Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Queer Democrats Endorse Busby for Congress — Barely

Three-Hour Meeting Also Features Queer History Presentation


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Francine Busby, Tracy Emblem, Toni Atkins, Mary Salas

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club narrowly endorsed Francine Busby’s fourth attempt to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from San Diego’s North County area at their regular meeting June 25. The endorsement came towards the end of a three-hour meeting in which the club also endorsed former San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins for the California Assembly seat now held by Lori Saldaña and Assemblymember Mary Salas for State Senate, despite questions from some members that the club shouldn’t be endorsing at all for elections in June and November 2010 until the official filing period for candidates early next year.

“The endorsement should be based on two things: values and viability,” Busby said to the club in her opening statement. “There are three things about viability. One is money; I set a goal of $200,000 for this quarter. One is name recognition: voters don’t want to fire someone” — like Republican Brian Bilbray, who has held the 50th District Congressional seat since beating Busby in a 2006 special election following the guilty plea of Randy “Duke” Cunningham to charges of accepting $2.4 million in bribes — “without knowing who they’re going to replace him with. The second is my relationships with volunteers and voters. I have been working this district for five years. The third is likability.”

One factor complicating the endorsement was the appearance of a challenger to Busby in the Democratic primary: Tracy Emblem. “I think it’s going to take a fresh voice and a fighting spirit to beat Bilbray,” she said. She pointed to her direct experience with Queer issues — “ I had a Gay brother who died of AIDS in 1991 and I was at his marriage in the hospital in 1990,” she recalled — her work as the appellate attorney for Ken Marsh, who was unjustly convicted of murder and spent over 20 years in prison for the death of his girlfriend’s two-year-old son, later ruled an accident, and her endorsement by the Plumbers’ and Pipefitters’ Union. “They believed in me, and I’m asking all of you to look at me,” said Emblem, who asked the club to delay its endorsement.

Club members questioned the candidates on their former party affiliations — “Both candidates admit that they haven’t been lifelong Democrats,” club vice-president for political action Alex Sachs said — and their stands on Queer-rights issues, notably marriage equality, a Trans-inclusive federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring Queer people from serving openly in the U.S. military. The questions on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality were aimed not only at getting the candidates to commit on record but to pledge to make their stands known in a district with a culturally conservative reputation.

“’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ has become a national security issue,” Busby said. “When they let colonels and translators go, that’s absolutely unacceptable. People are starting to understand.” On the marriage equality issue, Busby stated, “People’s choices on marriage are up to them.” In a later question, Busby said that she had helped organize major fundraisers against Proposition 8 in North County and had lent her lists of Queer contacts to those events. She also said she had heavily publicized the No on 8 campaign in her newsletter, The Buzz, and published the dates, times and locations of No on 8 meetings. Emblem, by contrast, said only that she’d driven with a No on 8 bumper sticker and got her children to vote against it.

Busby was asked why she didn’t explicitly endorse equal access to civil marriage for same-sex couples when she filled out the club’s questionnaire, as Emblem did. “I do support civil unions,” Busby explained. “I do think in this country we have to define civil marriage, as opposed to religious marriage, and as a federal candidate I would be asked two specific things. Would you support DoMA [the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states]? I would not support the Defense of Marriage Act. I would support marriage being available to every man and woman, or man and man, or woman and woman, because marriage should be a civil right for all people. I support civil marriage for same-sex couples.”

“The right to form a family is such a basic right that nobody should be able to deny that,” Emblem said. “That is a right I will fight for.” In their closing remarks, Busby stressed her experience as a candidate and ability to raise money, and Emblem cited her own professional experience in support of her viability as a candidate. “I’ve written 300 writs and appeals,” Emblem said. “I’ve appeared before the California Supreme Court. I want you to look at me. I have hired a professional team from Washington, D.C. to work with me on my campaign. I’m going to organize and target precincts. It’s too early to endorse in this race.”

The club’s debate on the endorsement was highly intense and emotional, and featured the rare spectacle of two former club presidents coming out on opposite sides. “I would like your consideration to vote for no endorsement,” said Stephen Whitburn. “We have a candidate [Busby] who’s likely to have the support of the party establishment, and another [Emblem] who’s more likely to support our issues. Busby dodged the question of marriage equality, and only when she was pressed tonight did she say she would support civil marriage [for same-sex couples]. We need candidates who will forcefully stand up for our right to marry. We should not get behind a candidate at this time who’s tepid on marriage equality, especially when there’s another candidate who is solid and outspoken on it.”

“Francine is strong on our issues,” said Andrea Villa. “The idea here is she is viable, we know her she knows us, and perhaps now [that she’s running] the state Democratic party, as well as the county party, will get behind this race. She is a strong Democrat running against a strongly supported Republican wonder boy. I believe she came closer than anyone else had, and as much as the universe revolves around me and around this club, we are not the only Democrats in the room. There are other important progressive issues in this room. We are very important constituents, and I believe that if we are going to get that man [Bilbray] out of that seat, we need a winning candidate now, and that means endorsing tonight.”

Allan Acevedo, president of the Stonewall Young Democrats — the club’s affiliated youth organization — also came out for Busby. “Money is an important part of the campaign,” he said. “Francine may be a three-time loser, but so was Harvey Milk and he won the fourth time out.” Acevedo also attacked Emblem for having duplicated copies of her answers to the club’s questionnaire and given them to everyone at the meeting, calling it “a waste of resources” — a criticism even another Busby supporter, Michelle Krug, thought was misplaced.

“I have to go with no endorsement,” said Lisa Kove, the club’s volunteer chair and a major activist in the local No on 8 campaign as well as for marriage equality since the election. “In No on 8 I called and e-mailed Francine to ask her to put ‘Vote No on 8’ on her newsletter or her Web site. I asked her 20 times and she did not. The last time she said she had lots of causes and that was only one of them. We will look horrible if we endorse someone who will not support us.” Later former club president and current San Diego Democratic Party chair Jess Durfee said that Busby had published in her newsletter the state party’s endorsements on the propositions on the November 2008 ballot, including No on 8 — and that she publicly opposed the initiative while serving as his vice-chair.

The club’s two-step endorsement process requires members to vote on whether to endorse in a particular race at all. Then, if the motion to endorse passes, the club then votes on whom to endorse. The vote to endorse passed with 30 in favor, 24 opposed and two abstentions. The first vote on whom to endorse went similarly, with 30 votes for Busby, five for Emblem and 25 for no endorsement — leading to another round of debate in which one Busby supporter said Emblem’s backers were being hypocrites for voting for no endorsement instead of to endorse Emblem. On the second ballot, Busby picked up six more votes and squeaked past the club’s 60-percent threshold for an endorsement with one vote to spare — 36 votes to 22 for no endorsement.

The controversy over the Busby endorsement stretched the total time of the meeting to almost three hours and overshadowed several less controversial endorsements. The club endorsed openly Lesbian former City Councilmember Toni Atkins in her candidacy to replace termed-out Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, with 50 votes in favor, three against and one abstention. It also endorsed Assemblymember Mary Salas to replace another termed-out legislator, Denise Moreno Ducheny, in the 40th State Senate district, by a similarly lopsided margin: 55 votes in favor, two against and three abstentions — an early endorsement driven largely by the fear that former Assemblymember Juan Vargas, considered much less Queer-friendly than Salas, will run against her in the Democratic primary for the seat.

The club was also scheduled to consider a number of so-called “friendly incumbent” endorsements — either openly Queer officials in other states or regions, or officeholders whose track records show so great a commitment to Queer community issues the club’s executive board sees no need to subject them to the usual process of a questionnaire and a personal appearance. Some of the “friendly incumbents” are also national or state officeholders for whom the requirements are waived because they’re impractical. The club gave “friendly incumbent” endorsements to local Congressmember Bob Filner, Assemblymember John Pérez (D-Coachella Valley), state treasurer Bill Lockyer, state controller John Chiang, secretary of state Debra Bowen and openly Queer Congressmembers Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Jared Polis (D-CO).

