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D.C. has marriage, so now what?

Despite successes, activists say ‘we have not overcome yet’

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Aisha Mills, president of the Campaign for All D.C. Families, said LGBT activists cannot ‘rest on our laurels’ despite recent successes. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

When the weddings for same-sex couples began in the District of Columbia on March 9, many in the community hailed the occasion as the capstone of the city’s decades-old LGBT rights movement.

The District government’s enactment of a same-sex marriage law in December and Congress’s decision not to stop it follows a long list of existing city laws and policies that protect LGBT people from discrimination, some of which were approved more than 30 years ago.

With this as a backdrop, some in the community wondered whether the same-sex marriage law marked the completion of the LGBT rights movement within the city, enabling activists to move on to other causes and endeavors.

But an informal Washington Blade survey of local LGBT activists conducted over the past two weeks shows that virtually all those contacted believe a wide range of LGBT-related problems and concerns remain on the agenda of local advocacy groups.

“There’s still so much work to be done,” said veteran D.C. gay and Ward 8 community activist Phil Pannell. “We have not overcome yet.”

Pannell and others involved with local LGBT organizations pointed to alarmingly high rates of HIV infection among D.C. men who have sex with men, the city’s unwelcome status of having the nation’s highest rate of reported anti-LGBT hate crimes, and its distinction of being one of the few major U.S. cities that fails to provide ongoing city funds for its LGBT community center.

The same contingent of activists expressed caution that the fight for same-sex marriage in the city is not yet over. They noted that a lawsuit seeking to force the city to hold a voter initiative calling for repealing the law is scheduled to come up for a hearing May 4 before the D.C. Court of Appeals.

City attorneys, who have already won several earlier court challenges to the marriage law, say they are optimistic the city will ultimately win its case in defending a provision of its initiative and referendum law that bans ballot measures seeking to take away rights from minority groups.

That law, which gay activists persuaded the City Council to pass in the late 1970s, has so far spared the city a divisive ballot fight over gay marriage that has rocked other states, including California and Maine.

“We still have to stay vigilant and make sure we are actively monitoring what will come down through the courts,” said Aisha Mills, president of the Campaign for All D.C. Families, one of the lead groups that lobbied for the city’s same-sex marriage law.

“And we also know that Congress still has an opportunity to get involved and intervene in D.C. in a number of ways,” she said, pointing to Congress’s authority to overturn a D.C. law at any time, including through its process of approving the city’s annual appropriations bill.

“We are not going to be able to rest on our laurels and be safe and secure in having marriage at least, I would say, for another year or two or even longer,” she said.

Veteran D.C. gay activist Bob Summersgill, who is credited with mapping the strategy for passing a same-sex marriage law, said he, too, is hopeful that a ballot measure seeking to repeal the law will be defeated in court. However, he noted that Congress could always exert its authority to force the city to put the issue before the voters.

“The Democrats will not hold both houses [of Congress] forever, and it is unlikely that any Republicans will back marriage equality in D.C. if they gain a majority,” Summersgill said. “The longer that they are put off, the safer we are, but we must be prepared to fight a ballot initiative.”

On other matters, Summersgill and Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance, point to GLAA’s 21-page 2008 LGBT Agenda, or policy paper for D.C., which describes a wide range of issues that the group believes are related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender city residents.

Rosendall said the group is updating the Agenda document in time to present it to candidates running in this year’s mayoral and City Council races.

“Marriage equality is only part of one of six sections in our policy paper,” Rosendall said.

In addition to addressing LGBT families, Rosendall said the document lists LGBT-related concerns over public safety, including the Police and Fire and Emergency Medical Services Departments and the Department of Corrections; public health, including AIDS; human and civil rights; education and youth; and consumer and business issues.

“Even if we achieve equality on paper — and we have a long way to go in some of these areas — continued vigilance is required to ensure that good policies are put into practice,” he said.

Among the specific issues addressed in the document are bullying of LGBT youth in the city’s public schools “while adult authority figures often look the other way,” lack of social services for transgender residents, and a local health care system that doesn’t sufficiently serve lesbians.

The GLAA Agenda document is available online at the organization’s web site, glaa.org.

Lesbian Democratic activist Barbara Helmick cited a litany of issues similar to those raised in the GLLA Agenda document, but said that local activists should go a step further by joining others in the community to push for changes in federal law.

Of particular concern to same-sex married couples, she said, is the existing federal law barring them from obtaining Social Security spousal benefits given to straight married couples.

“I think with our unique seat right here with the federal government down the street, the local community becoming active in that campaign would have enormous benefits for many of our married couples here in the city as well as married couples throughout the country,” she said.

