Dear Herman Cain,
Iâ€™m writing this letter to you because you need to be told off, and Iâ€™m the one to do it. You see, this letter has to come from a black gay man; if a white gay man writes you, you can dismiss him as a crazy white queen, or a faggot, or whatever. You can dismiss me as a faggot too, of course, but if Iâ€™m in the closet, or you donâ€™t know that Iâ€™m gay, you might shake my hand and smile at me during a fundraiser, rally or at church; you might even call me brother, the way black men of my fatherâ€™s generation always called each other brother, the way some black men still do today. Because the fact is, I am your brother, and Iâ€™m also your son. Which is why your betrayal feels particularly painful and devastating.
I do not consider myself to be naÃ¯ve, Mr. Cain. Given your political affiliations, Iâ€™m not surprised by your views on gays. But maybe I am foolish for expecting you to make a connection between the discrimination against blacks in this country, and that against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. For you, that would be an intellectual connection, one that I assume a successful businessman with an impressive list of achievements such as yourself could make; for me itâ€™s in my blood.
Iâ€™m not asking for your sympathy, or pity, itâ€™s just a fact: Iâ€™ve been called nigger and Iâ€™ve been called faggot. The words hurt equally. The strange irony of my life is that Iâ€™ve been called a faggot by niggers and been called a nigger by faggots. We need to see that we are all in the same boat; and that while we stand around arguing about who is more worthy, someone who considers us all to be worthless laughs all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, we step on each other, trying to gain a bit of extra footing on the mountain of â€œsuccessâ€ while crushing another’s soul.
And since so much of American life is about being special, and winning the lottery one day — any lottery: the love lottery, the fame lottery, the political lottery – we stand in our isolated groups, waving our golden tickets, hoping we will be the ones picked for the big jackpot. And, of course, Mr. Cain, you want the biggest jackpot of all â€“ you want to be president of the United States.
I guess I should be pleased for the diversity. A Democratic black president followed by a popular black Republican nominee (at this writing youâ€™re swiftly rising in the polls, running neck and neck with Rick Perry and Mitt Romney) should be a cause for celebration. But as the Democratic president turned out to be quite conservative himself, Iâ€™m not sure what to think anymore. I saw a clip of you on The View talking about homosexuality being a choice, and when someone on the show suggested that as president you planned to roll back â€œDonâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell,” you didnâ€™t deny it. (You also acknowledged that you think abortion is wrong even in cases of rape or incest.)
Despite the fact that I feel, Mr. Cain, your views are hopelessly backward, Iâ€™m curious: didnâ€™t you get the memo that even when you hate gay people, you donâ€™t say publicly that being gay is a choice? Itâ€™s hard enough for young gay people who are struggling with self-hate; you have to make them into masochists, who secretly crave it because they refuse to change. And threatening to reinstate â€œDonâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tellâ€ during your presidency, when itâ€™s only been abolished for five minutes, just makes you seem vindictive and a kill-joy.
Part of me, truthfully, doesnâ€™t want to deal with you, Mr. Cain. I want to believe that you are on the Tea Party fringe, that your opinions really donâ€™t matter that much, and that this is just more silly Republican cant. But the last time I thought that, we ended up with George W. Bush for eight years, which means his presidency wasnâ€™t a fluke: someone — and I havenâ€™t found him to confront him personally because no-one I know will admit to voting for Bush the first time — wanted him for four more years. And the fact is, Obama has shown that it is not inconceivable that Americans will vote for a black president. Which also means you have a good chance of winning.
I felt weary when I saw you on The View, because Iâ€™m just so tired; tired of having to fight people like you, and your beliefs. Itâ€™s been less than three weeks since Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself; heâ€™s been all over the news, so you must have heard of him. You must know how he was bullied at school; and yet you choose to stand with the bullies. You could have gone on The View, and said, â€œWhile I disagree politically with gay marriage, I wonâ€™t tolerate hate. We as a country should mourn that young man.â€ But youâ€™re a politician, and that would have cost you votes.
