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Electing trans officials: A new frontier in politics

Panel explores ways to elect trans people to public office



Trans elected officials was the subject of an LGBT International Leadership Conference panel. (Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

Trans elected officials was the subject of an LGBT International Leadership Conference panel. (Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

LAS VEGAS — Recent years have seen a record number of openly gay people seated in the U.S. House, the election of the first out lesbian to the U.S. Senate and the appointment of a bisexual woman as governor of Oregon. But there remains a dearth of openly transgender officials at any level of government.

The stories of the handful of elected trans officials — and the absence of any in state legislatures or Congress — was the subject of a panel titled, “Out to Win: Transgender Elected Officials,” which took place Saturday at the LGBT Leaders 2015 International Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.

Moderating the panel was Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who said finding trans elected officials to participate was difficult “not because they wouldn’t cooperate, but because they don’t exist.”

No openly transgender person has ever served as a member of Congress, nor has any openly transgender person been elected and seated in a state legislature.

As Keisling noted, former Massachusetts State Rep. Althea Garrison was outed by former Gov. Mitt Romney’s communication shop during her one term in the legislature, but she denied she was transgender.

In New Hampshire, Stacie Laughton was elected in 2012 to represent Nashua-area Ward 4 in the House of Representatives, but couldn’t be seated under state law because of her history as a convicted felon.

In 2014, Lauren Scott, a Persian Gulf war veteran, won the Republican nomination in a bid to represent Nevada Assembly District 30 in the statehouse, but ultimately lost in the Democratic district. (She’s pursuing another bid for the same seat in Election 2016.)

That same year, Paula Sophia Schonauer ran for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Although she advanced in the House District 88 Democratic primary, she came up short by 22 votes against now State Rep. Jason Dunnington in the run-off election.

On the panel, Schonauer said the Democratic leader of the Oklahoma House, Rep. Scott Inman, worked against her nomination because she’s transgender.

“He lobbied against me, twisted unions — because I was the only union member in the race, too — and leveraged pressure on them not to endorse me,” Schonauer said. “The Oklahoma Education Association wanted to endorse me, he went out of his way, ‘Nuh-uh. You can’t endorse Paula.’ And then, the AFL-CIO wanted to endorse me, and he was pulling favors to keep me away, and then he was saying if I got elected that I would break the Democratic caucus.”

Inman told the Blade he along with Rep. Emily Virgin indeed supported Dunnington over Schonauer, but they endorsed him early on based on his merits before she ever declared her candidacy and didn’t oppose her based on her gender identity.

“We endorsed Jason…in his announcement,” Inman said. “We had no idea who else was going to run. And the idea there was that we supported Jason so much that we were hoping that when we announced with our endorsement included in his announcement that it would encourage Democrats to not run, saying OK, House Democratic leadership is behind him, and that’s what we were trying to do.”

Nonetheless, Schonauer said her campaign had momentum because people were interested in her background as a transgender person, former law enforcement official, veteran and poet.

“The momentum was rolling, and I think if the campaign was one more week, I would have won,” Schonauer said.

Two transgender people were on the panel who won election to local offices, although they said they faced challenges because of their gender identity.

Vared Meltzer, who was elected to the Appleton City Council in Wisconsin last year, said the issue of presentation during her campaign was a “harrowing” experience.

“There were straight women who got very upset at me because I wear skirts from time to time and am ‘claiming’ to be trans,” Meltzer said. “Regardless of what I do with my body and my appearance, people are going to be upset.”

But Meltzer said her constituents started “policing themselves a bit” and when some became intolerant about her being transgender, said “Why do you care? Why does this matter?”

Victoria Kolakowski, who in 2010 was elected to the Alameda County Superior Court in California, said she had support from gay and lesbian people for her candidacy, but not so much from the transgender community.

“The trans folks were happy when I won, but you’re talking about people who don’t have money and don’t necessarily even have a lot of time because they’re just trying to get by,” Kolakowski said. “It’s not exactly a resource rich community that’s going to be stepping forward and giving things.”

Kolakowski added trans people are out there with resources, but are often a “stealth community” who aren’t visibly transgender and “don’t want to have anything to do with us.”

When an audience member asked about the best way to aid the election of transgender people, Keisling noted the existence of LPAC, a political action committee for lesbians, and raised the possibility of creating a “TransPAC.”

In a possible reference to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and its criteria that endorsed candidates stand a strong chance of winning, Keisling said, “There are other PACs in the LGBT space that rely a lot on picking winning candidates, and we’re still in a time where a trans candidate is going to be less likely to prove in advance that they’re going to win.”

Meanwhile, the transgender community continues to face other major problems, such as persistent anti-trans violence and murders in addition to political attacks aimed at prohibiting trans people from using the public restroom consistent with their gender identity, which were blamed for the recent loss on LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections at the ballot in Houston.

Schonauer said she’s expecting in Oklahoma the revival of a state bill raising bathroom issues for transgender people, adding “we’re going to fight to make sure it doesn’t get out of committee,” but the legislation may pass. It’s the kind of legislation Keisling said the transgender community will be fighting across the nation.

“Stay tuned for the bathroom conversation,” Keisling said. “It’s going to be huge for the next couple years. It’s going to be messy and bad and ugly. And we as a community are going to stand up and fight. We’re going to have some losses, but we’re going to win.”

At one point, West Hollywood City Council member John Duran, who was participating as an audience member, stood up and raised the possibility of localities creating transgender advisory boards similar to one in his city that would enable the election of transgender people in the city.

“I think in order for us to conventionally elect a trans man or woman in the city of West Hollywood, they’re going to have to serve on public safety, on human services, on rent stabilization, because people are going to have to know about the ideas behind the person,” Duran said.

Phillipe Cunningham, senior policy adviser on youth development and racial equity for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, was on the panel and responded by saying localities should just appoint transgender people to positions in the administrative branch of governments.

“My recommendation would be to skip the advisory council and just start plugging trans people on to boards and commissions,” Cunningham said. “While it may humanize us, it also delays us from being involved directly in the decision-making process. So, I do appreciate that, but I also want to pull back on that a little bit because it’s on the periphery, it’s not quite plugged in all the way in the decision making.”

Logan Casey, who’s transgender and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said even with additional transgender people elected to public office, challenges will continue to remain for the community.

“Even when we achieve sort of benchmarks of formal representation, rates of violence and discrimination remain incredibly high in our communities,” Casey said. “Structural inequalities and prejudice are really, really slow to change. This is all just first steps. There’s still so much to be done.”

The number of openly transgender people who’ll seek elected office in the 2016 election cycle remains to be seen. One candidate who filed early this year is Kristen Beck, a transgender Navy SEAL who’s challenging House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for the Democratic nomination to represent Maryland’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House.

Schonauer told the Blade after the panel when asked if she’d run again for the state legislature, “I’m biding my time.” Because the seat she once pursued now has an incumbent lawmaker, Schonauer said she won’t run in the 2016 election cycle.

“It depends when the House district I live in opens up again because I’m competitive in a very narrow area,” Schonauer said. “And so, I’m going to bide my time and see what happens.”

But Schonauer said she wants to pursue another run because she feels a call to public service and, as a former law enforcement official, she thinks she can offer perspective on community policing in Oklahoma, which she said isn’t getting enough discussion in Oklahoma. But Schonauer said she also needs to fulfill a personal obligation.

“My daughter had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and during her treatment, she asked me to promise to run again,” Schonauer said. “She’s cancer-free now, and she keeps reminding me of my promise. So, there’s a personal promise there.”

CORRECTION: An initial version of this article omitted the candidacy of Kristen Beck when discussing transgender candidates running in Election 2016. The Blade regrets the error.

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

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness



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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Activists concerned over removal of D.C. AIDS office executive

Dept. of Health declines to explain abrupt replacement of Kharfen



annual AIDS report, gay news, Washington Blade
D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt abruptly dismissed Michael Kharfen from his position. (Photo via Linkedin)

The leaders of several local and national AIDS organizations have expressed concern over a decision by D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt to abruptly dismiss Michael Kharfen from his position since 2013 as Senior Deputy Director of the department’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration.

Under the leadership of Kharfen, who is gay, the Department of Health entity commonly referred to as HAHSTA has played a lead role in what AIDS advocacy organizations consider to be D.C.’s highly successful efforts in recent years to lower the rate of new HIV infections among city residents.

Alison Reeves, a spokesperson for Nesbitt, declined to give a reason for Kharfen’s termination, saying the DOH does not comment on “personnel matters.” Reeves said DOH official Dr. Anjali Talwalker has been named as interim Senior DOH Deputy Director for HAHSTA while a national search is being conducted for a permanent HAHSTA leader.

People who know Kharfen have said he has declined at this time to publicly comment on his departure from HAHSTA. He could not immediately be reached by the Blade for comment.

“Michael Kharfen’s departure is a real loss to HAHSTA, the D.C. community, and nationally,” said Paul Kawata, executive director of the D.C.-based National Minority AIDS Council. “It is important to remember that when Michael took over HAHSTA there were real challenges and concerns,” Kawata said.

“He transformed the agency and built strong relationships with local organizations and D.C.-based national organizations,” said Kawata. “His reasoned voice and ability to collaborate will be sorely missed.”

At least three sources familiar with HAHSTA, who spoke on condition of not being identified, have said reports have surfaced internally from DOH that director Nesbitt is planning to reorganize several DOH divisions, including HAHSTA.

The sources say people familiar with the reported reorganization expressed alarm that HAHSTA would be dismantled as a separate DOH entity, with AIDS-related programs operated by other DOH divisions.

“Some think she wants to use the funds earmarked for HAHSTA for other things,” said one of the sources. “She could be jeopardizing federal grant money for HIV and hepatitis,” the source said.

The Washington Blade raised questions surrounding Kharfen’s departure with John Falcicchio, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, who also serves as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s chief of staff, at a press conference on Monday on an unrelated topic. Falcicchio said he would try to arrange for mayoral spokesperson LaToya Foster to respond to the Blade’s questions about a possible DOH reorganization of HAHSTA and the issues surrounding Kharfen’s departure from DOH.

Neither Foster nor another mayoral spokesperson had responded as of late Tuesday.

“Michael Kharfen’s leaving D.C. government is a huge loss to the D.C. community and potentially puts at risk federal grants for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and hepatitis,” according to David Harvey, executive director for the D.C.-based National Coalition of STD Directors.

“If his departure is about a consolidation of agencies within DOH, then the community will be the loser,” Harvey said.

“We need HAHSTA to continue,” he said, adding, “The mayor should reverse this decision and reinstate Michael Kharfen.”

Sources familiar with the D.C. government’s personnel polices have said that Kharfen and other high-level officials holding positions such as that of a senior deputy director are considered “at will” employees who serve at the pleasure of the mayor and the agency head for whom they work. They can be removed for any reason or no reason, those familiar with the personnel policy say.

Before becoming the DOH Senior Deputy Director in charge of HAHSTA in 2013, Kharfen served from 2006 to 2013 as HAHSTA’s Bureau Chief for Partnerships, Capacity Building, and Community Outreach. Those who know Kharfen said in that role he is credited with working closely with a wide range of local and national organizations that provide services for people with HIV/AIDS as well as other public health organizations.

Among them is the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, which has worked closely with HAHSTA and the DOH to develop, among other things, a plan to significantly curtail new HIV infections in the city by 2020.

Other groups working closely with Kharfen have been the Washington AIDS Partnership, the National Coalition of STD Directors, the Prevention Access Campaign, and the HIV-Hepatitis Policy Institute.

“Under Michael’s leadership, D.C. was instrumental in pioneering many new innovations in preventing and treating HIV that were later adopted by other jurisdictions,” said Carl Schmid, executive director of the D.C.-based HIV-Hepatitis Institute. “And if you look at the results, I think it demonstrates success,” Schmid said.

“I do not know any details of his departure, but I know he will be missed not only in D.C. but across the country,” Schmid told the Blade.

