August 17, 1999
From “don't ask, don't tell” to gay marriage and gay issues in her own personal life, La Streisand takes on the hard questions and demonstrates what it really means when an activist takes a risk and takes a stand.
By Judy Wieder
Barbra Streisand has been challenging convention, prejudice, and bigotry since the day she made her Broadway debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale in 1962. Unable to conform to the entertainment industry's pathetically limited standards of beauty, Streisand simply changed them for everyone forever. Singing and clowning her way through the role of Miss Marmelstein, the fearless 20-year-old dynamo overturned every obstacle in sight and catapulted herself to superstardom using only her kooky Brooklyn personality and one of the greatest voices in show business history. She did it by knowing she was different and being herself, regardless.
Unsurprisingly, she's still doing that. With a Tony, two Oscars, three Emmys, 12 multiplatinum albums, 24 platinum albums (more than any other female artist), and 40 gold albums (more than the Beatles), Streisand is set to top all her past achievements with the October release of her new album, A Love Like Ours, featuring her current single, “I've Dreamed of You.” She is also reteaming with Craig Zaden and Neil Meron, with whom she executive-produced 1995's Emmy award-winning Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, on an upcoming television movie about a lesbian custody battle, Love Makes a Family.
Recently setting the record for the largest one-day ticket sales of a single event, the 57-year-old phenomenon reports that this event-her New Year's Eve millennium concert at the MGM Grand Gardens in Las Vegas-may well be her last paid public performance. Which isn't to say you won't be hearing from her. For example…
Despite Streisand’s busy summer recording schedule (and because she did not want to miss the opportunity to participate in The Advocate's Best and Brightest Activists issue), she asked to have questions submitted to her so that she could work on them in her spare time. Although she said immediately that she liked the questions and felt she could handle them, we worried that something would be lost-her passion, her frankness, her humor, her rage, something-in the writing process. But we were wrong! As you can read for yourself, there's a reason why Streisand's magic has thrived over the years. Her power and integrity, her love and loyalty are inspiring. And fortunately, she's still absolutely fearless.
ON EQUAL RIGHTS
You talk a little bit about why and what kind of responses you got from people in general when Colorado passed a referendum that deprived gays and lesbians of legal protection against discrimination. You were obviously driven to speak out against it. Can you talk a little bit about why and what kind of responses you got from people in general when you did this? Did you get any hate mail? Was there something in particular that you learned from taking this stand? Can you say something about why you think gay rights are not special rights, they're simply equal rights?
For me, one of the most disturbing elements of the right wing's political agenda is that it believes that there is one correct spiritual and moral path for all people to follow. The danger inherent in this is its explicit refusal to accept anyone who happens to lead a different lifestyle, and the condemnation of those who differ. Homophobia is a disease which desperately needs to be cured. We need to get beyond this fear, ignorance, and bigotry and move on to a mature society in which we recognize that all people deserve dignity and respect, regardless of their gender, color, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.
I spoke out about my concern for the Colorado referendum because, by depriving gay men and lesbians of legal protection from discrimination, it set a very dangerous precedent. When I spoke out against the vote for hate in Colorado, I was attacked on many fronts. Many of my colleagues vacation in Colorado, and they were upset with me for saying that we should not go there. I received hate mail from people who were angry at me for just standing up for what I believed in. The most remarkable thing to me, however, in this instance was he incredible power of celebrity. The expression of my personal belief that people of conscience should not spend time and money in places that discriminate was suddenly elevated overnight into a call for a full-scale boycott of Colorado by people across the country I was truly amazed that my remarks had such a large impact. Fortunately, through the hard work and dedication of local lawyers and activists, and national groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, we were able to challenge the constitutionality of this measure and ultimately defeat on appeal.
The far right uses the phrase “special rights” as an excuse to hate and a way to confuse people into voting against measures which would give all people equal protection under the law. Gay and lesbian rights advocates do not seek to gain “special” rights, but rather they want to ensure that they are able to enjoy the same civil rights as everyone else. Activists have fought hard to get laws passed to secure the rights of people of different sexual orientations who are now excluded from protection. Through my Foundation, I have had the privilege of helping fund the important work done by many groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the ACLU. They are the true champions in the fight for justice and equality. How I wish we lived in a time when laws were not necessary to safeguard us from discrimination. However, recent events like the murder of Matthew Shepard clearly demonstrate that this day has not yet arrived. And it is unfortunate—but true— that in our society today, even as we enter a new millennium, unless antidiscrimination laws are passed and enforced, there is no inherent presumption that the civil rights of gays and lesbians will be ensured.
