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2021 is the year to dream big

Yariel proves immigrants really make America great

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Deep South, gay news, Washington Blade
From left: Yariel Valdés González and Michael K. Lavers outside of Café Lafitte in Exile in New Orleans on July 26, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

It goes without saying that most of us are more than happy to see 2020 come to an end, but even this dumpster fire of a year could not extinguish the will to fight for a better life. The effort to secure Washington Blade contributor Yariel Valdés González’s release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody is no better example of what is possible.

Valdés and International News Editor Michael K. Lavers share their thoughts about the past year.

By YARIEL VALDÉS GONZÁLEZ

Today I am thinking of the first day of the year and what I asked Santa for Christmas. I was at an immigrant jail in Louisiana, imprisoned for seeking political asylum. Judge Timothy Cole on Sept. 18, 2019, granted me asylum, but a government appeal kept me behind bars, and diminished my hopes of being truly free at every turn.  

Resorting to Santa, a childish character in whom adults should not believe, shows how desperate I was. I simply wanted the freedom that I had earned and for which I had suffered so much in Cuba and, incredibly, in the United States. Santa three months later finally granted my wish. I guess immigrants are a low priority for such an honorable and busy character.  

My true Santa was really Michael K. Lavers, my brother, my colleague and this publication’s international news editor. It would have been impossible to emerge victorious in this battle without his constant support. I can now dream of a future without persecution because of my profession or ideas thanks to him, my family, and many other people.  

Instead, my Santa in 2020 came from the hand of love, which does not need desperate pleas, but tenderness and devotion. Receiving gifts on this date does not exactly fit into the traditions of my native country, whose Communist regime has crushed the Christmas spirit for decades. 
I can proudly look back on 2020 without forgetting from where I come. While the whole world tries to erase it from memory, it has been my “Year Zero” when I began to build my new life in every way.  

This year has put many challenges and new experiences in front of me: The first and most difficult one was to be released from ICE custody, which kept me in their jails for 11 months. Then came learning how to drive (it wasn’t that difficult); perfecting my rustic English (a task that has not yet been completed); working in a restaurant (I had never done anything outside of media before); be independent (I moved to Wilton Manors with my boyfriend); support the new president as an activist; collaborate with this newspaper that gives me the opportunity to support my community; stay healthy in the middle of this pandemic and endure the sadness that I feel each day for the family and friends I left behind, among other things.  

The year that we begin today is going to be better. And I say this as an imposition because it is our positive spirit that will help us overcome all the bumps in the road and will allow us to look to the new year with hope.  

Welcoming 2021 in the magical place of Walt Disney World has definitely contributed to that, but above all I am confident that I will not be alone on this journey of growth that has opened up in front of me. Conquering 2021 may seem like an overly pretentious plan, especially for an immigrant who is just beginning to take his own steps in this great country. But if I have learned anything in life, it is to dream big, and 2021 will not be the exception.
  
By MICHAEL K. LAVERS

Tears were welling up in my eyes on Aug. 8, 2019, when I promised Yariel’s mother in Cuba during a phone call from his aunt and uncle’s home in suburban Miami that I would do everything in my power to secure her beloved son’s release from ICE custody. It took far too long for that day to come, but on March 4 he was sitting in the passenger seat of my rental car as we drove away from the privately run River Correctional Center in rural Louisiana.  

More than nine months later, I could choose to focus on the fact that Yariel spent nearly a year in the custody of an out-of-control agency that forces those who seek refuge in this country to endure abuse and dehumanization. I could choose to focus on politicians who use cheap rhetoric to advance a xenophobic agenda. I could choose to focus on the fact that I fractured my left arm hours before Yariel’s release and it took six months to heal. I will, however, avoid the chance to wallow in self-pity because that’s not what this op-ed is about.

Yariel is proof that immigrants truly make America great. He is now living with his boyfriend in Wilton Manors, and has become an active and productive member of the community. Yariel’s reporting continues to highlight the human rights abuses in Cuba that forced him to flee. His advocacy on behalf of other immigrants and ICE detainees continues to inspire me more than he will ever know.  

This year has been horrible for so many reasons, but I am immensely thankful that Yariel in 2020 was finally able to begin living his best life in freedom without fear of persecution. He remains an inspiration to me and to countless others. ¡Te quiero mucho mi querido hermano!

Yariel Valdés González is a Blade contributor; Michael K. Lavers is the Blade’s international news editor.

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Don’t sever corporate ties at Pride celebrations

We need our business allies in face of growing political attacks

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Amazon had a contingent in the 2022 Capital Pride Parade. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As Pride 2022 winds down in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Wilton Manors and other parts of the country, I am compelled to address the issue of corporate support in Pride celebrations. As a leader in and a senior member of the LGBTQ+ community, I remember clearly the time when being out as a gay person in the workplace could cost one their employment. Many of my generation lived in fear of being outed at their jobs. It was a terrible place to be and contributed detrimentally to one’s mental and physical well being; living in fear of termination of your career was no picnic.

There is a segment in today’s LGBTQ+ community that voice their opposition to the inclusion of a corporate presence in Pride celebrations. Many of these voices are from a generation that have not experienced the trauma of being forced to live in the “corporate closet” in fear of retaliation from their employers. Their lived experience is very different from my generation’s experience. The past actions of employers warranted boycotts and other drastic responses by our community. These aggressive stances brought about today’s corporate changes that welcome, embrace and celebrate the diversity of our community and enhance the workplace. These changes are due to the contributions and sacrifices of the current senior LGBTQ+ community. We should not sever corporate ties with Pride celebrations.

In the current political climate, there’s a disturbing trend by elected officials and legislatures passing legislation and policies that target corporate support of LGBTQ+ rights and issues. 

One example is Florida’s legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bullying tactics toward Disney and other corporations. The governor’s bellicose actions toward corporate support of our LGBTQ+ community is sufficient proof that our community should be strengthening our bonds with the corporate community and not severing them by excluding their participation and presence at Pride parades and festivals. 

Understanding the evolution of LGBTQ+ rights over the past decades, our younger generation can continue to build and contribute (as they already are) to the expansion of LGBTQ+ rights in our society. Severing corporate ties to our community is not the appropriate direction to take and will not be helpful battling hateful and polarizing actions directed against our community.

John E. Lazar has held leadership roles in Democratic and LGBTQ+ organizations in Florida, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and D.C. including the elected position in D.C. as Ward 2 Committeeman to the Democratic State Party.

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As governor, I will fight to make Maryland an inclusive state

LGBTQ+ residents deserve prosperous, affirming lives

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John King (Photo courtesy of the John King Campaign)

LGBTQ+ people of all ages deserve to live safe, prosperous, and affirming lives — but right now, across the country, they are facing discriminatory policies, bigoted rhetoric, and escalating violence. So why did it take until Pride month for even one of my major competitors for governor in the Maryland Democratic primary to post anything on their campaign websites about the issues facing LGBTQ+ folks? 

True allies in government must stand up for the LGBTQ+ community while GOP lawmakers, governors, and state attorneys general continue to push regressive and discriminatory policies. My administration will be committed to ensuring that all LGBTQ+ people, especially LGBTQ+ people of color, have the protections and support they need in Maryland. 

Having worked to put civil rights protections in place for transgender students as U.S. Secretary of Education, I know how important it is to not just have good policy, but follow it up with good implementation. I’m running for governor because I want to lead Maryland forward, not take it backward. As the GOP targets LGBTQ+ people and their families, I will work hard to make Maryland a safe state for everyone. There is simply too much at stake to not act.

Legislators in 28 states introduced more than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ laws this year alone. Ohio’s statehouse passed legislation that would subject student athletes whose genders are challenged by others to invasive gender-confirmation procedures. Fifteen states have bans on health care for trans youth or are considering them, while Missouri lawmakers considered banning hormone therapy for anyone under 25. The Texas governor and attorney general are fighting in court to continue investigations of families of transgender children, and Florida is considering even investigating parents who bring their kids to family-friendly drag shows.

Rather than supporting their LGBTQ+ students, school boards controlled by the far right are banning library books and Pride flags, while state legislatures controlled by the far right are effectively prohibiting classroom discussion about anything LGBTQ+ related. Teachers have already been fired for displaying Pride flags; others have resigned because they do not feel welcome at their schools. In Maryland’s Carroll County, the school board voted earlier this month to ban Pride flags on school grounds.

Threats of violence and hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ+ Americans have significantly increased in recent years — just a few weeks ago, 31 members of a white supremacist group were arrested on their way to start a riot at a Pride event in Idaho, and a house fire in Baltimore started by a burning Pride flag is being investigated as a hate crime. 

Maryland has made many strides in the last few years, like banning the panic defense and making mental health care more accessible to young LGBTQ+ people. But Maryland has also failed LGBTQ+ Marylanders in many ways. As governor, I’d like to improve our state’s track record. 

We must do more to make Maryland a safe place for transgender people and their families. As other states continue to pass discriminatory legislation, we must in turn make Maryland a safe haven for transgender people seeking refuge, and we must strengthen the LGBTQ+ protections we already have. 

As governor, I will protect and expand access to gender-affirming health care, pass the Trans Health Equity Act, work to make healthcare more affordable and accessible to LGBTQ+ Marylanders, and ensure that providers are properly trained to give the level of competent care that all LGBTQ+ people deserve. 

