Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Year of Crash and Burn

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org

If nothing else, 2013 will go down in history as a year that showed up just how silly the whole notion of punditry is. People read columns like this in hopes that the people writing them have some special wisdom that will not only explain to them what’s happening in politics now but what’s likely to happen in the future. Often we’re as clueless as anyone else. As Doyle McManus recently admitted in the Los Angeles Times, at this time last year he was expecting President Obama to be able to take full advantage of his resounding re-election victory and the Republicans in Congress to moderate their opposition and maybe even work with him to get things done.
Instead, the big news of 2013 is the systematic frustration of virtually all Obama’s ambitions by a Republican Party dominated by a highly ideological Right wing bent on making a revolution. Don’t believe what you sometimes read about “divisions” in the Republican Party between a supposedly moderate old-line business wing and the zealots of the Tea Party. The GOP is firmly united in its determination to return America to the robber-baron age of the 1880’s, when American politics was frankly aimed at making the rich richer and ignoring the effect of that on everyone else. The Republicans in Congress want ultimately to eliminate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance and the rest of America’s meager attempt at building a social welfare state. They also want to abolish all taxes on corporations, all regulations on business and all laws protecting labor and the environment. The so-called “business Republican” and “Tea Party” factions differ only on how fast they want to do all that.
That’s the reason for the unified Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare” — even though it’s based on ideas first cooked up by the Right-wing Heritage Foundation and first put into practice by Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts. It’s not that they’re upset over any particular aspect of Obamacare, or that they give a damn whether it’s working or not — though snafus like the botched launch of the healthcare.gov Web site and Obama’s inability to keep his promise that if you liked your current health insurance, you’d get to keep it are godsends to the Republicans in their never-ending quest to make the law look bad. No, the reason they hate it so much and have voted to repeal it — what is it now, 46 times? — is that Obamacare promises a major expansion of the social welfare state at a time when the Republican Party is committed to abolishing the welfare state altogether.
No issue in 2013 showed off the perils of punditry better than Obamacare. When the Republicans in Congress managed to get the government shut down through most of October, the move was so wildly unpopular that the punditry en masse proclaimed that the GOP had rendered itself irrelevant and the Democrats would be able to keep their Senate majority and win back the House of Representatives just by showing up. Then the Obamacare Web site had its disastrous launch — and the same so-called “experts” were declaring it the doom of the Obama presidency and telling us it was now a lead-pipe cinch that Republicans will hold on to the House in 2014, grab control of the Senate and make the last two years of the Obama administration a living hell for him. If anything, the successive failures from both parties have sent both the President’s and Congress’s poll ratings down — the President’s to the worst levels of Obama’s term and Congress’s to the worst levels ever.
In other countries where the two major parties have so disgraced themselves, from Germany in the early 1930’s to Venezuela in the 1980’s, the result has often been the emergence of a charismatic leader outside the major parties winning popular support and setting himself up as a dictator. As much as political activists in general and progressive activists in particular like to bemoan the entrenched nature of the Republican and Democratic parties — including the ways they’ve written U.S. elections law to make organizing any other party a colossal waste of time — and the general apathy and political cluelessness of much of the American population, those may be the only things saving us from a Right or Left dictatorship in the near future.
Locally, 2013 will be remembered as the year of Bob Filner’s spectacular crash and burn as mayor of San Diego. It’s hard to imagine what’s most bizarre about that story: that Filner, a hero to progressive San Diegans for over 30 years, should have been laid low by a character flaw that, as described by woman after woman who appeared in the local media, approaches an insane compulsion; or that the lead in attacking him was taken, not by his political opposition, but by activists in his own party who declared war on him in a press conference with the fury of medieval witchhunters.
It was a story that hit me particularly hard because I ended up permanently disillusioned about two people who had been longtime heroes of mine. Bob Filner, whom I’d thought of as a fearless progressive crusader whose arrogance at least came with the territory of fighting for the right causes, was revealed as at worst a sexual compulsive with a warped view of women and at best an insensitive boor. And his principal accuser, Donna Frye, came off as Cotton Mather in drag, out not merely to drive him from office but consign him to the worst circle in hell without a trace of compassion for what clearly, if the allegations against Filner are true, is a mental illness.
Whether 2013 was a good year for Queer rights depends on where you live. If you’re in the U.S. or western Europe, the answer was definitely yes: the number of states allowing same-sex couples to marry zoomed up from 10 at the start of 2013 to 18 by its end — including, of all places, Utah, where a federal judge found the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional on grounds of equal protection and — unlike Vaughan Walker in California in 2010 — did not “stay” (i.e., delay) his own decision to give the state a chance to appeal. (Remember that Utah is also the state which in 1890 had to be forced by the threat of a federal invasion to limit its legal recognition of marriage to one man and only one woman.)
While it wasn’t the sweeping Loving v. Virginia-style ruling Queer marriage advocates were hoping for, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule in June that the provision of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DoMA) — passed in 1996 by a Republican-dominated Congress and signed into a law by a Democratic President, Bill Clinton — limiting federal recognition of marriage to unions of one man and one woman was unconstitutional. What’s more, they ruled against it on the correct grounds; instead of saying that the federal law was an imposition on the historic right of states to define marriage for themselves, they said it violated the equal protection rights of same-sex couples who live in states where they can legally marry. That makes it likely that when they get a case challenging the other half of DoMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states, the Supremes will throw that out too.
