Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gender-Bending Musical in the Upper Peninsula

Our niece is graduating from High School. The call came from the family matriarch to appear for the graduation. The gay uncles found out the niece is appearing in "High School Musical" the weekend before graduation. The gay uncles said they'd rather see the musical than the graduation. All parties were fine by that decision. Reminds me of the "Gay? Fine By Me" t-shirts. So her two gay uncles packed up the car and the dog and headed out for the weekend.

Sounds pleasant. The downside is the brother teaches at Michigan Tech. The drive is at least ten hours from Ann Arbor (in southeast Michigan) to Hancock, MI. Hancock is located on the Keewenaw Peninsula of the Upper Peninsula. The Keewenaw is the bit of land that juts into Lake Superior. You would need a boat to go further north.

The trip is 540 miles entirely within Michigan.
To put that in perspective, a trip to Washington, DC would take us through Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the District of Columbia...and it is ten miles shorter.

Our friend Mike loaned us a Garmin for the trip. Garmin is a GPS system. It works remarkably well. It has me worried. I believe my main function in our relationship is getting us from one place to another. Garmin does this better than me, and does a multimedia presentation as well. How can I compete with that?

Garmin was flawless until we reached our final destination. It kept trying to send us to a non-existent road. We found out later the road used to exist. We are all too familiar with this phenomonen. The Ann Arbor Homoplex (\aut\ BAR, Common Language, Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project, and SH\aut\ Cabaret and Gallery) is located on Braun Court. Every online and satellite map believes Braun Court is a real street that can handle traffic, and that it goes from Fourth Avenue to Main Street. It does not. Braun Court stops at an alley halfway to Main Street. We get calls on a regular basis from people cruising up and down Main Street looking to turn on to Braun Court.

At last we find our hotel and head out to the highlight of the weekend. Our niece is appearing in a production of "High School Musical".

A little background.

Being a Disney nut, I have certainly heard of High School Musical. Zac Efron and the show are almost as big as Hannah Montana right now. But I really knew nothing about the show. I was in a car with a few Theater nuts about a week ago and asked them about the show.

Nut #1: "Wild Dogs could not drag me to that show"

Nut #2: "Its like Grease without the music, lyrics, choreography or story"

I explained I was heading to the Upper Peninsula to see my niece in one of the featured male roles in the show. "That", they both agreed, "would be worth seeing".

So off we went to see the Copper Country Intermediate School District, All-School Gender-bending production of High School Musical.

What can I say about the production? The main reason our niece was playing a male role was lack of male talent, not because the director was trying to make a statement about gender. She is athletic (National Junior Olympics), deep voice, tall, sinewy, and musically talented. And she was fabulous (of course). There were several other strong performances. There were also several budding homosexuals who 'sold' their roles, regardless of their talent. And finally, there were a bunch of kids who did not know they were supposed to play to the audience and could barely carry a tune.

In other words, it was like thousands of other high school productions. So much for the northwoods gender-bending high school musical.

Searching for any signs of gay or queer culture is difficult in the Upper Peninsula. The only gay bar is a (very straight) bar called "The Gay Bar" in the village of Gay, MI. For gay culture we had to settle for a couple of great antique stores. From the safety of Ann Arbor it is easy to forget how far the gay civil rights movements has to go.

But even more dispiriting than the lack of gay culture was that on our drive home we drove through snow between L'Anse, MI and Marquette, MI. This should not be happening in late May.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Smoking Ban in Michigan Restaurants

Both houses of the Michigan State Legislature have passed a version of a comprehensive smoking ban that would cover all bars and restaurants in the State of Michigan. The bills are different, and will have to be resolved. It is still possible that this smoking ban will be derailed. However, it is also possible that the ban is near-at-hand.

Some bars and restaurants have been fighting this legislation. The main reason the ban has not passed until now is the powerful Michigan Restaurant Association (MRA) lobby.

Many states, counties, and cities across the country have passed similar bans, and the news for bars is actually good...with a caveat. The initial result is a downturn in business. But an upturn begins very shortly thereafter. Within 3 to 6 months business is better than before. Here's what happens:
  1. Smokers decide they don't want to go out to non-smoking bars. Business drops
  2. Smokers start dealing with the new reality, and start returning to the bars within weeks.
  3. Non-smokers take a while to start coming out. After all, they've been trained for years to stay away. But they eventually realize that they can go out to bars, too.

I am looking forward to making my bar a non-smoking bar.

Why (I hear you ask) didn't you change earlier if that is what you want for your bar?

Simple...if a bar acts unilaterally only step one (above) occurs, and the bar goes out of business. This is something that has to happen over as wide a geographic area as possible, or it does not work. For the first five years the first floor of the \aut\ BAR was non-smoking. The instant the kitchen closed it was dead. We could not keep bartenders on those shifts.

Martin and I used to belong to the Michigan Restaurant Association (MRA). We decided not to renew because it was such a conservative organization, and we didn't want our dues lobbying for some of the causes we did not believe in. However, while members we did try to cause a little trouble.

