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The Song of Achilles; When he died all things were buried with him

We also began promoting the power of kindness to heal our broken world and to promote and support LGBTQIA+community and ethnic diversity

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Jeanne Pepper (L) The Demolition Dolls, Gideon Bernstein (R) 2018 'Blaze It Forward' Orange County Pride. This was the first Pride after the death of their son Blaze. (Photo courtesy of the Bernstein family)

“The sorrow was so large it threatened to tear through my skin. When he died, all things swift and beautiful and bright would be buried with him.” 

Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles  

By Jeanne Pepper | I told myself I would not do it again:  explain who I am and who my son was as an introduction to my story.  I love writing, but how many times can I talk about the horrific things that happened?   What you need to know: he was gay, Jewish, and the victim of a hate crime.   This tragedy propelled me into the public eye and gave me a chance to be an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, and it also ended the  beautiful life of my son Blaze Bernstein.  He should be enjoying gay pride month this June, but instead his body lies in an Orange County cemetery since January 2018.   He died at just 19 years of age.  

I don’t want to be a captive storyteller, forced to regurgitate our sad truth and the story of how we endured Blaze’s disappearance and violent death.  I want to talk about the great things we have accomplished since then and the miraculous things people around the country did and continue to do to show their support for those who identify as queer and for the kindness movement we wholeheartedly embraced when we started #BlazeitForward in honor of Blaze.   The story of my brilliant and kind son who was going to change the world,  should not start with the horrific ending of his life.  The story should start with hope because his life started with and even in death continues to give hope to all of us.

The night he disappeared many of my dreams for my family ended and a radical new timeline began.  I came out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQIA+ and a parent of a gay teen.  While Blaze was alive and living in the closet, he was not comfortable with us participating in any activities that would draw attention to his sexual orientation.  While we encouraged him to live openly, he was young and we respected his right to “out” himself.  We will never know how our failure to educate ourselves and our family on how best to support a gay child impacted the tragedy that came to us. 

Our family lived in the shadow of the normative Orange County world that we raised him in that did not understand the needs of gay teenagers or the dangers they face both from alienation that can lead to teen suicide nor did we understand the dangers posed by malevolent outsiders and ignorant peers, teachers and strangers.  It was this revelation after his death that spurred our entry into the public eye when the opportunity arose. 

My husband Gideon and I made the quick decision that Blaze’s death should herald a new age of sex positivity.  We also wanted to do something about the stereotypes and hateful tropes we heard about Jewish people and that inundated the media.  While Blaze would not live to see a world where his uniqueness and kindness became an ideal, we live to promote it.   We exposed the haters and hate groups as we did the unthinkable:  put our mourning on hold and immediately used his death to educate the public about the danger hate groups such as Atomwaffen pose to all of us.  We also began promoting the power of kindness to heal our broken world and to promote and support LGBTQIA+ community and ethnic diversity.  

As the years after his death progressed, a pattern began to develop.  The polarization in political, religious and sexual beliefs became unmanageable in our country.  We could not come together to fight the pandemic when it began.  Civil unrest ensued.  Corruption and racism exposed throughout the United States caused rioting and more polarization.   Reforms were proposed.   People began to see the need for learning how to have respectful discourse.  Some became more sensitive and either apologetic for wrongs against the marginalized or outraged by the way the system has kept us marginalized.  No one was left untouched by the violence, inequity, and unhappiness that was left in the wake of the events of the last few years.  

Blaze’s murder could serve as a catalyst for positive peaceful social change.  Was the world ready for the message?  Probably more than ever.  What was the message?  Be good to each other.  Be kind.  Don’t wait for things to get better.  Take affirmative intentional action now.

Photo: Jeanne Pepper (L) and Gideon Bernstein

We coined the term #BlazeitForward and use it to encourage people to do intentional kind acts in honor of Blaze and his legacy.   My husband and I spent the last few years powering the Facebook public group #BlazeitForward where we encourage our members to post stories of kindness, community philanthropy and everyday miracles.   We also oversee endowments created in Blaze’s name that fuel college scholarships, the Blaze Bernstein school of Culinary Arts at the Merage Jewish Community Center, annual Orange County School of the Arts conservatory funding, an annual Real Arts internship for the University of Pennsylvania, and annual donations to various foundations such as homeless shelters, Orangewood Foundation, the Human Relations Council, Second Harvest Food Bank, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Tilly’s Life Center, the Anti-Defamation League, The LGBTQ Center of Orange County, and The City of Hope, to name a few.

