USA Film Fest opens with history of AIDS, Q&A

This week, I reviewed How to Survive a Plague, a fascinating and emotional documentary from journo-turned-filmmaker David France about the early days of the AIDS crisis, especially as it relates to the founding of ACT-UP. The screening kicks off this year’s 42nd annual USA Film Festival.

David France, pictured, will be in attendance, and yours truly will be moderating the question and answer session immediately following it, and bring your questions for David!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Measure would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in Houston

Charter amendment could also allow DP benefits for city workers

DANIEL WILLIAMS  |  Contributing Writer

HOUSTON — Long-brewing plans to place a city-wide non-discrimination policy before Houston voters became public this week.

Since December a coalition of organizations and leaders have been working to draft a city charter amendment that would make it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment or public accommodations on the basis of  “age, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or physical characteristic.”

The amendment would also remove anti-LGBT language added to the Houston city charter in 1985 and 2001 — which could allow the City Council to vote to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of municipal employees.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who famously became the only out LGBT person elected mayor of a major American city in 2009, has declined to comment on the proposed charter amendment until the language is finalized. She told the Houston Chronicle: “I believe it’s important for the city of Houston to send a signal to the world that we welcome everybody and that we treat everybody equally, and depending on the elements of what was actually in it, I might or might not support it,”

According to Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman, the prospect of Houston voters approving the non-discrimination amendment has ramifications for efforts to pass similar measures in the state Legislature.

“Nondiscrimination in Houston builds a better case for us when we go for nondiscrimination in Austin,” said Coleman. “To be able to tell representatives that they represent areas that already support these efforts is very helpful.”

The cities of Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth all already have similar nondiscrimination ordinances and offer DP benefits to employees.

But Houston’s form of governance makes this effort unique. While the City Council is empowered to pass city ordinances covering issues of discrimination, they can be overturned by popular vote if those opposing the ordinance collect 20,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

That was the case in 1985 after Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire pushed through the council the city’s first protections for gay and lesbian Houstonians (no protections were provided for the bisexual or transgender communities).

A coalition of right-wing voters led by Louie Welch, then president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, was able to place the issue on a city-wide ballot, claiming the policy “promoted the homosexual lifestyle.” The group also recruited a “straight slate” of candidates to run against City Council members who had favored the protections, with Welch running against Whitmire.

The public vote on nondiscrimination was held in June 1985 and Welch’s forces prevailed, but the city’s temperament had changed by the time of the City Council and mayoral races in November. A comment of Welch’s that the solution to the AIDS crisis was to “shoot the queers” was aired on local TV and few in Houston wished to be associated with him after that. The “straight slate” failed to capture a single City Council seat and Whitmire remained mayor, but the defeat of the city’s nondiscrimination policy remained.

By 1998 Houston had changed: Annise Parker was serving as the city’s first out lesbian city council member and Houston boasted the state’s first out gay judge, John Paul Barnich. Mayor Lee Brown, sensing the change, issued an executive order protecting LGBT city employees from employment discrimination. But the city had not changed that much. Councilman Rob Todd led efforts to fight the order in court, arguing that since voters rejected city-wide protections from discrimination in 1985, it was inappropriate for the mayor to institute them without voter approval. The city spent the next three years defending the policy in court, finally emerging victorious.

The joy of that 2001 victory would be shortlived, however. That year Houston’s voters approved another amendment to the city charter, this time prohibiting the city from providing domestic partner benefits for city employees. In a narrow defeat, just over 51 percent of voters decided that the city should not offer competitive benefits.

The current proposed non-discrimination amendment would remove the language added in 1985 and 2001. While it would provide non-discrimination protections it would not require the city to offer benefits of any kind to the spouses of LGBT city employees, leaving that question back in the hands of the City Council.

The organizers of the current effort are confident that this year is the year for victory.

Noel Freeman, the president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which is spearheading the effort, explains that the previous votes occurred in “non-presidential years,”when voter turnout in general is low, and conservative voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate.

Additionally, polling by Equality Texas in 2010 showed that 80 percent of Houstonians support employment protections for gay and lesbian people.

In order to place the non-discrimination amendment on the November ballot the coalition supporting it will need to collect 20,000 signatures of registered Houston voters and submit them to the city clerk. Freeman says that the final charter amendment language is still under consideration and that once it is finalized the group will begin collecting signatures.

Even former Councilman Todd, who once fought the city’s policy of non-discrimination for LGBT employees, supports the current effort.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

SMU marks World AIDS Day with film screening

Dec. 1 isn’t just World AIDS Day — it’s also the 22nd annual Day With(out) Art, a movement launched in 1989 by the group Visual AIDS to mark the effect of the AIDS crisis on the arts community. In observance of the day, SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts will be among more than 50 colleges, museums and arts groups holding a free screening of the film Untitled.

