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Note:  this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

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A very interesting read that I picked up recently is Aunt Sookie & Me, the sordid tale of a scandalous southern belle by Michael Scott Garvin (2017; CreateSpace). This book is a Southern coming of age story about a young girl on the cusp of adolescence who lives with her riotously funny aunt in Savannah Georgia in 1968.  The main character has a secret and — because it makes the character and the plot more complex – I’ll tell you what that secret is.  Despite the fact that she declares that she is a girl, the narrator – Poppy – was born Samuel and on moving to Savannah from another small Southern town decided not to tell anyone … for a time … about her carefully guarded secret.

Aunt Sookie & Me is a novel about difference in the midst of the sameness. The aunt is eccentric, the mother who drops in now and then has more than her share of problems, and the ice cream man is gay. On a grand level, this novel  is about conformity – and how this often doesn’t work – especially for people who happen to be female.  It is also a novel about acceptance including, perhaps starting with, self-acceptance.  Ultimately, this extremely well-written novel is about love.  After reading it, I will never view any small southern town with the same eyes.

Not only does the novel contain some important history, it proves that yes, we do exist. And because of this, we make things more interesting.

This is Janet Mason with commentary of queer life and literature for This Way Out.

 

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On Sunday January 14th, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist service with Tim Styer  to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.  Tim is the moderator (president) of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue. He is a long-term Unitarian Universalist and was active in the civil rights movement. In his talk (titled “What would King do”) Tim touched on the important interconnections between the history of Unitarian Universalism and the radical and unpopular views of Dr. King in the last year of his life.

You can view Tim’s sermon on the YouTube video below or read his text below that.

(To read my reflection that I presented with Tim — where  talked about my sojourn to The King Center in Atlanta and read a small segment of my recently completed manuscript Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage — click here.)

First Reading “Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level to correspond to  heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This higher level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point. That interruption must not, however, be clandestine or surreptitious. It must be open and, above all, conducted by large masses without violence. If the jails are filled to thwart it, its meaning will become even clearer.. From  the book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, by Vincent Harding. 

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Reflection Behind me is a picture of Dr. Vincent Harding along with Rabbi Art Waskow , founder of the Shalom Center on Lincoln Drive. Rabbi Waskow will be here on March 11th. Also in this picture leaning over on the side is our own Sandy Fulton. This picture was taken at the Heschell King festival held the weekend of January 4 -5 , 2013 at Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk. The festival was co-sponsored by Restoration and I had the opportunity to be one of the planners. Friday night of the festival  Dr. Harding in his talk touched on the topic of what would King do if he were still alive then in 2013.   

Let’s look back at  where we were in 2013 which is not that long ago in terms of social and economic justice. Let me mention a few things out of many.  

A Washington Post study in 2013 pointed out that the Black vs White economic gap hadn’t budged in 50 years.  Michael Fleisher of the Post states that “Even as racial barriers have been toppled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated,” Fleisher writes, “the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.” Notably in 2013  was the birth of the Black Lives Matter #blacklivesmatter with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. 2013 also was the year more attention was finally being given to the ongoing state sanctioned racist police violence against black lives.   

Incidentally these years thought by many were supposed to be the years of a post racial America because of having Barack Obama as our first Black president, but sadly we all know now how flawed that notion turned out to be. 

 Also in 2013 Americans started to take notice of  the scourge of mass incarceration and the holocaust it has created in black and brown communities throughout our nation and as Michelle Alexander named it in her book released in 2010, The New Jim Crow. 

Well, here we are in 2018 just five years later and not much has changed.  In fact it has gotten worse.  I believe that you all would agree with me that we could have never imagined in our wildest imaginations that we would be witnessing what we are today with an avowed racist, xenophobe, lying, plutocrat in the White house who has opened the door and given license to the worst of elements of racism, xenophobia, and  homophobia ever in the history of our country.  The Presidency of our first  black President Barack Obama has  along with White supremacy and patriarchy has given us a President who along with his Republican party  is determined to wipe out all the social, economic and environmental gains of the last 50 years. We are watching in abject horror as the civil and voting rights that were earned with black and white bodies including James Reeb a UU Minister who was murdered in Selma Alabama,  and that Dr. King fought for being ripped away. We are watching in horror as millions of people lose their healthcare including some in our congregation just so that wealthy people can get more wealthy.   

We are witnessing the “triple threat” of materialism, militarism, and racism,  as Dr. King stated in his what I believe was his most important speech and certainly his most controversial.  The speech Beyond Vietnam given at Riverside Baptist Church  on April 4th 1967 exactly a year to the day of his assassination  on April 4th 1968 and was written by Dr. Vincent Harding and I believe it signaled a change in Dr. King.  In fact that change was a factor in  King’s stock as a national figure and leader deteriorating precipitously  in his last year before he was gunned down in Memphis. “It wasn’t just KKK members or those in positions of power who disagreed with him or hated him”. As Cornel West explains in his book “The Radical King”, by the time of King’s death, most of the country didn’t like him. “There was intense FBI pressure, including attempts to make him commit suicide,” West reminds us. “The black civil rights leadership was trashing him. The white establishment had rejected him. The young black revolutionaries were dismissing him.” Over the course of his life, King was not a man who was loved by most; in fact, he was hated by a select few. He was an incredibly maligned man by the time he died. And yet we never talk about that and the reason why. I believe the reason why was that King had had enough by that day in 1967. With his beyond Vietnam speech he full throated went after white supremacism, unfettered capitalism and  the military industrial system in America supported by it  that was designed to kill and oppress mostly people of color around the globe.  

Martin Luther King who graduated from Crozer Theological seminary which is less than an hour away from here by car often stated that one of his favorite historical  Ministers was Theodore Parker. Parker a Unitarian Minister who was one of the most important and radical Ministers of his day. Parker was a Unitarian Transcendentalist minister who in 1855  was put on trial for inciting a riot for giving a sermon condemning the kidnapping of freed black slaves in the north. A well known abolitionist, and a member of the ​Secret Six​, who fostered any number of fugitives and in response to threats from pro-slavery northerners was known to keep a pistol in his pulpit. He was a supporter of John Brown. He was principal among those who gathered to prevent the arrest and return to slavery of ​Ellen and William Craft​. They succeeded, giving the Crafts time to flee abroad. Interestingly his defense was one of necessity, asserting justification due to the horror of slavery, even in the face of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. The judge found a technicality to throw the case out of his court. The great reckoning was still some years away.  

The quote from Parker that King most often used  was whenever King was asked how long will it take for social justice, King would respond “Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. How long? Not long.  Parker’s quote was not as concise. He says “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice”.  Parker also said in response to his protest to the Mexican American war “But truth has a right of way everywhere, and will recover it at last, spite of the adverse possession of a political party”. While Parker was considered much more transgressive in his day than King was in his day, King I believe by April 4th 1967 started to incorporate some of the tactics of Parker which were not dissimilar to the tactics adopted by many of the burgeoning black power movement young turks like Stokely Carmichael.  According Harding; King insisted in 1967 that we look “beyond Vietnam.” Indeed, for our purposes, in our times, that may have been the most significant contribution of his speech, of the last years of his life—this public wrestling with the role of America in the world, this agonized calling of his “beloved nation” away from its destructive, inhumane choices, toward its own best truth. As King saw it, in our overseas relationships, our nation had chosen to be “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” And at home, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” (Of course, King was simply the best known of many persons who were pressing that concern.)

By 1966 King had made an essentially religious commitment to the poor, and he was prepared to say: I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, “Do something for others.” 

I believe that King if he were alive today would be calling us to mass mobilization to counter the attacks from the white house, the courthouse and the house of representatives against our hard fought for liberties. He would be calling us to finally put an end to white supremacy and systems of patriarchy.  To mobilize and disrupt government and commerce to participate in mass civil protest and to fight this battle with love and commitment and help each other on the way.

 

This morning, Sunday January 14th, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist special service with Tim Styer (check this place tomorrow for his video and his words) to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. I talked about my sojourn to The King Center in Atlanta and read from my recently completed manuscript Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage.

You can see my talk below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

 

 

About seven years ago, I took a trip to Atlanta.  I was always curious about Atlanta and so when I had an invitation to read at an LGBT writing conference there, I jumped at the opportunity.

I took some time during and after the conference, to tour the city.  On one of my sojourns, I walked through North East Atlanta (since mass transit had been cut back) and went to The King Center on Auburn Avenue.  The King Center is run by the King family and was founded in 1968 by Coretta Scott King.

Coretta Scott King is someone that I have long admired as a civil rights icon in her own right.

I entered the King Center to find a long and bright blue memorial reflecting pond above which — on a riser — sit the separate but merged sarcophagi of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King.

As the sun beat down on me, I thought “he was so young.” He was only 39 when he was murdered.  As a student of mine recently said, what if Martin Luther King, Jr., had lived a normal life span, can you imagine what he would have gone on to do?

Can you imagine what kind of world we would be living in?

Probably, not this one.

At the King Center, I spent a long time examining the documentation of the friendship between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.  King visited Ghandi in 1959. King was inspired by Gandhi because he had used non violent means to get the British empire out.

