• Victoria A. Brownworth

Supermajority News October 22, 2020

Joe Biden and President Trump have campaigned in Pennsylvania weekly since the conventions ended and both have held town halls in Philadelphia. That’s how critical the swing state Hillary Clinton lost on November 8, 2016 (by less than a percent) is to both parties. But the coronavirus pandemic has challenged both candidates and voters in

Pennsylvania, most notably in that it has resulted in serious concerns about voter


The April Pennsylvania primary, which was pushed back to June, was the first election in the state in which it was legal for any registered voter to get an unexcused absentee ballot. But all those mail-in ballots — almost 17 times the number requested in the 2016 election — overwhelmed the system. It took over two weeks for races in all 67 counties to be certified. And Pennsylvania law stipulates that mail-in ballots not be opened until Election Day.

But that wasn’t the only issue: 37,119 ballots were rejected in Pennsylvania (more than any state other than California and New York), disenfranchising those voters. Most absentee or mail-in ballots are rejected because required signatures are missing or don’t match the one on record, or because voters missed the deadline to submit those ballots. Pennsylvania also has a “naked ballot” law where ballots must be sealed in a “secrecy envelope” and then placed in the official mailing envelope; failure to do so also results in the ballot’s rejection.

To put these rejected ballots into perspective, consider that Trump only won Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election by 44,292 votes, or by 0.7%. Should absentee ballots be rejected in significant numbers this November, Lisa Deeley, Chairwoman of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, suggests the state would tip to Trump once again, since Democrats are three to four times as likely to vote by mail as Republicans.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Trump has been fighting to limit voters’ access to mail-in voting in Pennsylvania since the primary, specifically by filing lawsuits to limit how and when ballots can be received and counted.

“The only reason the Trump campaign is trying to limit the use of mail-in voting is to make it more difficult for Pennsylvanians to vote,” Sarah Brannon, managing attorney of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told Supermajority News. She added that voters can combat these efforts by using drop boxes, which are a “safe and efficient option for people who want to participate in our democracy, particularly in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly pandemic.”

Many Pennsylvanians are paying close attention to this disenfranchisement, especially given their memories of similar experiences in 2016. Marla Johnson, a resident of the predominantly Black neighborhood of East Oak Lane in Northwest Philadelphia and poll worker of nearly 30 years, never believed Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 — she wanted the state to do a recount.

“I feel I was disenfranchised in 2016,” Johnson told Supermajority News. “I feel my whole family was disenfranchised and this city was, too. Black women voted for Hillary. We came out for her.”

Thankfully, a number of concerned parties are doing all they can to prevent voter suppression this year, including Lisa Deeley who, on September 21, petitioned the state legislature, expressing her concerns that similar problems could result in thousands of rejected general election ballots. “I don’t want 100,000 legit Pennsylvania ballots thrown out for a technicality,” she told Supermajority News.

Three Pennsylvania voters from the Pittsburgh area — Patricia DeMarco, Danielle Graham-Robinson, and Kathleen Wise — signed onto a lawsuit filed by the Black Political Empowerment Project, Common Cause Pennsylvania, and the League of Women Voters to expand drop-boxes for mail-in ballots. The three women asserted that the primary had disenfranchised them as regular voters whose health issues made them vulnerable to the pandemic. Robinson and Wise got their ballots too late to make the deadline and DeMarco never received confirmation that her ballot had been received by the county elections office.

The League of Women Voters also filed another lawsuit demanding that anyone whose ballot is rejected due to handwriting be notified and allowed to “prove” it is their signature. The League noted that disabled, elderly, and less educated voters are most likely to have their handwriting questioned. In every one of those demographics, women outnumber men.

But the Republican-led state legislature is also working to limit accommodations for voters in any way it can. On September 28, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day. The legislators claimed this ostensibly extends the election.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that claim in a late-night vote on October 20. The high court ruled that Pennsylvania could legally extend the deadline for receipt of mail-in ballots to November 6 — three days after Election Day.

