Volume 46 Number 38

Volume 46 Number 38 Flip-through Edition

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Two for the road

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER On a warm evening last week in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe were milling around the sidewalk outside the Collapsable Hole, a small warehouse performance venue one subway stop from Manhattan, dressed in dark blue one-piece suits, skull caps, heavy-rimmed glasses, and long beards.

“You wanna see a show?” asks Jelliffe, looking a little like a Hassid at the public pool. It’s a physical fact that passersby can’t always pass by fast enough to escape the sideshow gravity of a woman in a beard, and sure enough one or two wanderers fall in with the rest of the crowd arriving already determined to see Space//Space, the much anticipated new show from the bicoastal company that most recently brought Bay Area audiences (with co-producers the Shotgun Players) Beardo and Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.

The audience comes through the front door and slips passed a silvery space ship set snuggly inside the painted brick garage, a combination that carries the vague threat of an aluminum container shoved in the microwave, only you’re inside with it. Some airy, oxygenated house music thrumming the room like a zither adds nicely to this anticipatory pre-show mood. Soon the lights go down leaving only a clip lamp on a sidewall illuminating the figure of some rambling madman-scientist-grease monkey (Peter Blomquist) who introduces a half-comprehensible “experiment.”

And with that, the stunning space pod — a self-contained octagon with milky translucent glass walls, an old-school turntable for a control console, and a series of small bare speakers clinging magnetically to its aluminum framework — comes to life, rumbling and flickering like a miniature nightclub, a plush DJ booth, or an industrial-sized hi-fi egg chair. Its passengers, wearing furry suits with ear hoodies, are the bearded pair of brothers seen outside a few minutes earlier. Penryn (Jelliffee) is waking up confused from a deep sleep. Lumus (Craig) cautiously explains to his addled brother that he’s been asleep for the better part of three years. In that time their mission has been going forward: they’re still bound for some unknown destination as representatives of earth civilization, a madcap message in a half-corked bottle recording their words and deeds for some future audience.

But like a latter-day Gregor Samsa, Penryn has awakened to find himself metamorphosed, still hairy as a Harry but sporting the “girl bits” of a Henrietta. This change will propel the mission in an unanticipated direction. Penryn reborn is full of questions and challenges for his/her brother and their gender blender of a mission inside this increasingly stuffy intergalactic studio apartment.

Meanwhile, it seems Lumus, when not studying his brother’s transmogrifying bod, has spent the last few years working out a comedy routine, bits of which wend their way through the narrative as an alternately hilarious and eerie metanarrative of sorts, inviting a Henny Youngman–grade hermeneutics of the patriarchal social construct left back on earth. “I’m dying up here,” Lumus likes to say in an increasingly ominous showbiz metaphor, hitting a button for canned laughter as his inept struggle with off-color bar jokes and Rat Pack–era machismo gives way to a darker prophesy of his own demise.

Too much more plot will spoil the surprises in store for venturers to Brooklyn or those awaiting the production’s hoped-for (but not yet scheduled) future landing in the Bay Area. But let’s just say this oeuvre Lumus is making — a summation of a life, the echo of a civilization now reduced to two — is up for grabs, and Penryn may be the person to grab it. The outcome of their space//space odyssey contains the seed of a new world and an old one, both slouching toward Alpha Centauri to be born.

Composer and BB&B regular Dave Malloy’s wonderfully vital music-sound scape brings a deep, dark, low creep under this or that moment, as the exquisitely Dada-esque space program and its thornier implications come to light in playwright Craig’s inimitably arch dialogue, and Craig and Jelliffe’s masterfully subtle performances. Directed with cool precision by Mallory Catlett, Space//Space features another incredible BB&B low-or-no–budget set (conceived by Craig and Jelliffe with choice video, lighting, and sound designs by Zbigniew Bzymek, Miranda k Hardy, and Brandon Wolcott, respectively). While less epic than recent shows past, this cosmic two-hander is also more romantic, thematically complex and moodily resonant in its half-haunted, half-blissful reflection on the intimate universe between one human being and another.

bananabagandbodice.org

 

LGBT Pride: the good, the bad and the ugly

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OPINION No doubt about it, LGBT Pride is a mixed bag.

Long gone are the days when Gay Freedom Day, later Gay Pride, was a one-day affair, a protest march and celebration to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in New York City in June, 1969.

These days, it’s a month-long, corporate-sponsored, $1.8 million-dollar, glitzy affair with events at fancy hotels and a “parade” (not a march) that remains totally out of touch with the radical, grassroots activism that first created it. Not only are contingents charged to participate, but curbside barricades make it impossible for onlookers to jump in, and participants are asked to “donate” to enter the festival after the parade. Even if the pride committee waives the fee for small groups, why does anyone have to pay to be part of pride?

Especially given that it has corporate sponsors with very deep pockets. Some of those sponsors are strange — and ugly — bedfellows indeed. They include Wells Fargo and B of A, two banking institutions that have been foreclosing queer and other people out of their homes. Their motto might well be, “We take Pride in evicting you.” What does it say about our community that we allow these institutions to use our events to buy good PR? Banks don’t deserve good PR, especially when the government is not holding them accountable in any real way for what they continue to do to us.

Fortunately, there are pride events that remain true to the fiery, uncompromising spirit that was demonstrated by those queens who refused to go quietly into the paddy wagons 43 years ago. Including the Faetopia “pop-up queer arts, ecology, theater and community center” at the old Tower Records space at Market and Noe, with lots of great events continuing through June 22 (www.faetopia.com); and the Vito Russo documentary, Vito, at the Frameline Film Festival last week. Vito’s life of gay and AIDS activism is a reminder of why Pride month exists. It’s just a shame that Wells Fargo is a sponsor of the festival.

You won’t find banks sponsoring the Trans and the Dyke marches (Friday, June 22 and Saturday, 23 respectively). Nothing in Pride month comes closer to being like the 1970s gay Pride marches (that I miss so much) than these two grassroots efforts.

Finally, a coalition calling itself OccuPride plans to protest the “increasingly commercialized” Pride parade that caters “only to those of us with money to spend.” According to a press statement, it will also “honor our radical roots for full liberation for women, people of color, immigrants, the disabled, all the oppressed and marginalized.” Sounds like a Gay Liberation Front manifesto I helped write 42 years ago. Join up with OccuPride on June 24 at 10 AM at Mission and Main, or at Taylor and Turk at 2:30 PM for a rally on the site of the former Compton’s Cafeteria where, three years before Stonewall, drag queens rioted.

Like Vito a reminder of where we came from.

A longtime queer and tenants rights activist, Tommi Avicolli Mecca was involved with organizing Philly’s first pride march in 1972. He is editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights).

After the raid

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caitlin@sfbg.com

HERBWISE It is exceedingly difficult to get Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee to talk about himself. I have him — the person who drove the Proposition 19 legalization campaign, whose house and cannabis trade school were raided by federal agents in April, who through his businesses’ success has helped revitalize and make safe a previously gloomy stretch of downtown Oakland — on the phone to talk about the lifetime achievement award he will be receiving from High Times at this week’s Cannabis Cup (Sat/23-Sun/24).

I want him to share his emotional journey since government agents poured into his home, what’s it’s like to be the public face of the flashpoint between California and national government over marijuana. High Times editorial director Malcolm MacKinnon calls Lee a “fearless trailblazer,” perhaps he’d like to make grand predictions about the future of pot? At least describe exactly what’s happening with Oaksterdam, post-raid. But Lee prefers to stress the latest poll numbers on legalization.

