Carlos Arredondo Speaks in San Diego

Set Himself on Fire in Marine Van After Son Died in Iraq


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

The over 2,500 U.S. servicemembers who have died so far in the Iraq war all had family members who mourned them, but few have been as traumatized by their grief — or have expressed it in such a physically and emotionally intense way — as Carlos Arredondo, who came to San Diego July 8 to share his story. The day Carlos learned of his son Alexander’s death, August 25, 2004, was also Carlos’s birthday, and when he saw the U.S. Marine van pull up in front of his home in the Boston suburb of Holyoke, Massachusetts, his first assumption was that Alexander had managed to get leave to come home briefly and join his dad for his birthday.

When he learned the truth — that Alexander had been killed in combat — Carlos freaked out. At first he got a hammer from his garage and tried to attack the van. Then he used his cell phone to call the recruiter who’d signed Alexander up, and the recruiter hung up on him twice. Then he took a can of gasoline and a torch from his garage and approached the Marine van, asking its occupants to leave. When they didn’t, Carlos broke into the van with a hammer, poured the gasoline all over its interior, and then used the torch to set it — and himself — on fire.

“He was burned over 26 percent of his body,” Carlos’s wife, Melida Arredondo, told the audience of over 100 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest June 8. “There was his face, neck, left arm, both hands and his feet. The first thing the doctors told me — they’re such optimists — was, ‘He’s never going to walk again.’” His doctors wanted to give him major skin grafts, but instead Carlos insisted on going to his son’s funeral even though he had to be carried to it on a stretcher. Carlos eventually recovered fully — though there are still burn scars on his body — and he and Melida credit the emotional impact of attending his son’s funeral, wake and mass with energizing him enough to heal spontaneously.

Today Carlos Arredondo is an anti-war activist with the Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of opponents to the Iraq war who have lost family members to it headed by Cindy Sheehan, who made national headlines last year when she camped outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas and demanded a direct explanation from Bush as to what was the “noble cause” for which her son Casey died. Carlos joined her at “Camp Casey” in Crawford last year and plans, if he can raise the money, to do so again this year.

Carlos Arredondo was born in Costa Rica in 1960. Two years later, his parents took him to an event that, despite his age, he remembered vividly: President Kennedy came to Costa Rica as part of his tour through Latin America to announce the Alliance for Progress. “Since that day,” Carlos said, “we have been very good in our appreciation for the American people, the way they have given us a hand, the way they have been there for us. We always look up to them, and there are still a lot of good American people. Just remember that, please.”

In 1979, Carlos decided to emigrate to the U.S. He was undocumented and the route here from Costa Rica would take him through Nicaragua in the middle of the revolution between the Sandinistas and the Somoza regime they were trying to replace, but he went anyway, crossing the border at Nogales, Arizona. Later he acquired legal residency by agreeing to testify against the coyotes — smugglers — who exploit undocumented immigrants. Melida, also a Latina but born in the U.S., is Carlos’s second wife — his first wife was the mother of Alexander and his brother Brian — and at the July 8 meeting she did much of the talking for the family because of her stronger command of English.

Once the initial wounds — physical and emotional — started to heal, Carlos Arredondo responded to his son’s death much the way local activist Fernando Suárez del Solár, North County resident and immigrant from Tijuana who lost his son in the early months of the war, did. Like Suárez, Carlos focused much of his attention on the slimy, deceitful practices used by military recruiters to ensnare young men — especially poor young men of color — into joining the service. Also like Suárez, Carlos formed a scholarship fund to raise money so people in his community will have an alternative to the military to finance their college education. (Suárez was at the meeting with the Arredondos but had to leave early due to illness.)

Carlos recalled all too well how he heard the news that Alexander had joined the Marines in the first place. “I went, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, no, Alex. Oh, no. Why did you do that?’ In 1980, when I came to America, I was in front of a TV and then suddenly they were showing this explosion in Beirut, and there were almost 270 Marines who got killed in a single bomb at the headquarters of the Marines in Beirut. I never forgot that. I never got over seeing all those Marines … and I didn’t want my son to get killed. I said, ‘Honest, I don’t want you to come home in a body bag.’ He said, ‘Dad, don’t worry. We’re not at war.’”

