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The Song of Achilles; When he died all things were buried with him

We also began promoting the power of kindness to heal our broken world and to promote and support LGBTQIA+community and ethnic diversity

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Jeanne Pepper (L) The Demolition Dolls, Gideon Bernstein (R) 2018 'Blaze It Forward' Orange County Pride. This was the first Pride after the death of their son Blaze. (Photo courtesy of the Bernstein family)

“The sorrow was so large it threatened to tear through my skin. When he died, all things swift and beautiful and bright would be buried with him.” 

Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles  

By Jeanne Pepper | I told myself I would not do it again:  explain who I am and who my son was as an introduction to my story.  I love writing, but how many times can I talk about the horrific things that happened?   What you need to know: he was gay, Jewish, and the victim of a hate crime.   This tragedy propelled me into the public eye and gave me a chance to be an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, and it also ended the  beautiful life of my son Blaze Bernstein.  He should be enjoying gay pride month this June, but instead his body lies in an Orange County cemetery since January 2018.   He died at just 19 years of age.  

I don’t want to be a captive storyteller, forced to regurgitate our sad truth and the story of how we endured Blaze’s disappearance and violent death.  I want to talk about the great things we have accomplished since then and the miraculous things people around the country did and continue to do to show their support for those who identify as queer and for the kindness movement we wholeheartedly embraced when we started #BlazeitForward in honor of Blaze.   The story of my brilliant and kind son who was going to change the world,  should not start with the horrific ending of his life.  The story should start with hope because his life started with and even in death continues to give hope to all of us.

The night he disappeared many of my dreams for my family ended and a radical new timeline began.  I came out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQIA+ and a parent of a gay teen.  While Blaze was alive and living in the closet, he was not comfortable with us participating in any activities that would draw attention to his sexual orientation.  While we encouraged him to live openly, he was young and we respected his right to “out” himself.  We will never know how our failure to educate ourselves and our family on how best to support a gay child impacted the tragedy that came to us. 

Our family lived in the shadow of the normative Orange County world that we raised him in that did not understand the needs of gay teenagers or the dangers they face both from alienation that can lead to teen suicide nor did we understand the dangers posed by malevolent outsiders and ignorant peers, teachers and strangers.  It was this revelation after his death that spurred our entry into the public eye when the opportunity arose. 

My husband Gideon and I made the quick decision that Blaze’s death should herald a new age of sex positivity.  We also wanted to do something about the stereotypes and hateful tropes we heard about Jewish people and that inundated the media.  While Blaze would not live to see a world where his uniqueness and kindness became an ideal, we live to promote it.   We exposed the haters and hate groups as we did the unthinkable:  put our mourning on hold and immediately used his death to educate the public about the danger hate groups such as Atomwaffen pose to all of us.  We also began promoting the power of kindness to heal our broken world and to promote and support LGBTQIA+ community and ethnic diversity.  

As the years after his death progressed, a pattern began to develop.  The polarization in political, religious and sexual beliefs became unmanageable in our country.  We could not come together to fight the pandemic when it began.  Civil unrest ensued.  Corruption and racism exposed throughout the United States caused rioting and more polarization.   Reforms were proposed.   People began to see the need for learning how to have respectful discourse.  Some became more sensitive and either apologetic for wrongs against the marginalized or outraged by the way the system has kept us marginalized.  No one was left untouched by the violence, inequity, and unhappiness that was left in the wake of the events of the last few years.  

Blaze’s murder could serve as a catalyst for positive peaceful social change.  Was the world ready for the message?  Probably more than ever.  What was the message?  Be good to each other.  Be kind.  Don’t wait for things to get better.  Take affirmative intentional action now.

