Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama Inauguration: Symbol of Change?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The wave of Obamaniacs that made their way across America to shiver at DC's National Mall knew Barack Obama was not just the forty-fourth president of the United States, but a symbol of historic achievement, of possibility, and yes, of change.

Just a couple of generations out from Rosa Parks and segregated lunch counters, ten years from the lynching of James Byrd, and three and a half years since the mostly black population of New Orleans was left for dead, it meant something that "Hail to the Chief" was finally played for a black man.

Yeah, I get that, even though I went to a high school where the battles of school busing had been fought before I got there, and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were already required reading in college. David Dinkins was mayor of New York in my first years there. Then Cory Booker took Newark. Denzel took two Oscars. Colin Powell and Condi Rice took the reins as Secretaries of State, and outshone the President.

History exists side by side with the future, and the symbolism of Obama's accomplishment resonates even in Paris where his election led to impromptu celebrations on the metro by people of color, and young black job applicants suddenly vowed to begin including their pictures with their resumes, hoping that the color of their face wouldn't land them in the recycling bin anymore. "Not when there's a black American president."

That's reason enough to celebrate. And in the spirit of the local countdown to "Obama Day," I tried to embrace at least the symbolism of his inauguration. Out with the old, in with the new, the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream and the reassertion of America's promises of liberty and justice.

But watching Obama bow his head at the bigot Rick Warren's invocation, I found myself shivering with fury, though according to the good ole boy Warren the proper way to overcome adversity is not via projectile vomiting and rage, but with "a quiet and humble response ... disagreement without being disagreeable."

Warren, mentioning something about "civility," too, in a tasteful jab at the queers uncivilized enough to demonstrate his participation, sounded a lot like George W. Bush in his own inaugural address in 2001. In case you've forgotten, the worst president in history began his term pledging (threatening) to conduct himself with "civility, courage, compassion and character," defining it as the "choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos." And apparently of silence and censorship over opposition.

We know where civility leads. Or should. After eight years of Bush. But for every queer outraged at Warren's presence at Obama's inauguration, it seems there's been another queer online trying to enforce silence. "Save your anger for something important. Warren's just a symbol."

Like Obama's just another president?

If we recognize the power of a symbol of a black man busting open the White House, rending history itself, how can we ignore what it means to put front and center the antigay, anti-choice, ultra-conservative Rick Warren? He's likewise riding a crest of cultural and historical momentum -- even if it's going the other direction.

Despite Obama's speech extolling the virtues of democracy, equality and justice, giving Warren an enormous platform at the inauguration sent a powerful message that in the name of inclusion, bigots have a place in the White House as long as they promise to smile. Bullies have justification to harass queer kids to death at schools. Preachers can excoriate gays and nurture HIV through ignorance, that men can dominate women. For the sake of Obama's symbol of that inclusiveness, queers face exclusion, homelessness, poverty, violence because we, apparently, are not deserving of rights. Who are not human, really, if you listen closely to pastor Rick when the national U.S. media isn't eavesdropping.

Frankly, queers are screwed when the symbol of Change gets caught embracing the symbol of Hate, even if Obama eventually allows us to openly serve in the military, and even dumps DOMA. Because if the black civil rights movement's taught us anything, it's that culture doesn't move in tandem with legislation. Laws go only a short way to solving the burning problems that the symbols of hate pour gasoline on. A black man may be president, but school boards will still find ways to segregate. There's a voting act, but votes have a way of going astray. Free black men are locked in jail in horrible numbers. And what about Latinos, and Asians, and Native Americans? We haven't come anywhere near to dealing with the complexity of race in America.

Obama's choice of the ultra-conservative (and long-winded) Rick Warren to bless his presidency is a reminder that queers have an even longer way to go. Civility and empty rhetoric won't take us there.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Obama's First Gift to Africa: Rick Warren

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

If you want to foster AIDS, and kill queers in Africa, Rick Warren's the man for you. While Warren's characterization of queers (and Jews and Muslims) as godless perverts fuel bigotry in the U.S., the real effects of inviting Warren to preside over Obama's inauguration will be felt in sub-Saharan Africa.