“All the national polls and the Colorado polls are going our way,” he says. “If you could get the word out about that, that’d be great.” FYI, on June 6 Rasmussen Reports found that 61 percent of Coloradoans support regulating cannabis like alcohol and cigarettes.

Lee has retired from university administration — he’s referred to as a professor emeritus, although he is still teaching classes in cannabis policy, history, and advocacy. In his “big Converse All-Stars” (as she calls them) now stands Dale Sky Jones. She once developed Oaksterdam’s curriculum and now joins a short list of female leaders in the marijuana industry as the university’s president.

“When the federal government came in, they took the curriculum, the computers — everything else that was the blood and breathe, heart and soul of the school short of the tables and chairs and teachers,” Jones says in a phone interview. Under her watch, the finances of “top-heavy” Oaksterdam’s gift shop, dispensary, and university have split and are now under separate ownership. Staff is attempting to rebuild curriculum from email records. 45 employees have lost their job because of the disruption in business affairs. “This was a violation on so many levels for the staff of Oaksterdam,” Jones says, sadly.

But life goes on. Lee says his “students are great, they have lots of energy and enthusiasm.” And the cultural contributions that the school and its founder have hardly been negated by federal intervention. “[Lee] brought the debate about marijuana policy reform to the kitchen table,” says Jones. “Before Prop. 19, the only time parents and kids had conversations around marijuana it was ‘where the hell did you find it? who are your jackass friends?’ It was always a negative discussion. This was the first time that families were able to discuss marijuana as a policy issue.”

This weekend’s Cannabis Cup will bring the pot world’s focus back here, as some of NorCal’s [author’s note: and hence, the world’s] best strains compete for the title of best indica, sativa, edibles, etc. Lee’s lifetime achievement award (presented at 7pm on Sun/24) will just confirm what we all already knew: even when it comes to activists, we grow things better out here.

HIGH TIMES CANNABIS CUP

Sat/23 noon-10pm, Sun/24 noon-9:30pm; one-day pass $40, two-day pass $65 advance, $80 at door

Craneway Pavilion

1414 Harbour Way, Richmond

www.medcancup.com

Apocalypse meh

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Being a movie star is a precarious business. It seemed very good news when The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) made Steve Carell one after years of very good work as a sketch comedian and supporting player (and with years of The Office to come). He was smart, funny, personable, and versatile. But Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and the animated Despicable Me (2010) aside, movies have been trying to pound his round peg into a square hole ever since. Evan Almighty (2007), Dan in Real Life (2007), Get Smart (2008), Date Night (2010), Dinner for Schmucks (2010), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) — there are worse lists (see: Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler), but each failed him and its audience in some way. At this point he seems just a few more flops away from re-entering the network sitcom world.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World won’t help. A first directorial feature for Lorene Scafaria, who’d previously written Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) — another movie dubiously convinced that sharing its Desert Island Discs equals soulfulness — it’s an earnest stab at something different that isn’t different enough.

Specifically, it’s a little too similar in premise to the 1998 Canadian Last Night (which wasn’t all that hot, either). But the problem is more that Scafaria’s film isn’t anything enough — funny, pointed, insightful, surprising, whatever. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), for all its faults, ended the world with a bang. This is the whimper version.

An asteroid is heading smack toward Earth; we are fucked. News of this certainty prompts the wife of insurance company rep Dodge Peterson (Carell) to walk out — suggesting that with just days left in our collective existence, she would rather spend that time with somebody, anybody, else. A born self-defeatist, he accepts this rejection as proof of total failure in life. So while the multitudes go nuts with apocalyptic fervor — partying, fucking, weeping, etc. — he anticipates quietly crawling toward the hereafter on a business-as-usual schedule.

Public hysteria turns from giddy to violent, however, and rioting vandals force Dodge to flee his apartment building. By now, however, he has acquired two strays: A mutt he names Sorry (after the terse note its owner left in surrendering custody) and professedly “flaky, irresponsible” neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), who’s just broken up with her useless boyfriend (Adam Brody) and missed the last available planes to England, where her family lives. She decides she must reunite Dodge with the long-ago love of his life — an event that could have happened months ago, had the mail carrier not delivered that woman’s flame-rekindling letter by mistake to Penny’s mailbox, and if she hadn’t simply forgotten to slip it under his door.

Thus ensues a tepid road-trip dramedy of episodic encounters with interesting actors — William Petersen, Martin Sheen — primed to shine in better material than they get. (One fresh if hardly slam-dunk sequence has comedian T.J. Miller as the host at Friendly’s, a chain restaurant where “everyone’s your friend,” perhaps because its orgiastically inclined staff seems to be “rolling pretty hard” on Ecstasy.) Needless to say, however, Carell and Knightley’s odd couple connects en route.

Except they don’t, in the chemistry terms that this halfway adventurous, halfway flatlined film ultimately, completely depends upon. Carell’s usual nuanced underplaying has no context to play within — Dodge is a loser because he’s … what? Too nice? Too passive? Has obnoxious friends (played early on by, in ascending order of humiliation, Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, Connie Britton, and Melanie Lynskey)?

His character’s angst attributable to almost nothing, Carell has little to play here but the same put-upon nice guy he’s already done and done again. So he surrenders the movie to Knightley, who exercises rote “quirky girl” mannerisms to an obsessive-compulsive degree, her eyes alone overacting so hard it’s like they’re doing hot yoga on amphetamines. It’s the kind of role, conceived to be dithering-helpless-eccentric-charming, that too often plays instead as annoying. Knightley makes it really annoying. She’s certainly been capable before — and might yet be in Joe Wright’s forthcoming Anna Karenina, scripted by Tom Stoppard. Here she’s so forcedly over-agitated she sucks life from scenes in which she never seems to be acting with fellow cast-members, but rather with line-feeders or a video monitor. It’s an empty, showy performance whose neurotically artificial character one can only imagine a naturally reserved man like Dodge would flee from.

That we’re supposed to believe otherwise stunts Scafaria’s parting exhale of pure girly romanticism — admirable for its wish-fulfillment sweetness, lamentable for the extent that good actors in two-dimensional roles can’t turn passionate language into emotion we believe in.

 

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.

Homebodies

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Anyone who watches dance — and perhaps any of the other arts — over a period of time will experience the excitement of discovery for one of two primary reasons. Proven choreographers may come up with fresh perspectives on who they are and what drives them. The voice may be familiar, but the intonation is new. Or you can have a first encounter with an artist who pushes you right to the edge of your seat — the work’s ingredients are good, but it’s the way they interlock or bounce off each other that makes you look forward to what else this person will come up with in the future.

Such was the case with Nicole Klaymoon, who founded her Embodiment Project company in 2009. For her latest project, House of Matter (performed at Dance Mission Theater June 8-10), she collaborated with jazz singer Valerie Troutt and her vocal ensemble, also founded in 2009. The result was one of the most rocking, joyous dance theater pieces that have hit the town in a long time.

Jamie Tracey’s multi-level panels, perhaps inspired by calligraphy, however, were not up to par; the set design was a weak link. Klaymoon is a writer, social activist, poet, performer, and dancer who grounds her choreography in modern and “urban” (read: hip-hop) styles. Troutt, who created House‘s musical universe, calls what she does house music, though to my ears it sounded more jazz and soul-influenced. Dance-y, however, it is.

