The Straight Story
Gays And Lesbians Fighting For Civil Rights In Maryland Are Gaining Powerful New Allies
Felice Shore whispered from one side of a round 10-top table. The ballroom at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel downtown was packed with people listening to César Chávez's daughter Christine speak about marriage equality. I couldn't hear Shore's question, so she whispered it again. My partner, Gina, bent her head around a wide centerpiece and mouthed, "Separate but equal." Shore nodded.
I was like a nervous little hen at the Equality Maryland Jazz Brunch, a fundraiser for the gay-rights organization, in October. We had invited, for the first time, four of our closest friends--two couples who happen to be straight. It was a big step for me to invite them into "the movement," and I worried that they might feel out of place. But Becky and Rick Redett bid on a piece of artwork in the silent auction, and Shore told me later, with a tinge of disappointment in her voice, "I thought I was going to see every gay person I know. And I didn't."
With a head of huge, red, crazy-curly hair and a fiery personality to go with it, Felice is a stranger to no one. She has more curiosity and better interviewing skills than many seasoned journalists, asking tough questions moments after first meeting a person. She has a doctorate in mathematics education and is a professor at Towson University, so wrapping her brain around difficult concepts is second nature to her. When she's confused, she has this way of scrunching up her face. You can see every question that goes through her mind, as if it is emblazoned upon her forehead like opera surtitles.
She doesn't mince words either. "So, you can have all rights but not `marriage,'" she says to me the day after our families celebrated the last night of Hanukkah together, throwing air quotes around "marriage" with her fingers. "That just seems stupid. Why fight over a word? It's like letting someone into the club this far, and then saying, `You can't cross that line.'"
For Shore, it's simply not rational to deny gays and lesbians the same rights she and her husband, Gregg Nass, enjoy. Plus, there are bigger things in the world to worry about. "If I think about all the ills of our society--homelessness, poverty, bad schools, the fact that we don't have decent health care in this country--those get me worked up, too," she says. "But those problems seem so insurmountable. [Granting gay civil rights] feels like an easy fix. . . . I just feel like it's totally doable, because it's a law."
The gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) civil-rights movement is growing up, and people like Shore are proof. Just as whites joined the black civil-rights movement in the 1960s and men took part in the women's movement at the turn of the 20th century, the straight-but-not-narrows are playing a role in the queer-rights movement. Moms have always had a place at the head of the queer parade; brothers, sisters, and children make their presence known in letters to the editors or at legislative hearings. But what about those folks who have no tangible tie to the gay community? Why the heck would they care? And why should anyone else?
Well, they care about justice. They feel passionate about the call to faith. They are just plain confused as to why queers can't have the same rights as everyone else.
"Movements for justice cannot succeed without the people who have power," says Kevin Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a national organization that helps students and schools form gay-straight alliances and promotes initiatives that keep GLBT students safe in their schools. Those in power are inherently privileged, he notes, a fact that can be used to further the lives of the less powerful.
"None of us choose privilege," Jennings says. "Privilege carries with it responsibility, and I think most straight people involved in this movement understand this."
Two members of the three-person legal team in charge of Maryland's same-sex marriage case--Frank Conaway v. Deane and Polyak, which was heard in the state's highest court in December--would gain no additional rights if the court rules in their favor. Many area ministers are including the gay civil-rights movement in their messages of love and inclusion. High-school and college gay-straight alliances across the state are formed for the sole purpose of bringing straight and queer students together to make schools safer.
These are some of their stories.
"The history of the United States, to me, is a progressive history," says David Rocah, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. His desk in the organization's Baltimore office is littered with papers and file folders. Occasionally he lapses into legalese and must back up to explain, but he is precise in a lawyerly kind of way. His approach to the law may be wonkish, but Rocah is passionate about the Constitution in the same way that a born-again Christian is passionate about the Bible.
"One of the large themes in the history of our country is a slow and halting journey to fulfill the promise of the Constitution," he says. "The right to equal protection under the law is the civil equivalent to the Golden Rule. It exists in the law for the same moral reasons that the Golden Rule exists in religion. Political oppression happens when the law doesn't protect people equally."
