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Long live prophetic voice of James Baldwin

Black, gay author remembered as ‘conscience of America’

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James Baldwin, gay news, Washington Blade

James Baldwin (Photo by Allan Warren; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Back in the day, being on the cover of Time magazine was huge. Then, everyone from salesclerks to Wall Street traders read the newsweekly, and if your face, well known or not, peered out from it on newsstands or in mailboxes, everyone would know your name.

This was especially true when James Baldwin, the iconic novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, who wrote stirringly and eloquently on the civil rights movement, race and sexuality, made the cover of Time on May 13, 1963. Time made Baldwin a celebrity after the publication earlier that year of “The Fire Next Time,” his searing essays on race and civil rights. One of my most vivid youthful memories is that of my Dad pointing to Baldwin’s visage on Time and saying, “That man is our conscience! You’d have to be made of stone not to listen to him.”

I’m remembering this because Baldwin, who died in the South of France at age 63 in 1987, was born in Harlem 90 years ago this year. Yet, the legacy of Baldwin, black and openly gay years before Stonewall, and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, is fading in many classrooms, the New York Times reported recently. Fortunately, steps are being taken to commemorate and preserve Baldwin’s legacy.

From April 23-27, the New York Live Arts festival “James Baldwin, This Time” began a year-long celebration of Baldwin in venues from Harlem Stage to the Columbia University School of the Arts. In 2013, “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” two novels by Baldwin were reissued by Vintage. “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” by James Baldwin is just out from Beacon Press.

“James Baldwin served as the conscience of America during the civil rights movement,” Matthew Rothschild, senior editor of The Progressive, which published Baldwin’s famous “Letter to My Nephew in 1962,” emailed the Blade. “He wrote with tremendous power.”

Today, when same-sex couples can marry in 17 states and in D.C., out writers from poets to playwrights are a dime a dozen, and the United States has a black president, it’s hard to imagine how prescient and bold Baldwin was.

“When you were starting out as a writer, you were a black, impoverished, homosexual,” an interviewer said to Baldwin. “You must have said to yourself: ‘gee, how disadvantaged could I get?’”

“Oh, no, I thought I hit the jackpot!” Baldwin replied. “It was so outrageous you could not go any further. You had to figure out a way to use it.”

Baldwin “used it” spectacularly: to speak truth to power, spur on writers, to electrify his time and generations to come with his tender, precise, pointed, words, presence and spirit.  “Black, gay, beautiful, bejeweled, eyes like orbs, searching, dancing, calling a spade a spade … Baldwin was dangerous to anybody who had anything to hide,” Nikki Finney writes in the introduction to “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.”

He was “a man who had no … no concept of his place,” Finney continues, “who nurtured conversation with Black Panthers and the white literati on the same afternoon.”

Poets can be prophets, E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of Howard University’s African-American Resource Center, said in a telephone interview with the Blade. “Baldwin was a prophetic voice. He was in the middle between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – between the church and the blues,” Miller said. “He’s wrestling with how to talk about love and sex.”

The blues gives you a feeling of strength as well as of suffering, Miller said.

“The blues gives you a sense of resilience that enables you to confront what they throw at you,” Miller said. “Baldwin wouldn’t have anyone restricting who he wants to love.”

Why does Baldwin’s legacy matter? Because we still perpetuate and encounter homophobia and racism; and great writing still nourishes our hearts and minds. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin! Long live your prophetic voice!

Kathi Wolfe, a poet and writer, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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To comply or not to comply is not the question

Implementation of pro-LGBTQI+ rulings in Botswana and Namibia is unsatisfactory

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Over the past five years, the highest courts in Namibia and Botswana have made significant decisions in favor of minority groups’ human rights through favorable judgments and court orders. However, the implementation of these orders related to the rights of LGBTQI+ in Botswana and Namibia has not been satisfactory so far. 

