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To Have and to Hold

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And Their Little Dog, Too: Ralph Serpe, (rear) director of the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center, his partner Tom Kushner and dog Brick stepping out on a sunny afternoon. The couple has been together for 14 years--"probably because I'm Italian," Serpe quips.

Gay Christians define family values while fundamentalists wage a Holy War

By Ami Chen Mills

TUCKED AWAY in the rolling green hills of rural-suburban south San Jose is Silicon Valley's own Bible Belt, where patches of bright yellow wild mustard wave at speeding commuters and the loudest sound is the swoosh of passing cars. Down the road, garlic farmers and Latino business owners stroll down a main street in Gilroy that would function as comfortably for a small town in Georgia, Kansas or Utah, each of which has already enacted laws banning same-sex marriage.

On a brilliant spring afternoon in the parking lot at the South Hills Community Church, an elderly couple loads baked goods into a blue sedan with a small American flag hanging from its radio antennae. The church lobby inside features the practical, all-purpose decor of a Motel 6. Each Sunday, evangelical parishioners amass here in a cavernous auditorium to protect what they see as the last remnants of a lifestyle that's recently been through a nasty wringer.

When Pastor Peter Wilkes emerges, he hardly fits the stereotype of right-wing crusader. Silvery hair tops a gaunt face, and an aquiline nose sports a bookish pair of wire-rim glasses. A native of Britain, he wears a black leather jacket, a sports shirt, casual slacks and penny loafers.

The shelves above Wilkes' desk are packed with books. His discourse spans the ages from ancient Greece and Rome to the unfortunate--in his view--1960s. While his interpretation of historical events and biblical references may be subject to debate, Wilkes represents those Christians who continue to believe that homosexuality is deviant by nature, promiscuous as practiced, unclean and, ultimately, sinful.

They bolster their beliefs with policy papers generated by ultraconservative think-tanks like the Family Research Council, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Focus on Families, which claims to promote Judeo-Christian values. There is much investigation into studies on homosexuals, like the Kinsey Reports (a sham and immoral to boot, says the FRC). But there is no question that the maelstrom gathering to oppose gay marriage--and homosexuality in general--is amassed by the Christian Right.

"The Bible is very clear on this," Wilkes declares, referring to oft-quoted passages from the Old and New Testaments, in particular, Romans Chapter 1, the Epistle of Paul:

Who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. ... For this reason, God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the man, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error.

Garlic City Gay Rights

ON A WINDY, rainy April 1, the Gilroy City Council prepares to debate perhaps the most controversial topic of the year: whether to endorse a county-wide measure to recognize gay and lesbian relationships through a domestic-partners registry. The council received a copy of the measure from the sponsoring supervisor, Mike Honda, who had mailed the domestic partners proposal to all cities in Santa Clara County looking for their support. So far, only Gilroy has chosen to take up the issue. In the Council Chambers, anxious members of South Hills and other congregations form a line to the microphone.

"Homosexuality is a choice," one woman announces. "This is all about homosexuals wanting to get married. Has anyone done studies about homosexual couples and how their children feel?"

(A Bay Area Social Services Consortium study, contracted by the county, recently concluded that gays and lesbians make good parents and raise good kids. However, "children raised by heterosexual mothers experience more psychiatric problems than those raised by lesbians.")

Local gay and lesbian couples share their stories in Metro's photo essay, Family Portraits.

Outdated next-of-kin laws denied one man entrance to his own home.

Take a look at this chronology of domestic partnership developments locally and nationwide.

This same-sex marriage page has lots of details on pending legislation around the country.

The Carnegie Mellon domestic partnerships page catalogs news articles, opinions, and legal information pertaining to domestic partnerships and same-sex marriage.

As the speakers have their say, the common thread is fear. For them, a nostalgic vision of front porches and grandchildren is menaced by images of half-nude gay men in leather from the right-wing video, The Gay Agenda. When they speak of gay people, they may as well be speaking of aliens. In their impassioned pleas to the council, they emphasize the word homosexual, predicting "chaos" and "immoral decay." Supporters clap and cheer.

