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Andrew Cray remembered for contributions to LGBT health

An ‘eternal optimist,’ trans activist supported Obamacare, access to transition-related care

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Andrew Cray, gay news, Washington Blade
Andrew Cray, gay news, Washington Blade

Andrew Cray died at age 28 after working to promote transgender health (Photo courtesy of Sarah McBride).

The life of Andrew Cray — and his work on LGBT health issues — was cut short upon his untimely death last week at age 28, but those close to him say his message of encouraging LGBT people to enroll for health insurance lives on.

Among his accomplishments was co-launching Out2Enroll, a project aimed at encouraging LGBT people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Cray also worked as a transgender activist to ensure states would require health insurance companies to cover transition-related care.

Sarah McBride, a D.C. transgender activist who wed Cray shortly before his death, said Cray was an “eternal optimist” and that health disparities facing LGBT people was a motivating factor in his work.

“He felt so much joy in it, and he found so much fulfillment in it, but at the same time, he never sought the limelight,” McBride said. “He never went out of his way to claim credit; he was perfectly content being an unsung hero of the movement. That’s in fact what he was: He was a hero. And his work saved lives. His work has allowed thousands and thousands of people now to be able to access care that allowed them to live full and authentic lives.”

Initially diagnosed in September 2013 with oral cancer, Cray died as a result of the disease at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Aug. 28 at 3:30 p.m. surrounded by close friends and family.

“From the moment they admitted him on Tuesday until his passing, his hand was pretty much constantly being held by someone,” McBride said.

Cray moved to D.C. about three-and-a-half years ago, with an appetite for working on LGBT policy issues. After transitioning himself while attending college at Northwestern University, Cray found his calling after participating in fellowships for LGBT organizations in D.C. while pursuing his law degree at the University of Michigan.

Since 2012, Cray worked for the Center for American Progress on its LGBT state insurance exchange projects, helping to ensure the new law instituted data collection for the LGBT community as well as non-discrimination protections in health care based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Together with fellow activists Kellan Baker and Laura Durso, Cray conducted research finding that prior to Obamacare, one-in-three LGBT adults who make less than $47,000 a year were uninsured.

It was in 2013 that Cray and Baker realized that consumer outreach would be another necessary component to their work, which led them to co-found the project that would be known as Out2Enroll. It was a joint project of the Center for American Progress, the Sellers Dorsey Foundation and the Federal Agencies Project.

Baker said Cray understood as a transgender man what it meant to be locked out of health coverage, which motivated him to work on Out2Enroll right up until the week of his death.

“Knowing that, for transgender people, having health care coverage is a rare and wonderful thing, he really wanted to make it possible for more trans people to have that kind of security and to be able to get insurance that would enable them to get the heath care that they need,” Baker said.

Cray’s initial diagnosis of oral cancer didn’t deter him from his work in making sure LGBT people would be enrolled in health insurance. In fact, he drew on his diagnosis to urge others to get covered.

In an op-ed piece for The Advocate published in March before the open enrollment period ended, Cray urged young LGBT people to sign up for health care, using his own story and diagnosis of oral cancer as evidence that “no one is invincible.”

“Our LGBT community is resilient and strong, and particularly for those of us who are young and have our entire lives in front of us, it may feel like we are invincible. I’ve learned the hard way that I’m not,” Cray wrote. “Cancer has taken a lot from me physically and emotionally. But it hasn’t taken away my voice, and it hasn’t taken away my hope. I hope to find out two weeks from now that I’m cancer-free.”

On July 24, Cray participated in an event at the White House to celebrate the successful enrollment of more than 8 million people into health insurance following implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Upon answering a question about accessibility of health insurance for transgender people, Cray received a standing ovation.

Paulette Aniskoff, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, said Cray’s contributions to the Affordable Care Act were integral to implementing the law.

