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La Migra, education and ‘Project Runway’

Finally a U.S. citizen, I am at-risk no more

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Raymundo Baltazar works at UCLA Arts and is a former contestant on ‘Project Runway.’ (Photo courtesy Raymundo Baltazar)

Ten cuidado con la Migra! (Be careful with immigration). A mother’s plea that functioned as a subtle warning to not sabotage my American dream-in-the-making. However, for me, her words were the fuel that propelled me to do better, to overcome, and to always remain vigilant. And though the trauma of fearing la migra will forever be engrained in my psyche, I thank my Mother for ensuring my safety was her top priority.

In our family, education has always reigned supreme and a measure of one’s character. So keeping me safe was her way of ensuring I could reach for an education. Imagine a nine-year-old, unable to speak English, undocumented, queer and afraid; my educational forecast seemed cloudy. I was aware that on any given day, I could be deported. But the fear never derailed me or my three sisters from seeking an education.

Unfortunately, by the end of my first week in class, the experts at my local elementary school had declared that I was an at-risk youth. I assumed they meant at-risk of la migra but I was wrong. Years later, I can attest that shedding the stigma of being called at-risk has proven harder to do than overcoming my fear of la migra. Now, as a first generation Angeleño, and the first to attend and graduate from a university—UCLA Summa Cum Laude and Chancellor’s Marshall—I have realized that the power of testimonio (testimony) helped me tremendously. By reading the testimonies of individuals that have dealt with similar challenges, I found hope. And in that same spirit, my hope is that by sharing a few personal anecdotes, they can add to the discourse of immigrants and their positive contributions to this nation and beyond. I hope that my story can serve as a testament to the power of testimonio and a reminder that immigrant children have the right to succeed.

From an early age, my love for the arts has profoundly influenced and impacted my life. Though I was frequently discouraged because, as an undocumented immigrant, an education in the arts was simply unheard of—my desire and quest never abated. At 13 years old, I found a newspaper column that inspired an early academic pursuit— “Take my Picture Gary Leonard” in the Los Angeles Reader. Its visual narratives challenged me to discover my artistic agency. Shortly thereafter, I embarked on what my mother called Raymundo’s cultural adventures. With my RTD bus pass in my pocket and my camera in hand, I set out to document my new home: Los Angeles. Through my cultural adventures, I learned that I wanted to be not just a participant but a contributor. The arts became my reason for living and from that day forward, ensuring that the arts became accessible, valued, and celebrated by all people became my passion.

In 1998, as my high school classmates prepared for college, I decided to take a risk. I auditioned for the Bob Fosse Dance Scholarship. Though I was technically raw and had far fewer years of formal dance training, I knew that the odds were against me; a condition I was all too familiar with. A week later, the phone rang in Mr. Long’s class. He answered and then summoned me to his desk. Assuming the worst, I fearfully walked over to him, only to find out the call was to congratulate me on winning. The award was the first real acknowledgement of my performing abilities and receiving the Bob Fosse Scholarship changed my life. The scholarship was an accomplishment that encouraged me to never give up on my talents, to believe in my personal attributes and most especially, it defined the type of person I could become. Years later, I took a bigger risk: auditioning for “Project Runway.”

I had so much fun as a contestant on “Project Runway!” However, my role and purpose felt a bit predetermined. It was on the first episode that I came out to my father living in Mexico. In retrospect, I feel like the experience negatively affected my family. I felt like I exposed too much. My father died last December and we never talked about “Project Runway.” I regret not asking him about how he felt. The experience was everything you can imagine: parties, access, money, travel and shenanigans. Post Auf Wiedersehen, I decided to go back to my original quest: an education. I immediately sought to shed yet another title and believe me, shedding the title of Fashion Designer was easy, all it took was to be eliminated from “Project Runway.” I went from the runways to the hallways of UCLA and thus, my chapter as a student began.

