Monday, June 30, 2008

Former War Correspondent Chris Hedges Speaks in San Diego

New Book “Collateral Damage” Documents U.S. War Atrocities in Iraq


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

“I spent most of my adult life covering armed conflicts,” former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges told a capacity crowd at the First Church of the Brethren in City Heights June 25. After witnessing and writing about the civil war in El Salvador from 1983 to 1988, he “took a sabbatical to study Arabic” — guessing correctly which part of the world the next big wars were likely to take place in — “and then covered Gaza, the West Bank, Yemen, Somalia, southern Sudan, the Punjab in 1989 and the Shi’ite uprising in Basra during the first Gulf War in 1991.” During the rest of the 1990’s he covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia “and, in 1995, went to Sarajevo when the city was under siege with 2,000 shells per day.”

That was Hedges’ last venture into a war zone — “those were enough traumatic experiences to mess up a lifetime,” he rather ruefully commented — but he took his life as a battlefield journalist and turned it into a book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which sought not only to denounce the evil of war but to explain its romantic appeal. Writing the book was, for Hedges, part of his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he admits didn’t affect him as seriously as it does soldiers who actually participate in combat and kill other humans, but nonetheless led him to heavy drinking, a disinterest in his family and loved ones, and other classic PTSD symptoms.

As luck would have it, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning came out in the fall of 2002, just as the U.S. was preparing to attack Iraq, and during his promotional appearances, “inevitably I would be asked about the impending war in Iraq. I was consistent in my denunciations of the war, including being booed off the stage at a commencement address.” He was ordered by his employers at the New York Times to stop talking about the war in public — in fact, he was given a written reprimand which listed the things he could and couldn’t do as a Times reporter in terms of openly taking political stands about anything — and as a result he quit the paper after 20 years’ employment.

“One part of my life’s work is to understand what propels people into Utopian projects, especially those involving violence,” Hedges explained. “The war in Iraq is a Utopian project. Of all the 10,000 or so Arabists in the U.S., I don’t think more than 12 thought it would be a good thing. We thought we could invade Iraq, we’d be greeted as liberators and Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for it.”

Hedges spent the next few years researching America’s radical Christian Right for a book called American Fascism, then doing debates with atheist authors Sam H. Harris and Christopher Hitchens — and finding the radical Christians and the radical atheists equally loathsome in their addiction to utopian dreams and violence as a way to fulfill them. Harris’s book The End of Faith famously denounced radical Islam and endorsed the Bush administration’s “war on terror” as the only way to defend worldwide freedom of religion, and according to Hedges, Harris “calls for a first-strike nuclear attack against the Arab world.” As for Hitchens, he enthusiastically endorsed the attack on Iraq and quit his job at The Nation over the magazine’s anti-war editorial stance — though he didn’t suffer because he already had a far more lucrative gig with Vanity Fair.

“When I got back from these debates, I told my agent I was going to write a book called I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” Hedges said. “This is a belief that massive acts of violence can be used to purge the world of evil. It’s something all of us who care about a world of plurality, tolerance and understanding must do everything in the world to fight.” Hedges also went to The Nation and asked if they’d be interested in “a piece about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed and maimed in the war, and whose voices have not been heard, especially in the U.S.”

That proved to be one assignment too big for even Hedges to take on — especially since it’s impossible simply to walk around Iraq seeking out war victims to talk to unless you want to become a war victim yourself. So he narrowed his focus and decided to seek out U.S. veterans who’d served in the current war and interview them about their experiences — particularly those involving civilian casualties and the blurring of the lines between combatants and civilians that, Hedges said, affects any army occupying a foreign country where enough people don’t want them there that an ongoing insurgency can sustain itself.

“My model,” Hedges explained, “was the 1971 documentary film Winter Soldier, filmed at a conference in Detroit in which Viet Nam war veterans got up and told, in excruciating pain, the reality of the war. The challenge was finding a critical mass of veterans willing to talk.” He ultimately found his “critical mass,” 50 veterans, some of them well-known war resisters like Camilo Mejía and Aidan Delgado, but most of them little-known figures who just happened to have fought in the war and done things to the civilian population of Iraq of which they were less than proud.

Of the three types of war — civil wars, the “classic clashes of conventional forces” most people think of when they hear the word “war,” and wars of occupation — occupations are the most brutal and lend themselves to the most war crimes, Hedges argued, because the occupiers know almost nothing about the country they’re occupying, usually they can’t even speak its language, and “the only language a foreign occupier can speak is the language of force.”

Hedges explained that in sharp contrast to the war in El Salvador in the 1980’s — a civil war in which both sides share the same national and cultural background — a war of occupation lends itself to war crimes because “you never see the people attacking you. You have no ‘enemy’ to strike back at. You can surround and level a city, like the U.S. did to Falloujah in 2004, but the day-to-day reality is that soldiers and Marines take fire every day and have no one to direct their anger against.”

He cited psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s description of occupations as “atrocity-producing” wars because, “once you’re outside your base, you are in real danger, you’re among a population that’s hostile, and so you identify everyone out there as the ‘enemy’ and as a legitimate target, especially once your unit takes casualties.” Hedges drew a distinction between killing, “taking the life of someone who can harm you,” and murder, “taking the life of someone who can’t” — and said that once you’ve served in a war of occupation long enough, the distinction between the two blurs and soldiers on the ground are willing to shoot at anything.

According to Hedges, both the sheer power of the weapons issued to Americans in Iraq and the “rules of engagement,” their standing orders as to whom they can fire at and when, create a fertile environment for war crimes. He said that once an improvised explosive device (IED) is used against an American unit, the policy is to fight back with so-called “suppressive fire” — the use of light machine guns in a wide, sweeping pattern that almost guarantees that innocent civilians will be murdered. This tactic is so brutal, Hedges said, that even the British — virtually America’s only remaining partner in the so-called “coalition of the willing” that launched the war against Iraq — “have complained, because these weapons were never supposed to be used in highly populated areas.”

Hedges sold Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel on the idea for an article on U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and enlisted a co-author with an unusual background: Laila al-Arian, daughter of Palestinian activist Dr. Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian professor and activist who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2003. Sami al-Arian, to whom the book his daughter and Hedges co-authored has been dedicated, was tried in Florida in 2005 on charges of helping the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization and, though acquitted of all charges involving terrorism, made the mistake of accepting a plea bargain on lesser charges to avoid a retrial. Hoping to be set free and leave the U.S. voluntarily, he was instead kept in prison, repeatedly subpoenaed to testify before grand juries, and on the very night Hedges was speaking in San Diego was indicted once again.

“It was difficult to find people willing to speak,” Hedges acknowledged. “Almost everyone we spoke to was referred by someone else. The interviews would last four to five hours, and then often they would call a friend.” Hedges’ and al-Arian’s ground rules included that every interview would be recorded and transcribed — they wanted to be able to prove later that they hadn’t taken any statements out of context by preserving the complete interviews on both paper and tape — and that everyone they interviewed had to agree to allow their name to be used. “I didn’t want anonymous sources,” he explained.

Hedges also worried about how U.S. combat veterans from Iraq would react to his co-author, an observant Muslim who wears the head scarf. As things turned out, he said, “There was a confessional quality about the veterans telling these stories to a Muslim. When the veterans broke down, we turned the tape recorder off because we didn’t want emotional porn. This is a book about fact.”

The book, Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians, was expanded from the original article Hedges and al-Arian published in The Nation in July 2007. It’s divided into five sections, representing the principal abuses of the U.S. occupation of Iraq: convoys, checkpoints, raids, detentions and so-called “hearts and minds” programs, aimed at winning Iraqi support for the occupation but often, Hedges argues, outrageously counterproductive. According to Hedges, U.S. military personnel routinely run over Iraqi pedestrians and drivers in the streets of Baghdad and other cities, set up checkpoints at constantly shifting locations, stage raids in Iraqi homes between 12 and 4 a.m. and detain civilians, often holding them incommunicado and not letting even their family members know where they are.

What’s more, Americans do all that with no interest in communicating with Iraqis and no ability to do so even if they wanted to. Not only is there a yawning language barriers — almost no Iraqis speak English, almost no U.S. servicemembers speak Arabic, and interpreters are few, far between and often “slant” their translations to serve an agenda of their own, Hedges reported — but destined for service in Iraq are put through training that reinforces racist prejudices against Iraqis and Arabs in general. Hedges notes that the term “haji” — which within a Muslim culture is a term of respect (it literally means one who has been on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca all Muslims are required to take at least once in their lives if they can afford it) — has become an all-purpose racist slur used by U.S. servicemembers in Iraq the way “gook” was used in Viet Nam and “raghead” in Afghanistan.

Hedges, whose previous books and public statements have already made him a target of the radical-Right media, said that he had “no illusions” about the reception his book would get in the U.S. “I ‘get’ nationalism, which is a disease,” he said. “The flip side of nationalism is always racism.” He recalled that immediately after 9/11 he covered al-Qaeda in Paris and clearly thought the French had the right idea; rather than launching a “war on terror” and trashing their constitution in order to fight it, they went after al-Qaeda as they would after any criminal conspiracy, building evidence, developing “human assets” inside it and ultimately prosecuting al-Qaeda members who lived under French jurisdiction. What’s more, he said, the French learned that lesson the hard way from their failed attempt to keep control over Algeria in the 1950’s.

Like many critics of America’s “war on terror,” Hedges lamented the road not taken — the opportunity to build a truly international coalition against al-Qaeda in the wake of 9/11 and the outpouring of sympathy for the U.S. throughout the world (including the Muslim world) in the first days after the attacks. “If we had built on that empathy, we would be far safer and more secure than we are today,” Hedges said. “Instead, we were whipped into this frenzy.”

What’s more, Hedges added, he doesn’t expect improvement after Bush leaves office, no matter which major-party candidate replaces him. Admitting his statement was going to shock some members of his audience, he said, “I’m not going to vote for McCain or Obama because neither talk about complete withdrawal. We have no right to be in Iraq. Anything is better than Bush, even McCain, but the forces that have been unleashed under Bush may not be capped by a new administration. We live in a corporate state, and for the corporations war is good for business There are segments of the American corporate state for whom this war is a blessing.”

