Tag Archives: protest

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.

Advertisements

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!

Hero of the Week Award, June 26: Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage

26 Jul
Hero of the Week

Hero of the Week

Let my start this week’s award with a sincere thank-you to my friend Jay, a fierce supporter of LGBT rights, for pointing out these two powerful responses to a horrific situation. Russia is not known as a particularly friendly nation toward the LGBT community. In fact, it is more than just hostile. Years of oppression and occasional violent outbreaks have escalated in recent years. As more nations adopt marriage equality and LGBT rights are promoted by the United Nations, internal pressure has caused a real backlash, including lethal violence against gay rights activists and pride participants. This slideshow (which features some graphic results of violence) is a harrowing review of recent treatment of the Russian LGBT community.

Rather than provide courageous leadership to prevent this atmosphere, President Putin has encouraged and signed virulently homophobic legislation including an adoption ban and a “gay propaganda” law that is so vague it makes Tennessee’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill look like a coming out speech.  My, who knew that President Putin seems to be obsessed with us gays.  I’m a little scared.

Award winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein and journalist and provocateur Dan Savage have taken up the fight to demand international pressure on Russia and its leaders. With the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the opportunity to make a strong statement is better than ever.

Fierstein penned a powerful Op-Ed for the New York Times outlining Putin’s nasty legislative ways. He rightly points out that a gay athlete simply being out could result in arrest under the new propaganda law. Looking at the larger picture with his distinctive critical eye, he calls out the President and deftly demonstrates where this trend will lead.

Historically this kind of scapegoating is used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from their failing policies, and no doubt this is what’s happening in Russia. Counting on the natural backlash against the success of marriage equality around the world and recruiting support from conservative religious organizations, Mr. Putin has sallied forth into this battle, figuring that the only opposition he will face will come from the left, his favorite boogeyman. Mr. Putin’s campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain taken straight from the Nazi playbook. Can we allow this war against human rights to go unanswered? Although Mr. Putin may think he can control his creation, history proves he cannot: his condemnations are permission to commit violence against gays and lesbians.

Savage, citing Fierstein, demands attention and action as well. He wrote a nice piece for Slog promoting a boycott of Russian vodka. This strong, simple statement is something that millions can participate in and requires none of the business or political leverage that other trading blocks might.

That one of the most powerful nations in the world does nothing to protect its LGBT citizens is appalling. That its president actively works against them is even worse. International attention and pressure are critical, and the United States should lead the way. Thank you Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage for leading the charge.  President Putin is carving his legacy and it looks so very similar to that of Uncle Joe Stalin and Hitler.  Some may remember that Hitler said Germany would not enforce the genocide of the Jews and of Gays for the three weeks during the 1936 Olympics.  Now Putin has said Russia will not enforce the bloodbath of persecuting the LGBT community during the 2014 Olympics.  How sad to see history repeating itself.

Happy Birthday, Joan Baez

9 Jan

Today is folk music and social justice pioneer Joan Baez’ 72nd birthday. Born on Staten Island to a Mexican Catholic and a Scots Anglican, Baez was heavily influenced by the pacifist messages delivered when the family converted to Quakerism. She demonstrated her musical talent early on, and began performing in the late 50s. Fluent in English and Spanish, she has recorded in both (as well as six other languages).

After moving to New York City in 1960, she began performing more protest-based music along with her other folk repertoire. She soon met a young Bob Dylan and recorded a number of his songs. The two regularly performed together and developed a strong shared commitment to social justice. They both performed at the 1963 March on Washington. Baez also performed at Woodstock, viewing the festival as a statement against government oppression.

Throughout her career, Baez has been an outspoken proponent of social justice. A strong feminist, she is also a staunch defender of LGBT rights. She regularly performs benefits to relieve poverty and homelessness–sounds like a great social worker to me!. The overview of her involvement looks like a directory of social causes, and she is energetic for each one. She isn’t slowing down, either. Despite her distate for political partisanship, she recognized the true dangers of the GOP platform and endoresed her first major candidate with Barack Obama. She also participated actively in the Occupy protests, singing to raise money to support the cause.

In March of last year, Amnesty International created the Joan Baez Award for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights. At the launching celebration, she was presented with the first award in recognition of her human rights work with Amnesty International and beyond, and the inspiration she has given activists around the world. In future years, the award is to be presented to an artist – music, film, sculpture, paint or other medium – who has similarly helped advance human rights. What a powerful and fitting legacy for this tireless worker for rights for all.

%d bloggers like this: