Larry Kramer, 1935-2020
(Photo by Bob Krasner)
A M E R I C A’ S
Trump attacks expansion of vote-by-mail Thousands wonder why he’s so mad By KAREN OCAMB
#TrumpMeltdown trended on Twitter most of May 27, in part because the president of the United States whined about a wide range of topics, including how the “Radical Left Lamestream Media” and the “Do Nothing Democrats” are spreading misinformation about how fast he reacted to COVID-19. He countered by crowing that “We pass 15,000,000 Tests Today, by far the most in the World.” But Donald Trump tweeted not one word of compassion about the victims of the virus on the day the coronavirus death toll in America surpassed 100,000 souls. But what really sparked Trump’s ire was the audacity of Twitter, his darling social media platform, to attach a fact check alert to two of his unsubstantiated tweets – one saying that mail-in ballots in the 2020 election would be fraudulent. “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone.....living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!,” Trump tweeted on May 26, receiving 77.9 thousand “likes.” Seeing absolutely no contradiction, Trump also threatened to “strongly regulate” social media platforms “or close them down” since Republicans allege the platforms “silence conservative voices,” denying them freedom of speech. Trump has 80.3 million Twitter followers. “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” Twitter posted as an alert link leading to a fact check page saying “Trump makes unsubstantial claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sec. of State Alex Padilla defended Newsom’s executive order issued in the face of the COVID-19 crisis that requires mail ballots be sent to California voters as an option to in-person voting in November. “The foundation of democracy is built on freedom and the right to vote,“ a right for which many Americans have died, Newsom said. “In a pandemic, I don’t want to deny you that right. ... It’s a noble cause. I think it’s an appropriate cause.” Padilla tweeted that fact-checking “is a small step in the right direction. But we can all do our part to call out the lies. The president is intentionally spreading false information about vote by mail and blatantly trying to suppress the vote.” Though Trump sent his vote-by-mail ballot to Florida for the 2018 elections, three Republican groups have sued Newsom over his executive order. They apparently choose to ignore the fact that at least 52 people who worked the polls or stood in long lines to vote in the April 7 Wisconsin primary contracted COVID-19. “The Republican playbook has been the same for years, and frankly voters are finally starting to see it for what it is - voter suppression,” says out Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chair Mark J. Gonzalez. “The RNC and the CAGOP’s latest attempt to use the courts to gaslight supporters is another charade to confuse and deflect from their inaction on putting forth policies designed to help working class voters. California joins South Carolina, Utah, and 26 other states who allow vote-by-mail - are they suing Republican-led states, too? If you don’t want voters to vote, then don’t run to represent them. No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote.” “Since 1962, California has offered its citizens the opportunity to vote by mail. Over the years, the ability to vote by mail has been expanded and more Californians vote by mail today than go to their polling places on Election Day,” Lester F. Aponte, President of the Stonewall Democratic Club and Co-Chair of LGBT Caucus of the
‘There is no evidence that vote by mail is more susceptible to fraud than in person voting,’ one expert said. (Photo by Sean Freese via Flickr)
California Democratic Party, tells the Los Angeles Blade. “California is one of 29 states who allow vote-by-mail. Five states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail. It is an option that makes it easier for people who have difficulty traveling, be it for economic or physical reasons or just because they have to be out of state on the day of the election, to exercise their right to vote. It is vitally important now that we are facing a pandemic of unprecedented proportions,” Aponte says. “Recognizing the value of making it easier for more people to vote,” he says, “Stonewall pioneered campaigns to encourage vote by mail. For many years, our ‘Vote Naked’ campaign educated voters on the availability of vote by mail and encouraged voters to exercise their right to vote no matter where they are on Election Day. “There is no evidence that vote by mail is more susceptible to fraud than in person voting,” he continues. “There is ample evidence that the more people vote the more Republicans lose. Trump’s cynical attack on vote by mail in California and other states is part of the Republican strategy to suppress the vote, especially among communities of color and other traditionally Democratic voters, including the LGBTQ community. And if they have to force voters into a choice between risking their lives or voting Republicans out of office, that is what they will do. We do not intend to let them get away with it.” “We continue to call voters to encourage them to change to Vote-by-Mail status,” adds ally Jane Wishon, Stonewall Democratic Club Political Vice President, who also runs their live phonebank campaign in Arizona, in collaboration with Westside Democratic Headquarters. Trump, the one-time consummate marketer, probably couldn’t help himself as his Twitter whines against Vote-by-Mail prompted a trend of awareness about the very method that may well unseat him in November.
