GALVESTON, Tx. – In the early summer of 1865, on a clear crisp June morning, the lead elements of the Federal Army of blue-coated soldiers of the 13th Army Corps occupied the island city of Galveston, Texas on Monday the 19th.
Led by Union Army Major General Gordon Granger, who had recently taken command of the Department of Texas, the 13th Corps was tasked with enforcement of the emancipation of slaves in the former Confederate state.
The bloody civil war had ended officially with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee to Commander of Union forces, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia on April 9, 1865.
The warfare between the last elements of the Confederate and Union troops however, dragged on for another month or so culminating in the Battle of Palmito Ranch, which was fought on May 12 and 13, 1865. The fighting occurred on the banks of the Rio Grande east of Brownsville, Texas on the Texas-Mexico border some 400 miles Southwest of Galveston.
It took approximately another two weeks for Confederate Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner to surrender his command of the Trans-Mississippi Department (which included Texas) to Union Major General Peter J. Osterhaus on May 26, 1865.
General Granger was then tasked with implementing the order to free enslaved African Americans.
Once Granger’s Federals had taken control of the port city, he and his command staff headed to Union Army Headquarters located at the Osterman Building, once located Strand Street and 22nd Street.
It was there that General Order No. 3 was first publicly read out loud to a gathering of now newly freed Black Americans and other citizens of the city.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Sadly it would take nearly two years before all of the enslaved African Americans would actually be freed in Texas by white plantation owners and others who simply didn’t tell them or defied Federal authorities.
In 2014, the Texas Historical Commission placed a subject marker at the corner of 22nd and Strand, near the location of the Osterman Building, where General Granger and his men first read General Orders, No. 3.
While many Black Americans across the former Confederate States would celebrate their freedom granted by The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sep. 22, 1862 during the height of the war, in annual celebrations still others yet would annually mark the date of passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by Congress on January 31, 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States.
Yet on Galveston Island, the tradition of marking their first learning of The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln with General Granger’s General Orders, No. 3, was the benchmark for ongoing annual celebrations and as the years went by as the Black Americans from the Lone Star state migrated ever Northward, it would be that seminal moment that ultimately would lead to the creation of a federal holiday and recognition some 156 years later.
One observer also wryly pointed out that the June anniversary was seasonally tied to better weather than the other two dates and more conducive to celebrations and large gatherings, hence its popularity in being established as the federal holiday.
Information and photographs provided by the National Archives, the City Of Galveston, Galveston Historical Foundation, the Library of Congress, and State of Texas, Texas Historical Commission.
50 years ago Atlanta’s nascent gay rights movement marched
“It was mostly about feeling good,” said Phil Lambert. “That we’re not a bunch of sick people. That we’re not the problem.”
ATLANTA, Ga. – This Sunday, exactly fifty years ago to the day on a bright Sunday morning, about a hundred brave gay and lesbian Atlantans from the Georgia Gay Liberation Front, unfurled a lavender colored banner made from a bedsheet with the intertwined symbols representing male + male, female + female with the a raised fist of defiance and the words ‘Gay Power’ emblazoned on it and they marched.
The group inched its way up Peachtree Street to a soundtrack of chants, kazoos and a tambourine.
Mindful that stepping off the sidewalks could get them arrested — the city of Atlanta had turned down their request for a permit and the police were closely watching for jay-walkers — the marchers stopped at every corner until they were given the crossing signal, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the average estimated crowds in attendance at Atlanta Pride is upwards of 300,000 plus. But at the time the Journal-Constitution noted, even in the city that had just birthed the civil rights movement and was home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., LGBTQ rights was considered a radical issue that the Georgian liberal political establishment, including many Atlanta progressives, wanted to stay away from. At that time, gay sex was still illegal under state law, and the American Psychiatric Association characterized homosexuality as a mental illness.
For those GAGLF Atlantans who participated in that first pride march on June 27, 1971, the event was a turning point, a moment when, for the first time, they could publicly celebrate a part of themselves that society had long demanded they keep hidden.
“It was mostly about feeling good,” said Phil Lambert, a Vietnam veteran who was in attendance. “That we’re not a bunch of sick people. That we’re not the problem.”
Read the entire fascinating story: 50 years ago, Atlanta’s gay rights push took to street for first time
LGBTQ rainbow flag was born in San Francisco, but its history is disputed
On that day in June 1978, it felt as if the rainbow had always been a symbol for the LGBTQ community, it just hadn’t revealed itself yet
By August Bernadicou (with additional text and research by Chris Coats) | NEW YORK – Many enduring symbols that establish an instant understanding and define a diverse community are intrinsically linked with controversy, confusion, and ill-informed backstories dictated by vested interests and those who told the story loudest. The LGBTQ rainbow flag is no different.
While it was the work of many, the people who deserve credit the most have been minimized if not erased. Gilbert Baker, the self-titled “Creator,” screamed the story and now has a powerful estate behind his legacy. Before his death in 2017, Baker established himself as the complete authority on the LGBTQ rainbow flag. It was his story which he lived and became.
While there are disputed accounts on the flag’s origins, one thing that is not disputed is that the LGBTQ rainbow flag was born in San Francisco and made for the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.
For all of human history, rainbows have mystified and inspired. A greeting of light and serenity after the darkness and chaos of a storm. They have symbolized hope, peace, and the mysteries of existence. For a moment, we can see the invisible structure, the “body” of light, made visible. A secret revealed, then hidden again.
Though it may seem like a modern phenomenon, rainbow flags have waved throughout history. Their origin can be traced to at least the 15th Century. The German theologian, Thomas Müntzer, used a rainbow flag for his reformist preachings. In the 18th Century, the English-American revolutionary and author, Thomas Paine, advocated adopting the rainbow flag as a universal symbol for identifying neutral ships at sea.
Rainbow flags were flown by Buddhists in Sri Lanka in the late 19th Century as a unifying emblem of their faith. They also represent the Peruvian city of Cusco, are flown by Indians on January 31st to commemorate the passing of the spiritual leader Meher Baba, and since 1961, have represented members of international peace movements.
Now, the rainbow flag has become the symbol for the LGBTQ community, a community of different colors, backgrounds, and orientations united together, bringing light and joy to the world. A forever symbol of where they started, where they have come, and where they need to go. When many LGBTQ people see a rainbow flag flowing in the wind, they know they are safe and free.
While the upper class and tech interests rule the city now, in the 1960s and 70s, San Francisco was a wonderland for low and no-income artists. The counterculture’s mecca. By the mid-1970s, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood that had once been a psychedelic playground of hippie art, culture, and music had fallen into disarray. Hard, dangerous drugs like heroin had replaced mind-expanding psychedelics. Young queers and artists needed a new home, and they found it in the Castro.
Lee Mentley (1948-2020) arrived in San Francisco in 1972 and quickly fell in with the oddball artist and performers in the Castro neighborhood, donning flamboyant, gender-fucked clothes, performing avant-garde theater, and creating their own clubhouses. He was on the Pride Planning Committee in 1978 and ran the Top Floor Gallery on the top floor of 330 Grove, which served as an early Gay Center in San Francisco.
Lynn Segerblom (Faerie Argyle Rainbow) was originally from the North Shore of Hawaii and moved to San Francisco where she attended art school at the Academy of Art. Her life changed when she found a new passion in tie-dye and rainbows in the early 1970s. Entrenched in the free-loving technicolor world of San Francisco, in 1976, Lynn legally changed her name to Faerie Argyle Rainbow. She joined the Angels of Light, a “free” performance art troupe where the members had to return to an alternative, hippie lifestyle and deny credit for their work.
Shortly after the original rainbow flags were flown for the last time, both Lynn and Lee moved out of San Francisco. Lee moved to Hawaii and Lynn moved to Japan. When they returned, they were shocked to see how their contribution to history was becoming a universal symbol. They remain passionate about defending their legacies and giving a voice to the mute.
LEE MENTLEY: “One day in 1978, Lynn came to 330 Grove with a couple of her friends, James McNamara and Robert Guttman, and said we should make rainbow flags for Gay Day to brighten up San Francisco City Hall and Civic Center because it’s all gray and cold in June. We thought that it sounded like a great idea.”
To get over the first hurdle, money, the young artists went to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of San Francisco, California, for help.
LEE: “There was no actual funding for it. We contacted Harvey Milk and another supervisor, and they asked the city if we could get a little funding. They found some leftover funds from the previous year’s hotel tax, and we got $1,000.”
LYNN SEGERBLOM: “I remember having a meeting where I presented the idea of making rainbow flags. I had some sketches. At that meeting, there was just a handful of us there, and I remember, and even my friend assured me, that Gilbert Baker was not at that meeting. I don’t know where he was, I didn’t keep track of him, but he was not at the meeting where I suggested rainbow flags. We decided, yes, rainbow flags sounded great.”
The committee approved the rainbow imagery and made the decision to make two massive 40’ x 60’ foot rainbow flags to be flown at the Civic Center along with 18 smaller rainbow flags designed by different, local artists, to line the reflecting pool putting rainbows into the grey sky.
For the two large flags, one would be an eight-color rainbow starting with pink and including turquoise and indigo in place of blue, and the other a re-envisioning of the American flag with rainbow stripes which became known as Faerie’s flag.
Gilbert Baker’s name on his memoir, Rainbow Warrior, it says “CREATOR OF THE RAINBOW FLAG,” leaving little debate that Gilbert claimed full ownership for the concept and design of the legendary symbol. He never denied Lynn or James MacNamara’s involvement in the flags’ construction and speaks briefly and fondly of them and their talents in that same book.