According to Carlos, Alex told him that the reason he’d joined the Marines was because he didn’t want his father to have to take out a second mortgage on his house to finance his college education. “The way they did this to him was by offering him a $10,000 bonus and a $50,000 scholarship,” Carlos recalled. “ My son was only 16, and they were already seducing him.”

Alex joined the Marines in 2001 and was still in basic training when the September 11 attacks occurred. According to Melida Arredondo, Alex wrote them from boot camp in 2002 and said, “‘Please send information about Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, I know nothing about it, and they keep talking about it here at Parris Island.’ Keep in mind, this is August of 2002. No war has been declared, yet they’re talking about it at Parris Island.”

Carlos and Melida Arredondo spoke at the Joyce Beers Center against a backdrop of various photos and props with which they travel the country to build opposition to the war and awareness of its toll in human life. The main item is a full-size coffin with two boots mounted on top. There is also a set of blow-ups of photos from Alex’s life, ranging from childhood pictures of Alex with his brother Brian — who, much to Carlos’s horror, has also enlisted in the Marines — to a picture of Alex’s body in an open casket.

“I’m very lucky, in a way, that [my son] had an open casket,” Carlos explained. “This is a picture most other Gold Star Families members cannot have, because their sons and daughters died in explosions and a lot of these families cannot bear to see those pictures. But a lot of the families I’ve met before, when they see [Alex’s] picture, they pretty much take it personally. They’re seeing their sons’ and daughters’ faces, and they are very grateful for seeing that picture.”

Carlos’s personal priorities these days are to tour the country with his story and his display, get it seen by as many people as possible — including Marines at bases like Camp Pendleton — challenge the lies told by military recruiters and raise money for the scholarship fund. He’s also got another goal: to become a U.S. citizen. Paul Vauchelet, one of the organizers of the event at the Joyce Beers Center, asked people in attendance to write letters to Congress asking that they push for Carlos to be granted citizenship. He’s already got Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy on board, but he needs more support. Still, he’s grateful for the public reaction he’s received already — which he credits with keeping him from being prosecuted and imprisoned for burning the Marine van.

“I thought I would end up in one of those places for being an immigrant, for doing this to the government,” Carlos said.” Years ago they used to kill people for doing that, or put them in the war, or shoot them. I knew that. I saw a lot of movies, and I thought that was what would happen to me. I was worried that perhaps I was going to be in one of those foreign zoos, you know? But thank God, you know, what happened here is that a lot of the American people stood up for me, made a lot of phone calls, sent a lot of e-mails to the police station in Holyoke, to the politicos in Holyoke, and they didn’t allow this. And this didn’t happen because a lot of people stood up to help me. That’s why I’m free today, because a lot of people stood up.”

Nonviolent Peaceforce Representative Speaks in San Diego

Group Trains Peacemakers, Brings Locals Together to Solve Problems


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

Linda Dunn is a short, quiet-seeming woman who’s old enough that when she spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest July 20 she introduced her husband Mike and said they’d been together 48 years. But, in addition to serving with the Quaker church in Riverside, where the Dunns live, she’s also on the cutting edge of a new approach to peacemaking. She’s part of an organization called Nonviolent Peaceforce [sic] whose goal is to train 500 paid, professional peacemakers for service throughout the world by 2008 — and last summer she and her daughter Diane went to Sri Lanka, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s first target country, to be a part of the effort.

Dunn led an elaborate presentation at the church that included a 12-minute video on the group, a PowerPoint slide show on its efforts in Sri Lanka and introductions to seven local activists involved with the Nonviolent Peaceforce chapter in San Diego. She described the mission of Nonviolent Peaceforce as to protect human rights, deter violence and, instead of taking the place of local individuals and organizations, to work with them and create space for them to do their jobs and stay alive.

