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Mother of slain gay youth speaks out

Promoting power of kindness to heal our broken world

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Blaze Bernstein (Photo via Facebook)

I told myself I would not do it again: explain who I am and who my son was as an introduction to my story. I love writing, but how many times can I talk about the horrific things that happened? What you need to know: he was gay, Jewish, and the victim of a hate crime. This tragedy propelled me into the public eye and gave me a chance to be an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, and it also ended the beautiful life of my son Blaze Bernstein. He should be enjoying gay pride month this June, but instead his body lies in an Orange County cemetery since January 2018. He died at just 19 years of age.

I don’t want to be a captive storyteller, forced to regurgitate our sad truth and the story of how we endured Blaze’s disappearance and violent death. I want to talk about the great things we have accomplished since then and the miraculous things people around the country did and continue to do to show their support for those who identify as queer and for the kindness movement we wholeheartedly embraced when we started #BlazeitForward in honor of Blaze. The story of my brilliant and kind son who was going to change the world, should not start with the horrific ending of his life. The story should start with hope because his life started with and even in death continues to give hope to all of us.

The night he disappeared many of my dreams for my family ended and a radical new timeline began. I came out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQIA+ and a parent of a gay teen. While Blaze was alive and living in the closet, he was not comfortable with us participating in any activities that would draw attention to his sexual orientation. While we encouraged him to live openly, he was young and we respected his right to “out” himself. We will never know how our failure to educate ourselves and our family on how best to support a gay child impacted the tragedy that came to us.

Our family lived in the shadow of the normative Orange County world that we raised him in that did not understand the needs of gay teenagers or the dangers they face both from alienation that can lead to teen suicide nor did we understand the dangers posed by malevolent outsiders and ignorant peers, teachers and strangers. It was this revelation after his death that spurred our entry into the public eye when the opportunity arose.

My husband Gideon and I made the quick decision that Blaze’s death should herald a new age of sex positivity. We also wanted to do something about the stereotypes and hateful tropes we heard about Jewish people and that inundated the media. While Blaze would not live to see a world where his uniqueness and kindness became an ideal, we live to promote it. We exposed the haters and hate groups as we did the unthinkable: put our mourning on hold and immediately used his death to educate the public about the danger hate groups such as Atomwaffen pose to all of us. We also began promoting the power of kindness to heal our broken world and to promote and support LGBTQIA+ community and ethnic diversity.

As the years after his death progressed, a pattern began to develop. The polarization in political, religious and sexual beliefs became unmanageable in our country. We could not come together to fight the pandemic when it began. Civil unrest ensued. Corruption and racism exposed throughout the United States caused rioting and more polarization. Reforms were proposed. People began to see the need for learning how to have respectful discourse. Some became more sensitive and either apologetic for wrongs against the marginalized or outraged by the way the system has kept us marginalized. No one was left untouched by the violence, inequity, and unhappiness that was left in the wake of the events of the last few years.

We coined the term #BlazeitForward and use it to encourage people to do intentional kind acts in honor of Blaze and his legacy. My husband and I spent the last few years powering the Facebook public group #BlazeitForward where we encourage our members to post stories of kindness, community philanthropy and everyday miracles. We also oversee endowments created in Blaze’s name that fuel college scholarships, the Blaze Bernstein school of Culinary Arts at the Merage Jewish Community Center, annual Orange County School of the Arts conservatory funding, an annual Real Arts internship for the University of Pennsylvania, and annual donations to various foundations such as homeless shelters, Orangewood Foundation, the Human Relations Council, Second Harvest Food Bank, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Tilly’s Life Center, the Anti-Defamation League, The LGBTQ Center of Orange County, and The City of Hope, to name a few.

In addition to our advocacy for marginalized people and Holocaust education, we speak out against homophobia and hate groups, conversion therapy, bullying and hate speech. We do all of this to give life to Blaze’s legacy of kindness while we await the commencement of the criminal trial set to begin by the fall of this year.

In June we stand proud with good people around the country and celebrate Gay Pride. I cringe at the absurdity that I could not do this with Blaze. We “came out” and support the LGBTQIA+ community because there are parents out there who do not know what to do or say to help their LGBTQIA+ children. Hearing me speak out could be the first time, they learn the importance of giving these kids acceptance and love.

If you want to repair the world, you need to start at home with your own family. Do it right now. Call your younger siblings and tell them you are a proud supporter of this community. Give your teen a hug and tell them that their sexual orientation is not something they need to hide – you love them and support them unconditionally. Tell your kids that hate in any form and for any reason is something you will not support. Educate your kids on hate groups, the Holocaust, the dangers of ethnocentrism and the beauty of diversity. Go to a Pride parade. Show your support for and be curious about people who aredifferent. Listen non-judgmentally to the stories of others. Join the #BlazeitForward group on Facebook. Create a legacy of kindness in your family.

