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Former D.C. resident goes home to N.C. to fight

Returning for the messy work of movement building

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Southern, gay news, Washington Blade

Asheville, N.C. (Photo by Abe Ezekowitz; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“You aren’t actually Southern though, right?”

The first time a new acquaintance asked this question, I was baffled. But by the tenth time, I got it: for those not from the South, being actually Southern meant I was lacking a discernible drawling accent or that I wasn’t openly spouting racist or homophobic talking points.

“You know, we aren’t all backwards and racist, right?” It wasn’t until I left my home state of North Carolina in 2007 that I had to start arguing for my own authenticity as a Southerner. Living in D.C. (which is technically still below the Mason-Dixon line and, arguably, still a culturally Southern city) meant my social and professional circles were full of people from the Northeast, the West Coast and the Midwest. When I found fellow Southern progressives, we forged an immediate bond: the rest of y’all just don’t get it – or us.

The ex-pat identity I forged outside of the South became a source of pride. I loved explaining my hometown of Asheville, NC – a small progressive enclave in the mountains of western North Carolina that defied stereotypes of Appalachia. But the distance also created space to examine the parts of my home state and region that I was always much more hesitant to claim: the entrenched segregation, the undercurrent of homophobia parading as Christian values and the willingness to abide these ugly stains so as to keep conversation “polite.” Some of this hit pretty close to home, especially as a white Southerner.

I lived outside of North Carolina for nearly a decade. But the South always felt close to my heart. I wept when Amendment 1 – a constitutional amendment that barred same-sex marriage in N.C. – was passed. I raged when I saw the N.C. Legislature gut the public education system that made me who I am, and I wished I could hurl my heart through time and space to be here for each and every single Moral Monday protest I eagerly watched from behind my laptop screen.

I never gave up on North Carolina. I moved back to Asheville last fall from D.C., in part because I couldn’t keep wringing my hands and declaring what a disaster my home had become, while enjoying my tidy, progressive organizer bubble from hundreds of miles away. I am home to do the messy, exhausting and never-ending work of movement building.

During my years in D.C., I listened in on one too many national progressive panel conversations about “Organizing the South” as people who had never spent time in my home state talked about how to shift a culture they didn’t understand. And now I’m watching as some of those same players announce personal and professional boycotts of N.C. without thinking of the implications those boycotts might have on the “organizing” they were claiming to champion. If you really want to organize the South, you need to actually be in the South.

I understand why boycotts are effective tools — but they are also blunt tools and thus inflict collateral damage. I understand that it is easy to say, “well that’s just the South.” I even understand why my well-meaning liberal peers in places like Asheville and Chapel Hill feel smug superiority that we are not like the rest of this state. But in each instance, the analysis misses the mark — about the South, yes, but also, frankly, about who we are as a nation.

Despite the sentiment behind the #wearenotthis hashtag that North Carolinians started using to decry HB2: We are this. We are a place that is complex and has a long and winding historical arc toward justice. We are hypocrites. We are racially segregated. We are full of transphobic and homophobic and misogynistic “good ole boys.” But we are also ground zero for some of the most important and necessary organizing happening in the country.

We are problematic at best. But I’m never going to not claim us and I’m always going to fight for us. That’s why I’ll be in Raleigh when the North Carolina General Assembly reconvenes in Raleigh on Monday May 16. I’ll be in the streets with thousands of others who are actually Southern. We are this but we can be so much more.

Rachel LaBruyere grew up in Asheville, N.C., and has spent the last nine years living and working in D.C. Last fall she quit her job as the deputy director of digital strategies at the AFL-CIO in D.C. and moved back to N.C. to organize in her home state.

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To many, being referred to as ‘queer’ remains offensive

Washington Post erred in using the term in a recent headline

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Merriam-Webster dictionary gives various definitions for the word “queer” but also notes: “The term is also prominent as a neutral term in academic contexts that deal with gender and sexuality. Current neutral and positive uses notwithstanding, the word’s long history of pejorative use continued into the current century, and some people still find the word offensive in any context.” I don’t find the term offensive in any context, but do find it offensive when those not members of the LGBTQ community use it to refer to places I go, or to the community I am a member of. 

