Los Angeles Blade, Volume 06, Issue 17, April 29, 2022

Page 1

(Photo montage/Los Angeles Blade)


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Newsom breaks ground for world’s largest wildlife overpass $10 million in new funding for Wallis Annenberg Crossing

FROM STAFF REPORTS Gov. Gavin Newsom last week on Earth Day joined the groundbreaking of the world’s largest wildlife overpass, the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, which will provide a vital bridge for mountain lions and other Santa Monica Mountain wildlife to roam safely between two large areas of habitat. The state today also announced the launch of strategies to achieve California’s first-inthe-nation 30×30 conservation goal and better manage our natural and working lands to combat climate change and protect our communities and ecosystems. Governor Newsom has put forward a historic $37.6 billion climate package – more than what most other countries are spending – to protect all Californians from the costs and impacts of climate change, while accelerating efforts to reduce the dependence on big polluters and fossil fuels.

Gov. GAVIN NEWSOM at groundbreaking for the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

“No challenge poses a greater threat to our way of life, prosperity, and future as a state than climate change,” said Governor Newsom. “With our rich natural heritage on the front lines of this crisis, California is building on our global climate leadership with bold strategies that harness the power of nature to fight climate change and protect our communities and ecosystems. Strong partnerships across the board will be critical to these efforts, and the project we’re lifting up today is an inspiring example of the kind of creative collaborations that will help us protect our common home for generations to come.” Underscoring the critical importance of wildlife crossings, a mountain lion was struck and killed just yesterday on the 405 freeway. The Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing will span 10 lanes of Highway 101 and an adjacent road, improving wildlife connectivity to support biodiverse ecosystems.

The state has provided $58 million in funding for the public-private conservation project, which is being facilitated by Caltrans, while philanthropy has raised more than $34 million in funding. In partnership with the Legislature, the Governor last year advanced $105 million to fund wildlife crossings, and is this year proposing an additional $50 million for this priority – including $10 million in new funding for the crossing in Liberty Canyon. Moving to protect mountain lions and other wildlife, the Governor in 2020 signed legislation prohibiting the use of second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides, which are known to cause chronic growth and reproduction issues. Earlier this week, the California High-Speed Rail Authority and the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency announced the award of a $3.125 million grant to study the Pacheco Pass wildlife overcrossing near the near the San Jose to Merced high-speed rail project section. The Pathways to 30×30: Accelerating Conservation of California’s Nature strategy and Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy released last week responds directly to the governor’s nature-based solutions executive order, which identified California’s lands as a critical yet underutilized sector in the fight against climate change. These lands cover 90 percent of California’s 105 million acres, and can remove and store carbon emissions, limit future carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and buffer climate impacts. Climate-smart management of our lands also safeguards public health and safety, protects food and water supplies, and enhances equity. Pathways to 30×30 outlines a strategy to achieve the state’s first-in-the-nation goal to conserve 30 percent of California’s lands and coastal waters by 2030 in order to protect biodiversity, expand access to nature and tackle climate change. Scientists from around the world agree that conserving one-third of the planet by 2030 is needed to combat climate change, protect people from climate impacts that are already here, and to limit the mass extinction of plant and animal life. It also represents a historic opportunity to strengthen our connection to nature, especially for communities that have historically lacked access, and to build partnerships with Native American leaders and groups to steward lands and waters. California has conserved 24 percent of its land and 16 percent of coastal waters. To reach 30 percent by 2030, the state’s strategy lays out several concurrent pathways, including accelerating regionally-led conservation, buying strategic lands for conservation and access, expanding voluntary conservation easements, and aligning investments to maximize conservation benefits. Empowering local and regional partners is essential to achieve this target, and the strategy establishes a 30×30 Partnership to organize this coordination and collaboration. Partners include federal agencies, California Native American tribes, county governments, land trusts, resource conservation districts, environmental conservation non-governmental organizations, and others. The Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy establishes California’s approach to meeting our climate change goals through improved management of our lands. Healthy landscapes can remove and store carbon, limit future greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, and buffer climate impacts. Unhealthy landscapes have the opposite effect – they release more greenhouse gas than they store and worsen climate risks to people and nature. The strategy defines eight landscape types that California will better manage, including forests, farms, communities, and wetlands. It highlights priority nature-based solutions that combat climate change and help meet California’s broader environmental, economic, and social objectives. The strategy also charts near-term actions and underscores partnerships as essential to all of this work. To advance the 30×30 and Climate Smart Lands initiatives, the Governor’s proposed budget includes a $768 million spending plan over two years, with nearly $600 in the 2022-23 budget.



Black, Latino youth unveil anti-hate mural in South LA

(Courtesy of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles)

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, the largest immigrant rights organization in California unveiled a new art mural painted by high school students in South Los Angeles in a collaborative effort. Black and Latino youth in South Los Angeles collaborated with LA-based artist Sally Hwang, Creative Director for yummyham design. Also participating in the mural effort was the Kaiser Permanente Hate Violence Prevention Partnership Los Angeles, the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, and Los Angeles City Councilman Curren D. Price, Jr. The mural was created as part of the “L.A. vs. Hate” campaign, and highlights CHIRLA’s work with multi-cultural youth to fight racism and hate in the city. BRODY LEVESQUE

LA Animal Services in desperate need of adopters Los Angeles Animal Services is in desperate need of adopters and foster families as all of the city’s six shelters are at capacity. Some of the shelters are so full that dogs are having to share kennels. Fees are being reduced across the city’s six locations in hopes that people will help clear the shelters. Discounts will be offered on various weekends from April 30 through May 8. Please note that LA Animal Services Centers are open without appointments on weekends, Saturday and Sunday, from 11am to 5pm. The Centers continue to operate

by appointment during the week, Tuesday through Friday, from 8am to 5pm. Per City Ordinance 187219, you will need to show proof of your COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of entry into the shelter. You can request a digital COVID-19 Vaccination Record if you were vaccinated in California (unless you were vaccinated at a federal facility) by visiting MyVaccineRecord. cdph.ca.gov. For any questions regarding vaccine records, visit the LA County Vaccine Records website. FROM STAFF REPORTS

