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April 5, 2002

 

City workers may get partner benefits

Cleveland Heights may become Ohio’s
first city to extend them

by Anthony Glassman

Cleveland Heights--City council took a much-anticipated step on April 1, introducing legislation that would grant domestic partner benefits to city employees.

The ordinance would extend the benefits now given to married city workers’ spouses to same-sex partners. These include health and dental insurance, and family and bereavement leave.

The measure was given first reading at the April 1 city council meeting. It will most likely be voted on at the April 15 meeting.

The city estimates the annual cost to be about ten cents per household. Three to five employees are expected to sign up immediately.

The April 1 meeting saw two unusual events. Councilmember Dennis Wilcox introduced the ordinance by reading the entire text, instead of the title and a brief description. Then Councilmember Jimmie Hicks, who opposes the measure, questioned members of the city’s staff about it. Council members rarely exercise their power to do this in open council meetings. It is generally done in the committee-of-the-whole session which precedes council meetings.

Mayor Ed Kelley, a major proponent of the ordinance, said that Hicks had told him that he wanted to question the staff during the meeting.

Like all council meetings, it will be shown several times on the city’s cable TV channel.

The majority of Hicks’ questions were directed at Cleveland Heights personnel director Kathleen Ruane. He asked her how many city employees had officially requested the benefits, to which she replied that none had, to her knowledge.

Hicks also wanted to know how many prospective employees had decided not to work for the city because of a lack of domestic partner benefits and how many highly qualified potential new employees the ordinance would bring to the city.

Ruane told him she could not determine why applicants in the past had decided against working for the city; she also said that she did not anticipate the ordinance opening that large a pool of professionals to the city.

"Are there requests from current employees for other types of related and non-related family health care funds?" Hicks inquired.

Ruane noted requests for covering an elderly parent living with the employee, and for a worker’s grandchildren.

She answered Hicks’ questions about the measure "forcing those who do not condone the lesbian and gay lifestyle" to support the benefits by acknowledging that funding would come from tax money.

"Based on my projections," Ruane added, "it could potentially be about ten cents per year per household."

At the opening of the meeting, four people spoke on behalf of the legislation: Patrick Shepherd, president of the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats; Tim Downing, a partner at the law firm of Ulmer and Berne specializing in employment law; Sister Marian Durkin, who heads the Open House center for people with HIV; Douglas Braun, a social worker at the Benjamin Rose Institute, a service center for the aging; and Blanche Livingstone, who came to speak on a separate issue but lent her support to the domestic partner proposal.

Only two people, James and Suzanne Redhed, spoke against the proposed ordinance.

The measure does not cover unmarried heterosexual partners. Councilmember Nancy Dietrich, who was out of town at the time of the meeting, earlier said that the purpose of the ordinance was to provide medical benefits for those who did not have the option to get married. Dietrich is expected to give the bill its second reading at the next council meeting.

"I’m 98.9% certain this will be voted on, on April 15," said Mayor Ed Kelley. "I fully intend for it to be read on second reading by Councilwoman Dietrich."

Cleveland Heights requires two readings of proposed ordinances.

On the measure’s chance of passing, Kelley said, "My guess it, it will be six to one in favor."

"It’s simply the right thing to do, it’s the right time to do it," he continued. "Cleveland Heights continues to be one of the most diverse communities in the United States and I look forward to doing this."

"Mayor Kelley and Councilwoman Dietrich are to be commended for their efforts," Shepherd said. "We’re looking for a historic night on April 15."

The ordinance would make Cleveland Heights the first municipality in the state to offer same-sex domestic partner benefits. Columbus passed such benefits in 1998, but later repealed them in the face of a threatened referendum. Lakewood took up the issue in 1999, but its measure was defeated by council in early 2000.

The city of Cleveland is also looking into domestic partner benefits for city employees. The efforts are currently in the information-gathering stage. Council members have said that they expect any such ordinance to cover both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.


 

Tenure made ’em do it

Ohio House candidate Chad Foust says there was no gay bias
in party’s nod to his primary opponent

by Eric Resnick

Columbus--The only openly gay candidate for the Ohio legislature says the Democratic Party’s endorsement of his primary opponent is due to tenure, not any kind of anti-gay sentiment.

"It’s a loyalty thing," said Chad Foust of Columbus, who is trying to get the party’s nomination to run for the newly-created 25th Ohio House district seat. "He’s been around the party for more than 25 years."

Foust, 28, said that endorsement of his opponent, Dan Stewart, a former Service Employees International Union president, was only made by the Franklin County Central Committee, not the party.

"The party’s endorsement will come May 7 on primary day," said Foust.

The central committee is comprised of ward chairs and at-large countywide appointees by the ward chairs, most of whom do not live in the district Foust seeks to represent.

"Some of these people are telling me that they think [Stewart] has put in his time and got the endorsement, but they plan to pick me when they are in the voting booth," said Foust.

Foust served as an aide to Cleveland Democrat State Sen. Eric Fingerhut, and was elected to the Elida Local Schools Board of Education in Allen County in 1995.

