Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A White Crane Conversation with David Mixner

By Christopher Murray

This is only an excerpt...

Called “the most powerful Gay man in America” by Newsweek magazine following his successful efforts to marshal Gay money and resources for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, political advisor David Mixner helped start the nation’s first Gay political action committee, the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), and was a co-founder of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the Washington-based national organization that identifies and supports highly qualified LGBT candidates for public office. He has been a leading advisor on several other presidential bids, including those of Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart, and George McGovern. In February, Mixner endorsed Barack Obama, saying, “The major factor in my decision to endorse Obama is the war in Iraq. To put it simply, he was right from the beginning. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Senator Obama is Senator Clinton’s peer on substance and policy. Clearly, he is not only ready on day one to be president, but he also will be right on day one! Obama has surrounded himself with some of the best minds in the country. He has the ability to inspire us to make sacrifices and to serve our nation. The senator has one of the best minds in the country. Like President Kennedy, he and his family will make us proud to have them in the White House. So, with great enthusiasm, I embrace Senator Obama and am allowing myself to dream and believe again.”

Christopher Murray: You said to me once that you have a vision for a Gay president. Why? How?

David Mixner: In America, the ultimate sign of success of a group making it, whether it was John Kennedy being Catholic, or a Jewish president someday, is living in the White House. Right now, we have two candidacies in part powerfully motivated by one being African American, Barack Obama, and one being a woman, Hillary Clinton. The attainability of someone from our Lesbian and Gay community being president one day is the ultimate symbol that one has arrived and been accepted by society.

That’s power, real power, where we are judged on our talents as whole human beings and not on our sexuality, where it’s possible for young Gay people to have any dream that they want and know that it’s attainable. If you one of us could be president, then any of us could be anything we want.

Murray: What is Gay political power and how is it changing over time?

Mixner: I don’t know if there is such a thing as Gay political power. I think there is such a thing as political power and that Gays are finally in a position to participate. If we are talking about Gay political power, we are talking about who is head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. Real power is people: Gay people heading committees in state legislatures and city councils. For the first time in the last decade, we are now in the position of attaining major political power and having not only a place at the table, but helping to design the table. It was less than four decades ago that Elaine Noble, when she ran for the legislature in Massachusetts, had to have armed guards. It was literally only two decades ago that Michael Dukakis refused to take organized, Gay-bundled funds. It was three decades ago that people refused to take my check as a political donation because I was openly homosexual.

That meant that the political power we had was internally focused. Who was on what board. Our status and self-esteem was based on our own community-based organizations. Now we are finding out as members of the community and getting married, having families, that we are no longer tokens. That although we have a broad range of frontiers to still break through, the fact of the matter is that it is not an anomaly for a Gay person to head the budget committee or ways and means committee in the legislature, which is real power. It is not an anomaly to be an openly Gay campaign manager for a candidate for president. So, what we have made is a transition from that internal focus of power to now where we are participating in power in society generally. This applies outside of politics as well.

Murray: What price have you paid personally for the unprecedented access you have had to the top echelon of political power in our country?

Mixner: It’s something I don’t think about too much. Thinking about it makes it more difficult to accept. It’s easier to avoid the question and just move on. I come from a time where I sat around my family’s dining room table and when a young Gay man killed himself in our neighborhood, my father and mother thought his family was better off. And a time when my partner was served by friends on paper plates because of fear of AIDS. When I was growing up, I thought I wanted to be an ambassador or senator or president but was told that would not be possible.

So there is no question, being Gay has changed the course of my life. Having children was out of the questions, running for political office was out of the question. Being fired from your job or being destroyed politically was a very real possibility if anyone knew. We saw friends arrested for sexual activity in parks and their names printed in the newspapers. What toll did it take? An enormous one. Eventually you cross a line with that oppression where you just aren’t willing to take it any longer. And that resolution to fight that oppression becomes your energy. Not only mine, I remember Harvey Milk and Elaine Noble and many others saying we cannot let another generation go through this. It was an understanding of the modern LGBT movement that few of us would experience the spoils of victory from our work. At this point, we’ve experienced success far greater than any of us would have expected. I’m too old now at sixty to be a dad and throw a football around with my son, but I could still run for office if I chose. But by the time that possibility came into my grasp, I had no desire for it.

