Check Out Our Blog
Please click HERE to read past columns, published by the Huffington Post and San Francisco Bay Times
International Activist Hiker Chiu Helps to Lead the Way on Intersex Social Justice
December 7, 2017
When Taiwanese and international intersex activist Hiker Chiu as a teenager saw their childhood medical records for the first time, one question kept resounding in their mind: “Am I a monster?” It was Chiu’s reaction to reading the Chinese dictionary translation of the word “hermaphrodite” as “a female and male in the same body.” Chiu saw no hope for the future, and thought there must be no “other people like me in the world.” Chiu had an even more terrifying thought: “You are a person that nobody loves” because “you’re like a monster.”
But life had something different in store for Chiu. Chiu embarked on a years-long journey that brought them out of despair to become the first Taiwanese intersex person to “come out publicly and intentionally” and as an international LGBTIQ activist. We had the great fortune to meet and interview Chiu at this year’s Taipei Pride celebration.
Chiu was raised as a girl, but as an adolescent felt as if something “kind of weird” was going on when they didn’t develop breasts or have a period and, in fact, grew “some moustache” and a male Adam’s apple. Not menstruating was particularly difficult because of Chinese cultural pressures on women to marry and have children, and Chiu again wondered, “If a woman cannot have children, could she be loved by someone else?”
As a young person, Chiu vowed simply to give up on love for self-protection, but something unexpected happened. “Cupid targeted me, and, yes, I was caught! If you intend not to believe in love, it doesn’t mean that love wouldn’t come to you.” Chiu fell in love with a young woman, and felt “all kinds of excitement.”
Chiu became part of the gay and lesbian community and initially found welcome and acceptance. But after a ten-year relationship, Chiu’s lesbian partner said she wanted to break up because, as she put it, “You are too much like a man.” Chiu felt “kicked out by the lesbian community” and asked if “I’m too much like a man” then “what can I do?”
Chiu might have wanted to become part of the gay male community, but horrific surgery performed on Chiu at age six—and without consent—foreclosed that possibility. “I was born with … ambiguous genitals,” Chiu said. “But I was a healthy baby. But people, doctors, think you have to be ‘either or.’ If you are a girl, you cannot have such a large clitoris, which looks like a penis. No. So, they removed it without my consent.”
After the relationship breakup, Chiu felt isolated and alone. But in 2008, a friend told Chiu “there’s a word—intersex—that describes your situation.” Chiu saw the Argentinean movie XXY, which is about an intersex teenager. Chiu’s reaction was: “Oh my god, there’s someone else like me!”
Chiu then discovered Organization Intersex International (OII) online, and was shocked to learn that there was “not just one person like me; there are so many!” OII was very “empowering” for Chiu. They conversed with other intersex people through the organization and thought, “Maybe I am one of them. This is my community.”
Chiu “really wanted to communicate with other intersex people who speak Chinese,” and founded OII-Chinese, and translated the website into Chinese. They still had not met any other intersex people in person, however, and knew of no such person in Taiwan.
They decided to remedy that by traveling to San Francisco and other parts of the United States to meet intersex activists, including local activist David Cameron Strachan. The face-to-face meetings were transformative. “It was very powerful,” Chiu said. “Very powerful.” Chiu found them to be “all excellent people.” Perhaps most importantly, Chiu experienced their love. “I got so many hugs from them.”
The American activists taught Chiu that “you have to share your story to reach out,” both to enable other intersex people struggling with their identity to find community and to educate medical professionals about intersex people. Chiu returned home and decided to come out as intersex at the Taipei Pride parade as a way “to show my gratitude to those intersex activists in the U.S. who teach me and hug me and help me. I wanted to share their love.”
Chiu now feels they belong, not just to the intersex community, but also to the lesbian, gay, and “maybe” heterosexual, and other communities as well. Indeed, Chiu said, “Now I find my community in the world.” Chiu often gives talks and is co-chair of ILGA–Asia (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association). As one of the early Asian intersex people to come out, Chiu is “working on reaching out to people in Asia to make the voice in Asia heard.” When the ILGA-Asia regional conference was held in Taipei in 2015, Chiu “gathered for the first time in history six or seven intersex activists from Asia and we came out publicly in the Taipei Pride parade.” This December, Chiu will continue this work at the ILGA-Asia conference in Cambodia.
Reflecting back on adolescence, Chiu said, “I think my body insisted to be a naturally intersex person.” This describes who Chiu is. As we listened to Chiu’s story, we identified with much of it, even though we are not intersex. Meeting LGBTIQ people who confront formidable challenges and then use their lives to make the world better for others never fails to inspire us and give us joy.
Chiu’s story in a testament to the power of resilience, persistence, love, connection, international organizing, books, movies, the internet, cross-cultural understanding, empathy, gratitude, benevolence, and hugs. We feel lucky to have shared hugs and much more with Chiu, and in gratitude we share their story and love.
A Look at LGBTQ Life in Taiwan
November 30, 2017
It seems only fitting that San Francisco and Taipei, sister cities since the year of Stonewall, 1969, host the largest LGBTQ Pride marches and celebrations in North America and Asia. This year’s Taipei Pride was “the largest LGBTQ gathering of any kind ever in Asia,” explained Simon Tai, head of the organizing group.
In the last issue, we reported on the community’s efforts to make the Taiwan constitutional court’s promise of marriage equality a reality now. Today we report on Taipei Pride itself, and other wonderful aspects of Taiwan’s distinctive queer community.
Taipei Pride is a place where Taiwanese and other LGBTQ Asians can come together and be surrounded by love, support, and community. The joy is palpable—as is the community’s commitment to attaining full legal equality and social acceptance in Taiwan as well as in other Asian nations.
We personally met participants not just from Taiwan, but also from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). Just before the march was to begin, a huge LGBTQ flag made its way through the crowd like a rainbow dragon.
Taipei Pride is very down-to-earth and community-based. It is entirely volunteer run with over 500 volunteers taking part, according to head organizer Tai. We were struck how nearly everyone participated in the march rather than standing on the sidelines just to watch. While some organizations had floats or trucks, most of the 160 groups simply marched together as contingents on foot. Anyone could join in and hold a sign with whatever message they chose.
In addition to the push for full marriage equality, defending and expanding LGBTQ education is public schools was a major theme of Pride. In 2004, Taiwan enacted the groundbreaking national Gender Equity Education Act, mandating gender education in public schools from early ages through high school. Activists credit such education, which has included LGBTQ curriculum, as a significant factor in broadening public acceptance of queer people. They seek expansion of LGBTQ education under the act, whose implementation they view as having been too slow and too variable by region.
After losing the marriage equality court decision, however, anti-LGBTQ forces—particularly several conservative political Christian groups—are attempting to remove LGBTQ education from schools, thereby preventing students from learning about the true diversity of Taiwan’s population.
By contrast, Taipei Pride illuminated the beauty of our community’s diversity. LGBTQ Christians, people living with HIV, transgender people and many others proudly and exuberantly made their presence known to the broader society through the 75 media outlets present. They also felt the embrace and acceptance of the community. The Tongzhi Hotline, a prominent LGBTQ service and advocacy organization, distributed thousands of cards and stickers reading “HIV+ OK” as they have done at many other events.
Also experiencing embrace and acceptance were LGBTQ people from other parts of Asia who came to Taipei Pride to be completely openly queer because it may not be safe to do so in their home countries—be they Pakistan, Singapore or mainland China. Two months ago, we visited Destination Bar and community center in Beijing, China, where Pride marches and rallies are banned and living as an openly gay person can be very difficult.
Soon after we arrived at Taipei Pride, we were amazed and delighted to see that perhaps the biggest float in the entire parade was that of Destination Bar—topped with muscular gay dancers from Beijing, strutting their stuff to the great pleasure of the crowd—something they clearly could not do in a parade at home. It was a powerful image of oppression and freedom, frustration and hope, repression and joy.
Indeed, Taipei Pride is becoming a place for Asian LGBTQ activists and leaders from diverse parts of the continent to come together to meet, share ideas and experiences, strategize, and gain support and inspiration from each other that they take back to their own countries. Some aspects of Asian cultures—such as social conformity and the importance of family responsibility—overlap, while other elements diverge. Activists in some Asian countries face enormous barriers to building LGBTQ communities and making gains for LGBTQ legal rights, and it is easy for them to feel isolated. Coming together in Taipei with international activists enables everyone to feel connected and part of a worldwide LGBTQ movement and community.
Taiwan International Queer Film Festival
In the days leading up to Pride, the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival showcased an impressive lineup of queer films from across Asia and around the world. With the theme of “Queer and Camp,” this year’s 4th annual festival made good on its promise to provide audiences the opportunity to “unapologetically let their inner self shine through.”
The festival is also becoming a meeting place for international filmmakers and artists, just as Taipei Pride is for activists and the community at large. This year, the Asian Pacific Queer Film Festival Alliance, a consortium of 25 LGBT oriented film festivals in the region, held its first in-person meeting at the Festival, called the Asian-Pacific Film and Culture Forum.
Jay Lin and other founders of the Taipei queer film festival are bringing the best of the festival and much more to the world through their new platform: GagaOOLala (https://www.gagaoolala.com/en/home), which they have termed a “Gay Netflix” for Asia, if not the world. GagaOOlala boasts the largest collection of LGBTQ film in Asia, and features movies, short films, documentaries, series and original content.
Spectrosynthesis: A Groundbreaking LGBTQ Art Exhibition
In addition to queer film, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, this fall hosted the first-ever major LGBTQ-themed exhibition at a government museum in Asia. The path-breaking show featured artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as other places.
Patrick Sun, Executive Director of the Hong Kong-based Sunpride Foundation, co-host of the exhibition, expressed his pride at being “part of this beautiful, beautiful country” in which people are “very warm and accepting.” He said the museum was “totally behind” the exhibition from the beginning, and that the museum and the government gave them a “free hand” with “no censorship.”
We loved many pieces in the exhibition, and Sun explained that a “recurring” theme of the show is “acceptance and tolerance.” “The essence of what we are trying to say” is that “if we take apart all the external features … maybe we can have a better look at the essence of oneself. Who are we? And for me the message is that if we are not that different inside, why is there discrimination?”
“One of the most touching moments” for Sun happened when he was at the exhibition one day and he “saw a mother bringing her son who was 5 or 6 years old. And the mother was explaining to her son that in this world there’s man loving woman, woman loving woman, woman loving man, and man loving man. That’s just a fact of life. And the son just looked up and said, ‘Yes,’ and nodded. That to me makes it all worthwhile.”
The Only LGBTQ Taoist Temple in the World
With respect to queer spiritual and cultural life, Taiwan is also distinctive. Over two-thirds of Taiwan’s population identifies as Taoist or Buddhist, and Taiwan boasts as far as we know the only Taoist temple in the world specially dedicated to serving the LGBTQ community. According to founder Taoist Master Lu Wei-ming, thousands of LGBTQ people have come to the temple since its creation in 2006.
The temple, called Wei Ming Tong (Hall of Martial Brilliance), is dedicated to the centuries-old Taoist God Tu‘er Shen (Rabbit God), who originally oversaw gay “love and relationships,” but now protects LGBTQ people in all aspects of their lives. According to an account from the early Qing dynasty, a man named Hu Tianbao fell in love with an attractive male inspector and was caught peering at the inspector through a bathroom wall. Hu confessed his same-sex love and attraction to authorities, who then executed him by beating him to death. Thereafter, Hu became the God Tu’er Shen to compensate for the injustice of being killed for being gay. Master Lu explained that Tu’er Shen suffered because of who he was and whom he loved, and thus can empathize with challenges LGBTQ people face today.
Master Lu also described how queer people have been a part of Chinese history and culture, and how being LGBTQ is a natural part of Taoism. According to Master Lu, “in ancient China, the culture didn’t see gay people as much different from others. They were looked at equally as normal people.” Indeed, texts report instances of young male couples marrying and being recognized by each other’s families in the Ming and early Qing dynasties in Fujian Province of China, where many early Chinese Taiwanese came from.
As Master Lu explained, Yin and Yang—how seemingly opposite aspects of life are actually deeply interconnected to form a whole—is central to Taoism. In the famous circular symbol, a dot of Yin appears in Yang, and a dot of Yang is represented in Yin. In Master Lu’s words, nothing “exists alone,” and LGBTQ people “are natural in the world,” represented by the circle. “Woman is normal inside man, and man is normal inside woman.” In Chinese temples, Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is depicted as both male and female and neither male nor female—free of the constraints of gender—able to offer compassion for all.
Patrick Sun echoed these ideas in his vision of Spectrosynthesis: “In all of us, it’s not like black and white, binary gender. There’s a woman living in [a man, and] a man living in [a woman]. We have a masculine side and a feminine side, and probably many, many more sides that we have not explored yet.”
Coming Out in Taiwan
Taiwan is one of the safest countries in the world as far as street crime. Although anti-LGBTQ violence exists, we were struck by how comfortable some young people seemed to be expressing their sexuality. During our visit, we noticed young Taiwanese gay couples and trans people simply being themselves openly at such ordinary places as the subway station and Taiwan’s famous night food markets. Many people told us they did not have to hide amongst their friends and community.
This represents change. Arthur Chang, a long-time volunteer at the Tongzhi Hotline, told us that originally most callers were LGBTQ people in distress about their sexuality. Parents also called upset when their child had come out to them. Now, Chang says many callers are LGBTQ people wanting to talk about romantic or relationship problems.
Coming out is not easy for all, however, and perhaps especially for older adults. Chang told us of an annual weekend bus tour for older gay men that has enabled many closeted gay men who are married to women to have a few days to be who they really are. Despite the fact that employment discrimination is prohibited nationwide, coming out on the job can be risky. Although Chang noted significant changes in hotline calls, many activists told us that when it came to coming out to parents, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the unspoken rule.
One person who is responsible for change and who passionately wants more children to come out to their parents and be accepted is the extraordinary woman known as Guo Mama, head of Loving Parents of LGBT, Taiwan. Guo Mama herself sets a powerful example for other parents of LGBTQ people. When she suspected that her own daughter was queer, she encouraged her to come out, and her daughter did as a lesbian. But Guo Mama thought that something else was going on and encouraged her daughter to consider whether she was transgender. Guo Mama’s daughter soon thereafter came out as her son. Her child’s grandparents were so supportive that they insisted that the genealogy engraved on their family gravestone be changed to identify that that they had a grandson and not a granddaughter.
Guo Mama told us that she has personally helped over 500 parents to accept their children’s coming out to them over the last 13 years, and she has devised practical steps for LGBTQ people and their parents in the coming out process. Her underlying message to parents of young people struggling with their sexuality and coming out: “Your child needs your help now more than ever.” Her message to LGBTQ Taiwanese about parents: “We don’t throw our kids away.” Through her work, she has found that parents are willing to do things for their children “beyond their children’s imagination.” Guo Mama’s dream is to bring families closer together and to remove the stress of “living double lives” and “telling lies.”
Final Evening at Taipei’s Natural Hot Springs
As we reflected on our experience of LGBTQ life in Taiwan, our last evening in Taipei seemed almost metaphorical. The city of Taipei boasts marvelous natural sulfur hot spring spas along the banks of a steaming river in the hills on the outskirts of town. On a Saturday evening, we went with friends to visit Emperor Hot Springs, a venue very popular with gay men.
The spa is gender segregated, and we soaked in the soothing waters with over two hundred others. The atmosphere was relaxed and casual with many folks hanging out and chatting with friends, while others soaked silently. In one pool, you could lie down with your head resting on a piece of wood made soft by the warm mineral waters. We felt as if we could float there forever.
Afterwards, bathers dress and join each other—gay and straight together, straight families with small children and groups of friends—to savor pots of warm rice soup and other delicious Taiwanese food. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Actually, it does get better, and it will—when the Constitutional Court’s promise of marriage equality and the dignity that comes with it become a reality—and as progress toward full LGBTQ equality and inclusion continues. Taiwan’s amazing LGBTQ community, with its inspiring activists, leaders and allies, is doing everything it can to make that dream come true. We hope to be planning a return visit soon.
Taiwan Activists Say Now Is the Time to Fulfill the Promise of Marriage Equality
November 9, 2017
This past October, we were thrilled to attend Taipei Pride, the largest annual gathering of LGBTQ people in Asia. We also then witnessed the extraordinary synergy taking place between the political, social, and cultural elements of the Taiwanese LGBTQ community.
This year’s Pride in Taipei was by far the biggest ever with over 123,000 attendees. Excitement and anticipation were sky high with May’s historic Constitutional Court victory promising marriage equality within two years and also granting broad constitutional protections for gay people that are even stronger than we have in the U.S. We loved Taiwan, and it was a great place to visit as an LGBTQ traveler. We’ll share our experiences and report on the status of the LGBTQ movement in Taiwan in this and upcoming issues.
Community leaders at Pride rallied the crowds with inspiring messages about the importance of making the Court’s promise of full marriage equality a reality now. The Constitutional Court gave the government two years to implement its decision and “discretion” as to “the formality” of how they do it. If the national legislature fails to act in two years, same-sex couples will be able to marry then under current procedures. So far, the legislature has not acted.
Activists are concerned that the legislature might duck the issue over the next 18 months, or pass a bill that deprives married same-sex couples of important rights such as adopting children, access to fertility clinics and other equal treatment with respect to parental rights, and equal access to immigration. Anti-equality political groups have been lobbying against full equality in implementing the Court’s decision.
“Don’t be so happy yet,” cautioned Jennifer Lu of the Tongzhi Hotline, a leading LGBTQ organization and one of the leaders of the Taiwan Marriage Equality Coalition, as she and other activists inspired marchers to urge legislators to finish the job by passing a full marriage equality bill as mandated by the Court decision by the end of the year.
In a Facebook message to attendees of Taipei Pride, President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president and a marriage and LGBTQ equality supporter, affirmed that the Constitutional Court’s ruling “is binding on all,” but did not address specifics, and noted that “we also have a responsibility to ensure social cohesion.” From the stage at Pride, Lu responded that she supported social cohesion, but made clear that there could be no unity when one group of people, namely LGBTQ people, continues to face discrimination under the law.
Among the crowd at Pride was Jay Lin, a Marriage Equality Coalition member; he and his partner are proud parents of two small children and want to get married. Lin’s wish for his family is simple, yet profound: “I hope that we will be able to get married with our boys as the flower boys. The wedding doesn’t need to be big or fancy, but it is significant for us to be able to show our commitment to each other, to our families, and to society at large.” We met many LGBTQ people who, even if they didn’t want to get married now, spoke of how important marriage equality was to their sense of dignity as LGBTQ Taiwanese.
Advocates are passionate in their quest to make Taiwan’s dream of full equality come true.
The night before Pride, we had the opportunity to meet legendary LGBTQ activist Chi Chia-wei, whom some call the “Harvey Milk” of the Taiwan LGBTQ movement. Chia-wei has been fighting for LGBTQ and marriage equality for over 30 years, and was a party to last May’s landmark lawsuit. Through a translator, Chia-wei told us that marriage is the only “true equality” and that no country has gone backwards from marriage equality to something less.
His attorney in the case, Victoria Hsu, co-founder of Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights and herself an icon of the Taiwanese LGBTQ rights movement, explained: “The government has the constitutional duty to fulfill the Constitutional Court’s ruling … . The government should pass a full, comprehensive bill.” Hsu vowed to go to court on behalf of deprived LGBTQ families to enforce the Court’s decision if the government did anything less. She emphasized that “waiting two years is simply too long. A lot of LGBT couples can’t wait that long,” referring to couples who “are suffering because of illness and accident.” Some members of couples have already passed away while they wait. “It is the government’s responsibility to repair this human rights violation as soon as possible,” said Hsu.
Some may ask: Why Taiwan? Why does Taiwan have some of the most progressive laws on LGBTQ rights in the world? For example, same-sex relations have never been illegal there, nationwide laws prohibit discrimination in employment and public accommodations, and LGB people have been able to serve in the military since 2002.
Jason Tsao of the Tongzhi Hotline and the Marriage Equality Coalition points to the fact that in the twenty years since the end of martial law in Taiwan, “people have learned to express their expectation for changes through elections.” This political engagement has enabled “the vigorous development of civil society and the political participation of the young generation.” Community mobilization through public rallies and other events garners media attention. Tsao also pointed to the path-breaking 2004 national Gender Equity Education Act, which he says has enabled more young people to understand LGBTQ and gender issues, but is unfortunately under attack now from anti-LGBTQ political forces.
Taiwan appears to be a country in which democracy is growing and strengthening. The vibrant, engaged and ever-growing LGBTQ movement is truly inspiring. If as LGBTQ activists seek, the government enacts full marriage equality now and does not retreat on LGBTQ education in schools—Taiwan will unquestionably be a leader of the LGBTQ movement not just in Asia, but also in the world.
Justice and Desserts
October 26, 2017
Cousin Lisa and her fiancé Mike’s engagement party last month was a delightful affair. We’ve known Lisa since the day she was adopted 30 years ago, and she and Mike make a great couple. One of the joys of our participation in the marriage equality movement is that we now perform weddings for other couples. When Lisa and Mike slipped us a handwritten note at the party asking, “Will you and the love of your life help me marry mine?” we, of course, replied with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” And we marveled at the “save the date” cookies Lisa and Mike bought at a local bakery that were topped with an icing calendar showing their upcoming wedding day in July 2018.
As we admired the cookies, however, we found that our thoughts soon turned to another couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who were engaged a few years ago and had gone to a bakery in suburban Denver, Colorado, with Charlie’s mom to order a wedding cake for their upcoming nuptials. The bakery told Charlie and David point blank that it would not bake them a wedding cake because they were gay. As reported in The Denver Post, the bakery owner simply told Charlie and David simply: “Sorry guys, I don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.” They did not even discuss the design of the cake, and according to the bakery owner, the entire “conversation was just about 20 seconds long.”
Charlie and David were stunned. Colorado law prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry. The bakery’s denying Charlie and David service because of their sexual orientation was a clear violation of the law. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed, and the Colorado Supreme Court saw no need to review the case. But earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case to decide whether the bakery could claim rights to freedom of speech and religion that could permit it to ignore the state’s anti-discrimination law when it comes to LGBT couples like Charlie and David. The Court will hear oral argument in the case on December 5, 2017, and will likely rule by the end of June 2018.
It then occurred to us that if the Supreme Court permits the Colorado bakery to discriminate, the local bakery that baked Lisa and Mike’s engagement cookies could conceivably refuse to provide services to us and other LGBT couples it if were our engagement party. We soon realized the bakery might also be able to refuse to make the same cookies or a wedding cake for Lisa and Mike themselves. Lisa is a person of color, and a bakery that wanted to discriminate against her on that basis could assert that the laws prohibiting race discrimination did not apply to them because of freedom of religion or speech. And further, Lisa was born overseas and adopted when she was a few weeks old, so the bakery could try to ignore the laws prohibiting national origin and ancestry discrimination.
It doesn’t stop there. Lisa and Mike are an interracial couple, and the bakery could try to deny them service on that ground as well. After all, if a business owner’s personal religious beliefs allow the business to ignore anti-discrimination laws, still more injustice is possible. Consider that the trial court judge in the U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia, stated: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents … . The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
If the Supreme Court rules against LGBT people like Charlie and David, the decision could have implications for many businesses, and not just bakeries. The Denver Post reports that the bakery owner has often been asked, “What would Jesus do?” His response, “Well, you know, in my opinion—Jesus was a carpenter. I don’t think he would have made a bed for their wedding … .”
Putting aside the fact that the emphasis of Jesus’ teachings is love and that he never addressed homosexuality, much less marriage for LGBT people, the bakery owner’s answer illuminates how sweeping a negative decision from the U.S. Supreme Court could be. It could open the door not only for businesses to refuse to sell beds or, for that matter, anything else to LGBT couples, but also for restaurants to turn away LGBT diners. Myriad other businesses could refuse to serve LGBT people, and all based on claims that doing so violated the owners’ religious beliefs.
The marriage equality movement is about our common humanity, our common need for dignity and respect, and our common inclination to love. Discrimination demeans and stigmatizes those people who are its objects. But it ultimately harms those who practice it, too, because it deprives them and those around them of the opportunity to understand and appreciate diversity and to recognize our common humanity.
An unusually large number of high profile mass tragedies have taken place in our county over the last few months. Amidst the human suffering, stories emerge of people instinctively and spontaneously helping strangers—from rescuing them from flood waters to covering their bodies to protect them from bullets to helping them escape approaching flames—and all before their minds had a chance to categorize the stranger and to evaluate whether or not they wanted to help them.
Our laws against discrimination are a vehicle for people to act everyday with those highest intentions—for jobs, housing, and businesses to be open to everyone, regardless of who they are or whom they love. We look to the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018 to affirm our laws against discrimination—just in time to celebrate at Lisa and Mike’s wedding.
LGBT Life in China: Obstacles and Inspiration
October 5, 2017
We realized that things would be a bit different on our recent trip to China to talk about love, marriage, and LGBT equality when organizers of our first event told us that they would not be publicizing it on the internet for fear the government would shut it down. Yet people came, and we talked honestly and openly about our lives and our hopes for the future – and the importance of our dignity as LGBT people. Homosexuality was first documented in China over 2,600 years ago; yet today coming out is very difficult, and homosexuality is something that many Chinese do not know or talk about. An extraordinary group of LGBT activists is working to change all of that and improving the lives of Chinese LGBT people in critical ways.
China decriminalized homosexuality 20 years ago, and in 2001 the country removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. There are gay bars and LGBT community organizations in larger cities, and Shanghai Pride held its 9th annual celebration this year. Victims of conversion therapy have won two recent lawsuits against the institutions that inflicted it upon them. Last year, a gay couple brought an unsuccessful marriage equality lawsuit that garnered significant publicity. The sixth annual AIDS Walk Great Wall (the only AIDS walk you can see from outer space) took place this fall.
However, China is currently undergoing a period of extensive repression in which those is power are attempting to exert more control over people’s lives and the internal workings of the government. One activist even termed it a “second Cultural Revolution,” referring to the period from the 1966-1976 led by Mao Zedong in which millions of people were persecuted for failing to conform to party ideology.
A number of activists explained to us that the crackdown is not aimed particularly at LGBT people – it’s a broader effort to exert social and political control – but it’s hurting the LGBT community, especially given the current importance of public education, outreach, and building community. The government in the past year has forbidden depictions of homosexuality among many other things in television, films, and online broadcast media. New regulations severely hamper the work of foreign NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in China, including those who support local LGBT organizations. Government security has interfered with public LGBT events. One activist told us that they had to “play Tai Chi” with the government, referring to the centuries-old Chinese art of movement that involves sensing what’s going on around you and knowing how and when to assert and when to yield.
The Tai Chi metaphor may apply more generally to LGBT life in China given how queer people articulated to us the particular challenges with respect to family expectations and social conformity they had to negotiate. Many people in telling their personal stories illuminated how difficult it was to come out because of the society’s lack of familiarity with what it means to be LGBT, limited means of getting information, and strong cultural and familial pressures to marry a person of the opposite sex and have children. After all, as America in the 1960s and 70s was undergoing the sexual revolution and the Stonewall riots marked the symbolic beginning of the modern American LGBT movement, the repressive Cultural Revolution was taking place in China, and Chinese people have not had fully open access to media and information in the years since.
One person put it starkly, saying that he believed the majority of Chinese people simply fulfill expected roles in their lives – father, mother, son, daughter – and lacked the ability to exercise agency over their lives. In one discussion group, a gay man who had once found love with a high school classmate until his parents cut off the relationship, seemed saddened and resigned as he talked about possibly giving up on coming out and instead entering into a heterosexual marriage to please his parents. Many in the group seemed to understand exactly why he would do that. Coming out to parents seemed particularly formidable even for some leaders of LGBT organizations, and more than one person told us that if they came out to their parents, their parents might have a heart attack and die. In this environment, coming out in the workplace in the face of possible stigma and discrimination can be very challenging as well.
One leader likened internalized homophobia to the severe air pollution for which many big Chinese cities are infamous. He exhorted the group: “We must cleanse ourselves of the pollution of homophobia, just as we need to clean the air we breathe.” The facilitator of that meeting asked us to lead a simple call and response, repeating: “It’s great to be gay. It’s great to be just the way you are.” The amazing Beijing LGBT Center and other organizations are working tirelessly to train counselors, therapists, and other health care professionals so that they can help LGBT clients rather than shun them.
Yet other LGBT people told very different stories, and people’s lives seemed to differ widely based on where they lived, their education and employment, and their access to international travel and media. A middle-aged gay man who had been married to a lesbian for years to please their parents told us he had finally come out to his sibling and moved in together with his boyfriend. Others described family coming out experiences that sounded very similar to successful American coming out stories. Another man and his partner were anticipating the birth of their first child through a surrogate in America and would soon be traveling to the States to marry when the child was born, although China would not recognize the marriage. His parents were looking forward to having a grandchild, and he seemed unconcerned about what his neighbors might think. In fact, we met the founder of a Chinese business that arranges for couples, both gay and straight, to have children through surrogates living outside the country.
We also met with members of PFLAG China, a vibrant nationwide organization with active groups in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu, as well as in more remote areas of the country. Earlier this year, hundreds of LGBT people and their parents took part in the 10th Annual PFLAG China National Conference held on a ocean cruise between China and Japan, that featured the marriage of nine LGBT couples and many other colorful and meaningful events. Eleven brave PFLAG moms earlier this year also came to Shanghai’s famous “marriage market,” where every weekend parents of heterosexual children gather in a famous park with photos and resumes in hand to matchmake. The PFLAG moms decided to come to try to find mates of the same sex for their gay children. Other parents started a contentious argument, causing security to come and force the PFLAG moms to leave. But it was an amazing act of bravery and LGBT visibility through the power of parental love and acceptance. We met another activist who had been held by the police because he was a leading a public event where people were simply offered the opportunity to express love and support for LGBT people. The stress of all of this can take an emotional toll on participants.
During our visit, a short film we made screened as part of a queer film series, and we got to know members of China’s film and arts scene, many of whom have created and run LGBT-themed film and arts organizations that bring much sought after queer content to LGBT audiences. Many seemed to be living life full tilt and leading very international lives, coming and going as they attend overseas film festivals and at times living abroad for arts fellowships or higher education. One person – far from fearing not conforming to his parents’ expectations – emancipated himself from them overseas. Another spoke of the need to explode marriage and most other societal institutions, perhaps not surprisingly given how oppressive they currently can be to LGBT people in China. Another artist had the guts to sue the government when his LGBT public education film had been removed from the internet a couple years ago. The entire film program in which our film was screened needed to be reviewed by the government before it could be shown. And a number of artists and activists were actively seeking to leave China because of the oppression.
Above all, we treasure the human connections, mutual support and camaraderie we built with the people we met. Unlike other places we have given presentations, groups in China were particularly interested in hearing how we have kept our relationship together for three decades: What was our biggest conflict? How did we resolve differences? Have we ever considered breaking up? We ended up telling audiences things we had previously only shared with close friends. And in discussion groups, participants gave each other the opportunity to be heard and to witness each other’s struggles and aspirations. In setting up one of our presentations and discussion groups, we worked closely with wonderful people who lead Chinese groups of radical faeries. This type of sharing and support are the core of faerie heart circles.
The current nationalistic policies of the American and Chinese governments may tend to separate its citizens, but what we share as LGBT people connects us across oceans and national boundaries. We feel part of one movement. Chinese activists told us that the marriage equality victory in America and the gains for LGBT rights here were helping change things in China. And as we witnessed firsthand the dedication, energy, courage, creativity and intelligence of Chinese LGBT activists in the face of government repression, we left inspired by what they have achieved and convinced more than ever that we in the LGBT community in America must use our freedom to the utmost. Their work is testament to the power of grassroots, person-to-person education and community building. In the end, we educated and inspired each other – which is exactly what the LGBT community can do when it’s at its best.
A Love Affair with Edie Windsor
September 21, 2017
Although we met Edie Windsor only once, we’ll never forget the moment. It was on the steps of the United States Supreme Court back in March 2013, just minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court had concluded oral argument in Edie’s landmark lawsuit challenging the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”).
Edie had just finished a formal press conference, but she really wanted to be where her heart was: with all of the LGBTQ people gathered outside the Supreme Court that historic day. Edie was not to be denied—either before the Justices of the Court or with the LGBTQ community on the Court steps. As her legal team attempted to marshal her off the Supreme Court plaza, Edie, like the 84-year-old lesbian fireball of spirit, energy, and joy she was, stretched out her arms—really her entire body—to be part of all those gathered, including us.
When Time magazine honored Edie as Number 3 on its 2013 “Person of the Year” list, she responded: “The gay community is my ‘person of the year.’” She explained, “I am just one person who was part of the extraordinary and ongoing fight for marriage equality for all our families. There are thousands of people who helped us come this far and we still have a lot more work to do … . I look forward to continuing to fight for equal rights and educate the public about our lives alongside my gay brothers and sisters and our allies.”
Edie was a long-time grassroots activist. She was an early active member of Marriage Equality New York, then Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA), the grassroots organization with which we worked for many years. Always feisty and outspoken, Edie recounted in the new anthology The People’s Victoryhow, when an LGBT leader at a community meeting urged patience in seeking marriage equality, she raised her hand and demanded: “I’m 77 years old and I can’t wait!! What do we have to do?”
A key reason for urgency on Edie’s part was that her partner of over 40 years, Thea, was very ill with advanced multiple sclerosis. A tireless fighter, Edie went to every rally or event she could. At an organizing meeting, Edie met MEUSA leaders Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis, who made the connection that led to Edie marrying Thea in Canada.
Michael and Robert recount in The People’s Victory how Edie and Thea flew to Toronto, Canada, and were married by Canada’s first openly gay judge, Justice Harvey Brownstone, in May 2007. “Thea required assistance to get on and off the plane and to disassemble and reassemble her wheelchair. Edie recalled, ‘I couldn’t put a ring on her finger without someone holding her hand out because Thea was no longer able to lift her hand herself.’”
When Thea died, Edie had to pay over $363,000 in federal estate taxes because they were lesbians and the federal government would not recognize their marriage. Edie wanted to rectify this injustice through a federal lawsuit. When a number of LGBT leaders and organizations believed that her case was not the best one to challenge DOMA, Edie persisted and found private counsel to bring the case. Eventually, everyone—including the U.S. Justice Department itself—worked to achieve victory at the Supreme Court.
The Court found Edie’s story and the multitude of harms that DOMA inflicted on thousands and thousands of same-sex couples compelling, and declared DOMA unconstitutional. Justice Ginsburg later described Edie and Thea’s relationship as a “grand partnership.” At oral argument in Edie’s case, Justice Ginsburg opined that while heterosexual couples have “full marriage,” DOMA relegated same-sex couples like Edie and Thea to a second class, “skim milk marriage.”
The Supreme Court’s Windsor decision is powerful. In striking down DOMA, Justice Kennedy wrote: “DOMA instruct[ed] all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage [was] less worthy than the marriages of others.” DOMA’s purpose was to “injure” and “disparage” married same-sex couples and to make them “unequal” to everyone else. As such, DOMA violated the constitutional rights of LGBT couples.
Whenever we give presentations about marriage equality, we tell Edie and Thea’s story. On one memorable occasion, a middle school student, upon hearing how unfairly DOMA had treated Edie, yelled spontaneously in front of an entire school assembly, “That’s bulls–t!” Edie would have loved it.
Edie’s story is testament to the importance of standing up and speaking out over and over again. Her story is filled with love—and inspiration, and hope for LGBTQ people in the face of adversity. Edie embodies the power of our everyday personal stories and grassroots activism to change hearts and minds all across America all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Edie once described her experience after the Supreme Court victory to The New Yorkermagazine as follows: “I don’t know how to say it that’s not corny as hell—I’ve been having a love affair with the gay community” and “I think Thea would love it.”
As we honor Edie at the time of her passing away, we are confident that the community—and America’s—love affair with Edie will live on for generations to come.
From Naughty to Nice
August 24, 2017
When I first came out as gay to my family over 30 years ago, my mom was wonderfully accepting. She already knew. For weeks before I actually told her one summer evening while I was home from college, she kept saying to me: “If there’s anything you want to tell me, I just want you to know that I will be very accepting … .” And so, one evening, I came out to her, and we had a great conversation. When she met John a few years later, I asked her what she thought of him, and she responded: “He’s nice.” But quickly realizing that could sound like damning by faint praise, she exclaimed: “Nicer than nice!” She thought he was great, and quickly loved him as one of her own.
As news about my being gay spread through my mother’s side of the family, however, word got back to me that a few in my extended family didn’t necessarily think it was so “nice” that I was gay. I learned that one of my Chinese aunties said she’d heard through the family grapevine I was “naughty.” In general, there was a feeling among some of the family that we don’t talk about sexuality, love, and relationships. We don’t even know how to talk about such things. We don’t even do so with respect to straight people, and we certainly don’t know how to do so with respect to people who might be “naughty.”
Over the decades, John became completely integrated into my large extended family. He has planned family reunions, supported family members through illness and death, and cooked our traditional family dishes for our annual Chinese New Year celebrations. When John and I first married during San Francisco’s February 2004 “Winter of Love,” the date coincided with our family’s annual New Year gathering. The 2004 marriages were so spontaneous and joyful that my family toasted us with champagne and showered us with congratulations at that year’s annual family gathering.
The initial reticence on the part of some of my family to talk about LGBT life has been reflected in the broader society in varying ways in different cultural contexts in America, Asia, and other parts of the world. Last week, however, John and I spoke about marriage equality and LGBT issues to university students from Taiwan, China, and Japan studying this summer at Stanford University as part of the Volunteers in Asia program.
If these students’ interest and excitement in learning about, and talking about, marriage equality and LGBT life—and their support for LGBT people—is any indication of things to come on a broader level, then enormous change is taking place in Asia, just as it did in my own family years before. The students’ thirst for knowledge about LGBT people’s lives was palpable. Our presentation began at 7:00 pm, and three and a half hours later at 10:30 pm, many students were still actively engaging with us with many insightful questions and comments about LGBT life in America and their home countries. We could have gone on all night.