In 2016, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) after they had been denied registration based on the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct. In 2017, the High Court of Botswana pronounced that denying a transgender man legal gender recognition undermines their dignity and humanity and ordered the Ministry of Home Affairs to change his identity documents from female to male. In 2021, the Court of Appeal in Botswana decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual conduct. In May 2023, the Supreme Court of Namibia ordered the government to recognize same-sex unions concluded outside Namibia, where same-sex marriages are legal in terms of the Immigration Act. While all these cases constitute landmark cases in securing and guaranteeing the rights of LGBTIQ persons, there is a growing trend of non-implementation when it comes to such judgements.

Government officials have partially or selectively implemented or completely disregarded the court decisions. In the LEGABIBO registration case, the Botswana Court of Appeal found that it is unconstitutional to deny registration under the assumption that LGBTQI+ are not recognized in the Bill of Rights and will offend the morality of the nation. The court found that LGBTQI+, like any other citizen or group of people in Botswana, have the right to freedom of association, expression and assembly, and issued an order for LEGABIBO to be registered, an order that was fulfilled promptly. However, seven years later, in March 2024, an LBQ group’s efforts to register are met with sentiments similar to those before the LEGABIBO jurisprudence. Senior public officials resisted the highest court decision to register this new group. Although their reasons are not stated as clearly as LEGABIBO rejection, government officials are still surreptitiously blocking the registration of LGBTQI+ organizations. 

Similarly, we have observed the selective application technique unfolding in legal gender recognition cases. In this case, the government officials have interpreted this as a single order that only applies to the applicants and not “all persons.” According to anecdotal evidence based on the experiences of individuals who sought legal gender recognition, they are instructed to acquire individualized court orders, a complete misinterpretation of the court’s instructions, burdening the courts to issue duplicate orders. This selective interpretation is a covert move by government officials to undermine judicial decisions and transfer the responsibility and burden of implementation to resource-constrained individuals, limiting access to justice. What is also curious is why the court system does not address repeat applications on the same issue. 

With the decriminalization court order, the attorney general acted in contempt of the judgment when he, instead of scrapping Sections 164 (a) and (c), blatantly ignored the court order and put a bill before parliament for debate. The highest court in Botswana had made a carefully considered decision to decriminalize, as indicated by a statement from SALC (Southern Africa Litigation Center) and by many contributors to this issue; there is no need to debate; the court has decided.

In Namibia’s case, compliance with the court order means recognizing foreign partners in same-sex marriages with their Namibian partners as spouses, thereby issuing them an immigration status that allows them to reside and work in Namibia. Despite the commitment by the Ministry of Home Affairs to comply, government Officials still refuse to respect the Supreme Court ruling, as indicated by Mr. Digashu’s experience: 

“In one of my many visits to the immigration offices, the officer informed me that the court order was only meant for the couples directly engaged in the court case, unaware that I was one of those couples. I got the impression that the immigration officials have adopted a dishonest tactic to deter other same-sex couples, letting them believe that the judgement does not protect them.”

One of the most significant contributors to non-compliance is the media. The media reports on the Supreme Court decision on the Digashu/Seiller-lilies matter ran with the sensational headline “Supreme Court gives legal status to same-sex marriages,” misinforming the public and fueling negativity. Misinformation affects not only the litigants and community members but also feeds the already hostile public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ persons. Members of parliament and religious communities put pressure on government officials. Unfortunately, parliament responded with a marriage bill that contradicted the judgment, Instead of clarifying what the ruling means and whom it affects. Public officials reflect legislators’ sentiments, disregarding principles of democracy, the rule of law, and justice for all, which are clearly stated in the constitution, and further undermining the independence of the judiciary. 

These are only a few of the many court orders that government officials have disregarded to the disadvantage and inconvenience of the minority who went to court to seek redress. For example, in the case of Mr. Daniel Digashu, he is given a visitor’s visa every time he leaves the country, which means he is forced to exit the country at its expiration date or face the wrath of the law. The cost of frequent travel and the personal emotional toll on himself and his family is insurmountable. Let alone constant dealings with questions, often followed by ridicule from immigration officials.

The question, therefore, is, what must happen to government officials who disregard court orders? 

