Friday, March 26, 2010

Why do we march?

Originally posted on DC Agenda. Photo from Image from Immigration Equality Blog.

During the past week, our collective attention has been on the health care reform bills. Leading into last weekend, most Americans wondered whether the House Democrats would have the 216 votes needed to pass the historic legislation. In the meantime, the forces gathering for the next big battle were mostly ignored.

Last Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators — including members of the LGBT community — congregated at the National Mall for the March for America, a rally demanding comprehensive immigration reform. Although not one LGBT organization or leader was included in the roster of speakers, we chose to join and support immigration reform, partly due to our stake in the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow American citizens to sponsor their foreign partner or spouse for legal permanent residency. This piece of legislation is one we would like to be included in any immigration reform effort. I also suspect, though, that many LGBT people who attended the rally realize the importance of minority groups sticking together and advocating for one another.

It was quite a sight to see a gigantic rainbow flag above the crowd and, nearby, a bright spot of red made by the large contingent of Immigration Equality supporters wearing red t-shirts. Close by were teams from Asian/Pacific Islander Queers United for Action, Equality Illinois, Full Equality NOW! DC,, Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Out4Immigration and others.

Although the crowd was energized, defiant and determined to see the change promised by President Obama, the experience reminded me of a similar gathering five months ago, when tens of thousands of LGBT people and allies demanded change at the National Equality March. This makes me ask whether these marches will take us anywhere?

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is stalled in Congress while “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is undergoing an unnecessary, yearlong review. There’s no point in even dreaming yet of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. The plain and simple fact is that legislators see the mid-term elections on the horizon and are keenly aware of the toll the healh care reform battle will take. They are not about to take up our cause anytime soon.

Even Iin the unlikely event that congressional Democrats decide to pursue immigration reform this year, I’m willing to bet that despite the assurances of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that bi-national same-sex couples will not be left out, they will be. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security & Prosperity Act introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in December blatantly leaves out LGBT families. Although the Illinois congressman had been supportive of the LGBT community in the past, he has not committed to our inclusion in any immigration reform initiative. This is not altogether surprising, since he needs the support of social conservatives, especially the Catholic and Evangelical Latino churches.

So why do we march? We do so out of solidarity and a strong belief in democracy. Our voices are heard and our numbers seen even though change doesn’t come fast enough. But so long as we keep it up — whether by demonstrating, e-mailing or calling our elected officials, writing letters to the editor or blogging, supporting advocacy groups or proven pro-LGBT politicians, or even chaining ourselves to the White House fence — we will prevail. Until we all are truly equal, we keep on marching.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rewind: Wolves are stalking us

Also posted on DC Agenda. Image from the Washington Post.

As the community and its allies celebrate another hard-fought victory this week — same-sex marriage in D.C. — wolves circle nearby, waiting for a chance to pounce.

Tuesday was the first day lesbian and gay couples could pick up their marriage licenses and finally get married. Ceremonies were held all over the city, from the headquarters of Human Rights Campaign to churches, synagogues and judge’s chambers throughout Washington. On the same day, the city commission of conservative Kissimmee, Fla., afforded LGBT employees a measure of equality by approving domestic partnership benefits for these workers.

The U.S. Supreme Court also agreed to hear the case against the Westboro Church for picketing funerals of soldiers. The suit was filed by the family of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq four years ago. Snyder’s funeral service was interrupted by the church’s leader, Fred Phelps, and a handful of followers who brandished signs saying “America is doomed,” “Matt in hell” and “Semper Fi fags,” the very same treatment regularly heaped upon the LGBT community at Pride parades, demonstrations and other major events. The Snyder family is arguing that Phelps intruded on a private event and intentionally inflicted emotional distress, initially winning an award of $5 million. The award was overturned on appeal, where a court ruled that protestors were simply exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. The high court will resolve the matter.

But disputes need not reach the Supreme Court to make news in Washington.

Last week, the Washington Post featured a photograph of one of the first gay couples to get a marriage license. For the historic day, the editors deemed appropriate for the front page a picture of two men kissing. However, the paper’s ombudsman reported Wednesday that the paper received a number of angry, spiteful and bigoted complaints and that 27 subscribers canceled their subscriptions due to the photo. Nonetheless, the editors stand by their decision.

Over the weekend, a bloodthirsty member of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s pack was exposed by his impatience to get at LGBTs. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli sent a letter to Virginia’s public colleges and universities urging them to rescind policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

And on Monday, a Roman Catholic school in Colorado kicked out one of its preschoolers because the child’s parents happen to be two women. The child has also been denied re-enrollment in kindergarten next year.

The reality is that as we continue our march to full equality, these wolves will stalk and hunt us. We must be constantly vigilant lest they detect an opening, disrupt our progress and set us back. Same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C., for instance can easily be overturned by a referendum or interfered with by members of Congress.

Moreover, some of these predators lurk among us. One of them is California State Sen. Roy Ashburn. Ashburn had been in the closet and is the attack dog of religious conservatives and other homophobes and bigots. He lobbied hard against his fellow gays, consistently voting against pro-LGBT measures. It took a DUI arrest last week and the revelation that he had just left a gay bar with another man before the hypocrite was ferreted out.

However, there are ways we can keep the wolves at bay. After outrage and protest over his lackey’s letter mandating LGBT discrimination, McDonnell issued a directive to all Virginia state employees Wednesday saying they should not discriminate for any reason, including on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the religious conservative who famously wrote in his manifesto for good governance that government policy should favor married heterosexual couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators,” was silent on the matter of discrimination based on gender identity.

Then there are moments when even people we might not ordinarily consider friends come to our defense out of the sheer lunacy of actions taken by some people and organizations.

Conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly came to the defense of the Colorado family whose child was expelled. During his television show, O’Reilly opened a segment saying, “Authorities at the Sacred Heart of Jesus School expelled a preschool and kindergartner because their parents are lesbians. As a Roman Catholic myself, that seems to be a bit harsh, and I don’t know if Jesus would have made the same call. Kids have no power over who their parents are.”

Moments like that are encouraging. And it’s great to see celebrations continue in the District and all over the country as we win our rightful place in society one step at a time. However, we need to be on the lookout for the wolves that are stalking us.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon

Friday, March 05, 2010

Rewind: love, marriage, hate and immigration

The legalization of same-sex marriage in the nation’s capital made front page news but the past week also saw a rift in the immigration reform and LGBT coalition, legislation for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell introduced, and raw hatred challenged.

On Wednesday, the District joined Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Iowa in allowing lesbians and gays to wed. Over 150 couples applied for licenses less than a day after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from Maryland’s Bishop Harry Jackson that D.C.’s same-sex-marriage law be put on hold until he and his anti-equality posse are able to put our civil rights to a popular vote.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, the House of Lords overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the nation’s Equality Bill which lifts the ban on same-sex ceremonies in churches. It was introduced by openly gay Muslim peer Waheed Alli and supported by his fellow Lords, including a number of prominent Anglican bishops. Under current British law, religious venues are forbidden from holding gay nuptials. The amendment now goes to the House of Commons for passage.

Yesterday, a law permitting lesbian and gay couples to marry came into effect in Mexico City a day after Argentina had its second same-sex wedding. The piece of legislation, which gives gay people full marital rights and allows them to adopt, was passed by the local assembly in December. Mexico City has now become ground zero for the culture wars in Latin America.

Back in Washington, D.C., the Roman Catholic Archdiocese continued its losing battle against progress by choosing to deny benefits to all domestic partners of Catholic Charities employees. They would rather take away much needed health coverage from spouses of new employees or spouses of current employees who are not already enrolled in the plan than provide for lesbian and gay partners and spouses. Battling its own culture war, the Roman Catholic leadership does not want to be perceived as condoning “aberrant” and “sinful” behavior.

This visceral hate for our families was echoed over the weekend in California, when the University of California Davis campus became a target of homophobia and racism.

Graphic anti-gay words and phrases were found spray-painted on the campus’ LGBT Resource Center on Saturday morning, following the discovery by a Jewish student of a swastika carved into her dorm room door.

Thankfully, many Americans realize that history and right is on the side of LGBT civil rights. In Rhode Island, three major candidates running for governor – General Treasurer Frank Caprio, Attorney General Patrick Lynch, both Democrats, and former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, an independent – pledged to 200 people present at a rally that they would allow same-sex marriage if elected. Even moderate candidate Ken Block expressed his support for our right to marry.

Internationally, LGBT activists and allies continued to fight institutionalized homophobia. In Uganda, hundreds of campaigners led by Anglican priest Gideon Byamugisha urged lawmakers to reject the proposed “kill the gays” law. The campaigners presented the parliamentarians with an online petition signed by 450,000 people worldwide opposing the bill.

In other news, activist and blogger Prerna Lal reported on the apparent rift between the immigration reform movement and LGBT community which surfaced last weekend during a briefing for LGBT bloggers. It was revealed that Reform Immigration for America, a campaign which touts itself as “a united national effort that brings together individuals and grassroots organizations with the mission to build support for workable comprehensive immigration reform,” does not have a single LGBT organization in its management team so as to appease conservative religious groups. Moreover, a leader of the immigration reform movement pronounced that promoting the Uniting American Families Act, a bill which would allow gay American citizens to petition foreign partners and spouses for green cards, was not a winning strategy for the campaign to adopt even though, as Lal rebuts, the bill has more cosponsors than any other immigration-related initiative.

In spite of this blatant shunting of the LGBT community, the bloggers were still expected to advance immigration reform, angering some of those present. A gay activist who attended the gathering summed up how many felt: “It feels like you are telling us to give a big push to your bus while we have to run behind it trying to get on.”

Finally, on Wednesday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman introduced a bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2010 would repeal the 1993 law barring LGBT individuals from open service in the U.S. military and put a non-discrimination policy in its place. The senator did acknowledge that this legislation may not pass anytime soon and that Congress may have to settle with a moratorium this year as opposed to an outright repeal.

The week’s big news was love overcoming hate in Washington, D.C. after decades of hard work and incremental steps taken by the community, its leaders and allies. While the overwhelming joy and relief felt by many of us is priceless, the fact remains that a D.C. marriage license does not mean much in most of the country. Those of us who will wed are still denied the over 1,100 privileges and protections endowed to different-sex couples. Nonetheless, the nation is moving in the right direction at least when it comes to civil rights – after all, nearly half of Americans now live where there is some legal recognition of lesbian and gay couples.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon. Also posted on DC Agenda.