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In Trump era, life feels like ‘Dunkirk’

Fight attacks on liberty by creating art

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Dunkirk, gay news, Washington Blade

A scene from ‘Dunkirk.’ (Photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

“It’s relaxing to read about World War II,” my cousin says, “because we know we won it.”

She has a point, I thought, until the Trump era began. Now, more than 70 years after the war, our freedom and sense of decency are again under assault. The Trump administration assails LGBTQ rights at every turn: from banning transgender people from serving in the military to appointing anti-LGBTQ Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

I don’t want to make irresponsible analogies. Trump, though a dangerous, cruel, uncaring, unethical, bigoted, fascistic demagogue isn’t Hitler. Our situation in the Trump presidency, however frightening and disturbing isn’t equivalent to World War II. Yet, I can’t remember a time when so many of us have felt as if we were Londoners nightly seeking safety in air raid shelters during the Blitz, our grandparents sitting by our radios listening to FDR give one of his “fireside chats” or (often scared) soldiers fighting the Nazis.

I’m not surprised that “Dunkirk,” directed by Christopher Nolan is a hit at the box office.  It takes place in May 1940 in the French port city of Dunkirk. The Germans have blocked in more than 200,000 members of the British army. The British in “Operation Dynamo,” working against the odds, evacuate the soldiers (keeping these troops from being captured by the Germans).  Watching “Dunkirk,” recently with a friend, I felt as if I’d been transported from a Virginia cinema into the middle of a gritty, horrifying struggle. “Dunkirk” doesn’t romanticize the war. There’s no cliched Hollywood heroism. Just terrified troops serving their country as best they can.

In the Trump age, life often feels like “Dunkirk.” Fighting against the attacks on our civil rights and freedom, it’s easy to lose perspective – to succumb to despair. Mired in discouragement, we’re all too apt to forget: Dunkirk was only one battle in the war. More importantly, the evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk encouraged Britain and America to keep fighting.

How can we resist Trump’s assault on our freedom? What gives us courage to keep living, loving and resisting?  As artists – from poets to painters to filmmakers – we can make art; and as viewers, readers and audience members we can experience art.

Art can seem as relevant as finger bowls and poets don’t legislate. Yet, it’s hard to imagine anything that does more to trump the taunts of bullies or to nourish our spirits than art.

Irony is an essential element of art. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re queer, irony is embedded in your DNA. Irony has sustained the LGBTQ community through suppression, repression, bullying, discrimination, Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt and the AIDS epidemic. Without irony, we’ll be too dispirited to resist Trump.

Few have mastered irony as superbly as Jane Austen, the author of “Pride and Prejudice,” who died on July 18, 1817. Using wit and irony, Austen punctures pomposity and the conventions of society.

“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal,” she wrote. What could be more queer?

In September, Austen will become the only woman other than Queen Elizabeth II to be on a United Kingdom 10-pound bank note. In her new book “Jane Austen at Home: A Biography,” BBC presenter Lucy Worsley says Austen may have had “lesbian sex.” Worsley says Austen wrote frequently about sleeping in the same bed with women.  “People were much less worried about lesbian sex in general,” she said.

Some dismiss Austen’s novels as confections. Yet, this misses her work’s laser-like sharpness. “Of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,” Virginia Woolf said of Austen.

Do you want to keep your ironic chops in fighting shape in the Trump era? Read Jane Austen.

 

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

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Opinions

Biden must be more direct when talking to young people

Educate them about futility of third-party candidates

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

President Biden is doing a great job. But reality is, some young people are wavering in their support. I suggest when talking to young people, the president be more direct. What prompted me to write this was reading what some Morehouse College students are saying. Here is a suggested short speech.   

“I want you to know how honored I am for the opportunity to speak with you today. I will speak from my heart, and be very direct. I know you have disagreements with me. Some of you may even think I am actually too old to be president. But I am a candidate for reelection, because I believe I can still make a difference. I know you are very smart. You know only two candidates running have a chance to win. The next president will be either Donald Trump or me. 

You must figure out what issues are the most important to you. Then determine which one of us will be better for your future. Do the research on all the issues you care about. Recognize, no candidate is perfect, surely, I am not, but then no person is. I know many of you care about issues including climate change, student debt relief, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights. Issues like how the United States deals with the Israel/Hamas war, inflation, voting rights, abortion. Donald Trump and I disagree on how to handle each of those issues. We have vastly different views of the world. I believe the United States has a responsibility to lead. Our military, and our economy, are both the strongest in the world. We cannot hide, as he likes to say, behind the slogan ‘America First.’ We cannot close our eyes, and our borders, and pretend what happens in the rest of the world doesn’t impact us. 

I believe we must deal with the Iran-China-Russia axis. We must support Ukraine and continue sending weapons to help them win. If they do, we can keep our young men and women off the battlefield. Remember, we aren’t sending money, but weapons, which are made here, providing high-paying jobs to our own citizens. Some of you have issues with how I have dealt with the Israel/Hamas war. While I support Israel, I do hear you, and will do everything I can to move toward a free Palestinian state. Trump will not. He even moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to make that point. I am pushing Israel to change its tactics, to protect the innocent women and children, in Gaza. We must do that.