But three people on the list of proposed “friendly endorsement” incumbents were pulled by club members for later debate — which, since the meeting went on so long, was postponed to the next scheduled meeting on July 23. They were local Congressmember Susan Davis, Massachusetts Congressmember Barney Frank and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The decision to pull the Davis endorsement may well have reflected the frustration of certain club members who tried to revisit the early endorsement she got last time when a progressive primary opponent emerged and challenged Davis’s votes for the so-called “supplemental appropriations” bills to fund the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The person who asked to pull Boxer cited her joining the overwhelming U.S. Senate vote to deny President Obama his request for $80 million to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The meeting opened with a presentation by San Diego State University history professor and San Diego Lesbian/Gay Archives chair Frank Nobiletti commemorating the 40th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York. Nobiletti recalled that when the Stonewall riot happened, he was living in New York but so deeply closeted that “I saw the little item on page 10 in the New York Times and slammed the paper shut lest anybody catch me reading it.” He also reviewed some of the early history of Queer organizing in San Diego.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

SAME Hosts “Radical” Marriage Equality Meeting June 23

Robin Tyler Challenges the Queer Establishment and Democratic Party


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

PHOTO: Robin Tyler (right) and her wife, Diane Olson

“I am to the Gay establishment what the Antichrist is to the Catholic Church,” said Lesbian comedienne, tour promoter and activist Robin Tyler in her keynote speech at the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality’s (SAME) meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center June 23. The meeting was billed as a discussion of how to move forward on the marriage equality issue — but there’d already been a meeting on that topic the day before, sponsored by statewide organizations Equality California and the Courage Campaign as part of a tour across California to get community input on the future of marriage equality and in particular whether to seek a repeal of Proposition 8 in 2010 or 2012. The SAME meeting became a wide-ranging criticism of the role of state organizations in the marriage equality campaign and a call for grass-roots activism by internally democratic, community-led groups that refuse to take orders on strategy or tactics from the large statewide organizations.

Tyler, who along with her wife Diane Olson was one of the original plaintiffs in the marriage equality cases that led to the California Supreme Court’s May 2008 ruling upholding the right of same-sex couples to marry — and the successful initiative, Proposition 8, that overturned it six months later — said she’d been trying for months to set up a speech in San Diego “and everyone said they were too busy.” Much of her presentation reviewed the history of the Queer rights movement and the demand for marriage equality in particular. The first same-sex couple to marry legally in the U.S. tied the knot in Minnesota in 1971, she explained; that state’s marriage law had never explicitly defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and the two men took advantage of that loophole. Three years later, she said, Anthony Sullivan, an Australian living in Arizona, took advantage of a similar legal situation to marry his U.S.-born partner and thereby qualify for legal residency.

Tyler gave a long history of the Queer community’s various National Marches on Washington — in 1979, 1987, 1993 and 2000 — as a prologue to explaining why she doesn’t support the call for a march this year and why she would prefer the community wait until 2010. “I called for the first March on Washington,” she said, pointing out that she did so in the late 1970’s while Anita Bryant was on the warpath against Queers and Harvey Milk was virtually unknown outside San Francisco. When she issued her call for a march and set up a committee in Minnesota to plan it, Tyler recalled, “my first call was from Harvey Milk, who said, ‘We don’t need a march. I just got elected.’ I asked him where he’d just got elected and he said, ‘San Francisco.’ When Harvey first started out, he was rather conservative. He really believed in change through the system, and both the Gay establishment and the Democratic Party didn’t want him to run.”

After three months of planning, Tyler recalled, “the Minnesota committee collapsed because the women weren’t talking to the men.” But the March got a new lease on life in July, 1978, when Milk changed his mind and endorsed it. Even so, Tyler said, “the people in New York didn’t want to do a March on Washington” — until Milk was killed in November 1978. Eventually the March happened and drew 100,000 people. Tyler worked the stage in 1979 and again in 1987, when she fought the rest of the march organizing committee to allow Cleve Jones, Milk’s former assistant and organizer of the NAMES Project AIDS quilt, to display the quilt as part of the march. In 1993, Tyler had to fight again, this time to include lifting the ban on Queers serving openly in the U.S. military as one of the issue demands of the March. She also said that President Clinton had arranged to speak at the 1993 march, then backed out and sent greetings instead — and Tyler tore up his greetings on stage and said they were from “somebody who shouldn’t matter.”

The current march plans began in the fall of 2008, when Tyler called for a march “in 2010 or 2012” — intending that it should be in an election year to put more pressure on President Obama and Congressional Democrats to support Queer issues. “Cleve Jones called me and said, ‘What a stupid idea. It’ll drain resources from California,’” Tyler said. “Now Cleve, David Mixner and Torie Osborn have called for a March in 2009, just 16 weeks from now, because we’re a year away from the mid-term elections.” Tyler accused them of wanting to schedule the March at a time which will be completely safe and won’t hurt the Democrats’ chances in a Presidential or Congressional election — and she said that’s totally the wrong strategy because the Democrats have “screwed” the Queer community again and again. In a rally called to discuss marriage, Tyler called for divorce — the Queer community, she said, needs to break away completely from the Democratic party.

“We have no teeth, because we’ve never made the Democratic party pay for what they’ve done,” Tyler said. “I have been a Democrat all my life, and they have screwed us for 30 years. In 1979 the Democratic leadership made a deal with Steve Endean [then executive director of the Human Rights Campaign] and said if we took marriage off the table, they’d pass all our other civil rights legislation. Then, instead of advancing our civil rights in one package, they started to divide the issues — and it is now 2009 and we still do not have one civil right at the federal level. They have screwed us for the past 35 to 40 years, and when you screw someone without permission it’s called rape. All the Democrats have lied to us — including Obama. You cannot say you support us and then file a legal brief comparing us to pedophiles.”

Though soft-pedaling her criticism of Equality California — she said that, since their much-criticized management of the No on 8 campaign, they’ve started hiring people of color as organizers, and they have a track record of having steered 50 Queer-friendly bills through the state legislature and into law — Tyler was almost as withering about the Courage Campaign as she was about the Democratic Party. She compared the Courage Campaign’s “public input” meetings to the Church of Scientology: “You sit in a room and tell each other your stories, and then the leadership goes ahead and does what it wants.” She said that the reason she’d been trying unsuccessfully to get an invitation to speak in San Diego for six months was that “the leaders in your community don’t want me here. Nobody wants to hear anything but the party line. Nobody wants a democratic movement. Nobody voted in Fresno [at the much-ballyhooed ‘Middle of the State’ rally May 30] whether we wanted it in 2010 or 2012. Don’t become part of anything that looks progressive, but is run from the top down and there’s no internal democracy.”

Local activist Ann Menasche followed Tyler with her own memories of why the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, in November 1978 succeeded while the No on 8 campaign failed. The Briggs Initiative was an effort to allow California schools to fire teachers who either were Queer themselves or supported Queer rights. The idea behind it, Menasche explained, “was that Gays were sick, and if they could teach our kids they would corrupt them and — horrors! — turn them Gay.” Though Proposition 8 didn’t specifically deal with children or education, Menasche noted, the Yes on 8 campaign effectively exploited similar concerns and ran itself very much the way the Yes on 6 campaign had 30 years earlier, with fear-mongering propaganda about the alleged ill effects of open discussion about sexual orientation in the classroom.

But the No on 6 campaign was very different from No on 8, Menasche said. Instead of being run top-down by hired consultants relying on so-called “focus groups,” the Bay Area Campaign Against the Briggs Initiative (BACABI) followed a strategy Menasche referred to by the acronym MAP — “Mass, Alliances, Pride.” BACABI “was run democratically by open meetings,” Menasche said. “Instead of focus groups and paid consultants, we relied on the experiences of people on the ground. We had lots of time for local action, and to elect people to a statewide steering committee.” One of their efforts was to mount anti-Briggs contingents in pride parades and give them professionally printed signs. Another, she said, was “mass distributions at shopping centers all over the Bay Area, not just in the ‘Gayborhood.’”

Their final action was to organize a public meeting at which they showed a big-screen projection of the televised debate between Harvey Milk and Lesbian activist Sally Gearhart on the anti-Briggs side, and Briggs himself and a sidekick in favor of the initiative. (The event is dramatized in the film Milk but made to look like a one-on-one debate between Milk and Briggs.) Over 10,000 people attended the meeting, Menasche recalled. BACABI also built coalitions with other grass-roots organizations, Menasche said, instead of No on 8’s strategy of reaching out to leaders of other top-down entities and trusting that they could bring their members along. And in contrast to No on 8, where Queer people in general and same-sex couples in particular were deliberately kept out of the limelight because the consultants and their “focus groups” had said that straight supporters would draw more voters than real, live Queers, “Gays and Lesbians were front and center” in the anti-Briggs campaign. “We refused to be apologetic or hide who we are,” Menasche said. “We showed that Gay teachers were good for schools; it was homophobia that was bad.”

The June 23 meeting was MC’d by Chuck Stemke and the first speaker was Zakiya Khabir, both members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Khabir’s short opening statement was dedicated to establishing that SAME was practicing the same grass-roots, bottom-up, internally democratic governance that Tyler and Menasche later called for in the movement as a whole. “Congratulations,” Khabir said; “by being in this room at this event, you are a member of SAME. We decided early on that every member of the public who comes to a meeting can vote. We are truly of, by and for the people.” She said that SAME’s proudest moment was the sit-in of nearly 80 people at the San Diego County Administrative Center May 27, the day after the California Supreme Court announced its decision upholding Proposition 8 — an event KGTV Channel 10, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Workers’ World and Zenger’s Newsmagazine covered but the Gay & Lesbian Times did not.