The Taiwanese students beamed with pride when we and they talked about the historic court decision in favor of marriage equality in Taiwan, making it the first country in Asia with marriage equality. Students from all of the countries applauded the victory. One student spoke about her activism as a Taiwanese lesbian. Another added, “I was there!” when we showed a photograph of the massive celebration the day of the victory. A 2014 poll found that 70 percent of Japanese in their 20s and 30s support full marriage equality. Many students asked perceptive questions about LGBT physical and mental health, legal issues about relationship and employment discrimination, and ways to improve life for LGBT students in schools.
Speaking with us at Stanford were our friends, the Tan Mercado family, two moms and their twin sons now in college, who were leaders in the fight against DOMA and discrimination against bi-national LGBT couples. Eight years ago, ICE arrested one of the moms in the wee hours of the morning at their home. Today, they are a legally married couple, with one of their sons a Stanford undergraduate and one of the coordinators of the Volunteers in Asia summer program. The entire family came and told their story of standing up for their family and those of many others, and of overcoming adversity. They shared the message that love makes a family. Their very presence allowed students to learn about LGBT families directly, and to see firsthand how terrific children of same-sex parents can turn out. After the formal presentation ended, the students surrounded them with support and questions about their lives.
By far the question the most students asked us was the best one: “When we go back to our home countries, how can we help?” It’s the question that gives us the most hope and inspiration—that together, LGBT people in Asia and America are moving forward on the ongoing journey from “naughty” to “nice” … even nicer than nice!
The Power of Love
August 10, 2017
Three months ago, a young gay couple in their 20s in Aceh, Indonesia, was caned 83 times before a jeering crowd outside of a mosque after a Sharia court convicted them of the “crime” of the physical expression of their love for each other. According to news reports, vigilantes stormed the couple’s home and found them in bed together. BBC News described the scene of their torture: “The (gay) men stood on stage in white gowns praying while a team of hooded men lashed their backs with a cane … . A large crowd of observers cheered as the caning took place. ‘Let this be a lesson to you,’ one of the men watching cried out. ‘Do it harder,’ another man yelled.”
A BBC reporter who witnessed the flogging described how “you could definitely see … [the victims’] emotion[s]” on their faces, how “they were gripping their hands tightly” and how “extremely frightened and shaken” one of them was. The caning took place after the men survived two months in a prison with many homophobic inmates. The BBC reported that one of the men was in the final years of medical training to become a doctor, but that his university has now expelled him.
In addition to the obvious trauma these actions inflicted on the couple, the flogging spread fear across the LGBT community in Indonesia—as have anti-LGBT atrocities spread great fear in Chechnya. Recently, 141 people were arrested at what Indonesian police called a “gay sex party” in the nation’s capital Jakarta.
The arrest and flogging horrified us as it did millions of other people around the world, as has the shocking oppression taking place in Chechnya. We felt a visceral connection to the couple, and imagined how terrified we would be if vigilantes broke into our bedroom in the middle of night as we rested in bed together. We reflected on the threat to the men’s lives in prison and the physical pain and indignity they suffered at the flogging. We wondered if we would have the fortitude to survive such an imprisonment and flogging as they did.
Although we have never endured anything remotely comparable to what this young couple did, we identified personally with their experience because we, like many other LGBT people, have feared for our physical safety and faced public shaming because of who we are and whom we love. Indeed, no other aspect of our being able to marry legally was more powerful than the sense of dignity it gave us as citizens. As the final words of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark nationwide marriage equality decision reads, LGBTQ people “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law” and “the Constitution grants them that right.”
But perhaps the most important connection we experienced to the couple was that of love. Amidst all that happened to them, we thought about how much these two gay men loved each other. They risked everything for their love, and the physical and emotional tenderness of their care for each other was more than the vigilantes, the torturers and the taunting crowds could bear. For years, we marched down Market Street as part of marriage equality contingents in the annual Pride Parade, shouting to the crowds, “It’s all about love! It’s all about pride!”
This young gay couple in Aceh inspires us. Our hearts go out to them and are with them. We dare to hope that their love survives. We dare to dream that someday “love wins” in Aceh and in the rest of Indonesia and the world.
Celebrating 6/26 Now and in the Future
July 27, 2017
We title our column “6/26 and Beyond” because, for the last fourteen years, June 26 has been the day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its key pro-LGBT equality decisions. 2017 was no exception. On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Pavan vs. Smith made even more explicit what it had already made clear before: When it comes to marriage, government must treat same-sex couples the same as different-sex couples.
In some ways akin to a number of states’ resistance to integrating public schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, a handful of states have tried to evade the clear dictates of the U.S. Supreme Court’s two landmark marriage equality decisions—Obergefell, recognizing the freedom to marry nationwide, and Windsor, striking down federal government discrimination against married same-sex couples.
One such state is Arkansas, where the state Department of Health in 2015 refused to put both same-sex spouses’ names on birth certificates for children conceived through artificial insemination as the department does for different-sex couples. Last year, a divided Arkansas Supreme Court upheld this discrimination. Last month, however, the U.S. Supreme Court said “no way”—in Pavan, a per curiam decision, issued without even the need for full briefing or oral argument. Per curiam decisions are “reserved for cases where ‘the law is settled and stable, the facts are not in dispute, and the decision below is clearly in error,’” and the Court found that Pavan was one of those cases.
In the opening line of the opinion, the Supreme Court repeated loud and clear its holding in Obergefell: “the Constitution entitles same-sex couples to civil marriage ‘on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’” The Court went on to explain that Arkansas’ “differential treatment [of same-sex couples] infringes Obergefell’s commitment to provide same-sex couples ‘the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.’”
The Court further stated: “Obergefell proscribes such disparate treatment. As we explained there, a State may not ‘exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’” And the Court pointed out that birth certificates were one of the specific examples the Obergefell court gave of “the ‘rights, benefits, and responsibilities to which same-sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, must have access.”
Sadly, newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, filed a groundless and unprincipled dissenting opinion. In a 2016 speech turned law review article submitted to the Senate for his confirmation hearings, Gorsuch addressed the importance of precedent in the American legal system. He said: “[E]ven when a hard case does arise, once it’s decided it takes on the force of precedent, becomes an easy case in the future, and contributes further to the determinacy of our law. Truly the system is a wonder and it is little wonder so many throughout the world seek to emulate it.”
What truly is a wonder is how Gorsuch could not see that Obergefell is undeniably precedent and Pavan was an easy case. Significantly, Chief Justice Roberts, who strongly dissented in the Obergefell decision, did not join Gorsuch’s dissent. Per curiam decisions have no named author, and individual justices are not required to indicate their votes on such decisions. Roberts’ decision not to dissent by name, however, may mean he respects Obergefell as precedent, even though he disagrees with it.
Pavan should send an unmistakable message to other states and lower courts who might attempt to sidestep the clear constitutional protections of liberty and equality that Obergefell and Windsor afford LGBT couples. Just four days after Pavan was decided, however, the Texas Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision, allowing a lawsuit to proceed that challenges whether local governments must provide health insurance and other spousal benefits to married same-sex couples when it does so to different-sex couples. And even after Pavan, Indiana continues to defend in court its differential treatment of same-sex couples with respect to birth certificates.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s enforcement of the Constitution’s guarantees of liberty and equality for LGBT people remains critical to our lives. The composition of the Supreme Court is vital to future success. We still need more 6/26 victories in the future. With rumors abounding as to whether Justice Kennedy, the author of all of the Court’s landmark gay rights decisions, may retire as early as next year, many who support LGBT equality, women’s rights, and myriad other concerns are anxious.
Doing everything we can to flip the U.S. Senate in 2018 to a chamber that will only confirm a Justice who respects the constitutional and other legal rights of LGBT people is a strategic priority. Everything we as LGBT people have done for decades to win the hearts and minds of millions of Americans helps us inside the courtroom. Now, more than ever, is the time to engage.
A Victory for Love 120 Years in the Making
July 13, 2017
When Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and other gay rights pioneers founded the first LGBT rights advocacy organization in the world in Berlin, Germany, in 1897, did they envision revelers at Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate, just meters from the Reichstag, the seat of the German government, celebrating the attainment of marriage equality in Germany 120 years later? Perhaps they actually did. Back in 1919, Hirschfeld prophesied: “Soon the day will come when science will win victory over error, justice a victory over injustice, and human love a victory over human hatred and ignorance.”
A century later, Maik Beermann, one of the 393 German Parliamentarians voting in favor of equality put it simply: “As a father, I want my daughters to grow up in a country where they enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, regardless of whether they love men or women.” And Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary leader of the Social Democratic Party proclaimed: “If the Constitution guarantees one thing, it is that anyone in this country can live as they wish.”
Marriage equality in Germany is hugely significant for many reasons. Today, Germany plays an increasingly leading role in maintaining a unified Europe and, in recent years, has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, North Africa, and other places. Full marriage equality conveys the importance of dignity and respect for LGBT people to the rest of Europe and to new immigrants arriving from around the world.
Activists hope that momentum from the victory in Germany will bring equality to neighboring Switzerland and Austria, both German-speaking countries. Kathrin Bertschy of Switzerland’s Green Liberal Party told the TagesAnzeigenewpaper that with the German vote “[m]arriage for all is now unstoppable internationally.” Cédric Wermuth of the Swiss Social Democratic Party tweeted: “Switzerland must follow suit NOW. Discrimination is the only thing that is perverted.” Thousands of people also recently marched demanding marriage equality in Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom without equality. The country of Malta is poised to enact marriage equality in July.
Further, the German victory underscores the importance of strategic political organizing by proponents of LGBT rights, even when they do not hold parliamentary majorities in government. For years, marriage equality was stalled in Germany because German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to let the issue come to a vote in Parliament, despite the fact that a January 2017 Federal Anti-Discrimination Bureau poll showed a staggering 83 percent of the public in favor of marriage equality.
But Germany will hold elections in September, and the Social Democratic Party, a key coalition partner with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party in the current coalition government, and the Green Party announced in late June they would make marriage equality legislation a condition for any future coalition governing agreement. Within days Merkel called for a Parliamentary vote where members were free to vote their conscience, and within the week, Parliament passed marriage equality with 75 members of Merkel’s party voting in favor.
Although Merkel voted against marriage equality, she strongly urged unity after the vote, hoping the vote would engender “social peace and togetherness.” With her words, she appeared to be attempting to set a tone of less polarization and divisiveness in the society. On the other side of the world, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who claims to support marriage equality but is blocking a free conscience vote in the Australian Parliament despite clear public support for equality, would do well to follow Merkel’s example.
The LGBT rights movement in Germany did not follow a linear upwards trajectory since its beginning in 1897. One of most enduring images of persecution of LGBT people in the West is the pink triangle that gay male prisoners were forced to wear in the Nazi concentration camps. Beginning in the 1970s, the LGBT rights movement reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of bravery and pride (see page 6), and today Germany has marriage equality, a key element in the critical process of integrating protections for LGBT people into the institutions of society. The triumph embodies Magnus Hirschfeld’s vision of the victory of “human love … over human hatred and ignorance,” “science … over error,” and “justice … over injustice”—a vision just as relevant to the world today as it was a century ago.
A Great Leap Forward for Marriage Equality
June 22, 2017
With this year’s theme of San Francisco Pride, “A Celebration of Diversity,” we are thrilled to celebrate a great leap forward in the worldwide marriage equality movement: last month’s legal victory in Taiwan that will make the nation the first in Asia to have marriage equality. “I’m leaping with joy like a bird,” exclaimed Taiwanese LGBTQ activist Chi Chia-wei, one of the parties to the suit, who was has been fighting for the right to marry for over 30 years, according to the Agence France-Presse (AFP). His words reawaken the joy that we and millions of others experienced during Pride two years ago when marriage equality became the law of the land across America.
The victory in Taiwan is particularly exciting for us as a biracial Chinese American family. We remember participating thirteen years ago in the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance’s historic marriage equality float in the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade, the first of its kind in any Chinese New Year parade in the world, beamed to television audiences across Asia. Our float boldly proclaimed that the Chinese symbol of marriage, double happiness 囍, should be available to all. We are delighted to see that vision starting to become a reality in Asia itself.
We and Asian LGBTQ activists hope that the victory in Taiwan will have ripple effects across the continent. “This will have a huge impact on mainland China. Next stop, Hong Kong, then mainland proper,” proclaimed a Chinese social media user, as reported by Radio Free Asia. Although Taiwan and China differ politically, they share deep cultural and familial roots. Ray Chan, Hong Kong’s first openly gay lawmaker, told AFP that he could foresee Hong Kong couples going to Taiwan to try to marry and then returning home and pressing the government for recognition of their relationships.
Japanese activist friends also welcomed the news, noting the importance of marriage equality becoming a reality “not only in western countries but also in Asia.” Vuong Kha Phong, a Vietnamese LGBTQ advocate proclaimed the Taiwan decision “a historic victory for the LGBT groups in Asia,” and looked to the decision to build “momentum to mobilize the community to take action” as Vietnam will reconsider its marriage laws in 2020, according to the AFP.
The language and reasoning of the Taiwan Constitutional Court’s historic decision itself is very strong. In an official press release, the Court proclaimed Taiwan’s exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage “obviously a gross legislative flaw.” The Court highlighted how Chi Chia-wei had been appealing to different branches of the government for the right to marry for “more than three decades.” It concluded that “after more than a decade” of the legislature being “unable to complete its legislative process on those bills regarding same-sex marriage,” the time was up.
The Court found that denying same-sex couples the ability to marry violated lesbian, gay, and bisexual people’s fundamental constitutional freedom “to decide ‘whether to marry’ and ‘whom to marry,’” a choice “vital” to “human dignity.” The Court also made an expansive ruling with respect to sexual orientation discrimination, holding that the Constitution’s equality guarantees required “heightened” judicial scrutiny of differential treatment based on sexual orientation, and that the marriage exclusion could not withstand such scrutiny. By applying “heightened” scrutiny explicitly, the Taiwan court went further than the U.S. Supreme Court has, and it is past time for the American court to take this critical step.
The Taiwan Court gave the legislature and other responsible authorities two years to comply with the ruling and “discretion” as to “the formality … for achieving the equal protection of the freedom of marriage” for same-sex couples. We and Taiwanese LGBTQ activists believe that full marriage equality is the only way to achieve this result. If the legislature fails to act in two years, same-sex couples will be able to marry under current procedures.
According to the AFP, Chi Chia-wei was jailed for five months after filing his first petition for the right to marry, back in 1986. That was the same year the U.S. Supreme Court held that states could imprison LGBTQ people for the physical expression of their love. Today, both countries’ highest courts have ruled in favor of marriage equality. Chi told the AFP that he has “been able to carry on for so long” because he “wasn’t discouraged by the setbacks.” He said: “My belief is that if you can do one right thing in this life, it’s all worth it.”
As our community continues to pursue full LGBTQ freedom and equality on both sides of the Pacific, we take inspiration this Pride season from Chi’s optimism and perseverance and the collective work of countless other Taiwanese LGBTQ activists. They remind us all that we are “doing the right thing” and “it’s all worth it.”
Celebrating Pride as We Remember Orlando
June 8, 2017
As we mark the first anniversary of the Orlando massacre in which 49, mostly Latinx, members of the LGBTQ community were murdered and 53 others were wounded at the Pulse Nightclub, we find ourselves reflecting on how sobering the events in the early hours of June 12, 2016, were.
Stuart had gotten up earlier than John had that Sunday morning, and as soon as he heard John rustling awake, he rushed to him to tell him that something horrific had happened the night before. We watched Christine Leinonen, mother of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen who together with his partner Juan Ramon Guerrero were killed that night, desperately seek news of her son’s fate on live television and plea for an end to “the hatred and the violence” and to “do something with the assault weapons.”
A year ago, Janiel Gonzalez described what had happened inside the bar to the Palm Beach Post: “I was ordering a Red Bull at the bar … . As I was signing my tab, out of nowhere … [I heard rapid gunfire] … . [I]t got louder and louder … . He kept on shooting and shooting and shooting … . I could smell the ammo in the air.” And “[w]hen I dropped to the floor … [I] saw people crying and covered in blood.”
Shawn Roysten, who also survived the massacre, explained in the Los Angeles Times: “There were so many bodies, so much blood.” Eddie Justice lost his life that night when the gunman found him hiding in the bathroom. Shortly before he died he texted his mother: “Mommy I love you … . In club they’re shooting … . He’s coming. I’m gonna die.”
We have been fortunate not to have suffered such brutal and sudden loss in our lives. However, our recent experiences losing close loved ones and consoling others who have lost life partners and dear friends heighten our sense of connection and empathy with all of those who lost loved ones in Orlando. Our hearts are with Orlando and all other victims of gun violence. We hold each other and those we love more tightly.
A year ago, we wrote in this column: “We cannot fully honor the lives of those lost in Orlando on June 12 unless we do everything in our power not just to reduce hatred, but to eliminate access to the firearms that provide the means by which people carry out these types of massacres and other gun violence.”
Today, we ask ourselves: are we doing everything we can? Shortly after the shooting, Lambda Legal’s Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg wrote that “we must step up and fight to end gun violence.” And we need to do it “now.” And the Human Rights Campaign announced a new “organizational position that the safety of LGBTQ people in the United States requires the adoption of common-sense gun violence prevention measures.” Since then, Donald Trump was elected President with strong support from the National Rifle Association, and today, gun control advocates search for the way forward.
In 1962, Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan pondered in song: “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist who overcame incalculable odds to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide and whose life was the subject of the movie The Killing Fields, years later opined: “What matters is that we remember and we keep talking and maybe someday we will mean it when we say about a holocaust: ‘never again.’” Shouldn’t that someday be now?
Today, we heed Pran’s words—we remember, we keep talking, and we renew our commitment of a year ago. And this month, we celebrate Pride and all our community has done to reduce hatred, even as we remember all of those we have lost.
Voices of LGBTQ Refugees from Trump’s America
May 17, 2017
Many of us felt the sting of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States and feared how it would affect our lives. But as San Francisco Supervisor Jeff Sheehy reminded us at a hearing he convened last week on youth homelessness in the city, Trump’s election has already become a matter of “life and death” for some LGBTQ young people. Such was the case for D. Andrew Porter, a queer youth living in rural western Kentucky when Trump was elected, and who soon thereafter fled to San Francisco with a friend for safety. D. Andrew—who uses the pronoun “they”—shared their story and spoke of the desperate need for better services for homeless youth in powerful testimony they delivered at the hearing.
D. Andrew described how since Trump’s election last November, “threats of violence have drastically increased. A dear friend of mine living in Cookeville, Tennessee, had her car vandalized [and] set on fire … . [S]he was hospitalized after being assaulted. And the realities set in. And my mother said, ‘If you stay here, you will die. Go.’”
So D. Andrew and a friend went—driving 2,327 miles in two days to San Francisco. D. Andrew, who is 25 years old and has been doing LGBTQ organizing in rural areas since the age of 15, never intended to leave Kentucky for San Francisco. “[B]eing a Southerner and living in Kentucky, all my life people have said: Move to California, move to New York City, move to these big urban spaces. And there you will find open arms and love and affirmation, the things that you are seeking here that we simply cannot provide you.” But D. Andrew “spent many years advocating against that. I’ll be quite frank about it: San Francisco was never where I thought I would end up.” With Trump’s election, D. Andrew felt they no longer had a choice.
