advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about politics, economics, and more…

On Asking And Telling, Or, 115,000 LBGT Troops? How Many Is That, Exactly? December 2, 2010

I took a couple of weeks off, as Thanksgiving and snow came around (a subject we’ll address in a day or so), but we are all again occupied as lots of things we’ve been talking about either will or won’t come to pass, and it seems like all that’s happening all at once.

Today we’ll take on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT); this because the Pentagon’s top leadership just came out and reported that revocation of the policy, following a period of preparation, would be their preferred way to go.

There will be lots of others who will take on the question of what’s right and wrong here, and exactly how implementation might occur; my interest is, instead, to focus on one little fact that makes all teh rest of the conversation a lot more relevant.

That is the fact that about 70,000 LBGT troops serve in the military today, DADT notwithstanding, and, that if it wasn’t for DADT, almost 45,000 more troops would be serving that aren’t today.

And that one little fact leads to today’s Great Big Question: exactly how much military would 115,000 troops be, exactly?

“Dad, if I were you, I wouldn’t tell that story. Now I have no doubt that there might be a lot of truth in it, but you know how funny these people are. You know you always used to tell us when we were children: “Never smarten up a chump.”

–“Victoria Whipsnade”, to her father, “Larson E. Whipsnade”, in W.C. Field’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

As we so often do, let’s set a stage: we use the 115,000 figure because we have the academic work of UCLA’s Gary J. Gates informing our estimate, and that estimate was updated in May of 2010.

A stage having been set, let’s move on to painting some pictures:

These days the Army organizes themselves around Brigade Combat Teams (BCT), and a BCT might normally be assigned somewhere between 2500 and 4000 soldiers, and 115,000 troops could equal more than 30 BCTs.

It appears that more or less 12 BCTs and two more Combat Aviation Brigades are on the ground in Iraq today, which works out to about 49,000 troops in total…and that means 115,000 LBGT troopers could theoretically fill every billet in Iraq, and then replace themselves after a year, with about 15,000 left over.

The Navy is organized around Carrier Strike Groups, which each consist of one of the 12 aircraft carriers now in service and the additional ships they require to complete their missions.

Those aircraft carriers require crew to operate the ship’s basic equipment, Marines who provide security and other functions, additional crew to operate the “Air Wing”, which is the organization on board responsible for flight operations, and, because carriers also serve as the “traveling headquarters” for the Admiral who is commanding the Strike Group, a few more crew to serve as the Admiral’s personal staff.

Add it all up, and a carrier can have a crew of almost 6,000 on board…and that means there are enough LBGT forces available to occupy every bunk on every carrier in the Navy, from the actual bed in the Admirals’ Cabin all the way down to the “stacks of racks” way down belowdecks for the ordinary Sailors and Marines.

Even beyond that, there would be enough people left over to crew every one of the Navy’s 100 or so submarines—and you’d still have about 30,000 sailors left over to maintain the ships and their associated aircraft when they return to port.

The Air Force, as with the other Services, is composed of components drawn from Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard forces. As it turns out, the entire Air National Guard is 106,700 strong. Our 115,000 LBGT troopers could fill every one of those slots—and that would still leave enough personnel to completely fill the Air Force’s pilot training schools for seven years after that.

The Marine Corps’ fighting forces are designed to work with the Navy to combine a variety of capabilities into self-sustained “over the beach” units that can, if required, take and hold beaches, ports, or airfields, or build a base of their own and hold it, until a larger force can come in and expand the foothold, so to speak. (The Corps refers to one of these units as a “Marine Expeditionary Force”, or an MEF.)

To provide this capability worldwide, the Corps maintains three MEFs, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, and one stationed in the Pacific, based in the Hawaiian Islands and Guam.

115,000 Marines would equal almost half of the entire Corps, Active Duty and Reserve, and that’s more troops than two of the MEFs combined, which might typically comprise 45,000 Marines each, more or less…which means if the LBGT Marines needed to, they could most assuredly take and hold some serious real estate, more or less anywhere in the world—and if they ran into trouble, they could send back home for another 25,000 LBGT troops to help make their point.

So there you go: the next time someone’s talking about how much national security might be threatened if we change DADT, you can tell them that there’s a cost to national security from keeping DADT as well.

How much of a cost? If you pulled those 115,000 potentially affected troops from the Army, DADT could cost us two Iraqs worth of troops, with 15,000 reinforcements left over, and if it was just the Navy, it could affect enough sailors to crew every aircraft carrier and submarine and 30,000 more besides.

If you removed that many personnel from the Air Force it would affect more people than the entire Air National Guard and seven years’ worth of new pilots combined—or, if you prefer to look at it through the prism of a eagle, globe, and anchor, it could be enough LBGT Marines to take and hold darn near anything, from the halls of Montezuma, to at least somewhere near the shores of Tripoli.

I don’t want to pay that price, and apparently the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t either…so hey, John Mc Cain…why don’t we just get over this imaginary Great Big Deal and move on to some real ones?

 

On Asking Experts, Part Two, Or, What’s An LBGT Voter To Do? October 26, 2010

It’s been a few days now since we began a conversation that addresses the issue of how frustrated some number of LBGT voters are with the Democratic Party this cycle; this because they find themselves either frustrated at the lack of progress on the civil rights issues that matter to them, or because they see both the Democratic and Republican Parties as unreliable partners in the struggle to assure equal rights for all.

In an effort to practice some actual journalism, I assembled a version of an online “focus group” at The Bilerico Project (“daily adventures in LBGTQ”), with the goal of gathering some opinions on this subject in the actual words of those frustrated voters.

Part One of this story focused on “stating the problem”, and today we’ll take on Part Two: in this environment, with Election Day staring us in the face, what is an LBGT voter to do?

As before, there are a variety of opinions, including a very informative comment I was able to obtain from a genuine Member of Congress, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania’s 8th District, and that means until the very end you won’t hear much from me, except to help “set the stage” for the comments that follow.

A monk asked Ma-tsu [Baso]:
What is Buddha?
Ma-tsu replied: “The mind is Buddha”

A monk asked Ma-tsu:
What is Buddha?
Ma-tsu replied: “The mind is not Buddha”

–From the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

We’ll begin today’s discussion with a housekeeping note: in order to keep the story moving in a linear fashion, from one topic to the next, in some instances I edited portions of multiple comments from the same person into one comment. I also edited some comments for length.

The disclaimer out of the way, let’s start the conversation with Zoe Brain, who sums up Part One rather neatly in one comment that absolutely did not have to be edited together:

We had a Dem super-majority in the Senate.
We had a Dem majority in the House.
We had a Dem president.

It wasn’t enough. We need more. So let’s use the only weapons we have for behaviour modification; our money and our votes, to make sure that the next time this can possibly happen, around 2020 (though 2028 is more likely), we won’t have a repeat performance.

Andrew W responds with a bit of legislative “nuance”…and in doing so, he makes the point that looking beyond Democrats for solutions may be the way to go:

A “Democratic Super Majority” is different than an LGBT-Majority. We have never had an LGBT super majority. In the current US Senate we have only 56 votes. After November we will have 51 or 52 votes.

Stop saying “Democrats.” It misses the point. Our challenge is to find 60 US Senators that support our equality.

SoFloMo makes a similar point:

Perhaps we have become too comfortable surrounding ourselves with other gay folks and straight allies. We’re terrified of losing the only friends we’ve had in politics, so we cling to them despite the abuse.

We need to encourage one another turn our outrage into concrete action. Just feeling bad won’t do any good.

