Tag Archives: activism

Remembering Gilbert Baker

3 Apr

Sadly, we lost Gilbert Baker on March 30, he was only 65. Baker was a gay rights activist who designed the now iconic rainbow gay pride flag in 1978. As a gay queer man, I knew that if I saw this flag in a store front or in neighborhoods, it meant I would be safe and welcomed there.

I have included this comic strip by my husband, Robert, as it does a marvelous job of providing the history of Gilbert’s journey in designing the Pride Flag–a piece of history that is worth knowing, remembering, and celebrating.

Farewell, Gilbert Baker — a pioneer in pride and celebration!

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Black History Month 2016: Nina Simone

21 Feb

nina-simone2Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to one of my personal heroes, Nina Simone. Simone would have been 83 years old today.  I remember crying my eyes out on April 21, 2003 when I heard that Nina Simone died. I fell in love with her smoky jazz voice so many years ago.  Emeli Sandé credits Simone as one of her major influences

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in Tryon, NC, and aspired to be a classical pianist. Despite her prodigious talent, she was denied scholarships and admissions and pursued a career in clubs instead. Eventually signed to Colpix, she was boxed into a pop-jazz mode for a few years. She took the standards she was given and began subverting them with her unique style — she was described as being a piano player, singer, and performer, “separately and simultaneously.” Over the years her stage set became famous for her powerful interpretations and righteous original songs.

Simone’s response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four children, was Mississippi GoddamIn Mississippi Goddam, we see Simone taking her place in the civil rights movement. Unlike Dr. King, Simone advocated violence if necessary in order to establish a separate state for African-Americans – who could blame her. You can only feel beaten down so much without building up a great amount of rage. I have such a great admiration for Dr. King for sublimating his rage into non-violent means. The song Backlash Blues was written by her friend Langston Hughes. Simone was also friends with Lorraine Hansberry and turned one of her plays, To Be Young, Gifted and Black into a civil rights song.  In 1972, Aretha Franklin did a cover of that song. The song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood was written specifically for Simone. Her version works simultaneously as a love song and a protest song, showing her emotional depth and complexity.

Sadly, it is painfully clear how much we still need Nina Simone’s voice and activism. I suspect she still inspires many of us. Happy Birthday to the national treasure that is Nina Simone.

The Passing of a Legend: Julian Bond

16 Aug

julian_bond2Sadly, the 75 year old Bond passed away last night. Today I would like to honor and celebrate an outspoken pioneer for civil rights and social justice and one of my personal heroes. Horace Julian Bond was born in Nashville in 1940. He grew up in rural Fort Valley, GA, where his father was president of the university. He enrolled in Morehouse College, where he helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He became its communications director and helped organize protests against segregation in public facilities in Georgia. He left school to spend more time as an activist; he would return to Morehouse and complete his BA in English at the age of 31–yay for English majors!

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Bond was one of eight African Americans elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. The House refused to seat him, citing his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. He lost an initial court case but appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled unanimously that Bond’s freedom of speech was being denied and compelled the Georgia House to seat him. He served in the Georgia house until 1975 and then in the Georgia Senate until 1987.

While still serving in Georgia politics, he co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center with Morris Dees in 1971 and served as its president for eight years. He also worked in education, teaching at a number of universities until 1998. That year he was selected as chairman of the NAACP, a role he held for 11 years. He helped create the 100th anniversary celebrations for the organization in 2009.

Julian Bond is an amazing voice for social justice and truly understands the intersections of oppression. He reluctantly boycotted the funeral of his friend Coretta Scott King because it was held in a viciously anti-gay megachurch. He shares King’s support of the LGBT community and has been a vocal advocate throughout his career.

African Americans […] were the only Americans who were enslaved for two centuries, but we were far from the only Americans suffering discrimination then and now. Sexual disposition parallels race. I was born this way. I have no choice. I wouldn’t change it if I could. Sexuality is unchangeable.

He has also recorded a marriage equality spot for the Human Rights Campaign and has notably observed, “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.”

Bond was a Distinguished Professor in Residence at American University in Washington, D.C. and a faculty member in the history department at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where he taught the history of the Civil Rights Movement. He was also a fierce advocate for responsible legislation to address climate change. What an amazing and inspirational figure!  Bond will remain a national treasure and leaves an amazing legacy.

Happy Birthday, Howard Zinn

24 Aug

Howard_Zinn-Anniversary-2Howard Zinn would have been 92 years old today. Zinn passed away on January 27, 2010.  I remember listening to NPR and crying my eyes out. Zinn has been one of my heroes since I first read his People’s History of the United States in 1987.  Zinn has had such a powerful impact on my life that I would actually say he is, in part, why this blog exist and why I try to work towards global equity and equality.

