Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hillary: Democrats’ Death Wish


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

Things aren’t looking too good for the national Republican Party these days. Their President, George W. Bush, has the lowest approval ratings of anyone in the White House since Richard Nixon in the depths of the Watergate scandal. Not only did they lose control of both houses of Congress in last November’s election, so far the Democrats have raised more money for the 2008 Congressional races than the Republicans have — which hardly ever happens — and a lot of Republicans are heading out the door and dropping out of potentially difficult re-election bids.

But fear not, my Republican readers. Following their usual lemming-like self-destructive streak, the Democrats are about to do something so moronic, so stupid, so insane, it will allow your party not only to keep the presidency but to take back the House of Representatives and very possibly the Senate as well. The Democratic Party is about to nominate Hillary Clinton for President of the United States.

On a superficial level, Hillary Clinton might seem like a genuinely strong Presidential nominee. She heads an organization that has already fought and won two Presidential campaigns. She’s been a public figure for so long and has had so much mud slung at her by America’s rabid Right already it’s hard to think of any additional skeletons in her closet that can be used against her for a Swift Boat-like attack. She would, if elected, be America’s first woman President, and her last name is associated in the minds of many Democratic primary voters with a halcyon time, a brief, shining, possibility-filled moment between the end of the Cold War and the start of the “War on Terror.”

All these positives will be enough to allow Hillary to make mincemeat of Barack Obama (a former flavor-of-the-month whose sell-by date has long since passed), John Edwards and the other pygmies deigning to challenge her for the Democratic nomination. The problem is they are totally overshadowed by her negatives. Hillary has the power to force her way to the nomination, but there’s no way she can actually be elected. Here’s why.

First of all, Hillary Clinton is in fact the most conservative candidate running for the Democratic nomination for President — but she has the reputation as the farthest Left candidate. She’s proven her conservative credentials again and again, not only by voting for the resolution authorizing the Bush administration’s illegal and immoral war against Iraq but by refusing to back-track from that vote (as Edwards has at least tried to do) and insisting that the U.S. military presence in Iraq will continue past the Bush administration. She’s also proposed a considerably more reactionary health-care plan than the already dreadful one she came up with in 1994. Its centerpiece is a requirement that everyone in the U.S. pay a tax to the health insurance companies for coverage — a proposal championed by Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mitt Romney and wisely opposed by organized labor.

Nominating Hillary Clinton will make the 2008 election a repeat of 1968, in which both major parties said a big fuck-you to the majority of voters who opposed that generation’s pointless war in Viet Nam (also started by a megalomaniac President from Texas). The Republicans nominated the pro-war Richard Nixon, the Democrats nominated the pro-war Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate on an even more hawkish program than his major-party rivals, and the Peace and Freedom Party — which was supposed to provide an outlet for an anti-war protest vote — nominated a Black Panther who was too young to be President, a convicted felon and a raging sexist.

The progressive community dithered in the general election — and Nixon and Wallace got 57 percent of the vote between them and established the Right-wing coalition that has won six of the nine Presidential elections since. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee in 2008 the progressive community will probably support her on the theory that anybody, even a pro-war, pro-job-killing “free trade” agreements Democrat would be better than the Republican — but they’ll do so desultorily, much in the zombie-like way they turned out for John Kerry, not really enthusiastic but dutifully voting for him just because he wasn’t George W. Bush.

At the same time, Hillary’s image — carefully cultivated by the radical-Right media and the giant conspiracy formed during her husband’s Presidency to destroy both of them — is so far Left that nominating her will at once piss away virtually all of the independent vote to the Republican. The combination of Hillary’s Left-wing reputation and Right-wing reality — especially on issues like NAFTA and other so-called “free-trade” agreements that have crippled much of middle America economically — will run the “NASCAR dads” and white working-class men whose votes helped give the Democrats control of Congress in 2006 straight back to their normal “values”-driven home in the Republican party. The Democrats’ win in 2006 was based on two issues: ending the war in Iraq and getting rid of corruption in government. A pro-war Senator whose husband sold nights in the Lincoln Bedroom for $50,000 when he was President will have zero credibility on both.

What’s more, any hopes that the Republican coalition might splinter in 2008 if their nominee is Rudolph Giuliani — reliably conservative on “terror,” Iraq and domestic crime but considered shaky by the radical Right on abortion and Queer rights — will evaporate if Hillary is the Democratic nominee. Those “Christian” Republicans who are saying they could never support Giuliani because he’s even modestly pro-choice on abortion, and are hinting darkly at a third-party bid if he’s the Republican nominee, will be galvanized back into the fold if the alternative is Mrs. Clinton. They’ve been conditioned to hate her so much that her nomination will energize the Republican party even more than Bush’s re-election campaign did in 2004 — and not only will the Republican running against her sweep to an easy victory, the burden of another Clinton at the top of the ticket will sink House Democrats in marginal districts across the country and hand the House (and probably the Senate as well) back to the Republicans on the proverbial silver platter.

So if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she’ll power up the Republican base and depress the Democratic one. Those are reasons enough not to want to see her power her way to the nomination, but there are others. Plenty of voters with no particular ideological axes to grind will cast ballots against her simply to keep the presidency from becoming like the movie Groundhog Day, a seemingly endless succession of Clintons replacing Bushes replacing Clintons replacing Bushes.

Then there’s the woman factor. I’d love to see a woman President. But not this one. I’d want to see America’s first female head of state be someone who worked her way up through the ranks and got to the top of the political heap on her own, not following the “traditional” path of riding her husband’s coattails. In other words — though I have my problems with her politics as well — President Nancy Pelosi would turn me on a lot more than President Hillary Clinton.

If Hillary Clinton really gave a damn about the country and not just her own political power (and salvaging her husband’s legacy), she’d immediately withdraw from the Democratic Presidential race and give the party the chance to nominate someone who’s actually electable. But she won’t. Her fundraising ability, her husband’s organization and the Clintons’ reputation for intimidating their political adversaries in either party will give her the clout to run her steamroller over the rest of the Democratic field — and set up the Democratic party for a crushing defeat in an election they ought by all rights to be able to win.

Queer Rights: No ENDA in Sight

The hollowness of what passes for “inclusion” in the mainstream Lesbian and Gay leadership of the Queer community has rarely been so dramatically revealed as in the current flap over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). It began when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and openly Gay Congressmember Barney Frank literally stabbed our community in the back when they decided they didn’t have enough votes to pass a version of ENDA that would protect Transgender people from job discrimination, and unilaterally withdrew it in favor of a version that only covered sexual orientation, not gender identity.

To their credit, a coalition of 30 nationwide Queer-rights organizations saw this for the craven opportunism it was and formed a coalition called United ENDA to demand that Congress pass an inclusive version. To their eternal discredit, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the group that endorsed Republican former New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato in 2002 over his successful challenger, Chuck Schumer, on the ground that D’Amato was mildly less anti-Queer than the rest of his party — refused to join United ENDA and bought into the Pelosi-Frank betrayal.

The amputated ENDA passed the House Education and Labor Committee October 17 by a vote of 27 to 21, with four Republicans supplying votes for a Trans-free ENDA after four Democrats, including Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Linda Sanchez of Orange County, courageously refused to go along with the betrayal of the Trans community and voted against the bill. As a compromise, Wisconsin Representative Tammy Baldwin — the House’s only Lesbian and the only Queer Congressmember who won their first election after they came out — was allowed to introduce a floor amendment to add gender identity back into the truncated ENDA, but Trans advocates in United ENDA questioned this strategy because they’re worried that if the Baldwin amendment doesn’t get at least 200 House votes, it will weaken chances for a Trans-inclusive ENDA in a future Congress.

Admittedly, there’s a certain degree of historical precedent for protecting sexual orientation first and gender identity later. The cities of San Francisco and San Diego both passed bans on employment discrimination against Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals first and then added protection for Transgender people later. So did the California legislature. Indeed, in many of those cases the initial bill based on sexual orientation passed only after a hard-fought political battle — while the gender identity add-on was surprisingly noncontroversial when it came up later.

But those were cases in which the votes for a sexual-orientation protection law actually existed. That’s not the case with ENDA this year. Lobbyists concede the votes probably aren’t there to pass even a Trans-free ENDA in the Senate — and even if they were, President Bush would veto it. Getting ENDA through the House this year isn’t about actually enacting it; it’s about the Democratic party racking up brownie points with the Queer community and keeping the flow of big-money donations from wealthy Queers. With the overall approval raring of Congress hovering between 14 and 26 percent — lower even than President Bush’s — largely because the Democratic Congress has been an abject failure on the two issues that elected it, the war in Iraq and the culture of corruption within Congress itself, the Democrats will need all the help they can get to maintain their razor-thin Congressional majority next year.

What’s more, the two-stage process that passed California’s version of ENDA took place long before we started loudly proclaiming ourselves the “LGBT” community, that unlovely set of initials we’ve offered in place of any real inclusion. The fact that an openly Gay Congressmember and America’s largest Queer organization were so blithely willing to abandon the T’s in favor of the L’s, G’s and maybe the B’s to get one house of Congress to pass a bill that isn’t about to become law anyway says volumes about how hypocritical this “LGBT” stuff is and how Transgender people remain second-class citizens within the so-called “LGBT community” as well as third-class citizens within the nation as a whole.


