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D.C. politicians can learn from Mandela

South African hero prized patience and pragmatism

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Nelson Mandela, South Africa, gay news, Washington Blade

Nelson Mandela (Photo by South Africa The Good News; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson Mandela was a hero, but, more than that, a wonderful human being. He is the father of present day South Africa and an inspiration to all those around the world who continue to fight for civil and human rights.

He walked out of prison after 27 years to become president of South Africa and ended apartheid without a civil war. He was a fighter, a politician and a pragmatist. He understood achieving success meant not seeking revenge but rather reconciliation. He learned non-violent resistance from Gandhi and used it as a tactic. He was part of the African National Congress (ANC), which did believe in violence to achieve its goals, and in his youth he didn’t feel it was wrong. It was during his years in prison that he read, thought and understood that violence wasn’t the way to achieve his goals.

Mandela left jail a fully formed leader. His strength radiated from his core; he refused to be consumed by hatred and willingly worked with his enemies to achieve his goals. He even recognized that it was the white business leaders in South Africa who would help him achieve them by making the economy more open to all. He seemed to have no fear moving forward what he knew to be right. His ever-ready smile symbolized hope and warmth and masked an iron will.

The patience and pragmatism of Mandela is something that our politicians in D.C. could learn from. As of today there are five members of the Council running or exploring a run for mayor, challenging the incumbent who is running for a second term. Mandela showed us we can right wrongs and achieve greatness without the malice that so often seems to consume our politicians. Rather than Mandela’s warmth, they often radiate anger. At least one has a well-earned reputation as a bully that neither engenders trust nor respect.

Some of our politicians wear an air of righteousness on their sleeves rather than having accomplishments that would lead others to believe they are righteous. Michelle Rhee was an example of someone in D.C. whose accomplishments often got lost in her desire for self-promotion.

The District of Columbia comprises eight Wards and at least two cities. Our divisions are mostly rich and poor but often get translated into white and black because so many of our poorer residents are black. Add to that the lingering racism that still exists and we have a long way to go to achieve a fair and just society where all our children will be born with an equal opportunity to live their lives to their full potential.

As we move toward our mayoral election, we need to look at the candidates not only for what they say about themselves but for who they really are. How have they spent their lives? Not one of the candidates running is so pure that they should be willing to challenge another candidate to do better without challenging themselves to do the same. They shouldn’t be able to win an election by simply tearing down the opposition. Those candidates who are in office now should have to answer the question of why any new proposal they present in the election wasn’t something they tried to do in their current office. What stymied their efforts and what will change to let them do it now?

A focus of this campaign will be ethics. All candidates will challenge the current mayor over his 2010 campaign and he will need to give the public both an explanation and an apology. But then all the candidates will have to share what they did with their lives before they entered politics. How did they work for those less able to help themselves and how did that work benefit others? Some will have to explain what they did in office to make big money in other jobs. Did they use their influence as elected officials to enrich themselves? How do the principles they have lived by compare to the ones that Nelson Mandela lived his life by?

The Nelson Mandelas of the world come along rarely. But our ability to measure ourselves against him, even knowing we will come up short, gives us the opportunity to work to make ourselves better. We need to elect candidates who will give the voters of the District specifics of what they will do as mayor and show people how those things will give us hope for a better life for ourselves, our children and future generations.

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A second Trump administration would be disastrous for LGBTQ people

We cannot afford to go backward

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impeachment, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, GLAAD’s leadership team gathered in my office to assess the results of the night before and begin to process the reality that Donald J. Trump would be America’s next president. Though emotions were running high, we quickly agreed that the LGBTQ community would be in grave danger for the next four years, and that GLAAD must pivot its priorities and its resources to react and respond to the new administration.

Trump had spent the better part of his campaign having it both ways. He professed to be a friend of our community to the point of literally wrapping himself in the Pride flag at an event, while surrounding himself with some of the most virulent anti-LGBTQ activists and politicians of our era — led by the incoming Vice President Mike Pence. The message was clear — LGBTQ people and our hard won progress would be in the Trump administration crosshairs at every level and in every way possible.

Our charge was not an easy one. The cable news cycle was well into its around-the-clock, obsessive, and incessant 24-hour coverage of Trump and his followers, so we couldn’t depend on them to research, dig up and bring to light the nefarious actions that were inevitable. On top of that, we would need to ensure that the LGBTQ community was on high alert and that we were ready to fight back with every weapon in our movement’s arsenal.

So on that morning of Nov. 9, 2016, GLAAD’s Trump Accountability Project was conceived and launched. For the next four years, we tracked more than 200 attacks in policy and rhetoric coming from the Trump administration. Some of the most egregious include the complete removal of all LGBTQ references from the White House web site on the day of his inauguration; the shameful ban of qualified transgender Americans from military service; the support for businesses to legally discriminate sanctioned by the Justice Department and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court; removal of LGBTQ identifiers from the 2020 U.S. Census; the stripping of protections for transgender people in schools and in healthcare; and a slew of extreme judicial nominees to the federal bench whose anti-LGBTQ views will have a decades-long impact. The list is extensive, and it is sobering now, even in retrospect.

I invite you to fast forward five years and juxtapose that record against that of President Joe Biden as he crosses the one-year mark of his presidency. Just as we did with Donald Trump, it was important for GLAAD to track the actions of President Biden in order to hold him and his administration accountable for delivering on the campaign promises he made to the LGBTQ community.

The results are undeniable and unparalleled by any president in the history of this country. In his first 365 days in office, GLAAD’s Biden Accountability Tracker has just documented its 100th item in a quickly growing list of appointments, policies, and statements that advance equality.

These include:

  • Nominating the first out lesbians to the federal bench — Alison Nathan, Beth Robinson and Charlotte Sweeney — among a record 40 first-year judicial confirmations.
  • Nominating the first out Cabinet member confirmed by the Senate, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; first out transgender person confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Health and first female four-star admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Dr. Rachel Levine.
  • Issuing the first U.S. passport with a gender-neutral ‘X’ marker, an option offered to all routine passport applicants in early 2022.
  • Reinstating of transgender military personnel, as well as expanding coverage for transgender vets’ healthcare.
  • Reversing rollbacks and expanding protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in healthcare, adoption services, and employment.

In a single year, with so many competing priorities, President Biden and his administration have opened doors for LGBTQ Americans and demonstrated unprecedented commitment to ending discrimination and pushing toward full equality in every area of society. Indeed, it’s a 180 degree turnaround from the previous administration’s attacks on LGBTQ Americans.

There’s a good deal of speculation that Donald Trump may once again run for president, and one thing could not be clearer — a second Trump Administration would be disastrous for LGBTQ people. We cannot afford to go backward. Democracy is on the line. Our equality is on the line. And it’s not hyperbole to say — our lives are on the line.

This is not a partisan political fight. It’s an American imperative. LGBTQ and our allies must not be complacent in 2022. Our work to ensure pro-equality leaders are elected to office — and remain in office — begins now. We cannot skip the midterm elections. We cannot stop paying attention and holding our elected leaders and candidates accountable.

We learned in 2016 and for four years afterward that the train of progress can be reversed, and there are anti-LGBTQ extremists working day and night to do it again. The power is in our hands to not let that happen again.

Sarah Kate Ellis is the president and CEO of GLAAD.

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Opinions

Trans ban repeal anniversary meaningless without fed’l voter protection

We all deserve to have an equal voice in our government

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Give Out Day, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It has been a year since President Biden repealed the Trans Ban. Now, everyone who is qualified to serve their country in the armed forces is able to, openly and authentically. As transgender veterans ourselves, this is an action that we welcome and celebrate.

Since the ban was repealed, the Biden administration has taken initiative to expand Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits to transgender military members and veterans. In June, the secretary of VA, Dennis McDonough, announced a lift on a 20-year ban for gender confirmation surgeries, allowing the procedure to be covered under VA benefits. In September, nearing the 10th anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the VA disseminated a plan that allows LGBT veterans with other-than-honorable discharges to receive VA benefits. Already in 2022, the VA has announced that trans and nonbinary veterans can update their offical health records with the correct gender identification. While there has been a lot of forward movement in military and veterans spaces for inclusivity, our country is still fighting for a fair and inclusive democracy.

Just as it’s important to recognize transgender veterans’ rights to be openly trans and to receive healthcare through the VA, it is also important to pursue a robust voting rights agenda to eliminate racialized or politicized restrictions on the constitutionally protected right to vote. Right now, it is critical to pass federal voting rights protections. With safeguards in place in our democracy, we can elect leaders that truly care about us. No matter someone’s gender identity, race, ethnicity, or disability status, we all deserve to have an equal voice in our government. As transgender veterans, we want to share our stories and the impact that the decisions made at the federal and state level have on us.

Lene Mees de Tricht (she/her)

I am a transgender US Navy and Coast Guard veteran. Since I left the military, many things have changed, and mostly for the better. Or rather, we’re currently trending positive. And we should on no account be satisfied with our progress; trans people still face a lot of discrimination and trans veterans still face compounding difficulties, but I would like to reflect on how far we’ve come.

I served from 2002-2012, when I was discharged for being transgender. I was unprepared to be very suddenly cast into the civilian world, and I’ve spent the intervening decade trying to recover financially, emotionally, and mentally. I had to do things I’m not proud of to survive, and I’ve been dealing with the trauma of that while also trying to find a job with no marketable skills (an intelligence analyst’s most valuable asset is their clearance, and without it, you have very little to offer) in a society that felt like they were free to hate. The previous administration’s reversal of the incremental gains of the Obama administration set back transgender rights in service of empowering a small demographic of hateful people who would prefer we have no voice and no presence in their military or their society.

So while the VA’s decision to repeal the ban on gender confirmation surgery and recognize veterans as transgender is objectively an improvement, it’s also not enough. As a society, I think we acknowledge the hardships and difficulties of transgender people broadly, and the unique challenges that being a transgender veteran can impose. And I think we as a people acknowledge that being transgender is not the only axis of discrimination and hardship facing Americans even today. Trans veterans stand with our fellow Americans of color in recognizing the ongoing threats to democracy present in our society.

Albi Brunzell (they/them)

I am a nonbinary US Navy veteran who served from 2002-2005 during DADT. I was discharged before it was overturned, so I was never given the right to serve openly as a nonbinary sailor. I served as a straight female because if I didn’t, my country deemed me less worthy to fight for freedom and democracy – something that still sounds absurd to me. Liberty and Justice for all is still not a reality for so many Americans, myself included. Without equal rights, we will never have true liberty or democracy in America. The overturning of DADT made huge steps for the LGB community while transgender rights were still on the line. Up until last year, Trans service members were stuck in a political limbo, and thankfully President Biden ended that.

In the same way, we have made some progress on voting rights in the last few years. States like Michigan have leaders like Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who set out to improve access to ballots for veterans after her husband had issues receiving his ballot while deployed overseas.. Our country needs to pass a federal voting rights bill. It’s unconstitutional for millions of Americans to not have equal access to their ballots. Democracy only works when everyone participates.

Esti Lamonaca (they/them)

I am a trans nonbinary US Army 2014 to 2020, OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) combat veteran. I served during Trump’s Trans Ban implementation. While I had to hide my authentic self, I continued to fulfill the responsibilities of my oath. My gender identity never meant I was unfit to serve. The Commander-in-Chief at the time endangered me in the very country I was risking my life to protect. Trump’s ban has a lasting transphobic footprint within the US military. In combat zones, gender does not matter; what matters is if you can do the job you volunteered to do.

The Biden administration repeal of the Trans Ban humanized the trans community in a space we once were considered a “burden.” Now we need protected human rights as part of our entire democracy. Our democracy isn’t for one group of people, it is for all people. Every single human being deserves to be able to participate in democracy, especially in casting their vote, and it is up to our elected officials to ensure that this is possible.

There’s nothing more patriotic than participating in democracy while being under attack by your own country, whether that is serving your country while hiding your authentic self or battling voter suppression to cast your ballot. You may not know why someone needs access to vote by mail, early vote, or who may even be scared to vote because of voter intimidation, just like you may not know someone’s gender identity who is in full combat gear deployed beside you. While something may not directly affect you, it doesn’t mean someone you love or know isn’t affected. Not everything or everyone is what they appear to be, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated less than.

Even with all of the forward movement, there is still a lot of work needed to ensure true democracy is achieved. As transgender veterans, we know what it looks like to watch democracy crumble, we know what it looks like to be restricted of our rights, and we will not be silent as the attacks on our democracy persist. We swore an oath to protect our democracy, and that oath didn’t expire. Our nation’s leaders have to represent all of us, otherwise our democracy will collapse. It is imperative that federal anti-discriminatory legislation is passed to protect all people, especially when it comes to participating in our democracy.

Members of Congress claim they support veterans every opportunity they get, but they do not support all of us when they are voting against some of our rights. It is vital that the federal government pass federal voting legislation. It is crucial to provide an equal voice in our democracy to all members of society, not just a select group. It is essential that democratic progress never reverses course again, and as veterans we will continue to fulfill our oaths and fight for progress to guarantee liberty and justice is truly for all.

Lene (she/her) is a US Navy and US Coast Guard veteran from Iowa. She served for 10 years in support of counterterrorist, counternarcotics, and humanitarian aid/disaster relief operations. She is the Veterans Organizing Institute Program Associate at the grassroots veterans organization Common Defense.

Albi (they/them) short for Amanda Le’Anne Brunzell, is a US Navy veteran from Grand Rapids, Mich. They are the first non-binary person to openly run for federal office in the United States. Currently, they are pursuing a dual degree in International Relations and Public Policy with a focus on National Security. They are an active member of Common Defense.

Esti Lamonaca (they/them) is a US Army combat veteran from New York City. They served in Afghanistan as part of a Special Forces Joint Task Force team component of NATO. They currently are the National Membership Manager of the grassroots veterans organization, Common Defense.

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Opinions

Words create worlds, so what kind of world do we want to live in?

Free speech comes with incredible responsibility

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It seems that each new day brings a fresh debate around speech and the weight of impact that speech holds. Back in October hundreds of Netflix employees staged a walkout protesting their company’s controversial Dave Chappelle stand-up special. At issue were a number of jokes aimed at the transgender community. The protest happened in response to Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’ defense of the special, saying that “content doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” This statement could not be further from the truth. Not only do words carry impact and directly translate to real-world harm, words form our conception of the world and oftentimes what is seen as truth. The language we use and condone shapes how everything around us is perceived, which is why there is great responsibility in considering the words we use before we put them out into the world. 

We think about this every day at Reading Partners, an organization that places community volunteers in Title I elementary schools to support students in mastering reading skills. Because many of our volunteers do not share racial identity or a similar lived experience of the students we partner with, it is incredibly important to us that they understand that their role is to empower students who need a little extra support rather than coming to “help” or “save” them. The white-savior narrative has historically run rampant in spaces looking to mobilize volunteers for a cause and it is our responsibility to dismantle this narrative. This dismantling starts with the language we use and the stories we share about the communities we have the great privilege to partner with. Given that structural racism and oppression have created the current conditions facing under-resourced students, it is incumbent upon us that we recognize our role within the community and understand that we are here to act as a partner with students and their families whom have already created plans to address gaps in learning.

Because of the impact words yield, it is essential to carefully consider language choice, especially if it could affect marginalized and oppressed groups. Even those who have good intent, like journalists and public figures, often use outdated language and phrases that stigmatize communities or frame them through an othering lens. Some common examples of misguided language often used include phrases like “low-income students,” and “learning loss.” Both of these phrases place responsibility on students for the situation they are in despite the fact that students do not receive income, or have intentionally chosen to miss out on learning opportunities particularly with the disruptions that COVID-19 created. This type of framing has a direct corollary on how these students might be treated by teachers, administrators, and tutors, as well as how they are viewed by leaders, politicians and other people who hold power. It is therefore important that we use terms that accurately describe the situation, which may need to include political or historical context—so instead of “low-income students” we say, “historically under-resourced communities,” while a more accurate substitute for “learning loss” is actually “unfinished learning.” While these are subtle shifts in language, it completely reframes the situation, elucidating who shares responsibility for the current state of things and who does not.

It is also of note that the positive or negative connotations inherent in the language we use are hugely important to how we see those who may have different lived experiences than our own. At Reading Partners, we know that our students are not in fact “struggling” or “suffering from a lack of” something. We highlight our students as they are: “working hard,” “enduring,” “skill builders,” etc. despite growing up in a world where they have been denied access to high-quality literacy education. 

It is a fallacy that words cannot do harm. Language has served to dehumanize and subjugate people for as long as it has existed and it is often those in power who have the loudest voice. We as people, institutions, corporations, media, and otherwise must think through what we say and how it might impact others. Let’s be clear—this is not about censorship or ‘cancelling’ anyone. Language changes all of the time and it can be hard to keep up with. We are simply making the appeal that those in power, and with platforms, continue learning from and listening to those who have been harmed for centuries by systemic injustice. Free speech is a privilege, and with that privilege, there is incredible responsibility to utilize language that truly aligns with and demonstrates the user’s values.

Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan is executive director of Reading Partners DC, a nonprofit that for more than 20 years has helped empower local students to succeed in reading and in life by engaging community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring. If you’re interested in learning more and becoming a volunteer visit readingpartners.org/volunteer-washington-dc.

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