Friday, April 30, 2010

Why we should care about Arizona

Originally posted on the Washington Blade

A week ago, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which in essence legalizes racial profiling.

The first section of the bill explains that it is intended to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.” The next section authorizes state and local law enforcement officials who have “reasonable suspicion” that a person is “unlawfully present in the United States” to “determine the immigration status of the person.”

No one will argue that our immigration system needs a major overhaul. But can someone please explain “reasonable suspicion” to me? What does an illegal alien look like? Is it the clothes? The work they take? Let’s be blunt. Will state and local police even suspect a white person?

But why should we care?

Aside from my expectation that people who belong to a discriminated group ought to have some empathy and compassion for another marginalized group, many of us are of color or have partners and spouses who are Latinos, Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners — people who look and sound “different.”

LGBT Arizonans of color — native born and naturalized American citizens, legal permanent residents, professionals with work visas, international students, and yes, undocumented people — will be negatively affected by this anachronistic and incomprehensible law. Mixed race couples will shoulder another burden on top of the lack of basic civil rights and protections.

Once the law goes into effect, non-white LGBT Arizonans will need to carry with them documents proving their right to be in the state. They will live with the fear and anxiety that they could be stopped, possibly detained, just because a law enforcement official has “reasonable suspicion.” Just because of how they look. Their partners, spouses and children will wonder if their loved ones will come home at the end of the day.

And there are already copycat bills contemplated in other states: Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. LGBT people and families could also be impacted in these states.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon was right in condemning Arizona’s draconian immigration law and warning that it “opens the door to intolerance, hate, discrimination.” Some people are likening Arizona to Nazi Germany, where people who looked Jewish were routinely stopped and asked for their papers. While I think the comparison is rather extreme, it effectively makes the point that SB 1070 — and the accompanying racial profiling — is simply wrong. The analogy speaks to the dangers of state-sanctioned racism.

This is the proverbial slippery slope that can lead to the discrimination of other minority groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. The new law makes it okay to single out a group and to treat them horribly and unfairly.

At the national march for immigration reform last month, a gay man told me that he had second thoughts about attending the demonstration. He made it very clear that he was there only to protest the treatment of binational LGBT couples. He did not want anyone to think for a second that he supported all these “illegals.”

Well, buddy, guess what? To many people, we who are immigrants and LGBT all look alike. And they’d be very happy to be rid of us.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The best way forward?

Originally posted on DC Agenda. Image from GetEQUAL.

There is a debate occurring within the community about what the best way is to secure our civil rights. With the midterm elections looming and the window of opportunity to pass legislation fast closing, activists, bloggers, advocates, the gay media and armchair strategists have been arguing about how we should, as a community, proceed.

At one end are those who believe that we should present a united front, falling in line behind LGBT establishment leaders and trust that as Washington insiders, they will get things done. At the other end are those who have given up on the establishment and think that it is time again to protest.

Before jumping into the fray and sharing my two cents, I think that we have to accept the fact that nothing will get done by November and that progress in terms of federal legislation will halt after the GOP wins more seats in Congress. The Obama administration has made it pretty clear that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will not be repealed through defense appropriation and that any action taken will be after the Pentagon releases its findings sometime in December. And the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, in spite of having close to the 216 votes needed for passage in the House, does not have many backers in the Senate.

As for the Uniting American Families Act and the repeal of the odious Defense of Marriage Act, well, we might as well forget about these two for now. UAFA as a standalone bill still requires more sponsors in the House and will ultimately be shot down by the Senate, anyway. If it is included in a comprehensive immigration bill, I predict that it will eventually be discarded by immigration reform proponents to appease and secure the support of more conservative backers, namely the Catholic and Evangelical leaders who are pro-immigrant but anti-LGBT.

In order to repeal DOMA, the majority of Americans need to support same-sex marriage. We’re not there yet.

So what is the best way forward? I’d argue that it is not an either-or proposition. The Human Rights Campaign and other inside-the-beltway veterans do know how things work in D.C. and that means connections, access and a whole lot of horse trading and compromise. They have been around long enough to know that things don’t change overnight but through slow and painstaking effort and increments. They realize that patience, tenacity and commitment are necessary to their advocacy. I have worked beside rank-and-file HRC staffers and I do not doubt for a second their passion for our cause.

Protest and civil disobedience, on the other hand, are indispensable to any social movement. We would not be where we are were it not for the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Stonewall Riots and subsequent action by queer activists. The disruptive and shocking measures taken by Act Up in the late ’80s and early ’90s spurred much delayed action on the HIV/AIDS crisis. Activists that choose this path know that they need to keep everyone honest and stop movement leaders from getting too cozy with power. They realize that society needs to be challenged out of complacency and empowered. I have marched with Lt. Dan Choi and’s Robin McGehee and I likewise do not doubt their commitment to winning our civil rights.

Another fact we have to face is that no movement has ever had a united front. There are far too many opinions, egos and agendas. There will always be those who work with the system and those that buck it. The LGBT movement is no different and it has a place for all players. If we are to prevail, we should all be doing what we do best and are most comfortable at.

When our legislative window closes in November, it is crucial that Gay Inc. continues to quietly work the corridors of power while radicals raucously call attention to our second-class status. It is also important that the rest of us continue what we have been doing: coming out, telling our stories, writing checks to pro-LGBT organizations and candidates, calling our elected officials and not giving up until we are all equal under the law. The best way forward? All of the above.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Did you get the memo?

Originally posted on DC Agenda

When I got successive tweets last night about the president’s memo to the Secretary of Health & Human Services instructing her to secure hospital visitation rights for LGBTs, I was floored and about to break out the champagne when I decided to look more closely at the missive. This is no doubt a great gesture on the part of Mr. Obama, but is it enough?

First, the letter mandates that only “hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid respect the rights of patients to designate visitors.” What about those that do not? What about medical institutions run by religious groups? Will they be exempt even if they receive Medicare or Medicaid funding?

Second, it says that designated visitors, “including individuals designated by legally valid advance directives (such as durable powers of attorney and health care proxies), should enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy.” But what if the patient arrives unconscious and is unable to tell hospital employees who she considers her spouse and family? What if a gay couple has not set up powers of attorney, living wills and health care proxies?

The burden of proof is still on gay couples. A man who is hospitalized can easily say that a female visitor is his wife and chances are no questions will be raised. But if he were to say that another man were his husband or partner, he would have to prove his claim especially in parts of the country that are not welcoming of LGBT people. We still need to carry our marriage and domestic partnership certificates in our wallets.

Finally, the memo ends by making it clear that it “is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.” It does not create any enforceable right. As Richard Socarides, former advisor of President Bill Clinton, acknowledges, the directive does not grant any new LGBT rights.

Nonetheless, Socarides points out that President Obama’s latest action on behalf of the LGBT community does “draw attention to the very real and tragic situations many gays and lesbians face when a partner is hospitalized.” Although all this would be moot if the Defense of Marriage Act were repealed and same-sex marriages federally recognized, this is another step toward full equality and civil rights for LGBT Americans.

Although the President can put more effort in passing civil rights legislations such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there is no denying that we are better off under his administration. I doubt that Republican Sen. John McCain would have taken this step — or any at all to help us — had he won the presidency.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Standing on the Side of Love

Earlier today, I shared my story at a rally organized by the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign. The event brought together two issues that may not be clearly related to most, but is all too real for my husband and me and so many other binational gay couples. These issues often intersect: immigration and equality for LGBT people. I am grateful for the opportunity.

Like most immigrants, I came to the United States with my American dream. I was going to take advantage of all the opportunities available, work hard, improve my lot and give back. As a young gay man, I was going to live openly and with integrity. I was also going to fall in love, settle down and have my own family.

I think that for the most part, I have been fortunate and have done well. I have put myself through grad school and I am now pursuing a doctorate degree while working as a researcher. I volunteer and help out when I can. I am doing what I love and believe that in my small way I am making a difference. I have always been myself – out and proud. Best of all, I have fallen in love, settled down and started a family with a man with whom I share the same faith and core values.

John and I have been together for eleven and a half years. We have been committed to one another all this time and though we have lived, for all intents and purposes, like a married couple, we have been denied the legal right to marry, that is until last month. Until then, we did our best to get whatever legal protections we could for same-sex couples. While living in New York, we registered as domestic partners. Upon relocating to Washington two and half years ago, we also signed up as domestic partners. When same-sex marriage was legalized in the District, we didn’t wait long to get a marriage license. Last week, we had our civil wedding ceremony at the Moultrie Courthouse.

Although no one can deny the fact that we are now a married couple and that he is my husband, the hard reality is that our D.C. marriage license isn’t worth much outside the jurisdiction. When we next visit my in-laws in Charlotte, we will still feel the need to have our living wills and health care proxies on hand in case of an emergency. We both dread the thought of not being able to be by the side of the one injured and hospitalized. Worse, not being able to make the life and death decisions only a spouse should make.

