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John Robert Lewis, the ‘Boy from Troy’

His fight for civil rights included LGBTQ Americans

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John Lewis, United States House of Representatives, U.S. Congress, Georgia, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade
John Robert Lewis, United States House of Representatives, U.S. Congress, Georgia, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

We remember John Robert Lewis who died on July 17 at the age of 80 as an icon of the civil rights movement. A congressman who Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others have called the ‘moral conscience’ of the United States Congress.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who gave him the nickname, “The boy from Troy.” Lewis said when he first met him: “Dr. King said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’ And I said, ‘I am John Robert Lewis,’ I gave my whole name. And he still called me ‘the boy from Troy.’” 

That was 63 years ago in Montgomery, Ala., at King’s First Baptist Church. Over the years we know how much John Lewis did to further the rights of African Americans in this country. He was president of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He wanted to motivate other young people like himself to get involved in the fight for civil rights. But he, like King, tried to make it a non-violent fight. When riots erupted like the one at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, it was others who started those riots. John Lewis did nothing but try to walk across that bridge to demand his rights when he was nearly beaten to death on what became known as Bloody Sunday. He always said that when he got into trouble it was ‘good trouble.’ Edmund Pettus, whom the bridge was named after, was head of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and a U.S. senator. He was honored for his role in supporting slavery and racism. Because of that there is a movement today to rename the bridge. One suggestion is to name it the John Robert Lewis Bridge.

In the six days of remembrances planned for Congressman Lewis, the changes he and those who fought in the civil rights movement made can be plainly seen. He is being accompanied on his last trip over the Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers whose predecessors were the ones who nearly beat him to death on Bloody Sunday. His body will be taken to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery where he will lie in state. His body will be met and welcomed by Gov. Kay Ivey in the place where in 1963 after being elected governor George Wallace stood and said in his inaugural address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Lewis was an amazing man who lived many lives in his 80 years. From his humble beginnings, his parents were sharecroppers in Troy, Ala., to the heights of power and respect in the United States Congress. In his lifetime he witnessed the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He saw the Supreme Court issue its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. He saw the nation slowly move forward on the promise of equal protection under the law promised in our founding documents. But he always knew there was much more to do. Then he saw the nation elect Donald Trump, a racist, who made racist statements and gave tacit permission for others to do the same.

In his last days he saw the shooting of George Floyd and the strengthening of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the last things he witnessed was the spectacle of a president using federal troops to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters in front of the White House, which must have brought his thoughts back to Bloody Sunday. Then shortly before his death he stood with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Black Lives Matter Plaza.

He knew what he had accomplished and surely he trusted the next John Lewis’s, whoever they would be, to continue the fight for full equality, a fight he made for all people including women and the LGBTQ community. I am sure John Lewis felt confident there are young men and women who will take the torch he passed to them and lead the way to a better future for all.

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

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Opinion | LGBTQ Virginians advocate D.C. statehood

The right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society

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My hometown will always be Washington, D.C. It’s the place where I was born and spent all of the first seven days of my life. As a lifelong Virginian however, where I live and attended schools, I straddle two communities important to me. 

As a business owner of 30 years in Washington, D.C., I pay many of my taxes and payroll taxes to the Nation’s Capital while I also pay income tax to Virginia where I’m a citizen.

Most important of all, as a gay Virginia voter, I can think of few lifelong political goals more important to me than achieving statehood for Washington, D.C. One of the compelling reasons I still make my home in Virginia and cross the Potomac River every day of my life, is because of my right as a Virginian to vote for two U.S. senators and for a member of the House of Representatives with the power to vote in Congress.

(It is still shocking to know that, with Washington, D.C. statehood still beyond grasp, the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton who represents D.C. in the U.S. House of Representatives, has never yet had the authority to vote on the floor of the House.)

At an early age, I was dumbfounded to know that D.C. then did not even have a local government. We lacked an elected mayor and city council, with almost all decisions for the District of Columbia made by the federal government. Yet today, even with a mayor and local government in place, it is breathtaking to know that my friends, neighbors and co-workers still have zero voice in the Capitol and no one to vote for them – and for us – in Congress.

Consider that one of the world’s most diverse and educated cities has so often been bullied by extreme conservative leaders on Capitol Hill who – whenever possible – turn back the clock for D.C. citizens on voting rights, abortion rights, gun measures and our civil rights including LGBTQ equality. Not a single voter in D.C. has much, if any, say over any of those decisions.

The absence of statehood and the lack of real voting rights means that the unforgivable strains of racism and homophobia often held sway not just for Washington D.C., but in denying the United States a true progressive majority on Capitol Hill too. 

Virginians get it. In the past decade, we’ve worked very hard in every county and city in the commonwealth to turn our regressive political past into a bright blue political majority. We have elected LGBTQ candidates to state and local offices in unprecedented numbers. Our vote is our power.

More significantly, through the work of Equality Virginia and its many allies, we are repealing scores of anti-LGBTQ measures and reforming our statutes and constitution to secure equal rights as LGBTQ voters, adoptive parents, married couples, students, and citizens. Doesn’t Washington, D.C. deserve that future?

Virginia needs more states – like D.C. – to join forces and represent all Americans. To achieve this, and to defeat or neuter the anti-democratic Senate filibuster rule, we need our friends, allies and neighbors, the citizens of Washington, D.C. to share in our democratic ambitions.

Long ago, Washington, D.C. resident, abolitionist and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass declared that “the District is the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people, and by the people. Washington, D.C. residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California or any other state. Washington, D.C. residents have fought and died in every American war just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. The District deserves statehood and Congress should act to grant it.” 

Speaking for LGBTQ Virginians, we agree. Conferring statehood is not a gift nor a blessing from the rest of us, but instead, it is the absolute right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society. As LGBTQ Americans, if we are to pass the Equality Act and other fundamental civil rights measures, we need the State of Washington, D.C. and its voters by our side.

Bob Witeck is a longtime LGBTQ civil rights advocate, entrepreneur, and Virginian, with long roots and longstanding ties to D.C.

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Opinion | Representation matters: The gayest Olympics yet

From one out athlete to more than 160 in just 33 years

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OK, I really want a Tom Daley cardigan. The now gold-medal Olympian told Britain’s The Guardian that he took up crocheting during the pandemic. He even has an Instagram page dedicated to his knit creations, MadeWithLoveByTomDaley. It’s all very adorable; it’s all very Tom Daley. 

All that aside, you’d have to be practically heartless to not feel something when Tom Daley and his diving partner Matty Lee won the gold on Monday in the men’s synchronized 10-meter diving competition, placing just 1.23 points ahead of the Chinese. And then seeing him with tears in his eyes on the podium as “God Save the Queen” played. Later that week, he knitted a little bag featuring the Union Jack to hold and protect his medal. So very wholesome

Daley is certainly one of the highest profile LGBTQ athletes in these games. Besides the diver, the 2020 Summer Olympics, now in 2021 because of the pandemic, are hosting more than 160 out athletes. A record to be sure, but calling it a record does it somewhat of an injustice. The United States sent the first out athlete to the 1988 Summer Olympics, Robert Dover an equestrian rider competing in dressage. Dover remained the only out (sharing the title once in 1996 with Australian diver Craig Rogerson) for 10 years. Then, during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the number of out athletes jumped to 15. London’s 2012 Olympics saw the number increase to 23. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw the number jump to 68 out athletes. And now we’re at over 160. 

So you get the trend building here. From one out athlete to more than 160. So very far, so very fast. And competing in everything from handball to sailing to golf to skateboarding. Also, noteworthy, New Zealand sent the first trans athlete, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. These are but numbers and names, but to be sure, this sort of representation, this sort of visibility, is hugely important. Not just for athletes coming up behind them, but let’s think too of those out there, not yet even out, maybe watching in their parents’ living room. Seeing Tom Daley thank his husband, mention their son, this sort of queer normality being broadcast as if it is both groundbreaking and at the same time nothing at all — the importance of this cannot be overstated. 

On top of that, growing up gay, how many times were we all told, whether outright or simply implied, that sports were more or less off limits to us. Meant to display the peaks of gender and ability, sports were not meant for those who couldn’t fit neatly into that narrative. But it appears that that narrative is slowly becoming undone. Just look beyond the Olympics, to the wider world of sports. Earlier this summer, pro-football’s Carl Nassib came out.   

And maybe I’m just of a generation that marvels at the destruction of each and every boundary as they come down. We had so very little as far as representation back then. Now to see it all, and in so many different sports, you can’t help but to wonder what the future will hold for us; and it really delights the imagination, doesn’t it? 

It is the gayest Olympics yet. And if the trend laid out above continues, it will only get gayer as the years go on. And if it’s a barometer for anything, I think we will see a lot of things getting a bit gayer from now on.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Opinion | Blame Mayor Bowser for violence epidemic?

In a word, ‘no,’ as the problem is nationwide

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The simple answer to the question “Does the Mayor get the blame for the violence epidemic?” is NO! This is not something that can be laid at any one person’s feet. The epidemic of gun violence is gripping the entire nation. 

The frustration and outrage I and everyone else feels are palpable. It’s frightening when you hear gunshots in your neighborhood. It makes bigger headlines when the shots fired are in neighborhoods not used to that like the recent shooting on 14th and Riggs, N.W. When the shots rang out patrons of upscale restaurants like Le Diplomate ran or ducked under their tables for cover. When shots were fired outside Nationals stadium the national media lit up to report it. The truth is we must have the same outrage every time shots are fired and people hurt or killed in any neighborhood of our city.  

Trying to lay the blame for this at the feet of the mayor, as some people on social media and in opinion and news columns in the Washington Post are doing is wrong. Some would have you believe the mayor is just sitting by and allowing the violence to happen. There are pleas “Mayor Bowser do something!” as if she could wave a magic wand and the shootings will stop. 

In a recent Washington Post column, “Bowser pressed to act after shootings,” a number of Council members are quoted including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 2 member Brooke Pinto, Ward 4 member Janeese Lewis George, At-large member Anita Bonds and Ward 5 member Kenyan McDuffie. They all call for something to be done but not one of them says what they would do. It’s clear they are as frustrated and outraged as the rest of us but have no easy answers. What is clear is casting blame on the mayor and police commissioner won’t help to stop the violence and shootings. 

Again, this epidemic of violence isn’t just an issue for D.C. but a national epidemic. Recently our mayor sat beside the president at a White House meeting called to discuss what can be done about this with mayors and law enforcement officials from around the nation. No one from the president down had an answer that can make it stop right away. Many in D.C. would be surprised at the ranking of the 50 cities with the most violent crime per 100,000 residents showing D.C. with 977 violent crimes per 100,000 residents at number 27 behind cities like Rockford, Ill., Anchorage, Ala., and Milwaukee, Wisc. Crime in nearly all those cities and murder rates have gone up, in many cases dramatically, since the pandemic. 

The solution to ending gun violence is to get the guns out of the hands of those who are using them for crime but that is easy to say and much harder to do. We know ending poverty will make a difference. Giving every child a chance at a better education and ensuring real opportunities for every young person will make a difference. We must also hold people responsible for the serious crimes they commit and often courts are a system of revolving door justice where we find the same people arrested for a serious crime back on the street committing another one and the same gun used for multiple crimes.

There are anti-crime programs that might work but they need buy-in from the entire community including activists and the clergy who must work in concert with our political leadership. D.C. is funding a host of programs including ‘violence disrupters,’ job training, and  mental health and substance abuse programs. They all need more money and more support. 

In D.C., we have only 16 elected officials with real power; the Council, the mayor, the attorney general and our congressional representative. We have community leaders elected to local ANCs. When members of the council attack the mayor, some simply to make political hay for their own future election, it won’t solve any problems. 

This must be viewed as a crisis and our 16 elected leaders should sit down, agree to a series of anti-crime programs and efforts they will adequately fund, and stop attacking each other. Once they agree on the programs to fund they should bring together ANC members from across the city to a meeting at the convention center and work out a plan for what each can do to move us forward to safer neighborhoods. 

We must work together as one if we are to succeed in making life safer and better for all. 

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

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