Friday, October 31, 2008

Political Talk: Good News About Voting Machines

I don't really mean "good news," but it's better news than what we've got: we're going back to using paper ballots after this election.

Here's the deal. We're out of the Jet Age now, past the Space Age, and well into the Information Age. Everything is computerized. If you remember "hanging chad," you remember that paper ballots are clumsy and imprecise. Digital information is crisp and clear. With digital voting you could have the votes counted up instantly, as soon as voters tapped the screen the numbers in the central counters could increment, and there would be no ambiguity about which item was selected.

But the industry got hijacked by unscrupulous companies that were too involved with high-rolling politicians, and the systems that were produced were simply unreliable. There were ways to change the vote counts without getting caught -- easy ways. And bugs in the systems sometimes changed votes or tallies systematically, even without tampering.

It didn't have to be this way. First, a voting machine's software has got to be open source. The current devices all use proprietary code, meaning that nobody outside the company knows how they work. Open source computer programs are published on the Internet so any geek with an interest can look through it and see if there is a way to cheat, or a bug that leads to miscounting, or whatever. And believe me, a lot of geeks will look through it. Think about it: it shouldn't be a secret how these things work. They display some names and wording with some checkboxes, the user inputs a decision that checks a box, when the user exits the system their decisions are written into a database. There's no mysterious algorithm, nothing needs to be kept secret, any kid in a high school computer programming class could write code for a voting machine. It inputs and stores data, I don't think they even send it anywhere.

Second, it's got to produce something in the physical world that can be counted in case there is doubt about the digital system. Maybe it spits out a paper ballot for every voter, the voter can check it and complain if it's wrong, maybe nobody else ever has to look at them, but if you need to, there they are. There can be spot-checks for errors, if you have something to check against. In the current system, you couldn't check, because there was no physical record. I'm no expert on voting machines, this just makes sense to me.

Now we're going to go back to paper ballots. It's really dumb to have to take this step back to paper technology, but because of the way voting was handled, between the politicians and the companies that produce the machines, it's the only thing you can do.

From The Post:
Goodbye, electronic voting. Farewell, fancy touch screen. Maryland and Virginia are going old school after Tuesday's election.

Maryland will scrap its $65 million electronic system and go back to paper ballots in time for the 2010 midterm elections -- and will still be paying for the abandoned system until 2014. In Virginia, localities are moving to paper after the General Assembly voted last year to phase out electronic voting machines as they wear out.

It was just a few years ago that electronic voting machines were heralded as a computerized panacea to the hanging chad, a state-of-the-art system immune to the kinds of hijinks and confusion that some say make paper ballots vulnerable. But now, after concern that the electronic voting machines could crash or be hacked, the two states are swinging away from the systems, saying paper ballots filled out by hand are more reliable, especially in a recount.

The trend reflects a national movement away from electronic voting machines. About a third of all voters will use them Tuesday, down from a peak of almost 40 percent in 2006, according to Election Data Services, a Manassas-based consulting firm specializing in election administration. Every jurisdiction that has changed election systems since 2006 has gone to paper ballots read by optical scan machines, said Kimball Brace, the firm's president. And for the first time in the country's history, fewer jurisdictions will be using electronic machines than in the previous election, he said.

"The battle for the hearts and minds of voters on whether electronic systems are good or bad has been lost," Brace said. The academics and computer scientists who said they were unreliable "have won that battle."

The District has one electronic machine in every precinct. But most people vote on paper ballots, said Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. Paper Ballot Has Md.'s, Va.'s Vote

Go ahead and argue about politics on this thread.

Anti-Gay Crimes Up

This is in the news this week:
WASHINGTON – Hate crime incidents decreased slightly last year, despite a surge in crimes targeting gays and lesbians.

The FBI reported more than 7,600 hate crime incidents in 2007, down about 1 percent from last year. The decline was driven by decreases in the two largest categories of hate crimes -- crimes against race and religion.

But prejudice against sexual orientation, the third-largest category, increased about 6 percent, the report found. FBI: Hate crime down in 2007 but anti-gay crime up

Six percent increase! That's a lot.

Why do think this is happening?
The FBI report does not compare its data from one year to the next because the number of law enforcement agencies participating in the annual count varies from year to year. More agencies contributed to the 2007 report than the 2006 report, however.

The data released Monday is consistent with previous years. Racial bias remained the most common motive, accounting for more than half of all reported hate crimes. Blacks, Jews and gays were the most frequent victims of hate crimes, the report found.

The FBI report is purely statistical and does not assign a cause for the slight overall decrease or increase in anti-gay hate crimes.

More than a third of all hate crime incidents were categorized as vandalism or property destruction. Intimidation was the second most common hate crime, followed by simple assault.

I don't think six percent is a "slight" increase.

I hope the FBI does more than gather statistics on these things. I would like to know that they are studying the problem, trying to figure out why people are committing these crimes. The FBI should infiltrate groups that promote such crimes and clean up this mess.

Something tells me that isn't going happen.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Political Talk: Polling

A friend of mine who I respect is beginning to worry that his guy might not win the election. He has his favorite poll, and it's not looking like a landslide. Other polls are different, nobody's got McCain ahead, some have an overwhelming Obama lead, and some are within the margin of error, or near it. Plus, do not underestimate the Bradley Effect, which can take several percentage points off Obama's lead, and maybe more in a race for President, nobody knows.

Also, it seems to me there is a landline bias. None of these surveys, as far as I know, call cell phones. So they're missing young people, people on the go, the technological early adopters, people who take their calls wherever they are. On the other hand, young people are notoriously bad about actually signing out of World of Warcraft and skateboarding to the polling site. So maybe the two biases will cancel one another.

Strange things. I talked to someone, a lady working in a drugstore, who loves Barack Obama. That's why she doesn't want to vote for him, she doesn't want something bad to happen to him. She'd feel responsible. Another guy I talked to didn't want to vote for him because he was afraid he'd bring people like Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan into the White House. This guy didn't like the alternative, either, especially the Vice-Presidential alternative, but he was going to vote Republican anyway.

I say, you don't know who wins until you play the game. Sometimes a weak team beats a strong one. Tuesday is going to be an important day in American history.

This post is for political discussion. Talk among yourselves.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Political Talk Here

The elections will be here in a week, and everybody wants to talk about that. On the other hand, this web site does have a kind of theme that we stick with, we tend to talk about general issues having to do with sexual minorities and topics dealing with the culture wars, especially as they affect our community in Montgomery County, Maryland, and the nearby Washington area.

It turns out, no matter what topic I post, somebody ends up throwing a bunch of poll numbers in the comments, and people started arguing about who's the better candidate, and people who want to discuss the topic at hand -- for instance, we might want to discuss the pros and cons of PFOX-GAG, or the implications of the new research on the genetics of transsexuals -- get drowned out.

So let me start posting a daily, or whenever-I-can, discussion topic for the political stuff. TTF doesn't advocate a party or candidate, but our readers can say whatever they want in the comments. So for the next week or so I'll post an arbitrary topic and political discussions can go there. If I post something "on-topic" and people put irrelevant political comments under them, I'll just delete them. I will clearly mark open threads in the title.

Please use this post for political talk and related matters. The delete rule goes into effect in a few minutes. Move your other discussions here.

About the GAG

I got an email this week from somebody who objected to my use of the acronym PFOX-GAG for Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. The organization likes to call itself PFOX, but that never made sense to me. That's like if the Federal Bureau of Investigation called itself the FB.

There is a certain common convention of using the letter "X" for the word "Ex," just as we use "X" for "Cross" in "Pedestrian Xing," and I'm fine with that. But then, PFOX would stand for Parents and Friends of Ex, and that's not right. It doesn't even mean anything. Ex?

They want to be able to point to their name and say, "See, we're friends of gay people, too, not just ex-gays," but they can't bring themselves to use it in the acronym that identifies them. It's not Parents and Friends of Ex, it's Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. If you want to add the "Gays And Gays" to the acronym, as you ought to, I'm sorry, but it's "GAG." If they don't like that, they should've thought of it sooner. When you start up a new team or office or business, you think about that, what are people going to call you, really? I heard of a funny example a couple of years ago where an office changed its name to ... never mind ... for two days, and changed it back. It was expensive, they should have thought about it ahead of time.

Of course, PFOX-GAG was formed as a reaction to PFLAG -- Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which is a group that really is friendly to gay people, it's a group that helps families stay together and love one another as they are. When you first get involved in this stuff, it is easy to accidentally say the wrong name, which of course was the point, they formed to muddy the waters. In reality, PFOX-GAG is no friend to gay people, as a glance at their web site or any of their published material will show you. They exist to teach gay people that there's something wrong with them.

There is a certain ironic thing you hear sometimes, where a certain kind of person says "homosexuals are shoving their lifestyle down our throat." Like, for instance, HERE or HERE or HERE. The image is, I don't know, there is something Freudian about it or something, but it may be that adding the rest of the acronym, GAG, to the first part makes people uncomfortable. I'm trying to be polite here, I really am.

