Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Interview with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake


“We must be diligent in protecting all people”


With the Mayor at the 2012 Creating Change Conference
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been a longtime ally to Baltimore’s LGBT community. From her proclamations in support of LGBT Pride to her staunch backing of marriage equality, the Mayor has consistently been there for us.  She recently won an ICON award at Baltimore Black Pride’s 11th annual gala in recognition of her contributions to the LGBT community. 

The Mayor has graciously set aside time from her busy schedule to speak with Gay Life on a wide range of issues.  They include: performing the first same-sex wedding ceremony in Baltimore,  homelessness among LGBT youth, non-discrimination based on gender identity and expression, her thoughts on the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance, bullying in schools, what the city is doing to help curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a personal message to our community.
Steve Charing: Madam Mayor, on October 12 you received special recognition from Baltimore Black Pride as part of the organization’s 11th annual ICON Awards gala.  How do you feel about that honor?

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: As an avid supporter of the LGBT community and a champion for equal rights for all, I am extremely humbled to have received the ICON award. It gives me great pleasure to be the first elected official to attend Baltimore Black Gay Pride.  It’s important for the LGBT community to know that they have the support of their government and political leaders, who took an oath to defend the rights and freedoms of every citizen.  I take that oath seriously and I’m very humbled to know the community is appreciative of those efforts.  I look forward to working in partnership to accomplish much more.
SC:  You have been one of the most popular elected officials among the LGBT community—from your recognition of and your participation in Pride celebrations to your unwavering support of marriage equality.  Was there any one person or event that led to your involvement in our community?

MSRB: The concept of civil rights for all was instilled in me from a very young age. It is an innate part of me and has made me the person who I am today. It was and still is, a part of my family’s belief system. If any person's rights are being denied based on race, creed, ethnicity, gender identification and expression, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religious beliefs, or national origins, then it affects all of us.
Marriage Equality ensures that our LGBT brothers and sisters can express their love in the same way as everyone else. I applaud Maryland residents for voting for Marriage Equality. Hopefully, we can inspire other states across our great nation to do the same.

SC:  How fulfilling was it to you to have officiated one of the first, if not the first, same-sex marriage ceremony at City Hall on New Year’s Eve?
MSRB: Words cannot express my feelings. I was beyond elated to officiate the City’s first official same-sex marriages at midnight on New Year’s Day in City Hall. It was beautiful, amazing, loving, and gave me a sense of pride knowing that same-sex couples, including one of my staff members and his significant other, were able to be married legally. It was an historic moment in my career that I will always cherish.

SC:  Even with the success of achieving marriage equality, there is clearly more work to be done.  One such problem is the issue of homelessness among LGBT youth.  There is strong evidence that LGBT youth comprise a disproportionate number of all homeless youth with many of these being rejected by family members because of who they are.  What steps can the city take to address this issue?
MSRB: It breaks my heart, in general, to know about the many challenges that our homeless residents face. It is even more heart breaking when it involves our LGBT youth. They face extra challenges, such as being rejected by their own families like you mentioned. My administration is aware of the many barriers that they face and we are working to create a safe place where youth can receive services, as there are several non-profit agencies willing to collaborate with the City to help address the concerns of our LGBT homeless youth. I look forward to these collaborations to meet this urgent and critical need here in Baltimore.

My Administration is focused on ending homeless in Baltimore all together. I am excited to have Adrienne Breidenstine join my team recently as the director of The Journey Home, Baltimore’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. It is my desire that everyone have a roof over his or her head each and every night.
SC:  In addition to potential rejection by family members, a good number of LGBT youth experience harassment and bullying.  Baltimore City Public Schools has a mechanism in place to curtail bullying.  Are there any other measures that can be implemented to alleviate this problem?

MSRB: I believe that knowledge is power. I think that much can be gained by taking the time to educate people that are not accepting of the culture because they are merely unfamiliar with it. Having been a public defender for 10 years, I know that we must be very diligent in protecting all people, especially our youth who suffer discrimination and abuse because of their sexual identity. We must continue to change people’s attitudes. My Administration will continue to work to ensure respect and dignity for all.
SC:   In 2002 Baltimore City was the first of four jurisdictions in the state to enact protections based on gender identity and expression.  It appears that the experience in Baltimore and the three counties has not been problematic for the public.  How can we use this experience to achieve a statewide law?

MSRB: Hopefully, other counties in Maryland can look at Baltimore City and the counties that followed our lead as prime examples of the importance to protect all of our residents. Too many people have been denied the right of being treated with fairness and dignity because of gender identity and expression. I have faith that once people recognize the many positive contributions of the community, local and state laws will reflect a positive change toward equality.
SC: The 15th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance is coming up on November 20.  As you know, it began as a memorial to trans woman Rita Hester who was murdered in 1998 and now it serves to memorialize those who have died at the hands of anti-transgender hatred and violence.  Please share your thoughts on this occasion.

MSRB: Transgender Day of Remembrance is extremely important. It gives transgender individuals and LGBT community advocates an opportunity to raise public awareness about this special group of people, bring attention to crimes against them and honor the memories of those whose lives ended due to issues relating to their sexual identity or expression. Transgender people deserve love and respect. Therefore, each year on November 20th, I take time to think about and honor the victims of violence rooted in hate.
SC: Recognizing there has been progress in combating HIV, the epidemic continues.  Given the climate of tight budgets, what more can the city do to stem the tide of HIV?

MSRB: That's a great question. It's 2013 and we still face many challenges in combating HIV here in Baltimore City and across the globe. The Baltimore City Health Department, along with numerous non-profit agencies, has been doing a tremendous job of reaching out to our most vulnerable communities. Highly accessible mobile testing centers provide free and confidential testing throughout the City. However, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Government alone cannot do it. With the support of the community leaders, the faith-based community and caring residents, we can win the fight. Just like the Phoenix Bird, we will rise again and beat HIV!
SC: In light of our achievements politically, the growing movement towards acceptance in our society and the problems that still need to be solved, what message would you like to send to Baltimore’s LGBT community?

MSRB: First of all, I want to applaud the LGBT community for their perseverance and strength to withstand the challenges they face on a daily basis. The LGBT community inspires and gives me hope that our society can overcome fear and bigotry with love, compassion and understanding. Continue to be the beacon of strength. Together, we are strong. Apart we are weak. I know at the end of the rainbow, there is something more valuable than gold and that is love.

 

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