We resent the fact that even though we have been paying our taxes and contributing to the social security system, neither of us will be entitled to the other’s benefits. We find it unfair that anything we give or leave to each other – property, money and other material possessions – will be taxed. The list goes on. Married heterosexual couples enjoy over 1,100 benefits, protections and privileges denied couples like us only because we happen to be gay.

When I told my mom that John and I were getting married, she congratulated us and said “Great, so he should be able to sponsor you.” See, thanks to the vagaries of the U.S. immigration system, I still do not have a green card. Even though I consider the United States my home, have lived here legally for several years, and in my heart know that I am as American as my native born cousins, I have no recourse but to wait for my mother’s sponsorship to come through which will take many more years unless the immigration system is reformed. I explained to my mom that because immigration is a federal matter, John will not be able to sponsor me for legal permanent residency. Our D.C. same-sex union is not recognized by the U.S. government. However, if we were a different-sex couple, then I could count on a green card before the year is over. But I cannot.

We are not asking for special rights; we are only asking for equal rights. I ask Congress to please stand on the side of love with my family by passing comprehensive immigration reform and provide equality under the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Thank you.

Photo by Bill Kotsatos

Monday, April 12, 2010

Focus on our families

Originally posted on DC Agenda

On Saturday, the Metro D.C. chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays held its 13th annual gala at a hotel downtown. The theme was “A Family Celebration” and one of the speakers said that the conservative group Focus on the Family was having its own event at the hotel.

If that were the case, it would have been interesting to juxtapose both gatherings and see what each organization celebrates.

Focus on the Family upholds a narrower definition of family — a married man and woman plus their children. It not only excludes LGBT families, but pretty much a majority of American families since the “traditional family” only accounts for fewer than a quarter of all households. The fact of the matter is that there is now a diversity of family structures in the country, yet the fabric of society has pretty much remained intact.

PFLAG, on the other hand, celebrates a broader view of families. It promotes the equality and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, their families and friends. It does so by providing support to cope with a society that diminishes the worth of queer folk; by educating an ill-informed public; and by advocating for an end to discrimination and for equal rights. In 21 years, the Metro D.C. chapter has touched many lives, even saving some.

Personal stories were shared at the gala. Bill Briggs, the local PFLAG chapter’s executive director, told the audience about the call he received while preparing his speech that afternoon. A 70-year-old grandmother asked what she can do to support her teenage granddaughter who had just come out.

A representative from an accounting firm that was being honored for its workplace diversity efforts recounted how she had become a staunch straight ally. Thanks to her collaboration with PFLAG, she realized how her own words and actions toward LGBT people are mirrored by her small daughters. She was delighted when one of the little girls came home and declared that she was going to marry her friend Genevieve. The woman knew that she was doing right by her children and was making a difference in the world.

A father of two gay men shared how he came to ask himself how he could possibly stand idly by as his boys are denied basic rights. He recalled an uncle of his who was an “eternal bachelor,” a World War II vet, and an avid antiques collector. His uncle was a proud and independent man who had to move in with his sister at the end of his life because he had no family of his own. The speaker decided that his gay sons would have a better life. He has made it his mission to fight for equality.

More stories were shared by the banquet guests amongst themselves. A woman at my table volunteered how her mother had expressed outrage at Jesse Helm’s callous treatment of lesbians and gays. She knew then that coming out to her God-fearing Southern mom would turn out okay and it did. A gentleman shared how he never had the chance to come out to his parents even though they had known and loved his partner.

Although most of us have formed our own extended families with other LGBT people and straight friends who wholeheartedly accept us, we have to admit that nothing equals the articulated acceptance, support and love from our biological families, no matter how dysfunctional they may be. It makes a difference to hear, “We love you and are proud of you.” As we raise our own families, having our parents and siblings in our lives makes a difference. We feel whole again, we feel as if we have come full circle.

Moreover, there are no stronger advocates than family members who speak on our behalf. Think of Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, who was killed for being gay. Thanks in part to their tireless efforts, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act was finally signed into law last year. Think of Brian Burke, the U.S. National Ice Hockey Team’s general manager who took up LGBT advocacy after his gay son died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

There are smaller but no less significant actions, like a man with a gay father who challenges other patrons at a bar for using homophobic slurs. Or the brother who defends his lesbian sister from bullies. Or the aunt who takes in her gay nephew after he’s kicked out from his home by his dad for coming out.

Sadly, not all of us have our families in our lives, but with times changing and with groups like PFLAG working on our behalf, perhaps things will get better for many of us and our families.