Zinn was from a Jewish Austrian-Hungarian immigrant family.  He fought in WWII as a bombadier to try and end fascism.  His experience in the war influenced his anti-war stance. Zinn reflects on what some refer to as “collateral damage” and many of us call the loss of so many civilian lives in war:

I recalled flying on that mission, too, as deputy lead bombardier, and that we did not aim specifically at the ‘Skoda works’ (which I would have noted, because it was the one target in Czechoslovakia I had read about) but dropped our bombs, without much precision, on the city of Pilsen. Two Czech citizens who lived in Pilsen at the time told me, recently, that several hundred people were killed in that raid (that is, Czechs)—not five.

Zinn also influenced my energy around trying to unpack racism, sexism, homophobia, and all of the intersections of how we target and marginalize people.  In 1963 Spelman College dismissed the then tenured Zinn from his teaching position for his activism with students in the struggle against segregation.  I love Spelman College and I suspect this was a very messy and difficult decision. I try to look at the level of risk for the college and balance that with the amazing work being done by Zinn and the students.  Two of his students in particular are also heroes of mine, Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman.

If there are a few of you who are not familiar with Howard Zinn, I strongly encourage you to read People’s History of the United States and watch the amazing documentary, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.  

Thank you, Howard Zinn and Happy Birthday! I can only imagine how the world could be a better place for all with his inspiration.

 

LGBT Pride and History Month 2014: Laverne Cox

16 Jun

LCoxToday we honor and celebrate a woman who is a powerful voice for the too often overlooked transgender community. Laverne Cox was born in Mobile, AL, not an LGBTQ friendly state or city.  She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College and began an acting career.

Cox was one of the first out trans women to make significant appearances on network television, especially as a woman of color. She appeared on two episodes of shows in the Law and Order franchise and was an out trans contestant on the VH1 reality show I Want to Work for Diddy. As her fame grew, she began using it as a platform to speak about trans issues and equality.

Her fame has only increased since she was cast as trans prisoner Sophia Burset on the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. It’s a compelling performance of a well-written character, and Cox deserves all the accolades that her work has garnered. That fame has made her one of the most famous and visible trans actors in the world and provided her with even more opportunities for advocacy and activism.

Cox is a passionate speaker who has a powerful way with words. She makes her points clearly and supports them with the sad facts about the oppression and aggression directed at the trans community. She makes space for the unfortunate reality that very few people understand — or even try to — the complex realities of being a transgender person. When she appeared in a now-infamous interview with Katie Couric, she responded to a clumsy series of questions about genitalia and surgery with a classy, informative, calm focus on the real issues facing the trans community.

Recognition of her advocacy work garnered Cox a position in history as the first out trans person to feature on the cover of Time magazine. She is also the first African-American transgender person to produce and star in her own TV show, the VH1 makeover program TRANSform Me.

As LGBT rights move forward in the 21st Century, the needs and issues of the “T” in the acronym often get overlooked or sacrificed for political expediency. Laverne Cox is a strong, smart voice dedicated to reversing that trend. Her work is critically important and her dedication is impressive. I hope all of us will stand in solidarity with the transgender community.

LGBT Pride and History Month 2014: José Sarria

10 Jun

SarriaToday we honor and celebrate a pioneer in social justice and LGBT rights. José Julio Sarria was born in 1922 or 23 (records vary) in San Francisco. His parents were recent immigrants from Latin America who never married, and his father left the picture early. His mother worked long hours in domestic service and enlisted the aid of a local couple who had recently lost their child to help raise José. He considered all three of them to be his parents. Throughout his youth he enjoyed dressing in both boys’ and girls’ clothing and his family supported him both at home and in public — if only more families would support gender non-conformity.

Sarria spoke only Spanish through kindergarten, then briefly attended private schools while learning English. He mastered it quickly, showing a proficiency for language that served him well throughout his life. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army. Initially assigned to the Intelligence School because of his linguistic skills, he was reassigned after failing a background check. While it was never verified, he always believed that failure to be related to his openness about his homosexuality. He served in the motor pool and as a military cook, mustering out at the end of the war.

Sarria returned to San Francisco and began college, hoping to become a teacher. He became a regular at the Black Cat Bar, a gathering place for gay men, beats, and bohemians. He met the love of his life, Jimmy Moore, who was a waiter at the bar. In a police sting, Sarria was falsely charged with solicitation and sentenced to a large fine. Realizing that this ruined his chances to teach, he dropped out of college and began waiting at the Black Cat — a perfect example of a system of oppression.

