Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Rising Star Heads Stonewall Young Democrats


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

You don’t get to be president of an organization just two months after you joined it unless you have something on the ball. Energetic 20-something Brandon Shawn Tate joined the Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego (SYDSD) in April 2007 and was elected its president two months later. On August 8, his group attracted over 60 people to Trolley Barn Park in Normal Heights for “Still Proud,” a follow-up to the Pride events including a full dinner, courtesy of Pat and Oscar’s restaurant, and speeches by the statewide Young Democrats chair, current City Councilmember Toni Atkins, and the man SYDSD unanimously endorsed to replace her, former San Diego Democratic Club president Stephen Whitburn.

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana — who explains the lack of any discernible Southern accent in his voice by smiling and saying, “I’m an English major” — Tate was in New Orleans the day Hurricane Katrina hit. Though he didn’t lose his home or suffer the kind of crippling damage other victims faced, Katrina cost Tate his job and his scholarship to Louisiana State University. He decided to pick up the pieces of his life somewhere else, and chose San Diego because a woman friend lived here and could put him and his then-boyfriend up until he could get a job and a place of his own. After sitting out a year of college to avoid having to pay out-of-state fees, Tate went back to school at San Diego State and is now going to school, working full-time and running SYDSD.

At the July 26 meeting of the San Diego Democratic Club, Tate gave a presentation challenging the conventional image of his generation as either too conservative or too apathetic to be interested in building a progressive future in U.S. politics. In our interview, he discussed these issues, compared living as a Gay man in Louisiana and California (the differences aren’t always what you’d think!), talked about living through Katrina and explained SYDSD’s evolution from the youth caucus of the San Diego Democratic Club to an independent, but still affiliated, organization in its own right.

Zenger’s: First of all, would you tell me a little of your background and how you got involved in politics?

Brandon Shawn Tate: I’m from Louisiana. I was there during Hurricane Katrina. I was actually in New Orleans the morning that the alarms, the sirens, were going off for them to be evacuated. I volunteered in New Orleans after the hurricane. I sometimes get emotional talking about that, and I don’t want to; I’ll try not to. I was the general manager of a restaurant, and a lot of our restaurants in New Orleans were shut down because they were either damaged or had no access to water, sewage and such things. They weren’t usable.

So a lot of managers and employees were shifted to our city in Baton Rouge. Because I had worked for the corporate office, I then decided — it wasn’t like I was sent there, but I agreed — to go help to reopen those restaurants in New Orleans. So I was sacrificing my time waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning, driving to New Orleans, helping open these restaurants. There were curfews in place. I was there, I was doing this extra work, I was giving to my community and to my job, and also going to school at the time.

In that process, I got very sick and very worn out. I had to leave school. I caught pertussis — whooping cough, which wasn’t a very common disease in someone my age, but there was an outbreak of that after the hurricane. I got sick with that, and it took the doctors three months to diagnose me. I was very, very sick for three months. During that time, I had to leave school, and when I left school I didn’t have any support from LSU. I wasn’t refunded any of the money. I was actually billed for a lot of the money that my scholarship had paid for. My scholarship was revoked, and then I ended up having to pay the tuition that the scholarship was going to pay for. I’m still paying a bill to Louisiana State University because of that.

That was minor, compared to what happened with my employer. Within a matter of less than 24 hours — not 24 hours after the hurricane, but 24 hours after I’d helped reopen all but one of the restaurants in New Orleans — I moved back to Baton Rouge. After all of that, they then gave me a 24-hour notice that my salary was being cut back by 33.3 percent, with the explanation that there was lack of revenue and things. It was just difficult. It wasn’t enough for me really to survive on in the situation that I was at. I was completely independent, not having support from my family. They live in St. Joseph, Mississippi, and I was completely out of contact with them for a week.

So with the social stuff going on with my school, my education, and my health, that created a lack of opportunity. I really couldn’t be there in Baton Rouge anymore. I had a friend who lived in San Diego, and she asked me to fly out here to see if I liked it. My partner at the time and I decided to come out here together. I found a job, he found a job, things worked out. So I’ve been in San Diego since April 2006.

You can imagine how being involved in a crisis where I found that there was no protection for me with my school, with my state, with my government, would definitely affect the way that I thought. I’d always been very interested in politics. I registered to vote when I was 17, just to make sure I got to vote when I turned 18. I always kept up with races and issues and was very informed. But not until I got to San Diego did I actually get, in terms of leadership of a political organization, get very actively involved.

I found the Stonewall Young Democrats information on line through the San Diego County Democratic Party’s Web site, and got in touch with Melanie Potter. She was the acting president of the club at that time. The club was founded by Jonathan Getz, who is Melanie’s brother, along with a few other people. By the time I got involved, it was going through a transition because the former president, founding president, had left. I was still very eager to get involved, and when I first met with Melanie to see what the club was doing and what it was all about, there wasn’t a whole lot of direction other than that she really wanted to register voters, and for their club to be a club that, at a grass-roots level, got people engaged in voting and supported rights of LGBT [Queer] youth at a local level in San Diego. And those things were definitely things that I was interested in.

I have a passion to teach. I’m going to school right now for an English degree. I had three years at LSU and now I’ll be finishing at San Diego State. I sat out a year so I could get residency status, so I wouldn’t be paying $20,000 extra in tuition. I had applied for financial assistance to get an in-state residency because I went through Hurricane Katrina, I was a victim of that, but I was approved to get in the school but denied that kind of assistance. So I waited a year, but now I’ll be finishing my degree at San Diego State, and I want to teach English.

My career goals are to teach or to be full-time in politics or a combination of the two. They go together a lot for me. The two are very well related. What I love about teaching is the ability to impact or affect the way people think. Teaching, for me, is not about facts. It’s not about teaching one plus one, but it’s about teaching the concept of how to arrive at that result. Politics is that way for me too. It’s about teaching people acceptance and tolerance and issues, and fighting for equality. Gay rights, equality for the LGBT community, is something that I fight firmly for, but it’s not the only thing that I do. I strongly work for workers’ rights, and students and education.

Zenger’s: Can you tell me exactly what the Stonewall Young Democrats is, and what its relation is to the San Diego Democratic Club? Is it simply the San Diego Democratic Club’s youth caucus, or is it separate?

Tate: The original Stonewall Young Democrats group was formed in Los Angeles by Jon Cleary. The vision was that it would cater to the youth LGBT population that the older club was not effectively reaching. The leadership of the older club, such as the SDDC [San Diego Democratic Club], has traditionally not included a very diverse group of younger people. So we wanted to start something that was more connected to young Democrats, something that was more connected to CYD, which is California Young Democrats, and YDA, Young Democrats of America.

Originally SDDC started a youth caucus. The idea was to find youth people within the SDDC to start reaching out to other youth. Eventually we realized that for the youth club to be effective, it needed to be more of an independent club with an association with SDDC, not just a caucus. The way it stands now, SYDSD, Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego, co-exists as its own independent organization, chartered with CYD, chartered with YDA, as a Democratic organization consisting of young members who are LGBT or allies. The age limit, as set by Young Democrats of America, is from 14 to 35 to be a voting member of the club. The relationship that we have to SDDC is because we are a caucus, we have a voting member on their board. The leader of our club, whom we elect, is also chair of the youth caucus of the SDDC.

Zenger’s: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was your presentation at the July San Diego Democratic Club meeting, where you talked about young voters and youth in politics generally, and offered some statistics that kind of challenged the conventional wisdom that since the baby boomers of the 1960’s, each young generation has been progressively more conservative than the previous one. Could you go over some of those numbers with me, and talk about them?

Tate: There are actually two things challenging our generation: one, as you just mentioned, the “conservative” theory, but also the “apathetic” theory, the theory that our generation would be slackers and more apathetic in general in terms of making decisions or getting involved at all. I actually see those as closely related. In general what I have observed is that issues that were polarizing to some generations have not been to ours, precisely because of our apathetic approach to things.

For example, on Gay rights, in other generations, even generations that are still functioning in the electorate, Gay rights is something that polarizes the voters. On one side you have people who are very liberal, that are also pro-choice. On the other side, a lot of people who oppose Gay rights — not necessarily the majority but a lot of them — do so because of Christianity or some other ethical or moral bass for that stance

In our generation, there’s been created a safer environment for Gay rights. It’s not where we want to be or where we want to get as our final goal, but it’s definitely a huge improvement. It’s safer for younger people to come out at an earlier age, mainly because there’s been more education for parents on how to deal with Gay and Lesbian children, or Bisexual or Transgender children. There’s been more education for teachers in educational institutions. There’s been more openness.

Zenger’s: You link that to the apathetic reputation of your generation. Are you saying that it’s just that people your age have a more live-and-let-live attitude?

Tate: It’s that, and it’s also because there’s been a safer environment for people to be open. Because of that, virtually everyone my age either are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender themselves or know either a friend or a family member, or somehow they are related to someone, who came out either earlier or later in life. Because there are so many people who are so much more accepting of it, it’s not something candidates can use as a platform issue to get young people to vote against us.

