Monday, November 30, 2009

The Suicide of Mike Penner

This is a tough story to write about. A person lived as a man and had a high-profile successful career, then in middle age transitioned to a female gender identity, then quietly transitioned back last year, and then last week committed suicide. It is certainly a tragic story, but so much is left out of news accounts that it is impossible to know what conclusions to draw.

Here's the obituary from the LA Times, where Mike Penner / Christine Daniels worked:
Mike Penner, a longtime Los Angeles Times sportswriter who made headlines in 2007 when he announced that he was transsexual, has died. He was 52.

Penner was pronounced dead Friday evening at Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, a Los Angeles County coroner's official said.

The cause of death has not been determined but was believed to be suicide.

"Mike was a first-rate journalist, a valued member of our staff for 25 years, and we will miss him," Times Editor Russ Stanton said. "He respected our readers a great deal, enough to share with them his very personal journey. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

A versatile member of The Times' sports staff, Penner covered the Olympics, the Angels, World Cup soccer, tennis, sports media and a variety of other assignments.

He also spent several years writing a sports column for the paper's Orange County Edition. Since 2008, he was the principal writer for the sports section's "Totally Random" feature.

"Mike was one of the most talented writers I've ever worked with, capable of reporting on any number of topics with great wit and style," sports editor Mike James said. "This is a tragic ending and a difficult time for all of us who knew him." Mike Penner dies at 52; Los Angeles Times sportswriter

There are quotes from friends and colleagues, and a little further down the question of gender identity is discussed.
In April 2007, Penner surprised colleagues and readers with an essay in The Times' Sports section announcing that he was "a transsexual sportswriter."

"It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-searching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words," he wrote.

Times Associate Editor Randy Harvey, who was the paper's sports editor at the time, said the essay allowed Penner to explain in his own way a decision that "we realized would be a human-interest story and a news story. We didn't want it to be filtered through someone else's lens."

In the essay, Penner said of his transgender decision:

"I gave it as good a fight as I possibly could. I went more than 40 hard rounds with it. Eventually, though, you realize you are only fighting yourself and your happiness and your mental health -- a no-win situation any way you look at it."

Writing as Christine Daniels, Penner started a column for the paper's website in May 2007 called Day in L.A. and a blog about the transition, then in July began writing for the paper again.

He returned to using the Mike Penner byline in October 2008.

It is interesting that the LA Times and other news sources describe him as a male who lived for a few years as a transsexual woman. His male name and masculine pronouns are used, as I am using them here, but the argument could easily be made that Penner's male gender identity was a cover-up, and that in honoring his passing his newspaper should have described him as a female.

The best discussion of the confusion in reporting about Penner's gender identity is found in Amanda Hess's The Sexist blog at the Washington City Paper: Should We Remember Mike Penner or Christine Daniels?. Amanda reviews how Penner's gender identity was handled by various publications, noting that almost all the sports publications used masculine pronouns, while LGBT publications tended to refer to Penner as Christine Daniels and use feminine pronouns. A good point here:
Interestingly, the decision to remember Penner as female in his obituary lies in direct opposition to a longtime cause of the LGBT movement: Ensuring that the mainstream media accurately represent the gender identity of transgender subjects. According to several professional style guidelines, writers are to use the gender identity, name, and pronouns preferred by the subject. So, if Mike goes publicly as Mike, you call him Mike; if Christine goes publicly as Christine, you call her Christine.

Mike had most recently chosen to call himself Mike and refer to himself as a man. Nothing is clear here, but I will go with that, too. Amanda discusses some of the implications of the choice on her blog, and I recommend the discussion.

The question of pronouns and language is an interesting one, but the real question lies in understanding the tragedy that resulted in Mike Penner's suicide. You can imagine the emotional turmoil that must be involved in changing your publicly presented gender in the first place. It is not something you do trivially, it can't be easy, especially for a sportswriter, of all things. Having done that, Penner, now Daniels, became somewhat famous in the LGBT community, and you can imagine -- but you can only imagine, because not much is known -- that her life now had changed dramatically. And then, after adjusting to life as a woman, Penner detransitioned back to a male gender identity, erasing all evidence of Christine Daniels from the public record. And again, we can only imagine going back to your old life as a guy, only now everybody knows that you were a woman last year. You lose your new LGBT friends and your old sportsroom buddies are suspicious of you -- that must be an uncomfortable place to be.

We can't know what motivated Mike Penner to commit suicide, you never know those things really. Maybe it was money, or depression, something that had nothing to do with gender identity. I hope that over the next weeks we will gain some insight into this person's life, his tangled motives, and I hope that some of the discussion will enlighten us about our own attitudes. What is so important about gender? Why do people get so upset about it? Why do some members of society feel it is necessary to enforce conformity to group norms above the autonomy of the individual?

One thing. I have noticed that some news sites and blogs that allow reader comments have had terrible things said. Many of the sites have had to delete comments or turn that feature off altogether. I am going to watch the discussion here, and will delete anything that I consider disrespectful. It is difficult for the majority of us to understand what it's like to feel that you have been assigned to the wrong gender category, and we have no way of knowing how hard it is to tell the world you are changing in a fundamental way. Let's not use this thread to say political things, or to judge someone who makes such a difficult decision. The story here is that someone has chosen to take their own life. There is a lot to talk about, but I want the discussion to remain civil. That doesn't mean you have to approve of someone's decisions, you don't have to take my point of view on anything here, but let us speak decently about important issues and speak respectfully of the dead. I will edit with a heavy hand.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science and Informal Communication

In recent days the Nutty Ones have been in a frenzy about something they call "Climategate," a supposed controversy that validates all their delusions about global warming. Somebody hacked into a server and stole a bunch of emails among climate scientists and published them online, and now some people are asserting that the emails prove that global-warming science was faked.

It's a nice Sunday, sunny and breezy, I should be outside but instead I'll sit here at the computer and ruminate for a while with the windows open. I am thinking about this Climategate business. Specifically I am thinking about the problem of unqualified people with political motives evaluating scientific research. This piece is too long, I am aware of that, I don't expect anybody to bother reading it. I just needed to spill my thoughts about this -- maybe it will make you thankful you aren't doomed like I am to think about things like this. I'll try to find something sexier tomorrow.

Science is just a word that means knowledge.

As ordinary people, most of what we know is stuff we have been told and not seen first-hand. You have not seen the curvature of the earth's surface with your own eyes, for instance; from an individual's perspective the earth is flat, and the sun and stars move over us while the reliable surface we stand on remains firm -- but you know otherwise. Your knowledge is inconsistent with your perceptions. You have probably never seen the President of the United States but you sure know a lot about him and have beliefs about him. With our own senses we see a little bit of the world, and -- this is the amazing thing about human beings -- we put together reports from each individual point of view to compose something we call knowledge. Knowledge is different from information, it is different from accumulated data; computers can't know, only living human beings can have knowledge.

Sometimes our knowledge is wrong. In fact, if you look back at human history and prehistory, most of the time, most people have been wrong about most things they have believed about the world. The cool thing is that over time human knowledge about the world has evolved in a positive direction, facts are separated from unfounded rumors through some process of testing, validation, and discussion, and after several tens of thousands of years of homo sapiens sapiens we are relatively sapient.

It seems funny to say that knowledge can be wrong, but you have to realize that knowledge is not an entity separate from human minds, knowledge is in fact the state of a mind. Knowledge is a little bit about the truth of a belief and a whole lot about the certainty of the believer. It is entirely possible to hold a belief about which you are certain, and be wrong. Everybody understands this, really, and over time what we try to do, if we are honest, is to improve our understanding, we want to replace beliefs that correspond poorly with the state of the world with better ones. One reason, maybe the biggest reason, we want to do this is so that other people can trust us when we communicate information to them. The dependability of our statements lays the foundation for our social bonds.

And here's where science comes in. We like to say that science is a process of hypothesis formation and testing, experimentation and analysis, but sometimes it's better to think of science as a social process. Science works like this: a person has an idea, does some work, and writes a paper describing the work. The paper is submitted to a journal where an editor decides whether to send it out for review, and if it looks good he or she may send it to some individuals who they consider qualified to review the paper. The reviewers read it, comment on it, and rate it. The usual rating system is: 1. Accept as is; 2. Minor revisions and accept; 3. Rewrite and resubmit; 4. Reject. Usually three or four reviewers look at a paper, the editor takes their opinions and decides whether to publish it. Editors may totally ignore the reviewers' comments and ratings, though they usually don't. Nobody knows, usually, what the other reviewers have said, if the editor gets three rave reviews and one it-makes-me-want-to-puke he may decide to publish, and if you wrote the puke review you might feel you have been ignored, but it's all up to the editor. He may look at the negative review and decide not to publish, or he may read the article himself and decide regardless of what the reviewers have said.

Once a peer-reviewed paper has been published in a reputable journal it becomes part of the scientific literature and can be cited by future scientists. Newton called it "standing on the shoulders of giants," and that's how science works.

