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Obituaries are lively stories of lives

Celebrating our dead has become more important than ever

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

On Jan.1, I wished my dear ones a happy New Year and enjoyed reading the obituaries. 

This person is a wackadoodle, you’re likely thinking. Who enjoys reading the obituaries — especially on New Year’s — you may wonder?

I get why this strikes many as morbid. Yet, strange as it probably seems, few things are more life affirming than obits. Particularly, for the LGBTQ community.

Obituaries are far from dole, death-obsessed dirges. They are (pun intended) lively stories of lives, according to composer Steven Sondheim whose lyrics and music enliven the imagination of everyone from middle-schoolers going “Into the Woods” to elders remembering “Gypsy.”

Jim Kolbe, the first Republican member of the House of Representatives. Isabel Torres, the actress who played Cristina Ortiz Rodriguez, the transgender singer, on “Veneno,” the HBO Max series.    

“It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but obituaries have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life,” Margalit Fox, then a New York Times obituary writer, says in “Obit,” the 2017 documentary about The New York Times obituary department.

It’s a fact of life that we’ll all die. But when we tell the stories of those who’ve died, we keep the memories of deceased people alive. As I wrote in the Blade in 2017, obituaries ensure that people, famous or not, have a place in history.

For centuries, queer people have been erased from history. Obituaries have been a telling, poignant reveal of this erasure.

Those of us queer folk who are over 40, or even 30, have seen this erasure again and again. 

Until recently, our relationships with our lovers and spouses who have died have usually been omitted or distorted in obituaries. In 2001, when my partner Anne died, I appreciated that the Washington Post published an obituary about her. Yet, as was common just a little over 20 years ago, the obituary writer referred to me as my spouse’s “companion.”

I was far from alone. Historically, many grieving LGBTQ people have not had their connections to their deceased queer partners recognized in obits. 

Untold millions of LGBTQ people have had their queerness omitted from obituaries. Every day Achy Obejas read the obituaries, Obejas wrote in the Chicago Reader in 1988 during the height of the AIDS crisis. “What I do is look for dead men who were gay…because neither daily [newspaper] ordinarily offers any hint of their real lives.”

Obejas scanned the obits for telling clues of queer erasure. “If he was between 22 and 50, if his only survivors are Mom and Pop,” Obejas wrote, “I know I’m onto something.”

When Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender activist who played a pivotal role in the Stonewall Uprising, died in 1992, her death wasn’t noted in most mainstream press obits. When queer writer and intellectual Susan Sontag died in 2004, most of the obituaries didn’t mention her relationship with Annie Leibovitz.

Thankfully, stories of the lives of LGBTQ people are told more frequently now in obits. Take Marsha P. Johnson. The New York Times has added Johnson’s story to “Overlooked” – its series on notable people from marginalized groups (queer people, disabled people, women, people of color, etc.) whose obituaries didn’t appear in the Times.

In our current climate when anti-queer sentiment and violence against our community is rising, celebrating our dead has become more important than ever.

More than 306 anti-trans laws have been introduced in state legislatures in the past two years (with 86% focusing on transgender youth), NPR reported.

Henry Berg-Brousseau, 24, a transgender activist and a Human Rights Campaign deputy press secretary, died by suicide on Dec. 16. “Not long ago he said to me ‘Mom, they say it gets better, but it is not getting better, it is getting worse and I’m scared,’” Dr. Karen Berg, a Kentucky state senator and Berg-Brousseau’s mother, told The New York Times. (If you have thoughts of suicide, contact the trevorproject.org.) 

Every year, I look forward to compiling the In Memoriam feature for the Blade. Over the years, we’ve noted the lives of everyone from an executive of Macy’s Thanksgiving parade to an expert on coral reefs to LGBTQ ally Valerie Harper.

Remembering LGBTQ folk who’ve died, keeps us from despair. It keeps our history alive.  No one can take that away from us.

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

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U.S. should create path to citizenship for ‘stateless’ people like me

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, a reminder of those in limbo

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The Stateless Protection Act has been introduced in the U.S. Congress. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’s International Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27. As an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor I’m grateful to be among those still here to mourn. This year, I’m also grateful as a bisexual man to have finally recovered my green card after years as a “stateless” person. I hope the Biden administration and Congress do all they can to help more than 200,000 other Americans who are also stateless like I have been since the 1960s.

The Nazis took my parents against their will to a forced labor camp in Germany from Poland and I was born in Germany in 1940. After surviving World War II, my family remained in Germany until 1951 when we immigrated to the U.S.

Then, I became stateless after losing my green card in the 1960s. I spent more than half a century in that legal limbo, unable to travel outside the U.S. or claim Social Security. The U.S. wanted to deport me but no country would claim me as a citizen so I lived in an uncertain and anxious world for most of my life. All stateless people have a different story. But I would like to make sure that nobody else has to go through the kind of anxiety I did. I am very lucky people have been so generous and helped me when I was in need. I could easily have ended up out on the street.

Now I live in Silver Spring, Md. Luckily, in 2019, I began working with my lawyer, Jayesh Rathod, a professor with the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law. He’s been helping me after years of uncertainty as a stateless person. He and his students helped me get my deportation case from the 1960s reopened and dismissed. Soon after, they helped me reapply for my green card, and it came through last July. Since then, I’ve been able to breathe a sigh of relief. I find myself very emotional, often. I was under a lot of strain for a long time.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also phoned me last July to tell me he was pardoning me. I was convicted in 1967 on a charge of lewd conduct after I was caught having sex with another man in a car parked in a secluded area in Long Beach. A security guard caught us, telling us we had gone against ‘God and nature.’ He turned us in to the police. I pleaded guilty to a lewdness charge in exchange for the dropping of a ‘sex perversion’ charge. Gov. Newsom pardoned me along with 16 other people last summer because we were subjected to “stigma, bias, and ignorance.”

I’ve been lucky to meet other stateless people through a new organization called United Stateless. We’re trying to spread the word about the legal condition so that more people understand their options. I went to a conference last year and met other stateless people. I thought I was the only one going through this situation, but we’ve started a community now. We’ve found each other and we’re advocating for things to change. It is nice to feel like our voices have power and we are connecting with each other. I felt pretty powerless for a long time.

Only Congress can ensure that other people don’t have similar experiences. Two members of Congress, U.S Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Jamie Raskin, have taken action. Their newly introduced Stateless Protection Act would resolve the status of stateless people in the U.S. It could change thousands of lives, including mine. The bill, if passed into law, will give people like me a legal pathway to citizenship. We could practice our human right to a nationality. And we could all get on with living more productive lives. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we can ensure that people who have been rejected by their countries because of their race or religion aren’t left in limbo indefinitely into the future.

Henry Pachnowski is a Holocaust survivor and member of United Stateless. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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Trans people are in the midst of a second Lavender Scare

Legislative attacks becoming more numerous and draconian

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

To be trans in the U.S. is to know fear. It is a companion that travels with us constantly: from the moment we realize we are trans, to coming out, to transitioning, and now into our lives long past the point where we should have faded away into anonymity in days past.

We are in the midst of a second Lavender Scare, and in many ways this is far more dangerous: even Christine Jorgensen wasn’t barred from receiving hormones or being within 2,500 feet of children simply for being transgender. 

I have been called a doomsayer who profits from prognosticating an inevitable end. This is not precisely true: there is hope, if precious little of it. We can all clearly see the situation deteriorating rapidly in red states, with (at best) spotty resistance from the Democratic Party as a whole. We can see the effects of this deterioration as transgender people not only ask how to flee, but actively do so now. But most in a poverty-stricken community, however, lack the money or resources to flee.

There’s an eerie similarity to 1933, when people sold everything they owned, with no job waiting for them, just to get away from what they saw happening and coming. Others look at what it will take to get to another country, even as those countries are not yet ready to grant trans people asylum or refugee status. Most can only tell you that it’s getting bad, and that they’re afraid of what their government is preparing to do to them, even if they don’t know exactly what that will be. However, with nowhere to go, and no country particularly wanting transgender people, I find myself dreading another S.S. St. Louis moment in history.

There’s an authoritarian party in permanent power in half of the U.S. They’re making it clear that they intend to seize permanent federal control and bring their vision of a shiny, godly America to the rest of the country by any means necessary. They’re ready to destroy the Union and our democracy to save it from “wokeness.” And they have sold their base on the idea that the No. 1 threat that the country must be saved from is transgender people.

