Monday, March 8, 2010

Smokers and Republicans

Last week I wrote a blog about equality for people who are gay. It’s an important idea, founded upon basic American principles.

I gave my impressions of the speeches made by Clay Aiken and Meredith Baxter at the Human Rights Campaign’s “We Are All Made of Stars” gala dinner in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I joined in endorsing marriage equality for LGBT citizens, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the enactment and enforcement of hate crimes laws, and the promotion of programs that would foster understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, protecting them from harassment by other students (and sometimes by faculty as well), and allowing them to learn along with their straight peers in a safe school environment.

These are not conservative positions, but I believe they are the right ones, the ones in accord with the constitutional protections that should be afforded all Americans.

Reaction came from an unexpected source. No, not religious conservatives: there was just one comment invoking the wrath of God.

There were eight comments, out of approximately fifty, that concerned fourteen words in a two thousand word blog...

A joke about smokers and Republicans.

Here’s an excerpt, for context:

You see, I don't care that Clay or Meredith or TR or Neil or Wanda or Ellen or fill-in-the-blank is gay.

I don't care who is Native American or Jewish or who has a disability...

Hell, I'd say I care more if you are a smoker or a Republican!

A lot of things will inform my opinion of a person, but sexuality isn't one of them.

I was writing about irrational prejudices, as crazy in my mind as hating someone simply because they smoke or vote for the GOP.

I went back and read my blog, trying to see how it was possible for anyone to seriously believe that a person in favor of equal rights for everyone, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, age, gender or disability, could possibly be in favor of discriminating against smokers and Republicans.

For those who might be wondering, of course I am not. The “lot of things that will inform my opinion of a person” include every form of exploitation: violence, sexual abuse, drug dealing and other predatory crimes, especially against children.

No, I am not a smoker. It is knowledge, information, and life experience, not bias, that led me to choose to avoid a product that has no safe use.

Besides, I live in Los Angeles. With the air quality here, smoking would be redundant.

Smokers in my life? Almost no one in my extended family, and just a few of my friends, smoke. Some have quit. Some have died.

Some smokers are people I admire, like John Lennon… and Barack Obama.

Adults get to make their own decisions, but I am glad that most of the people I care about most don’t embrace a habit as potentially deadly as this extra weight I’m dragging around.

Yes, I am a Democrat. There’s no prejudice or bias there, either: that was a careful and considered choice, based on what I believe will help create and support the best lives for both majority and minority populations.

I loved my father, even though he was a Republican, as most African-Americans once were.

I have voted for Democrats, Republicans, Independents and a variety of third party candidates, based on my opinion of who would do the best job for the people they represent. I take voting seriously, because women fought far too hard for me to be cavalier about elections, and people who look like me died for the right of franchise.

I am all-too aware that the leaders of my party sometimes resemble the Keystone Kops --- that is, when they are not channeling Beavis and Butt-Head, sitting across the aisle from the loyal opposition, lead by Snidely Whiplash.

There is far too much heat in politics today, to the point where there is little room for light.

Polarization has gradually eroded the ability to hold intelligent discourse on the most pressing needs of America and the world --- but that’s a whole ‘nother blog.

I have friends across all of life’s spectrums, and the same is true of the people with whom I work. For all the people I don’t know who fall under whatever label, I am not inclined to judge them unless they give me reason to do so. I’m funny that way: my default setting for people is “decent and deserving.”

Imagine the fun when I wrote and co-produced a military documentary. It was 1992, and I divided my time between supporting the Clinton/Gore campaign and working on the documentary with Chris, a 20-something Reform party activist for Perot, and Wes, a 50-ish retired Navy man who smoked like a chimney, voted Republican and listened to Limbaugh.

We had some lively conversations, to say the least.

I love them both dearly.

I’m laughing about this a bit, but no serious comparisons can be made about discrimination against smokers and Republicans, in context of the issues raised in a blog about extending equal rights to all.

What a shame if a sense of humor also falls victim to these polarized times.

Let's not work so hard to find offense.

Laughter is not the same as trivializing important issues.

It might hurt a smoker’s feelings, or tick them off, if someone complains about tobacco's odor or if laws limit where a person can light up because of evidence of the dangers of second-hand smoke, but no smokers are being tortured and left to die, strapped to a fence in a field in Wyoming.

Republicans pass in and out of power, and in my life there has been a Republican president nearly twice as many years as there has been a Democrat in office. People who are Republicans have representation in every branch of government. Even when not in power, neither party rises to the status of oppressed minority.

