Friday, September 28, 2012

Kickin' It Old School -- and New School -- in DC

A must-read post from my colleague Maryse Pearce (who is the third person to the right of the Vice President in the photo below) who attended a BBQ for emerging LGBT leaders hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden in DC last week. Maryse has a great eye for detail.
My day in DC began with an LGBT policy roundtable. The 150 other “emerging LGBT leaders” and I were welcomed by Gautam Raghavan, Associate Director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, and John Berry, Director of the US Office of Personnel Management and the highest ranking openly gay person in Obama’s administration. Berry thanked us all for the work we had done for LGBT people, and said he wouldn’t be surprised if a future president was sitting in the room. “And I’m sure he or she—“

“Or they!” someone called out.

“—will be great,” Berry finished. We are leaders of the new school, indeed.

The morning’s roundtable consisted of 3 panels: “LGBT Rights Are Human Rights” (title taken from Secretary of State Clinton’s speech last November), which talked about the US role promoting LGBT rights abroad; a legal update; and a discussion of health and safety issues for LGBTQ youth.

One of my favorite moments of the day, though, came not from the official panel, but from another attendee. In between panels, 10 minutes were set aside so that the attendees could stand up and give an “elevator pitch” about what they were working on, and ask for help or advice if they needed it. I stood up to say that if people were interested in following DOMA’s downfall, they should follow GLAD’s facebook and twitter updates. A few minutes later, someone from Montana stood up to ask for advice on rural organizing.

“And I just want to say, I’m so happy single-A GLAD is here,” he said. “We use your ‘Everyone Matters’ [transgender rights] video, and it’s really helped.”

That completely made my day. In Public Affairs, we create and distribute educational materials all the time, and it’s amazing to get feedback and thanks, especially from someone from the other side of the country.
In the afternoon, we had time to ourselves. I visited a friend who works at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, learned a little about their upcoming events, and toured their office.

Next, I went to a Senate Hearing on Hate Crimes and Domestic Extremism, at the invitation of Ben de Guzman from the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. The focus of the hearing was Muslim and Sikh Americans, who have increasingly been the target of domestic terrorism. Politicians and law professors from both sides of the aisle argued about the benefits and limitations of hate crime laws, but the most moving testimony was from a young man whose mother was murdered while worshipping at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. 

Finally, it was time for the main event: the LGBTQ BBQ at the VP’s house. 30 minutes and 3 security checkpoints later, my colleague Allison Wright and I made it through Biden’s Naval Observatory compound, and into the backyard of his huge house. It was lucky I got in late: I was standing by the entrance when someone official asked me to move aside; Biden was about to enter. Naturally, I did not move over, and a moment later, Joe and Dr. Jill B walked by me!

The Vice President and his wife were introduced by a West Point graduate, who thanked their administration for all they’ve done for LGBT people, including ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was repealed exactly a year ago. Dr. and Vice President Biden both spoke about how they have always known and supported LGBT people, and how they see full LGBT equality as the inevitable next step in US civil rights – echoing Michelle Obama’s DNC remarks. “Don’t thank me,” Biden said, getting choked up. “I should be thanking you for all you’ve done, and all the courage you’ve shown.”

When he was done speaking, Biden simply stepped away from the podium. After a moment of hesitation, the crowd surged around him, shaking his hand and taking pictures. I was one person away from Biden when his handlers intervened and asked us to form a line for pictures. The woman who was in the middle of asking him for a picture, a West Point lesbian in a navy blazer, got the Biden treatment: he put one hand on her shoulder and touched her cheek with the other hand, saying, “I’ll follow you. You look like you know what’s going on!”

I took a group picture with the Vice President and several other of the emerging leaders. After the picture was snapped, Biden shook everyone’s hand and asked them where they were from. When it was my turn, I ignored his hand and went in for a hug, which he returned tightly. And then I was moved along, so the next group could have their picture taken.

If you can believe it, the night got better from there. While on my way to get food, I did a double take: Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, was standing by the pool! She saw me staring at her, and paused her conversation to say hello to me.