Aguilera, stars of ‘Drag Race,’ ‘Pose’ headline LA Pride Recording superstar Christina Aguilera will return to LA Pride as a headliner. The longtime LGBTQ ally will perform a set on the main stage June 11 during the annual weekend-long event that celebrates queer unity and offers support for the continued struggle toward full equality. Aguilera previously made a surprise appearance at the annual celebration in 2018 to offer attendees the premiere of her single “Accelerate (feat. Ty Dolla $ign & 2 Chainz).” The powerhouse pop star, whose song “Beautiful” has been embraced as an LGBTQ anthem, was joined onstage by a bevy of drag performers and sent the crowd into a frenzy. Other notable entertainers who will take the Pride Festival on the Park Stage (647 N San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood, Calif.) on June 11 include a wide array of omnipresent multi-media entertainers. Along them is Bob the Drag Queen, who snatched the crown on the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and is currently starring in HBO’s first unscripted series We’re Here. Another must-see performer is Michaela Jae, AKA Michaela Jaé Rodriguez and formerly known as Mj Rodriguez, who recently broke barriers as the first out trans woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy award for her acclaimed work in the FX series Pose. Of novelty interest is Rebecca Black, whose off-key singing in the end-of-the-workweek anthem “Friday” became a viral sensation in 2011. Black came out as queer in 2020. Many other eclectic artists will also perform, such as Brazilian pop sensation Anitta, rapper Chika, and Queen of the Universe contestant Grag Queen. “We’re thrilled to have women, the majority of them LGBTQIA+ artists of color, lead our mainstage event to celebrate our return to Pride,” said Gerald Garth, Vice President of Community Programming and Initiatives, in a statement. “Los Angeles represents a 04 • APRIL 29, 2022 • LOSANGELESBLADE.COM

broad range of cultures, backgrounds and identities, especially across the BIPOC communities. Bringing influential and diverse artists is a nod to the many different people reflected within our community.” The diverse lineup of entertainment is a reflection of the (Photos courtesy LA Pride) board of Christopher Street West’s board of directors. Sharon Brown, the board’s current president, is the first trans woman of color to hold the position. Brown is a national speaker on transgender rights and the Chief Human Resources Officer for the Los Angeles LGBT Center. The board is made of numerous other people of color and several who identify as trans or non-binary. LA Pride in the Park will take place June 11 and the 52nd annual LA Pride Parade will take place June 12. For the full schedule and more information, go to lapride.org. JEREMY KINSER



Gas prices continue to drop

Southern California gas prices dropped for the third week in a row, but not by as much as in the prior two weeks, according to the Auto Club’s Weekend Gas Watch. The average price for self-serve regular gasoline in California is $5.69, which is three cents lower than last week. The average national price is $4.12, which is five cents higher than a week ago. The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is $5.79 per gallon, which is three cents lower than last week, 20 cents lower than last month, and $1.77 higher than last year. In San Diego, the average price is $5.75, which is three cents lower than last week, 17 cents lower than last month, and $1.73 higher than last year. On the Central Coast, the average price is $5.80, which is three cents lower than last week, eight cents lower than last month and $1.81 higher than last year.

(Blade file photo)

In Riverside, the average per-gallon price is $5.72, which is three cents lower than last week, 15 cents lower than last month and $1.77 higher than last year. In Bakersfield, the $5.78 average price is two cents less than last Thursday, one cent lower than last month and $1.90 higher than a year ago today. “The Energy Information Administration reported Wednesday that West Coast gasoline stockpiles shrank over the previous week, as some imports that were expected for California are reportedly being redirected to East Coast cities that are having supply issues,” said Auto Club spokesman Doug Shupe. “Los Angeles wholesale gasoline prices rose yesterday after that news, but they are still about 75 cents lower than the record high level reached on March 23, so there should still be plenty of room for prices to drop further.” FROM STAFF REPORTS

Padilla, American Diabetes Association seek to lower insulin cost U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) joined the American Diabetes Association for a virtual discussion last week on efforts to lower the cost of insulin for the more than 3.2 million Californians diagnosed with diabetes. During the conversation, Padilla advocated for the Affordable Insulin Now Act, which would require Medicare plans and private group or individual plans to cap patients’ out-of-pocket costs for insulin at $35 per month. “No one should have to choose between putting food on the table or being able to afford life-saving medication,” said Senator Padilla. “For far too long, Americans diagnosed with diabetes have been exploited at the hands of pharmaceutical manufacturers who profit off of their illness. I am committed to making health care more affordable and lowering prescription drug costs, including lowering the cost of insulin for millions of Californians.” “The risk to people with diabetes when they cannot afford to take the required amount of insulin to manage their diabetes is immense,” said Dr. Francine R. Kaufman Chief Medical Officer of Senseonics, Inc. “This means insulin must be within reach economically for all who need it to survive and thrive.” “We hear about local Silicon Valley residents making the gut-wrenching choice between buying insulin, paying rent, or putting food on the table,” said Michele Lew, CEO of The Health Trust, a nonprofit in San Jose, CA. “We can – we must – fix this problem.” “People living with diabetes who rely on insulin to live and thrive need Congress to act now to reduce insulin costs. This is especially true for the one in four insulin-dependent people forced to ration insulin doses as a result of the high cost to patients,” said Francisco


U.S. Sen. ALEX PADILLA (D-Calif.)


Prieto, MD, Chair of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) National Advocacy Committee. “It’s time to bring economic relief to millions of Americans forced to stretch beyond their means every month to pay for their insulin. The ADA encourages the U.S. Senate to follow suit and approve legislation that includes the $35 national insulin co-pay cap.” Each year an estimated 272,814 people in California are diagnosed with diabetes. Californians with diagnosed diabetes spend an estimated $39.5 billion each year in insulin costs alone. FROM STAFF REPORTS