Porter is not alone in fleeing to San Francisco, and they warn of potentially greater numbers of LGBTQ youth coming in the future. “The reality is that the refugees of Trump America are going to be younger and younger. Queer youth are coming out sooner and sooner. Trans youth are beginning to transition faster and faster.”
Although D. Andrew found “coming to California … really exciting and liberating,” they didn’t exactly find the “open arms” they had heard about. “Getting to California and … specifically being here in San Francisco, a new set of obstacles were thrown at my feet.” They, like many other homeless youth, found navigating the system to find youth services and housing extremely difficult—“barriers and barriers and barriers … to navigate.” Supervisor Sheehy described how D. Andrew “couch surfed among friends, but eventually ended up living in a cold, unheated industrial garage” before getting a studio apartment they share with two other people.
D. Andrew acknowledged how fortunate they are compared to many other youth because they “had some income saved up” and a network. They didn’t succeed by themselves. “My story is a common one, but my successes are not. And that’s the harsh truth.” Many homeless youth “feel trapped in a cage of circumstances.”
D. recounted that one day “I was in the Castro and I gave money to a 16-year-old queer youth from Iowa and sat down with her and talked about her story and promised her that the reality is that even in the hardest of times you can do anything for a year … . And … the saddest truth I’ve ever had to say is that if you can’t make it [here] in a year, you probably should move back to less safe spaces, because I’d rather see you move into a more conservative area … than living in California, this space where we talk often about how [many] resources we have and how much we care deeply for these individuals, but … if you are living on the streets, how accessible are those resources to you?”
As Supervisor Sheehy set forth at the hearing, as of 2015, “the city’s point and time count identified 1,569 homeless youth on the street or in shelters,” and that is “probably an undercount.” Nearly half, 48 percent, identify as LGBTQ, and 13 percent are HIV positive. Numerous people who have been working in the field for years spoke at the hearing and identified many steps to take, such as opening navigation centers and drop in centers and providing housing and access to health care to improve the lives of homeless youth. They pointed to the fact that data shows that targeted programs work. Everyone pointed to the lack of financial resources.
As we listened to D. Andrew’s voice as an LGBTQ refugee from Trump’s America, we were above all struck by their strength, compassion, and desire to help others. For years, these qualities have sustained LGBTQ people from all walks of life in the face of myriad challenges. Those of us who have better living conditions than homeless youth are not separate from those of us on the street. We owe it to each other to end the scourge of Trump’s America and to demonstrate as much strength and courage in supporting LGBTQ youth as the youth themselves have shown.
As Supervisor Sheehy concludes, “We talk about refugees from other places in the world, and certainly we have to be a haven for people from other places in the world. But we have an internal refugee problem, specifically for LGBTQ kids, and all across America with what’s happening with Trump America.”
May 3, 2017
What does it mean to be famous? Such a question seems apt for a college philosophy or ethics class or something that Cher, Madonna, or Lady Gaga might ponder in a quiet moment. However, the query also lies at the heart of an extraordinary concurring opinion to a pro forma, one sentence order in transgender teen Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit to be able to use the bathroom that matches his gender.
In the opinion, Senior Judge Andre Davis of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals first praises Grimm’s eloquence, intelligence, and perseverance in pursing justice. In describing Gavin’s courageous testimony before his School Board, Judge Davis notes how Gavin “explained that he is a person worthy of dignity and privacy. He explained why it is humiliating to be segregated from the general population.” Gavin “knew, intuitively, what the law has in recent decades acknowledged: the perpetuation of stereotypes is one of many forms of invidious discrimination.”
But Judge Davis didn’t stop there. He went on to lay out a broader vision of transgender equality and dignity. He wrote that the school board’s treatment of Grimm reveals “the inequities that arise when the government organizes society by outdated constructs like biological sex and gender.” Grimm’s “case is about much more than bathrooms. It’s about a boy asking his school to treat him just like any other boy. It’s about protecting the rights of transgender people in public spaces and not forcing them to exist on the margins. It’s about governmental validation of the existence and experiences of transgender people, as well as the simple recognition of their humanity. His case is part of a larger movement that is redefining and broadening the scope of civil and human rights so that they extend to a vulnerable group that has traditionally been unrecognized, unrepresented, and unprotected.”
Then the 68-year-old senior judge from his seat of enormous power on the federal court of appeals reached out personally to Gavin, the struggling transgender high school senior. He wrote: “by challenging unjust policies rooted in invidious discrimination, [Gavin Grimm] takes his place among other modern-day human rights leaders who strive to ensure that, one day, equality will prevail, and that the core dignity of every one of our brothers and sisters is respected by lawmakers and others who wield power over their lives.” He likened Grimm to such famous names in the law as Korematsu, Brown, Loving, Windsor, and Obergefell—those “who refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them.”
But Judge Davis recognized that the name Gavin Grimm would likely not become a household name like the others. From Judge Davis’s perspective, though, Gavin was already and would continue to be “famous” for a much more important reason. Quoting Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shehab Nye’s poem Famous, Judge Davis stated: “Despite [Gavin’s] youth and the formidable power of those arrayed against him at every stage of these proceedings, ‘[Gavin] never forgot what [he] could do.’”
Nye’s poem Famous reads in part: “The river is famous to the fish. The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so … . I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets … famous as the one who smiled back. I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.”
Judge Davis is an African American man who grew up in East Baltimore (famous among other things, unfortunately, for its high homicide rate). According to Wikipedia, he was the son of a food services worker and schoolteacher, whose stepfather was a steel worker. Davis attended the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Maryland School of Law. He worked his way up to become a judge of the federal appellate courts, just one tier below the U.S. Supreme Court in the federal judicial system.
Few readers of this column will have heard of Judge Davis before now. We hadn’t before the Gavin Grimm case. When one searches for the name Andre Davis on Google, two different pro football players come up as the top results. However, Judge Andre Davis is, and will always be, famous in our eyes because, in his efforts to fulfill his judicial responsibility to provide justice for Gavin Grimm and other transgender people, Judge Davis himself “never forgot what [he] could do.” He offers all of us the invitation to do the same.
Gay Win-Win: Marriage Equality Saving Lives
March 9, 2017
The U.S. Supreme Court’s two landmark marriage equality decisions contain powerfully eloquent declarations of the dignity and humanity of LGBTQ people. When the decisions were announced, the nation’s newspapers translated the “take home” message of the legal holdings in more down to earth ways. The New York Daily News front page headline screamed, “U.S. GAY! ‘Equal dignity in the eyes of the law.’” The Montgomery, Alabama, Advertiser proclaimed, “LOVE WINS.” The Lafeyette, Indiana, Journal & Courier declared, “GAY WIN-WIN,” and USA Today’s front page announced, “Rainbow Rulings,” with a huge close-up photograph of a happy gay couple kissing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
For years, we and many others in the marriage equality movement have hoped that our efforts would not only help secure equal marriage rights for LGBTQ couples, but also that our work would help our community achieve equality and dignity in all aspects of our lives. We intended for marriage equality to contribute to decades-long efforts to give LGBTQ youth hope to be able envision their lives in any way they chose and to experience happiness rather than shame in being LGBTQ. But the degree to which all the public education, the legal victories, the sights of LGBTQ people getting married coast to coast, and the bold headlines proclaiming, “U.S. GAY,” were resonating with young people was difficult to assess or quantify—until very recently.
On February 20, 2017, researchers from the Johns Hopkins and Harvard schools of public health announced stunning new findings: the number of adolescent suicide attempts in states that achieved marriage equality from 2004 to the beginning of 2015 dropped dramatically, while states that rejected equality saw no change during the same time period. When the researchers added up all the numbers, they found that over 134,000 fewer adolescents per year attempted suicide in states that adopted marriage equality with no reductions in states that maintained discriminatory laws. In equality states, adolescent suicide rates dropped 7 percent, with a 14 percent drop for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. And the study found that reductions in suicide attempts were sustained over time, with lower rates remaining two years after legalization.
The study’s lead author, Julia Raifman, observed, “These are high school students so they aren’t getting married any time soon, for the most part;” however, “[t]here may be something about having equal rights—even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them—that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.” Of course, many other concomitant efforts, such as anti-bullying measures and increasing numbers of LGBTQ people coming out in states that adopted marriage equality, could contribute to the improvements, and the study recognized that it could not identify the mechanism by which marriage equality lowered adolescent suicide rates. But interestingly, the study found that the reduction in suicide attempts did not occur until after marriage equality actually passed, and did not take place in the years leading up to the legal victory.
Despite this progress, teen suicide attempts, especially among LGBTQ youth, remain a huge problem. The study reported that in 2015, over 29 percent of LGBQ high school students reported having attempted suicide in the past year, compared to 6 percent of their heterosexual counterparts. In 2015, 34 percent of high school students who reported attempting suicide were LGBQ. Other data suggests that approximately 40 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. It appears that the researchers had access only to data that tracked sexual orientation, and consequently were unable to provide information about transgender adolescents.
The “Healthy People 2020” program administered by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) seeks to reduce adolescent suicide rates by ten percent by 2020. The study’s authors note that their “research suggests that the legalization of same-sex marriage has been very effective in making progress toward that goal.” We hope that the new HHS Secretary Tom Price, who has been a staunch opponent of marriage equality, and others in the new administration take note. As Raifman observed, “We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views.”
The study provides compelling evidence that legal and public policy pertaining to LGBTQ rights can have profound effects on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ youth. We look to the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize this fact when they consider the extent to which federal law protects transgender youth later this month.
The Supreme Court in its nationwide marriage equality decision stated: “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”
Our hope is that the achievement of nationwide marriage equality results in reductions in adolescent suicide attempts nationwide and that fewer LGBTQ youth find themselves calling out in loneliness. We look to the Court, other judges, and lawmakers to recognize the far-reaching impacts of legal protections for LGBTQ people. And when LGBTQ youth call out in loneliness, it’s the responsibility of friends, family, teachers, counselors, and the larger community to be there to provide care and understanding. We must make real the proclamations of the newspaper headlines that “Love Wins” and legal equality is a “Gay Win-Win.”
The complete study, “Difference-in-Differences Analysis of the Association Between State Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts,” can be found at http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2604258
Art Imitates Life in the New TV Show Doubt
March 3, 2017
As we eagerly anticipate the upcoming premiere of the landmark LGBT history miniseries When We Rise, we were excited to see the premiere of another groundbreaking television series that seeks to educate Americans about the lives of LGBT people: Doubt. Stuart’s high school classmate, television writer Joan Rater, and her husband Tony Phelan are the creators of Doubt, whose all-star cast includes Laverne Cox, who plays a transgender attorney. In an inspiring personal essay published last week in Entertainment Weekly, Joan reveals that her and Tony’s inspiration for Cox’s character was their own teenage transgender son, Tom—and their collective desire to make the world a better place for transgender people to live.
As Joan writes in Entertainment Weekly, she and her husband Tony decided that—after first struggling with and then accepting and embracing their son Tom as transgender—they “want[ed] to be ambassadors” to help educate the public about the real lives of transgender people. They fantasized about “invit[ing] people who think being transgender is scary or weird or wrong over to our house to meet our family that includes our transgender son, and in the end, they see that he’s really sweet and not scary.” But since their house couldn’t fit the millions of people they wanted to reach, Joan recounts, “we wrote a TV show instead,” featuring Laverne Cox as a recurring transgender character.
Joan explains candidly that “when Tommy told us he was transgender, we didn’t know anything about gender identity, so we got really scared. Like panicked and crying.” But Tom provided his parents resources to educate them, and Joan and Tony “let smart people calm us down.” After they calmed down, they realized that Tom “was still the exact same person he was before he told us he was trans, only now he was happier. Once he told us, he felt relieved and was able to be more himself. He became even funnier and nicer. And it was kind of a miracle to our family to see this person that had been sad become happy. We watched this child of ours who had felt so awkward for so long start to feel more comfortable in his own skin.”
“And then we got to create a trans character as a member of the ensemble of Doubt so that people, who didn’t get to witness the miracle of a person being brave enough to be their authentic self in real life, could see it on TV. They could meet Cameron Wirth, as played by Laverne Cox, and fall in love with her because she’s funny and smart as hell and passionate about her clients and gorgeous and needy and lonely and all the things the rest of us are. And once they get to know her, her being trans won’t be scary or alienating. It’ll feel normal. And if we can do that, if we can broaden the idea of normal even a little bit, it’ll be a good thing. And maybe our show can be part of helping people become less afraid.”
We’re proud of Joan and her family, and we’re grateful that Joan and Tony are using their voices as television writers and creators to illuminate the lives and voices of transgender people. As When We Rise dramatizes the lives of LGBT activists, Joan and Tony have become activists themselves by taking their personal story and that of their son and bringing it to the small screen through the transgender character they created. With the TV show Doubt, art imitates life in the hope that more people can live authentic and happy lives without having to imitate or pretend anymore.
Acting Up and Fighting Back at SFO :
February 9, 2017
As we arrived at SFO two Sundays ago to join thousands of people protesting the Trump administration’s detention of Muslim immigrants at the nation’s airports, our eyes welled up with tears. For weeks, we had tried to maintain a sense of equilibrium, attempting not to follow every internet post about what the new administration might do or indulge our worst fears. As Mark Twain is thought to have said: “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.” But now, something was happening. The US government was detaining or refusing entry to hundreds of lawful immigrants and refugees travelling to the US that weekend and denying future entry to thousands of others, based on their religion or national origin.
We wore our old “Immigration Equality” T-shirts that read on the back, “United by Love, Divided by Law.” We had worn those shirts for years to support LGBT bi-national couples, many of whom until 2013 were denied legal status in America. Suddenly, the shirts had a new and different relevance. We imagined innocent Muslim people being detained in windowless rooms elsewhere in the airport. We took heed of the famous words of Martin Niemöller, the Protestant minister the Nazis imprisoned, that were written on homemade signs at the protest:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Thousands of people were speaking out that day even though they were not necessarily Muslim. They hoped those in detention at the airport could hear their chants of support; they were present at the airport to welcome any detainees who made it through immigration.
The next day – Monday — we were scrolling through our email when we were stunned to read an ominous alert from a highly credible source: Later that day Trump might issue another new executive order, this one stripping LGBT federal employees and contractors from protections against discrimination in place for decades and permitting federal discrimination against married same-sex couples and other LGBT people in a wide variety of contexts. Although LGBT immigrants and refugees would suffer underthe administration’s immigration orders, those orders did not target LGBT people in particular. Now they were coming for us. We felt sickened, vulnerable, and furious.
But as news of the proposed order started to leak, the White House quickly retreated, issuing a statement that very evening that protections for LGBT employees of government contractors would not be revoked and stating that Trump was “determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community” and that he “continue[d] to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights…” The resistance was having an effect — a small victory.
But we hold no illusion as to the harm that some of Trump’s actions could have on LGBT people and to the anti-LGBT agenda that Mike Pence and others in powerful positions seek to enact. A different version of the proposed order is being circulated at this very moment. And the next day, Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch as his pick for the US Supreme Court. Lambda Legal characterized Gorsuch’s opinions as a federal appellate judge as “open[ing] the door to all manner of assaults on the civil rights of ordinary citizens – including lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people and everybody living with HIV.”
We attend demonstrations to speak out, to be counted, and to remind ourselves of hope. We gain inspiration and seek to inspire others, especially young people, to further action. We find comfort and community and often see friends and have some fun as well. At the SFO demonstration, we took particular joy hearing thousands of people from all walks of life chanting: “Immigrant rights under attack. What do we do? Act up! Fight back!” derived from the ACTUP chants that queer HIV/AIDS activists created in the 1980s.
We do our best to mind Martin Niemöller’s words. Indeed, everyone, including and perhaps especially Trump supporters, should take heed of Niemöller’s cautionary tale. After all, Niemöller was not merely a passive bystander to the rise of Hitler; he was a Nazi and anti-Semite himself until the Nazis came after him and his views about the independence of his church. Only then did he gain the wisdom for which he is remembered today.
We cannot ultimately control what happens in life, but we have enormous power over our intentions and actions. Showing up and speaking out has always been fundamental to the success of the LGBT rights movement. And as a minority, we’ve never been able to win without the help of others. Thirty years ago, queer ACTUP activists summed up Niemöller’s admonition in two simple words: Silence = Death. Those words could not be more meaningful for all people today. We have pulled our old ACTUP t-shirts out of storage, and we know we will be wearing them again very soon.
Queer Life in the Best Little Neighborhood You’ve Never Heard of: SF’s Portola District
January 26, 2017
We’ve all heard of San Francisco’s famous LGBT neighborhoods such as the Castro and Polk Street, right? But how about the Portola? The “Portowhat?” you might be asking. If so, you’d be like us before we discovered, and then moved to, this wonderfully diverse and down to earth village with a vibrant LGBT presence in the southeast quadrant of the city.
For years, LGBT people in the Bay Area have lived in neighborhoods outside of the Castro and other known enclaves, but generally with less visibility. When we moved to the Portola seven years ago, we were delighted to learn that not only were we the sixth LGBT household on our immediate block, but also that our block sported a radical faerie house and that two of our neighbors hosted an annual Walt Whitman party to celebrate the iconic queer poet’s birthday.
The Portola is also home to a longstanding lesbian community, including our real estate agent, who helped us. Many other LGBT and community-minded residents make a home in the neighborhood. We have tremendous straight ally neighbors too, many of whom have marched with us in the Pride Parade and joined in the Portola Pride Picnic, held in nearby McLaren Park. A gay couple who moved in a couple years ago took the direct approach to raising queer visibility when they realized that drivers on the nearby 101 Freeway had a perfect view of the back of their house that stood atop one of the neighborhood’s many hills. They painted the entire rear of the house in the colors of the rainbow flag, earning their home the nickname Chateau Rainbeau.
A Diverse Community
The area, which is now the Portola, was originally inhabited by Native Americans, with the first settlers being Eastern European Jewish immigrants, some of whom termed the community “Little Jerusalem.” Many Italian and Maltese immigrants also came and cultivated numerous rose and other flower nurseries that supplied most of San Francisco’s cut flowers. With last century’s baby boom, the nurseries gave way to housing, and the neighborhood is now home to a diverse spectrum of residents with large numbers of Latinx and Asian Americans. In our immediate area alone, we feel fortunate to have Italian, Maltese, El Salvadoran, Chinese, Filipino, Greek, Irish, African American, European American, Malaysian, Indian, and Iranian American neighbors.
For years, LGBT people have been a vital part of the life of the neighborhood, both taking an active role as community leaders and creating queer-themed events open to everyone. One of the striking things about the Portola is how many neighbors actually know each other and spend time together both to have fun and to make the neighborhood a better place. When we moved in, we were charmed to learn that LGBT and other residents had created a very popular come-one, come-all style holiday party where neighbors can catch up with each other at the nearby Italian American Social Club of San Francisco.
The new queer-friendly microbrewery—Ferment, Drink, Repeat (FDR)—will feature a specially formulated LGBT Pride brew this June and is located on the Portola’s main commercial street, San Bruno Avenue, which boasts a bounty of Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, and El Salvadoran restaurants and food stores.