Gay Former Christian Music Star to Sing at Palm Springs Pride


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

In 2001, Blayne Bell was riding high. The 26-year-old performer was a rising star in contemporary Christian music, with a recording contract with Sony/Epic’s Christian division and experience opening for Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, The Blackwoods (the legendary white gospel group Elvis Presley unsuccessfully auditioned for before beginning his career in secular music), CeCe Penniston, the Kingsmen, Thea Austin and many other country and Christian music stars. Between his earnings as a singer and his career in radio, he was earning up to $200,000 a year while still attending classes at Abilene Christian University, where he was majoring in broadcasting.

Then it all came crashing down when the man Bell had been in a relationship with for nearly seven years reacted to the collapse of their partnership by “outing” him to the administrators at Abilene. The college dean did a Web search on Blayne Bell and found that their star student had been performing at Pride events and Queer or Queer-friendly churches like Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and United Church of Christ (UCC). Bell was called to the dean’s office and, with only weeks left before his graduation, was given an ultimatum: go to three two-hour “counseling” sessions a week aimed at “curing” him of his homosexuality, or leave the university.

Bell walked out, and he’s never looked back. Though it cost him his life savings and his lucrative Christian music career, he says he’s a lot happier now working at Starbucks, doing home health care and still singing at Pride events and other Queer venues. “It’s not what you are, but who you are,” Bell says. He takes a particular interest in reaching out to Queer young people, especially those from Christian families who’ve thrown them out once they’ve found out. After living in various locations around the country, this native of Lubbock, Texas (which also gave to the music world Buddy Holly, John Denver and Dixie Chicks leader Natalie Maines, whom Bell knew in high school) was invited to perform at the Palm Springs Pride Festival in 2006; he fell in love with Palm Springs, moved there and says it’s the best place he’s ever lived.

Blayne Bell will perform at this year’s Palm Springs Pride Festival Saturday, November 3, 12:45 to 1:15 p.m. on the Main Stage. His current CD is a solo effort called Overcome, recorded in 2005. Three songs from it, including the appropriately titled single “Escape,” are available on his MySpace page, Bell has a Web site under construction at, where his CD will soon be offered for sale. To find out more about the Palm Springs Pride events November 3 and 4, visit

Zenger’s: Let’s go back to your childhood and how you got into music in the first place.

Bell: I went to Lubbock Christian High School in Lubbock, Texas, and in 1991 a music teacher named Barla Moore liked me, so she pushed me to sing. I said, “I don’t want to sing. That’s not what I was born for.” But I performed during the talent show in Lubbock for them and liked it so much I ended up coming out publicly into the music scene. Within three years I had a top record contract with Sony/Epic with Acappella [his Christian-music singing group], and by 1996 I was a solo artist.

Zenger’s: How did you manage the double life, being in Christian music and being Gay, for so long?

Bell: It wasn’t easy. It was pretty obvious that I didn’t date women. But my big excuse for that was that I was on the road 200 to 300 days a year, so I didn’t have to worry about it. Plus I was in college, and you can pull that off so long. But after people have been together 10, 20 years, two old men living together in a home, you’re going to eventually figure out that it’s not just a “roommate” issue.

I knew some day I probably would come out, and I was just going to move to California or somewhere where I wouldn’t have to worry about it so much. But I also felt that I had an obligation to support the GLBT community through the music business. I knew my own marketing and everything else, and I thought, why not do something for the Gay market?

Zenger’s: It seems like an odd situation. You’re in this Christian music cocoon. You’re aware of the fact that if people find out you’re Gay your whole career could dissolve overnight. Yet you’re also kind of dipping your toe into the Gay community, and playing at Gay functions.

Bell: It was a hard thing. It was hard being in the Christian music business, especially with Sony/Epic Records and a top recording group. But at the same time, it was just that whole life of picture-taking, signing autographs, making $3,000-$4,000 a night. It was hard being in the Christian music industry, and even just in a Christian home that didn’t accept the Gay life in West Texas and everything.

I knew there were Gay bars. There were places you could go and meet the other Gay people, and I think I was fortunate that they started coming out with and all. The Internet really helped a lot growing up as far as meeting people in that part of the country. But it was very redneck. We had a lot of Gay people but they were just all closeted and quiet. And the ones who were out were generally not newscasters, as I was.

I knew I was Gay. I’ve never dated women, didn’t want them. But everybody’s got their own idea of what they want in their relationships. I grew up very conservatively, and so I wanted mine with just one person, not this “open” thing and going out and picking people up in the bars and the fields. I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point, but my goal was getting into a normal relationship. Here in Palm Springs I’ve seen that a lot more, with people who have been together years: 40, 50, some of them.

Zenger’s: You’d been raised as a Christian. You’d heard the message that homosexuality was sinful, all that stuff in the Bible that people should be stoned and all that. How did you reconcile that with your growing awareness of your own sexual orientation?

Bell: It was just a way of life. I knew I had to follow the church. I didn’t want to be Gay. I knew I was Gay, but I’d been taught it was wrong. I think it was just a set of rules and regulations. It’s like a job. You either do this or you don’t do this. It’s like going to school. You act up and they swat your hand. You have the rules and you’ve got to follow them. Now I’ve learned that everyone has got to make their own rules for their own life. Back then I felt that my life was being controlled by all this organized religion.

When I was kicked out of the Christian university, it was finally over. My family knew about it. It was hard. It took me three years to get everything back in order, and I lost thousands of dollars. All my bookings went downhill because I was outed in the Christian music field, not to mention that I lived in Abilene, Texas, 110,000 people. Being on the news, people are going to know who you are in town.

But I felt that I just had to move out and really start supporting something that’s me, starting my life. I had to deal with it for years. It was really hard because I knew that I was probably going to go to hell, because I believed in the Bible. Then I learned about the Metropolitan Community Church and I learned a lot of historical stuff about the Bible. I started studying the Bible and realized that a lot of it is just baloney. It’s a really nice book that was put together, and there’s a lot of truth in it, but it’s been changed over the years and the centuries. It’s just evolved to what it is now, and all these organized religions are teaching people different things.

Zenger’s: How did the folks at Abilene Christian University find out about you?

Bell: My ex-husband told them I was Gay. Then they went on the Internet and searched, and of course I’d been at all these Gay Pride events, and it was all on the Web. Even before I came out in 2001, I’d been pretty much singing in the Gay community for three or four years. I was just doing it in other states, other places. I knew some day it would eventually catch up with me. Someone would find my name on a search engine, or something, but I figured I’d say, “You know, it’s no different than Dolly Parton singing to the Gay people. It doesn’t make her Gay.”

The dean of the university called me to his office. He had all these print-outs. He said, “I know you’re Gay. In fact, your husband brought in a tape-recorded conversation you two were having.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice.” We were having relationship problems, and he had had a serious alcohol problem towards the end of the relationship. I don’t want to elaborate too much on him, but he just did it out of deviance. I don’t think he really thought that it would turn into a wildfire like that. Anyway, Abilene Christian has a set of rules in which they believe, and which as a private institution they can enforce. So they said, “You have to go to counseling for six hours a week until you graduate, two hours each session,” and I said, “I won’t do it.” I finally just told them, “Yep, I’m Gay,” and that was the end of it.

Zenger’s: They said you had to go to “counseling” six hours a week. Was this one of those “reparative therapy” things where they thought they could change you?

Bell: Yeah, it’s one of those deals where you sit down and you talk to the counselor, and they say, “Do you feel you’re Gay?,” and why, trying to put you through everything because they believe being Gay is wrong. Well, that’s pretty much where that went.

I lost $80,000 in 2001, over a one-year period, paying the bills and suing the university. We had to settle out of court because I got very furious with them and I made a phone call one day. My whole life had been shattered, and I was furious. So I said some very derogatory comments on the phone, which I shouldn’t have and which undermined my case. I’m not going to elaborate too much on that, but I got vocal. But who wouldn’t, when you take half their life away, and you take their belongings, and you’re going to court just to get your college hours? That’s all I wanted. They said, “You’re suspended because you won’t follow our rules.” I said, “I’m about to graduate. Why in the world can’t we just go three or four more weeks, I’m graduating, and I’m out of here?”

After they kicked me out, I moved to Florida for a while, and then finally moved to New Mexico. I was offered a job at a company that was non-profit, offering educational benefits for students and things. The CEO was a Gay friend of mine, which helped. While I was in Albuquerque there were two youth who’d also gone to school in Abilene, an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old, who’d also been kicked out for being Gay. The 18-year-old, Jason, moved in with me at the time.

His family wouldn’t have anything to do with him. The church and the school wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He had nowhere to go, and I tried to give him a chance to better his life. It was kind of a conflict of interest, because I had a two-bedroom apartment, and I was a 26-year-old Gay male having this kind of wayward 18-year-old moving in with me. I didn’t want people to get the wrong impression. I wanted them to know it was professional But I gave him time to get a job and do what he needed to do to better his life.

Instead, in the middle of the night I got a call from the police. I went to the police station, and they told me Jason had been to a nightclub, checked into a motel drunk, and then went in the room and shot himself. I had to go to the morgue and identify this body, because luckily he’d had my card in his wallet, or they wouldn’t have known how to trace him.

A 20-year-old moved in with me about a year later, kicked out of MacMurray University, which was adjacent to Abilene Christian. It was a Methodist Christian school. They have three in that city. He was in the bars a lot, and I said to him, “If you don’t get your life together, then you’re going to lose your opportunity, you know. But I’m trying to help you. Here’s some money, here’s what you need. Try to better yourself.” Instead, after three or four months with me, he just disappeared.

These students would not have been in the situation they were in if they had not been Gay. And these people are doing them an injustice. They think they’re helping them by saying, “Well, Jesus loves you, but if you’re not going to change your life, then we can’t have you here.” How is that bettering somebody? You don’t have to agree with them, but you certainly don’t have to trash them out on the street. Is this what we’re putting these kids out on the street for? Just because they’re different?

In a way, I was lucky. When they kicked me out, I had close to $80,000 in IRA’s and things that I had to cash in. It was money I had saved over the years. I made more money at 19 than I do now. But I’m happy with myself. Sometimes money and all that is not important. But happiness is, and how are we going to give happiness to these youth if we don’t give them support?

Zenger’s: You’ve mentioned problems some of the people you’ve known had with their families. How did your family react to your being Gay?

Bell: When I was outed in Abilene, it went statewide in different things but it never hit Lubbock. It wasn’t until about a year and a half later that my family found out. A news station in West Texas said, “Would you come and talk about being Gay?” I really wasn’t living in Lubbock at the time. I would come in and stay for a while, and then I would go back to where I was living at the time.

My family saw it on the news, and my uncle called my stepdad and said, “Do you know Blayne is ‘that way’?” Then my cousin called and said, “He’s a little on the ‘left side,’ not the right.” And they didn’t like it. They didn’t talk to me for a while. It was probably about a year that we had very, very little communication. But then it changed. After my stepfather and my two grandfathers all died within about a year or two, my family pretty much said, “We just don’t want to hear about it.”

I always told them and said, “If you all would just sit down and talk to me, and understand that my life is not all about sex, I don’t go out and pick up people. I had a husband for 6 1/2, seven years, and he was a wonderful person. There’s more to being Gay than a sexual issue.”

My family just won’t open their minds any further than that church building and what they’ve been taught. They don’t want to experience and understand me. They don’t accept it, but at least they don’t judge me anymore. They will tell me, if I ask them about homosexuality, “I think you’re going to hell. That’s what the Bible says.” And I said, “Well, if I write on a black sheet of paper, it doesn’t make it black. Just because you’re in a chicken house doesn’t make you a chicken.”

Zenger’s: How would you describe your current music, and what’s the status of your career now?

Bell: It’s going to be in the Gay community. I’ve had my first album out for a couple of years now, and I’m still pushing that. I feel my next album will be out within the next year to two years. I’m currently collaborating on some new songs. I write some of my own, and some of the other popular songs I pick up. I’m also still trying to get my book out [Still Standing, originally scheduled for release in 2006]. My career is going up. It will be good.

I’m staying in the Gay community only. I refuse to go back to what I was doing. I’m only singing to the Gay community. Straight people can be a part of it, but it’s going to be at Gay events and Gay outreaches, because that’s my life. Everything else that I do is pretty much just to better other people and make a decent living. I have my own work on the side that I do, and that’s just to help keep the bills paid, and benefits and insurance and all that. But it’s different working with Starbucks and doing home health care on the side of that, and then still being able to go out and perform, to give people a sense of reality and hope.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Monique Gaffney Triumphs in 6th @ Penn’s Medea


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

Monique Gaffney is an extraordinary actress. She proved it two years ago at 6th @ Penn Theatre when she played the young lady from Rwanda in the awkwardly titled but extraordinarily moving genocide play, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda. She proves it again in 6th @ Penn’s current production of Euripides’ Medea, this time as the perpetrator rather than the victim of unspeakable horrors — but equally complex, human and even sympathetic in her portrayal of the founding member of the First Wives Club, driven to a terrible revenge by her husband Jason’s leaving her for a younger, prettier and (above all) richer woman.

Just about everybody knows the story of Medea, the terrifying sequel to the heroic tale of Jason and the quest he led in the ship Argo to sail from Greece to Colchis (in modern-day Turkey) to steal the Golden Fleece. Only the ancient Greeks could have taken such a stirring piece of teenage boys’ fiction, complete with a dashing young hero, exciting supernatural menaces and the woman who falls in love with him, helps him and goes with him to Greece — a story that found its greatest dramatist in special-effects genius Ray Harryhausen’s 1958 film Jason and the Argonauts — and stuck such a relentlessly dark postlude on it: Medea, cut off from home and family, abandoned by the man she betrayed them for, killing not only Jason’s new wife but her father, King Creon, and her own (and Jason’s) two children.

And just about everybody in Euripides’ original audience 2,500 years ago knew the story, too. Until the 18th century, you didn’t go to the theatre or read a book to be surprised. You went to hear a familiar tale re-told and to absorb the current author’s “spin” on it, what he would choose to emphasize, what attitude he would take towards the familiar characters and situations. Of the great Greek playwrights, Euripides’ reputation in his own time was as the edgiest, the one most likely to jolt you with a fresh “take” on a story you thought you knew. If you wanted to see the ancient myths dramatized straight-up, you went to Sophocles. If you wanted to see them twisted and turned round, Euripides was your man. Just as he turned the Trojan War’s “bad guys,” from the Greek point of view, into sympathetic figures in his play The Trojan Women, in Medea he went out of his way to make her actions seem not only understandable but inevitable.

It’s hard to think of another play that went so far to evoke real pathos in his characterization of a murderer until William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth 2,000 years later — and it’s hardly even been attempted since. Medea lives as both play and metaphor precisely because it seems so timely; it’ll be out of date when men stop having mid-life crises and dumping their wives, and the dumped women stop feeling bitterness and hate towards the men who once loved them. Its continuing relevance came home in 1994 when Susan Smith drowned her own two children to ingratiate herself with a new boyfriend who was also her boss (and Republican politicians blamed her actions on 1960’s liberalism) while Diana Rigg was starring on Broadway in a production of Medea, which proved that infanticide was a problem that well pre-dated the existence of the Democratic party.

6th @ Penn has given Medea an intensely stylized production, so strikingly reminiscent of Sledgehammer Theatre’s style it’s not at all surprising that director/designer Ruff Yeager has worked there — albeit in one of Sledgehammer’s more “normal,” though still edgy, productions, his own play Bronze. The translation by Dr. Marianne McDonald (who dramatized her own life at 6th @ Penn in the unforgettable The Last Class) falls easily off the tongues of the actors without being overly colloquial. Yeager’s set design is all white: a back wall consisting of five white doors through which the characters, other than Medea, enter and exit; a surface on which are projected deliberately sentimental pictures of children and words representing Medea’s innermost thoughts; and a series of tables with large glass bowls on and under them, into and out of which Medea pours various substances representing the rituals of her homeland.

One of the key aspects of Medea is the central character’s rootlessness. In a country built by people who were relocating for economic opportunity or to flee religious persecution, we take uprooting yourself from your home and moving somewhere else so routinely it’s hard for us to relate to the ancient Greeks’ obsession with home, their sense that exile was literally a fate worse than death (indeed, given the choice of exile or death, Socrates chose death). It’s one of the reasons why Medea, already “homeless” in this broader sense because she betrayed her family and killed her brother Absyrtus to help Jason, and alienated from the natives of his town of Corinth because of her “outsider” status, not only loses her husband but what little identity she had as a Corinthian. Ordered into exile, driven mad by multiple rejections, it’s no wonder she strikes back in the ways she does.

Yeager heightens Medea’s alienation by casting African-American Gaffney in the role and making all the other characters white. This isn’t your usual “non-traditional” or “trans-racial” casting, in which we see Black actors playing the parents of white ones (or vice versa) and we’re supposed to be P.C. enough to suspend disbelief and accept it — not from a director who carefully cast his own play Bronze to bring out the racial politics he’d written into his script. Medea is a Black woman in an all-white world — not only the other people but her entire surroundings are white — and Yeager’s casting strategy brings out her “outside” position better than the dialogue, even from a master like Euripides, ever could.

The other standout in the cast is John DeCarlo as Jason: stupid, befuddled, almost Bush-like in his utter non-relationship to reality, especially when he tries to explain to Medea how his dumping her for the king’s daughter actually strengthened her position in the Corinthian court. One can imagine DeCarlo as the heroic Jason of the Golden Fleece tale gone to seed and settled into a swaggering middle-age that still has something of the eternal adolescent about it. Allison Finn as the Chorus — in Greek drama, a single person who narrated the story and clarified the moral lesson the playwright hoped we would draw from it — is also touching. She starts her role from a seat in the second row (explaining a “Reserved” sign that’s enigmatic until we hear her speak) and, in McDonald’s adaptation, gets to interact with the characters and try to talk Medea out of murdering her children. Finn projects a voice of reason in a play that badly needs one.

Steven Jensen’s Creon works as an implacable figure of authority; he can’t do much more with the role, but probably nobody else could have either. Darlene Cleary as the children’s nurse is properly venerable, wise and impotent. John Martin plays Aegeus, who offers to take Medea in if she can get to his home town of Athens, a bit too queeny to be believable as a righteous monarch and family man. Joseph Dionisio is listed in the cast as “Tutor” and “Messenger” but is costumed so boyishly at first it seemed as if he were collectively representing Medea’s two children.

But it’s Gaffney’s performance that dominates. There’s a bit of a miscalculation early on in which she’s describing how she plans to kill Jason’s relatives and she starts sounding like the Wicked Witch of the West pondering how she’s going to dispatch Dorothy. But otherwise her performance is searing and brilliant, keeping the fires banked, the volcano smoldering, through much of the first half of the play. Gaffney is a good enough actress to pass up the temptation to overact the early scenes so that, when the time comes for her to blow, the explosion is a galvanic surprise even though we know the story and are waiting for it to come. When she contemplates the murder of her children, she dances and stomps animalistically around the stage as if reverting down the evolutionary ladder; when she finally confronts Jason after the dirty deeds, she’s calm and implacable, the fury spent but annealed into a hard, bitter kernel of contempt.

