Monday, March 24, 2008

“Those People”


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s been a month in both national and local politics that shows how screwed up this country and its people still remain on matters of race and sex. New York governor Elliot Spitzer was driven from office in three days — near-warp speed the way these cycles usually go — from the revelation that he was the mysterious “Client 9” who had spent up to $4,300 apiece for at least seven tricks from a shadowy “escort” service called the “Emperors’ Club.”

Republican political operatives, talk-show hosts and the other maniacs of the radical Right thought they’d found the way to do in Barack Obama the way they destroyed Mike Dukakis with Willie Horton and John Kerry with the Swift Boat Veterans for Lies — and it was in the statements of his long-time minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who in his sermons said things like “God damn America … for killing innocent people, God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human,” and that the 9/11 attacks were “America’s chickens … coming home to roost.” (Readers with longer historical memories than most Americans — including most American journalists, apparently — would have recognized the “chickens coming home to roost” line as what Malcolm X said about the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.)

And here in San Diego, veteran community activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez reported in his column in the March 13 Gay & Lesbian Times that a board member of a local nonprofit Queer community organization had said “she feels uncomfortable receiving donations from the Leather community.” Though he didn’t use these words in the column itself, when Murray-Ramirez presented this story at the Leather Titleholder Appreciation Dinner at the Balboa Park Inn March 13, he said that this woman had referred to the Leather community as “those people.”

The fact that those two mean-spirited words are still part of our language — and I’m assuming Murray-Ramirez correctly reproduced the woman’s tone, with that sneering emphasis on the first word — and that a member of one oppressed community can say something so prejudicial and bigoted about another oppressed community shows how far a distance we still have to go to treat each other as truly equal human beings. And the likelihood that that board member’s negative attitude towards Leatherpeople was determined by the kinds of sex they like to have — or at least her fantasies thereof, which are probably considerably more lurid than the reality — shows how far we are as a society from accepting the variety and diversity of sex practices and the legitimacy of anything two or more adults choose to do with each other as long as it remains, in the mantra of the Leather community, “safe, sane and consensual.”

There’s a lot of confusion about whether Leather equates to what’s become known by the cumbersome but evocative acronym “BDSM” — which stands for three things in succession: Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sado-Masochism. Certainly there are people for whom wearing leather garments and sticking various-colored handkerchiefs in their pants pockets are merely fashion statements. Indeed, I’ve heard Leatherpeople express frustration because they’ve approached such people thinking they were dressing that way to signal their sexual preferences — and instead they were just doing it because it looked cool. And no doubt there are plenty of people practicing BDSM who don’t wear leather and don’t feel any need to do so.

But most Queer folk who aren’t part of the Leather community probably do assume Leather = BDSM and react accordingly. Those who are comfortable with their own sexual choices can accept Leatherpeople as individuals and become friends with them whether they’d ever want to have sex with one or not. Those who aren’t, or those who have this annoying human tendency to want to elevate certain sexual lifestyles as “right” and all others as ‘wrong,” start throwing around the judgments. Often they’ll say the words, “I don’t understand … ”, words which in the right context can be the beginning of communication and education, but too often are used with an unspoken subtext of, “ … and I don’t want to understand, and I’ll never bother to make the effort to understand, because I’m just saying ‘I don’t understand’ when I really mean ‘I don’t approve.’”

For a journalist — a good one, anyway — realizing that you don’t understand a particular part of human behavior is a challenge. It makes you want to seek out people who are that, or do that, and start on the path to understanding by asking them to explain it. And it means building understanding not only in yourself (the first step) but in others by writing articles about it and sharing the information you’ve obtained. I couldn’t understand Transgender people — having no doubt about my own gender identity I couldn’t fathom why any man would want to be remodeled into a woman (or vice versa), either through actual surgery or simply by assuming the dress, manner and persona of the other gender — until I started talking to them. I’ve had Transgender people on the cover of this magazine and I think I understand their struggle as well as anyone can who isn’t directly living it.

Likewise with Leatherpeople. I’ve been writing about the Leather community since 2001 and I’ve been involved with a Leather organization, the San Diego League of Gentlemen, since 2004 and there are certain things I still don’t understand. I’ve learned how BDSM works overall and how its practitioners get the satisfactions they seek out of it. I’ve learned about the thrill certain people get from giving up control and letting someone else dominate them in the bedroom, and about the physical basis by which the pain of being spanked, flogged or whipped turns into a very powerful and desirable form of pleasure. I still don’t “get” why a person would voluntarily choose to live as someone else’s “slave” (and the only reason I put that word in quotes is that in the Leather community it means something very different from what it does in the outside world) not only in the bedroom but 24/7.

But the beauty of our common humanity is that I really don’t have to “understand” why other people are the way they are in order to accept them. I don’t have to comprehend fully the trauma of realizing that you “know” you belong to the gender opposite to the one of the body you were born into (the definition of the term “Transgender”) to accept that Transgender people a) have to struggle a great deal over that fact, and b) shouldn’t have to and wouldn’t in a truly just society. I don’t have t understand the appeal of every kinky sex practice (“kinky” being an all-purpose word that in practice usually means “any sort of sex I don’t like or think I ever would like”) I hear about from my friends in the Leather community to accept that they can get pleasure from these activities and will do them in a spirit of mutual responsibility and care.

The degree with which I’ve struggled to understand the most marginalized and misunderstood members of my own Queer community has made me sympathetic to Barack Obama when he’s tried to explain to white America why an African-American minister would make the kinds of statements from the pulpit that have been quoted ad nauseam lately — and why he would sit through the services and listen to comments with which he strongly disagreed.

“The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning,” Obama said. “That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

Many of Obama’s critics on talk radio, Fox News and elsewhere on the Right have said, essentially, “If he disagreed with Rev. Wright, why did he keep going to that church?” It’s an extraordinary statement that says that merely listening to someone else’s message necessarily constitutes approval. It explains why George W. Bush, John McCain and Hillary Clinton can be so angry at Obama’s promise, if he’s elected president, to seek a meeting with the president of Iran. When Bush recently went to Africa, he said he would visit only those countries of whose domestic and foreign policies he approved — as if a visit from an American president were a benediction to be conferred only on the morally “worthy.”

Anybody can talk to people who are basically like themselves and will likely agree with them. It takes guts to reach out to people who are different and who are going to say things likely to make your skin crawl. I’ve made it a personal rule in writing for this paper that if I’m covering a speech and the speaker makes a comment that strikes me as so off-base I want to scream with anger, I make sure that comment is quoted in my article. It’s my way of making sure I am presenting the person’s message fairly and not intentionally or unintentionally editing it to make it more like my own. I think that’s what Barack Obama was doing during a lot of those Sunday mornings in Rev. Wright’s church: taking what genuinely inspired him about the sermons — including that marvelous phrase, “the audacity of hope,” that Obama used as the title of his second book — and probably slinking in his chair and thinking, “Here we go again,” when Rev. Wright went into one of his anti-American tirades.

We make so many assumptions about each other: about what’s the “right” way to look, the “right” way to believe about God (I don’t believe in God at all, and in the U.S. that’s definitely considered “wrong” by the overwhelming majority of the population), the “right” color to be, the “right” people to have sex with and the “right” reasons for doing so. As much as I believe that if my heterosexual friends can have the right to marry the people they care about and want to share their lives with, I should too, I worry that much of the strategy by which the marriage equality issue is being pushed is to try to sell straight America on the idea that we are as narrow in our sexual practices and desires as they are; that we’re all looking for that one other person who can make us happy and that we too dream of turning off any sexual attractions and desires towards anyone else. I fear that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, people in our community who don’t choose to live that ideal — or at least pay lip service to it — will be as ostracized as straight people who choose not to get married are now?

