Sunday, March 27, 2011

Queer Democrats Say Don’t Sign the “Great Schools” Initiative

Plan Would Add Four Non-Elected Members to San Diego Unified’s Board


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R: Richard Barrera, Scott Himmelstein

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club voted overwhelmingly at their March 24 meeting to urge people not to sign an initiative offered by a group called “San Diegans 4 Great Schools” but actually sponsored and financed by two multimillionaires, Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and CAC hedge fund CEO Rod Dammeyer. The club took this action after hearing a debate between Scott Himmelstein, director of the Center for Education, Policy and Law at the University of San Diego (USD) and spokesperson for the initiative; and Richard Barrera, president of the board of the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), who spoke against it.

The debate revolved around the most controversial aspect of the initiative: the expansion of the SDUSD board from five to nine members. The new members wouldn’t be elected by popular vote, as the five current ones are. They would be appointed by a nine-member committee consisting of the presidents of San Diego’s three largest universities — San Diego State University (SDSU) and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), which are public institutions, and USD, which is private and owned by the Roman Catholic Church — along with the chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, the parent chairs of four district advisory committees and either the president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce or the head of the San Diego Economic Development Corporation (EDC). According to Himmelstein, six of these nine people would have to agree on the candidates for the appointed school board positions.

The initiative does several other things. Right now school board candidates run in district-only primaries but the general elections are citywide. The San Diego City Council used to be elected that way until 1987, when voters passed an initiative for district-only elections. The San Diegans 4 Great Schools initiative would make school board elections district-only as well, a change actually proposed in the 1990’s but opposed by the San Diego Democratic Club for fear that it would make it easier for the radical religious Right to run stealth candidates and take over the school board. The initiative would also limit school board members to three four-year terms and require each school in the district to come up with a plan to improve its students’ learning, as measured by test scores, and file it not only with the school board but the Mayor and City Council as well.

“Our Center for Education, Policy and Law did a seven-year study of the district from 2003 to 2009,” Himmelstein said. “Only about half of our students in elementary and middle school are reading and computing math at grade level. And if you are a student of color, low-income or a special-needs student, according to national tests 80 percent of them are not reading at grade level. Recently the tests on science came out, and according to them 29 percent of our fourth-grade students and only 20 percent of our eighth-grade students are proficient in science: dismal results by any measure.”

Himmelstein acknowledged that “the district is going through some significant financial issues right now,” but said that from 2002 to 2009 per-pupil spending went up 25 percent without any improvement in test scores. The initiative came together, he said, from a group of about 60 people who decided that the way to improve SDUSD students’ performance was to revamp the district’s governing board and make the district’s administration more stable. “Our district has had quite a turnover in superintendents and board members in the last few years,” Himmelstein explained, “and in my view it’s had some not-good effects on students, teachers, administrators and the community as well.”

Indeed, Himmelstein said his group first came together to place an ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune pleading with former superintendent Terry Grier to stay in San Diego in 2009; he quit to take a similar job in Houston and Bill Kowba, the district’s chief financial officer, took over as interim superintendent and won the permanent appointment to the job earlier this year. (In his score card of four permanent and three interim superintendents at SDUSD in the last decade, Himmelstein counted Kowba twice.) Himmelstein said his group looked at Boston, New York and Chicago as models for their reform proposals, though later in the meeting he acknowledged that the initiative had been shaped around public opinion polls in San Diego to maximize its chances of passing.

According to Himmelstein, an all-elected school board who have to run citywide campaigns allows “special interest dollars to come into play” since “it’s very expensive to run citywide. We have had a history in this city of both the downtown business community and special interests on the labor side contributing heavily to elections.” He said the appointed members would “bring some balance to our school board, some expertise, more debate and more consensus.”

Barrera said that the principal gap in Himmelstein’s presentation was he didn’t offer an explanation for how thoroughly revamping the school board will actually lead to improved student performance. “Scott cannot connect the dots, Barrera said. “He cannot say how the problems he talks about are in any way addressed by taking away the rights of hundreds of thousands of voters to determine who’s on the school board, and giving that power to a handful of people who define ‘special interests.’” Barrera acknowledged the recent history of “dissension between administrators, educators and community groups” at SDUSD but said that the current board has addressed that and also cut back spending on administration so more of the money the district does have goes to the classroom.

“In the last two years we have faced the worst financial crisis in the history of this district,” Barrera said, “and despite the fact that we’ve had a 20 percent cut in our general fund, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in student academic achievement as measured by the same test scores Scott is citing. I’m not a big fan of test scores. I don’t regard them as the be-all and end-all of student achievement by any means. But if you go back over the last two years, you see the percentage of students scoring proficient in literacy and math go up 20 percent, and the percent showing proficiency in science go up by over a third, all while our budgets have been cut by over 20 percent.”

Barrera also said that compared to other big-city school districts, San Diego is “number one in literacy in California, and number three in math — and about to go to number one. We’ve risen to number one in science.” According to Barrera, on the national level San Diego ranked number four of 18 large urban school districts in the nationwide science tests Himmelstein was citing — and did better than Boston, Chicago and New York, the cities Himmelstein cited as models. “That’s not good enough,” Barrera conceded, “but there has been good, steady progress, and we understand clearly that it’s not the result of the superintendent and the school board. It’s the result of the work that’s going on at the schools: teachers, parents, principals, students and community members coming together and working as teams — not a top-down administration imposing its will, driving up costs and not achieving results.”

Responding to a club member’s question on who the so-called “special interests” are, Barrera said that the Great Schools initiative would actually increase, not decrease, the influence of special interests on the school district. He said having board members appointed by a committee including the presidents of UCSD and SDSU — which train most of the district’s principals and teachers, respectively — would create a conflict of interest that would get in the way of negotiating with those institutions over issues like “the way they train our teachers and their limits on admissions to local students so they can get more money from out-of-state students.”

Barrera also said that the San Diego Chamber of Commerce “includes many corporations who are vendors to the school district” and the four parent committees whose chairs would have a role in making the board appointments — dealing with academically gifted students, low-income students, English learners and special-education students — “each have a vested interest in the school board.” He suggested school board members appointed by the committee the Great Schools initiative would set up “will advocate” for the agendas of the people who appointed them. “To say this somehow takes special interests out of the choice of who’s on the school board is ridiculous,” Barrera said.

“I would totally disagree with Richard’s characterization of [the committee members] as ‘special interests,’” Himmelstein replied. “The university presidents are the prime consumers of our product, and their interest is students who compete well. The four parent leaders are concerned with their own children and other students. Let’s talk about major employers. What’s their special interest? People who can read, compute, come into their companies and be productive citizens.” He also said that, contrary to Barrera’s claim that adding four non-elected members to the school board dilutes democracy, the initiative process by which they’re putting their proposal on the ballot requires that the people vote for it in order to pass it.

Former club president Stephen Whitburn raised the concern that one of the people appointing the non-elected school board members will be the president of USD, a private university owned by the Roman Catholic Church. “One of the strongest opponents of Gay equality has been the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic doctrine,” Whitburn said, adding that as a Gay man he could not support a proposal that would give a Catholic university president a voice in choosing four members of the local school board.

“My experience with USD is it’s not run by the Catholic Church,” Himmelstein said. “It has a history as a Catholic university, but none of the decision-making has to do with the church.” Himmelstein also disputed Barrera’s claim that San Diego Community College District Chancellor Constance Carroll opposed the Great Schools initiative even though she’d be one of the nine members on the appointing panel. “She can’t take a position, but she’s said she would serve,” Himmelstein said.

“I can guarantee you the Community College Board will oppose this initiative,” Barrera said. He also cited the SDUSD’s response to the Queer bullying issue as an example of why the school board should remain all-elected. “We had a series of tragedies focused on LGBT [Queer] kids this year, and a group of community leaders came to our district and asked us to do something,” he recalled. “We passed a resolution and set up a task force to develop a policy. We answered to the kids in our district, not to the Catholic Church or any other outside group. We answered to our kids because that’s what the voters elected us to do.”

Club treasurer John Gordon and former president Craig Roberts both questioned the Great Schools’ campaign’s use of paid signature gatherers to get their initiative on the ballot. Gordon accused the campaign’s signature gatherers of “using cliché marketing and other misleading words” in getting people to sign, and asked Himmelstein, “Have you personally monitored that and approved the script?”

“The signature gathering has nothing to do with USD,” Himmelstein responded. “Ninety-nine percent or greater of all initiatives get on the ballot by hiring signature-gathering firms. We do give them a script, or the contractor does.” He also insisted that San Diegans 4 Great Schools “is a separate campaign with separate offices” from the USD Center for Education, Policy and Law, which he runs as his day job.

“Paid petitioners lie about what initiatives will do,” said Roberts, who also admitted he was troubled that the proposal lumped together ideas he could support with others he opposes. “I’d support district elections and more elected school board members,” said Roberts. “I’m uncertain about term limits and I’m opposed to the appointed members. I’d like to be able to vote for the items I like and against the ones I don’t, and I want to know why I can’t do that.”