“Andrew was a talented and passionate advocate for LGBT health who helped educate the entire community about the importance of having access to quality, affordable health care,” Aniskoff said. “His insight and expertise will be sorely missed – but his work will continue to have a real impact on the lives of countless Americans.”

But Cray’s work extended beyond working to ensure LGBT people enroll in health insurance programs. It also consisted of developing policies for states to interpret their non-discrimination laws to require insurance companies to cover transition-related care for transgender people.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she counts Cray as among her friends and his efforts on this front were “remarkable.”

“Andy was a significant national leader and strategist in the recent push for ending discriminatory insurance exclusions around the country,” Keisling said. “He played a key role in insurance outreach and enrollment efforts targeting LGBT people over the last year and a half. On the local level, his work with DC TransLAW has and will continue to help hundreds of people live safer and more economically fair lives.”

At the height of his treatment, Cray achieved a victory close to home when D.C. Mayor Vince Gray announced that insurers within the district must provide full coverage to help transgender people change their biological gender, including gender reassignment surgery.

Cray, who took part in a news conference with Gray announcing the development, emphasized in a statement at the time on behalf of the Center for American Progress the importance of the policy change to transgender people.

“This policy will make D.C.’s healthcare programs and insurance coverage the most comprehensive in the country for the full scope of health care that transgender people need throughout their lives,” Cray said. “But more importantly, this announcement tells transgender people in the District that their health matters.”

A total of nine states have banned discriminatory insurance exclusions against transgender people in addition to D.C.: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington State.

It was also during this time that Cray started his relationship with McBride, who when they first met was working as a White House intern. Although the two met briefly during the Pride reception at the White House in 2012, they started dating months later after Cray asked McBride out via a message on Facebook.

“The first time we went out to dinner, I just remember being so impressed with his graciousness, his sense of humor, with his intelligence, and more than anything else, with his compassion,” McBride said. “He just was someone whom you could tell when you looked in their eyes that they cared about you, that they were listening to you, and that they had a lot of love to give. That was clear from the start.”

Valentine’s Day 2013 became the day they officially counted as the start of their relationship, which began to flourish shortly thereafter when McBride started attending graduate school.

As Cray continued his work on transgender issues and LGBT health, he underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Following his treatment, doctors in April gave him a clean bill of health and told him his cancer was in remission.

But about six weeks ago, Cray began suffering from a persistent cough and chest pains. Just four days after the White House event he attended, Cray returned to the hospital.

The cause of his discomfort, doctors said, was that the cancer had returned, metastasized in his lungs and was terminal. At that point, Cray was given 10-12 months to live.

On Aug. 31, Cray and McBride married on the rooftop of their D.C. home in a ceremony attended by friends and family.

It was difficult for Cray to even attend the ceremony because of the extent of his illness, but the two were wed by Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

“Cancer didn’t define our relationship, but it certainly brought us closer and developed a bond between us that we would have naturally developed, just not as quickly,” McBride said. “And so, we decided to get married on Sunday really again in order to validate for ourselves, for our community and under the law the commitment that really we had already made to each other.”

It wasn’t long before he had to return to the hospital. On Tuesday, when his condition worsened, he was readmitted to Johns Hopkins. Doctors told him the disease was more aggressive than initially thought and additional chemotherapy would likely do more harm than good.

Robinson, who had performed the marriage ceremony for Cray and McBride just days earlier, invoked his clerical authority by reading the last rites to Cray, who finally succumbed to his illness.

Reflecting on his life, McBride said two things stand out for her. First, Cray would never have wanted the attention lavished upon him in the aftermath of his life, even though she said he deserves it.

Second, McBride said his story has bolstered his life’s work and augmented his call for the accessibility of health care for transgender people.

“Six months later, the cancer has taken away nearly everything from him, including his life, but it remains true that it hasn’t taken away his voice,” McBride said.

Andrew Cray, Sarah McBride, Human Rights Campaign, gay news, Washington Blade

Andrew Cray and Sarah McBride at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner. (Photo courtesy of Sarah McBride)

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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