Saturday, September 17, 2011

Keith Brown Interviews Mark Conlan on "Big Brother" HIV Test Program

Big Brother Is Testing You (radio edit):

Gay Spirit: Keith Brown Interviews MGC on “Lead the Way,” July 2001:

Hello, and welcome to a special edition of Zenger’s on the air, the audio edition of Zenger’s Newsmagazine. I’m your host, Zenger’s editor-publisher Mark Gabrish Conlan, and today we’re going to take another look at the “Lead the Way” project, the brainchild of Dr. Susan Little of the Antiviral Research Center (ARC) at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Medical Center. Launched in May 2011 out of a storefront in a former Starbucks location on the corner of Park and University in Hillcrest, “Lead the Way” is a project intended to — well, sometimes its publicity materials and its Web site say it’s to encourage people to take the HIV antibody test and sometimes they say it’s merely to ask people whether they’d take the test or not.

I heard Dr. Little announce the project on May 10 at the Hillcrest Town Council, and shortly after that I wrote an editorial for Zenger’s entitled, “Big Brother Is Testing You.” I was particularly incensed by their proposal to send out mobile testing vans to certain blocks in the 92103 and 92104 Zip codes — coincidentally or not, the parts of San Diego with the largest Queer populations — and knock on people’s doors in a Johnny-on-the-spot approach to get them to take a survey about the test as well as to get blood drawn for the test itself. I didn’t think people put on the spot this way were going to be in a position to make a rational decision whether or not they should undergo a test that, accurate or not, could lead to their so-called “diagnosis” with a presumably fatal disease, huge pressure from their doctors and the medical establishment in general immediately to go on highly toxic and expensive drugs; discrimination in employment, housing and other public services — it’s supposed to be illegal, but of course it still goes on — and the threat of prosecution if they have the “wrong” sort of sex with the wrong person, even consensually.

But that’s not the impression of the mobile testing program you’ll get if you visit the “Lead the Way” Web site, Instead you’ll read, “It’s kind of like a taco truck without the tacos. Or at least that’s how we like to think of our mobile testing and surveying truck. Four wheels of goodness, spreading the word about Lead the Way. We’re going to be dropping in to neighborhoods and events all over 92103 + 92104. Farmers’ markets, festivals, bars. We’re even going to knock on some doors and introduce ourselves. So, if you see us, please say ‘hi.’ Or please open your door. We’re out here to do something really good and really big, and we need your help.”

In the immortal words of British comedienne Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!” Though both Dr. Little and her P.R. person, Danielle Gano, sometimes insist that their goal is merely to build up public awareness about testing and ask why people do or don’t want to get tested, this comment Dr. Little made at the Hillcrest Town Council indicates something of the Machiavellian ambition behind this program, which goes a long way beyond simply surveying people about their attitudes towards HIV testing.

Since I published my Zenger’s article and did an earlier version of this report, in which I read the “Big Brother Is Testing You” editorial and plugged in Dr. Little’s quotes in her own voice, the “Lead the Way” program has toned down the pro-testing propaganda just a little. Where the ads on the street billboards and bus stops used to show their so-called “community role models” and say, “He would — would you?,” “She would — would you?,” “They would — would you?” — now they just say that so-and-so “answered the question” and you should answer the question too. But the captions to the pictures of the “role models” on the “Lead the Way” Web site still say they would, and ask, “Would you?”

Shortly after my article on “Lead the Way” appeared, I got a call from my friend Keith Brown of Hartford, Connecticut asking if he could interview me for Gay Spirit, the Queer-themed public radio program he’s been hosting in Hartford for almost 30 years. Like me, Keith is convinced based on scientific evidence that the conventional wisdom about AIDS which we’ve been brainwashed to believe since 1984 — that it’s a disease caused by a single virus, the so-called “Human Immunodeficiency Virus,” or HIV — is wrong. Indeed, he’s made it a bit of a tradition to interview me on World AIDS Day, December 1, to review the year’s events in AIDS from an alternative perspective. As he acknowledges in the show you’re about to hear, for a long time he pulled back on AIDS coverage because little new seemed to be happening on the issue.

Then he read an editorial of mine blasting one of the AIDS establishment’s most cockamamie ideas yet, “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” which means prescribing anti-HIV drugs to people who test HIV negative but who, because they’re Gay or have some other so-called “risk factor,” are considered likely to encounter the virus in their sex lives. The fact that HIV has never been proven to be sexually transmissible, of course, doesn’t enter into this. He called me for an interview on “pre-exposure prophylaxis” and again for one on “Lead the Way,” and he got two shows out of my material — which I, with his permission, have edited down to one. So here are Keith Brown and I from opposite ends of the country, talking about a sinister HIV antibody testing program that’s being tried out in San Diego and could spread nationwide if Dr. Susan Little has her way.

Since we did that interview, there’ve been a few changes in the “Lead the Way” program. The wording of the ads featuring 20 so-called “community role models” has been changed from saying that they had got tested and asking, “Would you?,” to merely saying that they had answered the question — to test or not to test — and you should answer the question, too. When I was called by Dr. Susan Little’s P.R. person, Danielle Gano, who had actually written those ads, she was very anxious to make sure I understood that the campaign was about building awareness of the test and asking why people do — and don’t — get tested. But the versions of the ads on the Lead the Way Web site,, still says, essentially, that these people took the test and you should, too. The site also features a map of the 92103 and 92104 Zip codes with colored boxes indicating the blocks they’ve visited with their mobile testing vans, with orange boxes labeled “here’s where we’ve been,” blue boxes labeled, “here’s where we are,” and green boxes labeled, “here’s where we’re going.”

As I noted in my introduction, the Web site refers to the mobile testing vans as “four wheels of goodness,” and calls the entire project “something really good and really big.” But when I think of a program aimed at reaching people in their homes, as well as when they’re shopping for food or out for a good time, to try to sell them on taking an unreliable test for antibodies to a virus that has never been isolated by classical standards of virology and almost certainly is harmless anyway, to people who will be told if they test “positive” that they are infected with a virus that will kill them and they need to be on highly toxic and very expensive drugs all their lives, the word that comes to my mind about this project isn’t “good” but its opposite, “evil.” And when I read the weird language of the “Lead the Way” Web site, with its bizarre and indigestible combination of infantilism and megalomania, I think not only of the word “evil” but of another word, the one the late Hannah Arendt linked with it in the title of her book on Nazi official Adolf Eichmann: “the banality of evil.”

Five Minutes of Geography


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

It really is about “the children.” That’s the first thing that crossed my mind when I heard the news that, out of all the Queer-friendly bills the California state legislature has passed and governors of both major parties (Democrats more than Republicans) have signed, the one the radical “Christian” Right has targeted is SB 48. In case you didn’t hear of it, SB 48 was steered through the legislative process by openly Gay State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and requires that students in California’s public middle and high schools be taught “the role and contributions” of Pacific Islanders, persons with disabilities and — here’s the kicker — “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans.”

Just as the radical Right was successful in using the initiative, a hundred-year-old (in California) procedure to allow citizens to make their own laws, bypassing the state legislature, in reversing the California Supreme Court’s decision upholding marriage equality, so now they’re planning to use the referendum — a lesser-known method of getting rid of a law that’s already passed — to repeal SB 48. If they get enough signatures, which is almost certain because they can probably reach the threshold just by circulating the petitions at mega-churches and other places of radical-Right “Christian” worship, it’ll be on the ballot in June 2012. Apparently the hope of the organizers is that this will be a heavily Republican election, since the Republicans will have a contested Presidential primary and the Democrats won’t — though recent experience indicates that by next June the primaries and caucuses in other states will probably have determined the Republican nominee already, so the organizers of the SB 48 repeal won’t get the electoral skew they’re hoping for.

