Tag Archives: LGBT

If the YMCA Can, Why Not Obama?

I’ve been a gym rat my whole life because it’s the only legal outlet for rage and tension that doesn’t lead to either busting a TV screen or a hangover.

YMCAs are relatively cheap and ubiquitous and I’ve sort of come to marvel at their rabbit warren-like layouts. From Brooklyn to Melbourne, Australia, each one is uniquely ridiculous in design, with floor plans laid out by Rube Goldberg wannabes.

Among the Y’s many advantages is its extension of family benefits to LGBT people. Keep in mind that YMCA stands for the Young Men’s Christian Association and dates back to Britain in 1844, when some enterprising Victorian named George Williams established its three principles of “a healthy spirit, mind, and body,” thus the upside-down triangle as its symbol.

I find it fascinating that such an institution with 45 million members worldwide extends the same respect—and family discounts—to its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members as to everyone else.

Think about this for a moment. A lesbian like myself has absolutely zero official documentation or legal relationship to my partner, who is of another race, or to her daughter, who is of another partner. Yet when I was arranging my own membership this summer, the clerk readily handed me the forms to fill out that guarantee a family discount if I wanted it, saying, “We accept every family.” Not a bad policy.

In fact it’s one that is increasingly extended by many institutions. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Manhattan gave us a family membership. Yes, I know they’re a bunch of artsy-fartsy types, but still the place is a megabucks institution and it isn’t required by law or anything. About 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies extend domestic partnership benefits to their employees, and Corporate America will never be known as a bastion of enlightenment.

The fact is that as a result of decades of struggle and millions emerging from their closets, American society has changed drastically, yet our government’s laws still deny basic decency and equality to its LGBT citizens.

So when I watched the video of President Obama adding his voice to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign to prevent teen suicides, I was of two minds about his clip. On the one hand, it’s a milestone that the president of the United States would make such an unequivocal statement that is being widely circulated. On the other, he leads the world’s most powerful empire for crissakes, he’s not some dog catcher without influence!

I’ll set aside Obama’s past inanities about equal marriage rights, he now says he’s for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—great. I’m even willing to concede that the man has had a few tasks on his plate of dire consequences.

But Obama sits in his redesigned earth-toned Oval Office every morning getting news briefings that clearly include the horrific rise in LGBT suicides. No doubt, he is aware of that dollop of human poop on the Arkansas school board, Clint McCance, who wrote on his Facebook wall:

Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.

Obama has every news anchor and editor’s cell phone number on his speed dial. He can stand before Congress—which has been held by the Democrats for four years now!—and read off the list of names of LGBT people whose lives have been destroyed by reactionary and unequal policies and treatment. (My pal, Kyle Brown, an AIDS worker in NYC, has compiled a useful list of just those in October if the president would like a cheat sheet.)

Obama is arguably the most powerful man on the planet and yet on this issue, like so many others, he acts as if he were a hapless observer of catastrophes and not the architect of at least some of them.

In other words, I appreciate the gesture, but can the Obama administration stop hemming and hawing and codify LGBT rights into law already?! If President Eisenhower in 1953 could destroy the lives of gay and lesbian federal employees with the stroke of a pen, can’t President Obama in 2010 take a pen and add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

I know what some people will say. Wait, if he does that the Republicans will give him hell, they’ll call him a closet queen, a crazed Muslim-Kenyan-anti-colonialist- flaming-fag. Well, guess what? Who cares, they’re saying that and so much loopier stuff already.

Frankly, if the president wants to rev up his base and reinspire millions who devoted hundreds of hours to his election in 2008, the best damn thing he could do is come out fighting like someone who actually gives a shit about civil rights and stop acting like he’s a tourist meandering through the ruins.

Ending global warming and fixing the economy are complex issues. This one is blessedly simple. LGBT people are either equal or we are not. The administration must pick a policy and stick with it.

Does It Really “Get Better” for LGBT People?

My best friend from high school, Scott Fried, is a health educator and motivational speaker who became HIV-positive the first time he ever had sex with a man in his early twenties. Somewhere in a locked vault is a 1982 picture of him looking swanky in tails alongside me in a dress (pastels—what was I thinking?!) heading off to his prom at The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. [He still looks swanky and I haven’t worn a dress in 11 years.]

Scotty—I’m still allowed to call him that—was aiming for a career on Broadway or the big screen, but life rerouted him to become a successful public lecturer at schools, synagogues, on TV and radio, and occasionally even in prisons. Thousands of teens write him letters and e-mails, snippets of which he’s collected in books about how young people, not just LGBT people, need to talk about their feelings and real lives in order to be able to find the confidence to be healthy and fulfilled.

In speeches like “The Closet Monologues” and “AIDS, Love and the Secret Lives of College Students,” Scotty gets teens and young adults talking about their real feelings about sex and sexuality in a totally supportive atmosphere in which he exposes his own story of shame that led him to have the unprotected sex that infected him years ago. For most, it is the first time they have ever discussed these issues openly and with someone who gives a damn.

Given Scotty’s 19 years in the trenches along the front lines of teen suicide and HIV prevention, I respect his opinion about Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video project in which thousands of LGBT adults talk directly to teens about how their lives get better after high school and why they need to hang on.

“It doesn’t always get better, it’s just not true,” Scotty told me. Scott visits towns and schools, including in major urban centers, where the parents continue to parrot the idiocies of yore and young people continue to berate and harangue anyone who displays Gleeklike tendencies. He has a point. But so does Dan.

True enough, for many, many LGBT adults, especially those who are poorer, blacker or living in far-flung towns away from gayborhoods and rainbow ghettos, life may continue to be a struggle on the sexuality front. And while I wholeheartedly support any efforts to address LGBT teen suicide, even among LGBT adults the suicide rates remain much higher than for straights—along with alcoholism, drug abuse and smoking rates.

Which is why I think the additional video and activist youth project, “Make it Better,” needs support too. Their approach is to get teens acting right now on fighting homophobia in their schools and neighborhoods and exposing the bigotry and lies that lead to the bullying and suicides. To me, these projects approach the reality of LGBT people’s lives from different vantage points and frankly I think they each have the potential to reach people who can make a difference.

The enormous outpouring of support for Dan Savage’s project and the practical, hands-on approach of the “Make it Better” project both have the potential to alleviate suffering and prevent LGBT suicide now. I applaud whatever works.

However, so long as our laws and legislators promote and defend the indefensible inequality that sets the stage for the harassment and the internalized hatred, suicide and abuse will continue at alarming rates. The battle against bullying needs to extend to the biggest bullies on the block, including the president himself whose Justice Department has shamefully appealed the latest ruling to strike down Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

How can we expect our kids to find value in their lives when our own government tells them they are just a bunch of useless queers?

If you’re looking for a campus speaker on LGBT and gender issues or fighting the right, check out some snazzy things that folks who’ve invited me to their campuses have to say:

Sherry Wolf knows her stuff, and delivers smart political analysis with astonishing dynamism and wit that will have you out of your seat and laughing until you cry. Her rip-roaring presentations—about the failure of liberal politics today to deliver real change for minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and the poor—are great for many audiences, including students and activists. Bring her in to speak. You’ll learn more than you bargained for and leave the auditorium wanting to change the world. —Dana Cloud, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Director of Graduate Studies, University of Texas at Austin

DADT and the Logic of Endless Concessions

I’m not a legislative guru, but I did go to high school. When snide bullies shove you around and demand your lunch money day after day only the most self-effacing loser responds by not only forking over the contents of their wallet but tossing in their physics homework to boot.

The Democrats’ attempt to pass repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, along with the immigrant reform DREAM Act, via a war funding bill went down to defeat yesterday. To be honest, I thought it was predictable. As I wrote last week, it was also a totally unnecessary and unprincipled concession for LGBT activists to throw their support behind $700 billion for wars and occupations in order to end a policy that even the overwhelming majority of Republicans now oppose.

Perhaps we can use this as a teaching moment. Endless concessions to the wingnuts are not producing gains for working people and oppressed minorities, but fueling the right wingers to demand —and win—even more.

Most Americans wanted genuine, single-payer universal health care—instead we got a plan that more deeply entrenches private insurance in the long-term and led to 40 percent increases on health care premiums today.

Millions of Americans celebrated in the streets when Obama won, not only expecting an end to wars but an end to an era of racial division and repugnant cultural values. Yet in the face of Republican Islamophobia around the “Ground Zero mosque,” we have Democrats like Obama who one moment give a nod to religious freedom and the next cave in to the crux of the issue by suggesting that building a mosque near Ground Zero may not be wise, as if all Muslims are stealth terrorists. Most Dems have just remained silent on the issue, while Sen. Harry Reid echoed the more tempered bigots.

