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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

The road to DADT repeal — remember their names

‘Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going to win in the end’

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Lt. Dan Choi handcuffs himself to the White House fence in 2010. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going to win in the end.” – Air Force TSgt. Leonard Matlovich, Sept. 19, 1975.

The road to repeal of the codified charade known colloquially as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), masquerading as something different than the Pentagon policy ban dating to World War II, was long and built by many hands. While a straight-identified Congress and president were necessary to reach the destination, LGBT Americans made it happen. But “DADT Speak” can unintentionally erase the some 100,000 discharged before its creation. The following focuses on some of the First Volunteers; those very few service members who chose to risk their careers by outing themselves, putting faces to the ban, without which it would still be destroying lives.

In March 1974, Leonard Matlovich was the happiest he’d ever been in his life. It had taken him until he was 30, and surviving thoughts of suicide-by-war and direct suicide, to finally accept and embrace that he was gay, and now he had a job that he loved: Race Relations Instructor for the Air Force. He was so good in this job that he was sent around the country to train other instructors. An African-American fellow instructor said that, “He has the classroom in the palm of his hand.” 

His department chief wrote, “As a Race Relations Instructor there is none better. His mastery of group dynamics and group facilitation has enabled him to conduct seminar after seminar around the difficult and sensitive subject of race relations without incident. He should be promoted to Master Sergeant well ahead of his contemporaries.” 

And then he read an interview with Frank Kameny in the Air Force Times.

World War II veteran Frank Kameny had a genius IQ and Harvard Ph.D. in astronomy. Hired by the Army Map Service (AMS) in 1957, his dream of being one of the first astronauts, in fact, his entire scientific career, crashed and burned when the AMS learned he was gay. LGBs were already banned in the military; now, per Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order banning “sexual perversion” among civilian federal employees, he was fired five months later, and, worse, blackballed from employment by any other federal agency or private company or university receiving federal funding.

Unaffiliated with any gay group, he did what no other fired gay person had done. Eight years before Stonewall, he appealed his case against the Secretary of the Army to the Supreme Court in a self-penned brief whose eloquent fury still stuns today.

“The government’s regulations, policies, practices and procedures, as applied in the instant case to petitioner specifically, and as applied to homosexuals generally [including in the military], are a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for. These policies, practices, procedures, and regulation have gone too long unquestioned, and too long unexamined by the courts.”

Yale Law School professor William Eskridge, Jr., later called it revolutionary, “the birth of Gaylegal Equality Arguments”; and Frank “the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement.”

In a “court of last appeal” letter to newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy in May 1961, two months after the Court refused to hear his case, Kameny, still on his own, also denounced “the policies, practices, and official attitudes of the military” and “less-than-fully-honorable discharges.”

That November he cofounded the militant Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW; not a chapter of original Mattachine) whose four missions included challenging military homophobia— 29 years before the creation of the first national group dedicated to fighting the ban, and 32 years before its codification into DADT.

MSW’s unprecedented three pickets of the White House in 1965 included signs protesting the ban, and he led a picket at the Pentagon itself. 

 “STOP Wasting Taxpayers Money on Hunts for HOMOSEXUALS.” “65,000 Homosexual Sailors DEMAND NEW NAVY POLICY.” “Quarter Million Homosexual American Servicemen & Women Protest Armed Services Policies.” “15 Million U.S. Homosexuals Protest Treatment by Armed Forces.”

That year the Navy alone kicked out at least 1,365—some 100 more than all the branches kicked out in the worst year under DADT. 

The ban was the subject of the first same day, nationally coordinated gay rights protests in 1966. Frank led another Pentagon picket then flew to New York City to lead a protest there. He was essentially the only non-lawyer source of help for LGB service members trying to avoid being kicked out or at least be granted an Honorable Discharge characterization. 

Since at least 1964, he’d been looking for a “perfect test case” — a service member with a clean record willing to out themselves and fight the ban in court. Leonard Matlovich read that in the Air Force Times and called him describing his three tours in Vietnam, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and outstanding performance ratings. After a number of meetings, Leonard agreed to carry the banner, coming out on the front page of The New York Times and on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on Memorial Day 1975.

The response was seismic, rippling from the Times to the Kokomo, Indiana, Tribune and around the world. So unlike the mainstream concept of a gay male one reporter asked him if he was really gay. The effect was magnified when he appeared in uniform on the cover of Time magazine with the bold, black caption “I Am a Homosexual”—putting a face on the ban for millions for the first time. Gay historian Nathaniel Frank, author of the definitive book on the evolution of DADT, “Unfriendly Fire,” said, “it began a national discussion on gay rights.” 

Accounts of his four-day discharge hearing filled newspapers and TV screens. When the Air Force board couldn’t see past “Homosexual” to the perfect airman, they recommended his discharge; Leonard telling the crush of reporters outside: “Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going to win in the end.” He failed to overturn the ban, but a 1981 Pentagon mandate that, barring extenuating circumstances such as sex on base, all discharge characterizations for gays should be Honorable can be linked to his case. No one imagined how short his lifetime would be, but he filled it fighting for gay equality. Frank was the lead honorary pallbearer, walking by the horse-drawn caisson carrying his body in 1988, and today his grave in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery with its iconic gravestone is a place of pilgrimage next to a Veterans Administration cenotaph for Frank.

“Exemplary” Army Reserve Drill Instructor Miriam Ben-Shalom was honorably discharged in 1976 after refusing to deny she was a lesbian during questioning about her criticizing the discharge of Leonard Matlovich. In 1980, a federal judge ruled that her discharge violated the First, Fifth, and Ninth amendments of the Constitution—the first court ruling that the ban was unconstitutional and 30 years before the ruling against DADT in the Log Cabin Republicans challenge—and ordered her reinstated. The Army simply ignored the order for seven years; until a Circuit Court forced them to return her to duty. But they refused to allow her to reenlist at the end of that period of service. 

The Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal in February 1990. Three months later, she and five other veterans founded Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America, the first such national lobby group; today American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER). She and several other veterans were arrested at the White House in 1993 protesting the ban’s refashioning as DADT. She was arrested there again in 2010 protesting President Obama’s slow walk on repeal along with eight fellow veterans and four civilians including myself.

Sgt. Perry Watkins’ 16-year adventure in the U.S. Army began when Lyndon Johnson was president and would not end until George Bush père sat in the Oval Office. It spanned the globe, sometimes a comedy, sometimes a tragedy. It was sometimes even a musical comedy—but it was always, just as the ban itself, nonsensical; here ignoring that he was gay, there trying to kick him out because he was gay. Year after year, time after time, he demanded justice; and, in the end, it was his own truth that set him free—the truth he had told from the very beginning, during his draft physical in 1967 when he was 19 and checked the box indicating “homosexual tendencies.” 

The first gay African-American soldier to make headlines, while the Army ignored a court order to reinstate Miriam, in May 1982, Watkins also became the first out gay service member returned to duty by a court. But he was kicked out again, and, eventually, the Supreme Court let a lower court ruling stand that he should be reinstated in the name of fairness. Like Leonard, for whom he was an honorary pallbearer in 1988, he chose a settlement; passing himself in 1996. 

Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, a certified Master Training Specialist teaching sonar crews on P-3 Orion aircraft how to hunt submarines outed himself on ABC’s World News Tonight on May 19, 1992. Formerly recognized as “Aircrew Instructor of the Year,” his usually perfect performance ratings drop. Without any evidence, they claimed knowledge of his sexual orientation had “adversely affected his performance of duty and adversely affected the good order and discipline.” Though given an honorable discharge he sued and was ordered reinstated. Overall, his return was met positively, and his crew continued to win new awards. He retired four years later with full military honors, naval band music, a Navy Achievement Medal, and a 60-foot American flag.

Purposely coinciding with Meinhold’s coming out the same day, 25-year old Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Tracy Thorne, first in his class in flight training, outed himself on “Nightline.” A bombardier-navigator flying A6 Intruders, like a ship on a roiling sea, his status repeatedly changed due to the unknowns of what might happen—or not—to the ban following Bill Clinton’s possible election, then election. He joined a five-week, 32-city cross-country veterans bus Tour of Duty to try to drum up public support for an end to the ban. He testified against the ban before the Senate Armed Services Committee — homophobic Sen. Sam Nunn’s dog and pony show where he was jeered by 1,000 sailors and Marines. To wild applause and laughter, infamous racist Sen. Strom Thurmond told him, “Your lifestyle is not normal. It’s not normal for a man to want to be with a man or a woman with a woman. Have you considered getting help from a medical or psychiatric standpoint?” He filed a lawsuit in 1994 and returned to active duty with the stipulation that the Navy could attempt to discharge him under DADT. In 1995, he was discharged. He sued again; his challenge ending when the Supreme Court refused to hear his case.

Their high-profile outings were planned to coincide with the same-day introduction of the long forgotten end-the-ban Military Freedom Act of 1992. Popular war hero and chair of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell’s statements to Congress killed not only that bill but crippled Bill Clinton’s intentions even before he had the party’s nomination. Powell: “Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics.” His disingenuous, pseudo intellectual way of saying, “they choose to be gay so it’s not a civil rights issue.”

Navy Reserve Lieutenant Zoe Dunning outed herself at a Jan. 16, 1993, rally in support of Keith Meinhold. She was allowed to stay in after convincing a board that “status” did not equal “conduct” — a finding immediately forbidden in future cases by the Pentagon. By retirement in 2007, she’d risen to the rank of commander, having served openly for more than 13 years. In December 2010, as co-chair of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) Board of Governors, she was invited to stand next to the president as he signed the provisional DADT repeal bill. Co-founder Dixon Osburn just released “Mission Possible,” his account of the crucial role SLDN played in ending the ban.

Former Marine of the Year Sergeant Justin Elzie had served 10 years when he outed himself on “World News Tonight” on Jan. 29, 1993. The Corps reneged on their existing approval for his early separation in April with benefits, moving to honorably discharge him immediately with none. He testified to Congress in support of ending the policy ban. A judge ordered he be retained until his legal challenge was resolved. He eventually settled out of court, receiving the early retirement bonus after having served as an out gay Marine for four more years during which he was recommended for promotion three times. He was one of our 13 arrested at the White House in November 2010 demanding DADT repeal.

Twenty-three-year old Desert Storm veteran and former Sixth Army Soldier of the Year Joe Zuniga outed himself at a huge event honoring gay military activists the night before the April 1993 March on Washington, including Meinhold and Thorne. “The roar was deafening. People cried. People hugged each other.” – The Washington Post. The next morning the three joined the veterans’ contingent in the march with hundreds of thousands.

Conversely, his Army command was enraged, discharging him, however honorably, in record time—in less than a month. They also brutally demoted him from Sergeant to Specialist after falsely accusing him of wearing a decoration he had not earned. His battalion commander melodramatically threw newspapers in which his story had appeared into a trashcan during his administrative hearing. But he continued to speak out all across America, and appeared in the historic first national gay TV ad; created for the Campaign for Military Service, an ad hoc group representing multiple existing gay groups hoping to offset the rabidly homophobic campaign of those in and out of the Democratic-controlled Congress determined to prevent President Bill Clinton from ending the ban. He also travelled the country and TV newsrooms trying to promote public support.

Army First Lieutenant and Iraq veteran Dan Choi came out on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on March 19, 2009, resulting in his discharge in June 2010. Far from just another came-out-on-TV story, Dan was the first Asian-American to become a leader in the anti-ban movement, and shook that movement when he began to engage in nonviolent direct action in the second year of the Obama administration after the president broke his promise to start working with Congress to end DADT when he took office. Dan allied with new direct action group GetEQUAL, and a small but growing number of people joined him in handcuffing themselves to the White House fence (including transgender veteran Autumn Sandeen); each time growing more media coverage, never more critical than in November 2010 when word went round that the repeal provision bill, stalled in the lame duck Congress, was going to be withdrawn likely damning the chance for repeal for years. Republicans would take over the House in 2011.

I have no proof that the action Dan led that month, joined by Miriam, Justin, et al., helped salvage the bill and, thus, repeal. I can only say that I am proud to have been next to them; one wrist handcuffed to the White House fence behind me; and holding Leonard’s Time magazine cover aloft with my free hand.

“Remember your roots, your history, and the forebears’ shoulders on which you stand.” – Marion Wright Edelman. 

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Commentary

Overcoming COVID-19 challenges for prospective gay surrogacy fathers

Sept. 18 conference offers a comprehensive educational agenda

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Even before the pandemic, biological and social constraints severely limited parenting options for gay men. Surrogacy, an option that larger numbers of gay men have been turning to in recent years, was highly complex, expensive and emotional even before COVID-19. More challenges were added with travel restrictions, uncertainty about the implications of the disease and vaccines to pregnancy, and domestic circumstances that contributed to hesitancy among some surrogate candidates. And while the number of men interested in embarking on a parenting journey did not diminish, there are inherent limitations on the extent to which the guidance and support resources they depend on could be provided virtually.  

My husband and I had our twins with the help of a surrogate almost 21 years ago. Even in New York City, where we reside, no community resources existed for people like us. A few years later, with the help of the NY LGBT Community Center, we started building a program that culminated with the establishment of Men Having Babies (MHB), a nonprofit dedicated to helping men worldwide become biological parents through guidance, financial assistance, support and advocacy. The premise was that surrogacy has an immense potential as long as steps are taken to protect the rights and minimize the risks for surrogates and egg donors, and to sensitively build meaningful relationships between all parties involved. 

Thus, for more than a decade MHB has been traveling to a number of cities across the U.S. and internationally offering peer guidance, expert advice, information about financing and grants, inspirational testimonies from surrogates and fathers, and an opportunity to meet dozens of reputable surrogacy providers that abide by our Framework for Ethical Surrogacy

With the onset of the pandemic, MHB was first focused on providing immediate support to hundreds of men that faced disruptions to medical treatments and even their ability to travel to the birth of their children and attain legal custody. Luckily a range of solutions were soon found to at least allow existing journeys to move forward. 

Indeed, by now things are looking better also for the many men that did not yet start the process and were putting their dreams on hold. The clinics, agencies and law firms that provide the required professional services are back to full operations. Vaccination is deemed safe and effective for surrogates and donors, and with the resumption of in-person schooling, more women may feel ready to commit to becoming surrogates. 

However, how do you provide both complex guidance and an opportunity to meet surrogacy professionals during a pandemic? Our first move was to offer webinars and add more resources online, and then to make use of specialized virtual conference technology to try and recreate the conference experience to the best of our abilities. However, the complex process and highly personal nature of surrogacy parenting requires an immersive and personal experience, and a comprehensive educational agenda that is beyond the attention span of virtual. 

At this point, given the unique nature of our challenge, we decided it is time for a new model to once again offer the full inspirational and interactive experience in-person, while still meeting the challenges of the new public health reality we face for many months to come. After consulting with our partners, we’re starting this fall with events in NYC, Chicago and Brussels, where public health conditions and regulations are suitable. We accommodate only fully-vaccinated participants, and developed a range of additional COVID-19 safety measures, including on-site rapid testing of staff, speakers and exhibitors, indoor masking, and safe catering protocols during meals and breaks. 

Judging from the robust registration rate from attendees, there is indeed much pent-up demand worldwide from gay men who’ve been putting their dreams of family building on hold. “Please don’t cancel this event and change it to a virtual conference. I look forward to meeting experts in-person,” stated one of many encouragements MHB received. 

To join us September 18-19 in NYC, please go to menhavingbabies.org/ny

Ron Poole-Dayan is the founder and executive director of Men Having Babies. 

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Commentary

Re-energizing Pride in our communities and workforce

“We don’t believe advocacy should be limited to June.”

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(Photo courtesy of Pepco; by Rick Giammaria)

At Pepco, we recognize it’s been a tough year in so many ways for our communities. Discrimination and hate crimes affected Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), new forms of anti-transgender legislation emerged across the nation, and we anxiously awaited the sentencing of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. In the midst of all these extensively covered events, the everyday reality for many – including some of our employees – meant teleworking and participating in virtual meetings and activities. To realign, revitalize, and reunite ourselves, Pepco re-energized our 2021 Pride programming. This June, we, along with our sister companies Atlantic City Electric and Delmarva Power, proudly showcased inclusivity, openness, and ways to reaffirm our commitment to our diverse local communities. 

Realigning Ourselves. Pepco is one of three utilities that make up Pepco Holdings, a company providing electric and gas service to portions of southern New Jersey, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and Delaware, in addition to the District of Columbia and nearby Prince George’s County and Montgomery County. Historically, there were two separate Pride employee resource group (ERG) chapters serving our LGBTQ+ employees and allies, one for our northern region and one based in Washington. In January of this year we combined the two chapters, ensuring employees have access to the same events and resources, no matter their work location. The new, rebranded Pepco Holdings Pride ERG gives employees the space, safety, and support needed to feel empowered at work and to help foster professional relationships. 

The newly combined ERG also rotated in a new employee leadership team with highly enthusiastic representatives from all over the company. The diverse board includes employees from IT, HR, Engineering, Finance, Regulatory, and field-based operations, who were at the forefront of planning fresh events for June. 

Revitalizing Our Communities. Whether we’re providing essential services, or volunteering our time, supporting the communities we serve is a critical part of our everyday work – and we were excited to finally be able to engage with our customers in person. We renewed our annual sponsorship with The Capital Pride Alliance and were honored to be the advocate sponsor of the “Paint the Town Colorful with Pride” month-long event. You may have even spotted a few of our electric vehicles and bucket trucks rolling downtown with the rest of the PrideMobile parade, or our Edison Place headquarters decorated with rainbow LED lights at night. We greatly missed the energy of the annual Capital Pride parade, and we were thrilled to be back in person showing our support for our LGBTQ+ customers, families, and friends. 

We also acknowledge the many men and women who haven’t been able to work from home during the pandemic – including those who continue serving our communities at healthcare facilities, and our very own field workers. So, we wanted to pay homage to our local heroes by delivering hundreds of Ben’s Chili Bowl lunches to employees at Whitman-Walker Health. 

(Photo courtesy of Pepco; by Rick Giammaria)

Reuniting the Workforce. We wanted this Pride month to be memorable for both our communities and our employees, so we pulled together a variety of virtual events for our employees to celebrate Pride. From joint events with BGE (part of our larger Exelon family of companies) where we discussed Netflix’s Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson film, to a special AAPI and LGBTQ+ intersectionality panel featuring the Blade’s publisher Lynne Brown. Both events served as a forum for participants to share stories about the struggles that people have faced and how they prevail to live their true, authentic lives. 

To round out our employee events, our Pepco Holdings Political Action Committee recently hosted a panel featuring Sarah McBride, senator, Delaware General Assembly; Luke Clippinger, chairman of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee; and Jeremy LaMaster, executive director, FreeState Justice. The trio showed immense dedication to expanding protections and removing barriers for LGBTQ+ individuals in our region and nationally. 

What’s Next? Reflecting on the past year we’ve had, we’ve found there is a silver lining. Had these events not occurred, would our employees be as open to sharing their stories? Would we take such pleasure in being outside with our neighbors on a hot June afternoon? And would we be as quick to offer thanks to those who work each day to keep our communities safe? While Pride month may be coming to a close, we don’t believe the advocacy, discussions, and celebrations should be limited to June. We’ll continue powering Pride for our employees, customers, and communities, with a drive that is just beginning to re-energize.

Megan Clark is senior communications specialist at Pepco Holdings.

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