June is always double the fun for me: my birthday and Pride! I will be turning 38 and this will be my 12th Pride celebration with Jonathan, my beloved husband. I now work at UCLA Arts. And finally, after more than 20 years of filling out forms and enduring all manner of ridicule, five years ago, I was delivered from the nightmare existence undocumented status confers. I am now a U.S. citizen. At last, I returned to Morelos, Mexico, my birthplace. And while I remain perpetually afraid of la migra, growing up an undocumented immigrant in a strange way helped me to develop perseverance and resourcefulness. These strengths have served me well, for I am at-risk no more. Happy Feliz Pride!

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Lack of access & accountability; WeHo City Hall is in dire straits

In addition to the lack of access and accountability at City Hall, the city’s finances are in a critically perilous situation

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WeHo City Hall goes 'Green' in support of climate action, June 2017 (Photo credit: Jon Viscott/City of West Hollywood)

Editor's note: The following commentary does not reflect the views of the staff and publisher of the Los Angeles Blade and is independently submitted for publication. All 'Letters to the Editor' or op-eds will be considered. Please feel free to submit requests to [email protected]

By James Duke Mason | WEST HOLLYWOOD – The last time I spoke out publicly about West Hollywood politics was in the lead up to the 2020 elections.

It’s been more than a year since I left my position on the West Hollywood Lesbian & Gay Advisory Board, and almost three years since my last City Council campaign. I’ve spent my time focusing on my writing and activism, and also pursuing some professional opportunities. But the state of the city is so dire at the moment that I feel now is an important time to speak out and be part of the conversation.

We’ve now been living with COVID since March 2020; you’d think by now that the city would have figured out a way to manage the pandemic and move forward with city business, yet City Hall has been closed to the public and Council meetings are being held virtually. It was hard enough before for the public to get face time with their Councilmembers or city staff, but now it’s literally impossible. City Hall is supposed to be closed till the end of this month but perhaps beyond; who knows when Council meetings will be held in person again? At this point it’s absurd when we could easily resume business with masks, vaccine requirements etc. 

“The state of the city is so dire at the moment that I feel now is an important time to speak out and be part of the conversation.”

In addition to the lack of access and accountability at City Hall, the city’s finances are in a critically perilous situation. Some accused me of being hypocritical when I, as someone who once ran as a fresh face, endorsed John Heilman and John Duran in the last election.

What those people failed to understand is that I wasn’t for change for the sake of change; at a time of great challenges I believed it was necessary to have experienced, steady leadership for our city, and sure enough Sepi Shyne and John Erickson have failed to live up to their responsibilities.

The city is digging into it’s reserves to stay afloat, which is a massive difference from where we were just a few years ago when we were considered one of the best run cities in America.

The biggest crisis we face is the surge in crime that West Hollywood has seen as of late which has received nothing more than a weak, ineffective response from the City Council.

The other night two British tourists were robbed at gun point on Santa Monica and La Cienega Boulevard, just the latest in a long series of violent crime in or near our city. So far I haven’t heard any of the Councilmembers propose any concrete solutions; instead their time is spent on fake, performative progressive virtue signaling which actually are nothing more than self aggrandizing moves to further their political careers.

If they were actually concerned about advancing the progressive agenda then they would be taking on issues that actually really make a difference in people’s lives; homelessness for instance which is at an all time high.

Where is the tangible action on that front, and how can these Councilmembers call themselves progressives when they haven’t done anything to help these innocent people? Homelessness is a disaster, and Sepi Shyne and John Erickson have been asleep at the wheel.

There’s been no action at a moment when we desperately need it. Unfortunately the two of them aren’t up for re-election until 2024, but we do have several of the other seats up in November, and I will be sharing news about who I support later this year. It’s time for us to take our city back and put it on the right track.

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James Duke Mason is a writer, activist and former city official. From 2015 to 2020 he served on the West Hollywood Lesbian & Gay Advisory Board, including a year as Co-Chair. 

