I begin my review of 2012 with a good omen. On May 12 in Atlanta, GA, a Jenday Conure landed on the shoulder of queer-identified Muslim activist Faisal Alam and would not leave. Faisal discovered that the tropical visitor liked red grapes. He named it Sammy Davis, Jr. and got advice on its care and feeding from his Facebook friends. Since then, we have received occasional updates, including videos of SDJ singing and dancing to Rihanna's "We Found Love" and squawking indignantly at Faisal for having been away on a trip. Our friend Ernest Hopkins of San Francisco AIDS Foundation wrote on that first day, "I think it says a lot about the energy you are exuding that a beautiful bird decided to perch on your shoulder. Keep doing what you are doing."
The LGBT community saw several beautiful birds perch on our shoulder this year. Here are some highlights, in no particular order:
1. After Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out in favor of Maryland Measure 6 for marriage equality, state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote the team owner urging him to shut his player up. This prompted a magnificent response from Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe in which he defended free speech and assured Burns that "gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population...." Kluwe also recorded a radio ad for Minnesotans for Equality to help defeat the anti-gay amendment in that state. He is standing his ground despite push-back from one of his coaches.
2. President Obama made history on May 9 when he told ABC's Robin Roberts, "I think same-sex couples should be able to get married." He thus resolved his previously incoherent position of supporting LGBT equality while opposing our civil marriage rights. (Vice President Biden's similar statement earlier the same week likely influenced the timing of Obama's statement, not the decision itself, which followed mounting pressure from activists and donors.) Twelve days later, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, who had reached out to LGBT groups like the National Black Justice Coalition to help rebuild America's oldest civil rights organization for a new century, was overcome by emotion as he announced that the NAACP National Board of Directors had voted overwhelmingly to endorse marriage equality. This was the fruit of decades of effort by many people. After Obama's announcement, I received a friendly call from Rev. Morris Shearin, Sr., a member of the NAACP board whom I had known for 15 years. The journey we took during that time was replicated by others across the country. There is nothing in my 30-plus years as an activist of which I am more proud.
3. Equality won 4 for 4 at the ballot box on November 6. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state passed ballot measures to enact civil marriage equality, and voters in Minnesota rejected a proposed amendment to their state constitution barring same-sex marriages. Our victory lies in a key difference between the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas overturning laws against sodomy, and the decision it faces this term on the right of gay couples to marry: A marriage is not just a private matter between two people; it has an aspect of public affirmation. Family and friends gather to witness the sealing of your mutual bond. There is an expectation that you will care for each other. We won new votes not only by calling for equal protection, but by putting our love and commitment at the heart of the battle.
4. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) became the first openly lesbian woman elected to the United States Senate. She will join an impressive freshman class that includes banking reformer Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts); Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate; and environmental lawyer Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota). The 113th Congress will include 20 women senators, an all-time record. This gives us reason to be proud, but not to be satisfied. Another small step for diversity is the appointment of conservative Rep. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) to fill the vacancy left by retiring Senator Jim DeMint. Scott will be the only African-American in the Senate and the first from the South since Reconstruction. If it is complained that he merely puts a different face on the same right-wing views, but he nonetheless highlights the upper chamber's contrast with the multiethnic population it represents.
5. The GOP began to self-destruct. On MSNBC's Morning Joe on December 21, conservative host Joe Scarborough laid into Tea Party-backed Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) for his intransigence on both the regulation of assault weapons and the Fiscal Cliff negotiations. A week after the massacre of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, CT, and the morning after House Speaker John Boehner withdrew his fiscal "Plan B" for lack of votes, Huelskamp demonstrated the ideological rigidity of the far-right fringe that now controls the GOP. Scarborough tried in vain to explain that we live in a constitutional republic and have a divided government, and that one faction cannot rule without compromise as if they were Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez (who, as it happens, appears to be dying of cancer). Huelskamp blithely said that President Obama had given in before on budget talks (a sore point with many liberals), and slammed any talk of a renewed assault weapons ban by invoking the Second Amendment and accusing Scarborough of "playing politics" with a tragedy. (Of course, all who hurl that charge are playing politics themselves.) Scarborough's explosion at Huelskamp may be a sign that more mainstream conservatives are finally going to fight to take back their party from the fanatics, who are making it clear they will not go quietly.
6. African LGBT voices grew louder, as exemplified by brave Ugandans like Frank Mugisha fighting against the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Their international allies, in addition to activist groups, now include the U.S. Government. For example, on December 13, a statement on "U.S. Leadership to Advance Equality for LGBT People Abroad" was issued by Samantha Power, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council. It included this: "State has continued to implement its comprehensive LGBT refugee protection strategy in coordination with the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS). State is funding research on threats facing LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, supporting NGOs that work with LGBT survivors of violence, and strengthening the capacity of UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and other non-government partners." The importance of such official efforts can hardly be overstated.
7. Family affirmation. In early December I received unexpected news from my partner Patrick, a Congolese man who is now a citizen of Belgium. His oldest brother, who lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had had twin sons and named one of them after me. This was wonderful news, even though I am not sure Patrick's family members accept the true nature of our relationship. It may comfort them to think of me as a father figure to him, since I am 56 to his 36. But word travels fast in a family, and they can connect the dots, even if considerable denial is present. Commitment shown over time is respected. That is why we are winning in America, and why our counterparts in the Global South will win in due course despite current threats. Welcome to a changing world, Richard Assani Mwanandeke.
When I met Patrick in Cape Town eleven years ago, the most I could reasonably hope for at that after-concert social at the Metropolitan Community Church in Area Six was a companion for my last few hours in South Africa. I was weary at the end of a ten-day trip, and did not look forward to the long flight home. But grace, as Shakespeare said of mercy, "is not strain'd, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven..." Love came unbidden, like that bird on Faisal's shoulder, and made itself at home.
We are small and the world is great. It can swallow us up with barely a ripple. But by keeping faith with our love, with our compatriots in the struggle and with fundamental principles of equality, freedom and justice, we have changed many hearts and proven that, in the words of the late Frank Kameny, "The tide of history is with us." Onward.
This piece also appeared on Bay Windows.