That’s about all the good news there is on this one, however. We can expect “Son of Prop. 8,” another ugly radical-Right campaign highlighting all the negative stereotypes of Queer people — including, above all, the idea that we seek to “recruit” impressionable children and “force” our “lifestyle” on them. “Costly new education materials will be required to assist in the indoctrination of California children,” warned Tony Perkins of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council in an online video message aimed at California “pastors” (and the fact that the radical Right calls its ministers that — a term that literally means the ministers are shepherds and the “flocks” that go to their churches are sheep needing to be led — is itself a frightening window into how these people view the world).

“Should we divert precious classroom time and resources from science and math, reading and writing, to promote the political agenda of a few?” Perkins asks rhetorically. (This objection might make a bit more sense were the radical Right not so unremittingly hostile to the overwhelming consensus of scientists on issues like evolution and human-caused climate change. One shudders to think what sort of “science” they think the schools should be teaching.) “Can we really afford to have the social studies and history textbooks rewritten to accommodate this propaganda? Do you think that it’s right to force teachers and administrators to violate their consciences by advocating for behavior they find morally objectionable? Do you think impressionable children as young as five ought to be indoctrinated with these lifestyles?” The last is an outright lie, as the bill only applies to middle schools and high schools, but one thing about both the secular and “Christian” arms of the radical Right is they’ve never let themselves be hobbled by an overly reverent attitude towards truth.

The radical Right’s crusade against homosexuality is incomprehensible unless you realize that they really don’t think there is any such thing as a Queer person. To the radical Right, there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, which people engage in either because they’re so rebellious they deliberately want to go against God or because they’ve been “traumatized” by some horrible past experience. Their attitude towards homosexuality comes largely from the idea that it is “against nature” — that God created sex only for married heterosexuals to use to make babies, and any other sort of sex is wrong. Abortion and birth control are wrong because they prevent the people involved from making babies, oral and anal sex are wrong because they can’t possibly make babies, and homosexuality is wrong because two men, or two women, having sex can’t possibly make babies.

And what is our community doing in response to the radical Right’s threat? If the presentation Roland Palencia, executive director of the Queer lobbying organization Equality California, gave to the San Diego Democratic Club August 25 is any indication, they’re going to make all the same mistakes they made in the No on 8 campaign. First of all, expecting Equality California to run a successful electoral campaign is like expecting the greatest auto mechanic in the world to perform your open-heart surgery. The skills involved in lobbying a legislature — especially a basically friendly blue-state legislature — are as different from those involved in running a ballot measure campaign as the skills of an auto mechanic are from a heart surgeon.

What’s more, if Palencia’s presentation is to be believed, Equality California has learned absolutely nothing from the brilliant triumph of their Proposition 8 campaign, in which they helped turn a 15-point lead in the early polls to a five-point defeat on Election Day. Asked how his group plans to fight the SB 48 repeal, Palencia said, “We’ve formed a coalition,” and he hastened to add that the overwhelming majority of the coalition’s members will be straight people. In other words, even though he wasn’t running Equality California when the Prop. 8 debacle occurred, Palencia is faithfully duplicating the biggest mistake of that campaign: he’s shunting off us Queer people, forcing us into the closet in the struggle for our own civil rights.

What makes it even crazier is that, judging from his statements to the San Diego Democratic Club, Palencia knows full well what the opposition campaign is likely to be: “It’s that we’re hunters, we have a ‘homosexual agenda’ and we want to make everyone Gay and teach people about sex.” Indeed, the whole controversy reminds me of the late Lenny Bruce’s routine in the early 1960’s, when the radical Right was in a tizzy about — horrors! — sex education in the public schools, and Bruce joked, “It’s not like your child is going to come home and tell you, ‘In school today we learned five minutes of geography and ten minutes of cocksucking.’”

We know what the opposition is going to say because they’ve been saying it every time they’ve gone before an electorate and asked them to restrict our rights. We saw it as early as 1977, when Anita Bryant’s successful campaign to repeal the Miami-Dade County Queer civil rights ordinance was called “Save the Children.” We’ve seen it in every ballot campaign on same-sex marriage, which has been voted down in every state that had the chance to weigh in on it — including Iowa, where, barred from their state constitution from doing a Prop. 8, the radical Right motivated voters to do the next worst thing: remove from the state supreme court three of the justices that had supported marriage equality.

And what makes our community’s record in initiative and referendum campaigns so dismal is that, even knowing in advance what the other side’s strategy was going to be, we have utterly failed to come up with a working counter-strategy. The argument Equality California plans to make to keep SB 48, as Palencia explained it to the San Diego Democratic Club — basically a gigantic whine about how not teaching the role and contributions of Queer people creates “a hostile environment in school” and leads young Queer people to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide — will come off as a rancid plea for special treatment that’s going to make voters think, “Balls to that. If they’re really as good as the rest of us, they’ll tough it out and take it.”

How about doing something different for a change? I thought that the No on 8 campaign should have put a human face on the issue — put happy, loving Gay and Lesbian couples on the air to talk about how their relationships worked, and show (not tell!) California voters that we’re the same as everyone else and we fall in love, form relationships and stay together (or not) for the same reasons straight people do. Likewise, I think this time around we should make the essence of the SB 48 campaign to teach the voters of California the same lessons the bill would mandate be taught to students. Pick out Queer, disabled and Pacific Islander people who have made major contributions to American and Californian history and culture, give voters 30-second capsule biographies of them, and say, “That’s what’s going to be taught in schools if you vote Yes on … ” Keep the profiles equally balanced so we highlight, without having to underline the point, how the radical Right is willing to throw Pacific Islanders and people with disabilities under the train in their demented jihad against Queers.

Hillcrest Parties as Blackout Brings Out the Stars

story and photo by LEO E. LAURENCE, J.D.

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

While KOGO Radio was broadcasting gloom and doom as total darkness enveloped San Diego on September 8, people in Hillcrest took to the streets and were in a festive mood, albeit totally unprepared for the reality of the potentially radical lifestyle difficulties looming back in their darkened homes.

The famous Georgia Street bridge over University Avenue just a block east of Park Boulevard is usually deserted even on a bright sunny day, but certainly at night.

But as the sun slowly set in the west and it became obvious that we were soon going to have absolute, total darkness in a few, short hours, the sidewalk on the bridge suddenly became filled with people.

As it started to get really dark, I saw only about a dozen candles burning in open windows throughout the whole Uptown neighborhood, mostly in the apartments of seniors in the two tall Grace Towers buildings that are landmarks at Park and University. The red warning lights on top of the Grace Towers, put there so planes flying into Lindbergh Field don’t hit the buildings, had their own power source and stayed lit throughout the blackout.

I found three guys last night on the Georgia Street bridge who had small, hand-held radios tuned to KOGO AM radio, broadcasting continuously on the crisis – though missing the festive mood of the public: a Marine, a little old lady and a teenager, all well-informed on the developing emergency.

After the sun set completely and neighborhoods were swallowed up by darkness, the sidewalk along University Avenue in the Uptown District became crowed with people in a festive mood.

“WOW, this is historic.  It’s wonderful,” said Daniel, 32, of Hillcrest.

“It’s great!  You can actually see the stars added John, 23. “I love it,” walking barefoot in the bright moonlight wearing only shorts.

The festive mood on the streets may be generational, as many in the Uptown District were largely young people.

The sky was totally clear and a brilliant three-quarter moon was high in the sky bright enough to create strong shadows on the ground.

The very bright moon meant that the thousands of people out walking didn’t even need flashlights to get around outside, and few used them.

Looming inside their darkened homes, however, was a tougher situation. Even if you were lucky and had a candle, simple tasks like getting a glass of water were challenging.

The usual rush-hour traffic along University Avenue never materialized. 

KOGO AM Radio did an amazing job of covering the blackout crisis. However, they largely focused on the doom-and-gloom situations. They alarmed listeners by announcing that the airport was shut down, as was the entire trolley system.

Traffic, they claimed, was a nightmare as people were rushing out of downtown to get home and were clogging the streets and freeways. But University Avenue in both Hillcrest and North Park had only light traffic, even during the rush hours. The approach road to the 163 freeway briefly gridlocked at the start of the blackout, but the freeway itself was clear.

Power Restored

Ironically, many people seemed to be having so much fun in the blackout that there were audible groans of disappointment when electrical power was restored and the festive atmosphere on the streets abruptly came to an end.

 “Oh, NO, the power is back on,” complained one young man on the Georgia Street Bridge as lights suddenly came on.

Literally within five minutes after power was restored, the sidewalks were again deserted as people rapidly returned to their homes.

The Gay bars in the Uptown District closed during the crisis.  But one straight bar, the Alibi at the corner of Vermont and University, somehow stayed open and operated with candlelight, apparently serving warm drinks, though the customers didn’t seem to mind. The blackout produced a party mood.

The Live Wire bar on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park also stayed open and ran their refrigerators and air conditioner from an outside generator. Next door, a pizza parlor, apparently equipped with gas rather than electric ovens, continued to serve customers on an outside patio and even supplied them hip-hop music, blasting from a car stereo in a blue SUV parked on the street outside.

When power goes out and traffic lights become inoperative, intersections function like four-way stop signs. Drivers – what few were out there – were following those rules, apparently largely out of courtesy.

Major intersections like Park and University Avenues experienced no problems with the flow of the unusually light traffic, and apparently no accidents were reported in Hillcrest during the emergency. Downtown was a different story, according to one observer. Drivers there seemed confused how to negotiate intersections without streetlights, and there were a few near-collisions.

Be Prepared!

While happy people crowded the sidewalks in the darkness, with light only from headlights of passing cars, many would face the reality that they were totally unprepared for a major emergency and didn’t have candles or emergency flashlights to cope with the darkness enveloping the rooms of their homes.

Simple things like getting a glass of water meant finding your way with the help of a single candle, if you were lucky and had one handy.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) initially was saying that it could be one to three days before power was restored.

That could mean something as simple as fresh food might rapidly become very scarce because there would be no refrigeration. Canned goods were O.K., if you had a hand-operated, can opener.

Perhaps this blackout alerted lots of us to check out emergency supplies and preparedness.  Are you ready to survive for days without power or water, realistic possibilities with an 8.5 earthquake?

If it does hit and the city loses power and water, many of us are woefully unprepared and don’t even have flashlights handy. A hand-operated (batteries burn out) AM-FM radio will keep you posted on emergency situations.

Photo caption: Usually totally deserted at night, people in a festive mood flocked to the famous Georgia Street bridge high over University Avenue during the blackout; and were very disappointed when power was restored. Time exposure taken seconds after lights came back on.

Downtown Labor Day Rally Draws Over 200

Some Call for Jobs, Others for a Post-Jobs Economy


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

PHOTO: Floyd Morrow and Bob Filner (center)


“It’s jobs, jobs, jobs,” said U.S. Congressmember and mayoral candidate Bob Filner at the start of San Diego’s Labor Day rally September 5, which drew over 100 people to Horton Plaza Park downtown at noon following a march from the downtown Ralph’s supermarket. “We’re the richest country in the world, and we’ve got 48.6 million people out of work [or underemployed]. We’ve got a Congress run by the Tea Party that has not produced jobs. President Obama has not produced enough jobs.”

Most of the speakers — many of whom were either current or former elected officials or candidates for elective office — echoed the “jobs, jobs, jobs” theme. “Are there jobs to be done in this city, this county, this state? Yes,” said Filner’s colleague, Congressmember Susan Davis. “Are there people who want to do them? Yes. There are so many ways we can put together a package that works for all of us. … We had a job fair the other day, and it was sad to see so many people who wanted to work.”

Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, who in 2012 is planning to run against Republican Congressmember Brian Bilbray in hopes that the California Redistricting Commission has made the seat more competitive for a Democrat, said, “I want to join Susan in Congress to help working people. … I want to make sure we have the kinds of jobs that will get this country going again. We will succeed because when united, we will never be defeated.”

“I think we’re going to have pro-worker elected officials supporting each other and fighting for the same things,” said Lorena Gonzalez, head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council and herself a former candidate for the San Diego City Council. “We have 25 million Americans who are trying to find work, and corporations who are hoarding cash. Between them, just four companies — General Electric, Pfizer, CVS Pharmacies and Apple — are holding on to $1.2 trillion in cash. That is not property value or income, but cash that could be used to create jobs.”

California State Senator Juan Vargas, who took a leadership role pushing for SB 469 a union-backed state law requiring “economic impact reports” before any big-box “supercenters” (essentially Wal-Marts and other giant stores that sell groceries) are built, announced that Sempra Energy, parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), “is going to Mexico because they want to pay people very little and they don’t want to abide by environmental laws.” He urged people at the rally to write Governor Jerry Brown and ask him to sign SB 469, which at press time is still pending on his desk.

Other speakers at the rally took a more radical line. Former San Diego City Councilmember Floyd Morrow, defeated in 1977 by an early manifestation of what later became the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, recalled that his first political involvement was in John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign in 1960. He questioned why the U.S. Labor Day is in early September while the rest of the world celebrates it on May 1 — ironically, the May Day holiday was first proclaimed by a U.S. labor leader, Terrence V. Powderly of the Knights of Labor, in 1886, but it didn’t become the “official” Labor Day because in most of Europe and the rest of the world May Day celebrations are openly socialist — and he also attacked the legal status of corporations as “persons,” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the idea that corporations and the people who run them are the sources of a country’s wealth.

“People who work produce the wealth, not corporations,” Morrow said. “We need to take away their monopoly of oil, resources, air. We’ve got to end the insanity of ‘corporate personhood’ and make them pony up.” He called for an end to the U.S. wars and use of the money to create jobs at home, and said that contrary to Right-wing propaganda and media reports of a “crisis” in Social Security, “there is $2.6 trillion in the Social Security trust fund. It’s funded through 2030 at minimum. Let’s not let them get away with the lies.”

Frank Gormlie, editor/publisher of the online newspaper O.B. Rag, MC’d the rally and called for the government to hire people and put them to work directly rather than waiting for the private sector to spend some of their hoards of cash on employees. He cited the Works Project Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of the 1960’s, as examples.

“We need public jobs and a government that actively creates them,” Gormlie said. “The mainstream media want you to believe that workers are the problem. We have to outlaw these capitalist assaults on the basic right to unionize. Those who do not support workers’ rights and collective bargaining for public employees are un-American. We’re much closer to the Founding Fathers than the Tea Party people.”

Greg Robinson, vice-president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), joked about how many of the other speakers were either members of Congress or candidates for Congressional seats. “There are a lot of people here who want to go to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Why? To hang out with Republicans? The party of Lincoln has become the Party of Bozo. Texas Governor Rick Perry” — the current front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination — “doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming, but he does believe President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim socialist.”

According to Robinson, Bank of America received over $3 trillion in government loans from the bank bailout, “yet they tell homeowners there’s no money to bail them out.” (Less than a week after the rally, Bank of America announced they were eliminating 40,000 jobs, most of them in California, to cover their losses from acquiring troubled subprime lender Countrywide Financial in 2008.)

“We have billionaire hedge-fund operators telling the rest of us we can’t tax them because they ‘create jobs,’” Robinson said. “Where are the jobs? They’re sitting on the biggest pile of corporate profits in history. The money is there; it’s just in the wrong pockets.” Like Gormlie, Robinson called for a revival of the Depression-era WPA, saying that the U.S. infrastructure largely built by the WPA in the 1930’s is “crumbling” and a new WPA is needed to rebuild it.

While the other speakers on the program called for jobs, Jeeni Criscenzo, president of Activist San Diego (and, ironically, also a former Congressional candidate), questioned the whole concept of the “job” and the ideology behind it. “Jobs are lopsided trade agreements,” she said. “We’ve been conditioned to believe we need a job. We used to believe we could jump into a job from high school. We were encouraged to get a good education, and our reward would be a job where we could use our brains to make other people more money.”