LEE: “We didn’t need one person saving our ass, and it certainly wouldn’t have been Gilbert Baker. He was no Betsy Ross. He was a very good promoter, and I give him all the credit in the world for making the rainbow flag go international. He did a great service, and he was a very talented, creative man, but he could never have done all of the work by himself; no one could have.
We never considered ownership. There was never this big ownership debate until Gilbert started it. Because AIDS hit us so fast after this, most of our leadership either went into HIV activism or died.”
LYNN: “The story is that a white gay man did all of this by himself, but, in fact, that is not true at all. He just promoted it. For that, though, he should be given great love.”
Making the two original rainbow flags was no easy feat. With a limited budget and limited resources, the group had to improvise and figure it out as they went along. While Lynn had dabbled in flags before, a project of this scope and importance was far beyond her comfort zone.
LEE: “The community donated the sewing machines we used. We asked people at the Center if anyone would like to volunteer. All sorts of people from all over the country helped us with the flags, over 100 people, which, to me, is an amazing story. That’s where it came from. It came from regular artists who wanted to have fun and make something pretty for gay people.”
LYNN: “The Rainbows Flags were hand-dyed cotton and eight colors. I made two different types. The one with just the stripes and then the American flag one, which I designed myself. There was a group of us that made them, James McNamara, Gilbert Baker, and myself. Originally they were my designs. I was a dyer by trade, and I had a dying studio at the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street.”
LEE: “People would come and help as long as they could. Then, somebody else would come and help as long as they could. We opened up the second floor of 330 Grove to people who came to be in the Parade and march. People came in and made posters, banners and did art stuff.”
LYNN: “We made the flags on the roof because there was a drain up there. There was a wooden ladder that led up to the roof. The hot water had to be carried up to the roof because we didn’t have hot water up there. We heated it up on the stove in pots. We put the hot water in trash cans on the roof.”
LEE: “We had trash cans and two by fours, and we had to keep agitating the fabrics in the dye. Since they were in hot water, they had to be poked and agitated for hours.”
LYNN: “We had to constantly move the fabric in the dye, so the dye penetrated the fibers that weren’t clamped tight. We had to make sure there would be blue, and it wouldn’t just be white on white or white with a very murky, pale blue.
After they were washed and dyed, they went through the washer and dryer. Then, we ironed them. If the fabric stays out too long, once you take it out of the water, if it sits on itself even for just a few minutes, it starts to make shapes.”
LEE: “Lynn’s flag, the new American flag, was a similar rainbow, but it had stars in the corner. I have photographs of that flag flying at gay events in San Francisco at City Hall and Oakland.”
LYNN: “I always liked the American flag. I thought, oh, wouldn’t that be nice? I knew with some luck I could make it.”
LEE: “I thought the one with the stars was more interesting because it symbolized a new flag for the United States.”
LYNN: “For my American flag, I decided to flip the order of the colors, so pink was at the bottom and purple was at the top in an eight-color spectrum. That was intentional. I wanted them to be different.
I made the stars with wood blocks and clamps. I got the white fabric and washed it, and folded it a different way. When I was making it, it looked like a big sandwich. The bread would be the woodblocks, and the fabric was in between. We immersed the whole flag in dye and swished it around. I wasn’t sure if it would come out right because it was the first time I did that fold. I was lucky. It worked.
I sewed lamé stars into one stripe with leftover stars from my Angels of Light costumes. On one side of the blue stripe, there was a star with silver lamé, and on the other side, there was a star with gold lamé.
I got all these ideas because I worked with these mediums on a daily basis: paint, dye, fabric, and glitter.”
LEE: “We worked for weeks dying fabric, shrinking fabric, and sewing fabric.”
LYNN: “We worked on them for seven weeks. I was worried that we weren’t going to finish on time. We worked hard and long hours. Towards the end, we decided we didn’t have time to go to the laundromat, so we started rinsing them on the roof and wringing them dry. We also ran out of quarters. We draped them off of the Top Floor Gallery’s rafters, and they drip-dried. They looked great. They were beautiful.”
Until that day, the pink triangle, used by the Nazis to label homosexuals in their genocidal campaign, was the most commonly used symbol for the LGBTQ movement, a symbol in solidarity with our fallen ancestors. But the triangle came from a place of trauma, it was a reminder of the storm while the rainbow was the hope that came after. The promise of brighter days ahead.
On that day in June 1978, it felt as if the rainbow had always been a symbol for the LGBTQ community, it just hadn’t revealed itself yet.
LEE: “We went out, flew the flags, and blew everybody’s fucking minds. People were blown away. The flags were so beautiful. They were waving warriors. The biggest ones were 40’ by 60’ feet. The Parade marched through the flags to get to Civic Center. We instantly proclaimed that this was our symbol. It wasn’t planned. It was organic.”
LYNN: “It was just what I wanted: a touch of magic, a touch of glitter, and a little bit of Angels of Light.”
LEE: “We weren’t creating this huge symbol. We were decorating Civic Center. We weren’t thinking of marketing our entire futures. It was an art project.”
LYNN: “We looked at the rainbow flags as a work of art, and we wanted them to be beautiful and unique. After the Gay Parade, the flags were a big hit. People loved them. Everybody loved them.”
In the pre-technology world, people and property could just disappear. There were no surveillance cameras. Lynn didn’t even have a phone.
Even though no one could have known the flag would become an eternal symbol for a worldwide community, it was clear even then that they were a piece of history to be coveted.
In his memoir, Baker hypothesizes that the Rainbow American flag was stolen shortly after it was hung up on the front of the Gay Community Center for Gay Freedom Day in 1979. He suggests it might have been a construction crew working on the new symphony across the street and in a homophobic act, stole the flag and buried it in cement.
LEE: “Later in 1979 or 1980, you can find it somewhere in the minutes for a Pride Foundation meeting, Gilbert came to us and asked to borrow the two large flags, and we agreed. We never saw them again.”
LYNN: “I went to work one day at 330 Grove, and Gilbert came in and said that the two 40’ by 60’ flags had been stolen.”
Images published in the San Francisco Chronicle, videos of the march, and other widely distributed photographs only add to the mystery. They show both the classic rainbow flag of eight stripes and the American revision flying at the Civic Center on June 24, 1979 and not at the Gay Community Center.
As for the original eight-stripe flag, there are even fewer answers. In his memoir, Baker says that while they were taking down the flags from Civic Center, he was hit on the head on knocked out. “When I came to on the muddy ground,” he says “I saw people all around me hitting each other and screaming obscenities. They were fighting over the rainbow flags, pulling on them like a game of tug-of-war, tearing them.”
LYNN: “It would have taken more than one person to carry the flags. It took three people to carry one folded-up flag for the Parade, and we needed a van. They weighed a lot, and 330 Grove did not have an elevator. Whoever stole them had help—one person could not do it on their own.”
LYNN: “Before the rainbow flag missing, Gilbert came to one of my workshops. He wanted to watch me dying fabric all day and see how I did everything.
I was like, oh yeah, I’ll show you, come in.
I said, here, put some gloves on and do it with me.
He was like, oh, no, no, I don’t want to get my hands dirty.
He was only trying to figure out how I did the dying.”
LEE: “Gilbert went to these places like MoMa and told them these outrageous stories about how he made the rainbow flag all by himself. He said this about the flag he donated. When you look at it, you can tell that it was bought at a craft fair. It flat out wasn’t one of our flags. It was polyester.”
LYNN: “It was polyester, it wasn’t the same size, and it wasn’t hand-dyed. My flags were different. The rainbow flag at MoMa was a beautiful flag inside a frame, but it wasn’t an original, not from 1978, not even a piece from 1978. I was hoping, oh, my God, maybe this is a piece of it.”
LEE: “It wasn’t even the original colors. MoMa said they were original flags, but they weren’t. It was a commercially produced rainbow flag with a primary color rainbow. The plaque cited Gilbert donating it as an original flag.”
LYNN: “I read online that Gilbert Baker said he named me “Faerie Argyle Rainbow,” a complete lie. Bethany the Princess of Argyle named me. I chose the name Rainbow because I was known as a rainbow artist.”
LEE: “Even Lynn’s driver’s license said her name was “Faerie Argyle Rainbow.””
LYNN: “In 1976, I filled out a form at the DMV, and my name became Faerie Argyle Rainbow. Back then, they didn’t ask you for a birth certificate. The employee just said, “This is your name now,” and gave me a driver’s license that said Faerie Argyle Rainbow.
It all sounds crazy now, but back then, it wasn’t.”
LEE: “I had my arguments and fights with Gilbert Baker because he claims he came up with the rainbow flag. If you go through all of his different interviews, you see that his story changes over and over and over again. He even said Harvey Milk came to him and asked him to create a symbol for the movement. No—I read that, and no such thing happened.”
LYNN: “Just look at his interviews. His takes on what the colors in the rainbow flag mean are all in his head. The rainbow represents everyone, no matter what gender or race you are; that’s how I looked at it. Rainbows are in nature and beautiful. People love them, and I love them. I knew they would be great color healing.
Gilbert assigning meaning to each color is ridiculous. I think anyone could make up what each color means. If I wanted to, I could do the same. It wasn’t what I was thinking. I was thinking that rainbows encompass everybody, the whole group, unity.”
LEE: “I have tried to convince people that the rainbow flags were made with tax-payer dollars. We made them as a non-profit.
Not even Gilbert owns them. I have always thought that anyone who sells anything rainbow should give a portion of the profits to homeless gay youth. We need to take care of our own kind because no one does. The whole concept of taking care of gay people has disappeared.”
August Bernadicou is a 27-year-old gay historian and the President of the LGBTQ History Project Inc. Chris Coats is an editor and producer.
Together, they produce the QueerCore Podcast and will shortly be releasing an episode that is the definitive story on the rainbow flag featuring Lee Mentley, Lynn Segerblom, and Adrian Brooks.