LOSANGELESBLADE.COM • MAY 29, 2020 • 03
CalVets’ Dr. Vito Imbasciani on saving lives Gay surgeon is keeping vets safe from COVID-19 By KAREN OCAMB
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the true character of America’s leaders. The White House has proven to be a boiling cauldron of bleak conspiracy, callousness, and ineptitude while on the sunny-side up West Coast, Gov. Gavin Newsom shines a light of optimism even on the dreariest of fact-based days. May 22 was a hold-your-breath kind of day as Newsom started inching toward reopening the state with an amended health order in advance of Memorial Day weekend, with the prospect of thousands defying physical-distancing and mask wearing orders in the name of fun and “freedom.” Standing outside the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, Newsom noted the solemn opportunity to “reflect and remember those that sacrificed their lives for the cause we hold dear, and that’s our freedom. Never to be taken for granted. Never to be forgotten. And it is appropriate, despite this pandemic and all the strife, the challenges, all the consternation that it brings, that we take this time together with our family and our loved ones to reflect and to remember.” But California honored veterans not just rhetorically but in practice, thanks to “the outstanding practice of leadership” demonstrated by “our Secretary of Veterans Affairs and his remarkable team and outstanding frontline staff” that have protected over 2000 veterans in eight vet homes throughout the state. “There have been some horrific headlines and tragic lives lost and examples where the insidiousness of this disease spread like wildfire through facilities like this across the country,” said Newsom. “That has not been the case -- and I say this cautiously, soberly -- not been the case to date in the state of California,” he continued. “Throughout our entire system, eight hospitals, we have had just three patients test positive for COVID-19. We’ve had a number of staff, but the overwhelming majority of staff, all but two have recovered and are back at work. And that’s because of the seriousness of purpose that was advanced weeks before California stay at home order was put into place by our Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” And Vito D. Imbasciani, that literal life saver — a West Point graduate who became a urologic surgeon, a Ph.D. and an Army colonel, retiring after 27 years of badge and ribbonwinning combat medical service — is gay. Was Newsom right about the low rate of VA cases, while COVID-19 is wreaking havoc and causing death in nursing homes, in particular? In California, 40% of all deaths to COVID are happening in nursing homes. “Yeah. Three cases and only two gentlemen died and veterans of Korea and World War II. Late in his 80s and
04 • MAY 29, 2020 • LOSANGELESBLADE.COM
California Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. VITO IMBASCIANI (Photo courtesy Imbasciani’s office)
the other one late in his 90s. One of them really died with COVID and not because of it, meaning he was already actively failing due to advanced age,” Imbasciani told the Los Angeles Blade. And of the 14 staff who tested positive in CalVets’ eight homes in Barstow, Chula Vista, Lancaster, Los Angeles Ventura, Fresno, and Redding, “all but three of them eventually tested negative without getting sick and came back to work. And in all of those cases, they contracted their corona positivity from the community,” he said. “In fact only one in Redding did we think a staff member actually probably got it from one of our sick veteran residents.” The reason Imbasciani was able to save so many lives is because he was aware of the virus in China and he acted early. “For decades since the HIV virus began in 1980-81 when I was a medical student at the University of Vermont, College of Medicine, I have made it a habit always to follow CDC reports of viruses or other strange diseases popping up,
whether it’s five people or 50,” he says. “They always write a report about it and they say where it happened and this is what it looks like, so you have an idea. And when I heard that another virus had come out of, in this case, it was in Wuhan, China documented cases. It looked like, oh, heaven’s this had a really, really high death rate and it was easily transmitted from one person to another, so that was very contagious.” And, Imbasciani concluded, “this could easily get out of hand. That was in December,” he says. “And in our first staff meeting in early January in Sacramento, I asked my home administrators to brush off their emergency preparedness book, which we’ve developed because we have to have plans to evacuate in case of earthquakes and wildfires. We also have chapter in the book that gets us ready for an outbreak of influenza every winter. And we practice these things. Not only that, our whole staff, all 3,000 employees in all eight homes practice infection control, they’re taught in person and they’re mandated to take computer classes on infection control.” Everybody from haircutters to people who prepare the food to nurses and doctors, everybody had to take those classes. “We did absolutely everything that the government agencies ultimately told nursing homes to do,” Imbasciani said. “And by that I mean the VA system, the CDC, the State and County Public Health Departments and the Department of Social Services who give us our directions on assisted living. We did all of the guidance that they ultimately came up with, but we had put it in place a month before they told us to and two weeks before the State of California went into lockdown.” Imbasciani and his team put together 38 specific prescriptive guidelines on infectious disease control, on temperature checks and symptom checks for patients, as well as staff. “We basically restricted movement of people in the community coming into the homes,” he says. “We didn’t do anything special. None of what I just said was magic. It’s just applying common sense and a 10th grader’s knowledge of germ theory to the situation. It just what was key is that we did it early.” But first Imbasciani got clearance “because it was a restriction on activity of citizens. The people that live in our veteran’s homes are not like Californians who are either in prisons or jails or the state hospitals who are wards of the state. Our veterans are free and independent citizens who choose to live with us. Any restriction on their movement, even for health reason, I cleared first with either the State Department of Public Health or the State Department of
JUNE IS STILL
PRIDE MONTH JUNE 4TH How to Celebrate Your First Pride & Coming Out
Screen grab of Dr. VITO IMBASCIANI at a May 22 news conference with Gov. Gavin Newsom.
JUNE 11TH Pride in Business
JUNE 18TH Social Services,my main regulators.” They then informed the Veterans Affairs system and the CDC about the actions they were about to take – in January. “No one said no, no one said to stop. Maybe they took some of our initial steps and our successes as a help to guide the subsequent development of policy,” Imbasciani said. Imbasciani also had the advantage of working with a system of homes, “which means I could get all eight of them -- as we have now for 11 weeks --- on the phone every morning, seven days a week. And we compared our inventory of masks. We compared our protocol techniques. We compared our worries. If somebody noticed something like, “Hey, we have a worker who’s married to a guy who is a prison guard and the husband is positive. What do we do?” We would talk about situations like that as a system, so that whenever we develop any one of our constantly growing list of 38 steps, that the next day it was policy in all eight of our homes.” By contrast, three of the worst private California nursing homes with the highest numbers of deaths and positive cases are in three different counties are all owned by the same company, he says. “But they didn’t act as a system of homes. We shared our masks. I remember we did an inventory and West LA didn’t have enough masks and gowns, but Yountville and Napa County did, so that day somebody drove. We shared among ourselves so that everybody had the critical number of PPE and that number -- there’s a science to that. It’s called the CDC science of PPE. And they tell you not only how many gloves, masks, gowns every nursing home should have based on per capita, but the science of how to use them, how to put them on, how to take them off, how many times you can wear it, how long you can wear it,” Imbasciani says. “We did all of that. We shared our best practices, our worries,” he says. “We had a director, a director of nursing, the doctor, we had three or four people from each of the eight homes on the phone every day, still do. And the amount of shared knowledge and observations that number of trained people can make, it’s really a proof that you put your heads together and good ideas will come out of it.” Imbasciani believes there will be a Blue Ribbon panel to investigate what happened when the coronavirus pandemic hit America and come up with recommendations for future lawmakers. But in the meantime, COVID-19 is still a new mutating virus with an incubation period of up to 14 days. And during that time an asymptomatic carrier can spread the easily contagious virus without warning or awareness. It is therefore up to each person develop and display their own character -- taking care of themselves and protecting others. “There is a moral responsibility that everybody has to bear whether they’re religious or not,” says Imbasciani. “Morality is not a religious commandment. All have to be moral.”
