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In N.Y., a mission unfulfilled

Empire State Pride Agenda declares victory without winning trans rights

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Daskalakis, New York City, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo by Daniel Schwen; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On Dec. 12, the Empire State Pride Agenda abruptly announced it would shut down along with its foundation (though not its political action committee), something of a George W. Bush ‘mission accomplished’ moment because New York’s only statewide LGBT advocacy organization is closing its doors claiming having fulfilled its mission but without having secured enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act as it had promised the transgender community. At its Oct. 22 fall dinner, ESPA touted regulations announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression, but they do not have the force of statute law and could be rescinded by his successor and will undermine efforts to push GENDA through the Senate. Many New York activists have disputed the notion that the state’s LGBT community has achieved full equality, which still faces myriad issues such as homelessness, health care access and police brutality.

It is obvious that the ESPA and Foundation boards voted to shut down for the simple reason that the organizations were no longer financially viable. The campaign for the marriage equality bill enabled ESPA to solicit unprecedented donations, but donations predictably dried up when the bill passed the Senate in 2011 and ESPA found itself in dire straits, borrowing heavily from its Foundation just to make payroll and putting itself deep into debt.

The Foundation itself was relying primarily on a big grant from the state Department of Health to run the New York State LGBT Health & Human Services Network of over 60 LGBT social service providers. Rather than carefully plan for the predictable fall-off in donations after enactment of the marriage law, the ESPA board compounded the error by making an even bigger mistake: Co-chair Louis Bradbury and his cronies abruptly fired Ross Levi, using the fall-off in donations as a pretext to get rid of an executive director with sufficient standing in the community to give him a degree of independence from a board that wanted to micro-manage the staff and replace him with someone with little relevant experience who could be easily controlled.

The increasingly precarious fiscal situation pushed the board to cut a backroom deal with a governor who had not shown the slightest interest in using his influence with the Senate to push GENDA through so that ESPA could declare victory and go home; hence the need to avoid consultation even with the GENDA Coalition, because ESPA could not risk a negative response to the shoddy deal cut with Cuomo to secure the executive order. The deal represents a betrayal of the transgender community and the process through which the GENDA coalition was working to enact legislation to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression in state law.

ESPA could have taken a different path and expanded its work to move beyond its relatively narrow policy agenda, which was in fact the direction the GENDA Coalition was moving in, having decided by consensus in 2014 that it would expand beyond GENDA to a broader agenda of social justice.

But the truth is that neither the boards nor the staffs of the Pride Agenda and its Foundation had any real interest in moving in that direction; the leadership was content to declare victory and go home after having helped secure enactment of the state hate crimes law (2000), the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (2002), the Dignity for All Students Act prohibiting bullying (2010) and the marriage equality law (2011).

No one could deny that the enactment of such legislation was not a significant achievement; but the shoddy deal that ESPA cut with Cuomo that effectively undercut the work of those attempting to advance GENDA cannot be forgotten and will not be forgiven by many; it was the final betrayal of the transgender community after the solemn vow in the wake of the SONDA debacle in 2002 to secure enactment of transgender non-discrimination legislation.

Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy and led the campaign for the trans rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. She served on the steering committee of the coalition seeking to advance GENDA, still pending in the New York State Senate.

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Mayor Bowser and CDC take a wrong turn

We’ve come far in fight against COVID, there’s no reason to rush it

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wear a mask, gay news, Washington Blade

I am a big supporter of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. She is doing a great job for the people of D.C. and working hard fighting for our best interests. But no one is perfect.

On April 30, her administration made a big mistake releasing a policy on masks reported by dcist: “D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser further lifted mask restrictions for fully vaccinated people in an order published on Friday evening. The order says fully vaccinated people may go maskless in businesses, office buildings and other indoor settings and tasks businesses with enforcing the new rule.” It went on to say, “The businesses, office buildings, or other establishments shall exclude or attempt to eject persons who are not wearing masks or who remove their required masks, except in circumstances where the person is fully vaccinated and is permitted to conduct their activities without wearing a mask.”

It continued: “Businesses are allowed to request to see vaccine cards or other proof that patrons have been vaccinated to determine whether or not they have to wear a mask, per the order. Employers may ‘establish rules for mask-wearing at their offices or facilities that are more stringent’ than the new District regulations.”

Reading this, I felt it made no sense and would cause havoc for restaurants and businesses. Others agreed and spoke up and the policy was rescinded on Saturday, May 1. The Washington Post wrote: “To mask or not to mask? Mayor’s order stokes confusion in D.C.”

