In 1985, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo urged the public to have safe sex by using condoms to help stop the spread of AIDS. Condoms were the face masks of the 1980s.
Some people wanted to use them during sex, some did not; many who chose the latter, including myself, suffered the consequences. In 1986, I decided to ignore Cuomo and every medical expert — and became infected with HIV.
Today we are once again in the middle of a war being waged between these two camps, personal freedom and staying alive. Too many people still don’t seem to accept that if they are fighting for the right to not wear a mask, it will very likely come at the price of their life or that of someone they love. The power of free choice can kill you.
I also know the feelings of regret, anger and guilt that come with the decision to value free choice above all else.
But the allure of that power is, well, powerful. As clinical psychologist Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics,” recently noted, people do not like to be told what to do even if the measures could protect them.
“People value their freedoms,” Taylor told CNN. “They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.”
I know this to be true firsthand. But I also know the feelings of regret, anger and guilt that come with the decision to value free choice above all else. I hope that by sharing the story of the mistake I made in similar circumstances, some who scorn the idea of wearing a mask — whether it’s because they don’t want to look “silly” with it on or because they are “a real American” — can see that these desires are in no way worth killing yourself or others over.
My life-altering error in judgment happened the first night I was with my then-boyfriend, Jason, who’d told me he’d “been tested and was fine.” So I disregarded the warnings and the facts, along with that little voice in my head telling me to reach for the condom that was in my pocket. I had unprotected sex with Jason that night and for the next two months that we dated, even though it was 1986 and the height of the AIDS crisis. The euphoric feeling of having someone desire me was powerful and gave me a naive feeling of invincibility.
After the relationship ended, I refused to have unprotected sex with anyone else. I will not become a victim of this disease, I told myself. But it was too late. Two years after we’d broken up, when I went to visit him in the AIDS ward of St. Luke’s Hospital, Jason told me he had been tested for the first time eight months ago, when he started getting sick.
I wanted to scream at him or strike him, but he looked so frail; virtually unrecognizable as the man I had dated, he was withered and shriveled, his skin covered in purple sores. So I said nothing to him, though I knew his deceit was going to cost me my life.
But I spent years after that telling myself that Jason and his lie were the sole reason for my getting infected. It wasn’t until this April, when the mask debate began, that I realized I, too, was responsible for my infection. As I questioned how people could brazenly refuse to take accountability for their own health and not wear a mask in public, I realized I had done the same thing and put my own life in danger.
Within a decade of my diagnosis, my immune system was so compromised that my doctor told me to let my family know I was going to die. But luckily, at the end of that year I was put in a drug trial for a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors, which allowed me to survive.
The decision I made to not use a condom has led to irrevocable damage to my immune system and my life. For 32 years, I’ve lived in fear of germs and catching the flu or even a cold. Every cough that lingers too long sends my thoughts spiraling: Is this the beginning of the end? When the coronavirus was first being discussed seriously in this country, the most vulnerable were people over 50 with pre-existing conditions. I’m a 56-year-old HIV-positive man. It paralyzed me.
It also felt very familiar. Both of these epidemics are rampant viruses that have no cure, both have stumped global scientists and, just as at the height of the AIDS crisis, countless people are dying every day.
A glaring difference is that AIDS was labeled a “gay disease,” even though it afflicted heterosexuals as well. That misnomer allowed the Republican government and most of society in the ’80s to look away and pretend it wasn’t happening. Yet there is a parallel in this, as well: Once again, the Republican government is denying the severity of this pandemic, distorting statistics and the effectiveness of face coverings and otherwise not showing leadership or seriousness in tackling this deadly disease.
What I see now when I come across people not wearing masks is familiar, too — a familiar stupidity. Witnessing the actions of these arbiters of freedom, I do not see patriots. I see people cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of “civil rights” and the idea of a “free country“ who don’t understand the awesome personal and communal responsibility that free choice carries with it. I see people who are making the same error I made 34 years ago when I ignored all of the warnings, all of the news and all of the numbers.
As with having HIV, once you become a carrier of this virus, it is not only your own life you’re playing with. Both illnesses have periods of latency where someone can spread the virus before knowing they have it. So even if you feel that you have the right not to wear a mask, since you’ll be paying the consequences of that choice personally, do you feel you also have the right to kill someone else because you don’t want to cover up?
Too many people still don’t seem to accept that if they are fighting for the right to not wear a mask, it will very likely come at the price of their life or that of someone they love.
In times like these, there is no denying that white supremacy, racism, and criminalization put Black, Brown and transgender people at severe risk of violence. The COVID-19 outbreak has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown people. Counties with higher populations of Black residents accounting for 52 percent of coronavirus diagnoses and 58 percent of coronavirus deaths nationally, according to a recent amfAR study.
And, following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has once again demanded an end to the systemic inequalities and senseless violence against Black people by law enforcement.
The life-or-death impact of hate and discrimination doesn’t stop there. When it comes to sex workers in the U.S. and around the globe, many of whom are Black, Brown and transgender, discrimination and criminalization of sex work have put them at a high risk of violence, contracting preventable diseases like COVID-19 and HIV, and have exposed them to police brutality. Yet the U.S. continues to weaponize life-saving global AIDS assistance programs against sex workers by demanding recipients of PEPFAR funding to officially adopt a position opposing prostitution and acquiesce to the U.S. conflation of sex work and trafficking.
The Supreme Court has just ruled in favor of the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO), a provision in the 2003 United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act, that required all recipients of funding through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to “have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution.” The policy goes on to conflate consensual sex work with human trafficking, and refuses funds to non-U.S.-based organizations that do not have a policy explicitly opposing “prostitution and sex trafficking.” While a prior 2013 decision ruled that the APLO is unconstitutional as applied to U.S.-based organizations, Monday’s ruling declined to extend those protections to their foreign affiliates, a ruling that will further divide and hamper the global AIDS response.
The APLO is and always has been a bad policy. There is no evidence that the policy improves health outcomes. In fact, there is evidence that it hurts them.
Since the policy’s inception 17 years ago, the provision has done nothing to advance its stated goals of defeating HIV and AIDS and the trafficking of persons.
This is despite the consistent and vocal leadership of members like Rep. Barbara Lee, who have consistently fought the dangerous, counterproductive, and inefficient aid conditionality of the APLO.
Whereas there is no evidence that proclaiming opposition to sex work is an effective public health intervention, there is evidence that decriminalization of sex work would have an astounding impact on reducing the HIV epidemic, averting between 33-46 percent of new infections over a decade. Yet the APLO directly blocks organizations from halting the spread of HIV.
Sex workers are disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS globally. Halting the spread of HIV simply cannot happen without trusted engagement and leadership from sex workers. Over the past 17 years, the policy has promoted stigma and discrimination of sex workers. It oftentimes blocks sex workers from engaging in the design, development, implementation, and assessment of HIV and AIDS programs and services. HIV prevention and treatment programs are more successful when they include sex workers involvement and leadership. For some organizations around the world, working with sex workers while declaring opposition to sex work feels hypocritical. It was for these reasons that Brazil rejected $40 million in U.S. global AIDS money in 2005, noting that such restrictions undermined the very programs responsible for Brazil’s success in reducing the spread of HIV.
International health and development agencies including UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNDP, the WHO, and the World Bank have recognized the role that decriminalization of sex work plays in advancing public health outcomes while also advancing the human rights of sex workers.
In conclusion, APLO is a punitive rule that makes it difficult for sex workers to access comprehensive, accessible and affordable health care. But everyone deserves access to quality care. Social stigmas that disproportionately impact and undermine the sexual and reproductive health rights of people across the globe do not belong in our nation’s foreign aid programs, and nothing should change that.
Serra Sippel is president the Center for Health and Gender Equity.
The very act of being a Queer person is radical. Who we love and who we have sex with are acts of political defiance. Being visible, being proud, refusing to hide who we are: These are rejections of tyranny, and Pride Month is an opportunity to celebrate that.
Being LGBTQ also means freedom — to define for myself how relationships will look. There is strength there, and Pride is about these things, too.
We didn’t want our relationship to feel like a trap. We both wanted to be free to explore and to experience new things, and didn’t want to limit each other.
So June is the ideal time to make the case for open relationships and to discuss how my partner, Layne, and I have benefited from our recent decision to open up.
When you live as an outsider, there is an opportunity to question the rules of the society you are living in. If who I am is viewed as wrong, or flawed, then why should I conform? Since LGBTQ people as a community have always been on the outside, there has been a long history of questioning how we approach love and sex and relationships. Layne and I decided we didn’t want the rules we followed to be outdated heteronormative ideas.
We each want the other to have the chance to live his life as big as possible. We had discussed the idea of having a nonmonogamous relationship many times over the course of our two years together before giving it a shot this year (though we’re currently taking a hiatus in order to social distance during COVID-19). Neither of us wanted to feel like we were being forced into some societal definition of how a relationship should look and work.
The decision to open up had nothing to do with our sex life or the depth of our feelings for each other. It didn’t mean something was missing in our relationship. But it did mean we didn’t want our relationship to feel like a trap. We both wanted to be free to explore and to experience new things and didn’t want to limit each other.
It’s not that I feel that monogamy is wrong or inherently flawed; it’s the idea that monogamy is the only way to have a strong and viable relationship that I reject. Indeed, the idea that monogamy is the only path to a healthy relationship is ridiculous. The argument could be made that monogamy creates resentment, that it’s why people lie and cheat on each other. Monogamy is fine if that’s what works for you. But it isn’t what works for me — and that’s fine as well.
At the same time, just because I believe in open, nonmonogamous and poly relationships doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with them, with jealousy and insecurity and doubt. It hasn’t always been easy. I can be petty. I often refer to myself as a cave man. Belief and practice aren’t always seamless. Ultimately, my fears come down to the same thing: What if I’m not good enough, sexy enough, worthy of love? And what if that means I end up alone, abandoned, with no one?
This raises the obvious question: If it’s so hard and threatening and scary, is it worth it? The answer is, absolutely, yes. Even when it feels impossibly hard, it is worth it. It can be scary and threatening. But I don’t want to let fear define how I love my partner or how I live my life.
I think it’s common to fall in love with someone and then try to make that person conform to our needs, but in doing this we are actually killing the very thing we found so attractive in the first place. The person we fell in love with is this whole, separate, living human being. I didn’t want to change Layne. Instead, I wanted to encourage him to be the man I met, to keep growing. I fell in love with Layne because of his independence.
What being in a nonmonogamous relationship has taught me is that I can’t be, nor do I want to be, everything for my partner. Once I became willing to think differently, I began to question many of the rules of relationships and the best ways to support my partner.
Do we want to live together or do we choose to maintain separate households? How do we approach our finances? How do we set our goals as individuals and as a couple? Where do we see ourselves in the future?
The very act of rethinking assumptions about relationships has opened up a space for Layne and me to really question our choices and desires and what we each want and need from the other.
At the end of the day, I get to be with the man I love. I’m excited for our journey and I’m excited that I get to grow with him and explore new boundaries. I get to witness my partner as he grows, to see the man he will become.
And I am excited to see who I will become. I know that I have his support and love, that he is encouraging me just as I am encouraging him.
“Sometimes small gestures can have unexpected consequences. Major initiatives practically guarantee them.” Reads the first lines of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the ban on discrimination that protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees. There is no doubt that this decision opens up the legal system for a new era of trans rights. However, two years ago in Latin America a major initiative undertaken by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights passed almost unnoticed. More than unexpected consequences, that 2018 ruling is showing today its consequent and symbolic impact.
It may be seen as a small gesture in a region where some advocates claim that the life expectancy of trans women is less than half than of the rest of the population. But in that 2018 ruling the Inter-American Court of Human Rights banned all forms of discrimination on grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. Deriving its power as the final interpreter of the meaning of the American Convention on Human Rights, the court has its seat in a quiet suburb of Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The ruling is binding in over 20 Latin American countries that fall under the court’s jurisdiction. The gesture is small. The consequences deriving from it, increasingly, are not.
On trans rights, the terrain in Latin American seems even trickier. In the most violent region of the world, trans individuals are disproportionality affected. Violence has its seeds in a culture of widespread discrimination against non-binary individuals. Civil society organizations claim that only one in two trans persons have access to health care. Institutional policies are also rooted in hetero-cis-normative paradigms. The Inter-American Court’s decision challenged that institutionalized discrimination. Altogether with a ruling on a general ban against discrimination on grounds of gender identity, it also focused on the right to identity. The court’s groundbreaking decision considered that trans individuals have the right to have their gender identity officially recognized as they perceive it. In practice, it means that Latin American states have the obligation to update their documents without any invasive procedures, such as a probe of medical treatment, clinical tests or a physician’s certification. The only important requirement is that the official documents mirror the person’s self-perceived identity. Under the sponsorship of the Organization of American States (OAS), the umbrella organization under which the Inter-American Court was created, civil registries all around the region are working on adopting its practices and legislation to comply with the court’s mandate.
These are reasons to be optimistic. Still, there are reasons to be cautious. The political context in Latin American is as complex as in the U.S. today. All major initiatives always will still require many more small gestures. At least this time, the law is on the right side of history.
Beginning today, June 1, we mark LGBTQ+ Pride month in Marin County and globally. It is a critical time to recall the origins of the movement for our hard fought rights – a movement that has achieved massive advances for our community, but which still has far to go. We have achieved things it was difficult to imagine just two decades ago: the ability to marry whomever we love, much broader public support for the idea that LGBTQ+ people deserve equal rights and dignity, and representation of our stories and identities in the media. But we still lack basic protections against discrimination in housing and employment at the federal level, and the Electoral College chose a president who regularly wages attacks on LGBTQ+ people.
The movement for LGBTQ+ civil rights was definitively sparked with a furious riot at the Stonewall Inn. Led by Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson and Latinx trans activist Sylvia Rivera, the Stonewall Riotfollowed major demonstrations at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, and Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco where transgender activists of color stood on the front lines against police harassment and violence. Queer and trans people of color have stood up time and time again for our community to say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! We now see queer Black activists responding to the state of emergency that has resulted from countless murders of Black people across the country and the world. Two out of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza, are queer. Protests – even riots – have been an effective tool in enacting real change.
The first Pride events in the country were actually protests. In recent years, they have looked more like wild parties. But underneath, they are critical tools in our efforts to achieve our full civil rights agenda. As friends at Equality California said so well in a communication today, “Pride is Protest!” How, then, should we think of Pride this year? This month? And this day? A celebration? No. Time for reflection and action, yes! No one is truly free until ALL of us are free and valued and live with dignity and respect. Although the initial fights for LGBTQ+ rights were fought by trans activists of color, they are still the ones experiencing major discrimination and bias. LGBTQ+ people of color have called attention to racism and rejection that exists within our OWN community – and their righteous calls for greater inclusion have often been met with deaf ears. This is unacceptable.
What does this mean for The Spahr Center? We recognize that we have work to do to better serve queer and trans people of color in Marin, and to fight for the well-being of ALL LGBTQ+ people in the county. In 2017, Marin County was named the most racially inequitable county in California. We know that a majority of the clients served in our LGBTQ+ programs are white, and only our HIV program mirrors the county’s diversity. We are committed to prioritizing racial equity in our work moving forward. Here are some initial steps we are taking:
We are reaching out to organizations across the county learning how we can better serve communities of color and be in solidarity with their work;
We are launching a summer social justice fellowship for LGBTQ+ young people to learn about the intersectional nature of oppression and take action to make change in Marin;
We are prioritizing hiring therapists of color and seeking a bilingual Spanish-speaking therapist; and
We are planning a town hall with partners in the County to discuss the intersection of racism, homophobia and transphobia.
We urge our community, especially our White community members, to join us in this work. It is our duty to take action to protect Black lives and dismantle the structures that oppress people of color.
As Marsha P. Johnson said, “No Pride for some of us, without liberation for all of us!
The law often operates as the apparatus that facilitates instead of prevents the untimely deaths of so many in historically excluded and oppressed communities – including the LGBTQ community. The deaths of both Aimee Stephens and Don Zarda, whose workplace discrimination cases the Supreme Court decided posthumously in their favor on Monday, are a case in point. Aimee, who died of complications related to kidney disease just weeks ago and Don, who died in an accident, did not live to see the outcome of their cases, in which the highest court ruled that their livelihoods — and, thus, in America today, their health insurance — shouldn’t be predicated on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
So after living for decades under a patchwork of state and local laws and lower court opinions, the entire country now has protections against discrimination at work if they are LGBTQ. For me, it was a galvanizing reminder of how sometimes advocates can still find hope in our work despite the compromises inherent to the law, and be reinvigorated for and invested in the transformative work for justice that lies again.
Decades of work — in the streets, in legislatures and in the courts — went into the simple, clear, unequivocal ruling by the court that, yes, it is illegal to fire or otherwise discriminate against someone for being LGBTQ, which was written by Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four liberals.
The entire architecture of the Trump administration’s explicit attacks on LGBTQ people came crumbling down in an instant — an instant built on the lives and labor of so many advocates leading up to the breathtaking win.
Nothing happens in law without the resistance and organizing of people in the streets, in their homes and families, in their schools and communities, within prisons and jails, and at workplaces. Monday’s decision, for example, came one day after more than 15,000 people gathered in Brooklyn to rally for Black Trans Lives, and less than two weeks after hundreds marked the beginning of Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement by gathering at New York City’s Stonewall Inn to call for justice for Nina Pop, a Black trans woman, and Tony McDade, a Black trans man killed by police. It also came the same week that Riah Milton was killed in Ohio and the remains of Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells were found in Philadelphia — both Black trans women.
