Houdini Mehlman and His Bag of Gay Tricks

 06/07/2011 01:04 pm ET | Updated Aug 07, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Seven years ago this winter, I drove down to Washington, D.C. to start my first job out of Columbia Journalism School as a staff writer for the Washington Blade, the oldest LGBT newspaper in the country. I hadn’t yet permanently moved from New York, but already had started attending editorial meetings in DC to prep for the year ahead of me: gay marriage cases primed for the court dockets in Massachusetts and California, an election campaign in full swing and talk of a Federal Marriage Amendment in Congress to stem the undulating tide of social change.

But Chris Crain, the former executive editor, and Kevin Naff, the current editor of the Blade had an even bigger story on the horizon: Outing Ken Mehlman. At the time, his was the dirtiest little secret in the DC LGBT community – the savvy, equivocatingHarvard lawyer who was running George W. Bush’s re-election campaign on a strong anti-gay platform was gay. Crain, also a Harvard-trained lawyer, had it on good information from many a Harvard colleague that Mehlman was so deep in the closet he was buried under a pile of Brooks Brothers suits.

So we were going to drag him out. Crain and Naff wanted the story as soon as any reporter could get it. Trouble was, we couldn’t. I set about the story first, emailing and calling friends of friends of Crain who knew Mehlman at Harvard. All said, yes, he way gay, and then no, they would not go on deep background, let alone on the record, about it. After exhausting all my leads, I tried to find ways to confront Mehlman at Bush Campaign Headquarters in Arlington. When I figured out how untouchable Mehlman was, I ditched that plan and went for a phone call: The weekly campaign roundtable for key Bush campaign staffers. In the middle of a talk on Ohio, I asked Mehlman the question: “Mr. Mehlman, with gay marriage being enacted in many states across the country, are you concerned that will be an issue with Ohio swing voters? And oh, are you gay?” My heart pounded. But Mehlman gave it no weight. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, and moved on.

Before long, so did I, but not before writing the first story about the outing campaign taken on by a pair of gay activists John Aravosis and Mike Rogers, who, literally, outed no fewer than 13 gay Republican legislators and Capitol Hill staffers who supported, or worked for those who supported, the Federal Marriage Amendment. “I’m pretty uninterested in whether a gay staffer’s name appears in a newspaper, or on a website. I am more interested in a reader approaching someone at a bar and asking, ‘What the hell are you doing, working for someone who doesn’t support our issues?’” said Aravosis, a former staff attorney for the late Sen. Ted Stevens, at the time. “An acquaintance of mine, a Southern Republican, worked for a member who was not anti-gay personally, but he signed on to the amendment (banning gay marriage). My friend quit. I’m basically saying, ‘You know what, you have a choice. It’s 2004. You can work for pro-gay Democrats, and now you can work for pro-gay Republicans.”

And now it’s 2011. And last fall Ken Mehlman openly admitted he was gay and he could also work for whomever or whatever he wanted, thanks for the work done on behalf of the LGBT groups he shunned. In fact, he had already done so, very quietly fundraising for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, former U.S. Solicitor Ted Olson’s legal effort to overturn California’s Proposition 8 ban gay marriage. Today, Mehlman is at the state capital in Albany trying to drum up support for gay marriage in New York with two weeks left to go before the issue comes up for a vote.

In the Atlantic blog outing him, Mehlman said he “really wished” he had acknowledged his sexual orientation sooner, so that he “could have worked against (the Federal Marriage Amendment).”

“It’s a legitimate question and one I understand,” Mehlman said of his silence – or to many gays and lesbians, his complicity – in the political smear against gays. “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that,” he told Ambinder. “It was very hard, personally.”

But Mehlman WAS in that place years before. Sources spoke off the record of Mehlman’s romantic pursuits in law school and of his clandestine presence in the gay community. Practically everyone in DC – probably even the president – knew where Mehlman stood on the gay continuum. Of course, as everyone else in this country, he had the right to live his life and to do the job of his choosing without being forced to succumb to the wishes of any special interest group, particularly the LGBT lobby. That said, I nonetheless wonder why friends of Mehlman didn’t take him aside in 2004, as Aravosis suggested, and ask the “Why the hell” question. What made them so standoffish, or us equally complicit in the Ken Mehlman charade? Moreover, I question Mehlman’s current penance. “The closet is our worst enemy. Look how Barney (Frank), (Steve) Gunderson and (Jim) Kolbe came into the cause,” Rogers told me in 2004, ultimately hopeful that the people in his crosshairs would see the light. “They were dragged out, but now they’re some of our most vocal advocates.” True. But in this case, Mehlman is not adding anything to the gay community; he is simply trying to pick up the pieces of his own mistakes and probably kick-start his own political career.