Rev. Madison Shockley, an African-American United Church of Christ (UCC) minister in Carlsbad, was a last-minute addition to the program and spoke about the difficulty in reaching out to the African-American community on this issue. “In No on 8 we made assumptions about alliances that were incorrect,” he said, “including that Obama’s turnout would help our campaign and that African-Americans would support us. Both were wrong.” Shockley said that the No on 8 campaign could have neutralized Obama’s harm to the campaign by more effectively exploiting his split position on the issue — against same-sex marriage but also officially opposed to Proposition 8 — instead of letting the African-American church and the Yes on 8 campaign enlist Obama on their side with recorded phone calls crudely edited from his speeches to create the impression Obama supported 8.

Though he currently ministers to a mostly white congregation, Rev. Shockley said, in the past he’s pastured Black churches and felt nearly 100 percent resistance even within an officially Queer-friendly denomination like UCC. He said the biggest mistake the No on 8 campaign in relation to the African-American community was to describe marriage equality with the words “civil rights.” “In our culture, there are certain phrases that are ethnically owned,” he explained: “’Holocaust,’ ‘internment,’ ‘civil rights.’ We need to find language that will win, and in a political campaign the winning language is in the middle. ‘No on hate, no on 8’ made us feel good, but it made people in the middle who hadn’t made up their minds and had doubts feel like we were calling them haters.”

Rev. Shockley also said that a campaign to repeal Proposition 8 would actually be easier to win in one respect; we’d be presenting a positive message rather than a negative one. (Lemon Grove City Councilmember George Gastil, who was at the SAME meeting but didn’t speak, had argued exactly the opposite before the San Diego Democratic Club on May 28, saying there’s a hard core of California voters so disgusted by initiatives in general that they just vote no on everything, and therefore it’s easier to defeat an initiative than to pass one.) “This time it will be a positive campaign,” Rev. Shockley said. “We can say ‘yes’ to equality. We lose the no-man’s-land that people could be against marriage equality but against Proposition 8. Now you’re either for or against it.”

“I’ve worked for Equality California three times and quit eight times,” said Fernando Lopez, who actually organized the kind of campaign others in the room were just talking about — reaching out one-on-one to potential voters in communities outside the Queer-friendly zones. After signaling his approval of how things are changing there and in other statewide organizations, Lopez warned his audience of the enormity of the task ahead in either 2010 or 2012. “We have 450,000 votes we need to change by 2010 and 650,000 votes we need to change by 2012,” he said. “That means changing 1,000 people every day and doing 1,000 volunteer shifts. A lot of that will be media and personal conversations, but a lot of that will have to be done door-to-door with clipboards and phones.”

Powell D. Gangi, local organizer for the UNITE HERE union, thanked the Queer community for its support of their boycott against Doug Manchester, owner of the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel on the Embarcadero, who has waged a ferocious battle to keep his hotel non-union and also gave $125,000 in seed money to get Proposition 8 on the ballot in the first place. He boasted that the boycott has already cost Manchester’s operation $7 million in business, most of it from organizations who have decided not to hold conventions and national events in a hotel whose owner endorses discrimination.

SAME had planned to split the meeting in half — an hour for speeches and an hour for comments from audience members — but the speakers’ portion ran over 20 minutes longer than expected so the audience comments were cut to 40 minutes. One young African-American woman who was there with a female partner said, “We haven’t told people what it’s like to be in our shoes. I waited eight hours to vote [in November 2008] and right behind me was a Black woman in her 60’s, and I realized we didn’t talk to her.” Criticizing Rev. Shockley’s argument that African-Americans feel they own the term “civil rights” and resent any other group describing their struggle with those words, she quoted Martin Luther King’s widow Coretta as saying that “Gays were there for us when thy didn’t have a voice for themselves,” and added, “I hope Equality California tells people why it’s not fair.”

Robin Tyler rose to respond, and her comments echoed a lot of the frustration many people had had in the room with the way the No on 8 campaign was run. “Equality California is doing a series of commercials, including one with an African-American family,” she said. “I produced 17 public-service announcements for TV for the No on 8 campaign, including Dolores Huerta [co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers], Hollywood stars, Gay couples and Lesbian couples, and No on 8 wouldn’t use them because the focus groups said, ‘Don’t show Gays and Lesbians.’” She compared that strategy with that used to pass Proposition 2, aimed at curbing the maltreatment of farm animals, whose backers made disturbing footage of chickens in factory farms the centerpiece of their campaign.

Tyler also echoed the woman’s criticism of Shockley’s statements that certain terms are “owned” by certain ethnicities — “Holocaust” by the Jews and “civil rights” by African-Americans. “The Holocaust is not just about Jewish people,” she said. “I’m Jewish myself and a child of the Holocaust, but there was a Holocaust in Rwanda too. We are a civil-rights movement. We moved from being a Gay liberation movement, fighting politics from the waist down, to a civil rights movement. We can’t move the hard-core radical Right, but we need to start thinking of ourselves as a civil rights movement and acting as a civil rights movement. Power is never shared; it must be taken.”

Another woman — a lifelong Lesbian who introduced herself as older than the 67-year-old Tyler — raised a question most of the people in the room probably hadn’t thought they’d hear at a meeting like this: why should the Queer community be pressing for the word “marriage” in the first place? She said she and her partner had been together for 20 years and took the opportunity to register as state-recognized domestic partners in California, but chose not to get married during the 4 1/2-month “window” between June and November 2008. “I’m not clear why ‘marriage’ is such a big deal in the Gay and Lesbian community,” she said. “I’ve always thought that marriage was for the heterosexual community, and I have a charge around marriage that’s negative.” Tyler asked her whether she’d ever been married to a man — and she said no, she’d been a Lesbian all her adult life, but her partner had been married to a man before she came out “and I’ve adopted her negative view” of marriage.

Tyler seized on this woman’s comment as an opportunity to go back to first principles and explain why she thinks marriage is so important a civil right that she and her wife were willing to sue the state for it. “There are a lot of people like you who don’t regard marriage as that important,” Tyler said. “There were a lot of people in 1955 who didn’t think it was such a big deal that Rosa Parks couldn’t sit in the front of the bus.” Tyler said the marriage issue hit home for her personally when she found out that her union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), wasn’t going to extend partner benefits to Olson until she turned 65 and was eligible for Social Security — and being smacked in the face with real-world unequal treatment for being a same-sex couple and therefore ineligible for marriage led her and Olson to file the lawsuit.

“Marriage has become the Trojan horse that contains all our other rights,” Tyler said — ironically echoing one of the principal arguments the radical Right uses in favor of Proposition 8 and other similar bans on marriage equality. “It’s the only container that gives us rights. As long as they can just sexualize us, they could deal with that. Marriage humanized us. Twenty-two percent of Gay and Lesbian households raise children, and without marriage we can’t protect our children. In every state where they’ve gone after marriage, they’ve also gone after civil unions and domestic partnerships.” (There was an internal debate within the Yes on 8 campaign before they started gathering signatures — whether to do an initiative that would repeal California’s domestic partnership law as well or whether to focus only on marriage — and they went with the latter only because their polls showed that an attempt to ban both marriage and domestic partnerships would lose.)

“If Diane and I travel across the world and say we’re domestic partners, no one knows what that means,” Tyler said. “When we say we’re married, everyone knows what that means. Separate is never equal. Our marriages don’t diminish heterosexual marriage. A 50 percent divorce rate diminishes heterosexual marriage. Eighty percent of men who don’t pay child support diminishes heterosexual marriage. So many children being sexually abused diminishes heterosexual marriage. Marriage humanized us and took us away from being sex objects. It made us human beings. All of a sudden, we’re not talking about sex; we’re talking about love. Marriage has woken up our community and changed us from lambs to lions.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Don’t Rush Back to the Ballot on Marriage


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

I wasn’t at all surprised that the May 28 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club was dominated by the issue of marriage equality. After all, the meeting took place only two days after the California Supreme Court ruled by a 6-1 vote that Proposition 8, the voter initiative amending the state constitution to ban legal recognition of same-sex marriages, was constitutional. What did take me aback was that, after hearing a presentation by attorney Charlie Pratt on the anti-8 demonstration at the County Administrative Center the day before, the club swung into a debate over whether California’s Queer community should seek to put a measure to repeal Proposition 8 on the ballot in November 2010 or wait until 2012.

The reason that startled me was I thought that was precisely the wrong question to ask. Just as the Queer community’s leadership swung us into line by deciding for us that the demand for our relationship rights would take not only the form but the name “marriage” — foreclosing any discussion of alternatives like building up the domestic-partnership and civil-union laws so they really do provide exactly the same rights as marriage — so now it seemed like we were being steer-horned into a stupid debate over when (not whether!) to put forth an initiative that we might not even be able to get on the ballot and we would almost certainly lose.

