Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving Turkeys to Carve Up

Thanksgiving offers a great opportunity to reflect on our blessings and bring those not as fortunate into forefront of our thoughts.  To be sure, from a personal standpoint I feel I’m blessed.  Regarding the accomplishments within our LGBT community to which I’ve dedicated a good portion my life, there have been blessings aplenty, which make me feel proud and fulfilled.

I’m proud that Baltimore achieved a perfect score in the Human Rights Campaign Metropolitan Equality Index that reflects myriad achievements on various levels to help bring our community to at least on par with the rest of the citizenry.  I am also elated that my state was wise enough to allow same-sex couples like ours to marry and finally be able to receive the benefits that marriage affords.  I am also happy that the state ended discrimination against my transgender friends this year by asserting that all of our citizens should not be subject to discrimination.

Thus, with the rainbow flags flying high and proud, this Thanksgiving brought into focus other areas of concern that afflict our communities. I don’t want to sound dour but there is a set of realities or turkeys that should also noted.
Around the same time HRC’s pat-on-the-back to Baltimore came out, GLSEN presented some disturbing news that indicates we’re not making sufficient progress in Maryland’s high schools when it comes to bullying and related issues.  In the report GLSEN’s survey revealed a staggering high percentage of secondary school students in Maryland who have heard taunts, name-calling and/or experienced various forms of bullying that are LGBT-oriented. 

Just as disappointing is the fact that only 14 percent attended a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy. We have been led to believe the state has such policies in place and perhaps the students aren’t aware of them.  But with so many of the students reporting such incidents you have to wonder. 
Recently, I represented PFLAG-Howard County at a county parks and recreation teen opportunities fair and heard mixed results from the students.  One student said that her gay friend at her high school is doing fine with being openly gay and has not experienced any problems with respect to bullying.  Yet, another student from the same high school, if you can believe it, mentioned her gay friend has been hospitalized due to the stress he received from being bullied by other students.

Clearly, anti-bullying policies must be tightened and enforced, and students, faculty and staff alike must be educated on these policies.  While it is true that today’s youth are increasingly supportive of equal rights for LGBT people, there is still evidence that it is not universal and bullying of all forms need to be eradicated.  No longer should a report emanating from GLSEN state that Maryland schools are unsafe for LGBT students.
Too many teens have taken their lives as a last resort because of kids who have the need to raise their own self-esteem at the expense of others.  According to The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to ending suicide by LGBTQ youth, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24.  LGB youth are four times more likely (and questioning youth three times) to attempt suicide than their straight peers.  And about 25 percent of young transgender individuals have attempted suicide.

Another turkey that needs carving is the rate of homelessness among LGBTQ youth.  As the frigid, cold winter dawns upon us, it is imperative to acknowledge that homeless LGBTQ youth are sleeping outside in boxes or on grates just to survive. 
The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that 20 percent of homeless youth are LGBT.  (Some organizations’ estimates are even higher, even up to 40 percent.)
While homeless youth typically experience severe family conflict as the primary reason for their homelessness, LGBT youth are twice as likely to experience sexual abuse before the age of 12.  LGBT youth, once homeless, are at higher risk for victimization, mental health problems, and unsafe sexual practices. Over 58 percent of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4 percent of heterosexual homeless youth. LGBT youth are roughly 7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth. 

"LGBT organizations must seriously direct their efforts to preventing homelessness among LGBTQ youth and dealing with those who are." 

To the issue of suicide, homeless youth who are LGBT commit suicide at higher rates (62 percent) than heterosexual homeless youth (29 percent).  Transgender youth are even far more vulnerable.
These statistics are as chilling as the weather and illustrates that parents and families who continue to reject their children based on sexual orientation and gender identity either throw their kids out on the streets or make their environment so inhospitable that the kids need to run away.

Foster care is not a solution at this point because of the discrimination homeless LGBT youth experience, and these situations promote a homophobic atmosphere leading many youth to run away believing they are safer on the streets.  
LGBT organizations must seriously direct their efforts to preventing homelessness among LGBTQ youth and dealing with those who are.  It’s not as sexy a cause as marriage equality where tons of money had been raised.  But this crisis needs to be met if those organization still aspire to remain relevant.

