Dunleavy’s Folly

Books

Books and photo by Callen Harty.

“To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”–George Washington

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”–John Adams

“I cannot live without books.”–Thomas Jefferson

Despite these words of wisdom from America’s first three Presidents, this country has historically lacked in its support of the arts. Better to work all day in the fields or factories than to spend leisure time enjoying the finer things in life. Better to read the Bible than be corrupted by literature written by heathens. Better to close one’s eyes than to open them up to new worlds and new possibilities through the arts.

When schools face budget shortages the first things to go are the arts programs–bands, art classes, photography clubs, and more. All the sports are kept because those supposedly build character, which they can, though those involved in the arts know that the arts do the same. The arts in this country have always been underappreciated and underfunded.

Yesterday, Alaska became the first state to shutter its arts agency, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, after Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, vetoed nearly $450 million dollars from a budget the legislature had already cut by millions (he also cut over 40% of the state’s support of the University of Alaska, $50 million dollars in Medicaid spending, and most of the state money for public broadcasting, among other things). He cut the Council on the Arts’ entire budget of $2.9 million, $700,000 of which was state funding. The veto also prevents the agency from accepting National Endowment for the Arts matching funding of $700,000 and private foundation funds of $1.5 million dollars according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Clearly, if this cut were solely to balance the budget, other funds would not have faced the chopping block, as that money is from other sources that have nothing to do with Alaska spending its own money. The intent was obviously to gut the agency because the governor, like many conservatives, believes that state government is too big and shouldn’t be involved in support of the arts. Unfortunately, the legislature did not have enough votes to override the veto, which indicates that they agree with Dunleavy, even if those in the rest of Alaska may not.

Republicans in Congress are of the same ilk. They have worked to cut funding for public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts for years. Other right-wing governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin have worked hard to destroy public institutions like colleges and to defund support of the arts. Walker’s first budget proposal after getting elected included a two-thirds cut to the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Artists have always scared politicians because artists tend to speak their minds. Cartoonists skewer politicians when warranted. Writers pen novels that satirize them. Songwriters and poets encapsulate their foibles in short verses. Visual artists paint them as they truly are. It is no wonder that among the first people imprisoned by fascists are artists of every sort. It is no wonder that authoritarians do their best to silence those whose purpose in life is to find their truth and reveal it to others.

What politicians like Dunleavy don’t understand is that art will survive long after his term of office is up. Artists will find ways to fund their work and if they can’t, they will find ways to create it without spending money. Money does not make art (though it can make it easier to make art). The finished product may not be as lavish or polished as the public has come to expect, but its raw beauty will still come through and still resonate with those who seek deeper meaning in their lives.

Artists have always suffered and they always will. What this kind of budget cut does is make the citizens of Alaska suffer with less art, less awakening, less connection with their humanity, just like their governor.

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Two years after

Mom

Mom. Photo by Callen Harty.

Two years after

Before you were gone you were gone.
Your eyes, already looking toward heaven,
could not look at me and know who I was,
though love still glimmered in those deep
brown orbs.
Before you passed your past was lost.
Memories flickered in and out.
You could not recall who was dead
and who was not, or
where you were or who was there.
Still you sweetly smiled.

Ancestors tiptoed in the dark.
Lost loves snuggled next to you
and sometimes you called to them
even when they were not there.
Your children were with you.
We looked for you and sometimes
could not find you
beneath
the blankets that kept you warm
while you floated far above them.
Often
you were not there.

When that moment came,
that awful beautiful final moment
we all resisted for so long,
the mysteries of your life
died
with you, leaving behind
traces, small sketches, imprints,
all of them abstractions—
as life is—
condensed moments
of love,
wonder,
joy,
and being
no more.

