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Activism, the black athlete and supporting LGBT equality

Ali’s legacy and why Kaepernick’s critics are wrong

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Kaepernick, gay news, Washington Blade

Why do we praise Muhammad Ali, yet criticize Colin Kaepernick? (Photo by Mike Morbeck; courtesy Flickr)

Why do so many African-American professional athletes today view Muhammad Ali as a hero, but fall short of even trying to live by the same code of ethics that made him a hero? Ali became a hero because he was never silent. He said things he knew would make people uncomfortable, even angry, but that he believed would help bring about awareness and change. Ali was, as a result, a controversial figure during his life. He angered countless people with his message and many people hated him.  It was only later that Ali was recognized for his impact on our country.

I remember that once as a boy I heard Ali call himself “pretty” on TV.  This was before Beyoncé made big booties sexy, before girls were pumping their lips full of fillers.  This was the 1970s. “Black” features were not considered pretty. I remember how powerful it was to see a man who looked like me categorize himself that way. I was nine years old, and I have never forgotten that moment. It was a small moment, but one that empowered me to feel good about myself. That is the power we possess as professional athletes: We have a platform to speak, and a way to give voice to so many voices that remain unheard. We have the ability, and I believe, the responsibility, to serve as a voice that will empower and engage others. But that platform, and the power it gives us, is an opportunity too many of us ignore.

When I started writing this piece, my intention was to draw attention to Black athletes who admire Ali for his activism, but remain silent as injustices continue to reveal the persistent inequity in this country. More specifically, I wanted to center that discussion on the fact that African-American heterosexual males have remained noticeably absent in the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, being that we are all too familiar with what it feels like to be a disenfranchised and discriminated against minority. Before I finished the piece, however, I saw San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sit down for the national anthem — and I saw America stand up in protest. When asked why he didn’t stand, Kaepernick said he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”

The way Kaepernick took a stand was exactly the type of activism I wanted to see among today’s Black athletes, but before I had time to applaud him, the media crucified him. Worse yet, it wasn’t just the mainstream media that was speaking out. Even fellow Black athletes were speaking out against him. It was bad enough that so many Black athletes were willing to be silent and let others stand up for our people, but now some were actually chastising him for standing up for us. Kaepernick wanted dialogue, but instead he got told that he had crossed a line. He wanted to spark conversation, but instead he was told to be quiet.  In fact, he was told to be grateful.

Ironically, one of the criticisms of Kaepernick came in the form of an argument that Kaepernick was not in a position to stand up for Black people because he was not Black. Forgetting about the fact that Kaepernick is in fact half Black, that position itself is nonsensical. If he were white, would it be wrong for him to stand up for Black people? Does that mean that white people cannot defend the rights of Blacks or other minority groups? That straight people cannot defend the rights of the LGBTQ community? Historically, no minority group has ever gained the equal rights they sought without the support of the majority.   

And it’s true that Kaepernick does not necessarily feel the impact of racism or injustice day to day he is not part of the disenfranchised Black community he is fighting to protect. The Civil Rights leaders of the 1950s, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, were standing up for their own rights along with the rights of the Black community King couldn’t sit at the front of the bus either. Kaepernick is educated, and has a multi-million dollar contract as a quarterback in the NFL. But in my mind that makes his action even more powerful, not less. His silent protest was not driven by self-interest. He chose to speak for those who don’t have a voice. As he put it, “This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all and it’s not happening for all right now.”  That was reason enough for him to take action, despite any repercussion he might face.  That is what makes him a leader.

So why are so few athletes willing to stand up — or, in Kaepernick’s case, sit down?  Many people do not realize that if a player has made it to the NFL, he has been playing since he was a child. From that time, he has been systematically trained to aspire to be in the NFL. Once a player makes it to the league, his impulse is, one, to fall in line, to do nothing that might jeopardize his team, a sacred brotherhood. Two, not to do anything to jeopardize his salary or endorsements. More than half of the players in the NFL come from poverty. For more than half the players in the league, football is the only way they see to take care of themselves and their families.

But the impulse and pressure to fall in line is what keeps so many players from standing up the way Kaepernick has — and keeps so many players silent when they could be voices of change. The unfortunate truth is that their fears are not unfounded. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who has chosen to take a knee for the anthem in light of Kaepernick’s protest, has already lost two endorsements as a result of his actions. While too many of us still sit on the sidelines in the fight for justice, I am heartened that Kaepernick’s activism has begun to gain momentum: more athletes take a knee, raise their firsts, link arms in support of him and his message. Even 49ers owner Jed York came out in full support of Kaepernick. Despite sacrificing two endorsements, Marshall remains steadfast in his commitment to the protest, and the conversation he hopes it will inspire.

I would love to see this momentum continue to build and have more professional Black athletes stand up publically for the larger Black community.  But what I would also love to see is that activism stretch beyond the reach of our own people and begin to try to help yet another marginalized group, the LGBTQ community.

There is an unmistakable power balance in this country, and we all know who wields that power. That being said, within the other groups that comprise our nation, there does exist a hierarchy of power. That hierarchy is what gave Kaepernick the opportunity to stand up for his beliefs in a way that a lot of other Black men never could. It is also what allowed the entire football team and the entire student body at University of Missouri to stand up for Michael Sam, and allow him to live his life openly as a gay man (which, by the way allowed him to play the best season of his entire collegiate career). And, two years later allowed the Missouri football team to stand together as a team against the racial discrimination that was occurring on their campus and boycott playing a single game until they got a public apology from the president of the university. Regardless of our race, as athletes, we do in fact wield power. The power to raise our voices for change is in our hands, but I see so much silence.

The LGBTQ community is another minority community in our country that is still fighting to be truly equal under the laws of our nation. And while I am by no means saying that the Black fight for equality is over, what I am saying is that there are many Black people in this country, such as professional athletes, that do in fact have a tremendous platform with which they can show support for the LBGTQ community. We have power to not only help ourselves, but to help another group who seeks fairness and equity.

If more professional athletes stood up for the LGBTQ community the same way Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick did and the way others are beginning to do, think of the impact and the power that would have on the LGBTQ community and their fight for equality. Think about what would happen if two of my favorite athletes Michael Jordan and LeBron James — went to Nike and said they wanted to film a PSA because they had a family member or close friend who is gay and wanted to publicly show their support. Because let’s face it, we all have at least one family member or close friend that is a part of the LGBTQ community. But instead we allow ourselves to be told by the corporations what we can and cannot do. Why can’t we realize that we have just as much if not more power than the students at University of Missouri?  If we stand together on the right side of history, then the power is ours. We need to be on the front line of history, not wait until it is cool to be in support of something that is not allowing friends and family members to feel safe and live their life to fullest.

In our community there is still a widespread fear that being an advocate for, or even just an ally of the LGBTQ community will call into question our own sexuality or masculinity as straight Black men. The base level of this fear is straight forward (albeit based on a false assumption) that supporting the LGBTQ community will lead people to think that we are gay or less of a man. As a result, many of us would rather say nothing than do something that would lead others to have that perception of us. There is also a financial fear associated with being a straight ally. That fear being that if people think that we are homosexual or an ally to the LGBTQ community, it will have a detrimental effect our brand, and in turn, our wallet.

I also want to address the argument that religious people cannot support the LGBTQ community due to the teachings of the Bible. First of all, I would like to remind all of my Black brothers and sisters that it was not too long ago that people used verses from the Bible to back up arguments to keep slavery legal. We, as African Americans cannot in good faith use the same teachings that were used to oppress us to suppress the rights of another group of people. Second, I would love someone to tell me when the laws in the Bible got ranked. In other words, what divine power came down and told us that the teachings that prohibit homosexuality are more important than the teachings that tell us to “love your neighbor as yourself?”   

We must begin to the dispel the ideas held by so many straight Black men that being an ally to the LGBTQ community will hurt them in some way. In order to do this, there are two major revelations to which these athletes must come. The first is that the stereotypes they grew up hearing are antiquated and untrue. We must all be a part of eliminating these stereotypes, and we can do that simply by letting our words and our actions defy them. The second is that becoming a straight ally for the LGBTQ community will actually broaden their brand and appeal.  The LGBTQ community accounts for more than $9 billion of buying power in this country. When Michael Sam came out as a gay man, his jersey shot straight to the No. 2 most purchased NFL jersey in the country. When Steve Jobs died, Tim Cook took over as CEO of Apple, and has subsequently come out as a gay man. We all still walk around with our iPhones tight in our clutches, but how many of us stop to think about the fact that the company that makes them — one of the most powerful companies in the country — is run by an openly gay man?

Muhammad Ali has, in the wake of his death, been mourned and celebrated in the media as an athlete who transcended sport and became an icon of activism and social justice. However, the same people who praise Ali for his activism and commitment to social justice can, almost in the same breath, condemn Colin Kaepernick for attempting to use his platform as an athlete to do the same. Ali paved the way for athletes like Kaepernick to speak out. If we celebrate Ali for creating the path, then how can we disapprove of athletes like Kaepernick for walking it?

It is time Black athletes realize our power and responsibility to bring change in America — and it is time for America to stop fearing what the change will look like. We must say and do the things that will spark conversation about important issues that we face because conversation is the first step toward resolution.

If we cannot speak about the issues, how can we hope to resolve them? More specifically, we, as heterosexual Black men with a voice need to get on the right side of history in the fight for LGBTQ equality. It is our responsibility to stand up for the underdog, the discriminated against, because we have been and still are discriminated against. We must stand up for communities other than our own just as we want others to stand up for us. We must be upstanders and not bystanders, we must stand up and use our voice for change, acknowledging that no group of human beings deserves to be treated as inferior.

We must applaud Kaeperrnick for his actions by acknowledging that great leaders have the strength and conviction to never mistake the easy choice for the right one. But applauding him is not enough. We must accept that once we identify a great leader such as him, we must have enough of our own strength and conviction to follow him.

Sean James is executive director of Sports & Entertainment for Hotaling Group Insurance Services and a former NFL player.

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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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