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The death of decency

When the U.S. president inspires a violent extremist ideology

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David Huebner is the gay former U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and American Samoa under President Obama. (Photo courtesy Huebner)

It has been a bad week for decency in America.

The current occupant of the Oval Office suggested that constitutional oversight was “nonsense” and that his opponents in Congress better wise up or fear for their safety because rogue military, police, and biker gangs are personally loyal to him.

We learned that the male head of the agency charged with resettling refugees has maintained weekly spreadsheets tracking the menstrual cycles of under-age girls within his agency’s control so that he could delay and ultimately block rape victims, some as young as 12 and some likely raped while in government custody, from terminating the pregnancies.

President Trump, who evaded public service of any sort until he could make it personally profitable, launched another series of attacks on a deceased senator whose life was a study in public service, while the still-sitting senator who promiscuously proclaimed his great friendship with the deceased continued slavishly to serve his dead friend’s attacker and antithesis.

We learned from court proceedings that the government continues to argue that it would be “too hard” for it to locate, let alone reunite with their parents, all the children seized during the period when its “zero tolerance” family separation policy was intended to terrorize refugees away from our borders.

And, when dozens of Muslim children, women, and men were slaughtered in a white supremacist terrorist attack on one of our closest friends in the community of nations, #45 ignored the sole request made by our friend’s prime minister, which was to express support and sympathy for Muslim communities at that fearful time. Instead, #45 retweeted Breitbart, ranted about the “invasion” of our own country, brushed aside unimpeachable statistics on escalating white supremacist terrorism, launched a vigorous defense of his favorite talk show white nationalists, and proclaimed himself the real victim. Again.

None of that is decent, moral, or defensible. And we all know it, right? Then why did most of our government and much of our citizenry just shrug it all off?

I grew up in a working class, small-town, mostly religious — my grandfather regularly proclaimed that clergy were by definition scoundrels, but the rest of us were herded to church every Sunday by my mother — extended family household which included my immigrant grandparents, who spoke their native tongue at home. Meals tended to be rollicking debates.  Until the day my father died, I don’t think I ever agreed with him on a single political issue, starting with arguments over the dinner table when I was a pre-teen. 

Under the clamor, though, were four consistent, consensus lessons – lead a “decent” life (even if no one’s watching), treat other people with respect (even if you disagree with them), understand that words and actions have consequences (so behave accordingly), and keep learning as long as you keep breathing (because, as my father said, you’re never as smart as you think you are, and other people are rarely as dumb as they seem).

When I’m gut-punched by the staggering horror of the slaughter in Christchurch last week – as well as by the now routine obscenities baked into the current era closer to home, such as brutalizing other people’s children in the name of God or Nero, debasing friends (dead or alive) and one’s own character to curry political favor, or demeaning the value, lives, and deaths of other people because they don’t look and pray like you – my first thought is not about legislative action, heightened security, or other cosmetic applications. My first thought is about those four, basic dinner-table lessons, which unfortunately can’t be legislated.

And the adjective that jumps to mind is “indecent.”

It is indecent that the president of the United States cannot directly and unequivocally express sympathy for the actual victims of a terrorist attack, and that he instinctively pivots to minimizing evidence of the spread of the malignant ideology of the terrorist.

It is indecent that so many religious communities seem to validate my grandfather’s gross slander by defending brutality, debauchery, and corruption when it produces the political access and judicial privilege to impose their alleged beliefs on others.

It is indecent that a party that purports to advocate constitutional constraint, limited government, rule of law, and moral rectitude so easily abandons any and all such principles in order to excuse, enable, and advance the obverse in exchange for an extension of minority rule.

It is indecent that the person who sits in the office of Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR has become, whether by blither or design, the inspiration for a violent extremist ideology, and that the government over which he presides is spreading the contagion by denying its existence in exchange for short-term political gain.

And it is grossly indecent that so many of the rest of us have allowed ourselves to shrug that all off.

Enough is enough.  As a first step forward, it’s time to reclaim our sense of decency.

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Commentary

Communists in closets, queering progressive history

Biologist E.O. Wilson writing in On Human Nature: “Homosexuals may be the rare carriers of the altruistic impulse in the human species”

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A crowd gathers on the porch of the Gay Community Services Center circa 1971. | ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives / USC Libraries

By Don Kilhefner | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Growing-up as a poor, working-class kid in very conservative Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—Amish-Mennonite-Central—my budding intelligence always seemed to naturally lean Left on the political compass.

In the late 1950s at Millersville University, a branch of the Pennsylvania state university system, Maynard Keynes, a gay man, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx, as well as Adam Smith, entered my consciousness and political vocabulary.  

In my early 20’s, I began correspondence with Gus Hall (1910-2000), head of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), and Norman Thomas (1884-1968), head of the American Socialist movement and six-times presidential candidate.  Their short notes back to me were supportive and encouraging.  I was in love with their ideas.

It was a brief marriage.  It ended in deep disappointment but not cynicism. At that time, I discovered the words “bourgeois decadence” which Marxist/Communist ideology said resulted in homos like me who frequently had lust in my heart (Jimmy Carter, yes!) for men.

Communist ideology advocated that it would be best if gay men were not around.  [The persecution by hetero supremacists then was primarily directed against gay men.]   Those pesty gay flies required a hetero supremacy fly swatter.  In 1934, the Soviet writer Max Gorky declared in Pravda, “Destroy homosexuals—Fascism will disappear.”

It’s also worth noting that the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (Volume 2) states, “There can be little doubt that, as far as they thought of the matter at all, Marx and Engels were homophobic….”

All kinds of stupid trash-talk and pseudo-intellectual bullshit occurs in hetero dominant cultures regarding gay people—dehumanization always, genocide usually.  When it comes to gay and lesbian people, there is very little difference between right-wing or left-wing dictatorships, as well as democracies—all suffused by hetero superiority.

I kept evolving as a self-accepting gay man. Soon, I discovered Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, beginning a life-long love affair with all things gay and, to tell the truth, all things “decadent.” 

I appreciate still very much the message in Marx’s Das Kapital that helped me understand industrial capitalism as a system of oppression and how that system created much suffering for working poor people, like my parents.  The book’s insights are still relevant today with our old-wine-in-new-bottles techno-surveillance, billionaire, capitalist economic structures of the small, large, and Big Gulp-sizes.  

During much of the 20th century, Marxism was an important, but organizationally-shadowy, intellectual presence on U.S. college campuses and in U.S. culture.  In 1938, the CPUSA purged suspected gay and lesbian members.  It was not until 1991 that the CPUSA voted to admit for the very first time openly gay and lesbian members, 23 years after the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion and the truly-revolutionary Gay Liberation movement had already quickly transformed the lives of American homos.  Only in 2005 did CPUSA unequivocally support LGBT rights—2005!

Gus Hall, author’s collection.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many times the best, brightest and most creative of that generation, many of them gay and lesbian, were drawn to the idealistic possibilities on the new, Marxist horizon that promised a more equitable society and believed that the CPUSA would help to facilitate that revolution.  Stalin’s purges and the Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) ended in disillusionment by most CPUSA members and supporters. 