You can follow me on Twitter @ErwindeLeon.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Why we didn’t have a big fat gay wedding

Originally posted on DC Agenda

When my husband and I applied for a marriage license at the D.C. Marriage Bureau last month, we knew that we were not going to have a big party. We had pretty much decided that it was just going to be just the two of us and whoever officiates at our civil ceremony. We didn’t even decide on what we were wearing until the morning of our appointment.

After all, we have been together for more than 11 years — and for all intents and purposes had considered ourselves as committed as the next married couple. Besides, there were costs that we had no interest in incurring. And we knew full well that though we would be protected within Washington, D.C., our married status would not mean much at the federal level.

We would still feel the need to carry our wills and health care proxies when visiting my in-laws in North Carolina. More importantly, as a bi-national couple, we would not gain the immigration privileges automatically bestowed upon opposite-sex couples that get married at church, city hall or Las Vegas. My husband would not be able to sponsor me for a green card even though we have been together for over a decade, pay taxes and do our share for our community.

Yesterday was not going to be a big deal. We were going down to D.C. Superior Court, stand in front of a city employee, go through a script and make our relationship official in the District.

But to our surprise, it was a big deal. My husband didn’t sleep much the night before and walking to the Moultrie Courthouse, I did my best to temper my enthusiasm. During the marriage service, we were giddy as we articulated what until then had been a tacit agreement — that we would be wedded spouses, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

The reaction from our families and friends has been overwhelming. Unlike the awkward silence that followed my announcement seven years ago that John and I had become domestic partners in New York, my mom this time around joyfully congratulated us when I told her about our plans. My brother in law — who had at one time said he didn’t understand “what the big deal is” around marriage equality — called to express how happy he was for us. Messages continue to stream in through Facebook.

Although we both thought that the officiant was being hokey when he warned us that we would be transformed, he was right. Our union might not be recognized by the United States government and it might be frowned upon by some people but guess what? We are married. And no one can ever take that away from us.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Rewind: Compare and contrast

Originally posted on DC Agenda

Today’s story in the Washington Post about a group of gay and trans Iranian refugees reminds me of how far we’ve come in securing our rights.

While we yawn at news of the latest celebrity coming out and are unimpressed by poll results showing that a majority of Americans are fine with having a gay president or Supreme Court justice, the Iranians savor their new found freedom in a conservative Turkish city.

Nonetheless, we still have a long road ahead. Take for example, the unnecessary and messy slog to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which generated some attention this week.

Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates had outlined new measures that would make it harder to discharge enlisted lesbians and gays, and made it very clear that the discriminatory law will be repealed, a few top generals have been running interference, hoping to stop the inevitable and exposing their desperation for the old order to remain intact.

Retired NATO commander and former senior Marine officer John Sheehan was forced to write a letter of apology after recklessly and disingenuously using the horrific Srebrenica genocide as an argument for not allowing openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve in the armed forces. He had testified at a Senate hearing last month that Dutch United Nations troops failed to prevent the massacre because they had homosexuals in their ranks.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon of the U.S. Army was slapped on the wrist for submitting an unsolicited letter to Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper. He brazenly advocated for his personal stance, writing, “It is often stated that most servicemembers are in favor of repealing the policy. I do not believe that is accurate. I suspect many servicemembers, their families, veterans and citizens are wondering what to do to stop this ill-advised repeal of a policy that has achieved a balance between a citizen’s desire to serve and acceptable conduct. Now is the time to write your elected officials and chain of command and express your views. If those of us who are in favor of retaining the current policy do not speak up, there is no chance to retain the current policy.”

And the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, threw a dud by proclaiming that he would not force straight Marines to share rooms with gay service members when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed. If the general paused for a minute to think about it, with about 65,000 lesbians, gays and bisexuals serving in our armed forces, it is most likely that straight and gay marines are already sharing quarters with no adverse affect on morale or unit cohesion.

Finally, Army Secretary John McHugh said that he would not discharge any gay personnel who came out to him, only to backtrack a day later, claiming that he misspoke. He now warns soldiers that they can still be dismissed if they do tell.

Aside from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the other piece of legislation which has been introduced in every Congress, except the 109th, since 1994: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Although Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) expects the bill to come up for a vote on the House floor sometime soon and is confident that it will pass, the Senate will not act on the measure, effectively punting ENDA to the next Congress. Again.

And not even in serious contention is the Uniting American Families Act, which would permit partners and spouses of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to obtain green cards much like spouses of straight citizens and legal permanent residents.

Learning about the dire and often deadly straits of LGBT people in other parts of the world puts things in perspective. We do have it better. But we are hardly full citizens in a nation where all are supposed to be equal.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.