Listen, this is a fallible process. Science can make mistakes. There have been important moments where the scientific community chose to go one way or the other, and maybe they didn't choose correctly. Was Newton's theory of color better than Goethe's? We'll never know, because nobody paid any attention to Goethe's theory. It might as well be VHS versus Beta, eight-track versus cassettes, all that happens is that some people decide what they prefer. Except in science the people have been selected through a process of education, which is as much a matter of selecting qualified individuals as it is filling their heads with accepted knowledge. You go to graduate school to get your PhD, you take classes, seminars, conduct research, write a dissertation, take comps, but in the end it comes down to one thing. A professor shakes your hand and says, "Congratulations, doctor." It doesn't matter if you have failed to pay your fees, it doesn't matter if you flunked comps and nobody liked your dissertation, it doesn't matter if your paperwork got lost in the administration office, once they call you "doctor" you are a doctor, a peer, you are one of them, and they can't take it back. A PhD means nothing more than that you have been accepted by an elite group of scholars. You could have a perfect dissertion and get everything right in your exams, but if they don't accept you into their group you do not get to use the letters after your name.

Science is no different from other forms of knowledge. You can ask about the fundamental nature of matter, you can ask if John Gosselin cheated on his wife, it's all the same process. It all works the same way, people have a thought and share it with others, it gets discussed and passed around and refined, and in the end everybody knows that the atom is the smallest unit of matter, or that John Gosselin did or didn't cheat on his wife. And for the record, I have never seen John Gosselin on TV and have no idea who he is, I just know his name and face are in the news a lot. He has a bunch of kids and either he or his wife is having an affair, right? Scientific thoughts are scrutinized much more carefully than thoughts about television stars, scholars risk their reputations when they write or review something, their skepticism and criticism is much more intense than you see in an ordinary conversation, the scientific process is more formal than ordinary conversation but is not fundamentally different from it.

So some scientists sent emails to each other about global warming, big deal. They're people. I remember in graduate school sitting in seminars with a bunch of research assistants where everybody would cheer if the results came out "our way" and boo if they didn't. We were all happy if an experiment went well and we had a good chance of getting the results published. This was a little bit before email was common so you can't steal those hopeful comments and put them on the Internet, but we talked to each other about the studies, we hoped it would come out, we shared ideas about the hypothesis, the methods, the statistical analysis, we might talk about how to assign the degrees of freedom in the ANOVA to get a significant result, what to do about outliers, we might have noticed confounding factors or conflicting results in another paper, or anything, we might hope the results come out badly because the professor gave us a bad grade on something or because he was on the outs with the other professors. We talked about the scientists with rival theories, dwelling on their unclean personal habits. Scientists are just people, motivated in the same ways everyone is motivated. Nowadays they use email, and somebody broke into the server and stole it.

I can talk about this because I've been part of it. I am an originator of a scientific topic that has been the subject of thousands of scientific papers. I have personally seen the birth of an idea, shared the results with other scientists, presented at conferences, published in journals, edited journals and reviewed hundreds of papers, there are now entire journals committed to the subject I originated, I have seen the paradigm veer off track and come back, I have seen popular novels based on the subject, management consultants citing the research ... I am in a privileged position to comment on the social process of science.

Scientific knowledge is essentially the same as all other knowledge, it is the state of a thinking mind, what cognitive psychologists call the "feeling of knowing" is a matter of perceptual fluency, speed of processing, salience and familiarity, we say we know something when we feel like we know something. Scientists are no different from other people, they do everything the rest of us do. But amazingly, science as a formal system has been astoundingly successful at evolving the quality of knowledge, it is the best process the human species has found. Non-scientists might think there is something pristine and perfect going on in those ivy-covered buildings but it's just people figuring out stuff and talking about it, it's trial-and-error group learning. They specialize in tiny niches -- I met a guy once who studied hypothermia in ruby-throated hummingbirds, that's it, that was his life. Trust me, he knew more about that topic than you or I do, he knew it in a way we can't imagine. You couldn't read his email to his friend and conclude his research was a hoax, even if he was discussing his research design or statistical analysis.

It's not quite right that scientists are exactly like the rest of us. A scientist is a person who has first of all been accepted to a graduate school, second of all gotten through the program, and finally has conducted research that met the approval of his or her peers. Getting into graduate school is an exercise in ass-kissing, you need to have good grades as an undergraduate, good scores on the GRE, and you need impressive references and a nice letter that shows you to be sincere and intelligent and ambitious in ways that please the faculty. Anybody who has been to grad school can tell you about people who got in for the wrong reasons, and getting in is the most important thing, the hardest thing. Getting through it is a lot of work but basically once you're there they'll help you unless you're lazy, and then they can't be bothered. You learn the rules of the scientific method in fine-grained detail, you submit some papers as a co-author with your professor, whose reputation increases the chances of papers being accepted, and when you get out you will hopefully have had your name on enough of them that an editor will recognize your bloodline when you submit one as first author. And so it goes, you continue the tradition and make a name for yourself.

Scientists are different from other people because they have been selected by the academic process to become doctors of philosophy and have stepped over the thresholds of that process. If you look at scientists individually you will see that they stand out, there are not going to be a lot of two-digit IQ's in that crowd, for instance. These are smart, hard-working people. If they are successful it means they have learned how the game of science is played and have used their intelligence and motivation to place themselves prominently in their field. They have figured out how to get positive reviews from journal referees, how to get funding for their research, how to get tenure.

None of this means that scientific results are "factual." Let's make a distinction here, you might not be used to thinking this way but let me point out the distinction between deductive and inductive logic. Mathematics is deductive. Ignoring Gödel, a mathematical fact is true no matter where it is applied or who thinks of it. The method used for identifying mathematical truths is the proof, which is a strictly defined series of logical steps, each building on the previous one, where the previous one has its own proof, and the final result is deductively valid and true. Mathematical facts are true even if there is nothing in the real world that corresponds to them, even if no one has ever thought of them before.

On the other hand, inductive reasoning builds up facts from observations. The method for determining causality inductively is the experimental method, where factors are carefully controlled, an independent variable is presented in two or more levels, the value of a dependent variable is measured, and values of the dependent variable are observed to be affected by values of the independent variable. There is almost always some error in measurement of the dependent variables and other factors affecting the outcome, and so some statistical analysis is used to determine whether the outcome is due to chance or whether it is due to the experimental manipulation. Based on all this fudginess, a conclusion can be drawn about the condition of the world with some degree of certainty. Through some clever statistical manipulations, the certainty of a conclusion can be pretty well estimated.

Science, no matter what anybody says about null hypothesis testing, uses inductive logic. Scientific results are never completely certain, if they were certain they would be common knowledge already, the results of an experiment almost always have some room for doubt or something that can be challenged. That's why science doesn't just wrap it up and say, Okay, we're done. The cool thing is that knowledge is always increasing, beliefs are improving, because people selected by the academic process use methods that their peer group approves of to write papers that will be published and get them funding and tenure.

So now we have the shocking revelation that some climate scientists have sent emails to each other, hoping their research will look good to journal editors and department chairs. Woo, scientists are people, who would have guessed? It's a fake controversy, it's like finding out that priests have sexual fantasies, that bankers are greedy, that teenagers are self-conscious. Sure, climate scientists get excited when they look at a graph of data that no one has ever seen before, and notice a trend that has never been documented, their first thought is that maybe Science or Nature will accept this, and if there is something imperfect in the data they will see if they can improve it. They email their friends and colleagues and discuss it, not in terms of how it will read in the inevitable Wikipedia page that will be quoted by the inevitable anonymous troll, but how it will affect their career. What can they do to make this new-found discovery palatable to journal editors and reviewers, how should they describe it so they sound like they are supporting and extending the prevailing paradigm rather than looking like some cranky eccentric? Of course they talk about that, just like you and I send email to our friends about things that matter to us. Except nobody steals our emails and puts them on the Internet where we will look stupid and human.

The current case, climate change, matters because there is a political angle to it, because there is money involved. There is a bizarre alliance between the wealthiest capitalists in our society and the hardest-working, lowest paid, least educated citizens. The capitalists understand that climate science could cost them money. If their factories and products are destroying the environment then somebody is going to demand that they clean up, and that means spending a lot of money. They don't want to have to do that, and so it is a foregone, self-serving conclusion for them that climate science must find that humans are not making the planet warmer. And because they contribute to political campaigns and own media outlets they are able to get their wishful thinking disseminated as fact to a poorly-educated population that is not too critical of its information sources. The television audience figures that if the announcer is good-looking and well dressed, what they're saying is probably right, or if there is a colorful banner moving at the bottom of the screen, a dynamic background, and some music sometimes then the news is probably accurate. The people with the money can get the masses to believe anything, that's just the way it goes, that's what we're up against these days.

