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Celebrate first lady’s visit to Whitman-Walker, then act

A reminder that COVID has disrupted cancer care for many

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World Cancer Day, gay news, Washington Blade
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visits Whitman-Walker Health. (POOL PHOTO by Chris Johnson)

When I first glanced at my phone around 4 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 22, the litany of social media alerts signaled a new era.

The White House had announced that first lady Dr. Jill Biden would visit Whitman-Walker Health’s 14th Street location, a five-minute walk from where I live.

Yes, the first lady’s initial visit outside the White House would be to a beloved community health center that is a proverbial welcome mat for people who are often unseen and unheard in the health system.

On another, more personal note, the first lady’s visit brought together many parts of my 22 years as a D.C. resident.

In addition to using the testing services, I have also volunteered at Whitman-Walker. Many friends are currently on the staff or board of directors. Plus, during my time in the Obama administration at AmeriCorps, Whitman-Walker hosted convenings on the intersection of health and national service.

On the day of Dr. Biden’s visit, my heart warmed at the notion of another opportunity to work with Whitman-Walker.

As the White House announcement indicated, Dr. Biden’s visit was “to highlight and promote support services for cancer patients and caregivers, as well as hear about the impact of COVID-19 on access to health care, including cancer screenings and prevention efforts.”

The reason I was at Whitman-Walker on that Friday is because I work for the Cancer Support Community (CSC), a global nonprofit that provides $50 million in free support and navigation services annually to individuals affected by cancer.

In 2015, Whitman-Walker Health became the first federally qualified health center to integrate CSC’s services into its care model. The services include psychosocial distress screening, treatment decision-making support, problem-solving skill development, care coordination and navigation, and self-advocacy training.

CSC’s Executive Chair Kim Thiboldeaux, who has worked with Dr. Biden on multiple issues over the years, joined Whitman-Walker Health’s CEO Naseema Shafi in leading the conversation with Dr. Biden.

More than anything, that conversation was a call to action—especially important as we mark World Cancer Day on Feb. 4.

Dr. Biden’s visit and the global focus on cancer come as a pandemic has disrupted health services in once unimaginable ways. Cancer screenings are between 29 and 35 percent lower than pre-COVID-19 levels and 40 percent of respondents in one survey say their cancer-related care has been disrupted.

The drop in screenings and disruption to services are especially acute in D.C. After all, more people die from cancer in D.C. than from Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, diabetes, Parkinson disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, HIV/AIDS, suicide, influenza, and pneumonia combined. D.C. also has the highest reported death rates due to breast and prostate cancer. As a prostate cancer survivor myself, I had no idea of this statistic when I went through my experience five years ago.

Whether a survivor or a family member or friend of someone affected by cancer, we all know these numbers put a mirror up to the inequities in our system.

Nationally, among all racial and ethnic groups, Black and African-American people have the highest death and shortest survival rates for most cancers. While the research regarding LGBTQ Americans and cancer is not nearly as extensive, the American Cancer Society estimated that there could have been 135,000 new cancer cases and over 45,000 cancer deaths in 2020 among LGBTQ Americans. The LGBTQ community may be disproportionately affected by anal, breast, cervical, colorectal, endometrial, lung, and prostate cancers.

If these numbers seem overwhelming, just think of the experiences of the people behind them.

Those very individuals are the ones whose voices must be at the center of the conversation that answers one of the key questions Dr. Biden posed: What are you hearing from patients?

In the spirit of World Cancer Day, taking on the challenges these patients identify will no doubt be hard, but we must match the celebration of a first lady’s historic visit to a community health center with a commitment to act.

Ted Miller is Senior Vice President of Development and External Affairs at the Cancer Support Community. A former Obama administration official, he resides with his husband in the Logan Circle neighborhood.

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Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages

Iconic work explored sadness, rage, irony, and love of humanity

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Stephen Sondheim (Screen capture via CBS)

“The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” his mother wrote in a letter to Stephen Sondheim.