August Bernadicou is presenting a Pride event in NYC this year that all folks are cordially invited to attend- its virtual;
Here is the link for the event: https://www.lgbtqhp.org/pride-protest
Anti-LGBTQ activist Judith Reisman dies at age 86
There was the time she appeared on the Liberty Counsel’s radio show to declare that all gays are inherent pedophiles
Editor’s note: Judith Ann Reisman was a vocal opponent of women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and known for her criticism and condemnation of the work in sexual studies of Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Reisman, a prominent conservative, has been referred to as the “founder of the modern anti-Kinsey movement.” New York-based LGBTQ journalist, activist and blogger Joe Jervis covered her for over a decade on his widely popular blogsite Joe.My.God.
By Joe Jervis | Longtime JMG readers will recall Reisman’s anti-LGBT claims as a regular feature here going back a decade or so. There was the time she appeared on the Liberty Counsel’s radio show to declare that all gays are inherent pedophiles:
We know that pedophilia, which was the original Greek they say it’s ‘love of’ but of course it isn’t, it’s ‘lust for’ boys. And there’s a strong, clear, cross-cultural, historical reality, people don’t want to do deal with, but the propaganda has been loud and strong to deny the fact, the aim of homosexual males and now increasingly females is not to have sex with other old guys and get married but to obtain sex with as many boys as possible. That’s the reality.
There was the time she called for a class action suit against groups that advocate for safer sex:
The reality is that condoms are manufactured and approved every day for natural, vaginal sex, not anal “sex.” They are not effectively designed to protect from disease those people who engage in sodomy. Such a lawsuit should target the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Planned Parenthood and a myriad of teachers and school systems, too many to count, that have taught that anal “sex” (traditionally termed “sodomy” or “buggery” under British-based legal codes) as not so different than natural coitus. Due to the lies that have told, people who practiced sodomy are under the tragically mistaken notion that a condom is effective protection from disease.
There was the time she went to Jamaica to advocate for keeping homosexuality criminalized:
American Religious Right leaders Mat Staver and Judith Reisman are scheduled to be featured speakers at a conference in Jamaica this weekend hosted by a group that has been working to preserve the country’s criminal ban on consensual gay sex. The annual conference, hosted by the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, will focus on how “[c]ontemporary society has become increasingly hostile to the traditional definitions of marriage and family” and Staver.
There was the time she blamed the demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on a rise in reported sexual assaults in the military:
Why is the best-kept military secret that most soldierly sexual assaults are now definitively homo, not heterosexual, male-on-male sexual exploitation? While men are statistically more loathe to report their sexual victimization than are women, 10,700 male soldiers, sailors and airmen in 2010 actually reported their sexual assaults. What this means is not totally clear, since men are cannot technically be raped, despite the term being regularly used in the recent hearings on the matter.
There was the time she compared activists against school bullying to Hitler Youth:
Both the GLSEN youth and the Hitler Youth were trained to be revolutionary leaders of the brave new world order. GLSEN school clubs and their teacher sponsor/trainers are now funded by major corporations and by some state funds. GLESN’s Day of Silence and “GAY ALLY!” pledge cards for kindergartners and other children (left) are direct assaults on traditional parental, American values. German children’s literature historians document Hitler’s pioneering ban of both the Ten Commandments and biblical stories from Nazi school texts in favor of coarse and violent tales that ridiculed religious believers and their values.
There was the time she was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League:
Holocaust analogies generate headlines and get attention, they do little in the service of truth, history or memory. When [Peter] LaBarbera and Reisman suggest that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are “demonizing [Christians] like the Nazis used to do to the Jews,” they undermine the historical truth of the Holocaust as a singular event in human history that led to the murder of six million Jews and millions of others. Holocaust comparisons are deeply offensive and trivialize and distort the history and meaning of the Holocaust.
And let’s close with this notation from Rational Wiki:
Reisman is a supporter of Scott Lively and his completely insane screed, The Pink Swastika. She has claimed that she believes that a homosexual movement in Germany gave rise to the Nazi Party and the Holocaust. She enthusiastically and unconditionally endorses criminalization of homosexuality, despite the fact that homosexuals were were one of the Nazis’ target groups for annihilation. Reisman has claimed that the homosexuals employ recruitment techniques that rival those of the United States Marine Corps to transform innocent children into raving homosexuals.
Reisman, passed away on Friday, April 9, 2021, two days before her 86th birthday. From the magazine of the far-right John Birch Society:
Like Judith the Biblical heroine, Dr. Reisman was fearless and stood against the great powers of the world in our time. When her countrymen were ready to surrender to the mighty Assyrian army, the Biblical Judith, trusting in God, walked into the enemy camp — and walked out with the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian general, thus saving her people. Likewise, Judith Reisman repeatedly, over the past several decades, strode into many hostile enemy camps around the world — colleges, universities, legislative bodies, media outlets — to speak truth to power and to expose vile works of darkness.
Joseph “Joe” Jervis is an American blogger and writer based out of New York City. He is the author of Joe.My.God., a personal blog which, since he first posted on April 27, 2004, has primarily covered LGBT news and opinion.
The preceding article was originally published at Joe.My.God and republished by permission.
The Bay Area Reporter turns 50- Congrats from the Los Angeles Blade
The Los Angeles Blade congratulates the publisher, editor, and staff of the The Bay Area Reporter on its Golden Anniversary
SAN FRANCISCO – An important and critical voice for the LGBTQ+ community in Northern California turns 50 this Spring as the venerable LGBTQ+ newspaper, The Bay Area Reporter, commences its fifth decade of service to San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.
Not unlike the beginnings of the Los Angeles Blade’s sister publication, The Washington Blade, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, the Bay Area Reporter traces its roots to an ad hoc distribution- in B.A.R.’s case atop cigarette machines in the city’s gay and lesbian watering holes.
Since then according to Michael Yamashita, a gay man who has been the paper’s publisher since 2013, the paper has never missed an issue deadline — not even when threatened by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
The Los Angeles Blade congratulates the publisher, editor, and staff of the The Bay Area Reporter on its Golden Anniversary of service to the LGBTQ+ community.
Read B.A.R.’s own coverage of its 50th here: https://www.ebar.com/index.php?id=303476
S.F. Jewish and LGBTQ icon Al Baum dies at 90 after ‘full, rich life’
You have to be willing to do it yourself or you’re just being hypocritical
By Maya Mirsky | SAN FRANCISCO – Alvin H. Baum Jr., a philanthropist and activist known as Al to his friends and admirers, died March 28 at home in San Francisco. He was 90.
“Al lived a full, rich life,” his husband, Robert Holgate, told J. “Through his example of giving, he taught many how to live, love and give back,”
As a philanthropist, Baum was a generous donor to Jewish and LGBTQ causes, the arts, civil liberties, and a host of other causes and interests. In 2019, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation awarded Baum its Robert Sinton Award for Distinguished Leadership, and a J. profile at the time painted a full picture of his background and his longtime activism on multiple fronts.
Born into an affluent Jewish family at the height of the Great Depression, Baum grew up mostly in Highland Park, which in the 1930s was emerging as one of Chicago’s most prosperous Jewish-identified suburbs. He went to Harvard University as an undergrad and again for law school, then spent two years in the Army, in Berlin, during the Korean War.
Upon his return, he visited San Francisco to see how he liked it; at the time, he was living his life as a closeted gay man. He came out publicly in 1975, when he was in his 40s and living in San Francisco. It was a momentous step and not really planned.
“You know they say, ‘When you’re drowning, your whole life passes before your eyes?’” he said in an interview with OUTWORDS, an LGBTQ history archive, in 2017. “Well, it was like that. But I had been telling people, friends, that they should come out. And I wasn’t. I said to myself, ‘You have to be willing to do it yourself or you’re just being hypocritical.’”
From there he became an activist, working with the ACLU and Lambda Legal and many other organizations. Also, he worked as a city planner and attorney for many years and then, late in life, began a third career as a therapist, getting a degree from UC Berkeley in social work. In later years, with his husband, whom he married in 2014, he devoted himself to philanthropy.
Baum served on the boards of many organizations, including S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the ACLU of Northern California, and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. He also founded the Federation’s gay and lesbian task affinity group. He was a founding member of the New Israel Fund, and has been an active supporter of LGBTQ senior organization Openhouse. In 2014, he served as grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade, accompanied by Holgate.
Baum was a longtime member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Holgate said details of a celebration of Baum’s life and a shiva would be forthcoming.
Maya Mirsky is a staff writer for J. The Jewish News of Northern California and is based in Oakland.
The preceding article was published by J. The Jewish News of Northern California and was republished by permission.
LGBTQ ally New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland confirmed by Senate as Interior Secretary
“It’s exciting to be able to see someone like myself (native) in such an influential role within the administration”
WASHINGTON – New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland was confirmed Monday in a 51-40 vote by the Senate, becoming the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet as the fifty-fourth Secretary of the Interior.
The vote to confirm was along party lines, however Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, (SC) joined three other Republican Senators, Lisa Murkowski, and Dan Sullivan, (Alaska) and Senator Susan Collins, (ME) in voting to confirm Haaland.
A member of the Laguna Pueblo tribal nation, Secretary Haaland will oversee the management and conservation of federal land holdings including national parks and monuments as well as the nation’s natural resources. She is the third resident from the State of New Mexico to hold the post and the first woman in addition to her historic confirmation to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet as a Native American.
In her role as Interior Secretary overseeing 70,000 employees, making it one of the largest federal government departments, she will lead agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Geological Survey, and the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies that manage lands, waters and coastal areas.
Haaland will also oversee the the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Fund Administration. The Bureau of Indian Education has come under fire from advocates and lawmakers for what is generally perceived as its failure to adequately address issues that affect Native American students in the past decade plus.