I was not there
when your last breath
whispered your last secrets,
as the mystery of you lay still
beneath the sheets.
A gentle wind blew swiftly past me
as you passed
and I breathed in your last breath.
Now I find it hard to breathe,
to remember you
perfectly in your fullness.
Like you, my memory is fading, too.
It reaches for images lost
like faded photographs
that could never capture your essence.
I cannot capture you now,
but know that there is still love
reflected in my own brown eyes.

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Pride (and Prejudice)

Rainbow flags

Rainbow flags. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

 

So far, this year’s Pride Month has been a bizarre microcosm of living life as a queer person in the United States, and our experience is a microcosm of minority communities in general. This month, the queer community has celebrated itself and stood up for our rights in cities large and small all across the country. But there is a strange dichotomy evident between the continued progress of the LGBT community and other marginalized communities and the horrible backlash against that progress.

In my state of Wisconsin in June, Governor Tony Evers ordered the rainbow flag to fly atop the Capitol for the first time in history. Watching a video of the raising of that flag, just below the American and state flags, was awe-inspiring and brought me to tears. However, within a day or two, news media were reporting that Donald Trump’s administration was refusing permission to embassies around the world that requested permission to fly the rainbow flag in honor of Pride Month. My heart was lifted by the raising of the flag here in Wisconsin and my outlook was lowered by the refusal to allow the flag to be raised elsewhere.

This is the way it goes for us.

In Detroit, tens of thousands of queer folks and allies showed up at the annual pride march. Along with them, a group of armed Nazis showed up to intimidate the crowd. They tore down and ripped up at least one rainbow flag, stomped and urinated on an Israeli flag, and made chimpanzee noises at African-American attendees. Police escorted them away from the event. A couple days before the Detroit parade, the city saw two gay men and a trans woman killed and two others injured in a shooting that was said to target the victims because they were queer. Detroit is not an anomaly. It is America.

Meanwhile, several black trans women have been killed in Dallas and the killer has still not been found. Dallas, too, is America.

As a community, we celebrate life while quietly marking death. We dance in the evening and comfort suicidal friends the next day. We cheer political gains and mourn political losses, often in the same day or the same hour. It can be hard to know whether the day brings laughter or tears. This is the way it is for us.

We have made great strides and with that progress come the last gasps of the homophobes who will not let go of their ingrained prejudices. It is the same for all minorities. As Black Lives Matter and other groups force this country to look at its racist past and racist present there is tacit support from high-level government officials for a violent backlash against changing the status quo. Members of hate groups have heard the call and responded. Police killings of unarmed black men continue to be an issue. People on the fence who perhaps were ambivalent about certain minorities have been told the gate is open and they can cross to the other side.

Radical right-wingers in office–and there are many–have also heard the call. For example, they have recently introduced countless draconian measures in various states in an attempt to stop abortion and a woman’s right to choose. These bills are clearly not about the sanctity of life, as the same members show so little disregard for life in every other way. It is about controlling women, who have continued to gain in power despite the male-dominated society in which we live. Almost a century after women gained the right to vote–which many would like to take away–we have still not passed the Equal Rights Amendment.

Those same legislators also work to undermine LGBT gains. While same-sex couples can now legally marry, we can be denied cake at the celebration. Legislatures continue to pass laws that allow discrimination against us on religious grounds, that allow states to keep us from adopting children, and that undermine our gains in every way they can imagine. We can still be fired in about half of the states simply for being who we are.

Living as a queer person in this country (or as a Muslim, woman, African-American, Jew, or countless other minorities) is a feat of balance on a daily basis. One moment you are proudly proclaiming who you are and marching for equal rights, the next you could be ducking bullets from a crazed gunman who believes he is safeguarding his race, gender, religion, or other privileged class that he claims is under fire from groups trying to destroy him and his people. Or it could be attacks from crazed legislators who feel threatened by others having the same rights as they enjoy.

These things keep us off balance. It can be hard to stand up for your rights when you are knocked down, when you are cleaning up the rubble from a bombing at your mosque, or wiping up the blood from a mass shooting at your church or favorite night club.

It can be heartbreakingly difficult at times.

It is so hard to see that you are better off than you were fifty years ago, but decades away from being anywhere close to truly equal. Sometimes it feels like pushing your way through quicksand or deep mud. While you may be getting closer to that safe shore of equality, you wonder if you will have the strength to make it all the way there. Some days you simply want to give up the fight. Somehow you find the strength to push ahead, and then someone pushes you back. You get back up and move forward again and find someone standing in your way. You work your way around them. Despite all the obstacles, you keep going because you have to, because you are a human being with dignity and determination, and you will not let hatred in any of its forms keep you from love.

At some point, you realize we are not alone. You understand that we are all in this together, that if you don’t stand alongside your African-American brothers and sisters in their struggle, they will not stand with you. You see it is ultimately the same struggle and get that we can reach the goal together. We are in it with women, immigrants, queer folks, and countless others who are striving to fulfill the dream of this nation. You know that together–all of us together–will overcome.

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Paths to Healing press release, 2019

Flyer

Paths to Healing flyer.

Several Wisconsin organizations have partnered for the seventh year to organize and sponsor Paths to Healing, a one-day conference on surviving child sex abuse to be held from 8:45-4:15 p.m. at the American Family Insurance Training Center on Friday, June 21.

Sponsoring organizations are Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA), the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, UNIDOS, Aurora Health Care, Canopy Center, Proud Theater, and OutReach, with thanks to American Family for use of their facility. The day-long conference will focus on healing and survival, particularly among male survivors, an often underserved population in the sexual assault advocacy community.

Conference organizers are pleased to present Nathan Spiteri as this year’s keynote speaker. Originally from Australia, Spiteri lives in New York City where he is an actor and writer and has appeared in numerous commercials, plays, and independent films. Last fall his survivor story was featured in the Sydney Morning Herald. He has turned his story into a script which he is currently working on getting produced. He is also working with mixed media artist Melanie Jai to raise awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence through sharing their stories together.

The conference will open with socializing and networking prior to the welcome and introduction at 8:45, followed by Spiteri’s keynote address. Throughout the day there will be breakout sessions geared to professionals in the sexual assault field, sex abuse survivors, and friends and families of survivors. The conference is unique in being open to professionals, survivors, and allies.

Breakout sessions cover a range of topics, including Expanding OutReach: Inclusivity and Diversity in a Changing Landscape; Invisible Survivors: The Sexual Assault of Black Boys and Men; Acceptance & Resiliency: A Path to Liberation; Supporting Late Adolescent and Emerging Adult Survivors; Healing in Mind and Body; Adult Survivor Group Experience for Community Members and Providers; Child Sexual Assault Prevention; and Safe at Home—Wisconsin’s Address Confidentiality Program.

Paths to Healing started in 2013 when survivor Callen Harty decided he wanted to bring the film, Boys and Men Healing, to Madison. After meeting with Kelly Anderson at the Rape Crisis Center, it was decided to expand into a day-long conference. The sponsoring organizations are non-profit, but organizers are committed to keeping the costs low. The cost of the conference is $50, which includes lunch.

For more information or to register, visit the WCASA website (www.wcasa.org) and click on the events link or visit the Facebook event page. Registration is through the website or contact WCASA directly at (608) 257-1516. Some limited scholarships may be availabl

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Out and Proud

MQL

With my book, My Queer Life. Photo by Brian Wild.

Almost fifty years ago, Stonewall happened. At the time, gay sex was illegal in every state. Lesbians and gays could be arrested simply for congregating in the same place, and the police would occasionally raid bars known to be gay hangouts, arrest the patrons, and publish their names in the newspapers, effectively destroying marriages, careers, and the lives of those who were forced to live a closeted life because being gay was not socially, psychologically, or legally accepted at the time. In June of 1969 the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, but instead of the usual compliance, the people in that bar resisted, rioted, and ignited the modern gay rights movement. I was twelve and living in the Midwest, where it was barely noticed, if at all.