Photo courtesy of James Duke Mason

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Where’s the LGBTQ+ outrage over Sen. Kyrsten Sinema?

LGBTQ people are still official second-class citizens without full equal rights & figured out long ago that there is no “both sides” fairness

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Arizona Democratic U.S. Senator Krysten Sinema, speaking at the HRC National Dinner 2018 (Screenshot via HRC YouTube)

By Karen Ocamb | WEST HOLLYWOOD – I’ve been waiting and waiting but nothing. What the hell, Human Rights Campaign? Are we really OK with letting this hyper-flirty, bisexual nouveau conservative Democrat from Arizona continue to say she’s representing us while holding hands with Sen. Joe Manchin in crushing democracy?

Last October, when Arizona Democratic U.S. Senator Krysten Sinema found super infamy by fighting President Biden’s infrastructure spending bill and much of her Democratic Party’s call to end the procedural Senate filibuster, The Advocate cited criticism from Black gay New York Rep. Ritchie Torres.

There is a sense in which we no longer live in a democracy; we live under the tyranny of Kyrsten Sinema,” Torres told CNN. “I welcome the ideological diversity of the party. I can live with dissent. My colleagues and I have trouble living with what we perceive to be erraticism. The perception of erraticism is brought on by a lack of communication and clarity for where she stands.”

Last Thursday, Sinema gave a soap opera-choked up speech saying she would not vote to change the filibuster because “eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy from threats in the years to come.” First of all, the threat is here and now and the fact that she doesn’t get that makes her inept and craven. The ramifications are huge: without democracy, there is no access to justice. 

Secondly, as House Majority Whip James Clyburn told CNN on Sunday, Democrats are seeking a carveout to the filibuster to enable a simple majority to vote on fundamental principles like voting rights. 

When it comes to the Constitution of the United States of America, no one person sitting downtown in a spa ought to be able to pick up the telephone and say you are going to put a hold on my ability to vote. And that’s what’s going on here,” Clyburn told Jake Tapper. “So I would wish they would stop that foolishness because if we do not protect the vote with everything that we’ve got, we will not have a country to protect going forward.”

After Thursday’s speech – which she insultingly delivered as Biden was on his way to talk to lawmakers about the critical need to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – MSNBC’s Joy Reid noted that Sinema’s rationale for defending the filibuster “is as inconsistent as it is immoral.” Sinema supported bypassing the filibuster just over a month ago “in order to raise the debt ceiling on a party-line vote. She doesn’t think Republicans should be allowed to damage America’s credit, but she thinks allowing them to damage American democracy is a virtue.” 

Reid noted that Sen. Raphael Warnock called out the contradiction last month after the debt limit vote. 

Be very clear, last week we changed the rules of the Senate to address another important issue, the economy. This is a step, a change in the Senate rules we haven’t been willing to take to save our broken democracy, but one that a bipartisan majority of this chamber thought was necessary in order to keep our economy strong. We changed the rules to protect the full faith and credit of the United States government. We’ve decided we must do it for the economy, but not for the democracy,” Warnock said.

Audacity, thy name is Sinema:

With Sinema’s obstinate obstructionism flaring up days before Martin Luther King Day and before a Senate vote on the John Lewis Act – named for the late civil rights icon she claims to have loved – more and more critics are noting how the filibuster was created to further lynching and racist Jim Crow laws. “There’s nothing partisan about saying the filibuster has mostly been used for racist reasons, I think everybody would agree that that’s true,” Harvard Law professor Michael Klarman told the Associated Press. 

On Saturday, MSNBC’s Tiffany Cross said the subtext out loud. “Sinema is a Democrat, but she is in many ways upholding white supremacy,” Cross said on “The Cross Connection” after showing a clip of Sinema’s Thursday speech. “I don’t think I can roll my eyes hard enough and you kind of just want to say, ‘Girl, bye.’” 