Millions of LGBT activists have mobilized over the last 18 months to demand repeal of DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act and even marched by the hundreds of thousands for full federal equality. Yet now we have activist leaders and bloggers conceding that we must accept Harry Reid’s cynical congressional maneuvers to insert repeal of DADT through reactionary bills like war funding. Why?

Today’s New York Times quotes Northwestern law professor Andrew Koppelman making the salient point: “The gay rights movement has been a spectacularly successful movement for cultural change.” Exactly. Why should we pretend as though LGBT folks remain the pariahs of yore and grovel at the feet of any legislator to allow our rights be slipped in through the basement door?

What’s more, how can we expect solidarity from our Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters—who are the victims of this war funding—if LGBT progressives are willing to throw them under the bus when the Dems offer divide-and-conquer shenanigans? Well-meaning people and sincere LGBT activists are being swindled into thinking that we must opportunistically place our own demands for equality against our desires—and others’ urgent needs—for an end to these wars.

What’s so tragic in this case is that popular consciousness is moving in our direction as a result of our activism.  We not only shouldn’t do this, we don’t need to!

We are equal and must start being treated that way legally. While politicians of both parties treat our rights as if they are playthings, we don’t need to act as if theirs is a sane strategy.

Gang, we’re not in high school anymore and we don’t need to let ourselves get picked on by bullies—whether they’re on the Republican football team or the mathlete Dems. Let’s have the self-respect to brush ourselves off and reiterate our demands on our own terms.

If we are going to suffer some setbacks, can we at least hold onto our dignity and humanity and act in the spirit of solidarity that got us this far in the first place?

Sherry Wolf  is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak on The Struggle for LGBT Liberation and How Can We Unite to Fight the Rifght at your campus, community center or union hall for a moderate fee. Wolf is the associate editor of the International Socialist Review and author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, named one of the Progressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at yahoo.com or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.

Too High a Price For Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Let’s not get hoodwinked into thinking the only way LGBT people can win our rights is by abandoning our principles.

Sen. Harry Reid’s insertion of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)—and the pro-immigrant DREAM Act—into a bill for nearly $700 billion in military spending is a cynical maneuver. Many journalists characterize it as a means of shaming the Republicans into a dilemma over Pentagon spending. But that band of bigots has no shame. The really insidious aspect of this defense appropriations bill sprinkled with reforms is the attempt to corral LGBT people, immigrant rights activists and our allies into supporting war funding.

Don’t.

I’m not a constitutional scholar or legal expert. If I were, I wouldn’t be living in a 400-square-foot pad in Brooklyn with a kitchen that dates back to the era of 8-track tapes. So I cannot offer readers a specific legislative route to repeal DADT, but I can add.

Most of the American population, the president, leading generals, troops, the authors of that noxious discriminatory legislation—and even 77 percent of Republicans support repeal of DADT. Why can’t this reform, that Obama and the Dems have promised repeatedly, be passed on its own merits?

Progressives should not accept that the only way we can advance our equal rights is over the backs of our Iraqi and Afghan brothers and sisters. Abandoning our opposition to war and militarism is too high a price.

Exactly what is holding up repeal of this continued discrimination against LGBT people in the nation’s largest workforce?

The Dems are using the midterm elections as an excuse for paralysis. But they’ve held both houses of Congress for four years and the White House for nearly two of those. The Dems’ refusal to deliver the goods they were elected to produce is what accounts for the “enthusiasm gap” everyone is yammering about. Where are the jobs, social and union reforms, a real end to the wars and occupations, and sane environmental policies? All have been tossed aside for the $14 trillion—yes, trillion!—giveaway to the “banksters” (as my pals at Socialist Worker like to call them).

Please, don’t tell me that we must be “practical.” That slipping reforms into war funding is simply the way business gets done in Washington. Isn’t that why activists exist, to challenge the status quo? We’re supposed to be the dreamers. Isn’t that why we celebrate MLK and Rosa Parks—because they were dreamers who cobbled together a social movement to fight for their ideals? Isn’t that what we did last year to build the 250,000-strong National Equality March out of spit and chewing gum when none of the media or Gay, Inc. would give us the time of day?

Let’s not stop dreaming now, otherwise the right will suck us into their nightmare.

We at SherryTalksBack—yup, me and the pooch—are taking the weekend off to do some other work. Meet us back here on Monday for a fresh piece and please be sure to pass this around and let me know your thoughts.

Sherry Wolf is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak at your campus, community center or union hall for a moderate fee. Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, named one of theProgressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at yahoo.com or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.