WeHo in brief: City gov’t in action this week


Summer Sounds 2022, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and more

FROM STAFF REPORTS The City of West Hollywood returns outdoors for its 2022 Summer Sounds Free Outdoor Concert Series, which will take place on select Sunday evenings at 5 p.m. between Sunday, June 19, 2022 and Sunday, August 21, 2022 at Plummer Park, located at 7377 Santa Monica Boulevard, in West Hollywood. The Concert Series will kick off on Sunday, June 19, 2022 at 5 p.m. with Cliff Beach. Cliff Beach has been performing live for more than 20 years in Southern California. The Berkleetrained singer/songwriter/keyboardist and DC native has created a style of music he’s coined “Nu-funk,” a hybrid of soul, traditional R&B, funk, and neo-soul. He has won and/or been nominated for several awards including an Independent Music Award, a Global Music Award, a World Songwriting Award, and the John Lennon Songwriting contest. His single has more than 700,000 streams on Spotify and is in the house band on ‘Josh Gates Tonight’ on Discovery. He is also the host of the Deeper Grooves Podcast and Deeper Grooves Radio show on The Independent 88.5 FM. The next concert in the series will feature the all-female salsa band, Las Chikas on Sunday, July 3, 2022 at 5 p.m. Las Chikas is comprised of some of the most talented female musicians in Los Angeles. Salsa never looked so good in Southern California; a melting pot of cultures and ethnicity come together to give birth to a multicultural female band that sets the stage on fire! Las Chikas has performed in several Southern California cities and special events, including the San Jose Jazz Festival, for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels, the Los Angeles Latin Jazz Music Festival, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ARKAI will perform on Sunday, July 17, 2022 at 5 p.m. ARKAI’s genre-bending music fuses classical virtuosity with contemporary technology, forging new possibilities for what a violin and cello can be. Winners of the 2021 Astral Artists National Auditions, their past engagements have included performances at The MET Breuer, Rockwood Music Hall, Juilliard School, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the 92nd Street Y. Letters from COVID, their electronic debut composition, was featured at TED@PMI for a global audience of more than 30,000 people from 182 countries. ARKAI is currently creating its debut album, Aurora, in collaboration with seven-time Grammy-nominated producer Joel Hamilton. Ella Luna performs on Sunday, August 7, 2022 at 5 p.m. Ella Luna is a singer/songwriter from Denver, Colorado, combining intimate vocals, raw instruments, and intricate lyrical work. Denver Thread says, “Ella Luna pairs jazz and dream pop with a sincere & smooth indie lyrical and musical style that recalls up and coming artists like Lucy Dacus or Lindsey Jordan on first blush. But then seasons that mix with vocals that lilt with tired tears just underneath her tongue at times, and with the vigorous power of an Amy Winehouse or a Norah Jones at others, but she always sounds real, and herself.” The City of West Hollywood’s Summer Sounds Concert Series finale on Sunday, August 21, 2022 at 5 p.m. will feature M&M The Afro-Persian Experience (Mehdi Bagheri & Marcus L. Miller). The Afro-Persian Experience is a duo featuring Persian kamancheh master Mehdi Bagheri and artist/percussionist Marcus L. Miller. Based in Southern California, the group was formed in 2016. The music consists of all original compositions created by Bagheri & Miller. It is deeply rooted in the traditions of ancient Persia and Africa. Their unique sound results from the natural contrast of their individual musical styles as well as the expression of their passion for the music. This concert is presented in partnership with Grand Performances supported by an arts grant from the City of West Hollywood. The City of West Hollywood’s 2022 Summer Sounds Free Outdoor Concert Series is organized by the City of West Hollywood’s Arts Division. Summer Sounds concerts are free to attend; RSVPs are not required but are requested. Seating will not be available. Attendees are encouraged to bring picnics, picnic blankets, and low chairs. Masks and social distancing recommended. For additional information about the performers and to view the series, please visit www. weho.org/summersounds Community members are invited to attend two upcoming virtual events co-sponsored by the City of West Hollywood and hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Westside Los Angeles Chapter (NAMI Westside LA). The Mental Health Services Oversight and Account-

ability Commission (MHSOAC) is an additional co-sponsor of each event. On Thursday, April 21, 2022 at 5 p.m. there will be a Virtual Listening Session to hear from service providers and stakeholders about key topics and issues facing community members. The session will be moderated by mental health advocate Matthew Diep, founder of PsypherLA. Learn more about the Virtual Listening Session and register via Eventbrite. On Wednesday, May 11, 2022 at 5 p.m. there will be a Virtual Mental Health Town Hall featuring mental health advocates, service providers, and behavioral specialists. Learn more about the Town Hall and register via Eventbrite. “Mental health awareness is a critical component for ensuring that we’re all recovering from the toil that the pandemic has caused while navigating the stigma sometimes associ-

City of West Hollywood

(Photo by Jon Viscott)

ated with seeking mental health services,” said City of West Hollywood Councilmember John M. Erickson. “I’m thankful to NAMI Westside Los Angeles and all the organizers for putting together these events and for the City’s continued efforts to support mental health awareness.” Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness. The month of May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month and is a time when organizations and mental health advocates work together to fight stigma, provide support, educate the public, and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI provides education, support, and advocacy to improve the lives of those living with mental illness, as well as their families and friends and mental health professionals. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1979, and now has more than 200,000 members and 1,200 affiliate groups. The NAMI Westside Los Angeles chapter is one of a number of affiliates of both the NAMI California and the NAMI National organizations in Los Angeles County and provides services in the Westside Los Angeles region. For more information about these virtual mental health events, please contact Andi Lovano, the City of West Hollywood’s Community & Legislative Affairs Manager, at 323-848-6333.



Homophobia is costly: the Disney debacle in Florida DeSantis, GOP lawmakers haven’t done their homework

By BRODY LEVESQUE In the weeks that followed the debate and then passage of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, the feuding between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis with his legislative allies and the Walt Disney Company culminated in the Republican-controlled legislature passing a bill last week that repeals a 55-year-old law allowing Disney World to operate as a self-autonomous quasi governmental body. The reasoning according to DeSantis and Republicans is that the Walt Disney Company was trying to impose their “woke” liberal agenda on Florida’s residents by publicly calling out the governor and GOP lawmakers for their transparent homophobia and transphobia now codified into that widely criticized law. The problem according to political observers and journalists is simply that in their collective haste to “punish” Disney for taking a public stance on a measure designed to erase LGBTQ people from discussions in the state’s schools, it has become obvious that Florida Republicans have just created a massive economic deficit for the Central Florida jurisdictions of Osceola and Orange counties as well as collateral negative fiscal impact on the City of Orlando. The Republican lawmakers and DeSantis seem to have, as the old saying goes, “not done their homework.” Orlando-based political and general assignments journalist with ABC affiliate WFTV 9, Nick Papantonis, outlined the impact in a Twitter thread: “There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion about what the end of Disney’s Reedy Creek district means for the company and for taxpayers. Here’s what I know, after talking to lobbyists, lawyers and tax officials: “For those of you who haven’t heard, Reedy Creek is the special tax district of Walt Disney World. It’s essentially its own city. Disney pays taxes to Reedy Creek, which operates a fire department, planning department, sewer treatment plant and public works department. “On the other hand, Disney controls Reedy Creek, which means if they want to build a new hotel or highway, they just have to ask themselves for permission. The biggest loss for Disney is the end of that control. “It’s a lot easier to ask yourself for permission than to go to the county. While they already follow all laws and building codes and they’ll still get everything they want, it’s going to slow the process down. “Potholes might develop on roads that they no longer pave themselves. They can’t just call a meeting or alter their comprehensive plan on a random Friday. They also can’t quickly finance new public projects like a fire station. “The bigger issue for everyone else is the tax revenue. Disney already pays the same local property taxes as every other landowner. Reedy Creek added its own tax on top of that to pay for its projects. That tax – $163 million per year – is illegal outside of the district. “When Reedy Creek goes away, that tax goes away, and Orange and Osceola Counties can’t do anything to get it back. However, the counties will now be responsible for all

of the services Reedy Creek provides and all of the debt it has accumulated. “They can’t raise sales taxes or impact fees. So, the counties will have to raise property taxes. They must tax every property equally – not just Disney – and therefore it’s expected that property taxes in Orange County will rise as much as 25% next June. “Osceola, much smaller and less wealthy, is still working on its figures, but it’s going to be a hit to them as well. Many of that county’s residents work for Disney or have jobs derived from WDW. They’ll be paying their employer’s

(Los Angeles Blade photo montage/graphic)

taxes now. “Lawyers largely agree that the state followed all the laws while doing this. They agree Disney may sue, but probably doesn’t have much ground to stand on. Some believe a vote of residents or delegates from the district is required to make this legal. “That doesn’t appear to be the case here because a vote was never held to implement the district 55 years ago. Essentially, Disney will lose some control of its property, and get a $163 million per year tax break and ~$1 billion of debt passed onto taxpayers. “Some things will be negotiated – Disney still controls Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, two actual towns within RCID. Lawmakers might backtrack from this plan during the next session now that they’re realizing what they’ve done. “However, aside from maybe taking away the company’s ability to build a nuclear plant, we have yet to hear how this benefits Florida and especially the local residents in any way. “The residents, by the way, had no say in this vote, no say in their property taxes going through the roof, and no desire to have their communities staring at financial ruin.