Reﬂections of Pride
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LOSANGELESBLADE.COM • MAY 29, 2020 • 05
Larry Kramer dies at 84 ‘Anger is a wonderful motivator for me!’ By TROY MASTERS
Larry Kramer died Wednesday at 84 years old during a pandemic that this week reached a milestone 100,000 death count in the US. The cause was neither the AIDS crisis he so passionately fought nor the Covid-19 crisis he watched aghast as it unfolded. Larry Kramer died of pneumonia, according to his husband David Webster. Kramer was often soft-spoken, almost shy, and, at least the first time you met him, was unfailingly polite. But when he spoke in public his voice became a Moses-like lightning rod, parting the waters — some would say the nation — demanding respect and dignity for the lives of a people that were being decimated by a then hidden plague, AIDS. He turned his audience into an army that was unafraid to confront the evils of prejudice, hatred and ignorance. They created ACT UP. In March 1983, Kramer wrote in his famous essay “100,000 and counting,” published in the Native, then a New York City gay publication: “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” That essay was a call to arms and, “Larry was asked to speak at the LGBT Community Center in a writers speaking series after,” according to ACT UP founding member Eric Sawyer. “Nora Ephron cancelled with the flu.” Kramer called a number of friends and asked them to come to the speech. He planned to call for the formation of a civil disobedience group to protest governmental, drug company and society’s refusal to take appropriate action to respond to the needs of people living with AIDS or to find a cure for the disease, which was killing gay men at an exponentially growing rate. “Larry asked me to bring a bunch of my pretty boy Fire Island friends and to stand up and volunteer to help with forming the protest group as boy bait to encourage others to join,” Sawyer said. At one point in the speech, Kramer asked half of the room to stand up. He then said “All of you standing will be dead within 12 months unless we get off our asses and get into the streets to demand a major research project to find a cure for AIDS.” The actor Martin Sheen, a friend of Kramer’s, also spoke, imploring the room that government inaction was not acceptable and that the community must demand a cure. The first demonstration was planned in front of Trinity Church at the base of Wall Street where a handful of people demanded drug companies and the government begin, according to Sawyer, “an emergency project to cure AIDS.” The event amassed massive media coverage: having a
06 • MAY 29, 2020 • LOSANGELESBLADE.COM
“First there were a dozen, then two dozen, suddenly 100 and then too, too many.” — LARRY KRAMER in an email to Troy Masters. (Photo by Bob Krasner)
group of patients demanding a cure from the government was unheard of at the time. Kramer was a noted author and playwright who began his career at Columbia Pictures and United Artists. His screenplay for the 1969 film “Women in Love” (1969) earned an Academy Award nomination. Among his many accomplishments and awards, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his play “The Destiny of Me” (1992), and a two-time recipient of the Obie Award. Even before AIDS, Kramer was known as a critic of his own community; his novel “Faggots” (1978) depicted gay male relationships of the 1970s as hedonistic, destructive and unaware. He co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which has become the world’s largest private organization assisting people living with AIDS. But Kramer felt the agency had frozen and become reactive.
His highly acclaimed 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” produced at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater explored the failings of a bureaucratic approach to combating an epidemic and honed his belief in the power of collective political provocation. Kramer’s 2015 novel “The American People, Vol. 1: Search for My Heart,” was a behemoth —nearly 800 pages that tells variously of prehistoric monkeys, the Puritans, the American Revolution, the Civil War and also the abundant — in Kramer’s vision — homosexual proclivities of the U.S. Founding Fathers with a dizzying cast that includes Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln and even John Wilkes Booth. Kramer, a D.C. native, is widely known for his groundbreaking and searing play “The Normal Heart,” adapted into an HBO Emmy-winning film, and other works. He lived in New York’s Greenwich Village with his husband, David Webster (they wed in 2013) and their Cairn Terrier, Charlie, a rescue dog Kramer, a dog person, said is “very good natured.” Kramer spoke to the Blade in 2015 about his husband. “I first started dating David in the mid-‘60s. We dated for many years but he didn’t want to be pinned down. We finally got together permanently in 1995 or so and got married just a year or so ago. I promptly got very sick and spent almost a year in and out of hospitals. He saved my life several times when doctors were not helping; he found the right ones. It is certainly not the marriage one wanted to have, lover and caregiver. His own career as an architect has suffered as he worries for me. We have both certainly been put to the test and it has brought us even closer together.” Kramer could be cantankerous to say the least. Of that reputation, he told the Blade, “I am not bitter. I am angry. Anger is a wonderful motivator for me!” Last June, Kramer spoke at the Queer Liberation March, the second of two marches in New York City that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Kramer, who appeared on a stage set up at the rally site in a wheelchair, gave a pessimistic view of the state of the nation’s fight against AIDS and anti-LGBT oppression and bias close to 40 years after he began that fight in the early 1980s. “There is no cure for this plague,” Kramer told the rally. “Too many among us still get infected. We have become too complacent with PrEP,” he said, referring to the HIV prevention drug. “We search for a cure and we’re still in the Stone Age. The treatments we have are woefully expensive and come with troublesome side effects. And their manufacturers are holding us up to ransom,” he said. “I almost died three times,” said Kramer. “I started a couple of organizations to fight against the plague. In the end, we failed. I certainly feel that I failed.” That comment drew shouts from people in the audience saying, “No you haven’t” and “We love you.” Kramer responded calling on the LGBT community to “fight back” against what he called a current dangerous political climate. “If you love being gay as much as I do, fight back,” he said. “Our world needs every bit of help it can get, because I do not see enough of us fighting this fight and performing our duty,” said Kramer, adding: “Please all of you do your duty of opposition in these dark and dangerous days.”
Grenell to step down as German ambassador
U.S. Ambassador to Germany RICHARD GRENELL plans to step down from his post in the coming weeks. (Photo public domain)
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell plans to step down from his post. Grenell on Sunday in a tweet confirmed a German media report that says he will formally leave the ambassadorship in a “few weeks.” Fox News on Sunday reported Grenell in March told the White House he planned to step down as ambassador once his tenure as acting director of national intelligence came to an end. The U.S. Senate on May 21 confirmed U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) as the next DNI. A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Germany on Monday declined to comment to the Blade on media reports about Grenell’s decision to step down. Grenell on Twitter thanked U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Israeli Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff and others who praised his tenure. Grenell, 53, has represented the U.S. in Germany since 2018. He is one of five openly gay ambassadors under the Trump administration. Grenell in February became the highest-ranking openly gay presidential appointee in American history when the White House named him acting DNI. The White House last year tapped Grenell to lead an initiative that encourages countries to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. The U.S. Embassy in Germany last summer hosted a group of LGBTQ rights activists from around the world. Grenell and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Knight Craft late last year organized an event on the sidelines of a U.N. Security Council meeting that focused on efforts to decriminalize homosexuality around the world. Grenell, among other things, publicly criticized Brunei over a provision of its new penal code that sought to impose the death penalty for anyone convicted of consensual samesex sexual relations. Grenell also faced sharp criticism in Germany and from LGBTQ advocacy groups in the U.S. and elsewhere because of his outspoken support of President Trump. German media reported Robin Quinville, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Germany, will likely succeed Grenell on an interim basis. MICHAEL K. LAVERS
Supreme Court refuses to block surgery for trans inmate In a surprise order last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant the state of Idaho’s request to block gender reassignment surgery for a transgender inmate, which lower courts affirmed is her right to obtain under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The one-page order indicates the state’s request was submitted to U.S. Associate Justice Elena Kagan, who referred the matter to the entire court. The application for a stay, however, was denied. It would have taken a majority vote of at least five justices to have granted the stay, but the vote isn’t recorded. According to the order, U.S. Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito “would grant the application” to halt the procedure. The request was filed in the case of Edmo v. Idaho Department of Correction, which was filed by Adree Edmo, a Native American transgender woman who’s been the custody of the Idaho Department of Correction since April 2012. Her case led the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Court of Appeals to confirm denying gender reassignment surgery requested by a prison inmate is the denial of medically necessary treatment, which constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is against the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Previously, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in Idaho ruled in December 2018 requiring the Idaho Department of Correction and its medical provider Corizon to provide the surgery to Edmo within six months, although that surgery has yet to take place as that litigation has continued. Although the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision, it had placed a stay on the injunction requiring the surgery. That occurred in February, which led Idaho to seek a stay from the Supreme Court to halt the procedure. The litigation on behalf of Edmo was filed by National Center for Lesbian Rights along with Rifkin Law Office, Hadsell Stormer and Renick LLP, and Ferguson Durham, PLLC. Lori Rifkin, lead attorney for Edmo, said in a statement the Supreme Court “appropriately declined the state’s request for a stay that would have prevented Ms. Edmo from getting the care she needs.” “Because the lower court decisions applied settled Eighth Amendment precedent to the facts of this case, there is no basis for further review of those careful and detailed decisions,” Rifkin said. Amy Whelan, senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement Edmo will now “get medically necessary surgery that she has needed for years.” “The lower courts found, based on extensive evidence and proof, that the Idaho Department of Corrections and Corizon Health are violating Ms. Edmo’s constitutional rights by withholding this critical medical care,” Whelan said. “Today’s decision means that the state can no longer delay in providing care that is essential to Ms. Edmo’s health, safety, and well-being.” Prior to the order being handed down, attorneys for Edmo filed a brief before the Supreme Court insisting the procedure for Edmo is necessary on an emergency basis. “As every court to consider this case has found, the balance of hardships swings heavily in one direction: each day applicants withhold necessary medical treatment, Adree Edmo suffers irreparable harm,” the brief says. “After two attempts at self-castration — including one in which Ms. Edmo ‘was able to open her testicle sac with a razor blade and remove one testicle’ before ‘abandon[ing] her attempt…when there was too much blood to continue,’…Edmo is finally scheduled to receive the surgery she needs in July 2020.” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, on the same day the order was handed down, filed a brief before the Supreme Court urging justices to grant the stay, calling arguments from Edmo’s attorneys “a facade of cherry-picked statements, mischaracterized facts and misread cases.” CHRIS JOHNSON
08 • MAY 29, 2020 • LOSANGELESBLADE.COM
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Life in the time of the coronavirus COVID-19 is new, contagious, and fast. Three months ago, the world screamed: “Be afraid of everything — the air, surfaces, people.” As of May 1, the W.H.O. reports nearly 240,000 deaths worldwide, deaths that many believe could have been prevented. I’ve been here before. In the early 1980s, as an unknown virus killed homosexual men in New York City and California, the Reagan administration expressed no alarm that the HTLV-III virus was a communicable disease. In fact, White House press secretary Larry Speakes repeatedly joked or shrugged oﬀ AIDS in brieﬁngs, as he did here in 1984: “Q: An estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the President, as Commander-in-Chief, take steps to protect Armed Forces food and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they forbid typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services? MR. SPEAKES: I don’t know. Q: Could you—Is the President concerned about this subject, Larry— MR. SPEAKES: I haven’t heard him express— Q: —that seems to have evoked so much jocular MR. SPEAKES:—concern.” My last job in mainstream journalism was producing coverage of the 1984 Olympics for CBS News aﬃliates out of TV City. I wanted to be a playwright so I joined an acting class to see what actors would do with my words. I also joined a coalition of renters, gays and seniors in the movement for West Hollywood cityhood. Suddenly, my gay friends started disappearing at 12 Step meetings or they showed up skinny, with purple liaisons, terriﬁed and humiliated at no longer being hunky or able to control their bodily functions. Stephen Pender was my ﬁrst AIDS death in 1986. He was a popular actor/writer whose family deserted him out of shame. Many friends deserted him, too — he was a mirror of what they’d become. I was freelancing, I liked him and I refused to let him die alone. But I was afraid. We still didn’t deﬁnitively know how the disease was spread. Stephen
