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Amid change, LGBT Cubans face lingering challenges

Independent advocates slam Mariela Castro as a ‘fraud’



Mi Cayito, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade
Mi Cayito, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Hundreds attended a state-sponsored party on May 17 at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of the Cuban capital, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — The sun had already set over the Florida Straits on May 13 by the time Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay journalist and advocate, and Miguel Angel Plasencia Rodríguez arrived at a section of Havana’s Malecón, an oceanfront promenade, near the iconic Hotel Nacional that is a popular late-night gathering place for LGBT Cubans.

Musicians were playing conga drums and guitars along the oceanfront promenade as couples danced salsa and street venders sold candy, soft drinks and flowers. Rodríguez was wearing a rainbow Pride bracelet as he wrapped his arm around Plasencia’s and held his hand.

“To sit on the Malecón as a couple like any other is one of those daily acts of love in Cuba that may not have been so easy five or 10 years ago for gay people,” Rodríguez told the Washington Blade. “It’s not that it was specifically prohibited, but the looks of disapproval and perhaps even some unfounded police action most likely would have been brought against us for this ‘exhibitionism.’”

LGBT Cubans over the last decade have become increasingly visible as efforts to extend rights to them have gained traction.

Transgender people have been able to obtain free sex-reassignment surgery under Cuba’s national health care system since 2008. Adela Hernández in 2012 became the first openly trans person to hold public office on the island when she became a member of the Caibarién Municipal Council.

The country’s lawmakers in late 2013 approved a proposal that banned anti-gay discrimination in the workplace. Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the National Center for Sexual Education, which is part of the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, has publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington last month accepted Mariela Castro’s formal invitation to travel to Cuba in July and perform with a gay chorus in Havana.

These positions and overtures stand in stark contrast to the treatment of LGBT people in the years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Then-President Fidel Castro in the 1960s sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or the Spanish acronym UMAP. Cuba repealed its sodomy law in 1979, but trans people continued to face persecution.

Hernández spent two years in prison in the 1980s for what the Associated Press described as “dangerousness” because of her gender identity. The Cuban government forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Fidel Castro during a 2010 interview with a Mexican newspaper described the persecution of gay Cubans that included sending them to work camps in the years following the revolution as a “great injustice.”

Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates and their supporters in the U.S. and elsewhere insist the government continues to persecute those who criticize it through arbitrary detentions, the enforcement of public assembly laws and social isolation. The normalization of relations between Washington and Havana that President Obama announced late last year has done little to temper these criticisms inside Cuba and abroad.


Part of a ‘marvelous island’

Mariela Castro Espín, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade, International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IDAHAT

Mariela Castro has championed a number of LGBT initiatives in Cuba over the last decade, but has been criticized by some for not doing more. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mariela Castro has publicly championed a number of LGBT-specific initiatives in the Communist country over the last decade through the National Center for Sexual Education, which is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX. One source with whom the Blade spoke in Cuba said she is expanding upon the work that her late mother, Vilma Espín, began on behalf of LGBT Cubans when she was president of the Cuban Federation of Women.

CENESEX over the last eight years has organized a series of events in Havana and across the country to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Pastors from the U.S. and Canada on May 9 blessed the relationships of 20 Cuban same-sex couples in Havana during a series of events marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Singer Thelma Houston also performed.

Mariela Castro a week later led a march through Las Tunas, a provincial capital about 410 miles southeast of Havana, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

She ran under a large rainbow flag after stepping out of a gray van and joined her supporters who had gathered on Las Tunas’ main street before they and hundreds of others marched to the center of the city. Two CENESEX-affiliated advocates placed a wreath of flowers and palm fronds from the organization under a statue of Vicente García, a leading figure in the 10 Years’ War from 1868-1878 during which Cubans fought for Independence from Spain, that noted its events commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Mariela Castro paid homage to García in a brief ceremony before speaking to her supporters. A handful of journalists and photographers from Cuba and the U.S. were also present.

“We are working for the social participation of everyone,” said Mariela Castro during her speech.

Mariela Castro did not speak to journalists after her remarks, but she greeted supporters at a community fair that featured CENESEX-affiliated LGBT and HIV/AIDS advocacy groups from Las Tunas and Havana. Dozens of dancers, musicians and other performers took to the stage at Las Tunas’ main theater before a CENESEX party with drag queens and dancers took place at Cabaret Taíno, a local nightclub.

