Opponents say they will keep trying to �get rid of� Cleveland Heights partner benefit ordinance
Columbus--The Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously September 17 that a group wanting to repeal domestic partner benefits for Cleveland Heights city employees did not gather enough signatures to force a vote on them.
The case was brought by Families First after their referendum petitions were rejected by the city on May 15. The group sued Cleveland Heights Council Clerk Thomas Malone and the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in an attempt to lower the number of signatures needed.
The city says benefit opponents needed the signatures of 15% of the city�s registered voters, but the group argued that the city charter only calls for 15% of those who actually voted in the last municipal election.
Families First also told the court that the voter numbers included people who had moved or died, and that these names should have been deleted from the count.
The high court called the group�s claims �meritless.� In a unanimous opinion, it said that Cleveland Heights had correctly interpreted its charter.
Citing Black�s Law Dictionary, the court wrote, �The ordinary and common meaning of �registered voter� is a �person who is qualified to vote and whose name is recorded in the voting district where he or she resides�.�
The court also ruled that earlier, incorrect lower numbers given to Families First by elections board workers are not sufficient to compel an election.
In their evidence, Families First had submitted the names of two registered voters who died before the last election and two that had moved out of the city.
The court acknowledged that it is the duty of the Board of Elections to see to the accuracy of the lists, but rejected the idea that those four names showed that the lists were incorrect. The justices said they would not compel Malone to certify the petitions over �a vain act,� since subtracting four names from the total needed didn�t change the outcome.
Cleveland Heights Law Director John Gibbon said the court �did the right thing� and that he was not surprised by the result.
�They had an uphill argument from the beginning,� said Gibbon of Families First.
Attorney David Langdon of Cincinnati, who represented Families First, was disappointed with the decision but said, �It all hinged on the definition of the word �voter� and either the court was going to buy [our argument] or not, and they didn�t.�
Langdon was assisted by Columbus attorney Donald Brey, who also represents the Ohio Republican Party, and two American Family Association staff lawyers from Tupelo, Mississippi.
None of the five members of Families First returned calls for this report.
However, city council member Rev. Jimmie Hicks, who is the self-described catalyst of the Families First group, said, �We lost the battle, but the war isn�t over.�
�The ruling didn�t speak to the ordinance,� said Hicks, �It just means we didn�t have enough signatures.�
Hicks was asked about his use of the word �we� in his statements, given that, as a member of city council, he could be a defendant in any action against the city by Families First. Afterward, Hicks only referred to �residents.�
�I will be supportive of any attempt to get rid of that legislation,� said Hicks, adding that �since no one has signed up for the benefits, it just proves that they are not needed.�
Hicks and Langdon both talked about other options Families First will have to repeal the ordinance.
�A charter amendment would be easier in terms of getting on the ballot,� said Langdon, �and that would take care of the ordinance.�
Langdon also represents the Citizens for Community Values group that got the anti-gay Article 12 charter amendment passed by voters in Cincinnati.
Hicks talked about a possible court action challenging the ordinance on the claim that it redefines marriage.
�The one like in Pennsylvania would be the most promising,� he said.
The city of Philadelphia�s 1998 partner benefits ordinance was overturned September 2 by a state appeals court. The court ruled that the measure altered Pennsylvania�s definition of marriage under the state�s 1996 �Defense of Marriage� Act.
Langdon authored similar DOMA legislation that passed the Ohio House of Representatives last year. The measure has not passed the Ohio Senate.
Keli Zehnder, spokesperson for Heights Families for Equality, which formed to fight a possible attempt to repeal the benefits ordinance, said, �We were preparing to win a November election on this ordinance, and we�ll be ready to win any election in the future. We�re going to proceed as if the opposition will keep working to repeal these benefits until we learn otherwise.�
Gibbon said it cost the city of Cleveland Heights �in excess of $5,000� to fight Families First in the Ohio Supreme Court.
Cleveland Heights vice mayor Kenneth Montlack has estimated the total cost of the benefits to be around $400 per month once someone signs up for them.
Toledo�The region�s largest AIDS service organization, David�s House Compassion, held its annual Supporters Reaching Out fundraiser on September 14, bringing hundreds of people to the Wyndham Hotel and the Center of Science and Industry on the banks of the Maumee River.
The evening began with a series of dinner parties across the city, hosted by supporters of David�s House. Perhaps the largest was �Before the Glow,� hosted by David�s House itself in Salon A at the Wyndham.
Cynthia Ford, Mayor Jack Ford�s wife, gave the opening speech welcoming the diners to the event and stressing the need for the organization, which serves eight counties in northwest Ohio.
David�s House, executive director Skeeter Hunt then spoke to the assemblage, using the latest health department statistics to underscore the need for groups like David�s House, especially in Lucas County, which currently has the fourth-highest rate of HIV infection in the state. She also pointed to the spread of HIV into rural areas, where there are fewer services in place to deal with rising infection rates.
Dr. Joan Duggan, an infectious disease specialist with the Medical College of Ohio, gave a presentation on the mechanics of HIV infection and the pros and cons of the medications with which physicians try to hold the virus in check.
Two personal stories followed the technical presentation, one from Joe McIntyre, a Toledo-area activist who has lived with the virus since the mid 1980s. He discussed the ups and downs his health has taken, as well as the importance of constant vigilance in dealing with the disease. Laurie Hoeffel then discussed the crushing blow she was dealt when her son first told her he was HIV-positive, then having to watch as his health failed and he was hit by one opportunistic infection after another.
Those present for the dinner, including openly gay Toledo council member Louis Escobar, then walked next door to the Center of Science and Industry for the SRO Afterglow party, where a dizzying array of pastries, auction items and interactive science displays were available to the partygoers.
Auction items ran the gamut from theater tickets and hand-made artwork to Lasik eye surgery and same-sex legal services, as well as an autographed Detroit Red Wings hockey puck, movie memorabilia and restaurant gift certificates. Music for the event was provided by Brian Cahill Entertainment.
At the center of COSI, among various entertaining and educational exhibits, was hung a set of panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt from the Names Project in Atlanta. The exhibit was sponsored by Judy Stone of Danberry Realty.
It was the 12th SRO event supporting the work of David�s House.
Cincinnati--Stonewall Cincinnati removed its two embattled co-chairs and a third board member at its September 10 membership meeting, casting doubt on the organization�s commitment to an economic boycott it began in 1993 as a response to the passage of Article 12.
The vote for the removal of co-chairs Roy Ford and Heidi Bruins and board member Mike McCleese resulted from a petition brought on July 9 by members according to the organizations�s bylaws, which provide for such removals with a two-thirds vote.
Seventy members of the 99 voting were for the removal.
Ford, Bruins and McCleese were the most vocal proponents of Stonewall�s relationship with the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, a broad grassroots group organizing an economic boycott of the city until 30 demands, including the repeal of Article 12, are met.
Those who brought the petitions and the accompanying allegations of misconduct against the trio prefer Stonewall�s role in the boycott to be less clear.
The intersection of two boycotts
After the �Issue 3� ballot initiative that produced Article 12 was passed in 1993, Stonewall called for businesses and organizations not to hold conventions in Cincinnati. The city charter amendment stops Cincinnati from enacting any ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.
Eight years later, the city fell into racial unrest and rebellion after a white Cincinnati police officer killed an unarmed black man in April 2001. Several groups including the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati were formed. Of these groups, the Coalition is the broadest in its objectives and the most diverse and inclusive in its membership.
The Coalition�s call for an economic boycott of Cincinnati has kept top African-American celebrities, including Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg, from performing there.
The Coalition and Stonewall appeared to have a strong tie to each other, including joint appearances and press conferences, links on each others� web site, and common members.
Ford and Stonewall board member Doreen Cudnik spoke at a March for Justice organized last April 7 by the Coalition and the Black United Front.
Some uncomfortable with boycott
Association with the boycott efforts has been uncomfortable for some members of Stonewall, including those who work for companies that have been affected.
