Friday, February 27, 2009

Club Honors Black Queers, Hears Attack on Water Privatization


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: Cory Lopez, Food and Water Watch

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club heard a Black History Month presentation February 26 by former club president Jeri Dilno about notable people of African descent (mostly, but not entirely, African-Americans) who are well known or strongly believed to have been Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender. But the agenda of the club’s regular meeting also encompassed a long goodbye from its immediate past president, Andrea Villa; an effusive round of thank-yous from the new president taking her place, Larry Baza; and a presentation from Cory Lopez of the Food and Water Watch project of Public Citizen opposing San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plan to privatize all or part of the city’s water service.

“It’s been a challenging two years,” Villa said of her term as club president. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in which we’ve been personally challenged, politically challenged and challenged to be our better selves. No one leads alone; I want to thank you for your faith in me and your candor. It has been a great honor for me to serve this club. It’s a great example of what a number of otherwise marginalized individuals can do.” Villa alluded to the divisive Presidential campaign (when the club first voted on the Presidential race in November 2007 Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were the front-runners, and Barack Obama barely beat out Dennis Kucinich for third place in the club’s poll) and the frustrations around the marriage equality issue: the exultation of the victory when the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional; the devastation when California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8 in November, writing the ban into the state constitution; the explosion of street activism from the Queer community in the wake of the defeat; and the statewide plans for a coordinated response on March 4, the day before the court will hear arguments over whether Proposition 8 is valid.

In a symbolic bit of bridge-building, the club officers for 2009 were sworn in by newly elected City Councilmember Todd Gloria — and Gloria was introduced by the man he defeated in that election, former club president Stephen Whitburn. “I’m disappointed that I didn’t finish first, but Todd was my second choice,” said Whitburn, who thanked Gloria in particular for his high visibility on the marriage equality issue since the November election. “He has been at all the events, representing our community, just as Toni Atkins did when she was Councilmember in District 3,” Whitburn said. “I think we can all be honored as a club that the first openly Gay male Democrat on the San Diego City Council is here to swear in our board.”

After thanking Whitburn in turn for staying involved in the club and local politics in general, Gloria said, “I bring you greetings from your 6-2 Democratic City Council majority. We were having a budget hearing in Del Cerro and they understood why I was leaving early to come here. I want you to know our Democratic-controlled City Council is delivering for you.” Gloria thanked Sherri Lightner, a former engineer, for taking a lead on developing high-tech and biotech jobs in San Diego; Tony Young for taking control of the budget process and sending Mayor Sanders “a signal that we are not going to balance the city’s budget on the backs of schoolchildren and workers,” and Donna Frye for taking the lead on requiring developers to make their projects environmentally friendly.

After Gloria swore in the club’s new board — not only the elected officials but also the people president Baza has appointed to fulfill other necessary responsibilities, including volunteer coordination, special events and the newsletter, it was Cory Lopez’ turn to present the case against water privatization. “We’ve worked against water privatization in Milwaukee, Atlanta, New Orleans and Stockton,” she said of herself and her Food and Water Watch organization. “Over the past 10-15 years we’ve seen an increase in private water companies approaching cities and meeting with city councilmembers and mayors to take over their water utilities.”

Private water companies hit cities especially aggressively when they’re in financial binds and would have trouble raising taxes or water fees to modernize their water systems. They typically promise, Lopez said, “to save costs and improve service” — but all too many cities who’ve actually privatized have found out that the opposite happens. “Water quality has been compromised and rates have increased up to 40 percent in a year,” Lopez said. “In Indianapolis they privatized the water, and surge spills increased so much the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in and fined the city for polluting. … In Atlanta, the water was running brown for months and rates went up. These corporations cut jobs and keep costs down by not maintaining facilities as they should.”

What’s more, Lopez said, once a city has entered into an ill-advised privatization, the companies demand huge sums in order to allow the city to cancel their contracts. In Stockton, the city government spent $3 million in legal fees on behalf of the private water contractor before grass-roots activists won a court ruling invalidating the contract. In another California city, Felton, the cost of buying out the private water company was $10.5 million to buy out the company plus assuming $2.9 million in debt the company had taken out to build a new treatment plant. Felton’s voters had to agree to pay $800 per parcel per year in additional property taxes to raise the money. Lopez also pointed out that in Indianapolis, even though the private water company had been responsible for the pollution against which the EPA took action, it was the city — the legally liable party — that had to pay the feds the fine.

After Lopez’s presentation, Dilno took the podium to deliver her presentation on Queers of African descent. Some of the names were familiar figures from the arts world: writers James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Audré Lorde and Alice Walker; singers Josephine Baker, Johnny Mathis and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey; dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey; composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn; and filmmaker Marlon Riggs. Others, including former Congressmember Barbara Jordan — the first African-American woman to speak at a major-party political convention in the U.S. — former UCSD professor Angela Davis, and South African anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli, who helped make post-apartheid South African the first country in the world to grant Queer people equal rights in its constitution — were major political figures.

The list also included Glenn Burke, the first major-league baseball player to come out as Gay; Perry Watkins, who successfully challenged the U.S. military’s ban on open Queers in service; and a surprise, Benjamin Banneker, son of an emancipated slave and his white female former owner, who is acknowledged in U.S. history books as having been a pioneer in U.S. astronomy and clockmaking and having assisted in laying out the street plans for Washington, D.C. Banneker’s name and reputation have made it into the history books but his sexuality hasn’t, though he never married and all his known expressions of emotional affection were towards men. (Dilno’s list, from a Web site at Marshall University, did not include George Washington Carver, another pioneering African-American scientist who is also believed to have been Gay.)

A number of the other names were of activists who aren’t well known but have had important behind-the-scenes roles in advancing both African-American and Queer civil rights. Among these were Keith Boykin, who served the Clinton administration as outreach director to the so-called “specialty press”; Mandy Carter, field director for the National Black Lesbian and Gay leadership Forum (an organization Boykin once headed); Owen Vincent Dodson, who headed the Howard University Players and in 1949 took them on the first State Department-sponsored European tour by a Black theatre company; and Nadine Smith, executive director of the Human Rights Task Force of Florida.

The list also served as a grim reminder of the toll the AIDS epidemic took on the Queer community. Ailey, Burke, Nkoli, Riggs and Watkins all died of complications from AIDS, as did quite a few people on the longer Marshall University list whom Dilno didn’t cite, while Hansberry, Lorde and Strayhorn died of cancer and Jordan of multiple sclerosis. An even grimmer fate overtook Tyra Hunter, a Transgender resident of Washington, D.C. who was involved in an automobile accident in 1995. Upon discovering that Hunter, who presented as female, still had male genitalia, the emergency medical technician stopped treating her, laughed at her and allowed her to die.

Web links:
Marshall University list of Queers of African descent:
Food and Water Watch: