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Italy's LGBT Movement and the Activists Driving It Forward

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BY DAVID MIXNER

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with a large number of Italian LGBT leaders and influencers. In many ways, their struggle for LGBT rights is in its infancy stages and lags behind most of the Western European powers. However a network of rights organizations make these pioneers a force whose power grows daily in Italy and puts them far ahead of Eastern Europeans.

Adoption rights, hate crimes legislation and marriage equality still all have to be obtained in Italy. At the moment, a hate crimes bill is working through the legislature (it has passed the Chamber of Deputies and is currently in the Italian Senate) but it seems to have quite a few detractors — some who believe it is not tough enough and some who will simply oppose anything having to do with the LGBT community.

ScalfarottoFranco Grillini in 2001 became the first open LGBT member in the Parliament. He was joined by the first Lesbian Anna Paola Concia who was elected in 2008. Today one of the most powerful members in the Chamber of Deputies is openly gay Ivan Scalfarotto (right). The handsome and articulate advocate is Vice Chair of the governing Democratic Party. When meeting with him, one is immediately impressed with his passion, intellect and political agility. Scalfarotto started out as a member of the Green Party in 1988 and shifted to the Democrats in 2008. The passionate activist has pushed for a Hate Crimes bill and is exploring creating national civil unions for Italy.

Over breakfast, Ivan said he was interested in creating an Italian version of the Victory Fund. He believes it is time to move dramatically forward in electing more LGBT Italians to office. There is no question that his charismatic and promising leadership will help make that a reality.

Mg_3187_pp2-copia-fileminimizerAnother bright light is youthful Matteo Pegoraro (right) who hails from Solesino. He is active at both the grassroots and political levels and expressed  impatience with Italy's slow progress.  When asked about then new young Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo told me:

I admit I'm still pretty doubtful. So far, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has given priority to constitutional reforms to reduce public spending and groped to boost employment, but no word yet from the Italian government on the protection of LGBT people. However, hope is the last to die, and I really hope that this Prime Minister can listen to the voices of our community and strive to make a better Italy through raising awareness and social welfare, which starts from the total recognition of fundamental rights.

In addition, the lesbian community has a star in Luisa Bordiga who is coordinator of Arcilesbica Milan.

The country's largest LGBT organization is Arcigay and it covers the broad spectrum of grassroots politics. EDGE is a new professionals organization. Famiglie Arcobaleno and Rete Genitori Rainbow are two family-oriented organizations that would make PFLAG proud.

Without question one of the organizations that could wield considerable influence in Italy is PARKS. The organization is named after American civil rights icon Rosa Parks and its members are the diversity officers of major corporations in Italy. Corporate giants such as IKEA, Johnson & Johnson, Telecom, Citi and IBM are members of the group which has embraced LGBT rights as part of its agenda. You can find its Executive Director Igor Suran all over Italy spreading the gospel of diversity. Lining up these major corporations and others could be the major catalyst for change that is needed in Italy.

Like the rest of the Western powers the victory for Italian LGBT rights feels inevitable. Some of the leaders think marriage equality is ten to twenty years down the road. Interestingly, most of the young organizers think it will only be five years. What is clear is that this Italian LGBT community is a passionate, talented and determined force that will make this happen.

In discussions with the activists, the Vatican comes up over and over again. The Catholic church hangs over the movement in Italy like the Evangelicals do in the United States. A couple of activists even offered to move St. Peter's Basicilica to the United States. I respectfully declined and said that their offer was far too generous!


'That Book' and the Credit for Equality

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BY DAVID MIXNER

Who is Viola Liuzzo?

Drawing a blank?

Since she is not in the history books, most people have never heard of her. Ms. Liuzzo was a white Detroit mother of five who went to Selma, Alabama after the horrific attack by police on voting rights protesters on Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. After arriving in Selma, she was given the job of transporting marchers. A carload of KKK members pulled alongside her car and shot her to death.

What's the point?

It is simple. She is as much responsible for the 1965 Voting Rights Bill as so many of the famous leaders from that heroic period. However, history will not record her name nor will future generations know the name of so many others who made it possible for our country to have an African-American President today.

History will treat the epic struggle for LGBT freedom exactly the same way. Maybe Harvey Milk and Edie Windsor will rightly be in high school history books but few other names will appear beside them since history is notorious for having limited space.

So everyone should chill about the new book (Forcing the Spring by Jo Becker) on the fight to win marriage equality. In the future, there will be many books, movies, documentaries and oral histories. Each one will have its own version of events and its own anointment of the 'real leaders'.

Who is responsible for taking the LGBT community down the road to freedom?

Each and every one of us is responsible for this remarkable change.

The thousands who stood in line in to get married in the 'Valentine's Day' revolution of 2004 (prompted by Mayor Gavin Newsom issuing marriage licenses) in San Francisco are responsible. The lawyers and plaintiffs who have been fighting in the courts all around America for years are responsible. People who lined up at midnight in different states to be among the first to get married are responsible. Everyone who signed a petition, donated money, attended a rally, came out to  family and friends and contacted their elected officials made marriage equality happen.

Each and every one of us made history. The early pioneers who suffered so much at the hands of the bigots brought us to this point. The young men who died of AIDS and fought for justice to their dying breaths made it happen. The thousands who were beaten, killed or had their homes attacked for being an LGBT American brought us to this point in history.

That is the simple truth.

Many leaders and many books will give us different versions of this journey. Some will rightfully honor heroes, and some will come off as frantic egotistical attempts by figures desperate to be remembered as crucial to this epic moment in history. Some will downplay others' roles in this struggle and some will achieve justified acclaim.

What will be remembered by future generations is our incredible and noble struggle for equality. Very few names will be known but our collective effort will never be forgotten.

Long after I am gone my name will be known to very, very few. What I do know gives me great joy. Deep within my heart I know that I have given everything possible. By joining with other LGBT Americans and our allies I have not only witnessed history but participated in it.

That is a damn good feeling to me and should be enough for everyone.


GLAAD Tidings: A Lunch with Sarah Kate Ellis

BY DAVID MIXNER

EllisIn recent history, it would be hard to find a time when there has been such remarkable progress so quickly on LGBT rights. The fight for marriage equality has been especially extraordinary in its acceptance by Americans. You know we have made progress when in the deep South over 40% of citizens support the freedom to marry for LGBT Americans.

Times have indeed changed and in some cases, very quickly.

That rapidity has presented challenges for our LGBT organizations across the country. Our national organizations have had to reevaluate their missions, reasons for existence and reorganize for the struggles that will exist for LGBT citizens around the world in this 21st Century. Those which refuse to adapt to the new reality will be left behind or become shadows of their former selves.

LGBT Americans have a right and indeed, an obligation, to question each organization on how they plan to use their funds and their vision for the future. The world has changed dramatically since their inception in the last century.

Sitting down for lunch with the new charismatic, smart new leader of GLAAD, Sarah Kate Ellis, I had some tough questions for the former corporate executive.

Did GLAAD still needed to exist? What is its mission and vision for the future? Where does it fit into the epic battles that still lie ahead? After all, hadn't the organization been through some difficult times in recent years?

Here are some of the thoughts Ellis shared with me over lunch last week:

— That the GLAAD brand is still powerful and has the ability to gain instant access to the media and its titans around the world. That brand in itself should not be casually discarded.

— GLAAD must reorganize into a nimble, streamlined organization with the capacity to respond quickly to any crisis around the world and has already begun that process.

— While we have seen dramatic progress for LGBT citizens in television we still have a long way to go in film and music.

— Not only does GLAAD have to adapt to the changing world of social media but so do all the media outlets. Many media giants that existed when GLAAD was founded no longer exist or are shadows of their former selves.

— As the communications arm of the LGBT movement, the organization intends to create a 'new narrative' to change the hearts and minds of people internationally.

— With all the pain that is taking place in places like Russia or Africa, it is no longer enough to admonish someone for using the "F" word, have them do a PSA and then give them an award for their enlightenment .

— The end of the Sochi Olympics is just the beginning of the work. GLAAD intends to meet with NBC, the sponsors, the IOC and sports editors to see that such a travesty never happens again.

— Ellis feels strongly that if the LGBT community must be ready for the World Cup in Russia. The international sports entities must be educated, held accountable and pass tough new policies and regulations.

— To that end, GLAAD will soon announce an exciting new partnership with You Can Play to strengthen ties with professional sporting leagues and organizations.

— Ellis believes GLAAD must become the 'communications bridge' between Americans and LGBT citizens fighting for their lives in other countries. GLAAD has created 'Global Voices' to work with our brother and sisters overseas.

— Such efforts internationally must be tailored to the needs and challenges of the local populations and not just repeat the success here in America.

— GLAAD is working with key government entities that specialize in communication outreach into areas with authoritarian governments to make sure LGBT issues are part of that outreach.

— Domestically, the new executive director points out while we have made progress on marriage equality we have still not passed ENDA. Ellis noted that we might soon have more states for marriage equality than we have states with legal protections for LGBT Americans in the workplace.

— GLAAD has an especially powerful program around transgender rights. An amazing amount of work must be done with the United States media to ensure that our success is enjoyed by the entire community.

Ellis closed the lunch by saying, "You know David, I can't imagine a world without GLAAD."

Discussing all this with her over lunch made me realize I was sitting in the presence of a powerful new leader in the LGBT community. Ellis, who was an expert at 'turnarounds' before joining GLAAD, said she took the job because she has a deep respect for the GLAAD brand, and its potential for reinvention.

I wish her well in what is a major challenge in bringing GLAAD back to its former glory. I believe she just might pull it off.


Jack Conway: Bluegrass Courage!

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BY DAVID MIXNER

As the saying goes you are allowed no more than just fifteen minutes of fame. There are just too many people to absorb in our brave new world of social media. However, just hit the pause button for a minute. Take just an extra minute or two if you missed it earlier this week to see an endangered species that is available for viewing right now.

What kind? An elected official with real courage.

KyxKentucky Attorney General Conway, in one of the most homophobic states in America, held an astounding press conference refusing to use the powers of his office to defend the state's ban on gay marriage. (Watch the video of the conference here).

If you think that Conway is some old liberal who has nothing to lose you could not be more wrong. The Attorney General is the future of the Democratic Party in Kentucky and the rising star is viewed as very likely to be the next Governor. There is a real possibility in taking this position he could have seriously hurt his future chances in the Bluegrass State.

The latest poll out of Kentucky has 55% of the people opposing gay marriage, one of the highest percentages in the United States.

Conway is a good old boy handsome pol who is Catholic. He has had a presence in Kentucky politics for years. To make him even more Kentuckian, he and his father raised thoroughbred horses and actually had one run in the Kentucky Derby. When he ran for Attorney General the Louisville Courier-Journal found him to be a moderate to conservative Democrat who came out against marriage equality.

Said Conway  in an interview this week with TPM:

"Conway, who opposed same-sex marriage during his failed run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, wouldn't pinpoint when he changed his mind to support full marriage equality. He said he came around "over the last few years" after conversations with friends in the gay community, and after thinking about how his two daughters would come to view his decision.

"I thought long and hard. I thought about the arc of history," he said. "I thought about the fact that at one time in this country we discriminated against women. At one time we discriminated against African-Americans and people of color. At one time we discriminated against those with disabilities. This is the last minority group in this country that a significant portion of our population thinks it's OK to still discriminate against in any way. And I didn't think that was right."

***

"To discriminate and not allow two people to marry does not have a rational basis under the law, and therefore it cannot withstand scrutiny under the equal protection [clause of the 14th Amendment]," Conway said, arguing that laws against gay marriage are unconstitutional.

Barring a sudden and swift change in statewide public opinion, the decision poses potential dangers for the attorney general, who has served in the role since 2008, and told TPM he intends to run for governor in 2015 once Beshear maxes out his two terms.

"My wife Elizabeth knew what I wanted to do in my heart," he said. "And at one point she pulled me aside and said 'Jack, you stink when you're not authentic.' And at that point I knew it might cost me politically but I needed to ... make a decision I could be proud of."

So, those of you who think there aren't people of courage in politics, think again. For one shining moment in Kentucky, a man of real courage and conviction stood up against hatred and discrimination no matter what the political costs.

Take a minute and savor his courage because it just doesn't happen as often as it should in American politics.


Alan Cumming Acquires WWII Drama Written by Longtime Activist David Mixner and Rich Burns

Alan Cumming has acquired a script written by longtime activist and Towleroad columnist David Mixner and screenwriter Rich Burns, according to The Hollywood Reporter:

CummingCumming currently co-stars on TV's The Good Wife (for which he has garnered two Emmy nominations) and has done voice work in the recent Smurfs movies.

He, along with Geller, recently acquired the spec Dunes of Overveen, the true life story of Willem Arondeus and the bloody underground uprising of artists in Amsterdam during WWII against occupying Nazi forces. It was written by Rich Burns and David Mixner, a civil rights activist and best-selling author.

We'll look forward to seeing this come to life!


David Mixner: Reflections From An Intensive Care Unit

BY DAVID MIXNER

ICUAs many of you know, recently I went through another tough patch with my health. For near a dozen days I was in an Intensive Care Unit in New York City in critical condition. This latest was a rough one and the most challenging emotionally, spiritually and physically of my life. The pain was extraordinary, the odds were uphill and my body and soul were just plain tired.

One night in the darkness of the unit, I looked through dozens of tubes and lights next to my bed into the snowy sky over the East River. Ironically the silhouetted tubes seem like tree branches and the lights like stars as the beauty of the snow laid beyond them. Without any dramatic Bette Davis moment, a strange peace had overcome the pain and I reflected on the choice of fighting to live — or perhaps it was time to let go and begin another remarkable adventure.

After all, I have given 54 years of my exciting life to serving others and working for justice, freedom and equality. One of my heroes is the martyred liberationist theologist Archbishop Oscar Romero. That night in intensive care a favorite quote from the Archbishop came to mind:

"Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no more than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can only do as much as God makes us able to do; we are only as intelligent as God would have us be.”

Years ago I had learned that each and everyone of us is dispensable, that history will record little of our journey and that thankfully there are thousands behind us equally equipped to lift the banner of freedom and justice. For me, the concept of moving on is not one of sadness or unfinished work but just part of the process of completing this part of the journey.

That night in ICU, as the clanging of bells and whistles demanded the attention of a nurse to replace one of the dozens of bags hanging next to my bed, I knew that the choice was mine. I could move on and embark on a totally new adventure or choose to continue to fight here. Not because I was desperately needed but because just maybe a decision to live to fight for freedom might, just might, inspire a couple more young people in these urgent times to join this epic struggle for freedom and justice.

As is usually the case, the next day provided my answer.

Each morning my friend Gary Belis brought in a ton of newspapers to keep me informed. Being impacted heavily by the enormous number of medications, Gary would thoughtfully find the most important stories and made sure they were read to me or highlighted so I wouldn't miss them.

That morning the papers were full of people embracing God to hide their hate including President Putin in Russia, President Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria, and Governor Brownback in Kansas. LGBT citizens were being dragged out of their homes in Nigeria, fleeing the coming oppression in Uganda and being rounded up in Russia. Even the brutal Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych found time to condemn homosexuality as he killed his own people.

Gary had made sure I saw the new tactic by the authoritarian right in America to allow anyone to discriminate against LGBT Americans simply by proclaiming it was their religious belief and God's will. The proposed (and eventual passage of) legislation in Arizona quickly reminded me of the segregation of my childhood. Our churches would hold our picnics at 'private lakes' which charged 25 cents so that they could keep out the blacks who used the State Park just down the road.

After all, it was God's will not to mix the races and shouldn't white Americans have the freedom to hate, discriminate and separate because of their personal religious beliefs?

Let's be honest. Arizona's law is not about religious freedom either. It is simply a new tactic so those who hate LGBT Americans can continue to wear white sheets and hide behind a deity to practice that hate.

20140222_134027Later in the day, I was visited by Father Michael who listened carefully as I asked if it was time to 'let go'. That brilliant conversation and a later one with my sister, Patsy, provided the answer to my pressing question.

I wanted to fight to live.

Why?

Every tyrant, every person filled with hate, every oppressor of LGBT citizens and every person who would make God a person of hate must know that each and every one of us who care about our freedom will fight to literally our dying breath to defeat them. No matter where they are located, how much power they have and what brutality they used against us, they can not defeat us simply because our determination to breath the air of freedom will bring us victory.

If I seriously believed that, then I have to live it.

The choice was clear and I have to continue with the battle until I can't lift my head any longer. Not because I am special or indispensable but because I am one of you and each and everyone one of us is needed. By continuing to embrace life, I am one more voice that refuses to be silenced until our children can live in total freedom.

After all Archbishop Romero believed that sin was simply to do nothing in the face injustice, war and poverty. My 'fellow travelers' in life always have been those who believe the Archbishop's words:

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous,
tranquil contribution of all
to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.

That day I made my decision to fight on no matter how hard the obstacles, or what was required of me.

What about you? What is your decision?


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