"No where in the endorsement did they say [Stewart] was the best person for the job," said Foust, "only that he has been here the longest."

For that reason, Foust said he holds no ill will toward anyone on the central committee, and dispelled rumors of anti-gay foul play circulating through the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community around Columbus.

Foust said he does not believe that his being gay and not getting the endorsement are in any way related, as has been suggested.

"Most of the people on that committee are not elected and have no constituency," said Foust, pointing out that Columbus Council president Matt Habash, who is an elected official, has endorsed Foust.

Foust pointed out that Stewart is "a gay-friendly candidate."

"I have no doubt that if he was in the House now, he would have voted against DOMA," said Foust.

"But I also think that voters here know the difference between having friends and allies represent them, and being represented by one of their own," said Foust.

LGBT voters will play a large part in who wins the race.

According to the 2000 census, there are more gay and lesbian households in this district than any other in the state.

Based on the statistics from the last Democratic primary, it can be expected that a total of only 5,000 votes will be cast.

"No doubt this race will be close," said Foust.

"If my being gay has been any issue at all, it has only been a positive," said Foust.

Foust is expecting support from the LGBT community to carry him through the primary and to defeat Republican Columbus School Board president David Dobos November 5.

Foust said he recruited an additional 100 volunteers at a rally held April 1 at the gay bar Axis, who will be working the neighborhoods.

Foust has also been endorsed by the Lesbian and Gay Victory Fund of Washington, D.C., which has contributed $2,500 to his campaign and will help raise more.

Foust, who has been campaigning since last summer, filed campaign finance reports with the Franklin County Board of Elections December 31 showing over of $17,000. The next filing deadline is April 30, and Foust expects to report raising an additional $14,000, for a total of around $32,000.

Stewart just formed his election committee December 28, so he did not file a report December 31.

"It’s anybody’s guess at this point as to how much money he has," said Foust, continuing to support his strategy of contacting the individual voters.

"I am having an absolute blast doing this," said Foust.

Foust’s campaign web site is www.foustforthehouse.com.


Insurance will pay for
Pride volunteer’s legal bills

Street preacher’s lawsuit is covered by a second Stonewall policy

by Anthony Glassman

Columbus--Stonewall Columbus, the organizers of the city’s annual Pride Holiday, found out March 26 that their insurance will cover a volunteer who is being sued by an anti-gay street preacher.

Andrea Critchet, who has volunteered for Pride security for at least the last four years and been head of security for the last two, is being sued by Charles Spingola for defamation of character following his acquittal on assault charges.

Critchet said that at the parade on June 23, 2001, Spingola flicked a rainbow flag doused in flammable liquid at her and threatened to light it. Spingola alleges that, since the prosecution could not find any witnesses, Critchet is lying.

Spingola filed his defamation suit on January 17. Shortly afterward, Stonewall Columbus was notified by their insurance provider, CNA, that Critchet’s legal expenses were not covered under their policy.

"We went through a thorough review of our policy," said Kate Anderson, the executive director of Stonewall Columbus. "Our volunteers were covered, it was a matter of appealing the previous decision."

Stonewall Columbus board president Sue White pointed to administrative error in creating the confusion. According to White, volunteers are covered under their directors-and-officers policy, not their general liability policy, under which they first tried to file the claim. The organization is having the general liability policy reissued to include volunteers to avoid a future repeat of the situation.

A possible factor in the confusion over which policy covers volunteers could be the relative smoothness of the Pride operation the last few years.

"We’ve had a number of years which were much quieter than in the old days," White said. Large numbers of anti-gay protesters were common at Pride Holiday events of the 1980s and early 1990s. Spingola’s actions, which included having a follower climb a flagpole in front of the Statehouse to tear down a rainbow flag in 1999, have not directly involved event staff until last year, so the policies have not been tested recently.

As a result of the lawsuit against Critchet, Stonewall Columbus is in talks with Casswood Insurance of New York to provide coverage for this year’s event. Casswood handles Cleveland Pride, as well as a number of other large gay pride festivals across the country. Whether the general liability and directors-and-officers policies are also given to Casswood is a discussion for another day, according to White.

"I think we’re going to be reevaluating all our coverage," she noted, "but we’re really concentrating on Pride right now."

Another issue that will be examined is that of risk management, and what actions volunteers will and will not be allowed to take in similar situations.

White also hopes that the city will see Spingola’s actions as a public safety issue.

"It’s not just about the people in the parade and him," she said. "What about the people on the sidewalks watching the parade?"

Spingola was arrested and charged with open burning and assault following the incident with Critchet at last year’s Pride Holiday parade. The open burning charge was dismissed when the judge ruled that it violated his freedom of expression.

White wants Spingola’s suit to fail; there is a disclaimer in the insurance policy indicating that Stonewall may have trouble getting insurance to pay for damages if the judge decides in his favor.

"We are certainly hopeful," she said. "It’s a huge leap to go from acquittal to some of the accusations he’s made in the defamation suit."