Somebody captured a lot of emails among some scientists and put them on the Internet, and some of it sounds bad. But you and I are not climate scientists, we don't know how they conduct their research, we don't know how they talk about it, we are unqualified to judge. Let me give you an example and a counterexample. One scientist emailed another guy saying, "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." That sounds bad, but I admit I don't know the field well enough to know what he's really saying here, and neither do you. Now let me tell you something you might not realize: every survey you see, if it's any good, has fake data in it. Google for the words "survey" and "imputation" and you will find nearly two million hits. Imputation in a survey means that you make up data. It has to do with variance and statistical certainty, and it happens every day. Sometimes the data are generated from a statistical distribution, sometimes they "hot deck" using data from a case that is similar in some way to a missing one. Nobody criticizes a survey for using fake data, but if you saw some captured emails between statisticians you might conclude shockingly that survey results are faked. Government surveys, political surveys, marketing surveys, it actually makes a survey more valid to use made-up data, but you could paint that in a way to make it sound bad -- that's because you don't know anything about survey methods, you don't understand how margins of error are calculated, you don't understand the function of imputation. In the same way, you can take statements out of these climate emails and make something out of them. You don't know any more about climate science than you know about statistical surveys, you certainly do not know enough to read some emails -- or more likely read some out-of-context statements extracted by some teabagger and circulated around the Internet -- and conclude that the whole field is a hoax.

We teach kids that the "scientific method" is something about hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing, but in reality science is like other socially constructed knowledge. That is not to say that scientific knowledge is of the same low quality as ordinary knowledge. There is no question that scientists do discover facts and evolve theories that are more refined and more comprehensive than the theories held by ordinary people. That is because scientists are specially selected by the academic process, specially trained in the theories and methods of their field, and their research is scrutinized and filtered through a rigorous peer-review publication process. Technical scientific work can not be debated in the popular press, because you and I don't have the special training required to evaluate it. You can assume that when scientific research appears in the newspapers and television shows there is money behind it, and you can assume that the news story simplifies and slants the research in a direction that is desirable to their own funding sources.

Thousands of articles have been published on a subject like global warming, and though it is not our field we can expect that there is a scientific consensus and we can expect that there are challenges to the consensus. That's how science works, you can call it paradigms and revolutions, whatever, it is a fascinating process of human beings who are trained to be skeptical and objective in their thinking, criticizing one another's work, looking for the errors, and at the same time building on one another's work. Each one is struggling for funding and academic standing, which are granted on the basis of the scientist's reputation, which is in turn based on his or her record of successful participation in the community of researchers.

In sum, some scientists talked freely among themselves, somebody stole the email and posted millions of lines of it, someone with an agenda tried to pick sentences out of it and make a case that the scientists were trying to pull off a hoax. I'm sorry, there's no story here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Open Thread - The Day Before Thanksgiving

The previous post was about a situation that is familiar to us here at TTF, and I would like to see the comments section there reflect the knowledge and opinions of our community. I see though that some people would like to talk about the President's popularity ratings and how global warming is a hoax, etc. I am going to delete irrelevant comments on that thread, and let's use this one to talk about current events.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

MPW Is Wrong On the Dana Beyer Controversy

Maryland Politics Watch had a longish post yesterday on the matter of the investigation of Dana Beyer. To review, Dana Beyer is a transgender Montgomery County Council staff member who was investigated for more than a year after complaints were filed by the anti-LGBT group Citizens for Responsible Government. The investigation discarded all the complaints except one, concluding that Dana may have misused her position to intimidate a person collecting signatures for a referendum to challenge a new law banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity, at the Arliss Road Giant on February 17, 2008. Dana has asked the county's Human Rights Commission to investigate the investigation, claiming she was singled out because of her gender identity, and her boss Duchy Trachtenberg has asked the US Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to look into it.

Adam Pagnucco at MPW is not sympathetic to Dana's position, and presents a number of points and his reasoning regarding them. I salute him for his level-headedness and believe that this is the right way to carry on a discussion. Dana -- and in this piece I will use her first name, rather than the stuffier "Doctor Beyer" -- is a friend of ours, a supporter and member of from the earliest times, and I won't pretend to be impartial. I want to lay out a perspective that is complementary to that at MPW.

In February, 2008, Dana and I were part of a group that visited sites where people were gathering signatures for a referendum to overturn a gender identity nondiscrimination law that had been passed by the Montgomery County Council. This was a spontaneous activist effort intended to accomplish several ends.

First of all, we had heard that the people with the petitions were lying about the law, saying that the petitions were going to keep men out of ladies restrooms, and we wanted to verify the rumor. In fact, we did hear them saying that at almost every site we visited. Second of all, when we heard them misconstruing the law to a person who was considering signing the petitions, we would explain to the person what the petition actually represented, that it was about gender identity nondiscrimination and had nothing at all to do with men in the ladies room or the safety of women and children. In some places where we knew the petition handlers were violating a store's policies, we spoke to the manager, reminded them of their company's policy of allowing groups to set up tables one weekend per month, and often asked them if they thought it was good for their business to be associated with people who promote discrimination.

In a couple of places, members of our group interacted with the petition handlers themselves. HERE we documented a scene where a transgender woman talked with a signature collector, where the consequence was a big hug and the person with the petitions went home to pray and think. Turns out it is a lot harder to support discrimination against somebody who is standing right in front of you, sharing their feelings with you. Generally the volunteers with the petitions were not friendly, almost all of them seemed to believe that there was a real danger that predatory men would lurk in ladies rooms, molesting women and children, unless discrimination against transgender people was allowed. All of the visits that I personally witnessed, except one, were congenial enough. I myself chatted with some people with petitions, and they seemed like regular folks, we disagreed on some things but it was no big deal. Now and then one got defensive but it wasn't usually necessary. And if someone from our group engaged a potential signer, the pro-referendum volunteers were certainly free to present their side of the argument. I didn't see anyone intimidate anyone, and I didn't see anyone who appeared intimidated.

The Arliss Road Giant was different. There were three guys there with the petitions, and by the time I got there the scene was ugly. The three men were surly, they had told one of our members that it would have been better if she had been aborted, and called her a fascist. Four of our group showed up there, arriving at different times. I went inside to talk with the Giant manager. As I talked with him, Dana came over and joined in. Of course she didn't say "I'm a staffer at the County Council and you can't do this." She knew the Giant policy, she had discussed it with corporate headquarters. The manager said he was going to call someone and find out, so we went back outside.

At some point the police showed up, and Theresa Rickman of the Citizens for Responsible Government appeared at the scene. My understanding at the time was that the question was whether members of our group could stand on the sidewalk. We had been told to stay in the parking lot, and had complied with that. The policeman hung around for a while but didn't do anything, and eventually we all left.

Generally the site visits were effective for us, people really did not know what the petitions were about, and it was effective for us to tell them what the law was about and to tell them that it had nothing to do with men going into ladies restrooms. There was no violence or intimidation, I'm not very big or intimidating and most of the rest of the group was either petite moms or transgender women.

Maryland Politics Watch confuses the issue by re-publishing a several-seconds-long video of Dana Beyer telling some petition gatherers, "An email went out; you're going to be asked to leave. Any petitions gathered today are illegal." It was true an email had gone out from Giant corporate headquarters to the various stores, and in many locations managers did ask signature-gatherers to leave. I don't know if petition signatures gathered while you are trespassing are legal or not, but Dana apparently believed they were illegal. On February 18th, 2008, Dana posted this in our comments section:
I will say that CRW has NO RIGHT to be on any Giant property today, as it is not a weekend. A blast email has gone out to the store managers of all the Giants in Montgomery County today, asking them to have any petitioners leave the premises.

So if any of you happen to be shopping and happen to see the extremists out in from of a Giant supermarket, all you have to do is go inside, ask for the manager, and tell him that Corporate has sent him a message that such solicitations today are to be ended forthwith.

I also imagine that any signatures collected in direct violation of company policy will be invalidated as well. But I'm not a lawyer.

In the video she did not, as MPW implies, tell them that they were engaged in "illegal" activities. She said the signatures would not be legal, meaning they wouldn't be counted. Further, this video has nothing to do with anything. The county investigation looked at this video and concluded that nothing inappropriate was portrayed in it. You wonder, then, why Maryland Politics Watch included it in their post. It is simply prejudicial -- grainy video badly edited to make Dana Beyer look bad. But there is actually nothing unethical or illegal in what she's doing.

Let me comment on Adam's five well-organized points, one by one. I will use his section heading and then address the topic. This might make more sense if you look at his post HERE.

1. Records Access. The investigation included a secret search of Dana's office computer. There is nothing simple about the legality or advisability of such a search. The usual platitude is that it's not your computer, it's your employer's computer, and they can look at it if they want. There is however something shady about executive branch officials searching a legislative branch computer, especially when they did not have the required permission from the Council Staff Director. It is quite possible that this search was unlawful. Beyond that, it is just bad business to make your employees defensive and fearful as they go about doing their day-to-day work. It can be profoundly chilling to know that someone else has been reading your email, and high-performance employees might have many informal communications as well as "official" things, especially if they are engaged in creative problem-solving. It may turn out that the secret search of County Council computers without permission of the Staff Director is technically legal, but it is nonetheless shockingly bad practice. As it stands, no one working in the County Council offices can now be certain that their computers are not being checked by strangers. MPW invokes the concept of "open government" here, but I think it is foolish to think that transparency in government extends to every "Where are we meeting for lunch?" email that goes around. The public should know how government business is conducted, they don't need to know that someone loved that skit on Saturday Night Live this week, the public doesn't need to see the cute kitty with the heartwarming caption. People do need to be able to be people, even at work, and this search was an intimate assault on Dana's privacy. And note, the problem is not that public records were examined, the problem is that the search was conducted in secret, without the knowledge of Dana's boss or the Council Staff Director, who must give permission for such a search to take place. There are above-board procedures for acquiring information relevant to the subject of an investigation -- this was a secret search for keywords related to legitimate work topics.

