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Efforts to help LGBT Puerto Ricans after Maria ‘being forgotten’

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From left: Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of Waves Ahead, and Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera of the Human Rights Campaign speak about the situation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria during a panel at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in D.C. on Jan. 27, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers will be on assignment in Puerto Rico through Feb. 3. He will be reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and its continued impact on LGBT Puerto Ricans and people with HIV/AIDS.

An activist from Puerto Rico who attended the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference in D.C. on Saturday said efforts to help the island’s LGBT community after Hurricane Maria are “being forgotten.”

“The LGBT work being done in Puerto Rico is being forgotten,” said Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of Waves Ahead, a group that provides assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans and other marginalized groups.

Labiosa spoke on a panel that focused on Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Latinx and Catholic Initiatives, co-organized the panel on which she also spoke.

Meléndez, who grew up in the Puerto Rican city of Caguas, highlighted the island’s colonial past and current status as a U.S. commonwealth. She noted poverty, poor infrastructure and corruption among Puerto Rican politicians were widespread before Maria.

“Things are not well,” said Meléndez.

Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds.

The Puerto Rican government says Maria killed 64 people, but the death toll is estimated to be more than 1,000. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló last month ordered a review of the official figure.

Large swaths of Puerto Rico remain without electricity more than four months after Maria made landfall. Large piles of debris and homes with blue tarps on their roofs are commonplace throughout San Juan, the island’s capital and largest city, and surrounding areas.

“Maria took the island and split it in half,” said Meléndez.

Hurricane Irma brushed Puerto Rico on Sept. 7.

Meléndez was with her parents at their Caguas home during Irma. She said 60 percent of Puerto Rico lost electricity during that hurricane, even though it did not make landfall on the island.

“[That] shows you how bad our infrastructure was,” said Meléndez.

She returned to the U.S. mainland the day before Maria made landfall.

“It was the scariest takeoff I have ever had,” said Meléndez.

Labiosa and his partner were in their 15th floor condo in San Juan during Maria.

He said every condo in his building flooded because the hurricane’s winds blew water through the storm shutters.

Labiosa, a psychologist and social worker who lived in Boston before moving to Puerto Rico four years ago, was among those who provided assistance to the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. He said driving around San Juan after Maria and seeing the damage “was the saddest day of my life.”

“Here you’re dealing with silence,” he said. “You’re dealing with something that can’t be described.”

Labiosa said he made sure his mother, who passed away a few weeks after Maria, and his aunt were safe before returning to his home. He said he began to hear reports that people took their own lives “the same day of the hurricane because they were looking at so much in front of them.”

“They didn’t know how they could survive,” said Labiosa.

Labiosa co-founded Waves Ahead a few weeks before the hurricanes as a way to help his clients open their own businesses in San Juan and the surrounding area. He said some of the same people with whom he was working began to ask for water and food for their neighbors after Maria.

Labiosa said he could not reach a transgender client in Humacao, a city that is close to where Maria made landfall, for more than a week because of blocked roads.

He noted there was a lack of food, gasoline and medical services for weeks after Maria because the hurricane destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure. The distribution of relief supplies from San Juan’s port was also delayed.

Labiosa said Waves Ahead in spite of these challenges “decided to nourish people, nourish the body” by providing the LGBT Puerto Ricans and others with food, water, access to counseling and mental health services. He also noted Waves Ahead is working to provide assistance to LGBT elders, including a 95-year-old woman who lives on the island of Vieques.

“They are being forgotten,” said Labiosa.

San Juan mayor remains sharply critical of Trump response

More than 300,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island since Maria.

Labiosa said Waves Ahead is working with three families who are currently living in a motel room in Orlando, Fla., “who are dying to come back” to Puerto Rico.

Meléndez became emotional when she said her parents, who are in their 70s, are about to lose their home. She nevertheless said they do not want to leave Puerto Rico.

“My parents are 75-years-old and they are what are known as coquís,” she said, using Puerto Rican Spanish word for small frogs on the island that she used to refer to someone who is originally from Puerto Rico. “They are never going to leave. My responsibility in the diaspora is to make sure they get what they need.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz remains one of the most vocal critics of President Trump and the federal government’s response to Maria. Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in San Juan, and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who is of Puerto Rican descent, have also been sharply critical.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has criticized the Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes. (Washington Blade photo by Tom Hausman)

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but are unable to vote in presidential elections. Puerto Rico, like D.C., has one delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives who is unable to vote on the chamber’s floor.

Meléndez noted Puerto Ricans who are currently living in the U.S. mainland can vote this year’s mid-term elections. She and others have pointed out they can potentially influence the outcome of congressional races in Florida and other states.

“People will go back, but they won’t go back soon enough for them,” she said. “Thank God for us lucky enough to register to vote to take those motherfuckers out.”

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North Carolina

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Robinson rants at lawmaker over LGBTQ mention

The Senator was referencing Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ+, homophobic and transphobic public statements over the past several months

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Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson ( Screenshot via NBC-affiliate WCNC-TV, Charlotte, North Carolina)

RALEIGH – In a heated tirade in the hallways of the North Carolina capitol building captured on a mobile phone Monday, Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the state’s highest elected Black official launched into an attack on Democratic State Senator Julie Mayfield.