Restaurants and other businesses in Las Tunas hung signs supporting the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. These included a CENESEX poster in a local food stall that read “homosexuality is not a danger” and a picture inside a nearby home that depicted gay and lesbian families.

More than half a dozen gay men and a drag queen who took a horse-drawn cart from Cabaret Taíno around 3:15 a.m. on May 17 — the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — did little to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity to the two drivers and passersby. They were among the hundreds of people who drank beers and rum at an after-party that was taking place at a bar on the outskirts of Las Tunas.

“We are part of the marvelous island of Cuba,” said Morgot, a drag queen who performed at Cabaret Taíno during the CENESEX party.

Mercedes García, a Havana resident who is a member of the CENESEX-affiliated Humanity for Diversity Network, told the Blade after the Las Tunas march she feels the events around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia provide “open spaces where we can share among ourselves independent of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

“It is more important to see the support for the large community…from the government,” said García.

Gala, a Havana-based drag queen and HIV/AIDS educator who performs at Humboldt 52, a gay bar near the Hotel Nacional, was quick to applaud Mariela Castro and CENESEX during a May 13 interview with the Blade. She performed earlier in the evening before highlighting a campaign to fight HIV among men who have sex with men that featured colorful balloon animals engaging in sexual activity.

Gala also traveled to Las Tunas to take part in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations.

“We are seeing advances thanks to Mariela Castro and CENESEX,” Gala told the Blade. “They give us a chance.”

Rodríguez and other supporters of CENESEX and Mariela Castro concede that homophobia, transphobia and anti-LGBT discrimination remain problems on the island.

Frank Padrón, a prominent gay theater critic who has a weekly show on Cuban television, told the Blade during an impromptu interview on a street near the Riviera Movie Theater in Havana’s sprawling Vedado neighborhood on May 13 that police continue to harass trans people and cross-dressers who they suspect are sex workers. He said that CENESEX and “individual activists have worked to change this.”

“We are not yet a society that is free from homophobia,” said Padrón. “We are not satisfied.”

Mariela Castro and her supporters who marched with her in Las Tunas sought to frame the expansion of LGBT rights on the island as a continuation of the revolution that toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power nearly six decades ago.

Marchers chanted “yes to Socialism, no to homophobia” as they worked their way through the provincial capital. A large banner containing a picture of Fidel Castro against the backdrop of the Cuban flag with a slogan reading “We will defend this flag, this sky and this land at any cost” provided a backdrop for Mariela Castro’s speech.

International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IDAHAT, Cuba, Las Tunas, gay news, Washington Blade

Participants in events to commemorate the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, carry a large rainbow flag through the streets of the provincial capital. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mariela Castro is ‘a fraud’

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade, Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, stands outside his home in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on May 15, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cuban advocates who work independently of CENESEX have a vastly different opinion of Mariela Castro, her father’s government and the state of LGBT rights on the Communist island.

Nearly 20 LGBT advocates and independent journalists spoke with the Blade at the home of Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights in the city of Cienfuegos on May 15.

A poster reading, “Mariela Castro is a fraud” with the acronym CENESEX crossed out in a rainbow-colored circle hung prominently next to the entrance of Gandulla’s home as the advocates spoke. A gay flag was flying outside in the front yard that overlooks one of Cienfuegos’ main streets.

Gandulla told the Blade that more than a dozen independent LGBT rights advocates from across the country are members of his organization that he founded last year. He said his group’s primary mission is to “defend the rights of the LGBTI community in Cuba” and to speak out against anti-LGBT discrimination.

“We come together in this sense as the entire LGBTI community in Cuba, regardless of ideology, regardless of belief, regardless of who you are,” said Gandulla.

Gandulla told the Blade that Mariela Castro declined to take part in a June march in Havana to commemorate Pride month.

He also questioned the effectiveness of her efforts to build support for marriage rights for same-sex couples. Maykel González Vivero, a gay blogger who is a member of Proyecto Arcoiris, another independent LGBT advocacy organization, told the Blade during an interview at his apartment in the city of Sagua la Grande on May 17 that Mariela Castro previously said that Cuba is “not ready for marriage.”

“She did this as though she was speaking on behalf of the LGBTI community,” said González. “Clearly, as is frequently the case in Cuba, she speaks on behalf of everyone and does not consult with anyone.”

Tanía García Hernández of the LGBTI Help Line, which is based in the province of Villa Clara, told the Blade as she attended the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights meeting in Cienfuegos with her son Leandro that CENESEX only “answers to the government.”