Others have been uncomfortable with the Stonewall board�s March 4, 2002 statement that �we have linked arms with individuals and groups calling for boycott of the city,� insisting that Stonewall should be about education and advocacy only on issues of specific interest to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
This schism split the group farther when the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses held its regional conference in Cincinnati in July.
Believing that the boycott should pertain to gay groups too, Ford and McCleese demonstrated at the conference and handed out leaflets suggesting that attendance at the event would violate the boycott.
The most frequent charge brought by some members against the trio are that they connected Stonewall�s name to events and literature not approved by the board.
That was the case with the chorus conference and a similar flyer they handed out at Taste of Cincinnati which mentioned Stonewall.
Ford was also accused of sending an email to Mayor Charlie Luken that was not approved by the board. That e-mail invited the mayor to participate in June�s Gay Pride Day festivities. Another version of that message was later copied to members of city council and signed, �A fucking concerned citizen.�
Polite outside, ruthless inside
Former Stonewall executive director and now spokesperson Doreen Cudnik says the ousting of the three most vocal and confrontational leaders does not mean that the organization has flip-flopped on one of its core issues.
�Whether we support the boycott or not is not the question,� said Cudnik. �It�s about asking those in leadership to report in accuracy what our policies are.�
Cudnik would not articulate the board�s position on the boycott, except to refer to the February 11 statement �reiterat[ing] its commitment to a convention and tourism ban in Cincinnati as long as the anti-gay Article 12 remains part of Cincinnati�s City Charter.�
Cudnik said that Ford and McCleese�s leaflets at the chorus conference presented �further confusing messages to the city.�
She called their behavior �thuggish.�
�The vote [to remove Bruins, Ford, and McCleese] was a clear statement of the membership and had support from the founding members,� said Cudnik.
Prior to the vote to remove the three, an anonymous web site was created with scathing testimonials and personal attacks against them. Stonewall member Sam Robinson later put his name on the site, but board member Dianna Brewer and ousted board member McCleese say Cudnik helped create it.
The web site blamed Ford, Bruins, and McCleese for a decline in membership and loss of donations, as well as damaged relationships with other GLBT groups such as the two Cincinnati choruses that hosted the regional conference.
The site blamed Bruins, a human resources manager at Procter & Gamble, for not controlling the behavior of Ford and McCleese.
Ironically, Bruins was Cudnik�s closest board ally a year ago when the board eliminated her executive director position due to lack of funds.
The web site was taken down following the removal vote.
More board changes expected
Brewer, who represents the Black Gay Society and the Sister-Sister lesbians of color group on Stonewall�s board, abstained from voting for the removal of Ford, McCleese, and Bruins.
�I was not in favor of the full petition,� she said.
Brewer added that five of the nine Black Gay Society members attending the meeting walked out before the vote, and Sister-Sister members refused to attend at all.
Amanda Mayes, one of three co-chairs of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, said Stonewall no longer wants to work with them.
�Their stance is hypocritical,� said Mayes. �They want to be embraced, but they won�t embrace us.�
Brewer and Mayes, who are both African-American, believe that the removal vote is rooted in issues of race and class.
Brewer said that Ford, who represented the interests of African-American gay men on the board, �took flak from both sides.�
Brewer called the vote a �vendetta� and an attempt to return Stonewall to a �gay white men�s social club.�
Mayes said Stonewall �wants to make friends with city government, so they kicked off elements seen as too radical for them.�
Mayes, who has been among the city�s most visible non-gay activists against Article 12, said she was lied to by Stonewall.
�We were promised a collaborative effort on the boycott, including sweat equity and support,� said Mayes. �We acknowledged Stonewall, and forced others [among African- American groups] to do the same.�
�Stonewall retreated from its position, then disciplined members who tried to make good on their promise,� said Mayes.
Cudnik acknowledged damage with the relationship with the Coalition, but added, �That does not mean we cannot do work in the African-American community.�
Brewer said the board will soon lose four more members--three through resignation, and another will be removed. She would not say in which of those she falls.