There is the question of whether the county CAN raise property taxes by 25%, well above the 10% or 3% cap the state imposes. If not, that likely means budget cuts unless the state steps in. “ANSWER: the cap is only on the assessed value of the home. The county would pass the 25% increase as a millage rate. “The most-asked question from my thread: Does Disney have a First Amendment case against the State of Florida? Attorneys say they have solid ground to stand on. Retaliation for speech is not allowed, plain and simple.” In response to Papantonis’ research as outlined, out Rep. Carlos G Smith the state’s first Latino LGBTQ lawmaker who represents a portion of the Orlando metropolitan area noted; “Thanks for breaking this down @NPapantonisWFTV. The legislative staff analysis doesn’t mention these impacts because Republicans rammed it thru without time for review. Squashing dissent against the #DeSantis regime is the only thing that matters to these Republicans.” ABC affiliate WFTV 9 reported that DeSantis signed the bill to dissolve Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District on Friday afternoon. The state House passed the measure on Thursday. Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph said dissolving the district could be a massive financial burden for taxpayers. “The moment that Reedy Creek doesn’t exist is the moment that those taxes don’t exist,” Randolph said. “You’re literally taking $163 million a year of taxes that Disney pays for Reedy Creek and wiping it down to zero.” “I don’t see that Orange County doesn’t raise property taxes by 20% to 25%. That’s what Orange County would probably have to do to cover this financial situation.” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said if this moves forward, it will be catastrophic for the budget. The ongoing political drama solicited this response from President Joe Biden at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Seattle Thursday evening after being asked by a reporter for his thoughts on the subject: “This is not your father’s Republican Party. This is a different deal, not a joke. And it’s not just Trump, it’s the MAGA crowd. It’s all about things that have nothing to do with traditional conservatives I respect conservatives. There’s nothing conservative about deciding you’re going to throw Disney out of its present posture because, Mickey Mouse? In fact, you think we should not be able to say, you know, ‘gay’? I mean, what’s going on here? What the hell is going on here? And it’s just, it’s so, I don’t think this is where the vast majority of the American people are,” the president said. For its part, the media conglomerate has been silent this past week over the Florida Legislature’s action to repeal the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Some observers noted that Disney’s silence leaves much unknown about how the company will respond, and what its next steps will be. The legislation would take effect in June 2023.

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ExxonMobil to ban Pride, BLM flags at Houston offices

Texas-based American multinational oil and gas corporation, ExxonMobil, has executed plans to ban display of what the petroleum industry giant referred to as ‘position flags,’ the ‘Rainbow Pride Flag’ and the Black Lives Matter flag, outside of company offices during the month of June, which is designated as LGBTQ Pride month. The plans were set in a new flag protocol according to the policy first reported by Bloomberg News. “The updated flag protocol is intended to clarify the use of the ExxonMobil branded company flag and not intended to diminish our commitment to diversity and support for employee resource groups,” Tracey Gunnlaugsson, ExxonMobil vice president of human resources, said in a statement. “We’re committed to keeping an open, honest, and inclusive workplace for all of our employees, and we’re saddened that any employee would think otherwise,” Gunnlaugsson added. In response, members of ExxonMobil’s PRIDE employee resource group which numbers around 3,000, are refusing to represent the company at the city’s June 25 Pride celebration, according to an employee group email also seen by Bloomberg. ExxonMobil’s employee resource group has existed since 2008. The company’s worldwide workforce is about 63,000. “Corporate leadership took exception to a rainbow flag being flown at our facilities” last year, Exxon’s Pride employee group in Houston said in an email Thursday, according to Bloomberg. “PRIDE was informed the justification was

(Photo courtesy Exxon Mobil Corporation, Irving, Texas)

centered on the need for the corporation to maintain ‘neutrality.’” “It is difficult to reconcile how ExxonMobil recognizes the value of promoting our corporation as supportive of the LGBTQ+ community externally (e.g. advertisements, Pride parades, social media posts) but now believes it inappropriate to visibly show support for our LGBTQ+ employees at the workplace,” the group said, according to Bloomberg. “These types of visible actions are even more impactful for many of our LGBTQ+ colleagues who aren’t out at work and may not feel comfortable participating in PRIDE events,” the group added. The Houston Chronicle noted that ExxonMobil has made significant strides to improve diversity and extend employ-

ee benefits over the last decade, but some workers perceive the row over the rainbow flag as a major setback for LGBTQ employees and their allies. The oil giant was slower than many corporations to provide equal coverage, but added gay marriage benefits in 2014, restored protective-employment language in 2015 and added transgender coverage in 2016. Still, the Chronicle says, some Exxon employees believe the company’s leadership should be taking a stronger position on LGBTQ rights. “It is difficult to reconcile how ExxonMobil recognizes the value of promoting our corporation as supportive of the LGBTQ+ community externally (e.g. advertisements, Pride parades, social media posts) but now believes it inappropriate to visibly show support for our LGBTQ+ employees at the workplace,” the workers’ group said in the email. “Flying a Pride flag is one small way many corporations choose to visibly show their care, inclusion and support for LGBTQ+ employees,” the ExxonMobil LGBTQ+ group said. “These types of visible actions are even more impactful for many of our LGBTQ+ colleagues who aren’t out at work and may not feel comfortable participating in PRIDE events.” The company’s actions comes as the battles in the cultural war over LGBTQ+ rights heats up including the recent feud between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies and The Walt Disney Company over its opposition to Florida’s recently passed ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. BRODY LEVESQUE

