The fabric of our lives

T-shirts may be the front line in the battle for LGBT civil rights, or at least the battle’s billboards

LESLIE ROBINSON  |  General Gayety

We Americans like to express ourselves with our chests. I’m not speaking of Jane Russell or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m talking about our proclivity for wearing T-shirts with slogans on them.

Americans have been human billboards for decades.

The slogans on T-shirts celebrate, advocate, advertise, unify, decry and polarize. Americans have lots to say — on shirts made in Honduras.

So it makes sense that one part of the gay story in this country is being played out in cotton/polyester blends.

Over the past years high school students and younger — kids on both sides of the gay issue — have been wearing their hearts on their sleeves. And getting sent home for it.

The latest shirt-skirmish is still unfolding at a middle school in DeSoto Parish in Louisiana. Student Dawn Henderson wore a shirt reading “Some Kids are Gay. That’s OK.” Principal Keith Simmons ordered her to change her shirt or go home.

It occurs to me that any kid aiming to get out of a test at school doesn’t need to fake the flu; just don a controversial T-shirt and in minutes you’ll be back home watching Judge Judy.

According to the ACLU of Louisiana, DeSoto school officials claimed the shirt was “distracting.” The ACLU sent Simmons a letter arguing that Henderson has a First Amendment right to express her opinion across her chest, as long as the school allows clothing with slogans.

If the school decides to forbid clothing with slogans, it might be hearing from Nike.

In another T-shirt to-do, which actually began back in 2006, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a month ago that students at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., could wear T-shirts saying “Be Happy, Not Gay.” The court maintained a “school that permits advocacy of the rights of homosexual students cannot be allowed to stifle criticism of homosexuality.”

May the judges’ T-shirts ride up with wear.

On Nov. 2 last year, Election Day, senior Kate Cohn made a pro-gay statement at Falcon High School in Peyton, Colo., by wearing a shirt reading “Marriage is so gay.” She said Principal Mark Carara told her the shirt was offensive and violated the dress code forbidding clothing potentially disruptive to the academic environment.

I’m guessing that means fishnets are out. At least for guys.

Cohn’s mom said Carara later likened the T-shirt to apparel promoting alcohol or drug use.

That increasingly well-known arbiter of fashion, the ACLU, sent a letter to school administrators demanding Cohn and others be allowed to wear the shirt, and the two-week ban was lifted.

Perfect. Two weeks gave her enough time to wash her shirt and make it all pretty for its re-debut.

I can say with certainty that T-shirt tizzies haven’t been limited to the younger set or the recent past. Back in the mid-’90s I covered a protest by adults in Hampton Beach, N.H., outside a T-shirt store that peddled a couple of anti-gay shirts. One read “Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks,” and the other said “Aids Kills Fags” — or something of that ilk.

What I remember best is a teenager pointedly buying one of those shirts during the protest, then sheepishly returning it afterwards because he needed the money to get home.

The other day I spotted a different T-shirt twist to the American LGBT story. Openly gay veteran political consultant Fred Karger, in Washington, D.C., to file for the Republican presidential nomination, met with the Republican National Committee chairman.

Karger — completely unknown to the public and, to repeat, openly gay — told Roll Call, “We had a great meeting. I gave him one of my T-shirts.”

I’d like to know what slogan is on that shirt. Maybe “Karger 2012: No, Really.”

Leslie Robinson still has a pro-ERA T-shirt that her mother gave her. E-mail Leslie at lesarobinson@gmail.com, and check out her blog at GeneralGayety.com.

—  John Wright

Eureka Springs adds DP benefits for city workers

(From Eureka Pride on Facebook)

Eureka Springs, Ark., long known as a gay tourist destination, has become the first city in the state to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of municipal employees, according to a press release we received Monday:

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — The only city in Arkansas with a Domestic Partnership Registry today became the first city in the state to provide health care coverage for the domestic partners of municipal workers.

The city’s insurance provider, the Arkansas Municipal League, notified the city that beginning January 1, 2011 both same- and opposite-sex partners of city workers will have the same access to health insurance as legal spouses.

The announcement culminated a year-long campaign by residents of the Northwest Arkansas tourist town which in June 2007 became the first city in the state to enact a Domestic Partnership Registry ordinance to officially recognize unmarried couples in committed relationships.

“Once again, Eureka Springs is leading by example, this time in the realm of workplace equality,” said Michael Walsh, who helped lead the effort to expand health care coverage. “Marital status shouldn’t be the deciding factor in access to ‘family plan’ insurance. Legally wed or not, all city workers should get the same employment benefits, including access to health insurance for their partners.”

Expanding the definition of “family dependent” was “the right thing to do,” Eureka Springs Mayor Dani Joy wrote to the Municipal League in August, just weeks before the city council passed a resolution endorsing domestic partnership insurance coverage.

“I am aware as well as you that some will construe this as a ‘gay issue’,” said Joy. “But the reality is that there are many heterosexual couples who chose to live together in a committed relationship – as a family – without entering into the civil contract of marriage,. These folks face the same ‘family’ challenges every day, not the least of which is providing health care for themselves and for those who are dependent on them. . . . the definition of family is at the center of our concerns.”

Joy and city Transit Director Lamont Richie met with the Arkansas Municipal League Nov. 4 to lobby for a more inclusive health insurance policy.

Today’s announcement that their efforts were successful “is a huge step forward,” said Richie.

“And though only employees of the City of Eureka Springs will be able to take advantage of it for now,” he said, “other communities in the state may be encouraged to adopt their own Domestic Partnership Registries as a means of providing health insurance benefits to domestic partners of their employees.”

—  John Wright

Rep. Coleman: Gov. Perry’s re-election would put lives of thousands of Texans with HIV in danger

Rep. Garnet Coleman

The Dallas Morning News reports today that the Texas HIV Medication Program, which supplies life-saving medication to people with HIV/AIDS who can’t afford it, will run out of money in the next two years.

You see, thanks to our fiscally conservative GOP leadership of the last decade, the state is facing a massive budget shortfall — of up to $21 billion — and state agencies are being asked to cut their budgets by 10 percent. But in order to sustain the HIV medication program, which helps about 13,700 people a year, the state will need to increase its contribution by about 50 percent — or more than $10 million.

According to Democratic State Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, a longtime LGBT ally, the chances aren’t good that our current leaders would be willing to fund the program as needed. Here’s what Coleman told The DMN:

“If [Rick] Perry’s still governor and there’s essentially the same team, then it could be very hard, especially if they’re emboldened by election results, instead of following what is humane for people,” Coleman said.

One of the obvious reasons behind Coleman’s concerns, which isn’t mentioned in the story, is that Perry and many other Republicans still view HIV/AIDS as a gay issue, and they believe homosexuality is immoral. Perry has himself said that if gays aren’t happy about the way they’re treated in Texas, they should move to another state. And after all, it’s right there in the state GOP platform: “We believe that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases.”

—  John Wright