Anyway, I just wanted to explain,I don't see how they get away with saying their name is Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, and then leave the whole "Gays and Gays" part off the acronym that identifies them. And I don't know why anybody else would play along with it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Gene for Transsexuality Found

Human behavior is complex, and the idea that there will a single gene for any particular personality characteristic is ludicrous. Is there a sense-of-humor gene? An intelligence gene? There are definitely heritable factors, but you're not going to find a particular pattern on the chromosomes that predicts qualities like these. That's why it makes no sense to say "there is no gay gene," to support the assertion that sexual orientation is something you choose. Of course there's no gay gene, there are probably lots of them.

But it appears that some Australian researchers have identified something interesting in male-to-female transsexuals. From the BBC:
Australian researchers have identified a significant link between a gene involved in testosterone action and male transsexualism.

DNA analysis from 112 male-to-female transsexual volunteers showed they were more likely to have a longer version of the androgen receptor gene.

The genetic difference may cause weaker testosterone signals, the team reported in Biological Psychiatry.

However, other genes are also likely to play a part, they stressed.

Increasingly, biological factors are being implicated in gender identity.

One study has shown that certain brain structures in male-to-female transsexual people are more "female like".

In the latest study, researchers looked for potential differences in three genes known to be involved in sex development - coding for the androgen receptor, the oestrogen receptor and an enzyme which converts testosterone to oestrogen.

Comparison of the DNA from the male to female transsexual participants with 258 controls showed a significant link with a long version of the androgen receptor gene and transsexualism. Male transsexual gene link found

Some people, even some in our own county, think that people simply decide to change their sex, on a whim or because of some belief they have. But transgender people will tell you, they have always felt they had been assigned to the wrong gender, it isn't something they decided or discovered later in life, though they may decide later in their lives to make the transition. It's hard for the rest of us to understand what that must be like, and as a consequence transgender people are very often the targets of discrimination and ugly words, even violence.
It is known that longer versions of the androgen receptor gene are associated with less efficient testosterone signalling.

This reduced action of the male sex hormone may have an effect on gender development in the womb, the researchers speculated.

"We think that these genetic differences might reduce testosterone action and under masculinise the brain during foetal development," said researcher Lauren Hare from Prince Henry's Institute of Medical Research.

Co-author Professor Vincent Harley added: "There is a social stigma that transsexualism is simply a lifestyle choice, however our findings support a biological basis of how gender identity develops."

I think it's really good that they are making progress in this field, this is some amazing cool research.
Although this is the largest genetic study of transsexualism to date, the researchers now plan to see if the results can be replicated in a larger population.

Terry Reed from the Gender Identity Research and Education Society said she was convinced of a biological basis to transsexualism.

"This study appears to reinforce earlier studies which have indicated that, in some trans people, there may be a genetic trigger to the development of an atypical gender identity.

"However, it may be just one of several routes and, although it seems extremely likely that a biological element will always be present in the aetiology of transsexualism, it's unlikely that developmental pathways will be the same in all individuals."

Right -- there is no "transgender gene," any more than there is a "gay gene." There are likely to be lots of them. And these scientists seem to have identified one.

Lawsuit, Not a Lawsuit

I was CC'ed on a series of emails this week, discussing whether PFOX-GAG actually did file a lawsuit in DC court. Their press release said they had, Wayne Besen said they hadn't, and it was the opinion of at least one lawyer in this email thread that maybe the petition that was filed could technically be considered a lawsuit.

The Blade followed up on the question.
Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays, a national group known as PFOX, last week announced it was “suing” the D.C. Office of Human Rights to overturn a decision that ex-gays do not belong to a protected category under the city’s Human Rights Act.

An office spokesperson called the PFOX announcement inaccurate, though, and noted the group filed a petition, not a lawsuit, before the D.C. Superior Court to appeal the 2005 decision.

James Maloney, a PFOX attorney, called the petition “a lawsuit of sorts,” but acknowledged it was essentially a routine appeal of a decision that he said unfairly denied “ex-gays” protections under the Human Rights Act. National ‘ex-gay’ group appeals D.C. human rights office decision

So the Office of Human Rights says there was no lawsuit, PFOX-GAG says there was, sort of. Gee, it's hard to decide who to believe here -- a spokesman for a government office that protects citizens' rights, or the attorney for an organization that is based on a premise that is patently false and fundamentally bigoted.
Maloney said the appeal is important because it could lead to a court order requiring the city to include “ex-gays” as a protected category under the Human Rights Act’s sexual orientation clause.

The clause lists gays, bisexuals and straight people as protected from discrimination under the act.

Regina Griggs, the executive director of PFOX, said that while “ex-gays” consider themselves heterosexual, they are often subjected to discrimination because of their status as “ex-gay” rather than as straight.

Interestingly, only obnoxious "ex-gays" are discriminated against. People who used to be gay, and now aren't, enjoy all the privileges of straight people. People who used to be gay, and now aren't, who go around telling everybody that homosexuality is a choice and that gay people should decide to be straight, find they are unwelcome lots of places.

There is another interesting story embedded in this one. Every year PFOX-GAG tries get the National Education Association to let them set up a booth at their convention, and every year they get turned down.
The PFOX appeal stems from a decision to dismiss a complaint that PFOX filed against the National Education Association. The complaint alleged that NEA discriminated against “ex-gays” as a class by denying a PFOX application to maintain an exhibit booth during a 2003 NEA convention.

NEA initially argued that the content of PFOX’s proposed exhibit was inconsistent with NEA’s mission because it promoted alternatives to homosexuality rather than acceptance of homosexuality.

NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin said last week that NEA has since agreed to allow a PFOX exhibit if a recently formed “ex-gay” caucus of NEA members organizes it.

In its 2005 decision, the D.C. Office of Human Rights says its determination that ex-gays are not covered under the human rights act as a class separate from heterosexuals is based on court rulings and legal precedent that define categories protected from discrimination as “immutable characteristics,” such as race and gender.

But that's the whole issue -- the backbone of PFOX-GAG's ideology is the premise that sexual orientation is not only mutable but that it can be changed at will, though there is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation is a choice and nobody, gay or straight, feels that way, except for a few people who work for these organizations.

If you have followed this story, you will find this interesting, PFOX-GAG's officers and Board of Directors:
Paul Rondeau, Purcellville, Va., President/Director
Estella Salvatierra, Fort Belvoir, Va., Vice President/Director
Scott Strachen, Fort Belvoir, Va., Secretary/Director
Michelle Hoffman, Fort Belvoir, Va., Treasurer/Director
Regina Griggs, Fort Belvoir, Va., Executive Director
Retta Brown, Fort Belvoir, Va., Director
Peter Sprigg, Washington, DC, Director
Robert Knight, Alexandria, Va., Director

A lot of the Fort Belvoir people have the same post office box number, so you don't know where they live, really, but that's where PFOX-GAG told the IRS they were. We know a lot of these characters. Some are professional haters, and some are just minor-league ignoramuses. Paul Rondeau has been involved with other nutty groups, Ella Salvatierra is a lawyer, Regina Griggs is in charge of it all and she's a sad story, she has a gay son who who won't go "ex" for her. Retta Brown actually lives in our county, I think, I don't know why she has a Virginia address in PFOX-GAG's IRS documents. Peter Sprigg, as well, lives in MoCo, he's a professional, Vice President for Policy at the Family Research Council, which is a big-bucks anti-gay organization, Robert Knight is another pro, he used to be at the Family Research Council, then he was one of the Concerned Women for America but now he's Director of the Culture and Media Institute, doing the same thing. We saw Peter and Robert speak at the CRC's hate-fest a couple of years ago. We saw Michelle Hoffman address the Montgomery County school board once, but I don't know anything about her or Scott Strachen.

So PFOX-GAG is tied into the big national groups, but they are a small organization with a small budget. Their mission is absurd, they wear their hatred of gay people on their sleeve, and our county's public schools send their flyers home with our kids. They have filed some sort of paper with the courts, trying to get "ex-gays" added to the DC nondiscrimination law, as if there is a problem with discrimination against straight people.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Palin Vague on Terrorists

This is something that bugs me, the idea that somebody who kills people at random, who bombs a public building, is not a "terrorist" if the building happens to be an abortion clinic. There has been a lot of talk lately about one of the Presidential candidates "palling around with terrorists," and accepting that statement requires not only a certain interpretation of the term "palling around," but also a certain interpretation of the word "terrorist."

I don't expect our corporate media to actually ask a question about this sort of thing, but Brian Williams at MSNBC did. He interviewed Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin about her interpretation of the word "terrorist." Check it out (transcription from FireDog Lake).
Brian Williams: Back to the notion of terrorists and terrorism, this word has come up in relation to Mr. Ayers -- hanging out with terrorist – domestic terrorists. It is said that it gives it a vaguely post uh 9-11 hint, using that word, that we don’t normally associate with domestic crimes. Are we changing the definition? Are the people who set fire to American cities during the ‘60’s terrorists, under this definition? Is an abortion clinic bomber a terrorist under the definition?