“This is the product of people who researched it and got input from the public,” Himmelstein said. “Based on our work, we felt this package has the best opportunity to be passed. When the school districts puts their own initiatives on the ballot, they do polling, too.”

Barrera said that the district elections and term limits are essentially loss leaders, put into the proposal so the sponsors can get voters to give them what they really want: the non-elected board members. “If Scott and his folks had wanted to work with us to expand the school board and have it elected by district, I would have welcomed that,” Barrera said. “What Scott and his folks want are the appointments, so they bury it in term limits, which poll well. Their campaign won’t be about appointing school board members; it will be about term limits, based on the polling.”

Veteran San Diego activist and former Congressional candidate Nancy Casady raised the possibility that the four appointed board members would work as a group and seek the support of one elected member to join their bloc, so they could have absolute control of the board. “You’re presuming that all four of the appointed board members would agree on every issue,” Himmelstein responded. “That wouldn’t be the case. People have different thoughts. A larger board would be healthier and offer better debate. It’s harder to get to five votes than three, so there will be more compromises.”

“Most of our kids live in the southern part of San Diego, in my district and Shelia Jackson’s district,” Barrera said. “Currently, those communities can elect two of the five school board members. Under this proposal, they could elect two of nine. Our students are already underrepresented, and under this plan they’d be even more underrepresented.”

Himmelstein portrayed the choice before San Diego’s voters — first over whether to sign his group’s petition and then, if it qualifies, whether to vote for it — as a black-and-white one: either accept the dysfunctional status quo or adopt his group’s plan. “If you are satisfied with the results of the current system over a long period of time, where over one-half of our kids are not proficient, you can do the same thing,” he said. “This provides an opportunity for better results. Change is never easy.”

“The biggest threat to stability in the schools right now is the state’s financial situation,” Barrera said. “If Jerry Brown’s initiative [to keep the state’s current sales taxes and vehicle license fees in place] does not make it onto the ballot or does not pass, we’re talking about devastating the school system, ending the school year at the end of March and putting students in overcrowded classrooms the rest of the year.”

The club had to go through some procedural hoops to vote on the initiative because its executive board had originally scheduled the March 24 meeting just to discuss the issue and hear from both sides, not to take a position. As a result, the club members had first to pass a two-thirds motion to suspend the rules so they could vote on it. A motion to suspend the rules so the club could endorse against the proposal failed with 15 in favor and 10 opposed — short of the two-thirds threshold — but, after former president Roberts said he would be willing to support a motion urging people not to sign it, the motion to suspend the rules for that purpose passed 22 to 2, and the final vote on urging people not to sign it was so lopsided in favor club president Doug Case didn’t bother to count it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


City Council Considers Virtual Ban on Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Advocates Mobilize at Activist San Diego a Week Before March 28 Vote


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO, left to right: Rev. Canon Mary Moreno Richardson, Stephen Whitburn, Eugene Davidovich, Ben Cisneros, Rachel Scoma.

LISTEN TO THIS EVENT! Check out the audio link at

The San Diego City Council will vote Monday, March 28 on an ordinance which purports to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the city — but which activists say will actually put them all out of business and make it either difficult or impossible for patients needing medical marijuana to get it safely. That was the message five panelists brought to Activist San Diego at a March 21 meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. Despite widely varying backgrounds, they came to organize people to oppose the City Council’s proposed ordinance and pressure the Council to amend it so dispensaries can open and function legally, but without the “Wild West” atmosphere that currently allows dispensaries not only to exist but to cluster in particular neighborhoods.

The speakers at Activist San Diego included Ben Cisneros and Rachel Scoma, who worked together in San Diego on the campaign for Proposition 19, an initiative on last November’s ballot which would have repealed state laws against recreational use of marijuana. After it lost, they continued to work on marijuana-related issues as part of Canvass for a Cause, a group that stations people outside large stores and shopping malls to meet people and educate them directly about medical marijuana, marriage equality and other hot-button issues.

Also on the panel were Stephen Whitburn, former San Diego City Council and County Board of Supervisors candidate and member of the city’s Medical Marijuana Task Force; Eugene Davidovich, San Diego-area liaison for the national medical-marijuana group Americans for Safe Access; and Rev. Canon Mary Moreno Richardson of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. (She made clear that she was speaking as an individual and was not representing either St. Paul’s or the Episcopal church as a whole.)

The ordinance the City Council will take up March 28 would allow medical marijuana dispensaries only in industrial zones and so-called “community commercial” zones — which already eliminates most of the city. According to Davidovich, it would require all existing dispensaries to close — though it’s not clear whether that would take effect immediately or there’d be a six-month grace period allowing them to wind down in an orderly way — and in order to open a dispensary, organizers would have to apply for a “Process 4 Conditional Use Permit” from the city’s planning commission. It would likely take a year or more just for the permit process to reach the commission, Davidovich argued.

Also included in the ordinance is a stringent set of so-called “sensitivity areas” further restricting where dispensaries could locate. They would have to be at least 1,000 feet away from schools, playgrounds, libraries, child care facilities, youth facilities, churches, parks and other dispensaries. The planning commission and the City Council committees that heard the ordinance even considered, but ultimately didn’t approve, a requirement that the dispensaries be located 1,000 feet from colleges and universities. Both Davidovich and Whitburn said that the Medical Marijuana Task Force, which was supposed to come up with a set of regulations the city could adopt, issued a fair and reasonable plan that balanced community and law-enforcement concerns with the rights of medical marijuana patients to get their medicine.

Whitburn said the Task Force looked at ordinances passed in other cities and tried to pull together the best parts of each for a plan for San Diego. “The Task Force was diverse,” Whitburn said. “We had people interested in making [medical marijuana] available and people very skeptical towards the whole idea of medical marijuana. But we came to a consensus that medical marijuana needs to be available and needs to be regulated. Unfortunately, as they’ve moved through the process, the regulations have become much more strict, and a lot of us fear they will make it more difficult to access medical marijuana.”

Last September, City Councilmember Todd Gloria — who represents District 3, considered the most liberal in the city, and whose predecessor, Toni Atkins, was a strong medical marijuana supporter — told KPBS reporter Alison St. John that the strict proposal reported by the Planning Commission and the Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee was the best deal the medical marijuana community could get from the current Council. “What we had to do was craft a series of rules that would provide patients with safe access while responding to the concerns of some of those in the community who feel that some of the locations are inappropriate,” Gloria told St. John.

But medical marijuana activists saw the proposed ordinance as a back-door attempt to eradicate all dispensaries in San Diego. “When we saw what was happening in San Diego with this ordinance, we partnered with other organizations because of our concerns about how this ordinance would eradicate access,” Davidovich said. “We had previously had a City Council ordinance that addressed patient cultivation, but for many years patients have been lobbying the City Council for an ordinance that would provide guidance for caregivers and providers. … We have 50,000 patients in San Diego County, and if this ordinance passes every dispensary will be forced to close.”

The proposed ordinance is “a pretty complicated document,” said Scoma, who in addition to being a community activist is also a recently licensed attorney. “It would absolutely shut down every collective [dispensary] in San Diego.” She said the requirement to apply for a permit with the planning commission, followed by the appeals process if the planning commission denies it, “would cost a lot of money and time, and it would be a very political process.” She compared Process 4, the application process dispensaries would be forced to go through, with the far less stringent Process 1 for pharmacies, which can pretty much locate in any part of the city open to retail businesses at all. She noted that Process 4 is also the one you’d have to go through if you wanted to open an airport.

Whitburn offered a brief history of medical marijuana in California, beginning with the passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, by voters in November 1996. “The problem is the law was passed by initiative, and it wasn’t clear,” Whitburn explained. “That has resulted in years of trying to hammer out what you can and can’t do. The city’s first Medical Marijuana Task Force came up with guidelines for how much you could possess and how you could transport it.”

Unfortunately, Whitburn said, those guidelines assumed that people would “grow their own.” Both the city’s original ordinance and laws later passed by the states governed how many plants you could grow at once and how much usable marijuana you could have in your possession at any one time. “But if you’re really ill, maybe you’re not in a position to grow it yourself, and in that case you ought to be able to get a medical substance the same way you’d go to a pharmacy.”

Scoma said that the requirement that dispensaries can only be located in industrial areas would be particularly devastating to patients. “If you’re a multiple sclerosis [MS] patient, since MS patients aren’t legally allowed to drive, you would either have to get a friend to take you or go on the bus,” she said. “This ordinance would take us from 180 collectives in San Diego today to zero immediately and one, two or three a year from now. It will absolutely act as a de facto ban for one year, and probably for 10 years.”

“A lot of people [who use medical marijuana] are too ill to drive,” Cisneros added. “They can’t travel for long distances. A lot of people are too poor to afford cars, and a lot of the areas [where dispensaries could locate under the Council ordinance] are undeveloped lots, or may be owned by landlords who don’t want to rent to medical marijuana facilities.”

Cisneros brought up three points medical marijuana activists would particularly like the Council to change about the ordinance. First, he said, is to allow dispensaries “in all industrial and commercial zones.” Second is to cut the “sensitivity areas” to be the same as state law, which requires dispensaries to be 600 feet away from schools but doesn’t impose any other location requirements. They also want the distance between dispensaries cut from 1,000 to 500 feet. Third is to eliminate the stringent permit process and instead allow dispensaries to apply for permits on the same basis as pharmacies.

