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Thinking about Connie Norman on #TransVisibilityDay

She made so many of us feel warm and loved and supported.

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Connie Norman and Rob Roberts during his hunger strike to draw attention to AB 101, the California gay civil rights bill,
(Photograph from the collection of Karen Ocamb)

Folks – today is my 8th official day at Public Justice. I’m still going through intense orientation meetings –and still want to dive into every project, lawsuit and issue at the nonprofit public interest legal organization. Steve Ralls is doing a great job of reigning me in. But I confess that on days like this – #TransVisibilityDay – I miss being in the thick of the #LGBTQ press and the Los Angeles Blade writing about our extraordinary trans and nonbinary brothers and sisters.

Look at Bamby Salcedo, founder of [email protected] Coalition, for instance. I’ve known her since she was a staffer at Bienestar! Look what’s she’s achieved! But truthfully, for much of the day I’ve been thinking about Connie Norman. Luckily, Dante Alencastre has produced a wonderful documentary about Connie – “AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman” – so she will not be lost in our LGBTQ history. But she’s front-of-mind for me today because on Sunday I participated in a table read of John Jude Duran’s musical-in-progress where Connie has a featured role.

In it, the character I played told Connie she loved her – something as a reporter I refrained from doing. But I did love Connie and so many in the old @ACTUP/LA gang. Had I not been covering them, I would probably be at their side. But I had my own role to play. And Connie helped me a lot with that.

I remember when first we met. I was on a date (when I still did that!) and I said I needed to stop by this ACT UP event at the corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. It was the late ‘80s and I was still new to “gay” journalism so I followed standard reporter practice of mingling with the crowd, getting a sense of what was going on, then asking to speak with the organization’s spokesperson.

Mark Kostopoulos told me to talk to Connie and pointed me to a tall red head who seemed very commanding. But when I approached and asked what was going on and her estimate of the crowd size, Connie responded very warmly, as if she knew from the jump she’d have to educate me. And then she said that they had hoped more people would show up but she thought about 50 were there. I stopped in my tracks: usually PR people try to spin and exaggerate. Not Connie. It was what it was. I knew right then I could trust her as a source.

As we were leaving, my date asked if the spokesperson was a transsexual. I told her I had no idea. I’m in a 12th Step program and during the #AIDS crisis, a lot of us seriously let go of judging and thinking in terms of what someone looked like. I asked why my date thought that and she said, “Didn’t you see her hands? They’re huge!” Actually, no I hadn’t looked at her hands. Hmmm. Is that something that should concern me? Do I ask? Is being transsexual important to the story? How do I approach this? What about her privacy rights?

For a bit I was stuck in my transition from old mainstream to LGBTQ/AIDS thinking. Luckily, Connie decided to educate me anyway. She invited me to her home — which she shared with her gay husband (who I recognized from 12 Step rooms) and LOTS of cats – and sat me in front of a video of her teaching a class of students about what it meant to be transsexual or transgender.

Connie was so generous with so many people- she made so many of us feel warm and loved and supported.

Curiously, after the video ended, Connie’s friend Harry Hay and his partner John Burnside (who turned out to be relative neighbors in WeHo) showed up and educated me about gays being Nature’s third sex. It was an amazing night. Connie was so generous with so many people. Most importantly for me – aside from being a reliable source of information so I could do my job properly — she smiled when she saw me. She made so many of us feel warm and loved and supported.

The photo above, which I posted to my Facebook page, of Connie and Rob Roberts during his hunger strike to draw attention to AB 101, the California gay civil rights bill, I published because not only must we acknowledge #TransVisibilityDay – but we must also embrace how valuable our trans brothers and sisters are as family in our lives.

I will be forever grateful to Connie for accepting me, educating me, and supporting me in my journey through this life. Connie Norman will be forever Trans Visible to me.

Karen Ocamb is the former News Editor of the Los Angeles Blade and a long time chronicler of LGBTQ+ lives in Southern California.

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Support local businesses, please consider before canceling reservations

Our businesses must follow this protocol. This is not a choice for them – it is government mandated — the law

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Out zones in West Hollywood (Blade file photo)

By West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce | Our businesses are champions! They have managed to hire back their staff, have survived five government shutdowns and reopenings, prepared their space for a COVID-safe operation, and overcome unprecedented challenges.

Moreover, they are ensuring you, the consumer, a safe environment to visit – eat, shop, and play WeHo!  

The City of West Hollywood has put forth an emergency order dictating that only vaccinated public and employees may be allowed within the “indoor” sections of a restaurant, nightclub, bar, fitness center, or personal service business. This applies to any situation where you would need to remove a mask, such as eating, facials, working out, etc.

Our businesses must follow this protocol. This is not a choice for them – it is government mandated — the law.  

We understand that this may be welcomed by some and rejected by others; regardless of where you stand on that, the businesses need your understanding and support, not boycotting and blame. This vaccine mandate is not their choice.

We are imploring the public that disproves this City of West Hollywood Executive Order to please not take it out on the businesses – instead, come out to support these businesses who risk so much, and have given so much to survive this never-ending pandemic.

Boycotting our local small business owners, who are not at fault for this Executive Order and have no option other than to comply with it, will hurt them even more than they are currently suffering – at a time when they are sacrificing so much to help restabilize our community’s economy.

We have hundreds of beautiful outdoor spaces, rooftops, patios, and OutZones to enjoy that are not subject to the vaccination-only mandate. We have takeout and delivery options for those who want to stay put and binge-watch their favorite shows, or past City Council meetings. There are lots of safe options for dining out and working out outside in West Hollywood. 

Here is a link to our fabulous WeHo places: https://www.wehochamber.com/dinein

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9-11: neighbors reached out to neighbors, strangers became instant friends

“No one talked about ideology or partisan politics. We all longed for and created community wherever we stood.”

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Ground Zero in the aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers on the afternoon of September 11, 2001

By Karen Ocamb | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Like many others around the world, I remember where I was on Sept. 11, 2001. I was at my desk, on deadline, TV off, but curious about this small photo on my Yahoo News front page showing smoke billowing out of one of the Twin Towers. That morning, New York City seemed planets away from West Hollywood. But deadline or not, my compulsive reporter’s curiosity was too hard to resist. I clicked on the image and the world changed. America was under attack.

I rushed to the TV. Planes with enough fuel to fly to California had been hijacked and turned into missiles. Chaos reigned. Oddly, the deliberately calm anchors calmed me enough to finish and file my story. With no other duties hanging over me, I gathered my two dogs close, surrendered to the TV and remained transfixed. Then I saw Rose Arce on CNN heading toward Ground Zero. I knew her from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. It struck me like a sudden thunderclap: are there gay people among the victims? Among the frontline responders – the cops and firefighters? Ordinary people helping however they could? If so, how would they be identified? Did it matter in such a terrorist catastrophe like this?

Rose Arce covering the September 11 attacks for CNN near Ground Zero (Screenshot via CNN)

Yes, it mattered. We just lost a generation of gay men to AIDS – an epidemic that could well have been prevented from become a global pandemic had Ronald Reagan, then President of the United States not turned a blind eye and cold hearted homophobia toward the outbreak of the new disease in June 1981.

Twenty years later, Republican George W. Bush was in the White House – thanks in part to having “former Texas governor” on his resume. But Bush won that job in part by painting scrappy incumbent Democratic Gov. Ann Richards as a lesbian. Like Reagan, Bush was indebted to anti-gay political evangelicals so even if gay heroes did emerge on 9/11 – they would likely be disparaged or erased and because of federal and state Defense of Marriage laws, their families would be denied recognition, help and compensation.