Spingola is suing for $25,000 in compensatory damages, $25,000 in punitive damages, and attorney fees. He claims that Critchet’s statements damaged his ability, as a street preacher, to make money.

The important thing now, according to White, is that Critchet won’t have to go it alone. The primary benefit of her coverage under the insurance policy is that CNA has appointed and is paying for an attorney to defend her in the case.

"We’re glad we’re at the table with her," White said. "We’re happy that we can protect our volunteers, which is what we want to do."


Fraud case ends against
TG man who said he was male

by Eric Resnick

Canton--Charges have been dismissed against a transgender man jailed by a judge for saying he is male on marriage license applications.

Canton Municipal Court Judge John Poulos on April 3 dismissed the case against Sean Brookings of Springfield Township.

Brookings, a transsexual, was arrested February 6 and charged with falsification for saying he was a man on three marriage license applications in 1988, 1990, and 1994.

The charges were brought by Stark County Probate Judge R.R. Denny Clunk.

It is rare for a judge to step off the bench and become the complainant in a case. Clunk swore the complaint last September.

Clunk refused comment for this report, but said earlier that "[The Brookings matter] was called to my attention and I don’t remember how."

However, the Gay People’s Chronicle has obtained a copy of a letter sent to both Clunk and the Stark County prosecutor from Vincent Alfera, a Tallmadge attorney representing the children of Brookings’ fifth wife in a dispute over her will. Alfera urged that Brookings be prosecuted.

Dimple Lois McKinney’s children say that their mother’s will is void because the marriage was fraudulent due to Brookings’ transsexuality. The will leaves the only asset of the marriage, a mobile home, to Brookings.

The Stark County prosecutor handed the case to the Canton city prosecutor. A source in the Canton law department said, "Clunk really twisted arms to get this prosecuted."

Alfera and Assistant Prosecutors Scott Eckstein and Lewis Guarnieri were contacted for comment on the ruling. None responded prior to press time.

Judge Poulos did not address the merits of Clunk’s complaint against Brookings, nor was he asked to. He ruled that the statute of limitations had passed.

The statute of limitations on first degree misdemeanors in Ohio is two years. The events that Brookings was charged for occurred 8 to 14 years ago.

Poulos rejected prosecutor Eckstein’s claim that what Brookings did contained elements of fraud. Ohio law allows old cases to be prosecuted if fraud is discovered.

Eckstein also argued that Ohio law allows prosecution when there is "a continuing course of conduct," allowing the clock to begin on limitations when the conduct ends. Poulos rejected that, too.

"The two year statute of limitations ran in this case on December 20, 1996. Criminal prosecution of [Brookings] was not initiated until September 27, 2001," Poulos wrote.

Brookings’ attorney, Randi Barnabee of Macedonia, called the decision "very encouraging."

"Our community has seen gay exceptions to nearly every legal protection enjoyed by everyone else," said Barnabee.

Barnabee praised Poulos additionally for his thoughtfulness despite another judge’s involvement in the case.

"He’s arguably the most powerful judge in the county," Barnabee said of Clunk, "and he personally filed this."

"It’s good to see that another court within the county was able to sort through the legal matters and distinguish from any personal agenda that might be at play," Barnabee concluded.

Clunk has a history of anti-gay and anti-transgender rulings, including denial of otherwise uncontested name changes to partners wanting to share last names with each other and their children. He called one lesbian couple’s request "a fraud on the court."

In 1987, a year prior to Brookings’ first marriage license application as a man, Clunk wrote the landmark In re: Ladrach opinion which denied a marriage license to a post-operative male-to-female transsexual and a biological male.

It is one of three rulings in the nation that hold that sex is determined by chromosomes alone. The ruling is seen by transsexuals as offensive.


 

Mayor may have vetoed
clinic board’s director pick

Leadership of gay and AIDS groups
may have cost candidate a top job

by Eric Resnick

Canton--Mayor Richard Watkins appears to have vetoed the hiring of a clinic director because of the man’s involvement with AIDS service organizations and the Akron Pride Center.

"The only thing that troubled me was the myriad of organizations that he was a member of, or chaired, or that he belonged to, that related a great deal to HIV and the gay-lesbian front," Watkins, a Republican, told the Canton Repository April 1.

"I don’t want to see this clinic turned into an HIV clinic," Watkins added.

Jonathan Adee of Akron was chosen by the board of the Canton Community Clinic to be its new executive director. He was offered the post by board president Guy Ciccini, and given a start date of February 14.

Adee, who is the human resources director of Goodwill Industries of Akron, served as the executive director of Akron’s Community AIDS Network from August 1998 to February 2000. He has also been a board member of Violet’s Cupboard, a food pantry serving people with AIDS, and the Akron Pride Center, a GLBT community center.

Those positions were prominent on his resume, in addition to his having been the program director and board member of Akron’s Open M free clinic--the clinic the Canton clinic was modeled after when it opened in 1994.