Sarah Palin: There is no question that Bill Ayers via his own admittance was um one who sought to destroy our US Capitol and our Pentagon -- that is a domestic terrorist. There’s no question there. Now others who would want to engage in harming innocent Americans or um facilities, that uh, it would be unacceptable -- I don’t know if you could use the word terrorist, but its unacceptable and it would not be condoned of course on our watch. I don’t know if what you are asking is if I regret referring to Bill Ayers as an unrepentant domestic terrorist. I don’t regret characterizing him as that.

Brian Williams: I’m just asking what other categories you would put in there. Abortion clinic bombers? Protesters in cities where fires were started, Molotov cocktails, were thrown? People died.

Sarah Palin: I would put in that category of Bill Ayers anyone else who would seek to destroy our United States Capitol and our Pentagon and would seek to destroy innocent Americans.

Did that clarify anything for you?

The Weather Underground, which Bill Ayers belonged to, was a group back in the Sixties and Seventies who bombed some government buildings and banks, mostly in response to events in the Vietnam War. I would call them terrorists. I would also call somebody who bombs abortion clinics a terrorist, but you won't find that word in a news article, they won't be included in government terrorism statistics. I would call a rightwing militia unit sworn to fight the federal government, say to support a state's secession, a terrorist group. Some of Williams' other examples are good, too, the Sixties and Seventies saw a lot of violent demonstrations, riots, fires, the National Guard murdering American citizens, lots of crazy stuff was going on back then, including the Weather Underground's rampaging. In our vernacular, we don't usually even call the Oklahoma City bombing "terrorism," we call it a "bombing," and it is unusual to hear the perpetrators of that attack referred to as terrorists. I'm not sure that using the word makes the world any easier to understand or deal with.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Teens Use the Internet, Moms Worry

McAfee, the computer-security guys, did a survey of teenagers and mothers of teenagers, and found that A.mothers are very concerned about what their teens are doing online and B.teenagers know how to keep their parents from finding out what they do online.
About two-thirds of mothers of teens in the United States are just as, or more, concerned about their teenagers' online safety, such as from threatening emails or solicitation by online sexual predators, as they are about drunk driving (62 per cent) and experimenting with drugs (65 per cent), according to new research released today by Internet security company McAfee, Inc.

This fear is supported by the McAfee study, which revealed that 52 per cent of teens have given out personal information to someone online they don't know offline, with 34 per cent of online teen girls having given out a photograph or a physical description of themselves to someone they don't know. The biggest hurdle mothers face is keeping track of what their kids do online, as 32 per cent of teens said they have cleared the browser history when they have finished using the computer, and 16 per cent have created private e-mail addresses or social networking profiles to hide what they do online from their parents. McAfee, Inc. Research Reveals Mothers Rate Cyber Dangers as High as Drunk Driving or Experimenting With Drugs

I've seen parents go both ways on this. I've known parents who make their kids get permission for every link they click on, and I've known some who let their kids do pretty much whatever they want. When my kids were younger we used to keep the computer in the family room, but as they got older they had more independence. And yes when they were younger I didn't mind going through the History list or occasionally reading an IM that had been left open. Over the years there was a little bit of stuff that I would have preferred not to find, but not much.

In a lot of families I think the kids understand the computer better than their parents do. I could tell some stories, so could you.
The research conducted by Harris Interactive® for McAfee among more than 1,000 U.S. moms of online teens aged 13-17 and online teens aged 13-17, offers numerous insights into moms' fears and teenagers' behaviors on the Internet. Fifty-eight per cent of mothers do not believe the government is doing enough to keep children safe online. And moms no longer view their children's bedrooms as a safe place either – 44 per cent said they worry about their teens' safety when they are online in their bedroom unsupervised, and about one in four (24 per cent) are more concerned about what their children do online than what they do when they are out of the house. When it comes to their teens' online behavior, sharing too much personal information is a primary worry of 58 per cent of mothers.

The survey results are not available online, only this press release. You have to remember that this is an advertising tool for McAfee, it's in their interest to word things so that parents worry, so they'll buy McAfee's products.

The article asks, "Are Mothers Deluding Themselves About What Their Kids Do Online?"
According to the study, the answer is a resounding "yes." McAfee's research found that 72 per cent of mothers have a verbal agreement with their teen – that is, a discussion of what is and is not allowed online – and 48 per cent admitted they don't always know what their kids do online. Through polling teens, McAfee discovered that the reality is that many teenagers are spinning a web of evasive operations to avoid their parents' supervision, while potentially exposing themselves and others to cyber dangers.
  • 63 per cent of teens said they know how to hide what they do online from their parents. 43 per cent have closed or minimized the browser at the sound of a parental step, 32 per cent have cleared the browser history when they have finished using the computer, 16 per cent have created private e-mail addresses or social networking profiles and 11 per cent have unlocked/disabled/ parental/filtering controls
  • 52 per cent of teens have given out personal information online to someone they don't know offline including personal photos and/or physical descriptions of themselves (24 per cent). Double the number of teen girls have shared photos or physical descriptions of themselves online as boys (34 per cent girls vs. 15 per cent boys)
  • 20 per cent of teens have engaged in cyberbullying behaviors, including posting mean or hurtful information or embarrassing pictures, spreading rumors, publicizing private communications, sending anonymous e-mails or cyberpranking someone
  • 9 per cent of teens have used the Internet to cheat at school

There is a certain school of thought that says that using technology to do your schoolwork should not be considered "cheating." In the future, it will be more important to know how to use a computer creatively than to memorize a bunch of facts -- you can always Google for the facts, right? Knowing how to Google is now the important skill to have.

It's funny in this survey to realize that no moms of teenagers had the worldwide web when they were teenagers. It only appeared in the mid-nineties. So they have no personal experience of what it's like to put something on your Facebook and have some creep try to friend you. The kids, on the other hand, cannot imagine a world without it. I tell my kids about the old black and white video games we had when I was their age, and they totally buy it. Remember the old crank-handled computers, before electricity?

It seems to me we have to raise this generation to be responsible, to make wise decisions, we can't look over their shoulders every second their online. And they know how to hide what they're doing when we're watching.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Anti-Halloween Forces In MoCo Schools

See what you think about this one, from The Gazette:
A Silver Spring elementary school has been caught in the middle of how to appease a diverse student body as officials and parents spar over the best way to celebrate Halloween.

Cannon Road Elementary School, 901 Cannon Road in Silver Spring, has just changed its annual Halloween party to a fall festival. According to a flier, costumes are welcome but the festivities will center on fall themes and avoid any mention of the spooky holiday.

The change has upset some parents, who say it's unfair to erase the holiday all together.

"It's just one more erosion of an American tradition that's been tossed out the door because somebody didn't like it," said Buffy Stutz, a parent at Cannon Road.

Opponents of the switch said the school was better off last year when there were two parties on Oct. 31—one for children celebrating Halloween and a harvest party for children who don't celebrate the holiday.

Sue Badrian was in charge of putting on the harvest party last year. Answering criticism that the harvest party isn't as fun as the Halloween party, she said the children played games, listened to music, ate food—did everything but don costumes.

"Are you kidding me? It was so fun," she said.

Parents like Badrian and Stutz said they haven't heard an explanation of why there was a switch. Despite repeated phone calls, Cannon Road's principal, Judith Theiss, could not be reached for comment. However, a staff member answering the phone said the change to a fall festival is in name only. Halloween parties or fall festival celebrations?

I always loved that scene in E.T. where the kids were trick-or-treating, and ET blended right in, remember that?

I'll say what everybody my age says: when I was a kid, the streets were full of costumed children, some of the little ones with parents waiting at the curb but most of them out being rowdy and having fun getting tons of candy from their neighbors. Then, it seemed, you had fewer kids and more parents, as people worried about child molesters and murderers and things like razor blades in the candy. And now, hardly anybody comes to the door.

I guess it's against somebody's religion to celebrate Halloween, okay, whatever, don't celebrate it. But two parties? You're going to have the real Halloween party and then a "harvest" party? Like these Silver Spring kids live on farms. Hardly anybody today understands the hard work of harvesting and the tilling, planting, cultivation necessary to get the crops to that point, hardly anybody "goes to town" to sell their produce, hardly anybody appreciates the turning of the mythical wheel of the seasons as the sun grows weak, to be reborn at the new year. But everybody understands dressing up in scary costumes and going door to door, pretending to threaten to trick people if they don't give you a treat. Everybody understands the fun for the children and the fun for the adults who comment on the costumes and "try to guess" who different crazy monsters really are.
The protocol for celebrating Halloween in area schools varies. Carmen Van Zutphen, the principal of Bel Pre Elementary in Silver Spring, said she takes her lead from the parents. In recent years, that has meant having a "friendly Halloween" celebration in which children dress up as storybook characters or in other costumes not intended to scare. Children who don't celebrate Halloween are given an alternate activity.

Glen Haven Elementary's principal, Joanne Smith, acknowledges it's difficult to accommodate a multitude of beliefs. The Wheaton school has a similar policy in which the majority of students, parents and staff participate in a Halloween parade. Those who don't participate in the parade have a Halloween-free activity.

Smith said she wouldn't consider cutting the festivities because Halloween has become a community event entrenched in American culture.

"I would get strung up if I tried to stop it," said Smith.