This little reminder only scratches the surface.  We still need to face the epidemic of HIV/AIDS as folks are mistakenly assuming that unsafe sex practices are OK now.  They aren’t.
We have a developing crisis in the rapid growth in the aging population whereby seniors are experiencing discrimination in assisted living and nursing care facilities.  The discrimination among those entities are driving LGBT seniors back into the closet and preventing their partner’s access to them.

There are other such turkeys that need carving providing more food for thought to chew on, but this list should fill you up for now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Misfire Saved and Changed Josh Deese’s Life

At a recent meeting of the Howard County chapter of PFLAG, a handsome young man named Josh Deese, who was celebrating his 21st birthday, introduced a short film named Trevor.  The movie described how a gay youth named Trevor had been bullied to the point of suicide but then recovered to live, hopefully, a better life. 

Among the audience at this screening were a couple of dozen of members of the chapter’s Rainbow Youth and Allies group, ages 14-22.  The normally energetic youths sat riveted in stone silence throughout both the film and Josh Deese’s powerful post-film discussion that described a similar path he himself traveled and how it ultimately led him to be a compelling spokesman for The Trevor Project— the nation’s leading LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization.  Most young people who turn 21 go out partying to celebrate; Josh decided to help educate the community.
Josh’s life has been anything but easy.  Openly gay, he grew up in a small town in South Florida called Clewiston with all of its Southern charm hovering over the town’s sugar cane, orange farms and alligators.  “Clewiston is every Southern boy’s dream – if he were straight,” says Josh.
His parents were of modest means living in a 2-bedroom mobile home where he shared a twin-size bed with his little brother.  He was always treated differently beginning with elementary school.  Josh watched CNN in the 2nd grade, read newspapers and followed the 2004 Presidential election hoping to impress his teachers.  His friends traveled a different road, and the differences between Josh and them were beginning to widen.

“In middle school, I was treated differently because I was the kid who everyone thought was gay,” Josh recalls. “The teases and insults turned to slight shoves and slaps. Eventually, it got worse. The school administration never did anything to those responsible. I remember crying to my father in 8th grade asking ‘Why? Why don’t those kids get in trouble?’” He looked at me and ultimately said, ‘Well, that’s just how the world works. They’re at the top, and we’re not.’ Then he said something that really stuck: ‘But you can be… you can be. And one day, you will be.’”
As the only openly gay student in high school, he was known as “Josh, the faggot.” “Not “a faggot,” but THE faggot,” he emphasizes. School life was filled with isolation and fear. “From the members of my wrestling team, who hazed me intensely in an effort to get me to quit the team, to the rest of my peers, who threw insults, as well as punches.”

Josh was constantly taunted, books were slammed out of his hands in the hallway, and he was shoved into lockers.  All the usual epithets were hurled at him.
After staying after class one day to speak with his English teacher,  he decided to take a shortcut home and noticed three guys following him.  He tried to move faster but it was too late. 

“A swift yank from a strap of my backpack and a stinging smack to the face knocked me to the ground. No one was there to help me. The three guys punched, kicked, and slammed me. I recognized one of them – a boy on my wrestling team; someone I trusted and confided in. ‘Deese,’ he said, calling me by my last name, ‘I’m sorry man, but we’re doing you a favor,’ he concluded, as he kicked me square in the gut. I got up, bloodied and bruised, and limped my way back home.

“My parents were furious. My father wanted blood. My mother just wanted the violence to end. My nose was fractured, my jaw bone suffered injury, and I had a busted lip – a hearty reward for the boy who just wanted a friend.”
Josh had begun looking for resources for LGBTQ youth on Google. He found The Trevor Project, which has a website full of resources and tips. “They had a 24-hour lifeline that LGBTQ youth could call if things ever got too tough and an awesome website – TrevorSpace – a social networking site, where LGBTQ youth from all around the world could talk to each other.”

