Friday, January 23, 2009

Snubs Aside, Obama Will Do Right by Us




By Steve Charing


On the road to the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, there had been great hope accumulating throughout the LGBT community that for the first time, a U.S. President will be on our side.

That road had hit a speed bump when Barack Obama selected anti-gay Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural’s Invocation. Team Obama underestimated the strong reaction by gay activists that was carried in the mainstream media.

But the president-elect did not back down. This episode sullied the inauguration celebration and gave pause to what I believe is a monumental shift in the struggle for LGBT rights.

There were other missteps as well. Candidate Obama had allowed gospel singer Donnie McLurkin—an anti-gay, ex-gay—to join him during the South Carolina primary campaign. Mr. Obama then apologized.

Candidate Obama maintained his opposition to same-sex marriage during the Saddleback Church interviews conducted by none other than Rick Warren.

Candidate Obama did not forcefully speak out against Proposition 8 that snatched marriage rights already granted to thousands of same-sex couples in California.

No openly gay or lesbian had been appointed to a cabinet-level position.

The inaugural committee somehow botched up the schedule, which kept openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson’s speech from being heard by millions of HBO viewers.

Yet despite all these snubs, President Obama should be a champion for LGBT folks unlike any other president in history. Hopefully, we can, from here on out, praise the new president instead of criticizing him.

The euphoria that enveloped the nation and the world leading up to and including the days immediately following the historic inauguration will last longer than most. Given these turbulent times, that’s saying something. While some LGBT activists bemoaned the fact we were never mentioned during the 20-minute inaugural address, that’s quite alright. It wasn’t the place or the time.

President Obama emphasized accountability in government during the speech. The days immediately following the inauguration, he immediately demonstrated that.

His swift actions on closing trials at Guantanamo, issuing ethics orders, meeting as promised with his top military brass to end the war in Iraq and other measures signified to me that he will keep his campaign pledges.

And President Obama followed through with his campaign promises to the lgbt community by posting, in fairly good detail, his positions on most of the issues that are important to the lgbt community to the official White House website, whitehouse.gov.

He called the section "Supporting the LGBT Community," and he quoted himself as a preamble: "While we have come a long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969, we still have a lot of work to do. Too often, the issue of LGBT rights is exploited by those seeking to divide us. But at its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans. It's about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect." -- Barack Obama, June 1, 2007

Beautiful words indeed.
The issues covered include: Expand Hate Crimes Statutes, Fight Workplace Discrimination, Support Full Civil Unions and Federal Rights for LGBT Couples, Oppose a Constitutional Ban on Same-Sex Marriage, Repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell, Expand Adoption Rights, Promote AIDS Prevention, Empower Women to Prevent HIV/AIDS.

This is freakin’ huge!

No president has even come close to outlining his positions on lgbt rights, let alone favorable ones. True, President Obama hasn’t yet come around to support same-sex marriage; at least he opposes a federal constitutional amendment to define marriage to be between one man and one woman.

What is notable on the website, however, is his commitment to end DOMA—the nefarious Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. He had publicly indicated to lgbt activists during the primaries that he will not only repeal certain components of the law but will seek to repeal the entire measure.

President Obama’s position to confer over 1,100 federal benefits to same-sex couples either through civil unions or some form of partnership recognition will not be realized unless DOMA is eliminated. The law establishes a federal ban on same-sex marriage, which nullifies federal benefits and rights and permits states not to recognize same-sex marriages occurring in other states.

But as we collectively lick our chops at the prospects of these other issues going our way, we must be patient a bit longer. The economic crisis is a major challenge that must be dealt with, not to mention restoring a framework for peace throughout key hot spots in the world.

The president cannot and should not use his political capital on anything except getting his stimulus package through Congress. That’s the primary order of business.

In the past, the ill-advised expenditure of political good will was damaging. President Clinton misfired when he attempted in 1993 to end gays in the military unilaterally—a campaign pledge in its own right. A significant portion of the military, including the top brass, as well as many in Congress, distrusted Clinton on military matters. This was mainly as a result of his evading service during the Vietnam era and a generally tepid amount of warmth towards him as he took office.

