Did you hear the one about the lesbian fruit fly? She walks into a bar and the bartender says, "What can I get you?" And she says ...
OK, I'm making this up. I don't know what a lesbian fruit fly would order (peach schnapps?), but this much is true: scientists announced recently that they've documented homosexual behavior in fruit flies -- girl on girl action, to be specific.
Seems after just a wee bit of gene splicing, and a Barry White soundtrack playing, the female creepy-crawlies of the species try to get it on with other females.
Before you say, "Eew, gross" or "Who cares?", hear me out, because believe it or not the antics of these dykey fruit flies are being linked to homo behavior in us homo sapiens. And like anything else remotely hinting that gay sex may be -- egad! -- natural, this has right-wingers absolutely frothing.
As announced in a recent issue of the scientific journal Cell, two neurobiologists at the Austrian Academy of Sciences made slight genetic "manipulations" in some female fruit flies, inserting the male version of one gene into the brains of these teensy creatures. They apparently hoped to create a super-strong, crime-fighting Six Million Dollar Fly, but instead ended up with k.d. lang-like female flies that act just like males during courtship: they gently tap virgin females on the legs, play songs on their wings for them, and, when that seems to go well, they lick the females in all the right places. And that, says a New York Times science writer, is "all part of standard fruit fly seduction."
Besides legions of lesbian fruit flies serenading willing virgins, what does this study reveal? "We have shown that a single gene in the fruit fly is sufficient to determine all aspects of the flies' sexual orientation and behavior," said lead investigator Barry Dickson.
Uh-oh. Careful, doc. Talking about genes and sexual orientation in the same sentence is dangerous in these right-wing, ultra-religious, gay-marriage-is-evil times we're living in.
Predictably, trouble started when another scientist linked the fruit fly study to fruity humans. "The whole field of the genetic roots of behavior is moved forward tremendously by this work," said Dr. Michael Weiss, chairman of the biochemistry department at Ohio's Case Western Reserve University. "Hopefully this will take the discussion about sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science," Weiss told the Times.
Well, as us non-scientific types like to put it, FAT CHANCE, BUDDY!
But Weiss was undeterred. "I never chose to be heterosexual: it just happened. But humans are complicated. With the flies we can see in a simple and elegant way how a gene can influence and determine behavior."
Yep, he said it: sexual orientation is neither a choice nor a moral issue, and, with fruit flies at least, genes affect complex sexual behavior.
This is not rocket science, I realize, since most people recognize that genes affect a whole host of behaviors, human and otherwise. But to say that sexual orientation in humans has genetic roots is to remove the ace holding the conservative, anti-gay house of cards in place. Because if, like race, sexual orientation is an innate characteristic, then the widespread and mean-spirited prejudice directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is revealed to be just that. And Americans, as a whole, don't go in for prejudice of any stripe.
Now you ask, reasonably enough, who cares about a bunch of fruit flies? Conservatives aren't really going to jump all over this, are they? Ah, my naive grasshopper, let us look at the news release from that stalwart of the right wing, Focus on the Family. The fruit fly study has been "hijacked by pro-homosexual journalists," Focus declares. It "doesn't tell anything about humans," says psychologist Warren Throckmorton, of Pennsylvania's Grove City College, who offers this insightful gem: "Fruit flies don't date, go to bars, go to church -- there is no way you can make the leap."
Uh, thanks for that clarification. In case you're still tempted to rush out and buy a "Flies Are People, Too" bumpersticker, Focus further reminds us, "Fruit flies don't have fantasies, wishes, hopes, dreams or any of that."
All I can say is, when the far-right is sternly lecturing us about the emotional life of lesbian fruit flies, you know we're on to something.
The California Supreme Court has ordered that San Francisco officials stop marrying same-sex couples. As a "militant homosexual activist," a label I've always adored, I'm surprised to say that my reaction to this news was not anger, outrage or even disbelief. Instead I got completely choked up. More than 4,100 same-sex couples were married in San Francisco in the past month, but this ruling means countless others will for now be denied that tremendous thrill. How sad.
