Saturday, June 28, 2008
That being said, I do think it is important for the gay community to show the world that we are very present, we are your neighbors, your co-workers, indeed your family, we do not apologize for who we are and we are not going away. In this political climate, where we are looking at such issues as change in legislature to recognize same sex marriage, parenting and spousal benefits for couples of the same sex, I wonder if it is really the best choice to express our pride by donning a dress or a spangled jock strap and hanging off a float as it makes it's way down Fifth Avenue.
When the Gay Pride parade is reported by the media it is always done so with images of half naked leather men or drag queens. If, as a community, we are trying to show the rest of the world just how similar we are to everyone else, how "normal" we are, should we really be giving the media another opportunity to present us as deranged gender confused clowns and sex crazed fetishists? Although there are certainly many opportunities to see gay church groups, PFLAG members, SAGE members, groups of gay doctors and other professionals, the media will always focus on the more sensational and provocative.
There always has been and, I suspect, always will be a great sense of fun and freedom at the parade. It's an opportunity to embrace being different and rejoice in being accepted despite those differences. I am proud that I am a part of a community that is so diverse. No other marginalized group counts it's members from every race, culture and tradition on the planet.
I had an upsetting moment at the parade last year. I was feeling happy, even proud, enjoying the eye candy and saying hello to friends and acquaintances when a float passed by with big, oiled and gyrating muscular porno boys on it wearing only thongs and posing straps. Along the side of the float it read "rentboy.com" right after that came the Smirnoff vodka float with more semi-naked, steroid infused, gyrating hunks. All of a sudden I wasn't proud anymore. I became, actually, very sad. My proud, compassionate, accepting and diverse community reduced to and represented by whores and booze peddlers.
I don't wish that my opinion on the super sexualizing and the over commercializing of the parade should diminish the good that is possible through the visibility of proud gay people. One only need look at the faces of young, gay, out of towners there for the first time to realize the importance of this display. By shear numbers alone it says to those who have been marginalized, outcast and isolated: "You are not alone. You are fine just the way you are. No matter what your church or the people at school say - you are a person of worth."
The question remains: How can I best serve myself, the community and, ultimately, the world by being a proud, openly gay man? I haven't yet found the answer.
Several years ago at the parade I saw an elderly woman on the side lines. Not marching with a group, just by herself, a spectator. She held high a home made sign that read: "I love my lesbian granddaughter". She beamed as she held her sign and waved at the passers by.
That made me proud. That's what I want to see on the evening news.
Monday, June 23, 2008
The Community Center is active year round with a full after school program during the school year and a day camp for the children in the area during the summer months. The children who attend the Center range in age from seven to about fifteen. The Center has four programs: reading, computer lab, arts and crafts and swimming. The children are divided into four "classes" : younger boys, younger girls, older boys, older girls. One day during our stay we did some manual labor around the center (moving old furniture, clearing out debris and making space for the children) and we also helped with the kids. I chose to help out in the arts and crafts room.
These kids were so smart, sensitive, attentive and appreciative. We were there for a week and every morning the children would line up on the sidewalk outside the gate to the Center starting at about 7:15 for breakfast at 8. Now, when I think I'm having a bad day I can recall this picture. A picture that is seared into my memory and that will perhaps enable me to gain a new perspective of just how fortunate I am.
The woman who runs the Center is named Joanne, a Deaconess of the United Methodist Church. I asked her about the children, their home lives and their situations.
"Many of them have returned to New Orleans after being dispersed to other locations in the aftermath of Katrina. Most of them are from single parent homes and many of these children are traumatized. There isn't the funding to provide the mental health care that these children need. "
The Center, a not for profit facility, is organized and run by the women of The United Methodist Church. Presently there are about sixty or seventy children who use it's services daily.
"New children are still showing up. I see new ones every week. Sometimes I don't know who they are or where they come from. There's no paper work on some of these children. They're just children. What am I gonna do? Turn away children? They get breakfast and lunch here and their families know that while they're here they're safe."
The morning I worked with the kids in the arts and crafts room the instructor introduced my two fellow New Yorkers and me to the first class, the younger boys.
"Children: these people are here today to help out in the classroom. They're volunteers from New York City and they've come down here to help rebuild your city. What do you say to them?"
Children's voices as one; "Thank you."
My heart caught in my throat and I was hoping I wouldn't start balling in front of a room of small boys. I'm not a childcare expert but I imagine that can't be a good way to start off. Instead I busied myself with the task at hand which was to help the boys string beads and make necklaces. Some of the boys were making necklaces for their moms and some for themselves. Each was happy to have something of their own to take with them.
I'm so grateful, not only for my time as part of the rebuilding effort but also to have had that time with the children. I think about the rising crime and gun violence in these kid's communities and I can't help but think, hope and pray that these kids make it through the next few years unscathed. So trusting, so vulnerable and so at risk.
Bless Joanne and the work she does. Bless the small dedicated staff of the North Rampart Community Center and, please God, bless and keep those children.
When it was mentioned that we would be staying at the Center one day and working with the children I was disappointed. I wanted to be out in the field, hands on, rebuilding the community. I now realize that my short time with those children was hands on, rebuilding the community.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
1. John McCain voted against establishing a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now he says his position has “evolved,” yet he’s continued to oppose key civil rights laws.
2. According to Bloomberg News, McCain is more hawkish than Bush on Iraq, Russia and China. Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan says McCain “will make Cheney look like Gandhi.”
3. His reputation is built on his opposition to torture, but McCain voted against a bill to ban waterboarding, and then applauded President Bush for vetoing that ban.
4. McCain opposes a woman’s right to choose. He said, “I do not support Roe versus Wade. It should be overturned.”
Roe v. Wade
6. He’s one of the richest people in a Senate filled with millionaires. The Associated Press reports he and his wife own at least eight homes! Yet McCain says the solution to the housing crisis is for people facing foreclosure to get a “second job” and skip their vacations.
7. Many of McCain’s fellow Republican senators say he’s too reckless to be commander in chief. One Republican senator said: “The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He’s erratic. He’s hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”
8. McCain talks a lot about taking on special interests, but his campaign manager and top advisers are actually lobbyists. The government watchdog group Public Citizen says McCain has 59 lobbyists raising money for his campaign, more than any of the other presidential candidates.
9. McCain has sought closer ties to the extreme religious right in recent years. The pastor McCain calls his “spiritual guide,” Rod Parsley, believes America’s founding mission is to destroy Islam, which he calls a “false religion.” McCain sought the political support of right-wing preacher John Hagee, who believes Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for gay rights and called the Catholic Church “the Antichrist” "the great whore" and a “false cult.”
10. He positions himself as pro-environment, but he scored a 0—yes, zero—from the League of Conservation Voters last year.
John McCain is not who the Washington press corps make him out to be. Please help get the word out.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Today is Wednesday. I got back into town Saturday morning and it is only after a few days of reflecting on and digesting my experience that I feel able to write about my recent trip to New Orleans.
Thirteen of us from my Church in New York City went to New Orleans to do disaster recovery work for a week. I had never been to New Orleans before and I found the combination of deep southern, Caribbean, African and European cultures intoxicating. The rich history and mixing of all those cultures make for an exotic and exciting city. The music and food are, of course, famous and fabulous. The tall shuttered windows, wrought iron balconies and muted, mottled walls of the French Quarter carry within them years of romance and intrigue. It is really only upon leaving the French Quarter and venturing into the outer neighborhoods of the city that the deep devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the near genocide of federal negligence can be seen.
The day after we arrived in New Orleans all thirteen of us piled into our rented van and were given a tour of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the storms of 2005. Our tour was led by two local people from the Neighborhood Housing Service, a woman named Lauren, executive director of NHS, and a man named Dan, who drove us. Once we left the downtown area and went into the working class neighborhoods the sights were unbelievable. Row after row of abandoned homes in disrepair diminishing in size into the bleak horizon. Houses taken down to their foundations with nothing but cement blocks remaining, front steps leading up to nothing. Still visible were the water lines, sometimes as high as twelve or fourteen feet off the ground, spray painted writing on the front of homes indicating what had been found inside: survivors, pets, bodies. The very familiar letters TFW blazed across the front of nearly all the abandoned houses, indicating toxic flood water. Generations of working class families obliterated and forgotten first by the storm and now by their government. A government put in place to protect them.
I watch CNN and MSNBC, I subscribe to TIME magazine and read The New York Times, I would consider myself to be rather informed about current events and yet I was not prepared for what I saw. A vast barren landscape of poverty and loss. True, some of the more affluent neighborhoods are being rebuilt more quickly. Affluent, it was explained to us by our guides, means white. The lower working class neighborhoods, however, black and white, are slower to recover. The working poor of New Orleans have yet to return. Hospitals, hotels and public schools remain closed and the media has apparently lost it's appetite for this region. All federal aid has stopped, the Red Cross has pulled out and even the Salvation Army is no longer involved in New Orleans disaster recovery work. It is only through volunteer organizations that the rebuilding continues.
We drove alongside, what the locals call, Tent City. A three or four city block stretch of concrete median beneath a highway overpass chockful of tents. A city of homeless people. We saw children laughing and running between tents, clusters of people huddled round open fires preparing food. All of us in the van silent in either shock or disbelief. It is hard to imagine that these are Americans whose lives have been destroyed and forgotten. As our tour of this, once proud and now ravaged, southern port city continued I found myself vacillating between tears and fury. How is it possible that we, as a nation, are spending countless billions of dollars in Iraq, where our presence is questionable at best, and right here at home thousands are struggling to find decent jobs and housing, desperate to reclaim a city that they once called home? I sat dazed as the van passed more devastation and tragedy, embarrassed and ashamed. What I was witness to was not the travesty of injustices perpetrated against a third world nation but a stark reality smack dab in the middle of a major American city.
The following morning was our first day of work and we rose early and arrived at our orientation eager to be of service after what we'd seen. We drove crosstown and gathered in a small neighborhood church with several other volunteer groups just as eager as we were to get our instructions. We were warned of the heat:
"If you're not feeling well sit it out - don't push through. This heat will get you!"
"Watch each other. If one of you ain't sweating - sit them down and drink plenty of water. We don't want any Heatstroke."
We were working through the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry. Not necessarily a denominationally motivated or even religiously charged outfit but the largest volunteer based disaster relief organization presently in New Orleans. We were introduced to our site manager and given our assignments. We were to split into two groups working on two different sites. I was to be a part of the drywall crew. A few of us were chosen to go next door to the building which housed tools and materials and get what was needed. On the inside wall of the tool building hung a large map of the United States printed on white vinyl. Groups from all over the country had marked their hometowns and written the names of the churches, synagogues, community centers and schools with which they were affiliated. In various colors of magic marker, outside the confines of the continental United States, were the markings of groups from Puerto Rico, Russia, Canada, Thailand, Beijing and several European countries. This was certainly not the first time during this trip that I would try to hide my tears from those around me. Nor would it be the last.
The house we were working on belonged to a man named Ozzie, a really nice fellow who explained to us what had happened to him during the storm. His house sat on land that was originally his grandfather's. Ozzie and his fiance' had evacuated in time to avoid the storm. He then heard from neighbors that his house had been vandalized. When the storm came winds ripped the roof from the house. It was eight months before he could return and by that time the house and everything in it had been so rain soaked and water damaged that the house had to be taken down to the foundation and rebuilt from the base up. The damage was done by wind, said the insurance company, not flood waters so they paid nothing. Ozzie worked in building maintenance for the New Orleans public school system so, of course, he lost his job. He'd lost everything and exhausted his savings. Ozzie's story is just one, I'm sure, of many like his.
We worked four full days on Ozzie's house. Sanding, taping and mudding. I actually think we made quite a bit of difference in that house. Ozzie was there working beside us almost the whole time, his gratitude palpable. Our last day of work he brought us a bunch of spicy boiled crabs and corn for lunch. We sat on his porch, covered in plaster dust and feasted on this local fare. Cracking and sucking the spicy succulent critters. What a treat!
The Treme' is a neighborhood in the downtown portion of the city of New Orleans just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. It is the oldest settlement of free black people in the country. It is home to Congo Square and a neighborhood rich in cultural history. Sunday morning, before our NOLA devastation tour, our group walked into The Treme' where we were hosted by the Holy Faith Temple Baptist Church. Our own Reverend David Lewicki gave the sermon, a fiery one at that, amidst a full Gospel service where we all "got our praise on" before we were served a delicious lunch of stewed chicken, dirty rice, biscuits, salad, chocolate and lemon pound cake. Wednesday evening we returned to The Treme' and attended a service at St Anna's Episcopal Church. A small congregation where part of the service focused on the rise in crime and gun violence in the community and the priest leading the service thanked the volunteer groups who'd come down to do "missionary" work saying:
"You are how we know God is listening to our prayers. We are a city desperately trying to hold onto the little dignity we have left and that is only possible because of your contribution."
Tears fell freely down my face.
After the service there was a community supper and Jazz concert. There was another group of volunteers there, prep school boys from just outside DC who were working with Habitat for Humanity. They had been working in the Musicians Village in the upper ninth ward, wrapping houses in Tyvek, a synthetic material used to protect houses from extreme humidity. Also present were members of the community, families, older folks and street kids. All of us sitting at big round tables eating our $5 suppers, nobody turned away for lack of funds. The local musicians played jazz and Zydeco as conversation spun freely round the tables. In the next room free acupuncture and massage was offered as well as medical care for both children and adults. The massage therapists and acupuncturists started offering their services after the storm as stress management solutions to a community unable to afford such "luxuries".
