Monday, August 30, 2010

Can Mehlman ever redeem himself?

Ken Mehlman’s coming out last week elicited a ho-hum from the mainstream press but from the LGBT community, his long overdue admission resulted in a fierce and bitter backlash.

This is understandable. As campaign manager for President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, Mehlman was instrumental in exploiting same-sex marriage as a wedge issue. As head of the Republican National Committee from 2005 to 2007, he advocated the Bush administration’s push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

His actions caused immense suffering for many of us. As Wayne Besen, Founder of Truth Wins Out wrote:
Mehlman cannot deny that his abhorrent actions negatively affected the paths of so many other people. His odious work led to broken families, gay teenagers commuting suicide, LGBT couples who were not able to marry, broken people joining silly "ex-gay" programs and individuals who lost their jobs or were hate crime victims.
Mehlman is trying to redeem himself by raising funds for American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization responsible for the federal lawsuit challenging California’s ban on same-sex marriage. He boasts that he has helped raise $750,000 to date. But is this enough?

Many lesbian and gay couples will undoubtedly benefit from the legalization of same-sex marriages but what about those among us who are more concerned about finding good jobs and keeping the ones we do have? What about those among us who are immigrants or have partners and spouses who are non-citizens? What about queer individuals our own community marginalizes?

Will Ken Mehlman use the connections and power he amassed in exchange for our rights to raise money and fight for all LGBTs and other groups who are not as privileged?

Now that he himself is a minority, will Mehlman have empathy and compassion for other minorities?

I do not know the man personally and only time will tell. I do hope however now that he has unburdened himself by coming out at nary a cost but much gain and has secured for himself a very comfortable place in society, that he would start thinking about other people.

If he does use his gain for the benefit of those among us who are not as lucky and clever, then there might be redemption yet. Otherwise, it will confirm what some of us are thinking that it has been all about Ken.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A shared future?

Originally posted on the Washington Blade

As a gay man, I no longer worry as much about the place and future of lesbians and gays in American society.

As more people get to know us — their sisters, brothers, parents, neighbors and coworkers — and learn that we are not that different, I am confident that it will be a matter of years, not generations, before we gain rights and protections other citizens take for granted.

As an immigrant and person of color, however, I am not as optimistic. There is such raw animus and unabashed prejudice against newcomers and their American families simply because they don’t look, sound, dress, act or worship like most of us.

Laws and policies that institutionalize racial profiling have become the de facto solution to the complex problem of immigration. Amending the Constitution has also been embraced as a palliative, now palatable to those who would otherwise have held the document as static and sacrosanct.

The idea of a community center a couple of blocks away from the former World Trade Center is causing such a furor. The president’s defense of our fundamental right to practice religion has led a White House spokeperson to say:

“…the president is obviously a — is Christian. He prays every day. He communicates with his religious advisor every single day. There’s a group of pastors that he takes counsel from on a regular basis. And his faith is very important to him.”

The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. The income disparity between the wealthiest people and the rest of us has more than tripled during the last three decades. American women overall earn less than men, but African American women and Latinas make far less. More African Americans and Latinos are unemployed than White Americans. One in every four black Americans is underemployed.

As a queer person of color, I am anxious about the place and future of minority LGBT people. I worry about those of us do not look, sound, dress, act or live like everybody else. These are members of our community who do not have the resources, voice or power some of us enjoy due to the accident of birth and circumstance. These are Americans who remain in the margins.

It will be up to those of us who are joining the mainstream and are looking forward to better days not to forget those who are left behind.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mr. President, stop spinning, stand firm

Originally posted on the Washington Blade

The Republican Party and their Tea Party confederates have seized upon a perfect wedge issue for the upcoming midterm elections: the proposed Islamic Center a couple of blocks away from the former World Trade Center site.

More precisely, though, the issue is Islam and the place of Muslim Americans in our society. Unwittingly, the president provided kindling to the fire and rather than address the issue head-on, he has chosen to “qualify” his stance.

On Friday, President Obama addressed a group of Muslim American leaders to mark the holy month of Ramadan. He was quoted as saying, “I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country … [and this] includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

The stance is clear enough. Twenty four hours later, however, after conservatives eagerly pounced on the red meat tossed their way, the president “quickly recalibrated his remarks” as the New York Times put it.

During his family’s visit to the Gulf of Mexico, Obama clarified that he was not in any way endorsing a mosque so close to Ground Zero, but simply pointing out that everybody should be treated equally regardless of religion.

“I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”

Politicians “spin” issues all the time and the president is no exception. Our elected officials tell us what they think most of us would like to hear — or at least what those they fear most would like to hear. In this situation, the White House and the Democrats are worried about the growing anger and dissatisfaction of the general public and the seats they will lose in November. Interestingly, they seem unconcerned about their base’s disenchantment.

At some point, though, political doublespeak becomes untenable and our leaders need to take a firm stance — a principled stand.