“Showing up to the party less than 15 days until the vote is weak,” said Natasha Dillon, one of the founders of Queer Rising, a group that has agitated for gay marriage in New York since it failed in December 2009. “If he really wanted to ‘make up’ his betrayal to his community, as a New Yorker, he should have been to Albany a long time ago.”

Ken Mehlman had his chance to do the right thing years ago. Luckily, the gays are quick to forgive and forget. However, sometimes all people – gay or straight – get is one.

The Resurrection of a Race Riot

 05/22/2011 03:04 pm ET 

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Tulsa, Oklahoma, up until June 1921, was a bustling little outpost on the frontier — head down, blinders on, focused on “black gold” — and the least likely of places to turn American black history upside down and inside out. Or at least contemplated Walter F. White — NAACP field secretary, Harlem Renaissance founding father, partisan journalist and one of the greatest social chameleons of our time — as he boarded a train bound for “T-Town”.

White didn’t know exactly what to expect when he pulled into the place where the American Negro had forged a new life, openly integrating with the Five Civilized Tribes pushed there during the “Trail of Tears” just a few decades before them. But he did find “the Negroes prospered along with the whites and began to erect comfortable homes, business establishments, a hotel, two cinemas and other enterprises, all of these springing up in the section to which they had been relegated.”

Then, in the middle of a societal tinderbox of jealously over land, status and wealth, White concluded, a Negro messenger boy went to deliver a package in a downtown Tulsa office building and came upon a white female elevator operator. White arrived just in time for the showdown. This is how he saw it:

“A hysterical white girl related that a nineteen-year-old colored boy attempted to assault her in the public elevator of a public office building… in open daylight,” White wrote in “The Eruption of Tulsa,” an article that ran in The Nation June 29, 1921. “Without pausing to find out whether or not the story was true, without bothering with the slight detail of investigating the character of the woman who made the outcry… a mob of 100-per-cent (sic) Americans set forth on a wild rampage that cost the lives of fifty white men; of between 150 and 200 colored men, women and children; the destruction by fire of $1,500,000 worth of property; the looting of many homes; and everlasting damage to the reputation of the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma.”

Despite the efforts of White and many other journalists over the years, Tulsans — both white and black — always managed to sweep the riot’s history under the rug and pretend it didn’t exist. For white residents, it was an embarrassment, a smear on the city’s “can do” past and opportunistic future. For blacks, it boiled down to a matter of retribution. Could this happen again? What costs would their community pay if word about the riot leaked? For nearly eight decades, the riot remained Tulsa’s closeted skeleton.

That is changing. Since 1996, when the New York Times Magazine swept into the bedroom community to write a story about the 75th anniversary of the riot, interest about it has grown across the country. But on May 1, a groundbreaking event occurred when This Land Press, Tulsa’s first independent newspaper, released its latest issue dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, marking the only Oklahoma-based publication to devote an entire printing to the atrocity.

“While the Riot isn’t new, racial issues continue to be a critical part of journalistic coverage in Tulsa,” said Michael Mason, the founder and publisher of This Land. “You can’t really understand America without looking at its middle, and that’s exactly where the worst race riot in America’s history occurred.

“The Tulsa Race Riot distills the story of America’s racial tensions to its essence. But the story of the Riot is less about the incident itself, and more about the way the community responded — or didn’t respond — to it.”

For its part, This Land‘s May issue provides a gallimaufry of riot-related stories to Oklahomans — most received very favorably by the city’s inhabitants, said Mason, who was born and raised in Tulsa, attended both public and private schools and finally learned about the riot when he was 25, “through a small exhibit set up at the downtown Tulsa library.” In addition to publishing a local scholar Hannibal Johnson’s piece about the need to educate young people about the riot — as well as a survey revealing that 73 percent of Tulsans were not taught about the riot in primary or secondary school — This Land featured a profile from the ranks of the dwindling riot survivors, a historical narrative about Walter White and two stories about the reign of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma.