In our public schools, I will ensure that LGBTQ+ students have a safe place to learn and are protected by written anti-discrimination policies and an internal complaint process. I’ll fight for an inclusive curriculum that teaches and celebrates LGBTQ+ stories at all grade levels.

As governor, I’ll work with community members and organizations to invest in violence prevention and intervention programs focused on protecting LGBTQ+ people, especially trans women of color. I’ll protect our LGBTQ+ seniors by pursuing specific anti-discrimination policies for seniors in long-term care facilities. And I’ll invest in LGBTQ-owned businesses to promote economic opportunity for all LGBTQ+ Marylanders.

My administration will also build on reforms to make our legal system both easier to navigate and more inclusive for LGBTQ+ people, like making it easier to change your name and gender marker on marriage licenses and your child’s birth certificate. It’s also time to end the criminalization of HIV by repealing outdated laws and changing discriminatory prosecutorial practices. 

This Pride month and beyond, LGBTQ+ Americans need more than empty allyship from politicians, governments, and corporations — they need someone who will stand with them and provide tangible support. I’m running for governor to be a real defender, ally, and advocate for LGBTQ+ Marylanders, and to make our state a safe place for all Americans to live. 

John King is a former U.S. Secretary of Education and a Maryland gubernatorial candidate.

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Roe ruling returns us to the discriminatory 1950s

For the first time, I no longer think of our nation as a democracy

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A scene from 'Father Knows Best' aired on Oct. 3, 1954. (Screen capture via YouTube)

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part column.)

I love looking at photos of my grandmother in the 1950s, going out to lunch with her friends, wearing hats with combs, white gloves in hand.

The 1950s had it all over us in style, I think. 

Until, I remember:

• Black people who were discriminated against had little or no legal recourse;

• Most women couldn’t get a charge card, let alone buy a home, unless their husbands got it for them;

• If you were queer, you could be arrested for dancing with someone of the same-sex at a gay bar, or lose your job because of your sexuality.

Those memories erase my 1950s nostalgia. I’ll enjoy family pictures from that era but I don’t want to return to the 1950s.

Unfortunately, that’s what the Supreme Court has done. The court’s overthrow of Roe v. Wade (in its 6-3 ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) thrusts us back to an era that threatens to be as repressive as the 1950s.

The court’s reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade wasn’t surprising. 

Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign made it clear: If elected he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would likely rule to overturn Roe v. Wade. Trump isn’t known for his truth-telling or promise-keeping. But in this critical matter, he wasn’t lying. He kept his word.

But the court’s ending nearly 50 years of a fundamental right is still gut-wrenching.

We’ve known that America, though a democracy, has long had a record of denying rights and dignity to all of its citizens.

Black people were enslaved. For a good part of our history only white men could vote. Japanese people were put in concentration camps during World War II.  To avoid being scorned by their families, most queer people had to be closeted.

Yet until the court overturned Roe v. Wade, no civil right had been taken away.

Now, for the first time, I no longer think of our nation as a democracy.

As I’m writing, at least 13 states have laws that will immediately or in a short time ban abortions. States where abortion remains illegal are looking to find ways to prosecute out-of-state clinics and doctors who perform abortions.

In Texas, citizens are legally permitted to sue anyone (from an Uber driver to a clergy person to a doctor or clinic) who performs an abortion or helps anyone to obtain an abortion.

Putting reproductive freedom into the quagmire of state legislatures isn’t enough for many Republicans and members of the religious right.

They’re chomping at the bit, if the Democrats lose their slim majority in Congress and a Republican becomes president in 2024, to impose a federal ban on abortion.

To add to this toxic mix, some Republicans and members of the religious right want to punish women who’ve had abortions.

I am terrified for all who seek reproductive health care.

I have childhood memories of my mom, who had type 1 diabetes, having an abortion pre- Roe v. Wade. If my mother hadn’t had the abortion, she may have died when I was 7 and my brother was 4. Though devastated by the stigma of having an abortion when terminating a pregnancy wasn’t legal, my mom was lucky. She could afford to have an abortion.

Then (as now), many poor women couldn’t have afforded to have an abortion or have the means to travel out of state to end their pregnancies.

One in four women have had an abortion. Now those needing reproductive health care (whether an abortion or, in some cases, treatment for miscarriage) again face stigma. Poverty will prevent many from having legal, safe abortions.

People won’t stop terminating their pregnancies. If they have to, they’ll resort to unsafe, self-administered abortions.

As a lesbian, I, like many queer folk, fear that the repeal of Roe will be a foreshadowing of the overturning of LGBTQ rights (from marriage equality to the right to have sex with whom we love).

In post-Roe America, fighting for the rights and dignity of women, LGBTQ folk and other marginalized people will be the life’s work of our generation and of generations to come.

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

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