Mubarak Dahir

Last Rights

In the video, Laurel Hester is shown bald from her cancer treatments. She is wearing a simple black shirt with a silver necklace dangling around her neck, and she is seated on the couch in her home. She looks into the camera, and as she speaks, she struggles for breath. Sometimes, she has to use a respirator at her side before she can continue.

The cancer in her lungs is eating away at her life, minute by minute. Doctors have told Hester that she is almost certain to die in the next few months. But Hester is not on film to talk about the cancer cutting her life short. She is there to talk about what will happen, what should happen, when her life is over.

Hester wants her police pension to go to her partner of six years, 49-year-old Stacie Andree. Hester is a lieutenant and a 23-year veteran of the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. For about a year, Hester has battled with the Ocean County's freeholders to pass a law that would allow her pension to go to her partner after her death. Andree has said that without Hester's $13,000 death benefit, she will not be able to afford to keep the house the two women share in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.

Under New Jersey's Domestic Partnership Act, passed two years ago, counties and cities have the option of extending healthcare benefits and pension benefits to the partners of gay employees, if they so wish.

But for the past year, the Ocean County freeholders didn't so wish. Some local papers quoted freeholders as saying they were opposed to making the change because the Domestic Partnership Act "circumvented the marriage law." Recently, some freeholders added the more socially acceptable, if no more credible, claim that they were worried about the additional cost of adding partner benefits for gay and lesbian couples.

Despite her failing health, Hester continued to go to meetings and make her case. She enlisted the help of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay and lesbian rights group, to help make her case and get public awareness about it. There were protests. Some groups threatened a tourist boycott of the seaside county if the freeholders persisted in their stubbornness. But nothing seemed to work.

Even Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality admitted, "Truth be told, we did lose hope for a reversal in the past couple of weeks. We had applied all the pressure in the world, embarrassing the freeholders as few public servants had ever been embarrassed before in the state of New Jersey, and still they would not budge."

As time passed dangerously by with no change of heart, Hester became too ill to attend freeholder's meetings in person anymore to make her case. As a last resort, Hester had Garden State Equality videotape her last plea. In it, she implored the freeholders to "make a change for good, a change for righteousness."

On January 20, a group of Republican leaders of Ocean County gathered in a closed-session teleconference that included a viewing of Hester's video appeal. The meeting included top Republican leaders in the county, not just the freeholders. Among those present were two Republican state senators.

When they emerged from the conference room, they made an announcement: "The freeholders want to give this lady's companion the benefits that others get," state senator Leonard Connors told the public.

The Republican leaders all refused to give details of what happened in that meeting to cause a change of heart. They had agreed beforehand to keep the proceedings private. It's a fair guess, however, that Hester's appeal made a deep impression. In a statement after the announcement was made, Hester said, "This is one of the happiest days of my life. I feel like David conquering Goliath."

Hesters story of perserverence and love is one that will be remembered long after Laurel Hester is gone.

Banning Gay Books

The children's picture book King & King is a cute little fairy tale where a young crown prince searches for love, rejecting one suitor after another until he finds his soul mate. Like most fairy tales, this one has a happy ending, with the prince becoming king and living happily ever after with the person he loves.

But in the real world, there isn't such a fairy-tale ending for this book.

The reason is that the plot of King & King, by authors Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, puts the fairy tale world on its ear. In their version of happily ever after, the young crown prince rejects princess after princess as a potential bride until finding his heart with another prince, who he takes as his husband. The book has caused so much stir among opponents that it landed on the American Library Association's Top 10 list of most-challenged books for 2004.

And it isn't alone as a book with a gay theme that has landed on the organization's Top 10 most challenged list. This year, three of the 10 books on the list landed there specifically because of their gay content, according to the American Library Association.

The other two are "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," a young adult novel by Stephen Chbosky, and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by poet Maya Angelou.

That's the most number of books dealing with homosexuality to land on the annual Top 10 challenged list in a decade.

The American Library Association defines a "challenged book" as one that has received a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school. The complaint on a challenged book includes a request that a book be removed from the shelf, or placed in a special section (usually available only to adults.)

In 2004, the last year for which the American Library Association has statistics, there were 547 complaints about books. But that is only the number of reported challenges. Library Association officials estimate the number of actual challenges is anywhere from four to five times that number. It's no coincidence that the number of books with gay themes has increased this past year. The international and national headlines regarding same-sex marriage have brought the issue of gay rights to the forefront. In addition, the Internet has greatly increased the movement of trying to get books banned, Pat Scales, a school librarian in South Carolina and author of "Teaching Banned Books," told the Washington Post.

"It's become a huge Internet movement," she told the newspaper.

And it looks like the foot soldiers of banning books with gay content are gaining some significant headway. In at least three states -- Alabama, Louisiana and Oklahoma -- those opposed to books with gay content have tried to convince lawmakers to eliminate funding for libraries or schools that offer materials dealing with homosexuality, or for books and materials that are written by gays or lesbians.

Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) has introduced legislation that would require local schools to create "parent councils" to oversee books and other educational materials purchased by school districts for use in classrooms, or that would be available in school libraries. He proposed the bill after hearing complaints about King & King.

Banning these books is an attack not only on gays and lesbians, but also on the very premise of intellectual freedom in a democratic society. But the religious right, which is most often behind the challenges and attempted book bans, almost always quite cleverly casts the debate in terms of "protecting" children from "adult" material, as if school libraries are handing out copies of Honcho to fifth graders.

The core of this battle is, of course, a fight over information, and opponents of gay rights know that the more information people, including kids, get about homosexuality, the less likely they are to end up being prejudiced against gays and lesbians.

But we can't blame the fact that we are apparently losing this battle solely on the religious right. Those of us in the gay and lesbian movement have to take part of the blame ourselves. All too often, gay and lesbian activists are obsessed with Beltway politics in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the religious right has been getting stealth candidates elected to local school boards around the country.

Gay and lesbians with or without children need to look at local school board politics. Schools and libraries should be open sources of education and information for our kids and our country. It's up to us to help make sure they stay that way.

Losing My Fear of Religion

If the gay and lesbian movement is going to make significant headway into changing the minds and hearts of Americans on vital issues of fairness regarding our rights, we are going to have to find a coherent way to address issues of religion.

As a matter of disclosure, I should confess that I am an atheist. I do not believe in the concept of a God.

While I am confessing, I should also say that my disbelief about a higher power is not at all related to my homosexuality. I was aware that I was an atheist long before I realized I was gay. My father is Muslim, and was raised in a Quaker school. My mother was an Atlanta girl who was raised Southern Baptist, but who, on paper, changed her religion to be a Muslim when she married my father. As a child, I can remember that my parents agreed on one point only when it came to religion.

If anyone ever had an open mind about religion, it had to be my father. When my sister and I were kids, he used to tell us that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and all the other words of God were essentially the same message, simply packaged in different ways, depending on the time and culture where they appeared.

My mother agreed with him, sort of.

Religions really are all the same, she would repeat after my dad. They are all fairy tales, she would insist.

The strict and unbending ways of the Southern Baptists were enough to turn my mother, from an early age, into a life-long, fervent nonbeliever. As I grew up, I weighed the evidence that both of my parents presented to me about religion, as well as that which I garnered from science and society, and rather easily came down on the side of my mother. When I realized I was gay, it seemed another good reason to snub religion.

Like many gay men and lesbians, for the longest time I looked at religion as an enemy of our civil rights movement. But, even as an atheist, I have come to believe that if we continue to take the antagonist approach to religion, we will inevitably come out on the losing end. In America, for all our declarations of being a secular society, religion is deeply ingrained in our culture.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers on how we can approach religious people about gay rights.

But I suspect that one of the best tactics may be to appeal to the very things in religion that give believers their strength: their sense of morality and right from wrong.

To do this, we don’t have to turn into religious scholars or get into jousting matches over what every particular verse in the Bible or the Koran means. But most people of conviction do derive a strong sense of moral right and wrong from their religion.

For too long, we in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement have been embarrassed or shy or nervous about engaging in this conversation. The result is that the right wing has successfully cornered and dominated the discussion on what religious morals are, and how Americans of faith approach them. We need to help show good Americans who believe in right and wrong, based largely on their concept of God, that supporting gay rights isn't a contradiction of their religious beliefs.

Indeed, if we approach it in the right way, we can help them discover that supporting gay and lesbian rights is, in fact, a morally just thing to do.

Two real-life transformations come to mind. One is Bridget, a friend from college who is a devout Catholic. Bridget doesn’ t believe in divorce or abortion. But she is an ardent supporter of gay rights. Why? She believes her religion demands it. I wish I could take credit for Bridget’s personal transformation from a person who believed that gays and lesbians were sinners to someone who believes that discriminating against gays is unholy.

But I can’t. Like too many of us, I was cowardly. When I discovered Bridget's initial views on gay people, I simply declined to tell her I was gay or broach the subject, despite our close personal relationship. Instead, a few braver souls ventured to Bridget’s church and appealed to the congregationas sense of social justice. They won Bridget over as a convert. Years later, when I did come out to her, Bridget told me that she had changed her mind on the gay issue when she realized that the struggle for gay rights was an issue of fairness, and that her religion taught her to treat people equally.

Susan's transformation was more difficult, and less complete. But in many ways, it was more astonishing.

Susan, a co-worker I met years ago on a new job, was a born-again Christian. At first, I kept her at arms length. Quite simply, I decided she was the enemy.
Susan was incredibly conservative and initially willing to deny gays and lesbians civil rights, based on her religious beliefs. But she was not the monster the religous right is often painted as.

Susan was also a decent person in many ways. She was a good mother and wife. She was a hard worker. And she had a strong ethic of right and wrong that she derived from her religion. To the end of my days at that office, Susan continued to struggle with particular Biblical verses, and how they should affect her feelings about gay rights.

But Susan, an intelligent, college-educated woman, made surprising leaps of faith, quite literally, in her position on gay rights. Eventually, she came to believe that her born-again God wasn’t asking her to unduly discriminate against gays and lesbians. In fact, he probably required her to support them, she concluded. While she and I still didn’t see eye to eye on many things, it would be unfair to call her an enemy. In fact, she, too, had become a convert to gay rights.

Both Bridget and Susan switched their positions on gay rights because of their religious beliefs, not in spite of them. I cannot believe that Bridget and Susan are alone.

The Long Ride

Even before Omar passed his yellow MetroCard through the turnstile and stepped onto the platform at his local subway station in Queens, he knew it was going to be a difficult ride. It was the day after the London train bombings and in the back of his mind, Omar, like many other New Yorkers, was worried about a possible "copycat" bombing attack.

But while the remote possibility of such a strike lingered in the back of his thoughts, he was more preoccupied with another kind of threat that was not as brutal, but more immediate. More than the fear of a terrorist attack, Omar dreaded the suspicion from fellow riders that was bound to be as thick as the crush of daily commuters packed into the New York subway cars. He also worried about what he believed was certain to be yet another "inevitable backlash" against Muslims and Arabs in America and Western countries.

Omar, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used, describes himself as "obviously" Middle Eastern. In his early 30s, he has a plume of black hair, a thick but trimmed mustache, olive skin and, as he puts it, "an Arab nose."

His looks, combined with his accent, make his heritage "a dead giveaway," he says. And he knows from experience the downside of what that can mean.

Omar was already living in New York City when the planes struck the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks, he remembers the anger and animosity directed at him, "as if I was personally responsible for the terrorists," he says. People would yell at him from across the street and many days no one would sit next to him on the subway.

Not many, he said, were interested in seeing the man behind the stereotype. Omar, like about 60 percent of Arabs in America, is a Christian. As a gay man, Omar came to the United States primarily to seek the kind of freedom he would never have in his home country. Omar's family, and even the government of his native country, have been fighting religious fundamentalism for years, even decades, long before Americans knew or cared about its rise and power in the Middle East.

Omar says he loves this country, and his greatest hope is to one day become an American citizen.

Yet, on the street, and particularly after attacks, he is seen as the enemy. Omar says he understands such emotions, and in many ways he seems resigned to them. "Americans are very patriotic people," he says. "I know how much they love their country."

As a foreigner here, he is all too aware that he does not have the same kind of rights -- including freedom of speech -- that Americans enjoy. Since September 11, he has seen immigration rules tightened with what he believes is the clear aim of minimizing immigration from Arab and Muslim countries. And, most painfully for him, he says he has found it difficult to discuss terrorism and Middle East politics with reason.

"There are no shades of gray here," he says, exasperated. "Everything is black and white, and red, white and blue." As an Arab, no matter how much he denounces and abhors terrorism, if he criticizes American foreign policy, he becomes the next worst thing: "A sympathizer."

As a gay Christian, Omar points out out that he is hardly a candidate for love and warmth from the terrorists. "I'm sure they want me dead," he says with a chilly matter-of-factness. None of that, however, stops the fear and suspicion he worries he will likely encounter in the wake of the London bombings.

In the coming weeks, he says he'll keep as low a profile as he can manage. He'll take cabs when he can afford it, or long walks in Manhattan, rather than the subway cars. And he'll pray, to his Christian God and for his Muslim friends, "that somehow all this madness ends."

Setting Him Straight?

For at least two weeks in June, Zach, a 16-year-old gay teen from Bartlett, Tennessee, was a hostage held against his will.

He wasn't kidnapped by a child molester or abducted by international terrorists, though what he has been through, in his own words, has been "torture." Indeed, Zach's captivity has been completely legal, if horrific. He's been interred by the authority of his parents. And his captors have been a group with the ironic name, "Love In Action."

"Love In Action" is one of the so-called "ex-gay" ministries. It runs what it calls a "youth program," named Refuge, which is essentially a "camp" to allegedly "de-gay" homosexual teens.

According to Zach's blog, his parents decided to send him to Refuge against his will after he came out to them as being gay. On May 29, Zach wrote on his blog that his parents sat him down and informed him he was going to a "fundamentalist Christian program for gays."

"They tell me there is something wrong with me, and they 'raised me wrong,'" Zach wrote. "I'm a big screw up to them, who isn't on the path God wants me to be on. So I am sitting here in tears."

