Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Debt Ceiling: Where Are the Grownups?


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

When I heard on Friday, July 22 — just 10 days before the drop-dead August 2 deadline for raising the U.S. debt ceiling so the government can continue to borrow money to keep all its current programs going — that House Speaker John Boehner had walked out on talks with President Obama to negotiate a bipartisan solution, I felt a cold chill of fear. Until then, I had assumed that there was no way even as dysfunctionally divided a government as the one we have now in Washington, D.C. would let the U.S. slide into its first-ever default on its debts.

I had assumed that at some point the grownups would step in — not the politicians, certainly, but the rich individuals and corporate executives who fund the political system and essentially own the politicians. Just as the Temporary Assets Relief Program (TARP) had been jammed through Congress in October 2008 after the first version had been voted down, largely due to the pressure of all the really existing capitalists who stood to lose scads of money if Congress, out of an excess of Libertarian/Right-wing populist fervor, voted down this grand giveaway to the banks, I expected what Noam Chomsky called “the reality-based wing of the ruling class” would prevail again and the debt ceiling would get raised with some cutbacks in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending so the Tea Party could claim a victory.

Speaker Boehner’s dramatic walkout, explained in a letter he sent to the Republicans in the House of Representatives, gave me the chills and made default as an option thinkable for the first time. Not that I hadn’t been warned: listening to Right-wing talk radio, thanks to my Right-wing roommate who dotes on the stuff and believes everything the hosts tell him no matter how far against its own interests it goes (and as a Queer person in a wheelchair who’s lived on Social Security disability almost his whole adult life, it’s hard to think of someone who has more to lose if the Right-wing ideology of the Tea Party, talk radio and Fox News becomes the law of the land), I knew not only that they were turning their powerful and well-coordinated megaphone against any raise in the debt limit but were minimizing the consequences, using their well-honed skills at ridicule to assure the American people that the government was still taking in lots of tax money and would therefore have no problem paying its bills even if the debt ceiling weren’t raised.

But the absence of any serious corporate or upper-class pressure on Congress to act on the debt ceiling raises two ominous possibilities. Either the corporocracy has signed on to the agenda of the Tea Party and favors the skidding halt to the welfare state and most of what the government does other than defense and tax breaks for the rich that a failure to raise the debt ceiling would trigger, or else the Tea Party and the radical Right in general has become the ruling class’s Frankenstein monster. Sparked by a Right-wing commentator on a cable-news network, the Tea Party has reached its influence largely due to the effective promotion of it on talk radio and Fox News, and at a time when Fox News’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, is in the biggest scandal of his career in Britain, he and his ideology seem poised to take complete control of American politics either if the debt ceiling is not raised or — as seems increasingly likely — the Republicans in the House hold the line and insist they’ll only raise it if both houses of Congress adopt the so-called “cut, cap and balance” plan, which will not only reduce federal government spending to 18 percent of the gross domestic product (a level last reached in 1966, not coincidentally the year Medicare first took effect) but require Congress to pass and send to the states an amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandating a balanced budget.

The debt ceiling fight is just the latest demonstration of how complete the Right’s hegemony over American politics and policy-making has become. Thanks to a number of factors — their skill at using race and culture as wedge issues to win the working class over from the Democratic to the Republican party; the money at their disposal courtesy of wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife (who was to Bill Clinton what the Kochs have been to Obama — the man who funded the vast Right-wing conspiracy against Bill and Hillary Clinton that really did exist); the powerful media infrastructure they have built through talk radio, Fox News and other corporate media outlets to repeat ultra-Right propaganda 24/7 while both the far-Right and more moderate center-Right (falsely called “liberal”) wings of the corporate media don’t give air time to progressive viewpoints at all; and, most importantly, their impressive discipline, their ability to stay “on message” no matter what and present a united front to the world while settling their internal differences behind closed doors (a tactic they learned from, of all people, Vladimir Lenin, who called it “democratic centralism”) — the issues that matter in this country are debated from only one direction. Whatever you think of Ralph Nader (whom I supported for President in 2000 and opposed in 2008), he’s right when he says that America doesn’t have two major parties; it has one party with two Right wings.

The Democratic Party is hobbled in the current political environment not only by the huge communications infrastructure that openly propagandizes for the Republican Party in general and its farthest Right factions in particular, but also by a yawning gap between what its voters want and what its corporate funders want. As former Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey said shortly before he was thrown out of the Senate and into prison for accepting bribes, the traditional issues of the Democratic Party — supporting workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively, preserving and extending the welfare state, regulating business to protect consumers, protecting the environment — have “voter constituencies” but not “financial constituencies.” Thus the Democratic Party has to play a double game: to win votes, it has to appear to be working for the interests of workers, consumers, low-income people and the environment; but it can’t actually do much for them because then the corporate rich who fund it won’t give it money. The Republicans don’t have this contradiction because what they want to do from ideological conviction — abolish unions, get rid of the welfare state, end all regulations on business, slash taxes on the rich and trash the environment in the name of “economic development” — is also what the ruling class which funds them wants done.

The Republican Party is one election away from what Karl Rove called “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics. They are almost certain to win control of the U.S. Senate in 2012, if only because the Democrats are defending 23 seats while the Republicans are defending only 10 — and the Republicans only need a net gain of three or four seats for control, depending on how the presidential election goes. What’s more, barring a major economic recovery in the next few months — and when I say “major” I mean one that will create at least one million new middle-class jobs in the U.S. — the Republicans are almost certain to defeat President Obama in 2012. Americans simply don’t re-elect presidents who have been in office when unemployment skyrocketed as much as it has over Obama’s term — the last time they did was Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, and that was when there were still strong grass-roots mass organizations on the Left to counteract the propaganda on the Right.

Friends I’ve told this prediction to have generally responded by making fact-based arguments — that the economic collapse really began under the Bush administration (true), that without Obama’s stimulus package even more jobs would have been lost (unprovable, but highly likely), and that the agenda of the Republican party (and the handful of Democrats they got to support “cut, cap and balance” — just enough turncoats so they could call it “bipartisan”) would be likely to take so much money out of the economy, since cutting government means cutting government jobs, which means putting more people out of work, which means drying up demand for goods and services, that it would risk turning the lingering recession into a full-blown depression (again, highly likely). What they don’t realize is that facts have virtually ceased to matter in American politics; as Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960’s, the rise of electronic media — radio and television, and more recently the Internet — have undercut the intellectual discipline needed to analyze political claim logically. Instead, today’s voters are ruled by impressions — and the Republicans have far, far more access to the capital-intensive impression-creating machines of radio, TV and the Internet than the Democrats do.

What’s most remarkable about the debt ceiling crisis is that the Republicans in the House of Representatives not only want total control of the political process, they want it now. They don’t even want to wait for the 2012 election! John Boehner’s letter — in which he wrote that “a deal was never reached, and was never really close … not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country,” and cited “the principles of the Cut, Cap and Balance Act” as the only basis he sees for a solution — indicates that he and the Republican House members he represents want President Obama to sign on to the destruction of the welfare state as their price for raising the debt ceiling. It’s a masterstroke of political strategy: not only does it get rid of something the Republicans hate — remember that the Republicans fought tooth and nail against the creation of Social Security in the 1930’s and Medicare in the 1960’s — but it does so in a way that ensures the Democrats will get blamed and won’t be able to use it as a campaign issue in 2012.

When William F. Buckley, Jr. founded the National Review in 1955 he wrote a famous editorial for the first issue in which he said that his magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Today, the ascendancy of the radical Right seems so strong I sometimes get the feeling it is we progressives, radicals, Leftists, whatever we’re calling ourselves who are standing athwart history yelling stop. But if this country — or the human race as a whole — is to have a fighting chance at a decent future, in the short term we must make sure that the reality-based wing of the ruling class gets (or, in Obama’s case, keeps) power and we stop the mad schemes of the Rightists who would either let America default on its debts or insist on a “cut, cap and balance” law that would likely mean economic catastrophe. In the long term we face the task of building a mass movement against almost insuperable odds and offering the American people a counter-narrative to the racial and cultural scapegoating of the Right that has so hypnotized many of them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Marching with S.A.M.E. at the Pride Parade


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

There’s been a lot of talk among Queer and allied progressives dissing the annual Queer (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or that unhappy acronym “LGBT” for short) Pride events. The line is generally that the event has grown too blatantly commercial, both from the direct advertising support by corporations and the hucksterism that surrounds the events, from the “awards” to companies like Qualcomm and Sempra for supposedly having Queer-friendly labor policies to the sponsorships from Albertson’s, Vons, beer, wine and liquor companies (good marketing for them if you believe the stereotype that all Queer people love to drink), and that somewhere in the fog of business opportunities and the ballyhoo that this has become a major revenue producer for the city (all those out-of-town visitors coming in and leaving money in San Diego) the original impetus of Pride — a political statement, an in-your-face proclamation that we’re here, we’re Queer, we’re not going anywhere and we’re beautiful and worthy citizens of the world just as we are — has got lost.

