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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
May 17, 2002

Benefit opponents turn in signatures

Quantity needed is in question; court fight may result

by Eric Resnick

Cleveland Heights--Opponents of health benefits for city employees� same-sex partners have presented thousands of signatures to force an election on the issue. But it is not known if they have gathered enough to do so.

City council passed an ordinance granting the benefits April 15, by a vote of six to one. Opponents, including council member Jimmie Hicks who voted against the measure, began gathering signatures to put it on a ballot.

Their group submitted petitions with 5,230 signatures to Council Clerk Thomas Malone on the May 15 deadline. If enough prove to be valid, the ordinance will be sent back to City Council, which must either repeal it or put it on a ballot.

However, the number of signatures needed to do that is in question. The city charter calls for 15% of the voters registered at the time of the last municipal election, which was November 6, 2001.

On April 17, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections put this number at 3,983. But on May 13, the board faxed a letter to city law director John Gibbon putting the total number of voters at 35,699. Fifteen percent of that is 5,355--which is 125 more than the signatures turned in.

"This is definitely a serious problem," said attorney Gerald W. Phillips, who represents Families First, the group opposing the ordinance.

Phillips said the problem stems from the way the Board of Elections keeps records, and pointed out a third figure the board released April 26 that put the signatures needed at 4,271. He said he has seen this problem in all 88 Ohio counties, and it will likely lead to a lawsuit.

"It is a matter that needs to be litigated to be resolved," Phillips said.

The petitions will be sent to the Board of Elections, which has ten days to verify the signatures, eliminating duplicates and people who are not registered voters. The city charter then allows a 15-day "cure" period for Families First to correct any shortfall this may cause.

The cure period does not apply if the initial number of signatures falls short before any verification is done.

"If they don�t have enough, it will mean that they have not complied with the requirements of the charter," said Gibbon, "and the resolution as passed by council would stand."

Gibbon added that observers won�t be permitted to watch the Board of Elections verify the signatures.

Mayor Ed Kelley said there is little chance that the members of council who voted for the ordinance will change their minds if they have to reconsider it.

"We have done the right thing," said Kelley. "And I would be surprised if anyone changed their minds."

Council member Nancy Dietrich, who sponsored the ordinance, said most members of council have been quiet on the issue so far because, "It is their right to get the petition signatures," and council members do not want to interfere.

But Dietrich said that once it hits the ballot, she expects her colleagues will defend their vote by taking a public stand for the ordinance.

Social values threatened

Business leaders fear that the city may lose more than some health benefits if the referendum is successful.

Business owner Steve Presser says that the referendum and divisions in the community that will result from it threaten the social values of the suburb and could make it less attractive. He owns Big Fun on Coventry Rd., and is building Dottie�s Diner on Lee Rd.

Presser, who is not gay, has joined the steering committee of Heights Families for Equality, which was formed to counter the referendum campaign. He testified in favor of the ordinance before City Council on April 15. Presser also served on the city�s Visioning Committee, which produced a report this year citing diversity as the top reason why people choose to live in Cleveland Heights.

"This referendum has upset me," said Presser. "I take it personally when someone calls someone else an abomination."

Presser also resents that those waging the referendum campaign are undermining the 6-1 vote in favor of the ordinance by members of council, who were elected by the public.

Cleveland Heights residents often describe their community as having a "social contract." Presser says he defines that as "the people who have chosen to live here value social awareness, and concern for fellow human beings ranks high."

Presser says that domestic partner benefits are a national issue, and he is proud that Cleveland Heights has taken the lead and set an example for other communities to follow.

Ernie Cahoon, a real estate agent who has lived and worked in Cleveland Heights for 16 years, says, "The effect on the community will be psychological."

Cahoon said he does not think a referendum campaign will directly affect property values, but his colleagues believe that the ordinance has been positive.

"It�s icing on the cake," said Cahoon. "It enhances what is already here."

Cahoon said that after the suburban Sun Press newspaper printed his letter supporting the ordinance, he received about 15 calls in agreement from colleagues. "The first one was from the president of Smythe Cramer," which is the agency Cahoon represents.

Presser said the Coventry Businesses Association, which he belongs to, is non-profit and cannot take a stand on political issues. But he expects that other business owners will take individual stands in support of the ordinance.

