Chip Off the Ol' Blog

To Fully Celebrate LGBT Pride, We Need to Know Our History

Ever heard of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben? How about Sylvia Rivera? Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon? Audre’ Lorde?

If you don’t know them, you’re not alone. Much of the LGBT community is unaware of our history and ignorant of the struggles of previous generations or of the accomplishments of LGBT men and women throughout history.

The month of June has become LGBT Pride Month with numerous celebrations around the world. It’s a time to celebrate our community and our continuing fight for equality. (By the way, do you know why June is Pride Month? The answer is below).

But it should also be a time to honor and remember our past and those who got us to where we are today.

That task is made more difficult by the fact that so many of our LGBT ancestors lived their lives in secret and much of our history as a community was hidden out of fear of repercussions. And little attempt was made to preserve stories and artifacts of that history.

But we have been able to preserve and reconstruct much of our history both as a community and of LGBT individuals. We’ve seen that effort in recent movies like “Milk” and “The Imitation Game” and the TV miniseries “When We Rise.”

But there are so many more stories out there. Stories of the Mattachine Society, the Lavender Scare purge of the 1950s, the effort to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Society’s list of mental illnesses, or the activism of Marsha P. Johnson. And that’s only scratching the surface.

We as LGBT people have a rich history that should make us immensely proud – a history of struggling against oppression and winning over and over again; a history of great achievements that impacted millions of people; a history that is deserving of widespread knowledge in the LGBT community and beyond.

We can all make that happen by educating ourselves about our history and continually telling our stories. There are multiple resources online, in books, and in movies readily available. And there are certainly older members of our community who can be great resources for sharing their stories.

History is a vital cornerstone for any community, particularly one that has faced repression and oppression for centuries. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, of purpose….of pride.

And, for the record, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was a gay Prussian military expert hired by George Washington to train the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Sylvia Rivera was a transgender woman who is believed to be one of the leaders of the Stonewall Riots. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950s, the first nationwide organization for lesbians. And Audre’ Lorde was a poet, writer, and activist who inspired thousands through her work.

And why is Pride Month in June? The Stonewall Riot took place in June of 1969. What ultimately became Pride started as an anniversary celebration of Stonewall.

The more you know…

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The Incomplete Lesson of Watergate

I was four years old when the Watergate burglary happened. I was six years old when President Nixon ultimately resigned. I have vague memories of adults talking about it and the news coverage of it but I have no concrete memory of the events themselves.

Two generations and at least half of a third additional generation were born after Watergate. They have no memory at all of the biggest White House scandal in American history. All they know of it is what they’ve learned in history classes, conversations, and the occasional documentary or TV special. And all of those sources tell the same story of what we supposedly learned from Watergate.

Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom of the lessons learned from Watergate is incomplete. Since the day Richard Nixon left the White House, we’ve been told that the big lesson of Watergate is that the system works. No one, including the President of the United States, is above the law. Our democratic institutions – checks and balances, an independent judiciary, an active and aggressive press, and elected officials who put country before party – will protect us from leaders who seek to abuse their power.

Does anyone else see the problem in that last sentence?

As we hear rumblings of a new White House scandal that leaders on both sides are now saying is at the level of Watergate, it’s important to remember the FULL lesson of Watergate, not the one that’s been repeated ad nauseum for 43 years.

If it hadn’t been for Woodward and Bernstein and other aggressive reporters; or a Supreme Court that ruled unanimously against a sitting president; or a Congress that took the job of investigating Watergate seriously and not just try to score political points; or honorable Republicans who pushed the administration to reveal all that it was trying to keep hidden and then voted for Articles of Impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee or went to Nixon and told him he had to go once the evidence was clear; or even a president who ultimately had enough respect for the Constitution and the law to abide by the Supreme Court’s decision even though it meant the end of his presidency, Watergate would have had a very different outcome.

Once you look at the whole picture – and not just what we want to take comfort in – it’s clear that the lesson of Watergate is incomplete: the system works – but only if those in power allow it to work.