Speakers come and go amidst pointed applause. Then, an older woman steps up. She wears a cotton shirt and a sensible, conservative haircut. With a ruddy complexion and a wholesome face, she could have been raised on a family farm near here. The audience quietly waits for her to add to the argument against gay partnerships. Instead, shaking, she begins to speak: "I can't tell you how scared I am to get up here. I think it's a good idea.

"I am a lesbian," she continues, voice quivering, but growing louder, "and I am a good person. You would be happy to know me and have me as your friend. Probably, homosexuals are the last group of people about whom you can still talk about like they are not there. Please, stop separating people from one another." That's all.

The woman, Carole Kohler-Crowe, is there with her partner, Cheryl Kohler-Crowe. They live in Gilroy, where they work with children who have disabilities. "It's really a nice community," Carole says, still trembly, "except for this. I didn't feel safe here. ... This is not something we would normally do. I didn't think anybody was going to speak out for me and I thought all these people should have a face to see, to know where their fear and hate was going."

Cheryl nods: "It's kind of like they don't know that these are people they are talking about." Carole is the only one who will speak tonight as a gay person. In a 3-2 vote, the Gilroy City Council, with the vote of Mayor Don Gage, recommends against the domestic-partners registry.

Revelations

FOR GAYS who have recently transplanted from elsewhere, Santa Clara County can seem like a haven of tolerance--a nice place to settle down. Like straights who choose to live in the South Bay, gays and lesbians come here to set up an IRA, buy an Accord and maybe raise a family. Apple Computer was one of the first companies to offer benefits to same-sex couples, and in many tech companies it is not unusual to find a company-sanctioned Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual employees' group. Even Lockheed has one.

In February of this year, the San Jose Unified School District quietly approved domestic partners benefits for district employees. The city of Palo Alto had approved a similar policy in December without major incident. But the ferocity of the response from the conservative Christian community, both locally and nationally, caught many registry proponents off-guard.

Time magazine reported last week that stopping gay marriage--and domestic partnerships--was the religious right's "top priority" for 1996. And in a preemptive strike against an expected Hawaiian Supreme Court ruling which could legalize gay marriage in that state within the year, the California Assembly recently voted 41-31 against recognizing same-sex marriages. Nearly a dozen states have taken similar measures.

The county registry, as proposed by Honda, is mostly symbolic. The proposal would not allow partners legal privileges accorded to married couples, not even hospital visitation rights. The registry would merely provide a certificate which may or may not be recognized by area employers. "It's a small crumb of acknowledgement," says Ralph Serpe, executive director of the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center. "But now that the churches have stepped in and said, 'No,' it's really raised the stakes."

In the wake of the school district's action Feb. 1, Pastor Peter Wilkes called a meeting to rally fellow pastors and parishioners against what he views as a first step toward gay marriage. In a half-page ad taken out in the San Jose Mercury News on March 24, evangelical churches organized by Wilkes expressed their concerted dissent. Wilkes wrote:

... those who aim to destroy the battered biological family have prepared one more attack upon its distinctiveness. They want to redefine family so that any homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual live-in arrangement is equivalent to marriage. If it succeeds, this will undermine the distinctive commitment which is the foundation of the biological family. God has ordained that only a man and a women [sic] can create children ... God stands for marriage; He made the biological family. We oppose all efforts to undermine it.

According to Wilkes and pastors like him, each signed church is independent and most would prefer to stay out of politics. However, Wilkes says, "We are utterly united on this issue ... I predict that there will be thousands of Christians out [in opposition to the proposal]. And this is nothing compared to what you will see in the Midwest. Make no mistake, this is against the will of the American people."

Wilkes defines himself as a spokesperson for the opposition. He was central in organizing a March 7 Christian Right protest against the school district's approval of domestic-partners benefits. There, Wilkes called a list of Silicon Valley companies which offered domestic-partners benefits to employees "a list of shame." Evangelical Christians have since packed Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission and city council meetings to voice their opposition.

In the pivotal February meeting called by Wilkes, the pastor outlined the arguments of the Christian Right against the "gay agenda" to parishioners and pastors at the church where he ministers. After a standing ovation, a woman sobbed as she pleaded for parishioners to "pray before God" for help.