Though Sri Lanka’s situation is virtually unknown in the U.S. — as are most of the world’s conflicts in which this country is not directly involved, Dunn rather glumly stated — it has one of the most intractable political situations in the world. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists, but about 20 percent of the people are Tamils, most of them Hindus and many of whose families were brought to the island to work on tea plantations when the place was still called Ceylon and ruled by Britain. In addition, there’s a significant Muslim community and some Christians and believers in other religions.

Much of the conflict comes from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Army, colloquially known as the “Tamil Tigers,” with a reputation for brutality and recruiting children at festivals. According to Dunn, the average age of a Tamil Tiger is 16 and many of them are 12 or even younger. The Sinhalese and Tamil languages are so different they’re even written with separate alphabets, Dunn explained — and many of the slides she showed featured signs written in three separate tongues, Sinhalese, Tamil and English, with three different alphabets.

Sri Lanka has had to deal with civil war for about 20 years — and as if that weren’t bad enough, the 2004 tsunami did enormous damage to the country and its infrastructure. While much of the reporting on the tsunami told a silver-lining story of Sinhalese and Tamils coming together to help treat the injured and clean up the damage, Dunn said that effect was short-lived and “there has been trouble since.”

According to the United Nations organization UNICEF, the Tamil Tigers recruited 700 children in 2003 alone. Dunn’s slide had the word “recruited” in quotes — which made it look that the children were actually being kidnapped — but Dunn added that this wasn’t entirely true. She said many of their parents shared the nationalistic goals of the Tigers and acknowledged that one of their responsibilities to the movement was to furnish one of their kids to join the Tamil armed forces. But whether the children are taken with the approval of their parents or not, Dunn stressed, it still destroys their lives.

“When children are taken from their families, they lose their hope, innocence and chance for life,” Dunn explained. “The women, if released, have a much harder time being re-integrated into society than the men. Sri Lankan women have very long hair, and the first thing that happens to them in the army is they cut their hair.” Therefore, she added, any short-haired woman in a Tamil community will become an outcast and be unable to marry or have any role in her village again.

Dunn’s team were suddenly confronted with this volatile issue when 26 children were recruited from the grounds of a Hindu temple during a religious festival in 2005.”The field team members actually did help get those 26 children returned and re-integrated into society,” Dunn said. “We were the only NGO [non-governmental organization] invited to the meeting because we were the only one without our own agenda. What they [local activists] do is at great personal risk in this culture of silence.”

Another example Dunn gave for how Nonviolent Peaceforce works took place in the largely Hindu town of Trincomolee. “The Sinhalese Auto Drivers’ Association put up a large statue of Buddha in the middle of the Hindu area,” she recalled. The resulting riots, with “a lot of grenades being thrown,” took at least one life and destroyed many homes. “Nonviolent Peaceforce teams were well known enough to patrol the streets at night and engage the appropriate authorities and community leaders,” Dunn recalled.

The solution was finally brokered by a Buddhist monk who agreed to come to Trincomolee and mediate — but who needed the protection of her group’s field team to make it through Tamil territory and get to the village in the first place. The monk turned out to be the biggest loser in the confrontation; when his superiors in the order found out he’d been involved in negotiations with Tamils, “he was demoted and assigned to a spot in the middle of nowhere, where we fear for his safety,” Dunn said.

Nonviolent Peaceforce was originally founded in 1999 by two veteran activists, Dick Hartsough and Mel Duncan. “I’ve known Dick for about 35 years,” Dunn said. “I remember him telling of how he first got involved in the civil rights movement as a white student in a primarily Black college. He was involved in a sit-in when the white resistance was growing in numbers and in viciousness. After a while, a few determined men came in to the diner where he was involved in the sit-in, and one man raised a knife behind him and said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ Dick said, ‘Do what you must, but know that whatever you do, I will love you.’ The man’s hand began to shake, the knife began to shake, and it dropped to the floor.”

The group came about when Duncan and Hartsough, who’d independently thought of the idea for it, met at a conference of peace activists in the Hague. Duncan went from meeting to meeting at the conference and was unable to get anyone to give him a chance to speak and outline the concept. “His wife said, ‘Maybe you’re not meant to talk. Maybe you’re meant to listen,’” Dunn said. “Then he heard Dick speak and describe the same vision he had — and they’ve been working together ever since.”