“The body as our home” is one of those post-structuralist tropes that academia has bequeathed on us. In her opening spoken and danced monologue about “wanting to let you in” but not daring to do so, Klaymoon didn’t push it. The image of the house did set the tone — not for a series of narratives, but stories nonetheless. Jennifer “JenAy” Anolin and Rama Mahesh Hall longingly yanked and confronted each and yet separated. Ndubuisi Madu, rooted in place, popped so violently it seemed his limbs might fall off. When during Solas B. Lalgee’s ecstatic vocal solo he embraced Assad Conley, the moment was both grand and intimate. I can’t pretend to have followed the details of Troutt’s song cycle, which started with “Make Me Ovah” and ended with “Peace Lives Here,” but House‘s trajectory from tension to reconciliation flowed seamlessly.

The finale looked a bit too protracted and flirted with sentimentality. But there was something so grand and operatic about this house that became a home that I couldn’t help but feeling pulled in.

 

GOODE BUT NOT GREAT

Joe Goode has used the image of the body as a home — the only one we have — in many of his dances. In his latest, the house literally collapses on top of him. It’s a rickety, unstable lattice structure that is the visual focal point of the hour-long When We Fall Apart. Putting a libretto together from inquiries among acquaintances, Goode paints a multi-hued portrait of the dashed hopes and failed expectations that come with living. Looking around the audience, with just about every seat having a nametag on it, I couldn’t help but think but how many patrons could identify with those voices.

Goode’s ability to shed skins with but a few props kept me gasping and laughing at the same time. His splendily versatile dancers, with choreography in which they reached and stretched towards each other and some invisible goals on the ground and above, amplified the sense of life as inherently unstable. At one point they surrounded Goode as characters from his dreams. The scene looked like a merry-go-round. These days, performers Melecio Estrella and Damara Vita Ganley also shine vocally.

Still, with all its charm, wit and theatrical skill, Fall struck me as ultimately facile; its plaintive tune didn’t ring as true as others I have heard from Goode. *

‘WHEN WE FALL APART’

Through June 30

Wed.-Sat., 7pm (also Fri.-Sat., 9pm), $25-$35

Z Space

450 Florida, SF

www.joegoode.org

 

Are we real?

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le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS I took a cab from the airport to the football game and changed in the back seat without (I don’t think) leaving anything behind, not even the big bag of smaller bags of airline pretzels. Which came in handy because it was a 6:30 kickoff — an awkward time, whether you’re coming from work, like my teammates, or across the country.

How I came to come by said bag of bags of airline pretzels for entirely free is a restaurant review unto itself, starring a five-year-old girl named Shaya. She got on the plane in Los Angeles with a big bald doll named Jacob, a small Dora the Explorer backpack, and a clipped-on ticket.

“Are you my babysitter?” she said to the stewardessperson, who, as it happens, was standing right next to me while I waited to use the bathroom.

Seatwise, I’d just leapfrogged to an aisle seat in the front of the plane, which you can do on Southwest when it stops to re-passenger.

While I was in the bathroom, the stewardessperson ushered little Shaya to the window seat of my row. When I came out, she apologized. As if!!! “I hope you weren’t planning on having a quiet flight,” she said.

What she couldn’t have known: that I had just said goodbye to two of the many little loves of my life, age 4 and 5, and wasn’t going to see them for one more month, if ever, because — as you know — I have a horrible fear of flying. Every time I step in an airplane I have to assume I am climbing into my tomb.

What neurotic nutcases like me need most in life is a sense of purpose, and here was mine, the moment I’d been waiting for, my “is there a babysitter on board” moment.

“No worries,” I said to the stewardessperson. “I’m a pro.” And I moved my stuff from the aisle seat to the middle one, right next to the girl and her doll so that no one could possibly come between us.

“Is this his first time flying?” I asked, indicating the doll.

“This is my little brother. His name is Jacob. I didn’t have him last time, but mama got him for me. His eyes close when he lays down,” she said. “See?”

I did, and said so.

She leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered over his head: “He’s not real.”

I whispered back: “Are we?”

She laughed and we introduced ourselves. She was on her way to her dad’s for the summer. Her dad had a new house. She was going to go swimming. I showed her pictures of the Chunks de la Cooter and told her how old they were, and she told me how old she was: Five, like I said. Almost six.

We were hitting it off. Then she got very thoughtful. “I feel awkward,” she said.

“Why?”

“I like you, but my mom told me not to talk to strangers.”

I got a little thoughtful myself. I thought: uh-oh. Was I encouraging unhealthy behavior in a five-going-on-six-year-old?

“Your mom is right,” I said. “You shouldn’t talk to strangers. But the person sitting next to you on an airplane, for as long as you are on that plane, is not a stranger. She is your airplane-only friend.”

This seemed to set Shaya’s mind at ease. In any case, she offered me a Chicken McNugget.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m still full from last night.” (Comal, the trendy new downtown Berkeley joint with the fancy noise-reduction sound system and way overpriced, way underimpressive food, immediately after which I needed a snack at Phil’s next door: a completely awesome bacon cheeseburger slider with homemade tater tots and my favorite cookie ever, which was essentially a homemade Oreo. Ohmigod, new favorite restaurant ever!)

“What did you eat?” my airplane-only friend Shaya asked.

“Long story,” I said.

After we landed she looked up at me and said, out of the blue: “I was brave.”

“Me too,” I said. “Thank you.”

And the stewardessperson gave me pretzels.

PHIL’S SLIDERS

Sun-Wed 11am-9pm; Thu-Sat 11am-midnight

2024 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 845-5060

www.philssliders.com

AE,D,MC,V

Beer and wine

That’s amore

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virginia@sfbg.com

APPETITE After moving from Southern California to New Jersey at age 14, I learned what a true city was when I discovered New York City. Whenever in that New York state of mind, I miss its boundless energy, frank people, eclectic neighborhoods, and, yes, East Coast-style Italian. I reminisce about family dinners filling up on mountains of cheese, doughy pasta, and impeccable red sauce — which, to achieve perfection, should exhibit both sweet and savory notes. In both NYC and NJ, it was often perfect. (I miss you, Cafe L’Amore).

It can be challenging getting my red sauce Italian fix here. I crave old school, heartwarming places, whether drinking a Manhattan in the brilliant time capsule of Joe’s of Westlake, dining on Gaspare’s “real deal” lasagna, Mozzeria’s oozing, baked mozzarella, or a plate of my beloved guanciale (pig jowl bacon) and garlic-heavy spaghetti alla matriciana at Ristorante Marcello. Enter Original Joe’s, a reborn San Francisco classic appealing to a blessedly broad demographic, satisfying East Coast cravings.

You couldn’t be blamed for initially assuming the sizable Original Joe’s off North Beach’s idyllic Washington Square Park is a tourist destination or primarily for older clientele. There is a more mature set dining here, a factor I welcome and at times seek out intentionally. But families, couples, residents, and tourists alike mingle in this new home for a restaurant founded here in 1937, yet closed since a 2007 fire at its Tenderloin location. Though impossible to replicate the original locale’s dive-y 1970s charm, the new space feels more old school NYC than modern-day tourist trap. Roomy red leather booths and a tuxedoed waitstaff immediately comfort.

