Letter From Los Angeles
January, 2011
© 2011 Joel

Arizona Observations

The precise connection between the events of January 8th in Arizona and incendiary right wing rhetoric is, as of this writing, unknown no matter what we’d like to think. Nonetheless, this heartbreaking occasion calls for focusing on the dangers from words that seek to transform political disagreement into hatred, the risks of allowing dangerously deranged people to freely roam the streets, gun ownership issues- especially in states like Arizona- and the chance we take each day we leave our beds.

Quotes of the Issue

“The Chinese now move into sophisticated industries (e.g. alternative energy, information technology, biotechnology, alternative fuel automobiles) while lending us the money to give ourselves a tax break. Someone in Beijing is laughing.” Fareed Zakaria, GPS, 12/12/10

“I don’t see how anyone else’s marriage has anything to do with me. I’m completely comfortable with gay marriage.” Elizabeth Edwards

“Let’s stop feeling sorry for ourselves; it feels too good.” Joel, about political disappointments

“Mommy, why is the orange man crying?” Randi Rhodes on House Speaker Boehner’s penchant for crying and the color of his skin.

Sickest Joke of 2011, Already

I’m genuinely sorry for those dropping birds in Arkansas and Louisiana, but do we really need more illegals? Joel

Businessman of Seasons Past

Old Fezziwig, whom Scrooge sells out in A Christmas Carol, resists the coming industrial age’s bottom line approach to business in favor of “preserving a way of life.” He was as out of date as I am now.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: R.I.P. (Rest in Pieces)

The insult to all fair minded Americans known as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, born of Bill Clinton’s initial political ineptitude, is dead and gone to Hades. We have many folks to thank for its repeal, mostly Democrats. My hero is Joint Chiefs’ Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, probably because his father was a movie publicist and he grew up in Beverly Hills.

Maverick Joe Lieberman led the charge in the Senate, joined, however belatedly, by Republican Susan Collins of Maine. Seven other Republicans defied the party of the South and voted for repeal. I’ve called and thanked each one’s office: Senators Snowe, Kirk, Murkowski, Voinovich, Ensign, Burr, and our summer Senator from Massachusetts, Mr. Brown.

john mccain remains an unrepentant bigot, as does Marine Commandant james amos, whose conviction that gays are unfit for combat influences his men. History is passing these old-timers by. Obama’s views on gay marriage, he says, are now “evolving.” Tomorrow comes.

One piece of unfinished business, though. The land of the brave owes a profound apology to the 14,000 women and men who have been discharged from military service under this benighted policy, and to closeted warriors who’ve saved homophobic ass they did not want. Supporters of DADT ought to place their hands over their empty chests when a gay solider passes by.

Exactly Who They Are

The President and his lame duck Democratic Congress passed an arms reduction treaty with the Russians, a health care measure for 9/11 first responders, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. (The Dream Act failed due to unreasonableness.) Critics of the compromise on tax cuts and enhanced estate tax exemptions like myself need to acknowledge those achievements. If you think that’s only chump change, wait until the new Congress is sworn in.

“Mr. Obama effectively conceded the policy argument to the very people who are seeking- successfully, it seems- to destroy him,” concluded economist Paul Krugman recently in The New York Times.

The president’s tax extension and estate tax compromise with Republicans, which puts us another trillion bucks in debt to you know who, is more than lousy economics. Many are concerned that the president will continue compromising with Republicans, who control this 112th Congress, without a battle. Obama supporters are right to wonder, “What the hell did we elect him for?” The key is to watch what Obama does when it matters most.

I reject characterizing the President as a cave-in wimp, although the sight of his handing over a press conference last month to Clinton was most embarrassing. This contrarian thinks Obama believes that what he does is right, which is sometimes just as troubling.

Obama could have refused to compromise on tax cuts for the rich, then blamed the fearful fallout on the GOP- a gamble few besides myself have favored- or he could have boasted he had won. “All the Republicans wanted was the tax cuts for their wealthy friends,” Harry Truman would have thundered. “Now we know how much they’re willing to pay for that and exactly who they are!”