Despite intense political debates and rhetoric about same-sex marriage being a weapon of mass destruction (at least the one George Bush can actually point to), I can honestly say that marrying my partner was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. All the politics fell away when I took his hands in mine and we said our vows.
We've been married almost a month, and I find myself as surprised about it now as I did the day we got hitched. I think it's fair to say that ours was not a typical American wedding day, and not just because we're gay men.
At 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 13, I called my partner at work. "Do you want to get married today?" I asked him.
He's a bather in a busy dog grooming shop. In the pause that followed my question I could hear a whole kennel of dogs barking and the loud hum of hair dryers.
"No, hon, not today," he said. "We've got a lot of dogs and I don't think I can leave early."
Bless his heart, but romance is not Keith's strong suit. "Is that OK?" he asked, perhaps realizing he had just declined a marriage proposal.
But it was OK. We hadn't talked about getting married because, heck, it had never before been an option. Besides, we've been together six years, have lived together five, been registered domestic partners for four years, and were already wearing matching gold rings. We've survived vacation disasters and each other's families, and our sex life has swerved on and off the road. In other words, we already were married. Except, of course, on paper.
Despite what President Bush says, I knew that heterosexual marriages -- and all of Western civilization -- would not be torn asunder by Keith and I saying "I do."
At noon, Keith's boss called. "Keith said if he can get off by three, he'll marry you!" she shouted.
"Tell him to hurry up," I said, and we both laughed.
Just past 3 p.m. the phone rang again. "I'm on my way home," Keith said, "Let's do it!"
I called our friends Amy and Gayle to ask if they'd be witnesses. As my dearest butch-lesbian friend, I wanted Amy to be my best man. "Gayle and I are thinking of getting married, too," she said.
I called another friend who said we had to be at City Hall by 4 p.m. We didn't know then that same-sex marriage mania had gripped the nation and that City Hall would remain open all weekend, and for weeks to come, to marry the masses.
Keith walked in just after 3:30 p.m., and moments later Amy rang our doorbell. She and Gayle were waiting outside in her Jeep. "No time to shower," I said, to Keith's great dismay. "We gotta go."
We stopped at the front door, caught our breath, looked at each other and hugged. "I love you," he said. "Let's go get married."
The four of us zipped downtown. We found parking, miraculously, four blocks from City Hall, and, as a light rain began to fall, ran the rest of the way.
Nothing could have prepared me for what awaited us inside: hundreds of excited couples in a line that snaked down stairs and around endless corridors. The place was absolutely abuzz. The line itself was a party: couples laughing, champagne corks popping, boxes of chocolates passed around, kids running back and forth, and people on cell phones trying to explain what was happening. "We're at City Hall. We're going to get married!" one woman kept shouting into her phone.
It was dizzying and hard to take in. Gayle called her sister, Julie, who rushed down to join us. Reporters and TV crews from San Francisco and beyond trolled the hallways for people to interview.
Hours passed, and we moved slowly toward the city clerk's office, still in disbelief. Soon Keith and I were filling out marriage license forms. But instead of bride and groom we were 'applicant one' and 'applicant two.'
We walked next into City Hall's grand lobby, where a crowded celebration was going full tilt. Jubilant couples and their friends were laughing and crying, and cheers and applause erupted on all sides as more and more people wed. "Yee ha! We're married!" I heard a man yell from somewhere up high where the ceremonies were taking place.
We took our place in line, and, all of a sudden, after all the waiting, Amy and Gayle, our friend Julie, and Keith and I were ushered over to a marriage commissioner named Richard. It was our turn.
Amy and Gayle went first, and I watched in amazement as one of my best friends married the woman she loves. It seemed unreal.
Keith and I took our place in front of Richard. Keith was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a crooked baseball hat, and I was about to marry him. My heart was pounding. I was practically hyperventilating.
