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Bi, pan, queer people need the Equality Act’s protections

I’ve seen firsthand the injustices that bisexual people face

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(Photo by Peter Salanki; courtesy Flickr)

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering three cases that could decide whether LGBTQ+ people will continue to be protected from discrimination under federal civil rights laws. As we wait for the justices’ critical and historic decision — which will literally determine how LGBTQ+ people live our lives in our own country — we must remain stalwart in our commitment to passing crucial legislation that finally clearly and fully protects from discrimination bisexual people, and those who identify as pansexual, sexually fluid or queer.

People are often surprised to learn that bisexual people make up the single largest—and fastest-growing—group within the LGBTQ+ community. However, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute and the HRC Foundation’s research, about 50% of people who identify as either gay, lesbian or bisexual, identify as bisexual. Data compiled by the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey suggests that the number of openly bisexual Americans has tripled over the past decade.

The Supreme Court’s decision in these cases could effectively decide whether to solidify or take away non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people under federal civil rights laws, which prohibit sex discrimination in contexts ranging from employment to housing, healthcare and education.

The workplace—the location of discrimination in the three cases being considered at the Supreme Court—can be an especially difficult and distressing terrain for bisexual employees. And yet, many conversations regarding these cases—and workplace discrimination in general – have erased the bisexual community. HRC Foundation data shows that 37% of LGBTQ workers have heard bisexual-specific jokes in the workplace. A 2016 study by Prudential found that bisexual women make nearly $10,000 less on average than their lesbian peers, and nearly $16,000 less than the average straight woman. A person’s sexual orientation should never be a barrier to achieving their professional or educational goals, raising a family or simply living their life in the public square without risk of discrimination.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court decides, the Senate must join the House in acting immediately to pass the Equality Act to explicitly codify protections for the LGBTQ+ community and address the significant gaps in federal civil rights laws for everyone. The bipartisan legislation has growing, unprecedented support, including from nearly 70% of Americans, hundreds of members of Congress, more than 250 major businesses, more than 500 social justice, religious, medical and child welfare organizations and more than 60 national trade associations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable.

This legislation would have a widespread and positive impact on the bisexual community. Currently, 50% of LGBTQ Americans live in the 29 states that still lack explicit statewide non-discrimination protections, leaving them at risk of being fired, denied housing, or refused service because of who they are or who they love. This means, without the Equality Act, it is possible that a man living with his wife could be kicked out of his apartment if his landlord finds out he once dated a man. A bisexual woman could be fired from her job simply because of her sexual orientation. A pansexual person could be denied access to an LGBTQ-focused education or job training program because they are not seen as being gay “enough”— or too gay.

For me, enshrining the protections of the Equality Act is deeply personal. I’ve identified as bisexual for 43 years, and I have spent my career advocating for marginalized communities. My wife and I are about to celebrate our 23rd anniversary. I’ve seen firsthand the injustices that bisexual people and other LGBTQ+ people face because we lack explicit legal protections under the law. I know my visibility as an openly bisexual woman matters when we talk about this legislation because our community faces unique challenges that can be all too easily dismissed or ignored.

No one should be denied a job or fired simply because of who they are or whom they love. The Supreme Court has an opportunity to uphold this area of law to ensure protections for LGBTQ+ people in many important areas of life. But, regardless of this outcome, passage of the Equality Act is a critical step toward ensuring that bisexual, pansexual, sexually fluid, and queer people, alongside the full LGBTQ+ community, realize the promise of equal opportunity for all.

 

Robyn Ochs is a longtime LGBTQ rights advocate and editor of Bi Women Quarterly.

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Farewell to a Genius: a tribute to Sondheim

The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world

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President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Stephen Sondheim Nov. 24, 2015 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

PALM SPRINGS – When I learned of the passing of Stephen Sondheim, I was playing a game.

Like so many of us nowadays, I spend more of my downtime than I care to admit mindlessly distracting myself by manipulating pixels on a handheld screen, so although I wish I could say it was the kind of brain-challenging, devilishly clever game of which of Sondheim himself was famously a fan, it most definitely was not.

Brainless as it may have been, this was what I was doing when the notification banner suddenly popped up. Short and to the point, it was a breaking news alert: “Stephen Sondheim, master craftsman who reinvented the musical, dies aged 91.”

At first, I went through the reflexive mental process of acknowledging that, although I felt a pang of sorrow, there was comfort in knowing he had lived a phenomenally lengthy life of success and accomplishment surely beyond his wildest dreams.

It was true that I loved Stephen Sondheim as much as it was possible to love any human being I had never actually met, but this was an inevitable event for which I had stoically prepared in advance. I couldn’t find it within myself to be sad.