“It is one more office of the government,” said García. “It corresponds with the objectives of the government and she (Mariela Castro) is there.”

Many of the independent LGBT rights advocates with whom the Blade spoke insisted that fewer than 30 trans Cubans have been able to receive sex-reassignment surgery. Navid Fernández Cabrera, president of Proyecto Shui Tuix, an independent LGBT advocacy group named for one of the gay parties he organized in the Cuban capital in 2008, told the Blade during a May 14 interview in his one-bedroom apartment in Havana’s 10 de Octubre neighborhood that CENESEX subjects potential candidates to a lengthy screening process that includes meeting psychologists and other health care professionals.

“It’s not a lot,” said Fernández.

Fernández and five advocates who are affiliated with his organization spoke with the Blade for nearly two hours about Mariela Castro, CENESEX and the harassment and discrimination they said they have experienced.

Leosbel Heredia Azafares, a cross-dressing sex worker who goes by the nickname Doris la Exploradora (Doris the Explorer in English) when he works in Havana’s Carlos III area that trans prostitutes frequent, told the Blade that Cuban police officers routinely harass him and others known as jineteros or jineteras in Cuban Spanish by taking their money and forcing them to have sex with them. Hand-painted red signs along the National Highway in the city of Camagüey read “no prostitution” and “no illegal activities” without providing any specifics.

“Trans life is not recognized on the part of the police,” said Heredia, who presented himself as a man while at Fernández’s apartment.

Fidel Malvarais Pelegrino, 24, who represents Proyecto Shui Tuix in the city of Santiago de Cuba, said authorities detained him last June for seven days because he was in Havana without permission from the government. Marino López Borell, 28, who lives in the San Miguel del Padrón area of Havana, told the Blade the police stopped him and his Cuban American partner who lives in Florida last year while they were along a dark portion of the Malecón.

“The police officer only wanted money and wanted sex,” said López.

“CENESEX does not care about these stories,” added Fernández.

Juana Mora Cedeño, a member of Proyecto Arcoiris who met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress in February at the home of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, told the Blade during an interview at a colleague’s home in Vedado that there are few “spaces” for LGBT Cubans to gather freely.

Juana Mora Cedeño, Havana, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Juana Mora Cedeño, a member of Proyecto Arcoiris, met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in Havana. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

LGBT-specific events take place at bars and clubs throughout Havana, but Mora said the government operates many of them.

Hundreds of people on May 17 attended a state-sponsored party at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of the Cuban capital, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. A small, tattered gay flag was flying over the beach when the Blade visited it the following day, but Mora and other independent LGBT advocates said police have previously conducted raids there.

A police officer was sitting under a thatched umbrella on May 18, casually talking to men who rent chairs to beachgoers and bring them food and drinks from a restaurant adjacent to Mi Cayito’s parking lot.

A picture that González posted to his blog on the same day shows two Cuban police officers at an LGBT rights march in the city of Santa Clara that he said were “apparently” there to “provide security.” Fernández and other independent advocates told the Blade that authorities have also sought to intimidate those who attend their events that are not authorized by the government.

“We are not included in any governmental organization or any party,” said Gandulla. “What happens is that none of the official people, like Mariela Castro, want to work with us.”

González said he has faced harassment at the state-run radio station in Sagua la Grande where he works because of his public criticism over the omission of statistics from the 2012 Cuban Census that noted the number of same-sex couples who live together in the country. He told the Blade that CENESEX did not invite him and other independent advocates to a 2014 conference in the beach resort of Varadero that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across the Americas and the Caribbean.

González and other independent advocates have also questioned how the government will enforce the law that bans anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.

“There is a risk of quickly falling into a sort of social isolation zone,” González told the Blade. “People quickly assume that you are a dangerous person because you are someone who asks questions.”

Gandulla said that members of his group are “very afraid” of the Cuban government. He added it is “very dangerous” for them to criticize Mariela Castro or any other member of her father’s government during interviews with foreign journalists.

“It is only dangerous for us to meet with you because we don’t agree (with the government),” said García.

Neither Mariela Castro, nor CENESEX responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the criticisms that García, Gandulla, González, Fernández and other independent advocates made against them. Manuel Vázquez Seijido, a lawyer who is a senior CENESEX staffer, last month during a speech at a global LGBT rights conference at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, N.J., dismissed those who publicly oppose his organization and the Castro government.

