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    The Heat Is On

    1-Ann RostowAugust in Central Texas is not a happy time. You know those scenes in horror movies where the scientists are working at the South Pole and have to plod from one metal building to the next in order to confer with a colleague? The laborious hundred-yard trek takes forever. Their breath freezes. Their faces and beards are covered with ice. And their colleague has been half eaten by a mutant Arctic spider, so the whole errand was pointless in the first place. Austin in deep summer is just the same except in reverse and (as a rule) without the mutant spiders.

    But at least I have the small solace of being able to enjoy my annual use of the word “canicula,” which is one of those words that becomes pretentious if tossed out more than once or twice a year. (Mentioning the word itself outside of its use in context doesn’t count.) I haven’t decided whether to use it this week or in the next column. We’ll see where it might apply. But I know it’s available, just waiting for me. The pleasure is akin to writing about an event that destroyed 10 percent of some population and being able to use the verb “decimate” with complete accuracy even as it defies its common definition.

    Normally, the torpor that settles into the depth of the canicula saps the energy from our GLBT news, leaving us with a desiccated hull of old stories and dry statistics. But not this year. The High Court’s gay rights decisions in late June have flowered into many blossoms of new court cases, new legislative optimism, and new attitudes across a range of public forums. The twin victories have strewn a potent fertilizer on GLBT issues across the land, and it seems as if every case and controversy is taken seriously and/or reviewed in our favor. If I can extricate myself from this labored analogy, I’ll compile some examples.

    For one thing, it feels as if we are winning the sort of legal disputes that used to be aborted by the first court that took a look. You may remember the two Ohio men, who convinced a judge to order the state to recognize their Maryland marriage on an impending death certificate last month. (One of the men is dying.) This month, a federal court in Pennsylvania has ordered a law firm to pay a death benefit to the widow of one of their lawyers who died of cancer. Previously, that death benefit of about $50,000 was earmarked for the dead woman’s parents, who disapproved of her same-sex marriage.

    The House Republicans who defended the Defense of Marriage Act across the board have now abandoned any and all legal activities, period. They have withdrawn from all pending cases even though they could theoretically have developed alternative anti-marriage arguments in the wake of the Windsor ruling.

    Public support of gay rights and marriage equality is growing or holding steady in the aftermath of the decisions. Politicians are jumping on the marriage bandwagon, ducking the subject, or issuing vague remarks that would have been hailed a decade ago as a sign of progress. A raft of new lawsuits has been filed by our legal eagles, while another handful of suits by individuals acting on their own has also been filed. A county official in the Philadelphia area has begun offering marriage licenses in defiance of state law, and although that action is heading for the courts, the move feels less like a symbolic gesture a/la San Francisco in 2004 and more like a harbinger of future state policy.

    Is a backlash, or a mini-backlash, in our future? I don’t think so. Instead of two steps forward and one step back, we seem to be moving ten steps forward and six inches back, an encouraging pace indeed.

    There Oughta Be a Law

    The sheriff of East Baton Rouge has apologized for a prolonged park sting operation in which a dozen or so men were arrested for soliciting a felony under the Louisiana sodomy law. After the High Court struck sodomy laws as unconstitutional, they still remained on the books in states, like Louisiana and Texas, where lawmakers simply refused to repeal them on principle. Of course, the sodomy statutes were unconstitutional. But apparently that didn’t stop the Yahoos in East Baton Rouge from sending undercover cops into the park for a two-year sting fest.

    Once the men were arrested, the charges were subsequently dropped by district attorneys familiar with the notion that unconstitutional statutes no longer carry penalties. But they were arrested nonetheless! Not a pleasant process, I’m sure.

    In an even stranger case, the distasteful Virginia Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, is trying to restore a version of his state’s flat ban on anal and oral sex that would only apply to 16 and 17 year olds.

    Let’s back up for a minute. The Virginia sodomy ban, which applied to everyone, was effectively struck by the High Court along with all the other state bans on consensual non-commercial sex. But naturally, it remained on the books as a symbol of the Loving State’s commitment to, ah, traditional intercourse.

    Along comes a 47-year-old guy, who sounds like a bit of a sleazebag frankly, who tried to convince a 17-year-old girl to give him a blow job. Since the age of consent is 15, the man broke no law in his efforts. Nonetheless, he was charged under a law that makes it a felony to solicit a minor to commit a felony. The girl was a minor, but the suggested underlying felony was based on the technically defunct sodomy law. Nevertheless, he spent a year in jail and had to register as a sex offender.