Parents and students at Cannon Road Elementary say they're still looking for an answer as to why the school can't have two parties.

After the notice came out a few weeks ago, fifth-graders Bruce Pattishall and Matthew Guerrera decided to look for answers. They polled randomly selected students in grades 1 through 5 about whether they would like a fall festival or a Halloween party. The boys said the majority of kids preferred to celebrate Halloween.

"If this is how the kids see it, then why can't we have it this way?" Guerrera said. The boys agreed with their parents that eliminating Halloween was unfair to both sides.

Stutz said it would be better to have two parties.

"That celebrates everything and includes everybody," she said.

The strange thing in this story is that they never say who is opposed to Halloween, The Gazette totally conceals their identities. No one opposed to Halloween is quoted or named, no motive is given, nothing. Why are they doing that?

This is another example of a small handful of people making a mess for everybody else. There doesn't have to be any controversy about Halloween, for cryin' out loud. This article is very careful not to mention religion, for reasons I don't understand. Is there some other reason anyone would oppose something as fun and benign as Halloween? Pretending it's a harvest festival doesn't seem to add anything, it just takes the tradition out of it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Are They Lying About That Lawsuit?

These guys are unbelievable. Monday we wrote about how the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX-GAG) had a press release saying they were suing the District of Columbia to get "ex-gays" added to DC's nondiscrimination law. Whatever, typical dumb thing for them to do, as if there is a problem with discrimination against straight people.

Then, this morning Mike Airhart left a comment on that post linking to an interesting entry at Wayne Besen's Truth Wins Out blog. Wayne's been trying to find out if PFOX-GAG really did file a suit, and he is coming to the conclusion that they're lying about it.
Truth Wins Out (TWO) today called on Parents and Friends of ‘Ex-Gays’ (PFOX) to clarify whether it actually filed a frivolous lawsuit against the Washington, DC Office of Human Rights. PFOX claimed it launched its alleged suit because so-called “ex-gays” are not protected under its sexual orientation anti-discrimination law.

At the request of a reporter, D.C. Superior Court looked through all the court’s case records and could find no “lawsuit” filed by PFOX against the D.C. Office of Human Rights. What they found was a filing called a “Petition for Review of Agency Decision.” The court does not consider this a lawsuit.

“PFOX needs to clarify whether they filed an actual lawsuit, or was this simply another one of their bizarre publicity stunts,” said Wayne Besen, Executive Director of Truth Wins Out. “This is one of the most outrageously dishonest organizations in America, so nothing would surprise me.”

PFOX is a political organization that sells the idea that people can “pray away the gay.” It was founded by lawyer Roy Cohn’s ex-boyfriend, Anthony Falzarono, and bankrolled by the Family Research Council. It was later run by therapist Richard Cohen, who was banned for life by the American Counseling Association. The current leader is Regina Griggs, who has an openly gay son. Did PFOX Lie About Lawsuit?

What a weird thing to do. I mean, first of all it's a crazy and obvious publicity stunt that goes against reason, trying to whine complain that straight people who used to be gay are discriminated against. How would anybody know what you used to be? But then, besides that, to tell everybody you've filed a lawsuit when you haven't -- the bizarre stories just keep coming.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Suing to Protect Obnoxiousness

These people are pitiful. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX-GAG) have apparently filed a lawsuit, at least this press release says they did. They claim that "ex-gays" are persecuted and discriminated against, and they want government protection.
Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays (PFOX) is suing the Washington DC Office of Human Rights for failing to protect former homosexuals under its sexual orientation anti-discrimination law. "The ex-gay community is the most bullied and maligned group in America, yet they are not protected by sexual orientation non-discrimination laws," said Regina Griggs, PFOX executive director.

The DC Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on "sexual preference," "sexual orientation," "gender identity," and "gender expression." The Office of Human Rights maintains that homosexuals, bisexuals, transgenders, and cross-dressers qualify for protection under this Act, but ex-gays do not. PFOX's lawsuit asks the DC Superior Court to direct the Office to include former homosexuals under the sexual orientation law. "Shouldn't ex-gays enjoy the same legal protections that gays enjoy?" asked Griggs.

"Former homosexuals and their friends have been fired from their jobs, repeatedly ridiculed, assaulted, and intimidated. This harassment is most often perpetrated by the same groups who demand protection under sexual orientation laws but work to deny ex-gays the same respect." Human Rights Office Sued for Refusing to Protect Former Homosexuals

Imagine a guy who used to be gay, and now he's not. He gets up in the morning, dresses, goes to work, does his job, maybe has a beer at happy hour and comes home again to watch a TV show or two. Maybe he's got a wife, maybe some kids, because well he is straight now.

Do you imagine that this guy is going to be "bullied and maligned" for how he is? Of course not. Nobody cares how he used to be, in fact I don't understand how anybody would even know he used to be gay. Now he's just another straight guy, and nobody cares about that, either.

Now imagine a guy who used to be gay and now he's not. He gets up in the morning, dresses, and goes out to tell gay people they need to be like him, they need to stop being gay. He tells them that their lives are dangerous and immoral, hands out flyers and puts up billboards telling gay people they need to "change," to stop being gay. He is, in other words, obnoxious.

Do you imagine that this guy is going to be "bullied and maligned?" Well, actually, I'll bet he gets a bad reaction sometimes.

Nobody minds a person going from being gay to not-gay. I expect that gay people will regard him (and it's always guys, there is almost no attention paid to lesbians) with suspicion, they are not likely to believe he's really changed, but whatever. Now that he's straight he doesn't hang around with gay people much, anyway, so it doesn't matter what they think.

People do mind a person who is obnoxious. There is nothing in the Bill of Rights that protects obnoxiousness. There will not be a great movement to ban discrimination on the basis of obnoxiousness. People don't like obnoxious people, they don't like to be around them, they don't like to interact with them. Obnoxious people get fired for being obnoxious, they get kicked out of places, their friends abandon them. You can't pass a law to stop that.

It's not a big deal if people have wrong opinions, for instance, it doesn't matter much if someone believes that gay people can choose not to be gay. They'd be wrong, but it's just like a lot of opinions, as long as you keep it to yourself it doesn't ... stink. You'd be wrong but lots of people are wrong about different things. But PFOX-GAG wants to take their wrong opinions and try to force them on others, or in this case try to sue to get protection from people who are sick of hearing their wrong opinions. That's called being obnoxious, and they can sue till the end of time, obnoxiousness will not become acceptable, the government will not force us to put up with it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Blade Wraps Up the Gender Identity Bill Controversy

A reporter from The Blade interviewed me by phone when I was on a lunch break at a conference in St. Louis a few weeks ago. The article came out while I was in Australia, I didn't get a look at it until now.
A law extending new rights to Montgomery County’s transgender residents and workers is winning early praise from activists and others who fought to secure it.

Maryanne Arnow of Equality Maryland said the law, which went into effect earlier this month, “adds a layer of comfort to what is often an overwhelmingly difficult process, since transitioning is a public process because of the clinical standards that one has to adhere to.

“It gives me a great sense of security knowing that I have the full force of the law behind me, should any discriminatory situation occur at work or in public places.”

Celeste Hall, a transgender woman who said she faced prejudice when she sought work in Montgomery County, agreed.

“Hopefully, if I apply for a job in Montgomery County again,” she said, “I won’t have managers telling me, ‘We’d like to hire you, but worry about how other employees will react to you.’”

The Maryland Court of Appeals decided Sept. 9 that the law, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and other areas based on gender identity, would not require public ratification. ‘A great sense of security’: Trans residents of Montgomery County praise new bias law

There's a nice picture of Dana Beyer and Dan Furmansky drinking a toast, it looks like.

Mmm, here they quote me but I think they got it a little wrong.
The victory came nearly one year after the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed the U.S. House of Representatives without transgender protections. The removal of the trans provision angered many activists, who criticized HRC for refusing to oppose the gay-only version of the bill.
Jim Kennedy of Teach the Facts, a group that promotes fact-based education in Montgomery County schools, said HRC fiercely defended the local trans rights measure.

“The HRC, who did not really support the transgender part of ENDA, really got involved in the Montgomery County battle, and contributed a lot of money and resources,” said Kennedy. “So that is a shift, and it’s important for them to do that.”

Jeremy Pittman, HRC’s national deputy field director, said that HRC did not see the Montgomery County transgender legislation as a way to make amends for ENDA.

“This is exactly the same kind of work we’ve done in supporting state level initiatives for providing LGBT equality for years, and we would have given the same level of support regardless of what happened last year with the ENDA battle,” he said.

Pittman said HRC provided $5,000 to help fund the case that went to the Maryland Court of Appeals and $20,000 to help start Basic Rights Montgomery, a coalition formed to support the trans rights measure.

I know HRC did not support the trans-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) at the federal level, but I don't think I would have said this was a "shift," or commented on their stand on "the transgender part of ENDA," since I don't think the bill was in parts and I don't really follow HRC's positions on anything. If you look back, I have considered the controversy over including gender identity in that bill to be a legitimate debate with good points to be made on both sides, and though HRC did not support including it I have never been critical of them for that (see for example HERE). Sounds like I made the HRC people defensive, at least as my opinion was filtered through a reporter, sorry about that. I thank them for their support in our county's controversy, they made the campaign possible with their generous donations and oversight.
Although some anger remains over ENDA, activists said they’re seeing a shift in how trans rights are viewed within the gay civil rights movement.