Report documents abuse of LGBTQ asylum seekers Human Rights First on Thursday released a report that documents the abuse of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers who entered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after President Biden took office. The report notes an ICE PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003) coordinator at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, La., in October 2021 “prevented” a Transgender Mexican man “from providing his attorney a draft copy of the complaint he wished to file” after he was sexually assaulted. Several Trans asylum seekers at the same facility said guards “subjected them to transphobic verbal abuse and other mistreatment.” “A Mexican Transgender man reported that in August 2021 a guard pointed at him and said, ‘How many of them are there? That’s not a real man.’,” reads the report. “Guards intentionally called him ‘ma’am’ and ‘girl’ and used incorrect pronouns despite his repeated attempts to correct them.” The report notes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Houston Asylum Office last spring “went forward with a CFI (‘credible fear’ interview)” for a gay activist from Angola, “even though he expressed that he was suffering symptoms of COVID-19, pain from a recent physical assault, and psychological distress from conditions of confinement, resulting in a negative credible fear finding.” “The man told the asylum officer that he was experiencing anxiety and felt claustrophobic in the ‘tight space’ where the telephonic interview was being conducted,” reads the report. “The asylum officer proceeded with the CFI during which the man was unable to disclose that he is gay because he was afraid that the officer would inform others at

the detention center of his sexuality.” “He feared that such disclosure would further endanger his life since in detention he had been threatened and harassed by people who called him homophobic slurs, according to his attorney at the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative,” it adds. Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, a Venezuelan man with AIDS, died in ICE custody on Oct. 1, 2021. Sánchez had been in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., before his death. The report not only mentions Sánchez’s death, but other cases of asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS who said they suffered mistreatment while in ICE custody. One case the report cites is a Cuban asylum seeker who said he was “denied access to HIV medication” while in ICE custody at La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., from April-July 2021. “Despite sending around nine requests for treatment to medical staff, he reported to his attorney at Immigration Equality that he did not receive HIV medication for at least two-and-a-half months,” reads the report. The report also documents the prolonged detention of asylum seekers who are LGBTQ+ and/or living with HIV. Several Trans women from Jamaica who were in ICE custody at La Palma Correctional Center and the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Ariz., “were subjected to months of traumatic and unnecessary detention before they received CFIs (‘credible fear’ interviews), which confirmed their fear of persecution.” The report notes ICE did not release a bisexual asylum seeker from Ghana from La Palma Correctional


Center last spring until an immigration judge granted him bond, even though he passed his “credible fear” interview. The report cites a trans asylum seeker from Honduras who the Department of Homeland Security detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego for two months, even though he received an exemption to Title 42 that allowed him into the U.S. last summer. Title 42 is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. The Biden administration earlier this month announced it will terminate the policy on May 23. The report notes a gay asylum seeker from Senegal did not receive his “credible fear” interview until he had been in ICE custody for three months. The report also cites the case of an LGBTQ+ person from Russia who the Department of Homeland Security detained at La Palma Correctional Center, even though he and his partner asked for asylum together at a port of entry in California. “Under its flawed enforcement priorities, which effectively treat asylum seekers as detention priorities and do not contain exemptions for sexual orientation or gender identity, the Biden administration has detained many LGBTQ asylum seekers for months in ICE detention centers where they are particularly vulnerable to violence,” reads the report. The report cites studies that indicate detained LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are 97 times “more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse than non-LGBTQ individuals.” MICHAEL K. LAVERS


LGBTQ activist in El Salvador receives death threats


(Photo courtesy Ortiz)

An LGBTQ rights activist in El Salvador who once ran for a seat in the country’s Legislative Assembly has received death threats. Erick Iván Ortiz — a member of the Nuestro Partido party who is the director of communications for the Salvadoran Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Persons — spoke about the threats during an April 20 press conference. Ortiz said he received two phone calls on April 13. The person who Ortiz said threatened him asked in the second phone call where “should we leave the body” and whether “we should bury it or dump it in the river.” The Salvadoran Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Persons and the Nuestro Partido’s leadership have both condemned the threats. Ortiz would have been the first openly gay person elected to the Legislative Assembly if he had won his race last year. Ortiz in January joined the Global Equality Caucus, a network of elected officials around the world who fight for LGBTQ rights. MICHAEL K. LAVERS

First transgender lawmaker in Uruguay dies The first openly transgender lawmaker in Uruguay died last Friday. Michelle Suárez, 39, in 2014 won a seat in the Uruguayan Senate. She was an alternative senator without full voting privileges until October 2017. Suárez during an interview with the Washington Blade said she felt “very honored” to have made history in the South American country that borders Brazil and Argentina. She was the first trans woman to graduate from an Uruguayan university and was the first trans lawyer in the country. Suárez also wrote Uruguay’s same-sex marriage law that took effect in 2013. Suárez resigned from the Senate in December 2017 amid

MICHELLE SUÁREZ was the first openly transgender person elected to office in Uruguay. (Photo courtesy of María Laura Vila)

allegations she forged legal documents. El País, a Uruguayan newspaper, reported a court in 2019 sentenced Suárez to two years of house arrest and two years of probation. Suárez was also banned from holding public office and working as a lawyer until 2023. Uruguayan media reports indicate Suárez had been in the hospital with a “cardiac problem” when she died. Sergio Miranda, the director of the Diversity Secretariat in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, mourned Suárez. “I am profoundly saddened by the news of the death of Michelle Suárez, a key trans activist in the fight for LGBTIQ+ rights and author of the Marriage Equality Law in Uruguay,” tweeted Miranda on Friday. MICHAEL K. LAVERS

Russian court dissolves LGBTQ rights group The Kuibyshevsky District Court in St. Petersburg last week ordered that Charitable Foundation Sphere be liquidated. In February, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit seeking to “liquidate” [disband and dissolve] Sphere Foundation, the legal entity under which the Russian LGBT Network operates, arguing the group’s activities run contrary to “traditional values.” On April 21, Judge Tatiana Kuzovkina ruled in favor of the Justice Ministry’s argument that the activities of Sphere ran IGOR KOCHETKOV, center with Pride flag, being contrary to the Russian state policy dedetained by police in St. Petersburg during an signed to preserve, expand and develop LGBTQ and human rights protest in 2018. [the country’s] human capital.” (Photo by Alexander Lvovich Gorshkov/Facebook) The ministry also accused Sphere of spreading “LGBT views” and working with people under the age of 18, aspiring, among other things, to “change Russian federal legislation regarding the LGBT movement” – in other words, the country’s infamous discriminatory “gay propaganda” law. Sphere Foundation was founded in 2011 by Russian LGBT rights activist, Igor Kochetkov. In 2016, authorities designated Sphere Foundation a “foreign agent.” In 2021, the Russian LGBT Network and Kochetkov personally were also slapped with the toxic “foreign agent” designation. At around that time, state-sponsored media organized a vicious smear campaign against the network and Kochetkov. “During [its] 11 years, Sphere … was never found in breach of any regulations. The government’s

