Saturday, August 20, 2005

On "Naked Boys," Civil Rights and Security

The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) is once again under attack for its selective enforcement of laws against a gay enterprise.

On the evening of August 18, cops closed down a production of “Naked Boys Singing” on the grounds that the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center did not have a city permit to present live entertainment. When confronted with why the Vice Squad was sent out to enforce a licensing issue, MPD spokeswoman Annie Schwartz said they received a citizen complaint about the show and the Vice Squad was dispatched because it related to nude entertainment. The lieutenant who runs the squad responded defensively to criticism and fell back on the old stand-by that he was just following orders.

It should surprise few folks that the complaint came from a local anti-gay religious zealot, Drew G. Heiss, who has an extensive criminal record. It should surprise even fewer that the MPD, some of whose officers savagely beat unarmed black men and roust gay bar patrons while searching for “fruit flies,” would so assiduously follow such inane orders. That cops would waste critical manpower shutting down an art center as the murder rate skyrockets in the city is equally outrageous.

Over the years, I have probably written more stories about MPD abuses against the queer community than anyone else. Check out this 1991 report of MPD misconduct. The MPD’s reckless behavior and failures in leadership have been legion.

But, but, but . . .

Given this disgraceful history — not to mention Milwaukee’s dubious rep as the city that put comedian George Carlin in the pokey for using cuss words on stage and the vicious homophobia of Milwaukee’s right-wing talk jocks — why would the Gay Arts Center not have made sure that it was fully protected? Did they really not anticipate any problems at all? Was there no contingency plan for such a legal challenge or for a possible disruption of the show by fundamentalist zealots? No plan for public relations or damage control? HELLO?!

The Milwaukee Gay Arts Center was the vision of Paul Masterson who put his heart, soul and sweat into developing the Center earlier this year. It’s a beautiful facility that has hosted great art works and live shows for the past four months. It’s become a “must-see” destination on Milwaukee’s quarterly Gallery Nights. But it has become a magnet for anti-gay nuts, who have picketed, harassed patrons and tarnished the building with homophobic graffiti. When I first heard that “Naked Boys Singing” was coming, I assumed there would be more trouble.

We gays and lesbians are living in a very hostile climate, and I expect that hostility will only accelerate when the referendum campaign to ban civil unions and gay civil marriage in Wisconsin picks up next year. There is a well-funded movement to crush our hopes for legal equality and a more frightening movement among some religious zealots to see us exterminated altogether.

That last comment regarding “extermination” is not an exaggeration. Arson has destroyed several Metropolitan Community Churches around the country, terrorist Eric Rudolph planted one of his nail bombs at a gay bar in Atlanta, injuring 11 patrons, and the jerk who complained about “Naked Boys Singing” has a web site that links to a memorial to Paul Hill, the assassin who murdered a doctor who performs abortions.

We need to fully protect ourselves in the years ahead:
1) Leaders of the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center and the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center need to meet with Police Chief Nannette Hegerty about the closing of “Naked Boys.” They have a challenging mission. They need to express their displeasure with the Vice Squad’s intervention in this incident (backed by legal action against selective enforcement) while impressing on her the security needs of the LGBT community and the necessity for closer cooperation with the MPD in the months and years ahead.

2) All of our community agencies and institutions need to retain professional financial and legal counsel to ensure proper governance and operations. Our opponents will be looking for any opportunity to attack us, weaken us, divide us from one another, or sully our collective reputation in the larger community. We must fortify ourselves and be prepared.

3) Fortifications of another sort are also in order. LGBT organizations need to be thinking more seriously about security measures at the buildings in which our organizations are housed and at venues where LGBT events are held. Threats and harassment are increasing, and I’m concerned it’s only a matter of time before we have major injuries to both people and property. We must plan now and consult with security experts to prevent such things from happening. Jewish community leaders, who have faced threats themselves, have instituted various security systems and policies at their facilities. They may be a helpful resource in this regard.
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There is another aspect of the “Naked Boys” bust that makes me squirm – that a gay civil rights complaint is emerging from a closed-down production featuring naked men. Call me a prude (many have), but I’m sure I’m not the only lesbian in Milwaukee who cringed at all the publicity.

At a time when we should be shining the light on LGBT families who are separated from one another or denied rights and benefits because they lack legal recognition, at a time when we should be showcasing the lives and good works of long-term gay and lesbian couples who contribute so much to our neighborhoods, churches and schools, we are instead demanding our right to nude entertainment!

I do understand the injustice and stupidity of the bust, but can you imagine how many negative stereotypes were reinforced in the minds of thousands of Milwaukeeans who saw the “Naked Boys” coverage on TV or in the newspaper, or who heard about it through the mean-spirited filter of AM talk radio? A lesbian friend told me her mother called (her mom is very supportive of her) and expressed dismay that “You people are always associated with smut.” Ouch – and that’s a gay-supportive person!

I had the same squirm response a few months back when I heard about an “Underwear Party” fundraising event for Action Wisconsin and the campaign against the anti-gay marriage referendum. As I recall, it featured Ru Paul and was billed as an event to build alliances for the campaign.

What I want to know is, did someone think the delightfully bawdy Ru Paul was not enough of a draw? That underwear was needed? And what alliances were forged — with Calvin Klein and Jockey?!

What’s next, a circle jerk for civil rights?
Yikes, dykes, I better not give anyone any ideas!

Maybe I should add a fourth point to my list above: The LGBT community could benefit from a little more carefully thought out public relations!