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NETROOTS: Lesbian SEIU head backs exec order against LGBT job bias

Henry says directive would make it easier to pass ENDA at later time

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Mary Kay Henry

Openly gay SEIU President, Mary Kay Henry. (Photo courtesy SEIU Local 1)

The lesbian leader of the nation’s fastest-growing labor union on Saturday endorsed the idea of President Obama issuing an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT job discrimination.

Mary Kay Henry, who’s openly gay and president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a brief exchange with the Washington Blade at Netroots Nation she would support such a directive as an interim alternative to passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act while Republicans remain in control of the U.S. House.

“I think because just like every situation where you chip away at the inequality, and begin to establish as it a norm, it makes it easier to get it legislated,” Henry said.

LGBT rights supporters have been calling on Obama to issue an executive order that would prohibit the U.S. government from doing business with companies that don’t have policies protecting employees against job discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The White House hasn’t said one way or the other whether the president would issue such a directive.

Lawmakers who’ve endorsed the idea of issuing this executive order include gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) as well as Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Henry joins those backing this directive as president of a labor union representing 1.8 million workers in three sectors: health care employees, such as hospital and nursing home workers; public service employees, such as local and state government workers; and property service employees, such as janitors, security officer and food service workers.

Henry compared the effort to persuade Obama to issue an executive order against LGBT job bias to what she said was the labor movement’s goal of encouraging the president to sign a directive mandating that federal contractors permit employees the right to “freely form unions.”

“We’re trying to get action from the president in terms of allowing workers to freely form unions if they’re federal contracted as well, so maybe we can work together on it,” Henry said.

While backing the idea of an executive order, Henry said the labor movement has also been active in pushing for legislative passage of ENDA. The legislation, sponsored by gay Rep. Barney Frank in the House and Merkley in the Senate, is pending before Congress and would job bias against LGBT people in most private and public workforce situations.

“We’ve been public in favor of it,” Henry said. “We’ve put our staff on it in D.C. We’ve had members working on it in the districts. So we, I believe, have been full partners and have linked arms in making sure that we do that at the federal level.”

Henry, who became president of the SEIU in May 2010, she said she thinks her election as head of the union demonstrates that “all the justice fights are really one fight” and recalled that unionized health care workers worked against LGBT discrimination during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“And when I think about my history in SEIU — when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the late 80s, it was health care workers that were really in the forefront of trying to make sure that we eliminated discrimination in health care,” Henry said. “And we did a lot on health care workers not getting stuck by needles at that time when it was spreading through needle exchange.”

Henry also observed that LGBT rights come under attack in different states just as union rights are threatened in state after state. For example, in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) earlier this year signed legislation restricting the collective bargaining rights of state workers. Similarly, Walker last month withdrew the previous administration’s legal defense of the Wisconsin’s domestic partner registry, contending the law signed by former Rep. Jim Doyle (D) violate the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“We’re now faced with a fight where workers’ rights and LGBT rights are coming under attack in state after state,” Henry said. “And so, for me, it’s all about one fight and having the power to push back on these attacks, and then celebrate the gains that are being made on marriage equality, which, I think, is incredible in this environment.”

Henry said being an out lesbian hasn’t been obstacle as leader in the labor movement and said people whom she’s met in the role have been “really warm and welcoming.” Prior to becoming SEIU president, Henry was a founding member of the organization’s Lavender Caucus, which represents LGBT workers.

“I find that what I need to do is come out in every situation that I’m in, so I usually introduce myself that way, or I’m introduced as having founded the Lavender Caucus, because I think it’s just an important way of reminding ourselves that we haven’t achieved justice and equality for everyone in this country yet,” Henry said.

The transcript of the exchange between the Washington Blade and Henry follows:

Washington Blade: What kind of significance do you think being out as a lesbian and head of the SEIU has for the labor movement?

Mary Kay Henry: I think what it represents is the advance we’ve made in understanding how all of the justice fights are really one fight. And when I think about my history in SEIU — when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the late 80s, it was health care workers that were really in the forefront of trying to make sure that we eliminated discrimination in health care. And we did a lot on health care workers not getting stuck by needles at that time when it was spreading through needle exchange.

In our contract bargaining, we’ve been fighting against … discrimination based on LGBT issues for decades and we’re now faced with a fight where workers’ rights and LGBT rights are coming under attack in state after state. And so, for me, it’s all about one fight and having the power to push back on these attacks, and then celebrate the gains that are being made on marriage equality at the same time, which, I think, is incredible in this environment.

Blade: Has being an out lesbian had any impact on your work in the labor movement? Has it been an obstacle in any way?