wasn’t contagious – but what if the virus in his coma sweat got into the cuts around my cuticles? Could I catch it from holding his hand? It was a choice I had to make. I chose love. Luckily, Stephen’s insurance landed him in the Betty Ford wing of Cedars Sinai where the masked and gloved nurses were much kinder than the VA and L.A. County Hospital nurses were to Johnny Pipken, who starved when food was left outside the room or who used him as a pincushion to train unskilled nursing students. I was furious. I told him I was going to complain, maybe go to my friends in the press. “NO!” They’d punish him and withhold his pain medication. It had happened before. It wasn’t just Stockholm Syndrome. He couldn’t bear the pain of AIDS slowly eating him alive. I had a mini-breakdown, distraught over my powerlessness, at not being Jesus and being able to lay hands on him and cure him. When New York City ER Dr. Lorna Breen died by suicide after hours and hours and hours of trying but failing to save the lives of so many coronavirus patients, my soul sank. I’ve known a bit of that abject powerlessness. And I’ve also reported on the bravery of those courageous frontline doctors and nurses and paramedics whose calling sent them into the unknown world of AIDS. I got back into journalism because of AIDS. Being a care provider was not enough. I needed to use whatever skills I had to serve my people, who were dying in droves. I reported on grassroots and policy ﬁghts, on ACT UP/LA, on the fear, the insistence on ignorance, the confrontations, the miracles and the deaths. I stopped counting in 1990 after 150 friends had died. It is through these eyes that I bear witness and share what I discover. Nursing homes, jails and meat packing facilities are the new homosexuals in this highly contagious pandemic. Their risks of infection are noted, but they are expendable, given the cost of prevention. Today, I am the news editor and reporter for the LGBTQ newspaper The Los Angeles Blade as LGBTQ people are being erased. The Trump administration is blatantly eviscerating LGBTQ rights and the federal,
KAREN OCAMB is news editor of the Los Angeles Blade. (Photo by Mark Heﬄinger)
state, and county governments are benignly not collecting LGBTQ healthcare data, despite numerous pleas from LGBTQ oﬃcials and organizations providing information and data about the high risk for infection for this national intersectional LGBTQ minority demographic. Apparently, it’s too hard, though, unlike the early 1980s, government oﬃcials do express their “concern.” Some mainstream media outlets report on LGBTQ deaths. But for the most part, it’s up to the LGBTQ press to “advocate” for attention and action. Meanwhile there is another contagion spreading across the land – the sharing of love and common humanity. Clapping for the heroes is a balm to momentarily soothe the trauma of governmental cruelty and incompetence and the trauma for those of us who’ve been in places like this before. It is a privilege to be an eyewitness reporter during this time. This is what I also know: as a journalist, I am an “essential” worker. But as an LGBTQ person, after protesting for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, being on the CBS Network News Assignment Desk during Watergate, reporting on AIDS and marriage equality — if I catch COVID-19, I may get a few claps from friends but I will oﬃcially die as a second-class citizen in America. This essay has been edited from the original, a runner-up in a Los Angeles Press Club contest about covering the pandemic.
LOSANGELESBLADE.COM •MAY 29, 2020 • 09
Remembering Richard and Roy Rock pioneer struggled wth sexuality; Vegas tiger king downplayed and evaded it By JOEY DiGUGLIELMO firstname.lastname@example.org
SIEGFRIED & ROY at the height of their Vegas fame. (Photo illustration from 1998 program book; courtesy Mirage)
LITTLE RICHARD at a charity event in Washington in 2002. (Photo by John Mathew Smith; via Wikimedia)
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It was perhaps ironic that Little Richard and Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy) died within hours of each other this month. Though they were from totally separate pop culture factions, seeing their obits side by side in some outlets, such as the May 10 New York Times, was a sobering reminder of how an older generation of gay men — Horn, who died at 75 was on the outer cusp of the Boomers; Richard was 12 years older — dealt with (or didn’t deal with) their sexuality in a pre-Stonewall era when practically nobody was oﬃcially out but demeanor, style, stage persona and more “read” gay to middle America the same way sexual innuendo was implied in early jazz and movies long before it was discussed or depicted openly. Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman was his legal name) was known for a string of ’50s hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” whose impact went far beyond their initial chart peaks. Richard has been widely lauded as a rock and roll innovator and the ﬁrst pop star to integrate black and white audiences in a time of rigid segregation in music and society. He died May 9 from bone cancer at his home in Tullahoma, Tenn., after a two-month illness. He was 87. Horn came to fame with his nearly life-long professional (and for a time personal) partner Siegfried Fischbacher, who were known for their ﬂashy Las Vegas act in which they made lions and tigers (and each other) vanish and reappear. They came to Vegas in 1967 and had a sellout run at the Mirage Resort and Casino from 1990-2003 that found them performing 500 shows yearly. By 1999, the show had grossed half a billion dollars and they were Vegas’s highest-paid entertainers. Sadly, their careers ended abruptly on Oct. 3, 2003 (Horn’s birthday) when one of the tigers attacked Horn resulting in serious injury. Suﬀering a stroke and partial paralysis on his left side, Horn was eventually able to walk with assistance but never performed again. The duo made one ﬁnal public appearance in 2009 with a tiger at a beneﬁt for the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, the Times reported, before retiring oﬃcially in 2010. Horn died of COVID-19. Neither Fischbacher nor Horn (both German immigrants) ever oﬃcially came out, gave few interviews (even in their heyday) and could be testy about it when pressed. BEHND THE GLITZ But with their over-the-top costumes (including Roy’s trademark codpiece), ostentatious Vegas home and inseparable public image (and never a hint that either might be involved romantically with anyone else), they didn’t have
