Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010: The Year of the Slog

Also posted on DC Agenda.

We took quite a ride in 2009, setting off with the inauguration of our first minority president who had vowed to be our “fierce advocate.” Many of us allowed our expectations to get the better of us and as the year progressed, marriage equality victories in Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire fueled the fantasy that we would gain our civil rights before too long. But by year’s end, we had no choice but to take off our pink colored glasses and see where we really stand with the White House, Democratic Party and American public.

The Obama administration made it crystal clear that LGBT rights is not on top of its agenda and that it was not even going to toss us bones it can well afford: temporarily halting the dismissals of LGBT Americans due to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and not defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In California, the State Supreme Court upheld mob rule. In Maine, representative democracy was again usurped by the masses. Fact is, President Obama has not and will not be the champion we dreamed of, the Democratic Party only wants our money and votes, and while many of our friends, family and neighbors have come around and rallied for our rights, there are still millions who need to be convinced that our struggle for equality is theirs as well.

Now what about 2010? Our president, honorable representatives and august senators will very much remain preoccupied with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the threat posed by instability in Iran, Pakistan, Yemen and North Korea; the moribund economy and high unemployment rate; the unfinished health care reform battle; and whatever else might surface during the year. But most important of all, these politicians will be worrying about November’s mid-term elections. Therefore, abandon all hope you might have of action from the White House and the Hill. Their occupants will be more concerned about keeping their power than doing what is right by their constituents and the nation’s constitution.

In spite and because of the fact that most pols would sooner not touch LGBT civil rights, we and our allies have much to do this year.

In Congress, we need to watch closely and see whether the final health care reform bill includes LGBT-positive provisions. Currently, while the House version does, the Senate version does not. The legislation that comes out of conference should include language that eliminates the tax penalty to people who provide coverage for their same-sex spouses or partners; mandates the Department of Health and Human Services to address health disparities suffered by LGBT citizens; makes low-income persons living with HIV/AIDs eligible for federal assistance; and prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity in the delivery of health care. But as revealed in recent months, power rests in the hands of a few senators who may not necessarily feel any sympathy for us.

If our elected officials actually decide to pile on to their overflowing plate immigration reform, then we have to make sure that our families are not left out in the cold. Unfortunately, the bill recently introduced by the otherwise LGBT-friendly Rep. Luis Gutierrez omits stipulations immigration activists have been lobbying for, particularly one that allows LGBT individuals to sponsor their same-sex partners for residency and citizenship. Proponents of immigration reform will seek the support of conservative forces such as the Catholic and other fundamentalist churches which care more about establishing their god’s reign on the United States than an equitable and just society.

Another thing we need to keep on top of is the repeal of DADT. Barney Frank has indicated that it will be included as an amendment to the Department of Defense spending bill which will most likely pass both chambers of Congress much like the hate crimes amendment did in 2009. However, with the November elections looming, many of Frank’s colleagues will not have the courage to back this maneuver.

Finally, although we have been assured by many in the know that Congress will leave the District’s new marriage equality law well enough alone, the tenacity and influence of fundamentalists and their minions in the Hill should not be underestimated. They have vowed to fight the bill throughout the 30-day congressional review period and beyond. While Republicans and conservative Democrats may let this one pass for now, council member Catania wisely cautions that progress could be undone through mere budget maneuvers in the future.

Indeed, there will be enough for us to look out for, but not much will pass in our favor. Because of the challenging times we are in, the attention of our leaders will be focused on arguably more important things. Because of politicians’ natural instinct to take care of their interests and ensure their survival, it is up to us and our allies to make our interests crucial to their political survival.

2010 will be a slog. We will have to continue our struggle without expecting any major pay-offs. Nonetheless, we must persist in our efforts to change minds and hearts one person at a time and create change at the local and state level. But so long as we patiently and stubbornly chip away, equality will take form slowly and surely.

You can follow me on Twitter @ErwindeLeon

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Hers & His: It Need Not Be Like This

In time, most of us will get invitations to both same-sex and different-sex marriages and it will be interesting to see if nuptials will differ much in terms of rituals. I do not mean religious rituals necessarily, but "traditions" that have accrued over time, such as bachelorette and bachelor parties, bridesmaids and groomsmen, wedding and groom's cakes, etc. In other words, gender-based practices.

I thought of this as I watched a slide show at a recent wedding rehearsal dinner. Like most others shown at these gathering of tribes, it first flashed pictures of the bride from cradle to young adulthood, then of the groom, followed by their fateful meeting ... all lovely and we know where it ends. Or as many would tritely declare, begins. What stood out for me though were images of the bride and her girlfriends being and doing, well, girly stuff; of the groom and his posse acting like manly men; and of all of them together playing their respective and expected roles at sporting events, parties and other weddings. The odd thing is, while a union is being celebrated, separation is also exalted. Girls wear pink and play with dolls while boys wear blue and play with guns.

What would a same-sex rehearsal or wedding reception Power Point presentation or video look like? I expect the same story line but not many images that glorify gender-based roles and expectations. The beauty of being gay is that we are not held to such constructs, though there are those of us who choose to propagate these social norms and ways of being. There are lesbian and gay pairings in which one plays the masculine role and the other, the feminine. But most same-sex couples defy these categories.

The great thing about this day and age, at least in the West, is that straight people need not buy into these prescribed positions in society. None of this is preordained or "natural" (think male sea horses). It's all a matter of personal choice. It can be rather liberating for straight folks who rebel against how they have been socialized. I suspect that being a bit more fluid and open about our place in a partnership can only help.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Progress stalled but not stopped

Tomorrow, Washington, D.C.'s City Council is expected to pass legislation that will legalize same-sex marriage. The mayor has promised to sign the bill and it looks like Congress will leave it be. By the new year, lesbians and gays will be able to marry in the nation's capital.

Unfortunately, it will be some time before other jurisdictions will - either through legislatures much less referenda - grant marriage equality to its citizens. The defeat in Maine; the weakening of the Democratic Party; the push back from conservative forces; the gnawing anxiety among the masses; and the fear of loss in the approaching midterm elections among politicians has vanquished any resolve they may have had. I can not see how anyone can remain optimistic about prospects in New Jersey and New York. Corzine's loss put the brakes on equality's progress in the Garden State while ossified political dysfunction hinders any movement in the neighboring Empire State.

This means that those of us who support and fight for equality have to accept the fact that it will take longer than many of us had hoped for and that it will be an uphill battle. A rather steep hill at that. But, so is it a fact that history and progress are on our side. So tomorrow, let us celebrate cautiously. Then more confidently when the 30 days have passed during which Congress may intervene.

We will celebrate one state at a time, one court case after another. This will be how it is until we have finally prevailed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dogma trumps charity

Catholic Charities, the social services agency of the Catholic Church, has threatened to stop providing services on behalf of the District if the D.C. City Council approves legislation to legalize same-sex marriage next month. The organization is concerned that if equal treatment of gay people is codified, they will have to provide benefits to same-sex couples just as they have been doing for different-sex couples (that is the reality of taking money from Caesar – one has to abide by Caesar’s laws). More importantly, the nonprofit’s representatives argue that to see LGBT individuals and families as no different from others goes against Catholic dogma.

The City Council, on the other hand, reacted appropriately by not giving in to blackmail. They are the people’s representatives, and their mandate is to uphold man’s laws, not some perceived divine injunction. Thankfully, they are more concerned about justice and equity and are determined to do what is right by D.C.’s citizens. Fact is, they and the District have nothing to lose if Catholic Charities refuses to take government money. There are a lot of outstanding social services providers in the market that will welcome much-needed funding and have no issue with treating everyone fairly.

What troubles me though is how the Catholic Church puts principle before people. How an idea - in this case, that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are abominations and their families abhorrent - far outweighs the needs of those that benefit from the services they provide. How it outweighs the fact that their tradition, holy scriptures and God mandate them to serve the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed and the needy. They would rather lose funds crucial to providing succor to their constituents – homeless people and families; at risk children; people living with disabilities; immigrants and refugees; and adults and families in crisis – than provide benefits to the few employees who happen to have been born LGBT.