“The Montgomery County law shows continued progress in support of transgender rights,” said Donna Cartwright, communications director of Pride at Work, an AFL-CIO constituency group.

“I think there’s always been a great deal of collaboration between gay and transgender groups, but it’s heartening that this cooperation and solidarity continues.”

Arnow said that the Montgomery County legislation undoes some of the damage caused by last year’s ENDA feud.

“Even though there is no blanket, federal non-discrimination act that protects transgender people, and in Maryland there’s no statewide act, at least now a comprehensive non-discrimination act protecting transgender people has been passed in the county where I live and work,” she said.

I see, this article has a kind of theme about the ENDA fight and the differences that have existed between gay and transgender people. Well, I'm glad our county has done the right thing.
Dan Furmansky, Equality Maryland’s executive director, agreed that much has changed since last year’s ENDA dispute.

“I think the one merit to having the legislation reach the ballot would have been showing members of Congress that the public truly supports this kind of legislation,” he said. “However, it was far more important to put this into effect immediately and shut down the campaign of negative rhetoric surrounding it.”

Lisa Mottet, the transgender civil rights project director at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said that her organization helped with the case that went to the Maryland Court of Appeals, donated $20,000 to found Basic Rights Montgomery and organized phone banks that raised another $12,000 for Basic Rights Montgomery.

“I think the transgender community in Montgomery County was really surprised and thrilled at how much the entire LGBT community in Montgomery County and Maryland and the D.C. area really came together to defeat this measure,” she said. “I believe we’re going to win a transgender-inclusive ENDA in Congress, and this is just one of the victories along the way.”

Good, they see this as a stepping-stone to a national bill.

Uh-oh, now they're going to talk about me.
Other evidence of mended bridges can be found online at Kennedy’s blog,, where gay and transgender people are interacting in the comments section.

“It’s been interesting to watch them talk to each other and see the gay commentators understand the transgender situation,” said Kennedy, who is straight. “There’s a lot of learning, since gay people don’t necessarily empathize with the transgender situation. But from talking to one another, they see that both groups face a lot of the same problems.”

Kennedy noted on his blog that during a recent trip to the Giant grocery store in Germantown, Md., people against Montgomery County’s trans law were seeking signatures to again challenge the law.

He said opponents “were lying to people about what the bill is about. They were asking if people wanted to sign a petition to keep men out of women’s restrooms.

“What they want to do is stand there and scare people and create a negative association with transgender people and link them to sexual predators.”

I write here, but I don't like to think of it as "my blog." I have had "my blogs" before, and they were nothing like this. You wouldn't want to know. This blog, I hope, generally expresses the opinions of a group of people who work together, and I try to serve as their mouthpiece, with a little bit of personality.

Anyway, it has been a most gratifying experience to watch the dialog in our comments section between the gay and transgender readers.
Michelle Turner, a leader of Citizens for a Responsible Government, which organized the law’s first challenge, did not return the Blade’s calls for comment.

Despite the continued challenges, activists said the victory in Montgomery County has given them new hope that similar rights will be enacted statewide.

Cartwright said the local victory gave “new momentum for getting a state bill,” and noted that “Montgomery County is the largest jurisdiction in Maryland in terms of population, and it is a suburban district,” so it is a “step outside the usual urban areas” that have passed laws to protect transgender rights.

Furmansky said public education would be vital to securing additional rights from state lawmakers.

“As difficult as it is,” he said, “we need more gender nonconforming people who can take the very bold step of speaking to legislators about their experiences and we need the entire LGBT and allied community to declare this a priority piece of legislation.”

Most people never give a thought to the topic of gender identity, never think about transgender people, never have to deal with them or imagine what that's like. The controversy in our county has at least raised the profile a little bit, you have to think about the question of discrimination the transgender population faces.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

We Want To Watch This

Down in Fairfax they've had a problem where one of the Family Blah Blah groups has been trying to give the school district anti-gay books, expecting them to use them in the classroom. Here it is in The Post a couple of weeks ago:
During a week that librarians nationwide are highlighting banned books, conservative Christian students and parents showcased their own collection outside a Fairfax County high school yesterday -- a collection they say was banned by the librarians themselves.

More than 40 students, many wearing black T-shirts stamped with the words "Closing Books Shuts Out Ideas," said they tried to donate more than 100 books about homosexuality to more than a dozen high school libraries in the past year. The initiative, organized by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, was intended to add a conservative Christian perspective to shelves that the students said are stocked with "pro-gay" books.

Most of the books were turned down after school librarians said they did not meet school system standards. Titles include "Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting" and "Someone I Love Is Gay," which argues that homosexuality is not "a hopeless condition." Banned Books, Chapter 2: Conservative Group Urges Libraries to Accept Collection

These guys never quit, do they?

This week, David Fishback had a letter to the editor published in The Post:
The Fairfax Public Schools libraries acted wisely in declining to accept donations of anti-gay books from Focus on the Family ["Banned Books, Chapter 2," Metro, Oct. 3].

For many years, Focus on the Family and similar groups have pushed the notion that homosexuality is a disorder that can be "cured" through what have been called reparative or conversion "therapies." The Post reported that library officials said the books did not meet the school system's standards, which include "two positive reviews from professionally recognized journals." This is not surprising, since all mainstream American medical and mental health professional associations have concluded that homosexuality is not a disorder and that conversion therapies can cause great damage to those exposed to them.

It would be irresponsible for school libraries to accept books offering false medical and mental health information.

Board Member, Metro DC Chapter Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
Washington Turning Down False Information

Last night the Montgomery County School District's Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development met. This is the group that reviews materials for health classes in our county, and David Fishback used to chair it. This committee became a sort of battleground when the district proposed a curriculum that taught about sexual orientation, and conservative committee members rebelled, insisting that anti-gay materials should be included.

If you've found this web site, I assume you know something about how that played out. If you don't, start reading the archives on the right-hand side of your screen. The outcome was that there was a legal settlement, and two anti-gay groups -- Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum (CRC) and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX-GAG) -- had members placed on the citizens advisory committee.

Peter Sprigg is the PFOX-GAG representative on the committee and is also the Vice President for Policy at the Family Research Council, which is a group formed, as far as I can tell, to think up ugly things to say about gay people and whisper them in the ears of Washington insiders.

Last night's meeting of the committee, which I am a member of as representative of, was a pleasant enough affair, with the introduction of new members and explanation by school administrators of the curriculum development process and the place of supplementary materials in the classroom. It was our first meeting of the new school year. Everybody wanted to get out on time to see the debate on TV, and no voting items were on the agenda.

There was a moment where Sprigg asked a question of the school officials that hopefully sent a chill up their spine. MCPS is experiencing a budget freeze, as the county budget is very tight this year, and as a consequence it may be difficult to get new materials to review for classroom use -- things such as videos, posters, the stuff you see in a classroom. Peter Sprigg had a question: what would happen if somebody donated some materials to the school district? The reply was that those materials would be evaluated by MCPS staff just like any others.

I'm not saying that the Family Blah Blah groups are going to pick another fight over this. I'm just saying we might want to keep an eye on the situation.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Secret Service Getting Involved

The impotent anger has been boiling over at McCain and Palin rallies recently, with calls for violence from the audience, goaded on by speakers at the podium. It is getting serious enough now that the Secret Service is investigating death threats against the Democratic presidential candidate.
The U.S. Secret Service is investigating a threatening remark directed at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama during a political event in Scranton.

The agency followed up on a report in The Times-Tribune that a member of the crowd shouted, "Kill him!" after one mention of Mr. Obama's name during a rally Tuesday for Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The remark came while congressional candidate Chris Hackett was addressing the crowd at the Riverfront Sports Complex. There is no indication Mr. Hackett or Mrs. Palin, who took the stage a half-hour later, heard the remark.

The remark was reported almost immediately on the newspaper's Web site and today in the print edition.

Times-Tribune employees who covered the rally were interviewed today by the Secret Service.

Spokesman Darrin Blackford said the agency takes the threat seriously. If the agency can determine who shouted the remark, it would present that information to federal prosecutors, he said. Secret Service investigating threat from Scranton Palin rally

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This Will Be One Happy, Well-Adjusted Little Girl

This seems to come from somewhere in Tennessee:
A new father has secretly named his baby girl Sarah McCain Palin after the Republican ticket for president and vice president.

Mark Ciptak of Elizabethton put that name on the documents for the girl's birth certificate, ignoring the name Ava Grace, which he and his wife had picked earlier.

"I don't think she believes me yet," he told the Kingsport Times-News for a story to be published Tuesday. "It's going to take some more convincing."

Ciptak, a blood bank employee for the American Red Cross, said he named his third child after John McCain and Sarah Palin to "to get the word out" about the campaign.