Photo: Jeanne Pepper (L) and Gideon Bernstein

We coined the term #BlazeitForward and use it to encourage people to do intentional kind acts in honor of Blaze and his legacy.   My husband and I spent the last few years powering the Facebook public group #BlazeitForward where we encourage our members to post stories of kindness, community philanthropy and everyday miracles.   We also oversee endowments created in Blaze’s name that fuel college scholarships, the Blaze Bernstein school of Culinary Arts at the Merage Jewish Community Center, annual Orange County School of the Arts conservatory funding, an annual Real Arts internship for the University of Pennsylvania, and annual donations to various foundations such as homeless shelters, Orangewood Foundation, the Human Relations Council, Second Harvest Food Bank, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Tilly’s Life Center, the Anti-Defamation League, The LGBTQ Center of Orange County, and The City of Hope, to name a few.

In addition to our advocacy for marginalized people and holocaust education, we speak out against homophobia and hate groups, conversion therapy, bullying and hate speech.   We do all of this to give life to Blaze’s legacy of kindness while we await the commencement of the criminal trial set to begin by the Fall of this year.  

In June we stand proud with good people around the country and celebrate Gay Pride.  I cringe at the absurdity that I could not do this with Blaze.  We “came out” and support the LGBTQIA+ community because there are parents out there who do not know what to do or say to help their LGBTQIA+ children.  Hearing me speak out could be the first time, they learn the importance of giving these kids acceptance and love.  

If you want to repair the world, you need to start at home with your own family.  Do it right now.  Call your younger siblings and tell them you are a proud supporter of this community.  Give your teen a hug and tell them that their sexual orientation is not something they need to hide – you love them and support them unconditionally.  Tell your kids that hate in any form and for any reason is something you will not support.  Educate your kids on hate groups, the holocaust, the dangers of ethnocentrism and the beauty of diversity.  Go to a gay pride parade.  Show your support for and be curious about people who are different.  Listen non-judgmentally to the stories of others.  Join the #BlazeitForward group on Facebook.  Create a legacy of kindness in your family.

Editor’s Note: More on the Bernstein’s son’s murder case can be read here, ( LINK )

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Vote like your family’s rights are on the line – Because they are

“The most important thing we can do is to share our stories- Intellectual arguments rarely change minds – but empathy changes everything”

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

By Nesta Johnson | SAN FRANCISCO – On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court decided in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women Health Organization that there is no federal constitutional right to abortion.

Justice Thomas all but cackled at the prospect of “reconsidering” other legal cases that established rights based in substantive due process, including our right to privacy in making decisions about our bodies, our relationships, and our families. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, attempted to reassure us that we need not fear the loss of time-honored rights. 

We are not reassured.

Across America, people are panicking. LGBTQ+ Americans – frightened for their freedoms and for their families – have flooded NCLR’s Legal Helpline.

We at NCLR have done our best to help, including by creating a post-Dobbs FAQ for LGBTQ+ families. We pledge to continue working toward a future in which every person is free to choose how, when, and whether to have children, and remains free to make private decisions about their lives and their bodies. 

But lawyers alone cannot win this fight. Americans’ right to safe, legal abortion across the country must be restored, not in a courtroom, but at the ballot box. In that sense, the Supreme Court is not, and never has been, the highest court. In a democracy, the true court of last resort is the court of public opinion. And that “court” has seemed hopelessly deadlocked for decades. 

In our increasingly polarized nation, abortion rights have long been an especially divisive issue. According to Gallup, when asked whether they are “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” just five percent of Americans described themselves as “mixed” or “unsure.” The gradual growth of the pro-choice opinion appears to reflect generational, not individual, shifts.  

And yet, after the Dobbs draft leaked in June, fifty-eight percent of Americans described themselves to Gallup as pro-choice – an unprecedented jump of six percentage points in just one year. Minds can change on abortion rights – rapidly.

Anti-abortion rights advocates long enjoyed an advantage in the stories they told. Before Dobbs, pro-choice stories of life without abortion access were less immediate, less compelling, less relatable – Secret networks. Coat hangers. Herbal concoctions. Sinister quacks. Back-alley butchers. Those stories, from faraway times and places, felt like fiction. Abortion is far safer than pregnancy and childbirth; most people suffer no complications, but some do. The vast majority of people who have abortions do not regret their decision, but some do. Children of unwanted or forced pregnancies, and their parents, often suffer – but some live in joy.