This wasn’t the Republicans’ first failed attempt to curtail Pennsylvania voters. After Trump himself asserted at the presidential debate on September 30 that “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” claiming the city and state are rigging the votes against him, federal court Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan threw out a lawsuit filed by Trump’s campaign on October 10, dismissing its challenges to the battleground state’s poll-watching law and its efforts to limit how mail-in ballots can be collected and which of them can be counted. Still, the Trump campaign is appealing Ranjan’s ruling and Trump has repeatedly said he’ll only lose Pennsylvania if Democrats cheat.

The Trump lawsuit was opposed by the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf (D), the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP’s Pennsylvania office, and others.

“The ruling is a complete rejection of the continued misinformation about voter fraud and corruption, and those who seek to sow chaos and discord ahead of the upcoming election,” Wolf’s office said in a statement.

These attempts are perhaps unsurprising given the recent revelation that, in 2016, the Trump campaign targeted 3.5 million Black voters in a widespread, data-based form of voter suppression.

In addition to these concerted attempts to suppress votes, the pandemic has also forced the closure of many polling places throughout the state, which in turn can lead to voter suppression. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state’s two largest cities, had 2,100 polling places in 2018. In 2020 there are 500. The people most impacted by this are Black voters, given that Philadelphia is 45% Black and Pittsburgh is 23% Black.

Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters, succinctly explained to Supermajority News that cutting the number of polling places disproportionately impacts voters of color. “It’s a voter suppression tactic,” Stewart said.

Another concern is that 2020 will be the first presidential election since 1980 where the Republican Party is not bound by a consent decree, which has limited the Republican National Committee’s ability to challenge voters’ qualifications and target voter fraud — which Trump has falsely, but consistently, claimed is rampant.

The evisceration of the consent decree also means that Republicans can encourage Trump supporters to use “security tactics” that Trump has called for, such as poll watching, and thus intimidate Democratic voters or keep them from the polls. The Republican National Committee asserts their poll-watching will extend only to legal tactics, but Marc Elias, the Democratic Party’s attorney for voting rights litigation, told 60 Minutes he was very worried about the likelihood of such voter intimidation, noting it was something “everyone who cares about voting rights should be worried about.”

As Senator Kamala Harris said after the vice presidential debate and again while campaigning in Orlando on October 19, “Why do you think they don’t want us to vote? We all know the answer: It’s because they know when we vote, things change. When we vote, we will be seen, we will be heard, and elected officials will be held accountable.”

For Marla Johnson, there was some satisfaction, therefore, in turning her mail-in ballot early, but she said the wait until Election Day, and whenever the election is decided, will be hard. “We did our part. Now we just have to wait and see what happens.”

Originally Published Supermajority News October 22, 2020

  • Victoria A. Brownworth

PGN September 23, 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, died September 18 after a long bout with pancreatic cancer. She was 87. Ginsburg was a champion of women’s equality under the law, gender equity and a staunch supporter of LGBTQ civil rights. Ginsburg was the most important female jurist in U.S. history. The foundational arguments of Ginsburg’s cases on gender equality formed the basis for much of the law that was later used to propel LGBTQ civil rights cases forward, including in marriage and employment discrimination.

Ginsburg voted for LGBTQ rights in every case that came before the court, and she was consistently the fifth vote in 5-4 decisions. She famously stated during oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, “Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy were unsure if heterosexual marriage would be threatened. In a fierce series of comments from the bench, Ginsburg said repeatedly that they would not and when one of the justices argued that domestic partnership was an alternative, she said that was like a skim milk version of marriage.

Ginsburg argued that heterosexual marriage would suffer no threat whatsoever if lesbians and gay men could also marry. She said, “Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down … Would that be a choice that state should [still] be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?”

The court said no, it would not, and marriage equality became law.

In a press release, Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said Ginsburg was “a giant of justice, a champion for equality and progress. Justice Ginsburg was an American hero and pioneer, a voice for so many marginalized people, leaving behind a legacy of courage, tenacity and historic impact in creating a better country and a better world for all of us.” Carey continued, saying “We are all so grateful for all Justice Ginsburg has done for LGBTQ people, for women, for our ability to control our own bodies, for all that seek to move freedom forward in this country.”

Called “The Notorious RBG” by feminists, Ginsburg rose to a new status in recent years: social media icon. Memes of her working out in the gym, GIFs of her speeches, and outtakes of lesbian comedian Kate McKinnon’s impressions of her on “Saturday Night Live,” were everywhere.

Whenever news of an illness broke, thousands of her fans flooded Facebook and Twitter with offers to give her an organ, while others insisted she be kept in bubble wrap until the next election. If love — or her own dedication to duty — had been enough to keep her alive, Ginsburg would still be with us. The night before her death, she was receiving an award at the Constitution Center, albeit virtually. Yet mere hours later, just before sundown on Rosh Hashanah, she passed.

The list of Ginsburg’s accomplishments is long, varied, and relentlessly impressive. Well before President Bill Clinton nominated her to the High Court at the behest of Hillary Clinton in 1993, she had made history. Her work for the ACLU in the 1970s brought women’s law into the legal foreground for the first time.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993. Between Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement in 2006 and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, Ginsburg was the only female justice on the Supreme Court, and it was then that her reputation for dissent blossomed.

In the 2007 employment discrimination case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion was credited with inspiring the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, subsequently signed into law in 2009 by President Barack Obama. The law made it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims.

Ginsburg also authored critical dissents in abortion cases and said “The basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.” She was deeply critical of cases that sought to limit access to abortion, which penalized poor women and young women most.

For LGBTQ Americans, one pivotal case involving this very paper, as the New York Times reported, was when the court overturned the Child Online Protection Act, which sought to blur the lines between actual child pornography and content that is ”harmful to minors.” The ACLU, which challenged the law, pointed out that in the name of protecting children, the act criminalized discussion boards on gynecology, sexual advice columns, the Philadelphia Gay News and its HIV/AIDS reporting, and other communication fully deserving of protection.

“PGN represented LGBT media in the case,” publisher Mark Segal explained. “Were it not for RBG’s questions in the case, PGN could have been fined $50,000 per incident and as well as up to six months in jail.”

Other rulings where Ginsburg’s impact was felt included the 1996 law invalidating Colorado’s Amendment 2, Romer v. Evans. Ginsburg also voted in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, to end sodomy laws which had been disproportionately used against gay men and lesbians, especially in child custody cases for the latter.

Ginsburg also voted for LGBTQ rights in Windsor v. United States and Hollingsworth v. Perry, both in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, which legalized same-sex marriage. In June, Ginsburg joined the decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which made employment discrimination against LGBTQ people illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In 2013, Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court justice to conduct a same-sex wedding, marrying Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and economist John Roberts. Four years later, Ginsburg married local Philadelphia opera singer Daryl Freedman to her wife Jackie. Freedman had met Ginsburg at the Washington National Opera, at an event where she was performing and Ginsburg was hosting.

“The worst thing that someone can say is no, and she’s an icon and legend and I figure now’s our shot to see if she would grant us this honor, and we asked,” Jackie Freedman told CBS Philly. “And then a few weeks later we were in the Supreme Court in her chambers and she was officiating our wedding.”

“For us, as two women to be married by such an icon who was a pioneer for women’s rights and equality and a champion for the LGBTQ+ community, the significance, the historical significance, the personal significance, it was just unbelievable overwhelming and incredible,” Daryl Freedman said.

Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that Ginsburg was “a force for good, a force for bringing this country closer to delivering on its promise of equality for all.”

Ginsburg’s chair in the Supreme Court, appropriately to the left of Chief Justice Roberts, is now draped in a black pall. When someone dies it is Jewish tradition to say, “May her memory be as a blessing.” Ginsburg’s memory is already a blessing. May her memory instead be as a revolution to fight on in her name.

Originally published Philadelphia Gay News September 23, 2021

  • Victoria A. Brownworth

PGN September 9, 2020

There is nothing like live theatre. Years ago, while living part of the time in London, I saw two of the world’s great film stars on the stage, Vanessa Redgrave and Dame Maggie Smith. These renowned actresses were mesmerizing. I can still recall the nuance and drama of those performances; such is the power of a brilliant theatre actor.

Charlotte Cushman was such an actor — a towering, iconic performer about whom the reviews were always raves and the famous made sure to see her act so they could tell their friends. Cushman was known on two continents as the greatest actor — female or male — of her time.

Born in Boston in 1816, a family tragedy propelled Cushman onto the stage as a teenager for the most quotidian of reasons: her family was destitute and needed money. Once there, Cushman made the money that fed her penurious family. But Cushman fell in love with the stage and it her. She began a career of nearly four decades in the U.S. and Europe, captivating audiences that included Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Queen Victoria. Walt Whitman wrote of “the towering grandeur of her genius” in his column for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Louisa May Alcott put her in a novel.

“Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity,” Tana Wojczuk’s new biography of Cushman, brings the actress to life with vivid storytelling and newly researched details drawn from letters and archival materials. Senior nonfiction editor at Guernica and a writing instructor at New York University, Wojczuk’s essays and other writing have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals. In “Lady Romeo,” Wojczuk writes in a novelistic style imbued with a flair for the dramatic that captures Cushman and the impact she had on her era and on other people. It’s a page-turner.

Re-creating a star one has never seen is work, but Wojczuk uses her literary approach to pull the reader into Cushman’s oeuvre and explain and explore how Cushman became, as Wojczuk declares, “America’s first celebrity.” Cushman was as much a character as the ones she played, and Wojczuk details that here.

Tall, imposing, androgynous and famously “lantern jawed,” Cushman played both female and male roles on stage. And it was this versatility that set her apart from every other actress and actor of her time. “Her love speeches had a poetic cadence that, [critics] argued, no male actor could achieve,” writes Wojczuk. One aches to have seen Cushman perform from Wojczuk’s descriptions and the reviews of the time.

From Boston to New Orleans, Philadelphia to New York, London to Rome, Cushman was Lady Macbeth, but she was also Romeo. She was Nancy of “Oliver Twist,” but also Hamlet. At a time when women’s legs were hidden and a glimpse of an ankle caused a thrill, Cushman strode onstage as a “trouser actor” — her legs, her female legs — in leggings, pants or tights. She would go out after her work dressed like the flamboyant Billy Porter of her time: Male attire to the waist, skirts below.

As Wojczuk writes, “To men, she embodied the man they wanted to be, gallant, passionate, an excellent sword-fighter. To women, she was a romantic, daring figure, their Romeo. American artists and writers who later became famous were starstruck by her, and she was a household name on two continents.”

Cushman made both women and men swoon from the stage, but it was just women she wooed to her own boudoir. Previous demure recountings of Cushman have noted she “never married” because she was living openly as a lesbian, bedding women and living what some called a “bohemian” lifestyle, setting up a lesbian enclave in Rome for artists and writers that included several of her lovers, often vying for her attentions.

Drama followed Cushman, on and off the stage. The excerpts from Cushman’s letters are incredibly compelling and make the story of her complicated personal life likewise compelling. Wojczuk’s framing is enticing and gives a clear sense that Cushman’s lovers were as in thrall to her as were her audiences.

As Wojcuzk describes it, Cushman created “an entourage of female friends, ambitious, unorthodox artists like herself who longed for more freedom than they could find in America or in England.” One of Cushman’s lovers, and her partner until her death, American sculptor Emma Stebbins, memorialized the actress in the famous Bethesda fountain, Angel of the Waters, in Central Park.

“Lady Romeo” is above all a provocative, fun and easy read. While academic biographies of the famous of another era are often pedantic and plodding, Wojczuk writes with a gossipy, entré nous style that has a page-turning quality. I read the book over a weekend. The most frustrating part about “Lady Romeo” is wanting to share the details with a friend or spoiler alert it out on Twitter: “Wait, did you hear about what Charlotte Cushman did to her nephew?! Two Emmas? Really, Charlotte?”For that delight, you’ll have to gift “Lady Romeo” to a friend. Wojczuk’s biography is highly recommended for both its historical content in exploring Cushman’s role as the first celebrity and an openly queer figure as well as for its entertainment value in bringing that time and Cushman’s complex persona believably and readably to life.

Originally Published Philadelphia Gay News September 9, 2020


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