By the end of the 20th century, Gus Hall bellowed against glasnost, perestroika and homos like an old, bull mastodon sinking into the La Brea tar pits.  The CPUSA bifurcated into a reactionary Party led by Hall which soon became largely irrelevant and fellow travelers who left the Party, becoming largely absorbed into the eruptions of democratic socialism in the early 21st century.  

Bettina Aptheker and Communists In Closets

Recently, Bettina Aptheker has written a much needed, growing edge historical account about gay and lesbian people and their involvement within the Old Left, with particular emphasis on the CPUSA and its numerous front groups.  The history of queers and the New Left remains to be written.  Aptheker’s book is titled Communists In Closets: Queering the History 1930s-1990s (Routledge). 

She came out publicly as a Communist in 1962 through the Free Speech movement in Berkeley and as a lesbian in 1979, 10 years after Stonewall. Evidently, being publicly Red was easier than being Lavender.  

Courtesy of the author

Ms. Aptheker is an astute academic historian in her own right, and, as is always routinely mentioned, like now, is also the daughter of Herbert Aptheker (1915-2003), a distinguished Marxist historian and author of numerous books on African-American history and historiography, particularly his outstanding American Negro Slave Revolts in 1943.  I first encountered his voluminous research on Black history while a history graduate student at Howard University in the mid-1960s and came across him again in the late 1960s while at UCLA through my anti-Vietnam War movement participation.  I lionized him. 

In 2003, Ms. Aptheker gained my deep esteem and compassion when in her Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel she courageously revealed openly that in her youth she had been sexually molested often by her father.

As soon as Amazon Prime delivered the book, I immediately began reading Communists In Closets, devouring it in two sittings.  With growing excitement, I soaked up the new gay and lesbian historical information.  During a second reading a few weeks later, my gay-centered critical intelligence kicked in and questions began to emerge.  I’ll share both experiences.

First Reading 

Bettina Aptheker, author’s collection.

It was refreshing and delightful reading about 20th century gay and lesbian political and cultural activists that I had never ever heard about previously and my admiration for these ancestors grew the more I read.  For a change, it was not just about the privileged ones and celebrities, the glitterati and literati.  It’s mostly about ordinary gay and lesbian people with strong social consciences that guided their embodied political and social justice work from early to late in the 20th century in the United States and internationally. Ms. Aptheker also makes them whole people by also including snippets about their love and lust lives.

The CPUSA was founded in 1919 as an offshoot of the early militant labor union movement.  Closeted gay and lesbian people joined the nascent Party, as Ms. Aptheker makes clear, even though their proclivities were often apparent if you had eyes to see.

In 1938, in the customary ways of hetero supremacists, the CPUSA leadership kicked out known and suspected gay and lesbian people and forbid their membership as security risks. Through blackmail, it was claimed that homos might reveal the Party’s clandestine machinations and secret membership, the same lame excuse used by the U.S. State Department—as if heteros could not be blackmailed or security risks, only homos.

When the blackmail issue came up in the early Gay Liberation movement, we said, “You can’t blackmail an honest person.  Come out.”  In the early 1970s, conservative homo opponents of the militant Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles used “red baiting” as a tool to discredit Morris Kight and me, like in 1953 it destroyed the Mattachine. 

Kight was referred to in print as “Moscow Morris” and I was called “Peking Don” and rumors were spread that identified me as a hetero member of the Socialist Workers Party (Trotskyites) sent to take over GLF for the SWP—all balderdash.  In those days, the way to destroy any social change movement was to label it “Communist.”

Gay and lesbian people’s contribution, even leadership, to radical, 20th century social change movements, as gay and lesbian people, is often not acknowledged by historians, talked around, or even erased in the Old Left.  Like a cultural archeologist, Ms. Aptheker has unearthed layer upon layer of buried, closeted and not-so-closeted queer treasures. After 55 years of making and assiduously studying gay history and political culture, 95% of the names are new even to me, silently ohing and ahing as I read.

In a sacred way, let me call out a few names of these gay and lesbian ancestors:  Harry Hay, Lillian Wald, Anna Rochester, Gerald Meyer, Maud Russell, Bertha Capen Reynolds, Marc Blitzstein, David Graham DuBois, Virginia Mercado, Marge Gelders Frantz, Betty Boynton Millard, Bayard Rustin, Elanor Flexner, Lorraine Hansberry, and many, many more—I could go on for pages.

They were involved, many times in leadership positions, sometimes as foot soldiers, in every progressive social change and social justice cause you can think of in the 20th century.

Even though they were forced to hide their true selves, they lived lives of righteous integrity and important social contribution.  LGBTQ people, and others, as I keep reminding, you have a history you can be proud of.  

As I laid down Communists In Closets, sitting with my eyes closed, thinking and feeling the book, the prophetic sentence by  evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson in his 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature came floating to mind, “Homosexuals may be the rare carriers of the altruistic impulse in the human species.”

Second Reading

A few weeks after my emotionally-exuberant, first reading of Communists In Closets, I read the book again.  The second reading engaged my gay-centered critical intelligence, causing me to have a dialogue with the book, less a conversation with Ms. Aptheker, and more with my pre-1950 gay and lesbian ancestors written about in the book.  This is how the dialogue went:

The questions I’m about to put to you collectively are asked with great respect and admiration for the radical social change work of your generations.  There is something, however, I don’t understand.  You Marxists, CPUSA members prior to 1938 and after, Leftist good trouble- makers, and social change warriors excelled at political analyses of social problems, articulated the sources of oppression for a wide variety of minorities and classes, and organized people from different sectors of society to address these problems.  

So, why didn’t you use those same skills and abilities to analyze the sources of gay and lesbian oppression and organize against the discrimination hurled at you?  Why didn’t you fight back, even one of you?  Why didn’t you organize homos?  You knew how.  

Why did it take until 1950 for homos in the U.S.—Harry Hay and the other six progressive men who organized the Mattachine—to call us an oppressed minority group with a unique homo culture?  [A very short-lived attempt was made by Henry Gerber to organize a homo group in the mid-1920s in Chicago, but it was quickly crushed by the police] 

 I don’t get it, and I’m a veteran gay activist playing on your team.  Is there something about the depth and depravity of hetero supremacy in the first half of the 20th century in the U.S. that needs to be brought into clearer historical focus?  Or, was it something else?

Yes, I totally understand your point of view.  I agree that there was systemic and institutionalized hetero supremacy throughout the Western world that shamed and devalued you.  Yes, you could lose your families and jobs. Yes, lobotomies were done on you involuntarily with ice picks. Yes, yes, every religion called you sinful, inferior, and disgusting, and laws at every political level made it possible to arrest you for being openly you.  Yes, the psychologists poisoned your minds. I understand why suicide was a rational way out for some. Yes, dead homo bodies were found in ditches along country roads and no one cared.  

