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Thank you, Mr. President

Executive order is latest pro-LGBT move by Obama

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Barack Obama, executive order, gay news, Washington Blade
Barack Obama, executive order, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Obama on Monday signed the executive order barring anti-gay bias by federal contractors that many of us have written about and asked him for since 2008 when he first promised to do it. We need to thank him for keeping his promise and taking another step toward securing full civil and human rights for the LGBT community. We have come a long way during his presidency.

This executive order is not a new initiative. What the president has done is to add sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of protected categories that were applied to federal contractors in an executive order first approved by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. As reported in the New York Times, “He is also adding gender identity as a protected category to a 1969 directive by President Richard M. Nixon that applies to federal employees, which was later amended by President Bill Clinton to include sexual orientation.”

This is a great step forward but it appears that while this EO applies to federal contracts it does not apply to federal grants whose criteria are usually left to each individual agency. The LGBT community takes heart that we have been heard and the EO does not carve out any new religious exemptions that don’t already exist for other protected categories. It is estimated this executive order applies to 24,000 companies that are designated as federal contractors and whose 28 million workers make up about a fifth of the American workforce.

Monday’s signing was done against a backdrop of the fight for legislation including ENDA ongoing for many years. That fight and the issue of exemptions for religious organizations have been impacted by the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The first comprehensive legislation to ban discrimination against the LGBT community was introduced by Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) in 1974. That legislation didn’t pass and there has ensued a long and sometimes bitter battle to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which first passed the House of Representatives in 2007 but didn’t get through the Senate. This past year, it passed the Senate but looks like it will fail in the House so we will be back to square one in the next Congress.

President Obama ran in 2008 and made a number of promises to the LGBT community including repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and signing this executive order to get support in the election and it clearly worked. The problem many in the community have had is that every move forward on his part including making these issues a priority once he was in office seemed to coincide with a difficult election, either the mid-term congressional or his own reelection. Forward momentum seemed designed politically to recharge and energize the LGBT community to vote in and raise more money for a coming election. That strategy has worked and includes his well-timed decision to evolve, or as some suggested revolve, as he once before did support it, on the issue of marriage equality.

As someone deeply involved in the political process for more than 40 years I find this strategy understandable. As an activist it is my hope as we move beyond the Obama presidency we will move LGBT issues away from being just a political football and that they will be as ingrained in the continuing fight for civil and human rights as are the fights for the civil rights of African Americans and women’s rights. We also need to move the fight for immigration reform away from the politics of the moment to the politics of full inclusion.

President Obama will always be seen as a hero to the LGBT community for how far we have come during his presidency. He is by nature a decent man. But let us hope that his elections will be the last in which the issues of full civil and human rights for the LGBT community are even debated in the Democratic Party. Unfortunately at this time we can’t say the same for the Republican Party but we can always hope for a better future even there.

We know as we have seen the arc of history with regard to civil rights and women’s rights that we will always have to be vigilant to maintain any forward momentum. But that will be a different fight thanks to this president.

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Fight for marriage equality continues

Those who believe in the humanity of all must advocate for LGBTQ rights

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Bishop Allyson Nelson Abrams presiding over a same-sex marriage. (Photo courtesy Empowerment Liberation Cathedral)

Since DOMA was struck down and we received marriage equality in the LGBTQIA+ community, I have performed numerous same-sex weddings (more than 25). Talking with a member of my congregation recently it came to my attention that many persons, including those in the LGBTQ community, have never had the wonderful privilege to attend a same-sex wedding, especially one in the church. 

I remember the day DOMA was struck down and how excited I was about the freedom in the country for ALL persons to have the legal right to marry who they loved. I wrote an article years ago entitled “She deserves to be called my wife” before DOMA was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. I still feel very strongly about marriage today, and I don’t take our progress in marriage equality for granted.

It has taken blood, sweat, and a lot of tears by campaigning grassroots nonprofits and legislative pushback to attain the human right to wed the person we love and want to spend the rest of our days loving in the DMV area. Same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia has been legal for over a decade now, since 2010, with Maryland and Virginia following in 2013 and 2014 respectively. I am happy to say that many other states were progressive on this issue also and my wife and I were blessed to marry in the State of Iowa before federal marriage equality.

The fight is not over. Many viewed the overturning of Roe vs. Wade as a gateway to further setbacks while far right conservatives continue to deny that LGBTQ rights are not still in jeopardy, but I know otherwise.

There are 13 states that still have not legalized same-sex marriage; therefore, it is imperative that federal laws protect those that are unjustly affected by not overturning what has already been recognized as legal and binding. And like many outdated laws, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allows slavery as a form of penal punishment, so too does the marriage act passed by 12 Republicans and all 50 Democratic senators to protect legalization of interracial marriages, another outdated law.

Does it make any sense for a couple to be turned down by 31 churches before they are allowed to marry with their family and friends present to witness their vow exchange? Well, such was the case with two men in the United Kingdom until finally they were able to marry last month in London.

Those who believe in the humanity of ALL people MUST continue to advocate for LGBTQ rights and laws. We would be best served if we would support our present administration as they continue to make advances with policies that protect LGBTQ persons and those who are marginalized. We too are America!

Bishop Allyson Nelson Abrams, Ph.D., is pastor and founder of Empowerment Liberation Cathedral in Bowie, Md.

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Club Q another example of how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric leads to the death of queer, trans folks

The LGBTQ community deserves to feel safe from hate and violence

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It was 7:15 a.m. and I had just landed after traveling across the country from working with my military unit. My phone started ringing. “Did you see it? and “How are you feeling?” were the messages that started pouring in. Then I saw the news: “Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ Club Q Shooting.” I was struck with the same feeling I had seeing the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting – fear and horror.

In 2016, I was still struggling with finding enough self-love to share my sexual identity. I vividly remember watching my parents’ television as the details of the shooting rolled in. I felt like coming out would put me at risk for further hate and unfathomable violence. For those who do not have a strong support system, small online acts of hateful rhetoric can deter someone from their journey to acceptance and happiness. At that moment, I was too young to understand the full extent of these actions but one thing was perfectly clear – the LGBTQ+ community is hated for simply existing.

I’m a soldier in the U.S. Army. I choose to put on the uniform to help protect the people of our country and at times, the hateful actions committed by fellow Americans has made me feel powerless. The idea of a “war zone” should only be familiar to soldiers like myself, not children in a school or people looking to have a fun night with their friends at a bar or club.

A few times over the past 24 hours, I found myself pondering the same question: “How can the sheer existence of queer and trans people be viewed as such a threat to others that they resort to murder?” The simple answer is that our society has allowed for this type of rhetoric to receive attention and sometimes even praise. As a result, five people in Colorado Springs were killed and 25 injured at an LGBTQ nightclub, Club Q. In a heroic attack, two unarmed citizens inside the club stopped the gunman to protect others. These men were not armed with heavy weaponry, but rather a will to live and bravery in their hearts. If these civilians were able to act so quickly here, I wonder why the police had to wait for more than an hour to intervene in Uvalde.

Many Americans are now numb to the news of gun violence. For the past few years, we have watched our lawmakers stand impotently and choose their political party over protecting human beings. Sandy Hook seemed unimaginable and like a bad dream. When we saw that there was little action taken by lawmakers in the wake of six-year-old children being slaughtered in their elementary school classrooms, my heart was shattered. Today, nearly a decade later, there has been little to no movement on legislation to combat horrific gun violence. Instead of Congress taking action, American people have witnessed more than 27 additional mass shootings in schools alone and thousands more injured and/or killed.

From Pulse, to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ remarks on Obergefell vs. Hodges, to book bans (including one in my hometown), to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill being proposed nationally, I am worried that we are being pushed backwards in time. More than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced this year and there have been more than a dozen attacks on our community. This mass shooting came on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, directly threatening the safety and existence of those who are simply trying to be themselves. In the recent midterm elections, candidates ran on anti-LGBTQ platforms, categorized members of our community as “groomers,” and directly invalidated our existence. Although they did not pull the trigger, these politicians have ignited bigotry and homophobia to the point where their words are now weaponized.

These survivors are now going to be faced with mental health struggles, likely including post-traumatic stress, which will directly affect their daily lives. Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work with those struggling from traumatic experiences by using sound bytes to counteract feelings of fear and anxiety. Through my work in this field, I know the mental journey that these Club Q survivors are about to endure. I hope that anyone who is struggling knows that there are resources out there to help.

Today, I use my voice as an activist to work with victims of gun violence and those in the LGBTQ+ community who have been affected by hateful actions to remind people that we are human – just like them. The families of gun violence deserve better. The LGBTQ+ community deserves to feel safe from hate and violence. Children’s families deserve better. We as humans deserve better. We want effective policy and change over “thoughts and prayers.” The louder we resist, the weaker hate and fear become.

Brian Femminella is a Gen-Z LGBTQ+ activist and tech entrepreneur. He is an outspoken voice in the queer and trans community, including through his work in the military as an Army Officer.

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My suicide ideation: A journey to self-love

It is much harder for those of us on the margins

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Jessica Arends is a writer who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.

(Editor’s note: This piece is a response to last week’s Blade cover story by David Lett recounting his suicide attempt. If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, call 988 or one of many LGBTQ-specific advocacy groups offering support. If you would like to share your own story of overcoming isolation, depression, or suicidal ideation, email us at [email protected].)

Perhaps it was the grinding loneliness of the pandemic, but about two years ago my fantasies of being with women became daily distractions. I could not be fully present with my husband and felt a constant tug for something more, something outside of a life I had spent 18 years cultivating. I lived in a constant cycle of fantasy, guilt, denial, back to fantasy.  

My supportive husband was willing to try an open marriage, but non-monogamy did not agree with my Christian upbringing. Then, as most stories go, I met someone. She was funny, attractive, and OK with the situation, so we gave it a shot. Each date sailed me up into unprecedented heights and hollowed out an equally deep pit of despair. “Yes! I am like this. . . Oh, dear God, I am really like this!” It was like coming home to who you knew you always were only to find you were now among those most judged, wicked, and despised. With each queer book we read and lesbian drama we watched, I discovered deep and integral parts of me debilitated and atrophied by shame. They started to heal.

The more these parts of me solidified, the more other parts unraveled. A cascade of questions and doubts plagued me. If I was not heterosexual, what else was not true about me? Was my life just a string of acts meant to fulfill social expectations? My career, education, even my friends. Was I me or just performing someone not me for others? The great irony of living by the rules of others is that we live for no one. Without the willingness to bravely share who I truly was, no matter how broken, that primal quest for connection, love and belonging would never be satisfied.

Hence I navigated that precarious path of how out to be — how to stay honest to myself but not cause discomfort. My husband remained open, but my late nights and emotional distance took a great toll on our relationship. I would return home to neatly folded laundry, well-prepared meals and enormous guilt. It was liberating and devastating all at once.

Staying with my husband seemed impossible, but the fear of being alone and rejected from family at age 45 was unbearable. This innate thing inside of me was destroying my life. I imagined cutting myself open and tearing out those parts, but when I looked closely I found they were inseparable — my queerness is fully entwined with my heart, head, and gut. I broke under the weight of this agony and spent weeks in and out of crying spells.

One day I found myself down by the tracks. The sound of a train thundering by broke through my numbness. With a few steps, I could surrender and be free from this torment. I stepped through the thin line of brush that separated me from the tracks. They seductively glistened in the sunlight. Relief. Yes, the final silence of death could take away everything.

Another train raced by, the horn deafening. The blast of wind pushed me away. I collapsed sobbing. I needed help if I was going to survive this. 

Thanks to therapy, acupuncture, yoga, LGBTQ support groups and caring friends and family, I am slowly opening the door to self-love. It is much harder for those of us on the margins. The love from others is no substitute, be they a long-time partner, new girlfriend or family member. Unlearning my self-hatred meant letting go of the deeply held but deeply flawed promises of the straight life: be they heteronormativity, monogamy, gender conformity, the picket fence  — you name it. I had to break my own heart. Only then I could truly love myself.

Jessica Arends is a writer and artist.

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