I would have preferred Obama’s reserving his wrath for Republican lawmakers instead of for his liberal base. And he needs to stop calling Republicans his “friends” and substitute “opponents.” The struggle has just begun. The man who got everyone so excited in 2008 has two more years to pull off more of the impossible. It will be his make or break time, and many of ours, too.

Movie Recommendation: Inside Job

“The best way to rob a bank is to own it.” Bill Moyers

The Democrats are not the wimps liberals sometimes think they are; they’re as beholden to corporate giants as Republicans. And, like their conservative counterparts they need to get re-elected. That’s what our political system has descended to: Cherchez la Buck.

Don’t see Charles Fergusen’s Inside Job on a full stomach, but see it and take heed. After persuasively documenting corruption and collusion in finance, government and academia, narrator Matt Damon warns the worst could be yet to come.

Financial guru James Grant has an idea I like. Hold back executives personally responsible for their organization’s failures. Require that they put their mansions, cars and art collections on the line and risk losing them, as their customers, employees and shareholders have to do.

We’re not helpless victims, even in the face of our powerful opponents. FDR concurrently bucked the interests, saved their asses and the little man’s, too. Let’s stop feeling sorry for ourselves; it feels too good. Pay attention. (Most Americans consider financial industry or healthcare reform, along with anything weightier than celebrity gossip or a television situation comedy, a snore.) Mobilize and act. Pogo said the enemy is us.

The King’s Speech: Still Wanna Be King?

If The King’s Speech, a movie said to be destined for awards, fails to inspire viewers to become speech therapists, or at least to help others manage major problems in their lives, I’d be astonished. The trust and friendship between the therapist and his famous client is at the heart of both the story and the patient’s progress; coldly objective physicians please take heed.

Then there is the movie. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, A+. The actors who play old King George and Edward the Abdicator, a solid A. The remainder of the cast, B-. (Claire Bloom’s and Derrick Jacobi’s talents are buried underneath tons of makeup and poorly crafted characters.) Someone should tell the actor who plays Churchill that in private Winnie didn’t speak like he was orating.

After watching this movie you’ll cease wanting to be king, at least not this king. The emotional vacuum within which “Bertie” was brought up is heartbreaking, the distress accompanying his severe stuttering palpable, and his political frustration unsurprising. See The King’s Speech for the two fine performances and its humanity, if for nothing else.

Book recommendation: War

New York Times correspondent Sebastian Junger’s prose is not the best I’ve ever read, and after all, I’ve seen Hurt Locker. Why does War, then, linger in my mind?

Perhaps because, as Yale historian Paul Kennedy writes in The New Republic, today’s wars aren’t WWII. “General Patton’s style of warfare just doesn’t succeed when you are no longer running your tanks through Lorraine, but creeping, damaged and wincing, through the Kyber Pass.” And because, with only 1% of Americans fighting this war, we have no personal stake in the carnage.

Reporting directly from the battlefield, the “embedded” Junger takes us through the hell of battle and follows up on veteran’s lives once they’re home. War brings home the unimaginable price our troops pay in Afghanistan- and for what? 62% of Afghanistanis want us to remain in their country; 60% of Americans want us out. The commander in chief has failed to argue persuasively for our remaining.

Speaking about freedom of religion, Unitarian minister Galen Guengerich reports his daughter had contemplated enrolling at Annapolis. Recognizing that his only child could have been in mortal danger, Guengerich concludes, “If I am not willing to put myself and those I love in harm’s way (for the freedom to worship as they chose), then I should count myself as a hypocrite and not an American.”

Joel would add that if America is going to engage in chronic warfare, our thoughts on that momentarily aside, we should not allow other people’s kids to do our fighting. Bring back the draft.