Here’s some more from Andrew W:

We spend way to much talking about the “Religious Right,” bigotry exists in anyone that accepts the traditional Christian belief that we are wrong. That’s 70% of Black voters and they are primarily Democrats…

… We need people as our allies, not organizations. We need to educate, enlighten and enroll our neighbors, friends, co-workers and even strangers. Two-thirds will support our equality – especially if we leave religion and politics out of the conversation. Both religion and politics divide people – we just want to ask people to stand for one thing, our equality.

Try it out over the next week. You’ll be surprised.

So let’s get to the big issue: vote, or don’t?

Here’s Bill Perdue’s take on the question…

On Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010…vote left or cast your protest vote by sitting it out (barring important referenda, propositions or initiatives).

The only good vote is a protest vote. In a system run by competing gangs of like minded hustlers voting is not important except as a way of validating that system….

…It’s a fool’s errand to believe that participation in a rigged electoral system is the way to change. It’s the road to perpetual lesserevilism, betrayal and defeat.

Elections can be used to organize and educate movements in struggle but elections don’t bring change except in the sense that they (rarely) ratify changes forced by mass actions in the streets, workplaces and barracks. Those are the kind of battles we can win and those are the kind of battles that produce fundamental, permanent change as opposed to hopey-changey.

…followed by Andrew W:

While “mass demonstrations” may sound appealing or possibly effective, they aren’t going to happen. The biggest crowd in D.C. is likely to be for two cable-tv comedians at the end of this month.

Polling data indicates the religious grip on “beliefs” (including the traditional Christian belief that homosexuality is wrong) is weakening. Of all those that define themselves as “religious” only about one-third are “literalists” and I would suggest their beliefs are virtually unchangeable. I’m not suggesting we try to change those minds, but rather we marginalize them by enrolling the other two-thirds. Most of them will put equality before religion.

The other dynamic is age – we are much more likely to get support from those under the age of 40 because they are less religious.

We need the young people that put Obama in office to turn out on November 2nd. Unfortunately, many in this audience have heard the GetEQUAL [a pro-civil rights group] narrative that “Obama didn’t keep his promises.” Young people are likely to believe that “we’re angry” and not vote…

GrrrlRomeo has some thoughts as well:

The second thing I’d tell them is don’t think of it as voting for Democrats, think of it as voting against conservatives. Look, anti-gay Christian conservatives have no problem holding their noses and voting for a Republican just to vote against gays or abortion.

I’m sorry that people were under the impression that we could really get this stuff done in 2 years. There are 420 bills backed up in the Senate. It’s obvious to me that the Republicans were doing everything they could just to make the Democrats fail so that the progressive base would throw one of our predictable tantrums and not turn out.

I do understand. I was with the Green Party in 1996 and 2000 as I was unable to forgive Clinton. But whatever Obama hasn’t done…he has not done anything so unforgivable as Clinton signing DOMA [the Federal Defense of Marriage Act].

More on the subject, from symbiote

I would tell a frustrated gay voter this: Own it! You vote. You make your choices. You allow yourself to be lied to, over and over, in a repetition of craving. It is time to look for candidates who support equality for all, and vote for them–even if they don’t win. It is a natural consequence of change that the first people for whom we vote will lose.

But if continue to vote for people solely on the idea that they are “electable,” then we will never build support for candidates that share our views, and thus, we ourselves destroy their “electability.”

Andrew W opines further on what a voter should expect from a politician—and what they shouldn’t:

… After reflection, I would add this: tell this “democratic voter” that there is no “promise” in politics, only “hope.” As in life there are no “guarantees.” All we can do or expect is our best efforts. The idea that politicians have “let us down” is not the exception, it is the rule. We should learn from that. We should understand we cannot “hire” politicians to save us – we need to do it ourselves.

Politicians are motivated by their constituents beliefs – it is what gets them elected. That is OUR job – changing minds. Instead of expecting politicians to handle the job, we should simply do it ourselves. We’ve spent 40 years betting on politics and we have little to show for it. That should make all of us think twice about continuing to believe “somebody else” will save us. Our equality is our responsibility…

… Our only political hope is targeting a few States where public opinion could change enough to turn the tide. Senators will either reflect the views of their constituents or they will be replaced. We need to change those views.

An additional question I had for the “focus group” was what you say to voters who do not differentiate between “the Democrats” or “Congress” and supportive and unsupportive legislators?

Here’s what Tim W’s thinking:

I would tell them the same thing I have said many other times. If the Democrat is a true ally in actions and not in words then they deserve our vote. If not I will be voting for someone who is. We are where we are because the Democrats feel we have no where else to turn to. The politics of fear that we aren’t as bad as the Republicans doesn’t cut it anymore…So the old scare tactics don’t work. Democrats need to be held responsible for their actions.
We definitely should not be giving money to the DNC [Democratic National Committee], DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], OFA [Organizing for America, the Barack Obama campaign’s “legacy” organization], or the newest branch of the Democratic Party the HRC [Human Rights Campaign, a pro-civil rights group]. That money is being wasted to elect the Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincolns of the world. Give money to candidates that are pro-gay be it Dem, Rep, or Green.

Bolton Winpenny offers another perspective:

I recently started publicizing the idea to stop supporting democrats that don’t support us…While I understand the risk of giving republican’s power, I don’t think we have much gain that warrants a large risk. This conversation, along with the Get Equal campaign, “We’ll Give when we Get” and other similar sentiments makes a big statement that the Democrats will hopefully listen to…Things are changing in the Republicans where they seem more interested in anti-abortion and anti-Christian than they are anti-gay…

What does work is spreading awareness and education… Shortly after LGBT Freedom Week 2010 a PA [Pennsylvania] senate subcommittee voted down 8 to 6 (tabled) a move to add “one man and one woman” into our constitution. Two years prior, the same committee, with only one member change, passed a similar bill 4 to 10…. Four votes changed after a state-wide campaign to spread awareness and education over the LGBT plight for equality.

Bill Perdue would tell you that, in some instances, you just won’t find any supportive legislators:

If they’re in unions or one of the other struggle movements they should be encouraged to break with the Democrats and move left.

Their real incentives come from corporations so we have to provide an counterbalance of mass movements and mass demonstrations to get concessions. When the profit margin hits the fan, as it does in the case of ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] and equal wages, expect no concessions.

Still another topic from the group: what’s to come after this election?

Deena has a theory:

Bielat will defeat Barney Frank and Pelosi will no longer be speaker of the house when Republicans win the majority. In one sense that will be tragic yet in another it will set the tone for 2012 when progress can be made. I think it is the best change in recent history because the house will know lip service is what it has always been — BS. Obama will also have to pay attention or he is toast in 2012.

As does Bill Perdue:

The next anti-incumbent Congress will do no better than the last anti-incumbent Congress and in 2012 the Republicans will suffer for it. They’re as rancid and rightwing as their Dem cousins and even less popular, because they don’t bother lying about it…

And now: a point of personal privilege.

I have kept my opinions out of this discussion, because it really wasn’t about me, but as we close out this conversation—and the election cycle—I am going to tell you that there was one comment that struck me as being the closest to what I might say if I was a voter in this situation; it comes from John Rutledge, and it required no editing at all:

I have been in the same angry place as the writer before and will likely be again. After all, this is personal. This is our lives.
I just read the Obama interview in the Rolling Stone. I hear a brilliant mind, fair and balanced. Possibility is alive, like never before. It is also close to passing us by with the upcoming elections. Now is not the time to indulge in wallowing. I now this fight is tough, but we just can not give up. We have to continue to push. Being resigned and cynical is only being that. It makes one useless to bring about change. So choose. Go home and bitch to whoever is willing to listen, be ineffectively righteous, or suck it up and get in the game. Grow or blow.

