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Stonewall: 50 years and counting…

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On this fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising I share my experience with AIDS.

In the early 1980s I was living in San Francisco, in the Castro District, which was one of the epicenters of the epidemic. The gay press (free newspapers like The Sentinel and the Bay Area Reporter) were reporting on some strange diseases which were popping up in gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At first, they called it the “gay cancer,” because many of the men were diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Later it was termed GRID: Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency. Only later was AIDS decided upon as the official terminology.

Gay men in San Francisco—my community—were dying like flies. Fear and panic were palpable. Science couldn’t determine the exact cause, but it sure looked like a sexually-transmitted disease. As things got worse and worse, and there was no official response to the disease, volunteer efforts arose in the Castro. One of these was Shanti Project. People could volunteer to help those afflicted with the disease. I decided to join, in the Summer of 1983.

It was a very busy time in my life. I was going to graduate school fulltime, and working fulltime. Beyond that, I had become a serious runner, jogging every day, and was going to the gym four or five days a week. I also had found my first boyfriend, Eugene, a lovely, spiritual man, with whom I was living and trying to make a life. I didn’t have much spare time to devote to taking care of seriously ill, dying men. But it had to be done.

My first client was a man named Jim. When I first called on him, I was shocked; easily 6’2” in height, he’d wasted away to below 100 pounds. He was grateful to have help cleaning his apartment, shopping for food, and just talking; he was in desperate straits, and many of his former friends had deserted him. The most poignant moment for Jim and me was when he asked if we could lay down in his bed, and hold onto each other. “It’s been six months since I held a man in my arms,” he said, his eyes moist with tears. It wasn’t a sexual request; it was simply the request of a frightened man for human contact.

A million thoughts raced through my head. Nobody knew how AIDS was spread. The Shanti Project people, basing their conclusions on the latest knowledge, told us volunteers they didn’t think that casual contact could be contagious, but they couldn’t guarantee it. For me, the rubber hit the road: what to do?

There was no way to deny Jim his request. He was so sad, so scared, so wonderful. We spooned on his bed, him in back, holding onto me for dear life. I decided I wouldn’t end it until he did. We lay there for perhaps fifteen minutes, when he thanked me. A month later, my manager at Shanti called to tell me Jim was dead. Did I want another client?

I did. My manager told me that she had in mind for me a guy named Gary, who was a bigwig in Shanti Project. He was on the Board of Directors; he was a well-known political figure in San Francisco gay politics. He could be difficult, she warned me: demanding and peremptory. But she thought I could handle it.

I went to his apartment regularly. He would almost always be in bed, watching T.V. or reading. I don’t think we exchanged two words for the six months I helped him. It was the way he wanted it; I wasn’t there to chat but to assist him however he wanted. I laundered his sweat-soaked sheets, washed his dishes, cleaned his toilet, vacuumed the rugs. Then one day, when I was at work, came another phone call: Gary had died.

I myself never came down with AIDS.  But a lot of people I knew did, and died from it. It was a terrible time, made worse by the likes of hideous haters like Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and the rest of the homophobic “Christian” evangelical community. I learned during those years who the enemy was. They’re still out there, now morphed into Trump Republicans but no less hateful, harmful and dangerous.

Nearly forty years ago I made it my life’s work to challenge these horrible people. We in the LGBTQ community have come a long way, with gay marriage now legal and gay people allowed to serve openly in the military. But we still face massive challenges. Anita Bryant is now a mere factoid from the past and Jerry Falwell ls dead, thankfully; but the homophobes are on the rise, empowered by the hater-in-chief, Donald Trump. These people will never stop. Neither will I, and neither, thank God, will the tens of millions of gay people and their friends, who will resist returning to the bad old days. So, on this important anniversary, I say “THANK YOU!” to all the LGBTQ people who put their lives on the line in the struggle for equality. And I ask younger LGBTQ people, who did not go through what we did, to please not take your civil rights for granted. What government has granted us, government may take away, if we’re not eternally vigilant


Poor Oklahoma, and Trump lies again (about Iran, this time)

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My mother, who would be 104 years old if she still lived, was a native Oklahoman, born and bred. Her parents settled there before it was a state, when it was still Indian Territory, in the year 1907. Her father, my grandfather Harry, co-founded the first Jewish synagogue in the state.