"Now I feel the discrimination I knew existed academically, but had no experience with," said Adee, who is not gay.

Adee was interviewed by the clinic board January 31, and was offered the job.

"There was nothing in writing at that point because [board member] Kay Scarp was still firming up the details on things like benefits," said Adee, "But they offered and I accepted the job in principle."

According to clinic receptionist Christine Cross, a board member told her that Adee had been hired.

Adee was told that he should meet with Cicchini and the mayor for the purpose of the mayor getting to know him.

Though no longer on the clinic board, Mayor Watkins is a founder of the clinic, and directs $200,000 of city funds each year toward its operation.

"A week later, I got the call from Cicchini’s secretary telling me when the meeting with the mayor was," said Adee.

Adee said as he was waiting to be called in, Cicchini, who was already in the mayor’s office, left suddenly without as much as a word to him.

Adee said once he was with Watkins, the mayor concentrated on going over the parts of his résumé where he had been connected to gay and AIDS service organizations.

"The meeting abruptly ended, and said ‘You’ll hear from us’," said Adee.

"Well, I never heard back," said Adee, "and attempts to contact Scarp were not responded to."

Cicchini was out of the country and could not be reached for this report. Scarp declined to comment.

Watkins said he is not on the board and does not have the authority to veto a candidate for hire.

The board hired Eric Riley of Dover on March 27. Riley holds a master’s degree in health planning. Adee has a master’s degree in public administration, and a law degree.

Watkins said his comments in the Repository are accurate and stood by them, saying they need to be put in the context of his belief that if Adee’s past was known, there would be a perception among the public that the clinic was primarily for AIDS patients.

Referring again to his statement, Watkins said, "I don’t care about the gay and lesbian stuff, but if people thought it was an AIDS clinic, it would keep a lot of people away. That’s just how I feel in my gut."

"The primary thrust of the clinic is dental and general medical treatment," said Watkins, "and I hope it stays that way."

Watkins denied any discrimination against Adee. "I don’t discriminate," he said, "never have, and wouldn’t tolerate it."

The clinic’s medical director, Dr. Irwin Lilenfield, called the mayor’s remarks "unfortunate."

Lilenfield said that the clinic primarily serves patients that meet the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of indigent for basic medical and dental care.

"That’s about 185% the poverty level for income and no insurance."

"We don’t treat active AIDS," said Lilenfield, adding that it was unlikely that they would in the future.

"It just isn’t what we do," he said. "We might diagnose HIV, but I’m not qualified to do the polypharmacy needed to treat it, and neither are any of the other volunteer doctors."

"When we diagnose someone with AIDS, all we can do is send them to an infectious disease specialist," Lilenfield said.

Lilenfield also pointed out that although the clinic occasionally sees a patient covered by Medicaid, they are not the ones the clinic is there to serve.

Most people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS who do not have sufficient insurance coverage on their own are quickly certified eligible for Medicaid so they can begin treatment with specialists.

Canton is the only major Ohio city that has yet to consider changing its non-discrimination ordinances to include sexual orientation.

Last fall, the Fair Employment Practices Board, which is appointed by the mayor and chaired by Rabbi John Spitzer of Temple Israel, unanimously approved a resolution recommending that city council consider it.

Watkins said he was unaware of the recommendation.

So far, no member of city council has come forward to sponsor the ordinance.

Watkins said he doesn’t know whether he could support such an ordinance or not, saying, "It would depend on how it is written."


 

 

State high court upholds
Louisiana sodomy law

New Orleans--Louisiana’s 197-year-old ban on oral and anal sex doesn’t violate anybody’s right to privacy, the state Supreme Court repeated on March 28.

However, the question of whether it discriminates against gays is still open. So are ten more questions, including whether the law is arbitrarily enforced against gays and lesbians, and whether it constitutes a state endorsement of religious beliefs against homosexuality.

The state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal must decide those, a six-judge panel ruled in a civil lawsuit filed by the Louisiana Electorate of Gays and Lesbians Inc.

The justices repeated the high court’s own July 2000 ruling that the law does not violate the privacy right spelled out in the Louisiana Constitution.

That 5-2 decision came in a criminal case, in which a man was accused of raping a woman who was too intoxicated to give legal consent. He was acquitted of rape, but found guilty of engaging in voluntary oral sex.

LEGL’s civil case brought up the privacy issue as well as those of discrimination, enforcement and other matters related to homosexuality.

John Rawls, attorney for LEGL and plaintiff in the case, said the high court is wrong--both in its privacy ruling and for kicking the other issues back to the Fourth Circuit.

"They should be willing to rule on the hard cases without pushing them around like a school boy pushes peas on a plate," Rawls said.

--Associated Press


Students at 36 Ohio schools will
fall silent on April 10

by Anthony Glassman

Cleveland--The sixth annual Day of Silence will spread across Ohio on April 10, bringing a hush to colleges and high schools in protest of the historical silencing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The first Day of Silence was organized at the University of Virginia in 1996 by Maria Pulzetti. She was joined by over 150 students. The next year, the event spread to almost 100 campuses across the country, and some schools in Australia, hearing about the effort, mimicked it there.

