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Don’t tread on our rights in West Virginia

Bipartisan defeat of anti-LGBT bill bodes well for future

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Don't Tread on Me, gay news, Washington Blade
Don't Tread on Me, gay news, Washington Blade

(Image by Benjamin Sapiens)

Many of the desks in the West Virginia House of Delegates have miniature yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that signal the desk is occupied by a Tea Party sympathizer. Many LGBT Americans—particularly in the South – might be inclined to share the righteous sentiment of the Tea Party when confronted with bigoted and petty bills designed to roll back hard-won rights. The reaction to the proposed preemption of all local LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances in West Virginia is evidence of that.

For more than 80 years, Democrats controlled both houses of the West Virginia Legislature, and it was often difficult for equality activists to believe Democrats were doing anything for the LGBT community. Although a state employment and housing discrimination act made it onto an agenda a time or two, there was little advancement.  Although a statutory mini-DOMA quickly and quietly passed in 2001, Democrats successfully prevented constitutional amendments against marriage equality. The Democrats generally kept regressive bills off agendas, and were able to keep West Virginia’s constitution clean and free of bigotry.

Everything changed with last November’s election where, in the lowest turnout in 60 years, the GOP won historic victories in both houses of the legislature. Equality activists suspected that bills that had been bottled up and kept off agendas would begin appearing.  It did not take long. The deceptively named “West Virginia Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act” was jammed through committee in the House of Delegates in a two-day period. The bill purported to promote uniformity among non-discrimination laws.  What it really proposed was rolling back non-discrimination ordinances in the state’s largest cities, undoing decades of work. A retread of the Colorado law struck down by the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans in 1996, this bill is being peddled across the country by organizations like the West Virginia Family Policy Council that have dressed it up as a “commerce” bill.

The backlash was swift. From all across the state, but particularly from the affected municipalities, there was a cry of discontent. The bill attacks two fundamental principals:  the right to self-governance of municipalities and the need to ensure equal protections for LGBT citizens. Mayors and councils expressed their fury. At the public hearing two days later, the mayor of Huntington, West Virginia’s second largest city and the home of Marshall University, said his city doesn’t have “the time or luxury should we ever be inclined to exclude anybody from the table … We need all hands on deck.” Generation West Virginia, a statewide organization promoting young professionals across the state was unequivocal: “The last thing West Virginia needs is another reason for talented young professionals to leave the state.”

The good news is that West Virginia communities, businesses and citizens reacted in a way that reinforces what is great about this state. The bill was so repellant that the GOP majority leader in the Senate said, “We have no appetite for any type of a bill that discriminates, provides prejudice or preferences to any type of class in West Virginia.”  At the public hearing on the bill, many invoked West Virginia’s state motto: Montani Semper Liberi or “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Opponents of the bill pointed out that the passage was in direct contradiction to the motto.

West Virginia can be conservative to be sure, but there has always been a distinct live-and-let-live attitude. This cynical attempt to roll back protections struck many as more than petty; it is contradictory to our core values. As quickly as it began, the bill was sent back to committee where it was immediately killed in a procedural move. That the opposition to the bill was bipartisan, both in the public sphere and ultimately in the legislature, bodes well for our future.

Don’t tread on us either.

 

Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) is West Virginia’s first and only openly gay legislator. Prior to winning election, he founded Fairness West Virginia, the state’s LGBT advocacy organization. He is a trial lawyer and lives in Shepherdstown, W.Va., with his partner.

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Kenyan McDuffie for D.C. Council-at-Large

A voice of reason and progress in city government

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D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Kenyan McDuffie is a voice of reason, and a voice for progress, on the D.C. Council. He has been a voice for those without one, and for minority communities across the District. 

Kenyan is a fourth-generation Washingtonian raised in a working-class family of six. He attended Shaed Elementary in Edgewood, St. Anthony Grade School in Brookland, and graduated from Woodrow Wilson Jackson-Reed high school, having played varsity basketball. He has been a union member working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. His college career began at the University of the District of Columbia, which he continues to strongly support. He transferred and graduated summa cum laude from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Community Development and then joined the staff of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. He left there to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, where he was an editor of the law school’s Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. 