Both Whitburn and Davidovich addressed the tough political climate facing medical marijuana users in San Diego. Instead of following a state mandate to issue medical marijuana patients ID cards, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors sued in federal court to have Proposition 215 thrown out on the ground that federal anti-drug laws pre-empted it. The suit dragged on for years before it expired when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the County’s appeal. Nonetheless, the County has approved an ordinance on dispensaries that in practice has prevented any from locating anywhere in the unincorporated areas of San Diego County, which the Supervisors govern directly.

Another crusader against medical marijuana in San Diego County is the elected district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, who has paid lip service to the legitimacy of medical marijuana but has also launched a series of spectacular and highly publicized raids against dispensaries. Whitburn pointed out that her office has proceeded under the assumption that dispensaries are always illegal — despite an opinion by the California Attorney General that they are legal within certain regulations.

What’s more, Dumanis has committed a lot of law enforcement power to close down dispensaries — including the San Diego Police Department, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — and the heavy publicity she’s scored for the raids have helped associate medical marijuana with crime and violence while sometimes having brutal effects on patients. “I witnessed one raid in Del Cerro where the police, sheriff’s deputies and DEA agents went after one middle-aged man in a wheelchair and threw him to the ground,” said Rev. Richardson.

“I definitely think their calculus is political,” Cisneros said of the San Diego City Council. “My impression is not that the Councilmembers feel, as individuals, that medical cannabis [marijuana] patients should be isolated and made to suffer. They feel the political winds are blowing with the prohibitionists.” He recalled that when the Planning Commission considered the ordinance, “we saw 10-20 anti-cannabis prohibitionists speak in favor of the ordinance because it’s so restrictive, and one speak against it because he doesn’t want to see any cannabis available in San Diego.”

On the other side, Cisneros said, “70 to 80 people came to speak against the ordinance on the ground that it’s a de facto ban.” Nonetheless, the Commission responded by making the ordinance even more restrictive, “including adding colleges and universities to the ‘sensitivity areas,’” he said. “It wasn’t a lack of support from the community. What we saw was a political disconnect between the will of the people and the position of the City Council. People who support medical cannabis were not seen as an organized constituency.”

Activists like Cisneros decided that they needed to change that by showing that medical marijuana patients and their supporters would organize for reasonable regulations and in defense of dispensaries’ right to exist. What they decided to do, rather than organize rallies and marches, was get people to write handwritten letters to the Councilmembers urging them either to liberalize the ordinance currently before them or scrap it altogether. Staff members of elected officials have a hierarchy by which they judge public comments, depending on how difficult they are to make: a pre-packaged postcard or e-mail is judged at the bottom of the list, a phone call a bit higher, a typed letter a bit higher and a handwritten letter is considered “the gold standard,” Cisneros explained.

“We wanted to do something big and flashy and measurable to put pressure on the City Council,” Cisneros said. “They think rushing through a restrictive ordinance is the most expedient thing. We’ve got about 3,000 letters to the City Council, and we think it’s the largest letter-writing campaign ever done to the San Diego City Council on a specific, pending ordinance.” The other advantage of a letter-writing campaign over mass demonstrations, Cisneros said, is that letters contain their senders’ addresses — and that means Councilmembers will know the letters came from their district and thus will have a harder time ignoring them.

Indeed, Cisneros closed the meeting by not only urging the members of Activist San Diego to write letters but giving them pens, paper and table space to do so. He said the deadline for mailing letters to City Councilmembers on this issue is Wednesday, March 23, and afterwards he wants people to make phone calls. The address for letters is 202 “C” Street, San Diego, CA 92101. The phone numbers for the various City Councilmembers are as follows (and if you don’t know which Council district you’re in, you can find out by logging on to and entering your Zip code):

District 1: Sherri Lightner (Dem.), (619) 236-6611, (858) 484-3808
District 2: Kevin Faulconer (Rep.), (619) 236-6622
District 3: Todd Gloria (Dem.), (619) 236-6633
District 4: Tony Young (Dem.), (619) 236-6644
District 5: Carl DeMaio (Rep.), (619) 236-6655, (858) 673-5304
District 6: Lorie Zapf (Rep.), (619) 236-6616
District 7: Marti Emerald (Dem.), (619) 236-6677
District 8: David Alvarez (Dem.), (619) 236-6688

The activists are also staging a major rally on the issue for Monday, March 28 — the day of the City Council vote — starting at noon at the Federal Courthouse, 940 Front Street downtown, a few blocks from City Hall. The rally will last until 1:30 and will be followed by a march to City Hall, where the Council meeting will begin at 2 p.m. For more information, visit

Anti-War Protesters Target Obama

300 Turn Out for Annual Anti-War Demonstration


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The annual anti-war demonstration sponsored by the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice (SDCPJ) in mid-March had a markedly different tone this year from the actions in 2009 and 2010. Then the protesters and rally speakers had soft-pedaled criticism of President Obama, still holding out hope that he would fulfill his campaign promise to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq and would come to realize that the war in Afghanistan — already America’s longest-lasting combat — was unwinnable and would withdraw there, too. Instead, Obama chose the eighth anniversary of former President George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq to launch U.S. air raids on Libya, thereby getting us involved in a third war against a Muslim country — and one young man at the rally summed up the attitude of most of the 300 people there by wearing a T-shirt with the famous Shepard Fairey image of Obama, and under it the words “War Criminal.”

The anti-Obama hard line was apparent from the speeches at the rally, too. “Barack Obama is a war criminal,” said Hugh Moore, who as the representative of the Green Party couldn’t resist the temptation to remind the crowd that he hadn’t voted for Obama. “And I am a war criminal, too,” Moore added, “because I pay taxes and support this regime.”

Though nominally an anti-war demonstration, both the speeches and the protesters’ signs linked the war to virtually the entire array of Left-wing causes. Many of the speakers pointed to the huge amounts of money being spent on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and how those sums, if spent at home instead, could pay for universal health care and other social programs both federal and state governments are relentlessly cutting. Others linked the wars to the crisis in Wisconsin, where Republican governor Scott Walker pushed through his state’s legislature a bill that virtually eliminates public employee unions’ ability to represent and advocate for workers, and to the similar budget crisis in California, where governor Jerry Brown and a Democrat-controlled state legislature can’t find two Republican votes in each house to put on the ballot a measure to continue the state’s current sales and car license taxes.

“We have spent $1.3 trillion on these wars,” said Barry Lambdendorf, president of the San Diego chapter of Veterans for Peace. “For that money, we could provide 60 million people with scholarships for four years in the university. We could give 250 million people health care for one year. In Wisconsin, the state budget deficit is $3 billion — about what we spend on the wars in one week. In California, our proportionate share of these wars is $160 billion per year. The state’s budget shortfall is $27 billion. We’re told ‘there isn’t enough money,’ but there’s always enough money to give tax cuts to the rich and subsidize the oil companies. There’s enough money to bail out Wall Street, but not enough for health care, education, infrastructure, or rebuilding our inner cities, we’re told. But we always have money for perpetual war.”

Lambdendorf also mentioned the even grimmer cost of the wars in human life. “Six thousand men and women have died, 43,000 have been seriously wounded and one-third to one-fourth of all those who have served in the last 10 years have post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “According to one study, 650,000 people have been killed in Iraq, and every day the U.S. issues an apology to Pakistan and Afghanistan for killing civilians in drone attacks. Every time we do this, we create more enemies, and the U.S.’s standing in the world goes down.”

Zahi Damuni of the San Diego branch of Al-Awda, the coalition of Palestinians and others calling for the “right of return” of Palestinians whose families were driven out of Israel since the Zionist state was founded in 1948, was the first speaker who announced to the crowd that U.S. bombing raids on Libya had begun that very day. He said that the raids on Libya, and the invasion of Bahrain by the Saudi Arabian military to suppress citizen protests similar to those that brought down dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, “tell you a lot” about the U.S.’s role in the Middle East.

“U.S. support for [deposed Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak for 30 years was supposed to be forgotten,” Damuni said. “The regime in Egypt is a military dictatorship funded by the U.S. with $1.3 billion per year, and this regime has supporessed the people for demonstrating for Palestine and against the hermetic seal of Gaza” — the blockade, maintained jointly by Israel and Egypt, to starve the Palestinians of Gaza into submission and impose collective punishment on them (banned by international law) for having dared to elect Hamas to govern them. “The straw that broke the camel’s back [in Egypt] was the economy and the difference between the handful of very rich people at the top and the overwhelming majority of poor people making about $2 per day. This led to one of the most historic revolutions of all time.”

Other speakers pointed out that the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. is becoming more unequal and approaching the level of Egypt. Dr. Jeff Gordon, a veteran physician and activist who served on the California Medical Board during Jerry Brown’s first governorship in the 1970’s and 1980’s, said he took care of veterans with PTSD, drug addiction and suicidal tendencies. “I also have patients suffering from economic disease,” he said. “I live in a world of trauma and tragedy. I want to talk about the pain on the streets. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are one problem, but this country stands on the precipice of social and economic collapse. The problem is the strangulation and death of the American middle class.”

Gordon bolstered his matter-of-fact presentation with a blizzard of statistics showing that over the last 30 years, the U.S. economy has doubled in size but virtually all the extra wealth and income generated by that growth has gone to the fraction of the population at the top. “Today a 30-year-old male, if he’s lucky enough to have a job at all, is earning about what a 30-year-old male made 30 years ago,” he said. “The top 150,000 households in the U.S. make more money than the bottom 120 million.” He blamed this on Ronald Reagan and every president since, both Republicans and Democrats, pointing out that economic policies for the last 30 years have steadily cut taxes for the rich and deregulated the economy — and that continues even though those policies caused the 2008 depression.

One of the measurements Gordon cited to document America’s growing economic inequality is called the “Gini coefficient,” after the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini, who published the concept in 1912. Gordon explained that a society in which everybody had exactly the same income would have a Gini coefficient of 0, while one in which one person had all the income would have a Gini coefficient of 1. He said that the most egalitarian country in the world is Sweden, with a Gini coefficient of .25. “Currently, the U.S. has a Gini coefficient of .45,” Gordon explained. “Canada’s is .32, Great Britain’s is .34, Russia’s is .42. Even before its revolution, Egypt had a distribution of .34. The U.S.’s income inequality is approaching that of Costa Rica, .46; Argentina, .46; Ecuador, .48; and that poor country down the street, Mexico, which is .48.”

What all this means, Gordon said, is “while you’ve been hanging around the last 10 years, America has become a banana republic. We are totally in thrall to the caudillos. Beward: we are on the cusp of fascism: a subjectivist, nationalistic, authoritarian form of government, which will be based on violence and for the benefit of the business class. I hope the turmoil in Wisconsin politics and the turnout on the street there represents the start of an awakening of the American public to the false premises of the destructive Midwest and Southern Republicans.”
Public Workers’ Struggle Is Our Struggle


Introduction copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If you’re going to march in the streets or occupy government buildings to protest against an oppressive regime, and you want the national mainstream media to cover what you’re doing, you’re better off if you do it on the other side of the world — like in Libya. Though it’s barely been covered in the corporate press — overshadowed first by the tumult in the Middle East and now by the horrific earthquake in Japan — from early February, when newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin introduced a bill that essentially wipes out collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees, there’s been a pitched battle both inside and outside the Capitol building in Madison. The entire Democratic membership of the Wisconsin State Senate left the state for three weeks in an effort to keep Walker and the Republican majority from passing the so-called “budget repair” bill, and protesters occupied the Capitol and also congregated outside.

Their efforts to block the bill were in vain. Under a quirk in the Wisconsin constitution, the legislature needs a larger quorum to pass a budget bill than for any other sort of legislation — so on March 9 Walker simply deleted the budget provisions and sent the destruction of Wisconsin’s public-sector workers’ labor rights to the legislature as a separate bill. It passed easily in both houses with only one Republican Senator voting against it, after a process that opponents charged eliminated even the pretense of public hearings or debate on the motion. Walker presented the bill as a necessary step to cleaning up the state’s budget deficit — for which he and the legislative Republicans were largely responsible since he began his term winning huge tax giveaways for the state’s corporations and wealthy individuals — but his decision to pass the union-busting parts without even the fig leaf of “budget repair” revealed his real agenda: to destroy what’s left of the American labor movement and thereby make it impossible for Democrats to get the money to compete fairly with Republicans in future elections.

If this sounds paranoid, don’t blame me. Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican leader in the Wisconsin State Senate, said as much on Fox News [where else?] when he said, “If we win this battle and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.” The intent is not only to cripple Obama’s re-election effort in 2012 and to regain the U.S. Senate for the Republican party, but to fulfill a longer-term strategy devised by then-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Right-wing organizer and lobbyist Grover Norquist in 1995 called “Defund the Left.” Its objective is to put out of business every institution that might provide money to spread liberal or progressive ideas to an American public increasingly indoctrinated to Right-wing views by powerful media like talk radio and Fox News.

That’s why the current Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives are going after public broadcasting — because they don’t want there to exist a media outlet that even hints at a different view of the world than the one coming from the Right-wing propagandists on talk radio and Fox. It’s why they’re seeking to put Planned Parenthood out of business, because they don’t want (straight) American women to know that there are alternatives to abstaining from sex or being slaves to their wombs. And it’s why, having already driven organized labor out of the private sector — the percentage of U.S. workers in unions has dropped from 36 percent in the 1950’s to 12 percent today, and only 7 percent of U.S. private-sector workers are still in unions — they see bills like Walker’s as their opportunity to drive the final stake through U.S. labor’s heart by destroying its ability to represent public-sector workers and collectively bargain for them.

What the American Right wants the U.S. political system to look like is what Mexico’s looked like for the last two-thirds of the 20th century. The formal institutions of democracy will continue to exist, and the Democratic Party will not only be allowed to function but even to win the occasional election — but in practice America will become a one-party state and the Republican Party will be the only one that matters. That’s why moves like Walker’s are being fought tooth and nail by unions, progressives and their allies — including most of the Queer community — because they realize that putting labor out of business means destroying the most substantial source of funding for political candidates who stand in the way of the total domination of American politics by a relentlessly anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-consumer, anti-civil rights, anti-woman, anti-Queer far-Right Republican Party.

On February 26 there was a nationwide call for rallies in support of the Wisconsin state workers and the Democratic state senators who left the state to try to stop the passage of Walker’s bill. The San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) endorsed this demonstration, partly out of solidarity with labor’s support of the No on Proposition 8 campaign in 2008 and partly because, as the old union slogan says, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” I wrote the following statement and read it at the rally; fellow S.A.M.E. member Lisa Kove offered valuable input and her work is reflected in the final draft below.

— Mark Gabrish Conlan, Editor

“What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

— Adam Smith

“An injury to one is an injury to all.” It is in the spirit of that famous slogan of the labor movement that the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) unequivocally condemns the attempt of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican Party majority in the Wisconsin legislature to wipe away 52 years of collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s workers and effectively destroy organized labor in Wisconsin’s public sector. We equally strongly oppose any attempts to pass similar legislation, including drastic cutbacks in workers’ health and pension benefits, in any other U.S. state or city, including San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s proposed elimination of defined-benefit pensions for new city workers.

We support the mass protests and other demonstrations against these cutbacks in Wisconsin and other states in which they are being considered. We also support the courageous actions of Democratic state legislators in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states where anti-labor bills are being considered to leave the state rather than allow a legislative quorum to convene for the purpose of passing bills that trample on state workers’ rights. Many political executives and legislators federal and state are wealthy and cannot relate to the middle class. They are “out of touch.” Wisconsin is our middle-class’s “Alamo” and we will never forget.

We call on the public-sector workers of Wisconsin to stand firm on both their right to union representation and maintaining their current health and pension benefits. We reject any so-called “compromise” that would retain workers’ collective bargaining rights at the cost of being forced to give back the gains they won under those rights. We recommend that all oppressed workers and their allies stand tall and be obstacles to voracious power mongers.

We call upon the governor and legislators of Wisconsin to repeal the $117 million in tax giveaways for businesses, including so-called “job-creation incentives” that are not in fact creating jobs, that Governor Walker and his party’s legislative majority pushed through in his first days in office and are now telling the state’s workers that they must pay for through reduced pay, benefits and pensions as well as the loss of collective bargaining rights.

To those working people in the private sector who say, “Why should public-sector workers get defined-benefit pensions while I’m stuck in a 401(k)?,” we say they should instead be asking, “Why am I stuck in a 401(k) and can’t get the benefits and pensions public workers get?” We call on them to organize and demand that their state’s and their nation’s corporations, which are making record profits despite the misery they are inflicting on their workers through layoffs and speed-ups, pay them decent wages, health benefits and pensions.

As a people who have directly experienced oppression, including bigotry, hatred, publicly supported discrimination, physical violence and psychological harassment which has often driven us to suicide, we know intimately what it is like to be made into scapegoats. We are appalled at the ongoing media propaganda and disinformation campaigns that are portraying public employees as the villains who are driving state and local governments into bankruptcy, when the real parties responsible are corporations ceaselessly demanding to pay little or no taxes despite the value they extract from the economy, legislators who go along with them and voters who fail to realize that taxes are the price we pay for civilization.

Just as we applaud the courageous protesters in Tunisia and Egypt who stood up to their country’s dictators and poured into the streets to demand democracy, and those who are doing the same in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, so we strongly support the citizens of Wisconsin and other U.S. states who are marching and using nonviolent resistance to challenge and fight back against political and corporate leaders who aim to fatten their own swollen bank accounts by destroying America’s middle class and impoverishing most of its people.

This declaration by the economic top 1 percent to force the middle class into a reduced station of being the working poor is economic violence at its worst. There are more of us than there are of the top 1 percent. We will win in Wisconsin, the nation, and the world. Stay strong as you speak for all of us that have experienced economic and other forms of oppression.

