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Sigh of relief as shutdown ends

HIV service providers spared; staffers return to work

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Sarah Palin, gay news, Washington Blade, shutdown

Some federal workers are troubled over accusations made by Sarah Palin and others that the U.S. Park Service is being disrespectful to veterans by denying access to monuments in Washington. (Photo by Therealbs2002; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

UPDATE: The federal government shutdown ended Thursday and thousands of employees returned to work in D.C. and across the country. This story was posted shortly before Congress passed a bill to fund the government and avert a default:

As the federal government’s shutdown entered its third week, LGBT and AIDS advocates expressed alarm that community-based AIDS service providers in D.C. and across the nation could be forced to lay off employees and curtail services if the shutdown and its related funding reductions continued much longer.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate announced a bipartisan agreement on Wednesday calling for raising the debt ceiling and ending the government shutdown. Although political observers thought there were enough votes to approve the agreement in both the Senate and the House, no one was certain whether the GOP-controlled House would pass the compromise bill initiated in the Senate.

Leonard Hirsch, Len Hirsch

Leonard Hirsch (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Leonard Hirsch, president of the LGBT federal workers group Federal GLOBE, said that, like all federal workers, thousands of furloughed LGBT federal employees continued as of Wednesday to struggle without a paycheck.

The shutdown, which closed many but not all federal agencies, left more than 800,000 federal employees furloughed, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. With the federal government being the largest employer in the D.C. metro area, the area is said to have been affected the most by the shutdown.

“Everyone that I know in the federal workforce is very frustrated that they’re not allowed to be getting work done, that things are piling up, that their clients are not being served,” said Hirsch, who has worked at the Smithsonian Institution for 24 years.

Hirsch said he and nearly all the federal workers he knows – LGBT and straight – are especially troubled over accusations by Obama administration critics, including former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, that the U.S. Park Service is being disrespectful to veterans and other citizens by denying them access to the World War II Memorial and other monuments in Washington.

“The law is clear,” he said. “If Congress has not appropriated money you cannot work on things and do things. And so we can’t open parks. We can’t open museums and monuments because Congress has not appropriated the money.”

Added Hirsch, “I don’t know a single person at the Park Service who is happy about closing doors, and I know a lot of people at the Park Service…It’s putting the federal worker in this horrible bind to say we can’t do these things and being abused for following Congress’s direction.”

Don Blanchon

Don Blanchon (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Don Blanchon, executive director of Whitman-Walker Health, the D.C. area’s largest private agency providing medical and social services to people with HIV and the LGBT community, said Whitman-Walker has “weathered” the federal shutdown so far largely because it accumulated a substantial reserve fund over the past several years.

“By and large, the impact of the shutdown directly on our operations and patient care is minimal,” he told the Blade on Monday. “We’re open. We’re serving patients. And for the foreseeable future we don’t see this shutdown causing us a tremendous amount of difficulty right now,” he said.

But Blanchon noted that Whitman-Walker along with other D.C. community-based health groups serving people with HIV has been hit by D.C.’s inability to pay its Medicaid reimbursements. Under a federal law, D.C. is prohibited from spending its own money obtained through local tax revenue if Congress doesn’t approve the city’s annual budget.

With Congress deadlocked over the federal budget, under which the D.C. budget falls, the city has been unable to spend much of its own funds since the federal shutdown began on Oct. 1 at the start of the new fiscal year. Since D.C.’s budget is intertwined with the federal budget, D.C. has been impacted by the shutdown in a way that no other city or state has, a development that has infuriated D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

At an Oct. 11 town hall meeting Gray said the shutdown has forced the city to tap into its reserve funds to keep city agencies open and to continue city services through the end of this week or next, at which time he said the usable portion of the reserve fund would be depleted.

But Gray said the reserve fund wasn’t large enough to enable the city to cover $90 million in Medicaid reimbursement payments to the city’s private clinics and medical providers that take Medicaid patients during the previous week.

Blanchon said the delay in the Medicaid payments resulted in Whitman-Walker not receiving about $70,000 in reimbursements for its Medicaid patients.

While Whitman-Walker’s reserve fund will enable the LGBT health provider to “weather the storm” for the time being, as Blanchon put it, other community-based health providers don’t have such a financial cushion, officials with those groups have said. Some of them have already been forced to lay off employees and curtail services, including HIV-related services, the officials have said.

Ruby Corado, Casa Ruby, gay news, Washington Blade

Ruby Corado (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“We’re already seeing services cut back for LGBT and Latino community clients,” said Ruby Corado, director of the LGBT community center Casa Ruby. Corado said Casa Ruby, which is funded largely by private donors, wasn’t immediately affected by the shutdown.

Ron Simmons, executive director of Us Helping Us, a D.C.-based HIV service provider that reaches out to black gay men, said his group has also managed to get buy for the past two weeks “without any noticeable impact.”

But Simmons said Us Helping Us won’t be able to operate without possible service interruptions if the federal shutdown continues indefinitely. Although his organization doesn’t have the type of reserve fund that Whitman-Walker has, Simmons said much of the group’s federal funding for the fiscal year has already been appropriated by Congress through various grants. He said the payments through those grants, including one from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have continued uninterrupted during the shutdown.

Similar to other HIV service providers in D.C. and across the nation, funding from the Ryan White federal AIDS program also had been appropriated by Congress prior to the shutdown, enabling groups receiving Ryan White grants to continue to receive the funds through the rest of the fiscal year, according to Carl Schmid, deputy director of the AIDS Institute, a national HIV/AIDS advocacy organization.

Carl Schmid, AIDS Institute, gay news, Washington Blade

Carl Schmid (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“Luckily, the grants went out in April,” said Schmid in referring to the Ryan White program, which he said provides millions of dollars to AIDS groups across the country.

But Schmid cautioned that if the federal shutdown were to continue, AIDS service providers would be adversely impacted in a number of ways.

One immediate effect, he said, was federal officials who provide support for the processing of Ryan White grant applications were furloughed as soon as the shutdown began on Oct. 1.

“The new grant applications are due Oct. 31,” he said. “So what if people have questions about putting their grant applications together in the cities and states? Right now there’s no one to turn to.”

Schmid noted that most of the federal officials that administer the Obama administration’s national AIDS strategy program as well as the White House Office on AIDS Policy were also on furlough since Oct. 1.

“One or two days are one thing,” said Schmid. “But now this is going on too long and we’re definitely going to have ramifications. Let’s hope this gets solved soon.”

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, told the Blade that LGBT-related implications of the shutdown could, among other things, include a cutback in the enforcement of the federal hate crimes act that covers hate crimes targeting LGBT people.

Cole-Schwartz said the furloughing of Justice Department personnel could negatively impact enforcement of both the hate crimes law and Title IX of an existing civil rights statute that protects women and transgender people from gender-related discrimination.

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In a historic first, Colorado now has a 1st gentleman as Gov. Polis marries

The governor and his now husband decided to hold their nuptials on the 18th anniversary of their first date

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Governor Jared Polis and 1st Gentleman Marlon Reis exchange vows (Screenshot via CBS News Denver)

DENVER – Colorado’s Democratic Governor Jared Polis married his longtime partner Marlon Reis in a ceremony that marked the first same-sex marriage of a sitting Out governor in the United States.

The couple was married Wednesday in a small traditional Jewish ceremony at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Reis had matriculated and graduated from. The governor and his now husband decided to hold their nuptials on the 18th anniversary of their first date.

“We met online and went out on a date and we went to the Boulder bookstore and then went to dinner,” Polis told KCFR-FM, Colorado Public Radio (CPR).

In addition to family and close friends in attendance, the couple’s two children participated with their 7-year-old daughter serving as the flower girl and their 9-year-old son as the ring bearer.

The governor joked that their daughter was probably more thrilled than anyone about the wedding. “She was all in on being a flower girl. She’s been prancing around. She got a great dress. She’s terrific,” he said CPR reported.

Their son was also happy, but more ambivalent about it all according to Reis. “Kids are so modern that their responses to things are sometimes funny. Our son honestly asked us, ‘Why do people get married?”

Colorado’s chief executive, sworn in as the 43rd governor of Colorado in January 2019, over the course of nearly 20 years as a political activist and following in public service as an elected official has had several ‘firsts’ to his credit.

In 2008 Polis is one of the few people to be openly Out when first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as well as being the first gay parent to serve in the Congress. Then on November 6, 2018, he was the first openly gay governor elected in Colorado and in the United States.

