May 1, 2019 at 11:16 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Rainbow Families plans weekend conference; gears up for legislative battles
Rainbow Families, gay news, Washington Blade
Darren Vance (right) with husband John Paul (left) and child Alexander Paul. (Photo courtesy Vance)

Rainbow Families

2019 Family Conference

‘Now More Than Ever’

Saturday, May 4

8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Georgetown Day High School

4200 Davenport St., N.W.

Admission fees vary for members, non-members

Non-member registration: $90

 rainbowfamilies.org

Rainbow Families, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that got its start about 20 years ago as a local support group for LGBT parents, has expanded its programs and services to LGBT families throughout the mid-Atlantic region, according to recently named Executive Director Darren Vance.

Vance told the Washington Blade in an interview last week that Rainbow Families’ main mission continues to be that of a provider of support for LGBT parents and prospective parents, both couples and individuals. Among the areas in which the group provides support is the access of LGBT parents to legal adoption rights as well as access to inclusive and welcoming schools, child care, health care and social services.

He began his job as executive director last summer, becoming Rainbow Families’ first executive director and the mostly volunteer-driven group’s first full-time paid staff staffer.

With LGBT rights organizations raising concern in recent years over hostile policies surfacing in the Trump administration in Washington and in many state legislatures, Vance said Rainbow Families is increasing its “advocacy endeavors,” including arranging for experts on public policy issues to speak at the group’s annual conference.

Among the featured speakers at this year’s one-day conference, scheduled for Saturday, May 4, at D.C.’s Georgetown Day High School, are LGBT rights attorney Shannon Minter, who serves as legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights; and transgender activist Trystan Angel Reese.

Reese, a gay transgender man, and his partner, gay activist Biff Chaplow, became the subject of international news coverage in 2017 when they publicly disclosed that they decided to have their own biological child, “one that Trystan carried and birthed himself,” the couple state on their website, biffandi.com.

“As a transgender man, he has all the parts necessary to do so in a safe manner,” the website says of Reese’s pregnancy and childbirth. “He stopped taking his hormones, and they successfully conceived and had a beautiful, happy baby,” says the site, which adds, “Throughout that process, they shared their story with a wide variety of media outlets in the hopes that their story — of love and hope and family — might increase the visibility and acceptance of trans people and LGBT families.”

Although Rainbow Families’ promotional literature for its May 4 conference doesn’t say so directly, the appearance of Trystan Angel Reese as the “featured speaker” and Shannon Minter’s role as the presenter of a conference “Town Hall Meeting on legal concerns facing our families with the current political climate,” appears to send a message that the conference will touch on hot-button political issues impacting LGBT families.

“We really for years have worked both to support families and educate prospective families,” Vance says. “I am indeed expanding our focus a bit. However, everything we do is about families or family members,” he says, including what he calls an interesting development where straight parents of LGBT children, including trans and non-binary children, are becoming involved with Rainbow Families.

Nevertheless, “in light of what is going on in our climate, I felt as executive director it is important to increase our advocacy endeavors,” Vance says. “Part of that certainly is with the conference and having Shannon as our keynote speaker to really make sure that we’re informed and we know what we need to do to stay engaged.”

Vance says Rainbow Families believes at least three important public policy issues under consideration on the state and federal level have the potential for impacting LGBT families. One of them, he hopes, will be beneficial, the other two are harmful. 

The first was the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year to take on a case that will decide in an official ruling next year on whether Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and thus protects LGBT people from discrimination in all 50 states.  

“That certainly can affect the family,” says Vance in referring to LGBT parents who would be protected against employment discrimination if the high court rules in a favorable way. “It could impact their income,” he says.

The second issue of concern to Rainbow Families, Vance says, are proposed bills surfacing in state legislatures attempting to place restrictions on the legal rights of same-sex married couples. At least once such bill in Texas, he says, would in effect tell LGBT couples that although the Supreme Court gave same-sex couples marriage equality, “we’re not entitled to the legal benefits of marriage.”

The third issue of great concern to LGBT families, according to Vance, is attempts in some states to deny parenting rights for LGBT people by allowing adoption organizations to refuse to approve an adoption to an LGBT person or couple on religious grounds.

“And what is especially unfathomable is there are children all over the country in foster care,” Vance says. “And in the LGBTQ community, we adopt huge numbers of children out of foster care. And there are people that don’t want us to become parents. And so with this climate, that is gaining traction.”

Vance says most of the anti-LGBT family developments are occurring in areas outside the immediate D.C. metropolitan area.

“And we are lucky, those of us that live in this D.C. region,” he says. “We’re golden right now. We have a lot of acceptance. We’re in a little bit of a bubble. The concern for our families as a nationwide community is that there are all these efforts in other areas of the country that are really trying to prohibit us from creating our families. It’s in the very fabric of this political climate to take rights away from LGBT individuals and LGBT families.”

More information about Rainbow Families and its May 4 conference, whose theme is “Now More Than Ever,” can be found at rainbowfamilies.org.

Following is a partial transcript of Darren Vance’s interview with the Washington Blade about Rainbow Families and its upcoming conference in D.C.

WASHINGTON BLADE: The Rainbow Families website shows your organization has for a long time worked on assisting individuals and LGBT couples adopt children and secure legal help to establish families. But your annual conference this year includes a town hall meeting on “legislative threats” to LGBT families. Is Rainbow Families now taking on more political advocacy work?

DARREN VANCE: Sure, let me address that. Indeed for well over 20 years and parts of us go back 25 and 27 years indeed providing get-togethers and events and support for LGBTQ families. But a large chunk of what we have done for that long as well is providing education and support for prospective parents and people on a family planning path to help them navigate the unique ins and outs of their family planning journey as LGBT individuals or couples. So it’s kind of two fold or both. We really for years have worked both to support families and educate prospective families. I am indeed expanding our focus a bit. However, everything we do is about families or family members. So for example we have a growing number of heteronormative parents who and their queer kids that are becoming members. And we have kind of a growing number of trans and non-binary members, which is phenomenal.

BLADE: When you say heteronormative families do you mean families with straight parents?

VANCE: Yup, yup.

BLADE: But they have gay or LGBT kids?

VANCE: Yup — or questioning or non-binary or what have you. Again, if you’re in my generation — I’m in my mid-50s — it was kind of like it was this box or that box. And now there are no boxes at all. It’s kind of a big happy bucket of however one feels and identifies and like that.But anyway, to your question about getting into more of a political bent, that is not the kind of focus that we do. However, in light of what is going on in our climate, I felt as executive director it is important to increase our advocacy endeavors. Part of that certainly is with the conference and having Shannon (Minter, legal director of National Center for Lesbian Rights) as our keynote speaker to really make sure that we’re informed and we know what we need to do to stay engaged. And in fact, the theme of the conference is ‘Now More than Ever.’

BLADE: Have the conferences been an important part of Rainbow Families work over the years?

VANCE: Yes, indeed. And we decided — this will be our ninth conference. So that’s how we’ve done it for the last eight conferences. Another thing that is kind of interesting is that we’ve received so much feedback from the community. We’ve always held it every other year. And we’ve gotten feedback that people wanted it held annually. So it is now an annual affair. We are going to focus our efforts on more advocacy and awareness, both on our own and in partnership with other organizations in our community.

BLADE: I noticed you removed D.C. from your name.

VANCE: Right, we have members from all over the region from as far down as Norfolk, Virginia to as far up as kind of south of Philly. So we felt that being called Rainbow Families of D.C. might lend the wrong impression. So it was about two years ago that we really kind of rebranded; not really rebranded, we just dropped the two initials at the end. But we are still based in Washington, D.C. But as far as advocacy, those things might entail educational workshops where we have a guest speaker. You know someone like Shannon or someone like that coming in for a day and doing workshops. It could include doing events on the Hill, participating in other events on the Hill to encourage our legislators to hear the things that are important to us.

BLADE: Might that include testimony before congressional hearings?

VANCE: Certainly. In fact, we’ve been invited to do some of that. So indeed that’s certainly part of it, yup. You know making sure that our membership is informed on issues that matter to us and then providing them with resources on where to go and what to do.

BLADE: You mentioned the climate in the last few years. Is there anything that’s happened in the last year or two that could adversely impact LGBT families or Rainbow Families’ members?

VANCE: Certainly. The biggest thing is the interpretation of Title VII, which will go to the Supreme Court this fall. And we expect a decision probably in January. And that is for the Supreme Court to decide if Title VII protects … transgender as well as sexual orientation. So that’s the biggest thing that’s on our radar.

BLADE: Would that impact families as well as others, since Title VII is usually related to employment discrimination? The court cases have been about gay people and transgender people being fired from their jobs.

VANCE: Exactly. That certainly can affect the family. It could impact their income. The other thing that is really poignant and affecting families are numerous, numerous state level cases where for example, there is one in Texas, I believe, that they’re saying alright, the Supreme Court gave you marriage equality. They’re going to argue that we’re not entitled to the benefits of marriage. So what they’re argument is, sure we’ll give you a marriage certificate but we don’t have to provide anything else for you legally.

BLADE: Is that surfacing in the form of legislation in the states?

VANCE: Yes, legislation at the state level, so it is very likely that those types of cases will escalate.

BLADE: To deny marriage-related rights?

VANCE: Exactly. And then the third thing that I would say is there are numerous state and local attempts to strip parenting rights on the basis of religious freedom. And that is not-so-thinly veiled … legislation to prohibit our community from becoming parents. And what is especially unfathomable is that there are children all over the country in foster care. And in the LGBTQ community, we adopt huge numbers of children out of foster care. And there are people that don’t want us to become parents. And so with this climate, that is gaining traction.

BLADE: The D.C. Superior Court each year holds an adoption day ceremony in which same-sex couples are among the many couples in the city that have their adoptions officially approved during that ceremony. Is this something that Rainbow Families is aware of?

VANCE: Yes, and I’ve been to it twice just as an observer. And we are lucky, those of us that live in this D.C. region. We’re golden right now. We have a lot of acceptance. We’re in a little bit of a bubble. The concern for our families is as a nationwide community is that there are all these efforts in other areas of the country that are really trying to prohibit us from creating our families. Even an effort to modify parts of the Affordable Care Act will have implications for our community. And Shannon just told me about that yesterday and I don’t know the details. But it’s in the very fabric of this political climate to take rights away from LGBT individuals and LGBT families.

Darren Vance says Rainbow Families has legislative battles ahead. (Photo courtesy Rainbow Families)

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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