And there are a lot of people — straight as well as Queer — who don’t live that way. At least five 20th century American Presidents — Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton — have been reliably documented as non-monogamous. (There are probably more of them, but those are the ones we know about for sure.) The fact that Elliot Spitzer’s fall was so rapid at least partly reflects his political weakness — long before he turned up on the Emperors’ Club’s client list, The New Yorker had run an article about how his arrogance had largely sabotaged him politically — and it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t have the broad popularity and affection that allowed President Clinton to ride out a similar scandal. But it also showed how narrow-minded we are about sex and how the U.S. in particular remains hamstrung by its Puritan heritage and by taking way too seriously the original Christians’ condemnation of any sort of sex that wasn’t between married heterosexuals and undertaken solely for the purpose of reproduction.

As the one race that matters — the human race — we have a choice. We can continue to be judgmental, prejudicial, hateful. We can continue to maintain bigoted attitudes that within a local community can lead to a board member of an organization turning down contributions that can help her group do its job, and between nations can lead to anything from long, destructive wars and occupations to the mutual annihilation of a nuclear holocaust. Or we can grow to accept each other in all our almost infinite variety of races, religions, genders, sexual desires, abilities — and get over the prejudices and refusals to “understand” that have led us for too long to stigmatize those we don’t like or know, and often don’t like because we don’t know, as “those people.”


Progressive Scientist Takes On Susan Davis for Congress


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

San Diego’s progressives have long had a love-hate relationship with Congressmember Susan Davis. They loved her when she initially ran for Congress in 2000 and unseated three-term Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray from Imperial Beach (who has since carpetbagged to North County to regain a Congressional seat by replacing the corrupt Randy “Duke” Cunningham). They hated her when she provided the deciding vote to grant President Bush so-called “fast-track” authority to negotiate job-killing, environment-destroying “trade” agreements — especially when it turned out she’d taken a $25,000 contribution from executives of Qualcomm, a company that stood to benefit from such agreements, just two weeks before the vote.

The progressives loved her again in October 2002, when she had a rare attack of courage and voted against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq — dodging a mistake John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards had made. Since then, however, she’s been a faithful supporter of war funding, even — as her primary opponent, Mike Copass, explains below — going against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership to vote for the Republicans’ bill to fund the occupation of Iraq for at least three more years without any withdrawal dates, timetables or benchmarks with which to hold the Iraqi government accountable.

A microbiologist by profession, Mike Copass works as a staff member advising on pharmaceutical-industry cases for the plaintiffs’ law firm of Coughlin, Stoia, Geller, Rudman and Robbins downtown. His main argument for replacing Susan Davis is to point out that the 53rd Congressional District encompasses the most progressive parts of San Diego — downtown, uptown, Hillcrest, North Park, City Heights and Ocean Beach — and therefore deserves a representative as progressive as South Bay Congressmember Bob Filner, a consistent opponent of the Iraq war and pro-corporate ‘trade” deals. Copass admits unseating an incumbent in a party primary is an uphill battle, but he points to successes — notably Donna Edwards’ recent primary victory in Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District against eight-term incumbent Al Wynn, who’d alienated voters in a progressive district by voting to authorize and, later, fully fund the Iraq war.

Zenger’s: Just tell me about yourself, your background and how you got here.

Mike Copass: I was born in the Pacific Northwest, in the city of Seattle, in 1969. I am the son of an emergency-room physician, Dr. Michael Copass, who works at Harborview Hospital. It’s King County’s county hospital. The hospital takes in the people the other hospitals refuse to admit because they don’t have insurance. My mother is Lucy, and she’s a long-time League of Women Voters member and a planning commission advocate.

I have an aunt who’s an Episcopal minister, Father Nancy, and some other remarkable aunts and uncles, one of whom is named Mary Ames, who worked many years to bring an end to the Viet Nam conflict. She told me several years ago, “You know how we did it? We lobbied the Appropriations Committee. We got smart. We knew that we had to end the funding for it. If we ended the funding, the occupation and the war would have to end.”

Zenger’s: It sounds like your family is still in Seattle. What brought you to San Diego?

Copass: I came to San Diego in a roundabout fashion. I lived in the Seattle area for the first 18 years, and then I went to Stanford University in the Bay Area. I was very excited about their academic and athletic programs. I’m a distance runner. I ran the mile and two-mile in high school and the 10K in college. I’ve run a 4:18 mile, which is the modest mark. After college I worked in San Francisco for two years. I loved living in the city. I worked as a research assistant in the biochemistry department of Stanford University. I lived on Potrero Hill.

Then I moved to Siena, Italy. I obtained a fellowship to work in the Immunological Research Institute of Siena, It’s abbreviated IRIS, “iris.” After 2 1/2 years in Italy, I applied and was accepted to graduate school at Harvard Medical School. I obtained a Master’s degree from Harvard in microbiology and molecular genetics, where I worked on salmonella. Then, after about 12 years at the bench in academic science, I decided it was time for something completely different. I came to San Diego in mid-2002. In fact, it was September 4, 2002, which is both my birthday and Bob Filner’s birthday.

Zenger’s: September 4? That’s also my birthday.

Copass: Very auspicious. It makes us both Virgos, very keen on details. So I came around on September 4, our mutual birthday. I was asked by an attorney at Coughlin, Stoia if I would be willing to review a number of scientific documents that pertained to a securities-fraud litigation matter, that being my expertise. The attorneys know the law extremely well, but not necessarily the vagaries of clinical drug trials.

Zenger’s: So they get a scientific paper in discovery, and then they have to bring in someone like you to tell them what it means.

Copass: Yes, both the data and the back-and-forth debate on the statistical analysis. I began statistical work as a consultant to this plaintiffs’ firm, and then I’ve stayed on.

Zenger’s: What made you decide to run for Congress?

Copass: Having begun paying extremely close attention immediately before and after the 2004 election, I saw that our nation, literally our republic, is in for troubled times. I wanted to do everything I could in my power as a citizen to work make it better. At first I worked outside electoral politics, as a volunteer for Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) as a point person for the 53rd Congressional District. My job was to communicate with the PDA members in the 53rd about what their concerns were, and bring them to the attention of their Congressional representative, Susan Davis.

The major concerns were impeachment, impeachment, out of Iraq, impeachment, out of Iraq, and government according to the Constitution. I brought those to a meeting with Susan Davis and her staff, and we had an opportunity to discuss the pending legislation, H.R. 508. This was a bill by Congressmember Lynn Woolsey called “Bring the Troops Home: Restoration of Iraqi Sovereignty.” It’s called H.R. 508. It’s still in committee. I think it’s actually gone to Susan Davis’s House Armed Services Committee.

We were upset that Rep. Davis refused to support H.R. 508 and she also refused to move on impeachment, or on investigations that would lead to impeachment, of an executive branch that has clearly run amok. I realized that Rep. Davis was not going to take action on issues that were very important to the progressive community that I represented.

Many people had asked me to consider running for the office. My first thought was, “Good God! Who am I to run for office, a scientist working for a law firm? I’m an advocate, happy to be a lobbyist.” I had a profound conversion last fall, and I agreed to take on running for the office to serve as a progressive voice, a progressive representative in a California district that by any measure of the term is quite on the progressive side. We’re talking about Ocean Beach, downtown, uptown, Hillcrest, University Heights, the beaches. This is the progressive stronghold of San Diego County.

Zenger’s: You described it as a “conversion.” What exactly happened on your road to Damascus?

