Sunday, November 17, 2013

Remembering Michelle Madoff

Thanks to my friends at GASP for pushing me back to blogging. I was truly honored to be asked to share my memories of my friend Michelle Madoff, who so changed Pittsburgh -- and the nation.

In Memory of Michelle Madoff

Michelle Madoff was a force of nature. Passionate, outspoken, and committed, she was a warrior against injustice. She was willing to take on any fight and any person no matter how powerful, if she thought she needed to. And she was willing to risk whatever was necessary to achieve her goals.

I wasn’t lucky enough to work with Michelle at GASP, although I am forever grateful for her work there. I did work closely with her for women’s rights, and I supported her on City Council. She was perhaps the most courageous political leader I have ever known. She broke barriers for women, at a time when there were few women in office, and most owed their careers to the male establishment. She never hesitated to stand up for women – as candidates, as citizens, and as workers, regardless of the cost.

She could also be a helluva lot of fun. When I think back on my friendship with Michelle, I remember laughing a lot. She never failed to be amused by her opponents, nor to see the absurdity of the need to take on certain fights, like everyone’s right to clean air. When she was elected to Pittsburgh City Council, one of the first fights she had to take on was for her right to use a bathroom. As a female member, she didn’t have access to the Councilmembers' bathroom; she and other women members were to walk an entire city block to use the women’s staff bathroom. How ridiculous.

But it wasn’t just about her. Because the male members could just walk a few steps, use the bathroom, and quickly return to the session, women members and their constituents were disenfranchised by having to take more time. She also knew that many of her colleagues didn’t share her passion for justice and would cheerfully call for votes in her absence.

She won that fight, but at great cost. It harms your dignity to have to fight for the right to attend to nature’s call (as the women of the U.S. Senate found in 1993, where there was no women’s bathroom, and again in 2013, when their numbers swelled to 20 and they demanded that the  bathroom be expanded from two stalls.) But it was fight she took on not just for herself and her constituents, but for the women who would follow. 

Michelle was also a crusader for sound governmental practices and problem solving. She attempted more than once to end City Council’s policy to ask for proposals “not to exceed” a certain amount. She believed that the policy weakened the city’s ability to negotiate by stating what the maximum acceptable bid would be. And when our parking garages were increasingly crime-ridden during late hours, she took on the garage owners, a powerful lobby. She wrote and successfully passed legislation that required safe lighting and security in every garage. Anyone who has ever walked alone through a garage to her car late at night has Michelle to thank for ending the dark and dangerous conditions that used to be the rule.

Unfortunately, as happens all too often to women, the media and the political establishment derided her for her passionate advocacy. Even in some recent obituaries, her career was not honored, with quotes and verbiage deriding her style over her substance. But Pittsburghers have her to thank for our cleaner air, our vibrant progressive advocacy, and for blowing the whistle and opening up the political process.

Perhaps the great suffragist Susan B. Anthony said it best:

Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences...”

Thank you, Michelle. Pittsburgh is a better place because of you. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

World AIDS Day

I’m flooded with memories today.

I was running Allegheny Women’s Center when the first reports came in. I remember sitting at my desk in1981, reading the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” as I did each week. And there, in the middle of stories about measles, STDs, rabies, pregnancy, and car wrecks, was a small item about a cluster of cases in San Francisco. Young, healthy men were being diagnosed with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma, diseases usually associated with older men with impaired immune systems. All the patients were identified as “homosexual’ in the article.
“This can’t be good,” I thought.

That was the understatement of a life time. All hell broke loose. It didn’t take long for epidemiologists to determine that the epicenter of this new pandemic was the gay male community (at the time, along with Haitians and others), and then the media dubbed it the “Gay Plague.” Once that happened, the rightwing seized on it as a “gift from God,” and rightful punishment for sodomy. And gallows humor abounded, with one of the jokes in the community being, “What’s the hardest thing about having AIDS? Trying to convince your parents you’re Haitian.”
But there was nothing funny about what happened. My friends started getting sick, fast – and dying, in pain and isolation. I had to stop congratulating people on weight loss, because there was always the possibility that they had AIDS. Health care providers shunned people with AIDS, refusing to them care. My friend Mary Grace Fitzgerald, a nurse, told of caring for a man dying of AIDS who started crying as she was helping him. He told her she was the first person to touch him without massive gloves, gowns, etc., since he had been diagnosed. Many funeral homes refused to bury AIDS patients, too. And no one knew exactly how anyone got AIDS (the name alone said that – AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, not a disease but a collection of symptoms – and no one knew how to treat it, let alone prevent it or cure it. It was an awful awful awful time.

