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We won’t be ignored

Make some noise — a New Year is almost here

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Troy Masters (Blade file photo)

We end 2020 in an unimaginable place, with more than 80 million cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 1.7 million deaths reported globally. As a result, we are also experiencing a cascading social and economic fallout that heralds perhaps the greatest social and political challenges in modern history. 

It was exactly one year ago this week, Dec. 31, 2019, that the first mentions in the mainstream U.S. media began to circulate of a mystery illness that had sickened dozens of people in  Chinese mega-city Wuhan. 

Alarming outbreaks quickly occurred around the world and by the end of January more than 2,000 cases and 43 deaths had been reported. 

By March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, more than 4,600 people had died worldwide and new cases were soaring, as the number of cases outside China increased 13-fold and the number of countries with cases increased threefold.

Our response has required us to reinvent life as we once knew it and remove ourselves (even our faces) from one another. It has felt almost as if gravity simply disappeared, like civilization itself disappeared. Everything that had been meaningful and familiar, things we had taken so profoundly for granted — freedom of movement, the simple pleasure of planning a vacation, attending an event large or small, dinner out, a movie, holidays, family gatherings — turn out to be not only key to our economy but also a key component in our psychological well-being. We depend on the friendly gesture of touch and interaction and that has (for the moment) largely slipped away.

We are fighting for our own survival, all of us. It is truly an existential era.

The need for social distancing, mask wearing, the isolation of all the prevention measures, the loud and angry political debate and resulting chaotic messaging, the economic fallout, massive loss of life, wellness, mobility and small freedoms, large insecurities have all taken a toll on each of us.  

Add to that the shocking spectacle of a president who escalated daily his weaponization of the crisis as an appeal to a base that desperately wanted to deny every bit of the pandemic, an encouragement that made the situation more and more dire. 

Trump’s wager was total, all in. He bet the nation that with more chaos and greater crisis, his power would increase and he would be reelected. His followers truly believed that “only he could fix it.”

But the rest of the world side-stepped Trump and the best scientific minds came together to save us, producing vaccines that have the potential to restore everyday life to something resembling the months before COVID-19 entered our consciousness.

If we are able to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population, COVID-19 loses its grip on the world. Life will slowly reassemble. Meanwhile, it’s up to us to comply with COVID protocols.

The LGBTQ community is something of a model for that reassembly. We know about the power of science and the enormous role messaging plays in motivating a community toward making the changes needed to save lives.

We are an example to the world of how to change an entire culture toward lowering rates of transmission and preventing community spread. We know how to work with the scientific community to advance treatments and get our larger community to adopt the result.  We know something about surviving a plague.

So, why then are we being ignored? 

Since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, Karen Ocamb and Brody Levesque have reported for the Blade on the invisibility of the LGBTQ community, which has been profound. The consequences of that erasure may be lasting.

Data collection by authorities in California and elsewhere has excluded any references to the LGBTQ community, despite our suffering and death. While data exists to show the pandemic consequences for the Black, Latino and Asian communities’ rates of transmission, deaths and socio-economic impact — none of that information has been collected for LGBTQ people.

West Hollywood, as a microcosm of the entire LGBTQ community, offers tremendous empirical insight for those willing to take a look. It is a community that has an aging population, 50 percent of whom are seniors who have experienced long term isolation, even before COVID. It is a community with a workforce largely comprised of freelance and gig-workers, tip-based employees and other underpaid people who are all experiencing profound economic tumult. Yet information specific to them is not collected and applied to LGBTQ people as a whole.

And now, a vaccine is at hand that requires a 70 percent participation — yet there has been no database-harvested understanding of what messages would motivate our own community to get inoculated. There’s still no way to measure any aspect of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the LGBTQ community. 

Our community’s nonprofit sector must once again take the lead. With dozens of LGBTQ clinics in LA offered through the Los Angeles LGBT Center, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, APLA, St. John’s Wellness and others, we have the infrastructure to make a difference in yet another fight for our lives. It will take substantial community outreach and solidarity.

Yet 2021 holds a great deal of promise.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to right the wrongs inflicted on the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups by the Trump administration and bring inclusivity. He has already given us a place at the table by acknowledging the LGBTQ community in his acceptance speech, selecting an openly out married Black lesbian as Deputy White House Press Secretary and the nomination of the first openly gay man to a presidential Cabinet post.

It’s certainly not too late to inject our needs, right the Trump-created mess and make our demands heard. We learned the hard lesson that Silence Equals Death. We can’t be quiet in 2021.

Troy Masters is the publisher of the Los Angeles Blade

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It doesn’t take a miracle

Hanukkah a time for LGBTQ Jews to celebrate full identity

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(Public domain photo)

For Jews around the world, Sunday night marked the beginning of Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem by the Maccabees, a small and poorly armed group of Jews who took on, and defeated, one of the world’s most powerful armies. 