Every year the MRA holds a "Lobby Day". Members are encouraged to travel to Lansing and lobby their representatives on a variety of issues. Matt and Rene Greff of Arbor Brewing, and Martin and I would show up. We were always grouped together since we were the wacky Ann Arborites. I guess the powers-that-be in the MRA figured we would cause less damage together than if we were spread out over the capitol.

We would walk in to a legislator's office and Rene would assertively paraphrase Howard Dean, saying "We represent the Democratic Wing of the Michigan Restaurant Association".

She would then hand them the position papers from the MRA on smoking bans. Then we would give OUR opinion.

Over the course of a couple of years we saw other MRA members joining our view. Interestingly, they too recognized that bans needed to have wide geographic scope to work. However, they were not looking at the public health issue directly. Instead they saw lawsuits on the horizon from non-smoking workers claiming they were forced to work in unhealthy environments. The bar and restaurant owners wanted the legislature to help them out of their dilemma.

And that is why the Republican-held State Senate actually passed the more aggressive ban.

I used to smoke, and like any addict I still consider myself a smoker. I just haven't had a cigarette in a bit over ten years. And also, like any addict, I realize that other addicts cannot be told to stop. They will have to face their demons in their own time and their own way. My desire to see the smoking ban is not to "force people to quit". It doesn't work that way.

It may actually help promote a non-smoking culture that will make it easier for people quit, or discourage people from starting in the first place. I am not optimistic about those possibilities, and that would be a lousy reason for the ban. That would be as effective as prohibition. The most important reason for the ban is to guarantee a safe environment for people at work and at play. Imposing smoke on other people is not only unhealthy. Its rude. And I can't believe how rude I used to be. So let's legislate some manners.

What do you think of smoking bans? If you want this one you should contact your State Representative immediately and let them know what you think.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Fred Phelps - Agent of Hate

Fred Phelps announced he was coming to the Ann Arbor area.


He has been a regular visitor over the years. That's because we believe in faggotry...including anal penetration (That verbiage comes from Fred's own press releases).

I'm not being fair to Fred's message. He doesn't believe you have to do the dirty deed to be condemned to hell. You just have to be supportive of queers to earn eternal damnation. You could belong to an inclusive church, allow a gay-straight alliance in your school, put on a production of The Laramie Project, and so much more.

For this protest he is condemning the Campus Crusade for Christ. I guess they are accepting homos now.

Y'know, if the guy was sincere I might have a little sympathy for him. But here's the real story. Fred makes his money through lawsuits. He has never gone to any seminary or religious school. He is not a minister. He is a disbarred lawyer. Keep that in mind. It is all about the money.
And if you want the full-documented version check out the Southern Poverty Law Center. They did an exhaustive report on Fred's tactics.

He has been known to the gay community since the 80's when he started protesting funerals of gay men who had died of AIDS. It was sick. But the straight community figured it was a free speech issue.

More people came to know him when he protested at the funeral of Matthew Sheperd. Matthew's brutal murder touched a nerve in many parts of straight America. But again, most of straight America thought of him as the sideshow clown in this tragedy. And we believe in free speech, right?

Meanwhile, queer America was starting to figure out how irrelevant Fred was becoming. We joked about him, made fun of him in movies, and our own strategy which we have named Every Minute Counts. Fred came to protest the \aut\ BAR. We marginalized him economically by pledging money for every minute he was protesting. The money went to the LGBT Community Center. In other words, the longer he protested, the more money he helped us raise for a cause that he cannot stand. It preserves his free speech, and let the message be about our response, not about his hate. And I think it really kills him since it is all about the money. We are raising it at peaceful counter-demonstrations and he is not.

He needed to change his strategy. His hateful message was not provoking the attacks that let him get those lucrative lawsuits. He had to push more buttons.

Fred was the first of the wacko evangelicals to claim that 9/11 was God's revenge on America for allowing all that anal penetration to happen. But evangelicals with a lot more press and media coverage than Fred were making the same claim.

That is when he hit upon the idea of protesting soldier's funerals. Rather ironic since our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq can be seen as America's holy wars. But Fred saw it differently. He claimed that these American boys were dying because other American boys were diddling with each other. It did not need to make sense. It just had to push some buttons.

And it did.

Suddenly straight America cared. Suddenly it was no longer a free speech issue. Laws were passed to preserve the dignity of military funerals.

I actually believe that some of these laws are well-crafted. They let Fred hold his signs, they just demand a certain distance from the actual services. Its a good compromise that allows Fred his free speech, and gives mourners at least a little space from his vitriole. I just wish that they had enacted these statutes about twenty years ago so that all those men who were perishing during the height of the AIDS epidemic could have been allowed peaceful and respectful memorials.