Jeanne Pepper is a writer and the mother of Blaze Bernstein, who was killed in an anti-LGBTQ hate crime.

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Re-energizing Pride in our communities and workforce

“We don’t believe advocacy should be limited to June.”

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(Photo courtesy of Pepco; by Rick Giammaria)

At Pepco, we recognize it’s been a tough year in so many ways for our communities. Discrimination and hate crimes affected Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), new forms of anti-transgender legislation emerged across the nation, and we anxiously awaited the sentencing of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. In the midst of all these extensively covered events, the everyday reality for many – including some of our employees – meant teleworking and participating in virtual meetings and activities. To realign, revitalize, and reunite ourselves, Pepco re-energized our 2021 Pride programming. This June, we, along with our sister companies Atlantic City Electric and Delmarva Power, proudly showcased inclusivity, openness, and ways to reaffirm our commitment to our diverse local communities. 

Realigning Ourselves. Pepco is one of three utilities that make up Pepco Holdings, a company providing electric and gas service to portions of southern New Jersey, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and Delaware, in addition to the District of Columbia and nearby Prince George’s County and Montgomery County. Historically, there were two separate Pride employee resource group (ERG) chapters serving our LGBTQ+ employees and allies, one for our northern region and one based in Washington. In January of this year we combined the two chapters, ensuring employees have access to the same events and resources, no matter their work location. The new, rebranded Pepco Holdings Pride ERG gives employees the space, safety, and support needed to feel empowered at work and to help foster professional relationships. 

The newly combined ERG also rotated in a new employee leadership team with highly enthusiastic representatives from all over the company. The diverse board includes employees from IT, HR, Engineering, Finance, Regulatory, and field-based operations, who were at the forefront of planning fresh events for June. 

Revitalizing Our Communities. Whether we’re providing essential services, or volunteering our time, supporting the communities we serve is a critical part of our everyday work – and we were excited to finally be able to engage with our customers in person. We renewed our annual sponsorship with The Capital Pride Alliance and were honored to be the advocate sponsor of the “Paint the Town Colorful with Pride” month-long event. You may have even spotted a few of our electric vehicles and bucket trucks rolling downtown with the rest of the PrideMobile parade, or our Edison Place headquarters decorated with rainbow LED lights at night. We greatly missed the energy of the annual Capital Pride parade, and we were thrilled to be back in person showing our support for our LGBTQ+ customers, families, and friends. 

We also acknowledge the many men and women who haven’t been able to work from home during the pandemic – including those who continue serving our communities at healthcare facilities, and our very own field workers. So, we wanted to pay homage to our local heroes by delivering hundreds of Ben’s Chili Bowl lunches to employees at Whitman-Walker Health. 

(Photo courtesy of Pepco; by Rick Giammaria)

Reuniting the Workforce. We wanted this Pride month to be memorable for both our communities and our employees, so we pulled together a variety of virtual events for our employees to celebrate Pride. From joint events with BGE (part of our larger Exelon family of companies) where we discussed Netflix’s Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson film, to a special AAPI and LGBTQ+ intersectionality panel featuring the Blade’s publisher Lynne Brown. Both events served as a forum for participants to share stories about the struggles that people have faced and how they prevail to live their true, authentic lives. 

To round out our employee events, our Pepco Holdings Political Action Committee recently hosted a panel featuring Sarah McBride, senator, Delaware General Assembly; Luke Clippinger, chairman of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee; and Jeremy LaMaster, executive director, FreeState Justice. The trio showed immense dedication to expanding protections and removing barriers for LGBTQ+ individuals in our region and nationally. 

What’s Next? Reflecting on the past year we’ve had, we’ve found there is a silver lining. Had these events not occurred, would our employees be as open to sharing their stories? Would we take such pleasure in being outside with our neighbors on a hot June afternoon? And would we be as quick to offer thanks to those who work each day to keep our communities safe? While Pride month may be coming to a close, we don’t believe the advocacy, discussions, and celebrations should be limited to June. We’ll continue powering Pride for our employees, customers, and communities, with a drive that is just beginning to re-energize.

Megan Clark is senior communications specialist at Pepco Holdings.

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Coming out is not the serve you think it is

This rite of passage does not center queerness

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Coming out is undoubtedly part of the essence of contemporary queer culture. It represents a point in one’s journey to complete self-actualization where they fully accept themselves, their body, and also demand to occupy space in an insidiously cis-heternormative world. 

