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Valerie Harper’s special connection to queer community

Memorable TV episode saw Rhoda addressing gay issues

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Valerie Harper, gay news, Washington Blade
Valerie Harper (Photo public domain)

There’s nothing worse than losing your BFF. Especially, when your best friend was family to you.

That’s how so many of us felt when Valerie Harper, the Emmy Award-winning actress and queer icon, died on Aug. 30 at age 80 from cancer.  

We have loved Harper since she first appeared as the irresistible life force Rhoda Morgenstern on the iconic sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Harper won four Emmys for bringing Rhoda vividly to life for nine years: in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977), then in her own show “Rhoda” (1974-1978).    

There’s our biological family. And the family that we choose. Rhoda is part of our fictional family – the characters who we love as much as our real life fam.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s” lead character was Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), the good-looking, perfectly coiffed, Midwestern, associate news producer at WJM, a (fictional) Minneapolis TV station. But, the series’ most lovable, fun character was Mary’s BFF Rhoda.

At the height of second wave feminism, we admired Mary, the groundbreaking career woman. Yet, especially, if we were gay and/or women, we knew we were more prone to be struck by lightning than to ever be like Mary Richards.

We identified with Rhoda, the Jewish, wisecracking (Bronx native) New Yorker with weight issues, who’s landed in Minneapolis.  A department store window dresser, she struggles to get a date and fights for every break. Rhoda, like us, is an outsider – often a fish out of water.  Like generations of queer folk, she uses, often impolite, humor to cope with insecurity and to puncture pretensions and stand her ground.

This was clear from the get-go. Mary is moving into her Minneapolis apartment. Rhoda, believing the apartment belongs to her, says to Mary, “Hello! Get out of my apartment!”

Yet, Rhoda’s humor though at times sardonic, wasn’t cruel. Rhoda was frank, sometimes even blunt, but not judgey. This came through beautifully in the Jan. 12, 1973 episode (“My Brother’s Keeper”) of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” featuring Cloris Leachman as Mary’s eccentric, busybody friend Phyllis. (Phyllis loathes Rhoda.)

Phyllis’s brother Ben’s in town and he’s been spending lots of time with Rhoda . She’s dismayed to think that they might wed. “I’m not going to marry Ben,” Rhoda tells Phyllis, “he’s not my type.”

“Why not?” asks Phyllis, “he’s educated, he’s successful…”

“He’s gay,” Rhoda says.

I still remember watching this with friends. We nearly jumped off the couch with delight.  We were still coming out to ourselves. At the time, the American Psychiatric Association still considered homosexuality to be a mental disorder.

Yet, here on a hit TV sitcom, was Rhoda saying (with no judgement, pity or gay slur-based humor ) someone was gay. (The joke was on Phyllis who, on hearing that Ben can’t marry Rhoda because he’s queer, says, “I’m so relieved!”)             

Harper’s career encompassed much more than Rhoda. She got her start in such musicals as “Subways Are for Sleeping” and acquired her comedy chops through her work with Second City and Story Theatre. After “Rhoda” ended its run, Harper went on to do other things from  movies such as “Chapter Two” to the short-lived sit-com “The City.”

A theater actress at heart, she starred in two one-woman shows — “All Under Heaven” about novelist Pearl S. Buck and “Golda’s Balcony” about Golda Meir. Harper was nominated for a Tony for her 2010 performance as Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo’s play “Looped.”

Her performance as Tallulah was memorable. When a friend and I saw “Looped,” we felt as if we were seeing not Harper, but Tallulah herself.

Yet, in 2012, Harper told the TV show “The Doctors” that her favorite career moment was when she, as Rhoda, said Phyllis’ brother was gay. “I loved doing that episode,” she said.

Though straight (she is survived by her husband and her daughter), Harper had a special connection with the queer community. She was grand marshal of the 2009 Capital Pride Parade in D.C. In her memoir “I, Rhoda,” she wrote that her mother, who’d been a nurse in San Francisco, had gay friends. She called them, Harper said, “my lavender boys.”

Harper used her celebrity to fight for justice. She worked for numerous causes and organizations – from the Equal Rights Amendment to rape treatment centers to combating hunger.

