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Death of a liberal icon

Mario Cuomo’s values and message resonate today

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Mario Cuomo, gay news, Washington Blade

It would be very difficult today in most districts across the nation for a politician to stand on the progressive platform that Mario Cuomo enunciated and win. (Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Mario Cuomo will be remembered as the liberal lion of the ‘80s and ‘90s. His speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, “A Tale of Two Cities,” cemented that legacy. He fought for the common man. Interestingly he came to prominence in New York fighting for people in Queens and in his losing race to Ed Koch for mayor in 1977 was seen by many as the more conservative candidate.

I first met Cuomo and his then teenage son Andrew during that campaign. In my only mention on the front page, above-the-fold in the New York Times, a Sept. 17, 1977 column by Fred Ferretti said, “It was learned that Ms. Abzug’s campaign staff had moved virtually en masse to the Cuomo headquarters on Times Square. Those who moved included Peter Rosenstein, Mrs. Abzug’s Deputy Campaign Manager, now Cuomo’s director of field operations … and other members of the Abzug inner circle Maggie Peyton, Harold Holzer and Kenneth Sunshine.” That happened immediately after Bella lost her primary race for mayor and the run-off was between Cuomo and Koch. It happened before Bella officially endorsed Cuomo and she wasn’t happy.

Then came the dance when she did endorse over who would get to the press conference first, Bella or Mario. The endorsement nearly fell apart over that. Those of us moving to the Cuomo team were to work in two losing elections in quick succession. That was the last time my name ever got mentioned above that of my good friend Harold Holzer, the distinguished Lincoln scholar, who was to become a confidant of Cuomo, or Kenneth Sunshine who was to form a world-renowned public relations firm and is still a confidant of politicians, including current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo ran and lost in 1974 for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Howard Samuels. When he lost the mayor’s race, his mother Immaculata Cuomo was widely reported as saying “Mario don’t you ever win nothin?” But he did go on to win and served three terms as governor of New York and twice was the leading Democrat being asked to run for president. Each time he decided at the last minute not to run, which earned him the title “Hamlet on the Hudson.” Cuomo is known for the saying “Politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose” — something New York’s current mayor is now learning.

Two things remembered from that 1977 campaign are that Cuomo’s stand against the death penalty hurt him and those placards that appeared in the conservative areas of the city saying: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” in reference to rumors about Koch’s sexuality. Cuomo denied responsibility for them but it was always apparent someone associated with the campaign was responsible.

Cuomo himself moved beyond that and with changing circumstances it was his stand against the death penalty that helped him beat Koch for governor in 1982. His son Andrew is now the governor and it was with his strong support that marriage equality became law in New York State. In politics, nothing stays the same and people change.

It would be very difficult today in most districts across the nation for a politician to stand on the progressive platform that Mario Cuomo enunciated and win. I was reminded in a Facebook post from my friend Joel Lawson of a great quote from a speech Cuomo gave in 1984 at the University of Notre Dame titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” in which he said, “I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant, or non-believer, or as anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us. This freedom is the fundamental strength of our unique experiment in government.

“The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.”

It seems the era in which one could say those things and win is past. Today we have politicians who campaign on having their religious beliefs enshrined in law and who quote the Bible when trying to stop marriage equality. There is a culture of conveniently forgetting how our Founding Fathers fought to ensure the separation of church and state. I would like to think that sooner rather than later our nation will one day advance to a state in which a Mario Cuomo could be elected president.

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Why are gays so terrible at intergenerational friendships?

D.C. should create buddy program for elders

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Let me just start with a question. How many friends outside of your generation do you have? I mean honest-to-god friends. In my friend group, as large and fungible as that can be in the District and in the age of social media, it’s sort of me and a few other Gen Xers, and then just loads of Millennials. They do look to me to pass down some knowledge, but it’s mainly to do with the ins and outs of mortgages and things like that. 

But is it me? Or are gays just really, really terrible at having intergenerational friends? It’s striking. I’ve recently developed a friendship with — let’s call him — Bill. He’s almost 80. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I just love the stories. But more on that later. For now, to ask another question, just why are gays bad at having friends removed from their respective generations? 

On social media this week I posted an obituary from a Houston paper dating from 1978. It was obviously from a gay man. You can tell from the coded language, “long time resident of this city despite stays on the West Coast.” And if that didn’t give it away, it ended with this rather heartbreaking language, “his parents requested that his friends not attend the memorial services!” Bill told me these sorts of obituaries — terribly vague but also cruelly pointed — were quite common in the dark days of AIDS. And this is succinctly why I think gays are so bad at having intergenerational friends, we’ve simply lost an entire generation of elders. And what was exactly lost with that generation is far more than can be enumerated in this column. 

Back to Bill’s stories for a second. There is a real value in oral histories, the telling and passing down of shared experiences make our culture certainly more valuable and rich, at the very least far more interesting. And again, this is nothing new, as cultures across the globe seek to capture personal stories and first-hand viewpoints of history unfolding. But it’s not just the story itself that’s important. It’s also the perspective and opinions. These remain nuanced between generations. Again, that’s really not saying anything new. But these varied opinions and outlooks, if not shared and debated risk isolating gay men into rigid and unchanging views crafted in echo chambers. 