Mason said that with the last issue, This Land has kicked off its annual May theme, adding the paper will cover the riot “as long as we’re publishing print.

“It’s hard to believe that there are still so many stories that remain to be told, but Tulsa still has a vast surplus of Riot-related secrets. We already have several stories we’re researching for next year.”

The dedication to the cause and the enthusiasm for change Mason envisions has been evoked before. Though one of his more adventurous investigations, filled with overt racism and unfathomable brutality, Walter White nonetheless held out hope for Tulsa, which he defended in The Nation:

“The damage to Tulsa itself would be irreparable if the attitude of that community were the brazenly defiant one which usually marks a Southern community after a scene of such violence and lawlessness,” he wrote. “Happily, Tulsa has had remorse and is not afraid to admit it.”

Ultimately, White moved on. He rose from riot investigator through the ranks of the NAACP to become the executive secretary before fading into obscurity, due to the changing times, his team of rivals at the NAACP and, ironically, the complexion that propelled him to the pinnacle of fame. Let’s just hope, once more, that Tulsa doesn’t follow suit.

 Marriage Debate Revives Lesbian Art

04/30/2011 06:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

On July 23, 1946, just before her diagnosis of stomach cancer and the surgery that ended her life, Gertrude Stein wrote her will. She left what little money she had and her priceless collection of paintings to her lover of decades, Alice B. Toklas.

Though acquired for a pittance at the turn of the century, Stein’s modernist collection had become valuable — the loaning out of it alone should have supported Toklas. But the late writer’s relatives wanted the art — all of it. While Toklas was away at a spa in Italy in 1961, they took the precious works, leaving her penniless and alone to stare at the outlines on the walls.

New York artist Hilary Harkness read about Toklas’ misfortune in a series of New Yorker articles by veteran reporter Janet Malcolm. They roiled her; the unequivocal — and often unabashed — painter had been undergoing her own spousal dilemma and she took to the studio once again. Out of both emotion and action, came her latest series: “New Paintings,” opening this week at the renowned Mary Boone gallery.

“New Paintings”, of which the Stein and Toklas works play a major role, illustrate, among other things, lesbians’ place in post-World War II. Through the biographical images, Harkness depicts the couple’s transgressive, yet tortured relationship, posh, yet cloistered life, flight from persecution, yet ultimate submission to it.

“Outside of New York and certain other cities, lesbian couples have the same problems they had 100 years ago,” said Harkness, a native of Detroit. “Even though it seems less relevant now with all the media surrounding these issues, my job is still to put my reality down.

“Aside from donating money to the cause, all I’ve been able to do is paint. As an artist, I am throwing my two cents into the discourse.”

Harkness is not the only one. As they did during the women’s movement and the early gay rights mobilization, lesbian artists are painting, photographing and sculpting their place in the marriage debate. Since the New York State legislature denied gays and lesbians the right to marry in December 2009, lesbian photographer Alix Smith has taken her series “States of Union” to much acclaim at New York and Connecticut’s Morgan Lehman Gallery. And artist Nicole Eisenmann — a painter whose name is spoken in the same sentences as George Condo, John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton — has depicted scenes of lesbian family life with her partner, Victoria Robinson, at the Leo Koenig gallery.

“Art has the ability to affect opinions and perceptions. The more the world is permeated with images of gay and lesbian couples and families, the harder it will be for same-sex relationships to be considered ‘other,’” Smith said. “What I find most satisfying about photography is the way in which it allows me to document ‘reality’ while at the same time creating my own version thereof.

“But the work is directly inspired by the lack of official recognition and documentation of same-sex couples and families.”

Harkness’ show – her fourth solo exhibition — builds upon themes and the key symbols in her previous work, but adds, for the first time, the actual lived experience of historical actors. For her own apolitical-political statement, Stein and Toklas seemed the obvious choice.

“I was born in ’71 and during that time, in the Midwest, we had no lesbian role models,” said Harkness, who now divides her time between the Lower East Side and Boston, where her current girlfriend lives. “I had lesbian neighbors of whose relations were never spoken — my parents felt they needed to protect me from the knowledge of those relationships.

“Alice and Gertrude had a strong bond — Alice served Gertrude her entire life. And it was overlooked by society.”