President Clinton miscalculated the opposition to the initiative, and we have been stuck with the absurd policy of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" since then.

President Obama has stated he will work to build a consensus on that and other LGBT-related initiatives. Give him time to do that. He needs to get our country back on track first.

But I am certain he will make good on his word. Don’t let the initial snubs diminish our hope for a brighter rainbow in the future.

Dwelling Below the Radar






The Plight of Baltimore’s Homeless LGBT Youth

By Steve Charing

They seemed to get along as well as any Baltimore family that has a 16 year-old. But when the religious mother and stepfather of Antoine Williams (not his actual name) discovered he was gay, they immediately put him out of the house.

Following the incident, the parents of one of Antoine’s friends allowed him to stay with them for the next six months. When that expired, Antoine lived on the streets until he ended up moving in with five other gay youth and an older 24 year-old gay male. They lived together in a single room—all six of them—migrating from a motel on North Avenue to another on Resisterstown Road.

To feed themselves and pay the motel charges, all of them became prostitutes on the streets of Baltimore. As a result, Antoine contracted several sexually transmitted diseases (STD) as well as HIV.

Two years later, Antoine’s parents allowed him to return to their house. They still didn’t get along. He then moved in with a much older male in Baltimore to whom he was dependent. It was a relationship that in order for Antoine to be housed and fed, the older man demanded sexual favors from him. Antoine was exploited.

A couple of years later, Antoine found his own place, and at 24 today, he seems to be doing relatively okay.

Notwithstanding Antoine’s HIV status and other physical and psychological issues, this is one of the better outcomes when a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered youth must confront the streets of Baltimore. That usually happens following a tumultuous family crisis generated by a parent forcing their child out of the house upon learning that he or she is LGBT or that they are so unaccepting of the child’s sexual orientation, the teen must run away to change the environment.

We perceive homeless people to be older and living on the streets, in doorways, alleys, abandoned houses and cars, under bridges and overpasses, sleeping on benches and grates and occasionally making their way into emergency shelters.

Indeed, according to the most recent census taken of the homeless population in January 2007 by Baltimore Homeless Services, a component of the Baltimore Health Department, four out of five homeless are over age 35. The factors causing adult homelessness are more likely to be economic-related or the result of mental, physical and substance abuse problems.

Living in the Shadows
Homeless teens who are unaccompanied (not part of a homeless family but are out on their own), including LGBT youth, also spend a significant time on the streets. But they are more apt to seek shelter with friends, extended family members, lovers, or occasional strangers like the ones Antoine met. This is referred to as "couch surfing"—finding any place to crash, however temporary, unstable, transitional and risky that may be.

"Homeless youth in Baltimore, ages 18 to 24, comprise the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population," says Nan Astone, a professor and faculty member at the center of Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

A significant number of the homeless youth aren’t captured by the census because so many are in these transitional environments (categorized as unstably housed). Since the census survey is conducted at a point in time when homeless congregate at shelters, soup kitchens and social service centers, on a given day there may not be homeless youth present at these locations to be counted.

Moreover, homeless young people, including LGBT youth, tend not to reach out for assistance at these centers either because they eschew such mainstream intervention, distrust adults, fear they may be placed in foster care, or they are not aware of the services available. They are simply hiding in many cases.

Accordingly, these youth are dwelling under the radar, and their population is woefully underestimated. That is critical when determining the magnitude of the problem.

The Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative (BHYI) with technical assistance from researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, conducted a parallel youth count in 2007 and found 272 unaccompanied minors and unstably housed young people under the age of 26 in Baltimore City. A majority of youth counted, 157 (58%), were between 16 and 19 years old. Of those counted, 145 (53%) were female, 108 (40%) were male, and 19 (7%) were transgender.
 
The Baltimore public school system estimates there are as many as 2,289 homeless young people in Baltimore.

In the BHYI survey, there is no breakdown in the statistics regarding sexual orientation other than the transgender category, and again, these are extremely conservative numbers given the lack of visibility of homeless young people.

(A BHYI-Bloomberg School census of homeless youth for 2009 was recently undertaken, but the findings will not be available for several months.)

