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June 15, 2006

Family Occasions

Come July Eddie and I will have chalked up two years as a legally married couple (not counting those fleeting occasions when we set foot outside the boundaries of Massachusetts and become instantly if only temporarily unmarried).

We have actually been a couple for more than 27 years, of course. But 2004 is the year that's inked on our marriage license, which means that, for people of a certain institution-cherishing mindset, two years ago is when our couplehood really got rolling.

Still, Eddie and I are the greenest of newlyweds compared to Hesh and Ev Sedarbaum, the folks shown in the photo below, who this weekend will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary down in Florida.

On the afternoon in 2004 when this snapshot was taken, Ev and Hesh had just flown to New York City from Florida and then edured the four-hour drive from NYC to North Adams (with Eddie's sister Susan at the wheel) so they could sit with other family members and friends in our back yard and watch their son marry his boyfriend of twenty-five years.

Hesh was preparing to turn 95 that very weekend and Ev was 91. At those advanced ages they could have been forgiven for simply afixing themselves to the nearest Floridian rocking chairs and sending a card. But instead they made the trip. Without thinking twice. Our marriage was an important family occasion.

As spring chickens each edging into his sixth decade of life, neither Eddie nor I can claim to be "returning the favor" by heading to West Palm Beach to help the old folks party in honor of their seventy years of couplehood. The rigors of our trip won't compare with the rigors of theirs. Still, we will be away from home for a few days, and I figure I should mention it to you so you'll know why this blog has gone silent.

I can't resist noting that — by virtue of Ev and Hesh's heterosexuality — they were not for even an instant transformed into unmarried singles when they crossed state lines two years ago to attend their son's wedding. Eddie and I, on the other hand, will stop being married while we are down south.

Our marriage vows notwithstanding, we will involuntarily become "single" again — although we will certainly not have divorced and will be no less devoted to each other while in the Sunshine State than we are here in Massachusetts.

As paradoxes go, it would be nice if the foregoing were a stranger one. But our weekend of quiet marital whiplash is commonplace for lesbian and gay married Bay Staters. While in Florida Eddie and I will simply be experiencing the everyday reality of life as it's lived by second-class citizens in today's America.

September 1, 2006

Losing My Voice

I read in today's New York Times that The Village Voice is busily divesting itself of yet more of the writers and designers who once made me feel linked to it, as a reader and a sometime contributor.

Robert Christgau, whose influential commentary on pop music began appearing in the Voice's pages back in 1969, has been given the boot, along with four other senior editors who have helped keep the paper's arts coverage sharp and localized. Three members of the art department have also been kicked overboard, including Art Director Minh Uong, who helped give Stuck Rubber Baby beautiful play — almost four full pages' worth, plus an art clip on the cover — when my graphic novel was published in 1995.

That takes me back down memory lane, since it was Minh who helped me get over a prejudice I once had against letting my artwork be digitally scanned for reproduction.

Young designers these days must find it quaint that drawings were once photostatted, pasted physically into layouts, and then photographed onto fine-grained film for transfer onto printing plates. Film could lovingly preserve a drawing's details in a way that scanners, in their early days, could not match — particularly when digital newbies who were just learning the ropes were pushing the buttons.

I now realize that I was unfairly generalizing from a single unfortunate experience. A well-intentioned but technically unsavvy gay publication hired me to do drawings that ended up being scanned at far to crude a resolution. To my embarrassment this made hash of my stippling and crosshatching. I was so horrified that I vowed never to submit artwork for publication unless only the old, film-based technology was used to reproduce it.

Talk about swimming against the tides of history!

With that bitter experience still on my mind, I winced when Minh Wong proposed reordering and manipulating some of my Stuck Rubber Baby panels digitally in the interest of a more effective showcase in the Voice. Would I stick to my vow? Four pages of free publicity in the famed Village Voice was nothing to be sneezed at when a new book was about to reach bookstores, but that doesn't mean that my alarm at Minh's suggestion wasn't obvious.

Minh was patient and promised that I would be pleased with what he did. And I was. Knowing nothing of how fast things were changing in the digital revolution, I was unaware that resolutions of a far finer level had become available since that first bad experience.