This is nothing new, however. The church hierarchy is so obsessed with the gay menace that they put so much time, money and energy into stalling equality rather than focusing on people who desperately require aid. They focus on a minority that only wants equal treatment rather than on their struggling parishes. In Maine, the diocese spent well over half a million dollars to defeat the state’s same-sex law while parishes continue to close and church membership drops. Nationwide, seven Catholic dioceses have sought bankruptcy protection since the church abuse scandal erupted seven years ago.

Unfortunately, this disconnect between the real needs of real people and Catholic dogma extends to other issues and other parts of the world. In the predominantly Catholic country of the Philippines for example, powerful, well-fed and lavishly housed bishops have been opposing government-sponsored family planning initiatives, even though such a policy would alleviate poverty and address overpopulation. With a total land area roughly the size of Italy divvied up into 7,107 islands, the Philippines is a pretty crowded place, and six years from now, its population will hit 100 million. Currently, a third of Filipinos live below the poverty line. Fifteen percent – over 13 million people - live on less than $1 per day. Yet the Catholic Church would rather allow millions of children to be born into lives of destitution and despair than permit the faithful to use contraception.

So let Catholic Charities sever its ties with the government of Washington, D.C. Let us give our taxpayer dollars to agencies that do not discriminate.

This post is also available on Washington Blade.

You can follow me on Twitter: @ErwindeLeon

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Marriage Mine Field

Comments on my latest Washington Blade post highlight how fraught marriage - the word, the act and the institution - is to LGBT individuals. For some, marriage has come to symbolize the cause of our marginalization and oppression. It embodies heteronormativity, how being straight is the right and "normal" way, as well as heterosexual hegemony, how everything is dictated by the lives, mores and norms of the straight majority. It also stands for a patriarchal system that vastly favors heterosexual men and disadvantages women and sexual minorities.
MRD: It's funny how much the gay marriage movement people sound like the conservative marriage movement people.

veeblefetzer: This marginalizing of anything other than a hetero nuclear family is ridiculous. Traditional families are multigenerational, with child-rearing responsibilities shared by grandparents, older siblings, and perhaps a gay uncle and a bisexual aunt or two. The nuclear family is a recent invention, and its glorification as the ideal arrangement for raising children is pure mythology.

stephenclark: Interesting topic, but the conclusion was trite and flippant. Are heterosexual norms so superior in every respect that the wholesale adoption of them by gay couples is unquestionably good? Funny, heterosexual marriages hardly seem like the ideals of love and stability that you romanticize them to be. Can't we have equality yet preserve some of our own norms if we think they're superior? I personally find lots of straight relationship norms dysfunctional, starting with the gendered division of labor.
Marriage is loaded. But it can mean what we'd like it to mean. It could simply be a legal arrangement that ensures privileges and protections the straight majority already enjoy. It could signify a relationship based on love, commitment and mutual respect where no one dominates.

And it could also be a choice not made. But a choice that should be available to all.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Redux: Gay immigrants

Originally posted on Washington Blade, October 16, 2009.

Images from last week’s National Equality March shared and posted on the Internet feature the energized and bright faces of the next generation of activists - the Proposition 8 generation. Not as prominent, if visible at all, are the faces of immigrant members of the LGBT community. As a participant in an Asian Pacific Islander Welcome Event and Summit pointed out, “Many of us are barely out of the closet – getting political is the last thing in our minds.”

I do recall my own experience as an FOB (“fresh off the boat”), trying to survive in New York City while fast-forwarding my emotional, psychological and social development as a young gay man. However, I was luckier than most, as I spoke English and had resources, friends and a decent education which, to some degree, put me on par with most Americans. I also acquired some chutzpah early on, and was soon on my way.

Most LGBT immigrants are not as lucky. Most arrive in the United States armed with dreams, resolve and not much else. Many barely speak English and do not have the education or social capital required to achieve middle class status. Not only do they have to struggle for economic stability and jump through hoops to secure residency or citizenship, they also have to wrestle with coming out to their families and ethnic communities and figure out how they fit into the LGBT community. Often, these women and men are alienated from their own because they choose to live openly. Others feel insurmountable familial, cultural and religious pressures to remain in the closet and thus lead double lives. All this can last for years, even decades. Understandably, marching in Washington is something of which many LGBT immigrants cannot afford the risks.

However, like generations before them, LGBT individuals from all over the world come to America to pursue the promise of freedom, equality and opportunity. Some are escaping political turmoil or personal persecution. Others come to seek their fortune to take care of family back home while building their own future here. Most are drawn to the ideals upon which this nation was founded. We come so that we might live and love freely. In time, with hard work and some luck, many of us integrate into American society and the LGBT community.

We can help gay newcomers by welcoming them and by continuing our efforts to pass legislation that benefit us all. The Uniting American Families Act and the Respect for Marriage Act will allow binational couples and families to stay together in the United States. The repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" will keep gay immigrant soldiers fighting for their adopted country and eventually allow them to be proud and loyal citizens.

Moreover, reforming our health care and education systems; creating jobs; addressing the widening economic gap; and promoting gender and racial equity will also benefit foreign-born LGBT people who tend to lack access to health care, earn less than most Americans and are at the margins and lower rungs of society.

Those of us who are native born or have integrated can reach out to LGBT co-ethnics who are still trying to find firm footing. Within the Filipino American community, for instance, a friend points to the wall that stands between Fil-Ams (Filipino Americans) and Fil-Fils (Filipino newcomers), which has to be taken down. We can also educate our respective racial and ethnic communities about us, their LGBT sisters and brothers. Sadly, homophobia and transphobia are prevalent in African, Asian Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino and other immigrant communities.

Our strength comes in part from our diversity as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; it also comes from our varied and multiple stories, origins and heritages.

You can follow Erwin on Twitter @ErwindeLeon.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Redux: Now what?

Originally posted on the Washington Blade, October 12, 2009.

It was a beautiful sight - over 100,000 lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual and transgender individuals marching by the White House and toward the Capitol demanding full equality and civil rights for all Americans. Yesterday was a perfect fall day, complete with a rainbow that formed in the sunny sky as we were about to start.

It is undeniable that this was a successful grassroots effort organized mainly by people under thirty through Facebook, Twitter and the Internet. I could not help but be buoyed by the energy, passion and determination of the college students walking next to our church group. Like the tens of thousands of young people that descended upon Washington, there was no doubt in their minds and hearts that all people are created equal and that all citizens should enjoy the same privileges and protections.

But in the throng were also women and men from earlier marches. A few were present during the Stonewall Riots forty years ago. The National Equality March was called by activist Cleve Jones and encouraged by civil rights activist David Mixner. Those of us sandwiched between the Stonewall and the Prop 8 generations came together in full force.

Yesterday’s event created an amazing image of power, diversity and unity which we need to take with us to inspire our struggle for equality.

There are those who pit one generation against another as well as argue that one form of political action is better, even more righteous, than the next one. The march was a waste of time – we should focus our energy and resources on state and local fights. HRC is in cahoots with the administration and its fancy black tie dinner is a venue for rich white gay men to dress up and feel political – we should not cooperate with the establishment. Incrementalism is no longer acceptable – we should have all or nothing now. For some, it is either you’re with Cleve or with Joe. There is only one right way.

I believe that there is no one way. Last Saturday, I attended a gathering of small and fledgling Asian Pacific Islander organizations trying to have their faces seen and voices heard in the largely white cacophony which is the LGBT movement. That evening I attended HRC’s annual dinner, as did a number of women and people of color. Yesterday, I proudly marched under the banner of my Episcopal parish in Woodley Park.

There is a lot of work to be done and we need as many people on all fronts - energized youth knocking on doors and stopping folks on the sidewalk; bloggers agitating and needling; talking heads arguing with opponents; insiders working the system; LGBT of color showing up; religious leaders challenging their congregations and denominations; elected LGBT and fair-minded officials aggressively pushing legislation; African American, Latino and Asian leaders fighting homophobia in their respective communities.

In the meantime, the rest of us can help and give as much as we can in crucial civil rights battles, like those going on in Maine, Washington State and soon, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and New York. We can support and vote for pro-LGBT candidates in local and state races. We can donate time and money to LGBT organizations. We can and should come out and tell our stories to our families, neighbors and colleagues.

