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We need a war on rats, not on poor people

City newcomers should join struggle for economic justice

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Jim Graham, Washington, D.C., gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Graham, Washington, D.C., gay news, Washington Blade

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) (Washington Blade file photo by Jeff Surprenant)

We welcome all of the newcomers to Ward 1. Drawn by all the advantages of close-in living, vibrant entertainment areas and well-designed new apartments, they are coming in the thousands. Many are LGBTQ.

Recently I attended the dedication of the memorial for AIDS caregivers at the old Whitman Walker building at 1407 S St., N.W. Afterwards, I toured one apartment, now on the market for $10,000 per month. It had been a group of small offices back when I was executive director.

The newcomers should also be attracted to this neighborhood because of rich diversity, a diversity that I have worked to preserve and nourish. I want Ward 1 to continue to be a place where all mix harmoniously in mutual respect and appreciation.

A key element of that diversity is economic. And with that comes the need for the right response to challenges that arise from an inner city urban place. In Ward 1, one in five of the people live below the federal poverty level.

For example, I recently met with 50 Ward One residents in a public housing community. Security was the topic of the meeting — but this was not the typical “security” meeting calling for more police. Residents were feeling attacked by live rats falling from the ceiling panels, odors from dead rats accumulating in the walls and rats scurrying around the hallways and in their children’s bedrooms at night.

One resident commented, “We are poor.  People want us to disappear. We know the rats are coming from the condominium construction sites … condos that we can’t afford.”  Many shook their heads in agreement. We are hard at work on that problem.

But there are 144,000 District residents, which includes half of all D.C. children, eligible for federal food stamps. On Nov. 1, the federal government cut benefits despite widespread agreement that it is one of those rare “everybody wins” programs that government should be proud of: the consumer is healthy, the grocery store operators and employees work and the farmers produce.

When you have little or nothing, $30 less for food makes a huge difference.

The D.C. government has also cut welfare (in each case, with me voting “no”) without having the programs in place to move the poor from dependency to self-sufficiency. Since April 2011, 10,343 District children 13 years old and younger and 6,150 families have had their meager income slashed by welfare cuts. Many of these children are managing to get through their day with less sleep, less food, less time with a loving adult, and less prepared for school. Today a family of four receives about $250 a month in D.C. welfare. I want families to be self-sufficient.

But there are real barriers to finding jobs and self-sufficiency — mental illness, substance abuse, illiteracy and physical disabilities. We need effective programs to meet families where they are and not where we think they should be. With only 50 percent of welfare families engaged in work-readiness programs after almost two years of “reforms,” we must do better. Less money means more homelessness.

There will be a 10 percent increase in the number of District families who will qualify for emergency housing this winter. The real solution is greater investments in affordable housing for the working poor and supportive housing for persons living with debilitating mental illnesses and behavior needs.

Finally, there is a widening wage gap in the District and in the Ward that I represent.  A CFO report issued just last month found that 42 percent of District residents earned less than $30,000 per year in 2011. Another report published by the National Low Income Housing Council, finds that a resident earning D.C.’s minimum wage of $8.25 has to work 132 hours per week or earn $27.15 per hour to afford any two-bedroom apartment in D.C.

With my support, the Council passed a bill that required the largest, most profitable retailers in the District to offer a minimum wage and benefit package equal to $12.50 per hour. But the mayor vetoed it.

Now the Council is considering several bills to increase the minimum wage across the board. There is agreement that a well-paid workforce is a reliable workforce. Poverty wages aren’t good for anyone.

We need a war on rats, not a war on poor people. And every newcomer needs to be conscious of, and engaged in, that struggle for economic justice.

Jim Graham represents Ward 1 on the D.C. City Council. Reach him at [email protected].

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Opinion | Representation matters: The gayest Olympics yet

From one out athlete to more than 160 in just 33 years

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OK, I really want a Tom Daley cardigan. The now gold-medal Olympian told Britain’s The Guardian that he took up crocheting during the pandemic. He even has an Instagram page dedicated to his knit creations, MadeWithLoveByTomDaley. It’s all very adorable; it’s all very Tom Daley. 