Growing Up Gay: a Curtain Call of Names

“The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names.....They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious Creator of us all and the healing embrace that cools their fevers and clears their skin.......” Tom Hanks’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Actor (Philadelphia), 1993.

“AIDS? Thank God, Doctor! I thought you said ‘Age.” Tom Amiano, California State Senator and professional gay comic voicing an age-old gay concern.

The most plausible explanation for the rampant gay sex in the 1970’s is that because gays had been denied the benefits of adolescent dating and socially sanctioned partnerships, these male products of the sexual revolution ran amok. Gay sexual encounters took place in bath houses, parked trucks in Greenwich Village, “tea rooms” (public rest rooms), bars, the bushes and the streets. Same sex marriage, still decades ahead, was unimaginable. The oppressed act out in funny ways, you know. Besides, everyone was doing it- right?

Fortunately, Lloyd and I coupled early, though gay partners often strayed. Who cares where we stick our d----s, the argument went, as long as we come home to one another. Back in New York a teaching colleague who suffered from intestinal amoebas acquired during anonymous anal sex could not believe me. “You don’t do the trucks?” he asked as if something were wrong with me. (He was to later die of AIDS.)

In San Francisco I was shocked to see classes in anal intercourse taught by a physician publicly advertised. A regular feature at Gay Rap was on site VD testing. The epidemic of syphilis and gonorrhea in our community concerned public health officials far more than it did gay men.

To some, venereal disease was a badge of belonging. Their sole objection to treatment was the look of disapproval on the nurse’s face. I was to have a confrontation with such a nurse in the late 1980’s. While collecting signatures to put an AIDS research proposition on the California ballot I approached medical personnel outside of local hospitals. One nurse gave me hell. “I’ve been treating gay men since the start of the epidemic. You would think they would have learned, but we keep getting new cases. Don’t ask me to sign that.” I was angry with her at the time.

Early on in AIDS I was talking with a San Francisco neighbor. “I think we’re safe,” I told him, “because Lloyd and I have never had anal sex.” He roared, “Then you’ve never had sex! There is no sex without penetration.” All right, so we pioneered safe sex. Call us sissies; we’re alive.

I can’t complete this series without telling you what it was like having AIDS. Oh, I’m HIV negative and plan to die that way, but in a sense we’ve all had AIDS.

How many of you know someone, or someone who knows someone, who has died of or is living with AIDS now? I asked a spiffy looking middle aged woman outside San Francisco City Hall for a signature on my petition. “My son died of AIDS. I’m going to a meeting about that now. Of course I’ll sign,” she told me. And when I was a census enumerator in 1990, a man in his thirties told me not to count his partner, who had died of AIDS the week before. What was I to say?

At an AIDS rally in front of San Francisco City Hall at the height of the epidemic, the crowd was asked to shout out names of those they knew who died of AIDS. Our list alone would have included:

BARRY. BOB. CURT. PHIL. TOM. CHARLIE. KEVIN. AUBREY. DON. EMMETT. ERNIE. JIM. KEITH. RAY. MARK. JOHN. RICHARD. PAUL. DARYL. DAN. MICHAEL. SAM. QUITMAN. RAYMOND.

They say a person dies three times: the actual moment of death, at scattering or burial, and on the last day their name is ever spoken. That the AIDS Memorial Quilt, established in 1987, is also called the Names Project is not surprising.

At memorials and funerals as the epidemic moved along, a contingent from The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus often came to softly sing the Irish Blessing.

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face...
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

We saw them in our neighborhood, the walking skeletons often clutching someone, and the sores. The sight of young men disintegrating was absolutely terrifying. How must it feel, I wondered, knowing you’re not going to make it much past thirty?

Reagan’s administration did absolutely nothing, and the Robertsons and Falwells saw God’s hand in AIDS. A gay Republican fundraiser came face to face with Ronald Reagan after he’d left office. “You let my friends die!” he accused the fool who, as president never uttered “AIDS.”

