Wednesday, July 29, 2009

At Bloggers' Conference, A Revealing Moment

"If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are."--Patrick Stewart, as Capt. Jean Luc Picard, Encounter at Farpoint (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987)

Last night, I attended a meeting given by a New York City mayoral candidate's campaign for local bloggers. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce us to the candidate, and to encourage us to blog about him, so that he would gain greater presence on the Internet. LGBT blogger and radio host DJ Baker brought me up to the meeting, and we sat down to hear what the candidate's image makers had to say. After a brief introduction, the hosts went around the room, asking each attendee to say a little about themselves and their blogs. When my turn came, I said, without fear or faltering, "My name is Nathan James. I'm a novelist, activist, and blogger. I write a blog for and about the LGBT community, and the issues of interest to us."

No sooner had I uttered the words, "for and about the LGBT community", than one of the two young hosts at the head of the table did an epic face freeze. It was as if his face was about to crack open as I said those words. In that priceless, devastating moment, the thin veneer of tolerance was lifted from him, and the revulsion he harbored towards the concept of gayness was revealed. For me, it was an instant reality check , reminding me that even among those who profess acceptance of all (even if only to get their votes), there is still a radioactivity attached to the words "gay and lesbian" that cannot be hidden, covered up, or ignored.

It was at that moment that the campaign lost me. Up until then, I'd actually believed this candidate was gay-friendly, at the very least, open to the needs of our community. Perhaps I was foolish to mention that my blog was LGBT-oriented, in a room full of (ostensibly) straight men and women. But, as Patrick Stewart's quotation at the beginning of this post makes clear, I wanted to state myself without shame. Boy, was I mistaken in thinking there were adults in the room. As the host's face fell, so did the expressions of several other people in the room.

Retired FBI Agent Joe Navarro has written a book about body and facial language, the premise of which is that our faces and our bodies often broadcast much more than our words do. To say that I saw Navarro's principles in action last night would be an understatement. It was at once revealing and upsetting for what it reminded me about the average person's feelings about gays and lesbians, at the close of the 21st century's first decade. I admit, I do rant about the continuing bigotry our community finds in society, but yesterday's experience was something else.

In what I consider a true "teachable moment", I learned that even among educated, professional political operators, there are times when the mask slips off. True, it's back on again in a moment, but once that facade is cracked, there is no undoing it. What I found especially galling, is that several people in the room also reacted the same way our host did, at the mention of the letters "LGBT". Now, I understand that people aren't perfect, and some of my fellow bloggers may even be excused their brief lapse into their true colors--they weren't up there representing the campaign, after all--but the host gets no such free passes from me.

When political operatives host conferences such as these, especially when addressing those who report via the Internet to thousands, even millions of people, they know their words and expressions are being scrutinized. When you get a glimpse of what such a person's true image of you is, and it isn't pretty, then it reveals something about the candidate and his campaign, as well. If the senior staff of an important political organization reveal themselves as revulsed by the community you're there to represent, that lets one know what the tone of the campaign is. That's why they lost me last night, but I do value the sobering reality check they gave me. The journey towards equality and acceptance is far from over. Our work is not nearly done.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rally In Queens Against Transgender Hate Crimes

Yesterday, I participated in a protest rally in support of two transgendered women, Leslie Mora and Carmella Etenne, who were brutally attacked during the past month in the borough of Queens. The rally, organized by local LGBT leader Brendan Fay, drew other LGBT leaders such as Melissa Sklar, openly gay City Council candidate Daniel Dromm, plus City Councilman and Public Advocate candidate Eric Gioia. All voiced their ongoing support for an end to violence against transgenders, gays, and lesbians. Other important speakers inclided FIERCE founder and transwoman Julienne "June" Brown and representatives from Make The Road, a Bushwick LGBT-rights organization.

Thanks to DJ Baker, here are videos of some of the Rally speakers, and their important message to STOP THE HATE, NOW!

Julienne Brown speaks:

Make The Road:

I interviewed Julienne "June" Brown for The Rainbow Collective

Stay tuned. There will be more on this developing story later today. Thanks to all who came out to help end the senseless violence against our LGBT community.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Everette Lynn Harris, 1955-2009

Everette Lynn Harris, the groundbreaking, New York Times bestselling author, has died at age 54. Harris was a black, gay writer whose novels transformed the landscape of modern American literature, beginning with his Invisible Life trilogy, which established him as the voice of the black gay genre, in a time when American publishers wouldn't touch such books. He went on to write eight more books after that, most recently Basketball Jones, which he was on tour promoting when he passed away. Mr. Harris is widely considered to be a "gateway author" of the gay literary genre, opening the publishing world to many modern gay-lit writers, including me.

I first became aware of Lynn and his work when I began my own serious attempts at getting published. I got in touch with him for advice on navigating the publishing minefield, and he was always, always ready with words of encouragement and support. It is largely because of him, that I stuck with it and wrote the books people know me for today. Lynn's struggles with his own sexuality are a recurring theme in his books, and certainly his characters have given life to the parallel struggles gay men everywhere face in our often homophobic society.

Lynn was staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills when he was stricken last night, according to published reports. He had suffered a fainting spell aboard an Amtrak train yesterday afternoon, but appeared to be fine, witnesses said. Despite his complaints about his worsening health, and the stresses of a whirlwind book tour that would have taken him to 10 cities in a little over a month. In a statement this morning, Lynn's publisher Doubleday Random House, Executive Director Alison Rich said, “We at Doubleday are deeply shocked and saddened to learn of E. Lynn Harris’ death at too young an age. His pioneering novels and powerful memoir about the black gay experience touched and inspired millions of lives, and he was a gifted storyteller whose books brought delight and encouragement to readers everywhere. Lynn was a warm and generous person, beloved by friends, fans, and booksellers alike, and we mourn his passing.”

Funeral arrangements for E. Lynn Harris have not yet been announced. I cannot adequately express my shock and sadness at the passing of this literary icon, who was a friend, fellow author, and proud, gay, black man. We will miss you, even as you live on through your words.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Things To Come Reflected In The Past?

Interesting MTV ad reminding us what bigotry and fear leads to.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Less Than"

Recent events around the country remind me that we of the LGBT community are still very much regarded as "less than" the "normal, well-adjusted" members of society with whom we must co-exist. It appears, for example, that gay-bashings and killings are increasing, as witness the assault against my transgendered neighbor, virtually at my very doorstep, or the murder of gay Navy sailor August Provost, or the pair of gay-bar raids in Texas that left one Fort Worth patron in a coma and the cops using the ubiquitous "Gay Panic Defense" as justification for slamming the unfortunate patron headfirst into a wall.

That the "Gay Panic Defense" is in use at all, and more to the point, that it actually actually works with juries much of the time, is more than a little disturbing to me. It spells out in unmistakable fashion, the degree to which gays and lesbians are still looked upon as "deviant", disgusting", "abnormal", and "less than", or inferior, to those who need some person or group they can feel superior to. Consider that Fort Worth police chief Jeff Halstead co-signed his officers' use of force and the "Gay Panic Defense", says a lot about the comfort level public officials have with this justification for violence against the gay community.

As I've noted before, the rules of society with regard to gays and lesbians are often crystal-clear: Do not express yourself in any way as gay or lesbian. For sure, do not show any display of public affection towards your gay or lesbian partner. Do not wear any clothing which even suggests you're gay or lesbian, or as is relevant to me specifically, don't dare express your sexuality through creative means such as writing books, acting, or creating works of art showcasing LGBT life. Any violation of these strict societal restrictions is considered a valid justification for beatings, harrassment, even murder.

Lift the veil of ostensibly "gay-friendly" overtures by elected officials, corporations, and the religious groups, and a darker, uglier truth receals itself: institutionalized homophobia is alive and well in 21st-century America, and still widely condoned. Even in the up-to-the-minute issue of heathcare, gays and lesbians find themselves abused and ignored. New York City's Public Advocate, Betsy gotbaum, recently released a report detailing how gays and lesbians must contend with a healthcare system that is "heterocentric and gender-normative", and further states the obvious, that "LGBT individuals experience hostility and discrimination in care". I've experienced that myself, on several occasions.

Indeed, in all areas of people activity (a phrase coined by black advocate Frances Cress Welsing, who, ironically, is anti-gay, even as she cries for an end to anti-black discrimination[!]), I find that homophobia is getting worse, not better. WE like to comfort ourselves as a society with platitudes like, "We've elected a black President, see how unbiased we are?" But that's missing the point. A person of color is almost always visibly so, and most rational people at least pretend to acceptance while in their presence. Not so gays and lesbians. For us, our whole world is often one big "don't Ask, Don't Tell" zone, and we are invisible as a result.

In a recent conversation with my friends DJ Baker and DexStar G, both lumiaries in New York City's gay community, I was asked whether I characterized myself as "multiethnic gay", or "gay multiethnic. I replied that I was gay multiethnic. When pressed about that choice, I replied that I would be excoriated by others for being gay even before the color of my skin was considered. I believe the level of hatred towards gays and lesbians is that severe. Even communities of color, who should know and understand the importance of tolerance and understanding, slammed me for suggesting a link between black gays and the Civil rights movement. How dare I use something as inconvenient as historical fact!

I'm STILL banging my head into the wall over this...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gay In America: Color Lines Across Rainbow Skies

Last month, I marched in the annual NYC Heritage Of Pride March, the largest Gay Pride Parade in the world. I was joined by Xem Van Adams, a young actor, writer, and filmmaker. After the March, we returned to our daily lives, with thoughts of our day of pride still fresh in our heads. Yesterday, Mr. Adams released his four-part documentary, Gay In America: Color Lines Across Rainbow Skies.

In this insightful film, Adams tackles a prickly subject: Even though the flag of the LGBT Pride movement is a rainbow, meant to highlight our unity and the idea that we are all together in harmony, gays and lesbians in America still segregate themselves along racial and ethnic boundaries.

Even as we celebrated our wonderful, multi-hued diversity along Fifth Avenue, the floats, bands, and even the political statements we made, as Xem's interviewees point out, mask a sadder, darker truth. As a community, we as gays and lesbians still remain deeply divided in our associations, partner choices, attitudes toward other gays and lesbians of different ethnicities, and in our responses to homophobia in the society we all live in.

Xem makes the telling observation that before we as LGBTs can overcome the persecution we face in larger society, we must first overcome our own issues of tolerance and understanding. We are still "divided under the rainbow".

In this groundbreaking documentary series, Xem Van Adams and the people who share their stories and thoughts raise new imperatives and provocative issues for the LGBT community to address. Forty years after the Stonewall Rebellion, this film teaches us we've still got a ways to go. Full equality for our LGBT community won't happen until we overcome the inequalities within ourselves. Hats off to Xem Van Adams and company for bringing us a much-needed wake-up call!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Gay-Bashing At My Gates: Transgendered Woman Attacked, Onlookers Do Nothing

This is my neighbor, Carmella Etienne. She lives nearby in our St. Albans, Queens neighborhood. St. Albans is a highly residential area with well-kept homes and quiet tree-lined streets. It's a community of home-owning professionals, suburban character, and a church on almost every corner. In fact, the largest black congregation, Allen A.M.E. Church, has been a St. Albans fixture since the 19th century. It's one of the largest megachurches in New York State, and its pastor, former Congressman Rev. Floyd Flake is well-known as a political heavyweight in local and national politics. Both President Clinton and Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton made campaign stops at Allen AME, and St. Albans, testimony to the area's political significance.

So what does all of that have to do with Miss Etienne, a 22-year-old transgendered woman who moved to St. Albans from Haiti six years ago? Well, a week ago today, she was horribly attacked by two homophobic thugs who threw rocks and bottles at her, all the while screaming anti-gay slurs and making death threats against her. "If you ever walk this block again", one of her attackers warned, "we'll slit your throat." As I told fellow blogger Rod McCullom, a large crowd had gathered at the corner of 116th Avenue and 199th Street to watch the attack. That's exactly what they did. They watched. They didn't intervene to stop the attack. They didn't dial 911. They just watched. Encouraged by the apathy of my neighbors, Etienne's two alleged attackers, Nathaniel Mims and Rasheed Thomas, told Etienne "Go ahead, call the police. They don't care about people like you", as she tried to reach the NYPD on her cell phone.

Cops from the NYPD's 113 Precinct, which arrested the two bigots, quoted Thomas as saying "I called her a bunch of names. I called her a [deleted] but she didn't see me throw anything." Not "I didn't throw anthing", but, "she didn't SEE me throw anything". Imagine that. Etienne was treated for lacerations and bruises at a local hos[pital, and now says she is afraid to leave her home.

Now, in the week that has elapsed since this vicious attack, only one public official--Queens District Attorney Richard Brown--has made a statement on the assault. Says Brown, "Everyone should understand that these cases, whether they involve ancestry, age, gender, or sexual orientation, will be very vigorously prosecuted, not only because of the effect they have on individuals, but on the community generally." He is the lone voice condemning the attackers and their crime. Not one word of protest or disgust has been uttered by my neighbors, clergymen, or other public officials in regards to this hate-fueled assault. Rev. Flake hasn't said anything. Nor has our local State Senator, Malcolm Smith, whose public offices are just steps from the site of the attack. We haven't heard from City Councilman Leroy Comrie, whose home is also near the attack site. I can only surmise that beneath this quiet suburban facade that is my neighborhood, there lies a deeper, uglier truth: you will be tolerated, as long as you do not publicly identify yourself as LGBT. Cross that line, and you might get hurt, and we, your neighbors, and elected officials, will not do or say anything to help you. We'll watch you get beaten down, blame you for "behaving provocatively", and hose your disgusting, gay blood off our streets when it's over.