It’s not like we didn’t notice that Sinema – who used her story of childhood poverty to get elected – has courted infamy. In March 2021, Christine Linnell made an important point in an Advocate commentary. 

Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema may have taught us a valuable lesson in the past week: when it comes to politics, visibility and representation will only take you so far,” she wrote. “Sinema, the first openly bisexual person to be elected to Congress, went viral for the wrong reasons on Friday when she voted against a provision in the coronavirus relief package that would have increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And she didn’t just vote against it, but went out of her way to get Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attention before giving a sassy thumbs-down on the floor of the Senate.

Linnell cited journalist Ryan Grim’s March 5, 2021 tweet, re-tweeting a C-Span video clip: “Here’s @SenatorSinema walking on to the floor, patting Mitch McConnell on the back, looking back to make sure he sees her, then giving the thumbs down to a $15 minimum wage.”

But Sinema is no John McCain and then, like now, it’s hard to see what principle she was upholding. 

I interviewed Sinema in 2018 for the Los Angeles Blade when she was running for the Senate and noted a tracking report from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight indicating that Sinema voted in line with Trump’s position 54.7% of the time.

“This isn’t a matter of one party being right and the other being wrong,” Sinema said. “If we allow our basic values to become just another political football, we’ll all lose. If President Trump is willing to work together to stand up for Arizonans, I’ll work with him….I learned early on that you get more things done when you’re willing to work together…The problem with Washington is that people don’t listen to those who have different points of view so they never find the common ground needed to really solve problems. When you actually talk with people and work across the aisle, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish.”

The problem is that Trump’s Republican Party is subsumed by white supremacists for whom lying and treachery is a convenient, amoral means to an authoritarian end. There is no negotiating in good faith here.  There is no bipartisanship when one partisan side is angling for white straight male supremacy. 

And the thing is, we LGBTQ people — who are still official second-class citizens without our full equal rights – figured out long ago that there is no “both sides” fairness when you’re talking about the far right. Ask Joan Garry of GLAAD. CNN used to pit Joan against some religious right nut until finally she (standing in for all of us) said we would not acknowledge the religious right or white supremacists as the equivalent of our movement for equality and social justice. 

Yet here we are as Sinema – who claims to represent LGBTQ people – acts as if Trump’s white supremacy is equivalent to Biden/Pelosi/Schumer and GLAAD ’ agenda to restore Constitutional voting rights.

But where are WE? Do we not remember Silence = Death? 

“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice,” Biden said in his speech from Atlanta on Jan. 11. “Do you want to be the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

What side do you want to stand on, LGBTQ people? 

Ironically, Sinema foreshadowed this moment in her speech before the Human Rights Campaign on March 10, 2018. “It’s up to us now to make certain that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender will never again be an impediment to success. These battles will take place on many fronts. Under our new President, that’s unfortunately meant returning to some of the fights we thought were behind us,” she said, noting that she was running for the Senate “to stand up for the values that unite us as Americans,” including “the right to define our own destinies. The belief that no one should be different in the eyes of the law, the freedom to reach for every opportunity and fulfill our greatest potential. We here, we together, we have a moral obligation to continue this work. And standing together, I know we can win.” 

Standing together? From Jan. 1, 2021, Krysten Sinema tweeted about LGBTQ people/issues only FIVE (5) times – three of which were during June Pride Month.

I reject any assertion that Krysten Sinema represents me as an LGBTQ person. What about you?

Arizona Representative Kyrsten Sinema Speaks at HRC Los Angeles Dinner:

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Karen Ocamb an award winning veteran journalist and former editor of the Los Angeles Blade has chronicled the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Southern California for over 30 plus years.

She lives in West Hollywood with her two beloved furry ‘kids’ and writes occasional commentary on issues of concern for the greater LGBTQ+ community.