Murray: Examples of the cost are that you have been blackmailed and sent into the political wilderness several times in your career.

Mixner: When I was working against the Viet Nam war and achieved notoriety working for Eugene McCarthy as one of the four coordinators of the Viet Nam War Moratorium Committee, there is zero doubt in anyone’s mind that, if I had been openly Gay, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that work. None. I would have been viewed as a horrible weight on the anti-war movement and doing damage to the greater good. So, I was closeted. And during that period, I fell head over heels in love with someone who had been planted by someone. Some intelligence agency or some Gordon Liddy-type operation. It’s still unclear to me who. Photographs were taken and I was blackmailed and told that if I didn’t get out of the anti-war movement, those explicit photographs would be sent to my parents and the press.

I made a pact with myself that if the photos were sent that I would kill myself. I finally figured out that they wouldn’t send them other than anonymously, which would discredit them in the press, so I held firm, but it dramatically reminded me of my vulnerability. I pulled back and became less visible. I developed a persona of the harmonica-playing cowboy who was a grand strategist who said, “Aw, shucks, I don’t really want to do any of those interviews.” A lot of us kept behind the scenes those days, in Hollywood, in politics, just close enough to get a taste of what it was we really wanted, but not in visible danger.

Murray: How do you understand the growth of the Gay rights movement over time, both politically and socially?

Mixner: Chris, that is a question that could take hours to answer. But I remember, growing up in the 1950’s, it wasn’t unusual, for a family who discovered their child was Gay,

This is just an excerpt from this issue of White Crane. We are a reader-supported journal and need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going. So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!

David Mixner blogs regularly at www.davidmixner.com

This is Christopher Murray’s first contribution to White Crane as part of a collection of interviews for a book he is writing entitled Brave New Faggot. Murray writes regularly for Gay City News in New York and is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. He can be contacted at christopher@christophermurray.org or at www.christophermurray.org. He is a member of the White Crane Gay Men’s Health Leadership Academy.

Portrait of David Mixner, Oil On Canvas, 2002, by George Towne. Courtesy of the artist.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Inteview with Chas Brack

Telling Sakia Gunn's Story

Director and producer Charles Brack is in the final, frenzied stages of completing a feature-length documentary about the 2003 bias crime murder of 15-year-old Newark resident Sakia Gunn. Media coverage of Gunn's murder was paltry compared with that of Matthew Shepherd -- though Gay City News was a notable exception -- raising questions about the way race and gender play out in discussions about bias crimes against queer people.

Brack, 48, who is called Chas by his friends, grew up in Chicago and has youthful memories of the disorder during the 1968 Democratic National Convention there. The June day he left Ohio's Antioch College in 1983 with a degree in communications, he drove through the night to arrive in New York for the Gay Pride celebration.

Brack worked for the New York City Commission on Human Rights in its Lesbian and Gay Discrimination Unit and later the AIDS Discrimination Unit as a human rights investigator, eventually becoming an associate producer in the Education Department.

In 1992, he joined Gay Men's Health Crisis where he was the co-coordinator of the Media Unit and associate producer of the "Living with AIDS" cable news magazine program. In 1996, he returned to the Commission on Human Rights, in its Community Relations Bureau, where he worked closely with the police on bias cases.

CHARLES BRACK: Sakia was a 15-year-old so-called "aggressive" [defined on the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's website as a homosexual woman of color who dresses in masculine attire], living in Newark, New Jersey, who was killed by a gay basher. Sakia and her friends were returning to their homes after hanging out in Greenwich Village when they were approached by men making sexual advances. Words were exchanged and a fight ensued. Sakia was stabbed and bled out on the streets of downtown Newark. The assailant turned himself in to authorities and is currently serving an approximately 20-year sentence.

CM: What was the impact on you when you first heard about the murder?

CB: When I saw the report on television, the picture of Sakia said more to me than the newscaster. It was clear to me that there was a gender and/ or sexual orientation slant to the story that was not being reported. The person that the media described was a 15-year-old black girl, but I saw a 15-year-old black boy. I knew that there was more to be revealed.

CM: When did you decide to make the documentary?