The food surprises with an amped-up dose of quality compared to the old days on Taylor. A market price crab cocktail is expensive at $25 but the crab is clean and plentiful. A daily special of fresh burrata and Spring pea salad could have come from any current SF restaurant. Joe’s Italian chopped salad ($15.95) ends up being one of the quickest transports East. Ordering it to share, it arrives split, a half portion plenty for one. Chopped romaine is doused in Italian dressing, with garbanzo beans, olives, cherry tomatoes, silvers of salami, provolone, fennel, and the necessary pepperoncini. It’s brighter — and almost as satisfying — than heavier, loaded versions I used to fill up on back in Jersey.

As in the old Joe’s, there’s plenty of tender, juicy beef, from flat iron steak ($24) to a porterhouse (25 oz. at $44) and prime rib on Saturdays. But when in such an setting, I crave red sauce. It doesn’t get much comfier than spaghetti with meat sauce ($13.95) or meatballs ($16.95). Even if Joe’s is not the superlative version, it hits the spot, as does classic ravioli ($16.95), although I tend to prefer Jackson Fillmore’s housemade ravioli over the years. Another way to my East Coast Italian heart is parmigiana, whether chicken, veal, or eggplant. Here I’m drawn to the eggplant ($16.95), not too smoky, layered in cheese, breading, and, of course, red sauce.

I was tickled to find that $6 cocktails, including simple but revered favorites like a whiskey sour or negroni, are actually well-made — completely unexpected and at this price, one of the best drink values in town for solid classics.

Another unexpected pleasure is impeccable spumoni for dessert ($5 for a few generous scoops). Often in spumoni, unnatural cherry, chocolate and pistachio ice cream flavors are cluttered with nuts and candied fruits in what feels like a dated flavor that should be relegated to the past. Joe’s version delivers authentic, rich flavor with smattering of crumbled pistachios on top, demanding me to rethink, and once again enjoy, this classic ice cream rumored to have Neapolitan roots.

Joe’s isn’t revolutionary gourmet or cutting edge cuisine, but what it does, it does well. Its clientele reminds me of the history and sense of place San Francisco possesses that makes it one of the truly great cities in the world, now ideally situated in a neighborhood that fiercely maintains reverence for and ties to that history. Amid SF’s influx of tech-attracted newbies, Joe’s attracts that breed we often forget is here: the San Francisco native. Feeling like a family/group restaurant first and foremost, it’s a place I’d bring visiting family and Sicilian relatives with hefty portions and friendly service. But I’ve also had a cozy date night with my husband here, transported to decades past… but with fresher ingredients.

ORIGINAL JOE’S

601 Union, SF.

415-775-4877

www.originaljoessf.com

Subscribe to Virgina’s twice-monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot, www.theperfectspotsf.com

 

Female trouble

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER We’ve come a long way, baby, but why does it feel like women’s equality is a legal concept that still troubles the status quo? This past year has proven that the erosion of women’s rights remains a powerful political agenda across the country, with state bans on certain forms of abortion, the redefinition of rape, and the blocking of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Two very different shows opening this week in Berkeley (previews began last week for both) are poised to provide timely additions to the ever-evolving discourse on female power and its reverberations on society at large. Mark Jackson’s Salomania, at the Aurora Theatre, and Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature, at the Berkeley Rep, take on themes of gender parity and its embattled vanguard with a historical drama set in the early 1900s based on the life of one notorious woman, and an ensemble work exploring the challenges of girlhood in the present day.

Salomania, commissioned by Aurora, has been percolating on Jackson’s burner since 2006, when he directed Oscar Wilde’s Salome, also at the Aurora. While researching the production history of the play, he discovered a mostly forgotten scandal involving Maud Allan, a San Francisco dancer who achieved stardom with a provocative interpretation of “The Dance of the Seven Veils.” But it wasn’t her dancing that cemented her notoriety, but rather a high-profile media controversy in which she sued British M.P. Noel Pemberton Billing for libel after he accused her of being a lesbian (she was), a sadist (she wasn’t), and a German sympathizer (she wasn’t that either) after starring in a private performance of Wilde’s then-banned play.

Like all the best media scandals, her 1918 trial had all the necessary elements for a juicy celebrity circus — the personal vs. the political, beauty vs. bigotry, a titillating flush of sexual impropriety — and temporarily displaced the more austere wartime headlines of the era.

There are several themes at work in Jackson’s biographical drama, gleaned in part from courtroom transcripts and letters from Allan to her family, but the one that seems to best tie Allan together with her biblical muse is the emergence of the “independent” woman in popular culture, and the fearfulness they’ve inspired in their detractors throughout history. And just as New Testament figure Salome has been almost unanimously vilified by both church and secular society for her coerced display of her physical sensuality (almost more so than for her adolescent act of brutal vengeance), so was Allan maligned for her empathic recreation of same.

Both Jackson and Allan’s attitudes towards Salome accentuate the positive lurking within her oft-maligned reputation. Jackson posits that she’s “the only honest person in the room,” the one with the greatest potential for breaking free of the venal, decadent atmosphere of Herod’s palace. Allan found in her a kindred beauty-seeker, whose attraction to John the Baptist was formed partially from a sense of wonder at his purity and capacity for selflessness.

“She was not an uncouth child,” she protested at her libel trial. “She was a woman who valued beauty.” Their mutual reverence for beauty aside, another tie that binds Salome and Allan is a shared reputation for willfulness.

“She was kind of a force of nature in her personality,” Jackson says of Allan. “[And] without apology said, ‘This is what I do, and this is who I am’.” This unyielding attitude contributed to Allan’s reputation as “difficult,” even “arrogant,” a complexity of character that attracted Jackson’s interest as a playwright as much as it repelled her critics.

“Any woman with a forward personality who has pushed her boundaries is going to be characterized that way by her culture,” he muses, a sentiment that could be applied equally to Salome as well as to Allan, as well as to almost any controversial female celebrity today: our Madonnas and our Hillary Clintons.

 

GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS

 

“Part of why I wanted to write this is to say there’s this amazing resilience here, and power, and resistance, and energy and vitality in girls that we haven’t even begun to unleash,” says Eve Ensler, who has also been compared to a force of nature (by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone). Best-known for The Vagina Monologues, Ensler’s latest play, Emotional Creature, is having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Global girlhood is its focus. Based on her book I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, the subject matter includes stories from Congolese rape victims, Eastern European sex workers, young factory workers, and Western anorexics, all struggling to move forward from their circumstances. Despite the often violent circumstances Ensler’s protagonists find themselves in, it’s their vitality that she hopes will come across, onstage and off.

Quick to emphasize that Creature is fictional, Ensler’s encounters with young women around the world — Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Sarajevo, Haiti, Afghanistan — have nonetheless heavily informed the characters of her piece. And of course, she has her own experiences in girlhood to draw from. “When I was younger, I was constantly told I was being too alive or too intense or too dramatic, and I chose to learn how to mute myself,” she says. An outspoken and prolific anti-violence advocate, Ensler does seem to have overcome that mute button in adulthood, but she’s quick to point out that its existence can make girlhood a bewildering, disempowering time in life.

The creation of the piece began in Johannesburg, with a staged workshop at the Market Theatre in July 2011, and another in Paris in September. Director Jo Bonney likens the shape of the play to that of an event being put on by the girls themselves: a variety show of monologues, ensemble pieces, even song and dance numbers, with music written by South African composer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Navigating the stormy seas of modern-day adolescence and young adulthood, Ensler’s “girls” may still be facing a whole spectrum of obstacles while tapping into their personal power. But thanks to precedents set by strong women such as Maud Allan, and even Salome, the fact that they should want to at all no longer seems unusual or unfortunate — no matter how often American right-wingers might have us otherwise believe. *

 

EMOTIONAL CREATURE

Through July 15, $14.50-$73

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison, Berk.

www.berkeleyrep.org

SALOMANIA

Through July 22, $30-$55

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk. www.auroratheatre.org

Prancing at the revolution

19

marke@sfbg.com

QUEER ISSUE “Right now it seems we have more in common with the Christian Right than the gay liberation movement. We’ve become so focused on marriage as the end-all and be-all of gay rights that it’s completely within the realm of possibility that the next leader of Focus on the Family could be a gay man. We all have to get married now for tax breaks, health care, or to stay in this country? Are you kidding me?” Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein spilled some truth into my hot pink Princess phone.

“I don’t know how we got to this position where we’re either agitating for more tax breaks for the rich via marriage, or we’re treating people like disposable objects on hookup sites because they don’t conform to certain standards. It’s really sickening. How does any of this further any agenda at all besides becoming what we’re supposed to be fighting against? I don’t get it.”

Sycamore Bernstein, who often writes for the Guardian, was speaking about the impetus behind her latest book, Why are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press), an invigorating collection of essays from a vast variety of queer people that “challenges the assimilationist norms of a corporate-cozy lifestyle.” (Let’s just say that President Obama’s limp “evolution” on same-sex marriage was not going to be a topic of conversation.) From envisioning a more faggoty Internet and reclaiming perversity as a proud, queer norm to honestly exploring the complex cultural confusions that Western-originating political expressions of gayness can wreak on immigrant and native homos, Faggots goes there with inspiring directness.

“I wanted to put out something that captured the spectrum of radical queer thinking that’s been going on while it seems everyone else was in line to get married. There are so many topics that affect our lives that have just been completely bulldozed by the ‘gay rights’ corporate lobbying groups’ crazed marriagemania.

“For example, Chris Bartlett, in his contribution ‘Gravity and Levity’ talks about how the idea of ‘risk’ in the gay community has been so associated with AIDS that it may have pushed any aspiration towards risk — emotionally, politically, socially — right out of gay consciousness. Yet being gay used to be all about taking risks. It’s what got us so far in the first place!

“I think exploring how the medicalization of AIDS terminology may have numbed us from each other — or how race still defines us in the ‘community,’ or how every dollar sucked into the corporate marriage machine means less for those in need of actual life or death help, or how hate crimes legislation ridiculously puts more power and resources into the hands of the very system oppressing us — is something we desperately need right now. We’re raising an entire generation to think that marriage is the only fight. Meanwhile, we’re discriminating against ourselves in so many other ways.”

Faggots is no mere spitting into the wind, either. Although Sycamore Bernstein has been sounding the assimilationist alarm for years, the prolific author and activist, now living in Seattle, has been surprised by the tome’s positive reception. (“It’s quite shocking!” she says with a lilting laugh.) Edmund White, Samuel R. Delaney, and Mx Justin Vivian Bond offered blurbs, and younger readers and the press have been grabbing onto Faggots’ incendiary yet sophisticated tone. Could the recent wave of AIDS activist nostalgia and a Occupy-like disillusionment with big money Pride sponsorships (embodied locally, especially, by a Wells Fargo advertisement covering the entire front page of Bay Area Reporter’s Pride Issue and a Stoli-sponsored GLAAD Pride float) be buoying the book’s popularity?

“I think the re-emergence of interest in things like ACT UP is very interesting. When I came to San Francisco I was part of ACT UP, and — with everybody dying from drugs, suicide, and AIDS — there was a real drive to come together to confront this massive structural neglect and recognize how brutalities align themselves to bring about our annihilation. But nostalgia can be dangerous without recognizing the reality. There was a very real, very dangerous moment in the 1990s when activism suddenly became about discrimination in the military, of all things.

“It turned from trying to guarantee health care for all to being about whether or not we could go die faster in wars. Whose decision was that?”

Marke B. is the author of Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Gude for Youth (Zest)

 

OccuPride remembers

6

yael@sfbg.com

QUEER ISSUE “First of all, the parade wouldn’t have barricades, because that immediately creates an us versus them divide, and then you see the parade as just the groups and companies that can afford the fee, which is like $450. Anyone who wanted to march could march, regardless of what the sheriff or Fire Department says. There would be tents for connections to services that people desperately need. I’m not opposed to having companies there, but they shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all of Pride. And there should be more about the history, because people don’t know it. In the Holocaust, anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 gays were worked to death in Dachau and other work camps. That’s where the pink triangle comes from. But people think Harvey Milk pulled it out of his ass or something.”

That’s what Scott Rossi, one of the organizers of San Francisco’s OccuPride march, told me when I asked him what his ideal SF Pride Parade would look like. The protest’s rallying cry is Community Not Commodity, and the group hopes to bring some rebellious spirit to the parade, which they say has become too watered down with corporate sponsors and assimiliation-lovin’ politics.

Some of the action’s organizers are from Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland, but the majority are a coalition of radical queer groups like HAVOQ, Pride at Work, Act Up, and QUIT (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism).

Honestly, it would be weird if there wasn’t a group with an anti-capitalist critique of the parade disrupting Pride this year. It’s been a tradition since 1992 when Act Up members joined the parade and staged intermittent Die-Ins, collapsing every seven minutes, the frequency that people were dying from AIDS that year.

Act Up and related groups staged similar demonstrations practically every year. A decade later, two Gay Shame protesters were arrested when they attempted to enter the parade. That year’s parade was sponsored by Budweiser, and Gay Shame had created a seven-foot-tall cardboard Budweiser can that read “Vomit Out Budweiser Pride and the Selling of Queer Identities,” and other props to confront “the consumerism, blind patriotism and assimilationist agenda of the Pride Parade.”

And radical queers show no sign of stopping. Veteran gay rights warrior Tommi Mecca was at basically all of these disruptions, and he won’t be missing out on this year’s events. Mecca was 21 when he helped organize the first Pride March in Philadelphia in 1972.

“Pride used to be a protest,” Mecca recalls. “It was very free. There were no barricades on the street, there were very few rules. We didn’t have contingents, people just gathered, and at some point there were speeches, usually by activists…I don’t know when it started getting corporate sponsors.”

But the glitz! The glamour! The music enhanced by electricity! Today, Pride is a giant, televised affair — this year, sponsored by Wells Fargo.

“Don’t people in Pride realize how much we’re being used by Wells Fargo?” Mecca said. “It just reeks.”

So if you go to the parade, smell the sweet smell of protesters promoting “pride not profit, a movement not a market, and community not commodity.” After all, if it wasn’t for queer radicals in the ’70s, there wouldn’t be a Pride at all.

A poly push?

0

culture@sfbg.com

QUEER ISSUE Is San Francisco’s polyamorous community experiencing a renaissance? Pepper Mint, organizer of the recent sex education conference Open SF (www.open-sf.org), suspects the non-monogamous in the Bay Area have finally reached a critical mass. His proof? Over the weekend of June 8, OpenSF was attended by over 500 of the poly-curious and practicing.

It might be, however, that they’ve finally found something to relate to. Sonya Brewer, a somatic psychotherapist, OpenSF lecture facilitator, and queer woman of color, has been a practicing polyamorist for 15 years. Brewer pegged the high attendance numbers on Mint’s efforts to diversify the conference and include sexual minorities and other oppressed groups on its planning committee.

Those values were reflected in the conference’s keynote address, delivered by trans-identified sex educator Ignacio Rivera and transgender health educator and social justice activist Yoseñio V. Lewis. The two hosted a lecture entitled “Kink, Race, and Class,” which sought to inspire dialogue about how social forces play into the world of kink. It was one of the many unique talks over the weekend that both celebrated and critiqued the diversity and spread of the polyamorous community.

Looking over the list of lectures for the weekend — “Sex Work and Non-Monogamy,” “Fat Sluts, Hungry Virgins,” and “Trans Queering Your Sex,” to name a few — it was hard to decide which talks to attend.

I settled on two: Kathy Labriola’s “Unmasking the Green-Eyed Monster: Managing Jealousy in Open Relationships” and the Maggie Mayhem-led “Second Generation Poly.” Labriola’s hour-long talk examined jealousy from an anthropological perspective, highlighting it as a universal experience that manifests itself depending on one’s cultural upbringing. The bad news? Jealousy is unavoidable. The good news? It’s a learned behavior, and you can learn to manage it. Labriola provided us with a handy checklist to use in determining whether insecurities are based in fact or freak-out.

“Identify a situation that makes you jealous and ask the questions,” Labriola advised. “One, [do] I have a resource I value very much and I’m fearful of losing? Two, [does] another person wants that resource.? Three, [do] you believe you are in direct competition for something you want? Four, [do] you believe if push comes to shove you will lose out?” Unless you answered yes to all four, she counseled, your jealousy can be worked through.

Mayhem, dressed in a fluorescent orange space suit (a representation of her “out-of-this-world” situation, she said) sat on a panel with her partner in life and in porn Ned (www.meetthemayhems.com) and his polyamorous family: his father, and his father’s second partner — a non-hierarchical term, Maggie was quick to clarify. Maggie and her family discussed negotiating boundaries at sex parties, raising children with more than two parents, and the stigma parents of sex-positive offspring can encounter.

Given the general focus of Open SF, Maggie’s key advice had resonance: “Be the author to your own happily ever after,” she told us.

They call it gunpowder

13

news@sfbg.com

At needle exchange sites around San Francisco, fliers are handed out to intravenous drug users warning them about a new and very potent form of heroin thought to be responsible for a dramatic increase in recent overdoses.

“Gunpowder heroin,” as it’s often called on the street, began infiltrating the city’s illegal drug market back around February, according to widespread reports from various needle exchange participants. Yet public officials appear to be in the dark about the epidemic, partly because budget cuts have created long backlogs for toxicology tests and partly due to indifference about the safety of drug users.

The reports were gathered by the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education Project from their network of needle exchange programs and analyzed by Project Manager Eliza Wheeler. She noticed the trend in April, and a flood of reports followed through May. It soon became clear that she was witnessing a potentially deadly spike in heroin-related overdoses.

“The whole city is reporting strong stuff,” Wheeler told us. “People are overdosing left and right.”

From January through May, 99 heroin-related overdoses were reported. The largest number of overdoses occurred in May with a staggering 40 reports. Wheeler says that an average month has 12 overdoses.

While those directly involved with San Francisco’s drug-using population seem to know all about the increase in overdoses, city and hospital officials seem to know nothing about it.

After checking with local police precincts in drug zones such as the Mission and Tenderloin, SFPD spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak told us officers haven’t come in contact with a strong batch of heroin and they are unfamiliar with the term “gunpowder heroin.”

According to Tenderloin Police Captain John Garrity, undercover and street officers only test controlled substances for positive or negative results. They do not test the drugs’ potency or chemical make-up. Garrity told us that the cops haven’t dealt much with opiate-related overdoses since the widespread availability of naxolone, an opiate overdose antidote commonly known by its brand name Narcan.

“We don’t see the overdoses anymore,” Garrity told us, “not for the last 20 years, not since Narcan came out.”

SF General, St. Mary’s, and St. Francis hospitals all say their emergency rooms haven’t seen an increase in heroin overdoses either and are also unfamiliar with the term “gunpowder heroin.”

It seems the city is content with letting nonprofit needle exchanges and programs like the DOPE Project deal with its opiate-using population. Although the DPH does fund and collaborate with many service providers, it rests the bulk of the responsibility on the drug users themselves.

While needle exchange programs combat blood borne diseases like hepatitis C and HIV, which can be contracted through sharing needles and other paraphernalia, DOPE attempts to educate users and prevent fatal opiate overdoses. The DOPE Project, funded through DPH, works with needle exchange programs to provide opiate users with a take home prescription of naloxone, which can be administered from a nasal spray or injected from a vial. At the exchange, if a returning drug user is re-supplying naxolone, he or she is asked “Did you lose it or use it?” If it was used, a report is made.

All the reports gathered by the DOPE Project are of overdose reversals, none of the reports are fatal, thanks to widespread availability of naxolone and the drug using population who use it. That doesn’t mean people haven’t died. In fact, a rash of fatal overdoses is rumored to have occurred. The suspected culprit: gunpowder heroin.

“There’s a new batch of heroin in town—people are dying,” says Johnny Lorenz, community activist and member of San Francisco Drug Users Union, a members-based organization advocating drug-friendly policies and giving a voice to drug users, who say they are often marginalized and seen as not caring about their community.

Lorenz, a former heroin addict, says a friend recently died from heroin-related causes. Whether it was gunpowder heroin that actually caused his death is unknown.

Wheeler and Lorenz say many people have died from the extra-strength heroin, yet no official records have turned up. The Medical Examiner’s Office hasn’t noticed an increase in heroin-related deaths, but Administrator Bill Ahern admits it was 90 days backlogged on toxicology reports.

The police and medical examiner’s lack of knowledge doesn’t surprise Mary Howe, executive director at Homeless Youth Alliance. She says heroin-related overdoses are indeed a real problem, and she personally knows heroin users who have recently died from overdose, but “unless you actually care about helping drug users you wouldn’t know.” And to receive a toxicology report from the medical examiner’s office takes a couple months, adds Howe.

Wheeler and others are currently waiting on toxicology reports to find out what exactly is in the heroin making it so strong. Without a toxicology report there is no way to be certain about the cause of death or the makeup of the drug.

According to SF Medical Examiner’s 2009-2010 annual report, nine out of the 141 people that died from narcotic analgesics related deaths were found with traces of heroin, down from previous years. However, finding out if heroin is the cause of death can be tricky. According to the report, the unique metabolite that identifies heroin, 6-monoacetamorphine, is very short lived and can metabolize in the body while the person is dying—leaving only traces of morphine or codeine.

Worse, a drug user buying heroin off the street will never know what exactly he or she is shooting.

“No one ever knows what’s in the heroin,” says Lorenz, adding that the label “gunpowder” has become a loose term for a stronger heroin. Lorenz, who spent the majority of his 20s doing heroin, remembers that gunpowder heroin at one time used to be a specific reference to a higher grade heroin from Columbia, off-white or grayish in color and crystal-like—resembling gunpowder.

Others say gunpowder heroin is black tar heroin mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Some disagree entirely and say the overdoses aren’t specific to any one type of heroin.

