Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gay 9/11 Hero Mark Bingham Remembered: An Audacious Gay Jock Became a Hero

With the ten-year commemoration of one the most horrible tragedies in American history being marked on Sept. 11, 2011, a remarkable gay hero is also being honored. Mark Bingham was a passionate San Francisco rugby player and a charming public relations executive who found himself on hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 over the state of Pennsylvania. He led three other men into the cockpit to prevent the plane being used to attack a target in Washington, D.C. His cell phone conversation with his mother Alice Hoagland, the flight data recordings, and the calls of other passengers confirm that Bingham rose to the occasion. He had wrested a gun away from a criminal who was threatening his boyfriend on the street, and he used his 6'-4", 220-pound physique to play a determined and aggressive rugby game. Shouts of “Let's roll!” are heard on the cell phones from the doomed flight, as it is heard when a rugby team charges at a game.

Bingham played for the San Francisco Fog rugby team, and they are well known as formidable, but also as uninhibited and fun-loving. They barely blinked when emcee Donna Sachet cut off their jockstraps and they danced naked with their soccer balls at a Big Gay Fraternity House charity benefit in the Castro. The international gay rugby championship is named in Bingham’s honor, the gym at the Castro’s Eureka Valley Recreation Center features a large plaque honoring him, and his mother is adored for questioning any family’s separation from their children because of their sexual orientation.

"With You", a fascinating documentary film about Bingham, was screened to great acclaim at this year’s San Francisco Int'l LGBT Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. It was heart-rending to hear Bingham’s mother speak about her loss and to see multiple videos of Bingham with her, his boyfriends, his team, and his relatives. More than 1,200 people rose to their feet and applauded as Alice Hoagland walked down the aisle to ascend the stage.

Mark Bingham's mother Alice Hoagland on stage after the screening of "With You" at the Castro Theatre

The film’s message and the knowledge of Bingham’s actions have been a notable answering point to bigots who question the lives and morality of the LGBT community. Members of San Francisco’s congressional delegation and Senator John McCain have credited Bingham for possibly saving their lives. This journalist (and his extended family) is thankful because Flight 93 flew over his family’s farm 20 miles from the crash site when it was swarming with young relatives, and his father was at the U.S. Capitol that morning.

For more information on the Mark Bingham Foundation, visit

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Crescendo Fundraising Gala: A Unique Musical Artistic Event

Conductor Timothy Seelig, Grand Duchess Kylie Minono, and executive director Teddy Witherington

A unique brunch was hosted by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at the Four Seasons Hotel on Oct. 9:  The annual Crescendo fundraising gala in one of the city’s most stylish hotels started at noon, a time of the day on Sundays when many are nursing hangovers at home. The chorus drew an amazingly large turnout for a quiche and fruit parfait brunch, with accomplished musical performances and awards for the organization’s supporters.

Chorus guests who arrived early enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on the hotel terrace that overlooks the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s huge tilted blue cube. The chorus’ two ensembles, the Lollipop Guild and the Vocal Minority, performed to kick off the party and they projected the positive mood of the party and enhanced the admiration of the gathered donors.

Board president Michael Tate, executive director Teddy Witherington, and honoree Stuart Milk

The chorus’ new Human Rights Champion Award was given to Harvey Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk by chorus board president Michael Tate and executive director Teddy Witherington for his advocacy of LGBT rights worldwide. Milk’s day job is working with at-risk youth and he founded the Harvey Milk Foundation to fight hate and discrimination. From his base near Ft. Lauderdale, Milk researches and then visits communities where he can do the most good—from Spain to Turkey to San Jose Pride.

The new link between the Chorus and Harvey Milk was revealed when a “Dear Harvey, We’ve Got Hope” project video was screened, and then described by Witherington. Young people are being asked for their feelings about Milk and their submissions will be formed into musical creations for the Chorus’ upcoming 35th anniversary season. Impressive board president Tate then spoke about funding for the organization for the future.

A unique talent, counter-tenor Jacques Snyman, then performed, and the expressions of surprise on faces around the ballroom has been seen before, when other blatantly masculine looking countertenors reach high notes. Diageo Americas’ Phillipa Jones (of subsidiary Sterling Vineyards) said that their commitment to the LGBT community is sincere when she accepted a Corporate Champion Award. The Bay Area Reporter (BAR) received a Media Champion Award, though the decade-long LGBT press boycott of the Chorus led by the BAR’s publisher after a controversial Chorus dinner incident was not mentioned.