Copass: I thought, in 25 to 30 years from now when I’ve got children, and grandchildren bouncing around on my knee, they’re going to want to know the story of the crisis that the American republican system of government went through in the early 2000’s. And, however the story turns out, they’re going to want to know from their dad or their uncle Mike, what did I do? When the time was called for all good men to come to the aid of their country, what did I do? And I don’t want my account to be found lacking. I have the opportunity and the ability to make a difference.

Zenger’s: I’ve been covering Susan Davis for years, and I was impressed with her with her during her days in the state legislature, when she really seemed to be a committed progressive voice. I was extremely disappointed when she cast the deciding vote to give President Bush fast-track authority on trade deals, and did that two weeks after receiving a $25,000 contribution from Qualcomm. Then she voted against authorizing the war in Iraq, and I liked her again.

Copass: Yes, you had to. It was a Paul Wellstone moment, October 2002. But what has happened since then? There’s been the Peru CAFTA vote, which has really made labor unhappy. I want to be completely honest: I think that these supranational trade agreements , whether made by bodies such as the World Trade Organization or negotiated between countries like NAFTA, are by and large a terrible idea. They benefit a very narrow elite of our population. We’re told that they will bring some kind of magical benefit. We’ll all become knowledge workers because our manufacturing jobs will now be done overseas.

But the record shows that they have these horrible unintended consequences — at least I’d like to think they were unintended — such as the NAFTA-permitted dumping of U.S. corn, a subsidized product, on Mexican markets. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Until you consider that the Central Americans who grow corn for their living — it’s maize; they’ve been growing it for thousands of years — now they can’t earn a living as farmers. They can’t compete with a subsidized product, sold on their markets at below-cost, below-market levels.

So they lose their land, and who knows who picks it up — the Mexican subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland, probably. They make their way to Mexico’s cities to join the ranks of the urban poor. And at some point, when they get desperate enough, they become undocumented immigrants and come here. We here in the border regions are the first to feel the blowback from these disastrous trade deals.

You can’t say they’re to the detriment of all. They’re to the emolument and enrichment of a narrow segment of folks who sit on the boards of the corporations, that hold the stock options, that have the most to gain. But from the human perspective, these trade agreements cause increased hardship, misery and suffering. Which is why you see them so fiercely opposed. Not to mention the loss of solid manufacturing-sector jobs, union jobs, here in this region, in San Diego, and across the country, to places that don’t enforce labor standards. This is very troubling, and I think a reason why the organized labor movement is very opposed to things like the fast-tracking of trade deals.

You had an issue with Susan Davis on the fast-tracking on those bills, and then she won you back with a vote against the force authorization in October 2002. Since then, there’s been a troubling pattern of consistent votes for the funding of the Iraq occupation. I specify “occupation” and not “war” because the part you could rightly call a “war” began March 19, 2003 and was over officially when George Bush landed on the aircraft carrier — the U.S.S. Lincoln — parked conveniently off of San Diego, and announced an end to major combat operations in front of a banner saying, “Mission Accomplished.”

At that point the war was over., The U.S. military in its awe-inspiring might — and it is an awesome force — had accomplished nearly all the objectives it had been asked to do under the mandate. There was no stipulation that the U.S. military remain indefinitely, or until Iraq had established a representative democracy that was, of course, going to make the “right” decisions vis-à-vis what we wanted, pass the Iraq hydrocarbons law. None of this was in the charter.

The troops should be saluted for having done an incredibly excellent job under duress. They completed their jobs and should be welcomed home. When Susan Davis voted consistently to fund the continued occupation — and, really, to extend the occupation — this becomes very troubling to myself and the entire progressive Democratic community. In May 2007, not long after the 110th Congress — the first Democratic-controlled Congress in 12 years — was sworn in, a bill came to the floor that George Bush and Dick Cheney and the GOP faction of the House wanted, which was open-ended, no withdrawal date, $100 billion for the continued occupation.

This isn’t just a few big coins stuck in the meter that keeps the occupation going for a few months. This is a three-year procurement cycle for weapons, for replacement parts, for everything that gets bidded out by the Pentagon. The Bush administration made it look like if it didn’t pass, the troops in Iraq wouldn’t have ammunition, armor, supplies or even food and water — but that wasn’t what the bill said. The bill said the actual material wouldn’t even start arriving for 16 to 18 months. So with that funding bill, you’re making a long-term commitment to this occupation. You’re going into a relationship with it. Three years.

When I saw that Susan Davis had voted yes to this funding bill, along with Brian Bilbray and Duncan Hunter, I became deeply disturbed. Susan Davis had crossed party lines. She had gone against the wishes of Nancy Pelosi and the House majority leadership to vote for this war funding bill. Had all the Democrats in the House voted against it, the bill would have failed. There were enough Democrats who defected that the war funding bill passed, and Susan Davis was among them.

Zenger’s: What other issues do you think that Susan Davis have failed on, in terms of the priorities of the progressive community?

Copass: To be fair, I don’t want to compartmentalize the issue of war apart from the others, because ending the occupation, ending the disastrous open-ended funding that’s the giant sucking sound of hundreds of billions of dollars, directly affects, impacts, just about every other issue of government.

Under that umbrella of failure, the subheadings are a lack of government according to the United States Constitution, particularly regarding the accountability of public officials. We believe that authority should never be granted without accountability. Authority without accountability is essentially a dictatorship, if you will. And when in the face of so many weil-enumerated, well-described crimes against the Constitution, from deception and fraud that took a country to war — a war of aggression — to the circumvention of the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Services Act] court; the surveillance of U.S. citizens perpetrated by Bush/Cheney and the Department of Justice; the signing statements that are essentially line-item vetoes deciding what parts of Congress’s laws he will and won’t enforce: all of these are grounds for impeachment.

What is the purpose of having a Congress if, after a month of their careful deliberation and consulting and crafting a bill and compromise, if the President says, “This part I will enforce. This part I don’t agree with, so I’m not going to.” At that point, either Congress has to say, “We’re just a rubber stamp,” and admit it; or we might as well pack up our bags and go home, and accept that we have a dictatorial system.

Zenger’s: Oh, come on, Mike. You know perfectly well that, at this point in our history, there’s only one ground for impeachment, and that is sex. As long as Bush isn’t caught having an affair with a White House aide, or paying an insane amount of money for a prostitute, he’s home free.

Copass: I’m glad you brought that up, because I was getting a little dizzy on the soapbox. But you have a point there. In a patriarchal sense, in the strict-father morality that [UC Berkeley professor of cognitive science] George Lakoff talks about, lack of self-restraint in committing acts of sexual lust or deviance, or giving into the sins of the flesh, represents something really bad because you lack self-restraint. You’re not a good strict-father figure, etc. However, these other issues, such as massacre of innocent people abroad; targeting civilian infrastructure — since no sex is involved, that’s not an issue.

My point is that the failure to start impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is a failure to hold them accountable for their violations of the U.S. Constitution. Susan Davis was very frank: she sent the same letter to just about everyone, the thousands of people who asked her to support impeachment, either in general or specifically to support Dennis Kucinich’s bill for the impeachment of Cheney.

The letter I got from Representative Davis to my e-mail plea was that there are other ways to hold the administration accountable; she would be asking the hard questions, particularly as a member of the House Armed Services Committee; that she thought impeachment would be a waste of the taxpayers’ money — although I don’t know that it really costs very much — and that it would distract from the important business at hand in Congress: making strides on health care, education, and fighting global warming.

I stopped for a second, kind of dumbfounded, and then I looked through the Congressional Record. Even if you could justify some sort of horse-trading — “Well, we’re not going to impeach, but we just got single-payer health care, a minimum wage increase to $20 an hour, and we’ve signed the Kyoto Protocol” — well, that would be a start. But, Mark, nothing had happened. There was no important legislation that was being addressed. There was simply a refusal to do what was potentially the unpleasant thing, which was to begin investigations that might lead to impeachment.