I still have half a file drawer’s worth of folders about aspects of AIDS such as medical developments, government action, AIDS and religion, activism, social aspects, intramural bickering, privacy issues and civil rights. Anger played a role here, too. Where would we be without the members of a deliberately obnoxious organization called Act Up, whose motto, printed against an inverted pink triangle, a former Nazi symbol, was Silence Equals Death. Act Up members acted up, all right; they made certain that drug trials continued apace and that life saving treatments became available.

And generosity surfaced too, lots of it. Neighbors devoted evenings and weekends to delivering meals, holding hands, walking dogs and accompanying people with AIDS to their appointments. Stylists cut hospitalized patients’ hair without charge. Lesbians pitched in like they were sisters. In Manhattan, stagehands gave their time to painting and repairing the homes of infected performers. Little old Catholic ladies fed and bathed the ill. Gay Jews voluntarily took over their Christian brethren’s food deliveries on Christmas Day. Co-workers gave up their coveted vacations so PWA’s could get paid for the time they had to be away.

Idiots assembled, too. The director of development of a major AIDS organization, an acquaintance, confronted me on the street with “And how much have you given to our organization?” in front of a group of his associates. “Not a nickel.” I explained. “What we’ve done is to freeze our tenants’ rents as soon as they are diagnosed. And you know that drive to get AIDS research on the ballot? I collected more signatures than anyone in the state, ” which was true. Dead silence as he turned a shade of purple and we never spoke again.

Some thought they had The Cure. One man was pushing high colonics. A San Francisco Supervisor thought AIDS came from something in the water. A nut case in the Castro told me he had a secret plan to change things. He took the secret to his early grave.

And some doctors. Many worked tirelessly, initially with little direction or information, only to watch their patients die. Others ruined a decade of my life. When I went to the doctor with anything more than a sniffle I was asked “Have you been tested?” as if it were a command. I knew I couldn’t possibly “have it” once the relation of bodily fluids to AIDS was understood. At the first of my two HIV tests the nurse consoled me that if I tested positive I’d “have plenty of company.” When I told an outstanding doctor I couldn’t possibly have the virus her response was, “All gay men are at risk.” That wouldn’t be the first or last time doctors let me down.

For several years the AIDS scare got to me. I died a thousand deaths waiting for my test results, as did many uninfected men I knew. Logic be damned- if I was tested I must have it! I let my fear of test results get the better of me. Consequently, I kept a distance from the afflicted I could have helped.

Living in a gay ghetto for twenty years had gotten to me anyway. The Castro was no longer the premier gay mecca in the country. And I wanted new outlooks, new interests and new friends. I was homesick for any place but where I was. Besides, I’m just a gypsy, as you know.

Before we left I had an unexpected confrontation. Lloyd and I created a comic character we’ve named Ethel, whom we imagined as a member of the Hate Church. She believes that sex is a sin, and that Jesus is an American born Republican who reads the Wall Street Journal. Chicken breasts she prefers calling chicken bosoms. Ethel’s pastor we named Pastor Hates. One morning we encountered Pastor Hates in San Francisco’s subway.

After taking our seats on MUNI during rush hour- I often accompanied Lloyd downtown to his work- I became aware of mumbling from the seat behind us that became more intelligible as we rode on. “God is punishing gays with AIDS” was coming from a fat young man behind us with a Bible in his hands.

Immediately I turned and told him, “Clearly what you’re saying is for our benefit,” and in a voice that could be heard ten cars away, “I’m going to have you thrown off this train and taken in for hate speech.” “You’re the one who’s using hate speech,” he answered back.

A conservatively dressed older woman left her seat and approached the man. “I’ve been a faithful Catholic all my life,” she announced, “and what you say is against everything I believe.” Another woman hollered, “Stop saying ‘Him’; God’s a girl!” We left Pastor Hates outnumbered and in San Franciscan hands.

We moved to New York City in stages; John and me in 2000 and Lloyd the following year. When we returned to San Francisco for a month the following January I felt I had never left and wondered why I’d ever stayed . It was over, but never really, because of the city’s beauty and because of all our San Francisco friends.