to state it explicitly. They donned capes and silver space suits, battled a sorceress and a ﬁre-breathing dragon amidst smoke machines, lasers and, of course, lions and tigers, many of which were white, which are uber rare. Their act had a Liberace-esque ﬂair to it, even if neither were ever quite that fey. Siegfried was the magician; Roy the animal trainer. They presented a yin/yang-type persona and lived together at Jungle Palace, an eight-acre Vegas estate (a much larger ranch was just outside the city proper) with, as of 1999, 55 tigers and 16 lions. Horn was the “Tiger King” decades before anybody heard of Joe Exotic (also gay) of the hit Netﬂix series. “So you go deeper and say what is going on in my bedroom and in Roy’s bedroom,” Fischbacher said in a 1999 Vanity Fair proﬁle. “I don’t care, I don’t know. I tell you this because this is me and I wouldn’t ask what you do with your dick either.” Both said they were “very honored” to be considered gay icons but spoke of gay as “other.” “I have a lot of friends who are gay and I made a lot of friends in show business and I found out that they are always interesting, intelligent and good people and fun to be with,” Fischbacher told Vanity Fair. “I am ﬂattered to think that people think that I am versatile,” Horn said. “You don’t have to deﬁne everything and I don’t want to disillusion people because I’m not a guy who kisses and tells.” Pal Shirley MacLaine told the magazine they “used to be lovers a long time ago, yeah? In this day and age, who cares?” Mainstream media only coyly touched on Horn’s sexuality. The Times said Fischbacher and Horn “were domestic as well as professional partners” but left it at that. Journalist Steve Friess, who in The Advocate called them “the world’s most openly closeted celebrities,” said a Mirage spokesperson told him the night of Horn’s attack that “it’s well known that they were lovers at one time.” They were said to have zero presence in the Vegas gay life, according to Friess and others, and outside of buying an ad in a program book for an AIDS fundraiser, were not known to have used any of their vast wealth to support LGBTQ rights. For some, that’s not a problem. Milt Larsen, founder of The Magic Castle, a private club for magicians and enthusiasts in Hollywood, is 89, straight and knew Siegfried and Roy for many years, initially through his late sister-in-law, Irene Larsen. She and her husband Bill Larsen (Milt’s brother) loved magic and animals and discovered Siegfried & Roy in their early years in Vegas. Larsen later met the duo through his brother and sister-in-law and says Horn was “a dear, great friend.”
“Before Siegfried & Roy, magicians were very seldom anything other than an opening act,” Larsen says. “They came along and went from being an opening act to the headliner with their own huge show because it was so popular. … They were the best.” Larsen’s friend Dale Hindman also know Siegfried & Roy and says he was at their house several times. He says Roy “fought like crazy” to recover and “they had the best medical people” working with him. He did daily physical therapy, swam and would zip around the grounds on a scooter. He recalls one Vegas convention in which Horn made a rare, post-accident appearance and walked to the podium. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Hindman says. “I saw him a number of times at diﬀerent places. He was in the scooter, he would talk, he loved people, he had great quality of life and they had the resources to have the best medical care. It’s such a shame that something like this virus came along and killed him.” Larsen and Hindman say Horn’s sexuality was understood but “never really discussed.” “I’ve been in show business a long time and sometimes it feels like just about everybody I’ve ever known was gay,” Larsen says with a laugh. “It was a diﬀerent world then. I just don’t recall anybody ever talking much about it.” Hindman says it was generational and gradual when more celebrities started coming out oﬃcially. Larsen says Fischbacher, especially (whom he calls a “great” businessman), just “never made a big point of it.” “They were a couple in the sense that they were absolute partners in what they did and that their lives were their business,” he says. “People are people and in the world we live in today, it’s just not questioned as much.” Larsen remembers “many, many times” being backstage in their Vegas dressing room post-show. “The Champagne would be ﬂowing and there were lots of wonderful friends,” Larsen says. “[Roy] was very, very gregarious and he and Irene really got to know each other and became wonderful friends.” “There would be drinks and hors d’oeuvres and plenty of people,” Hindman says. “After awhile, Roy would go play with the animals. Siegfried would say, “I’m tired but you all stay as long as you want.’” Out magician/actor Michael Carbonaro, 44, of reality show “The Carbonaro Eﬀect,” said in a written comment to the Blade it didn’t matter if Siegfried & Roy were coy about their sexuality. “I actually don’t know what Siegfried & Roy ever did or didn’t put into words,” he said. “I grew up seeing two gorgeous men living their magic dreams in bedazzled outﬁts, so they were always an iconic form of queer inspiration.” IT’S COMPLICATED Others, however, aren’t willing to let them oﬀ the gay hook so easily. Matthew Rettenmund, a gay blogger and pop culture historian/author, says Horn’s approach to being “out” reminds him of singer Barry Manilow who ﬁnally came out in 2017 at age 73 after decades of evading the question. “They’re men who have convinced themselves that being gay in private is the same thing as being out,” he said in an e-mail. “Which is simply not true. I do hope that as the Rip Taylors and Richard Simmonses of the world leave us, as sad as it is to lose their talent, that they won’t be replaced by more of the same. Hiding in plain sight is still hiding
and it still sends such a warped message of self-acceptance.” And while Richard stated he was gay explicitly on multiple occasions, he was never at peace with it and at multiple times in his career recorded gospel music and even for a time sold Bibles in a repudiation of the rock and roll and gay “devil’s” music and “lifestyle.” For him, being gay was a vexation and something to be overcome, which is, to some, even more troubling than Horn’s avoiding the issue. “The problem is his religiosity and self doubt forced him back in the closet just as many times, “Rettenmund wrote. “And though he camped it up to earn a living in his ﬁnal decades, it was homophobia that won. He died an ‘ex-gay,’ a sad loss.” SIEGFRIED & ROY at their home, The Jungle Palace. Richard was married to a woman (Photo illustration from 1998 program book; courtesy Mirage) from 1957-1964. They had one adopted son. As recently as 2017, he was condemning gay sex. “God, Jesus, he made men, men, he made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live,” Richard told the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a religious channel, reported by The Advocate. Gay author/actor Michael Kearns (who’s been on “Cheers,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Waltons,” “Knots Landing” et. al. and has said in interviews and books he had sex with Rock Hudson and Barry Manilow) says Richard deserves a more compassionate assessment. “I don’t know how much gay sex he was having, but for me it was all about him having such a gay persona,” Kearns says. “I think what young men like me found so stirring and exciting is that it gave us something to grasp onto. Here was this sissy, this exciting, ﬂamboyant, theatrical, wild persona and yeah, he later had the doubts and went back into the closet as a religious fanatic, well, of course he did. He was a black man from the South dealing with all that church stuﬀ. I mean that’s a big struggle and I think people just don’t give him enough human credit for battling that publicly.” RELIGIOUS HANGUPS Gospel music producer/historian Anthony Heilbut has written at length about how black Christian denominations have shamed or welcomed queer musicians to varying degrees in the ‘50s, ‘60s and prior. He knew Little Richard — not well, but they’d met on several occasions — and says one must consider the era when deciding how much blame to assign him. He wanders into another room of his New York apartment during a phone interview last week and puts on a recording of gospel singer Marion Williams (19271994), who for a time was in The Famous Ward Singers, helmed by Clara Ward (one of Aretha Franklin’s major inﬂuences) and who also had a signiﬁcant solo career. He holds the phone up to a recording of her whooping and hollering and it’s easy to see where Little Richard got some of his inspiration. Richard appeared at the Kennedy Center Honors when Williams was inducted.