Finally, as I promised, we’ll wrap all this up with a comment from Congressman Patrick Murphy (PA-08), who has been absolutely supportive of advancing civil rights for LBGT citizens, despite the fact that he’s a freshman in Pennsylvania, which kind of makes him “double vulnerable”.

I managed to catch up with Murphy on a live chat at Bilerico, where I asked him what he would tell voters who see Democrats as unreliable partners and don’t recognize that some Members are more supportive than others.

We’ll close out this conversation by giving him the last word on the subject:

…Some of you have brought this up today and I couldn’t agree more. The far-right wing and hate mongerers are coming at me with everything they have because they know that if they knock me off, no member in a tough district will stick their neck out for DADT or other LGBT issues for years. I need your help to win this thing and show these guys that we won’t back down from doing what’s right.

 

On Fear: The Islam Edition, Or, Do You Know My Friend Wa’el? September 22, 2010

We last got together about ten days ago, when I put up a story that hoped to explain to the Islamic world that, Qur’an burning aside, we don’t really hate either them, or our own Constitution.

I pointed out that, just like everywhere else, about 20% of our population are idiots, that this means about 60,000,000 of us might, at any time, be inclined to burst into fits of random stupidity, such as the desire to burn Qur’ans to make some sort of statement, and that the same First Amendment that protects the freedom of stupid speech also protects the rights of Islamic folks to freely build mosques…and finally, that this apparent “paradox of freedom” is exactly why the US is the kind of country that many Islamic folks the world over wish they lived in as well.

I then went off to enjoy my Godson’s wedding, and I ignored the posting until the next Monday.

On the two dozen sites where it could be found, this was apparently considered to be a fairly innocuous message…with one giant exception, which is what we’ll be talking about today.

Long story short, some portion of this country’s population has some bizarre ideas about Islamic folks…but maybe if they knew my friend Wa’el, they might see things a bit differently.

This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those that feel

Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, in a letter, August, 1776

So all of this took place at Newsvine…and if you’re not familiar with how things work there, users may “seed” a story that they find of interest, so that it may attract the interest of others. What happens is that the user reposts a shortened version of the original story, along with a link back to the source.

My original posting on the site had fewer than ten comments, but by Monday Newsvine user btco’s seeded version of my story had about 300 comments; today there are more than 625.

Those who were not liking the story basically came down to one of a few categories of responders; here’s one example…

…I live a few minutes from Dearbornistan in Michigan and I can tell you that, as a place with a great deal of Muslims, they barely speak out against the Islamofacists that kill. There is outrage; however, but that outrage is aimed at America instead of the Islamofacists that should be the target of the aforementioned outrage. In fact, Dearborn has seen Muslims verbally attack Christians and forbid them for handing out Christian pamphlets, their 1st amendment right to do so, as this goes against the @!$%#ed up Sharia Law. Until Dearbornistan demands that they will abide willingly with the constitution and ignore the racist and misogynic crap that is Sharia law, then Dearbornistan Muslims side with the enemy and that enemy is Islam.

…and here’s another:

Christianity underwent reformation and was tamed by enlightenment period (during which, BTW, was harshly criticized).

Islam is in its original forms, claws and all.

And people like you, who for some dubious reason think it should be allowed to be what it is are doing great disservice for Muslims whose minds are set for the reforms and who want to live like normal, 21 century people, but are forced to “submit” to medieval dogma.

The idea that all Islamic folks worship a Moon God, that neither democracy nor any other religion can co-exist alongside Islam, that after beating them, all Islamic men send their four wives out to distribute “terror tomatoes” among the infidel population, and that, for adherents of Islam, both the Bible and the Constitution are immoral and corrupt all seems to be accepted wisdom for a bunch of the commenters (except for the “terror tomato” part, which I made up myself); it all seems to come from an apparently long-circulating email that was posted in the comments over and over that purports to prove that Muslims can’t be good Americans.

So is all this true?

Well…let’s start with the question of whether Islamic people can co-exist with democracy…and to help answer that question, let me introduce you to my friend Wa’el.

Wa’el Nawara has been trying to advance the interests of democracy in Egyptian politics for many years now, in the form of his work for the El-Ghad Party, in the face of an Egyptian Government that has been ruled, since the end of King Farouk’s reign, by just one political party, the (secular) NDP. The founder of El-Ghad, Ayman Nour, was imprisoned and tortured for basically getting 8% of the vote in a 2005 Presidential election against the current President, Hosni Mubarak.

To prevent this from happening again, it is also alleged that the Egyptian Government helped to orchestrate a temporarily successful “takeover” of the party from within. (This is not uncommon; the Egyptians security apparatus has acted against numerous parties, including the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.)

Shortly after Wa’el and I became acquainted (I had been researching a series of stories about Egyptian politics when we were introduced) he was inside the offices of his own Party, which were burned by a mob that was allegedly associated with Egyptian State Security (an event that was recorded, live, by people across the street). Afterwards Wa’el, along with many of the 30 other people who were in the building, were arrested and detained for…you guessed it…suspicion of arson.

It’s not just Wa’el, or the other members of his Party…nor the other members of other Parties, either.

If were to take the time, you’d find out there’s a Center for Democracy in Lebanon, you’d discover that Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia have all held recent local elections, and you’d find out there’s even a debate in the UAE as to whether adopting democratic reforms might be appropriate.

Outside the Gulf, India’s current President is their third Muslim President, Indonesia, which is 80% Muslim, elects their Presidents (even as they struggle with sectarian violence)…and all of that tells me that anyone who thinks Islam and democracy are incompatible should do some more reading.

Can Islam accept the presence of other religions?

One answer can be found in what is today’s Spain, but what used to be Andalucía (or Al-Andalus, if you prefer Arabic), where Moors ruled for centuries over Jews with far more compassion and respect than they ever received under Christian dominion; another, in today’s Egypt, where Christian Copts and Muslims have lived together for thousands of years, even as tensions have increased recently between the two groups.

Does Wa’el beat his four wives?

Not as far as I can tell—and if his one wife ever found out he had three other wives…I’m guessing that wouldn’t go so well for Wa’el.

Is the Bible corrupt to those who follow Islam?

Those who follow “mainstream” Islam believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that He was crucified. Is that corruption? I don’t know, and I guess you’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

Now we need to be fair here, and acknowledge that one branch of Islam does indeed represent much of what my most conservative friends are afraid of: Wahhabi Ikhban. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the sect:

Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab was concerned with the way the people of Najd engaged in practices he considered polytheistic, such as praying to saints; making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques; venerating trees, caves, and stones; and using votive and sacrificial offerings. He was also concerned by what he viewed as a laxity in adhering to Islamic law and in performing religious devotions, such as indifference to the plight of widows and orphans, adultery, lack of attention to obligatory prayers, and failure to allocate shares of inheritance fairly to women.

When Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab began to preach against these breaches of Islamic laws, he characterized customary practices as jahiliya, the same term used to describe the ignorance of Arabians before the Prophet. Initially, his preaching encountered opposition, but he eventually came under the protection of a local chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud, with whom he formed an alliance. The endurance of the Wahhabi movement’s influence may be attributed to the close association between the founder of the movement and the politically powerful Al Saud in southern Najd (see The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam, 1500-1818 , ch. 1).