Why did no one fight back and tell Gus Hall and the other hetero chauvinists to shove it, so to speak?  This is an extremely friendly question.

Edward Carpenter in 1905, author’s collection.

Did you not know about Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), an openly gay man in England who lectured publicly throughout that country about socialism, women’s equality, and the intermediate type (his term for homos instead of ‘sodomites’) and wrote books on these subjects?

Did you not know about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), an openly gay man in Germany, a lawyer, who assertively and publicly fought back against hetero supremacy there?

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, engraving based on an undated portrait photograph

Did you not know about the new, so-called scientific field of sexology that emerged at the end of the 19th century in Europe which first coined the terms ‘heterosexual’ (good, normal) and ‘homosexual’ (bad, abnormal). In Germany, a very visible and published Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) and his Institute in Berlin contributed to a pro-homo, law reform political agenda.

Magnus Hirschfeld, 1928. author’s collection.

Did you not know about the relatively open gay, lesbian, and trans life and culture during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) in Germany with homo organizations, publications and a proto gay community, destroyed by the Nazis, and advances in several other European countries.  Both the Communist Party and Social Democrats in Germany during the Weimar period supported the decriminalization of same-sex, consensual relationships.

Costume party at the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, date and photographer unknown. Magnus Hirschfeld (in glasses) holds hands with his partner, Karl Giese (center). Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft e.V., Berlin

This baffles me.  Why on the European side of the Atlantic was there gay and lesbian action and forward movement and on the American side seemingly silence on the homo political front?  There was much intellectual cross-pollination between European and U.S. peoples and cultures during the first half of the 20th century, particularly by Leftists.  Did you not know about those homos inching forward in Europe?

In any case, I want to give each of you a warm hug and listen to your tales of personal survival and resistance.

Perhaps, I might be misreading the homo information flow between Europe and North America before 1950.  Here’s a valid doctoral dissertation topic for a bright LGBTQ history graduate student. 

Communists In Closets is an important book and tells a significant story for both LGBTQ people and society at large.  

And, after all this is said and done, I bow slowly and deeply, with much gratitude and respect, in the direction of Bettina Aptheker.

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Don Kilhefner, Ph.D., is a pioneer Gay Liberationist, co-founder (with Morris Kight) of the LA LGBT Center and Van Ness Recovery House, and co-founder (with Harry Hay) of the international Radical Faeries movement.

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Viewpoint

Why Christians need the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

The Sisters were declaring that queer people no longer needed to be afraid of homophobic Christians, the Church, or of God

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Photo Credit: Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence/Facebook

 

By Rev. Brandan Robertson | NEW YORK -The LA Dodgers were embroiled in controversy for much of the month of May over their inclusion of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a historic queer rights group, in their 10th annual Pride Night Celebration. Christian groups immediately lashed out against the Dodgers, claiming that the Sisters were an “anti-Christian hate group”, as Catholic Bishop Robert Barron stated on Twitter. 

This accusation against the Sisters stemmed from a video that began circulating of a performance by the Sisters that included a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus while a pole dancer danced around the wooden cross affixed to the top of the float. For many Christians, this appeared to be an act of blasphemy, meant to mock the central event in the Christian story- the death of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. 

I am a Christian Pastor, and while I can understand the initial shock and outrage of seeing this image without context, I actually don’t find this image offensive at all. Instead, I find it to be an important provocation intended to highlight the harm that Christians have enacted on the queer community through the ages and the beauty of the queer community living out and proud in the face of many Christian denominations who continue to perpetuate hatred and harm towards our community.

In this performance, the Sisters were not stoking hatred towards Christianity, but rather were showing that they embraced one of the most central values of our faith- that love casts out all fear. (1 John 4:18) The Sisters were declaring that queer people no longer needed to be afraid of homophobic Christians, the Church, or of God. That even at the foot of the cross of Christ, queer people were invited to come, just as we are, and bask in the grace and love of God. 

The Sisters have a long history of doing ministry to queer folks, reclaiming the forms and language of Christianity as a tool for healing and empowerment for the LGBTQIA+ community. Since their first performance on Easter of 1979 in San Francisco, they have been on the front lines of queer activism, utilizing humorous performance art to demand queer rights and offering a wide array of community programs and services to support the queer community.

Far from being anti-Christian, the Sisters have often partnered with affirming churches for programs, performance, and demonstrations throughout their history. For instance, the Sisters were honored guests at a Pride Mass I was honored to preach at in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 2019. In that service, the Sisters stood alongside me as we sang praise to God, prayed together, and took communion together. They were not and are not anti-Christian- I think they are exemplary Christians.

Anyone who reads the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life will quickly find that Jesus himself was a performance artist and a comedian, using his quick wit and miracle-working powers to expose the hypocrisy of both the religious and political systems around him. Jesus often mocked the hypocrisy of some of the leaders in his own religious tradition, and willingly broke religious rules to demonstrate that God did not care about religious righteousness but about grace, compassion, and justice.

Many people were offended by Jesus’ teachings and actions. Many people accused Jesus of blasphemy. But Jesus prioritized standing in solidarity with the disenfranchised than the feelings of those with power and privilege. It’s hard to image the Jesus of the Bible being offended by someone using his image to critique an abusive religious establishment and celebrate a marginalized community. 

Instead of feigning outrage at the LA Dodgers honoring the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their decades of service to the queer community, Christians would do well to study the ministry and message of the Sisters who look a hell of a lot more like Jesus than most American Christians do. If Christians are serious about following Jesus, then we should spend a lot less time defending ourselves, our institutions, and our feelings, and far more time serving the poor and the oppressed- just like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  

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Rev. Brandan Robertson is a noted author, activist, and public theologian working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal.

A prolific writer, he is the author of nine books on spirituality, justice, and theology, including the INDIES Book of the Year Award Finalist True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace.

Robertson received his Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Ministry and Theology from Moody Bible Institute, his Master of Theological Studies from Iliff School of Theology, and his Master of Arts in Political Science and Public Administration from Eastern Illinois University. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Biblical Studies from Drew University. He currently resides in New York City.

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Viewpoint

South Africa’s non-alignment costing Africa’s human rights discourse

Country must take stronger stance against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law

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LGBTQ and intersex activists protest in front of the Ugandan Embassy in D.C. on April 25, 2023. South Africa must take a stronger stance against the Anti-Homosexuality Act that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

In the past several months, South Africa’s foreign policy has been in the spotlight for essential and existential reasons that significantly impact geopolitics and the continent’s stability. 

The foreign policy for South Africa discussion document by the Department of International Relations highlights the “advancement of human rights and the promotion of democracy” as the pillars on which South Africa’s foreign policy rests. This document emphasizes the role that South Africa is expected to play in the “promotion of human rights and democracy.”

Minister Pandor echoed this document in her 2022 end-of-year remarks

“We will continue with our unwavering position to advocate for a balanced Sustainable Development Program within the human rights framework as underlined in the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action (VDPA). In this regard, South Africa will be one of the chief proponents of a balanced agenda of the HRC, which reflects, among others, the primacy of achieving the realization of the right to development as well as moral human rights issues such as the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment.” 

