Monday, May 24, 2010

Unity is possible

Originally posted on Washington Blade

It has always been a challenge getting us together. Our differences — whether sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, or priorities — often get in the way of working together towards our shared dream of full rights and equality.

But last Saturday, the 11th Annual Pride & Heritage Celebration showed that we can get together in spite of our differences.

The Pride & Heritage Coalition is comprised of local Asian Pacific Islander LGBT organizations. Eleven years ago, the leaders of Asian/Pacific Islander Queer Sisters, Asian/Pacific Islander Queers United for Action, KhushDC and the D.C. chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum gathered and decided that it was in their best interests to collaborate and promote the welfare of LGBT Asians. In time, these women and men realized that beneath the surface, they shared much in common and enjoyed working and socializing with each other.

This commonality and camaraderie was in full display at the Pride & Heritage reception. Crammed into a church hall were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of South Asian, Central Asian, East Asian and Southeast Asian descent. Sprinkled in the crowd were straight allies, significant others and family members, as well as a few African Americans, Latinos and whites. The main performer was Kit Yan, the reigning Mr. Transman, known for his slam poetry. Honored that evening was Ben de Guzman, co-director of the National Queer API Alliance, an LGBT activist and Filipino American community leader.

What originally brought these people and groups together — and keeps their coalition strong — is their minority status. Brian Wang, a coalition leader, recounted how he was shocked to learn that Asian faces are scarce in Washington. He had moved here from California, where Asian Pacific Americans are the largest minority. Krishnan, a board member of KhushDC, explained that the South Asian group was formed to provide a safe space for queer South Asians. And Iimay Ho emphasized the importance of groups formed specifically for queer Asian women.

LGBT Asian Pacific Islander leaders also work at maintaining their bond. Earlier on Saturday, the association held its first community retreat. Community organizers and activists convened to strengthen personal relationships and strategize next steps for the coalition.

Perhaps the wider LGBT community can learn from Pride & Heritage. Unity is possible. Difficult yes, but not impossible. In spite of all our differences, as queer people we are the minority. We need each other to win the fight for our rightful place in society. Given the chance, we might even discover that we can get along after all.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

UAFA Update

Originally posted on Washington Blade

The Uniting American Families Act, which seeks to end inequalities in current U.S. immigration laws that leave lesbian and gay Americans unable to sponsor a partner or spouse for residency, is particularly important to bi-national families and their supporters. So when Immigration Equality held a conference call last Friday to share the latest developments on efforts to pass the bill, it drew a crowd.

But Julie Kruse, Immigration Equality’s policy director, confirmed things aren’t looking good for the bill. Due to the current political climate in which incumbents fear retaliation from their constituents, and the fact that Congress’ working days are numbered, no movement on immigration legislation is expected until after November. It’s more likely that financial regulation and climate change will be tackled in the months ahead.

Kruse said in an e-mail, though, she’s not ready to throw in the towel. She noted that recent developments such as Arizona’s anti-immigrant law have been game-changers in recent days on Capitol Hill.

She wrote that “there is a window of opportunity, albeit a short one, to tackle this issue this year. And there are champions in Congress who are pushing for that to happen. The chances of legislation passing before the mid-term elections grow slimmer the longer Congress delays action. But the important thing for our grassroots, and your readers, to know is this: It is imperative that we keep up the pressure on lawmakers until they do act. Now is the time to be outspoken and to urge lawmakers to tackle this issue.”

Another game changer has been the immigration reform framework released by Sens. Harry Reid, Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez at the end of April. It includes key provisions of the Uniting American Families Act which puts bi-national gay couples and their advocates in a good position.

“We are no longer supplicants,” Kruse said. “We are no longer asking to be included.”

Proponents of UAFA now have the psychological and strategic upper hand. Procedurally, it will be harder to amend or take out pro-LGBT language so long as our allies remain in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Democrats have control of the Senate.

A participant during the teleconference raised a concern many of us share: the undue influence Roman Catholic bishops and other conservative leaders have on our legislators. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed its concerns over the inclusion of gay couples in the Reid-Schumer-Menendez framework, it has not come out swinging as it did over abortion funding in the health care bill. Bishop John Wester, head of the Bishops’ committee on migration, has been quoted as saying, “It is way too early to say what is or not a deal breaker. I do feel, however, that this provision represents an emotional and long debated issue that should not be in this bill. We have worked long and hard on immigration reform and this will make the job all the more difficult.”

Moreover, Kruse contends that if the Catholic bishops were to oppose immigration reform, they’d be hard pressed to explain to their millions of followers, many Latino and foreign-born, why they are sacrificing the well-being of these faithful over a measure of equality to far fewer same-sex couples.