Of course, African-Americans and women, the forces behind two of the major civil-rights movements of the 20th century, still face inequities in our society today. But while members of these groups experience de facto discrimination--societal prejudice--gays and lesbians are still experiencing de jure discrimination--discrimination under the law. The African-American and women's rights movements are still ongoing, Rocah says, but they "are more mature. There are looming [legal] inequalities with regards to gays and lesbians."
Rocah has a firm grasp on this concept, and it's no wonder. "Civil rights is all I've ever done," he says, speaking of a career begun as a clerk for a federal judge before moving to the New Jersey ACLU. He also spent time as a senior trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Today, he's one of three attorneys representing the gay and lesbian plaintiffs in Conaway v. Deane and Polyak. "What's interesting to me is not law for its own sake," he says. "What's interesting to me is the movement for social justice in this country. And that's why I became a lawyer."
Rocah gets a little prickly when asked about the state's arguments in the case, heard by the Maryland Court of Appeals in December. "It's obvious to me that the justifications put forth by the state are lightweight arguments that have no empirical or logical basis," he says. The state argued that heterosexual marriage is necessary because heterosexual couples can "accidentally procreate," an idea that Rocah describes as "absurd," but courts in the states of New York and Washington embraced such arguments in similar cases last year. The irony is that marriage-equality opponents have long described gays and lesbians as promiscuous and their relationships unstable. Now, Rocah says, the tables have turned; the state asserts that it's actually the straight folks who need wedding rings to keep them from indiscriminately procreating all over the place. "That's not why I got married," he says. "Even so, it's not a reason to deny gay people the right to get married."
The idea that gay marriage somehow threatens straight marriage is also a sore spot for Rocah. "The knowledge that someone else can or can't get married frankly has no meaning to the value of my marriage," he says. He brings up Britney Spears' 48-hour marriage in Las Vegas. "Contempt for the institution can weaken the institution," he says, while the inclusion of loving couples in the tradition of marriage can only strengthen it.
When asked why he got involved in the case, Rocah is visibly perplexed. "To me, it doesn't register as a question," he says. "Lesbian and gay rights is what the ACLU is all about."
After a hectic, traffic-clogged drive from Silver Spring to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB), Sara Ryan tops off her harried day with an interview and a meeting. She reaches into her tiny handbag to retrieve a ringing cell phone. "It's my grandma," she says, clicking the cover shut and hiding the phone back in her bag. A 2005 graduate of Penn State University, she might be mistaken for a bubble-headed blond sorority sister--until she opens her mouth.
"I think gay rights is everyone's issue," she says. "Just like economic disparity and racism. I don't think my being straight doesn't mean that these things don't affect me. A lot of this issue is creating a culture that acknowledges different kinds of love and different kinds of families. This has to be a straight issue."
One by one, people arrive at the GLCCB's internet café for a meeting. Ryan is about to lead a group of men more than 20 years her senior in a discussion about how best to recruit volunteers for GLBT Lobby Day in February. It's all part of her duties as Equality Maryland's field organizer, a job she says she's been preparing for since high school.
"I come from a very progressive Jewish family and I went to Quaker school my whole life," Ryan says. As a high-school junior, the Philadelphia teenager went to an assembly presented by Equality Advocates Pennsylvania. She says she was shocked to learn that gays and lesbians could be fired from their jobs simply because they're queer. "It was so contrary to what I believed," she says. "And so I started to get involved with my [high school] Gay-Straight Alliance."
When she arrived as a freshman at Penn State, Ryan was less sure of how to be involved in the movement. She attended GSA meetings on campus but pretty much kept to herself. "I feared that the community of which I most wanted to be a part would reject me, or feel oppressed by my desire to help lead the movement," she wrote in a letter to Equality Maryland members on National Coming Out Day last October.
After several heart-to-heart talks with gay friends, Ryan found her inner activist and turned her passion into a career. She changed her major from sports communication to political science and African-American studies, so that she could learn from past civil-rights movements. By the second semester of her freshman year, she was the political director of the university's GSA.
Ryan says she feels she has an obligation to speak against injustice, but she knows her place. "One of my strongest contributions I can make to the movement is to help straight men feel comfortable and get involved," she says. Before her college graduation last May, she spoke frequently to sororities and fraternities--helping to educate straight Greeks and make gay brothers and sisters feel comfortable coming out.