The event now has a web site, http://www.dayofsilence.org, and is co-sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. In Ohio, 36 schools had registered for this year’s Day of Silence, with 31 allowing GLSEN to release information on their participation.

Among the Ohio colleges and universities participating are Case Western Reserve, Denison, John Carroll and Miami Univerities; the University of Akron, Ohio University, Ohio State University, the University of Toledo; and Mount Union, Muskingum, Wilmington, Defiance and Sinclair Colleges.

The high schools who have registered online for participation include Adena Local School, Cincinnati Country Day School, Cleveland Heights, Columbus Alternative, the Columbus School for Girls, Firestone, Franklin, Lakota East, Linworth Alternative Program, Mentor, Miami Valley Career Tech, North Olmsted, Oak Hills, Perrysburg, Talawanda, Troy, Turpin and Walnut Hills.

On the Day of Silence, youth participating in the event do not speak along the course of the day. If people around them are curious about the reason for their silence, some groups provide cards for those involved that read, "Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement protesting the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies."

It continues, "My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by harassment, prejudice, and discrimination. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices. Think about the voices you are not hearing today. What are you going to do to end the silence?"

 


Catholic hierarchy examines
the role of gay priests

by Anthony Glassman
with wire reports

Vatican City--The Vatican has been examining ways to weed out gay priests since January in an attempt to divert attention from the growing child abuse scandal in the church.

Mary Louise Cervone, president of Dignity USA, a national group of LGBT Catholics, described the attempts to scapegoat gay priests as "nothing more than a vicious and transparent attempt to shift the blame, in an effort to deny institutional culpability."

"The Catholic hierarchy has always done this when they are in trouble with pedophilia, to try to deflect the problem onto homosexuals," Catharine Henningsen, the executive director of the American Catholic organization, told the Hartford Courant. "I don’t know whether it’s ignorance or evil."

"This is about violence against children and abuse of power," said Cervone. "It has nothing to do with sexual orientation."

"For people attracted to children, many pedophiles tend not to be gay-identified at all," Dr. Jack Drescher, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual issues told the Washington Blade March 8. "Often, they are married men."

The opportunity presented to priests is what gives the illusion of homosexuality, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

"What other profession do you have that has a widespread boys’ club mentality where everyone has to be a man, where everything is male-revered?" asked A. W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who works with plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases.

Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist who has dealt with cases of clergy abuse for 30 years, say that same-sex abuse simply gets more publicity.

"There are far more heterosexual cases than homosexual," Schoener told the online journal Salon. "The Vatican damn well knows that, and the leadership in the American church knows that."

"I would challenge the church to show me that there are more boys than girls being abused by priests," he continued. "There are plenty of cases of girls and they are just not getting the visibility."

One of the factors in the lack of attention paid to cases involving female children is the church settling the matter out of public sight. Another is the perception that the molestation of a boy is worse than that of a girl.

"The sexual abuse of a boy is treated far more seriously, and is considered a far worse offense than girls or women, and there’s no comparison," Schoener said, referring to press coverage and jury awards. "The big damage awards go to boy cases."

Many in Rome view priestly abuse as an American problem. When questions about the letter started coming in to the Vatican, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, quoted in the New York Times, noted, "It’s already an X-ray of the problem that so many of the questions were in English."

Hoyos pointed to a "culture of pansexualism and libertinism" as a cause of abuse, since the men who become priests are the products of their cultures. However, he did not address the scandals erupting in other parts of the world.

In England, for example, 21 priests were convicted of sexual offenses in the four-year span between 1995 and 1999.

In traditionally Catholic Ireland and France, the church has paid hundreds of millions of dollars and seen bishops convicted for trying to cover up sexual abuse.

Accusations of sexual abuse by clergy have also emerged in Canada, Africa, Oceania and Poland.


 

P-FLAG wavin’ mama

 

Actress Sharon Gless finds joy in her new role,
her past successes, and her Queer as Folk kids

by Andy Scahill

Sharon Gless will be the first to admit that she’s had some juicy roles in her time. As Debbie Novotny, the flamboyant and outspoken mother of openly gay Michael on Showtime’s original series Queer as Folk, Gless says she’s able to tap into the "Little Debbie" inside of her. Every week, she gets to experience Debbie’s joy and her essence, if not her wardrobe.

But Gless has said that she would never have been be in the position to take the role of Debbie had it not been for a little show called Cagney & Lacey. In that groundbreaking and critically acclaimed 1980’s series, she and co-star Tyne Daly created a portrayed of two female police detectives negotiating the trials of both their personal and professional lives. For her portrayal of New York Police Detective Christine Cagney, Gless received two Emmys, a Golden Globe, and six Emmy nominations.

Before hopping a plane to Toronto to film another episode of QAF, Sharon Gless took the time to talk with us from her home in Florida.

Andy Scahill: So the script for Queer as Folk came to you--what happened next?