An entire community joined together. Eating, laughing, talking, some dancing. This is something I've never seen before let alone been a part of. Not the New York melting pot I'm used to but more a simmering Gumbo. Black and white, alone, in pairs, teens, seniors, some with babies, clergy breaking bread with tattooed street kids. A community suspending judgement and being led by love. A beautiful example of they that have mourned being comforted.
I am so glad to have had this opportunity, to have had a personal and shared experience. I was one of several like minded people showing up to be of service without knowing where I would be sent. Willingness had been the conduit which brought on it satisfaction, gratitude and spiritual growth. There is still so much to be done in this damaged region and what we, as a group, accomplished is just a small drop in a very large bucket. I have made connections and friendships on this trip that, I suspect, will be lasting. My impressions of the New Orleans landscape, I know, will remain indelible.
What was, perhaps, most moving and at the same time most difficult to take was the unbridled gratitude of the local people. Early one morning as we were loading into the van to head off to our work sites a woman came up to us.
"Where y'all from and whatcha doing?"
We told her we were from New York City and that we were doing disaster recovery work, building homes. Immediately she began to cry.
"Thank you. Thank you so much. Y'all are gonna go on back to your lives and forget all about us but we are never gonna forget about you."
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Late spring and the air has grown heavy and warm. I met the young woman who would take me upstairs to the locked ward of the hospital. We were buzzed through the heavy doors and walked the long empty corridors to the large common room. It was announced that we had arrived and on hearing this the hospital clients fled like cockroaches when a light is turned on.
The young woman and I sat at the head of a large circle of chairs. We waited a considerable time as slowly, one by one, the men entered the room. Five men joined the circle and sat with us. They wore hospital issued pajamas and lightweight robes. They wore slippers or thick socks with rubber treads.
The young woman introduced herself and then introduced me. She explained why we were there, that we were not associated with that or any other institution, that our aim was solely to be helpful and what the format of our time there would be. I spoke. I tried to explain what I knew my problem to be and how I have, thus far, succeeded in putting this problem into remission. I spoke of the difficulties and the mistakes I've made. I spoke of early experiences and feelings of inadequacy, family, disappointment and self loathing. More than anything I tried to be honest.
The pain in the room was palpable. I had broken an invisible barrier. The first man spoke "I saw you come in and set up the chairs. I felt bad for you that no one was coming in. I didn't want you to have come up here for nothing so I stayed. I was all ready to be released tonight but after hearing what you had to say I'm going to stay another day and try to do the right thing."
Something caught in my throat. We were there to help him and he stayed because he was trying to spare our feelings. We'd each taken actions to ease another's suffering and through those small actions he'd heard a message of hope.
The next man couldn't stop fidgeting. He didn't wish to speak. He continued to fidget and look out the door. The third man spoke: "I'm fifty five years old" he said "I've been doing this for years. I can't stop and I'm in physical pain. I just want this to end." Tears began to gather in his eyes, he removed his over sized glasses and ran his hand through his shoulder length, unwashed gray hair. "My son called me today and asked me to take care of myself and I told him I would. I'm going to try..." His words trailed off. He placed his face in his hands.
The following man was heavy. He held his clasped hands on his round belly. He was visibly nervous. Scared. This was clearly his first experience of this kind. Avoiding any eye contact and with stooped shoulders he stared at the floor in front of him. His voice trembled as he spoke. " I have a family you know. A wife and children. A mother and siblings. Till I heard you speak I didn't think what I might be putting them through." He struggled not to cry but failed. He thanked us for coming.
The last man was older. Perhaps late sixties, hard to tell. He was missing most of his teeth. He was medicated and fairly incoherent. He spouted a slurry of familiar slogans " I know what I have to do. Keep it simple. One day at a time. Keep coming back."
The pain in the room was extreme. The lost opportunities and missed chances of these five men weighed heavy on me. The sadness of the situation hit me hard and I too began struggling to keep tears from running down my cheek. I wept not only for them but with gratitude that I had somehow managed to escape a situation that, to these men, now seemed inescapable.
Had I made a difference? Is it possible for the trajectory of a life to be changed just because one hears the truth of another's experience and struggle? I can only hope that I made the slightest difference for one of those men. I find great satisfaction by being useful in this way, it doesn't happen always and I'm often frustrated by my inability to reach anyone but when it does happen I experience an intense satisfaction. I feel fortunate that my struggles might make a difference to others. If reliving my experience can be useful then my trials were not for nothing. Because of the specifics of my journey I am uniquely qualified to be of service where others, even professionals, fail. This fact brings relief even to one as prone to discontentment as me. For this I give thanks.