This week the New York Giants announced the hiring of former Giant David Tyree as director of player development. I thought this report had to be some sort of sick joke. Coach Tom Coughlin described the job like this:
It is the working relationship with the players to aid them in their continuing education, their development as young men.... It is there to help instruct them, make them aware of the issues and the problems that exist out in the community and the world to try to keep them focused on their job and not fall into trouble.
How exactly is a homophobe -- a man who has worked tirelessly against LGBT rights, supported harmful "pray away the gay" therapy, and condemned gay marriage; was a spokesperson for the notoriously anti-gay National Organization for Marriage; and couches his animus as being based on religious beliefs -- supposed to carry out that job? How is a gay player on the Giants supposed to react to this and feel comfortable and stay "focused" on the job and on his own "development" if he is thinking about coming out or is experiencing anti-gay harassment on the team? How will a player who is anti-gay or doesn't think gays should be open on the team not feel emboldened now to engage in bias, bigotry and harassment himself? What kind of "development" is Coach Coughlin really talking about here? Some have said that Tyree's public stances go back to 2011, when he tried to stop marriage equality in New York, and that maybe he's "evolved" since. But it's been two days now, and we've heard nothing from him, though the Giants defended the hire, saying he's "qualified for the job."
The NFL has been doing its best to clean up a battered image of professional football as being filled with raging homophobes. The groundbreaking drafting of Michael Sam by the St. Louis Rams went a long way after years of anti-gay tirades by players getting only a slap on the wrist from the NFL.
But clearly Michael Sam didn't solve professional sports' gay problem, as his drafting exposed the homophobia that still permeates the culture. We saw players tweeting homophobic remarks and sportscasters who couldn't deal with Sam kissing his partner on live television. And in the past few days former NFL coach Tony Dungy said he wouldn't have drafted Sam, not because he's not a good player but simply because he's gay and would be some sort of distraction. That is flat-out bigotry, and Dungy's clarification did nothing to change his original comments. The St. Louis Rams' coach responded that Sam is "not a distraction" of any kind, and since his drafting, Sam has received enormous support from many players in professional sports, and from the NFL and its executives.
But the hiring of Tyree by the Giants is a stain, and it's unacceptable. Giants General Manager Jerry Reese tried to defend the hire by saying that Tyree's anti-gay views are his personal religious beliefs, and that he is allowed to have them:
Number one, he was qualified for the job. He's a terrific fit for us and we're happy to have him on board. Sometimes you say some things that maybe you don't want to say or shouldn't have said and can get blown out of proportion to some degree. But I'm not here to talk about social issues or somebody's personal opinion about their beliefs.
Well, then, if David Tyree has said "some things that maybe [he didn't] want to say," then he needs to clarify it right now and tell us of his complete about-face and change of heart, that he accepts science and equality and rejects bigoted views. And I'm sorry, but it no longer cuts it to say that the belief that gays can convert to heterosexuality is a "religious belief" that should be respected. That is support for quack science and dangerous therapy that both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have said not only doesn't work but can be harmful. How on Earth can Reese call Tyree qualified when he holds bigoted views and supports quack therapies that harm children? How can he be qualified when a gay player may be intimidated by him? Does Reese contend that if someone said all Jews are going to hell and couched it as a Christian religious belief, it would be acceptable to hire that person? What if the director of player development had a Christian religious belief in white supremacy, which we've certainly seen in our nation's history and still see today? Would that be acceptable to Jerry Reese?
It's time for David Tyree to take back every word he said and tell us of his amazing evolution to being a full-blown supporter of equality. If he can't do that, the Giants have to give him the boot if they and the NFL want to maintain any credibility and dignity.
Last week I wrote about the trap that gay groups may have set for themselves in a post-Hobby Lobby world, having previously backed a broad religious exemption in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). By week's end, most major groups had pulled their support for ENDA, following a few that pulled out before the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision. But believe it or not, right now some Republicans are working feverishly to get support for ENDA in the GOP and try to pass it in the House in this session, with the dangerous religious exemption that caused LGBT groups to withdraw support.
The irony here is off the charts, but the idea being floated is that Republicans should realize that LGBT rights are inevitable, and that anti-gay GOPers should therefore grab at the chance to pass a bill that could broadly give an exception to religious organizations and the businesses they own and enshrine that discrimination forever.
As an added bonus, the Supreme Court might view the exemption as a way to expand that allowable discrimination to "closely held," for-profit companies owned by people who have religious objections to gays, as it did in the Hobby Lobby case regarding religious objections to some forms of birth control. One of the court's rationales in Hobby Lobby was that the Obama administration was giving an exemption to nonprofit religious institutions, so why not give it to massive for-profit companies that happen to be mostly owned by individuals with religious objections? Legal scholars who've studied the Hobby Lobby decision disagree about whether or not it could affect LGBT legal protections, now or in the future -- though all bets seem to be off if Justice Kennedy retires or dies while a Republican president is in office. But that's beside the point. It's all about what's happening right now.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Florida), who is among the eight GOP co-sponsors of ENDA, told the Washington Blade that he's still pushing to get it passed, with the broad religious exemption, because, among other things, the largest gay group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), still backs it, and he sees hope in attaching ENDA to some larger legislative vehicle. That, ironically, was one option, however unlikely, that many gay groups were banking on for ENDA (before pulling support), knowing it was next to impossible that House Speaker John Boehner would actually bring ENDA up for a vote on its own.
HRC does still back passage of ENDA in this session (as does House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, openly lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin and other Democrats), but in response to the pulling of support by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Transgender Law Center and others, HRC president Chad Griffin wrote in an op-ed last week that the group wants to "narrow" the exemption and also said the community should "throw its weight behind" a comprehensive civil-rights bill. If ENDA doesn't pass, he wrote, that bill would include employment as well as public accommodations, housing, education and credit -- something a lot of us have been demanding for a long time. However, Griffin didn't give any details or timeline regarding what would be an ambitious undertaking and a massive bill, and he refused to give interviews. And his group does still continue to lobby Republicans to support the current ENDA.
As Metro Weekly's Justin Snow reported and discussed with me on my radio program yesterday, the Log Cabin Republicans are dismayed by the pullout of the other groups, and they too are working the Hill trying to get Republican co-sponsors to pass ENDA in the House, as is the American Unity Fund, the group founded by conservative hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, who backed Mitt Romney in his failed presidential bid. Their selling point to fellow GOPers: ENDA protects religious liberties. You heard that right. Here's Log Cabin leader Gregory T. Angelo, from Snow's piece:
From a lobbying standpoint, I think this [debacle over the exemption] could potentially help ENDA in the House, because it underscores what has long been a lobbying strategy we have employed: this bill is going to pass sooner or later, and Republicans who care about religious liberty and equality would do well to prioritize its passage in this congress.
In truth, Hobby Lobby was an opportunity the other groups used to back out of a bill with an exemption they'd spoken out against for over a year, even as they backed passing ENDA with the exemption in the Senate last year, where it got over the 60-vote threshold with the help of GOP senators who voted for it because of the broad exemption. It's highly unlikely that ENDA will get passed in the House via any option available, with or without the gay groups onboard (and HRC's idea of "narrowing" the exemption would mean going back to the Senate again), but wouldn't it be the nightmare scenario if it did pass, with this exemption, and then LGBT groups had to demand that President Obama veto a bill he and Democrats had heralded for months?
Again, it's highly improbable that it would get to that, but I write this to underscore how this entire episode was amateur hour for the LGBT community. It's hard to believe it hasn't irked long-time supporters among both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and the House (and the White House) who had the rug pulled out from under them.
