Connect with us

National

EXCLUSIVE: Outed sheriff ‘110 percent in the race for Congress’

Babeu pledges to change ‘beliefs, perceptions’ about gays

Published

on

The recently outed gay sheriff of Pinal County, Ariz., says if he’s elected to Congress he’ll support pro-LGBT initiatives and help change perceptions lawmakers have about gay people.

In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade, Paul Babeu, who’s running to represent Arizona’s 4th congressional district in Congress, said his election would be “very impactful and helpful” in changing “the views, perceptions, beliefs about who we are.”

“If they know me first as a sheriff, as a police officer who has responded to, literally, thousands and thousands of emergencies, has fought criminals, has actually saved lives and served our country in the military for 20-plus years … and when regular people see those accomplishments and those results first, then understand at a later point that I am gay, it changes people’s beliefs and perceptions and understanding,” Babeu said.

The Blade interview marks the first time Babeu has spoken to the LGBT media since he came out during a news conference earlier this month.

Babeu, elected as sheriff in 2008 and considered a rising star in the Republican Party, gained national attention after the Phoenix New Times on Feb. 17 published allegations that he threatened to deport his ex-boyfriend, Jose Orozco, a Mexican national and campaign volunteer, after their relationship soured. The article included semi-nude photos he reportedly sent to Orozco and a picture from what appears to be his adam4adam profile.

In a news conference following the article’s publication, Babeu denied the allegations against him save for one: he publicly acknowledged that he’s gay. Babeu has since accused Orozco of identity theft, which Orozco’s attorney has denied.

Asked to comment on Babeu’s assertions about the situation, A.D. Horan, Orozco’s lawyer, told the Blade, “Jose denies the allegations and intends to cooperate fully with the state’s investigation.” Horan declined to comment further.

Although his race to win the Republican nomination will likely be more difficult while facing these allegations, Babeu told the Blade he’s “110 percent in the race for Congress.”

“It will be a harder fight, and I never turn from a fight,” Babeu said. “I shall stand and work harder than I ever have in my life on my accomplishments, on my service.”

Babeu said he believes voters in his district will accept him because “we’re different as Americans” and “we’re exceptional people.”

“When though we’ve overcome many hurdles and obstacles, and none of us are perfect, in America, we define ourselves by the value we add in our communities,” Babeu said. “We see our differences as a strength, whether it’s our religion, our ethnicity, our gender, our [sexual] orientation. Those are the same liberties and freedoms I personally defend and fought for, and that’s why I continue to stand up and fight now.”

Babeu said he’s “not ashamed” of his sexual orientation, but added, “I’m just not going to define myself solely on the fact that I am gay.”

If elected to Congress, Babeu said he’ll be “a strong fiscal conservative” and advocate for “spending within our means,” but also will support pro-LGBT legislative measures.

Among the initiatives Babeu said he supports is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, noting he’s “in favor of eliminating any discrimination” and adding that workers should be evaluated solely on their performance and merit.

Asked whether he supports the idea of President Obama issuing an executive order requiring federal contractors to have LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies, Babeu said he’d have to “look into it” but would support such a directive “on the surface.”

Additionally, Babeu said he would “certainly vote to repeal” the Defense of Marriage Act and said he thinks the anti-gay law exceeds the authority of the government under the U.S. Constitution.

“I’m a strict constitutionalist as well,” Babeu said. “As a strict constitutionalist, this has no business at the federal level. This should go to the states.”

The sheriff said his opposition to DOMA is in line with his belief that the government shouldn’t tell religions which individuals they can or can’t marry.

“The issue of marriage is a deeply religious ceremony, and this is where the government shouldn’t tell certain faiths, say like Catholics, that they have to marry two men or two women, in the same way that they shouldn’t tell other faiths or religions that they can’t,” Babeu said. “This isn’t a role for the government to enter into. This is an issue of religious freedom.”

Babeu also said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should remain off the books, drawing on his service as an Army veteran of the Iraq war in opposing the now-ended policy. The sheriff, who retired with the rank of major, said he had gay soldiers under his command who were “exemplary in their service.”