Untitled, from Jim Hodges, Encke King and Carlos Marques da Cruz,  is an hour-long,  non-linear documentary featuring montages of archival footage recalling the period of activism in the early days of the AIDS crisis. The screening will take place in the Greer Carson Screening Room (room 3527) of the Owen Arts Building on SMU’s campus, 6101 Bishop Ave. at 5:30 p.m.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

We Were Here, AIDS documentary at 14 Pews

We Were HereWe Were Here, the award winning documentary of the early days of the AIDS crisis, premiers at 14 Pews theater (800 Aurora) Saturday, November 20, at 4:30 pm. The film, from director David Weissman, will be proceeded by a panel discussion on the state of the AIDS crisis today.

I came out in 1998, right at the tail end of the worst days of the AIDS crisis. I remember, with vivid clarity, the days of the walking wounded: when every other gay man I met would tell how their doctor said they should have died five years ago, when the community told time by recalling if an event took place before or after a certain person’s funeral.

Fortunately those days are largely behind us, but as new HIV infections continue to rise and we struggle to maintain funding for medications that are keeping people alive (at a cost of thousands of dollars a month), it’s important that we never forget the early days of the pandemic. For people of my generation and younger the mysterious “Gay Plague” that threatened our community in the early eighties can seem more like a fairy tale monster than the horrifying crisis it was, and is.

We Were Here tells the real life stories of five people who survived. Their mundane and profound recollections highlight, not only their personal experiences, but the broad political and social upheavals unleashed by the crisis. From their different vantage points as caregivers, activists, researchers, as friends and lovers of the afflicted, and as people with AIDS themselves, the interviewees share stories which are not only intensely personal, but which also illuminate the much larger themes of that era: the political and sexual complexities, and the terrible emotional toll. The film highlights the role of women – particularly lesbians – in caring for and fighting for their gay brothers.

Tickets for We Were Here are $10 and can be purchased at 14pews.org.

After the jump watch the trailer for We Were Here.

—  admin

The constancy of change

Everything changes but the dedication of the Turtle Creek Chorale members, TCC president says

SEAN BAUGH  |  Special Contributor

In the song “Change,” Melissa Etheridge sings, “The only thing that stays the same is change.” As president of the Turtle Creek Chorale, I am here to tell you, that quote applies to all of us.

The Turtle Creek Chorale is not immune to change, and we have certainly experienced our share over the past 31 years.

Honestly, though, five artistic directors in 31 years? That’s a pretty good track record for leadership when compared with senior management trends in the non-profit and artistic communities.

Change came to us last week in the form of news that Dr. Jonathan Palant was leaving the chorale. Jonathan has been my friend as well as the chorus’ artistic director.

His departure is a tremendous loss for so many of us.

I know my fellow chorale members well enough to say that we’ll weather this change, just as we have weathered many a difficult time. We have survived the AIDS crisis; we can survive anything.

It is our daily challenges that make the Turtle Creek Chorale what we are today: a strong, resilient and dedicated community of singers, friends and brothers.

With comings and goings also come growth and an incredible journey. The chorale will continue to sing with an even stronger voice as we rally to support our new artistic leadership.

In the coming weeks we will begin a nationwide search for the next artistic director, and you can rest assured that he (or she!) will meet a vibrant and dedicated group of men that recognizes its history and lives up to its reputation as one of the finest choirs in the world.

As Melissa’s lyrics coax us:

“And so it goes
This too shall pass away
It cuts so strange
The only thing that stays the same
Is change.”

In the coming weeks, the Turtle Creek Chorale kicks off its 32nd season with auditions for new members and rehearsals starting Aug. 23. I invite you to join us either by purchasing season subscriptions, giving to the chorale or singing with the TCC.

We, the Turtle Creek Chorale — the decorated Dallas, Texas men’s chorus — will continue on our mission to entertain, educate, unite and uplift our community. We are, and will be, an organization that you can be proud of.

This — I can assure you Miss Etheridge — will never change.

Sean Baugh is president of Turtle Creek Chorale. For more information on the chorale, go online to TurtleCreekChorale.org

—  John Wright

Anything was possible

From DIFFA to the stage, John Ahrens has witnessed the evolving art of HIV

YA GOTTA HAVE ‘HEART’ | Ahrens, above, was moved to tears by the revival of ‘The Normal Heart,’ which captured the panic of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; below left, designs from two decades of DIFFA auctions, which improved greatly from the days of ‘ugly fabrics.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

John Ahrens ended up in Dallas accidentally, but it’s an accident that may have saved his life. In the late 1960s, he was enrolled at Yale

University’s drama department, studying theater alongside classmates like Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein and Meryl Streep. It was a magical time.