Also grouped in the school of Condo and Currin, Harkness riffs off Old Master with the best of them. “Morning Glory” is a portrait of a flat, sexually frustrated Alice staring off canvas while Gertrude lovingly dotes on her poodle Basket; “Pleasing Papa” features a leering Ernest Hemingway — a protégé-turned-adversary of Stein’s — flanked by both women at a bar with Gertrude in drag; and “Alice at Loggerheads” is another portrait of a vexed Alice, drinking, contemplating and snuffing her cigarettes into an upturned seashell, a traditional symbol of fertility.

“For me, these paintings became all about the discomfort about having to fit into the dominant straight culture — about fitting into a patriarchal culture,” Harkness said.

“Painting really is a safe thing, a safe means of expressing myself. A lot of stuff goes on in my paintings that I would never do and people buy it to live vicariously. A feminist painting still has power.”

“Hilary Harkness: New Paintings, will run through 25 June 2011 at the gallery’s Midtown location, 745 Fifth Ave. For further information, please visit www.maryboonegallery.com.

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GLAAD Needs to Rethink Awards, or Its Mission   02/27/2011 11:57 am ET |  Updated  May 25, 2011        Adrian Margaret Brune     A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press   As a reporter who covers LGBT activism, the other morning I received the following question in my oft-overstuffed inbox: When the GLAAD awards start to resemble The Golden Globes and all other mainstream award shows does this mean? 1a) GLAAD is redundant? 2b) Queers have finally made it? 3c) GLAAD needs to revisit its mission statement? 4d) ___________ (your answer)  The e-mail came in response to the announcement that for the 25th year, in the middle of awards season, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) would host its annual media awards. The nominees read like a Who’s Who gallimaufry of not only the Golden Globes, but also the Oscars, the SAG awards, the Emmys, the Tonys and every other celebrity television vehicle one could possible imagine. For the consideration of the gays, we have, among others, “The Kids Are All Right,” the Ginsberg biopic “Howl,” Fox’s hit show “Glee” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for Ricky Martin’s first televised interview. Aside from “Prodigal Sons,” a transgender coming-home story, it’s hardly a groundbreaking array.  The author of the e-mail — the founder of a popular lesbian website — did not necessarily post to provoke, but to solicit feedback about whether her online magazine should cover the red carpet at the awards. “We’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now, and that is starting to feel like a very superficial reason,” said Grace Moon of VelvetPark.  Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy my celebrity photos and red-carpet walking just as much as the next media gadfly. I also appreciate that the organizations representing my interests look and act modern, if not a little trendy. But Moon is right: Either she needs to rethink covering GLAAD, or GLAAD needs to rewrite its mission statement. Because when I consider GLAAD, I think of the things its celebrated oogling is costing LGBT people.  For starters, for the past two years, a backlash in the LGBT community has been taking place over the amount of money large LGBT organizations have been putting into fruitless lobbying and endless awards shows. They now seem to be filling in the many gaps GLAAD and others have left while chasing celebrities. One grassroots group coming out of the backlash, Queer Rising, conducted a “die-in” at Grand Central Terminal to protest the six LGBT bullying suicides last September. Despite its pledge to ensure that “the stories of LGBT people are heard through the media,” GLAAD skipped the “die-in” as well as the other events that took place that awful week. Last summer, members of GetEQUAL, another new LGBT group, chained themselves to the White House fence to protest DADT. Even though its mission proclaims that GLAAD helps “grassroots organizations communicate effectively,” not a single GLAAD rep came to DC that day. Finally, GLAAD’s clear lack of pulse came shortly after the beating LGBT people took at the hands of anti-gay politicians and their religious fans (Carl Paladino, anyone?) in the November elections — happily highlighted in all the right-leaning dailies. GLAAD remained mum, overlooking that pesky part of its mission statement about “holding the media accountable for the words and images they present.” Member of GLAAD’s Religion, Faith and Values team couldn’t be bothered to attend a march led by LGBT-friendly ecumenical leaders in early December, either.  GLAAD and its media awards used to celebrate the “unsung heroes” — the regular people writing about LGBT issues and putting their lives on the line to stand up to the mainstream. Even though GLAAD still invites “those people” to its show (Judy Shepherd — bereaved mother of the slain Matthew — might still make an appearance), it basically tramples over them to throw awards at the people who act as lesbian moms and gay poets in the movies.  So, in staying true to answering the question put before me last month, I have devised a new mission statement for GLAAD: “The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) amplifies the voice of the LGBT community by empowering people to sit in offices in New York and L.A., watch TV and every now and then issue a report shaming “Saturday Night Live” over its drag skits or N.F.L. football commentators for making “Brokeback Mountain” jokes. The rest of the time, it prepares for a Media Awards show that hardly gets any coverage in the press anymore and celebrates the movies, TV shows and actors already honored by mainstream award shows.