While the many whose abortions were uncomplicated, un-regretted, and un-traumatic rarely were heard, anti-abortion rights advocates used the painful stories of some to justify revoking the rights of all. Stories were the ribbon atop a package of lies: that our country has changed so much since Roe that abortion is no longer needed, that because of sonogram imaging everyone believes that personhood begins at conception, that “unwed mothers” are legally protected and socially accepted, that pregnant people have access to medical care and parental leave, and that safe-haven laws and demand for adoptable infants guarantee there will be no such thing as an unwanted child, or an unwilling parent. 

Now, the tragic tale of Ohio’s ten-year-old rape victim will be the first in an anthology of new American horror stories – unless we elect representatives committed to restoring our reproductive rights.

The history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement illustrates the power of storytelling. When LGBTQ+ Americans began cautiously sharing their stories, many encountered rejection and discrimination. Some still do – but many find acceptance and love. As people realized that LGBTQ+ people were their relatives, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, they discarded the lies they learned – that we were sick, dangerous, predatory; that we could, or should, be “cured”; that allowing same-sex couples to wed would cause the death of marriage, the end of religion, and the collapse of civilization. Surveys have confirmed that personal relationships greatly impacted Americans’ views on LGBTQ+ rights.

Until the November midterm elections, the most important thing we can do is to share our stories, and to listen. Intellectual arguments rarely change minds – but empathy changes everything. Our neighbors need to hear stories that challenge common myths about who has abortions, and why. They need to hear stories from people whose views do not fit neatly into political boxes – including the voices of those who believe abortion is immoral, and yet believe that it should be legal. Most importantly, voters need to hear the stories of people they know, respect, and love who have had abortions.

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Nesta Johnson is the Family Law Staff Attorney for NCLR, a national legal organization committed to advancing the human and civil rights of LGBTQ community through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.

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LGBTQ people under cancerous barrage led by Florida’s Ron DeSantis

He is infatuated with the idea of being President, drunk on the potential of his power and, as a result, is willing to do anything…

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The author confronting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis outside Pulse, 2021 (Courtesy of Brandon J. Wolf)

By Brandon J. Wolf | ORLANDO – No, your eyes are not deceiving you. LGBTQ people in America are under assault. Right-wing radicals, in their quest to dismantle democracy and install Christian Nationalist rule, are (once again) breathlessly obsessed with scapegoating LGBTQ people, using our existence as a political lightning rod.

As a result, every day has become more treacherous for the community than the last. Make no mistake, their tactics are not new. Transgender and nonbinary people, as they often have been, are squarely in the crosshairs. Their existence is debated, their humanity called into question. They are told when and where to use the bathroom, when and where their names will be respected, when and where they are safe to walk — when and where society will allow them to be.

And while the onslaught is happening all over the country, many of those desperate to see LGBTQ people relegated to second-class citizenship are looking to Florida, under the reckless leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, for their cues. It should be said: DeSantis does not care. He does not care about Floridians, the state’s economy, or the constitutionality of his extremist policies. And he certainly does not care about the health and wellbeing of the populations he crushes along the way.

Ron DeSantis cares about Ron DeSantis. He is infatuated with the idea of being President, drunk on the potential of his power. And, as a result, is willing to do anything — and step on anyone – to score another Fox News chyron and rake in a few more six figure donations.

The governor’s attacks on LGBTQ people are coming from every angle. In dragging his signature Don’t Say LGBTQ Law over the finish line, DeSantis twisted his legislative minions in knots, publicly haranguing anyone who dared defy him. He took aim at Disney, one of the globe’s most recognizable brands, decimating a local government to drive his point home.