"I took one for the cause," he said. "I can't give a lot of financial support for the (McCain/Palin) campaign. I do have a sign up in my yard, but I can do very little." Baby named Sarah McCain Palin

I wish the reporters had interviewed the mother, I'll bet she had a few choice words to say on the matter. Ava Grace to Sarah McCain Palin, that's a significant switcheroo, there, Dad, hope you like it in the doghouse for a long, long time.

Well, it is possible that in a few years these names won't quite ring a bell.

Voting: It Might Get Ugly

Something serious may be shaping up in the elections. A lot of people have been disqualified from voting, especially minorities and populations likely to vote Democratic. Early voters are already noticing the effects -- what's going to happen on November 4th, when the rest of us go to the polls and find that only certain cherry-picked people are allowed to vote?

In South Carolina:
The head of the local NAACP says he’s worried about Orangeburg County’s elections office, with his group receiving complaints about delayed and incorrect voter registration cards, as well as unprofessional employees who can’t answer questions correctly... NAACP, others express election concerns

There are lots of problems reported in this article. People are being told the wrong date to vote, the wrong place, blank absentee ballots were sent out.

In Indiana:
Early voting has hit a snag in Northwest Indiana. Charges of voting fraud mean early ballots won't be cast in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago for now.
Republican leadership got a temporary restraining order to keep early voting centers from opening in three cities. The party says the Board of Elections doesn't need the extra work right now with all the new voter registrations to verify.
The county's Democrat party chair argues not opening the centers in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago effectively strips thousands of their right to vote.

"We all know what that's about, to slow down or stop people from voting and disenfranchise people, especially the democratic votes," said Rudy Clay, Democratic Party Chairman, Lake County, Ind. Early Voting Hits A Snag In Northwest Indiana

The Republicans up there are blaming ACORN. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now conducted voter drives, and the GOP is asserting that fraudulent names were registered. They are using this to hold up validation of voters in many regions of the country.

A different kind of problem in West Virginia:
County clerks all over West Virginia have been told there is a problem with the optical scan ballot to be used in this fall's election, a Kanawha County official said Monday.

Early voting is scheduled to start in West Virginia on Wednesday.

The problem involves a programming error that causes some votes in the Supreme Court race to be tabulated incorrectly, according to County Commission President Kent Carper. State ballot problems alleged

You can expect more of that, as we use electronic voting machines with proprietary code, buggy software, and backdoors that allow hackers to change vote counts without being detected.

How about this, in Denver:
With only a week left before the start of early voting, about 6,000 people who registered to vote aren't eligible to cast regular ballots yet.

That's because they failed to check a required box on their registration forms. Those without a driver's license or state identification number are required to check a box and then provide their Social Security number.

Clerks are contacting these voters and asking them to complete the forms. The secretary of state's office says those who don't complete the forms before they vote will still be able to cast provisional ballots, which are counted later.

Election watchdogs say the checked box is just a technicality and want the state to add them to voter rolls or let them provide the check mark at the polls. Over 6,000 Voters Not Registered Due to Unchecked Box

What would you do if you went to vote and they wouldn't let you? A lot of people are going to find themselves in that situation this year.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Last Gasp, I Hope

It is the most gorgeous Sunday morning, early autumn. We've been keeping the windows open, and it's a little cool in the house this morning. I went out and mowed the yard and hardly broke a sweat.

We're not a political web site, I personally am not especially partisan and don't understand a lot about what goes on in the smoke-filled rooms, but you can't help paying attention as the national conversation unfolds, especially as it relates to the battles we have fought in our own county. We are lucky to live in a place where people are good and open-minded, open-hearted, they may not understand why you are the way you are but they accept it and trust that you're being honest about it. But even in Montgomery County there are a few people who can't do that, people who feel it is their duty to attack differences. They think their narrow way of life is the only acceptable way to be.

In the past few weeks we have seen something bizarre happening on the national stage, something that reflects and magnifies what we have seen in our county over the past few years. The Republican candidates have begun to attract crowds of people who believe that it's all right, even funny, to talk about murdering the Democratic candidate for president. The Republicans have insinuated that Brack Obama is a terrorist, or at least "pals around" with terrorists. I saw a video of people going into a rally, and the interviewer asked them, "Do you think Barack Obama is a terrorist?" And a lot said yes. He asked them why they thought that. "Look at his name," they said.

It's as simple as that. He has a weird name, a foreign-sounding name, an Arabic-sounding name, and that makes him a terrorist. He's different from us. That's all it takes.

These are people who can't tell the difference between reality and a cartoon.

I have a friend who divides the world into two kinds of people. Some people assume everybody is similar to them and are surprised when they discover differences. Other people assume that everybody is different and then are surprised by similarities. I'm more like that second kind. You've heard me say before, I wouldn't even want other people to be like me. I'm not sure I could stand to be around myself, and I wouldn't recommend thinking this way, it's not only frustrating but mostly ineffective.

But some people expect everybody else to think the way they do, act the way they do, feel like them. And when you don't it annoys them. These people put a lot of pressure on one another to conform -- they may call themselves "individualists" or whatever, but they do it in unison. And when you get them together in a crowd it is possible to stir them up emotionally by pointing out someone who seems to differ from them.

The Republicans are struggling now, nobody wants to have four more years of embarrassment and failure like the last eight. At first the candidates tried to distinguish themselves from the current regime, but it didn't work very well, so now they're going the other way, they're working the crowd in ways that you hoped no American would ever do. Interestingly, the name "George Wallace" has come up quite a few times recently. You hoped we wouldn't go back to that, but you were overly optimistic.

It's hard to imagine how this was supposed to work. Here's Gail Collins in the New York Times Thursday:
The Republican campaign strategy now involves sending their candidates to areas where everybody is a die-hard McCain supporter already. Then they yell about Obama until the crowd is so frenzied people start making threats. The rest of the country is supposed to watch and conclude that this would be an enjoyable way to spend the next four years. Dear Old Golden Dog Days

While I was writing this, someone pasted a good quote into a comment here. Frank Rich has an amazing column this morning, in the NYT, where he talks about fears that Barack Obama will be assassinated:
At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of "Treason" and "Terrorist" and "Kill him" and "Off with his head" as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets, are actually something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivable twist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option. The Terrorist Barack Hussein Obama

We have seen, in our little suburban county, the anger of those who demand that everybody should be like them. They turned on our school district when the board voted to teach students about sexual orientation without preaching against homosexuality, and the exact same people turned on the County Council when they voted to adopt a law granting equal rights to people regardless of gender identity. One tiny gang of angry people has created quite a bit of turbulence here and cost quite a bit of money, fighting against the diversity that nature has blessed us with. We remember a leader of the Republican Party standing up in a County Council meeting and shouting "Heil Hitler," then saying "Wait until little girls start showing up dead all over the county because of freaks of nature," because the Council had just voted to prohibit discrimination against transgender people. The fear, the anger, the hatred have been bubbling along at a low boil in communities like ours across the country, and now it is spilling over at these campaign rallies.

The good news is that it's not working. The haters are still a minority in our country, but my God, look how powerful they have become! We have a two-party political system, and they have taken over one of the parties at the national level. You hope their effect will wane, that people will go back to taking care of their own business, and there are signs that the Bush years have taken the wind out of their sails, but there is still a lot of residual hatred in the country. I hope this presidential campaign will go down in the history books as the last gasp of an element that America will not be proud of. In the meantime, Frank Rich is right: doing nothing is not an option.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Hard Morning

This morning we are burying a very good friend. Her struggle with cancer was one of those heartbreaking stories where we thought she was getting better and then suddenly something went wrong. The day we got to Australia we got the news that she had been taken to ICU, then they moved her to hospice. We got to visit her once before she faded, we told her about the kangaroos and koalas and the aboriginal art we saw, and she smiled to hear it. She was very weak and looked a hundred years old. She was fifty.

One of the first signs of human culture emerging from the animal world is the presence of graves, the attempt to overcome death with memory and love. I'll sing a couple of songs at the cemetery this morning, an Episcopalian minister will speak, her husband will say the Mourner's Kaddish.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Gazette Backs Abrams

Maryland Politics Watch recently ran a very informative series called "Crisis at the Gazette," where they detailed the deterioration of our local newspaper over recent years. It was in three parts, which you can find HERE. The Gazette has always had excellent, unbiased coverage of the controversies we've been involved in, that is, the sex-ed controversy and the nondiscrimination bill, but there are troubles in the home office, it sounds like.

Even so, I was somewhat surprised to see them endorsing Steve Abrams for county school board. In an article discussing the various races, they had this to say:
For the District 2 seat, experience gives Abrams an edge over Berthiaume. While his astringent style can be offensive to some, Abrams has absorbed much in three terms on the board and isn't reluctant to mix it up on touchy issues, such as changing school transfer policies, or taking on a powerful superintendent. His effectiveness could benefit from a softer, less dismissive approach to some groups and factions.

In addition to making wrenching budget choices, this board has another vital task — begin the groundwork for a search for a new superintendent, as it is widely presumed that Jerry Weast won't seek a new contract.