Mom lived long enough (until 2005) to see Oklahoma become one of the reddest states in the nation. She never could understand it. Her Oklahoma was Democratic—the Oklahoma of Bob Kerr, Carl Albert, David Boren and, yes, Will Rogers. Between 1907 and 1973 Democrats averaged 81 percent of seats held in the state legislature.

But something happened in Oklahoma in the last fifty years. Conservatives, led by evangelical Christians, took over the state, and pushed it to the extreme right. Mom was appalled; she would joke mirthlessly that her Oklahoma relatives were the last living Democrats in the state. She had nothing against Christians. She just couldn’t understand why they were hell-bent on imposing their religion on everybody else.

The last picture ever taken of my mom, by me, is of her with a Kerry-Edwards button on her sweater. It was shortly before the 2004 Presidential election, which the Democrats lost. George W. Bush was re-elected. Mom despised Bush; an avid T.V. news watcher, she would mute the sound when Bush was speaking. She could not bear his voice.

I do the same with Trump. I guess I inherited that from mom. I certainly inherited her Democratic values. When I was a little boy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the mortal equivalent of God in our household. Almost as exalted in status was Adlai Stevenson. I grew up respecting Democratic politicians, who (as I learned from mom) loved the common folks, the workers, the school teachers (which mom was), the laborers. Republicans, I came to understand, stood for the rich, who exploited common folks. In my 73 years, I have seen no evidence to indicate that anything has changed. If anything, the Republican Party has grown even worse. Nowadays, they stand, not just for the rich, but for a class of ignorant, superstitious and bigoted “Christians,” a word I put in quotes because there’s nothing particularly Christian about the people who support Trump. If anything, they’re fundamentalist theocrats, the American equivalent of the Taliban.

I sometimes wonder why my mother was such an ardent Democrat. I regret that I never asked her. Did she inherit it from her parents? Why would Russian Jewish immigrants who moved to Indian Territory have become Democrats? I can only speculate, but I think it was because my grandparents truly believed in the American dream, that all men are created equal. Even 100 years ago, Republicans were preaching the gospel of exclusion and wealthy male privilege. Republicans stood against people of color and the poor, against immigrants whom they tried to bar from entry. Mom instinctively rebelled against such smallness and pettiness.

Mom didn’t have all the answers. But her heart was large. She was engaged in the search for answers. That’s what I love about Democrats: their large heart. Does anyone think Trump has a big heart? Does anyone think Republicans have hearts? Please.

* * *

Anyone who believes what Trump said about not bombing Iran because he was concerned about the potential loss of life, is an idiot.

Trump doesn’t care about anyone’s life except his own and his family’s. He couldn’t care less if 150 Iranians, or 15,000 Iranians, died in a U.S. attack. As long as his base was pleased, so would he be—and of course his base would be pleased because they hate Moslems and Arabs, and they think the only good Iranian is a dead Iranian. So this nonsense that 150 deaths would have been “disproportionate” is just another Trump lie.

Here’s what Trump was really up to. He knows he needs to mend his polling numbers, and fast. He knows the reason he can’t rise in his favorability ratings is because too many Americans think negatively about his character and morality. Therefore he must do something to prove otherwise: show the world that he’s a man of deep compassion and morality. Trump thereby graduates from Trump the Disgusting to Trump the Caring Man, the Savior of Human Life.

This is an opening salvo of his re-election campaign. Expect more demonstrations of his human-ness, his humane-ness, his spiritual side. It will be laughable; this man is about as spiritual as a vulture. But he can pretend to be, in the hope that just enough credulous voters will think that he’s not as bad as they’d previously thought, or, maybe, that he’s maturing in office. A swing of, say, 1 million, spread among the States he’s going to need (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida) could get him a second term.


“Death to America” has a message we should hear

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The first time I heard crowds chanting “Death to America” was when I was a little kid in the 1950s, and Vice President Nixon was touring South America. (Actually, the chant was “Death to Nixon,” but it was close enough.)

Nixon’s 1958 “goodwill tour” resulted in anything but; he was almost killed by enraged crowds that surrounded his car. Oddly enough, the attacks took place in a country with which America today is again in dispute: Venezuela. The incident brought the two countries close to war; the Navy sent “fleet and Marine units to the region,” and while Nixon was uninjured, his reputation, already none too good, was further damaged. For Americans, it was a wakeup call that our country was not universally beloved, as we had been taught in school and supposed it to be.