Sharon Gless: Well, someone actually sneaked it to me. [laughs] My agent knew the project, and he was against it. I was doing a play in Chicago and studying for the show Lion in Winter, and I looked up Peter Forester, the finest drama coach in Chicago, who is also an agent by day. He had gotten a hold of this script and he called me and said, "Now I hope you’re not going to be offended, but I’m sending you this script. It’s not a very big part, but you’ve got to see this. You can do this." And I said, "I’m not offended by small parts." [laughs] And read it and thought--I can’t believe they’re going to do this on television. I was so fascinated by the daring and the explicitness of it. You’re initially titillated by all sex, y’know . . .

Right.

But if it’s a piece of crap, who cares? Then it would be . . .

Melrose Place?

Exactly. So I called Showtime. I knew the president of Showtime, and his assistant, Carol, who had been my husband’s assistant, and I asked her if the role of the mother had been cast, and she said, "You’re not right for the mother, you don’t want to do the mother . . . "

And I said, "No, no--Debbie! Debbie, Debbie, Debbie . . ." She thought that I meant Justin’s mom. "Well, I want it," I said. "What do I have to do? What do I have to do to get this?" At the time, they weren’t going to go with a known actress in that part.

And then you auditioned for the part?

Yeah, and it was a really black day for them because none of the agents were returning their calls, y’know, no one wanted their clients to touch this. And I walked in and I just had one question. I said, "Are you guys really going to film all of this?" They said, "Every frame." And I said, "Well, then call me a coach, because I want to be there."

So, the provocative nature of the show actually drew you in?

I was very drawn by the provocativeness of it. But I didn’t want to just watch boys doing it. Besides, they’d make me leave . . . Closed set. But I’d say, "That’s my son!" And they’d say, "No, go to your room." [laughs]

I really thought there was something I could bring to it. It seemed that although there was a darkness to it, the first three-hour script, I thought, this woman is so full of sunshine, so full of joy, and she’s got such a mouth on her . . . there’s such a great contrast between what’s going on and this woman. And I thought, I can bring something to this.

When you say that, do you mean you could bring something to it as an actress or as the character?

As an actor. It’s an actor’s dream. I mean, I surely don’t look my best in the role. So we decided on the wig--well, we initially decided on several wigs; she was going to change her wigs all the time. But then Showtime lost their nerve. They said, "We’re spending a lot of money for people to see Sharon Gless." And I said, "As soon as I open my mouth, they’re gonna know who it is!"

So it was down to one ‘do, then . . .

Yeah, they originally wanted me to use my own hair, and I said, "No, no--I’ll look like Chris Cagney gone bad!"

Now let’s talk about Debbie’s wardrobe . . .

[laughs] Well, initially, I brought all the t-shirts myself, all the naughty ones. There’s two great places in L.A., the Pleasure Chest, and the really nice place is Don’t Panic.

I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, but it looks like you raided Bruce Vilanch’s closet!

Oh yeah? I didn’t even realize that! I thought that I’d thought that up all on my own! I brought the t-shirts and buttons in, and then I thought she’d always have these leopard prints and tiger prints that don’t match. I began that initial look, but our designer Patrick Antosh, who makes everyone look gorgeous-well, except for Debbie . . .

I guess she’s gorgeous in her own way. She thinks she looks gorgeous.

That’s the fun! She thinks she looks great! That’s my most fun thing! I said to them, "She thinks she looks beautiful, but . . . " But anyway, Patrick took this idea and he started, you’ll see them this year, he started making his own. Because a lot of them I couldn’t wear, the lawyers came down on me. My favorite one was "Diet Cock: Only Two Calories" [laughs]. So Patrick, in his genius, is designing them now, and you can buy them on the Internet!

So now you can go to the Emmys and tell Joan Rivers that you’re wearing an original Patrick Antosh . . .

Yeah, I know.

Was there a transition to be made from playing a lead on Cagney & Lacey to becoming more of an ensemble player?

Very much. The transition was not easy for me. I love these kids, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in an ensemble piece before. And it had nothing to do with my ego; it had to do with my energy. I had all this energy and didn’t know what to do with it--"I’m here, I’m here, let’s go!" And seven hours later it hit, and that was hard. That was hard not being in every scene. Because in Cagney & Lacey, there wasn’t a scene I wasn’t in. But I was very clear with what the show was about--I mean, it’s not Debbie’s Diner. So I knew that. I just didn’t know that it would be so difficult to wait my turn.

But I get the sense that you’re very confident in your fellow actors on the show.

Oh, I love them. I really do. I love these kids. And I have to say that I really was worried having never been in an ensemble show. I thought each one of these kids is so different, like stars all on their own. And I think each one is going to go beyond this. And I thought, what if one of them rises to the top, and there are jealousies, and what’s the tension going to be? But I’ve never been in a situation where actors promote each other like they do. I’ve been to screenings with them (when I have to, cause I don’t like to look at myself), and when each part comes up, the others start cheering for them. It’s just amazing. I remember looking around and thinking, wow, this is amazing.