This is what my neighbors, local clergy, and elected representatives are telling me by their concerted lack of words or action. They are telling me I cannot be out, proud, and safe on the streets of the neigborhood where I live. I am seriously considering moving away, and leaving the people of St. Albans to live with themselves and their hatred.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Row Over Black Prides In NYC: Updates

This afternoon, I received an announcement written by Lee Soulja announcing a New York City Black Pride event to replace the defunct annual POCC Pride In The City weekend. People Of Color In Crisis (POCC) canceled last year's Pride In The City event amid a cascade of legal and organizational problems. POCC has since shut down altogether. Original NYC Black Pride founder and charter holder James Saunders had been organizing NYC's Black Pride event since 1998. With the abrupt cancellation of last year's Pride In The City and Blackout Arts Festival (pictured, I was supposed to be a panelist at that event), it was an open question whether there would be a Black Pride event at all this year.

Then came this afternoon's announcement, from Lee Soulja in which he deigns to "set the record straight" about Black Pride events for this year in NYC. Soulja says that James Saunders, the holder of the legal rights to the NYC Black Pride event and name, was now associated with his new "Jubilation" project. At the time of this writing, I was unable to discover any websites or links to this new, heretofore unknown event, scheduled for July 31-August 2, according to Soulja's announcement. A telephone message left at Soulja's contact number went unanswered, and I reached out to Lawrence Pinckney and James Saunders, looking for verification of the event. Their reply was, in part, "We have NOTHING to do with any Pride events. Why Lee Soldier [sic] would write something using James Saunders name like that without his permission is deplorable. I have been answering this question all day".

The drama continues. Whither Black Pride events in New York City for 2009? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: James Saunders, of Black Pride NYC, Inc. has posted a statement on his website about Lee Soulja's "viral letter". In his statement, Saunders reiterates that he and Black Pride NYC, Inc. are not involved with events "in the first two weeks of August", citing "Jubilation", "Pride In The City", and "Fire Island Black Out". Saunders states further, "I have asked the author of the email to send a retraction to clarify many of the untruths of his email." More updates on this developing story, as I get them.

UPDATE 2: The Jubilation Black Pride website is up and running, complete with details on events and venues. There is also a Facebook Group with links and contact info. Stay tuned.

My interview on "Maurice Runea: The Show"

Nathan James Summer Reads from The Rainbow Collective on Vimeo.

Thanks to Maurice Runea, Romeo Redwine, and Sekiya Dorsett of The Rainbow Collective for having me on Maurice Runea: The Show.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Was Michael Jackson Gay?

It's been just two weeks since the King Of Pop, Michael Jackson, passed away, and already there's a book in the works which claims the singer was a gay cross-dresser. The book,
Unmasked: The Final Years Of Michael Jackson by Ian Halperin
, describes Michael as "having a taste for young men, not boys", and that the singer had a secret lover in Las Vegas. According to Halperin, this secret lover signed a "confidentiality agreement" with Jackson, before becoming intimate with the pop icon. Halperin also alludes to Jackson's cross-dressing at his Neverland Ranch estate in Los Angeles. While not exactly a surprising revelation about Michael Jackson, these claims, if true, would cast a new light on the singer's life.

If Michael was, in fact, living on the "down low", this would amplify, not diminish, his greatness as a musical genius and philanthropist. For all that Michael struggled in his life with, for all his suffering, if it were shown that he revolutionized pop muusic as we know it in spite of the adversity he faced, this would make his success all the more epic in scope. Struggling with issues of sexual orientation in a largely homophobic society can be a crushing, even fatal ordeal for many of us. That there are plenty of people already vilifying Halperin for daring to even suggest Jackson was gay speaks to this ongoing climate of bigotry and intolerance with which the LGBT community must contend. The attitude is, how dare anybody "besmirch Michael's name and reputation as an American icon", by suggesting this?