claims against us are ideological, rather than law-based,” Kochetkov said in a social media post. Upon learning of the ruling Kochetkov stated; ” No, I’m not crying or crying. I’m proud of the work done by the foundation in 11 years. It should be clear that the ministry and the court made this decision not on legal, but on ideological basis. No Russian law prohibits the activity of organizations that ‘do not correspond’ to any values. There is simply no such basis in the law for the liquidation of NGOs. In this sense, the decision of the court is iconic — mandatory state ideology has returned. It is now official.” He then added; “The work continues. Their hands are dirty but too short to ban us.” Tanya Lokshina, the associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, wrote at the time of the lawsuit being filed; “With Sphere, the authorities have explicitly disclosed their political and anti-rights motivation from the starting block. After years of hindering the work of LGBT rights activists with the use of the ‘foreign agent’ and ‘gay propaganda‘ laws, the authorities now demand the organization be shut down in the name of ‘traditional values.’ The courts should not be compliant with this act of political, homophobic censorship that blatantly violate Russia’s human rights obligations.” Vitaly Isakov, a lawyer from the Institute of Law and Public Policy, who defended Sphere during the court sessions narrated the timeline of events leading up to Kuzovkina’s ruling: In the fall of 2021, the Justice Ministry began an unscheduled audit of the foundation. In the course of the audit, Sphere provided the Justice Ministry with more than 5,000 pages of documents — the entire documentation flow over the past three years. According to the act on the results of the audit, which Sphere received in December 2021, the Justice Ministry believes that gross violations were committed in the activities of the fund. Among the claims of the Justice Ministry is that “all the actual activities of the organization are aimed at supporting the LGBT movement in Russia”: according to the state agency, the Constitution of the country enshrines “basic traditional family values,” and the foundation’s work is aimed at “changing the legislation and moral foundations in the Russian Federation.” BRODY LEVESQUE LOSANGELESBLADE.COM • APRIL 29, 2022 • 11

V O L U M E 06 I S S U E 17

Cameron Samuels

(they/them) is a senior in the Texas Katy Independent School District.

Why we’re fighting our school’s internet ban in Texas

Blocking access to mental health resources is oppressive From my first days as a freshman at high school in Katy, a town in suburban Houston, it was obvious that school administrators have little concern for queer students. Despite their responsibility to create an educational environment conducive to all students, it was apparent they would do little to address everyday problems like bullying and slurs. And for students hoping to find affirmation from online resources, there was a block on that content due to an “Alternative Sexual Lifestyles (GLBT)” internet filter. This undeniably discriminatory policy remains in place today. Students struggling with their gender identity or sexuality rely on accessible internet content. For many students, that private and free access is only available at school, and denying such access is a deliberate effort to prevent students from supporting their emotional and mental well-being. For the Katy Independent School District, and other school districts, to block the Trevor Project is especially dangerous. When a student is experiencing a mental health crisis, the ability to speak with someone on a suicide prevention lifeline is a matter of life or death. Katy ISD claims that the Trevor Project must be blocked to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a federal law primarily intended to protect children from online predators. District officials say the website’s “chat capabilities” — no different than those on Facebook or Twitter — are the specific reason for the restricted access. However, Facebook and Twitter are completely accessible. The assumption that people communicating on the Trevor Project are predatory is bigoted and homophobic, just as it’s more important to a student to offer life-saving support than to provide a portal to all the misinformation and hatred about queer people being propagated on major social media sites. School officials have said sites with LGBTQ+ content are not part of the educational curriculum or common classroom activities. Yet they won’t explain how People magazine, ESPN, Gun Show Trader, or Breitbart meet this same standard. These officials have also noted that suicide prevention resources exist outside of the Trevor Project, which is true, but irrelevant. If district officials are concerned a student is contemplating taking their own life, those officials would offer access to all resources

— without exception — that might prevent a teen suicide. Since June 2021, my classmates and I have been organizing to bring attention to the discriminatory actions by school districts like mine. We started an online petition that has gathered support from more than 1,000 community members. We have spoken at school board meetings and met with district officials who promised us they would unblock LGBTQ+ content. So far, they have only delivered us broken promises. Given the ways that school administrators have chosen to implement the district’s internet policies, it’s clear to us that we are not seen in the same way as other students. To Katy ISD officials, our very existence is so inherently perverse that they would simply erase us. Their message is that we ourselves, and our experiences, are neither “educational” nor “appropriate.” Blocking access to resources that support our mental health and intellectual development simply because we dare to accept who we are at this age is the definition of oppression. We recognize that they have specifically targeted us in an attempt to undermine our confidence. Adolescence is a critical time for developing a healthy selfawareness. While legal equality for LGBTQ+ people has become more widespread over the past few decades, genuine tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion of our community has not. There are harmful consequences for youth who lack just one supportive friend, who are deathly afraid to come out, and who feel completely alone and isolated by the identity that defines them. LGBTQ+ students deserve dignity and support for our own well being as much as any other student in this country. We have the basic human right to develop self-esteem and be welcomed in a diverse society. We expect the public schools we attend every day to see us as human beings and not a political inconvenience. There is no doubt the culture war in Texas is being waged against its own children, and we who are negatively impacted by the hateful policies of fanatical political leaders cannot be abstracted or disregarded. We demand to be seen and heard. The Lone Star State is a place of increasing ethnic and cultural diversity where we will continue to stand up for ourselves and for one another. We’re fighting back because we’re Texans and that’s what we do.


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is a senior analyst at a D.C.-area think-tank, and is the author of ‘American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy.’

U.S. is barreling toward Dred Scott II

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ Recently, numerous conservative southern states (including Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas) have passed laws or enacted policies that criminalize health care for transgender youth. In response, California and New York appear poised to pass their own laws. Broadly speaking, these laws would prevent removal of trans youth from supportive families, forbid cooperation with out-of-state investigations, prohibit issuance of subpoenas by instate agencies, forbid in-state police from arresting providers and parents, and refuse extradition to states attempting to enforce these bans on health care. These bills are desperately needed. Parents of trans youth in these southern states are fleeing already, even as these cruel, anti-science, and nonsensical laws destroy Texas’ state child protective services from the inside out. But there’s a bigger picture here. This tug-of-war between white, southern conservative states and the North and West has played out in American history before, and it didn’t end well. The U.S. Constitution established that slaves who escaped to abolitionist states were still slaves, and were to be returned to their owners in the South. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed states to seize and return fugitive slaves. It also established a $500 penalty (massive at the time) for anyone who hindered slave-catchers or aided an escaped slave. The 1793 Act was hugely unpopular. Cities and towns in the North passed laws and created sanctuaries meant to thwart the act. In retaliation, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 doubled the fines, eliminated the right of habeus corpus for Black people, and generally closed loopholes that northerners had been exploiting. Finally, there was the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Scott had lived for 10 years in states where slavery was forbidden, namely Illinois and the Louisiana Territory (by the Missouri Compromise of 1820). The Taney court infamously ruled in 1857 that, as a Black person, he was not a U.S. citizen, and therefore lacked the standing to sue for his freedom in a U.S. court. This effectively ended any legal remedy for Black people in the United States, including northern freemen kidnapped and sold into slavery. Which brings us back to the present day, where northern and western liberal states are confronted with conservative southern states deciding they own the bodies of the women and LGBTQ people nationwide. The attack on bodily autonomy goes further than trans youth and abortion: there are emerging efforts to ban healthcare for transgender adults and reinstate sodomy laws. Thus, while transgender people are at the tip of the spear, others are not far behind. For example, with Roe v. Wade likely to be overturned or rendered moot in June, Texas