CB: I was approached by a colleague about doing the film, so I jumped at the chance to do what I do, which is to try to lift up black LGBT people. I was the co-founder of Lavender Light Gospel choir, a charter member and ordained clergy in Unity Fellowship Church --NYC, as well as involved in other community-based organizations in New York City. I don't know, I just love my people.

CM: How is a documentary going to impact the course of events?

CB: I hope that LGBT youth will know that my generation is watching. Although we've been through a different struggle, we care about them. I hope that the film will signal to the larger LGBT and black communities, respectively, that they are not disposable. I hope that Sakia's name will become widely recognizable and that her death was not in vain.

I believe even in this time of morally and ethically declining media coverage of important issues, that media is still a powerful tool for social change, if wielded well. I have learned a lot about the issues that LGBT youth face on a daily basis. I thought that we'd come farther. Sadly, obviously this is not the case.

CM: At what point in the process is the film?

CB: We are in the post-production phase of the film, meaning that we have a rough cut. We hope to be finished in time for upcoming film festivals and New York City's Pride month. It's been a long road but well worth the travel.

CM: How can people support the film?

CB: Donations always help! Just a few more dollars will allow us to actually pay the very generous editor, who has been working for pennies to take out any audio glitches, which can occur when filming off set. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of money out there for this kind of work, but we have managed to get this far. I want the film to serve Sakia's memory well. It needs to look good and sound good in order to get noticed in the vortex of pejorative drivel that is passed off as good representation of black LGBT people.

CM: How did your interest in human rights come about?

CB: I have always been interested in diversity and social change from the time that my little Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago started visiting synagogues and nunneries. I can remember my first Seder at age 10. I guess that explains my past proclivity for Jewish men.

I knew that there was a world outside of the ghetto where I grew up. But I had no idea that that world would be so hostile to a little sissy boy with thick glasses who was accused of being uppity because I spoke proper English. So, all of my educational and employment choices have reflected that initial introduction to multiculturalism.

CM: What do you think LGBT people need to know about human rights and bias crime in our own community?

CB: We need not believe the press on our community. The fight is far from over. Even if we win the fight for gay marriage, it will not be a social panacea to cure all the remaining social plagues inside as well as outside of the LGBT community, like homophobia, sexism, transphobia, and racism. We need to know that most incidents of bias go unreported. We need to know that simply being gay is not a point of departure for our quest for diversity, we still have to do the work to make our community unified.

CM: What else do you have going on?

CB: I am currently working at Third World Newsreel as the operations director. Third World Newsreel is an alternative media arts organization that fosters the creation, appreciation, and dissemination of independent film and video by and about people-of-color and social justice issues.

CM: Do you think you could have been friends with Sakia Gunn?

CB: For many years when I was a kid, I was mistaken for a girl. Let's just say that I was not the butchest boy on the block. So, yes, I think we would have been running in the same circles.

I too grew up in a big city that did not have a clearly established place for black LGBT youth. But like Sakia and many others, we created locations and activities where we could just be ourselves. Our relationships were valued and solid. We cleaved to each other. Although it was a very different time when I was 15, we still encountered the same prejudices that queer youth of color face today.

CM: Are there personal reasons why this murder moved you?

CB: When I was young I even faced the disdain of my father, brother, and community because of my obvious feminine ways and appearance. It was a rough and simultaneously joyous time. Thank God for the Black Church! Despite their effort to cloak us, we are in force there.

But that little thing inside me, that I guess some would say was my spirit, would not be squelched. It's the same spirit that made Sakia and her friends strike back at their assailants.

CM: Can you explain the tangled interplay of homophobia, sexism, transphobia, and racism in Sakia's story?

CB: It's as simple as the cards being stacked against you. For as with many minority groups, the struggle is more complicated. But, being a man of faith I now know that these so called burdens have only proven to make me stronger.

So, for instance, while the straight black community and the white gay community stand on the precipice of the ongoing discourse about who is the most tortured protected class, black LGBT folk exist in a crevasse where we know that none of us is free until all of us are free.

I tire of the question, "Which is worse: being called a nigger or a faggot?"

For more information about Charles Brack's documentary film about the murder of Sakia Gunn, visit sakiagunnfilmproject.com

©GayCityNews 2008