It’s a much more sobering lesson. And one that we should remember as we dig deeper into the current administration’s growing scandal.

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It Was 20 Years Ago Today…Or This Month Anyway

This month marks 20 years since I packed my bags and moved to DC with no job and no place to live. Ballsy, eh?

Yup, ’tis I at the 1997 DC Pride festival.

It had been my dream for years to come to DC and work in the political or advocacy field. And, at the age of 28, I decided it was now or never. If it didn’t work, I thought, I could at least say that I tried.

Well, after two decades, I’d say it worked. Has it worked out as I’d expected it would? No. Have there been ups and downs along the way? You bet. Have I ever regretted doing it? Not once.

What’s striking to me on this anniversary is how similar my life is now to what it was 20 years ago. No permanent job. Loads of uncertainty about life both in the short- and long-term. Endless thinking about the next steps in life.

But the context of my life is very, very different.

At 28, the world is there to be conquered. There’s a wide array of opportunities to choose from. Seemingly every path through life is there waiting for you to take the first step. And, if that one doesn’t work, there are others close enough to step onto.

Now, all of that has changed. Ironically, with more experience and age under your belt, the opportunities become fewer and more competitive. And the paths are now so far apart that you can’t even see them much less step onto them. If you want to change your life path, it takes a lot of effort.

And there are more things to consider now. I’m thinking about things like overseas travel, home ownership, and retirement, things that were far from my mind 20 years ago. And there’s a clock that I can hear ticking in the background. It’s faint now…but it gets louder with each year. And the list of things I want to do in my life is not as short as I’d like it to be.

The nation and the world are vastly different now as well. In 1997, the economy was booming, the world was relatively peaceful, and there was a vast optimism in the future as the year 2000 approached. That is no longer the case in 2017. Now, a sheen of pessimism seems to cover everything – and that seems to limit options even more.

So what’s going to happen as I enter my 21st year in DC? Who knows? Perhaps there are dramatic changes coming and perhaps there are slight changes coming. Perhaps, after three years of uncertainty in my life, 2017 may finally bring things back to Earth. Or maybe nothing will change and I’ll be right back here next year.

In any event, I’ll do what I’ve always done: meet the challenges and changes as they come and taking every chance to accomplish what I want to do in life.

But it won’t be as easy – or nearly as exciting – as it was 20 years ago.

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One-Hit Wonder Wednesday 1.18.17

It’s One-Hit Wonder Wednesday! Each week, I’ll pick a one-hit wonder to stir nostalgia and make us all ask “what were people thinking?”

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that one-hit wonders can sometimes rise above their status when they signal the start of a new musical trend. And this week’s choice ushered in the last big trend of the 20th Century.

In 1997, the teen trio Hanson hit the top of the charts in 27 countries with “MMMBop,” the lead single off their debut album. Almost overnight, the three Hanson brothers became global pop superstars – and launched the teen pop trend that dominated music for several years around the turn of the 21st Century.

Numerous teen pop acts followed Hanson’s footsteps to the top of the charts over the next few years, including the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees, Mandy Moore, and many others.

So three home-schooled teenagers who write, record, and perform their own music kick started a music trend that overwhelmed pop culture. Who would have thought that could happen?

Today, the Hanson brothers continue as successful musicians but have yet to approach the superstar days of “MMMBop.” But they’re still young. It could happen again.

Check back next week for another edition of “One-Hot Wonder Wednesday.”

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“Hidden Figures,” the Cost of Bigotry, and MLK Day 2017

This past Saturday, I saw “Hidden Figures.” Awesome movie. One of the best I’ve seen in several years. Well acted and well written while telling an important story that has, until now, been unknown to most Americans.

About a year go, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read. In fact, it still haunts me to this day.

One passage in particular has stuck with me. When a teacher asked him what line of work he wanted to pursue after school, he said he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher told him that wasn’t a realistic line of work for a black man (he didn’t say “black man;” he said a word I refuse to repeat).

That one incident shook me to the core. How many times did this happen? How many men and women were denied the chance to pursue their talents and ambitions? How many lawyers, engineers, scientists, teachers, political leaders, entrepreneurs, etc. have we missed out on – and continue to miss out on?

I thought about that incident the entire time I was watching “Hidden Figures.” I could see that mindset at work at the start, as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson faced barrier after barrier that had nothing to do with their abilities and everything to do with their skin color and gender.

But they were fortunate in the long run. The need for their skills was simply too great to be ignored. And their unwillingness to accept “that’s the way it is” made them impossible to be overlooked.

We often look at the cost of bigotry in terms of a body count, injuries, or physical damage. We don’t think about the cost of what might have been in abandoned dreams and unfulfilled potential.

In 2017, things are much better than they were for Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary in 1961 – and far better than they were for Malcolm X as a high school student. But many of those barriers they faced still exist – and a belief that ability is based on skin color or gender is still persistent in too many places.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we must remember that ending bigotry is not just a matter of changing laws – it’s about changing minds, changing hearts, and changing attitudes that many don’t think of as racist, just “the way it is.” And we must dedicate ourselves to knocking down the barriers that remain and allow all Americans the opportunity to reach their potential.

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One-Hit Wonder Wednesday 1.11.17

It’s One-Hit Wonder Wednesday! Each week, I’ll pick a one-hit wonder to stir nostalgia and make us all ask “what were people thinking?”

One of the biggest hits of 1986 was “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” by the late Jermaine Stewart. A dancer for Shalamar and a backup singer for Culture Club, Stewart hit the big time with this lead single from his second album.

The song rose to number five in the U.S. and number two in the U.K. And it features many of the music trends (some would say cliches) of the mid-‘80s in one song:

Drum machine – check.
Synthesizers – check.
Horn section – check.
Record scratch – check.
Falsetto black voice – check.

Despite releasing two more singles from this album and producing a third album, Stewart was never able to crack the charts again. Sadly, he died in 1994 of AIDS-related complications.

Check back next week for another “One-Hit Wonder Wednesday.”

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Forgotten Friday 1.6.17

It’s “Forgotten Friday!” Each Friday, I’ll profile someone or something (celebrity, movie, TV show, book, event, politician, etc.) that once held the spotlight but is now largely forgotten.

This week, we’re raising our hand to hail a “Taxi.”

Considered one of the best shows in TV history, the sitcom “Taxi” ran for five seasons (four on ABC, one on NBC) from 1978-1983. Over its run, it won 18 Emmy awards, including three for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Set in a fictional cab company, the series featured a great ensemble cast, including Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, the late Jeff Conaway, Marilu Henner, Danny Devito, and Carol Kane. It also produced breakout stars in Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim Ignatowski and the late Andy Kaufman as the mechanic Latka.

Despite being one of the top-rated shows of the late 1970s and the launchpad for a number of stars, “Taxi” is largely forgotten today. All five seasons of “Taxi” are available on DVD and through Netflix but has not been seen on broadcast TV in a number of years.

For those who haven’t seen it, add “Taxi” to the Netflix queue. It’s worth watching and remembering.

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One-Hit Wonder Wednesday 1.4.17

It’s One-Hit Wonder Wednesday! Each week, I’ll pick a one-hit wonder to stir nostalgia and make us all ask “what were people thinking?”

So, when is a one-hit wonder more than just a one-hit wonder? When it’s the harbinger of a whole new musical style of course.

This week’s song was not just a number one hit; it was the start of the disco movement in the late ‘70s.

“Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation appeared on their 1973 debut album and was released as a single in early 1974. While it looked like a flop at first, it gained strength when it was picked up by the burgeoning disco scene in New York City and eventually hit number one on July 6, 1974.

The Hues Corporation did crack the top 20 once more in 1975, but they were never able to duplicate their success with “Rock the Boat” and disbanded in 1978.