And by deciding that the proponents of California’s anti-marriage Proposition 8 didn’t have standing to defend it in court once the government of California had refused to do so, the Supreme Court brought marriage equality back to the nation’s largest state. No longer are my husband Charles and I an orphan couple, given “special rights” because we married during the five-month “window” between the time the California Supreme Court’s pro-marriage decision became effective in June 2008 and the passage of Prop. 8 five months later. It’s true that this rationale could be a double-edged sword for progressives; one could readily imagine the voters of California passing a Colorado-style initiative legalizing marijuana for all uses, the state government refusing to defend it against a federal lawsuit and its supporters having the same lack of rights as those behind Prop. 8. But I’ll take my victories where I can get them, thank you.
At the same time as being Queer has become easier in the U.S. and Western Europe, though, it’s become considerably harder in the rest of the world. Legislatures in Russia and Uganda have passed tough new laws not only upping the penalties for same-sex relations but making it a crime even to advocate for Queer rights. In India, an astonishing decision by their Supreme Court ruled that their legislature didn’t have the right to repeal the anti-Queer law their British colonizers stuck them with in the 1890’s. Ironically, countries like India, Uganda and the Navajo Nation here in the U.S. — all places whose indigenous traditions either said nothing about homosexuality either way or, as with the Navajos, actually revered what they called “two-spirit” people — have learned the lessons of repressive 19th century Christianity all too well and regard their anti-Queer laws as defiance of their former colonizers.
When Russian president Vladimir Putin, defending his country’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics, promised that no Queer athletes would be harmed if they came to participate in the Games, I couldn’t help but remember the similar pledge Adolf Hitler made to Jewish athletes to get them to participate in the 1936 Olympics. (That year, both the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in Germany.) As far as I know, Hitler kept that promise … but we all know what he and his Nazi government did to the Jews after that.
Globally, 2013 was also a year of crash and burn. We saw the hopes of the “Arab Spring” two years ago systematically extinguished in Egypt. For all the talk about the revolution and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship showing the triumph of non-hierarchical “leaderless” movements, the old hierarchies quickly resumed control. Mubarak was replaced by one of his fellow generals, who was replaced by Mohammed Morsi of the hierarchical Muslim Brotherhood movement, who was overthrown by … you guessed it, generals again. Now the Egyptian people are suffering worse repression than anything they endured under Mubarak, with political protesters and journalists not only being arrested but given stiff prison sentences.
In Syria, the so-called “moderate” rebels are rapidly losing ground, and the Syrian people are faced with a Hobson’s choice between continued repression under Bashir al-Assad and a rebel army aligned with al-Qaeda that seeks to impose a Taliban-style theocracy. The Taliban themselves are almost certain to be the ultimate winners in the U.S.’s 12-year-old war in Afghanistan; a new national intelligence estimate from the U.S. government admits that almost as soon as the U.S. pulls out, the Taliban will take over again … just as the Communists took over in Viet Nam almost as soon as we withdrew from active combat in 1973 and pulled out our last military personnel two years later.
And yet there’s one bright spot in the Middle East, and it’s come from — of all countries — Iran. Hassan Rouhani somehow navigated the thickets of Iran’s theocratic politics and got himself elected Iran’s new president, and his first priority was to negotiate a peaceful settlement over Iran’s nuclear capability so he can get the sanctions against Iran lifted and start rebuilding the Iranian economy. As long as the rest of the world is willing to acknowledge Iran’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium — as long as they only enrich it to the 3 to 5 percent U-235 concentration for a civilian reactor rather than the 80 to 95 percent needed for a bomb — an agreement to end Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a real possibility.
Another bright spot is the replacement of the harshly judgmental Pope Benedict XVI — former head of the Office for the Defense and Propagation of the Faith, once known as the Holy Inquisition — with Francis I. Like Rouhani, Francis is responsible to a group of theologians who are far more conservative than he is, and they wouldn’t have elected him to run the church if he were going to order the church to ordain women as priests, acknowledge women’s rights to control their own bodies or drop the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. But what he’s done so far within the constraints he’s been under has been so amazing he’s been hailed as Man of the Year by such disparate publications as Time and the mainstream Queer magazine The Advocate. From taking his papal name from the patron saint of the poor to greeting a Gay man with the words, “Who am I to judge?,” to challenging the ascendancy of market idolatry and what he calls “unbridled capitalism,” Francis has been a breath of fresh air in a church that badly needed one.
Yet if I were to pick one individual as my Hero of the Year for 2013, it would be Edward Snowden. For the last 12 years the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States government has been keeping a record of virtually every telephone call made in this country, whether or not it involved a foreign resident (it’s the NSA’s charge to spy on foreigners, not Americans). They’ve consistently monitored everyone’s e-mails and Internet traffic, raising government snooping to a Big Brother level of which the agents of the Gestapo, KGB and Stasi could only have dreamed. They’ve eavesdropped on the private communications of world leaders of countries like Germany which presumably were our allies. They’ve probably done a lot more that we still don’t know about, but to the extent we do know these things, it’s due to one man: Edward Snowden.
Snowden has been called a traitor — and worse — for letting the American people know just how much information the government has collected on them and how blatantly they have acted in defiance of the Fourth Amendment, which in case you haven’t memorized the Bill of Rights says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” To my mind, he’s a hero, a truth-teller who, like Daniel Ellsberg and other legendary whistle-blowers of the past, has sacrificed to show us not only the foul things our government has done in our name but the deep contempt with which they regard us, either as sheep to be led or potentially dangerous bulls to be tamed. I dream of the day when Snowden, like Ellsberg, can return to the U.S. free of legal jeopardy, and walk proudly among the people he has so nobly served with his revelations about America’s utterly unscrupulous and conscience-less secret police.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Transgender Day of Remembrance Draws Over 300

