Sometimes, when the news comes on your screen, you think: this must be from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Until, a few seconds in, you realize: this isn’t satire, it’s all too real.
That’s how I felt when I heard about the Stop W.O.K.E Act. I’m not making this up or satirizing the news. I wouldn’t even try to be like the fabulous Samantha Bee.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has introduced the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act (a.k.a. the Stop W.O.K.E Act) to the Florida Legislature.
DeSantis, like many Republican politicos nationwide, including Virginia’s new governor Glenn Youngkin, is a good culture warrior.
Months ago, Florida, like some other states, banned the teaching of critical race theory. Earlier this month, for instance, Virginia Gov. Youngkin in his first week in office issued an executive order prohibiting the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory.”
Never mind that critical race theory hasn’t been taught in our country’s elementary, middle, or high schools. It’s a theory taught to graduate students. It says that historically laws and policies have created systemic racism.
But that wasn’t not good enough for DeSantis. The Stop W.O.K.E. Act would take things even further. If passed, the legislation, “will give businesses, employees, children and families tools to fight back against woke indoctrination,” said a DeSantis office press release.
“The Stop W.O.K.E. Act will be the strongest legislation of its kind in the nation,” the press release said, “and will take on both corporate wokeness and Critical Race Theory.”
DeSantis wants us to believe that he’s on the side of the angels – that he wants to make the world more just. To prove how righteous he is, DeSantis talked about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Washington Post reported. “You think about what MILK stood for,” he told an audience in Wildwood, Fla. “He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.”
“You listen to some of these people nowadays,” DeSantis said, “they don’t talk about that.”
It’s horrifying and enraging to hear DeSantis quote the words of King, a civil rights icon who inspired many to work for racial justice. DeSantis was using King’s work as part of a culture war against everything King stood for.
“I was right about ‘The Politics of the English Language,’” George Orwell, the author of “1984” who taught us about “Newspeak,” is saying to himself, “this is more Orwellian than even I would have imagined.”
Unfortunately, if passed, the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, would have even more draconian consequences than polluting the language. DeSantis has decided to follow the example of the Texas abortion law, which allows private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion.
If enacted into law, the Stop W.O.K.E. Act would give parents or other private citizens the right to sue if they think critical race theory is being taught in schools or workplaces.
This should set off alarm bells for everyone, Black, white, hetero, LGBTQ+ — from parents to teachers to authors to students.
It’s fine for parents to complain to teachers or school boards. Or for employees to seek redress from their supervisors or human resources departments.
But do we want private citizens to enforce the law? What would it be like to have to worry whether about your neighbor or co-worker would sue you if they felt you were espousing critical race theory?
If you’re LGBTQ, you should be especially concerned.
In plain, non-Orwellian English: Republican politicos know that some folks don’t want to learn about our country’s history of racism or about LGBTQ sexuality, gender identity, culture and history.
We can’t afford to throw up our hands on this.
Let’s do all we can to prevent the erasure of racism and LGBTQ culture from the teaching of our country’s history.
“When was the last time anybody said ‘wow!’” a friend asked me.
I couldn’t remember the last time anyone I know (including me) had any “Wow!” moments. Until I heard about trans woman and software engineering manager Amy Schneider’s 29-game winning streak on “Jeopardy.”
You wouldn’t think anything could dispel our COVID exhaustion and political divisiveness. Yet, news about a champion on “Jeopardy,” a quiz show that has been on TV since 1964, has broken through our gloom.
In our culture, there are few things that everyone loves. But, “Jeopardy” is beloved by many, from theater geeks to 80-year-old sports nuts. A progressive friend was over the moon when his brother was a “Jeopardy” contestant. A buddy, a hetero (non-Trump) Republican, is a “Jeopardy” fanatic and a gay librarian pal is a “Jeopardy” freak.
Many of us daydream about being on “Jeopardy.” But we know that we wouldn’t have a chance on this legendary quiz show with its deceptively simple format: You give the answer to the (often incredibly hard) clues in the form of a question. You have to have a strategic military commander’s and a world-class athlete’s coordination: so you can press the buzzer to answer the clue.
The game’s categories run the gamut from opera to mountain ranges. Most of us, mere mortals, would be lucky to know even one category in the first round of the game. Let alone in the “Double Jeopardy” round or the “Final Jeopardy” clue. I might jump on clues about Katharine Hepburn movies or M&Ms. But that would be it for me.
It’s exciting to watch a “Jeopardy” contestant become a long-running champion. You marvel at the player’s intelligence, endurance, and nerve. It’s thrilling when the contestant on a winning-streak is part of your community.
Many of us LGBTQ “Jeopardy” fans are thrilled by Schneider’s record-setting winning streak. As I write this, Schneider has won more than $1 million in 29 games of “Jeopardy.” She is the fifth millionaire in “Jeopardy” history, and only the fourth player to reach this milestone in the regular season. She has won more than any other female “Jeopardy” contestant.
Schneider, like so many of us, doesn’t want to be defined by her gender identity or sexuality. Schneider’s life is multi-faceted; she has many interests. Schneider lives with her girlfriend Genevieve. They have a cat named Meep.
Yet, Schneider doesn’t want to hide that she’s trans. On “Jeopardy,” Schneider brilliantly dealt with this dilemma. She didn’t make a big deal about being out. She just wore the trans Pride flag pin.
“It was something that I wanted to get out there and to show my pride in while not making it the focus of what I was doing there,” Schneider told the New York Times. “Because I was just there to answer trivia questions and win money.”
As a cisgender lesbian, I can’t speak to how Schneider’s record-setting “Jeopardy” streak feels to transgender people.
But, as a trans ally, I’m cheering for Schneider. Kudos for her bravery! At a time when many states are passing anti-trans laws, it takes guts to be out on TV and the Internet.
Few things are as mainstream as “Jeopardy.” I bet that many “Jeopardy” viewers who are frightened at the idea of trans people, will become more comfortable with transgender people after watching Schneider on the popular quiz show. Because folks on TV come into our living and bedrooms and we feel as if we know them after watching them for a while.
“Amy looks like everybody else,” my neighbor said when I told her Schneider was trans. “She doesn’t act odd. She’s not strange.”
Transgender people encounter violence and discrimination in everything from housing to health care to employment.
I know Schneider’s “Jeopardy” triumph won’t end transphobia. But her winning streak will go a long way toward jumpstarting a change in hearts and minds.
“Tell me about your coming out,” my 30-something friend Seth recently said to me.
“It was more than a day!” I joked.
National Coming Out Day (NCOD) is on Oct. 11. The holiday, celebrated yearly on Oct. 11, was first observed on Oct. 11, 1988.
That date was the one-year anniversary of the 1987 queer rights march in Washington, D.C. More than half a million people were at the march, which was a turning point in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Robert H. Eichberg, a psychologist who died in 1995, and gay rights activist Jean O’Leary, who died in 2005, co-founded NCOD.
Things have progressed so far for us queers since then. We can marry and serve in the military. We’re parents, cops, athletes, teachers and preachers.
In this era of marriage equality, it’s tempting to wonder: What is all the fuss about coming out?
But, a reality check shows that coming out still matters.
A quick look through the news headlines reveals why staying in the closet is so hurtful and how unsafe it can still be to come out as LGBTQ+.
If you’re of a certain age, you likely cried your eyes out when you watched the Disney movie “Old Yeller.” Who could forget the scene when the young boy Travis (played by Tommy Kirk shoots “Old Yeller” because his dog has rabies? In 2019, the Library of Congress added
”Old Yeller” to the National Film Registry.
Kirk died on Sept. 28 at 79 at his Las Vegas home. Despite Kirk’s popularity with fans, Disney didn’t renew his contract because he was gay.
“I was caught having sex with a boy at a public pool in Burbank,” Kirk told the gossip columnist Liz Smith. “We were both young, and the boy’s mother went to Walt.”
In the 1960s, there was no way that an out actor would have had a chance in Hollywood.
I wish I could say that everything’s changed since Disney fired Kirk. But, this isn’t the case.
In August, Jamel Myles, a fourth grader in Denver killed himself, the Denver Post reported. His mother told the Post that her son, who’d come out to her as gay, took his own life because he’d been bullied for a year.
“We are deeply committed to our students’ well-being,” a Denver Public Schools spokesman said in a statement.
Unfortunately, Jamal’s story is far from unique. Nationwide, many LGBTQ+ students in the U.S. have been bullied. Nearly half (43 percent) of transgender youth have been bullied, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey. Nearly a third (29 percent) of trans youth, 21 percent of gay and lesbian youth and 22 percent of bisexual youth have attempted suicide, the survey reports.
Life is far more dangerous for queer folk in many places worldwide from Hungary to Ghana.
You could respond to this grim news by going to bed, staying under the covers—tucked in the closet.
But that would let homophobia and transphobia have the right of way. It would deny us the chance to joyfully, proudly, defiantly celebrate who we are.
Studies have shown that knowing us can help alleviate prejudice.
Family members, friends and colleagues may still feel uncomfortable around us because of our sexual orientation or gender identity.
But, it’s hard to hate your non-binary 10-year-old granddaughter on Christmas morning. Or your gay buddy at the gym.
One of my fondest memories is when I came out to my Aunt Manci. I worried that she wouldn’t accept my girlfriend. I needed have been anxious. “You’re lucky,” she said, “she loves you.”
Coming out is a process that lasts a lifetime—from deciding if you want to be out in the third grade to ensuring that your loved ones won’t erase your queerness from your obituary.
Coming out can be arduous. But, it’s liberating! Let the revels begin! Happy National Coming Out Day!
Even before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I felt sad, angry, numb, scared, disoriented.
My partner Anne, the love of my life, died two and a half weeks before 9/11. She was diagnosed with cancer in the ER around New Year’s 2001 and died shortly after the chemo stopped working.
My world, like any grieving person’s universe, had completely changed.
I barely knew what day it was. Brushing my teeth was a challenge. I couldn’t follow the plot when I glanced at a rerun of “The Odd Couple” on TV, let alone news headlines.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” the line from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” ran through my head.
Then, on a Tuesday morning, 20 years ago, everyone’s life changed. People from teens to grandparents felt as if the center had disintegrated.
Airplanes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks.
Everyone (64 people) on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon were killed along with 125 people in the building. United Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Everyone on the plane died.
It’s widely believed that some passengers, including Mark Bingham, a gay public relations executive, tried to take control of the plane from the hijackers.
Investigators speculated that Bingham and the other passengers tried to overtake the hijackers to prevent an attack on the White House or a building such as the Capitol.
Along with those who died during the attacks, there were the many survivors and first responders who were burned and injured during the 9/11 attacks.
On 9/11, marriage equality was years away. As the Blade reported, LGBTQ people whose spouses died on 9/11 struggled to obtain survivors’ benefits.
Around 10:30 a.m. on 9/11, Barbara, a friend, called and told me to turn on my TV ASAP.
“There’s been an explosion in New York!” she said, “I think a plane’s crashed into the Pentagon!”
As instructed, I turned on my TV (you didn’t get the news on your phone then).
But, I could barely take it in as I watched the Twin Towers burn and the terror at the Pentagon. Still in shock from losing Anne, I couldn’t register the horror.
Seeing the images on the screen was like watching something from another world with no connection to me. But I soon learned nearly everyone would feel connected to the terror, anxiety and fear of 9/11. Including me.
The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, I went with a friend to the courthouse to record Anne’s will. Just as we’d entered the building, we were told to “evacuate the premises.”
After we waited about an hour outside, the security guard said we could go back into the building. There had been a bomb scare. “It could have been a terrorist,” he said.
There was much talk about how irony had ended after 9/11. Yet, because tragedy and comedy are so intertwined, humor didn’t die.
A few weeks after, 9/11, a paralegal helped me to settle Anne’s affairs. I remember that he wisecracked about Osama Bin Laden. Not, I believe, to trivialize the Sept. 11 attacks. Like many, I think he joked to try to cope with the terror.
No grief is like that of those who lost loved ones in a nano-sec on 9/11. Yet, like many, I’ve come to grieve for what 9/11 did to our country.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, we’ve been engaged in a misbegotten War on Terror. On Jan. 6, rioters, in an act of domestic terrorism, stormed the Capitol. A new law in Texas empowers private citizens to spy on women who want to have an abortion.
In the face of such terror and division, it seems quixotic to hope for an end to fear and divisiveness. Yet, in memory of those who died on 9/11, we must hope and work to make the world better.
‘Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy’ By Leslie Brody c2020, Seal Press $30/335 pages
I love reading biographies – especially, of queer artists and writers. But some bios put you to sleep.
Happily, “Sometimes You Have to Lie” by Leslie Brody, the new, intriguing biography of queer artist and writer Louise Fitzhugh, author and illustrator of the beloved children’s book “Harriet the Spy,” won’t give you any shut-eye.
“Harriet the Spy,” since its publication in 1964, has been enjoyed by generations of kids and adults. It’s been made into a movie. Brody was hired in 1988 to write an adaptation of “Harriet the Spy” for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company.
I discovered “Harriet the Spy” only recently as I read “Sometimes You Have to Lie.” What a great find!
Harriet, a sassy New York City kid, is a writer. Her nanny, Ole Golly, tells her that writers take notes on people. Harriet, notebook in hand, soon begins to “spy” on everyone – from her neighbors to her schoolmates.
As Fitzhugh, who was queer, wrote to her friend, gay poet James Merrill, Harriet is a “nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.”
Harriet is fabulously “nasty!” She wears jeans, carries a tool belt on her waist and says “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!”
Harriet is the queer love-child of Jo March and Holden Caulfield. She’s inspired thousands of hetero and queer readers to become spies and rebels (writers).
As it so often is with LGBTQ artists and writers (even creators of classics), I had no idea that Louise Fitzhugh, who lived from 1928 to 1974, was queer. Fitzhugh wasn’t just a lesbian. She was fabulously queer!
Fitzhugh was born in Memphis, Tenn. Her family was wealthy. Her parents, who met and wed quickly in a “jazz age marriage,” divorced when she was a baby. She was raised by her father Millsaps Fitzhugh and her eccentric, but loving grandmother.. For years, she was told that her mother had died. Later, Fitzhugh learned that her mother, who was denied custody and visitation rights, was alive. She was devastated to read in news accounts of her parents’ acrimonious divorce proceedings that during their quarrels her folks had thrown her (a baby) on to a couch.
As a teen, Fitzhugh had a boyfriend who thought of her as “beautiful” but “a little different from the other girls, a little bit more serious and very smart.”
He was right on all counts. Early on, Fitzhugh knew that she liked girls. As a teenager, she fell in love with photojournalist Amelia Brent. At the same time, she eloped with Ed Thompson, because he, like her, wanted to leave the Jim Crow South. Fitzhugh soon had a change of heart, the unconsumated marriage was annulled and she returned to Memphis.
She didn’t remain back home for long. Soon, Fitzhugh, 19, left to attend Bard to study poetry and painting. For the rest of her life, she lived in Greenwich Village in New York and later in Connecticut (while traveling to Rome and other locales). Over the decades, she had several loving, long-term, same-sex relationships. Fitzhugh was quite close to a male friend, but rebuffed his wish for sex, because she couldn’t “abide” a man “in her bed.”
Fitzhugh’s circle of vital, creative queer friends ranged from children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak to playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin’s spouse, was among those who knew her.
I so wish I could have been part of this glittering 1950s queer life — until I realize how closeted queers had to be.
“As an adult, Fitzhugh was unapologetically out of the closet,” Brody writes. Fitzhugh also was aware, Brody adds, that a “little lie to preserve your identity and self-respect can be a soul-saving measure.”
But, Fitzhugh knew that, as Ole Golly tells Harriet, “to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
“Sometimes You Have to Lie” is the fascinating story of the long-hidden truth about the life of the queer author of an iconic children’s book. Harriet wouldn’t be able to put it down.
‘A Promised Land’ By Barack Obama c.2020, Crown $45/768 pages
Most memoirs of politicians are pablum — ghost-written snooze-inducers. At best, good door-stops.
“A Promised Land,” former President Barack Obama’s new memoir, breaks that mold. Though it’s over 700 pages, you won’t be tempted to turn away from this, by turns, measured, moving, detailed, witty, and self-aware volume. The memoir, narrated by Obama, is a great listen (29 hours, 10 minutes) on Audible.
Unlike most politicos, Obama can write! Many of us ink-stained wretches would give anything to have his writing chops. Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama’s critically acclaimed 1995 coming-of-age memoir, came out years before he was a player on the national political stage.
Like many, I knew some of the highlights of Obama’s life before I picked up “A Promised Land”: his spouse and best friend Michelle, his daughters, his dog Bo, his rapid rise from Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to president of the United States.
As a lesbian, I knew of the many things that Obama and his administration did to support LGBTQ rights – from issuing Pride proclamations to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” At his last press conference, Obama called on Blade reporter Chris Johnson to ask a question. (Obama was the first U.S. president to call on a LGBTQ press reporter at a press conference.) No wonder many of us think of Obama as the “first gay president.”
If this memoir had been hacked out by a ghostwriter for a typical politico (even a queer-friendly politico), I’d probably just skim through it. But, because of Obama’s superb writing, the breadth of his thinking and the wide-ranging events of his administration (from his meetings with foreign leaders to the passage of the Affordable Care Act), I was hooked from the get-go on “A Promised Land.” The Republican opposition to his every move (no matter how bipartisan he tries to be) is an underlying theme.
“For a month, Michelle and I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock,” Obama writes in the memoir’s preface of what life was like for him and Michelle after he left office in January 2017, “replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act.”
No way could I stop reading after that!
“A Promised Land” is the first of two volumes. It begins with a preface in which Obama says he wants to give an “honest rendering” of the events that happened on his watch and ends with the death of Osama bin Laden.
The first third of the memoir is about his life before he becomes president. Here, Obama writes of his family, youth, college years, law school life, how he met Michelle, his time as a community organizer and political campaigns.
Obama writes personally about his evolving attitudes toward LGBTQ rights. He believes that the “American family” includes LGBTQ people and immigrants. “How could I believe otherwise, when some of the same arguments for their exclusion had so often been used to exclude those who looked like me?” Obama writes.
But, he doesn’t, he writes, dismiss those with differing views on queers and immigrants as bigots. He remembers that his own beliefs weren’t always so “enlightened.”
“I grew up in the 1970s, a time when LGBTQ life was far less visible to those outside the community,” Obama writes.
His Aunt Arlene, “felt obliged to introduce her partner of twenty years as ‘my close friend Marge’ whenever she visited us in Hawaii,” he recalls.
When Obama was a teen, he and his peers used anti-gay slurs. “And like many teenage boys in those years, my friends and I sometimes threw around words like ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ at each other as casual put downs,” Obama writes, “callow attempts to fortify our masculinity and hide our insecurities.”
After nearly four years of Donald Trump, it’s a pleasure to read a presidential memoirs written with intelligence, wit and insight. Whether you’re a political junkie, a lover of gossip or a fan of engaging writing, “A Promised Land” will leave you wanting more.
Queer or non-queer, if you value democracy, civil rights and health care, nothing’s as scary as the Supreme Court.
With the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, there’s the reasonable concern that the court (with a 6-3 conservative, Republican majority) might rule in favor of Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud.
There’s the (not unreasonable) fear that millions of Americans will lose their health insurance if the court rules in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Then, there’s Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that hasn’t gotten much attention in the midst of the election and the pandemic. But that case could have a profound, life-changing impact on the LGBTQ community and many other marginalized groups.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia on Nov. 4. As the Blade has reported, the issue of the case is whether Catholic Social Services (CSS), a taxpayer funded, religious-affiliated foster care agency, can reject same-sex couples who want to be foster parents (because of their sexual orientation).
Nothing stings more than rejection. Especially, if you’re being rejected by the church you love.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, the organization of Catholics working for LGBTQ equality, remembers the moment when the phone rang.
She and her spouse, who live in Massachusetts, wanted to adopt a child. “We’re Catholic. So we started with Catholic Charities,” Duddy-Burke told me in a telephone interview.
The couple, who celebrated a civil union in Vermont in 2000 and were legally married in Massachusetts in 2004, wondered why they didn’t hear back from the agency. Finally, one day a Catholic Charities social worker called them. “She said she was calling from her own car during her lunch break,” Duddy-Burke said. “Because she didn’t want [the agency] to know she was talking to us.”
The agency worker told the couple that Catholic Charities wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples. “She said she disagreed with the policy. But that was the policy,” Duddy-Burke said.
Duddy-Burke’s story has a happy ending: She and her wife (going through a state agency) adopted two daughters. Their older daughter (born drug-addicted, and nine months old when they adopted her) has just started college. Their younger daughter, adopted when she was five, is now a junior in high school.
“Such a rejection was so alienating – dehumanizing,” Duddy-Burke said, “to be rejected – not for our experience or qualifications, but because of who we are!”
If the couple had been a part of an “institutional” church, they might have lost their connection with the church, Duddy-Burke said. But because “we are a part of a small, independent Catholic community that provided love and support,” she said, they maintained their faith.
But, a lot of people don’t have that kind of support, Duddy-Burke added.
The all-too-likely possibility that the Supreme Court will rule that a taxpayer-funded, religious-affiliated foster care agency can reject same-sex couples as foster parents (on the basis of sexual orientation) for religious reasons makes me question my faith in democracy.
Why should we be so concerned about Fulton v. City of Philadelphia? Because allowing agencies that receive taxpayer funding to discriminate against LGBTQ people or any other group for religious reasons violates the separation of church and state.
There are more than 400,000 children in the foster care system who are waiting adoption, according to the U.S. Department of Human Services. These kids, desperately needing parental love and support, are the innocent pawns of homophobia.
In the age of marriage equality, 11 states have banned same-sex adoptions. Yet, ironically, same-sex couples are seven times more likely than opposite-sex couples to raise an adopted or foster child, according to UCLA School of Law Williams Institute.
A majority of Americans (61 percent) support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.
If the Supreme Court rules that CSS can forbid same-sex couples from adopting children because of its religious affiliation, the floodgates to discrimination of all types against many groups of people will be opened. Everyone from landlords to employers to hospitals could discriminate, based on their religious beliefs, against not only queers, but Muslims, Black people, atheists – anyone who doesn’t fit the so-called norm.
Let’s hope that justice will prevail – that the court will uphold the separation of church and state. Our life as a democracy depends on it.
“Our first and second commandment for ourselves as we ministered with people with AIDS,” Fr. Bernard Lynch, an openly gay, Irish Catholic priest, author, activist and founder of the first AIDS ministry in New York City in 1982, said in a FaceTime interview, “was thou shalt not bullshit anyone!”
Lynch, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and theology from Fordham University and New York Theological Seminary, recalled what it was like to live during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “It’s hard to even begin to imagine what it was like if you weren’t there,” he said. “Gay men were queer-bashed. The Pink Panthers protected them. People with AIDS would be in the hospital, and the staff wouldn’t feed them – they were so homophobic and afraid they would get AIDS.”
Lynch is one of 31 icons being celebrated this October during LGBT History Month. The other icons being honored (national, international, living and dead) are from many walks of life – from politicians to clergy to writers – and time periods – from ancient Greece to 19th century in the United States to present day Russia.
The icons range from poets (Sappho) to activists (Moscow Pride founder Nikolay Alexeyev and transgender rights activist Felicia Elizondo) to elected officials (Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first openly gay, first Black, female mayor). (For a complete list and bios of all 31 of this year’s icons as well as resources for educators, go to: lgbthistorymonth.com.)
Beginning on Oct. 1, a different icon will be featured on the site. A 30-second video featuring a different LGBT icon will appear on the site daily. Before Oct. 1 and after Oct. 31, a two-and-a-half-minute overview video of all 31 icons will be on display.
History helps us to learn from the past. Stories from history inspire and encourage us to act in the present. Yet, many of us who are queer have only recently started to become informed about the history of our community.
Since 2006, the Equality Forum has spearheaded LGBT History Month in October. “In 1994, Rodney Wilson, a Missouri high school teacher, believed a month should be dedicated to the celebration and teaching of gay and lesbian history, and gathered other teachers and community leaders,” according to Equality Forum’s website.
The idea was endorsed by GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Education Association and other organizations. In 2006, Equality Forum, according to its website, “assumed responsibility for content, promotion and resources for LGBT History Month.” The Equality Forum is a national and international LGBT civil rights organization with an educational focus.
“I grew up in Central Pennsylvania,” Malcolm Lazin, 76, Equality Forum executive director, said in a phone interview. “There was a very negative view of anyone who was gay when I was growing up. Everybody was deep in the closet.”
As was the case with others interviewed for this article, Lazin learned nothing about LGBT history when he was growing up. “In 2006, when we launched Gay and Lesbian History Month [later renamed LGBT History Month], our minority was the only group in the world not taught its history at home, in schools or religious institutions,” Lazin said.
Over the past 15 years, more than 400 “icons” (31 per year) have been celebrated during LGBT History Month. Icons honored previously during LGBT History Month range from James Baldwin to Tallulah Bankhead to Barbara Gittings, widely regarded as the mother of the LGBT civil rights movement, to Alexander the Great to Billie Holiday to economist John Maynard Keynes to Billie Jean King to trailblazing transgender, gay rights and AIDS activist Marsha P. Johnson. The Blade’s Lou Chibbaro Jr. was honored as an icon in 2019.
The LGBT History Month 2020 and 15th Anniversary launch was held on Sept. 30. At the event, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Jess O’Connell, one of this year’s 31 LGBT History Month icons, who was the first openly LGBT Democratic National Committee CEO, received awards. Lightfoot received the Equality Forum’s 25th Annual International Role Model Award. O’Connell received the 6th Annual Frank Kameny Award.
“It was conservative in all the ways you would expect when I was growing up in Arizona,” O’Connell said in a phone interview.
O’Connell didn’t learn about gay history as a high school student in the 1980s. But, from early on, she was exposed to all kinds of diversity. “I was raised by a Black father and white mother,” O’Connell said, “I had an aunt in California who was gay.”
One of the first times that she grieved was when a family friend died from AIDS. “I learned that love comes in many different forms,” O’Connell said.
LGBT rights along with issues of racial and economic inequality were part of her everyday life. Her first job was in AIDS activism. In 2000, she was the first female director of AIDS Walk Colorado, a Colorado AIDS Project program. “The COVID-19 pandemic is triggering to me,” said O’Connell, who served as a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. “With AIDS, I saw the devastation that occurs when the government pretends a disease doesn’t exist.”
There are some similarities between COVID-19 and AIDS, Lynch said. In the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, people didn’t know how it was spread and people died from it. As with COVID, there was fear of contagion and of death. “But, no other disease has the stigma of AIDS,” Lynch said. “The stigma is still there today. It’s rooted in the unease that so many have with sexuality.”
Young queer men were trying to face the fact that they would die from AIDS before they had any idea of the meaning of their lives, he said. One lesson in dealing with COVID-19 that can be learned from the history of the AIDS epidemic is “compassion,” Lynch said. “During the epidemic, friends and lovers fed, visited, and cared for people with AIDS. Even when no one else would. You didn’t think about it – it was the thing to do.”
Theater can help us to connect to our LGBTQ history. “The great thing about theater,” Moisés Kaufman, an award-winning theater director and playwright, emailed the Blade, “is that it allows audiences to have several types of intimacy with the LGBTQ characters in history.”
They can see the play, and be in the room with the living actors as they encounter our ancestry, said Kaufman, one of this year’s 31 LGBT History Month icons.
“Our history is made by other LGBTQ people who had to survive in perilous and forbidding times,” he added. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to learn from them.”
His groundbreaking play “The Laramie Project,” inspired by the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard has generated worldwide empathy and dialogue around LGBTQ hate crimes. Actors “get to experience our ancestors first hand,” Kaufman said, “They get to inhabit their humanity.”
History tells the stories of LGBTQ pioneers and helps us tell our own stories. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, one of this year’s 31 LGBT History Month icons, is herself a pioneer. Waxman is the first woman and the first lesbian to lead a Jewish seminary and national congregational union. She serves as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and of Reconstructing Judaism, the leading organization of the Reconstructionist movement.
There were no role models for being lesbian or being a woman, let alone an openly lesbian rabbi when Waxman was growing up. “I just knew I didn’t want to kiss boys,” Waxman said in a telephone interview.
Waxman didn’t come out until she was into her 20s. When she said she wanted to be a rabbi, her mother was worried. Because, at that time, there were so few women rabbis. “When I came out to my Mom, she was really worried. She said, ‘It was hard enough being a woman,’” Waxman said. “How would I ever be a rabbi as not only a woman but a lesbian?”
Years later, when she was installed in her leadership positions, Waxman told her Mom, “It worked out OK.”
Her parents were immensely proud, she said.
Waxman is keenly aware that she’s often a pioneer. Frequently, she’s the only woman and only queer person during national conversations among leaders about religious matters. “I try to do it with humility,” she said. “Storytelling helps us make our way through the world, she added.
‘A Saint from Texas’ By Edmund White Bloomsbury Publishing $18.20/304 pages
I’ve never been fooled by magicians. Even if I’m entranced by their magic, I’m still trying to figure out what tricks are involved. Yet, in his latest novel “A Saint from Texas,” queer writer Edmund White makes you believe that you can pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Readers, queer and non-queer, look forward to a new book from White as eagerly as movie fans wait for the Oscars.
White, now 80, has written more books than you can count from “The Joy of Gay Sex” to memoirs such as “My Lives” to biographies of Proust and Rimbaud to “A Boy’s Own Story” and other autobiographical novels. He taught at Princeton for 19 years. White, whose husband is writer Michael Carroll, has lived for much of his life in New York and Paris.
White is part of the first generation of LGBTQ writers to write for a queer audience. “Gay fiction before that, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, was written for straight readers,” he told The New York Times.
It wasn’t surprising when the National Book Foundation presented White with the 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
White, who’s lived with HIV since 1985, has been an LGBTQ activist. He was a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“A Saint from Texas” is a departure from anything from what White has written before. Its main characters are women, twin sisters, not gay boys and men. Though much of the novel is set in Paris, the twins – Yvonne and Yvette, born in the 1930s, grow up in East Texas.
My heart sank as I first dipped into this book. The twins are teenagers in the 1950s. I have friends from Texas. There are lovely places in Texas. But who wants to read about girls stuck in Texas? True, they’re rich. Their father, born poor, has made millions from oil. And their stepmother is into clothes and society. But their father, who sexually abuses Yvette, insists that they remain “terrible Texas Baptists.”
Like Yvonne and Yvette (pronounced “Why-Von” and “Why-Vet” by their family and friends in Texas), I wanted to get as far away as I could from where they lived in Texas.
Mercifully, for the twins and readers, the sisters escape from Texas. “A Saint from Texas,” narrated by Yvonne, tells the story of their radically different journeys.
You’d find it hard to imagine people any more unlike each other than these sisters. Thank God, Yvonne is the narrator! Fortunately, we only hear from Yvette sporadically in her letters to her twin.
I don’t mean to dis Yvette. It’s just that Yvonne is the fun twin who has a sense of irony. As a teen in the 50s, she talks for hours with her friends on the phone, sneaks cigarettes (even though her father has promised to give her $1,000 on her birthday if she doesn’t smoke) and has a crush on one of her girlfriends.
Yvonne escapes to Paris. There, exchanging her fortune for his title (and entry to French society), Yvonne marries a French aristocrat. He’s a sexist, homophobic cad. Even so, Yvonne gets to hobnob with Audrey Hepburn while buying dresses at Givenchy, chat with actresses in Truffaut movies at parties and have male and female lovers.
Yvette is saintly! Early on, as Yvonne says, Yvette develops a “crush on God.” She wants to be virtuous – to help poor people – to find herself “in [God’s] immortal, loving arms.” To that end, she becomes a nun and missionary in Colombia. You almost think that Yvette is an insufferable saint until she says in a letter to Yvonne, “It occurred to me that the religious life was all hocus-pocus.”
In lesser hands, you might have given up after reading only a few pages of this novel. But, due to White’s magic touch you’ll find yourself spellbound by “A Saint from Texas.”
“Sis, you love baseball like a poet,” my late brother teased me one evening, “don’t even try to get what a foul ball is!”
He was spot on. I couldn’t tell you what a foul ball is if my life depended on it. Yet, baseball is one of the things I miss most during the pandemic. What is spring without opening day? Is anything more isolating than not being able to cheer on your home team (go Nats!)?
Our country had baseball even during World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed baseball was essential for the nation’s morale during the war. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” FDR said.
Thankfully, in our COVID-19 era, “A Secret Love,” a new documentary streaming on Netflix, provides hope for we who are baseball deprived. The touching doc is a fab love story involving queer history, aging and baseball. Watching it would make even Attila the Hun choke up.
“A Secret Love” is the tale of a lesbian couple who were together for 72 years — Terry Donahue, a player in the 1940s with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and Pat Henschel. Because of homophobia, they were in the closet for decades. They presented themselves as “good friends” or “cousins” to everyone (including their families) except a few queer friends. The couple, native Canadians who lived for many years in Chicago, didn’t come out until they were in their 80s.
The league was created so women could play baseball while many of the male baseball players were away during World War II. Donahue played catcher for the Peoria Redwings for four seasons. After she and Herschel met in Canada, they moved to Chicago. Donahue and other players in the league were the inspiration for the movie “A League of Their Own.”
“A Secret Love,” directed by Chris Bolan, Donahue’s great-nephew, isn’t about baseball statistics or record-setting home runs. But it makes you feel the grit of the game – of baseball and of keeping your sexuality hidden from the grip of homophobia. During one game, Donahue recalls, her eyebrow got cut. She refused to stop playing and have stitches put in it. Donahue put a Band-Aid on it and kept going.
The movie “A League of Their Own” presents as hetero. Yet, I couldn’t help wondering if some of the characters in the film were queer. Donahue and Herschel make it clear that there were lesbians in the league. The league officials, they say, wanted the players to be perceived as traditionally feminine and hetero. They had to wear skirts and go to charm school. “They wanted us to look like ladies and play ball like men,” Donahue says.
Even with marriage equality, it’s still not easy to be queer – especially, for people of color and folks who are trans. In more than half of the states in the United States according to the Human Rights Campaign, you can be fired from your job if you’re LGBTQ. The Trump administration is far from being an ally to the queer community.
Yet, it’s hard to imagine how much discrimination and prejudice LGBTQ people encountered until recently. In “A Secret Love,” Donahue and Herschel (and their queer friends who are interviewed) make the homophobia they experienced in the 1940s, 50s and 60s up close and personal. You could be arrested if you wore open-fly pants, Herschel says. If you were arrested during a gay bar raid, your name could be put in the newspaper and you’d lose your job.
Despite the homophobia and the struggles of getting older (Donahue had Parkinson’s disease), the couple endured. They ran a design firm, formed a chosen family with their queer friends and got married late in their lives. In sickness and in health, for better and for worse, they were a league of their own.