It was shortly thereafter that I realized this was a loss I was going to feel for the rest of my life.

Like many little gay boys of my generation, I grew up being exposed to musical theatre through the old cast albums my parents owned. “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” “Cabaret” – the songs from these and so many more classic shows made up a big portion of the soundtrack to my childhood, fanning the flames of a lifelong love that continues to this day.

I was aware of Sondheim at the time – but I wasn’t impressed. Naturally, I loved “West Side Story” – already a movie buff, it was one of my favorite Hollywood classics – but I had no interest for shows like “Company,” “Follies,” or “A Little Night Music,” which were about boring grown-ups going through boring grown-up things and taking it all far too seriously.

It wasn’t until later, when I discovered “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as a teen, that I was hooked. Here was all the over-the-top, period-costumed spectacle I adored about musical theatre wrapped up into a deliciously gruesome tale of people being slaughtered and served up as meat pies, and Angela Lansbury was the star. I couldn’t resist it, and as I listened for the first time to its dizzyingly complex songs, I finally “got” Sondheim.

Simultaneously, the old-fashioned favorites from my youth began to lose a little bit of their luster for me. Compared to this darkly beautiful masterpiece, in which somehow even the most reprehensible actions and characters were imbued with a comprehensible humanity, they seemed suddenly quaint and unsophisticated, relics of a world that was quickly fading away.

This was true, of course, for an entire generation. The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world where musicals didn’t have to be brain candy, where they could make the kind of observations and revelations about the fathomless depths of human experience that had previously been the sole province of the so-called “legitimate” theatre.

But you don’t need me to tell you that: if you’ve read any of the countless obituaries and tributes published in the wake of his passing, you already know it, if you didn’t already.

In writing this tribute, it was suggested I might offer up a “thoroughly LA” take on the life of this icon – and since I normally write mostly about film and television, that certainly is fitting. I could point out that the boundary-pushing genius which helped Sondheim transform the Broadway musical was the very thing that made him a hard sell in Hollywood. His work was inherently theatrical, a delicate balance of razor-sharp reality and high concept conceit, and, to be fair, even the greatest of filmmakers would likely be challenged to capture the right blend on a screen.

“West Side” was a multi-Oscar-winning hit on film, but it was already a cultural sensation by the time it was made, and other early adaptations of his work (“Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music”) failed to make quite as big a splash. Later, high-profile screen versions were made of “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” – but for devotees, despite their relative financial success, these were pale shadows of the master’s originals. Still, Sondheim made an impact on Hollywood in other ways; most memorably, he won an Oscar for writing “Sooner or Later” for Madonna to sing in “Dick Tracy.” He also contributed songs for movies like Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” and even co-wrote (with longtime friend Anthony Perkins) the twisted screenplay for “The Last of Sheila,” a wickedly inventive comedy-mystery from 1973 that has achieved cult status even outside the Sondheim fanbase.

But really, Sondheim was not of Hollywood, or of LA, or even of New York, though his sensibilities were a considerably better fit there. The truth, the insight, the intelligence, and the boundless curiosity about life that permeated all his works prove that he was beyond belonging to a particular place or time. 

Of course, die-hard Sondheim fans – and trust me, there are more of us than you think – need no proof that his was a universal voice. That’s why we are all so eager to talk about him, to drop quotes from his lyrics into as many conversations possible, and to tell you which Sondheim song is their favorite and why they think it’s the best of all.

And which is mine? I tend to fluctuate, depending on where I am at in my life at the time. It’s often tempting to count the devastating “Ladies Who Lunch,” an existential crisis set to music, at the top of the list. At other times it’s “Finishing the Hat,” a confessional lament about the emotional isolation of being an artist, or “I’m Still Here,” an oft-recorded celebration of show-biz survivors that’s been embraced by other kinds of survivors as well. Like a lot of us who were around in the 80s and 90s, I also feel a deep connection to “No One Is Alone,” the heartfelt ballad of comfort adopted as an anthem during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis.

Yet there’s one song I keep coming back to, over and over. “Someone in a Tree” was composed for “Pacific Overtures,” a show about the opening of Japan to Western commerce in the 19th century. In the song, concealed observers watch a treaty being negotiated behind closed doors, yet they can report no relevant information about what takes place in the meeting because they only see it from their limited viewpoints.

In lesser hands, the situation might be nothing more than fodder for an extended comedy of errors, but for Sondheim it becomes a springboard into a Zen-like meditation – “It’s the ripple, not the sea, that is happening” – about the importance of perspective.  It’s a breathtaking achievement, and at one point in his career the composer himself once cited it as his favorite among all his works. If I had to pick one, it would be mine, too.