Don’t tell that to the members of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) and the other organizations they invited to march with them in the July 16 Pride Parade in San Diego. S.A.M.E. was formed in the wake of the devastating passage of Proposition 8, which took away the short-lived marriage equality for same-sex couples we had won in the state supreme court in May 2008 and lost at the ballot box less than six months later. (My husband Charles and I are legally married in the state of California; we made sure we got in during the 4 ½-month “window” when Queer couples were actually equal before the law in our state.) Their contingent also included members of the Bradley Manning Support Group, formed to defend the rights of the Queer soldier accused of whistle-blowing the U.S.’s dirty linen by leaking it to WikiLeaks; the International Socialist Organization (I.S.O.); and doubtless several other groups I didn’t recognize.

Led by the indefatigable José Medina at the head of the contingent and the equally tireless Cecile Veillard about two-thirds of the way down, both calling out chants over bullhorns and bidding us to follow (and sometimes frantically having to catch up with each other when they found themselves calling different chants), the S.A.M.E. (and others) contingent felt like an island of political consciousness in a sea of go-go boys (not that I mind looking at go-go boys!), politicians and corporate shills. It made me feel good in a way I hadn’t felt in previous years marching with the San Diego Democratic Club or the American Civil Liberties Union (as strongly as I support both those organizations) or the AIDS group Being Alive. It made me feel like I was really part of a movement, not just a collection of people working on a common goal but something more than that.

I felt connected with the past of Pride in the S.A.M.E. contingent. The night before, at the Pride rally, former San Diego Democratic Club president Larry Baza had reminded us that the first Pride walk in San Diego wasn’t a parade at all, but a political demonstration. It took place in 1974, in the heady early days of the Gay liberation movement (as it was still called before we stopped celebrating ourselves as a unified Gay/Queer community and started salami-slicing ourselves into so many subgroups that now the only way to refer to them all is via an ugly and increasingly ridiculous set of initials — I’ve seen it up to LGBTQQIAA, with the two “Q”’s standing for “Queer” and “Questioning,” the “I” for “intersex” — formerly known as hermaphrodites, people born with reproductive organs of both sexes — and the two “A”’s for “asexual” and “allies,” the last the current term of art for all the wonderful and noble straight people, including José Medina, who join us in our fight for equality), and not only was it actively harassed by the police but so many of the marchers were in fear of being “outed” that they wore paper bags over their heads.

The message today’s Queers need to hear is that our very existence is a political statement. Maybe someday we will be “mainstreamed” and our presence in the community will be no more noticed than those of Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans, and our parades of no more interest than those on St. Patrick’s Day or Columbus Day. But don’t hold your breath: after all, African-Americans got formal equality under the law in the late 1860’s and had to wait 100 years, until the late 1960’s, before that formal equality got translated to facts on the ground. Even though there’s an African-American (or partially so) President of the United States, racism is far from dead in this country — and when Barack Obama leaves office, whether after the 2012 election or after he’s termed out in 2016, there will be a palpable sense of relief among a lot of unconsciously racist Americans who will see a white person take the oath of office as the 45th president with a sense that the natural order of things has been restored — just as a lot of Americans did when Nancy Pelosi lost the speakership of the House of Representatives and a white male, John Boehner, replaced her.

As for women, they didn’t even win the formal right to vote nationwide until 1920 — 50 years after African-Americans did — and it took another 50 years before they organized a mass movement for the still incomplete task of winning equal pay for work of comparable worth, equal child-care arrangements so they can pursue careers and parenthood at the same time, and the right to reproductive choice so they can be free and equal citizens instead of slaves to their wombs. That struggle is still not finished any more than the struggles of African-Americans and other people of color is — so there’s no excuse for complacency on the part of our community, no excuse to ignore the danger posed by the way one of America’s two major political parties has set itself up as the implacable enemy of all minority rights (as well as workers’, consumers’ and immigrants’ rights and the environment) and has won elections by proclaiming itself the voice of the “real Americans” — with the implication that those of color and those who are Queer are somehow either not “real” or not “Americans.”

Yes, we have made great gains in the last 42 years of our history of militant struggle. But we ignore the continued need for militant struggle at our peril. We came heartbreakingly close to defeating Proposition 8, and we lost largely due to our own complacency and a shockingly namby-pamby campaign that was no match for the bald (albeit untrue) certainties with which the Yes on 8 campaign regaled Californians and convinced them to vote against us out of fear. What we can never forget is that now, and probably for the entire lifetimes of even the youngest people likely to be reading this, being openly Queer is a political act and a political struggle. Being openly Queer carries with it the burden of cutting oneself off from the assumption straight people (especially straight white people) take for granted — that one is a full member of society entitled to the same rights as anybody else, from the right to fight and die for this country to the right to marry the person one loves and with whom one wants to share the rest of one’s life.

All too few people attended the Pride rally Friday night — the crowd looked bigger than it was because it was “packed” by the honorees and Pride volunteers — and too much of the event came off as more of a testimonial dinner (albeit without food) than a political event. But there were parts of the program, including the speeches by Larry Baza and Daniel Hernandez (the openly Gay aide who saved the life of Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords last January at the risk of his own), that inspired us in the way the whole program should have. And the next day I got to walk in the parade with a group of people — young and old, male and female, Queer and straight, Transgender and cisgender — who understand that being Queer is a political act, that standing up for Queer rights whether you are Queer or not is a political act, and who brought me out of my tendency towards political despair when I look at the sheer power, reach and scope of the forces arrayed against us, and gave me hope that with clear minds and loving hearts we can not only shout to the world that we are deserving of equality, but actually win it.

Photos of San Diego’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade July 16 in Hillcrest and Balboa Park.

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

1) “LGBT Seniors” watch the parade

2) San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council

3) Amalgamated Transit Workers with old-style San Diego Transit bus

4) Cheer San Francisco

5) UCSD student contingent

6) Mary Magdalene Apostle Queer-friendly Catholic Church

7) “Leviticus Says Some Crazy Shit”

8) “It’s ’Ur Hell — Go To It”

9) “Atheists Don’t Care Who You Marry”

10) “Tax Churches” sign in front of counter-protesters

11) Thing-1 and Thing-2

12) Dave and Kyle of Bears San Diego

13) Leather contingent: 2010 Mr. San Diego Leather Anthony Rollar in center

14) Checkered flags symbolize the end of the parade

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Williamson, Hernandez Headline Pre-Parade Pride Rally

Baza Gives Strongest Speech to Surprisingly Small Turnout


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Larry Baza (file photo), Daniel Hernandez, Marianne Williamson, Meredith Baxter

New Age spiritual philosopher Marianne Williamson and Daniel Hernandez, the 21-year-old aide to Arizona Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords who helped save her life after she was shot at an outdoor rally January 8, were advertised as the keynote speakers for the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Rally July 15. But it was Larry Baza, longtime Queer and arts activist and former president of the San Diego Democratic Club, who delivered the speech that did most to sum up the history of the Queer rights movement and its challenges for the future. Baza was there as a co-recipient of the “Champion of Pride Award” with San Diego Log Cabin Republican Club president R. Clarke Cooper, who gave a short speech whose only Republican buzzword was a reference to “individual responsibility.”

Baza, by contrast, gave a long speech recalling the beginnings of the Queer liberation movement and the strides it’s made since then. “I know we’ve gotten a little touchy with the President,” he said — referencing the criticism among many Queers that President Obama hasn’t moved fast enough on Queer rights issues and still refuses to support marriage equality ¬— but, he added, “It’s important to look at ourselves in comparison with other civil-rights minorities. African-Americans didn’t end slavery until 1865, they didn’t win the right to vote until 1870 and it didn’t really become effective until 1965. Women were rightfully angered that there was talk about giving African-Americans the right to vote before them. It wasn’t until 1920 when women won the right to vote [nationwide], and women are still working for full equality.”

According to Baza, “Our country and its leaders have had a history of being slow, but the people persevered as we prospered. The African-American civil rights movement survived and provided a role model for all the civil rights movements to come.” Baza then reviewed the history of Queer rights struggles in the U.S., from the formation of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco in the early 1950’s to the June 1969 riots outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City commonly believed to have been the start of militant Queer activism. He also reflected on the importance of this year’s Pride theme, “Pride Around the World,” and in particular on a Queer-rights resolution recently passed by the United Nations, which “called for an end to criminal penalties for sexual orientation and gender identity,” and noted with pride that the Obama administration agreed to this resolution whereas the George W. Bush administration had refused to sign on.

“Racism didn’t end with Obama,” Baza said. “Quite the contrary, what with the questions about his birth and the insulting imagery comparing him to an ape. The Tea Party Nation has lashed out against immigrants, LGBT’s [Queers], and Obama’s ancestry. Women have still not won acknowledged equality in the workplace, or the right to control their own bodies. The Congressional and state legislative attacks on Planned Parenthood and the dismantling of Roe v. Wade are yet more battles on that front. We have to work in coalition with women as well as with people of color.” Ironically, Baza then cited the San Diego City Council redistricting process — in which Queer activists came together with Latinos and African-Americans in support of a district map which added a second majority-Latino district and increased the African-American population of the current District 4 — as an example of successful coalition work, despite the complaints of some Queer and Queer-friendly residents of the City Heights neighborhood that that would take them out of the Queer-influenced District 3 and put them in a Latino district whose Councilmember is likely to be more socially conservative and less Queer-friendly.

“Civil rights never ends,” Baza concluded. “As a Gay man of Latino and Pacific Islander heritage, it never, never ends. It’s never going to end. There’s always going to be some people who are going to want to take rights away from someone else. We must not forget that the Mormon, Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist churches supported Proposition 8 [California’s voter-approved ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriages] with money and from their pulpits. We will win marriage equality and beat them at their own game.”

Hernandez gave a short speech that emphasized his youth and Democratic politics — and never mentioned the attack on Congressmember Giffords that gave him nationwide recognition. “The first piece of legislation President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Employment Act, and it included Transgender protection,” he said. “The second was the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, another bill that for the first time acknowledged Transgender Americans. Then the Obama administration and the Department of Justice stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), and last year [openly Gay] New York State Senator Tom Duane passed through his bill for marriage equality. In this state, the governor of California for the first time signed a law to teach our history in the schools. We are the largest group not to be taught our own history, and the only group that’s invisible in the history books.”

But, like Baza, Hernandez warned that the Queer community’s triumphs could be fleeting. “While many people say progress only moves forward, all of our victories over the last two years are at risk,” he explained. “We need to be active and visible. When we are visible we will keep gaining victories, including full marriage equality in all states, passage of ENDA [the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act], and the end of DoMA once and for all. We need to embrace our [straight] supporters, and it will only happen if we are out there supporting our community.”

Williamson’s speech focused mostly on her role as an ordained minister in the Unity Church, a pulpit she has used to preach Queer equality in general and marriage equality in particular. She was introduced by Pride board member Dion Brown, and recalled that she first met him “when I officiated at his friend Art Smith’s legal marriage to his fiancé Jesús in Washington, D.C.” She recalled that the wedding party went to the Lincoln Memorial, where “I stood on the steps Martin Luther King had spoken from” at the famous March on Washington in August 1963.

According to Williamson, the Queer community has matured over the last three decades and become far more politically savvy — and, therefore, more effective — than it was during the in-your-face street demonstrations of ACT UP during the AIDS crisis. “The Gay marriage law in New York state happened because of the sanity and maturity of the work the activists did,” she said. “They were very sophisticated and convicted.” She also talked about the difference she had felt, as a minister, officiating at same-sex marriage ceremonies when they were just personal commitments between the two partners and now that, at least in some states, she’s been able to say, “By the power vested in me … ,” just as she does when marrying an opposite-sex couple. She compared domestic partnerships and civil unions to the “separate but equal” doctrine of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and said, “Separate is not equal. Civil unions are not marriages.”

Williamson recalled an argument she got into with “a friend of a friend of mine,” an African-American woman whose late husband had been a major civil rights leader. At the time they talked, the widow was working to have her city’s airport renamed after her late husband. “She said she was against Gay marriage,” Williamson recalled, “and then she said the key moment in the airport battle was when she had asked a group of white women who were against it how it would affect their lives either way if the airport were named after her late husband. So I asked her, ‘Then why would you be against Gay marriage? How does it affect your life either way if Gay and Lesbian people can marry their partners?’ That was her ‘aha!’ moment, and we heal one ‘aha!’ moment at a time.”

Later Williamson remembered an appearance she’d made on the CNN Larry King Live program in which she supported marriage equality “but I wasn’t really passionate about it. A Gay man from New York called in and said, ‘Here we’re accused of living a non-traditional lifestyle, and we’re trying to do the most traditional thing imaginable’” — which, Williamson said, had made her more intense and committed to the issue than she had been before. “Many of us who are not Gay are advocating for you,” she concluded. “It helps to have others. In the maturation of the Gay community, I look forward to the day when the Gay community has already handled marriage and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and then some of us might come to you and need your help. Please be there for us.”

The Pride rally has become a schizoid event, an occasion for touching the emotions and reminding the community about the political struggles that have been necessary to win the rights we have and will continue to be necessary to preserve and expand them — and a sort of food-less testimonial dinner honoring Pride’s own staff, board members and volunteers, local elected officials (openly Gay City Councilmembers Carl DeMaio and Todd Gloria appeared to present a Council proclamation of July as San Diego Pride Month) and community volunteers and activists. Though up to 150 people attended the rally, many of them were Pride volunteers or members of the organizations being honored — most of the folding chairs at the rally site bore tags reserving them for such people — so it was hard to tell how many attendees were “civilians.”

By far the most powerful presentation from any of the honorees came from Evelyn Thomas and Linda Sanders, an interracial Lesbian couple (Thomas is African-American, Sanders is white) from North County who took advantage of the 4 ½-month window of opportunity in California between June and November 2008 to get married with full legal recognition. Their foray into activism started a year later when Queer-bashing almost literally came to their doorstep. As Sanders recalled, “In 2009 Seaman August Provost was killed just two miles from our home. We decided we would not allow that to happen again, so we formed the Sanctuary Project Veterans (SPV). People call us from all across the country just to have someone to talk to, someone to be there for them.”

Thomas recalled an even earlier inspiration for the formation of SPV: how the military treated her personally when she was in the Marine Corps. She was called to the office of her company commander, read a list of rights that sounded suspiciously like the Miranda warnings given to suspected criminals when they’re arrested, and then “my company commander began to laugh as he saw me literally shaking in my boots when he asked me, ‘Are you a homosexual?’” After this interrogation, she said, “they isolated me from both male and female Marines because I was a ‘danger’ to them.” All this took place before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when there was a flat and complete ban on Queers serving in the U.S. military, and, Thomas explained, “That’s why it was important to us to create this ministry, so they know they have a right to serve.”

The Sanctuary Project Veterans does more than just offer lay counseling and reassurance to Queer servicemembers. Their Web site describes their group as “a pit-bull for benefits,” and much of their work is concrete assistance to Queer servicemembers: helping them obtain Veterans’ Administration (VA) medical benefits, compensation, pensions and submissions of claims after members have left the armed forces. They also work to upgrade the discharges of Queers thrown out of the military under “other than honorable” conditions. Thomas and Sanders won one of the two Community Services Awards; the other went to philanthropist Mary Stockton for her support of Diversionary Theatre, Stepping Stone and the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center.

Ironically, another Linda Sanders — also married, but to a man — and her husband Ron won the Friends of Pride award for their work with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Networks (GLSEN, pronounced “glisten”) and Scouting for All, the movement to end the Boy Scouts of America’s discrimination against Queers and atheists. The late Michael Portantino, publisher of the now-defunct Gay & Lesbian Times, was honored with an award accepted on his behalf by his daughter Tatiana and his brother, California State Assemblymember Anthony Portantino. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a troupe of performers dressed as nuns who raise money for AIDS organizations and other Queer-related charities, won the Stonewall Service Award.

Parade Grand Marshal Meredith Baxter, TV actress who recently came out as a Lesbian at age 60 after three straight marriages and five children, appeared briefly at the start of the rally and said, “”I’ve been to many Prides. This is the first one I’ve actually been in. I want to thank the people who’ve done so much for LGBT equality, especially for kids.”
The Marriage Vow(s)


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

The Queer community has won some impressive victories in the last few weeks — notably the passage of a marriage equality bill in New York state on June 25, a federal appeals court ruling on July 6 halting enforcement of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring Queer people from serving openly in the U.S. military, and the California legislature’s passage of a bill (now before Governor Jerry Brown, awaiting his decision to sign or veto it) requiring that social-studies classes in California middle and high schools include “a study of the role and contributions of … Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Americans … to the development of California and the United States.” But not surprisingly, given that virtually from day one our struggle for equality has faced a determined opposition whose members literally think they’re doing the will of God by fighting our equality at every turn, each pro-Queer advance has given rise to an anti-Queer attack.