Maddocks Teaches “Trans 101” to Queer Marriage Group


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: Courtesy of Connor Maddocks’ page at

LISTEN TO THIS EVENT! Check out the audio link at

By now, virtually all Queer people and a lot of mainstream heterosexuals as well have heard or read the awkward acronym “LGBT” as an inclusive term of art for the Queer community — and it’s likely most people who’ve seen that set of initials know it stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender.” But while it would be hard to find people who don’t know what a Lesbian, Gay man or Bisexual are, far fewer really understand either what Transgender people are or how they fit into the same community of interest. As a step towards broadening Queer people’s understanding of Transgender people and how they’re both different from and similar to Lesbians, Gays and Bisexual, Connor Maddocks, facilities manager of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center and a female-to-male Transgender person, spoke to the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) March 8.

The dictionary definition of “Transgender” — to the extent there is one — is any person whose psychological experience of their gender varies from the genetic makeup of their body. Maddocks began his talk by explaining what a wide variety of people that describes, from drag queens and drag kings (usually Gay men and Lesbians, respectively, who dress in clothes and affect the attitudes of people of the other gender) to cross-dressers (usually heterosexual men “who feel a need to dress in women’s clothing, and don’t do it for sexual perversion or gratification,” Maddocks explained), transvestites (who also cross-dress but are more open about it and “usually have a name for their [alternate-gender] persona,” Maddocks said) and transsexuals, who so totally identify with the gender opposite to the one they were born into that they often (though not always) go through gender-reassignment surgery to conform their bodies to what their brains tell them they really have been all along.

But those aren’t the only types of Transgender people out there, Maddocks explained. In addition to Transgender people who draw a strict line between male and female and simply believe they were born into a wrongly gendered body, an increasing number of people identify as “androgynous, someone in the middle,” Maddocks said. “They don’t want to be identified as either male or female.” According to Maddocks, one word that’s becoming more common is “Genderqueer,” meaning “someone who wants to be gender-fluid. Sometimes they experience a female side and sometimes they experience a male side. They’re fluid in their gender expression.”

Another group that sometimes gets included in the Transgender community are so-called “Intersex” people, formerly known as hermaphrodites. These are people who were actually born with an in-between body that contains both male and female sex organs. Typically, doctors confronted with a gender-indeterminate infant have made surgical decisions on the fly, sometimes consulting the parents first but more often not, and rearranged the baby’s organs to fit a more common “male” or “female” pattern. Intersex activists are lobbying against this practice and urging parents and doctors of Intersex children not to assign them as males or females but to let them grow up in their natural in-between state. Maddocks made it clear he agreed: “You need to let these kids alone to find their own gender.” Some Intersex activists have also suggested that the initial “I” should be added to “LGBT” to include Intersex people in the Queer community.

Though Maddocks bent over backwards in his presentation to include the gender-ambiguous, Genderqueer and Intersex, his own experience was a more straightforward female-to-male (FTM) Transsexual one. He told S.A.M.E. he knew as early as age three that he was a male, even though his body was female and his parents, teachers and everyone who knew him related to him as a girl. It wasn’t until he was 50 that he finally started to “transition” — the term Transgender people use to designate the transformation of the body into what the person’s brain has known he or she was all along. Maddocks described the process in vivid and sometimes shocking detail.

The first step — at least for most Transsexuals of Maddocks’ generation — is a course of psychotherapy to make sure this is what the person really wants. He said some younger Transsexuals “are avoiding therapy, which I think is a mistake because it’s the biggest thing you will do in your life.” The physical transformation begins with regular doses of hormones — estrogen to transition a male into a female, testosterone to transition a female into a male. “Because I didn’t start my transition until I was 50, my doctor started me on higher doses than usual,” Maddocks said. “It takes 18 months to 2 ½ years to see all the changes. My face actually got wider. My muscle mass built up. I didn’t get taller, but my voice dropped and facial hair came in about two to three years.”

Maddocks added that for male-to-female (MTF) Transsexuals, the change takes longer because estrogen isn’t as strong as testosterone. “Their skin gets softer, their body fat redistributes, and they have less hair on their bodies,” he explained. “The facial hair does not disappear, so they have to have electrolysis” — a painful process of burning out the hair, follicle by follicle, with electricity. “They will grow breasts, but a lot of them have implants,” he added. One other quirk of the transition is that for MTF’s the hormone treatments lower the sex drive, while for FTM’s it increases it until they “become raging idiots.”

The next step in the transition, if the Transgender person can afford it — and a lot of them can’t — is the surgery. “MTF surgery is more common and done better,” he said. “They’re so good at it now that after the surgery they can go see a doctor, and the doctor wouldn’t know she wasn’t a woman-born woman. It costs about $35,000, plus $5,000 for breast implants, and a full facial feminization (involving plastic surgery) can cost up to $100,000. It’s very expensive and very painful.” Contrary to popular belief, Transgender people keep not only their ability to have sex but to have orgasm and feel pleasurable sensations from it, Maddocks explained, since the surgery is so good now all the nerve endings still exist, and still function, even though they’ve been turned outside in — or, in the case of FTM’s, inside out.

According to Maddocks, the FTM transition is both chancier and more expensive than the MTF. “The first thing they do is do a mastectomy (a breast removal) and pull the chest together,” he explained — a step that costs between $5,000 and $10,000. “Testosterone does a lot of the changes, and then the other side is the bottom surgery: metoidioplasty or phalloplasty. First you need a hysterectomy, and then they create a scrotum and you can pick the size of your balls. They re-route the urethra into the clitoris, which the testosterone has made two to three inches long — and it works, but most guys don’t want a two- to three-inch penis. The phalloplasty is bigger at first, and when it’s done it’s a six-inch penis. There are only seven doctors in the world that do it. It used to have a 60 percent failure rate; now it’s about 20 percent.”

But the procedure is also quite expensive — $50,000 to $100,000, not counting the cost of travel and lodging to one of the cities in which the seven doctors live, and the two- to three-month recovery period during which you can’t work. There’s one other curveball the biology throws you, Maddocks explained: “A phallus made that way comes from arm tissue and there’s no erectile tissue, so about one year later you have to get an implant pump similar to the ones they give guys with erectile dysfunction.”

Asked why Transgender people have come to be part of the movement for Queer equality along with Lesbians, Gay men and Bisexuals — even though the issues surrounding gender identity are quite different from those about sexual orientation — Maddocks said, “I think it comes from way back when, when the drag queen community joined because they were Gay. Because our community is about gender and sexual orientation, when people are Gay they’re told, ‘You act like a girl.’ The other reason is that we are at the bottom of the pile. We need you as our allies.” Though California allows post-operative Transsexuals to marry in their new gender (only one other state, New York, does), Maddocks said that the Transgender community is as concerned about marriage equality as any other Queers because discrimination against same-sex couples — however “sex” and “gender” is defined — “does affect all of us.”

One ongoing source of frustration to Transgender activists like Maddocks is how hard it is to mobilize his community. “So many Transgender people have to deal with day-to-day survival issues, they don’t have the resources to help,” he said. “But they need to help, because that’s the only way things will change. We need the LGB’s to tell the T’s that we are allies.” The upside of organizing Transgender people, Maddocks added, is that though it may be difficult to get them into a political or social movement, “once you get them in and they feel comfortable, they are awesome and they have so much to give.”
Jay Murley, Gay Rights Pioneer, Dies at 75


Copyright © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Though he was a frail, senior citizen with false teeth, only one eye, little hair and a bubble belly, the late Jay Murley had a magical way of connecting with the cutest, very young guys … and many were his roommates and/or guests.

Jay was 75 when he died quietly at Scripps Mercy Medical Center in Hillcrest, after being ill for about two to three years, according to his daughter, Trish.

Jay grew up in a Boston suburb. His mother was an artist and his father a radio broadcaster; ac-cording to biographical data provided by Sam Warren.

Jay was married to Valerie Hart when we first connected about 44 years ago. We both worked in radio news in San Francisco in the 1960’s (he with KYA Radio, I with ABC-KGO News).

He was particularly proud of live KYA broadcasts he made of the controversial SFPD raid on the famous Black Cat homosexual bar on Hallowe’en in 1963 in San Francisco.

He bounced over to a Phoenix station, then left radio and moved to Laguna Beach and Newport Beach. There, on behalf of the ACLU in Orange County, he got actively involved in police misconduct issues among homosexuals.

By day I was a mainstream reporter at ABC-KGO News in San Francisco at the time in the 1960’s. By night I was an underground reporter for the Berkeley Barb, the only journalist regularly covering the Gay community.

Jay told me that he regularly read my Barb stories.

He was the only person I’ve met at the LGBT Center in Hillcrest who understood that our now worldwide Gay Lib movement actually began on the streets of San Francisco, two months before Stonewall.

Indeed, Jay told me he was thrilled when Gale Whittington recently published an autobiographical history novel, Beyond Normal ( Whittington’s book intimately — and sometimes erotically — challenged Gay history and the Stonewall myth.

