Thursday, January 26, 2012

Move Over John Waters and The Wire, This Week Baltimore is Creating Change

Baltimore. You may know it best as the home -- and favored film setting -- of queer icon John Waters. Or maybe you became familiar with its “charms” – it is known as Charm City after all – from Bubbles, Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell and the rest of the gang on HBO’s The Wire. Or maybe I’m just throwing out this trivia because that’s where I learned everything I know about Baltimore, which is to say not much, unless Baltimore really is rife with crime, corruption, and sassy, big-haired lookers like Dawn Davenport, Tracy Turnblad and Francine Fishpaw.

I’ll soon find out for sure since I and GLAD staffers Eva Boyce, Eric Carreno, Matt McTighe and Robbie Samuels are heading to Baltimore for Creating Change 2012, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s annual national conference on LGBT equality. More than 2000 LGBT activists and allies will gather this week at the Hilton Baltimore for a program featuring over 250 workshops and training sessions, four plenary sessions – including an opening plenary by NAACP President Ben Jealous-- and tons of networking opportunities.

I’m proud to note that I’ll be representing GLAD on a panel discussion called Overturning DOMA: How We End Federal Marriage Discrimination on Saturday, Jan. 28 from 9:00-10:30 a.m., which is sponsored by Freedom to Marry. My esteemed co-panelists are Jo Deutsch, Freedom to Marry’s federal director, and Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. Michael Crawford, Freedom to Marry’s director of online programs, will try to keep us all in line as the panel moderator. If you’re attending the conference, please join us to learn about the legal and political strategies we’re deploying to dump DOMA, and share your thoughts on how to do away with this discriminatory law (the more you talk the less I talk! It’s a win-win.)

Later that afternoon, I’ll join my good friends Gunner Scott and Jesse Begenyi of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) for I AM Trans People Speak! Creating a Community-Driven Media and Public Education Campaign which goes from 3 to 6 p.m. The workshop is based on the successful Trans People Speak public education campaign by MTPC and aims to help participants effectively shape and share their personal stories, then package them as public education tools to increase the understanding of trans people and the reality of their daily lives.

My colleague Robbie Samuels, GLAD’s senior manager of events and donor management, will be presenting his famous Art of the Schmooze on Friday, Jan. 27 from 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Want to learn how to really work a room? Then don’t miss Robbie’s training. On Saturday, Robbie will present Fundraising: Getting Past the Fear of Asking, the title of which we hope is self-explanatory, from 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Matt McTighe, GLAD’s Director of Public Education for Maine, is joining our crew in Baltimore to discuss our efforts to win the freedom to marry in Maine called Marriage Equality at the Ballot Box in 2012. That takes place on Saturday, Jan. 28 from 9:00 a.m. to Noon.

Eva Boyce, our chief financial officer, and Eric Carreno, our operations manager, are both attending Creating Change in conjunction with their involvement in the Pipeline Project, an LGBT leadership initiative. They’ll also be networking and spreading the word about GLAD’s work whenever they get the chance. They’ve both attended Robbie’s Art of the Schmooze training, so they know how to get it done.

We’ll be tweeting our experiences at the conference so be sure to follow us if you’re not already (@GladLaw) or you’ll see our tweets at #CC12, the official hashtag for the conference.

I’m only in town from Thursday to Saturday, but if I have some spare time, I hope to venture out the Prospect Hill Cemetery in nearby Towson and visit the grave site of John Waters’ legendary muse, Divine. I’ll be sure to wear my cha-cha heels.

We hope to see you there! (At Creating Change, not the grave site)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Witness to history: A stroke of the pen changes a child's world

Editor's Note: You'll love this post by a former GLAD client who attended Gov. Deval Patrick's ceremonial signing of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill last week with her granddaughter, who is transgender.

I still remember the morning my dad woke me up in the dark to see the first man walk on the moon. My siblings and I sat in a line across the foot of my parents’ bed watching the only color TV in the house. In hopeful silence, we bore witness to an event that would, quite literally, change our world. Although I was too young to appreciate the full significance, I felt the weight of importance as we all held our breath watching, and the incredulous joy of that first step. I still remember every moment of that morning and the powerful pride we carried with us afterward.

When I heard there would be a Ceremonial Signing of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill at the State House on Jan. 19, I knew immediately that it was my 7-year-old granddaughter Susan’s moment to witness the historic event that would change her world.

As with any parent or caregiver of a young child, I have been dedicated to giving Susan a happy and peaceful childhood (The name Susan is a pseudonym to protect her privacy.) Because the future will likely present some uniquely challenging, and possibly harmful situations, I have vowed to keep Susan protected for as long as possible. I have worked hard with GLAD Transgender Rights Project Director Jennifer Levi to ensure that Susan is always respected and treated as the girl she is. Basically, I patrol the perimeters of Susan’s life so she does not experience any type of harm or discrimination. In fact, I have felt so protective, I hadn't yet broached the topic of discrimination with her.

