Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Global Equality in NYC: 17-Year-Old Beats Sting to Climax!

Post-show Jane Lynch talks with the press
Monday night’s climax wasn’t with headliners Sting – who got screams for “Every Breath You Take” – or Patti LuPone’s roaring “Not While I’m Around” – but when 17-year-old openly gay Russian Vladislav Slaviskiy walked confidently on stage to discuss how pleased he was not to be in Russia. You could imagine director Dustin Lance Black smiling big as the audience, teased with clips of “Vlad” telling his story of torture (stoned and even urinated on) at school back in Sochi, now rose to its feet in a prolonged standing ovation to appreciate this aspiring LGBTI activist. We couldn’t help but love him. Musicians and thespians united before the Sochi Olympics to create Uprising of Love to shed light on the LGBTI community in Russia – also help this young man tell his difficult story – and ultimately flee.

Final performance of Englishman in New York
Tonight, with a broader agenda to help all LGBTI people abroad, Uprising directed funds to the Astraea Foundation, giving grants to LGBTI organizations worldwide, in a program called Fueling the Frontlines. Jane Lynch pleaded that we not be blinded from the difficulties faced by gay people abroad by the recent successes gained here at home. Vlad’s story highlighted those difficulties and is part of a documentary organized by Olympian Johnny Weir. Called “To Russia with Love” it will air October 29th on EPIX. Ultimately, Billie Jean King – part of President Obama’s (very gay) U.S.Delegation to Sochi – helped Vlad get a visa and become a student at her alma-mater, Cal State University.

Distributing flyers in Hell's Kitchen
As Vlad tugged at our heart-strings with his struggle to be openly gay in repressive Russia, Kathy Najimy demanded us to open our wallets & pocketbooks for LGBTI people abroad, dividing gays in attendance to the power, A-listers: “donate what you spent on sushi and uber today,” for the party boys: “at least you could donate 3 mojitos,” and (of course) women: “triple the amount you’re about to spend at Bed, Bath & Beyond after your first date.” While distributing flyers for the event, so many people couldn't believe the star-studded line up. Some tourists took convincing but the combo of Sting & Patti brought both gays & straights on board.

Diverse performers included the cast of Witness Uganda with their hit “Njakuangula” - “I will rise,” the first openly lesbian country singer Chely Wright with "It was," Boolywood actress Celina Jaitly singing (for the first time live) the LGBTI advocacy anthem from India, Billy Porter with “I am Changing,” the cast of Once singing the original (amazing) song Melissa Etheridge wrote for the cause - “Uprising” and an incredible rendition of “For Good” with one of the original Elphabas - Stephanie J. Block. The blockbuster list of celebrities – including a video of thanks and support from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – even got a nod from the Wall Street Journal!

Workin' my glutes - Aqua Spin
for LGBTI rights!
Coincidently, the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) also held a fundraising event the next day. Not as glamorous, this low-key fundraiser/exercise class enticed attendees with a unique spin class underwater (Aqua Spin)! Held by IGLHRC's Young Professionals Committee (look for events soon!), the event attracted dozens to show off post-summer tans. With a mission to document specific abuses of LGBTI people abroad and bring this data to the UN and other NGOs and governments, IGLHRC acts as the brains behind the fight for LGBTI people abroad - Uprising of Love might be the brawn, bringing celebrities to attract attention to the cause. Married together both organizations contribute to exposing people to the truth about the LGBTI community.

Jane Lynch ran away before I could get a picture...
While hate and misinformation continues to cause hardship for LGBTI people, it’s most important for us to keep in mind one last critical song from Monday’s Gershwin program, “Tired of the Silence” – from the cast of I Am Harvey Milk – which urges us all to come out. That’s the key, because if we are not understood by our families, friends and colleagues, how else can they understand the LGBTI community. I know it continues to be difficult for my many friends abroad to do this – I stand with them and with Vlad to repeat his last words on stage: he’s not finished because while he’s glad to be in the United States, this is not his home.

But he’s doing pretty well, as he closed the show, center-stage, standing tall and holding Stings hand as they jammed to the final song, “Englishman in New York," with the perfect lyric "Be yourself, no matter what they say."

Give to IGLHRC!

Give to Fueling the Frontlines!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Badajoz, Spain: Homophobes Eat Their Words

In 2011, the then-mayor of Badajoz said he didn’t want any “palomos cojos” (literal translation: lame birds; real translation: fags) in his town. Thus, a TV host in Madrid decided to organize a gay party in Badajoz and call it Los Palomos Cojos – or now just Los Palomos. Now this spring party in this ancient and unique Spanish border town has become a Spain-wide LGBT event; 2015 will be its 5th year. The biggest attraction for me was the incredible park space for the party – spread-wide with beautiful palm trees – it could have been Miami or California (just replace the water with a beautiful view of the town below). Spaniards love their fiestas – most even stay Catholic just for the parties – this one measures up to the rest!

However, the event is not widely known outside of the LGBT community – my friend who livesin Madrid knew because he’s from Badajoz and he invited me to visit his friends & family in the city as well! Alex comes from an adorable         middle-class family – I had the chance to visit and awkwardly decide how to greet his dad (kisses? No, not necessary). Plus I spent an evening with the extended family – who were (of course) very excited to meet me and test my Spanish!

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I arrived from Malaga, where I finished up my Spanish courses (this was to be my final weekend in Spain!). Taking (very convenient) Bla-Bla car with two women who also were traveling the 6 hours just to attend the party. My arrival was a bit difficult – Alex is the only Spaniard who uses the phone to talk instead of What’s App – but I didn’t have any phone credit left! One thing you learn fast is that you need patience – and something to pass the time – when trying to meet up with Spaniards. But of course he eventually found me and welcomed me to his friend’s spare room in the city center (so we could party and come home late) – we would meet his family for a big lovely meal before the party on Saturday at an authentic Spanish restaurant outside of town.

Badajoz City Square - Los Palomos eve
To start the weekend, Friday we wandered the city center – and saw the celebratory lights in the square. The party is no longer held here after outgrowing the space – where thousands of people in the square became a hazard. I discovered I had another Spanish friend who was coming all the way from Sevilla – he and some friends heard that this was a fab
gay party!

Party scene - haciendo el botellión
After a light night out – with a number of Alex’s girlfriends – we prepared Saturday for the big evening. Although you can buy drinks inside – of course with the crisis in full affect, most Spaniards brought their own drinks. The (very strange) rule here was simply that they could not have caps on the drinks – and naturally only plastic was allowed. Still we smuggled in tops for each of our drinks! During festivals in Spain they relax the rules for drinking in public – and everyone “does the bottle” – “hace el botellion” which means sharing a bottle of liquor on the street – usually whiskey but vodka or rum too – with cups, ice and mixers. And you can buy these items in a set along the street or square during most festivals.

Entering the beautiful, Palm-tree-lined grounds of the Castle of Badajoz we found a spot in the grass and pulled out our cups to begin drinking the evening away! Quickly it was clear that although it was definitely a gay party, not surprisingly, all the young people in town had turned out just to enjoy it! It doesn’t much matter if it’s gay or not – Spaniards are down to enjoy a fiesta anytime. This made the game of “gay or European” pretty difficult for me – but I still made new friends, hung-out with Alex and his crew and enjoyed the music.

Mucho mas que una fiesta!
Half-way through the evening, we moved down from the Castle area to the, wide Carretera Circunvalción; a stage was erected at the town’s Puerta de Palmas. A DJ spun various beats until people were so drunk they were beating each other up! Yes, this became more of just a party – and not as gay on this wide street. But back up near the Castle, drag queens sang and gay festivities continued, including hit drag ensemble, Que Trabaje Rita. I ended up making a friend – a known gay of Badajoz who took me on a little adventure to a dank spare room in his grandparents apartment complex. Interesting spot to “make-out” – but Spanish boys make-do with what they have. Most here still live at home and I count myself very lucky to have met my friend Alex who’s thriving as a journalist in Madrid.

Hungover and sleepy the next day, we pulled ourselves together and found another Bla-Bla back to gay Mecca: Madrid – to soak up my last few days of Spain, my favorite country in the world!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Oman: Palm Springs Without the Party

The Beautiful Wadis of Oman!

Partied out? Looking for a break in one of the world's most beautiful spots? Trek into a gorgeous canyon with a rainbow of rock colors – jump into bathwater pools lined with Palm trees – swim with friends from around the world. Oman is probably safest place in the Middle East where you could enjoy such things – but you’ll pay for it! This oil-rich, hyper-developed nouveau riche nation has all the luxury items – from all the best cars (and accompanying quality roads) to global cuisine (though not yet perfect; guest-worker Pakistanis have not quite mastered Mexican). I kept saying it’s like “ultra-conservative California” – but definitely hotter. Plus, the default-closeted guys are likely to be ready and willing to make new friends. Islam doesn’t mesh well with the “gay-lifestyle” but somehow it seems they’re able to be even more hypocritical than Roman Catholics!

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Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
I spent a little over a week enjoying the heat and exploring the Muscat area, including its gay subculture. Day one was a trip to the Grand Mosque – an imposing, beautiful structure. But the friendly woman at the welcome center who tried to explain away the (much) smaller women’s prayer hall by telling me women held more duties at home – didn’t really sell me on the Muslim faith. There must be better ways – and better sides to the faith, right? Sadly, homosexuality still hasn’t been reconciled either – I’m not sure how it all will. It’s certainly true that sex between men occurs here – even if afterwards they go home to wives and traditional families!

Closest thing to a gay flag in Oman