One of the goals of Nonviolent Peaceforce is to make its teams “as geographically, ethnically and religiously diverse” as possible, Dunn explained. “It’s important for the people [in the host country] to see people of various races and religions living and working together.” Dunn said that of the 177 recruits worldwide since December 28, 2005, 45 have been women, 132 men, and most have come from Africa (70, including five Arabs), Europe (39) and Asia (33). Relatively few have come from North America, she explained, because “North American applicants often don’t have the language skills.”

According to Dunn, Nonviolent Peaceforce hopes to start operating in a second country by the end of this year. “Areas under consideration include Mindanao in the Philippines, northern Uganda and southern Sudan, and Colombia,” she said. “We’re working to recruit and train 150 people and have 500 people by the end of 2008. There are trainers being trained to work at four sites worldwide. One of our big problems is getting people visas since the U.S. doesn’t want to let some of our people in.” Dunn said that the cost of this program is $1.8 million per year — about what it costs to run the U.S. military for two minutes.

For more information on Nonviolent Peaceforce, or to make a donation, visit their Web site at

Friday, July 07, 2006

“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”: Mixed but Moving


You’ve probably heard Leonard Cohen’s music without knowing it. His songs have appeared in movies from McCabe and Mrs. Miller to the German film The Edukators and even (albeit in censored form) Shrek. They’ve been featured on TV shows ranging from The West Wing to The L Word — and Cohen actually did a guest appearance on Miami Vice, playing the head of Interpol. A native of Montreal, Cohen was born in 1934 and was a published poet before he graduated from college. He wrote the best-selling novel Beautiful Losers in 1966 and set out for New York to become a singer-songwriter because he figured singing his words would pay better than just printing them. While he never had much of a voice — something he’s refreshingly honest about; when he accepted a music award in Canada in 1992 he said, “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win ‘Vocalist of the Year’” — and other people’s records of his songs generally were bigger hits than his, he nonetheless built up a cult following with the release of his first album, Songs by Leonard Cohen, in 1967.

Discovered by the legendary producer John Hammond — who’d also helped launch the careers of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, George Benson and Bruce Springsteen — and signed by him to Columbia Records, Cohen emerged as a kind of anti-Dylan. While even the most intimate of Dylan’s songs drew on phantasmagorical imagery and seemingly immense casts of characters, Cohen’s focused laser-like on the emotions of individuals or couples. Cohen also avoided writing openly political songs and, unlike Dylan, kept his original Jewish name. Though Cohen’s popularity dwindled in the 1970’s — especially after his ill-advised decision to do an album with baroque “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man, at the height of the disco and punk movements — interest in his music began to perk up in the 1990’s after the late Kurt Cobain mentioned him in a song on his band Nirvana’s last album in 1993. Within two years there were at least two tribute albums to Cohen on the market and his songs once again began to attract the attention of record buyers — especially in Europe, where he’s always been more popular than in the U.S.

Alas, Cohen himself wasn’t around to share in the new-found acclaim, or the money it was bringing in; he’d deserted the music business to become a Buddhist monk and was living in a monastery on top of Mt. Baldy, taking care of his guru, a 90-something monk named Roshi. He gave his then-manager, Kelley Lynch, power of attorney over his business affairs, intending that she should run his publishing company and hold his royalties for him. Instead, he later alleged in a lawsuit, she sold the rights to his songs and pocketed the money herself, leaving him with $150,000 after a career that had earned millions. When he emerged from seclusion he made two new albums, Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004), produced and co-wrote the Blue Alert album for his current girlfriend, Anjani Thomas, and hired a new manager who, with producer Hal Willner, organized tribute concerts called Came So Far for Beauty in New York, Britain and Australia.