Upon entering Jerusalem, the Maccabees saw that there was only enough oil to light the Temple’s eternal flame for one night. But the oil lasted eight nights — enough time for new oil to be prepared. The eternal flame remained lit, and light triumphed over darkness.

The story of Hanukkah was a miracle. While we celebrate and commemorate that miracle, we should also remember that it doesn’t take a miracle for one person to make a difference. 

The entire world is shaking beneath our feet. The climate is in crisis and our planet is in danger. A viral contagion has claimed the lives of millions, and there’s no clear end in sight. Creeping authoritarianism threatens the entire world, including here at home.

Sometimes it seems like it will take a miracle to solve even one of these problems. The reason these problems seem so overwhelming is because they are — no one person can fix it themselves.

Here in the LGBTQ community, we have made enormous strides, and we ought to be proud of them. But there is so much more work to be done.

Not everyone in our community is treated equally, and not everyone has the same access to opportunity. Black, brown and trans LGBTQ people face systemic and structural disadvantages and discrimination and are at increased risk of violence and suicide. It must stop.

These are big problems too, and the LGBTQ people as a collective can help make the changes we need so that light triumphs over darkness. But it doesn’t take a miracle for individuals to light the spark.

Our movement is being held back by the creeping and dangerous narrative that insists that we choose between our identities instead of embracing all of them. 

The presentation of this false choice has fallen especially hard on LGBTQ Jews, many of whom feel a genuine connection to and support for Israel. They feel marginalized when asked to sideline their identity by being told that the world’s only Jewish state shouldn’t even have a place on the map. And they feel attacked when asked about the Israeli government’s policies during a conflict, as if they have some obligation to condemn them and take a stand simply because of their faith.

One of the ways we can shine our light is to fight for an LGBTQ community that is truly inclusive.

This holiday season, pledge to celebrate all aspects of your identity and the rights of LGBTQ people to define their own identities and choose their own paths. If you feel the pressure to keep any part of your identity in the closet, stand up to it and refuse to choose. 

In the face of enormous challenges that require collective action, we must not give up on our power as individuals to do what’s right. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

The tradition of lighting the menorah each night represents ensuring the continuity of that eternal flame. One of the reasons the Hanukkah menorah is displayed prominently in the windows of homes and in public squares is because the light isn’t meant to be confined to the Jewish home. The light is for everyone — and a reminder that we can share it with the world every day to try to make it better.

As long as we keep fighting for justice, we don’t need to perform miracles. But we do need to do our part so that light triumphs over darkness.

It is up to each of us to map out what we can contribute to create a truly inclusive LGBTQ community. This holiday season, be the light. If you can, donate to a group that helps lift LGBTQ youth in crisis. Volunteer your time to fight for the rights and the lives of trans people. And be kind to one another.

Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or of no faith at all, take this opportunity to share your light with the world. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge.

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Farewell to a Genius: a tribute to Sondheim

The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world

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President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Stephen Sondheim Nov. 24, 2015 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

PALM SPRINGS – When I learned of the passing of Stephen Sondheim, I was playing a game.

Like so many of us nowadays, I spend more of my downtime than I care to admit mindlessly distracting myself by manipulating pixels on a handheld screen, so although I wish I could say it was the kind of brain-challenging, devilishly clever game of which of Sondheim himself was famously a fan, it most definitely was not.

Brainless as it may have been, this was what I was doing when the notification banner suddenly popped up. Short and to the point, it was a breaking news alert: “Stephen Sondheim, master craftsman who reinvented the musical, dies aged 91.”

At first, I went through the reflexive mental process of acknowledging that, although I felt a pang of sorrow, there was comfort in knowing he had lived a phenomenally lengthy life of success and accomplishment surely beyond his wildest dreams.

It was true that I loved Stephen Sondheim as much as it was possible to love any human being I had never actually met, but this was an inevitable event for which I had stoically prepared in advance. I couldn’t find it within myself to be sad.

It was shortly thereafter that I realized this was a loss I was going to feel for the rest of my life.

Like many little gay boys of my generation, I grew up being exposed to musical theatre through the old cast albums my parents owned. “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” “Cabaret” – the songs from these and so many more classic shows made up a big portion of the soundtrack to my childhood, fanning the flames of a lifelong love that continues to this day.

I was aware of Sondheim at the time – but I wasn’t impressed. Naturally, I loved “West Side Story” – already a movie buff, it was one of my favorite Hollywood classics – but I had no interest for shows like “Company,” “Follies,” or “A Little Night Music,” which were about boring grown-ups going through boring grown-up things and taking it all far too seriously.