ENDA should never have been pushed and passed in the Senate with a religious exemption, not in 2013 -- nor should we have even thought of doing that in 2012, 2011, 2010, or, frankly, 20-anything. HRC, in its usual arrogance, and with blinders on, refused to listen to the community and the growing chorus among the grass roots, the people who've experienced the progress we've made on marriage equality and support by the American public and who were saying "no" to an exemption for years. HRC assured our allies in the House and Senate that the community was behind it, and HRC was expected to keep a coalition together. It failed miserably.
The rest of the gay groups shouldn't be let off the hook either. They all backed ENDA, even after expressing serious reservations, and should have pulled out before the Senate vote. They were likely afraid of HRC's ability to affect their fundraising or their relationships with the White House and leaders on Capitol Hill. Hopefully they now have gotten some guts and have realized that HRC often needs a check on its myopic, access-driven, win-at-all-costs strategies, especially under a new leadership that refuses to even give interviews to the LGBT press, not responding to requests, its president only speaking to the community via vague, meticulously crafted op-eds. There's a critical need for more leadership, and it's time for these other groups to stand up.
"You know, I'm sure that Johnny Davenport is probably not looking to be found today," said John Waters, the always hilarious and indefatigable cult filmmaker, talking about a fantasy he conjures up in his new book, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, about the 1980s gay porn star John Davenport. "But if he is hearing this, he was great in 'Full Grown Full Blown.' I love that title. I fantasized that he was his age [in the '80s] today...And we do get, actually, raped by a spaceman and then have magic anuses. And my magic anus sings a duet with Connie Francis. So, I guess I let my imagination go."
Indeed. Waters, who says he's always hitchhiked, albeit much shorter distances in his younger years, decided to hitch across the country, from his home in Baltimore to San Francisco, because his life had become too "planned." He records his experiences in Carsick but the first two chapters of the book are his fantasies -- best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios -- of what might happen on the road. The Davenport story, in case anyone needs it explained, is one of the best-case scenarios.
And the worst-case scenarios?
"Well, I get picked up by a militant vegan that poisons me and I get diarrhea and there's no worse thing that can happen to you when you're hitchhiking than diarrhea, really," he deadpanned in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. "I was totally afraid to eat anything on the trip, because you can't keep saying, 'Could you just pull over! Could you pull over!' So I get diarrhea. I [also] get poisoned by an insane gay militant who hates all straight people, who is into autoerotic asphyxiation. And I escape him. I meet someone that actually kills me. The [last part] I get murdered -- in a pretty funny way."
Once Waters got on the road, however, the actual experiences were just about the opposite, in which most people he meets turn out to be nice and love to chat. That, however, was if they picked him up in the first place.
"Most people thought I was a homeless man," he explained, regarding the hours he'd stand on the side of the road with a sign while cars and trucks would zip by. "I was 66 years old. I had a sign. I had a baseball cap that unfortunately said, 'Scum of the Earth,' which was not the best fashion choice. No, people didn't really recognize me. And when I got in the cars, sometimes they did, and they'd start laughing and screaming. In real life, [the people who picked me up] were incredibly open-minded, no matter if they were Democrats, Republican, single, male, female. I had a cop pick me up, a truck driver. The only thing that never -- no gay people picked me up. My gaydar is pretty good. I don't think a gay person picked me."
Waters hadn't announced he was working on the book and hitching cross country, trying to keep it all on the down low. But his cover eventually got blown when an indie band on tour, Here We Go Magic, picked him up, members recognized him and sent out a tweet that went viral. A woman who picked him up in Kansas said she knew him only because she had a gay son who was a huge fan. Waters said he then told her to call her son and she put Waters on the phone, exhilarating the young man, who'd just read online all about Waters' adventures.
Waters has in recent years lent his name to gay political causes in his home state of Maryland, helping Governor Martin O'Malley pass marriage equality in 2012, appearing and speaking at fundraisers. But marriage is definitely not for him.
"No, I don't have any desire to get married," he insisted, then giggled. "I hate weddings. You have to try too hard. I've really never had fun at a wedding. But I'm certainly for the right for straight gay people to get married [laughs]... It's great! Are you kidding? I'm militantly for gay marriage. Why would anyone be threatened by anyone falling in love?"
On his enormous success, having begun his career with cult classics like "Pink Flamingos" in the early '70s to eventually see "Hairspray" become a smash film and Broadway musical and now watching Carsick immediately hit The New York Times bestseller list, Waters says it's "all gravy."
"It's amazing to me," he explained. "I certainly have not been misunderstood in my career. I make people puke by saying, 'My dreams have come true.' But they have -- years ago! This is all gravy. But I wonder why you don't ever want to stop. You keep taking the risk because people in show business are insecure. Why do you think they keep having to put out projects that depend on whether strangers tell them they're good?And so, I guess I have not been satisfied. I have to keep doing stuff. I love my job."
In the wake of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, and while the White House is still drafting an executive order banning anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors, a lot of people are wondering if LGBT groups and members of Congress set a trap for themselves and the rest of us by backing a broad religious exemption in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
Back in November, the week ENDA passed the Senate, I noted that it was stuck in a '90s time warp. If passed by the House and signed into law, ENDA would ban discrimination against LGBT people in employment but with the same broad religious exemption it had in the early '90s -- a pre-marriage equality era when many would have accepted any protections of any kind.
ENDA was never updated to a time when we should have a full civil rights bill, banning discrimination not just in employment, but in public accommodations, housing and credit, with no broad religious exemptions. ENDA would allow a Catholic hospital or school to fire a lesbian nurse or janitor or cafeteria cashier simply on the basis of her sexual orientation. That is a much broader exemption than allowed for any other group under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And it's abhorrent.
A lot of other people were speaking out about the exemption during the debate in the Senate over ENDA at the time. The New York Timeseditorialized against it. The ACLU warned about it as did the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Lambda Legal. Meanwhile, groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Freedom to Work defended the exemption (and continue to do so). Groups that warned about the exemption didn't go so far as to pull support for the bill. ENDA got over the 60-vote threshold, passing with 64 votes, with the help of several Republicans who voted for it because of the exemption, like Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Now we have anti-gay religious leaders like Rick Warren writing letters to the president urging him, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, to include the broad religious exemption that is in ENDA in the order the White House is drafting banning discrimination among federal contractors. Yes, they're actually asking the government to allow them to discriminate with taxpayer dollars. Because of that, HRC is publicly saying that an exemption in the executive order is far different and should not be included.
But, while NCLR and some other groups have now said they won't back ENDA any longer with the religious exemption (a brave stance, since many are afraid of HRC), HRC still supports it and is presumably still lobbying Republicans to support it. That sends the wrong message to the White House, implicitly saying that we will tolerate some discrimination.
Let's be honest: If HRC truly still supports the exemption in ENDA, it will be that much harder to keep it in while pushing for a vote in Congress -- and get ENDA passed with Republican support, which it would need -- if the president doesn't include it in the executive order. HRC may want a win on federal legislation, like all lobbying groups, because it brings in dollars, no matter the cost. But the cost of having the religious exemption is too high. After Hobby Lobby, you could even imagine the Supreme Court deciding the same thing on LGBT discrimination that it did in the Hobby Lobby case: that the administration already gave an exemption to non-profit religious groups on some forms of contraception, so why not allow the same for "closely held" for-profit companies?