So when you take away issues like abortion or Gay rights, you get down to the core of what being liberal or being conservative is about. A lot of people are able to look at the more fiscal side of things. Rather than viewing the social side of being liberal as “the Gay agenda,” they’re viewing it as a way to help the environment, a way to help elderly people, a way to help health care. They’re seeing it as issues that aren’t necessarily polarizing, issues that actually affect a broader group of people, instead of using a minority group as a divisive wedge to make people want to vote conservatively just because of that.

It’s weird; it’s almost counter-intuitive to say that apathy would make people more politically engaged. But it’s made us less concerned with things that we don’t see as having a direct effect on our lives in a negative way. Does that make sense? Whereas Christians would Gay rights as something they have to stand up against, and they feel very strongly about that, our generation, being apathetic and more accepting, doesn’t see a lot of issues as something they have to fight for just “because.” We are fighting for things that actually matter. The environment, for instance, is a big thing that our generation is taking into their own hands in a way that other generations have not.

Zenger’s: Is that simply because someone my age might miss the global-warming apocalypse that’s been predicted, but someone your age is likely to meet it head-on?

Tate: Yes, in combination with the technological advancements that are occurring right now. There are a lot of jobs for our generation. Our generation is technologically inclined, more so than other generations, I would say. Because of that, we are conditioned to think about things like that. We think more about the future and technology and the environment being brought to our attention at an early age, hybrid vehicles and solar energy and things like that. They just make sense.

If solar energy and wind energy and these other forms of energy are so abundant, for us not to tap into those more, and for us to continue to harm the environment, would be pointless. And if we have the technology to do it now, then we no longer have that excuse. So our generation wants to hold people more accountable for things that they’re going to be affected by in turn.

Young people actually will vote if they’re asked to. For the first time since 1972, youth turnout has increased in two consecutive elections, 2004 and 2006. Young people make up a larger share of the electorate than voters over the age of 65. And by 2016, according to a study done at George Washington University, it’s estimated that our generation will make up one-third of the electorate.

Members of our generation are not only more likely to vote, but also more likely to vote Democratic. In California, young voters vote 2 to 1 for Democratic candidates. Of course, that statistic is actually much higher for California than in the nation as a whole. But if young voters had been the only group voting in 2004, John Kerry would have won by more than Bill Clinton’s margin in 1996.

Zenger’s: One thing that’s often said is that support for marriage equality for same-sex couples tends to increase in the younger sectors of the electorate, and it’s been suggested that one reason you’ve got pushes for constitutional amendments at the state and federal level to ban same-sex marriage once and for all is that time is running out for them, and this is the last electorate that would actually support something like that, and as older people die off or drop out and younger people take their places in the voting booth, it’s going to be much harder to pass those things. Do you agree with that?

Tate: I agree with that, but recently some statistics came out that were shocking to me, because, based on what I’ve said here and based on what I’ve experienced in California, I thought the percentage of my generation who would support Gay marriage would be in the high 60’s or 70’s, based on my own instinct. But the poll that I actually read — a national poll, not a state poll — showed that it was more or less in the high 40’s/low 50’s.

A lot of times, even for Gay youth sometimes, you have to separate Gay equality from Gay marriage. When you look at statistics from my generation that say, “Is it O.K. to be Gay? Is it O.K. to have domestic partnerships? Should there be civil unions? Should there be rights?,” on all of those issues, we will overwhelmingly support those things. But for some reason, for the specific issue of Gay marriage, it doesn’t get the exact support as the same people that would support overall general equality.

I’ve have that challenge personally, with some of my straight friends. They’re completely O.K. with my sexual orientation and my life, and they’re completely O.K. with equality, and they’re O.K. with all that. I don’t currently have a domestic partner, but if I did I would get the same benefits that they do with their wife or husband, and they’re not angry about that. They’re supportive of it, but they don’t know what they would do with Gay marriage. So I do agree with you, but there’s still a challenge there and there’s still a way to go.

Zenger’s: Do you think you’ll live to see a day when Gay marriage is broadly accepted in the United States? Not getting into the morals of it, but whatever has to happen for it to become legally recognized throughout the U.S.

Tate: I think I’ll see that day. I don’t think I’ll ever see the day when people do not oppose Gay marriage, Gay people, and homosexuality in general, on a personal or moral level. I mean, we still see racism today. We still see people who do not respect women. Yet women are able to vote, and women are able to have equal rights. We still see people who do not respect African-Americans or Hispanics. Yet they have the right to vote, and they have the right to get married. We see people who frown upon interracial marriages, yet they are able to get married. The day will come, I believe, when Gay couples will be able to be married; and they will be accepted by the government and by their employers.

Will the day come when every American is O.K. with it? Probably not. But that’s not what we need. I don’t care if people don’t accept me. What I care is that I actually have the same rights as those people. If I’m awarded the same rights, and I’m not persecuted in a way that actually affects me in terms of my job, my education, my marriage, my finances, then it’s O.K. for them to hold that stance. I do think the day will come when Gay marriage will be legal and the psyche of the general American public will be way more accepting. In fact, I think we’ve already started to see that happen, especially at local and state levels.

Zenger’s: At the event you guys held at Trolley Barn Park [San Diego City Councilmember] Toni Atkins burst your balloon a little where she said that turnout in the last election was 41 percent among the general population and 24 percent among youth. So it seems like you still have a long way to go in terms of getting more members of your generation to participate in the political process.

Tate: She and I were quoting two different sets of statistics. She was talking about what percentage of each generation votes, and I was talking about what percentage each generation is of the total electorate. We do have a challenge in terms of getting more members of our generation to vote, It’s a difficult challenge, actually, because our generation is very apathetic about a lot of different issues. A lot of people in our generation care about things, but they don’t vote, or they are afraid of politics in general. A lot of us identify as independent, probably more so than most generations. They want to be seen as moderate, as in the middle, even though a lot of times their version of “moderate” is actually way to the Left and the’re more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans when there’s a partisan race.

But as a whole, yes, they’re not voting. Only 24 percent of them voted. That’s not uncommon in past generations. What she didn’t say is it has increased. It was less than that in 2000, in 1994, in 1996 it was less than that. It has been increasing, and I think it will increase [more].

Zenger’s: What sorts of issues should candidates talk about, and what things do they need to say, to attract people in your generation first to vote at all, and then to vote for them?

Tate: One thing that obviously affects us directly is the cost of college, not just rising tuition but other costs like textbooks, for instance. In California, for example, there’s actually legislation right now to regulate the process by which publishers are able to do new editions of books. Often new editions come out with very few changes, just to make more money for the publishers. We’re also concerned about the student loan program, not just the big scandals but the overall issue of how much people are paying in interest. We don’t really understand where we’re at in terms of how much we’re borrowing and how much we’re actually going to end up paying back.

Also many of our generation are independent at 16, 17, 18, 19 years old, but can’t claim independence on a Federal Application for Student Financial Aid (FASFA) form until we’re 25 years old or married. That’s very frustrating to me personally, because I get no financial support from my parents, and haven’t since I was a senior in high school. Yet, according to FASFA, because I’m not married or 25, they assume that my parents are still supporting me and count their income level towards my eligibility. A lot of people in our generation, especially LGBT people, don’t live with or get money from their parents. So FASFA’s policy, which controls eligibility for virtually all student financial aid, is really unfair.

The environment is another big issue our generation wants to hear about. We want to know what are you really doing; what are your goals and standards for how much of the nation’s energy is going to come from renewable sources. How much are you going to continue to give tax incentives and tax breaks to people who are harming the environment? Obviously I’m speaking of the oil companies. There are ways that the government could spark the whole movement for renewable energy by helping to create a market for it. If the government would mandate that new construction homes in certain areas have to be equipped with certain kinds of solar energy, that would help create a market and bring the cost down.

Health care is also an issue of concern to our generation. I know it doesn’t seem to be, the way that it’s talked about right now: Social Security and everything isn’t something that our generation actually is particularly interested in. But a lot of people in our generation don’t have health care for the same reason that they don’t have the financial support that I’m talking about with the financial aid, because they’re independent, and a lot of companies do not respect young people as people who deserve benefits, or who deserve health care. A lot of 20-somethings are in that transition phase where we’re going to school and working a full-time job, but we don’t have health benefits, so when we get sick, we’re racking up medical bills.

I personally have thousands of dollars in medical debt because of what happened in Hurricane Katrina, and I did not have adequate health care to compensate for a lot of the bills I had. So it wouldn’t necessarily be health care in the traditional, conventional sense, those kinds of discussions, but it should employers provide for you if you’re working, and how are young people going to get access to health care if they don’t have it? That would be the issue, and that would be something we would be willing to listen to.

Zenger’s: You mentioned having grown up in Louisiana and only recently moving to California. How would you compare the two in terms of attitudes towards homosexuality, Gay rights, freedom in general, and the “moral” issues that we talked about earlier? How would you compare Louisiana and California as environments for someone like you?