It wasn’t until later, when I discovered “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as a teen, that I was hooked. Here was all the over-the-top, period-costumed spectacle I adored about musical theatre wrapped up into a deliciously gruesome tale of people being slaughtered and served up as meat pies, and Angela Lansbury was the star. I couldn’t resist it, and as I listened for the first time to its dizzyingly complex songs, I finally “got” Sondheim.

Simultaneously, the old-fashioned favorites from my youth began to lose a little bit of their luster for me. Compared to this darkly beautiful masterpiece, in which somehow even the most reprehensible actions and characters were imbued with a comprehensible humanity, they seemed suddenly quaint and unsophisticated, relics of a world that was quickly fading away.

This was true, of course, for an entire generation. The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world where musicals didn’t have to be brain candy, where they could make the kind of observations and revelations about the fathomless depths of human experience that had previously been the sole province of the so-called “legitimate” theatre.

But you don’t need me to tell you that: if you’ve read any of the countless obituaries and tributes published in the wake of his passing, you already know it, if you didn’t already.

In writing this tribute, it was suggested I might offer up a “thoroughly LA” take on the life of this icon – and since I normally write mostly about film and television, that certainly is fitting. I could point out that the boundary-pushing genius which helped Sondheim transform the Broadway musical was the very thing that made him a hard sell in Hollywood. His work was inherently theatrical, a delicate balance of razor-sharp reality and high concept conceit, and, to be fair, even the greatest of filmmakers would likely be challenged to capture the right blend on a screen.

“West Side” was a multi-Oscar-winning hit on film, but it was already a cultural sensation by the time it was made, and other early adaptations of his work (“Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music”) failed to make quite as big a splash. Later, high-profile screen versions were made of “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” – but for devotees, despite their relative financial success, these were pale shadows of the master’s originals. Still, Sondheim made an impact on Hollywood in other ways; most memorably, he won an Oscar for writing “Sooner or Later” for Madonna to sing in “Dick Tracy.” He also contributed songs for movies like Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” and even co-wrote (with longtime friend Anthony Perkins) the twisted screenplay for “The Last of Sheila,” a wickedly inventive comedy-mystery from 1973 that has achieved cult status even outside the Sondheim fanbase.

But really, Sondheim was not of Hollywood, or of LA, or even of New York, though his sensibilities were a considerably better fit there. The truth, the insight, the intelligence, and the boundless curiosity about life that permeated all his works prove that he was beyond belonging to a particular place or time. 

Of course, die-hard Sondheim fans – and trust me, there are more of us than you think – need no proof that his was a universal voice. That’s why we are all so eager to talk about him, to drop quotes from his lyrics into as many conversations possible, and to tell you which Sondheim song is their favorite and why they think it’s the best of all.

And which is mine? I tend to fluctuate, depending on where I am at in my life at the time. It’s often tempting to count the devastating “Ladies Who Lunch,” an existential crisis set to music, at the top of the list. At other times it’s “Finishing the Hat,” a confessional lament about the emotional isolation of being an artist, or “I’m Still Here,” an oft-recorded celebration of show-biz survivors that’s been embraced by other kinds of survivors as well. Like a lot of us who were around in the 80s and 90s, I also feel a deep connection to “No One Is Alone,” the heartfelt ballad of comfort adopted as an anthem during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis.

Yet there’s one song I keep coming back to, over and over. “Someone in a Tree” was composed for “Pacific Overtures,” a show about the opening of Japan to Western commerce in the 19th century. In the song, concealed observers watch a treaty being negotiated behind closed doors, yet they can report no relevant information about what takes place in the meeting because they only see it from their limited viewpoints.

In lesser hands, the situation might be nothing more than fodder for an extended comedy of errors, but for Sondheim it becomes a springboard into a Zen-like meditation – “It’s the ripple, not the sea, that is happening” – about the importance of perspective.  It’s a breathtaking achievement, and at one point in his career the composer himself once cited it as his favorite among all his works. If I had to pick one, it would be mine, too.

That’s because perspective is probably the greatest gift of the many that Sondheim gave me: he opened my eyes to a world of infinite viewpoints, where even the most mundane or ridiculous or horrific or devastating moments can be seen as beautiful, and where every single human experience has meaning, if only you can find the right angle from which to look at it.

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John Paul King is the Los Angeles Blade’s Arts & Entertainment editor and featured A&E columnist

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Evangelical Christian groups flout the law – again

Christian Right groups promoting anti-LGBT practices in the US and abroad, despite bans, is nothing new: they’ve been doing it for decades

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Graphic design by Inge Snip via openDemocracy

By Chrissy Stroop | PORTLAND – In recent years, 40% of American states, along with more than 100 municipalities, have begun banning mental health professionals from providing so-called ‘conversion therapy’ to minors (defined in the United States as people under the age of 18).