When that debate started I was the first person to raise my hand, and when I was called I said that the right time to put the marriage issue back on the ballot would be when we’re 20 points ahead in the polls. My reasoning was that during the Proposition 8 campaign, we began 15 points ahead and ultimately lost by a shade less than five points. We shouldn’t even think of going back to the ballot until same-sex marriage equality is supported by such an overwhelming majority of our fellow Californians that it will withstand the poisonous hate speech that will be leveled against us by the other side. That’s not going to be in 2010 or even 2012; indeed, while I have no numbers to back it up my instinct is that probably won’t be until 2020 or even later.

The club debate in general seemed quite intelligent to me. Even the people pushing for an initiative in 2010 acknowledged that it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of money — and one person pointed out that that’s going to be money and volunteer time that won’t be available to elect a Democratic governor or keep Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. Former club president Andrea Villa essentially agreed with me and reminded the membership that “this community was bled dry last year,” organizationally and especially financially, not only by the Proposition 8 campaign but the Presidential race as well. “If you support a 2010 or 2012 return to the ballot, I expect you to remain standing,” Villa said — essentially calling the bluff of the members who might be willing to say “2010” but not to work their asses off in the scant 16 months remaining between now and then to win.

Nonetheless, even as politically savvy and reality-based a group as the San Diego Democratic Club overwhelmingly supported 2010 over 2012, 24 votes to eight with nine abstentions — and most of the abstainers were people like me who thought we needed to do a lot more education, research and strategizing before committing to any date for a return to the ballot. I can see why the straw polls on this issue, held not only at the San Diego Democratic Club but at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center and throughout the community not only in San Diego but statewide, would be so lopsided.

The passage of Proposition 8 was a raw wound to the Queer community in general and to younger Queer people in particular. As veteran activist Jeri Dilno pointed out to me on the morning of one of the first anti-8 actions since the election, many younger Queers had grown up with a level of acceptance far greater than anything she or I could have dreamed of when we were growing up — and the passage of Proposition 8 had been a wake-up call to them showing just how much hate there still is against us and how easily a majority of our fellow citizens can be manipulated by fear-based arguments to declare by their votes that we are less than human. Every day that foul ballot measure remains in effect is a day that our second-class status is rubbed in our faces, a day that we are wounded all over again in a way even Queer people who have no desire or intention to get married can’t help but feel.

The question isn’t the rawness of the wound, but our realistic chances of closing it any time soon. The simple, blunt fact is that every jurisdiction in the U.S. that has had a chance to vote on this issue has voted against us. Even Arizona, which voted down a same-sex marriage ban by a two-point margin in 2006, passed one by six points in 2008. The fact that we lost eight percentage points’ worth of support in Arizona over two years should serve as a warning to those people who think we “only” have five points’ worth of support to pick up between now and 2010 to be rid of the same-sex marriage ban. So should the fact that all the highly creative, intensely committed activism the community has done since Proposition 8 passed hasn’t moved the polls one iota: if it were voted on today it would still pass by the same five-point margin by which it actually did.

Another factor is that we are hardly likely to see any time soon another election that will give us as good a chance to win on this issue as we had in November 2008. We had a young, highly charismatic Presidential candidate mobilizing progressive voters and in particular drawing larger-than-usual numbers of voters under 30 — and all the polls on the same-sex marriage issue indicate that the younger you are, the more likely you are to support it. It’s true that Barack Obama’s appeal might have been a two-edged sword — he also mobilized a lot of economically progressive but socially conservative African-American churchgoers — but by the way his campaign shaped the 2008 voter pool, he helped us a lot more than he hurt us. The 2010 electorate is likely to be more Republican than the one in 2008 — the party that elects a new president almost always loses seats in Congress in the next election — and in 2012 Obama will be an incumbent with a record to defend and won’t be the kind of outsider idealist all those young people flocked to the polls to support in 2008.

Indeed, in our reasoning moments on this issue we’re so acutely conscious of the overwhelming opposition of the American people that the first thing we think of when we hear that a legislature has passed a same-sex marriage bill or a state’s high court has ruled for marriage equality is, “How easy will it be to repeal it by initiative?” Massachusetts, the first state whose courts ruled for marriage equality (in 2003), kept it only because their constitution contained a ridiculously complex amendment procedure that barred it from the ballot until at least 25 percent of the state legislators voted two years running to allow it before the voters — and Massachusetts Queers and their political supporters had the clout and parliamentary and lobbying skills to keep that from happening. If the Massachusetts constitution were as easy for voters to amend as California’s, same-sex marriage in that state would have vanished as quickly as it did here.

What’s more, as Lemon Grove City Councilmember George Gastil pointed out at the May 28 San Diego Democratic Club meeting, it’s psychologically harder to get voters to vote for an initiative than it is to get them to oppose one. Californians in particular are so disgusted at having to vote on so many ballot measures in every election, many of them complex pieces of legislation delving deeply into the minutiae of government, that quite a few of this state’s voters express that disgust by just voting no on all of them. That, Gastil explained, worked for us in the Proposition 8 campaign but would work against us if we qualify our own initiative and thereby have to persuade people to vote yes.

As a community, we have already been beaten twice on the marriage issue at the California polls, and we simply cannot afford to lose again. Contrary to the wishful thinking of a lot of people, both Queers and straight allies, there is nothing inevitable about the U.S. recognizing same-sex marriage. Three-fourths of the states have already turned it down, most of them at the ballot box, and if Obama is unable to turn the economy around he’s likely to be replaced by a radical-Right Republican who might resume the fight for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage nationwide — a fight which might have more traction now than it did when President Bush launched it in 2004 precisely because the number of states allowing same-sex couples to marry has grown from one to five.

And while it’s conceivable that there might be a strategy that could overcome the broad-based public opposition to same-sex marriage and actually pass an initiative allowing it, quite frankly I don’t trust the incompetent bozo-brains at Equality California, the Courage Campaign and that confusing myriad of organizations with the names “equality” and/or “marriage” in their names to find it. The No on 8 campaign, like the U.S. war in Iraq, was a dedicated, committed troop of foot soldiers fighting under a cadre of officers who imposed a misguided and criminally stupid strategy on them.

One of the most powerful moments in the movie Milk showed Harvey Milk, presented with an early draft of a leaflet against the Briggs Initiative (the Proposition 8 of his time) that carefully omitted the G- and L-words, crumpling it up, throwing it in a fireplace and using a few choice expletives to denounce the idiocy of telling Queer folk to go to the back of the bus in their own civil-rights struggle. One of the reasons we won the Briggs Initiative and lost Proposition 8 was there was no one with Milk’s assertiveness or clout to send a similar message to the official campaign organizations and their high-priced “consultants” that we should not be silenced and driven back into the closet in a campaign that was fundamentally about us and our rights.

Milk has some positive lessons for us, too. Seeing it, I was reminded that in the late 1970’s it was as inconceivable that any U.S. electorate would vote to enact — or keep — a law barring discrimination against Queer people as it is now inconceivable that any U.S. electorate would vote to allow same-sex couples to marry. Public opinion on issues like this does move; it just doesn’t always move as quickly as we’d like. I know that this editorial will likely be read by some people as a call for delay, a wimp-out on an issue of overwhelming importance, and I’ll be told to re-read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essays “Why We Can’t Wait” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to get the fire under my belly again and join the call from immediate action.

What I am making here is not a call for inaction, but for smart action. When King wrote those articles, he wasn’t calling for a massive involvement in electoral politics. (And the people he was criticizing were the conservatives in the African-American ministry who then thought all this “agitation” for the civil rights of their own people was potentially dangerous — the 1960’s equivalents to the African-American ministers of today who pay lip service to King’s legacy and invoke it to support the denial of our rights.) He was calling for tough, courageous, nonviolent direct action outside the political system to prick the consciences of the American people and educate them that a system of racial segregation and discrimination was so incompatible with America’s ideals of democracy and freedom as to be intolerable.

The kind of education we need to do on the same-sex marriage issue not only has nothing to do with electoral politics — except that, if successful, it will lay the groundwork for winning our rights through the system in the future — but an electoral campaign will only be a distraction. “Are we going to continue to educate the American public about the fundamental importance of our rights?” said San Diego LGBT Center executive director Dr. Delores Jacobs at a February 13 forum sponsored by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Yes … but the best work on the ground is done in the absence of a campaign. No 30-second spot will erase generations of homophobia.”

The blunt truth is we’re a long way away from the point where we can actually put a marriage equality ballot measure before the voters in California and reasonably expect it to pass. We have to acknowledge that fact and be both relentless and creative in pursuing the kind of activism needed to educate the public and change the political realities that right now are against us. That’s not going to happen by November 2010 or even November 2012. It’s going to be a much longer-term struggle than that, and we will need to pursue it with dedication and in the belief that, as Martin Luther King himself said, the arc of human history is long but it eventually bends towards justice.


Local “Sir” Runs for International Mr. Leather


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Mike’s cover portrait, his “graduation” shot from International Mr. Leather, Mike “showing skin” at Mr. San Diego Leather 2008, and Mike with his partner, boy ron.

Every year in mid-May, about 15,000 Leatherpeople from all over the world converge on Chicago for an event that’s been called “the Vatican of Gay Leather.” Its official name is International Mr. Leather but it’s usually referred to just by its initials, “IML.” The primary business of IML’s annual gatherings is to select a Leatherman for the annual International Mr. Leather title, but it’s also a chance for Leather adherents to meet, network, socialize, bond and — yes — have fun, sexual and otherwise.

Mike Little was “present at the creation” of International Mr. Leather 31 years ago, when he was just “a scared little 21-year-old kid,” new to the Leather community and the Gold Coast bar where the contest was originally centered. “In 1979, no one knew that International Mr. Leather would become a phenomenon,” said Chuck Renslow, who started the contest with his then-partner Dom Orejudos (later a famous Gay artist under the name “Étienne”) and still runs it. “Back then, if you were a Leatherman coming to Chicago you were coming to the Gold Coast. One of our most popular promotions, the ‘Mr. Gold Coast Contest,’ often drew out-of-town contestants.”

When 12 people signed up to run for Mr. Gold Coast in 1979, and 400 people showed up to attend, Renslow and Orejudos realized they had to move the event to a hotel. “Dom thought our change of venue called for a change of name,” Renslow recalled in the book International Mr. Leather: 25 Years of Champions. “I suggested ‘Mr. World Leather.’ Dom, my artistic genius, didn’t like the sound. He suggested ‘International Mr. Leather,’ and that was that.”

Today, in addition to drawing a five-figure audience, International Mr. Leather also attracts over 50 contestants each year. Unlike some events that use the I-word, it’s truly international; this year’s first runner-up was from Canada and other contestants hailed from Britain and Germany. After having served on the staff of the first three IML’s, Little returned this year to represent San Diego as a contestant — an experience he found emotionally overwhelming and exhilarating.

Known locally as “Mr. Mike,” Little is a dedicated Gay and Leather activist who’s been a major force in San Diego’s Leather community since 2004. He’s producing the Californial Leather/SIR event in Long Beach in August and International Leather/SIR in San Francisco in October. He has a personal Web site at Mr2008.SanDiegoEagle.com and also owns and operates www.leathereventsponsors.com, and coordinates the IML historical site www.imlyearbook.com. He’s also involved in Leather Realm, the adults-only Leather area within the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Festival this July 18 and 19 — and his partner, boy ron, is president of the San Diego Leatherboys and was interviewed in the June 2009 Zenger’s.

Zenger’s: Could you briefly explain what IML is, and why it’s always held in Chicago?

Mike Little: International Mr. Leather was founded 31 years ago by Chuck Renslow as a way to honor the Leatherman for his work, trust, honor and respect; and to share with the rest of the world what the Leather community is all about. It takes place in Chicago because that’s where Chuck Renslow lived. Also, it’s convenient that it’s in the middle of the U.S. I see it as being kind of a central convention area for the country, and it’s proceeded along those lines for 31 years.

Zenger’s: What’s the importance of it, in terms of the prestige of the community?

Little: The Leather community as a whole? It demonstrates to others the foundations and principles of being a Leatherman. It shows the community —the world community as a whole, not just the Leather community — that it isn’t all about kink and sexuality. It’s about traditions, and it’s carrying on a history.

Zenger’s: What do you think are the most important traditions, and people who are not part of the Leather community, what should they know about?

Little: My whole foundation is based on trust, honor, service, dignity and respect. To me, being a Leatherman is not about what we do behind closed doors a couple of hours a day, if we’re lucky. It is how we treat each other 24/7. It’s about the automatic trust and respect that we have with each other. If I’m in need, I can call any one of my Leather brothers and know that I can get a situation taken care of. If they can’t take care of it, they’ll turn me on to someone who can.

Zenger’s: For those who have never been to IML, exactly what goes on there?

Little: If you’re a contestant, it’s a very long week! There are three main parts to the contest. You start off with just an introduction, let the audience see how comfortable you are behind a microphone, introduce yourself and your sponsors. Then there are interviews before a panel of nine judges, which for me is the best part. I love the interview!

We come back the next evening for Pecs & Personality, where we get re-introduced and come back on stage in some sort of attire that shows our inner Leather self. The instructions are, “Show skin.” They want to see how comfortable we are in our real skin. At that point we’re asked an on-stage question that can be comical or sincere. Most of them at that point are comical, to let the audience see how we can think on our feet when presented with something.

At that point the top 20 are chosen. We had 54 contestants in my class, so they finished down to the top 20. Individuals are brought back on stage a second time to show physique and how they can think on stage with a more serious question, and then they get 90 seconds to give their speech. The weekend culminates with the Black & Blue Ball, a 31-year tradition, which is a fantastic time.

Zenger’s: I’m sure you’ve followed the whole thing with Carrie Prejean and the Miss U.S.A. contest, her answer to the question on Gay marriage. Having participated in something at least vaguely similar, do you think that was a “gotcha!” question; and if someone wanted to do something similar at IML, what do you think the question would be?

Little: Well, in a way I got a “gotcha!” question. My on-stage question was about the fact that I help produce Baskets & Bulges, an annual contest that helps benefit the Gay and Lesbian community Easter egg hunt. As producer of the Baskets & Bulges contest, I was asked, “If Barack Obama, Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton were your contestants, what order would they place in, and why?” I’ve talked that over with my judges since. It was kind of a “gotcha!” question because it called on my opinions of politics, as opposed to a clear-cut answer about community, lifestyle, Leather relationships or such, that would have had an answer that wasn’t politically based.

In the interview process I was asked a very personal question about other individuals in town. There were several ways I could have handled it at that point. I explained to the judge that it wasn’t my place to be speaking about other individuals in town, and that if he had a question of those folks, then perhaps maybe he should ask them. I consider that having been a “gotcha!” question, but I also think we handled it very adequately and within trust, honor and respect.

Zenger’s: What title were you running for, and how did you do?

Little: The title would have been Mr. International Leather 2009. I did very well in presentation. I know people that have worked there 31 years. I worked on the first three IML’s myself, so I knew people on staff, and though I didn’t make the top 20, we were told we were one of the most fantastic, close-knit, equally level playing fields in 20 years. It was an honor to have shared the stage with those 53 other gentlemen. I have no qualms and no worries about where I came in.

Zenger’s: What was the role of your wrangler, Sir V.?

Little: Sir V. was a Godsend. Any contestant going to IML, if they’ve been mentored well, will take a wrangler with them. And the job of the wrangler is to make sure that the contestant stays fed, nourished, hydrated, hopefully sane; that we sleep and are sheltered from outside distractions. The contest will get very emotional at some level for everyone. It’s good to have somebody there who is not your partner, who won’t take issue if you go off. It’s highly stressful at certain points, and you need to have somebody there that can just simply be there, without having an emotional attachment.

Sir V. did an awesome job. He constantly checked to make sure I was taking my medications on time, was I eating, was I drinking, and was there to share the times when I finally broke down in tears. I highly recommend him to anyone, and will take him again if I do this again. He took his job very seriously, and I’m very grateful.

Zenger’s: You said that being in the contest can get very emotional. How so?

Little: It’s a lot of very close-knit camaraderie. You can enter the contest and say you’re not stressed, and think you’re doing well with it all, but it’s just emotionally overwhelming in one way or another. really can’t go into specifics because it’s kind of behind the scenes for the classmates at IML, but there’s a lot of male bonding. For some guys, the emotions of the stress get to them. For me, it was just the emotions of happiness and being amongst that group of men.

Part of it just comes down to the fact that you’ve got 54 Leathermen, very passionate about what they stand for and what they do, in a room. Everything is timed down to the minute, so you’ve got the pressure of time on you, and when you get those moments when you just all get together and get to start sharing and knowing each other, it starts growing from moment one. Most of us showed up Wednesday, a day early, and got to know each other a little bit. By the time Thursday came around and the real registration started, there were some companionships going on. By Saturday, you’re so inner-woven with each other, some were even finishing each other’s statements.

Behind closed doors in the evening? We’re too tired for that! I was exhausted when I came in each night. I hit the bed and went right to sleep. I do know that others were doing other things out in the hallway — I mean the public, not the contestants. I slept. You’ve got 54 male people in a room, lots of testosterone raging. There’s butt-slapping going on here and there, to break tension. Lots of hugging — it just grows. It just grows.

Sunday is spent with many of the directors of IML that have been there years and decades. Each of the previous title holders, everyone takes a moment and shares what it was like for them to compete, the things that have happened to them since their title year, and it just solidifies the bonding.

