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The children our community most needs to help 

CASA of LA helps youth in foster care and many are LGBTQ

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Dan Hanley is Chief Development Officer for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy CASA of LA)

The impact is mind-blowing to me.

Community volunteers.

Community volunteers advocating for a child in LA County’s child welfare system who has been abused and/or neglected. Our data at CASA of Los Angeles shows that the typical child in foster care had an average of four placements in a new home every year. Imagine what this does for the child, let alone for the trauma they experience with every move.

Now imagine one of these kids identifying as LGBTQ, which approximately one-in-five children in Los Angeles County foster care do. Imagine the increased level of trauma of having to come out every time they are moved to another home. Or imagine even just having to figure out whether or not it’s safe enough to have the discussion, not just with the new family, but the relatives, the school, the neighborhood.

Knowing you are different makes life tougher growing up. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ as a young person and being moved around in the foster care system constantly. During my time here at CASA of Los Angeles I have met children who have lived in more than 20 places.

When our volunteers step in, the number of home placements drops to 1.7 in the year after their case closes – a huge difference from having four placements the year prior to having a CASA volunteer. Imagine that these same volunteers become a steady advocate for these kids, kids who are in a super tough situation that most of us can’t comprehend.

Many of the children we help have experienced abuse or neglect, have emotional or medical issues, or have educational needs.

The foster system also has a strong correlation with homelessness and trafficking. More than 25 percent of former foster children become homeless within two to four years of leaving the system, and up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. They are literally the some of most vulnerable among us

And imagine how a reliable volunteer who really cares can change a life.

Having come out in the ‘80s while serving in the U.S. Navy, I desperately tried to find community. I had been alone identifying as a gay male since middle school. And while still not out to most of the world, I found many organizations in Virginia and the D.C. area that were willing to help, be supportive, and just be there for me. Most of these places relied on volunteers, and in fact I sat across from many volunteers who were there to support me, and in some cases, remind me that I was safe there.

The youth and children we serve at CASA/LA also really just want to be safe and cared about. Our CASA volunteers go above and beyond to ensure the kids we serve don’t just think, they know there is someone who cares about them. So many take this for granted, and in the eyes of the children and young people we serve, someone who is “simply volunteering” has changed their lives. I have seen time and time again the difference a volunteer has made in the life of a child. It’s powerful to watch. Imagine how powerful it is to experience.

When I think about the 1,200 and more children and youth we will serve this year with advocacy from a CASA volunteer, I smile when I think those who identify as LGBTQ might have the chance to have a CASA volunteer who also identifies as LGBTQ. I have been able to see that and it’s wonderful. It’s also wonderful to see a volunteer who identifies as LGBTQ advocate for a child who may not identify as LGBTQ but who thrives with the support of a volunteer who knows what it feels like to feel scared and alone.

I know there are people reading this that might be thinking that they simply do not have the time, that this seems like way too much. And for some it probably is. Don’t let that stop you from volunteering in another way, a way that helps the world become the world you want it to be. Regardless of whether your passion is around children, animals, the environment or anything else really, you can make a difference by volunteering.

There is honestly something for everyone. Building a community takes effort and volunteering is one of the cornerstones to making sure our community stays together.

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Editor's Letter

For a Lost Soldier…

They’d grown up in Ohio & discovered after a few failed attempts at pursuing the fairer sex, their real romantic interests laid in each other

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Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27, 2013 (Photo by Brody Levesque)

Editor’s note: A good portion of my career had been spent working in Washington D.C. On Monday, May 27, 2013 after returning from the annual Memorial Day ceremonies across the Potomac River in Arlington National Cemetery, I filed the following story based on notes I had jotted down in my reporter’s notebook after an emotional impromptu interview.

ARLINGTON, VA — Every year that I have lived and worked in this city I have always gone to Arlington National Cemetery to observe the Memorial Day ceremonies. Afterwards, I wander down through the grounds, just to watch, maybe to listen, but mostly to contemplate on the sacrifices made by those brave souls whose final resting place has become hallowed ground, a literal garden of stones.

Arlington’s rolling hills are a place of extraordinary beauty, a fitting repository for the memory of the living history of the United States. Names from the history books leap off the pages as one strolls through the grounds. ‘Byrd, Taft, Lincoln, Kennedy, Rickover, Marshall, Pershing,’ followed by the names of the thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coast-guardsman who gave their lives to secure the freedoms promised by the American Constitution. 

Today, President Obama in his speech, reminded Americans that they must honor the sacrifices of their military servicemembers particularly as U.S. combat roles change and the nation’s involvement in Afghanistan is winding down. Adding that Arlington “has always been home to men and women who are willing to give their all … to preserve and protect the land that we love.” The president went on to praise the selflessness that “beats in the hearts” of America’s military personnel.

Mr. Obama’s words stuck with me as I walked along through the ocean of gravestones, pausing every now and then to read the names, the inscriptions, and wonder what that person or this person was like. Scattered throughout the graves proudly marked with miniature American flags fluttering in the bright noontime sunlight, I observed families, loved ones, and friends who had come to honour their fallen. Then I happened upon one grey haired older gentleman standing quietly in front of headstone obviously lost in his thoughts. As I tried to unobtrusively move around him he look up at me and smiled.

I greeted him and he greeted me back then he saw my press credentials hanging from my neck and asked whom I worked for.

I told him for a national LGBT publication, momentarily wondering what type of reception I’d receive as let’s face it, the LGBTQ community still has its detractors, and to my shock, he looked back at me, with tears forming in his eyes.

“You’re gay?” 

“I am,” I answered.

“Lot of changes since I was a, a kid,” he trailed off.  I pointed at headstone and quietly asked if the person was a friend or a family member.

“He’s my, well was my best bud, yeah, I dunno…” The poor gentleman looked stricken and it was certainly not my intention to interview him, impromptu or not. But yet I sensed that something was left hanging so I took the plunge and asked him for a few details if he didn’t mind sharing them. Turns out, that’s exactly what he wanted, to share, to have a conversation about the person whose grave we were standing over.

They had grown up in eastern Ohio, in a small rural farming community. Played football, went fishing, did farm work, and discovered that after a few failed attempts at pursuing the fairer sex, that their real romantic interests laid in each other. By the time they had graduated from high school, the Vietnam conflict had escalated and rather than wait to get drafted, they decided to join the U. S. Marines together. They went to boot camp and not long after graduation found themselves on troop planes headed for Vietnam.

“We were lucky,” he said, “We both got assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 26th regiment.” 

But good luck turned sour as their battalion found itself in the middle of one of the nastiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive in the battle for Khe Sanh. “I lost him that morning,” he told me pointing at the inscribed date of death on the simple white marker- February 7, 1968- “He was just 19.”

The tears came freely and I waited, then we talked some more. He told me that after he lost his love, “I went straight and got married,” going on to lose his wife to cancer a few years back. He has grand kids that he says will never know the truth, he just can’t be open with them, but at the same time, never does a day go by that he doesn’t think about and mourn the loss of his friend, his partner, and the promise of what might have been. 

“I was glad to see DADT end,” he told me referring to the policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t tell’ that barred military service by gay and lesbians. “At least some other couples won’t have to hide like we did.”

I thanked him for his service and his time talking with me and walked away reflecting on all of the unknown Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender military folk buried all around me who, like that lost soldier, suffered in silence and hid, yet still believed in a greater good that ultimately meant that they gave their lives for their country. 

As the American nation celebrates this solemn holiday, let us all not forget them.

A footnote:

In the Spring of 2020 I received an email from a grandson of the above gentleman to let me know that his grandfather had passed away. In the email he disclosed that his grandfather finally told his family about himself and that virtually the entire family had embraced their beloved patriarch. He then thanked me for telling his grandfather’s story.

I wrote back to thank him and asked that on the next Memorial Day, when they visited him, please tell his grandpa “Semper Fi” for me.

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Brody Levesque is a veteran career journalist and the editor of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Viewpoint

Journalists are not the enemy

Wednesday marks five years since Blade reporter detained in Cuba

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The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government over the last decade has cracked down on the country's independent media. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — Wednesday marked five years since the Cuban government detained me at Havana’s José Marti International Airport.

I had tried to enter the country in order to continue the Washington Blade’s coverage of LGBTQ+ and intersex Cubans. I found myself instead unable to leave the customs hall until an airport employee escorted me onto an American Airlines flight back to Miami.

This unfortunate encounter with the Cuban regime made national news. The State Department also noted it in its 2020 human rights report.

Press freedom and a journalist’s ability to do their job without persecution have always been important to me. They became even more personal to me on May 8, 2019, when the Cuban government for whatever reason decided not to allow me into the country.  

Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers after the Cuban government detained him at Havana’s José Marti International Airport on May 8, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘A free press matters now more than ever’

Journalists in the U.S. and around the world on May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day.

Reporters without Borders in its 2024 World Press Freedom Index notes that in Cuba “arrests, arbitrary detentions, threats of imprisonment, persecution and harassment, illegal raids on homes, confiscation, and destruction of equipment — all this awaits journalists who do not toe the Cuban Communist Party line.” 

“The authorities also control foreign journalists’ coverage by granting accreditation selectively, and by expelling those considered ‘too negative’ about the government,” adds Reporters without Borders.

Cuba is certainly not the only country in which journalists face persecution or even death while doing their jobs.

• Reporters without Borders notes “more than 100 Palestinian reporters have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces, including at least 22 in the course of their work” in the Gaza Strip since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Media groups have also criticized the Israeli government’s decision earlier this month to close Al Jazeera’s offices in the country.

• Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, Washington Post contributor and Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Alsu Kurmasheva remain in Russian custody. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who contributes to the Post, was kidnapped in Syria in August 2012.

• Reporters without Borders indicates nearly 150 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, and 28 others have disappeared.

The Nahal Oz border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Nov. 21, 2016. Reporters without Borders notes the Israel Defense Forces have killed more than 100 Palestinian reporters in the enclave since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his World Press Freedom Day notes more journalists were killed in 2023 “than in any year in recent memory.”

“Authoritarian governments and non-state actors continue to use disinformation and propaganda to undermine social discourse and impede journalists’ efforts to inform the public, hold governments accountable, and bring the truth to light,” he said. “Governments that fear truthful reporting have proved willing to target individual journalists, including through the misuse of commercial spyware and other surveillance technologies.”

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, who is a former journalist, in her World Press Freedom Day statement noted journalists “are more essential than ever to safeguarding democratic values.” 

“From those employed by international media organizations to those working for local newspapers, courageous journalists all over the world help shine a light on corruption, encourage civic engagement, and hold governments accountable,” she said.

President Joe Biden echoed these points when he spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner here in D.C. on April. 27.

“There are some who call you the ‘enemy of the people,'” he said. “That’s wrong, and it’s dangerous. You literally risk your lives doing your job.”

I wrote in last year’s World Press Freedom Day op-ed that the “rhetoric — ‘fake news’ and journalists are the ‘enemy of the people’ — that the previous president and his followers continue to use in order to advance an agenda based on transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, islamophobia, and white supremacy has placed American journalists at increased risk.” I also wrote the “current reality in which we media professionals are working should not be the case in a country that has enshrined a free press in its constitution.”

“A free press matters now more than ever,” I concluded.

That sentiment is even more important today.

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Editor's Letter

The nation’s highest honor & rightly so to a ‘Mom,’ Judy Shepard

“I feel Matthew with me every day, or I would not be able to do this,” she says. “We just hope we’re doing what he would want us to do”

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Christopher Dyer a 20-year-old gay activist and Judy Shepard share a hug at the premiere of 'Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine' by award winning director Michele Josue at the Washington National Cathedral on October 6, 2013 in Washington D.C. (Photo by Brody Levesque)

WASHINGTON – In a ceremony Friday honoring a former U.S. Vice-President, a civil rights worker and martyr, two former cabinet secretaries- one a former U.S. Secretary of State, a speech writer for the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an Olympian and gold medalist, and one of the most powerful woman political leaders and the Speaker Emeritus of the U.S. House of Representatives, among others, was a quiet unassuming American mother who became a driving force in the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ Americans and stem the flow of hatred.

Alongside her husband of over fifty years Dennis, Judy Shepard has fought hard to pass federal hate crimes legislation, educate Americans on the need to stem the unyielding flow of anti-LGBTQ+ animus, and remind Americans that hate can kill, as it did in October of 1988, nearly 26 years ago when the Shepard’s received a phone call in the middle of the night that no parent should ever have to receive.

Dennis Shepard was working for an oil company in Saudi Arabia, Judy was with him, their youngest Logan was in boarding school and their oldest, Matthew, was a freshman at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

On the night of October 6, 1998, two men lured Matthew from the Fireside bar in downtown Laramie. He was kidnapped and driven to a field where he was tortured and tethered to a fence and left to die.

Dennis and Judy were awakened and learned that Matthew had been sent to the UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital ICU facility in neighboring Fort Collins, Colorado and they were asked to get back to the States as soon as possible as their oldest son’s prognosis was extremely grave.

Never regaining consciousness, Matthew succumbed to the severe injuries from the horrific beating and died on October 12, 1998. At his funeral his grieving parents were confronted with the anti-gay hatred that Matthew and other LGBTQ+ people dealt with in their lives in the form of an ugly protest by Fred Phelps, the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and its members from Topeka, Kansas.

The ugliness of that protest, the avalanche of hate, and the national outcry over the death of Matthew propelled the Shepard’s into being unlikely LGBTQ+ activists, founding a non-profit foundation bearing their son’s name with a simple mission and message: “Erase Hate.”

The incident galvanized millions of Americans, and focused attention on the rising epidemic of hate crimes. Vigils were held across the nation as Dennis and Judy received tens of thousands of letters and e-mails of support.

This reporter has covered the incredible journey of the Shepard’s since the very beginning commencing with that dreary cold night outside of the hospital in Fort Collins when Matthew died then later the funeral at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper where I observed first hand the plain old just evil hatred on display from Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church clan.

Their “Fags plus AIDS equals Death” signs and garish, neon-colored posters of stick figures engaged in anal sex on display at the funeral of a kid so brutally murdered was a definite “Who the fuck are they” moment not only for this reporter but numerous others in the massive press contingent covering the funeral.

Many years later I asked Judy how she felt about Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church clan which had picketed the funeral of her son in what was to become the seminal event that put Westboro into the national spotlight.

Her answer surprised me. “Oh we love Freddy,” she replied. “If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” Which was a typical response from the quiet unassuming Judy I had come to know.

In fact when Fred Phelps died, I had a conversation with Jim Osborn, a friend who attended the University of Wyoming with Matthew. He participated in the Rainbow Resource Center meetings at UW with Matt, and was the co-creator of Angel Action — the counter-protest against the Phelps clan who picketed Matt’s funeral and the trial of the the two men responsible for his murder.

“Matt saw everyone as a human being — some with flaws, but none that needed to be condemned,” Jim told me. “The LGBTQ community needs to be better than that, we need to let him [Fred] go and quietly.”

Like Judy, Jim, and others at the end of the day, I am reminded that Fred illustrated the worst, not the best, of the very essence of what it truly means to be human.