He created a TrevorSpace account and began speaking to some of the first gay guys who he ever had interacted with. “It was refreshing to see so much diversity on the coming out spectrum. People on this site made me feel accepted, safe and happy.”
Through this site he made some friends. “I even found a boyfriend: a beautiful boy named Kyle. He was from Missouri. His parents were Baptist preachers. His beautiful blonde hair, radiant blue eyes and gorgeous white smile had taken me aback. I was in love. WE were in love.”

After a month of chatting on Skype, Josh and Kyle began dating.  They talked about their dreams of being together.  “Kyle suddenly went missing,” Josh says.  Over three weeks later Kyle’s sister contacted Josh to tell him that their father found out about Josh and discovered gay porn on Kyle’s laptop.  They were forbidden to speak to one another and Kyle was sent to a gay-reversion clinic.
“Three months later, I received a message on Facebook.  It was Kyle – he was back. I remember quickly rushing through my computer to get to Skype, so I could see his beautiful face again. My eager excitement turned to worry and deep concern. For the next few weeks that we talked, he wasn’t the same anymore. He wasn’t smiling anymore. His voice was monotone. His eyes looked sad and empty.”

After exchanging goodnight kisses through the webcam, Josh never heard from Kyle again.  The friend who had introduced them on TrevorSpace messaged Josh.  He asked if Josh was OK and asked him if he heard about Kyle. The friend attached a newspaper article from the Internet that indicated Kyle had hung himself.
“This beautiful boy felt so upset and hated and depraved by his parents, that he felt the only way out was to take his life. I lost it – I cried uncontrollably and felt hopeless. I didn’t know what to do,” Josh recalls.

“The next few days went by like a blur. I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to be happy.  My parents didn’t understand me, I didn’t have any friends, and the first love of my life was gone. I had nothing else to live for. So I planned, and I waited.”

Since Josh’s father was a police officer, there were many guns in his house.  One evening when he was alone, Josh went to his parents’ room and took his father’s service pistol back to his bedroom.

“I sat on the bed, holding the gun, and began to cry. This is what my life had become: one of sadness, and sorrow, and fear. I put the gun to my right temple, counted to three, closed my eyes, and squeezed the trigger. My eyes still closed, I thought, ‘Is this death? I didn’t feel a thing.’ I opened my eyes, and saw that I was still in my room. No pain. No blood. No bang. I was alive. It appeared that the gun was loaded, but the firing pin didn’t strike the bullet properly – crazy odds.”
He put the gun down and began to cry again. “There had to be a better way to solve this… a safer, more peaceful resolution. I began to think and that’s when it hit me – The Trevor Project. I called the lifeline and was relieved to find a warm, caring voice on the other end of the line. His name was Adam who was a counselor for The Trevor Project. I told him about everything that had happened in my life and why I felt the way I did. He was supportive, caring, and accepting. He assured me that my life was full of value and meaning. He made me feel special and significant.”

"There had to be a better way to solve this… a safer, more peaceful resolution."

Josh continued to call the lifeline for the next few months and began his road to recovery. “It was around this time where I was approached by a friend I had met on TrevorSpace, who told me that The Trevor Project was looking for LGBTQ youth who had leadership potential to join a special youth council. I applied and was accepted.”
He persuaded his parents to allow him to fly to Los Angeles to attend his first Trevor Project training. “I spent the weekend meeting with a group of LGBTQ high school and college students who had also been admitted to The Trevor Project Youth Advisory Council. We shared experiences and stories with each other, gave each other advice, and allowed each other to grow.”

Josh learned LGBTQ 101, the basics of sex and gender, suicide prevention and crisis intervention strategies, as well as more background information on The Trevor Project’s programs and services. He was able to take all of the information that he had learned back home to Florida and did what he was taught to do: educate.
“I started with my parents. Now, they had never disagreed with me, they just didn’t understand – and who would, in a small town where no one talks about sexuality and gender? I explained the basics of LGBTQ 101 and it all began to fall into place. My parents understood and were full of questions, which I happily answered.”

Josh is proud and grateful for his family’s support along his journey.  His success with his parents led him to take that experience to school.  “People started to understand. People started to accept me. This was the first time where I had finally met some actual friends, in the flesh, who wanted to actively participate in my life. What my Youth Advisory Council advisor told me was true, ‘Education trumps ignorance.’ This is when I began my journey as an activist for LGBTQ rights, suicide prevention, and mental health awareness.”

Josh found his final two years of high school to be amazing.  He had friends, boyfriends, and many fun experiences.
At his graduation, Josh  presented his last act of defiance by “doing the Cat Daddy” next to his principal, and walked off a proud graduate of Clewiston High School’s Class of 2012.  “One month later, I’d be on a plane to Washington, D.C., starting my new journey as a freshman at the University of Maryland, to pursue my passion for politics and public service.

Josh found the past two years in the D.C. area to be both rewarding and challenging.  His work with The Trevor Project allows him to speak at events and fundraisers, meeting Members of Congress, sharing his story and  explaining the importance of legislation that would benefit and increase LGBTQ education and life-affirming services to LGBTQ youth everywhere.
“I’ve had the privilege of being invited to the White House and working with President Obama’s staff to discuss important initiatives and programs for LGBTQ people. I was also humbled last year to win The Washington Blade’s Best of Gay D.C. Award for Most Committed Activist. I’ve even met an amazing guy that I’ve grown very fond of.”

Unfortunately for Josh, last semester he lost his co-signer for his student loans and was unable to pay for school, thus, forcing him to withdraw from the University of Maryland.  The financial worries have contributed to his anxiety. 
“I’ve been stuck working full-time in order to pay my living expenses, but am currently facing eviction. I’m unable to have a social life or see any of my friends because I’m not in school.”

 “As I said, happiness, or the lack thereof, has been the focus of my life. I continue to clutch closely, my father’s words to me. ‘But you can be… you can be. And one day, you will be.’ I think of this in my mind every night before I go to bed, thinking of a way out. Someone once said, ‘Some men aren’t meant to be happy. They are meant to be great.’ I intend to challenge this and prove it wrong. I know it’s possible. I don’t know how… but I’ll prove it wrong.”
Hopefully, he will. Josh deserves happiness.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Begonia People

Another interesting panel discussion took place at the Columbia Democratic Club on November 12.  This meeting featured four excellent representatives from Howard County’s myriad non-profit organizations to discuss the scope of the problems experienced by the low income citizens of the county and the challenges facing the organizations in attempting to provide needed services. 

One point raised at the meeting that really struck a chord with the audience is that people don’t notice the low income housing that exists in places around the county.  They drive, bicycle, jog or walk past these buildings oblivious to the folks inside the dwellings because they don’t appear to be in that situation.  Why?  These structures typically have landscaped flower beds in front—begonias to be specific—that create a sort of mask, which hides the economic realities of the tenants.
The problem of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues all exist in the county and begonias or not, the problem is very real.  Some parts of the county are affected more than others as Howard has a wide range of income disparities.  To be clear, the county’s strong government addresses many of these needs through their own services, but more must be done. That’s where the non-profits come in to strengthen the safety net.

We hear during election campaigns how Howard County is one of the wealthiest in the nation.  That its school system is second to none in the state, its parks rank among the best in the state and the library system is a model for the country.  Magazines tout the county as one of the best to live in.  These are all true and politicians should emphasize the positives if they are smart; there is nothing wrong with that.  One would not brag about the number of homeless people there are in the county unless, of course, the number is zero.   #hocopolitics

So we hear this refrain over and over how great the county is.  While this is accurate, it is imperative for the non-profits who provide needed services for those not mentioned in speeches—the begonia people including the homeless—to effectively vie with that messaging and educate a rather uninformed populace. 
Non-profits must compete among a crowded field of 1,600 similar organizations for resources and volunteers, but they must also battle the perception that the county is brimming only with rich people who send their kids to top-rated schools and play in superior parks. 

It is our obligation and duty to vigorously help spread that message. We need to raise the consciousness concerning the folks behind the begonias and those who live on the streets so that the county can fully be proud.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Seeing Red: The Dems and the Election Bloodbath

Typically, the color red signals danger, such as a red light at an intersection or a red flag.  In other cases, red has a negative connotation like in red-handed, red tape, redneck, red herring and an undesirable ink color on a balance sheet.

