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Living an ‘American nightmare’

Blade contributor describes La. detention facility as hell

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Yariel Valdés González, a Washington Blade contributor who has asked for asylum in the U.S. speaks to Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers from Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility in Plain Dealing, La., on July 1, 2019. Valdés remains in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and has described the facility’s conditions as a human rights violation.

Editor’s note: Yariel Valdés González is a Washington Blade contributor who has asked for asylum in the U.S.

Valdés has previously described the conditions at the Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility in Plain Dealing, La., where he remains in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody as a human rights violation. An ICE spokesperson in response to Valdés’ previous allegations said the agency “is committed to upholding an immigration detention system that prioritizes the health, safety, and welfare of all of those in our care in custody, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.”

The Blade received Valdés’ op-ed on June 29.

PLAIN DEALING, La. — The American dream to live in absolute freedom; safe from the threats, persecution, violence, psychological torture and even death the Cuban dictatorship has imposed on me because of my journalistic work fell apart in my hands as soon as I arrived in Louisiana. The Cubans here who are also seeking protection from the U.S. government welcomed me to the Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility with an ironic surprise. They opened their arms and told me, “Welcome to hell!”

I could hardly believe they have spent nine, 10 and even 11 months asking, waiting for a positive response from immigration authorities in their cases.

I was under the illusion that after an asylum official who interviewed me at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center in Tutwiler, Miss., on March 28 determined I had a “credible fear of persecution or torture” in Cuba, one hearing with an immigration judge would be enough to obtain my conditional release and pursue my case in freedom as U.S. law allows. But I was wrong. The locals (here at Bossier) once again took it upon themselves to dash my hopes.

“Nobody comes out of Louisiana!” they proclaimed.

It only took a few minutes for my dream, like that of many others, to turn into a nightmare. The more than 30 migrants who arrived in Louisiana on the afternoon of May 3, coming from Mississippi after more than a month detained at Tallahatchie, were plunged into a deep depression that continues today. Only the tears under the blanket that nobody can see are able to ease my desperation for a few minutes and then I once again feel it in my chest when I think of my family in Cuba who continues to receive threats of jail and death from the Cuban dictatorship because of my work with “media outlets of the enemy.” This reality is the only thing that awaits me back there. I therefore see the situation in Louisiana and I am once again afraid. I cannot see an exit. Prisoner here, prisoner if I return to Cuba. I feel trapped.

Violation of their own laws

I realized a few days after I arrived in Louisiana the subjectivity of who makes the decisions matters, not objectivity or attachment to those who are being held. Louisiana feels like a lost piece of “gringo” geography at which nobody seems to look, or to the contrary, it is a coldly calculated strategy that triumphs on authoritarianism, abuse of power or intransigence. I don’t know what to think.

More than a few who have arrived here have come to the conclusion the U.S. has made migrants its new business. Keeping migrants in their custody for so long keeps hundreds of employees and lawyers in business, as well as generating huge profits for the prisons with which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts. It has become clear the government prefers to waste more than $60 a day per migrant than set us free under our own recognizance.

“Louisiana is an anti-immigrant state,” Arnaldo Hernández Cobas, a 55-year-old Cuban man whose asylum process has taken 11 months, tells me. “It is not possible for any of the thousands of people who go through the process to leave victorious.”

Hernández tells me ICE agents have not met with him once during his confinement and the deportation officer has never seen him.

“I don’t know if I am allowed to have bail,” he says. “Judge Grady A. Crooks affirms that we do not qualify for this and he does not give it to those who qualify for it because they can flee. This only happens in this state because migrants in other places are released and can pursue their cases on the outside after they make bail.”

Another way to obtain conditional freedom is through parole, a benefit the federal government offers to asylum petitioners who enter the country legally and are found to have a credible fear of suffering, facing persecution or being tortured in their countries of origin.

“To grant it, ICE asks for a series of questions that relatives should send to them, but what is happening is that they don’t give them enough time to do so,” says Arnaldo.

This is exactly what happened with me.

My family managed to send the documents the next day for my parole interview, which was scheduled for the following day. ICE nevertheless denied me parole because I did not prove “that I am not a danger to society.” I am sure they didn’t even take my case seriously.

There are stories that border on the absurd because many migrants have received their parole hearing notifications the same day they should have filed their documents. One therefore feels as though ICE mocks you to your face and your feelings of helplessness reach the max.

The awarding of parole is a new procedure ICE must complete, but it does not go beyond that. They use this and other crafty strategies to “stay good” in the eyes of the law and they therefore keep asylum seekers in custody for months. They bring them to hearings they will not win, pushing for the deportation of those who do not succumb to the pressure of confinement without properly assessing the risk to their lives that returning to their native countries would entail.

ICE is required to free us a few days after it grants parole, and we already know it doesn’t want to do this. Their goal is to keep us locked up at all costs.

“The cruel irony is that the majority of asylum seekers who follow the law and present themselves at official ports of entry don’t have to ask an immigration judge for their release from custody,” declared Laura Rivera, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that provides legal assistance to immigrants, in an article titled, “Stuck in ‘hell’: Cuban asylum seekers wither away in Louisiana immigration prisons.” “To the contrary, their only avenue to secure their freedom is to ask the same agency that detains them, the Department of Homeland Security.”

But DHS — as Rivera details in the article published by the Southern Poverty Law Center — is ignoring its mandate to consider requests for release in detail. And to the contrary it denies conditional release without justification.

“Men are kept hidden from the outside world, locked up and punished for defending their rights and are forced to bring their cases before immigration judges who deny them with rates of up to 100 percent,” affirmed Rivera.

Another of the process violations in Arnaldo’s case was he was assured where he was first detained that he could win his case along with that of his wife, “but when he came” to Louisiana the judge “told me this was not allowed, that each case is different.” Arnaldo’s life cannot be different from that of his wife because they have been together for 37 years. His wife has been free for nine months, but he remains behind bars. And so, it happens with mothers and sons, brothers and people who have identical cases. Once again, subjectivity determines a person’s fate.

During his hearing with Crooks, Arnaldo declared he feels “very uncomfortable” because he considers him an extremist.

“He said that he only recognizes extreme cases,” says Arnaldo. “Doors mean nothing to him. He describes himself as a deportation judge, not an asylum judge. In the entire time that I have been here nobody has won asylum, not even bail, only deportations.”

Conclusive proof of the judge’s extremism came one day when another judge ran the hearings and the migrants who presented their cases that morning received asylum. The example could not have been more illustrative.

Douglas Puche Moxeno, a 23-year-old Venezuelan man who has spent nine months in Louisiana, also said the detainees “did not receive more information on how the process should be followed and how one should do it.”

“I don’t know if they explained to us the ways to obtain a conditional release,” he says.

In relation to their hearings, Douglas says “the judge told me that he knew the real situation in Venezuela, but he did not grant me asylum because I am not an extreme case. He is waiting for someone to come to the United States without an arm or a leg to be accepted.”

The migrants in Louisiana are trying every way possible to be released. They have made these complaints on television stations and have even gone to Cuban American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“We have reached the point of filing a lawsuit against ICE,” Douglas explains. “A team of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center have proposed a lawsuit seeking a reconsideration of parole. This is one of the most hopeful ways that we have to obtain freedom. If we are successful, the benefits will be for everyone.”

“Various protests to pressure authorities and to reclaim our rights as immigrants have been organized,” says Douglas. “Relatives, lawyers and various institutions have come together in Miami, Washington and even here in Louisiana to make ICE aware of the injustices that have been committed against us for more than a year.”

‘This is not your country’

Bossier is a jail deep in Louisiana, hidden in the woods that surround it. Each day inside of it is a constant struggle for survival that takes a huge toll on my physical, psychological and above all emotional capacities. More than 300 migrants live in four dorms in cramped conditions with intense cold and zero privacy.

My stay here reminds me of the school dorms in Cuba where we were forced to share smells, tastes and basic needs. Here we also share Hindu, African, Chinese, Nepali, Syrian and Central American migrants’ beliefs, cultures and ways of life.

My personal space is reduced to a narrow metal bed that is bolted to the floor, a drawer for my things and a thin mattress that barely manages to keep my spine separated from the metal, which sometimes causes back pain. The most painful thing, however, is the way the officers treat us. For “better or for worse,” you feel as though you are a federal prisoner.

“According to ICE, we are ‘detainees,’ not prisoners, but we have still suffered physical and psychological abuses,” says Arnaldo. “I remember one time when an official dragged a Salvadoran man to the hole for three days simply for eating in his bed. They don’t offer anything to us and they don’t talk to us, they yell. They wake you up by kicking the bed.” 

“The slightest pretext is used to disconnect the microwave, the television or deny us ice, affirming this is a luxury and not a necessity,” alleges Arnaldo. “When we complain about these situations. They tell us, ‘This is not your country.'”

Smiles are not common inside the dorm. The faces of affliction and sadness predominate. Good news is almost always false and the frustration and stress this confinement causes us therefore returns.

“I feel very sad, afflicted here, as though I had killed someone because of the mistreatment that we receive, the place’s conditions,” declares Damián Álvarez Arteaga, a 31-year-old man who has spent 11 months as a prisoner in the U.S.

“Freedom is the most precious thing a human being has,” he adds. “I hope that I will receive a positive response to my case after spending so much time detained. We have demonstrated to the U.S. that we are truly afraid of suffering persecution or torture in Cuba.”

Hours in here seem to have no end: They stretch, they multiply, but they never shorten or pass quickly. Our only contact with the outside the world are telephone communications or video calls (at elevated prices) with relatives, friends or lawyers and sporadic trips to the patio to greet the son and take fresh air.

“In all of the time that I have been here, I have seen the son a few times and only for 15 minutes and this is because we have complained,” recalls Arnaldo.

The yard, as we also call it, is a small rectangle of fences and surveillance cameras with a cement surface at the center of it where some of us play soccer when they give us a ball. I roll the pants of my yellow uniform up to my knees to allow the sun to warm my extremities a bit while my eyes wander towards the lush forest that is a few meters away from me. I admire the sky, the few vehicles that are driving on the nearby highway and I take deep breaths of oxygen because I know I had just come out of the deep sea and desperately needed air to keep me alive.

“Everyday is the same here from the same food to the same activities,” says Douglas. “This prison does not have sufficient spaces to accommodate so many people for so long. We don’t have a library or family visits.”

Yariel Valdés González interviews a Mexican migrant at a lesbian-run migrant shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, on Jan. 27, 2019. Valdés, who is from Cuba, has asked for asylum in the U.S. and remains in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Louisiana. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘Soup is currency’

My day at Bossier begins a bit before 5 a.m. With the call to “line-up,” I receive a plastic tray with my breakfast. Today is cereal day, low-fat milk, bread and a small portion of jelly. The menu is the same each day of the week. I always save part of it because there is nothing more to eat until midday.

“The food is not correct,” opines Damián. “My stomach is already used to that small portion. A piece of bread with hot sauce and some vegetables or mortadella cannot sustain an adult man, nor can it keep you in shape to resist such a stressful process.”

The last meal of the day is at 4 p.m., and because of this it is a fantasy to be in bed at 11 p.m. with a full stomach. I reduce the hunger pains with an instant soup to which I add some carrots and a hot dog that I steel for myself from the day’s meals.

Since I still have some money, I can buy soups and extra things to make Bossier’s bad food a little better. Bossier classifies those who don’t receive economic support from their families as “indigent” and they are forced to clean up for their fellow detainees in exchange for a Maruchan soup. Here soup is currency. Everything begins and ends with it, the savior of hungry nights.

“You can buy these and other things at elevated prices in the commissary, the only store to which we have access and for which we depend on everything,” says Damián.

Bossier’s medical services on the other hand are so basic that there is not even a doctor or nurse on call, nor is there an observation room for patients and consultations only take place from Monday to Friday.

“One who gets sick is put in punishment cells, isolated and alone, which psychologically affects us,” notes Arnaldo. “People sometimes don’t say they don’t feel well because they are afraid they will be sent to the ‘well.’ In extreme cases they bring you to a hospital with your feet, hands and waist shackled and they keep you tied to the bed, still under guard. I prefer to suffer before being hospitalized like that.”

Yuni Pérez López, a 33-year-old Cuban, experienced this unfortunate situation first hand. He was on the hole for six days because he had a fever.

“I felt as though I was being punished for being sick,” he says. “And even when the doctor discharged me, they kept me there. It was like being in an icebox: Four walls, a bed, a toilet and a light that never turns off. To leave from there I had to stop eating for an entire day to get the officials’ attention and they returned me to the dormitory.”

Bossier also leaves you chilled to the bone because we cannot use blankets or sheets to cover ourselves from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is not a question of esthetic or discipline because the officials are not interested in whether your bed is made well. The only thing that bothers them is when we are cover ourselves from the dorm’s intense cold.

The migrants interviewed by the Washington Blade are those who have been at Bossier the longest. They are all appealing Crooks’ decision not to grant them political asylum. I have not presented my case yet, so I am still a little hopeful that I will receive the protection of the U.S. Like them, I am trying to get used to this harsh reality and be strong, although most of the time sadness consumes me and erases positive thoughts.

The U.S. to me — like for many — does not represent a comfortable life, the newest car or McDonald’s. None of this will ever be able to fill the void of my family, friends or passionate love that I left behind. The U.S. represents the opportunity to LIVE, so I will hold on to it until the end.

Yariel Valdés González was a reporter for Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba, before he left the country in 2018. He took this picture of the Pride, transgender and Cuban flags at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of Havana. (Photo by Yariel Valdés González)
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Commentary

To comply or not to comply is not the question

Implementation of pro-LGBTQI+ rulings in Botswana and Namibia is unsatisfactory

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Over the past five years, the highest courts in Namibia and Botswana have made significant decisions in favor of minority groups’ human rights through favorable judgments and court orders. However, the implementation of these orders related to the rights of LGBTQI+ in Botswana and Namibia has not been satisfactory so far. 

In 2016, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) after they had been denied registration based on the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct. In 2017, the High Court of Botswana pronounced that denying a transgender man legal gender recognition undermines their dignity and humanity and ordered the Ministry of Home Affairs to change his identity documents from female to male. In 2021, the Court of Appeal in Botswana decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual conduct. In May 2023, the Supreme Court of Namibia ordered the government to recognize same-sex unions concluded outside Namibia, where same-sex marriages are legal in terms of the Immigration Act. While all these cases constitute landmark cases in securing and guaranteeing the rights of LGBTIQ persons, there is a growing trend of non-implementation when it comes to such judgements.

Government officials have partially or selectively implemented or completely disregarded the court decisions. In the LEGABIBO registration case, the Botswana Court of Appeal found that it is unconstitutional to deny registration under the assumption that LGBTQI+ are not recognized in the Bill of Rights and will offend the morality of the nation. The court found that LGBTQI+, like any other citizen or group of people in Botswana, have the right to freedom of association, expression and assembly, and issued an order for LEGABIBO to be registered, an order that was fulfilled promptly. However, seven years later, in March 2024, an LBQ group’s efforts to register are met with sentiments similar to those before the LEGABIBO jurisprudence. Senior public officials resisted the highest court decision to register this new group. Although their reasons are not stated as clearly as LEGABIBO rejection, government officials are still surreptitiously blocking the registration of LGBTQI+ organizations. 

Similarly, we have observed the selective application technique unfolding in legal gender recognition cases. In this case, the government officials have interpreted this as a single order that only applies to the applicants and not “all persons.” According to anecdotal evidence based on the experiences of individuals who sought legal gender recognition, they are instructed to acquire individualized court orders, a complete misinterpretation of the court’s instructions, burdening the courts to issue duplicate orders. This selective interpretation is a covert move by government officials to undermine judicial decisions and transfer the responsibility and burden of implementation to resource-constrained individuals, limiting access to justice. What is also curious is why the court system does not address repeat applications on the same issue. 

With the decriminalization court order, the attorney general acted in contempt of the judgment when he, instead of scrapping Sections 164 (a) and (c), blatantly ignored the court order and put a bill before parliament for debate. The highest court in Botswana had made a carefully considered decision to decriminalize, as indicated by a statement from SALC (Southern Africa Litigation Center) and by many contributors to this issue; there is no need to debate; the court has decided.

In Namibia’s case, compliance with the court order means recognizing foreign partners in same-sex marriages with their Namibian partners as spouses, thereby issuing them an immigration status that allows them to reside and work in Namibia. Despite the commitment by the Ministry of Home Affairs to comply, government Officials still refuse to respect the Supreme Court ruling, as indicated by Mr. Digashu’s experience: 

“In one of my many visits to the immigration offices, the officer informed me that the court order was only meant for the couples directly engaged in the court case, unaware that I was one of those couples. I got the impression that the immigration officials have adopted a dishonest tactic to deter other same-sex couples, letting them believe that the judgement does not protect them.”

One of the most significant contributors to non-compliance is the media. The media reports on the Supreme Court decision on the Digashu/Seiller-lilies matter ran with the sensational headline “Supreme Court gives legal status to same-sex marriages,” misinforming the public and fueling negativity. Misinformation affects not only the litigants and community members but also feeds the already hostile public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ persons. Members of parliament and religious communities put pressure on government officials. Unfortunately, parliament responded with a marriage bill that contradicted the judgment, Instead of clarifying what the ruling means and whom it affects. Public officials reflect legislators’ sentiments, disregarding principles of democracy, the rule of law, and justice for all, which are clearly stated in the constitution, and further undermining the independence of the judiciary. 

These are only a few of the many court orders that government officials have disregarded to the disadvantage and inconvenience of the minority who went to court to seek redress. For example, in the case of Mr. Daniel Digashu, he is given a visitor’s visa every time he leaves the country, which means he is forced to exit the country at its expiration date or face the wrath of the law. The cost of frequent travel and the personal emotional toll on himself and his family is insurmountable. Let alone constant dealings with questions, often followed by ridicule from immigration officials.

The question, therefore, is, what must happen to government officials who disregard court orders? 

The chief justice in Kenya offers a solution to this conundrum. Recently, the chief justice observed that senior government officials are guilty of defying court orders and suggested remedies such as impeachment of individual officers responsible. Botswana and Namibia must take a leaf out of that book.   

Of great concern is also that government officials are not transparent about the limitations of the court orders to enable the litigants and beneficiaries to seek clarification from the courts, nor are they open to engaging with civil society and affected communities to improve compliance. Are the court orders vague and, therefore, challenging to implement? Being transparent about implementation constraints will go a long way in guiding civil society on how they can support the government. Even in their resource-constrained status, CSOs must continue to monitor compliance and return to the courts for enforcement, including publicizing non-compliance in the media for public engagement. 

In conclusion, the rule of law requires that all court decisions be implemented promptly, thoroughly and effectively. The government has no choice whether to execute or not execute the court orders. 

The authors are consultants at the Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC). SALC promotes and advances human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa, primarily through strategic litigation and capacity-strengthening support to lawyers and grassroots organizations.

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Celebrating 15th anniversary of Harvey Milk Day

A powerful reminder that one person can make a difference

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The Harvey Milk Forever Stamp was unveiled at a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 22, 2014. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22, is officially a Day of Special Significance in California. Other states also honor Milk.

Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in U.S. history. In 1977, he was elected to a seat on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. His term began in January 1978 and ended in November when disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone at City Hall.

In his 1982 book “Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” Randy Shilts wrote a moving account of San Francisco’s 1978 memorial for Milk. A “massive crowd stretched the entire distance from City Hall to Castro Street, some 40,000 strong utterly silent,” Shilts wrote. The crowd “ostensibly memorialized both George Moscone and Harvey, but few speakers quarreled that the crowd had amassed chiefly to remember the gangly ward politician [Milk] who had once called himself the mayor of Castro Street.”

Shilts quoted Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, at the time acting mayor, telling the mourners that Milk “was a leader who represented your voices.” Another speaker said Milk “was to us what Dr. King was to his people. Harvey was a prophet [who] lived by a vision.” Equality was Milk’s vision.

Shilts presciently titled the last section in his book “The Legend Begins.” In 1979, after a jury gave assassin White a light seven-year sentence, LGBT rioters rocked San Francisco in what is called “The White Night Riots.” During the riots, Shilts wrote that “a lesbian university professor yelled into a feeble bullhorn: ‘Harvey Milk lives.’” Since 1978, Harvey Milk’s courageous leadership has been celebrated globally.

Over four years, 2006-2010, San Francisco reminded the country that Milk was a gay man worthy of great honors. The 2008 movie “Milk,” filmed partly in San Francisco, with Sean Penn as Milk, ignited greater public interest in the legendary gay activist. Gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Penn won Academy Awards in 2009.

The film led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign legislation making Milk’s birthday a Day of Special Significance. Also, President Barack Obama awarded Milk with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Milk’s 84th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in his honor.

California’s Harvey Milk Day recognizes Milk for his contributions to the state. It also encourages public schools to conduct “suitable commemorative exercises” to honor Milk.

“To me, [Milk] was a man who was a capitalist, and an entrepreneur who happened to be gay,” said Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado, the only Republican to vote for the bill to create Harvey Milk Day.

The newer scholarship about Milk provided additional insight into his activism. “An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings” edited by James Edward Black, Charles Morris, and Frank Robinson, published in 2013 by the Univ. of California Press, is an excellent example.

The book’s title is drawn from Milk’s 1978 speech called “The Hope Speech.” He spoke about people [gays, seniors, Black Americans, disabled, Latinos, Asians] “who’ve lost hope.” He proceeds to talk about inspiring hope in others who are struggling when the “pressures at home are too great.” It is a passionate speech, based largely on Milk’s conversations with people in the Castro. In a review of the book for The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, I wrote it is: “An important contribution to the corpus of work on Harvey Milk as a writer and orator.”

Milk believed that it was important for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to come out. If more people were aware of their LGBTQIA+ associates who were their friends, family, and loved ones, then discrimination would end. To Milk, coming out would lead to ensuring LGBTQIA+ civil rights.

In 2007, during Pride in San Francisco I worked at a nonprofit’s booth in Civic Center Plaza. A man stopped to talk. I mostly listened. He was a veterinarian from a small town in Arkansas. He was gay and closeted. He regularly visited San Francisco for Pride. Afterward, he regularly returned to his closeted life in Arkansas. I felt sorry for him. Though I was a stranger to him, he needed to come out to me. I was reminded of Milk’s wisdom about the freedom of coming out.    

Harvey Milk Day is for all people who need hope. Milk’s life is a lesson that one person can make a difference. A strong, united community inspired by Milk and others has changed and continues to change the world.  

Milk’s short political career led to long-term LGBTQIA+ political leadership from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C. to Miami to Seattle. To paraphrase a Woody Guthrie song: This LGBTQIA+ Land is Our Land. Happy Milk Day 2024!

James Patterson is a lifetime member of the American Foreign Service Association.

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Commentary

BookMen DC: Still going strong at 25

Celebrating the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the area

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On May 11, 1999, what was originally known as the Potomac Gay Men’s Book Group convened for its first meeting. A lot has changed over the ensuing quarter-century, starting with our name. But our identity remains true to the description on our blog: “an informal group of men who are interested in gay literature (both fiction and non-fiction).”

Our founder, Bill Malone, worked at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and started the group using donations of remainder books from a wholesaler in New York. Soon after that, members decided to get their own books, and began purchasing them through Lambda Rising, which offered a discount for such orders until it closed in 2010. The group later renamed itself BoysnBooks, and then became BookMen DC in 2007, which is also when we started our blog

Following Bill’s tenure, Tom Wischer, Greg Farber and Tim Walton (who set up our blog) have served as our facilitators. I succeeded Tim in that role in 2009, and am grateful to him and all my predecessors for laying such a solid foundation for our group. 

Twenty-five years after our founding, we are the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the DMV. So far, we have discussed nearly 400 books, ranging from classics like Plato’s Symposium to graphic novels, gay history and memoirs, and novels by James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, E.M. Forster and Edmund White—to name just a few of the many authors and genres we’ve explored.

Currently, we have more than 120 names on our mailing list, of whom about a quarter attend meetings at least occasionally. (Average attendance at our meetings is about 10.) Our members variously consider themselves gay, queer, bisexual, or transgender, and those varying perspectives enhance our discussions. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, like many LGBTQ organizations, we are not nearly as diverse as I wish we were. Although we do have young members and people of color within our ranks, we are predominantly white and middle-aged or older. We have tried various forms of outreach to further diversify our membership, and will keep working on that.

How has BookMen DC not just survived, but thrived, when so many other book clubs and LGBTQ groups have foundered? I would identify several factors.

First and foremost, we are welcoming. We have no minimum attendance requirements and charge no dues. And we expressly encourage members to join us at meetings even if they haven’t finished the selection we’re discussing.

We are also collaborative. Each fall, members nominate titles for the next year’s reading list; I then compile those suggestions into a list for members to weigh in on, and the results of that vote determine what we will read. 

Finally, we are flexible and adaptable. Over the years, we have met in locations all over the District. Currently, we meet on the first Wednesday of each month at the Cleveland Park Library (3310 Connecticut Ave. NW) from 6:30-7:30 p.m. to discuss entire books; afterward, those interested go to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant.

When the pandemic struck four years ago, we took a break for a couple of months before moving operations online. (Thank God for Zoom!) Even after the venues where we’d been meeting reopened, we have continued to meet virtually on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7-8 p.m. During those Zoom sessions, we discuss sections of anthologies of poetry and short stories, as well as short standalone works (e.g.,  plays and novellas).

If you enjoy LGBTQ literature and would like to try us out, visit our blog: https://bookmendc.blogspot.com/ and click the link to email me. We’d love to meet you!

Steven Alan Honley, a semi-retired musician, editor, and writer, has been a member of BookMen DC since 2000 and its facilitator since 2009.

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