Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Queer Pride Hosts “Community Celebration” July 15

Police Chief, 16-Year-Old Lesbian Highlights of Rally at Organ Pavilion


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Police chief William Lansdowne, Missy Luber, Jason Knight, Seth Kilbourn, the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus

In June 1969, police staged a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a sleazy Gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. Though Gay liberation groups had already formed in San Francisco and Los Angeles, it was the action of the Stonewall’s patrons — mostly Latino drag queens and hustlers, along with a smattering of Gays caught in the Left-wing political and social movements of the time — that put Queer liberation in the forefront of American politics and inspired many new recruits for the movement. Thirty-eight years later, the San Diego LGBT Pride organization held a so-called “Spirit of Stonewall Community Celebration” July 15 at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, at which, far from being portrayed as enemies, the San Diego Police Department was given a “Stonewall Service Award” — and police chief William Lansdowne actually invited Queers to apply for the “150 immediate openings” in his department.

Lansdowne’s appearance to accept the award, given largely for how quickly the police were able to arrest the Queer-bashers who attacked people leaving the 2006 Pride festival, was one of the high points of the event. The other was an intense speech by 16-year-old out Lesbian Missy Luber, a short, sandy-haired, energetic young woman who was one of the few people on the program who wasn’t there to promote an organization that employs her. “I have never felt so proud as when I have walked in the [Queer Pride] parade,” said Lansdowne. “The LGBT [Queer] community in San Diego has really organized. … You have always asked for equality, dignity and respect, and God bless you, you’re going to get it.”

“I was born in 1990 and spent my time growing up in a Queer bubble,” Luber said, “but I always knew there would be people who would hate me for loving women. To be an LGBTQ [Queer] teen is to be discriminated against by people who think it’s a choice.” Joking that when other girls her age were playing with Barbie and Ken dolls “I kept my Ken doll in the closet,” Luber added, “To be an LGBTQ teen is to love another person and be told it is sick, but today it’s to stand strong and be surrounded by people who love me and welcome the world with open arms. When I hold my girlfriend’s hand and people look at me with disgust, I know this community will support me. This community has loved and failed and triumphed together, but there’s still so much to do. … Our community extends to the confused teens in small towns, to the religiously miseducated. We must work to change the community around us.”

Though the crowd was surprisingly small — about 150 people — and looked even smaller than it was in the broad expanse of the Organ Pavilion, Luber’s speech was so rousing that even the usually unflappable Delores Jacobs, executive director of San Diego’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, began her speech by joking that Luber had already said everything she had to say. “In the last 35 years, San Diego has become the worst-kept secret in the United States,” Jacobs said. “We have more LGBT elected officials than almost any other city. In addition, we have the largest, most active Democratic club in the county … and our LGBT business association was recently chosen the best in the country. We have a dedicated Youth Center and a housing project for LGBT youth that’s become a national model. San Diego has the second largest association for [Queer] families in the country, Family Matters, and we also have one of the largest congregations of the MCC church so we won’t let the religious Right hijack religion. In addition, we have the second oldest and third largest center in the country.”

Jacobs’ boosterism pretty much dominated the entire event. In previous years, this event had been called a “rally” and had been held the Friday evening before the annual pride parade and festival. This year, the Pride organization decided to make the event seem less political by calling it a “community celebration” and divorced it from the main Pride events by holding it a week earlier and in a different location. It also directed the focus away from the political struggle for Queer rights and more towards the elaborate social-service network the Queer community has created to take care of its own. Instead of inviting a Queer senior citizen to discuss the problems Queer people face as they age without children or other sources of family support, Pride invited a social worker, Renée Nashtut, who runs an agency called Aging as Ourselves but is still a few decades short of her own seniorhood.

Nashtut began by telling the story of Dan Miller, who was at the Stonewall Inn the night of the riot in 1969, moved to San Diego 11 years ago and is now 82 years old, homebound and unable to take care of himself without help. “Gay seniors are a twice-hidden population,” she explained. “They continue to fight for their rights as LGBT seniors and do not want to go back in the closet. Ninety percent of them have no children. They have grown up and aged with their families of choice, who are in the same boat they are.” She talked about senior citizens’ homes that don’t let lifelong Gay or Lesbian partners live together, and gave a pitch for her Aging as Ourselves agency as “being in the lead in creating a program” to help Queer senior citizens live the rest of their lives with dignity.

Though he had a quite unusual story to tell — he’s a Navy man who was discharged for being Gay, then called back because his skills as a Hebrew linguist were needed for a year-long deployment in Kuwait, then discharged again and put on the so-called “Individual Ready Reserve,” which means he could be deployed a third time — Jason Knight spoke less about himself than about his organization, the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN). Knight said that he spent a year in Kuwait “as an openly Gay person, with the full respect and support of my colleagues” — until General Peter Pace, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted in the service newspaper Stars and Stripes as saying open homosexuals were unfit for service in the U.S. military, and Knight felt compelled to take him on publicly, also in the pages of Stars and Stripes.