Kauffman's freshness, and Abram's experience, will complement the five other board members in staring down the most formidable challenges in years. Clear choices for school board seats

We remember that Abrams was the one board member who voted against the new sex education curriculum. His statements at the time indicated that he actually supported the curriculum, but voted against it because he felt "political pressure" to vote for it. I can imagine it is uncomfortable feeling pressure, but I would think an experienced official would set that aside and make a rational decision based on the facts and his own beliefs.

Not to say he isn't an excellent role model for our county's students, we also remember Abrams, who was Republican but switched parties, getting into a fist-fight with another Republican official, a black man, allegedly calling him "boy," over some money that one had lent the other.

Abrams' opponent is Laura Berthiaume, who is endorsed by the Montgomery County Education Association on what is called the "apple ballot." Apple ballot candidates usually win, but it's not a sure thing, and in this case Abrams does have name recognition working for him. It is also a very quiet election season, with almost all the attention focused on Sarah Palin the presidential campaigns and little on local races such as this -- it seems to me this favors the candidate whose name looks familiar on the ballot.

Berthiaume ran for state delegate as a Democrat in 2006 but didn't win.

Abrams is in his third non-consecutive term on the MoCo school board and served five terms on the Rockville city council. In 2006 he ran for Comptroller, but lost in the Republican primary.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Some Brave Middle School Kids Express Themselves

See what you think about this one, which was posted to the TeachTheFacts listserve today. It looks like there are some really brave and cool kids at Eastern Middle School, on University in Silver Spring.

From The Gazette:
Eastern Middle School seventh-grader Kaz Felix-Hawver says he does not shy away from self-expression. The outspoken student has worn make-up to school and frequently speaks up for the rights of homosexuals and minorities.

But none of Felix-Hawver's past actions have drawn the reaction of his latest statement, which launched an investigation by school administrators, led to teasing from some students and started a mini gay rights movement among others.

On four occasions since Sept. 15, Felix-Hawver has worn shirts with "Gay Pride" written in black marker on the front. One of the shirts, a pink button-down, has "Homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, gays, transgenders: All are cool with me," written on the back.

"I have a lot of friends with gay mothers or fathers and I'm sort of the expressive one," Felix-Hawver said Thursday at his Kensington home. "… This is the new way to express things."

Felix-Hawver, who said he is bisexual, didn't unveil the first shirt until his lunch period Sept. 15, at which time he said some students "went in an uproar," saying things like, "God didn't create Adam and Adam," and telling him he would go to hell. Some even asked if he was gay, Felix-Hawver said.

After the students' reaction and a quizzical response from a cafeteria worker, Felix-Hawver said a security guard escorted him to a guidance counselor.

He was given a sweater to wear over the shirt and returned to class.

Principal Charlotte Boucher was out of the school that day but said Monday that because the shirt caused a disruption in the lunch room, it violated dress code.

"I don't have any objection to positive statements referring to civil liberties being worn in school," Boucher said. "Our concern is the academic day not be disturbed."

‘Gay Pride' shirts: Free speech or costly academic disturbance?

So -- this t-shirt is against the rules when and only when the bigots catcall and raise an uproar. Isn't that something? If you don't like something, just make enough noise and it will go away. The Citizens for Responsible T-Shirts have been operating that way, under various names, for years.

Sounds like there was a faculty memo on the subject.
The following day, Felix-Hawver wore a "Gay Pride" T-shirt again, this time with support from three friends who wore shirts with similar messages. Seventh-grader Elena Burger wore one that read: "Gays will not be silenced." Seventh-grader Marisa Clery wore one with "Equal Rights" on the front and a plea to stop persecuting gays on the back.

"… I wanted to get in trouble for wearing the same shirt just so it would bring more attention to the issue," said Burger, who lives in Somerset.

But that day the students said they received no reaction from administrators, although they were subject to continual teasing from fellow students.

So now the bigots were still raising an uproar, but the school administration refused to go along with the mob rule.
Felix-Hawver donned the shirts again twice last week. The only reaction came from teachers who asked him to cover the shirt. He refused and declined to meet with Boucher.

Boucher said Felix-Hawver didn't have to cover his shirt on those days because there were no disruptions.

"I don't think they have accepted it; I think they are grudgingly ignoring it," Felix-Hawver said.

I don't see where it says how old this kid is. Middle school, what's that, sixth through eighth grade, somewhere between ten and thirteen years old? This guy is incredible.
As part of a "full investigation," guidance counselors met with students individually to discuss the situation, and Boucher said she interviewed about a dozen staff members to review school policy. She said staff did not violate policy or show intolerance in handling the situation.

Felix-Hawver's father, David Hawver, said he applauded his son's courage but was also pleased that the administration did not continue opposing the shirts.

"I'm really glad the administration changed their minds about the acceptability of it," Hawver said Thursday to immediate protest from his son, who stood up in the family's living room and began a strong, reserved argument with his father about the administration's actions.

His mother Deb Felix wrote a letter to Boucher asking for employees in the school to undergo sensitivity training but since then, the ordeal has been handled "moderately well," she said.

Boucher said bullying and teasing are common throughout society but she takes such behavior seriously at her school.

One thing here, it sounds like this principal showed a lot of leadership in handling this situation. It's nothing really, some kids in t-shirts, but she could have let it get out of hand by sending the kids home or by letting teachers figure out how to handle the situation on their own. I say we give her credit for letting this noncontroversial situation run itself out.

Another thing, it's a circular rule. A disruptive piece of clothing is one that causes a disruption. That means the rule is defined by the behavior of people other than the one who receives the consequences. This makes it essentially impossible for a student to obey the rule, because he or she can't control how people will react to something. Oh, you can obey by being as bland and boring as possible, that's not the world I want to live in!

Last thing, these kids seem to really have their heads on straight. Kaz had the nerve to go ahead and express himself -- and you notice his parents are standing there ready to fight for him -- even when he knows other kids will give him a hard time. And then his friends, knowing they were going to be teased by the ignorant kids at school and possibly punished by the school, went and put on their expressive t-shirts.

Good story, this sort of thing has to happen every day. You can't let the ignorant ones determine how everybody else is going to live and what opinions are acceptable.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Who Won?

It's good to be back home. We left our 18- and 19-year-old kids taking care of the house, so you can imagine. When they picked us up at the airport they warned us that the kitchen sink was the first sign of the Apocalypse. Really, I thought the grass in the front yard was the first sign. The kitchen sink was the second. It appears they went all week without washing a dish. One day when we called from Australia they said they'd had chocolate pudding for lunch, with tuna sandwiches for dessert. Well, there was no sign of a party, so I guess we can count our blessings. Either there wasn't one, or they do know how to clean up. I'll take either explanation.

Australia was beautiful, it is so refreshing to see the world from an entirely different point of view sometimes. It's easy in the United States to think that everything in the world is like it is here. Even a place as similar to the US as Australia is surprisingly different, both the land and the people.

I am still half-dazed with jet lag and trying to catch up after two weeks out of the country, so I'm not going to try to dig up something new for you. Instead, like you, I just watched the presidential debate. So tell me, what'd you think?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Last Note From Australia

In a few hours I will be in the sky, flying back home from Australia.

We've been staying in a hotel in Adelaide, actually this is a nice place, the Grand Stamford Hotel at Glenelg, we are right on the beach. The springtime weather has been beautiful and Glenelg is the place to go, it's crazy with teenagers and tourists and folks from the city out to enjoy the day. The hotel is not luxurious but it's nice. The room is just a room, but downstairs there are nightclubs and bars and pokies. What's a pokie, you ask? "Pokie" is Australian for "slot machine." They're everywhere here. I'm told that the government makes fifty cents out of every dollar that goes into one of these things. The hotel has a jewelry store, several restaurants, it seems to be the place on the beach for weddings, conventions, dancing. Walking up to my room just now I noticed that someone has just married a very pretty blonde.

The vice-presidential debate occurred at a time when we are awake here -- we're thirteen hours off from the East Coast of the US, our day is your night -- so we thought we'd watch some of it, but the TV wouldn't come on. It was the first time since we got here that we had tried to watch television, and the stupid thing wouldn't come on.

We called the desk and the maintenance guy came up. We explained that we were Americans and wanted to watch the debate, and he laughed. Turns out he's from Baltimore, married an Aussie girl and moved here four years ago. He'd been sitting in a vacant room of the hotel watching the debates himself, so he filled us in. He got the TV working in a few minutes, and we found the debate on BBC. As the maintenance guy was leaving, he said, "Enjoy your stay and good luck to ... the whole world." This last was said with a sweep of the arm toward the television set where Sarah palin and Joe Biden faced one another. It was a poignant gesture. Out here in the rest of the world, people are watching our upcoming election carefully. They couldn't believe that we re-elected George Bush the last time, they might have forgiven our mistake in 2000 but in 2004 we did it on purpose, we knew what he was and we voted for him again. Now we are considering another four years of Republican leadership, and the people of the world are watching very carefully.

We only caught the final statements of the debates. It was canned stuff, memorized stuff. Then the commentators came on, and even the BBC acted as if the only thing that mattered was that Sarah Palin got through it. The immediate summary: "She didn't look like a deer in the headlights and she smiled a lot." That is almost an exact quote from the BBC. Then they went through every answer she gave to every question and talked about how she didn't seem entirely confused by it all, this wasn't as hard as talking to Katie Couric. They weren't being sarcastic, either; to the BBC, to the entire world, the fact that Sarah Palin survived the debate without a complete meltdown was exciting news. Not much was said about the other guy.