When Hedges made his remarks against Obama — and revealed a deep-seated hostility towards the Democratic party which came out even more strongly after the event was over, when he was signing copies of his book and told one couple that an economic collapse in the U.S. would push its politics even farther Right because “the progressives sold out the working class to support Bill Clinton on NAFTA” — the audience response was revealing. About one-third of the crowd cheered loudly; the rest sat in stunned silence.

Queer Democrats Endorse Aguirre for City Attorney

Incumbent Wins 71 Percent Club Vote after Bitter, Intense Debate


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Mike Aguirre and Jan Goldsmith, counting of the ballots for the city attorney's endorsement (Doug Case is at the table and Marilyn Riley and Alex Sachs are in front; Andrea Villa is at far right), Dale Kelly Bankhead, Nick Liebham

Reversing its position in the primary election for San Diego City Attorney — when it rejected the incumbent, Democrat Mike Aguirre, in favor of City Councilmember Scott Peters — the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club endorsed Aguirre for re-election in the November 4 runoff against Republican Jan Goldsmith. Aguirre won a sweeping victory with 47 votes, 71 percent of the total, to 19 votes against making an endorsement in the race, the only other alternative club members had on the ballot. But the debate surrounding the endorsement was so intense that at one point club president Andrea Villa had to threaten to eject two members from the meeting to restore order.

Since the city attorney’s office is technically nonpartisan, the club’s bylaws required it to invite both candidates — and, to the surprise of some members, both Aguirre and Goldsmith turned up. What’s more, their own debate was considerably more civil than the club’s internal discussion that followed. Aguirre began it by boasting that he won the third City Council district — the center of San Diego’s Queer population — by 10 percent and saying that “since the election I’ve reached out to Scott [Peters]” and worked with him on a proposed solution to the city’s ongoing pension crisis. “My job is to unify the party and those of us who believe in a progressive future for San Diego,” Aguirre said. “The office is nonpartisan but it is not valueless, and my values are your values. I believe in the future you believe in.”

“Thank you for having me,” said Goldsmith. “I am a Republican, and if I were running for the legislature or for City Council you wouldn’t want to hear from me. But the city attorney’s office is supposed to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan.” After challenging Aguirre’s claim to represent the same values as the club’s members — “Your values are not dividing employers and employees; your values are not taking away pensions,” he said — Goldsmith claimed that when he left the state assembly and accepted a judicial appointment 10 years ago he entered a new playing field, in which impartiality and a commitment to the law trumped partisan priorities.

Questions from the audience included specifically Queer issues like Proposition 22, the ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriages passed by voters in March 2000 but invalidated by the California Supreme Court last May. Goldsmith admitted that when the bill was in the legislature before it became an initiative, he had supported it. Aguirre proudly said he had voted against Proposition 22. He also said that in 1991, when then-San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor asked the mayors in the League of California Cities to pass a resolution endorsing anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation, Goldsmith, then mayor of Poway, argued against it.

Asked about their stands on marriage equality and Queer rights in general, Aguirre claimed to have been educated on the issues by two openly Gay men: the late Neil Good, who in 1987 recruited Aguirre to the campaign to challenge the Boy Scouts of America’s sweetheart lease on 18 acres of San Diego parkland despite their national organization’s anti-Queer policies; and his deputy, openly Gay club member Alex Sachs, with whom he co-wrote the city’s amicus curiae brief supporting marriage equality before the California Supreme Court. Goldsmith ducked the question, saying that he hadn’t been involved in legislation for the last 10 years and as a judge “I have treated people fairly.”

But the strongest points of contention between the candidates were on the role of the city attorney and the state of the office and its staff under Aguirre’s leadership. “The city attorney’s office is accountable to the public,” said Goldsmith, “but our client is the city of San Diego, not the Mayor or City Council personally but in their capacities as city officials. If the city attorney doesn’t represent them, the city doesn’t have an attorney. It’s in our best interests to have a city attorney to help the city function.”

“The city attorney is supposed to represent the Mayor and City Council, but also the people,” said Aguirre — expressing his expansive concept of the office that has been one of the key criticisms made of him. “The reason the Republican Central Committee and the Lincoln Club asked my opponent to move into the city of San Diego to run against me is because they don’t want the city attorney to represent the people. The city attorney’s job is to fearlessly represent the people, and not just be a rubber stamp for the City Council and the Mayor.”

Asked how well the city attorney’s office is functioning under the incumbent, Aguirre boasted, “The city attorney’s office is the most functional in San Diego. I am so proud to have Karen Heumann, Katherine Burton and Alex Sachs on my staff. A Filipino is the liaison to the police department and a woman heads the civil litigation unit. When I got there, the office was riddled with people with no interest in the public interest. It is now the finest city attorney’s office in California.”

Goldsmith, not surprisingly, took what Aguirre was presenting as a healthy housecleaning and used it to attack Aguirre’s skills as a manager. “There are 135 attorneys [in the city attorney’s office] and 120 are Aguirre’s hires,” he said. “The deputy city attorneys are in fear of getting fired if they give the ‘wrong’ opinion. It’s a political operation aimed not only at policy but people. It is hurting our city because the staff isn’t getting good legal advice. The problem is from the top.”

Though the interchange between Aguirre and Goldsmith got testy at times — especially when Goldsmith accused Aguirre of saying he opposed Queer-rights laws during a 1989 campaign for City Council he lost to longtime Queer-rights supporter Bob Filner, later backing down when he admitted he couldn’t document that — it was a model of civility compared to the debate between club members which followed. Even the normally routine motion to consider making an endorsement in the race — usually a procedural formality before the club can consider whom to endorse — attracted intense opposition.

Dan Coffey, a club member who briefly declared for city attorney himself before withdrawing from the race and endorsing Peters in the primary, denounced both Aguirre and Goldsmith as “two Republicans” and called on the club not to endorse in the race. “Mike Aguirre is backed by Pat Shea, a friend of George W. Bush, who has helped to prosecute Democrats,” Coffey said. [Shea, husband of Diann Shipione — the accountant who blew the whistle on the city’s pension problems — ran for mayor in 2004 on a platform of dealing with San Diego’s financial problems by declaring bankruptcy.] After saying that the people Aguirre and Shea sought to prosecute had been exonerated by a federal judge, Coffey said, “I don’t think an organization based on Democratic principles should endorse Mike Aguirre.”

The only other person to speak on the motion whether to endorse before club members voted to close debate on it was Alex Sachs. “The city attorney’s office is important,” Sachs said. “The choices between the two candidates are important. It is appropriate for us to take a stand.”

Once the club voted to consider an endorsement, president Villa ruled that only six people would be allowed to speak, three for Aguirre and three for no endorsement. One of Aguirre’s supporters was this reporter. Another gave a short statement to the effect that the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has been highly critical of Aguirre throughout his tenure, would not report the club’s vote if it endorsed Aguirre but would if it voted for no endorsement. A third person for Aguirre said, “Mike Aguirre isn’t going to let people tell him what to do. Jan [Goldsmith] will be a lot lighter and back to the old days. Aguirre will bring every issue out in the open, whether he’s right or wrong.”

Aguirre’s opponents were better prepared, spoke longer and were far more personal in their statements. One compared him to former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and said both had politicized offices and used the threat of prosecution against their political enemies. Another, city employee Michelle Krug, said, “Mike Aguirre is not only homophobic but misogynist. He has six women suing him for sexual harassment. [One of them, former city attorney staff member Amy Lepine, ran against him in the primary.] He fired every deputy city attorney who tried to start a union. He has spoken against city workers’ pensions. This is not a man who has my values at heart.” Conceding that Aguirre “has been good on the Boy Scouts and on marriage,” Krug said she feared for her own pension if Aguirre is re-elected.

But the most intense and vicious anti-Aguirre presentation came from Marilyn Riley, who had volunteered for him in his 2004 campaign but then strongly and bitterly turned against him. “The first time I knew Mike was not the man I thought was when he called me into his office and said, ‘What’s the matter with those Gays?’” she said. “Mike did not want to hire Katherine Burton and Alex Sachs. I made him hire Katherine Burton. He used her as a volunteer and I said he had to pay her. He did not want to hire Alex. He’s homophobic. There’s a reason the San Diego Democratic Party did not endorse him.” (The San Diego County Democratic Central Committee made no endorsement in the primary but was scheduled to consider an endorsement in the general election in early July.)

Sachs, incensed that Riley had been able to say that about him and the meeting format did not give him a chance to respond, made a motion to extend the debate and take three more speakers on each side. The club members argued about that so long that one person acidly commented that they were taking as much time debating Sachs’s motion as they would have to call the additional speakers. After Sachs’s motion was voted down, 34 to 21, he sought recognition from the chair on “a point of personal privilege” and denounced the process as “not democratic.” He and Riley started arguing, and Villa threatened to have both of them thrown out of the meeting if they didn’t settle down. Later, she appointed both of them to observe the count of the endorsement ballots and make sure it was fair to both sides.

While the ballots were being counted, San Diego Democratic Central Committee chair and former club president Jess Durfee made a motion, to be voted on at the club’s next regular meeting September 25, that the club stop inviting non-Democrats running for nonpartisan offices to speak before it during endorsement debates. “Historically, San Diego was a very Republican city, but that demographic has changed and we should only be hearing from Democrats,” Durfee explained. (The club would normally have a meeting on August 28, but Villa explained that that’s the date presumptive Presidential nominee Barack Obama is scheduled to give his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, and the club will be joining with the Central Committee to organize “viewing parties” for Obama’s speech.)

Durfee’s motion was immediately opposed by George Gastil, a member whom the club had suspended its rules for earlier to endorse his campaign for the Lemon Grove City Council. Gastil said that, though the club’s charter with the Central Committee forbids it from endorsing non-Democrats, “the club can rate people ‘acceptable’ and many times it’s good if they’re allied with Democrats.” He pointed out that he had worked to elect moderate Republican Susan Hartley to the San Diego County Board of Education against radical-Right Republican Susan Fey, and felt the club should keep its options open in races where there isn’t a viable Democrat but there’s a clear difference between the major candidates on Queer and progressive issues.

Eventually the ballots were counted and Aguirre was declared the endorsed candidate of the San Diego Democratic Club. The club also took votes endorsing Obama for President (an earlier attempt to endorse in the primary campaign had failed when, ironically, most club members had split between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Obama had got only two votes) and officially opposing two propositions on the November 4 ballot: Proposition 4, which would require that whenever minor girls seek abortion, their parents must be notified (which California voters have already turned down twice); and Proposition 8, which would reverse the California Supreme Court’s historic ruling for marriage equality by amending the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Earlier in the evening, the club had heard from Dale Kelly Bankhead, who as a staff member of the San Diego branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had been instrumental in the marriage case, announcing her appointment to head the statewide campaign against Proposition 8. The club also heard from Nick Liebham, Democratic candidate for Congress against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray, who recalled that in his college days at a Catholic university in Hawai’i “I came across two Marines who had Joe, who was known around campus as an openly Gay man, pinned up against the third-floor balcony and ready to push him off. I still have the scar on my forehead because of where I stepped in.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Obama, at Last!


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

My late partner John Gabrish, whom I was with from late 1985 until his death from kidney failure and colon cancer in the first week of 1990, hardly ever made broad philosophical or analytical comments about politics. But once he did. Out of a clear blue sky one day, he told me he thought that America would elect a Black to the Presidency before it ever elected a woman. I’ve thought about his comment a lot this year, as the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination seemed to turn into a laboratory experiment to test his theory. The white woman and the Black man battled it out to the very end — at least until the last primaries on June 3 — and the Black guy won despite serious questions about his overall electability, his taste in ministers and nonprofit board-member colleagues, and in particular defeats in places like West Virginia and Kentucky, where he lost by margins almost never seen in Democratic primaries unless the second-place candidate is named Lyndon LaRouche.

So now it looks like the November 4 election will be between 45-year-old first-term U.S. Senator from Illinois Barack Hussein Obama, son of a white Hawai’ian mother and a father from Kenya who abandoned him and his mom early in his childhood; and John McCain, 72-year-old long-term Senator from Arizona who’s parlayed an experience in a North Viet Namese prisoner-of-war camp (in which he became the only candidate in either major party in this year’s race who’d actually experienced torture) to a reputation as a war hero, and his mild defiance of his Republican party leaders on two issues (campaign financing and immigration) into a full-fledged reputation as a “maverick” belied by his solidly Right-wing politics on virtually everything else.

Whichever of these men wins the presidency, he’ll be the first sitting U.S. Senator elevated to the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960 — and if Obama wins he’ll be the first non-Southern Democratic President since Kennedy as well. He’ll also come within one inch of Abraham Lincoln’s record as the tallest President in our history. (At 6’ 4”, John Kerry would have tied Lincoln as the tallest President had he won in 2004.) Obama is often compared to both Lincoln and Kennedy for his combination of charismatic appeal, power as a public speaker and shortness of actual political experience. It’s often forgotten that before he became President, Lincoln had even less time in elective office than Obama has now — just three terms in the Illinois legislature and one two-year term in the House of Representatives, where he sandbagged his political career and delayed it by a decade because of his principled opposition to the 1846-1848 U.S.-Mexican war.

Obama’s race and Clinton’s gender became the central issues in their campaigns, especially in a Democratic party which in the last quarter-century has been all too willing to define itself and recruit its constituency as a series of narrowly defined “interest groups” — thereby allowing the Republicans to present themselves as the party of “real America.” Many women of Hillary Clinton’s generation were so excited that a woman with a serious chance of winning was finally running for President that they forgot her own paucity of electoral experience (two years into her second term as U.S. Senator from New York) and didn’t seem at all discomfited that she hadn’t earned her way to a position of political prominence: she’d slept her way to it, in the manner of the first women ever elected to high office in this country, who’d stepped into the breach to replace husbands who had died or been driven from office by term limits or (in one case, Governor “Ma” Ferguson of Texas in the 1920’s and 1930’s) impeachment.

I’ve read quite a few angry letters to the editor from women who seemed to be casting Hillary Clinton as the Lily Tomlin character in the movie Nine to Five, the ultra-competent factotum who made the office run and got stuck in a low-wage job while younger, flashier, better looking males — often ones she had trained — got promoted over her. A number of them suggested that Barack Obama should have “waited his turn” — as if the presidency were a sort of water pipe to be passed around at a party — and even afterwards a few diehard feminists have been writing to the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere threatening to vote for John McCain in 2008 to pave the way for Hillary in 2012. (This got the response it deserved when another woman wrote in and asked if these people really wanted to give the solidly anti-choice McCain the opportunity to appoint the last two U.S. Supreme Court justices needed to overturn Roe v. Wade.)

Nonetheless, despite the belief of many of Clinton’s more fanatical supporters that being a woman hurt her more than being African-American hurt Obama, it became clear from the campaign that racism is a far more brutal political burden than sexism. Clinton’s big wins in West Virginia and Kentucky were powered by appeals to “white voters” that were as openly racist as she could possibly get away with in a party dependent on Black voters to win national elections, and the outcomes showed that given their druthers, the redneck white male voters in those states voted their racism over their sexism and went with the white woman over the Black man. This makes it seem quite likely that in November they’ll go with the white man over the Black man. Indeed, the biggest fear I started having as the Democratic nomination contest wound on and on and on was that the Democrats might have cost themselves the White House by making their two top candidates an African-American and a woman in a country still too racist and too sexist to elect either.

Of course, in addition to the handicaps of being (half-)Black, Obama has going against him the entire elaborate propaganda infrastructure the Republicans have built since at least the Reagan years, including the half of the corporate media that essentially serves as their megaphone: talk radio, Fox News and the empires of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Clear Channel, Sinclair broadcasting and the rest. (The other half of the corporate media — the broadcast TV networks and newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times —have also swung increasingly Right in a vain attempt to convince the Fox/Murdoch/Clear Channel/Sinclair audience that they are no longer the “liberal media” they never really were.)

Not only do the Republicans have an entire wing of the mass media basically to themselves, they have a well-oiled political operation that has turned negative campaigning into a permanent state of affairs in our politics. There have been negative campaigns in American elections since America started having elections — one independent group in the 1800 Presidential campaign put out leaflets saying the choice was between “John Adams and God” or “Thomas Jefferson and No God” — but what’s changed in the years since World War II, when Murray Chotiner (Richard Nixon’s first political consultant) wrote the rulebook H. R. Haldeman, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, etc. have played by since is the ruthless systematization of it and the ability they’ve cultivated to win elections with virtually no positive appeals at all.

We’ve seen this apparatus in action so far this year with a precision that compels admiration for its well-oiled efficiency even from someone like me who detests its message and its effect on our country. We saw it at work in the entire controversy over Obama’s (former) pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons (sold openly on DVD’s in the lobby of his church) were carefully culled for their most incendiary remarks. We’ve seen it as Obama has been attacked for sitting on a nonprofit board of directors with Bill Ayers, a former (very former) member of the Weather Underground organization of Left-wing domestic terrorist wanna-bes whose crimes, if any, were committed while Obama’s age was still in single digits. We’ll no doubt see a lot more of this meanness and hatred in the months to come, much of it carried by nominally “independent” campaign organizations under a loophole in America’s election law that allows a candidate like McCain to protect his above-it-all image as a man of ethics while still benefiting from the slanders people supposedly not associated with him spread about his opponent.

Of course, the attacks on Obama from the Right say far more about them than about him. Nothing about the anti-Obama campaign has disturbed me more than the constant drumbeat of criticism of him for remaining in Rev. Wright’s church for 20 years through all the “God damn America!” speeches. There’s an interesting relation between that and the Republicans’ criticism of Obama for being willing to meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other less-than-friendly world leaders without preconditions. Both bespeak a curious quirk on the Right that equates a willingness to listen to another person’s point of view with agreement. The assumption appears to be that Obama — who actually seems to have taken what he believed in and could agree with from Rev. Wright’s sermons and disregarded the rest — wouldn’t have stayed in that church so long if he really didn’t agree with Rev. Wright’s hyperbolic denunciations of the U.S., nor would he be willing to meet with Ahmadinejad if he didn’t share the Iranian president’s nasty ideas about Israel, the Holocaust, etc.

Modern-day American Rightists have carefully cultivated the ability to shut out all opinions they don’t agree with. (So have Leftists, but given the ubiquity of Right-wing points of view and the virtual absence of truly progressive voices in the major media, it’s a lot harder for us.) I’ve seen Right-wingers use their TV remotes with the precision of Pavlov’s dogs, instinctively turning the channel just as a Democrat is about to give the reply to a Republican’s allegation. On his last trip to Africa, President Bush epitomized this attitude when he announced before he left that he would only meet with the leaders of countries that were already doing what the U.S. wanted them to — making “face time” with the U.S. president seem like a reward for services rendered instead of the genuine opportunities for negotiation pursued by every president from Franklin Roosevelt to — dare I say it? — Ronald Reagan.

Contrary to the forced optimism of a lot of people on the progressive side that 2008 could be a “realigning election” that spells the end of the Reagan coalition and a decisive move Leftward, America remains a profoundly conservative country and will be so no matter how this year’s elections turn out. Neither Obama nor any other Democrat would have had a hope of being elected President this year if Bush hadn’t screwed up the country so badly — and, in particular, if he hadn’t got us bogged down in the war in Iraq, which, like the quagmire in Viet Nam another megalomaniac President from Texas got us into, has pissed off the country not because they’ve seen that the war was immoral from the get-go, but simply because we haven’t won. It doesn’t help the Republicans that the price of gas has soared past $4 per gallon — largely because the oil men and women in the Bush administration got what they wanted from the war, a dramatic spike upwards in the price of crude petroleum — but I’ve seen too often before Republican politicians pull off a pose as friends of “the people” against the “elitist” Democrats to believe that either the war or the economy will necessarily put it in the bag for Obama.