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Gov. Jared Polis And First Gentleman Marlon Reis Are Newlyweds

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U.S. Catholic theologians call for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

Joint statement says church teachings support equality

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More than 750 of the nation’s leading Catholic theologians, church leaders, scholars, educators, and writers released a joint statement on Sept. 14 expressing strong support for nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

The six-page theological statement, “A Home for All: A Catholic Call for LGBTQ Non-Discrimination,” was scheduled to be published along with the names of its 759 signatories as a four-page advertisement on Sept. 17 in the National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper widely read by Catholic clergy and laypeople.

The statement was initiated by New Ways Ministry, a Mount Rainier, Md., based Catholic group that advocates for equality for LGBTQ people within the church and society at large.

“As Catholic theologians, scholars, church leaders, writers, and ministers, we affirm that Catholic teaching presents a positive case for ending discrimination against LGBTQ people,” the statement says. “We affirm the Second Vatican Council’s demand that ‘any kind of social or cultural discrimination…must be curbed and eradicated,’” it says.

“We affirm that Catholic teaching should not be used to further oppress LGBTQ people by denying rights rooted in their inherent human dignity and in the church’s call for social equality,” the statement adds.

The statement notes that its signers recognize that a “great debate” is currently taking place within the Catholic Church about whether same-gender relationships and transgender identities should be condoned or supported.

“That is a vital discussion for the future of Catholicism, and one to which we are whole-heartedly committed,” the statement continues. “What we are saying in this statement, however, is relatively independent of that debate, and the endorsers of this statement may hold varied, and even opposing, opinions on sexual and gender matters,” it says.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministries executive director, said his organization and the signers of the statement feel the issue of nondiscrimination for LGBTQ people can and should be supported by Catholic leaders and the church itself even if some are not yet ready to support same-sex marriage and sexual and gender identity matters.

“LGBTQ non-discrimination is being debated at all levels in our society, and the Catholic perspective on this is often misrepresented, even by some church leaders,” DeBernardo said. “Catholics who have studied and reflected deeply on this topic agree that non-discrimination is the most authentic Catholic position,” he said. 

DeBernardo said those who helped draft the statement decided it would be best to limit it to a theological appeal and argument for LGBTQ equality and non-discrimination and not to call for passage of specific legislation such as the Equality Act, the national LGBTQ civil rights bill pending in the U.S. Congress.

The Equality Act calls for amending existing federal civil rights laws to add nondiscrimination language protecting LGBTQ people in areas such as employment, housing, and public accommodations. The U.S. House approved the legislation, but the Senate has yet to act on it.

“We wanted this to be a theological statement, not a political statement,” DeBernardo said.

He said organizers of the project to prepare the statement plan to send it, among other places, to the Vatican in Rome and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has expressed opposition to the Equality Act.

Among the key signers of the statement were 242 administrators, faculty, and staff from Sacred Heart University, a Catholic college in Bridgeport, Conn. New Ways Ministries says the statement was circulated by the school’s administration and eight of its top leaders, including President John Petillo, are among the signers.

Some of the prominent writers who signed the statement include Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking;” Richard Rodriquez, author of “Hunger of Memory;” Gary Wills, author of “Lincoln at Gettysburg;” and Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked.”

The full text of the statement and its list of signatories can be accessed at the New Ways Ministry website.

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Activists reflect on Black Trans Lives Matter movement resurgence

Blade speaks with Alex Santiago, Jasmyne Cannick

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An I Am Human Foundation billboard along Atlanta's Downtown Connector expressway on Feb. 22, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The world came to a standstill last year as a video surfaced online that showed then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. The video went viral and sparked numerous protests against racism and police brutality in the U.S. and around the world as many people felt it a potent time to relay their frustrations with and to their governments.

For the LGBTQ community, these protests brought to light the need for human rights for transgender individuals as the murders of people like Tony McDade in Florida and Nina Pop in Missouri reawakened the flame within the Black Trans Lives Matter movement.

A tribute to Tony McDade in downtown Asheville, N.C., in June 2020. McDade was a Black transgender man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 27, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Washington Blade more than a year later spoke with Alex Santiago, executive director of the I Am Human Foundation in Atlanta, and Jasmyne Cannick, a Democratic political strategist and journalist in Los Angeles, to reflect on last year’s Black Trans Lives Matter movement, how far it has come, and what’s in store for the future. 

