By Mark Levine
On Valentine’s Day 1999, the four founders of Marriage Equality California (two gay men, a lesbian and a straight guy) staged America’s first public “mass-marriage” protest for gay couples. We organized about three-dozen same-sex couples to line up at the Beverly Hills Courthouse and marched in, two by two, to have our purported marriages rejected by the city clerk’s office. At the time — only 13 years ago — the protest had an air of unreality. People questioned why gay men and lesbians would even want to get married. How far we have come.
In 2000, another California lawyer and I drafted California’s first civil unions bill, only the second one in the country after Vermont’s. We did something unprecedented: We gave California gay couples equal rights to straight couples, something that had not even been done in Vermont. This idea, less than marriage but the fullest equality allowable by law, was considered so radical at the time that even the premier nationwide and local gay rights organizations refused to support it. These organizations considered it politically impossible to even propose that gay people should have equal rights under the law and forced the pro-gay (but straight) legislator who introduced the bill to kill it and to substitute it for a bill that a gay rights organization had drafted in its stead, a bill that allowed hospital visitation and a few other protections for gay couples but less than 1 percent of the thousands of legal and civil rights that marriage provides to couples under California and federal law. How far we have come.
I was pleased that Vice President Biden mentioned “Will and Grace” as one of the societal changes that helped change his mind. In 1994, I joined with a few dozen other advocates in a march on Hollywood where we met with high-ranking studio executives and asked them why it was that gay and lesbian characters were always minor characters and stereotyped. We reminded them that the depiction of African Americans in situation comedies had led to a decline in racism and an understanding by white Americans that black families were not so different from white ones, with the same joys and sorrows, pleasures and pain that all humanity faces. We urged them to show that gay families were not so different from straight ones and noted that it could be done with humor and sensitivity. I remember the face of a pained studio executive who had no counter-argument. He knew we were right, but felt the “time was not right.” How far we have come.
Last year, Frank Kameny died. One of the founding fathers of gay rights in the United States, Kameny served bravely in World War II but was fired from the Army in 1957 for being gay. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which argued in 1961 —and still says today — that you can be fired just for being gay. That didn’t stop Kameny. He organized dignified protests in front of the White House. He worked to change laws that made it illegal for two men to have consensual sex. He worked to change the view of the American Psychiatric Association that claimed until 1973 that homosexuality was a disease. It is less than a decade ago that the United States Supreme Court finally held that a state cannot put adults in jail for private consensual oral sex, something the State of Georgia had found punishable (even between a husband and wife) with up to 20 years in prison. How far we have come.
Fifty years ago, Bayard Rustin, the inimitable organizer of the March on Washington, was almost prevented from speaking at the event he organized, by civil rights leaders who feared his sexual orientation would detract from the event. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. overruled the naysayers at a time when being gay was still considered a disease and a crime. Dr. King was way ahead of his time. How far we have come.
As brave as President Obama is for being the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality, his “evolution” on the issue must be understood in the context of America’s evolution. On perhaps no issue other than marriage equality has public opinion changed so dramatically in 15 years, from a quarter of the population to majority support. People under 30 today have difficulty understanding why anyone would deny equality under the law to two loving, committed individuals in an attempt to prevent them from their pursuit of happiness. Just as people under 60 today fail to understand why this country once banned the marriage of the president’s parents. How far we have come.
I’m proud to have played my small part in this evolution, from co-founding Marriage Equality California to helping draft the marriage equality legislation that just recently passed in the District of Columbia and defending it in court. I’m quite confident that state after state will follow suit until, 15 years from now, all 50 states allow gay and lesbian couples the equal protection under the law that the Constitution purportedly guarantees. We still have a lot of work to do. But on a day like today, when the president of the United States finally openly affirms that gay and lesbian Americans should have the same rights under the law that straight women and men enjoy, it seems OK, for just a day, to celebrate, sit back and reflect on how far we have come.