“I lived in New York until the late 1970s,” he recalls. “Back then, in 1976 in New York, anything was possible — you had Paul [the gay character] onstage in A Chorus Line, it was post-Stonewall.” The Continental Baths had acts like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow before anyone knew who they were. “Later you had La Cage aux Folles with Georges singing ‘I Am What I Am.’”

In other words, it was a great time to be gay.

Or so it seemed. Ahrens moved to Dallas in 1978, putting him 1,300 miles away when the AIDS epidemic hit New York hard. Ahrens first realized how serious the situation was when he called a friend to inquire about a former roommate; the roommate had died.

All those emotions came flooding back to him last month, when he made a pilgrimage to New York specifically to see the revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. Ahrens caught a Sunday matinee; four hours later, it walked away with three Tony Awards including best revival of a play.

“It was amazing,” Ahrens says, choking up slightly. “It so accurately describes the panic everyone was living through, especially those still in the closet. It has gotten better” over the years.

That seems to be the consensus. The Normal Heart arrived in New York about the same time as another play about AIDS, As Is, but met with a very different reception. As Is made it to Broadway, where it was rewarded with three Tony Award nominations and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play. The Normal Heart remained off-Broadway, underground. And its angry political tone was eventually eclipsed by Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America.

But when’s the last time you heard someone talk about As Is? Meanwhile, Kramer’s play has earned cult status. (For years, Barbra Streisand tried to direct a film version.)

“The Normal Heart was so much of its time,”Ahrens opines, “but seeing it brought it all back. It captured the horrors of it all. The visualization of John Benjamin Hickey’s performance was so authentic — back then, you could look at someone and know they had HIV.”

It was a horrific time, but also one that spurred great achievement and sacrifice. “It changed a lot of people and made them get their shit together,” he says.

Ahrens, a respected costume designer, was present for the first auction of clothes from DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. He still remembers the first piece he designed: A red leather number with a hoop skirt meant to evoke Christian Lacroix…“worn by a 6-foot-tall redhead.” (He’s referring to Dallas supermodel Jan Strimple, a long-time supporter of DIFFA and an AIDS activist, one of Ahrens’ oldest friends.)

It probably wasn’t his best work — back then, it was hard to do your best work.

“We all got our fabric from the same fashion line, and that line was really ugly,” he says. “Some of us were getting our fabric the night before the show.”

Things have changed. The designs became more fabulous, the designers more high-profile, the fabrics of better quality. But what Ahrens remembers most are the people — in particular, the lesbian community.

“They were the soldiers,” he says frankly. “Lory Masters and her generation? Hell, they took on so much,” caring for the mostly gay men who suffered.

Back then, even being associated with AIDS took heroics; today, gay and straight, HIV-positive and –negative men and women readily lend their names and faces to campaigns such as Faces of Life, Dallas-based photographer Jorge Rivas’ campaign for AIDS awareness. The stigma has diminished — but it is not gone.

Ahrens didn’t see The Normal Heart when it first ran in New York more than 25 years ago, but seeing it in 2011 truly made him see how far things have come — and how far they still have to go.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

A Brief History of the Sisterhood

RETURN TO COVER STORY

• 1979: On Easter weekend three men in nun habits walk through San Francisco’s Castro District to protest problems in the gay community. Other manifestations take place later that year at a softball game, a nude beach and the annual Castro Street Fair. During the Labor Day weekend, the men attend the first International Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries in Arizona.

• 1980: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is officially formed and a Sister named Hysterectoria designs the first official habits, which are modeled after those worn by 14th century Belgian nuns. Engagement in more general social activism — such as the Three Mile Island protests — begins. The Sisters also begin campaigns to stop fundamentalist Christians from preaching anti-gay rhetoric in the Castro. In October, they hold their first benefit and net $1,500 to help gay Cuban refugees.

• 1981: The first international order of SPI is established in Sydney, Australia. In San Francisco, the Sisters organize the first-ever AIDS fundraiser, the Castro Dog Show.

• 1982: As a response to the AIDS crisis, Sisters Florence Nightmare and Roz Erection (who also happen to be nurses), help put together Play Fair!, a safer sex advice pamphlet that uses sex-positive language, and which the SPI distribute in the Castro community (that pamphlet is revised in 1999 as part of the SPI 20-year anniversary celebration).

• 1983: The Sisters hold the first AIDS candlelight vigil.