That’s because perspective is probably the greatest gift of the many that Sondheim gave me: he opened my eyes to a world of infinite viewpoints, where even the most mundane or ridiculous or horrific or devastating moments can be seen as beautiful, and where every single human experience has meaning, if only you can find the right angle from which to look at it.

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John Paul King is the Los Angeles Blade’s Arts & Entertainment editor and featured A&E columnist

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Evangelical Christian groups flout the law – again

Christian Right groups promoting anti-LGBT practices in the US and abroad, despite bans, is nothing new: they’ve been doing it for decades

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Graphic design by Inge Snip via openDemocracy

By Chrissy Stroop | PORTLAND – In recent years, 40% of American states, along with more than 100 municipalities, have begun banning mental health professionals from providing so-called ‘conversion therapy’ to minors (defined in the United States as people under the age of 18).

The American Psychiatric Association, which first expressed its “strong opposition” to this harmful practice in 1998, reiterated its position in 2018 – at a time when anti-LGBTQ sentiments were flaring up amid a general right-wing backlash against democratic norms and civil rights gains. The American Psychological Association has also provided a helpful list of talking points in support of legislative efforts to ban ‘conversion therapy’.

Whether such bans are observed or enforced, however, is another matter.

Targeting minors

A new investigation by openDemocracy has revealed that one of the US’s most prominent anti-LGBTQ organisations, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, has continued to promote ‘conversion therapy’ to minors – even in areas where bans are in place. An undercover reporter posing as a 17-year-old “struggling with same-sex attraction” found Focus-affiliated therapists who were willing to “help” her “change” her sexual orientation in Virginia and Colorado, both states that ban ‘conversion therapy’ for minors.

In addition, openDemocracy discovered that Focus on the Family’s list of approved counsellors includes “dozens” of “licensed professionals who offer specific treatment for ‘homosexuality issues’, ‘gender identity issues’ or both” and “have children and adolescents as clients, including in states where ‘conversion therapy’ is banned”.

Practitioners seeking Focus’s imprimatur must have a “state mental health credential”, which means that the group is not only flouting state and local ‘conversion therapy’ bans, but also demanding that licensed therapists flout the established standards of their fields in favour of fundamentalist Christian ideology that treats queerness as “sin”.

Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by Dr James Dobson, who believed corporal punishment was required of Christian parents, and who was far more influenced by eugenicist thinking than most evangelicals would prefer to admit. He soon established himself as a public figure, first as the conservative Christian disciplinarian answer to the nurturing style of parenting promoted by the likes of Dr Benjamin Spock, and then as a power broker in the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.

The group has some unpleasant friends. The Family Research Council (FRC) – designated an anti-LGBTQ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – was integrated into Focus on the Family in 1988, as its advocacy arm. They officially split into separate organisations again in 1992 (in a move to protect Focus’s tax-exempt status as a religious non-profit), but Dobson remained on the FRC’s board.

Disregard for legal norms

Focus on the Family’s extreme anti-LGBTQ animus is, of course, not unique on the Christian Right – and neither is its disregard for legal norms. For example, Liberty University, a hardline evangelical institution founded by culture warrior extraordinaire Jerry Falwell, Sr., once penalised law students who argued in an exam that an “ex-lesbian” mother should obey court orders requiring parental visiting rights for her ex-wife. The reason the mother – who was, in fact, not so hypothetical – was supposed to engage in “civil disobedience” was to “protect” her child from exposure to “the homosexual lifestyle”.

As documented by an FBI affidavit, the real-life mother behind the exam question had actually kidnapped her child and fled the US for Nicaragua, where she was staying in the beach house of a Christian Right activist. Which leads to the issue of the US Christian Right’s international reach.

Evangelical missionaries have contributed to the rise of reactionary politics in Latin America, and they are also well known for disregarding laws put in place to protect uncontacted Indigenous peoples. So we should not be surprised that – on top of the new revelations about Focus’s disregard for ‘conversion therapy’ bans in the US, openDemocracy has identified mental health practitioners with links to Focus and Exodus Global Alliance (another US Christian conservative group) accused of providing ‘conversion therapy’ in Costa Rica.

Although ‘conversion therapy’ is not yet banned in Costa Rica, it does represent a pernicious export from the US Christian Right, whose influence in Latin America is both longstanding and harmful. Focus’s presence in the region, via its Enfoque a la Familia offices, dates back to 1985.

American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith

Having grown up in this type of dominionist Christianity, I can’t say I’m surprised by openDemocracy’s findings. At the same time, it is immensely important to document the ways in which American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith.

