Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Deep South is what it is, probably always will be

MONTGOMERY, AL – A recent visit to the Deep South showed me just how much people and places can change  -- or not -- as we grow older.

I first drove into Montgomery in 1992 when I moved there from Dallas to start work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group headed by the legendary lawyer Morris Dees. The native Southerner made an internationally-known name for himself by filing and winning lawsuits against Ku Klux Klan groups and other White Supremacist organizations. I was thrilled to join his Klanwatch team as a writer and researcher.

When I arrived in Montgomery and started looking for a place to live I was more than a little surprised to encounter a woman who obviously rejected me as a tenant for a little house she owned because of where I would be working. “Why do you want to go to work there?” she asked.

It was a sign of things to come, and I quickly learned the majority of white people seemed to fear violence evolving from the presence of the law center in their city and to resent the work its staff did. It also didn’t take me long to realize that in many people’s minds the Old South and the New South hadn’t changed much at all as regards racial division between whites and blacks from the perspective of both sides.

The conversation at the first dinner party I attended where all of the guests were gay white men left me stunned. Although everyone one at the table knew where I had just gone to work, they made no effort to hide their derisive opinions of the law center and its work.

As a result of that it would be at times an uncomfortable two years I spent in Alabama working for the law center, but I loved my work. I also came in time to bond with a small group of gay people I met at Montgomery’s Metropolitan Community Church, where I became a member.

One of my favorite memories is of us all piling into a van for a trip to Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington in 1993. I also fondly recall traveling with them to other parts of Alabama for gay rights marches and associated meetings.

My work at the law center was rewarding in part because I was able to become active assisting gay and lesbian rights activists in the state, in effect lending them the support of one of the most powerful civil rights groups in the nation. Gay rights had always been on the law center’s radar, but Dees and the other managing directors of the organization gave me the financial and moral support to take my gay rights activism as far as I wanted.

As it happened, I only stayed in Montgomery working at the law center for a little over two years. I missed my old friends in Dallas and the more progressive lifestyle the city offered. I also felt overwhelmed by the daily exposure I received to the news of violent hate crimes and the ugly rhetoric of white supremacists.

I always regretted leaving because I realized there was so much work that needed to be done in Alabama in terms of LGBT rights and motivating people to action, which the law center continues to do and has even expanded. The percentage of people willing to live openly gay in the city was tiny, even though the city had a large LGBT population.

Just last week I drove back to Montgomery to see an old friend with whom I have maintained contact, and I spent an enjoyable few days of sightseeing and visiting with people.

There’s been a lot of change in Montgomery in terms of new buildings being built downtown, and the city looked prettier than I remembered it. Even the law center has a magnificent new building that dwarfs the old building across the street where I once worked. Klanwatch is now known as the Intelligence Project.

Unfortunately I was unable to arrange a visit inside the new fortress, even though I once worked for the organization. With its growth in size and security, the law center has become less accessible, I gather. I did manage to talk with someone I knew on the phone who promised to call me back about getting together, but he never did. That’s understandable, considering how busy law center officials are, and that the anniversary of the 1965 “We Shall Overcome” march from Selma to Montgomery had just occurred.

As far as obvious signs of gay life, there is still just one gay bar in downtown Montgomery. Unfortunately, the one that operates there today appears to be about half the size of the one that I frequented in the early 1990s.
I left Montgomery to return home the day before the Tuesday Republican Primary Election so I got an earful about the Republican candidates and President Barrack Obama before I left.

The remarks of one white gay man, who oddly has a good friend who is a gay black man, seemed to confirm what I suspected was an accurate portrayal of the sympathies among most white LGBT people living in Montgomery. He said, “I don’t know who to vote for, but I sure don’t want the Democrats to win. I guess I’m going to vote for the one I think will do the least harm rather than the most good. I don’t like any of them.” He later added that he would consider voting for a Democrat in local and state elections, but not President Obama, whose economic agenda runs contrary to his own.

A friend of the gay man, a straight woman with whom he spends most of his time in public, added, “The only white people who will vote for Obama are transplants.”

Their comments confirmed to me that only the skyline has changed in Montgomery. The attitudes apparently remain the same.

And now there are 2 openly-gay sheriffs in the U.S.

It might be sort of an odd time to be bringing this up, but who knew until just recently we had two openly-LGBT sheriffs in the country?

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute includes Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu’s name and picture on its website as an openly gay elected official, along with lesbian Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and some 500 other LGBT officials. As it happens, Babeu and Valdez are the only LGBT officials to hold the position of sheriff, as far as we now know, but there is a whole slew of every other type of elected official identified.

Babeu apparently flew under the public’s radar until last month when his ex-lover, a Mexican national, alleged the sheriff threatened to get him deported if he talked publicly about their relationship.  The Arizona sheriff acknowledged his sexual orientation while denying Jose Orozco’s claims.

In his public statement revealing his former romantic relationship with Orozco, Babeu vowed he would continue his bid for the U.S. Congress 4th District on the Republican ticket. He did, however, resign as co-chair of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Arizona campaign.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough pictures of Babeu with his hand inside Orozco’s shirt and one of the sheriff in his bikini underwear showed up on an Internet news story. Then Babeu’s sister, Lucy Babeu, told a Phoenix television news reporter her brother had dated a student when he was the headmaster of a Massachusetts boarding school.

In addition to the allegations of sexual impropriety involving a male student, the television news station, KNXV-TV, reported that the boarding school disciplined male students by making them remove their clothes to wear only sheets in a bizarre practice known as “sheeting.”

In response, Babeu’s campaign issued a statement saying his sister was basically crazy, and a former male student of the boarding school denied ever having been sexually involved with the sheriff. The statement also denied any responsibility on Babeu’s part in determining disciplinary methods.

Now, Orozco has lawyered up and filed a notice of his intention to sue the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office for $1 million.

Babeu has claimed Orozco’s story has no merit in part because he understood the Mexican national was living legally in the U.S.

It’s hard to know what make of all this because the quasi-military environment of law enforcement agencies tends to be so closed to outsiders that everyone generally knows everybody else’s business. It seems implausible that Babeu could have hidden his sexual orientation from fellow law enforcement officials or that they would have accepted it without complaint.

In one of the media reports, Babeu noted that political enemies in the past had attempted to make an issue of his sexual orientation and the mainstream media had generally ignored it. Babeu, who was elected in 2008 and named Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriff’s Association last year, is now president of the Arizona Sheriffs’ Association.

Some might say if he had been open about his sexual orientation, Babeu’s enemies might have had less inclination to go after him. But that certainly didn’t prove to be the case with Dallas County Constable Mike Dupree, whose fondness for Latino lovers, apparently led to all kinds of trouble and his resignation to avoid jail in 2007 in connection with official misconduct charges. (For the record, Dupree continues to insist he was the victim of a conspiracy involving elected officials and disgruntled constable deputies, and that his name will one day be cleared.)

In contrast, the Babeu story appears to involve only a former lover. The whole Babeu story sort of smells like a relationship gone sour where one party feels used, abused and left behind.

That’s not to say Babeu didn’t exercise bad judgment. It’s not such a good idea for an elected official to allow pictures taken of him with his hand inside of a young man’s shirt, nor to appear in a photo in bikini underwear – no matter how good looking he might think he is.

I’m relatively sure there’s nothing out there like that to embarrass Dallas County’s Sheriff Valdez. I was at a party one night a few years ago that she attended, and when a camera came out she quickly put her beer down on a table.

So it’s not likely a picture exists of Valdez with her hand in a girlfriend’s blouse or of the sheriff in her bra and panties. At least I hope not.

'Silent killer' HCV could be hiding in unaware victims' blood; testing recommended to deter severe liver damage

After the emergence of HIV and the devastation it caused in the 1980s, the identification of yet another deadly virus about the same time went virtually unnoticed by the general public. News and concern about Hepatitis C understandably took a back seat to HIV, and so the liver disease apparently grew exponentially because it was a slower killer and asymptomatic.