"We enjoy the diverse group of customers," he said, "and our gay customers are among our strongest and most reliable. What attracts people is the perk of feeling comfortable and welcome, and [the ordinance] is a signal that we are a welcoming community."

PACs will be formed

Families First is the committee led by council member Hicks and five other residents to gather the signatures. They have been assisted and advised by Phil Burress of Cincinnati.

Burress leads the anti-gay American Family Association of Ohio and the Cincinnati Citizens for Community Values, which collected the signatures that put Issue 3 on the ballot there in 1994.

Burress� Issue 3 campaign was successful, voiding a 1993 lesbian and gay civil rights ordinance and amending Cincinnati�s charter to prohibit any future ones.

Leaders of both the Families First and Heights Families for Equality steering committees have indicated that once the issue hits the ballot, it will clear the way for their groups to form political action committees. Once the PACs are formed, the groups can raise money and conduct their campaigns in accordance with Ohio election laws.

Heights Families for Equality has named Mark Tumeo, Tamara Adrine-Davis, and Kay Heylman as co-chairs, Nancy Thrams its treasurer, and David Wittkowski its fundraising chair. Attorney Karen Schneiderman has been hired as the PAC�s administrative coordinator.

By contrast, the five Families First organizers, Tracie Moore, Rev. Cecil Gamble, Bonnie Dolezal, Zoe Tyler and Joseph Grassy, continue to refer all questions about the group�s structure and activity to Hicks, who in turn claims it is just a "grassroots group" that can run without him.

Tumeo expects that it will cost $40-50,000 to win the referendum and see the benefits enacted. He also expects that the anti-gay groups from Cincinnati that supported the petition drive will see to it that the repeal attempt is well funded.

"And it�s a shame," said Tumeo, "because the campaigns will cost more than years of the benefits, and the city will have to spend another $10,000 of tax dollars to hold the election."

The cost of the benefits to the city has been estimated to be less than $5,000 per year by city administrators.

Presser said he knows that the campaigns could initially be divisive, but he hopes that no long-term ill feelings develop.

But to Burress and the other forces behind the referendum, Presser warns, "This is Cleveland Heights, and you are coming into the lion�s den. We have mobilized and we are ready for a cat fight."


Importuning law is gone

Ohio high court voids gay-only proposition ban

by Anthony Glassman

Columbus--The Ohio Supreme Court has unanimously struck down the state�s unique "importuning" law, which outlaws asking someone of the same gender for sex if it might offend them.

The court ruled May 15 that the measure violates federal and state equal protection guarantees. It does not apply to heterosexual situations.

The law is used mostly in park sex stings, where plainclothes police officers charge men with importuning when they respond to overtures from the officers.

"No person shall solicit a person of the same sex to engage in sexual activity with the offender," reads Ohio Revised Code 2907.07(B), "when the offender knows such solicitation is offensive to the other person, or is reckless in that regard."

The measure was passed in 1972 as part of an overhaul of the criminal code that also repealed Ohio�s sodomy law.

The case involved Eric R. Thompson of Jefferson, Ohio. In July, 1999, Thompson was arrested for offering sex to another man, who called police. He was found guilty and served six months in prison.

The Eleventh District Court of Appeals in Warren upheld the law last year, but requested that the Ohio Supreme Court clarify an earlier ruling in favor of it.

The high court now says the law "is facially invalid as a content-based restriction on speech."

"The state has not narrowly tailored [the statute] to serve a compelling state interest," wrote Justice Deborah L. Cook in her decision for the court. "Curtailing the risk of violent responses to offensive solicitation [the rationale behind the statute]--as opposed to prohibiting offensive sexual solicitations of a particular content--could have been achieved by prohibiting all offensive solicitations of sexual activity."

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, while agreeing with the decision, disagreed with the reasoning behind it.

"There is no rational reason for the state to treat people who seek to engage in homosexual activity as criminals when it does not treat people who seek to engage in heterosexual activity as criminals," Pfeifer said in his concurring opinion.

"The obvious intent of [the statute] is to restrict homosexual activity, not speech, as the lead opinion would have us believe," he continued, noting that the probation of "the solicitation of another person to engage in sexual activity for hire is to restrict prostitution, not speech."

A similar case in Cleveland echoed Pfeifer�s sentiments. A three-judge panel of the Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled unanimously last September 13 that the law was unconstitutional.

"Society has changed," Judge Colleen Conway Cooney wrote in her decision for the Eighth District court. "There is simply no rational basis for burdening homosexuals with greater criminal liability for conduct which, if heterosexual in nature, would be subject to lesser punishment." The city did not appeal the decision.

Ashtabula County public defender Marie Lane was excited at her client Thompson�s victory. "I don�t know what to say," she noted, "I�m thrilled."

She also expressed surprise at Pfeifer�s opinion, saying that his questioning was severe during oral arguments earlier this year.

Linda Malicki, executive director of the Cleveland Lesbian-Gay Center, was also pleased with the ruling.

"The center is thrilled that this law, which clearly discriminates against people based on sexual orientation and gender, has been struck down," she noted.


 

 

Campbell is first Cleveland mayor to attend HRC dinner

by Anthony Glassman

Cleveland--Mayor Jane Campbell made history on May 11, becoming the first Cleveland mayor to attend the Human Rights Campaign Cleveland dinner and dance.

Almost 50 elected officials were present at the grand reception before the dinner. Included among these was U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, the recipient of this year�s HRC Cleveland Equality Award.

Brown has received a perfect score on the Washington, D.C. gay and lesbian political group�s congressional scorecard each year since his election in 1992.

He joins past award recipients like the AIDS Taskforce of Cleveland, the Akron and Cleveland P-FLAG chapters, the ACLU of Ohio and the United Church of Christ.

Campbell, in her address, said that it had been a long time since a mayor was present at the dinner. She also related that every time Cleveland Stonewall Democrats president Patrick Shepherd sees her at an event, he asks if she remembers him and the support of the Cleveland LGBT community.

She assured the diners that she did. In fact, she said, she felt very supported by the community, which the 900 people assembled in the Grand Ballroom of the Cleveland Renaissance Hotel greeted with thunderous applause.

The dinner was hosted by emcee Karen Williams, proponent of healing through humor and founder of the International Institute of Humor and Healing Arts, the HaHa Institute. Williams, who has a master�s degree in education, is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleveland State University, where she teaches a senior seminar that has led her protégés to national fame.

Also, after two years of bringing Sarena Tyler in from Detroit to serve as disk jockey, the HRC-Cleveland dinner committee decided this year to go with DJ Gregg Witbeck, a perennial favorite in the Cleveland club scene.

"We decided to stay as local as we can because Cleveland is a proud community with a lot of diversity," said dinner co-chair Mary Beth Schwarz. "We have a lot of great people and we wanted to showcase them in a positive light."

The local spotlight continued in the silent auction, which Schwarz described as the most successful auction yet. Goods and services ranged from a signed Star Trek: Voyager script donated by the show�s star Kate Mulgrew, wife of gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan, to spa and massage gift certificates. Vouchers donated by Cleveland Public Theatre and airplane tickets provided by Southwest Airlines highlighted the auction, as did clothing and jewelry modeled by members of the northeast Ohio LGBT community.

"We really tried to be inclusive of the transgender community, in line with current initiatives of the national organization of HRC," Schwarz noted. "The auction was snappy, sassy and sophisticated."

Thom Rankin of Real Estate Mortgage Corp. was a prime factor in the success of the silent auction, donating a number of pieces as well as organizing it. He was singled out for praise during the program.

The dinner and auction raised $100,000 for the Human Rights Campaign�s work to ensure equality for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"It�s a good opportunity to showcase the wonderful talent we have here in Cleveland," she continued.

Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the national organization, made a moving speech to the dinner guests, speaking eloquently about the LGBT community�s place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"At this moment of national crisis, our quest is not beside the point," she stressed. "It is the point. And this burning within us to make America that much better is not just America�s gift to us, it is our gift to America."

Stachelberg also thanked the HRC Cleveland leadership, including the dinner committee, for inviting her to share the stage with Mayor Jane Campbell. Her praise for the dinner was echoed by other HRC officials.

"The Board of Governors of HRC is extremely proud of the dinner committee for putting on perhaps the best dinner we�ve had in Cleveland," Downing said. "The program went swiftly, but, most important, people had fun."

Schwarz insisted that credit be given where it was due, to the members of the dinner committee as a whole.

"They just worked tirelessly and put in so much work all year to make this event a success," she said.