Tobias Barrington Wolff, the esteemed professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who was an advisor to the Obama campaign in 2008 (and got a shout out last week from the president during the White House LGBT Pride Reception), has been very vocal in recent days, speaking out against the exemption. Hopefully the president is listening to Wolff's wise counsel and not to those inside or outside the White House who might be advising him to support religion-based discrimination.
The first cover of OutWeek (June 1989), which depicted a poster for the first post-Stonewall publication from 20 years earlier, Come Out!, which featured a photo of members of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969.
Twenty-five years ago this month a revolution in journalism was born in New York. It was called OutWeek magazine, and though it only lasted two years and may not be well-known today, it had a major impact on journalism and certainly how queer issues would be covered. It presaged the Internet age, helping redefine advocacy journalism. It forced its way onto the front page of The New York Times and network news broadcasts. And it inspired a neologism, "outing," a word now used to describe many things, and a specific phenomenon with regard to closeted gays in the public eye, still much-discussed today. It's time to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a look back.
OutWeek was founded in June 1989 by editor-in-chief Gabriel Rotello, a writer and musician, and publisher Kendall Morrison, who was a phone-sex entrepreneur, during the height of late-'80s AIDS epidemic, when so many of us became politicized, literally fighting for our friends' and our own lives. I was a co-founding editor -- features editor -- along with Andrew Miller, our news editor. Soon we were joined by editors Sarah Petitt and Victoria Starr. Most of us who were editors and reporters had journalism backgrounds, but we, as well as most of the editorial, production and sales staff, had also come out of the AIDS-activist group ACT UP or other grassroots queer groups, tapping into the new radical queer politics of the time.
OutWeek was inspired by a lot of the New Left journalism of the previous decades, as well as the stellar reporting of groundbreaking gay publications like Boston's Gay Community News, but infused it all with a lot of biting sarcasm and much fun, as well as a queer sensibility that was unmistakable. And, believe it or not, OutWeek was the first to call itself a gay and lesbian magazine. Previously, the two communities were split in terms of news magazines -- and the bisexual and transgender communities were even less defined -- and we decided to come together, changing queer publications like The Advocate from that point on, while often having knock-down, drag-out fights among the editors over gender politics.
The weekly newsmagazine broke major stories that splashed the front pages of the New York tabloids and The New York Times, such as when Mayor David Dinkins brought in a health commissioner, Woody Myers from Indiana, who, we revealed, had advocated for quarantining people with AIDS. Or there were Gabriel Rotello's exposés about Father Brude Ritter and Covenant House, one of the earliest Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandals and one of the most widespread.
OutWeek's commentary, too, was covered above the fold on the front page of the Times, such as when Marion Banzhaf penned a jarring do-it-yourself abortion column amid the New Right's assault on women's right to choose. Gay male activists and lesbian feminists certainly saw the issue of women's choice and the right to our bodies as integral in those days when sodomy was still illegal in many places. OutWeek published an "I Hate Straights" cover that caused a firestorm like I'd never seen, inspired by its reprinting of an essay given out at Pride by "anonymous queers." The magazine was at the forefront of activism in a time of life or death, but also at the cutting edge of nightlife, the arts and queer culture during an interesting and actually quite fabulous time. Our film and theater criticism were referenced across the country; up-and-coming drag stars, from RuPaul to Lady Bunny, often graced our covers; and celebutante and club kid James St. James, who wrote his often sardonic, sometimes poignant "Diary of a Mad Queen" column, was a must-read.
When I say OutWeek presaged the Internet age, I mean in the true sense of netroots organizing and the influence of blogs, and commandeering the mainstream media, forcing stories into the major dailies and the television news. We also pushed the left, which we saw as ineffective, and were often under attack from a very defensive Village Voice (writer Gary Indiana compared me to an infant "crapping in his diapers"), as well as from the right for taking on the rabidly right-wing Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson and The New York Post, whose editorial-page editors and columnists regularly skewered us, even one time having the gall to call us McCarthyites. OutWeek printed phone numbers of editors or politicians for people to call, and the editors of New York magazine, Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair were favorite targets for their sensationalistic coverage of gay issues at the time and the fear mongering they often created around AIDS. And the publication took on Hollywood executives big-time for anti-gay portrayals in films. These were called "phone zaps," which were the equivalent of emailing, Facebook sharing and tagging or tweeting today. There were even "fax zaps," which would have the target's fax machine going all day.
And then there was the topic of "outing," which I've written a lot about before, and which I was thrust into with my "Gossip Watch" column, literally a watch of the gossip columns and how they closeted celebrities and politicians. But the outing issue actually all began, believe it or not, with a box called "Peek a Boo," which had a list of well-known names in it -- that's it. News editor Andrew Miller and I just sat around one day thinking up names to put in the box. It's hard to believe the sensation this caused. The fashion bible W magazine soon put OutWeek on its coveted "In" list -- even though it was really out, so to speak. OutWeek was on the newsstands of New York, so it couldn't be ignored. Time magazine writer William Henry III, who I'd later learn was a closeted bisexual man (and thus had a conflict of interest), coined the negative, violent term "outing" regarding OutWeek's reporting, and it blew up big-time after my cover story, "The Secret Gay Life of Malcolm Forbes." (Yes, it was controversial then to out even a dead man.)
So many of OutWeek's editors and writers went on to do amazing things, becoming acclaimed novelists and playwrights, documentarians and authors. Sarah Pettit, our arts editor, would go on to found Out magazine with another OutWeek alum, former columnist Michael Goff. She then became Arts and Entertainment Editor at Newsweek before her death at the age of 36 in 2003 due to cancer. I miss her so very much, as well as many other enormous people I loved who were part of that feisty magazine, who succumbed to AIDS in those years but who made a massive difference in their short lives. Like many great things, OutWeek went out in a blaze of glory in June of '91, stirring still more scandals while also at the center of a financial power struggle too complicated to go into here but which brought it to an abrupt end.
Happy 25th anniversary, OutWeek! You changed my life. You changed all our lives. You changed the world. And we're forever grateful.
Superlawyers Ted Olson and David Boies have a new book, Redeeming the Dream: The Case for Marriage Equality, their account of taking on California's Proposition 8, getting it ruled unconstitutional and moving marriage equality forward. And since the publication of Jo Becker's controversial Forcing the Spring, it's fair to say that the Prop 8 legal team, and, more so, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin, who formed the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) and hired Olson and Boies to take on Prop 8, have been on the defensive.
Becker came under fire for not giving credit to Evan Wolfson, Mary Bonauto, Andrew Sullivan and others who were at the forefront of the marriage-equality movement, while comparing Griffin to Rosa Parks. She was accused in various reviews of compromising distance and criticism in return for access. I too criticized Becker not only for ignoring grassroots and netroots activists in the fight but for making the Prop 8 case seem so pivotal when in fact it was the case of Edie Windsor and the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act that has led to federal judges ruling state gay-marriage bans unconstitutional almost every week. Becker also claimed, without quoting any legal scholars, that it was, in essence, Olson's arguments on Prop 8 before the Supreme Court that won the Defense of Marriage Act case for Roberta Kaplan, Windsor's attorney (for more on that, see my review), portraying Kaplan's argument as narrow. A lot of us have wondered what Olson and Boies thought about Becker's book.
Some legal scholars have also privately told me that it surprised them to read that more than $6 million was paid to the firm where Olson is a partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, since high-powered firms almost always take civil-rights cases pro bono. Kaplan, for example, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, took on the Windsor case pro bono.
Another question people are wondering about: Olson and Boies, still with AFER, joined a case challenging Virginia's gay-marriage ban, and they prevailed when it was ruled unconstitutional last February. (Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union were later granted intervenor status in the case.) In May the appeal was heard before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but, as in the Prop 8 case, the governor and the attorney general did not appeal the ruling. The Supreme Court decided that the Prop 8 proponents, whom Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion, compared to "concerned bystanders," didn't have legal standing to appeal. So the court didn't rule on Prop 8. Of course, Olson and Boies had hoped that the court would do so and strike down all gay-marriage bans across the country (though they still see it as a big win that the lower court ruling stood, returning marriage equality to California). So some legal observers have wondered whether the county clerks who are appealing in Virginia will have standing at the Supreme Court.
I interviewed Ted Olson, a lifelong Republican and former solicitor general under George W. Bush, last week on SiriusXM Progress and put these and other questions to him. This is a condensed version of that interview.
Things have changed in the culture dramatically. Not so much in the Republican Party -- I mean, a bit. How do you see this issue moving forward when so much of the conservative base of the party, the religious base of the party, is still opposed to gay marriage?
Well, I think we're making lots of progress. But it's gradual. But it is discernible. In the first place, I think, as you know better than anyone, if you take a poll of the younger people in this country, including younger citizens who identify themselves as Republican, the numbers of people who support marriage equality is growing reasonably rapidly. In the conservative part of the Republican Party, or the conservative portion of this country that thinks of themselves as libertarians, that's moving fairly rapidly. The Cato Institute, one of the most prominent think tanks of conservative libertarian America, is very much supportive of our case, including the chairman, Bob Levy, who went on the board of our foundation [American Foundation for Equal Rights] that we created to move forward with this. Some Republicans, including three Republican senators, came out for marriage equality. Some Republicans just don't want to talk about it anymore because they realize the public is in front of them on this. So I think that things are changing.
Are you worried about the standing issue [in Bostic v. McDonnell], because again, there [in Virginia], the governor and the attorney general are not defending the case [as in California with Prop 8, in which the Supreme Court denied standing to the Prop 8 proponents].
It's a good point. But it's slightly different because in an unusual quirk, in Virginia the clerks in the counties have individual standing with respect to the issuance of marriage licenses. So two of the clerks in Virginia have appealed. And so far it's been acknowledged that they do have standing to bring the appeal. And it really didn't become any issue at all in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. So we think the standing situation is different there, and that their standing would be upheld, so we don't have that problem. But at the same time there are challenges going on all over the United States. As you know, 13 federal district judges, appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents, all over the country -- Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Utah, Pennsylvania -- have uniformly struck down bans on marriage to a person of the same sex. So there's a tide coming in California [with the striking down of Prop 8], and one of those cases are almost surely to come to the United States Supreme Court.
You and David discuss history [in Redeeming the Dream]. David Boies, in a chapter, talks about the history of the marriage movement, obviously before Prop 8. As you know, Forcing the Spring, the book by Jo Becker -- the author, a woman who had worked with you as she wrote the book, a New York Times reporter -- she came under a lot of criticism for not presenting that prior history, not talking about some of those people. As I said, your book -- David Boies does talk about it. But Nathaniel Frank reviewed the book on Slate, and he feels that your book still does not give the credit to the history before, and that you're critical of the incrementalist approach of the gay advocates at Lambda Legal and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who were winning cases in the states, and that their plan, he says, was to eventually move to the federal level. They just wanted to win enough states to take it to the federal. And I guess some would argue, "Isn't that what happened with the Defense of Marriage Act? A federal case was won and now the states are being won." So I guess he's taking issue with what you're saying about the incrementalist approach because in the end [that worked], with DOMA actually helping to be the first federal case that then helped with that incremental approach.
Well, there's two parts to that, and I think it's a fair point. With respect to all the lawyers and pioneers who have gone before with respect to marriage equality, we possibly could have addressed that more in this book, although our publishers wanted us to write a story of this case. But every time we had an opportunity, we talked about the barriers that had been broken before, the cases that had been won before. We read those briefs. We cited those articles. We cited those books. We used assistance from the lawyers who had worked on those cases in marshaling the evidence that we put on in the Prop 8 case. We don't think for a moment that we could have done any of this without the work that was done before. And that was prodigious work. And people are working all across the country hopefully to get to the same goals.
With respect to the incremental approach, we did address that in the book. We knew, and the people that asked us to take this case, that someone was going to file a lawsuit in California challenging Proposition 8. One of the things that people who contacted us were concerned about, that if there was such a challenge -- and surely there would be in California, I mean, it was inevitable -- that if there was going to be a challenge, that it be done with the proper plaintiffs, in the proper court, with the proper foundation, with the proper resources, so that if it did get to the Supreme Court of the United States, it would have the proper foundation that would best enable it to be a successful case. And we felt that, when we talked before we filed the suit, by people that were interested in going back and raising money and putting the issue back to the ballot in California, they had raised some $40 million and had lost. And there was some talk about, "Well, there might be a better Supreme Court in the future; there might be different justices on the Supreme Court." But no one knows when someone is going to resign from the Supreme Court. No one knows when there's going to be a vacancy. There's a lot of uncertainties here. And by the end of the day, the groups that were reluctant to join this case and go forward ultimately did support the case.
Attorney Ted Olson discusses his book on gay marriage, and criticism of the book's take on LGBT history, on Sirius XM.
You do agree that the Defense of Marriage Act case, the Windsor case, really was enormously pivotal? If we didn't have that, and we [just] had the Prop 8 [proponents] not [getting] standing at the Supreme Court, we certainly wouldn't have seen the momentum we've seen now with all of these states and all of these federal judges using the Defense of Marriage Act ruling, the Windsor ruling, right?
Oh, absolutely. The record that was built before, in the California case, with all the witnesses and the 134 pages of finding of fact and conclusions of law, have been an important part of the federal district decisions that have come since then. But the decision in the Windsor case, the Defense of Marriage case, was absolutely extremely important. Justice Kennedy's language in that case is extremely powerful, and every single one of these judges has cited that case for very, very good reasons. I think the combination of the two cases advanced the legal frontier, but it also helped advance the frontier of public opinion, so that the changes that have occurred in public opinion have been attributable to the work of a lot people. And I think -- but I don't know, I just think -- that a lot of that has been contributed by both of those cases and particularly the combination of the two, in a way that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts.
Attorney Ted Olson talks about the importance of DOMA being struck down in the fight for marriage equality on Sirius XM.
The Jo Becker book [Forcing the Spring] -- it got a lot of criticism, and certainly it was very contentious with a lot of people. One thing she said -- and I wanted to get your thoughts on it -- one thing she posited was that the arguments by Roberta Kaplan in the Defense of Marriage Act case, in the Windsor case, before the court were very narrow, and that she was sort of almost attributing her win to your arguments in [the] Prop 8 [case]. And it was something I criticized her on in a review I wrote of the book. [I] wanted to get your thoughts on that, because Roberta Kaplan has always talked about that case as very much about gay rights, not just a narrow tax issue, but the way that Becker described it, [Kaplan] made it narrow and you really made the case with Prop 8 that convinced the justices on DOMA.