To Democrats, by the time midnight rolled around on Election Night, the nation in general and Maryland in particular had been soaked by a splash of red as if a bucket of pigs’ blood was emptied from above like in the horror film Carrie.
 Republicans, who are associated with the color red as in red states, counties, etc., pulled off a stunning string of victories from the U.S. Senate to council offices down the ballot that painted the map a sea of red.
This phenomenon is not unusual as the party not occupying the White House in the sixth year of a second term of a presidency historically makes gains—sometimes substantial and transformative as one we just experienced.  It was expected that the prevailing mood of national discontent with President Obama for reasons still beyond my comprehension would result in a changing of the guard in the Senate and an increase in the ever-growing conservative gerrymandered district-rigging of the House of Representatives.  #hocopolitics

Democratic candidates treated Obama like he was kryptonite with some even blaming him for the Ebola outbreak that consisted of one death here.  That the nation’s voters would ignore the fact that unemployment is down to 5.8 percent and the 214,000 added jobs in October means that employers have added at least 200,000 jobs for nine straight months, the longest such stretch since 1995 is pathetic.  
The stock market has reached new heights.  Gasoline is at relatively low levels. Obamacare, so reviled by those who didn’t have a clue what was inside the law, now allows uninsured citizens access to health care.  Oh, and Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive (even if some of their drivers aren’t).  Nonetheless, the Dems ran away from all that—a sure-fire losing strategy.

Yet, Democratic voters and candidates also seem to have forgotten how the Republican Party with the lowest approval ratings on record, shut down the government, nearly allowed the U.S. to default on its obligations, and stifled reform on immigration, sensible gun control and any job package the President sent up the Hill. 
It makes me see red. 
Not that the results would have been much different but Democratic candidates virtually conceded the election to the GOP by distancing themselves from Obama.  It wasn’t just a surge of anti-Obama folks that descended on the polls that shaped the outcome; reliable Dem voters stayed home.  That’s how you lose if you’re a Democrat.
In Maryland it was a similar playbook for the Republicans: tap the electorate’s perceived discontent and hope that the Democrats field less than stellar candidates so Dem voters, too, would pass on this off-year election.  That formula worked in the Governor’s race.

Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, the heir apparent to Governor Martin O’Malley, skated through the primary to defeat two other LGBT equality advocates, former delegate Heather Mizeur a lesbian, and Attorney General Douglas Gansler.  The LGBT community was divided among them but Mizeur garnered the most enthusiasm.  Dissension spiked when the Equality Maryland PAC made a curious and controversial endorsement of Brown so early in the process.
It wasn’t just a surge of anti-Obama folks that descended on the polls that shaped the outcome; reliable Dem voters stayed home.

Brown avoided specifics during the primaries—a deficiency that would later haunt him in the general election—and squashed his two rivals by depending on the formidable O’Malley “machine” that attracted huge amounts of cash, paid worker bees, numerous volunteers, union support  and a host of other endorsements.  Don’t knock that machine, however; we wouldn’t have achieved marriage equality without it being cranked up at the right time when the Question 6 campaign was floundering in the early stages.

In the Brown vs. Hogan match-up, Brown failed to present any kind of vision for the future and instead trusted his “campaign strategists” by attacking Hogan as a bogeyman thus raising the profile of the relatively unknown former appointments secretary in the single-term Ehrlich administration.
Larry Hogan was far more effective in face-to-face debates, staying on message about the multitude of tax hikes under the O’Malley administration and the disastrous rollout of the state’s new health care exchange of which Brown had been assigned the lead.  Armed with witty quips and zingers, Hogan scored big during these contests and Brown’s failure to defend the administration or Maryland’s economic posture for that matter helped seal the deal.