So now Minh, my digital enlightener, is among the seven others newly-expelled Voice mainstays cited in today's Times article. He's talented and will do well, and he joins a distinguished list of past Voice contributors.

Long gone is George Delmerico, one of Minh's art directing predecessors, who gave me my first break in the Voice and who subsequently published my drawings and comics repeatedly while his tenure at the paper lasted.

Gone also is longtime senior editor Richard Goldstein, who like Christgau seemed for years to be one of the Voice's irreplaceable ingredients. Richard was shown the door a couple of years ago. There was a public dust-up as Richard filed a lawsuit for age discrimination, a lawsuit that recently ended with a settlement whose terms cannot be shared with even those who have supped with the plaintiff on Thanksgiving.

In 1981 Richard co-wrote (with Larry Bush) a prophetic essay called "The Antigay Backlash." I was invited by George Delmerico to draw a full-page comic strip to accompany the article. Though a Voice novice, I was given complete editorial freedom. They did things like that in those days.

"Sometimes I Get So Mad" served as my coming-out statement in a mainstream (as opposed to an "underground") publication. Angry and heartfelt, it was reprinted thereafter in a number of places, including The Advocate, where it laid the groundwork for Wendel, and in my book Dancin' Nekkid With The Angels. It was an important professional landmark for me.

Richard and his partner Tony Ward became and remain close friends of Eddie's and mine, which gives me an insider's vantage point from which to report that my pal's painful departure from the Voice, a professional divorce that once seemed unimaginable, has in no way laid my pal creatively low. Indeed, he is well along in writing a novel that will knock you dead when it is completed. Eddie and I have been given a peek. (And no, it is not a roman a clef about a mistreated journalist!)

Meanwhile, the Voice logo is still blue and rectangular, so not everything has changed. I see that the always amusing and occasionally trenchant Michael Musto is still on staff, as is theatre critic Michael Feingold. I remain personally grateful to both of these guys for lending a hand when I was desperately beating the bushes for money so that the half-finished Stuck Rubber Baby could be completed.

So the paper isn't yet stripped bare of its veterans, even if it has been a long, long time since anyone could refer to it in the same sentence as the word "underground" without smirking. Believe it or not, there was a time when the Voice seemed rooted in, or at least aligned with, the 'Sixties counterculture. Not that it was ever the East Village Other. But it was "hip."

Cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer (of whom I first became aware when Mad magazine reprinted some Voice cartoons from a collection called Sick, Sick, Sick) staked his claim to fame in its pages. Arthur Bell showed that outrageous journalism could be published from a defiantly gay point of view without anybody getting lynched. This heartened me at a time when I was trying to figure out how out of the closet I dared be when the viability of my cartooning career was at stake.

Reassuringly, Arthur Bell showed that a homo could even be accepted into the heterosensibility-drenched pages of Playboy. Homo Howard Cruse eventually followed suit. (Briefly. But that's another story for another time.)

I'm sure that talented writers will continue to find a place in the Voice, but there's little to indicate that there's much of the paper's old soul left in those offices where I once felt welcome. And maybe the regret I feel is just a sign of my advancing old-fogeyness.

I miss the feeling that something funky and journalistically radical was afoot down in Greenwich Village. But I guess that gentrification will always have its way, no matter what time-honored neighborhood ghosts get displaced by its advance.

December 1, 2006

A Public Display of Affection

Avert your gaze, ye enemies of sentiment! Today is Eddie's birthday and I am giving him a public kiss.

The last word hasn't yet been spoken on the fate of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, but at the moment it looks like efforts to engineer an amendment to the Massachusetts State Constitution that would reverse the legalization of gay marriages may have been successfully stymied by a deft (or sneaky, depending on how you look at it) parliamentary maneuver by our allies in the legislature.

Which means that life will go on for a while with doomsday predictions about the supposed bad effects of having lesbians and gays living as married couples amid the heterosexual majority being disproven with every passing day. Eddie and I are pleased to be participants in this process.

The state's marriage amendment as written cannot undo Eddie's and my marriage even if our governor Mit Romney succeeds in his effort to resurrect it at the last moment. That said, we all know that political winds can shift unexpectedly, and the deadline for getting an antigay marriage amendment onto the 2008 ballot hasn't quite passed yet. Therefore, although it seems unlikely, Massachusetts voters could still end up getting their shot a couple of years from now at defining future marriages between the same-sex couples next door out of bounds.