The American Psychiatric Association, which first expressed its “strong opposition” to this harmful practice in 1998, reiterated its position in 2018 – at a time when anti-LGBTQ sentiments were flaring up amid a general right-wing backlash against democratic norms and civil rights gains. The American Psychological Association has also provided a helpful list of talking points in support of legislative efforts to ban ‘conversion therapy’.

Whether such bans are observed or enforced, however, is another matter.

Targeting minors

A new investigation by openDemocracy has revealed that one of the US’s most prominent anti-LGBTQ organisations, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, has continued to promote ‘conversion therapy’ to minors – even in areas where bans are in place. An undercover reporter posing as a 17-year-old “struggling with same-sex attraction” found Focus-affiliated therapists who were willing to “help” her “change” her sexual orientation in Virginia and Colorado, both states that ban ‘conversion therapy’ for minors.

In addition, openDemocracy discovered that Focus on the Family’s list of approved counsellors includes “dozens” of “licensed professionals who offer specific treatment for ‘homosexuality issues’, ‘gender identity issues’ or both” and “have children and adolescents as clients, including in states where ‘conversion therapy’ is banned”.

Practitioners seeking Focus’s imprimatur must have a “state mental health credential”, which means that the group is not only flouting state and local ‘conversion therapy’ bans, but also demanding that licensed therapists flout the established standards of their fields in favour of fundamentalist Christian ideology that treats queerness as “sin”.

Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by Dr James Dobson, who believed corporal punishment was required of Christian parents, and who was far more influenced by eugenicist thinking than most evangelicals would prefer to admit. He soon established himself as a public figure, first as the conservative Christian disciplinarian answer to the nurturing style of parenting promoted by the likes of Dr Benjamin Spock, and then as a power broker in the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.

The group has some unpleasant friends. The Family Research Council (FRC) – designated an anti-LGBTQ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – was integrated into Focus on the Family in 1988, as its advocacy arm. They officially split into separate organisations again in 1992 (in a move to protect Focus’s tax-exempt status as a religious non-profit), but Dobson remained on the FRC’s board.

Disregard for legal norms

Focus on the Family’s extreme anti-LGBTQ animus is, of course, not unique on the Christian Right – and neither is its disregard for legal norms. For example, Liberty University, a hardline evangelical institution founded by culture warrior extraordinaire Jerry Falwell, Sr., once penalised law students who argued in an exam that an “ex-lesbian” mother should obey court orders requiring parental visiting rights for her ex-wife. The reason the mother – who was, in fact, not so hypothetical – was supposed to engage in “civil disobedience” was to “protect” her child from exposure to “the homosexual lifestyle”.

As documented by an FBI affidavit, the real-life mother behind the exam question had actually kidnapped her child and fled the US for Nicaragua, where she was staying in the beach house of a Christian Right activist. Which leads to the issue of the US Christian Right’s international reach.

Evangelical missionaries have contributed to the rise of reactionary politics in Latin America, and they are also well known for disregarding laws put in place to protect uncontacted Indigenous peoples. So we should not be surprised that – on top of the new revelations about Focus’s disregard for ‘conversion therapy’ bans in the US, openDemocracy has identified mental health practitioners with links to Focus and Exodus Global Alliance (another US Christian conservative group) accused of providing ‘conversion therapy’ in Costa Rica.

Although ‘conversion therapy’ is not yet banned in Costa Rica, it does represent a pernicious export from the US Christian Right, whose influence in Latin America is both longstanding and harmful. Focus’s presence in the region, via its Enfoque a la Familia offices, dates back to 1985.

American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith

Having grown up in this type of dominionist Christianity, I can’t say I’m surprised by openDemocracy’s findings. At the same time, it is immensely important to document the ways in which American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith.

They exploit bad-faith ‘religious freedom’ arguments to push a theocratic (and de facto white supremacist) agenda, and evade the law (whether local, national or international) when it doesn’t give them free rein to dominate others. If there’s one thing that should be very clear after the 6 January insurrection against the US government – which was undoubtedly driven by the religious right – it’s that right-wing Christians are willing to give up even a plausible veneer of support for democracy in order to hold on to power.

They will wield that power to harm marginalised people, however and wherever they can, and it is well past time for us to begin holding them accountable.

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A prominent ex-evangelical writer, speaker, and advocate, Chrissy Stroop is (with Lauren O’Neal) coeditor of the essay anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. A senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, her work has appeared in Dame Magazine, Foreign Policy, Playboy, Political Research Associates, and other outlets, including peer-reviewed academic journals.

Holding a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Stanford University, Stroop is a Senior Research Associate with the University of Innsbruck’s Postsecular Conflicts project. In 2019 Chrissy came out as a transgender woman and began her journey of medical transition. She resides in Portland, Oregon.

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The preceding article was first published at openDemocracy and is republished by permission.

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