Another parishioner called the domestic partners registry a "plan of Evil" and encouraged others to "pray against the Evil One." Parishioners spoke of gays "harvesting children" to become homosexual, of the battle of light against darkness. One man assailed what he called an "artificial distinction, the separation of church and state. Christ," he said, "is Lord even of State." At the March school board hearing, opponents of the domestic partners plan predicted the end of Western civilization, comparing current events with events precipitating the fall of the Roman Empire.

Going to the Chapel

IN WILKES' VIEW, gays have chosen their lifestyles if not their orientation and can also choose to discard them. He is not anti-gay, he says. He loves gays: "They're such delightful people," he has said. Rather, he is against what he terms a gay "lifestyle" and seeks to lead errant man-lovers (there is little mention of lesbianism) away from their sinful path and toward mercy. Wilkes claims he once assisted a gay man who was suicidal, who then "stopped practicing the gay lifestyle and became Christian and married a woman." Is the man no longer gay? That's not the point, Wilkes says. He no longer practices his homosexuality. He resists temptation--that's the important thing.

Wilkes is seen by some in the gay and gay-accepting Christian communities as a tough opponent. Charming and reasonable, his aristocratic accent lends dispassionate immunity to his argument.

Nonetheless, his secular and biblical dialectics against the homosexual lifestyle and the "wrongness" of being gay are disputed by researchers, gay activists and other Christians.

Among them are researchers like Larry Burtoft of Focus on the Family, who argues that "personal distaste for a behavior is not, in itself, a sufficient basis for moral censure." All sexual acts under the sun are described explicitly in gay-rights opposition literature. Most, however, are not limited to or predominant in the gay community, researchers note.

As a result of some acts, Wilkes and his colleagues argue, there are medical consequences, including AIDS and hepatitis. Lesbians, with the lowest rates of HIV infection in the general population, are not mentioned.

Gays, these Christians say (again sidestepping lesbianism), are by nature promiscuous--"The level of promiscuity when you're driven by that sex drive is staggering," Wilkes shudders. Finally, Wilkes and others dispute the 10 percent figure, originally from Kinsey, used to estimate the number of gay men and women in society, (updated estimates range from nearly 14 percent, for men, to less than 1 percent of the population). And they assert there is no conclusive proof that being gay is biologically rooted. Though Burtoft grants, in his widely circulated paper "Setting the Record Straight," that "the truth [about gay origins] most likely will be found 'somewhere in between,' in the interaction between biologic and experiential factors."

The Christian portraits of gay behavior are presented piecemeal, without causal links. How societal factors such as hostility and disapproval, as well as efforts to block gays and lesbians from forming durable relationships and families, might contribute to gay behaviors and psychological problems is absent from the discussion.

According to an amicus brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994 by the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations and the National Association of Social Workers, "It is well established that homosexuality in and of itself bears no necessary relationship to psychological adjustment. The social and other circumstances [however] in which lesbian and gay men live, including exposure to widespread and intense prejudice and discrimination, often cause acute distress." Studies estimate that an average of 44 percent of gay and bisexual people have been threatened with violence because of their orientation.

Further studies by sexual behaviorists show no correlation between homosexuality and child molestation (a frequent charge), or bad parenting. In fact, research cited by the county social services report shows gays and lesbians make good parents and that their own sexual orientation does not cause their children to be gay. And, the APA asserts, "despite stereotypes to the contrary, gay men and lesbian women often form committed relationships that share principal elements of heterosexual marital relationships that are based on deep emotional attachments, and endure for decades."

Exhaustive figures can support both sides of the debate--the same numbers are used to support different views. "We are dehumanized," says Robert Bray of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Gay people are constantly engaged in a pro and con of myth vs. fact. If we tried to keep up with all the reports those people put out, that's all we would do. It makes you almost wish for the Cold War again."

Just Say No to Sex

THE FUNDAMENTALIST debate hinges on the argument that a gay man or woman has a choice about, if not their sexual preference, then their sexual behavior. Pastor Wilkes makes no claims that gays can change their orientation, but argues that gays and lesbians can and should control themselves, postulating a position for gays in society in which gays are denied satisfying sex lives, recognition of their romantic relationships, civil rights and families--in the interests of protecting "the biological family."