�[The vote] was not just about Roy acting bad or Mike spouting off too much,� said Brewer. �They know the truth.�
Brewer added that following the removal vote, members began demanding that the board members that were left end the boycott and publicly say its over, as well as apologize to the choruses for asking them to uphold the tourism ban.
�This wasn�t just about the removal of three board members,� said Brewer, �It is about a change in the whole agenda.�
Brewer said black gays have begun discussing the formation of their own political action committee because there is perception that Stonewall no longer reresents their concerns.
Two years to election day
Cudnik said Stonewall plans to have a vote for the repeal of Article 12 on the ballot November, 2004, and that needs to be the group�s focus.
Kathy Wilson, a columnist for Cincinnati�s weekly alternative newspaper CityBeat and a National Public Radio commentator, said Stonewall can be successful, but warned that with so much infighting, they are not taken seriously in the community.
�They are always in crisis, always in a reactionary mode,� said Wilson. �There�s a lot of baggage at their feet.�
Miami�Voters in Miami-Dade County on September 10 rejected an attempt by Christian conservatives to repeal an ordinance protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
The county�s political and business leaders had pushed to keep the ordinance, fearing a boycott from gay and liberal groups and the rejection of the region�s bid to hold the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
With 738 of the 754 precincts, or 97 percent, reporting by September 17, 147,463 votes, or 53.0 percent, were against repealing the law, while 130,795 votes, or 47.0 percent, were in favor.
The measure would have eliminated an amendment to the county�s human rights ordinance that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, lending and public accommodations.
Supporters and opponents of the ordinance waited until the night after the election for a final tally of votes as elections officials wrangled with technical glitches and other problems that delayed the county�s ballot count.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, an outspoken supporter of the law, said the repeal�s defeat reinforced Miami�s image as a progressive, world-class city.
�All ethnic groups were on the same page today on this issue,� Penelas said. �There�s no room for discrimination of any sort--we�re a community of inclusion and we sent a very strong message.�
Eladio Jose Armesto of Take Back Miami-Dade, a coalition that spearheaded the repeal effort, said only a rigged vote could have resulted in victory for the law�s supporters, and planned to call for an investigation. The Christian Coalition was one of the coalition�s key members.
�Anti-repeal forces are in control of the mayor�s office and the department of elections,� Armesto said.
Take Back co-chair Nathaniel Wilcox said the group would mount a new petition drive for another repeal effort.
Four members of Take Back who were arrested last month for various illegal activities related to the gathering of signatures in the petition drive. Two notaries public involved with the campaign were arrested for notarizing their own signatures, which is against state law. A 17-year-old volunteer was arrested for forging signatures on his petition sheets; various names signed to the sheets matched his handwriting. Anthony Verdugo, Take Back Miami-Dade�s co-chair, was charged with false swearing for signing the statement on the petitions confirming that he had witnessed all the signatures on the sheet.
A similar ordinance was repealed in 1977 after a successful campaign led by former beauty queen and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant. Gay civil rights protections were restored in 1998 after a new ordinance was passed.
Lorri Jean, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said voters� endorsement of the ordinance confirms the country�s growing acceptance of gays and lesbians.
�The victory is sweet,� she said. �Miami-Dade has come a long way.�
Providence, R.I.�Attorney David Cicilline is poised to become the state capital�s first gay mayor following his Sept. 10 victory in the state�s Democratic primary.
Providence is a Democrat stronghold, and Cicilline�s Republican, Green Party and independent challengers are expected to fall by the wayside in the November general election.
If Cicilline is elected, Providence would replace Tempe, Arizona as the largest city in the United States with an openly gay mayor.
As a state legislator, Cicilline fought for issues that were important to both the gay community and the larger liberal community, such as mandatory AIDS education in schools, adding sexual orientation to the state�s hate-crimes law and instituting a needle exchange program to stem the spread of HIV.