There were few out people in the 50s and 60s, but after Stonewall, gay people started demanding rights and changes. At the time, homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder rather than an inherent, natural inclination. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed it from their list of mental illnesses. At the time I was a junior in high school and the news didn’t reach me. The news that did reach me was a story we discussed in social studies that year about the YMCA being a place where gays met for clandestine sex. I don’t recall anything about the article or discussion, but I do recall it as the first open discussion I had ever heard about anything queer-related. At the time I had a huge crush on a freshman boy, but didn’t even recognize it for what it was because there simply was no discussion or openness about being gay. Back then, the only mentions were schoolmates (and sometimes teachers and other adults) using slurs about gay people.

It took me until May of 1979, ten years after Stonewall and forty years ago this month, to come out. I spent several years processing my crushes, dreams, and desires, doing research at the library, and trying to figure out who I was until I finally recognized and acknowledged my own identity. Now there are countless queer groups, books, role models, and more that make it easier to figure oneself out, even if it is sometimes still not easy to come out. There are middle schoolers now who are out and proud. In my youth, that was impossible. Acknowledging one’s queerness meant accepting a life where one expected to be discriminated against, face violence from an unaccepting society, and the possibility of a lifetime of loneliness. One could dream of finding a life partner even though it seemed unlikely, but the idea of some day being able to marry a life partner was not even in the realm of imagination.

Even a decade after Stonewall, most LGBT people were still closeted. Although some rights had been gained most states still had laws on the books that made gay people criminals just for being. Queer people faced ostracization from family and friends, so it was a scary prospect to let others in on the secret. I first told my friend, Brian, during a camping trip to Devil’s Lake, one of Wisconsin’s most popular state parks. Then, little by little, I came out to family members and close friends. Once I had done that, though, I didn’t feel I had to keep it secret any longer and I joined the campus gay group at UW-Platteville, where I was living and working at the time. I joined the speakers’ panel and used to go into classrooms at the university with other members of the group to share our stories and answer questions. For me, it was a matter of being true to myself and to fight for those who couldn’t. In retrospect, it was a lot braver than I realized at the time. People got beaten and killed back then for being out and proud.

In 1982, three years after I came out, Wisconsin legislator David Clarenbach managed to get the first gay rights bill in the country passed in the Wisconsin Assembly. It also passed in the Senate and was signed into law by Republican governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus. It protected gay people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. While it didn’t end discrimination–it could be very hard to prove one’s sexuality was the reason for being denied any of these things–it did lay the groundwork for a way to file suit on these issues and it set a tone for the country, that the days of LGBT citizens as second class citizens were numbered. Not that the fight is over–we’re still counting the days until we are fully accepted–but we have come a long way.

That same year, I wrote an essay about my coming out story that was published in Out!, Wisconsin’s first gay newspaper. It was also my first publication outside of high school or college publications and it meant that I was not just out to family and friends, but out publicly. I never looked back.

Within the next year, three friends and I (Matthew Alexander, Mark Prestegard, and Larry Acherman) co-founded the 10% Society on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. It is now known as The Pride Society. While some departments had their own small groups, it was the first campus-wide gay group in the history of the UW and only the third in the state university system. Surprisingly, UW-Stevens Point had the first one and UW-Platteville the second. Mark had also been a founder of the group at Platteville. To this day, I have continued the fight for our rights as LGBT citizens in many ways. I worked for a few years at Madison’s LGBT community center, OutReach. I co-founded Proud Theater, an LGBT and allied youth theater group that is now twenty years old. I’ve written articles, plays, and books to try to help us gain wider acceptance. Once I came out of that closet, I was determined to never go back in and I was determined to do my best to make sure nobody else had to live in there again.

I also found that love that back in 1979 I thought was so impossible. My partner, Brian, and I have been together since 1991, 28 years in just a few days. While we are not married yet, we now have that right.