It was our job not to let that happen. A number of us attached rainbow pins or red ribbons to our shirts so there would be some identifying visibility as we joined with crowds of people rallying for support and to thank the frontline heroes. Activists would later push to have lesbian and gay couples and families recognized by the 911 Victims Compensation Fund.

But that first day, neighbors reached out to neighbors and strangers became instant friends. The less frightened comforted the terrified as we looked to the skies and wondered if a hit on L.A. was next. No one talked about ideology or partisan politics. We all longed for and created community wherever we stood.

Over the next week, we tried to find out who among our tribe might have been impacted. I’m so proud that LGBTQ journalists went into action to identify our fallen, bereaved, and those trying to help in the weeks — and years — that followed. Judy Wieder took on the task nationally for The Advocate but those of us who were community and allied reporters did our part, too.

Cover of the Advocate courtesy of Karen Ocamb

“It was September 12, 2001, a very dark day after a tragically dark day. The whole world was trying to understand what had happened and what to do next. The media world was no different. And the gay media world was in a frantic tailspin. We could not figure out what our specific angle on this catastrophe could be,” Wieder, then the Advocate’s editor-in-chief, told me for a story in the Los Angeles Blade. “We had a relatively small staff compared to major news magazines, news sites, and newspapers. We had emergency editorial meetings from dawn to dusk until we hit on something no other news service could provide. What would happen to all the partners and families of 9/11’s LGBT victims? What government agencies would take care of them?”

A satellite view of the wreckage of the Pentagon the day after the attacks on September 12, 2001.
Photograph by IKONOS satellite.

Learning about Father Mychal Judge was a miraculous retort to anti-gay evangelical Rev. Jerry Falwell who appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on Thursday, Sept. 13 and blamed gays and others for the attacks. “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ ” Falwell tried to apologize but we already knew the truth about him from his days creating the anti-gay backlash with singer Anita Bryant in 1997.

Franciscan friar Mychal Judge, a 68-year old chaplain for the NYC Fire Department affectionately known as “Father Mike,” was one of those civilians who ran toward danger to be of service. Headquartered at St. Francis of Assisi across from Ladder Company 24 and Engine Company 1 on West 31st Street, not far from the World Trade Center, he jumped into a car and drove toward the site right after another priest heard the first low-flying plane.

He was met by Mayor Rudy Giuliani who asked him to pray for the city and the victims. Judge prayed over bodies of those who had jumped from the towers then headed into the lobby of the North Tower where firefighters had set up an emergency command post. French filmmaking brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet captured video of Judge ministering to firefighters and standing in the lobby praying for their famous “9/11” documentary. Apparently Judge removed his helmet to administer last rites when the South Tower collapsed and he was struck in the head with concrete debris that flew into the North Lobby.

The filmmakers also captured the moment his body was discovered and five responders determined to move him before the second tower fell. The Reuters photo of five men carrying Judge outside was “an America Pieta” by the Philadelphia Weekly. His body was lovingly placed on the alter of St. Peter’s Catholic Church and he would eventually be designated as “Victim 0001” as the first to be taken to the medical examiner. An estimated 3,000 people attended his Sept. 15 funeral, including former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Peter Cassels wrote in Boston-based Bay Windows about how news of Judge’s sexual orientation was revealed by friends. As a Catholic priest, he never officially come out but he did declare his opposition to Cardinal John O’Connor’s expulsion of the lesbian and gay group Dignity in 1986 and offered them a home at St. Francis of Assisi. He also marched in the gay St Patrick’s Day parade in Queens, ministered to people with AIDS, donated clothes to the Out of the Closet Thrift Shop, and apparently, we learned through the grapevine, was a humorous hit with his fellow 12 Step travelers.

Cassels wrote: “The Village Voice reported that friends said the chaplain was known as a gay man who appreciated the Gay USA show and celebrated the city’s ‘gorgeous men’ by saying, ‘Isn’t God wonderful?’”

Take THAT, Jerry Falwell!