“Their goal is to simply criticize institutions like CENESEX and, of course, the Cuban government,” said Vázquez in response to a Blade question on the issue.

Rodríguez in an email to the Blade on Tuesday acknowledged there are independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates who are “honest people” who “want to advance their own projects without the tensions that working within the political commitment to the framework of a state institution entails.” He nevertheless described the activists who continue to criticize CENESEX and Mariela Castro as “not truly independent.”

“They only follow the instructions in a disciplined manner from the centers of power in the United States and other countries that don’t accept the possibility of an alternative policy to capitalism,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “They finance whatever force or individual that makes it easier for them to achieve their goals of destabilizing the country.”

Rodríguez did not provide any additional comment on the specific groups in the U.S. and elsewhere that he believes provide funding to the Cuban LGBT advocates who criticize the government. His assertion is a common one among Mariela Castro’s supporters when asked about Cuban LGBT rights advocates who publicly criticize her and CENESEX.

Herb Sosa, a first-generation Cuban American who is president of the Unity Coalition, a Miami-based LGBT advocacy group, in 2013 blasted Equality Forum Executive Director Malcolm Lazin’s decision to honor Mariela Castro at his organization’s annual dinner in Philadelphia. Sosa and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba, both criticized CENESEX’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to hold an international LGBT rights conference in Havana.

“Unfortunately, and we all wish this to be different, the LGBT community has little to no rights of free speech, right to congregate, march or speak against the government,” said Sosa, noting Cubans also have limited access to the Internet. “The list goes on.”

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and writer who is a member of the MassEquality board of directors, attended the LGBT rights conference in Varadero in 2013.

She acknowledged lingering concerns over Cuba’s human rights record that include a lack of freedom of speech on the island. Ochs also noted to the Blade that “like all political figures,” Mariela Castro, has “said and done things over time that are problematic,” but she insists her support of LGBT Cubans is “crystal clear.”

“Things are clearly moving in a positive direction,” said Ochs. “There is a great deal that is possible in Cuba now that was not possible a decade ago.”

Ros-Lehtinen in a statement to the Blade reiterated her long-standing criticisms of Mariela Castro and her father’s government.

“While Mariela Castro and the Cuban regime try to make the farcical case that they are LGBT-friendly, the reality the reality of their hostility to anyone who does not share their radical, Communist ideology is much harsher and well-documented,” said the Florida Republican who is an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights. “Interestingly, in its bid to promote its supposed LGBT record, the Castro regime has only spotlighted those who do not object to the regime’s history of repression. Sadly, any Cuban, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who disagrees with the Castro brothers is subject to the same acts of repudiation, arrest and imprisonment that has characterized these tyrants’ rule.”


Impact of normalized relations unclear


Cuba’s LGBT rights movement is growing more visible as the process to normalize relations between Washington and Havana that President Obama began late last year continues to move forward.

The fourth round of talks between the two countries took place last week in Washington.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokesperson Marie Harf both acknowledged to the Blade on May 22 that the treatment of independent LGBT advocates and other aspects of Cuba’s human rights record remain serious concerns for the U.S. as efforts to normalize relations with the Communist country continue.

“Human rights remain a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, including our approach to Cuba,” a State Department spokesperson told the Blade on Tuesday.

Cuban LGBT rights advocates remain mixed as to whether the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana will have a positive impact on their lives.

Mariela Castro last December described the prospect of normalized relations between Cuba and the U.S. as a “dream come true” during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

She called upon human rights advocates to urge Washington to end its decades-long embargo against her country, which a billboard near Havana’s José Martí International Airport describes as “the world’s longest running genocide.” Signs with nearly identical slogans are a common sight throughout the country.

Mariela Castro once again spoke out against it during the Havana commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. She also celebrated the release of three of the so-called “Cuban Five” — intelligence officers from the Communist island who had been in federal prisons — as part of the agreement to begin normalizing relations with the U.S. that included the release of Alan Gross, a subcontractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development who had been held in a Cuban prison for five years after authorities arrested him for connecting a local Jewish community to the Internet.

“The embargo is the main obstacle to our development plan and for the guarantee of our rights, including the rights of LGBTI people,” she said.

López told the Blade that he feels the Cuban government uses the embargo as an “excuse” for the country’s ailing economy, poor infrastructure, food shortages and other problems — the power went out for about five minutes as he and others spoke with the Blade inside Fernández’s apartment. Raúl Márques, a gay man who works in the arts in Havana, said the average Cuban is focused more on meeting their basic needs as opposed to the status of relations between their country and the U.S.

“People here have had many problems,” he told the Blade. “You are not going to think about other things in your life.”

González shared an equally pessimistic view, joking sarcastically that the Cuban people have a “very special” relationship that dates back to the 19th century. He further noted he is “not an optimistic man.”

“It is an issue that almost nobody talks about,” said González, referring to the prospect of closer ties between Washington and Havana. “It is not in people’s daily conversation.”

Gala told the Blade after performing at Humboldt 52 in Havana that normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba will have no impact on her daily life, even though she said the country is “entering a beautiful moment.”

Mora said she hopes closer ties between Havana and Washington will help ease some of the problems that Cubans continue to face because of the island’s economic situation. She also expressed optimism for the future of her organization and other independent LGBT advocates on the island.

“All of us are agents of change,” said Mora. “I believe that if we all believe in something, we can change it.”


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Honoring the legacy of New Orleans’ 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire

Why the arson attack that killed 32 gay men still resonates 50 years later



Fifty years ago this week, 32 gay men were killed in an arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. (Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

On June 23 of last year, I held the microphone as a gay man in the New Orleans City Council Chamber and related a lost piece of queer history to the seven council members. I told this story to disabuse all New Orleanians of the notion that silence and accommodation, in the face of institutional and official failures, are a path to healing.  

The story I related to them began on a typical Sunday night at a second-story bar on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, where working-class men would gather around a white baby grand piano and belt out the lyrics to a song that was the anthem of their hidden community, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man. 

“United we stand,” the men would sing together, “divided we fall” — the words epitomizing the ethos of their beloved UpStairs Lounge bar, an egalitarian free space that served as a forerunner to today’s queer safe havens. 

Around that piano in the 1970s Deep South, gays and lesbians, white and Black queens, Christians and non-Christians, and even early gender minorities could cast aside the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the times to find acceptance and companionship for a moment. 

For regulars, the UpStairs Lounge was a miracle, a small pocket of acceptance in a broader world where their very identities were illegal. 

On the Sunday night of June 24, 1973, their voices were silenced in a murderous act of arson that claimed 32 lives and still stands as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history — and the worst mass killing of gays in 20th century America. 

As 13 fire companies struggled to douse the inferno, police refused to question the chief suspect, even though gay witnesses identified and brought the soot-covered man to officers idly standing by. This suspect, an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Rodger Dale Nunez, had been ejected from the UpStairs Lounge screaming the word “burn” minutes before, but New Orleans police rebuffed the testimony of fire survivors on the street and allowed Nunez to disappear.

As the fire raged, police denigrated the deceased to reporters on the street: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” 

For days afterward, the carnage met with official silence. With no local gay political leaders willing to step forward, national Gay Liberation-era figures like Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church flew in to “help our bereaved brothers and sisters” — and shatter officialdom’s code of silence. 

Perry broke local taboos by holding a press conference as an openly gay man. “It’s high time that you people, in New Orleans, Louisiana, got the message and joined the rest of the Union,” Perry said. 

Two days later, on June 26, 1973, as families hesitated to step forward to identify their kin in the morgue, UpStairs Lounge owner Phil Esteve stood in his badly charred bar, the air still foul with death. He rebuffed attempts by Perry to turn the fire into a call for visibility and progress for homosexuals. 

“This fire had very little to do with the gay movement or with anything gay,” Esteve told a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I do not want my bar or this tragedy to be used to further any of their causes.” 

Conspicuously, no photos of Esteve appeared in coverage of the UpStairs Lounge fire or its aftermath — and the bar owner also remained silent as he witnessed police looting the ashes of his business. 

“Phil said the cash register, juke box, cigarette machine and some wallets had money removed,” recounted Esteve’s friend Bob McAnear, a former U.S. Customs officer. “Phil wouldn’t report it because, if he did, police would never allow him to operate a bar in New Orleans again.” 

The next day, gay bar owners, incensed at declining gay bar traffic amid an atmosphere of anxiety, confronted Perry at a clandestine meeting. “How dare you hold your damn news conferences!” one business owner shouted. 