GLAAD Needs to Rethink Awards, or Its Mission

 02/27/2011 11:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

 

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

As a reporter who covers LGBT activism, the other morning I received the following question in my oft-overstuffed inbox:
When the GLAAD awards start to resemble The Golden Globes and all other mainstream award shows does this mean?
1a) GLAAD is redundant?
2b) Queers have finally made it?
3c) GLAAD needs to revisit its mission statement?
4d) ___________ (your answer)

The e-mail came in response to the announcement that for the 25th year, in the middle of awards season, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) would host its annual media awards. The nominees read like a Who’s Who gallimaufry of not only the Golden Globes, but also the Oscars, the SAG awards, the Emmys, the Tonys and every other celebrity television vehicle one could possible imagine. For the consideration of the gays, we have, among others, “The Kids Are All Right,” the Ginsberg biopic “Howl,” Fox’s hit show “Glee” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for Ricky Martin’s first televised interview. Aside from “Prodigal Sons,” a transgender coming-home story, it’s hardly a groundbreaking array.

The author of the e-mail — the founder of a popular lesbian website — did not necessarily post to provoke, but to solicit feedback about whether her online magazine should cover the red carpet at the awards. “We’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now, and that is starting to feel like a very superficial reason,” said Grace Moon of VelvetPark.

Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy my celebrity photos and red-carpet walking just as much as the next media gadfly. I also appreciate that the organizations representing my interests look and act modern, if not a little trendy. But Moon is right: Either she needs to rethink covering GLAAD, or GLAAD needs to rewrite its mission statement. Because when I consider GLAAD, I think of the things its celebrated oogling is costing LGBT people.

For starters, for the past two years, a backlash in the LGBT community has been taking place over the amount of money large LGBT organizations have been putting into fruitless lobbying and endless awards shows. They now seem to be filling in the many gaps GLAAD and others have left while chasing celebrities. One grassroots group coming out of the backlash, Queer Rising, conducted a “die-in” at Grand Central Terminal to protest the six LGBT bullying suicides last September. Despite its pledge to ensure that “the stories of LGBT people are heard through the media,” GLAAD skipped the “die-in” as well as the other events that took place that awful week. Last summer, members of GetEQUAL, another new LGBT group, chained themselves to the White House fence to protest DADT. Even though its mission proclaims that GLAAD helps “grassroots organizations communicate effectively,” not a single GLAAD rep came to DC that day. Finally, GLAAD’s clear lack of pulse came shortly after the beating LGBT people took at the hands of anti-gay politicians and their religious fans (Carl Paladino, anyone?) in the November elections — happily highlighted in all the right-leaning dailies. GLAAD remained mum, overlooking that pesky part of its mission statement about “holding the media accountable for the words and images they present.” Member of GLAAD’s Religion, Faith and Values team couldn’t be bothered to attend a march led by LGBT-friendly ecumenical leaders in early December, either.

GLAAD and its media awards used to celebrate the “unsung heroes” — the regular people writing about LGBT issues and putting their lives on the line to stand up to the mainstream. Even though GLAAD still invites “those people” to its show (Judy Shepherd — bereaved mother of the slain Matthew — might still make an appearance), it basically tramples over them to throw awards at the people who act as lesbian moms and gay poets in the movies.

So, in staying true to answering the question put before me last month, I have devised a new mission statement for GLAAD: “The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) amplifies the voice of the LGBT community by empowering people to sit in offices in New York and L.A., watch TV and every now and then issue a report shaming “Saturday Night Live” over its drag skits or N.F.L. football commentators for making “Brokeback Mountain” jokes. The rest of the time, it prepares for a Media Awards show that hardly gets any coverage in the press anymore and celebrates the movies, TV shows and actors already honored by mainstream award shows.