I donâ€™t want to focus on you, Herman Cain, but the truth is that you, and people like you, are responsible for the Jamey Rodemeyers. And my fear is that with this latest appearance, there may be a few more like them tomorrow having watched you. Itâ€™s one thing to be in your forties, like me, and to feel worn down by the hate; at least I can build a wall against you, using concrete mixed from insane ex-boyfriends, recovering alcoholism, coming-out, rallies, therapy, activism, self-love, and basic gay-survival techniques. But how do you protect a child from a man who comes on the TV screen, a man who says that he wants to be president, and who tells her that she doesnâ€™t exist, or shouldnâ€™t. The child may be able to ignore him, and then again she may kill herself. And itâ€™s not just the bullies in the hallways before class that our gay children are dodging, itâ€™s bullies like you, and Michelle Bachmann, standing at podiums during debates, saying the same things that the 14-year-old bullies are saying outside their lockers, just more eloquently, and better dressed.
Mr. Cain, I know you. I have never met you personally, but you are in my family. If one of your relatives dies, God forbid, I could bet money on what the funeral service might look like, what songs the choir will sing, what the preacher might say, and what food is going to be served at the reception. Iâ€™m a gay boy, and on holidays I watched my mother cook; which means, if you give me six hours and a shopping list, I can have you sitting down to a table of food (cooked from scratch) of collard greens, black-eyed peas, candied yams, cornbread, sliced turkey, and macaroni and cheese. (And not the kind with the orange-colored nuclear reactor powder-packet in the box, either; the real Sunday-after-church, hallelujah, come-to-Jesus Mac and Cheese that is as essential to black Southern gatherings as white rice is to a sushi chef.) Iâ€™ve been a vegetarian for almost ten years now, but I still miss the ham hocks, neckbones, fatback, and yes, occasionally, even though my generation doesnâ€™t talk about them very much, chitterlings.
I know that you were born in Tennessee, and grew up in Georgia. My father was also from the South. He and I had a lot of problems in our relationship growing up, but when I came out as a gay man, he accepted me, which I never expected. Whenever he called me, he always acknowledged my partner, and asked how he was. He even sent him a card once.
One year, my father came to New York, stayed at the Plaza, and took us all to see Phantom of the Opera. When he arrived, I saw the room they had given him at the hotel; a tiny closet where you could barely open the front door without hitting the back window and which could only be affectionately referred to as the â€œsharecropperâ€™s suite.â€ I marched right downstairs, proud to show my father for the first time what a New Yorker his son had become.Â His new room, at the same price, had two queen beds, two matching robes, and enough room to twirl around in a bodiced ballroom gown and not touch anything. I know, I tried. (Just kidding, Mr. Cain.) This man who I had always been afraid of, had allowed me to be a champion for him for once, and we sat down, my partner, my father, and I, and talked politics over Chinese food.
You may not care about this, Mr. Cain, but four years ago, I was in London attending a conference on the work of James Baldwin. I was so excited about that conference, and many amazing topics came up, blacks and whites working together during the Civil Rights Movement; James Baldwinâ€™s relationship with the man who he thought was his father, what the world had done to break that man and the pain between them; what it meant for James to travel to the South and experience Jim Crow having been born in Harlem, blocks from where I live now. I thought about Jamesâ€™ courage, and how race and sexuality played out in my life. What would I do when my father died: would I have the courage to go to the South as a black gay man in an interracial relationship?
That evening, after the conference, I came home and received a phone call from my sister: my father was dead. And in just hours, I was on my way to the airport, with my white lover, on our way to South Carolina to plan my fatherâ€™s funeral. The service would be in the church that my grandfather had founded and in which he had been a minister for decades before his retirement. Because of a disagreement between my mother and my paternal grandparents I hadnâ€™t visited my grandparents often as a child, but growing up, people had always been accepting of me when we went to church, recognizing me as â€œReverend Gordonâ€™s grandson.â€ I had never come out as a gay man to my grandparents, or the entirely black congregation, and now I was bringing my white partner with me.
It occurred to me that maybe I should ask him to stay home, but my father had accepted him in life, which meant, I believed, he would have wanted him there in death; and another part of me realized that not only would that make me a hypocrite, coming fresh from the conference and all that â€œpanelâ€“discussionâ€ bravery that was now being tested, but also that there comes a point in a gay personâ€™s life where staying in the closet, making the fearful choices, costs you so much more than just saying, â€œIâ€™m not going backwards. Iâ€™ll deal with whatever happens.â€
And everyone was lovely to us; no one humiliated us or made us feel unwelcome.Â Iâ€™d like to say that occurred in part because I was giving off the â€œDonâ€™t fuck with me, fellasâ€ microwaves, basically making it clear from my aura that if anyone tried anything homophobic, after â€œall the shit Iâ€™d done been throughâ€ coming out, I was more than prepared to handle that confrontation.