and other states banning abortion will craft laws making it a felony to seek abortion in another state. They will pass laws making it a felony to assist anyone seeking an abortion out of state, and make every attempt to criminalize doctors in other states who perform them (probably under the felony murder rule). Similarly, after Roe v. Wade goes down, the Republican Party has made it clear that Obergefell (which overturned laws banning same-sex marriage) and Lawrence v. Texas (which overturned sodomy laws) will be next. The instant Lawrence falls, homosexuality becomes illegal again in 12 states. Given how the GOP has decided that LGBT people are the number one threat to society and are launching attack after attack accusing the community of being “groomers” or pedophiles, it is a near certainty that states like Texas will appeal to the base and wield this law like a cudgel to drive people out of the state. They will also make attempts to drag people back for trial, the same as they do to parents of trans youth and those seeking abortions. These sorts of efforts wouldn’t be nearly so frightening if the country had a functional Supreme Court dedicated to supporting human rights. Alas, it does not. The Supreme Court has been filled with right wing ideologues over the past two decades, all but one nominated by presidents who failed to win the popular vote. The Roberts court has been content to rule via the “shadow docket” and allow outrageous state laws like Texas’ SB8 “abortion bounty” to go into effect, even when they impinge on basic human rights. Which is why there’s no reason to believe that this Court will rule with an understanding of what the past can tell the Court about the implications of its actions. The Taney Court’s Dred Scott decision is widely seen as the catalyst that made the Civil War inevitable. The conservative justices on the bench today are incapable of asking themselves what happens when they make a ruling that is incredibly unpopular with the American people and caters exclusively to white southern Christians. What happens when southern states can reach deep into free states to tear families apart? What happens when you make it a criminal offense to help people escape from the old South because they can no longer exert basic bodily autonomy? What happens when you eliminate the safe harbors of cities and states in the North and West, and force them to participate in acts of cruelty that violate their fundamental ethics? What happens when the only safe harbor left for women and LGBTQ+ people is Canada? You get secession and a Civil War, whether it’s 1861 or 2025. Like Taney, the court is going to come down on the side of the South again and again. Unlike Taney, though, they have the benefit of history to tell them exactly where this leads, which makes them even dumber than their intellectual forebears.


JOHN WATERS is coming to LA May 10. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

John Waters coming to LA to promote new book

Courtesy of OUTLOUD with Twitch

Cassidy King, Lily Lane, Mallory Merk unplug for Pride concert Cassidy King, Lily Lane and Mallory Merk, a trio of talented out LGBTQ musicians, will headline OUTLOUD: Raising Voices, an unplugged concert April 21 as a preview event for the City of West Hollywood’s upcoming inaugural Pride celebration. The performances will be broadcast live between 6-8 p.m. PT on Twitch at officiallyOUTLOUD. The show, which will be hosted by Hannah Rad and Ryan Mitchell, comes on the heels of the hugely successful kickoff April 7 event for the LGBTQ+ concert series that exclusively partners OUTLOUD with Twitch. The previous event offered performances by Jordy and Madison Rose and was seen by 240,000 unique viewers. Twitch’s partnership will also produce OUTLOUD: Raising Voices Music Festival during the City of West Hollywood’s inaugural Pride celebration. Taking place June 3-5, the weekend will feature concerts by such noted entertainers as Lil’ Kim, Marina, Jesse J., and Years & Years. JEREMY KINSER

Los Angeles is one of eight stops on a coast-to-coast book tour that writer and filmmaker John Waters is launching to promote his first novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.” Waters is scheduled to appear on May 10 at the Aratani Theatre, 244 San Pedro St. in Los Angeles, in an event organized by Skylight Books and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. May 3 is the publication date for “Liarmouth,” from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Other cities on the book tour include: Politics and Prose in Washington on May 2; the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 3; Symphony Space in New York City on May 4; the Chicago Humanities Festival on May 7; the Green Arcade at McRoskey Co. Loft in San Francisco on May 9; Atomic Books in Baltimore on May 15; MAP in Provincetown on June 16 and the Center for Fiction in New York City on June 21. Well known for movies such as “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray,” Waters is the author of nine previous books, including the national bestsellers “Role Models,” “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America,” and “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.” “Liarmouth” is a 256-page novel about a woman who steals suitcases at the airport. The book costs $26 in the United States and $35 in Canada and is available for preorder. On its website, Farrar, Straus and Giroux calls the book “a hilariously filthy tale of sex, crime and family dysfunction from the brilliantly twisted mind of John Waters.” The publisher also described the title character: “Marsha Sprinkle. Suitcase thief. Scammer. Master of disguise. Dogs and children hate her. Her own family wants her dead. She’s smart, she’s desperate, she’s disturbed and she’s on the run with a big chip on her shoulder. They call her ‘Liarmouth’ – until one insane man makes her tell the truth.” ED GUNTS



‘Firebird’ soars with tale of love during Cold War A timely film exploring anti-LGBTQ oppression in Russia By JOHN PAUL KING

Once in a while, current events and the release of a particular movie seem to coincide as if by fate. “Casablanca,” for instance, considered by its studio to be an unremarkable melodrama with limited box office appeal, was rushed into an early release to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, which took place in late 1942. The rest, of course, is history. A similar twist of fateful timing surrounds “Firebird,” a UK-made gay romance set on a Soviet air base during the Cold War, as it goes into its official U.S. theatrical release on April 29. Based on a memoir by Sergey Fetisov, it’s a true story that not only resonates with the oppressive state of LGBTQ rights in modern-day Russia – a key factor in why the film was made in the first place – but that may pique the interest of American moviegoers thanks to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Firebird” – co-adapted for the screen by Estonian-born filmmaker Peeter Rebane and British actor Tom Prior, who direct and star, respectively – begins in the late 1970s as Sergey (Prior), a private in the Soviet Air Force with dreams of going to Moscow and becoming an actor, is eagerly counting down the days until the end of his military service. His life is suddenly changed irrevocably with the arrival of Roman (Oleg Zagorodinii), an ace fighter pilot newly stationed to the base; handsome, cultured, and approachable, the new officer immediately draws the attention of both Sergey and his close friend Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), the Base Commander’s secretary – but it is with Sergey that he makes the deeper connection, and the two quickly become lovers.

TOM PRIOR and OLEG ZAGORODINII star in ‘Firebird.’ (Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions)

Communist prohibitions against homosexuality are severe, however, especially for men in uniform, and even Ramon’s position of privilege is not enough to shield them from the ever-watchful eyes of their superiors. With his career and his freedom on the line, Roman initially breaks things off with Sergey, and even enters a sham marriage with the oblivious Luisa. But the love between them proves too strong to resist, and their star-crossed affair endures for years – despite the grim consequences they face should they be found out. Tales of oppression such as this have never been in short supply in queer cinema. After all, movies, like any art, are an expression of real life, and therefore the unavoidable specter of the closet has loomed large over LGBTQ movies over the years. As a result, there are quite a few viewers out there who feel as if they have seen more than enough


homophobia and heartbreak on their screens to last a lifetime. For such individuals, a movie like “Firebird” might be a hard sell. Still, nostalgia is a powerful force, capable of bathing the past in a warm glow that softens harsh realities while making our happy memories even happier than we remember, and Rebane’s movie uses it to great advantage. The director infuses his lovingly recreated period setting not only with an eye-catching attention to detail, but with a lush and picturesque atmosphere that stimulates our fondest memories – or fantasies – as much as it does our appreciation for the retro Eastern Bloc aesthetic. The central romance stokes our idealized scenarios of illicit love at first sight, capturing that breathless blend of tenderness and red-hot sexual chemistry as well as the thrilling fear of discovery that somehow makes being together even more irresistible; we are plied, by scenes of furtive after-hours love-making and idyllic, sun-soaked scenes trysts by the sea, into believing that these handsome young lovers will somehow make it all work out. The impossibility of their situation, of course, catches up to them eventually, and though the homophobia that surrounds them has been inescapable all along, it’s at this point the movie truly begins to explore its more subtle effects. Fear of it hangs over their relationship, and its poison spreads like a virus to anyone who becomes entangled in their life together; one of the film’s most powerful touches is the compassion it affords for Luisa, who may be an unknowing participant in the forced charade of their life together, but who suffers for it, nonetheless. It’s an all-too-rare reminder that repressive homophobia ruins heterosexual lives, too. Indeed, compassion lies at the heart of “Firebird” and keeps it from being just another pretty-but-bittersweet gay love story from a bygone era. Rebane has said he was inspired to make the film by the resurgence of attacks against “basic human rights, equality and freedom” around the world, and particularly by the discrimination and repression experienced in many countries by LGBTQ individuals and families. In telling the real-life story of Sergey (who died in 2017, shortly after participating in extensive interviews with the filmmakers), he hoped to “foster more respect for one universal human right: to love and be loved.” Now, with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine dominating world headlines, Rebane has reasserted his film’s purpose as a vehicle for raising awareness about the country’s “long history of persecuting LGBTQIA+ people and any of those voicing dissent to their authoritarian regime” by teaming with global advocacy group All Out, in support of their work in aiding queer refugees from Ukraine and fostering “meaningful dialogue” about Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies. Still, activist sentiment aside, “Firebird” is not political, but rather emphasizes the determination of a same-sex couple to exist, to survive despite suffering even within the most repressive of societies. In accomplishing that, it keeps its focus more on matters of the heart than on matters of state, something facilitated by its skillful cast – particularly Prior, whose appeal as Sergey runs far deeper than his youthful looks, and whose performance wears its heart on its sleeve without ever feeling overtly sentimental. It’s perhaps because of this as much as its period setting that “Firebird” feels a bit like a throwback to a bygone era. Awash in stylish nostalgia, it seems like something seen from a distance, more felt than lived, more dreamed than experienced. That’s not a bad thing; it’s an aura that lends a calming effect, cushioning the emotional blows we know are sure to come, and gives the movie a sense of emotional balance that prevents it from becoming a tearjerker. At the same time, it also brings a sort of perfunctory quality to the events of the story, as though we are watching a carefully arranged row of dominoes fall, which occasionally threatens to undermine the impact of the draconian cultural oppression faced by its characters by reducing it to a mere plot device. Nevertheless, it’s appropriate enough for a queer love story to feel a bit like a campy Hollywood classic, even when it has a political conscience. “Casablanca” raised awareness for the plight of refugees fleeing war-torn Europe, but it gave us Rick and Ilsa, too; and while it’s perhaps unlikely that “Firebird” will achieve the same status as that venerable masterpiece, its noble intentions and its unapologetic belief in love make it more than deserving of your attention.


Alice Walker sets the record straight in new book Renowned writer on racism, sexism, and relationship with Tracy Chapman

By RHONDA SMITH For anyone who’s ever wondered whether Alice Walker’s relationship with folk singer Tracy Chapman was a fling or something more, the renowned writer sets the record straight in her latest tome. “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker” highlights crucial details from the 1960s to the 1990s about the poet, essayist, novelist, and human rights advocate’s public and private lives. The 550-page book includes selected entries from Walker’s journals. The book is at its best when Walker, now 78, discusses the impact that racism and sexism had on her, and everyone else. Whether she is pushing to protect the environment or speaking out against female gender mutilation (FGM), Walker’s journal entries confirm what many already know: She is outspoken and unafraid to offend most anyone. The trials and tribulations Walker faced seeking someone with whom she could develop a healthy, longtime relationship also are explored in the book, as are her spiritual evolutions, and her decision to embrace solitude, after her relationship with Chapman and other women and men ended. “Before leaving on this tour I had dinner with Tracy Chapman,” Walker said in a 1992 entry. “She arrived in jeans & boots, carrying a coffee cake she baked herself. We ate pasta & salad & talked for 5 hours.” Their relationship lasted two years, despite the 20-year age difference. Walker’s vision of her sexual orientation is expansive. “The men I have loved and been turned on by have said NO

to all forms of domination, racist, classist, sexist or otherwise, and the women have done the same,” she wrote in a 1995 journal entry in the book. “I loved and desired them in their moments of resistance & glory; I love & admire them now.” The book falls short when Walker includes a plethora of details about her travels around the world to attend readings, accept awards, or just rest and relax with friends and family. These trips increased significantly, along with Walker’s financial standing, after she received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 for “The Color Purple.” But including minutiae about travel plans detracts from Walker’s more serious and relevant work as an author and human rights activist. Walker’s openness about her bouts with depression and other ailments, seemingly related to aging, is worth including. Her admission that she was insecure about her physical appearance after being shot in the eye with a BB gun as a child also is noteworthy, as are her family’s foibles and her unequivocal love for her parents and six siblings. (At the funeral of Walker’s mother in Georgia, Chapman was by her side.) Also notable is Walker’s willingness to hold Ms. magazine accountable for what she said was the liberal, feminist publication’s reluctance to feature women of color on its cover. Walker worked at Ms. at one point and in the book describes Gloria Steinem, the magazine’s founder, as one of her dear friends. The book’s editor, Valerie Boyd, a writer and professor who died in February, described “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire” in its introduction as a tome for artists, activists, and intellec-


tuals. “It is a primer for all people who want to live free lives,” Boyd wrote. Walker shares how she felt about her Jewish husband, attorney Mel Leventhal’s, reluctance to leave Mississippi after the couple moved there during the 1960s for his job with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Their daughter Re‘Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: becca, now 52, was The Journals of Alice Walker’ Simon and Schuster | 550 pages born at that time. “I surprised myself today, for the first time thinking that had I married a black man we would have had sense enough to know we couldn’t live in Mississippi,” Walker wrote. Later she said, “I’m not going to stay here much longer — and all the placating, explaining, courageous talk in the world is not going to make me stay here and be destroyed.” Walker now resides in California.


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