"Jesus was uninvolved sexually," notes Wilkes.

At this, David Harvey, the jolly pastor for the Celebration of Faith Praise and Worship Center, and a former music minister for Bethel and Cathedral of Faith churches, which oppose domestic partnership, chuckles. "Ask Pastor Wilkes if he would like to live like a eunuch. Ask him if he would walk a mile in my shoes," he counters. Harvey left the evangelical churches, he says, when he was called by God to minister to gays and lesbians, "to show them God still loves them." He believes the church leaders championing the anti-gay agenda "are like the Pharisees in the Bible" who denied that Jesus was the savior. "They didn't believe him because they were constrained by [religious] law. It was blasphemy to them. They're so sincerely convinced that they're right--that they're wrong!"

The modern-day Pharisees Harvey describes see the "gay revolution" as one more step in society's downward spiral, predicted in Romans and leading to Revelations. The fact that gays act on their romantic and sexual desires is an example of how American society, which was fine until the end of the 1950s, has dropped everything of worth in pursuit of individual gratification. But Pastor Harvey refers to the shame and judgment gays are faced with: "Who in their right mind would choose that?"

The Shocking Reality

AT THE BILLY DEFRANK Lesbian and Gay Community Center in downtown San Jose, lesbians and gays--as advertised--are selling sodas, answering phones and shelving books. It is a far cry from the depictions of debauchery and decadence ascribed to the community in fiery church oratory.

"Mostly we are just going about our lives," says director Serpe. "You know, going to the grocery store, going to the ATM. It's shocking, really!" he says. "Right now there's a lesbian here and do you know what she's doing? She's using the photocopying machine! Now, if this were a straight office, she'd be photocopying her butt, but she's not, she's photocopying a piece of paper."

Although Serpe jokes about his religious detractors, he is troubled by their claims. "You are talking about me," he says somberly. Serpe was raised Catholic, and through high school, lived his parents' dreams, making captain of the football team and class president. All along, he says, he knew he was gay. This was, he recalls, not an idle observation or a blithe act of "individual gratification." At the age of 25, when he finally chose to come out, he was disowned completely, and has not seen his parents since--a circumstance which causes him agony.

Today, Serpe has been in a relationship with the same man for 14 years. As an activist, Serpe is somewhat accustomed to dealing with insults from branches of the Christian community, but worries that others may not be.

"What the good pastor doesn't realize is that there are young people in his own congregations who are gay, and it's their own version of hell they're going through. What [ministers] are doing will promote their destruction and alienation. It produces years and years of angst-ridden denial, of self-loathing."

Out Before God

THE MOST POTENT stories of gay men and lesbian women come from those who grew up within evangelical churches. Vaughn Beckman, 36, an ordained minister at First Christian Church in San Jose, was inspired to go into the ministry by the teachings of Billy Graham. Beckman was 13 when he accepted Christ as his savior. Following in the religious tradition of his family, he enrolled in Liberty University and Liberty Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg, Va., where the Reverend Jerry Falwell serves as chancellor and pastor.

In 1984, Beckman received top honors in the department of theology there. He continued to excel in his ministerial studies, but at the same time was conscious of what he calls an "affectional orientation" toward men. Shaken, he attempted to submerge his feelings beneath his studies. "When you're sitting in one of those pews, it puts you in a tremendous state of denial, and you can be in a fantasy world that you believe that you're not who you really are." Beckman even married a woman in 1983. "We resolved to be the best married couple possible," he recalls. "But, for me, it was like marrying my best friend."

The Beckmans moved to San Jose in 1985, and in desperation, Vaughn began attending Christian counseling sessions designed to straighten out gays. "I tried very strongly to change, and I tried with every power and every ounce of strength. We all expected to have some kind of divine healing."

But "conversion therapy" was a dubious success. Men, he recalls, would use the occasion to ask each other out. "I have yet to find someone for whom it's worked. It mostly teaches you that to be dishonest is a good way to keep your faith. I felt there was no honesty and no real help, and [knowing that] was probably one of the most painful experiences in my life."