“Death to America” in more modern times was resuscitated in the Iran Revolution of 1979, when Iranian students sieged the U.S. embassy and took 52 Americans hostage. Thanks to television, we were treated nightly to the sight and sound of thousands of [mainly] young, irate Iranians, chanting their familiar cry: Death to America!, and burning the U.S. flag. The Iranians have basically never stopped since, and, with Trump’s pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on that country, crowds are again mobilizing and chanting.

It’s shocking for Americans to hear foreigners say bad things about us. We tend to think of the U.S. as a benign country, always trying to do the right thing, helping foreigners when calamities strike, defending them against bad guys, and upholding universal values of peace, democracy and progress. Why would they be so ungrateful? Why wouldn’t everybody see us the way see ourselves?

Over the weekend, a new facet of “Death to America” emerged in Iran. Before, its implication had been “death” to ALL Americans: the people, the institutions, the nation itself. Which is why it was so easy for politicians in both parties to rally the American people against Iran. Presidents, Democratic and Republican, portrayed it as an existential threat, although Republicans have typically more bellicose (remember George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”?).

But what’s noteworthy about the weekend’s round of chanting was that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, took the time to explain that it wasn’t America as a whole he wanted death for. “It means death to American leaders, who happen to be these people at this time,” he said, “these people” specifically being Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.

This is an important clarification from the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is signaling that his issue is not with America or the American people, but with three individuals who—let’s face it—are as unpopular with the American public as they are in Iran. The loathing of Trump by a majority of Americans is obvious and mounting. Pompeo is relatively unknown to the population beyond his being the current Secretary of State, but knowledgeable people understand that he’s the kind of neocon who led us into the catastrophe of the Iraq War, and a white nationalist who eggs on Trump’s worst instincts. As for Bolton, he’s an utter fool, described by the New York Times as “likely to lead the country into war.”

Well, some say, that’s the “fake news” leftwing New York Times. But even as firm a conservative bastion as the wonks at Foreign Policy magazine call Bolton a “national security threat.” His is a name Americans ought to be more aware of, and afraid of.

America has a long history of meddling in the affairs of other counties. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, sternly warned the American people to steer clear of foreign entanglements, the sole exception being if we were attacked. Referring to “the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” Washington described “foreign influence,” by which he meant political involvement, as “one of the most baneful foes of republican [i.e. small “r”] government”; and in words that ring down through the centuries, he warned his successors: “Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.”

Our first President did not mean that America should wall herself off from the rest of the world and turn isolationist. He valued “commercial relations” with other countries, but “with…as little political connection as possible.” Trade is good; political engagements are bad. “Here let us stop.”

Yet America did not stop. Iran, Argentina, Cuba, Egypt, Guatamala, Congo, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, Grenada, Venezuela, and who knows how many others—all are countries in which the U.S. sponsored coups d’état, or otherwise sought to undermine.

The U.S. is hardly the only major power with a long record of overseas meddling. But no country has outdone America in this respect. Other countries, rightfully, resent us for it. When they say we are trying to impose our values upon them, they have it exactly right. Not all of our cultural values—commercialism, consumerism, anti-intellectualism, disregard for the environment, widespread criminality, horrendous wealth inequality, disrespect for the aged, homophobia, religious interference in government—are admirable. And not all of the values of foreign nations are odious, as American xenophobes tend to claim.

To heed Khomenei’s words is neither to support his regime nor to hate America. It is instead to rein in our meddling in other countries that pose little or no threat to us, and to diagnose our own ills which foreign countries do not wish to import.


Why I am a Democrat

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I was raised to have great respect, even reverence, for the President of the United States, no matter who he or she is. My parents were lifelong Democrats, my father more out of habit, my mother because she had thought long and hard about things and decided that the Democratic Party stood more for fairness and decency than the Republican Party, which was as true then as it is now. My mother communicated those values to me, not so much pedagogically, but in that mysterious way that parents teach their children.