Well, I agree that Robbie Kaplan did a fabulous job. And we read her briefs. And she was, from the very beginning, anxious to take this case. She took this case on because she believed extremely strongly in the right of individuals to be treated equally under the Constitution of the United States. She made those arguments very, very forcefully. We worked together with her. She participated in the moot courts that we employed to get me prepared for the arguments in the Supreme Court. And we participated in the moot courts helping her get prepared for the Supreme Court. [A]nd the ACLU was involved, other organizations were involved. Paul Smith, who is a fabulous lawyer in this field from Lambda, was very much involved in our preparation and was on the moot court that I prepared. I think it's important that the fundamental issues of decency, equality, liberty, association, and the end of discrimination in this country is all over her briefs and was very much in her arguments, and I felt that they were very strongly in our arguments. I looked at the brief that we filed -- I just looked at it again today -- and that's how we started and ended the briefs. But she did too. I think it was very important. It was two straight days of argument. We argued on a Tuesday, and she argued on a Wednesday. We were both making the same points. And it was important that two different perspectives were coming together to achieve the same end.
As I said earlier, I supported bringing Prop 8 to federal court, as did many people. ... I think it did change, dramatically, a lot of public opinion as well. I'm curious about your response to the criticism about your firm taking money for the case. People have said that when you have a civil-rights case, they're done pro bono by law firms such as yours, and that in this case it was done differently. Chad Griffin formed a group, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and they hired you guys to do this. How do you respond to that criticism from some in the legal circles?
Well, I understand the point. [B]y the way, David Boies and his firm contributed every bit of their time and energy. Of the 32,000 hours of legal time [my firm contributed], most of it was lawyers, and most of it was partners in our firm; there were paralegals and so forth. Of the 32,000 hours, three fourths of it was contributed. But we also knew going into this case that it was going to be exceedingly expensive. We ultimately had eight expert witnesses from all over the world testify for this case. And we wanted a community coming together for this so that it wasn't just lawyers involved in this case. It turned out that was a good thing to do to encourage other people to invest in the case, to become owners in the case, so to speak, because the people in the entertainment world in southern California, for example, came together. They encouraged other people to do it. We received a lot of funding that helped with all of these expenses from people in the financial community in New York City. They, in turn, because they were involved in the case, and persuading other people, helped persuade the New York Legislature, including some Republican senators in New York, to change the laws in New York. Looking back at it, we could have done it a different way. But it's very hard to put that kind of investment in something like this unless you have some support along the way. And I found that it was very valuable. The list of our investors, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the people that wrote things, the people that helped solicit amicus briefs and that sort of thing, all felt that they were part of a team, bringing this all to fruition at the end of the day, and I think that was healthy.
I think the figure in the end, the figure I've seen, was $6 million. Do you agree with that?
It was something south of that. But ... if you would have looked at what the charge for our services would have been had we been using our normal billing rights to a corporate client, was something approaching $ 22 million. So three fourths of it was contributed.
This has obviously changed your life. Just reading the book, you see that, the whole direction, certainly, in your trajectory as an attorney. Where do see it going now? Obviously you may be headed to the Supreme Court, although nobody seems to know what the path will be. I'm curious about what you think the path will be.
I think that one of these cases, the two cases in the 10th Circuit, which involve Utah and Oklahoma, might get to the Supreme Court. The Virginia case might get to the Supreme Court. There are other federal cases that, depending upon when they're decided, might get to the Supreme Court, or there might be some combination of these cases presented to the Supreme Court. It has affected me enormously. I've learned so much about myself. I've learned so much about my fellow citizens. The people involved in this case, the plaintiffs involved in the case, have touched me deeply.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that "Olson and Boies joined Lambda Legal and the ACLU in a case challenging Virginia's gay-marriage ban, and they prevailed when it was ruled unconstitutional last February." In fact, Lambda Legal and the ALCU did not join the case until after Olson and Boies, with the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), had conducted oral argument and Virginia's gay-marriage ban had been ruled unconstitutional. The post has been updated accordingly.
It’s heartbreaking to think that a state has erased the parents of children and put a family in legal jeopardy, simply because of discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. But that’s what happened to a gay couple in Texas after what they described as the "magical" birth of their twin boys.
Jason Hanna and Joe Riggs are the proud fathers of Lucas and Ethan, who were born in April, after they'd connected with a surrogate mom, CharLynn.
Each of the men is a biological father to one of the babies. But, because Texas has a ban on gay marriage (it was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge last February, but the decision was stayed pending appeal), and because a judge can use his or her own discretion in these cases, neither of the men is currently on the birth certificates of either of the boys, nor have they been able to co-adopt each other’s biological child.
Only the surrogate mother — who has no biological relationship to the boys, since embryos were transferred to her — is on the birth certificates. In essence, the men are not legally defined as the parents of their own children. And though they have DNA tests for proof, they’re worried, particularly if something were to happen to one of them while the other still has not been able to co-adopt the other’s biological child.
“As of right now in Texas two men cannot be on the birth certificate,” Jason Hanna explained in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. “So our attorney followed the letter of the law. We petitioned the court. We had DNA testing there [in court] and petitioned the judge to ultimately remove the surrogate mother from the birth certificate, who has no biological ties to the boys. We would like each biological dad to be placed on the birth certificate of our own son, and then ultimately proceed to the second-parent adoption. The entire petition was denied.”
Jason Hanna and Joe Riggs met four years ago and knew they wanted to be together and raise children, so they saved their money, knowing it would be a costly process. They married last July in Washington DC, where gay marriage is legal, and then went back to Dallas to celebrate their wedding with family and friends in August. They found a surrogate mom, and this past April the twins were born.
“We were sworn in and ultimately the judge was saying that with the information she had in front of her, under Texas law she couldn’t grant it,” Riggs said of their appearance in court last week. “I was shocked. We had a ton of questions as we walked away from that courtroom.”
It was particularly jarring to Hanna and Riggs because other gay couples in Texas, including friends of theirs, have successfully completed this process. The couple’s lawyer has offered them several options on bringing the petition back, changing the paperwork and the process. But there’s no question that if their marriage was legally recognized they would not be having this problem at all.
“In order to grant a second-parent adoption [automatically under current law], it has to be between two married people,” Jason explained. “And so, considering we’re not legally married in the eyes of Texas, they don’t have to grant that second-parent adoption because they don’t recognize our marriage…It’s up to the judge’s discretion on whether or not to grant it.”
Hanna and Riggs worry, as they wait for the next step, because they’re in a scary legal limbo.
“Without [co-adoption], if something happened to either me or Joe we don’t have any legal recourse to keep the other’s biological child,” Hanna said. “The state could come in and separate these two brothers…We want to reiterate how important it is for a state to recognize each family, whether it's same-sex or opposite-sex, and really to ensure everyone has equal protection from the state.”
While it was widely reported last week that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had once again likened homosexuality to alcoholism, it went almost unnoticed in the national media that the Texas Republican Party platform had removed its prior call to bring back the Texas sodomy statute, which would have recriminalized homosexuality. And that may be a key fact in understanding what is going on in the minds of Texas GOP leaders, including Perry, who very well may take this message nationwide if he runs for the Republican nomination for the presidency yet again.
Speaking in San Francisco last week, Perry reiterated what he'd said in his 2008 book, On My Honor, stating, "I made the point of talking about alcoholism. I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that. And I look at the homosexual issue the same way." In the same week the Texas GOP platform appeared to be following Perry's line, treating homosexuality as a disease that, like alcoholism, needs treatment, getting a lot of media attention for outrageously supporting "ex-gay" therapy, which medical and psychological authorities have said not only doesn't work but could be psychologically damaging.