Mark Levine, a talk radio host in D.C., formerly served as Legislative Counsel for Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages
Iconic work explored sadness, rage, irony, and love of humanity
“The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” his mother wrote in a letter to Stephen Sondheim.
The only regret so many of us feel now is that Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist, died on Nov. 26 at his Roxbury, Conn. home at age 91.
He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017, and Walter Sondheim, a half-brother.
F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, told the New York Times that the cause of death was unknown, and that Sondheim had died suddenly. The day before he passed away, Sondheim celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, Pappas told the Times.
“Every day a little death,” Sondheim wrote in “A Little Night Music.”
This isn’t the case with the passing of Sondheim. Whether you’re a Broadway star or a tone-deaf aficionado like me, you’ll sorely miss Sondheim, who the Times aptly called “one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans.”
Like multitudes of his fans, I don’t remember a time in my life when a song from a Sondheim musical hasn’t been in my head.
When I was a child, my parents repeatedly played the cast album of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. My folks loved the story of the show, which was loosely based on the life of the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ethel Merman belt out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” When I need to jumpstart my creative juices, I remember that “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
In college, I felt that “Company,” the 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, spoke to my generation.
As was the case with Sondheim’s musicals, “Company” didn’t have a conventional plot, happy ending, or tidy resolution. It takes place during Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Bobby, who is single, is celebrating with his friends (straight, married couples). Bobby likes having friends but doesn’t want to get married.
Sondheim didn’t come out as gay until he was 40. Yet, even in the 1970s, it was hard not to think that Bobby in “Company” wasn’t gay.
Once you’ve heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” it becomes indelibly etched in your brain.
Who else but Sondheim could have written, “And here’s to the girls who play/smart-/Aren’t they a gas/Rushing to their classes in optical art,/Wishing it would pass/Another long exhausting day/Another thousand dollars/A matinee, a Pinter play/Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s/I’ll drink to that/And one for Mahler!”
In September, I, along with legions of other theater lovers, were thrilled when Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” that he was working with David Ives on a new musical called “Square One.”
In his musicals from “Follies” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim, through his lyrics and music, revealed the internal depths of his characters and the sadness, tenderness, bitterness, rage, irony, wit, and love of humanity. Sondheim’s wordplay was so brilliant that he did crossword puzzles for New York magazine.
Over his decades-long career, Sondheim won every award imaginable from the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2015). He received more than a dozen Tony Awards for his Broadway musicals and revivals as well as a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.
Thankfully, Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages.
A remake of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, premieres this month.
Sondheim is a character in the Netflix film “tick, tick BOOM!,” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie is based on an autobiographical posthumous Jonathan Larson (the composer of “Rent”) musical. Sondheim is supportive of Larson’s work.
Thank you Stephen, for your art! R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.
Publish trans employment stats
Not enough corporations that march in Pride are hiring non-binary staff
On Nov. 10, the top-tier consulting firm McKinsey published a report on discrimination toward trans people in the workplace. The report came out with numbers that we have all known true for a long time and lead to one conclusion: Trans people have a harder time finding jobs, holding them down, and advancing in their careers.
Specifically, McKinsey cited the fact that cisgender people are twice as likely to be employed as trans people, and that more than half of trans employees are uncomfortable being out at work. Meanwhile, cisgender employees make 32% more than trans employees in the workplace, even if those trans employees hold the same positions or higher positions.
On top of this, trans people are 2.4 times more likely to be working in the food and retail industries, which pay entry level wages that are much less than decent pay.
These statistics are true based on a number of factors. For one, many trans people have a harder time passing at work, and people who don’t pass well face worse job prospects. (As a side note, on top of that, the study pointed to the fact that many trans people exert undue emotional and psychological energy into trying to pass really well and not be discriminated against, which takes a toll on their mental health.)
So what is a concrete step that corporations can take to make the trans experience in the workplace better? It’s time that corporations step up their game by publishing and making transparent the number of trans employees that they actually hire. Such numbers can be published in any kind of company document: a pamphlet, online report, or even annual shareholder’s report. As it is, most corporations do not publish numbers on LGBT employees.
“Rainbow capitalism” is a term we know all too well: major corporations and multinationals flaunting a rainbow and trans pride flag during the month of June, but seemingly doing little to hire more trans people or give back to the community during other months.
Every corporation surely has the time and company-wide infrastructure to get statistics on their trans employees. All they need to do is implement a company-wide survey to new hires. This takes extremely little effort and time in the grand scheme of company workings.
If major corporations like McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte, defense contractors, and hundreds of other huge companies published statistics on trans employees, they would be held accountable for their actions and words.
If these statistics were to be published today, we would probably find out that not enough corporations that march in Pride parades are hiring trans and gender nonconforming employees.
Turning the numbers against corporations will ensure that these same corporations finally live up to their words about workplace inclusion and diversity. It won’t cure everything about the issue of being trans in the workplace, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Isaac Amend (he/him/his) is a trans man and young professional in the D.C. area. He was featured on National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ in 2017 as a student at Yale University. Isaac is also on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Find him on Instagram @isaacamend.
Should we be scared of Omicron?
A reminder to stay vigilant against latest mutation
It’s Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend when I sit down to write this column. The craziness in the world continues but other than the scare of the new COVID mutation, which has been named Omicron, there isn’t one headline to grab attention. Instead, there are many, including some manufactured by the news media to gain viewers or sell papers. Some like the car rampaging through the Christmas parade is frightening but incidents like this seem to be happening all too often.
The stock market went down 1,000 points on Friday because market players freaked out about the new COVID mutation coming out of South Africa. However that didn’t seem to stop people from spending their money on Black Friday. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) was again on the attack this time against fellow Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) accusing her of being a Muslim terrorist. She apologized, or pretended to, but again the Republican leadership wouldn’t condemn her statements. These things seemed to be grist for the news media with no one else unfortunately really voicing concern.
Boebert’s comments were taken as old hat. They are disgusting, offensive, and dangerous, but as long as her constituents reelect her we will have to live with them. She is joined by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), and Paul Gosar (R-Wyo.) who represent the worst in Congress and the worst of the American people. Yet again until their constituents throw them out we have to live with their stupidity and the absurdity of their being where they are.
The new COVID mutation out of South Africa is potentially a game changer. But it will be important for scientists to look at this carefully to determine how quickly it spreads and whether or not the current vaccines will offer any protection against it. Countries around the world, including the United States, have quickly instituted travel bans for South Africans and those in countries surrounding it. The World Health Organization at this time has suggested this should not be done as it will have limited impact on its spreading and could have severe and detrimental economic impact on countries whose people are being banned. One thing we must learn from this is how important it is to ensure everyone all over the world has access to vaccines as we know the more people who are inoculated the harder it is for the virus to mutate. It is not time to panic yet and by Sunday there was some reporting this new mutation may not be any more difficult to deal with than the current ones and not lead to any more severe illness. The takeaway from all this is we need to keep vigilant, get vaccinated and get booster shots, and make sure we vaccinate our children. Continue to wear masks indoors and wash our hands.
Now the other interesting stories last weekend were about what will happen in the Senate in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays. Remember the House of Representatives passed President Biden’s Build Back Better bill as a reconciliation measure, which means it can pass the Senate with a simple majority. That would mean every Democratic senator and the vice president. The focus is on two senators: Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sinema (D-Ariz.). In reality we need to look at a number of others who will fight to either take out or put something into the bill the House passed. It is clear it will not pass in the current form and then it has to go back to the House again.
Another issue that will be taken up is the debt ceiling. It may be a little easier than thought because as recently reported, “After taking a hard line and refusing to negotiate with Democrats during the last standoff over the debt limit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is quietly looking for a way to get the issue resolved without another high-profile battle.” Then there is the budget and since none is passed Congress will have to pass another continuing resolution since the one they passed in September expires on Dec. 3.
So for the next few weeks there will be a focus on the Senate to see what they do and how obstructionist Republicans want to be. Seems while things change, they somehow remain the same.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.
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