The only regret so many of us feel now is that Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist, died on Nov. 26 at his Roxbury, Conn. home at age 91.

He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017, and Walter Sondheim, a half-brother.

F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, told the New York Times that the cause of death was unknown, and that Sondheim had died suddenly. The day before he passed away, Sondheim celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, Pappas told the Times.

“Every day a little death,” Sondheim wrote in “A Little Night Music.”

This isn’t the case with the passing of Sondheim. Whether you’re a Broadway star or a tone-deaf aficionado like me, you’ll sorely miss Sondheim, who the Times aptly called “one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans.”

Like multitudes of his fans, I don’t remember a time in my life when a song from a Sondheim musical hasn’t been in my head.

When I was a child, my parents repeatedly played the cast album of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. My folks loved the story of the show, which was loosely based on the life of the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ethel Merman belt out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” When I need to jumpstart my creative juices, I remember that “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

In college, I felt that “Company,” the 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, spoke to my generation. 

As was the case with Sondheim’s musicals, “Company” didn’t have a conventional plot, happy ending, or tidy resolution. It takes place during Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Bobby, who is single, is celebrating with his friends (straight, married couples). Bobby likes having friends but doesn’t want to get married.

Sondheim didn’t come out as gay until he was 40. Yet, even in the 1970s, it was hard not to think that Bobby in “Company” wasn’t gay.

Once you’ve heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” it becomes indelibly etched in your brain.

Who else but Sondheim could have written, “And here’s to the girls who play/smart-/Aren’t they a gas/Rushing to their classes in optical art,/Wishing it would pass/Another long exhausting day/Another thousand dollars/A matinee, a Pinter play/Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s/I’ll drink to that/And one for Mahler!”

In September, I, along with legions of other theater lovers, were thrilled when Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” that he was working with David Ives on a new musical called “Square One.”

In his musicals from “Follies” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim, through his lyrics and music, revealed the internal depths of his characters and the sadness, tenderness, bitterness, rage, irony, wit, and love of humanity. Sondheim’s wordplay was so brilliant that he did crossword puzzles for New York magazine.

Over his decades-long career, Sondheim won every award imaginable from the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2015). He received more than a dozen Tony Awards for his Broadway musicals and revivals as well as a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.

Thankfully, Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages.

A remake of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, premieres this month.

Sondheim is a character in the Netflix film “tick, tick BOOM!,” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie is based on an autobiographical posthumous Jonathan Larson (the composer of “Rent”) musical. Sondheim is supportive of Larson’s work.

Thank you Stephen, for your art! R.I.P.

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

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Publish trans employment stats

Not enough corporations that march in Pride are hiring non-binary staff

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On Nov. 10, the top-tier consulting firm McKinsey published a report on discrimination toward trans people in the workplace. The report came out with numbers that we have all known true for a long time and lead to one conclusion: Trans people have a harder time finding jobs, holding them down, and advancing in their careers. 

Specifically, McKinsey cited the fact that cisgender people are twice as likely to be employed as trans people, and that more than half of trans employees are uncomfortable being out at work. Meanwhile, cisgender employees make 32% more than trans employees in the workplace, even if those trans employees hold the same positions or higher positions. 

On top of this, trans people are 2.4 times more likely to be working in the food and retail industries, which pay entry level wages that are much less than decent pay. 

These statistics are true based on a number of factors. For one, many trans people have a harder time passing at work, and people who don’t pass well face worse job prospects. (As a side note, on top of that, the study pointed to the fact that many trans people exert undue emotional and psychological energy into trying to pass really well and not be discriminated against, which takes a toll on their mental health.) 

So what is a concrete step that corporations can take to make the trans experience in the workplace better? It’s time that corporations step up their game by publishing and making transparent the number of trans employees that they actually hire. Such numbers can be published in any kind of company document: a pamphlet, online report, or even annual shareholder’s report. As it is, most corporations do not publish numbers on LGBT employees. 

“Rainbow capitalism” is a term we know all too well: major corporations and multinationals flaunting a rainbow and trans pride flag during the month of June, but seemingly doing little to hire more trans people or give back to the community during other months. 

Every corporation surely has the time and company-wide infrastructure to get statistics on their trans employees. All they need to do is implement a company-wide survey to new hires. This takes extremely little effort and time in the grand scheme of company workings. 

If major corporations like McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte, defense contractors, and hundreds of other huge companies published statistics on trans employees, they would be held accountable for their actions and words.

If these statistics were to be published today, we would probably find out that not enough corporations that march in Pride parades are hiring trans and gender nonconforming employees. 

Turning the numbers against corporations will ensure that these same corporations finally live up to their words about workplace inclusion and diversity. It won’t cure everything about the issue of being trans in the workplace, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

Isaac Amend (he/him/his) is a trans man and young professional in the D.C. area. He was featured on National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ in 2017 as a student at Yale University. Isaac is also on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Find him on Instagram @isaacamend.

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Should we be scared of Omicron?

A reminder to stay vigilant against latest mutation

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It’s Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend when I sit down to write this column. The craziness in the world continues but other than the scare of the new COVID mutation, which has been named Omicron, there isn’t one headline to grab attention. Instead, there are many, including some manufactured by the news media to gain viewers or sell papers. Some like the car rampaging through the Christmas parade is frightening but incidents like this seem to be happening all too often.  

The stock market went down 1,000 points on Friday because market players freaked out about the new COVID mutation coming out of South Africa. However that didn’t seem to stop people from spending their money on Black Friday. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) was again on the attack this time against fellow Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) accusing her of being a Muslim terrorist. She apologized, or pretended to, but again the Republican leadership wouldn’t condemn her statements. These things seemed to be grist for the news media with no one else unfortunately really voicing concern. 

Boebert’s comments were taken as old hat. They are disgusting, offensive, and dangerous, but as long as her constituents reelect her we will have to live with them. She is joined by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.),  Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), and Paul Gosar  (R-Wyo.) who represent the worst in Congress and the worst of the American people. Yet again until their constituents throw them out we have to live with their stupidity and the absurdity of their being where they are. 

The new COVID mutation out of South Africa is potentially a game changer. But it will be important for scientists to look at this carefully to determine how quickly it spreads and whether or not the current vaccines will offer any protection against it. Countries around the world, including the United States, have quickly instituted travel bans for South Africans and those in countries surrounding it. The World Health Organization at this time has suggested this should not be done as it will have limited impact on its spreading and could have severe and detrimental economic impact on countries whose people are being banned. One thing we must learn from this is how important it is to ensure everyone all over the world has access to vaccines as we know the more people who are inoculated the harder it is for the virus to mutate. It is not time to panic yet and by Sunday there was some reporting this new mutation may not be any more difficult to deal with than the current ones and not lead to any more severe illness. The takeaway from all this is we need to keep vigilant, get vaccinated and get booster shots, and make sure we vaccinate our children. Continue to wear masks indoors and wash our hands. 

Now the other interesting stories last weekend were about what will happen in the Senate in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays. Remember the House of Representatives passed President Biden’s Build Back Better bill as a reconciliation measure, which means it can pass the Senate with a simple majority. That would mean every Democratic senator and the vice president. The focus is on two senators: Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sinema (D-Ariz.). In reality we need to look at a number of others who will fight to either take out or put something into the bill the House passed. It is clear it will not pass in the current form and then it has to go back to the House again. 

Another issue that will be taken up is the debt ceiling. It may be a little easier than thought because as recently reported, “After taking a hard line and refusing to negotiate with Democrats during the last standoff over the debt limit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is quietly looking for a way to get the issue resolved without another high-profile battle.” Then there is the budget and since none is passed Congress will have to pass another continuing resolution since the one they passed in September expires on Dec. 3. 

So for the next few weeks there will be a focus on the Senate to see what they do and how obstructionist Republicans want to be. Seems while things change, they somehow remain the same.

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

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