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My afternoon with Yariel

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River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., on Feb. 1, 2020. Washington Blade contributor Yariel Valdés González, who is in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, is detained at this privately-run facility that is nearly three hours northwest of New Orleans in Louisiana’s rural Concordia Parish. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

FERRIDAY, La. — It was shortly after 1 p.m. on Saturday when a male guard at the River Correctional Center, a privately-run facility in Louisiana’s rural Concordia Parish, brought me into the visitor’s room. I sat down at a long school cafeteria-style table and glanced at the self-empowerment murals that had been painted onto the wall. A couple of minutes later I looked over to a door with a small window in it and saw Yariel, who was wearing a green striped jumpsuit. Another male guard opened the door and Yariel entered the room. Within a couple of seconds, we were hugging each other tightly. I was nearly sobbing, but he assured me it was ok. After a couple of minutes, we sat down at the table — across from each other — and our visit began. I used one of the napkins that I took from a nearby gas station when I stopped there to use the restroom to wipe the tears from my eyes. A couple of minutes later I placed his hands into mine and he began to cry. I gave him one of the gas station napkins to wipe his eyes and tried to comfort him.

“It’s ok to cry,” I assured him.

I hadn’t seen Yariel in person since Jan. 27, 2019. We had spent the day reporting from a lesbian-run migrant shelter in the Mexican border city of Mexicali, and I dropped him off at the small apartment in Tijuana he shared with his father. Yariel and I were almost giddy, in part, because we had sung Lady Gaga songs at the top of our lungs during the two-hour drive from Mexicali to Tijuana. Those carefree moments seem like a lifetime ago.

Yariel on Saturday gave me two presents: A bracelet made from pieces of white and black trash bags and a small shoe made out of Maruchan ramen noodles packages and coffee creamer wrappers that will make a great Christmas tree ornament. We gossiped as friends, as brothers. We talked about Cuba and President Trump’s impeachment trial. I bought him a bottle of Sprite from the room’s vending machine. We also shared a bag of Doritos. A female guard who speaks Spanish was in the room with us. I was initially a bit uneasy to see her writing in a notebook, but after a few minutes I forgot she was there.

The bracelet Yariel gave to Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers during their visit at the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., on Feb. 1, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

At 2:50 p.m. she told us in Spanish that our visit was going to end in 10 minutes. Yariel wanted to give me two manila folders that had his journal entry and other writing from his time in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, but the guard told him I could not take them with me. Yariel had already placed the bracelet around my left wrist and a supervisor told the guard I could bring the ornament with me. I placed them, along with a passport-sized picture of him from the day he arrived at the facility, in my hand. We stood up and hugged each other tightly. I told him that I love him and we then left the room through separate doors. I walked out of the facility’s front door less than five minutes later and was back at my hotel in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner by 6:45 p.m.

It has been nearly a year since Yariel asked for asylum in the U.S. and entered ICE custody. The Washington Blade’s readers know a judge granted Yariel asylum last September. They also know his fate is now in the hands of the Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia because ICE appealed the ruling.

There’s a certain irony in the fact Yariel began to write for the Blade in the fall of 2018, in part, because of the need to have a reporter in Tijuana who could cover the LGBTQ migrants who were arriving in the city with migrant caravans from Central America. The Blade’s reporting on these issues continues, with my most recent trip to Honduras and El Salvador that ended six days before I visited Yariel. This reporting remains as important as ever as the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies continue to place LGBTQ migrants at risk.

It has also become deeply personal.

Yariel interviews a Mexican migrant at a lesbian-run migrant shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, on Jan. 27, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

My husband and I on Friday, hours before I flew to Louisiana, attended a ceremony in Durham, N.C., where our dear friend Marcelo became a U.S. citizen. Marcelo, a dancer for the Carolina Ballet who is originally from Paraguay, worked very hard to reach that moment and we are so incredibly proud of him.