Henry: It hasn’t. I’ve found people to be really warm and welcoming. I find that what I need to do is come out in every situation that I’m in, so I usually introduce myself that way, or I’m introduced as having founded the Lavender Caucus, because I think it’s just an important way of reminding ourselves that we haven’t achieved justice and equality for everyone in this country yet.

Blade: One important goal for the LGBT movement is passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. What has the labor movement done to facilitate passage of that bill?

Henry: We’ve been public in favor of it. We’ve put our staff on it in D.C. We’ve had members working on it in the districts. So we, I believe, have been full partners and have linked arms in making sure that we do that at the federal level.

Blade: Would you support an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in job bias against LGBT people as an interim alternative to ENDA passage?

Henry: Yeah. And we’re trying to get action from the president in terms of allowing workers to freely form unions if they’re federal contracted as well, so maybe we can work together on it.

Blade: Why do you think an executive order on ENDA would be helpful?

Henry: I think because just like every situation where you chip away at the inequality and begin to establish as it a norm, it makes it easier to get it legislated.

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Pennsylvania

Pa. House passes bill to repeal state’s same-sex marriage ban

Measure now goes to Republican-controlled state Senate

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Pennsylvania Capitol Building (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives on July 2 passed a bill that would repeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The marriage bill passed by a 133-68 vote margin, with all but one Democrat voting for it. Thirty-two Republicans backed the measure.

The bill’s next hurdle is to pass in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), a gay man who is running for state auditor, noted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the bill would eliminate a clause in Pennsylvania’s marriage law that defines marriage as “between one man and one woman.” The measure would also change the legal definition of marriage in the state to “a civil contract between two individuals.”

Kenyatta did not return the Washington Blade’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. 

Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2022 decision that struck down Roe v. Wade said the Supreme Court should reconsider the Obergefell decision and the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that said laws that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations are unconstitutional. President Joe Biden at the end of that year signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages.

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year signed a bill that codified marriage rights for same-sex couples in state law. Pennsylvania lawmakers say the marriage codification bill is necessary in case the Supreme Court overturns marriage rights for same-sex couples in their state and across the country.

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Pennsylvania

Western Pa. transgender girl killed, dismembered

Pauly Likens, 14, brutally murdered last month

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(Photo courtesy of the LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley)

Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Gay News originally published this story.

BY TIM CWIEK | Prosecutors are pledging justice for Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old transgender girl from Sharon, Pa., who was brutally killed last month. Her remains were scattered in and around a park lake in western Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we have a 14-year-old, brutally murdered and dismembered,” said Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker in an email. “Pauly Likens deserves justice, her family deserves justice, and we seek to deliver that justice.”

On June 23, DaShawn Watkins allegedly met Likens in the vicinity of Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in Sharon, Pa., and killed her. Watkins subsequently dismembered Likens’s corpse with a saw and scattered her remains in and around Shenango River Lake in Clark Borough.

On July 2, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s being held without bail in the Mercer County jail.

The coroner’s office said the cause of death was sharp force trauma to the head and ruled the manner of death as homicide.

Cell phone records, social media and surveillance video link Watkins to the crime. Additionally, traces of Likens’s blood were found in and around Watkins’s apartment in Sharon, Pa., authorities say.

A candlelight vigil is being held Saturday, July 13, in remembrance of Likens. It’s being hosted by LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley. The vigil begins at 7 p.m. at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, Pa.

Pamela Ladner, president of the Alliance, mourned Likens’s death. 

“Pauly’s aunt described her as a sweet soul, inside and out,” Ladner said in an email. “She was a selfless child who loved nature and wanted to be a park ranger like her aunt.”

Acker, the prosecutor, said Likens’s death is one of the worst crimes he’s seen in 46 years as an attorney. But he cautioned against calling it a hate crime. “PSP [Pennsylvania State Police] does not believe it in fact is one [hate crime] because the defendant admitted to being a homosexual and the victim was reportedly a trans girl,” Acker asserted.

Acker praised the criminal justice agencies who worked on the case, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Hermitage Police Department, the Sharon Police Department, park rangers from the Shenango Reservoir, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati, and cadaver dog search units.

“The amount of hours dedicated to the identification of the victim and the filing of charges against the defendant is a huge number,” Acker added. “We take the murder of any individual very seriously, expressly when they are young and brutally killed and dismembered.”

Acker also noted that all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

This is a developing story.

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National

TransTech Social removing barriers to trans success

‘Technology was the key to my freedom’

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From left, TransTech members B Hawk Snipes, E.C. Pizarro III, Ang R Bennett, and Adrian Elim. (Photo by Lexi Webster Photography)

It is common knowledge that women earn 84% of the average worker. Less common knowledge? Trans women earn 60% of the average worker. Trans men and non-binary people come in at around 70%, while 16% of all trans people make less than $10,000 annually. 