Beckman sees the evangelicals' arguments as the worst kind of dispensationalism. "They know that many portions of scripture are not applicable to the modern world. There are actually very few passages about homosexuality and many more about heterosexuality and divorce, and those are overlooked or redefined in the context of the time period. There are at least a couple people in that newspaper ad that are divorced." Beckman claims people from churches in the ad have come to him for counseling because of their homosexuality.

"I had a Pentacostal pastor curled up on my couch in fetal position," Beckman relates. "I think it's vulgar to be so dishonest. There are a number of people in leadership positions who are lesbian and gay in those churches and they feel horrible. There is no wholeness in their lives. To believe what their faith is saying they have to hate themselves, and I do not believe that is of God."

In the Family

JOYCE IS A 38-year-old lesbian who, while open about her sexuality, prefers not to use her real name in a newspaper article, to protect her family. She grew up in the evangelical churches listed in the Mercury News ad. Her father even founded one. She continues to socialize with church members, her childhood friends. But Joyce, a pastor's daughter, claims she was molested as a girl by family members who attended the church.

In her family, she says, "there was lots of raging and fear, and physical abuse. There are no exceptions [in the churches]. They are human beings and they are not excluded from sin."

Her experiences, she says, paved the way for her lesbianism. "I don't really bond with men," she admits, although she is attracted to them. Joyce first started to recognize her sexual orientation when she became friends with a lesbian in her church at the time, Cathedral of Faith. Her friend was not out. "Gays in those churches live in secret. People are bound by that horrible shame and what I call abuse. I'm not blaming those people, they did what they knew."

Coincidentally, Joyce's partner, Adena, once sought comfort at Cathedral of Faith before the two women met. Adena was baptized at Cathedral of Faith in September of 1985, but says she felt shunned by the church and did not return.

Joyce and Adena live together with their adopted child. "I am honoring who I am now and what I believe," Joyce says. What the churches preach, she says, "is not about God, it's about fear," and fear makes for a grand crusade. "That's where all the money is," Joyce says. Joyce and Adena will be "married" in a commitment ceremony later this month. Joyce's family won't attend.

A New American Family

AS PASTOR for the First Unitarian Church in San Jose, Lindi Ramsden prefers not to focus on gay and lesbian issues. But as an uncloseted lesbian, the first to lead a mostly straight congregration in California, she supports the domestic-partnership proposal. She and partner Mary Helen Doherty are raising an 11-year-old adopted son, Ben, a bright, outspoken champion of underdogs, and a 23-year-old foster son, formerly homeless, who is currently studying aircraft mechanics in the Navy. Family portraits decorate the walls above Lindi's desk.

It is not unusual for gay and lesbian parents to take in children who would otherwise be without families and children with disabilities. In the new county report, staff at foster services describe gays and lesbians as "an invaluable community resource in that they are willing to accept children with a broader range of difficulties" than other couples, and are particularly skilled at doing so.

As a parent and pastor, Lindi is worried about what children will hear during the rapidly degenerating domestic-partners debate. "There is a lot of talk about sexuality in all this, but people forget that sex ultimately is an act that means two people are as close as they can get. It's not just that gays and lesbians want to have sex with people. They fall in love." It is to foster family love that Ramsden conducts commitment ceremonies for gay couples at her church. "If there are ways in which we can form commitments to each other, we should. I believe in long-term relationships. I believe they contribute to safety, depth of intimacy and to stable communities and families."

Ramsden understands the fears evangelicals have: "There's a lot that's changing very rapidly in society. We have families where two parents are working, there's a lot of economic stress. The underlying fabric of society feels very frayed. People are looking to commit to deeper values. That's a positive impulse, but it's misdirected in fear."

"How is my committed relationship to a woman I love and to the children we love, how has it taken away from your lifestyle? I think we've made the world a better place."