“You’ve been one of my heroes for years!” I said after I introduced myself.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” she chided. We spoke for a few minutes, the conversation peppered with Mara’s self-deprecating humor. On my way to get a glass of wine later, I walked by another woman I deeply admire: Janet Mock. I told her how honored I was to meet her, and how excited I was to hear her speak at the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition’s Boston Youth Empowerment Conference in October.

I spent the rest of the night talking with other emerging leaders: someone who fights for trans-inclusive shelters for victims of domestic violence; someone who leads workshops on transgender issues for the DC police; someone who does HIV education in North Carolina; someone from St Louis who mixes politics into her art. I wanted to talk about GLAD’s work (which I did, of course), but everyone had such amazing stories and was doing such incredible things, I could have been content to just listen all night.

At 8:30, I got into a cab with the artist from St Louis, headed back to the center of DC. A man who also needed to go to Union Station hopped into the front seat. After he introduced himself, I realized that “Kevin” was Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, and former ED of GLAD. We chatted about GLAD lawyers and our respective DOMA cases, and when we got to Union Station, he generously paid for the cab, saying it was his treat as we were in “Lambda territory.”

In short, it was an amazing day spent with both luminaries in the fight for full LGBT equality, and the new school of leaders.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Looking for a Survival Manual: Reflections on National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

This post was penned by Tabias, one of our fabulous interns, to mark today's National Gay Men's Awareness Day.

I was just told by a co-worker that today is National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. I wasn’t previously aware there was such a day, but after a cursory Google search, it seems that every advocacy and legal organization concerned with HIV/AIDS and the plight of those at risk of seroconverting is quite aware of today’s importance. Dr. Kevin Fenton, director the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention, released a statement reminding us that “nearly 350,000 gay and bisexual men with AIDS have died, and more than 8,000 still die each year.”

But after taking some time to reflect before writing this post, I realized that my first thoughts were not of those who have died, rather they were of those who are surviving either HIV or AIDS. We hear little about this small, resilient, invisible community. The norm today is to communicate clearly, effectively and quite loudly about the dangers of HIV and the costs of seroconversion. Unlike the story told in the documentary How to Survive a Plague, which chronicles the fearlessness of groups like ACT UP in confronting government apathy in the early days of the epidemic, today’s narrative surrounding HIV is much more about how to spot a plague and run, run, as fast as one can. I cannot help but think about how this narrative failed me just two short years ago.

I suppose I don’t fit the stereotype of an individual at risk for seroconversion (the transmission of HIV). I was a sophomore at a prestigious, private university. I was a prominent student on campus and held more leadership positions than one student probably should. I had the president of the university’s cell phone number and used it when necessary. My GPA was nothing to sneeze at. I was very out and open about my sexuality, as well as its beautiful and complicated intersections with my race and class backgrounds. Being a former sex-ed counselor, I was quite educated about HIV. But just halfway through my sophomore year I would contract HIV from a well-groomed, upper-middle class white male who was similarly educated and well mannered. We followed the rules. We were monogamous. We used protection. The condom broke. I became positive.

The day that I was notified that I could possibly be positive, I simply took a deep breath and went for a long run. I knew that there was nothing that I could do but take one step at a time. Perhaps if I was lucky, I could live a few more years. My mind slowly began to race about the costs of medication. Who would pay for it? I was already uninsured. How would I tell my mother? She was just beginning to cope with my sexuality, and that had taken nearly five years. What about friends? Would they be able to separate my sexuality from my diagnosis? Would they support my decision to battle it openly, publicly, without stigma or shame?

I returned home to my dorm and had a shot of brandy, and frantically scoured the internet for some alternative story – a story with a happy ending, about someone beating HIV, someone surviving and thriving with passion, compassion and style. Fortunately, I found Brandy Lacy Campos, the former co-director of Queers for Economic Justice. I reached out to him and found love, support, direction and a model for survival.