Jay earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard and sometimes flaunted the distinction. He did not hold a law degree, according to his daughter.

He earned an MBA from Western Ontario University in Canada. He closely identified with Can-ada, and proudly played hockey there. He loved to talk about Canadian hockey.

Jay enjoyed being on the attack. He sometimes crudely used legalistic lingo and pseudo-legal procedures, when negotiating with City College of San Diego for official recognition of the Fellowship of Gay Supporters (FAGS). And he was successful!

The name FAGS was tacky, but caught the imagination of the “City” students, though it got only weak coverage in the campus newspaper (the City Times) which Jay battled regularly.

Jay loved to be around young people. He liked working intimately with Gay students at Cal State University in Fullerton. Later in the 1990’s he was intimately involved in organizing the now officially recognized Fellowship of Gay Students (FAGS) at City College of San Diego.

Jay served as treasurer of the Binational AIDS Project, involved with Gays in Tijuana and was an ex-president of the Prime Timers, a social club for Gay seniors, according to Warren. He also served nine years as treasurer of the Humanist Association of San Diego.

Jay passed away quietly and peacefully on Feb. 8, the day after his 75th birthday.

The Two Sides of MICHAEL SOL:

Queer Leatherman Explores Intimacy and Sadism


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s entirely appropriate that Michael Sol should have a last name that means “sun.” Like the sun issuing forth energy and light in all directions at once, Sol has a vivid conversational style that reflects years of both thought and experience, but also one that’s a bit difficult to channel into one particular path at a time. His personal odyssey has propelled him in and out of the Leather community and led him to live a polyamorous lifestyle with both female and male partners, even though at other times he put all that in the closet and concentrated on being a father to his two children. He calls himself “Queer,” not in the sense Zenger’s uses the term — as an all-inclusive name for our community and an alternative to that ghastly acronym “LGBT” — but because he regards labels like “straight,” “Gay” and even “Bisexual” as too confining.

Get Michael Sol interested in something, and he grabs it with the tenacity of a dog’s jaws gripping a bone. Today he’s best known for his interest in shibari, an elaborate technique of rope bondage introduced in Japan, which he will be demonstrating at the San Diego League of Gentlemen Friday, April 1, 7 p.m., at the Joyce Beers Community Center, Vermont Street and Cleveland Avenue in Hillcrest. He’s also the proprietor of Edgeart and an extraordinary photographer whose images of people undergoing shibari and other Leather techniques are available at his Fetlife page, (Fetlife is a social networking site specifically for Leatherpeople and others into BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadomasochism] lifestyles.) Sol recently won the 2011 Mr. Sanctuary Leather contest and will compete for Mr. Leather Los Angeles March 26-27.

But he’s practiced many other forms of Leathersex, including tattooing, scarification, needle piercing, physical and psychological torture and other forms of extreme “edge play.” At the same time, depending on whom he’s with and what the overall context of their relationship is, he can also be warm, intimate, romantic and loving. He describes himself as a “kinky scoundrel” and says one of his ideas is to restore sex and sexuality to a Leather/BDSM community he believes has become too consumed with ritual and forgotten that all of this is first supposed to be fun. For more information on Sol, his SoCal Shibari group and his other activities, please visit his Web site,

Zenger’s: Michael, why don’t you start by just telling me a little about yourself, your personal history, how you got into Leather and how you see your role?

Michael Sol: Sure. I think I always knew that I was different, just as my sexuality came to me, because there were some key moments I think about when I look back. I came from a very conservative background, but when I was around 12 years old, I was digging through my uncle’s closet, because he had all kinds of cool things. He had guns and medals and Playboys and Hustlers, and the one that really caught my eye was a magazine that was published by John Willie called Baton Play. It was a damsels-in-distress bondage magazine, and Willie’s own illustrations were very influential to me. The people I would say influenced me today are Willie, Tom of Finland, and Botero. He’s a Spanish artist.

Around my 20th or 21st birthday, I went to an after-hours club. I managed a fashion store at the time. I’d taken a little hiatus from college, and my assistant manager was this really interesting Lesbian girl. Her partner was very good friends with the person who owned the dress shop, which was on Melrose [in Los Angeles]. I attended a party there, and I met this girl who was very, very interesting to me. When she and I were talking to each other, she mentioned that she had a girlfriend. And of course, I was young, I thought, “Threesome!” What it turned out, though, was her girlfriend was her dominant, and her girlfriend was interested in exploring a man’s energy, because she was Bisexual. So we formed something of a triad for some time, and I really became exposed to a more formal BDSM scene: D/s, Leather, whatever name you want to put on it.

When that ended, it ended very amicably because they decided they were going to get married, and I was exposed to Bisexuality and other gender choices. I used to dance a lot at Rage, which still exists over there on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I became more and more exposed to the West L.A. crowd. It was a really enlightening thing for me, because there were concepts that I really didn’t understand. I was also just beginning to come out as an artist, because I’d grown up very involved in athletics and an academic career. And I saw a different way. Around that time I had different partnerships, male and female, until I met somebody and I went up north and we raised horses together. It really limited my scope of life, because I lived in Madera County and then in Fresno, and there’s not exactly a huge, blossoming scene. There certainly was not then; now there’s a little bit.

Zenger’s: Was that a man or a woman?

Sol: It was a woman. I felt very confined in it, and she became uncomfortable with my bisexuality. Our relationship ended, amicably at first, and then not as amicably. I moved back down to the San Fernando Valley, and my entrance into that scene was at a place called the Lair de Sade, which was primarily a het male dom/female sub type thing. I wanted to branch out a little bit, and eventually I was asked to form my own group, and I formed a group called Dominant Dominion. Dominant Dominion actually spread into three counties, and we embraced everyone. Something that started to come to me with Dominant Dominion is that we all share what I believe is a desire to claim a right. It’s not just a desire, it’s also a right of self-determination of our own sexuality.

While this was going on, I actually had a son, and I was trying to get custody of him. When the Club “X” raids happened I became involved with people trying to raise money. I moderated a Community Action Committee where we invited a number of people from different groups, and when you do that, someone’s not going to be happy. I started receiving e-mails that were sent from a Hotmail account from the Long Beach City Library. That’s where we traced them to. I have no idea who the person was, and I won’t even speculate, but what they had was a threat to out me, and the address and phone number of my son’s mother. It was really disillusioning for me. I shut my group down almost overnight, and I moved to San Diego.

At that point, I felt that the most important thing I could do as my authentic self — because different aspects of my life came into major conflict at that time — was through responsibilities as a parent. I needed to be a father. I just couldn’t put my kink self to the side, so a lot of aspects of my life were in the closet. One was my attraction to men, and the other one was just the scene in general. But I couldn’t walk away from it. And going surreptitiously to Leather bars and this type of thing just isn’t my style. So I started choosing places that were less than a $100 plane flight away. I would go to places like Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle, because they were short hops, and I would go about every other week and explore the fetish scene. That allowed me to be more open about my sexuality and my choices, and those things happened.

Also, about that time I became disabled. I was a flogger dom, the typical guy out there swinging whips, swinging a flogger, and because I had a respiratory disease I couldn’t do those things anymore. My focus changed into trying to do things that I could do that were not quite as strenuous, and so I brought more of an artistic bent into what I was doing and I became involved in a lot of blood play, cutting, decorative needle stick, kind of thing. And I met the person who is now my partner in Edgeart, Katie, and Katie is a person who opened a lot of doors for me.

She asked me once upon a time what I thought of tattoos, and I said, “I think they’re lower-class. It’s one of those things that I’ve always wanted to lose.” Did I say that? And she said, “For someone as open-minded as you, I can’t believe you would actually say that.” She gave me a bunch of books and resources for different places, and the history of body art, and I became absolutely fascinated with the Japanese floating-world period and the method of tattooing, irezumi. And ta moko, which is a Maori art from New Zealand. I also became exposed to Fakir Musafar and the Modern Primitives movement, and that’s something Charles Gatewood did stuff. There’s a really pivotal video called Dances Sacred and Profane which they did.

There’s a form I like called the tsukaso. It’s spelled a couple of different ways. It’s an inversion. It’s an inverted suspension. It was part of the punishment edicts of the Tokugawa period. It’s an inverted suspension into a river or lake. In my case, I use a thing of water. It’s hard-core. People never forget you did it to them, ever.

Zenger’s: It sounds like a combination of waterboarding and bondage.

Sol: It totally is, but if you take a person and you put them upside down and you do an interrogation, put them on a spinner and you spin them and then you do any kind of impact at all, everything you do when that person’s disoriented is amplified. Especially if you blindfold them, because then they have no way of knowing if they’re up or down, swinging and everything, and then if you drop them, they have no clue. You become their world. Because the thing is they know that the only person who can save them is you. So it’s a really interesting thing, because you are their tormentor and their savior at the same time. I think that, in a way, your whole world becomes one, and in a way you become omnipotent in that situation. It’s an incredible feeling — but afterwards, I’ve got to be honest with you, it’s an incredible feeling of, “Holy shit! What part of me did I just reveal?”