Thankfully, Rhoda – cracking wise, cutting to the chase, compassionate, but not sappy – will be with us forever. RIP, Valerie!

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Opinions

Trans people still face uphill battle in finding employment

We must combat transphobia in the workplace

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Transgender people face a major crisis and have faced this crisis for a long time: not being able to find meaningful employment. This is nothing new to think about or say. Trans people have historically been unemployed since the beginning of time.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, trans workers experience unemployment at twice the rate of the normal population (14% versus 7%). Moreover, 44% of trans people who are currently working are underemployed. Lastly, according to this project, trans people are about four times more likely than the average population to have a household income of under $10,000. These numbers are alarming and should be studied closely.

There are many reasons why employers hire fewer trans workers. For one, trans people who don’t fully pass as the gender they want — and nonbinary people — don’t fit the traditional mold of someone who companies want in their office. Most companies prefer to have individuals who either look rigidly male or rigidly female, and don’t want workers who look somewhere in between.

Secondly, employers might be conscious of the fact that trans people face mental health challenges, such as a suicide rate of around 50%, and are at risk for greater depression, anxiety, and other issues. Our mental health problems might get in the way of work, or cause us to take more leave than others.

Thirdly, many company recruiters might just straightforwardly be transphobic, and view the trans population as strange, weird, or, at worst ugly — as if we are people to look down upon and not people to uphold. They might not recruit us out of a pure disdain for our identity and willingness to change genders.

Fourthly, recruiters might realize that current employees in their company are transphobic and would not get along with a trans employee. This leads them to avoid recruiting trans people out of the intention of keeping their office space rid of debate and interpersonal conflict.

There are many other reasons why companies don’t hire trans people, too many reasons for me to consider or explore. Maybe companies feel that trans people are historically undereducated, and poor to begin with, and will have a hard time acclimating to prestigious white collar work environments.

Either way, the unemployment crisis in the trans population has been going on for a quite a while, and needs to be addressed.

Luckily, trans people find some outlets for success in certain industries. The nonprofit industry has been relatively kind to trans folk, as have creative communities, like some parts of the music industry, and the visual arts industry. Filmmakers are constantly looking for a new story about trans people. The publishing and education industries are also somewhat kind to us.

Certain Democratic political campaigns will also hire us and other progressive and liberal causes. But there are still many industries that look down upon us, and frown upon our identity. Donald Trump instituted a transgender military ban, and the Army, Navy, and other branches have historically been transphobic places to work and reside in.

Overall, trans people face a steep uphill battle in finding adequate and meaningful employment. This is a crisis that has been going on for decades. I’m not sure how to fix this problem – both states and the federal government can surely implement more legislation that convinces companies to hire trans people just as equally as they would hire anyone else. More provisions need to be put in place to sue companies for firing a trans person just solely based on their gender identity.

Ensuring employment for all gender nonconforming folk will make our lives infinitely better, and ensuring that we don’t face transphobia in the workplace will make them even better as well.

Isaac Amend is a writer based in the D.C. area. With two poetry books out, he writes for the Blade and the Yale Daily News. He is a transgender man and was featured in National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution.’ He serves on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Contact him at [email protected] or on Instagram at: @literatipapi.

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Trump and his MAGA cult just got scarier

GOP platform, selection of Vance reinforce his extremism

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) attend the Republican National Convention last night. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump and his MAGA cult getting scarier, but they just did with his naming of Ohio Sen. JD Vance as his running mate, and approval of the GOP platform.

When Trump was shot, Vance said, “Today is not just some isolated incident. The central premise of the Biden campaign is that President Donald Trump is an authoritarian fascist who must be stopped at all costs. That rhetoric led directly to President Trump’s attempted assassination.” In essence, because Biden told the truth, it’s his fault. Vance is a radical MAGA Republican.

Then the platform was passed on the first day of the Republican National Convention. It protects white Christians, attacks transgender people, and says states can make any anti-abortion laws they want. It is an agenda that will hurt everyone who isn’t white, straight, and Christian.

Then, on the same day, the Trump classified documents case was dismissed by MAGA judge Aileen Cannon. The only thing good one can say about Judge Cannon dismissing this case, for a reason all legitimate legal scholars say is nonsense, is she proves beyond a doubt she is in Trump’s pocket. While I am sure this will eventually be overturned, the only way to ensure it gets tried is to defeat Trump, and all his sycophants, at the polls. Between the Republican Supreme Court, and unqualified judges like Cannon, the country must understand what re-electing Trump would do in the long run. It will destroy our democracy, including our judicial system.

The time for decent, democracy-loving people, to stand up is now, before it is too late. I am reminded of history when the German people believed Hitler could be dealt with, and they didn’t believe what he said he would do. Many Jews, and members of the LGBTQ community, believed they could get by and survive him. They were wrong. Here in America Trump has already proven he will go after women, and the LGBTQ community. He brought out troops to shut down Black Lives Matter protests. He has pledged to deport millions of immigrants, and make life intolerable for the young as he denies climate change. He asked to be bribed by oil executives so they can drill for more oil. The only way you could be OK is if you are white and rich. He will give you more tax deductions. He threatens more widespread tariffs, which will increase inflation, falling heavily on the poor and middle class.

His advisers are pledged to enact Project 2025, which among other things, does away with the Federal Deposit Insurance Program, so your bank accounts will no longer be insured. He commits to getting rid of the Department of Education. He doesn’t support relief for any college debt, and will continue the absurdity of not allowing college debt to be included in a bankruptcy, all things that will make life even more difficult for young people. Believe it will happen, just believe what Trump and his acolytes say. Read Project 2025 and believe what you are reading. Believe when Trump says he will be a dictator, and use federal agencies to get back at his enemies. And you are the enemy if you are not white, Christian, and straight. Remember when Trump was president, you woke up every morning afraid of what he dreamt up during the night. Those rantings will now appear on Truth Social, his media company, each morning.

He will feel free to call out the troops to the border, or to stop any demonstration he doesn’t like. He admires Hitler and Putin, and wants to be like them. Does reading this scare you? Good, it should, as it’s the truth. Even if you only think half of what I write is the truth, that should be enough to frighten you away from Trump and Vance. His appointed Supreme Court has now given the president carte blanche to do as he pleases, without worrying about ever being held to account. Know that Trump will use all that power, and make our lives hell.

If you don’t feel attacked now, just remember a poem written by German clergyman, Martin Niemoller. Its idea is appropriate today. It reads: “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Hurricane Beryl: The need for an LGBTQ-inclusive disaster response in the Caribbean

Category 5 storm devastated southern Windward Islands, Jamaica

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Hurricane Beryl damage on Union Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (Screen capture via Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation/YouTube)

Editor’s note: Outright International has allowed the Washington Blade to republish this op-ed from its website.

On the heels of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States held in Antigua and Barbuda in May 2024, Caribbean countries are confronted with a historic event. Described as the earliest Category 5 hurricane to develop in the Atlantic, Hurricane Beryl tore through the Caribbean during the first week of July 2024. Hurricane Beryl caused catastrophic damage in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, and Jamaica, as well as varying degrees of damage in St. Lucia and Barbados. Hurricane Beryl follows an increased number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the region, the most recent being Category 4 Hurricane Ian (2022), Category 5 Hurricane Dorian (2019), Category 5 Hurricane Maria (2017), and Category 5 Hurricane Irma (2017), and Category 5 Hurricane Matthew (2016). These hurricanes resulted in the loss of lives, displacement, disruption in livelihoods, destruction of vegetation and infrastructure, uninhabitable areas, and grave economic loss. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in the Caribbean, climate-related disasters exacerbate the vulnerabilities and pre-existing inequalities that they face.

Survival and viability of Caribbean islands threatened

Caribbean countries are experiencing the effects of climate change (Caribbean Community Climate Change Center, 2021). Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the region by 25-30 percent (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2018). As indicated by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, Category 4 and 5 hurricanes cause the most devastating impacts. The “increased frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events,” as evidence of the “rapid and adverse impacts of climate change,” represent the “greatest threats to the survival and viability” of small island states in the Caribbean (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2018, p. 83United Nations Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States, 2024, para 27.)