“Whatever people are calling it—it is strong,” says Wheeler adding that people rarely overdose from of a bad batch of heroin; they overdose from a good, strong batch. “In a world where the drug supplies are unregulated, this is what happens.”

If it is black tar heroin mixed with fentanyl, that could explain why hospitals aren’t reporting an increase in overdoses, says Jan Gurely, doctor at a local homeless clinic. She suggests that the people aren’t making it to the ER’s—they are only making it to the morgues.

“‘Gunpowder is very dangerous,” says Dr. Gurely. “It takes a phenomenal amount of antidote vials to reverse the overdose.”

Naxolone unbinds every molecule of heroin from receptors in the brain, reversing an overdose. The problem with naxolone is when too much is administered the overdose victim goes into withdrawal and comes to sick and vomiting. With a normal heroin overdose only half a vial is needed, but multiple vials are needed when dealing with gunpowder, she adds.

“A person could die on you with a vial in your hand,” Dr. Gurely said. “Most people don’t walk around with six or seven vials of Narcan.”

Pauli Gray believes the type of heroin causing a rash of overdoses and deaths is indeed heroin mixed with fentanyl. However, he doesn’t think it is a pure form of the prescription narcotic, but a homebrewed batch. Gray works for the Syringe Access Services program at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and also works directly with Eliza Wheeler and the DOPE Program.

“It’s called gunpowder and it’s all over the place,” Gray said, adding that heroin users are now actively seeking the extra-strength street drug. “When they hear dealers yelling ‘gunpowder’ they run and buy it,” he said. The street value has skyrocketed. Normally, a gram of heroin sells for $30, gunpowder is selling for $80 a bag, says Gray, and the bag can weigh as little as a quarter of a gram.

Gray says users have learned to shoot up very small amounts of the drug, although rumors of fatal overdoses are rampant. The other day he saw the drug for the first time. It smelled like vitamins and when cooked up it has small black flecks floating around, he says.

“People are selling it everywhere,” Gray said. “It’s really scary. We’re in overdrive.”

Fixing SF’s sunshine problems

8

EDITORIAL Open-government advocates are circulating a series of amendments to the city’s landmark Sunshine Ordinance, and a lot of them make perfect sense. In general, the changes bring the law up to date — and deal with the ongoing and increasing frustration over the lack of enforcement that has rendered toothless one of the most progressive open-government laws in the nation.

The advocates are trying to find four supervisors to place the measure on the November ballot. It won’t be easy: Already, the City Attorney’s Office has circulated a memo arguing that some of the amendments conflict with state law or the City Charter.

And in the background, Sup. Scott Wiener is looking to take another approach to open-government, asking city departments to examine the costs of complying with the existing law — which could easily become an argument for loosening the rules.

The new disclosure rules are relatively modest. A policy body would have to release all documents relevant to a decision 48 hours in advance of a meeting. Documents that include metadata — tracked changes and other digital information — would have to be released in full. Regulations on closed meetings around pending legal issues would be tightened.

But the bulk of the changes have to do with enforcing the law — and that’s where the battle lines are going to be drawn. The measure would create a powerful supervisor of public records, appointed by the city attorney, who would be directed to review all denials of public records — and who, by law, would be ordered to “not consider as authority any position taken by the city attorney.” That seeks to address a key shortfall in existing law — the City Attorney’s Office, which (like most law firms) is often driven by privacy and confidentiality, advises city agencies on what records can be withheld, and city officials who refuse to release documents simply say they were following the advice of their attorney.

The proposal would turn the Sunshine Task Force into an independent commission, some of whose appointments wouldn’t be subject to any official review. The commission would have extensive new authority to levy fines on city employees who it finds in violation of the sunshine law and to force the Ethics Commission — which routinely ignores sunshine violations — to take action against offenders.

The idea, of course, is to mandate consequences for violating the Sunshine Ordinance, which is flouted on a regular basis by public officials who pay no penalty and thus have no real reason to comply. But increasing the scope and certainty of punishment is one side of the coin — and if there were better ways to ensure compliance, none of that would be necessary.

In Connecticut, a state Freedom of Information Commission has the statutory authority to require any government agency to release a document or open a meeting. The panel doesn’t punish people; it obviates that whole process. And it would be much, much easier to get beyond the penalties and simply create a legal process that allowed the Sunshine Commission full authority to order public agencies to comply with its rulings. The commission rules that a meeting was illegally closed? Tapes of that meeting must be released, at once. Documents improperly withheld? Cough them up, now. The only appeal city officials would have: go to court and seek a secrecy order. If the supervisors and other city officials think the proposed rules go too far, they can refuse to put this measure on the ballot, but that be ducking the clear and obvious problems. And there’s an easy solution: Give the Sunshine Commission the same power as the FOI panel in Connecticut, which has operated just fine for more than 30 years.

Make it better now

1

yael@sfbg.com

Noted queer writer and speaker Dan Savage sent a hopeful message to LGBT youth with his 2010 YouTube video, “It Gets Better.” But many queer youth in the Bay Area say they aren’t willing to wait.

“If my adult self could talk to my 14 year old self and tell him anything, I would tell him to really believe the lyrics from “Somewhere,” from West Side Story. There really is a place for us. There really is a place for you. And that one day you will have friends that love and support you, you will find love, you will find a community. And that life gets better,” Savage said.

Savage and his partner Terry Miller’s message went viral. It inspired hundreds of similar videos and eventually led to the creation of the It Gets Better Project, headquartered in Los Angeles. The videos were a response to a tragic cluster of suicides by children bullied for seeming gay, a trend that was only unusual in that the media picked up on it. And for many teens across the country, the “It Gets Better” videos provided crucial hope and support.

But last week, I was talking to Stephanie, Lolo, Ose, and Mia Tu Mutch, four Bay Area teens, about what its like to be a queer youth today. We were talking at the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC), a center for queer youth in the heart of the Castro.

When I asked about the “It Gets Better” videos, they all had the same reaction: “Ugh. I don’t like those videos. I don’t like those at all.”

“Those videos are depressing,” Lolo said.

“Yeah. ‘Just wait ’til you’re an adult?'” Stephanie asked.

“Just wait ’til you’re an adult, and your problems will go away,” Mia said, shaking her head.

“And it’s celebrities, too,” Ose noted. “‘I got thousands of dollars, and it gets better!'”

The four of them are facilitators at LYRIC, leading weekly community-building workshops that deal with issues queer kids face. Between 17 and 21 years old, these youth are not waiting for it to get better. They’re doing it for themselves.

 

LYRIC’S OUTREACH

LYRIC definitely promotes pride and empowerment. Founded in 1988, LYRIC organizers worked to secure funding for a physical space a few years later. Since then, this purple house on Collingwood has functioned as a crucial center for Bay Area queer youth. It offers counseling, food, clothing, community building workshops that kids teach, and a safe place to hang out.

But LYRIC, like many nonprofits, has felt the impact of the severe government cuts to health and human services. As a result, its budget has suffered steady declines from approximately $1.2 million in 2008 to $954,000 this, year primarily due to shrinking government funding.

But LYRIC refuses to give up offering paid internships, a rarity in the nonprofit world.

“The City has made it clear that they no longer intend to invest significant funding into subsidized employment model programs — they want to serve greater numbers of youth at a much lower unit cost — even if we all understand that some of the most marginalized youth will no longer be getting the intensive level of support they need to make it to a successful adulthood” LYRIC’s Executive Director Jodi Schwartz told me, explaining that the organization is now growing support by more grassroots funding networks.