When I realized that taking Susan to the signing would require me to talk to her about transgender rights and the discrimination that had created a need to protect those rights, I called Jennifer. I asked how she talked to her children about transgender discrimination and she shared some thoughts that helped me realize it was time. Apparently the stars were aligned in our favor for that very day, Susan arrived home from school sharing what she had learned about Martin Luther King Day. She spoke in detail about how Dr. King had helped create a law that protected black people from discrimination. From there, it was an easy segue to discuss discrimination against various groups of people.

When we began to talk about discrimination against transgender people and the new protections in the bill, Susan became very excited to attend the signing. She saw the Transgender Equal Rights Bill as a continuation of Dr. King’s work and felt incredibly proud to be a part of that.

Yes, the event was a bit long for a young child and the room was very warm, causing Susan to feel a bit cranky at times. But at the very moment Governor Patrick sat at his desk and lifted his pen, I watched Susan become attentive and focused and could see that she, too, felt the weight of importance. I watched her face light up as she witnessed the Governor signing the bill. She laughed and clapped, feeling the incredulous joy that flooded the room as Governor Patrick handed his pen to Gunner Scott, the executive director of the Mass. Transgender Political Coalition.

I hope Susan will remember. I hope she will come to understand that the signing represents years of hard work and dedication to a dream. I hope she will carry with her the power of pride. I hope that, over time, she will come to know that the signing symbolizes a giant leap for the transgender community, for her community. Finally, we have hope for the future.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ice Skating vs. Civics Lesson: A Tale of Two Field Trips

Check out this great post by Jennifer Levi, GLAD's Transgender Rights Project director.

For some reason, I felt compelled to bring my kids to the governor’s ceremonial signing of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill last Thursday. They patiently (well, pretty patiently) listened to nearly an hour of speeches by legislators, officials, and advocates. That afternoon, I took them ice skating at Frog Pond on the Boston Common. On the ride home that night, I asked them what they thought of the day, imagining they might say something enthusiastic about Governor Deval Patrick giving them a pen after signing the bill. Maybe I thought one of them would say that it was cool to be in the State House or to get to shake Attorney General Martha Coakley’s hand. Instead, my daughter said that the signing was boring. My son said the best part of the day was ice skating.

Their responses really came as no surprise to me. I knew ahead of time that the ceremony would be a bit long for their attention spans, that they would not really be able to understand all that was said, and that their motivation for choosing to go (they did have a choice) might largely have been about getting the day off from school to take a trip to Boston. Still, I felt compelled to bring them and I finally think I know why.

A couple of weeks before the signing, I got an e-mail from a client (and now friend) who is the caretaker of her 6-year-old grandchild (who I’ll call Susan, not her real name, in order to protect her privacy). I’ve had the great fortune to be able to advocate for this family as Susan started school, working with a public school system that presumed transgender children do not exist. Together we explained that this child’s school records need to reflect her female gender identity and not her male assigned birth sex. Together we explained to the school the importance of this child consistently being referred to as a girl including by using her taken (now legal) name and female pronouns. And sometime in the future, I imagine, we may need to convince the school that no matter who knows that this child is transgender and whatever the reaction from other parents, kids, or people in the community, the school’s obligation is to ensure that this child has the same educational opportunities as all the other children and that means providing unwavering support for her as the girl that she is.

In her e-mail, Susan’s grandmother said that she wanted to bring Susan to the signing. “It’s an important event in her life and I want her to witness it,” she explained. I understood immediately the importance of the event and responded that I, too, was planning to bring my kids. Part of my motivation was for them to see the culmination of years of my work, work that sometimes drew me away from them on weekends and evenings after which they would ask where I was and why I was not home.

But that was only part of it. I also wanted them to hear from our governor about the importance of this new law and see him put his signature affirming the language of this law, the drafting into which I had put much time and energy. At the ceremony itself, it became even clearer to me why I had brought my kids. Representative Rushing, with unmatched poignancy explained in his remarks that this new law does not create rights. As he said to a crowded room packed with transgender people, our allies and family members, “You were born with th[e]se rights.” This law, he explained, “protect[s] and acknowledge[s] those rights. That is what we are celebrating today.” He went on to say that “we should not forget the time when we did not acknowledge those rights and your humanity,” and for that “we are incredibly sorry.”

This new law cannot change history. It will not restore the losses the community has suffered because of discrimination. It will not redress the indignities transgender people have faced in housing, employment, education, and beyond. And, as we all know, it is not perfect. Even as it includes protections for education, employment, and housing, and against hate crimes, it leaves out key protections in the context of public accommodations.

Notwithstanding, the new law provides hope and promise for the future. It sends a strong message to our transgender children as well as to those who are not transgender that transgender people matter in the eyes of the law. Nobody should be deprived an education, a job, or housing because of others misperceptions about who we are as men and women, boys and girls. And that’s a great start. It does not fix the past but it bodes well for the future.

The ceremonial signing of the law that hopefully triggers a change in action and attitudes and creates a promise for a more hopeful future is something I wanted my children to witness. Even if the event was eclipsed, in their eyes, by the excitement of ice skating on Frog Pond, I’m glad I brought them.

Friday, January 20, 2012

‘This is what comes from turning to each other rather than on each other’

I have goosebumps. Not because of the frigid weather, but because I’m still thrilled with yesterday’s ceremonial signing of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill by Gov. Deval Patrick.

In the ornate Senate Reading Room at the State House – which was packed from front to back – the transgender community received a very public, long overdue affirmation and celebration of their dignity and their rights as citizens of this Commonwealth, and I’m grateful I was a part of this historic event, which was emceed by state Rep. Carl Sciortino, a stalwart steward of the legislation. As Gov. Patrick said of the bill’s passage, “This is what comes from turning to each other rather than on each other.”

Indeed, Massachusetts has taken another big step forward in treating all of its citizens equally under the law. “No individual should face discrimination because of who they are,” Gov. Patrick said later in his speech. “And for that reason, this legislation is an achievement, not only for transgender people, but for all of those who stand up for and care about respect for basic human dignity.”

It was also gratifying to hear the Governor acknowledge GLAD’s work to pass the bill, along with our coalition partners the Mass. Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), MassEquality and the Mass. Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

It was equally as inspiring to hear from other elected officials and advocates who joined the ceremony. After the governor, Attorney General Martha Coakley, another early proponent of the bill, took to the podium and noted that while the Governor got to sign the bill, “I get to enforce it.” She added that she hoped she wouldn’t have to do too much of that. We share her hope, though in brief remarks to the crowd, GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project Director Jennifer Levi made clear we are looking forward to working with the AG’s office on enforcing the law, which takes effect July 1.

State Rep. Byron Rushing offered an apology on behalf of Beacon Hill for the ways in which trans residents have suffered in the Commonwealth because of a lack of legal protections. “We should always ask for your forgiveness that transgender people were treated terribly in this state with no recourse,” said Rep. Rushing, one of the most eloquent and ardent allies of the LGBT community serving in the legislature.

And while House Speaker Robert DeLeo acknowledged that passage of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill took a little longer than he initially predicted when he spoke at a MassEquality Valentine’s Day celebration back in 2009, he added that “[the] bottom line is we got it done.”

Unfortunately, the reality is that they didn’t get it completely done, since the bill that passed was stripped of public accommodations protections, meaning that trans people can still be subject to discrimination in many public places such as coffee shops, buses, hotels, movie theaters, etc. It’s a shortfall in the new law that state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz called out during her remarks that prompted a loud round of applause from the crowd. The work continues!

But the most inspiring comment of the ceremony, in my opinion, came from MTPC Executive Director Gunner Scott, quoting author and academic Cornel West: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” There was a lot of justice in the Senate Reading Room yesterday.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Important News for Massachusetts Public Retirees

On November 18, 2011 Governor Deval Patrick signed Chapter 176 of the Acts of 2011, “An Act Providing for Pension Reform and Benefit Modernization.”

One section of this law allows retirees who retired under Chapter 32 of the Massachusetts General Laws on or before May 17, 2004 choosing Option A or B, and then married a person of the same sex on or before May 17, 2005 to change to Option C retroactive to their retirement date. Option C allows for a spouse to continue receiving a monthly retirement income after the retiree dies. This option is also available for the surviving spouse of a retiree provided the conditions above are met. Chapter 32 of the General Laws covers most Massachusetts state, county and municipal employees, including public school teachers.

Although the exact amounts are based on a number of factors including the ages of the retiree and spouse, in general changing from Option A or B to Option C results in about a 9-11% decrease in income for the retiree and if the retiree dies the surviving spouse gets two-thirds of that amount for his/her lifetime. If the spouse predeceases the retiree, then the retiree’s income reverts back to Option A effective the date that the spouse died.

If a retiree or surviving spouse chooses to take advantage of this, there will need to be adjustments to recover the excess income already received (the difference between the Option A or B income and the Option C income, which is approximately 9-11% each year). The law leaves how this will be done to the retirement boards. Also, it is not clear exactly what the IRS tax implications of this change are (since the retiree has already paid the federal tax on the Option A or B amount). We will provide further details as they become available.

The deadline for applying for this change is July 1, 2012. Retirement boards are still developing application forms for this purpose. You may wish to contact your particular retirement board to determine when applications will be available as well as when information will be available about how the adjustments will be made to recover the excess income.

To see the exact language in the law go to: Section 55.

If you have questions, contact GLAD’s Legal Infoline—800-455-GLAD (4523) or