All that aside, you’d have to be practically heartless to not feel something when Tom Daley and his diving partner Matty Lee won the gold on Monday in the men’s synchronized 10-meter diving competition, placing just 1.23 points ahead of the Chinese. And then seeing him with tears in his eyes on the podium as “God Save the Queen” played. Later that week, he knitted a little bag featuring the Union Jack to hold and protect his medal. So very wholesome

Daley is certainly one of the highest profile LGBTQ athletes in these games. Besides the diver, the 2020 Summer Olympics, now in 2021 because of the pandemic, are hosting more than 160 out athletes. A record to be sure, but calling it a record does it somewhat of an injustice. The United States sent the first out athlete to the 1988 Summer Olympics, Robert Dover an equestrian rider competing in dressage. Dover remained the only out (sharing the title once in 1996 with Australian diver Craig Rogerson) for 10 years. Then, during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the number of out athletes jumped to 15. London’s 2012 Olympics saw the number increase to 23. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw the number jump to 68 out athletes. And now we’re at over 160. 

So you get the trend building here. From one out athlete to more than 160. So very far, so very fast. And competing in everything from handball to sailing to golf to skateboarding. Also, noteworthy, New Zealand sent the first trans athlete, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. These are but numbers and names, but to be sure, this sort of representation, this sort of visibility, is hugely important. Not just for athletes coming up behind them, but let’s think too of those out there, not yet even out, maybe watching in their parents’ living room. Seeing Tom Daley thank his husband, mention their son, this sort of queer normality being broadcast as if it is both groundbreaking and at the same time nothing at all — the importance of this cannot be overstated. 

On top of that, growing up gay, how many times were we all told, whether outright or simply implied, that sports were more or less off limits to us. Meant to display the peaks of gender and ability, sports were not meant for those who couldn’t fit neatly into that narrative. But it appears that that narrative is slowly becoming undone. Just look beyond the Olympics, to the wider world of sports. Earlier this summer, pro-football’s Carl Nassib came out.   

And maybe I’m just of a generation that marvels at the destruction of each and every boundary as they come down. We had so very little as far as representation back then. Now to see it all, and in so many different sports, you can’t help but to wonder what the future will hold for us; and it really delights the imagination, doesn’t it? 

It is the gayest Olympics yet. And if the trend laid out above continues, it will only get gayer as the years go on. And if it’s a barometer for anything, I think we will see a lot of things getting a bit gayer from now on.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Opinion | Blame Mayor Bowser for violence epidemic?

In a word, ‘no,’ as the problem is nationwide

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The simple answer to the question “Does the Mayor get the blame for the violence epidemic?” is NO! This is not something that can be laid at any one person’s feet. The epidemic of gun violence is gripping the entire nation. 

The frustration and outrage I and everyone else feels are palpable. It’s frightening when you hear gunshots in your neighborhood. It makes bigger headlines when the shots fired are in neighborhoods not used to that like the recent shooting on 14th and Riggs, N.W. When the shots rang out patrons of upscale restaurants like Le Diplomate ran or ducked under their tables for cover. When shots were fired outside Nationals stadium the national media lit up to report it. The truth is we must have the same outrage every time shots are fired and people hurt or killed in any neighborhood of our city.  

Trying to lay the blame for this at the feet of the mayor, as some people on social media and in opinion and news columns in the Washington Post are doing is wrong. Some would have you believe the mayor is just sitting by and allowing the violence to happen. There are pleas “Mayor Bowser do something!” as if she could wave a magic wand and the shootings will stop. 

In a recent Washington Post column, “Bowser pressed to act after shootings,” a number of Council members are quoted including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 2 member Brooke Pinto, Ward 4 member Janeese Lewis George, At-large member Anita Bonds and Ward 5 member Kenyan McDuffie. They all call for something to be done but not one of them says what they would do. It’s clear they are as frustrated and outraged as the rest of us but have no easy answers. What is clear is casting blame on the mayor and police commissioner won’t help to stop the violence and shootings. 

Again, this epidemic of violence isn’t just an issue for D.C. but a national epidemic. Recently our mayor sat beside the president at a White House meeting called to discuss what can be done about this with mayors and law enforcement officials from around the nation. No one from the president down had an answer that can make it stop right away. Many in D.C. would be surprised at the ranking of the 50 cities with the most violent crime per 100,000 residents showing D.C. with 977 violent crimes per 100,000 residents at number 27 behind cities like Rockford, Ill., Anchorage, Ala., and Milwaukee, Wisc. Crime in nearly all those cities and murder rates have gone up, in many cases dramatically, since the pandemic. 

The solution to ending gun violence is to get the guns out of the hands of those who are using them for crime but that is easy to say and much harder to do. We know ending poverty will make a difference. Giving every child a chance at a better education and ensuring real opportunities for every young person will make a difference. We must also hold people responsible for the serious crimes they commit and often courts are a system of revolving door justice where we find the same people arrested for a serious crime back on the street committing another one and the same gun used for multiple crimes.