As unpalatable or unpleasant as beginning investigations towards impeachment might be, and the conflict it might bring about, and the bad press and all that, it’s an obligation. The Constitution talks about impeachment in six different places. The founders of this country, the framers of the Constitution, knew damned well that there could be a tendency in the executive branch to overstep its authority, to arrogate power to itself, to defy the legislative branch; and the legislative and judicial branches had to have recourse. And it was impeachment.

Zenger’s: In fact, I read one commentator recently who said that Bush’s term has vastly increased the power of the presidency, and it’s perfectly obvious that President Clinton or President Obama or President McCain will take full advantage of that. It’s just human nature.

Copass: Yes, I’m glad you brought that up.. In fact, I’ve got a very conservative brother-in-law. He’s a former Marine. He’s a very good guy. I like him. He’s O.K. with the Bush-Cheney presidency having the power to go after the bad guys by harvesting all of our voice data, phone, e-mail communications, with the full collaboration of the telecoms, because the president needs to find the bad guys. Well, as I put as a what-if to him, “You know, you’re not worried now that that power may be abused for political ends, but when President Hillary Clinton is in power, tell me you wouldn’t be worried about her office, about her Department of Justice, abusing this incredible power to track political opposition. History tells us that, given this power, it’s always been abused towards political ends.” He stopped for a moment, he thought about it, and he didn’t look too happy. I think even my conservative brother-in-law gets it, that extending incredible powers to an unaccountable branch of government isn’t a good idea.

Drilling down to the more specific issues that are concerns to the progressive community, we care a lot about standards of education We care deeply about health care, and PDA, a group that I’m a member of, has just launched a “Health Care, Not Warfare” campaign. It’s very clean, very elegant. You couldn’t see it any better. John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich have been very vocal advocates of a universal single-payer health-care plan, to extend at least at a minimum skeletal coverage to all Americans. We have 47 million uninsured, and an equal number, if not more, of what you might call “underinsured.” And this isn’t a cost savings. When my dad works at the emergency room, when you’re only treated when there is a crisis, when you’re going into a diabetic coma, rather than having preventive care, the treatment at crisis moment only is no cost savings. This is, in fact, an enormous cost that is passed on to the taxpayer at the local, the county and the state level.

I believe fundamentally that access to health care is a right. Didn’t they tell us in the Declaration of Independence that we had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Well, you can’t get very far with those without a modest degree of health and wellness. So Rep. Davis’s lack of action on health care, especially her refusal to co-sponsor H.R. 676 — the Conyers health-care bill — was a major issue.

I think it would be unfair not to bring up some of the things I think Susan Davis has done well. Susan Davis has been strong on humane treatment of animals, and I think in general has shown an openness, tolerance and support for the entire community, extending to the LGBT [Queer] community. She marched in the Pride Parade, waved the right flag. So in general a lot of Davis’s support has come from that base in Hillcrest, the LGBT community, and I think that’s something that’s to Susan’s credit. But even with the sort of long-term backing of the Gay/Lesbian community, there are troubling votes in Susan’s record. There was a vote recently to extend the nondiscrimination provisions of federal civil rights legislation to Gay and Transgender people, and it was troubling that Rep. Davis went along with the “compromise” by which the Lesbian/Gay aspect was retained in extending the nondiscrimination provisions but the Transgender was clipped off,

On a human level, I was deeply saddened. As you might have noticed so far, I’m very obviously not Transgender or Transsexual — or else I’m a very convincing post-op — but I thought, that the people who are most marginalized, who suffer the most discrimination because they’re not understood, they’re thought of as weird, freakish or what have you, and they make people uncomfortable: they’re human beings, damnit. To me, the Transgender, the “T” part of the equation, was the most fundamental part to protect. Once you clip off the “T” and extend protections to the Lesbian and Gay side, who’s going to row back to the island and rescue the Transgender community? There will never be anyone who will stand with them.

Another reason I’m running for Congress is that we need to have a viable, economically sound energy and water security plan for this region. The numbers are absolutely frightening. We import 90 percent-plus of our water and 98 percent of our energy. So this puts San Diego in a tenuous circumstance — and I’m not just talking about its future growth, but its very existence. You remember the blackouts and the Enron debacle, and when you’re so easily held hostage — 98 percent of your energy, 98 percent of your fresh water — I think it’s irresponsible for the region as a whole not to come up with a long-term energy and water security plan.

Zenger’s: Realistically, how much of a chance do you think you have? And in particular, are any of the groups, like and others that have supported progressive challengers against incumbent Democrats in Congress, interested in you?

Copass: I think that I have an excellent chance in this election. I wouldn’t say I’m the current favorite. They say it’s very, very difficult to challenge incumbents. I love a challenge. I’m a distance runner. I love getting to the front and putting my toe on the line. I love competing.

Wbat’s happening right now is very interesting. There’s been a major shift. People are unhappy with incumbents they feel have failed to do what they asked them to do: their job. Donna Edwards in Maryland, supported by a number of progressive groups — particularly Progressive Democrats of America — soundly trounced Al Wynn, who I think was an eight-term incumbent, in Maryland District 4. I have the backing and now the endorsement of the local PDA chapter, and I’m beginning to get that buzz.

People have been calling me out of the woodwork, saying, “I saw that you filed. I’m really glad that you’re running, that you’re challenging Susan Davis.” I don’t believe there’s ever been a Democratic primary challenger to Susan Davis in any of her four terms. And the model is out there. Donna Edwards, the outsider who never held political office before, beat the incumbent, and beat an incumbent who was able to call in a lot of corporate favors and money. So yes, I plan to be the Donna Edwards of San Diego.

Cygnet Offers Champagne-Like Night Music in Old Town


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO" Trevor Hollingsworth as the shirtless Frid and Melissa Fernandes as Petra the maid in Cygnet Theatre’s A Little Night Music. (Photo: Randy Rovang.)

The custom when christening a new ship is to break a bottle of champagne across its bow before it slides off the gangway into the water. To christen its tenancy at the Old Town Theatre, the Cygnet company has offered a similarly effervescent show — Stephen Sondheim’s and Hugh Wheeler’s classic musical A Little Night Music — and done it in a sparkling, bubbly production that does special credit to Sean Murray, who in addition to being Cygnet’s co-founder and artistic director also directs this production and plays the male lead.

The show began life in 1955 as Smiles on a Summer Night, a film by legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman — who forsook his usual angst-ridden meditations on faith and its discontents to show he could do a comedy, albeit a relatively deep character comedy with real emotion. In addition to the musical, for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics and Wheeler did the book, Woody Allen made a combined tribute and spoof called A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. A Little Night Music generated what is probably Sondheim’s most popular song (as a composer, anyway; before he started writing music he was the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Jule Styne’s Gypsy), “Send in the Clowns,” but the rest of Night Music’s score is unfamiliar because it’s so tied to the plot action the songs probably wouldn’t make much sense performed on their own.

A Little Night Music is a comic romp through such knotty issues as sex, morality and age. Attorney Fredrik Egerman (Sean Murray) has married a much younger woman, Anne (Courtney Evans), but hasn’t been able to consummate the relationship even though they’ve been together as husband and wife for nearly a year. (They even sing a nicely witty duet, “Soon,” about their mutual sexual frustration.) Part of the problem is that the man Anne is really in love with is her stepson Henrik (Sean Cox), who’s studying for the ministry, constantly has his nose in a book by Martin Luther, and is responding to his burgeoning sexuality by alternately trying to wish it away and throwing himself at the Egermans’ maid, Petra (Melissa Fernandes).