He bullied the Agency for Health Care Administration into withdrawing Medicaid funding for gender-affirming care, plunging tens of thousands of transgender Floridians into uncertainty in the coming weeks. He bludgeoned the Board of Medicine into considering similarly brutal action, potentially putting the licenses of health care providers on the line for providing the best care possible to their patients.

His Department of Education told school districts to ignore Title IX protections for LGBTQ students, warning (falsely) that offering protection from discrimination to those young people could put districts in legal jeopardy. And he used the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to target an LGBTQ-owned small business, threatening to destroy them for daring to host drag brunch on Sundays.

Governor DeSantis is so drunk on ego that he is weaponizing any agency he can get his hands on against a population fighting to keep its head above water. And along the way, he has revived vile anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to rationalize his naked cynicism. His office led a surge in the term “groomer” being hurled across the country, his now former press secretary trafficking in the trope during a desperation Twitter rant.

The strategy is straightforward: disparage and dehumanize LGBTQ people to score polling points with the base and justify cruel policies aimed at erasing us. If you can reduce LGBTQ people to something less than human – an ideology, an agenda – your most ardent supporters will sign away any liberty necessary for you to put a stop to us. Curriculum censorship. Book banning. Government dictating what medical care someone can access, the haircuts they can sport, the clothes they can wear. An end to freedom greenlit in service to the political ambitions of the one man who says he can put a stop to the LGBTQ “contagion”.

If that sounds like an authoritarian nightmare, it is. But it’s not just a Florida or Texas nightmare, it’s a crisis encircling the windpipe of the nation, threatening to suffocate us all. What DeSantis has unlocked in Florida – the weaponization of every government apparatus against his constituents to lock up his grip on power – isn’t an end game. It’s a trial run.

There is nothing he would relish more than the chance to use the US Department of Education to rip protections from transgender students in every corner of the country. He would salivate at the opportunity to use the full might of the Federal Government to pummel his political adversaries, dismantling any business who dares sport a Pride flag in June. Right wing extremists look to DeSantis for the roadmap to an authoritarian America not just because they want to emulate his policy success; but because they want to see him at the helm.

Your eyes are not deceiving you. And yes, it’s heavy and overwhelming. That is by design. The DeSantis Doctrine is one ripped from the teachings of Donald Trump and put on political steroids: create a tempest so chaotic and all-consuming that it feels inevitable. Squash your opposition by making them feel like fighting back is hopeless. But fighting back is our only hope. Apathy is fuel for systems of oppression. Despair is an ally to the status quo. Our best option is our only option: refuse to be erased and demand political accountability for the unbridled cruelty.

Our community is no stranger to attacks like these. For centuries, our presence has been hyper-sexualized, demonized, and used to stoke fear in those around us. We dare to imagine a world where people are celebrated exactly as they are. And for that – we have long been political targets. But that means we are also no stranger to what must come next.

Throughout history, with our backs against the wall, we’ve won by telling our stories, living our truth, and demanding equality. This moment requires us to find that strength once again. It requires us to stand firmly as accomplices to the trans and nonbinary community, refusing to jettison them in the shortsighted hope of being spared by the right-wing monster. It requires us to mobilize our people – LGBTQ and allied alike – to see our very humanity as reason to wade into the political fight. It requires us to make November’s elections a referendum on hate, refusing to let it fester and consume the country.

LGBTQ people are under assault in America, a cancerous barrage being led by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis. Our job now is to stop its spread.

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Photo courtesy of Brandon J. Wolf

Brandon J. Wolf is Press Secretary for Equality Florida, the largest statewide LGBTQ+ equality rights organization.

Additionally, Wolf is Vice-President and co-founder of the Dru Project, an Orlando-based LGBTQ+ 🌈 advocacy org on a mission to spread love, promote GSAs, and send future leaders to college in honor of his best friend Drew Leinonen, one of the 49 people lost in the 2016 Pulse nightclub mass-shooting of which Wolf is also a survivor.