Like me, Ed Walsh also happened to be on deadline for the Bay Area Reporter the night before the world changed. He writes about trying to find the “gay angle” to 9/11. Station KGO was on in the background when he heard Mark Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland, talk about her son. “I was still half-listening until I heard her say her son was ‘sensitive.’ There was something about how she said it, possibly the tone in her voice, that I just kind of knew she was saying her son was gay without saying it,” Walsh wrote.

He did an internet search and found that Bingham was a proud out member of a gay rugby team. He lucked out when Bingham’s teammate Bryce Eberhart was up late and responded to Walsh’s email. “The story of Bingham’s flight, United Flight 93, touched a chord among Americans because it represented the only victory, albeit a bittersweet one, against al-Qaeda on September 11. More reports and more stories came out about Bingham and the other passengers’ heroism,” he wrote.

Front page of the Bay Area Reporter, cover story by Ed Walsh

Later, in July 2011, I met Alice Hoagland when a documentary about Bingham, “With You, was screening at Outfest. It turned out that, aside from being a remarkable rugby player, he was a gay PR executive who helped organize the handful of young men who tried to retake the plane and prevent the terrorists from crashing United Flight 93 into the U.S. Capitol. He also supported Republican Sen. John McCain for president in 2000.

According to Bay Windows, McCain was moved to tears, saying: “I love my country and I take pride in my service but I cannot say I love it more or as well as Mark Bingham did or the other heroes on Flight 93….It is now believed that the terrorists on Flight 93 intended to fly the plane into the United States Capitol where I work, the great house of democracy where I was that day. I very well may owe my life to Mark Bingham and the others who summoned the enormous amount of courage and love necessary to deny those depraved hateful men their terrible triumph. Such a debt we will incur for life. I will try very hard to discharge my public duties in a manner that honors their memory.”

McCain called Bingham a personal hero: “He supported me and his support is now among the greatest honors of my life. I wish I had known before Sept. 11 just how great an honor his trust in me was. I wish I could have thanked him more profusely as time and circumstances allowed but I do now and I thank him by the only means I possess, by being as good of an American as he was.”

It was confusing, then, that despite McCain personally grasping that gay men can be courageous fighters, McCain still helped lead the charge opposing the repeal of the anti-gay military policy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

I asked Hoagland about that. Hoagland told me, “I think Sen. McCain – like Mark and like me and like many people – is on a journey, he’s on a quest and he is evolving in his attitudes and his convictions, just as we all are. I think Sen. McCain will – I hope – ultimately come to embrace the gay community and realize that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender deserve every freedom and right and privilege that the straight community has enjoyed all these decades.”

Alice died Dec. 2020 at age 71 – but she never stopped talking about her son and advocating for LGBTQ people.

I wrote about Ronald Gamboa and Dan Brandhorst, co-founders of the Pop Luck Club in West Hollywood, for Frontiers and my blog LGBT POV. Brandhorst, 42, was a lawyer and partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Gamboa, 33, managed three Gap stores in Santa Monica. The couple had been together for 14 years and were absolutely devoted to their adopted 3-year old son David, who they pushed in a strolling as part of the Pop Luck contingent during the annual Christopher Street West Pride Parades.

Ronald Gamboa and Dan Brandhorst with their son David

The family was returning home after a visit with family in Cape Cod. They boarded the United Airlines Flight 175 at Logan Airport in Boston that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.I covered a moving memorial for them at West Hollywood Park Auditorium on Sept. 13, 2011 organized by the City of West Hollywood and The Pop Luck Club. The anguish was still evident.

“Ten years later and it’s still difficult to comprehend,” said Rich Valenza, co-President of the Pop Luck Club, choking up. Screams of children playing outside punctuated the moments of silence, though no one inside was perturbed. “Things were different ten years ago and very different for prospective gay fathers….Creating our families is revolutionary.” The Pop Luck Club was renamed Raise A Child, when it became a national organization helping LGBT people foster and adopt children.