Earlier last week, the administration was in a similar quandary. When White House spokesman Ben Labolt was asked about the administration’s reaction to Judge Vaughn Walker’s Proposition 8 ruling, he said that the president has always been against the same-sex marriage ban “because it is divisive and discriminatory” and that Obama “will continue to promote equality for LGBT Americans.”

An anonymous White House aide then reminded everyone that the president has publicly opposed same-sex marriage and he has not changed his position: “He supports civil unions, doesn’t personally support gay marriage though he supports repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and has opposed divisive and discriminatory initiatives like Prop 8 in other states.”

So which is it, Mr. President? Do you believe in equality for LGBT Americans or not? If you do — which you articulated 14 years ago while running for a seat in the Illinois State Senate — then why not come out in full support of same-sex marriage?

If you believe in the right of all Americans to practice their chosen religion, then why disavow your support for a community center which is not in Ground Zero in the first place?

Candidate Obama inspired many of us with his message of hope, which promised equality for all. President Obama repeats the same words, but now they ring hollow. He needs to stand tall again and firmly by his ideals.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Where do we go from here?

Originally posted on the Washington Blade

The Proposition 8 ruling is a major victory but the war for equality is far from over.

The ruling has been appealed by proponents of the ballot initiative and everyone expects the case to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Considering the conservative makeup of the country’s highest court and conventional wisdom that it does not move ahead of the general population, it is highly unlikely that the majority of justices will rule in our favor should the case come up anytime soon.

We do have some time, however, to continue the work we have started in coaxing more of our fellow citizens to our side. Gallup reports that close to 60 percent of Americans believe that “gay and lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal.” The percentage of people who support same-sex marriage is steadily rising. Five states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire — and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriages. California and New Jersey have instituted civil unions. A growing number of states and jurisdictions are providing protections for same-sex couples, albeit often in limited forms.

Still, close to half of all Americans do not approve of us and our families.

Immediately after Proposition 8 passed in November 2008, the blame game started and many fingers were pointed at the African American community. In time, social scientists have established that race or ethnicity had little to do with how a person voted that day. Religiosity, fear and misinformation have been identified as the main impetus behind an individual’s decision to support the anti-equality measure. Age, ideology and other characteristics also prompted a person to support Prop 8.

So now what? How can we counter misinformation, fear and other people’s biases? An article about a married gay couple provides a suggestion. For years, Bryn and James were tormented with verbal abuse by their conservative neighbor — so much so that they got a restraining order against him. When the neighbor’s house went up in flames, though, the men did not hesitate to run to their antagonizer’s rescue.

We do not know if this act of heroism and compassion will be reciprocated. But such acts of humanity and kindness can certainly go a long way in swaying those who remain on the fence. We can show folks that while they may disagree with our “chosen lifestyle,” we are actually good neighbors who deserve equal treatment under the law.

There will always be a small fringe who will never be convinced. But I believe that most people can and will change their minds about us.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Are you Filipino?

Yesterday, while lining up for Thai papaya salad at the Asian Festival in Virginia, a middle-aged Filipino man approached me and posed the same question he had asked each person in the queue. "Are you Filipino?"

My husband and I made the trip to the festival since its organizers were highlighting the Philippines this year. I wanted to see what this gathering was about, to taste some authentic Asian food, and to be around "my people" - Filipinos and other Asians.

Indeed, there was comfort had in being around folks who looked like my mom, lola, titas, titos, cousins and pamangkins. It was fun seeing women in baro't saya and men in barong tagalog. It was heartening to see Filipino-American youth sporting t-shirts emblazoned with the Philippine flag and other symbols of ethnic pride. It was good to be among my kababayans.

But being surrounded by my kind also made me realize how different I am. I hold individualism sacred and personal space dear. I wanted to buy a parasol not to block the sun but to keep people at arm's length. I was grateful not to have to deal with three generations in the swarm that overtook the small patch of park allotted to us.

I also noticed the elitism and sense of privilege from another place and time bubble up. "We are in America now, we are all equal," a voice in my head gently admonished. "No me toques," responded another.

Often have I bristled at people assuming outright that I am Latino. Although I understand why many would think so, since I look more Hispanic than Asian and have a Spanish last name, I want to be seen and acknowledged for who I am: an Asian and a Filipino.

But when it came to answer the odd little man's question - are you Filipino? - I shook my head and said, "No, I'm Mexican." I didn't want him in my space and I didn't want to engage. But my lie did not dissuade him from starting a discourse on the shared history and culture of Mexico and the Philippines, thanks to the Galleon Trade. Or from telling me that I should move to California where there are a lot of Mexicans.

Gratefully, the line inched on and I along with it. In the sweltering heat and humidity, overwhelmed by all the people - my people - I just wanted my papaya salad. The all too familiar accent of the man soon petered out.

"Next time, I'll get my Asian from the Freer-Sackler," I said half-jokingly as we drove back into the city.