But I do things like that as an exploration of self for both myself and the other person. I don’t run home and do them with the girl or boy that I’m playing with, that I’m intimate with. As a matter of fact, I probably wouldn’t do that to somebody I’m intimate with. It would be too much — even in play, even with consent — a breach of trust. It’s not true for everybody, but with the people in my life with whom I’m affectionate, the people who inspire the daddy in me — not everybody does, but when they do I’m not doing that to that poor little boy! I can’t do that. Because of them, because of me. It’s a weird thing.

I mentioned Botero. He’s one of the three influences I named. Botero did a lot of art that I admired, and I liked it. And then he did a series on Abu Ghraib prison, and I came to love him. If you take a look at Botero and you take a look at Tom of Finland, you could see parallels. And those parallels are things I like to explore, because Tom of Finland has these guys who are so strong, masculine, a little oversized, blows them up.

Botero takes prisoners of war and their captors, American captors, and he makes them big and fleshy, almost Rubensesque, with big muscles underneath. He uses that same distortion of the male figure in order to show sexuality, brutality and a societal condition. It’s all about who they are and what’s around them, and he’s not afraid to blow it up. He’s not afraid to take that hard hyperbole, and to really use that is brave, I think.

Zenger’s: One of the things that struck me about Abu Ghraib was you had the torture couple. Charles Grainer and Lynndie England, the guards who were doing the torturing, were also lovers, and I couldn’t help but think that that was a really kinky relationship.

Sol: It would have to have been their sex.

Zenger’s: There had to be a connection between what they were doing to the prisoners by day and what they were doing with each other by night.

Sol: They also used sexual embarrassment, the sex of shame, as part of their torture. They raped them. Maybe they didn’t use their penis or their vagina, but they raped them, no question, with sticks. It was brutal. They did things like put the person in a strappado-type form, with their arms tied behind their backs, and they knelt them in a stress position on top of another stress position. Then they would drop the person’s temperature about three to four degrees, to the very lowest permissible level they could before there would be permanent damage to the people, O.K., as part of their torture. And they had them blindfolded, which is a major disorientation stressor, major stressor; drop the body temperature, which is combating the body’s ability to fight anything; bringing them totally into their core. Which means they’re leaving their thinking mind. That is incredibly powerful torture.

I teach a class called “Cultural Rites of Torture and Shunning.” We go through the stuff that you hear about, stoning and tarring and feathering, and such. But that’s just the first third of the stuff: “These are things you can do. Now let’s talk about how to really screw with a person.” Ethnic cleansing and Abu Ghraib: those are the two things that I talk about. Because a lot of people think about things like, “What about alien abductions? What if aliens came down and violated your body?” We’re going to use that thing, and I wonder why do I have to make shit up?

If I go look at the history of man, we’ve been doing screwed-up things to each other since the dawn of time — and very creatively. That’s art. Maybe it’s evil. That’s not for me to say. But that’s art: how man has tortured man. It’s every bit as valid as how man has loved man.

Zenger’s: That sounds like what the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen got into so much trouble for saying after 9/11, when he said that this was a work of art. He was asked, “Are you justifying it?” And he said, “No, because the people who were the victims did not give their permission.”

Sol: I agree with him. I totally agree with him. I know it’s not popular, but I totally agree with him. Because the thing is, Fakir Musafar said, “Dance sacred and profane.” I buy that, O.K.? But also embrace both your — that’s what I’m going to say — embrace the good you and also the evil you. Because they exist, and if you don’t know them both, how do you really know yourself? How do you live your authentic self? And how do you self-determine if you’re not willing to embrace all of who you are?

My sexuality, my torture, the things that I do are all extensions of myself to a person. And that’s what matters to me. And I’m not trying to be altruistic either, O.K.? That is what matters with me. There are different energies, and I want to feel them all. I want to feel them all. There is something really special with — there’s this guy who I refer to in this way: Tim, from Wisconsin. I love to punch this guy. We’ll do a scene, and I’ll get him, I’ll tie him up, I’ll do whatever it takes to get him into this nice, sweaty point. And then he’ll just stand there and look at me — and he’s a big man, big, heavy-set, mondo bear of a guy.

I’ll just take my fists, and I’ll just be looking at him, and I’ll rub his head and say, “Are you ready?” Then I’ll literally jump up on a little stool and then jump down on him and hit him, bam! Bam! Bam! I’m just sitting there to the point where he’s just growling at me — and I hurt too, because let me tell you, whacking a guy is not an easy thing. And I’m growling back at him. I have disabilities, O.K., but when I’m in that space I don’t give a crap about whether I end up in the hospital afterwards. And I don’t give a crap about whether he does, either — no, actually I do worry about that! I’m not stupid.

But the thing about it is I care about this guy. I love this guy. No question, I love this guy. I’m just pounding on him, and there’s this primal energy that comes in. It’s in that growl, it’s in the fists, it’s in the sweatiness of it. And when I can’t go anymore, he can’t go anymore — it’s usually me, because he’s a strong guy, O.K.? — I just hold on to that guy and I bring him down to the ground, and then there’s that embrace. And it is the same lover’s embrace that I have with people where there’s this softer form of intimacy.

Zenger’s: When I first met you, you defined yourself as a “kinky scoundrel.” What does that mean?

Sol: I’m a very fortunate person. I got to study with some very, very good people, very early on. Then because I got to teach in a national scene, I got to spend a lot of time with these educators, and what you find out is there’s this exchange of ideas: “Wow! You do really good rope! I do this other thing.” But then I came across a little bit, particularly in rope, bondage, people who are elite. Right when I formed SoCal Shibari I was approached by a group who said, “What are you doing, Michael? Aren’t you casting pearls before swine? Those people aren’t true lovers of this art.” And I looked at them and said, “Jeez, where are you coming with this whole thing? These are people we’re talking about,” and they said, “Yes, but don’t you want to be part of the elite?”

I thought about it, and I tried not to answer the question for some time. But the answer is fuck no. I don’t want to be part of the elite, because the elite has got their nose up in the air, O.K.? Living, life, art is found down in the muck and the mire. I thought about that, and what I like from other people’s educators, and I went, “You know what? I would really like to share things that I love, as a lover. Not as somebody who’s ‘elite.’”

So I thought, “Who has fun, and is actually good at doing the things they do? Scoundrels!” Scoundrels are accomplished guys or girls, most of them. I’m a scoundrel, and I’m a kinky person, so I thought that “kinky scoundrel” was a very approachable way to bring these things that I love to people, and to teach them: not as some person with this huge mentor title, or this elite status, but as someone who’s pretty good at what I do, teaching people the things that I love.

The kinky scoundrel can broach any subject, in as non-threatening a way as possible. And I think when you do that, when you have fun, you can start talking to people about AIDS. You can start talking to people about our youth committing suicide. I think you can talk to people about antisepsis in a dungeon, because people are hearing you. They’re not seeing this elite person who is “better” than you, in their monotone voice like this, because you know what you do when you see an elitist up there, someone who’s lecturing you? You tune them out. That’s why I identify as a kinky scoundrel: because I want to have fun, but I also want to disseminate important information in an approachable way.

Zenger’s: One of the things you told me the first time you said “kinky scoundrel” to me was that it had to do with getting BDSM back into a relationship with sex, whereas other people in the community try to divide the two: “I’m not having sex with people; I’m doing this, this, this and this with them. I’m not having sex with them.”

Sol: That’s why I say, “Fun to the fuck power.” This stuff is supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be sexual; and if it’s not, dude, then try it this way and it’ll be more satisfying. I think one of the cool things about being a kinky scoundrel is you can say, “Fun to the fuck power.” People who are trying to be with their attitudes can’t say, “Hey, you wanna fuck?” I can.

I proposition people in my role as a kinky scoundrel out there, and the funny thing is, that’s stuff that sometimes I’m kind of shy about. Well, not any more, but I was at one point in time. And I’m not even serious half the times. I’m just having fun. And the interesting thing is when you’re open to the world, good shit happens. Stuff that you were just talking about suddenly happens, and you go, “Wow!”

Zenger’s: And, you know, I try not to judge other people’s relationships. But there are couples I’ve met, and I’ve noticed their dynamics, and I’ll think, “I’m glad this makes you happy. This is not a type of relationship I could be in, at all.” One person I know will only date much younger men. I respect him; that’s his thing, that’s fine. It’s not mine. I need someone closer to my age that I can relate life experiences with.

Sol: I see people who have dynamics with a much younger person, and I notice little things like maybe they’re a person who likes to teach, who likes to mentor, something like that, and they like that almost parenting role. But I also think that maybe there are some people themselves that, although they may be 40 or 50 years old, their real state of mind is 20. It doesn’t even mean they’re immature, although that could be part of it.

Katie [Sol’s partner]: We have to deal with that some, because I’m a lot younger than you, and so when you date somebody who’s older than you are, it makes the age spread much bigger for me.

Sol: And also there’s a relationship between she and I, where her primary sexuality is towards women. She has a tendency, because she’s Bisexual, to only want to have one Daddy, and her other interests focus on women. I’m a person who goes after whoever catches my fancy, O.K.? And I like cultured people.