But interestingly, the new platform doesn't call for bringing back the sodomy statute -- banning homosexual sex -- and, as Towleroad noted, doesn't claim that homosexuality "is tearing at the moral fabric of the family," both of which were in the 2012 platform. And this, I think, helps explain the warped ways in which the Texas GOP and Rick Perry believe they are crafting a less harsh -- if no less homophobic -- position on gays. No longer is homosexuality positioned as something dangerous and aggressive, a willful act that is destroying the country and needs to be criminalized. Now it is a disease and an addiction, something these poor souls need help in order to control, and for which they should be treated -- or at least for which they have the right to have treatment available. Call it Perrycare.
The new platform still opposes gay marriage and allowing gays to foster children, and it opposes any laws that would give gays any kind of rights, but now all of that is in the service of stopping people who are allegedly mentally unstable and addiction-addled from doing harm to others, rather than stopping willful criminals. The platform touts "the legitimacy and efficacy of counseling, which offers reparative therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle." And it calls for no sanctions against those who would offer such treatment, a direct response to New Jersey and California banning so-called reparative therapy by licensed therapists to minors.
All of this may seem like crazy stuff to many of us, and particularly to those who know that the American Psychiatric Association began calling alcoholism a disease 60 years ago -- and still does -- but stopped calling homosexuality a disease over 40 years ago and does not believe sexual orientation can be changed. And the Texas GOP platform surely is not going to fly with the vast majority of people today.
But it makes sense in the minds of of some leaders of a party that is flailing, nationally and across the country, in the midst of a civil war on a variety of issues. The GOP may be split by tea party insurgents, but it is still in a tense struggle with the religious conservatives it has relied upon as gay marriage becomes more accepted. And sometimes these individuals are one and the same, such as Dave Brat, the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-immigration candidate who toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) in a GOP primary last week.
The GOP is desperate to continue pandering to religious conservatives while not seeming too icky to moderate GOPers and independents who aren't anti-gay but just want their tax cuts. So they're trying out all kinds of things. The Arizona "religious liberties" law vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer earlier this year was a first try at recasting the gay issue, attempting to make religious conservatives into victims. It backfired big-time, as it was clear that they were simply intent on discriminating against LGBT people, but evangelical leaders vowed to continue to fight for their "religious liberties," sending a message to the GOP that they've got to find a way to keep the issue in play.
The Texas GOP platform, as nutty as it seems, may be another stab at that, until GOP leaders find a way to dog-whistle to homophobes while not making other Republicans uncomfortable.
It's been a week of apologies -- and non-apologies -- for bigotry. It began when the Chicago Sun-Times ran a horrendous anti-trans column, an attack on Laverne Cox, claiming in a headline that the transgender actress and activist, who graced the cover of Time magazine this week, is "not a woman."
The paper pulled the column from its website after a lot of outrage. It apologized in a statement, saying the paper initially published the column by Kevin D. Williamson because it wanted to "present a range of views" on topics but then came to realize the column was riddled with inaccuracies, running afoul of the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and other authorities regarding gender identity. But why did the editors need authorities to decide that someone should be treated with dignity?
While it was good that the paper removed this garbage, it's inexcusable that it ever was published. This was no slip of the tongue or something said in the heat of the moment. It was a calculated attack by an obsessed bigot (who's attacked Chelsea Manning with the same headline) pushing twisted science and psychobabble. (The column about Cox also ran on right-wing National Review Online, where it was not pulled.) It was looked over, one assumes, by several editors who OK'd it. Only after complaints did the paper remove it.
Jenny McCarthy, on the other hand, did say something in a quick outburst on Twitter that she obviously came to regret tweeting, making a transphobic joke about the rumors that Jennifer Lopez's boyfriend cheated on her with a transgender model.
McCarthy deleted the tweet after being called out, but she offered no apology, perhaps thinking people might just forget about it, just like the anti-vaccine crusade that she recently denied ever having spearheaded (in an op-ed in none other than the judgment-challenged Chicago Sun-Times). But the View co-host, as someone who is on television offering her thoughts on an opinion show, certainly owes more than just deleting a tweet -- which we know are never deleted anyway -- and could, at the very least, turn this into a teachable moment on The View, not just apologizing but perhaps bringing on a trans activist and having the entire panel discuss the issue.
That's where she could learn something from Jonah Hill, who sincerely apologized a couple of times this week after calling a photographer who was stalking him a "faggot," as revealed in a video on TMZ last weekend. Hill actually turned his having hurled an anti-gay slur, an unfortunate incident, into a pro-gay moment. He first apologized on Howard Stern's SiriusXM show. Then he brought it up again on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, expressing how disappointed he was in himself, particularly, he said, as "a supporter of the LGBTQ community my entire life" who has spoken out in the past against anti-gay bigotry:
I completely let the members of that community and everybody else down when I used a word like that this weekend, and my heart's broken, and I'm genuinely and deeply sorry to anyone who's ever been affected by that term in their life. I'm sorry, and I don't deserve or expect your forgiveness, but what I ask is at home, if you're watching this and you're a young person, especially, if someone hurts you or angers you, use me as an example of what not to do, and don't respond with hatred or anger, just adding more ugliness to the world. And again, I'm just so sorry.
This was no non-apology, as we've come to call those statements by celebrities that begin, "In case I offended anyone...." Nor was it what I've called a "GLAADology," in which the gay media group crafts an apology for the celebrity who comes to the organization trying to save his or her career after an anti-gay tirade (in addition to doing a PSA), which often sounds stilted and artificial. Hill's apology was genuine, coming from someone who knew he'd let down his friends, his fans, and himself, and who was ashamed. It came from someone who had thought deeply about what he'd said and reflected on what the ramifications were -- speaking directly to young people when he offered his regrets -- and who realized that he couldn't just delete it out of his life but had to fess up to it.
It might be too much to expect of Jenny McCarthy, who hasn't fessed up to much at all in the past. But that doesn't mean she should be let off the hook.
Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S., and also has the distinction of being the largest American city with an openly gay or lesbian mayor. And that mayor, Annise Parker, was bursting with pride last week after the Houston City Council passed a broad anti-discrimination ordinance which she introduced and which includes protections for LGBT people.
“I think it’s an uphill battle in any city where gays and lesbians have been added to an existing equal rights ordinance,” Parker said in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. “But what is unique about Houston is that — and we are the last major city in America, and certainly the last big city in Texas, to pass such an ordinance — but we didn’t have any kind of equal rights ordinance. A lot cities have local ordinances that mirror federal protections. So it wasn’t just, ‘Let’s add sexual orientation and gender identity to the laundry list.’ It was, ‘We had to write an ordinance from scratch, with 14 different categories in our ordinance.’”
In addition to protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, the ordinance protects people on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information, and pregnancy. Although some anti-gay leaders have vowed to try to repeal the law at the ballot, Parker is confident Houstonians will vote to retain it for that reason.
“Before I even put out the first public draft of the equal rights ordinance, there was a group of local right-wing, religious conservatives who said they are going to fight and they’re collecting signatures as of today to repeal,” she said. “It’s a fairly low bar [to get it on the ballot], 18,000 signatures. [But] I think that they will have a very high standard before the voters, because they can’t just say, ‘We want to just take the gays out,’ or, ‘We want to just take [transgender people] out.’ They would have to repeal the entire ordinance. And the entire ordinance protects everybody.”
One of those who led the charge against the ordinance is anti-gay crusader Dave Wilson, a member of the Houston Community College Board of Trustees and an opponent in Parker's second race for mayor, who also threatened to lead a recall effort against Parker and against any council member who voted for the ordinance, which passed 11-6. During Parker's first successful race for mayor, Wilson made robocalls warning voters about her “alternative lifestyle,” and mailed out anti-gay fliers.