What these people don't understand is, if Michael was gay, that's not something against him. In fact, his sexual orientation, as is true for so many LGBT artists, actors, writers, and musicians, might have been the very thing that gave his musical genius its expression. Creativity and homosexuality have long been understood to be deeply connected, and this would doubtless hold true even in Michael's case, if Halperin is borne out by other revelations of fact concerning Michael's life and sexuality. It's a fascinating glimpse into the possibilities behind the unmistakable power of MJ's talents. One day, perhaps, it will no longer matter whether a performer is gay or straight. There will just be the artist and his or her art. But until then, it's worth remembering that if an artist be gay or lesbian, sometimes it's that very aspect of themselves that makes them shine, makes them great. It's not hard to imagine this being true of Michael, too.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Almost Too Furious To Type: Black Children Barred From Phila. Pool

I came across this news item about a group of black summer camp kids who were barred from a Philadelphia swimming pool because its owners and upscale white clientele were "concerned that the [campers] might change the atmosphere and complexion of our club", according to Valley Swim Club President John Duesler. THe sixty black children, all part of North Philadelphia's Creative Steps Day Camp arrived at the pool in accordance with the $1900 fee the camp paid Valley Swim Club for the use of the pool. Although the club is privately owned and operated, its membership page does not specify any restrictions on who may join. The day camp had satisfied the club's requirements and paid its fees in full.

But when the grade-school-age kids arrived at the pool for the first time, chaos ensued. According to numerous witnesses, all of the Caucasian children (the only ones in the pool when the campers arrived) immediately got out of the water. The staff at the pool admonished the camp couselors that "minorities weren't permitted at the pool, and [the black children] needed to leave immediately." Through my tears of fury as I read accounts of this disgusting episode, I was reminded of the 1960s amusement park, Fun Town, which was cited by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1964 speech. It's the park his kids always wanted to go to, but couldn't, as it did not admit blacks, per the Jim Crow laws of the era. Well! Here we are in 2009, and Jim is still alive and kicking.

Not only that, but the operators of the Valley Swim Club seem perfectly comfortable in keeping Jim Crow alive, and tormenting children who will bear the memory and pain of this episode for the rest of their lives. How dare they? This is a crime against the very concept of humanity. "Why", said the bigots who run (and patronize) the Valley Swim Club, "should we have to show the slightest degree of decency or adult behavior?" They took the further step of carefully teaching their own kids how to hate. Certainly people who can afford memberships to such an exclusive swim club, are of sufficient education and intelligence to have some grasp of history. In choosing to repeat some of the darkest chapters of the twentieth century here in the twenty-first, they've raised ignorance and bigotry to new levels. I'll bet they drained the pool after the black kids left, too, and changed the water out. Sickening. The members and owners of the Valley Swim Club should forever hang their heads in shame for their behavior.

Monday, July 6, 2009

This Made Me Smile: Lesbian Teens Voted "Best Couple" At Bronx HS

Sometimes the kids get it. Defying the often homophobic society we live in, students at Mott Haven Village Prep High School in the South Bronx, have chosen a pair of lesbian students as the school's "Best Couple". The seniors, Vicky Cruz and Deione Scott, got four times more votes than the two straight couples competing with them. This is a first, both for the school, and, according to NYC's Department Of Education, the entire city, with the possible exception of Harvey Milk High School, the city's "safe haven" high school for LGBT teens.

It's wonderful to see ignorance defeated too. It certainly appears these girls are well-liked and respected by their peers, and that their sexuality hasn't diminished this one bit. It does give me a glimmer of hope that the LGBT community will find more acceptance in our society in the years to come. Mott Haven's students are teaching us all a lesson in understanding today, and as they graduate and go forth into their adult lives, perhaps they will impart their wisdom onto the rest of us. If the gay and lesbian community is to enjoy better tomorrows than our yesterdays have been, the achievement of these dreams will come from this young generation. Hats off to Vicky, Deione, and the Class of '09 at Mott Haven. You made me smile today.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Living Room Sessions III Tonight at Red Bamboo!

Tonight, Rebel Starr presents Living Room Sessions III at Brooklyn's Red Bamboo Restaurant. This latest in the popular poetry/spoken word series is the first time it's been held outside Manhattan. What makes the Living Room Sessions particularly unique is its engage-the-artists format. After each artist has performed his or her work, the audience is encouraged to open a dialogue with them about the work. It's a fascinating way to discover people's individual impressions about the art presented. Hosted by Likwuid (Queen Of The Queendom), and Back Wordz, the past two Sessions were a huge success. It is amazing to be amongst so many creative people, and partake of the wonderful artistic energy that such a special event generates. I'll be reading new original poetry alongside some truly gifted artists and writers from all over the city.

Immediately following the session, there will be a Reel Soul presentation of the classic Diana Ross film, Mahogany, also at the Red Bamboo. So there you have it, poetry, spoken-word, good food and company, and classic cinema to top it all off!

The Red Bamboo is located at 271 Adelphi Street in Brooklyn, near DeKalb Avenue. Take the C train to Lafayette Avenue, or the G to Clinton-Washington Aves. Living Room Sessions III begins at 6 PM.