Somber Event Features March Through Hillcrest, Program to Honor Victims of Anti-Trans Violence


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At the Center, prior to the march

Lighting the candles for the march

“Vibes watchers” helped keep order

Leading the march with the banner


Carrying the Transgender flag

Candi Samples, reigning Imperial Court Empress

Holding the flag

A Sister of Perpetual Indulgence

Flying the Trans flag from the Pride flagpole

Leather leaders at the flag ceremony

The Blessing by the Sisters

Monica Helms

Todd Gloria

Todd starts the reading of the names

Volunteers lined up to read names

Kristin Beck

The altar set up to honor victims on the Day of Remembrance

“I don’t understand how this happens, and how we let it happen,” said self-described “warrior princess” Kristin Beck at the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance Wednesday, November 20 at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. A veteran of the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 before she transitioned from male to female last year, Beck was speaking about the litany of names of over 65 Transgender people officially reported murdered throughout the world between November 2012 and November 2013. The names, read by volunteers from the audience (including this reporter) and punctuated by the solemn ringing of a bell after each one, are the centerpiece of the Day of Remembrance.
Day of Remembrance events occur throughout the world. People who want to put one on download the list of victims by logging on to the official Web site at http://www.transgenderdor.org/memorializing-2013 and organizing a public ceremony including the reading of names. “The event is held in November to honor Rita Hester, whose murder on November 28, 1998 kicked off the ‘Remembering Our Dead Web project and a San Francisco candlelight vigil in 1999,” the site explains. “Rita Hester’s murder — like most anti-Transgender murder cases — has yet to be solved.”
Though organizers of the San Diego event said they would be honoring as many as 101 victims, the official list at the Day of Remembrance Web site contained 65 names. Of these, 33 — more than half — were killed in Brazil, which tallies with other statistics. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project in Europe, of the 265 known murders of Trans people worldwide between November 2011 and October 2012, 126 took place in Brazil. The country with the next highest number of victims in the 2013 Day of Remembrance list was the United States, at 15, followed by Mexico (six), Turkey (three), Malaysia (two) and Colombia, Guyana, Venezuela, Honduras, Jamaica and France (one each).
The ways in which the victims of anti-Transgender violence were killed makes for even grimmer reading. Of the 65 victims listed on the site, 26 were shot, 17 were stabbed, 13 were beaten either with fists or blunt objects, seven were suffocated or strangled, four were burned, four were bound, four were stoned, three were beheaded, two were drowned, two were run over by cars or trucks, and one each was scalped, tortured, dismembered, hanged or thrown off a bridge. The cause of death of one victim, “Maiara” Castro da Silva of Porto Velho, Rondônia, Brazil, is unknown because her body was dumped, and by the time it was discovered it was in such an advanced state of decomposition it was impossible to tell how she died.
Those numbers add up to more than 65 because many of the victims were attacked in multiple ways. Perhaps the most shocking case on the list was that of Evon Young, age 22, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who was tied up, beaten with fists and other objects, choked with a chain, suffocated with a bag taped over his head, shot, set on fire and thrown into a dumpster. Cemia “CeCe” Dove, 23, of Cleveland, Ohio was stabbed multiple times, tied with a rope to a block of concrete and thrown into a pond. Dwayne Jones, 16, of Jamaica was beaten, stabbed, shot and run over by a car. The sheer viciousness of these crimes and the mix of murder methods suggests the combination of hate and fear motivating their perpetrators, their desire to be as brutal as possible and to vent their anger out on their hapless victims as extensively as they could.
The Day of Remembrance in San Diego consisted of a march that began and ended at the Center at 6 p.m. and was originally scheduled to loop through Hillcrest to Fifth and University, then return. The march leaders moved the line at a fast clip but instructed the marchers to stay on the sidewalks and obey all traffic signals, which slowed things down so much the turnaround took place several blocks earlier than scheduled. The rush was due to the need to get back to the Center by 7 for the formal program in the Center’s large auditorium, which featured an extended blessing by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and an appearance by San Diego City Council president and acting mayor Todd Gloria.
Apologizing for coming late to the event — “I’ve got citywide responsibilities these days,” he said — Gloria called on Lesbians, Gay men and Bisexuals to do more to support their Transgender brothers and sisters. “To the extent that the kind of violence that we are memorializing today is acceptable in some communities, it comes from the fact that we do not do enough to support our Transgender brothers and sisters,” Gloria said. “The fact that you are here tonight sends a strong signal that we do not support hate and violence against those in our community — our community — and we will stand up against it. When the unthinkable happens, we will remember those who are lost.”
Another featured speaker was Transgender activist Monica Helms, who designed the Transgender Pride flag — a series of alternating stripes of pink, blue and white — and who displayed the prototype during her talk. “The reason I created this was because the person who created the Bisexual pride flag said the Trans community should have a flag of their own,” Helms recalled. “I tried to figure out what I should do, and it hit me one morning exactly what it should be. The light blue is the traditional color for baby boys, pink is the traditional color for baby girls, and the white in the middle is for those who are undefined or neutral gender; those who feel they are either both genders or neither gender; and those who are transitioning.” Helms also boasted that, no matter how the flag is flown, its pattern is the same.
Helms spoke with a sense of pride in how far her creation has reached and in how many places it’s been flown. “Today I saw a picture of the Equality House that’s in front of Westboro Baptist Church [pastured by anti-Queer minister Fred Phelps], and they had painted it the Trans flag colors,” Helms said. “I’ve seen this flag flown in Pride parades in Finland, Serbia, Turkey, Taiwan and all kinds of other places in the world. I’m just flabbergasted that this turned out the way it did. I’m very honored and humbled that all of you have accepted it as our flag.” As part of the Day of Remembrance ceremony, the rainbow flag that usually flies from the Pride flagpole at University and Normal was briefly taken down and replaced by the Trans flag, which was then lowered and folded, military-style, and used as part of a memorial altar during the program at the Center.
“Injustice anywhere in the world is a threat to justice for all of us,” said Kristin Beck at the beginning of her presentation — paraphrasing the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I look up on this board, and I look at the names, and I look at what’s happening to my brothers and sisters. I just weep, man. I’m just really torn up. As a veteran, I’ve lost a lot of my brothers and sisters in combat. But we were in combat. These are just young, innocent girls and boys. One was a 13-year-old. I don’t understand how this happens, and how we can let it happen.”

Transpeople Organize Rally Supporting AB 1266

Anti-Discrimination Bill Threatened by Radical-Right Referendum


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Alfie flies Trans flag at rally

“Support Trans youth”

James (center) & Cathy Mendonça (right)

Cathy with the “Black & Pink” banner




Trey (center)

“Binary thinking is obsolete”

Alfie Padilla

The Sister

“Trans children deserve love”

