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Opinion | LGBTQ victories are largely legal, not legislative

Leading lobbying groups ineffective as we face hostile Supreme Court

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anti-discrimination laws, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The recent conclusion of last month’s Pride month celebrations marked an annual milestone in both the history and advancements of rights for the LGBTQ community. The progress for LGBTQ rights over the last two decades has been groundbreaking – oftentimes described as an exemplary movement obtaining rights for a marginalized community. It was less than 20 years ago the United States Supreme Court struck down the country’s first real gay rights test in Lawrence v. Texas, decriminalizing “homosexual conduct” among consenting adults. 

Even in the most recent years, we all recognize how major achievements like marriage equality to the protection of gay adoption – to the recent action ensuring a fully inclusive military with transgender service – have benefited the community. But with new attacks arising daily in state capitals around the nation, like transgender sports becoming the new “bathroom bill,” LGBTQ future generations are counting on the leading LGBTQ rights and legal organizations to secure more equality.

Almost unanimously, these groundbreaking rights – while being achieved at almost lightning speed (although not fast enough for the millions of LGBTQ Americans whose lives have been, and still being impacted) – have been won in American courtrooms, not the halls of Congress. 

While the first federal LGBTQ rights bill was introduced in Congress in 1975 by former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, it was simply referred to the Judiciary Committee and died. Forty-six years later barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, part of today’s Equality Act, has still not been passed into law by the LGBTQ lobbying organizations – and faces a similar fate this year in the U.S. Senate. 

The Equality Act, the chief legislative target for Washington, D.C.’s LGBTQ lobbying organizations is dead in Congress despite the ripest political environment with a Democratic House, Senate and White House. The Senate’s filibuster and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are major structural problems for the legislation, but there is not even serious discussion or demands from the LGBTQ lobbying community to insist on passage through filibuster reform.  

Must we automatically presume the LGBTQ community is so low a priority we are essentially beholden to prejudice of the minority in the Senate? When, therefore, can we ever expect any action? If not now, then when will gay lobbying succeed?

As an LGBTQ researcher at the University of Sydney in preparation for a new academic piece, I wanted to find out how groundbreaking LGBTQ rights could be won in courtrooms while lingering in Congress for half a century. The central question this research tried to answer was, “what factors contribute to LGBTQ lobbyist and advocate perceptions of movement success by LGBTQ organizations?”  The answer became pretty clear when surveying the top LGBTQ lobbying and government affairs professionals, the ones with the most intimate, front-line view of congressional outreach. 

Overwhelmingly, the research concludes the leading mainstream legal organizations have been primarily responsible for the community’s progress – not the LGBTQ organization’s lobbying efforts. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the wealthiest LGBTQ organization with a $48 million a year budget based in Washington, D.C. and founded 41 years ago, was ranked 10th most effective out of 17 organizations ranked. Since 2018, HRC has fallen six additional positions since the original research was published. In contrast, Lambda Legal, the LGBTQ community’s foremost legal rights organization, followed by the legal powerhouse, the ACLU, have moved ahead of them ranking as the most effective LGBTQ organizations.

The research clearly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the LGBTQ lobby, which has largely focused on gaining access to power structures instead of winning legislative victories.  Fundraising models of these organizations, built largely around monetizing their access to power, has left little evidence of their effectiveness and in turn, has strengthened systems of oppression against an overwhelming number of LGBTQ people of color, transgender individuals and lower-income members of the community. The “access to power” model of LGBTQ lobbying has essentially commercialized gayness (white, cisgender, English-speaking, middle and upper class gayness) as a consumable product that most often benefits those in power. It’s a “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” system of lobbying that shuts the door on the most marginalized LGBTQ people – those most in need of legislative victories to protect their lives.

Today, regardless of all of the progress in LGBTQ legal victories over the last two decades, the community is in the most dangerous place it has been in 25 years. LGBTQ lobbying does not work, and LGBTQ legal avenues have catastrophically changed. The 6-3 Supreme Court is poised to undermine Roe, which some say undermines Lawrence, which undermines Obergefell (the groundbreaking 2015 marriage equality decision). A house of very successful, but delicate legal cards, may begin to fall. The LGBTQ community is holding its collective breath against an anti-LGBTQ Supreme Court majority, and the spotlight is now shining brightly on the LGBTQ lobby and their ability to produce legislative success. 

Unfortunately, the organizations responsible for shaping the community’s relationship with states and the federal government are largely seen as ineffective and oftentimes harmful to progress. This ineffectiveness leaves the LGBTQ community in a dangerous and perilous moment in the movement’s history.  

To be successful, a radical transformation of the movement’s lobbying must happen immediately by shifting to a much more state-based movement, where anti-LGBTQ opponents are already attacking the identity and existence of transgender people with the introduction of more than 100 bills aimed to curb the rights of transgender people nationwide. Secondly, the danger to the lives of LGBTQ people from these legislative harms must be amplified and ready to be fought against. And lastly, a new model of investment is required that prioritizes the lives of transgender individuals and people of color and embraces an intersectional approach to lobbying. 

The LGBTQ movement is about to face darker days ahead. Leaders in Washington’s premier gay rights groups, including their lobbyists, must figure out how to protect our children, protect the poor, and lift up the marginalized or face disastrous consequences in the next few years in legislative bodies from city halls to the U.S. Capitol. Otherwise our hopes to tackle issues like transgender sports and equality will rest solely on the LGBTQ legal apparatus.

Christopher Pepin-Neff, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, is the author of ‘LGBTQ Lobbying in the United States.’

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Biden administration must overhaul monkeypox response now

We need a plan emphasizing equity in vaccination, testing, treatment

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(Image courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The Biden administration needs to overhaul its response to monkeypox. Now.

For many who were around during the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Biden administration’s missteps around monkeypox are pale but haunting reminders of past battles. That’s particularly galling for LGBTQ+ Americans as more than 95% of monkeypox cases in 2022 are striking men who have sex with men (MSM).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1.6 million Americans are at risk, requiring 3.2 million doses. But outreach has been ineffective. Not even 10% are fully vaccinated.

It’s imperative that the White House implement a comprehensive plan emphasizing equity in prevention, vaccination, testing, and treatment. In August, the administration irresponsibly decided to withhold monkeypox vaccines from Americans whose health agencies aren’t using a newly mandated injection method. Washington theorizes the more efficient intradermal (ID) method will quintuple doses from vials.

Health officials from D.C. to Seattle report averaging 3.5 doses per vial amid significant disruptions. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials echoed their claims.

Using flawed assumptions that healthcare providers will extract five doses from each vial, the Biden administration is sending one-fifth of the vials previously allotted. That eliminates 100% of their imagined increase, but Washington is sending around 30% fewer usable doses compared to pre-mandate allotments. “The federal government has patted themselves on the back for how they’re accelerating the delivery of vaccines,” reflected DC Department of Health Senior Deputy Director Patrick Ashley. D.C. has nearly the highest case rate in the nation. “What they did is they moved numbers around.”

We urge President Biden to reinstate original vial allocations. The point of doing ID, noted Johns Hopkins scholar Caitlin Rivers, was to “benefit from the increase in supply.”

While we hope JYNNEOS’s two-shot course proves safe and effective, data is scant for subcutaneous use, and more so for ID – particularly for people who are immunocompromised, including those living with HIV. One study, reported STAT, showed one dose providing nearly undetectable protection. And some agencies still aren’t scheduling second injections. Even its manufacturer documented reservations about the administration’s approach.

Contends one writer in The Atlantic, “The FDA is now playing a high-stakes game with the health and trust of people most vulnerable to monkeypox…” It typically causes rash and flu-like symptoms, but lesions around the anus, genitals, or mouth are excruciating. An oft-cited study shows JYNNEOS’s efficacy, but it’s based on a 2010 trial of approximately only 175 mostly young, white, healthy straight men receiving ID.

The reduction in doses has forced some jurisdictions, like Philadelphia, to scale back vaccine outreach, complicating plans for required second doses. While cases are disproportionately high among Black and Hispanic individuals, vaccination among Black people remains exceedingly low. Reasons include distrust, stigma, and less accessible vaccine centers.

The White House has allocated 10,000 vials for local networks to vaccinate under-vaccinated demographics, especially people of color. It should be 100,000. Still needed: a detailed commitment to vaccinate incarcerated and un-housed individuals.