“In that first campaign he put out that flier,” she said. “It shows me being sworn in as city comptroller with my hand on the Bible and my right hand in the air, and my wife standing beside me. And I’m being sworn in by an African-American woman, a federal judge. And the caption is, ‘Is this the image of Houston we want the world to see?’ And I kept a copy of it and framed it. Because it's a black woman? Or the fact that there’s a woman judge? Or is it that I’m a woman officeholder? Or is it that I’m a lesbian? There’s a whole lot of subtext to that flier, and I think they were all in his head.”
Taylor Kitsch, winning accolades for his performance in the “The Normal Heart” as Bruce Niles, the closeted first president of Gay Men's Health Crisis in Ryan Murphy’s HBO film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama, said he and Mark Ruffalo cried and argued between takes while making the film. Ruffalo plays the lead role of Ned Weeks, based on the fiery Kramer himself, who demands that Niles be out and open. During one scene Ned even brings a TV camera crew to film the Wall Street banker.
“[Bruce is] living a duality to his life,” Kitsch said in interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. “He’s already been shunned by the family and what not. He’s been personally affected on so many levels. I have a lot of intense scenes with Ruffalo in which he’s literally trying to make me come out on camera — which is devastating to Bruce. So in between takes we’d be like, ‘You know what, we no doubt have the same goal here, but our approach is incredibly different.’ They both have great merits. I think what Ned did so brilliantly, or Kramer, was make it so personal for everyone. That’s a fearless thing to do… That was an amazing thing to explore with Ruffalo on set. There’s takes where both of us are crying just standing there. And then there’s takes where, just, I couldn’t be angrier. It was an incredible process to go through with Ruffalo. It’s funny because, you get so — it’s all heightened, in the sense of, in that moment, Taylor Kitsch and Mark Ruffalo, but because you’re so in that moment with him, you truly believe it’s the right way — I’m living that, I’m fighting for his POV here. It led to good arguments.”
Kitsch remarked on how Bruce Niles could actually remain in the closet at the time in which the film is set, the early ‘80s, and how it would be impossible for someone so high-profile in a gay organization to be closeted today.
“He was the first president and he wasn’t even out of the closet,” he said. “I mean, you couldn’t do that now. Everything now, with the Internet and social media — there’s no way you could do that. It just sounds like it was a cry for help, really. He wanted to be out of the closet. He wanted to be himself. He wanted to feel comfortable in his own skin, but he just couldn’t and that’s a pretty tragic part of his life.”
And Kitsch recalled a devastating scene in which Bruce’s boyfriend Albert’s dead body is literally tossed out with the garbage at an Arizona hospital, as an orderly asks Bruce for money just to handle the body, as Albert’s sobbing mother looks on.
“I think it kind of encompasses that insecurity in what people do or how they react to fear of the unknown,” he said, referring to a time of heightened media hysteria around AIDS. “And that happened, which is even scarier. Paying someone to put them in a garbage bag. It’s so inhumane on so many levels. It was just — that was the one scene I just wasn’t a big fan of doing a lot of takes of. And [director Ryan Murphy] knew that as well. And yeah, we didn’t do a lot of takes. We didn’t need many. It was something you kind of try to forget that is just scarred in your memory.”
Producer and director Ryan Murphy, wrapping up the sixth and final season of “Glee” and now in the thick of his latest TV series, "American Horror Story,” said he woke up one day in 2009 and wondered about the fate of the film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s searing, largely autobiographical Tony Award-winning AIDS drama, “The Normal Heart,” which exposed America's callousness toward a gay community living through the horrors of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic in the early '80s.
“Literally, I woke up one day in 2009,” he explained, “and I thought, and said out loud to my producing partner, ‘What ever happened to the movie of "The Normal Heart"? It’s ridiculous that this has not been made. Why?’”
He learned the rights were available, and soon after he was on a flight to New York to meet Kramer, who’d wanted to get the play made into a film for more than two decades, and had had a famous falling out with Barbra Streisand, who’d had the rights for over 10 years and hadn’t gotten the project off the ground.
“Larry didn’t know who I was,” Murphy remembered, speaking with me in an interview on SiriusXM Progress. “And I sat in a room with Larry and the executor of his estate. And I remember walking in and thinking, ‘I’m not leaving here until I get these damn rights. I don’t care what it takes.’ And it took a lot.”
“So I broke into my IRA account and I bought the play,” he continued. “And I own the play. It wasn’t a thing where I leased it for a couple of months. Because I didn’t want Larry to go through what he’d gone through before, which was literally 25 years of heartbreak and development hell and broken promises.”
Thus began the project that culminated with the emotionally-jolting film “The Normal Heart,” debuting on HBO this Sunday, May 25, starring Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, the character based on Kramer, who in the very first years of the AIDS epidemic, as friends died all around him, railed against government and community indifference and, with several others, created Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The cast includes Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer (playing the role of Felix Turner, Ned’s boyfriend, a New York Times reporter), Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Taylor Kitsch, Denis O'Hare, Alfred Molina and Jonathan Groff.
For Murphy, who is openly gay and who came of age as the AIDS epidemic began to mushroom, taking on the project meant a lot. But it wasn’t until it was finished that he realized just how much.
“Larry’s passion and fire, just that idea of, ‘Why is no one doing anything?’ really resonated with me as a young man,” the 48 year-old director recalled. “And of course I had sex for the first time in 1981, the year the play begins, the year the AIDS crisis begins. So for me, I grew up thinking ‘Well I’m going to die.’ I thought, ‘I’m gonna die.’ Every day. I always thought like I was really on borrowed time, which is where I think a lot of my ambition came from, because I felt I have a lot to do and maybe not a lot of time to do it in. So, only when I finished the movie did I realize, for me, what a cathartic thing it was, and how much pain and loss and death that I had sort of filed away in my life. So it was very powerful, a very moving experience for me.”
"The Normal Heart" lays bare the devastating negligence of all levels of government, from the administration of New York City Mayor Ed Koch, portrayed as a fearful closet case (as are several others in power who refused to help), to that of President Ronald Reagan, locked in the grip of the Christian Right. But the gay community itself comes in for much criticism for not wanting to face an epidemic that would so alter a culture of sexual liberation. Kramer, with the publication of his 1978 book, Faggots, like Ned Weeks in the film, had been a critic of the gay bathhouse and sex culture even before AIDS had become a reality. But he and Murphy, as in the play, allow the debates over sex and the different points of view, particularly in those early days when it wasn't yet known that AIDS was caused by a virus, to unfold in a balanced way in the film.
"I didn’t want the movie version of Ned to be constantly screaming into the wind," Murphy says about those discussions among the characters. "I also thought, and Larry agreed, that the interesting thing about the Ned character was that he was not perfect. Sometimes he said one thing, and then would do another thing because that was human behavior. I did love the idea that that character would talk about, you know, ‘We’re more than just our cocks.’ And we went for those scenes as much as we could."
Kramer worked on the script with Murphy for three years, after which Murphy said the film was relatively easy to get made compared to the reported struggles of the past, with offers coming in, particularly after he had Ruffalo and Roberts onboard.