“We used to hire 60-70 young people per year, now it’s more like 20,” Schwartz says.

The organization still serves about 400 young people per year.

“I would guess we have 6,000 queer youth living in the city,” Schwartz said. “So we’re not reaching everyone. Not to say that all those 6,000 queer youth need a LYRIC, but they need community. We all need community.”

Youth from across the country come to San Francisco seeking that community. Often they have escaped intolerant, abusive, or dangerous situations in their families or hometowns. But when they arrive in this storied city, these youth are often disappointed.

“I was that kid who left a small town in Texas and who got to San Francisco as fast as I could,” Mia told me. “And I was like, you know, I’ll figure it out, I’ll find a job, and I’ll do this and that. And it was really hard.”

” I think that the difference is that there are more LGBT specific languages and policies, and organizations that are affirming. All of that is the best in the US, probably,” Mia said. “And there are all these cultural groups and all of that. But queerphobia and transphobia exist here just like it exists everywhere else.”

“So my big thing is how we have all these systems in place that make us a little more queer friendly,” she said. “But how do we actually get the public to stop hating people, to stop doing hate crimes, to stop bullying?”

Ose, who now lives in the Bayview, grew up closer to the city. But coming from a religious family in Modesto, he says, “I had heard things about the Castro itself. I always thought the Castro was the devil…I was a church boy.”

He remembers fear that someone he knew would recognize him in the forbidden neighborhood, that “my mom would find out and be like, what are you doing in the Castro? So I was scared to death my parents would find out I was coming to the Castro.”

That was two years ago. Now, Ose works in the Castro, and he was dressed in cut-off shorts and a slicked back Mohawk, long painted nails clicking on the table. “I’m hella gayed out,” he happily reports.

When Mia made it to San Francisco, she initially settled into the Tenderloin, rather than the gentrifying Castro.

“As a trans person, a lot of trans history is in the Tenderloin and there’s a lot of trans women who live in the Tenderloin and who work in the Tenderloin,” she explained. “So I feel more at home there. Even though it isn’t technically the gay neighborhood, it’s always been the queer ghetto and that’s where the low income and queer people of color live a lot.”

The Tenderloin is also the site of many of the services that queer youth use. Mia made some of her first local connections at Trans: Thrive, a program of the Asian Pacific Islander Center. And many of the kids at LYRIC, as well as the city’s other queer teens, benefit from Larkin Street Youth Services.

The homeless shelter oversees the only beds reserved for queer youth in the city, all 22 of them, a number Schwartz believes in inadequate. A report from Larkin Street in 2010 found that 30 percent of the homeless youth they serve identify as LGBTQQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning).

LYRIC is part of the Community Partnership for LGBTQQ Youth and the Dimensions Clinic Collaborative, which includes service organizations like the queer-specific health clinic Dimensions, the nearby LGBT Center, the Bay Area Young Positives HIV health and support nonprofit, and the city’s Department of Public Health. But LYRIC is one of only a few organizations that focuses on fun, informative community-building workshops.

 

ACCEPTANCE NOW

Savage promised queer kids that, in the distant future, they would “have friends that love and support you, you will find love, you will find a community.” But LYRIC’s workshops, largely envisioned and run by the youth themselves, show kids that they don’t need to wait: they can create those supportive networks for themselves, in the here and now.

Another such community-building effort was on display at the LGBT Center on June 15: Youth Speaks’ queer poetry slam Queeriosity. The show, which was preceded by five weeks of free poetry workshops for and by queer youth, brought together young queer people from across the Bay Area, and one could feel the love and support in the air.

“Queeriosity is important because, in the poetry scene, we have so many people with so many different backgrounds,” Milani Pelley, one of the show’s hosts and a poet who works with youth in the workshops, told me. “A lot of times people who get identified in the LGBT category, they don’t have that space where they’re front and center and it’s a space for them. It’s very important that we celebrate everyone.”

Pelley, 24, has been working with Youth Speaks since she was 16. She said the message of the It Gets Better videos might be too simple.

“Thinking about being an adult versus a teenager, adults go through the same things,” she said. “The only difference is it’s not encouraged to speak out about it, you’re supposed to act like you have it together and it’s okay.”

Mia said youthful teasing and bullying are precursors to hate crimes: “Bullying and hate crimes are related because it’s all about people not accepting you, and then violently reacting to who are. So either throwing insults or beating you up.”

On April 29, Brandy Martell, an African American trans woman, was murdered in Oakland in a likely hate crime. CeCe McDonald’s recent case has also exhibited the dangers and injustice trans women of color face. The young Chicago woman defended herself against a bigoted attacker who she ended up killing, only to spend time in solitary confinement while awaiting trial, get convicted on manslaughter, and, last week, be placed in a men’s prison to serve her sentence.

I asked the four LYRIC teachers about the campaigns of national organizations like the Human Rights Committee — such as marriage equity or LGBT soldiers — and they all shook their heads.

“There’s a huge disconnect between the national platforms of the major gay organizations and the actual realities of queer youth,” Mia said. “Like they don’t even have queer youth in the majority of their meetings, but then they act like they’re the ones fighting for our rights, you know.”

For example, she said “marriage equality wouldn’t affect me at all. Yeah, it would be okay, it would be better if it was equal across the board. But when you have people dying because of hate crimes, and dying because of bullying, and dying because they don’t have a place to stay and they’re on the streets, it’s like, I just feel like those are a lot more pressing than getting a piece of paper from the government.”

 

SETTING THE AGENDA

Mia serves on the city’s Youth Commission, where she’s designing training programs for service providers to work with LGBT youth. Ose is working with Schwartz to create programming for LGBTQ youth who don’t want to take the common path of rejecting religion and spirituality as they come to terms with other parts of their identity.

“I go to church a lot,” Ose explained. “I grew up as a Christian. And I wanted to touch base on that because a lot of times, the youth that I come across, the majority of them are being silenced…I’m still going through some issues with my own church, especially with my pastor because just recently I’ve heard that he dislikes me over the fact of the way I dress, the way I act, my feminine gestures.”

Stephanie sighed and said, “I wish there were more LYRICS around the city. One in Bayview, one in every district. And Oakland too.”

“People who provide counseling, food, clothes, water if you need it,” Lola added. “A safe space to go to, a place where you can make friends, and make connections. There need to be more places like that specifically for queer youth.”

Even in San Francisco, harassment is a reality in youth programs and schools. In 2009, the SFUSD studied Youth Risk Behavior in San Francisco’s elementary through high school public schools, and found that more than 80 percent of students reported hearing anti-gay remarks at school, and more than 40 percent said they had never heard school staff stop others from making those remarks. The survey also found that students who identified as LGBT were significantly more likely than their peers to report skipping school out of concern for their safety.

Queer youth will never stop finding informal networks of support. But structured settings like LYRIC can be vital. At places like LYRIC, youth find the community, the love, and the friends that Savage promised would appear with time — before they turn 18.

“It’s easier to build relationships and to build community when its structured, when it has a little bit of structure like, hey, this is a queer specified setting, we’re going to talk to each other, we’re going to hang out, we’re gonna do this, and then you kind of build community off of that. And because it’s based on identity, you feel more comfortable to talk about that,” Mia explained. “You have to change your reality. And you have to be the one to change it for yourself. Because ain’t nobody gonna make it better for you.”