Ten years out of The City has had its downsides. Nowhere in New York or L.A. is there a substitute for my beloved World Affairs Council of Northern California, the Bay Area Reporter or the Castro, my gay town square. I’ve been uninvolved in gay politics for many years, but with so many screaming issues I’m getting restless.

Take gay marriage. I’ve been with Lloyd and John forever and I’m all for same sex marriage. A supportive straight friend once asked me, “Why not accept domestic partnership? It’s practically the same.”. I answered, “Tell you what. You and Gail become domestic partners and we’ll get married.” He got the point.

During John Edwards’s run for the presidential nomination, his wife, the late Elizabeth, announced, “I don’t see how anyone else’s marriage has anything to do with me,” adding, “I’m completely comfortable with gay marriage.” Sounds more like, of all people, Cindy (Mrs. John) McCain than Michele (Mrs. Barack) Obama.

Except for the matter of equality, though, I’m no big fan of marriage as an institution. Loving lifelong partnerships between men and women, men and men, and women and women are wonderful, and marital protections are important, but a ridiculously expensive wedding that costs more than a house? Vows before everyone you’ve ever known? The spectacle of multiple marriages? Divorce court? But if heterosexual people have the right to marry, damn it, so do we!

My own gays in the military history is a short one. In 1965, I was called for an army physical at some ungodly hour of the morning in Manhattan. Lloyd had queered out the year before. When I “checked the box” as a dreaded “homosexual” I was sent to see the shrink. The doc was kind and courteous, and I’ve often wondered what he really thought. He asked if I were “fem” or “butch,” or “top or bottom.” In a just world, heterosexuals would be pulled aside and asked the same or more.

The part that hurt was when I received my 4F draft classification. I didn’t like the sound of 4F, but I was off the hook and thought my mother would be thrilled. “Mom, the letter from the allergy doctor worked,” I crowed; “It got me out!” Mom went sadly silent.

I’m still gay, dear readers, and I’m still growing, albeit somewhat older. Suddenly, young people think I’m kind of wise. (I love my young friends dearly, but if they think I’m wise they’re not.) The enlightened younger generation thinks that gay is cool, but I hope we’re just a fad. Some day they’ll wake up and find we’re as unremarkable as anybody else.

None of these young friends are gay. Gay youngsters learn to be suspicious of gays my age, and vice-versa. No one likes to be appreciated solely for his type or for his money, and young gays think we want to put the make on them. No doubt that sometimes happens, but what a shame we can’t be friends.

You’ve probably never heard some of our lingo, like “rice queen” for Asians, or “potato queen” for Asians who like white men. Are gays who like Jewish guys matzo ball queens, and in the case of Mexicans, bean queens? They call gay youngsters who go for older men wrinkle queens, and elders who like their juniors chicken queens. I’ve been a couple of the above myself- you guess which!

Gay kids are members of my family. And like any granddad who doesn’t always understand their lingo, music or their clothes, I want the world, or should I say “a” world, for them. A world in which they are not called faggots or discriminated against because they’re gay. One in which they’re allowed to take their same sex partner to the prom, develop crushes, have broken hearts, then later marry. And go for the opposite sex occasionally, or change their gender if it’s best. And have no need of coming out to anyone. Did you go to your parents and break the news of your heterosexuality with trepidation? Did you come out to your boss about the color of your eyes?

Coming out is still a major issue. Ricky Martin spoke of that with Larry King. My favorite coming out story was told on “Anyone and Everyone,” a PBS special during Gay Pride Week, 2010. A young man who lives in San Francisco came out to his mom in Utah on the phone. She was at first devastated. One night as she cried alone she had an epiphany: God shed His light on gay people, too. From then on, total acceptance of her boy.

But what about her husband? She chose to break the news as they were driving on a business trip. In the days before cell phones the father insisted on pulling over to find a phone right away. He wanted to tell his son he had nothing to be afraid of. The mother said she’d never loved her husband as she had that day. Utah. Mormons, both.