The chief justice in Kenya offers a solution to this conundrum. Recently, the chief justice observed that senior government officials are guilty of defying court orders and suggested remedies such as impeachment of individual officers responsible. Botswana and Namibia must take a leaf out of that book.   

Of great concern is also that government officials are not transparent about the limitations of the court orders to enable the litigants and beneficiaries to seek clarification from the courts, nor are they open to engaging with civil society and affected communities to improve compliance. Are the court orders vague and, therefore, challenging to implement? Being transparent about implementation constraints will go a long way in guiding civil society on how they can support the government. Even in their resource-constrained status, CSOs must continue to monitor compliance and return to the courts for enforcement, including publicizing non-compliance in the media for public engagement. 

In conclusion, the rule of law requires that all court decisions be implemented promptly, thoroughly and effectively. The government has no choice whether to execute or not execute the court orders. 

The authors are consultants at the Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC). SALC promotes and advances human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa, primarily through strategic litigation and capacity-strengthening support to lawyers and grassroots organizations.

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Celebrating 15th anniversary of Harvey Milk Day

A powerful reminder that one person can make a difference

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The Harvey Milk Forever Stamp was unveiled at a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 22, 2014. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22, is officially a Day of Special Significance in California. Other states also honor Milk.

Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in U.S. history. In 1977, he was elected to a seat on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. His term began in January 1978 and ended in November when disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone at City Hall.

In his 1982 book “Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” Randy Shilts wrote a moving account of San Francisco’s 1978 memorial for Milk. A “massive crowd stretched the entire distance from City Hall to Castro Street, some 40,000 strong utterly silent,” Shilts wrote. The crowd “ostensibly memorialized both George Moscone and Harvey, but few speakers quarreled that the crowd had amassed chiefly to remember the gangly ward politician [Milk] who had once called himself the mayor of Castro Street.”

Shilts quoted Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, at the time acting mayor, telling the mourners that Milk “was a leader who represented your voices.” Another speaker said Milk “was to us what Dr. King was to his people. Harvey was a prophet [who] lived by a vision.” Equality was Milk’s vision.

Shilts presciently titled the last section in his book “The Legend Begins.” In 1979, after a jury gave assassin White a light seven-year sentence, LGBT rioters rocked San Francisco in what is called “The White Night Riots.” During the riots, Shilts wrote that “a lesbian university professor yelled into a feeble bullhorn: ‘Harvey Milk lives.’” Since 1978, Harvey Milk’s courageous leadership has been celebrated globally.

Over four years, 2006-2010, San Francisco reminded the country that Milk was a gay man worthy of great honors. The 2008 movie “Milk,” filmed partly in San Francisco, with Sean Penn as Milk, ignited greater public interest in the legendary gay activist. Gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Penn won Academy Awards in 2009.

The film led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign legislation making Milk’s birthday a Day of Special Significance. Also, President Barack Obama awarded Milk with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Milk’s 84th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in his honor.

California’s Harvey Milk Day recognizes Milk for his contributions to the state. It also encourages public schools to conduct “suitable commemorative exercises” to honor Milk.

“To me, [Milk] was a man who was a capitalist, and an entrepreneur who happened to be gay,” said Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado, the only Republican to vote for the bill to create Harvey Milk Day.

The newer scholarship about Milk provided additional insight into his activism. “An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings” edited by James Edward Black, Charles Morris, and Frank Robinson, published in 2013 by the Univ. of California Press, is an excellent example.

The book’s title is drawn from Milk’s 1978 speech called “The Hope Speech.” He spoke about people [gays, seniors, Black Americans, disabled, Latinos, Asians] “who’ve lost hope.” He proceeds to talk about inspiring hope in others who are struggling when the “pressures at home are too great.” It is a passionate speech, based largely on Milk’s conversations with people in the Castro. In a review of the book for The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, I wrote it is: “An important contribution to the corpus of work on Harvey Milk as a writer and orator.”

Milk believed that it was important for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to come out. If more people were aware of their LGBTQIA+ associates who were their friends, family, and loved ones, then discrimination would end. To Milk, coming out would lead to ensuring LGBTQIA+ civil rights.

In 2007, during Pride in San Francisco I worked at a nonprofit’s booth in Civic Center Plaza. A man stopped to talk. I mostly listened. He was a veterinarian from a small town in Arkansas. He was gay and closeted. He regularly visited San Francisco for Pride. Afterward, he regularly returned to his closeted life in Arkansas. I felt sorry for him. Though I was a stranger to him, he needed to come out to me. I was reminded of Milk’s wisdom about the freedom of coming out.    

Harvey Milk Day is for all people who need hope. Milk’s life is a lesson that one person can make a difference. A strong, united community inspired by Milk and others has changed and continues to change the world.  

Milk’s short political career led to long-term LGBTQIA+ political leadership from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C. to Miami to Seattle. To paraphrase a Woody Guthrie song: This LGBTQIA+ Land is Our Land. Happy Milk Day 2024!

James Patterson is a lifetime member of the American Foreign Service Association.

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BookMen DC: Still going strong at 25

Celebrating the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the area

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On May 11, 1999, what was originally known as the Potomac Gay Men’s Book Group convened for its first meeting. A lot has changed over the ensuing quarter-century, starting with our name. But our identity remains true to the description on our blog: “an informal group of men who are interested in gay literature (both fiction and non-fiction).”

Our founder, Bill Malone, worked at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and started the group using donations of remainder books from a wholesaler in New York. Soon after that, members decided to get their own books, and began purchasing them through Lambda Rising, which offered a discount for such orders until it closed in 2010. The group later renamed itself BoysnBooks, and then became BookMen DC in 2007, which is also when we started our blog

Following Bill’s tenure, Tom Wischer, Greg Farber and Tim Walton (who set up our blog) have served as our facilitators. I succeeded Tim in that role in 2009, and am grateful to him and all my predecessors for laying such a solid foundation for our group. 

Twenty-five years after our founding, we are the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the DMV. So far, we have discussed nearly 400 books, ranging from classics like Plato’s Symposium to graphic novels, gay history and memoirs, and novels by James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, E.M. Forster and Edmund White—to name just a few of the many authors and genres we’ve explored.

Currently, we have more than 120 names on our mailing list, of whom about a quarter attend meetings at least occasionally. (Average attendance at our meetings is about 10.) Our members variously consider themselves gay, queer, bisexual, or transgender, and those varying perspectives enhance our discussions. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, like many LGBTQ organizations, we are not nearly as diverse as I wish we were. Although we do have young members and people of color within our ranks, we are predominantly white and middle-aged or older. We have tried various forms of outreach to further diversify our membership, and will keep working on that.

How has BookMen DC not just survived, but thrived, when so many other book clubs and LGBTQ groups have foundered? I would identify several factors.

First and foremost, we are welcoming. We have no minimum attendance requirements and charge no dues. And we expressly encourage members to join us at meetings even if they haven’t finished the selection we’re discussing.

We are also collaborative. Each fall, members nominate titles for the next year’s reading list; I then compile those suggestions into a list for members to weigh in on, and the results of that vote determine what we will read. 

Finally, we are flexible and adaptable. Over the years, we have met in locations all over the District. Currently, we meet on the first Wednesday of each month at the Cleveland Park Library (3310 Connecticut Ave. NW) from 6:30-7:30 p.m. to discuss entire books; afterward, those interested go to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant.

When the pandemic struck four years ago, we took a break for a couple of months before moving operations online. (Thank God for Zoom!) Even after the venues where we’d been meeting reopened, we have continued to meet virtually on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7-8 p.m. During those Zoom sessions, we discuss sections of anthologies of poetry and short stories, as well as short standalone works (e.g.,  plays and novellas).

If you enjoy LGBTQ literature and would like to try us out, visit our blog: https://bookmendc.blogspot.com/ and click the link to email me. We’d love to meet you!

Steven Alan Honley, a semi-retired musician, editor, and writer, has been a member of BookMen DC since 2000 and its facilitator since 2009.

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