“I had to live under that,” Babeu said. “Anyone who wants to wear the uniform of our country and put their own personal safety and life on the line to protect Americans, they should be allowed to and they should be honored for that service.”

But Babeu said he couldn’t yet declare support for another piece of legislation, the Uniting American Families Act, because he wasn’t familiar with it. The immigration-related bill would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign born same-sex partners for residency in the United States.

“To be honest with you, I haven’t read the legislation,” Babeu said. “I’d be happy to read it and give you an answer after that. You know where I stand on all these other issues, which are consistent with being an advocate for equality.”

Known for taking a hard line on immigration, Babeu is a proponent of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, which requires immigrants to have registration documents in their possession at all times. The law has come under fire from immigration rights advocates and the U.S. Justice Department has filed suit against the statute.

Babeu said he doesn’t see any connection between the immigration advocacy community and the LGBT community in their struggle for equal rights.

“It’s a difference between civil rights for citizens versus legal status,” Babeu said. “Though these may be good and decent people in terms of illegal immigrants, the fact is that they’re illegal. In our community, we’re talking citizens. … It’s a very different issue; it’s not like an oppressed people or disenfranchised or people who’ve had their rights taken away. They’re here illegally, so it’s about the rule of law.”

Asked whether he supports the passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Babeu said Congress should approve the 10-point border security plan introduced in the Senate last year by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Among the 10 points are deploying 3,000 National Guard troops to the Arizona border, providing additional funds to border security personnel as well as completing 700 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico and constructing double- and triple- layer fencing at certain locations.

Despite his pledge to work as an LGBT advocate, as a Republican candidate, Babeu noted he would vote for Republican leadership if elected to the House. Under the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), pro-LGBT initiatives have seen no progress.

Still, Babeu said he thinks pro-LGBT initiatives will be able to see movement in the 113th Congress even with Republicans in the majority if he’s elected because he’ll work to influence lawmakers.

“This is where I can be an influence, the voice of reason,” Babeu said. “And I can tell you that I have far more credibility with a record of accomplishment and a record of service. I can say and can stand as a recent veteran, as somebody who has actually commanded soldiers from every nationality, every ethnic group, every faith and gender and sexual orientation.”

Until the allegations against him made headlines, Babeu was also affiliated with Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and served as co-chair of his Arizona campaign. Babeu resigned that position after the New Times story was published.

Although he’s no longer with the campaign, Babeu said he believes “in the end” Romney would be a friend to LGBT Americans if elected to the White House.

“Even though [Mitt Romney] has his deep religious views, I can tell you that a lot of Mormons support me and still do, and this changes nothing for a lot of these individuals,” Babeu said.

Babeu said he’s already voted for Romney via early voting in the Arizona primary, which takes place on Tuesday, and intends to continue supporting the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign. When the New Times story broke, Babeu said the Romney campaign told him he didn’t need to resign his post, but he wanted to leave to address the allegations against him.

Asked whether he’s bothered that Romney opposes same-sex marriage and backs a U.S. constitutional amendment banning marriage rights for gay couples, Babeu said he doesn’t agree with the candidate on every issue, but noted President Obama isn’t perfect on LGBT issues because of his position on marriage.

Babeu referenced a 1996 questionnaire with the Windy City Times in which Obama, then a candidate for Illinois state Senate, said he supported legalizing same-sex marriage. Since running for national office, Obama hasn’t supported marriage rights for gay couples.

“He said that in local office, and then he had a different position when he ran for president,” Babeu said. “For all these leaders, we literally have to demand and advocate for issues, and I believe that effort is growing, and it’s becoming a groundswell nationally. We have to create an environment in which either President Obama or Mitt Romney makes a decision that is right and consistent with the Constitution.”

Since coming out, Babeu said he’s been in contact with numerous national LGBT leaders. Among them are heads of conservative groups: R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, and Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud.

Babeu said he’s reached out to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and has friends at the organization. On Saturday evening, Babeu said he was set to talk via phone with Chuck Wolfe, the Victory Fund’s CEO.