AB 48, the California bill requiring that schools acknowledge our existence and importance, has been attacked not only on the grounds you’d expect — Right-wing talk-radio host and blogger Douglas V. Gibbs said if it passed, “California’s schoolchildren would be subject to homosexual textbooks and curriculum indefinitely” — but on the rather quirky one offered by Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, on KPCC radio April 19. Dolejsi said that it should be historians, not state legislators, who decide who’s historically important — which seemed to attack not only the bill’s new requirement that Queers be acknowledged in the classroom but the mandates in existing law to acknowledge the contributions of women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders “and other ethnic and cultural groups.”

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal has also been attacked. You may wonder, since Congress voted to get rid of this policy last December, why not only is this an issue but Queers in the U.S. military are still in danger of being discharged for violating it. It’s because the bill to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” delayed its implementation until the Secretary of Defense “certified” that the officers running the military had been properly “trained” to carry out the new policy — and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has sought to block repeal by eliminating all funding for the “training.” Also, Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense who supported repeal, recently left his post — and though Leon Panetta was unanimously confirmed as his replacement, it’s unclear whether he either intends to junk “don’t ask, don’t tell” or can withstand pressure from Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress to keep it.

But perhaps the farthest-out reaction from the radical Right to a recent Queer advance came in the form of “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family,” a remarkable four-page document from an Iowa-based organization called THE FAMiLY LEADER. (That weird typography, with the lower-case “i” in “family” sticking out from all-capitals otherwise, is the way it appears on their logo.) Consisting of a one-page preamble, a one-page list of bullet points constituting “The Candidate Vow,” and a page and a half of “Endnotes and Sources,” “The Marriage Vow” begins with the declaration, “Faithful monogamy is at the very heart of a designed and purposeful order — as conveyed by Jewish and Christian Scripture, by Classical Philosophers, by Natural Law, and by the American Founders — upon which our concepts of Creator-endowed human rights, racial justice and gender equality all depend.”

Not surprisingly, the rest of the preamble shows how little the members of THE FAMiLY LEADER care about racial justice and gender equality. Not only do they target the African-American community as ground zero for the breakdown of marriage and all morality — they claim that the out-of-wedlock birthrate for African-American babies was 26 percent in 1965 and now “over 70 percent of African-American babies are born to single parents” — they make the astonishing statement that “slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the U.S.A.’s first African-American president.”

They also argue that “social protections, especially for women and children, have been evaporating as we have collectively ‘debased the currency’ of marriage.” While the authors of this document, Chuck Hurley and Bob Vander Plaats, acknowledge that they wrote it in response to New York’s legal recognition of same-sex marriage, their forward-to-the-past agenda goes far beyond the Queer community. They also target “adultery, ‘quickie divorce’ … non-committal co-habitation; pervasive infidelity and ‘unwed cheating’ among celebrities, sports figures and politicians; [and] anti-scientific bias which holds … that non-heterosexual inclinations are genetically determined, irresistible and akin to innate traits like race, gender and eye color, and sexual promiscuity in general optimizes individual or public health.”

What Hurley and Vander Plaats are asking candidates for public office in general, and the presidency in particular, to do is swear “personal fidelity to my spouse [and] respect for the marital bonds of others” — contrary to the behavior of quite a lot of modern-day politicians of both major parties. They’re also demanding that they appoint “none but faithful constitutionalists” to the judiciary, mount “vigorous opposition to any redefinition of the Institution of Marriage” to include “intimate unions which are bigamous, polygamous, polyandrous, same-sex, etc.”; support the Federal Marriage Amendment banning same-sex marriage nationwide; and “reject … Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.” The people who are fighting and dying for human rights in countries like Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia will no doubt be surprised to learn that their religion is a “form of totalitarian control.”

One of the fascinating aspects of “The Marriage Vow” is that, like much of the rhetoric of the radical Right, it shows an absolute tone-deafness to its own hypocrisy. People who, in the face of massive scientific evidence supporting evolution and human-made global warming, deny both are denouncing others as “anti-scientific.” People who openly state that American law should be determined by “Jewish and Christian Scripture” are attacking people in Muslim-majority countries who believe that their religion should determine their laws. And after outlining a moral agenda that can only be put into effect by a squad of “virtue enforcers” as intrusive as those in Puritan Massachusetts or Taliban Afghanistan, the authors have the gall to say they’re in favor of “limited government”! (Of course, to the modern-day Right “limited government” doesn’t actually mean limited government; it means cutting taxes for the rich, getting rid of the social welfare state, privatizing education and eliminating all business regulations so corporations can do whatever they want — while expanding the reach of government into people’s private lives.)

Whatever you think of “The Marriage Vow,” don’t write it off as an example of fringe nuttiness. Voters in THE FAMiLY LEADER’s home state, Iowa, recently removed three judges from the state supreme court for having voted for a decision allowing same-sex couples to marry there. Bob Vander Plaats was chair of Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign and engineered his victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and at least two current Republican Presidential candidates, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, have already taken the “vows.” Despite polls showing growing support for same-sex marriage equality among Americans overall, the fact remains that in every state where voters have had a chance to weigh in on the issue, we have lost. In California, an aggressive campaign by Proposition 8’s supporters and a milquetoast, namby-pamby campaign by its opponents helped turn it around from a 15-point deficit in early polls to a 5-percent victory — despite the presence of Barack Obama (as a progressive-seeming candidate, not a moderate-conservative incumbent defending a piss-poor economic record) on top of the ticket and an unusually high turnout of young voters, which gave us the most favorable voter mix for marriage equality we are likely to see in this state in our lifetimes.

Barring a robust economic recovery and millions of new jobs created in the next few months, the 2012 election is shaping up to be a Republican mega-sweep. By insisting, in the face of persistent non-growth in the job and housing markets, on devastating cutbacks in government employment and services, the Republicans are not only fulfilling their ideological commitment to destroy public education, the welfare state and anything else that redistributes wealth and income from corporations and rich individuals to anybody else, they are also drying up demand in the economy and thereby contributing to a second recession — or even a downright depression — that will increase their chances of winning the presidency and the Senate next year. And the aggressive anti-union, anti-education, anti-environment, anti-welfare programs Republican governors and legislators have pursued in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and other states they won control of in 2010 unmistakably shows both the agenda they have for the entire country and their fierce determination to make it happen.

The Republicans and the radical Right in general — largely through the popular media outlets they control, like talk radio and Fox News — have almost totally succeeded in reshaping the debate over the economy and persuading a majority of American voters that the way to create an economic recovery is to slash government to the bone, destroy what’s left of a labor movement in this country and “unleash the private sector.” (The fact that the private sector in the U.S. today is sitting on trillions of dollars in cash they refuse to invest — largely because so few people are working there’s no point in producing products not many people have the money to buy — doesn’t enter into it.) What’s more, while younger Americans are more likely to support marriage equality than older ones, they’re also more likely to align with the radical Right on the other great culture-war issue, abortion. The younger you are, the less likely you are to support a woman’s right to reproductive choice — and, ironically, young women are less likely to be pro-choice than young men.

It’s unlikely that a sweeping program of family regulation like “The Marriage Vow” would ever attract enough public support to pass on its own. Many voters resolutely opposed to legal recognition of same-sex marriage would blanch at the re-enactment of criminal adultery laws, the repeal of no-fault divorce and the mandate for “extended ‘second chance’ or ‘cooling-off’ periods” for divorcing couples. But if the Republican party gains control of the federal government in 2012 and extends its reach over more states, it’s likely all or part of “The Marriage Vow” and the public policies needed to implement it will become law through stealth — and all of a sudden straight and Queer Americans alike will awake to a portrait of Big Brother steadfastly watching over them in their bedrooms.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post stated that Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty had signed “The Marriage Vow.” He has not. Zenger’s regrets the error.

Obelisk Store Shut Down by Hellish Fire

100-Year-Old Building Burns; Three Businesses Close


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom:

Firefighters drench the building containing the Obelisk store with water to bring the fire under control and prevent it from spreading to any other buildings on the same block. Photo © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence.

The burned, skeletal remains of the three-story building destroyed in the 3-alarm in Hillcrest July 6th can only be seen from the alley behind the building. Photo © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence.