"Please remember that love, loyalty and understanding are the foundations of a happy and enduring home," Richard read from the vows. "No other human ties are more tender and no other vows are more important than those you are about to pledge."
My hands shook, tears fell, and my voice cracked as I repeated my vows and slipped Keith's gold ring back onto his finger. "I give you this ring in token and pledge of my constant faith and abiding love. With this ring, I thee wed." I could hardly speak.
Keith said his vows, slipped my ring on my finger, and we smiled at each other through tears. Instead of husband and wife, Richard pronounced us 'spouses for life.' We kissed.
The five of us hugged, laughed and cried, then stumbled in a stupor down to the assessor's office to pick up our official marriage licenses.
License in hand, and overcome with joy and excitement, I skipped out of the assessor's office in "We're off to see the Wizard" style. How fitting, I thought later, since San Francisco seemed more than ever like Oz.
Today, the curtain closed on the wizard.
Patrick Letellier is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reached at LetPatrick@yahoo.com, or PatrickLetellier.com.
If you've read a newspaper or watched TV in the last six months, you might think all gay people are spiffy white guys bent on redecorating hetero America in soft cranberry hues with tasteful cowhide sofas. Or that we're all Episcopalian bishops who kneel, ahem, only to pray. Or, better yet, we've got what comedian Kate Clinton calls "Mad Vow Disease" -- all of us happily coupled and chomping at the bit to get hitched.
Since last summer, a tidal wave of news has flooded our shores with stories of gay marriage, gay bishops and gays remodeling straight men, but little else about the reality of gay lives has been reported. As a result, some beautiful and bizarre stories have been overlooked. And that, dear readers, is a crying shame.
In the spirit of keeping you up-to-the-moment in all things queer (a state I know you long for), I present the best of the those hard-to-believe tales, many of which show the seemingly boundless opposition gays face in their quest for first-class citizenship.
What Is Gay? Don't Ask
We start in Lafayette, Louisiana, where 7-year-old Marcus McLaurin was punished for talking about his lesbian mom at school. When another student asked about his family, Marcus said his mother was gay. "Gay is when a girl likes another girl," he explained.
For that remark, he was scolded by his teacher and sent to the principal's office. There he had to fill out a Student Behavior Contract," in which he wrote that he had said "bad wurds." The assistant principal called Marcus' mother, Sharon Huff, to tell her Marcus was in trouble for using "foul words" that the assistant principal "didn't feel comfortable" repeating.
As if that wasn't enough, Marcus also had to attend a one-hour "behavior clinic," and write, over and over, "I will not use the word gay at school again."
Huff turned to the ACLU for help, which petitioned the school to apologize and to expunge the disciplinary forms from Marcus' record. The school refused. Huff is now pondering a lawsuit.
Marcus "doesn't understand why I say gay is not wrong, and his teacher says it is," Huff told the press. "I would like my son to be able to live like every other kid, and be able to talk about his family with his friends if he wants to."
I imagine Joseph Hogue, a gay father in Nashville, Tennessee, feels much the same way. In September 2002, Hogue was sentenced to two days in jail for -- are you ready for this? -- talking to his son about being gay.
As part of his divorce settlement, Hogue was prohibited from "exposing the child to his gay lover(s) and/or his gay lifestyle."
Hogue's ex-wife later complained to the court that Hogue had told the boy, "When someone is gay, they're born like that." For that remark, Hogue was found in contempt of the divorce order and sent to jail. His visitation rights with his son were also curtailed.
Hogue fought back, taking his case to the State Court of Appeals. But in January 2004, the court ruled that, although he should not have been jailed, the order shielding his son from the "gay lifestyle" would be allowed to stand.
While Huff, her son, and Hogue battle for the right to simply discuss their lives, other people want to remove not just the mention of gays from polite society, but gays themselves.