This concept/journey has become such a treasured part of queerness, so much so that National Coming Out Day is celebrated every year on Oct. 11, not only to commemorate the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights which demanded civil rights and legislation for LGBTQ people, but to also allow queer people to be visible, unabashedly live in their truths, and inspire others who may be fearful to do likewise. 

On this day, millions of people around the world take to social media to pen heartfelt posts that usually include a picture of the individual (most probably displaying some iteration of a Pride flag) coupled with a paragraph about their journey “living in the closet” and how they’re elated to be free. By letting the world know that they aren’t afraid to fully be themselves, queer people are claiming space where their presence has intentionally been ignored.

Albeit the power of “coming out” has to accent personal self-autonomy and challenge the pervasive nature of gender and sexual conformity, it ultimately does what queer liberation exists in contrast to: Appeasing cis-heternormative culture, or quite simply, making cis-straight (to be loosely referred to as “straight” for the rest of this piece) people feel comfortable. 

When LGBTQ people come out, they participate in a kind of performance that requires them to explain themselves to straight people. Queer people dig deep into their past experiences, which are often traumatic struggles, and in the process present what often translates into a chronology of why straight people should accept them, and more importantly, be “comfortable” with them. This is wrong.

Queerness should never center on straightness or straight feelings. By giving attention to straight people in queer journeys, we relegate undeserved power to straight people and allow for them to feel as if they need to be placated. 

Contemporary coming out culture indirectly uplifts what we are so vehemently fighting against — practices that prioritize being straight over being queer. So, as we continue to come out, employers will feel as if they have the right to know of one’s queer identity and terminate their employment upon learning of it.

Parents will demand to know of their children’s identity to “protect” them, which has more to do with managing their own appearances rather than caring for and empowering their queer children.

Friends and acquaintances will fight tooth and nail to decipher one’s queerness so they can gauge what this entails for their personal and religious beliefs, and ultimately whether the friendship should continue because they feel as if they may be courted by their queer friend (which mostly likely will never happen), thereby unsettling their perception of themselves. 

Random strangers may also physically abuse and/or kill someone who reveals their sexual and/or gender identity on the basis of feeling as if they’ve been “lied” to or intentionally deceived. 

So, if coming out is not the serve we think it is, then how to LGBTQ people live in their truth and show the world it’s okay to be queer? Well, the answer is simple: The culture surrounding gender and sexuality must change.

With regards to gender, we must get rid of both the “sex” and “gender” markers. Sex, in simple terms, refers to the genitals you were born with. Gender is the norms and behaviors that your parents and community around you project on you based on your sex. 

Time and again, it has become clear that, sex and gender simply cannot exist in binaries (yes, there are people who are born with both a penis and vagina simultaneously, or even neither.) The culture we function under has prescribed behaviors to people with certain genitals and expectations to people who identify with either of the two genders. This should stop. 

When it comes to health, medical professionals should be able to care for patients adequately and efficiently if they conceive of a person’s sexual organs as just being and not in relation to society’s faulty prescriptions. You might ask, what does this mean for science and research? Well, we can be inclusive in medical research by drawing on the experiences of all possible sex identities instead of just narrowing it down to just male/female. Intersex people exist too! 

We should also abolish the notion of gender. When children are born, we should raise them as non-binary. Non-binary identity is the pinnacle of liberation because it rebels from the traditional boxes that confine identities. It allows people to be whoever they want, whenever, and on their own accord. 

By encouraging children to socialize into nonbinary identity, we allow them to fully discover who they are and allow them to exist at any point in the identity spectrum without feeling the pressure to contort into a specific, one-dimensional mold of behavior. There is no one way to be anything. Identity is subjective and shifts and changes with time. Let children grow into themselves without being told from an early age that there’s a right and wrong way to be. 

We should also set boundaries on how to have conversations about sexuality. Oftentimes, the people most interested in a person’s sexuality have no business knowing about it. Sexuality and sex is intimate, and therefore, people should respect that boundary. What someone does during intercourse and with whom they do it should be no one’s business. It should have no repercussions on one’s social capital. Quite frankly, with whom someone sleeps affects no one but themself and the sexual partners involved. You won’t die if your friend didn’t tell you they slept with someone who has the same genitals as them. Your company won’t go bankrupt if your employee doesn’t disclose that they’re transgender. 

We should move past caring about representation and work towards actualizing our liberation. Representation is good; it is important to see yourself reflected in society. However, representation is not the end goal. 