According to other blog entries, Zach's parents took away his cell phone and car keys, apparently in an effort to keep what they perceived as bad "outside influences" away from him. His parents also isolated him from his friends - he wrote on June 3, his last blog entry, that he hadn't seen any of his friends for more than a week. He was housebound, he said. And he was only able to access the computer to write his blog, he wrote, after his parents were asleep. Zach's state of mind, even before he was forced to go to Refuge, was clearly fragile, as reflected in his sad and poignant blog entries. "My mother has said the worst things to me for three days straight," he wrote at 11:33 on June 3, the last time a blog entry was made. "I went numb. That's the only way I can get through this... I can't take this... no one can. This kind of thing tears you apart emotionally." And then Zach writes what many of us fear most, the worst possible results of this kind of pressure: "I'm not a suicidal person," he begins, and your heart sinks as he broaches the subject. "But I can't help it... all I can think about is killing my mother and myself. It's so horrible. This is what it's doing to me... I have this horrible feeling all of the time... I wish this on no person."

But studies have shown that gay teens are up to three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, because of the anti-gay pressures they face from home, school and society. It's estimated that one-third of completed suicides are done by gay or lesbian teens.

Though he has not posted any blog entries since June 3, friends and supporters have written on his blog site, saying that after the initial two-week period at Refuge, Zach's parents have decided to keep him there an additional six weeks. Zach was able to post an exhaustive list of rules and regulations from Refuge that he had found e-mailed to his parents. The rules include a strict prohibition on "hugging or physical touch between clients. Brief handshakes or a brief affirmative hand on a shoulder is allowed." Males at the camp are not allowed to have facial hair of any kind, and must maintain "clean, business-like haircuts." Females are instructed to "shave legs and underarms at least twice weekly," and may not have hair that is "colored, highlighted or streaked." T-shirts without sleeves are forbidden for men, even as undergarments. So are thongs for women. The only jewelry a man may have is a wedding ring and a watch. Women are allowed that, plus a simple pair of earrings (one per ear.) Absolutely no one may wear Abercrombie and Fitch or Calvin Klein clothes or accessories. No cologne or perfume, either.

Reading through the exhaustive list of do's and don'ts for Refuge, you learn that every member there is put into what can only be likened to emotional solitary confinement for the first two or three days, where they may not communicate, verbally or otherwise, with anyone, even parents, except with special permission.

They can't have a cell phone or watch TV or see movies, other than the one shown weekly at the camp. They are not even allowed to read, unless it is the Bible or pre-approved material from the camp. No secular music. Bach and Beethoven are expressly mentioned as not being religious music, and thus forbidden. They are not allowed to keep in touch or have contact with previous friends. They are expressly prohibited from displaying "campy" behavior or "gay/lesbian behavior or talk." They and their belongings are subject to search. They may not keep a journal, other than that required for their "therapy." They are photographed for "sobering re-evaluation." And they are encouraged to tattle on each other if they break the rules. It seems clear that Refuge engages in behavior modification as part of its "therapy" to "cure" gays and allegedly make them straight. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that this kind of abusive behavior makes any kind of permanent, healthy change in its victims. All of the major, credible mental health organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have long ago distanced themselves from this kind of "therapy." Furthermore, these mental health organizations also know that being gay or lesbian is not a mental disorder, and readily say so. The notion that you can alter a kid's sexual orientation by dressing him in certain clothes and forcing him to read the Bible and act in particular ways is not only ludicrous, but psychologically destructive.

Even 16-year-old Zach understands that. In one blog entry, he writes: "How could you support a program like this?" he asks of the Refuge camp. "Even if I do come out straight, I'll be so mentally unstable and depressed it wont matter. I'll be back in therapy again. This is not good."


The Connecticut Rorschach Test

When gay rights activists and right-wing fundamentalists are both protesting the same thing, it's worth taking note. That is particularly true when the object of ire for both groups is a law that recognizes same-sex relationships. That seems to be the case with the recent bill that was signed into law April 20 by Connecticut's Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell that recognizes civil unions for that state's gay and lesbian couples.

No less a firebrand than Tony award winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, who is from Connecticut, called the politicians who supported the civil unions bill "traitors to the gay community. This is the most un-American movement I've ever heard of," he told Newsday. He was referring to the fact that the Connecticut legislature chose to ratify a law recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples, but stopped short of trying to pass a marriage bill for gays and lesbians.

The Connecticut law, which goes into effect October 1 of this year, is written to extend all the rights and obligations of a heterosexual Connecticut marriage to the state's same-sex couples. Activists estimate the number of rights and privileges extended to homosexual couples under the new law to be roughly 500. However, same-sex couples won't be able to get marriage licenses. Furthermore, the Connecticut House added an amendment to the civil unions bill that rewrote the definition of marriage as solely between one man and one woman.

"In Connecticut, they just passed a law saying I am less of a human being, I'm less of a citizen," he fumed. "How dare they." Indeed: How dare they, agrees Brian Brown. Sort of. Brown is the executive director of the conservative Family Institute of Connecticut, which opposes any kind of recognition for same-sex couples. "From now until 2006, our mission will be to let every person know in the state of Connecticut which lawmakers voted to redefine marriage, and which lawmakers voted to protect marriage," he said. Marriage? Yes, as far as Brown and his followers are concerned, the Connecticut legislature just passed a form of marriage for gay and lesbian people-regardless of what they officially call it.