Tate: When I first arrived and spoke to other Gay people in San Diego they assumed that because I was from “the South” as a whole, that I had received a lot of persecution; that I was not used to people being accepting. But it’s actually not that way. In Baton Rouge and in New Orleans, we have a very accepting culture of Gay people. Granted, we also have a very strong Christian population. But Louisiana is a Democratic state — a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators — and decently liberal or progressive compared to other surrounding states in that south region. I was not uncomfortable holding my boyfriend’s hand walking in the mall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or going out to dinner with a group of straight and Gay people mixed together, and having fear of being accepted. We had Gay clubs that were well known.

When I got to San Diego, I found a very accepting Gay culture that was much more organized than I had known in Baton Rouge, in terms of clubs like SDDC; in terms of having Gay City Councilmembers like Toni Atkins; in terms of such as domestic partnership rights. Those things I had not experienced in Louisiana. But as I moved out of Hillcrest and the District 3 area, I lived in El Cajon when I moved here and I know that for the first time I experienced a persecution — not necessarily a direct persecution, but a lack of acceptance that I hadn’t experienced before in Baton Rouge.

So I saw a division between those who were accepting and liberal, but very organized at what they did; and then those who totally were not accepting, what I would compare with some of what I experienced in Louisiana with the Christians that were there. When I first moved to San Diego, I was walking in the Gaslamp with my boyfriend at the time, and people shouted, “Hillcrest is that way.” In other words, “Get out of downtown,” like I wasn’t welcomed in downtown: that there was a specific area I was supposed to be in. In Baton Rouge we didn’t have that specific area. So it’s good to have that specific Hillcrest area where everyone’s accepted and open, and there’s a great place to be where you can be completely open and have all the resources that are there for you. That’s nice.

In Louisiana we didn’t have all those resources. We didn’t have all those rights with the people there. But as a whole, we had a more open culture. Here it’s more like you’re isolated to those areas. If you actually think how people operate, you’re not going to get the answer that most people would expect: “Louisiana was much more conservative, and I hated being there because people hated Gays; but when I moved to California, everything was great and people loved me.” That’s not really how it happens. There are people that hate me in California just as much as they might hate me in Louisiana, and there were people I knew in Louisiana who were as open and accepting to me as anyone in California.

Photo: The scene at the Pride Parade July 21. The Hillcrest fire station where the four firefighters work is at left and the Christian protesters are in the middle.

Firefighters Forced to March in Pride Parade

Christian Foundation Backs Them in Suit Against the City


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

Four San Diego firefighters who work Engine 5 out of the Hillcrest fire station are taking legal action against the city for being ordered to participate in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade July 21. The men, Captain John Ghiotto, Engineer Jason Hewitt and Firefighters Chad Allison and Alex Kane, claim that their First Amendment rights of free speech and political association were violated by being forced to be part of an event whose message and purpose they did not support. They also claim that by subjecting them to sexually explicit words and gestures from members of the parade audience, the city violated its policy against sexual harassment on the job.

All four firefighters filed affidavits that have been made public. Ghiotto’s affidavit states that he first learned he might be ordered to participate in the parade on July 20, the day before it occurred, “when I received a phone call at home from the captain at 5’s giving me the heads-up that they were going to have us in the parade.” Ghiotto called his immediate supervisor, Battalion Chief Tony Pollard, who told him that if his superiors gave him a direct order to have Engine 5 participate, “he would pass it on to me. I told the chief that I would not participate in or make my crew participate in the parade unless given a direct order to do so.”

The order came through at 8 the next morning when, according to Ghiotto, “Chief Pollard told us (crew of engine 5) that we were going to take part in the parade. I told the chief that none of my crew members, including myself, wanted to participate in the parade. … I also told him that we all felt uncomfortable with the decision, and would not participate in the parade unless given a direct order.” By 9 Pollard told Ghiotto that assistant chief Jeff Carle had ordered “that engine 5 and the on-duty crew was to participate in the parade.”

Ghiotto said that he and his crew “did follow the chief’s order and took part in the parade to avoid any disciplinary action. While moving down the parade route, we were subjected to verbal abuse (‘show me your hose,’ ‘you can put out my fire,’ ‘give me mouth to mouth,’ ‘fuck you, fireman’), sexual gestures (showing their penis, blowing kisses, grabbing their crotch, rubbing their nipples, tongue gestures, flipping us off). We were subject to this type of abuse and more throughout the parade route. You could not even look at the crowd without getting some type of sexual gesture. Even the Christian protesters were giving us grief for being a part of this.” The other three firefighters offered similar descriptions of the taunts and sexual gestures they received from people watching the parade, and the reaction of the Christian counter-protesters as they drove past.

Engineer Hewitt said in his affidavit that Chief Pollard told him at 2 p.m. the day before the parade “that every year the department goes through this situation of trying to find people to drive a fire apparatus in the parade and I’m tired of it! This parade is in engine 5’s district and engine 5 is going to be in it! So be prepared to possibly be given a direct order. They haven’t told me to give in yet, but if they do I will give the direct order! If you refuse the direct order, then you will be suspended for the rest of the shift and I’ll get someone else.”

According to Hewitt, he felt intimidated because he was not only being told he might be ordered to participate in an event he did not support, he was being threatened with long-term damage to his career if he refused. He described his thoughts this way: “If I go into work tomorrow, and I am given a direct order to be in the Gay Pride Parade and I refuse, I will be suspended for the remainder of the shift. This is what our discipline manual says, and because of this suspension I will no longer be eligible on the current captain’s list. Also I will not be eligible on the next captain’s test or any other special assignment for the next two years. … I felt like I was being harassed about being involved in the Gay Pride Parade. If I refused the possible director order, I had to take into consideration my future in my career and any possible promotional process or career opportunities. This wasn’t right! I was forced into a situation that would compromise what I hold true and what I believe in, my reputation, my character, my integrity, my morals, and my religion.” (Emphasis Hewitt’s.)

Hewitt also said that, unlike other big events in which the fire department participates — Fourth of July celebrations, Street Scene, the Qualcomm Stadium Sky Show and the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon — “we had no plan of how do we get out of the parade if something happens. No medical bike teams to assist with medical emergencies and no alternative means of emergency response routes planned out.” He said that putting a fire crew in the middle of an event drawing 150,000 people with no emergency plan put “our safety and the public’s safety” at risk.

A part of Hewitt’s affidavit explained how engine 5 got ordered to be in the parade in the first place. Another fire crew, led by Captain Trish Stone, had volunteered to be in the parade and her crew members had all agreed to participate. “But her engineer, Pat White, had a family emergency and she had to make a last-minute trade” — and the person who agreed to take White’s shift refused to be in the parade. Hewitt questioned why his team, just because it is stationed in Hillcrest, was ordered to be in the parade when another firefighter from another station was given the right to refuse to participate.

Chad Allison’s affidavit stressed that he did not share Hewitt’s moral and religious objections to the parade, but he too participated only out of fear that he would be disciplined. “I have a Gay uncle who had been very active in my upbringing and still plays an important role in my life,” Allison wrote in his affidavit. “From inside the fire engine while we sat in staging, I saw my uncle’s life partner and their roommate. While I was already feeling that I was being harassed, I did not want to disrespect my uncle’s life partner, whom I also refer to as ‘uncle.’ … I walked up to my ‘uncle’ and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I then gave their roommate a hug.”

According to Allison, his attempt at a familial gesture of affection backfired big-time. “When I began to greet them, I overheard a man say, ‘Oh, the fireman is giving out hugs. I hope he gives me one.’ I also saw a man gesture to his shirt, which read, ‘Have you ever ridden a fat man?’ I became so distraught and uncomfortable that my knees began to shake. I did not mention my objection to my participation in the parade to my ‘uncle’ because I did not want him to think that I objected to his cause or his pride. That, I felt and still feel, was a different issue.”

Allison said that he wore a headset over his ears throughout the parade to try to keep from hearing the sexual taunts from men in the audience, but he heard them anyway. At first he would wave back to spectators who waved at him, “but on at least three separate occasions, sexual gestures were directed at me in response to my waves.” When the fire truck passed the Christian protesters — who were stationed, as usual, in a dead-end street next to the fire station from which these firefighters work — “they told us that we were going to go to hell for supporting the Gay lifestyle. I took the comment with a grain of salt because I did not agree with them, but I felt uncomfortable being in the confrontational environment.”

Alex Ross’s affidavit said that he “was in disbelief” when he was told his unit was being ordered to participate in the parade and that he “felt like Engine 5 was in the parade as entertainment for the crowds.” Ross said that when the engine passed the protesters, “They began to lecture us on how we were bad people for supporting this [parade]. This really struck deep because I am a Christian. I felt this was not fair because I do not live an alternative lifestyle. I was ordered by my department to be in this parade against my own wishes and beliefs.”

The firefighters’ case ended up in the hands of local attorney Charles S. LiMandri, West Coast director of the Thomas More Law Center. LiMandri’s office referred Zenger’s to Brian Rooney, executive director of the Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Rooney described the organization as “a Christian nonprofit public-interest law firm” whose mission “essentially has three tenets: life, which involves conception to natural death; religious freedom for Christians; and time-honored family values.” Rooney said his group passed its first legal hurdle — getting a right-to-sue letter from the city — on August 17 and expected to have the suit filed within the week.

