Reflections On: 3rd Annual LGBTQ Conference at Harvard

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With Janson Wu, Executive Director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).

It was a pleasure to be part of the 3rd Annual LGBTQ Conference at Harvard. It was wonderful to hear Janson Wu, Executive Director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders as the morning keynote speaker, who has “served on the legal teams of many of GLAD’s significant cases, including the DOMA challenges Gill v. OPM and Pedersen v. OPM, and the successful asylum case of Ugandan activist John Abdallah Wambere.” Like many of the people I have met, Janson is also an alum of Harvard. He married his partner, Adam C. Levine on October 11th, 2009, at the Museum of Science in Boston.

He is also a blogger for The Huffington Post, and has written several articles worth noting. To begin, let’s start with “Beyond (Marriage) Equality“:

Last week, GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the freedom to marry for all same-sex couples across the country. Hopefully this June, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide in our favor and remove one of the largest “gay exceptions” in the law — the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. The speed with which we have progress in the last 11 years, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, has been remarkable.

With all of this progress, many have wondered whether the LGBT movement is close to full equality by now? The answer may come as a surprise.

Equality is not the finish line. Simply removing discriminatory laws from the books should be the bare minimum of what we seek.

The ultimate prize is not equality — it is justice.

Let me explain what I mean. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Enacted 11 years after Brown v. Board of Education, this landmark legislation was critical for African-Americans to be able to vote and build political power in the South. Even armed with the weapons of the 14th and 15th Amendments enshrining equal treatment and the right to vote into our Constitution, civil rights lawyers still could not dismantle the mass disenfranchisement of black people throughout the country, and especially in the South, given the numerous and creative ways that government officials would evade litigation. In response, the Voting Rights Act gave the federal government the enforcement tools needed to increase the number of black registered voters by over 700,000 in a matter of a few years.

Yet, this crowning achievement of the civil rights act is slowly being eroded by the Supreme Court, in the name of “equality” — the belief that we should all be treated the same, no matter what unique challenges we face. The Court has been striking down race-conscious legislation under the theory that our laws should be colorblind. But we know that our society is not color-blind, nor is it blind to LGBT or HIV status — not when a recent survey found that over a third of Americans are still uncomfortable with the sight of a same-sex couple holding hands.

We still need laws and protections that address the specific obstacles that we face as a community. What we must do now is move beyond formal equality and toward justice for our community.

So, what does a movement for LGBTQ justice look like?

First and foremost, a movement for LGBTQ justice means that no one is left behind, especially the most vulnerable in our community. We have not achieved justice while there exists an epidemic of violence and murder against trans women, particularly trans women of color, or while 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Instead, we must demand greater accountability from police and prosecutors, and greater government support for and affirmation of LGBT out-of-home youth to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community do not end up on the streets.

And as the events in Baltimore demonstrated, a mere 40 miles away from the U.S. Supreme Court last week, the words inscribed above the Court’s main entrance, “Equal Justice Under Law,” still do not apply to everyone in our community.

A movement for LGBTQ justice is committed to economic justice, which must begin with employment discrimination protections. What good is the ability to marry if you can be fired the next day for wearing your wedding ring? And how effective are our employment discrimination laws if the religious right carves out exemptions so broad you can drive a truck through them? It is no wonder that LGB and especially T individuals, as well as LGBT people of color, are disproportionately poorer than the rest of the population. It is beyond time for Congress to pass comprehensive LGBT discrimination protections that treats sexual orientation and gender identity the same as any other protected characteristic when it comes to religious exemptions.

A movement for equal justice under law means that all families are protected, and not just those who can or choose to marry. The LGBT community was born out of redefining familial bonds so that we are all family, regardless of genetics or marriage. Our families come in all shapes and sizes, and we must overhaul our outdated family laws that fail to acknowledge this reality.

Finally, and most importantly, a movement for equal justice under law means that LGBT people are not just protected — we are affirmed and celebrated. What if, in addition to ensuring that LGBT students are safe in school, we made sure that all students learned about the contributions of LGBT people to history, literature, and science. That every June for LGBT history month, schoolkids had to choose their favorite LGBT leader to write a report about. Think of that the difference that would make for the next generation.

The arc of the moral universe does not bend towards equality — it bends toward justice. The country is looking to the LGBT movement to see whether we have the will and the tenacity to create a more just and affirming world for everyone. Let’s show them we have what it takes.

Another one worth reading is “On Loving a Bisexual Man“:

When I first started dating my husband Adam, he had just broken up with a woman. It was my first time dating someone bisexual, and I was filled with doubt and confusion as to whether this could work.

Would he leave me for a woman eventually? How would I feel if he found a woman attractive, out in public? Did he eventually want to have children through old-fashioned procreation?

Eventually, I overcame my fears as exactly that — fears, not truths.

