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Aretha and McCain get a lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Barbra sends flowers and lightning bolts, Trump golfs

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This New York Daily News cover sums up Labor Day weekend 2018. (Image by Daily News)

“When I saw Ariana Grande on the program, I thought that was something at Taco Bell!” – Bishop Charles H. Ellis, who presided over Aretha Franklin’s funeral, shares his thoughts on Miss Grande after her performance. What does it say about me that I had the same thought?  Meet you at the Taco Bell, Bishop.

ATTENTION ALL MEDIA OUTLETS: Can you please get your shit together? I hate to start off like this, but it’s really getting out of control. First, Fox News used a photo of Patti LaBelle in its tribute to Aretha Franklin. And then, the BBC used a photo of Jenifer Lewis! Y’all, Jenifer’s like a generation younger than Aretha. Come on – all black people do not look alike.  Next you’ll say all gay people look alike – and I swear to you THAT’S not true.

The confusion stemmed from Jenifer’s performance at the Aretha Tribute Concert that took place on the eve of the funeral. Accompanied by the prodigious Marc Shaiman, Lewis sang a self-penned composition, “Thank You, Aretha.” Standing under the illuminated “Aretha” sign, the Brits simply got confused — as they are wont to do. But there was no confusing Jen’s sentiment, as you’ll see on BillyMasters.com.

Prior to Jenifer, people watching the concert at home saw Patti LaBelle sing a teary rendition of “You Are My Friend.” Except, she didn’t. Sure, she sang it — at a concert at the Dell Music Center in Philadelphia a week earlier. They simply filmed it and rolled it into the tribute concert, and most of the home viewers were none the wiser. That’s what I’m here for.

Then there was the funeral. Thank God I was watching from home. I was able to put it on pause, go out to eat, watch a little more, take a nap, etc. Poor Bill Clinton looked like he was gonna pass out. Many people commented on Jesse Jackson’s distressed appearance. In case you don’t know, late last year he announced that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. So, I attribute it to that. Some of the people who didn’t come, sent flowers. Folks like Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Sir Elton John, Mariah Carey, and Diana Ross all sent enormous tributes.

Me-oh-my-oh – that was SOME hat on Miss Cicely Tyson! For much of the service, I wasn’t even sure there was someone under it! But, God love her, the 91-year-old legend launched into a freewheeling adaptation of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Malindy Sings”, re-christened, “When Aretha Sings.” Then there was Chaka Khan, who I thought was wearing a choir robe…or two.  In case you were wondering, her fan had dual purpose – it not only kept her cool, but also had the lyrics to “Going Up Yonder” printed on the back. A very tasteful and appropriate Jennifer Hudson paid tribute to Aretha with “Amazing Grace,” further cementing her position as Franklin’s appointed portrayer for the proposed biopic. Fantasia kicked off her shoes and stalked the stage with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Stevie Wonder was the penultimate act, with “As,” backed by Shirley Murdock, Dottie Peoples, Angie Stone, and, wait, once again, Miss Jenifer Lewis wailing “Always.” After that, Jennifer Holliday ended the ceremony with “Climbing Higher Mountains” as the casket was taken out of the church.

I believe the whole “show” (for lack of a better term) was stolen by Gladys Knight, who sang rings around everyone with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (you can never hear that enough times). But she inadvertently caused quite a bit of gossip. On her way into the funeral, she revealed that she met with Aretha about a year earlier.  Gladys said, “At that time, we shared the fact that we had the same disease.” So, it wasn’t a stretch that most people thought Knight revealed she too has pancreatic cancer (she does look quite thin). In a statement she released later that day, she said, “I’d like to clarify that Aretha and I discussed both of us having cancer, mine was stage 1 breast cancer and hers was pancreatic. Due to early detection, I am cancer-free and grateful for that.” She also chastised the media for spending time gossiping about her – especially on a day where we should be “celebrating Aretha’s life and massive contributions to our world.”

The next day, we had John McCain’s funeral – more notable for people who were not there (or purposely banned) than for those who were. I will say it did my heart good to see Laura Bush hand Michelle Obama a piece of candy – talk about reaching across the aisle! However, one gesture left me a bit cold. Is it acceptable in the Episcopal tradition for a reverend to take a selfie? First, do reverends typically carry their cell phone during a service, let alone a funeral?  Secondly, isn’t it at least a little rude to ask George W. for a selfie when Obama is standing right next to you?  Reminds me of when I ran into Joanna Cassidy at the Emmys, but I’ll save that for another time.

Apparently JC Mounduix (the gay little person on “Big Brother” who go-go dances) is involved in yet another scandal.  According to eagle-eyed watchers of the 24/7 feed, he was seen rubbing a sleeping Tyler’s arms and kissing his armpits. JC claims he was trying to comfort Tyler, who was having nightmares. Many called for his removal from the show. The producers, clearly trying to avoid another ice cream scooper incident, were quick to respond.  “We spoke with all three of the houseguests separately in detail about the incidents. Tyler and Haleigh explained to the producers that they in no way felt threatened, unsafe or sexually harassed.” For the time being, JC (and the entire Moonves family) can keep their jobs!

Lastly, we hear that the Venice Film Festival premiere of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” starring Lady Gaga was interrupted when a freak lightning storm caused a power outage.  Damn, Barbra’s powerful!

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Movies

‘Cured’ beautifully chronicles fight for dignity

New doc revisits APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness

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Disguised as ‘Dr. H. Anonymous’ in an oversized tuxedo and distorted Nixon mask, Dr. John Fryer sent shock waves through the APA’s 1972 convention. (Photo by Kay Tobin; courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

At the 1970 American Psychiatric Association convention, in front of 10,000 professional members, LGBTQ activists had a single rejoinder to decades of APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness in need of treatment: “There is no ‘cure’ for that which is not a disease.” It marked the first direct clash with a psychiatric profession that had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and advised everything from talk therapy to psychologically destructive shock therapy to “cure” homosexuality. 

After Stonewall, gay activists concluded that the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the APA would hold back the advancement of the gay rights movement. To secure equality, activists knew they had to debunk the idea that they are sick. 

The struggle to remove homosexuality from the APA’s definition of mental illness is beautifully chronicled in the forthcoming documentary “Cured” — beautifully because the filmmakers contrast erroneous characterizations of homosexuality by mid-century psychiatrists with mid-century photographs that bore witness to gay people’s actual nature. 

Getting the APA to change required more than storming conferences. Gay activists, for instance, pinpointed sympathetic young psychiatrists who could act to reform the APA from within and helped them win seats on the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, the culture was changing. In the 1970s, gay visibility was growing, which boosted the campaign to end the sickness label. 

At its 1972 convention, the APA offered a platform to gay rights activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The duo invited Dr. John Fryer to testify about what it was like to be a gay psychiatrist. Fearing damage to his reputation (he had previously lost a position for being gay), Fryer donned a mask and adopted the title H. Anonymous. Despite his cloaked persona, his testimony was, in the words of one attendee, a “game-changer.” 

Fryer spoke as a gay man with “real flesh and blood stand[ing] up before this organization and ask[ing] to be listened to” and evoked the great emotional toll of being forced to live in the closet — “this is the greatest loss: our honest humanity.” The tide was turning but the intransigent faction needed a few more kicks. Representing a new generation of psychiatrists, Dr. Charles Silverstein would lay down the gauntlet: The APA could either continue to promote “undocumented theories that have unjustly harmed a great number of people” or accept the genuine science that being gay was no illness. At the next year’s convention, in a final clash between opposing sides, Gay Activist Alliance member Ronald Gold pointed out the absurdity that a medical practice predicated on making sick people well was making “gay people sick.” The APA ended its mental illness classification in 1974. 

“Cured” represents a growing awareness of the history of “curing” homosexuality. Netflix recently premiered “Pray Away” about the so-called “ex-gays” who promoted conversion therapy, the destructive practice by fundamentalist Christian quacks. The film “Boy Erased” (2018) took a similar sledgehammer to conversion therapy. 

Precisely because of the long-term ill-effects of stigmatizing gay consciousness, the LGBTQ community has in recent years targeted conversion therapy. Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for minors, and an additional five states have enacted partial bans. 

Although thoroughly discredited by medical professionals, including the APA, conversion therapy continues to harm thousands of youths each year. While “Cured” is instructive for LGBTQ activists combatting conversion therapy nationwide, it has an even more important lesson. 

“There isn’t anything wrong with them, so there can’t be anything wrong with me,” is how one gay man remembers feeling upon entering a gay bar, witnessing convivial gay men and realizing it was time to ditch his homophobic shrink and embrace himself. 

It struck a deep chord with me because I had a similar epiphany as a young man. Feeling my way around my sexuality as a grad student in New York, it all finally came together one night at a Greenwich bar as I sat across from two gay men and chatted about traveling and career ambitions. I am doing nothing wrong, I thought. It made no sense to be afraid of living my life as a gay man.

Our determination to live openly remains a potent inspiration for those still struggling with acceptance, and the strongest rebuke of those who would seek to erase us. 

“Cured” premieres on PBS on Oct. 11. 

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Books

A bisexual coming-of-age tale with heart

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’ offers pleasant surprises

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(Book cover image courtesy of Scholastic)

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’
By Jay Coles
c.2021, Scholastic $18.99/320 pages

You’d like an explanation, please.

Why something is done or not, why permission is denied, you’d like to hear a simple reason. You’ve been asking “Why?” since you were two years old but now the older you get, the more urgent is the need to know – although, in the new book “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Jay Coles, there could be a dozen becauses.

Sometimes, mostly when he didn’t need it to happen, Giovanni Zucker’s birth mother took over his thoughts.

It wasn’t as though she was the only thing he had to think about. Gio was an important part of the basketball team at Ben Davis High School; in fact, when he thought about college, he hoped for a basketball scholarship. He had classes to study for, two best friends he wanted to hang out with, a little brother who was his reason to get up in the morning, and a father who was always pushing for help at the church he ran. As for his romantic life, there wasn’t much to report: Gio dated girls and he’d dated guys and he was kinda feeling like he liked guys more.

So no, he didn’t want to think about his birth mother. The woman who walked out on the family when Gio was a little kid didn’t deserve his consideration at all. There was just no time for the first woman who broke his heart.

It was nice to have distractions from his thoughts. Gio’s best friends had his back. He knew pretty much everybody in his Indianapolis neighborhood. And the guy who moved across the street, a fellow b-baller named David, was becoming a good friend.

A very good friend. David was bisexual, too.

But just as their relationship was beginning, the unthinkable happened: Gio’s birth mother reached out, emailed him, wanted to meet with him, and he was torn. She said she had “reasons” for abandoning him all those years ago, and her truth was not what he’d imagined.

There are a lot of pleasant surprises inside “Things We Couldn’t Say.”

From the start, author Jay Coles gives his main character a great support system, and that’s a uniquely good thing. Gio enjoys the company of people who want the best for him, and it’s refreshing that even the ones who are villains do heroic things.

Everyone in this book, in fact, has heart, and that softens the drama that Coles adds – which leads to another nice surprise: there’s no overload of screeching drama here. Overwrought teen conflict is all but absent; even potential angsts that Gio might notice in his urban neighborhood are mentioned but not belabored. This helps keep readers focused on a fine, relatable, and very realistic coming-of-age story line.

This book is aimed at readers ages 12-and-up, but beware that there are a few gently explicit, but responsibly written, pages that might not be appropriate for kids in the lower target range. For older kids and adults, though, “Things We Couldn’t Say” offers plenty of reasons to love it.

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Television

Father & Trans son musical duo make history on NBC’s ‘The Voice’

“I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside”

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Jim and Sasha Allen performing on NBC's The Voice, Sept. 21, 2021 (Screenshot via NBC)

BURBANK – The unique folksy blend of the voices in a sweet rendition of the John Denver classic song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” this week on NBC’s The Voice, caused celebrity judges Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande to mash their buttons and turn their chairs around and face the performance.

Unbeknownst to the entire panel of judges, which also includes John Legend and Blake Shelton, they were witnessing a bit of history for the reality musical talent search television show. On stage was 57-year-old music teacher Jim Allen and his son Sasha- the moment was groundbreaking as the 19-year-old teen singer is a Trans male.

In the pre-performance video profile, the younger Allen reflected “I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition, where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside.” Allen went on to detail more of his background; “I was born female, and I never felt comfortable, and it ate away at me the more I grew up.”

The pair from Newtown, Connecticut have an obvious deep bond. Referring to his kid, the elder Allen said: ““It’s a parent’s job to listen to your child, even when it’s hard to understand them,” he then added. “And that brought forth extreme sadness at not having understood what he had been going through for years. […] While it is such a big and extraordinary thing to absorb, there are fundamental things that don’t change about a person. And it’s nice to be at that point where, you know, it’s not a big deal.”

Jim and Sasha Allen (Screenshot via NBC)

“I remember at night just laying in bed and thinking, ‘If I could just wake up as a completely different person, I would do it. I would give up everything I have to be able to live in peace and live comfortably without being tormented internally.’ I used to write in notebooks, ‘I feel like a boy. I want this so bad.’ And I’d shred it up into such tiny pieces, because I was so scared for anybody to know,” the younger Allen shared.

“The only way to feel like me was to transition to male. I dealt with a lot of hateful comments, whether it was from my classmates or from teachers. I wouldn’t have been able to get through high school without music and without art to express what I was going through,” he said.

Duo Jim and Sasha Allen Sing John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” | The Voice Blind Auditions 2021:

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