My mother’s experience of politics was influenced by the Depression and by World War II. The Depression taught her that “normal” solutions to economic and political crises sometimes don’t work; exceptional times call for exceptional approaches. That’s why she revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She understood that the New Deal was the kind of radical intervention that America needed to save itself from the excesses of capitalism.

FDR died before I was born. By the time I was a little boy, Adlai Stevenson had replaced FDR in my mother’s heart. She was simply and unabashedly in love with him—as, it turned out, many women were. At the same time, my mother loathed Thomas Dewey, who had been our Governor in New York, and had run for president against Truman in 1948. Dewey and Stevenson formed the guardrails of my budding appreciation of politics: Dewey the Republican bad, Stevenson the Democrat good.

These were childish apprehensions. They took no notice of nuance. I was strongly in favor of John F. Kennedy for the 1960 election, but if you’d asked me why, I don’t think I could have given you a coherent answer, except for the fact that he was young, vigorous, handsome and forward-thinking. Those were qualities that appealed to a young Baby Boomer. I was just turned 13.

The Sixties interfered with my appreciation of politics. I took a bit of a sabbatical, focusing instead on more spiritual and cultural issues. When Nixon was elected, I had no horse in the race. I kept very close attention to the burgeoning Watergate situation, however, and in my circle I was the guy who could explain to my friends what was going on. But it wasn’t until the 1978 primaries that for the first time since JFK I took notice of who was running and what they were saying. I fell in love with Jimmy Carter. His honesty and sincerity turned me on; and of course, he was elected. By the 1980 election, I was for him, although I wasn’t particularly turned off by Reagan. Reagan won. I didn’t care all that much. As a newly minted career climber, lately arrived in San Francisco, I was busy focusing on my own stuff.

In 1988 I happened to see an interview on C-SPAN where Brian Lamb interviewed the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. It was like the lightbulb went off over my head. Wow. I knew that was the guy I wanted to be President. I wrote him a letter (addressed only to Bill Cllnton, Little Rock) saying so. He wrote back; I still have the letter. Four years later he was elected President, and I have never looked back on my commitment to the Democratic Party.

In 2000, I didn’t vote for George W. Bush but I never hated on him. I saw in him a good man. We differed on many issues, but I didn’t think he was evil. He seemed to love America, which I do too. I thought his religious attraction to evangelicism perverted his views on things, especially homosexuality, but by then I was mature enough to realize that reasonable people can disagree. By the time the Bush presidency was over and the 2008 election was upon us, I was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, so I was disappointed when she lost the nomination to Obama. But it didn’t take me long to fall in love with Obama, and when he won—I’ll never forget him walking onstage in Chicago with Michelle and the girls—I was on my feet in front of the T.V., tears falling down my face.

We’ll have to leave it to historians to decide on the Obama presidency, but in my opinion, he was a near-great. I thought Bill Clinton had kept the flame of liberalism alive while the winds of reaction tried to snuff it out. With Obama, I saw him struggle to advance the cause. He might have been braver, more daring; but he was a bulwark for liberalism, which was under constant attack.

Then came Trump. My mother, steeped in the tradition of liberality and decency, would have loathed him. I’m glad she’s not here to witness this abomination. Even before Trump won with the help of the Russians, I knew he was a disaster. For the first time in my life—and I’m almost 73—I hated the President of the United States. But my hatred isn’t permanent. I still have a deep well of reverence for the office. It won’t take much for me to once again esteem him or her. But not while this vile person occupies the Oval Office.

My candidate for 2020? Any Democrat. I’m liking Sherrod Brown. He should take a woman for Vice President. Who? There’s a lot to be worked out between now and the summer of 2020, when Democrats hold their convention, but the choices seem to be Klobuchar, Gillibrand and Kamala Harris. Meanwhile, I am sooooo thankful that the House of Representatives is resuming real investigations of Trump and his family and associates—investigations that colluding Republicans tried to smother when they ran things. Trump’s attempts to stop or smear the investigations are futile. Let us see his taxes! Tick tick tick…


When pot was illegal: the way it was

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Marijuana is now legal in California. To tell you the truth, I was afraid that when it was legalized, people would be smoking it everywhere on the streets, making it hard for pedestrians to walk around without getting frequent, hefty doses of second-hand pot smoke resulting in a contact high. Although I like pot, constantly smelling it when I don’t want to was something I worried about.