Listening to the debate over Connecticut's civil union law between unhappy gay rights activists who wanted marriage, and conservative anti-gay forces who consider the law just as bad as granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is like looking at a Rorschach inkblot test: People can look at the same thing, and see totally different things. Funny thing is, even though the two men are on polar opposites of this issue, in many respects both men are right. There's no doubt that, as Fierstein feels, a civil union is not equal to a marriage. It just isn't. Perhaps all the legal rights and responsibilities under Connecticut law are the same. But the two are still not equal. The reason for that, of course, is that marriage is about more than just legal consequences. While the legal rights and protections are incredibly important, the battle for same-sex marriage rights is about a lot more than legalese. It's about recognizing the personal, emotional and social significance of the relationship between tow people who happen to be of the same sex. No substitute is an equal. Harvey Fierstein is right to be outraged. But Brian Brown and like-minded conservatives are getting it right if they are outraged, too. In fact, Brown and his allies understand the point exactly: The fight for gay marriage is about so much more than whatever name you put on the piece of paper that acknowledges such a relationship. That's why the civil unions law in Connecticut has them so hyper - they recognize it as the equivalent of marriage in all but name.

In places like Connecticut, the religious right sees there has been a huge change - not just in the law, but in something less tangible but far more powerful: people's attitudes towards gays and marriage. Connecticut isn't the first state to bestow such legal rights and recognitions on same-sex couples. Vermont passed the country's first civil unions law back in 2000, and just last year, Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex couples to get marriage licenses. But there's a critical difference in Connecticut: It is the first state that has adopted a law recognizing the legal rights of same-sex couples without the insistence of the courts. In both Vermont and Massachusetts, legal cases lead courts to require that the legislatures provide gay and lesbian couples with some sort of law that gave them recognition and protection. In Connecticut, there was no mandate by the courts. While there is a marriage lawsuit pending in Connecticut, it has not yet been settled. The legislature certainly wasn't forced to act yet. Instead, the movement in Connecticut was less about legal issues than it was about a shift in the way the general public there views same-sex relationships, and what to do about recognizing them. It appears that in Connecticut, citizens see same-sex relationships as deserving legal recognition and acknowledgement, but they don't yet see those relationships as equal to marriage. In the future, though, they likely will: Polls there show that people under 40 are very comfortable with gay and lesbian couples - even giving them marriage licenses. Both Fierstein and Brown see these realities quite clearly. It's no wonder they are both so upset.

Crystal Crisis

It's a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon on South Beach the first weekend in March. There isn't a single cloud in the azure blue sky. It's the kind of day that reminds residents why they live in South Florida, and that goads visitors here by the thousands.

This particular weekend, hordes of gay men have come to South Beach for Winter Party.

At the Surfcomber Hotel, the site of this year's pool party, hundreds of handsome men in seductive swimwear are hanging out by the pool, bumping and grinding on the makeshift dance floor, parading their rippled abs and bulging biceps.

I'm standing with a friend soaking up the sea of flesh when our attention turns to a particularly muscular man with a hairy chest who's wearing a red ball cap. He's absolutely stunning, but it's not his body that grabs our attention. It's his inability to walk without stumbling. "He's really screwed up," my friend comments. "From the look on his face, it's probably Tina."

A Winter Party volunteer, wearing the signature pink T-shirt that helps them stands out in the crowd, approaches the unsteady man and asks if he needs help.

I overhear his friends dismiss the inquiry. "It's OK," they say. "We're his friends." Minutes later, there is a commotion in the packed crowd. The muscular man in the red ball cap has collapsed. His apparently unconscious body is slumped, limp in a white plastic pool chair. Four pink-shirted volunteers have surrounded him now. One of them has two fingers on an artery in the muscleman's neck, as if she is checking whether or not he has a pulse.

A band of volunteers heaves the chair up, and together they carry the unconscious man away. As they push through the crowd, the woman keeps her two fingers on the man's neck, and his pulse.

The crowd hardly pauses, barely seeming to notice that someone has been carried past them. The dance beat cranks, and the bodies continue to gyrate.

It's no secret that crystal meth is rampant at circuit parties all around the country. When I mention the pool party episode to my gay friends, and comment I may want to write about it, the response is almost universal: Big surprise, stop the presses.

And the crystal problem is hardly limited to circuit parties. It's all around us, on a daily basis, and it is wrecking gay men's lives every day -- financially, physically and emotionally. But what strikes me most, perhaps, is the nonchalance surrounding the issue. It's become so routine, many gay men don't even seem to notice it, or perhaps they just don't pay attention to it anymore.

Obviously, the drug use and crystal problem involves a serious issue of personal responsibility. But I can't help but think that there must also be a collective consciousness to this problem, if we as gay men -- as a group of people who have staked the claim that we are connected to one another in some sort of bond that forms a community -- hope to beat it.

In the early years of AIDS, gay activists combed the streets and the bars and the bathhouses, armed with condoms and safer sex fliers, gently reminding other gay men that all our lives were at stake. In our newspapers and our magazines, at our offices and in private homes, people were talking to each other about the risks and perils of unsafe sex, and the need we all had to help each other stay as safe as we could.

It didn't save everyone from HIV, or replace the personal decision-making at the moment of truth. But there was, at least, a recognition that we were all in this together, and that we needed to hold each other's hands, literally and figuratively, because even with the best intentions, we are all human, and we all slip up sometimes.

To some degree, aren't we all supposed to watch out for each other? Particularly in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, or the Castro or Chelsea or Provincetown, or any of the other gay ghettos where we've congregated by the droves to create our own little gay Meccas, our insular, protected, safe spaces where we can fashion the kind of world we think is better than the places we came from. Aren't these places, at least -- the places where we've worked so hard to make being gay so easy -- supposed to come with something more than crowded bars and naked pool parties? Or have we created places where we are so callous to each other that we no longer notice, or care, if our community is partying itself to death?

After the pool party, much later that evening, I get a poignant reminder about why, as gay men, we need to care about and care for our own.

It's almost midnight, and I have driven with a date from Fort Lauderdale back down to Miami to go to Winter Party's leather party, at a bar called the Loading Zone. We park no more than two blocks from the bar. I am wearing jeans and a leather harness, without a shirt. My date is also shirtless and in jeans, with a leather vest. Our outfits are typical leather bar gear, and we think nothing of walking dressed this way from our parking spot to the bar.

Apparently, a lot of Miami residents feel otherwise. As we stroll down the street, passersby yell catcalls from their car windows. Then, one car speeds by, and there is a rapid succession of thuds in front of us. My date feels something hit his leg. To my disbelief, I look down to find we've just been pummeled by a barrage of raw eggs. After cleaning off his jeans, we continue to the bar.

There, men seem to walk around wild-eyed. Everyone's drinking water and sucking on lollipops--one sign of people using crystal. We decide to stay only an hour at the Loading Zone. As we leave, we see four guys, acquaintances from Fort Lauderdale, huddled in the shadows behind the bar. There's no doubt in my mind what they are doing.

The next day, Sunday, March 6, I am at Winter Party's beach party, right on the gay beach at 12th Street. The enormous swarm of muscled men dwarfs even the crowd at the previous day's pool party. It's another bright, hot Florida afternoon, and everyone seems to be hanging out shirtless and in sunglasses.

I have my camera in my hand, and I'm taking pictures to publish in the gay newspaper that I edit in Fort Lauderdale. It's something I do frequently at such events, and I understand that different people have various comfort levels with their face being shown in a gay publication.

Initially, I assume that is why so many people decline to remove their sunglasses when they agree to have their picture taken. Then I ask a smooth young Latino in white pants and a sailor's hat to pose, and he gladly agrees. Lean and well-defined, he looks adorable in his little outfit on the beach. But he would look so much cuter without the dark sunglasses that hide too much of his face.

I ask him to remove them, and he emphatically shakes his head no. "I can't show my eyes," he tells me. "They're a mess." Soon after, I come across the muscled man in the red ball cap from the pool party the day before, the one who had been carried away in the chair. He, too, is wearing sunglasses.

What Makes a Mother

A Pennsylvania appeals court has re-united a non-biological lesbian mother who has been estranged from her daughter. The two have been unable to carry on any kind of a relationship because the child's biological mother has worked to keep her daughter and former partner apart ever since the two women split. The non-biological mother, thanks to a Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling, will now get to see the daughter she helped raise for three years.

In addition to the immense personal relationships at stake, this case is important because of the strong wording of the court in favor of the non-biological mother. The ruling makes strong parallels between the two mothers and a spousal relationship that involved kids but that ended in divorce. It is another signal that while gay and lesbian families may not be winning the public relations or political campaigns to be recognized equally with that of heterosexuals, we are often getting astounding recognition in the courts.

While the Pennsylvania state court ruling only has an immediate impact on the residents of that particular state, it's true that state judicial rulings affect each other, both directly and indirectly. Today, a large number of states, including almost all the Northeast and West coast ones, treat gay and lesbian families with the same rules as they treat heterosexual families when it comes to children and parental break-ups. Ironic as it may sound, when the courts treat gay parents who are breaking up and fighting over children the same way they treat heterosexual parents who are breaking up and fighting over children, it is a huge step in the right direction toward recognizing same-sex relationships.

In this particular case, the two women, who were identified only as T.B. and L.R.M. in court documents, were in a long-term relationship, during which time they raised their daughter together. L.R.M. is the biological mother of the daughter. For three years. T.B. took on the full responsibilities of any parent, helping raise their daughter in every aspect of daily life. But when the two women split in 1996, L.R.M. refused to allow T.B. to visit their daughter. In fact, she did everything she could to alienate T.B. from the daughter. And then she tried to use the fact that the two had been alienated as legal reasoning to keep them apart.

