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Gay Puerto Rico hairdresser rebuilding hurricane-ravaged home, salon

Volunteers spent Memorial Day with Ricky Santiago

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Ricky Santiago sits in his salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Hurricane Maria, is working with Santiago and his family. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers was in Puerto Rico from May 24-28 to volunteer with Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Hurricane Maria.

HUMACAO, Puerto Rico — A gay hairdresser in Puerto Rico who the Washington Blade profiled earlier this year says the situation for him and his family has improved “a lot” since electricity was restored at their home.

“They are happier,” Ricky Santiago told the Blade on May 25 during an interview at his family’s home in the Candelero Arriba neighborhood of Humacao, a city on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast that is less than an hour’s drive from the island’s capital of San Juan. “They have changed little by little like me.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall near Humacao on Sept. 20, 2017, with 155 mph winds.

Maria caused extensive damage to the second floor of Santiago’s family’s house in which he was living. Maria also destroyed Santiago’s hair salon that was in the backyard.

Ricky Santiago stands outside the second floor of his family’s house in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Electricity was restored to Santiago’s home on March 31. Santiago laughed when he pointed out electricity was restored at his sister’s home in a nearby neighborhood the day before he spoke with the Blade.

“She came here like a crazy woman and said, ‘I have power! I have power, after eight months,” he recalled.

Handwritten signs the Blade saw throughout Humacao over the weekend indicate people still do not have electricity more than eight months after Maria made landfall. Damaged utility poles and houses with temporary roofs — blue tarps or “techos azules” in Puerto Rican Spanish — remain commonplace throughout Santiago’s neighborhood.

The Puerto Rican government says Maria killed 64 people on the island, but estimates indicate the death toll is likely much higher.

The New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday reported researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the University of Colorado School of Medicine and other institutions have concluded Maria may have killed an estimated 4,645 people. The New England Journal of Medicine reported researchers have concluded the “interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates” in the three months after the hurricane made landfall.

Santiago using FEMA money to repair family’s house

Santiago is currently living with his mother, his father who has been bedridden for 15 years, two of his aunts and three Chihuahuas on the first floor of the family’s house. Santiago sleeps on a twin size mattress that he places on the living room floor each night.

Santiago received $6,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair his family’s house and salon, which FEMA determined was part of his home. FEMA denied Santiago’s mother’s request for assistance because it concluded Maria did not damage the first floor of the house that it determined is her home, even though water caused extensive damage to the concrete ceiling after portions of the second floor’s roof blew away.

Exposed rebar in the living room ceiling remains clearly visible.

Santiago and his mother used the money he received from FEMA to remove what was left of the house’s second floor and seal the floor to prevent water from seeping through the ceiling. They have also painted the walls and repaired the gutters in order to reduce the risk of flooding.

“It’s going well,” Santiago told the Blade on Friday. “We have power and the water is going well.”

Santiago has turned a covered patio along the side of his family’s house into his salon. Santiago is converting the building in which his salon was located before Maria into his new home.

Waves Ahead, San Juan mayor to open LGBT elders center

Waves Ahead earlier this month launched ReconstruyeQ, a campaign that is helping Santiago’s family and nine other families in the U.S. commonwealth repair their homes and replace furniture and other items they lost during the storm. Waves Ahead is also working with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and her administration to open a community center for LGBT elders.

Wilfred Labiosa and Grissel Bonilla, who co-founded Waves Ahead, met with Cruz on May 23. Human Rights Campaign Foundation Director of Faith Outreach and Training Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, who grew up in the city of Caguas that is located outside of San Juan, is among those who also attended the meeting.

“An agreement to collaborate with the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan to secure a restored location in the city that will serve as a base for the first community center for Puerto Rico’s older LGBT community was discussed,” said Cruz in a press release, according to Primera Hora, a Puerto Rican newspaper.

Ricky Santiago and Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, executive director of Intersections International, a New York-based LGBT-affirming ministry, stand inside what was once Santiago’s hair salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Waves Ahead posted to its Twitter account pictures of the meeting with Cruz.

Help from Waves Ahead, volunteers ‘tremendous’

Construction crews earlier this month installed a new roof on Santiago’s new home.

Santiago over the Memorial Day weekend helped volunteers from the Human Rights Campaign and other groups paint the walls. Waves Ahead and its volunteers also bought Santiago a new bed, a dining room table and chairs, a medicine cabinet and shelves.

Waves Ahead volunteers with Ricky Santiago, first row, fourth from left, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 25, 2018. Waves Ahead is helping Santiago and his family repair their home that Hurricane Maria damaged. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Santiago told the Blade he hopes to be able to move into his new home in the coming days.

He said Waves Ahead and the volunteers who have helped him and his family have been “tremendous.” Santiago became emotional as he talked with the Blade about the assistance that he and his family have received.

“It is an experience that I will have in my heart until I die,” he told the Blade.

Santiago’s mother on Sunday said as she sat in her living room with two of Santiago’s aunts and two of the family’s three Chihuahuas that Santiago would have “nothing” if Waves Ahead and its volunteers were not helping him.

The mattress on which Santiago is sleeping was along one of the walls and his clothes were draped over the top of it as she spoke with the Blade. One of Santiago’s aunts on May 26 began to cry as she talked her family’s experience during Maria.

Hurricane season begins on Friday.

Many structures in La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, still have temporary roofs — “techos azules” in Spanish — more than eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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

Dept. of Health declines to explain abrupt replacement of Kharfen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Officials deny charges of harassment, retaliation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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