2. Leaks. MPW's complaint about the leaks is that they didn't hear any of them. I know, I hate it when that happens, too, if somebody has a secret they should tell me! So far Dana and her boss Duchy Trachtenberg have stated that there were leaks, that other Council members and staff knew about the investigation, but they have not named names or said how they know. That does not mean there were no leaks. Dana Beyer's complaint to HRC asked them to investigate leaks, and more will be known. The investigation was supposed to be private, but some people said things that indicated they knew more than they were supposed to know.

3. Transgender Discrimination. Here, MPW cites the irrelevant video, saying that it contains enough evidence to warrant scrutiny regardless of her gender status. But the video has been cleared, Dana's behavior in the video is in-bounds, that is an irrelevant red herring. The charge that the investigation was based on Dana's gender identity is not hard to support. The investigation was instigated by a complaint by the Citizens for Responsible Government; their president submitted a written statement, and their lawyer represented the complainant in interviews. The CRG is anti-gay and anti-transgender, they have no other reason for existing but to stop education about sexual orientation and gender identity and to block the passing and implementation of a law giving equal rights to transgender people. We could show you a hundred ugly quotes showing prejudice against transgender people by CRG members and officers. The individual who claims to have been harassed insists on referring to Dana, who is biologically and legally female, as "Mister Beyer," and acts in his interviews like he doesn't understand questions that refer to Dana Beyer as "she."

It is not hard to show evidence that the complaining parties are anti-transgender. The question is whether the investigators discriminated, and the answer is demonstrably Yes. The investigation did nothing more than seek evidence to justify the anti-transgender group's allegations. They did not take statements from witnesses with a different view, though it is clear from the text of interviews that they were aware of my name and my presence at the scene, and they were aware of this blog and the fact that I published photographs of the people at the scene and wrote about it, they were aware of the presence of other TTF members who were there. The CRG formed to promote the right to discriminate against transgender citizens, and the investigators only took statements from members of their group, plus they possessed a statement handwritten by the CRG's president, Ruth Jacobs (as sworn in her deposition), and supposedly signed by the Giant manager, but not in the presence of investigators. Investigators have not spoken directly with that manager, but took Ruth Jacobs' word.

4. Beyer’s Political Career. Maryland Politics Watch, not surprisingly, follows Maryland politics very closely. Their argument here is astonishingly disingenuous. They show that most of the members of the Ethics Commission are Democrats, and that some of them contribute to LGBT causes. Therefore, why would they do anything to harm Dana? Well of course, all elected officials in Montgomery County are Democrats! You can bet appointed Commission members will lean that way heavily. We are the bluest of the blue.

Adam Pagnucco knows better than anyone that there is a major fracture in the County Council, it is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. (For an example of nobody saying anything, look at this Gazette article about the Council choosing a new president.) Politics in our county doesn't go Democrat versus Republican, but that doesn't mean we are a big happy family. It is entirely possible that the Ethics Commission or someone on it is carrying out a strategy that in the long run accumulates power for one member or bloc at the expense of another. In fact, it is fatuous to assume that this investigation was not politically motivated. And remember, the Council voted unanimously to pass the nondiscrimination bill, so the backroom intrigue is probably not going to be revealed by pro or anti LGBT sentiments. Dana is running for Delegate in 2010, and charges that are filed now will be generating negative publicity right in the heat of the campaign season. It has been nearly two years since the incident in question.

5. Trachtenberg’s Political Career. Ditto. Dana works for Duchy Trachtenberg. Duchy is not afraid to stir up controversy all by herself, she is tough, outspoken, and independent. MPW's point here is that Duchy is a close ally of County Executive Ike Leggett, whose office manages the group that conducted the investigation. Pagnucco then dispenses the strawman argument that Ike Leggett is a Soviet-style spymaster who dispatches minions to suppress Trachtenberg and Beyer as preposterous -- but that isn't what has been said. I think it is likely that Ike Leggett knew nothing about the investigation. MPW's oversimplification of MoCo politics is again disingenuous -- it is very likely, given their failure to interview witnesses who might have supported her, that the Ethics Commission set out to "get" Dana Beyer, and it is not preposterous on any level to speculate that there is a political motive behind it. The charge against Dana effectively kills two birds with one stone, it could damage Dana Beyer's campaign and it could taint Duchy Trachtenberg's as well, if hearings are being held in the time period right before elections.

Just a few days ago I posted a comment at Maryland Politics Watch where I mentioned that they do a great job and I read the blog every day. I do feel that way, Adam is a good writer and a thorough researcher, he knows a lot of the behind-the-scenes details and brings local politics to life. In yesterday's post I feel he is reflecting opinions that are widely held among County Council members and staff, and in a way that's why we read MPW, to find out what people are thinking inside government. But politicians, more than other people, are self-serving in their expressed beliefs, they are always competing for votes, always forming coalitions to undermine one another, and in this case the safe thing for a politician to do is to maintain distance from controversy, especially controversy involving a transgender person. The County Council has been anarchic since the passing of Marilyn Praisner, it's dog-eat-dog, and one gets the feeling from Adam Pagnucco's post that officials are afraid to take Dana's side in this controversy, even though the 23-07 vote was unanimous and it is in all the Council's interest to gain control over secret computer searches and frivolous investigations.

There are two kinds of questions about the accusation against Dana Beyer. The first question is, did Dana harass or intimidate a person at the Arliss Giant on February 17, 2008? The person's statement is very vague, he says the two of them "bumped" over the petition table and doesn't remember what was said. The store manager's statement says that Dana introduced herself as a County Council staffer and said that the petition gathering was illegal, and that's, let me say, very, very fishy -- I was standing right there when Dana talked to that manager and it's been nearly two years, so my memory is not perfect, but I don't remember her saying anything like that. The manager's statement was not made to the investigators but was written by Ruth Jacobs, the president of the Citizens for Responsible Government, and the manager could not be found for deposition by investigators. The evidence against Dana really amounts to two very weak statements, one by the alleged harassment victim who is virulently anti-transgender, and one by the president of CRG, who was not present at the scene. It is possible that some county hearing would conclude that Dana should not have been talking to the petition handlers at all, I don't know how the ethics rule will be interpreted, but the evidence is very slim and the infraction charged is minor.

The other kind of question is more serious, and that is the question of how the investigation was conducted. County Council Staff Director Steve Farber needed to give permission to search that computer, and he has said he did not. Witnesses who were at the scene, including yours truly, were never contacted by investigators, only witnesses who were hostile to Dana. What were the motives for this hoax of an investigation? I don't know. Power, money, politics, bigotry, incompetence ... who knows? Dana has called for an investigation of the investigation, and that is what needs to happen next, to figure out how this happened. Nobody has a problem with Dana being investigated, the CRG said at the time that they were going to file a complaint; the problem is that the investigation was a travesty. We need to know why county time and money was wasted on this.

Monday, November 23, 2009

US Justice Department Asked to Look at Beyer Case

The Washington Post had this story online. I will maintain the links they put into the article.
Just a week after Tom Perez was formally installed as chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights division, the former Maryland labor secretary and Montgomery Council member was given a little welcoming gift Friday by council member Duchy Trachtenberg: a letter seeking to bring him into a messy Montgomery dispute regarding ethics proceedings against a transgender council staffer.

Dana Beyer, a doctor and top Trachtenberg aide, says claims she threatened or tried to intimidate opponents of a 2007 transgender rights law are baseless. Beyer helped craft the transgender law and is the first person to use it. Last week Beyer filed a discrimination complaint against Montgomery's ethics commission, which is moving forward with a rare hearing on the accusations against her. She said Trachtenberg's letter asks for Perez's "guidance" on the matter. Trachenberg's office declined to release the letter, but said they'll release his response when one comes.

Trachtenberg on Friday did release a letter she sent Montgomery county attorney Leon Rodriguez reiterating her objection to a search of Beyer's e-mail by a county technology official working on behalf of investigators in the county attorney's office and the ethics commission.

The computer files were searched by keywords connected to the investigation, but nothing improper was found, according to county documents. New U.S. civil rights chief pulled back into transgender staffer fight in Montgomery

I am skipping a lot of this article, you might want to follow the link and see more. Here is the content of Council member Duchy Trachtenberg's letter to the county attorney:
Dear Mr. Rodriguez:

As you may know, the report dated September 8, 2009, from your office to the Montgomery County Ethics Commission in the matter of the investigation of Dr. Dana Beyer, a member of my staff, contained the extraordinary revelation that Dr. Beyer's workplace computer was swept by a DTS technician in the course of the County Attorney's investigation undertaken at the direction of the Ethics Commission.

The Montgomery County Administrative Procedure regulation that directly relates to the use of county-provided Internet, Intranet and Electronic Mail Services states: "Upon the approval of the email user's department head and the CIO, system administrators in DTS or the e-mail user's department may access an employee's e-mail messages and computer files related to the employee's use of the County's Internet, Intranet and e-mail services."

In this case, it is my understanding that the search of Dr. Beyer's computer was conducted without the consent of the Council Staff Director (the department head) and certainly without my consent or Dr. Beyer's consent. Such a search constitutes a deliberate and willful violation of county administrative rules. It is particularly problematic that an Executive Branch agency would undertake to conduct a secret search of the computer files of a sitting Member of the County Council without the consent of the Councilmember or any authorized official of the Council.

Accordingly, I am requesting an immediate (within one week time) response from your office to the following questions:
  1. What member or official of the Ethics Commission requested the computer search?

  2. Who in the County Attorney's office, if anyone, authorized the computer search?

  3. Who else, if anyone, purported to authorize the computer search?

  4. Who actually performed the computer search?

  5. On what day did it occur?

  6. Who provided access to my private, Councilmember office suite, which is locked after business hours?

  7. Was my own computer swept as part of this investigation?

  8. If so, please provide answers to questions 1 through 6 with respect to the search of my computer.

  9. Please provide written documentation of any computer(s) searches; specifically, what was searched; using what key words; and subsequent findings.

You can certainly understand that I am most dismayed that any Executive Branch agency or office would undertake a clandestine, and evidently unlawful, search of confidential files in the office of a sitting Councilmember. And I intend on getting to the bottom of this reckless abuse of authority. The people of Montgomery County have an expectation of transparent and ethical behavior on the part of all public servants. And they deserve no less.


Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg

CC: Mr. Tim Firestine, CAO
Mr. Steve Farber, Council Staff Director

I think a lot of people in downtown Rockville are wishing this issue would go away. The Citizens for a Responsible Whatever filed some complaints against Dana Beyer, a hoax of an investigation was performed, and all complaints but one were found to be insubstantial. The investigators talked to a number of members of the Citizens for Responsible Government and anti-transgender activists, and failed to interview witnesses who could have given information supporting Beyer.

This could be the Wile E. Coyote moment for the Montgomery County Ethics Commission and County Attorney.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Washington Blade Reborn as D. C. Agenda

According to Amanda Hess at the Washington City Paper Sexist blog, the Washington Blade which went out of business this week, will be revitalized at the D. C. Agenda.
The Washington Blade served as D.C.’s gay newspaper of record from 1969 until Monday morning. This Friday, the paper intends to return as the D.C. Agenda. Editor Kevin Naff confirmed the re-Christening this evening at an event at the Hard Rock Hotel supporting the paper’s rebirth.

Naff, who was accompanied by about 100 supporters at the Hard Rock Hotel event, says he believes that all of the Washington Blade’s former staffers are in on the new project. Their first task, he says, was to agree on a new name for the paper. D.C. Advocate Agenda, Naff says, was “a group decision of about 25 of us.” Earlier today, the paper sealed the deal by securing its new Twitter account, @DCAgenda.

Now, the staff just needs to decide which aspects of the Blade to carry on in its new Agenda. “This is still very new,” Naff says. “We’re still looking at everything. Our core strength has always been news coverage, and that’s going to remain our core strength. But we’re not going to ignore the other areas, as well.”

The new outfit will need to get its editorial priorities straight quickly. The first issue of the paper, due to hit newsstands this Friday, Nov. 20, has already sold “six pages of ads without even trying,” Naff reports. “We were initially thinking of releasing it just as a newsletter, a leaflet, just to say, ‘hey, we’re still around,’” Naff says. “Now, we have plenty of space to fill.” The Washington Blade Is Now the D.C. Agenda

Cool that they seem to have been able to keep the entire staff. I have heard that the Washington Blade made money while other papers produced by the same corporation did not, so the weaker ones brought the whole company down. Hopefully they can keep this local newspaper going without missing too many paychecks.

Marriage Illegal in Texas: Four Year Lag in News Story

You might have seen the news this week that Texas seems to have made marriage illegal. Not just same-sex marriage, but all marriage. It's been beating around the Internet for a few days, here's today's McClatchy story on it:
AUSTIN — Texans: Are you really married?

Maybe not.

Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Houston lawyer and Democratic candidate for attorney general, says that a 22-word clause in a 2005 constitutional amendment designed to ban gay marriages erroneously endangers the legal status of all marriages in the state.

The amendment, approved by the Legislature and overwhelmingly ratified by voters, declares that "marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman." But the troublemaking phrase, as Radnofsky sees it, is Subsection B, which declares:

"This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

Architects of the amendment included the clause to ban same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships. But Radnofsky, who was a member of the powerhouse Vinson & Elkins law firm in Houston for 27 years until retiring in 2006, says the wording of Subsection B effectively "eliminates marriage in Texas," including common-law marriages.

She calls it a "massive mistake" and blames the current attorney general, Republican Greg Abbott, for allowing the language to become part of the Texas Constitution. Radnofsky called on Abbott to acknowledge the wording as an error and consider an apology. She also said that another constitutional amendment may be necessary to reverse the problem.

"You do not have to have a fancy law degree to read this and understand what it plainly says," said Radnofsky, who will be at Texas Christian University today as part of a five-city tour to kick off her campaign. Texas' gay marriage ban may have banned all marriages

Now they're looking around like, duh, how'd this happen?

Here's a little-mentioned post from a blog called Vigilance, posted back in October, 2005.
Will Texas Vote to Prohibit Marriage Altogether?

Oh, this is great. Down in Texas there's nothing that worries them more than two guys or two girls getting married. So, like some other states, they proposed a law against gay marriages.

Except they didn't really look at how they worded this thing. So now, the people of Texas will vote on a new law. The referendum ballot says you're voting for or against:
"The constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

Let's walk through that:
a. marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman
b. this state or a political subdivision of this state [is prohibited] from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

In other words, the state cannot recognize the institution of marriage that it just defined.

This web site [ note 2009: the site is now dead ] has a quote from a Texas lawyer saying, "I'm gonna get rich as a result of this." (It is a terrific, shrill web site, go see it -- it's one of a kind, trust me.)

Yeah, a law that defines marriage and then prohibits it. That'll protect the institution, good going.

It is painful for me to say I told you so. Very painful, heeheehee.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dana Beyer Files Complaint Against County After Inept "Investigation"

Dana Beyer, Senior Assistant to Montgomery County Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg and candidate for Maryland state Delegate, held a press conference today to announce that she has filed a complaint with the county's Human Rights Commission against the county Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission has just finished a clandestine, seven-month bogus investigation into Beyer's actions in which they secretly searched at least one County Council staff computer, failed to interview important and obvious witnesses, and leaked information about the investigation to uninvolved parties. The Ethics Commission last week concluded that Beyer had acted in her capacity as a County official to "intimidate, threaten, or discriminate against" a person collecting petition signatures at the Arliss/Piney Branch Giant in Takoma Park on February 17, 2008. This conclusion was formed on the basis of statements by the Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) volunteer who was allegedly harassed, a statement by the president of the CRG, Ruth Jacobs, who was not present at the scene at all, and a statement signed by the Giant manager submitted in Ruth Jacobs' handwriting. It should be noted that I was at the scene of the alleged incident, along with several other TTF members, and none of us were contacted for any statement. You can read a description of our visit to the Arliss Giant HERE. Scroll through the February 2008 archives of this site for descriptions of similar encounters with petition handlers. Any real investigation would have included a Google search that turned up these Internet narratives about the incident and the names of potential witnesses.

The Citizens for Responsible Government, or "shower-nuts," as they are known locally, were gathering signatures for a petition to re-legalize discrimination on the basis of gender identity after the passage of a bill by unanimous vote of the County Council. They were doing this by lying to people, saying that the new law would allow men to go into ladies showers and rest rooms. A number of us went to the sites where they were gathering signatures and told potential signers what the bill really said. In some cases we were able to get the shower-nuts to go home, some store managers kicked them off their property, and other times people decided not to sign after we talked to them. Call it democracy in action, free speech going both ways. In the end, a state appeals court threw out the referendum effort, as there so many fraudulent and irregular signatures that the group did not meet the threshold to get the issue on the ballot.

Dr. Beyer's complaint states that the ethics commission searched her office computer for evidence that she had communicated with activist groups including, Equality Maryland, and the Human Rights Campaign, and searched her computer for evidence of activism in promoting the nondiscrmination bill. None of that is of course against the law or improper in any way. They also investigated whether she had posted County Council emails on activist web sites, meaning, I assume, whether she had posted some emails on this blog (for instance, letters I posted HERE and HERE), where nutty people threatened the Council and the citizens of the county. Those emails are public record and the Ethics Commission found no evidence that Dr. Beyer had posted any Council correspondence on any web site. In fact all the charges but one that were initially investigated were dismissed.

The complaint also asserts that information about the investigation was leaked to other county officials, which is a violation of the ethics law, and called for investigation of the Ethics Committee itself by the Human Rights Commission of Montgomery County. The statement says, "The only conceivable purpose of this leak -- and its certain effect -- are to compromise my effectiveness as a staff member for Councilmember Trachtenberg, make my job much more arduous and difficult, and embarrass me in the eyes of my colleagues and superiors. And these actions have not been taken with respect to any other employee other than one who is transgender." Dr. Beyer is a transgender woman; this appears to be, ironically, the first case invoking the county's new gender identity nondiscrimination law.

The complaint does several times point out the unprecedented nature of the investigation, including rummaging through a county official's computer and leaking information about the investigation -- these things have never happened before in this county. The conclusion was based on the statement of the alleged harassment victim, Steven Harold Schaal, who said “[h]er exact words, ,… I don’t remember the exact terminology…..I can’t quote her directly.” Still, it is alleged that Dr. Beyer said she was acting in her role as a county official in talking to the CRG volunteer about the petitions.

Dana Beyer is an LGBT activist, and has been as long as I have known her, going back before she worked for Councilwoman Trachtenberg -- in fact, I'd venture to say she was hired for the position because of her activism. She is a retired eye surgeon whose reputation as a spokeswoman for gay, lesbian, and especially transgender rights is recognized all over the world. It is not rare in the political arena to find people who hold strong views and act on them, and it would be nonsensical to prohibit those people from serving in the public interest. The Ethics Commission here appears to be functioning as a political entity to shut down the activism. The charge of intimidation of a citizen by a county employee acting in her official capacity is ridiculous and unsupported by evidence or testimony, and the fact that the commission failed to interview people -- me, for instance, and other TTF members -- who were obviously on the record as being at the scene of the incident tells you that the so-called investigation was entirely incompetent. We blogged photographs of the alleged harassment victim and other shower-nuts at the Giant, and a detailed description of all interactions that I observed; none of this was included in the investigation. The investigation was requested by the CRG and was inappropriately influenced by them; the Ethics Commission failed to interview anyone with information that may have exonerated Dana Beyer, and did interview individuals who had nothing beyond a purely political connection with any of the alleged incidents that were investigated.

Dana Beyer will be running in 2010 for a Delegate seat in the Maryland legislature. The timing of this investigation and its finding are clearly calculated to inflict maximum political damage on Dr. Beyer's campaign as well as that of her boss Duchy Trachtenberg, who is also running for re-election in 2010. The investigation itself is easily seen as an act of harassment against Dr. Dana Beyer because she is a transgender woman in an environment where gender identity became a focal issue. The political background to the investigation and its findings is not pretty, the commission leaked information to political rivals in order to allow them to spread rumors, and the blow-back is going to be intense as we head into the 2010 election season.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blade Shutting Down -- City Paper Next?

From WTOP:
WASHINGTON - The Washington Blade, which has been publishing a weekly newspaper in the nation's capital since 1969, has closed its doors.

On the Blade's Twitter page, the paper's parent company, Window Media Publications, said it's shutting down due to financial problems. Window Media operates six other publications across the country.

The Blade had become the paper of record for the gay community in the District.

Jim Graham, one of two openly gay D.C. council members, called the news "very sad."

"We are going to have to re-invent the Washington Blade," Graham tells WTOP. "The gay community can not be without this kind of quality newspaper. This is very sad."

The decision comes as The Washington CityPaper, one of the only other alternative weekly newspapers in D.C., has been fighting for survival. CityPaper's parent company, Creative Loafing, filed for bankruptcy last year resulting in a change of ownership.

Creative Loafing is now owned by Atalaya Capital Management, a hedge fund that was Creative Loafing's primary creditor. On Monday, Creative Loafing named Mary Petty, the former publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, as the new chief executive officer.

Eric Wemple, editor of CityPaper, says while the loss of the Blade doesn't come as a surprise, it is definitely bad news for readers who counted on the paper to cover issues not always reported in the mainstream media.

"You're talking about a great, great crusading publication that knew its audience and aggressively went after the news that its audience cared about," Wemple says.

"Cutbacks in recent years strained its ability to cover all of its waterfronts, but you still couldn't afford to ignore the Blade. People are shocked, even though news of its worsening financial picture have been coming in waves for some time now." Longtime gay publication shutting its doors

The Blade has been a reliable source of information for the community as we have fought some battles in our county and I am sorry to see it go. And the City Paper -- wow, I hope they can stay afloat. These are hard times for the print media, some publications are going to turn the corner into the digital age and some aren't. We saw The Post try some stupid innovative marketing solutions earlier this year that backfired on them, everybody's trying to stay in business. Some aren't going to make it, you hate to see the best going down first.

[ Update 11/17: More HERE and HERE. ]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mormon Shocker

It's a little hard to figure out exactly what's going on here, it's kind of shocking. The Mormon Church has suddenly told Salt Lake City that it's okay with them to enact a nondiscrimination law protecting gay and transgender citizens, in fact they support it. They say the only thing they care about is the definition of marriage, and that otherwise they want to treat everyone fairly and respectfully.

Nobody really knows what to make of this, whether it's a Trojan horse or they're for real...

From the Salt Lake City Tribune:
Hours after the LDS Church announced its support Tuesday night of proposed Salt Lake City ordinances aimed at protecting gay and transgender residents from discrimination in housing and employment, the City Council unanimously approved the measures.

"The church supports these ordinances," spokesman Michael Otterson told the council, "because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage."

They also are consistent with Mormon teachings, he said. "I believe in a church that believes in human dignity, in treating people with respect even when we disagree -- in fact, especially when we disagree."

Normally more deliberate, the council opted to vote after dozens of residents in the overflowing crowd expressed their support.

"Guaranteeing a right to fair housing and fair employment is not an issue of compromise," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said. "We are a stronger, better city this evening. I'm proud to serve on a City Council where this isn't even controversial."

The LDS Church's endorsement was hailed by leaders of Utah's gay community -- some of them stunned -- who called it a historic night they hope will set the stage for statewide legislation.

"This is a great step," said Will Carlson, director of public policy for the advocacy group Equality Utah. But, he noted, four out of five gay Utahns live outside the capital and should be afforded protection as well. "Equality Utah will continue to work for that."

Councilman J.T. Martin said some will dismiss the church's move, arguing LDS leaders blinked or caved to pressure. "That's not the case," he said. "I can tell you they do have compassion. They have church members who have gay sons and daughters, and they know this is an issue that touches everyone's life." Salt Lake City adopts pro-gay statutes -- with LDS Church support

You love that little phrase seaparated by hyphens -- "some of them stunned." I'll bet. The LDS Church was the greatest force behind the anti-marriage Proposition 8 in California, and has poured money into other anti-gay causes around the country. Now the leaders have had a revelation and say they don't have anything against gay people per se, just against gay people marrying one another.

In our own county, the Mormon group Family Leader Network signed onto a lawsuit and actively opposed our county's sex-ed curriculum. The original president of the Citizens for a Responsible Curtriculum is Mormon, and we have had other organized efforts by members of that church to undermine the health curriculum.

There is a subtext here, going back to the days when the Mormons were persecuted for their definition of traditional marriage, which included polygyny. They might be saying, look, we had to play by these stupid rules, you guys ought to, too. And there is another twist, it is remotely possible that if somehow the legal definition of marriage were loosened up a little to allow gay and lesbian marriage, then perhaps it would just take a little more to open it up to allow multiple wives. So you'd think the Mormons would kind of like to see society make this change, but they don't seem to act like it.

I am tending to believe that the Church has actually had a change of heart. Here is some description of the meetings that led up to this:
Tuesday's announcement and subsequent vote follow more than two months of secret meetings between midlevel LDS officials and five of Utah's most prominent gay leaders. Those meetings have their roots in the "kiss-in" protests that took place after LDS security detained two gay men spotted hugging and kissing on the church's Main Street Plaza.

Former City Councilwoman Deeda Seed organized the first kiss-in and called Council Chairman Carlton Christensen to talk it over. Christensen suggested to LDS leaders that a dialogue with Utah's gay community may ease hostilities.

The officials reached out to leaders of Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center, proposing they huddle at the Church Office Building. The gay leaders suggested a coffee shop at the Utah Pride Center. They settled on a neutral location -- the Avenues home of Sam and Diane Stewart. The Stewarts are active Mormons and close friends of Jim Dabakis, who helped found Equality Utah and the Pride Center.

Suspicion marred initial meetings. "These were two communities living in the same town that just had no understanding of each other," Dabakis said. "It was quite uncomfortable in the beginning."

Slowly they built a level of trust and good will. They searched for common ground, understanding that the LDS Church wasn't about to back gay marriage and Utah's gay community would not stop pushing for what it considers civil rights.

The meetings fizzled a few weeks ago, but then Dabakis got a call from an LDS official asking to reconvene the "gang of five." They met four times since Thursday in the lead up to Tuesday's announcement.

The LDS Church sees its move as an olive branch to the gay community after months of growing tension over the church-backed Proposition 8 vote -- barring gay marriage in California -- and the kiss-ins. Dabakis hopes it isn't the end of the discussion, but a high point in a burgeoning "friendship."

"They are really trying to put some of the Prop 8 stuff behind them," Dabakis said. "The discussions we have had over the last several months have shown what a caring, loving, concerned institution [the LDS Church] is."

The discussion, he said, "changed all of our lives."

You will remember the Great Kiss-In that started this ball rolling. Two men kissed one night in July in a plaza in Salt Lake City and were detained by Church security guards. This led to a nationwide "kiss-in" protest in August, where gay and lesbian couples met in public and kissed openly.

Apparently the activism surrounding these events set in motion some wheels of change that resulted in the Mormon Church re-thinking its position on homosexuality. I intend to hold on to a certain amount of skepticism about this, of course, but it is possible that the elders have realized that their earlier position was indefensible.

LGBT activists often fail to understand how hard the other side is going to fight back, but let's give them credit here. It does appear that these Utah activists and national organizations pulled together to do the right thing. The kiss-in was an effective measure to show the mean-heartedness of the Church's position, and the negotiations that are described in this Tribune article seem to have been handled well. This appears to be a good example of grassroots activism effecting change at high levels. If the LDS Church is sincere in its statements then you will see city and county councils across Utah and all through the Southwest start to change their policies to become more inclusive. Just as they were able to tip the scales in California the other way, the Mormon Church is massive enough to tip the scales in favor of fair treatment and acceptance of gay and transgender individuals.

If the LDS Church decides to hold the line at marriage, insisting that the word is reserved for a certain relationship involving one man and one woman, then I think peace can be attained between the church and the gay community. The situation is tractable, at least, not just a global prejudice but something specific to one word, one situation. It is weird to think that the Mormon Church could actually push us to the tipping point of change in the direction of acceptance of sexual minorities.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On the Execution of John Allen Muhammed

If you live in our area you have been following the news: John Allen Muhammed was executed last night. All of us knew somebody who lost somebody to the "DC snipers," or we shopped at a place where they killed, or heard the wail of a hundred sirens rushing to the scene of another random and meaningless death. We have all driven past a quiet scene after the blood had been cleaned up, tapping the brakes and staring at the gas pumps, the parking lot, the shopping-center bench where a neighbor's life was taken. Events were canceled, people were afraid to go out of their houses, crouching down between cars to pump gas, letting grass grow tall, canceling games and events, we were a community terrorized by some unknown dispenser of pointless death. The police had said that white vans were at the scenes of a lot of the killings, and it turned out white vans are everywhere. We learned to follow them with our eyes, every one of them.

Capital punishment is harsh, it is irreversible, and it's terrible when a zealous prosecutor sends an innocent man to an erroneous end from which he cannot be recovered. The circumstances are often pitiful, a disadvantaged defendant, poorly represented, surrounded by mean-hearted people with ugly prejudices. The execution of a prisoner is the occasion for extreme caution and respect for life.

Muhammed and his partner Lee Boyd Malvo blanketed the Washington DC area, and especially Montgomery County, with a pea-soup fog of fear in October, 2002, in a series of random shootings. They drove around in an old Chevy with one of them in the trunk pointing a rifle out through the keyhole, picking off innocent citizens minding their own business. Their modest vehicle and calm demeanor deflected the attention of authorities. Nobody really understands why they did it, a man and a boy overflowing with hatred for their fellow human beings.

Malvo will not be executed, he's given a break for being a juvenile when the crimes were committed. Muhammed though will stand as the justification for capital punishment. No consequence would have been sufficient to atone for the grief he brought to our community -- and, it turned out, to other communities in the country where the two had murdered randomly. The cost of maintaining his life in prison would have been an unfair penalty for the rest of us. No rehabilitation would have ever allowed him to live among us again, no penalty would have been great enough to count as fair punishment for what he had done.

Justice is a vague case, there is no rational explanation for why victims of offenses should feel any better when an offender is punished. It is one of those deep facts of human nature that we do our best to accommodate without losing our heads. There is sadness when a life is lost, but the tears that are wept after Muhammed's death are wept for his victims, not for him.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Grown-Ups Are the Problem Here

Interesting article in the New York Times, partly about rebellious teenagers and dress codes, partly about sexual orientation and gender identity, and mostly about stuffy grown-ups who are trying to force their outdated hang-ups on young people who are growing up to live in a future world:
BY now, most high school dress codes have just about done away with the guesswork.

Girls: no midriff-baring blouses, stiletto heels, miniskirts.

Boys: no sagging pants, muscle shirts.

But do the math.

“Rules” + “teenager” = “challenges.”

If the skirt is an acceptable length, can a boy wear it?

Can a girl attend her prom in a tuxedo?

In recent years, a growing number of teenagers have been dressing to articulate — or confound — gender identity and sexual orientation. Certainly they have been confounding school officials, whose responses have ranged from indifference to applause to bans.

Last week, a cross-dressing Houston senior was sent home because his wig violated the school’s dress code rule that a boy’s hair may not be “longer than the bottom of a regular shirt collar.” In October, officials at a high school in Cobb County, Ga., sent home a boy who favored wigs, makeup and skinny jeans. In August, a Mississippi student’s senior portrait was barred from her yearbook because she had posed in a tuxedo.

Other schools are more accepting of unconventional gender expression. In September, a freshman girl at Rincon High School in Tucson who identifies as male was nominated for homecoming prince. Last May, a gay male student at a Los Angeles high school was crowned prom queen. Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School?

I'd say there are two ways to handle school dress, and no middle ground. One, schools can have uniforms. There are lots of good reasons for it, it eliminates a lot of hassle at home and at school, in the classroom and on the playground, it's clear and easy to enforce. You wear the uniform and that's it, it's a perfect way to raise a generation of robotic conformists. If the uniform calls for white socks and you wear gray ones you go home and change. Two, you let students dress themselves. Again, lot of good reasons, young people learn to make choices, to express themselves and develop as individuals, to accept others who are different.

But some schools seem to think you can let students choose their clothing within some vague limits. What are "sagging pants?" How much of your butt-crack has to show before you are cited for breaking the rules -- and then if you just pull your pants up while the teacher's looking, are you okay? What is "long hair?" "Too much make-up?" A school that tries to manage such rules, it seems to me, is going to find itself with nothing but headaches.

Beyond teenage rebellion there is a more serious question in this article, of course, and that is, how should a school manage the presence of students who violate traditional gender norms? The examples given in this NYT piece are good ones -- the transgender boy, originally known as a girl, who runs for homecoming prince, the gay boy who becomes prom queen. Interestingly and obviously, the students featured in these examples are popular and well-liked by their peers, even if they are unique or unusual young people. I have seen this in my own children's lives, they have friends who are gay and transgender, and it doesn't seem to matter. It's just a fact of life for them, Carrie has changed her name and is a boy now, it doesn't seem difficult or even awkward except when you try to explain it to your parents.

It seems to me the school administrators are causing this problem, they aren't responding to a problem. If you allow students the freedom to dress themselves then, as this article points out, you will have to accept that students who are allowed to express themselves may choose to express themselves in surprising ways. (Most American schools that have uniforms are religious schools where attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity are handed down by authority.) There has been a revolution in the way Western society thinks about sex and gender in general, and part of it has been the acceptance of nuance in gender expression. Women wear pants these days, did you notice? Sex and gender are not really binary as the older generations believed.

The solution sounds easy, though it will be hard to implement. Schools could support students who choose to develop their personalities in unique ways, whether it has anything to do with sex and gender or not. There has to be some limit on aggressiveness, and some limit on expressions that genuinely cause disorder in the school environment -- and I don't mean that a bunch of bullies are teasing some kid for being different, I mean the disruption is caused by the student in question. I don't think our society is really suffering from a plague of nonconformity. Cultivating a positive sense of oneself as a unique person could be part of the educational system's mission.

Pretty good statement here:
Dress code conflicts often reflect a generational divide, with students coming of age in a culture that is more accepting of ambiguity and difference than that of the adults who make the rules.

“This generation is really challenging the gender norms we grew up with,” said Diane Ehrensaft, an Oakland psychologist who writes about gender. “A lot of youths say they won’t be bound by boys having to wear this or girls wearing that. For them, gender is a creative playing field.” Adults, she added, “become the gender police through dress codes.”

Gender as a "creative playing field." Pretty good.