"The sororities were instantaneously supportive," she says. "Within fraternities there were different levels of support." This education program had the backing of Greek leadership, so she didn't experience vocal resistance, but Ryan says that some fraternities took less initiative to invite her and other GSA members into their houses. "The real breakthrough we made on campus was when a student who was in a traditional, perceived-to-be-macho fraternity came out at the microphone on National Coming Out Day," she recalls.
Ryan is at once idealistic and pragmatic. "It's so hokey, but I believe that you must be the change you want to see," she says, quoting Mahatma Gandhi. But the math is simple, she says: "The way that things happen in this country is that the majority has to make things happen." That point is obvious given the state-by-state push to ban same-sex marriage via popular vote. If the stakeholders--gays and lesbians--represent only 10 percent of the population, as studies suggest, fighting these measures requires straight involvement.
"There are very specific roles that an ally should and can play," Ryan says. "Being a heterosexual woman, I am very nonthreatening to straight men. I am able to specifically target straight men in a way that is nonthreatening to them and help them get involved without thinking that people will think they are gay."
A knock on the third-floor office of my ministers, the revs. Phyllis Hubbell and John Manwell of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, draws an unexpected bark. I never knew that on busy Sundays they stash their Shetland sheepdog, Trooper, there during the service.
"We have such a busy afternoon and just couldn't leave him at home," Manwell explains as he opens the door. After receiving a scratch on the nose, Trooper settles down on a rug near Hubbell's desk. Hubbell and Manwell have crammed me into their dizzying schedule, which includes the Sunday service, an open house, and a show at Center Stage, to chat about queer rights.
The couple came to Baltimore in 1994, called to lead First Unitarian as co-ministers. Soon after, they were asked by a parishioner to demonstrate their dedication to gay rights, and, according to the local Gay Life newspaper, Manwell became "the first openly straight man to serve on the GLCCB board."
Manwell was, and still is, a quiet presence in the local movement. His sermons about the struggle swing toward the academic--instructing congregants on the history of same-sex marriage, for example--but he tears up while remembering the injustices that he has witnessed. He remembers when one congregation member was attacked on a Baltimore street "just because he looks effeminate." He also recalls a man named Gary, whose marriage to Tom he officiated one Valentine's Day. After the ceremony, Gary's family disowned him, but when he died of complications from AIDS years later, Manwell says, "his family claimed Gary then, when they wanted his things."
Hubbell admits that her activism is fueled by regret. "In retrospect, I wish I had been involved in the black civil-rights movement," she says of her days at Illinois State University in the mid-1960s. Located in Normal, Ill., the school provided a sleepy, uneventful setting, compared to other U.S. campuses at the time, so when Hubbell had the opportunity to take a stand for gays and lesbians in the early '90s, she did. "It's always been obvious to me--when this thought became conscious--that [gay rights] was a civil-rights issue, a justice issue."
"For the last two or three years, this has been a driving project for you," Manwell says to his wife. She nods. "What put the passion in it was getting to know gay and lesbian people," he continues.
"There's no question we've grown over the years," Hubbell says. "We had people at first who thought we weren't doing enough." When Manwell and Hubbell's congregation wanted to be explicit about its inclusion of transgender persons in 1997, she had worried that the timing was bad, owing to an unrelated conflict that the church was dealing with. "We were wrong," she says. "The church did beautifully with it, passing [a resolution] by a unanimous or near-unanimous vote, despite the conflict over the other issues at that time."
These days, the beginning of each First Unitarian service opens with these words, which Manwell and Hubbell say together proudly, their chests visibly puffed out: "Come, come whoever you are! Men, women, parents, children, whatever your beliefs, whatever your skin color, whomever you love, whatever your gifts--you are welcome here. You are welcome at our table."
Welcome at the table--not invited to follow their lead. "I don't expect to lead the movement," Manwell says. "Our role as straight people is to take whatever role gays want us to take."