So a despised, powerless, and often hidden community came under attack by disease and bigotry. So what did they and their allies do? In the words of the Church Ladies for Choice, “Dress up, Fight Back!” Courageous leaders like Charles Rinaldo, Monte Ho, David Lyter, and Tony Silvestre got the Pitt Men’s Study up and running, with the help of Lucky Johns, Randy Forrester, Sharon Sutton, and many others. The Pitt Men’s Study was the first safe medical haven anywhere for people who had or thought they had AIDS. Still active today, the study led the research that eventually moved AIDS from a certain death sentence to a manageable chronic disease for people with access to medical care.
But we all took action politically, too. My friend Billy Hileman formed the direct action Cry Out!, and I was thrilled to be a charter member. With Randy Forrester, co-founder and head of Persad, as the most well-known political leader in the community, we pushed for both AIDs issues and civil rights on a local, state, and national level. And even though lesbians were among those least likely to contract AIDS, the lesbian community jumped in to help their brothers – joining the political fight and providing the community care and support so desperately needed.

It was hard. Bigotry and fear were rampant. We had to fight through two different Pittsburgh City Council classes to get sexual orientation added to the protected classes under the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission. One of the leaders of that fight was my dear friend and civil rights icon Alma Speed Fox. The Reagan administration was particularly awful, refusing to even recognize the AIDS pandemic until 2005. I was at a huge demonstration in front of the White House, where we engaged in civil disobedience. When the police started to move in, they donned massive and extra thick gloves (think hazardous waste), which enraged the crowd. People muttered about fighting the police. Then suddenly a chant began, picked up by the crowd: “Your gloves don’t match your shoes. You’ll see it on the news.” Everybody vamped and laughed. Then, when the arrests occurred, the police brought in two buses – one for men and one for women. My friend, Lois Galgay Reckitt, who was handcuffed, leaned out the window and quipped, “They really don’t get it!”
In 1987, when I was press secretary for NOW, the organizers of the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights asked the NOW staff to provide major assistance to"The Great March." The slogan of the march was, "For love and for life, we're not going back!" We had all intended to help – after all, then NOW President Ellie Smeal was one of the leaders. But we found that so many of the people working on the march were unable to continue because they had AIDS and had damaged their precarious health through their non-stop work, that we had to jump in with both feet.

By the next march in 1993, the medical research and treatment had begun to change the dynamic, so an HIV positive diagnosis was not an automatic and ugly death sentence – at least, for those who had health insurance. Billy Hileman was one of the four national co-chairs of the march, who gave me the amazing gift of hiring me to coordinate news media coverage for the march and our issues. We re-framed the debate with that march, no longer having to defend our lives against AIDS/HIV, but adding LGBTQ rights to the civil rights agenda of the nation. And our civil rights movement continues today with marriage equality among other issues.
But while AIDS is no longer a death sentence in the U.S., that cannot be said about all of our global neighbors. Poverty is now linked to HIV, particularly in Africa. Life-saving anti-viral drugs are started too late or not available. And bigotry and ignorance still prevail.

My close friends are no longer dying in huge numbers, but too many others are. So I’ll be wearing a different red ribbon pin this World AIDS Day. Mine is from the American Federation of Teachers, and it combines the red with the colors of Africa.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

This Thanksgiving, thank a politician. Seriously.

This year, I’m thankful for one particular, much-maligned group.


Not a usual choice, I know. And after this historically expensive, long and divisive election cycle – marked by bold faced lies, attacks, and counter attacks, all delivered directly to our homes via non-stop television ads – many ordinary citizens vilified politicians, declaring, "a pox on all their houses," as did many journalists. In fact, it’s become fashionable for self-styled opinion leaders to condemn all politicians as crooks and liars.

But politicians are actually heroes.

From the birth of our nation, brave women and men, engaged as politicians, have led the fight to make our nation a more perfect union, allowing the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard. Thanks to politicians – both professional (elected) and volunteer (non-elected) – we are able to stand up to the status quo and the monied interests. We ended slavery; expanded the right to vote; created free public education; ended more than one unjust war; made abortion and birth control legal; passed Social Security and Medicare; created a social safety net; adopted laws that protect workers lives, health, wages, and their right to collective bargaining; passed laws to protect the environment; and ended laws that were targeted against LGBTQ sexual activities (activities that most of the nation regardless of sexual orientation happily engages in).

We certainly aren’t finished making our union more perfect, but we’re on our way.

As this year’s election proved, none of the rights we fought for are absolutely secure, and we must be ever vigilant and more engaged in politics than ever. The monied interests, however, would love nothing better than to have citizens decry politics and politicians, and tune out, turn off, and drop out.