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Then I went across the street to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic Site and spent the afternoon.  The site is very large. The one place I did not visit that day was the restored Ebenezer Baptist Church where both King and his father were pastors.

Aside from the fact that it was late and I had a panel to go to, I didn’t visit the church because at that time I still had a deep apprehension of religion. Fast forward about five years and my partner and I were led to Unitarian Universalism, specifically to this congregation.

It’s safe to say that when and if I go back, I will visit the church.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fact of my childhood. In 1968, the year he was murdered, I was nine years old. I did not question that what he said was true.

Of course Civil Rights were important – of course, everyone should be equal.

What I didn’t know then when I was watching this larger than life historic figure on my parent’s television – was that I must have been figuring out my own civil rights too.

I had a turbulent coming out process.

But there were also some moments that can only be described as elation.

One time, when my partner and I were young, we stopped to embrace and kiss on South Street.

A carful of women rode by and loudly cheered.

We were young and in love – and had we been a heterosexual couple there would have been no need for cheering or for any notice really.  In other words, we weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary.

But in that moment – of having the courage to be ourselves—we were doing something. We were making society a little larger by creating space that others could step into.

Sometimes it takes courage to be yourself.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great man.  Paving the way for that was the fact that he was a courageous man.  The world is a different place because of him.  He’s been with me every step of the way – a fact which surfaced when I was writing Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. The novel is fiction, but it is also autobiographical.  In it, I wrote:

Grace looked at her list again. She tried to number the items from top to bottom in order of importance but found that everything was equally important. She didn’t think she could have women’s liberation without racial justice and civil rights.

 Just last fall in her civics class, she wrote a paper about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He gave the speech in 1963 when she was five. She must have heard his voice on the television.  Maybe that was why it sounded so familiar when the teacher played a recording of him delivering his speech. She could hear freedom in the long cadence of his words.  Dr. King talked about men, but she could tell he was talking about women too. She wanted to be free, and she would be. She was determined to have a life different than her mother’s. The promises of democracy were for her also.

 

 

Sometimes it takes courage to be yourself – especially when that moment calls on you to be an ally to others and, ultimately, to yourself.

 

Namaste

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HO HO HO


AND TO ALL A  GOOD NIGHT

This morning, Sunday December 17th, I led a Unitarian Universalist service called Ringing in the Light.  I talked about my childhood memories of being touched by Hanukkah and my experiences in celebrating the Winter Solstice and with the Gnostic Gospels. You can see my words below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

 

 

As far back as I can remember, the light beckoned.

The sun was a ball of fire in the sky.  The light changed into vibrant colors in the morning and the evening.  It filtered through the branches of trees.  The sunlight had, in fact, shined down and helped to form the trees.  So the light was in the trees (along with the rain and the earth).

Even when it was cloudy, I knew the sun was there. Sometimes I could see the ball of sun outlined behind the gray clouds.

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The first time I remember being drawn to the light in a religious context was when I was in elementary school watching a play about Hanukkah.

Despite its nearness to Christmas on the calendar, Hanukkah is one of the lesser holidays in Judaism. Hanukkah, also called The Festival of Lights, began last Tuesday at sunset and ends this Wednesday, December, 20th, at nightfall.

When I asked my partner what Hanukkah meant to her, she responded that it is a celebration of survival, hope and faith.

The holiday celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, detailed in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

This victory of the Maccabees, in approximately 160 BCE –  BCE standing for Before The Common Era — resulted in the rededication of the Second Temple.  The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebel warriors who took control of Judea.

According to the Talmud, the Temple was purified and the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days.

But there was only enough sacred oil for one day’s lighting. It was a miracle.

Hanukkah is observed by lighting the eight candles of the menorah at varying times and various ways.  This is done along with the recitation of prayers.  In addition to the eight candles in the menorah, there is a ninth called a shamash (a Hebrew word that means attendant). This ninth candle, the shamash, is in the center of the menorah.

It is all very complicated of course – the history and the ritual – but what I remember most is sitting in that darkened auditorium and being drawn to the pool of light around the candles on my elementary school stage.

I am not Jewish.  I say that I was raised secular – but that is putting it mildly.  My mother was, in fact, a bible-burning atheist.  Added to that, I was always cast as one of the shepherds in the school’s Christmas pageant since I was the tallest child in elementary school.

Also, I had Jewish neighbors – and as a future lesbian and book worm growing up in the sameness of a working class neighborhood — I may have responded to difference and had a realization that I was part of it.

Then I grew up, came out, thanked the Goddess for my secular upbringing, and celebrated the Winter Solstice with candles and music. This year, the Solstice falls on December 21st. The Winter Solstice (traditionally the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year)  is this coming Thursday in the Northern Hemisphere of planet Earth – which is where we are.

One of our friends who we celebrated the Solstice with is Julia Haines. Julia is a musician who has performed at Restoration.  She has a wonderful composition of Thunder Perfect Mind which she accompanies with her harp playing. You can find her on YouTube. Thunder Perfect Mind, of which I just read an excerpt, is one of the ancient texts of the Gnostic Gospels.

The Gnostic Gospels were discovered in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.  Originally written in Coptic, these texts date back to ancient times and give us an alternative glimpse into the Gospels that are written in the New Testament. They are so important that they are banned in some conventional religions.  And in my book, that’s a good reason to read them.

Reading them led me to think of myself as a Gnostic – meaning one who has knowledge and who pursues knowledge – including mystical knowledge.  The Gnostic Gospels have provided me with inspiration for my writing, particularly in my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders, soon to be published by Adelaide Books. And they also inspire me in the novel I am currently writing — titled The Unicorn, The Mystery.

I am inspired by the Gnostic Gospels in part because they let in the light.  In particular, they let in the light of the feminine.

As Julia says in her rendition of Thunder:

I am godless

I am Goddess

So how does finding the light factor into my experience of Unitarian Universalism? Later in life, after fifty, I found a religion that fit my values.  I found a religion wide enough – and I might add, secure enough – to embrace nonconformity.

In finding a congregation that is diverse in many ways – including religious diversity – I have found a deeper sense of myself.

And in that self, I recognize that the darkness is as least as necessary and as important as the light.

As a creative writer, I spend much of my time in the gray-matter of imagination.

It is in that darkness where I find the light.

 

Namaste

Note: I am re-blogging this post in honor of World AIDS Awareness Day on December 1st, 2017.

This piece of commentary was previously aired on This Way Out, the LGBTQ news and culture syndicate headquartered in Los Angeles and published in The Huffington Post.

 

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.aids memorial quilt

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement.

 

 

Note: a version of this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

 

Before being a lesbian was trendy, before marriage equality, before we were part of the LGBT movement, lesbians were simply women –  labeled “sick” and “deviant” – who somehow found a way to live in an extremely oppressive environment.

Of course, those were the old days – when almost everyone was oppressed.

Fast forward half a century, at least. Things have changed so much. I am guilty of being lesbian statue of libertyone of the lesbians who think that society has moved on. Well, it should have at least.

But hate crimes are up – including hate crimes against those of us in the LGBT community.

And as The Advocate reports in its most recent issue, “Hate crimes (against those in the Progress doesn’t always move in a straight line. I was reminded of this when I read Olympus Nights On the Square, LGBT Life in the Early Post-War Years (1945-1955) (2017, Sans Merci Press) by Vanda.  I read  and reviewed the first volume of this series last year (Juliana (vol 1: 1941 – 1944) which gave me the back story – and while the first book, too, is an interesting page turner about lesbian history, it is not necessary to read the first book in order to understand the most recent book.

In Olympus Nights On The Square we meet Al short for Alice, a lesbian – although she was in denial for a long time – from a small town who moved to New York City and now works in the entertainment industry.  Vanda is also a playwright and dialogue drives her novels – making for interesting and engaging writing.  In the 1950s – during the time of the McCarthy witch hunts where homosexuality was often synonymous with communist – her characters reflect on the fact that things are harder for them than during the 1940s when they first met.

The novel gives us a panoramic view of the times seen through the eyes of her characters.

I found it all very fascinating.

I did at one point, however, find the oppressive tenor of the times tedious.  It was the sexism that got to me.  Women could not even be served in bars without a male escort.

Gay men and lesbians lived in fear of being found out as what society labeled a sick person, sexual deviant, or a pervert.  But the novel chronicles the changes in society too – as when Alice first sees the word “homosexual” in print (even a negative reference is an admission that such people do exist).

As the author writes in the introduction, “Knowing this history is important for both gay and straight.  It’s already starting to repeat itself.”

History is starting to repeat itself.  But things have changed. For one thing, we have stepped out of the shadows and we have allies.

In her CD, Dreamland (offered by Woodstock Arts), Jennifer Maidmen, writes of “The Conspiracy of Dreamers” where you can be anything you like there.” She sings of an invisible “revolution that is dangerous and free.”

Jennifer is transgender and identifies as “two-spirit” person. She recorded this album with her long-time partner Annie Whitehead on horns and she has toured with other musicians such as Joan Armatrading and Boy George.

Her music is haunting and liberating and tells us that not only have things changed – but that we are part of the change.

There used to be a saying in the lesbian community that we are everywhere.  Now things are different and most of us acknowledge that we are more alike than different.  Perhaps the new saying could be that, we are everyone.