While the carpet in the Obelisk Bookstore was soaked by water, this exclusive photo shows some merchandise almost untouched, except for the intense smell of smoke. Photo © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence.

With temperatures over 1000 degrees (F) at the core of the three-alarm blaze that closed three businesses on University Avenue in Hillcrest, including the Obelisk Bookstore, Wednesday, July 6, firefighters were initially pushed back and prevented from fighting the hellishly hot fire inside the building.

While a firefighter’s “turnouts” will protect him from most hazards inside a burning building, they cannot withstand a fire blazing at over 1000 degrees.

Firefighters had to rely primarily on three ladder trucks to shoot water onto the 100-year-old three-story wooden building.

The spectacular fire was reported at 3 p.m. and was still sending large plumes of smoke into the air and neighborhood long into the night.

Wind was mostly coming from the north and sending the thick clouds into the residential neighborhood south of University, near Tenth Avenue.

Frequently the wind would change and blow the thick cloud of smoke east down University, blinding pedestrians and impeding traffic. The smoke was easily smelled in North Park.

The change in the direction of the wind created enormous problems for firefighters, as the wind blew the roaring hot fire towards the neighboring building, taking out two more businesses.

Being made of old, dry wood; the worst part of the blaze was in the two stories of studio apart-ments above the three businesses that were destroyed: Torreon Importers, Pomegranate House, and the Obelisk Bookstore.

An army of 113 firefighters, including 14 engines and six fire trucks from as far away as Chula Vista and National City, responded.

On the two upper floors, 12 of the 15 apartments were occupied. Fortunately, none of the residents were home when the fire struck, so none were killed or hurt.

Thousands of gallons of water from the three aerial trucks was pumped onto the unusually hot blaze.

At times, water poured out of the windows of the two stories of apartments.

With the fire’s intense heat, the third floor collapsed.

The fire did not get down to the Obelisk Bookstore, but it sustained extensive water damage.

“Everything is wet,” said a contractor the next day at the doorway of the bookstore. Not true. I was refused entry inside the bookstore.

But, wearing a shirt and tie and with my SDPD credentials displayed, I got inside and shot photos of lots of merchandise that appeared undamaged by the water, particularly along the walls. I was later told to leave, but I had my photos.

While water poured through a large hole in the bookstore’s ceiling, many of the books and calendars appeared unharmed.

Water may not have seriously damaged much of the merchandise, but the smell of smoke will reek off everything.

A temporary retaining wall has been built down the center of the bookstore to support the ceiling, weakened by the flood of water used to kill the raging blaze.

From the street, the extensive fire damage is not so obvious. But as seen from the alley behind the building, the incinerated skeleton of the three-story building looks like a bomb hit it.

The bookstore’s phone number has been taken out of service.

Frequently, large crowds gather to watch a major three-alarm fire. But the sparse crowd on the north sidewalk of University Avenue created no police problem.

When the wind suddenly changed and the thick, wide plume of smoke pouring off the fire enveloped everyone on University Avenue, many watching the fire covered their face with handkerchiefs to breath. They suddenly experienced life for a smoke-eating firefighter.

University Avenue at Richmond and 9th Avenue was blocked to cars.

Hemp Music Festival in Balboa Park


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

While music festivals supporting medical marijuana are common in southern California, it was rare when longtime cannabis (marijuana) activist James Dean Stacy on July 9 produced an event focused on hemp.

“Hemp is the cousin of cannabis that has no THC in it,” explained Stacy in an interview for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. (THC is the chemical that produces the “high” associated with marijuana use.)

“It’s used as an industrial product to make over 25,000 different things, everything from cloth to paint to fuel.

“This (music festival) is to share information with people who don’t know the history of all the different uses (of hemp),” Stacy explained.

“We also have some activism tables where people can send letters to their congressman and senator, either electronically or manually.

“We want support for federal legislation to provide for a medical-marijuana defense in federal court.

“We want Congress to take cannabis off the scheduling and allow states to handle it.” Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I drug — legally considered to have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse — and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently restated that belief despite the growing number of scientific studies documenting the medical uses of cannabis.

“We also want to support a congressional bill that would allow farmers to grow industrial hemp,” Stacy added.

At least 13 tables were selling everything from homemade cupcakes to glass pipes.

Photo caption:

Glass pipes of every description were sold by the “Smoke Shop” from 3146 El Cajon Blvd. at the “Discovery Hemp Music Festival” in Balboa Park on July 9th. Photo by Leo E. Laurence


“Non-Binary” Person Isn’t Male, Female or Anything “In Between”


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

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet

The first time I met Red, special projects coordinator for the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, they introduced themselves as “non-binary.” That piqued my journalist’s curiosity and I decided then and there that I wanted to interview them. Red explained that “non-binary” means someone who does not consider themselves male or female. I ran into them a few other times before setting up the interview — at which I learned that “they,” “them” and “their,” along with the normally plural verb forms that go with them, are the proper ways to refer to a non-binary person even if you’re only describing one individual. [Please see Red’s comment below.]

The interview was unusual because I’ve rarely had someone use a word — either an unusual term like “cisgender” (the opposite of “Transgender”) or a familiar one used in an uncommon way (like “pronoun” used as a verb) — and then say, “What I mean by that is … ” as often as Red did. As we discussed in the interview, even a relatively non-gendered language such as English has the gender binary built into so many of its words and turns of phrase that it’s difficult to adapt it to describing a non-binary person.

Red is living a life that makes them, in essence, a minority within a minority within a minority. Transgender people are a relatively small, though significant, part of the Queer community; and Red is a minority among Transgender people because most Transgender people accept a binary concept of gender and simply believe that their inner being doesn’t match the physiology of the body they were born into or the gender they were, to use one of those phrases whose meaning Red had to explain to me, “coercively assigned” at birth.

But just as Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals have slowly, grudgingly but ultimately come to accept Transgender people as a legitimate part of our community, it’s likely that within a few years it won’t seem that unusual that a person might identify not as male, not as female, but as something unique and beautiful within what Red calls the “cloud” of available gender identities.

Zenger’s: When we met, you described yourself as “non-binary.” What does that mean?

Red: It’s very common for people to identify as either male or female, as a man or as a woman. Those are considered the two binary genders that people are mostly aware of. A lot of Transgender people identify as either a Transgender man or a Transgender woman. I do not identify as either a man or a woman, so to that end I am non-binary.

There are other words I use for myself, such as “Genderqueer.” But because the term “queer” is very confusing, or even offensive, to a certain generation of folks, there are times when I avoid using the term “Genderqueer.”

I should add that “non-binary” can also apply to folks who don’t identify as Transgender at all, but who identify as somewhere outside of just the two binary poles. Now, if you want to get more complicated — that’s the easy answer.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you give me a little of your background, and how —

Red: My background in terms of gender, or what? What kind of background are you looking for?

Zenger’s: Your life generally, and specifically how you came to an awareness that you were neither male nor female, and how it impacted your life.

Red: O.K. I was assigned, coercively assigned, female at birth. So I’m starting at that point. I identified —

Zenger’s: “Coercively” — you mean, you are actually biologically Intersex?

Red: No. The term “coercively assigned female at birth,” or “coercively assigned male at birth,” is a way of explaining how the world decided what my gender was. That’s true of every single person. You were actually assigned male at birth, just as I was assigned female at birth, and when I say “coercively” I mean it’s done without the consent of the person. When you’re a baby — or even prenatal — you can’t consent to being assigned anything. And that’s true of folks who are Intersex as well as of folks who are not. So I was assigned female at birth. I’m not Intersex.

I grew up just like a normal kid, just going about my business, not really thinking about anything. And for a long time I identified as cisgender. I’ll just define that for you. “Cisgender” is basically a way of saying not Transgender, but instead of making it sound like not being Transgender is the “normal” thing, we use “cisgender” as the term. It means someone who identifies the same way as they were assigned at birth. Whereas Transgender would mean I don’t identify the same way as I was assigned at birth.

Zenger’s: These are the sorts of things that people understand: “O.K., you have the body of one, and that’s how you think of yourself,” or, “You have the body of one but you really think of yourself as the other.”

Red: That, again, is very binary thinking. The whole concept of being Transgender, the story that often gets told is, “I was born with the wrong body,” or, “I’m the opposite.” So it can be really hard if you don’t feel like you ought to be “the opposite,” which is true in my case. It was actually hard for me to come to an understanding of my gender, because our world is so binary. Being Transgender can include not that I want to cross over to the other side — as if there are only two sides — but that I just don’t identify the way I was assigned at birth.