“The main basis for the suit,” Rooney explained, “is that these firefighters were sexually harassed for three hours.” Rooney conceded that what happened to them doesn’t fit the usual definition of sexual harassment, since they didn’t allege that co-workers or supervisors were actually harassing them, but he said that San Diego’s sexual harassment policy has a much more expansive definition that forbids “putting employees in a sexually harassing framework.” Rooney said the suit will also claim that the city violated the firefighters’ First Amendment right to free speech because “these men were made to speak in a forum contrary to their beliefs.”

Maurice Luque, public information officer for the San Diego Fire Department, confirmed that the firefighters were indeed ordered to participate in the Pride Parade whether they wanted to or not — and said that’s standard department policy. “The bottom line is it’s part of a firefighter’s job to participate in community events,” Luque told Zenger’s. “It’s part of what they sign on to do when they join the department.”

Luque also said that if the fire department picked and chose between requests from the community for firefighters to participate in parades and other public events, that in itself would be discrimination and would violate California law. “We can’t discriminate,” he stated. “There are laws against that. We treat all communities the same. Those are our customers, our taxpayers. They invite us to these events, and we have a responsibility and an obligation to be there when we can.”

According to Luque, if a certain team from the department volunteers to participate in a particular event, “the engine company in the district doesn’t have to” — but if there are no volunteers, the company at the fire station in the community where the event takes place can be ordered to do so. The only other reason the fire department wouldn’t be in a community event they were invited to would be, he said, if an “emergency situation” arose and the personnel and equipment were needed for firefighting.

Asked about accusations that Rooney’s organization and the firefighters themselves were exploiting this situation to attack the Queer community in general and recently appointed fire chief Tracy Jarman, an open Lesbian, in particular, Rooney said, “This argument is like blaming rape victims for what they wear. These men’s responsibility is to serve the community, not to advance a political agenda. Those making this argument have their own agenda and are being a little bit paranoid.”

Rooney said that, in addition to financial damages, the lawsuit is seeking a change in city policy to ensure “that no one will ever be forced to participate in this event against their conscience.” He said the city had offered to change its policy, but Rooney felt the proposal didn’t go far enough; “What they’re saying now doesn’t address the situation these firefighters were in, where you have a volunteer ladder and when it pulled out, these men were ordered to go. That’s the situation we want to avoid in the future.”
Firefighters, Free Speech and Pride


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

When I first heard the story that four San Diego firefighters were taking the city to court over having been forced to drive their fire engine in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade July 21, I thought this was just another tempest in a teapot being stirred up by the radical Right. After all, their case was being handled by a self-proclaimed “Christian nonprofit public-interest law firm” whose mission includes protecting “time-honored family values” — language often used as code for opposition to any effort to protect the rights or even the lives of Queer people. What’s more, they were being promoted by talk-show host Roger Hedgecock, who has built most of his popularity bashing liberals, immigrants and Queers.

Then I downloaded the affidavits submitted by the four men involved — Captain John Ghiotto, Engineer Jason Hewitt and Firefighters Chad Allison and Alex Kane — and my attitude towards their case did a 180-degree turnaround. As I read their affidavits, it became crystal-clear that a great wrong had been done these people and they deserve whatever financial settlement and policy changes they can get from the courts. I was even more shocked when I read public statements from representatives of the San Diego Fire Department saying that, indeed, these men were ordered to participate in a parade aimed at promoting an agenda with which at least three of them profoundly disagreed — and, what’s more, this was standard city policy aimed at showing Fire Department support for community organizations.

According to the affidavits, these firefighters — all of whom work Engine 5 out of the Hillcrest fire station — were ordered to be in the parade and threatened with long-term damage to their careers, including sacrifice of any hope of future promotion, if they did not. Once in the parade, they were subjected to sexually explicit words and gestures. When they passed the Christian protesters who regularly picket the parade — and are routinely stationed in a cul-de-sac next to the fire station where these men report for work — they were told they were going to hell for supporting the Queer community agenda, which was especially heartbreaking for the two of them who are themselves Christians.

The suit against the city specifies two kinds of damages done to these men. First, it claims that by placing them in a sexually charged environment in which people would be making remarks to them like, “Show me your hose,” “You can put out my fire,” “Give me mouth to mouth,” and “Fuck you, fireman” — accompanied by crotch-grabbing and other gestures conveying essentially the same message, the city violated its policy against sexual harassment. In addition to banning sexually explicit words, gestures or overtures between employees, which is what most people think “sexual harassment” means, San Diego’s policy also bans placing employees in sexually charged situations in which they will feel uncomfortable — and that’s what the firefighters and their legal representatives are charging.

Second, and I think more significant, the firefighters are charging that the city ordered them to become silent spokespersons for a cause they do not support and thereby violated their First Amendment rights. I couldn’t agree more. Fire Department spokesperson Maurice Luque portrayed the Pride Parade as if it were just another community event in which his department was asked to participate. It is not. One of the complaining firefighters, Engineer Jason Hewitt, described it in his affidavit as “a parade that isn’t like other parades” — and he’s right. It has an overarching political message — its theme this year was “United for Equality” — and it’s designed to promote the idea that Queer (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people should have full legal and social equality with straight people, including equal access to civil marriage.

Pride organizers even successfully used the political nature of their event in 1994, when Roger Hedgecock and one of his regular listeners attempted to organize a “Normal People’s contingent” to march in the parade “in opposition to the homosexual agenda.” The court that heard their case declared that Pride had a First Amendment right to exclude a group openly opposed to the political and social message their event was intended to convey. Just like the Boy Scouts of America, which claims to be a “religious organization” when they want to exclude Queers and atheists from membership and a nonpolitical, nonsectarian “community organization” when they want virtually free access to large chunks of public property, certain people in our community seem to want to have it both ways: to preserve Pride’s ability to take a stand for Queer equality and exclude participants who oppose it, while allowing the city to force people who don’t believe in that message to participate against their will.

I certainly believe in the message of Pride, and when I participated in this year’s parade I did so with full awareness of its message and in support of it. Ghiotto, Hewitt, Allison and Kane did not. Hewitt said being in the parade “compromise(d) what I hold true and what I believe in, my reputation, my character, my integrity, my morals, and my religion.” Kane said that when he had to ride past the anti-Queer Christian group that was protesting the parade -— and they, wrongly but naturally assuming that he was participating of his own free will, taunted him “on how we were bad people for supporting this, this really struck deep because I am a Christian.”

The most heart-rending story in the affidavit’s is Allison’s. He did not describe himself as a Christian and he specifically said that he disagreed with the anti-Queer protesters. Indeed, he has a Gay uncle “who has been active in my upbringing and still plays an important role in my life.” While waiting for the parade to start, Allison spotted his uncle’s partner and their roommate in the crowd and gave them hugs — and other people in the audience spotted him doing so and assumed it was open season for hugs from a firefighter. After being barraged with sexual words and gestures throughout the parade, Allison said, “I was upset not only with the people that were treating me in such an unwanted, derogatory manner, but also with the people who had forced me into this situation.”

I’m not especially upset with the audience members who threw sexual gestures and catcalls at the firefighters in the Pride Parade. After all, like everyone else involved in the parade they no doubt assumed that the firefighters had volunteered to be there, and were either Queer themselves or Queer-friendly enough to take the sexual banter and horseplay in the light, fun spirit intended. But I am upset — and I think the firefighters of Hillcrest Engine 5 have every reason to be upset — at a city and a command structure that put them in that position and, while they’ve volunteered to make cosmetic changes in their policies, refuse to admit that they did anything wrong to these men.

Fire Department spokesperson Maurice Luque told me, “It’s part of a firefighter’s job to participate in community events.” This is outrageous. A firefighter’s job is to respond to fire alarms and put out fires, period. The idea that a public employee can be ordered, on pain of being disciplined, to participate in a public event communicating a message in which that employee does not believe smacks of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Saddam’s Iraq, Kim’s North Korea and other regimes in which dictators regularly order their people to turn out in mass numbers to adulate them — or else.

It is utterly offensive that something like this could happen in a country that is supposed to be built on democracy and political freedom, and where the same First Amendment that protects me, the Pride organizers and anyone else who participates in political speech also protects John Ghiotto, Jason Hewitt, Chad Allison and Alex Kane from having their names, their bodies and their professional standing enlisted in a cause in which they do not believe. One can readily imagine how the Queer community would howl if this had happened the other way around — if Queer firefighters had been ordered to participate in a “Christian Day Parade” that had, as one of its demands, “preserving traditional marriage.” That would be wrong — and it’s equally wrong the way it did happen. True pride means carrying our own banners — not relying on the government to force others to carry them for us.

U-T Reporter Dean Calbreath Speaks to First U-U Church

Part of Team of Four that Broke the Cunningham Scandal


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

Dean Calbreath, one of the team of reporters from the San Diego Union-Tribune (along with Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer and George E. Condon Jr.) who broke the corruption story involving former Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham, began his presentation on the case August 25 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest with an “anecdote” about Cunningham he heard too late to incorporate into any of the articles or the team’s book about the case, The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught.