And make no mistake about it: that will be their appeal. Throughout the next four months we’ll be hearing that Obama is too “elitist,” too “alien,” not a “real American.” It’s the same line of argument the Republicans used semi-successfully against Al Gore (who, almost no one remembers, got more popular votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 election despite running such a namby-pamby campaign the two of them seemed ideologically indistinguishable, especially after Gore picked Jewish-fascist warmonger Joseph Lieberman — who’s already endorsed McCain this year — as his running mate), but it will be especially effective against Obama because it will carry the subtext, “He’s too Black to be President.”

Meanwhile, many of my brothers and sisters on the Left are wondering whether Obama is progressive enough to earn our support — or, indeed, whether electoral politics in a capitalist country are worth bothering with at all. Aside from the enormous advantages the Right has had in funding and media access, one of the reasons for their great and ongoing success in dominating American politics in the last quarter-century have been that they’ve been savvy enough to see these disputes as strategic and tactical, whereas the Left has tended to see them as moral. Whether to work within the electoral structure and the two major parties, to support an independent party or Presidential candidacy (as James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other radical-Right religious leaders recently threatened to do to McCain) or to do street activism are not great moral dilemmas; all those strategies are necessary to bring about social change. The American Right understands this; the American Left by and large does not.

All of this is my way of answering Obama’s Left-wing critics by saying that if they’re right about him — if he gets elected and governs, Bill Clinton-style, as a moderate pro-corporate Democrat with little difference between his economic policies and Bush’s — it’ll be as much our fault as it will be his. We not only need to create a mass movement to pressure the next President and Congress, whichever major party they’re from, to act progressively, we need to keep it going through thick and thin, advances and reversals. We can’t afford the mistake we made with Clinton, which was to sit and expect him to create progressive change for us. Nor can we afford the mistake we made with Bush, which was to create an international movement against the war in Iraq before it began and then let it melt away and virtually disappear once the war actually started.

There’s a famous anecdote about Franklin Roosevelt receiving a delegation of progressive activists in the White House, listening to their agenda and saying, “I agree with you. Now you have to go out and make me do it.” That is how we should treat Obama if he wins: to go out in the streets and into Congressmembers’ offices and make Obama and the Democrats govern according to their best principles and instincts. Obama’s own Web site says, “I’m asking you to believe, not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.” We should hold him to that.


Transgender Couple Relate Their Experiences


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

When the Bisexual Forum of San Diego held its first in a series of conferences on sexuality May 27 at the Rubber Rose gallery and boutique in North Park, a wide variety of people spoke on the panel, including Bisexual Forum co-founder Dr. Regina Reinhardt; self-styled “bliss coach and author” Kamala Devi, who described her evolution from an exclusive Lesbian identification to bisexuality and polyamory; Gay student activist Victor Olivares; and young Lesbian Kelly Frizell, who talked about surprising sources of support as well as opposition in the small town in which she grew up. But the “stars” of the evening were a Transgender couple, Tony and Ashley Weeks, whose unusual relationship — Tony’s a female-to-male and Ashley’s a male-to-female — and “star” quality galvanized the audience.

Tony and Ashley got asked most of the audience questions, and by their own example they created a safe space for the other Transgender people in the room to come out and discuss their lives and experiences as well. It was a remarkable evening, and then and there I decided I wanted to interview them for the annual Zenger’s Queer pride feature. When we finally got together — in between the operations for the final stages of Tony’s transition — they lovingly and provocatively discussed their coming-out stories, relationships with their families and former partners, and how whatever they’ve gone through in their lives, they’ve just been two people living as who they are.

Zenger’s: I’d like to start with you each just talking about yourselves, how you grew up, how you discovered being Transgender and what your struggle was out of that.

Ashley Weeks: Discovering I was Transgender is sort of like when do you realize that you’re a human being, or when do you realize that you’re straight, or a woman, or a man. It’s just always been. I wasn’t able to put a finger on what it was, but I’ve always felt the same way. As I got older, I found that where I grew up, it wasn’t allowed, or it wasn’t condoned. So I tried to hide that part of myself and go along with what society’s construct was for me. I tried to be a masculine man, and it just did not work. I’m not sure what you mean about the growing-up thing.

Zenger’s: I mean how you got from trying to hide it to finally realizing that that wasn’t an option — you needed to be out in the open — and how you set about doing that.

Ashley: I would allow that part of me to come out at times, but not out in public, not openly. It got to the point where I just felt so incredibly depressed that I had the feeling of just not wanting to be here on the planet any longer. The fear of that outweighed the fear that I had of coming out. If you can imagine growing up as a masculine man, to come out to everybody that you know — to your family, to your friends, to everybody that you come in contact with — it’s just not an easy process at all. So, accordingly, I had a lot of fear about that.

Also, growing up during the 1960’s and 1970’s, we didn’t really know about any of this stuff. HBO didn’t start until I was in high school. There wasn’t any cable TV. It wasn’t written about in the paper. We didn’t have anybody to talk with about it. So I didn’t know anything. There was no Internet, no information. So I just thought that I was the only person that felt like I did.

Zenger’s: You said that you grew up in a conservative environment. Where?

Ashley: Well, my father was in the Navy for 30 years, so we moved around a bit and ended up in San Diego in 1971.

Zenger’s: Tony, how did you become aware of being Transgender?

Tony Weeks: I always knew, and I always acted very masculine — even from an early age, according to what my parents told me. I never saw myself as female. When puberty hit and the female body started developing, so did an enormous amount of self-hate and self-loathing. I started on a downhill spiral from there.

I was born and raised in a little Gulf Coast town in Texas. My parents were of German descent, very much the Old South, very conservative Lutherans. Like Ashley was saying, back in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was no Internet. HBO didn’t come around until I was in high school. That’s when I actually did see a documentary about a Transgender male, and I knew that that had to be me. I had told my parents that I was Gay, but I never really felt Gay because I didn’t feel like a woman. But there was no other category to put myself in. So, since I didn’t even feel that, I didn’t feel part of the human race.

I came to San Diego when I was 18, and over time, with different therapists, I talked about my feelings. They talked to me about being Transsexual. But I was too scared to look at it, because I still thought I was crazy. I thought I was nuts. What got me to the point of doing the physical transition was I just couldn’t live another day in this skin, in this body. Something had to change, and so I ended up seeing a therapist. They hooked me up with the Trans community here, and slowly but surely I started the physical transition.

There’s a lot in between all the highlights I was just telling you, as far as the self-destruction. But the hardest thing about coming out, as far as being Transsexual, was that I had it confused with my sexual orientation. That’s why I just thought I was crazy. It wasn’t until I met other Transsexuals that were identifying as Gay that I realized that being Transsexual had nothing to do with my sexual orientation. That’s what makes it a little tricky for everyone to understand, including Transsexuals early on. It’s apples and oranges, as far as that goes.

Zenger’s: How did your parents respond when you came out to them?

Tony: By the time I came out to them as Transsexual, my mom was in the later stages of Parkinson’s. She couldn’t even talk, and I’m not even aware that she knew who I was, regardless. My dad said that he accepted it, but when he died he had disowned me, just left me out of the will and everything. I didn’t really care about the material stuff, but it kind of hurt — not kind of, it did. But I wasn’t able to go back to either of their funerals, because they were fairly prominent in this little town, and it wouldn’t have been a good idea. My brother knows, and we e-mail each other and stay in contact, but I think he accepts it the best he can with what he’s got to work with.

Zenger’s: How did you two meet?

Tony: We met at a 12-step meeting for Transgenders.

Zenger’s: Was it love at first sight?

Ashley: No, no, it wasn’t. It was the anniversary of my first lover’s death, and Tony could see that I was physically shaken. He asked me if we wanted to spend a little time together, just talking. We went to shoot some pool and we talked some more, and it was just very nice of him to do. We continued to see each other here and there, and just got closer and closer as time went on.

Zenger’s: Was the fact that you were both Transgender one of the things that brought you together?

Ashley: I think it was, in that we wouldn’t have been at that meeting, we wouldn’t have met each other in that context. It’s also helpful in that we understand each other on a deeper level. However, I really don’t think that’s the main thing. It’s just that our spirits are both attracted to each other. We just are very close.

Tony: I don’t think it hurt anything, as far as it goes. I know it’s not the only reason I was attracted to her, but one of the benefits of being with her is that, by me being able to accept her as a woman, it made it easier for me to accept myself as a man before we had our surgeries. On an emotional level, it would have been a lot more challenging with a genetic female.

Ashley: Absolutely.

Tony: I think that this has made us closer, too. I’ve had quite a few relationships in my time, and when there is not this type of closeness, when it’s all about a sexual relationship, it doesn’t tend to last as long or be as sincere and committed.

Ashley: We both feel the same way about this.

Zenger’s: I was going to ask, before you got together, what your experience had been dating people who aren’t Transgender, and how did each of you experience that.

Tony: I only dated women, and they were usually what I guess in the community would have been considered the “lipstick Lesbians,” the really feminine women. There were only a few that knew, that I came out to and straightforwardly said that I wanted to transition. Usually, they would say, “Well, if you do that I’m going to leave.” That was one of the things that helped me realize that I couldn’t continue to try to live as a man without actually transitioning to one, because it wasn’t fair to them and it wasn’t fair to me.

Zenger’s: That seems to be one of the quirkier aspects of this whole thing, what you talked about earlier about the mix-up between gender identity and sexual orientation. You’re dealing with someone and you’re thinking, “She’s attracted to me because she thinks I’m a woman. But I’m really not a Gay woman; I’m a straight man.”

Tony: Uh-huh. You see where it could make you feel like you’re just nuts!

Zenger’s: I remember going to Gay meetings in the early 1990’s, when the subject of Trans inclusion was just starting to come up, and there were a number of people in the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual communities who said that Transgender people are not really part of “our” struggle because most of them are straight in their self-perceived gender, if not their biological one. How would you answer that?

Tony: In some ways I agree. I can’t speak for the whole Trans community, and I won’t even try to, but for myself, you can be straight, Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, and that’s orientation. Within the Transsexual community, you can also be straight, Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual. I know some Transgender people who were straight before they started the transition and now identify as Gay. I think the reason we’re lumped under that umbrella is because, before we transition, there are no other labels for us to go by.