Kruse notes that it’s important to remember that “there is a large, diverse coalition of religious leaders — including those from the Methodist, Episcopalian, Jewish and other communities — who continue to champion an inclusive immigration reform measure. The people of faith who support us far out-number those who oppose us. Those faith communities understand, as we hope the bishops and evangelicals will in the end, that an immigration reform bill which helps millions of families can be inclusive of LGBT families, too.”

Immigration reform legislation will happen, and as long as we keep the momentum, it will include our families. We need to be vigilant; to continue putting pressure on senators and representatives; to support groups like Immigration Equality; to work with other leaders and organizations in the immigration reform movement; and to make sure that pro-LGBT and pro-immigrant candidates win in November.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Safe spaces for LGBT youth

Originally posted on Washington Blade

At the beginning of this week, the Baltimore Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center’s plans for an LGBT youth center were revealed. Scheduled to open this fall, the center will offer mentoring, health education and other services tailored for younger members of our community.

Andrew Ansel, programs manager for Baltimore’s Center, explained the need for a safe space for young LGBT: “Youth are coming out at a lot younger ages. It is becoming less stigmatizing, but there are still a lot of challenges. It is still very difficult to come out in high school.” Moreover, Ansel reports that the city’s youth centers and facilities tend to not be “gay-friendly.”

Indeed, although television shows like “Glee” and “Ugly Betty” depict gay boys who are for the most part embraced by their families and schoolmates, the reality is many young queers are not as fortunate. The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network reports that nine out of 10 LGBT middle school and high school students experience harassment at school, and three out of five feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. This translates into poor academic performance. The grade point average of students who are more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression is almost half a grade lower than for students who are less often harassed.

LGBT youth centers provide a place for adolescents and teens to congregate after school, where they can be themselves, free from harassment and intimidation. These spaces can also be life savers for teens who have run away or been thrown out by their parents after coming out.

An Urban Institute report estimates the runaway population to be anywhere from 1.6 million to 2.8 million. As the report points out, “running away from home puts youth at risk of violence, crime, drugs, prostitution, HIV and other STDs, and other health problems. … Runaway youth are not only likely to perpetrate crimes and engage in delinquent behaviors, they are also likely to have been victimized at home and to experience additional victimization once they leave home.”

It is safe to assume that a considerable portion of these runaways are queer and homeless. As the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s report on runaway and homeless LGBT youth found, a stunning 20 to 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. That means there are hundreds of thousands of vulnerable LGBT kids.

The CenterLink Community Center Directory lists 192 LGBT community centers in the U.S. and that 85 percent of these centers offer services tailored for LGBT youth. This is welcome information. But is it enough? Do LGBT youth and their advocates know where these oases are?

We need to support and open more centers that welcome and provide safe spaces for our youth. LGBT kids should know that there are places where they can take respite and, when necessary, refuge.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

LGBT Intimate Partner Violence

Originally posted on Washington Blade

The tragic death this week of a University of Virginia student at the hands of her ex-boyfriend brought to the fore problems of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, which plagues not only straight couples but queer people.

The abuse and murder of Yeardly Love reminded me of family members and friends who have been and are being tortured by their spouses and partners.

The type of abuses — physical, verbal, emotional, psychological and financial — and degree of violence inflicted on my friends by their partners vary, but the stories are the same. They gradually lose their personality and confidence and eventually cut off all ties.

“We had plenty of good times,” says a friend, now freed from his tormentor, but still rationalizing the situation. “He had an addiction problem … he had his demons.” Another says, “He’s really a sweet guy most of the time … he just refuses to find a job,” which does nothing to help pay the mortgage, daily expenses, student loans and mounting credit card debt. Another person doesn’t think she can do any better than her current partner who flaunts other girlfriends.

Amnesty International USA reports that intimate partner battering occurs at about the same percentage in same- and opposite-sex relationships: about one in three partners experience the problem. And the abuse crosses race, age, class and socio-economic lines.

There are specific tactics batterers use in same-sex relationships to exercise power and control over their victims. They can threaten outing their partners to family members, employers or congregations. For people with undocumented partners, abusers can use the fear of deportation to silence the abused. Perpetrators of intimate partner violence can also reinforce fears that no one will help because of our sexual orientation or identity. Some abusers even insidiously argue that their behavior is a normal part of being queer — or an expression of masculinity.

Victims of LGBT intimate partner abuse unfortunately receive fewer protections and services. Many LGBT people are denied access to emergency shelters, medical treatment, financial assistance, counseling, job training, legal services and many other services that are routinely prescribed to battered women. Six states have laws that preclude victims of same-sex abuse from obtaining domestic violence protective orders.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a collection of programs that document and advocate for victims, adds that domestic violence services are often “fraught with potentials for re-victimization that pivots on homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism.”

Violence and abuse in same-sex relationships is a serious problem that needs to be discussed and addressed. Individually, we can persist in being present to abused friends and family members. We can say something if we see something. As a community, we can support organizations and programs that provide LGBT-specific domestic abuse services, document incidents of violence and advocate for victims.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.