Ezekiel Reis Burgin

Flag bearer

The “spiral hug” that ended the event

Braving darkness, cold, the threat and — briefly — the reality of rain, 60 Transgender people and their supporters turned out in front of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Flag at University Avenue and Normal Street in Hillcrest Friday, November 22 for a rally in support of AB 1266. Also known as the California Success and Opportunity Act, this is a bill the California legislature passed this summer, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law August 17, which would add to state law protecting public school students from discrimination the following: “A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”
Though the bill nowhere uses the term “Transgender,” nor does it specify that the “facilities” it mentions include school restrooms, most of the opposition has focused on the alleged “danger” of allowing students to use restrooms based on their sense of their own gender rather than their biological organs. “No 13-year-old girls should have to have the continued apprehension of a boy seeing them naked in the locker room,” said Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), one of the groups currently organizing a referendum campaign to give the state’s voters a chance to decide whether or not to allow AB 1266 to take effect.
James, an activist with Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) and Black and Pink San Diego — two of the groups, along with SAME Alliance, that sponsored the November 22 event — MC’d the rally and explained the importance of beating back the referendum. “Already one of the most vulnerable communities as far as bullying and houselessness,” James explained, “Trans youth are now literally being driven to suicide and harassment by Transphobic organizations like the Pacific Justice Institute and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). … Over the past few months, they have been running a media smear campaign against Trans youth and lying to get this issue on the ballot.”
The AB 1266 support rally was held November 22 because that was supposed to be the deadline by which the California Secretary of State’s office would be certifying whether the referendum made it to the ballot or not. But that was still up in the air when the rally took place. James announced that the referendum sponsors had turned in 547,984 signatures — short of the 620,000 they claimed in their press releases — and need 504,000 valid signatures to put the issue before voters.
Signatures can be invalidated for several reasons — the signer is either not eligible to vote or not registered at their current address, or the signature was illegible or didn’t contain enough information to verify whether the person was registered or not — and what the Secretary of State usually does it select some of the petitions at random, check them against voter registration records, calculate what percent of the signatures on the petitions they did check were valid, and apply that to the total. If there’s a near-miss, sponsors can ask for the time-consuming process of validating all the petitions, not just a sample. Given the tightness of the margin, 92 percent of the signatures on the anti-AB 1266 petitions would have to be valid to put the referendum on the ballot. That’s higher than usual, but not unachievable.
James said one purpose of the rally was to get people to sign pledge cards promising to be part of the campaign against the referendum if it makes it to the ballot, and to continue to defend AB 1266 if the referendum fails but the opponents keep trying to sink it. “There is a Plan B to Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) not being successful in getting AB 1266 to qualify for a referendum: it’s file a federal lawsuit,” states a post on the Transadvocate Web site, http://www.transadvocate.com. “And it appears that they’re ‘ambulance chasing’ for another Jane Doe to bully: they’re asking for potential plaintiffs to contact them.”
“We are up against organizations with ridiculous amounts of money,” James said. “I like to say they have a whole lot of dollars but not a lot of sense. But what we have is spirit and people power, which is a whole hell of a lot more than what any dollar can do. We need you to volunteer so we can counteract the negative media storm … the anti-Trans are pushing onto the public. We need to have face-to-face conversations and voter outreach to make sure everyone understands that this bill supports our youth.”
Rally organizers invited a few speakers and then opened the mikes for everyone who wanted to address the crowd — but they stipulated that only Transgender people would be allowed to speak at the event. The idea was to bring forward people who aren’t usually heard in public venues and allow Transgender people to speak for themselves instead of having Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or straight supporters speak on their behalf. “I’ve never done anything like this in my life,” said Daniela, one of the first speakers. “I’ve given talks at schools, but I’ve never actually talked at a rally, so this is pretty exciting.”
After thanking the crowd for coming out despite the bad weather, Daniela said, “I’m really excited about AB 1266. It’s really awesome, because we are one step towards being more equal. But I would like to say that I really feel that none of us are equal unless all of us are equal. … Sometimes I personally don’t feel like I’m a strong, independent woman. Sometimes I feel like I’m being discriminated against. Sometimes I feel like I’m being harassed, especially when I’m kicked out of restrooms or I’m denied health care. A lot of people deny my gender identity. It’s tough. But right now at this moment, I definitely feel like a strong, independent woman. Because I am very strong, I am very independent, and I am very woman.”
Another speaker, Trey, recalled his own traumas coming out as Transgender in high school. “I sent my teacher an e-mail, actually,” Trey said. “I was under the naïve impression that being Transgender is no big deal. … I asked her to use the right pronoun and the right name, and she was more or less supportive. But it’s not just your teacher you have to worry about. It’s also the rest of the staff and the students. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here who, when faced with public restrooms, feels panicked.”
Trey said his ability to function at school dropped when the supportive teacher “was removed from her job” and “replaced with another teacher who did not respect my pronouns and did not use my proper name. So while I was at school, I had either to avoid using the restroom or to use the women’s room, which made me feel like I was taking a massive step backwards.… If I had had the support then that I do now, I really would have had a lot smoother transition, and I would be a lot more at peace with my mental health now.”
Alfie Padilla, who unlike Daniela is an old hand at speaking at political events, used her turn to rally the crowd and call on them to get as “fired up” as the opponents of AB 1266. “See how many crazy people signed that petition?” she said. “That’s not good, not good. The opposition, they’ve not only got millions of dollars, they’ve also got a lot of churches in their pocket, which is not good. … One crazy church got 46,000 signatures alone. These people drove hours and hours to get these petitions in. Some people drove up to five hours just to go drop off these petitions to take Transgender kids’ rights away. I can think of much better things to do with five hours than taking Transgender kids’ rights away! Let me tell you, these people are active. And we need to be just as active. Actually, we need to be a little more active.”
According to Alfie, AB 1266 is important not just to middle school and high school students but “all the way down from kindergarten to 12th grade. There are elementary school kids who need a place to pee! People need a place to pee! Jesus. Not only that, be all know how bad the bullying can get in the restrooms. You want to know what I did? I skipped! Because it’s awful. You know what I wanted? An education. And I didn’t really get it, because I skipped. And that’s what we really need to avoid. I read something today that one in six Transgender students drop out, and that’s three times more than the average dropout rate.”
Alfie also said that it wasn’t just “straight conservative people” who signed the referendum against AB 1266. “Part of the LGBT [Queer] community signed that petition!” she said. “We can all try to act like that didn’t happen, but it totally did. As I always like to say, there’s ‘G’ really big over here, and then ‘L,’ and ‘B’ over here, and then the ‘T’ is like somewhere really small, like over on another page. It’s like a different font. It’s a little like a comic strip, and this is serious. It’s like real life! So keep these conversations going. Keep it up. Keep it on Facebook, if you do that. Blog it. Keep it people’s mouths, because this fight has just begun.”
“I’m one of the older people in the community,” said an unidentified speaker in the nun’s-habit drag of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “Back in the early 1990’s there was a TV show called Ally McBeal, and they only had one fricking bathroom! Anybody could use it. I don’t understand why people are worried over where people poop. … If you’ve felt uncomfortable for years, and now you accept who you are and need to poop in the ‘other’ bathroom, then you should poop there, because everybody poops, and should feel comfortable doing it. It’s a normal biological function.”
“We are in the heart of the Queerest area of San Diego, right? And I see a problem,” said Ezekiel Reis Burgin, a counselor who works with Transgender and Queer people and can be reached through the Web site www.socialjusticehealing.com. “There is Gossip Grill right there, and how many people are in there right now drinking their homoerotic drinks and eating their homoerotic food — I don’t know if any of you guys have read their menu, but they’re pretty homoerotic — but they don’t give a shit! They don’t give a shit about what’s going on in the Trans community! And that’s what we need to be doing. We need to be going to the Gossip Grills, to the Mo’s Café or whatever it’s called. We need to be reaching out to the community that supposedly includes us — but doesn’t — every day of the year.”
“Out of the bars, and into the streets!,” the crowd chanted in response — consciously or unconsciously echoing one of the earliest Queer liberation slogans from the 1970’s, when middle- and upper-class Gay men who frequented fancy bars thought themselves as distant from the Queer-rights struggles of the political radicals and gender outlaws that started the Queer liberation movement.
“No matter what happens with [AB 1266], our struggles are not over,” said James to wrap up the event. “Tonight is a call to action for us to talk to everyone we know and organize however we can to ensure and tackle issues for the Trans community: safe schools, housing and job discrimination, harassment and assault, and access to health care. Right now, we see that our youth need our support.”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Three Mayoral Candidates Clash in KNSJ/Cal Western Debate

Faulconer, Alvarez Surprisingly Similar on Issues; Aguirre Drops Bombs
By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
L to R: Kevin Faulconer, David Alvarez, Mike Aguirre
Three of the four so-called “major” candidates for mayor of San Diego in the November 19 special election — Republican Kevin Faulconer and Democrats David Alvarez and Mike Aguirre — debated November 11 at California Western School of Law in an event co-sponsored by the school and KNSJ 89.1 FM Descanso, San Diego County’s new community radio station. The fourth “major” candidate, Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Nathan Fletcher, did not appear. Surprisingly, given how most of the local media have scripted their coverage of the race — Faulconer the center-Right Republican, Alvarez the progressive Democrat and Fletcher the man in the middle — Faulconer and Alvarez, colleagues on the current San Diego City Council, agreed on as many issues as they disagreed. It was Aguirre, running a distant fourth in most polls, who challenged the other two candidates and confronted many issues both Faulconer and Alvarez did their best to duck.
When one of the four reporters on hand to question the candidates, Andrew Koutts of Voice of San Diego, asked Alvarez which neighborhoods of San Diego he felt had been neglected by previous mayors and city councils — a centerpiece argument of his campaign — he said, “Last week, we just approved a policy on construction investment and where the infrastructure is missing. I walked through communities in southeast San Diego, in the Fourth Council District, helping Myrtle Cole get elected. There are a lot of parts of the Fourth Council District that don’t even have sidewalks. At the Council the talk was all about how to improve existing sidewalks, and for the years I’ve been there I’ve said, ‘Let’s not just talk about the infrastructure that needs to be improved. Let’s talk about the infrastructure that’s missing.’”
“We have more agreement than disagreement on this question,” said Faulconer. “We did move forward on our capital improvement projects and how we score that so we are looking at neighborhoods that have traditionally been neglected and see that change move forward. The City Council approved that unanimously. And how do we get there? By doing an assessment to find which [areas] need it the most, and then going out and tackling that. It’s critically important that as we put forward our budget, we make sure that new revenues get directed to the neighborhoods. My plan calls for 50 percent of new city revenues to be put back into our infrastructure.”
“We needed $160 million a year just to keep the roads the way they were,” said Aguirre. “We spent, on average, less than $40 million. We underfund the police, we underfund the fire department. The fire department budget is $236 million. The city workers’ pension budget is $275 million. We have pensions that exceed what the federal Internal Revenue Service permits. We don’t even maintain [our infrastructure at] bare minimum. The whole city of San Diego has been neglected because resources have been drained away by city employees, the pension system, unions and officialdom.”
Indeed, Aguirre’s solution to just about every city budget problem is to break what he sees as the stranglehold retired city workers have over the budget through their pensions. Most other city politicians have stopped talking about pensions as an issue ever since the voters of San Diego passed former City Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s initiative in June 2012. This eliminated pensions altogether for new city workers and forced them onto a 401(k)-style system instead. But, as Aguirre pointed out then and did again at the November 11 debate, that doesn’t address the amount of city tax money going to pensions for workers who’ve already retired or who are going to retire with pensions because their benefits were grandfathered in by DeMaio’s initiative.
Alvarez responded to a question about what the candidates would do to improve San Diego’s public transit system by blaming its problems on the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which actually administers it. “We sent a message to SANDAG a year ago saying we have to put transit first,” he said. “Unfortunately, the old boys who run this city are controlling SANDAG, and their mentality is not public transit but building more roads. We need more active transportation like biking walking, and that is not where SANDAG’s priorities are. San Diego is not getting its fair share of the SANDAG grants.” Alvarez also said San Diego needs to pursue more “infill development” and make sure people have transit available where they live.
Faulconer identified two personal priorities for transit: getting federal funding to complete the mid-coast trolley line extension and creating a bike-sharing program. “Also, we need to make sure we have choice riders,” he said.
Like Alvarez, Aguirre said that one way to improve public transit in San Diego is to make future developments transit-oriented. “Instead of bringing people to jobs, we need to work at bringing jobs to people,” he said. “With so many high-tech jobs, we can use downtown as an employment center.”
“It’s going to take a mayor who believes in transit and uses it,” Alvarez responded. I bike to work, and if I’m elected I’ll be the first mayor of San Diego who bikes to work.” He also pointed out that San Diego has no more room for urban sprawl; instead of what he called “green-field development,” he said the city will have to accommodate future growth by “in-fill” — putting more people into existing neighborhoods and improving transit and infrastructure to accommodate them.
One sharp point of disagreement between Faulconer and Alvarez came over the so-called “linkage fees,” charged to developers in order to create a fund for affordable housing projects. The linkage fees were first put into effect by the city in 1990 and at the time were called “in-lieu fees.” Under California’s redevelopment law, since repealed by the state legislature at the urging of Governor Jerry Brown, a certain percentage of units in each new project funded by redevelopment money had to be affordable. Rather than force developers to build affordable units into their high-end projects, the city in 1990 set up a housing trust fund and allowed developers to contribute “in-lieu fees” to create a pot of money that would be used to build affordable housing or remodel existing buildings.
But the City Council cut these fees in half in 1996 and didn’t bother to raise them again until recently, when an increase in the linkage fee back to its 1990 level passed the Council on a strict party-line vote: all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed. “I think raising the linkage fees was wrong,” Faulconer said. “If we want to encourage manufacturers and innovative companies offering good jobs to locate here, we shouldn’t drive them away to other cities with fees like this.”
Alvarez, who like the other four Democrats on the current Council voted to increase the linkage fees, said, “We’ve got some great centers of employment, but there are other areas of the city where there is high unemployment. Our current policies aren’t aligned with small businesses, but with large corporations.”
Asked by KNSJ program director Kali Katt about San Diego’s homeless population and what the city should do about it — including whether the city should fund a year-round shelter — Aguirre once again raised the pension issue. “We have 10,000 homeless people and city workers making $300,000 per year pensions,” he said. “As Mayor, I will ask the City Council to take on the moral obligation to take care of homeless people.”
Faulconer, the candidate at whom Katt directed her question, said, “I’ve spent more time on homeless issues than I ever thought I would.” He made it clear that he thought the solution to homelessness is “not about providing beds; it’s about providing services to help people.” Faulconer said he’d got “a lot of push-back from residents” when he helped set up the Connections Housing Services just two blocks away from the site of the debate. “But at Connections, we have counseling and other services under one roof,” he said. “Once we’ve shown it does work, it can spread to other City Council districts.”
Alvarez said a large part of the city’s homeless problem is due to the County of San Diego’s government failing to do its part to offer people services to help them get off the street. “The city is spending more money on homeless services, but the County has to come along,” he said.
The homeless issue came up again in an audience question from John Kitchin of the San Diego Homeless Coalition asking, “How do we make San Diego less of a police state?” Aguirre recalled that during his tenure as city attorney, “I wrote a legal opinion that required the police department not to arrest homeless people just for being homeless. Police are under a lot of pressure from businesses, but as Mayor I will make sure my original recommendation becomes public policy.” He cited the government-run camp in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath as the model for the kinds of programs he’d like to set up for San Diego’s homeless people.
“The police should not be arresting or ticketing homeless people,” said Alvarez. “The police can be the connection between homeless people and social services. There are a lot of services homeless people cannot access because they lack an address. There are resources available, and I’d like to see the city share them with people who need them.”
“Our police officers do a remarkable job every day,” said Faulconer. “I’ve gone out with our homeless outreach teams (HOT’s). It’s a very difficult task, especially with people who are dually diagnosed” — social-service argot for people who have both mental illnesses and alcohol or drug issues. “I think the police use compassion and care [in dealing with homeless people]. We need more money to hire more police officers to provide a better level of services.”
The debate was divided into four segments. First was the one in which the candidates fielded questions from reporters, including Koutts, Katt, Andrew Cohen of the San Diego Free Press Web site and Daniel Muñoz of La Prensa. (It’s a sign of the times that of the four reporters, only Muñoz represents a print publication.) Then Katt, on behalf of debate co-organizer KNSJ, asked the question that was number one on the station’s Facebook poll — which turned out to be so interminable the debate moderator, Douglas Holbrook, president of KNSJ’s parent organization Activist San Diego, cut her off. The question was basically what the candidates intended to do to hold the police accountable, especially when they kill civilians like Victor Ortega.
“I believe crime in the suites is a bigger problem than crime in the streets,” said Aguirre, reflecting his background as a federal prosecutor specializing in white-collar crimes. “We have a problem with bad enforcement of the law. I disagree with the question. I believe in the police, but I don’t want to pay them any more money. We have police retiring with $100,000 per year pensions, and we’re shutting down libraries to pay for it.”
“The police do a good job protecting us, especially with the limited resources we give them, but I do believe in holding them accountable,” said Alvarez.
“I believe in hiring more police,” said Faulconer. “We’re 135 officers short of what we should have. I understand it will be my obligtion to provide proper oversight and accountability.”
“When those 135 officers left they weren’t replaced because of the pensions,” Aguirre snapped back.
After the police question, moderator Holbrook asked two questions of his own and then threw it open to the audience, both live and electronic via Facebook and the KNSJ U-Stream. One live questioner, attorney Marianne Brown, asked what the candidates planned to do to stop human trafficking. Brown said that San Diego was the number two city in the U.S. for human trafficking — to which Holbrook fired back, “You mean you want to make us number one?” “Not funny,” said a man in the audience, and Holbrook later apologized for joking inappropriately about a serious subject.
Alvarez began his answer to the trafficking question by lamenting that he’s no longer on the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, which oversees the police. “Human trafficking really doesn’t get a lot of attention because it goes unreported a lot,” Alvarez said. “We have to support a policy on it that works well and has community support. We’ve cut back on everything, and we need to allocate more resources to specialty crimes like human trafficking and hate crimes.”
“It’s a combination of working with our department and our community,” said Faulconer. “We have to implement community-oriented policing as we reinvest these dollars. We have to have the political will to bring those [police] positions back.”
“Let’s think about whether hiring more police solves that problem,” Aguirre said. “We have a $1.1 billion city budget, we spend $401 million on police and they’ll have to work within their resources. This is not just a local problem. I would meet with the U.S. attorney for San Diego. I was an organized crime expert and this is an intelligence problem of identifying international traffickers through wiretapping and other advanced technologies.”
The last two questions dealt with the sources of each candidate’s campaign contributions and whether they would continue former Mayor Bob Filner’s interest in pursuing a so-called “community-choice aggregation” to challenge San Diego Gas & Electric’s monopoly and offer power at lower rates. “I was the attorney that fought SDG&E when they wanted $1 billion after the fires,” Aguirre said. “I support community choice and also efforts to get the city direct access to power generators instead of having to go through SDG&E.”
Alvarez said he’s currently chair of the City Council’s Natural Resources Committee, and the Council just moved this proposal forward two months ago. “I’m a strong supporter,” he said.
Faulconer evaded the question and used his time to talk about San Diego’s water rates instead. “I’ve spent my time making sure the rates charged are accurate, especially the water rates,” he said. “The Metropolitan Water District wanted to raise water rates, and at the same time they were giving out pension increases.”
Asked to discuss their financial contributors, Alvarez said, “We had over 700 individuals who are contributing to the campaign, and I assume that number is now closer to 1,000. It’s people I’ve worked with for a lot of years, a lot of individuals from San Diego and Sacramento. I have a very family. Although my family doesn’t have much money, a lot of them have given. I have supporters among leaders of chambers of commerce, leaders in the union community, leaders in the environmental community.”
“One of the things I thought was important, especially when we’re talking about openness and transparency, is the decision I made early in the campaign that I’m willing to disclose all donors, regardless of amount,” said Faulconer. “I think that was the right thing to do. I hoped everybody would do the same, but not everybody decided to do that. I’m proud of the very broad base of support that I have built up. People are supporting me because of the financial reforms I’m talking about.”
Aguirre brought up a reality of modern electioneering the other two candidates ignored: that in addition to the money raised and spent by their own campaigns, they also benefit from so-called “independent” campaigns that can easily evade both contribution limits and disclosure requirements as long as they’re at least technically separate from the candidate.
“David has a very close family member called AFSCME [the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees],” Aguirre said. “They’ve given more than $1 million to elect him. I wish I could get them in my family. The fact is that $4 million is being raised so the same people can stay in control of San Diego. We want to have new people in control. The unions and managers of pensions are in control. The businesses and developers are in control. The people are not in control. When I talk about pensions and I say, ‘Pensions, pensions, pensions,’ I wanted us to save the pension plan. I wanted us to build a workforce of people who would devote their lives to the city so people would have good pensions and they wouldn’t lose them. Now they’ve been lost forever. Future generations will be paying Cadillac pensions for us, and we’re going to be giving you 401(k)’s.”