Ashley: I knew that I wasn’t straight, so I thought the only alternative was that I was Gay. I lived in that lifestyle for some time, and I knew that it really wasn’t me, but it fit me better than “straight.” Later I started to get involved with the Bisexual community, and I found that a lot of Bisexual feelings are similar to Transsexual feelings. I met [The Bisexual Option author and Bisexual Forum of San Diego co-founder] Dr. Fritz Klein and we became friends. We had a lot of talks about the struggles of both communities. As part of his orientation grid [the late Dr. Klein’s expansion of the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation], it fits with Transgender or Transsexual people as well, only more on gender orientation than sexual orientation.

Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed is that historically the Gay and Lesbian communities have based their demands for equality on the idea that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic, and despite the progress we’ve made towards inclusion, it’s a very uneasy fit with the existence of Bisexual and Transgender people. It’s hard to imagine a more immutable characteristic a person can have than the physical configuration of their body as male or female, and yet I’m sitting in front of two people for whom that was, if anything, an impediment to you getting where you needed to go; that your bodies had to be mutable because your minds, your souls, were in the other gender.

Ashley: The way I look at it is it’s like finding a man who identifies in their body and is, say, straight, and having the entire world tell him that he’s a woman, and that he’s somehow Queer. He knows what he is, but society tells him he’s something else. I’m not trying to be anything, and in fact I found that as I accepted myself as who I am, and let go of direction of going towards this body or that body or whatever, that a natural progression just happened. And it happened a lot more quickly than I could have imagined.

Zenger’s: The very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people seems to me to say these things are not as immutable as Gays and Lesbians like to claim; that there’s a whole range of possibilities, and as I see it, your struggles and those of other Transgender people I’ve known and talked to seemed just to be finding where you fit.

Ashley: It’s funny, because “finding where you fit” is a societal construct for me. It’s sort of like having one box over here, and another box over there, and telling someone that they “fit” either in one box or the other box. The truth of the matter is that we don’t all neatly fit into boxes. It makes it easier for us to characterize people, or come to an understanding of the world. However, I just don’t believe that that’s at all the case.

Tony: When any group of people, whether it’s Transgender, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Black, Asian, whatever — whenever any group is oppressed, everybody’s oppressed. I think the less people understand that difference, the more oppressed that group is and the more time it’s going to take before people accept them.

I used to work in a very conservative place, and one of the people I worked with was a retired policeman from St. Louis. He used to make all kinds of homophobic jokes, and I had to come out at this job. He got to know me as a person, though, and one time we were talking and I was trying to explain to him what it was like to be Transsexual. I had him think about how he felt, how he looked, everything he could see himself and could feel, but then when he looked in the mirror he would see his wife instead of seeing himself.

He sat there for a minute and he did that, and then he opened his eyes and he apologized and said, “You know, I don’t know how you’ve done it all these years.” As people have got to know me as a person, and see that we’re more similar than we’re different, and they don’t have to be scared of those differences, then their minds change. They question their own values —

Ashley: — their own values —

Tony: — and why they are scared, and they come to their own conclusions. I think that we’re the least understood group, because I know for myself that for a long time I didn’t even understand it. I can’t really expect other people who don’t have to deal with it to understand it automatically, because I didn’t understand it. It’s taken me a while just to accept it. The truth is, I still don’t understand it. It could be because of testosterone washes or whatever stuff that could have happened in the womb, but it’s so complex that scientists still can’t pinpoint one particular reason why.

Ashley: Why doesn’t seem to be as important to me any longer. I feel that people want to make a case for one thing or another, so they want to find evidence of why and how and all of these things. As I’ve grown I’ve found that that seems more of a separatist view. I believe that it’s hard for me to ask for love and respect while at the same time not giving it to others. It’s easier for me to point the finger at an oppressor, and say it’s us against them.

Mother Teresa was asked to march against the Viet Nam war, and she said it’s something that she would not do. When she was asked why, she said that if the march was for peace, she would march. I know a lot of people that in fact are straight, Republican, conservative, liberal, Democrat, independent, Green Party, etc., and I just consider them all friends and people. It’s funny how much acceptance I have found with that outlook, whereas when it was an us-against-them, it was me trying to find an outside acceptance instead of an inner peace.

Zenger’s: I’ve often been told, about one thing or another, “I don’t understand that,” and I’ve told people, “Have you asked?” “I don’t understand why people would be Gay, why people would be Transgender, why people would be into S/M.” “Have you ever asked them? Isn’t that the way you find out?” Because very often that phrase, “I don’t understand [blank],” actually means, “I don’t want to understand [blank].”

Ashley: I think it’s also a matter of whether it really affects a person or not. If someone doesn’t know anyone who’s Transsexual or Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual, and they don’t really have to deal with the issue, then it becomes more of a non-issue. But when people get to know someone first, and then find out that they’re Bisexual, Gay, Trans, Lesbian, GLBT, they have a reason for questioning their own values, and why they hold those values. I feel that’s where change occurs the most.

I had a conservative roommate who was a Rush Limbaugh “dittohead.” He was sharing with a friend of mine and I how he agreed with Rush’s take on how everyone with HIV and AIDS should be put on a desert island. At the time, I was HIV-positive and my lover was dying, and later died, of AIDS. I didn’t attack his position, but asked him why he held it. He just said that he thought that that was the way it was. When I accepted him, continued to accept him, and later told him what was going on, but didn’t bring up any of the stuff about Rush, he questioned his own values, and later told me that I was instrumental in opening new doors for him.

Zenger’s: What would you want to say to people both in the Gay community and in the U.S. Congress who were willing to pass a nondiscrimination bill to protect people based on sexual orientation, but not on gender identity?

Tony: I guess, what are they scared of?

Ashley: I think I would thank them for going that far, but ask why they held the view that Transsexuals or Transgenders did not somehow deserve the same rights as everyone else. It’s too bad that laws like these have to be part of our legislation at all.

Tony: I think it goes back again to the whole thing of knowledge, because if people are under the belief that it’s a choice, or just people going to the extremes of the Gay scales, then those are false and mistaken beliefs. For myself, if I make decisions based on false beliefs, then the outcome usually doesn’t come out very good.

Ashley: And fair.

Tony: I felt angry, initially, but getting past the anger, I understand that most people don’t understand the whole thing of Transsexuals. I can’t totally explain it. I can just tell you this much: it’s not easy. It’s not like you transition and everything is great in your life. Yeah, I pass, and no one knows unless I tell them, but it’s like the world sees your secret, and they don’t know that they’re seeing your secret.

There are so many emotional and psychological things I’ve experienced, fully transitioned. It’s not easy. It’s not the easy way out. If anything, it’s a really rough road. I consider the other Transgender people I know, my brothers and sisters, and they’re really struggling. I just was in contact with one who finally got accepted in L.A. to a recovery home, but was in Louisiana and was struggling just to stay alive.

Ashley: It’s really amazing that the man Tony was speaking of came to our attention because of a conservative Republican straight woman who contacted us for help with this person. She may have helped save his life. She’s fair-minded.

Tony: Some of my Trans sisters here in San Diego are out there having to work the streets just to try to keep a roof over their heads, and they don’t necessarily want to do that. They’re not looking for self-pity, and I’m not trying to make people feel sorry for them. But people just won’t hire them for legitimate jobs. So it’s not the easy way out. No one would choose to have those types of problems in their life.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jeremy Scahill Returns to San Diego

Independent Journalist Warns of Dangers from Blackwater


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

The last time Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, spoke in San Diego it was in May 2007, when residents of the remote Potrero neighborhood in southeastern San Diego County had mobilized against the efforts of the international security company Blackwater to build a giant military training camp in their backyard. Scahill returned on June 10 and 11, 2008 both to celebrate the ultimate victory of Potrero’s residents — who recalled the members of the elected planning group that had given Blackwater the thumbs-up for their project, whereupon Blackwater abruptly canceled it — and to mobilize opposition to the proposal Blackwater got approved by the city of San Diego, without any public hearings whatsoever, for an indoor “training facility” for U.S. Navy personnel in Otay Mesa.

Though as many as 180 private security companies have “boots on the ground” in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Blackwater stands out not only for the depth and scope of their political connections — mostly to Republicans, though they also hired Hillary Clinton’s political guru, Mark Penn, when it looked like she was going to be this year’s Democratic Presidential nominee — but for the especially difficult assignment they have. Officially under contract to the U.S. State Department, Blackwater’s principal job in Iraq is to protect U.S. occupation officials and high-level politicians and government officials who visit the country. As Scahill put it in an article in the October 15, 2007 Nation, “Blackwater’s primary purpose in Iraq, at which it has been very effective, is to keep the most hated U.S. occupation officials alive by any means necessary.”

In practice, Scahill alleges, Blackwater has done this by creating and maintaining a reign of terror on the streets of Baghdad and Iraq’s other major cities — in the process undermining U.S. counter-insurgency efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of Iraq’s people. The most recent incident, and one which made headlines worldwide, happened on September 16, 2007, when a Blackwater-guarded State Department convoy sped on the wrong side of the street near Nisour Square in the busy Mansour district of Baghdad. Just then, Scahill told his audience at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest June 10, “a white Opel sedan pulled up to an intersection in Mansour. It was being driven by a 20-year-old Iraqi medical student — and his passenger was his mother, a doctor herself.”

When the Blackwater personnel on the convoy saw this little sedan in the intersection, Scahill said, “they decided this young man and his mother could be terrorists. They shot the son and killed him instantly, and his mother reached down and clutched her son’s body. She saw the men in the armored vehicles aiming again at the car, and the Iraqi police got out of the way. The convoy fired so many rounds the car blew up, and this led to a 15-minute firefight in which 17 people were killed, including a nine-year-old boy. An Iraqi lawyer was shot in the back four times as he tried to run away, and several other people were also shot in the back.”

As soon as the Nisour Square incident happened, Scahill said, “the Bush administration took steps to immunize the people who did the shooting and use the State Department to cover it up.” The Blackwater mercenaries involved in the shooting were given binding promises that whatever they said to investigators could not be used against them in court. Not that there was much risk that they’d actually face a trial; just before leaving Iraq and supposedly handing back sovereignty to the Iraqis, former U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer had issued Order 17, a binding proclamation stating that Iraqi courts could never try any private contractors for crimes committed in Iraq.

Nor were they likely to be prosecuted by U.S. authorities either. As private security contractors, Blackwater’s armed mercenaries in Iraq aren’t subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that binds actual government-paid U.S. servicemembers. Several people in the U.S. Congress, including presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama, have introduced legislation to put Blackwater’s and their competitors’ people under UCMJ jurisdiction — and Bush, predictably, has promised to veto any such bill. Though the U.S. military did their own investigation and found that Blackwater’s people had engaged in an unprovoked shooting, the administration insisted that the official U.S. inquiry would be handled by the FBI — and the FBI agents sent to Baghdad were told they would have to rely on Blackwater’s security people to protect them while they tried to investigate Blackwater.

The Iraqi government defied Order 17 and started their own investigation, Scahill said, “and for 72 hours Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki actually thought he was in control of his own country. He said that Blackwater would have to leave Iraq, and the head of the Iraqi justice system said that they would have to be tried in Iraqi courts.” Within three days, after direct pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, al-Maliki reversed himself and repealed his own ban on Blackwater — but for those three days, according to Scahill, “Blackwater couldn’t work and no Americans in Iraq went out of the Green Zone,” their heavily fortified compound in central Baghdad.

When al-Maliki made his short-lived attempt to ban Blackwater from Iraq, “all of a sudden the [U.S.] corporate media woke up,” Scahill said. “There were two versions: one from the Iraqi government and one from Blackwater, who said they were the victims of an armed ambush by enemies of America.” A third report, allegedly from the State Department but actually written by a Blackwater contractee, also backed up the company. But 12 minutes after the last shots in Nisour Square had been fired, “a U.S. Army investigation led by Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa called it an ‘unprovoked attack’ and a ‘criminal act.’” Tarsa also said that Blackwater’s men in Iraq use larger and deadlier ammunition than the U.S. Army does when patrolling civilian areas. Even the FBI called 14 of the 17 shootings “unjustified,” and a U.S. grand jury is investigating and has subpoenaed top Blackwater officials.

Scahill said that the father of the nine-year-old killed in the incident had testified before the grand jury that Blackwater had offered him money to compensate for the loss of his child. “He told Blackwater and the State Department, ‘I don’t want your money. I want Blackwater to admit their guilt and apologize. It’s important morally for my family and my tribe,’” Scahill stated. “He said a Blackwater official said they couldn’t make those admissions for legal reasons.” According to Scahill, “we could have a handful of prosecutions of armed private contractors” — similar to the way low-level military personnel like Lynndie England were made the scapegoats for the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib — “because the heat is on.”

But, according to Scahill, the best chance for justice for the victims of Blackwater in Nisour Square and their surviving relatives is a civil suit filed in New York by some of the families under the Alien Tort Claims Act “for damages sufficient to punish Blackwater and its founder and CEO, Erik Prince.” Sponsored by a U.S. organization called the Center for Constitutional Rights, this suit may be the only way to hold Blackwater accountable for its abuses in Nisour Square because of the “extraordinary coverup” engaged in by the U.S. government.

According to Scahill, Nisour Square wasn’t the first time Blackwater personnel outright murdered civilians in Iraq. Previously they’d shot a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice-president. What’s more, he said, “There’s a raging legal debate over whether any law can be applied to these individuals for crimes committed in Iraq.” He said Andrew Noonan, the Blackwater operative who killed the vice-presidential bodyguard, was flown out of Iraq and “lives in Seattle and is a free man today,” while “the families of Nisour Square have risen up from the shell of horror and proved themselves to be moral beings.”

To Scahill, that’s a moral challenge to Americans to do the same and stand up to the abuses of Blackwater and its competitors — and the relentless privatization agenda that the U.S. government is following by outsourcing more functions and authority to them. “Over the past eight years, we’ve seen the greatest transfer of public money and resources to the private sector in our history,” he said. “In Iraq today, there are 150,000 official U.S. military personnel and 180,000 private contractors representing 630 companies, many of them from countries whose governments are officially against the war. Forty percent of the money the U.S. is spending on the war goes to the private contractors, and they can use it for any purpose they want — including building their corporate infrastructure and making campaign contributions to politicians.”

What’s more, Scahill said, Blackwater is moving aggressively to have a “Plan B” in place in case the Iraq war actually ends: a share of a $15 billion contract from the U.S. government to fight — here comes the new buzz-word — “terrorists with drug ties.” This is code for Left-wing revolutionaries and political dissenters in Colombia and other Latin American countries — a market Blackwater has been trying to crack and take business away from one of its major competitors, DynCorp.

If Blackwater gets into Latin America, Scahill said, “the money is serious. Colombia gets $630 million from the U.S. government, allegedly for the ‘war on drugs,’ and it pays back half of it to U.S. private military companies. It’s really a counter-insurgency, and DynCorp and Blackwater is being used as a small-footprint approach to U.S. military involvement” now that the traditional ways the U.S. imposed its will on Latin America — direct invasions or CIA-sponsored coups — have become politically unsustainable.

Another potential growth area for Blackwater is running a private intelligence service for anyone who can pay. “Recently Erik Prince started his own private CIA — that’s their term for it — called Total Intelligence Solutions,” Scahill explained. “They say they’re going to ‘bring CIA-type services to the corporate world.’ They’re marketing their services to Fortune 500 corporations and governments. This private CIA is being run primarily by three individuals: J. Cofer Black, 28-year veteran of the CIA and the man who ran the CIA’s counter-terrorism center after 9/11, ran the ‘extraordinary rendition’ program and told the U.S. Congress that ‘after 9/11 the gloves came off’; Robert Richer, former deputy director of operations for the CIA, the man who briefed Bush on the growing Iraqi resistance and the CIA’s liaison to King Abdullah of Jordan; and Enrique ‘Rick’ Prada, an expert with the CIA’s ‘black operations’ unit.”

And these three are only the tip of the iceberg: Prince has recruited plenty of people from the CIA, FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to work for him. “The careers of these individuals are now all available for bidding on the open market,” Scahill said. “We now have 16 official government intelligence agencies headed by an official, Mike McConnell, who used to head the business association for private intelligence. Seventy percent of the U.S. intelligence budget is now in the hands of private, for-profit companies; and what is to prevent these corporations from injecting ‘intelligence’ to benefit a client or hurt a competitor?”

To make things even more depressing, Blackwater’s role in Iraq isn’t likely to go away or even shrink once George W. Bush leaves the White House. That’s partly because the Bush administration already quietly renewed Blackwater’s Iraq contract past its own term in office, but also because neither major-party Presidential candidate is promising a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. “John McCain is clearly the candidate of the war industry,” Scahill admitted, but he said that Barack Obama’s plan for Iraq would still leave 20,000 to 80,000 U.S. troops in place and maintain U.S. control over the Green Zone, the U.S. Embassy (described by Scahill as “that monstrous ‘embassy’ built with slave labor”) and the Baghdad International Airport.

Obama’s Iraq strategy would not only deny Iraqis full sovereignty over their own country and keep up to half as many U.S. troops in Iraq as were stationed there at the height of Bush’s “surge,” but according to Scahill there’s no way he could implement it without Blackwater. That’s because somebody has to maintain security for all the U.S. officials that would staff the Green Zone and the embassy — and that can’t be U.S. military personnel, partly because they’re already stretched too thin and partly because they don’t want to be in a position where they regularly confront unarmed Iraqi civilians.

Nor, at least immediately, can it be the State Department’s own security forces. There simply aren’t enough of them — according to Scahill, “right now Blackwater has more people in Iraq than the U.S. State Department has in the whole world” — and it would take at least three years to recruit and train enough State Department security agents to take over what Blackwater is doing now. “So to keep a U.S. presence in Iraq, Obama will have to use Blackwater,” Scahill said.

Indeed, twice during the question-and-answer period Scahill was asked whether Blackwater would ever stage a coup and take over the U.S. government — and both times he said his fondest wish was that there’d be political leaders in this country who would stand up to them and make them think they had to. So far, he said, Blackwater and the private military sector in general have got everything they wanted from the U.S. government and from both major parties.

Scahill’s depressing account of Obama’s more-of-the-same-only-a-little-less-of-it Iraq strategy wasn’t designed to discourage people from voting for him — even though Scahill witheringly described his friends who “are in love with Obama” as having “drunk the Kool-Aid.” What it means, he said, is that peace activists have to mobilize to force Obama to commit to a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq — and to do that now, while they still can leverage him with the threat of not voting for him if he doesn’t, rather than once he wins, when his principal political threat will be from the Right and it won’t matter what the Left thinks of him anymore.

“We have a moment for incredible change in this country,” Scahill said. “People are waking up to the dangers of the loss of our civil liberties and the U.S. being identified with torture. I wrote one book about one company, but that company embodies so much about what’s been wrong with this country in the last eight years. When as a society are we going to realize that those at the top who set the tone for these policies don’t get off the hook for Blackwater, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and the violations of our own civil liberties at home?”

For more information on Jeremy Scahill and his researches on Blackwater, visit his Web site at or read his articles on Blackwater for The Nation magazine at

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Palestinian Activist Speaks Out in San Diego

Rejects Two-State Solution, Demands “Right of Return”


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

Tall, well dressed and strikingly handsome, Palestinian activist Mahmoud Zubaidi didn’t mince words when he came to the Balboa Park Club in San Diego June 4 to speak at an event called “60 years of Al Nakba, The Destruction of Palestine: What happened, how this relates to the region today and why you should care.” After announcing that he was filling in for his wife, Ahlan Muhtaseb, who co-wrote the presentation with him and wasn’t available to give it because she’s in Syria due to illness in her family, Zubaidi bluntly told his audience that his topic was “the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians” at the hands of the Zionist émigrés who founded Israel — and the Western leaders who enabled them.

A research associate at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), Zubaidi is an active member of the San Diego branch of al-Awda Right to Return Coalition, This group’s purpose is to reverse the expulsion of the Palestinian people from their historic homeland in 1948 and allow them to return to what is now the state of Israel. It’s a highly controversial demand that virtually every political party in Israel rejects because granting it would likely lead to a Palestinian majority and an end of Israel’s character as a “Jewish state.” But to Zubaidi and his fellow al-Awda activists, return and the replacement of Israel with a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state covering all of historic Palestine is just simple justice.

“The nature of the conflict is not religious; it’s colonial and political,” Zubaidi explained. “Once we see the nature of Zionism, we see the nature of the force that drew them to the area. The native Palestinians are Muslims, Christians and Jews. Most of the Israelis are Europeans who fled persecution. During the conflict, a lot of the Palestinian Jews sided with the newcomers, although a lot of Jewish Palestinians are represented in the Palestinian Authority. In her research and oral histories from Palestinians in Lebanon, Ahlan found a pattern that most of the Palestinian Jews didn’t like what was going on and hated the newcomers.”

According to Zubaidi, for over a thousand years Jews “lived in relative harmony in the Arab and Muslim worlds.” Indeed, when the Christians reconquered Spain from the Muslim Moors in the 1400’s, most of Spain’s Jews fled to northern Africa “because they would be treated better” under Muslim rule. What changed was the formation of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, when a group of secular Jews, mostly from western Europe, came together and demanded not only that there should be a country earmarked for the Jewish people, but that it should be in historic Palestine even though Palestinian Arabs had been living there for over a thousand years.

“Most [religious] Jews believed in the return of Jews to Palestine only after the coming of the Messiah,” Zubaidi explained. “Zionism manipulated religion to make people believe that in order to be a good Jew, you had to go back and establish [a Jewish state in] the Holy Land.” The early Zionists had key support from the government of Great Britain, which gained control of Palestine during World War I as the old Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, which at its height had ruled all the Middle East, most of northern Africa and much of Europe, tottered towards extinction and ultimately disintegrated.

Zubaidi mentioned a secret treaty between the foreign ministers of Britain and France, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which carved up the Middle East between those two countries; France got most of Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got what was then called “Transjordan” — essentially modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan — and Iraq, in addition to its already strong influence in Egypt. The following year, 1917, Britain issued what was called the Balfour Declaration, promising the world’s Jews a national homeland in Palestine — and in order to put that into effect the British government started granting more visas to Jews seeking to emigrate there. According to Zubaidi, Zionist organizations “paid money to the British government for access to the Holy Land.”

The next step towards the creation of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians to make room for a Jewish population came, Zubaidi said, in 1942, when the international Zionist movement held a convention in Baltimore. This, he explained, was the first time the Zionists “changed their idea of Palestine from a ‘national homeland’ to a ‘national state.’ A ‘homeland’ means you migrate and live among the people there, the way people who immigrate to the United States live according to our laws and rules. A ‘state’ means you have to kick out the native inhabitants.’”

This, Zubaidi said, was exactly what the Jewish settlers in Palestine did in 1947-48 when they came en masse and drove out the Palestinians at gunpoint in what has come to be called al-Nakba — Arabic for “the catastrophe.” “You had families who had literally lived in their homes for a thousand years, who ended up in refugee camps living on United Nations food aid,” Zubaidi said. The Jewish settlers came with the approval of the international community — a 1948 United Nations resolution had allocated 54 percent of Palestine to Jews and only 45 percent to its indigenous inhabitants, even though when the resolution passed Jews owned only 6.7 percent of Palestine’s land — and the parts of Palestine left to its Arab natives were further divided by the 1948 armistice agreement, which separated the West Bank from Gaza.

As part of his presentation, Zubaidi showed a series of images of life in Palestine in the 1930’s complete with modern buildings, well-kept streets and then-new cars, and bluntly said that “the good life ended for Palestinians” when Israel took over. “In 1948 there was a massacre in Ramallah,” he said. “The Palestinians were forced to leave and three Jewish gangs with guns drove the Palestinians out of their land.” He also cited a massacre at Deir Yassin by two Jewish terrorist organizations, the Stern Gang and the Irgun, whose head, Menachem Begin, would later become prime minister of Israel. Zubaidi said similar events happened throughout Palestine in 1947-48, and the only distinctive thing about the Deir Yassin massacre was that the New York Times reported it at the time (April 10, 1948).

According to Zubaidi, Israeli spokespeople like former prime minister Shimon Peres claim to this day that the Zionist settlers who came after World War II “didn’t have weapons or planes,” when the reports of the time said they did. “In 1948, with the creation of Israel, 800,000 Palestinians were displaced over 77 percent of the land. In 1967 [when Israel occupied the rest of historic Palestine after the Six-Day War], a new forced emigration of 330,000 Palestinians took place.” Today, Zubaidi said, 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, 600,000 more in Syria, while others are scattered throughout the region in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

“The Palestinians are in miserable living conditions with internal turmoil,” Zubaidi said. “In any civil war in their host countries, they are always in the middle. Their education is almost zero because they have to fight for day-to-day living. … My brothers tell me about going to school in tents, and it’s still happening.” What’s more, while the Israelis and their Western enablers are primarily responsible for the Palestinians’ plight, their Arab neighbors haven’t exactly welcomed them with open arms either, Zubaidi conceded. They were relatively well assimilated in Jordan and in Syria they were allowed to own land, but only in partnership with a Syrian. In Iraq they were relatively well treated when the Ba’ath regime was founded in 1963, but their situation deteriorated when Saddam Hussein took over in 1979 and, not surprisingly, got even worse after the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Zubaidi said that Israel has mounted occasional attacks on Palestinian communities since 1948. “In 1958 the Israelis systematically destroyed the city of Emmaus” — where Jesus Christ is supposed to have walked the earth and shown himself to his disciples after the Resurrection — “until nothing was left,” he said. “Areas like these are empty right now because they’re still working on taking more of Jerusalem and building settlements. More than 400 Palestinian villages have been destroyed.”

But the occasional Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians aren’t the worst of it, Zubaidi contended. “Palestinians live every day under Israeli harassment, a systematic ethnic cleansing meant to force people to leave,” he said. “Their land is continually taken away from them bit by bit, sometimes for settlements, sometimes for access roads, sometimes for the ‘separation wall’ to cut them off from water and make their lives unbearable, so they leave, especially if their schools are targeted.” Zubaidi showed a short Internet video called The Killing Zone “that shows how children are being shot at in the schools. Once you hit the kids, the parents will say, ‘I can’t stay here. I have to leave for the sake of my kids.’”

In talking about the wall, Zubaidi said that its purpose is not to protect Israel against “Palestinian terrorists,” as the Israeli government claims. “You can always cross the wall,” he said (a claim that America’s experience with the U.S.-Mexico border fence is bearing out). “It’s just there to make their lives harder, and we’re all paying for that with our tax dollars. You have $15 billion of American tax money going to Israel every year for weapons and funding.” At this point in the presentation he explained that most Palestinians who have a living at all are farmers, and showed a slide of a woman hugging an olive tree that had just been pulled down by Israeli soldiers — thus “clearing the land” at the expense of her livelihood.

Throughout his presentation, every time Zubaidi showed a slide, the upper left corner of the screen contained an image of an old-fashioned key. This, he explained, has become a major visual symbol of Palestinian liberation and their determination to regain control over their homeland. “When the Palestinian refugees left in 1948,” he said, “they hoped to return within hours or days. They still have their keys and the deeds to their old homes and lands. You talk to people in refugee camps who owned hundreds of acres, and now they live in two rooms and are passing away with no hope in sight. Their children are growing up with that dream in mind because they are not complete until they can return.” Meanwhile, Zubaidi explained, the Israelis have learned from the former apartheid government of South Africa — which they were the last country in the world to recognize — how to maintain power over indigenous people who outnumber them.

So what can the Palestinians and their advocates elsewhere in the world do about this? According to Zubaidi, the model should be the successful international campaign that finally helped bring down South African apartheid. “We need economic sanctions against Israel, stopping the [U.S.] government from sending millions of dollars to Israel,” he said. He also argued for boycotts against Israeli academics on the ground that they have to support “the racist nature of the Israeli government” and a boycott against Israeli medicine as well. The last he justified on the basis of a 1996 report by Amnesty International that documented systematic discrimination against Palestinians by Israel’s medical system. “You’re only allowed to receive care in Israel itself — not in the occupied territories — and only for ‘life-threatening’ emergencies, as the Israelis define them,” Zubaidi explained. “An amputation is not considered ‘life-threatening.’”

Zubaidi’s action plan also includes educating the public in the U.S. and elsewhere, direct relief to refugees in Palestine (including psychological aid) and “legal action against specific individuals who are responsible for the daily suffering the Palestinians have undergone from 1948 to now: people like [former Israeli prime minister] Ariel Sharon for the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila [Palestinian refugee camps inside Lebanon]. We should take them to international courts.”

One thing that isn’t on the agenda of Zubaidi and his fellow al-Awda members is the creation of a separate Palestinian state. Not only have the Israelis’ actions in the occupied territories — the steady expansion of settlements regardless of which political parties were in power; the criss-crossing of the West Bank with walls and “access roads,” which Palestinians are forbidden to use; and the sealing off of Gaza that has turned it into a virtual open-air prison — rendered a Palestinian state non-viable, but according to Zubaidi the very idea was yet another way for Israel to attack the Palestinians by luring them into a phony “peace process.”

“The two-state solution is a recipe for disaster,” Zubaidi said with his characteristic bluntness. “By acquiring more land and building more settlements, Israel has ruined the two-state solution before it was implemented. Refugees are definitely 100 percent asking for return to their original homes.” Instead, al-Awda advocates a “one-state solution, secular and democratic, one-person, one-vote, not binational or federal, with 100 percent return of refugees. Israelis who want to stay can stay. Anyone who wants to go back can go back. This is the only solution for all the refugees, just like what happened in South Africa.”

Zubaidi’s denunciation of the two-state solution and his insistence that Palestinians not only be allowed to return to what is now Israel but be given back the very same land they or their ancestors occupied in 1948 sparked a lively discussion. One woman in the audience questioned whether it was fair to punish Israelis for what their ancestors did in 1948 and drive them out of a country that’s the only one they’ve ever known in their lives. By contrast, a man in the audience was even more militant than Zubaidi and insisted that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was an historical mistake and needs to be corrected.