This association between the Al Saud and the Al ash Shaykh, as Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and his descendants came to be known, effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation. According to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab’s teachings, a Muslim must present a bayah, or oath of allegiance, to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime to ensure his redemption after death. The ruler, conversely, is owed unquestioned allegiance from his people so long as he leads the community according to the laws of God. The whole purpose of the Muslim community is to become the living embodiment of God’s laws, and it is the responsibility of the legitimate ruler to ensure that people know God’s laws and live in conformity to them.

So what have we learned today?

Well, we learned that there is a community of Americans out there who are profoundly afraid of Islam, or anything connected with it, and the odds are that they know very little about the religion, other than what they’ve seen and copied and pasted, over and over, in a particularly ignorant email.

My friend Wa’el, on the other hand, lives a life that disproves those myths: in addition to being the target of a mob, he’s been jailed, along with many of his friends and associates, for trying to create a more democratic Egypt, he has just the one wife, who lives as an equal in their house, and his own country, Egypt, is one of numerous Islamic countries that have other religions well-established within their borders.

We also learned that numerous countries with Islamic populations are countries with varying degrees of representative democracy…and that the world’s largest democracy just inaugurated their third Muslim President.

Now the question that we’re addressing today is whether Muslims can be good Americans—and the fact is that Wa’el and his family would make great Americans…even though they’re not…and if I can point to Muslims who would make great Americans and live halfway around the world…how much you wanna bet we can find tens of thousands more in the heart of Dearbornistan?

 

On Email Gay Bashing, Or, ENDA’s Already Getting Ugly March 25, 2010

It wasn’t but a couple of days ago that we had a conversation about The Fear and the emails that are used to spread it, and I figured with that out of the way we had dealt with the topic, and that we’d move on to new things.

Well, we would be moving on, Gentle Reader, if it wasn’t for the fact that an email came in today that was so ugly, so disturbing, and so indicative of what we are about to see as the battle over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) begins to heat up (ENDA being possibly the next “big contentious thing” that this Administration hopes to accomplish), that I had to interrupt my story schedule to bring it to your attention.

“Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.”

–W.C. Fields

For those not yet aware, let’s do a bit of background: there have been a series of civil rights laws passed over the years, providing protections related to the right to vote, providing for equality in housing and employment based on race, or religion, or ethnicity, or gender, and providing protections for the disabled.

What is missing is a law protecting those who are gay or those who might view gender in a way that’s different than what the most fundamentalist church in town views as “normal” from discrimination in housing and employment; the idea is that ENDA (officially known as H.R. 3017, Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009) is intended to fill that gap.

The House Education and Labor Committee has held hearings on the bill, but that’s as far as it’s gone so far. Now that the pressure is easing to get health care reform through Congress, there are people who would like to advance ENDA from a bill to a law…and I’m one of ‘em.

So, naturally, when an email came into my inbox asking “Do You Support The Homosexual Agenda?” I thought to myself: “why, yes, I do”, and opened the darn thing.

As it turns out, the sender, “Public Advocate of the United States” (which, I assume, is not to be confused with The Advocate), is not a supporter of Teh Gay Agenda…but that’s not really a surprise, is it?

In fact, the group is against…well, pretty much everything, including:

“…The National Endowment of the Arts and the federal funding and endorsement of pornography and obscenity as legitimate forms of art;

The mainstream media’s promotion and glorification of drug abuse, teenage sex, gangs, atheism, homosexuality and other immoral behavior and beliefs;

The passage of hate crimes and thought control legislation that creates inequality in our state and federal legal systems…”

All of which they present with no apparent sense of the contradictions inherent in their own positions…which is also not really a surprise.

Anyway, according to the email…

“The Radical Homosexuals claim you and other pro-family Americans actually now support same-sex marriage, special job preferences for homosexuals and promotion of the homosexual lifestyle in schools…”

First off (and I had to do some research to confirm this), The Radical Homosexuals are not a band, which is too bad, because that would be one sweet name to put on a marquee.

Secondly, Angry Conservative Fundraising Guy, the country is split, almost 60/40, in favor of civil unions, this according to Pew…and when it comes to actual marriage, Pew counts it at 53% against, 39% for…which means The Radical Homosexuals are more correct in their assertions than Angry Conservative Fundraising Guy might like.

But let’s move on:

“…You see, the Radical Homosexuals are storming through Washington demanding passage of their agenda.

And with the passage of Thought Control last year, they say NOW is the time to push their perverse “life-style” on every man, women and child in America.

And they insist YOU actually support them.

The Homosexual Lobby played a major role in electing Obama and the majorities he enjoys in both houses of Congress.

I can only begin to imagine all the damage the Radical Homosexuals will do with their allies controlling the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House.

As the President of Public Advocate of the U.S., I’ve devoted twenty-seven years to battling the radical homosexuals in Washington.

Backed by Hollywood celebrities, the media and millions of your tax dollars, the Radical Homosexuals have many Congressmen quivering with fear — and they have a Radical Homosexual-friendly majority in control of Congress…”

(A quick word regarding emphasis: throughout this story, where emphasis occurs, it’s as it was presented in the original, except that for technical reasons I had to change underlined words to italics.)

Storming?
Thought Control?
A Quivering Majority of the Members of Congress?

And that’s only what he can begin to imagine:

“…Frankly if you really do support the radical Homosexual Agenda — or if you just no longer care enough to stand up for the family — insiders in Congress say the entire Homosexual Agenda could pass in a matter of months.

*** Special job rights for homosexuals and lesbians. Businesses may have to adopt hiring quotas to protect themselves from lawsuits. Every homosexual fired or not hired becomes a potential federal civil rights lawsuit.

Radical homosexuals will terrorize day care centers, hospitals, churches and private schools. Traditional moral values will be shattered by federal law.

*** Same-sex marriages and adoptions. Wedding-gown clad men smooching before some left-wing clergy or state official is just the beginning.

You’ll see men hand-in-hand skipping down to adoption centers to “pick out” a little boy for themselves.

*** Homosexual advocacy in schools. Your children or grandchildren will be taught homosexuality is moral, natural and good. High school children will learn perverted sex acts as part of “safe sex” education.

With condoms already handed out in many schools, Radical Homosexuals will have little trouble adopting today’s “if it feels good do it” sex-ed curriculum to their agenda.

And to add insult to injury, lobbyists for the Homosexual Agenda are paid off with your tax dollars!

That’s right, radical homosexual groups like the Gay-Lesbian Task Force and ACT-UP receive millions from the government.

Hundreds of millions of dollars flow from taxpayers to homosexual activists through funding for homosexual “art,” so-called AIDS-awareness programs, and research grants…”

OK…so…at this point I need you to sit back down and take a deep breath, because it’s about to get a whole lot weirder.

I do not want you drinking anything while you read this next passage.
I don’t want you eating, either.

There are a few of you who may…oh, how should I put this…it’s possible that you may have some doubts about your own mental health.

To paraphrase comedian Lewis Black: if you go to an International House of Pancakes and you have “body issues”, you will inevitably feel better about yourself after the visit; this because there is always someone there who is at least 400 pounds heavier than you will ever weigh, ever, in your entire life.

The next portion of this email represents the International House of Mental Health, and there’s someone there 400 times crazier than you…and it’s this guy:

“…One stormy night I drove to a mailshop hidden deep in a nearly deserted stand of warehouses. I’d heard something was up and wanted to see for myself.

As I rounded the final turn my eyes nearly popped. Tractor-trailers pulled up to loading docks, cars and vans everywhere and long-haired, earring-pierced men scurrying around running forklifts, inserters and huge printing presses.

Trembling with worry I went inside. It was worse than I ever imagined.

Row after row of boxes bulging with pro-homosexual petitions lined the walls, stacked to the ceiling.

My mind reeled as I realized hundreds, maybe thousands, more boxes were already loaded on the tractor-trailers. And still more petitions were flying off the press.

Suddenly a dark-haired man screeched, “Delgaudio what are you doing here?” Dozens of men began moving toward me. I’d been recognized.

As I retreated to my car, the man chortled, “This time Delgaudio we can’t lose.”

Driving away, my eyes filled with tears as I realized he might be right. This time the Radical Homosexuals could win.

You see, even though homosexuals are just 1% of the population, if every one sent a petition to Congress it would generate a tidal wave of two or three million petitions or more.

Hundreds of thousands of pro-homosexual petitions will soon flood Congress , and my friends in Congress tell me there’s virtually nothing on Capitol Hill from the tens of millions of Americans like you who oppose the radical Homosexual Agenda and the Gay Bill of Special Rights.

I made up my mind that night to write to you and as many other patriotic Americans as possible. To stop the Radical Homosexuals and protect traditional marriage there must be an immediate outpouring from folks like you….”

I need to interrupt for a quick second to ask a question: is it just me, or is the only difference between that story and a bad gay porn film that there’s nobody knocking at the door saying: “here’s the pizza…and here’s the pepperoni”?

“…Homosexual activists mock me in the halls of Congress. They say it’s too late because Americans like you don’t care enough to help, especially with the Democrats in control of Congress and the White House…”

Hey, Angry Conservative Fundraising Guy: just because someone mocks you in the hall, it doesn’t mean they’re some kind of homosexual activist.

They could be mental health activists, for example, or activists promoting better education…and, of course, it’s always possible they’re from the Netherlands.

Now not all the news here is bad:

“…If you won’t help, I’m afraid there is little more I can do.

But the fact is, even if every person responds it won’t be enough to counter all the radical homosexuals are doing.

And not everyone will respond. Some are cowed by how pro-family Americans are portrayed on TV. Others will count on someone else to fight the fight and carry the load. I don’t believe you are like that…”

Just a real quick little bit of advice for the author of this piece, if I may be so bold.

Context matters, as those who used the word “Teabag” just a bit too freely discovered last spring, much to our delight, and when you’re busy stirring up The Fear Of The Radical Homosexual, I would be careful how I throw around terms like “carry the load”.

Next time, Angry Conservative Fundraising Guy, consider hiring a panel of 13-year-old boys who like Beavis and Butthead DVDs for a focus group before you hit the “Send” button and this sort of thing might not happen again.

The rest of this is a great big fundraiser which includes a series of links to what the sender calls a “Morality Survey”, but what I call either a push-poll or a handy one-page checklist of the arguments you can expect to hear over the next few months.

Now I think we’ve all seen enough of this for today, but here’s what I want you to take away from our conversation:

ENDA will be used as a tool to continue spreading hate in the run-up to this year’s elections…and really, really, really creepy people will be trying to scare you using really, really, really turgid (and I do mean turgid) prose.

The imaging will be ugly, with the fears of pedophilia and crossdressing and things being rammed down throats likely to all play starring roles in the Conserva-theater that’s soon to come.

I also expect to see more “outings”, á la Karl Rove’s usual practice—even against other Republicans, which has already apparently happened in this cycle, in the Illinois Senate Republican primary.

“…Stop imagining, unravel the truth and ask: “just who is it happening to?”

Everything that the passenger do, the driver experience, too

So if humanity is one then we all get burned when it’s hell that we’re traveling through…”

–From the song The Travelers, by Brother Ali.

There is no reason for us to blow this one.

The Conservative craziness that’s coming may become so extreme that even the Republicans no longer want any part of these people, but I wouldn’t count on it.

What I would count on is that this is the kind of fight we want to be having—as long as we’re out there having it.

Talk to your friends, talk to those people in line at the espresso stand, and (here’s one for the Captain in all of us), maybe even talk to the attractive individual working out next to you at the gym. Make them understand what this election is really going to be about, how desperate the other side is, and why we can’t afford to let them win.

The Radical HomoFearoPhobians are already hard at work, so get out there and do the same.

Unless, of course, you’d prefer another summer of really, really, awful Teabagging.

 

On Respect, Or, How To Avoid Mispronounciation July 26, 2009

For today’s story, we will travel far afield from the typical domains of politics or science or law that have so often provoked our thinking into an often overlooked area of human relations:

To which gender do you belong?

It’s a simple question, or so common sense would tell us—either you’re male, or you’re female.

As it turns out, things aren’t quite so simple, and in today’s conversation we’ll consider this issue in a larger way. By the time we’re done, not only will we learn a thing or two about sex and gender and sexuality, we’ll also learn how to offer a community of people a level of respect that they often find difficult to obtain.

Do you get off casting hexes?
Assuming forms of either sexes
And oh…are you a boy or a girl?

–Imperial Drag, Boy Or A Girl?

The best place to start today’s story, I suspect, is with a story.

Regular visitors to this space will recall the recent conversation we had regarding the life and times of Gladys Bentley. The kind folks at the Bilerico Project (“daily experiments in LGBTQ”) asked me to repost at the site, and it was there pointed out to me that I was confusing gender and sexuality at various times in the diary.

It occurred to me that education was the solution here; to that end I located Lifelines Rhode Island’s TGI/Gender-Spectrum Terminology Guide (which, unless indicated otherwise, will be the source for the material you see here today). Tobi Hill-Meyer, who also posts at the Bilerico Project, was able to confirm to me that the information here “covers a lot more than most terminology lists I’ve seen”…and with a confirming source in place, I think we’re ready to move forward.

Actually, before we do that…a caveat. Everything that will be presented today is “in flux”. Terminology and attitudes and thinking evolve rapidly in this area, and Ms. Hill-Meyer would tell you to worry less about exact terms and to pay more attention to the general concepts that this discussion incorporates.

The first thing you should know is that biological sex, gender, and sexuality are three completely different things, neither associated with the other. What I mean by that is that an individual might be male, or female, some combination of the two (intersex persons)…or none of the above—but that has no bearing on whether that same person might find themselves sexually attracted to males, or females, or intersex persons…or no one at all.

Let’s start with biological sex.

The human body expresses sex in four different ways, the first being genetic. Genetic males carry an X and a Y chromosome, genetic females two X chromosomes. Intersex persons might have a single X chromosome (known as XO) or some combination of three or more X and Y chromosomes.

“Gonadal” males possess testes, gonadal females possess ovaries; intersex persons might possess undescended testes or streak ovaries.

Those persons who possess testosterone or DHT in the body are “hormonal” males. Estrogen and progesterone are found in hormonal females, and intersex persons might have levels of any of these hormones that are either high or low…or they might not have the “receptors” that allow the body to recognize the hormones that are present.

Morphological sex is expressed by the presence, in males, of the Wolffian duct and a penis. Females will possess a Mullerian duct and a vagina. Intersex persons might possess both a Wolffian and a Mullerian duct or incomplete internal sexual organs—or none of the above—and an enlarged clitoris, a “micro-penis”, or a shallow and fused vagina.

Perception, the folks at Lifelines would tell you, exists in two parts: gender, which is derived from the perception of whether you appear to others to be male or female, and gender identity, which is based on your own perception of yourself as male, female, neither, both, or whatever other label you might choose to attach to your gender identity. The “take-away” from this line of thought is that people are entitled to make their own choices regarding gender identity.