The new film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man tells at least part of this story, though it tells it surprisingly obliquely. It’s basically documentary footage and interviews with Cohen himself intercut with other musicians — including Bono and The Edge from U2 — talking about how great he is and how much he influenced them, and footage from the Came So Far for Beauty concert in Sydney, Australia in 2005. Cohen, his speaking and singing voices both reduced to a monotone croak, gives anecdotes about his life but dresses them up in the same philosophical and imagistic language with which he writes his lyrics. The concert participants are an incestuous lot of currently popular “folk” singers — including brother and sister Rufus and Martha Wainwright and their mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle — along with Teddy and Linda Thompson and a group called “The Handsome Family” and such unrelated people as rocker-turned-folkie Nick Cave, Antony (an androgynous singer from Britain who leads a band called Antony and the Johnsons), Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Julie Christensen, Perla Batella and Joan Wasser.

Though the grace and power of Leonard Cohen’s work and personality ultimately shine through, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is a film with enough flaws you could probably nit-pick it to death. The talking-heads footage and the concert scenes blend oddly together. The interview segments show a pockmarked Cohen in close-up, his face looking every bit as old as his birth certificate tells us he is — though, oddly, they seem to be the product of more than one interview: when Cohen discusses his monastery life, he’s wearing a thin beard he doesn’t have in the rest of the film.

The performances range from profoundly moving — Antony’s weird countertenor voice and feminine appearance (he looks like a drag queen doing Janis Joplin, appropriately enough since Cohen had a brief affair with the real Joplin) vividly project the song “If It Be Your Will” — to awful. Nick Cave and two female singers who don’t even begin to blend with him ruin Cohen’s most famous song, “Suzanne,” and Beth Orton simply sounds incompetent on “Sisters of Mercy.” Rufus Wainwright’s contributions are strong but a bit prissy — given his well-known homosexuality, the description of the blow job Cohen got from Joplin in “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” seems Gay when Wainwright sings it — though the less well-known Teddy Thompson does well by “Tonight Will Be Fine.”

It’s no surprise that the best version of a Cohen song in the film comes from Cohen himself. After Bono tells us that his all-time favorite Cohen piece is “Tower of Song,” there Cohen is singing it, in a sequence shot in a New York nightclub without an audience, with U2 as his backup band. Bono plays an electronic keyboard and sings harmonies, taking over the lead vocal for a few lines. The feeling is uncannily close to that of “The Wanderer,” the piece Johnny Cash recorded with U2 in 1993; like Cash, Cohen comes off as an aging bard who’s just returned from a long journey to tell his young acolytes the lessons he’s learned on his trek through the world.

In essence, that’s the overall message of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. Cohen emerges as a sort of wise man — the horrible naïveté that cost him his life savings is discreetly unmentioned — and his lyrics, dense and rich in poetic and philosophical musings on his own and other people’s emotions and behavior, are certain to affect you. Whatever might be wrong with this or that interpretation of a Cohen song in the film, the basic strength of his material comes through — and so does the love the musicians and performers in the film have for it, even though some of them love Cohen’s songs not wisely but too well. Leaving the theatre, you’re likely to be moved and feel exalted by an hour and 38 minutes spent with a fascinating man who’s created compelling art in three media — music, poetry and drawing — and you’re also likely to be tempted to empty your wallet to stock up on Leonard Cohen CD’s.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is now playing at the Landmark Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2100 for showtimes and other information.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Former Ugandan Parliament Member Speaks in Mission Valley

Speaker Aggressively Discusses Women, AIDS and So-Called “Genocide” in North


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

“There has been a betrayal of women’s rights in Uganda,” said Miria Matembe, former ethics minister and member of parliament in the Ugandan government, in a speech at the Mission Valley public library July 2. Matembe, a heavy-set woman with a short, almost masculine haircut, spoke for well over two hours, fielding some surprisingly hostile questioning from the audience as she explained why she broke with Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, in 2003 after Museveni had Uganda’s constitution amended so he could run for a third term as president.