But I needn’t have. Yes, it’s true that here in Oakland—a town in which lots of people indulge in weed—I do occasionally get a whiff of grass as I’m out and about. But it’s been far, far less than I’d anticipated. Why, I don’t know, but I’m glad it’s so.

If you’d asked me in the 1960s and 1970s if I thought pot would ever be legalized, I’d have said no. There were pushes to legalize it over the years by groups such as NORML, but they amounted to nothing. (Nor would I have ever thought that gay marriage would be legal!)

In fact, by the late 1960s, the legalization of pot seemed further away than ever. I’d begun smoking it as a college freshman in 1963. I smoked a lot during my undergraduate years (and did a lot of other recreational drugs as well). I even dabbled in a bit of dealing, not so much to make money, as just to give myself free grass. It was easy enough to drive down to New York City from my college (Clark University, in Worcester, Mass.), score a pound for $120, divide it into ounces, sell the ounces at $15 each (can you believe it?) and keep two ounces for my personal use. I was not, in other words, a bigtime dealer.

But I was big enough for the Worcester Telegram, the local newspaper, to run a front page headline when I was busted in the Spring of 1968. The two ounces I was caught with turned out to be the biggest drug bust in the history of Worcester, which then was New England’s second-largest city. I was promptly hauled off to jail, in the middle of the night, with six of my roommates in the apartment we all shared (the infamous 5 May Street, where there was a party 24/7), a few blocks from campus.

(Predictably, we were high when we were arrested, and in the “paddy wagon” on our way to the jail, we sang Beatles songs!)

In the end, I got off relatively lightly: a few nights in jail pending hearings, and a $1,000 fine, which my parents paid. But when the whole dreary business was over, I found it had left behind a bruising residue: paranoia. I was terrified of getting busted again. If that happened, I knew I would face serious jail time.

I moved out of 5 May Street in order to live alone and quietly. My new place was on Water Street, in a sketchy part of Worcester, near the produce district. It was a tiny apartment, which I painted lilac and pale green. I adopted two noisy Persian cats to keep me company. I bought a bicycle to travel to and from campus (about 1-1/2 miles away). And I continued to get high, despite the considerable risk I ran of getting re-arrested.

Such was my paranoia that I took extraordinary steps to cover my tracks. Literally. There was a crawl space you reached from the bathroom, next to the toilet. It led to the dirt foundation on which the house was built. I kept my stash buried at the very back of the crawl space, where the ceiling was so low that a big cop couldn’t have even fit. In crawling to my burying place, I of course upset the soil, so that, as I backed out, I would take a small brush and rub it over my tracks. No footprints or kneeprints, nothing to indicate that any human had ever been there.

Back then, my method of smoking was to roll joints in Zig-Zags. My pot wasn’t particularly clean. I would strain it, but it still contained seeds. If you’ve ever smoked pot with seeds in a joint, you know that the seeds can explode from the heat. They go Pop! and fly off, landing on the floor, sometimes a considerable distance away. Every time I heard a seed pop, I’d get down on my hands and knees—stoned, mind you—and not be able to relax until I found the potentially incriminating evidence and disposed of it. I was not going to jail for a damned seed! Every sound from outside on the sidewalk, every car on the street frightened me and caused my heart to leap. Was it the cops again? Did they know what I was doing? I didn’t see how they could, but having been busted once, I could easily be busted again. For all I knew, they were spying on me.

This all sounds pretty insane, but I was hardly the only person in America who felt that way. When I heard the Buffalo Springfield’s great song, For What It’s Worth, with its refrain, “I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, Everybody look what’s going down,” I knew that “heads” were feeling the same way 3,000 miles away, in L.A. “Paranoia strikes deep, Into your life it will creep, It starts when you’re always afraid, You step out of line, the man come and take you away.”

Some people used to say that smoking pot made them paranoid, but I wonder if it was the pot so much as the fear of being arrested. Much of my generation of Baby Boomers was paranoid in those days, for that very reason. I wonder how this affected their/our subsequent behavior and attitudes. Are there studies on this? Did it impact our political beliefs? Our social relationships? Did it make us more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories? Did it make some of us anti-cop? Anyhow, kids today don’t have to worry about getting busted for pot, and that is a good thing.


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