Check back next week for another “One-Hit Wonder Wednesday.”

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You Can’t Go Home Again…Can You? No. Maybe?

gettyimages-583863884-eI just got back from my annual holiday visit back to Indiana. As always, it’s great to see family and old friends. But, this year in particular, it made me wonder if it might be time to return there for good.

After 20 years in DC, it seems unlikely that I’d even think about that possibility. When I got here back in 1997, I fell so completely in love with the place that I thought I’d never even consider going back.

But circumstances this year have made me re-think that. My ongoing work issues, the fact that I don’t have deeply planted roots here (no home ownership, no relationship, currently no permanent job), and some family health issues have really made me think about it.

There are some great advantages to going back. The cost of living is much cheaper there. I could afford to finally own a home, travel more, etc. There would be a great support system in place already between my family and longtime friends. And a slower pace of life certainly sounds appealing at the moment.

Another friend of mine was home visiting in Indiana at the same time. She posted about how, even though she wanted to get out of her hometown so badly when she was young, her hometown now felt “idyllic.”

I know that feeling. I often feel it when I visit. But I have to remind myself that it’s just an illusion. Visiting and living in a place are very, very different things. All the issues of everyday life will follow you into that “idyllic” place and make it very real very fast.

But, for me, there’s more to it than just having to deal with the annoyances of every day life. As a gay man, the decision to live in Indiana carries a big price: the loss of legal protections in housing and employment. And the loss of any kind of vibrant LGBT social structure.

And there are other considerations. In chatting with a group of high school friends, I mentioned the idea of coming back and how affordable housing is there.

Their response? Yes, housing is affordable. But once you come back and buy a home…you’re never leaving again. You simply won’t get enough out of the sale of a home in Indiana to afford to buy another one in a more expensive area.

So, if I decided to do this, it would most likely be a permanent thing. That’s also very scary.

And let’s not even talk about the lack of professional opportunities in my line of work. There just aren’t that many PR/communications openings in Indiana. I could dead end my career at a crucial point.

At the moment, I have absolutely no idea what to do. One way lies the most likely way to attain many of the things I currently want – at the cost of greater risk to myself and the loss of very important intangibles. The other way keeps those protections and intangibles – but could prolong this period of uncertainty and instability.

Ultimately, events may force me to make a decision. Until then, I’ll keep puzzling over this quandary. Just add it to the big pile of uncertainty that my life currently is.

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Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping Into the Future

I had a bittersweet moment this weekend. Two guys who were once close friends of mine got married. Once upon a time, I would have been there to share this special day with them and their families and friends.

But I wasn’t. Somethinsame_sex_wedding_topper1g – I still don’t know what – happened a few years ago and I was suddenly on the outside looking in at a close knit group that I had once been a part of.

It’s amazing to me how much has changed in a short amount of time. This was a small but mighty group of guys with whom I did just about everything for a period of three years. Now, on those rare occasions when I do see them, it’s painfully awkward.

And that sucks. I don’t have any animosity towards them. In fact, I still have a lot of affection for them. And I have a lot of fond memories of things like road tripping, watching the Super Bowl or awards shows, celebrating birthdays, or just hanging out.

But I also know that there’s no going back to what was. Too much time has passed and too much distance has accrued. And that’s really sad.

Perhaps some of that could be regained. We’ll have to see. It would take a lot of work. And I’m not sure how much any of us are willing to do on that.

It’s amazing to me how relationships can change over the course of just a few years and how people who were once near and dear to your heart now stand on the periphery of your life – and, in fact, nearly out of it.

I guess that’s the course of life. Not everyone can stay with the ride all the way through.

But it is surprising that some folks whom you feel extremely close to can suddenly no longer be a part of your life. I guess you never truly know who will stay and who will go in your life.

My best wishes to Brian and Chris. I hope that your marriage is everything you want it to be. And, I hope that, even if we are never close friends again, that you will remember me fondly – just as I remember you.

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