For Judy and Dennis the Matthew Shepard Foundation became the vehicle for change and hope as they crisscrossed the country advocating, among other things, support of a Hate Crimes prevention law which ultimately became The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act which in October 2009, Judy and Dennis Shepard joined then President Barack Obama as he signed it into law.

For the first time, a federal hate crime statute expanded the protected classes to include a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Prior to 2009, federal hate crimes law only included a victim’s race, color, gender, religion, or national origin.

In her travels Judy speaks to audiences nationwide, stressing the importance what Americans can do to make their schools and communities safer for everyone, regardless of their race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation.

“I feel Matthew with me every day, or I would not be able to do this,” she says. “We just hope we’re doing what he would want us to do. We realize that we must use the voice his death has given us. I realize that what I can try and accomplish is to make people aware. We get so complacent in our lives that we forget not everyone is safe, and frequently, it is our children who aren’t safe.”

Our paths have crossed often over the years and I’ll admit that I have come to regard Judy as a second mom, right down to a couple of instances where I got “the look” for a trespass or two.

Yet, I always was treated like another of her seriously large extended family, in fact so much that in October of 2013 when Matthew’s dear friend from high school, an award winning filmmaker Michele Josue, premiered her intimate documentary that painted a picture of Matt as a person- not just the gay icon: ‘Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine,’ I had brought a young gay activist and another young Black lesbian friend to the premiere at Washington’s National Cathedral.

After I got my ‘mom hug’ I turned around to introduce Christopher and Niki only to see Chris already holding on to Judy in a hug, both smiling.

There are several generations of the LGBTQ+ community that have benefited from her and her husband’s tireless work and advocacy so today’s honor, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors is richly deserved. 

Judy Shepard with President Biden Friday, May 3, 2024 at the White House.

Today in a simple ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President Joe Biden awarded Judy the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of grateful nation for her tireless efforts to continue Matthew’s legacy of kindness, erase hate of LGBTQ+ people, and make America a better place for all of its citizens.

Thanks Mom.

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Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Editor's Letter

Remembering Columbine 25 years later, a reporter’s tale

“I wasn’t calling it the start of the mass-shooter era then, but we knew we were into something new and horrible”

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

LITTLETON, Colo. – Cell phones starting ringing, people were yelling “are you seeing this?” The television monitors that ran CNN’s Headline News 24/7 suddenly were showing scenes of children running out of a school building with their hands on their heads almost as if they were enemy combatant prisoners escorted by heavily armed police officers in riot gear.

Then my personal mobile attached to my belt started to vibrate- whatever had just happened was a major news event.

Answering I found myself speaking with one of my wire services’ senior editors ordering me to head to Washington’s Reagan National Airport to catch a flight to Denver, Colorado. Grabbing my reporter’s notebook out of my suit coat I jotted down notes cradling the phone with my head to my shoulder as I ran for the door.

Jumping from the taxi at the terminal I got to the United airlines counter grabbed up my ticket and boarding pass and sprinted to the concourse as the flight was scheduled to leave in an hour. By this time inside the gate area, nearly everyone was glued to a TV monitor and oddly for an incredibly busy airport the quiet conversations, actually nearly background murmuring was surreal as my fellow travelers watched the horror of what was happening unfold in real time live.

After the four hour flight and being picked up at Denver International headed to the scene of what was clearly now a mass-shooting, the driver grimly handed me a print out of wire copy he had brought from our Denver bureau:

LITTLETON, Colorado — At least two heavily armed young men opened fire and tossed explosives Tuesday at an affluent suburban Denver high school, killing students and possibly faculty members, authorities said. Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said as many as 25 people were killed, including two suspects found dead in the library.

It was after nightfall that Tuesday and as we pulled up at Columbine high school in Littleton, it was surrounded by law enforcement and a massive media presence. The one memory that to this day stands out were the grim stonefaces of first responders, especially law enforcement, on scene coupled with a palpable feeling of abject misery from the bystanders all grappling to understand what had occurred hours earlier during the school’s lunch period.

Wandering through the crowd, being mindful of not violating the crime scene perimeter making sure that my press credentials were visible, I engaged several people in brief interviews and then ended up at the broadcast van from the local ABC affiliate KMGH-TV channel 7 Denver television station.

Inside the van an engineer/cameraman showed me the raw footage taken earlier in the day as the chaos enveloped the school and its surrounding neighborhoods. I remember vignettes of the footage even now as it was gripping yet sickening in its uncensored, unyielding documentation of the carnage.

Children covered in blood on ambulance gurneys or lying on the ground being triaged by medics or even just civilians. The boy being dragged out of a smashed out second story window by heavily armed police officers onto the roof of what appeared to be an ambulance commandeered for that extraction, the boy bleeding profusely as large red blood stains were clearly visible on his pants and shirt.

I was nauseous actually had to quit watching- thanked him for showing me and got out of the van. As I walked by the CNN crew the on-air reporter noted:

CNN has accounted for at least 20 students being treated at hospitals for gunshot and shrapnel wounds; at least seven were listed in critical condition.

He then grimly added: “A department spokesman said the number of fatalities is still unconfirmed.” Behind him in the school parking lot were multiple vehicles from the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner’s Office and based on the footage I just watched I had an awful feeling that there were a significant number of causalities.

President Clinton delivers remarks regarding the Columbine High School mass-shooting on April 20, 1999.
(Courtesy of the Clinton Presidential Library)

Later myself and a group of reporters clustered around a monitor to watch President Bill Clinton address the tragedy in a press conference from the press briefing room at the White House.

The President expressed that he and the first lady were profoundly saddened and shocked by the shooting.

Clinton noted that the tragedy could be a wake-up call for the nation.

“We do know that we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons,” the president said.

“You know there are a lot of kids out there who have access to weapons — and apparently more than guns, here — and who build up these grievances in their own mind and who are not being reached,” Clinton said.

Over the course of the next few days new terms entered into the lexicon of the American culture and nation: Trench coat mafia, mass-shooting, gun-show loopholes and then the single word that would forever be seared into the American conscious that defined that event, those horrible moments and the aftermath: Columbine.

The Columbine Memorial is located in Clement Park, which is behind Columbine High School, the site of the massacre and was dedicated on September 21, 2007.

“Columbine” has since become a euphemism for a school shooting and in the intervening 25 years there have been 404 school shootings. The Washington Post for years has tracked the number of students affected by school shootings. Since 1999, over 300,000 children have experienced gun violence in incidents like Columbine which has turned into common-knowledge collective single word references; Virginia Tech, Parkland, Uvalde, Sandy Hook and others.

A journalistic colleague Dave Cullen, who wrote “Columbine,” an authoritative book on the shooting reflected in a recent interview with the USA Today:

“It was seared into us,” said Cullen. “I wasn’t calling it the start of the mass-shooter era then, but we knew we were into something new and horrible.” He then added: “There’s no healing, it’s an open wound.”

I still grapple with the emotions of that day long ago and still cringe when I hear of another wanton act of gun violence- a mass shooting and I have covered all of them including on the ground in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016 when my own LGBTQ+ community suffered the horrific loss of 49 lives at the Pulse nightclub. This never, ever, leaves you- this feeling of utter despair over the destruction of innocence, life itself caused by a society that apparently values guns over the lives of its children.

Today though, I mourn and remember Cassie Bernall, 17; Steven Curnow, 14; Corey DePooter, 17; Kelly Fleming, 16; Matthew Kechter, 16; Daniel Mauser, 15; Daniel Rohrbough, 15; William “Dave” Sanders, 47; Rachel Scott, 17; Isaiah Shoels, 18; John Tomlin, 16; Lauren Townsend, 18, and Kyle Velasquez, 16.  