And just last Friday, the Trump administration rushed out a rule designed to allow discrimination in health care settings against trans people under the Affordable Care Act. The entire 336-page rule — which read much like author J.K. Rowling’s now-infamous anti-trans screed — was premised on a notion of sex discrimination that the Supreme Court has now wholly rejected; Monday’s decision should essentially nullify the rule entirely as being outside the agency’s authority.
Whether they like it or not, the Trump administration is not the final word on the meaning or scope of federal statutes that prohibit discrimination because of sex: the Supreme Court is and they have spoken. Thus, the many actions that the Trump administration has taken to systemically attack LGBTQ people — particularly trans youth — are completely neutralized. From efforts to target trans youth in schools, to those designed to push trans people out of homeless shelters, to those intended to deny us health care, every single one of the Trump administration’s anti-trans policy actions are now likely as legally enforceable as Rowling’s anti-trans ponderings.
The sweeping victory for LGBTQ workers is a moment of hope that feels particularly meaningful in the context of the widespread organizing and resistance to anti-Black state violence, as well as the widespread mobilizing in defense of Black trans lives. We won this case because so many Black and Brown people fought and died to give us the chance to demand justice before the highest court in the United States and from each other as Americans.
But in the same day that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of LGBTQ workers, it rejected cases that would have evaluated the legal doctrine of qualified immunity that effectively allows police to act with impunity and, in the coming weeks, the court may issue harmful decisions on the law allowing undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children to remain here legally (known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and abortion and contraception. All of these will have disproportionately negative effects on communities of color; in fact, the qualified immunity doctrine is largely understood as a product of white supremacy and central to the culture of impunity that allows the police to get away with disproportionate acts of violence against Black and Brown people.
The future, then, will be a test of how we build on this victory together. Employment protections are crucial but only the beginning, because ours is not a call for equality but for justice. And justice means showing up for the unhoused, the undocumented, the incarcerated, and the ill. Without decriminalization of sex work, without an end to discrimination based on past criminal conviction, without defunding the police, and without reinstating and greatly expanding DACA, Monday’s win will be hollow. The work for, as the pledge our children recite in school (often in violation of the First Amendment) promises, “justice for all” continues — and, in this moment of great transformation, a new kind of work begins.
Last June, it felt as if the entire world was converging on New York City’s West Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, rebranded as World Pride. Around 5 million people from all over the globe descended upon the Big Apple in what was the largest LGBTQ gathering of its kind, and the city’s streets were literally paved with Pride.
Storefronts and bars and signposts were festooned with corporate-sponsored rainbow flags, balloons, boas, paint, tinsel and posters — you name it, and there was a rainbow flag and the logo of some corporate sponsor on it. Seemingly every company was hocking LGBTQ Pride merch, no matter their history of discrimination against us or whether their C-suite was comprised of Trump’s biggest donors.
It might have appeared as if we and our allies were all wrapped in a big, colorful, feathery collective embrace as we partied together, paraded together, wore our queer positive T-shirts and hats together, reveling in the fact that what few civil rights we LGTBQ people had were still tenuously intact.
But there was something a bit disingenuous about a big tent, corporatized, police-guarded celebration that, despite the queer and independent media’s best efforts, had all but forgotten the real story behind the festivities: that the LGBTQ liberation movement we celebrate with Pride began with a fight against police brutality.
Stonewall began because, night after night, cops had been raiding our bars, arresting gay men, lesbians, gender nonbinary people and transgender people, loading us into patrol wagons and carting us off to jail for living our authentic lives in relatively private spaces.
So when, at 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, as the New York City Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn — handcuffing people and loading them into police vehicles — Stormé DeLarverie, who had been hit on the head by a cop with a baton when she complained her handcuffs were too tight, urged the crowd of onlookers to “do something,” they did.
Stormé — a Black, self-identified “stone butch” lesbian and celebrated drag performer — is said to have thrown the first punch. And the Stonewall riots (they didn’t refer to them as protests then, either) lasted six days. They weren’t the first uprisings for LGBTQ liberation, but they were the largest at the time.
And now, one year after the milestone anniversary of that history-changing rebellion against police brutality, many LGBTQ people have been protesting against police brutality in the names of (only most recently) George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade, a Black trans man fatally shot by police in Tallahassee, Florida.
We did so while our communities are all still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic — a deadly disease the government ignored for too long being familiar territory to the older among us — flinging open our doors and putting on our masks, some of us for the first time since the stay-at-home orders were issued in New York City in mid-March, to march as part of or alongside Black Lives Matter.
We were all risking our lives not only by marching in close contact with others in the midst of a pandemic, but we were facing off cops — many of them not wearing masks — who were armed to the teeth with the familiar batons, and now rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and military-grade weapons and vehicles.
And, not surprisingly, the cops were still raiding our community’s bars and hurting peaceful protesters. On May 30 in Raleigh, North Carolina, police opened fire with “less lethal rounds” outside Ruby Deluxe, a gay bar, because owner Tim Lemuel and some friends were setting up a first-aid station for protesters. On June 1, cops in full riot gear raided Blazing Saddles gay bar in Des Moines, Iowa, for the same reason: providing first-aid for demonstrators. They arrested three people, who were cuffed face down on the sidewalk, and then spent over two hours waiting to be processed in jail and two more hours in jail after they’d been bailed out, according to the bar’s Facebook page.
In New York City on June 2, LGBTQ activists held a rally in front of the Stonewall Inn to protest the murders of Black trans people. As the rally was wrapping up — just moments after the city-imposed 8 p.m. curfew — NYPD officers beat and arrested activists in attendance, including City Council candidate and drag performer Marti Gould Cummings and activist Jason Rosenberg, who was beaten bloody and denied medical attention. He wound up with a broken arm and six stitches on his head for the “crime” of linking arms with other activists.