Calbreath heard the story from a motorcycle-shop owner in North County. “He said, ‘I got a call a couple of years ago from Cunningham’s chief of staff, who said he was setting up some constituent visits in the district. He said, “The Congressmember would really like to visit you in your shop and talk about small-business problems and what your situation is like.”’ The guy says, ‘Sure, sure.’ He puts up this big banner saying, ‘Welcome, Randy “Duke” Cunningham,’ and lays out cookies and soda pop. Cunningham and his chief of staff arrive at the shop, and instead of going right into the shop, he stands outside looking at these jet-skis. The guy goes out to greet him, and Cunningham says, ‘I have a jet-ski, just like one of these. But it’s old and worn, and I’d really like another one.’ The store owner says, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to sell you one and service it for you,’ and Cunningham says, ‘That’s fine, but the last one was given to me.’”

To Calbreath, that just symbolized the overreaching and personal greed that finally brought Cunningham down — and set him apart from other Congressmembers who have also taken favors from lobbyists and pushed dubious programs at the behest of campaign contributors. “He was on the make for a long time, and he still could be if he hadn’t been stupid and greedy,” Calbreath said. “I think he believed he was entitled to get what he got: ‘I was the only Navy ace in Viet Nam. I’ve spent all this time serving my country. I deserve six 17th Century commodes.’”

The Cunningham story broke two years ago, Calbreath explained, when Stern was working on a story involving Congressmembers being treated to free plane rides by lobbyists. Stern discovered Cunningham had gone on two such trips — surprisingly, despite all the information that’s come out on Cunningham in the past two years, it’s still not known who paid for them or why — “but when he found the two flights, he decided to do a ‘lifestyle’ piece on Cunningham and see how he got what he got.”

The idea behind Stern’s story was to see if Cunningham was living more lavishly than he could have on his Congressional salary — and he was, big-time. “Cunningham was living in a $2.4 million house in Rancho Santa Fe,” Calbreath recalled. “He had just sold his former house in Del Mar for $1.7 million to a business entity called 1635 New Hampshire Avenue. Mark recognized that as a D.C. address and found out it was run by a guy named Mitchell Wade who owned a company called MZM, Inc. He started thinking about what MZM was and how it had got from zero business with the federal government to $1.4 million in federal contracts.” Stern was also thinking about why Wade would have bought Cunningham’s Del Mar home for $1.7 million when the going rate for similar houses in the same neighborhood was $900,000 — which was what Wade got when he resold the house a few months later.

“Mark called Cunningham up and asked him, ‘Who’s Mitchell Wade?’” Calbreath recalled. “Cunningham said, ‘Oh, he’s just a guy I met. I don’t know him very well.’ Mark asked if Cunningham had helped MZM, Inc. get government contracts, and Cunningham said, ‘Sure. I always like to help my constituents.’” With those few words, Calbreath explained, Cunningham had admitted to breaking the law, establishing a quid pro quo money-for-favors relationship with Wade that was enough to justify a story and ultimately send Cunningham to prison.

Ironically, Calbreath said, it was the attempt of Cunningham and Wade to cover up their real-estate scam with a phony business name that led to Cunningham’s undoing. “If the buyer’s name on the document had been ‘Mitchell Wade,’ Mark probably wouldn’t have investigated,” Calbreath said. Instead, the first Cunningham story sparked a series — and led Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner to call what Calbreath called a “war council” to see if any of San Diego’s other Congressmembers, Republicans Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter and Democrats Bob Filner and Susan Davis, were pulling similar tricks. They also looked briefly at powerful Southern California Republican Congressmembers Jerry Lewis and John Doolittle.

According to Calbreath, the investigations sparked by the “war council” found some questionable practices, but nothing like the scope or extent of Cunningham’s misdeeds. Like Cunningham, Duncan Hunter, the influential San Diego Republican who chaired the House Armed Services Committee until the Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 election, took contributions from defense contractors and used earmarks to get their pet projects funded whether or not the military wanted them — but Hunter didn’t live visibly beyond his means as a Congressmember and there was no evidence he was being personally enriched by the companies and lobbyists he was helping.

“Hunter isn’t being made a rich man the way Cunningham was,” Calbreath said. “With Hunter, I think contractors tell him, ‘This will be good for the country and good for your district. It’ll create jobs.’ So he puts in earmarks for weapons systems the military doesn’t even want, whether it’s a plane that won’t fly or the X-Craft, which the Navy thinks is a boondoggle and Hunter thinks is the ship of the future. The Pentagon doesn’t routinely question the money it gets, but a lot of these things are they don’t ask for. Hunter seems to think he knows better what the military needs than the military itself does. He thinks he’s doing the right thing. I think he’s deluded himself.”

One story Calbreath worked on for a while was about Congressmember Doolittle’s “nifty scheme” to divert campaign contributions to his personal funds. “He was taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions — which is legal — and his campaign manager took 15 percent of these donations as payment for her services, which is also legal. Except that his campaign manager was his wife and her company had no other employees, it was based in their home and her only other client was [convicted former lobbyist] Jack Abramoff.”

Calbreath said Filner was working a similar scheme — he too had his wife on his payroll as a “consultant” and paid her out of campaign donations — but it wasn’t as obvious because she’d been a political consultant before their marriage and she had other politicians as clients. He said Davis, San Diego’s other Democratic Congressmember, “has also taken a lot of money from military contractors. I think she’s a capable person and I don’t think she’s involved in bribery, but she’s serving her constituents with money.”

In a sense, the real problem with political corruption, Calbreath argued, is it’s bipartisan and therefore neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties have an incentive to get rid of it. Calbreath said he’s lived abroad — in Japan, China, the Czech Republic and much of Eastern Europe — “and people there tell me, ‘You’re always criticizing us for corruption, but what we call “bribes” you call “campaign contributions.”’” While Calbreath is convinced “there will always be corruption,” he’s particularly concerned about the way it was “mechanized” under former House Republican leader Tom DeLay, who among other things arranged for lobbyists to serve as go-betweens so Congressmembers wouldn’t receive questionable contributions direct from the companies seeking government favors.

“Some of that mechanism has been dissolved” since the Democrats took over Congress and DeLay was convicted on corruption-related charges, Calbreath acknowledged, “but for how long? It’s a bipartisan problem.” Calbreath said that the Democrats were given the Congressional majority in 2006 largely because they promised to end the so-called “culture of corruption” in Washington, D.C. — but he said the most potentially useful reform, a requirement that any Congressmember putting an earmark into an appropriation bill tag it with his or her own name, so it would be public record just who was seeking these funds for this project — came from Republican Duncan Hunter.

Calbreath’s prepared presentation took less than half an hour, but he took audience questions from over an hour. The topics ranged from the future of journalism and the role of media consolidation and the Internet in shaping what we know about news to the war in Iraq and even the problems with electronic voting machines, a topic Calbreath has never been called to report on and therefore knew little about. He did warn that the ongoing financial problems facing all newspapers make it less likely that you’ll see the kind of aggressive investigative reporting it took to break the Cunningham scandal.

Photo: Jerry Butkiewicz

Controversies Flare at Queer Democrats’ Meeting

Labor Panel, Aguirre Appearance, Davis Endorsement Contentious


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

The August 23 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club was billed as a forum on Queers and the labor movement, featuring San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council head Jerry Butkiewicz and his political director, Lorena Gonzalez; Maru Lozano, openly Lesbian health educator in Los Angeles County and head of their chapter of the Queer labor organization Pride at Work; and Brian Polejes, Pride at Work’s national organizing chair and head of its San Diego chapter.

But two hot-button local issues involving labor — the Gaylord corporation’s development proposal for the Chula Vista bayfront and the lawsuit filed by four firefighters who claim they were ordered to drive their engine in the recent LGBT [Queer] Pride Parade against their wishes — turned the panel into an emotionally intense experience for participants and audience members alike. What’s more, the club also heard from controversial city attorney Mike Aguirre — and from a club member who denounced his record on Queers after he was no longer there to respond — and only barely endorsed incumbent Democratic Congressmember Susan Davis for re-election.

Butkiewicz, who said he’s a firm believe in Queer equality because he’s seen the discrimination and persecution faced by his Lesbian sister, grew impassioned when he talked about the Gaylord project and the way it’s been used by the San Diego Union-Tribune and Right-wing talk-hosts to propagandize against labor. The tale that’s been told in the local media is that Gaylord proposed this great project that’s going to create at least 200 jobs and bring in $300 to $400 million in tax revenues to Chula Vista and the port, and the only obstacle in the way of this wonderful deal is a handful of spoiled brats from the labor movement.