Until the Superior Court ruling in late March, L.R.M.'s tactics had been successful. A lower court had ruled that because L.R.M. had been so successful in keeping the daughter and T.B. apart for so long, it was now in the child's best interest to remain separated from T.B. But the three-judge panel of the appeals court emphatically rejected that line of reasoning as having any legal basis. "Imagine a scenario where the same premise is applied to spouses," wrote Judge Michael T. Joyce in the court's uplifting ruling. "It is inconceivable that an embittered spouse who successfully estranges the children from the other spouse, to the point where the other spouse is unknown to the children, should be rewarded by a determination that it shall be in the best interest of the children not to have any relationship at all with the alienated spouse because of the custodial spouse's feelings," Judge Joyce continued. "The preposterousness of this scenario is equally applicable to the case at bar, despite [the non-biological lesbian mother's] non-traditional status." The appeals court chided a lower court, saying it "abused its discretion" by denying visitation rights to T.B. on the basis of this argument. The lower court had kept T.B. from seeing her daughter since 1997. It also had prohibited T.B. from seeing the little girl until the matter was fully resolved. The appeals court rescinded that specious ruling, and now T.B. will be allowed to visit her daughter immediately, in a guided setting.

The impact of the ruling on a personal level for T.B. and her daughter are immense. It means that T.B. will no longer be kept away from the little girl she loves, simply because of the bitterness of her former partner. The broader impact of the ruling can be found in the strong wording of the decision. The court said a lesbian or gay parent can seek visitation rights or custody of a child even if that parent is not the biological mother or father of the child, so long as, over time, he or she has acted as a parent and performed all the duties associated with parenthood, with the consent of the legal parent. While it is not uncommon for the family courts of many states to recognize "non-traditional" families, the wording in this case draws bold parallels between the separated lesbian couple and divorced heterosexual spouses. And that can only help us as we inch our way to more and more legal recognition of our relationships.

No Room At the Inn

Christmas is supposed to be a time where families and loved ones gather to share the season's greetings. But this year, like the other three years since this lesbian couple has been together, Beth and Liz will be miles apart on Christmas day.

They agreed to tell their story on condition that their names be changed to protect their privacy.

But their story is like so many other stories of lesbian and gay couples who struggle with the love for their partners vs. the duty to their families, and what to do when those two things clash, as they so often do at the holidays.

This is a Christmas story that seems as familiar and as old as the tale of Mary and Joseph unable to find a room at the inn. Even today, for so many gay and lesbian couples, there's no room at the inn when it comes to their love.

Beth hails from a plain Midwestern family where things like homosexuality are very awkward to talk about. It's not like Beth's family doesn't know that she and Liz are a couple. They've even met Liz a few times, on trips home together.

The family was very cordial. No one said or did anything out of place. At least, not within earshot.

But Beth's family are very devout Methodists, and they believe that homosexuality is a sin.

More than anything, they believe in their heart of hearts that Beth, who is in her early 40's, just hasn't met the right man. The family theory is that Beth's last heterosexual relationship was so traumatic for her, she ran away from men altogether into the “safety” of the company of women.

Though they've learned not to express it much anymore, somewhere in their hearts, they still seem to believe that one day Beth will meet the right man and stop this silliness.

Liz, in their eyes, is a big hindrance to Beth getting on with her life and finding the right man. So while they try not to be so harsh that they ruin any contact with their daughter, they clearly see Liz as an obstacle to what they perceive should be their daughter's happiness.

Meanwhile, the family has never banned Liz from coming up on the holidays. They've just made it impossibly awkward for her to do so.

“Of course she can come,” Beth's mother said one year. “We can even help her find a nice little place to stay.”

Another year, Beth's father asked, “Why would she want to come for Christmas? She's Jewish, isn't she?”

Well, yes, she is, but that wasn't the point.

Liz won't say why she is estranged from her own family, which lives in New York City, except to say that it doesn't really have anything to do with her being a lesbian.

Sometimes, she'll go back to New York for the holiday season and visit friends for a few days.

But mostly, like this year, she will stay in her South Florida home while Beth takes the short holiday trek alone.

Liz and Beth claim to be nonchalant about it.

Liz rolls her eyes and makes a joke about staying in the better weather. Beth recounts the tedium of the family Christmas dinner, and says she's probably just going to get drunk to muddle through. They both brush it off as just one weekend.

But they concede that it has caused a strain between them in the past. And that it continues to sometimes be more of a sore point than they like to admit.

Liz says she understands how tricky family relations can be. She'd never ask Beth not to go home for Christmas.

But part of her feels not just sad, but betrayed by Beth, thinking maybe Beth hasn't put up enough of a fight for her. Or that maybe Beth is letting her family come between them, even if it is just for this one time of the year.

Beth feels a little guilty sometimes, herself, and at times has a secret urge not to go home for Christmas.

But she's afraid that such a move would rupture her family ties to the point of making things worse, not better. The way to win them over, she says, is slowly and patiently, at their pace. Acting like a demanding ACT UP protestor, she explains, will only alienate them, maybe forever. And she doesn't want that, either.