The original CDC advice on masks was confusing enough and Bowser made it worse. She isn’t the only one causing confusion. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a new order on masks, which Montgomery County Executive Elrich immediately said he wouldn’t follow. Clearly this isn’t an easy thing to deal with.

With the CDC telling people for months they need masks everywhere, changing policy is complicated, especially when there will be different requirements for those who have been vaccinated and those yet to be. The administration wanted to show the benefit of being vaccinated but caused confusion. In addition I believe the CDC made a huge mistake by pausing the J&J vaccine. It seems they could have investigated the 15 cases of blood clots, out of the nearly eight million shots given, in the two weeks they did without creating havoc and fear of the vaccine. They could have given information to the medical community and shared it with the public on how to handle such an occurrence without the pause.

As a lay person reading and listening to the various medical experts I’m convinced there is little chance of getting COVID outdoors if you are vaccinated and even if you aren’t and not wearing a mask, unless you stand close with a group who also haven’t been vaccinated. So why not just begin to change mask policy for outside. The basic CDC statement was good: Vaccinated people no longer need a mask outside and it’s suggested if unvaccinated people are in groups without appropriate distance they should continue to wear them. Simple enough.

The real problem occurs when talking about masking indoors in public places like restaurants and other businesses, including grocery stores. How do you separate those who have been vaccinated from those who haven’t and still at major risk indoors being in close proximity to others who aren’t? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to say we all need to continue to wear a mask indoors in public places especially since we are far from herd immunity? According to the D.C. Health Department only 35% are fully vaccinated.

As someone who has been vaccinated, I am happy to continue to wear my mask inside public spaces to help protect others and to encourage everyone who has yet to be vaccinated to continue to wear their mask. Why would we make every restaurant, bar, grocery store or other business have an enforcer at the door checking for proof of vaccination before they let someone in without a mask? It’s not fair to put that burden on businesses that already have so much to do to make their establishments safe for all. The TSA was right when it announced Friday it extended the mask mandate until Sept. 16 at airports, on commercial aircraft, and on all buses and trains.

We have come so far in the fight against COVID there is no reason to rush this. Let’s make the rules as simple as possible. We are one community so we should act like it.

 

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

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LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma need durable solutions to address challenges

Death of gay refugee last month underscored plight

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reparations, gay news, Washington Blade

The recent, tragic death of Chriton Atuhwera, a gay refugee who was the victim of an arson attack in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, has caught international attention.

Chritron was one of two gay men who suffered second-degree burns after a petrol bomb was thrown near the pair while they slept on a mattress in the open air, during the attack on March 15 in Kakuma.

This unspeakable and avoidable tragedy is just one piece of the puzzle. LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees in Kakuma have faced ongoing violence and discrimination and face elevated rates of economic and social exclusion including barriers to accessing employment and social services and challenges to effective organizing and advocacy for their human rights.

This tragic death and the ongoing threats that the community faces have precipitated the need for a more complete and long-overdue understanding of the situation on the ground for the LGBTIQ refugee community which in turn can lead to more comprehensive and durable solutions to benefit the broader community.

Today, Kakuma refugee camp is home to nearly 200,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Many have fled overland from Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of the world’s refugees remain for years, often decades in refugee camps or informal settlements.

In total, there are approximately 300 LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers — perhaps more — currently living in Kakuma, which remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The situation they face in Kakuma refugee camp is complex and multilayered.

While the goal of most LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers is to ultimately be resettled to a safe third country, resettlement slots have drastically fallen and are only available to less than 0.6 percent of refugees, a fraction of the world’s refugees. U.S. resettlement numbers dropped to historic lows during the Trump administration, and the Biden administration recently flip-flopped on its pledge to increase refugee resettlement slots. We urge the administration to honor its original commitment, recognizing that it will still only benefit a tiny fraction of refugees globally.

At the same time, LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma face immediate challenges including poverty, isolation and lack of access to health and social services.

There are a number of groups of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees scattered in different parts of the camp, and while these communities face many of the same daily struggles of life in a refugee camp, with individuals hailing from a variety of different countries of origin and cultural settings, not all LGBTIQ refugee communities in the camp have the same lived experiences nor do all LGBTIQ groups agree on one basic need and approach to better their lives and safety.

With the increased numbers of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Kakuma in recent years, the need has grown for a true and complete understanding of the challenges facing LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma, uncovering root causes and identifying sustainable solutions. It is vital that this is done.

Especially in light of recent incidents, there is a clear need for further action and support, based on facts, taking into account the current situation on the ground and raising the voices of those groups whose needs are not always in the forefront. The lack of clear, detailed and well-rounded information regarding the situation experienced by LGBTIQ refugees in the camp also creates challenges for those interested in helping to ensure the rights and well-being of this community.

That is why, ORAM together with Rainbow Railroad have announced a joint Kakuma research project. The research project, endorsed by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, will provide accurate information on LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees living in the camp — a critical piece in more effective advocacy on behalf of the community.

In keeping with the organizations’ focus on local leadership, the research will be Kenyan-led. The researcher will conduct first-hand interviews with LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers, as well as community leaders in the camp and lead stakeholders. Based on the information gathered, the report will identify overarching issues facing the community, identify service and resource gaps, pinpoint solutions and make recommendations to address systemic challenges facing the community.

Kakuma refugee camp is a complex and challenging environment for LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers. This report aims to provide a deeper understanding that can lead to a number of multifaceted solutions to meet the urgent and critical needs of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees in the camp, from improved living conditions to expedited resettlement.

We all having a duty to look out for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. We need to prioritize the safety and protection on LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees and address the challenges they face on their journey to safety, Kakuma refugee camp, in Kenya in general and beyond. We must promote policies and practices that treat the forcibly displaced as fully human and with all the dignity and humanity that they deserve.

Log onto ORAM’s website for more information about our work in the camp.

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Opinions

Get ready for ‘Shot Girl Summer’ 2021

With masks down, smiling faces will soon be visible

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Rehoboth Beach Open, gay news, Washington Blade

Well, it’s almost May. And that makes it now one month away from Memorial Day — the unofficial start of gay D.C.’s summer, when we all rush to the still-too-cold-to-get-in waters of Rehoboth Beach. We crowd on Poodle Beach — our beach — and celebrate the start of the summer and, well, ourselves.

And we should, right? It’s been a year. And we deserve it. We’ve played by the rules (mostly), stuck to our bubbles, and stood in line to get our shots. The question “you a Pfizer or a Moderna gal?” will be echoed a thousand times up and down the East Coast, from Fire Island to South Beach. Slight prediction here — Moderna will be the shot to have. As that’s the one I got and that’s the one gay icon Dolly Parton championed. That and gay men like arbitrarily separating folks into groups. We can be snobby like that.

And I think we’re all ready for a little sun, a little sand under our toes, a little saltwater on our lips. Just pass by Logan Circle any Saturday or Sunday, and the poor grass is trying to keep up with the burgeoning crowds as best it can. Almost every square inch of the circle is full. And as the weather warms and more and more folks get the jab in the arm, the vibe is similar to the first day of school – excited faces greet others they haven’t seen in months.

And now word has it President Biden may be as soon as this week dropping the mandate of wearing a mask outdoors. Probably long overdue really. I was only wearing a mask outside around town so folks wouldn’t think I was a Republican. But with masks down, smiling faces will soon be visible.

I myself am off to Fire Island this summer. And wherever you’re planning on going or even if you’re just staying put, the question on everyone’s lips seems to be: “Do you think this summer will be somewhat normal?” The answer seems to be “I think so.” At least we know that it will certainly be better than it was. Incrementally we will get there. Every so often a new marker will be set — no masks for the vaccinated, more concerts, etc. And before we know it we’ll be back at underwear parties.

And many have predicted this summer will be a wild one. A new Roaring 20s, as we’ve been sitting on a spring for a while now — nowhere to go and nothing to do. But as we all prepare to go a little buck wild this summer, never regret it. We deserve it, and we’ve earned a ‘Shot Girl Summer.’ And yes the shot is a miracle, but one decades in the making. Let’s remember that just one reason why the vaccine was produced so quickly was that the mRNA technology it relies on came about largely due to the AIDS epidemic. Yes, it was all brought about by some incredibly talented scientists who deserve the credit and admiration of the entire world. But we can also credit the countless gay men who were in the streets, quite literally clashing with police and facing arrest, in order to pressure the government to act on AIDS. Just Google groups like ACT UP and people like Larry Kramer and you’ll see what I mean.

So, we deserve it. We made it, and in more ways than one. So have that Shot Girl Summer you so deserve. And don’t forget a lot of people helped get us here.

 

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

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