I have noticed that over the following day the tone shifted. People went back and reviewed the tapes, listened to what the two candidates had said, and discovered that one of them was knowledgeable and had answers, while the other was able to recite her lines in a charming small-town way, you know?

We were talking to a guy in a jewelry shop yesterday, and he made an interesting observation. The greenback, he noted, is doing very well against the Australian dollar. This guy was very knowledgeable about our economic collapse, even though, as he put it, "I have no money in the stock market, actually I have no money." A few months ago, he said, the American dollar was about 98 percent against the Australian dollar, now it's closer to 78 percent. So you go into a place and they want ten bucks for breakfast, say, we're really only paying seven-eighty American for it. Pretty nice for us tourists. My wife is looking at opals, which are a big commodity here, she wants to get a ring for her sister. I think the currency difference is going to be very welcome. The jewelry store guy was completely baffled about why the dollar is still strong internationally. Oh, the other effect of all this is the price of gold. That opal ring is going to be more expensive because gold has gone up as the American markets fail.

The guy in the jewelry store had some interesting objects for sale. He makes special riding crops, little whips with tassels on the ends, or leather flaps that sting. He doesn't make the whips themselves, but he makes a silver ornament to go on the head of them. Somebody else makes the whips. One was a braided leather crop with a few strands of leather hanging off the end, perfectly balanced, with a silver head on the top. The other was a shorter whip, a quirt I think, with a silver head on it, too, not so perfectly balanced but very pretty. You'll be glad to hear that I did not buy one of these.

I did splurge and get a didgeridoo. I have been hearing recordings of them, and it is a cool sound. A guy played one for me today in a store and gave me a chance to try, but I couldn't get a sound to come out of it. Hopefully I will, eventually, now that I own one. The didgeridoo is a wind instrument that is essentially a hollow stick about a yard long, with beeswax on one end where you put your mouth. You blow it like a trumpet or a tuba, and they use a circular-breathing technique where you blow out through your mouth while you inhale through your nose to keep the sound going. I didn't realize how they are made. It is a branch of a eucalyptus that has been hollowed out by termites. Eucalyptus is really hard wood, I expect it will travel okay, with airline guys throwing it around.

Strange thing here, one art gallery we went to had signs saying that women were not allowed to touch the didgeridoos because of cultural traditions. We asked the guy about this and he explained some crazy thing about how playing the didgeridoo is bad for women because they injure their diaphragm and that somehow affects their fertility. Let's say, I have searched the Internet for confirmation of this and found none. It does turn out that some aboriginal people believe that playing the didgeridoo is bad for women, and violating the taboo may result in bad things happening to them, including it may make them unable to have babies. A saleslady told me there is no problem with non-aboriginal women playing the didgeridoo, and in fact she had a page of citations of medical research showing that it is good for you. Whatever, it seemed weird to me. I think the Citizens for Responsible Didgeridoo Playing should make sure that women stay away from those things. Otherwise, you know what can happen, pretty soon the family will disintegrate.

The people here have been great. There is a kind of national sense of humor, taxi drivers and people in the shops and on the street have a fresh way of looking at things that just makes you laugh. They are a lot like Americans, and this is the easiest place to adapt to. They pronounce things a little differently from us, which works to our advantage because they immediately recognize that we are foreigners and so we are forgiven for not knowing how to do anything or where anything is. At the same time, their accent is not hard to understand and they understand us perfectly well, so we can do everything including joke around with the locals. If you travel you know that it can be frustrating to try to share a laugh with people in a language that one of you doesn't know.

It'll be about thirty hours flying back. Yes, that's a long time, you feel like you've been in that seat your whole life. This has been a terrific visit, and we will have memories forever. It will be good to get home though, that's always a bittersweet thing when a trip ends and you get ready to leave a place, and at the same time you know you're going to be coming back to your normal everyday routine, family and friends and people who love you.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Shower-Nuts Are Still Trying

The shower-nuts' lawyers at Alliance Defense Fund report that they have filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County to force the Board of Elections to stop the new gender identity nondiscrimination law from going into place.
BALTIMORE — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys and allied attorneys filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of Montgomery County voters against the Montgomery County Board of Elections for unconstitutionally denying voters the right to be heard on a new law giving special legal protections based on “gender identity.”

“A democratic government should not silence its people. The board has no legal authority to shut out 900,000 Montgomery County voters who should have their say on this new law,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Amy Smith. “We hope the court will recognize the constitutional rights of Maryland voters and allow their valid signatures to count.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a decision by Maryland’s highest court in Doe v. Montgomery County Board of Elections to disenfranchise county voters. A group of homosexual behavior advocates had filed that suit to challenge petitions submitted by Maryland Citizens for a Responsible Government to put the “gender identity” bill on the Nov. 4 ballot. Even though the Montgomery County Board of Elections certified the petitions, and the number of signatures collected greatly exceeded the requirement, the high court reversed a lower court’s decision to let the petitions stand (

The new lawsuit argues that the board has no authority to remove the referendum from the Nov. 4 ballot. ADF attorneys are also asking the court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the “gender identity” law from going into effect since voters have been unconstitutionally denied the opportunity to vote on the measure.

ADF-allied attorneys John Garza, Matt Paavola, and Daniel Cox are assisting in the case. A copy of the complaint filed in Bloem v. Montgomery County Board of Elections is available at

Fight to let Montgomery County citizens vote on ‘gender identity’ bill continues

I think this is a new twist, calling groups like Equality Maryland "homosexual behavior advocates." We could have a lot of fun with that, like, it doesn't matter how you feel about girls, these groups promote getting it on with your buddies. We could probably come up with some pretty good mottoes for a group like that.

You can follow the link to the document they filed, a hundred eleven pages of stuff. I'm no lawyer and I don't know how this shakes out in the legal system, so I'm not making a guess about it. I can't imagine that a judge can just un-do a law that has been passed by the legislative body and signed by the executive of the county because referendum rules were not handled well. I would think the best a judge could do is to give them a new deadline for another referendum, and I don't really see why he'd do that. Sometimes the government screws up. Sometimes good guys get charged with crimes they didn't commit, sometimes people get tickets when they were under the limit, stuff happens sometimes. This time, the Board of Elections told the Citizens for a Responsible Whatever they needed so-many signatures, when in fact the needed such-many. I don't blame them for being unhappy about it, but ... just imagine if every time the government did something incompetently somebody sued them. The Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled on this already, that's as high as you can go in the state. The CRW got barely the number of signatures they thought they needed, by lying to people at grocery stores and election polling places, and there were very many irregularities in the petitions. The Board of Elections has not been able to do its job at any level, from giving out the wrong target number to certifying invalid signatures to not proactively calling off the referendum with the Circuit Court said there weren't enough signatures. Everybody's unhappy with them, but I don't see any way that suing them can make this law go away.

VP Debate, Brief Thoughts

I'm halfway around the world and staying too busy, I haven't had the TV on all week and have hardly looked at a newspaper, never mind a blog. Tonight there is going to be a debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, the two major parties' candidates for Vice President of the United States of America, and I'll miss it.

At first glance, you think, how can this even be called a debate? A debate is when two knowledgeable, intelligent, and articulate people with different points of views attempt to put their views in a favorable light, with the ostensible goal of persuading the other person. That won't happen tonight. Tonight is going to be a caricature of a debate.

Conservatives don't like it when liberals typify them as unintelligent, but that is going to be at the center of the tension this evening. Oddly, the worst thing Biden can do tonight is to make Palin look stupid. I say "oddly," because in a normal world you win debates by making the other person look stupid. In a real debate it goes like that, it won't tonight. Palin will have memorized some sound-bites, maybe she will even remember the locations of foreign countries and the names of their leaders; I'll bet her scriptwriters have slid a couple of sledge-hammers up her sleeve, but -- there's a reason the Republicans have not allowed her to speak freely to the press. She's cute, she's from a small town, she has problems with her children, apparently an affair she's trying to keep under the carpet, she's a regular walking Jerry Springer guest, and Biden is going to have to be careful, he's got to treat her as if she were his equal.

George W. Bush was elected, we have been told, by people who voted for the person they would most like to have a beer with. It doesn't occur to some people that anybody would be better qualified than themselves to run the country, they believe that their world is the world. Those people are going to take offense if Joe Biden knows things that Sarah Palin doesn't, or if he understands theories of political science that she has never heard of. In this crazy world these kinds of things actually count against you. It seems to me that a democratic republic relies on the wisdom of the citizens to elect the best leaders, but that form of government is vulnerable when the people decide to promote mediocrity, when ordinary people assume that they and people like them have all the qualities necessary to lead. That can happen when intelligence and education lose their prestige; it is one thing to say that ordinary people are "just as good" as extraordinary ones, it is quite another to say that ordinary people are just as qualified to lead the country as people with knowledge, intelligence, and experience. It will be interesting and important tonight to see how it goes.