Settle for nothing less than 100% equality, Toledo says

by Lori Anne Agricola

Dayton--Settle for nothing less than total equality, Elizabeth Toledo told students at Wright State University.

"I deserve 100 percent of what everyone else has," she said.

Toledo, a lesbian, feminist and Chicana activist, spoke at the campus on May 1, discussing the importance of the LGBT community�s allies, local campaigning for social causes and the history of the Equal Rights Amendment.

She is a former director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and former vice president of the National Organization for Women.

Toledo gave three presentations. She spoke first at a reception for LGBT allies, honoring the efforts of gay-friendly people and emphasizing the importance of safe spaces.

"Social spaces have a significant role in our lives," she said. "Safe space is at the core of what the political campaign is all about."

Later, she gave a brief history of NOW and the women�s movement, addressing current issues from a feminist perspective. Her advice to women looking to facilitate dialogue around women�s issues was to "take what�s hot in the news and look at it through a feminist lens."

Toledo also spoke about the Equal Rights Amendment, a 1972 measure to establish women�s constitutional parity with men. It was never ratified, a fact she believes many people do not realize.

Toledo gave her culminating speech at 7 p.m., talking about organizing for social justice with particular emphasis on the LGBT movement. In her presentation, she gave a list of ways in which people can act every day to move the world toward social justice. Her suggestions included running for office, supporting someone to run for office, or wearing a rainbow button. Toledo challenged listeners to settle for nothing less than total equality.

She also spoke about support and coming out along the course of the day. "Coming out and being out are two things that are a constant evolution," she told listeners.

"This is one of the most organized campuses I�ve been to," she said of Wright State and Lambda Union, the LGBT organization sponsoring her visit. "I go to a lot of schools, and this one is very cohesive and thorough. They�re not only organizing an event, but including an action component to it."

"It was such an honor to have her speak here," said Amanda Bennett, president of Lambda Union. "She�s a great motivational speaker for people looking to get involved politically, whether on a large scale or a small scale."


News Briefs

Couples lose first round in Massachusetts marriage case

Boston--A judge on May 8 ruled against seven gay and lesbian couples who sued for the right to marry in Massachusetts.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Thomas E. Connolly rejected the couples� request that he force the state to grant them marriage licenses, ruling that it was up to lawmakers to decide the issue, not the courts.

According to Jennifer Levi, an attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who represented the couples, Connolly in part based his decision on the idea of conception of children as central to the concept of marriage. Connolly himself noted that Massachusetts law allows gay couples to adopt children and that four of the couples are raising children.

According to Levi, the ruling against her clients is just the beginning of the battle, and they will definitely appeal the decision. The case is likely to go to the state supreme court.

The suit sparked an ongoing effort to alter the state�s constitution to specifically define marriage as being between one man and one woman.

Teen can take his boyfriend to prom

Toronto--A gay teen cannot be barred from taking his boyfriend to the prom at a Roman Catholic high school, a judge ruled May 10.

Marc Hall, 17, was granted an injunction by the Superior Court of Justice allowing him to take his 21-year-old boyfriend to his prom at Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic high school in Oshawa, 30 miles east of Toronto.

Hall�s lawyer David Corbett said the ruling tells Catholic schools that they can�t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Corbett said the judge�s decision is only an interim ruling, but that the school board has said it wants to argue its position in a trial. Corbett said Hall is prepared to do the same.

Corbett argued the board violated the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Education Act and the provincial code of conduct, which all bar discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The school board has said it supports Hall�s right to be gay but it rejects "a homosexual lifestyle," such as taking a same-sex date to the prom.

NCLR marks a quarter century

San Francisco--The National Center for Lesbian Rights celebrated its 25th anniversary on May 4 with a gala dinner featuring comedian Kate Clinton and singer Cris Williamson.

NCLR is supporting Sharon Smith, the partner of Diane Whipple, in her wrongful death suit against the owners of the presa-canario mastiffs that mauled Whipple to death. The group is serving as co-counsel in the case, which overcame a major hurdle last August when Judge A. James Robertson III ruled that Smith could sue for wrongful death although she is not Whipple�s legal spouse.

NCLR is also involved in the case of Mickie Mashburn, a Tampa police officer whose partner, Lois Marrero, also an officer, was slain in the line of duty. The city is refusing to grant Mashburn her partner�s pension benefits because the two were not legally married. The group is also representing Michael Kantaras, a transgendered Florida man whose ex-wife is seeking to deny him visitation of her children by a previous marriage, whom Kantaras helped raise, claiming that, since he was born a woman, they could not have been legally married.