Forced to the streets
A National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report estimates that one third of American homeless youth are LGBT. Nicholas Ray, the author of the report says, "Ultimately …the crisis begins with family conflict and institutionalized homophobia."

Many LGBT children who are thrown out of their houses (referred to as "throwaways") have been victims of parental physical abuse or family conflict. They lack basic resources, education, skills, or a plan for the future. Some try to attend school but struggle; others drop out altogether. It’s not easy to succeed in school when their next meal is uncertain.

The throwaways are vulnerable to criminal behavior, sometimes through gang involvement, as well as becoming victims of robbery, rape and assault. They are also exposed to many risks that lead to poor health—STD’s, including HIV, survival sex (sex in exchange for money, drugs or shelter), pregnancy, depression and are more prone to consider suicide than other homeless youth.

These family crises that result in being forced out can be largely traced to the religious views towards homosexuality by parents. Clearly if the parents of LGBT teens are more tolerant, the throwaway problem would be mitigated. The support organization PFLAG—Parents, Families of Friends of Lesbians and Gays—has had an on and off presence in Baltimore for years. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of interest by city parents to sustain the chapter, and the families of LGBT city youth are not being served.

"Too many parents of LGBT kids are confused and uninformed," said Colette Roberts, chairperson of the Howard County chapter of PFLAG. "I get many phone calls from parents in Baltimore who are unable to travel to our meetings, and the best I can do is mail them literature. While helpful, they need much more in the way of education and support than a mailing can provide."

Limited choices for LGBT Homeless
If and when these LGBT youth seek out a public shelter, straight kids are more likely to be treated better, according to Ross Pologe, a venerable advocate of Baltimore youth issues. Young LGBT people, especially males, are often subject to harassment and violence at these shelters. "We have so much baggage about sexual orientation in our society," Pologe laments.

Ross Pologe, who for 33 years has been associated with the Fellowship of Lights, a facility that had provided shelter for runaways, ages 12 to 18, works with BHYI. "LGBT youth who are kicked out of their homes are not likely to seek help. They need stable housing." He urges alternatives to foster care as a key to help solving this problem.

To be sure, foster care has not worked well in Baltimore, especially for LGBT teens. The conditions are often intolerable. Foster parents who are religious have tossed LGBT kids out. When they are in foster care the kids are frequently harassed or shunned, pushing them to run away to escape. On a given day, 100 youth are missing from the foster care system.

The numerous homeless teens who wind up in the juvenile justice system face even greater challenges in getting placed in acceptable foster care.

Support is scarce
Community youth activist Kenneth Morrison, who at 19, helped organize a support group called Kevon’s Room in 2004 for Baltimore City’s LGBQT youth ages 13 to 21. As stated on the group’s MySpace page, its mission was to make Baltimore City a safer place for LGBT youth.

"Baltimore's youth have enough issues from poverty and crime to the lack of adequate education. Being ostracized by your family and community should not be one of them," according to the statement on the page.

Kevon’s Room had about 220 members and worked with both gay community centers and churches. But the group disbanded in 2007 when homeless LGBT teens comprised over a third of all the kids. "There just are no resources for homeless gays. No safe place for gays," Morrison said plaintively. "There was nothing we can do."

"If there is a neglected, forgotten community in Baltimore, it is the dozens of homeless LGBT youth," said Aaron Merki, who along with other attorneys and law students, are in the process of establishing the Freestate Legal Clinic in Baltimore to address legal issues facing LGBT youth. "Often they are sick, malnourished, abandoned by friends and family, and forced to prostitute themselves in order to shower and eat."

As bad it is for gay and lesbians to find adequate shelter, the problem is more acute for the transgender youth. According to the BHYI census, 15 of the 19 (76%) transgender youth surveyed were unstably housed.

Attorney Lisa Kershner, who is another founder of Freestate, is appalled by the plight of transgendered youth. "[They] face discrimination, hate crimes, and for the many who are homeless, are even being shut of shelters and left to fend for themselves on the street where they are at even greater risk for abuse and violence," Kershner said.

Homeless LGBT youth require stable living conditions to overcome the long-term challenges they face. While Baltimore Homeless Services does a good job in trying to cope with adult homelessness, it does not have specific services geared towards homeless youth. Likewise, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore lacks a specific program that is dedicated to LGBT homeless youth.

Light at the end of the tunnel?
Without question inadequate funding had been a great impediment to area providers as is a true sense of the quantitative scope of the problem. However, the aforementioned Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative, which had conducted the parallel homeless census, is a collaboration of Government and community agencies trying to find better housing for youth for ages ranging from 14 to 24.

BHYI and other providers are attempting to create a building in the city’s Southern Park Heights neighborhood to house approximately 40 homeless youth. This housing opportunity, called Restoration Gardens, is expected to be available for occupancy this summer.

In Montgomery County there are plans afoot to establish a residential home dedicated to LGBT homeless youth. Hearts and Homes, a service organization for youth in need, is working with Equality Maryland, PFLAG, other organizations in the private sector as well as local government to make this possible. At the beginning, the residence is expected to have 6 to 8 beds.

Although the home will be situated in Montgomery County, youth from across the state can be referred to the home, says Carrie Evans, Director of Policy and Planning for Equality Maryland.
Several services will be offered. "We will provide 24-hour supervision with counselors, mentors, treatment, access to jobs and education," said Rex Smith who founded Hearts and Homes in 1964. "Besides housing them, we need to be teaching kids about their self-worth."

Lining up money for up-front costs is essential. "Our first order of business is raising the operating funds for the home, so we have formed a fundraising committee to devise a plan," said Evans. "Once we get some dedicated money we expect things to move forward quickly." A target date has been set for July 1.

"Homeless youth are not just younger forms of homeless adults," said Nan Astone.. "They are different in many, if not most, ways."

And LGBT homeless youth are different still and face greater challenges especially since they dwell below the radar.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ISO the Gay Barack Obama







We need a national leader who can unify community, win equality.

As Barack Obama ascended the Capitol steps to be sworn in as the nation’s 44th president, he will have a menu of problems not seen by any other president in history. Two foreign wars, an economy on the brink of collapse, environmental crises, the Mideast sitting on a powder keg, sniping from members of his own party, scandals all over the place—the list goes on and on.

But Mr. Obama, more than any other president in memory, has the potential to meet these challenges and threats with a good chance of success. Why? For starters he has the intelligence and vision required to steer the ship. He also has a mindset that emphasizes collaboration over confrontation, which is the first step in uniting a divided country. But most importantly he is a leader.

To effect change there must be leadership. Of course, Mr. Obama can draw on his near-mandate in the November election to press his case. But he also has the ability to go beyond simply pointing to the election numbers.

He inspires millions of people. His storybook and historic rise to the presidency was accomplished through his no-nonsense stewardship of his campaign and his extraordinary ability to communicate. If change does come, you can credit Mr. Obama for inspiring the masses using his innate ability to lift people up and mobilizing them to join in a movement.

Imagine if we had such a leader in the LGBT community.

No individual has yet to emerge who possesses the kind of charismatic qualities that can persuade, inspire and unite a diverse, fragmented and divided lgbt community. For example, we have seen Joe Solomnese, the head of the Human Rights Campaign—the nation’s largest LGBT political advocacy organization—attempt to lead the LGBT community during legislative battles in Congress, the Proposition 8 debacle, and the controversial selection of Pastor Rick Warren by Mr. Obama to deliver the Inauguration’s invocation.

Being the face of this large organization provides Mr. Solomnese with a platform to be such a leader. The problem is that the HRC (and by extension Mr. Solomnese) is viewed by many lgbt activists as nothing more than a fundraising machine with pricey, glittery, star-studded dinners with few legislative triumphs to boast. That subverts his leadership potential.

Mr. Solomnese and HRC do excellent work, and it is unfair to ignore their efforts to secure rights for gays and lesbians. Congress and the American people have been slow to come around to our cause, so success has been elusive. I don’t believe any individual and any lgbt organization would have been able to produce key legislative victories given the political and social climate over the past three decades.