Criscenzo said that the whole concept of a job — of having to beg an employer for the chance to make him/her money — constitutes servitude and needs to be ended. “What if we change the rules and, instead of a ‘job,’ everyone had a right to a livable life and we could do what we love? What if we didn’t call it a ‘job,’ and we did it for each other and not to make foreign investors profits? A ‘job’ is something we beg for from others; a living is something we make for ourselves.”

Many of the participants in the Labor Day rally wore T-shirts expressing solidarity with the United Food and Commercial Workers local 135, currently embroiled in negotiations with the three largest supermarket chains, Kroger (Ralph’s), Safeway (Vons) and Supervalu (Albertson’s). The workers’ contract expired in March and for the last six months employees have been working under the old contract, while the chains have demanded givebacks that would jeopardize the workers’ access to health insurance.

The workers have responded by voting twice to authorize a strike, and at press time the only thing that is holding back the strike is the presence of federal mediators in the negotiations. The union can call a strike any time by giving 72 hours’ notice to the chains. The last supermarket strike in the area, in 2003-2004, ended in a defeat for the union — and also hurt the chains; Albertson’s in particular has never regained the market share it lost during the strike.

Free the Equality Nine! Action Scheduled for Sept. 28 Downtown

Next Court Hearing in the Case Scheduled for Oct. 17


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

PHOTO: Members of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) at a previous demonstration supporting the defense of the Equality Nine. (Photo by Cathy Mendonça, courtesy the S.A.M.E. Web site.)

Over a year has passed since the “Equality Nine” — Michael Anderson, Brian Baumgardner, Sean Bohac, Felicity Bradley, Kelsey Hoffman, Mike Kennedy, Zakiya Khabir, Chuck Stemke, and Cecile Veillard, members and supporters of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) — were arrested on August 19, 2010 at the San Diego County Administrative Center. Since then they’ve been organizing a campaign to ask San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to drop the charges against them — and have been circulating a “Drop the Charges” petition, available on their Web site,, or at

Now the Equality Nine plan to present their petitions at a rally Wednesday, September 28, 4 p.m. outside the City Attorney’s office, 1200 Third Avenue downtown. A number of prominent San Diegans, including elected officials, Queer and non-Queer activists and experts on civil rights law, have been invited to speak. S.A.M.E. members who weren’t arrested will present the petitions to Goldsmith’s office on the 16th floor of the building. The next court hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday, October 17 in the San Diego County Courthouse downtown.

“The Equality Nine engaged in a peaceful sit-in when the County Clerk would not issue marriage licenses to two same-sex couples that day [August 19, 2010], as they were willing to do for any opposite-sex couple that stepped into the office,” the online petition explains. “The Nine were arrested by dozens of Sheriff’s Deputies in full riot gear and military-style formation. They were shackled and marched out to buses, then were brought to jail where they were processed and spent several hours.

The protest was held in connection with the ruling by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker that Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriages in California, “disadvantages Gays and Lesbians without rational justification” and therefore “violates the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.” S.A.M.E., the petition site explains, was protesting a “stay” — legal-speak for “delay” — of Judge Walker’s decision that he imposed and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed. As marriage equality attorney Jason Molnar recently explained to the San Diego Democratic Club, this stay, which is expected to last until the case is finally resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, is the only thing currently preventing same-sex couples from being married in California.

“We believe this is absurd,” the online petition argues. “The courts should not suspend the people’s constitutional rights until those who despise them are satisfied. The stay must be lifted. Now, the new Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris, is asking the courts to end the stay. Within the past few months, nationally, Congress and President Obama voted to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (the policy that forbade Queer people from serving openly in the U.S. military). Recently, the Obama Administration signaled that they will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the law which maintains marriage inequality at the federal level. With the edifice of official discrimination crumbling all around us, the City should not persecute activists who are proving to be on the right side of history.”

S.A.M.E. is holding signature drives for the drop-the-charges petition Saturday, September 17 and 24, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the corner of Sixth and University in Hillcrest. They are also planning to circulate the petition at the Adams Avenue Street Fair September 24 and 25 and at other major community events. To participate, or for more information, call (858) 335-6615, e-mail or visit on the Web.

Peace Vigil in Balboa Park on 10th Anniversary of 9/11

Veterans for Peace Solicit $35 Donations for Homeless People


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

Members of the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice and the San Diego Veterans for Peace (SDVFP) held an alternative commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on the corner of Park Boulevard and Presidents’ Way. The vigil featured a handful of people carrying signs with slogans like “War Is Terrorism” and “If War Is the Answer, We Are Asking the Wrong Question.”

The event also featured an “Arlington West” display of cardboard tombstones fastened to the park lawn to symbolize people from San Diego and Imperial Counties killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In past displays the props had been crosses, but Gil Field of SDVFP explained that this year they decided to use tombstones so they could “humanize” the event by showing the names of the dead servicemembers. The names listed included Jesús Suárez del Solár of Escondido, whose father Fernando became a prominent anti-war activist locally after his son was killed by friendly fire in Iraq in 2003.

One of SDVFP’s priorities at this event was to promote a new program, the “Compassion Campaign,” to reach out to homeless veterans. According to Field and Dave Patterson of the Veterans for Peace, there are about 4,000 homeless people in San Diego County, of which about 40 percent are veterans, many of whom served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.

The “Compassion Campaign” asks individuals to donate $35, which the group estimates is the cost to buy a sleeping bag, poncho and nylon stuff sack for one homeless person. As of September 1, they have already handed out 700 of the kits to homeless people. Their original intent was to serve only veterans, but Field said they soon abandoned that as impractical and now they’ll give out the kits without asking for proof that the recipients served.

To make a donation to the “Compassion Campaign,” please send a check for $35 or more, made out to SDVFP, to the group’s treasurer, Colleen Angell, at 11575 Caminito La Bar, #23, San Diego, CA   92126. For more information, please call (858) 342-1964 or visit on the Web.

Activists Host “Radio Summer” Event August 29

Goal Is to Bring Community-Based Radio to San Diego


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

PHOTO: Kelly Barnes

Radio has the power to be a real presence in a local area and bring diverse groups together for a real sense of community. But in the U.S. that rarely happens because almost all the major frequencies are owned by giant media conglomerates and many of them are broadcasting programs that originate from production centers thousands of miles away. But the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project has been working hard to make local community-oriented radio a reality not only in far-flung rural areas but in major cities like San Diego – and on August 29, local activists gathered at the San Diego Media Arts Center in North Park for a local event as part of Prometheus’s “Radio Summer” campaign to build as many Low-Power FM (LPFM) stations as possible in San Diego and throughout the U.S.

“Radio Summer” came about as a result of Prometheus’s decade-long campaign to open up more space on the radio dial for LPFM. On January 4, their efforts paid off when the U.S. Congress passed the Community Radio Act and President Obama signed it into law. “It gives the U.S. Federal Communications Commission [FCC] authority to license over 1,000 low-power community radio stations, probably the largest expansion of community radio in our nation’s history,” said Ian Smith, national outreach coordinator for Prometheus, who addressed the local meeting via a Skype link from his home in Philadelphia.

Smith explained that LPFM licenses are issued to nonprofit organizations, including schools and churches as well as community groups. The licensees have to have educational missions and the stations have to be locally owned and operated. LPFM stations existed before the Community Radio Act was passed, but virtually all of them were in rural areas, remote from major population centers and therefore not serviced by commercial or mainstream public stations. Under the new law, and the rules the FCC approved in July to implement it, San Diego and other large cities will get access to LPFM for the first time. Prometheus’s goal, Smith said, is to get 1,000 LPFM licenses approved by the FCC by the summer of 2012.

According to Smith, LPFM and other community-based radio stations do a lot more than just broadcast news and entertainment. “Community radio has been used to clean up toxic waste, organize migrant farmworkers, clean up after Hurricane Katrina and get community and musicians exposed.” Though the stations are only allowed to broadcast at 100 watts of power, for a range of three to 10 miles, they can be a powerful organizing tool precisely because their small power and range makes them “hyper-local,” Smith explained. As newspapers continue to decline and digital media become more important, Smith said, LPFM will be an important community tool to reach a large but still localized audience.