Babeu said he hasn’t spoken to the Human Rights Campaign, but said he’s a member of the organization and is on its mailing list. The sheriff said he’s made contributions to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and has been a member “in the past.”

Babeu could face a rocky road to elected office, even though polls had him ahead of his opponents prior to the publication of the Phoenix New Times piece.

The sheriff is facing two investigations: one that he requested with Arizona Attorney General Tom Hume and another that was initiated by Pinal County’s top prosecutor, James Walsh.

Babeu said he called for the investigation with the attorney general because he wants to “clear [his] name because there was never any threat” of him retaliating against Orozco. Babeu said Orozco is in the United States legally.

Additionally, Babeu said Orozco tried to shop his story around “to every media outlet in metro Phoenix, and even in Tucson,” but no other media outlet besides the Phoenix New Times would touch it because “it’s not against the law being gay.”

Babeu maintained that the only correspondence that he or his lawyer, Chris DeRose, had with Orozco was sending him a cease-and-desist letter to stop him from accessing online media for the campaign. Babeu categorically denied that he ever asked Orozco to sign an agreement that he wouldn’t tell anyone about Babeu’s sexual orientation.

“I’ve never asked him to do anything of the sort,” Babeu said. “I’ve never asked anybody.”

Babeu emphasized the distinction between how he and his ex-boyfriend are acting in the aftermath of the publication of the New Times piece.

“I’m the one who’s standing and defending myself,” Babeu said. “I’m the one who’s talking and he’s got his got his face blocked out, his voice altered and is nowhere to be found. He won’t talk to anybody. That seems highly suspicious to me. I’m the one asking for the investigation. It is very easy to attack and to malign. But the business that I’m in is that you’re innocent until proven guilty.”

Babeu said he believes Orozco went public with the story because he was hurt after their relationship ended and because his political opponents helped facilitate the effort. The sheriff said he’ll do whatever he can to help prosecute Orozco.

The New Times piece also insinuates a relationship between Babeu and Matt Heinz, a Democratic state lawmaker who’s also pursuing a congressional bid.

The piece states that Heinz broke with Democratic ranks to vote to approve $5 million in funds for Babeu for border security work. The article includes a text message allegedly from Babeu saying that he was planning to spend the night at the home of Heinz and his boyfriend, suggesting some kind of sexual payoff.

But Babeu denied that the relationship with Heinz was anything other than friendship.

“It’s simply outrageous that they would write such a thing,” Babeu said. “Matt Heinz is a good and decent man. He’s a physician who is well respected and we have a purely platonic friendship.”

Despite the allegations and the investigations he faces, Babeu said the reaction from Arizona Republicans to his coming out has been positive and “pretty overwhelming.”

Babeu said he was greeted with applause during an appearance last week in Yuma, Ariz., a conservative, rural city in his district, where he talked about how he wants to continue pressing economic issues and government spending while asking people to judge him on his commitment to his country.

“How I should be judged is the value I bring to my community and to my country, my service, in the same way that you would want to be judged is how I want to be judged by that service and by the value that I add,” Babeu said. “And nearly everyone in that room came up and signed my papers, which you can only sign for one candidate. And these are the most active Republicans. They are the ones that go out and do all the campaign work and so forth.”

Babeu said military veterans shook his hand and looked him in the eye, saying “Paul, I’m with you. Sheriff Paul, you’ve got my support. This changes nothing.” Additionally, he said at least 15 women hugged and kissed him, saying, “I think you’re great, I support you and we’re going to win.” Babeu said one of the precinct committee members told him, “My only sister is gay. I think it’s great that you’re gay.”

“There will be some people who react coldly, that shall not deter me,” Babeu said. “I’m the same sheriff today that I was 10 days ago. And who I was then is who I am today. So, I’m confident not just in terms of who I am, but what I believe and why I ran in the first place.”

UPDATE: Following the Blade’s interview with Babeu, an ABC News affiliate in Arizona published a report containing new allegations against the sheriff.