In December, the mayor of a small Brazilian city signed a decree banning gay people, or "any element linked to this class," from moving to the city.
Mayor Elcio Berti said he banned gays to "preserve respect and a family atmosphere." Gays, Berti insisted, "can bring no benefits whatsoever to the town." (Would someone please mail this guy a Queer Eye video, ASAP?)
Since the decree went into effect, gays have protested and Berti has been indicted for violating Brazil's anti-discrimination laws.
Making History, Sort Of
Back in the U.S., where banning gay people is still a no-no, conservatives must satisfy themselves with merely erasing all traces of those pesky homos.
Last December, the press got wind of a plan by the National Park Service to remove footage of gay rights rallies from a video on display at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
The eight-minute video contains scenes of various events that have taken place at the Memorial. Conservatives argued that for "balance" and "historical accuracy," footage of pro-choice and gay rights rallies should be replaced by footage of pro-Gulf War and Promise Keepers rallies. (The Promise Keepers are a fundamentalist Christian men's group opposed to, you guessed it, abortion and gay rights.)
One small detail: The Promise Keepers' and Gulf War rallies did not take place at the Lincoln Memorial. In fact, they didn't even happen at the nearby National Mall.
Once the do-do hit the fan, the Park Service recanted, saying it was only "updating" the video and would not remove the "controversial" 13-second gay rights or 16-second pro-choice segments.
Thankfully, in their zeal to do away with any hint of queer life, right-wing revisionists opted not to knock down the Lincoln Memorial itself. The same could not be said for a church in Russia's third-largest city, Nizhni Novgorod.
After a gay couple was married in the church in September, the priest who performed the wedding was fired and permanently barred from the Russian Orthodox priesthood. Local officials then bulldozed the church and burnt the wreckage.
The priest had "committed a sin" by marrying the couple, a church spokesman told the press: "He desecrated the place. We therefore needed to destroy the chapel."
And Now, Some Good News
For cheerier news, we travel to a National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and the Washington Capitals. For fun during game breaks, camera crews find couples in the audience and flash their images on the scoreboard. If a couple kisses, the crowd cheers.
At a game on New Year's Day, the camera settled on two male fans and the crowd laughed, thinking it was a joke. The two men paused, then turned to each other for a long lip lock.
"The crowd's reaction turned from laughter to cheers and significant applause, and then to a murmur, presumably out of shock," said one report, concluding that, "The professional sports community may not be as homophobic as many of us might think."
There's lots more in the story file: A musical in Florida based on the life of gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan; "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" has boosted sales of the black GMC truck the guys zip around in; the finance minister of Spain claimed that gay marriage would "endanger" economic growth by "destroying jobs"; and a lesbian divorce in Iowa that made conservatives howl.
I close with a quote from Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who recently said to the press, "I don't hate gay people."
Bruning uttered that reassurance as he backpedaled, er, clarified an earlier statement he had made. When he learned that a Massachusetts court had green-lighted gay marriage, Bruning said to an Associated Press reporter, "Does that mean you have to allow a man to marry his pet or a man to marry his chair?"
Uh, yes, Mr. Attorney General, that's exactly what it means. I'd like to introduce you to my Sealey Posturepedic husband -- he's the dark green recliner in the corner. And that basset hound next to the chair? That's my ex.
When churches are destroyed for recognizing gay love, gays are banned from a city, and politicians gleefully reduce gay relationships to absurdities, it's easy to feel discouraged about any hope for gay equality -- and humanity in general. But then I recall the old saying that it's always darkest just before the dawn, and I realize -- this is what progress looks like.
Patrick Letellier lives with his human partner in San Francisco. Reach him at LetPatrick@yahoo.com or PatrickLetellier.com.
December 1 is World AIDS Day, the one day a year set aside to remind people worldwide about AIDS, and encourage them to take action to combat this disease. I'm glad there is at least one day to do that, since many Americans have been lulled into thinking is AIDS is "manageable" or, worse yet, over entirely. As a 40-year-old gay man, I don't need a designated day to think about AIDS. If anything, I'd like a day when I don't think about it.