The other part of the problem is that Fredrik still pines for the sexually licentious actress Desirée Arnfeldt (Marci Anne Wuebben), daughter of a dowager (Sandra-Ellis Troy) who got a house in the country from the fortunes she accumulated from her own run of affluent boyfriends — if any cabaret singer wants to do a song from this show other than “Send In the Clowns,” Madame Arnfeldt’s marvelously witty confession “Liaisons” would be the best choice. Desirée is still playing Shakespeare’s star-crossed teenage lover Juliet even though she’s old enough to have a teenage daughter (Nicki Elledge) of her own, and though she tells us she’s had sex with so many men she has no idea who the father is, the fact that she’s named her “Frederika” drops a sixteen-ton hint.

At the moment, Desirée is having an affair with a stuck-up military officer named Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Randall Dodge), whose manner is as imperious as his name, and though he’s married to Countess Charlotte (Sandy Campbell) he’s still fiercely possessive of Desirée as well. All the characters get invited to Madame Arnfeldt’s summer home for the second act, where they sing a whimsical song called “The Sun Won’t Set” (a reference to the fact that Sweden is so far north that at the height of summer daytime is about 18 to 20 hours long) and Charlotte hatches a plot to win back her husband by vamping Fredrik herself. There are also Desirée’s entourage and Madame Arnfeldt’s hot-looking young servant and caregiver, Frid (Trevor Hollingsworth), who really doesn’t have much to do in the story but gets to go shirtless through most of the second act — and yes, the straight women and Gay men in the audience will have a lot of fun looking at him that way.

Cygnet’s production has its usual hallmarks: strong casting top to bottom, an effective physical set that frames the action without either being overly literal or leaving too much to our imaginations, and appropriately busy direction by Murray that keeps the actors in such constant motion that their rare moments of repose (especially when they have to sing) have a sort of negative power all their own. Sondheim began his score with a series of wordless vocalises from his cast members that resolve into a song called “Night Waltz,” and if nothing else this tough opening number gives the cast members a chance to let us know there isn’t a weak voice in the bunch.

It’s a testament to the overall vocal excellence of the cast that no one singer stands out, either, though inevitably Wuebben gets noticed more than anyone else because she has the show’s biggest song. She does “Send In the Clowns” in a halting, rather broken style that has Sondheim’s sanction (he’s said in interviews that since the singer is portraying an aging character, she shouldn’t worry about pausing for breath in the middle of a line), but I still think the song works better the long-breathed way the late jazz singer Sarah Vaughan did it, and Wuebben almost certainly has the vocal chops to pull it off in that style if either she or her director permitted. I would like to hear more people who do “Clowns” out of context add the delightful — and rarely heard — lyrics of its reprise at the end.

The singers perform to a pre-recorded backing conducted by Don LeMaster, who’s had experience conducting “live” orchestra for shows at Moonlight Stage Productions and Performance Riverside and will be doing the same for the new San Diego Musical Theatre. Recorded backings have an obvious downside — the singers are essentially chained to the tempi originally set for them by the tapes and they and their conductor can’t vary the speed and phrasing of a number according to how they feel and how the audience responds during a particular performance — but the obvious plus is at least we get to hear the full orchestration. We’re not stuck with a piano reduction the way we are at some smaller theatres that attempt musicals (though some musicals written for small-theatre production, like the Queer-themed 10 Percent Revue Diversionary Theatre produced a few years ago, solve the problem by incorporating the pianist as a character in the script).

The set by Sean Fanning — a large screen with a forest of artificial trees behind it — works to set the mood and give lighting designer Matthew Novotny an appropriate canvas on which to work his magic. A few simple props by Bonnie L. Durben (mostly a dummy piano and a series of beds, couches and whatnot for the characters to recline and make love on) give the actors enough to work with without filling the stage with clutter. About the only glitch in the physical production occurs when we see Desirée playing the final scene of Romeo and Juliet — and Novotny turns on a set of footlights and points them at us to represent a view of her from the back of the stage (hers, not ours). Only Fanning’s trees are still visible through the screen, suggesting either that the members of her audience are hiding amongst the trees or the trees are her audience.

Overall, Cygnet’s A Little Night Music is the theatrical equivalent of champagne: sophisticated but with enough jokes (including a few pretty lowbrow ones) that can make just about anybody laugh; light and frothy but still inducing a mood of sustained merriment. Kudos go not only to Sondheim and Wheeler (and Ingmar Bergman!) for creating it in the first place but to Cygnet’s formidable cast of singing actors for bringing the characters to rich, vivid life and their technical crew for framing the actors’ performances beautifully and lovingly. But the loudest shout-out goes to Sean Murray, who not only steers this company from triumph to triumph but in this production is a triple-threat producer, director and star — and equally adept at all three.

A Little Night Music plays through Sunday, May 4 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town. A Cygnet Theatre presentation. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Prices are $28 to $33 Thursday and Sunday evenings, $30 to $35 Friday evenings and Sunday matinees, and $32 to $37 Saturday evenings. For reservations, orders or information, visit Cygnet Theatre at 6663 El Cajon Blv’d., Suite N in the College/Rolando area , phone (619) 3370-1525 or visit online at

Sidney McFadden Wins Mr. San Diego Leather


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“There are two words in the English language that are often used, but have no meaning unless they come from the heart, and they are, ‘Thank you,’” said Sidney McFadden at the 2008 Mr. Leather San Diego contest pageant at Rich’s dance bar in Hillcrest March 15. “Thank you to this community, thank you to the judges, thank you for everyone who’s come in here today and joined us.”

Shortly thereafter, McFadden had even more to thank the judges for when he was awarded the 2008 Mr. San Diego Leather title over three other aspirants, all of whom had made strong presentations in the public-speaking portion of the contest. McFadden became San Diego’s second African-American Mr. Leather in a row, taking over the title from 2007 Mr. Leather winner Lee Butler.

Runner-up Rob Donati turned his speech into a personal confession of his past. “I began using recreational drugs in 2000. A friend of mine who wanted a relationship supplied me with them for free. As a dancer, they kept me alert and helped me get into the music. I convinced myself that I needed them. I soon realized that I was using them to escape the loneliness and failed relationships, and the fear and despair of turning HIV-positive. I had a lot of fun, and I had a lot of sex. I don’t remember with whom or when.”

Donati said he recovered on his own, “through self-discipline. I started getting high by running and working out, and the body that you see before you is the result of that.” He said he wasn’t aware of Stepping Stone San Diego, a recovery program that specifically targets the San Diego Queer community, which was one of the two financial beneficiaries of this year’s Leather Pride Events. (The Leather History Project was the other.) Donati said he wanted his story to let everyone who heard it “know that you can do it too, and I can help you, and that will strengthen my position in remaining drug-free.”

Another contestant, Gus Thompson, was less personal but touched on similar themes: drugs, sex, STD’s and the need to protect young people against their dangers. “I stand before you tonight as a Leatherman very concerned about the young people in our community between 19 and 25, who are increasingly becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and STD’s,” he said. “What is their future going to be? We know what the past was like, but they don’t. They didn’t live it; we did. … Join with me, and let’s start a trend towards a brighter future, because it is in the young that our history will be prolonged.”

The fourth Mr. San Diego Leather candidate, “Mr. Mike” Little, addressed concerns over the Internet. Acknowledging that, “Used with thought and consideration, the Internet can be one of the most productive tools we have for bringing people together and disseminating information in our community,” Little said, “The Internet is also one of the most destructive and dangerous tools to our community.”

It soon became clear that Little wasn’t talking about the usual concerns people in sex-defined communities have about Internet cruising — the possibility of meeting rapists, sexual predators or people with STD’s — but the effect the Internet is having on people’s willingness or interest in getting together physically at events like the Mr. Leather contest. “Bars and venues are struggling,” Little said. “Contests like this are seeing fewer and fewer contestants, before smaller and smaller audiences.”