Over 200 Turn Out for Memorial to Gloria Johnson

Elected Officials, Community Activists Say Goodbye to Queer Feminist Leader


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Gloria Johnson (November 2012)

Rev. Kathleen Owens

Doug Case

Congressmember Susan Davis

Acting Mayor Todd Gloria. Assemblymember Toni Atkins and Center Executive Director Dr. Delores Jacobs

Former City Councilmember, Assemblymember and State Senator Christine Kehoe

Former City Councilmember Donna Frye

“In this tradition, we emphasize this life,” said Reverend Kathleen Owens, associate minister of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest, at the start of the memorial service for veteran political activist Gloria Johnson November 7. “Gloria was a U-U member who lived her faith most actively in politics, who gave her time to make San Diego a place for equality.”
Just how hard Johnson worked to make San Diego a place for both women’s and Queer equality — and how successful she was — was shown by the stellar list of attendees at her memorial. Among them were six current or former elected officials, including all three openly Queer Democrats who have ever served on the San Diego City Council — Christine Kehoe, Toni Atkins and current acting mayor Todd Gloria. Other elected officials present included Congressmember Susan Davis, former City Councilmember Donna Frye, and current Councilmember and Mayoral candidate David Alvarez.
In addition, the program featured Dr. Delores Jacobs, chief executive officer of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center; Doug Case, current president of the San Diego Democrats for Equality — formerly the San Diego Democratic Club, of which Johnson was the president in the early 1980’s and remained active in for the rest of her life; Benita Berkson, who previously served with Johnson as the president of the San Diego chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW); and singer-songwriter Chris Hassett (also a former San Diego Democratic Club activist), who sang his song “A Woman Is My Friend” with newly-written special lyrics for Johnson and led the audience in a sing-along of Holly Near’s song “Singing for Our Lives” (written in 1978 as a memorial tribute to Harvey Milk) at the end.
Referring to Johnson’s famous diminutive size, Doug Case called her “the proverbial mouse that roared.” He rattled off a list of adjectives to describe her: feminist, Democrat, liberal, Lesbian, caring, dedicated, diligent, meticulous, loyal, tenacious, assertive, outspoken, candid, joyful and, above all, stubborn. The room was full of knowing chuckles at that one. “One word nobody used to describe her was ‘bipartisan,’” Case joked. “Today’s room has the appearance of a Democratic campaign event.”
“I met Gloria Johnson in 1992 at — what else — a Democratic campaign office,” recalled acting mayor Todd Gloria. “That started a long love affair that lasted until her death.” He noted that the similarity of their names had led her to joke that if they ever got married — not that that would ever happen, since he was about half her age and both were Queer — she’d be “Gloria Gloria.” Todd Gloria remembered Johnson’s “loyalty to whatever candidate she would support,” and said that during her first campaign for City Council — in which the San Diego Democratic Club had endorsed his principal Queer opponent, Stephen Whitburn — “she wore a T-shirt that said ‘Gloria for Gloria.’”
Todd Gloria recalled Johnson’s loyalty in other aspects than political campaigning. “After my mother, she was the most avid watcher of Channel 24” — the public-access cable channel that broadcasts the City Council’s meetings — “and after the meetings she’d send me an e-mail saying how she thought I did. The last time we spoke, she was in the rehab center, and she said, ‘The people here treat me well. The only bad thing is they don’t get Channel 24 in here.’”
“I’ve known her at least 30 years,” said Congressmember Davis. “I’m trying to remember what election campaign it was when we met. We’ve already talked about Gloria being vertically challenged, but you always knew when she was in the room. … She was a pillar of support for me. I was so proud of the work she did getting women and Gay and Lesbian people elected to office in San Diego. It’s hard to imagine that those things would have happened without her.”
“I have a hard time realizing that Gloria isn’t with us,” said Toni Atkins, former San Diego City Councilmember and current 78th District California State Assemblymember — both jobs to which Johnson helped elect her. “I didn’t imagine today. It didn’t occur to me.” Atkins said the news of Johnson’s death hit especially hard because it happened on September 22, 2013 — the same day the San Diego Democrats for Equality held their annual Freedom Awards reception, the club’s biggest and most prestigious fundraiser.
Like Todd Gloria, Atkins recalled that “you always knew when Gloria was in the room. Gloria would wear purple and every other color together with no sense of fashion. She was an iconic person 26 years ago. She was a community leader, and a mentor by virtue of her example. She was a proud and vocal feminist and advocate for Lesbian/Gay equality. She was fiercely loyal. She’d be the first person to push the pro-choice question, she was proud to elect Christine Kehoe [the first openly Queer person ever to hold elective office in San Diego], and she loved Donna Frye.”
Though Atkins eventually won office with Johnson’s help, the two women met before Atkins ever considered a political career. It was in the 1980’s, when Atkins was a staff member for the embattled Womancare women’s health and family planning clinic in Hillcrest. The clinic was under assault every Saturday morning by anti-choice activists staging pickets and harassing patients. Atkins met Johnson when she agreed to help organize counter-demonstrations to step between the picketers and the patients and protect their right to choose. [This author often went to Womancare in those days to march on the pro-choice side.]
“She changed our lives,” Atkins said. “She changed my life. The California Assembly did a beautiful memorial booklet. I celebrate her life, but I’m going to miss a friend.” 
“Gloria dedicated her life to liberating women and LGBT [Queer] people,” said Christine Kehoe. “Gloria lived her life with her heart and her beliefs on her sleeve. She believed all people deserved respect. No political campaign for Democrats in San Diego in the last 30 years or more failed to win her support, probably her active volunteer commitment, and usually financial support as well. … I was one of the candidates who got her loyal support. But I knew Gloria before I ran for office. When I worked at the AIDS Assistance Fund in the late 1980’s, Gloria was one of the few social workers who understood. She would navigate the social-service network to get people with AIDS at least some of the help and support they needed.”
Kehoe recalled how Johnson was honored by the California legislature in 2010. “She came in in her familiar multicolored jacket, and was surrounded by eight Lesbians in law enforcement in San Francisco. She leaned over to me and said, ‘Retirement might not be so bad.’”
Former Councilmember Donna Frye said she “looked for a sign that Gloria was up in heaven raising hell” — and found it in the fact that the day of her memorial, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), forbidding discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Ironically, given Frye’s prominent role in driving former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner out of office on the grounds that he was sexually harassing women in his office, Frye said her first meeting with Johnson was when she sought help for a sexual harassment complaint against her own then-employer.
But, Frye said, her relationship with Johnson didn’t stay at that level. “It was not long before she had me volunteering for the Equal Rights Amendment,” Frye recalled. “Anyone who knows Gloria knows it’s impossible to tell her no. When I ran for office, Gloria was always there. She could work more volunteer hours and show up in more campaign photos than anyone else. This past January Gloria got an award from Bob Filner. Our last conversations brought us back to our first meeting, when we talked about sexual harassment and job discrimination issues.”
“Our community lost a great legend and a great teacher,” said Center director Jacobs, whose recollections of Johnson seemed to center around Johnson’s efforts to pin her down politically even though Jacobs was running a 501 ( c ) (3) non-profit corporation that isn’t allowed by law to endorse candidates. “She’d call me and ask, ‘You do support a woman’s right to choose, don’t you?,’ and she’d ask me exactly how I stood on the Democratic political issue of the day,” Jacobs remembered. “I’d tell her that what I stood for wasn’t what a 501 ( c ) (3) organization could stand for, but she’d say, ‘I know all that, but where is your heart?’ And if my answer wasn’t affirmative, I’d get another call the next day.”
“Gloria marched and rallied and volunteered for a better tomorrow,” said Rev. Owens at the close of the event. “On our last visit Gloria said, ‘I’m not ready to die. There’s so much left to do.’” Then the church’s sound system played the Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow),” which Johnson had learned to love when both Bill and Hillary Clinton used it as the theme song of their Presidential campaigns. Offered as a song summarizing Johnson’s own life, it brought the audience at her memorial to their feet as they clapped along to its driving rhythm and savored its optimistic message: “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow/Don’t stop, ’cause it’ll soon be here/It’ll be here better than before/Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.”