State level anti-transgender bills are becoming both more numerous and draconian year after year.  The Overton Window of anti-trans legislation keeps shifting further and further to the right. For example, first they wanted to ban transition-related health care for everyone under the age of 18. Then the bills started putting the age at 21. Then, this year, we saw Oklahoma propose banning it for anyone under 26. Texas followed by passing a resolution condemning it for people of all ages. 

Now Oklahoma has proposed a law that would ban providers who take state or federal money of money of any sort (e.g. Medicare or Medicaid) from providing transition-related care to anyone of any age. This means thousands of people who transitioned years ago will no longer be able to refill their prescriptions. Access to medical care will become a right that exists in theory but not in practice, like suffrage in the Jim Crow South. 

It’s not just medical care. It’s sports, bathrooms, birth certificates, driver’s licenses, bans on “drag”, required misgendering, and forced outing. The creativity of this performative cruelty seems endless. Of these though, the “drag” bans are the most devastating. These laws are deliberately written as to be so vague and overly broad that a symphony orchestra with a transgender 2nd clarinet, or a family with a trans child doing a sing-along in the car would be considered obscene. In West Virginia, SB252 and 278 single out transgender people (and not just drag performers) to declare that their mere presence in public is obscene.

Not only are the scope of laws increasing; the sheer number is growing exponentially. In 2018, there were 19 anti-trans bills proposed in state legislatures. By 2020 it was 60. Last year it was 155. Now, in 2023, we surpassed the 2022 total by the middle of January and are well on our way to more than 200. Even so, these numbers don’t tell the full tale.

In years past, only perhaps 10% of these bills would pass, usually after opposition and debate. Now, we’re seeing bills introduced, sent to committee, debated, and sent to the floor in 24 hours. There is simply so much happening so fast that trans people cannot put together opposition in time to speak against these bills, whereas conservative legislators coordinating with religious legal groups always have “experts” lined up and ready, since they know exactly when and where the bills will be heard ahead of time. The result is that in a year where a record number of anti-transgender bills are introduced, a record percentage, and a record total, will be passed.

Trans people are not doomed, but we’re clearly on an accelerating trajectory to the end of the community in at least half of the U.S. Reversing these trends, and preventing a nationwide destruction of the community, requires numerous highly improbable things to happen. This includes Republicans moving on from the moral panic about trans people, deciding that they’ve gone far enough already with their oppression at the state level, or the courts overturning anti-trans laws. None of these seems likely.

Additionally, there remains the fear that even states with sanctuary laws, like California, will not remain safe forever. Republicans in Congress have made it clear that should they take power in 2024, they intend to pass nationwide laws similar to those at the state level. The odds of the GOP taking full control are frighteningly high: the Senate map in 2024 for Democrats is very bad, Biden’s net approval is where Trump’s was in 2020, and gerrymandering makes taking back the House difficult.

Masha Gessen’s rules for surviving autocracy state that “your institutions will not save you.” This is true for trans people now in several ways: neither courts, the Democratic Party, nor the media seem prepared to stand up for us as the situation goes from hostile to non-survivable. There’s the open question of whether the courts will uphold sanctuary laws. When Texas demands the arrest and extradition of trans people (or parents of trans youth) who have fled to a sanctuary state, it seems unlikely that the current Supreme Court will do anything but what their Christian nationalist masters tell them to. It’s also unknown whether a state like California would defy the courts and break the union over trans people or women seeking an abortion. 

Then there’s the news media, the fifth estate that is supposed to be the light of truth shining on darkness. Instead, half of the media ecosystem is leading the charge to brand transgender people as an existential threat to women, children, and society. The other half, like Reuters, the New York Times, and The Atlantic, produce poorly thought out “both-sideism” and concern troll pieces that amplify and reinforce the narratives of the side that believes the ideal number of transgender people in the U.S. is zero.

Trans people have precious few people that they know will go to the mattresses for them. We’re already seeing who on the left and center is stepping aside, or even joining in, to let self-proclaimed Christian fascists like Matt Walsh have their way. Not only can it happen here, but it is happening now, at this very instant, to the sound of deafening silence from the people who swore without irony “never again.” 