According to Little, the essence of community is “the meeting, the gathering, the sharing together, the spirit, the heart and the energy: that can only come about when people congregate in groups and get to know each other in person, not online. “Step away from the screen,” Little said; “ step away from the cell phone screen, the computer screen, and your television screen. If you think something can be done better in this community, get out there and do it. If you have a problem with somebody, seek them out and work it out, or get over it and move on.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Gore Vidal Highlights Anti-War Rally March 15

400 People Attend Protest on Fifth Anniversary of U.S. Invasion


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Gore Vidal with Floyd Morrow, Nadia Keilani, Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, Kenyon Ralph

The scene for this year’s annual commemoration and protest of the U.S. war against Iraq — now in its fifth year with, as the title of a documentary film about it said, “no end in sight” — was different. Instead of holding the March 15 rally in Balboa Park, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice decided to stage it in City Heights, marching from Fairmount and University to the dusty vest-pocket Teralta Park on 40th and Orange. They also got a celebrity speaker, octogenarian author and social critic Gore Vidal, though little of the promotional material mentioned his name. The event attracted 400 people — about the same number as in previous years — but the crowd, though small, was lively, spirited and committed.

Vidal, who uses a wheelchair and had to be helped onto the stage by former San Diego City Councilmember and current mayoral candidate Floyd Morrow, called President Bush “as low as we’ve ever fallen” in a chief executive. “Harding just had friends who stole money — and all of us have had friends who stole money. I don’t know if we’ll get Bush out in 2008. The Republicans will pull out all stops, fix all the voting machines, and if you’re voting for the Democrat, your vote won’t be counted.”

In a short and rather rambling presentation, Vidal recalled his last visit to San Diego in 1982 — when he was running for the U.S. Senate in a Democratic primary against then-outgoing governor Jerry Brown (who defeated him but then lost the general election to the Republican, former San Diego mayor Pete Wilson). He remembered that Floyd Morrow had introduced him on that occasion, too, and thanked Morrow for having been the only Democratic county chair who had endorsed him over Brown in that race.

Vidal said that in 1982 “I had no feeling … that we’d ever have something like the Bush administration,” and said he could be happy with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as Bush’s replacement. “I see Hillary and Obama as two halves of the President we might have had,” he said. “I’m a lifelong Democrat, and the system is doing better than we have a right to expect. Yes, there’s the governor of New York” — a reference to the sex scandal that had just driven Elliot Spitzer from office — “but there are always governors of New York.”

Despite his earlier skepticism that the Republicans would actually allow themselves to be voted out of office, later on Vidal said that “there’s going to be a real housecleaning” in public office. “We’ve had too many creeps, including the Congressman you had with all the yachts” — a reference to Randy “Duke” Cunningham, forced from office and into prison for accepting bribes from defense contractors. “Each of us bears responsibility for Bush,” Vidal said, adding that when he lived in Italy (in a villa in a remote village until his disabilities forced him to move and he returned to the U.S.) “I had to explain that we Americans aren’t as dumb as we look.”

Vidal briefly recalled his famous 1960’s feud with conservative author and editor William F. Buckley and told a grim joke about Buckley finding himself in hell — taking satisfaction in having outlived his one-time rival. He abruptly finished his speech with an odd joke: “There are a lot of retired people living here, and I think I’ll join them.”

After Vidal spoke, poet Olga Garcia Etcheverria read in both Spanish and English, and she in turn was followed by Nadia Keilani of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. The fiery Keilani was far less hopeful about the American political process than Vidal had been. She said that both Democrats and Republicans “tiptoe around the issue” of Iraq “and refuse to say that the war has been a failure.”

In a series of grim statistics, Keilani documented just what a failure it has been and how much worse off the Iraqi people are today than they were under Saddam Hussein. “Since the invasion, the number of Iraqi children facing starvation has surged from 4 percent to 8 percent,” she said. “When we invaded, 25 percent of Iraqis were unemployed; now it’s 70 percent. Before the invasion, 50 percent of Iraqis lacked clean drinking water; now it’s 70 percent. Five years ago, Iraqis had continuous access to electricity; now they have one to two hours a day. Three years ago, 65 percent of Iraqis wanted the U.S. out; now it’s 78 percent. Those who thought this administration was too incompetent to accomplish anything were wrong. It has accomplished the complete destruction of Iraq and the bankruptcy of the U.S.”

Noting that the mainstream U.S. media — which served as cheerleaders for the administration during the run-up to the war and parroted Bush’s lies about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda — is now saying that “the surge is working,” Keilani said, “Any temporary decrease in violence in Iraq has had less to do with the 20,000 additional troops and more to do with the $10 per day the Bush administration is paying Iraqis not to resist. This war is the largest armed robbery in history. It has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein, democracy or anything good and noble. It has to do with enriching large multinational corporations. It is time for the war to end, and for the people of Iraq and Palestine to live in freedom and dignity.”

The March 15 action in San Diego was part of a national mobilization called “Health Care, Not Warfare,” and Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, a family doctor from Ocean Beach and an activist with Physicians for a National Health Program, was brought on to make that connection. “We’re here to memorialize the beginning sixth year of this war,” said Dr. Gordon. “There are soon to be 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed in action, whose flag-draped coffins have been deliberately hidden from our sight. Second is the continued suffering and ongoing burden of the 30,000 men and women who have been wounded in that war [and are] floundering in the under-resources V.A. system. And third is the uncounted casualties the government keeps off the roster because they were not ‘combat-related.’”

Most of Dr. Gordon’s speech was a broad-based attack on President Bush, not only over the war in Iraq but just about everything he’s done in office. “King George has spent eight years spreading poverty, illness, suffering and pain across the country,” he said. “We have an evolving economic crisis. Our country is economically broken. The gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. is greater than at any time in our history. After paying inflated prices for gas and food, only the wealthy will be able to pay the insurance premiums and co-payments needed to access health care.” Dr. Gordon cited the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — “bloated bodies in the water and continued civil chaos in Louisiana” — and said, “King George let the city atrophy and brought a part of our nation to Third World squalor.”

Among the points of Dr. Gordon’s indictment of the Bush administration were his “crass promotion for creationism,” his opposition to funding most stem-cell research, and the suppression of scientists within the administration whose conclusions on global warming and environmental issues ran against Bush’s ideology. Dr. Gordon said that Bush’s policies on science have been so devastating that “the former dean of UCSD Medical School has moved to Singapore to continue his research.” Dr. Gordon also said, referencing the scandal over tainted doses of heparin made in China that have already killed over 30 Americans, that “the power of the drug companies has made me, as a physician, unsure of the health and safety of the medications I prescribe to you and the reliability of the research I read.”

But Dr. Gordon’s strongest and most personal attack on Bush was over his opposition to expanding access to health care. “Year after year, Bush’s economic advisers have compared health insurance to car insurance, and pretended that common preventive services are like trips to the car wash and shouldn’t be covered by insurance,” he said. “His economic advisers ignore all evidence from 30 years of failure to promote the ideologies of private, for-profit medicine, and they try to trash effective government programs. The corporate, for-profit health insurance industry skims $500 billion a year out of health insurance premiums for their own administration and profit, a sum of money which is equal to the annual budget of the Pentagon without the costs of the war, and is enough to pay for health care for all 47 million Americans who don’t already have it — a number that has gone up by 7 million since Bush entered office.”