However, during his campaign he also attempted to reach out to black and Latino voters, leading some groups and publications to accuse him of downplaying his sexual orientation to appeal to a wider range of voters. Voices 4 Equality, a local organization, endorsed Cicilline�s primary opponent, former mayor Joseph Paolino, Jr. In Newsweekly, a Boston LGBT newspaper, also endorsed Paolino over Cicilline.
�David�s sexual orientation should define him no more and no less than the community he lives in or his ethnic or religious background,� said Jason Young of the Victory Fund, an organization that seeks to get gay and lesbian candidates elected to public office.
Other primaries across the country prominently featured many gay male candidates, although lesbians were less well represented.
In Arizona, Jack Jackson Jr. and Wally Straughn both clinched party nominations for the state House in their districts, although incumbent Steve May missed out by 58 votes. May, Thom Von Hapsburg and Peter Moraga all came in third in primary races that gave nominations to the top two contenders.
Jackson�s district, however, is also strongly Democratic, and he is expected to become the first openly gay Native American to win elected office in the country. Jackson is Navajo.
In the nation�s capital, both Republican David Catania and Democrat Jim Graham won their respective primaries, Graham defeating five other hopefuls for the nomination.
Miami-Dade County kept its gay-inclusive human rights ordinance (see separate story). Nonpartisan judicial candidate Xavier Cortada, running for 11th Circuit Court in Dade County, came in third in a four-way race, though, ending his candidacy.
In Maryland, both newcomer Rich Madaleno and incumbent Maggie McIntosh won their primaries. Madaleno could become his state�s first openly gay male House member if he wins in November, and McIntosh was the top vote-getter in her race, virtually guaranteeing that she will continue as the House Majority Leader.
Scott Dibble won the Democrat-Farmer-Labor party�s nomination for the Minnesota Senate; a likely victory in two months would make him the state�s second out senator.
Rosie O�Donnell�s brother Danny won the Democratic Party nomination for the State Assembly race in New York City, leaving him poised to take the seat for this strongly Democratic metropolis.
Ed Flanagan lost his bid to become Vermont�s treasurer with 32% of the vote.
In Wisconsin, Tim Carpenter won his bid for the Democratic Party�s nomination for the State Senate�s Milwaukee district seat; a victory in the general election would make him the state�s first openly gay state senator.
Massachusetts and Washington both had primaries on September 17. In Massachusetts, Jarrett Barrios was trying to clinch the nomination for a state senate seat, while Liz Malia, an incumbent, and Rick Musiol were trying for the 11th and 2nd districts of the state House, respectively.
In Washington, Jim Moeller was seeking to represent Vancouver in the state House.
Kirtland, Ohio�Gov. Bob Taft and former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan squared off in their first election season debate in this eastern Cleveland suburb, highlighting their differences on gay issues.
The September 9 meeting was recorded for later broadcast on local cable systems.
During the debate, in addition to attacking the incumbent�s fiscal policies, Hagan also expressed his support for same-sex civil unions, suggesting that opposition to the unions and the benefits they would extend to same-sex couples is tantamount to anti-gay discrimination.
�I think this attitude of bashing on the basis of sexual orientation has to stop,� Hagan was quoted in the Lake County News-Herald. �People are entitled to have their own sexual orientation.�
Hagan also noted that many companies offer domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian employees.
�I truly believe marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman,� the Dayton Daily News quoted the incumbent Taft. He went on to say that he though allowing same-sex unions would �erode the institution of marriage.�
�Much like Governor Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential bid, Tim Hagan is the first candidate for Ohio governor to embrace the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community,� said Patrick Shepherd, president of the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats.
Hagan has been present at a number of pro-gay and gay-themed events over the course of his campaign. He was a speaker at the rally before the Dayton Pride parade in June, and was present at both the Columbus and Cleveland Human Rights Campaign dinners this spring.
Last month, Hagan took time during a weekend-long fundraiser hosted by his wife, actress Kate Mulgrew, to attend the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats picnic in Edgewater Park with a number of his family members.