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Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Editor's Letter

Dear anti-LGBTQ+ haters & queer hating trolls, ENOUGH already!

The toxicity of this nation and its culture of hate was clearly defined in the reactions from the hate mongering trolls

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Longtime friends Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith backstage at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California this past weekend. (Photo Credit: @daydayred_/Instagram)

INDIO, Calif. – It was a perfectly innocent expression of love and friendship displayed by the two musical celebrity male performers who have been friends for over 14 years.

A dance, a hug, and a kiss shared in a moment backstage by Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this past weekend went viral on social media as to be expected, however, the tsunami of hate that followed was disgusting yet seemingly all too familiar in the times we live in currently.

I’m not going to bother listing or reposting the hateful rubbish here. Suffice it to say that the overarching theme was: “men don’t hug men like that and kiss ’cause it’s gay” oh and please note that is the cleaned up version.

Honestly Justin and Jaden absolutely have no need, none, nada- zip to justify themselves or how they express their feeling towards each other. Yet, the toxicity of this nation and its culture of hate was clearly defined in the reactions from the hate mongering trolls as it seems the only time we feel men are ‘real men’ is when they’re shooting at each other and violent. Seriously.

This isn’t really about my running interference for Justin or Jaden, honestly I’m just so over the hatred, the stupidity, the blatant homophobic garbage and the attacks on the trans community especially aimed at the youth.

Folks? I am fatigued, exhausted and drained because so many Americans embrace hate in fact they sustain themselves it seems by constant consumption of hate fed by far right media, each other on social media and who knows where else- and the direct result are the deaths of LGBTQ+ youth and others murdered by this pathetic and peculiar American obsession.

These so-called Christians, these so called American patriots, these allegedly “good people” are anything but, rather no- they are sick, evil, despicable, and it is past time to have them shut the fuck up and go away.

Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Commentary

Ryan Walters, Libs of TikTok, gay blogger redefine Nex Benedict

Raichik spreads false info including anti-trans pseudoscience about trans identity & experiences that stoke fear, distrust & hatred

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Ryan Walters, Libs of TikTok's Chaya Raichik, gay blogger Chad Felix Greene and Nex Benedict (Los Angeles Blade file photos)

By TJ Payne | LOS ANGELES – A newly amplified twist in Nex Benedict’s narrative only continues to do him and other trans youth harm.  This latest iteration is being driven by Chaya Raichik, the notorious anti-LGBTQ+ creator of Libs of TikTok, her ally Oklahoma’s state Superintendent of its education system Ryan Walters, and Chad Felix Greene a gay blogger who contributes to the far right extremist website Red State.

Raichik’s social media posts and public appearances often focus on demonizing LGBTQ+ people. Raichik spreads false information including anti-trans pseudoscience about transgender identity and experiences that stoke fear, distrust and hatred of trans people.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), without any consideration to Nex or his family, Raichik shared intimate details regarding the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his father. Details of which that were known to multiple media outlets, but not considered germane to the suicide of the 16-year-old outside of being one of several contributing factors to his death with the primary areas of focus on the environment in the high school which included ongoing instances of severe transphobic bullying.

Editor’s note: Caution, the following contains transphobic rhetoric and misgendering:

“It’s the suicide lie again. Nex didn’t commit suicide because she was bullied for being LGBTQ. she committed suicide because she suffered from mental health issues and was a victim of sexual abuse by her father. She wrote suicide notes in the weeks before her death and her father was arrested again 2 weeks before she overdosed. Her issues weren’t addressed, she wasn’t helped, and she was suffering” Raichik posted two days ago.

On March 28 Raichik then posted this:

Followed by this post which embedded an article published by the anti-trans gay blogger Chad Felix Greene at the far-right website Red State:

Raichik’s attempt to redefine the circumstances regarding Benedict’s death and the causes was drawn from Greene’s published article wherein he misgendered and dead named Benedict and blamed his death on a “failed legal system, trauma struggles with mental health, and a young girl far too overwhelmed to handle it all on her own.”

This statement fails to leave out one crucial component of Benedict’s life – the harassment and bullying they experienced literally up until the day they died. Let us not forget that this all began with a fight at school, where Benedict was not allowed to use the bathroom that aligned with his gender identity. This is due to the passing of yet another anti-trans bathroom bill. The school (district) chose funding access over the safety of their students. They failed to do their one basic job and that is to protect all of the students, not just some. 

As we continue to learn more about who Nex Benedict was, and what he experienced as a young trans person, it does not surprise me that people like Greene would hop at the opportunity to blame the victim.

Benedict experienced abuse at the hands of his father at a very young age. This is a mitigating factor in his tragic death, but it is in no way the whole story. Anyone attempting to push that narrative is sorely incorrect and is failing to see the intricacies of a trans person’s life and the impact that a volatile and hateful school superintendent (Ryan Walters) can have on young people’s well-being.

Beyond Ryan Walters and his archaic ideology, an entire state that is hostile towards transgender people, with over 60 anti-trans laws introduced in 2024 alone, you cannot deny the overarching themes here. Benedict was not safe. He should have been safe at school, at the very least, and yet the Owasso High School administration failed at this. Benedict was failed more than once in his life and while his past traumas may have played a part in his decision-making, the travesty here is a system that would rather see children die, than change their ways. 

As there are escalating tensions and controversies surrounding not only the death of Benedict, but the treatment of LGBTQ+ students, especially trans and non-binary in Oklahoma schools, Superintendent Ryan Walters’s comments at a State Board of Education meeting on Thursday has further sparked anger among LGBTQ+ advocates.

Referring to the death of Benedict, Walters accused of LGBTQ advocacy groups of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

“A woke mob formed around the death of a child. They lied. They attacked. Truth has come to light and we will not back down,” Walters said.

“At the time, we had radical left-wing activists who were aided by the fake news media who made outrageous and unfounded claims on the situation from the beginning. These radical groups lied, intentionally so, to push a political narrative,” he added.

“They wanted to use the death of a child to support a political agenda, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting, and you are going to hear these groups, this woke mob, continue to push an agenda and lie to further the most radical agenda this country has ever seen,” Walters alleged.

He then said “I will never back down to a woke mob. I will never lie to our kids or allow a radical agenda to be forced on our kids.” Walters publicly has declared that there are “not multiple genders” and that state’s schools “would not perpetuate what he considers a lie that transgender and nonbinary people exist.”

Since Benedict’s passing, the Indiana-based nonprofit the Rainbow Youth Project which provides LGBTQ+ mental health crisis counseling, has had a 500% increase in calls. Between February 16th and 20th they received 349 calls from Oklahoma, during a time they normally would average 87 calls per week. 69% of those callers mentioned Benedict’s death. 85% said they were experiencing bullying at school, 79% were in fear of their physical safety, and more than 10% were students at Owasso High School, where Benedict attended. 

According to the 2022 U.S Transgender Survey, 60% of 16 and 17-year-old respondents experienced one or more forms of “mistreatment or negative experience, including verbal harassment, physical attacks, online bullying, being denied the ability to dress according to their gender identity/expression, teachers or staff refusing to use chosen name or pronouns, or being denied the use of restrooms or locker rooms matching their gender identity”.

In Oklahoma (U.S Trans Survey, 2015) 46% of those students were verbally harassed, 19% attacked, and 10% sexually assaulted. 17% faced such severe mistreatment that they left school all together. 56% of trans people in Oklahoma avoided using a public restroom because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience. 

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TJ Payne is an investigative journalist and forensic analyst based in Los Angeles. He is a doctoral candidate at the California School of Forensic Studies, where he is researching the Trans Panic Defense. TJ enjoys exploring abandoned places, napping with his dog Brody, and road trips. 