According to ABC15, while Babeu was headmaster and executive director of DeSisto Private Boarding School, complaints were filed that officials administered harsh punishments for students. Additionally, the report quotes Babeu’s sister, Lucy Babeu, who claims he was involved in a relationship with a 17-year-old male student at the school.

Lucy Babeu said she found a student from DeSisto living with the now-sheriff. According to Lucy, her brother told her the student was his boyfriend. ABC15 didn’t identify the former student. At the time, the student was reportedly 17, which is the legal age of consent in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services launched an investigation into repeated allegations of abuse, according to the report; during Babeu’s tenure the school wasn’t licensed. Babeu left the school in 2001; the state investigation forced DeSisto to shut down in 2004.

Among the alleged punishments at the school was being “sheeted,” or being forced to strip down to nothing but a sheet and stand before peers. Another alleged punishment was being “cornered,” which required sitting and facing a wall for hours, days and sometimes weeks.

“In one case, records show a student with bi-polar disorder, ADHD and impulse control disorder was ‘cornered’ for ‘weeks on end,'” the report states. “The student’s medication was not monitored properly. He began to “urinate and defecate” on himself. He was also taken to the hospital for pneumonia.

Days later, that same student was returned to DeSisto and sent back to the corner.”

Holli Nielsen, a student at DeSisto while Babeu was headmaster, was quoted in the report as saying Babeu was “certainly aware” of the kind of punishments happening at the school under his watch.

Chris DeRose, a Babeu campaign adviser, told the Blade that the allegations in the report “are false.” According to DeRose, Lucy Babeu has a history of mental illness, and the news station “knowingly exploited a mentally ill woman for the sake of airing a sensational story.”

DeRose said Lucy Babeu has been declared insane and was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward on multiple occasions and stripped of custody of her children for severe mental illness. Additionally, DeRose contends Lucy’s children have obtained multiple orders of protection against her for threatening to kill them, and that a court order was issued based on the threat of immediate harm.

According to DeRose, Lucy has a history of threatening or filing frivolous lawsuits against previous employers and has called law enforcement officials to “report imaginary conspiracy theories.” DeRose said Lucy has a history of illegal drug abuse.

DeRose said ABC 15 was offered the opportunity to review this information, but didn’t accept and aired the story anyway. According to DeRose, at least five Arizona media outlets declined to use Lucy as a source.

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

U.S. Federal Courts

Federal court blocks Title IX transgender protections

Ruling applies to Idaho, La., Miss., and Mont.

Published

on

(Bigstock photo)

BY GREG LAROSE | A federal judge has temporarily halted enforcement of new rules from the Biden administration that would prevent discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty of Louisiana issued a temporary injunction Thursday that blocks updated Title IX policy from taking effect Aug. 1 in Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Montana. 

In April, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would expand Title IX to protect LGBTQ students, and the four aforementioned states challenged the policy in federal court.

Doughty said in his order that Title IX, the 52-year-old civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination, only applies to biological women. The judge also called out the Biden administration for overstepping its authority. 

“This case demonstrates the abuse of power by executive federal agencies in the rule-making process,” Doughty wrote. “The separation of powers and system of checks and balances exist in this country for a reason.”

The order from Doughty, a federal court appointee of President Donald Trump, keeps the updated Title IX regulations from taking effect until the court case is resolved or a higher court throws out the order.

Opponents of the Title IX rule changes have said conflating gender identity with sex would undermine protections in federal law and ultimately harm biological women. Gender identity refers to the gender an individual identifies as, which might differ from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill, who filed the suit in the state’s Western District federal court, had called the new regulations “dangerous and unlawful.” In a statement Thursday evening, she said the rules would have placed an unfair burden on every school, college and university in the country.

“This (is) a victory for women and girls,” Murrill said in the statement. “When Joe Biden forced his illegal and radical gender ideology on America, Louisiana said NO! Along with Idaho, Mississippi, and Montana, states are fighting back in defense of the law, the safety and prosperity of women and girls, and basic American values.”

Title IX is considered a landmark policy that provided for equal access for women in educational settings and has been applied to academic and athletic pursuits. 