• 1984: After holding an exorcism of Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, the SPI are “disinvited” to the Republican National Convention in Dallas. They come to Texas anyway and perform a second exorcism of Falwell — and one for conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly — in Dealey Plaza.

• 1987: During a papal visit to San Francisco, the Sisters hold a mock exorcism of Pope John Paul II. For their efforts, they are placed on the Vatican’s Papal List of Heretics.

• 1994: The Sisters attend the Stonewall 25th anniversary celebration in NYC and lead the Drag March from Alphabet City to the Stonewall Inn.

• 1996: With more than 20 convents worldwide, the SPI are now a global force. They honor the loss of more than 30 sisters to AIDS (called Nuns of the Above) by creating four 24-foot-by-24-foot panels for Names Project Quilt, which they bring to Washington, D.C.

• 1999: The SPI celebrate their 20th anniversary with an International Conclave of Nuns and an exhibit entitled “A Consistory Conspiracy: Changing the Face of Activism.”

• 2000: During San Francisco Pride, the Sisters show support for the Californians for Same-Sex Marriage movement. They also hold another mock exorcism, this time of conservative talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

• 2001: In the wake of the 9-11 terror attacks, the Sisters hold a candlelight vigil to remember the gays and lesbians lost in the attacks.

• 2003: In a banner year for SPI fundraising, sisterly efforts bring in more than $100,000, with 80 percent returning to the community.

• 2008: The SPI are featured in Queer and Catholic, a book of collected essays, short stories and poems about LGBT life and Catholicism.

• 2009: The Sisters mark their 30th anniversary with “Nun World Order” celebrations in San Francisco’s Dolores Park.

—  John Wright

Pope says condoms OK for some groups, including male prostitutes

NICOLE WINFIELD and FRANCES D’EMILIO  |  Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has opened the door on the previously taboo subject of condoms as a way to fight HIV, saying male prostitutes who use condoms may be beginning to act responsibly. It’s a stunning comment for a pontiff who has blamed condoms for making the AIDS crisis worse.

The pope made the comments in an interview with a German journalist published as a book entitled “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” which is being released Tuesday, Nov. 23. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran excerpts on Saturday.

Church teaching has long opposed condoms because they are a form of artificial contraception, although the Vatican has never released an explicit policy about condoms and HIV. The Vatican has been harshly criticized for its position.

Benedict said that condoms are not a moral solution to stopping AIDS. But he said in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”

Benedict made the comment in response to a general question about Africa, where heterosexual HIV spread is rampant.

He used as a specific example male prostitutes, for whom contraception is not usually an issue, but did not mention married couples where one spouse is infected. The Vatican has come under pressure from even church officials to condone condom use for such monogamous married couples to protect the uninfected spouse from transmission.

Benedict drew the wrath of the United Nations, European governments and AIDS activists when, en route to Africa in 2009, he told reporters that the AIDS problem on the continent couldn’t be resolved by distributing condoms. “On the contrary, it increases the problem,” he said then.

Journalist Peter Seewald, who interviewed Benedict over the course of six days this summer, raised the Africa condom comments, asking him if it wasn’t “madness” for the Vatican to forbid a high-risk population from using condoms.

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility,” Benedict said.

Asked if that meant that the church wasn’t opposed in principle to condoms, the pope replied:

The church “of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but in this or that case, there can be nonetheless in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality,” according to an English translation of the book obtained by The Associated Press.

Elsewhere in the book he reaffirmed church teaching opposing artificial contraception.

“How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses, who could have given humanity something new, who could have given us a new Mozart or some new technical discovery?” he asked rhetorically.

He reiterated the church’s position that abstinence and marital fidelity is the only sure way to prevent HIV.

The English publisher of the book, Rev. Joseph Fessio, said the pope was not justifying condom use as a lesser of two evils.

“This is not a justification,” he said. Rather, “The intention of protecting the other from disease, of using a condom, may be a sign of an awakening moral responsibility.”

However, the Rev. Jim Martin, a Catholic writer, said the comments were certainly a departure, an exception where there had never been an exception before.

“While some bishops and archbishops have spoken in this way, the pope has never affirmed this,” Martin said. “And it’s interesting that he uses as an example someone who is trying to act morally to someone else by not passing on an infection, which was always the stance of those people who favored condoms in cases of HIV and AIDS. So it does mark a departure.”

The English translation of the original German specified “male prostitute.” The Italian translation in L’Osservatore Romano, however, used the feminine “prostitute.” The discrepancy wasn’t immediately clear.