I wonder if it’s because they’re all part of a project which so many people said wouldn’t work here in the States.

Yeah. But I knew it would. Now, you can’t not notice a show like this. The only people who haven’t noticed us--who choose not to notice us--is the Academy.

Right. Do you feel snubbed by the Academy?

Well, not me personally. But as part of the show, I feel the show has been snubbed. First of all, I think its partly because it’s cable. But still, I don’t think they see this show for what it is--gorgeous acting by these kids, great scripts, probably the most beautifully photographed show on television . . .

Yeah, it definitely has its own cinematic style.

In that arena, no one can touch it. But I think in Hollywood, it’s just chic to say, "Oh yeah, it’s that show about the kids who take it up the ass." I mean, I don’t mean to be vulgar, but I think that the Academy doesn’t get past that.

You’ve also had your fair share of stage work. Do you have a favorite among stage, television or film?

I like stage, as a break, but I really prefer series television. I love having a character I can develop, and grow with. If you have the luxury of longevity in a series, it’s like the best ride ever. But I was trained on film. My experience it exactly opposite. I just love the longevity and the family I have in a series.

I’ve heard that you originated the role of "Annie" in the stage version of Misery.

It’s very different on stage. There’s a big difference between the book and film. The movie is soft. But certainly not with Kathy playing it, but in the movie she’s not as . . . sick. In the novel she’s very sick. Remember the hobbling scene, where she breaks his ankle? In the book, it’s much less soft.

Less soft than a hobbling with a sledgehammer?

Oh, she amputates it. Every night, I chopped off his foot with an axe. And then she uses a blowtorch to cauterize it so it won’t get infected . . . It was really, really fun [laughs].

How do you feel about QAF’s relationship with the mainstream press?

When we opened, it opened to very good reviews. I remember one reviewer in L.A. took exception to it because of what the British version was. One fear we had was that the show would be compared to the British version and be viewed as too puritanical, which America is: very puritanical. To make that effort, they went overboard to be courageous and graphic, so that we could never be nailed for that.

There are many groundbreaking portrayals of gay characters on QAF, but I think it’s important to note that Debbie is a different kind of mother than we’ve ever seen on television.

[laughs] That’s funny, you’re absolutely right. My back-story about Debbie is that she always wanted her own beauty parlor. She wanted to go to beauty school and get her own place. But she got knocked up, and left. And you’ll see that there have been a lot of lies going around . . . there’s a really good episode coming up, really good, where we learn that Debbie has made up this whole story about Michael’s father, and she made a hero for him. And that’s always a secret she’s hidden, about her husband.

But in getting pregnant, and having no one to help her, she never could realize her dream. She just kept waitressing, which is probably something that she did in high school, on weekends, and she just had to stay there. Her dreams were gone, but this incredible gift, Michael, was given to her. So she made him her life, sometimes to a fault. So everything centers around who he is and who he loves. But the nice thing is that she got this whole family--she’s got all these boys.

But there’s a lot of pain there, which I think she’s dealt with and has moved on. Debbie does what she needs to do, for herself and for those around her. And what I’ve noticed is that she has no life. I mean, that is her life, but there’s nothing there for her. But they do something nice for her this season, you’ll see.

Does Debbie get a love interest?

If I tell, then you don’t need to see it!

Well, she does deserve one.

[laughs] You see, I have this whole other back-story for Debbie--who I think she is. I think that if she does have an affair with somebody, she doesn’t want Michael to know about it. I think there’s a double standard about Debbie. She’s the hippest mom in town, but for herself, that’s not ladylike. Like I think that Debbie sneaks a cigarette behind the cafe at the diner, but she would never walk down a street with one--that wouldn’t be ladylike. I have all these mores that she has, about how things are done for her and then for the kids.

Many gay people get annoyed at the way that Michael treats Debbie--she’s the mother of our dreams!

Yeah. But maybe, as Hal feels, that Debbie is just too involved. And he does have a legitimate gripe that she tells everyone about her gay son. And he doesn’t have the courage yet to be out. And until they write a scene where he says, "Ma, you may no longer say, in front of complete strangers, that I am gay," then I have to play that dynamic., because he is her focus.

Now in the series, you’ve got a current storyline about Michael dating an HIV+ man, and Debbie has taken an overprotective kind of stance.

Yeah, there’s been a lot of flack about that. Some people have been appalled that Debbie would take that stance. We were at an event in L.A. where we were being honored and there was a man in the audience who was very upset about Debbie Novotny, of all people, taking this stance. And I said, "You have to understand that QAF does not tie everything up in a pink ribbon. This is real life." I said, "You’re right, no one is more the champion for gay rights than Debbie, but now what has happened is, you’re talking about her kid. And now all bets are off."

Y’know, she’s not the saint that you all thought she was. She’s afraid of losing her child, so she’s gone . . . crazed. But apparently it’s been very upsetting to people that Debbie would take this position.

Some of that emotion may come from Debbie being the kind of poster-mom for gays--to show her character flaws can be upsetting.

But good writing. Y’know, she’s human. She’s flawed.

How have you handled the extreme fanatic following that it’s gotten in the gay community?

Oh, it’s been very nice for me. But it can be overwhelming for some of the kids. Some of them can’t even go anywhere anymore. Like specific gay areas of town, they say it’s difficult now to be anonymous and to have a life. But I always enjoy it--I like people coming up and talking to me, it’s nice to know the show has impact, that’s why I wanted to do the role. Young men come up and ask for a hug, and I like it. It’s a perk.

Are you surprised at the show’s fan base of straight women?

That’s the phenomenon of the show! There are fifty percent more viewers now, and they’re straight women. My husband says, "Sharon, why are you surprised? There’s not a straight man who wouldn’t like to see two women go at it. It’s every man’s fantasy. So why wouldn’t straight women like to see two guys?" Especially young men as adorable as these guys.

I heard that you met the founder of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians). What was that like for you?

Yeah, last year at a premiere in L.A., she got up and spoke. And she was so lovely and so dignified, with pearls . . . and I had to go over to her and say, "I hope you’re not offended by the way I am portraying." And she said, "Not at all." I thought, seeing how beautiful she was and then how Debbie is just . . . outrageous. And she said, "No Sharon, it’s the heart."

Obviously I’m not portraying her, but I am the only actor in television now representing that area right now. I like to be on the ground floor.

Well, Cagney & Lacey was yet another groundbreaking series for its portrayals.

Definitely. We had more trouble on that show than we do for QAF. We were thrown off the air three times! For some reason, some people could not accept two women starring in a drama together, which had never been done. Women and minorities have always been considered amusing. Y’know, this is the first time that a serious drama has been done about the gay community.

The same thing with Cagney & Lacey--women and minorities were always considered funny and they were in sitcoms together. This is the first time that they had two women really dealing with real issues. I mean, NYPD Blue is basically Cagney & Lacey in drag--they’d never written a cop show where two men sit around and talked about their feelings. Cagney & Lacey started all of that.

So, with the men running the studio, it made it a little uneasy. Actually, the head of CBS now is the one who ended our tenure there because he told us he always hated Cagney & Lacey.

How nice. Did you ever feel pressure from the studio execs that the show seemed "too lesbian"?

At the very beginning, some writer in TV Guide made some reference to them being lesbian. But I was the third Cagney, so that happened before I got there. But that was the feeling. But the largest part of my fan base was lesbians, and I loved it. And people said, "Oh good, here comes Sharon, she’s blonde and she’ll add femininity to the show." And I said, "Watch me."

So they all kind of laid in wait for the blonde to show up, thinking it was going to turn into some kind of pussy show. And I said, "Not while I’m here." But I had to live that down later.

Did the plotline surrounding Cagney’s alcoholism help? That was some good dramatic work.

Yeah, we had the luxury of playing that for over two years before the downfall. You see sometimes in these episodic TV shows where the actor wants their Emmy that year and all of the sudden the character’s an alcoholic, and you think, what the fuck is that? It’s not something that happens overnight.

And then that plotline extended to the television movies that ran in 90’s.

You mean "The Menopause Years"?

[laughs] "The Menopause Years"? Is that what you called them?

We did! They were called "Cagney & Lacey: The Menopause Years".

Any chance there’s going to be a Post-Menopause Years?

Not now that the network has killed it. You can kill an arena--we made four of them. The first one was the highest-rated movie of the year on all four networks. The second one was switched to Tuesday night, so the numbers weren’t as high, but they still sent us flowers and said "We’ve never seen numbers like this on a Tuesday." Then that president left, and the new president came in and he hated the show, so he buried it. Without any publicity, he put the third one opposite the World Series. He allowed for no publicity. Then he put the second on up against the American Music Awards with no publicity. But when you have that kind of power, you can ruin a franchise. And then no one wants to touch it.

Has that soured you towards network television at all?

Yeah, it’s mean. It’s not very nice.

I take it working for cable is a completely different experience.

Oh, I love it. I like working for the networks because they pay you well, but I like working for cable because you can say anything that you want--I love the freedom of the mouth that Debbie has.

Are you and Tyne Daly still close?

Very. Oh yeah, very. We have such a history; no two women have gone through what we’ve gone through for so many years. There’s a special thing that happens--we’ll never forget, and I always know she’ll be there for me, and I will, too.

It must be nice to see her on a show that’s also doing so well.

Oh sure. She’s the best. She’s been the best wherever she goes, I think. She has the Midas touch--they’re lucky to have her.

What did Tyne say when you took the QAF part?

I called her and told her. I said, "Are you watching my show?" She said, "Yes, I’m watching it!" I said, "Can you believe these actors, these kids, how good they are? I don’t remember us being that good at their age." She said, "Yeah, yeah we were" [laughs].

Andy Scahill is the editor of Out in America at www.outinamerican.com.

 

 

 

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