A banner at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Raleigh-Durham Field Office in Durham, N.C., on Jan. 31, 2020. Fifty-seven people became U.S. citizens during one of the swearing-in ceremonies that took place that day. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

One of the more memorable moments of the ceremony was the video in which Trump congratulated Marcelo and the 56 others who had just become U.S. citizens. Not one of them clapped at the end of the video. They, along with the rest of us, know bullshit when they hear it, and we all responded in kind.

These new American citizens, along with Yariel, are exactly the kind of people who will make a positive contribution to this country and make it even better. They deserve our respect and support; not cheap rhetoric based on racism, xenophobia and white supremacy in order to appease a political base ahead of a presidential election.

One of the most heartbreaking parts of my visit with Yariel was when he told me the one thing he wants the most is his freedom that will allow him to begin a new life in the U.S. without fear of persecution. The fight to make Yariel’s dream come true continues. I hope my next trip to Louisiana is to pick him up after the Board of Immigration Appeals upholds his asylum ruling and ICE finally releases him from their custody.

Siempre estaré a tu lado, Yariel.

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Examining the ‘Prejudices’ of Jane Austen

Cancel culture run amok or an honest assessment of author’s biases?

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Recently, I listened to “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen on Audible. Savoring every word, I was transported to 19th century, Regency-era England. Immersed in the world of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy and formal balls, I almost escaped from our troubled 21st century universe. As I sipped tea, racism, transphobia – past and present injustice – slipped from my mind.

Until a headline from The New York Times flashed on my screen: “A Jane Austen Museum Wants to Discuss Slavery. Will Her Fans Listen?”

This Jane Austen fan is listening. Nothing pricks up your ears more than seeing one of your favorite authors (a literary icon, no less) connected with slavery.

Last month, Jane Austen’s House, a museum on the life and work of Jane Austen, said that it would update its displays to include information on Austen’s and her family’s connection to slavery. (The museum in the English village of Chawton, has been only open virtually during the pandemic. It reopens for in-person visitors on May 19.) Austen, who lived from 1775 to 1817, resided in Chawton from 1809 until shortly before she died at age 41.

The exhibits reveal that George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, before he became a pastor, was a trustee of an Antigua sugar plantation. The displays note that Austen and her family, by drinking tea, eating foods with sugar and wearing clothing made of cotton, enjoyed products of the Atlantic slave trade.

Information is included on Austen’s views of abolitionists: Some scholars believe that Austen was against slavery. In 1807, the slave trade ended in the British Empire when King George signed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade into law.

Reaction to the new exhibits was fast and furious, The New York Times reported. “Woke madness,” thundered The Express. The Daily Mail said the museum had launched “a revisionist attack” and a “BLM-inspired interrogation” of Austen’s ritual of imbibing tea.

If you believe these rants, you’d think that Jane Austen’s House was trying to cancel Jane Austen: that we should stop appreciating her work because she drank tea and her family was connected to the slave trade.

Of course, this isn’t the intention of the museum that celebrates Austen’s work. Visitors increasingly ask about Austen and her family’s connection to the slave trade, Jane Austen’s House says in a statement. “It is therefore appropriate that we share the information and research that already exists on her connections to slavery and its mention in her novels,” the museum says.

It’s tempting to dismiss this dust-up as a tempest in a teapot. But that would be wrong.

This controversy calls our attention to one of the pressing issues of our time: How do we examine the prejudices of our icons, and should we cancel them and/or their work?

I’m thinking about two LGBTQ icons: Walt Whitman, born on May 31, 1819, and Adrienne Rich who died on March 27, 2012.

In his poetry, Whitman embraced democracy and inclusion. For his time, he wrote with remarkable openness about sexuality. If you’re queer, you feel represented in his poetry.

Yet, in his later life, Whitman believed racist pseudo scientific claims. He called Black people “baboons” and “wild brutes.”

Few poets are as beloved by the LGBTQ community as poet Adrienne Rich. Her poems have been a lifeline for queer women and gay men.

Yet, Rich advised Janice Raymond, who, in 1979 wrote the transphobic book “The Transsexual Empire.” Raymond wrote that transgender people “colonize feminist identification, culture, politics, and sexuality.”