It’s not quite clear just how soon the new LPFM stations will become a reality. According to Smith, the FCC isn’t expected to publish the actual applications for licenses until spring 2012, and would-be LPFM broadcasters will have only a three- to four-month “window” before the application deadline on June 7, 2012. Smith warned that, despite the optimistic predictions of Activist San Diego (ASD) radio general manager Kelly Barnes and others that San Diego could get four to five LPFM licenses, “we’re not sure” how many opportunities there will be because “the FCC hasn’t issued the rules yet.” He said “it’s important that groups with similar ideals work together now … because the FCC could block the licenses for years or make you time-share at awkward hours.”

One person in the meeting said he had logged on to a Web site that purported to identify potential LPFM sites and had got back the discouraging news that there would be at most just one possible station in San Diego – and it would be located in University City/Miramar, away from the city’s population center and far from the progressive communities south of interstate 8. Smith said that the site this person had looked up “won’t give you any false positives but it does give you false negatives. The FCC doesn’t have the rules yet and we won’t know where the opportunities are until January.” He pointed out that the FCC had extended the comment period during which people can write them with input on the proposed rules, and urged people to write them to demand rules that will allow San Diego to have up to five LPFM stations.

One of the announced speakers at the meeting was Makeda Cheatom, director of the World Beat Center in Balboa Park and host of a reggae program on commercial radio in San Diego for 30 years. (It now streams on the Internet at Because of her radio experience and the World Beat Center’s roots in and outreach to the African-American community, her organization is expected to be a front-runner for an LPFM station in San Diego. Cheatom arrived only at the end of the meeting – she’d been in Mexico earlier in the day and had got stuck at the border – but Jesse, a volunteer with her group, gave a presentation for her emphasizing the need to use LPFM to reach out to immigrants and communities of color.

“There are so many immigrant communities here,” Jesse explained. “San Diego is a really vibrant city culturally, but it remains one of the most conservative cities politically. So many people don’t have a voice, and in the Right-wing media they’re reported as poor people who can’t get their shit together. We need to get their content to the airwaves so people who don’t go to the World Beat Center can fnd out what’s going on. We want to be a platform for people to stand on. We want people who are like-minded who are about communities, especially the African-American and African immigrant communities. We have Ethiopians, Somalians, Sudanese and other communities from Africa, and right now they don’t have any media outlets.”

Attorney Art Neill, director of the local New Media Rights coalition, explained the concept of “Creative Commons” licensing and how it works as an alternative to traditional copyright law. He explained that the “Creative Commons” concept was originally devised by independent software writers and engineers, who realized “that traditional copyright didn’t really apply to software.” As an alternative to commercial software from companies like Microsoft, they started writing programs of their own – and posting the code for them on the Internet so others could examine the programs, improve them and offer fixes for any bugs they might contain. “Five to 10 years ago,” Neill said, “people decided that maybe they wanted to share their content as well” and allow others to modify it or create new (so-called “derivative”) works based on it without the hassle of licensing and the expense of paying royalties.

Creative Commons is a sometimes confusing concept because there isn’t just one Creative Commons license, Neill explained. Instead there are six alternatives, all available online, which differ mainly in terms of which rights the creator keeps control over and how much he or she allows others to reuse or share the work. Some Creative Commons licenses allow for unlimited reuse, some require that the original creator be given credit, and some allow for noncommercial reuse only. Playwright Charles Mee allows other writers and acting companies to create works based on his plays, but he retains traditional copyrights so that anyone performing one of his scripts exactly as he wrote it has to license it and pay him royalties.

Neill said that Creative Commons offered LPFM stations an alternative to having to pay the high licensing fees charged by companies like the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), which between them control virtually all the music heard on commercial radio. “You can find music and content you can reuse,” Neill said, either by dealing directly with local artists and asking for permission to play their songs for free, or logging onto Web sites that already offer Creative Commons music that can be downloaded and played on the air or on other Web sites.

Kelly Barnes spoke both for Activist San Diego — whose own radio project, a full-power nonprofit educational station in the Descanso/Julian area, isn’t part of the LPFM movement but will probably operate much like an LPFM station – and also for Open Media City Heights, whose proprietor, Brian Meyers, recently ran a streaming audio service covering the City Heights area with LPFM-style radio content. When Meyers had to give up this project because the Media Arts Center hired him for a full-time job, he donated his equipment to ASD to set up their own radio streaming project, both to get their content online as soon as possible and to offer a preview of what the Descanso station, KNSJ, will broadcast once it goes on the air in late 2012 or early 2013.

“ASD has a strong local identity,” Barnes said. “The vision is to build the local capacity for radio with 1,000 content producers. We would like to be both a vessel and a training program.” One of Barnes’ priorities is to demystify radio production and teach people how simple it is to create radio shows with everyday equipment. When California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 48, the law requiring California public middle and high schools to teach the contributions of Queer people, Pacific Islanders and people with disabilities, Barnes and this reporter did a one-minute radio segment, recording an interview on Barnes’ smart phone which she later edited using open-source software. The result was picked up by the Free Speech Radio Network and aired on over 1,000 noncommercial radio stations and Web sites.

S. Brian Willson Speaks in San Diego

Legendary Peace Activist Offers Critique of “Civilization”


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


Because of what he was doing the day he lost his legs — September 1, 1987, in Concord, California, when he was run over by a train he and his fellow activists were trying to stop before it could deliver arms to Right-wing governments and private armies in Central America — and his involvement in the Veterans for Peace organization, most people who’ve heard of S. Brian Willson think of him as an anti-war activist. But he’s considerably more than that. At his most recent San Diego appearance September 4 to promote his book, a combination autobiography and work of political philosophy called Blood on the Tracks, Willson presented a far-reaching critique of so-called “human civilization” and suggested it’s all been downhill since the Neolithic period, when economic scarcity forced humans to live in small communities and share equally with each other.

Willson was born on July 4, 1941 in Geneva in upstate New York. He was an unquestioning patriot — he still has a drawing he did as a boy of himself in a Fourth of July parade — until March 1969, when his U.S. Air Force unit was sent to Viet Nam. “We landed at Binh Thuy airbase in the Mekong Delta,” Willson said. “We were there to protect the airbase from being attacked.” With Richard Nixon recently sworn in as president and committed to a process of “Viet Namization” of the war — in which U.S. forces would remain simply to “train” the local troops — the mission of Willson and his unit quickly expanded.

“One month after I got there, I was asked by the Viet Namese base commander to go with one of his officers,” Willson recalled. “We had just given them a whole new fleet of fighter-bombers and we were going to be upping the body count. He had heard that the VC (Viet Cong) were infiltrating pilots who were sabotaging the bombing missions. I found the targets of the missions were inhabited farming villages. The first village I went to, the Viet Namese lieutenant went with me, and when there was smoke coming through the grass, he said to stop. The first thing I heard was cries of pain from a burning water buffalo, and when I turned around all I saw were bodies.”

Willson’s consciousness registered not only the cruelty of the attacks on civilians but also their military pointlessness. “This was midday, and the VC were only active at night,” he explained. “I started walking to my left, and soon I couldn’t walk any further because the bodies were too densely packed on the ground. I looked at a young woman holding three children, all blackened by napalm. They were dead, but their eyes were open. The napalm had melted their eyelids.”

According to Willson, he tried to report to his superiors that the raids were “a war crime and a violation of our rules of engagement,” and got exactly nowhere. “They laughed,” he recalled. “They said, ‘There are no rules of war,’ and they’re right.” When he was finally discharged from the Air Force, he returned to law school and actually got to be an attorney — only he lasted just two weeks because his body refused to allow him to stand when the judge entered the courtroom. “I left the courtroom after two weeks and never looked back,” he said. “It was a blessing that I didn’t have a career.”

