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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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Supreme Court, GOP are sliming our democracy

Protests are fine but we must all vote for Democrats

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In two decisions — one throwing out New York’s gun laws and the other overturning Roe v. Wade — the Supreme Court and the Republican Party who put them there, have slimed the American public and in essence our democracy. 

With the decision on Roe v. Wade, for the first time, the court has taken away a constitutional right. One recognized by previous courts and upheld for nearly fifty years. Justices Thomas and Alito finally had the votes, with Trump’s three stooges, to do what they have wanted to do for decades. We now understand how far this court is willing to go to take rights away from the American people, and we should all be afraid.  

They proved they have the votes to attack women and we must believe the LGBTQ+ community could easily be their next target. They almost certainly are not finished with their attacks on women as they can come down on contraception and other pharmaceuticals. Then they can end affirmative action even though it was what got Thomas to where he is. Clearly, we should have listened to Anita Hill. Thomas’s written decision could even put into question the Loving decision, which allowed interracial marriage and made it legal for him to marry his wife. We must believe the court will look at all these issues.

There is a sickness in the land and we will either succumb to it, or fight it. My answer is we have to fight it with all we have. We must collectively stand up and say “no more!” Allowing Republicans to continue to take the nation in this direction is unacceptable. The only way we can do something about it and stand up for our democracy is by VOTING. Every poll shows Americans are against what the Supreme Court is doing. Yet we are stuck with a court, which as Nancy Pelosi says “gave a slap in the face to women.” Justices clearly care more for an unborn fetus than a living child. A living child who could be mowed down by the guns they are allowing on the streets. 

As Democrats, and all decent people, mull over how to react, we must come together as never before. We can march until we are blue in the face but if we don’t vote, we lose. We need to elect Democrats to statehouses and state legislatures, and keep majorities in both Houses of the Congress. The House has already passed legislation curbing guns and codifying Roe v. Wade. We now need more senators to go along. It actually could take only two more who would agree to end the filibuster to move these issues forward. 

I have written before to the LGBTQ+ community that parades and parties celebrating Pride are wonderful, but if every person who participates in them doesn’t vote, they mean very little because next year we will have lost some of our rights. We must not let ourselves and future generations down and be victimized by the likes of Thomas, Alito and the three disgusting Trump judges. We must vote against the Republican Party because the right wing now controls it. 

Sen. Mitch McConnell has already said if Republicans take over Congress he will consider passing a law outlawing abortion nationally. We cannot allow that to happen. It is only Congress and state governments that can act to counter what the court with Republican support is doing. We must do more than show the nation with the January 6th hearings about Trump’s attempted coup. Even if through that we can put the likes of Ginny Thomas in jail for her role in it. 

The results of the midterm elections will show the world where America stands. These elections will play out over a range of issues. We will see if people vote more based on inflation and the cost of gas, or vote for their right to privacy and freedom. Those of us who promote the right to privacy and democracy must stand together if we are to win. We cannot fight each other, creating internal battles, rather must fight the enemy, the Republican Party, as it is constituted today. 

It won’t be easy but we can win this fight. We can keep the House of Representatives and win at least two additional Senate seats making it easier to move the Senate forward on a host of issues. When it comes to what the court has done to women, their decision on guns, and what Thomas is signaling they will do in the future, it really is clear we are facing life and death issues.

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

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How do we respond to rising anti-LGBTQ rhetoric?

Pastor invokes Bible to call for death of gays

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Pastor Dillon Awes (Screen capture via YouTube)

On Sunday, June 4, Pastor Dillon Awes stepped behind the pulpit at Steadfast Baptist Church in Watauga, Texas and declared, “What does God say is the answer, is the solution for the homosexual in 2022?…That they are worthy of death.” His statement was greeted by shouts of “Amen” from within his congregation. He continued preaching, saying, “they should be sentenced to death, they should be lined up against a wall and shot in the back of the head.” Again, his words were greeted by “Amens” from within his church. 

This clip soon spread online, causing widespread backlash from religious and non-religious alike. But for me, an openly gay, former evangelical, Christian pastor, Pastor Awes’s words are not surprising at all. In fact, I’ve heard similar sentiments regularly. The only difference between Pastor Awes and most other conservative Christian pastors across the United States today is that Pastor Awes was willing to say the silent part out loud. After all, Pastor Awes was not wrong — the passage he was preaching on, as commonly interpreted by conservative Christians, does in fact say, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1:32) If you put any evangelical pastor on the spot and asked if they believed that this verse was true and was in reference to LGBTQ+ people, they would have to answer, even if reluctantly, “yes.” 