The guests were thanked by event co-chairs Paul Olsen and Sean Livingston, and there was talk from table to table about the Chorus’ altruistic tours through small California cities that also finance their local LGBT groups. Providing role models and self-esteem is an important side benefit to areas of the state where that can be lacking.

The Gay Men’s Chorus has managed to prosper during a time of financial uncertainty and much of the credit is due to not only the staff and board, but also the advisory board which includes Molly McKay of Marriage Equality USA, Dr. Betty L. Sullivan of Betty's List and the San Francisco Bay Times, Devesh Khatu of the Horizons Foundation, and Cecilia Chung of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Hardworking artistic operations manager Mike Holland also deserves credit for presenting professional light and sound in spaces where it never existed previously.

Artistic director and conductor for the last ten years Dr. Kathleen McGuire was remembered fondly, and her replacement Dr. Timothy Seelig has been embraced by the chorus after changes were made to the repertoire.

The Chorus is also thriving thanks to the monumental talents of Paul Saccone, the music director of the Lollipop Guild ensemble and Carl Pantle, the Chorus' associate artistic director, principal pianist, and the musical director of the Vocal Minority ensemble.

A wonderful event ended with musical interludes from the Lollipop Guild and the Vocal Minority.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Berlin and Beyond Film Festival: A Daring, Shocking, and Lyrical Film Festival

Berlin and Beyond Festival President Sabine Erlenwein and Festival Director Sophoan Sorn

The 16th annual Berlin and Beyond Film Festival is opening Oct. 20 at the Castro Theatre, and this  celluloid gift has been eagerly anticipated by film fans. San Francisco has always had a vibrant German-American community, and the Castro District was the home and business site for dozens of ethnic German families from the late 1800s to the post-WWII era.  When homes and garages on Collingwood Street are renovated, German-language newspapers used as insulation are found in the walls. San Francisco boasts some of the Bay Area’s best array of German restaurants, including the high camp decorated East German restaurant Walzwerk that has catered the festival with its superb goulash.

The media was invited to a Sept. 29 promotional press conference where conversations with Festival Director Sophoan Sorn and Festival President Sabine Erlenwein developed over pastry and coffee. Erlenwein is also the Director of the San Francisco branch of the Goethe Institut, the German Cultural Center that is located in large cities worldwide. Sorn and Erlenwein then mounted the movie palace’s stage to discuss the films, lead a Q&A, and introduce the excellent festival closing night film “If Not Us, Who (Wer wenn nicht wir).”

That closing night film is an inspiration to activists as it introduces the intense, young, disenchanted characters who would become members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, an urban terrorist gang also known as the Red Army Faction that was active in the 1970s. Their dysfunctional personal lives are on display, and the movie complements the numerous other films about the gang, such as the award winning “The Baader Meinhof Complex” of 2009. Germans are still confounded by the gang, since its members were privileged youth who did not just attack government and business officials with handguns, they attacked relentlessly with machine guns. The message of the film and its title is to not be complacent, but to be become activists and form groups to make changes, though not necessarily as extremely as the subjects of this cinematic expression.

The festival is about films, but it also is well known and admired for its high-energy parties. The mezzanine of the silent film era Castro Theatre is the venue for the opening night and closing night soirĂ©es where Blue Angel Vodka and Spaten beer will be served with treats from the Castro’s Hot Cookie and The Sausage Factory (where this journalist shared meals with Harvey Milk).

The festival depends on volunteers, its publicist Jackson Scarlett, and on gay lovers Alex Randoph and Trevor Nguyen, who solve problems and enhance the event using their experience with government service and group dynamics.

The consulates of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have generously supported the festival since its founding, and their gatherings throughout the year advertise the festival and its rich cultural significance. German culture is celebrated in San Francisco and a central focus of that culture is philosophy, art, and music. That essence is captured by the festival film “Young Goethe in Love.” Unfortunately that film will only be screened in San Jose because the filmmakers and distributors have restricted its viewing to theaters of 500 seats or less so it can remain eligible for awards. Controversy may emerge after the film is mass released because recently discovered letters suggest that Goethe was gay or bisexual.

The other unique and stimulating film only being screened in San Jose in the festival is “3 (Drei)” which is a rarely shown scenario of a man and his wife sharing another man, and it was a hit at San Francisco Int'l LGBT Film Festival this year.

For more information: