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Long live prophetic voice of James Baldwin

Black, gay author remembered as ‘conscience of America’

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James Baldwin, gay news, Washington Blade

James Baldwin (Photo by Allan Warren; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Back in the day, being on the cover of Time magazine was huge. Then, everyone from salesclerks to Wall Street traders read the newsweekly, and if your face, well known or not, peered out from it on newsstands or in mailboxes, everyone would know your name.

This was especially true when James Baldwin, the iconic novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, who wrote stirringly and eloquently on the civil rights movement, race and sexuality, made the cover of Time on May 13, 1963. Time made Baldwin a celebrity after the publication earlier that year of “The Fire Next Time,” his searing essays on race and civil rights. One of my most vivid youthful memories is that of my Dad pointing to Baldwin’s visage on Time and saying, “That man is our conscience! You’d have to be made of stone not to listen to him.”

I’m remembering this because Baldwin, who died in the South of France at age 63 in 1987, was born in Harlem 90 years ago this year. Yet, the legacy of Baldwin, black and openly gay years before Stonewall, and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, is fading in many classrooms, the New York Times reported recently. Fortunately, steps are being taken to commemorate and preserve Baldwin’s legacy.

From April 23-27, the New York Live Arts festival “James Baldwin, This Time” began a year-long celebration of Baldwin in venues from Harlem Stage to the Columbia University School of the Arts. In 2013, “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” two novels by Baldwin were reissued by Vintage. “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” by James Baldwin is just out from Beacon Press.

“James Baldwin served as the conscience of America during the civil rights movement,” Matthew Rothschild, senior editor of The Progressive, which published Baldwin’s famous “Letter to My Nephew in 1962,” emailed the Blade. “He wrote with tremendous power.”

Today, when same-sex couples can marry in 17 states and in D.C., out writers from poets to playwrights are a dime a dozen, and the United States has a black president, it’s hard to imagine how prescient and bold Baldwin was.

“When you were starting out as a writer, you were a black, impoverished, homosexual,” an interviewer said to Baldwin. “You must have said to yourself: ‘gee, how disadvantaged could I get?’”

“Oh, no, I thought I hit the jackpot!” Baldwin replied. “It was so outrageous you could not go any further. You had to figure out a way to use it.”

Baldwin “used it” spectacularly: to speak truth to power, spur on writers, to electrify his time and generations to come with his tender, precise, pointed, words, presence and spirit.  “Black, gay, beautiful, bejeweled, eyes like orbs, searching, dancing, calling a spade a spade … Baldwin was dangerous to anybody who had anything to hide,” Nikki Finney writes in the introduction to “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.”

He was “a man who had no … no concept of his place,” Finney continues, “who nurtured conversation with Black Panthers and the white literati on the same afternoon.”

Poets can be prophets, E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of Howard University’s African-American Resource Center, said in a telephone interview with the Blade. “Baldwin was a prophetic voice. He was in the middle between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – between the church and the blues,” Miller said. “He’s wrestling with how to talk about love and sex.”

The blues gives you a feeling of strength as well as of suffering, Miller said.

“The blues gives you a sense of resilience that enables you to confront what they throw at you,” Miller said. “Baldwin wouldn’t have anyone restricting who he wants to love.”

Why does Baldwin’s legacy matter? Because we still perpetuate and encounter homophobia and racism; and great writing still nourishes our hearts and minds. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin! Long live your prophetic voice!

Kathi Wolfe, a poet and writer, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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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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10 ways to build back LGBTQ human infrastructure better

The Build Back Better Act will benefit the community

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In 2021 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.75 trillion human infrastructure bill — the Build Back Better Act. It contains 10 concrete provisions that it will directly benefit the LGBTQ community. It awaits Senate approval to become law.

Most media reports covered the climate change and social safety net programs. LGBTQ people will undoubtedly benefit from clean air, water and reduced emissions. LGBTQ people of color or those with limited incomes will undoubtedly benefit from the expanded social safety net programs. But sometimes queers, lesbians, Asians, young people or immigrants are overlooked. Here are 10 ways that we benefit.

1. Retroactive benefits for same-sex couples married before 2010

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibited the IRS from recognizing same-sex marriages. Windsor changed that, but only for same-sex marriages after 2010. Couples who married before — some wed by then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newson, then-New Paltz (N.Y.) Mayor Jason West, or in Canada as far back as 2004 — could not claim federal benefits. The bill allows these couples to back-file claims for federal tax credits and refunds.

2. Queer Asian lesbians who tech 

A disproportionate share of immigrant tech workers are lesbian/bi/trans women and/or Asian. The bill extends H-1B visas for these workers by recapturing unused, previously authorized, worker visas. Watch Jenny’s video to learn more about LGBTQ Asian immigrant knowledge workers.

3. Enforcement of anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination

The National LGBTQ Task Force tells that nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ Americans report having experienced discrimination in their everyday lives. Last year, the Supreme Court held in Bostock v. Clayton County that the Civil Rights Act protected LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment. (See my amicus brief with TLDEF in that case.) But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which conducts investigations and enforcement lawsuits, badly defunded under Trump accrued a backlog of claims. LGBTQ people who lost their jobs are still waiting for their cases to be heard. The bill provides $321 million for the EEOC to resolve those cases.

4. College Financial Aid for Queer Students and DACA Young People

Two provisions will help more LGBTQ young people attend college. First is a $550 increase in the federal Pell Grant; second is the exclusion of Pell Grants as income for tax purposes. It’s always been strange that the federal government gave out Pell Grants and then took some of it back through taxes. This exclusion increases the $550 even more.

In addition, undocumented LGBTQ young people, or Dreamers, who enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program could attend college but were denied federal financial aid. The bill allows them to apply for aid, including Pell Grants and subsidized student loans.

5. Preventing LGBTQ youth suicide, community violence and trauma

The Trevor Project has long shown that LGBTQ youth face the highest rates of suicide. The bill provides $75 million in funding to support the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and its network of crisis centers. It also provides $2.5 billion to support programs to reduce community violence and trauma.

6. Fighting HIV/AIDS

Countless men who have sex with men have died from AIDS. African American, Latino and older gay and bisexual men have the highest rates of HIV disease. APICHA and APAIT remind us that Asian and Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of new infections. The bill provides $75 million to support the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program to provide primary care, support services, and medications to communities disproportionally affected by HIV/AIDS.

7. Supporting LGBTQ families with children

An estimated 3 million LGBTQ Americans are raising or had a child. Family Equality found that 63 percent of LGBTQ millennials have or are planning to have children. The Child Tax Credit, oft regarded as a program to lift low-income families out of poverty, will also help LGBTQ families with a tax credit of $3,000 per child, or $3,600 for children under age six.

8. Protecting vulnerable LGBTQ elders

As more and more LGBTQ age, some have limited support. SAGE reports that many LGBTQ elders lack children or caregivers to look out for their needs. The bill reauthorizes funding for elder justice with programs and trainings to prevent and investigate abuse, neglect and exploitation, especially in nursing homes, as well as $74 million for resources that focus on elder community issues.

9. Protecting LGBTQ undocumented immigrants

There are a quarter million undocumented LGBTQ immigrants in the U.S. Immigration Equality fights hard for them but can’t do it all. The bill allows undocumented immigrants to work, protects them from deportation and allows access to social safety net programs.

10. Reuniting LGBTQ immigrant families and workers

LGBTQ Immigrant families have been separated, sometimes for decades. LGBTQ relatives in Mexico, the Philippines, China, Vietnam and India have had to wait up to 19 years to be reunited with their loved ones in the U.S. The bill clears the 10-20 year visa backlog and allows legal immigrants already here to permanently live and work in the U.S. by recapturing 500,000 unused, previously authorized, green cards.

These 10 provisions in the Build Back Better Act can meaningfully improve the lives of so many everyday LGBTQ people.

The House bill now goes to the Senate. It will undergo several changes. Some, many, or even all of these LGBTQ-friendly provisions could be negotiated out. So TAKE ACTION and email your U.S. senator and tell them “I urge you to support the House’s $1.75 trillion human infrastructure bill and its provisions that will benefit the LGBT community. Build back our nation’s LGBT human infrastructure better!” Call upon our senators to act swiftly in 2022 to make all our lives better by passing the BBB Act and send it to the president’s desk to be signed. 

Glenn D. Magpantay, Esq., a long-time advocate for the LGBTQ, AAPI and immigrant communities, is the former executive director of NQAPIA. He is a civil rights attorney, and a professor of law and Asian American Studies. He has testified before Congress and authored reports for the congressional record. He is principal at Magpantay and Associates: a nonprofit consulting and legal services firm. 

Magpantay may be reached at [email protected]  or www.linkedin.com/in/glenn-d-magpantay-esq 

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‘Jilly’s Tree’ and the power of community

That little two-block stretch is quite a neighborhood

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(Photo by Thomas Gilespie)

“Look at Jilly’s tree!” That was what the president said to his wife on 17th Street on Christmas Eve. 

And who could miss it? It stands close to 18-feet tall, almost in the middle of the street. A Frasier fir from the same nursery that supplies the White House itself. It’s decked out in hundreds of blue and red lights, American flags, little pieces of educational ephemera — small chalkboards, rulers, a giant pencil — and, of course, dozens of photos of President Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. 

And it was “Jilly’s tree” after all. A tree not only dedicated to her, but to all American educators. And that’s what President Biden called it, Jilly’s Tree, when he and the first lady visited on Christmas Eve. Just past noon, after their unannounced visit to D.C.’s Children’s National Hospital, the 40-some odd black automobiles that make up the presidential motorcade came roaring down New Hampshire, taking a left on Corcoran, a right on 17th then in a flash pulling up outside Floriana’s, that well-known, well-liked Italian restaurant that has long been an anchor on 17th Street. 

Dito Sevilla, the well-known barman at Floriana’s, himself a mainstay of the strip, every year since 2012 he’s erected a tree in honor of something held dear. In 2018 it honored Nancy Pelosi and all the then newly elected women members of Congress. Pelosi visited the tree on a Friday morning before Christmas. In 2020 it was dedicated to Kamala Harris, then the newly elected first woman vice president. She also came to visit. She got takeout, too. But the tree isn’t always political in the strictest sense. In 2019 it was dedicated to Kennedy Center honorees, featuring a giant Big Bird on top. 

And no one was really expecting the president to visit. The first lady, sure. That had been rumored for some time and the excitement surrounding that possibility was enough for anyone. But when he popped out of the presidential limousine he handed over this year’s White House Christmas ornament. Dito asked if he would hang it on the tree himself. In a sort of avuncular response, Biden replied with a simple “yeah buddy,” and placed the ornament among the little chalkboards. Those chalkboards featured the names of teachers across the country. 

And in a sense of community, among the teachers featured was everyone from nearby Ross Elementary. After all, Ross Elementary is a model. And not just for education but a model of what the government can provide — a school, maybe a library, a post office, or a park. But the gay community on 17th Street shows indeed what a neighborhood can provide — the charity of Annie’s, a Pride festival, a sense of belonging and an 18-foot evergreen that can draw even the president of the United States to our little one-way street of seemingly little importance. 

At a glance it could be any street in Washington. But it’s that little stretch of two blocks, from R to P, taking in Church and Corcoran streets, that proves the power of community. It was powerful enough to warrant a presidential visit on Christmas Eve. Think what else it could do. Or has done that we’re not even in on. 

It’s now that time of year when discarded Christmas trees litter the sidewalks of the District. And Jilly’s Tree will soon be gone, too. But folks are already wondering: What will be next year’s theme? Dito is looking forward to honoring Michelle Obama’s eight years as first lady. Will she visit, though? 

I’d put money on it. 

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

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