But if anything, Hubbell believes that just showing up at meetings and events is helpful. "I have to think that having married co-ministers who look so straight can't help but speak for itself," she says. "One of the charges made against gay marriage is that it will somehow harm straight marriages. Being a straight couple, both ministers, who feel so passionately about this issue says that at least two people with a strong faith continue to have a happy marriage."
On Spirit Day each spring, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute's quad overflows with booths and jubilant teenagers. And according to the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, it's all but official--the GSA has the best booth. Students cram around the rainbow-ribbon-donned table for Skittles, face-painting, and, yes, even a few pamphlets explaining what it's like to be a queer teen.
Pardon the pun, but members of Poly's GSA take great pride in this, especially since the club's nemesis, the Christian Learning Group, purposely takes up residence directly across the aisle. When the GSA was resurrected from inactivity four years ago, the Christian Learning Group came out swinging.
During that first year, the GSA observed the National Day of Silence when GLBT students and supporters do not speak for an entire day, using note cards to communicate with friends and teachers. "There were some hostile responses from the Christian Learning Group," says Dennis Jutras, GSA faculty sponsor and chair of Poly's history department. The second year was worse. He remembers the Christian Learning Group circulating fliers citing the "homosexual agenda" and saying that gays and lesbians were going to hell. A quick chat with the school's administration and the fliers were removed; they broke the school's rules against hate speech.
GSAs across the country have been formed to counter bullying against GLBT students. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that in 2005 nearly one in three GLBT students in America skipped school in the previous month because they were too afraid to go. And it's no wonder; nine of 10 students surveyed reported hearing homophobic remarks like "that's so gay," "faggot," or "dyke," and 84 percent of GLBT students reported verbal harassment because of their sexual orientation.
Rachel McCandliss, a senior at Poly, counted the number of times she heard "fag" or "gay" during an ordinary school day one December. She remembers at least four. "Sometimes it can be a bit of a joke. `Oh yeah, he's my gay lover,'" she says. "In some ways that's a good thing, but in another way it's a bad thing, because it's still done in a denigrating way." A member of Poly's GSA since she was a freshman, McCandliss says she has always known gay and lesbian adults, but it didn't really dawn on her that queer adults start out as kids until she was in high school. That's when the need for a GSA really hit home.
"When I was in middle school everything was `fag' this and `fag' that, and I didn't really get into that," current Poly GSA President Carmen Tomas says. Meanwhile, her parents wouldn't even let her say "shut up." Like McCandliss, Tomas joined when she was a freshman after one of her upper-classman friends invited her.
"I'm a very political person, and for my best friend not being equal--it would be completely wrong to me for them not to be treated equally," Tomas says. "I was raised in a Catholic home, and to love everybody, and I do."
The membership of Poly's GSA is about 60 percent straight and 40 percent gay, Jutras says. About 15 to 20 students are regulars, drawn by a variety of motivations. Some straight kids want to be supportive of gay friends, but others have more altruistic reasons. "There's one young man that I have who's just Mr. Empathy," Jutras says. "He's really into civil rights. He's just offended by the narrow-mindedness of some people."
McCandliss says her role in the gay-rights movement has been in bridging misunderstandings between gays and straights. She encourages her gay friends to see their situations from a different perspective. "I have had to explain to gay people that this other straight person is trying to understand and that they may need a little time," she says. "We will get to that place where everyone is accepting of everyone else, but not everyone is going to be completely supportive at first." One gay friend asked her to pretend to be his date once--he didn't want his mother to know he was gay--but McCandliss wasn't playing. "I told him no way," she says.
"I think teenagers today are much more keenly aware of these issues," says Jutras, who was Baltimore City's Teacher of the Year in 2005. "Their brains are wired for social justice." He sees this in his classes, too, where students are required to stage debates on issues including gay marriage: "Many times I get from kids that they personally feel being gay is sinful, but that gays and lesbians should have civil rights."
"My wife is always telling me that I look like a straight, white-bread, conservative boy from a wholesome family, so I should expect people to be suspicious," the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors says.
He's leaning back casually in a side chair in front of his office desk. An oxford shirt peeks out from under his neutral sweater, and his left ankle is balanced on his right knee. The setting appears as conservative as can be, too--located on the second floor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian's Church House in Bolton Hill, where Foster Connors has been minister for two years, it was surely once a library or bedroom in the spacious house-turned-office building. Bookshelves line the wall behind a heavy wooden conference table, and photos of his wife and two daughters appear in silver frames on a shelf behind his desk.