E.C. Pizarro was lucky, and he knew it. He had a BFA in graphic design and had taught himself how to code. As a stealth trans man in a corporate job, he had access to a stable wage and good benefits. “People that do not have experiences in corporate America or with equitable employment don’t realize [these things] are privileges that a lot of people don’t have access to.” 

He wanted to give back and was gearing up to bring more volunteer work into his life by participating in a fraternity for trans men. When he went to a TransTech event and learned about the educational and career resources for trans people who face barriers to entering the workforce, he knew he had found his place. 

At the event he met, Angelica Ross. Yes, that Angelica Ross, of “Pose” and “American Horror Story.”

Before she was Candy, Ross was a self-taught coder. She went from posing for an adult website to doing its back-end coding to teaching her trans siblings how to succeed in tech. 

“Technology was the key to my freedom,” Ross said in an interview with The Plug. “Technology took me from being exploited on someone’s website to building my own websites and to building websites for other people and getting paid to do so.”

Pizarro was impressed and wanted to help. “I went up to Angelica and I was like ‘Hey, I’m a trans man. These are my skills. I’m down to volunteer and do any type of work—the one caveat is that I’m stealth. You can’t tell anybody that I’m trans.’”

For four years, Pizarro helped from mostly behind the scenes, sometimes getting side-eyed since people thought he was a cis man in trans spaces. “I was still stealth as the Director of Social Media and Communications for the National Trans Visibility March in 2019,” Pizarro says, chuckling a little.

But by that point, Ross — who headlined the 2019 march — was overextended trying to balance being a world-famous actress, advocate, and businesswoman. 

She needed someone to step in as executive director of TransTech and looked to the group of dedicated volunteers. Pizarro was elected by his peers to take the reins of the organization. 

This was a turning point for Pizarro. “I’m very passionate about tech and for me a small sacrifice of being open with my trans experience to liberate other trans people,” he said. “I felt like if that’s something I got to do, then I’m gonna do it.”

And he did it. The infrastructure Ross put together worked: with mentorship, education, community, and networking with trans-accepting employers, trans people were gaining financial security and independence. 

So, Pizarro focused on expanding TransTech as widely as possible. “We have grown exponentially over the last three years,” he says. “When I took over in 2021, we had about 800 members based in the United States. Now we support over 6,700 members across 50 countries.”

TransTech is filling a demonstrated need within specifically the trans community. New research from LGBT Tech found that 68% of transgender adults use the internet to find LGBTQ-friendly employment (compared to 38% of cisgender LGBTQ+ adults). More than 70% of all LGBTQ adults use the Internet to access educational content.

Accessibility is central to the TransTech programming. Despite the growth, everything remains free. “There’s no membership fee. All of our programming is free. All of the certifications and educational resources are free,” Pizarro says. 

They know the financial burden the trans community faces — 29% of trans adults live in poverty. “If we’re asking anyone to up-skill [for a cost] and these are the things they are going through, we are asking them to invest in their future versus their meal today.” 

Pizarro believes that accessibility is more than just making the training free. He wants the community to understand that tech work is something they are innately capable of doing. 

“TransTech was built on the foundation of nontraditional tech. It’s not always coding. It’s graphic design. It’s social media. It’s video editing. It’s anything that uses a piece of technology and nowadays almost everything uses a piece of technology,” says Pizarro.

He emphasizes to participants: “You’re in tech and you don’t even know it,” pointing out how many already utilize tech skills like marketing and monetization with their social media accounts.

Some people involved in the programming are nervous about entering the “tech world” because of headlines about tech layoffs. He makes sure to emphasize that unlike in some other jobs, tech companies often pay generous severance packages, which gives employees “breathing room.” Pizzaro explains that “once you have experience with one tech company, you can go someplace else and make a substantial amount of money as well.” 

While TransTech is designed for the gender-diverse community, the programming is open to everyone Pizarro explains. “We just ask that you don’t be transphobic.” (Or any of the other -phobics too, he says, listing them off.) He also emphasizes that this allows trans members who are not out to comfortably participate. 

Pizarro wants everyone to understand that they don’t just belong in tech, but they make tech better. “Tech is most profitable when you have diverse people building the tech and using the tech,” Pizarro says. “There is an intentional funding as well as support to diversity tech because they understand how that impacts the product.”

He also reminds participants that they have developed transferrable skills in every part of their lives. “I like to tell people if you can manage your life as a trans person in the United States or anywhere you can manage a project.”

Angelica Ross was a self-taught coder before she hit it big with ‘Pose.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Linus Berggren)
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