Ignoring calls for gay self-censorship, Perry held a 250-person memorial for the fire victims the following Sunday, July 1, culminating in mourners defiantly marching out the front door of a French Quarter church into waiting news cameras. “Reverend Troy Perry awoke several sleeping giants, me being one of them,” recalled Charlene Schneider, a lesbian activist who walked out of that front door with Perry.

(Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Esteve doubted the UpStairs Lounge story’s capacity to rouse gay political fervor. As the coroner buried four of his former patrons anonymously on the edge of town, Esteve quietly collected at least $25,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Less than a year later, he used the money to open another gay bar called the Post Office, where patrons of the UpStairs Lounge — some with visible burn scars — gathered but were discouraged from singing “United We Stand.” 

New Orleans cops neglected to question the chief arson suspect and closed the investigation without answers in late August 1973. Gay elites in the city’s power structure began gaslighting the mourners who marched with Perry into the news cameras, casting suspicion on their memories and re-characterizing their moment of liberation as a stunt. 

When a local gay journalist asked in April 1977, “Where are the gay activists in New Orleans?,” Esteve responded that there were none, because none were needed. “We don’t feel we’re discriminated against,” Esteve said. “New Orleans gays are different from gays anywhere else… Perhaps there is some correlation between the amount of gay activism in other cities and the degree of police harassment.” 

(Photo by H.J. Patterson/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

An attitude of nihilism and disavowal descended upon the memory of the UpStairs Lounge victims, goaded by Esteve and fellow gay entrepreneurs who earned their keep via gay patrons drowning their sorrows each night instead of protesting the injustices that kept them drinking. 

Into the 1980s, the story of the UpStairs Lounge all but vanished from conversation — with the exception of a few sanctuaries for gay political debate such as the local lesbian bar Charlene’s, run by the activist Charlene Schneider. 

By 1988, the 15th anniversary of the fire, the UpStairs Lounge narrative comprised little more than a call for better fire codes and indoor sprinklers. UpStairs Lounge survivor Stewart Butler summed it up: “A tragedy that, as far as I know, no good came of.” 

Finally, in 1991, at Stewart Butler and Charlene Schneider’s nudging, the UpStairs Lounge story became aligned with the crusade of liberated gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Louisiana. The halls of power responded with intermittent progress. The New Orleans City Council, horrified by the story but not yet ready to take its look in the mirror, enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations that Dec. 12 — more than 18 years after the fire. 

“I believe the fire was the catalyst for the anger to bring us all to the table,” Schneider told The Times-Picayune, a tacit rebuke to Esteve’s strategy of silent accommodation. Even Esteve seemed to change his stance with time, granting a full interview with the first UpStairs Lounge scholar Johnny Townsend sometime around 1989. 

Most of the figures in this historic tale are now deceased. What’s left is an enduring story that refused to go gently. The story now echoes around the world — a musical about the UpStairs Lounge fire recently played in Tokyo, translating the gay underworld of the 1973 French Quarter for Japanese audiences.

When I finished my presentation to the City Council last June, I looked up to see the seven council members in tears. Unanimously, they approved a resolution acknowledging the historic failures of city leaders in the wake of the UpStairs Lounge fire. 

Council members personally apologized to UpStairs Lounge families and survivors seated in the chamber in a symbolic act that, though it could not bring back those who died, still mattered greatly to those whose pain had been denied, leaving them to grieve alone. At long last, official silence and indifference gave way to heartfelt words of healing. 

The way Americans remember the past is an active, ongoing process. Our collective memory is malleable, but it matters because it speaks volumes about our maturity as a people, how we acknowledge the past’s influence in our lives, and how it shapes the examples we set for our youth. Do we grapple with difficult truths, or do we duck accountability by defaulting to nostalgia and bluster? Or worse, do we simply ignore the past until it fades into a black hole of ignorance and indifference? 

I believe that a factual retelling of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — and how, 50 years onward, it became known internationally — resonates beyond our current divides. It reminds queer and non-queer Americans that ignoring the past holds back the present, and that silence is no cure for what ails a participatory nation. 

Silence isolates. Silence gaslights and shrouds. It preserves the power structures that scapegoat the disempowered. 

Solidarity, on the other hand, unites. Solidarity illuminates a path forward together. Above all, solidarity transforms the downtrodden into a resounding chorus of citizens — in the spirit of voices who once gathered ‘round a white baby grand piano and sang, joyfully and loudly, “United We Stand.” 

(Photo by Philip Ames/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Robert W. Fieseler is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Tinderbox: the Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”

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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings



The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund



Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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