The tirade was witnessed by a dozen people including lawmakers, staff, and visitors. State Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Davidson), who witnessed the confrontation and caught part of the tirade on her mobile told the Charlotte News-Observer; ““It was a rant. He berated her, and he yelled as loudly as he could.” 

The lieutenant governor, who presides over the state Senate, approached Senator Mayfield in the hallway outside the Senate chamber after lawmakers adjourned and “wagged” his finger in her face, Marcus said.

Mayfield had addressed the Senate earlier Monday, after a vote where she highlighted the increasing deadly violence against Black people and ongoing discrimination against LGBTQ people.

In her remarks to her colleagues she said; “It is convenient fiction that we can say something in a particular forum and not expect to be held accountable for those words in another,” Mayfield said. “We are elected officials. And if we can’t respect our constituents rather than viciously attack some of them, then maybe we’re in the wrong job.”

The Senator was referencing Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ+, homophobic and transphobic public statements over the past several months.

Speaking to parishioners at the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem on Sunday, November 14, Robinson attacked the LGBTQ+ community, captured on the church’s YouTube livestream.

Robinson said in his sermon that he questioned the “purpose” of being gay; said heterosexual couples are “superior” to gay couples; and that he didn’t want to explain to his grandchildren why two men are kissing if they see that on television the Charlotte Observer reported.

The state’s Republican Lt. Governor then went on to compare being gay to “what the cows leave behind” as well as maggots and flies, who he said all serve a purpose in God’s creation. “If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said.

In a speaking engagement in June at Asbury Baptist Church in Seagrove, Robinson called LGBTQ people “filth.”  “There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth,” Robinson says. “Yes, I called it filth. And if you don’t like it that I called it filth, come see me and I’ll explain it to you.”

In a statement released in October by Deputy White House Press Secretary Andrew Bates, the Biden Administration condemned the remarks made last June by Robinson. “These words are repugnant and offensive,” said Bates, who is a native of North Carolina. “The role of a leader is to bring people together and stand up for the dignity and rights of everyone; not to spread hate and undermine their own office.”

“Sen. Mayfield’s remarks speak what’s in the hearts of most North Carolinians, and the fact that it set the lieutenant governor off that much is shocking to me,” Sen. Marcus told the News-Observer. “He said ‘You know where I am and where to find me,’” Marcus said, paraphrasing. “’If you have something to say to me you should come and say it to my face.’”

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Georgia

Liliana Bakhtiari wins runoff for Atlanta City Council

First LGBTQ Muslim elected in the state of Georgia and will be only Non-Binary Councilmember in a major U.S. city

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Liliana Bakhtiari  (Photo Credit: Liliana Bakhtiari for Atlanta City Council campaign)

ATLANTA – Liliana Bakhtiari won her runoff election on Tuesday to represent District 5 on the Atlanta City Council, becoming the first out LGBTQ Muslim elected in the state of Georgia and one of less than five currently serving in the entire country.

Bakhtiari will also be the only non-binary person currently serving on the city council of a major U.S. city. During the general election on November 2, Bakhtiari competed in a field of five candidates and received 49.5 percent of the vote, just short of the 50 percent needed to win outright and avoid a runoff. The LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed Bakhtiari in the race for the seat.

Bakhtiari first ran for the District 5 council seat in 2017 – losing to the incumbent by just 2.6 percent of the vote.

Bakhtiari’s election comes as anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ political rhetoric rises in recent weeks, including state legislative attacks on trans candidates and anti-Muslim remarks targeting Minnesota Democratic U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar.

“Liliana’s victory is a milestone moment for Georgia, but also for non-binary people and LGBTQ Muslims across the country who want to make positive change through public service,” Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund said in a statement.

“When in office, Liliana will humanize our issues and be a voice for the underserved communities that are too often ignored by elected leaders. Atlanta is already a beacon of hope for LGBTQ people throughout the South, but with more representation that reflects the entire LGBTQ community, it can become a model for the entire nation,” Parker added,

Also in a runoff for an At-Large Post 3 Atlanta City Council seat is LGBTQ candidate Keisha Sean Waites, a LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed candidate and former member of the Georgia House of Representatives, whose race has not yet been called as of Tuesday.

On November 2, another LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed candidate, former Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan, who successfully represented District 6 from 2010-2018, was victorious in his bid to again represent the District. Wan garnered 79 percent of the vote (7,120 votes) and won election to the District 6 seat.

There are currently just 11 non-binary elected officials serving in the entire country. View all LGBTQ elected officials currently serving at outforamerica.org.

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North Dakota

A young Trans life erased because of hate

“We will always be grateful for the chance to have her as she was and not who we had thought her to be. Now we call her daughter and sister”

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Photo by Max Huskins

BEACH, Nd. – Life for one family in this small community at the edge of North Dakota adjacent to the border with Montana, near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, has been forever altered after their 19 year-old Trans daughter committed suicide.

In an obituary published by the funeral home, her family expressed their grief and their rage;

Haley ended her life on November 12, 2021, her pain being too great. She had grown weary of the knowledge of her reality, knowing this country and this world would never stop trying to force her to submit to its ignorance, and her family rages for her. We would’ve burned the whole world down if we’d thought it would keep her safe, and our fury and outrage is eclipsed only by our grief. We struggle against the currents that try to carry us away from love, for those currents only take us further from her. And she is far enough, already.”

This past year has seen record violence against Trans Americans and legislative efforts to marginalize the Trans community as state lawmakers introduced a record number of anti-transgender bills in state legislatures, seeking to restrict transgender people’s access to health care, bathrooms, and sports and recreation.

It has been a year where 47 Trans people, particularly of colour, lost their lives violently and where because of the anti-Trans legislative efforts numerous Trans youth have considered suicide according to the Trevor Project, as their call-in center has been overwhelmed with a sharp uptick in calls for assistance and counseling.

We are at a tragic and deeply upsetting moment: With the death of Marquiisha Lawrence, 2021 has become the deadliest year ever for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Each of these 45 names represents a whole person and a rich life torn from us by senseless violence, driven by bigotry and transphobia and stoked by people who hate and fear transgender people and the richness of their experience,” Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said.

Dehumanizing rhetoric has real-life consequences for the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color but especially Black transgender women. As we have seen an unprecedented number of bills introduced in state legislatures attacking transgender youth and trans adults, the moment we are in is clear. They have attacked transgender people’s right to health care, right to exist in public, and right to live openly, with the ultimate goal of dehumanizing and erasing their lives and experiences,” she added.

Back in that small North Dakota community, a family grieves.

Obituary for Haley Gabriella Feldmann

Haley Gabriella Feldmann was born on November 18, 2002. She was called boy and so we gave her a boy name—now a dead name. We gave her boy clothes, boy toys, boy things. We didn’t know she was our daughter and so we called her son and brother.

Haley spent the first several years of her life content, within and without. She knew nothing of judgment or ridicule. She knew nothing but the love of her family, which she gave back in abundance.

During her adolescent years she retreated into herself and we lost her. She became silent . . . distant. She built formidable walls that became impossible to breach, and she stubbornly refused to grant us passage. She had begun to grow afraid of the world as she began to understand herself and who she was, and the reality of her situation became apparent.

The more she learned of how the world would judge her for not being who it thought she should be, the more she withdrew. She was an atheist, unable to believe in any religion or deity that taught condemnation of her for not submitting to its beliefs of who she should be.

She was a child of God, made perfectly in his image, her body only a vessel for the beautiful soul He created and with which He graced us. She laughed and she loved, and though her humor was dark, her nature was light. Her kindness, her empathy, her hope for others, and her desire to help anyone in need was a blinding light she shone on everyone but herself.
Haley gave us the gift of her truth, trusted us to see beyond her body to her soul, to believe her, and to love her.

We will always be grateful for the chance to have her as she was and not who we had thought her to be. Now we call her daughter and sister and we closed ranks around her to protect her and to keep her safe from the willful ignorance that surrounds her.

Our daughter Haley spent most days wreaking havoc on the universe, her time spent being “Imperial Empress of the Galaxies, Conqueror of Solar Systems, Creator of Planets and Nations, Destroyer of Stars”, and loving and adoring Lucy, her best friend and the Best Dog Ever, who loved and adored her in equal measure.

She created her own language with a full alphabet and rules, spending years revising and perfecting it, and, in typical Haley fashion, did not leave a key. She created her own maps, detailed in geography, and her own countries, rich in their histories. She dropped out of school and then graduated before her peers, which made her immensely proud. She taught herself history, geography, politics, and never hesitated to school anyone on the finer points of each. And she was usually correct.

Haley lived most comfortably in a Discord community of just under six hundred people from all over the world, each of whom loved and adored her. We are just beginning to learn of her profound impact within the community and we are grateful they had her and she was loved by them. Her soul was radiant there, unhindered by its physical representation here which had become a prison, freeing her to breathe and be.

Haley ended her life on November 12, 2021, her pain being too great. She had grown weary of the knowledge of her reality, knowing this country and this world would never stop trying to force her to submit to its ignorance, and her family rages for her. We would’ve burned the whole world down if we’d thought it would keep her safe, and our fury and outrage is eclipsed only by our grief. We struggle against the currents that try to carry us away from love, for those currents only take us further from her. And she is far enough, already.

Haley is survived by her devastated parents; her siblings; her grandparents; several aunts, uncles, and cousins; and Lucy, all of whom are inconsolable in the loss of her brilliance, consumed with a grief that has buried us in moments of silence, rage, and sorrow—a void that will never be filled, and a loss that will never be eased. The world is less without her and we will never be the same.

There will be no formal services for Haley. She considered money spent on the dead to be frivolous and of better use elsewhere. Any donations to her family should be sent to The Jim Collins Foundation in hope that a life might be saved.

In lieu of thoughts and prayers, her family asks that you be kind to the living and generous with what you have, be it your love, hope, or wealth. Do better unto others as you would have done to you, and reach back to those in need, lift them up, raise them higher, and love love love thy neighbor.

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