Unfortunately, much of society, including the lesbian and gay community, still struggle with those same fears and misunderstandings about bisexual people. For example, many still believe that bisexual people are either confused, in denial or hiding their “real” sexual orientation. That lack of acknowledgment of the legitimacy and authenticity of bisexual identities, unfortunately, can also have real, negative consequences.

For example, bi adults are six times more likely than gay and lesbian adults to hide their sexual orientation. Bisexual individuals struggle with the burden of “passing” in either the gay or straight communities. With the choice available to not come out as bi — which some may see as a privilege — many people find the line between staying true to oneself and keeping clear of conflict blurry and impassible.

Robyn Ochs, speaker, writer and bi activist, explains, “Many people privately identify as bisexual but, to avoid conflict and preserve their ties to a treasured community, choose to identify publicly as lesbian, gay or straight or to stay silent, allowing others to presume that they do, further contributing to bisexual invisibility.”

Given how important being supported in coming out is for one’s emotional and physical wellbeing, it is no wonder that the bisexual population fares so much worse than the lesbian and gay population, on a number of factors.

A study done by the Movement Advancement Project in 2014 revealed that 25 percent of bisexual men and 30 percent of bisexual women live in poverty, as opposed to 20 percent and 23 percent of gay men and women respectively. Bisexual people have greater health disparities, including higher rates of hypertension, smoking and risky drinking than lesbians, gay men and straight people. More worryingly, these same bi adults are twice as likely than gay and lesbian adults to attempt suicide (and four times more likely than straight individuals).

Such disparities do not happen by chance or accident. Instead, we need further research and data to understand better why this specific segment of our community is falling behind, and what policy changes are needed to improve the situation — especially as more young, queer people are identifying as bisexual, pansexual or omnisexual.

When I first told my mom about Adam, I explained to her that he was bisexual, foolishly thinking that might make it easier for her to accept us as a couple. All it did was confuse her even more. When she and Adam first met, she started to ask him questions about himself, to get to know him better. I gave them some space to have their separate conversation in the kitchen and walked out to the living room — within earshot of course!

My mom started with the usual questions about his family, but then started heading in a different direction. Soon, she was asking Adam why, if he was bisexual, would he choose to be with a man instead of woman. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just be straight?

I held my breath for Adam’s answer. He replied: “Because I fell in love with your son.”

For her, that was all she needed to hear in order to understand. And for an LGBT community connected by the common thread of wanting to live authentic and honest lives, including through the very personal decision of who we love, shouldn’t that be enough?

And finally, one topic of which I have advocated for personally, “To End AIDS, We Must Value the Lives Most At Risk“:

The scenes by now seem familiar. Activists blocking traffic at busy city intersections with locked arms, chanting “We’re fired up. We won’t take it anymore.” Protestors taking over streets and civic buildings, to raise awareness about the tragic loss of lives in their community and a government’s complicity in those deaths.

Only the year is 1988, not 2015, and the protesters are from ACT UP, a grassroots, leaderless and national coalition of local, direct action organizations to stem the loss of lives to AIDS in communities across the United States. Their tactics of civil disobedience drew from past civil rights movements, and resonate today with the Black Lives Matter movement. Sadly, however, there is still a need for movements today that value the lives of those who are too often seen as disposable.

Last Tuesday was World AIDS Day, and this year’s theme again is “Getting to Zero” — meaning zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero deaths. Thanks to life-saving medications and treatments, we have the tools to get to zero infections and zero deaths. But medicine alone cannot stop this epidemic, as long as HIV stigma and discrimination still exists. When stigma and discrimination continue unchallenged, it keeps people from getting tested and receiving treatment — both critical steps in ending the epidemic.

However, we must go beyond ending stigma and discrimination. We must also value the lives of those who are most at risk of becoming infected — through our words, actions and most importantly policies.

Over 40 percent of new HIV infections in our country occur among black people, making them eight times more likely than white people to become infected. Rates are highest amongst young Black men who have sex with men, and transgender people of color. And yet, black individuals are disproportionately denied access to health care due to the refusal of 20 states to expand Medicaid eligibility, as part of the Affordable Care Act. This is health care that could test, treat and prevent HIV infection — if only we valued enough the lives that are most hurt.

Overall, the highest percentage of newly identified HIV-positive test results was among transgender people. And yet, over half the states and the federal government have refused to pass explicit anti-discrimination protections for transgender people, including discrimination protections in health care. Far from valuing the lives of trans people, government officials go out of their way to demonize trans people as sexual predators. As a result, we are seeing an epidemic of violence against trans people, especially trans women of color, who are amongst the most vulnerable to new HIV infections.

Finally, we cannot place value only on the lives of people living in the U.S. There are almost 37 million people worldwide living with HIV, with 2 million new infections and over 1 million deaths each year — most of them black lives in sub-Saharan Africa. And yet, U.S. funding to fight the global AIDS epidemic has plateaued in the last 5 years, even though total global funding to fight HIV is still below what the global community has set as the amount needed to end the epidemic.