We should work to give poor queer people access to stable food, shelter and money. We should push for more queer-friendly mental health facilities. We should establish free universal healthcare that allows transgender individuals to medically transition at little to no cost. We should actively become anti-racist and create an environment where queer people of color never have to live under the shadow of racism.

Finally, we must stop worrying about straight people. The truth is, no matter how much we may try to create space for ourselves at a straight table, we’ll never be truly welcome. If we want to liberate ourselves we have to center ourselves, experiences and feelings. We have to fashion our own tables. 

Appealing to straight people will never bring the acceptance and freedom we yearn so much for. If anything, it places us in an unending cycle where queerness is othered and never the norm enough for it to not matter. 

So should queer people stop coming out? Not necessarily. However, it is imperative that we create a world where queerness is normal enough that we don’t need to come out. 

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Celebrating resilience of LGBTQ-owned small businesses

3 examples of companies that pivoted during pandemic

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Since the pandemic began, a staggering number of small businesses have permanently closed across the country. In fact, roughly 200,000 U.S. businesses have closed in the first year of the pandemic, according to a study released recently by economists at the Federal Reserve. Despite the millions of dollars of federal and local aid made available in the form of loans and grants, many small businesses had to think creatively to stay afloat. Many of these small businesses leveraged their own identity and community as sources of inspiration -including the LBGTQ community.

As we celebrate our LGBTQ identity and community, we must acknowledge that many LGBTQ entrepreneurs are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and that, now more than ever, a strong community is needed to help rebuild these businesses and create a more inclusive economy. At Next Street, I’m proud to be part of a mission-based firm where I can focus on uplifting members of my LGBTQ community. I wanted to take this opportunity to share some successful approaches that LGBTQ-owned small businesses in our network adopted to pivot and sustain their businesses during the pandemic. By harnessing the power of their community and prioritizing their core business offering and identity, the following LGBTQ-owned businesses were able to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever. 

Cubbyhole, a small but mighty bar located in the iconic West Village neighborhood of New York City, has been open to the queer community for more than 27 years. Despite crises, such as 9/11, 2003 blackout, and Hurricane Sandy, the bar was forced to close its doors for the first time ever on March 16, 2020. Given the 100% loss of income for the bar and its staff, Cubbyhole launched a Go Fund Me campaign to secure financial support from its legion of fans and faithfuls. In just a few weeks it had well surpassed its $30,000 fundraising goal and at the time of this writing has raised $78,432. In addition, the bar also banded together with the country’s other 15 lesbian bars for the Lesbian Bar Project, which collectively raised additional funds that enabled the bar to keep its doors open.

Ciao Andiamo, a boutique travel company organizing authentic journeys to Italy, has been in operation for more than 10 years. On March 9, 2020, the government of Italy imposed a national lockdown, which prevented residents from leaving their homes and tourists from entering the country. With no line of sight into when borders would reopen, Ciao Andiamo had to quickly figure out a way to generate revenue and stay engaged with its clients and collaborators. The owner, together with his partners in Italy, made a major pivot, launching two new offerings — a virtual classroom featuring interactive cooking classes, wine tastings, and language lessons, as well as a marketplace for authentic Italian foods, small production wines, and local goods shipped directly from Italy to the U.S. This paved the way for Ciao Andiamo to keep in close touch with its loyal fan base and build awareness and excitement around all things Italy at a time when Italy travel was not possible. Now, as the country is reopening for international tourism, Ciao Andiamo has not only survived, it is in prime position for a strong 2021 season.

Finally, Lambda Lounge began as a spirits brand that sold its products online. In fall 2020, the company had plans to open a brick and mortar lounge in Harlem. When the pandemic struck, Lambda was forced to pause its plan to open the lounge despite having made significant investments in rent and construction. To sustain itself, Lambda shifted its focus from  the lounge and refocused its effort on its core business, its spirits brand. Lambda once again began prioritizing its online platform and existing customer base. They quickly found this to be the key to short- and long-term success in the midst of the pandemic. In fact, they were so successful in generating revenue for their business that they were able to see their dream of opening the bar and lounge in spring 2021.  

Like so many other small business owners, these LGBT entrepreneurs used the most powerful tool in their arsenal — their identity and community. Each of them leveraged their personal connections to their customers to help them sustain their business and face the challenges the pandemic threw their way. This Pride month and beyond, shop at your local LGBTQ-owned business and become part of the community that can help build a more inclusive and successful economy.

Donald Jones is the head of Next Street’s Small Business Delivery practice. Learn more at nextstreet.com.

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