Liz was hopeful that all the media attention and movement on gay and lesbian marriage this past year might ring a bell with Beth's family, that something might register in their minds that this was simply what Beth and Liz wanted, this is simply who they were: another couple, like anyone else.

But Beth's family, who voted for George W. Bush, feel even more vindicated by the outcome of the election and by the results of 11 states voting to add constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage.

Beth holds onto hope that, over time, her family will soften and Liz will slowly be eased into family get-togethers, eventually including Christmas.

Privately, Liz wonders how long she's supposed to wait, and whether or not Beth is deluding herself.

In the meantime, they both worry about how this tug of war might start to tear at their own relationship.

"It's supposed to be the happiest time of the year," Beth says, parodying a popular Christmas carol. "So why does it always make me feel so awful?"

The View From South Florida

It's election night, and I am doing a tour of the local bars in Fort Lauderdale, where I live, thinking I'll catch the late-night returns with other gay men, so that if the news isn't good, at least I won't be alone when I hear it.

But I make the rounds of several bars, and not a one has their TV screens tuned into the election results. It's still early, about 11 p.m., and as of yet, the presidential winner hasn't been declared, though things are looking brighter for Bush and gloomier for Kerry.

I ask one bar manager, a friend of mine, about tuning into the news, but he just shrugs.

We had it on earlier, he explains. But we turned it off at people's request. It was just getting too nerve wracking.

If nothing else, this election cycle has been that, all around the country.

Here in South Florida, where the last election turned into such a fiasco and made this part of the country the butt of late-night talk show jokes a la Jay Leno and David Letterman, the intensity was ever-present.

We were keenly aware that a lot of eyes would be looking to our state, not only as one of the swing states that could turn the election, but as a place where politics has turned dirty and where faith in our democratic system has faltered.

We were also keenly aware that our governor, the president's brother, had duly promised to once again deliver Florida's 27 electoral votes to make it a red state in this election, too.

To try to mitigate the mistrust, and the possibility of another stolen election, we even had this odd thing where we could vote early, before Election Day.

A lot of friends and acquaintances caught the early voting bug, and the week before Election Day, I heard stories about people waiting in long lines for up to four hours to cast an early ballot.

In my county, there were just 14 stations where voters could cast their ballots early. On Election Day, there were more than 800 polling stations.

I asked one friend, a gay man, why he waited so long just to vote early, when surely on Election Day the wait wouldn't be so painful.

I don't trust them, he said with venom in his voice, a venom I know was directed at the Republicans. I just want to make sure I get my vote in and it counts.

Other gay friends wove intricate conspiracy tales, convinced that the Republicans were out to prevent a fair election. The stories on some of the gay listservs I belong to seemed fantastically cloak and dagger, telling of how Republican Party lawyers were perched at early voting lines, surely there for some allegedly sinister purpose.

The day of the election, I almost felt as if there might be a nugget of truth to the notion that in South Florida, the Forces of Evil were trying to prevent me from voting.

Though I registered at a booth at gay pride back in June, I never got my voter registration card, so I was unsure where to go to vote.

For two days before Nov. 2, I tried to use the Web page for the Broward County Supervisor of Elections to find my polling station. The site has a page where you can put in your address and zip code, and it is supposed to help you locate your polling station.

But for two days, at all times of the day and night, when I would type in my address, I got an error message.

So on Election Day, I decided simply to call the office of the Supervisor of Elections and ask.

I dialed the number seven times, and got seven busy signals. Finally, on the eighth try, I got through.

Then I got put on hold. For 35 minutes.

As I waited, cradling the ear with my shoulder while I poured milk into my cereal, I thought about all my friends who complained that there seemed to be unnecessary hurdles in the path of voting here. At this point, I wasn't quite as dismissive of their conspiracy theories as I once might have been.

But after just a few minutes of inconvenience, a young woman on the other end of the phone told me my polling location, and I jumped in my car and drove just down the street to the Iron Worker's Local Union 272.

At the far side of the parking lot outside the somber gray building, Kerry supporters held up signs and handed out fliers. A lean man from the group, who was clearly gay, approached me with a purple slip of paper that had a preferred list of candidates printed on it. I scanned the paper, doing a mental check against my own list of candidates in both national and local elections. Not surprisingly, our lists matched up pretty well.

Once inside, it took me less than ten minutes to cast my vote. There were no lines. The ballot box was a straightforward, computerized program, not the confusing butterfly ballot from four years ago.

And there were no Republican Party lawyers circling like vultures.

As I walked out, a poll volunteer pressed an oval sticker with an American Flag onto my T-shirt that said, "I voted."

It was well into the following day before I learned that John Kerry would concede the election, and we would have to endure four more years of George Bush.

I'm not happy about that result, but, unlike the last round, I do think the bastard won this time.

And this time, it won't be enough for us liberals and progressives to sit around and complain about the president who was appointed by the Supreme Court.

Instead, it's time to figure out why we lost, and how we can reach Americans without sacrificing our principles. Or the next election.

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