The men that I know today, especially those of us who are seen as most at risk (Black/Latino/Native, young, MSM), are not aware of these national HIV /AIDS awareness days. We are very rarely part of the national conversation, unless we are a part of a death-centered, downtrodden narrative. As members of a community accustomed to survival, triumph and overcoming, these messages, though they may be about us, are simply not written for or to us. It is my hope that next year on this day, there will be a concerted effort to really speak to those who are most at risk. This message will encompass relevant data, cultural competence and a sense of love and compassion. The messengers will know that Black/Latino MSM are less promiscuous than our racial counterparts, but simply encounter a higher prevalence of HIV in our sexual networks. This message will center on stories of survival, overcoming and carrying on. This message will not simply be about us, but for us and most often by us. This message will not be a simple PSA, but instead a Survivor’s Manual.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Plain and Simple: Making the Case for Fair Treatment of Trans Students

by Laura Kiritsy, Manager of Public Education

GLAD has litigated two cases in Bangor, Maine. The first was Bragdon v. Abbott, in which Senior Attorney Ben Klein represented a woman with HIV who was denied treatment by a dentist who had a written policy of refusing to treat anybody with HIV. Ben argued that case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won a landmark victory in 1998 that established anti-discrimination protections for people with HIV under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Fourteen years later, Ben and I drove the 440-mile round trip in his 2001 Honda Civic DX (with manual locks and windows) back and forth to Bangor so he could argue another important case, Doe v. Clenchy. GLAD is representing Susan Doe (a pseudonym), a transgender girl who had her education disrupted when the public school she attended did an “about face” by excluding her from the girls’ bathroom after a male student repeatedly harassed her. 

The hearing took place on Wednesday in Penobscot County Superior Court in downtown Bangor before Judge William R. Anderson. The day before his court appearance, Ben followed his standard argument preparation on our drive to Northern Maine. First, he lowered the volume of the Glee soundtrack and treated me to a preview of his argument on the drive up. It was nearly flawless, although I didn’t interrupt with umpteen questions, as judges often do. Then, after a sumptuous dinner at the local Longhorn Steakhouse, Ben retreated to his hotel room for a final review of his notes and a session of yoga and meditation. Meanwhile, I retreated to my room to eat a Snicker’s bar and watch a Civil War documentary.

At counsel table along with Ben were Jennifer Levi, the director of our Transgender Rights Project; John Gause, counsel for the Maine Human Rights Commission, which is also a party to the case, and Jodi Nofsinger, a Maine attorney who is also part of our litigation team. Susan, who is now a sophomore in high school, was seated close behind them, along with her very supportive mother and father.

To give some context for this case, Maine has a statewide law prohibiting discrimination against people based on gender identity and expression in all areas, including public education and public accommodations, plain and simple. To defend against what otherwise seems to be a cut and dry case of discrimination, the school has pointed to a Maine Human Rights Commission regulation that permits schools to have separate restrooms for boys and girls, a regulation the school interprets to mean it can ignore a student’s gender identity in that one instance.

Ben countered that the Commission’s regulation cannot override the state’s non-discrimination law, making his arguments quite thoroughly and forcefully, despite the anticipated barrage of questions from the judge. He made the case that the plain language of Maine’s non-discrimination law prohibits the school from denying a girl access to facilities that other girls use simply because she’s transgender. Lastly, he argued that the school violated the law because not only did it exclude Susan from the girls’ bathroom thereby treating her differently than all other girls, it forced her to use a separate facility thereby treating her differently than all other students. 

Ben was satisfied that the arguments “went as well as they could have,” as the judge really seemed to be wrestling with the issues presented in the case. That’s a common experience; our litigation frequently raises new and novel legal issues that judges are often encountering for the first time. Indeed, just as Judge Anderson is wrestling with the rights of transgender people, the judge in the Bragdon case wrestled with the issue of proper access to care for people living with HIV/ AIDS 14 years earlier. Now, it’s simply a no-brainer that people can’t be discriminated against in any setting because of their HIV/AIDS status. We’re working toward the day when treating transgender people equally and respectfully is also a no-brainer.

As with so many of our cases, we understand that the argument before Judge Anderson is just the first step in a long process that may potentially lead to a full trial, and ultimately a decision from the Maine Law Court, the state’s highest court. So now, we await a ruling.

Stay tuned.