David Mariner, executive director of the D.C. LGBT Community Center, said many of the LGBT-related social services programs that groups like GLAA seek to improve are performed in other cities by LGBT community centers.

Pointing to a call by activists in Philadelphia for “brick and mortar” projects and programs for LGBT youth, seniors and other vulnerable populations, Mariner said the D.C. LGBT Center has the ability to house or operate such programs if the city helps fund the center.

“We are the only major U.S. city that doesn’t have a permanent building for our local LGBT Community Center,” Mariner said. “In our short time at 1810 14th St., N.W., we’ve seen what is possible when we have an appropriate facility. Unfortunately, we will have to leave this facility, possibly as soon as this summer, and our future is uncertain.”

Mariner was referring to a lease the Center has for a building formerly used by the Whitman-Walker Clinic. The building is owned by a real estate development company that plans to demolish it to build a new condominium and office complex. The Washington Blade offices also are located in the building.

Brian Watson, director of programs for the non-profit social services group Transgender Health Empowerment, and longtime transgender activist Earline Budd, an outreach worker for the group, both said the community’s work in addressing transgender issues is far from complete.

The two pointed to the organization’s Wanda Alston House for LGBT youth, which provides temporary housing and social services to gay and trans youth. Due to city budget cuts, the Alston House lost a sizable portion of its city funding, requiring THE to reduce services to the youth staying at the house.

“Homelessness in our community is mostly invisible,” Budd said. “One of my priorities for our movement is to find out how we can reach the social and economically disadvantaged in our community.”

Gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein said an important part of the community’s continuing agenda should be making sure the mayor and city agencies properly implement LGBT-related laws and policies already on the books. He noted that agencies such as the public school system haven’t been aggressive enough in carrying out anti-bullying polices, for example.

“We may also need to legislate action” requiring the agencies to better carry out such programs, he said.

Carlene Cheatam, a same-sex marriage advocate and longtime member of the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Men & Women before recently stepping aside from the group, called for a fundamental change in the LGBT movement’s approach on the local level.

Instead of working mostly within specific LGBT groups that limit their work to LGBT-specific issues, Cheatam said activists should become fully involved in their local communities and integrate LGBT advocacy into the broader community.

“I have always thought that the community does it wrong,” she said. “I feel the community does it separate from other issues and the broader community. … You can’t just go to the straight community and say let’s talk about LGBT.”

She said a small number of LGBT people who are involved in their local communities work on broader, non-LGBT issues as well as LGBT issues.

“But as an agenda, the community does not get involved in something that’s not LGBT,” she said. “And yet we expect our allies to support us. … And so what I want is for the LGBT community to become part of the broader community and participate, support other people, other communities to establish allies.”

Cheatam also said that LGBT people who take a low profile in their involvement in the broader community should be fully out and self identified as LGBT.

“This also helps other people who are in the closet to see LGBT [people] who are visible, who are cleaning up neighborhood alleys with the gay T-shirt on. You can see that from your window and say, ‘Wow, they’re able to be out and in the neighborhood.’

“That’s my wish for the community.”

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Virginia

Man who killed one in 2000 Roanoke gay bar shooting dies in prison

One of the worst bias attacks targeting LGBTQ community

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Ronald Edward Gay died while serving life sentences for attacking a Virginia gay bar. (Washington Blade clipping from Sept. 29, 2000)

A man sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison for the September 2000 shooting at a gay bar in Roanoke, Va., in which one man lost his life and six others were wounded, died of natural causes on Jan. 15, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections told WSLA 10 TV News that Ronald Edward Gay died while being treated at a hospital near the Deerfield Correctional Center, a state prison where he had been living as an inmate. He was 75. 

Witnesses and law enforcement officials reported at the time of the shooting that a middle-aged man later identified as Gay arrived alone at Roanoke’s Backstreet Café, a popular gay bar, on the night of Sept. 22, 2000.

According to an account by an eyewitness to the incident who spoke last week with the Roanoke Times newspaper, after ordering a beer and standing next to the bar for a short time, Gay reached into the long trench coat he was wearing, pulled out a 9mm pistol, and fired a round “straight into the chest of 43-year-old Danny Overstreet, before opening fire on the rest of the bar.”

Overstreet, a beloved regular patron at the Backstreet Café, died at the scene of the shooting. Six others, who were wounded by bullets fired by Gay, later recovered, but they and many others who were present and witnessed the shooting were left emotionally scarred, the Roanoke Times reported.

In the weeks following the shooting, news media outlets, including the Washington Blade and the Washington Post, reported findings of an investigation by local police that Gay told police he went to Backstreet specifically to target gay people because he became bitter after years of being taunted and teased for his last name of “Gay.”