After law school he clerked for an associate judge on the 7th Judicial Circuit of Maryland and then became an Assistant State’s Attorney in Prince George’s County. He then joined the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where, as a trial attorney, he enforced key federal civil rights laws in cases throughout the country. His caseload at the DOJ included defending the civil rights of the mentally ill, nursing home residents, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations.

At that point in his career, Kenyan added community activist to his resume becoming president of his local civic association and taking a job as a policy adviser with the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice. In that position he worked with Council members to shape policy and legislation for the District of Columbia.

In 2012, with this wealth of experience, he was elected to the D.C. Council. At that time Lateefah Williams, president of the Stein Democratic Club, wrote in the Blade, “Kenyan McDuffie is the type of leader that Ward 5 needs. He is intelligent, he has key experience in diverse matters from public safety to public policy, and he is a staunch supporter of the LGBT community. These are some of the reasons the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, D.C.’s largest LGBT political organization, endorsed Kenyan McDuffie for Ward 5 Council.  … and why I personally support Kenyan McDuffie.” Her confidence in Kenyan was well placed. For 10 years he has worked to build coalitions and create solutions, tackling D.C.’s most significant challenges. In his first year on the Council, he was elected to serve as Chairman Pro Tempore (Vice Chair), a position he continues to hold. 

Kenyan is what those of us looking at legislators call a work-horse, not a show-horse. He has put in the work to bring consensus and pass legislation, which he did with sweeping updates to D.C.’s criminal justice laws when he became chair of the Judiciary Committee in 2017. With that committee he oversaw the implementation of D.C.’s police body-worn camera program, including ensuring the public has fair access to the video footage from encounters with officers. 

Kenyan has a view of public safety that includes both a strong MPD, with appropriate community oversight, and recognition of the need to fully fund community organizations working to reduce crime. Kenyan, like the mayor, believes we need to do both of these things, not one or the other. He recently said, “One of my proudest moments on the Council is passing the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act. The law takes a holistic approach to preventing crime in the first instance and floods communities disproportionately impacted by violence with resources – including violence interrupters and behavioral and mental health services – in addition to more innovative, data-driven policing.”

For the past five years, Kenyan has chaired the Council’s Business and Economic Development Committee. His focus has been on helping grow the local economy with a stronger focus on supporting small and minority-owned businesses. He fought to put millions of dollars in the Commercial Acquisition Fund to allow socially disadvantaged business owners to apply for grants to purchase commercial properties here in D.C. Kenyan spearheaded an emergency relief package of $100 million to help the hospitality, entertainment, and retail industries – some of D.C.’s largest employers of immigrants and minority workers – weather the pandemic and keep District employees on the payroll.

For these reasons, and many more, we cannot afford to lose Kenyan’s voice on the Council. I urge everyone to cast their vote for Kenyan McDuffie for Council-at-large. 

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

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Bisexual activists cautiously excited after White House meeting

Sept. 20 gathering took place during Bisexual Visibility Week

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From left to right: Ellyn Ruthstrom, Tania Israel, Nicole Holmes, Mimi Hoang, Ezra Young, Lauren Beach, Belle Hagget Silverman, Diana Adams, Heron Greenesmith, and Khafre Abif. Kneeling: Robyn Ochs, Fiona Dawson and Blair Imani outside the White House on Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Heron Greenesmith)

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, just in time for Bisexual Visibility Week, a diverse group of 15 bisexual and pansexual activists met with officials from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including Melanie Fontes Rainer, the director of the Office of Civil Rights at HHS. 

The 15 advocates comprised a wide cross-section of the bisexual community, including nonbinary, transgender, female, young, older, Black, Asian and Muslim advocates, people with disabilities and parents. We came from many walks of life: Academia, education, research, health care, advocacy, law, media and community activism. This isn’t unusual: Bisexual people comprise more than half of all LGBT people, totally approximately 12.5 million bisexual adults in the U.S. Strikingly, 15 percent of all GenZ adults — nearly 1 in 6 — identify as bisexual. People of color are more likely to identify as bisexual, as are cisegender women and transgender people in general. 

It has been a painful six years since the Executive Branch last met with bisexual activists (you do the math.) Those meetings, like this one, were the product of tireless advocacy from a population with zero paid organizational staff and less than one percent of all philanthropic dollars earmarked for the LGBT community. It was these stats and others that we shared at HHS on Sept. 20. 