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Monkeypox

Monkeypox vaccines coming- we must mitigate risk & spread for now

Clinics are expected to have vaccines available by summer’s end. In the meantime, we need community-informed prevention & treatment strategies

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

By Jim Mangia | LOS ANGELES – Monkeypox virus (MPV) is on the rise – and many are understandably frustrated by the federal government’s slow response. The LGBTQ+ community has been demanding vaccines since day one, with many drawing similarities between today’s lackluster approach to MPV and the inhumane response to HIV/AIDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

MPV is a serious health concern that indeed deserves swift action from elected officials. But truly drawing from lessons learned during the HIV/AIDs crisis means not relying on vaccines alone – especially while waiting for the federal government and supply chain to catch up to our demand for them. We need community-wide education, prevention, and treatment strategies around MPV – and we need them now. 

I was a young, gay man during the HIV/AIDs crisis. Last week, a friend and I reflected on how, out of our large social group from our early twenties, we are the only two left alive. Everyone else we loved during those years was killed by AIDS.

The Republican dominated government at the time didn’t care if we lived or died – and many preferred the latter. As AIDS dominated our lives, groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis mobilized, setting up hotlines to circulate information, writing and disseminating guidelines for safer sex, and creating tight-knit networks to support the sick or suffering. Simultaneously, ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activated the LGBTQ+ community and allies to demand governmental action.

Now, we can draw on our community’s past resilience. We must keep ourselves safe, from both MPV and from the dangerous, homophobic messaging that’s emerging around it. 

First, LGBTQ+ people must avoid perpetuating the dangerous myth that MPV only impacts us. The scientific truth is that pathogens often first spread among social groups in close contact with one another – for example, outbreaks of meningitis among college students. MPV is continuing to primarily impact the LGBTQ+ community because the virus hasn’t yet had the biological need to move onto another social group. This is important both in terms of combating homophobia, and also in recognizing our community’s responsibility to help prevent MPV’s spread. 

We also need to emphasize that MPV is not an STI. While it is spread through close physical contact, that contact can be nonsexual. Day care workers, nannies, massage therapists, tattoo artists, and others whose livelihoods involve skin-to-skin contact are also at high risk right now, and we need to be educating and advocating for those folks as well. 

Direct contact with the rash or body fluids and sexual contact are the most risky activities; kissing, cuddling, and being in crowds of non fully clothed people are moderately risky; and sharing dishes, beds, towels, toiletry items or being in crowds with fully clothed people are possible ways of contracting MPV. Limiting those activities for now and communicating with each other about exposure are essential ways to prevent spread. 

There are other tools we should be advocating for in addition to vaccines. One is Tpoxx, an antiviral medication that hasn’t been approved by the FDA but is being widely and successfully used in Europe. Another is faster MPV tests – currently, the results can take several days. Only a few lab companies are approved to test MPV specimens sent by clinics and hospitals, and we need faster results to prevent further spread in real time.

Today, a multibillion dollar industry fuels many issues that plague our community – including major circuit party promoters, hookup apps, and corporations who infiltrated our pride events. These industries depend on our money, and are only interested in getting our bodies where they need them in order to cash in. 

Exploitative messaging from these industries can permeate our collective consciousness. They tell us we need and deserve certain things, and we need and deserve them immediately. They don’t care about our safety, and they aren’t advocating for our actual lives. They’re just contributing to a sense of urgency in the name of their bottom line. It’s up to LGBTQ+ people to get to the root of what’s important. We must organize ourselves, act with care for each other, and demand a comprehensive strategy from LGBTQ+ institutions and the government – rather than just looking for quick-fix solutions for ourselves.   

Clinics in California are expected to have thousands of vaccines available by summer’s end. In the meantime, we need community-informed prevention and treatment strategies from our leaders. And now more than ever, with both MPV and COVID-19 threatening our health, we must treat each other with consent and respect. 

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Jim Mangia is the president and CEO of St. John’s Community Health, a network of public health clinics serving South, Central, and East Los Angeles.

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