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What happens now? Autopsy confirms what we already knew

But if we keep pushing, keep organizing, and keep shining our lights on the real villains in America, maybe we can save some of our kids

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Nex Benedict's gravesite in Collinsville, Oklahoma. (Photo By TJ Payne)

By TJ Payne | LOS ANGELES – As my day is coming to an end, in my sweet protective bubble State of California, I am still sitting with Nex Benedict’s autopsy report. Since first reading it while I sipped my black coffee this morning, from the comfort of my couch, I’ve printed it out and shuffled through it several times throughout the day.

Each time I’m left feeling as if I am sinking further into the ground where I’ll eventually shrivel away and be forgotten. As if this were a place where all trans people go to be forgotten, the void if you will. I never want Nex to be forgotten. I never want to forget Nex. Maybe that is why I subject myself to the discomfort of reading his full autopsy report that was released to the public this morning.

It doesn’t come close to what I imagine Nex was feeling for quite some time. It is hard to articulate what it feels like as a transgender person to read through this report though, of a young trans teen. The language used to describe our insides, as we lay on a freezing cold metal table; intact, not unusual, and normal. Why is it that we can’t be described like this in other spaces, instead of being called filth? Instead of being villains, pedophiles, or perverts, why are we not granted this dignity in life, as we are in death? 

Earlier this month, I decided to take it upon myself and visit Owasso, Oklahoma in hopes of meeting those closest to Nex. To get a better sense of the culture, the vibe, even, that pulsed through this small town in the south.

I met with local and national organization leaders who expressed their disgust with the current trend in anti-trans legislation that continues to flood the entirety of the state. Several of them informed me that since Nex’s death, crisis call centers have had a 300%+ increase, with data analysts learning that callers directly referenced Nex’s death. anti-trans legislation, Christian rhetoric, and Ryan Walters as reasons for their calls and suicidal ideation.

A close friend and ex of Nex who met with me shared that “The biggest issue, for trans youth, for LGBTQ youth, for the youth in the state, the biggest issue is Ryan Walters. And the state government. We should not have a state senator calling children, filth. Point blank.”

He was fired up, passionate, and perhaps terrified as he expressed this to me. I understood all of these feelings too well as someone who was adamantly afraid of Trump coming into more power in the 2016 election. 

I also met with three mothers. Mothers of children who have experienced bullying and harassment because of their trans-identities, or their parents being out and queer. These protective mama bears shed tears for their kids having to deal with added stress at school. As if junior high and high school weren’t stressful enough, a transgender student with queer parents is going to be compounded even more than the rest.

I was in awe of such dedicated parents, and such protectiveness. That wasn’t my own experience with my mother- who misgenders me even now, as a nearly 36-year-old man with a beard and exposed chest hair. I wished I could tell these mothers’ kids just how lucky they are, and that they are in good hands, no matter what. I listened to their stories, many full of fear for their kids, but also fear of retaliation from the school, or other community members.

Their emails have gone unanswered for months by the Owasso School District administration, leaving these mothers to make the hard decisions of pulling their kids from school, some transferring to a nearby school, and some trying out homeschooling. Both outcomes blame the child, instead of the adults in positions of power taking even an ounce of accountability. Turning a blind eye to these incidents risks another child slipping through a very small crack in an already badly damaged system. 

I continued talking to residents of Owasso since I returned to Los Angeles. I’ve learned more and more about Nex, and about the injustices he experienced throughout his life before even arriving at Owasso High School.

In all my conversations with friends and family, the fact that Nex experienced trauma was not ignored, but it was not his defining characteristic, as it isn’t for so many of us. It would be ignorant to say that abuse does not impact a person, but it cannot be said how exactly that looked for Nex.

I wanted to learn who this person was, the whole person, and this is part of his story, but I can assure you there is much more to him than all of the darkness that may have clouded him. He loved to cook. Nex’s aunt but legally sister (after he was adopted by Sue Benedict) shared a story with me about Nex coming to Texas to visit her when he was 14.

The family took him to a grocery store and told him to pick out his ingredients of choice and to cook whatever he wanted. He made a magical octopus dish that stunned them all while bonding with his aunt’s partner. While out shopping, Sue picked out an animal skull of some sort, knowing instinctively that he would love it.

He was a defender of his friends and enjoyed play-fighting. Nex was thoughtful and romantic. His favorite band was Ghost, a theatrical metal band that I have come to love now too. He had layers, and intricacies to his being – that includes his gender identity, and the fluidity that comes with that as a young trans person. As a trans person, I can vouch for this process. It is all such a process, a sometimes painful one, and he was barely getting started. He barely had a chance to be Nex. 

We must do better, now. There is no time to dilly-dally or to assume the next generation will take care of our shortcomings. We have to hold people and systems accountable. We have to hold each other accountable. We have to protect one another, hold one another. Because if we don’t, we will continue to lose our youth.

We will have more and more Nex’s, more frequently, more tragically. Nex’s story has placed a microscope on a school district with a rich history of failures, bullying, and now, a child’s death. This is not an isolated incident, however, and there are more trans youth suicides than any other demographic in the United States. Who will be next? Because the reality is, there will be another one.

But if we keep pushing, keep organizing, and keep shining our lights on the real villains in America, maybe we can save some of our kids.

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TJ Payne is an investigative journalist and forensic analyst based in Los Angeles. He is a doctoral candidate at the California School of Forensic Studies, where he is researching the Trans Panic Defense. TJ enjoys exploring abandoned places, napping with his dog Brody, and road trips. 

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The predictable predictability of the Oscars

Despite efforts to ensure greater diversity among its nominees, it’s the individual choices of its voters that determines the final results

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The stage at the 96th annual Oscar ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday night. (Screenshot/YouTube The Academy)

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – It’s hard to write a reaction piece about the Oscars when you recognize that the Oscars, by their very nature, are essentially a poll – or perhaps, more aptly, a popularity contest – which reflects an aggregate of personal opinions, and therefore have as much to do with internal Hollywood politics as with rewarding artistic excellence.

I’m not saying that the movies and people being celebrated on the stage at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday night – all of them, winners and nominees alike – didn’t deserve to be there; on the contrary, 2023 was an outstanding year for cinema, and every one of the contenders could be considered worthy of taking the prize.

If that’s the case, however, how can any of these outcomes be determined without the influence of personal taste? Making movies is not like playing sports, where a win results from the highest number of points scored and goals blocked; there is no such handily objective criteria to rely on in picking an actor, a screenwriter, or an entire film to proclaim as the “best” in its respective category, and it’s inevitable that Academy voters will be influenced by personal bias when they make their choices on that final ballot.

While Sunday’s 96th annual Oscar ceremony, which offered the usual snubs and oversights and no real surprises, might have disappointed me or even occasionally sparked a glimmer of outrage, I cannot fairly say that any of the final results were “mistakes.” And though it may be oversimplifying things to say that being offended by the Academy’s final choices is akin to being angry that someone else’s favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate when yours is salted caramel praline, it’s still enough to convince me that my “reaction” piece to the Academy Awards can really only ever be an “opinion” piece,

With that in mind, here we go.

The presentation itself was the usual blend of witty repartee (mostly provided with success by veteran Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel, though attempts at it from the various presenters ran the gamut from delightful to disastrous).

Musical performances (Billie Eilish and brother Finneas O’Connell’s rendition of “What Was I Made For?”, which went on to win the evening’s only award for “Barbie”, was a particular highlight, alongside the more lavish and deliciously amusing dance production number headed by Supporting Actor nominee Ryan Gosling for “I’m Just Ken” from the same film), uplifting moments (a regal Rita Moreno’s benedictory introduction of “Barbie” Supporting Actress nominee America Ferrera brought tears to my eyes, and I suspect I wasn’t alone).

