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Nonbinary physician fights COVID-19 without legal protections

LGBTQ healthcare workers are stepping up, saving lives

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LGBTQ physicians, nonbinary medical professionals, gay news, Washington Blade
Dr. Ly Pham is a queer nonbinary doctor working in Louisiana without legal protections. (Photo courtesy Pham)

Dr. Scott Nass and Dr. Ly Pham are LGBTQ physicians on the front lines of the pandemic fight, but only one is protected from workplace discrimination. While Nass is fortunate to be a gay cisgender man practicing in California, Pham is a queer nonbinary doctor working in Louisiana without legal protections.

“Shreveport is a level one trauma center similar to Baltimore,” said Pham who uses singular they pronouns. “The hospital was fairly busy before COVID [but the pandemic] added another layer of stress and anxiety.”

Adding to Pham’s stress is the feeling that LGBTQ people are tolerated but not fully accepted into the larger Shreveport community. While HRC reports both Shreveport and New Orleans ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Louisiana has had a tumultuous history with attempts to mandate a statewide ban.

“I get misgendered all the time,” Pham said before describing a usual day when they arrive at the hospital around 8 a.m. “Mostly by patients coming in and some coworkers. But I’m here to treat the patients and not educate them because they’re in a crisis right now and need to be treated and admitted to the hospital.”

Pham says they allow their patients to interact with them in a way that is emotionally damaging because they feel harms need to be triaged during a crisis. Louisiana governors have sought remedies to this preventable situation.

However, in 2018 the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down Gov. John Bel Edwards’ (D) executive order protecting LGBTQ state employees and contractors from workplace discrimination, according to a report by The Advocate.

The resulting tally from Freedom for All Americans shows Louisiana is one of 28 states where an LGBTQ worker, including essential medical personnel during a global health crisis, can legally be fired or face other negative action on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The case of healthcare workers helps illustrate why it is in everyone’s interest that people are able to work regardless of factors that have nothing to do with their ability to do the job,” said Jon Davidson, Freedom for All Americans Chief Counsel. He is also an LGBTQ attorney who attended the Supreme Court arguments on this issue. “I hope the court sees this is not just important to the employees affected, but for society as a whole.”

But not every state will be equally impacted by the ruling.

Davidson explains a Supreme Court ruling on the Bostock v. Clayton County, Altitude Express v. Zarda and Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC cases determining if Title VII protections “on the basis of sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity won’t affect the 22 states that already have LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections.

In April, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law the Virginia Values Act, expanding nondiscrimination protections in his state to include sexual orientation and gender identity and making it the first state in the South with such inclusions.

“We need every healthcare worker possible saving lives,” Davidson emphasized. “So having protections is both important to keep qualified people in their jobs and it is also important that LGBTQ workers not be worried about who might learn they are LGBTQ. If you have to hide your partner [or who you are] because you’re afraid your employer might find out and you might be fired, that’s unacceptable.”

He added it was “just outrageous and cruel” for healthcare workers to endure such uncertainty during a crisis.

HRC, the Movement Advancement Project and other national policy trackers have noted California, where Dr. Nass encountered the initial waves of the deadly virus, has passed a series of increasingly inclusive statewide measures over the years. Their legislative efforts culminated in the recent Gender Nondiscrimination Act in 2011.

As a result, though Nass also finds the pressures of the pandemic to be “incredibly stressful,” he has not faced the added stress of having to conceal his orientation.

“When I’m not working, I am sheltering in place at home with my husband,” Nass said. “A police officer in Los Angeles who is also on the front lines of the pandemic.”

While their lives are at risk, their jobs and identities are not. However, the situation is very different outside of California.

Pham currently shelters-in-place with their fiancee, who uses both female and nonbinary pronouns and identifies as queer in orientation. The couple bought a two-person hammock so they can lie together under the trees and daydream about a future when they can travel. They are also planning their wedding and an eventual move to Los Angeles.

“It’s spring,” Pham said. “And we are appreciating nature and the flowers blooming and a time to slow down.”

But the rest period doesn’t last long for the physician who graduated in the midst of a global crisis. Pham has been out as an LGBTQ person since attending medical school at the University of Texas in San Antonio. Although Texas is another state without LGBTQ-inclusive workplace protections, Pham was able to find mentors who helped them through their personal journey from self-described butch lesbian to nonbinary as well as through their professional journey from student to physician.

Pham details the rest of their current daily routine with almost machine-like precision.

“I park in a parking lot that is gated using my badge,” Pham said. “There I put on my surgical mask that I have in my car. Parking is in the back of the hospital. I walk to the front. There is only one entrance to the hospital. I try to keep six feet from anyone else and I try to see if anyone else is walking toward the entrance.”