LITTLE RICHARD in the 1950s when he ﬁrst achieved fame. (Photo courtesy Atlantic Records)
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LOSANGELESBLADE.COM • MAY 29, 2020 • 11
Lady Bunny’s comedy special slays sacred COVID-19 cows 4 wigs, 12 costume changes and new song parodies By SCOTT STIFFLER
At a time where nothing seems certain, legendary drag queen Lady Bunny’s ignorance is our bliss. “Oh, I’ve never seen it,” says Bunny, when the RuPaul Netflix vehicle “AJ and the Queen” came up as a topic during our interview. Lack of first-hand knowledge didn’t stop the NYC-based DJ, actress, singer/songwriter, upcoming comedy special star, and creator of Wigstock from skewering “AJ” mercilessly, while cohosting two recent Voss Events-presented digital drag benefits that raised funds for queens out of work because of COVID-19. “Listen,” says Bunny, “I make jokes about ‘Drag Race,’ and I don’t watch that either. Honey, I don’t watch anything… I know Miss Vanjie said, ‘Miss Vanjie, Miss Vanjie, Miss Vanjie’ on her way out, in a way that was odd, but I don’t really know what else happened in that episode, or why she was eliminated, or why she said that.” Bunny, whose television has not been hooked up for 10 months, admits, “Whenever you see me make a joke about pop culture, that is based on what I see other people talking about.” To compensate for this lack of firsthand information, “I will run it by friends who are more keyed into that kind of thing.” With no boob tube at home and no burning desire to binge online (her flirtation with Netflix didn’t last past the free trial period), Bunny says she’s been spending her COVID-19 isolation period “trying to catch up on things I said I didn’t have time for before the quarantine, like filing taxes; and exercising, and dieting, so I don’t have that excuse, ‘Oh, I have to run here or run there.’ ” Bunny is also devoting some of her spare time to longplanned personal projects, including a book she’s penning in partnership with her mother, and an autobiography. (“Just my life, before I forget it,” she says.) And in a moment in time when there’s never been more spare time to sit around the house, hit a few keystrokes, press a button, and share your opinion on anything, everything, and often, nothing, with the world. That’s part of why Bunny says she’s “trying to stay off of social media a bit more, because I was hitting it hard during the first few months of COVID-19. But now, things seem to have turned sour, and it’s disconcerting.” Known to those who follow her online as a steadfast supporter of Bernie Sanders (Bianca Del Rio often referred to Sanders as her “boyfriend” during the two Voss Events digital drag benefits they co-hosted), Bunny cited the trigger topics of social distancing and mask-wearing as among her reasons for dialing back on the sheer volume of postings and tweets. (She remains a presence on Facebook and Twitter— but these days, she’s just as likely to be writing about work from fellow artists as she is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
12 • LOSANGELESBLADE.COM • MAY 29, 2020
“I realize people are scared, and I realize people are broke,” she says, of the COVID-19 tensions. “But I don’t understand the desire to lash out at people that aren’t observing the precautions that they decide to observe. It’s almost like they’re trying to prove they’re a better Democrat, because they dip their vegetables in Clorox water, and they wear masks everywhere. It’s just, like, I don’t understand what it is about a frightening, deadly pandemic that makes people want to scold others. If I walk down to the [NYC West Side] piers, as I do, almost every day, and I see people who don’t have masks on, and they’re coughing? Well then, I walk away from them. I don’t yell at them… At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own self-preservation. I mean, if someone who weighs 90 pounds and has a syringe sticking out of each eye tells me he wants to screw me without a condom, well, that situation may arise—but it’s up to me to say, ‘No,’ to protect myself.” Asked how COVID-19 has impacted her creative output, Bunny noted, “All of my work involves dance floors and audiences—and we’re not gonna have either of those for many, many months. So basically, my paychecks have stopped, but my bills have not. So I’m in the same position that, you know, most drag queens or club employees are in.” With little hope of audiences flocking to her bread and butter public gathering places any time soon, Bunny turned to what she does best: Parody songs, groovy dance segments, sketches, satire, insult humor, and raunchy jokes. That brings us to the June 5 VossEvents.com debut of her downloadable ($9.99) comedy special, “C#ntagias,” in which, press materials note, “Demented drag diva Lady Bunny shamelessly interrupts your isolation in an attempt to give what may be your last laugh before the apocalypse.” COVID-19-themed humor is front and center. Along with four signature sky-high wigs and 12 costume changes over the course of the 35-minute show, the press release further promises “brand new song parodies from artists as varied as Lizzo, Justin Bieber, and Madonna.” Gender-blending provocateur Christeene christeenemusic.com duets with Bunny on a pandemically updated version of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is,” and Bunny will perform her timely parody of the RuPaul song, “Sissy That Walk.” Currently available via Bunny’s YouTube channel, the video for “Sissy That Cough” finds our quarantined gal noting: If I forget to use Lysol I’ll end up in the hospital I’m climbing up my fucking walls. Those walls aren’t a problem, at least not in the video, which sees Bunny singing and dancing around an empty white space that is occasionally populated by, right on cue
LADY BUNNY’S COVID-19-themed digital comedy special, ‘C#ntagias,’ is available for download on June 5. (Photo by Santiago Felipe)
when the lyric comes in, bats she’s worried will: Fly, fly, fly, Uh-oh From Wuhan Chi, Chi, Chi. Bunny claims sole responsibility for crafting the lyrics to “Cough”—but overall writing credit for “C#ntagias” is shared with Beryl Mendelbaum, the Facebook drag persona of Bruce Jope, described by Bunny as “a fascinating character who hung out with everyone from Divine to Holly Woodlawn to Cher, back in the day.” There’s a reason for that. Long before the character of Beryl burst onto the scene, Jope and his late partner, Francis Toohey founded the magazine Hit Parade (1978-1983, first based in Boston, then NYC). It chronicled, with gusto, the sort of culture and mind frame that drew people like RuPaul and Lady Bunny to NYC.