In the face of racism and transphobia existing side by side with genius, Whitman’s dictum about the self containing multitudes and contradictions rings painfully true.

I’d be lying if I said I had a solution to this muddle.

But if we’ve learned anything since George Floyd’s death, it’s that we all have conscious and unconscious biases. If we cancelled artists who have prejudices from racism to transphobia, what art would be left?

Yet, if we don’t confront our cultural heroes’ prejudices, how will we live with ourselves or work toward justice? What type of art would be created?

I only know: we must live and struggle with these vitally important questions.

 

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

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McAuliffe for governor of Virginia

His leadership has made a positive difference for so many

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Terry McAuliffe, gay news, Washington Blade
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Washington Blade file photo by Lee Whitman)

I support Terry McAuliffe for governor of Virginia. He is the best choice for Virginia Democrats in their primary and has the best chance of defeating any candidate Republicans choose to run against him.

Virginians know and respect him as a successful governor and a decent man. It was clear had Virginia law allowed him to run for a second consecutive term he would have won easily. His stellar record moving the state forward on equal justice and equal opportunity, on civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights make him the right choice.

The first executive order McAuliffe issued upon taking office in 2014 banned anti-LGBTQ discrimination against state employees. McAuliffe vetoed religious freedom bills, created Virginia’s LGBTQ tourism board and became the first Virginia governor to declare June as Pride month. He oversaw the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples in Virginia and as his campaign notes was the first governor of a southern state to officiate a same-sex wedding.

He recently released his platform on LGBTQ rights and in a statement to the Blade said: “LGBTQ+ Virginians have faced discrimination and inequities for too long because of who they are or who they love. I am proud of the progress Virginia has made in protecting the LGBTQ+ community over the past eight years, but our work is far from over. As governor, I will fight my heart out to make Virginia the most open, welcoming and inclusive state in the nation, and break down the disparities that LGBTQ+ communities, and particularly communities of color, face in education, health care, the economy and more. Together, we’ll move Virginia forward into a better, brighter future for all.”

When it comes to women’s rights, as governor, McAuliffe staved off attacks by extreme Republicans who controlled the Virginia Legislature during his tenure. He fought for women’s health care rights and fought to keep open every women’s health clinic in the state. He vetoed legislation that would have harmed women, including a bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood in Virginia.

On civil rights he said one of his proudest accomplishments was being able to reverse a racist Jim Crow law disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Virginians. McAuliffe restored the right to vote to more than 200,000 Virginians with felony convictions allowing them to fully participate in democracy.

He was good for business and during his one term as governor had a record of bringing more than 200,000 good paying jobs to the state and oversaw a lowered unemployment rate and an increase in personal income of over 13%. McAuliffe understood early investments in the state’s infrastructure would help the state to be a national leader in clean energy.

There is some discussion about whether McAuliffe should have stayed out of this race since there are two African-American women running. Some suggest he should have instead supported one of them. But like Joe Biden in his presidential race, McAuliffe has the support of a huge number of African Americans because they know him and many have personal relationships with him. A recent NBC news column quoted some African-American leaders who support McAuliffe. “I asked him to run,” said Virginia Senate President Pro Tempore L. Louise Lucas, a leader of the state’s Black political establishment and a co-chair of McAuliffe’s campaign. She described McAuliffe as a “comfort level” choice in the midst of a pandemic.

State Del. Don Scott, who has a felony in his past said “McAuliffe encouraged him to run for the legislature two years ago at a time when others were counseling him against a campaign. He hasn’t forgotten that favor. He had my back, said Scott, a staunch McAuliffe supporter. He may have thought he was running [for governor in 2021], but nobody else came down here. He put in that work and built those relationships. And if he did that with me imagine the type of relationships he’s been able to build and relationships matter.”

Politics is often about the possible and yes one needs an inflated ego to feel “I am the best person to lead.” But in the case of McAuliffe his successes match his ego. His leadership has made a positive difference for so many people. It is those people who are responding to his candidacy and giving him a huge lead in the polls. They understand why in December 2017, McAuliffe was named “Public Official of the Year” by GOVERNING magazine. Virginians should give McAuliffe a second term.

 

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

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Homophobia wins in the Puerto Rico Senate

Bill to ban conversion therapy died in committee

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

It is a sad day for Puerto Rico, and it is a sad day for human rights on the Caribbean island.

Last Thursday, 11 senators decided to turn their backs on children and human rights in Puerto Rico. A new Senate majority proved to be weak and on the wrong side of history, again. Eight senators from the legislative committee reviewing Senate Bill 184 to ban conversation therapy on the island voted against the bill’s report.

Today, thanks to these senators, any mental health professional can freely charge a father for “curing” his son of homosexuality or of a gender identity/expression that does not conform to social standards of “normality.” Although there has been an executive order in Puerto Rico banning conversation therapy since 2018, this order is only applicable to health institutions that have a specific connection with the government. Executive orders state mandatory requirements for the Executive Branch and have the effect of law; however, any governor can revoke them.

Senators received scientific evidence and several testimonies from LGBTQIA people who testified during public hearings. These senators also received evidence of permanent depression and suicide attempts caused by conversion therapy. However, 11 senators decided to condone hate and the intolerance towards the LGBTQIA youth on the island. One of these senators, Wanda Soto, said during one of the public hearings that “… with love anything is possible … ” in reference to her belief that kids’ sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed or cured. This senator even compared a bad personal experience with a dentist she had when she was a kid with LGBTQIA opponents’ testimonies of their experiences of going through conversion therapy.

Suicide and depression rates among LGBTQIA youth are staggering and are the highest in the entire United States compared to other reasons. These indices are a direct consequence of the intolerance, discrimination and lack of validation that our society perpetuates. LGBTQIA youth go through difficult times in their lives, including personal and family acceptance that trigger years of depression and anxiety among LGBTQIA people.

Today again, hatred wins. Today, Puerto Rico demonstrates why it is the number one jurisdiction for hate crimes in the entire United States. Today again, these 11 senators make evident why gender-based crimes continue to dominate local headlines. Today these senators are an example of the ignorance and lack of cultural competence that persist in our island. Today, these senators will be responsible for the depression and the stigma that the LGBTQIA community will continue to suffer. Today these senators are responsible for perpetuating intolerance. We take a step back as a society, demonstrating again that we cannot tolerate those who are different and who do not meet our standards of normality.

Neither the tears of Gustavo nor Elvin or Caleb, who presented their testimonies before the Puerto Rico Senate, were enough to move the hearts of these senators. The hypocritical hugs and words of support that some senators gave to these LGBTQIA people after their testimony and personally meeting them make it much harder to understand how they turned their backs on our children. Today these 11 senators are responsible for perpetuating hate crimes on the island and make our path to be a more inclusive society even harder.

Homophobia won in the Puerto Rico Senate last Thursday. There was no difference when the pro-statehood Senate majority defeated SB 1000 (banning conversion therapy) back in 2018 and now with a new majority lead by the Popular Democratic Party. Different senators, different bills, same result, but the same homophobia. Many Puerto Rican voters believed that furthering human rights would be easier to achieve on the island with a new majority in the legislature. Unfortunately, the reality is that our legislature is just a mirror of our society, and the lack of cultural competence persists among us. But we will keep fighting; this is a single lost battle, a battle among many others yet to come.

These are the 11 senators who voted against SB 184 or didn’t vote:

  1. Sen. Rubén Soto – Against
  2. Sen. Ramón Ruiz – Against
  3. Sen. Albert Torres – Against
  4. Sen. Ada García – Against
  5. Sen. Wanda Soto – Against
  6. Sen. Marissa Jimenez – Against
  7. Sen. Joanne Rodríguez – Against
  8. Sen. Thomas Rivera – Against
  9. Sen. José L. Dalmau – Absent
  10. Sen. Marially González – Absent
  11. Sen. Javier Aponte – Absent
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