Dr. Gordon attacked Bush for his veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) reauthorization — which was at least partly motivated by Bush’s fear that people eligible for SCHIP would dump their expensive, inefficient, high-deductible private health plans for cheaper, broader public alternatives . He noted that even an establishment health organization like the American Cancer Society has come out for a single-payer system, which would leave medical care in private hands but replace the for-profit health-insurance industry with a publicly run program, because they realize that ‘the best way to improve cancer survival rates these days is universal health insurance, not more research.”

Kenyon Ralph, president of the San Diego chapter of Iraqi Veterans Against the War, came up briefly to discuss the national organization’s Winter Soldier Investigation (named after the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War’s public conferences in the early 1970’s), in which veterans of the current war and others who have served in the military since 9/11 will speak publicly about the experiences. These programs, Ralph said, “show that we’re taking responsibility for what’s happening even though the Bush administration isn’t.”

“We may be small, but we have numbers and power,” said Maria Cortez, local activist with the City Heights Town Council. “We were lied to, never told the truth, to get us into a war we shouldn’t have been in. We’re not against the troops. We’re against what we were told we were going to war for.”

Larry Townsend Speaks to San Diego Leather Pride

“Father of Gay Leather” Makes Rare Public Appearance


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The event was scheduled as a “Titleholder’s Appreciation Dinner” to pay tribute to Lee Butler, Mr. San Diego Leather 2007, two days before he passed on his title — but the star attraction was Larry Townsend, author of The Leatherman’s Handbook and nearly 40 erotic novels over a career spanning nearly five decades. Townsend almost never makes public appearances anymore, but his long-time friend, Mr. San Diego Leather co-producer Graylin Thornton, managed to score him for this event.

Townsend was introduced by local Leatherman John “Roadkill” McConnell, who provided such a detailed account of Townsend’s career that Townsend interrupted him and said McConnell was giving his whole speech and leaving him nothing to say. McConnell joked about how Townsend must have felt when “at a certain point in your life when you were thrust in the role of Ann Landers of Leather,” through the column he’s written for years in magazines like Drummer and Honcho. He also noted that Townsend was active in the Queer community even before the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots that supposedly started the Queer liberation movement, especially through the organization HELP, Inc., which provided legal services for Queer people in need.

“He’s helped many men deal with their Leather issues, and supported and given hope to many men over the years,” McConnell said of Townsend. “His personal story has touched the lives of many men over the years. The mainstream Gay/Lesbian movement likes to ignore that many Leathermen were at the forefront of the Gay movement — before we all became car dealers.”

“Graylin said I was supposed to give a long, boring speech, and everyone else has done it,” Townsend said — so he decided to keep his remarks short and take audience questions. He complimented the organizers of San Diego Leather Pride for making Stepping Stone of San Diego, which runs residential and outpatient programs for Queers with substance abuse problems, one of the two beneficiaries of this year’s events. (The Leather History Project, which documents the lives of past San Diego Leatherpeople, was the other.)

“I look at the community, and what I see with these young guys scares me,” Townsend said. “I hope you let them know, because I’ve watched too many guys die.” Asked later on to elaborate, Townsend said he thought older men in the community have an obligation to “work with [younger men] and try to convince them they’re not immortal. One day they have AIDS or are using crystal, which is almost as bad. People try to pull me into [drug scenes], and I’m afraid of losing control. I don’t use drugs and I don’t drink more than two drinks a night,” he added — offering his own self-control as an example for young people. He boasted that in the 27 years he’s written his Leather column, he’s always had two consistent pieces of advice: “no drugs, and no glass in the dungeon.” (The latter, he explained, is because glass can break and cut open people’s bare feet; if you bring a beer into a Leather dungeon, he said, it should be in a can, not a bottle.)

“In some ways, what I experienced going into the Leather community was a microcosm,” Townsend said. He began his writing career in the early 1960’s, doing porn for the Greenleaf Press here in San Diego. (Ed Wood, the infamously inept film director played b Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie, also wrote for Greenleaf at the time.) “I did 13 books for them, and then Olympia Press asked for me,” Townsend explained. Olympia Press had begun in Paris as a publisher of erotic fiction, including major works by D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov (they were the first firm to print Lolita) and Jean Genêt, who wrote straight porn for them under a woman’s pseudonym as well as the works he’s famous for under his own name.

According to Townsend, by the time he connected with Olympia the firm’s founder had died and left it to his son, Maurice Girodias — “a terrible businessman” — who had responded to a crackdown on porn by conservative French president Charles De Gaulle by moving the operation to New York. Olympia published Townsend’s pioneering novel Run, Little Leatherboy as well as the first edition of The Leatherman’s Handbook — and Townsend proudly displayed copies of that edition and other early printings of his works.

Olympia also published a book by Townsend called The Sexual Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which he combed through the original Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for clues as to Holmes’ sexuality and “just twisted it around,” he said. Townsend said it was the first book of his that got serious reviews from critics — who attacked him for allegedly making up a sex life for Holmes that wasn’t true to the character Conan Doyle created. In fact, Townsend said, he had stuck so closely to the original stories that “they were really attacking what Conan Doyle wrote.”

The experience gave Townsend a negative view of critics, which he still has. “I used to go to the Santa Fe Opera, and I’d think the performances were wonderful,” he said. “Then I’d read the critics and they’d say how awful it was.”

Asked what he thought the future of the Leather community in 10 years would be, he said, “It’s already changed a great deal” — largely due, he said, to younger people who aren’t acquainted with Leather traditions and wear clothes, chains and hankies just as a fashion statement, with no idea what those garments mean to old-line Leathermen. He called the people at the event “a tight-knit group … for whom Leather means S/M, but a lot of people wear it and have no idea what it means.”

Asked to comment on the Internet and its effect on the Leather community, Townsend said, “It’s pretty hard to do the hanky codes on the Internet. I don’t play much on the Net. I’ve never been in a chat room and I don’t think I’ve ever had to. But we’re going to evolve more towards that.” Townsend warned that “you have to be really careful” while cruising online. “The government has discovered it and is making trouble, and criminals have discovered it and are trying to rip you off. But you also have to be careful picking up guys in bars.”

One positive change Townsend identified is the greater interest among younger Leathermen in “switching” — playing the dominant role in some scenes and the submissive role in others. “When I wrote the stories [in The Leatherman’s Handbook] I identified with masochists because 90 percent of my readers identified with masochists. A lot of tops want to be masochists but don’t dare admit it. My experience from talking to people and reading is 90 percent of us are bottoms at heart, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of guys who play macho don’t want to admit it. That’s changing, and I think switching is here to stay.”

Townsend said the Leather community has “always been kind of underground. We’ve been ridiculed by a lot of people, including Gay people who don’t understand what we’re doing. Gay comedians make fun of us, and a lot of people are afraid of it.” Asked if the mainstream Queer community has become more or less supportive of Leather over time, Townsend said, “Most Gay people don’t care.” He said that younger people tend to be less judgmental about sexuality in general, pointing to the fact that the younger people are, the more likely they are to support marriage equality for same-sex couples. “Most young people are more tolerant, and things are going to change,” said Townsend — “as soon as we get that moron out of the White House.”

After Townsend spoke, the audience heard from veteran community activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who defended the Leather community and brought up an issue he’d mentioned in his Gay & Lesbian Times column, criticizing a board member from a local nonprofit organization (neither the person nor the group were named, though Murray-Ramirez said she was a woman) for questioning whether her organization should take money from “those people” in the Leather community. Murray-Ramirez apologized that he wouldn’t be able to attend the Mr. San Diego Leather pageant on March 15, but said he’d be up in Canada as part of a major challenge to the U.S. law flatly banning all people who test “HIV-positive” from entering the country. Following Murray-Ramirez’s dramatic appearance, outgoing Mr. San Diego Leather Lee Butler — whom the event was intended to honor — gave a poetic, eloquent farewell speech.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Queer Democrats Hold Love-Fest for School Board Candidates


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Sarah Reece, John Lee Evans, Richard Barrera, José Preciado

In sharp contrast to the previous month’s meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club — a debate between incumbent city attorney Mike Aguirre and two challengers, Lee Burdick (who has since withdrawn from the race) and Dan Coffey — the club’s February 28 meeting was a virtual love-fest between the club and three school board candidates. The three — John Lee Evans, running against incumbent Mitz Lee for District A of the San Diego Unified School District board; San Diego Unified District D candidate Richard Barrera; and José Preciado, candidate for District 2 of the San Diego County Board of Education — all scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire, and all emphasized their commitment to public education as contrasted with the skepticism of their opponents.