While others stay on the sidelines criticizing but not engaging, politicians are making our democracy work. They risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to try to make a difference. These public servants often work every day, every night, week day and weekend, throughout our communities and our nation, meeting with citizens and offering solutions.

So this Thanksgiving, please join me in giving thanks for politicians. Without them, we simply would have no democracy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

I'm wearing purple today, and so should you

Today is Spirit Day, a day for everyone to take a stand against bullying and to support LGBTQ youth, who are so often the victims of bullying. And you can show your support by wearing purple.

I've always thought one of the worst aspects of any kind of discrimination is that the victims are the ones responsible for confronting and eradicating it.

Seriously, think about. When you are discriminated against, you have less power. And that means you start from behind.So you are always fighting an uphill battle.

But when others join your fight -- when people who are not the victims of discrimination take on YOUR fight -- it gets easier. And eventually, it gets better. Because it snowballs.

More voices join in pointing out how wrong discrimination is. More voices object to demeaning jokes and images. More voices speak up for what is right. And the voices of intolerance and bullying either get converted, or get quieter.

I know it can be scary. Confronting anyone is hard, and it is especially hard when it comes from people in authority. It might be a teacher. The captain of the football team. Your family. Or even an elected official or a candidate.

The first time that I, as a public figure, was attacked as a lesbian, I had already been confronting discrimination for years. I was running for public office at the time. LGBT rights was a key part of my platform. I had a track record of fighting against bigotry. I was one of the founders of Cry Out! which eventually became Cry Out/Act Up! I had coordinated media outreach for the March on Washington for LGBT rights. And I was working as part of a core strategy group to add sexual orientation to the Pittsburgh Human Relations law.

Of course, I had been "Dyke-baited" before, but it was mostly by anti-abortion, anti-ERA picketers who believed devoutly in harassment. But when it came during a campaign, from one of my opponents in a part of the community that had a reputation for being hostile to the LGBT community, I was unprepared.

How could I stand up for my core beliefs, yet also not pretend to be something I was not?  How could I keep faith with the LGBT community at the same time keeping faith with my heterosexual marriage and the husband I dearly loved? I couldn't disavow my lesbian sisters, nor could I disavow my husband. And I had to answer the attack without doing either.

As I got up to respond, it hit me. This was bullying, pure and simple. And it was an attempt to force me off my message, onto the defense, and perhaps out of politics. And I finally knew deep in my soul what every young lesbian, gay man, bisexual, and transgender student felt everyday of their lives.

So I stood up. I took a deep breath. And I spoke out.

"I doesn't matter what my sexual orientation is. But my opponent's question reveals a lot more about him that it does about me," I said. "Because he's a bully. And he's a bigot. He is trying to distract you, and make you afraid. Because he thinks appealing to fear and bigotry is a way to win elections.

"He may be right, but I sure hope not. And I think that you, the voters, are smarter than that.

"Don't vote for me because you think I'm straight. Or because you think I'm a lesbian. I want your votes, but more than that, I want us to leave bullying and name calling behind, and support and love all of our family and friends, gay or straight."

The room was quiet when I finished, and no one clapped. But it didn't matter. I was at peace with myself. And that night I had a very small taste of the horrid behavior too many LGBT youths have to endure. And I knew how very important it was for allies to speak out forcefully.

So join me in wearing purple for Spirit Day. If you've never spoken out before, it's a great first step. And it's the least you can do to put an end to bullying and bigotry.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Since when are bigotry and intolerance American values?

It is nothing short of horrific that the Romney/Ryan response to the murders of American diplomats in Libya was to attack President Obama, claiming he had "apologized for American values."

But what are these American values that Mitt Romney is defending? Based on the YouTube video that was the ostensible match to the international tinderbox, the values he defends are absolute religious intolerance and hate-filled and deliberate provocation to violence. Not exactly the freedom of speech our founders envisioned. No, it's the 21st century equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre. 

As the story unfolds, it seems clear that the Republican ticket has been captured by the voices of hatred and intolerance, and they will do absolutely anything to gain a political advantage – even endanger the security of the American people, the American military, and our diplomats.

No matter what the politics, Americans do not turn on one another when our nation’s security is at stake. Democrats rallied to Republican President George W. Bush’s side when we were attacked on 911. Unfortunately, Romney/Ryan seem not to understand the need to stand together.

This spectacle is reminiscent of what the nation witnessed in the U.S. Senate in 1954, when Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked the U.S. Army and those who supported our military.