Sexuality, or sexual orientation as it’s used by Lifelines, can be a bit tricky, but it works like this: start with an individual’s chosen gender identity, then proceed to whom they are attracted to. For example, if your gender identity is female, and you are attracted to females, you would be a lesbian. Options include straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual…and pansexual, a term used by those who see more than two sexes—and genders—within the rich tapestry of human existence.

I ought, therefore I am.

–From Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

Everyone still with me on all this?

Good, because now we get to the heart of the matter…the “how to show respect” part…and if you’ve been keeping up, what’s coming next will be fairly simple to grasp.

Mispronounciation is the act of referring to someone with the incorrect personal pronoun—in other words, incorrectly referring to a “he” as a “she”. To avoid this, all you need to do is refer to the individual using the pronouns that match that person’s appearance.

If the person to whom you are speaking is visually expressing their gender as female, that person is referred to as “she”, and vice versa. The fact that the person might not be “passing” in a manner that you find entirely convincing is irrelevant, as is the fact that the person may or may not have had sexual reassignment surgery.

If that same person were to express their gender, on another occasion, as a male, you would refer to the same person as “he”.

In keeping with the admonition to not worry so much about every single term, but instead to make an effort to grasp the concepts presented here, we will not endeavor to define everything on the list; instead touching on just a few terms and explaining why they are important.

“Tranny” is considered offensive and should be avoided.

A “crossdresser” is someone who does not associate their clothing choice with a desire to express as a different gender. In other words, when Rudy Giuliani dresses as a woman—even as he views himself as a man while doing it—that’s crossdressing.

Drag Kings and Drag Queens are entertainers who express themselves in an alternative gender. If the person with whom you are speaking is not on stage at the time…these terms are probably inappropriate.

Transsexual persons are taking hormones and have had sexual reassignment surgery…most of the time. (Some people use the term to describe themselves even though they have not had surgery.) This term is often used within the medical community.

There are some people who do not prefer this term, either because it implies that a mental illness is somehow involved, or because it implies a change of sexuality, as opposed to a change of gender. (You should know that the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, also known as the “DSM-IV-TR”, does in fact describe Gender Identity Disorder as a mental illness.)

The word transgender, which has been in common use to describe people who are expressing any number of gender options, is considered offensive by some people because it is sometimes used to describe a person’s gender choice, instead of the preferred “he” or “she”.

Androgyne persons do not wish to express a single gender choice, instead choosing to present themselves in a way that blurs the line between male and female. Someone who expresses their gender in this manner might or might not also express their sexuality the same way.

Trans is the currently preferred term to describe people who are…well, trans.

Someone who fits into any of the categories we have described here would be considered a trans person. A trans man would be someone who was female at birth, but is now expressing the gender choice of male; obviously a trans woman would be someone who was designated male at birth and is now expressing the gender choice of female. (“Trans” is a prefix defined as “across, over, or beyond”)

If you fit into none of these categories, but instead are always expressing yourself in the same gender as your birth gender, the term cisgender or cissexual is in current use; this derived from the prefix “cis”, which is defined as “on this side of”.

So what have we learned today?

We learned that there is a community of people who do not find the two gender choices “man” and “woman” representative of all the options available…and we learned that, within that community, there are people who might wish, from time to time, to vary their gender role.

Beyond that, we found out that gender and sexuality are separate and not interrelated, and that a person can change one while not changing the other.

We learned that addressing someone using the gender they have chosen is the best way to show that person respect—and the other thing we should be taking away from this discussion is that terminology changes rapidly, but the larger concepts presented here have more permanence, and over the long term I would expect those concepts to change less than the terminology.

So go forth and have some summer fun…and should the occasion arise, apply these principles, and summer will be more fun for those you meet up with as well.

And who doesn’t love that?

 

On Gay History, Or, This Is Not A Stonewall Story July 9, 2009

Pride Month has come and gone, Gentle Reader, with no comment from this desk.

It’s not that I’m in some way insensitive to the subject; instead it’s more of a desire, once again, to stay off the beaten path.

And in that spirit, I do indeed have a story of Gay History…but it’s not from the Summer of ’69…instead, this story was already well underway before the Summer of ’29.

So put on something très chic and let’s head on over to Harlem…at the time of the Renaissance…because it’s time to meet Gladys Bentley.

As so often happens, I had no idea I would be writing a Gay History (HerStory?) story—and the funny thing is, it’s all Groucho Marx’s fault.

For those not aware, Groucho starred in what is now an ancient television game show, “You Bet Your Life”. The basic concept was that the guest would come on and demonstrate a talent, do a little comedic banter with Groucho, and then answer questions for money.

There is a newly released DVD set of episodes from the show, and I was watching the very first episode of the set…and along comes this woman who introduces herself as Gladys Bentley. After a few words, she sits down at the portable piano that was provided, and much to my amazement she proceeds to pound out some of the most amazing boogie-woogie it has ever been my pleasure to watch.

Naturally, a Google search ensued…and that’s when it got interesting.

You see, Gladys Bentley, in 1920s and 1930s Harlem, was the most famous Drag King of her time (yes, Virginia, there are Drag Kings, just as there are Drag Queens)…and all of a sudden, it was time to write a “couple days after Pride Month” story.

The history of early 20th Century Harlem is associated with two notable trends: black migration caused by the gradual desegregation of the neighborhood and the introduction of Prohibition and the speakeasy culture.

“…a costume ball can be a very tame thing, but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed.”

–“Lady Nicotine”, Geraldyn Dismond Major, describing the “Faggot’s Ball” in her “Between Puffs” column for The Inter-State Tattler, February 1929

For those unaware, 1920s Harlem was the home of an active gay community, and it was apparently the perfect place for a black woman who once wrote that “even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me….”. By the end of the decade she had worked herself up from playing rent parties to stardom on “Jungle Alley”: appearing at The Cotton Club and eventually becoming the “headliner-in-residence” at the predominantly lesbian The Clam House (the entendre being entirely intentional).

It is reported that there was a surprising amount of integration on Jungle Alley—of multiple kinds—which helped Gladys Bentley soon became the darling of the white, black, gay, and straight social sets. (Langston Hughes even modeled a character in the play Little Ham after her.) Her ability to write and perform some of the bawdiest lyrics ever while “working the room”—especially the ladies–kept The Clam House packed…and it set her up for an even bigger gig to come.

Connie’s Inn, another famous speakeasy, had closed, and in its place was the Ubangi Club. To “kick things up a notch”, as it were, the new management not only hired Bentley, but provided for her an entire chorus line of “pansies”; the combination of the effeminate male chorus line and the female butch headliner forming a sort of gender-bending fugue that that came together in elaborate stage shows produced by the likes of Leonard Harper.

Eventually she moved over to the Mad House, performing under the stage name of Barbara “Bobbie” Minton…which, before long, caused the club to change its own “stage” name to Barbara’s Exclusive Club in her honor.

She recorded music as well, first in the late 1920s, for OKEH records; some of that music can be heard today by visiting just the right websites.

Eventually…Miss Bentley became a Mrs….more than once.

“A friend, visiting her, pointed inquiringly at two pictures on Miss Bentley’s dresser…

“Who are they?” the visitor inquired innocently.

“Oh” Miss Bentley replied “That’s my husband (pointing to the male) and that’s my wife.”

–From The Third Sex By Albert Duckett, in “The Chicago Defender”, March 2, 1957

Bentley’s first marriage—to a white woman, in Atlantic City—was reportedly covered in the society pages of the New York papers. Bentley also reports that there were two marriages to men, in later years, both ending in divorce—a topic to which we will return later.