That’s only a small sampling of the apparently vengeful violence cops around the country exacted on protesters of police brutality. Journalists reporting on the rallies and marches have been shot at close range with rubber bullets, many more activists have been beaten with batons, run down by police cars, tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, shoved backward to the ground courting head injuries and put in jail without masks and in close quarters for hours on end.
There have been protests in big cities and in small towns in states you’d least expect — Idaho, who knew — and in countries acrossthree continents. Not only has the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd been charged with second-degree murder, but Minneapolis has committed to dismantling its police department; New York has vowed to outlaw chokeholds, like the one that killed Eric Garner, provide more transparency about police misconduct and reform the NYPD; and Confederate statues in Virginia and Alabama have been toppled. The protests have also led to a surge of registered voters … and Trump has never been more unpopular.
And that’s just in the first two weeks of this ever-growing movement to combat police brutality. The month is young. Imagine what more we can do as we all continue to march and protest to reform the criminal justice system to finally protect us all. That, rather than corporate sponsorship of a rainbow-hued parade, would most definitely be something to take pride in and celebrate — masked, and 6 feet apart, of course.
It was perhaps ironic that Little Richard and Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy) died within hours of each other this month. Though they were from totally separate pop culture factions, seeing their obits side by side in some outlets, such as the May 10 New York Times, was a sobering reminder of how an older generation of gay men — Horn, who died at 75 was on the outer cusp of the Boomers; Richard was 12 years older — dealt with (or didn’t deal with) their sexuality in a pre-Stonewall era when practically nobody was officially out but demeanor, style, stage persona and more “read” gay to middle America the same way sexual innuendo was implied in early jazz and movies long before it was discussed or depicted openly.
Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman was his legal name) was known for a string of ’50s hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” whose impact went far beyond their initial chart peaks. Richard has been widely lauded as a rock and roll innovator and the first pop star to integrate black and white audiences in a time of rigid segregation in music and society. He died May 9 from bone cancer at his home in Tullahoma, Tenn., after a two-month illness. He was 87.
Horn came to fame with his nearly life-long professional (and for a time personal) partner Siegfried Fischbacher, who were known for their flashy Las Vegas act in which they made lions and tigers (and each other) vanish and reappear. They came to Vegas in 1967 and had a sellout run at the Mirage Resort and Casino from 1990-2003 that found them performing 500 shows yearly. By 1999, the show had grossed half a billion dollars and they were Vegas’s highest-paid entertainers.
Sadly, their careers ended abruptly on Oct. 3, 2003 (Horn’s birthday) when one of the tigers attacked Horn resulting in serious injury. Suffering a stroke and partial paralysis on his left side, Horn was eventually able to walk with assistance but never performed again. The duo made one final public appearance in 2009 with a tiger at a benefit for the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, the Times reported, before retiring officially in 2010. Horn died of COVID-19.
The duo (both German immigrants) only officially came out in 2007 in a National Enquirer article that announced “We’re gay” on the cover. They gave few interviews (even in their heyday) and could be testy about it when pressed.
Behind the glitz
But with their over-the-top costumes (including Roy’s trademark codpiece), ostentatious Vegas home and inseparable public image (and never a hint that either might be involved romantically with anyone else), they didn’t have to state it explicitly. They donned capes and silver space suits, battled a sorceress and a fire-breathing dragon amidst smoke machines, lasers and, of course, lions and tigers, many of which were white, which are uber rare. Their act had a Liberace-esque flair to it, even if neither were ever quite that fey. Siegfried was the magician; Roy the animal trainer. They presented a yin/yang-type persona and lived together at Jungle Palace, an eight-acre Vegas estate (a much larger ranch was just outside the city proper) with, as of 1999, 55 tigers and 16 lions. Horn was the “Tiger King” decades before anybody heard of Joe Exotic (also gay) of the hit Netflix series.
“So you go deeper and say what is going on in my bedroom and in Roy’s bedroom,” Fischbacher said in a 1999 Vanity Fair profile. “I don’t care, I don’t know. I tell you this because this is me and I wouldn’t ask what you do with your dick either.”
Both said they were “very honored” to be considered gay icons but spoke of gay as “other.”
“I have a lot of friends who are gay and I made a lot of friends in show business and I found out that they are always interesting, intelligent and good people and fun to be with,” Fischbacher told Vanity Fair.
“I am flattered to think that people think that I am versatile,” Horn said. “You don’t have to define everything and I don’t want to disillusion people because I’m not a guy who kisses and tells.”
Pal Shirley MacLaine told the magazine they “used to be lovers a long time ago, yeah? In this day and age, who cares?”
Mainstream media only coyly touched on Horn’s sexuality. The Times said Fischbacher and Horn “were domestic as well as professional partners” but left it at that. Journalist Steve Friess, who in The Advocate called them “the world’s most openly closeted celebrities,” said a Mirage spokesperson told him the night of Horn’s attack that “it’s well known that they were lovers at one time.”
They were said to have little presence in Vegas gay life, according to Friess and others, and outside of buying an ad in a program book for an AIDS fundraiser, were not known to have used any of their vast wealth to support LGBTQ rights.
For some, that’s not a problem.
Milt Larsen, founder of The Magic Castle, a private club for magicians and enthusiasts in Hollywood, is 89, straight and knew Siegfried and Roy for many years, initially through his late sister-in-law, Irene Larsen. She and her husband Bill Larsen (Milt’s brother) loved magic and animals and discovered Siegfried & Roy in their early years in Vegas. Larsen later met the duo through his brother and sister-in-law and says Horn was “a dear, great friend.”
“Before Siegfried & Roy, magicians were very seldom anything other than an opening act,” Larsen says. “They came along and went from being an opening act to the headliner with their own huge show because it was so popular. … They were the best.”