And the note written to a man who had come out to his sister, a nun, in the 1960’s. The sister said that for one brief moment she was “infinitely sad”- because he ever doubted she would accept and love him as he was.

A recent little movie called Were The World Mine provides a whimsical take on coming out. A bullied gay high school boy concocts a potion while rehearsing for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those he sprinkles with the potion instantly fall in love with the next person of the same sex they encounter. When the entire town goes lesbian and gay, and finally back to who they were, everyone understands what loving someone of the same sex feels like. “You lover boys better be at our party this Saturday night,” a formerly homophobic classmate informs our hero and his boyfriend.

My dream scenario for a coming our moment goes a bit like this. “You mean to tell me that my child isn’t that wonderful heterosexual person I’ve been proud of and adore, (Pause for dramatic effect) and that I have a wonderful gay (lesbian, bisexual, transgender bound) child who I’m proud of and adore instead? Come here and get your hug.”

The world is never going to be perfect. For many, rejection will always follow coming out. I’d be satisfied if anti-gay sentiments were in the same dark corner with hatred of anyone for who they are. Ideally, I’d like them all swept out the door.

Thank you all for staying with my story. You, too, are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender revolution, yes, you are, Did my younger readers realize how bad things were when I was their age? And I was among the lucky ones.

Older readers, please be honest. What did you think of homosexual men and women, say, in 1960? What words did you and your kin use to describe them? Did you snicker when you saw one or regard them as perverts who were sick? Or plain disgusting? Perhaps some of the roles we were required to play- the silly queen, the diesel dyke- looked pretty foolish after all.

Did you ever think you’d feel the way you do today?

At its heart, mine is the story of boy, and then a man, who has been undeterred by anyone else’s notion of how to live or what is right. Not once since I discovered I was “one of them” at age fifteen did I consider changing or regarding anything about my being gay as wrong. (Well, one exception maybe. New Year’s Day 1958, I threw away photos I had collected of boys my age. Drat!)

The three of us- Lloyd, John and Joel- know we had it easy. We, and all our friends, avoided being left to bleed to death on a Wyoming fence like twenty-one year old Matthew Shepard in 1998. I highly recommend buying or borrowing the re-released documentary Word Is Out (Mariposa Film Group, 1978), for a better understanding of how lesbians and gays were regarded and treated in mid-20th century America, and more important, what that did to them.

And now more names, of long term couples we have known.

Warren and the late Bruce: married. Derrick and Jimmy: married. Maulik and Keith: married. George and Greg: married. Ken and Patrick: married. Tom and Robert: married. Daniel and Rick, married. Michael and Rob. Michael and Josh. Robert and Joe. Jeff and Howard. Chuck and Bill. Mark and Ron. Everett and Bernhardt. Warren and Dan. Mary Ann and Liz, And Joel, Lloyd and John.

Ken and Patrick had put us on to Sage Sohier, a photographer from Boston who was looking for gay couples for a photo exhibit about long term lesbian and gay relationships she titled “At Home With Themselves.” This heterosexual lady did this because her dad was gay. The photo of Lloyd and me hugging in our San Francisco living room, after having traveled the country, was selected for a college textbook on relationships, a book called A Kiss Is Just A Kiss, and, five years ago, for a spoof on gay marriage in Details magazine.

In 1995, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus guest star Florence Henderson assured that bigotry and misunderstanding would soon give way to acceptance and the light of love. She then led the Chorus in singing "We Shall Overcome."

At about that time, en route friends Derrick and Jimmy’s house one evening, I ran into Jimmy’s younger brother. “I’m on my way to Jimmy’s” I told him. The buffed, heterosexual teenage kid sternly corrected me “You mean Jimmy and Derrick’s!”

Please excuse me now for I have work to do. I must think of another series to please you, and I must continue growing up gay.

Joel: Letters