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Diane Abbitt remembers MECLA and Harvey Milk

His push for honesty still inspires people around the world to come out

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Attorney Diane Abbitt helped found and has served on the boards of several LGBT organizations, including MECLA, APLA and HRC.

It does not seem possible that the LGBT community is commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of Harvey Milk on this day, Nov. 27, 2018. So much has changed, so many rights won and yet so many challenges remain. As time passes, fewer and fewer people are left who remember the beginning of the movement as we know it today—the scrappy grassroots Gay Liberation Front organizing social services and eradicate-shame consciousness-raising at the Gay Community Services Center and a group of successful lawyers and business leaders raising money and forming the first gay political action committee to elect pro-gay officials in Los Angeles; and in San Francisco, their spirited political activism included businessman Harvey Milk, who made history winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. Few remain who remember what that meant to a fledgling community—but Harvey’s assignation still reverberates past the shock of that day. 

I came out in 1973. Imagine a time when there was no internet, no social media, no television shows that had a gay or lesbian character, no gay Pride parades, no Human Rights Campaign, no Equality California, no Victory Fund, no WEHO, no Williams Institute, no celebrity-filled black-tie fundraisers, no books or courses on the LBGTQ community. Magazines and newsletters were mailed in non-descript brown covers so no one would know its contents. There was no way, except by word of mouth or in bars, for lesbians or gay men to connect, to find community. 

My first discovery of community was through radical lesbian separatist feminists who thought that men had no place in the movement and that lesbians with male children should give them away. Since I had two very young beautiful sons that I was fighting to keep in my care and custody, this philosophy did not work for me. Then a friend told me that LA NOW (National Organization for Women) was having a Lesbian Mothers meeting. That changed the course of my life and I soon became the first co-chair of LA NOW’s Lesbian and Sexuality Task Force.  

Meanwhile, gay men were also searching for community. Some discovered it at the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, founded in 1969 and headquartered in an old Victorian building on Wilshire Boulevard. They offered social services and held men’s consciousness raising groups offering gay men an alternative to the bathhouse and bar scene. 

There was also another group called Orion. They were seven gay men led by lawyers Peter Scott and Stephen Lachs, who would become the nation’s first out gay judge. There were all smart, successful and closeted in the outside world. But as their sense of shame dissipated and self-acceptance grew, they wanted to give back to the community and to make it easier and safer for other gay people to live their truth.  After much debate, in 1977, they formed the first PAC whose mission was legal protections and full equality, including a seat at the legislative table, for gay people. The goal seemed large and daunting!  Even choosing a name was challenging.  It had to be non-descript, something an accountant who didn’t know the contributor was gay would not question, and so MECLA (Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles) was born.  

But finding people to contribute was hard! The MECLA board expanded to 11 and the men began the tedious task of raising money to fund the PAC. Therapist Rob Eichberg had raised money for the Jewish community and the men adopted that model—asking friends to a roundtable luncheon, locking the doors (figuratively speaking), then going around the table asking/telling each person how much they were giving. Eventually Peter realized lesbians should be included and I, along with other non-board members, raised what today we would think of as a small budget. I got so good at raising money, I was elected MECLA’s first female board co-chair.  

The first year, two candidates to whom MECLA contributed returned the money when they realized the source of the funds would have to be reported in their campaign filing report.  As MECLA’s success grew, it became the model for HRC and other political action committees throughout California. 

At the same time MECLA was getting off the ground, San Francisco was going through its own coming out process. Harvey Milk had moved to San Francisco from New York in 1972 and opened a camera shop in the Castro. The shop became the center of gay political activism as Harvey campaigned three times for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in 1973, in 1975, and finally in 1977, when he won. During those four years, he developed his political acumen, built relationships and coalitions and started describing himself as “The Mayor of Castro Street” at a time when the gay vote was starting to be recognized as powerful.

Peter Scott, David Mixner and I, among many others in Los Angeles, worked with Supervisor Harvey Milk to defeat Prop 6, the Briggs Initiative, on Nov. 7, 1978—a spectacular success! Twenty days later, Harvey was assassinated. It’s still shocking to remember. But Harvey’s humor and often too-loud leadership brought an awareness of injustices being suffered by the gay community not only in San Francisco but beyond. His hopeful campaign for LGBTQ people to come out still inspires people around the world.

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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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