Thursday, July 28, 2011

GLAD attorney makes his marriage work...for LGBT equality!

Check out this post by our staff attorney Janson Wu.

About a month ago the American Medical Association (AMA) passed a resolution in support of marriage equality, joining every leading professional medical, scientific, and social science community in denouncing the exclusion of American citizens from marriage. In passing this resolution, the AMA recognized the severe adverse health affects that marriage inequality has on LGBT people as well as their children.

What made this success even more thrilling was that I got to work with my spouse, Adam Levine, on this issue. With my GLAD colleague Mary Bonauto, I advised on the language used in drafting the resolution. Adam then worked with other AMA delegates for over a year to help lead it to passage.

But this was not Adam’s and my first professional collaboration, nor our first success. About two months ago the Massachusetts Medical Society passed a resolution in support of transgender anti-discrimination protections. Adam, a physician delegate to the MMS, and I worked on the draft of the resolution and the accompanying report, strategized responses to any opposition, and identified the key individuals within the MMS whose support was crucial for the resolution’s success.

My work with Adam in building support within the medical community for LGBT equality dates back almost four years to a dinner table argument. Back then, we were an overcommitted, career-oriented professional couple with not enough time to see each other. (Hmm… maybe that hasn’t really changed much.) And so, I kept pushing Adam not to renew his involvement in the various medical associations, including the MMS and the AMA, because I saw it as an opportunity to free up more of his time (for me, of course).

Not to mention, what did he get out of it anyway?

In response, Adam tried to convince me that he remained involved with the MMS and AMA because, for him, it was one of the ways he could effect social justice change within his own profession. He pointed to the many LGBT-friendly resolutions that he had helped pass at the AMA over the years. Incredulous still, I challenged him: “Well, could you get the AMA to support the importance of transgender-related health care?”

“Sure,” Adam answered. “Let’s do it.”

And with that, we drafted a resolution asking the AMA to support private and public health insurance coverage of transition-related health. We created FAQs and talking points, analyzed various proposed amendments and generally worked together to guide the resolution to ultimate success at the AMA in 2008. It was a terrific victory that no one thought would happen.

Over the years, Adam has also gotten the AMA to sign onto an amicus brief in a transgender prisoner case in Wisconsin, secured supportive testimony from the president of the Rhode Island Medical Association in support of marriage equality, and helped us reach out to supportive doctors and state medical associations throughout New England.

Dating (and now being married to) a doctor has always had its challenges (overnight shifts, long hours, etc.). But getting to work with him on these projects that combine both our worlds has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve gotten to do at GLAD. I guess this is one argument that I lost.

Now, if I can only get him to stop going to so many conferences.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Class Act: Author Jodi Picoult Will Receive the Community Award at the Summer Party July 30

Last week’s Bay Windows has a great interview with bestselling author Jodi Picoult, in which she discusses her latest novel, Sing You Home, and the Community Award she’ll receive from GLAD at our annual Summer Party in Provincetown on Saturday, July 30. Full disclosure: I authored the piece on Jodi, so I may be biased about how great it is, but it’s clear from reading it that Jodi is a class act and a committed supporter of the LGBT community. In fact, she took time to do the early-morning interview with me in the midst of caring for an ill family member who was in the hospital. Nonetheless, she was very gracious and thoughtful throughout our chat.

What was most surprising to me was the amount of research Jodi did in preparing to write Sing You Home, the story of Zoe and Vanessa, a lesbian couple who are trying to start a family through artificial insemination in the face of a legal challenge from Zoe’s ex-husband Max, an evangelical Christian. In addition to consulting Lise Iwon, the openly lesbian president of the Rhode Island Bar Association and a longtime GLAD collaborator and supporter on the particulars of LGBT family law (which led her to create the character of Angela Moretti, the fictional GLAD lawyer who represents Zoe in court), Jodi told me she spent an enlightening (and not in a good way) time talking with some of the folks from Focus on the Family, a notoriously anti-gay organization, and even thanks Focus’ “ex-lesbian” activist Melissa Fryrear in Sing You Home’s acknowledgements (like I said, she’s a class act).