All of this came to an end as the Depression deepened, and in 1937, less than five years after she had moved into a Park Avenue apartment she moved out to Los Angeles to live with her mother.

World War II revived the gay scene on the West Coast, and Bentley was able to find work at bars such as the San Bernardino Club and Joaquin’s El Rancho in Los Angeles and Mona’s Club 440 in San Francisco (“Where Girls Will Be Boys!”), along with other artists such as Miss Jimmy Reynard and Miss Beverly Shaw.

(Fun Fact: Some sort of club has occupied the same location as the old Mona’s right up to this very day, and if you find yourself in San Francisco you can visit Apartment 24, the current occupant of the spot (the website tells us to “think of classic age rock star David Bowie’s over the top apartment in the 1960s….”).)

In 1945 World War II came to an end…and not long after that, so did the “gender-bending” phase of Gladys Bentley’s life.

“I thought that nought is worth a thought,
And I’m a fool for thinking.”

–From The Chant of the Brazen Head, Winthrop Mackworth Praed

Before we proceed further, a few words about the public ”presentation” of homosexuality.

If you read media accounts from the 1930s—and later–that deal with gay issues, one thing that will become quickly apparent is the way the gay lifestyle is presented as an aberrant condition. You will likely also note the admonitions that a gay person must be suffering from internal torment, and unable to live a happy life.

Here are a couple quick examples:

“…Dr. Berger reasons that 99 out of any 100 Lesbians are successful in hiding their strange sex habit…

…Since it is easier for a woman to hide the fact that she is sexually cold than for a man to hide the fact that he cannot satisfactorily perform functions expected of a normal husband…

–From The Third Sex by Albert Duckett, in “The Chicago Defender”, March 2, 1957

“…still, in my secret heart I was weeping and wounded because I was traveling the wrong road to real love and true happiness. I could not find them in the cruel, unusual world of my strange private life.”

That second example is from an August 1952 “Ebony” Magazine article written by Gladys Bentley, I Am A Woman Again.

In the article Bentley renounces her entire life…and in doing so she paints a portrait of a woman who would have been a whole lot happier if she would have had the freedom to just be herself.

She describes a childhood that was spent mostly alone, parents who tried to “fix” her gender confusion by making her dress in something other than her brothers’ suits…an attraction to her teacher that she did not understand…and what she herself portrays as “extreme social maladjustment”.

Even then there was a feeling that you could cure “Teh Gay”, and as a child Bentley’s mother “began to take me from doctor to doctor…”; an effort to which Bentley herself would eventually return.

Fast forward again to post-1945…and the time she married a sailor.

“Don” was a friend-of-a-friend from San Diego via San Francisco who was told to introduce himself to Ms. Bentley if he should happen to find himself in Los Angeles…which eventually happened.

Despite the fact that “I hated sailors at the time” because of their aggressive nature they began to spend a great deal of time together—so much so that she began to introduce him as her brother.

“One day, I told Don all about my life. I admitted to him that he had me very confused because I couldn’t understand what I was doing letting a normal man pay attention to me.”

In the midst of tremendous anxiety about the future of their relationship (what with Don being the accepting type and all, they had decided to marry), she decided to visit another physician, to whom she announced the news of her impending marriage.

““That’s just what I wanted to hear” the doctor told me. “Now I can tell you what I’ve known for a long time. Your sex organs are infantile. They haven’t progressed past the stage of those of a fourteen-year-old-child.””

The solution? Injections of female hormones, three times weekly.

(There are those, notably Eric Garber, who question this account.)

“The treatment was expensive but it was worth every penny it cost.”

Fast forward to two lines later in the story:

“Even though our marriage did not last…”

Eventually Bentley began to study religion seriously, and she was in the process of becoming an ordained minister at the time of her 1958 appearance on the episode of “You Bet Your Life” that was the genesis for this story in the first place.

(Another Fun Fact: An 11-year-old Candice Bergen appears as a contestant in the second half of that same episode.)

In one way, Gladys Bentley’s story came to an untimely end just two years later, in 1960, when she died from influenza…but in another, more profound way, the story remains unresolved to this day.

It is, after all, still impossible for most same-sex couples to marry—and the Federal Government has yet to acknowledge the legal marriages that have occurred.

And those who do choose to carve out a different gender rôle for themselves, as well as those who are merely “committing the crime” of being gay are still ostracized by many in the larger society, even to the point that “God Hates Fags” has become the rallying cry for a weird and twisted church.

That said, the story is moving in the right direction…Prop 8 notwithstanding…with several states now granting to same-sex couples the right to marry—and the LBGT community gaining more and more political power all the time (can you say gAyTM?).

The remainder of the Obama Administration promises to be an exercise in…well, we’re not sure: will the Administration live up to the Candidate’s promises—or will the LBGT community find itself feeling the same way vis à vis the Democrats as the “teabag” community (not that one…the other one…) feels about the Republicans: taken for granted while at the same time lacking better options.

So how’s that for a “not Pride Month” story?

History that stretches back more than 40 years before Stonewall…great music…a bawdy personal life…repression, regret, and recriminations…and in the end, an Administration that is having to face up to the demands of those who seek more equal treatment.

And all of that…because of Groucho Marx.

WARNING—Self-Promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation Scholarship, and I was not selected in either the first or second rounds. There is one more chance…and while I’m not inclined to use the “hard sell”…I guess I will today.

If you like what you’re seeing here, and you’d like to help me make these stories even better, swing by the Democracy for America site (even if you have before…) and express your support.

All of us here thank you for your kind attention, and we now return you to your regular programming (which, in keeping with the “hard sell”, is rated PG, instead of the usual G).

 

On Looking Deeper, Or, Things About Iran You Might Not Know June 24, 2009

It has been an amazing week in Iran, and you are no doubt seeing images that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

For most of us, Iran has been a country about which we know very little…which, obviously, makes it tough to put the limited news we’re getting into a proper context.

The goal of today’s conversation is to give you a bit more of an “insider look” at today’s news; and to do that we’ll describe some of the risks Iranian bloggers face as they go about their business, we’ll meet a blogging Iranian cleric, we’ll address the issue of what tools the Iranians use for Internet censorship and the companies that could potentially be helping it along, and then we’ll examine Internet traffic patterns into and out of Iran.

Finally, a few words about, of all things, how certain computer games might be useful as tools of revolution.

The first task for today…let’s talk about blogging:

It turns out that bloggers in Iran risk running afoul of the Press Law of 1986, which, in addition to requiring the licensing of media outlets, reads in part:

Article 6: The print media are permitted to publish news items except in cases when they violate Islamic principles and codes and public rights as outlined in this chapter…

…5. Encouraging and instigating individuals and groups to act against the security, dignity and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran within or outside the country…
…7. Insulting Islam and its sanctities, or, offending the Leader of the Revolution and recognized religious authorities (senior Islamic jurisprudents);
8. Publishing libel against officials, institutions, organizations and individuals in the country or insulting legal or real persons who are lawfully respected, even by means of pictures or caricatures; and
9. Committing plagiarism or quoting articles from the deviant press, parties and groups which oppose Islam (inside and outside the country) in such a manner as to propagate such ideas (the limits of such offenses shall be defined by the executive by-law)…

… Article 25: If a person, through the press, expressly and overtly instigates and encourages people to commit crimes against the domestic security or foreign policies of the state, as specified in the public penal code, and should his/her action bear adverse consequences, he/she shall be prosecuted and condemned as an accomplice in that crime. However, if no evidence is found on such consequences he/she shall be subject to a decision of the religious judge according to Islamic penal code.