After noting that her friend, university professor Dr. Dee Aker, had last been in Uganda in 2001 and had observed the local elections that year — “they were very bad in my constituency of Barrera, and Dee said this was a hopeless case” — Matembe said she had defended the elections and the Museveni government. After 2003, Matembe changed her mind. “I had no choice but to part company with President Museveni and join those who think he’s taking us in the wrong direction,” Matembe said. “In 2003 I told him not to amend the constitution to eliminate the term limits. … Some African brothers, when they get into power, they cannot get out.”

Matembe joked that “one day we might have to come observe your elections to make sure they are free and fair,” but said that at least the United States has a tradition of checks and balances, including limits on the power of the president, that doesn’t exist in most African countries. She claimed that only two post-independence leaders in sub-Saharan Africa — Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa — have ever voluntarily stepped down from the presidencies of their countries. (A few audience members offered the names of one or two more.) “The others,” said Matembe, “hold ‘elections’ as personal property, view government as patronage and just stay around.”

Yoweri Museveni became the leader of Uganda in 1989, after a decade-long guerrilla war between his New Resistance Movement (NRM) and the Ugandan government. Prior to then, Uganda had been under the leadership of two bloodthirsty dictators, Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Amin had overthrown Obote; Obote in turn overthrew Amin in the 1970’s and ruled until the NRM won its guerrilla war and Museveni assumed power. At first Museveni promised a democracy and recruited political activists, including Matembe, to draft a new constitution.

“In the Ugandan constitution, we said, ‘No traditional chiefs,’ because they rule forever,” Matembe recalled. “So we put down a limit of two five-year terms for the president.” After questioning why the U.S. continues to support Museveni and hail him as a democrat even as his rule becomes increasingly dictatorial and corrupt, Matembe said, “I believed in that man until I saw him stand up in 2003 and say, ‘I would advise you to give up the term limit.’” Matembe explained that she had other issues with Museveni besides his scrapping the constitutional term limit to keep himself in office — notably her frustration at being unable to get him or the Ugandan parliament to live up to the constitutional guarantees of gender equality — but the term-limit issue was the last straw.

“We are just there … ”

“I wanted to use politics to espouse my cause for women’s equality,” Matembe said. “When the NRM came to power, it seemed to be a period of cleaning up. I wanted a legal framework to promote gender equality and empowerment for women’s. I linked with women in non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to encourage change.” Among her greatest victories was a constitutionally mandated quota of at least 28.8 percent women in the national parliament and at least 30 percent women in the local and regional governments — but Matembe has become discouraged about that, too, feeling that the quota system has become an impediment to real progress for women in Uganda.

“We are just there; we got access and presence, but no influence,” Matembe explained. “We participated in vain, because at the end of the day our rights are not there. Women supposedly play an important role in Ugandan politics, but many decisions that affect women’s lives are still made without their participation. This is not only unfair and unjust, it renders the political process a sham.” What’s more, she said, the quota-guaranteed seats in the parliament have attracted women who are more interested in the income and perks of legislative service —especially desirable in a country whose economy is still underdeveloped and few middle-class jobs exist — than in activism. “They perceive [the quota system] as an act of privilege and generosity on the part of the government, so they are not willing to rock the boat,” Matembe explained.

According to Matembe, the biggest specifically feminist issues facing Ugandan women are property rights, divorce and domestic violence, including sexual abuse. While the Ugandan constitution says at least some of the right things on paper — “it does away with traditional practices [like arranged marriages and female genital mutilation], sets the marriage age at 18 and grants women the right to own property independently of their husbands” — the government “has been very reluctant to make laws in conformance with the constitution on women’s rights,” she explained.

Rape Laws from 1908

What that means in practice is that rights American and other Western women won in the 1970’s after decades of feminist struggle (and which, as Matembe grimly noted, many young American women take so totally for granted that they refuse to organize to protect them) still don’t exist for women in Uganda. The laws governing rape and domestic abuse date back as far as 1908, when Uganda was still a British colony, and allow men accused of rape to use the victim’s previous sexual history in court against her. What’s more, they specifically define rape as a woman being forced to have sex against her will by a man other than her husband. Like most U.S. rape laws before the so-called “second wave” of feminist activism in the 1970’s, Uganda’s laws say that a husband has the automatic right to have sex with his wife any time he wants, whether she wants to or not.