Zenger’s: I understand that you brought your partner along, and there are rules restricting the amount of contact you can have with your partner while you’re a contestant. Is that true, and if so, why?

Little: It’s self-imposed. The guideline of not having your partner with you has been passed down for years here in San Diego. Speaking with other contestants, they heard the same thing from their mentors. It goes back to the fact that it is an emotionally charged time. You need to be focusing on the task at hand. For myself, if my partner is with me, part of my focus is on him.

So ron didn’t come in until Friday because of his job. He spent his hotel time with other friends from Palm Springs, and got to see me after each round of the contest. Now, on Saturday I didn’t have a lot to do. My interviews were over, my photographs were over, so we got to spend some time together in the afternoon up until the time I had to go practice for my contest. After the top 20 were picked, and I was not one of them, we got to join up and spend the rest of the weekend together. It was for his protection as much as mine!

Zenger’s: What does the Mr. IML actually do once he’s chosen? What would you be doing right now if you had won?

Little: The terms of the contract say that once an IML is chosen, he has no responsibilities for the year except to return the next year and judge the next contest. That is his only defined responsibility. All of us have a responsibility to go out and act in a manner never to disparage the medal, because whether you win or not, everyone walks away with a medal. Now, ideally, the new Mr. will use his year to travel and promote the IML contest for the next year. Everybody enters IML with a platform, what it is they want to do, and a mission. Hopefully he will use his title to follow that mission.

Zenger’s: One of the things that amazes me about the Leather community is that, in a way, these titles are really a combination beauty pageant and officer election. You’re judging people on how well they look in a harness and chaps, but you’re also judging them on what sorts of things they’re willing to do for the community. It seems like a very interesting way to pick a community’s leadership. Do you think this is a tradition that’s going to continue, or is there someday going to be a separation between who are the titleholders and who are the ones who really run the community?

Little: We’ve seen the judging process go through swings over the years. All the mentors I’ve talked with, the previous contestants I’ve talked with, and having been around IML since day one, we’ve see it go through stages. We’ve seen it go through stages where the judges seemed to be looking strictly at qualities of a Leatherman. We’ve seen it go through stages where it was the pretty boy. It went through stages where it was the muscle/bodybuilder. Over the past couple of years, the reflection has once again been more about substance, and the individual behind that title.

The judging process is designed to be rounded. It does take a look at the physical characteristics. It takes a look at the mental aspects. It takes a look at the experiences, strengths and skills of the individual, and tries to round all that out, to look for the most rounded individual to portray the Leather community to the world for that year.

Zenger’s: Do you think the organizers of the local contests in San Diego have anything to learn from IML in terms of how these contests are judged and how the winners are chosen?

Little: Mr. San Diego Leather has been patterned after IML for many years. I’ve only been involved in San Diego Leather for the past five years, so I can’t tell you how many those have been, but, having been through both of them, I can tell you that the processes are patterned very much alike. We’ve always had a very well rounded judging panel, and we’ve produced some mighty find Mr’s. and IML contestants over the years. San Diego’s got a rich history at IML. I wish other feeder contests were even more patterned after IML than we are.

Zenger’s: Do you think you’ll ever do this again?

Little: Yes!

Zenger’s: So I guess it was a pleasant experience for you, and something you got a lot out of.

Little: It was awesome. I was just speaking with my sponsor in the recovery community, and he’s given me an assignment in regard to my experience at IML. That is to write down the strengths that I brought home from it, and any weaknesses that I discovered within myself that we can talk about. It’s an awesome process to go through.

I like competing in the Leather community because it makes you look at yourself. You’re not competing against those other 53 guys. You’re competing against yourself. Every time you step on that stage, or even simply walk out of your room, the judges are watching you 24/7; and if they’re not, they’ve probably got somebody else that is. I’ll either go back next year as a handler, and give it a break a year or two, or I’ll go back and compete.

Zenger’s: Who won?

Little: Jeffrey Payne. It took me a minute to come up with the names, because I’m not really good with names. Even after spending a week with those guys, it took me a week of being home before I could look at a photograph and go, “Oh, that’s so-and-so” — even with the guy standing next to me. You’re just so caught up in getting through it all that sometimes the names don’t sink in. Jeffrey Payne is Mr. Texas 2009.

Zenger’s: Anyone who can pull off being a Leatherman in Texas deserves some kind of an award!

Little: They were quite something: big guys, big sashes. Big sashes.

Zenger’s: The stereotype of Texans, and maybe that’s unfair, is that they’re always claiming that they’re the biggest and the best in everything.

Little: That evening you couldn’t walk anywhere in the hotel without hearing “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” all night long. Brendan McGovern from Ottawa, Canada is the first runner-up, and I’m embarrassed to tell you I cannot tell you who our second runner-up is at this moment. [The second runner-up was Alan Penrod, Mr. Atlanta Eagle 2009.]

Zenger’s: So what are your plans for the next year and a half, in terms of the community here in San Diego?

Little: I am the producer of California Leather SIR/boy Community Bootblack Weekend, which will take place August 7, 8 and 9 in Long Beach. Prior to that we have Leather Realm at San Diego Pride in July. We have International Leather/SIR in San Francisco in October, Mr. Eagle San Diego in February, Mr. San Diego Leather in April, and by May I’ll be back in Chicago for IML again.

My platform and mission outreach is about hepatitis C awareness in the community. Now that my title year (as Mr. Eagle San Diego) is actually over, I can set to work on things that I set forth prior to taking the title. We’re trying to start a hepatitis C support group — actually, it’s already begun. We’ll be promoting that and getting it more so, off the ground, and that’ll pretty much take care of my year.

Zenger’s: So you’re going to be a busy man.

Little: Always. It keeps me out of pain. I’m in full-time pain from a car accident, and staying busy keeps me out of that, and keeps me from taking a handful of drugs that would kill off my liver. So I stay busy. I’m up at about 4 o’clock in the morning and I’ll turn in around midnight. But it’s what I always do.

When I very first came into the community 31 years ago and walked into the Gold Coast in Chicago a scared little 21-year-old kid, I was befriended by a very prominent man who taught me to respect the family and community. That’s what being a Leatherman is about to me — family and community — and I’ll stay busy in this community as long as they’ll have me.

If You Eat, You Need to See Food, Inc.


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Robert Kenner (director), Barbara Kowalcyk, Joel Salatin, Eric Schlosser. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

One of the most abused terms in movie reviewing is “must-see.” It usually means nothing more than that the film the critic is writing about is especially funny, exciting or spectacular. But director Robert Kenner’s new documentary Food, Inc. is truly a “must-see” movie for every American who eats. It’s basically a horror tale — not in the gross-out sense (David Brancaccio, host of the PBS-TV series NOW, joked when he interviewed Kenner on the show that “there are people who are gonna think, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be sitting in a slaughterhouse for the next 90 minutes’” — which you won’t be) but in the sense that Kenner joked he had thought of calling the film Invasion of the Food Snatchers.

The “food snatchers,” according to Kenner, are giant multinational corporations who over the past 50 years have not only taken near-complete control of the U.S. food industry (and are pushing towards controlling it worldwide) but have reorganized it according to industrial methods of production. While they still merchandise their food with old-fashioned imagery of family farmers growing it with love and care under sunny skies, the reality is that today’s “farm” looks more like a factory than the pastoral scenes on the food packages. Scenes shot with hidden cameras — the giant corporations that own your food system don’t want you to know how they operate — show dead chickens and cows being strung up on giant conveyor belts and sliced by assembly-line workers, many of them undocumented immigrants (they come cheap and can’t complain about low wages and dangerous conditions for fear of being deported) whose bosses consider them as disposable as the meat animals themselves.

What’s more, the food these gargantuan factories produce is increasingly standardized, artificial, tasteless and even dangerous. According to Kenner, that has its roots in the fast-food revolution sparked by the McDonald brothers and continued by Ray Kroc after he bought them out of the company that still bears their name. McDonald’s built an empire of cheap restaurants, first by applying industrial methods to food service — including a squirting machine (you see it in action in the film) that put just the “right” amount of ketchup on the burger — and making restaurant cooking so low-skilled anyone could do it, which means they could pay people minimum wage and accept a high turnover of workers. Then, as the company expanded nationwide, McDonald’s management insisted that a McDonald’s hamburger must taste the same no matter where it was sold — Downey, California (where the first McDonald’s was built), New York, Miami or Shanghai — and that meant that the meat processors who sold it to them had to ensure that McDonald’s would get a uniform product or McDonald’s would simply not buy from them anymore.

Some of Kenner’s most grotesque footage shows how the meat from thousands of cows gets ground up and turned into a giant vat of raw ground beef. Defenders of industrialized food often claim that it’s safer than the products of genuine family farms because its production can be controlled more carefully — but, as Food, Inc. points out, it’s actually more dangerous because one sick cow’s meat can contaminate hundreds of tons of ground beef and spread across the country through the power of a fast-food chain. Bacteria like the deadly E. coli are not only killing hamburger eaters but, through the runoff from the farms where those cows are grown and the factories where they’re killed and their meat is processed, they’ve contaminated spinach and other vegetable products even though in nature E. coli doesn’t infect plants.