Show-stopping surprises (John Cena’s teasingly faux nudity presenting the Best Costume Design award was a memorable stunt, to put it mildly, as was the combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito to do the honors in the Visual Effects and Film Editing categories) – yet it also had more than its fair share of embarrassing gaffes, such as upstaging the “In Memoriam” segment with an overblown production number accompanied by father-and-son operatic crooners Andrea and Matteo Bocelli’s duet of “Con tu partirò”, a move that has fueled perhaps more post-Oscars outrage than anything else from this year’s ceremony.

As for the politics, there were the expected barbs making fun of easy conservative targets, but most of the speeches avoided invoking too much progressive fury. The one overtly political moment came with the win of UK director Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” for Best International Feature, when he read, in prayerlike monotone, a pre-prepared statement warning against the dehumanizing hate depicted in his slice-of-Nazi-life historical drama and calling for empathy for the targets of such hate on both sides of the current crisis in Gaza.

It was met with backlash, of course, especially after a partial quote in Variety omitted key elements of the speech and led many to believe the Jewish filmmaker was refuting his own religion.

As for the winners of the awards themselves (you can find the full list on the Oscar website) the evening’s choices fell more or less in line with my predictions – though not necessarily my preferences. 

The domination of “Oppenheimer” in most of the major categories in which it competed was, for anyone following the pre-ceremony buzz, a foregone conclusion. Few doubted that Cillian Murphy would handily claim the Best Actor prize – thwarting nominee Colman Domingo (“Rustin”) from becoming the first queer actor to win for playing a queer character in the process – or that Christopher Nolan would take the Best Director category, and from there the win for Best Picture felt as inevitable as anything can be at the Oscars.

Equally inevitable was the evening’s most easily predicted “Oppenheimer” win, as veteran Hollywood player Robert Downey, Jr. ebulliently swaggered onstage amid the enthusiastic familial cheers of his peers to claim the Best Supporting Actor prize; his acceptance speech, in which he self-deprecatingly recalled the legal and professional obstacles arising from the substance abuse that nearly derailed his early career, became a testament to overcoming personal setbacks to achieve an even higher success, something that resonated in the words of several other of the evening’s winners.

In the categories where “Oppenheimer” didn’t win, the odds were already in favor of the eventual victors, such as first-time filmmaker Cord Jefferson, whose “American Fiction” earned him the Best Adapted Screenplay Award over fellow front runners like “Barbie” and “Poor Things,” and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, whose winning Supporting Actress turn in “The Holdovers” had been a juggernaut throughout the award season.

Many Oscar fans, though most accepted the predestination of “Oppenheimer” as the year’s big winner, might rather have seen a different candidate come out on top (my own choice, for what it’s worth, would have been “Barbie,” with “Poor Things” and “Zone of Interest” coming up close behind); but even if Nolan’s weighty and technically dazzling biopic was unquestionably a fine film, exploring a deeply disturbing slice of not-too-distant history that still casts a long existential shadow over our world today, it’s impossible for me not to see in its multiple wins an all-too-familiar pattern of “safe” choices.

While “Oppenheimer” might pique ethical discussions over its title character’s choice to build the atomic bomb, few would find controversy in the idea that the destruction unleashed on the world by that choice is a reason for concern.

Its most viable competitors, “Barbie” and “Poor Things” – both of which touched on many of the same existential themes, albeit from a markedly different direction and in a more absurdist style – each stirred divisive opinions around (among other things) a perceived feminist agenda; other highly-acclaimed titles in the running, like the non-English language entries “Zone”, “Past Lives”, and “Anatomy of a Fall”, fell outside the comfortable domestic audience mainstream where Oscar’s favorite picks are usually a little too deeply-rooted to allow much opportunity for a dark horse upset.

While not many expected Bradley Cooper’s ambitious Bernstein biopic “Maestro” to take home any awards, it was considerably more noteworthy that Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” nominated for 10 Awards and widely lauded as one of the year’s most essential films, failed to score a single one of them – though I can’t help also noting that it deals with one of most shameful threads in our American past, inevitably making it a controversial movie for an era marked by deeply divided ideologies around that subject.

It’s perhaps for that reason that “Flower Moon” was not considered a front runner in most of its categories, but there was one in which it was seen as a heavy favorite. With Lily Gladstone poised to become the first Indigenous performer to win the Best Actress trophy, the odds leading up to Sunday’s presentation seemed to position them as the front runner; in the end, however, it was Emma Stone’s tour-de-force in “Poor Things” – in which she appeared in virtually every scene, in contrast to Gladstone’s relatively limited screen – that took it instead.

Though it wasn’t quite a surprise, given the number of wins Stone has garnered already for the film, which also took home the prizes for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Production Design, it nevertheless felt – to me, at least – like another example of Oscar’s predictable reluctance to court controversy with its choices.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, this conservative approach often just ends up causing a controversy of its own, and this case is no exception. Though I had championed Stone’s brilliant performance as the obvious winner, when her name was announced I found myself feeling disappointment over Goldstone’s loss, even as I was thrilled for Stone’s well-earned victory.

After all, in a contest where the outcome is entirely subjective, Academy voters could have chosen to amplify the excellence of someone from within a marginalized community. Stone, who seemed as surprised at her win as anyone else, did remarkable work, but so did Gladstone; though it truly is “an honor just to be nominated,” it was an opportunity for Oscar to take a step toward correcting a long-ignored injustice at a time when doing so could make a demonstrably constructive impact on our culture and our society at a time when doing so would have a tremendous cultural impact, and it didn’t happen.

It was a moment that struck me with an odd sense of disappointment even as I cheered for Stone; a bit of the sour within the sweet.

That, aside from a sense of missed opportunity over the evening’s consistent pattern of favoring the middle-of-the-road prestige represented by “Oppenheimer” over the edgier, more confrontational material presented by some of the other titles on the slate, was my biggest takeaway from the Academy Awards.

Though I can’t say that any of the winners were unworthy, I can’t help thinking that their victories were somewhat tainted by the virtual shutout of “Barbie”, (which still feels to me like a message for female filmmakers to “stay in their lane”) and relatively low showing for “Poor Things” (which took only 3 of the 11 awards for which it was nominated), and that their underappreciation for such films was for me proof that many of the professionals working within the industry are afraid of material that pushes the medium too far outside its traditional boundaries, that dares to imagine stories and ideas which give voice to “outsider” concerns beyond the level of lip service, or that stretches the accepted limits of narrative entertainment.

More concerning, perhaps, is the minimal change that has come in the wake of the Academy’s much-publicized retooling to promote greater diversity and inclusion among the nominees.

While it’s heartening to see people of color and queer people being brought into the mix more consistently than ever before, it’s also all the more painful when we see them passed over or relegated to the status of “also ran” most of the time.

As a queer writer working for a queer publication, it’s impossible for me not to be impatient when films with strong LGBTQ content are lauded alongside mainstream titles only to consistently be passed over when it comes to the final victory.

While queer subject matter, in varying degrees, was part of movies like “Rustin”, “Nyad”, and even “Barbie,” only two wins in the “major” categories went to films that included significant queer themes – “American Fiction” and “Anatomy of a Fall”, both of which won for their screenplays.

And while it’s now old news, the Academy’s complete omission of Andrew Haigh’s melancholy gay ghost story “All of Us Strangers,” a queer UK film overwhelmingly embraced by other major awards bodies across the world and in America itself and considered a major contender before failing to earn a single Oscar nomination, and female filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” which hinged – at least ostensibly – on a queer attraction between stars Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi, speaks volumes about the comfort level surrounding queer content within mainstream Hollywood.