But it was unnecessary to be defensive, in the end, because people were loving. When we entered the dining hall, before the wake, some women from the church had prepared a special meal for the family, and my partner got all the love that I did, right down to the hugs, and that macaroni and cheese, so good that sometimes, as a child, you prayed for someone to die, just for the food. And people asked my partner about his life, and where we lived.Â And while it may seem like a stereotype, they treated him like one of the family, because thatâ€™s how Southern black people usually are.
The only time I felt weird and embarrassed was when my fatherâ€™s fraternity brothers did a special presentation for him, and we sat in the front row during the wake. The men lined up and shook our hands. With all of them standing there in their white gloves, and with the heaviness of ceremony, grief and honor, I felt very gay, very much with a white man, and worried that I was deliberately humiliating my father at his funeral to get back at him for past grievances. But I had come to bury my father, and at close to forty, and refused to compartmentalize myself. To go to the South, to my fatherâ€™s church, and be â€œBlack,” and then come home and be â€œGay,” having my partner greet me at the door with â€œSo, how was the funeral?,” like youâ€™d ask someone â€œHow was the movie?â€ just didnâ€™t seem right.
Which is the kind of compartmentalizing I think you expect me to do as a black man, Mr. Cain. And I know that you have sat in the church pews and buried men like my father, men that you considered to be friends, so you know exactly what Iâ€™m talking about. And Mr. Cain, you do know a gay man. I donâ€™t know who he is, and perhaps you donâ€™t know either, but if you have brothers, uncles, sons, neighbors, a choir director at your church, colleagues at work, you love or work with a gay man, and some of those gay men are black. And while they may not have revealed themselves to you, and perhaps never will, they exist. And they are your family, and they count on you to be fair. And they are who you betray, every time you go on television and say you donâ€™t believe they should be able to get married, or to serve their country without hiding who they are. Just like you betray your daughters all over the country, your sisters, your aunts, your friends, when you seek to deny them the right to choose what they want for their bodies, when you try to take away their agency, and call it being â€œPro-Life.â€
When a sympathetic Elizabeth Hasselbeck tried to let you off the hook by asking if you would separate your personal beliefs from how you would govern, you said, â€œI am going to make my decisions based upon the constitution of the United States of America. Thatâ€™s what the president has a responsibility to do. Some of my personal feelings are not going to influence the decisions I have to make for all the people.â€ But how can I believe you, if you seek to reverse anti-discrimination legislation, and keep gay women and men in the closet, while they serve our country? How can I trust youâ€™re going to protect us, when a gay soldier was booed at the September 22 Florida Republican debate after he spoke on â€œDonâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell,” and you did not defend him?
Mr. Cain, when you recall your black history references, I feel pretty confident that you claim Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with great pride, but do you also claim Bayard Rustin, the black gay man who was the main political architect and organizer of the March on Washington in 1963? Do you appreciate that without Mr. Baldwinâ€™s Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time; without the love, and rage, and courage of his writing, and despite the epithets hurled his way like â€œMartin Luther Queenâ€ by some; without black gay men like Rustin and Baldwin, we may not have had a Civil Rights movement? Some people blamed the riots in Watts on The Fire Next Time, and Baldwin had 1,427 pages in his FBI file. He wasnâ€™t only speaking out for the black community, or the gay community, but for the human community, for us.
I read in the newspaper that Rick Perry is in trouble now with a new controversy; a rock near his familyâ€™s hunting lodge had the word â€œNiggerheadâ€ painted on it. The sign was eventually painted over but there is some contention as to when. On one site I visit, someone posted images taken from our countryâ€™s history, where â€œNiggerheadâ€ was used on everyday household products, from oysters in a can to bath soap and golf tees. When you look at the depiction of black faces on these products, the bugged-out eyes, grotesque, twisted mouth and red lips, it evokes a horror in our past of lynching, of dehumanization and terror. You are of an age, Mr. Cain, where you may have seen some of these images on shelves in stores, in peopleâ€™s homes. You are three years younger than my father, your father was a chauffeur, your mother a maid. Unlike me, you probably saw signs that said, â€œColored Onlyâ€ and had to wait in a separate line, or sit in a separate part of a movie theater. And I am grateful to your generation, and the people who fought for justice, that I have never had that experience. Iâ€™ve had some others, letâ€™s be clear about that, but I have never in my life stared at a Jim Crow sign, or had to drink from a separate water fountain. And that is a major accomplishment of which we can all be proud.