Larsen’s friend Dale Hindman also know Siegfried & Roy and says he was at their house several times. He says Roy “fought like crazy” to recover and “they had the best medical people” working with him. He did daily physical therapy, swam and would zip around the grounds on a scooter. He recalls one Vegas convention in which Horn made a rare, post-accident appearance and walked to the podium.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Hindman says. “I saw him a number of times at different places. He was in the scooter, he would talk, he loved people, he had great quality of life and they had the resources to have the best medical care. It’s such a shame that something like this virus came along and killed him.”
Larsen and Hindman say Horn’s sexuality was understood but “never really discussed.”
“I’ve been in show business a long time and sometimes it feels like just about everybody I’ve ever known was gay,” Larsen says with a laugh. “It was a different world then. I just don’t recall anybody ever talking much about it.”
Hindman says it was generational and gradual when more celebrities started coming out officially. Larsen says Fischbacher, especially (whom he calls a “great” businessman), just “never made a big point of it.”
“They were a couple in the sense that they were absolute partners in what they did and that their lives were their business,” he says. “People are people and in the world we live in today, it’s just not questioned as much.”
Larsen remembers “many, many times” being backstage in their Vegas dressing room post-show.
“The Champagne would be flowing and there were lots of wonderful friends,” Larsen says. “[Roy] was very, very gregarious and he and Irene really got to know each other and became wonderful friends.”
“There would be drinks and hors d’oeuvres and plenty of people,” Hindman says. “After awhile, Roy would go play with the animals. Siegfried would say, “I’m tired but you all stay as long as you want.’”
Out magician/actor Michael Carbonaro, 44, of reality show “The Carbonaro Effect,” said in a written comment to the Blade it didn’t matter if Siegfried & Roy were coy about their sexuality.
“I actually don’t know what Siegfried & Roy ever did or didn’t put into words,” he said. “I grew up seeing two gorgeous men living their magic dreams in bedazzled outfits, so they were always an iconic form of queer inspiration.”
Others, however, aren’t willing to let them off the gay hook so easily.
Matthew Rettenmund, a gay blogger and pop culture historian/author, says Horn’s approach to being “out” reminds him of singer Barry Manilow who finally came out in 2017 at age 73 after decades of evading the question.
“They’re men who have convinced themselves that being gay in private is the same thing as being out,” he said in an e-mail. “Which is simply not true. I do hope that as the Rip Taylors and Richard Simmonses of the world leave us, as sad as it is to lose their talent, that they won’t be replaced by more of the same. Hiding in plain sight is still hiding and it still sends such a warped message of self-acceptance.”
Long-time gay Vegas resident/historian Dennis McBride says he can see where both sides of the issue were coming from.
“Siegfried and Roy were never involved in the Las Vegas queer community in any public way I’m aware of,” McBride wrote in an e-mail to the Blade. “They were much like Liberace in that respect — they were Las Vegas icons, counted Las Vegas as their personal and professional home, but deeply closeted because they came of age and established their careers during a time when they could have been jailed for being gay and lost those very lucrative careers. I remember there was some resentment in the community because we needed role models — particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s during the worst of the AIDS pandemic — and both Liberace and Sigfried & Roy might have been a great help in our struggle, brought credibility and support to our fight. I don’t think any of us entirely blamed them, though, because we were all in danger then ourselves as queer people.”
And while Richard stated he was gay explicitly on multiple occasions, he was never at peace with it and at multiple times in his career recorded gospel music and even for a time sold Bibles in a repudiation of the rock and roll and gay “devil’s” music and “lifestyle.” For him, being gay was a vexation and something to be overcome, which is, to some, even more troubling than Horn’s avoiding the issue.
“The problem is his religiosity and self doubt forced him back in the closet just as many times, “Rettenmund wrote. “And though he camped it up to earn a living in his final decades, it was homophobia that won. He died an ‘ex-gay,’ a sad loss.”
Richard was married to a woman from 1957-1964. They had one adopted son. As recently as 2017, he was condemning gay sex. “God, Jesus, he made men, men, he made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live,” Richard told the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a religious channel, reported by The Advocate.
Gay author/actor Michael Kearns (who’s been on “Cheers,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Waltons,” “Knots Landing” et. al. and has said in interviews and books he had sex with Rock Hudson and Barry Manilow) says Richard deserves a more compassionate assessment.
“I don’t know how much gay sex he was having, but for me it was all about him having such a gay persona,” Kearns says. “I think what young men like me found so stirring and exciting is that it gave us something to grasp onto. Here was this sissy, this exciting, flamboyant, theatrical, wild persona and yeah, he later had the doubts and went back into the closet as a religious fanatic, well, of course he did. He was a black man from the South dealing with all that church stuff. I mean that’s a big struggle and I think people just don’t give him enough human credit for battling that publicly.”
McBride says after their performing years, Sigfried & Roy were occasioally seen in Vegas’s gay spots. They separated romantically in 1996, he says, when Fischbacher got his own house in Spanish Trails. In more recent years, after Horn’s accident, speaking out for gay causes wouldn’t have carried as much weight, he says.
“No one really cared by then,” McBride says. “The moment when their honesty mght have made a positive difference to the Las Vegas queer community had long passed and so had the careers they might have lost if they’d come out earlier.”
He says they were “largely circumspect” but “we still saw them discreetly out and about.”
“Even before (they broke up), when we saw them in the community, it was usually separately,” he says. “The two of them would visit the Le Cafe nightclub in the 1970s which then stood on the northwest corner of Tropicana Avenue and Paradise Road. The club’s lesbian owner, Marge Jacques, counted them as friends. In the 1980s, separately or together, they’d come to Gipsy, which then was an upscale dance club on Paradise Road and Naples Drive.”
They were also spotted occasionally at seedier gay spots, McBride says.
