Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking back at LGBT gains and ahead at challenges

As the year ends and along with it Democratic dominance, now is a good time to take stock of progress made by the Obama administration and 111th Congress on behalf of LGBT civil rights, spurred by queer activists, advocacy groups, bloggers and allies.

In the foreseeable future, with the Republican and Tea Parties at the reins of Congress and all politicians eyeing the 2012 elections, no federal legislation or initiative that promotes equality for queer people can be expected.

In October 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was enacted. The bill expanded the existing federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

A week ago, President Obama signed into law the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the odious Clinton-era policy that barred lesbians and gays from serving openly in the armed forces.

In between these two landmark civil rights legislation, the 22-year HIV/AIDs immigration ban was lifted; the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program was extended; the Family and Medical Leave Act was expanded to include gay employees taking unpaid leave to care for their children; domestic violence protections was redefined to include LGBT victims; benefits were extended to same-sex partners of federal employees; diplomatic passports and other benefits were issued to the partners of gay foreign service employees; job discrimination based on gender identity was banned throughout the federal government; and the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development were instructed to allow LGBT visitation rights and counter LGBT housing discrimination respectively.

The Obama administration also reversed a Bush-era policy, signing a United Nations declaration that calls for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Last week, the U.S. government worked to reinstate a reference to sexual orientation in a U.N. resolution that condemned extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions (the General Assembly’s human rights committee had removed the reference from last month). U.N. Ambassador Rice also successfully advocated for the accreditation of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Since taking office, President Obama has appointed more openly LGBT officials – about 150 agency heads, commission members, policy officials and senior staffers – than any previous administration. He is the first president to release LGBT Pride proclamations and host an LGBT Pride Month celebration in the White House. He bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King, the same honorific bestowed on Rosa Parks.

No matter what one thinks of Mr. Obama, his administration and his party, it cannot be denied that progress has been had. Nonetheless, many of us are justified in protesting that often our fierce advocate seemed absent and when a few of us bravely held his feet to the fire – as he had requested – had the audacity to scold.

Most of all, while some lesbians and gays benefit from the administration’s initiatives, most of us do not. Certainly not those at the margins – transgenders, queers of color and low-income LGBTs. Policies and promises that will truly make a difference in our lives remain unfulfilled: a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act; repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; and immigration reform which includes LGBT families.

Now is a good time to look back and acknowledge some gains but we have a long way to go.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It doesn't take much

John and I have reached that point in our lives when we really don't ask for anything for Christmas. This is not to say that we do not welcome or appreciate presents, we just don't want for much and are as grateful for a heartfelt greeting.

We did get a swell gift this year though. My brother-in-law and his wife gave us a cookbook. Beautiful as it is, it is the inscription inside that made us smile and be grateful.

Our families have come around on this "gay thing" for the most part though it was not too long ago that they'd sooner not discuss "it." We know you're gay and we know you're together but let's just not talk about it.

So we cherish what was written in the inside cover:
To John & Erwin,

Please come home for some good cooking.

Frank Stitt
We don't know Frank Stitt and have not been to his restaurant in Birmigham, Alabama, but my brother-in-law has. And the thought that Scott went up to the chef and asked him to dedicate the book to John AND Erwin, well, that certainly keeps us coming home to North Carolina and family.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ask, Tell and Dream

Last Saturday was bittersweet for gay immigrants. The Senate voted to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – the Clinton-era policy which barred gay troops from serving openly – while dashing any hope of passing the DREAM Act, which would have paved a way to citizenship for millions of foreign-born youth who are no less American than their native-born cousins.

Progress in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights should nonetheless be celebrated, not only by the LGBT community and its allies but by immigrant communities too. Certainly those among us who straddle both groups have some reason to cheer.

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” discriminated against lesbians and gays, some of whom are foreign-born or second generation immigrants. Its demise offers an opportunity for immigrant communities to see and take pride in their gay daughters and sons who defend their country with honor, honesty and integrity. The work and collaboration required to finally repeal the policy show how minority communities partner for shared goals.

The Immigration Policy Center reports that about 115,000 foreign‐born women and men serve in the U.S. armed forces – eight percent of the 1.4 million military personnel on active duty. The Migration Policy Institute adds that among these immigrant troops, 23 percent are Filipino; 10 percent are Mexican; 5 percent are Jamaican; 3 percent are Korean; and 2.5 percent are Dominican.

Under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” women and minorities were disproportionately affected. Among the 619 troops discharged in 2008, 209 were women and 279 were minorities.

Lt. Dan Choi is perhaps one of the most outspoken advocates against the discriminatory policy and an exemplar for gays and immigrants alike. The son of Korean immigrants, he served in Iraq as an Arabic translator and jeopardized his military career for principles imbued by his family and the military.

Choi and other out service members of color have challenged notions immigrants might have about gay people. They have also inspired many Americans, newcomers and native-born, young and old. Now more lesbian and gay soldiers will be able to set examples and change hearts and minds within their own ethnic communities.

Along with many other members of the LGBT community, Choi also advocates for immigrant rights. Indeed, major LGBT groups have rallied alongside immigrant rights groups and vice-versa. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has ended because of the hard work and support of allies of the LGBT community.

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates supports passing the DREAM Act, for “military readiness,” just as he encouraged the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Full equality for LGBTs and immigrants has a way to go, but together progress can and will happen by being open to each other and marching forward shoulder-to-shoulder.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, an immigration news website featuring the work of immigrant journalists from across the U.S.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Why L, G & Bs should care about Ts

Amanda Simpson, one of President Obama's 150 or so LGBT appointees, reminds lesbians, gays and bisexuals why they should care about transgender issues.

She was a panelist at the woman's roundtable in this year's International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference, during which she decried the missing outrage over the persecution and decimation of a segment of the community. She asked how many of those present in the ballroom - elected officials, organizational leaders and activists - knew of the staggering murder rate of transgenders.

Transgender Europe reports that from 2008 to 2009, 121 trans women and men were reported murdered worldwide. One reported murder every three days. Human Rights Campaign estimates that in the United States, at least 15 transgender people are killed each year in hate-based attacks. Both groups stress that their numbers most likely underestimate the reality, based on trans people's common fear of going to the police and widespread misreporting.

Simpson points out that transgender oppression is lesbian, gay and bisexual oppression as well. She reasons that discrimination against us is not due to gender orientation - being gay or bisexual - but on gender expression. After all, she says, "we don't wear orientation on our sleeves." Others identify us as queers because we don't look, act or speak "straight."

People, queer and straight, are targeted because they are gender non-conforming. We are picked out and upon because of our gender expression which often does not conform with what society expects of our assigned gender. Girls who are deemed butch and boys who are judged effeminate are bullied by their peers.

Simpson also reminds us that gender non-conforming people have always been the ones who storm the gates of exclusion. The Compton Cafeteria riot of 1966 and the Stonewall riot of 1969 were led by transgender people who had enough. She quoted earlier speakers who attribute the burgeoning LGBT movement in India to hijras who courageously express their gender and fight for their proper place in society.

Personally, this brings to mind Filipino baklas and tibos who are at the forefront of the movement in the predominantly Roman Catholic Southeast Asian nation. Earlier this year, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled against the country's Commission on Elections which had disqualified Ang Ladlad, an LGBT-rights group, as an official political party.

Simpson is right in spotlighting the lack of concern among most of us for our transgender sisters and brothers. We need to realize that we have much in common and at stake with those among us who bravely choose to be themselves and not conform.

You can follow me on Twitter @ErwindeLeon.