Republicans, Democrats and independents alike can marry, buy property, decide medical and legal issues together, adopt children, work at a job without fear of being terminated solely because of their political affiliation and express their love of country by serving in the military. Perhaps an exception can be found somewhere, but in 21st century America, political party is not cited as the reason for tying a person to the back of a truck and dragging him three miles down the road until he is dead.

There’s a reason the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., not after Joe Camel.

My blog had a serious intent, but like many before me (including Aiken and Baxter in their remarks to HRC, and writers far better than I am, from Jonathan Swift to Jon Stewart), I occasionally leaven seriousness with humor. I wonder: in the interest of clarity, next time I write about a serious issue, should I consider avoiding all jokes?


Perhaps in my next blog, I’ll write about the thoroughly inexplicable things people believe in, and I want everyone to feel welcome…

Even if you’re a vegan or a Democrat.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Clay Aiken and Meredith Baxter: At HRC Gala, The Boy and Girl Next Door Are Gay

Singer Clay Aiken, Actor Meredith Baxter Promote Equality at the Human Rights Campaign's Carolinas Gala in Raleigh, NC

- Clay Aiken addresses HRC Gala. Photo courtesy A. Cotton

Seven years ago, a lamppost thin young man with hair looking like it had been styled by an eggbeater stepped into the public eye. He was Clay Aiken of Raleigh NC, a student teacher working on a degree in special education.

He was a singer with a powerful and pure voice.

Clay was the good man in a world of bay boys: honest, humble, sincere, intelligent, devoted to family and to God. Some might have thought he resembled the guy from your church or school choir who you just knew would make it big some day.

From the start, he was an advocate for inclusion, a champion of children with disabilities who had been shut out of activities enjoyed by their typically developing peers.

There was just a hint of humor in his early comments, but it would become obvious a while later that he was wickedly funny. He was also thoughtful, engaging and more complex than he seemed.

Above all else, though, it was clear that Clay was a profoundly talented vocalist with enviable stage presence.

Yes, Clay Aiken was the boy next door, and more.

-Meredith Baxter speaks at HRC Gala. Screencap from Pam Spaulding's video

I remember Meredith Baxter being on television for as long as I can remember. She was the epitome of the girl next door: when I was a girl, she was the young wife on "Bridget Loves Bernie" (starring with David Birney, who would later become her real-life husband), then the flaxen haired beauty of "Family", and later the liberal and loving mom on "Family Ties". Never relying simply on her beauty in an industry that can be looks-obsesssed, her performances were often thoughtful and complex and compelling.

Both Clay and Meredith, as entertainers, were accepted and embraced into the lives of many in the United States and beyond. Now both have another role: to educate, enlighten and advocate for change.

Neither Clay nor Meredith has a reputation for being edgy or avant garde; in fact, I'd hazard a guess that both are considered by many to be well within the mainstream. Familiar. Relatable.

The boy and girl next door.

But in the case of Aiken and Baxter, the boy and girl next door are gay.

Aiken's disclosure of his sexuality a year and a half ago, at the age of 29 (he'd begun coming out to family and friends about four years earlier) and Baxter's, three months ago at age 62, elicited a range of reactions, from acceptance to scorn.

Growing up in a progressive environment and growing into a liberal social activist, my personal reaction to Clay coming out essentially boiled down to "Oh, really, didn't know that" before wondering if I could make it to New York to see him during his second run in "Monty Python's Spamalot."

You see, I don't care that Clay or Meredith or TR or Neil or Wanda or Ellen or fill-in-the-blank is gay.

I don't care who is Native American or Jewish or who has a disability...

Hell, I'd say I care more if you are a smoker or a Republican!

A lot of things will inform my opinion of a person, but sexuality isn't one of them.

It's been a long time since I was idealistic, but I still embrace the idea that diversity is good and that minorities have as much to offer society as members of majority populations do.

So I don't care. In fact, I embrace you. Sit down here with me and tell me about your life.

It shouldn't matter who is gay and who is straight, other than being a point of information in the picture of the whole person.

And yet I know that almost all of us who are members of a minority far too often have to fight for respect and equal opportunity, and sometimes have to fight for our livelihood and our very lives.

That's tragic, and that's wrong.

I think it's wrong that Clay Aiken or Meredith Baxter or anyone who is LGBT has anything to fear by coming out, but far too often I've seen people who are sexual minorities face mockery, discrimination, hatred and violence.

And though I deeply believe that the timeline for a person to come out belongs solely to them, I am always pleased when a person in the public eye does so.

To come out in the media is to give notice that this familiar face, this person you liked, this voice you admired, this actor you enjoyed, this regular Joe or Jane, this boy next door may differ from who he was thought to be in one aspect, but what was likable, admirable, enjoyable about him remains.

I have seen that one act of coming out change hearts and minds, and sometimes even open a person to the "radical idea" that a LGBT person who is not as mainstream as Aiken and Baxter might be deserving of equal rights as well: even if you don't like them, even if you don't "approve," because in a country founded on the idea of certain "unalienable rights," equal rights for all should not be subject to a vote.

When I say I couldn't care less about a person's sexuality, it is not to imply that I don't appreciate the courage it takes to come out.

It is merely to say that I find it almost incomprehensible that there could be even the smallest degree of negative impact on one's opinion of a person one admires simply because that person is gay.

I know that some people completely reversed their positive impressions of Aiken and Baxter and others when they came out. I think that is ludicrous.

As an African-American girl growing up, the concept of racism was so monumentally preposterous to me that I could barely believe a person uttering a racist statement wasn't kidding.

I know, all too well, that racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance are real.

Last Saturday night, the Human Rights Campaign held its "We Are All Made of Stars" fundraising gala in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was not the first time I was reminded that the boy and girl next door were now an exemplary man and woman.

Meredith Baxter is known and respected for her insights into living a sober life and her advocacy for curing breast cancer. In her first speech about LGBT issues, she began her address by joking "My big public moment was a big news item for about five minutes... I owe a major debt of gratitude to Tiger Woods."

Talking about coming out, she continued "It's a very strange thing to do this official coming out to the world. To tell you the truth, I've never heard of a straight person do that. They just make you guess. They drop hints, some innuendo, the way they walk."

Baxter turned serious when talking about the harassment of a New York boy: "Students said that he ought to die, and one of his teachers told him that he ought to be ashamed. You have to ask, 'What kind of society creates these harassing students and these unsympathetic teachers?' Our society. And when you look at some of the laws of our society, it's not hard to see why."

One of those is laws Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Baxter said, "When our government discriminates against gay soldiers, then our citizens, our everyday folks, are given a federal validation to harass their gay neighbors."

Clay Aiken delivered a message that began with humor, but he delivered it with passion and purpose. Referencing his personal journey, he told the audience at the HRC Gala that "the decision to talk openly about your sexuality is a really difficult and confusing one. And I know that, sometimes I think more than anybody. But I also know that the power of truth and living honestly is very liberating. So what the hell took me so long?"

He then launched into a ringing refrain, that "It's about damn time" that every American be afforded the same rights, in fact as well as in law.

As happens so often with Aiken, hundreds of media outlets picked up the story of his HRC speech in his home town. Oddly, some members of the mainstream media as well as a number of bloggers seem to think that this is the first time Clay Aiken has raised his voice in support of gay issues since coming out in September 2008. Aiken's speech at the HRC Dinner was at least his third appearance promoting equal rights for the LGBT community over the past year.

In February of 2009, he was the presenter for Tyra Banks' Excellence in Media Award at the 20th Annual GLAAD Media Awards. Writing and delivering the speech to introduce his good friend, Clay mentioned that Tyra was being honored for "(giving) air time to some of the issues that our community cares about most, like marriage equality, gay and lesbian people of faith, and transgender people. She includes, embraces and celebrates... because she knows it's right."

In April 2009, the Family Equality Council, honoring Clay as a positive public face for gay parenthood, presented him with the Equality Circle Award at their dinner at Tavern on the Green in New York City. Clay deflected recognition of himself, concentrating on the trailblazers who had come before him and the work that still needs to be done.

"I've only been doing this for eight and a half months, and so the hard work, and the most important work, has been done by many of the people in this room... I'm just humbled to be a part of this group and to be a gay dad," Aiken said.

Then, addressing the importance of allies, he continued, "I think it's just as important nowadays when we have individuals who are straight and are being activists for gays and lesbians and transgender and bisexual people... It really is going to take a lot of effort on your part as well."

(Parenthetically, Clay has also been an active fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS going back to his appearance in Heather Headley's "Home" in May 2004, continuing through his performance of "The Prayer" with "Spamalot" co-star Hannah Waddingham at the 2008 Easter Bonnet Competition, and with two years as the top fundraising entry for Broadway Bears.)

He's still at the beginning of his LGBT advocacy, but he's off to a good start.

Some are also expressing surprise that Clay wrote his own speech, which includes the powerful catchphrase "It's about damn time." I am not surprised at all.

I had the honor of writing the master and mistress of ceremonies' scripts for four galas for the National Inclusion Project (formerly Bubel/Aiken Foundation) and I can testify to the fact that Clay wrote all of his own speeches for those occasions. I only wish I could have written for him but, as HRC's speechwriters found out when Aiken declined their assistance, you can't put words in the mouth of the kind of person Clay Aiken is. He is an eloquent and gifted writer, a thoughtful, inspirational and funny speaker and I think it is obvious that, for the things to which he is deeply committed (inclusion for children with disabilities through the Project, support for children in crisis through UNICEF and now support of equal rights for the LGBT community), Clay speaks perfectly well for himself.

Clay Aiken is finally being recognized for his thoughtfulness, his intelligence, his humor and his dedicated activism for the causes he believes in.

It's about damn time. ;)

I applaud Clay Aiken and Meredith Baxter for their powerful advocacy of equal rights for all. I am humbled and honored to count myself as a straight ally of the LGBT community. Your message resonated with me, and I hope with many more who aren't LGBT.

As an African American and as a woman, I am still in the struggle for equal rights. I recognize myself in you.

Your cause is just and your lives are of value.

You are not alone.

Your struggle is mine.

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?
--- Rabbi Hillel

The time for equal rights for all is now, and it's about damn time.

Transcript of Clay Aiken's Speech

Some of you were thinking when you saw my name on the billing tonight…It’s about damn time.

Whether you make the decision to… whether you come out to your family or to your friends, or make the decision to come out in a supportive group like we heard about in Providence Day School in Charlotte, or to do so on the cover of a magazine --- the decision to talk openly about your sexuality is a really difficult and confusing one. And I know that, sometimes I think more than anybody. But I also know that the power of truth and living honestly is very liberating. So what the hell took me so long?

I was waiting, like so many folks are waiting, for change --- for attitudes to change, for laws to change --- and I realized that the time for waiting has passed. We've seen throughout our nation's history that all the major civil rights movements, and major milestones in civil rights movements in our country, have come after a lot of waiting and a lot of hard, long-fought battles. Thankfully, while many of us have been waiting, the Human Rights Campaign has been fighting to ensure that LGBT Americans have the same rights that straight Americans take for granted.

As HRC's name implies, our battle is about something much larger than the LGBT community. It's about that most American of notions: that all men and women are created equal. That is, that's with the exception of my son, who is brilliant... but for tonight we will assume that all men and women are created equal.

The belief which this nation was founded on is the cornerstone of our movement and, as I said, it's been the cornerstone of every major civil rights movement in our nation's history.

In 1920, when the 19th amendment was passed, ensuring every American woman the right to vote, it was about damn time.

In 1954 --- even though some idiots on the Wake County School Board would disagree --- when Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated our schools, it was about damn time.

In 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, banning discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, it was about damn time.

And last year, when the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed, it was most certainly about damn time.

Now, thanks in no small part to supportive individuals like you, LGBT Americans can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. Slowly but surely --- and forgive me for using a sports metaphor at a gay event --- we're moving the ball down the field. We're seeing an overwhelming shift in the attitudes of younger generations. LGBT youth are feeling empowered to come out in higher numbers than ever before and they’re finding acceptance with their friends and their families like never before.

The LGBT community has seen and attained unprecedented visibility and legitimacy in mainstream America. We have a great deal more work to do to ensure that LGBT individuals and families have the same rights, benefits, same freedoms that all straight Americans have. And I know that my son's world will be a better one, because no one, no matter how hard they try, can stop our progress.

And like those civil rights movements that came before, our message is the message of fairness, of righteousness, of decency. Our message is the message of the future.

Our time is now, and it is about damn time.

Meredith Baxter's Speech:

For more information on the HRC Carolinas gala, equal rights for LGBT citizens and other issues, visit the Human Rights Campaign website.

GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)

Family Equality Council

PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)

My sincere thanks to Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend for her first-rate coverage of the HRC Dinner, which includes video of Clay Aiken and Meredith Baxter's speeches. I am adding Pam's House Blend to my list of Hot Box Office: Essential Sites linked on the right side of this blog: anyone interested in human rights issues, written with humor, grace and intelligence, should bookmark Pam's site and visit it regularly.