Forty years of being out and proud is a long time (forty years of anything is a long time), but I am glad that I was able to figure out who I was and not be ashamed of it or stay hidden in the closet like so many of my generation and the generations before me. I am proud of the ways I have worked to help the movement along in some small way. And I am glad that I can be my authentic self without fear.

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Proud

Anthology

Cast and crew of Proud Theater’s 15th anniversary show, Anthology.

Twenty years ago I was working at OutReach, which is Madison, Wisconsin’s LGBT Community Center. I was also heavily involved at Broom Street Theater, a unique theater company that produces nothing but original works. I was an actor, director, and playwright there. A couple of the things I have cared passionately about for many years are LGBT rights and theater, among others, so I was dedicated to doing my best in both areas.

One day I received a call from Sunshine Jones, a woman who has since become a good friend of mine. She knew of my involvement in Broom Street Theater and that I was working for a queer agency. She told me that her 13-year old daughter, Sol Kelley-Jones, was looking to start a youth theater group for LGBT youth, children of LGBT parents, and allies, and asked me if I would be willing to help out. Combining those two passions of mine struck a chord with me and so I agreed. Afterwards, I think I was a little scared, as my only experience with young people was helping out with a small youth group at OutReach for a couple months. It turned out that the intergenerational aspect of the group was one of the best things about it. The youth and the mentors learn from each other and respect has always been a tw0-way street for us. Proud Theater is not a hierarchical organization. Both the adults and youth have power and a voice.

Proud Theater started in the office of OutReach on a Saturday morning with me, Sol, and two other young people. Because of my experience at Broom Street Theater with writing new plays, sometimes with the cast, we used that as our process. The difference was that the stories came from the young people’s own lived experiences. Funny or sad, we shared the stories of their lives. We started each week talking about what was going on in the lives of the youth and then talked about how we could make the stories of their experiences into theatrical pieces. From there we would improvise, try things out, check back in about how it was working, and finally end up with a finished product.

It took until the summer of 2000 for us to do our first public performance. It was one short skit and it was performed at a large gathering of mostly adult lesbians and gay men who were eating, drinking, talking, and in general not noticing the handful of youth doing a performance under the shelter house. There were a few people who watched or listened, but not a lot. Still, the young people in that performance gave it everything they had.

As time went on, the group size ebbed and flowed, going from as few as eight performers to as many as forty-something, with sold-out audiences in real theaters around town. My partner and Proud Theater mentor, Brian Wild, decided we needed to start a parent organization, Art & Soul Innovations, so that we could officially qualify as a non-profit, tax-exempt group. Through Art & Soul, an additional five chapters were started in other locations around Wisconsin–in Wausau, Milwaukee, Sun Prairie, and Green Bay, with a second Madison chapter for young people from 18-24 years old. We have held performances and workshops in Minneapolis, Crown Point (Indiana), Milwaukee, Wausau, Green Bay, Platteville, Eau Claire, River Falls, and countless times in Madison and surrounding towns. Proud Theater was also one of the founding members of Pride Youth Theater Alliance, an umbrella organization of queer youth theater groups from around the country. Currently, two of our members serve as Board members of the alliance.

More important than our growth are the ways that we have impacted the lives of our queer youth, the audiences who see the group, and the mentors. After our first full production, we received a letter from an elderly couple who said the show helped them understand the struggles of young LGBT folks and that because of that new understanding they were determined to dedicate the rest of their lives to working to ensure equality for LGBT citizens.

There are so many stories about changed lives that I cannot even remember them all. We have had a large number of youth tell us, sometimes years later, that Proud Theater literally saved their lives. They have told us that it was their lifeblood, the one thing they looked forward to every week during a school career that was generally difficult and sometimes impossible because of bullying, harassment, dismissal, and more. In Proud Theater, their opinions and feelings were listened to, heard, and respected. They were supported in ways that they didn’t get at school or sometimes even at home.

One youth wrote a monologue in which they talked about what they felt about being transgender and that piece proved to be their coming out. Another had his mother tell him after a performance that she understood him better and that she would do her best to use the correct pronouns as long as she could still call him honey. Others explored their sexual assault, bullying, and suicide survivor stories. Still others were able to talk about their first loves. Some shared the hurt they felt from families or friends who rejected them and would not accept their identities. The short theatrical pieces created in the group were slivers of reality with all the emotion, angst, wonder, fear, joy, confusion, love, and hate that the teen years can bring to figuring out oneself and one’s identities.

When I first started on this proud journey I had no idea how many lives would be changed for the better, how much heartbreak I would feel when one of our graduates died in a car crash and when two of our young people ended their own lives. I couldn’t have imagined how many young people would tell Brian and me that we were like fathers to them, how much love I would feel for so many young people, and how proud I would be of those young folks who would overcome their natural shyness to shine on stage and in their lives despite some harrowing circumstances. I am so happy I said yes so many years ago.

But I also understand that there is a time for everything, and I feel that it is my time to retire as a mentor to these incredible young people. Twenty years of doing anything is a long time and it’s probably past time for younger mentors with fresh ideas. We have several great young mentors in place who are ready to move the group into its future. We have put the group in a place where it can sustain itself as mentors come and go.

As I age, I also realize I need more time to myself, to spend it with Brian, family, and friends, to do things I’ve always wanted to do before it’s too late. I need to know that I don’t have to be somewhere on certain nights of the week and that if I just need to sleep one night I can do that. I’m tired and if I don’t leave now I’ll likely suffer burnout and not give my best to the youth, and they deserve the best we can give them.

I will miss it. You don’t give twenty years of time and energy to anything and not miss it. I have a difficult time imagining the fall without being there at the start of the new Proud Theater season. I know there will be days when I pine for the laughter and loud conversation of the young people in our group, when I will miss guiding them both in theater and in life, and when I will look back wistfully on all the brilliant, creative, giving, and beautiful lives I’ve watched grow through various stages of their lives on a stage I helped build. The curtain is drawing on my part of it, but the show will go on.

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Not Yet Numb

March for Our Lives

March for Our Lives. Photo by Callen Harty.

Somehow, I am not yet numb.

While watching a teenage girl talk about a boy in her high school class giving his life to save others, tears come into my eyes and my swallowing becomes difficult.

So I realize I am not yet numb.

Despite another child killed in another school.

Despite a litany of shootings and killings reported at one time in the media:

  • “Baltimore’s violent weekend continues with 2 fatal shootings overnight”–Baltimore Sun
  •  “Alabama cop fatally shot; wife charged”–Fox News
  •  “Man held after shooting at Calif. state park”–Los Angeles Times
  •  “12-y-o boy charged with murder in shooting death of 10-y-o brother”–New York Daily News
  •  “Texas pastor, wife shoot and kill alleged burglar at their home: police”–ABC News
  •  “Elite 8th-grade football recruit shot, killed”–Yahoo Sports

These are the stories of our times–the random shootings, daily murders, churches set afire, mass shootings, bombings and bomb threats, hatred, terrorism from within. These are the stories we carry in our hearts.

And somehow I am not yet numb, and I wonder how that can be.

Maybe it’s because there are heroes. Maybe it’s because there are boys who are willing to take a bullet to save others. Because there are some politicians willing to take a stand. Young people like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez who refuse to stay silent. Regular folks who do what they can to promote peace.

And maybe it’s because I can’t be numb, because if I am numb I no longer feel, and if I no longer feel, I can no longer act, and if I can no longer act, then I can do nothing but lie in fear of the day when it happens to me. And I refuse to give in to that.

I will still cry for those who are lost. I will still fight to lose no more. When I die, I will know I did my best, and I will not die numb.

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