Up to 15% of Black and Hispanic individuals – populations most at risk of contracting monkeypox – and 5% in Asian communities are prone to keloid scarring, which causes skin discoloration. For those affected, ID would be ineffective and likely harmful, and damaging to trust of the public health community.

ID’s smaller doses are also deepening skepticism in vulnerable communities. The shrunken supply and over-emphasis on intradermal injections will exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in vaccination. We must not allow this. Promoting the subcutaneous option is critical to encourage vaccination, especially for those ineligible for ID.

Demetre Daskalakis, White House Deputy Coordinator for monkeypox, anticipates “real-world” data from health agencies on “actual doses from vials.” After issuing the mandate?

Daskalakis and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky indicate jurisdictions can request more vials, including for subcutaneous injections, but their vagueness has prevented some agencies from scheduling second shots.

Monkeypox was confined to Africa, where health resources are poor. Out of our sight, it was out of mind — until 27 countries where it hadn’t existed reported 780 cases in May. The World Health Organization declared a public health emergency on July 23. President Biden didn’t until Aug. 4. Five weeks later, domestic cases had more than tripled to 21,274.

Biden has often said, “Help is on the way.” It’s taking the long route. In his first joint address to Congress, Biden told transgender Americans – who are at high risk of contracting monkeypox – “Your president’s got your back.” As we advocate for speedier, more equitable vaccination, that assurance could use its own booster.

Dennis Jaffe of D.C. is an active member of PrEP4All’s monkeypox advocacy project. He has 40 years of professional experience in grassroots advocacy for social justice causes. 

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Initiative 82 will hurt D.C.’s bartenders

Measure would lead to increased costs for diners

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The hospitality industry in D.C. has given me so many opportunities throughout my five-year career as a bartender. I’ve had a flexible schedule, been able to support my family and live in D.C. (not the cheapest!), advance in my positions, and make lifelong friends whom I consider family. Being a bartender is my career, and that’s why I’m speaking out against Initiative 82 to share my perspective as someone who will be directly impacted by its passage.  

Today, my base pay and the tips I receive for my service pay me well above D.C.’s minimum wage. That’s how I’ve been able to live in this city and support my family. If 82 passes, it would almost certainly decrease the tips I receive, the earning I make, and immediately jeopardize our entire industry. 

Initiative 82 is a misguided effort to make sure all servers and bartenders earn the minimum wage. The reality is my hourly pay already exceeds the minimum wage because of the long-held practice of tipping in restaurants and bars. If restaurants and bars are forced to pay employees at the hourly minimum wage, it will immediately create an increase in labor costs, a disincentive for customers to tip at all, and pass on costs to diners. Positions will be eliminated, I will earn less, and menu prices will rise. Many customers will see increased prices, added “service charges,” and will have heard that bartenders and servers nowmake minimum wage and will decide “I don’t need to add a tip.” 

Large chain bars and restaurants will not be affected by this; it will be the small neighborhood bars and restaurants and the people who work in them that will suffer. They will be forced to shut down because they can no longer pay employees and will shut their doors. These are the businesses that make the D.C. bar and restaurant industry unique and they are the staples of every neighborhood in this city.  

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am particularly worried for D.C.’s LGBTQ+ bars and the people that call them home. These bars are independent and will likely be forced to close their doors because of the increase in costs if 82 passes.

Tipped employees are voting against Initiative 82. We didn’t ask for the system to be completely upended. And we absolutely don’t want this to pass when many voters haven’t heard from those of us who will be directly impacted. Listen to your servers and bartenders and vote NO on Initiative 82.  

Carl Parker is a bartender in D.C.

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Dupont Circle’s Fireplace, a beloved dive bar

Our own Cheers, where everybody knows your name

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During a Mayor’s Walk About on P Street, Muriel Bowser visited the Fireplace to a standing ovation. (Photo courtesy Larry Ray)

“Dupont Circle’s The Fireplace is the Cheers of P Street, where everybody knows your name and are always glad you came. It’s the last vestige of what was once the heart of gay D.C. — good drinks at reasonable prices and someone for everyone.” — Patron Jim C.