Spread mostly by blood-to-blood contact, HCV is now thought to infect as many as 170 million people worldwide, many or most of whom are unaware of their status because of the absence of any symptoms they are ill. Often people do not become aware of their infection until significant damage is done to their liver, cirrhosis or cancer develops and a transplant is necessary.

Now, more people die from HCV-related illnesses than those associated with HIV, according to Center for Disease Control officials.

CDC officials warn that Baby Boomers, anyone born between 1945 and 1965, should get a test to determine if they are infected with HCV. Federal health officials estimate that two-thirds of the people infected with HVC are in this age group, and that half are unaware of it.

Medical researchers and practitioners theorized since the 1970s that another hepatitis virus existed in addition to Hepatitis B because some patients who no longer exhibited traces of HBV in their blood continued to show similar signs of liver malfunction. Finally, in 1989 Hepatitis C was proven to exist, and widespread testing of blood for the virus since 1997s has revealed its frightening spread.

Many people in the LGBT community were unaware of the existence of HCV and only learned about if someone they knew was diagnosed with it or, God forbid, learned they themselves had contracted it.  After missing the HIV bullet and vowing not to place themselves at risk of contracting it, many people no doubt were shocked to learn there was yet another virus they could have contracted through blood transfusions, shared intravenous drug use and sexual activity.

What’s worse, there are concerns that the transmission of HCV might occur more easily than HIV through unsterilized medical and dental equipment, body piercings, tattooing, shared personal items such as razors, toothbrushes and manicure tools and no telling what else. In contrast, HIV is thought to be less easily transmitted.

The possible presence of HCV was sometimes detected in the early 1990s among patients who got annual physicals because routine blood tests revealed irregularities in liver enzymes. Further testing to identify the cause could reveal the presence of HCV when patients were in the care of doctors who stayed abreast of the medical developments.

It became clear HCV would become a chronic infection for most people who contracted it, and that it would eventually lead to severe health problems or death. Only a few people would contract the virus and overcome it through the body’s natural processes, as is thought to be the case with some people who are exposed to HIV.

Two people of whom I have known were HCV-positive illustrate just how widespread the virus could ultimately be. One individual was a gay man who was a former heavy intravenous drug-user and HIV-negative, but nonetheless a member of a high-risk group. The other was an older married female who didn’t even drink, let alone do drugs or engage in sex with multiple sex partners. She would surely be considered a member of a low-risk group, and I suspect she contracted the virus in a hospital setting long before the virus’ existence was known.

There are treatments available for HCV, but they unfortunately have different levels of effectiveness among patients, are expensive and can be intolerable to some people. Both of the people I knew were unable to tolerate the treatments. The heterosexual female has died, and I have lost contact with the gay man I knew who HCV-positive. The last time I talked to him he had been declared disabled because of his HCV infection and the damage it had done to his liver.

In both cases, the months-long treatments that included injections and oral drugs caused flu-like symptoms and severe depression. They both abandoned the treatments.

Fortunately, other people managed to survive the treatments and the combination of drugs apparently eliminated HCV from their blood. The very fortunate discovered the infections and received the treatments before irreversible damage was done to their livers as was indicated by biopsies.

At the time the two people I knew tried the available treatments it was when only a combination of pegylated interferon and ribavirin was available. Those treatments initially were prohibitively expensive, but they are considered less costly now.

Today, there are new protease inhibitors available for treatment showing promise, but the cost is astronomical. The new drugs, Victrelis, at $1,100 per week, and Incivek at $4,100 per week, must be taken for months, and they also can cause hideous side effects.

It’s an agonizing situation, but most people are willing to spend whatever it costs if they can and endure whatever pain comes along in an effort to survive. That’s why it’s so important to get tested for HCV and to determine whether treatment is needed before it’s too late.

For others who are uninfected, don’t go there in the first place. Know how HCV is spread and avoid any possibility that it can imperil your life.