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‘Building our community is the most important thing’

Activists fight isolation, seek to empower bisexual people



BiNet USA members take part in the National Equality March for Unity and Pride in D.C. on June 11, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Lynnette McFadzen)

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the global bisexual rights movement. Part one of this series was published on July 20.

The Washington Blade recently spoke with bisexual activists in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, China, France, Kenya, New Zealand, the Philippines, Serbia, South Africa, Spain and the U.K. They all said they are fighting stereotypes while seeking more visibility.

Here is what they said.


Connecting with the global bisexual movement is often difficult for Australian advocates because of their relative isolation compared with many of the other major cities in the world, according to Sally Goldner, who is a bisexual and transgender advocate.

“It’s one of those sad things of how this planet formed that Australia seems to be a large way away from major population centers,” said Goldner. “It’s hard for us to get somewhere else and for everyone else to come here, but it’s really cool when either happens.”

“Legally, bisexual people have it as well as gays and lesbians in Australia,” added Goldner. “But it’s about making sure that people realize bisexuality is separate and that researchers separate it out from gay and lesbian.”

Goldner is the treasurer of Bisexual Alliance Victoria, a Melbourne discussion group born out of Bi Victoria, which had mainly focused on social events.

“I block out our discussion group every month to make sure I go there. It’s a safe space,” said Goldner. “I’ve heard bi people say that this is the only space I can be myself. We’ve had people talk about deep personal stuff because they know it’s safe.”

Misty Farquhar, another Australian advocate, is based out of Perth, which is across the continent from Goldner. While they often collaborate and share stories, Farquhar says Perth is quite different from the “equality bubble” of Melbourne.  

“There is no funding for LGBTI issues anywhere in Western Australia,” said Farquhar. “The idea of getting funding for a bi-specific program is just not happening.”

Farquhar’s work centers around bringing people together to connect and offer each other support.

“We’re all really keen, but no one has funding,” said Farquhar. “I want people to feel like they’re not alone.”  


Natasha Avital was the second person that Daniela Furtado contacted in forming Bi-Sides, a collective of bisexual people working to empower each other in São Paulo.

Bi-Sides was formed out of a frustration and anger about the lack of representation for bisexual people in LGBT spaces.

“Building our community is the most important thing for us right now,” said Avital.

“When bisexual people try to work only in LGBT groups, we get worn out really fast,” added Avital. “It feels like screaming in an empty room if you’re only working in groups that are not specific to bisexuals.”

Avital said one of the most important events that Bi-Sides has organized brought together psychologists to break myths and destroy a lot of the “pathologization of bisexuality” which is often made the scapegoat for misdiagnoses.  

“There have been stories of people’s therapists who say things like ‘Oh, you only think you’re bisexual because of this trauma you faced’” said Avital, touching on the issue of sexual violence. “We’re empowering each other to be able to answer biphobia. I think a lot of people did not expect that we were not going to take it anymore.”

Natasha Avital speaks at a bisexuality town hall meeting at the São Paulo City Council in Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Natasha Avital)

Social media has made the work of Bi-Sides much easier. Before Facebook, they often struggled to get more than 10 people to an event or meeting, but now their reach has grown rapidly.

“People tell me that this is the only place they feel safe to talk about this,” said Avital. “I think a lot of the best discussions thinking critically about bisexuality come from Facebook and blog posts than from academic places. It makes things easier to share stories and ask questions.”


Stephanie Wang is one of the Chinese advocates behind the country’s first handbook of bisexuality created to educate LGBT and non-LGBT spaces about what it means to be bisexual.

“Being LGBT in China is actually a very foreign concept,” said Wang. “We have a very long history of same-sex eroticism in China’s dynasties, but we never really had a name for it. LGBT as distinct identity categories has a distinct political meaning.”

A lot of the work for advocates is simply around education about the existence of LGBT identities.

“One of the main challenges for the bisexual movement in China is that I think identity politics cannot work for bisexuals,” said Wang. “Bisexual as an identity category is considered as ambiguous, as a phase to either being straight or gay. Bisexuality is not really considered an essential identity by many people.”

Bisexual people face prejudice from both conservative and liberal communities who deny its existence, explained Wang.

Chinese bisexual advocates are focusing on collaboration with other community groups and in online forums to clear these rampant misunderstandings about bisexuality. They are starting to collect oral histories of bisexual people in China to share their stories and the diversity of their experiences.