The only change in Uganda’s rape laws since Museveni came to power has been to increase the penalties, as a response to the AIDS crisis — but even that is meaningless if women are too traumatized or scared by the court system to testify against their rapists, and according to Matembe that’s usually the case in Uganda today. What’s more, she added, even when rapists are convicted “the judges don’t put out big sentences. The [rape] laws are not user-friendly. They put the woman on trial and put her through a second rape in court.”

Matembe boasted that she had once suggested castration as an appropriate punishment for rapists — leaving it somewhat ambiguous whether she was serious or simply taking an extreme position to dramatize the importance of reforming Uganda’s antediluvian rape laws. (At least one woman in the front row at the Mission Valley library seemed to like the idea.) Matembe said “there is no political will” to change these ancient rape laws and that the entire promise Museveni made to be interested in women’s participation in government was a sham.

“He was using us to promote his causes,” she said. “The government is mainly interested in harnessing us to stay in power. Beyond that, the government is not interested in empowering women, as shown by its refusal to enforce the laws on equal property rights and enact new laws on divorce and sexual abuse.” About the only hope for Ugandan victims of rape or domestic violence, Matembe conceded, lies with non-governmental organizations like Hope After Rape and Action for Development, who reach out to the survivors of rape and domestic violence, respectively.

AIDS, Abstinence and Health Care

Asked about Uganda’s AIDS situation and alleged U.S. pressure on the Museveni government to abandon condoms and safer-sex education in favor of abstinence-only programs, Matembe said she’d been involved personally in Uganda’s AIDS response and took pride in the claim that Uganda’s rate of HIV seropositivity had fallen from 15 percent of the population in the early 1990’s to 6 percent today. “Our AIDS rate is low because of our own efforts, not the United States,” she said. “The U.S. government came to ‘help’ us with AIDS just to be seen. For America to put Uganda up as African’s model AIDS program was Bush’s idea, not ours.” She said that Uganda applauded the United Nations effort to set up a Global Fund against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria (from which the U.S. has largely abstained in favor of setting up an anti-AIDS fund of its own) but said “we don’t need to borrow strategies from anywhere.”

Matembe said she personally took the HIV antibody test when she visited the U.S. in 1991 “because I wanted to be at the forefront in fighting the evil, and therefore I wanted to know my status. (This was in sharp contrast to South African president Thabo Mbeki, who refused to take the test in 2000 because, he said, it would be a gesture of support for the orthodox model that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS and he didn’t want to commit to that while he was inviting scientists with other points of view to advise him on the syndrome.) Matembe said the initial strategy of Uganda was to “take AIDS on at every function, including a funeral or a wedding … It was a tough journey, and we were abused for it. I talked at a wedding, and when the boy went to kiss the girl, the girl said, ‘Don’t! You’ll give me AIDS!’”

Instead of pushing abstinence-based anti-AIDS programs on Uganda, Matembe said the developed world would be better advised to work on improving Uganda’s overall health-care infrastructure. “If we had good health facilities, we would not be dealing with AIDS,” she said. “Caring for the sick without gloves, you get AIDS.” She also said that the abstinence-only proponents ignore both human nature and the lack of rights for women in Uganda — particularly the laws that prevent married women from refusing to have sex with their husbands or insisting on condom use when they do. “I am a very good Christian, but I am against the churches saying abstinence,” Matembe declared. “Even Jesus said that the spirit was willing but the body was weak. What about the bodies of ordinary human beings?”

Uganda’s North: Terror and Camps

Though much of Matembe’s presentation was fervent — she frequently raised her voice and gestured flamboyantly to make her points — on no other issue was she as emotional as on the situation in northern Uganda. A good many of the people in the audience, including some Ugandan émigrés, had been encouraged to come to the meeting by a local group called the Campaign to End Genocide in Uganda Now (C.E.G.U.N.). Their argument is that Museveni’s government is carrying on a campaign to wipe out the Acholi people of northern Uganda by placing them in concentration camps, and using the threat of a terrorist organization called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to justify keeping them in the camps.

Matembe couldn’t have disagreed more. Whatever her differences with Museveni on other issues, she remains a staunch supporter of his policies in the north, convinced that relocating the people out of their villages and into camps in the 1990’s was the only way to stop the LRA. She said the north had been “pacified” to the point where there is only one district — in the Chittagong/Gulu area — where the camps are still necessary. “Problems remain in Acholiland,” Matembe conceded. “Women have been raped. Young children have been abducted and raped and have had children by fathers they don’t know. The struggle has been going on for 20 years. It is very sad that that happened.”

But Matembe vehemently defended Museveni against the C.E.G.U.N. members’ charges of genocide. She blamed the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, for the brutalities in the north and the need to keep the Acholis in camps. “We debated it in parliament and tried our best, but we couldn’t sort out the situation or have talks with the terrorists,” Matembe said. “Kony has no agenda. The other groups who were fighting the government all had agendas, and we were able to negotiate with them and bring them into the government.” Matembe also blamed the government of Sudan, which until recently provided weapons and financial support to the LRA and still gives LRA fighters sanctuary in their country. (Ironically, Sudan’s Arab Muslim-dominated government has been accused of genocide against the Christian and animist people of southern Sudan as well as the people of Darfur in the west, who are Muslims but are Black instead of Arab.)

During the question-and-answer period, Matembe had to deal with hostile statements from the C.E.G.U.N. members and supporters in the audience, and at times it seemed as if the Black people in the room were applauding the C.E.G.U.N. speakers while the whites were coming to Matembe’s defense. A number of the C.E.G.U.N. members pointed to a recent interview Joseph Kony gave to the BBC after years of media silence, during which he identified the LRA as a movement for Acholi liberation and denied that his fighters ever cut off the limbs, noses or lips of fellow Acholis — as Matembe and the Ugandan government have charged.

Matembe responded furiously. “The people fighting Kony have told us what was going on, and one problem was that Sudan was arming them,” she said. “Kony is an animal. How come he turns his guns on the Acholi people and cuts them down instead of fighting against the [Ugandan] army?” Asked why the struggle in the north has been going on for over two decades, Matembe said, “Guerrilla wars take a long time to win. Even the U.S. hasn’t got Osama bin Laden and hasn’t stopped the situation in Iraq. Uganda is poor and is trying to fight with Kony.” Matembe did acknowledge that “the army in Uganda is corrupt,” and that one reason the war is lasting so long is that much of the money set aside to fight it is being diverted into the pockets of military leaders — some of whom received high-powered, high-paid appointments in Museveni’s government even after parliament censured them for corruption.

According to Matembe, it’s the overall poverty in Uganda, as well as the threat from the LRA, that’s keeping the Acholis in the camps this long. “People are in the camps because the government doesn’t have enough money,” she said. “We put a motion before the Ugandan parliament to have the north declared a disaster area so we could get foreign help, but Museveni was against it because he thought it was a sign of defeat.” One issue on which she and the C.E.G.U.N. people did agree was that after a decade in the camps — in which time a whole generation has been born and grown to adulthood without any formal education whatsoever — the Acholis would need a lot of physical, psychological and spiritual help to leave and resume any sort of normal life, and Matembe said she hoped the Americans would help provide that.

“It is not true that the government is deliberately exterminating the Acholis,” Matembe said. “Acholis do not live in Acholiland alone. We emigrate, we mix, we intermarry. I regret the situation in Acholiland today. It is my view that the war is no longer at that magnitude. It is now mostly in southern Sudan. I understand that the government has decided that these people should go out of the camps, but to do that these people must have a lot of rehabilitation, including psychological help and searches to find out if their original homes still exist. But I want to believe that something is being done for these people.” Denying the claims of C.E.G.U.N. and other groups that one million Acholis have been killed by the relocation, Matembe said, “I’m not there. I talk from my heart and I want to appeal to the people from Acholiland to be honest and not to tell Americans that one race in Uganda is trying to eliminate another.”