The American public, for their part, either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. It’s just happening to “those people.” Most trans people cannot enunciate all the factors that have them afraid, and why they form an interlocking system of failures that make recovery from the trajectory we’re on improbable. They just know that things are getting worse, and they don’t see how it will get better. Like animals before an earthquake, they know something is very wrong, even if they can’t explain why, or get anyone to listen.

All they know is that they cannot get out, the unstoppable power of the government is coming, and no one is coming to the rescue. For those who cannot flee, and cannot survive the laws about to be passed, the end comes soon. Drums, drums in the deep.

Brynn Tannehill is a senior analyst at a D.C-area think-tank and author of ‘American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy.’

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D.C. Council passes questionable legislation

Some of our elected officials are surely overreaching

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The John A. Wilson Building houses the D.C. Council. (Photo by Leonid Andronov/Bigstock)

The D.C. Council is passing some questionable legislation. I don’t question their good intentions, most of the time, but some legislation recently passed is not ready for prime time. Two examples are the overhaul of the D.C. Criminal Code, and the Non-Citizen Voting Act.

In passing these bills, neither fully thought out, the Council is challenging Congress to use its legislative oversight authority. The GOP has already announced it will fight the Non-Citizen Voting Rights bill. With the mayor’s recent veto of the Criminal Code overhaul, the Council is looking to blame her for possible negative action by Congress on that bill. The mayor was absolutely right. Lowering the maximum possible penalties for burglaries, carjackings (now at their highest) and robberies, while residents are seeing a crime wave, is irresponsible and won’t make the city safer. If Congress takes action on these bills, the Council must accept the full blame. While Congress shouldn’t interfere with D.C. government (I have long advocated for budget and legislative autonomy for the District) we don’t have it yet. 

There are other instances where the Council, with good intentions, is passing legislation that could create budget problems. Recent legislation making all bus rides in the District free is a great idea. However, the mayor was right in suggesting it is a budget issue and we should be talking to Maryland and Virginia first, urging them to join us. Under this legislation their residents, working and commuting, can get on a bus here for free and the District picks up the tab, estimated at $42 million annually. Council members suggested it will get cars off the roads yet studies don’t prove that. “A 2016 study in the journal International Journal of Transportation shows people’s decisions about what mode of transport to use are impacted by accessibility more than price. Researchers found eliminating fares in European transit systems increased ridership 13-fold, but had only a “marginal” impact on vehicle traffic since most riders switched from walking or cycling.” So, let’s look at how we help people based on need. There are clearly ways to help people in need without passing bills giving money to those who don’t need it. 

Recently, my Council member Brooke Pinto, proposed a bill that would give huge rebates to those buying e-bikes. For poorer citizens paying up to a third, or $1,200 for an expensive bike. For others up to $400. I am all for bike lanes and doing all we can to get people out of their cars. But proposing to spend up to $2 million on this may be unrealistic. Who asked for this bill and who will benefit the most? Those who sell e-bikes? Then we need to do the appropriate additional legislation regarding e-bikes and scooters keeping keep them off sidewalks where pedestrians are now dodging them. Then we are looking at another good idea, giving D.C. residents up to $100 a month to pay for Metro (could include Metro busses) — an idea that needs a lot of thought on how it would be implemented and let’s hope the Council doesn’t get ahead of itself on this one.

We know the windfall of federal money that came into the District through appropriations Congress passed during the pandemic is coming to an end. D.C. will again have to rely on the taxes it collects from its residents and we know the population has gone down during the pandemic. Rebuilding the tax base will take time. The mayor is proposing a number of excellent programs to bring more residents into D.C., especially downtown, including turning empty commercial buildings into residences. So, as we look at our budgets in the coming years, we need to determine what our priorities are and the Council shouldn’t be making long-term commitments that maybe can’t be funded. It is all too easy to come up with expensive ideas. 

The current Council apparently wants to lead the nation in being progressive, which is fine. But much work and deep thought need to go into all legislation. I recognize with a bill like the Criminal Code overhaul, it took many years to formulate. But standing behind it and overriding the mayor’s veto despite both the past and current chairs of the Public Safety Committee agreeing it will need amendments, was surprising. 

I want to see legislation that promotes equality, and gives help to those in the District who need it the most. I also agree we need to get more cars off the streets and promote programs in response to climate change. Yet it appears like Republicans in Congress, some of our Council members are surely overreaching.  

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

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