They exploit bad-faith ‘religious freedom’ arguments to push a theocratic (and de facto white supremacist) agenda, and evade the law (whether local, national or international) when it doesn’t give them free rein to dominate others. If there’s one thing that should be very clear after the 6 January insurrection against the US government – which was undoubtedly driven by the religious right – it’s that right-wing Christians are willing to give up even a plausible veneer of support for democracy in order to hold on to power.

They will wield that power to harm marginalised people, however and wherever they can, and it is well past time for us to begin holding them accountable.

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A prominent ex-evangelical writer, speaker, and advocate, Chrissy Stroop is (with Lauren O’Neal) coeditor of the essay anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. A senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, her work has appeared in Dame Magazine, Foreign Policy, Playboy, Political Research Associates, and other outlets, including peer-reviewed academic journals.

Holding a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Stanford University, Stroop is a Senior Research Associate with the University of Innsbruck’s Postsecular Conflicts project. In 2019 Chrissy came out as a transgender woman and began her journey of medical transition. She resides in Portland, Oregon.

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The preceding article was first published at openDemocracy and is republished by permission.

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Impact of Transgender Day of Remembrance must be felt year-round

“We mourn the disproportionately-targeted Trans lives stolen from us by hate & prejudice. There’s a long road ahead to equality and justice”

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Photo by Max Huskins

LOS ANGELES – One of the most difficult days in the calendar for Trans, non-binary and queer identified people is every November 20. Primarily because it marks a day to honour and remember those human beings who have lost their lives due to violence, hate and extremism.

This year is no different as it has marked yet another deadly year for the Trans community, especially for Trans women of colour.

Globally of the 375 trans people murdered worldwide in the last year, nine out of 10 (96%) were trans women or transfeminine people, and more than half (58%) were sex workers. The average age of those murdered is 30 years old; the youngest being 13.

Bamby Salcedo, founder of the Los Angeles-based [email protected] Coalition wrote in an email, “We mourn the disproportionately-targeted Trans lives stolen from us by hate and entrenched prejudice. There is a long road ahead to true, lived equality and justice for our Trans community.”

She continued; “In Los Angeles County, and our country as a whole, diversity is our strength. It is what sets America apart from most other countries in the whole of human history, and it has inspired millions of dreams at home and abroad. 

Our immigrant Trans siblings and their well-being are essential to the integrity of the American Dream. We must do everything in our power to ensure that their rights and dreams are equally protected.”

Salcedo was also advocating for the critical point of who we as the LGBTQ+ community, elects to public office and their commitment to the Trans community matters. “We need leaders who understand and empathize with the unique, intersectional challenges we face,” she wrote.

The purpose of her email was to endorse and then advocate that the community back a particular candidate running in a local race. Yet the issues and points she raised bears repeating.

In Washington today, the White House reviewed the actions of the Biden-Harris Administration and released a report highlighting over 45 key, early actions the Administration is taking to address the root causes of anti-transgender violence, discrimination, and denial of economic opportunity, including:

  • Taking steps to expand the availability of accurate Federal IDs for transgender and gender diverse Americans. Building on the State Department’s announcement that it will offer a third gender marker on U.S. passports, the White House is convening an interagency policy committee to advance a coordinated federal approach to expanding access to accurate and inclusive federal identity documents for transgender and gender diverse people.
     
  • Expanding access to gender-affirming care as an essential health benefit. In 2021, the Biden-Harris administration approved the first ever application from a state to add additional gender-affirming care benefits to a state’s essential health benefit benchmark plan.
     
  • Advancing health equity research on gender-affirming care. NIH will increase funding for research on gender-affirming procedures to further develop the evidence base for improved standards of care. Research priorities include a more thorough investigation and characterization of the short- and long-term outcomes on physical and mental health associated with gender-affirming care.
     
  • Ending the HIV crisis among transgender and gender diverse communities. The White House Office of National AIDS Policy will identity transgender and gender diverse communities as a priority population in the revised National HIV AIDS Strategy which will be released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2021.
     
  • Expanding resources for transgender and gender diverse youth in care. The Children’s Bureau at HHS will highlight the needs of LGBTQI+ children and youth in announcements for mandatory and discretionary funding that supports youth in or transitioning from foster care. 
     
  • Advancing research to address the harms of so-called conversion therapy. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will update its 2015 publication Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth to reflect the latest research and state of the field. 
     