If you visit websites about AIDS or read fact sheets, AIDS looks like a disease of numbers. Big numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 886,000 Americans have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That's one person in 300 in this country.
As of last December, 501,669 Americans had died of AIDS. And there's no end in sight: approximately 40,000 Americans a year are infected with HIV.
Worldwide the numbers are even more staggering: 36.1 million people living with HIV, and almost 22 million already dead. Every day, over 8,000 people die of AIDS.
Nowadays people hardly talk about AIDS deaths. We talk about medication "cocktails," steroids, viral loads, and AIDS fundraisers, as if death is somehow not part of the reality of AIDS and never has been. But numbers don't lie.
I have my own set of AIDS numbers. Some I can rattle off the top of my head: in 1993, I lost 21 people to AIDS. In 1994, another 12 died. In 1995, 14 more. In total, about 150 people I know have died of AIDS. I say "about" because I kept track of the number for many years, but at some point I gave up. Sometime after the 50th memorial service, the 80th trip to the hospital, and the 100th obituary, I stopped counting.
And now, I admit with no small degree of shame, all the deaths sometimes blur together, like a packed rush-hour subway car, or some relentless parade. It's just impossible to keep track of everyone.
But numbers are, well, just numbers -- and AIDS is all about people. To help you imagine what 150 deaths are like, here are the names of some people I knew who died of AIDS. Some were close friends, some boyfriends, some I worked out with at the gym, some I went to AIDS demonstrations with. A couple were next-door neighbors, and a couple were my dearest friends in the world: Peter, Phil, Wade, Mark, Gerry, Robert, John, David (four different Davids actually), George, Ron, Michael, Joey, Drew, Mitch, Charlie, Scott, Frank, Chris, Bill, Gary, Rick, Tim, James, Stephen, Jeff, Justin, Michael, John, Elliot, Paul, Buddy, Doug, Kenny, Tony, Russell, Perry, Andrew, Randy, Bob, Neil, Dan, Dennis, Loy, Chuck, Joshua, Tom and Jason.
That's 50, about a third of the people I know who died of AIDS, but you see from reading the names how they start to blur together. Sometimes I hear a song on the radio and I feel sad and think, "Oh, I remember how Mark used to love this song -- or, wait, was it Mark or was it Michael?" The fact that I can't remember makes me sadder.
Other times one of my dead friends' faces will flash before my eyes with incredible clarity, as if in the middle of our conversation he stepped into the next room to grab his cup of coffee, and in a second will be back before me to pick up where we left off. And I have to tell myself, for the 100th time, "He's gone."
I'd like to claim that having lost so many people to AIDS has made me a wise and spiritual person -- someone who understands that life is unbelievably short and cherishes every second. Someone patient and full of compassion. I'm laughing as I write this: were that only the case!
On my best days, I'm some of those things, and on extraordinary days, I'm all of them for brief spells. But that's only half the story.
AIDS has also worn me down to the bone with sorrow and grief. It has taken some of the people I loved most in the world, people I loved fiercely, passionately, and entirely. At times it has made me terrified of the future, because the future meant only that more people I knew with HIV would be dead.
And AIDS aged me beyond my years. The average American loses someone close to them once every nine years, so by my calculations I'm about 1,390 years old. And sometimes it feels that way.
So I implore you -- listen to me, an old man. Learn about AIDS. Educate yourself, your friends, your children. Protect yourself. Donate time and money to a local AIDS organization. Fight against this disease and the stigma that so often comes with it. Don't let yourself become one of the big AIDS numbers. They're already way too high as it is.
Patrick Letellier is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. Reach him at LetPatrick@yahoo.com, or at PatrickLetellier.com.