The organization also provides technical assistance to attorneys, free legal information and advice to LGBT people and publishes an array of documents covering a broad spectrum of LGBT legal issues.

Dutch crowds mourn Pim Fortuyn

Amsterdam, The Netherlands--Tens of thousands of people bid farewell May 10 to slain gay politician Pim Fortuyn.

The 54-year-old political maverick was assassinated May 6 as he was leaving a radio studio during parliamentary campaigning.

Mourners lined streets and freeway bridges to throw flowers onto his passing white hearse. His coffin was to remain above ground for public viewing after a small funeral for relatives.

With his brash statements, the impeccably dressed gay politician stole votes from what is widely perceived as the stuffy political elite. His unconventional approach broke taboos and opened heated discussion on politically incorrect issues such as immigration.

After he was expelled from one party for anti-Muslim remarks in response to the religion�s views on homosexuality, he formed his own national party in days, piecing together a list of previously unknown candidates.

Police have charged a 32-year-old Dutchman with the killing but have not found a motive. He has been identified by former colleagues as Volkert van der Graaf, an environmental and animal rights activist.

Prosecutors indicated that van der Graaf was stalking Fortuyn the day he was killed and may have been plotting against three other members of his anti-immigration party.

Investigators said they also were viewing a video reportedly showing the suspect with two other people in a city where Fortuyn had campaigned earlier.

Van der Graaf has refused to cooperate with investigators.

New Zealand military is 20% gay

Christchurch, New Zealand--An educational program in the country�s military has been so successful in making gay men and lesbians feel comfortable that they now make up 20% of the New Zealand Defense Force, an equal employment opportunity consultant said on April 26.

Eugene Moore said that New Zealand was far ahead of other countries that allow gay men and lesbians in their militaries. These include Canada, the United Kingdom, many European nations, Australia and Israel.

The program, which he designed, has engendered an atmosphere in which service members feel safe coming out. It has been so successful that other nations have sent representatives to New Zealand to study it.

France and Australia, for instance, sent observers to witness the education programs that the Navy uses on its ships, and Australia invited Moore to make a presentation to its military heads.

Connecticut partner bill passes

Hartford, Conn.--Gay civil rights advocates hugged in the gallery of the state Senate May 7 after senators voted overwhelmingly to extend certain legal rights to gay and lesbian couples.

The bill, passed a week earlier by the House, does not specifically mention same-sex couples. Instead, it allows a person to legally designate another to make medical decisions and end-of life choices.

The bill also allows for private visits in nursing homes and requires employers to allow emergency phone calls from the legally designated person.

The measure, a compromise from earlier proposals for civil unions and same-sex marriage, was approved 30-6 and had bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

The bill now goes to Gov. John G. Rowland. Chris Cooper, Rowland�s spokesman, said after the vote that Rowland expects to sign the bill.

Opponents of the bill argued that the legal rights cited in the bill are already available to gay couples who draft living wills and other legal documents.

But supporters said a law is needed to make sure that hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions honor those documents. At a public hearing earlier this year, lesbian and gay couples testified they have been denied the right to make medical decisions for critically ill partners even with a written document.

Closeted teacher was fired anyway

Montgomery, Ala.--A closeted gay teacher filed suit May 8 claiming he was fired because of his sexual orientation, even though he had kept it a secret.

The teacher, named "John Doe" in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, said he wasn�t told why he was dismissed at the end of the 1999-2000 school year, but later learned that school officials had heard rumors he was gay.

U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson issued a temporary order later May 8 sealing the case to protect the teacher�s identity while the lawsuit goes forward. None of the parties involved may talk about the case, at least until the judge holds a full hearing.

This is the first lawsuit the ACLU has filed on behalf of a gay person who tried to keep his sexual orientation secret, said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the ACLU�s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. The teacher frequently talked about his ex-wife and children and brought female friends to school social events to give the appearance he wasn�t gay.

Garrett said the man had received positive evaluations from the school principal, including one the day before he was fired. Under Alabama law the school doesn�t have to give a reason for firing him.

The man has since been hired at another school in Alabama. He�s seeking reinstatement, back pay, compensation for emotional distress and attorneys� fees.