When I hit puberty, that’s when things started to shift for me. But I still didn’t have the words for it. Puberty, when the body starts to change and hormones start shifting things for you, is when I began to realize that I wasn’t thrilled with the way my body was turning out. I started to realize I wanted to be more androgynous, and I was frustrated that I didn’t look that way. I spent a lot of years trying to find ways to make myself feel better in my body, trying to accept myself the way I was.

I became a very active feminist and very involved in the Queer community. I came out as Queer around the time I turned 18, when I got into college. By “Queer” I mean my sexual orientation, as opposed to “Genderqueer,” which is my gender identity. I started getting very involved and active, and that was a way for me to channel some of the things I was feeling, some of the frustrations and some of the ways in which I felt I was different.

It took me a lot longer, though — not until recently — that I started to really understand where my gender identity was located in all of this. And that’s true even though I spent the last 10 years of my life very, very active and involved with other Transgender people. I still identified as cisgender and felt like that wasn’t necessarily my community or my identity.

It actually wasn’t until some other things shifted in my life that I really started to question my gender. It was a really difficult process, and it happened very slowly, over the course of a lot of months. The hardest thing for me is that I did not want to appropriate other people’s identities, and I didn’t feel like I necessarily belonged in the Transgender community, because my story wasn’t the same as most of the stories I had heard.

I didn’t fit into a lot of the popular notions of what it means to be Transgender, and how people think about themselves, and wishing I had a man’s body, or that I was waking up every morning and feeling like I wanted to kill myself. I did not experience these things. So it took me a lot longer, I think, to know where I was in all of that, and to even begin to find words that applied to me, because a lot of the language, a lot of the terminology, in the community is not built for me. “FTM,” “MTF”: these are not terms I identify with.

Zenger’s: I remember once interviewing a male-to-female Transgender person who had transitioned long before I knew her, and she said the test for your gender identity was, “When you look in the mirror, what do you see in your head?” So what do you see in your head?

Red: That is a very, very good question! It’s actually a really complicated one. It’s one thing to ask somebody what pronouns they want used, or how they want to be referred to. But to pinpoint someone’s gender, in this really broad, three-dimensional space that I envision gender in, is a lot harder. So I think the best way to describe it is that, as I’ve already said, I’m neither a man nor a woman.

I feel even the concept of a “spectrum” between male and female is not a very true or applicable way of thinking about gender for me. I don’t actually experience myself as being “between” male or female. I see myself outside of that completely. I think about my identity really as sort of this “other” thing, and I wouldn’t even say a “third” gender because I actually think there are many, many genders out there. Each of us has a unique sense of our own identity. We just don’t have a lot of words to describe it, and so we’re limited by the language.

I know folks who are agender, which means they have no gender at all, and so the whole concept of gender just seems foreign to them. They’re aware of what gender means to other people, but they just don’t experience it. I know folks who identify as neutrois [pronounced, French-style, “Nu-TWAH”], and then folks who identify as androgynous — not just as an adjective but actually as a noun, someone who is an androgyne. I know folks who identify as Genderqueer, gender-fluid, genderless, gender-neutral. There are folks who identify as bi-gender, which is based on the binary; “bi-gender” means that someone experiences themselves as both male and female at the same time.

Once you start seeing all these different identities, you start to realize there isn’t just a spectrum, or a continuum. There’s actually sort of a cloud of all these different identities. I envision myself as somewhere in that cloud, and when I look in the mirror, I know that the body I would feel more comfortable in would be more androgynous. And I would be happier if the world read me correctly, as being non-binary. And that includes using the correct pronouns for me, which are “they,” “them,” “theirs.”

Zenger’s: I feel like I’ve stepped into The Twilight Zone.

Red: Why do you say that?

Zenger’s: Well, for one thing, this is something that I don’t relate to on a personal level. I’ve never had any doubt about my gender identity, and I daresay most people reading this — including, as you pointed out, most Transgender people reading this — are going to think, “Gee, I never had any doubt about my gender identity, either.”

Red: Right.

Zenger’s: There are men, and there are women, and there are a subset of people who feel like they were born into the wrong body for that, but I guess —

Red: It is, though — it is more common than you would guess. The more I talk to people; the more I share my own experience, and my own sense of myself — the more I find people coming out of the woodwork and saying, “Oh, my goodness, I think that’s also how I think about myself. I just didn’t have a way to think about it. Nobody else talks about it.” And this is true of people who for the most part, to the world, identify as cisgender, identify the same way they were assigned at birth.

I have a number of friends back in Boston who were assigned female as birth, still present as female, still for all intents and purposes look female, to the world, but in reality their gender is a lot more complicated. You can be femme and be assigned female at birth, and still not feel like you are cisgender: feel like your gender is not binary. And the same thing for people who are assigned male at birth, and who may feel femme, or butch, or anything, and they realize that they don’t necessarily feel like their gender is binary.

It is confusing to folks who have no sense of this internally for themselves; who feel very much, as you said, “I’ve never questioned my gender. I’ve never thought of myself as being anything other than one of the two binary ideas.” But the more I talk about it, the more folks relate to what I’m saying. I’m always surprised, honestly, when folks tell me this, because it can feel very isolating to not have conversations about this with other people, and to not have it talked about within the broader community, even in the Transgender community.

Zenger’s: I think we keep coming back to the whole question of language. The language is set up under the assumption that there are two genders, and only two; and even English, which is a considerably less gendered language than many, still runs into these problems.

Red: Which I notice on a daily basis when people struggle with my pronoun, struggle to talk about me or talk to me in a correct way. People “ma’am” me or refer to me as a “lady” all the time, which is endlessly frustrating to me. And there are other things in our language: talking to someone as your niece or your nephew, or other familial relations. At least with “child” and “sibling” we have a few gender-neutral options, but we don’t have a lot of gender-neutral ways of talking about people. So, yes, language is part of it. Visibility.

There’s something else that’s really important to understand, too, which is there is a lot of pressure on the Transgender community to make ourselves palatable to the cisgender world and to make us seem less threatening to the established ways of thinking; to say, “Hey, look, we’re just the same as everybody else” — which we are — but the finger gets pointed, “Oh, you’re an angry Transgender person. You’re getting too upset about the little things, such as how you’re pronouned. Or you just want attention, or you just want special treatment.” These are the barbs that are pointed at Trans folks who are just trying to be treated with the same respect that any cisgender person gets on a daily basis: to be referred to in the way you see yourself, and to have the rest of the world refer to you in that way.

So one of the things that happens is that many people in the Trans community try really hard to not rock the boat and to tell this sort of unified story of what it means to be a Transgender person. The story is that, “I have known ever since I was young that I was Transgender,” because what that proves is, “This isn’t just a choice I’m making, this is something that is real and permanent and long-lasting, and if I started to be aware of it when I was two or three years old, therefore you can’t dispute it.”

Or the idea that “I was born into the wrong body.” Well, as soon as you start to say, “I don’t know what kind of body I should have been born into, but I know that this isn’t necessarily the body I want,” that throws things into a tizzy for a lot of folks. Saying, “I was born into the wrong body, I want to be the opposite,” is clear. It’s something that the cisgender community might be able to understand — even if it’s not true.

Zenger’s: Or even if it is true for some people, but not for others.

Red: Right, and I don’t dispute that there are a lot of people for whom they knew at three, four or five years old. That’s absolutely the case. There are a lot of people who do absolutely feel very, very binary; always felt like they were the opposite — and I don’t even like using the term “opposite,” but really felt like they were the other binary option, who always sort of had this sense of thinking or being a man or a woman, and everything else just didn’t match up. My existence, and the existence of other non-binary people, does complicate that story.

Zenger’s: One of the things that drives me nuts about the Gay community — you know, Gay, Queer, “LGBT,” whatever you want to call it — is that Gays and Lesbians in particular have clung to this “we were born this way” narrative. As I keep pointing out, rather than take a look at that in a way that would accommodate the reality of Bisexual and Transgender people, they just stick two more letters on the name of everything —

Red: Right.

Zenger’s: — without saying, “Wait a minute,” because to my mind the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people contradicts the whole idea of a binary sexual orientation that people are born into and can’t change, can’t behave any differently, can’t will themselves to do something else, or follow in more directions than one.

Red: I think the reality is that many people do change over time. You may have identified one way early on, and you may change the more you start to understand about yourself and the world — and maybe things actually do shift. The reality is that I definitely identified as cisgender for a very long time. My identifying as non-binary Transgender now does not change the fact that I experienced myself as cisgender for many, many years. And the fact that I identified as cisgender doesn’t make me any less Transgender now.