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Trans teacher, P.G. County schools face off in discrimination lawsuit

Officials deny charges of harassment, retaliation



Jennifer Eller, gay news, Washington Blade
Jennifer Eller alleges the P.G. County school system subjected her to discrimination and harassment. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

Attorneys representing transgender former English teacher Jennifer Eller in a 2018 discrimination lawsuit against the Prince George’s County Public Schools and the county’s Board of Education filed a motion in federal court last week asking a judge to rule in support of Eller’s two main allegations against school officials.

The motion for partial summary judgment, filed on April 28 in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, calls on the court to affirm Eller’s charges that school officials acted illegally by failing to intervene when she was subjected to a hostile work environment for five years that included abuse and harassment by students, parents, fellow teachers and supervisors and retaliation by administrators.

The motion also calls on the court to affirm that Eller, 39, was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 because of the harassment and discriminatory action based on her gender and gender identity.

Eller’s motion for summary judgement, which calls for a ruling in her favor on the allegations, came one month after attorneys for the P.G. County Schools and the school board filed their own motion seeking summary judgment against all the allegations in Eller’s lawsuit. If U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day rules in favor of the school system’s motion, which court observers do not think will happen, it would result in the dismissal of the lawsuit.

The motion filed by Eller’s attorneys calls on the court to rule against the school system’s motion for summary judgment.

Court records show that the motions by the opposing sides in the case came after Magistrate Judge Day issued a March 26 directive requiring the two sides to attend a May 7 settlement conference in which an effort must be made to settle the case before it goes to trial.

Day’s directive, in the form of a letter to the attorneys, called for Eller and her attorneys to submit 10 business days in advance of the conference a “written demand” for what a settlement agreement should include. Day’s letter calls for P.G. school officials and their attorneys to submit five days in advance of the conference a “written offer” to Eller for what a settlement should consist of.

“For years, I was aggressively misgendered, attacked and harassed in the hallways and even in my own classroom by students, peers and supervisors,” Eller said in a statement released by the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, which, along with the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter, is representing Eller.

“My pleas for help and for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, were ignored,” Eller said. “The relentless harassment stripped me of the joy of teaching and forced me to resign,” said Eller. “It is time for Prince George’s County Public Schools to be held accountable.”

Eller charges in her lawsuit that the harassment and discriminatory action against her began in 2011 when she began presenting as female during the school year. The lawsuit says school officials initially responded to her complaints about the harassment by demanding that she stop dressing as a woman and return to wearing men’s clothes, which she refused to do.

The lawsuit says she was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the alleged abuse she faced on the job.

In addition to naming P.G. County Public Schools and the P.G. County Board of Education as defendants, the lawsuit also names as a defendant the school system’s CEO Monica Goldson.

The lawsuit charges that the school district and its administrators violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the Prince George’s County nondiscrimination code.

In its official response to the lawsuit, attorneys for the school system denied Eller’s allegations and claimed the school system had in place nondiscrimination policies that covered gender identity and sexual orientation for school employees and students. The school system also states in its response that Eller may have failed to exhaust administrative remedies required prior to filing a lawsuit and that the lawsuit missed deadlines for certain legal claims.

It also says her legal claims may be disqualified because of her “voluntary resignation of employment,” an assertion disputed by Eller’s attorneys who say the resignation was forced by the abuse and harassment Eller faced on the job.

Her attorneys also point out that Eller filed a complaint against school officials in 2015 before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which conducted an extensive investigation into Eller’s complaint. The attorneys note that in 2017 the EEOC issued a letter stating that there was “reasonable cause” to believe Eller had been subjected to unlawful treatment based on her sex and gender identity.

“After she filed this discrimination charge, the school administration retaliated against Ms. Eller by taking away her advanced placement English class and opening a disciplinary hearing against her that ended in no discipline,” the Lambda Legal statement says.

P.G. County school officials have declined requests from the Washington Blade for comment on Eller’s lawsuit, saying they have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Among those expressing concern over the issues raised in the Eller lawsuit is College Park, Md., Mayor Patrick Wojahn, who is gay. College Park, which is home to the University of Maryland, is in Prince George’s County.

“It’s important for our county and for the entire community, especially for the kids, that the schools be places free of harassment and discrimination,” Wojahn said. “And if what Ms. Eller says is true, then it shows that the school system has fallen seriously short.”

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