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National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund; ‘On voting rights under attack’

LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund urges the U.S. Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act & the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

By Kierra Johnson | WASHINGTON – Voting rights are a cornerstone of our democratic process and have been under attack by conservative political extremists. These extremists have tried everything from partisan gerrymandering to mass purges of voter rolls in attempts to undermine the work of election officials, sow false doubt in legitimate election results and curb access to registering and casting votes. 

There are many things to be divided over but right now there is an opportunity to be aligned in eradicating barriers to voting. We have an opportunity to restore faith in the American people that there are still foundational values and inalienable rights that can hold us together. The right to vote is a baseline. It is an essential part to exercise our power and participate in our democracy.

George Washington was quoted as saying, “The power of the constitution will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their choosing: and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled.”

This is the plainest argument for eradicating barriers to voting for any and all of our people. However, it also explicitly explains why attacks on voting rights and access have increased as the demographics of this country have changed.

When LGBTQ+ Americans, People of Color and other marginalized populations vote in high numbers, elections are greatly impacted and it can make the difference in local, state and federal elections. The fear of losing power and the threat of losing an elected seat is not justification for our leaders to carve out LGBTQ+ folks, People of Color, women, poor people and so many other already marginalized groups from the political process. 

Members of congress often have the hard job of making decisions that require them to weigh numerous nuances and complex decision points with varying intended and unintended consequences on communities. However, on the question whether to eradicate barriers to voting – the answer is clear. Our beloved people deserve access to our democracy. We have a right to it and therefore the right to vote – regardless of our political views. Any member of congress who is advocating for anything less than ensuring and protecting the right to vote for all of the people in their districts and states is in fact advocating to take away the power of the people to elect and hold accountable those who should be legislating on their behalf.

The choice is simple: are you on the side of all voters or are you willing to allow restricting of the vote for political ends?  Will you advocate for all of the people that you claim to represent or will your sacrifice and abandon us community by community? Every decision will firmly place our elected officials on either the right or wrong side of history.

Instead of leaning into tactics that alienate and distance people from our democracy and each other, what if instead our elected Officials were inspired to  get back to the real work of getting more of our people to more actively and consistently participate in civic engagement. What if they were willing to commit to learning more about the fears and dreams of those in the community that they know the least about and invest in meeting their needs and creating opportunities from them to thrive! 

Our Democracy is broken and further restricting access to the political process will not heal the fractures that have only grown deeper and wider over these last years. Senators must take leadership and pass legislation that will protect and ensure free and fair elections. The strength of our Democracy and of our people depend on it.

Ongoing state legislative attacks in 2021 and 2022 on voting rights, many of which are barely disguised plans to suppress votes of Black people, as well as people from other historically marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, are undemocratic, racist and just plain wrong.

Some new and proposed state voting laws qualify as inhumane, for example, making it illegal to provide water and food to voters standing in hours-long lines. 

Some of these attacks ignore the reality of people’s daily lives, outlawing assistance to voters with disabilities so they can cast ballots by mail from home,  limiting voting hours, limiting, or ending ballot drop-box accessibility for people working several jobs to support minor children and elderly parents, and requiring identity documents to counter supposed voter fraud that research shows is practically nonexistent.

Identity document requirements pose specific challenges for many transgender and gender non-binary people due to some outdated state laws and financial and other barriers to updating documents like legal fees, a lack of access to inclusive health insurance and an inability to afford or overcome discriminatory policies and practices to receive gender-affirming care.

The path forward is clear – we need our federal elected officials to take leadership, take action, and protect voting rights NOW in order to rebuild and strengthen our democracy. This country belongs to all of us. This is our democracy, and we demand our rightful place in it. Pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act now!

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Executive Director, Kierra Johnson, joined the Task Force in 2018 as Deputy Executive Director and previously served on the board of directors.

As a bisexual Black woman, Johnson is one of a few out queer-identified women of color at the helm of a national LGBTQ organization.

She is recognized as a national expert on queer and reproductive rights issues and has testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives.

 

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