Zenger’s: In the Bi world, that’s called “gender-monogamous,” meaning you have an ongoing partner of one gender, and then everybody else is the other.

Sol: She’s gender-monogamous. I’m slutty.

Zenger’s: I’m not sure how this is going to fit into this article, but I know there was something you wanted to talk about, about the Tom of Finland exhibit in West Hollywood.

Sol: I have a tendency to be really interested in causes, O.K.? One of the things that I think is happening is I think there’s a little turnaround in some of the gains we’ve made as a Gay community, as a kink community, whatever. I’m talking about the all-sex-positive, fetish community. I think some of our values are eroding because America is becoming, I don’t know, some sort of neo-fascism is rearing its head within us and it’s changing the face of the landscape. And I think we have to fight against that change.

Stonewall doesn’t mean anything unless we’re willing to put ourselves on the line, like people before us did. Very recently — and this is certainly no incredibly dramatic thing — but in the city of West Hollywood, the Arts Council voted against endorsing the Tom of Finland art exhibit, whereas for many years previously they have. It was a slap in the face to the Gay community. So a number of people, partly under the leadership of the Band of Brothers [an organization of all the former contestants for Mr. Leather Los Angeles] — but it was wider than that, the Los Angeles Leather Coalition, the Band of Brothers and other people got together and appeared at the City Council meeting.

Now, the City Council had already agreed that they were going to endorse Tom of Finland, but that wasn’t good enough, because if you’re looking at West Hollywood, that community is largely Gay and it’s a slap in the face to the Gay community. So group of Leathermen and other kinky people showed up, not in loud, bitter protest, not unreasonably, but largely in business suits, and said, “We are here, we are constituents, we represent your community and we want you to fix what happened with this Arts Council.”

They weren’t faced with a mob they could dismiss. They were faced with thinking, reasonable people. And the reaction to it by the city of West Hollywood was extremely positive. I think we’re going to see more things coming out of it, where the city is going to create programs in order to address situations like this where a mistake is made, and instead of protests and words of hate, the people sit down and work out what these problems are. I think that’s what we need to know.

As an artist, I look at a lot of things where there’s intolerance, and I’m able to cross over. Body art more than any other place. I do cuttings. It’s a form of scarification. I use a scalpel and I create art. It’s a primitive art, and sometimes I will do it in a very primitive way. But other times, what I do is I take that primitive feel and I modernize it. It’s what Modern Primitives do. I add more technique and artistry to it. And when people approach it, sometimes they think it’s a tattoo.

They say, “Oh, my God, that’s beautiful,” until they come closer and understand what it is. But they’ve already committed themselves to an interest, and if they go, “Oh, that’s terrible, that’s blood,” and I go, “You don’t like it, fuck you, then we’re done. But if I look at this thing and say, “I thought that way, too, until I got to understand the spirituality of it,” and I talk to them about the spiritual aspect of it, and about how it affects me as an artist, those people walk away knowing me. They don’t know an angry me. They may walk away maybe not agreeing with a damned thing I said, but they know me.

A lot of these things that happen are backlash reactions because of hate. It’s very, very hard to hate unless you objectify a person, until you dehumanize them. Hitler did it to the Jews: “big noses.” In the South they did it with Black people: “big lips.” Slat a poncho on a Mexican with a sombrero: “These sleepy people we don’t want in our society.” But if we go through and we let people know us, if we meet the seeds of hatred with our opening hand, those seeds will never be watered. They’ll be falling on rocky soil.

Because of the fact that we say, “Know us,” we become human. I’m all about having sex with humans, and I’m also all about being a human so other humans cannot dehumanize me. I think that that’s what we need to do. I really do. And I think that our art and our culture are things we need to let people see, invite them to see, invite them to embrace it and to embrace their own art, as a different view but something that’s equally valid.

That’s why I think that the art of shibari, the art of cutting, the art of virtually everything it is that we do, if we really allow people to see two Gay men embrace and see the love that exists between them, you can’t deny love. You just can’t. I think that’s what it’s about, and that’s why I encourage people, “If you see someone with a different sexual opinion or stuff, ask.”

And the second thing that I want people to do — and I hope they will do — is to answer, and not automatically assume that this person has a malevolent intent. I think that’s how we get to know each other, and how we really make gains that are going to last.

Latino Film Festival Runs Through March 20

18-Year-Old Event Screens 185 Films Despite Meager Budget

by LEO E. LAURENCE, J.D. • Member, Latino Journalists of California

An army of young volunteers served as the backbone for the 18th annual Latino Film Festival March 10-20 at the soon-to-be-razed UltraStar Cinema complex in the Hazard Center in Mission Valley.

Ticket sales were “comfortable,” said Ethan van Thillo, executive director of the Media Arts Center in North Park, which annually produces the internationally respected, film festival.

While many of the screenings were sold out, overall tickets were running “about the same as last year,” van Thillo said on the festival’s third day.

Several student volunteers served as assistant reviewers, and were provided on-the-scene training by me how to watch a movie as a newspaper reviewer. Their observations provided a young per-spective on the 185 films, mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, ranging from high drama to Cine Gay, a special series devoted to Gay international films.

Vuelve a la Vida

“I’ll give it (only) a B,” said Ramon M. Silva, 23, who assisted in reviewing a Mexican movie, Vuelve a la Vida (Return to Life). Produced in 2010, it’s a documentary that makes a saint-hero out of “Perro Largo” (“Long Dog”), a legendary scuba diver in Acapulco in the 1970’s.

The 72-minute movie was mostly a long series of seated, face-on interviews with beach people who knew the diver, making it a monotonous.

“Documentaries are usually dull and boring,” observed Silva. “There was some humor (in the movie), but after 50 minutes of hearing the same stories over and over, it got a bit boring.

“There was too much repetition. It could have been a good, short film.”

“The producers had to be persistent to get this film,” explained Alan Cruz, 21. “There were no (professional) actors. There was no make-up. There was no lighting.

“This movie happened by accident,” Cruz added.


“The festival has expanded dramatically over the years,” said Ethan van Thillo, executive direc-tor of the Media Arts Center (which produces it), in an exclusive interview with Zenger’s Newsmagazine.

“We are now on four different screens (at the UltraStar Cinemas in the Hazard Center in Mis-sion Valley), each celebrating a different aspect of the Latino community” from life in the barrio to Cine Gay to animation,” says van Thillo.

“Something new this year, we are celebrating the Jewish Latino experience,” with that showcase funded by the Leichtag Family Foundation.

“Of top of that, we have chosen Brazil to be our country of focus. There will be Brazilian films and special Brazilian entertainment. Because of the (global) growth of Latino cinema, we can choose different themes and countries, and really spotlight those,” van Thillo added.

Latino music is highlighted at the festival and strikingly handsome singer/guitarist Gonzalo de la Torre, 34, of San Antonio appeared in person at a recent festival event to promote his new CD, Borderless, which may be available at the festival.

“It’s more mainstream, with a very energetic, ‘dancy’ feel,” observed James Dongegan, 21, a UCSD student and guitarist after hearing the CD. “It’s intense with basic rock chords.”

Festival staff can be reached at (619) 230-1938, by e-mail at, or on-line at

Difficult Problems

“The most difficult part of producing the Latino Film Festival (in the Hazard Center) each year is the budget,” even though “it stays nearly the same each year,” about $250,000, the executive director reported.

That budget “is very low for a ten-day, multi-venue festival,” van Thillo said. About fifty percent comes from corporate support, and the other fifty percent is from ticket sales and other earned income.

Finding staffing to produce the enormous event is also an annual struggle for the Media Arts Center in North Park, which produces the film festival and dozens of other programs like the Teen Producers’ Project.

Each year trying to find the staff and volunteers who can actually organize the festival is a challenge to van Thillo. “We’ll have well over 100, largely young, volunteers; and nearly 20 independent contractors.

Oddly, the “easiest part of producing the film festival is obtaining the huge selection of films. We will have watched close to 700 films, just to decide on the 185 that we’re screening,” van Thillo explained in our recent interview.

“There’s always a big wealth of great Latino films out there, though they’re not always easy to get and there are challenges,” he said.

Two major movies he wanted, but couldn’t get, were two Mexican films: Abel, directed by the renowned Diego Luna, and No Eres Tu.

Festival staff often runs into problems with marketing operatives involved in the movies, and their strict limits of screenings at film festivals.

Media Arts Center

“The success of the Latino Film Festival allowed us to create the Media Arts Center,” a multi-media facility that recently moved from Golden Hill to North Park (2921 El Cajon Blvd., [619] 230-1938,, van Thillo added.

“The Center has grown and now provides programming throughout the year,” van Thillo explained.

“The Center produces the monthly film series called Cine en tu Idioma from August to Novem-ber, operates the ambitious Teen Producers’ Project and produces digital, audio and visual work-shops at it large facility in North Park.

“Despite the economic crisis, we’ve been able to really connect the Media Arts Center into new avenues and with funding from new partnerships,” van Thillo said.


Student volunteers Alan Cruz, 21 (left) and Ramon M. Silva, 23 at the Latino Film Festival. Photo by Leo E. Laurence.