�There has never been a clearer choice for governor for people who lobby against homophobia,� Shepherd continued. �One of Bob Taft�s first acts after election in 1998 was to repeal the executive order that barred discrimination based on sexual orienation.�
�Even a pragmatic [former governor] George Voinovich permitted that order to stand after it was enacted during the Celeste administration,� he added.
A poll released by the Columbus Dispatch on Sept. 1 showed Taft leading Hagan by 8%, with 12% undecided. Both candidates have indicated that they will engage in more structured debates as the election draws near.
Warren, Ohio--A heterosexual couple who was denied a marriage license because the groom-to-be is transgender have received two setbacks from the judge in the case, and their attorney says he may be biased against them.
Trumbull County Probate Judge Thomas A. Swift ruled September 17 that Deborah Smith, the attorney representing Jacob Nash and Erin Barr, would not be given an extension to file a post-hearing brief.
Smith filed for the extension because Swift�s court reporter failed to complete a transcript of the hearing on time, and told Smith it would not be ready until after the September 19 filing deadline.
Swift denied Smith�s request saying only �The court finds that an extension of time would cause unnecessary delay and expense.�
�Who would it cause delay and expense to?� asked Smith. �Certainly not to Nash and Barr.�
Smith called Swift�s decision �unreasonable� and hinted that it suggests the judge is biased against her clients.
This marks the second procedural motion ruled against Barr and Nash.
On August 28, Swift ruled that nationally known transgender rights attorney Randi Barnabee could not be admitted pro hac vice, or under special circumstances, to represent the couple.
Barnabee, who is transgender and married to Smith, is a former military judge advocate general, and is admitted to the Maryland bar. She is a federal practice attorney and took the Ohio bar exam in July.
It is extremely rare for judges to deny attorneys admission to a case pro hac vice unless there is a question about their qualifications. Other Ohio judges have admitted Barnabee to cases involving transgender people.
Swift declined to say why Barnabee was denied, saying through his bailiff that he wanted his order to speak for itself. In his order, Swift relied only on his right to deny her admission as his reason for doing so.
Nash and Barr held a press conference at the courthouse two days before the hearing to protest Swift�s order.
�We feel our representation is being compromised,� said Nash. �We know that [Smith] is competent to represent us, but [Barnabee] is the best, and we have been denied the best.�
Kent, Ohio�By a vote of nine to one, with four abstentions, gay fraternity Delta Lambda Phi was accepted onto the Inter-Fraternity Council at Kent State University on Sept. 16.
The IFC voted the fraternity down twice last spring, at meetings on April 22 and 29. The Office of Campus Life told members they would be expected to explain why a vote against the fraternity did not violate the Council�s constitutional commitment to diversity, but the fraternity�s membership application was still rejected.
IFC�s eight-member executive board had recommended that Delta Lambda Phi be granted membership.
Delta Lambda Phi could no longer function at Kent State as an ordinary campus organization due to its exclusive membership and dues requirements. Without IFC membership, it would have to close. The Campus Life office urged them to apply for associate status, the second of three membership levels.
�I think the vote demonstrates at the very least that the members of the IFC, even if they can�t relate to us, they can take the opportunity to learn from us,� said Eric Van Sant, Delta Lambda Phi�s national chairman for public relations. �I think they recognize that brotherhood transcends our differences.�
Joshua Dudeck, the Kent chapter�s president, concurred.
�I�m very pleased about the decision,� he said. �It shows they value diversity.�
�Right now we have our foot in the door and we have a long way to go before we�re a full, active member,� he continued. �We�re looking forward to that also.�
The Delta Lambda Phi at Ohio University in Athens presently has membership in the school�s IFC.
London, Ky.�Police have charged two men with assault after they allegedly beat a gay couple because of their homosexuality.
London police said Hargis Gibson, 30, and Calvin Mitchell, 31, attacked Robbie Gregory and Tommy Perez in the couple�s home at about 7:30 pm on September 14.
Police Chief Elijah Hollon said the assailants clearly targeted the victims because they are gay. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, Hollon said.