In the 1970’s, Willson said, “my focus was criminology and the brutality of the U.S. justice system. For a while the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee even paid me to do that. Then I had a psychotic flashback in 1981. I thought I had escaped the psychological issues of Viet Nam veterans, and then in 1981 I was working for a Massachusetts state senator investigating brutality at Walpole State Prison. I was right at the end of a study after almost 12 months. I was at the end of a cell block, interviewing prisoners through a little hole in my cell door. It was about 5 p.m. and the guards had gone through a staff change and had either forgotten I was in there or didn’t care. I saw two guards stomp on a prisoner and hit him with billy clubs, and at that moment I flashed back. I immediately left my interview and took the briefcase with me when I staggered out of the cell block because I was stepping over bodies on the runway — or at least that’s what my brain was perceiving.”

After a long period of recovery — “a lot of therapy, rap groups and being the director of a veterans’ center in Massachusetts before I was diagnosed with my own PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder) — Willson got involved in the Central American solidarity movement of the 1980’s. The movement sought to protect the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from the rebel attacks by U.S.-backed contras and also to help people in Guatemala and El Salvador protect themselves against repressive and often openly brutal U.S.-supported governments.

In 1986 Willson and three comrades started the Veterans’ Fast for Peace on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. “The fast was 47 days,” he said. “It did not seem to be causing that much consternation to the Reagan administration, but there were 500 solidarity actions across the country. We were placed on a terrorist watch list.” It was that label, Willson said — plus the solidarity trips to Nicaragua and Cuba he took later in 1987 — that got him on a government hit list and led to what he believes was a deliberate attempt to murder him by train on September 1, 1987.

The Five Blips in History

Willson regards himself as a “recovering white male” and says that “we are the products of five blips in history.” The first, he said, was humanity’s development of agriculture, which meant for the first time that human communities could produce more than they needed for their immediate survival. This meant, Willson said, that “we decided we were not part of nature,” but rather something apart and entitled to rule over nature.

According to Willson, agriculture also made it possible for humans to amass what economists call a “surplus,” which meant that the work of the many could be used to support a handful of non-working few at the top of the social order. This, Willson explained, led to “what we call ‘civilization,’ vertical, hierarchical, patriarchal societies built on militarism and a class structure from which we have never recovered.”

The second “blip” Willson described was the “Eurocentric conquest, from 1500 to now, in which 20 percent of the world plundered the other 80 percent, including dispossessing the native tribes and capturing Africans to be chattel slaves. These blips shaped our thoughts, structures and values.” The third “blip” was the industrial revolution, which Willson said started with “the use of coal to speed up transportation and manufacturing.”

The fourth blip was “the oil blip of the last 150 years, in which we took one-half the earth’s entire carbon supply out of the ground and put it in the air, water and soil, and sped up agriculture and manufacturing.” The fifth and most recent blip was “the American middle class,” Willson said — particularly in the 1950’s, when, flush with victory after World War II, we “sped up consumption and promised ourselves a wonderful life. I have for some time realized that I am recovering from that whole process.”

Willson said some things at his presentation, sponsored by the local progressive organization Activist San Diego, that may have shocked even his friendly audience. He said flat-out that people should not vote or participate in the electoral system in any way, on the ground that it only validates an essentially inhuman system. Asked about the ability of people outside the U.S. to admire Americans as people even while opposing the policies of our government, Willson said they shouldn’t let us off the hook that way. “I see ourselves as much more complicit than they do,” he said. “No power structure can function without the consent of the people.”

What Willson wants to see is the U.S. people turning out in the streets in massive numbers and withdrawing that consent. He’s organizing people around the country for an action starting October 6, what he calls a “U.S. Autumn” — analogous to the “Arab Spring” — in which people will go to Washington, D.C., occupy its buildings and streets, and refuse to leave. “The friends I know are buying one-way tickets,” Willson said, “ and I know if I go to that action I’m not planning to do anything else for a long time. It’s about arrest or risking arrest, injury or death. I have to be willing to do that.”


Gay Adoptee’s Memoir Becoming Patrick Describes Search for His Birth Parents


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


Who am I? Who are my parents? Where did I come from? When, where and how was I born? Most of us take the answers to these questions for granted. But it’s not so easy if you were adopted. Then, as Patrick McMahon née Shields found out when he got the legal records of his adoption from his adoptive mother in 1990 and decided to use them to start a search for his birth mother, he was told by a “nasally bureaucrat” at the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, that “all adoption records, including original birth certificates, are impounded, it costs hundreds of dollars to try to get them, and that rarely happens, only under the most dire of circumstances.”

Finding that the authentic record of his birth was treated as if it were a state secret whose revelation would jeopardize national security was just the first of many amazing, infuriating and ultimately exhilarating things that happened to McMahon on his two-year search for his true origins. He details the story in his new self-published book Becoming Patrick, whose title references the fact that when he decided to search for his birth family he also abandoned the first name “Pat” and insisted on using the long form of his given name.

Patrick McMahon shouldn’t have had to publish his book himself. By rights he should have been able to place it with a major publisher and go on Oprah to promote it. It’s an extraordinarily well-written combination of self-discovery memoir, suspense thriller, soap opera and wrenching reunion story. As a writer, McMahon knows when to comment ironically on his tale and when to get out of its way and just let the story tell itself in clear, succinct language. A multi-media artist — he majored in music at San Francisco State University and also is a photographer and sculptor — and an openly Gay man with an unusual relationship history that also becomes part of his book, McMahon is a fascinating character whose memoir will touch the heart of anyone who’s been adopted or dealt with the sense that one or both of their parents never really wanted them.

Becoming Patrick can be ordered online from McMahon’s Web site, He can be contacted via e-mail at

Zenger’s: When did you first realize you were adopted? It’s not quite clear from the book whether your adoptive mom actually told you, or you overheard it and then she told you. How old were you when you found out for sure, and how did you find out?

Patrick McMahon: The truth is I really don’t remember being told. I don’t ever remember not knowing I was adopted. My mother started reading me a book called The Chosen Baby, probably when I was four or five years old, and that book explained adoption in the way books did back in the 1960’s. I don’t really remember not knowing I was adopted, but I don’t remember a big “aha!” moment of being told as well.

Zenger’s: So she was reading you that book, and explaining that it applied to you.

McMahon: Right. In the book, Mr. and Mrs. Brown go to see Mrs. White, who has a baby for them; and later has another baby for them, which is how they explained my little brother when he came along. That’s the book she read to him as well, and it seemed to work.

Zenger’s: Even though your brother came from another Mrs. White.

McMahon: Yes, exactly.

Zenger’s: You say that you really only got the idea to do the search for your birth parents in your early 30’s. What triggered it?

McMahon: I grew up in a household that had some alcoholism. My adoptive father became an alcoholic, a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde alcoholic. There was a lot of turmoil in the house off and on. I was a quiet, shy, reserved child for the most part. My little brother got to be the acting-out clown and rebel. But, anyway, I didn’t want to cause trouble for my mother, who was sort of my protector from my father when I needed.

So if there was any question or thought about adoption, it never really came to the surface for me. I buried it, because I thought it might cause problems or get somebody upset — either get my mother upset at me, or get my parents upset at each other, one of the two. Then I got into high school and college and was pretty much living my life. My friends were probably more curious about where I came from than I was, at that time. I just professed not to have any interest in it.

Then, in my late 20’s, I really started to deal with the dysfunctional family stuff. I started going to Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) meetings and digging into all that dysfunctional family stuff. After doing that for a few years, I started seeing a therapist because I still wasn’t feeling quite right in the world. I was struggling with a sense of belonging, and some intimacy issues, not feeling connected, not having much direction in life.

So I ended up getting into therapy, and the therapist would bring up the adoption piece over and over. And I kept putting it down. I would put it away and say, “No, I’m not interested.” But finally, after about a year or two, she convinced me that not knowing one single thing about where I come from might have an impact in how I see the world now and how I interact with the world. So she finally convinced me that I needed to know more.