Letting -- and even helping -- transgender young people transition to the gender they are most comfortable with certainly will not lead to mass confusion; instead the result is that a adolescent gets to be who they really are in an environment that supports them. Their peers can handle it, now we need to get the adults on board.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Hateful Baptists Return to Our Area

Looks like the God Hates Fags Baptists are back in our region again, today and tomorrow. They'll be at BCC tomorrow. This is from their SCHEDULE web page:
11/10/2009 06:55 AM - 07:25 AM Bethesda, MD

Bethesda Chevy Chase High School - These brutes needs WORDS! 4301 East-West Highway What is the matter with these parents and adults who sit on the sidelines and allow this school to have a "Diversity Club" and a "GSA"? Do you think God does not see what is happening with you rebels? You are each and all in big trouble because you insist that we come and speak with you. SHAME! Psalm 2:1 Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, 3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. 4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. 5 Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. 6 Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. Lying and rebelling will not change the laws of God, and the standard of how to deal with a rebellious, libidinous brat who refuses to OBEY! That is why the ambassadors from Zion will come speak with you. AMEN!

These guys are so nutty that even the run-of-the-mill bigots find themselves disagreeing with them.

The God Hates Fags schedule is full, they seem to go to a half-dozen places every day, telling people how much God hates them. While they're in our area they will picket Sidwell Friends Middle School, the Department of Education, Woodrow Wilson High School, the EEOC DC Field Office, Marriott Wardman Park (for putting Antichrist in the White House, y'know), the White House, BCC, Taft Memorial Park, and Sidwell Friends Lower School ("for the little nasty God-hating Quakers") -- all in two days.

I don't know what kind of response is planned at BCC, hopefully there is a quiet but overwhelming counterdemonstration. BCC is chosen, they say, because it has a diversity club and a Gay Straight Alliance chapter. I don't know what to say to that...

Advice for tomorrow: be cool, keep it under control, don't let them get under your skin.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

USA Finally Number One

Man it is beautiful out there today! Seventy-three degrees, clear sunshine. Here's a sunshiny news story for you.

From Reuters by way of CNBC:

Barack Obama has done it again. The president's starpower has made the United States the place most people want to visit and do business with, according to an annual survey that ranks nations like retail brands.

The Country Brand Index, compiled by brand consultancy FutureBrand, found the United States had unseated Australia, which held the top spot for the past three years. Australia came in third this year with Canada rising to second place.

New Zealand and France rounded up the top five country brands in this year's index that included 102 countries.

"The Obama effect has seen the United States earn the coveted top spot for the first time in the fifth annual index," FutureBrand, which is part of Interpublic Group of Companies, said in a statement. US Becomes Top Country Brand Under Obama: Survey

It was rather awkward for Americans to claim that we were the greatest country in the world while the world rolled its eyes. And that's what we had for eight years, while smirking frat-boy George W. Bush was our face to citizens of other countries.

By the way, have you noticed how little his name is mentioned these days? I have seen a number of Republicans recently claim that they did not support him, or that they're glad he's gone, but they sure weren't talking like that we while he was in office, embarrassing all of us.

It's nice to have a guy now we can be proud of.

This Was Inevitable

I ran into some technical obstacles this week blogging. I will be testing new approaches today, I think the only people affected will be RSS subscribers.

Some things happened this week that would be of concern to us here. Congress and the President are making some progress on important issues. Some Democrats lost elections. And Maine voted against marriage equality. It was a fifty-fifty tie before the election, and in the end their side won.

When I came across this article the other day I found myself feeling surprisingly unsympathetic.
SAN FRANCISCO – Stunned and angry, national gay rights leaders Wednesday blamed scare-mongering ads — and President Barack Obama's lack of engagement — for a bitter election setback in Maine that could alter the dynamics for both sides in the gay-marriage debate.

Conservatives, in contrast, celebrated Maine voters' rejection of a law that would have allowed gay couples to wed, depicting it as a warning shot that should deter politicians in other states from pushing for same-sex marriage.

"Every time the citizens have voted on marriage, they have always sided with natural marriage," said Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based Christian legal group. "Maine dramatically illustrates the will of the people, and politicians should wake up and listen."

Gay activists were frustrated that Obama, who insists he staunchly supports their overall civil rights agenda, didn't speak out forcefully in defense of Maine's marriage law before Tuesday's referendum. The law was repealed in a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent.

"President Obama missed an opportunity to state his position against these discriminatory attacks with the clarity and moral imperative that would have helped in this close fight," said Evan Wolfson of the national advocacy group Freedom to Marry. "The anti-gay forces are throwing millions of dollars into various unsubtle ads aimed at scaring people, so subtle statements from the White House are not enough."

The White House, asked about the criticism, had no immediate comment. Gay leaders blame TV ads, Obama for loss in Maine

Listen, you can't blame the other side for showing scary ads. You can't blame a politician for failing to take a clear stand on a controversial issue -- they almost never do. These "national gay rights leaders" can blame anybody they want, but at the end of the day it all comes back to them. Once again they underestimated the ferocity of the battle.

It's a tough fight. Gays and lesbians make up a tiny percentage of the population and a lot of straight people are uneasy about homosexuality, they don't understand it, it just seems strange and unimaginable to them. It is not hard to exploit that unease with some emotionally powerful ads. Anti-gay bigotry is not a reasoned thing, that's why they sound so dumb, they don't have any reasons for their loathing of gay people, it just creeps them out. You're not going to change their minds by giving them reasons.

We came close to this a couple of years ago when we nearly had a referendum on the gender-identity nondiscrimination law in Montgomery County. I displeased a bunch of people by writing here about how lame our side was, we had a group that was getting some funding but was disorganized and unable to come up with a coherent and powerful way of representing the need for protection of the rights of transgender people. All the other side had to do was show one picture of an ugly cross-dresser and the battle was lost. It's hard to understand that, but that's how it works. Same in Maine, one picture of a guy in a tu-tu (I attended a CRC meeting once that opened with a series of videos of outrageous guys, dressed, let's say, outside the norm) outweighs a thousand pages of reasoned discussion of the need for LBGT citizens to have the same rights as everybody else.

Yes, Obama flaked. Big surprise. Yes, the other side had "scare-mongering ads" -- what'd you expect? They wanted to win and that was the way to do it. And what did our side have? Reasons.

Our side has common sense and kindness to motivate us and prop us up, our strength is in the fact that we are actually right -- LGBT people are just people and should be able to get a job, catch a cab, marry the person they love just like the rest of us can. The other side has fear of the unknown. Their strength is that most people are straight and have no empathy with somebody who is attracted to members of their own sex; the whole idea seems weird and alien and frightening to many straight people. Those are not complementary positions, they are positions in entirely different worlds. But they meet when a citizen walks into a voting booth and looks at a ballot and decides what button to push. So far reason has not figured out how to conquer fear.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Metro a Mess, Traffic Too

Hey, the irony of this first story is very tidy. It's in the last line. This is from WTOP.
WASHINGTON - Metro's communication glitch that prevented riders from paying with credit and debit cards Wednesday morning is getting back on track.

The transit agency says services started getting back to normal around 8:30 a.m.

However, some riders tell WTOP they were still having trouble paying with plastic. Customers have been limited to charging a maximum of $20 at fare vending machines.

The NextBus system, SmartBenefits and the e-alert system are also not operational.

At 2:45 a.m., an internal power distribution unit failed at Metro headquarters, disrupting bus and rail operations.

The unit provides power to a key computer data center for the transit agency.

During the morning, Metrobuses were not accepting fares. Fares are now being accepted, Metro says.

Metro also could not communicate with its bus drivers in the field, and the public address system was not working.

The problem did not affect Metro's ability to monitor subway trains.

Metro says its trains, buses and paratransit service are operating as usual. Communication at Metro slowly returning to normal

Yes, this sounds pretty usual. Except they didn't mention the escalators that don't work.

So since the Metro is a mess, the thing to do is drive yourself, right?

Nope. Another story from WTOP:
WASHINGTON - Montgomery County is working frantically to "troubleshoot" a major computer failure that caused traffic headaches throughout the county Wednesday.

"There's simply no centralized computer control. The signals are working independently, instead of in any coordinated fashion. That will continue until we get the problem fixed," Emil Wolanin, chief traffic engineer for Montgomery County, tells WTOP.

Engineers hoped to have fixed the problem by the evening commute, but it doesn't appear likely.

The problem started overnight.

"We don't exactly know what the problem is right now, but we think there's a communications interface between the primary computer and the modems that talk to all the cameras," Wolanin says.

"We're focusing all of our resources on trying to troubleshoot that problem and fix it."

The lights do turn green, yellow and red, but engineers have no computerized way to make sure they are in sync.

During the rush hours, congested areas ended up more congested than normal.

On Wednesday morning, Montgomery County put its techs and engineers out in the field to manually adjust timing for the lights.

"We have to send our signal technicians and our engineers out to each of the local controllers at the intersection and modify timings if they don't seem to be sufficient to handle the flow of traffic."

The county has been monitoring traffic from the air and via traffic cameras throughout the day.

"So far, there is nothing that putting an officer in the street is necessarily going to change or make better. If we have to that, we will," he says.

The county has contractors on site working on the computer system.

"This is a rather old computer. It's probably 25 to 30 years old. It's a 1980s-vintage Data General main frame computer. Parts are not really available."

Wolanin says the computer crash comes as the county initiated a major modernization of the traffic computers.

"We are working to replace this old-aged system. We're just not there yet." Montgomery Co.'s traffic computer system fails

Today just seems to be the day for it...