There have been missteps to be sure. Mr. Solomnese’s unwise, highly publicized letter to Mr. Obama asking him to withdraw the selection of Rick Warren is a good example. He should have clearly known that the President-elect would not reverse his decision based on the demands of a leader of a gay rights organization. That lack of political sagacity set Mr. Solomnese up for immediate failure and raises the question, who then can ever be our leader?

That question remains unanswered after California’s passage of Prop 8. The immediate knee-jerk reaction by LGBT activists was to blame the voters, mainly African-Americans, for the failure to stop the referendum’s passage.

The blame game went on for weeks before there were reports that the individuals and organizations leading the fight against Prop 8 were incompetent or missing in action. Once again, it proves that if all you do is raise money and don’t know how to properly spend it, you are destined to fail—both in the results and in the perception of the folks you are trying to help.

The grossly inadequate outreach to people of color and seniors during the marketing phase stands out. Moreover, one of the "leaders" spent a month-long vacation during the prime time of the campaign. Other horror stories continue to surface about the execution of the "No to Prop 8" effort. Clearly, the leadership failures contributed significantly to the outcome.

Ineptitude and incompetence have impaired our ability to progress. The fallout from the Prop 8 mess exposed deep fissures within the gay population. Daunting as it might be, is there such a person with majestic communication skills who can successfully inspire, unify and lead our community? We would need a leader who can:

Help heal the ugly sore of racism that exists among gays and lesbians—on all sides.


Bridge the gender divide.


Lead young and old alike.


Recognize that fundraising is imperative but the community also includes people who cannot afford lavish events.


Gain the confidence of Congress, state legislatures and other elected officials, including our President, and work with them to achieve equality.


Engage in productive dialogue with clergy of all religions and denominations.


Embrace our transgendered friends and work hard to secure them the protections they deserve.

Those are the job requirements at a minimum. Now we need applicants. Is our Barack Obama out there?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Equality Maryland Outlines 2009 Legislative Agenda




"We’re in a good place legislatively"

By Steve Charing

Although the 2009 Maryland General Assembly will be intensely focused on a widening budget deficit amidst a weakening economy, Equality Maryland plans to advance a legislative agenda to achieve social and economic justice for the LGBT community. Several carryover initiatives from last year will form the core of Maryland’s largest civil rights organization’s efforts during the next few months.

The Gender Identity and Expression Anti-Discrimination Act will be at the forefront of the lobbying group’s priorities. The bill, which failed to emerge from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last year by one vote, is designed to add gender identity to state laws that already prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit based on factors, such as sexual orientation.

Kate Runyon, the new Executive Director of Equality Maryland, noted during a presentation at the January 13 general meeting of PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County that protections for transgendered people had won the support of Governor Martin O’Malley when he was Mayor of Baltimore. "So why not support it at the state level as well," Runyon asked. His leadership would be crucial in getting the measure out of committee and onto the floor for a debate and vote.

To underscore the priority Equality Maryland is placing on the transgender bill, the organization is scheduling a separate transgender rights Lobby Day session to take place in Annapolis on February 16.

The regularly scheduled Lobby Day will be held on February 2 with Equality Maryland focusing on people of faith. To amplify that theme, Bishop Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire, will be the primary speaker at the rally. "He will be speaking about the importance of LGBT people of faith, being families of faith, and standing up for equality and justice," said Runyon.

Besides Bishop Robinson, Kate Runyon, who had worked on a wide range of LGBT issues in Michigan before she replaced Dan Furmansky as the executive director of Equality Maryland, will speak at the rally, which begins at 4:30 p.m. at Lawyers Mall. Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane, the two lead plaintiffs in the unsuccessful lawsuit to end the ban on same-sex marriage in Maryland, will also address the crowd, as will several elected officials.

Equality Maryland is scaling back expectations regarding passage of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act during the upcoming session. According to Runyon, the goal is to work with people to increase sponsorship this year.

When asked if Equality Maryland may try to secure civil unions in the short-term given that there is broader consensus among the legislators for that and Governor O’Malley has signaled that he would sign the measure into law, Runyon said the organization would rather wait for a marriage bill to succeed.