As it happens, Fred was a no-show at his announced Ann Arbor area appearance. Too bad. The Eastern Michigan University LGBT Resource Center ran an "Every Minute Counts" pledge drive. They had received pledges totaling nearly $27 for every minute he would have been there. In addition, the Coors Brewing Company jumped in and said they'd match the first $1000 raised. They could have raised $2600 for a fund that usually struggles to raise a couple hundred dollars per year. Not bad for a fund drive that lasted less than 24 hours.

I plan on fulfilling my pledge, as if Fred had been picketing 60 minutes (his usual picketing time). I hope others do the same.

Its never too late to support a good cause. You can still pledge at The EMU LGBT Office will contact you to fulfill a 60 minute pledge.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

I Voted on Tuesday

Here's some exciting news:

I voted on Tuesday...and my vote counted.

That's right. Michigan insisted they could not POSSIBLY hold a do-over election. It would be too complex and costly.

Guess what. There was an election this last Tuesday. All of the infrastructure was already there. I went in, poll workers welcomed me (by name, thank you very much). I got a little "I voted" sticker and everything.

There was one contested race on my ballot, a whole bunch of uncontested races, and two school millages. I'm a childless gay man. I have no kids to benefit from the public schools. But I truly believe that a free democracy depends on universal and quality public education. So I voted to keep taxing myself. This tax is not a "tax burden". It is a public investment. (And both millages passed).

And my candidate in the one contested race lost. So be it. That is democracy in action. They counted my vote and everyone else's and the majority wins. Even if only 8.4% of eligible voters turn out, we count ALL the votes.

Sadly, America is getting away from that concept. We saw it in Florida and the nation in 2000. And I still wonder what the heck happened in Ohio in 2004.

Perhaps it is time for me to revive my plan for Ann Arbor to secede from the Union. The original plan was proposed about ten years ago. Chris Kolb kept running for mayor, and Ingrid Sheldon kept beating him by fairly narrow margins. I proposed a parliamentary monarchy. Since (at the time) Ingrid seemed to be our permanent mayor I proposed that she become Queen Ingrid the First of the Grand Duchy of Ann Arbor. Chris was the policy wonk, so he would become the first Prime Minister.

I proposed a zero defense budget. I counted on our one-way streets to confuse any invading army into submission.

I made no provisions for chickens.

Do you think we need chickens in Ann Arbor? Should we secede? And when was the last time you felt your vote counted?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Michigan Conundrum

To all of my Democratic Party Officials, State and National, Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and especially to Howard Dean and Mark Brewer:

In 2004 I was honored and privileged to be a Dean Delegate to the Democratic National Convention. There weren't many of us. Shortly after the Michigan primary Howard Dean stopped earning delegates. The Dean campaign had been a very special campaign that brought a lot of new people into the political conversation. He was a refreshing voice, and I was honored to have worked for his election, and to represent that legion of supporters.

In our congressional district, we elected two Dean delegates. By the rules of the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) the Kerry delegation could have swamped the Dean caucus and elected "one of their own". As it happens several people with a significant voice in the party stepped forward and said that the enthusiasm of Howard's supporters would be needed in the general election. Let the Dean supporters elect the Dean delegates. Even though it turned out to be not enough to get Kerry elected, they were right.

Here's the that point it did not matter to the outcome of the National Convention. Kerry had the nomination sewn up.

Michigan is in a very different position now. The outcome of the nomination process is not yet clear. Personally I am supporting Barack Obama. For that reason I should be happy that Michigan is not being counted. But I am not. I believe in universal enfranchisement. This process has disenfranchised me, and millions of others.

The election was fraudulent. You cannot tell people that an election is not going to count, and then later try and say it does. The results are bound to be skewed...especially if one of the candidate's name was not even on the ballot.

I am not writing with a solution. There were several workable solutions that either the national or state party could have embraced in the past. Those opportunities have slipped by. It is not up to me or ANY VOTER IN THE STATE to produce the solution. We are the victims of disenfranchisement, not the cause.

Blame can be shared between the MDP and Democratic National Party. And you cannot wait until it does not matter and seat a meaningless delegation. And yet, that seems to be what party officials are doing.

The stakes are high. Mitt Romney is going to be stumping for McCain in Michigan. And in spite of McCain's "lost jobs" comments during the primary, he has a history of bipartisan support in this state. Many democrats crossed party lines to vote for him in the 2000 primary. Yes, some of them were thumbing their noses at Engler...and it worked. The McCain victory was the beginning of the end of Engler's electoral political career. But tens of thousands of crossover voters fell for his "maverick" appeal.

I know that McCain is not a maverick. He is a very conservative politician who believes in the war in Iraq. As much as I would detest a McCain presidency, it remains that I have had no say in the selection of the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. And I am campaigning with all the enthusiasm of a disenfranchised voter. Exactly none. And I am not alone.

As I play with an electoral vote calculator I can find scenarios that allow a democrat to win without Michigan...but the options are limited. If the candidates are serious about winning in November, they have to sit down with the Michigan Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee to find a MEANINGFUL solution soon.

(If you have suggestions for a meaningful solution, let me know. Or even better, let Mark Brewer and Howard Dean know.)