This isn’t to say that she at all buys into Focus on the Family’s anti-gay ideology, as she made clear in our interview. Jodi told me she had long wanted to tackle gay issues in her fiction because the country has not yet granted full equality to gay and lesbian people. That desire became even stronger when her teenage son Kyle came out to her and his dad during the writing of Sing You Home. As she said in the interview, “It wasn’t just a theoretical journey anymore. It was really, for me, a mom’s mission: how do I make the world a better place so that when Kyle’s ready to get married and have his kids, he doesn’t have to jump through hoops in order to do it.”

But Jodi’s advocacy for the LGBT community goes beyond the affirming message of Sing You Home. In a wide-ranging live chat with the Trevor Project – to which she is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds – earlier this year, she revealed that she has been mentoring a young lesbian who was struggling with her unaccepting conservative Christian family. On top of that, she’s been engaging in dialogue with the many fans who have written to criticize her for Sing You Home’s portrayal of the homophobic Christian right (which, based on my experience, is spot on), and confronting their misguided arguments against gay rights -- and against gay people generally -- head on.

With Jodi, art clearly imitates life. That’s why GLAD is proud to honor her at this year’s Summer Party. We hope you’ll join us on July 30!

Want to be in Jodi Picoult's next book? You could win that - and other fantastic packages - in our amazing Summer Party auction (you don't need to be present to bid on many items)!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fighting on Every Front for DOMA's Demise

Our efforts to dismantle DOMA have been keeping us very busy here at GLAD headquarters this week. Our DOMA legal team – Mary Bonauto, Gary Buseck, Ashley Dunn, Vickie Henry, and Janson Wu – was locked away preparing our motion for summary judgment in our Pedersen lawsuit. We let them out to eat lunch, but that’s about it.

Meanwhile, the public affairs team was doing its part to ensure that the upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act (RMA), Sen. Diane Feinstein’s bill to repeal DOMA, successfully demonstrates to committee members, Congress and the public just how much DOMA hurts married same-sex couples and widows or widowers.

The hearing is on July 20 in Washington, D.C. and we were proud to help Connecticut’s Sen. Richard Blumenthal, an RMA cosponsor, identify a constituent to testify about the injustice he’s suffered under DOMA – one Mr. Andrew Sorbo, a retired teacher from Cheshire who lost his husband and partner of 30 years, Colin Atterbury, to pancreatic cancer only to learn that his household income would be reduced by 80 percent because of DOMA. We profiled Andrew for our online DOMA Story Book project and his story is both moving and maddening. It can’t help but impact Judiciary Committee members.

Speaking of our DOMA Story Book project, we also compiled 20 of them into a soft-cover book that will be distributed to each of the Judiciary Committee members. Hot off the presses, a copy of “DOMA Stories: How Federal Marriage Discrimination Hurts American Families” just landed on my desk. Despite its compact size, it really packs a punch.

It’s hard not to be moved by the stories of couples like Tom Casey Hopkins and Darrel Hopkins, a Vietnam veteran who simply wants the same spousal benefits for his husband that other married vets enjoy, or Judy Paiva and Sandy Ansell, who live under a cloud of uncertainty and anxiety, because DOMA prevents Judy from sponsoring her spouse Sandy, a native of Canada, for U.S. citizenship.

Though I’ve read all of these stories plenty of times before, there is something very powerful about seeing and reading them in this book form, perhaps because it makes the evidence of DOMA’s many injustices completely undeniable. We’re proud of this publication and we’re grateful to the many, many couples who have generously shared their stories with us. It’s because of folks like them that we’re fighting on every front for DOMA’s demise.

And in addition to wrapping up their motion, a couple of our DOMA team lawyers are assisting our partners at Freedom to Marry with legal analysis and crafting testimony. And while GLAD won’t be testifying at the hearing due to our pending DOMA lawsuits, Mary Bonauto will be attending the hearing next Wednesday to offer moral and technical support to the folks testifying in favor of the RMA.

Be it in the in the legislature, the public square, or in the courts, we won’t rest until DOMA is gone.

Know Your Rights: What's Wrong With Rhode Island Civil Unions?

Guest post from GLAD Public Education Intern Sam Dusing

As an intern at GLAD, I have been watching the marriage/civil union debate unfold in Rhode Island. Since the passage of its civil union bill – called “An Act Relating to Domestic Relations” – there has been a great deal of talk about the differences between marriage and civil unions. Here are some of my thoughts.

Civil unions have supposedly been designed in Rhode Island to guarantee same-sex couples the same rights as married couples. The law is written so that “a party to a civil union shall be included in any definition or use of any term that denotes the spousal relationship.” That is, any Rhode Island law that identifies the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of married spouses now applies to couples in civil unions. But in fact, civil unions fall far from the mark of achieving the same rights as married couples in Rhode Island.

First, civil unions fail to extend the 1,138 federal protections given to married couples. While those protections are currently withheld from same-sex married couple because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), GLAD is fighting to end this discrimination and feels that it is only a matter of time before these rights are available to married same-sex couples. Even if DOMA goes away, civil union couples will not have access to these protections.

Second, the law’s broad religious exemption states, “no religious or denominational organization, no organization operated for charitable or educational purpose which is supervised or controlled in connection with a religious organization” is required to respect your civil union or offer its facilities for a civil union ceremony or celebration. It gives religious institutions and the organizations connected to them permission to discriminate against same-sex couples. On the contrary, there is no “religious exemption” for marriage.

Third, marriage has existed for hundreds of years as a way for couples to profess the highest level of commitment to a loved one, as a family. A myriad of social communities – families, friend groups, churches – have historically identified marriage as a serious and definitive experience in the lives of its members. In other words, marriage is a familiar institution in our society that communicates a widely respected sense of commitment. Civil unions on the other hand have only been around for about a decade. Because they are not based in the same cultural and social history as marriage, civil unions do not come close to conferring the same respect as marriage.

Same-sex couples in Rhode Island do have the option of marriage in the border states of Massachusetts and Connecticut as well as New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, New York and Washington DC. But the question we often hear on GLAD’s Legal InfoLine is: Will my marriage from another jurisdiction be respected in Rhode Island? The answer is that in many contexts it will.

Rhode Island follows the longstanding tradition of respecting marriages in other jurisdictions unless they run contrary to a strong public policy of the state. Following this rule, former Attorney General Patrick Lynch made it very clear that these marriages should be respected, and, in many situations, they have been. However, in the case, Chambers v. Ormiston, the Rhode Island Supreme Court countered this tradition by denying same-sex married couples the right to divorce in Rhode Island. Marriage is certainly the gold standard in terms of acquiring social and legal recognition of your relationship, but in Rhode Island, for now at least, the best way for some same-sex couples to acquire certain rights and benefits may be through a civil union.

It is GLAD’s opinion that civil unions are inherently inferior to full marriage equality. However, whether you and your partner want to get married, enter into a civil union, or remain single depends on your own unique circumstances. Whatever option you may pick it is important to know what each relationship status means for you in Rhode Island. I also strongly recommend consulting with an attorney before making any of these important life-changing decisions. For more detailed information on the subject see our publication, Marriage and Civil Union Guide for Rhode Island Same-Sex Couples. If you have any questions or need attorney referrals call GLAD’s Legal InfoLine at 800-455-GLAD (4523).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Could the Red Sox "It Gets Better" Video Have Been Better?

Last week, the Boston Red Sox were the third Major League Baseball team to release a video for the It Gets Better project. Many have praised the Red Sox for taking a stand against anti-LGBT bullying, while others have expressed disappointment that the team's statement wasn't stronger.

Bennett Klein - GLAD Attorney, Red Sox fan and left fielder in the Beantown softball league - shared his opinion of the video at the Boston Globe's The Angle.

Watch the video, read Klein's remarks - cross-posted below - and then tell us what you think in the comments.

As a gay man and lifelong Red Sox fan, I was extremely disappointed by the Red Sox's recent “It Gets Better” video, the team’s installment in the series aimed at providing hope to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens, who are at increased risk for suicide and bullying. What is so striking about the video is that the manager and two players who participate — Terry Francona, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek — actually never say the words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual” or “transgender.” Most LGBT teens grow up in a world in which they feel invisible and isolated, a world in which their existence is largely unacknowledged. This video sends to them the message that who they are is unmentionable. In my view, the video does more harm than good.

The lack of an explicit reference to LGBT people by Youk, Tito and Tek is not surprising. Homophobia is deeply entrenched in the world of sports. No gay professional baseball, football, hockey or basketball player has felt safe enough to come out. There is a code of silence about LGBT players in sports. The Red Sox video, which is supposed to be a statement by baseball role models about the worth of LGBT youth, is instead a reflection of the subject’s continued taboo in the world of sports.