South Africa has long been known for its commitment to human rights and its leadership in the fight against apartheid. However, its foreign policy continues to be viewed as ambiguous and nonresponsive to developments in African affecting the growth of the continent.

In 2021, President Ramaphosa — as chair of the SADC Organ Troika — committed to a national political dialogue in Eswatini to resolve the political killings in that country. However, the South African government has never followed up or called on the Eswatini government to adhere to its commitment, even as renowned human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was mercilessly assassinated in January 2023. At the very least, this has not been seen publicly, which would be comforting to those political activists and citizens constantly living in fear in Eswatini. 

On May 29, the president of Uganda enacted the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act. The new law is a throwback to colonization, where religious fanatism was the basis for the persecution and killing of many Africans. While Africa seems to take the posture of “fighting against imperialism,” it is saddening that this law is the brainchild of American zealots funding hate across Africa, whether it is in Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi or Namibia. These zealots, the Fellowship Foundation and many others, are well coordinated in their attacks on the judiciary and the African human rights framework, backed by the 75-year-old Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

In an era where Africa is seen to be taking a stance against imperialism, I shudder to contemplate that hate may be the only imperialist agenda Africa is not actively standing up against. We know the history of petty offences like homelessness and loitering, sedition laws, and anti-LGBTI laws. These are remnants of colonization to keep Africa inferior and the colonial masters superior. Today, the hate continues through repressive and backwards sentiment being paraded as religious values. Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law criminalizes what it calls “aggravated homosexuality” with the death penalty. It would be hard to imagine what “aggravated homosexuality” even means. 

This is another opportunity where South Africa’s posture and foreign policy must be spotlighted. With the growing conversation about the ICC arrest warrant of President Putin, South Africa has reiterated its foreign policy as non-alignment and non-interference. 

However, when the question of human rights and democracy is at play, all must take a stand. This law has been widely criticized by human rights organizations and the international community for violating the rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals and hindering the fight against HIV. It further impedes what Minister Pandor called the “balanced agenda of the HRC,” which speaks to sustainable development within the human rights framework. 

It should be worrying if South Africa continues to maintain a policy of non-alignment and non-interference in the face of the new law in Uganda. While this policy may have its merits, it raises questions about South Africa’s commitment to human rights and its role as a leader in Africa. A foreign policy that neglects the promotion of human rights and democratic principles is hypocritical. On the one hand, South Africa is seen as a leader in promoting LGBTIQ+ rights and has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world regarding protecting the rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals. However, on the other hand, it has failed to take a strong stance against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law, which is a clear violation of human rights.

By maintaining this policy, South Africa is essentially condoning Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law and undermining the fight for human rights in Africa. This is particularly concerning given South Africa’s leadership role in the African Union and its commitment to promoting human rights and democracy.

South Africa’s foreign policy regarding Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law raises questions about its commitment to non-alignment and human rights in Africa. While non-interference may have its merits, it should not come at the expense of human rights and the fight for equality and justice. 

South Africa must take a stronger stance against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law and work towards promoting human rights and democracy in Africa.

Melusi Simelane is the Southern Africa Litigation Center’s Civic Rights Program Manager.

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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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Commentary

Target & Bud Light show hypocrisy of “Corporate Pride”

Bud Light & Target came under far-right fire for including LGBTQ+ people in products & advertising. The speed at which they caved? Not good

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Erin In The Morning/Los Angeles Blade graphic

By Erin Reed | WASHINGTON – Even before Pride season has begun, evidence of corporations succumbing to far-right, anti-LGBTQ+ led boycotts is emerging.

Bud Light, for instance, recently faced pressure after featuring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on its cans. The simple act incited a boycott campaign by anti-LGBTQ+ conservative activists, including Matt Walsh. In response, Bud Light placed the executives responsible for the campaign on leave.

Following this, Target faced a similar situation when it displayed its annual Pride merchandise. Calls for boycotts from the same far-right influencers ensued. Videos emerged of individuals trampling on Pride displays in stores and harassing staff members. Target’s reaction was to pull several Pride items and relegate Pride displays to less visible parts of its stores.

When these companies faced anti-LGBTQ+ hostility, they backed down with little resistance. This reveals the reason why transgender people have been wary about corporatization of Pride: if corporate advocacy consists merely of rainbows that disappear at the first gust of fascist wind, it amounts to net harm. That support was never truly there.

This is all happening against the backdrop of a broader cultural climate marked by over 530 bills directed at the transgender community, withholding of medication for transgender youth and adults, bans on books featuring LGBTQ+ characterscancellations of Pride paradestravel warnings discouraging LGBTQ+ individuals from entering certain states, and arrests of transgender individuals in restrooms.

The retreat of corporations from supporting the LGBTQ+ community, caving to anti-LGBTQ+ pressures, does more than fail to assist the community they professed to support when adversaries looked away. It actively damages the community by feeding a narrative that suggests LGBTQ+ individuals are not worth protecting.

Bud Light and Target came under far-right fire for including LGBTQ+ people in products and advertising. The speed at which they caved shows why LGBTQ+ people have warned about corporate pride.

The campaign against LGBTQ+ inclusion in stores is not grassroots, but rather a calculated move by the same far-right influencers responsible for the early anti-trans bills this year. Matt Walsh, who advised on and posted the very first anti-trans bill this year, delineated the strategy in April. His approach: “Pick a victim, gang up on it, and make an example of it. We can’t boycott every woke company or even most of them. But we can pick one, it hardly matters which, and target it with a ruthless boycott campaign. Claim one scalp then move onto the next.”

What followed was mass harassment and violent threats to LGBTQ+ advocates and store employees. Of Particular note is Ethan Schmidt, whose videos of walking through Target knocking down Pride signs began to reemerge. See this video from Ethan Schmidt tearing down pride signs in target, originally from 2022:

Ethan Schmidt has since promised to revive his actions, warning, “We’re gonna be exposing Target… We are going to be going on hunting expeditions soon. Hunting LGBTQ+ supporters across Arizona and Phoenix.” ‘

Numerous other videos have emerged. One person’s viral tiktok expressed anger over rainbow themed and tuck-friendly clothing while going through Target racks. OAN anchor Alison Steinberg expressed dismay at cards that include two moms and two dads. Matt Walsh called for people to “make pride toxic for brands. If they decide to shove this garbage in our face, they should know they’ll pay a price.”

Sure enough, Target acquiesced, announcing that it would be dropping some “controversial items” and moving displays to the back of some stores. Pictures emerged of empty Pride display racks shortly after:

The speed in which some companies are caving to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment shows the danger in entrusting Pride events to the care of corporations, who have no meaningful skin in the game and who are willing to pull support at moment’s notice. Pride has its roots in a response to anti-LGBTQ+ oppression in 1969, particularly the raid on the Stonewall Inn.