The reality is, in spite of our showing this weekend, not much has changed. Yet. But the tide is turning and this country is definitely going in the right direction. But we need to keep working and stop harping at one another. We have to realize that this is how democracy, politics and social movements work. We have to accept the fact that there are many voices and valid ways of working for change.

So let us celebrate this success, support each other and keep fighting the good fight. The finish line is up ahead. Look.

Monday, October 12, 2009

No Surprises

I was not the only one who anticipated that the President would not say anything new at HRC's annual dinner last Saturday. As I posted on the Blade (full text below), I knew that he was going to reaffirm his unwavering support for the gays and for equal rights for all Americans. Sure enough he also touted his upcoming signing of the Hate Crimes Bill. Anyone who has been following the administration's actions on behalf of the community could have predicted all this.

I still remain grateful to Mr. Obama for showing up and mentioning lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders in speeches to larger audiences. However, I no longer have any expectations of the Nobel laureate, at least when it comes to LGBT rights. He and his administration have set out their priorities and while we can all argue about what should or shouldn't be in their agenda, fact is, they have made their calculations and are moving accordingly.

We should get over it, roll up our sleeves and start working. Daddy's not going to join us.

Saturday Surprise?

Originally posted on the Washington Blade, October 9, 2009.

This Saturday, President Obama will address our community at HRC’s annual national dinner. While I welcome and appreciate the gesture, I wonder if this is a good idea. Who advises him on all things gay, anyway?

The administration has disappointed us from day one, from the choice of Rick Warren to lead the invocation during the inauguration to the decision to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In spite of candidate Obama’s promise to be our “fierce advocate,” the White House has been at best tepid on gay issues, opting for inaction glossed over by private gatherings, meetings and photo-ops with the LGBT elite.

As such, Mr. Obama needs to deliver more than sweet words this weekend if he is to retain whatever credibility and support he, his administration and the Democratic Party have, particularly among those who don’t get to party at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or have pictures taken with him.

So what might he announce? What concrete action can he tout? His choice of a gay ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa? Progress on hate crimes legislation? The repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (or at least a stay on dismissals of out lesbian and gay soldiers)?

An openly gay ambassador is nothing new. In 1999, President Clinton appointed James Hormel to be our Ambassador to Luxembourg and two year later, George W. Bush made Michael Guest our chief diplomat in Romania. And with all due respect to New Zealand and Samoa, they are not exactly G20 material, like France, Brazil or India.

As for hate crimes legislation - it's been in the pipeline for some time now, so the president can’t really take much credit for that other than signing it into law when it gets to his desk.

That leaves "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" and actually doing something about the insidious law other than musing about it. Among all the things Mr. Obama can do for us, action on DADT will cost him the least political capital. This is a bone he can easily throw us on Saturday.

But considering that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act might actually make it to the finish line within the coming weeks, I think Mr. Obama will (a) reiterate his commitment to full equality for all and (b) use the hate crimes measure as his administration’s good faith deposit to us. There will be no (c). I will be very surprised if he decides to be proactive on DADT.

But it is what it is. I have no doubt about the president’s progressive heart, but I am also aware of the realities of politics and policymaking. He does have a whole lot on his plate. Health care reform. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The growing unemployment rate and widening inequity.

I am grateful for the president’s decision to show up this weekend, whether it is out of sincere solidarity with our community or out of political expediency. Whatever the reasoning of his advisers, the fact remains that every time he mentions us or is seen with us, he bolsters the case for equality for all Americans. It is up to us to continue the struggle after this weekend.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Redux: Who's coming to D.C.?

Originally posted on the Washington Blade, October 2, 2009.

“Who is coming to DC to march with us?” tweets @DCgay. With the National Equality March just around the corner, many are asking how many are coming to Washington “to let our elected leaders know that now is the time for full equal rights for LGBT people.” Will there be 10,000? 100,000? Perhaps even 1,000,000? Or will we have to go the way of Beck and his teabaggers, photoshopping images and declaring that over a million of us protested? If one were to go by the number of fans the National Equality March has on Facebook and followers on Twitter, I think we just might have to consider the revisionist bent of the right wing fringe!

Seriously though, folks have reason to be concerned about how many will show up on the 11th, as it will speak to the cohesiveness of the LGBT movement and reveal its strength. At the very least, a good showing will prove to us more than anything else that our movement is more grassroots than top-down. On the other hand, a smaller crowd than earlier marches in Washington will somewhat reveal that we have become too fragmented, protecting and acting within our silos. Certainly a few would be tempted to say "I told you so," and remind us that they blogged this was a bad idea in the first place.

Aside from wondering how many will come, it might be good to ask who else will come. Who have we individually and collectively invited?

Will there be visible numbers of LGBT African Americans? Asian Pacific Americans? Latinos? Will there be gay and trans immigrants from Central America and South America among the demonstrators? From East, Central, South and Southeast Asia? Will African newcomers be part of the crowd? Will LGBT people from Middle America and the Deep South be represented? Will our families and seniors show up?

What about straight allies? Will friends from the labor, immigrant, and women’s rights movements walk with us? Will members from the wider African, Asian Pacific and Latin American communities come to support and cheer us on? Will religious communities lift us up and not scream condemnation?

It would indeed be a stunning image: diversity in our community and among our supporters. But more than forming an inspiring tableau that sharply contrasts with the 912 protestors’ anger and hate, the presence of those among us who are often left out of the LGBT table will speak to how far we have come as a community. The presence of straight and progressive friends will reflect how much we have changed minds and hearts.

The National Equality March is not ours alone. We need people to understand that our struggle for equality is their struggle as well. We need Americans to see that the promise of freedom and equality for all has yet to be realized. This is the philosophy behind the march. “As members of every race, class, faith, and community, we see the struggle for LGBT equality as part of a larger movement for peace and social justice.”

I don’t know how many will come. But regardless of how many or few do show up, this is just the beginning. The march that began with the Civil Rights movement and passed by Stonewall will continue long after October 11. We will have many opportunities to reach out to our families, neighbors, coworkers and others in our communities, to those different from us, to let them know who we are. Yes, we are queer, we are here and you will get used to it.

You can follow Erwin on Twitter @ErwindeLeon.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Redux: "Glee" - It's so gay!

Originally posted on the Washington Blade, September 30, 2009.

What’s not to like about the television series "Glee"? It seems like a lot of people like the show, especially Twitterati who tweet approval during the telecast or later, as they view it online or in Hulu. The morning after this week’s episode, "Glee" was a top ten trending topic in Twitter. And why not?

Fox touts their new offering as “a new comedy for the aspiring underdog in all of us.” It tells the story of an overly optimistic and naive teacher, Will Schuester, who tries to save a high school’s glee club from extinction and in the process, rekindles his own dreams and lifts up the usual misfits – the nerd, the gay, the goth, the overweight, the disabled. Along the way to redemption, he and the kids face hurdles set up by the scheming cheerleading coach and Mr. Schuester’s own aspirational wife.

Glee’s got it all: hit songs, dance, laughs, intrigue and gays.

And there’s the rub. The gay protagonist, Kurt, is effeminate and quick at the retort: “A soprano who hits a high note in fashion,” according to the program’s Web page. In other words, a stereotype. The other gay character, the former glee club moderator, is also straight out of a mold: a bald headed, middle aged man dressed in preppy pastels and fired for inappropriate behavior with a boy. Both are default media images of the homosexual male. Although the cheerleading coach is not outed (yet), she is aggressive and abrasive and a phys ed teacher. Flamboyant. Old and lecherous. Butch and rude. These characters are one-dimensional clichés. Depth and substance is reserved for main heterosexual characters.

Although Kurt is endearing, he does not give a real picture of our diversity. In any given school, not all gays are like Kurt. There are those who appear and act just like any other teenager. There are gay overachievers, leaders and yes, athletes and cheerleaders. LGBT youth need to see more than the hackneyed “role models.” They have to realize that being gay does not mean having to be fey and fashion forward, or that being lesbian means acting masculine and not caring for skirts. We need to let them know that in this day and age, they can rest in being themselves.