  • Advancing safety and justice for transgender and Two Spirit missing and murdered Indigenous peoplePresident Biden signed an Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People. The Executive Order acknowledges that LGBTQI+ Native Americans and people who identify as Two-Spirit people are frequent targets of violence. The Executive Order directs federal agencies to work hand in hand with Tribal Nations and Tribal partners to build safe and healthy Tribal communities and to support comprehensive law enforcement, prevention, intervention, and support services to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, including for transgender, gender diverse, and Two-Spirit Native Americans.
     
  • Advancing data collection and research on the needs of transgender older adults. To advance equity for transgender and gender diverse elders, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) will establish a technical advisory panel to advise on possible questions for the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

To address the crisis of anti-transgender stigma and violence, during Pride Month the White House established the first Interagency Working Group on Safety, Opportunity, and Inclusion for Transgender and Gender Diverse Individuals (Working Group).

The Working Group, which is led by the White House Domestic Policy Council and Gender Policy Council, is charged with leading a coordinated federal approach to advance safety, economic opportunity, and inclusion for transgender and gender diverse people in the United States and around the world.

To inform the priorities of the Working Group, throughout the fall of 2021 the White House convened 15 listening sessions with transgender and gender diverse people, advocates, and civil rights leaders from across the country and around the world.

Today’s report shares findings from these listening sessions and uplifts the voices and advocacy of transgender and gender diverse people throughout the United States and around the world.  

Today’s actions to honor the lives of transgender and gender diverse people lost to violence build on historic steps by the Biden-Harris Administration to advance LGBTQI+ equality and civil rights for transgender and gender diverse communities. Since taking office, the Biden-Harris Administration has taken critical steps to advance equality for transgender and gender diverse Americans:

  • Signing One of the Most Comprehensive Executive Orders in History on LGBTQI+ Rights on His First Day in Office. Within hours of taking the oath of office, President Biden signed an Executive Order Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation. The Executive Order established that it is the official policy of the Biden-Harris Administration to prevent and combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, and to fully enforce civil rights laws to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. The President directed all federal agencies to implement fully all federal laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, to include sexual orientation and gender identity. This Executive Order is one of the most consequential policies for LGBTQ+ Americans ever signed by a U.S. President. As a result of that Order, agencies have already taken key steps to advance equality for transgender and gender diverse people in housing, healthcare, education, employment, and credit and lending services.
     
  • Fighting for passage of the Equality Act. President Biden continues to call on the Senate to swiftly pass the Equality Act, legislation which will provide long overdue federal civil rights protections to LGBTQI+ Americans and their families, while strengthening some key civil rights laws for people of color, women, people with disabilities, and people of faith. As the White House has said, passing the Equality Act is key to addressing the epidemic levels of violence and discrimination that transgender people face.
     
  • Reversing the discriminatory ban on transgender servicemembers. In his first week in office, President Biden signed an Executive Order reversing the ban on openly transgender servicemembers serving in the Armed Forces, enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform. President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, America’s strength is found in its diversity, and an inclusive military strengthens our national security As a result of his Executive Order, the Department of Defense issued new policies which prohibit discrimination against transgender servicemembers, provide a path for transgender servicemembers to access gender-affirming medical care, and require that all transgender servicemembers are treated with dignity and respect. Patriotic transgender servicemembers are once again able to openly and proudly serve our Nation in uniform.
     
  • Signing and Leading Implementation of a Presidential Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around the World. President Biden directed all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons. His Memorandum establishes that it “shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons around the world.”
     
  • Ensuring Transgender Americans Can Access Emergency Shelter That Dignifies and Respects Their Identity. The Department of Housing and Urban Development restored protections for transgender individuals seeking emergency shelter and homeless services. HUD reaffirmed its commitment that no person be denied access to housing or other critical services because of their gender identity.

The cycle of violence against the Trans community must be broken. While the Biden-Harris Administration is working on solutions and policies at the federal level, it is critical to continue the push at the state and local level as Salcedo pointed out.

More-so though there is a need to break the cycle so that less lives are lost to hate and extremism and that begins at the local level. Emphasis needs to be placed on unconditional support and advocacy- not just showing up to a candle-lit vigil to mourn and grieve another Trans life lost.

Advocacy should be to the community supporting sex workers, advocacy should be to show full throated support of Trans youth to be able to play the sports or participate in activities that mesh with their gender identity and not the societal determined “birth gender” construct. Advocacy should be to counter the lies and misconceptions about Trans people and to embrace their existence as human beings.

“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,” Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said.

The year long impact of the Transgender Day of Remembrance must be to honour those lost and prevent further uncessecary loss of life by taking those measures outlined and to create the awareness that Trans people are just that, people.

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Troy Masters is the publisher of the Los Angeles Blade and Brody Levesque is the editor.

 

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