“I’m running for the school board because free public education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and is a lot more than just learning to read and write,” said Evans. “Technically, this is a non-partisan race, but do you really want people on the school board who want to privatize everything? In 2005, Mitz Lee refused to support a resolution to ask the California legislature to guarantee funding for public education.” Evans proudly boasted that “I’m the product of a public school education” and also said he had taught preschool while himself a college student.

“The public school district is the foundation of our democracy, and also the family,” said Barrera. “My father and grandparents came to this country as immigrants, not speaking English, and the public school system helped enculturate us. I have hope for the future if our public school system continues to work. Our problems are severe. Ten times as many young Black and Latino men are going to prison than graduating from college.”

“I’m a first-generation American, and because of public education my three siblings and I went to college and are contributing members of our community,” said Preciado. “Even though I’ve only been a citizen for five years, I’ve been registering voters and working on campaigns since high school. Public education is the root of our society, and the primary function of a County Board of Education member is to promote public education.”

Asked why Queer people, who ordinarily don’t have children, should care about the public schools, Barrera said, “We just came from the reason why” — referring to a community vigil held earlier that evening at the Center in memory of Lawrence King, the 15-year-old Oxnard high-school student murdered by a classmate for being Gay. “I’m on the board of the San Diego Cooperative Charter School, the only public school in San Diego that’s marched in the Pride Parade. Where we begin with our kids and community is not just talking tolerance, but appreciation and love. When we raise kids in an environment of love, we have amazing possibilities for the future.”

“We used to hope for tolerance; acceptance needs to be the standard,” Preciado added. “Government works for all of us when it serves and provides equal opportunities. We as a society are a collection of individuals, and society cannot persist if individuals are all we care about. Those baby boomers will need a strong workforce to pay into Social Security.”

“Ditto and ditto,” said Evans. “I do have one other answer, and it’s related also to it being a non-partisan race. I talk to Republicans and say it’s really in their self-interest to have a well-educated population. If we don’t create a workforce, we won’t have a strong economy. If we have a permanent underclass, we’ll have to spend more money on prisons.”

One club member claimed the public schools had had a “massive failure” in addressing bullying — including the kind of constant homophobic tormenting Lawrence King received from his fellow students before one of them killed him — and said that the much-ballyhooed creation of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) on several campuses actually made matters worse because they “put a bull’s-eye on the students in them.”

“Having talked to both kids and adults, certainly nothing has been more targeted [by bullies] than gender identity and sexual orientation,” Evans said. “I would love to form a coalition with conservative religious people with very strong feelings against this community to talk about violence in our community. There needs to be training for everyone in the district, and it needs to be incorporated into the entire curriculum.” Evans also told the story of a young man who grew up with his mother and her Lesbian partner and was told by nis mom “never to invite anybody to the house, for his own protection.”

“We have a start with Sheila Kuehl’s bill,” said Barrera — referring to SB 777, passed last year, which rewrote the definition of “gender identity” in the California Education code, gave Transgender students specific protection against hate incidents for the first time, and has been targeted for repeal in a referendum by the radical Right. “At our school, two years ago, out of concerns with increased incidents of bullying, we put together a task force of not only parents and teachers but students. Young people want to work with and respect each other.”

“Ditto, ditto, right?” said Preciado — who went on to disagree strongly with the club member who’d asked the original question. “At Sweetwater High School, there’s an LGBT Alliance, and most of the members are straight. It’s working really well because students are making the right decisions. I would like to find opportunities to have students share with other students how good it can be. Because I work at a college campus, I deal with a lot of students who aren’t used to being able to be who they are. It needs to change. We need to create environments where everyone is safe.”

Asked whether it’s possible to maintain education funding given the massive California state budget deficit and the refusal of Republican legislators to support tax increases — and where they would propose to cut funding in other areas of the state budget to avoid cuts in education — Barrera said, “We’ve got to start a conversation about going after revenue sources, but the real answer to the question is what we are going to do about it in our community. I fully support going to the voters and asking for a parcel tax increase. If we step forward as San Diegans we’ve got a better chance to lobby the state.”

“We need to encourage our legislators to examine the tax structure of our state,” said Preciado. “Policymakers have been given an option to cut 10 percent across the board, and that’s talking about devastating school districts. We need to encourage the governor to lead and find fiscal opportunities for the state to avoid cutting public education. The way our economy is going, it’s not appropriate to cut vocational training or special education, and it goes on and on. We aren’t having the right conversation.”

“We need to speak up very loudly for funding for public education,” said Evans. “We are one of the largest school districts in the country, and our voices should be heard in Sacramento and Washington. Only two to three people in the state understand the funding formulas [for state aid to public education]. Making drastic cuts is penny-wise, pound-foolish. We need schools now and we will need them in the future. [The threatened funding cuts] will discourage people from becoming teachers — and teachers are the last people we should be cutting.”

Eventually the club endorsed all three candidates by acclamation. Evans and Preciado were endorsed unanimously, and Barrera had only one opponent — and later she said that she “didn’t mean it.” The club also heard from Sarah Reece, who’s organizing the “decline to sign” campaigns to keep people from signing the initiative to put a permanent ban on marriage equality for same-sex couples into the state constitution, and agreed to make participating in that campaign a major organizational priority for March and April.

Finally, the club considered the District 5 race for the San Diego City Council in an unusual way. Both declared candidates are Republicans, and one, Carl DeMaio, is openly Gay. Nonetheless, it was DeMaio whom former club president Craig Roberts asked the club to single out with an “unacceptable” rating, partly because DeMaio, through a group he founded called the Performance Institute, has been a strong advocate for privatizing city jobs, and partly because “there are so-called ‘non-partisan’ organizations in this community that have endorsed him months ago.”

“A lot of DeMaio’s positions are odious, but he is a member of our community,” club member Carlton Littleton replied, speaking against the motion.

“Being part of our community comes with some responsibilities, including being a voice for our community and not against it,” said San Diego Democratic Party chair and former San Diego Democratic Club president Jess Durfee. “He opposes same-sex marriage and thinks it should go before a vote of the people. When he takes a position like that against our community, he is unacceptable.”

Two other former club presidents, Gloria Johnson and Jeri Dilno, questioned DeMaio’s refusal to attend a club meeting. Dilno, who as the club’s current vice-president for political action is responsible for inviting candidates to speak to the club, said that on three separate occasions DeMaio had told her the date of the meeting conflicted with the official announcement of his candidacy — and he refused to attend even though she pointed out to him that his event was scheduled to end at 7 and he could come speak to the club after that. Johnson said, “I had a personal conversation with him just before Pride, ad I asked him if he would participate [in a club event]. He said, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to be there.’”

Eventually, the motion to rate Carl DeMaio “unacceptable” for City Council passed with no votes against it and only one abstention.

Gil Field, president of the San Diego chapter of Veterans for Peace, was incorrectly referred to as “Gil Fried” on both the cover of Zenger’s #160 (February 2008) and the story inside. Zenger’s apologizes and expresses regret for the error.