Given the varying silence or negative messages about being LGBT, young LGBT people need to hear from their role models that yes, gay is good. Instead, the Red Sox video is full of generalities and platitudes that are at best meaningless and, at worst, unintentionally demeaning. Is Jason Varitek’s comment, “It’s okay to be your own unique being” really telling LGBT youth that they are not like everybody else? Jason, it would have been so powerful to simply say, “It’s okay to be gay.” The Sox video demonstrates that it is still too risky for professional athletes to make affirming statements about LGBT people. Professional athletes are so esteemed in our society that their statements can be real “game changers.” The Sox missed a great opportunity to change the game for LGBT youth.

- Bennett Klein

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

LGBTQ Youth: Why GLAD has joined the fight for a Mass. law against human trafficking

As a legal fellow at GLAD, I was approached by a more senior attorney to prepare testimony in support of Massachusetts House Bill 2277, “An Act Relative to Safe Harbor for Exploited Children.” At first glance, the bill, which will ensure that children coerced into prostitution are treated as victims of commercial sexual exploitation and provided access to the services and care to which child abuse victims are entitled, did not appear to fit within what I had considered to be GLAD’s “traditional” areas of expertise. However, a closer look quickly demonstrated the value of GLAD’s involvement in this broader coalition effort.

At a State House hearing in May, Attorney General Martha Coakley introduced the bill to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary as the companion to another bill which would criminalize human trafficking in Massachusetts (one of only four states who currently have no such laws). AG Coakley explained that the only difference between the trafficking of humans and the trafficking of weapons and drugs, which is already prohibited by law, is that human trafficking is even more lucrative – once traffickers sell guns and drugs, they must get more; however, human “commodities” can be sold over and over without any additional cost. The focus of her testimony, as well as that of Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, was on the invisibility of human trafficking and thus the anonymity of its child victims.

All of the testimony in support of the bill pointed strongly toward the necessity of its passage, but I believe that GLAD uniquely gave these children a voice by detailing the struggles that often lead to their victimization. DA Conley alluded to the fact that many victims are runaways with a history of sexual abuse but GLAD’s testimony provided additional insight into their plight. While the focus of GLAD’s testimony was on LGBTQ youth, as they represent a disproportionate number of homeless youth (up to 40 percent of the homeless youth population as compared to 4-10 percent of the overall population), the underlying notion highlighted was that these are children who have often left home to escape physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Studies indicate that up to 40 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation have also been victims of physical or sexual abuse at home.

Having nowhere else to turn, these youth are thrust into the danger of living on the streets and many are forced into engaging in acts of prostitution as a means of survival to obtain basic necessities like food and shelter. Young, frightened, with limited or no skills and unable to find basic sustenance, these youth are easy prey. LGBTQ homeless youth are 7 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence toward them and, often having difficulty accessing necessary services due to their LGBTQ status, are also more likely to engage in acts of survival sex. Homeless transgender youth in particular, who are often deprived of gender affirming medical treatment, are 3 times more likely to be victimized in this manner.

All youth, regardless of their LGBTQ status, coerced into prostitution are victims of sexual exploitation. By demonstrating to the legislature the confluence of factors that lead these youth to become victimized, GLAD’s testimony attempted to make clear that criminal prosecution is not the appropriate response. Because homeless youth become involved in commercial sexual exploitation as a result of desperation for resources and past emotional issues, the bill correctly recognizes that it is access to services, and not punishment, that will aid in their recovery. Having left home to escape abuse and then being thrust into the danger of living on the streets, youth arrested for commercial sexual exploitation have not had the benefit of any positive interventions on their behalf. Rather than treating them as delinquents, the law should take this opportunity to provide assistance to youth that have found such help lacking throughout their lives.

GLAD’s testimony was greatly appreciated by the office of Rep. Liz Malia, an out lesbian and one of the bill’s sponsors, and I’d like to think by the legislative committee as well. The bill received a favorable recommendation from the committee and passed the House in June. The Senate passed the bill unanimously on June 30, and Sen. Mark Montigny, the lead Senate sponsor, expects that it will soon be signed into law.

Read Ashley's testimony here.