In a strange way, I am glad Pastor Awes preached what he did so clearly, because he is revealing the truth that most other evangelicals don’t want to acknowledge — that their theology related to the LGBTQ+ community is a theology of death. Despite attempts in recent years by evangelicals to seem more welcoming and inclusive, their core theological claim that the lives and love of LGBTQ+ people is sinful, broken, and abomination is a claim that has resulted in the suffering, oppression, and death of millions of queer people around the world, and it is high time that they own up and are honest about the beliefs they hold and their impact on LGBTQ+ people. Because again, Pastor Awes view is not a minority view, as hard as that might be to believe. He simply said what a majority of evangelical churches teach in a horrifyingly clear way. While most evangelicals would probably disagree with Pastor Awes graphic call for the execution of LGBTQ+ people, the would still affirm the truthfulness of Romans 1:32: “They are worthy of death.”

And even if evangelicals attempted theological gymnastics to get out of this horrifying interpretation of scripture that calls for violence toward queer people, their theology, which tells LGBTQ+ people that they must suppress their sexuality or gender identity or seek to change it to be acceptable to God and welcome in the church does, in fact, cause death. A 2015 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that LGBTQ+ people who are subjected to non-affirming religious teachings have a significantly higher rate of attempted suicide. These numbers have been reaffirmed in study after study, and are certainly true in my experience as a young gay evangelical who was forced into conversion therapy by my Christian college in my early twenties. When you’re told that a fundamental aspect of your identity is evil and realize that there is nothing you can do to change it, for many, death can seem like the only viable escape from this mental and spiritual anguish. 

So how are we to respond to the truth that this dangerous theology is being preached in literally every corner of our nation? How can those of us- religious or not- who are allies to the LGBTQ+ community protect our queer friends and family from violence and harm in the face of millions of people who hold to these dangerous beliefs and are feeling more empowered than ever to say them out loud and to act on them? 

First, it’s important that we do our work and are informed. The truth is that while this interpretation of the biblical texts is unfortunately common among Christians around the world, it is not an accurate understanding of the biblical texts. The six verses in the Christian scriptures that reference any sort of same-sex behavior are all condemnations of a very particular practice that was common in the ancient world — sexual exploitation related to temple prostitution. Same-sex relationships and queer gender identities were well known throughout the ancient Near East and especially within the Roman Empire — instead of speaking about these realities, every condemnation of homosexuality in scripture is tied to “idolatry,” which means worshipping something other than God, and in context is clearly a condemnation of temple prostitution, a practice where people who have sex with priests or priestesses in pagan temples as a way to honor various gods and goddesses. That is what is being condemned in Scripture; there is not a single condemnation of same-sex relationships or queer gender identity anywhere, and we must challenge these teachings the same way we challenged the church’s teachings on slavery, the equality of women, and the panoply of other backwards beliefs that have been perpetuated in the name of Christianity.

Second, we must challenge our conservative Christian friends and family members to be honest about what they believe and the harm that it causes. The reason so many Christians shy away from saying things as clearly as Pastor Awes is because they inherently know that these beliefs are dangerous and wrong. How can one follow Jesus, whose central command was to “love your neighbor as yourself” and hold on to a belief that a group of people are abominations who are worthy of death? These are wholly inconsistent, and this inconsistency should be drawn out and turned into an invitation for our friends to change their damaging and dangerous beliefs. 

Third, we must continue to uplift and celebrate LGBTQ+ people and relationships in our society. The hatred spewed by Pastor Awes is a clear reminder of why Pride is still so important — Pride celebrations began to increase visibility of queer folks, decrease stigma around our lives and loves, and to use celebration and joy as a tool for resistance in the face of fear and bigotry. Despite the broad progress the LGBTQ+ rights movement has made in the U.S., our lives and rights are consistently under attack and in the post-Trump era, there has been a reinvigoration of anti-LGBTQ+ policies and rhetoric across the nation rooted in fear being perpetuated by the alt-right. Old tropes conflating queer people with pedophilia and sexual abuse have found new life, and the demonization of LGBTQ+ people as a threat to basic morality is now commonly heard on Fox News and across social media. The way we combat such dangerous rhetoric is ensuring more people see and know LGBTQ+ people and for our allies to speak out whenever anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is used or policies are proposed, signaling the broad support of queer people by the American public. 

During this Pride month, it’s time for a renewed commitment to the fight for LGBTQ+ dignity and equality in the United States. It’s time for queer people to stand up and let our lights shine brighter than ever before, so that LGBTQ+ youth can see our example and know that there is space for them, in all their uniqueness, in our society. 

It’s time for allies to be bold in their condemnation of bigotry wherever it occurs. It’s time for our nation’s leaders to reaffirm their commitment to fight for LGBTQ+ rights in every corner of this nation and around the world. If we remain complacent, fear-based views like those of Pastor Awes will spread and will result in more abuse and violence against LGBTQ+ people. Progress is not inevitable, and the fight has not yet been won. This Pride month, may we return again to the spirit of the earliest Pride marches, standing boldly in the face of fear and bigotry and declaring that love will win in the end. 

Rev. Brandan Robertson is an author, pastor, activist, and public theologian working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal. He currently serves as the Lead Pastor of Metanoia Church, a digital progressive faith community. 