I think that for many Bisexual and Queer people who identify as neither heterosexual nor homosexual, it’s similar. You may have really felt strongly that you were “straight” or that you were “Gay” at one point in your life, and then come to a different understanding of yourself based on real experiences, real relationships, real interactions with other people, or with yourself.

Zenger’s: In fact, one of the most common coming-out stories in the Bi community is, “First I thought I was straight, then I thought I was Gay, then I realized I was Bi.”

Red: I think that’s very much based on this idea that we have to be one or the other, and that there aren’t options in the middle; there’s not a “cloud of sexual orientations” options, there are only two. Certainly when I came out with my sexual orientation — how old was I? I think I said I was 18 — initially I came out as Bisexual, and very quickly — and this goes to show how early I was aware that there were people who experience their gender as being non-binary. But I still didn’t identify this way. I very quickly started to identify as “Queer” instead of Bisexual, for that reason, because “Bisexual” implies that there are only two genders to whom I can be attracted.

Now, I do think that there are people who can be Bisexual. For example, if you say, “I am attracted only to women and neutrois people,” then you could legitimately claim to be Bisexual. “I choose two genders out of all the many, that I am attracted to,” or, “I am attracted to men and women, but not to people who identify as Genderqueer or gender-neutral,” you know, certainly. But to me, yes, so very, very quickly I started to identify as Queer, and this was many years before I even started to understand and question my own gender identity. I was aware of that in terms of my sexual orientation.

Zenger’s: So how would you describe your sexual orientation now?

Red: Queer. I know that word, again, carries a lot of really heavy baggage for a lot of people, depending on your generation. For me, it carries two things. One, it is a reclamation of the word. But the key point is that I am attracted to people regardless of their gender. I am attracted to people of all different kinds of genders, and I have had relationships with people of all different kinds of genders. The other piece is explicitly political, and what it is is it says nobody else but me gets to define and categorize and label my sexual orientation.

In a lot of ways the term “Genderqueer,” for my gender identity, is similar. There are obvious differences, because it has nothing to do with my attraction to other people. It has nothing to do with anyone but me, but it is about saying, “I’m not categorizable in the binary.”

Zenger’s: So what do you want people reading this to take away from it?

Red: Well, the first is, I want people to know that there are those of us out there — we exist — whose gender is more complicated and less familiar, but that we are no less deserving of respect. Starting to think about gender as being a more complicated — and more interesting, frankly — topic might seem scary to a whole lot of people. It might seem really confusing, but it’s a really important step for us in order to be able really to understand oppression, the way our culture is oppressive, and to make changes to that. I’m an activist at heart. I’m an organizer. For the last 10 years I’ve been doing anti-oppression work. There are certain things we can do to start really changing the way our culture privileges people who are binary, even other Transgender people.

Trans folks definitely — all Trans folks, binary or not — experience oppression, but there’s this interesting oppression that occurs when people are not binary. The bathroom thing is a perfect example. I would love every bathroom to be gender-neutral, and that may mean single stalls for every single bathroom. It may mean bathrooms in which people of all genders can enter the same, and each stall, toilet, whatever has a door on it, and we all use the same sinks. I don’t know. I don’t see how I can look at the sign on the door and see a figure with a skirt, or a figure without a skirt, and point to one and say, “That’s me.”

Zenger’s: For the record, we should note that we are doing this interview in a space with a non-gendered restroom.

Red: Yes. It does have a symbol on it, though.

Zenger’s: It has three symbols on it.

Red: Yes, the female, the male, and the handicapped, which has become the universal symbol that this is a single-stall, handicapped-accessible, gender-neutral bathroom.

Zenger’s: But there’s also a line between the female and the male, and maybe you can interpret yourself as being somewhere on that line.

Red: I am the line! So I think what I want people to take away is a broader sense of what gender is, because I think most people aren’t even — haven’t really thought about their own gender, have never had to question it, and so start to think about it. It can be fun to think about it. And also really start understanding what it means to respect people whose genders are not binary, who are Trans. Pronouning people correctly is really, really important. Referring to them by the terms and the names that they’ve asked to be referred to, and being able to talk about Trans issues more easily, would be a nice thing in our community.

The nicest thing that someone ever did — and the first time I ever felt supported as a non-binary Trans person — I was out with a friend whom I had only met a few weeks before. We’d had several conversations about gender identity when I came out to him, and we had met some other people at the event that we were at, some people neither one of us knew. As I tried to explain my preferred pronouns, and the way I wanted to be addressed, the people we were talking to started coming up with the same excuses I’ve heard so many times, which primarily are, “Those pronouns aren’t common,” “I don’t know how to use them,” and specifically about using they-them-theirs, “Well, those are plural pronouns. Those aren’t singular pronouns, so that’s grammatically incorrect.” There are a lot of ways I can dispute that, but —

Zenger’s: It was like, “What decade are we in, again?” For at least 20 or 30 years now it’s become a convention to use “they” as a singular pronoun when it could mean he or she.

Red: Actually, it’s been going on for hundreds of years. Shakespeare and a lot of writers about 100 years ago started using “they” as a singular. So we are by far not the first generation to use it, and we won’t be the last. But it is an excuse. Grammar Nazis love to use that as an excuse to dismiss my identity. And the nicest thing that ever happened to me was that my friend stepped in, without my ever asking for help, without me even saying anything to him. He jumped right in, after having known me only a few short weeks, and explained to this couple that, for example, if I were talking about a friend of mine who likes pizza, you might actually say to me, “Well, what kind of pizza do they like?”

You would refer to them as “they” if you don’t know their gender identity, and we do this all the time, constantly, without thinking about it. But as soon as I ask someone to do that, I purposefully and intentionally say this is how I want to be called, that’s when people have a problem with it and start forgetting or mispronouning me. But if someone doesn’t even know my gender identity, they will automatically use the term “they.” So what I’d love is to see more allies speaking up, correcting when people are mispronouning or misgendering other people, creating space for us, really.


After the original article was published in Zenger’s Newsmagazine and posted above, Red sent the following e-mail and asked that their reference to pronouns be corrected. Zenger’s elected to run their comment in its entirety:

Hi Mark,

I just had a chance to see the article in print the other day. Overall I thought it was really great, and you managed to take a rambling interview and condense it into something readable!

I did see something at the beginning that I’d like to bring to your attention. There’s an implication that I’m saying that the only acceptable pronouns for a non-binary person are they/them/theirs. But that’s not actually true and I wanted to clarify.

Folks use all kinds of gender-neutral pronouns including: sie/hir/hirs; ze/zan; zhe/zhim/zher; e; v; em; xe; etc. Quite a number of Genderqueer people even use binary pronouns: she/her/hers; he/him/his. When I say the correct way to refer to me is they/them/theirs, I’m speaking only about myself and others who use that pronoun set.

I’m wondering if you’d make that correction. I imagine it’s pretty alienating to folks who don’t use my pronouns to read this.

Thanks and very best,


Retired Teacher Finds New Career as Leather Artist


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

“Stunning.” That’s the word I used in the July 2011 issue of Zenger’s to describe the Leather-themed artwork of Dennis Wymbs, some of which he had donated to the California LeatherSIR/Leatherboy contest last June for a fundraising auction. “Isn’t that a little press release-y?” said my husband Charles when he was proofreading the piece. “I’ve seen the work,” I said. “It is stunning.”

You’ll have a chance to see Dennis Wymbs’ work for yourself through July 31 at the new location of Pleasures & Treasures, 2525 University Avenue in North Park. After five years in a bungalow near a former bathhouse that’s now a veterinary hospital, the store moved into a larger space with a second floor owners Bill Freyer and Tim Melodick plan to use for art exhibits as well as a community meeting space. Wymbs showed five or six times at their old location and was happy to be invited to be the first artist whose works are exhibited at their new one — and that the show will be up during Pride Weekend. The store can be reached at (619) 822-4280 or online at

Wymbs, who got into art after retiring as a teacher, works in a wide variety of media, included molded leather, stained glass, metal engraving and painting. Much of his art is specifically Gay-themed, but veiled and sensual instead of sexual. In his interview, we discussed his community involvements, what he hopes people will get out of his work, and the difficulties of being an artist in these trying economic times.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you just tell me a little bit about yourself, how you got into art and also how you got into Leather?

Dennis Wymbs: This is Chapter 2. I had a previous career as an educator, and when I retired, there was a huge gap. I have no artistic training as such, but I started futzing around with stained glass, and from stained glass I started playing around doing some leather sculptures. I started making leather harnesses for Pleasures & Treasures, and in playing with the leather it seemed that sculpture was the next extension.