A gentleman I follow on Twitter also points out another issue: “Glee puts a gloss on high-school homophobia.” He was reacting to the relative ease by which Kurt joins the football team to prove to his dad that he is not gay. Indeed, the over-the-top, unitard and headband-clad boy is treated with kid gloves by the football players and for that matter, the rest of the fictitious youth of McKinley High. The ugly truth is that in the real world, Kurt would have most likely been bullied mercilessly, possibly beaten and conceivably driven to suicide.

However, "Glee" is a television show, and meant to be an escape. I doubt its creators ever intended it to be a documentary showcasing the joys and angst of teen life, gay or straight.

Although I still object to LGBT stereotypes propagated by the show and wish that more writers and producers would look around them, their families and communities for inspiration and material, I applaud the show's inclusion of gay characters and themes.

It gives us more visibility and underscores the fact that we are part of society with a rightful place in it. One of its main characters is played by Jane Lynch, an out and proud lesbian. The more people get to know us and get used to us, the more they will realize that we are not that different.

"Glee" also promotes the positive treatment of LGBT people. Although it's be expected that girls would like Kurt and run around with him, it is refreshing to see the popular jock befriending the gay boy. In a way, the show reflects the changing dynamics among today’s youth. More and more teens see LGBT peers as they would any other. But there is still a long way to go, and shows like this one can only help change minds and hearts.

Finally, the show documents the fear, loneliness and pain felt by Kurt - how he has to deny who he is out of fear of rejection. He defensively utters, “I’m not gay!” as many of us have way too often. In the last episode, Glee offered catharsis and hope to many of us, young and old, when the boy finally admits to his father that he is gay. Who didn’t tear up when his dad said it was okay and that he loved him? Who didn’t smile at the thought that it can only get better?

You can follow Erwin on Twitter: @ErwindeLeon.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Just Read: What's Killing Conservatism

In the current issue of the American Prospect, Carl T. Bogus reviews Sam Tanenhaus' new book, The Death of Conservatism.

Bogus begins by recounting a conference he attended four days after Barack Obama's ascendance. Organized by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the participants sought to figure out what's next.
... although the intellectuals on the program seemed to take for granted that conservatism as we know it is dead, none of them ventured an opinion as to why it died, whether it deserved to die, or what was, or should be next.
Tanenhaus offers his postmortem: "the conservative movement finally imploded because, in its senescence, it abandoned the conservatism of Burke, who highly valued prudence and civil responsibility."

Bogus disagrees however.
The modern conservative movement abandoned Burke at its inception. Its ideology has not changed. What changed was that the movement finally came into full power under George W. Bush. Its ideology has not changed. What changed was that the movement finally came into full power under George W. Bush. Its ideology was well-suited for political growth but incapable of governing. A movement disdainful of government believes it does not matter who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A movement convinced it alone possesses the wisdom and virtue believes it patriotic to mislead Congress about reasons for taking a nation to war. And once in power, when decisions have consequences, a movement that cherishes ideology so much that it will adjust facts to fit philosophy, rather than vice versa, will eventually find reality impinge with volcanic-like force - and be buried in the ash.
Apparently, current conservative "leaders" are more than happy to continue the conflagration and bury their own party deeper in the ash.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue – Why Bother?

This post was updated April 9, 2011.

For this term’s adult education forum, my church offers a series on Interfaith Dialogue which includes speakers from other faith traditions. But why bother? This was answered during the first session led by a parishioner and doctoral candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. Her excellent talk follows.
Why Interfaith Dialogue?

Welcome to the first week in this season’s adult forum, and to our series on dialogue. From now up until Christmas, we are going to be looking at a number of the different issues involved in dialogue with other religions – that is, those religious faiths outside of the Christian tradition. I have entitled this talk simply “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” I’m going to explain why Erwin and I think that interfaith dialogue is and should be an imperative part of our Christian experience, and describe what we plan to do over the coming weeks. It’ll be a relatively short talk, so that there will be plenty of time for questions and discussion.

Perhaps a good starting point is to ask what interfaith dialogue is. I imagine that here in the room today we will find a lot of very different answers to this question. Some of you may think it is an entirely good thing, others may be not so sure. Perhaps some of you think that it is something that theologians do, that it exists only at an academic or ecclesiastical level – something that happens at Harvard, or at Lambeth, but not really in the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps some of you have a picture of interfaith dialogue as something really quite fluffy: groups of liberal Christians sitting down and breaking bread with liberal Jews and liberal Hindus, agreeing to love each other, live in peace, and ultimately, saying nothing at all but having a lovely time doing it. Perhaps others see interfaith dialogue as something that Christians do a lot of, without other traditions reciprocating.

To my mind, all of those images are in their own ways correct. Interfaith dialogue can be an intensively academic or theologically heavy enterprise, the stuff of conferences and ecclesiastical councils. On the other hand it can be done in a very fluffy way indeed. And it can often seem like Christians are over-represented in the endeavor.

I want to keep a very broad definition of what interfaith dialogue is and can be. I would contend that anyone who realized that it was Rosh HaShanah yesterday, or said “Shanah Tovah” or “Happy New Year” to a Jewish friend or colleague is participating in interfaith dialogue in a way as equally important as the Cardinals or bishops at ecclesiastical conferences. Interfaith dialogue is about trying to understand and empathize with the experiences of someone whose religious experience is different from our own. And that is what we do when we say Happy New Year to our Jewish friends, or Eid Mubarak to Muslim acquaintances who finished Ramadan, the month of fasting last week. In doing so, we validate their experiences as religious people. We can go on, and indeed we will, to talk about what that means for us theologically, as Christians. But our starting point, in any dialogue endeavor, be it religious or otherwise, always begins with the goal of understanding and appreciating the human experiences of the other, as special and important to them, even though they are different from our own.

Having covered the what, we can move on to the question of why – why do we think that you should listen to three months of talks about interfaith dialogue? Why does it seem to be such a hot topic, particularly in more liberal circles? Why, three years ago, did Georgetown University found a PhD program solely devoted to researching Religious Pluralism?

One way to answer this question begins with standing outside of the Christian tradition, wearing our secular hats, so to speak. Here we ask why interfaith dialogue is important on a world level. The answer, simply put, is that religion is alive. It’s volatile, it’s real, and it matters to people. For many years, from the 1960’s onwards, sociologists believed that the world was on an inexorable path towards secularization, the so-called “Secularization Thesis.” This presumed, in short, that the privatization of religious institutions, and religious values, was an inevitable characteristic of modernity. As the political, economic and industrial infrastructures of modernity spread around the globe, the place of religion in public life would be replaced by secular values and institutions. This thesis has been proven to be incorrect. Religion is today a vitally important and volatile force in public life, from the Christian right here in the U.S., and their ability to affect the political situation in possibly one of the most famous examples of a separation of church and state, to the kind of Islamic militancy that gave rise to the 9/11 attacks. People are still religious in very deep and powerful ways, and it behooves us to understand them, and their cultures and traditions, as we try to work towards the common goals of peace and security.

What is the role of interfaith dialogue here? Religious people, I contend, have a superior vantage point when it comes to political questions of religion and peace. Much of the Western political tradition is predicated on the idea that in the eyes of the state, we operate as individuals. But the reality within faith traditions, is that religious people see themselves as part of theological communities first, and as individuals, second. As Christians, we understand ourselves to be part of the risen body of Christ, of His holy Catholic and Apostolic church. This is not just about being part of All Souls, or even the Episcopal communion, but about being a member of a community that believes itself to be redeemed. In the Jewish faith, Jews see themselves as being a part of Am Yisrael – the people of Israel. In the Muslim tradition, this bigger, theological community is called the ummah, in Sikhism it is called the Khalsa. Nearly all of the major world religions have this in common – seeing themselves as part of a greater theological community.