USD billion in damages

The financial toll of these disasters is distressing. The International Monetary Fund highlights that the Caribbean is “the most exposed region to climate-related natural disasters, with estimated adaptation investment needs of more than $100 billion, equal to about one-third of its annual economic output” (IMF, 2023). Despite this vulnerability, the Caribbean receives minimal private climate financing (IMF, 2023). The Caribbean has the highest average estimated disaster damage as a ratio to GDP globally, with some instances of damage exceeding the size of the economy (IMF, 2018). For example, Hurricane Maria resulted in $1.2 billion in damages to Dominica, totaling 226 percent of GDP (IMF, 2021). Hurricane Dorian resulted in $3.4 billion in damages to the Bahamas (estimated at 25-30 percent of GDP) (Inter-American Development Bank and Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2022).

LGBTQ people are among those who are disproportionately impacted

LGBTQ people in the Caribbean continue to struggle with an unrealized vision of equality (Myrie, 2024). They are among the most marginalized in the region. They often experience discriminationeconomic and societal exclusionviolence, and the threat of violence, mainly due to the criminalization of same-sex sexual relations and the stigma associated with being LGBTQ. 

As a consequence of Hurricane Beryl, affected LGBTQ people in the Caribbean face increased housing and food insecurity, disruption in economic livelihoods, reduced access to community support structures, and increased exposure to harassment and violence. Recognizing the exacerbated vulnerabilities of LGBTQ people does not mean that they are at a greater risk of experiencing climate-related disasters. Rather, it is about appreciating that “in times of crisis those most marginalized tend to suffer disproportionately compared to the broader population” (Outright International, 2020). Further, where societal discrimination is strong, LGBTIQ people may have to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity to remain safe, making their suffering invisible to those providing assistance (Outright International, 2024). 

In the post-disaster context, LGBTQ people in the Caribbean may experience “discrimination in accessing emergency and social protection services and in emergency shelters” and “challenges integrating into their communities and earning a livelihood” (UN Women Caribbean, 2022). In the Bahamas, for example, post-Hurricane Dorian, some displaced LGBTQ persons were reluctant to stay in shelters for fear of violence. For those with sufficient resources, Hurricane Dorian was a catalyst for them to migrate (Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 2020). 

In Haiti, LGBTQ people grappled with a heightened sense of insecurity during and after the 2010 earthquake. They reported being blamed for the earthquake and were at an increased risk of harassment and violence (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and SEROvie, 2011). Lesbians and bisexual women reported incidences of sexual violence and corrective rape, while gay and transgender men reported harassment and denial of access to healthcare, housing and food (IGLHRC and SEROvie, 2011). Affected LGBTQ persons shared that the earthquake “decimated the already limited physical spaces, social networks and support services available to them” (IGLHRC and SEROvie, 2011). 

Although LGBTQ people in the Caribbean tend to be disproportionately impacted in the response to their “recovery, reconstruction and livelihood needs and experience “poor recovery outcomes,” they are “largely absent from climate and mobility strategies in the Caribbean” (Bleeker et al., 2021).

Meaningful inclusion of LGBTQ people is necessary for an effective and equitable disaster response

International, regional, and local stakeholders must secure the meaningful inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Caribbean for an effective and equitable disaster response. This can be achieved by ensuring that LGBTQ people actively contribute to the planning processes and are engaged in all stages of the disaster management cycle. Meaningful inclusion allows for the full appreciation of the unique vulnerabilities of those affected and is critical for humanitarian actors to respond to their needs effectively. There must also be adequate safeguards to eliminate increased security risks and protect against discrimination, particularly in the provision of services and the distribution of resources. 

Finally, “to ensure that the humanitarian sector does not reinforce or generate new forms of discrimination and harm, humanitarian actors must approach relationship-building with LGBTIQ organizations with sensitivity and commitment to safety, security, and confidentiality,” centering local knowledge and the voices of those most in need of life-saving assistance (Outright International, 2024).

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