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican’s longtime top official on bioethics and sexuality, elaborated on the pontiff’s comments, stressing that it was imperative to “make certain that this is the only way to save a life.” Sgreccia told the Italian news agency ANSA that that is why the pope on the condom issue “dealt with it in the realm of the exceptional.”

The condom question was one that “needed an answer for a long time,” Sgreccia said. “If Benedict XVI raised the question of exceptions, this exception must be accepted … and it must be verified that this is the only way to save life. This must be demonstrated,” Sgreccia said.

In the 1960s, the Vatican itself condoned giving contraceptive pills to nuns at risk of rape by fighters in the Congo to prevent pregnancy, arguing that the contraception was a lesser evil than pregnancy.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said clearly the pope wasn’t encouraging condom use.

“I think the pope has been very strong in saying condoms do not solve the problem of morality and do not solve the problem of good sex education. But if a person chooses not to follow the teaching of Christ in the church, they are at least obliged to prevent another person from contracting a disease that is deadly,” he said.

In Africa, Benedict’s comments drew praise among gays and AIDS activists.

“If he’s talking about condoms, it’s a step in the right direction,” said David Kamau, who heads the nonprofit Kenya Treatment Access Movement. “It’s accepting the reality on the ground … If the Church has failed to get people to follow its moral values and practice abstinence, they should take the next best step and encourage condom use.”

John Kitte, a gay Ugandan, said the pope was acting as a good parent.

“He minds about all the people living on earth. What he has suggested is very good and I encourage gays to take his advice seriously.”

But an evangelist pastor in the Uganda capital of Kampala, Solomon Male, argued the pope shouldn’t be granting any recognition of or encouragement to gays.

“If the Pope is saying so, then he has not read the Bible,” he said. “Gay acts are bad. It is abominable and should not take place.”

Christian Weisner, of the pro-reform group We Are Church in the pope’s native Germany, said the pope’s comments were “surprising, and if that’s the case one can be happy about the pope’s ability to learn.”

—  John Wright

Forum set to promote HIV awareness

from staff reports

Resource Center Dallas will hold a community forum seeking input to expand awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS in an effort to battle the growing rate of HIV/AIDS in Dallas County, on Tuesday, Oct. 12, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the center, 2701 Reagan St.

The forum is being held in collaboration with Dallas County and other community partners. It is free and open to the public.

Bret Camp, associate executive director for health and medical services at the center, said, “The goal is to lay groundwork for a community-driven effort that will reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, and to increase awareness of the services available to the public.”

He noted that a recent CDC study found that in 2008, one in five — or 19 percent of — men who have sex with men in 21 major U.S. cities are infected with HIV. Nearly half — 44 percent — were unaware of their infection.
The forum is part of the “Greater Than AIDS” project which responds to the AIDS crisis in the United States by targeting the severe and disproportionate epidemic among the gay community and African-Americans. The effort aims to raise knowledge and understanding of HIV/AIDS and confronts the stigma surrounding the disease.

Resource Center’s forum concentrates on gay men and will target communities most heavily affected, based on HIV/AIDS incidence and prevalence data, to ensure its success. Information gained will be used in strategic planning to reduce the number of HIV cases in the Dallas metropolitan area.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 08, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

LGBT community loses an ally

Rabbi Jake

When I hear about religious people being put on trial, as in the case of Rev. Jane Spahr, or religious schools rejecting children because their parents are gay or lesbian, it makes the death last week of Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky so much sadder because we need religious allies.

Rabbi Jake was the director of the Southwest Council of the Union for Reform Judaism. His office was in Dallas and he was always on the side of the LGBT community.

Rabbi Jake helped Congregation Beth El Binah become a member of the Union for Reform Judaism. His only change in the temple’s bylaws was wording of a sentence that called the group a gay and lesbian synagogue. He said synagogues don’t have a sexual orientation and other synagogues weren’t straight synagogues.

But at the time other synagogues weren’t welcoming the LGBT community. His goal was to have a synagogue with outreach to the LGBT community in every city in his district.

In San Antonio, that meant a new small temple. Beth El Binah now has a torah on long-term loan to that synagogue. In Houston, it meant connecting LGBT leaders from that city and Dallas. There, the larger synagogues established programs to welcome the LGBT community. In New Orleans and Austin, it meant bringing speakers from Beth El Binah to help open their temples to LGBT members where they are now important parts of their synagogues.

When the AIDS crisis hit Congregation Beth El Binah hard in the early 90s, Rabbi Jake spent quite a bit of time visiting members in hospitals and at home. In June, Rabbi Jake was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He died on Aug. 23 and is survived by his wife, Ellen, and son Daniel.

—  David Taffet