Uplifting voices often silenced

Participating in the Black Lives Matter protests was an easy decision for Santiago. He is a member of the Legendary House of Garcon, a ballroom house headquartered in D.C. 

Although the house is composed mostly of LGBTQ members, Santiago still felt the need to center trans voices and experiences by visually representing them during Black Lives Matter marches. 

“[I decided that] when I go I’m going to have signs that say ‘Black Trans Lives Matter.’ After talking to a couple of the people in the house, they said it was a great idea. So, they got these t-shirts made that incorporated the trans colors [baby blue, baby pink and white],” says Santiago.

Out of the 250 people in the Legendary House of Garcon, 175 showed up to D.C. from other states to march in solidarity with Black trans people. Santiago says that from what he was told, his was the largest group of activists representing Black trans lives at protests. 

“At first I thought people were going to look at us crazy, like, ‘Why are you separating yourselves or being exclusive?’. But, we got a great response from the general population that was there that day. It was a good day,” says Santiago.

Cannick, who was in Los Angeles during the protests, lent her efforts to platforming pertinent issues. She identifies herself as an ally and a “friend” to the LGBTQ community. 

“I’m active in the LA community and everybody knows me. So, whenever something happens, someone is hurt, someone is killed or someone needs to get the word out about something that’s going on particularly as it relates to the trans community, I’m always asked to get involved, and I do,” says Cannick. 

Over the past year, she reported on multiple LGBTQ issues including the trial of Ed Buck, a Democratic political fundraiser who was convicted in the deaths of two gay Black men who he injected with methamphetamine in exchange for sex.

What happened to the BTLM movement and what needs to change?

The nature of many social movements is that as the intense emotion surrounding them fades, people’s fervor for change wanes as well. This is especially true with allies who are not directly linked to the cause.

“Fatigue and frustration at the relatively slow pace of change to a growing backlash on the right against efforts to call out systemic racism and white privilege — has led to a decline in white support for the Black Lives Matter movement since last spring, when white support for social justice was at its peak,” US News reports about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cannick believes this is the same for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. She says Americans allow the media to dictate how it behaves and responds to issues. Thus, when stories “fall out of our media cycles … they fall out of our memories.”

“I think that’s not going to change, and that’s a psychological thing, until we learn how to not let the media necessarily dictate our issues,” says Cannick. 

She suggests that individuals remain plugged into their communities by “doing anything to make sure they keep up with an issue” including following the “right people” on social media and setting up Google alerts for any breaking news. 

Jasmyne Cannick (Photo courtesy of Jasmyne Cannick)

Santiago also echoes Cannick’s sentiments. 

“We wait until something happens before we do something. And, I don’t want to be retroactive; I want to be proactive. I want people to see me when things are going well [and when they’re not going well],” says Santiago. 

Upon returning to his home in Atlanta after the D.C. protests, Santiago contacted a billboard installation company and paid for a billboard labelled, “Black Trans Lives Matter” to be displayed on University Avenue near downtown Atlanta. He says that the billboards got attention and helped to spread much-needed awareness. Following this success, he is now in the process of installing a new billboard labelled, “Black, Trans and Visible. My life Matters.”

“Unless you’re in people’s faces or something drastic happens, people forget. Unless you’re living it, people forget,” says Santiago.

As time progresses, both Santiago and Cannick nest hope for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. However, this hope can only persist when crucial steps are taken to ensure Black trans individuals around the country are protected, most importantly through legislation.

The New York Times reports there are close to 1,000 elected LGBTQ officials in the U.S., with at least one in each state except Mississippi. 

“We need to have more legislation. We need more voices in power like the council Biden has right now,” says Santiago. 

“You know that [Biden] has a lot of trans people and Black trans people [involved], and a part of that’s a positive step in the right direction, but we need that times 10,” says Santiago.

He believes that political representation should extend to local governance where ordinary Black trans individuals can be trained to assume leadership roles. 

Cannick’s focus is on the Black community. 

“[Trans women] are usually murdered by Black men. If we ever expect that to change, we need to start talking about that,” says Cannick.

She’s open to having conversations that put people, including her as a cis-identifying woman, in uncomfortable and awkward spaces. 

She hosts a podcast titled “Str8 No Chaser” and recently aired an episode, “Why Are Black Men Killing Trans Women,” where she discussed with three Black trans women about the gender and sexuality dynamics within the Black community and their perils. 

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