Interestingly, both then and now, anti-drag laws proliferate and LGBTQ+ people find themselves targeted by the state and by bigotry on the streets. The first Pride was a riot, and its early celebrations were not about touting corporate advocacy or organizational support for queer people, but rather about fostering our own communities and networks to ensure that overt oppression would never prevail.

By shifting from the original spirit of Pride to Bud Light-sponsored block parties and parades filled with corporate floats where we are merely spectators rather than active participants, we risk losing sight of the essence and purpose of Pride – to forge strong bonds in the face of oppressive forces.

Moving forward, we need a new vision of Pride that is more in line with the reason Pride was first conceived. This vision of Pride should not be dependent on corporate sponsorships, but rather, should uplift the community and support the creation of social networks. Local organizations should be centered rather than multinational corporations.

This vision of pride is one where we collectively march together in solidarity and celebration and express to the world that our joy will not be eradicated. I envision a pride where local businesses are supported, where drag thrives, where our block parties truly support the locals who call those blocks home.

We must make it unequivocally clear to corporations that raising rainbow flags, only to retreat when confronted by oppressive forces, contradicts the essence of Pride. Symbols demand action to substantiate them.

Corporations wishing to demonstrate support for their LGBTQ+ employees should implement comprehensive paid family leave, include full coverage for trans-specific medical care in their insurance policies, and cease all donations to politicians endorsing anti-trans stances.

Should a company truly aim to support its LGBTQ+ employees, it must stand with queer and trans people, even in the face of harassment and abuse by right-wing aggressors. Instead of hastily retreating in the face of even a fraction of the hatred endured daily by the LGBTQ+ community from these same individuals, these corporations need to show resilient support.

****************************************************************************

Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

Follow her on Twitter (Link)

Website here: https://www.erininthemorning.com/

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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The long exhale to recognizing same-sex unions in Namibia

May 16 ruling a landmark moment for LGBTIQ+ rights

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Litigants Sillers-Lilies, her wife, and Danny Digashu pictured outside the Namibian Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy of Bradley Fortuin/Southern Africa Litigation Center)

The Supreme Court of Namibia on May 16, 2023, issued a judgment recognizing same-sex unions of two non-nationals after they were denied immigration status by the Namibian government.

The story of Daniel Digashu, a South African national, and his family challenging the decision of the Namibian government denying him immigration status based on his same-sex marriage to his Namibian husband is just one of the many ways African governments continue to oppress and erase queer existence.

In 2015, Digashu married his partner Johann Potgieter in South Africa, where same-sex unions have been legal since Nov. 14, 2016; this, however, is not the case in Namibia. In 2017, after he and his family relocated to Namibia, Digashu applied for a work permit but got rejected by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration based on his same-sex relationship status. The social inequality many LGBTIQ+ people face daily, and the lack of recognition and protection of LGBTIQ+ rights make them more vulnerable to stigma, discrimination and exclusion. Denying LGBTIQ+ people the right and the opportunity to marriage and family life has significant implications on their mental, emotional and overall well-being. 

Heterosexual marriage is widely and legally recognized in Namibia and is often seen as the fundamental foundational family institution in society, including the church. The mainstream practice of marriage is deeply rooted in traditional, cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Marriage is not only a union between individuals but also a union between families and even different communities.

The denial to recognize Digashu and Potgieter’s marriage had deprived them of a chance and a right to have a family, a community and a sense of belonging in society. The couple has been in and out of court since 2017, when they approached the High Court after several unsuccessful engagements with the ministry.

On March 20, 2021, the High Court heard the case and dismissed the matter on Jan. 20, 2022, citing that they cannot legally overrule a previous judgement by the Supreme Court, which found that same-sex relationships are not recognized under the Immigration Control Act of Namibia.  

Constitutional violation of human rights

The refusal of the recognition of same-sex unions is an infringement on several fundamental human rights recognized and protected under regional and international human rights instruments — including the Constitution of Namibia. Denying the recognition and protection of LGBTIQ+ marriage and family violates their rights to dignity, liberty, privacy and protection under the law. Such human rights violation is also discriminatory and violates the constitutional right to non-discrimination, equality before the law and freedom of expression based on one’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Recognizing same-sex marriage ensures that LGBTIQ+ people have the same legal protections and rights.  

If it pleases the court 

In its 2022 judgment, the High Court of Namibia 2022 made favorable pronouncements noting the need to recognize same-sex relationships and that LGBTIQ+ people must be protected from discrimination. The court stated that: “Homosexual relationships are, without doubt, globally recognized, and increasingly more countries have changed their laws to recognize one’s right not to be discriminated against based on one’s sexual orientation. It is time to recognize that homosexuality is part and parcel of the fabric of our society and that persons — human beings — in homosexual relationships are worthy of being afforded the same rights as other citizens.”  

Both the High Court and the Supreme Court pronounced that the values, freedoms and democracy that Namibia was founded on have no place for discrimination and the violation of human rights. Everyone, including LGBTQI+ people, has the right to dignity, equality and protection under the law. This call for recognition by the courts is a significant victory for Namibia’s LGBTIQ+ community and advocacy.  

The Supreme Court went on to say that the “court has made it clear that this recognition of the equal worth of all human beings is at the very root of the Constitution and that this is ‘further echoed and implemented in various articles of Chapter 3, and others of the Constitution.’ The value attached to dignity is at the very heart of our constitutional framework and fundamental to it as a value of central significance. Although it is entrenched as a self-standing right in Art 8, it relates to the protection of other rights and in particular, the right to equality.”

Colonial remnants and state-sponsored LGBTIQ+-phobia 

To understand the continuous exclusion of LGBTIQ+ groups in progressive civic developments, it is essential to understand the impact and role that colonial laws have played in shaping the perception, attitudes and legal status of LGBTIQ+ people in society.

Colonial laws were discriminatory and repressive, resulting in the “othering” and, ultimately, the existence of vulnerable and marginalized groups. These laws were based on conservative religious and cultural values prevalent in Europe at the time and criminalized groups based on their gender, race, ethnicity and even sexual orientation and gender identity. Such laws continue to be in practice worldwide, including in Africa.

Like many other African nations, Namibia has an unfavorable history regarding recognizing and protecting LGBTIQ+ people. Identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is not illegal in Namibia. However, the country does criminalize consensual same sex-sexual activities between people of the same gender in terms of its Roman-Dutch common law. 

These provisions are part of what was inherited from colonial laws during colonization and into the new constitution. Such laws continue to sideline LGBTIQ+ people, as they face daily stigma, discrimination and violence, including inaccessibility to healthcare, education, employment, and housing.

In December 2020, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights found that vagrancy laws or bylaws in nearly every country in Africa discriminate against marginalized and vulnerable populations, including women, children, people with disabilities, LGBTIQ+ people and others. Namibia is no exception in adopting such laws as the Roman-Dutch common laws criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. This imprint on the State still upholding oppressive colonial laws regarding LGBTIQ+ rights is part of why LGBTIQ+ people and families face daily exclusion. Consensual same-sex relations are still criminalized in Namibia. The repressive and colonial legislation still engraved in Namibia’s laws provides many challenges for same-sex couples and LGBTIQ+ families, like Digashu and Potgieter, and many other same-sex couples seeking legal recognition status in Namibia.

Regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, everyone should have social, economic and legal stability and equal opportunities. Still, discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people is a significant barrier to full social and legislative inclusion. 

Same-sex relationships are currently criminalized in 32 African countries, with the death penalty in three African states if convicted and found guilty. 

Namibia, formerly known as South West Africa, was a former colony of Germany and later came under the authority of South Africa. Namibia gained independence on March 21, 1990 and celebrated its 33rd independence anniversary on March 21 this year. The constitution of Namibia came into being when the country gained independence. Namibia’s Vision 2030 concerns itself with the population concerning their social, economic and overall well-being and that all people enjoy high standards of living, good quality of life and economic and overall well-being and that all people enjoy high standards of living, good quality of life, and have access to quality social services. All of these aspirations translate into equity, equality and respect for human rights for all people, regardless of one’s social standing. By 2030, Namibia aspires to be a just, moral, tolerant and safe nation with legislative, economic and social structures in place to eliminate marginalization and ensure peace and equity between of all people of different ages, interests and abilities. 

The evolution of society 

Society is evolving and becoming increasingly aware of its rights and existence. In advocating and asserting their rights, communities realize that such common laws are outdated and contribute to the discrimination faced by vulnerable groups. Colonization fostered environments in which such rules were applied in policy and practice to deter, conceal and repress freedoms of expression, identity and association of groups that did not fit the colonial setting. Such groups were made to feel inferior and less valuable to society, leading to segregation practices such as apartheid, tribalism, classism and discrimination and exclusion of sexual and gender minorities.

In a modern-day democratic, independent state like Namibia, colonial remnants are still widely evident in specific laws and policies, so people like Daniel and Johan, and others, must seek justice from the courts to validate their relationship and belonging. There needs to be a correlation between the legislation and the vision that the country is working towards. 

The Bill of Rights is in place to protect and promote the fundamental human rights of Namibians and promote equality before the law and the need for fair, just and speedy court processes. The constitution promotes the rights to liberty, respect for human dignity, equality and freedom from discrimination regardless of a person’s sex, race, or social or economic status association, and even the right to marriage and having a family between same-sex spouses. The blatant denial of the recognition of same-sex marriages by the State violates the right to dignity. It amounts to multiple layers of discrimination by the State, which contrasts with the constitution of Namibia.  

Powering forward

Despite these challenges, there have been continuous efforts by LGBTIQ+ advocates and allies to push for greater recognition and acceptance of LGBTIQ+ individuals in Namibia. These efforts include taking an intersectional advocacy approach that is results-based. There is still a long way to go to achieve full equality and protection for LGBTIQ+ individuals in Namibia. In the long exhale process, Digashu has found public support and joined LGBTIQ+ human rights defenders to continue raising awareness and educating the public on human rights and the challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ people. The Digashu matter highlights the need for LGBTIQ+ inclusion and acknowledgement. In its judgment, the Supreme Court noted the need for social and legislative inclusion of LGBTIQ+ persons in Namibia. 

Bradley Fortuin is the LGBTIQ+ Program Officer at the Southern Africa Litigation Center and is social justice activist with over 10 years of experience in program design and strategic management, focusing on developing, implementing and strengthening LGBTIQ+-led movements.

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Letters to the Editor

LGBTQ+ teachers should be celebrated, not demonized

Teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ should be celebrated, but they are instead being demonized in this polarized era

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Charles Silverstein (Screenshot/YouTube AdamsLoveGloba)

By Nancy Braus | On June 4, likely more than half of the students of the 1964-66 elementary school class of Charles Silverstein will attend his memorial in New York City. This man was a truly innovative, original and life changing public school teacher. Our class day, in a New York suburb, began with Mr. S reading the New York Times and discussing the many important issues of the day.

We were fortunate enough to then get to work on one of the many amazing projects this teacher presented to us: Learning to grow hydroponic vegetables, presenting a play to help us understand the meaning of propaganda by educating our fellow students about the evils of bubble gum, as well as a heavily rehearsed modern dance performance for the school.

The moms, who mainly were stay-at-home at that time, loved him because we all were so excited about attending school, so many moms volunteered to come in and teach to their strengths. He also took us all on a yearly trip to his alma mater, SUNY New Paltz, to learn about geology and use the science equipment like microscopes that our school did not own. I was a very insecure child, and having a teacher for two years who encouraged us to be ourselves and helped us to learn in a creative way was a lifesaver for me.

Mr. Silverstein stopped teaching in 1966, grew his hair, got hip glasses and co-authored “The Joy of Gay Sex” with Edmund White. He went back to school to get a PhD in psychology and proceeded to live a long and important life as an out gay therapist.

He was one of the major voices in getting the American Psychological Association to eliminate homosexuality as a disease. He wrote one of the earliest guides for families coming to terms with accepting their gay son or daughter.

Even as he was probably the most beloved teacher in the school, I feel certain that the idea of an out gay man teaching in 1966 would likely have been a non-starter. In the nearly 60 years that have passed, it seems we have come almost full circle, in a terrible backlash.

My children attended schools in Vermont from 1985 through the early 2000s. Many of their finest teachers were lesbians or gay men, a few of whom are still teaching in our district. I have not heard about any kind of negativity towards these educational professionals in Vermont, but what a contrast to the “red” states.

So many truly important social advances are currently targeted by the far right. Joe Biden actually spoke out at the end of April, publicly recognizing the damage done by the “lavender scare” during the 1950’s. Dwight Eisenhower signed a declaration banning LGBTQ citizens from working in the federal government — opening the door to invasive investigations as well as loss of jobs.

The far right has been trying to challenge the general societal acceptance of lesbians and gay men by banning any books for kids, even board books for babies, with any images, stories, or voices of same sex couples or gay individuals. By using the term, totally inappropriately, “groomer” for all non-straight people, the far right is trying to make your aunt, or brother, or buddy into a threatening figure.

Imagine living in Florida and being an out gay teacher under the “Don’t Say Gay” rule: You cannot refer to your partner, you are not supposed to provide assistance when young gay students approach you for help in staying sane, sometimes even in staying alive. It is probably necessary to slam that closet door that has been open for so many years if you are to keep your job.

Mr. Silverstein was not the only gay educator who was an absolutely phenomenal teacher. It is remarkable that the “parent’s rights” crowd seems to have zero interest in their children being taught by talented teachers who are preparing them for the 21st century instead of the 19th.

The 2022 Kentucky teacher of the year, Edward Carver, is on sabbatical this year and is afraid to return to his classroom. He states in an article in Education Week that the troubles began 4 or 5 years ago, that as a gay man, he was not harassed before that. Many of the finest, most exciting teachers are not heterosexual.

Given the huge teacher shortage, driving out a large class of qualified educators makes you think that maybe the right does not care about public schools. Of course, as the schools deteriorate, the elite can send their kids to private academies. Many of the most far right ideologues don’t even believe in public schools.

The gay rights movement was built from a need for personal and societal authenticity. To be a healthy human, your actions need to line up with your identity and your beliefs. The closet was never a healthy place for nonbinary people, and the reasons for the high suicide rate among gay and trans folks is generally a lack of ability to live their identities.

Our children are living through a horrible time — with all the gun violence and the fears about climate. Those who are LGBTQ+ deserve to have role models who are able to help them survive the challenges of the pre-teen and teen years. Driving out gay teachers, passing fascist laws like “Don’t Say Gay,” and violently attacking drag shows will never lead to a healthy society.

We should all raise a glass to the brave teachers who continue to take the abuse from the MAGA crowd. One of these teachers could save your child’s life.

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As the public health emergency ends, a humanitarian crisis begins for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers

Title 42 ended on May 11

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The Rio Grande between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, on Jan. 14, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

LGBTQIA+ people from around the world who come to the U.S. Southern border seeking safety from escalating discrimination and violence are now met with an impossible new system that denies us our human rights. Under Title 42, we struggled to find pathways from persecution in our home countries. When it was lifted on May 11, Biden replaced it with an asylum ban that forces us to stay in unsafe conditions while we try, and fail, to make an appointment on an app that does not work.

A gay asylum seeker myself, I experienced first-hand the challenges of proving my worthiness of protection under Title 42. Homosexuality is criminalized in a third of the world’s countries, forcing LGBTQIA+ people to face violence, harassment and discrimination, sometimes from our own government authorities. The Title 42 policy launched at the beginning of the COVID emergency prevented us from making an asylum case properly, leaving us in a state of vulnerability and without the protection we desperately needed. We faced increasing risks as we navigated detention or processing centers and were forced to return to countries where our lives were in danger.

I am now the client services manager at Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazon, where we coordinate legal services for thousands of LGBTQIA+ people fleeing danger, like I once did. Every day, I see how Biden’s new asylum ban makes pleading such claims nearly impossible. One of our clients, Mario, poses the perfect example. 

Mario, a gender non-conforming Guatemalan asylum seeker from the Maya Qʼeqchiʼ community, carries on their late father’s legacy as a traditional herbal medicine expert and human rights advocate. In March 2022, they organized peaceful protests against the country’s homophobic “protection of life and family” bill, which was later passed by the Guatemalan Congress. However, their involvement led to persecution and torture by government-affiliated leaders, who accused them of witchcraft. Expelled from their community under indigenous “laws,” Mario sought refuge within Guatemala but faced ongoing persecution. Surviving two firearm assassination attempts, they fled to the United States’ Southern border to seek asylum.

Arriving at the Matamoros-Brownsville International Bridge, Mario exercised their rights under international law to express their intent to seek asylum directly to a Customs and Border Control asylum officer, the proper process before the U.S. government introduced the notoriously glitchy CBP One app earlier this year. Introduced to create an “orderly” means of arguing an exemption to Title 42, the app instead created yet another barrier to accessing asylum. Instead of accepting their declaration, the officer instructed them to use the app to make an appointment wherein they would check a box claiming they were exempt from the Title 42 public health emergency, and receive an appointment to tell their story and hopefully receive parole so they could begin the asylum process.

Mario managed to get access to a smartphone, but their limited literacy and unfamiliarity with technology posed challenges. The app failed to recognize their darker complexion during the photo capture process, as it did with numerous asylum seekers. Still, Mario did not give up: They struggled to secure an appointment every day, fearing their inability to verify their identity or meet the app’s listed vulnerabilities would hinder their right to request asylum. After 90 days of unsuccessful attempts and increasing dangers in Matamoros, they finally could not wait any longer and chose to instead risk crossing the hazardous river near the International Bridge to enter the U.S. They were intercepted by CBP and processed. Following a 72-hour case review, Mario received one-year parole, enabling them to pursue their asylum case in a safer environment. 

If this new asylum ban had been in place, Mario would not be here today. They would have to prove that they had first sought asylum in Mexico, or figure out how to use an app that is not available in their language, or simply be forced to remain in a place where they had received numerous threats on their life. And had they attempted to cross, they would be deported “home” to a country that is notoriously hostile to LGBTQIA+ people, especially those with darker skin, and prohibited from seeking asylum in the U.S. again for five years. 

This is now how asylum law works. Under existing asylum procedures that have been the law of the land since 1980, when Title 42 lifted on May 11, Mario should have just been able to walk up to an asylum officer and plead credible fear of harm based on their membership in a persecuted group. However, instead, the Biden administration pushed through critical, harsh changes to how asylum seekers on our southern border can seek protection, directly endangering our community and our lives.

It is not too late for the Biden administration to ensure that the new asylum rule does not exclude or discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people seeking protection in the United States. First, the administration should train immigration officials on the specific challenges facing our community, including understanding the laws and situations facing LGBTQIA+ people in different countries; this will guarantee a fair and appropriate evaluation in each individual case, and will avoid the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudices that can lead to wrong decisions. Second, the administration must put mechanisms in place to provide legal advice and emotional support to people in our community seeking asylum, as we often face additional barriers due to our sexual orientation or gender identity. Third, the administration must fulfill its promise to create alternative pathways for people at imminent risk of harm, including our community members fleeing oppression.

The LGBTQIA+ community deserves an asylum system in the U.S. that recognizes and protects our fundamental human rights. Only then can we build an asylum system that reflects our values of equality and justice for all.

Estuardo Cifuentes is the client services manager at Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazon.

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Editor's Letter

Do LGBTQ+ people REALLY need allies like the Dodgers?

You are displaying what can rightly be considered outright homophobia. You literally are allowing the LGBTQ+ community to be bullied

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Photo courtesy of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

LOS ANGELES – On Wednesday of this week I reported Florida Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio issued a statement on Monday that condemned the Los Angeles Dodgers Major League Baseball franchise for a scheduled “Community Hero Award”  to be given to the LA Chapter of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence drag group during Pride month in June.

By Wednesday, the Dodgers caved in, folded, and walked away from a total commitment to the LGBTQ community by “uninviting” The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence ludicrously claiming that the team felt it would be better to hold Dodger Pride Night without the “controversial” elements that honoring the drag group raised.

Let’s consider this for a moment, just the optics for example, a senior vice-president of the team is openly gay AND married. In addition to that, one of the team’s minority owners is- wait for it, a LESBIAN! The team would rather cater to the manufactured butt-hurt rage of the conservatives, not wishing to offend the faithful of a religious group whose priests have been convicted of molesting thousands of children over multiple centuries, mostly male victims I’ll add, rather than honor a drag group with a long established record of charity and philanthropic efforts? (Oh and NO record of molesting kids either.)

I have published the understandable and justifiable anger and critique by community leaders here in Los Angeles and beyond. The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s CEO noted in his statement:

Buckling to pressure from out-of-state, right-wing fundamentalists, the Dodgers caved to a religious minority that is perpetuating a false narrative about LGBTQ+ people. They have been fed lies about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and have therefore contributed to the ongoing, anti-LGBTQ smear campaign happening in this country. In a year where over 400 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation are on the books—many of them targeting freedom of speech, expression, and the bodily autonomy of our community—the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is as critical as ever, and unfortunately the Dodgers chose to bow to the religious right rather than stand with our LGBTQ community.

As I write these words, Texas Lawmakers are considering yet another bill banning drag or severely limiting the ability of drag performers to practise their artform, that state joining the dozen plus other states who have banned or are considering bans on drag performances.

This year has seen attacks on drag, attacks on trans healthcare, attacks on LGBTQ+ kids, book bans, a plethora of hate yet here in California, in Los Angeles no less, even with the aforementioned senior staff and owners being LGBTQ+ themselves, the Dodgers are tossing the LGBTQ+ community, its people, and THEIR fans out on the rubbish heap because of butt hurt rage by people who don’t even live in LA. Seriously?

Today is Friday and there is silence from the Dodgers… crickets.

Why even bother holding a Pride night? You either back us entirely or you don’t. And if you don’t? Well then I recommend that LGBTQ+ baseball fans and our community allies consider cheering for and backing the Angels, the Padres, the Oakland Athletics, or the Giants.

My message to the Dodgers is simple, screw you if you cannot support people who are in a battle for their very existence every.single.day! You are displaying what can rightly be considered outright homophobia. You literally are allowing the LGBTQ+ community to be bullied. Really? Honestly? You all suck.

I’ll let the Sisters have the final word:

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

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For Israel’s LGBTQ citizens, threats are no longer theoretical

Proposed judicial reforms could have wide-ranging impact

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Activists in Israel created this mock train station map to indicate how proposed reforms to Israel's judiciary could harm LGBTQ and intersex people. (Photo courtesy of George Avni)

In 2023, millions are engaging in protests all around the world. People are making their voices heard in France, Mexico, Bangladesh, Hungary and Greece – just to name a few.

The specific events triggering civic action vary by location. But whether it’s pension reforms, election concerns, human rights, or rank government incompetence, it’s undeniable that the world is shaking. Among the common threads are an existential threat to democratic institutions. 

At A Wider Bridge, we are closely connected to the manifestation of this international phenomenon in Israel.

Israelis from across the political spectrum are taking a stand for their democracy in an unprecedented manner. They have taken to the streets in historic numbers day after day, week after week, in patriotic displays of defiance. LGBTQ Israelis are on the front lines in a battle over  legislation that most of them feel would dramatically undermine the independence of Israel’s judiciary. The stakes are high. The Israeli Supreme Court has been a bastion for advancing LGBTQ equality.

With a different court, LGBTQ Israelis could see protections ended for male couples and single men who have children via surrogacy. Same-sex couples married overseas might lose recognition of their unions, and with that, benefits from health insurance to inheritance, not to mention the implications for parents where one partner is non-Israeli. Protections for students and trans Israelis could evaporate. But there is more than the court in play. A new generation of extremist politicians have gained true power — and the bully pulpit. The reverberations are being felt far and wide — and the threat they pose to LGBTQ Israelis is no longer theoretical. 

The Aguda, the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, just released its 2022 report on LGBTQphobia in Israel. The findings show that anti-LGBTQ hate has skyrocketed. It rose during an election cycle in which some extremist politicians railed against LGBTQ rights, and it skyrocketed after the early November election. It has affected almost every aspect of LGBTQ life in the country.

In total, there were 3,309 reports of LGBTQ abuse last year — an enormous increase, and double what was reported as recently as five years ago. Delving deeper into the data, the news gets even scarier: an eightfold increase in year-on-year discrimination reports involving services by businesses, a fivefold increase in LGBTQ abuse reports in the public sphere, a 53 percent increase in reports from trans individuals, and a sevenfold increase in LGBTQ abuse reports where the offending parties are public figures and in the media.

On top of that, fully 25 percent of these reports came in November and December — during the election campaign and immediately following the commencement of the new government.

Some have urged patience with Israel’s new government and advocate a wait-and-see approach. They say nothing bad has happened yet. Sadly, they are wrong. 

While these extremist politicians, now leading important government ministries, have yet to deliver fully on pledges to remove LGBTQ education from schools, groups working in that sector say it has become increasingly difficult to do programs they routinely offered in the past. They have yet to ban Pride parades, end hormone treatments and gender-affirming care for trans people, or provide financial support for organizations that provide conversion therapy. But all of these anti-LGBTQ policies are on the table. Unfortunately for LGBTQ Israelis, there is no safety in adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Recently, a group of right-wing youth harassed protesters carrying Pride flags in Tel Aviv. They threw rocks at a building at which a Pride flag was displayed. They even climbed a balcony to tear it down. They were caught in the act on video and later identified. But for weeks, no arrests have been made.  In response, thousands of pro-LGBTQ Israelis protested in front of the police headquarters in Tel Aviv — a city justifiably celebrated for its LGBTQ-friendly environment and with one of the highest percentages of LGBTQ residents in the world. They were protesting police inaction, fully cognizant that the municipal police are controlled by the Israeli Ministry of National Security under Itamar Ben-Gvir, an open homophobe who ran for office on a far-right slate with a radical anti-LGBTQ platform.

Was the lack of police action a result of top-down pressure? We don’t know. But we do know that the physical security of LGBTQ people is often dependent on the institutions that govern us.

We also know that we can never take our rights and our safety for granted. That’s true whether one is LGBTQ in Tel Aviv, Black in Missouri, or Jewish on the streets of New York City, where antisemitic violence is on the rise.

The legislation Israelis are protesting is but one symptom of a global phenomenon to wrest power from institutions that have advanced the equality of marginalized groups — LGBTQ people, women, racial minorities, immigrants and others. It is not difficult to connect the dots from Jerusalem to Florida to certain eastern European countries, where democratic norms are under attack in general, as are the rights of LGBTQ people in particular.

So what do we do in the face of these challenges? First, we recognize the challenges as real, acute, and demanding immediate action. 

Then we organize. We protest. We don’t allow ourselves to be gaslighted by those who say all is well, when clearly it is not. All one has to do to appreciate the threats to LGBTQ people in Israel is to speak with a few LGBTQ Israelis.

Accordingly, A Wider Bridge has dramatically increased our support of LGBTQ groups through additional public advocacy and an emergency campaign to fund their pro-democracy work and meet needs for increased social services. Next month, we will travel to Israel to stand with our LGBTQ family. We will march with them at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance and host an English livestream to the world. 

We continue to be inspired by Israel’s democracy movement, where the LGBTQ flag has become as common a sight in the streets as the Israeli flag itself. We will stand with them today — and every day — to protect Israel’s democratic and pluralistic character in the face of this emergency.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge.

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