The All Pueblo Council of Governors also issued a statement lauding their fellow Pueblo member’s confirmation the Arizona Central reported.
“This confirmation is a defining moment for Indigenous peoples not only in the United States but around the world,” said the council’s chairman, Wilfred Herrera, former governor of Laguna Pueblo.
Indigenous peoples are the first stewards of the lands, waters and living beings, Herrera said, and predicted that Haaland’s leadership will provide “a long-overdue opportunity to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship and help our nation swing the pendulum on our most pressing indigenous and environmental justice issues.”
As a member of the U. S. House, Haaland was a committed ally of the LGBTQ community. In May of 2019, Haaland was awarded the prestigious Vanguard Award by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). The Vanguard Award is given to an outstanding ally who uses their platform to further LGBTQ+ equality.
Accepting the award she stated; “Everyone deserves to love who they love and be who they are without facing discrimination or violence. I truly believe that, and I’m honored to receive the NCLR’s Vanguard Award. It means I’m doing the right thing for my daughter, the amazing LGBTQ community in New Mexico, and everyone who has fought tirelessly for equality.”
When she was running for office in 2018, Haaland was asked by the NM Political Report during a Q&A session with candidates for U.S. House:
NMPR: Please describe how an LGBTQ person in your life has affected your worldview.
Deb Haaland: “That would be my daughter, who is a lesbian. Sometimes I think about how I have this beautiful, wonderful lesbian daughter who I adore, and who I want to have every opportunity for success. But quite frankly, I would feel that way about any member of the LGBTQ community, because I just feel that every single American, regardless of where they are, what community they belong to, deserves to have opportunities to succeed.
I took a tour one time of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, and it’s a shame that a lot of members of the LGBTQ community have found it very difficult to find housing, find employment. That’s a community that really needs all of us to step up and treat them with respect, dignity and equality. That’s something I would really like to change in our society.”
NMPR: What are your priorities when it comes to addressing needs and concerns of LGBTQ people, including those in rural and tribal communities?
Deb Haaland: “A lot of times it might boil down to understanding. … For me, I have a lesbian daughter who would be everywhere I go, I talk to her every day on the telephone if I don’t see her in person. I think some people don’t have the breadth of understanding that they should when it comes to the struggles of members of the LGBTQ community.
It’s up to people like me, up to people who do understand that community, to make sure we’re finding ways to bridge those gaps so that we can have a more accepting society.”
Haaland introduced the Elder Pride Act in 2019 to address a lifetime of discrimination that has resulted in less financial security, more social isolation, and specific healthcare needs for older LGBT Americans. The Elder Pride Act amends the Older American Act to address the needs of older LGBT Americans and make necessary investments to support them.
Haaland also raised transgender issues at the State of the Union in 2019 inviting local advocate Bunnie Benton Cruz, Chair of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico board and Mara Kiesling the Executive Director for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Haaland’s office coordinated a Transgender Awareness training for staff on the Hill which was administered by the NCTE.
Haaland was also Vice Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, a group of lawmakers that serves as a resource for Members of Congress, their staff, and the public on LGBTQ+ issues at the federal level. The caucus works toward the extension of equal rights, the repeal of discriminatory laws, the elimination of hate-motivated violence, and the improved health and well-being for all regardless of sexual orientation of gender identity and expression.
The Blade reached out to Running Bear Ramirez, a leader in the San Manuel tribe of Mission Indians in Southern California and one of the Yuhaaviatam people for his reaction to the news of Secretary Haaland’s confirmation.
“First off to have a Native American running the Department of the Interior is something I never would have thought would happen. Representation matters and there is no better person I could think of to run the department then a native person,” Ramirez said adding; “It’s exciting to be able to see someone like myself (native) in such an influential role within the administration.”
Karen Ocamb leaves LGBTQ press for Public Justice advocacy
I hope to come up with creative thinking to keep bending that arc towards justice for all
WEST HOLLYWOOD – After three decades of reporting about the LGBTQ community, veteran journalist Karen Ocamb announced Tuesday, March 9, that she is joining Public Justice, a national nonprofit progressive legal advocacy organization that has been fighting for civil rights, environmental protection and consumer and workers’ rights for more than 35 years.
Public Justice is now expanding the depth and breath of its impact litigation to specifically include fighting injustices hindering full LGBTQ equality.
“I’m very excited to explicitly serve the cause of justice in this next stage of my life,” Ocamb, who starts her new job at the end of March, tells the Los Angeles Blade. “My favorite quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ It’s promise of hope for progress has always buoyed me when I have feared for this country. I never thought it could apply to me personally, as an individual, as well.”
After spending the 1960s as a student against the war in Vietnam, fighting for civil rights and exploring the counter-cultural movement, Ocamb joined CBS News in New York and learned to be a journalist under the mentorship of such icons as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Bob Schiefer. Her final job for the network was producing the 1984 Olympic coverage for CBS News affiliates at TV City in Los Angeles.
Free to pursue her social justice passions and discuss her opinions, Ocamb volunteered on the ballot campaign for West Hollywood cityhood. It was during this time that her friends started dying of AIDS. By the late 1980s, serving as a quasi-healthcare worker was not enough and Ocamb returned to journalism, this time freelancing for Frontiers News Magazine and other gay press publications.
The AIDS crisis was her entry into the movement for LGBTQ liberation and equality. She has worked in LGBTQ and independent media since then, culminating in her position as news editor and reporter for the Los Angeles Blade.
Ocamb says she was recruited to the Media Relations position by Steve Ralls, with whom she worked when he served as communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and Immigration Equality.
“I was shocked when Steve reached out to me. Usually, reporters are remembered for the stories or products they produce, not the relationships with their counterparts. I think it’s so cool that Steve not only remembered me but suggested that I could assist these progressive attorneys in highlighting intersectionality and helping too-often forgotten people and communities better understand how Public Justice cases will help them,” says Ocamb.
“Public Justice’s litigation and advocacy impacts a diverse array of communities, and we increasingly see our work as being at the intersection with other movements for justice,” Steve Ralls, Director of External Affairs for Public Justice, tells the LA Blade. “Our Title IX litigation and advocacy, for example, also helps to advance LGBTQ equality, especially for transgender students.
The Public Justice Food Project, which advocates for a more sustainable and just food system, partners with rural community advocates to battle the scourge of industrial agriculture. And our advocacy on behalf of workers, including and especially essential frontline workers, helps to build and maximize the political and organizing power of Black, Indigenous, people of color and immigrant communities. And of course, there is significant overlap and meaningful engagement within and across each of those constituencies, too.”
As Public Justice’s case docket expands, the organization recognizes that their engagement with allied communities must also deepen and expand in meaningful ways, as well.
“Karen’s incredible career and her connections at the intersection of so many vibrant movements made her the perfect choice for helping Public Justice introduce our work within the communities we are serving, and hope to serve, and to use the media to help advance our shared goals,” Ralls says. “When I began working on the campaign to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Gallup reported that 48% of Americans favored lifting the ban. By the time the law was gone, that number had grown to 89%.
That change in public opinion and subsequent change in the law was, in part, due to the power of storytelling. Few people in our community know how to shape and tell the stories of those battling injustice more eloquently or powerfully than Karen. We’re extraordinarily excited to add her talents to the Public Justice team.”
With the volatile and changing nature of media in today’s environment, there’s a possibility that Ocamb may not disappear completely from the LGBTQ press. “I still have to learn the ropes of my new job,” says Ocamb. “But given the economic difficulties faced by minority media in producing stories impacting their communities, perhaps I can write about the work these incredible progressive Public Justice lawyers are doing and provide that content to regional outlets as a free public service. I hope to come up with creative thinking to keep bending that arc towards justice for all.”
Remembering Bill LaVallee, 12 Step Stalwart and Raconteur
Gone, but never, ever forgotten
WEST HOLLYWOOD – “I have always been as authentic as I can be, even when it didn’t go over well with others,” reads a quote posted at the top of Bill LaValle’s Facebook page. That authenticity was always casually dressed in humor and humility with a flare of insight when needed.
His funny and sometimes meandering stories about his beloved family, his treatment of rhinestone Hollywood gossip like secret uncut diamonds — he’d been an 1960s actor who kissed Elizabeth Taylor — and his deep gratitude for loving friendships with Carrie Fisher and so many others made Bill LaVallee immanently lovable, huggable and a favorite raconteur wherever two or more gathered.
LaVallee was born on June 13, 1943 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, died March 7 in Los Angeles, and spread joy, love and sometimes snarky grace in between. He saved countless lives as an almost five-decades-long Eskimo for those seeking recovery from alcohol and substance abuse.
LaVallee also helped people die during the desolate days of AIDS. After spiritual guru Rev. Sandy Scott established late night visitation rights at local hospitals, LaVallee brought a few sponsees and an AA meeting to dying gay men in need of solace and love from their family of choice. Sometimes the well-meaning troupe would forget the Big Book and through inappropriate giggles, scour their memories for the words most professed to know by rote. Sometimes the meeting turned into a death watch with tears, laughter, stories and punching the bolus if such an end-of-life request was well-known.
Bill LaVallee’s generosity of spirit extended to Project Angel Food, for which he had volunteered at its inception in 1989. He later became a beneficiary while living at the L.A. LGBT Center-run Triangle Square Apartment complex.
On July 18, 2019, LaVallee received the 12,000,000 meal made and delivered by Project Angel Food, delivered by Reality TV star Lisa Vanderpump with PAF executive director Richard Ayoub.
According to a Facebook post from his granddaughter Cassidy Em: “Bill LaVallee began suffering strokes last year which ended him up in the hospital and over the last few months he had to get a stint in his heart and last week he fell and when he went into the hospital they had to do emergency brain surgery to remove pressure and drain fluids. I went to see him on Friday and everything was just a big questions mark. And now he’s gone.”
Gone, but never, ever forgotten.
Karen Ocamb is an award winning veteran journalist, the former news editor of the Los Angeles Blade & a longtime chronicler of LGBTQ+ lives in Southern California.
Tribute to ‘give ‘em hell’ lesbian feminist pioneer Ivy Bottini
If Ivy Bottini was pissed off at an injustice, you heard about it.
WEST HOLLYWOOD – Kick ass. If Ivy Bottini was pissed off at an injustice, you heard about it. The whole room heard about it. And by the end of her righteous rant, whether at a Stonewall Democratic Club meeting or before the West Hollywood City Council, even nonchalant shruggers applauded her passion. Time finally did what Bottini’s critics could not: her voice was silenced on Thursday, Feb. 25 at her daughter Lisa’s home in Florida. Ivy Bottini was 94.
Unlike other lesbian feminists of her generation, Bottini did not strike withering fear in the pants of men in power. Perhaps it was because she exuded a subliminal sense of caring and flashes of humor during even the fiercest of diatribes. She hated the old tropes that lesbians hated men and had no sense of humor — traits that made her accessible to those in need from 1950s and 1960s housewives newly aware of the traditional shackles of sexism to the desperate dying gay men deemed untouchable by government, society and often even family in the early days of AIDS.
Bottini’s power emanated from her authenticity. Discrimination burned Bottini to the core. She felt the pain. But she didn’t just jawbone about it; she translated the searing anger and pain from her own awakening into activism to alleviate the pain of others, becoming a freedom crusader for women, for LGBTQ people — for anyone suffering from oppression and internalized oppression sickness.
“Thousands of deaths and no one cares! No one cares – except us,” an emotional Bottini told Andy Sacher of the Lavender Effect about the early days of AIDS. “That was inhuman what was really happening to gay men. It was inhuman how they were demonized.”
Throughout her life, each heightened moment fraught with systemic classism, sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia exploded into a personal epiphany, emerging in her artist’s conscious as empathy for others, especially in recent years, over the profound and ubiquitous discrimination experienced by transgender youth.
In a 2017 interview, Los Angles Blade publisher Troy Masters asked Bottini: “If your life were a book, what would the title be?”
“Give ‘em Hell,” Bottini replied. In fact, the book about her life, as told to Judith V. Branzburg, Ph.D., has a more expansive title: “The Liberation of Ivy Bottini: A Memoir of Love and Activism.” It opens with a March 17, 2016 gathering at the West Hollywood Public Library where Bottini was being honored by Hollywood NOW and California NOW under the theme “The Unsinkable Feminist Spirit of Ivy Bottini” during a week of being honored for her life’s work. “I guess that since I was eighty-nine years old, people figured if they were inclined to honor me at all, they had better do it before I croaked,” she wrote.
Bottini’s history with the National Organization for Women was itself historic, helping found and led the first chapter of NOW in New York in 1968. The following year, she designed the national NOW logo at the request of then-NOW President Aileen Hernandez.
“We were challenging things that women had lived with for years, centuries, and never questioned. And here we were questioning some of the most basic beliefs about women,” Bottini said in a 2015 interview broadcast by MSNBC. “One of the things I thought about when I joined NOW was ‘maybe I’ll meet a real lesbian’ because I had no clue who was a lesbian. I thought I was the only one. And I thought the Women’s Movement can’t be for just straight women. It’s got to include lesbians. They’re women! Women are women — it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is.”
It was a long hard road to that revelation. Bottini was born on August 15,1926 to Long Island cab driver and former boxer Archie Gaffney and his “unhappy” housewife, Ivy. An only child, Bottini was an athletic tomboy with a penchant for art. Life was good until her father died in a car crash in 1944. Bottini was 18 and suddenly money was short. In an extremely lucky stroke for young women at the time, she got a full scholarship to the Pratt Institute of Art and Design to study advertising, graphic design and illustration.
After graduation, she worked in New York City art and advertising agencies, and following the inevitable plan for all women of the era, in 1952, she married the young man across the street, Eddie Bottini, had two daughters, Laura and Lisa, and silently struggled with her attraction to women.
“After falling in love with all my gym teachers—that was a clue—and with all other teachers in grammar school and then junior high and high [school], I really was struggling growing up with how I felt about girls and women,” Bottini told the Los Angeles Blade in 2019. “I was still falling in love with women quietly, silently.”
In 1955, Bottini got a job as an art director and illustrator at the Long Island newspaper Newsday. Eleven years later, in 1966, Newsday reporter Dolores Alexander told Bottini about her an interview with Betty Friedan, whose book “The Feminine Mystique” “was all the rage.” Dolores took Bottini to a women’s meeting in New York City “and soon I was helping to found the first chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW)” with Dolores. Bottini also joined national NOW where she served on the board for three years.
Meanwhile, Bottini finally mustered up enough courage to call an old closeted lesbian school friend to take her to a gay bar. Eventually, she asked a woman to dance. “That changed my life that evening. I just felt when I walked in there by myself, I felt like I had walked into my home, where I was supposed to be. So, over the next handful of years, I struggled,” she told the LA Blade.
By September 1968, “I just had had it,” living a secret double life. Ivy Bottini had a breakdown — that led to a breakthrough. “I was on the Long Island Railroad in a snowstorm coming back from a New York NOW meeting and when we got to Garden City, I just got off the train,” Bottini said. It was cold. Struggling, she found a payphone, called her psychiatrist, and through tears, explained her circumstances. “I can’t go home anymore. And he said, ‘sorry,’ and hung up. And so I yelled out—it was late at night—I yelled out ‘fuck you!’ I was so angry at him.” She called a friend in Levittown who took her in. She told her husband she couldn’t come home as long as he was there.
Eventually he left but they didn’t actually divorce until 1972. Bottini secured a condo on the Upper Westside. Her daughter Laura moved in with her while Lisa moved in with her dad. “My life became totally different in one fell swoop.” Bottini came out inadvertently in 1968. She was answering a question at a NOW/NY press conference when, without realizing it, she referred to herself as a lesbian. “I accepted that I was a lesbian and as I accepted this, my life changed considerably.”
That awareness led to action and intense interest from other NOW chapters in her consciousness raising groups. In 1969, Bottini put together a panel called “Is Lesbianism a Feminist Issue?” The place was packed. “Oh my god. I think I’ve hit sort of a nerve,” she said later.
Bottini organized the infamous Aug. 10, 1970 NOW/NY three-hour takeover of the Statue of Liberty, unfurling a banner “Women of the World Unite!” from the base. She also organized the Aug. 26, 1970 Women’s Strike for Peace and Equality commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.
That spectacular women’s march down Fifth Avenue drew an estimated 50,000 people. But it also signaled ugly trouble ahead. When Bottini handed out lavender armbands to show solidarity with the oppression of lesbians, feminist leaders such as Gloria Steinem accepted them but Betty Friedan, the “mother” of the feminist movement, threw the armband on the ground and twisted it with her heel.
“My point was, ‘How can you have a women’s movement and leave a huge amount of women out?’” Bottini later told the Los Angeles Times. “But Friedan just never got that. She doesn’t understand that lesbianism is the bottom line of the women’s movement. If you can’t get past the fear of being thought of as a lesbian, whether you are or not, then you never are really free….Sexual politics is civil rights.”
Friedan called Bottini a “lavender menace” and plotted a “purge” of lesbians, maneuvering to get Bottini voted out of NOW leadership. The LA Times notes that in a subsequent 1973 Friedan essay in New York Times Magazine “smacked of downright paranoia; Friedan even claimed a woman was sent to seduce her and then blackmail her into silence while unnamed lesbians took over NOW.” Bottini left NOW and left New York for Los Angeles in 1971.
She shifted her focus to the growing Gay Liberation movement and turned her pain into insightful comedy and acting, studying at the famous Lee Strasberg Institute in Hollywood (before moving to West Hollywood in 1978). That yielded a lesbian feminist one-woman show called “The Many Faces of Woman” which she took on tour around the country for several years – two decades before Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking play The Vagina Monologues in 1994.
“It showed the craziness that women face and society puts on them,” Bottini says in the MSNBC video. “I talked about things that many women are not supposed to talk about like menstruation and birth control and contraception, and the gynecologist visit and lesbian dates. I was breaking ground that no other comedian in this country was doing. I swear to you it’s true: nobody was doing what I was doing. And it was consciousness raising.”
While the 1970s generally associated with disco and sexual freedom, the era was also a hothouse for politics with civil rights turning into liberation movements, including Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation after the Stonewall Rebellion. And Bottini was in the thick of it.
In 1976, America’s Bicentennial, she was hired as the Women’s Program Director at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, which led to her long association with Center co-founder Morris Kight. In 1975, Kight co-founded the Stonewall Democratic Club, with Bottini joining shortly thereafter. Politicos were eying a significant change in the cultural landscape as evangelical Christian conservatives started speaking out against gay rights.
Then, in 1977, came the 10.0 earthquake. A new religious group called the Moral Majority, led by a publicity seeking Rev. Jerry Falwell and orange juice shill Anita Bryant, used their “Save the Children” crusade to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. The Christian Right, which had come to the fore through efforts to Stop the ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] and overturn Roe v Wade which gave reproductive rights to women, was reborn as a loud and crass anti-LGBTQ grassroots political movement.
MECLA (Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles) was founded in 1977 as the nation’s first gay political action committee to press legislators on gay and lesbian rights, just as the “Save the Children” crusade was exported to California. Bottini and Kight organized the Coalition for Human Rights to fight the ugly anti-gay ballot initiative, championed by State Senator John Briggs whose anti-gay attempts had failed in the legislature. Proposition 6 proposed banning gays, lesbians and their supporters from employment in public schools.