Shortly after Bill and Tim opened the doors to their original store [in 2006], there was an advertisement in one of the local newspapers looking for artists. I can remember: I was driving around with my partner, and we debated, do I dare disturb the universe? And so, with some encouragement, he said, “What do you have to lose? Get out of the car, go in and say, ‘I’m a new artist, and I saw you were looking for some work. Would you be interested?’” They said, “Bring in some samples,” and so I did. And I was booked for my very first show, which was absolutely amazing, sheer excitement, the whole idea, panic.

As people saw my work, more and more requests came in for donations. One of the ways that I have attempted to contribute to the Gay community is through my artwork. So I thought, “O.K., that sounds really cool.” I started giving lots of work away, and it’s almost like what the universe says, what you give out, you get back. The support began to grow, and one of the main supporters that I had in the Leather community was Mike Russell. Mike kind of appointed me, in many respects, as the artist to go to if there was an event.

I began doing a number of different events for the Leather community. I did Leather Realm [the Leather area within the Pride Festival] for a couple of years. I joined a group called Art of Pride that shows our artwork during the Pride Festival, and shows started being offered to me. I’ve been doing art now for five years, and I tend to be somewhat manic when I create. And if I’m doing a show, it’s like I’ve got to do tons [of work so] that there might be something that connects with a person.

I’m blown away by the fact that people are attracted enough to even consider taking some of their hard-earned money and buying something. It sounds hokey, but it’s true. As the market began to dry up in San Diego, I began exploring other venues outside of San Diego. I started showing up in Hollywood, over in Palm Springs. The problem with showing out of town is having to haul everything, and it’s extremely exhausting. I wasn’t really looking for a second career, and the more I’m at this the more it’s turning out to be just that.

What I find really interesting is that this exhibit has been up now for under two weeks, and there have been five pieces sold, five engravings sold. I wasn’t here to say anything to anybody physically, but I was able to communicate with somebody sufficiently for them to purchase those pieces. And given that Bill and Tim have asked the artwork to stay up until the end of July, I have no idea who else I’ll be able to communicate with.

Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed is you seem to work in a lot of different media. Why is that, and what do you get out of each one?

Wymbs: There’s a saying by Mark Twain that goes, you’ll see in a picture “whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.” What you see in my artwork is me. Sometimes I scream and shout, sometimes I whisper. Sometimes I sing and dance, and different media allow me to do the same things. It’s just expressions of me.

I had the opportunity of having a couple of conversations with Edward Albee, the playwright who wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In one of our brief discussions, I asked him what was his definition on art. And his response really had a major impact on me. He said that art wasn’t the product that was produced; it was the process of how the viewer interpreted the intentions of the artist.

So if you look at an object, that’s not art. Art takes place between your ears. What you see as art is that communication. One of the reasons why I produce so frenetically is that I want that conversation to go on. I learned in the classroom very early on that you must be able to speak in very many languages. Artistically, I’ve taken different media to do that.

I love glass because it changes: because there’s a certain degree of danger to it. Some of the paintings I do are done in beeswax. The medium is called encaustics, and it’s a medium in which you have limited control. I love the medium because, again, there’s that sense of letting something come out that may have been kept quiet for a very long time.

Engravings I love because it’s a black canvas. I do a lot of stuff on black canvases, whether it be painting or engraving. It’s interesting; there’s an edge. I use a knife to do the engraving. It’s sharp, just like stained glass. It plays with light, just like stained glass does. Everything I do, every medium I used, is a light play, suggesting that there’s this ever-changing possibility that’s there.

The leather sculpture that I do, there’s this very spiritual thing that says that leather is sensual, it’s very sensual to work with. Leather is sensual, and the idea of taking a hide that has been flattened — that is no longer discernible as having been a living being — can be transformed. There’s a partnership that exists between the artist and the medium. Often the leather will not let me do what my mind’s eye says I need to do. It’s almost a surrender when I work in leather. It’s a surrender to a medium that, pretty much like encaustics, I have limited control over.

Somebody had made an observation not too long ago that a lot of my work has windows and doors. I never really noticed that before. Sometimes the main character is looking out, and sometimes outside looking in. One of the truisms that I’ve found about myself is that in many ways throughout my life I’ve been the insider/outsider, and I don’t think that’s unique. I think people can identify with that.

Zenger’s: I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a Gay person who didn’t think he or she was the outsider.

Wymbs: What you see here is primarily bedroom art. But I also do living-room art, and it’s that same ability to try to communicate with someone else. It’s almost to pluck the string that produces the music that says you and I are similar. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re Gay or straight. If you belong to a particular community group or whatever, it’s just that ability to speak a common language.

Something I used to tell my students was don’t judge. Do a mental shift from “right” and “wrong,” that something’s neither “right” nor “wrong.” Something’s different. And in the differences, we should celebrate.

Zenger’s: Well, that’s something fascinating. You hear so much political rhetoric these days: who are the “real” Americans? “These people” are not part of “the community.” Gays aren’t; immigrants aren’t; people who are concerned about global warming aren’t. You’ve got all this “we are the real Americans; the rest of you are outside the community,” and it seems like the idea of celebrating difference has become extremely unfashionable in our country right now.

Wymbs: We are extremely egocentric. I was just asked to be a board member for a foundation that deals with teen suicide, and my first life was spent working with kids, with teenagers. I saw enough heartache with the kids, and one of the things the foundation is struggling with is whether or not it should focus on Gay teens or all teens. As a group that’s been marginalized, Gay teens have some problems that are strictly theirs. But teens in general have problems of acceptance, and they deal with that concept of suicide a lot. I think that one of the reasons that thought is so prevalent is they see themselves as different. And if nothing else, if people could recognize that it is actually the differences that unite us, not divide us.

When I began doing work in other media, those people who were “in the know” told me you shouldn’t do that, you can’t do that. I don’t want to name a medium, but I will: watercolors. Oh, my gosh. You can’t be a legitimate watercolorist if you — dot, dot, dot. Why not? Why can’t you go where your voice says to go? If what you’re doing, what you’re shooting to do is pluck that string in somebody else’s heart, or somebody else’s head, where that artistic process takes place — which is how I think — why should you be locked into “this is what you must do”? Why do we have to do that?

Zenger’s: It occurs to me that every artist from the past you’ve actually heard of — the Leonardos, the Michelangelos, the Van Goghs, the Matisses and Monets and Picassos — were the ones who did what the experts of their time were telling them shouldn’t be done.

Wymbs: The thing that I find that’s difficult is that when you go to a gallery, and there’s a gallery curator or owner there, and that person says, “Give me a list of your credentials” and all the fah-fah stuff, I just leave. I’m not interested — I’m not going to play that game with you. My work speaks for what my work says. I don’t need to jump through your hoops.

Zenger’s: I remember when I first met you, you talked about some of the problems you’ve had with donations submitted to different events, where you thought the art was undervalued.

Wymbs: The community was looking for lots of donations. And, again, it didn’t matter if it was the Bears, the Leather community, country/western, it didn’t matter. People were just looking for some way to raise funds. The sad part about it was that they were going for flea-market values in the artistic world. And to be honest, I thought that was an affront. There were several occasions where I donated pieces, where I actually bought them back.

A classic example: California LeatherSIR. There were a number of things that were put up for silent auction, and the amount that was actually bid on those pieces to raise funds, in many instances, would not have even covered the cost of the materials. You don’t raise funds that way. What you are doing is you’re going bargain-hunting, and you’re using that event to get your treasures.

I sometimes question the way that funds are raised. If what you’re trying to do is forward a cause, there’s got to be something more than Jell-O shots. What’s going to happen when you can’t raise funds at a bar because there aren’t enough of them left anymore? Then what do you do? There’s got to be another way of doing things.

One of the best fundraisers I’ve seen has been the way the Tool Shed in Palm Springs raises money for the Desert AIDS Project. They have an art show at the Tool Shed, a bar. You donate a piece of art, and there’s a silent auction. People write their bids in a book that’s kept behind the bar. The artists are invited to a meet-and-greet, and they can also bring in additional pieces for sale.

The pieces I’ve donated have sold for more than what I valued them. I think last year, last November, they had over 30 artists vying to participate. They raised close to $5,000. The year before that, I think they raised over $3,000. And the artwork is hung at the Tool Shed. I’m blown away by the fact that it unites an artistic community. It raises funds, and it celebrates the artistic talents and the legacy of the Gay community.

I’ve knocked on doors in San Diego, to see if we can do the same thing. After a year and a half, my knuckles are a little bit bloodied, and we do not have an event. And I think we’ve got more than enough potential venues.