Article 26: Whoever insults Islam and its sanctities through the press and his/her guilt amounts to apostasy, shall be sentenced as an apostate and should his/her offense fall short of apostasy he/she shall be subject to the Islamic penal code.

Article 27: Should a publication insult the Leader or Council of Leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran or senior religious authorities (top Islamic jurisprudents), the license of the publication shall be revoked and its managing director and the writer of the insulting article shall be referred to competent courts for punishment.

(In Iran, the penalty for apostasy is death.)

Those bloggers who are not licensed can still be prosecuted under the Penal Code, as the OpenNet Initiative reports in an excellent article they’ve just posted on the subject.

In 2008 the Iranian parliament passed a law which provides for the death penalty for bloggers who engage in non-permitted activities, a situation faced today by Yaghub Mehrnahad, who publishes the Mehrnahad blog.

(Interestingly, this blog can be reached in Persian, but an attempt to access the same URL with Google Translate returns this message:

“You are not authorized to view this page

The Web server you are attempting to reach has a list of IP addresses that are not allowed to access the Web site, and the IP address of your browsing computer is on this list.”

More about that later.)

There is also the risk of torture: a problem noted by the BBC at least as far back as 2005.

Ironically, Mohammad Ali Abtabi, a cleric and former Vice-President of Iran whom you may have recently seen on “The Daily Show” maintains a blog in which he does criticize Iranian society on a regular basis, including his assessment of the recent election as “a huge swindling”…which has now caused the authorities to place him under arrest.

So how does Iran manage to control Internet access?

What they aren’t doing is employing the simplest method possible: cutting off all access. This is presumably because of the negative impact on the Iranian economy that would be caused by business being unable to do what they need to do online.

There are several methods being employed, including a requirement that all Internet Service Providers in the country connect to the state-owned Data communication Company of Iran (DCI) for international access, that all ISPs put in place “filtering” and monitoring technologies, and that households be blocked from having access to high-speed Internet connections.

As of this writing the fastest Internet connection now available for an Iranian household is 128k, about double the speed of a dial-up connection…and as you might guess, not fast enough to allow Iranians to use such services as YouTube. A 6MB cable Internet connection, not uncommon in the US, would be roughly 50 times faster. Because of this the total capacity of Iran’s international Internet connections are roughly 12GB per second. Normal traffic is about 5GB per second, which, we are told, is about the same as a mid-size American city.

OpenNet reports that after an initial period of reliance upon foreign monitoring software, the government decided to create an “in-house” capability, and as a result there are locally developed software packages designed to allow access to the actual data packets in messages—meaning that authorities can read such things as e-mails and instant messages after they are sent and before they pass through the DCI “gateway”.

There has been a conversation regarding the role of Western equipment suppliers in all of this; and it is alleged that a Nokia/Siemens joint venture (Nokia/Siemens Networks) has sold to the Iranians equipment that is used to monitor the Internet use of Iranian citizens. The company denies this, however.

They also want you to know that the joint venture has been sold to a third party, and that, as their press release tells us: “providing people, wherever they are, with the ability to communicate ultimately benefits societies and brings greater prosperity”.

Another method of blocking access is to deny connections to certain sets of IP addresses, and this is why, presumably, I could not access the translated version of the “Mehrnahad” blog. This method would also allow the Iranians to block access to and from inside the country to sites like the BBC, Google, and Blogspot.

There is a way around “address blocking” which involves setting up “relays” and “bridges” that can be accessed by people in Iran—and this is something you yourself can do that can be of considerable benefit to Iranians trying to reach out to the rest of us.

The Iranian Government is also trying to locate and isolate those with Twitter accounts that are set to the Tehran time zone…and you can help make that process tougher by either setting up a Twitter account and setting the time zone to Tehran, or changing your existing account’s time zone.

The next few minutes are going to get a bit geeky, and for this I apologize in advance.

In order for your computer to use certain services that involve communicating with other computers the operating system utilizes a series of “ports” (this is all in the software, so don’t bother looking at the back of the machine to find them).

Some quick examples: the TCP/IP connection your computer is using to access the Internet is through Port 80 and the FTP service runs on Port 21.

There are two kinds of ports—TCP and UDP—and there is no reason to explain here why or how they differ.

There are thousands of ports, the ports used are usually specific to a particular service, and there are giant lists of assigned ports that everyone can access. A service can (and usually does) use more than one port for two-way communication with a computer, which is why the Federal Emergency Management Agency Information System uses TCP Port 1777 and UDP Port 1777.

The routing data that packets of information display as they travel through the Internet includes the port that the packet is seeking to access…and that data is accessible to all routers…and if you controlled the gateway through which all inbound and outbound Internet traffic was passing through you could block packets that seek to utilize certain ports.

Experts are suggesting that this is exactly what is happening today in Iran, with more than 80% of traffic bound for ports using the Adobe Flash Player being blocked, nearly 75% of the POP Service (e-mail) traffic being blocked, and roughly 70% of traffic bound for ports used by “proxy servers” being intercepted. (Proxy servers, by the way, are the same type of connections we discussed earlier that you can set up at home to help Iranians trying to reach the Internet.)

Voice over IP (VoIP), the Internet “telephone” service, is proving to be a troublesome issue for censors, as it has legitimate business purposes and is difficult to censor without either having someone listening on the other end of the line or installing a monitoring system worthy of the National Security Agency.

Interestingly, with the exception of the few hours immediately following the vote, the amount of Internet blockage, overall, seems to be fairly close to what it was just before the voting. However, the amount of “instability” has been highly variable, suggesting that certain blocks of IP addresses have been temporarily “withdrawn” from the Internet’s address structure, for want of a better term, and then once again made known to that same addressing infrastructure.

It is suggested that this may be because the Iranian Government has been able to institute a sufficient level of monitoring on those address blocks so as to make them comfortable with again allowing the users of those addresses access to the Internet.

In one of the oddest developments I’ve heard so far, there are reports that certain communications protocols used by some games are not being blocked. We will not go into specifics here, but it seems strange indeed that the video game your mother didn’t want you playing all day might actually be a tool for surreptitious communication.

And with all that said, let’s wrap it up for today.

Here’s what we’ve learned: it is indeed hazardous to be a blogger in Iran.

Despite the fact that it can get you tortured or get you the death penalty, there are those who take the risk—including a former Vice-President who now finds himself under arrest.

We can help Iranian citizens by installing software on our own computers that helps them obtain uncensored Internet access, and about 1/3 of that traffic is getting through.

The regime is not attempting to permanently shut down all Internet traffic—and in fact, that would be a cure that might be as bad as the disease.

The Iranian Government, instead, is developing and operating a sophisticated system of Internet blocking, but it is not perfect…and there are odd connections that could be used that most people would never think of as useful for the purpose.

Finally, a Western company is accused of selling equipment to Iran that could be used for Internet monitoring, but the company in question denies that the gear they sold Iran can perform the tasks the accusers say it can.

It is rare indeed to be able to see two revolutions taking place at the same time–but as you’re watching the news from the newest Iranian Revolution…keep an eye on the news of the Internet Revolution as well.

WARNING—Self-promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I was not selected in the first round of voting. There are two more chances to be selected…with an announcement due this week…so even if you’ve done so before, I still have to ask you to stop by the Democracy for America site and click on the “Add your support” link to offer your support for me again. Thanks for your patience, and we now return you to your regular programming.