“No matter how ill he was,” Murphy said of 78-year-old Kramer, who’s been battling complications from a liver transplant, “if he had an IV in his arm, he would sit in front of that computer and do 15, 16, 17 versions of the scene until we got it right… I would say the movie is 40 percent different from the play. And the great thing about Larry is that he’s not precious about anything. And he is a screenwriter. He was nominated for an Academy Award in the early '70s for screenwriting. So he knows screenwriting. And he knows what works onstage is not what works in a movie. I think he was interested in the movie being a little bit softer at times, a little bit more emotional. And I think that the thing that the movie has that the play didn’t is the advantage of history. Because the movie, to me, it’s not really about AIDS or HIV. It’s a very modern thing. It’s about civil rights. It’s about equal rights. It’s amazing that back then, in the day, that play ended with a marriage between a same-sex couple, which was at the time radical and just crazy.”
Indeed, the love affair between Ned and Felix is gut-wrenching, and is one of the relationships that drives the film, and that required Ruffalo and Bomer to perform some intense sex scenes, both in a bathhouse and in bed. Murphy brought in a “sex choreographer” to work with the actors.
“So we hired a guy who specializes in -- who’s a former choreographer on Broadway -- who now specialized in sex choreography,” he explained. “So he would come and he would work with the actors and it was like, ‘Okay, then you move your leg here, and your asshole goes up here, and then your neck goes over here.’ So we worked on it, so the actors felt like, ‘Okay, I’m in “A Chorus Line.” I can do it.’”
Even still, Ruffalo and Bomer, were “terrified,” Murphy said. But he had them plunge right in.
“Mark, I believe, had never kissed a guy, ever, on camera,” he said. “And he had certainly never had that level of sexuality. And I don’t think Matt had either. So I had a gay actor [Bomer] and a straight actor. And they were both terrified. But I just threw them into it. And the first day of shooting was the scene in the movie where Mark has to walk out of a sauna where two guys are going at it and walk by Matt, and sort of ignore him, and Matt looks on lasciviously. We shot that almost as an homage to the bathhouse ads they used to run in New York in the early '80s on ‘The Robin Byrd Show.’ Remember those? Those were the days. So we just got into it, man. We just got into it. And they were nervous but they were game. They knew it was an important part of the story. They went for it.”
Murphy said that although there was some tension between him and the fiery Kramer early in the process -- with Kramer calling and saying, “You’re not working fast enough!” -- he realized the problem was his own “stupidity” in not understanding where Kramer was coming from.
“I realized at the end of the [writing] process, that, oh, I get it. He feels that he has been so alone in this fight, for so long, that this is the only way he knows how to survive,” Murphy said. “And If I had known that psychology then, I would have said to him early on, ‘You’re not alone. I’m continuing your fight.’ And I got to say that at the end.”
Why? Yesterday I appeared on CNN to talk about Michael Sam and "the kiss," as it's now come to be called -- the expression of joy and love between Sam and his partner, Vito Cammisano, upon Sam's learning that he'd been the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, chosen by the St. Louis Rams.
I was joined by openly gay former NFL player Esera Tuaolo. Carol Costello, host of CNN Newsroom, and someone who's done a terrific job of grilling anti-gay crusaders (and with whom I always enjoy chatting), wanted to know what Sam should talk about in his press conference with the Rams yesterday, and if he should discuss "the kiss." I said that I think he should talk about football, which is what this is all about, just like all the other players picked who also kissed their sweethearts (of the opposite gender) upon getting the exciting news but who are not discussing their kisses and will be talking football. (Apparently Sam didn't discuss "the kiss.")
Costello wondered if "the kiss" would be a problem with the other players on the team. This reflected what we've seen in much of the media, some of it coming from much more hostile quarters. People just aren't used to seeing two men or two women kissing, even with all the news coverage of gay marriage. Judging by some of the reactions to the Sam/Cammisano kiss, I'm not sure what they think gay men in relationships do. Play checkers? (Well, maybe sometimes.) We see straight people kissing all the time, all over television, in magazines, in films, on the Internet. A lot of people who consider themselves pro-gay probably are uneasy about seeing gays kissing, just like a lot of people who in the past said they supported interracial marriage were probably uneasy when they saw two straight people of different races kissing (and some still are). And in this case, it's a gay black man and a gay white man kissing.
Mark Joseph Stern wrote a terrific piece on Slate about how all of this means one thing: Gay people need to be kissing more in public. There simply needs to be more queer smooching to desensitize the world.
So with that, I hereby launch the Great Facebook Kiss-In, urging everyone -- whether gay, straight or bi -- to change their profile pics to two women kissing or two men kissing. Maybe it's you and your husband or wife, or your partner or sweetheart, or you and a friend. Maybe it's your dad and your dad, or your mom and your mom. Maybe it's two other people you just like a lot or think are hot. Your favorite celebrities, whatever. I've provided a couple of links to sites where you can choose free-usage photos of two men or two women (but there are many other places you can go), and I've provided a few photos below (free usage from WikiCommons) for you to choose from if you like, which you can download.
Just change your profile pic to a kissing same-sex couple, and urge others to do the same. And for that matter let's do it on Twitter too (and tweet this post with the hashtag #kissin). One day in the future we will look back on all this ridiculousness and laugh. But that's only going to happen if we do exactly this kind of thing a lot. So change those profile photos now.
“The biggest thing I learned is that there’s no such thing as normal,” proclaimed Harvey Fierstein, talking about his new hit play “Casa Valentina,” based on the true story of a group of heterosexual-identified, married, mostly white collar men in the early ‘60s who gathered on weekends at a resort in the Catskill Mountains in New York, where they would dress as women among themselves. “You call yourself 'heterosexual' but that doesn’t mean you’re normal. These gentleman, they called themselves fempersonators, and sometimes transvestites.”
One of the characters in the play, Charlotte, is based on Virginia Prince, who campaigned for rights on behalf of cross-dressers and who, in 1960, began a magazine, Transvestia, devoted to the cause and culture.
“Her belief was that no decent society would ever accept homosexuals,” Fierstein explained. “[What she said was,] ‘What "we" do, of cross-dressing and expressing our feminine side, is not a threat to anyone.’ [She believed homosexuality was] absolutely immoral. And so, she said, ‘We will ban homosexuals [from Casa Valentina], otherwise we are [considered] homosexuals.’ What she said is, ‘Our marriages fall apart because our wives think we’re up here having sex with one another.’ She and the character Valentina [who runs the resort, with the help of his accepting wife, Rita] were both very, very insistent that you had to be a man and you had to be a woman — that you couldn’t live full time as women because you then lost the duel personality that made them so special. And yet, both of them spent lives as women, and eventually stopped dressing as men.”
“Most of what they said, they went against eventually,” Fierstein continued. “There were so many contradictions in everything I found. What I came away with is that these people are human, trying hard to be true to who they are.”
Asked to discuss other issues he’s been speaking out on, Fierstein laughed and quipped, “Anything but Johnny Weir. Leave me alone with that faggot. Anything but Johnny Weir and his divorce.”
On the more serious issue of Russia’s anti-gay laws and brutality against gays, on which Fierstein sounded the alarm in a New York Times op-ed last year, Fierstein made the connection back to Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
“We now understand, if you’re taking a look at what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with us. And now you see. He needed to pull together his people. He needed the right-wing people to line up. And what lines people up better than anti-gay? It’s the same as Hitler did with the Jews. Just demonize someone — ‘We all hate homos! Yeah, we all hate homos!’ And they line up behind him and then you find out that while you’re lined up behind him, he’s taking a country. It had nothing to do with antigay laws. It had to do with calling anything from the West ‘evil’ and repatriating Ukraine. Not a pretty picture. But it’s how the world works.”