Nonsense, said Butkiewicz and Gonzalez. According to Gonzalez, the city won’t see a penny of additional taxes because Gaylord’s deal calls for the city to pay Gaylord back for the room taxes paid by tourists who stay in the development’s hotels. “The deal between Gaylord, the port and the city is a subsidy to Gaylord of $300-400 million,” she explained. Butkiewicz added that Chula Vista’s city manager has already demanded “givebacks” from the police and firefighters’ unions because of Gaylord’s subsidies, and he predicted that Gaylord will demand an extra $60 to $100 million as a sweetener to the deal — and the port and the city will gut their environmental funds to give it to them.

What’s more, Butkiewicz said, Gaylord is seeking sweetheart terms for leasing the land from the port district — “If everyone else is paying $3 per square foot, Gaylord wants to pay $2,” he explained — and there’s no guarantee the workers who build the project will come from Chula Vista, or even the United States. When Gaylord built a similar project 30 miles outside of Nashville, Butkiewicz said, instead of hiring local workers “they went to the White House and got 200 H-1-B [guest worker] visas. Then they went to Haiti and got 200 workers, bought a nearby motel and housed them there while they built Gaylord’s project for minimum wage and no benefits.

Asked by local law professor and Gay & Lesbian Times columnist Rob DeKoven about the lawsuit from the four firefighters who claim to have been ordered to participate in the Pride Parade against their personal beliefs, Butkiewicz said he’d been on vacation when the story broke. “The first I heard about it was on [anti-Queer radio host] Roger Hedgecock’s show,” he said. “These firefighters acted independently of the union and went straight to Hedgecock. These are Right-wing firefighters who just got an opportunity to attack your community.” With many people in the audience convinced that the firefighters’ lawsuit was really an attempt to force recently appointed fire chief Tracy Jarman, an open Lesbian, to resign, Butkiewicz said that firefighters’ union president Ron Saathof had stood up for Jarman and the union had supported her appointment in the first place.

The question of endorsing Susan Davis for re-election came up as part of a group of five officeholders recommended for the “friendly incumbent” endorsement. This is a club rule that allows the club to endorse incumbents based on their track record of support for Queer rights without making them go through the rigmarole of filling out questionnaires and appearing at a club meeting required for non-incumbents or candidates for open seats. The other four incumbents — Congressmember Bob Filner, State Senator Christine Kehoe and State Assemblymembers Lori Saldaña and Mary Salas — got their recommended endorsements unanimously. Davis’s was another matter.

Ironically, two years ago there was also a controversy over Davis’s endorsement because she hadn’t endorsed a bill to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy restricting the ability of Queers to serve openly in the military. Since then, Davis has embraced the club’s position on the issue, signing on to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and, as a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, calling military officials to testify about the current policy.

What almost sandbagged her endorsement this time was the war in Iraq. Though Davis voted against the initial authorization for the war in 2002 — when Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both voted for it — Davis voted for the most recent appropriation to continue funding the war and supported the Republican version with no timetable for withdrawal. As club member Ted Bunce pointed out, that put Davis to the right of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, all of whom opposed the bill. There were other concerns about Davis, including her vote to give President Bush fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals — which labor people and many progressive activists think encourage corporations to ship U.S. jobs overseas — but the war was the main one.

Club member and peace activist Kelly King said that Democrats like Davis were actually letting Congressional Republicans take the lead in challenging the administration on the war. “We were asking them not to fund [the war] without conditions for withdrawal,” she said. “Recently, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee called for a withdrawal date. It’s important for people to think that when they vote for something, something happens. … Mid-September is another opportunity to talk about getting us out of the war. The Republicans are taking the lead on this. Something is not right with her stand on the war.”

But former club president Gloria Johnson defended Davis because of her firm stand on another issue important to the club: women’s right to abortion and reproductive choice. “Susan is 100 percent pro-choice,” Johnson said. “She will always be there for women. She gets 100 percent ratings from NOW [National Organization for Women], Planned Parenthood and CARAL [California Abortion Rights Action League]. Davis has also worked to stop the San Onofre toll bridge. She’s put military men on the spit over ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

Eventually, after a motion to close debate on the endorsement passed 34 to 10, Davis won her endorsement by 28 votes in favor to 15 opposed and one abstention — two votes over the 60 percent supermajority the club requires to endorse. Davis wasn’t present, but her staff liaison to the Queer community, City Council candidate Todd Gloria, was — and a number of club members specifically asked Gloria to communicate their concerns about Davis’s record to her.

Aguirre, who spoke early in the meeting, came to address two issues: the firefighters’ controversy and marriage equality for same-sex couples. Like some club members, he saw the firefighters’ lawsuit against the city as an attempt to force out openly Lesbian fire chief Jarman, and defended the policy under which the firefighters were ordered to participate in the parade. “The universal reaction that you can’t tell someone to participate in a community event is wrong,” Aguirre said, adding that it would be discriminatory — and against California state law — to require firefighters to participate in some community events but not others. “If you order someone to march in Rancho Bernardo, you can’t say you won’t order someone to march in Hillcrest,” he stated.

On the marriage issue, Aguirre mentioned his efforts to get the San Diego City Council to authorize him to file an amicus curiae brief before the California Supreme Court in the case they’re currently considering over whether California’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution. The case arose out of the one month — mid-February to mid-March 2004 — when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his city to marry same-sex couples. The Supreme Court later invalidated these marriages, but they reserved judgment on whether the state could constitutionally limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.

“I’ve arranged for San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera, who’s a good friend of mine, to speak to our City Council about that issue,” Aguirre said. He asked club members to attend the Council meeting when that will be discussed — which he expects will be in mid-September — and added, “In many places, including Canada, the courts have decided that there is a fundamental right to marriage equality.”

But veteran club activist Marilyn Riley, a former member of Aguirre’s staff, launched a slashing attack against him at the end of the meeting, long after he’d left. “Mike Aguirre would keep saying to me, ‘What’s with these Gays?,’” Riley said, adding that Aguirre told her that the California legislature had already created domestic partnerships for same-sex couples that gave them almost all the rights of married people under state law and therefore Queer couples didn’t need marriage equality. She also claimed that Aguirre had improperly assigned her to spy on meetings of the Deputy City Attorneys’ Association and said he’d attacked city workers by supporting Proposition C, which allows San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders to outsource their jobs to private companies.

Photo: Ruella (Sandy Campbell, right) uses a 2007 newspaper to try to
convince a skeptical Phoebe (Jessica John, left) that she’s traveled through time in Cygnet Theatre’s Communicating Doors. (Photo: Randy Rovang.)

Cygnet’s Communicating Doors a Delight


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved14

It’s amazing that when British writer Alan Ayckbourn’s works first hit America in the 1970’s, a lot of critics wrote him off as a kind of U.K. version of Neil Simon, funny and entertaining but without depth. Perhaps part of the misunderstanding is that Ayckbourn loves the old-fashioned genre of the hotel farce. But the creative spins he puts on it set him far about the Simon level and mark him as a playwright of satiric power and surprising emotional intensity. In one of his plays, he combined the backstage stories of actors performing a hotel farce with the play they were performing, and even flipped the set round back-to-front between acts to make sure we got the point. In his 1998 play Communicating Doors, through September 23 at the Cygnet Theatre in the College/Rolando area, Ayckbourn once again gooses up the hotel farce by having its characters travel not only in and out of rooms but in and out of time.

The entire play is set in room 647 of the Regal Hotel in an unnamed British city, presumably London (except for a brief bit in act two in which the same set plays a room on a different floor). It begins in the year 2027. S/M dominatrix Poopay (Cygnet resident artist Jessica John) has been summoned to the room to minister to a dying businessman, Reece Wells (Tim West), whose wives Jessica (Brenda Dodge) and Ruella (Sandy Campbell) both died under mysterious circumstances. Supposedly Jessica drowned while swimming and Ruella fell from the balcony of that very hotel room, but Reece tells Poopay — whose real name is Phoebe — they were really murdered by his business partner, Julian Goodman (Manny Fernandes, Cygnet resident artist and also the press contact for this production). While fleeing for her life from Goodman, Poopay hides in a storage room, its doorframe turns — and she emerges in the same room 20 years earlier, confronted by Ruella, still alive and well but scheduled to be killed that very night. Ruella in turn uses the door to go back in time and warn Jessica that she is to be murdered.

Ayckbourn’s time portal allows people to go back in time, but only in 20-year increments and only to the past, not the future. On one level, Connecting Rooms uses the time-travel gimmick to put a fresh spin on the in-and-out-of-doors routines of the classic hotel farce — but Ayckbourn also plays with the so-called “butterfly effect” and his final scenes offer a quite moving alternate future for all three central female characters. Ayckbourn has said Communicating Doors was inspired by J. B. Priestley’s time-travel plays (one of which, Dangerous Corner, was beautifully filmed by RKO in 1934 and could use a local revival), the Back to the Future movies and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — from which it borrows its Act I curtain, beautifully realized here by director Esther Emery.

Cygnet Theatre is consistently one of San Diego’s strongest community theatres, partly because of their utter fearlessness. They’ve leaped into scripts like My Fair Lady and The Little Foxes most small theatres wouldn’t dare attempt, and while Communicating Doors isn’t on that level or scope, it does call for some major theatrical effects (which is probably why Cygnet previewed this production for a week before its formal opening August 25). Cygnet’s production realizes them perfectly; Nick Fouch’s set (aided by Bonnie Durben’s excellent props) is solid and utterly convincing (the time-portal door is especially impressive) and Emery’s direction taut, fast-paced and devastatingly effective. Cygnet’s press release for the production mentions that Fouch and Emery are husband and wife, and Emery is due to give birth to their first child a week after the production’s official opening. If this is the kind of work they do in a situation like that, may Mr. and Mrs. Fouch have a very large family.

The ensemble cast — another Cygnet specialty — is superb. All of them manage to make it through the play without any audible slips in their British accents. Fernandes is especially effective as a hulking, sinister presence; he, more than any other cast member, is credible as the different ages he plays in the piece’s multiple-time sequence. In previous productions, John has played both nice and nasty girls; here she’s impeccable as the tough dominatrix and the vulnerable woman underneath. (Emery’s only directorial slip-up is the clumsy way John brandishes the whip in the opening scene; she should have got someone from Club X to coach her.) Campbell, making her full-dress acting debut at Cygnet though she’s done a couple of staged readings there before, is probably the strongest of the women, maintaining an enviable sang-froid throughout until she goes over the top (figuratively and literally) towards the end.

The male roles are less significant but still well played. Craig Huizenga is marvelously foofy as a hotel detective who looks (and sounds) like he just stepped out of a Monty Python episode. West is convincing in two quite different versions of his character, though even Cygnet’s talented wig and hair designer Peter Herman can’t turn him into a credible young man. Lighting director Eric Lotze manages the time-portal effect well, and Shulamit Nelson-Spilkin’s costumes — especially the three different dresses John wears — are appropriate and “right.”

If you’ve avoided Alan Ayckbourn all these years because you thought one Neil Simon was enough, get over it. Communicating Doors ably combines farce, romantic comedy, bittersweet drama and even a taste of horror, and Cygnet rises to its challenges and delivers 2 1/2 hours of great entertainment.

Communicating Doors runs through Sunday, September 23 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N in the College/Rolando area. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $31 Saturdays, $29 Fridays and Sunday evenings, $27 Thursdays and Sunday matinees, and can be purchased by phone at (619) 337-1525 or online at www.cygnettheatre.com
Rocket Science: Good but Frustratingly Quirky


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

As a high-school student, Jeffrey Blitz suffered from a bad stutter that made it almost impossible for him to express himself verbally. He decided that, much like the proverbial kid who teaches himself to swim by hurling himself into the coldest, swiftest-flowing water he can find and either swimming or drowning, he’d solve his stuttering problem by joining his high-school debating team. Blitz not only overcame his stutter but went on to great success as a debater and helped his high school win the New Jersey state debating championship. Years later, flush with the success of his documentary film Spellbound — which made spelling bees seem oddly hip and got the national championship a berth on ESPN cable TV — Blitz revisited this personal history for his first fiction film, Rocket Science (as in, “It’s not exactly … ”), but put a quirky spin on it that’s at once his film’s greatest strength and severest weakness.

“I’m generally allergic to autobiographical feature films,” Blitz acknowledged in an interview included in the press kit for Rocket Science. “Except for some of the ridiculousness and some of the pain of stuttering, my own life isn’t really represented.” His protagonist, Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) — and yes, it’s typical of Blitz’s ironic sense of humor that he’s given a sexually frustrated teen a last name that connotes loose, swinging “playboy” sexuality — is the younger brother in a proletarian home in the New Jersey suburb of Plainfield. He’s saddled with a tormenting older brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza, who’d be a good choice if they do a biopic of the young Elvis); a father (Denis O’Hare) who suddenly walks out on his mom (Lisbeth Bartlett) almost as soon as the movie opens; a new man in Mom’s life, Korean-American small-claims judge Pete (Stephen Park), who thinks nothing of feeling up his new girlfriend’s thighs while both her kids and his are watching; and Pete’s son Heaton (Aaron Yoo).

Hal is also — stop me if you’ve heard this before — hopelessly in love with rich girl Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), even though the only place they meet is on the bus to and from school. When Ginny makes it clear to him that the way to her heart is through the debate team, Hal signs up with predictably disastrous results. Eventually it develops that Ginny is still seething over her loss of the state debate championship the year before when her partner, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto), froze completely during the final round, and Hal is just a pawn in her elaborate plot for revenge.

Having stuck himself with a plot that taps on quite a few old-movie clichés, Blitz spends virtually all of Rocket Science’s 98-minute running time confounding audience expectations at almost every turn. We keep expecting him to pitch his character the big, fat over-the-plate ball that will enable Hal to hit the home run that will win him the big game — and instead Blitz feeds him a flurry of change-ups, sliders, curveballs and everything else he can think of to derail his — and our — expectations. Determined, as he said in his press-kit interview, to “wrest the story from autobiography to create something generally unconnected to my own experience except in its most basic emotional content,” he denies Hal the smooth, Capra-esque debating triumph he experienced himself and creates an oddly detached film.

Part of the detachment comes, ironically enough, from two modern-day bad movie devices Blitz indulges in all too readily: the pseudo-philosophical narration delivered by Dan Cashman and the use of mediocre rock songs (some of them by the Violent Femmes, a band that sounds basically like Lou Reed fronting the Clash) to guy the emotional content and tell us how we’re supposed to feel about the scenes instead of letting us experience them for ourselves. Rocket Science lurches along from scene to scene, with Hal often hurting innocent people in his quest for revenge against Ginny, to a curiously unsatisfying and irresolute ending.

It’s a real pity Rocket Science isn’t stronger as a whole because many of its parts are extremely engaging. Blitz manages the deft balancing act of making his film very funny but ensuring that none of the laughs are at Hal’s expense. The character of a school psychologist who keeps coming up with loonier and loonier suggestions for Hal’s stutter, from speaking in a foreign accent to singing his debate presentation — and at one point laments to him, “I wish you had attention deficit disorder. That I’m really great at dealing with!” — is marvelously satirical. Ginny’s neighbors — a couple who hold their marriage together by playing piano-and-cello duets, and their sexually precocious 12-year-old son — whom Hal befriends as a way of spying on her, are also hilarious.

Rocket Science is also the nastiest movie made about school since Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse — which was about junior high, not high school, but shared some of the same elements, notably the relentless pecking order in the school cafeteria. Ginny’s character starts out as the engaging little rich girl whom Blitz seems to be setting up for a dose of wisdom and understanding at the hands of the proletarian protagonist, but as the film progresses she becomes more and more evil until at the end she seems to be warming up for an adult life as a femme fatale in film noir. At the same time, some possibly engaging plot twists — including the hint dropped early on that Heaton might be a Gay teen with a crush on Hal (he shows him a calendar with a still from Brokeback Mountain) — just disappear with no explanation whatever.

One good thing about Rocket Science is that it’s cast to perfection. Reece Daniel Thompson is just right as Hal, cute without being too good-looking and utterly convincing in his unequal struggle with the English language: you really believe he can’t get out the words he’s thinking. Anna Kendrick nails Ginny’s moral transformation, becoming harder and more severe as the film progresses. Margo Martindale is good as the long-suffering debate coach, and though we see very little of him Denis O’Hare brings real pathos to his short scenes as Hal’s dad. Oddly, the most charismatic actor by far is Nicholas D’Agosto as the super-debater who loses his skills in what can only be called a crisis of faith; Blitz holds him and his character in reserve but gives us a galvanic sensation when he re-enters the action towards the end.

Rocket Science is also well made from the technical end. For a film set in a proletarian-industrial milieu, the temptations to make everything dirty brown and green must have been overwhelming, and Blitz and his director of photography, Jo Willems, deserve credit for resisting them. There’s a chilling shot of the neon sign on the bridge leading to Trenton, New Jersey (ironically, the closest thing to a metropolis these suburban Jersey kids know) that reads, “Trenton Makes — The World Takes.” Overall, it’s an entertaining movie that will make you laugh and move you emotionally — but with just a bit more thought and care on the part of its writer-director, and a bit less fear of making his film more unmistakably autobiographical, it could have been a good deal better.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Photo: Matthew Owusu-Afriyie

ISO Demonstration for Kenneth Foster August 27

Last-Ditch Campaign to Save Death Row Inmate in Texas


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

Barring a last-ditch intervention by Texas governor Rick Perry — hand-picked successor to George W. Bush who, like his predecessor, has openly mocked previous death row convicts who appealed to him for clemency — Kenneth Foster will be put to death by lethal injection just after midnight on August 30, 2007. As part of an international campaign to forestall Foster’s execution, the San Diego chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is holding a demonstration Monday, August 27, 5 p.m. on Broadway outside Horton Plaza downtown to build public awareness on the case and put pressure on the governor to do the right thing.

Members of the ISO and others heard a presentation on the Foster case at the group’s regular meeting August 16 at the City Heights Recreation Center. The featured speaker, activist Matthew Owusu-Afriyie, explained that Foster had not been directly involved in anybody’s murder but had been convicted because of the so-called “Law of Parties” — because he had been driving himself and three other young African-American men around Houston on August 14, 1996, and one of the other men, Maurecio Brown, had shot and killed the victim in the case, Michael LaHood.

“On August 14, 1996, four people drove around and committed two armed robberies,” Owusu-Afriye explained. “In the early hours of August 15, they drove to LaHood’s home just as he and a female companion returned home.” According to Owusu-Afriye, Foster said that Brown had “jumped out of the car” and confronted LaHood and his girlfriend, Mary Patrick, ultimately shooting him.

“Foster will admit that he was not only in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he made a mistake in letting Brown get in his car in the first place,” Owusu-Afriye said. “These are crimes one can go to prison for, but Foster is facing execution for a crime” — murder -— “he didn’t commit. The courts are saying Foster is guilty because he didn’t anticipate that his friend had a gun and was going to commit murder. A man shouldn’t be sent to prison, much less murdered, for a crime he had no part of.”

Information on Foster’s Web site, http://www.freekenneth.com/, argues that Foster was convicted and sentenced to die for a variety of reasons: the prosecution’s insistence that he be given a joint trial with Brown, LaHood’s actual killer (who was also sentenced to death, and was executed on July 19, 2006); the inability of his defense team to interview key witnesses before trial — including the other two men in the car, Julius Steen and Dwayne Dillard — a strategic miscalculation on the part of his first attorney and, most important, a gross misinterpretation of the “Law of Parties” as it should apply to a capital case. “Mere status as a party is not a crime,” the site explains.

The United States Supreme Court has issued two somewhat contradictory rulings on the circumstances under which someone present at a murder but not directly involved in killing the person can be held liable and sentenced to death. In 1982, in Edmund v. Florida, the court “held that imposition of the death penalty on a person who aids and abets a felony in the course of which a murder is committed by others but who does not himself kill, attempt to kill or intend to kill violates the 8th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.” Five years later, in Tison v. Arizona, the court made an exception and allowed the execution of people who weren’t directly involved in murder but “have major personal involvement in the felony and display a reckless indifference to human life.”

In order not only to convict Foster but make him eligible for a death sentence, Texas prosecutors had to convince the jury that all four men in Foster’s car that August night were engaged in a continuous conspiracy to commit robbery that started when Brown, Steen and Dillard got in Foster’s car and ended with the murder of LaHood. As Foster’s attorney, Keith S. Hampton, explained in his final habeas corpus petition for federal review, “Maurecio Brown murdered Michael LaHood during a robbery. Mr. Foster was not a party to Mr. Brown’s murder of Mr. LaHood, but was found to be a party to a robbery conspiracy, and pursuant to Section 7.02(b) of the Penal Code, liable for negligently failing to anticipate Brown’s crime. Without proof of a robbery conspiracy, Foster would not be liable for Brown’s murder of Mr. LaHood.”

According to Hampton, the crucial witness against Foster who provided that “proof” was Julius Steen, himself a member of the so-called “conspiracy.” Though Foster’s original attorneys were able to cross-examine Steen when he testified at Foster’s and Brown’s trial, they were not permitted to meet with him and interview him before the trial. “Counsel for Kenneth Foster had repeatedly sought to interview Steen concerning the murder of Michael LaHood before trial and after he filed his initial writ application,” Hampton explained. “Steen’s counsel at that time refused his request to speak with him while Foster’s state writ application was pending. … Steen has therefore been unavailable as a witness.”

Hampton cited a subsequent affidavit from Steen backing away from this interpretation of his trial testimony. “There was no agreement that I am aware of for Brown to commit a robbery at the LaHood residence,” Steen said in his affidavit, dated January 2, 2003. “I do not believe that Foster and Brown ever agreed to commit a robbery. In my opinion, I don’t think that Foster thought that Brown was going to commit a robbery.” In a footnote, Hampton stressed that Steen was not a so-called “recanting witness,” but that his affidavit merely “clarified his statements to confirm or dispel the inferences made from his testimony” — a distinction Hampton vainly hoped would allow him to get Steen’s “clarifying” affidavit admitted as evidence that Foster should be given a new trial.

Foster’s Web site and Hampton’s petition cite other grounds for challenging the Foster conviction and death sentence. “The prosecution successfully argued that because Foster was the getaway driver in previous robberies earlier in the evening, they must have been committing a robbery at the LaHood residence,” Hampton wrote. “This argument invited the jury to make the very rationale long condemned in criminal law, namely the propensity rationale wherein one is presumed to have committed a crime because he has committed other crimes in the past.”

Not only was Foster given a joint trial with LaHood’s actual killer, the jury in his case was never told by the judge that they could find him guilty of robbery but innocent of murder. What’s more, the prosecution successfully argued that Foster, an aspiring hip-hop performer who was 19 at the time of the incident, had shown a propensity for violent crime by writing and recording a gangsta-rap song. According to Foster’s Web site, he recorded the song but didn’t write it and therefore shouldn’t have been held responsible for its contents — even if it were just to convict somebody of a crime on the basis of his artistic description of similar criminal behavior, which it is not.

Finally, Foster’s Web site suggests that a bad choice of strategy on the part of his original attorney may have led to his death sentence. “Kenneth was raised on the streets in a world of drugs, prostitution and theft,” his Web site states. “His parents were both drug addicts. His mother eventually died of AIDS when he was aged seventeen. As a child he was neglected, passed from one drug-addicted parent to the other when the other one was in prison, used as a decoy in their crimes, and he ran around unclothed because his parents sold his clothes to buy drugs.”

Had Foster’s jury heard that, his advocates argue, they might have well taken pity on him and recommended a sentence of imprisonment instead of death. Instead, Foster’s attorney chose to focus on what happened to Foster after his mother’s death. “Since adolescence, Kenneth lived with his grandparents who helped him to graduate from high school,” the site explains. “Given Kenneth’s minimal involvement in the crime and his extraordinarily mercy-evoking childhood and upbringing, this mitigating evidence, if presented to the jury, would undoubtedly have persuaded them that a life sentence would have been much more appropriate. Instead, his jury learned only that he was brought up in the church by his grandparents, and they had the impression that he was actually a privileged child.”

According to Foster’s Web site, “his trial counsel thought a presentation of Foster as a nice kid who might go to college was the most reasonable strategy for avoiding a death sentence.” Instead, if anything it seemed to have encouraged the jury to regard Foster as a dastardly young man who had thrown away his advantages and committed a fearsome crime. “Foster’s trial lawyers never investigated his background enough to discover the truth of his world,” the site explains. “How lawyers can base a decision not to investigate the background of their client when the client’s life is at stake is a rationale not fathomed by Foster’s present counsel.”

During his 11 years on death row, Foster has continued the studies in sociology he had begun before his conviction, and also become an activist for the rights of prisoners. With four other Texas death row inmates, Reginald Blanton, Rob Will, Gabriel Gonzalez and Da’mon Simpson, he founded Death Row Inner-communalist Vanguard Engagement (D.R.I.V.E.), described in its flyer, visible at http://www.freekenneth.com/drive%20flyer.bmp, as “a consolidated group of strugglers standing up to the ‘Texas Killing Machine’ in a fervent non-violent but progressive action.” They’ve lobbied for improved conditions on the Texas death row and also called for an end to the death penalty itself.

“D.R.I.V.E. is not seeking a violent process (in action or response),” Foster’s Web site explains. “However, through experiences, the totalitarian system has sought to meet D.R.I.V.E.’s protests for Humanitarian change with violence: extensive use of force squads with gassings, and denials of meals, showers, clothing and grievances are among a long list of tactics used to divide and conquer them; a tactic that failed miserably to achieve its goals. Regardless of all this harsh oppression, the D.R.I.V.E. comrades never wavered as they truly believe in the need for the change. Truly believing in the Cause, they are willing to suffer for their beliefs and the greater good of all.

The site claims that since D.R.I.V.E.’s organizers were returned to the cells in the Polunsky Unit at Livingston, Texas in 2000, “the work program has been discontinued, the group recreations abolished, TVs, arts and crafts not allowed. The building itself is left to decay (e.g. unsanitary conditions, foundation cracking in the cells). These were meant to be temporary measures but they have lasted for six and a half years without a hint of an end in sight. Their environment has been designed to torture, provoke and degrade into a deplorable state (mentally, physically and spiritually). Therefore, D.R.I.V.E. step forward to say, ‘Enough!’”

“By a designed scheming effort, the United States and especially the State of Texas has mastered the art of murdering its citizens,” Foster himself says in a statement on his Web site. “The resource centers have been shut down, appeal processes shortened and access to courts have been severely curtailed. The judicial and political regimes have lost all semblance of justice and sound reasoning. An assembly line of death has been created in the cheering presence of the public. If at all possible, their goal is to murder each and every one of us! Some appear willing to lay down and be murdered without a fight. I hear many talk about their appeals and the ‘good error’ that is going to save them. Now if the government will allow an innocent man to be executed, what makes you think they will not kill a guilty person with a good error?”

Save Kenneth Foster: http://www.freekenneth.com