I recently wrote a letter to the Washington Post based on my reaction to the sub-headline of a column appearing on the front-page of their Style section. It read: “After a year of intensified anti-LGBTQ attacks across the country, queer bars, community centers and gay-owned businesses are rethinking how to best protect themselves.” I was offended by their use of the term ‘Queer’ when referring to our bars and indirectly to our community. The author of the column, Anne Branigin, used it to refer to two bars in Adams Morgan owned by a friend — Pitchers and A League of Her Own. I asked this friend if he refers to his bars that way and he said no. 

My reaction to this word may be a generational thing. But even if that is the case, I would still ask why the Washington Post would feel comfortable, and find it necessary, to use it in a headline and column, not quoting someone in the community using it, when it still offends many of their readers. I would think the majority of their LGBTQ readers, and likely all readers, are of an age who will be offended. 

When growing up there were many reasons I remained closeted. One was knowing if I came out I would be branded as a “faggot” or “queer.” At the time, those terms were used interchangeably. The word queer was directed in a negative way at any guy who was slightly different, maybe effeminate, even if they weren’t gay. It you were gay you certainly didn’t want anyone calling you that. It is a term still used today to insult members of the LGBTQ community by many who oppose any kind of equality, or acceptance, of the community. Today, with the increase in hate crimes against the LGBTQ community, it is being used and can be used, to prove a hate crime. I feel strongly the media, and those not members of the community, should not be adopting a word still used to slander the community. While it may seem cool or ‘woke’ to some, it is important to recognize to many it is still a very offensive word.  

Hate crimes are rising against so many minorities along with the increase in anti-Semitism. The media should be careful not to use words offensive to members of the Asian community, or the African-American community. I understand younger members of the LGBTQ community are getting much more comfortable with the word queer and using it often. Recently I heard a young member of the disability community refer to himself and a friend as “gimps.” Having worked in that community for many years I was amazed at its usage. But again, they were using it with each other. No media outlet would or should ever consider using such words when reporting on or writing about those communities. The same would go for words a Jewish person might consider using with another Jewish person, within the community. 

Following my initial visceral reaction to the headline, I began asking some of my friends in the LGBTQ community, and some straight friends, their thoughts on the word. It led to some interesting discussions. I also found some of my younger friends never realized it had been used to debase and attack the community. 

Many of my older friends, and straight friends, had a similar reaction to it that I did. They had heard younger people using it and were as surprised as I was to find some young people in our community had no idea about its history. They were willing to accept young people might use it among themselves within the community but were also appalled the Washington Post thought it was OK to use it in describing something in the LGBTQ community as they still saw it as a derogatory term and one of hate. 

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

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U.S. should create path to citizenship for ‘stateless’ people like me

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, a reminder of those in limbo

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The Stateless Protection Act has been introduced in the U.S. Congress. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’s International Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27. As an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor I’m grateful to be among those still here to mourn. This year, I’m also grateful as a bisexual man to have finally recovered my green card after years as a “stateless” person. I hope the Biden administration and Congress do all they can to help more than 200,000 other Americans who are also stateless like I have been since the 1960s.

The Nazis took my parents against their will to a forced labor camp in Germany from Poland and I was born in Germany in 1940. After surviving World War II, my family remained in Germany until 1951 when we immigrated to the U.S.

Then, I became stateless after losing my green card in the 1960s. I spent more than half a century in that legal limbo, unable to travel outside the U.S. or claim Social Security. The U.S. wanted to deport me but no country would claim me as a citizen so I lived in an uncertain and anxious world for most of my life. All stateless people have a different story. But I would like to make sure that nobody else has to go through the kind of anxiety I did. I am very lucky people have been so generous and helped me when I was in need. I could easily have ended up out on the street.

Now I live in Silver Spring, Md. Luckily, in 2019, I began working with my lawyer, Jayesh Rathod, a professor with the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law. He’s been helping me after years of uncertainty as a stateless person. He and his students helped me get my deportation case from the 1960s reopened and dismissed. Soon after, they helped me reapply for my green card, and it came through last July. Since then, I’ve been able to breathe a sigh of relief. I find myself very emotional, often. I was under a lot of strain for a long time.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also phoned me last July to tell me he was pardoning me. I was convicted in 1967 on a charge of lewd conduct after I was caught having sex with another man in a car parked in a secluded area in Long Beach. A security guard caught us, telling us we had gone against ‘God and nature.’ He turned us in to the police. I pleaded guilty to a lewdness charge in exchange for the dropping of a ‘sex perversion’ charge. Gov. Newsom pardoned me along with 16 other people last summer because we were subjected to “stigma, bias, and ignorance.”

I’ve been lucky to meet other stateless people through a new organization called United Stateless. We’re trying to spread the word about the legal condition so that more people understand their options. I went to a conference last year and met other stateless people. I thought I was the only one going through this situation, but we’ve started a community now. We’ve found each other and we’re advocating for things to change. It is nice to feel like our voices have power and we are connecting with each other. I felt pretty powerless for a long time.

Only Congress can ensure that other people don’t have similar experiences. Two members of Congress, U.S Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Jamie Raskin, have taken action. Their newly introduced Stateless Protection Act would resolve the status of stateless people in the U.S. It could change thousands of lives, including mine. The bill, if passed into law, will give people like me a legal pathway to citizenship. We could practice our human right to a nationality. And we could all get on with living more productive lives. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we can ensure that people who have been rejected by their countries because of their race or religion aren’t left in limbo indefinitely into the future.

Henry Pachnowski is a Holocaust survivor and member of United Stateless. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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Trans people are in the midst of a second Lavender Scare

Legislative attacks becoming more numerous and draconian

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

To be trans in the U.S. is to know fear. It is a companion that travels with us constantly: from the moment we realize we are trans, to coming out, to transitioning, and now into our lives long past the point where we should have faded away into anonymity in days past.

We are in the midst of a second Lavender Scare, and in many ways this is far more dangerous: even Christine Jorgensen wasn’t barred from receiving hormones or being within 2,500 feet of children simply for being transgender. 

I have been called a doomsayer who profits from prognosticating an inevitable end. This is not precisely true: there is hope, if precious little of it. We can all clearly see the situation deteriorating rapidly in red states, with (at best) spotty resistance from the Democratic Party as a whole. We can see the effects of this deterioration as transgender people not only ask how to flee, but actively do so now. But most in a poverty-stricken community, however, lack the money or resources to flee.

There’s an eerie similarity to 1933, when people sold everything they owned, with no job waiting for them, just to get away from what they saw happening and coming. Others look at what it will take to get to another country, even as those countries are not yet ready to grant trans people asylum or refugee status. Most can only tell you that it’s getting bad, and that they’re afraid of what their government is preparing to do to them, even if they don’t know exactly what that will be. However, with nowhere to go, and no country particularly wanting transgender people, I find myself dreading another S.S. St. Louis moment in history.

There’s an authoritarian party in permanent power in half of the U.S. They’re making it clear that they intend to seize permanent federal control and bring their vision of a shiny, godly America to the rest of the country by any means necessary. They’re ready to destroy the Union and our democracy to save it from “wokeness.” And they have sold their base on the idea that the No. 1 threat that the country must be saved from is transgender people.

State level anti-transgender bills are becoming both more numerous and draconian year after year.  The Overton Window of anti-trans legislation keeps shifting further and further to the right. For example, first they wanted to ban transition-related health care for everyone under the age of 18. Then the bills started putting the age at 21. Then, this year, we saw Oklahoma propose banning it for anyone under 26. Texas followed by passing a resolution condemning it for people of all ages. 

Now Oklahoma has proposed a law that would ban providers who take state or federal money of money of any sort (e.g. Medicare or Medicaid) from providing transition-related care to anyone of any age. This means thousands of people who transitioned years ago will no longer be able to refill their prescriptions. Access to medical care will become a right that exists in theory but not in practice, like suffrage in the Jim Crow South. 

It’s not just medical care. It’s sports, bathrooms, birth certificates, driver’s licenses, bans on “drag”, required misgendering, and forced outing. The creativity of this performative cruelty seems endless. Of these though, the “drag” bans are the most devastating. These laws are deliberately written as to be so vague and overly broad that a symphony orchestra with a transgender 2nd clarinet, or a family with a trans child doing a sing-along in the car would be considered obscene. In West Virginia, SB252 and 278 single out transgender people (and not just drag performers) to declare that their mere presence in public is obscene.

Not only are the scope of laws increasing; the sheer number is growing exponentially. In 2018, there were 19 anti-trans bills proposed in state legislatures. By 2020 it was 60. Last year it was 155. Now, in 2023, we surpassed the 2022 total by the middle of January and are well on our way to more than 200. Even so, these numbers don’t tell the full tale.

In years past, only perhaps 10% of these bills would pass, usually after opposition and debate. Now, we’re seeing bills introduced, sent to committee, debated, and sent to the floor in 24 hours. There is simply so much happening so fast that trans people cannot put together opposition in time to speak against these bills, whereas conservative legislators coordinating with religious legal groups always have “experts” lined up and ready, since they know exactly when and where the bills will be heard ahead of time. The result is that in a year where a record number of anti-transgender bills are introduced, a record percentage, and a record total, will be passed.

Trans people are not doomed, but we’re clearly on an accelerating trajectory to the end of the community in at least half of the U.S. Reversing these trends, and preventing a nationwide destruction of the community, requires numerous highly improbable things to happen. This includes Republicans moving on from the moral panic about trans people, deciding that they’ve gone far enough already with their oppression at the state level, or the courts overturning anti-trans laws. None of these seems likely.

Additionally, there remains the fear that even states with sanctuary laws, like California, will not remain safe forever. Republicans in Congress have made it clear that should they take power in 2024, they intend to pass nationwide laws similar to those at the state level. The odds of the GOP taking full control are frighteningly high: the Senate map in 2024 for Democrats is very bad, Biden’s net approval is where Trump’s was in 2020, and gerrymandering makes taking back the House difficult.

Masha Gessen’s rules for surviving autocracy state that “your institutions will not save you.” This is true for trans people now in several ways: neither courts, the Democratic Party, nor the media seem prepared to stand up for us as the situation goes from hostile to non-survivable. There’s the open question of whether the courts will uphold sanctuary laws. When Texas demands the arrest and extradition of trans people (or parents of trans youth) who have fled to a sanctuary state, it seems unlikely that the current Supreme Court will do anything but what their Christian nationalist masters tell them to. It’s also unknown whether a state like California would defy the courts and break the union over trans people or women seeking an abortion. 

Then there’s the news media, the fifth estate that is supposed to be the light of truth shining on darkness. Instead, half of the media ecosystem is leading the charge to brand transgender people as an existential threat to women, children, and society. The other half, like Reuters, the New York Times, and The Atlantic, produce poorly thought out “both-sideism” and concern troll pieces that amplify and reinforce the narratives of the side that believes the ideal number of transgender people in the U.S. is zero.

Trans people have precious few people that they know will go to the mattresses for them. We’re already seeing who on the left and center is stepping aside, or even joining in, to let self-proclaimed Christian fascists like Matt Walsh have their way. Not only can it happen here, but it is happening now, at this very instant, to the sound of deafening silence from the people who swore without irony “never again.” 

The American public, for their part, either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. It’s just happening to “those people.” Most trans people cannot enunciate all the factors that have them afraid, and why they form an interlocking system of failures that make recovery from the trajectory we’re on improbable. They just know that things are getting worse, and they don’t see how it will get better. Like animals before an earthquake, they know something is very wrong, even if they can’t explain why, or get anyone to listen.

All they know is that they cannot get out, the unstoppable power of the government is coming, and no one is coming to the rescue. For those who cannot flee, and cannot survive the laws about to be passed, the end comes soon. Drums, drums in the deep.

Brynn Tannehill is a senior analyst at a D.C-area think-tank and author of ‘American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy.’

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