We could talk about a lot of other things that religious people have in common too. We understand what it is like to believe in a theological tradition and a religious history, what it is like to have a different conception of time – in our liturgical year - what it is like to wrestle with our faith, with our scriptures and with our tradition, as we strive to be not only part of our church, but part of the world. So, we can answer the question of why interfaith dialogue is important on the world stage by saying that our religious traditions are ripe with resources for understanding each other. We have things in common, and we are committed, in different ways, to similar kinds of things. A deeply religious Muslim is much more likely to see his values represented in a deeply religious Christian, than a secular politician, this has been proved time and again.

From this, we can move on to our second perspective for framing the question of “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” This question, simply put, asks why, as Christians, should we be committed to this? Why would we present talks on this subject within our church? Why should it be a part of our Christian life together to try and understand people of other religions? I’m sure we would all agree that just understanding other Christians is sometimes enough of a challenge as it is. There are three reasons that I think that interfaith dialogue should be a part of our Christian religious experience. These are the three themes that we have structured this season’s adult forum around.

The first reason that I believe that we, as Christians, should be invested in interfaith dialogue is simply that it is good to be well informed about the beliefs, cultures and traditions of our neighbors. And in the globalized world in which we live, our neighbors are not only constituted by the people who live on our street, or in our particular neighborhoods in D.C., Virginia or Maryland. It can really include the entire world. I would imagine that a lot of people here today have visited a country where the dominant religious tradition was not Episcopalian, or even Christian. How much more do we get from our own tourist experiences when we understand a little bit about that tradition? How much more of an insight do we get into the diversity of the world in which we live? It is Christ-like, I want to say, to show our neighbors that we want to make efforts to understand their lives and their traditions, because it shows that we value them as people. This isn’t always an ideal that the world, in broad terms, lives up to. European history bears witness to the ugly scars of anti-Semitism, to the stories and rumors that Western Christendom chose to pedal about Jews, and the ways in which those suspicions were acted upon, particularly in the Germany of the Nazi era. Anti-Semitic ideas were common then, they were taken for granted, very few people were prepared to stand up and challenge them publicly. We can be proud of those Christians who did, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example, who stood up and demanded that the Jewish community of Europe be understood on their own terms, and not in terms of the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for his courage.

Today, we find particular misconceptions about the Islamic tradition being spread by the media and on the internet. We don’t have to look very hard to find stories that speak of the many misconceptions about Muslims which have fuelled violence against Muslim communities since the 9/11 attacks. Daily, we can find examples of the ignorant ridicule of the Muslim faith in newspapers and internet magazines. Women in Hijab have endured abuse and even violence on the streets of America and Western Europe, simply on the basis of their clothing. And no one event speaks more loudly to the need for better education about other religions, than the fact that 2 Sikh Gudwara’s were attacked and burned shortly after 9/11, on the mistaken belief that they were Muslim Mosques. As Christians, we spread Christ’s love for humanity when we choose not to believe everything that we read in the media, when we choose to educate ourselves by understanding others in the terms in which they describe themselves. This does not mean we have to agree or even like the ideologies and doctrines of other religious traditions. But it does mean giving them the opportunity to describe themselves in their own terms and being prepared to take these as the terms in which we understand who they are and what they believe.

The second reason that we as Christians should be prepared to engage in inter-faith dialogue is to better express, and to give better expression to our beliefs to others. Perhaps some of you have seen Richard Attenborough’s film of the life of the Mahatma Ghandi, with Ben Kingsley in the title role. There is a particular scene that I enjoy in that film. A Christian priest, a missionary from the UK who has chosen to follow Ghandi on his journeys is sat on the roof of a train, essentially bumming a free ride. Resplendent in shining black shirt and dog collar, he cuts a strange figure amongst the poor Indians who make up his fellow travelers. “You are a Christian?” one asks him. He answers yes. “I knew a Christian once,” the man continues. “He drank blood. Blood of Christ.”

Let’s imagine that this scene took place in real life, indeed, it could have done. What are some of the ways in which we could interpret this little exchange? On the one hand, we could assume that the Indian man in question was extremely ignorant, that he simply did not understand his Christian friend’s beliefs. Or we could perhaps imagine that the finer points of the doctrine of transubstantiation had simply been lost in the translation to Hindi, or whichever language it was that he was speaking.

I want to argue for a third option though. That is, that we participate in interfaith dialogue in order to better express what it is that we believe. That when we see misconceptions of Christianity like this, we first point the finger at ourselves, and ask what has failed in our communication of the sacrament of communion if someone is able to think that it in any way resembles some kind of cannibalistic act?

An even better example of where we – that is, the church through time and place - have failed in our communication of our Christian beliefs is in historical writings from the Muslim and Jewish communities on the personhood and deity of Christ, and of the place of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has studied the history of Christian/Muslim and Christian/Jewish relations, whether in the first century or the twenty-first, will tell you that the Trinity is time and again the deal breaker. Muslims and Jews can understand that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that we believe his death and resurrection to form a new covenant, that we believe he is the fulfillment of the law… but that he is God, and that the Holy Spirit is too? That’s just a deal breaker. Time and again, particularly in historical texts, we see Muslim and Jewish scholars asking why we just can’t give up on the whole Trinity business. If we really believe fundamentally that God is one (parantheses, three) – why can’t we just dispense with it? To them, it just looks like polytheism, a belief in multiple Gods.

Of course, we know that we can’t just dispense with the Trinity. We can’t necessarily explain the finer points of Trinitarian theology, but we all know, I think, that it is an intrinsic part of the Christian theological experience. So again, we are faced with a choice. We can assume that our Muslim and Jewish authors have chosen ignorance, that they have chosen not to understand who we believe that God is, or are not able to. Or, we can choose to ask ourselves the question, what is it about our articulation about who we experience God to be, that has not translated? How have we given anyone the room to think that our beliefs are polytheistic? How can we better translate our experiences of God? Can we use the theological categories of the Jew or the Muslim, to make our communication better? Can we move away from the very confusing Greek or Latin formulations of the Church fathers, without resorting to trite metaphors? These are big questions of course, but ultimately, they form the foundations of our faith. Interfaith dialogue, can be one way in which we can seek to grapple with them.

The third reason that we as Christians should participate in interfaith dialogue is closely related to this. It is so that we better understand who we are, and what our beliefs as Christians are. It is easy not to think very deeply sometimes about what we believe, particularly if we grew up in a Christian community. We get stuck in our routines, we go to church on Sundays, and perhaps in the week too, and we build a community there that we enjoy and get a lot out of. We try to do good and give to charity and generally things go on very well, but then, sometimes, there are those little moments that give you pause for thought. What is it that I actually believe? When a young child asks you to explain what God is. When we think about our deaths, and those of others, about heaven, and what it might be. When we see icons of the many Gods of other traditions, Hinduism for example, and we think, my idea of God is not like that. But what is it? Interfaith dialogue provides us with the opportunities to discursively live out these little pauses for thought in a very real way. There is no better way to really work out what we believe than trying to explain it to another. When I am teaching, I always tell students that the best way to really make sure they understand the topic they are writing a paper about is to try and teach it to someone else. The same is true for our faith lives, I think. In the act of articulating who we are, and what our community stands for, we are given an opportunity for a deep engagement of our own tradition.

For me, this deep engagement of our own Christian tradition has to be the real foundation of an interfaith dialogue. That fluffy conversation that we talked about earlier – where everyone agrees and has a nice time doing it, I’m not convinced that it’s really interfaith dialogue at all. If we don’t have a foundation for our faith, a ground from which ultimately, we are not prepared to move, then we don’t really participate in interfaith dialogue at all, we are just one-open minded person talking to another about their cultures and traditions. And that is not at all a bad thing. But is it really interfaith dialogue? Am I a Christian when I am having a conversation with my Muslim friends, or am I just Laura? Of course the answer is that I should be a Christian in every conversation that I have, that my faith should provide a foundation that I stand on when I look at the world, a starting point from which we understand other people’s conceptions of God while being invested in my own.