But it's clear that there's more to Foster Connors than meets the eye. For one thing, he was arrested last fall for participating in a nonviolent peace demonstration in Washington, D.C. For another, he's been outspoken in Maryland's fight for gay civil rights.
"I don't think it's been any heroic kind of role," he says. "I think that it's the responsibility of religion to proclaim the good news."
I grew up learning that this message is found in John 14:6: "Jesus said to him, `I am the way, the truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.'"
True, Foster Connors says, but he also explains "the good news" this way: Paul, author of what some see as the biblical verses most condemning of homosexuality, taught that Jesus reconciles people to one another. He reconciled the Jews and the Greeks, and he can do the same for anyone who is different or seen as outsiders.
"The good news of gospel, it seems to me," Foster Connors says, "is that Jesus Christ breaks down the deepest barriers that we human beings erect to keep us apart from each other and from God. I would not argue against the good news of the resurrection, only for a more complete understanding of the gospel, a telling of the impact that the resurrection has for our world." In short, Christianity teaches how people can learn to live with one another.
While this is a message that Presbyterians and many other denominations embrace, Foster Connors applies it in controversial ways, including the affirmation of same-sex relationships. "I almost have a naiveté about that," he says. "I don't understand why other churches don't teach that."
His support of the gay civil-rights movement hasn't met with universal brotherly love. "People write nasty letters and say I'm going to hell and stuff like that," he says. "Do I lie awake worrying about this? No. Do I like receiving these? No."
While serving a church in Memphis, Tenn., before moving to Baltimore in 2004, surrounding churches prayed for him, his family, and his parishioners. "There were some people upset with me in Memphis," he acknowledges, though he seems deliberately vague about these things. "Part of it as a straight person is, like, cry me a river," he says with a sly laugh.
"I feel like God has continued to put gay and lesbian people in my life, to continue to open doors of understanding for me," he continues. "It really comes back to faith to me, what God is--understanding God through a window of diversity. It's not just a social-justice issue--it's a spiritual experience."
Foster Connors takes this very seriously. He and his church are active in That All May Freely Serve, a Presbyterian initiative working for the ordination of gays and lesbians in the church, as well as same-sex marriage. He is also active with Equality Maryland, testifying in Annapolis and lending his voice to the organization's efforts. But he doesn't force himself into all aspects of the movement.
"There needs to be a coming-together space for gay and lesbian people that I need not be a part of," he says.
Foster Connors isn't the only mainstream Baltimore minister who has stepped out of the stereotype to champion for gay rights. Gregg Knepp, minister of St. John Lutheran Church in Pimlico, is also very active, motivated by what he calls "moral and religious conviction."
"Faith is a powerful thing," he says. "I think it can be either positive or negative, depending upon your theological position on this issue. I tend to come from a very social gospel perspective, more so than a rigid interpretation and understanding of religious laws and traditions."
Knepp began his activism after spending time with gay co-workers at Lutheran Social Services in Pennsylvania, before entering the seminary in the mid-1990s. "I became friends with these individuals first, and then they came out to me," he says. "It wasn't anything that I had been particularly exposed to. I was moved and touched by their stories."
He entered the seminary and was hit in the face with the injustices he found within his denomination. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes bans on the ordination of gays and lesbians, as well as same-sex marriage. But instead of turning his back on his church, he opted for change from within.
"In my ordination vows, I promised to speak publicly for justice," he says. "I interpret that to mean that I also need to speak out against my own denomination on this issue. . . . On most issues, I agree with my denomination. They speak against the death penalty. They speak for the environment. They speak for the poor. But on this issue, I think they're wrong."
Four years after his 1998 ordination, Knepp conducted a same-sex union for two friends in Ohio. Rather than perform the service quietly, he wrote a letter to his bishop explaining that he was going to another state to perform the ceremony. He also explained why he chose to take this step. He says he has never heard a single word back on the subject.