    In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Mr. Blowjob and told Virginia to shove its sodomy law where the sun don’t shine. Cuccinelli has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the state law could survive the Lawrence decision if it applied only to minors under 17, but above the age of consent. Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, Cuccinelli’s Virginia would allow a high school junior to have intercourse, but not oral sex— regardless of sexual orientation, by the way.

    I can’t imagine that the justices would bother with Cuccinelli’s appeal, but still! The man’s a freak. Keep an eye on the election this November and hope that Terry McAuliffe can pull out a win. Last month, the Democrat led Cuccinelli by a few points.

    Cold War

    The biggest GLBT news story this week is one that we will be talking about for the next six or seven months. I am sort of sidestepping the discussion only because I know it will be a major topic of debate for the near term.

    I’m talking, of course, about the Winter Olympics in Russia, where just a few months ago, the country instituted a nationwide ban on pro-gay “propaganda,” a law that prohibits pride demonstrations, gay civil rights statements or writings, rainbow flags, or anything else you can think of.

    What do we do about this? It feels too late to change the location. And we know from experience that Olympic boycotts are problematic. Olympic rules, in turn, forbid political statements at the games, so athletes who protest might run into sanctions. Or would they? Although the Olympic officials have been dithering around, I would think that in this situation they could simply turn a blind eye to any athlete who wears a rainbow pin or defies the law in a gesture of solidarity.

    Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee claims that Russian officials have assured them that the law will not be enforced against visiting athletes. Really? The St. Petersburg politician who authored the first “no promo homo” law in his own city insists that the law’s the law and no one can ignore it. That said, he might just be a rightwing blow hard with no influence on the situation.

    Some are calling for a boycott of Russian vodka, Stoli in particular. The brand is owned by a Luxembourg-based parent company, but the ingredients are still Russian and hey, it’s a matter of principle. We’re also boycotting Russian products in general, so you can say goodbye to the little nesting dolls and go buy your caviar from Iran.

    I Heart Uruguay

    So, Uruguay did legalize marriage equality the other day. I was confused about that, but the news is good. And the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled that the middle school girls who were disciplined for wearing plastic bracelets reading “I (heart) boobies” can continue sending their coy breast cancer message.

    The school in question argued that the bracelets were too provocative for middle school and could lead to other more salacious bracelets, operating under cover of the First Amendment. Schools do have the power to regulate disruptive clothing to an extent, but the courts have determined that the booby bracelets are simply not that big of a deal. Further, the Third Circuit judges ruled, the school is not allowed to prohibit a political statement based on the fear that some other sexier manifestation might arise. Presumably, if an “I (heart) big dicks” bracelet were to circulate, the school could take action at that time.

    The news is interesting to us, obviously, because the tension between schools and First Amendment rights so often rises to the surface in gay cases. This time it’s a breast cancer bracelet. Next time, it could be another gay rights T-shirt and a school that claims erroneously that such shirts bring sex into the classroom.

    Oh, and how about this little vignette? Apparently, back in late June, the driver of an airport shuttle in Albuquerque made a gay couple go sit in the back of the bus because they were holding hands and singing. The owner of the shuttle company suspended the driver and apologized to the men, and the mayor has called the driver’s behavior “inappropriate.” See? It’s just as I was saying at the start of this column. This sort of incident would have been ignored or laughed off a few years ago. Now, even the mayor feels obliged to speak out.

    Christians Behaving Badly

    While we’re in New Mexico, keep an eye out for a key state supreme court ruling on whether a wedding photographer has the right to refuse a lesbian client under the state’s antidiscrimination law. Oral arguments were heard in March, so a ruling could emerge any day. And, as you know, this is far from the only instance of a Christian business owner claiming immunity from state laws based on religious freedom.

    For example, there’s another case pending in a lower court in Washington, where a florist refused service to one of her regular customers, a gay man who was getting married. Again, the florist claimed that supplying a gay wedding would violate her religious beliefs. This case has been combined with a complaint brought by the state attorney general against the florist, so the florist faces both her rejected client and the state government itself.

    I will save my usual rant over misplaced religious freedom for another column, but I did read recently that most Americans believe small businesses should be allowed to refuse service to gays on religious grounds. Interestingly, the same survey noted that most Americans do not believe that atheists should be allowed to refuse service to Christians.

    Think about this for a minute. It shows that no matter how far we have come, we still fall far short of winning the hearts and minds of our heterosexual fellow Americans. You cannot simply “believe” that disapproval of gays is a religious commandment any more than you can “believe” that racism is based on scripture and protected by the First Amendment. Well, I should say that you can believe anything you like, but such a belief should not be given automatic credence when a court of law examines your claims. I mean, really. Could the florist deny service to a Muslim? Answer, no.

    arostow@aol.com