Dallas passes rights ordinance

Dallas--City Council on May 8 adopted an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people in employment, housing and in public places such as hotels and restaurants.

The council voted 13-2 for the measure, which was pledged on the campaign trail by new Mayor Laura Miller. Violation of the ordinance will result in fines up to $500.

The two council members who opposed the ordinance, Alan Walne and Mitchell Rasansky, said it would be too expensive for the city to enforce in an already tight budget year. Resansky also said the measure could be too expensive for small businesses.

The ordinance exempts employers with less than 15 workers, and proponents said it would cost only $15,000 in money that�s not already budgeted.

American Airlines executive Donald J. Carty spoke in favor of the ordinance and said the Fort Worth based carrier has adopted a similar policy for its workers.

"The true strength of our city lies in our diversity," he said.

The measure is the 231st local ordinance barring discrimination by sexual orientation, and the 39th to include transgendered people, along with the states of Rhode Island and Minnesota.

600 remember slain lesbian activist

Colorado Springs, Colo.--The April 26 murder of lesbian activist Jocelyn Sandberg brought over 600 people to Colorado College�s Shove Chapel on April 29 to mourn her passing.

Sandberg, who served as the office manager for National Public Radio affiliate KRCC and worked periodically at Poor Richard�s, a popular eatery near the school, was active in the fight against Proposition 2, which would have repealed all state and local gay rights protections in Colorado.

Present at the memorial service were her parents, who came from Salt Lake City, as well as many listeners from the radio station, which had been flooded with cards, letters, calls and e-mails.

Sandberg was stabbed to death in the early morning of April 26, her body left lying on the steps of Armstrong Hall at the college. She was 41 years old.

Compiled from wire reports by Brian DeWitt, Anthony Glassman and Patti Harris.

 


 

Dead man�s party

Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball has
the time of his life writing about death

by Andy Scahill

Just how do you follow up a multi-award-winning project like American Beauty?

Alan Ball, screenwriter for the film, was honored with the Best Original Screenplay award by the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild of America in 1999.

Ball returned in 2001 with a new project, a weekly drama titled Six Feet Under on the cable network HBO. The series takes a darkly comical look at the members of a dysfunctional family that run an independent funeral home. Featured prominently are two gay characters, the wound-tight and closeted son David (Michael C. Hall) and his boyfriend Keith, a Los Angeles cop (Mathew St. Patrick).

Ball doesn�t hide his frustrations about working on network shows such as Grace Under Fire, Cybill, and the ill-fated Oh, Grow Up. Some would say that his return to television was a surprising move given his success in the cinematic arena.

But as Ball explained, this show isn�t in the world of network television. That part of his career, it seems, is dead and buried.

Andy Scahill: How exactly did Six Feet Under come into being?

Alan Ball: Well, I signed into a three-year TV deal the week before I sold the American Beauty script. I thought, I�ll write a bunch of pilots and they�ll never get made and I�ll get this nice paycheck, and life will be good.

Well, the first pilot I wrote got made into the show Oh, Grow Up. It was premièring at the same time that American Beauty was premièring, and it was struggling, and getting bad ratings, and critics hated it, and the network hated it.

American Beauty came out and suddenly everyone wanted to meet me. So I had lunch with Carolyn Strauss from HBO and she said that�s she�d always wanted to do a show about a family that runs a funeral home.

And I thought, that is so brilliant. I wish I could work on that, but I�m doing this show for ABC. Well, shortly thereafter, ABC cancelled my show. And I went home for Christmas and wrote the pilot.

AS: I take it that writing for HBO is different experience?

AB: Night and day. Everybody says that they want distinctive programming, but HBO really means it. The networks are running so scared now, they are afraid to do anything truly different. They�re bloated; there are too many executives, too many people giving notes, most of them are really uncreative . . . and they can only think in terms of things that have been successful before, which is why you always get the note, "Can�t you make it like such and such?"

But HBO, on the other hand, really respects the people they hire to create programming. That�s not to say I don�t get notes. But network notes tend to all convey, "Make everyone nicer and articulate the subtext."

AS: And HBO?

AB: The notes I get from HBO are more, "Can it be more complicated? This moment feels a little too resolved." So I spent a good deal of time at the beginning just hearing these notes and realizing, oh yeah, I don�t have to actively be a bad writer . . .

