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Ritchie Torres, set to be first out Afro-Latino in Congress, seeks big changes amid COVID

NY-15 primary winner to seek to expand public housing

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Ritchie Torres is set to be the first openly gay Afro-Latino in Congress. (Photo via Twitter)

The coronavirus pandemic has instigated civil unrest, an economic downturn and a public health crisis, but Ritchie Torres sees an opportunity for bold leadership to improve the nation.

Torres, who’s set to make history as the first openly gay Afro-Latino in Congress, said in an interview Sept. 3 with the Washington Blade the pandemic is “not only a challenge, but a historic opportunity to govern as boldly in the 21st century as FDR did in the 20th century.”

“We have a once in a century opportunity to make a massive investment in the United States, on the scale of the New Deal,” Torres said. “We have a once in a century opportunity to fight catastrophic climate change, create the next generation of jobs, enable our economy and society to recover from COVID-19 and build a comprehensive safety net that catches all of us when we fall and fight systemic racism, which has been centuries old. We are living in the makings of an FDR moment.”

Torres is already ruffling feathers in seeking change. After calling for an investigation into the New York Police Department’s apparent slowdown of policing, the Sergeants Benevolent Association colorfully called him a “first class whore,” tweeting out an unrelated 2017 photo of Torres being arrested while participating in a rally against the Trump administration’s cuts to public housing. Torres shot back, calling the attack and choice of language homophobic.

Having defeated Ruben Diaz Sr., one of the few remaining anti-LGBTQ Democrats, in his June primary, Torres will almost assuredly become the next member of Congress representing New York’s 15th congressional district, which is one of the most “blue” in the nation.

Torres will represent three marginalized communities — Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos — upon taking office in January, becoming the first person with that distinction. (Another congressional candidate, Mondaire Jones, will likely share the distinction with Jones of being the first Black openly gay member of Congress.) Torres has already called for a change in rules to allow him to join both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Acknowledging the significance of tricolour identity as a forthcoming member of Congress, Torres said he “instinctively know[s] that legal equality is only part of the broader struggle for social equality.”

“I want to see to it that LGBTQ communities of color get their fair share of resources from the federal government, that we create housing and provide services that specifically are tailored toward the needs of LGBTQ elders and LGBTQ youth,” Torres said.

Torres said LGBTQ youth face disproportionately higher rates of homelessness than the rest of the population (an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ), so housing needs to be made available to them, and LGBTQ elders disproportionately have higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation, so they need access to mental health resources.

“A wise person once that if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re probably going to be on the menu,” Torres said. “And when you have LGBTQ people of color in the room where decisions are made, then communities like mine have a fighting chance of securing its fair share of federal budget.”

Torres, who before winning his primary had represented the Bronx on the New York City Council since 2014, pointed to the defeat on his anti-LGBTQ opponent — which was a reversal from initial polls showing a victory for Diaz, but turned around when LGBTQ and progressive groups sprang into action — when asked if he learned anything in his campaign to help him make the transition to congressman.

“The conventional wisdom among the political establishment [was Diaz] could not be beat because he’s been a larger than life political figure longer than I’ve been alive, and that I as a gay man had no chance of winning in the South Bronx, where the median voter is a church-going senior citizen,” Torres said. “The thinking was the South Bronx was too conservative to elect an LGBTQ person…Not only did I win, but I won so decisively that it sent Ruben Diaz Sr. into retirement, which is exactly where he belongs.”

Another priority, Torres said, would be addressing housing affordability, citing a statistic — even before the coronavirus — that more than half of the residents of the South Bronx were spending more than half their income on rent.

“We have to establish that housing is a human right because without stable housing, you have no fighting chance at a decent life,” Torres said.

Torres said he’d work to expand housing vouchers so that Americans need to pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

In terms of LGBTQ issues, Torres said legislation to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination was needed in the form of the Equality Act, which he said was still necessary despite rulings from the Supreme Court advancing LGBTQ rights that have radically changed the legal landscape.

“I worry that in a post-Obergefell world, we have to be careful not to prematurely declare mission accomplished,” Torres said. “We have to be as committed to equality with the standard sense of urgency before the decision of marriage equality. In most states, it remains illegal to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community in matters of housing, public accommodation, and all the rest. So what we need is the Equality Act, which would amend the iconic Civil Rights Act to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination in matters of employment, housing, public accommodation and every sense.”

Brian Romero, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, said via email to the Blade the election of Torres in the primary and his likely seating in the U.S. House “is a historic victory for LGBTQ communities, particularly Black and Brown queer people who have witnessed a rainbow wave sweep through the nation in the last few years.”

“A champion of working-class New Yorkers, public housing, and LGBTQ runaway and homeless youth, Ritchie represents a younger electorate that has been organizing to see themselves reflected in our legislative bodies,” Romero said. “His election was also an important message that homophobia and misogyny will not be tolerated in the Democratic Party nor in the Bronx. We look forward to his ongoing work toward equity for all Americans in the halls of Congress and stand proudly beside him.”

But Torres isn’t the only voice calling for change. Waves of civic unrest are gripping the country amid ongoing incidents of police brutality and anger over structural racism, most notably in Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore.

Torres placed the blame for the unrest squarely on Trump, saying “his management of COVID-19 and his inflammatory rhetoric is destabilizing the country,” and the first step in ending the strife is defeating him in the presidential election.

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes because Donald Trump is a singular threat to social cohesion, the social contract, our planet and our democracy: Everything is at stake,” Torres said. “He’s a uniquely odious figure in American politics.”

But asked whether Trump’s defeat is all that is needed to end the unrest, Torres conceded that will simply “begin the process of healing.”

“The goal is not to return to the status quo before Trump,” Torres said. “The goal is to create a society that treats everyone equally, and that gives everyone, including the most vulnerable members of our society, a fighting chance to succeed.”

Trump has made Torres — or at least the primary in which he won the Democratic nomination — the target for his vitriol for another reason: Mail-in voting. Trump has pointed to the New York primary as evidence in his crusade against vote by mail, which critics have said is without merit.

An unprecedented two-thirds of all ballots in the New York primary were cast via absentee ballots, which took the New York State Board of Elections a full month to tabulate and declare a winner in the 15th congressional district. In New York’s 12th congressional district, where incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) narrowly held on to the Democratic nomination, the Board of Elections wasn’t able to declare a winner until August, and her progressive challenger Suraj Patel has yet to yield.

Torres, however, said Trump’s attack on mail-in voting is about something else: A way for him to delegitimize and challenge the results of the presidential election in case he loses.

“It is in Donald Trump’s interest to delegitimize vote by mail in order to rationalize his likely defeat in November,” Torres said. “He has to believe that he’s only going to be defeated by [a rigged election], when in fact, the truth is, he is likely to be defeated because his presidency has been a catastrophic failure and he has presided over the deaths of over 150,000 Americans.”

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has begun an attempt at LGBTQ outreach, despite representing an incumbent president who has built an anti-LGBTQ record, in an attempt to court suburban votes in the election — an effort Torres called “every bit as fraudulent as the man himself.”

“He has spent most of his presidency undermining the rights of LGBTQ people, but no one is fooled by his empty gestures,” Torres said. “We in the LGBTQ community see Donald Trump as the same failed president that he is.”

In news closer to home for Torres, New York is about open public schools for the fall, despite concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic it could further spread the disease — a move Torres expressed concerns about when asked by the Blade whether it was a good idea.

“A wise person once said, ‘Those who fail to plan, plan to fail — and New York City is planning to fail,’” Torres said. “The most important question is the following: Is there going to be a new wave of the coronavirus? The 1917 flu began in the spring, proceeded into summer and then returned with a vengeance…so is the coronavirus going to follow the same trajectory as the Spanish flu? No one knows for sure.”

Torres concluded: “I would prefer that the city err on the side of caution and delay the reopening until October to see if there are any signs of a new outbreak.”

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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