Noting that civil unions fail to offer the same protections as full marriage, Runyon explained, "The political climate in Maryland is favorable for passage in a few years. With patience and by lining up the right people we will achieve full equal marriage."

Another bill that will be pushed by Equality Maryland deals with removing the costly inheritance tax on same-sex partners. The measure would add same-sex partners to those already exempted from paying inheritance taxes. Unless remedied, the tax liability upon the death of a partner could be very costly. "This is an area that we need more equality very quickly as well," said Runyon in front of 50 people attending the PFLAG meeting.

A new bill will be introduced that addresses the legal rights of co-parents. This "first-of-a kind" measure would allow a partner without a legal or biological relationship to a child to petition a court for custody and visitation rights for the child they have parented if the partners broke up.

Displaying a Midwestern folksy style aided by humorous anecdotes , Kate Runyon explained the best techniques to be used when lobbying legislators and how to win them over. She emphasized the need to be collegial and respectful as opposed to showing anger and being aggressive. "We should be gentle but firm and with a presence."

She also suggested that children of partners be brought to the lobbying sessions with the legislators because they can make a powerful impression. "Why can’t my Mommy marry my Mommy?"

More information about Lobby Day and the legislative session is at http://www.equalitymaryland.org/

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stonewall Democrats Setting up Shop in Baltimore




By Steve Charing


A cold, rainy January 7 night didn’t deter nearly 30 people from attending the first organizational meeting of the Baltimore chapter of the Stonewall Democrats. Co-founders Luke Clippinger and Daniel Ewald are in the process of establishing the chapter to join the 90 that already exist throughout the country.

Those attending the meeting downtown were racially diverse with a wide variety of backgrounds and ages. There were folks from Baltimore City as well as from Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.

"Given the bad weather, we were very pleasantly surprised to see that many people show up for this meeting," said Luke Clippinger one of the co-founders of the Baltimore group. Clippinger vowed to bring in people from Anne Arundel and Carroll counties by fostering a grassroots movement throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Stonewall Democrats is America's only grassroots Democratic LGBT organization. Its main objectives include educating the LGBT community about the differences between the political parties, mobilizing the lgbt community to get out to vote on Election Day for fair-minded Democrats, and standing up to Republicans when they attack lgbt rights and families. It had been founded by openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (MA) over 20 years ago.

The fledgling group in Baltimore, however, will concentrate their efforts on local issues and candidates. "There already is a Stonewall chapter in the D.C. suburbs that will eventually cover Southern Maryland," said Daniel Ewald, another co-founder. "Having a chapter in Baltimore will provide convenience to local residents and attract more members from this area."

One of the principal goals of the Baltimore chapter is to help elect lgbt and allied candidates to offices. Luke Clippinger, who was one of three Marylanders who helped draft the platform at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, explained, "We will provide actual training for people on what it takes to run for office, how to be good candidates, and how to raise money."

Moreover, the chapter plans to educate elected officials on LGBT issues, design a grassroots effort to attract the LGBT community, and persuade more people to become involved in politics. The grassroots strategy includes media outreach, web presence (already on Facebook) and developing events.

While the national Stonewall Democrats focuses on federal issues and working with members of Congress, the Baltimore chapter will direct its attention to state and local matters. "We will try to primarily affect the City Council and various county councils in the area regarding issues that are important to the LGBT community," said Daniel Ewald, who is also an officer in the Baltimore County Young Democrats.

The Baltimore chapter plans to work with the Maryland Democratic Central Committee on advancing lgbt causes and devising electoral strategies. Clippinger noted that Equality Maryland must be bipartisan in advocating LGBT initiatives because of the nature of the organization, but the chapter will work with the organization on policy and other matters.

The next meeting is scheduled for February 4 when the group will focus on a temporary board, review of the by-laws generated by the committee, and planning of an initial event. Once the by-laws and other administrative requirements are approved by the national organization, the Baltimore chapter will be officially a part of the Stonewall Democrats.

For more information about the Baltimore Stonewall Democrats, e-mail lukeclip@gmail.com.