“I equate the Fireplace to a comfortable pair of slippers,” says another patron, Kerry. “The slippers, while aging and pretty worn around the edges, are still the ones you wear to relax and socialize. At the Fireplace I can relax and socialize with friends.”

The oldest D.C. gay bar is now The Fireplace. Yes, it does have an operating fireplace on the corner of 22nd and P Street, N.W. Scores of tourists take pictures of the fireplace daily.  What a background!  

Today, The Fireplace has become even more relevant since it is located directly across from the Ukraine Taras Shevchenko Memorial. The LBJ administration honored this Ukrainian freedom fighter and poet by dedicating the bronze statue in 1964. Also, The Fireplace is located directly across from the popular Soho Coffee and Tea once owned and operated by Helene and Fran for 25 years catering to a diverse community, along with Manager Sami, whom you might see now at The Fireplace.  

The historic Fireplace building was built in 1888 without the corner fireplace and served as a community corner grocery, Walkers, from 1920 to 1964, according to the D.C. Historical Society. It then became a different rendition of The Fireplace, as during the 1970s, it was a straight strip bar.   

In the 1980s, in this building, P Street Station became a staple of the bustling gayborhood. The gayborhood included Friends Piano bar (remember Carl Barnswell singing “Hello, Dolly” on his nine-foot grand?), which became Escandalo and closed. Mr. P’s opened in 1976 by George Dotson and partner John Maco and then closed 2004; Fraternity House opened in 1976, became Omega and then closed. Badlands became Apex and then closed, plus there was the theater piano bar on the lower level of what was then The Georgetown Hotel. At that time, the gayborhood was so busy that Soho Tea and Coffee was open 24 hours. The neighborhood has changed dramatically, leaving only The Fireplace.

In 1989, D.C. natives Steve and Joel Weinstein, Dr. Dave Griswell and others decided to buy or open three gay bars: The Green Lantern (a version is still open), The Circle Bar (Connecticut Avenue taking the old liquor license of gay bar Rascals, now closed with a nail salon operating in the space) and The Fireplace (formerly P Street Station.) Today, the owners celebrate 33 years of owning and operating The Fireplace.

Some might remember The Fireplace because of beloved longtime bartender “Mama Judy,” aka Judy Stevens, who passed away at age 79 several years ago. She offered advice and solace to many customers.

Others might remember Tommy Stewart, the bartender of 25 years who relocated to Florida with his husband.

Gay bars began to open around the country in the 1930s. By the 1980s there were more than 1,000, according to Oberlin University professor Greggor Mattson who created a database. In the heyday of the early 1990s, D.C. may have had 22 gay/lesbian bars; today, maybe eight? Most of them want to be recognized not as gay bars, but as safe, relaxed places for all genders and sexualities to come together.

Today, The Fireplace advertises on Facebook as “an international Gay Black bar.” Its motto: A gay bar that welcomes everyone who is looking for an opportunity to meet new friends. The Facebook page has 2,000 followers. Well known in the gay bar arena is Fireplace manager Scott Allen Paige, who has worked in gay bars for 30 years. Today, Scott along with bartender Bill Clark hosts on alternative days a lively diverse happy hour, especially during The Commander games when the place becomes quite lively. And yes, there is a collection of high heels on the fireplace mantel.

During this happy hour time period, there is a group of professionals sitting in the front bay window. They call themselves “The Office,” so that when people call them, they can simply say, they are at “The Office.” Another patron, Bob, who hails from Germany declared The Office reminded him of “Stammtisch,” a German term defined as a group of folks gathering at the same time, the same place, reviewing the day.   

During the lockdown, The Fireplace closed for more than 13 months. Owner Steve declared that the city’s COVID rules were just too complicated and convoluted for a small business, especially considering how the bar is configured.   

“The Fireplace has very limited capacity for tables…it does not make sense for us to reopen with these limitations,” he said at the time. Many speculated that it would never re-open but to the delight of many, it did.

This historic gay dive bar is happily frequented by a diverse crowd, from scientists and doctors to lawyers and engineers to IT experts, government workers, hotel concierges, tourists and even recently a famous author (Jamie Bowman’s book “Bike Riding in Kabul” is #1 on Amazon’s International New Release category and a book signing is planned at The Fireplace soon).

So enjoy one last happy gay bar in West Dupont Circle, The Fireplace.

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