Knight explained that SLDN has a dual mission; it’s a social-service agency offering counseling to Queers in the U.S. military and attempting to help both those who want to stay in and those who want to get out, and it’s also a lobbying group aimed at reversing the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy passed in 1993 that forbids openly Queer people from serving. “Because of this law, 11,000 people have been discharged because they happen to be Gay or Lesbian,” Knight said. “It’s sad that we look beyond people’s service records [and at their personal lives]. We should repeal this because when our ship comes into port, we shouldn’t have to hide when we reunite with our loved ones. We should be able to put our partners’ names on our insurance policies. … Whatever you feel about the war, we have a right to choose to serve.”

Seth Kilbourn of Equality California came to talk about the marriage issue and the likelihood that the radical Right in California will put on the ballot in June 2008 an initiative that will not only amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage but will almost certainly reverse California’s domestic partnership law. “We got the same-sex marriage bill through the legislature in 2005 [it was vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger], and we are prepared to do it again,” Kilbourn said. “The state of California has reduced the inequality by passing domestic-partner legislation, which we worked hard for, but domestic partnerships and marriage will always be unequal in terms of rights and benefits, status, and dignity and respect. There are only two reasons for unequal systems: either they are unequal in benefits or they are ‘less than.’ We cannot accept that. The difference between calling Mom to say, ‘Hey, I’m getting domestic-partnered,’ and, ‘Hey, I’m getting married,’ is what we need to end, not only in law but in terms of our families, our loved ones and the guy in the next cubicle.”

According to Kilbourn, the California Supreme Court is expected to rule “within 12 months” on whether the state constitution permits the government to discriminate by granting marriage to opposite-sex couples but not to same-sex couples. At the same time, his organization expects to face an initiative challenge from the radical Right to pass the same ban on marriage rights for same-sex couples — and all other legal recognition as well — that has been approved in 35 U.S. states and defeated at the polls in only one, Arizona. Equality California hopes to defeat any such initiative by starting a program called Let California Ring. Based on the idea that the more openly Queer people voters know, the less likely they are to vote for something that would strip them of their rights, Let California Ring aims to start what Kilbourn called “millions of conversations” between Queer and non-Queer Californians about Queer rights and marriage discrimination.

Kilbourn pushed his audience to visit this program’s Web site,, and while the site is still under construction, it explains, “We owe it to families here in California, and to the rest of the country, to create a climate where all people are welcomed, included, and treated fairly, regardless of their differences. Our talking together to millions of Californians through Let California Ring will help change hearts and minds all across America, making our country, and the lives of many Lesbian and Gay couples and their loved ones, better.”

The San Diego Pride “Celebration” was MC’d for the third year in a row by raucous-voiced Lesbian comedian Laura Jane Willcock and opened with a performance by folksinger Marianne Keith. It also featured the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus singing the national anthem, as they had done a week before at Petco Park before a San Diego Padres baseball game that had been designated “Gay Night” at the ballfield. Anti-Queer Right-wing talk-show host Roger Hedgecock, self-proclaimed “ex-Gay” turned anti-Queer crusader James Hartline and a handful of people from a church called Set Free Ministries tried to organize a protest at the July 8 baseball game, saying it was inappropriate for the Padres to have an organized group from the Queer community at the same game where there was a hat giveaway to children in attendance. The program for the July 15 celebration featured a photo of the chorus singing the anthem before the start of the July 8 ballgame.

Other entertainers at the celebration included the Kickers Cloggers, who did an energetic version of a country line dance to recorded accompaniment and, because they’d only rehearsed one song, disappointed a crowd that wanted them to do more; Peech, a duo of women who sang some energetic songs backed by acoustic guitar; and Noah Sugarman, a tousled-haired young man who began his first song by imitating a drum machine with his voice and, when he sang, sounded like a cross between Jack Johnson and John Mayer. Other speakers included Bob Lehman, who with his partner Tom Felkner organized the Stonewall Citizens’ Patrol after the 2006 Pride attacks; Joe Darby, co-vice-president of Pride at Work (an organization for Queers involved in the labor movement); and Coral Lopez, communications manager for the local Latino AIDS service agency Bienestar.

In addition to the featured speakers, other honorees included veteran Queer community fundraiser and attorney Bruce Abrams; long-term couples Cynthia Lawrence and Peggy Heathers (40 years) and Jerry Peterson and Dr. Robert Smith (35 years); Mick Rubin as a “Friend of Pride” for his efforts in challenging the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-Queer discrimination policy; and Elaine Graybill for political, social and fundraising activism with the San Diego Democratic Club and other Queer organizations. The event also featured an appearance by openly Lesbian San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins, who brought the city proclamation she intended to present before the Council on July 17 and said, “It’s a point of pride with me that most of the Pride events occur in my Third City Council District.”