Thatâ€™s why it matters to me that when history remembers us, remembers you, they wonâ€™t have to watch you on The View, or any place else, making a fool of yourself. Because ultimately it can only be a fool who would have had those experiences of bigotry, criticizing Perry by telling Fox News, “There isn’t a more vile, negative word than the ‘n wordâ€™, and for him to leave it there as long as they did is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this countryâ€ and then saying with your actions: â€œYes, what was done to blacks was wrong and should never happen againâ€¦.but those gay people over there, thatâ€™s a different story: you can do it to them.â€
The fact that you are an associate pastor at your church means to some that you are a man of God. But to me a man of God is someone who defends everyoneâ€™s right to be who they are, as long as they arenâ€™t hurting anyone else, someone who canâ€™t exclude anyone on any basis. For others, this gives you a pass: you are able to discriminate on â€œmoralâ€ grounds.Â Maybe this worked once, but it wonâ€™t work any longer. We are hopefully reaching a time when it wonâ€™t be possible to justify oppression by saying, â€œBut Iâ€™m blackâ€ (so my hate doesnâ€™t really count), â€œBut itâ€™s my religionâ€ (so Iâ€™m free to hate six days a week as long as I apologize to God on Sunday), â€œBut itâ€™s just a difference of political opinionâ€ (you feel you deserve to be equal, my â€˜opinionâ€™ is that youâ€™re scum), â€œBut itâ€™s a foreign culture with ways we donâ€™t understandâ€ (so female circumcision and honor killings hurt less when you speak the local dialect).â€
Mr. Cain, I donâ€™t have much hope that youâ€™ll change your views. But I want you to know that I see exactly what you are doing. And while most black people have contempt for someone who sells out their people for money, privilege and status, what do you think you are doing when you throw me, a black gay man, under a bus, in order to gain a stronger political foothold? I just hope my gay kids, black and white, the ones around the country who might have heard your words, damaging their self-esteem, were in school that day and missed you on The View. But hey, you looked great in your suit and tie, and you sounded good. Iâ€™m sure youâ€™re going to do well in the primaries, and being on the show probably got you lots of votes. Thatâ€™s what itâ€™s all about, right?
I wish you the best.
Max Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.
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On World AIDS Day, DOJ Says Tennessee Law Discriminates Against Those With HIV
The Department of Justice celebrated World AIDS Day by calling out a Tennessee law that discriminates against people with HIV.
The DOJ released a report Friday that the state’s aggravated prostitution law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. A person arrested under the aggravated prostitution law is normally changed with a misdemeanor, and faces up to six months in prison and a $500 fine. However, if the person arrested has HIV, the crime becomes a felony, and if they’re convicted, they would face between three and 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status. The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.”
The law was originally passed in 1991. It classifies HIV-positive sex workers as violent sex offenders, according to WKRN-TV. This means that in addition to the sentence, those convicted are put on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry, usually for the rest of their lives.
The DOJ advised the state—and particularly, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, which enforces the statute most frequently, the department says—to stop enforcing the law. It also calls on the state to repeal the law and remove anyone from the registry when aggravated prostitution is the only offense. If this doesn’t happen, Tennessee could face a lawsuit.
Tennessee isn’t the only state to have laws applying to only those living with HIV. In 1988, Michigan passed a law requiring those with HIV to disclose their status before sex, according to WLNS-TV. The law is still on the books, but was updated in 2019 to lift the requirement if the HIV-positive person has an undetectable viral load. The law now also requires proof that the person set out to transmit HIV.
Laws like these can work against public health efforts, according to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH says these types of laws can make people less likely to be tested for HIV, as people cannot be punished if they didn’t know their status. In addition, critics say, the laws can be used to further discriminate. A Canadian study found a disproportionate number of Black men had been charged under HIV exposure laws.
World AIDS Day was first launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization and the United Nations to highlight awareness of the then-relatively new disease. The theme of the 2023 World AIDS Day is “Let Communities Lead,” calling on community leaders to end the AIDS epidemic.
Featured image by UNIS Vienna/Flickr via Creative Commons License.
John Fetterman Says Bob Menendez ‘Senator for Egypt,’ Should Be Expelled Next
Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) called Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) a “senator for Egypt,” and said he needed to be expelled from Congress, much like the now-former Representative George Santos.
Fetterman appeared on The View on Friday. The live broadcast aired as Santos had been kicked out of the House. When host Joy Behar asked what he thought of the vote, Fetterman immediately replied, “I’m not surprised.”
“If you are going to expel Santos, how can you allow somebody like Menendez to remain in the Senate? And, you know, Santos’ kind of lies were almost, you know, funny,” Fetterman said. “Menendez, I think is really a senator for Egypt, you know, not New Jersey. So I really think he needs to go.”
Host Sunny Hostin then asked if Fetterman was uncomfortable with expelling Menendez, as, like with Santos, he had only been indicted, not convicted.
“He has the right for his day in court and all of it, but he doesn’t have the right to to have those kinds of votes and things. That’s not a right,” he said. “I think we need to make that kind of decision to send him out.”
This September, Menendez was indicted on corruption charges. He is accused of accepting bribes of cash, gold and a car, as well as giving “highly sensitive” information about U.S. Embassy staffers in Cairo to the Egyptian government, according to USA Today. Menendez was forced to step down as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was replaced by Ben Cardin, Maryland’s Democratic senator.
Menendez denied wrongdoing, and has refused to resign, despite many calls to do so from both Democrats and Republicans.
“For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” Menendez said in a statement following his indictment. “Since this investigation was leaked nearly a year ago, there has been an active smear campaign of anonymous sources and innuendos to create an air of impropriety where none exists.”
This is not Menendez’s first brush with the law. Menendez was indicted in 2015 on federal corruption charges. He was accused of helping Salomon Melgen, one of Menendez’s campaign contributors, by intervening in a dispute with federal regulators and helping Melgen get a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.
In 2017, Menendez’s trial ended with a hung jury, and the Department of Justice declined to retry the case, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Menendez denied all wrongdoing.
House Votes to Boot George Santos 311-114
Representative George Santos (R-NY) has been expelled from Congress following a 311-114 vote; two House members voted “present.”
The expulsion of Santos follows a debate on his fate on Thursday. The vote required a two-thirds majority, or 290 of the 435-seat chamber. This is Santos’ third vote of expulsion; last month, a vote failed with 31 Democrats voting against, according to The Hill.
While the vote was decisive, some notable Republicans voted to save Santos, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN).
“We’ve not whipped the vote and we wouldn’t,” Johnson told CNN Wednesday. “I trust that people will make that decision thoughtfully and in good faith. I personally have real reservations about doing this, I’m concerned about a precedent that may be set for that.”
Santos himself had harsh words for the House following the vote. Leaving the capitol building, he briefly spoke with reporters.
“The House spoke that’s their vote. They just set new dangerous precedent for themselves,” he told CNN. “Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place.”
He then cut his time short, telling reporters, “You know what? As unofficially no longer a member of Congress, I no longer have to answer your questions.”
Santos also faces 23 federal charges, which include fraud, money laundering and misuse of campaign funds, according to CNN. He has pleaded not guilty. An Ethics Committee report found evidence that Santos used campaign funds for Botox and even an OnlyFans account.
On Thursday, Santos said he refused to resign because otherwise, “they win.”
“If I leave the bullies take place. This is bullying,” Santos said. “The reality of it is it’s all theater, theater for the cameras and theater for the microphones. Theater for the American people at the expense of the American people because no real work’s getting done.”
Santos also threatened to file a resolution to expel Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). Bowman pulled a fire alarm in September. Bowman pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge, and said it was an accident. He said he thought the fire alarm would open a locked door as he rushed to a vote. Bowman paid a $1,000 fine.
There have only been six total expulsions from the House, including Santos. Santos is the only Republican to ever be expelled from the House.
The previous expulsion was in 2002, when Representative James Traficant (D-OH) was expelled after a 420-1 vote. Traficant had been convicted on 10 counts of corruption-related crimes.
Before Traficant, Representative Michael “Ozzie” Myers (D-PA) was the first representative of the modern era to be expelled. Myers got the boot following his conviction for accepting bribes. Myers couldn’t keep out of trouble; in 2022, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison on charges of election fraud.
Prior to Myers, the only expulsions from the House were in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. Henry Cornelius Burnett (D-KY), John William Reid (D-MO) and John Bullock Clark (Whig-MO) were all expelled for joining the Confederacy.
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