Related

Doughty’s order comes a day after a similar development in Texas, where Judge Reed O’Connor, an appointee of President George W. Bush, declared that the Biden administration exceeded its authority, the Texas Tribune reported. 

Texas filed its own lawsuit against the federal government to block enforcement of the new rules, which Gov. Greg Abbott had instructed schools to ignore. Texas is one of several states to approve laws that prohibit transgender student-athletes from participating on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

Attorney generals in 26 states have originated or joined federal lawsuits to stop the new Title IX regulations from taking effect. 

Earlier Thursday, Republicans in Congress moved ahead with their effort to undo the revised Biden Title IX policy. Nearly 70 GOP lawmakers have signed onto legislation to reverse the education department’s final rule through the Congressional Review Act, which Congress can use to overturn certain federal agency actions.

Biden is expected to veto the legislation if it advances to his desk.

“Title IX has paved the way for our girls to access new opportunities in education, scholarships and athletics. Unfortunately, (President) Joe Biden is destroying all that progress,” U.S. Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.), author of the legislation, said Thursday.

States Newsroom Reporter Shauneen Miranda in D.C. contributed to this report.

******************************************************************************************

Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg’s other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

******************************************************************************************

The preceding article was previously published by the Louisiana Illuminator and is republished with permission.

The Louisiana Illuminator is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization with a mission to cast light on how decisions in Baton Rouge are made and how they affect the lives of everyday Louisianians. Our in-depth investigations and news stories, news briefs and commentary help residents make sense of how state policies help or hurt them and their neighbors statewide.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

Continue Reading

Federal Government

Adm. Levine, Admin. Guzman visit LGBTQ-owned dental and medical practices

Officials talked with the Blade about supporting small businesses

Published

on

Second from left, Dr. Robert McKernan, co-founder of Big Gay Smiles, U.S. Small Business Administration Administrator Isabel Guzman, HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Rachel Levine, Big Gay Smiles Co-Founder Tyler Dougherty, and SBA Washington Metropolitan Area District Director Larry Webb. (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

The Washington Blade joined Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Rachel Levine of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Administrator Isabel Guzman of the U.S. Small Business Administration as they toured two LGBTQ-owned small businesses on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. — Big Gay Smiles and Price Medical.

The event provided an “amazing opportunity” to “talk about the different synergies in terms of small businesses and the SBA, and health equity for many communities,” including the LGBTQ community, Levine told the Blade.

Representation matters, she said, adding, “that’s true in dental care and medical care,” where there is a tremendous need to push for improvements in health equity — which represents a major focus for HHS under her and Secretary Xavier Becerra’s leadership, and in the Biden-Harris administration across the board.

“Small businesses identify needs in communities,” Guzman said. With Big Gay Smiles, Dr. Robert McKernan and his husband Tyler Dougherty “have clearly identified a need” for “dentistry that is inclusive and that is respectful of the LGBTQIA community in particular.”

She added, “now that they’re a newly established business, part of the small business boom in the Biden-Harris administration, to see their growth and trajectory, it’s wonderful to know that there are going to be providers out there providing that missing support.”

The practice, founded in 2021, “is so affirming for the LGBTQIA community and we certainly wish them luck with their venture and they seem to have a great start,” Levine said. “They’re really dedicated to ending the HIV epidemic, providing excellent dental care, as well as oral cancer screenings, which are so important, and they’re really providing a real service to the community.”

Big Gay Smiles donates 10 percent of its revenue to national and local HIV/AIDS nonprofits. McKernan and Dougherty stressed that their business is committed to combatting homophobia and anti-LGBTQ attitudes and practices within the dental field more broadly.

“We try to align our practices here within this dental office to align with the strategic initiatives being able to help reduce HIV transmission, reduce stigma, and help to ensure people have the knowledge and [are] empowered to ensure that they’re safe,” Dougherty said.

McKernan added, “With the Academy of General Dentistry, we’ve done a lot of discussions around intersex, around trans affirming care, in order to help educate our fellow dental providers. It’s very important that every dentist here in the [D.C. area] provide trans affirming care and gender affirming care because it’s very important that someone who comes to a medical provider not be deadnamed, not get misnamed, and have an affirming environment.”