“Everyone feels a little more distant than usual,” agrees Nass in less constrained cadence when discussing his own routine, which begins at 6:30 a.m. “And I’ve worked on speaking more with my eyes now that no one can see me smile under the constant masks.”

Pham is a little more reserved beneath their mask as workplace interactions usually lead to misgendering without reasonable recourse, especially during the crisis.

They arrive at a screening station where they answer a hospital worker’s questions and get their temperature checked. When they pass the checkpoint, they get a sticker on their badge.

“Different colors for different days,” Pham explains. “Before I even get to my office, I usually swing by the ground floor and pick up my N95 mask and face shield, if I’m seeing COVID patients.”

But Pham admits it’s hard to know which patients are COVID positive, so they wear an N95 mask whenever they see patients. They also wipe down their keyboard, desk, chair, mouse, phone — everything in their work area.

Nass may be fortunate when it comes to workplace protections, but his personal equipment seems a little less protective than Pham’s, who works in a larger hospital and more closely with COVID patients.

“I stop at the front desk of the hospital to get an ear-loop mask,” Nass explains. “Not the most protective kind, but those are kept even more securely in particular patient areas.”

Nass notes “on administrative days” he doesn’t usually see much of anyone as access into the office space has been limited to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

“I am not assigned to take care of confirmed COVID-19 patients in one of the two units we’ve designated for that,” he said. “But we have started to treat every patient, and each other, as though we may be carrying the virus.”

And this may be sound advice, though reminiscent of the early stages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In March, when PPE distributions were no match for the steady influx of patients in New York City, Kious Kelly, a gay nurse working at Mount Sinai hospital, contracted COVID-19 and died from it.

Kelly’s sister, Marya Patrice Sherron, told BuzzFeed News of a homophobic comment posted to a GoFundMe page set up to help with funeral expenses.

“It was a very, very, very hateful and insensitive comment suggesting that [his death] didn’t matter because he was a gay male.”

Pham faces similar insensitivity from nonbinary erasure even as they struggle to save lives during the crisis.

Pham’s hospital has a dedicated COVID team where they work when they are on call. Pham said in the beginning stages of the crisis it took a week to get test results back so they weren’t certain who was infected and who wasn’t. Now, with better testing, the turnaround has been 24 hours or less.

“We know definitively if they are positive or negative faster, instead of just suspecting that they are,” Pham said. “It helps us triage better.”

Pham also said this is safer for the medical staff since many of the infected are asymptomatic. As a result, everyone is tested regardless of symptoms.

“We stress the importance of social distancing because you don’t know who could test COVID positive and they could be spreading it around unknowingly,” Pham said.

At the end of their shift, Pham removes their gear by following the guidance of a hospital instructional video. They then wipe down their shield with hospital-grade wipes and they toss the mask if it has been visibly soiled.

After cleaning themselves and their workstation again, they wear a surgical mask down to their car. They then clean themselves and the interior of their car with alcohol again. When they get home, they keep a six feet distance from their fiancee and toss their clothes into the washing machine before jumping into the shower.

When it is safe, the two of them can finally relax together and reconnect by cooking, watching Netflix or daydreaming in their shared hammock.

Nass similarly ends his day with a trip to the washing machine and shower before collapsing on the couch with his husband and Boston Terrier. In the hour or two before he falls asleep he catches up on “The Magicians” or “Schitt’s Creek.”

“Sometimes I eat dinner,” he said in a rare consideration of his own health.

“LGBTQ healthcare workers are stepping up to save lives in this crisis,” said Hector Vargas, the executive director of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, an LGBTQ medical professionals advocacy organization. “It’s long past time we step up for them to make sure they’re protected under the eyes of the law.”

Dr. Scott Nass is a gay cisgender man practicing in California. (Photo courtesy Nass)
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Movies

Celebrate Judy Garland’s centennial by watching her movies

The dazzling force of nature made 34 films

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‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ is one of Judy Garland’s iconic film roles.

When the world ends, aficionados will still be watching their favorite Judy Garland movies.

Queer icon Garland was born 100 years ago this year (on June 10, 1922).

Everyone knows how tragic much of Garland’s life was. MGM feeding her uppers and downers when she was a child. Bad luck with husbands. Getting fired from movies because of her addiction issues. Her death at age 47.

You can’t deny that Garland’s life was often a mess. Yet, it’s too easy to encase Garland into a box of victimhood.

Contrary to the misperception of her as a sad figure, Garland wasn’t a morbid person. She was a fabulous comedian and clown, John Fricke, author of “The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic,” told the Blade in 2019. Lucille Ball said Garland was the funniest woman in Hollywood, Fricke said. “‘She made me look like a mortician,’ Lucy said,” he added.

In the midst of the sentimentality and morbidity shrouding her legacy, you can readily forget Garland’s prodigious talent and productivity.

Garland was a consummate, multi-faceted, out-of-this-world talented performer. She (deservedly) received more awards than most performers would even dream of: two Grammy Awards for her album “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” a special Tony for her long-running concert at the Palace Theatre and a special Academy Juvenile Award. Garland was nominated for an Emmy for her TV series “The Judy Garland Show” and for Best Supporting Oscar for her performance in “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Garland, a dazzling, force of nature on screen, made 34 films. There’s no better way to celebrate Garland’s centennial than to watch her movies.

Garland was renowned for connecting so intimately with audiences when she sang. She’s remembered for her legendary musicals — from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Meet Me in St. Louis” to “A Star is Born.”

But if you watch, or re-watch, her movies, you’ll see that Garland wasn’t just a singer who sang songs, and sometimes danced, in production numbers in movie musicals.

Garland was a talented actor. She wasn’t appearing on screen as herself – Judy Garland singing to her fans.

Whether she’s tearing at your heartstrings as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” performing brilliant physical comedy with Gene Kelly in the “The Pirate,” breaking your heart with “The Man that Got Away” in “A Star is Born” or unrecognizable as Irene Hoffmann in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” Garland is acting. Her performance etches these characters onto your DNA.

Picking Garland’s best movies is like deciding which five of your 20 puppies should go on an outing. But, if you’re cast away on a desert island, take these Garland movies with you:

“Meet Me in St. Louis”: This luminous 1944 musical, directed by Vincente Minnelli, has it all: Garland in top form, the Trolley song, Margaret O’Brien, along with a stellar cast, and the best Christmas song ever.

“The Clock”: This 1945 movie, also directed by Minnelli, showcases Garland as a gifted dramatic actress. Shot in stunning black-and-white near the end of World-War II, the movie is the story, set in New York City, of a young woman (Garland) and a soldier on leave (Robert Walker) who fall in love.

“Easter Parade”: Sure, this 1948 picture, directed by Charles Walters, is thought of as a light musical by some. But, who cares? It’s in Technicolor, and Judy’s in peak form – dancing with Fred Astaire.

“A Star is Born”: If you don’t know the story of this 1954 film, directed by George Cukor, starring Garland and James Mason, you’re not a member of queer nation. There have been other versions of “A Star is Born,” some quite good, but this is still the best. Garland should have gotten an Oscar for this one.

“Judgment at Nuremberg”: This 1961 film, directed by Stanley Kramer, will never be a date night movie. It’s long (3 hours, 6 minutes), grim (about Nazi crimes) and Garland is only in it for about seven minutes. But the story is gripping and Garland’s performance is mesmerizing. When you watch her as Irene, you won’t be thinking that’s Judy Garland.

Happy centennial, Judy! 

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Books

New ACT UP book is part history, part memoir

‘Boy with the Bullhorn’ chronicles hard work, grief, anger

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(Book cover image courtesy of Fordham University Press)

‘Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York’ 
By Ron Goldberg
c.2022/ Fordham University Press
$36.95/512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old… scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign?

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting, which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness. And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but if you have patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Movies

A fine ‘Bro’-mance

Eichner, Macfarlane performances essential to movie’s appeal

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Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner star in ‘Bros.’ (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that “Bros” is a history-making milestone for LGBTQ representation in the movies — the first gay romantic comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio, written by an openly gay man (Billy Eichner) who also stars in it – and that it was made with queer talent filling virtually every role, both on camera and off. The “Billy on the Street” writer/comedian/actor, true to his brand, has been loud-and-proud about his efforts to foster authenticity and inclusivity throughout the making of his film, and rightly so.

Still, now that his much-anticipated movie is finally out, we can finally stop talking about all that. After all, even when a movie scores as many points for LGBTQ representation as this one does, what really matters is whether or not it’s actually any good.

When Eichner was tapped to make his film for Universal, many may have assumed it would be a showcase for his signature comedic persona — acerbic but disarmingly funny, more than a touch manic, somehow confrontational, defiant, and self-deprecating all at the same time — that would also poke fun at a heteronormative genre beloved just as often by its queer fans for its camp value as for anything else. This expectation seemed all but confirmed when Eichner announced the casting of actor Luke Macfarlane – known for playing handsome hunks in the very romcoms his movie would presumably be sending up – as his love interest.

As it happens, those assumptions were not entirely wrong. “Bros” is unabashedly autobiographical in tone, presenting Eichner essentially as an alternative version of himself if he had been a queer history scholar and author instead of a poly-hyphenate show biz celebrity; his character, Bobby Lieber, has even got a podcast, allowing him to voice the kind of take-no-prisoners witticisms and shrewdly queer observations about life and culture for which both versions of himself have become famous. 

While at a launch event for a new dating app, Bobby meets Aaron (Macfarlane), who – as one of the crowd of shirtless gay scenesters he’s used to being ignored by, he assumes is shallow, not too bright, and not into him at all. It turns out he’s wrong on all counts, and the two men soon find themselves drawn into a relationship, despite some serious issues around commitment and the fact that they seem to have nothing in common.

All of this is a perfect match for Eichner’s comic sensibilities – he’s built his image on calling out society for the absurdity of its assumptions, the illogic of its priorities, the depth of its shallowness, and “Bros” gives him plenty of opportunity to do exactly that, as well as plenty of fodder for his usual zingers and pop-culture references. It’s very much the kind of savagely iconoclastic spoof we would expect from its creator, making fun of social conventions (both gay and straight) and lampooning everything from awards-show stunt fashion to celebrity athletes coming out of the closet to “Dear Evan Hansen” — but it’s not nearly as scattershot as it sometimes feels. There’s a method to Eichner’s madness, and it hinges on reminding us that we are all, from a certain perspective, utterly ridiculous.

If that were all that “Bros” accomplished, it would be enough, but it gives us so much more. Not content to simply settle into familiar territory, he sets his sights on rising to the level of the romance classics he boldly references throughout, from “When Harry Met Sally” to “You’ve Got Mail” to “Manhattan.” With the help of director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, whose sure-handed cinematic sensibility allows the star’s broadly satirical strokes and flights of absurdist fancy to flourish while still remaining grounded, he succeeds.

In large part, this is because Eichner’s screenplay doesn’t fall into the trap of being governed by the same tropes and expectations it makes fun of. Instead, it undermines them to take us further; unlike many romances, this one goes past the feel-good “falling in love” stuff and explores what it’s like for two adult men to build a relationship that works. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that’s not an easy or comfortable process, especially for a generation that came of age under the lingering shadow of widespread homophobia, but “Bros” is willing to go there – and because of that, its seemingly mismatched and dysfunctional lead couple are infinitely more relatable.

That doesn’t mean Eichner and Stoller ever allow their movie to become a “bummer.” Things might get a little messy from time to time, but what relationship doesn’t? By choosing to give “Bros” the kind of maturity that’s able to weather the storm, they’ve built something deeper and more lasting – the kind of movie that’s worthy of setting a few milestones – without sacrificing any of the comedy. And despite the cynical pose that’s always been at the heart of Eichner’s persona, they’re not afraid to let it get a little sappy, too.

As for its two stars, Eichner and Macfarlane’s performances are essential elements in the movie’s winning appeal. It’s perhaps not too surprising that Eichner, who’s been able to show us hints of his wider range before, rises to the occasion for his debut as a leading man; it’s the kind of work with the potential to elevate him into a whole new echelon of talent. A greater revelation is Macfarlane, who dives way below the pretty surface of Aaron to deliver a braver and more vulnerable performance than anyone might have expected. Together, the two actors find an easy and affectionate chemistry that is not only believable but makes it easy for real-life couples to recognize themselves in their relationship. They front a superb cast that includes Monica Raymund, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Guillermo Díaz, Amanda Bearse, Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Bowen Yang, and Jai Rodriguez, not to mention a host of queer and queer-friendly celebrity cameos from Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Amy Schumer, among several others.

It would be easy to go into detail about the many things that make “Bros” stand out as a piece of “queer cinema” — the way it weaves educational tidbits about LGBTQ history into the story as a tongue-in-cheek primer for straight viewers, or the sex-positive attitude with which it boldly and playfully depicts gay love-making, or its assertion of the differences instead of the similarities between same-sex relationships and straight ones — but it’s better to let viewers discover these things for themselves, along with all the movie’s other pleasures. We don’t want to give any more away, though we will tell you to watch for a scene-stealing turn by Debra Messing, who seems to be having the time of her life.

Other than that, all you need to know is that “Bros” lives up to its hype to become one of the smartest, sexiest, and yes, sweetest comedies of the year so far – the kind of rom-com that’s good enough to recommend even for people who don’t like rom-coms. 

And yes, it sets a lot of LGBTQ milestones, but don’t see it because of that. See it because it’s good.

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