In addition to our advocacy for marginalized people and holocaust education, we speak out against homophobia and hate groups, conversion therapy, bullying and hate speech.   We do all of this to give life to Blaze’s legacy of kindness while we await the commencement of the criminal trial set to begin by the Fall of this year.  

In June we stand proud with good people around the country and celebrate Gay Pride.  I cringe at the absurdity that I could not do this with Blaze.  We “came out” and support the LGBTQIA+ community because there are parents out there who do not know what to do or say to help their LGBTQIA+ children.  Hearing me speak out could be the first time, they learn the importance of giving these kids acceptance and love.  

If you want to repair the world, you need to start at home with your own family.  Do it right now.  Call your younger siblings and tell them you are a proud supporter of this community.  Give your teen a hug and tell them that their sexual orientation is not something they need to hide – you love them and support them unconditionally.  Tell your kids that hate in any form and for any reason is something you will not support.  Educate your kids on hate groups, the holocaust, the dangers of ethnocentrism and the beauty of diversity.  Go to a gay pride parade.  Show your support for and be curious about people who are different.  Listen non-judgmentally to the stories of others.  Join the #BlazeitForward group on Facebook.  Create a legacy of kindness in your family.

Editor’s Note: More on the Bernstein’s son’s murder case can be read here, ( LINK )

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It’s time to prioritize the plight of trans and queer refugees

In order for the United States to truly be a safe place for persecuted LGBTQ+ people, immigration reform alone is not enough

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By Jamie Sgarro | NEW YORK – Every year, on June 20th, World Refugee Day overlaps with LGBTQ+ Pride Month. This day presents an opportunity to raise awareness of the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees, and to demand action to reestablish the United States as a safe harbor for the thousands of persecuted LGBTQ+ people who seek refuge here every year.   

When the U.S. presidential election was called for Joe Biden, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. During its first 100 days in office, the Biden-Harris administration has slowly begun to undo Trump’s legacy of hate on LGBTQ+ rights and immigration. As the founder of a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ+ asylum and a newly “out” trans person, I am encouraged by the administration’s early efforts, but I also recognize that there is still much more work to be done.   

So far, in support of LGBTQ+ rights, the administration has urged Congress to pass the Equality Act, committed to advocating for LGBTQ+ equality abroad, issued the first presidential proclamation recognizing Transgender Day of Visibility, and signed an executive order repealing the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military. The new administration has also begun to unwind Trump’s immigration policies by ceasing new enrollments in the Migrant Protection Protocols policy its first day in office before formally ending the policy in June, reversing Trump’s “Muslim ban”, and eliminating Trump’s historically-low limits on refugee resettlement. 

But, despite this incremental progress, we must hold the new administration accountable for its promises not yet achieved. The administration’s action—or lack thereof—on both LGBTQ+ and immigration issues have life-or-death ramifications for persecuted trans and queer people. For example, since taking office, President Biden has enforced Title 42, a Trump-era policy that has resulted in most asylum seekers being turned away at the southern border without the opportunity to apply for protections in the U.S. According to WOLA, since March 2020, this policy has expelled more than 750,000 undocumented migrants apprehended at the border back to Mexico or their home countries. President Biden’s reversal of the Migrant Protection Protocols policy (known as “Remain in Mexico”) has also stranded over 30,000 asylum seekers whose claims were denied or dismissed under the policy in Mexico. LGBTQ+ asylum seekers cannot wait safely in Mexico and are at risk of murder upon deportation to their home countries.    

Additionally, while immigration enforcement has decreased under the new administration, President Biden has continued to detain LGBTQ+ immigrants. The U.S. detention system is dangerous, even lethal, for LGBTQ+ individuals (especially trans women). According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ+ immigrants held at federal detention centers are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other detainees. In this context, anything less than the immediate release of every transgender, gender nonconforming and queer person from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention centers is insufficient. Fleeing persecution to live authentically should never result in arbitrary imprisonment.    

In order for the United States to truly be a safe place for persecuted LGBTQ+ people, immigration reform alone is not enough. The administration must also ensure that all LGBTQ+ people have full equality under the law and the freedom to safely walk down the street. Although America has made significant strides in the right direction on LGBTQ+ rights —from increased representation in media to the recent landmark Supreme Court ruling banning workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees —our country still falls short of social acceptance in many communities and still lacks federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in critical areas including housing, education, federal funding, public accommodations, credit, and the opportunity to serve on a jury. Trans women of color continue to face a deadly epidemic of violence, and trans youth can still be subjected to psychologically-damaging conversion therapy in 25 states.  

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2021 is already the worst year in recent history for state legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ rights. So far, 17 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been enacted. This coordinated legislative effort particularly targets the transgender community. These attacks are damaging to all trans people but are perhaps especially cruel for trans refugees who have courageously fled persecution in pursuit of a better life. Upon arrival in the United States, LGBTQ+ refugees deserve to be met with compassion, not an onslaught of discriminatory legislation and rhetoric.  

It is time for America to prioritize welcoming trans and queer refugees. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live authentically without fear.

 

Jamie Sgarro is the co-founder of AsylumConnect, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization providing the world’s first web and mobile resource platform for LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution.

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Take to the streets of WeHo on June 27 — it’s time to march before we party

“We don’t need corporate sponsors or fancy floats and bands or even contingents of LGBTQ clubs and organizations”

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If Kamala Harris and her husband can join a Pride walk through DC, you can do it in WeHo and the Los Angeles Blade is calling on its readers, the community and the City of West Hollywood to do just that on Sunday morning, June 27 at 10 AM.

There, I said it.

Bring friends, make signs, wave flags. No floats, no speeches, just you and your loved one’s celebrating our first amendment rights.

On June 15, you can start to reclaim your life and get back to something close to normal and that means Pride can begin to bounce back.

Just this past week Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that makes marching possible. It lifts the coronavirus pandemic’s emergency restrictions that we’ve endured for the past 15 months.

And as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s time to celebrate. More than 60 percent of LA County is fully vaccinated.

Pride is, after all, a celebration of coming out and it doesn’t have to be the fancy float filled event of year’s past.

That requires months of planning, millions of dollars of sponsorship sales, a plethora of communications, and complex, coordinated efforts to stage Pride as we’ve come to love it.

On June 28, 1970, with approximately 1,000 people in attendance, marchers headed in an Easterly route along Hollywood Boulevard, starting at Hollywood and Highland, moving east to Vine Street, and then back to Hollywood and Highland to finish.

It was a simple effort that was accomplished without any complicated sponsor engagement or much planning. It was an almost spontaneous celebration.

Eight short blocks, and importantly, during another pandemic, a pandemic of violence and bigotry, when the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had active Vice and Morals squads who pursued gay men terrorising and arresting them in entrapment schemes raids, and frankly by any means available to incarcerate them just for being gay. Lesbians, trans people and drag queens and any kind of queer person too was also targeted and harassed by the LAPD and LASD.

There were no services, no safe spaces at that time, not really, and the nascent ‘gayborhoods’ such as the Castro in San Francisco, or the West Village in New York, or Northalsted (Boystown) in Chicago, DuPont Circle in Washington and of course WeHo were just then building the deeper roots becoming the hubs for the protests and the widespread LGBTQ+ movement that would follow in the decades to come.

A gay man or lesbian born that month would now be fifty-one, middle aged, growing up in a world after that time when Pride was more than a protest march. In fact, those marchers were fighting and protesting loudly for the very rights that have since transpired, albeit not in a sense of full parity or equity just yet.

Same-sex marriage, open military service, LGBTQ+ elected officials at all levels of government from local, state, to federal in greater numbers that even those early pioneers thought possible.

Yet the fight for full LGBTQ equality still continues and very much requires active participation and yes, protest marches to get our elected officials and fellow citizens to see us as fully enfranchised human beings.

The LGBTQ+ community needs to have, needs to present a unified and loud voice folks. Granted this past year the entire world moved online into a virtual reality of zoom meetings, Facetime calls, and tons of Instagram and Tik Tok videos. But the very problems that confront our community didn’t disappear with COVID, in fact in some ways those problems were exacerbated by the pandemic.

However, one thing did happen and that was because all of us were trapped at home and our only true window on the world was virtual, we were witness to the horrors of systematic racism that caused the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans. We saw Republicans in over thirty states enact or try to enact legislation that attempts wholesale erasure of our Trans brothers and sisters.

Yes, many defied coronavirus restrictions and participated in the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, in fact in our own neighborhoods here in Los Angeles and the ‘gayborhood’ of West Hollywood people marched for #Blacklivesmatter.

We don’t need corporate sponsors or fancy floats and bands or even contingents of LGBTQ clubs and organizations. No, what we do need is shoe leather on the asphalt and voices raised loudly. We need you, every single member of the greater LA LGBTQ+ community to gather to protest the ongoing injustice perpetuated by an opposition to our very existence. Folks, Trump maybe gone, but the dark forces that put him in office are not. Need proof? Look no further than the recall effort against Governor Gavin Newsom. Look at the litany of anti-trans legislation passed and signed into law by over 15 states.