Here is the relevant history, from the website of the U.S. Senate:

In the spring of 1954, McCarthy picked a fight with the U.S. Army, charging lax security at a top-secret army facility. The army responded that the senator had sought preferential treatment for a recently drafted subcommittee aide. Amidst this controversy, McCarthy temporarily stepped down as chairman (sic) for the duration of the three-month nationally televised spectacle known to history as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

The army hired Boston lawyer Joseph Welch to make its case. At a session on June 9, 1954, McCarthy charged that one of Welch's attorneys had ties to a Communist organization. As an amazed television audience looked on, Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy's career: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness." When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"

Overnight, McCarthy's immense national popularity evaporated. Censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press, McCarthy died three years later, 48 years old and a broken man.

The Romney/Ryan ticket should pay close attention to McCarthy’s fall. Because those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

An open letter to Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

Dear Mayor Ravenstahl,

Your public attack on me in the reception line at the Cookie Cruise – berating me for criticizing your promotion of George Trosky to assistant police chief, screaming that I was a "hypocrite," and threatening to "go public" with what you perceive to be my failure to support all domestic violence survivors – was bizarre, to say the least. Coming on the heels of the same threat made to me on your behalf by City Councilmember Theresa Kail-Smith the day before, it was clear you intended to silence me.

That's not going to happen. Three women are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country every day, and it must be stopped. I believe that promoting Trosky will make the problem worse here. Not just for women, but also for other police officers, and for the city as a whole. But you insist on taking actions like this promotion – actions that harm our city – just because they serve your personal needs and desires.

When my phone started ringing with reporters seeking comment about the Trosky promotion at 5:05 Monday afternoon (after your office apparently released the news at 5:01, a classic and blatant move to avoid press coverage), I was shocked by the news. After all, we've been through this before. Trosky's record – multiple incidents of battering, violent on-camera attacks on concertgoers, his failure to make lieutenant, and his spotty record that included serious disciplinary actions – was one of the flashpoints for the women's rights community when you promoted him directly from sergeant to commander in 2007.

Working with City Council, women's advocates demanded and held public hearings, brought in experts, and Council wrote and passed new policy for dealing with domestic violence by police officers.

You then agreed to further negotiations. You said you wanted a policy of zero tolerance and would be a champion against violence against women and children. The negotiations resulted in more agreements, including education and assistance programs on domestic violence for all city employees. You also agreed that you would consult with domestic violence professionals prior to promotions, especially if any police officer up for promotion had a family violence issue.

Until Monday, it appeared you were keeping your agreement, dealing with domestic violence by city employees as the serious and deadly crime it is.

I really was shocked by the news that you were promoting Trosky again, this time to assistant chief – even though his record as commander included failing to protect at least one woman from her abuser, letting him loose after arrest to return to attack her again.

So I spoke out against the promotion. Your excuse is that Trosky hasn't beaten up a woman he claims to love in a long time – that it's in the past. Last I checked, being a batterer isn't something you out grow, like acne or allergies. Your administration also pointed out that Trosky's victims withdrew the charges – something that happens often according to studies, given the ability of police officers to use their professional knowledge and connections to rig the system against the victims.

Assaulting anyone is a serious crime, and Trosky has done this repeatedly. We wouldn't promote someone who had a history of other crimes, like arson or burglary. We don't allow child molesters to teach, even if their crimes were in the past. Trosky's history should have automatically kept him from this promotion.

There are a number of great officers – women and men – who have played by the rules, worked their ways up through the ranks, and would make a great assistant chief. But they don't necessarily fit the one condition you obviously require. In our conversation, Councilwoman Kail-Smith told me, "If you were mayor, you'd want someone who had your back." I'm astonished that you actually believe you need your own personal command staff officer – paid for by taxpayers – to protect you. Not, apparently, as security in carrying out your mayoral duties, but for some other amorphous protection need.

The message to the rank and file police officers is clear: it's who you know, and a willingness to do all you can to protect those in power, not your skills, your record, your abilities, or your commitment to protect all Pittsburghers. Perhaps this is the reason that Director Huss was opposed to this promotion, especially at this time.

Trosky's promotion also sends a message about your lack of concern about officer safety. Having an assistant chief who is at best indifferent to arresting batterers has to worry officers as they deal with these situations. We know domestic violence are among the most dangerous calls to go on; now our police have an additional concern that command staff won't provide the support they need.

But enough with the refresher on domestic violence 101. Because this is actually about politics, and your need to destroy anyone you believe is your enemy. Because I have insisted that batterers should not be police officers (as federal law requires) – and certainly should not be promoted – you think this is personal, and that I am your enemy. You should know better. I am acting on principle, as part of my life-long activism for women.