Bisexual and pansexual people face specific disparities in mental and physical health, intimate partner violence and monkeypox prevention, treatment and care. Did you know, for example, that nearly half of bisexual women report having been raped? And did you know that federal reporting on monkeypox doesn’t disaggregate between gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men, despite evidence that bisexual men are uniquely vulnerable to MPX and other infectious diseases. 

Khafre Abif is a Black bisexual educator, father and person living with HIV. At the meeting with agency officials, Abif shared the story of how staff at his HIV-care clinic initially denied him the monkeypox vaccine, despite Abif being bisexual and thus in a population of special focus for the vaccine. 

“This meeting has been a long time coming for the bi+ community,” said Abif. “I’m looking forward to a dialogue with federal officials about solving some of the health issues we face.”

In order to begin remedying these disparities and more, we presented the administration with a set of benchmarks, including the creation of a Federal Interagency Bisexual Liaison and a Federal Interagency Bisexual Working Group. Other benchmarks included training for HHS staff on bisexual disparities and remedies thereof, funding streams for bisexual-specific funding and interventions, and the disaggregation of data on specific health disparities. 

Robyn Ochs is a pillar of bisexual and pansexual community organizing. At HHS, Ochs shared more about her specific expertise. “Research has made clear our health disparities and invisibility. It’s time for federal interventions to catch up with what we already know through research and lived experience.”

Frustrated by years of inaction by the federal government to release bisexual-specific data, target the bisexual and pansexual community with tailored interventions, or recognize the importance of bi+ health in general, we are cautiously excited by this opportunity to share critical data and remedies. 

Heron Greenesmith is the Senior Research Analyst for LGBTQI+ Justice at Political Research Associates, and the co-founder of BiLaw and the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. Find Greenesmith on Twitter @herong.

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Larry’s Lounge transformed pandemic into an opportunity

A vibrant neighborhood bar that reflects owner’s passion for animals

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A happy crowd enjoys the outdoor space at Larry’s Lounge. (Photo courtesy Larry Ray)

In a Blade article (9/2/22) Larry’s Lounge (LL) customer Brett Howard fondly called Larry’s Lounge “a dive bar.” Yes, it is and so much more.

D.C. native, veteran businessperson and LL owner Ron Robinson transformed the COVID lockdown and pandemic into an opportunity. When D.C. ordered all alcohol establishments to serve food, Ron did with popcorn and wings out of his kitchen. With the assistance of customers, Ron built outdoor structures with fans, heaters, lights, and even plastic walls (lovingly referred to as “shower curtains”).

This opportunistic spirit dates back to 1987 and the founding of LL by then owners and neighbors Larry Tan and Ken Megill. They dreamed of opening the first full-service Malaysian and Singaporean restaurant on the East Coast. Chef Lawrence Tan and Dr. Kenneth A. Megill (philosophy from Yale University) formed an excellent partnership.

Back then, the ANC Commissioner created the 18th Neighborhood and Business Association. The number of businesses along this busy 18th Street corridor between S Street and Florida Avenue, N.W., surprised the neighbors. These more than 100 businesses included accountants, attorneys, restaurants, and retail. Neighbors bonded around “community policing” to ensure safety. Chief of Police Robert Contee even served as this area’s community police.

Larry and Ken consulted with the neighbors and by the time they applied for their restaurant liquor license for Straits of Malaya, the neighbors cheered. The Dupont Circle ANC and D.C. Alcohol Board were shocked that there were no objections. Neighborhood involvement from the very beginning was the key to success. Several years later in 1993, they applied for their CT liquor license for Larry’s Lounge again to the delight of the neighbors. Straits closed in 1991 since Tan needed to return home to take care of an ailing family member. (He did reopen for a bit.) Sadly, Ken passed at age 82. Larry resides in D.C.

Today, Larry’s Lounge is a vibrant indoor/outdoor neighborhood bar. It reflects owner Ron’s passion for animals. Sometimes there are more dogs than people. Most neighborhood dogs pull over their guardians (aka owners) to take a drink from the bowls and receive love from LL staff and customers.

Larry Ray is former ANC 2B 01 Dupont Circle Commissioner. He is a mediator who teaches at The George Washington University School of Law.

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