Yeager’s production is full of projections, dire bits of music (much of it sounding like Balinese gamelans, which works surprisingly well), distorted voices at the beginning and the end (we hear Medea this way through a recording well before Gaffney speaks her first lines “live”), eerie lighting effects (lighting director Mitchell Sinkovski smoothly integrates his work into Yeager’s non-realistic conception) and stylized movements. There are scenes in which several actors talk at once, sometimes contrapuntally and sometimes in unison, reminding us of how many composers have written operas or ballets about Medea (among them Charpentier, Cherubini, Mayr, Barber, Chávez and Theodorakis).

Medea at 6th @ Penn is as good as local theatre ever gets, if not better. It’s a stylized production, but the stylization serves the story instead of taking it over or getting in the way. It showcases a brilliant performer in the title role but still manages to work as a unified production instead of just a star turn. The combination of Gaffney’s intensity, Yeager’s thoughtful direction and McDonald’s deep understanding of Greek drama and how to bring it to life for a modern audience make this Medea a production to be treasured — and not to be missed.

Medea plays through Sunday, November 11 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue near Pennsylvania in Hillcrest, through June 17 and 18, respectively. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thurs., Fri. & Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun. For tickets and other information, visit, e-mail, or phone (619) 688-9210.

Cygnet’s Turn of the Screw: Good Production, Problematic Adaptation


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

Photo: Amy Biedel and David Tierney in Cygnet Theatre's production of "The Turn of the Screw." Photo by Chelsea Whitmore; used by permission.

San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre, located on 66th and El Cajon Boulevard not far from the La Mesa border, is a company that’s managed to survive and prosper despite the odds: an out-of-the-way location in a mini-mall, the ever-pressing financial needs of small arts organizations, and an occasional tendency to pick scripts more for the prestige of their authors than their intrinsic merits as theatre. Such is the problem with their Hallowe’en season production of Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, adapted for the stage by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher.

The plot of The Turn of the Screw is simple enough. In London in 1872, a young woman (Amy Biedel) accepts a job as governess to two children on a remote country estate. The children are 10-year-old Miles, just expelled from boarding school for transgressions that aren’t specified until well into the story, and his mute younger sister Flora. Their previous governess, Miss Jessel, constantly read from a Bible and committed suicide by drowning herself in a lake on the property. Her motive was the perverse relationship — the details, again, carefully left to our imaginations — with the groom, Peter Quint, who was later found by Flora buried under a pile of rocks. The implication is that the children may or may not have murdered him, and he and Miss Jessel may or may not still be hanging around the property as ghosts, giving grief to the new governess as well as the maidservant, Miss Gross.

The program for The Turn of the Screw contains a page of notes by dramaturg Diane Sinor that extensively quotes Hatcher’s explanation of his script. “For over 70 years the major question revolving around The Turn of the Screw has been: are the ghosts real, or are they the products of the governess’s repressed imagination? We had instead the opportunity to refocus the story as an account being told from the governess’s point of view. … If the audience couldn’t see the ghosts, they couldn’t say if they were real or imagined. Having decided that, other elements fell into place. … We were also free to dispense with a realistic set [and props] — just darkness, a chair, and an abstract staircase. Our goal was to create something rich and theatrical out of something spare and austere.”

Dispensing with a realistic set and props wasn’t the problem. The scenic design by Cygnet’s artistic director, Sean Murray, is certainly solid and elaborate enough to establish the Gothic framework of James’s tale, and Eric Lotze’s work is hauntingly atmospheric even though he keeps the stage in such gloomy semi-darkness most of the time one gets the impression his credit in the program should be “darkening director” rather than “lighting director.” Hatcher’s big mistake was thinking he could tell this elaborate story with only two actors, dispensing not only with realistic sets and props but realistic casting as well.

At least Amy Biedel gets to play the same character throughout, whether narrating the governess’s story in flashback (and using much of James’s original text to do so) or living it on stage. Her striking, heartfelt performance creates the most gripping moments in Cygnet’s production and, when she’s alone on stage or dominating the action, her sincerity shines through Hatcher’s artifice. The problem is with her co-star, David Tierney, who’s just fine as the children’s uncle who hires her in the opening scene — but accepting him as the middle-aged Miss Gross bends the suspension of disbelief and asking us to believe in him as a 10-year-old boy snaps it to the breaking point.

It doesn’t help that Tierney wears the same 19th century suit throughout — Veronica Murphy’s costume design is fine for the uncle and lousy for his other two roles — or that his only attempt to differentiate between the three characters is by voice, and his vocal changes are so minimal sometimes we have to wait until Biedel addresses him to figure out which one he’s supposed to be just then. Tierney is a perfectly competent actor and it’s not really his fault that Hatcher has given him the impossible task of switching back and forth between playing a middle-aged woman and playing a 10-year-old boy (albeit a sexually precocious one) without giving him the time to change either his clothes or his mind-set.

One can understand Hatcher’s decision to avoid obligating producers of his play to deal with the personal, logistical and legal problems of employing child actors. (In case you’re wondering who plays Flora, the answer is no one; since she doesn’t speak, Hatcher decided she could exist on stage only by having the others pantomime her.) But without a larger cast, many of the frissons in the story just don’t shock. Miles’s attempted seduction of his governess under the influence of the dead Quint (maybe) seems pretty routine when Miles is played by an adult, and the whole scene comes off less than a depiction of unspeakable perversion and more like a tabloid TV show about a high-school teacher having sex with one of her students.

Cygnet does the best they can with the script they have. Director Janet Hayatshahi tries to solve the credibility problem of having an adult play Miles by keeping him in almost constant motion, having him dash up and down those elaborate, stylized staircases in a pretty good simulacrum of pre-pubescent rambuctiousness. She gets a first-rate performance out of Biedel and handles Tierney about as well as one could expect given the impossible task Hatcher has set him. Biedel is well costumed by Murphy and the wig and hair designs by Peter Herman are also credible.

The Turn of the Screw is really disappointing because the story is intrinsically dramatic — it’s been adapted successfully into an opera by Benjamin Britten and a film (The Innocents) by director Jack Clayton, and there’s another film called The Nightcomers that attempted to be a prequel and cast Marlon Brando as Peter Quint but still sank into box-office oblivion almost as soon as its 1970 release — and because there are times when Amy Biedel’s acting transcends the limits of Hatcher’s adaptation and achieves dramatic power and truth. But those moments aren’t enough to redeem Hatcher’s flawed “take” on James’s great story.

The Turn of the Screw plays through Saturday, November 10 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blv’d., Suite N in the College area. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Regular prices on Thursdays and Sunday evenings are $27. Tickets on Friday and Sunday matinee are $29 and Saturdays $31. Discounts are available for seniors, students and military. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Cygnet's website at or calling the box office at (619) 337-1525.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Jonathan Kozol Speaks in San Diego

Noted Education Activists Rips “No Child Left Behind”


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

“I’m always giving school superintendents a hard time; it’s my job,” noted educator and activist Jonathan Kozol said at the beginning of his October 8 speech at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Fifth and Maple near Balboa Park. Under the rather awkward sponsorship of the San Diego Unified School District and the Juvenile Court and Community Schools and Excellence Comes in All Colors programs of the San Diego County Board of Education — and following a lengthy series of speeches by officials of those programs, all boasting of their students’ achievements based on the high-stakes standardized tests Kozol calls irrelevant and dangerous — Kozol spoke for over an hour, punctuating his talk with wit but making it clear he regards the No Child Left Behind Act as a disaster for American education.

Kozol was there in part to promote his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher — a generic title that gives one the impression it was written as an old sage’s advice to newcomers to his chosen profession. Actually it was written to and for a specific young teacher, a woman Kozol identified only as Francesca, who teaches in the same Boston school Kozol himself worked in when he started out as a teacher and about which he wrote his first book, Death at an Early Age (1967). “I visited her classroom,” Kozol recalled, “and as soon as I arrived, she put me to work, as teachers always do with me. I feel like an unpaid substitute.”

Indeed, Kozol remembered one incident in which Francesca and her first-grade students did a role-reversal on him. “She asked if I would give the children a short sentence of nonfiction narrative,” he said. “I gave them a long sentence of nonfiction narrative about people who talk to animals. I had a golden retriever I used to talk to and get cogent answers from. Francesca scolded me in front of the whole class and said, ‘Mr. Jonafer [the closest her six-year-olds could come to pronouncing ‘Jonathan’] is not paying attention. He’s not acting like a grownup. He needs a time-out.’ So they made me sit in a corner of the reading room, and one boy stuck a green frog decal on my forehead. You never hear about green frogs in No Child Left Behind.”

Realizing that he was making Francesca sound like “a carry-over from the hippie era,” the sort of teacher who neglected basic skills and said things like, “These Black children are so beautiful. Don’t impose on them. When little Shemeika feels an organic need to learn to read, she’ll let you know,” Kozol said that in fact she could be just as tough a skills-driller as any true believer in No Child Left Behind. What Francesca rejected — and what made her a hero to Kozol — was “those horrible pit-pat readers” encouraged by the No Child Left Behind law and the so-called “proficiency” standards it imposes. “(President Bush was leading a class in one of these books, My Pet Goat, when the 9/11 attacks happened.

Instead,” Kozol said, “she drew the words [for phonics lessons] out of the stories the children came in with, or out of the beautiful children’s books with which she filled the room, like The Very, Very Hungry Caterpillar. She was a young white woman but she’d been immersed in the best of multiculturalism.” He was particularly proud of her for going beyond the writer he described as the education industry’s token African-American poet, Langston Hughes, and having her students explore all the Harlem Renaissance writers as well as Latin-American writers like Cuban revolutionary José Marti (one of whose poems was the basis for the song “Guantánamera”). While stressing that Francesca “did nothing related to the testing regime and left no doubt of her contempt for No Child Left Behind,” Kozol boasted that her students did well on tests.

According to Kozol, Francesca’s secret was that she taught the African-American and Latino students in her classrooms exactly the way she herself had been taught in the white suburban schools she’d gone to as a child — against the solemn advice of the corporate educational “consultants” and other so-called “experts” who have burgeoned under No Child Left Behind. “There are people who say, ‘Leave all that rich cultural stuff and the capacity to integrate reality to the white kids in the suburbs,’” Kozol said. “They believe Black students need to be marched relentlessly to the next high-stakes exam. Francesca said, ‘Give them the same opportunities and they will blossom into the flowers they are.’ She saw beauty in them, and they were beautiful.”

Kozol argues that the re-segregation of American public education — most inner-city schools, he said, are either 90-percent plus African-American or 90-percent plus Latino, while the white kids are either going to school in the suburbs or are in private schools — and the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on “proficiency” and “standards” has bred a race of “experts” who not only talk about running the public schools like a private business but actually talk the jargon of corporate management. He recalled meeting one school principal in Columbus, Ohio who insisted on referring to herself not as a principal (which is what her office door said she was) but a “building CEO.”

“I thought, ‘Is that why she studied the philosophy of education?’” Kozol said incredulously. “If she’d wanted to be a CEO, she should have gone to business school and learned something that would make her real money. But she had a ‘business partner,’ someone from the corporate world, and she was so eager to please her ‘business partner’ she started talking like him. In a kindergarten room [in another school] I saw a mission statement that read, ‘The mission of our school is to develop products who will sharpen our edge in the global marketplace.’ This wasn’t even high school! Why should first-graders care about the global marketplace? Francesca said, ‘I will never do that to my students. I will not steal away their childhoods.’”

One of Kozol’s criticisms of No Child Left Behind is that its relentless emphasis on rote memorization, quasi-military regimentation and high-stakes testing by which whole schools are determined to be “successes” or “failures” is driving motivated, caring teachers like Francesca out of the profession altogether. “It’s not hard to recruit them; the big problem is to keep them,” he explained. “Fifty percent of them quit within the first three years, demoralized, and when I ask them why, they never say it’s because of the kids. They don’t blame the parents either. Again and again, they say, ‘It’s this nightmarish testing mania, this sense of continuing anxiety, the sense that nothing matters for its own sake but only for the number you can plaster on [a student’s] forehead, and the only value in learning is learning for some extrinsic mechanistic reward.”

What’s more, Kozol said, most of these young teachers went to overwhelmingly white suburban schools, “and they know that this regimen would never be tolerated in the good schools they went to. They’re stealing at least half their time away from learning towards test preparation. Most of their principals are middle-aged African-American women who tell me, ‘I’m being forced to do things I abhor.’ Papers like the New York Post list the ‘worst’ schools in New York City and give them labels like ‘The Dirty Dozen’’ — which, he added, they often “earn” for reasons totally beyond their control.

Kozol recalled one Latina principal in the Bronx whose school was forced to absorb 150 underachieving students when another school two blocks away was adjudged to be “failing” and was closed down. When the new arrivals drove down the average test scores of her school, Kozol remembered meeting her in July after the school year ended and “she was crying in her office.” What passes for “teacher accountability” in the No Child Left Behind Act is, Kozol said, a pervasive sense of fear that their school will be declared “failing” and either closed down, taken over by the state or — worst of all, according to Kozol and the teachers he talks to — declared a “charter school” and taken over by the private sector.

“Teachers tell me, ‘I can’t do any of the things I love to do,’” because their schools’ reputation and, in some cases, their own continued employment depend on their students having a good enough average score on the No Child Left Behind tests. What’s more, he added, “the high-stakes tests are useless, because they don’t say anything specific about the child. They just say ‘proficient’ or ‘non-proficient.’ And the scores come in so late, the school year is already over” — and therefore there’s no chance for teachers to do remedial work to bring the so-called “non-proficient” students up to standard.

“The other thing” wrong with No Child Left Behind, Kozol said, “is the distortion of the curriculum. The slogan is, ‘We must hold our teachers accountable and make them strive for excellence. Teachers, from now on, must have high expectations.’ Francesca said, ‘Excellence. What a great idea. I thought our goal was to strive for mediocrity.’” Kozol said he could take slogans like “strive for excellence” more seriously if they came from genuine educators or respectable philosophers — but not from President Bush, who he said “doesn’t know what excellence is.”

Because the demand that teachers “strive for excellence” is based on a thinly veiled contempt for them, under No Child Left Behind their lives are often as regimented as their students’, Kozol said. “A lot of them are forced to hold timers in their hands,” he explained, “and a lot of the standards are so arbitrary you have to write them in the language of the people who created them: ‘Outcome: English/language arts proficiency #263B. Students will demonstrate the ability to produce a narrative procedure.’ That was right from the standards. I looked at this — I majored in English in college — and I said, ‘I don’t know what this means, and I don’t even think you can “produce a procedure.”’ The teacher agreed, and I asked, ‘Why do you have to put the number on it?’ ‘Because it has to be up there so the people who visit my classroom will understand.’”

What’s more, Kozol said, the relentless regimentation of both students’ and teachers’ lives required by No Child Left Behind utterly destroys any spontaneity in the classroom. In an earlier era, a question from a student might have given a good teacher the opportunity for a “teachable moment” that would have enlightened the entire class. Not any more, Kozol argued. “The kid who wants to ask a question that doesn’t contribute to the proficiency standard gets in the way,” he explained. “Six-year-olds are experts at subverting lesson plans,” but the No Child Left Behind-era teacher will have to cut off his or her most imaginative students and shut them up to keep the rest of the class marching towards “proficiency.”

Kozol also said that, while the No Child Left Behind Act officially starts the high-stakes standardized testing in the third grade, many school districts are “voluntarily” starting it earlier — sometimes as early as kindergarten — to make sure their students are ready for the tests when they reach third grade and the federal government starts counting them. “Kids in kindergarten quite often don’t understand that text goes from left to right,” Kozol said. “They don’t know how to fill in the bubble dots on the test forms. If they’d at least had two or three good years of pre-school, they might have a chance, but most of them don’t.” He described a grim reality in which wealthy parents have access to private pre-schools — including one in New York whose name, “Baby Ivy,” makes its agenda clear — that cost $20,000 to $24,000 per year, while working-class parents and parents of color have to make do with inadequate public programs or no pre-school at all.

According to Kozol, No Child Left Behind has not only failed in its ostensible purpose — to close the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and students of color — but “it’s widening the cultural gap. One group of [mostly white] children is being taught to interrogate reality. The other class is being trained to give pre-programmed answers, Nothing could be more dangerous in a democracy. … I don’t want to get too mad, but there’s something deeply hypocritical about a society which will hold a nine-year-old girl ‘accountable’ for her performance on a standardized test, but won’t hold the President and Congress ‘accountable’ for their mistakes.”

S.F. Assemblymember Leno Speaks at Freedom Banquet

Says Massachusetts Court Decision Led Him to Fight for Marriage


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

The crowd was a bit smaller than usual and the event was considerably shorter — a shade under 80 minutes when previous ones have run well over two hours — but the San Diego Democratic Club’s annual Freedom Banquet, held October 6 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay downtown, was still a spirited affair. Hosted by Marti Emerald, Channel 10 “troubleshooter” TV news reporter turned San Diego City Council candidate in district 7, the Freedom Banquet kicked off with its keynote speaker, openly Gay State Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), and then offered a series of awards to club members and others who have served the cause of equal rights for the Queer community.

Much of the brevity of the program came from the fact that the awardees were permitted to make only brief thank-you remarks, not extended speeches. In addition to delivering the keynote address, Assemblymember Leno also received the A. Brad Truax Human Rights Award (named after a former club president who helped build the group in the early 1980’s before retiring as president and later dying of complications from AIDS). Stephanie Moody-Geissler, granddaughter of former club vice-president Margaret Moody, won the R. Steven Pope volunteerism award. Former club president Doug Case, who’s been on its board continuously for the last 17 years — longer than anyone else — won the Gloria Steinem Communications Award.

Greg Bolian, the club’s voter registration chair, won the J. Douglas Scott Political Action award and proudly boasted that voters who register at the club’s table choose the Democratic over the Republican party eight to one — except at the Pride Festival, where the ratio was 35 to 1. Former club president Jeri Dilno, a Queer rights activist since the 1960’s, won the Herb King Lifetime Achievement Award. The President’s Award, the only one that is kept secret until the night of the event, was given by club president Andrea Villa to Dale Kelly Bankhead of the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has successfully defended Queer rights in court proceedings against the Boy Scouts of America and others.

“It’s about time we got over the discrimination and got on with the business of our city, county, state and nation,” Emerald said at the start of the event. Introducing Leno, she noted that he was only the second openly Gay man to be elected to the California State Assembly, “He deserves credit for fighting for all the right causes,” Emerald said of Leno. “He’s on the Assembly Appropriations Committee and is also fighting the good fight for civil marriages [for same-sex couples]. It doesn’t seem like it should be such a difficult issue. Mark Leno is doing the public good.”

“The most surprising fact of life in Sacramento is the severity of the partisanship,” Leno said at the beginning of his speech — though he followed it with a joke about how, having started his political career on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (their equivalent of a city council), he hadn’t had much experience in dealing with Republicans. “Our Republican and Democratic colleagues each think the others are out of their minds,” Leno said, “and it’s up to us to find common ground and work together.” It sometimes does happen, Leno added; he pointed with pride to a bill he’s co-sponsoring with a particularly Right-wing Republican from Orange County, Chuck DeVore, to allow California farmers to grow industrial hemp.

But virtually all the rest of Leno’s speech was about marriage equality for same-sex couples, one of the most bitterly partisan questions in state and national politics and one which has become a signature issue for him. Twice, in 2005 and 2007, Leno has carried bills to eliminate the section of California’s Family Code defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The 2005 bill was passed by narrow margins in both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said that only the people or the courts should change the California marriage law to allow Gay and Lesbian couples to marry. The 2007 bill also passed the legislature and is now on Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk -— and the goodie bags passed out at the event included postcards addressed to him urging that he sign the bill into law this time.

“Of all the important issues we work on — water, energy, affordable housing, health care — there’s a special privilege fighting legislatively for civil rights,” Leno said. He offered congratulations to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders for signing the City Council resolution to have San Diego appear as a friend of the court on San Francisco’s behalf in its lawsuit to have the state ban on same-sex marriage declared unconstitutional — an act for which Sanders, a Republican, is being threatened with the loss of his party’s endorsement in his re-election race. “With your mayor and our mayor” — Gavin Newsom, whose decision to have San Francisco grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples for one month from mid-February to mid-March 2004, when the state supreme court shut it down, triggered the pending court case — “we can really create social change,” Leno said.

Leno said he’d believed in the right of same-sex couples to marry “even before I took public office in 1998,” but it wasn’t until the Massachusetts state supreme court ruled on the issue in November 2003 that he became really passionate about it and convinced that the Queer community had to fight not only for the rights and responsibilities of marriage but for the word itself. “The Massachusetts court said there is no justification for discrimination and that separate is rarely, if ever, equal,” Leno recalled. “The only remedy is marriage, and marriage alone, because, in their words, anything less would perpetuate a destructive stereotype about how same-sex couples love. What we all have in common is our ability to love and our desire to love another person. For our law to say there’s one group of people who deserve marriage, and another who maybe deserve something almost as good, is to discriminate.”

According to Leno, the key to getting his marriage equality bill through the California legislature in both 2005 and 2007 was building a coalition between Equality California, the state’s Queer-rights group, and other civil rights organizations representing women and people of color. He boasted that the California chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Chinese for Affirmative Action and the National Organization for Women (NOW) had endorsed his bill, and so had the California Council of Churches and the California ACLU.

Leno boasted that California’s is the only state legislature that has passed a marriage equality bill without first being ordered to do so by a court. He said that the success was built “from the ground up,” starting with a meager domestic partnership bill which only conferred one right to its beneficiaries — to visit each other in hospital — but was added to again and again until today California’s registered domestic partners have virtually all the rights the state grants to heterosexual married couples.

Though the battle for marriage rights is being carried out on several fronts — the legislature as well as the state supreme court — “the last word will be on the ballot,” Leno conceded. Unlike in Massachusetts, where opponents of marriage equality have so far been unable to navigate the state’s cumbersome procedure for amending its constitution to reverse their state’s supreme court decision granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, a pro-marriage ruling in California could be reversed by an initiative similar to Proposition22, passed in March 2000 with over 61 percent of the vote, which officially prevented California from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states or countries but has widely been cited as a final verdict from California voters against recognizing same-sex marriages at all.

Leno conceded that, even if his bill were signed into law by Schwarzenegger or whoever succeeds him as governor in 2011, “our adversaries will try to reverse it in a referendum or an initiative.” He said he thinks the California Supreme Court will rule in favor of marriage equality — even though none of the other six state high courts who’ve heard the issue since 2003 have done so, and only one (New Jersey) even went as far as requiring the legislature to provide domestic partnerships or civil unions.

“Our adversaries say they are as eager to deny us domestic partnerships as marriage licenses,” Leno said, citing Randy Thomasson and his group Campaign for California’s Families, who have already proposed an initiative to ban same-sex marriage, invalidate the California domestic partnership law, and also get rid of California’s law allowing post-operative Transsexuals to marry in their new gender. He did not mention the rival initiative, proposed by Gail Knight (widow of Proposition 22 author Pete Knight) and the California Family Institute (the state’s affiliate of one of the radical Right’s most powerful organizations, Focus on the Family), which would write a ban on same-sex marriages into the state constitution but leave the domestic partnership law in place.

“We will see it on the ballot,” Leno acknowledged. “So we will have to continue to educate the people, to put a human face on the issue.” Leno recalled that during the one-month opening for same-sex marriages in San Francisco in early 2004, “I had the opportunity to marry a couple of old gentlemen who had been together over 50 years. Shortly afterwards, one of them unexpectedly died of heart disease, and Marvin, the survivor, could not access any of the benefits he would have had if they had been a married couple. Therefore, he could no longer afford the rent on the home the couple had shared for 35 years, and he ended up homeless. Since then, he’s been helped out and he’s back off the streets, but he should not have had to suffer that. Apparently this is what Governor Schwarzenegger thinks is fair.”

Forrest Church Speaks on God and America in San Diego

Minister, Son of Late Senator, Corrects Misconceptions of U.S. History


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

Descriptions of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. and their attitudes towards the proper role of religion in government usually fall into one of two opposing camps: those who argue that they assumed America would be a “Christian nation” and therefore Biblical morality should rule in this country; and those who fiercely resist any connection between church and state and argue the Founders wanted a “wall of separation” between them. Neither view is accurate, Forrest Church, Unitarian-Universalist minister in New York and son of the late Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), argued in a speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest October 4. According to Church, the arguments over the relationship between church and state are as old as the British presence in the New World and were fought in the late 18th and early 19th century as bitterly — and with both sides making many of the same points — as they are now.

“There were two tunes being sung at the outset of our republic, and those tunes came together, not always harmoniously,” Church explained. “The first theme came from the Puritans, who came to New England to create a pure Christian government. The divines who ran things believed that without a healthy respect for Christian logic, the government would fall apart because God would withdraw his support. The other theme was sounded in Enlightenment France, and that is the theme of ‘sacred liberty’ codified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The first group believed in one nation under God; the second in one nation with liberty and justice for all. These two themes are still in play today.”

As a shorthand way of designating these two views, Church cited the U.S. motto, E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one” — and called the Christian-government group “unum” because they emphasized Americans’ unity under God. He called the sacred-liberty group “pluribus” because they emphasized diversity and freedom of thought. What’s more, when he cited which Christian denominations were on which side in the early years after independence, he startled many in the audience because the alignments were almost opposite to the ones we know today. The New England denominations — Unitarians and Congregationalists — and the Episcopalians were in the forefront of the Christian-America unum group, Church explained, while the leaders of the pluribus individual-conscience, sacred-liberty, wall-of-separation group were the Baptists.

According to Church, the reason the Baptists were at the forefront of support for separation of church and state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was that, as a minority denomination, they believed “their liberties would be compromised” if church and state were united. “This made for some pretty strange bedfellows,” Church admitted. During George Washington’s presidency the church-state division, like many other issues that later divided the country, was kept relatively under wraps. Washington’s administration included both Alexander Hamilton, strong unum advocate of a “Christian America,” and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the leader of the separationist pluribus group.

Church described Washington himself as “a deeply moral man but not a religious one. He never mentioned Jesus, but he believed the government should be established on a moral platform. He was probably a deist, though he wasn’t intellectually curious enough about it to define himself that way, and he couldn’t stand any factionalization. … Washington believed so strongly that religion should be kept out of politics, he refused to accept petitions from religious groups who tried to influence public opinion — including the Quakers, who tried to get him to abolish slavery.”

During the question-and-answer period, one audience member challenged Church’s analysis of Washington, quoting the famous lines in his Farewell Address of 1796 (“which wasn’t a farewell and wasn’t an address,” he conceded): “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Church responded that Washington actually didn’t write most of his Farewell Address; Alexander Hamilton did, and it was Hamilton’s view of the proper relationship between religion, morality and government that was being expressed in that passage more than Washington’s own. According to Church, Washington was upset that Hamilton’s draft didn’t mention his proposal for a non-sectarian public university in the capital city — a radically separationist notion at a time when all U.S. colleges were owned by religious denominations and accepted students only from their own church — and where Hamilton’s draft had said flat-out that morality could not exist without religion, Washington edited the speech to add the qualification, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Once Washington retired from the presidency in 1797 and died two years later, Church continued, all the factionalism that he had kept under wraps erupted, leading to the hotly contested 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the establishment of the two-party system that continues to dominate U.S. politics to this day. In this campaign, Adams’ party, the Federalists, called Jefferson “an infidel and a French toady who would turn the nation into ‘a morass of democracy,’” Church said. “The New England Congregationalists and Unitarians, who had nothing in common theologically, stayed together [in that campaign] because they overlooked their religious differences to fight for their Puritan heritage.”

Jefferson, Church added, didn’t help his cause any with his letters against “priestcraft” and his total support of the French Revolution even as it turned into the bloodbath of the Reign of Terror. Adams, Church said — drawing on the example of revolutionary France — “believed that if religion were not involved in government, the people would run amok. Jefferson, who was kind of an Enlightenment priest, was opposed to any involvement between church and state — not to protect the church from the state, but to protect the state from the church.”

Adams triggered the controversy, Church explained, in 1798 when, as part of his administration’s threat to go to war with France, he “declared a national fast day and used the language of Puritan New England” — specifically the idea that God was punishing the American people by withdrawing His protection from them and threatening them with attack from a foreign power. “France had become the enemy,” Church said. “There were riots in the streets of Philadelphia because the religious Left and outsiders were appalled that Adams was potentially establishing a Presbyterian government and a national prayer.” When Jefferson finally won the presidency in 1800, Church added, “the Unitarians, Congregationalists and Episcopalians vividly proclaimed the coming of Armageddon. The Baptists and Methodists were less forthcoming and the Catholics practically hailed the coming of the millennium.”

At the end of his presentation, Church gave a brief analysis of modern America’s religious and political alignments. He said that the reason the denominations of today have switched sides from their historical positions is that now “the mainline Christians — Episcopalians, liberal Presbyterians, Methodists — are marginalized. The Baptists and the Assemblies of God are now the religious insiders, and therefore they don’t fear a union of church and state the way their forbears did.” He also joked that the modern-day Unitarian-Universalist church — the one he preaches in in New York and the one he was speaking at in San Diego — “would just horrify the John Adams Unitarians of New England.”

Church warned against the tendency of modern-day progressives, viewing the radical religious Right in general and the Southern Baptist Convention in particular as bitter enemies of religious and social freedom, to read today’s history back into that of the country’s founding and assume that the New England unum group were the bad guys. He said that the “moral arguments” of the New Englanders and their churches “were stronger than the arsenal of the ‘sacred liberty’ party” — particularly on the issue that would lead to the next great ideological division in American politics: slavery.

According to Church, 75 percent of the members of the abolitionist movement in the first half of the 19th century were ministers from New England churches — while the Southerners who preached endlessly about individual rights and “sacred liberties” either owned slaves themselves or defended the right of others to do so. He argued that that’s no accident: if you are as doctrinaire on the subject of individual liberties as Jefferson was, there’s no moral framework on which to condemn someone else for owning slaves.

Asked if this analysis meant that he regarded secular people as “less moral” than religious believers, Church said, “No, of course not. It means that there is something to be said for someone’s vote being determined by moral principles.” Pointing out that religious leaders were in the forefront of abolition as well as the Prohibition movement, and more recently the movement against abortion and women’s right to reproductive choice, Church said, “You have to be aware of the nuances before making an absolute proscription” of religious involvement in politics. “Religion and politics should mix because, ideally, our religious values are our highest values and should influence our votes. But when church and state unite, there is the danger of whole groups of people being read out of the American covenant.”

Queer Democrats Endorse Block for Assembly


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

Photos,top to bottom: Marty Block, Arlie Ricasa, Auday Arabo

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club at its September 27 meeting overwhelmingly endorsed San Diego Community College board member Marty Block for the 78th District seat in the California State Assembly — which, much to local Democrats’ disgust, has been held for six years by Republican Shirley Horton, former mayor of Chula Vista. The club heard from three Democratic candidates for the seat — Block, Sweetwater High School district board member Arlie Ricasa and small-business lobbyist and former San Diego County prosecutor Auday Arabo — but ultimately 78 percent of the members present voted to endorse Block, well above the 60 percent threshold needed for the club’s endorsement.

What seemed to impress the club members most about Block was his political experience, name recognition and long list of endorsers, including former 78th District Assemblymembers Lucy Killea, DeDe Alpert, Howard Wayne and Mike Gotch, as well as San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye, former Congressional candidate Francine Busby, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, former San Diego Democratic Club president Gloria Johnson, labor activist and fellow Community College District board member Peter Zschiesche, businessmen Murray Galinson and Chris Wood, community activists Nicole Murray Ramirez, Bob Lehman, Bruce Abrams, John Lockhart, Greg Evans, Dwayne Crenshaw, Vince Hall (who lost the seat to Horton in 2002), David Valladolid and Cecil Steppe, club members Michelle Krug, Margaret Moody and Brian Polejes.

Block also boasted of organizational endorsements from the American Federation of Teachers Local 1931, the California Faculty Association, the Faculty Coalition for Public Higher Education and the California Federation of Teachers. “They’ve endorsed me,” Block said, “because they know I’m the most electable candidate. They know that I’m right on the issues, and they know that you won’t have to come to Sacramento to lobby me. I’ll come to your meetings.”

Auday Arabo, a newcomer to electoral politics who promoted himself at the meeting with a handout that contained a San Diego Union-Tribune feature about him from 2005, emphasized his personal story. “My family brought me here in 1979 from Baghdad, Iraq for opportunities, not for them but for me,” he recalled. His parents supported themselves and their family by running a small grocery store in City Heights, and Arabo went to college, worked as an aide to Republican Congressmember Brian Bilbray, then was hired by the county district attorney’s office and prosecuted cases until he took a job as lobbyist for an association of small grocery-store owners. “We have a power vacuum in the 78th Assembly District,” he said. “I went to school here, I believe in the community, and I believe the community believes in me.”

Arlie Ricasa, who ran a close second to Maxine Sherard in the 2004 Democratic primary in the district, presented herself along the lines of 76th District Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, a woman of color who won a closely contested primary against two white candidates in 2004 and went on to take the seat. Though she offered a few endorsers of her own — her leaflet listed State Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny and Assemblymember Mary Salas (as well as State Senator Christine Kehoe, who actually dual-endorsed both Ricasa and Block) — her main appeal was as a grass-roots candidate, willing to walk the district and work hard to reach voters. “The 78th Assembly District is longing and starving for inspirational leadership,” she said. “I believe in the core Democratic values, including education, equal access to health care and safe communities.”

All three candidates scored well on the club’s issues questionnaire, but only Block got 100 percent. Ricasa and Arabo both were uncomfortable with the questions on euthanasia, and Ricasa qualified her answers on the questions about same-sex marriage and relationship rights by saying she supported them “in general.” Asked about their party affiliations, both Block and Ricasa proudly said they were lifelong Democrats. Arabo said he had registered as a Democrat when he was first naturalized as a U.S. citizen, switched to the Republican party when he went to work for Bilbray, and changed back to Democrat when he “saw the hate” within the Republican party. Arabo then said that the untold story about Iraq is the oppression of its minorities, including its Queers; making an ironic reference to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that there were no Queers in Iran, Arabo said, “There are LGBT’s in Iraq.”

The questions from club members covered a wide range of issues, from reforming California’s “three strikes” law on criminal sentences to what government can do to help small businesses to a controversial city ordinance recently passed in San Diego that taxes all stores that sell tobacco products $163 per year and requires them to register with the police. Block and Ricasa both said they supported the measure, which is aimed at raising money for programs to keep young people from smoking. Arabo said the lobbying group he represents, the Independent Grocers’ Association, opposed the bill and said a state law passed in 2004 offered enough programs and funding to keep underage people from using tobacco products.

As a former prosecutor, Arabo took a strong position against reforming the three-strikes law. “Three-strikes defendants are accused of serious crimes. The public safety community is as one on this [defending the current three-strikes law],” he said, adding that the unsuccessful reform initiative on the 2004 ballot — which would have required court review of third-strike sentences and likely led to the early release of many inmates whose third-strike sentences were for nonviolent crimes — was “completely out of line.”

Block and Ricasa both agreed. Block called some of the sentences under the current law “Draconian” and Ricasa said, “It is a shame that this state spends more on incarceration than on education. That’s why we need logic in Sacramento. Let’s be smart about the legislation. When we’re ranking in the bottom quartiles [among all states] in education funding, what are the long-term consequences?”

The candidates were also asked who is giving them money. All three denied receiving funds from tobacco companies or lobbyists. Arabo said most of his contributors were deputy district attorneys and small business owners. Ricasa said she had collected most of her money as $5 contributions from ordinary citizens, and Block said most of his contributors were “rich lawyers, poor educators and the LGBT community.” All three candidates opposed laws requiring notification of parents of minor girls seeking abortions, and said they supported equal workplace benefits for same-sex couples. “The San Diego Community College District is the only one in the county that provides equal health benefits to domestic partners,” Block boasted.

“I’m very humbled and honored, and representing the LGBT community at the state level would make me more than proud,” Ricasa said in her closing statement. “This district is starving for leadership and needs inspirational leadership.” She said that the district needs a strong representative because, under Horton, “no one has heard from it in years.”

“I ask you to please consider and judge me on the basis of what I am, not what I was,” said Arabo, who realized that his principal problem with this group was that he’d been a Republican and had worked for and supported Brian Bilbray. “Sacramento and the 78th district need change.” Arabo said he’d been endorsed by Democratic state controller John Chiang and Patty Davis, who unsuccessfully ran in the district against Horton in 2004, and described himself as an outsider running in a district where “people are tired of politics as usual.”

“I’ve been endorsed by you in my community college races, and you know me,” said Block. “I supported Sandra McBreyer’s school for homeless kids in the 1990’s, and many of those kids were LGBT. Our district is the only one [in San Diego County] that pays full benefits not only to domestic partners but to the dependents of domestic partners.”

Former club president Gloria Johnson said that Block “has been a member of the club so long we don’t have a record of when he joined.” She said one reason she supports him is that he is a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Block was also supported by club member Nancy Miller, who said there were two excellent candidates but Block was more electable; and by Pat Coffey, who read a long statement from Betty Bacon of San Diegans for Disability Righs on why they support him.