 Zenger’s would like to acknowledge former San Diego Democrats for Equality president Craig Roberts for pointing out some errors in the original version of this post, which have been corrected above

Queer Puerto Rican Authors Appear at Centro Cultural

Rice-González, Xavier Present Powerful Works on Ethnicity and Sexuality


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Charles Rice-González

Emanuel Xavier

Caleb Rainey

“It’s a really big deal for authors from one part of the country to speak to another,” said Charles Rice-González at the start of his appearance at the Centro Cultural de la Raza Friday, November 8. The event featured readings by two openly Queer New York authors of Puerto Rican descent — “Nuyorican,” as the current argot goes — and was presented by an organization with the tongue-twisting name “San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation.”
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx — where his novel Chulito, from which he read at the event, takes place — Rice-González is a writer, long-time community and Queer activist, and executive director of BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance). In addition to the novel, he’s written several plays whose titles reflect his split artistic priorities: What Carlos Feels, Pink Jesus, Los Nutcrackers: A Christmas Carajo, and I Just Love Andy Gibb. He’s the co-editor of From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction and a board member of the Bronx Council on the Arts and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.
Also featured on the program was Emanuel Xavier, of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian descent, who has also published one novel, Christ-Like, but at the Centro chose instead to read from his self-published books of poetry. Like Rice-González’s, Xavier’s titles reveal both his artistic and sociopolitical agenda: Pier Queen (1997, republished 2011), Americano: Growing Up Gay and Latino in the U.S.A. (2002, republished 2012), “If Jesus Were Gay” and Other Poems (2010), and his most recent publication, Nefarious (2013).
Unlike Rice-González, who gave a short lecture introducing his reading, Xavier let his work speak for itself, though he did say he’s been steadily self-publishing his poems since 1996. Xavier has also produced a CD of his readings, Legendary, and has been featured on two seasons of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry programs. Xavier created the annual Glam Slam poetry competition, held in New York from 1998 to 2008 but now based in London.
“I’ve always loved to write,” Rice-González said. “I remember writing when I was really young. I was 13 and had a 16-year-old boyfriend — an ‘older man’ — and the first time you fall in love, it’s so urgent your life revolves around it. When we broke up, my heart blew up into a thousand pieces. I started writing a novel when I was 14 and it was about us, though I made it a boy and girl — and made myself the girl.”
Writing about their Queer experiences in heterosexual drag was a common dodge for Queer writers throughout the 20th century — authors as diverse as Tennessee Williams, W. Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward did it — but as Rice-González grew older, he got stronger both as a writer and a person and was able to draw on his youth for inspiration without de-Queering it. “The world existed and the energy was in me to write Chulito,” he said.
The book revolves around two Gay teens in a largely Puerto Rican section of the Bronx, in which there’s a sort of Greek chorus of garage owners crying out “AUTO GLASS!” — competing to attract the attention of passing motorists with cracked or shattered car windows. The central characters are Chulito and Carlos, two boys who grow up together but get separated when Carlos gets a scholarship to go to a mostly white school outside the barrio — and returns with fancy non-ghetto clothes and a white boyfriend. Chulito’s dilemma is over whether to stand with his homophobic, reverse-racist neighbors and harass Carlos or stand by his friend. It’s complicated when Chulito starts to realize he’s not only Gay himself, he’s physically attracted to Carlos.
Rice-González chose to read three portions of Chulito. Two were relatively realistic. The third was a dazzling dream sequence involving a huge circle jerk involving just about every male in Chulito’s neighborhood, that ends in an unforgettably lubricious image.
“I’ve known Emanuel for many years, and it’s wonderful traveling with him,” said Rice-González when he was obliged to introduce Xavier following his own reading. “But Emanuel is also a writer who really broke a lot of barriers for Queer Latinos in the Nuyorican movement when there weren’t many ‘out’ Queer Latinos. Even though he’s younger than I am, he inspired me. I met him once when his first Queer poetry collection came out. He was sitting at a table, reading it. I bought his poetry collection, went home and read it to my partner at the time.” (He rather ruefully admitted that he’s now single.) “It’s so amazing to read work where you’re reflected positively, and that’s part of my admiration and love for Emanuel Xavier.”
Starting with “Runaway,” from his most recent collection Nefarious, Xavier read 10 poems from throughout his career, including the early “Tradiciónes” from Pier Queen, a deliberate mashup of English and Spanish in which the writer says he’s going to defy the “traditions” of machismo and settle on his own identity; “Commonwealth,” a tribute to a recently deceased Nuyorican poet in which Xavier uses Puerto Rico’s in-between “commonwealth” status — neither a U.S. territory nor a full-fledged state — as a metaphor for his own struggles to find his own identity; and “Children of Magdalene” from Americano, a defense of multiculturalism inspired by a protest against his reading at Towson University in Baltimore by Youth for Western Civilization (YWC).
This group, Xavier explained, “basically does not like Gays or people of color, so I was obviously their perfect target.” Though Xavier described YWC as if it were still a going concern, a September 5, 2012 post from the Anti-Defamation League  (ADL) (http://blog.adl.org/civil-rights/former-youth-for-western-civilization-leader-promotes-white-student-union-at-towson) notes that it “has been rel­a­tively inac­tive as a national orga­ni­za­tion since its founder, Kevin DeAnna, stepped down as pres­i­dent of the group in Feb­ru­ary 2012.” According to ADL, the president of the Towson University chapter, Matthew Heimbach, disbanded it in March 2012, reorganized and now heads a White Students’ Union at the school. A photo of Heimbach on the ADL post shows him standing in front of a Confederate flag.
Other poems Xavier read included “El Hair Espray,” “The Thing About My Pussy,” and “Step-Father,” also from Nefarious; the title poems from If Jesus Were Gay and Americano; and an unidentified slice-of-life poem about the barrio which began, “When Mexicans shined the white man’s shoes … ”
The program ended with a short but moving speech by the San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation’s executive director, Caleb Rainey, about the importance of Queer literature.
“I grew up in a really conservative town in Colorado,” Rainey recalled. “My dad was a Baptist minister, and I grew up with a daily dose of self-hatred because I was Queer, and really noticeably so. I’ll never forget taking my first women’s studies class. We had an anthology that contained a Gay Latino short story. I can’t tell you the name, or who wrote it, but it was about a little boy whose dad also hated his voice and bullied him, and how he had to survive in that space. It was the first time ever that I had read anything that even approximated that experience for me. That was really a transitional moment in beginning to work on self-love and also recognizing the absolute, critical importance of literature and art in general on our lives. Especially for LGBT kids of color, it’s important that we have these available.”