AS: I assume you took to the idea of setting this in a funeral home pretty readily. What speaks to you about this setting?

AB: Well, what interested me right off the bat is that these people are surrounded by death, in a culture that does everything it can to ignore the reality of death. And I was very interested in how this affects their life. It seemed to me like one thing that would happen is that life itself would be thrown into stark relief.

There�s a great quote by Thomas Lynch, he�s a poet and undertaker, that says something to effect of, "There is nothing like the sight of dead human body to help the living separate the good days from the bad days." That could be a thematic statement for Six Feet Under.

Living in that environment, it�s fairly philosophical and existential on a daily basis, and how often do you get to write philosophical and existential stuff?

AS: What kind of research did you do for the show, if any?

AB: I had a certain jumping-off place as far as my emotional response to the whole funeral thing. But mostly I left the real specifics of the industry up to our technical advisors, who are licensed morticians. I�ve gotten to the point now where I�ll be writing a conversation between David and Federico, and I�ll just write "mortician dialogue to come." And I�ll call the mortician and go, "They�re working on a woman who has a head injury, what�s some technical stuff they can say to each other?"

AS: I also found it very interesting, if disturbing, to hear things referred to as the "death care industry".

AB: That�s what they call it. That�s why I put the commercials in the pilot; because it is a business; there are services that are marketed.

AS: As far as the characters go, I noticed that they are initially presented so that the audience assumes things about them, and gradually those assumptions are broken down. Is that something that you intended?

AB: That�s something that I like to do, because I think that as audiences we are so savvy to formulaic stuff. So much of what gets produced is formulaic. Audiences very clearly pick up on "Okay, he�s the handsome guy, so he�s the star; she�s the pretty one, so she�ll be with him, and he�s too nice to be true, so he�ll get killed instantly."

So what I love to do is set up those expectations and then not fulfill them, or go someplace completely different. I know as I an audience member, I love to be surprised because it happens so rarely.

AS: One that sticks out in my mind is the character of Keith, who doesn�t want to be known as the "big black sex cop," and he turns out to be one of the most tender characters in the show.

AB: Yeah, I see him as the kind of moral barometer of the show. Because he is what he is, and he has a very clear conception of what is right and what is wrong.

AS: The character of David, however, is deeply secretive about his sexuality. From the writer�s perspective, why do you feel he is so closeted?

AB: As the series goes on, you start to learn a lot more about David; he really suffers from the Best Little Boy in the World syndrome.

I didn�t set out to write a different kind of gay character; it just turned out to be who David was. In terms of gay men and lesbians that stay in the closet, their biggest obstacle is themselves, not society. So it�s that internal conflict that I find really interesting that I wanted to explore in David. This is a guy who stayed behind, he learned the business because he wanted to be the good son, feels eternally betrayed by his brother . . . it�s just more interesting. It�s another part of the HBO "more conflict" idea.

Also, when you start a character off with something like that, you give them somewhere to go. So that when David does have whatever small victory he has, it will be that much more rewarding.

AS: Every episode starts with a death, and it seems as though the dead continue to talk even after they�re dead. Is this a continuing theme?

AB: Yeah. My father died almost 20 years ago and I still have conversations with him in my head. But David is a guy who spends a lot of time with dead people and also a guy who�s in a lot of emotional conflict, so they basically become a manifestation of his own inner dialogue.

AS: You have a pretty extensive background in theater. Does that inform the way that you write Six Feet Under?

AB: Coming from the theater, I tend to be more interested in character than plot. A lot of the television that you see is just cut-and-dry plot-driven. A lot of them use their characters as chess pieces that they can just move around and put in different plots.

I also think I bring the willingness to play around with particular devices. The dead speaking is not particularly new, but I feel it serves a purpose and tells us what we need to know about the characters� inner lives. I think that coming from theater, I tend to be willing to play with that fourth wall a little bit.

AS: The embalming commercials in the first episode, any chance that they�re coming back?

AB: No . . . You know, you�d run out of things to advertise real fast. The reason they were there was number one, just to alert the viewer that stylistically we�re going to do some weird stuff. Second, to establish that it is a business and there are products being marketed. It�s also a little nod to network TV, because we are constantly being marketed distasteful products, but we�re so used to it.

Six Feet Under airs every Sunday at 9:00 pm) on HBO.

 

 

 

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