Also, gays place a large premium on youth. And this, again, is nothing new, nor particularly gay. We just like what we like. But as Bill told me, he’s rather annoyed that any interest he expresses in a younger man is automatically filed under lecherous behavior. Let me just deal with this right here: We all, no matter the age, display to varying degrees lecherous behavior. Just get us a little dehydrated, a little tipsy, and throw us on the sand of Poodle Beach and watch the unwanted flirting unfold. So. But still we have to do better than mistaking anyone displaying interested in us as a simple sexual advance. That seems rather juvenile.  

With contact between our generations low, we are in danger of passing down a culture to future queer Americans that might seem a little lopsided and even a bit, well, shallow. But what’s to be done? I’ve commented in past columns on how we’re failing older LGBTQ Americans, especially in the District. To remedy this, we should use what I call the Chicago model and what is being done at the Center on Halsted, the city’s LGBTQ community center. The Center offers numerous programs geared to the city’s LGBTQ senior population. But one that sticks out is a sort of a buddy program, pairing seniors, even those in care facilities, with younger friends. This would certainly help us here in the District better care for our LGBTQ seniors, and would also of course help with the bridging of our considerable generational divide. So perhaps we could reproduce this here in the District. 

For now, I’ll continue to buddy up and enjoy my time with Bill. 

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Texas synagogue attack a reminder to fight anti-Semitism

Supporting Jewish community after latest tragedy

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Congregation Beth Israel (Screen capture via ABC News YouTube)

It was an all-too-familiar moment. A relaxed Saturday afternoon. Until an alert flashed on my screen. A gunman had taken hostages at a synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, in Colleyville, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He’d gone into the synagogue during Sabbath services.

It was an hours-long ordeal for the rabbi and three members of the congregation who were held hostage. The police intervened. The hostages emerged safely after 11 hours. The gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, died.

Like so many hearing this news, I was horrified, saddened, frightened, and shocked, but not surprised.

The hostage-taking at the Texas synagogue is part of a pattern of rising anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League has tracked a rise in anti-Semitism in the United States in recent years – from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where marchers threw Nazi salutes to the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting that killed 11 people in Pittsburgh.

I don’t want to draw a false equivalency. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia aren’t the same as anti-Semitism. But there are parallels. As I heard about the terrifying attack on the Texas synagogue, I remembered how frightened, enraged and sad we felt in 2016 when 49 LGBTQ people were killed in the Pulse nightclub massacre and how traumatized our community was by this attack.

As I write, much remains unknown about the hostage attack on the Colleyville synagogue. Authorities in the United Kingdom and the FBI are still investigating the situation.

Akram, the attacker at the Texas synagogue, came from Blackburn, England. In 2020, MI5 the U.K.’s counterintelligence and security agency, had investigated Akram, the BBC reported. The agency kept him on a watch list as a “subject of interest,” but determined that he wasn’t a “threat.” The FBI is investigating the hostage-taking at the synagogue as terrorism, the Washington Post reported. The authorities don’t know how Akram was allowed to get to Dallas or to buy a gun.

During the attack, Akram referred to Aafia Siddiqui, an American-educated woman known as “Lady al-Qaeda” and convicted of terrorism. Siddiqui is in a federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill U.S. soldiers, the Post reported.

Akram’s brother, Gulbar Akram, told media outlets and authorities that Akram had a mental illness.

Though the attacker’s motive still isn’t known, it’s clear that the Texas synagogue wasn’t randomly targeted, experts say. “It wasn’t a government office. It wasn’t another house of worship by a different faith community,” Holly Huffnagle, the American Jewish Committee’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, told NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “It was targeting Jews.”

Why should the LGBTQ community care about the attack on the Texas synagogue and the rise of anti-Semitism?

First, of course, because of the Jews in our community.

Those of us who are Jewish and LGBTQ know the double-whammy of encountering anti-Semitism along with homophobia, biphobia and/or transphobia. We run up against this prejudice in everything from slurs to stereotypes to violence.

Those of us who aren’t Jewish don’t know what anti-Semitism is like, though we may have Jewish family members or spouses who have experienced anti-Semitism. But because we’re LGBTQ, we have run into bigotry. We’ve been called names, discriminated against and wounded and killed by anti-queer violence.

Anti-Semitism and anti-queer bigotry aren’t identical, but I’d wager that many who are anti-Semitic are anti-queer.

“Then they came for the Jews,” wrote Martin Niemoller, a Christian pastor who resisted the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany in a poem, “And I did not speak out/Because I was not a Jew/Then they came for me/And there was no one left/To speak out for me.”

Our community needs to look within itself. We should work to expunge any anti-Semitism in our midst. 

Anti-Semitism has been a scourge for centuries. Combating it isn’t easy. But, let’s do all we can to support the Jewish community and to fight anti-Semitism.

