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.”