The No on Proposition 6 campaign was formed, chaired by MECLA co-chair Diane Abbitt in the South and San Francisco Supervisor candidate Harvey Milk in the North. They hired the consulting firm of David Mixner and Peter Scott as campaign managers — and the managers hired Bottini to serve as the Southern California Deputy Director. Jeanne Córdova a second-wave feminist who also came out in 1968, was media director. Prop 6/Briggs Initiative was overwhelmingly defeated in November 1978, with help from Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had been convinced to oppose the measure.
After the Briggs Initiative victory, newly re-elected Gov. Jerry Brown made a number of historic gay appointments: Stephen Lachs to the LA Superior Court in 1979; Rand Schrader to the LA Municipal Court in 1980; and in 1981, Mary Morgan to the San Francisco Municipal Court and Ivy Bottini, 55, to the California Commission on Aging, the first “out” lesbian or gay person to be appointed to a California board or commission.
Bottini met successful real estate broker and 12 Step fixture Gail Wilson during the fight against the Briggs Initiative. Wilson and her gay partner held a conference during which they told the audience not to come out, just do your jobs. “I thought I was going to go through the roof because that’s exactly why we were being attacked — because they never thought we’d fight back,” Bottini told the LA Blade. “So, I was at odds with Gail. I got up and spoke and I didn’t mince any words. And I thought, ‘well, she’s gonna hate me for the rest of her life.’”
Instead, Wilson changed Bottini’s life. “She was a wonderful, magnanimous human being. And she said to me a month or so later, ‘what are you gonna do [with your life]’? I said, ‘well I don’t know. I guess I’ll go back to the Center.’ She said, ‘No, no, don’t do that. Go get your real estate license and come work with me in my real estate office. I said, ‘okay.’ I mean, you show me a door that’s open and I’m gonna walk through it, ya know?” Bottini became one of Wilson’s top sales brokers.
Meanwhile, the Moral Majority spawned other rightwing conservatives, who elected Reagan president in 1980. As a reward, Reagan gave the anti-gay haters administration posts and when a mysterious disease started killing gay men, they did nothing.
In 1982, Ken Schnorr, an old friend from Long Island, collapsed and died a week later. His mother called Bottini, freaked out about all the black and blue marks on his body, thinking the hospital hurt him.
“After Ken died, something said to me there is more to this than we see,” Bottini said. “So, for some reason, I just picked up the phone and called the CDC. I had never done that before. ‘Look, this just happened to my friend. Do you have any answers? The hesitancy at the other end of the line, the hemming and the hawing before they would say anything — I just knew it was bad.”
The CDC official explained the bruises as Kaposi sarcoma, usually found in elderly Jewish men. “And that was the explanation,” she said. “I got off and thought, ‘no, this doesn’t make sense because Ken was one of three first guys diagnosed with Kaposi in town, in West Hollywood, in L.A., and that started me on working to find out what the hell was going on. It was just horrible.”
Shortly after Schnorr’s death, Rep. Henry Waxman, aided by his gay deputy Tim Westmoreland, held the first congressional hearing on what was then called GRID — Gay Related Immune Deficiency – at the Gay Community Services Center on Highland Ave. “We all met in the lobby and under the stairs on the first floor,” Bottini said. “Waxman’s basic message was spread the word: nobody really knows how it’s passed.”
After a couple weeks with no action, Bottini decided to hold a town hall. She called Dr. Joel Weisman, Schnorr’s doctor, to help inform the community. “Nobody really had a clue. But I felt very early on that it was bodily fluids. That’s the only thing that made sense to me. Because if it was airborne women would be getting it, everybody would be getting it and that wasn’t happening,” Bottini said.
Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park was jam-packed. “It was all guys — and Dottie Wine (Bottini’s girlfriend) and I. And Joel talked about transmission and he believed it was bodily fluids, too. And I thought, ‘I’m not crazy.’”
The next year, in 1983, Bottini founded AIDS Network LA, the first AIDS organization in Los Angeles. It served as a clearing house for collecting and disseminating information. In 1984, Bottini helped co-found AIDS Project Los Angeles, now APLA Health.
Though the love remained, a three-year feud blew up between Bottini and Kight, who did not believe HIV/AIDS disease was transmitted by bodily fluids. Kight changed his mind just in time to reconcile and fight the 1986 Lyndon LaRouche Prop 64 AIDS quarantine initiative that would “put gay men behind chain linked fences.” Bottini was Southern co-chair for the statewide No on Prop 64 campaign; Córdova helmed media relations. The initiative went down to a stunning defeat and Bottini spent much of the rest of the 80s organizing marches, “die-ins” and protests to get funding and services for those impacted by the AIDS epidemic.
The work continued into the 1990s, interspersed with painting and Bottini receiving the Drama-Logue Award for “Best Performance” in her play, “Against the Rising Sea.” She also joined the City of West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board in 1999, serving as board co-chair for ten years. Her work there included bringing attention to domestic violence abuse in the LGBTQ community, helping focus attention on the crystal meth crisis, and supporting the annual Dyke March.
Bottini also conceived and spearheaded the first effort to provide affordable housing for gay and lesbian seniors, culminating in the founding of the nonprofit Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing in 2005. “I’d laid the groundwork by organizing the community and provided the leadership that resulted in obtaining a grant from the State to move forward with the housing project,” known as Triangle Square in Hollywood, Bottini said. And she kept at it, telling a rally in 2018 to “get off your asses” and vote!
Bottini grieved her beloved West Hollywood before health issues forced her to move to Florida. “What I think I am going to miss most is the camaraderie in the city and the access to the city council and that a very palpable vision could be fed into the city council and the city council would start to take it on and then come back to the community to make sure there’d be discussion,” Bottini said. “That doesn’t happen anymore but that’s what I will miss. I will miss walking down the street and knowing most everybody that I pass. Now I know hardly know one person.”
Asked how she’d like to be remembered, Bottini told the LA Blade: “I’d like to be remembered as someone who had a really good sense of humor and could find something funny or strange or out of the ordinary in just about everything I worked on. The early city was creatives. We’re not creative anymore — we’re not. We’re not creating anything.”
Bottini also appreciated being appreciated. At a packed book signing, “people came up to me and say things like ‘I’ve been watching what you do for 30 years.’ Or ‘you don’t remember me but 20 years ago…’ There were a lot of memories that came to me. I’m not saying I remembered everything they were talking about – the politics, the conscious raising, the comedy — but they did.” And always there were gay men who approached her and said, “we never met but you saved my life with that town hall.”
“I had no clue how I touched the people in the city. I can be kind of hard-nosed sometimes when I speak. Sometimes I’d come home and go, ‘oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’ But none of that hit me” after the book signing.
“It was like this huge family reunion,” Bottini said. “They were remembering how I had change their life. And that was the reason that I was doing things. I was trying to save their lives. I saw the danger that we were about to get hit with while we were walking through [life]. And it was happening and we didn’t even know it — people’s lives were just being torn apart with deaths and children being taken away from lesbian mothers and…It was too much. I saw a tapestry of hurt and that’s what I was fighting. It all adds up to being able to live a life of safety and not live a life of fear.”
Editor’s Note: Ivy Bottini was a significant woman pioneer in the LGBTQ movement and her story touches upon every aspect of a significant time in the history of the long fight for Equality for LGBTQ people. In part 2 of Karen Ocamb’s tribute, Bottini’s friends remember.
Friends react to Ivy Bottini’s death, on the day the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act
“She lived this incredible life. I mean, her history with the women’s movement, as well as the lesbian movement in America and the larger LGBTQ movement was just incredible. As far as I’m concerned, she was a real pioneer in making a difference than all of our lives. Both Ivy and Morri [Kight] were excellent spokespersons for our community. But she had a knack for being able to throw one-liners out, too, so she could quickly stop nonsense by saying something funny.
People don’t realize — it took me having lesbians like Ivy who made me realize that women even had another layer than I did as a gay man. They could be smart as a whip, for example, and work for a bank but always hit that glass ceiling. The bank would say – and this actually happened with one of my church members — you know, we would love to make you a general manager. I mean, you’re a smart as a whip. You do all this, but you’re not married. She couldn’t say, ‘yes, but I’m a lesbian. I’m not going to leave.’ Because they were trying to say, ‘you’ll get married and you will have children and leave us. And we don’t want to invest in women.’ Or she’d say, ‘well, I’m a lesbian. I’m not going to get married.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, we’re going to fire you.’ That was the difference right there. With gay men, we were not questioned much about our sexual health as much as you might think….One of our clergy, Frieda Smith, told me how she worked in a store and she ran their dark room developing photographs and her boss would sexually harass her. She really woke me up to things, too.
Ivy should be remembered as a strong woman who have made a difference, not only in women and lesbian rights, but for all of us. And with NOW, she also was an incredible example of not giving up the fight, even if there’s an organization that doesn’t want you there.”
Rev. Troy Perry, Founder of MCC – Metropolitan Community Church (Ivy’s church), co-Founder of Christopher Street West, longtime gay activist.
“Ivy Bottini stepped into my life a few weeks short of 46 years ago, at a NOW Consciousness Raising Conference in San Francisco. Things have not been the same since! She was a multifaceted difference-maker and spoke out when she observed injustices. She was a visionary who could see dangers before evident – think John Briggs and AIDS – and took action, often at great resistance from other community activists. She loved to mentor young people and others new to the addiction of activism and watch them claim their own power to make a difference.
Never seeking accolades and recognition, both flowed her way as others recognized and appreciated her value to the many causes she impacted.
So honored and proud to have experienced so much of life with Ivy. So much more could be said, but it will have to wait. Except, I love you, Ivy!”
“No on 6 was the first time that our community was targeted by a statewide ballot initiative in any state. It was also the first time we came together as a community and organized and fought back. Ivy had a history of fighting back when she was in New York. Then NOW called her a ‘lavender menace’ and threw her out. She was always a grassroots person — she always wanted to fight for full equality for our community. And when you look at her life, that’s exactly what she did. That was who she was.”
Diane Abbitt, MECLA board co-chair, No on Prop 6 campaign co-chair, Equality California board co-chair.
“I’m devastated by the loss. It feels like the end of an era of a certain kind of activism, that Ivy represents. On a deeply personal level, she was my earliest political mentor. I was still in my 20s when we first met. She took me under her wing and taught me so much. At I time when I was still learning about oppression sickness, Ivy taught me not only about male privilege & white privileged, but about class privilege (in the context of the Gay Academic Union). Her wisdom and maturity saw me through many personal, political, and professional crises. I’ll miss her so much.
We expect to have a ZOOM event soon, to honor Ivy. We’re also hoping to curate an exhibit of her art as soon as we can safely do so.”
Teresa DeCrescenzo, executive director of GLASS.
“I have so many memories with Ivy. We served 12 years together on the WeHo Lesbian Gay Advisory board, ending around 2014/2015. Something that always stood out was Ivy’s drive for activism. She loved seeing the younger generations on the board. She was always telling them ‘we need to get in the streets!’ Since then, I venture to say that many off those younger generations have been “in the streets”.
Above is a picture of Ivy, me, and some of LGAP members in, I believe, 2014.”
Ruth Tittle, business leader, philanthropist, activist.
“Ivy Bottini was a great lesbian feminist activist. I am sure that at the very minute she passed, her best butch buddy, Jeanne Cordova, reached down to help her up.”
Robin Tyler, business leader, activist, comedienne, marriage equality plaintiff
“Ivy Bottini changed my life in ways too numerous to mention. It all really started around the year 2000 when she said to me after I ran into her at an event, ‘Kid, you need a mentor!’ I had known Ivy for a few years prior to that as an artist and as my landlord, and we had lost contact for a few years but after 2000 I started to spend more time with her and learned about her life as an activist. Little did I know that when I accepted her gift to be my mentor that I would gain a family member, a colleague, a confidant, a teacher, a trusted advisor and a dear, dear, dear friend.
I find solace in knowing that the loved ones no longer with us and whom she introduced me to over the years have greeted her on the other side today. An army of LGBT activists who have waited patiently to be reunited with our wonderful friend. I feel an obligation to Ivy, to stay involved in the work to make this a better world.”
Sue Sexton, Director of Development & Marketing at ONEgeneration, West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board member.
“I first met Ivy in Justin Smith’s acting class. I was new to the LA lesbian and gay community, but I had heard about Ivy: she was ‘the talk.’ We hit it off immediately. I was drawn to her passion for equality, her passion for true expression of self. In Justin’s class we were able to play all the characters — it didn’t matter the gender. We all got to know each other and ourselves. Ivy directed me in a scene from “Kennedy’s Children.” I played the Marilyn Monroe character. We laughed and reminisced about this experience often.
It was in this class that I understood how much Ivy enjoyed acting, performing on any level — but she loved theatre. I started The Ivy Theatre specifically to give voice to lesbian playwrights so that ‘our’ life experiences could be portrayed on the stage. We could play all roles if we chose to because we could. Ivy embodied ‘female voice’ — one of such strength and direction, one of compassion and passion — a voice that could lift one up and shut one down when necessary. A voice that said it like it was a voice of ‘Truth to Power!’ That’s what I wanted in my theatre company and that’s why The Ivy Theatre was born.
There is currently a play that is being developed by Austin writer Kathy Center based on a short story I wrote where the lead character is based on Ivy. It’s interesting because Kathy didn’t know Ivy and so she read about her and one of Ivy’s quotes that moved Kathy the most was ‘if something needs to be done, you just do it.’ No truer words.”
Marian Jones, founder and artistic director of The Ivy Theatre (1996-2006).
“What I loved best about Ivy was her unapologetic passion for grassroots activism. Especially feminism and LGBT rights. She hated elitism and loved regular, everyday people. I worked with her over the years – I remember best her passionate speeches for No on 64/No on LaRouche – the heinous ballot measure in 1986 that would have quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS. I worked on the campaign and Ivy was our most effective weapon. We’d send her to speak at a church, a rally, any crowd anywhere – and she’d bellow her fierce opposition, rile up the troops, persuade allies, and raise tons of support and money.
On a personal note, she was a fierce supporter of my valiant insurgent campaign for CA Assembly in 2012. I’ll never forget Ivy in her mobile chair, festooned in Torie! stickers, wheeling at full speed around the Democratic convention in Feb 2012, buttonholing anyone who would listen about how great I was, how angry she was the gay Speaker supported a straight woman over me…she didn’t give a hoot what anyone thought of her boisterous loud voice.
Ivy was fierce. And a fixture in WeHo and LA queer and feminist politics for decades. I’ve missed her since she moved to Florida. The world is quieter and less vibrant without her.”
Torie Osborn, longtime progressive activist.
“Ivy and I became friends after we were both invited to speak at APLA on the same panel. I could hear her at the end of the table but couldn’t see her around the people between us, she was so short! I just loved what she was saying, her ideas. Afterwards, I introduced myself and asked if I could take her to lunch sometime. She thought I was hitting on her and said yes.
It was the beginning of a thirty-year friendship based on a shared sense of humor about life, political activism, strong opinions, creativity and her wondering when we would start dating. Our banter was effortless. We have traveled together, spent time with each other’s families and have shut down countless restaurants talking late into the night. She painted my portrait in 2005 — her last portrait just before her eyes took another turn toward darkness.
Ivy was one of the most interesting, funny, and astute people I have ever known.”
Producer Elaine Estelle Suranie.
“I remember reading about Ivy in the LA Times back in ’75 when I was 10. ‘Bottini comes on like a carload of sinners at a revival meeting. She prances onstage, amid bright lights… No shoes, no props. Just Ivy, her wit, and her microphone…’ I remember thinking, ‘I have to meet that woman someday.’ Who would have known that our paths would cross in so many ways. In the ’80’s, I got my mother to hire her to be our real estate agent…my attempt to expose my mother to lesbians who were successful and not living tortured lives. Years later, through my circle of friends, I was able to enter her circle of friends. Learning about the world through her eyes is a gift that, at the moment, is beyond my ability to describe. Her tenacity, fearlessness, and good humor are lessons for us all to live by.”
Jeannette Bronson, Administrator at LA County Dept of Children and Family Services, Founder of Black Lesbians United.
“Ivy was a source of strength for women and others who were trying to break free and define themselves as equal players in our nation. Despite being ousted by NOW for being a lesbian, she never gave up the fight for equality for women. In later years, she partnered with Morris Kight to help move the LGBT community into the awareness of the political class. She was a mencha, a friend and a supreme artistic soul. She was a great mentor to me.”
Eric C. Bauman, past president Stonewall Democratic Club and former Chair California Democratic Party.
“Ivy Bottini was a triumphant force of nature. When I first moved to Los Angeles, she was one of the first people who reached out to me to welcome me with open arms and to give me access to her world. She transformed our nation; she transformed women’s rights; she transformed LGBT rights; and she kept going. She was a force of nature during the AIDS crisis and a transformative figure for West Hollywood and so much more. I will miss her. I will miss her phone calls. I will miss her energy. I will miss her love. Rest in peace, Ivy.”
Troy Masters, publisher of the Los Angeles Blade.
“Ivy wasn’t necessarily a mentor to me. She was a friend. But she was a friend who I would go to to get a different perspective on the directions that I already knew I was going to go in. My friendship with Ivy was dear and it was close, but her frustration with me was also funny and a perfect example of who she is
About 2 months before she passed, our last phone call — we talked about some political something or other that I was involved with. Ivy was always so angry at me for not being more angry, for trying to be diplomatic. We talked and talked and talked and when it was time to hang up, we said our ‘I love You. I’ll talk with you soon’ and Ivy THOUGHT she hung up……which enabled me to hear her say in that Ivy Long Island accent: ‘WHY does she ask me if She NEVER takes my ADVICE! I can’t remember the exact words but it was definitely her frustration with my lack of BullsHornOut style of confrontation. I hung up the phone and literally laughed out loud. I treasure those last words from her.
Ivy was angry at me for not being angrier and I was often angry with her for not being angry at things that DID get me angry. And that’s how our friendship grew as we shared our little office at Frontier’s Magazine.”
Marna Deitch, Founder of Motorcycle Contingent for Equality and Ivy’s friend for close to 20 years.
And lest we forget this valuable friendship:
Karen Ocamb is an award winning veteran journalist, the former news editor of the Los Angeles Blade & a longtime chronicler of LGBTQ+ lives in Southern California.
Witness to the horrors in Chechnya
It’s a film that makes you want to look away but doesn’t let you do it.
HOLLYWOOD – In an era when documentaries often seem geared more toward a slick and buzzy “docu-tainment” style than to the unfiltered presentation of real-world facts and experiences, “Welcome to Chechnya” blasts you in the face like a gust of icy wind.
A harrowing look at the “underground railroad” that sprung up within Russia to help the victims of the notorious “gay genocide” being perpetrated under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s a film that makes you want to look away but doesn’t let you do it. It conveys the unthinkable trauma of living in a constant state of terror while making a desperate, clandestine run for your very life; more than that, it permits us to put a human face – albeit a digitally altered one – on the crisis.
Part of the film’s impact undoubtedly stems from its subject matter, but it’s at least equally due to the artistry of its director, David France. It’s not the first time he’s been behind a heavyweight LGBTQ documentary. The longtime journalist made his directing debut with “How to Survive a Plague” in 2012, documenting the early years of the AIDS epidemic with an activist’s passion in a film that won him a host of awards and nominations for a several more, including an Oscar.
Now, “Chechnya,” which premiered at last year’s Sundance Festival and was released by HBO last summer, has made the shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards, raising the possibility for a second chance at taking home the coveted statue. Yet Oscar gold was not what France had on his mind when had a conversation with the Blade about the film earlier this week. Rather, he wanted to discuss the people it’s about.
France, like everyone else, had been appalled by the tales coming out of Chechnya in 2017. “We all read the stories,” he tells us now, “but it wasn’t until I read Masha Gessen’s New Yorker piece about the work that ordinary Russians were having to take upon themselves that I became really fascinated.”
He is referring to the network of LGBTQ activists that mobilized in the absence of outside help to extract refugees in daring escapes, hide them in safe houses across Russia, and work with groups around the world to get them out of the country. In “Welcome to Chechnya,” he follows a handful of these accidental heroes, as well as several of the survivors they protect, as they orchestrate and enact spycraft that would be right at home in an episode of “The Americans.” In the process, he shines a light on more than just the atrocities being committed against queer people in Chechnya. He also illuminates a level of courage that most of us have never had to muster up.
“That’s what drew me in,” France says. “The fact that ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to intervene, to try and save lives, while the rest of the world was doing so little about it.”
“It’s not like they had been already doing this work,” he explains. “Olga [Baranova, one of the activists who appears in the film] was running a community center that had an annual arts fair – that’s the extent of her training for the kind of cape-wearing heroics that you see her carrying out.”
With his cameraman and producer Askold Kurov, France spent months in the underground, chronicling the efforts of the activists and the stories of the survivors under their care, and getting plenty of first-hand experience with the kind of fear under which they had to willingly chosen to live, day after day.
After all, getting out of Chechnya wasn’t enough to make anyone safe; Chechen authorities were willing to stop at nothing to make sure nobody had a chance to expose what was going on, up to and including tracking down, recapturing, and maybe even killing any potential witnesses – and anyone who stood in the way was putting themselves in peril, too.
“I remember going on one of the extractions,” he relates. “We were getting ready to make a run with a couple whose location had been found out. We had only a few hours to get them to the airport, and then we got word of a rumor that a group of assassins had been dispatched to prevent them from leaving the country. We had one bodyguard, with one sidearm, with us.
“That kind of unbelievable peril is what hung over, and what still hangs over, every aspect of the work these ordinary Russian activists have taken on for themselves.”
It’s also what made it a challenge to film the refugees, for whom anonymity was a matter of life or death.
“I wanted to show what they looked like,” he tells us. “The pain that they wore on their faces, the hope – and certainly the fear. And most of them wanted the world to know what had happened to them, to expose these crimes – but they also understood what it would mean for them and their families if they stood up publicly and revealed their truths. They were terrified, and here I was asking them to let me film them anyway and then figure out how to solve this problem later.”
There is still a touch of awe in his voice as he says, “Remarkably, a couple of dozen people agreed to let me do that.”
He continues, “There were people, of course, who couldn’t take that leap with me. There was one person who was nervous even about me filming other people in the shelter. These were people who had just escaped the most horrific abuse and torture, and violation from their own families. They were hiding from their brothers and their uncles, from their own fathers. That dislocation of familial love was so traumatic to everybody there that some of them were just on a very sharp edge – unable to reckon with the past, unable to find security in the present or see hope in the future. You see that in the film with one of them, who even attempts suicide. For those people, it was a difficult arrangement to have me shooting even on the other side of the shelter house. I understood that and I tried to be very respectful.”
The challenge of maintaining privacy would eventually be surmounted by new, state-of-the-art identity protection software, a high-tech touch that France – savvy storyteller that he is – was able to parlay into one of the film’s most dramatic and unexpected moments. A considerable amount of screen time in “Welcome to Chechnya” is devoted to an anonymous refugee who has escaped from his tormentors into the network, where he is reunited with his family and his boyfriend of ten years; a turning point comes when, despite being poised for removal to another country, he chooses to go public with his story and make an official complaint to the Russian government.
As he makes that decision, the false features realistically rendered over his real ones melt away before our eyes, revealing his unaltered face – and with it, his true identity. It’s a powerful effect, and it’s our official introduction to Maxim Lapunov, whose subsequent appearance before a Russian court to tell his story is captured in the movie. Unsurprisingly, his claims are dismissed, and the need to get him and his loved ones out of the country becomes even more imperative.
In talking about Lapunov, the awe returns to France’s voice. “Maxim’s moral courage is unmatched. It was really clear that his life was going to be fucked up for the foreseeable future, no matter what he did. The courage that he showed was the courage to throw his body in the way to make sure that other people don’t get treated the way that he was treated – to save people’s lives. He could have gone anywhere in the world, and just nursed his post-traumatic memories in safety, but instead he went back into the fire.
That was remarkable. I watched him make those decisions, I watched him take on that risk, I watched him bring his family along on that journey and win their allegiance in these choices – these are human dramas like you see in Hollywood films that actually are taking place in the queer battle against the crimes in Russia.”
He segues into a similar expression of respect for David Isteev, another activist prominently featured in “Chechnya.”
“When you look at his face, you just get this incredible sense of high alert and of moral purpose. It makes me think of the stories we have heard from the Holocaust, of citizens who would otherwise have been untouched who reach into some deep reserve to do something. That’s him. And being in the presence of that was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.”
If it sounds like he has bonded with his subjects, it’s because he has. Being embedded in the shelter network for such an extended period of time, he and Kurov became part of the underground themselves. “We were no longer visitors from outside,” he says. “We were experiencing what they were. I spent nights full of terror inside those safe houses, when rumors were flying about people who might have been seen, locations that might have been revealed, dangers that might have been heightened – I felt that with them. We huddled together, and, in a way, I became part of their journey.
“I do feel personally attached to those people having been through that with them. It’s something like the bond of warfare that you read about. I would do anything for David. I would do anything for Maxim and his family.”
The real emotion apparent in these professions of kinship is surely one of the reasons why the documentarian is still, more than six months after his film’s debut, eager to talk about it. The people with whom he developed these strong bonds are still very much at risk.
The biggest horrors in “Welcome to Chechnya” are only glimpsed briefly in dark and blurry videos intercepted from the web by the network, or described in the stories of torment, humiliation and brutality told by the survivors, but they cast a dark enough shadow over the imagination to make us want to believe they are safely in the past.
Unfortunately, as France is quick to remind us, LGBTQ persecution in Chechnya is still very much “an ongoing humanitarian crisis.” Just last week, two refugees were kidnapped from the network by Russian authorities and returned to Chechnya, an incident that brought the situation there back into the headlines.
“These were two very young men, one of them twenty, and the other seventeen – not even a man,” relates France. “They had been abducted last summer in Chechnya and tortured, they barely got out alive. They were rescued and extracted by the network and were being held in a safe house while the work was being done with foreign partners to try and get them out. Now they are back in detention in Chechnya. It’s a very volatile situation.”
Yet it’s also a situation in which, perhaps ironically, he sees a hope that has been scarce for the past four years.
“The United States, in this new administration, has expressed great concern for those two kids and demanded information on their safety,” he points out. “The European Court for Human Rights has demanded access to them, and safe passage for them to get back to the safe house where they were being held.”
For him, it’s a call to action. “The Russian LGBT network is on the ground, still fighting this fight,” he says. “We can urgently throw our voices behind their efforts with regard to these two youngsters – we could save their lives. There are petitions, but that’s not enough. We know from watching these activists’ work that it’s essential, it’s extensive, and as you can imagine, it’s costly. They cannot raise money within Russia, so they’ve asked people who see the film to help them by donating.
There’s a donation page on the movie site. We’ve just watched almost $200,000 move through there, in the six months since the film came out, and that money goes to the Moscow Community Center, Olga’s group that runs the shelter system, to the Russian LGBT Network that does the extractions and runs the global hotline for the crisis – and it also goes to Maxim and his legal case, which is still percolating through, and showing great progress in, the European courts.
“So, I think there’s hope, but we have to act urgently. I think what’s shocked us all, in the last few years, is how easily we can lose ground. All this progress that we’ve made over the last thirty or forty years can be reversed in a heartbeat, and that’s what’s happened in Russia, and Russia has led the way in this dramatic reversal of queer progress, all across Europe. It’s going to take a lot of people coming together internationally to stop that, but it is possible.”
He’s a realist in his expectations, though. “We can’t hope for is regime change in Chechnya or in Russia. Those are not practical, immediate goals. But we can force Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya to stop this. He is a puppet of Putin’s. If we make it politically untenable for Putin not to intervene there, then he will lift up the telephone and say to Kadyrov, ‘Stop it.’ That’s all that it takes. It’s that simple. We haven’t gotten there because we haven’t had the kind of global leadership that can bring collective pressure on Putin to do that. I think we’re in a place where we can now.
“Even just watching the film is an important step. The Russian government has said repeatedly that this is not happening, that there’s no evidence, even – ridiculously – that there are no queer Chechens. They say that no one has come forward, but Maxim did that, officially, and they rejected his claims. The people protected by the digital technology we deployed in the film have also spelled out their stories, so they are witnesses. And we’re all witnesses, now.”
The passion creeps back into France’s voice as he recalls, “That was my promise to the people in the network, when I said I wanted to film with them, that I was going to help make this so that everybody in the world knows what’s happening.
“Anybody who sees the film becomes a witness, and it becomes an act of resistance just to talk about what you see in it.”
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