Sarria had a fine voice and began singing along with the piano player as he waited tables. Soon he became famous for his parodies of popular torch songs; this evolved into complicated drag shows in which he did send-ups of operas. He encouraged patrons and friends to be as open about their lives as possible, believing change could only come through visibility and solidarity. He famously observed,

People were living double lives and I didn’t understand it. It was persecution. Why be ashamed of who you are? … United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.

He closed the bar each night by leading a rousing chorus of God Save Us Nelly Queens, a rare public statement of pride and camaraderie. I am going to have to start singing this song wherever I go.

Sarria began his activism while at the Black Cat. He encouraged patrons to stand up to police raids by refusing to plead guilty and demanding jury trials. The resulting influx of cases caused court gridlock and judges began refusing to hear cases without strong evidence of wrongdoing. Sarria also helped drag performers and customers escape the “disguise for deception” law by sewing tags in the backs of their costumes that read “I’m a boy!” With George Strait, (not the country music George Strait) he founded the League for Civil Education, an outreach and support organization for gay men.

Disgusted by the ongoing pressure against the gay community in San Francisco, he ran for the Board of Supervisors in 1961, the first openly gay person to run for public office in the United States. Although he lost, his strong showing revealed the potential power of the gay voting bloc, beginning a dramatic change in local politics. Years later, Sarria helped advise Harvey Milk, who eventually won the seat that he had sought.

The Black Cat finally lost its liquor license in a sting operation and Sarria split his focus between social protest and his drag career. He founded the Tavern Guild, the first gay business association, and later the Society for Individual Rights, a more activist outgrowth of the League for Civil Education. He was crowned Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball in 1964, but proclaimed that since he was already a queen his new title should be Empress. He built upon this proclamation by helping build the Imperial Court System a network of non-profit charities tied to the drag and gay communities.

Drawing on his cooking experience from his Army days, Sarria also became a restaurateur, collaborating with Pierre Parker on local Lucky Pierre restaurants and running concessions at a number of World’s Fairs.

Sarria’s energy never flagged. After retiring in 1977, he continued his social work and his activism in the Imperial Courts. He finally abdicated his throne in 2007. He was recognized by numerous organizations for his outstanding work. In 2006, the city of San Francisco renamed a portion of 16th Street in the Castro in his honor. As a result, the address of the Harvey Milk branch of the public library fittingly became 1 José Sarria Court.

Sarria died in 2013 of adrenal cancer. He left behind an impressive legacy of activism, engagement, and honesty. May his legacy live on to inspire us all!

Women’s History Month 2014: Diane Nash

17 Mar

Diane_NashToday we honor and celebrate a woman whose signficant contributions to non-violent resistance,  desegregation, and social justice are significant but not widely appreciated. Diane Nash was born in Chicago in 1938. After high school, she attended Howard University for one year, then transferred to Fisk in Nashville, TN. Although she had experienced some racism, as most people of color do, her parents had managed to shelter her to the extent that they could. She was unprepared for the harsh, segregationist realities of the Jim Crow south.

Rather than return home or quietly accept her new circumstances, Nash began to look for ways to push back and create some much needed resistance. She attended a non-violent civil disobedience workshop offered by the Rev. James Lawson and took the lessons to heart. Quietly determined and eloquent, she became a leader in the local movement, helping organize sit-ins. She insisted on being arrested and refusing bail whenever present at an event that the police broke up. These actions bogged down the corrupt justice system and helped to spotlight the problems  as the nation began paying closer attention.

Nash worked with a young John Lewis and participated in solidarity protests for the Rock Hill Nine. She famously confronted Nashville’s mayor on the steps of city hall, simply asking, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” The mayor hesitantly agreed that it was wrong, opening the door for lunch counter desegregation in Nashville–Brava, Ms. Nash.

In 1960, Nash helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) a major force for civil rights change in the South. She helped organize the Freedom Riders and was a driving force in continuing the rides after violent opposition by officials in Alabama. Reflecting on the importance of refusing to back down, Nash has observed,

It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.

She was also involved in the planning of the Selma to Montgomery marches, participating in the Petrus Bridge march that famously injured John Lewis and spurred President Johnson to speak out against segregation.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Nash returned to Chicago. She worked in education and real estate, becoming a local force for fair housing advocacy.

No one person is responsible for the powerful growth and action of the civil rights movement. Historians and participants agree, however, that its ongoing success owes a great debt to this amazing woman. She risked long jail sentences in several states, put herself at personal risk, and encouraged the best forms of protest, helping ensure a cohesive, committed resistance to injustice.

Slowly Diane Nash’s role is becoming an important part of our nation’s narrative at this critical time in American History. She has received many accolades and awards, including the JFK Library and Foundation Distinguished American Award (2003),  LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights  (2004), and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum (2008).

Thank you, Ms. Nash.  Our country is in your debt.

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