HIV disproportionately targets the most socially and economically vulnerable in our society. That is why, if we are to reach our goal of getting to zero, we must focus on counteracting the many ways our governments, institutions and society devalue the lives of those who are most marginalized in society.

Gay men know what it was like to have their lives mean little to a government entrusted to protect their interests. To hear silence from government officials as their family members are dying. To have politicians call for special identification and quarantine of HIV-positive individuals. To be blocked from entering the U.S. based upon their HIV status. Sadly, the history of discrimination has a habit of repeating itself. That is why on this World AIDS Day, it is time again to act up for the lives most at risk of being lost to the epidemic.

Here is an interview of him with the American Constitution Society:


 

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With Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, the Outreach and Recruitment Director for Presidential Personnel, and LGBTQ Liaison at the White House.

Of course, I have known Raffi for quite some time now, as far as back when she served as Legative Aide to then-State Representative, and now-Executive Director of AIDS Actions Committee, Carl Sciortino. Raffi isn’t the first person I have known to have worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I have also met Mike Lake, and Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney.

“That the first transgender appointee is a transgender woman of color is itself significant. And that the first White House transgender appointee is of a friend is inspiring to me and to countless others who have been touched by Raffi’s advocacy.” (Source)

After working for Sciortino, Raffi worked as policy adviser at the National Center for Transgender Equality, before being appointed to the White House, where she was also appointed the White House’s first transgender LGBTQ Liaison.

“We believe it is a tremendous decision by the White House to recognize Raffi’s leadership as well as the importance of having transgender leadership in an important role for the community,” said JoDee Winterhof, the senior vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign. (Source)

I’d like to share this wonderful video, Transgender, at War and in Love, of which I saw at the confererece:

Being different is something I am very well acquainted with, it’s something I own, and love dearly about myself: I’m Jewish, I’m gay, I’m an Atheist, I lived in a majority-minority city, have evangelicals in my family, and am all too familiar with microaggressions, and manipulation, intended to bring me down a couple pegs (You know who you are). The evangelical attitude hasn’t quite been evicted from my family, I’d say, given communications like this:

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Of course, all I said was really, that, I’m not a woman. Much said here in response is, of course, completely out of line. Yet there is more.

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Of course, seen here, suggestions that I inhabit negative female connotations (such as being emotional, or overly-emotional, receptive, and, of course, damseling). Belittling me that I am somehow notnice” and of course, telling me that things like walking their dog and cooking dinner for them are somehow practical ways of living. Rest assured, if I am not a walking-talking stereotype of a gay man, I’m the most useless person ever. So, they must perpetuate this narrative, obviously, as continued here.

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My sexual orientation does not have anything to my gender, or gender expression, as I have been compared to the like of Liberace and Elton John in the past many times, as though being gay means being both flamboyant, and feminine. This is not to say to say there is anything wrong with having a different gender identity or expression, merely that this simply is a popularized narrative (think Jack McFarland from Will & Grace) that doesn’t apply to me, and  as such, comparisons are likely to feel disruptive and insulting when received. Thanks.

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Of course, given I have been out of the closet as a proud gay man for well over a decade, I have heard it all at one time or another. For a brief list of the questions, or comments sent in my direction:

  • “Are you the man or woman in the relationship?”
  • “Did you know that being gay means you are going to hell?”
  • “Do you worry about getting AIDS?”
  • “Do you think I’m handsome?” (From others guys, of course, often heterosexual and/or closeted.)
  • “Why don’t you like girls?” (Which I then think to ask the opposite question of them.)
  • “Were you sexually abused as a child?”
  • “You don’t seem/appear/look gay.”
  • “What made you chose to be gay?”
  • “How do you know you don’t like sex with girls if you never been with one?
  • “How do you know you want to be with other guys if you never been with one?”
  • “Have you tried not being gay?” (From my mother, no less.)

So, given I have been down all of this road before (certainly, a dozen times over given the frequency I have been asked these questions again, and again, throughout school, and after), I’m not unaccustomed to this sort of awful behavior, but that doesn’t make it justified or appropriate behavior. Still, that hasn’t stopped from them from asking certain questions, or making certain comments. That is not to say that LGBTQ folks are not prejudice either, as bisexuals, people of color, sexism, and as journalist Michael Musto once said, “The LGBT community are sometimes the biggest homophobes of all.” The LGBTQ community, as part of the larger community (i.e. region, country, planet) is subject to the same prejudices that exist, as a matter of expression. I do not justify these sentiments as appropriate, because these, too, are not more justified from LGBTQ folks simply because society at-large may be indifferent, or unsupportive of some of our ideas, and contributions. Anyways, I’d like to end with this post:

Dear world,

Asking who’s the “man” and who’s the “woman” in a gay relationship is like going to a Chinese restaurant and asking which chopstick is the fork.
Sincerely, annoyed.
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