Indeed, to the question, “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” the Episcopal Church’s most recent statement on interfaith dialogue reads,“ Because we affirm the foundational Gospel proclamation that "Jesus is Lord", and therefore the Summary of God's Law: "love the Lord your God with all your hearts, with all your souls, and with all your minds, and to love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:29-31; BCP, Catechism, page 851). For this reason we reach out in love and genuine openness to know and to understand those of other religions. Therefore, we commend to all our members: dialogue for building relationships, the sharing of information, religious education, and celebration with people of other religions as part of Christian life. We believe that such dialogue may be a contribution toward helping people of different religions grow in mutual understanding and making common cause in peacemaking, social justice, and religious liberty.”

The Anglican and Episcopalian tradition provides us with unique resources in this interfaith reflection, in terms of our three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason. As Episcopalians, we understand the Holy Scriptures to be inspired by the Holy Spirit of God and at the same time the work of human authors, editors, and compilers. Within our communion there are, of course, varying interpretations of the Scriptures. I would like to suggest that they reveal to us both the invitation and the direction to engage with people of other religions. As the General Convention affirmed: “In Genesis 1:26 we meet the loving God who created all people and all nations, and the awesome majesty of creation bids us humbly acknowledge that the fullness of God's intention is beyond the scope of our limited understanding; God's gracious love is not confined to the Christian community alone. Because of our faith in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, we expect to meet God in our neighbor, whom God commands us to love as we love ourselves (Mark 12:29-31).

Tradition is also an important aspect of our theological understanding. As Anglicans we have always understood ourselves to be in continuity with the Catholic faith reaching back to the ancient, patristic church; we therefore hold the church's tradition in high regard. Historically The Episcopal Church encountered religious pluralism and engaged in interreligious relations in the context of the foreign mission field. However, in many cases this work went hand in hand with American expansionism in a combination of mission and empire. The General Convention concluded that “Today we recognize the need to be aware of the socio-religious implications of mission, but in turn, these examples from our history may help to shape future interreligious relationships….We believe that interreligious work will carry forth God's intention for God's creation. It will provide us the opportunity to reflect the love of God we know through our redemption through the Incarnation of Christ; and it will provide us with the opportunity to build faithful communities that live out the majesty of God's will for the earth with more depth and in more forms than we currently experience within the limitations of our own rich religious community.”

This is what we ultimately hope that you will all get from the next three months of the adult forum is a deeper rooted-ness in your own Christian faith, by understanding and relating to the faith of others. In the context of talking about the faith of another, a big space becomes open for us to step into, to work out where it is that we differ, and where it is as Christians that our boundaries lie. It’s so often hard to find this kind of space when all we do is look inwards, at ourselves. Interfaith dialogue, simply put, allows us to see past the ends of our noses.
So, we’ve structured our program this fall around these three arguments for Christian engagement in interfaith dialogue 1. To gain better knowledge of other traditions. 2. To discover ways to better communicate what it is that we believe, and 3. To give us an opportunity to think more carefully about what we believe in the context of others. We will welcome speakers from D.C’s faith communities, who will tell us about their own traditions that we might become better informed. We will welcome theologians to tell us about some of the theological parameters of interfaith questions, and we will try and provide you with opportunities to think about how we relate religiously, to the religious other. The religious other that as Christians, we believe was also created by God, Hindu and Sikh, and loved by God, Muslim and Jew.
The presenter has a B.A. in Theology and an M.St. in Hebrew and Jewish Studies from Oxford University and an MA in Religion and Social Science from McMaster University in Ontario. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University.

She has since converted to Judaism.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We Are All God's Children

The convergence of conservative "christians" in my neighborhood this weekend reminded me of an article I wrote for The Epistle, a web magazine for Christian gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Jon-Jon and I have known each other since seventh grade and have been friends for over twenty years. We were both reared by liberal Jesuits, attending the same Roman Catholic grade school, high school and university. I had always considered ourselves highly educated, enlightened and worldly men. While he pursued his MBA at an ivy-league school and climbed the ranks of international finance, I followed my own path in New York, where we finally caught up with each other a few years ago.

We reconnected. I met his lovely wife and children and he met my partner, John. We visited each other’s homes and broke bread together on many occasions. We marked birthdays and other milestones through phone calls and parties. It seemed like our bond was forged not only by shared history but was also being strengthened by our renewed friendship.

It thus came as a surprise when he called me at work about a year ago, during the height of the controversy surrounding Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson. Under some other pretext he rang me, but a few sentences into the conversation he asked if he could talk to me about something that “bothered” him – the consecration as bishop of an openly gay man. To him, I must have been the best person to approach, being gay, Episcopal, and partnered with an Episcopal priest.

It bothered him. Although he is a Roman Catholic, he was bothered by what was unfolding in the Episcopal Church. He then proceeded to proof-text, which totally blew me away, as he was the last person I expected to resort to such tactics and take the Bible literally. He cited passages that condemned homosexuality and in turn I reminded him of what our religion teachers and Jesuit professors taught us: that the many disparate books of the Bible were written at particular points in history, by authors influenced by the prevailing culture, for a specific audience. Moreover, I pointed out that God gave us minds to think and discern.

Our conversation volleyed back and forth for a good fifteen minutes until I said, “Jon-Jon, let me ask you: do you believe that homosexuality is a sin, is evil and that homosexuals will burn in hell?” He readily answered yes. “Then,” I continued, “we will never reach consensus. I believe that I am a child of God and that I will be welcomed into my Father’s house.”

We are all children of God -- homosexuals, heterosexuals and transgendered individuals. If we could internalize this reality, this awesome grace, it might free lesbians and gays from the need to justify ourselves to others, especially to those who use the Bible and religion to deny homosexuals our place at the table. Remember that it is God’s table, not the fundamentalists’ nor the pope’s nor any one else’s who claim to have full knowledge of God’s will. It is God who chooses and invites, not man.

A recent episode of Religion and Ethics News Weekly featured a gay Orthodox Jew who has been struggling to integrate his homosexuality with the strict and exclusionary paradigm of his tradition and family. It is a story a lot of gay Christian women and men share. Some choose to turn their backs on their families and religion. Others choose to hope against all hope for eventual acceptance from people and institutions that refuse to love all of God’s children. Although the need for acceptance and love from our families and religious communities is very human and is to be expected, homosexuals have to realize that sadly, this need will not be easily met. Unfortunately for some, it may never be met. However, by owning one’s birthright as God’s own, a Christian gay woman or man will be better able to deal with the rejection of others. The pain and sadness that come with a parent’s disavowal or a pastor’s rebuke will not go away, but how could we not lift our heads up and live our lives with integrity knowing that we have as much right as anybody else to live and love?

This is the greater truth: we are all God’s children. We have as much right as anyone else to live, to love, to be. Let us not spend our lives seeking earthly approval when we have the love and grace of God. Let us live our lives with honesty, integrity and love, as the true sisters and brothers of Jesus and as the true heirs of God.

Jon-Jon ended the conversation by saying that he hoped I was not offended. I answered that I was not. Later that year, he and his family joined me and my partner, along with other family members and friends, in celebrating our new home. We broke bread and laughed, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Erwin de Leon
New York City
May 30, 2004

Image from Rutgers University Libraries.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Stunting of Juan Bakla

“All Filipino gays are transsexuals.” ALL Filipino gays are transsexuals. I cringed. I cringe.

My Armenian hair stylist declared the cliché as he deftly shaped the overgrown hedge on my head. He knew that we were all trans since he hangs out with a Filipino male who loves dressing up as a woman. And he goes out a lot.

Unfortunately such stereotypes persist. The effeminate gay male. The geisha Asian man-boy. The Filipino she-male. In the Philippines, media and society encourage the hackneyed concept. A day or so after my haircut, a friend posted on Facebook a video trailer of Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, a Filipino superhero movie. At first it got me rolling on the floor but as I learned more about its storyline, I stopped laughing.

As Wikipedia explains
Zaturnnah, a powerful and voluptuous female with large red hair and a muscular physique (why she is a Caucasian red head is another discussion), is reminiscent of the DC Comics character Wonder Woman and the classic Filipino superhero Darna. The distinct difference is the sexuality of her alter ego Ada, who is an effeminate homosexual male. The proprietor of a small town beauty salon, Ada receives a huge spiky stone that, when ingested, physically transforms him into Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah.

Ada seeks to prove to himself and his parents that he can make a decent living as a beautician, while remaining haunted by the memory of his father as well as a failed relationship marked by violence. His father vehemently disapproved of Ada's homosexuality, even going as far as dipping Ada's head in wet pig feed to emphasize his disgust. His life experience prompted him to turn inward, seemingly cold and unfeeling, while rebuilding his life from the point of his parents' deaths. Ada's previous relationship with a man named Lester ended dismally, with a punch to Ada's face which seemed to disconnect his jaw.

It was in a small town where Ada rented a space owned by Aling Britney, and set up shop. With his assistant Didi, Ada was on his way to what he believed to be a normal life. That is, until a strange pink stone fell from the sky, granting Ada the ability to transform into a superhuman woman whenever he ingests it and shouts the word "Zaturnnah!" (which was etched on the stone). Didi proudly names the new hero Zsazsa Zaturnnah.
Effeminate homosexual male. Beautician. Who becomes a woman. Who gets the (heterosexual) man.

Let me be straight. I have nothing against effeminate males or beauticians. However, I am so tired of the generalization. But this seems to be the only way Filipinos can tolerate gays. So long as we fit the mold, can be laughed at, and occasionally beaten when machismo needs to be displayed. The worse part is that some Filipino gays buy into the idea or think there is no other option than fey. A few have made careers of selling the concept. It took me a while, but I have come to realize that we don’t need to be caricatures. We can just be who we are, neither camp nor butch.

Infuriatingly, the stultifying model of male homosexuality lives on. Consider a recent “well acclaimed” gay-themed Filipino movie, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. The title alone makes my skin crawl. Its synopsis goes like this:
Maxi is a 12-year-old effeminate gay boy who lives in the slums with his father and brothers who are petty thieves. The story primarily revolves around the conflict between his love for handsome young police officer Victor, and his family's illegal livelihood. Neo-realist in orientation, the film is a tale of lost innocence and redemption amidst the poverty of Manila's slums.

Maxi behaves like a girl, wearing clips in his hair and bangles on his wrists and even wearing lipstick. He is teased by neighbors and former school friends. His sexuality is, however, fully accepted by his two brothers and by his father. One night he is accosted by two men who attempt to molest him, but is saved by the appearance of Victor. Victor does not have a girlfriend, and his sexuality is never revealed. He rebuffs Maxi's advances, only affectionately stoking Maxi's head even when the boy steals a kiss.

After Maxi's father is killed by Victor's boss, Maxi resists Victor's attempts to renew their friendship. The closing scene shows Maxi walking past Victor who has parked by the roadside on Maxi's way to school. He ignores Victor as he passes him, hesitates momentarily as he crosses the road, then goes on his way.
Neo-realist? There are millions of us in the world. Not all of us want to look like women or be women. And no, not all of us pine for the love and protection of a virile straight man. Sorry dudes.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Taming of the Mind

I was appalled by what I witnessed over the weekend. A father selling his headstrong daughter to the highest bidder; the girl’s new husband depriving her food and sleep to break her will; and finally the menfolk gathering to boast who tamed whose woman best.

Yet I was just as dumbfounded that the community watching this spectacle – women included – was delighted by the goings on. No one seemed to get the message of The Taming of the Shrew: women should be subjugated by and subservient to their husbands, who are their lords, keepers, heads and sovereigns. Is this the idea mothers and fathers want their daughters and sons to learn? Did they take the time to discuss the misogyny and paternalism they were enthusiastically applauding?

Yes the play was written in another time and within a different context. And no doubt women, at least in democratic and developed nations, have gained some parity with men. However, the notion that men are the rightful rulers of women, families and communities persist even though hunter-gatherer societies have long ceased to exist save for the remotest regions of the earth. Most means of livelihood can be taken on by either sex, if given the opportunity. Women are now leaders of industry and government. Even in the battlefield, females have proven just as courageous and capable as male soldiers. Both genders can now provide for and nurture a family. Yet somehow, the thought that women are less than men, that women should be dependent on men, that men should be above all others is propagated and at times celebrated to this very day.

Case in point is Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell. In 1989, as a 34 year old army veteran with a bachelor's and master's degree in business and while getting a combined law and second master's degree; interning at the U.S. House Republican Policy Committee; and preparing to run for the Virginia House of Delegates, McDonnell wrote a thesis that promotes power relations of the 16th century and modern day theocracies. In the paper, he describes working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family; advocates for government policy to favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators;" and deems as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples. Although the politician claims he was younger then and that his views have changed, well, he wasn't exactly a naive twenty something at the time and he is a politician who wants to be elected in a blue state. And sadly, there are millions of Americans just like him if not more medieval.

The thing is, why can’t a couple be equals? Why does one have to control the other? Why can't both contribute and care in equal measure?

The thing that dismays me is how people don't ask these questions and how they are very much like the defeated Kate, whose independence and thought have been tamed by manly Petruchio.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Faithful Servant, Fierce Advocate

This week, the Kennedy family lost a loving patriarch, America, a great senator, and minorities, a fierce advocate. Throughout his long career, Senator Ted Kennedy fought for the basic rights and human dignity of those often ignored and dismissed, of those with little or no power. Immigrants. People of color. Low income and poor families. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.

A devout Roman Catholic, he lived out Jesus' mandate to love one's neighbor. He did his best to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and heal the sick. He worked hard to pass immigration, education, health care and civil rights legislation that made this country stronger and us better. He was a good example of a public servant whose faith inspired his work but who never allowed his tradition's dogmas and doctrines to dictate public policy or our daily lives. He respected the separation of church and state and cherished core American values of freedom and equality.

It has been said that his sense of social and economic justice stemmed from his upbringing as a Roman Catholic. He understood the New Testament's radical message of upending the status quo and having a place at the table for all of god's children. No one person or group is chosen or favored. In a way, he surpassed his own church in his humility and admission that he was a flawed human being. He had room in his heart and life for all people. He lived by the spirit of his faith, not by its man-made rules and laws.

By his example and inspiration, let the work go on, the cause endure, hope live and the dream never die.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summer in the Melting Pot

Summer in New York City is a hot, muggy, crowded, filthy, pungent and at times, cranky affair. Hanging on to a subway pole can inspire a mad dash to the nearest bodega for a small bottle of Purell. Yet riding the subway in less than pleasant conditions reminds me of what I love about the place: its diversity. Crammed together are New Yorkers of all ethnicities, complexions, tongues, ages, professions, stations, fashions, orientations and persuasions. Tossed in for good measure are tourists from all over the world.

Last weekend’s visit captured this amazing heterogeneity. I enjoyed Bryant Park with a Colombian American graduate student. I attended my first House ball at Roseland with a White Puerto Rican architect. At the House of Latex Ball, African American and Latino gay and transgender people strutted, danced and vogued, blurring gender and social lines. I had brunch in Chelsea with an Irish American Episcopal priest and his Latino partner of over 25 years. I had dinner at a Mexican restaurant with a native Virginian comfortable with now being a minority. I sat next to a long married couple at church, one an ardent Republican, the other a hardcore Democrat. I was introduced to a group of radical Asian Pacific Island lesbians by a Filipino priest-cum-social worker and his Chinese American husband at a Filipino Thai bistro in the Lower East Side now overrun by White yuppies.

It comes as no surprise then that a couple I know choose to raise their five year old daughter in Manhattan. Rather than moving to Washington where she can easily find work as a policy researcher and he as a financial analyst, they opt for tight quarters in a vibrant city. “I’d like my daughter to grow up among people who are different from her … I’d like her to know diversity.” No doubt the precocious little one will learn and laugh with other children not as fair or fortunate as her.

There is something to be said about having neighbors who look, sound, believe and live differently. Over 8.3 million people speaking roughly 170 languages live within 305 square miles. More than a third are immigrants. Millions more come in daily to work and play. I’ll never forget what a trucker told me years ago. “You know when I came here from Trinidad, I didn’t know any gay people and I thought you were all freaks. But after I moved here, I realized that you aren’t so bad. Actually, you people are nicer to me. You treat me with respect when I deliver furniture.” And at one of my first Pride parades, a Latina cop said, “We like your parade – you guys are fun and well-behaved.”

And I thought as I clung to the clammy subway pole, you’re not too bad yourselves.

Friday, August 14, 2009

We've Come A Long Way ... With Miles To Go

As I went through my files last night, I came across a letter sent to me by Dick Leitsch, one-time president of the Mattachine Society. I had asked him about people of color during the time of Stonewall. He wrote:

It was gay men, white, middle-class gay men, who were the target of society’s fury. It was we who were harassed, entrapped, arrested, beaten up, jailed, fired, denounced. No one seemed much to care what Hispanics and Blacks did in their ghettos – which is apparently why they were not abused as white gay me were – and why their bathhouse was allowed to remain open after all of ours had been closed down. “Who cares if they all give one another AIDS?” seemed to be the attitude of homophobes and racists.

Also, until after the mid-1960s and early 1970s, “Third World” people were more oppressed because of their skin color, language and ethnicity, than because of their sexual preference. One could hide being gay, but other things are less concealable. Thus they were more likely to worry about their status in a racist, xenophobic society than about their sexuality – which might be as much a problem in their own community (or ghetto) as it was in the general community.

Beyond doubt, the LGBT movement has come a long way and we are slowly but surely securing our place in society while gaining piecemeal rights and privileges which most Americans take for granted. Gay white middle-class males have gone the farthest, no longer easily or readily harassed, entrapped, arrested, beaten up, jailed, fired, or denounced like Dick and other out men were in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

However, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders of color continue to lag behind. They are still disadvantaged by their skin color, language, ethnicity and sexual orientation. As Human Rights Campaign’s recent report pointed out:
An overwhelming number (97 percent) of LGBT people of color say basic kitchen table issues such as affordable healthcare, jobs and the economy are important, but just as significant are racial and ethnic equality (97 percent) and prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS (96 percent). Also important is education (95 percent), affordable housing (94 percent), crime and violence (94 percent) and equality for LGBT people (93 percent).
So while many white gay men now struggle for marriage equality, for LGBTs of color, the “most pressing issues centered around the daily challenge of making ends meet, frustrations over trying to get ahead, and concern for neighborhood safety.”

Image from Sociological Images

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tsunami of Change

What is behind the hysterics at town hall meetings? Not who is behind the mob - as it is widely known to be fringe agitators like Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh in tandem with conservative lobbying groups - but what is behind the blind rage that borders on the absurd? Why are these people acting like they are on the Jerry Springer Show?

Although it has been purposely stirred up for partisan ends, I have no doubt that some of the anger is real. However, I do not think that it is all about health care.

We have all witnessed major changes in our country during this first decade of the 21st century. Most of us have done our best to ride the waves and keep our heads above water. Most of us continue to believe in the strength and core values of this nation. Most of us remain optimistic and hopeful. Yet I sense that some feel as if their world is ending, as if water has made it to their lungs and they no longer could breathe. They are flailing helplessly and screaming for an end to this nightmare.

September 11, 2001 was the first big wave that hit us. Until then, America was the only superpower left. But it only took a ragtag band of fundamentalist zealots to end our sense of security and dominance. We lashed back with full force at the terrorist organization behind the attack and struck at another regime for good measure, but eight years, billions of dollars and thousands of lives later, our new enemies thrive, partly due to our own reaction.

In 2007, the second wave hit. Our economy went on free fall and many of us lost our jobs, homes and savings. The American dream of owning a home has been shattered, and the reward of a secure retirement after a lifetime of hard work is no longer guaranteed.

Then more waves in the past year. We elected our first African American president and witnessed the elevation of the first Latino Supreme Court justice. The complexion of America is changing rapidly. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are slowly winning equality state by state while changing the minds and hearts of most Americans, particularly the next generation. Sixteen percent of us are not practicing any religion.

This isn’t about health care. This is about Change. Fear of Change which can be good for the nation. If only some folks could get over their panic and ride the waves with the rest of us.

Image: The Great Wave Off Kanagawa By Katsushika Hokusai

Monday, August 03, 2009

Intergenerational Power

The death of Cory Aquino saddens millions of Filipinos and believers in democracy worldwide. Her life and the peaceful People Power revolution continue to inspire many to work for peace, justice, freedom and equality, including those of us in the diaspora who are doing so in our adopted countries.

But what surprises me is how young Filipino Americans, who were children during that turbulent and hopeful time, thousands of miles away, are inspired by the late Philippine president and the movement she led. An activist for the Asian Pacific American community wrote, "Her rise to the Philippine Presidency through People Power inspired the world and created a new generation of Filipino activists around the world who now carry the legacy of the EDSA Revolution."

Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, APIAVote's Deputy Director, writes:

I do remember it like it was yesterday, which is why Cory Aquino’s death seems to have come so out of the blue.

Through kindergarten and 1st grade, I watched along with my parents for news about the Philippines, even before I could divide, multiply, or construct compound sentences. I saw masses flood EDSA, people against tanks, rosaries against guns. I remember being awed, distressed, anxious-- because this was my country in turmoil and uncertainty. I saw the brown faces behind the candlelight vigils, yellow ribbons against a blue tropical sky, hands shaping Ls for LABAN, hundreds and thousands of Filipinos, with fierce, joyous hope gleaming in their eyes. I remember seeing on TV her slight frame rallying crowds and defiantly speaking against Marcos, conferring with soldiers and nuns, hand in hand with students and socialites.

I remember her coming to Guam before the snap election, a gathering somewhere in Hagatna. Sitting on my father’s lap as people milled about, I caught a glimpse of her skirt, and even then, at that young age, knew the gravitas of this person, this phenomenon, and the sea of change right around the corner. She wasn’t perfect, many say, but who is? Her faith & steadfastness restored democracy and freedom to my homeland. Her rule was sincere, and her leadership continued on past her presidency and continued to hold succeeding presidents accountable.

So, salamat, Tita Cory. For the lessons in faith and the lifetime commitment to democracy. May you rest in peace with Ninoy and God.

A friend of Naomi posted
True heroes never really die; they pass on their knowledge, will & most importantly their courage to the next generation who will continue fighting the good fight whether it may be an individual or systemic one.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Itim at Puti

During a recent visit with family, my mother lamented a change in my young niece. The 11 year old had majorly gotten into swimming and this cost, in my mom's mind, one of Meg's more attractive features: her fair skin. Tingnan mo 'yan - ang itim-itim. Translated verbatim, look at that - very black-black. In my mother's mind, having a china doll's complexion is desirable. She has more than once been called china doll and she never once felt insulted. Afterall, this took a lifetime of avoiding the sun and nightly applications of Pond's. And a few genes from her Chinese and Portuguese ancestors. My mom is tsinita, that is she looks Chinese, and she cherished the fact that her apo was also tsinita. Well, not anymore.

This all reminded me of a conversation my mom and I had a number of times while I was growing up. My brother could easily be mistaken for an Hispanic, while I, a Polynesian. He was and is taller and fairer while I am shorter and darker. Needless to say, when it came to my appearance, I was a very insecure child, adolescent and young adult. Thank goodness I immigrated to New York where I realized early on that there is more than one standard of beauty.

I do understand where my mom is coming from: a culture that values light complexion over dark, puti (white) over itim (black). Fairer skinned folks have some European blood in them and do not need to work outdoors, in the streets or the fields. Darker ones are not as fortunate to have their Malay blood diluted. I know more than one individual who is proud to claim a prayle (friar) as an ancestor. A google search using keywords "philippine skin whitening" nets 464,000 results in 0.14 seconds. "Filipino skin whitening" gets 133,000 entries in 0.16 seconds.

It was such a delight then, to meet over the weekend, three young Asian women who lamented their fair complexions. One, a Filipino American, told me how she found her light complexion freakish next to her parents' and siblings' brown hue. Another, a Filipino Chamorro, chimed in and said that she regularly tans. A third agreed and proudly flashed the bronze arms she had worked hard to achieve. All declared that they want to look Filipino, which to them means darker, less European and more Asian. Southeast Asian to be exact.

Perhaps, after growing up in the United States, my niece will be just like these young women. Beautiful and proud to be Filipino.

Image: The Ethnic Filipino Barbie Collection.