Even “May December,” a high-profile film directed by queer indie pioneer Todd Haynes but featuring only presumably heterosexual characters, received only a single nod (for Best Original Screenplay) for “May December,” despite being widely considered a front-runner for several acting awards.

While inclusivity doesn’t mean considering every queer-relevant movie a shoo-in for the competition, it’s telling when the Academy all but ignores queer titles that have been contenders and even winners at all the other major film award ceremonies, and frankly, it’s extremely annoying.

While I can’t speak for women, those in the Black community, or other groups with a history of being dismissed by Oscar, I can only assume that their sentiments must resemble my own.

Yet as I reach the end of my observations about the latest installment of the Academy Awards, I find myself falling short of blaming the Academy itself, at least as an organization. While it has had a problematic history of dragging its feet when it comes to evolving toward a more all-embracing approach to bestowing honors, undeniable progress has been made.

That this progress is infuriatingly slow is less a reflection on the awards than it is on Hollywood as a whole; after all, despite Academy efforts to ensure greater diversity among its nominees, it’s the individual choices of its voters that determines the final results – and if those results fail to accomplish more than the occasional token victory for the non-white-heterosexual contenders, it’s a symptom of the fact that those voices are underrepresented within the industry at large.

If we want to see an Academy Awards ceremony that truly accomplishes the kind of all-inclusive spirit for which it has so palpable a potential, we must continue to pressure the Hollywood industry at large to build a more diverse and inclusive creative environment. Otherwise, no matter how much they promise to do better, they will always fall short.

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My reflections on the death of LGBTQ Icon David Mixner

Thank you, David Mixner. It’s time for a well-deserved rest in peace and to see all your old friends again

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David Mixner/Facebook

By Karen Ocamb | WEST HOLLYWOOD – All week, I’ve been thinking of calling David Mixner. We needed to catch up and I wanted to double-check my memory of moments in 1991/92 during which he and ANGLE led the gay movement to elect his friend Bill Clinton as the new President of the United States. I knew he was not in the best shape – but part of me thought he’d be around forever. Wishful thinking doesn’t make it so.

I have lots of powerful memories of Mixner, starting in 1986 with the two of us sitting on a slope in Griffith Park watching scores of peace activists preparing to depart on The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament. We talked about being clean and sober and our hopes and dreams – mostly an end to all our friends dying.

Years later, after Michael Callen died in late 1993, Mixner and I huddled at yet another memorial in West Hollywood. I produced many memorials for our dead 12 Step friends and he was often the speaker. We gave each other permission to take a break. We told each other that our dead friends would understand.  

David Mixner with Ambassador James Hormel and AIDS Dr. Joel Weisman at an amfAR event where they were honored
(Photo by Karen Ocamb)

As a reporter for the gay press, I interviewed David A LOT, especially about pressing Clinton to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving opening in the military. He was an ardent pacifist – a follower of non-violence through Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. so why pick the military as an issue to fight for? He said it was our right to serve as patriotic Americans and to be able to access all the benefits that come with it – such as education through the GI Bill and the possibility of leaving poverty, domestic violence and routine bullying to see the world.    

But the moment that shines the brightest for me after hearing about David’s death tonight is the night Bill Clinton stopped in at a small ANGLE (Access Now for Gay & Lesbian Equality) reception before a major fundraiser at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Feb. 28, 1992. 

David, Jeremy Bernard, Scott Hitt, Randy Klose and others had come up with this creative MECLA-like idea to make sure that the Clinton campaign knew that the pledged $75,000 they raised would be clearly designated as GAY MONEY. And it was – with a clear bold thank you in the program book for the fundraiser thrown by Warren Christopher and Mickey Kantor, who acknowledged ANGLE from the stage. 

This was a big deal at a time when the Reagan-Bush administration had embraced political evangelicals who said AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality.

David Mixner and Presidential candidate Bill Clinton at 1992 reception.
(Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Clinton was late to the reception – but his whole campaign was frenzied after the Gennifer Flowers story broke a month earlier. He and Hillary barely survived a 60 Minutes interview – but he came in second in a crowded field in the New Hampshire Primary 10 days before the fundraiser. He declared himself the “Comeback Kid” – and David was determined to convince every gay person everywhere to support him. 

That night, in a conference room with 60 gay people – some of whom would go on to work on Clinton’s campaign and in his administration – David whispered in Clinton’s ear like a political strategist, treated him like a friend, and served as an LGBTQ ambassador for all our hopes and dreams to the man who would become the next President. 

And Clinton let down his guard and responded. As David wrote in Stranger Among Friends: “The room was very quiet. We realized he was reaching out to us by reaching deep inside himself. He had made the link between his feelings of isolation from his neighbors with our feelings of isolation from society.” 

Bill Clinton thanks his friend David Mixner (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Thanks to David Mixner, Bill Clinton saw us as “a people,” not just a culture war issue. Mixner and ANGLE created a wave of voters, raised $1.3 million in Gay & Lesbian Money for the campaign, and started making demands – chief among them was an AIDS Czar and for Clinton to recognize us in his Democratic Convention speech. Mixner said he and Diane Abbitt held their breath waiting for the magic words – letting the campaign know that if Clinton didn’t SAY the words, they all would make a big show for the TV cameras and walk out. Clinton acknowledged us.  

There are so many David Mixner moments, including his official break with Clinton protesting the betrayal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

David Mixner, (center) protesting DADT at the White House
(Photo courtesy Jeremy Bernard)

Clinton did follow up on his promise to fight AIDS – hard not to do after he and Hillary visited the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt during the 1993 March on Washington.

AIDS Quilt 1993 March on Washington (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

 But to me, tonight, I’m grateful that he lifted up our humanity so we could feel full equality and full of possibility if just for a spell before hateful politics once more took first class citizenship rights away. What would have happened had Hillary won? 

David Mixner, Karen Ocamb, and Hillary Clinton after March 26, 1992 visit at AIDS Project Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Karen Ocamb)

Thank you, David Mixner. It’s time for a well-deserved rest in peace and to see all your old friends again.

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Karen Ocamb is the former news editor of the Los Angeles Blade. She is an award-winning journalist who, upon graduating from Skidmore College, started her professional career at CBS News in New York.

Ocamb started in LGBTQ+ media in the late 1980s after more than 100 friends died from AIDS. She covered the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ movement for equality until June 2020, including pressing for LGBTQ+ data collection during the COVID pandemic.

Since leaving the LA Blade Ocamb continues to advocate for civil rights and social, economic, and racial justice issues.

She lives in West Hollywood, California with her rescue dog Pepper.

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Lawmaker ejected trans Kansans- her hearing was a disgrace

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, threw several people opposed to anti-transgender bills out of a Kansas House hearing

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Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, oversaw a hearing on two anti-trans bills in the Health and Human Services committee. She is seen here during an Aug. 2, 2023 KanCare Oversight committee meeting. (Photo Credit: Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

By Clay Wirestone | TOPEKA, Kan. – Rep. Brenda Landwehr: What you did to LGBTQ+ Kansans at your Thursday hearing in the Kansas Statehouse has no excuse.

Your committee was considering bills that would criminalize lifesaving care for children. The mere act of debating House Bill 2791 and House Bill 2792 harmed transgender kids across the state. A host of advocates and activists, parents and children, told you this through testimony and email messages, opinion columns and public speeches.

You didn’t listen.

Instead, you issued imperious orders. You expelled prominent LGBTQ+ advocates after one knocked over a water bottle, threatened speakers with capitol police, and cut off testimony that offended you.

You added to the abuse. You negated compassionate souls who were looking out for themselves and those they loved.