Knepp's conviction comes from a history of hearing anti-Semitic and racist comments. "I grew up in a very Pennsylvania Dutch, closed community, where outsiders--people who were different in any way--were not welcome," he says. Today this white minister leads a primarily African-American congregation that is also welcoming to gays and lesbians.
"I look at our own family," he says of his three children, two of whom are African-American. "I don't want discrimination because I don't want my daughters to be discriminated against because they're female. I don't want my children to be discriminated against because they're African-American."
At the same time, he sees his role as strictly supportive. "I think that in any movement those who are most deeply affected must have the largest voice," he says. "But what people from the outside can contribute is a legitimacy, so that detractors cannot say it's all about self-interest."
This role is crucial, he believes. Without straight allies--who can be ordained within the denomination--the movement toward inclusion of gays and lesbians in his denomination will be stalled: "To truly affect change in the church, it's going to take a lot more straight pastors to speak out," he says.
Knepp says he's also motivated by the stereotype that all religious people are against gay civil rights. "I think when discrimination exists, we're all called to speak against it, whether it affects us or not," he says.
The maturity of the gay-rights movement goes hand in hand with mainstreaming. "It's kind of like preaching to the choir when we continue to speak to the gay community," says Khadijah Tribble, Equality Maryland board member and CEO of Trifecta Consulting, a firm that specializes in sensitivity training and encouraging institutions to consider GLBT issues. "I have found it very effective to quietly speak with [straight] people about these issues," she adds.
That's how she encouraged former NAACP head and 2006 U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume to reconsider his position on same-sex marriage. "We pretty much had similar ideas of how things should work," Tribble says of their conversations, which took place over several months in the summer of 2005. "We developed trust."
Mfume understood that personal views could not stand in the way of civil rights, she says, and in January 2006, after announcing his candidacy for Senate, he came out in support of Maryland Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdoch's favorable ruling in Conaway v. Deane and Polyak. "Mr. Mfume stood nothing to gain," Nipper says. "But understanding it was the right thing to do, he did it."
That's a theme that arises often when talking to those who are "straight but not narrow." Some will say that they have something to gain, but it's often a sense of justice or faith that propels these people into the gay civil-rights movement. Tribble says it's about time.
"I'm a student of the [black] civil-rights movement, so I make a lot of parallels," she says. "And people get mad at me." For example, she says, "It was the financial backing of wealthy white folk that started the NAACP. It's the same thing with [the gay-rights] movement. We're not going to be able to change hearts and minds without straight allies."
Lea Gilmore is one such ally, who has been beating the pavement with her message of inclusion for everyone for as long as she can remember. She recently left her position as outreach coordinator for Equality Maryland, and she worked for the ACLU of Maryland for six years. "As an African-American woman who is a believer and spiritual person, my support of gay and lesbian issues is not always understood," says Gilmore, the wife of a Baptist minister.
In the African-American community, Gilmore adds, she sees a lot of don't ask, don't tell. "Having straight allies is crucial, just like white people were crucial in the black civil-rights movement," she says. "We just couldn't do this by ourselves. The straight brothers and sisters need to do the same thing and not have a fear about speaking out."
Straight people have become part of the movement. As corny as it sounds, it's a human movement. Perhaps there's something in it with which many other types of people can identify.
"Sometimes when I drive through rural Pennsylvania on the way to [my husband's] parents' home, I see these small towns and think, They are so quaint. Wouldn't it be nice to live there?" my friend Felice Shore says. "But as a Jewish person, I know those aren't my places."
Like many straight-but-not-narrows, Shore understands the thing that ties us all together--inclusion vs. exclusion. "I know a lot of gay people," she says. "And I can just imagine the discomfort of going to a place where you're not sure you'll be accepted. You meet people who are very nice until you can't believe something that came out of their mouth. They say `Jewed down' or something like that, and it's like being punched in the stomach. You don't expect it. And then you have to dislike someone who is really nice."
Gilmore says that straight people identifying with gay people, whether they ever attend a meeting or lift a protest sign, is at the root of equal rights for GLBT people. "I don't believe change happens at the intellectual level," she says. "I think real change happens when you get to know people at the soul level, when we humanize them. There needs to be a hook in your brain to even be able to begin to accept change."
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