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum says David Reed Gamboa Brandhorst “was one of the youngest victims of the 2001 terror attacks.”

My deadlines and my duties are different today and I’m grateful for the progress that we’ve made. But without the Equality Act and its enforcement, folks like me and others who care that LGBTQ people are not rendered invisible and erased will still have to search for and find members of our tribe who we refuse to remain lost in time.

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Karen Ocamb is a veteran journalist who has chronicled the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Southern California for over 30 plus years.

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Lesson of 9/11 ignored?

20 years later, that those events triggered profound changes for many people and it marked both a break and a new beginning.

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Twin towers of the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001

By Troy Masters “Let’s go watch history be made!” I shouted to my then 58 year old mother when on NY1, the local NYC cable news station reported that a “small plane” had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. I took her hand and we dashed outside.

20 years ago, in New York, mom and I watched with our own eyes as the spectacle of 9-11, from shortly after the first plane struck, unfolded. 

We watched helplessly and stunned as the tower burned. Crowds, thousands of people, gathered and stood on the sidewalk and in the streets gazing upward in silence, some sobbing.

When the second plane struck the other Tower everyone screamed noises I’d never heard from humans. 

Some people just ran, not knowing what to expect next. 

Most, like my mom, Josie, and me, were just too stunned to leave.

I couldn’t allow myself to grasp the horror of what was happening; I saw architecture ruined and thought of the city’s psyche having to deal with a lingering, ugly blight atop its tallest buildings. 

My mom was terrorized knowing people were trapped and dying — “people are jumping,” she cried.

Then came the first collapse. 

We both became dizzy with disbelief and horror. And soon after, the smoke of the second collapse momentarily left a ghost trail of the building that had been there.

The ghost trail, like the buildings, collapsed and a tsunami of grey, dusty ash engulfed Lower Manhattan all the way past at least 14th street.

The world changed and we were lost but felt we needed to protect ourselves.

Terrified, we ran to the ATM to get as much cash as we could get and went shopping for staples and food and water, presuming that if war was breaking out we’d not be able to get anything at all. We rushed.

Everywhere we went there were lines and rumors were flying that other planes had crashed and more were headed to New York. One had crashed, we heard, on the mall in Washington.

There was no phone or cell service for hours and the cable and internet had failed from so much demand: the entire world was desperately trying to connect with their loved ones. We couldn’t get in touch with my sister or friends and other family.

My sister, Tammy, a flight attendant, was in the air and I was so grateful my mom was with me. We both cried not knowing if she was on one of the flights.

Finally, a breakthrough: my sister got through on mom’s cell and told us she was on the ground and ok.

Another bright spot of that day was finding Arturo, who I was then only dating in the crowd and knowing he was ok. We had met only a few months before and it was then and there I realized my feelings of love for him. I remember the incongruity of smiling when I saw him. We’ve been together for the entire past 20 years and have built a life together that has brought us both blessings.

That night there was absolute silence and the smell of electrical fires burning filled the air.

On the half hour, the comforting, shaking rumble of super fighter jets patrolling the night skies slowly over the city helped lull us into a deep, exhausted sleep.

So much unfolded the next day.

My newspaper needed to publish and the logistics of that and the money to do it were challenging, but “Angels” have always been on my shoulders and have always helped me find a way.

I realize today, 20 years later, that those events triggered profound changes for many people in so many personal ways and it marked both a break and a new beginning.

It was a pivotal moment.  

Yet here we are, 20 years later and many of the same conservative politicians and leaders who evangelized nationalism then are defending terrorism today by resisting every effort to examine and prosecute domestic terrorists who assaulted the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021. 

Many of these same ‘patriots’ also seem intent on ignoring and inflaming Covid, a disease that is resulting in a 09/11/2001 sized tragedy striking the nation every day for the past eighteen months.

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Troy Masters is the publisher of the Los Angeles Blade

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