Your attempt to bully me and your threat to destroy me is ludicrous. If you thought I would be frightened, you are sadly mistaken. And if you thought destroying me would mean no one else would take up the fight for women's safety, and transparent and fair promotions in the police force, you are even more mistaken.

While you were screaming at me at the Cookie Cruise, I finally realized what was behind that threat. You yelled at me, "Where were you when I fired other batterers, like firefighters?"

Then I realized what the problem was. You are livid because I did not praise you publicly when you kept your promise and followed the policy you agreed to.

You should know that I have never subscribed to the "everybody gets a trophy" school – not as a parent, not as an activist, nor in my work life. So your expectation that you must be praised when you do keep your promises, and you do your job as required, is baffling. Yes, you did the right thing with other batterers. But that's what you were elected to do. It's what you are supposed to do. It's what adults do.

Your allegation that I condemned the Trosky promotion for personal political gain is off the mark, and totally ignores my history as an activist. But it is an interesting claim, since in that calculus, you admit that the majority of Pittsburghers agree with the women's rights advocates, not you, on this matter.

But there's another, unspoken threat. People who disagree with you find themselves harassed and targeted by city employees. The building inspector suddenly files a complaint for weeds on your opponent's property. His/her car keeps getting parking tickets or the vehicle is towed. She/he is followed and investigated. City services suddenly disappear. Her/his employment is threatened.

But I will not give you a free pass to harass me or other women's rights advocates. In case you forgot, I ran a women's health center for nine years. My house was firebombed. My son was shot at. I traveled in a bullet proof vest. And I learned that bullies thrive on secrecy.

So know that I will go public if anything happens to any women's services, to other advocates, or to the people I love. You can guarantee it.

In terms of our records and behavior, both public and private, I am more than willing to have the public judge both of us. I'm not sure you can say the same thing.

I didn't ask for this fight. I only asked that you do your job and keep your promises. Do that, and you won't hear any criticism from me.

Jeanne Clark


Sunday, August 19, 2012

The union rides to the rescue -- again

The yes vote on the new four-year contract by the members of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Workers – the drivers, mechanics, and supervisors of the Port Authority – is another heroic example of our public servants voting for the best interest of the people they serve, even when it means a personal loss.

And these workers took quite a personal hit. They gave back another $60 million dollars in wages and benefits, on top of the concessions from the last four-year contract, adding up to more than $100 million in concessions in the last five years. To save public transit, the workers have agreed to work for and with less.

Their courageous vote will save our region's economy, environment, quality of life, and our future.

Without this vote, massive public transit service cuts and fare increases would devastate our community. With little public transit and a huge influx of cars on the roads, businesses would lose. Their customers would not be able to reach them, and neither would their employees. Travel times for ambulances and fire trucks would vastly increase, meaning the difference between living and dying for some. Just as we are starting to grow our population after decades of loss, our region would be far less attractive to students, workers, and new employers. And the addition of more vehicles on our streets would make our air quality dangerous on far too many days.

These workers cannot – and should not– do it alone. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald led the negotiations, and has pledged to do his part. Gov. Corbett has apparently promised – behind closed doors, as he does most things – to pay the state's fair share temporarily.

But we need to solve the funding issue permanently, and stop demanding more and more concessions from our public workers.

Our state leaders need to stop demonizing both the people who rely on public transportation, and the hard-working people who run it, and pay their fair share.

It's fashionable in many quarters – including some progressive areas – to say that our public workers are out of control, that they demand too much.

People forget that they are our teachers, our police, our firefighters, our bus drivers – and they are all our neighbors. They make our society run.

And we made a pact with them. We agreed to pay them a decent wage, health benefits, limited job security, and to allow them to pay into a pension plan that will allow them to live with dignity after their years of service. They agreed to work hard, and to serve under many restrictions, which varied by group. In most cases, they have limited promotion opportunities, and really good wages come only after decades of service. Many have restricted rights on their political activities. And all agreed to serve the public to their best.

But then came the destruction of our economy. The collapse of the financial industry – caused by the collusion of voracious and gluttonous megabanks that were "too big to fail," and elected officials and regulators who dismantled all protections for the people – meant the pension funds were no longer as healthy. The massive tax cuts to the wealthy during two wars plus a near-depression meant trickle down tax increases in every local community.

Led by the braying rightwing and echoed by the news media, "greedy workers" became the problem. And when no one in Harrisburg would act like an adult, take responsibility, and work to save our vital public transportation system, it was up to the union and its workers to ride to the rescue.

So next time you ride a bus or the T, or even pass one, give those terrific heroes a wave and say thank you. They didn't cause the problem. But they are solving it.

The fare you put in the box is nothing compared to the cost these public servants paid to keep our transportation going. We all owe them a big one.