Friday, July 28, 2017

Why Is Understanding Mandatory?

Over the last few days—against my own better judgment—I've engaged others on a few friends' Facebook timelines on the subject of Trump's transgender ban earlier this week. To say that some of the responses I've gotten are disheartening is an understatement. So much fear (which leads to hatred) of that which we don't understand.

When cornered by logic, some of these respondents went radio silent, others lashed out with that underlying transphobia you knew was there the whole time bubbling under the surface. Some finally acquiesced in frustration to just "not getting the whole thing." And here's the thing: Why do we have to understand something to exhibit kindness and human decency?
I'll readily admit that I don't understand every facet of transgenderism. That's largely because I am not transgender and have therefore not experienced what it feels like to have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from my biologically assigned sex. I likely don't always get the preferred idioms correct or readily identify with every nuance of the transgender experience. But I try to learn by interacting with trans men and women, by reading more on the subject, by listening to the experiences of others. And still I don't understand every aspect of someone who is transgender.

But I don't have to. I can still choose—and make no mistake, it *is* a choice—to be compassionate and kind and to consider the totality of the individual with no judgement or malice. If I feel uncomfortable with some aspect of someone's gender identity or expression, that discomfort is mine and mine alone. It's based on some deep-seeded bias within me and has nothing to do with the other person. I try to push myself through that discomfort or aspect I don't understand and try to expand my try to figure out the reasons and origins of that discomfort. What I don't do is make a trans man or woman feel less than because of any shortcoming of mine. That's cowardly and morally wrong.
All human beings deserve to be loved and to be able to express love. They deserve to be treated with kindness and respect— what we've come to know as basic human decency. I may never know or fully understand what it feels like to be born into the wrong body, but I can treat people who do with empathy and compassion. It takes nothing away from me to do so. I subscribe to the philosophy of inclusive humanism, which embraces the idea that all human beings matter and deserve equal respect and dignity, regardless of geographical region, age, achievement, ability, appearance, ethnicity, religious beliefs, nonreligious beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, or gender.

This is not rocket science, folks. People are different. Some of those differences will be easy to understand and accept; others may prove more difficult based on our biases and preconceptions. Work through them...or at least try to. There are no pitfalls to doing so and an expanded world and worldview are among the many benefits.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Remembering Laura Branigan

Today, I am grateful for the life and career of the late Laura Branigan.

In the late 1970s, several years after attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, Branigan got her first break—touring Europe as a backing vocalist for Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen. Although she signed as a solo artist with Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, in 1979, her first album—SILVER DREAMS—went unreleased despite the first single making a blip on the BILLBOARD dance chart. With music fans tiring of disco and the second British invasion not yet landing ashore in America, Branigan’s booming four-octave voice actually worked against her during those early days at Atlantic, with the label’s A&R folks scrambling to position her as a pop singer. When her nine-track debut album—uninspiringly titled BRANIGAN—was finally released in 1982, the singer’s elusive breakout success would finally come by way of a reworked cover of an Italian love song, “Gloria.” That song would eventually go on to be certified platinum and spend a then-record 36 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number two and landing Branigan her first and only Grammy nomination as a solo artist. For better or for worse, “Gloria” would become the singer’s signature hit.

Subsequent releases proved the singer more than a one-hit wonder. As European synthpop took hold of the decade, more Top 40 hits came with “Solitaire”, “Self Control”, “Spanish Eddie”, and “Shattered Glass.” Unfortunately, Branigan’s career was marked by material that rarely rose to the caliber of her magnificent voice, with a few notable exceptions like “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” (penned by pre-fame Michael Bolton), “Cry Wolf” (which was later covered by Stevie Nicks), and her emotionally raw take on Jennifer Rush’s juggernaut ballad “The Power of Love” (predating Celine Dion’s worldwide smash).

Following the release of her final album, 1993’s OVER MY HEART, Branigan went on hiatus from the music industry to care for her ailing husband, Larry Kruteck, who would eventually die of colon cancer in 1996. Her career never recovered from either the heartbreak of losing her husband or the hiatus, during which grunge became the music du jour and poor management further derailed her career. She was contractually obligated to Atlantic to deliver two new tracks for the 13-track greatest hits compilation THE BEST OF BRANIGAN (1995), and she chose covers of former Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee’s “Show Me Heaven” (which had been an international smash from the DAYS OF THUNDER soundtrack) and a high-energy cover of Donna Summer’s disco nugget “Dim All the Lights.” Aided by a fun, drag queen-infused video, the latter would go on to become a moderate Billboard Top 40 Dance hit.

Her prospects for a comeback dimmed again in 2001 when a ten-foot fall from a ladder she was using to hang wisteria outside her lakeside home in Westchester County, New York, resulted in two broken femurs that necessitated rods and pins in both legs and months of intensive physical therapy. Branigan was again dipping her toe back into music with a few newly-recorded tracks—including a dance remake of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” and a haunting cover of the late Eva Cassidy’s “I Know You By Heart”—when she died in her asleep at the Long Island home she shared with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in August of 2004. She was only 52 at the time of her untimely passing, which was attributed to an undiagnosed ventricular brain aneurysm. Her ashes were scattered over the Long Island Sound.

Despite her modest catalog, Branigan has remained one of my all-time favorite female vocalists, largely based on my experiences seeing her perform live. She was truly an artist whose recordings did her extraordinary voice little justice. Between the years of 1984 and 2002, I had the great pleasure of seeing her sixteen times in concert, each time marveling at what a true vocal powerhouse she was. Adding to those musical experiences, I often had the tremendous thrill of meeting her after the show for autographs and photos.

Branigan also holds a special place in my heart for kickstarting my mid(ish)-life writing career. Following her tragic passing, I had the surreal experience of attending two estate auctions out in Westhampton Beach, both commissioned by her family. At the end of both auctions, I was fortunate to have acquired Branigan’s original marriage certificate, her personal wedding album and invitation, original proof sheets of unpublished photos of the singer, and never used photos from the shoot for her SELF CONTROL album cover, among other mementos. But even with these cherished pieces of the late singer, my heart was broken; this was the first celebrity to whom I had an attachment who had passed away. So, as many writers do, I channeled my grief into a tribute article that editor Steve Cyrkin was kind enough to buy and publish in his magazine, AUTOGRAPH COLLECTOR, a small, specialty-niche publication for enthusiasts of the titular hobby with a respectable national circulation. That led to a lengthy professional association with the magazine and a considerable collection of articles and interviews with celebrities like Meg Tilly, Terri Nunn of Berlin, Martha Davis of The Motels, BAYWATCH actor Michael Bergin, Johnathon Schaech, FALCON CREST’s Jamie Rose, and too many others to count. That gig gave me the confidence to pen my first novel, then edit my first anthology, and the rest—as they say—is history.

Today, on what would have been Branigan’s 65th birthday, I’m left with fond memories of a gracious woman who loved her fans and always took the time to tell them so, a modest musical legacy that only hinted at the talent beneath the glossy productions, and bittersweet thoughts of “what if…”. Most of all, I’m left with deep gratitude that Branigan chose to share her singular voice with the world and that her recordings will ensure that that voice will never be forgotten.