One of the heroes of Food, Inc., Barbara Kowalcyk, learned about E. coli the hard way. She and her family were coming home from a vacation when they stopped into a fast-food place and ordered three hamburgers. Her 2 1/2-year old son Kevin got sick and was dead within two weeks, and it was only after he died that doctors learned from an autopsy that E. coli had killed him. Kowalcyk responded by becoming a two-person lobbying campaign with her mother, Patricia Buck, going to Congress to get them to pass “Kevin’s Law.” This was a bill that would give back to inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to close down a meat-packing plant that repeatedly produced E. coli-tainted meat. In a country where the politicians actually gave a damn about the people they supposedly represent, this would have been a no-brainer — but Kowalcyk and Buck, who started their effort in 2002 (one year after Kevin’s death), still haven’t been able to get “Kevin’s Law” through Congress.

The overwhelming power of the food industry is a running theme of this film. Not only does the industry have the power to poison people and the political clout to ensure that they never have to worry about being punished for it, they’re extending their control over the food supply in other ways as well. One key section of the film tells the story of Monsanto, a giant corporation that used to make things like DDT and Agent Orange (the defoliant the U.S. used in the Viet Nam war which killed or sickened a lot of its own troops) and got into food when it invented a weed killer called RoundUp. The problem with RoundUp was that it killed not only the weeds but a lot of the crops as well. To “solve” this, Monsanto hooked up with some scientists that had developed a way of genetically modifying soybeans so they could withstand RoundUp.

But Monsanto’s “RoundUp Ready” soybeans came with an elaborate command-and-control agenda attached. To use them, you had to sign a contract not only that the only herbicide you would use would be RoundUp (a C.Y.A. Monsanto put into the deal to make sure there’d be a captive market for their product even after its patent on RoundUp expired) but that you would buy a whole new batch of seeds each year for that year’s planting. Saving seeds from one year’s crop for the next year’s planting — something farmers have been doing since agriculture was invented — was now illegal. What’s more, because Monsanto’s modifications to the soybean gene were themselves patentable, Monsanto has claimed — and won in every case — that even if you didn’t buy their seeds and didn’t want their genetic modifications in your crop, if your soybeans contained their genetic modifications because pollen from a field that was planted with Monsanto seeds crossed over into your field, you were therefore in violation of their patent and they could sue you and claim ownership of your crop.

One of the most fascinating characters in Food, Inc. is Moe Parr, who ran a seed-cleaning operation to wash the debris off harvested seeds so they can be saved and planted the next year. Monsanto declared him a public enemy and sought to put him out of business by litigation — and after finding out it would cost over a million dollars to defend himself, he settled with Monsanto and got out of the seed business altogether. Monsanto’s aggressive defense of its seed patents is reminiscent of the Mafia in a 1930’s gangster movie; they stake out farmers whom they suspect of saving seeds, hire detectives and pay handsome bounties to farmers to turn each other in. As a result, Parr and others who tried to resist Monsanto’s total takeover of U.S. soybean farming found that people who’d been their friends for 50 years would no longer talk to them. What’s more, Monsanto has asked the U.S. courts to declare the very existence of seed-cleaning illegal as an infringement on their patents.

Food, Inc. details a lot of other ways the giant corporations have taken over the food business and suppressed any opposition or even discussion. One of the most sinister is so-called “food-libel laws,” state laws that make it illegal — and, in some cases, a felony — to disparage corporate food products in public. Most Americans first heard of these laws when a cattle raisers’ association in Texas sued Oprah Winfrey because in 1996 she’d done a show with some people talking about the unhealthy ways beef cattle were raised, and she’d blurted out on air that after hearing them she’d never want to eat a hamburger again. She was forced into a years-long legal battle, which she turned into a public-education campaign; when she had to travel to Texas for the trial, she did her show there and kept commenting on the issue. Oprah, who’s probably the world’s richest woman of African descent, could afford the multi-million dollar cost of this legal battle; almost nobody else could.

Another tactic of the multinational corporations that control your food supply is relentless opposition to labeling laws. One would think even the most diehard lassiez-faire Libertarian would at least endorse a requirement that the people trying to sell you something at least tell you what’s in it. After all, Adam Smith, who was to capitalism what Karl Marx was to socialism, said in the 18th century that one of the essentials for a free market was that buyers and sellers must be honest with each other about the real nature of the merchandise. But the food corporations, aware that a lot of people would choose not to buy their products if they knew what was in them and the horrible conditions under which they are produced, have fought tooth and nail for the right not to tell them. Thus, when genetically modified ingredients were introduced into processed foods, European consumers got warning labels and Americans didn’t — and U.S. food companies invoked the World Trade Organization’s secret tribunals to have the European labeling laws thrown out as a restraint on “free trade.”

The main clout the food companies have to write the laws the way they want them, drive out competition and keep consumers in the dark as to exactly what they’re eating comes not only from their campaign contributions to politicians but also the so-called “revolving door” by which most of the officials who supposedly “regulate” the food supply come directly from the companies they’re allegedly regulating. Either that or they come from law firms used by the food companies — like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In the 1970’s Thomas worked at a law firm and handled cases involving Monsanto; in 1991 he wrote the majority opinion in the case that gave Monsanto the clout to have even accidental contamination of a crop by their modified soybean genes declared a patent infringement — the precedent Monsanto has used to put Moe Parr out of business and take over virtually all soybean cultivation in the U.S.

Though there are a few omissions — like the potentially catastrophic effects of growing only one variety of crop, which could lead to the disappearance of an entire food source and the starvation of billions if a pest evolves with a particular taste for it — Food, Inc. is surprisingly comprehensive for a 94-minute documentary. The film vividly shows how the food industry has essentially turned every farmer in America into a sharecropper, forced to grow a certain way, pay exorbitant prices for their equipment and supplies, live their lives in permanent debt and go along with the secrecy imposed on them by the industry or lose their livelihood altogether. It also depicts how food itself has become increasingly processed, divorced from its roots in nature, in ways that are making us fatter and less healthy — thanks largely to government policies that subsidize artificial foods and jack up the price of natural vegetables and produce — and it shows how the lower your income, the fewer choices you’ll have and the less healthy your food will be.

Like a lot of other documentaries in its genre, Food, Inc. is quite a bit better at telling us how awful everything is than it is at giving us ways we can fight back. Much of it is based on the research of two people who are extensively interviewed in the film, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser (who’s also listed as a co-producer) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, and the filmmakers’ “what you can do” advice is pretty much what you’d expect: cut down on meat consumption, stop drinking sodas and other sweetened beverages, shop at farmers’ markets if there’s one close to you, and buy organic. But Robert Kenner is too good a director to ignore what’s happening to the label “organic” as more and more “organic” food producers are being acquired by the same multinationals that control the rest of our food supply.

Though Kenner doesn’t stress the point, his film contains a fascinating debate (of sorts, since they never appear together) between two organic food producers. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms comments with evident embarrassment on old videotapes showing him as a young idealist criticizing capitalism, and boasts that he was able to build the third largest yogurt producer in the country and ultimately sell out to an Italian food conglomerate that allowed him to keep running it. He boasts that not only did he get his yogurt into Wal-Mart — which, in an otherwise relentlessly anti-corporate movie, is depicted surprisingly positively — but that, thanks to consumer pressure, Wal-Mart has withdrawn all milk containing recombinant bovine growth hormone and therefore, for once, the clout of a major multinational has actually made the food supply healthier. By contrast, Joel Salatin of Polyfield Farms in Virginia says in so many words that marketing his free-range, grass-fed livestock to Wal-Mart would be like selling his soul.

Food, Inc. is a film that’s going to provoke reactions, and not always the ones the filmmakers intended. Kenner shows footage of how chickens are killed on Salatin’s farm — they’re put head-first into a funnel, their necks are wrung and their throats are slit — and clearly means us to read that as the healthier alternative to the way it’s done at an industrial chicken processing plant. But the audience at the June 18 preview screening at Landmark Hillcrest in San Diego got equally grossed out by both scenes. Still, very little of Food, Inc. is even potentially disgusting, and much of it is surprisingly moving, especially the depiction of the people who’ve been victimized by the “food snatchers” and how they’re fighting back. If you give a damn about what you put in your mouth, you have to see this movie.


Facts from Food, Inc.

Source: The Food, Inc. press kit.

In the 1970’s, the top five beef packers controlled about 25% of the market. Today, the top four control more than 80% of the market.

In the 1970’s, there were thousands of slaughterhouses producing the majority of beef sold. Today, we have only 13.

In 1998, the USDA implemented microbial testing for salmonella and E. coli 0157h7 so that if a plant repeatedly failed these tests, the USDA could shut down the plant. After being taken to court by the meat and poultry associations, the USDA no longer has that power — and a grass-roots lobbying campaign started in 2002 to get Congress to restore it has so far failed.

In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006, the FDA conducted only 9,164.

During the Bush administration, the head of the FDA was the former executive vice-president of the National Food Processors Association.

During the Bush administration, the chief of staff at the USDA was the former chief lobbyist for the beef industry in Washington.

Prior to renaming itself an agribusiness company, Monsanto was a chemical company that produced, among other things, DDT and Agent Orange.

In 1996 when it introduced RoundUp Ready Soybeans, Monsanto controlled only 2% of the U.S. soybean market. Now, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented gene.

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney at Monsanto from 1976 to 1979. After his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion in a 1991 case that helped Monsanto enforce its seed patents.

The average chicken farmer invests over $500,000 and makes only $18,000 a year.

32,000 hogs a day are killed in Smithfield Hog Processing Plant in Tar Heel, N.C, which is the largest slaughterhouse in the world.

The average American eats over 200 lbs. of meat a year.

30% of the farmland in the U.S. is used for planting corn.

The modern supermarket now has, on average, 47,000 products, the majority of which is being produced by only a handful of food companies.

70% of processed foods have some genetically modified ingredient.

SB63 Consumer Right to Know measure requiring all food derived from cloned animals to be labeled as such passed the California state legislature before being vetoed in 2007 by Governor Schwarzenegger, who said that he couldn’t sign a bill that pre-empted federal law.

Corn products include: ketchup, cheese, Twinkies, batteries, peanut butter, Cheez-Its, salad dressings, Coke, jelly, Sweet & Low, syrup, juice, Kool-Aid, charcoal, diapers, Motrin, meat and fast food.

Corn, which is the main ingredient in animal feed, is also used as a food additive. Those products commonly include: Cellulose, Xylitol, Maltodextrin, Ethylene, Gluten, Fibersol-2, Citrus Cloud Emulsion, Inosital, Fructose, Calcium Stearate, Saccharin, Sucrose, Sorbital, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Di-glycerides, Semolina, Sorbic Acid, Alpha Tocopherol, Ethyl Lactate, Polydextrose, Xanthan Gum, White Vinegar, Ethel Acetate, Fumaric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Baking Powder, Zein, Vanilla Extract, Margarine, and Starch.

1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes; among minorities, the rate will be 1 in 2.

E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks have become more frequent in America, whether it be from spinach or jalapeños. In 2007, there were 73,000 people sickened from the E. coli bacterium.

Organics is the fastest growing food segment, increasing 20% annually.
Major Civil Rights Victory Largely Ignored

Despite Prop. 8, Gays Still a “Protected Class” in California


Copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Lost in the dark cloud of recent community anger that erupted after the state Supreme Court both (1) upheld Proposition 8 and (2) upheld existing Gay marriages, a major legal development occurred that is largely being ignored.

Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals are now a “protected class” in the law.

“Protected Class”

Historically, the phrase “protected class” has been legal language to refer to a person’s race, re-ligion, national origin, etc. Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals were not included … until now, and at least in California.

Back in May 2008, when the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages, it also radically improved Gay civil rights by declaring, for the first time, that sexual orientation is now a “protected class.”

While the state’s high court on May 26 reversed itself on the issue of Gay marriages, it specifically and repeatedly affirmed “the general principle that sexual orientation constitutes a suspect classifi-cation (a.k.a., a “protected class”).

Here’s what this major victory means.

When an appellate court examines a statute to decide whether or not it is discriminatory, there are two very different standards that can be applied: one is the “rational basis” test, the other is the much tougher “strict scrutiny” standard that must be applied to any member of a “protected class” (race, gender, etc.).

While this may sound like a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo, it is extremely important because of the special protections afforded members of protected classes.

“Under the strict scrutiny standard,” the California Supreme Court says, “unlike the rational-basis standard, in order to demonstrate the constitutional validity of a challenged statutory classification the state must establish (1) that the state interest intended to be served by the differential treatment not only is a constitutionally legitimate interest, but is a compelling state interest, and (2) that the differential treatment not only is reasonably related to but is necessary, to serve that compelling state interest,” the court said in its May 2008 decision. This was not changed by the recent decision upholding Proposition 8.

So whenever you see that magic phrase that person’s race, religion, etc. is protected by any gov-ernment agency in California; that phrase now includes “sexual orientation.”

In terms of the law, that is extremely important because it applies to all laws affecting Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, not just their marriage rights.

The inclusion of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals into the very special, legal category of a “protected class” remains dramatically new law in California.

City College Application

For example, when I enrolled at City College for the spring semester and unexpected encountered homophobia in the journalism class (which produces the campus newspaper, the City Times), I filed a 10-page complaint with the San Diego Community College District.

The college, in collusion with the district, threw the book at me in disciplinary proceedings and argued that, as a Gay man, I was not a member of a “protected class.” The best way to discourage other Gay students/faculty/staff from reporting unlawful homophobia on campus was to come down very hard on me.

Apparently, the district’s Discrimination Officer, Shawn Larry, had not read the state Supreme Court’s decisions because he argued that I was not a member of a “protected class.” Wrong!

My case at City is now on appeal before the district’s board of trustees.

But that demonstrates how often the status of being a member of a “protected class’ can be im-portant to Gays.

While all the recent angry shouting of protest has focused on the high court’s decision killing future Gay marriages, the community has largely ignored the extremely important basic change in Gay civil rights that remains solid: adding Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals to the list of those who are members of protected classes, including race, religion and gender.

This change in state law in California is almost as important to the Gay civil-rights movement, as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that eliminated segregation in our public schools was to the African-American community.

Contact Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at leopowerhere@msn.com
When “FAGS” Become “fags”

City College Gay Group Ignores Campus Homophobia

commentary by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

While the word “fags” has historically been used as a hate word against Gays and Lesbians, a group of them at City College is trying to reverse that image, much as young homosexuals did success-fully nationwide with the word “Queer” years ago.

There are now popular young Queer organizations on many campuses, both in high schools and colleges.

Use of the word FAGS also makes good marketing strategy, because it really catches the public’s eye on posters promoting Gay events on campus.

After a protracted struggle with the City College administrators — and particularly after resisting tough opposition from Dean of Student Affairs Denise Whisenhunt — the college reluctantly granted official student status to the FAGS organization on the last day of the fall 2008 semester.

Why Honor College Dean?

The dean’s true colors were exposed when she viciously retaliated against me for having filed a 10-page sworn complaint on March 12 alleging homophobia at City College with the San Diego Community College District.

Unfortunately for the college and district, retaliation against a student for exercising their civil rights is a violation of federal law.

A separate complaint alleging unlawful retaliation is currently pending before the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education in San Francisco. The office of Congressmember Susan Davis was looking into that federal case at press time.

Secret Trial on Campus

Dean Whisenhunt even conducted a secret trial (“disciplinary hearing”) on May 4 against me, for which there is no transcript. It was like a kangaroo court, where constitutional due process of law was totally ignored.

The hearing was elaborately scripted to appear fair, while having the outcome (conviction) pre-determined from the start.

The campus of City College where Dean Whisenhunt rules is decidedly not Gay-friendly, unlike reports from Mesa College. City once even had a Gay studies program, but no longer.

Fags vs. FAGS

There’s a big difference between a fag and the FAGS organization at City College.

Some Gays in the community have little respect for one of the prime leaders of the FAGS organiza-tion at City, Jason Frye, its unelected “president.”

He once told a reporter that he “owns” the FAGS organization, which — as a matter of law — is not possible. This bothers at least one student senator at the campus. Frye has even been reportedly 86’ed from one North Park coffeehouse for a bad attitude.

Near the end of the 2009 spring semester when I was enrolled in three classes at City, I went to a FAGS meeting on campus. Frye was in charge and verbally insulted me.

I responded by saying, “Maybe I’m in the wrong place.”

“Well, I guess you are,” he said acidly.

I left.

The treasurer of the FAGS organization is a senior citizen, Jay Murley of North Park, who has been involved in the Gay movement literally for decades. He acts like a mentor to Frye.

Murley personally engineered the FAGS entry into the July Pride Parade in Hillcrest. And who will ride in a symbolically honored position on that parade entry?

Dean Whisenhunt. She, the college and the district can be expected to exploit this in their defense against charges of homophobia now pending before the district.

Now readers can understand why some consider those involved in honoring Dean Whisenhunt by having her on the City College FAGS “float” in the Gay Pride parade to be “fags” — in the ugly, stereotypical definition of the word.

Not all FAGS members qualify for such an insult. Some are really nice guys … but its leadership now has a nasty history.

Contact Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at leopowerhere@msn.com