“In our group, we don’t define bisexuals. We don’t define pansexuals. We have multiple meanings for people to be themselves,” said Wang. “I think the next step is to continue to welcome more stories and more experiences that cannot be shared within lesbian, gay communities which will stigmatize them for their sexual adversities.”


Hilde Vossen has become one of the threads weaving together a network for the global bisexual community. So many of the advocates who responded to the Blade’s request for interviews were sent by Vossen, a fact of which they are quite proud.

“I see that there are people longing for a global bisexual movement that is a serious exchange of information,” said Vossen. “I started typing, and I did not stop.”

Vossen has been coordinating the European Bisexual Network for more than 15 years, and is the Alternative Bisexual Secretariat for ILGA World via the Dutch Bisexual Network. But they’ve been involved in the movement for over 25 years.

“I like to get to know people better and see what they like to do, to see their creativity and see the fun they make out of their bisexual activism,” said Vossen. “That’s also very inspiring to me.”

Vossen came out while they were in university, and has not stopped working for the community since.

“I started off with simply preparing sandwiches and ended up speaking for the United Nations,” laughed Vossen, who uses gender-neutral pronouns to refer to themself.

While the Dutch bisexual community itself is still small, it have been ambitious in connecting with the broader European network.

“We had the first European bisexual conference in Rotterdam in 2001, and we had the third in 2016 in Amsterdam,” said Vossen. “So we are a bunch of crazy people here.”

“I still like to do it, because the work keeps on renewing itself,” added Vossen. “And I can do what I’m good at, which is connecting people.”


While she lives in France, Soudeh Rad’s work crosses borders to reach out to Farsi speakers around the world. She started in the feminist movement, but quickly found herself needing to carve out a space for her bisexual identity.

“Being a feminist means being active and having this belief in gender equality which comes with sexuality and all identities,” said Rad. “I constantly had to justify myself.”

Rad helped to launch, which provides resources in Farsi around topics facing bisexual people.

“When we wanted to launch the website, we realized that there was absolutely no information about bisexuality and pansexuality,” said Rad. “Everyone was talking about monosexuality as though people are either homosexuals or heterosexuals, and bisexuality did not exist.”

Because of her background in the feminist movement, Dojensgara launched on International Women’s Day three years ago, but the backlash from the feminist movement was intense.

“We had an activist coming out,” said Rad. “The first reaction was to question, ‘Oh so these people are leaving our movement and launching their own thing right now? What kind of expert are you?’ I’m just a person. I didn’t change anything.”

Rad’s work covers a multitude of topics from sexual health education to training professionals around bisexuality. Her goal is to get people talking about bisexuality so that larger issues such as the stigma facing bisexual asylum seekers can be addressed.

“Bisexual and nonmonosexual asylum seekers are the people who need the most help,” said Rad. “They come from societies where bisexuality is erased and people do not know about it. We have cases where they have to say that they’re gay or lesbian so that they are sure they’re going to get their asylum accepted.”

“We should recognize that bisexuals and other nonmonosexuals are the minority being put into the minority again and again,” said Rad. “This is happening in all countries. This is the asylum-seeking and immigration crisis we are facing.”  


Bisexual is a political label that Jackson Otieno has had to take on as an activist in Kenya doing work for the LGBT community.

“I and many others find ourselves in a situation to use that label until people understand it,” said Otieno.

The bisexual community in Kenya does not yet have organizing power in large part, said Otieno, to the work still remaining for the LGBT community as a whole.

“There have been attempts to organize around bisexuality but the timing is not right,” Otieno said. “It has taken a backseat but there is a bisexual community.”

“Like most former British colonies, sodomy laws are still in Kenya’s criminal codes,” said Otieno. “We are currently petitioning the government and constitutional courts to have it removed.”

Otieno sees the work needing to encompass not just laws but also begin at the grassroots level of villages to address the homophobia and violence that LGBT Kenyans face which is often religiously motivated.

“As much as these faiths don’t agree on a lot of things, anti-homosexuality is one they can agree on,” said Otieno. “They are really just scapegoats being used in this rhetoric.”

“All of the progress has been slow, but the effect is that one victory builds onto the next,” he added.

“I just have this general feeling from a lot of observation that from the minute we start organizing around bisexuality, I think we will have such a huge number of people willing to get on board,” said Otieno. “Our biggest challenge will be motivating people who do not want to engage politically in anything.”

New Zealand

Hattie Plant is a student at Victoria University of Wellington, and still new to the “movement.”

“I only worked out that I was bisexual last year, so I’m still easing into it,” said Plant. “I’m very much a small-scale person.”

Victoria University’s LGBT group called UniQ has provided a sense of community for Plant, even if she hasn’t been able to make it to a meeting yet due to class schedules.

“I’m active on their Facebook group,” said Plant. “There’s a lot of people on there who post questions asking our opinions – or if they’ve got questions about an identity that isn’t theirs.”

“It’s a mix of activism and community,” said Plant. “They have alternating movie nights and discussions around stuff. It’s more serious than just hanging out as a casual, like-minded group.”

Plant hopes to work with high school students one day to provide support around issues of LGBT identity and mental health.

“My teachers were no help at all,” said Plant. “I currently work with students just tutoring them, so I think it would be nice to be that voice that’s just slightly more relatable in a lot of ways.”

The Philippines

Fire Sia is one of three co-founders of Side B Philippines, an organization of bisexual people working to educate and advocate for the bisexual community.

“We are a young organization, just a year old but we have gained strong visibility in the LGBT activist space in Manila,” said Sia.

A lot of Side B’s work is focused on combating the widespread misunderstanding of bisexuality as an identity, even from other LGBT people.

“In the gay community, they see bisexuality as some sort of a dress code,” said Sia. “This means that many gay men identify as bi because they are masculine or straight-acting.”  

“Many believe that it is a phase, which I am certain it is not — at least in my case,” said Sia.

“Being bi is also seen as a ‘single phase,’” added Sia. “This means that we are only seen as bi when we are single. Our identity and orientation is expected to change depending on the sex of our partner.”

Bisexual advocates attend the Metro Manila Pride March in the Philippines on June 24, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Side B)

Side B is focused on education and advocating for employment equality for bisexual people in the Philippines.

“We have a long way to go, but we feel like we’re on the right track,” said Sia.


Radica Hura is a bisexual activist taking a break from organizing.

“It’s an activist burnout,” said Hura. “People were not cruel, but they were asking me all these questions about how can you be bisexual and be from Serbia? Isn’t it a cultural thing?”

She organized two bisexual visibility days, but bisexuality is still incredibly misunderstood in Serbian society. Serbia has some laws that protect LGBT people and just elected an openly lesbian prime minister, but at the fundamental level, Hura says that there are a lot of problems.

“If you’re a non-heterosexual man living an ordinary life, then you will struggle,” said Hura. “People here accept their sexual side of their bisexuality, and they’re okay with having sex with the same sex and meeting the same sex, but they have problems accepting that it’s a part of their identity.”

“When it comes to women, [bisexuality] is not even observed seriously,” added Hura. “In their sexual identity, it is accepted because it is part of the male gaze. It is nice to see two girls kissing, but if women are accepted as sexual beings who are attracted to other women and fall in love, then they are starting to lose their mind because of it.”

“When I see how they are not observed seriously, I even start to doubt myself,” said Hura. “In one period in my life I was asking myself if I am really bisexual. People are asking that question all the time.”

“I’d like to see more bisexual people in Serbia actually say it — even just to their families and friends. Without saying it publicly, there is just silence,” said Hura. “There are so many couples who are actually bisexual, but they’re not saying it. Saying it is enough for me, it’s a step ahead.”

South Africa

When Werner Pieterse came out as bisexual, he could not find any spaces that specialized in serving the bisexual community in South Africa.

He decided to create his own.

“I started by reaching out to places in South Africa that might know where i could meet other bisexual people, but no one knew of anything,” said Pieterse. “I started reaching out to support groups in the USA and Canada, which was such a liberating experience but Skype is not the same as someone that’s literally here that you can touch.”

“I’d like to believe that this support group is the first of its kind,” said Pieterse.

The group’s first meeting was in May, and they welcome people of all identities to the space to talk about issues unique to bisexual identity.

“The amount of people that are interested is just overwhelming,” said Pieterse.

Pieterse described a large gap in education and knowledge of the LGBT community due in large part to the massive jump in legislation within the last twenty years. In just 1996, the country decriminalized homosexuality. Only 10 years later, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.

“So many of the bisexual people in South Africa are still closeted, and I think that’s because it’s still stigmatized,” said Pieterse. “We are ahead in some cases, but society has a lot of catching up to do as well. I think if you give it another 10 to 15 years, it will be a much different landscape.”

“It’s one of the reasons why I want to be as out as possible,” added Pieterse, showing off the pockets of his jean jacket that he had embellished with the bisexual flag. “A year ago I wasn’t even thinking about what I’m doing right now, and I’m so grateful that it happened.”


Carlos Castaño says he was one of about five bisexual advocates behind organizing the year of bisexual visibility for the LGBT Federation in Spain last year.  

“None of us realized the impact this year would have on our lives,” said Castaño.
The federation had a bisexual network, but it had collapsed in part due to anger about the lack of bisexual visibility in their work.

“The bisexual network is incredibly weak and we are working to bring it back to life again,” said Castaño. “In Spain, right now, there is a lot of individual work for bisexual visibility, but there are not many groups organized for their activism.”

Carlos Castaño , left, joins bisexual advocates on stage after the 2016 Madrid Pride march. They read a manifesto about bisexual visibility. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Castaño Rodríguez)

With the help of the larger federation, Castaño and the other advocates organized events throughout the year from round tables about bisexual visibility to events that taught people inclusive sexual health.

“It was in this year that I felt that I was a part of the LGBT community which I have never felt before,” said Castaño. “When we started the bi year I felt a lot of skepticism, but month by month I could see how the main coordinators of the federation realized the importance of bi visibility.”

“Being a bisexual activist has made me feel like I’m a part of something bigger,” added Castaño.

“It’s also a lonely task. It feels lonely when there’s such a massive amount of work,” said Castaño. “Sometimes it feels like you’re working in the dark because you don’t know the needs of all the bisexual people in Spain. I didn’t know if I was the only one who was interested in all of these things that felt historical for the movement.”

United Kingdom

For a long time, Edward Lord was afraid to come out as bisexual. He clung to a gay identity, having what he refers to as “surreptitious affairs” with women.

“I went to an all male school from the age of seven through eighteen, and my initial sexual and romantic experiences were with guys of my age. So, when I arrived at University in 1990, I immediately openly identified as gay,” said Lord.

Because of the rampant biphobia in LGBT activist spaces in which he was working, Lord remained closeted about his bisexuality.

“I vividly remember attending a national LGB students’ conference, the first one where bi people were included, and the biphobia was horrific,” said Lord. “The women’s caucus had morphed into the lesbian caucus with a clear statement that ‘we don’t want any dirty bisexuals in here.’”

Fast forward to 2017, and Edward Lord sits on the board of BiUK and is councilman and justice of the peace in London. He has been responsible for increasing diversity and inclusion work within the government, which saw him recognized by Queen Elizabeth II in 2011.

Lord also serves as deputy chair and bisexual representative on the advisory board for London Pride.

“Pride in London is a day of mixed emotions for me,” said Lord. “Part of that is because the organizers simply don’t recognize that it is harder for some LGBTQ+ people to participate in events like Pride than others. And that includes bi people.”

“It remains the case that bi people of color are less likely to attend LGBT or bi specific events, and that bi spaces are often dominated by middle class and highly educated folk,” said Lord. “This has to change and I am committed to supporting that change where I can.”

United States

Laya Monarez, a bisexual and trans activist and artist, has experienced her bisexuality through a lot of different struggles. As a trans Mexican American woman, she grew up in a culture they describes as “super machismo.”

“Growing up was difficult because I didn’t even completely understand myself because I had so much going on,” said Monarez. “I wasn’t sure if I was gay or straight, but even more complicated than that I was also trans. I didn’t feel comfortable in my body. There was a lot of confusion.”

“The thing about Latinx communities is that our entire culture is very gendered. Even our language is gendered, and it’s deeply rooted in us,” said Monarez. “When you’re a woman, you’re expected to be a certain type of woman. When you’re a man, you’re really expected to be a certain type of man. So when you come out as bisexual, it’s really strange because people don’t know where to put you.”

If you asked Lynnette McFadzen six years ago what they would be doing in 2017, it would not have included speaking on a panel about bisexual representation at San Diego Comic Con.  Nor would it have included being among the co-chairs of the National Equality March for Unity and Pride that took place last month in D.C.

“I call myself a worker bee,” said McFadzen. “It’s quite amazing with all the wonderful people I’ve met and all the accidents that have led me to this.”

McFadzen, host of a podcast called “The BiCast” and president of BiNet USA, started coming out just five years ago after a lot of soul-searching. They started a podcast about bisexuality in part because it had been really difficult to find information about bisexuality during their coming out process.

“If I could just reach a couple of people and let them know that they’re okay and there’s nothing wrong with them, then it would be so worth it,” said McFadzen, who also uses gender-neutral pronouns to refer to themselves.

“Our power is that as bisexual people, we see all of these intersections. We have to see that the black community is our community, and their struggles are our struggles,” said McFadzen. “A large population of black and brown, Pacific Islanders, indigenous people, and people of all genders and no genders have suffered in our community.”

“We cannot be exclusionary of anyone because we will be excluding ourselves,” added McFadzen. “As bisexual people, we know what it feels like to be left behind.”


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Honoring the legacy of New Orleans’ 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire

Why the arson attack that killed 32 gay men still resonates 50 years later



Fifty years ago this week, 32 gay men were killed in an arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. (Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

On June 23 of last year, I held the microphone as a gay man in the New Orleans City Council Chamber and related a lost piece of queer history to the seven council members. I told this story to disabuse all New Orleanians of the notion that silence and accommodation, in the face of institutional and official failures, are a path to healing.  

The story I related to them began on a typical Sunday night at a second-story bar on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, where working-class men would gather around a white baby grand piano and belt out the lyrics to a song that was the anthem of their hidden community, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man. 

“United we stand,” the men would sing together, “divided we fall” — the words epitomizing the ethos of their beloved UpStairs Lounge bar, an egalitarian free space that served as a forerunner to today’s queer safe havens. 

Around that piano in the 1970s Deep South, gays and lesbians, white and Black queens, Christians and non-Christians, and even early gender minorities could cast aside the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the times to find acceptance and companionship for a moment. 

For regulars, the UpStairs Lounge was a miracle, a small pocket of acceptance in a broader world where their very identities were illegal. 

On the Sunday night of June 24, 1973, their voices were silenced in a murderous act of arson that claimed 32 lives and still stands as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history — and the worst mass killing of gays in 20th century America. 

As 13 fire companies struggled to douse the inferno, police refused to question the chief suspect, even though gay witnesses identified and brought the soot-covered man to officers idly standing by. This suspect, an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Rodger Dale Nunez, had been ejected from the UpStairs Lounge screaming the word “burn” minutes before, but New Orleans police rebuffed the testimony of fire survivors on the street and allowed Nunez to disappear.

As the fire raged, police denigrated the deceased to reporters on the street: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” 

For days afterward, the carnage met with official silence. With no local gay political leaders willing to step forward, national Gay Liberation-era figures like Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church flew in to “help our bereaved brothers and sisters” — and shatter officialdom’s code of silence. 

Perry broke local taboos by holding a press conference as an openly gay man. “It’s high time that you people, in New Orleans, Louisiana, got the message and joined the rest of the Union,” Perry said. 

Two days later, on June 26, 1973, as families hesitated to step forward to identify their kin in the morgue, UpStairs Lounge owner Phil Esteve stood in his badly charred bar, the air still foul with death. He rebuffed attempts by Perry to turn the fire into a call for visibility and progress for homosexuals. 

“This fire had very little to do with the gay movement or with anything gay,” Esteve told a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I do not want my bar or this tragedy to be used to further any of their causes.” 

Conspicuously, no photos of Esteve appeared in coverage of the UpStairs Lounge fire or its aftermath — and the bar owner also remained silent as he witnessed police looting the ashes of his business. 

“Phil said the cash register, juke box, cigarette machine and some wallets had money removed,” recounted Esteve’s friend Bob McAnear, a former U.S. Customs officer. “Phil wouldn’t report it because, if he did, police would never allow him to operate a bar in New Orleans again.” 

The next day, gay bar owners, incensed at declining gay bar traffic amid an atmosphere of anxiety, confronted Perry at a clandestine meeting. “How dare you hold your damn news conferences!” one business owner shouted. 

Ignoring calls for gay self-censorship, Perry held a 250-person memorial for the fire victims the following Sunday, July 1, culminating in mourners defiantly marching out the front door of a French Quarter church into waiting news cameras. “Reverend Troy Perry awoke several sleeping giants, me being one of them,” recalled Charlene Schneider, a lesbian activist who walked out of that front door with Perry.

(Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Esteve doubted the UpStairs Lounge story’s capacity to rouse gay political fervor. As the coroner buried four of his former patrons anonymously on the edge of town, Esteve quietly collected at least $25,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Less than a year later, he used the money to open another gay bar called the Post Office, where patrons of the UpStairs Lounge — some with visible burn scars — gathered but were discouraged from singing “United We Stand.” 

New Orleans cops neglected to question the chief arson suspect and closed the investigation without answers in late August 1973. Gay elites in the city’s power structure began gaslighting the mourners who marched with Perry into the news cameras, casting suspicion on their memories and re-characterizing their moment of liberation as a stunt. 

When a local gay journalist asked in April 1977, “Where are the gay activists in New Orleans?,” Esteve responded that there were none, because none were needed. “We don’t feel we’re discriminated against,” Esteve said. “New Orleans gays are different from gays anywhere else… Perhaps there is some correlation between the amount of gay activism in other cities and the degree of police harassment.” 

(Photo by H.J. Patterson/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

An attitude of nihilism and disavowal descended upon the memory of the UpStairs Lounge victims, goaded by Esteve and fellow gay entrepreneurs who earned their keep via gay patrons drowning their sorrows each night instead of protesting the injustices that kept them drinking. 

Into the 1980s, the story of the UpStairs Lounge all but vanished from conversation — with the exception of a few sanctuaries for gay political debate such as the local lesbian bar Charlene’s, run by the activist Charlene Schneider. 

By 1988, the 15th anniversary of the fire, the UpStairs Lounge narrative comprised little more than a call for better fire codes and indoor sprinklers. UpStairs Lounge survivor Stewart Butler summed it up: “A tragedy that, as far as I know, no good came of.” 

Finally, in 1991, at Stewart Butler and Charlene Schneider’s nudging, the UpStairs Lounge story became aligned with the crusade of liberated gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Louisiana. The halls of power responded with intermittent progress. The New Orleans City Council, horrified by the story but not yet ready to take its look in the mirror, enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations that Dec. 12 — more than 18 years after the fire. 

“I believe the fire was the catalyst for the anger to bring us all to the table,” Schneider told The Times-Picayune, a tacit rebuke to Esteve’s strategy of silent accommodation. Even Esteve seemed to change his stance with time, granting a full interview with the first UpStairs Lounge scholar Johnny Townsend sometime around 1989. 

Most of the figures in this historic tale are now deceased. What’s left is an enduring story that refused to go gently. The story now echoes around the world — a musical about the UpStairs Lounge fire recently played in Tokyo, translating the gay underworld of the 1973 French Quarter for Japanese audiences.

When I finished my presentation to the City Council last June, I looked up to see the seven council members in tears. Unanimously, they approved a resolution acknowledging the historic failures of city leaders in the wake of the UpStairs Lounge fire. 

Council members personally apologized to UpStairs Lounge families and survivors seated in the chamber in a symbolic act that, though it could not bring back those who died, still mattered greatly to those whose pain had been denied, leaving them to grieve alone. At long last, official silence and indifference gave way to heartfelt words of healing. 

The way Americans remember the past is an active, ongoing process. Our collective memory is malleable, but it matters because it speaks volumes about our maturity as a people, how we acknowledge the past’s influence in our lives, and how it shapes the examples we set for our youth. Do we grapple with difficult truths, or do we duck accountability by defaulting to nostalgia and bluster? Or worse, do we simply ignore the past until it fades into a black hole of ignorance and indifference? 

I believe that a factual retelling of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — and how, 50 years onward, it became known internationally — resonates beyond our current divides. It reminds queer and non-queer Americans that ignoring the past holds back the present, and that silence is no cure for what ails a participatory nation. 

Silence isolates. Silence gaslights and shrouds. It preserves the power structures that scapegoat the disempowered. 

Solidarity, on the other hand, unites. Solidarity illuminates a path forward together. Above all, solidarity transforms the downtrodden into a resounding chorus of citizens — in the spirit of voices who once gathered ‘round a white baby grand piano and sang, joyfully and loudly, “United We Stand.” 

(Photo by Philip Ames/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Robert W. Fieseler is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Tinderbox: the Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”

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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings



The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund



Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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