Of course, all is not bliss in the Portola, and creating a community in which diverse people overcome barriers to live in harmony and connection with one another is not always easy. On the morning of September 7, 2015, the neighborhood was rudely awakened to the sight of graffiti reading “No More Chinese” in multiple locations. The neighborhood reacted swiftly, powerfully, and creatively. Within hours, residents transformed the graffiti to read “[heart sign] more Chinese.” A few days later, a large and diverse group of residents came together for a public rally at one of the spots where the graffiti was painted and together denounced racism and stood up for inclusion and community solidarity. Former Supervisor David Campos, himself a Latino gay man, and Portola Neighborhood Association President Chris Waddling, an immigrant gay man whose husband is Chinese American, were among the community leaders who spearheaded the rally. The man who painted the graffiti turned out to be a long-time resident, and was prosecuted and convicted of multiple counts of vandalism and hate crimes. No such incidents have occurred since.
Drag Queen Bingo, Portolove, and the Goettingen Cascade Project
Nothing embodies the increasing queer visibility in the Portola more than the neighborhood’s semi-annual Drag Queen Bingo fundraisers that support local community projects. They are held at El Toro, San Bruno Avenue’s Latin music and dance club—the former location of Fucile’s Bar, where local legend has it that Frank Sinatra once sang. Anyone LGBT or otherwise interested in experimenting with a bit of gender bending, trying out some flamboyant self-expression, or just plain hanging out and playing bingo with those who do, is welcome to attend. It’s a family friendly event that attracts people of all ages, and last time included both fabulous drag queens dressed to the nines and stylishly handsome drag kings.
The next drag queen bingo—called “Portolove” and hosted by drag queen Van Detta—is coming soon on Thursday, February 9. It will benefit the Goettingen Cascade Project, an innovative art and greening project that will employ state or the art materials to transform a formerly dilapidated outdoor staircase atop one of the neighborhood’s hills into the appearance of a glowing nighttime waterfall that will also function practically to illuminate the staircase at night for pedestrians. Phillip Hua, an internationally recognized queer artist who lives in the neighborhood with his husband, is the designer of the installation, which is part of the Goettingen Neighbors Group’s years’ long efforts to create beautiful gardens aside the previously neglected passageway. The group is one of many in the neighborhood taking a proactive approach to greening, celebrating gardens, and preserving the area’s historic nurseries. In recognition of these efforts and the neighborhood’s proximity to McLaren Park, the city named the Portola, “San Francisco’s Garden District,” last year.
Last drag queen bingo, we decided that it was time for us to do drag ourselves. But what should marriage equality activist grooms wear? The answer was obvious, and John adorned himself in one of famous marriage equality activist Molly McKay’s historic wedding dresses, while Stuart presented as a dashing butch bride. As John exited El Toro at the end of the evening, a passerby making a bee line to the bus suddenly stopped as she encountered John on the sidewalk. Her mouth agape, she audibly gasped and exclaimed: “How beautiful! Your wedding day!” John smiled and thanked her in the best falsetto he could muster, and she and he both had huge smiles on their faces as she made her way to the bus. Yet another reason we love this diverse, queer thriving, “can do” and “do it yourself” neighborhood we call home: The Portola.
Still Dreaming on MLK Weekend
January 12, 2017
When John attended his 40th high school reunion in Kansas City last fall, it dawned on him that he and his classmates started kindergarten in early September 1963, less than a week after Martin Luther King delivered his renowned “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In his address, King famously dreamed that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and that one day, even in Alabama, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Despite the many times John had heard the speech, it suddenly hit him that the great civil rights leader had been dreaming about little five-year-old kids like us—our generation. As we approach this weekend’s annual commemoration of King’s birthday, we can only imagine how troubled the visionary might be if he were alive today. King’s words 54 years ago have striking relevance in January 2017, as Americans dedicated to racial, gender, LGBT, immigrant, and economic justice and equality face grave threats and uncertainty.
In 1963 King told it like it was. Reflecting on the fact that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation a century before, King observed: “[O]ne hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Over a half century later, the essence of King’s message rings disturbingly true—even though significant improvements have taken place and the particular problems of today differ from those of 1963. And today, economic disparity evidenced by the vast number of Americans living on an “island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” is reaching a crisis point.
But King did not merely describe problems; he issued a call to action—a charge that still inspires today. King declared: “We have … come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism … . It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
Later this month, millions of Americans will travel to the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington. Five decades ago, King warned that “those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual” and proclaimed that “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” 2017 must be a beginning, too.
King also spoke unapologetically of hope and articulated a long-term vision of how he wanted the world to be. King implored: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair … . [E]ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream … . I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
We in the LGBT community know well the extraordinary value of dreaming, even in the darkest hour. When LGBT Americans routinely faced disapproval and hatred that forced them to live in secret or in denial, we dared to dream of a future in which we could live openly. We came out. When we faced the worst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we dreamed of a day when the disease would not ravage our community. We cared for each other and took ownership of our health care in ways never seen before. Even as the law permitted states to imprison people for being gay, we dreamed of a day when we could marry the person we loved and celebrate all aspects of our love. We achieved nationwide marriage equality. As we face today’s ongoing challenges, we must keep dreaming.
Although King summoned people to stand up fearlessly and nonviolently for their rights and dignity in the face of those who opposed them, his ultimate dream was one of unity—finding shared values and respect and ending divisions, not exacerbating them. He urged, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He noted the presence of “many of our white brothers” at the march and reminded everyone gathered, “we cannot walk alone.” In the dynamic climax to his speech, King dreams of the “day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
This King weekend, we wish that King’s vision had already become a reality. But we’ll be sporting our “Don’t Let the Dream Die” buttons—and we won’t take them off until the great visionary’s prophecy comes true.
Deck the Halls of Schools, Workplaces, and Courts with LGBT Equality
December 15, 2016
Whenever we hear the ubiquitous holiday music that pervade the airwaves this time of year, we can’t help but want to sing along — not with the traditional lyrics — but with the new and improved words that Marriage Equality USA wrote and performed for shoppers at this time each year. For example, to the tune of Jingle Bells, we sang: ”Equal rights, equal rights, equal all the way! Oh what fun it is to sing for equal rights today!” We followed it up with: “Deck the Halls with marriage equality! ‘Tis the season for equality! Don we now our gay apparel ….” And we belted out many others, hoping to bring a smile to people’s faces while spreading a message of the importance of love, dignity, and equality under the law.
This year ‘tis the season for workplace and transgender student equality as LGBT people will don their gay apparel and argue for these essential rights in five key federal cases over this year’s holidays. These cases could result in rulings of nationwide scope next year or the year following. It’s time for our entire community, not just the parties and their lawyers, to be engaged in these cases that could shape LGBT rights for decades.
As we have discussed in earlier columns, transgender teen Gavin Grimm’s case to be able to use the school restroom that matches his gender is being briefed before the United States Supreme Court right now for hearing sometime in early 2017. That case could have a major impact on the rights of transgender people all across the country. Four other cases asserting that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as unlawful sex discrimination are now before Federal Courts of Appeals and could easily go to the US Supreme Court later next year.
Two weeks ago, Lambda Legal argued before the 7th Circuit in Chicago on behalf of Kimberly Hively, a lesbian who asserts that her employer, Ivy Tech Community College, terminated her as a part-time adjunct professor after 14 years of service because of her sexual orientation. In court papers, Hively explains that she “never had a negative evaluation,” but that she applied for six different full-time positions for which she had all the qualifications and never even got an interview. Seven months after she filed a discrimination complaint against the college with the EEOC, the school let her go. After the recent argument before the 7th Circuit, legal observers believe a favorable outcome is likely.
This week, Lambda Legal argues before the 11th Circuit in Atlanta on behalf of Jameka Evans, a lesbian hospital worker. Jameka claims that Georgia Regional Hospital fired her because she publicly identified as a lesbian, did not “carry [her]self in a traditional woman manner,” dressed in traditionally male clothing, e.g., “(male uniform, low male haircut, shoes, etc.),” and did not otherwise “conform” to “gender stereotypes associated with women.”
Just after the New Year, the 2nd Circuit in New York will hear the case of Donald Zara, a gay skydiving teacher who asserted that he was fired from his job for being openly gay. Two weeks later, the same court will hear the case of Matthew Christiansen, an openly gay creative director at the international advertising firm, DDB Worldwide Communications Group, whose complaint alleges he suffers from PTSD and severe anxiety and depression because of horrific anti-gay abuse from his boss. The district judge concluded that the alleged conduct, which included his boss drawing lewd pictures of Matthew on an office whiteboard and circulating to the office and via Facebook a movie poster he altered with Matthew’s “head on the body of a bikini-clad woman ‘in the gay sexual receiving position’” was “by any metric … reprehensible.”
For years, many courts have held that Title VII does not prohibit anti-gay conduct such as that alleged in these cases because Congress made no explicit reference to sexual orientation back in 1964 when it outlawed sex discrimination. Indeed, the district judge in Matthew’s case stated that prior 2nd Circuit precedent required her to dismiss his case despite his allegations of his boss’ egregious behavior. The enormous gains in public understanding of the lives of LGBT people, the powerful landmark marriage equality decisions, and a recent EEOC ruling applying Title VII to sexual orientation are causing courts now to openly question the soundness and validity of earlier decisions. The district judge in her opinion explicitly asked the 2nd Circuit to reconsider its prior decision.
The United States Supreme Court has never addressed the issue of whether employers treating employees unfavorably because of their sexual orientation constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII. However, the Court has held that Title VII’s plain wording outlaws any form of mistreatment of an employee based on sex, regardless of whether Congress actually considered the particular circumstances back in 1964. The Court has explained that Title VII‘s prohibition on sex discrimination is broad, encompassing “the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women resulting from sex stereotypes.” Title VII pertains to all employer “treatment of a person in a manner which but for that person’s sex would be different.”
By its plain terms, the crux of sexual orientation discrimination — firing a woman who dates another woman, but not firing a man who dates a woman — is sex discrimination pure and simple.
One recent court described the assumption that a woman will be romantically attracted to a man to be “the quintessential gender stereotype.” We look to these appellate courts and subsequently the US Supreme Court to come to the same conclusion.
During the marriage equality struggle, we sang “We Wish for Marriage Equality” to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Later in the carol, instead of demanding “figgy pudding” as they did back in 1935 when the song was written, we demanded marriage licenses and vowed “we won’t go until we get them.” This holiday season our community must commit that we won’t go until we get workplace and transgender student equality. With our community’s enormous talent, resources, and commitment to living our lives freely and openly, we know that together we can.
December 1, 2016
No aspect of the 2016 election was more unsettling for us than being forced to confront one of life’s most discomforting but universal truths: despite our best efforts to direct a particular result, ultimately we cannot control what happens.
No one knows this truth more deeply than a good friend of ours who, as the final weeks of the election campaign were unfolding, was forced to confront it in the most profound and personal way possible: he learned that the cancer he had been diagnosed with a year earlier had metastasized and was spreading aggressively. He had just a short time left to live. Lying on a hospital bed at home under hospice care, he learned the results of the election. The news troubled him greatly even though he would soon be gone. He no longer had the time or capability to check news sources or follow the particulars of the drama taking place. He knew the essentials of what was going on and had deep concern for the future of all of us left behind.
Our friend, who had spent his entire work life in HIV/AIDS prevention and education, had practiced meditation for many years and invited friends to come sit in meditation with him every morning in his apartment. He grounded us in our breath and guided us in letting go of any tension we were holding in our bodies. He invited us to clear our minds of negative thoughts and emotions that were not helping us.
He offered that while not ignoring harmful things going on, we could view life as an art gallery, seeing beauty and goodness all around us. Our friend had realized that in life “there’s always something else left to do,” but he felt his life was complete. He was radiant. He accepted his impending death and did not fear it. He was grateful for his life, and we were all grateful for him as well. As he was dying, he was clearly very much alive. He said goodbye.
But he didn’t die as he thought he would. Even as he had done the ultimate letting go—accepting, even welcoming his death—life would not let him go just yet. He joked, “I’d really like to be able to have a date I could mark on the calendar for everyone.” Being alive was painful for him both physically and emotionally, and he couldn’t control when he would go. “I’m ready to be gone, but I’m still here.” Most importantly, our friend’s heart remained open. He continued to speak of love and compassion. His good intentions sustained him, even when he fell short.
Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address in 1932 proclaimed: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Roosevelt in the same address declared: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” Our good friend has confronted the fear of death and has been able to choose not to indulge it. He has given us the gift of sharing the truth of the last days of life frankly and boldly. Perhaps his wisdom is part of our way forward.
We’ll Never Give Up
November 24, 2016
Just five months ago we joined thousands of other people at the corner of Castro and Market to come together in the face of the massacre of 49 members of LGBT community at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. We described it in the San Francisco Bay Times as “our worst nightmare as LGBTIQ people.” Two weeks ago we returned to that famous street corner, as did thousands of others, in shock, disbelief, and sadness in response to another nightmare: the results of the November 8, 2016, election.
At the November 9 gathering we read from one of the Dalai Lama’s poems, whose refrain implores: “Never give up. No matter what is going on around you. Never give up.” We had read the same poem nearly eight years ago to the day at yet another Castro rally the night after Prop 8 passed.
In the midst of our anger and dismay at the passage of Prop 8 in 2008, we also began contemplating the way forward, asking ourselves the counterintuitive question: Despite the horrific loss, what was the best thing that happened on Election Day? Our answer: Over 6.4 million Californians had voted on our side in favor of marriage equality, 48 percent of the electorate and the most people who had ever voted in favor of LGBT rights on any state ballot measure. And Barack Obama, who supported LGBT rights (although not full marriage equality) became the first African American President. Prop 8’s passage ended up unleashing a passion for marriage and full LGBT equality that was unanticipated and unlike anything seen before. It raised the visibility of LGBT people and their families to a new level. President Obama became the first President ever to embrace the freedom to marry and did countless things to advance LGBT rights. Just six and a half years after Prop 8 passed, nationwide marriage equality became the law of the land.
We’ve asked ourselves the same question this year: What’s the best thing that happened on Election Day? We confess that we’ve struggled to find an answer. We, like millions of Americans, have many fears about what might lie ahead and well-founded reasons for concern. Yet we truly don’t know what the future will bring. We are struck by how many of our friends and acquaintances from many different walks of life feel threatened personally by the results of election, and by how many of us are going through versions of the grieving process. We also take note that 62 million Americans and counting voted for the presidential candidate who supported full LGBTIQ equality—and she actually won the popular vote. Indeed, for the second time in the last four elections, the candidate who won the most votes will not become President. Who knows what the results of this election and what follows will unleash in these 62 million Americans, especially those most directly affected? Who knows what might emerge?
Our thoughts often turn to Gavin Grimm, the Virginia transgender teen who, of all things, has the task of convincing five members of the United States Supreme Court in the coming months that he should be able to use his school’s bathrooms just as all of his classmates can. No one knows how actions the new administration might take could affect the posture of the case. But one thing we do know is that Gavin is not giving up. Despite the absurdity that the highest court in the land has chosen to decide how Gavin can go to the bathroom, the case gives our community a new opportunity to educate the Court and the nation about the real lives and struggles of transgender people.
If Gavin’s not giving up, we’re not giving up. We’ll never give up on ourselves, our community, our resilience, our power and the future. We’ll never give up on the intention of our community to make the world a better place. We’ll never give up on hope.
Keep Calm and Stay Agitated
November 10, 2016
(Editor’s Note: This column was written for the San Francisco Bay Times with a submission deadline before election day, but for publication after the election)
Now that Americans have all cast their votes, we and many others are beginning to assess in real terms the impact of the election—in particular, how it will affect our lives. A few weeks ago, at John’s high school reunion in Kansas City, we were struck by how differently two of his classmates’ perceived the potential impact of the election on their lives.
One classmate, a straight man who is enormously supportive of LGBT rights, and his wife are compassionate physicians. Moreover, for the past 25 years, they have cared day in and day out for their own special needs son who has severe physical challenges. This classmate remarked that “our day-to-day issues make what goes on in Washington just not worth agitating about. Neither Hillary or Donald (or Gary) are going to make a huge difference to what occupies” us.
By contrast, a gay classmate, who has been with his partner for 23 years and someday hopes to marry him, offered a different perspective. He told us: “We may get married sometime soon, but as you know, Missouri is not as progressive as California—and we are waiting to see how this particular election turns out, especially for our local politicians; many of them still want to fight marriage equality.”
As LGBT people and also as people who have always believed that we should try to use the political system and public policy to better people’s lives, the first classmate’s remarks initially took us aback. What do you mean that “what goes on in Washington was just not worth agitating about?” We’ve been agitating about what goes on in Washington for years. Millions of other LGBT people have been doing so as well.
We’ve gone from protesting the Supreme Court 1986 decision permitting states to put LGBT people in jail to advocating for, and then celebrating, the Court’s 2015 nationwide marriage equality decision. The year 2017 will once again witness the Court addressing a vital LGBT issue: transgender kids’ right to use public restrooms fitting their gender identity.
We protested the federal government’s inaction on HIV/AIDS dating back over 30 years ago, and through Stuart’s professional work participated in the development of effective HIV/AIDS policy. We witnessed the passage of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and its eventual repeal, and participate in the ongoing struggle to pass nationwide protections against discrimination in employment, housing, and public services. The identity of the President, members of Congress, and the Supreme Court justices has had, and will continue to have, a profound effect on the lives of LGBT people.
John’s gay classmate’s thoughts also highlight the importance of statewide and local elections to LGBT people. Local elections, even in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, not long ago had significant effects on the rights and protections of LGBT people; they continue to have vital impacts across the country. Ever since the passage of Proposition 8, we have felt a vague foreboding on election day—a lasting imprint of LGBT people’s ongoing vulnerability as not all our basic civil rights are yet protected nationwide.
But the first classmate’s reaction suggested great wisdom as well. The circumstances of his life mean that caring for his son and family (not to mention his patients) is what he devotes most of his life to. It reminds us of the importance of caring for ourselves, those closest to us, and others as well, regardless of the outcome of elections or whether or not our movement for civil rights is enjoying success or facing challenges.
Indeed, caring for ourselves and others is the motivating reason for the movement itself. His reaction also points to the value of finding well being and happiness that sustains regardless of the results of elections or other life circumstances. Homo-bi-transphobia has caused far too many of us to live far too long in pain and isolation, but our community has found extraordinary and often creative ways to find joy, meaning, and human connection in the face of formidable personal and political obstacles. We don’t know what the next four or eight years will bring, but we will benefit by finding wellbeing amidst both the joys and the sorrows that lie ahead. Let’s keep calm and stay agitated.
Reunited and It Feels So Good
October 27, 2016
When I was a first-grader in Kansas City back in 1964, my classmate Katie and I announced some exciting news to our fellow classmates: we were going to get married! We picked a date for our wedding, to be held on the playground at recess, and soon began making plans. But one morning as we sat with crayons and paper in hand, writing out invitations for our fellow first graders, our teacher put the kibosh on our impending nuptials. Leaning over us, she said, “Don’t you think you’ve taken this a little too far?” Little did she know how prophetic her words would be: 40 years later my husband and I would be one of the first ten couples to marry in San Francisco City Hall on February 12, 2004 — and much of the nation would be asking a question remarkably similar to hers.
Stuart and I just returned last week from my 40th high school reunion in Kansas City, attended by over 25 of my elementary school classmates and many other high school friends and spouses. The reunion was fantastic, and as I was telling my first grade story to my friend Rebecca, she interrupted to exclaim that she and I had in fact pulled off the feat in second grade. She recounted how one day at recess, the two of us held hands, faced each other, and exchanged vows, surrounded by classmates as witnesses. I was, of course, delighted to learn of our success. I wondered if in fact it somehow foreshadowed how Stuart and I and many other couples and supporters did not give up after our 2004 marriages were taken away. Together, we worked to have California’s LGBT marriage ban declared unconstitutional. In 2008, Stuart and I married legally in San Francisco City Hall – not on a school playground — surrounded by friends and family.
As I thought back on prior high school reunions, I realized how radically different the legal status of our relationship – and thereby the status of LGBT couples more generally — was at the time of each one. At my 20th reunion in 1996, we had no legal rights; no state had marriage equality, civil unions, or domestic partnerships; and Congress had just enacted the notorious “Defense of Marriage Act,” denying federal recognition for any LGBT marriages that might take place in the future. The State of Missouri had laws criminalizing the sexual activity of LGBT people– even in the privacy of their own home.
By my 30th reunion in 2006, the United States Supreme Court had declared all such laws unconstitutional. Missouri could no longer imprison us for being gay, but as the same time the state afforded us no legal rights or recognition as a couple. Stuart and I were by then California domestic partners, but we lost that legal status as soon as we left the state. The marriage equality movement was struggling mightily in the face of great adversity. Massachusetts was the only state where LGBT couples could marry, but opponents were mounting efforts aimed to take that freedom away. Many states had just passed anti-marriage equality constitutional amendments, and then President George W. Bush was calling for a federal constitutional amendment barring LGBT couples from marrying. Stuart and I were one of the plaintiff couples in the lawsuit to have California’s marriage ban declared unconstitutional.
Last week, we attended my 40th reunion as a legally married couple, whose marriage is recognized in every state in the union and is protected by the United States Constitution. And it felt great. My high school is a public school whose graduates come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Members of our class have done many different things in their lives, from turtle farming to medicine, ministry to landscaping, dance and theater to law. Those in attendance at the reunions — from 20 years ago to last week — have embraced Stuart as part of the community. Twenty years ago, a straight evangelical Christian minister offered to perform a sacramental wedding ceremony for us if we wanted one. Last week, classmates celebrated the success of the LGBT movement with us and wanted to hear what it was like for me to grow up as a gay person in school.
I left the reunion last week with a profound sense of the power of friendship that can be forged when we share something meaningful together – such as growing up and going to school together. Much still lies ahead for the LGBT equality movement. But as we continue to work to engender understanding of each other’s common humanity, I can’t wait to see what things will be like at our 50th reunion.
King Harald and Lyric Scott: Can Love Win Again?
September 29, 2016
When we took a few moments to catch up on the news last week, we came upon two striking online videos that could not have appeared more different: King Harald of Norway’s much lauded speech embracing diversity delivered at a royal garden party, and excerpts of Charlotte, North Carolina, resident Lyric Scott’s Facebook Live feed, recording her immediate reaction to the fatal police shooting of her father, Keith Lamont Scott, near her house.
The depth and honesty of King Harald’s words at first startled then delighted those in attendance, and resonated not just in Norway but around the world. In his speech, the 79-year-old monarch celebrated Norway’s diversity and exhorted its citizens to deepen their sense of their common humanity. In a voice quiet, yet full of conviction, he reminded listeners that Norwegians were not only those who had been born in the county, but that “Norwegians have also immigrated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Poland, Sweden, Somalia and Syria.” Indeed, he explained that his own grandparents had immigrated from Denmark and England in the beginning of the 20th Century. “It is not always easy to say where we come from, to which nationality we belong. Home is where the heart is. That cannot always be placed within country borders.”
The King offered numerous examples of the country’s diversity, including “Norwegians (who) believe in God, Allah, everything and nothing.” And he embraced the LGBT community, explaining: “Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and girls and boys who love each other.”
In the beginning minutes of Lyric Scott’s Facebook Live video, Scott exclaims that “the police just shot my daddy four times for being black.” In angry, impassioned, and expletive-laden language, Scott throughout the video records in real time her thoughts as to what is going on. She expounds upon her belief that the police pulled up to her father’s car undercover as he was waiting to pick up his son at the school bus stop, and “shot my daddy because he was black. He was a sitting in the car reading a … book—so they shot him.”
Police say they were searching for someone else with an outstanding arrest warrant when they saw Keith Scott leave his car with a gun. According to police, Scott returned to his car; officers then approached the car; and when he came out of the car again with a gun, they shot him because they claim he “posed an imminent deadly threat to the officers … .”
Lyric Scott questions how the police could have legitimately feared her father because she says he was disabled, and suspects the police were planting a gun in his car even as she spoke. She also complains about the ambulance response time, warns of repercussions if her father ends up dying, and taunts police officers—all the while worried about how her little brother will get home from the bus stop.
And then Lyric’s Facebook feed records her live reaction when she learns from news reports that her father has died. She cries out, “they just killed my daddy,” and “my daddy is dead.” She utters a primal wail of grief and despair—in one sense voicing universal human pain some of us experience only internally, and in another sense vocalizing anguish and desperation unlike anything we have had to experience in our lives.
We do not know the facts of what literally happened that afternoon in Charlotte. But we do know that wealth disparities and racial segregation and discrimination persist in our society. The recently released 2016 Allianz Global Wealth Report found that what it calls the “Unequal States of America” has the highest disparity of wealth of any nation in the world. Protests over police shootings of African Americans bespeak not only problems in American policing and criminal justice, but more generally of intolerable racial disparities. Regardless of whether Lyric Scott’s assessment of her father’s death is literally true—something we do not know—her observation reflects reality figuratively. Continued racial and wealth disparities in this country contribute greatly to the fact that blacks are shot by police in disproportionate numbers to whites.
How then do we hold King Harald’s conclusion to his garden party address: “When we sing ‘Yes we love this country’ (Norway’s national anthem), we have to remember that we also sing about each other … . Therefore, the national anthem is also a declaration of love to the Norwegian people. My biggest hope … [is] that we can know that we—despite our differences—are one people.”
Do the King’s words only apply to Norway? Are they too idealistic even for that country? Do they pertain at all to the America laid bare in Charlotte, Tulsa, Baton Rouge, Chicago, Orlando, Cleveland, Ferguson, the Bay Area, and beyond? As an LGBT community, we proclaimed “Love Wins” when we achieved nationwide marriage equality last year. Lyric Scott’s haunting cry renders King Harald’s words a quiet plea for love to prevail in a world increasingly shown to be polarized. We must answer the sobering question: how do we make love win again?
Chicago Gun Violence Is an LGBT Issue
September 15, 2016
Over 500 people have been murdered and nearly 3,000 people shot in the city of Chicago already this year. August alone witnessed 92 homicides and over 400 shootings in the city. Chicago-based rapper Bo Deal explained in a recent BBC interview: “The past few months, I’ve seen more people close to me” that have “been shot and killed than I have ever. Everybody’s got a gun…. I’ve never seen so many guns.” It’s “like somebody dropped off crates of guns in everybody’s hood.” It “seems like it’s designed for us to lose… . Somebody is putting all these guns here.”
Gun violence is a nationwide problem that is multifaceted. But as Deal observed, proliferation of guns in America has been by “design” of the legal and political movement the NRA and its allies have led for decades, resulting in the seemingly unrestricted flow of firearms that is “putting all these guns here.” As to Deal’s perception that it seemed as if “crates of guns” were being dropped into Chicago neighborhoods, a 2014 City of Chicago Report revealed that nearly 60% of guns involved in Chicago crime come from out-of-state, with 19% coming from Indiana which directly borders Chicago. In President Obama’s words, “you’ve just got to hop across the border” to Indiana, a state with some of the weakest gun laws in the nation, and you can easily get a gun.
The 2014 report explained that Indiana, along with Mississippi and Wisconsin, the other two states responsible for most out of state guns coming into Chicago, “permit gun owners to sell their guns to other people without any background checks of the new buyer or paperwork recording the sale. This makes it incredibly easy for gun traffickers, violent offenders and other prohibited purchasers to buy guns undetected. In those states, guns can move from buyer to buyer and land in the hands of a shooter or murderer without any paper trail.”
Veteran Indiana State Representative Dr. Vernon Smith observed: “If there was ever a state that was owned totally by the NRA, Indiana is one…. Indiana has constantly protected the NRA and carried out the NRA’s agenda.” And anti-LGBT Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice Presidential running mate, has long been an NRA favorite, having addressed the leadership forum of the NRA’s lobbying arm earlier this year even before becoming Trump’s running mate.
Of course, many guns used in Chicago crimes do not come from out-of-state. In the early 1980s, Chicago enacted strict gun registration requirements to reduce the number and availability of guns citywide. However, the United States Supreme Court in 2010 declared Chicago’s law, which it described as “effectively banning handgun possession by almost all” city residents, unconstitutional in violation of the Second Amendment. The five Justices appointed by Presidents Bush and Reagan, including the late Justice Antonin Scalia, constituted the majority. Scalia himself authored the landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision that created an individual constitutional right to possess a firearm under at least some circumstances. And in 2014, a federal court invalidated another Chicago law aimed to stem gun violence, the city’s ban on retail and private gun sales.
Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court could have a profound effect on the future of gun violence in America, because Scalia’s vote was the deciding vote in both landmark gun control cases. President Obama’s nominee to succeed him, Merrick Garland, appears to oppose Scalia’s position. Hillary Clinton, who strongly supports gun control, and Donald Trump, who strongly opposes it, would likely appoint very different justices to the Court.
Why do we write about these issues in a column that focuses on LGBT issues?
Last week, the Orlando Regional Medical Center announced that the last hospitalized survivor of the June 12 massacre that killed 49 members of the LGBT community was released to go home. At the time of the shooting, we and many LGBT organizations and leaders stressed that gun control was an LGBT issue. Just days after the shooting, the Human Rights Campaign announced a new “organizational position that the safety of LGBTQ people in the United States requires the adoption of common-sense gun violence prevention measures.” Lambda Legal’s Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg wrote that “we must step up and fight to end gun violence.” And we need to do it “now.”
The Chicago killings affect LGBT people too, including all LGBT people who live in communities where violence occurs or who have family, friends, and colleagues who live there. And both the Orlando and Chicago killings disproportionately affect marginalized racial minorities. The vast majority of the Orlando shooting victims were Latinx members of the LGBT community, and Chicago gun violence disproportionately affects African American and Latinx people, including those who are LGBT.
Ultimately, it comes down to recognizing and embracing our common humanity. At root, the marriage equality movement was about the freedom to marry the person you love no matter who you are or whom you love. Likewise, ending gun violence is about our common humanity and the human right to live free from gun violence no matter who you are.
We’re With You All the Way Gavin
September 1, 2016
“It’s been exhausting.” So explained transgender high school senior Gavin Grimm in a recent Washington Blade interview, describing his now years long fight simply to be able to use his school’s restrooms as all his classmates can. When Gavin prevailed at the 4th Circuit Federal Court of Appeal earlier this year, his Virginia school district couldn’t just let things be and allow Gavin to live in relative peace his senior year of high school. Instead, the district took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this month issued a stay of the appellate court’s order. As a result, Gavin is prohibited from using his school’s regular restrooms until the Supreme Court decides whether or not to take the case and if they take it, issues a final decision in the case. That could be months from now.
Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices had to vote in favor of the stay for the Court to issue it. Predictably, Justices Roberts, Alito, and Thomas, consistent gay rights opponents at the Court, voted in favor. In a move that raised eyebrows, Justice Kennedy, who has written all of the Court’s landmark gay rights cases, voted in favor, too. However, his stay vote may not be predictive of his ultimate view of the case, and he may be concerned about other legal issues in the case unrelated to the underlying issue of transgender equality. Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor, consistent LGBT rights supporters at the Court, opposed the stay. However, Justice Breyer, who has also always voted in favor of LGBT rights, curiously voted for the stay, although he appears personally to have opposed it. In explaining his vote, he said he was doing it “as a courtesy” to the other four justices who had voted in favor of the stay, and because the Court was on summer recess.
Justice Breyer’s words broke our hearts. What about “courtesy,” moreover dignity and respect for Gavin, a vulnerable 17 year old transgender student? While the Court waits months to receive legal briefs and decide what to do with the case, Justice Breyer and his fellow Justices will take for granted their own use of public facilities. Meanwhile, Gavin’s school district will continue to deny him this basic human right, thereby isolating and stigmatizing him daily. As Gavin has articulated, this delay and denial carries a very real human cost. In Gavin’s Blade interview, he urged people to imagine how they would feel “if they were the only person forced to use the facility separate of that of their peers, especially when [the] decision was made in a public way that opened them up to the abuse ….”
A Texas federal trial court judge, already notorious for an anti-marriage equality ruling, dealt another blow to transgender kids last week when he issued a preliminary injunction striking down the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines protecting transgender students from discrimination that the 4th Circuit had embraced in Gavin’s case. Judge Reed O’Connor’s order forbids the federal government from proceeding with any ongoing or future investigation of states or school districts for failing to comply with the guidelines and from otherwise enforcing the regulations through new lawsuits. Just days after the decision, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who brought the suit and also has a long record of hostility to LGBT people, filed a new lawsuit before Judge O’Connor, this time challenging new federal government regulations expanding transgender people’s access to medical treatment.
The root issue to which these and other federal lawsuits involving transgender rights pertain is whether federal statutes prohibiting sex discrimination apply to discrimination on the basis of gender identity. We take heart that four of the eleven federal circuit courts have already held that gender identity discrimination is unlawful sex discrimination under federal law. The Texas decision is just a single lower court judge’s ruling, not an appellate ruling, and serious questions exist as to whether the judge exceeded his authority in issuing such a broad order. Further, the Texas judge could not and did not prohibit the federal government from defending its guidelines and supporting transgender students in ongoing cases, such as Gavin’s case and litigation over North Carolina’s discriminatory legislation, known as HB2. Of course, the problem could be solved once and for all if voters elect Democratic majorities that are pro-equality in both the House and Senate and Hillary Clinton as President. Then, Congress could simply amend federal discrimination statutes to include gender identity and sexual orientation explicitly.
Meantime, the legal roller coaster for Gavin and other transgender people continues, and conservative anti-LGBT interests use transgender people as political targets for fundraising and gaining political power. These interests have repeatedly targeted our community, most recently in the decade plus struggle for nationwide marriage equality. Our community is facing the current challenges with the same commitment and determination that we have in the past, and we must support each other as the struggle continues. We’re with you all the way Gavin. We’re all in this together.
“Gay Olympics” or Gay Olympics?
August 18, 2016
When the Olympic Games come around every two years, it always feels a bit bittersweet to us. We love the dazzling performances of extraordinary athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps. However, the Olympics also bring back the sting of the United States Olympic Committee going to court back in 1982 to stop Dr. Tom Waddell and other organizers of the first ever competition for LGBT athletes from calling those games the “Gay Olympics.” The USOC sued Waddell and other LGBT organizers just weeks before the first games were to commence, fighting all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it won. As a result, the LGBT athletic event would have to be known as the “Gay Games,” and organizers were forbidden from calling it the “Gay Olympics.” The USOC went so far as putting a lien (later withdrawn) on the home of Waddell — who was very ill with HIV/AIDS at the time — to recoup $96,000 in attorneys’ fees. And adding salt to the wound, Vaughn Walker, a then closeted gay man, who later became a federal judge and wrote the lower court decision striking down Proposition 8, represented the USOC in the litigation.
Waddell and the other organizers, represented by the legendary LGBT rights attorney Mary Dunlap, argued that the USOC’s not contesting the existence of the Special Olympics, Junior Olympics, Police Olympics, Eskimo Olympics, Rat Olympics, Frog Olympics, Cockroach Olympics, Tank Olympics, Beer Olympics … meant that the USOC’s purpose in trying to prevent the Gay Olympics from existing was clear: discrimination. Organizers explained that the Gay Olympics was intended not only to provide a venue for athletes from around the world to participate freely regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but to dismantle harmful stereotypes about LGBT people. The Gay Olympics would show the world that LGBT people could be athletes — indeed champion athletes.
The USOC prevailed at the district, appellate, and Supreme Court levels, with the court majorities never squarely addressing the issue of discrimination. But appellate judge Alex Kozinski in dissent at the Ninth Circuit largely agreed with the LGBT organizers, observing that “handicapped, juniors, police, Explorers, even dogs are allowed to carry the Olympic torch, but homosexuals are not.” Kozinski noted that the USOC appeared to be trying to preserve “the very image of homosexuals that the [Waddell and other organizers] seek to combat” based on its view of the lack of “wholesomeness” of LGBT people. Justices Brennan and Marshall in dissent at the Supreme Court concurred, observing that the LGBT organizers intended to use “the word ‘Olympic,’ to promote a realistic image of homosexual men and women that would help them move into the mainstream of their communities.” The title “The Best and Most Accomplished Amateur Gay Athletes Competition,” just doesn’t have the same ring and doesn’t send the same message as “Gay Olympics.”
Even though the USOC got its way, LGBT athletes were not deterred, and have come out and excelled around the world. The Gay Games and other LGBT athletic events have been held for over 30 years. Indeed, the 1994 Gay Games, held in New York in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, drew nearly 11,000 athletes, greater than the number of competitors in the 1992 Olympic Games themselves.
Former Olympic champions — the pride of the United States – who were closeted when they competed years ago, have subsequently come out proudly. Olympic hero Greg Louganis, the only male diver to win both diving Gold Medals in consecutive Olympics, came out as gay in 1995. We’ll never forget his extraordinary performance at the 1988 Seoul Olympics that earned him the title of ABC’s Wide World of Sports 1988 “Athlete of the Year.” And when Louganis came out, he revealed he accomplished this exceptional feat as a person living with HIV.
We also have strong memories of Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner leaving her competition literally in the dust, when she broke the world record winning the Gold Medal in the men’s decathlon in 1976 Olympics. Jenner, who famously came out as transgender and transitioned in 2015, grabbed a fan’s American flag and waved it during his victory lap back in 1976, creating a new Olympic tradition that many now follow.
And although tennis great Billie Jean King was not out throughout much of the time she reigned atop the women’s tennis world, she coached the 1996 women’s Olympic tennis team as an out lesbian. King, whom Sports Illustrated magazine honored in 1972 as “Sportsman of the Year,” received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her lifetime of accomplishments, and President Obama appointed her (along with openly gay ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow) to the official American delegation to the 2014 Sochi Olympics to demonstrate the very visibility of LGBT athletes that Waddell and his fellow organizers had envisioned three decades before.
The process of dismantling anti-LGBT prejudice that pervades sports and anti-LGBT attitudes in many of the 207 countries that compete in the Olympics has been slow. However, as the San Francisco Bay Times reported in last edition’s cover story, a record number of openly LGBT athletes (at least 43), including the Bay Area’s own Kelly Griffin, are competing in the Rio Olympics, with some estimates of the actual number of LGBT competitors to be 500 or more.
We may not be able to have a “Gay Olympics,” but they can’t stop us making the Olympics gay – and slowly but surely we are.
Love Embodied: Kryptonite to Hate
July 7, 2016
At this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade, we had the privilege of marching with a special contingent memorializing all those killed at Pulse nightclub in the early hours of June 12. Organized with lightning speed by Richard Sizemore and many others, 49 of us held individual memorials, featuring the name and a life-size photograph of each of the victims. Hundreds of others wore shirts, stating simply “We Are Orlando.” For the previous dozen years, we had made the trip down Market Street, cheering and chanting wildly for marriage equality. This year we marched in silence, dedicating each step to the memory of the person whose portrait we held. We were a means for them to have a presence in the parade. And instead of raucous cheering, the crowds greeted us predominantly with reverent silence or noble applause for each of those lost. Many fought back tears.
The vast majority of victims were Latinx members of the LGBT community. We wanted to hold the memorials of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Ramon Guerrero. They were the couple that lived together and that news outlets reported hoped to marry someday. But instead, their families contemplated a joint funeral for them. Juan’s sister Aryam described the couple to Time magazine: “They were honestly so in love. They were soul mates. You can tell by how they looked at each other.”
We were struck by how much Juan’s family and Drew’s mother, Christine Leinonen, not only accepted but also celebrated Juan and Drew. Aryam described Juan’s family as “really loving and accepting” of Juan when he came out and that Juan “was so much love and light.” Catherine McCarthy, a lifelong friend of Drew, wrote in the Washington Post that Christine’s “not just ‘tolerating’ [Drew’s] sexuality, but truly loving him, all of him, allowed him to exist unfettered and undiluted.” In a live interview on ABC television the morning of June 12, Christine, desperate to learn any news of Drew, told the world how “proud of him” she was for starting the gay-straight alliance at high school over fifteen years before, an accomplishment that won him the Florida Holocaust Museum’s Anne Frank Humanitarian Award “to bring gays and straights together.”As demonstrated by Drew’s founding his high school’s gay-straight alliance, Drew and Juan’s love was not passive; it was powerful. Catherine McCarthy described Drew as “love, embodied” and explained that “[h]e had all the time for love because he left little time for anything else.” According to the Orlando Sentinel, Drew and Juan’s mutual friend Brandon Wolf, who himself survived the Pulse massacre, memorialized them: “[Drew] and Juan were the love we wish to see in the world, the kind that pulls people together, breaks down walls, the kryptonite to hate.”
Nothing spoke more of the power of their love than Christine’s urgent entreaties to the nation that Sunday morning as she searched for her son: “We’re on this earth for such a short time. Let’s try to get rid of the hatred and the violence, please.” And she spoke of a different “club” from the Pulse nightclub, a “club” that “nobody wants to be in,” that of loved ones of gun violence victims. She appealed to all Americans: “[P]lease could we do something with the assault weapons so that we could stop this club from ever getting any new members. I beg all of you, please.”
When we married at San Francisco City Hall in February 2004 and found our lives transformed by the sense of dignity we experienced for the first time as LGBT people, we vowed to do everything in our power to make the dignity that comes with marriage equality something that all Americans could experience. We feel a similar urgency now. We cannot fully honor the lives of those lost in Orlando on June 12 unless we do everything in our power not just to reduce hatred but to eliminate access to the firearms that provide the means by which people carry out these types of massacres and other gun violence.
Drew’s close friend Catherine wrote: “There will be a time to change our laws. A time when this sharp grief will shift into a hot and forceful anger. We will not let their deaths go unremembered, nor leave any questions unanswered.” The American freedom to marry movement achieved something that often seemed unimaginable: nationwide marriage equality. It took millions and millions of us, our friends, families, and strangers doing everything we could and employing every skill we possess for our love, dignity, and common humanity. We never, ever gave up. It’s time to do the same to silence the gunfire. It’s time to embody love to become the kryptonite to hate.
Authors’ Note: The activists who came together to make the We Are Orlando contingent a reality are too numerous to name here individually. However, we want to acknowledge the inspired leadership and dedication of Richard Sizemore, Mason Smith, Richel Desamparado, Tristan Moaveniyan, PSPrint, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and San Francisco Pride.
The Pulse of Pride
June 23, 2016
Joining the iconic march down Market Street in San Francisco on the last Sunday in June—or down any main street anywhere in the world at a Pride celebration—to us is the essence of Pride. Millions of us together show the world outwardly our inner beauty and strength as LGBTIQ people and supporters. As we march, we hear cheers from the crowd that drown out voices external or internal that have told us there is something wrong with us. We celebrate the gifts of being born LGBTIQ.
This year’s parade takes on special significance because of the catastrophic massacre of LGBTIQ people and allies on Latin night at Pulse nightclub in Orlando—a place where people thought it was safe to come, dance, and be themselves. When we heard the news two Sundays ago, we were filled with utter horror, shock, and sadness. Even though we did not personally know anyone at Pulse nightclub that night, we identified immediately with all those who were there. They were kin.
Orlando embodied our worst nightmare as LGBTIQ people—the fear that someone might attack or kill us simply because of who we are. Many of us have faced such threats, cared for victims of such violence, or mourned the loss of friends or family. For those of us lucky enough to face less risk, Orlando reminds us that millions of people around the world—LGBTIQ and otherwise—live with the daily threat of violence.
Orlando also caused us to reflect on how hatred of LGBTIQ people and the belief that there is something wrong with being LGBTIQ is learned and not innate. When the perpetrator Omar Mateen was a toddler crawling on the floor, he was not thinking anti-LGBTIQ thoughts and hating LGBTIQ people. He learned these attitudes. The day after the killings, Mateen’s father stated on Facebook that: “God will punish those involved in homosexuality,” apparently trying to articulate that people like his son should not punish gay people because God will. His words suggest one potential source of Mateen’s learning such horrific ideas.
And the fact that Mateen himself appears to be a person who was attracted to people of the same sex exposes another hideous element of homophobia: self-hatred. Sadly, many of us have felt self-hatred to some degree, and it is deeply disturbing to experience it. Orlando represents self-hatred at its worst, as Mateen killed and injured so many other people as he destroyed himself.
Never has it been more urgent for people who spread messages of condemnation or rejection to understand the devastating harm they cause, not just in Orlando, but also around the world, to millions of LGBTIQ people and their loved ones on an ongoing basis. In further remarks, Mateen’s father stated that “nobody has the right to harm anything, anybody.” We agree, and it does not stop with the harm that an assault rifle can inflict on others. Although we embrace the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of thought, expression and religion, messages that there is something wrong with being LGBTIQ inflict inner and outer harm on LGBTIQ people even when the speaker or writer has no conscious intention to hurt someone else. It matters not whether the message comes in a religious context, like that of Mateen’s father, or otherwise.
Leelah Alcorn was a 16-year-old transgender youth from Ohio who concluded that the way she was treated at home, in the church, and at school because she was transgender made life so unbearable that she committed suicide last year. To make her life meaningful, she posted a plea on Facebook, timed to appear shortly after her death. After explaining that one of her parents had told her that she was wrong about her being transgender and that “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she pleaded: “If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”
Shortly after the shootings, Stuart’s 92-year-old dad wrote us an email that began: “More than ever, you have my love and support, and total empathy for what you and your whole community are enduring.” On Sunday, millions of us will set aside our fears to march and cheer to love and support each other as part of the LGBTIQ community. By doing so, we will be inviting the rest of the world to do the same.
Pride and Presidents
June 9, 2016
“Building a Society of Rights means there is no room for first- and second-class citizens. It means choosing inclusion over discrimination. It means creating unity from diversity.” These words sound as if they could have easily come from President Barack Obama’s eighth and final Pride Proclamation, marking June 2016 as LGBT Pride month. However, these words came from a different president: President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico in his June 2, 2016, Huffington Post essay explaining why he introduced legislation in the Mexican Congress to amend Mexico’s Constitution to make marriage equality the law of the nation. Currently, marriage equality is the law in 9 of Mexico’s 31 states and the federal district of Mexico City.
The marriage equality movement in Mexico has been building quickly and steadily in the last several years. In late 2009, Mexico City passed legislation allowing LGBT couples to wed, and in 2010 the Mexican Supreme Court upheld the law and ruled that such marriages were valid throughout the nation. Progress continued in subsequent years.
Then last June, just days before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Obergefell, the Mexican Supreme Court issued its own marriage equality opinion. Unlike the U.S., the Mexican Supreme Court lacks the authority to issue one decision that directly and immediately invalidates all state marriage bans throughout the country. However, the Court held that any same-sex couple refused a marriage license anywhere in the country could seek a federal court injunction ordering that the couple be married and that granting the injunction was mandatory. The Court stated, “there is no justified reason that the matrimonial union be heterosexual, nor that it be stated as between only a man and only a woman… . Such a statement turns out to be discriminatory in its mere expression.”
In early 2016, the Mexican Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state of Jalisco’s marriage ban in its entirety, stating that it “undermined” people’s “self-determination” and violated “the principle of equality.” Guadalajara, Mexico’s second most populous city after Mexico City, is located in Jalisco. However, to have true nationwide marriage equality–where LGBT couples can simply marry without having to undertake the expensive and degrading process of obtaining a federal injunction–each Mexican state that currently lacks equality would need to enact its own legislation or the Supreme Court would need to invalidate each state’s law in separate challenges. In an interview, Supreme Court Justice Olga Sanchez Cordero urged states to adjust their rules to avoid the Court declaring their laws unconstitutional.
President Peña Nieto, though, wants to cut through this cumbersome process and “guarantee every person’s full marriage rights” once and for all through a constitutional amendment. The process of amending the Mexican Constitution is difficult, requiring 2/3 votes of both houses of Congress and ratification by a simple majority of the states. The President, however, noted that May 2016 polling showed that “66 percent of people fully or partially agree that same-sex marriage should be allowed under our Constitution.” While acknowledging some resistance, he stated that “as President, it is my duty to ensure that the personal beliefs and customs of some do not limit the human rights of others.”
Neither did President Peña Nieto limit his actions to marriage equality. He launched “an initiative to revise [the country’s] entire legal framework” and “identify any and all laws that go against equality and propose the necessary changes to improve them.” He also announced in May that Mexico will join the United Nation’s LGBTI Core Group formed to promote LGBTI rights internationally.
We applaud President Peña Neito’s initiatives and the Mexican Supreme Court’s unanimous support for marriage equality. We look for nationwide marriage equality to come to Mexico soon. And we are reminded that when we go to the polls in November, we will have a stark choice as to whether the U.S. continues to have a President that embraces LGBT pride and acts on it, and a Supreme Court that protects the constitutional rights of LGBT Americans.
We Can’t Believe We’re Alive
May 19, 2016
We were in the car recently and turned on the radio to catch the headlines on the five o’clock news. We turned the volume up extra loud when we heard the lead story: the United States Department of Justice was suing the state of North Carolina for violating the civil rights of transgender Americans by denying them the right to use the bathroom that fit their gender identity.
We heard United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch name North Carolina’s notorious House Bill 2 (HB2) for what it is: unlawful discrimination against transgender people. Lynch did not mince words. She explained how North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and the state legislature “created state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security—a right taken for granted by most of us.” Lynch exposed the duplicity of HB2’s proponents, explaining that they had “invent[ed] a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.” She explained that HB2 “inflict[s] further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society—all it does is harm innocent Americans … This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens… .”
We were moved when Lynch, the first African American woman to head the Justice Department and herself a North Carolinian, went on to relate HB2 and the struggle for LGBT freedom to civil rights struggles of the past. Lynch explained: “This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry. That right, of course, is now recognized as a guarantee embedded in our Constitution, and in the wake of that historic triumph, we have seen bill after bill in state after state taking aim at the LGBT community … [N]one of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not… .” She reminded the nation that “[i]t was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference.”
Lynch impressed us further by speaking directly to the transgender community. She said: “Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
We thought to ourselves: “We can’t believe we are alive.” The Attorney General of the United States is engaging the full force of the Executive Branch of the United States government to fight for the rights of transgender people. We’ve experienced similar feelings a few times over the last dozen years–when we married in San Francisco City Hall in February 2004, when Congress repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by a supermajority, when the President came out for full marriage equality, and when the Supreme Court made it a reality. Standing up boldly for civil rights is exactly what our government should be doing, and millions of LGBT Americans over decades have lived their lives openly and proudly and worked to make this day a reality.
As the marriage equality struggle made abundantly clear, great harm can occur when Americans’ civil rights are put up to a popular vote. It’s déjà vu as legislatures and electorates are now putting transgender people’s dignity up to a vote. The Obama administration is doing exactly the right thing by trying to stop these laws dead in their tracks.
As with many other LGBT struggles, crisis presents opportunity. Over and over, when we have faced our greatest adversities, we have educated the nation about lives and ultimately about our common humanity and the universal human desire for safety and happiness. Attorney General Lynch in her remarks recognized how our nation’s advances in civil rights have not been “easy” and have come with “pain and suffering.” The current struggle sadly is no different. But we are very hopeful that what transgender Americans are doing in response to HB2 and other attacks—telling the truth of their lives—is educating Americans day by day. As this process unfolds, we are very glad that the United States Department of Justice is by our side.
Exciting Developments for Marriage Equality in China
April 21, 2016
My grandparents grew up in a small village in southern China, and raised my mother and her siblings in Hawaii. My grandparents may have thought of themselves as very open-minded about marriage when they told my mother she did not have to have an arranged marriage – all they asked was that she marry a man who spoke their same village dialect of Cantonese. But my mother had ideas of her own, and she looked far beyond the family village when she married my father, who is of English and Irish descent.
Our family has a history of working for marriage equality, and it wasn’t until 1967 that interracial marriages like my parents’ were legal in all 50 states. Although John and I have been together over 29 years now, our marriage has been legal in all 50 states for less than a year – yet we are already looking forward to a day when our marriage will be legal in China as well.
Marriage equality activists across the U.S. used to ask for marriage licenses every year as a way to demonstrate the unfairness of marriage discrimination, and to put a human face on the issue as a way to open hearts and change minds. Ultimately, when our marriage license was taken away, we joined others and sued the government – after many ups and downs, we prevailed.
We are heartened to see how couples in China and elsewhere in Asia have adopted this strategy of asking for marriage licenses. One brave couple in Changsha, China, asked for a marriage license – and when they were turned down, they sued the government.
Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang filed the first lawsuit in China for equal marriage rights. When they arrived at their hearing before Changsha Furong People’s Court, they were greeted by cheers from hundreds of supporters waving rainbow flags. Although they lost the first legal round this past week, their case has generated tremendous public interest and support, demonstrating how quickly times are changing. As they plan their appeal, China is engaging in a national conversation about LGBT rights and marriage equality like never before. The New York Times noted that when the People’s Daily wrote and tweeted about the case, they even included a photograph of the plaintiff couple holding hands – a big step for the official newspaper of the Communist Party.
LGBT life is becoming increasingly visible in China, where homosexuality became legal in 1997 – several years before the last sodomy laws were overturned here in the United States. Shanghai has vibrant annual Pride celebrations, PFLAG chapters are active from Guangzhou to Beijing, and rising support in opinion polls show an unmistakable trend towards equality. In his majority Obergefell opinion for marriage equality, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Confucius taught that marriage lies at the foundation of government.” This led to a nationwide social media conversation in China last year, and prompted one Chinese scholar to say that he thinks “the ruling will have a big impact on China and may promote the legalization of same-sex marriage in China.” Although my grandparents did not live to see this day, I hope they would have been proud.
April 7, 2016
Last Sunday, our family had a wonderful dinner in the East Bay to celebrate Stuart’s mom’s 92nd birthday. On the way home from dinner, the three of us went to a small, quiet shopping center where I bought Stuart’s mom a new pill box at a drug store, while the two of them shopped at the grocery store. Buying the pill box was fairly uneventful, although a somewhat mental challenged man, who may also have been on drugs, harassed some of the other customers, telling them they were rich and they should give him money.
As I left the drug store I passed the man, who told me I, too, was rich and should give him money. I walked on by, choosing not to engage with him. Seconds later, I heard him yell out at me, “faggot.”
I just kept on walking and joined Stuart and his mom at the grocery store. The man didn’t follow me and said nothing else to me. His remark had little immediate impact on me. I wondered if the man used the term “faggot” to some degree as a generic insult. I was neither dressed nor acting particularly “gay” or “not gay” that evening (just as I appeared neither rich nor not rich). The man was clearly disturbed and in need.
Nevertheless, I told Stuart on our way home from his mom’s place that if felt bizarre being called a “faggot” out of the blue while doing the eminently mundane act of walking in a quiet shopping center with a pill box in hand – indeed especially while I was doing such an ordinary thing.
I’ve been fortunate that I have relatively infrequently been called “faggot” or otherwise harassed or faced verbal insults as an LGBT person, although on occasion I have experienced significant threats. Several years ago, I was leafleting and talking to students about marriage equality on the quad of a college campus when a large and intimidating student became enraged and called me a “fucking faggot” more times than I could count. He stalked the two of us who were leafleting to the point that we called the police as he was screaming “fucking faggot” at me with his tightly clenched fist inches away from my chin. We also feared he had a gun. The police arrested him, and I pressed criminal charges against him in court. That incident upset me greatly.
Nothing resembling that happened in last week’s incident, but the experience of being called a “faggot” out of the blue stayed with me. I must admit I have wondered whether I was giving off a “gay vibe” even doing such an innocuous thing as carrying a pill box. But the fact that being called a “faggot” was the last thing I expected or was thinking about that night struck me most. It reminded me that LGBT people still today, even in the Bay Area, never know when they could face insults, either subtle or not so subtle. Some people feel a generalized license to make anti-gay insults as they wish.
Although I could brush off the incident as an adult today, hearing people verbally abuse others who appeared LGBT when I was growing up was really damaging to me then. It greatly contributed to my denying who I was to myself in an effort to ensure that no one would say that about me, although sometimes they still did. It made coming out seem very risky and unattractive. And, of course, it silenced my ability to speak up for myself and others. Such insults, threats, and name calling continue to seriously harm many LGBT youth today. And even casual name calling can be triggering or traumatizing for LGBT adults who have previously experienced substantial physical, verbal or emotional abuse.
As a white cisgender appearing male, the mundaneness of the circumstances of my being verbally gay bashed last Sunday night is an important reminder of how some LGBT people, women, people of color, and others experience this type of insult or scrutiny in myriad forms on a daily basis, simply living their lives as who they are.
We are all in this together, and we must continue to tell our stories of what it feels like to be who we are. There’s nothing like getting a glimpse of what it feels like to walk in another’s shoes.
March 24, 2016
Ryan Kendall was a star witness for marriage equality and against so-called “conversion therapy” when he took the stand in the Proposition 8 trial in San Francisco federal court six years ago. Ryan bravely recounted some of the most vulnerable moments of his life as he told the story of his parents’ horrendous reaction to learning he was gay and of his surviving forced conversion therapy as a youth. Ryan’s testimony marked a key moment in the trial because the immutability of sexual orientation is an important legal issue pertaining to constitutional rights of LGBT people. Ryan was in exactly the right place at the right time. Judge Vaughan Walker, who presided over the case and is gay, described Ryan’s testimony as “the most touching testimony of the trial,” – so powerful that it led Walker himself to reveal that he had undergone conversion therapy as well. Since the Prop. 8 trial, Ryan has gone on to testify before numerous state legislatures about the harms of conversion therapy.
But Ryan knows firsthand that at any point in life one may be called upon to testify as a witness to love… or hate. A few years after his Prop. 8 testimony, Ryan found himself on the other side of the country and in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. In the end, though, he may have been just the right person to be there.
After the Prop. 8 trial, Ryan, a former Republican, dedicated his life to becoming a civil rights lawyer. His pursuit of excellence led him to Columbia University in New York but also happened to put him on a tragic collision course to witnessing a horrible hate crime. He recently recounted the experience in The Advocate:
It was on a warm spring night in late May 2013. I was out celebrating the end of the semester and wanted to continue the festivities in the gayborhood after a Columbia University-sponsored event at the Delancey ended. I got something to eat, hopped in a cab, and headed to Greenwich Village.
Once there, I walked up the street, turning right on West Eighth Avenue, just in time to see Elliot Morales exchanging words with Mark Carson and his best friend, Danny Robinson.
As I approached, I heard Morales repeatedly call Carson and Robinson “faggots.” I thought a fight might break out. So I passed them by on the left. As soon as I had gotten in front of them, though, I was frozen in place — paralyzed by the unmistakable crack of a gunshot behind me.
While Ryan was able to choose to be a witness in the Prop. 8 trial, he had no choice in witnessing a hate crime and a murder. Mark Carson was dead, shot by Elliot Morales – and as fate would have it, Ryan was present for the whole thing:
In the moment after a gunshot, you don’t think, you just do. I didn’t even have time to be afraid. Once I could move again, I turned around to see what had happened.
As I did, Morales walked by, brandishing his weapon and saying, “Don’t you look at me.”
But I did look, and I flagged down the responding police officers to tell them what I had seen. The images from that night remain with me. I will never forget the sight of Mark Carson dying at my feet — yet another young black man killed with a gun in the street.
Over three years later, Ryan, now a law student at the UCLA, recently returned to New York to testify at Morales’s murder trial. He told the courtroom exactly what he had witnessed, and the jury convicted Morales of hate crime murder.
Ryan has never been a passive witness; he is perceptive, engaged, and circumspect. Ryan observed, “As Morales cross-examined me on the stand, I saw a broken man who could have been helped at so many turns.”
Ryan had used the months and years since the murder took place to reflect more widely on what he had witnessed:
In the first few months after the shooting, I was angry at Morales for stealing Carson’s life simply because he was gay. In the months and years that I’ve waited to testify against Morales, my anger at him receded.
Ryan found himself confronted with the question of whether “Carson’s death could have been prevented.”
Along with countless other LGBT people, their friends, and their families, Ryan, has used his voice tirelessly to convey the humanity of LGBT people to the world so that crimes such as the one Morales committed might someday no longer occur. He has also worked to raise the self-esteem of LGBT people; indeed Morales at trial claimed to be bisexual.
Ryan examined what little he knew of Morales as a person. He noted that Morales, 33 years old at the time of committing the murder, “had already had been incarcerated for 11 years after committing an armed robbery during which two women were bound and beaten. When Morales was released from prison, he doubtlessly found himself cast out into a society with little support or chance at a decent life…. Then it is no wonder that, as he testified in court, Morales was out of prison by May 2013 but staying on a friend’s couch, with little more than his clothes and a gun.”
Ryan, who describes himself as perceiving “the world through a lens of policy and law,” observes how our prison system seeks “to punish, not to rehabilitate,” how our society lacks sufficient “mental health and social services,” and how easy it is to obtain firearms. He notes how difficult it is for a person convicted of such a felony to find a job. He urges us to consider candidates’ positions on these issues as we make “crucial decision[s]” in the 2016 elections. In Ryan’s words:
I can imagine a world where we choose to break the vicious cycle of imprisonment and recidivism and replace it with a virtuous cycle of education, job training, and hope.
In the end, maybe this murder couldn’t have been prevented. Maybe Morales would have been impervious to help. Maybe he would have found one way or another to kill someone.
But to honor Mark Carson’s life, we should at least try to make tragic outcomes like this less common. We should try to build a world with more love and less violence, with more opportunity and less suffering, with more hope and less hate.
Ryan’s essay regarding his experience, What Happens After You Witness a Hate Crime, is published here: http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2016/3/16/what-happens-after-you-witness-hate-crime
LGBT Rights and Abortion Rights Are Inseparable
March 10, 2016
Last week, the US Supreme Court heard one of the most important abortion rights cases in decades, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. At first blush, some LGBT folks might think that abortion rights have little to do with them. After all, gay men and lesbians don’t get “accidentally pregnant” — to quote a term used in some anti-marriage equality lower court decision of the past decade. However, LGBT rights and reproductive freedom have long been closely intertwined. At stake in both movements are individuals’ fundamental freedoms to control their own bodies and to decide for themselves the paths their lives will take. LGBT people should care about women’s right to safe and legal abortion not only because it’s the right thing to do but because our two movements depend on each other.
Our first experience of the connection between the two movements came nearly 30 years ago when we participated in an LGBT direct action group, called “Queer and Present Danger,” that was part of the first and only shut down of the US Supreme Court. The action was organized to protest the Court’s notorious Bowers v. Hardwick decision that upheld the constitutionality of so-called “sodomy” laws that criminalized intimate sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Our group got along so well that we decided to keep working together on other pressing issues, such as HIV/AIDS and abortion rights. At the time, during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, LGBT activists were pressing the Reagan administration and the federal government to end their neglect of people with HIV/AIDS. “Operation Rescue,” a well funded right wing anti-choice group that blockaded Planned Parenthood and other clinics serving women, was also in high gear. In 1988-1989, Operation Rescue held hundreds of blockades with thousands of arrests of their members. We took part in numerous actions regarding HIV/AIDS and in “clinic defense,” where we worked to ensure access to women’s clinics despite the presence of Operation Rescue. We saw no separation between these two human rights struggles.
The US Supreme Court recognizes the connection as well. Until the Supreme Court held in 1973 that women have a fundamental constitutional right to make reproductive choices for themselves, 46 states had laws interfering with a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion. Until the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision finally overturned Bowers v. Hardwick in 2003, states could imprison LGBT people for sexual intimacy. Some states even put people in jail for simply touching another person of the same sex in a sexual way. Without these decisions, the government today would still be able to exert extraordinary control over the bodies of LGBT people and women.
Recent Supreme Court decisions in favor of constitutional freedoms for LGBT people rest on prior legal victories for reproductive freedom. The Supreme Court’s Lawrence decision relied heavily on language from a key abortion rights precedent, when it stated:
“[M]atters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the [Constitution]…. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State….It is a promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter.”
That language comes verbatim from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, which among other things invalidated a law that required a married woman to notify her husband before having an abortion. In Casey, the Court stated that what a woman experiences by having a child “is too intimate and personal for the State to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman’s role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.”
The fiercest opposition to both the LGBT and reproductive freedom movements comes from conservative Christian political forces. These groups seek not only to raise money and gain political power off these issues, but to impose their personal religious and moral views on everyone through law. LGBT and reproductive choice supporters have fought side by side in efforts to defeat right wing ballot initiatives. Moreover, with respect to both matters, the Supreme Court has held, quoting the Casey decision: “The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce … [their moral and religious] views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. ‘Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.’” As the Court stated in its 2015 marriage equality decision, “the idea of the Constitution ‘was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.’ This is why ‘fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’”
In this year’s abortion rights case before the Supreme Court, the reproductive freedom movement is drawing upon one of the key elements responsible for the recent successes of the LGBT movement: coming out. In 2014, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attributed the “remarkable change” in lesbian and gay rights over recent years to the willingness of gay and lesbian Americans to “say who they are.” The power of LGBT people coming out and telling their personal stories has been and continues to be integral to achieving and maintaining LGBT and marriage equality.
In Whole Woman’s Health, over a hundred women lawyers who have had abortions filed their own “coming out” brief, telling the Justices their stories as to how the freedom to decide for themselves what happens to their bodies was vital to their lives and well being. Among those women are prominent women in the LGBT rights movement, such as Susan Sommer, Director of Constitutional Litigation for Lambda Legal, and Judy Appel, Executive Director of Our Family Coalition. One woman who filed the brief explained: “I am the daughter of a teenage mother who is the daughter of a teenage mother. I had an abortion when I was 16 years old and living in rural Oregon. I believe that access to a safe, legal abortion broke the familial cycle of teenage parenthood and allowed me to not only escape a very unhealthy, emotional[ly] abusive teenage relationship but to … work for one of the nation’s most storied civil rights organizations” and become a lawyer. “I often tell people … that access to a safe, legal abortion saved my life.”
The Supreme Court will likely issue its decision in Whole Woman’s Health the last week of June, on or near the first year anniversary of last year’s landmark marriage equality decision. The success of the two movements will remain vital to the lives of all women and LGBT people.
Justice for Gavin Grimm
February 11, 2016
Gavin Grimm, a 16-year old high school junior from Gloucester, Virginia, simply wants to be able to use his school’s restrooms as all his classmates can. But like LGBT couples who had to go to court just to be able to marry, Gavin has had to sue his school district for the right to use the boys’ room. A panel of the Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals just held argument on key parts of his case and could issue a decision soon.
The ACLU represents Gavin in court and through court filings we quote here, Gavin reveals his story. Although Gavin was born biologically female, he was aware from early on “that he did not feel like a girl.” By middle school age, Gavin had “acknowledged … to himself and to close friends” that he was male, and in the spring of freshman year he came out as transgender to his parents because the stress of hiding his gender identity was so overwhelming. Gavin’s distress was so severe he couldn’t attend school. With his parents’ assistance, Gavin started getting the professional treatment he needed from a psychologist experienced with gender dysphoria. The psychologist advised that Gavin should be able to live as a male and “should be treated as a boy in all respects, including with respect to his use of the restroom.” Gavin began hormone therapy and legally changed his name. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles approved Gavin’s being identified as male on state identification cards and driver licenses.
At the beginning of sophomore year, Gavin and his mom let the school know what was going on and met with the principal and guidance counselor to explain that Gavin was a transgender boy and that, “consistent with his medically supervised treatment, he would be attending school as a male student.” Although Gavin initially consented to using a separate restroom located in the nurse’s office because he didn’t know how his classmates would react, Gavin “was pleased to discover that his teachers and the vast majority of his peers respected the fact that he is a boy and treated him accordingly.” He asked the principal to let him use the boys’ room, and the principal agreed. For the next seven weeks or so, things went fine, and he was using the boys’ room “without incident.”
Then, parents and other adults got involved and made life miserable again for Gavin. After two horrific public meetings, the county school board adopted a policy resulting in Gavin’s being banned from “using the same restrooms as other boys” and exiling “him to single-stall, unisex restrooms that no other student is required to use.” Gavin and his parents attended the meetings to speak against the policy, but doing so meant that Gavin at age 15 had to come out as transgender to the entire community and the press and to reveal publicly that he was the student at the center of the controversy. Among many accusations, speakers at the meetings “claimed that permitting transgender students to use the same restrooms as others would lead to teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections” and “cited the Bible and complained about ‘morality creep.’” One speaker called Gavin “a ‘freak’ and compared him to a person who thinks he is a dog and wants to urinate on fire hydrants.” Gavin was left feeling humiliated, as if he had “been turned into ‘a public spectacle’ in front of the entire community ‘like a walking freak show.’”
At school, Gavin is now forced to use a bathroom separate from all the other students, branding him daily as separate and “other” from his fellow students. Gender dysphoria expert Dr. Randi Ettner described in court papers how each time Gavin is forced to use a bathroom separate from his peers – especially at age 15-16, where fitting in is immensely important to most teenagers — it deals him a “devastating blow … and places him at extreme risk for immediate and long-term psychological harm.” Indeed, Gavin reports that he “limits the amount of liquids he drinks and tries to ‘hold it’” when he needs to go to the bathroom at school. Consequently, he has “repeatedly developed painful urinary tract infections and has felt distracted and uncomfortable in class.”
The Fourth Circuit Appeals court decision will likely have a profound impact on Gavin’s life, and it could greatly affect the lives of transgender people nationwide. Although Gavin’s case comes to the court at a relatively preliminary stage in the proceedings, the court’s decision could address the degree to which the U.S. Constitution and federal law protect against gender identity discrimination, and the case could eventually make its way to the US Supreme Court.
We offer our support, respect, and admiration to Gavin and his parents. Gavin’s legal papers recount that at the school board meeting Gavin testified: “All I want to do is be a normal child and use the restroom in peace.” After the January 27th court hearing, Buzzfeed News reported that Gavin acknowledged that “[a]t first I was terrified, then I realized I have a platform, and I am going to use that platform to help people.” Like so many LGBT leaders before him, Gavin appears to be finding his voice through his struggle and using his talents not just to make his own life better but to improve the lives of others. Buzzfeed reports that after the hearing, his mother said that “we have learned through this process [Gavin]… is his best advocate, and we are proud to be his parents.” We are proud of Gavin, too.
Gavin’s case is G. G. v. Gloucester County School Board (No. 15-2056).
Exciting Developments for LGBT Rights and Marriage Equality in Taiwan
January 28, 2016
On January 16, 2016, Tsai Ing-wen made history when she was elected Taiwan’s first female president. Tsai’s election not only broke a glass ceiling for women in Taiwan, but it could herald a long-awaited breakthrough for LGBT rights in Taiwan and the rest of Asia. President-elect Tsai is an unabashed supporter of LGBT rights and marriage equality. During the presidential campaign, Tsai posted a pro-marriage equality video on her Facebook page to coincide with Taiwan’s 13th annual Pride Parade. Taiwan Pride, which attracted nearly 80,000 participants, is the largest such event in Asia. In the video, Tsai proclaimed “I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.” She explained that “we are all equal” in love and that everyone should be “free to love” and pursue happiness — as pink and red hearts and rainbow rings floated across the screen. It was a first for Taiwanese politics.
No county in Asia has marriage equality yet. Tsai’s election, along with her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) winning an absolute majority in the national legislature, could mean that Taiwan will become the first. Tsai and the DPP defeated the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT), which failed to advance LGBT equality while in power. In 2013, over 20 DPP legislators introduced a marriage equality bill, but the KMT has prevented the bill from moving forward. We do not yet know whether the new government will have sufficient votes and political will to pass marriage equality and other LGBT bills. Tsai and her party have not committed to making marriage equality a legislative priority. As a candidate, Tsai stated that marriage equality is “something that society needs to tackle together as a whole, in which some are supportive while others are more reserved.” Indeed, Tsai has explained that her political “style” is to be “patient” and to work “steadily, practically, and accurately to achieve the ideal.” But the political landscape for LGBT rights in Taiwan has changed significantly.
In addition to legislative efforts, Taiwan’s vocal and assertive LGBT activists appear ready to seize the moment to pressure the new government to make legal equality a reality. Taiwanese LGBT activists have been pressing for equality for years. As we did in America, LGBT couples in Taiwan have presented themselves to local officials to ask for marriage licenses, putting a human face on discrimination. In 2012, a couple filed a marriage equality lawsuit, which was subsequently withdrawn for strategic purposes when it appeared that a positive ruling would not be forthcoming. The cities of Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Taichung recognize partnerships for same-sex couples. Last year, hundreds of supporters marched on the Kuomintang Party Headquarters to protest the party’s inaction and threw rainbow water balloons at the building in an act of symbolic defiance. When the government’s Justice Ministry conducted an online marriage equality poll, approximately 60 percent of respondents voted in favor. A 2013 poll showed 53 percent public support for marriage equality, with a whopping 78 percent of people in their twenties in favor. Another 2013 poll showed that marriage equality did not then have majority support, but a 2014 poll showed support at 54 percent.
In 2013, the China Post opined that “[l]egalizing same-sex marriage will be a huge step forward in the fight for universal equality akin to ending apartheid.” It’s hard to overestimate the importance of winning marriage equality in Asia, home to billions of the world’s population. Activists are fighting for equality in many Asian countries, and a victory in Taiwan would not only bring marriage equality there but could ignite a spark across the entire continent.
6/26 and Beyond
January 14, 2016
As the new year commences, we initiated a new name for our column in the San Francisco Bay Times: 6/26 and Beyond. You might ask: What’s 6/26? It’s June 26 – not only the date of the founding of the United Nations (1945) — and for that matter the invention of the toothbrush (1498) — but the date the United States Supreme Court has issued its three most important landmark LGBT rights decisions. Indeed, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, along with 93 cosponsors, has introduced legislation that would designate June 26 as national “LGBT Equality Day.”
Twelve years ago — on June 26, 2003 — the US Supreme Court issued its breakthrough decision, Lawrence v. Texas, finally holding that laws that criminalize the physical expression of love and affection between people of the same gender violate the Constitution. In the Court’s own eloquent words: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The government “cannot demean” the “existence” of LGBT people or “control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.” For the first time in American history, the Court recognized LGBT love, describing how “intimate conduct” between people of the same sex “can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring.”
Ten years after Lawrence – June 26, 2013 — the Court expressed a deeper understanding of LGBT love and dignity in its landmark United States v. Windsor decision, overturning key elements of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages. In Windsor, the Court recognized that marriage equality states like New York had enabled LGBT couples to “live with pride in themselves and their union and in a status of equality with all other married persons” but that DOMA served to “injure” and “disparage” these couples and to make them “unequal” to everyone else. Reflecting a profound understanding of the daily human cost of such discrimination, the Court noted that “DOMA instruct[ed] all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage [was] less worthy than the marriages of others.”
And last summer – June 26, 2015 – the Court held in Obergefell v. Hodges that the liberty and equality guarantees of the Constitution mandate nationwide marriage equality. The Court’s opinion evinced great understanding of the struggles, hopes and dreams of LGBTQ Americans. The decision recounted how throughout much of our nation’s history “[g]ays and lesbians were prohibited from most government employment, barred from military service, excluded under immigration laws, targeted by police, and burdened in their rights to associate.” The Court recognized our struggle from protest to political involvement to legal action. And it acknowledged the inadequacies of partial victories: “Outlaw to outcast may be a step forward, but it does not achieve the full promise of liberty.” The Court named marriage discrimination for what it was: “injustice.” And it concluded that by seeking marriage equality, LGBTQ people “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
That’s what 6/26 has meant so far for LGBT equality. But the new title of our column is “6/26 and Beyond.” What does “beyond” mean? One thing it means is that the marriage equality victories represent extraordinarily important advances toward a broader goal: full LGBTQ equality in all aspects of our lives. LGBTQ people need more landmark Supreme Court decisions on future 6/26’s. Last summer’s opinion laid the groundwork for a broad decision regarding all types of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but the Court stopped short of issuing such a ruling. We need that ruling in a future case. As we have emphasized before and will continue to do throughout the year, electing a President who will appoint Supreme Court justices who understand that the Constitution prohibits governmental discrimination against LGBTQ people in any form is imperative to the future of our movement. Our choice in November will be clear.
And we embrace the Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition of beyond, namely “outside a limit.” We believe the heart of the LGBTQ rights movement has always been the “beyond” and breaking down limits of identity, gender, love, expression, freedom and human experience. Over the holidays, we had a dinner with our 21 year old niece and her new boyfriend. As our niece’s boyfriend spoke about how he recognized his privilege as a European American cisgender heterosexual male and told us about a close friend who was genderqueer, we felt as if we were living in the beyond. In upcoming issues, we will write both about marriage equality and other matters pertaining to LGBTQ lives. We believe the future for LGBTQ people is bright, and we look forward to the next 6/26 and beyond.