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

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Biden’s empty political theater on LGBTQ equality

President is a nice man who lacks the passion to fight

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Joe Biden, gay news, Washington Blade
President Joe Biden (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Shortly before Joe Biden was inaugurated, LGBTQ Nation leaked a conference call between mainstream LGBTQ advocates and the president-elect in which he backed off repeated, forcible campaign promises to make passage of the Equality Act a top priority during his administration’s first 100 days.

I wrote an article criticizing him for reneging on his pledge. The Los Angeles Blade picked up my piece as an op-ed, and it went viral. I got a tremendous amount of feedback, much of it negative, more of it counseling patience, but now that a year has passed, let’s take a look at how things worked out.

In the first days of his presidency, Biden did vital work with pro-LGBTQ executive orders — redirecting the federal bureaucracy, which had become overtly homo/transphobic under Trump, and working to fix transgender military policy — but he never pushed for the Equality Act, which would have finally offered LGBTQ people status as free people in our own nation, protected by law from discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, credit, education, etc.

Without the Act, his executive orders won’t be worth the paper they’re written on when the next Republican president takes office.

Not only did President Biden fail to spend political capital to make the Act a top priority in his first 100 days, he never made it a priority of any kind.

Beltway insiders tell me the president did nothing behind the scenes to honor the pledge he made repeatedly to LGBTQ people in exchange for our votes. He did nothing publicly either. No national speeches. No fireside chats. No appeals to the better angels of the American people. He just stopped talking about the Equality Act, like if he never mentioned it again, we’d forget he promised to prioritize it.

The House passed the Act again this year, but it stalled in the face of Senate filibuster rules, which require 60 out of 100 votes for most legislation to pass. Progressive Democrats have been calling for ending or changing the filibuster since the day Biden took office, but not until last week did he announce support for changes, which brings us to the second half of today’s grievance.

In recent days, pressure has been intensifying on President Biden to lead on passing meaningful protections to counter strict new state laws that Republicans have been enacting to make voting more difficult, especially for Black voters.

Two federal laws proposed by Democrats, — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — would protect voter rights by (among other things) creating national standards for mail-in voting and restoring stripped-out elements of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans know the only way they can stay in power in many states is to suppress votes, especially the votes of Black people and other people of color. Republican senators fiercely oppose voter protection and will filibuster.

President Biden traveled to Atlanta last week to make a speech about supporting voter protection. Finally, after nearly a year in office, he indicated he might support changing the filibuster custom. The nation yawned. Black voters blinked. LGBTQ voters sighed in dismay.

A number of influential Black political activists in Georgia snubbed Biden’s speech, saying in advance they would not bother attending an event they called a “waste of time.” Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams was notably absent, which she and Biden both claimed was due to a scheduling conflict, but Georgia political insiders say she was sending the president a powerful message: Get serious. Take action. Stop with meaningless political theater, especially on my turf, where I’ve been doing the kind of real work you won’t do.

Obviously, the 50/50 Dem/Rep split in the Senate is not the president’s fault. Nor is he responsible for the recalcitrance of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. They have each refused to consider filibuster reform, and without their votes it can’t happen.

But does Biden even want filibuster change?

He has consistently served up weak tea on the issue, calling himself an “institutionalist” and an “incrementalist,” which Democratic leaders have taken to mean he either doesn’t support overhauling Senate rules, or that he won’t get tough on Democratic senators who vote against overhauls.

If Biden has tried even half-heartedly to strong-arm Manchin and Sinema, he has not done so in public. Beltway insiders say he hasn’t done anything, just like he hasn’t prioritized the Equality Act.

Meanwhile, while the Democratic Party led by Joe Biden waffles and drifts, the Republicans maintain tight party discipline and look set to take the House back this year. They will continue to push agendas cementing themselves in power, putting democracy itself in grave danger, and making life for minorities increasingly unequal, painful, and difficult.

We don’t care about your institutions, Joe. We don’t value Senate customs and traditions, which mean nothing to us beyond what they can or can’t accomplish. We care about action. We demand results. You promised to deliver, and you’re failing us. Now you choose to go to Atlanta and say some pretty words? Nobody wants pretty words, Joe. You can keep them.

Look, we know your heart is in the right place, but we want your muscle to be in the right place. We want you to take charge, to LEAD, to exercise some of the awesome power of your office.

We expect you to play to win, to twist arms, to name and shame, to do whatever it takes to keep the promises you made to us when you needed our votes.

You need to get serious, Mr. President. If you don’t start kicking ass and taking names, don’t count on us to vote for you again. I mean that. There’s a REASON you’re dropping precipitously in the polls. It’s us, man. It’s Democratic members of minorities fed up with your milquetoast, do-nothing, business-as-usual approach to crises we see as EXISTENTIAL. While Republican rank-and-file are telling pollsters they believe armed violence against the government may be desirable, and while they’re demonizing Black people, immigrants, and queer people, you’re acting like everything is relatively fine.

It’s not.

We voted for a champion, but we got you instead, a very nice man who evidently lacks the gonads to fight for us. Please turn that around. Please get real. Please get tough. Please start fighting to win.

Today would be an excellent day to start keeping your promises.

James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and a frequent columnist for the Blade. Reach him at [email protected].

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