The Roanoke Times reported that, among other things, Gay told police “God told him to do it” and that he once wrote that there was an evil inside of him telling him “to shoot or have no rest.”

Gay later pleaded guilty to multiple charges against him, including murder. On July 23, 2001, he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in prison for the shooting incident and the murder of Overstreet.

The Backstreet incident in Roanoke was considered by LGBTQ rights advocates and others to be one of the worst incidents in which LGBTQ people were targeted for a shooting until the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in which 49 people died and 53 more were wounded in a mass shooting by 29-year-old Omar Mateen.

Mateen, who was shot and killed by Orlando police after a three-hour standoff, told police in a phone call from inside the nightclub after the shooting began that he swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and his attack against the gay nightclub was motivated by the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The FBI later classified the incident as a terrorist attack.

The Roanoke Times reported that the shooting incident at Backstreet Café prompted LGBTQ residents and allies to gather in the days and weeks after the incident for vigils and marches. About 1,000 people walked through the streets of downtown Roanoke to honor the life of Overstreet and to urge Congress to pass federal hate crimes legislation, the newspaper reported.

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Local

Va. senator introduces anti-transgender student athlete bill

Democrats have vowed to thwart anti-LGBTQ measures in state Senate

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a bill that would ban transgender students from joining school sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Senate Bill 766, which state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) introduced on Friday, would require “each elementary or secondary school or a private school that competes in sponsored athletic events against such public schools to designate athletic teams, whether a school athletic team or an intramural team sponsored by such school, based on biological sex as follows: (i) ‘males,’ ‘men,’ or ‘boys’; (ii) ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; or (iii) ‘coed’ or ‘mixed.'”

“Under the bill, male students are not permitted to participate on any school athletic team or squad designated for ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; however, this provision does not apply to physical education classes at schools,” adds the bill. “The bill provides civil penalties for students and schools that suffer harm as a result of a violation of the bill. Such civil actions are required to be initiated within two years after the harm occurred.”

Kiggans introduced her bill less than a week after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office.

Youngkin during his campaign said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity. Elizabeth Schultz, an anti-LGBTQ former member of the Fairfax County School Board, has been named the Virginia Department of Education’s Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the state House of Delegates. Democrats still control the state Senate, and they have pledged to thwart any anti-LGBTQ bills.

“Let’s be clear: This is part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to exclude trans people from enjoying the benefits of sports like their cisgender peers,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on Friday after Kiggans introduced SB 766. “We won’t tolerate this.”

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Comings & Goings

Hazen inducted into Cooperative Hall of Fame

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Paul Hazen

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected] 

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Paul Hazen on his being inducted into the 2022 Cooperative Hall of Fame.  On receiving the honor, he said, “I am very lucky to be given the opportunity to combine my work in international development with my volunteer cooperative development work in Washington DC.”

Hazen is executive director, U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) and has devoted his career to elevating the cooperative voice domestically and internationally. U.S. co-ops include Ace Hardware, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Sunkist, REI and the Associated Press. Hazen helped establish federal legislation promoting rural co-op development.  

Prior to joining OCDC, he was CEO of Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International. During his 25-year tenure with the organization, he held key positions, including chief operating officer, vice president of public policy, vice president of member services and director of consumer cooperatives.

He worked for Rep. Al Baldus (Wisc.). He was executive director of Rural Housing Inc. in Madison, Wisc., where he developed co-ops and affordable housing projects in rural communities. 

As a volunteer, Hazen formed the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) with 12 congregations in D.C.  In 2020, CPA secured more than $18.7 million in contracts resulting in an investment of $13 million in D.C.-based small businesses owned by people of color.

Ben Finzel

Congratulations also to Ben Finzel, who was inducted into the National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame. Upon receiving the honor, he said “To be recognized by your peers is wonderful; to be honored by them is amazing. I still can’t quite believe I have done enough to be worthy of this recognition, but I know enough to be thankful and appreciative of this high honor. Thank you PRSA National Capital Chapter for including me in such inspiring company; I will be forever grateful.”

Finzel is president of RENEWPR, a D.C.-based public affairs, communications consulting firm. In 2004, he helped launch FH Out Front, the first global LGBTQ communications practice at an international firm, Fleishman Hillard, and served as its first global chair. He started DC Family Communicators, a professional networking group for LGBTQ communications professionals. Finzel served on the Victory Campaign Board of the LGBTQ Victory Fund from 2007 to 2017.

His firm is currently celebrating its seventh year in business. To recognize that accomplishment, Finzel is launching an endowed scholarship at his alma mater, Texas Tech University. His business is certified as an LGBT Business Enterprise by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

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