�They did not like for them to live in that same [apartment] complex,� Hollon said.
He added that the suspects asked officers to release them on several occasions because �they didn�t think they had done anything wrong or had done anything that someone else wouldn�t have done.�
If found guilty of a hate crime, Gibson and Mitchell could be denied varying forms of probation or parole, according to state law.
Gibson and Mitchell initially asked the victims to let them into their apartment, but the victims refused. Instead of leaving, the assailants forced their way in and began punching and kicking the victims, Hollon said. The two are also charged with burglary.
Gregory, 28, lost consciousness and was briefly hospitalized. He suffered from extensive facial injuries. Perez, whose age wasn�t given, sustained minor injuries.
Gibson was released from the Laurel County Detention Center on Sept. 16 after posting $50,000 bond. Mitchell is still in custody.
London, population 5,692, is on Interstate 75 in southeastern Kentucky, 150 miles south of Cincinnati.
Gay men on stage and behind
Cleveland--In 1913, a 13-year-old girl working in an Atlanta pencil factory is murdered.
Deep in the heart of the racially-charged South, still smarting decades after its defeat at the hands of the North in the Civil War, a black janitor accuses the manager of the factory, a Jew from New York, of the crime. Anti-Semitic newspapers convict him in the court of public opinion, people in the street are howling for his blood.
This is the setting of Parade by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), himself a Jew and an Atlantan, and composer Jason Robert Brown, playing through October 6 at the Beck Center for the Arts in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood.
Among the cast and crew of Parade are three men whose perception of the themes in the play is tinged by their own knowledge of prejudice and discrimination, Ryan Bergeron, Todd Huffman and Robert Gibb.
All three are gay, and all three believe that the events in the musical echo forward into the modern day, with violence spurred by biases striking the gay community on an alarmingly regular basis.
�What any minority would get out of it is the theme of persecution,� said Bergeron, who plays a young confederate soldier and Fiddlin� John, as well as filling out the ensemble for the musical numbers. �There�s a particularly telling moment which is really a refusal to lie to save oneself, choosing honesty versus taking the coward�s way out.�
Gibb, who portrays Gov. John Slaton, one of the few voices of reason in the play, concurs.
�The central theme is essentially timeless and can be applied to so many contemporary situations,� he said. �The way the play deals with prejudice, stereotypes, media manipulation and, I�d say, fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, relates to the gay community.�
Huffman, the stage manager, agreed, �I think the main thing is, it�s about the prejudices.�
�It�s a great role for me,� said Gibb, who directed When Pigs Fly at Beck, indelibly etching the image of Nick Vannello in a dress into the minds of northeast Ohio�s theatergoing gay community. �The character plays such an integral role in the development of the story and becomes one of the few changed and enlightened characters by the end.�
�Parts of it reminded me of Matthew Shepard, but more so of other modern cases where people have been wrongly accused, like Tawana Brawley and Susan Smith,� Gibb continued. �Those are two situations which mirror the play, which took place in 1913.�
�It�s one of the smartest shows that�s been written in the last ten years,� Bergeron added. �People say the American musical is dying but I�d say composers like Jason Robert Brown are single-handedly keeping it alive.�
While the story hit home for Bergeron, Gibb and Huffman, it hits even closer to home for Uhry.
Not only is he Jewish and from Atlanta, but he is related to many of the people who were involved in the real-life case at the time. His uncle Sigmund, for instance, owned the pencil factory where Leo Frank, the wrongly-accused man; Jim Conley, his accuser; and Mary Phagan, his supposed victim, all worked. Sigmund also organized Frank�s defense, which included Uhry�s cousin Herbert, who was one of the attorneys. Frank�s widow was still an active part of Atlanta�s Jewish community during Uhry�s childhood in the 1940s.
Beyond being a tale of justice mislaid and prejudice given form, there is one other overriding aspect to the musical, though.
�I like to tell people it�s a love story,� Gibb concluded. �It�s just a very unique setting for a love story.�
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