Look at the fact that even here in supposedly “LGBTQ+ friendly” California we were erased as a community from the data on just how badly our community was and remains impacted by the pandemic. This paper, along with Equality California, Senator Scott Weiner, Assembly member Evan Low and others fought hard to get a law passed to stop that erasure.

We still need to march, we must march we must have our collective voices heard. Yes, there’s an absolute acknowledgment that the legacy organization of LA Pride and other Pride groups were deeply affected and were unable to launch events. Yes, there was no possible way to hold a Pride as an entity, instead its a mixture of virtual and smaller in-person events.

But- before you head to Roccos or the Abby or the venue of choice, before you wrap yourself up in the rainbow festivities and social gatherings on Robertson, maybe it is time to reimagine how Pride truly ought to be symbolic by returning to its very roots and holding a peaceful ad hoc Pride walk assembling at N. Crescent Heights Dr. and Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood at 10 AM.

Troy Masters is the Publisher of the Los Angeles Blade

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LA County’s Dept. of Child & Family Services ignoring LGBTQ foster youth

LA LGBT Center calls on Director Bobby Cagle & County’s Child & Family Services to stop intentional neglect of LGBTQ youth in foster care

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Photo Credit: LA LGBT Center

By Lorri L. Jean | Thirteen years ago, the County abandoned the LGBTQ youth under its care when it stopped funding the system’s only LGBTQ+-specific services. Despite expressly agreeing in the years since that such services are critical to properly care for and keep these youth safe from harm, and contrary to explicit promises to the Center and the State of California that they would remedy this situation, the County has failed to act. 

All we’ve seen from Bobby Cagle are empty promises. The appalling consequences for LGBTQ youth have been dire, including emotional trauma, torture, and even death. Yet, the very agency responsible for their care and protection, knowing this for many years, has done nothing to change the situation. This intentional neglect must stop!

The County knows that at least 1 in 5 youth under their care are LGBTQ; and 90% of these are youth of color. They know, too, that their failure to properly care for these youth is actually causing them irreparable harm. Yet, they can’t manage to take even the simplest step of asking the Board of Supervisors for the resources necessary to prevent LGBTQ+ foster youth from a life of suffering. This shocking dereliction of duty is inexcusable. Queer youth of color are not expendable! It’s time for our County to do whatever is necessary to save the lives of LGBTQ foster youth.

According to research commissioned by the Center and conducted by UCLA’s Williams Institute in 2014, approximately 20% of foster youth identify as LGBTQ and more than 90% of them are youth of color. Other studies have indicated that as many as 30% of foster youth identify as LGBTQ. There is no dispute that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in Los Angeles County’s child welfare system yet there is zero investment in programs and services specifically for them.

My colleague, the Center’s Youth & Family Connections Manager Jo Cerda pointed out that “LGBTQ youth need services and programs specifically designed for them to exist in the foster care system and enter the world as healthy, equal, and complete members of society. The failure of DCFS to provide culturally competent services to LGBTQ youth of color is causing actual harm to these youth. Our children are suffering and dying under the DCFS watch. They deserve better. DCFS has failed LGBTQ youth by denying them life-saving services,” she said.

Amid the high-profile child fatalities of Gabriel F. and Anthony A., two youth under the care of DCFS who were tortured and murdered for their gender expression and perceived sexual orientation, the Center attempted to work with DCFS to prevent future horrific acts like these and to establish LGBTQ-specific services.

In response to a DCFS request, the Center created a County-wide plan that detailed an achievable, comprehensive, and efficient approach to provide LGBTQ+-specific services, including positive identity development programs, mental health services, and case management.

Then as a direct response to a State audit into the death of Anthony A., DCFS promised to implement such vital services. Yet, DCFS has refused to allocate a single penny to the LGBTQ+-specific services that are necessary to prevent LGBTQ+ foster youth from irreparable harm.

“When LGBTQ youth end up in the foster care system, they deserve to find a social worker who understands them, aligns them with programs that affirm their identities, and addresses their unique needs in a nurturing way,” another Center colleague, Erica Rodriguez, a Center clinician who provides direct mental health services to LGBTQ foster youth told me.

“DCFS came to the Center and asked us for a plan. We presented a plan, yet DCFS has failed to share it with the Board of Supervisors for approval. Director Cagle and his DCFS staff need to act now before another youth dies,” she added.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has direct oversight of DCFS and Director Cagle. Contact your Supervisor now and demand that DCFS and Director Cagle immediately fund and provide LGBTQ+-specific services so our LGBTQ foster youth have the opportunity to live safe, healthy, and productive lives.

Take action by finding your Supervisor, contacting Director Cagle, and staying connected at lalgbtcenter.org/DCFS.

Lorri L. Jean is the CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center

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