“Roy seemed to enjoy the Talk of the Town adult bookstore when it was in the Crestwood Shopping Center on East Charleston Boulevard and one or the other was occasionally seen at the Camp David bath house on Industrial Road,” he says. “But mostly, they and their circle of gay friends — which included Liberace and Hans Klok, who came out about the same time Sigfried & Roy did in 2007, and their protege, Darren Romeo, who just came out during his run in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., — kept themselves pretty much sequestered at Little Bavaria back in the day. I think the idea of a queer community was alien to them, outside their experience, maybe even distracting and a bit threatening.”
Gospel music producer/historian Anthony Heilbut has written at length about how black Christian denominations have shamed or welcomed queer musicians to varying degrees in the ‘50s, ‘60s and prior. He knew Little Richard — not well, but they’d met on several occasions — and says one must consider the era when deciding how much blame to assign him. He wanders into another room of his New York apartment during a phone interview last week and puts on a recording of gospel singer Marion Williams (1927-1994), who for a time was in The Famous Ward Singers, helmed by Clara Ward (one of Aretha Franklin’s major influences) and who also had a significant solo career. He holds the phone up to a recording of her whooping and hollering and it’s easy to see where Little Richard got some of his inspiration. Richard appeared at the Kennedy Center Honors when Williams was inducted.
“His phrasings and his timbre and even his ballad singing, and he was a great ballad singer although we typically think of him as this sort of rock and roll clown, all that came from Marion Williams,” Heilbut, who’s gay, says. “You can’t copyright phrasings. That’s what singers could take from each other.”
Heilbut also says Richard, whom he first met in 1961 and says he’s “one of the very few people who ever saw him sing on a gospel program,” says Richard’s gospel singing career was never terribly convincing or memorable partially because he came from a staid denomination (Seventh Day Adventist, not nearly as musically rowdy as black Baptists and those in the Sanctified Church) and the fact that it was performed more dutifully than his rock and roll material.
“He was singing, ‘I quit show business and I wanna go straight/I wanna serve the Lord before it’s too late,’” Heilbut says. “His singing was very bland. There was more of the real gospel drama in his R&B and rock music.”
Heilbut also says Richard admired Williams in the traditional way gay men have worshiped show-stopping divas. He remembers seeing Richard at a Nashville studio when Heilbut was producing one of Williams’ later recordings. He mimics Richard’s speech patterns, recalling the conversation: “‘Is she still fabulous? Do she still make notes? I makes notes. I heard she preaching. I preaching too. … She always war my heart, she know, she know. I’ve been singing like her down through the years. Mahalia good, but Marion always were my singer.’”
Heilbut also says Richard’s various stints in gospel music robbed his career of momentum in rock. As respected as he was among rock pioneers, he’s almost wholly associated with his ‘50s heyday. Attempts at secular music comebacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s could not come close to matching his peak period.
“He made some very lovely records later and he could be a wonderful singer, but by then the audience had changed,” Heilbut says. “The train had passed.”
Later in life, Heilbut says, Richard was seen socializing in gay bars. He never personally saw him but says friends reported him being “the belle of the ball” at St. Louis gay bars on various occasions.
Richard, whom Heilbut says “always struck me as very goofy,” was ultimately “just incredibly confused.”
Roy, Richard ‘lacked courage’
Gay activist/entrepreneur Mitchell Gold, who like Siegfried & Roy, knows something about being linked for life to a former partner — he and business partner/former domestic partner Bob Williams formed their eponymous furniture company Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams in 1989, which they continue to run jointly. He says celebrities holding onto or returning to the closet are a reminder of “how horrible these religious teachings are, how toxic.”
“I don’t even know what it’s like to live like that,” Gold says. “I was tortured about it until I was 24, 25 but then that was the end of it. These guys who live their whole lives having to be careful about that they said, it’s just horrible. I don’t know as much about Siegfried & Roy except that after awhile it just gets to be ridiculous, like the Barry Manilow thing was for so many years.”
Gold understands Richard not being out in the ‘50s or Siegfried & Roy at the advent of their careers but later in life, once they were financially secure, he says they “lacked courage.”
“I never cared if we lost money for being out,” Gold says. “I don’t have to be a gazillionnaire. If I make less, I make less and it’s the same for Siegfried & Roy. At some point they had plenty of money and so why wouldn’t they speak out for people who aren’t being sheltered the way they are and are forced to live a closeted, unhealthy life. The only thing I can say is I don’t think these folks even know what a healthy life looks like.”
Gay journalist/author Michael Musto agrees.
“It’s partly generational, though many of their generation ended up being belatedly but wonderfully out and proud — Richard Chamberlain, Joel Grey, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It’s more of a sort of self-loathing-tinged caution based on a lifelong fear of an image adjustment or career damage. Roy played to Middle American high rollers, but obviously didn’t want to gamble on his own career. One of his magic tricks was being cagey about his sexuality.”
Musto says the music business has been especially troubling for non-straight black entertainers.
“Little Richard renounced his queerness when he should have just been at peace with it and allowed himself to celebrate and be celebrated by our community,” Musto says. “Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and many others were unwilling to step out of the shadows because the people around them (and sometimes their own inner voices) told them not to. Little Richard was so queer that it seems like a ‘duh’ that he should have just gone there. But with Adam Lambert, Sam Smith and many others (and Elton John, Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang having led the way), things have inalterably changed.”
Although Fischbacher and Horn never spoke of their religious influences — their decor reflected influences of Eastern religion and Horn would sound a large gong in his bedroom to let the tigers know he was awake — for Richard, Kearns says, it was tragic.
“I’m not saying there aren’t some fabulously evolved people who are religious but we’ve seen time and time again how religion gets its hold on gay people at a very early age and just does not let go and the result can be horrific,” Kearns says. “Richard is a fascinating creature to me. In a way, it’s amazing he lived as long as he did with this struggle. He deserves a lot of credit. He didn’t have an easy time of it.”
Here’s a Democratic campaign ad for you: show Trump speaking at a rally to a stadium full of people who gradually disappear and their cheers die away.
Weakness in a president is deadly.