But whatever transpires (barring an unexpected surge for President Bush's must wished for amendment to the Federal Constitution), a change of marriage's definition in the Massachusetts Constitution can only affect gay nuptials thereafter. It will not be retroactive. So a sliver of the state's gay population will be left as legally wed as is possible while discrimination remains the rule beyond our state's borders. And that "sliver" of married human beings numbers in the thousands by now. That's no small sliver.

Whatever Massachusetts and America learn from spending years knowing that thousands of gay people are living in officially sanctioned households to no observable ill effect on society will be hard to unlearn, no matter how much the American Family Association rails. Such things can be unlearned (it's always sobering to remember that a gay-rights movement flourished in Germany before Hitler rose to crush it), but it's not easy to voluntarily blind yourself when you've spent some time viewing life's realities.

Massachusetts enjoys (grudgingly, sometimes) the reputation of being "the bluest of the blue states." To many people elsewhere this translates as "a breeding ground for liberal wackos." Being an unapologetic liberal who considers occasional wackniness his birthright as a cartoonist, I would feel safer if the Bay State's embrace of its reputation were a little firmer. The Catholic hierarchy in the state is no friend to "blueness" when it comes to marriage equality, and our governor freely scores points with the Christian right by demonstrating that familial love between members of the state's LGBT people cuts no ice with him. More disturbing than these fairly atypical examples of homophobic intransigence among the powerful is my awareness that such voices of intolerance clearly have a significant constituency in the state. Otherwise they would not be powerful.

I'm happy that gay people seem to have sturdier friends in this state's legislature than is common in most other states. Antigay legislation is not a slam dunk here. Whew. It would be more reassuring if marriages like Eddie's and mine were being defended by straightforwardly enlightened action instead of tricky votes for recesses. But we fringe types who live our lives trying to destroy American family values must take our victories however we can get them during dark times.

Homophobia-based inequality has been imbedded with depressing ease in numerous state constitutions across America since the possibility of equal rights for gays first reared its scary head in Hawaii back in the '90s. An outcry followed, as outcries always do when prejudices are challenged, and the people who were then in charge of Hawaiian rulemaking scampered to calm the waters. In short order discrimination in Hawaii was made Constitutional by referendum. And that was that in luau-land.

A pattern was established. Marriage equality has been steadily beaten back by votes or vetoes in state after state since then, just as equal rights for African-American citizens would surely have been voted down in my home state of Alabama when I was young, had not some "activist judges" removed bigotry-based laws as an option. Our Supreme Courts were cut from different cloth back then.

Occasional exceptions aside, I grew up viewing the U.S. Supreme Court as a thrilling buttress against the localized tyranny of ignorance. Even obstreperous Alabama Governor George C. Wallace was forced to step aside and allow black students to enroll at the University of Alabama once he was finished with his voter-pleasing "stand in the schoolhouse door." No matter how badly the racists of my home region behaved, the Warren Court saw what the American Constitution demanded in the way of "equal justice under the law" and made sure that the defenders of discrimination would ultimately have to step aside.

Thanks to relentless court-packing since those days by the "radical conservatives" who have taken charge of the GOP, fair rulings by the Supreme Court can no longer be counted upon to make the egalitarian ideals of our U.S. Constitution stick. Judicial appointments by George W. Bush, who happily displays the shallowest comprehension of what American democracy is all about that I have ever seen, may have succeeded in nudging the Supreme Court beyond a dangerous tipping point that will endure long after his own incompetence is expelled from the Oval Office. Time will tell. Am I nervous about Bush's legacy? I am indeed.

I take nothing for granted in a country as divided against itself as ours. But for now Eddie and I count ourselves lucky to live in a state where rule by antigay hysteria is not as easy a sell as elsewhere. After our 27 years together, being married means relatively little to us. But having the right to be married means a lot.

So it's handy that Eddie's birthday falls so close after Thanksgiving every year. The two of us have many things to be grateful for that are unrelated to geographical location, but to be a gay couple legally married under the pioneering laws of a pioneer state adds a special grace note to our gratitude each fall as we brace for winter's arrival.

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