I know many of you want more progress on student debt forgiveness, on fighting climate change, protecting a woman’s right to control her own healthcare and body, and equality for the LGBTQ community. You want to see an end to the structural racism in our country. You must know by my actions that I share those goals with you. I also share the feeling all this is not happening fast enough. But you are all smart. You know our government was formed with a system of checks and balances; three branches of government — legislative, judicial, and executive. While I may want to wave a magic wand to make these things happen, no one can. However, I commit to you, I will fight for them every day. 

Some of you may be thinking, ‘Third-Party’ candidate. I ask you to remember, no third-party candidate has won since 1856, and our structure of the two-party system tells you one cannot win in 2024. In fact, for 36 years, none has ended up winning more than 5% of the vote. Then remember a few facts about Trump. He was found liable for sexual abuse. He has shown by words and actions, he is a racist, sexist, homophobe, who is also a climate change denier. He opposes student debt relief. He also tried to stage a coup after losing the last election. 

Again, like it or not, it’s either me or him. And again, while you may think I am too old, remember, he is my age. If you intend to vote for Trump, that is of course your choice. But if you don’t want him, and his MAGA cult, controlling your future, your choices are to stay home, vote for a third-party candidate, or vote for me. Two of those choices will help elect Donald Trump. So, I ask respectfully, after you do the research, that you give me your vote. Again, I am not perfect, but I will never stop working to make your, and your family’s, life better. I will always work for a more just, and safer world, for all of us.  

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Commentary

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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Opinions

Another reason to vote for Biden: protecting our nation’s health

U.S. should vote ‘yes’ on WHO’s Pandemic Agreement

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The United States must vote YES on the World Health Organization’s Pandemic Agreement, to allow it to begin its road to final adoption. Here in the United States, we lost more than one million people to COVID-19. There is hardly a person living in the United States today, who was not impacted in some way by the pandemic. We must be thankful President Biden and his administration are working hard to see this doesn’t happen again. That we never again need to close down our businesses, our schools, and in essence, our country. That we don’t see hospitals overrun, and bodies stored in refrigerated trailers, because the morgues are full, and there are too many to bury, and give funerals to, at once. To ensure this doesn’t ever happen again, the president has had his administration working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and its 194 nation member nations.

The WHO, with the help of the United States, has been working on a Pandemic Agreement to enhance global cooperation and ensure a more consistent and coordinated global response to global health threats. The agreement, if eventually adopted, will enhance sharing of information about pathogens with pandemic potential, to ensure a more rapid and effective global response than we saw with COVID-19. It will enhance sharing of medical countermeasures, including vaccines and therapeutics, which will lead to a more equitable global response.

If anyone looks at the draft Pandemic Agreement realistically, they will see it is a matter of national security for the United States. Any thinking person understands, in our globalized world, where travel is so easy, pathogens, which can cause pandemics, easily cross borders. Through these new accords, which the United States is helping to write, WHO, with its 194 member states, is trying to get all their member states to share information with WHO, and through that, they will all then have the tools to protect their own populations. This in turn, will help protect the American people from pathogens, with pandemic potential, from reaching our shores.

This clearly seems like a rational way to proceed based on the information we learned from COVID-19. But it seems, in another irrational moment, and they have had many, all 49 Republican United States Senators, under the misguided recommendation of MAGA Senators Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), and Ron Johnson (R-WI), sent a letter to President Biden calling on the administration to withdraw its support for any agreements being considered by the WHO at their World Health Assembly (WHA), being held this month. They oppose the WHO having any authority and potentially weakening United States’ sovereignty. They clearly don’t understand the role of the WHO and most likely have not bothered to read any of the drafts of the pandemic agreements. Their letter clearly caters to their MAGA cult leader, Donald Trump, who thinks ‘America First’ makes us safer. It doesn’t, especially when it comes to a possible new pandemic, and pathogens crossing country borders.

Again, to ensure it is a positive agreement for the people of the United States, the Biden Administration has played a key role in negotiating the text of the Pandemic Agreement, to make sure it reflects the priorities and national interests of the United States.

Contrary to the MAGA Republican Senators misguided arguments for not voting to adopt the plan at the World Health Assembly on May 27th, this vote would not bind any country. Rather, it would simply start the process for consideration at the domestic level. That is when these Republican MAGA senators, and the people of the United States, can debate it. It would then only apply to us if we were to adopt it. Even then it would need a total of 60 countries to approve it, for it to come into legal force. Now again, these misguided Republican MAGA senators might have missed it, but even after it is approved by 60 countries it would, even then, only apply to those countries that approved it. So, the Pandemic Agreement would come into force for the U.S. only if, and when, the U.S. decides to formally adopt it.

If it were to be adopted, and I for one believe it should be, the Pandemic Agreement will be an instrument of international law, akin to other instruments against global threats such as the Geneva Conventions, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Paris Agreement, the International Health Regulations, and the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

For me, this is another important reason to vote for President Biden. Remember the alternative. Trump once believed injecting bleach would solve the COVID-19 problem. I don’t want him, or the MAGA senators who wrote the letter, having control over my health, and the health of our nation.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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