San Diego Unified School District board member Shelia Jackson, whom the club had endorsed for re-election at the previous month’s meeting, said, “I support Arlie for the same reason you supported me. People are tired of business as usual. I met Arlie when I ran for school board and she went from being a person no one knew of to being second in the [2006 78th District Assembly] primary.”

The club also made two other endorsements on September 27: former Channel 10 news reporter Marti Emerald for the District 7 seat on the San Diego City Council, and Cathedral City Councilmember Greg Pettis for the 80th District seat in the Assembly. Though the 80th district is entirely outside San Diego County and ordinarily the club does not endorse for races outside the county, its bylaws have an exception allowing it to endorse openly Queer candidates anywhere in the U.S. — and Pettis qualified.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Marriage: Losing for Winning


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

That was quite a roller-coaster ride the San Diego City Council went on over the first 2 1/2 weeks in September over whether San Diego would join every other major California city in supporting San Francisco’s lawsuit to declare California’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman unconstitutional. First, Dennis Herrera, the city attorney of San Francisco — the city that started this in February 2004 by unilaterally deciding to marry same-sex couples in defiance of state law — spoke before the City Council on September 4 and urged them to join the suit. The Queer community had one unexpected ally at that meeting — Jim Madaffer, who’d never distinguished himself on Queer issues in the past — and one unexpected adversary.

Donna Frye, who’d made support of equal rights for the Queer community such a touchstone of her political career that the radical-Right publication News Notes (published and funded by San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman) once “outed” her as a Lesbian, which she isn’t, stunned San Diego’s political cognoscenti with a surprise vote against the measure. Her concern wasn’t the case itself but the way she felt the public had been locked out of the process. Frye said she herself hadn’t known the vote was going to take place until less than a week before it did, and after Herrera assured her that the city had until September 26 to decide whether to join San Francisco’s case, she asked that the issue be delayed and given a full-dress public hearing with supporters and opponents each having more than 15 minutes to present their case to the Council.

“The other side was very happy,” Frye recalled, “and I made it clear, ‘Don’t be so happy. You’re not going to like my vote when this hearing happens.’” Indeed, when the issue came up again on September 18, Frye supplied the crucial fifth vote for San Diego to join the case. Queer activists were still concerned, however, because under San Diego’s new “strong-mayor” city charter, Mayor Jerry Sanders could hold it on his desk for two weeks and then veto it — and the Council wouldn’t have the chance to meet again in time to override.

Instead, Sanders sprung the biggest surprise of all on this issue when, just a day after the Council passed it, he announced he would sign it. Noting that he not only had many friends and relatives in the Queer community but his daughter Lisa is Lesbian -— something that had been an open secret in San Diego’s political world but which Sanders had never before acknowledged publicly — Sanders said, “In the end, I couldn’t look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships, their very lives, were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife, Rana.”

The political courage shown by Madaffer, Frye (at least once she, unlike John Kerry, had decided to be for it after she was against it) and especially Sanders is admirable, but the Queer community leadership’s dogged pursuit, not just for legal recognition of their relationships but for legal recognition with the M-word attached, is dangerous and threatens to leave Gay and Lesbian couples in this state with fewer legal rights, responsibilities and protections than they have now. The reason? The 900-pound gorilla in the marriage issue: the voters.

California’s current ban on same-sex marriage began as a piece of legislation in the 1970’s. Until then, the state’s lawmakers had considered it so obvious that marriage was between a man and a woman that they hadn’t bothered to define it that way in the California Family Code. When Gay couples in Minnesota and Illinois showed up at county clerks’ offices and demanded they be married because there was nothing in those states’ laws that defined marriage in specifically heterosexual terms, legislatures throughout the country rushed to close what then appeared to be a minor loophole — and Queer activists, then more concerned with issues like discrimination and law-enforcement entrapment, offered little resistance.

But in March 2000, as a reaction to litigation in other states aimed at opening marriage to same-sex couples, the radical Right put Proposition 22 on the California ballot. This measure simply stated, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The initiative easily qualified for the ballot and passed overwhelmingly in March 2000 with 61.4 percent of the vote — and every state but one, Arizona, that has had a similar initiative on its ballot has also passed it, usually by similarly lopsided margins.

No doubt ruing their decision in 2000 to make Proposition 22 a simple initiative statute instead of a state constitutional amendment — which would have required more signatures to get on the ballot, though they actually got more than enough to have qualified it as a constitutional amendment if they’d started on that route — two separate radical-Right movements are circulating petitions to ban same-sex marriage once and for all. One, sponsored by Gail Knight (widow of the late Pete Knight, who wrote Proposition 22) and the California Family Council, affiliate of James Dobson’s group Focus on the Family, would write Proposition 22 into the state constitution but would preserve California’s landmark domestic partnership law by stating that it “shall not affect the rights, benefits and obligations conferred by California law on other domestic relationships.”

The other initiative, by former Assemblymember Larry Bowler, Randy Thomasson and his group Campaign for California’s Families, and their coalition group, is a more far-reaching one that would write into the California constitution not only a ban on same-sex marriage but a provision that “neither the Legislature nor any court, government institution, government agency, initiative statute, local government, or government official shall … bestow statutory rights, incidents, or employee benefits of marriage to unmarried individuals.” In addition, the final version of this initiative contains definitions of the terms “man” and “woman” that would invalidate California’s landmark law allowing post-operative Transsexuals to marry in their new gender.

According to a Time/CNN poll taken shortly before the 2004 election, only 25 percent of all Americans support the right of same-sex partners to marry; 37 percent oppose any legal recognition of same-sex relationships at all; and 35 percent oppose same-sex marriage but are willing to support an alternative way of legally recognizing same-sex relationships (domestic partnerships or civil unions) and giving same-sex partners all or some of the rights of married people. Queer political strategists like to refer to that 35 percent as the “movable middle” in hopes that they can be “moved” into broadening their support for recognizing same-gender relationships into an endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Instead, the Queer community’s insistence on using the M-word has moved that “movable middle” solidly into the same camp as the religious Right. Anti-marriage initiatives have passed whether the states which voted for them went “red” or “blue” in the last two presidential elections and whether or not they also contained bans on civil unions or domestic partnerships. In the crucial “battleground state” of Ohio, Republicans used the anti-marriage initiative on the November 2004 ballot to mobilize their voters and help bring about the 60,000-vote majority that kept George W. Bush in the White House.

Despite the wishful thinking of marriage equality advocates, more recent polls suggest that American public opinion is actually hardening against relationship rights for Gay and Lesbian couples. A July 2007 poll from the Pew Research Foundation shows that, after a slight narrowing in 2005 and 2006, opposition to same-sex marriage in the U.S. has grown to 57 percent opposed, 32 percent in favor: the biggest majority against us since the 2004 election. What’s more, the Pew results suggest that the American public is turning against civil unions as well; where clear majorities in their 2005 and 2006 polls favored civil unions (53 to 40 percent in 2005 and 54 to 42 percent in 2006), this year’s result was 46 percent against civil unions and 45 percent in favor: a statistical tie.

The Pew people merely present these results without trying to interpret them, but it seems likely that the uncompromising position taken by the Queer community leadership that domestic partnerships and civil unions are “not enough” — that they’re comparable to the so-called “separate but equal” (in reality, separate and extremely unequal) conditions to which African-Americans were subjected between the 1890’s and 1960’s — and that marriage remains our ultimate goal are souring the American people on granting any rights to Queer couples. Ironically, it’s groups like the California Family Council who are offering a compromise on the issue — we agree that marriage is between a man and a woman, and they agree to leave our domestic partnerships alone — and our side which is rejecting it.

The timing of the California Supreme Court’s case couldn’t be worse for our community. The promoters of the anti-marriage initiatives are shooting for slots on either the June or November 2008 ballot, and the Supreme Court’s decision is expected some time in the spring of 2008. Right now both initiative campaigns are “on hold,” waiting for large donors to kick in the multi-million dollar budgets necessary to hire signature gatherers to get them on the ballot. But if the California Supreme Court rules the way the Massachusetts Supreme Court did — that the California constitution requires the state not only to grant same-sex couples the rights, privileges and responsibilities of marriage but the actual M-word itself — this will galvanize the radical Right into action and either or both anti-marriage initiatives may pass with such sweeping margins Proposition 22 will look close by comparison.

The best thing that could happen would be a court ruling along the lines of the ones in Vermont and New Jersey: the state has to grant comparable rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples seeking them but does not have to call it “marriage.” Then, if the Gail Knight/California Family Council initiative gets on the ballot, most voters will probably yawn because it will merely fix the status quo — marriage for opposite-sex couples and domestic partnerships for same-sex ones — into the California constitution. If the Bowler/Thomasson initiative gets on the ballot, we’ll have the chance to defeat it by presenting it as a mean-spirited attempt to deprive Gay and Lesbian Californians of the not-quite-marriage rights they already have (and Transgender people of the marriage rights they already have).

The irony is that the better we do in the courts, the worse we’re likely to fare at the ballot box. That’s a corner the American Left has painted itself into on issue after issue, notably abortion and reproductive freedom. In counting on the courts to overrule popular opinion in the name of abstract “rights,” we’ve adopted a fundamentally undemocratic strategy whose limitations have come back to haunt us — and, if we continue to close our minds to compromise on the marriage issue, may cost California’s registered domestic partners the rights our community worked so hard for so long to win them.