There are anti-crime programs that might work but they need buy-in from the entire community including activists and the clergy who must work in concert with our political leadership. D.C. is funding a host of programs including ‘violence disrupters,’ job training, and  mental health and substance abuse programs. They all need more money and more support. 

In D.C., we have only 16 elected officials with real power; the Council, the mayor, the attorney general and our congressional representative. We have community leaders elected to local ANCs. When members of the council attack the mayor, some simply to make political hay for their own future election, it won’t solve any problems. 

This must be viewed as a crisis and our 16 elected leaders should sit down, agree to a series of anti-crime programs and efforts they will adequately fund, and stop attacking each other. Once they agree on the programs to fund they should bring together ANC members from across the city to a meeting at the convention center and work out a plan for what each can do to move us forward to safer neighborhoods. 

We must work together as one if we are to succeed in making life safer and better for all. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Opinion | U.S. senators: It’s time to act against anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Draw your inspiration from past bipartisan consensus

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Georgia has had the eyes of the nation on it for some time now. It’s just over five years since people across Georgia braced themselves as lawmakers sent sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation to the desk of then-Gov. Nathan Deal. The LGBTQ community feared for the potential harms that the broad “license to discriminate” bill could bring. Business leaders feared billions of dollars being drained from the state’s economy as major players from Hollywood, the business sector, and even the NFL threatened to pull investments. 

But after thousands of calls, meetings, and letters, Gov. Deal, a Republican and devout Evangelical Christian, ultimately did the right thing. He vetoed the bill, saying, “We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody.”

At the time Gov. Deal’s veto was heralded as a radical move for a Republican leader. But the truth is that Republican lawmakers faced with bills targeting LGBTQ people frequently take action against these measures. We saw it earlier this year in Arkansas as Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed a draconian anti-transgender healthcare bill. Earlier this year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox teared up while condemning an anti-trans bill, saying, “These kids are just trying to stay alive.” Prominent Republican leaders in South Dakota, Texas, South Carolina, and Arizona have vetoed or moved to block anti-LGBTQ bills. Stalwart Republican senators from Alabama and Iowa have passionately supported open military service for transgender people. 

There are plenty of examples of Republicans supporting LGBTQ people, but they’ve often been lost in the headlines stoking the so-called left-versus-right “culture wars.”

In my home state of Georgia, Gov. Deal’s action inspired further evolution on LGBTQ issues. In the five legislative sessions since Gov. Deal’s veto, Georgia’s legislature has not passed a single anti-LGBTQ bill. Republicans and Democrats alike have defended LGBTQ Georgians from discriminatory measures. And so many Georgians across the political spectrum – within families, friend groups, and workforces – have had conversations about what dignity for LGBTQ people looks like.

Now it’s time for the members of the United States Senate to build on that consensus by taking the most important and critical step yet for LGBTQ Americans. It’s time for senators on both sides of the aisle to come together and enact equality legislation that would establish concrete, enduring nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTQ people in areas like housing and public spaces, including restaurants, stores, and hospitals. LGBTQ people in too many states – 29 nationwide – remain vulnerable because of a lack of explicit nondiscrimination laws at the state and federal levels.

Polling consistently shows that a wide majority of Americans of both political parties strongly supports protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. More than eight in 10 Americans support LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws, including 62% of Republicans. We cannot let the loudest voices of a fringe minority hold our country back from delivering the promise of liberty, security, and equality for all people, no matter where they live. 

Because really, we are so close to passing federal LGBTQ protections – closer than ever before. Nearly 50 years after its first introduction in Congress, the Equality Act passed with bipartisan support in the House, and received its first-ever Senate hearing. Republican senators in the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced empathy for the harms that discrimination has caused LGBTQ people. They also expressed a willingness to finding a path to protect us. And there is more than one bill proposed to address the inequity that LGBTQ people are subjected to. The Senate judiciary committee opened a door to the long overdue conversation.

Now it’s on us to hold that door open and guide all of our senators through. Democratic senators must reach out to their Republican colleagues and address concerns. Republicans must draw on the many recent examples of conservative leaders working to protect LGBTQ people. 

We can’t afford another 50 years of federal inaction on our protections. We can’t afford for the two parties to keep butting heads in a bitter stalemate. For the first time in history, we have a real opportunity to secure protections for LGBTQ Americans.

We must seize this opportunity, seek common ground and find a solution that works for everyone. It’s essential that right, left, and center come together, reach consensus, and do the right thing. At last.

Jeff Graham is executive director of Georgia Equality. Reach him at [email protected].

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