The day after Donald Trump suggested injecting disinfectant and using ultraviolet light inside people’s bodies as treatments for COVID-19 during his daily improv routine in the White House briefing room, which resulted in a viral video of Dr. Deborah Birx struggling to compose herself, he walked it back and blamed the press.
“I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen.” No you weren’t, clown. STFU.
Everyone from the Environmental Protection Agency to cleanser makers to song parodist Randy Rainbow urged people not to follow the president’s dangerous suggestion. Across the nation, the ridicule was as rampant as the warnings. Jokes about chewable Clorox tablets went around. During cocktails via Zoom with friends from Nellie’s Sports Bar, one couple drank what I am sure were not really “Lysoltinis.”
My first impulse after hearing Dr. Trump’s brainstorm was to say “Go right ahead,” but the thought of gullible parents poisoning their children stopped me short.
On April 24, a White House official threatened to summon the Secret Service when Washington Blade reporter Chris Johnson refused to switch seats in the briefing room with CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan’s questioning had displeased the Maximum Leader, so they ordered her back to Chris’s seat. Well sorry, but the White House Correspondents’ Association, not the Trump Administration, determines seating assignments. Kudos to Chris and Kaitlan for staying put.
Imagine the insecurity that would impel a president to blame and punish reporters for his own murderous ignorance. When members of the press corps refuse to be bullied or set against one another, they uphold their crucial role enshrined by our Founders in the First Amendment.
Trump’s lies, threats, and wishful thinking, his responsibility dodging and refusal to respect expertise, have already killed more Americans than the 58,220 who died in Vietnam. The question is whether that and the tanked economy will cost him reelection, and there the news is encouraging. Polls show he is in trouble, and his desperate flailing shows that he knows it. Republicans are afraid that his disastrous handling of the public health crisis will cost them the Senate as well as the White House.
Still, the election is six months away, and Trump’s mischief proceeds apace. A few examples:
The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services (which sounds like something George Orwell thought up to entertain himself during the Blitz) is going to let doctors refuse to treat LGBTQ patients for religious reasons. Never mind that there are far more biblical injunctions against everything Trump does than against queers.
Trump issued an executive order last week temporarily suspending the issuance of new green cards, though it carved out exceptions such as for essential workers—including, presumably, resort staff and Slovenian models. His invocation of health and jobs as justification is a thin veil for the racism that he and advisor Stephen Miller have fomented all along.
Trump’s decision to speak at West Point, prompted by Mike Pence’s Air Force Academy appearance, will require 1,000 graduating cadets to return to the military academy from the homes to which they scattered because of the pandemic. They will be tested for the virus, given masks, monitored, and segregated in the mess hall—all to serve as props for one insatiable ego.
We respond to a challenging time in various ways. Businesses adapt, fresh connections are improvised, new charities spring up. A few blocks from me, Metropolitan AME Church, like many other houses of worship, has gone enthusiastically virtual with a range of programs.
As for that confrontation in the briefing room, it is notable that the president’s aide backed down. Secret Service agents are not a dictator’s thugs, as he may discover if he refuses to leave the White House on January 20. For now, he will resort to any destructive act and tell any lie in his growing fury, while the reporters he slanders and abuses labor on. Let them be our inspiration.
It’s a surprise to no one when the New York Times writes, “Tensions persist between Trump and medical advisors over coronavirus.” We already know our president is a moron and gets a failing grade for how he is handling the coronavirus crisis.
Trump talks about filling sports stadiums while thousands are dying from a virus we know is passed by close contact. We also know despite Trump’s total incompetence the United States will survive this pandemic. We will mourn the loss of lives caused by Trump’s failure to effectively address COVID-19. Despite his efforts to blame others — whether the Chinese for lying or the Democrats for impeaching him — the reality is he has failed us.
The LGBTQ community has seen a president put his head in the sand during a crisis before. The first cases of AIDS in the United States were seen in 1981 and the term AIDS was first used in 1982. President Ronald Reagan would not use it until 1985 and it was 1987 until he declared it “public enemy number one” in a speech to the College of Physicians.
Today we look at various timelines on what and when Trump did anything about COVID-19 and they all point to his refusal to act soon enough. PolitiFact details Trump’s response from the time we heard about the cases in China. Other timelines detail more of his activities in between responses when he spent his time golfing or holding mass political rallies where he insisted it was a Democratic hoax. No matter what timeline you look at, it’s clear Trump refused to deal with the pandemic. Still today he makes light of it while people are dying by the thousands claiming it will be like a ‘miracle’ when it suddenly ends. His responses can be explained by one thing: He is seeing his second term in office slip away from him.
We must be thankful some Democratic governors like Jay Inslee in Washington, Gavin Newsom in California, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Republican Larry Hogan in Maryland, among others, were willing to act on their own to try to save as many people in their states as possible. They called out the president but that is all they could do. Trump is still lying about the national stockpile of equipment and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the quintessential know-nothing, is making statements like, “It’s our stockpile” in response to governors’ requests for help with materials.
Some of the federal government’s failure to lead goes back to the days after Trump was elected in the surprising results of 2016. He never expected to be president and every day since has proven what an error the country made when it elected a failed businessman turned reality TV star. Many key positions in government remain unfilled or are filled with acting officials hampering response to the coronavirus. There was never a full transition of government after Trump fired all the Obama appointees as soon as he took office.
I agree with former President Bill Clinton who recently said, “I have always believed that our country’s strength is our people. We see that every day, in the heroic work of health care workers, first responders, and everyday people reaching out to lend each other a hand. The rest of us must take care of all the workers who are taking care of us and keeping our country going, and our families and loved ones, however we can.”
Americans as a whole are showing we can and will do that. Let’s not focus on the few who selfishly pretend this epidemic is not real or the rules for co-existence and shared responsibility for each other are not something they have to consider. Those few governors who still refuse to issue ‘stay at home’ orders or the outrageous pastors who are still asking their congregants to come to their churches. Thankfully they are in the minority and most of the rest of us will manage to survive them.