Asked whether it was “realistic” to expect the end of Israel and its replacement with a multi-ethnic, secular democratic state over all Palestine, Zubaidi fired back, “Is it realistic to drive natives from their land, steal their land, demolish their homes and bring other people in to live there? There are two options: a pure Jewish state or a state that includes Palestinians and Israelis.”

Bi Forum Hosts Sexuality Conference


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

Photos, top to bottom: Victor Olivares, Kellly Frizell, Dr. Regina Reinhardt, Kamala Devi, Tony & Ashley

Not many events hosted by groups in what’s awkwardly come to be called the “LGBT” community — for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender” — actually represent all four of those populations. But the conference on sexuality sponsored by the Bisexual Forum of San Diego at the Rubber Rose in North Park May 27 did just that. The panel included Bisexual Forum co-founder Dr. Regina Reinhardt; self-styled “bliss coach and author” Kamala Devi, who described her evolution from an exclusive Lesbian identification to bisexuality and polyamory; Gay student activist Victor Olivares; young Lesbian Kelly Frizell, who talked about surprising sources of support as well as opposition in the small town in which she grew up; and a Transgender couple who identified themselves only as Tony and Ashley, female-to-male and male-to-female Transsexuals who fell in love and got married.

The conference was organized and moderated by Bisexual Forum co-coordinator Daniel Watman. He set it up mainly to explore the idea that younger people are responding to a social environment more accepting of non-mainstream sexualities by being less militant, less concerned about “coming out” and adopting a Queer identity of one sort or another, and more willing merely to live their lives and express themselves sexually with whatever willing partners they encounter, regardless of their gender. Watman began the evening with a brief videotape from his interview with author Gore Vidal, published in the June 2008 Zenger’s, in which Vidal argued — as he long has — that the entire concept of “sexual orientation” is a myth and people are no more “born homosexual” than they are “born heterosexual.” “What do you think Julius Caesar would have done if he were asked, ‘My Lord, what is your sexual preference, or your sexual designs and strategies? What is it, Caesar?’,” Vidal joked in the taped interview. “He’d have sent you off to have your head chopped off.”

After the introduction, Oliveros spoke first, and indicated that for many in his generation, the wrenching struggles older Queers often went through over “coming out” and being visible are beside the point. “Some young Gay men like to be ‘out there and proud,’” he said, “but for myself and a lot of my friends, that doesn’t matter. A lot of my friends haven’t told their parents or grandparents. They’re just letting it happen, and it’s unspoken. I came out to my family and friends and was welcomed with open arms. The shocker for me is the whole Bisexual thing. I dated girls and had relations with women, but now that I’m comfortable in my own skin [as a Gay man], I can’t understand it.”

Dr. Reinhardt, who spoke next, reported that she had just returned from representing the American Institute of Bisexuality at a conference on Queer sexuality at the University of Mayaguez in Puerto Rico — and found that many of the people she spoke to there had the same difficulty understanding bisexuality as Oliveros did. “They had no idea about bisexuality,” she said. “They thought you’re either straight or Gay.” Dr. Reinhardt’s workshop was on the Klein Sexual Grid, a development of the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation created by the late Dr. Fritz Klein, author of the book The Bisexual Option and co-founder of the Bisexual Forum. “People were really interested” in testing themselves by the Klein grid, she said, adding that “we found out several people were Bi-inclined.”

“It’s becoming a bit easier [for young people] to be ‘not straight,’” said Frizell, deliberately picking a term that dodged both the awkwardness of the “LGBT” acronym and the negative connotations still associated with the word “Queer.” Frizell described coming out as “a process” and recalled growing up in “a pretty conservative town” — Vacaville, California — “and I was pretty intense about coming out. I shaved my head and was very androgynous-looking. My mom cried every time I came out of my room.” Despite the cow-town (the literal meaning of “Vacaville”) atmosphere, she added, “at my high school there were successful Gay adults, and I gravitated towards their classrooms because I found those safe places. I was lucky to have a diverse social system.”

Frizell said that she’s faced issues not only with straight people but fellow Lesbians who pre-judge her personal style on the “femme/butch” continuum. Oliveros said he too has dealt with fellow Gays who don’t think he’s “Gay enough,” whatever that means. “When I looked more butch, I got questioned by straight people more often,” Frizell said.

Devi said that she had a coming-out experience much like Frizell’s — “I was with women exclusively for seven years” — but then she met and fell in love with a man “who was more ‘woman’ than anyone I’d ever met.” Once she got involved in this relationship, she explained, “I had to come out to the Lesbian community as Bisexual.” She said she works as a “relationship coach” and found that the more honest she is with herself, the better she’s able to work with clients who come to her for help with their relationship issues — and the more comfortable other people she meets socially are around her.

One of the dicier issues Devi raised from her own life is “polyamory” — a relationship with multiple partners simultaneously that flies in the face of the one-at-a-time social norm for heterosexuals — and increasingly, with marriage equality becoming the number one political issue of the Queer community, Gays and Lesbians as well. “I’ve got a lover who’s a woman inside a man, my husband has a girlfriend and we’re sharing a boyfriend,” Devi explained. “Polyamory Pride is a lot different because I’ve accepted myself and I don’t have that need to make it a big deal. I really think that the feelings people have about coming out are about their own personal acceptance, and the reactions they get are reflective of where they are.”

“Transsexual doesn’t mean sexuality,” said Tony. “I’ve always been attracted to women.” He admitted that he hadn’t always understood this himself: “I thought it was about sexual orientation until I started transitioning. It’s just the essence of who we are inside, and why we’re born into the wrong body, I have no idea. … When I was first transitioning, the hardest times for me were when sometimes I was called ‘he’ and sometimes ‘she.’” Joking that he was born in Texas, “not the best place to be Transgender, Gay or Bi,” he was clearly proud that he’s made such a complete transition that “unless I tell someone I’m Transsexual, they don’t have a clue. … If people get to know me first as a human being, I’m accepted.”

Ashley, his partner, took issue with Vidal’s statement on the tape that sexual orientation is no more consequential than what kind of food you like. “I wouldn’t choose what I have gone through,” she said. “I grew up as a male, and men are socialized completely differently from women.” Not knowing anything about Transgender people when she was growing up, Ashley recalled, “I tried being ultra-masculine … to hide that side of me. Then I got to a point where I just couldn’t live like that anymore.” Though Ashley acknowledged that “sometimes the physical transition comes before the mental transition,” she made it clear that for her it had been the other way around.

Most of the audience questions at the event went to Tony and Ashley. Asked if each of them had known the other was a Transsexual when they started their relationship, Tony and Ashley both said yes. Tony said that dating Ashley “was different than anything before. Because we were both Transgender, we were a lot more aware of each other.”

“To me, it was about who Tony is,” Ashley said. “ I was really attracted to Tony. We really got to know each other first, and it was a long time before we had sex.”

“With a Transgender couple like us,” Tony joked, “before the surgery it’s a foursome and afterwards it was back to two.” More seriously, he added, “What I’ve come to discover is that when you’re Transsexual you end up burying so much of who you are, and after you transition you discover much of what is buried. I got in touch with my internalized homophobia as I got more comfortable with myself. Now I’m O.K., and wherever it goes is wherever it goes.”

A female-to-male Transsexual who said he’d grown up in Kuwait commented that “there’s a lot of bisexuality in Kuwait, and it’s all closeted. It was easier to portray myself as Bisexual because I thought that would be more acceptable.”

Tony responded by recalling his geographical transition as well as his gender one. “I moved to San Diego at 18 and I’m 40 now,” he said. “My parents died two years ago, and I couldn’t go back for their funerals because it was a small town and going back would have put my and my family’s lives in danger.”

One audience member asked Devi what helped her make the transition towards accepting herself as a polyamorist. “It sounds like you’re doing this exploration and observing your own transformation,” she replied. “Everybody deals with this differently, and what’s going to make it easier is when you have a conversation. Maybe have a conversation about what it’s like to be fluid” — “fluid” being a favorite term among Bisexuals to describe an orientation that can encompass more than one gender or more than one person at a time.

“Increasing communication with the people around you might help them feel better, because a lot of [their non-acceptance] is just ignorance,” Devi added — words that could describe just about any coming-out process. “When I don’t know what’s going on, I talk about it. What has made my path easier is having role models. What’s in the media is not representative. You need to meet people in the community who handle it well. We have to work hard to find positive role models. The mainstream has a strong current in one direction, and if we’re going to survive against that current, we have to come together.”

San Diego restaurateur and Bisexual Forum treasurer Carlos Legaspy asked a question about another topic on the list of issues open for discussion at the conference: whether the Queer community is losing its separate identity as alternative sexualities become more socially acceptable. “For a long time, we felt like we were in a war,” he said. “Now there’s a Wall Street Journal article called ‘The Death of the Gay Bar.’ Will we reach a point where sexual orientation is not an issue?”

“I don’t have Gaydar,” Oliveros joked, “and I like to go to a bar where I know the guys are Gay. The whole Bi organization needs to question this role. Carlos convinced me he’s Bi. I’m not against it, I just didn’t understand it. I guess it would help people coming out to have a way to identify with other people going through the same thing.”

Asked if the Gay/straight divide is dissolving all over the country or just in relatively open, cosmopolitan cities like San Francisco or New York, Reinhardt bluntly said, “If your life is being threatened, you can’t be who you are.”

Frizell, who had previously made her teen years seem a model for being accepted even in an unlikely environment — “I graduated from high school in 2000 and two years before there were already plans for a Gay-Straight Alliance” — backtracked a bit when that question came up. “I was involved with a hate crime in high school and I was subpoenaed in court,” she recalled. “I was called a dyke and a Nazi. Safe spaces can exist in unsafe places, and unsafe spaces in safe places. Everyone can exist in an unsafe environment.” She then cited an example that had nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity: the way that, due to gangs and the various “territories” they have staked out, “people in southeast Los Angeles know when they can walk where.”

“The benefit of living in San Diego is you get people from everywhere,” Oliveros said. “Friends of mine who grew up in Texas tell me they played it safe in high school — they played sports and had girlfriends — and after high school they came out.”

“We have to educate people,” Reinhardt said in summation. “That’s the only answer.”