In 1992 you made a passionate speech for AIDS Project Los Angeles in which you nailed all the people involved for not responding to the AIDS crisis appropriately. You talked about the homophobia involved and the terrible health crisis that mushroomed because of it. Can you update us on how you see people dealing with AIDS today, the drugs, the safe-sex issues, the good and bad human responses you've seen coming from your professional peers, friends, and family?
The Reagan years legitimized bigotry. AIDS, which even then affected as many if not more heterosexuals than homosexuals throughout the world, was dismissed as a gay disease with an official homophobic wink, implying that those deaths did not matter because of who was involved. Luckily for all of us, however, in 1992 there was a change in leadership, and with a new president came a new understanding of the need to fight this dreaded disease. In his time in office, President Clinton has made many changes in government policy toward the gay and lesbian community. He has appointed openly gay people to serve in his administration, has supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and has increased funding for AIDS research and prevention programs.
The entertainment community was generous and committed early on in the effort to bring awareness to this problem. Thanks to the commitment of people like Elizabeth Taylor and Dr. Mathilde Krim at the American Foundation for AIDS research, a great deal of progress has been made in the past ten years. Their recognition of and financial contribution to the cause, along with the hard work of a host of dedicated scientists, doctors, and activists, has helped create new drug therapies which allow people to live with HIV longer than ever before, and now the possibility of an AIDS vaccine lies within reach.
We are filled with the hope that someday, some way, we will see an end to this human tragedy, but the battle is far from won, and there is a long road still ahead. The most difficult challenge we face at this point in time is complacency. Since many people in the United States are able to live longer lives with the help of expensive drug therapies and aggressive treatments, we are getting used to AIDS and almost accept it as a fact of life. Although it is wonderful that many AIDS patients today are able to live long lives with HIV through these innovative drug programs, many people have begun to view these drug combinations as a cure for the disease, which they most definitely are not. There have even been cases recently in which the HIV virus mutated so quickly that it became “drug resistant” to patients' protease inhibitors.
We must be ever vigilant in the search for a cure. It is estimated that 31 million people worldwide are infected with HIV. AIDS is now affecting everyone—heterosexuals, women, people of color, and particularly residents of developing nations, where 90% of the world's HIV-infected patients live. And these people cannot afford basic medical care, let alone the tens of thousands of dollars per person per year that it costs to pay for new drug therapies. As the disease crosses into new populations, these communities need our support, just as the gay community needed the support of others when the AIDS epidemic was breaking out ten years ago.
ON GAY MARRIAGE
You've already stated publicly that it's appalling to you that anyone would pronounce anyone's love invalid. Why do you think the fight for gay marriage is going to be one of the hardest gay men and lesbians will face?
I have said over and over again that I believe everyone has a right to love and be loved, and nobody on this earth has the right to tell anyone that their love for another human being is morally wrong. I will never forget how it made me shudder to hear Pat Buchanan say that he stood “with George Bush against the immoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women.” Who is Pat Buchanan to pronounce anyone's love invalid? How can he deny the profound love felt by one human being for another?
It bothers me that so many conservatives resort to name-calling and stereotyping. I remember in 1994 when Newt Gingrich pitted President Clinton against so-called “normal Americans.” This notion of “normal Americans” has a horrible historical echo, presupposing that there are “abnormal” Americans responsible for all that is wrong with America. Despite this rhetoric and hollow assumption, we are all normal Americans, with our joys, challenges, complexities, and triumphs. Unfortunately, however, as long as people like Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan continue in public life, the fight to codify gay marriage will be a tough battle to win.
ON GAY PARENTING
I understand from Craig Zaden and Neil Meron that your production of “What Makes a Family” is moving along. Lesbian court battles are, unfortunately, filling many courtrooms today. Some refer to it as the “dirty little secret” of the gay movement. Do you think that gay marriage and other “legal sanctions” and support systems will help some of the women struggling with these custody issues today? What have you learned from your exposure to this painful subject matter? Outside of custody battles, do you think gays and lesbians make good parents? Do you think they have something special to give? Why?
For me, the issue of gay and lesbian parenting is very similar to that of gay marriage, in that I feel very strongly that no one person has any right to invalidate another person's loving relationship with another. The children of this world need love and attention, and they deserve to have parents who will love, cherish, and care for them. What makes a good family is parents who support, nurture, and love their children.
There is no one “perfect” model on which all family structures can be based. If we surveyed human history, we would see representations of every type of possible social arrangement. There is no “standard” to which all families must adhere to. The idea that anyone can impose their image of what a “normal” family should be on others seems absurd to me. We all come from different backgrounds, cultures, and traditions and have different understandings of what a family looks like.
ON GAYS IN THE MILITARY
You have already made your feelings on this issue loud and clear (Serving In Silence). You said you were attracted to Grethe's case because it was “so unjust.” Although “don't ask, don't tell” seemed to advance things a little at the time, today it seems to be causing a lot of human damage in the armed forces. Do you have any feelings about “don't ask, don't tell” that you could share with us?
Although I am an activist on many issues and I sometimes gather the courage to speak at rallies and other public gatherings, I still have always felt that I can speak more eloquently through my work than through any speech I might give. As an artist, I have chosen to make films about subjects and social issues I care about. One of the films I am most proud of in this regard is Serving In Silence. Col. Grethe Cammermeyer was discharged from the Army because she insisted on telling the truth about her sexuality. Her story has always reminded me of a line from George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan that said, “He who tells too much truth shall surely be hanged.” Don't they realize yet that one's competence at work has nothing to do with one's sexuality and it's nobody's business—whether that person be Grethe Cammermeyer, Eleanor or Franklin Roosevelt, or President Clinton. I do think her case was incredibly unjust, and that is what made me want to tell her story.
The Rev. Martin Luther King said once that “although social change cannot come overnight, we must always work as though it were a possibility in the morning.” I do not agree with the government's “don't ask, don't tell” policy, and at the same time I know that changing policy takes a long time. I continue to look for the day when there will be no more barriers to employment in this country; when any person, regardless of gender, color, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, will be able to serve in any occupation they choose, including our nation's armed forces. We have come a long way toward recognizing the civil rights of gay men and lesbians in this country, but we still have a long way to go before full equality is achieved.
ON FOUNDATION GIVING
You have been very supportive of a plethora of good causes over the years. This support has been demonstrated both through your work, your actions, and your financial contributions to charitable causes. How does The Streisand Foundation function in achieving your goals, in terms of both gay and lesbian civil rights and AIDS?
The Streisand Foundation was started in 1986, with a concert at my home called “One Voice.” I created the Foundation because it has always been very important to me to give back to the community. Not only is the value of giving charity a part of my Jewish tradition—in the Jewish tradition charity is linked to justice and an obligation to mend the world—but I also identify strongly with those who have suffered oppression. Since its inception, the Foundation has provided assistance to organizations working on a variety of issues, including civil liberties and Democratic issues, women's issues, civil rights and race relations, AIDS research, advocacy, service and litigation, children's and youth-related issues, and environmental issues. The Foundation steered the giving of over $13 million since 1986, $3 million of which went to gay and lesbian rights and AIDS causes.
I am thrilled my Foundation has been able to fund such groups as American Foundation for AIDS Research; AIDS Project Los Angeles; Human Rights Campaign; Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation; Project Angel Food; the American Civil Liberties Union; Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; Gay Men's Health Crisis; and Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.
I hope you were able to read The Advocate's cover story interview with Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mother. There are no words for any parent's losing a child. But to lose your gay child that way is beyond belief. I have had two very nice phone calls with your son, Jason, over the last couple of years. We have talked at length about his doing something with The Advocate when he has a project he is particularly proud of. I mention this to “put it on the table” so that you know we talk. Since so many of our readers know Jason indirectly—through his movie work or through the one or two London-based interviews he has given—and know that you are his mother, is there some way you could say something about your own growth as a human being and an activist as a result of this crucial experience in your life. I am not asking you to talk about Jason. It's your evolution that would be so enlightening.
I would never wish for my son to be anything but what he is. He is bright, kind, sensitive, caring, and a very conscientious and good person. He is a very gifted actor and filmmaker. What more could a parent ask for in their child? I have been truly blessed. Most parents feel that their child is particularly special, and I am no different. I have a wonderful son. My only wish for my son, Jason, is that he continues to experience a rich life of love, happiness, joy, and fulfillment, both creatively and personally.
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