Zenger’s: How did that interact with your coming out as a Gay man? This may be the only memoir I’ve ever read by an openly Gay author that doesn’t contain the coming-out story, right?

McMahon: That’s true. I briefly mentioned going into a Gay bar for the first time at 21. That was really my coming-out time. I was dealing with being Gay a lot earlier, and I think that may have also influenced putting the adoption stuff in the background for a while, because I think when you come out as Gay first, you spend a lot of time coming to terms with that, forming your identity as a Gay person. If you’re going to move to a Gay ghetto first, then you do that. Or if you’re going to get involved in Gay rights groups, then you do that. That may be part of why I waited longer to deal with the adoption stuff.

Zenger’s: What was the actual trigger that set you off on the quest for your birth parents?

McMahon: I think it came in two stages. One was getting the adoption decree and all the documents from my adoptive mother for the first time, and holding those documents in my hand and reading the story of my adoption, and hearing the story of my adoption for the first time. I had never asked my adoptive mother for any details of what happened when I was adopted. She told me the story, and it was such an intriguing story because there were neighbors involved, and it was a private adoption [rather than through an adoption agency].

My birth parents’ names were on the decree, because it was a private adoption. That’s very unusual. Usually birth parents’ names are not in the documents that are executed by the state or by agencies. So having all that information, I don’t think I really quite doubted that I would search. But it took about a month for me to say, “Really, this is never going to be enough.” I reached a point where I thought, “I’m never going to be satisfied with just this information. I need to know a lot more.” So I decided to search.

Zenger’s: The story you tell in the book is almost like a suspense novel: this clue leading to that clue. At one point you actually compare yourself to the character of Jason Bourne, who was trying to find out his own identity.

McMahon: Exactly. I actually read all those books when they first came out. I was very familiar with Robert Ludlum and Jason Bourne and all of those hidden-identity kinds of characters. I really identified with them way back when, even though I wasn’t quite sure why. It hadn’t got settled in why I was identifying so well with all of that until I got started into this search.

Zenger’s: I think one of the most powerful aspects of the story is that you found out a lot of people in your birth family were also alcoholics, so you couldn’t watch your adoptive dad and think, “He’s not my blood. I don’t have to worry about this.”

McMahon: Yes, that was a big shocker. I found out that out in the first phone call with my birth mother. That was one of the main things I wasn’t prepared to hear. I’d done my high-school and early-20’s sort of partying, thinking that I wasn’t genetically predisposed to my adoptive father’s alcoholism. So that was a bit of a shock, and of course I re-examined my relationship to alcohol after that.

But I also found out that the sister, my biological sister whom I did not grow up with, whom I’m very much like, has not struggled with alcoholism, and neither have I. It seemed as if there are two strains of genetics, as far as alcoholism goes, in the family. One of the brothers in my birth family was in A.A. also, and I think one of my sisters has had her struggles as well. So that shattered some illusions.

Zenger’s: You mentioned relationship issues, and there are a lot of interesting tales in the book. You describe yourself as being in at least two long-distance affairs, and I was thinking, apropos the old joke of, “Why don’t you find a nice girl and settle down?” “Because I’m Gay.” “Well, in that case, why don’t you find a nice boy and settle down?” You seem to have no particular problem finding the nice boys; it’s that you have a great deal of trouble settling down!

McMahon: Settling down, exactly. It was a turbulent time of life for me. The quest for my birth family really was the emotional priority of my life. During the first part of the search I was dating a guy I had dated for a year, and during the search I really realized that he wasn’t able to go with me at all, emotionally, on this journey. Not that I expected him to be able to understand everything, but I just realized that I wasn’t feeling as close to him as I thought I should have been at that point in time.

So I did break that relationship off, and then I met somebody else who seemed to be a lot more emotionally available, and did get a lot of this stuff, but was moving to another city somewhere. At the time I was off to L.A. to meet my birth family — I moved from Kansas City to L.A. just to meet my birth family — and so I was really happy to have any kind of support going in a relationship. We kept that long-distance thing going for as long as we could, which was actually about two and one-half years. And if you want to know the rest of the story, we lost touch for about 15 years and reconnected a couple of years ago.

Zenger’s: I think one of the really powerful things about this book is that anyone who reads it who has any unresolved issues with their own family, it’s going to bring them up.

McMahon: The thing about being adopted is that until you find your birth mother and your birth family, nothing fully makes sense. Once I found my birth family and discovered all these things about my mother and my father, a lot of things fell into place that really didn’t have a way of falling into place before.

For example, my two mothers are completely different people. My adoptive mother is a very strong, stoic woman who got our family through some really tough times, but is not terribly emotional. We don’t talk about deeply emotional things. We have a good relationship, but she’s a little bit reserved in some ways. And then my birth mother is a very, very emotional, expressive kind of person, and will tell you anything that’s on her mind.

So it kind of explains how sometimes, until I’m comfortable with somebody, I can be a little reserved. But once I cross that barrier of getting comfortable with somebody, then I think I’m very open and very expressive.

Zenger’s: So what do you think finding your birth mother did for you?

McMahon: Well, finding her, meeting her and meeting all the rest of the family really totally changed my life. If anybody asked me before I actually met them why I had searched, I would have said things that a lot of people say: I was looking for my medical history, or my ethnic background, or I was looking for answers to questions like how did all this happen, why did it happen, who was involved, all that sort of thing.

But I think when I actually met them and hugged my mother, and talked to her, and sat at a kitchen table with her and talked and talked and talked, I felt this feeling of connection and belonging I had never felt before. It’s just kind of a feeling in your gut. I grew up in an adoptive family that loved me, and I loved them, but this was a new feeling. It was something that became treasured, and I think it connected me to a sense of naturalness inside.

It’s sort of like a big exhale, in a way. Part of you that’s been tense all your life can just relax. And once you do that, you start relaxing into other things. I started forming different kinds of friendships as a result, maybe a little more authentic sometimes, and going into a more authentic type of work. I’d always been into photography, done photography, but years after I met my family I started working in photography and started writing and doing things that really felt more natural to me. I also used that photography to develop greeting cards and calendars that have to do with adoption. I started going to national conferences, doing workshops and speaking on the subject.

So it really changed my life pretty dramatically. In fact, I pretty much divide my life into before June 10, 1991 and after June 10, 1991, the day that I called my mother.

Zenger’s: One thing I noticed in the book is that your adoptive mother really started feeling ­— the word that came to my mind, even though you didn’t use it, was jealous. How did that work out in your relationship with her, that you were looking for this other mother? Did she go through the thing of, “Hey, I was the one who raised you, I changed your diapers, I sent you to school, I put food on the table, and you’re going halfway across the country just to be with this other woman whose only connection with you is you popped out of her womb?”

McMahon: She never said any of those things to me, but I imagined her saying all of those things to me at one point in time or another. There were times when I was feeling very concerned about how she was handling this, and I was dealing with what seemed like a very irrational terror of my adoptive mother walking away, or disowning me, or not being able to handle this.

I would have these fantasies that that was what she would say. She never did. She was what I would call passively supportive during the search. She didn’t ask a lot of questions, but I wanted her to know what was going on. I didn’t want this to be a secret or anything like that, and when she realized it was really going to happen, then she became more interested.

Zenger’s: As I recall, that was about the same reaction she had when you came out to her as Gay: passively supportive.

McMahon: Yes, I guess so. She didn’t ask a lot of questions about my lifestyle or anything like that. We would talk a little bit, but she really wouldn’t initiate too much on any of those subjects. Over the years, though, she became more comfortable with it.

The book itself only covers about a year after I find my mother and meet all these people, but the story kept unfolding for years and years afterwards. My two mothers eventually did meet, and they were together four times over the past couple decades. They were able to say things to each other that I think they needed to say to each other. But, like I said, they’re like night and day. They’re not going to be buddies. They exchange Christmas cards, and that’s fine.

Zenger’s: You’ve talked about meeting other adoptees. Have you ever met people who said, “Well, if that’s what you needed to do, fine, but I don’t know and I don’t want to know”?
McMahon: I meet people like that all the time, of course. I would say the great majority of adoptees don’t search, and don’t seem to want to. I totally respect that. I understand it, and if anybody had asked me that question before I was 32 I would have been one of those people.
I guess what I’d say about that is it was really one of the most emotionally difficult things I’ve ever done, and to undertake that kind of a task one has to really be ready and want it badly, because it’s going to shake up your life and it’s going to occupy your life for a period of time. My own adoptive brother has not searched. He has seen me go through all of this for the last 20 years and he still doesn’t see any need to find his birth mother. So it’s a very individual, personal thing.
I will say that it’s hard for me to believe that anybody that knows absolutely nothing about where they come from doesn’t have somewhere deep inside them a need to know something, or has questions about that. But I can certainly understand somebody saying that they don’t feel the need to search, because they’re not ready or they just don’t have that need inside them.

Zenger’s: And if someone came up to you and asked the question, “Should I or shouldn’t I?,” what would you say?

McMahon: I would say, “Well, if you’re thinking about it at all, you should probably explore it. If you’re asking me this question, then it means you’re thinking about it, and I think you should look more into why you’re thinking about it, and what your needs are for connection and family.”

I will say that many adoptees I know who have searched have not found particularly happy situations, or have met with some rejection from their birth mothers or families. But I would say that about 98, 99 percent of all the people I know who have searched don’t regret it, because they gain a lot of knowledge about where they come from and often they connect with other people in their birth families, like a cousin or an aunt or an uncle, and they form relationships that are valuable to them.

Zenger’s: Yes, one of my favorite people in the book is the woman who found her birth mother and found she’s a hopeless, derelict alcoholic, but she loves her anyway.

McMahon: Yes, Safia. Yes, that’s an inspiring story, isn’t it? It was amazing. And that was the first story I heard!

Zenger’s: One thing I noticed in a way that your story is very dated. It occurs before the Internet. Do you think it’s easier now to do a birth parent search now that the Internet is available?

McMahon: Oh, it’s infinitely easier to find birth parents, because with the Internet, Facebook, all the social media, there are lots of people out there who do these types of searches, sometimes for a very small fee. Some people try to charge a very large fee, which I don’t recommend anyone paying because these days you can find people to help you for very little money.

But there’s almost a problem with that now, because sometimes people will say, “I would like to search.” They will approach a searcher, give them their information, and the searcher will locate their birth mother in two days. And sometimes people aren’t emotionally ready to proceed that soon. Sometimes they jump in a little too quickly, because it really helps to find some support group before you jump into this, and work out what it is that you’re looking for, and prepare yourself emotionally for all the different things that could happen, and talk to the people who have been through it.

So I think the quickness of the searching these days is a good thing in a lot of ways, but in other ways it doesn’t allow people enough time to prepare.

Zenger’s: One thing that struck me in the very beginning of the book, that you found that your birth record had been “impounded,” that there was this heavy veil of secrecy, that your true origins were treated like a matter of national security. I was wondering if any of the changes of the laws relating to adoptions, the availability of open adoption as an alternative, had changed that so that future adoptees won’t go through that kind of traumatic experience that you did, at a time when the law really did try to draw the line and say, as the decree in your case did, that from then on the people who were adopting you were your parents, period.

McMahon: Unfortunately the laws have not changed that much in the last 20 years. There’s been some progress made, but there are still 40 states in the United States that do not allow an adult who was adopted to access their original birth certificate. Ever. I mean, they can be 80 years old and still not be allowed to go down to the Department of Vital Records and see the actual true birth certificate of their live birth.

These laws were all passed back in the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s by all the states, eventually — except for two. Two states never closed their records: Kansas and Alaska. But all the other states closed their records because they were supposedly protecting the legitimacy of the child. They didn’t want the child to be billed as an illegitimate child. Obviously, times have changed and we don’t really need those protections anymore. And also, because of the Internet, people can find anybody, any time they like, pretty much.

These laws don’t make much sense. However, I’ve been involved in four different legislative efforts over the last 14 years in two different states, Illinois and California, and I was just amazed at how much resistance there was.

Zenger’s: Where’s the resistance coming from?

McMahon: The resistance is coming from a variety of people. The resistance is coming from the Catholic Church. There’s Catholic Charities, which is a very large adoption organization, and they feel like they’re compromising the confidentiality they supposedly promised women who were relinquishing children. However, in all my years of this activism, I have never seen one document that promised confidentiality to a birth parent. No one has been able to produce one. They claim that it was implied.

Right-to-life groups often oppose access to original birth certificates for adult adoptees because they think it will increase abortion rates: that some woman will say, “Well, if my child can find me in 18 years, then I’d better not do this. I’d better just have an abortion instead.” That’s their reasoning. However, abortion rates in the states that do have open access are actually lower. The statistics don’t support that at all.

Resistance comes from the Mormon Church, because they have very rigid ways in which they view the adoptees that come into Mormon families. The family they came from is pretty much wiped out from their history. I guess they’re afraid that if Mormon adoptees go back and reconnect with their birth families, that will be upsetting their lineage.

Adoption attorneys sometimes oppose these efforts because they think that it will somehow reduce the amount of business for them. I hate to say it, but adoption is a big billion-dollar industry in the United States, and it’s a for-profit industry, except in Illinois, which is the only state that has outlawed for-profit adoption. So anyone who perceives that they’re going to lose income somewhere along the line is going to oppose anything they think will do that. And a lot of people think that adults who are adopted having access to their original birth certificates is somehow going to lower the number of people who are relinquishing children.

Zenger’s: You’re sitting there saying, “Oh, the Catholic Charities, the right-to-life groups, the Mormon Church,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, it’s a laundry list of the Gay community’s enemies as well.”

McMahon: Yes, but strangely enough, in New Jersey they’d been trying to do this for 30 years. They’ve put bills forward for 30 years in a row, and this last year they finally got a compromise bill put through, and one of their opponents was the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), strangely enough, because “privacy” is a real buzzword for the ACLU, and when that came up the ACLU decided that they needed to protect the “privacy” of birth parents, even though they weren’t specifically implied and even though the statistics show that 95 percent of all birth parents are open to contact from their children. It’s not a national policy of the ACLU. It was just that particular ACLU chapter that took that position.

But seven or eight states have now passed laws which do allow adults who were adopted access to their original birth certificates, and there’s plenty of statistics now that show, gee, no earth-shattering effects have occurred. No adoptees have become stalkers, and adoption rates have not gone down. Abortion rates have not gone up.

Like I say, 95 to 98 percent of birth parents who express a preference are open to contact, so ultimately I think it’s a business thing that is a lot of the resistance. And a lot of fear among adoptive parents, and among adoptive-parent organizations, that somehow if their children reconnect with their biological families, they’re going to lose their children. I think that also is an unfounded fear. In all of my years of meeting adoptees, I don’t think I’ve met one adoptee who has rejected their adoptive family in favor of their birth family without any provocation from their adoptive family.

Just because they’ve reconnected with their birth families, they don’t leave their adoptive families. It’s an unwarranted fear. I get pretty worked up about this issue, as you can tell. I have been out there protesting, and I’ve organized marches, so yes, I feel pretty strongly about it.

Zenger’s: You’re active so that future generations of adopted children shouldn’t have to work as hard as you did.

McMahon: Yes, absolutely. And you brought up open adoption. The great majority of adoptions these days do have some degree of openness or knowledge between the families. So, effectively, this is all going to go away in a generation or two anyway. But there are still six million adoptees in the United States, and many of us want to know, want to have the same legal access to the true information of our births as everybody else does.

And in a way, it’s like being treated like a second-class citizen. The government still thinks of us as children, that we can’t handle having our records, or we can’t work out these relationships that might result with our birth families in a way that the state doesn’t need to be involved.