“It was more than unnecessary. It was shocking,” said Melissa Stiehler, advocacy director for youth voter engagement organization Loud Light, describing the ejection of one advocate.

A couple of folks used strong words in addressing you and your compatriots on the House Health and Human Services Committee. That’s because the bill you were hearing could lead to the deaths of their friends. They didn’t make that choice. You did. The least you could have done for these brave souls was to sit and listen, as you did when you allowed HB 2791 sponsor Rep. Ron Bryce, R-Coffeyville, to call gender reassignment surgery the equivalent of a lobotomy.

But you were too cowardly for that.

This isn’t a joke. This isn’t a show. The Kansas Statehouse doesn’t serve as a stage for you to preen and prattle and make demands of those you see as less than. You serve the people. As a Republican representing Wichita’s District 105, you owe the people better.

LGBTQ+ people have suffered unspeakable torture from the hands of people just like Landwehr for decades. Kansas criminal code still classifies gay intimacy as a misdemeanor. Law enforcement has often played a prominent role in enforcing hate. The fact that the representative would look to officers to do her dirty work shows that the old ways — the old familiar use of the state to enforce one person’s morality on another — run deep.

Watch ignominious moments from the hearing in the video below. You can witness the whole debate here.

Firsthand accounts

With that preamble off my chest, let’s step back a moment.

LGBTQ+ advocates had prepared for this hearing. They submitted a flotilla of testimony and packed both the hearing room and an overflow space. Emotions, as you might expect, ran high. The situation called for a committee chair who mixed both empathy with those speaking and determination to move the hearing along.

In preparing this column, I spoke and corresponded with three people who sat in that room Thursday. They watched the chairwoman up close as she booted or silenced at least four LGBTQ+ advocates.

“The hearing started off very curt and with very vague instructions to attendees and conferees,” said Iridiscent Riffel, a transgender activist who has also written columns for Kansas Reflector. She was later ejected and threatened with a police escort for her testimony. “We were treated as if we were miscreants for simply attending a hearing that would determine our rights. We were told that any noise or disruption would end with us being kicked out.”

Riffel had attended a hearing Thursday morning in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee and said there was little difference in the audience between the two. Yet Landwehr regularly interrupted the afternoon hearing and call for order.

“Landwehr was trying to create a problem that didn’t exist with an excuse to kick us out,” Riffel said. She added the chairwoman “was engaging in providing extra support to supporters of the bill, while shutting down speech by those in opposition of the bill, the very community that would be impacted.”

Taryn Jones works as the lobbyist for Equality Kansas, the state’s preeminent advocacy group for LGBTQ+ residents.

She was also one of those removed.

“At one point during the hearing, I picked up my water bottle and as I sat it down whispered something to the person sitting next to me,” Jones said. “Rep. Landwehr banged her gavel down and kicked us out saying that she had warned people in the committee room about disruptions. However, the people in the row in front and back of me hadn’t heard anything and seemed very confused by what was going on.”

She highlighted the central injustice of the entire affair: “I find it curious that out of the four-five people that Landwehr kicked out or silenced during the hearing, they were all people opposing the bill. How is this democratic? Well, it’s not. Does Landwehr really want the optics of kicking out the Equality Kansas Lobbyist for water and a whisper on a hearing to ban trans healthcare?”

I can answer that question: She doesn’t care about the optics.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, threw several people opposed to anti-transgender bills out of a Kansas House hearing Thursday for defying ground rules for decorum
 Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, threw several people opposed to anti-transgender bills out of a Kansas House hearing Thursday for supposedly violating her ground rules for decorum. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Unequal treatment

Loud Light’s Stiehler watched the entire hearing from the room and corroborated both Jones’ and Riffel’s accounts.

“I did notice many anti-trans activists engage in more disruptive behavior than (the water bottle incident) without any reprimand from the chair, such as cell phones going off, general murmuring, or bringing their signs into the committee room to keep at their feet,” she said. “One bill proponent held up his sign and was asked to leave after Rep. Susan Ruiz pointed him out to Chair Landwehr, but returned to the committee room shortly after. That was the only enforcement of the chair’s rules on any proponent.”

Stiehler watched as Bryce claimed that gender-affirming care somehow equated to lobotomies. Such a statement insulted all the transgender people in the room. Yet Landwehr never asked them to revise their testimony or leave. That testimony came alongside a mountain of “discredited studies and factually inaccurate statistics,” to use Stiehler’s words.

As I’ve noted in this space before, all major medical groups and health care groups support gender-affirming care for those younger than 18.

Not one or two. Every one.

That doesn’t matter to Landwehr or those supporting these grotesque proposals. The chairwoman gave them a wide berth to demean, disparage and demonize the transgender people who showed up to defend their rights. She refused to allow the same rhetorical scrutiny of her committee.

“This bill claims that gender affirming care for minors is abusive, and proponents of it said that if legislators didn’t support this bill they were enabling this abuse,” Stiehler said. “Yet when two transgender women from Kansas, Iridescent Riffel (a leader in Equality Kansas) and Jaelynn Abegg (Rep. Landwehr’s opponent in the upcoming election) said that it is proven through many peer reviewed studies and reports that bills like this cause an increase in depression and risk of suicide, and if you vote in favor of these bills then you will be responsible for that result, that was considered disparaging to members of the Legislature that haven’t even yet voted on these bills. The remainder of their testimony was shut down.”

I reached out to Landwehr for her take on the hearing. She didn’t respond.

If Kansas GOP leaders can do this to transgender youths, they will follow up by doing it to transgender adults. They will then target, as they have before, gay and lesbian and bisexual youths and adults. Those who somehow believe they can turn the “LGB” against the “TQ” in the “LGBTQ+” initialism don’t understand the history of this movement or the way the community works. Trans people and those crossing gender lines have always been part of the community, and an attack on any particular part of the community must be understood as an attack on everyone.

Think of it another way. Type 1 diabetics need insulin to survive. Would that House panel consider denying insulin to people under age 18 because they’re too young and impressionable? Would Rep. John Eplee, the Atchison Republican and physician who sat next to Landwehr, even countenance such a proposal?

Of course not.

So ask yourself why transgender kids don’t count the same as diabetic kids in the state of Kansas.

A participant in the March 31, 2023, March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse holds a sign that reads: "Make no mistake, they are killing us."
 A participant in the March 31, 2023, March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse holds a sign that reads: “Make no mistake, they are killing us.” The demonstration was a response to legislative attacks on the LGBTQ community, including the ban on transgender athletes. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Another hearing

The chairwoman has already done an immense amount of damage.

She has shattered a vase into a thousand pieces, and while that vase could be mended with enough time and attention, it will never look the same. She has wielded her power to punish transgender Kansans who showed up in good faith to participate in the democratic process. Even if those bills fail, Landwehr has betrayed hardworking Kansans in her zealous pursuit of culture warrior status.

However, she could still make a difference. From what I hear, leaders can hold informational hearings on just about any subject they like.

Landwehr could call an informational hearing on her own performance as chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee. I’m sure that Riffel, Abegg, Jones and Stiehler would be more than willing to share their thoughts. She needn’t only hear criticism, either. The chairwoman could hold a second day of hearings for those who want to praise her.

We didn’t have to be in this place. These bills didn’t have to be introduced. They didn’t have to be heard in committee. And the hearing didn’t have to be turned into a public embarrassment.

But here we are.

Landwehr owes those she kicked out the opportunity to confront her publicly. She should hear what her behavior meant to them, how she made them feel, and what her proposals mean for LGBTQ+ youths across the state of Kansas. She might even acknowledge the harm she caused.

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Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

The preceding article was previously published by the Kansas Reflector and is republished with permission.

Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector’s opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania.

He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director.

Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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