Though Republican voters in the state sniffed a huge upset, the ultimate outcome was not decided by them but the tens of thousands of eligible Democrat voters who rode this one out.  Call it voter self-suppression.  Baltimore City, an anticipated boon to the Brown election map, had a 35 percent turnout.  Ouch.
Fortunately, marriage equality and transgender protections were achieved in Maryland before this election.  Hogan, although he promised not to try to turn back these settled issues, probably would not have signed a same-sex marriage bill into law, let alone fight for it like O’Malley did.  He said he has since “evolved” on marriage equality (sound familiar?) but stated he opposed the transgender non-discrimination bill—the Fairness for All Marylanders Act.

Nationally, the more conservative entrenched Congress will not act on finally passing the Employment Nondiscrimination Act or ENDA, which has been languishing in Congress for decades.  As has been the experience in the past, the GOP will probably misinterpret the election results as a mandate, and will hamper their being a national party when its leadership will revert to appealing to their shrinking base of white, male, older, rural, Protestant and heterosexual Americans, believing there is no need to reach out to LGBT folks.
The next two years will be seen as a pause in our struggle for progress on many levels.  If we can wait it out, perhaps all that the red will turn into a rainbow.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

LGBT Support Split in Howard County Executive Race

Riding the red wave that splashed across the country and Maryland on November 4, former GOP State Senator Allan Kittleman stunned Democrat councilwoman Courtney Watson and her supporters in the race to succeed term-limited Ken Ulman as Howard County Executive. In doing so, Kittleman became only the second Republican to be elected to that office in the county’s history. 
Allan Kittleman with Carrie Evans during a fundraiser at Pride
Ulman lost his chance to be Lieutenant Governor as part of Anthony Brown’s failed bid to be Maryland’s first African-American governor. The 51.3 % to 48.6 % margin in the Kittleman-Watson contest was closer than the Larry Hogan margin over Brown in the county suggesting that Brown’s poor performance was a drag on Watson’s quest to be the county’s executive.
The race in Howard was distinguished by the fact that two strong LGBT advocates faced off against one another.  Although marriage equality and transgender non-discrimination were settled issues and were not the focus of the campaigns, each side tried to woo LGBT voters by touting their respective records. 
Watson’s campaign, for instance, held at least two LGBT-specific events.  Kittleman enlisted the support of Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, to boost his campaign.  Evans recorded a video extolling Kittleman’s accomplishments for LGBT equality.

Kittleman had been a vocal supporter of marriage equality in Maryland’s Senate the last two years the bill came up for votes.  He also vigorously campaigned to protect the law that was signed by Governor Martin O’Malley in 2012 when it was petitioned to referendum.   
In addition, Kittleman supported and voted for this year’s successful passage of the Fairness for All Marylanders Act (FAMA) that provided anti-discrimination protections in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit based on gender identity. Those actions, which cost Kittleman his position as the Senate’s Minority Leader because they bucked party dogma, did not go unnoticed by the LGBT community.

For her part, Watson, as councilwoman, played a significant role in getting a similar transgender non-discrimination measure passed in Howard County.  She took that success to Baltimore County to persuade wavering lawmakers, and it passed just a couple of months later.  Watson went to Annapolis two years in a row and testified on the statewide bill’s behalf during House committee hearings.
Through the years, both candidates had regularly appeared at PFLAG-Howard County events to demonstrate support for the county’s LGBT citizens. Most notable of these was a joint appearance at a PFLAG-sponsored forum in July.   In October both candidates addressed the crowd during a celebration held by PFLAG and Gender Rights Maryland on the effective date of FAMA.
Though no data are available as to how LGBT folks and allies voted during the election, it is clear that each camp can claim support from key LGBT leaders. 

“Allan Kittleman was a champion for LGBT issues over the last few years in the General Assembly, and I know that he will continue fighting for fairness and equality in his new role,” said Equality Maryland’s Carrie Evans.   #hocopolitics
Watson had a staunch advocate as well. “We’re concerned about ensuring continued improvement in our quality of life as well as bullying in schools, affordable housing, and public health,” said Byron Macfarlane, the county’s Register of Wills and the first open LGBT person to hold elective office in Howard. “I hope now that the election is over, the vagaries and generalities of the Kittleman campaign will give way to concrete plans to address these very real concerns. I congratulate him on his victory and hope that the LGBT community and the new county executive will have a productive working relationship in the years ahead.”