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Finally out Agreement with Mister Rogers kept neighbor closeted for decades By KATHI WOLFE
In our polarized era, few people are loved by everyone from millennials to boomers. Yet, it’s a safe bet that even Darth Vader has a soft spot for Fred Rogers, creator and host of the children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran on PBS from 19682001. (Rogers died in 2003.) François S. Clemmons, the black, gay opera singe and actor, played Oﬃcer Clemmons, one of the “neighbors” on the show. He was the ﬁrst African-American to have a recurring role on a children’s TV show. The moment in 1969 when Mister Rogers, a white man, invited Oﬃcer Clemmons, a black man, to dunk his feet in a wading pool with him is etched in our DNA. In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it was a quiet, but radical, stand against racism. “Oﬃcer Clemmons: A Memoir,” released in early May, is Clemmons’ honest, engaging account of his life. In it, Clemmons reﬂects on his experience as an abused child, encounters with racism, struggle with his sexuality, professional success and friendship with Rogers. The book is ﬁlled with warmth and love — for Rogers, music, his friends, colleagues, family and children. Yet, Clemmons doesn’t sugar-coat the diﬃculties he’s endured or the hard truths he’s learned. The memoir begins with a letter that Clemmons writes to Rogers years after his death. Over the decades, Clemmons writes, fans have asked him questions ranging from “How’d you meet him? to “How did you get out of the television?” These questions were one reason Clemmons wrote the memoir. Yet, there was another compelling reason. He’d read bios of Rogers, but after reading these accounts, he writes, “I concluded that ... none of the other publications were authored by a black, gay, ordained person of the theater who had worked intimately with you (Rogers) for over 30 years.” His friendship with Roger and his work with the “Neighborhood” were vitally important to him. Yet Clemmons’ life has encompassed far more than being a “neighbor.” Born in 1945 in Blackwater, Miss., he earned a degree in music from Oberlin College and a master’s from Carnegie Mellon University. Clemmons won a Grammy Award for his recording of “Porgy and Bess” and founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. From 19972013, he was the Alexander Twilight artist in residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College. As a child in a racist Southern town, Clemmons watched as his father abused his mother. “My dreams conjured up the dangerous kitchen knife that my mother used in her ﬁght against my daddy,” Clemmons writes. To get away from her abusive husband, Clemmons’ mother moved the family to Youngstown, Ohio. Because he was black, his high school guidance counselors discouraged him from applying to Oberlin. “I learned about racial segregation well above the Mason-Dixon Line,” he writes. In Youngstown, his mother remarried. His stepfather abused Clemmons. Clemmons realized he was gay. “My family was a traditional Baptist, God-fearing one,” Clemmons writes, “And even before I understood what homosexuality meant, it was drilled into my brain that these (gay) men were wrong in the eyes of God.” At Oberlin, Clemmons embraced his sexuality forming friendships and relationships with queer men both out and closeted. With his school choir, he sang in the Soviet Union. He was inspired when he met Martin Luther King Jr. when King spoke at Oberlin. Rogers met Clemmons when he heard him sing at a church. Clemmons began appearing
14 • LOSANGELESBLADE.COM • MAY 29, 2020
on Rogers’ show when he was a grad student at Carnegie Mellon. Rogers loved Clemmons as a friend and respected his talent. Yet, he was a product of his time. “If you’re gay, it doesn’t matter to me at all,” Rogers told Clemmons, “but if you’re going to be on the show ... you can’t be out as gay.” Clemmons stayed in the closet so he could continue to work with Rogers. He tried hetero marriage (it didn’t work out). Despite having to hide his sexuality, Clemmons treasured his friendship with Rogers, his spiritual father and mentor. If you’re looking for hope, inspiration and grit, “Oﬃcer Clemmons: A Memoir” is the book for you.
FRANÇOIS S. CLEMMONS
(Photo courtesy Catapult)
(Photo by Vincent James)
‘Oﬃcer Clemmons: A Memoir’ By François S. Clemmons Catapult May 5 $26 288 pages
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A Reminder from the City of West Hollywood
COVER THAT FACE! Beginning May 23 Cloth Face Coverings are Required While in Public
Children Under 2 and People with Certain Medical Conditions are Exempt and Kids Ages 2 to 8 Should Only Wear Face Coverings with Adult Supervision
Losangeleblade.com, Volume 4, Issue 22, May 29, 2020