He has missions all over the place, and he's rolling in dough and influence built on the best P.R. campaign I've ever seen. He hobnobs with Bono and Melissa Etheridge while liberal journalists regurgitate his press releases, crowning him a moderate evangelical and touting his AIDS campaign which is little but a thinly veiled mask for his proselytizing work. The last thing he needs is more power.

In case you actually care, his campaign for AIDS prevention, in a region decimated by the disease, sneers at condoms, needle exchange, and sex education. He claims all those efforts merely slow the spread of AIDS when his plan can stop it flat. The secret -- abstinence before marriage, religious conversion, and not included on his website, that perennial favorite, queer-baiting.

One of his closest allies in Uganda in his so-called fight against AIDS is Martin Ssempa, an evangelical preacher who blames queers for the disease, makes a show of burning condoms, and this spring organized a rally with the theme, "A Call for Action on Behalf of the Victims of Homosexuality" where he spent most of his time railing against queers.

As far as treatment goes, Ssempsa offers faith healing in his Pentecostal services if only victims believe enough, and make a nice donation. In general, the bulk of his anti-AIDS activism seems to be legal battles to ensure that homosexuality remains illegal and the media continues to portray queers as sexual predators.

He's getting it done. Homosexuality is still illegal, and queers face increasing harassment and violence from the government to their next door neighbors. Newspapers sometimes print lists of people suspected of being lesbian or gay, opening them up to job loss, and physical violence. Several activists are arrested every year.

Though a Ugandan judge recently ruled in favor of LGBT activists protesting an illegal raid in 2005, it's more likely you'll get government officials like Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhinde and Minister of Ethics and Integrity Nsaba Butoro who in 2007 actually joined a coalition of conservative Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Bahai congregations, "the Interfaith Coalition Against Homosexuality" calling for the arrest, deportation, and even murder of gays and lesbians.

And where's the sanctified Rick Warren in this delightful hate fest? Where's the man The New Yorker's Hendrik Herzberg complacently characterized as "much, much less of a jerk than, say, Pat Robertson or James Dobson" and whose inclusion in the inauguration he actually applauded as "another of Obama's brilliant chess moves"?

Well... when the Ugandan Anglican Archbishop Henry Orombi announced his aim to "purify" the Anglican Church by driving out gay and lesbian Christians and their supporters, Warren got right on board. When they announced their boycott of the global Anglican conference in March last year, he told the press, "The Church of England is wrong and I support the Church of Uganda on the boycott." Warren further declared that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right. "We shall not tolerate this aspect at all."

Terrible for queers, Warren and his pals are almost worse for AIDS. Uganda's HIV infection rate, which had dipped from its height in 1986, has been climbing back up in recent times. The problem? Advocates like Warren and Ssempa dumping sex education and condom promotion in favor of abstinence-only programs which study after study show actually increase risky sex.

Homophobia and HIV/AIDS go together in Nigeria, too, where thanks to people like Rick Warren, UNAIDS estimate that only 18 percent of women and 21 percent of men between the ages of 15 and 24 correctly identify ways to prevent HIV. After South Africa, Nigeria has the second largest number of people living with HIV in Africa.

The most vulnerable of all are gay men. Warren has supported figures like the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, who in 2006 and 2007 campaigned ferociously for anti-gay legislation which stipulated five years' imprisonment to anyone who had anything to do with a same-sex marriage ceremony, participated in gay organizing, or frankly have anything to do with anything gay of any kind "directly or indirectly in public and in private."

And if hate-mongering is a habit, in 2005, Akinola was implicated in the massacre of more than 650 Muslims by a Christian mob tied to the Christian Association of Nigeria. He was president of the group at the time. For all this, Akinola earned praise from Warren in an April 2006 Time Magazine article lionizing him as a defender of the faith, a "Nelson Mandela", and "a model for Christians around the world."

Where's a lightning bolt when you need one?