Trans and gender expansive communities face barriers to accessing care and are at higher risk for oral cancer, depression, and dental neglect. Levine, who is the country’s highest-ranking transgender government official, shared that she has encountered discrimination in dental offices.

After touring the office, Levine and McKernan discussed the persistence of discrimination against patients living with HIV/AIDS by dental practices, despite the fact that this conduct is illegal.

“I’ve traveled around the country,” the assistant health secretary told the Blade. “We have seen that many FQHCs [federally qualified health centers] or community health centers as well as LGBTQIA community health centers have had dentists, like Whitman-Walker, to provide that care because many people with HIV and in our broader community have faced stigma and have not been able to access very, very important dental care.”

Prior to opening his practice, McKernan practiced dentistry at Whitman-Walker, the D.C. nonprofit community health center that has expertise in treating LGBTQ patients and those living with HIV/AIDS. Big Gay Smiles is a red ribbon sponsor for the organization’s Walk & 5K to End HIV.

After their visit with Big Gay Smiles, Levine and Guzman headed to Price Medical, a practice whose focus areas include internal medicine/primary care, HIV specialty care, immunizations, infectious disease treatment, and aesthetics like Botox.

There, the officials talked with Dr. Timothy Price about his office’s work advancing health equity and serving LGBTQ patients including those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as the ways in which small businesses like his have benefitted from access to electronic health records and telemedicine.

Levine, Dr. Timothy Price of Price Medical, and Guzman 

“People being able to access medical care from the comfort of their home or workplace can be very important,” Price said, with technology providing the means by which they can “ask questions and get an answer and have access to a health care provider.”

Often, LGBTQ patients will have concerns, including sexual health concerns, that need urgent attention, he said. For instance, “we’ve had patients need to access us for post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV,” in some cases when “people are vacationing and they have something that might be related to their health and they can reach us [via telemedicine] so that’s the way it’s really helped us and helped the patients.”

Access to technology for small businesses is an area in which the SBA can play a valuable role, Guzman noted.

“The Biden-Harris administration has focused on a whole-of-government approach to making sure we can support the community, and that includes in entrepreneurship,” she told the Blade.

“There’s a surge in [small] businesses starting and that includes” those founded by members of the LGBTQ community “and so you see that there’s products and services that need to be offered,” and the administration is “committed to making sure that we can fund those great ideas.”

Guzman said she sees opportunities for future collaboration between her agency and HHS to help encourage and facilitate innovation in the healthcare space. “Small businesses are innovators creating the future of health tech,” she said.

Levine agreed, noting “we have been talking about that, about different ways that we can work together, because as we think about the social determinants of health and those other social factors that impact health, well, economic opportunity is absolutely a social determinant of health,” and small businesses are certainly a critical way to broaden economic opportunity.

Continue Reading

National

Mass. startup streamlining name changes for trans, non-binary residents

‘No. 1 legal need that trans folks have is identity documents’

Published

on

Kelsey GrunstraTre’Andre Carmel Valentine, MG Xiong, and Luke Lennon.

A guy in America wants to buy a truck. They save money. They have built up good credit. They find a truck in their price range. They go to the dealership to buy it, but when the dealership puts the guy’s name through the system no credit shows up.

The problem? That guy is trans and had recently changed their name. “Due to the name change, I was credit invisible,” Luke Lennon explained. “This can happen often for trans and non-binary folks who change their name.” The kicker? “That piece is not the same for folks that change their name due to marriage.” 

This is structural, not accidental, explains Lennon, who uses he/they/any pronouns. While name changes for marriage are accommodated by financial systems, “if you’re trans, you have to notify each creditor of your name change individually.” It is an equity problem: “For a community that already faces huge barriers to wealth building, this is a major issue.”

Lennon opted out of the truck. Without the financing options made available by good credit, the vehicle was outside of their price range. “I was getting just near predatory rates for loans at that point,” he says.