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Commentary

As Israel readies for new elections, the LGBTQ community is at risk

U.S.-based groups attacking transgender Israelis

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Elisha Alexander in April 2022 (Photo courtesy of Ethan Felson)

Israel’s government has collapsed — and the county is headed to new elections for the fifth time in three years. In this renewed period of uncertainty, Israel’s LGBTQ community has cause for particular concern. Any new coalition would likely welcome parties that oppose LGBTQ inclusion back into government, posing a clear and imminent threat to their human rights.

But amidst this trepidation, there is still much to celebrate: 30 LGBTQ leaders from the U.S. met with their counterparts in Israel this month. The backdrop was Tel Aviv Pride, one of the largest in the world. The leaders were there for more than celebrations. They came to learn. As with past A Wider Bridge trips, North Americans travelling to Israel and Israelis travelling to North America shared strategies for building LGBTQ inclusion, fighting conversion therapy, protecting young people needing shelter, and building vibrant pride centers. Pride celebrations got their start in the U.S. and will take place in more than 60 Israeli cities this month. Over the years, both of our countries have imported many successful approaches from one another. But one American import to Israel is less than welcome: Political transphobia. Let’s not let it become something that unites our nations.

As leaders of groups in Israel and the U.S., we’ve watched with sadness as trans kids in America have been put in harm’s way through legislation making their medical care less available and prohibiting their teachers and school counselors from providing the lifesaving support they need. And it turns out that the same retrograde forces fighting trans inclusion in the U.S. are backing similar efforts in Israel. There have always been opposition to LGBTQ rights, including trans inclusion in both countries and around the globe. What’s new is a vastly well-funded campaign — with plenty of American backing — directed at attacking the Israeli trans community. While the fight for LGBTQ equality in Israel hasn’t been easy, historically the community hasn’t been used as a political cudgel. That’s changing, and we’re ringing the alarm bell.

Groups like the Kohelet Forum, which is largely American-funded, are trying to take their American brand of anti-trans hate to Israel. While think tanks and policy shops aren’t a new phenomenon in Israel, Kohelet has adopted the broader American model of political change-making. They’ve launched a constellation of organizations working informally together to usher in transformational policy change. With the support of Kohelet and others, the anti-trans movement has exploded in Israel.

Their orchestrated effort comes at a very unfortunate moment. Ma’avarim, Israel’s most prominent trans organization, and the entire Israeli trans community have worked tirelessly for years, building careful relationships, educating important allies — and is making tremendous advances due to an Israeli government that was willing to embrace many key goals. There are historic opportunities to implement new life-saving policies including access to healthcare, legal recognition of gender identity, and diversity in the education system. All of this is now in jeopardy. Just as these successes are coming to fruition, the anti-trans movement is using social media and other tactics to spread disinformation and false accusations such as “men in dresses raping women in bathrooms.” These fabrications are felt by many in the trans community to be like anti-Semitic blood libels — made-up stories that lead to fear, hatred, and even violence. They help fuel anti-trans advocacy and lobbying to advance exclusionary policies and legislation to deny Israeli transgender persons their dignity and rights.

The new anti-trans movement has several distinctive features that require new responses. Firstly, unlike the traditional opposition for LGBTQ rights that springs from religious and social conservatives, anti-trans advocacy is now often fronted by self-styled “progressive” women. They bring with them established connections within liberal circles. Secondly, the central arena of the “progressive” anti-trans campaign is both traditional and social media — drawing on existing networks with hundreds of thousands of followers, while trans community organizations have minimal presence in social media beyond the trans community. Thirdly, the funding being poured into anti-trans campaigns eclipses the budgets of LGBTQ organizations. In Israel alone, the groups waging battle against the trans community have budgets in the tens of millions with hundreds of paid staff, many of whom work on anti-trans campaigns. 

None of us should sit idly by while these attacks on the trans community take place. As in other countries, this anti-trans hate movement poses an immediate threat to the safety and wellbeing of transgender and gender non-conforming persons. We cannot allow them to have their very existence denied.

But it doesn’t stop there. While transgender persons are the immediate targets of hate and violence, anti-trans campaigns have far-reaching political aims: dividing the liberal bloc of women’s, LGBTQ and minority rights, instilling hate, and turning liberal democratic societies against a newly created enemy from within. Anti-trans propaganda has proved instrumental in spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories that further undermine democratic values in society.

The eyes of the world often look to Israel on LGBTQ rights. Dana International, a trans woman from Tel Aviv, won the Eurovision music contest, became an international hero, and played a role in ushering greater acceptance of the trans community.

The world will be watching after Israel’s new elections: Will they continue to make progress in affording rights and protections to LGBTQ people? Or will they turn back the clock? Now more than ever, fighting the anti-trans movement must be a top priority not only for the transgender community but for LGBTQ people, feminists, and the wider progressive community in Israel- and in the United States.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge, an organization that fights for LGBTQ inclusion, counters anti-Semitism, and strengthens relationships between the LGBTQ community in Israel and North America. Elisha Alexander is the founding director of Ma’avarim, Israel’s leading NGO advocating for the transgender community.

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