A Home by Any Name

JUST OFF OF Greer Street in a Palo Alto neighborhood known as midtown, a friendly community network refers to itself as "queers off Greer." In just one residential block, seven or eight gay and lesbian couples go about the business of raising families and making a living. Tom Hartland, 43, and Jay Davidson, 48, are one such couple. Their clean, sparsely decorated, wood-tiled home shelters the two of them, as well as a 7-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, both from Tom's former marriage. The children, Elizabeth and Brian, are also cared for by their mother and an extended family which has--at first reluctantly, then fully--embraced Tom and Jay's relationship. Tom and Jay registered as domestic partners in 1992 and have enjoyed some benefits through the city of San Francisco, where Jay works as a first-grade teacher.

On Valentine's Day this year, Tom and Jay registered again, with 16 other couples, in Palo Alto to show symbolic support for the city's new domestic partners registry.

Their lives in pricey Palo Alto, far from the campaign of evangelicals farther south, are shed light on what life might be like if gay relations were to become sanctioned by the state. Both men radiate calm maturity, an ease of style that makes those around them feel childlike with restlessness. They sit on their couch tonight, with daughter Elizabeth between them, sometimes holding hands.

Their stories are familiar.

Tom was 13 when he realized he might be gay. He was delivered to the priest by his parents at his Episcopalian Church. "That same priest would try to seduce me 10 years later," Tom notes with a chuckle. At the time, the priest told him to try to become comfortable with himself. The advice was unacceptable. Tom embarked on his own campaign to re-program himself using a technique he calls "heat re-focus"--he'd think of women when he became aroused.

"It tied me up in knots," he says. Nonetheless, Tom married a woman to whom, he says, he remained faithful for 10 years, until his divorce in 1989. Jay underwent a similar struggle, fueled by passion to create a family life he never had. Jay divorced his wife in 1971. For 10 years after the divorce, Jay was gay, single and hardly dated. "I didn't have to have somebody just for the sake of being with somebody."

Persuaded by friends, Jay placed an ad in the San Francisco Sentinel: "Objective: a monogamous life together in which we share all joys and sorrows and give each other consideration, attention, respect, affection and space." That was in November 1990. Tom responded by mail and the two met for tea. "We knew," Jay says.

Tom remembers the day his son, Brian, then 8, asked him if he and Jay were gay.

"I said, 'Why do you ask?' And he said, 'Just tell me.' " And I said, 'Yes.' It was all the courage I could muster just to say that one word." Brian then asked Tom if he could change. The father explained to his son that he had tried very hard, but could not. "For another year, he would ask, who did I like better, him or Jay?"

Since then, Tom and Jay say they've built a stable life relatively free of incident. There is the occasional kid who is not allowed to play with their son, but Brian has many friends and is definitely attracted to girls.

Elizabeth, a second-grader, says she calls Jay "Uncle Jay," and when she introduces him she says, "This is my uncle and he's gay with my dad." Does she get teased? "Sometimes my friends like to say, 'two gay men, one brother, one sister.' That's what they say--but it's true."

Tom and Jay and many of their friends are gay families, leading well-adjusted Silicon Valley lives. "Most [gay] people I know have children. I haven't seen any variance in the urge to have a family," Tom says. There are plans for Passover with a group of other same-sex couples, and the children's mom. And life goes on.

When Tom and Jay dwell on the actions of those who would oppose their right to commit to each other and receive support, it is with bemused detachment. "I don't think my children should have to hear any of that," Tom says with the tone of a protective parent. Jay, meanwhile, muses, "There's a video that a lot of these people get their information from, what is it? The Gay Agenda. They focus on these outrageous acts."

"What if we based our image of heterosexuals on Las Vegas and prostitutes?" Tom asks, "We'd say: Look at all those child molesters!"

"You sure can't have those heteros be teachers! You can't let those straight people get married!" Jay jokes.

They can laugh, but the issues aren't distant after all. Tom's brother is an evangelical Christian and politician active in opposing gay rights. He has not visited Tom's home or acknowledged Jay.

Here in Tom and Jay's living room, it's easy to believe gay marriages have already come to pass. Tom and Jay's neighborhood is just like neighborhoods across the country where gay and straight couples fix dinner and tell stories. There are just as many gays and straights as ever, only now gay couples openly raise their families. The days when gays and lesbians were driven to shame are over. "Soon, it'll all seem pretty gauche," Jay predicts.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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