In case you're dangerously unaware, gay couples all over the planet are secretly plotting to destroy the bedrock of modern civilization. No, it's not TiVo they're after, or even Ben and Jerry's ice cream. What they want is something even more precious. What the homosexuals want -- is marriage.
And how are these diabolical, tux-wearing Adam and Steves, or wedding-dress-with-hiking-boots-wearing Alice and Eves going to ruin marriage once and for all, possibly also causing the world economies to collapse and the ozone hole to grow more gigantic? By getting married themselves, of course. Will this gay reign of terror never end?
For those of you who can't see the obvious connection between gay marriage and the apocalypse (probably because angry, militant, family-hating homosexual activists have blinded you with their glitter and sequins and glossy hair products), the conservatives provide this clear and insightful explanation: "Um, well, because, you see, if they, you know -- well, then we'd um -- it's just wrong, dammit!"
Thankfully, smart and caring conservatives recognized this frightening threat to marriage and declared October 12-18 "Marriage Protection Week." This fun-filled "Hetero is Bettero" celebration reminds everyone that marriage is only for straight, straight, straight people (like, say, J-Lo and Ben, or Kobe Bryant), and that gay marriage, despite the bridesmaids and champagne and I'll-love-and-honor-you-forever, is the undisputed spawn of Satan and, as such, should be bludgeoned with a hot poker.
If you're reading this and you're still married, consider it amazing good fortune that you have, so far, survived the pink piranha attack on your holy nuptials.
Doesn't matter who you're married to or how miserable or locked in or battered or for the kids or third time's a charm or shotgun or Las Vegas or met online last week or Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire or extramarital affairs or 50 percent failure rate or TV Divorce Court or deadbeat dads or swingers or child abuse or did it for money or for the green card or oh what the heck let's do it baby or anything else at all. Long as you're a girl and he's a boy, then you're model citizens and the sun comes out and birdies sing and the world is ever so much better and safer and just.
President Bush, himself a pillar of morality, signed the proclamation supporting "Marriage Protection Week." Dubya defined marriage clear as day, as "a union between a man and a woman," then reminded us "its protection is essential to the continued strength of our society." Finally, with a God Bless America soundtrack blaring, he begged all freedom-lovin' Amerkins to "continue our work to create a compassionate, welcoming society, where all people are treated with dignity and respect." All people, that is, except gay people.
But gay marriage is small potatoes, isn't it? A tiny splinter of an issue in the vast important agenda of the conservative far right, er, I mean the Republican Party.
Not so. If the political game here is tag, gay marriage is "it." And a White House proclamation or a weeklong anti-gay fest will not satisfy the sharks of the far right when there's blood in the water.
"We are committed to using every tool at our disposal to ensure that marriage in America remains exclusively one man and one woman," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a right-wing political lobbying group. Perkins has friends in high places, like Congress and the White House.
A Constitutional amendment banning legal recognition of gay relationships, including marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships has the support of 90 members of Congress, with more signing on every month. Never mind that it would be the first time in U.S. history the Constitution would be changed to deny rights to a specific group of people.
In California, the new domestic partnership benefits signed into law by outgoing Governor Davis already face two lawsuits and a possible referendum to stop them. And anti-gay marriage laws are being proposed in cities and states across the country. In places where these laws have already passed, new laws are being proposed to "strengthen" the old ones. There is indeed blood in the water.
The other night in bed, my partner rolled over in his sleep, took all the blankets with him, and started snoring. Lovely. I looked over at him and thought about what conservatives say: that our relationship threatens the very fabric of western civilization.
When he brought me coffee this morning, kissed my forehead and said, "Hi sweetie," I tried to figure out how our love undermines straight marriages.
To borrow a phrase from writer Dorothy Allison, there are only two or three things I know for sure. One of them is that gay marriage is a locomotive that cannot be stopped. I just hope in my lifetime to be able to ride that train.
Patrick Letellier is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. Contact him at LetPatrick@yahoo.com or at PatrickLetellier.com.