Truck dreams deferred. But he worried about people whose financial needs couldn’t be deferred, like needing a loan for medical care or housing. “For many, that could be a more high-stakes situation. It could put them in financial peril and result in more serious consequences.” 

Lennon had already thought about leveraging his tech and business background toward helping his community with name changes, but the experience in the car dealership cemented how vital the service was. So, they launched Namesake Collaborative, a program to ease the burden of name changes for the trans community.

Getting his name changed at all was a grueling process in Lennon’s home state of Massachusetts, one of the most trans-friendly states in the country. Paperwork was long, confusing, and expensive — a big difference from the Boston FinTech scene he worked for where digital health startups were automating “complex paper-heavy processes to make them easier for end users.” When he sought out that type of service for name changes, they were only for cis women changing their names because of marriage. 

Lennon’s instinct was in line with what trans advocates identified as one of the biggest needs in the state. MG Xiong, the program director at Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, shared that “the number one legal need that trans folks said that they have is their identity documents.” This comes from MTPC’s 2019 Comprehensive Needs Assessment Survey, but its need is mirrored nationally

“Filling out court forms is incredibly inaccessible to folks who are not looking at these types of forms on a regular basis or who do not have the knowledge of bureaucratic processes of court processes or legal language,” said Xiong. This stress does not include the fees, which can sometimes exceed $400 in Massachusetts. There is a patchwork of differing systems, forms, and expectations across jurisdictions, as Paisley Currah writes in his seminal book on the topic “Sex Is as Sex Does,”“the same individual has Fs on some state-issued documents and Ms on others.” 

All this trouble means that only 11% of trans people in the U.S. have all identity documents that correctly reflect their name and gender, per the National Center for Trans Equality. The discrepancy is not just annoying or disheartening — it can be outright dangerous. 

While MTPC’s small team raised money to aid in filing fees and led workshops to help, there was always more of a need than they could meet. So, when Lennon pitched a process that streamlined inaccessible forms, they jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. “It was a strategic decision for me to not try to take the traditional startup path,” he explained.

And their path was far from traditional. Instead of pitching to Venture Capital, the startup and non-profit duo drove around Massachusetts. Xiong explains that they and Luke went to “different community centers, bringing the services [directly] to the spaces that people are already in.”

Lennon had actually met the MTPC team at one of their workshops and appreciated the community building they fostered. He trusted the organization that had helped him with his name change to make sure the technology he was building would reach the trans community effectively.

After a beta period in 2021, Namesake launched as a website in 2022with input from community assessments. Despite being a tech startup, they kept it lower-tech. “We decided to operate on a no-code platform to be able to build something more quickly,” said Lennon. Since then, more than 500 transgender Massachusetts residents have used the program to complete gender and name changes. 

A huge part of the program was built on lessening the load of process: getting different forms in one location and being able to fill them all out online in one standardized process. But it also met the need in terms of access in other ways. “We are getting gratitude for the simplicity of it.” Xiong said. “That it uses common and accessible language. It defines what certain court language or legal language means.”

Namesake is on the cusp of a new iteration, which will make it more user-friendly through an app version. Lennon has partnered with Computost, a worker-owned software consulting co-op that understood Namesakes’ values.  

While always working to make the product more usable, Lennon is careful about keeping it more trans than tech. Lennon explains that the variability in the community is “often at odds with technology’s reductive approach to an ideal user profile or persona.”

The longer they work with Namesake, the more they are convinced, “I don’t think tech should ever be heralded as THE solution to anything, really.” He explains that their method of development is “using community-sharing knowledge in order to augment that technology.” 

Lennon explains that he is more concerned with making a community than a traditional tech product. “A strong community also requires breaking the binary of ‘giver and receiver,’ which runs counter to much of the startup folklore around serving customers.” However, they “have compassion for any trans or queer person trying to solve a real problem for our communities through tech.”

Looking forward, Lennon explains that Namesake is “focused on creating something more fluid and communal, something that will ideally evolve with the community and help folks feel less alone throughout the process.” 

(This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab through News is Out. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal.)

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular