Tennessee drag performers brace for ‘drag ban’ law
Gov. Bill Lee signed the so-called “drag ban,” into law on March 2, setting fines and even jail time set to take effect on April 1
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Tennessee has passed a number of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, including a measure that criminalizes gender-affirming care for transgender youth and a law that could be used to stop all drag shows on public property or in the presence of anyone under the age of 18.
In response to the anti-drag law, the owner and staff at the Tennessee gay bar New Beginnings held an all-ages drag brunch fundraiser on Sunday, raising $3,500 to combat gun violence in schools.
Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed Senate Bill 2, the so-called “drag ban,” into law on March 2, setting fines and even jail time for “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” in the presence of minors or on public property. The vague language of the new law, set to take effect on April 1 has advocates, business owners and entertainers concerned about how the law might be enforced.
“We don’t view the language of the bill as banning all public drag,” Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders told the Washington Blade. “But with that said, it is restrictive and it will embolden those who want to police and harass drag performances outside 18+ clubs. The implementation will be in the hands of law enforcement and district attorneys across the state and that is really where the potential for arbitrary enforcement comes in. In some of the larger cities, I do not believe that law enforcement or the district attorneys will view a drag brunch as a violation. I don’t speak for them, though. But in other parts of the state, the matter could be more complicated. Regardless of how one reads the text of the law, it will embolden groups who go around filming drag performances and take segments out of context.”
New Beginnings is a ‘safe space’
One place where drag thrives in the state is New Beginnings, a sprawling nightclub located in Johnson City. New Beginnings, founded in 1987, is the only full-time LGBTQ venue currently in operation in the Tri-Cities area that includes Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn., as well as Bristol, Va.
“We try to give the young people who come here something nicer than the circumstances they live in,” Mark, a New Beginnings bartender, told the Blade. “Many of these kids have never been on a plane, have never left the Tri-Cities area. We provide them with a safe space to be who they are and to experience the world: To see something of New Orleans or places outside.”
New Beginnings faces regular protesters and had an inauspicious beginning, according to Michael Trivette, who owns New Beginnings with his husband and extended family. He recounted to the Blade, “When we first opened up here in 1987, I was in the back parking lot painting stripes because they had to be marked for permits and a police officer came through and said, ‘I understand that you are putting a gay bar in here . . . you can just tell whoever that there’s not going to be no gay bar in my district.’ He said, ‘I’ll close it down.’ and this was before we even opened.”
Things have changed over the years as both New Beginnings and the LGBTQ community as a whole have gained wider acceptance, according to Trivette.
Trivette tells the Blade that New Beginnings often holds a drag brunch around the time of TriPride, an annual event that rotates between Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City. The TriPride drag brunch is now in jeopardy given concerns around the enforcement of the new law.
“When TriPride had pitched [having Pride in Johnson City in 2023] to the city commissioners and the mayor, they spoke so eloquently of an event to bring all of the people of the Tri-Cities together in a unified moment where they could celebrate the diversity of different people. The mayor wrote this glowing letter,” Trivette recounted. “It’s just so wonderful to think of, this is where we were and now this is where we are.”
“But now, this is where we’re going back to,” Trivette added.
Trivette said there was even talk of moving TriPride from Johnson City to nearby Bristol, Va., across the state line, just to be safe. However, TriPride told the Blade they resolve to continue with plans for a September parade and festival in Tennessee.
“As it stands currently, TriPride intends to continue with the parade and festival in Johnson City,” TriPride Board President Melody Taylor said. “We will continue to have open communication with the city as well as monitoring how the new law is being interpreted and if or when anyone is charged. TriPride has always prided itself on being an all-ages friendly event and our festival entertainment has never been obscene and this year will be no different.”
Tenn. anti-drag law goes into effect on April 1
“Of course we think it’s ridiculous,” Trivette said when asked what he thought of the new drag law. “I just truthfully have to wonder who saw what that made them feel compelled to go back to their offices and write this law about drag queens.”
Trivette continued, “You take a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class people and you talk about the good old days and how much better it used to be and you point your finger at a group of people and you blame them for your problems. And when you have an enemy, you have a focus.”
Kyelee Moffatt, mother, social worker and self-described “jack of all trades” at New Beginnings was blunt about her feelings concerning the anti-drag law: “I think it’s bullshit.”
Moffett elaborated, “I think it’s a lot of white, old men in Nashville making laws about things they know nothing about because they are being told things from people who are ignorant. They aren’t educated as to what drag is: it is a form of art. It is a wonderful form of entertainment. These people making these laws are afraid of them, the drag performers, because they are different.”
“I have fear for this law being interpreted in different ways to affect our trans community, especially,” she continued. “Especially with the recent ban on gender-affirming care for our trans youth in the state, I think that this is another way for politics and law enforcement to persecute our trans community. I’m afraid that law enforcement is going to target the trans community as well.”
“For me, it is reflective of laws in the 50s,” Moffett cautioned. “It’s just a huge red flag that our civil rights are being violated. I think we’re going backwards instead of forwards because, again, because people are afraid of what they don’t know.”
Odessa Mann, a drag artist who headlines alongside a large troupe of performers in the only regular drag show in the Tri-Cities, met with the Blade before hosting Saturday night’s drag show at New Beginnings. Mann, a spirited performer who is equally animated when talking about the importance of drag, explained, “Drag has been such a part of everybody’s culture: Not just queer culture. It’s been a part of theater and entertainment culture for as long as entertainment has been a thing. And so, it just feels that it is very convenient that now they want to bring up an issue with it all of the sudden.”
“Queer celebration and queer joy has always been a riot and has been a political movement in and of itself,” Mann said. “You can marginalize us and push us to the outsides of the community if you would like to but we’re still going to celebrate and we’re still going to find joy in ourselves. And now they have a problem with that again. So it’s even more important to stay louder in our celebration, louder in our joy and make sure that those people know that we’re not going anywhere. You can make as many bills as you want to, but we’re going to still be right here.”
“With the current rhetoric being lobbed at the LGBTQ+ community not only in Tennessee but across the country we at TriPride feel our mission of providing a safe environment for our community to rejoice in being their authentic selves is more important than ever,” TriPride Board President Taylor elaborated in an email. “These hateful messages are intended to incite fear and push the LGBTQ community back in the closet, so to speak. TriPride refuses to simply disappear and will continue showing the love, kindness, and pride that our community has. Our community has been fighting for our right to exist for generations and we will continue that fight as long as necessary.”
“Every week of the legislative session, we have published campaigns against the discriminatory bills and we continue to do that,” Sanders of Tennessee Equality Project told the Blade. “We have helped numerous people meet with their legislators and helped people prepare testimony against the bills. We have to continue doing that because we still face an anti-trans student pronoun bill, a new anti-trans amendment to a bill about camps, and much more. In my 20 years of working on anti-LGBTQ legislation in Tennessee, this is the worst year yet. But the community has stepped up and keeps coming back to fight the bills.”
The all-ages drag brunch at New Beginnings completely filled the cavernous club with supporters on Sunday. Children danced alongside drag queens at the G-rated show. Singers serenaded the patrons with live music and a “wilderness fairy” read a story to the youth. It was a bittersweet gathering, as it was perhaps the last of its kind to be had for a while.
Mann thanked the audience.
“I really appreciate you seeing us for what we are. We’re entertainers, we’re here to bring joy, we’re here to bring light. That’s all it is,” Mann said. “And I’d like to bring a little light to the stage right now. All the spotlight has been on us and I’d like to put the spotlight on these little baby drag queens we got. I’ve seen some younguns’ and they’ve been dancing with us, honey. I know they want the spotlight.”
Mann then led a group of parents and children in a dance to the popular kids’ song, “Baby Shark.”
Covering for @WashBlade New Beginnings in Johnson City, Tennessee defying the state at an all-ages drag brunch. Here is baby shark: pic.twitter.com/Z9iyY7zTO8— Michael Patrick Key (@MichaelKeyWB) March 26, 2023
“We want to talk to you for a minute about what’s going on in our country, specifically our state,” Sister Lolo of the Little City Sisters told the crowd.
Sister Lolo, a member of newly formed local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence drag order, continued, “This is the last time under the new law that we as drag entertainers are allowed to interact with some of you. And they say that this law is designed to protect you, but we know that’s not the truth.”
“Now, we’re going to follow the law, because as good citizens we have to,” said Sister Lolo. “But we know the truth and you know the truth. We’re going to work together to change these laws. We’re going to stand for the truth. We are not going to be afraid. Because when we are afraid, they win. And when we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for the truth, we will prevail.”
At the conclusion of the brunch, Trivette announced that more than $3,000 was raised to combat gun violence in schools. He beamed, “there was a bar in New York that was being hassled by the police department there: They didn’t want to have a gay bar in their district. So they started harassing them. And at some point, a drag queen . . . and leave it to a drag queen . . . picked up a brick and threw it at the police officers. That was the beginning, that was Stonewall in New York and that’s what started gay Pride. And now today ladies and gentlemen . . . and children, we just threw a rock.”
CLICK HERE to see more photos from the all-ages drag brunch at New Beginnings.
Social media spreads homophobic bullying both online & in-person
A 17-year-old girl became a victim of constant- often violent harassment, resulting in 18 restraining orders & thoughts of suicide
Editor’s note: LA Blade journalist Simha Haddad details the ongoing oft times traumatic effects of social media’s impact on LGBTQ+ kids, profiling a client of The Rainbow Youth Project a nonprofit based out of Indiana. At her and her family’s request, the Blade is not identifying their exact city of residence nor their last name to protect their privacy and mitigate further homophobic hate-filled attacks.
LOS ANGELES – How did one seventeen-year-old child suddenly become the victim of constant and often violent harassment resulting in over 18 restraining orders, virtual home imprisonment, serious thoughts of suicide, and a forced move to a new town? Simple, she came out as a lesbian to her friends.
In another case, a suburban Houston family had put up the LGBTQ+ Progress Flag in October last year in a show of support for their trans and non-binary teens and immediately the harassment started and escalated to physical acts of violence.
Carrie is a self-proclaimed art nerd who loves making ceramics and painting in vivid and bright pastels. She lived at home with her loving mother, father, older brother, and baby sister. Prioritizing love and loyalty, Carrie kept her friend group small and intimate.
“My grandma used to tell me that if you can count your true friends on more than one hand, you need to recount,” Carrie told the Blade.
One day, ready to open up to those closest to her, Carrie came out to her best friend. Supportive, the best friend accompanied Carrie to come out to her parents, who accepted their daughter’s sexuality with openness and love.
Finally, armed with this love and support, Carrie was ready to broaden her circle of trust. She invited about six friends over for a sleepover, where she confided in them, asking for their support and discretion.
Moments later, as the teenagers lounged on the floor watching a movie, one of Carrie’s so-called “friends” created a Facebook post that would alter the course of Carrie’s life forever.
“I went from not being popular to being the most popular person but for the wrong reasons,” said Carrie.
TOWN vs. GIRL
The Facebook post, outed Carrie as lesbian and mocked her sexuality, but worse, instantly went viral within Carrie’s small town outside of Houston.
“It was hell,” said Carrie. “I wasn’t ready for how quickly it spread. Within 24 hours, it was literally all over town. People had posted it on everything from Instagram to Facebook to TikTok. They were making videos about my weight, saying how that was why I was a lesbian, because I could never get a guy because I was fat and ugly. It was things like that all the way to saying I was a dike who is going to die.”
Carrie said that for months, there was no respite from the taunting and harassment.
“Every time I turned around, someone was tagging me and sending me videos or sending me posts that people had made about me.”
“I became the target of the town,” Carrie continued. “They put stuff in our mailboxes. They would put pictures of transgender surgeries in the mailbox. We even had somebody put female condoms in the mailbox. There was always something.”
“Kids at school even sent my phone number through the school email system, saying, ‘This is where you can harass her.’
While Carrie’s school did step in to stop this unlawful use of the school email system, the damage had already been done. The harassment escalated to physical altercations, making Carrie feel unsafe whenever she stepped outside.
“One day, I was walking my dogs to the park,” Carrie recounted emotionally, “and some kids were calling me a carpet-muncher and queer, and all these things. I was just trying to walk home. Then they actually went to the store to buy eggs. They came back and started throwing eggs at me and my dog.”
While her peers made many attacks on Carrie, school parents, and other adults also began to join in making her life a living hell.
“Sometimes they would get physical. If I tried to build a shield around myself and ignore it, they would grab my arm and turn me around to make me talk to them,” said Carrie.
“One time, a woman grabbed my arm and turned me around, and said that I needed to get right with God. I remember being so scared that I started laughing. It feels stupid to say now, but I was only laughing because I didn’t know what else to do. I was so scared. That made her more angry. I don’t know who she is to this day.”
“I’ve even had people at Walmart go and buy me a Bible and come up to me and tell me I needed to read it because I’m going to hell,” she said.
“One of the hardest things is to realize that these were all adults,” Carrie lamented. “How could they walk up to a kid and say the things that they have said?”
Adding to her nightmarish experience, Carrie’s harassers made a public game of harassing her, bragging about their encounters with Carrie on Facebook.
“After these things would happen, people would actually go on Facebook and write about the fact that they ran into ‘that little lesbian’ at Walmart and had to ‘tell her all about herself.’ I thought, why are you bragging about this? You are a grown person.”
“Facebook became like a scoreboard. Every time somebody would do something to me, they would post about it like they were trying to win an award or something. Then somebody else would see it, and they would confront them, saying, ‘Well, I can outdo that,’ and then they would try. They were building up ideas of what to do to me together on Facebook.”
Unsafe both in her home and outside of it, Carrie became more and more isolated, depressed, and afraid. Her parents insisted on going everywhere with their daughter, never wanting to leave her alone for fear of another attack.
“I was like a pet on a leash,” recalled Carrie. “I had to rely on my parents for everything. If I wanted to go to the store or the library, they had to stop what they were doing and come with me.”
Unable to find respite from the torrent of hate at school, Carrie left to instead use online learning courses to complete her high school education.
A FAMILY UNDER ATTACK
Carrie is grateful for her parents, brother, aunts, and other family members who continue to emotionally support her to this day.
“I’m so proud to have the people in my life support me,” Carrie told the Blade. “Without them, I don’t think I could’ve made it.”
But, this support came at a price, especially at the height of the harassment over her coming out.
“When people found out that my family was supportive, they would drive by our house yelling things like queer and dyke and lesbo,” said Carrie.
Carrie’s brother, a popular jock, was harangued constantly by his peers.
“They started attacking him because he was standing up for me,” Carrie explained. “He was playing on our football team and our baseball team. His teammates would test him and call me a dyke, and he would almost get into physical altercations. For example, he would be playing a scrimmage game, and if he struck out, they would yell things like, ‘Your dyke sister could hit better than you.’ They were always name-calling me to him to try to test him.”
Carrie shared how the constant taunting almost made her brother give up sports altogether.
“It got to the point where he did not even want to go to practice anymore. But I told him he had to because that was his life. Now he is getting ready to go to college on a baseball scholarship, so that was important for him, but it was hard on him. I’ve never seen him cry, but he cried to me one night because he was so hurt that they were just constantly shaming it one way or the other.”
As they did to Carrie, adults and children alike joined in to make her brother’s school life almost unbearable. Carrie recalled one time when a teacher cornered her brother to make comments about the “shame” his sister must feel because of “who she is.”
“I think the kids saying those things was one thing. But having a teacher saying that to him, I mean, that was really hard for him.”
Carrie’s parents also faced attacks by the community. Her father faced discrimination and aggression at work, and her mother was regularly on guard whenever she stepped out of their home.
“My mama almost got in a fight at Walmart,” recalled Carrie. “We were in Walmart, and we walked by one of the girls from school was there with her mom, and I heard her tell her mom, ‘She’s a lesbian,’ and the mother said to my mother, ‘How can you let your kid be like that?’ Well, my mother just blew up. My mother called her every name in the book and was ready to fight. That is not an exaggeration. She was literally ready to fight. At that point, she had seen what my brother and I were going through, and that was just a breaking point.
Carrie felt overwhelming guilt over what her family was going through.
“I felt like that was my fault, and even though my mama would tell me every day, and my daddy would tell me every day, that these people were just ignorant, it still didn’t make it better because I saw how it affected them. They felt like they couldn’t even leave the house because of me.
“My brother had to close his Facebook account. My mother had to close her Facebook account. She is one of those that used to stay on Facebook all the time. You know how they have all those little bingo games? She used to play those, and she loved it, but she had to close her Facebook account because anytime she posted something, somebody would leave a comment, and she would block them and then somebody else would leave a comment and she would block them. It literally got to the point where instead of playing games and having fun, she was just blocking people all the time.”
When advised to file restraining orders against the adults who were targeting her, Carrie hesitated at first.
“I was scared to do that because I thought if I did something like that, what would they do to me then? Then I realized I was just one of the kids being harassed, and if it wasn’t me, it was going to be somebody else one day. So, I decided I would try,” she said.
“One of the lawyers came down and spent the whole day with me talking about how the trial would go. They said I couldn’t use just the screenshots of the harassment because those could be fabricated. I would have to actually go in and tell the stories behind them.”
Carrie said that the retelling of those stories is what terrified her the most.
“It wasn’t reliving what they did that was the hardest. It was having to sit there and tell the stories to someone in front of everyone. The looks that the courtroom gave me were awful.”
The judge sympathized with Carrie’s traumatic experience and issued 18 restraining orders against the adults who terrorized her.
“I remember the judge looked at me, and he said, ‘Young Lady, don’t let these people destroy your heart or who you are. Always be who you are, and know that these people have no power over that unless you give it to them. Do not give it to them.'”
Carrie teared up as she related the judge’s support. “That really meant a lot because I was not expecting that.”
Carrie now lives with her aunt in a different town closer-in to Houston. She explained that she felt that her new town is much more open, liberal- more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, than the small town she grew up in. When she saw two girls walking down a street holding hands, her jaw dropped and she had to sit down from the powerful feeling of being overwhelmed.
While she is happier and feels more relaxed in her new environment, Carrie is still traumatized by her recent past.
“I wish it was a situation where I don’t have to worry about if someone is walking up to me as a friend or if they want to attack me because that’s really how it was last year. Every person that approached me is an enemy.”
Carrie, who last year often contemplated suicide, is working with a therapist from Rainbow Youth Project to open herself up again and she is no longer suicidal.
The Rainbow Youth Project a nonprofit based out of Indiana, serves as a godsend for many of these LGBTQ+ youth. The organization provides mental health, financial, housing, services, and counseling assistance to homeless LGBTQ+ youth under the age of eighteen across the nation. Without RYP, Carrie’s medical needs would be unattainable.
Carrie also hopes to get back to a happier and brighter mental space so that she can start creating the vibrant pastel art that she so loves.
“My art took a turn last year. It started being more reflective. I used to love bright, abstract paintings and pastels, but after last year it took a dark turn. It was more reflective of my mood. It became much darker. I had never used grays or charcoals before that. But everything was all dark colors. Until I get that motivation back for the brightness, I don’t want to do art right now.”
Carrie is currently working while taking classes at community college. She hopes to eventually enroll in a 4-year college and to one day help other kids like herself.
“I don’t know exactly how, but I would love to help other kids in my situation. I don’t think I have it in me to be a counselor, but I know Rainbow Youth has an art therapy program. I’d maybe like to work in something like that. I would love to do something to let them know that they are not alone because that loneliness feeling is overpowering.”
Finally, Carrie shared a message to those who might be going through something similar to what she had experienced in high school.
“If there is anybody out there who is going through what I did, I want you to reach out to somebody. There are people who will help. There are people who will not only help but will stay with you every step of the way. I thought I was all alone even though I was surrounded by love and support. But there are people out there who are good. It’s going to get better. Just please, reach out to somebody.”
On March 21, 2023, Houston CBS affiliate KHOU 11 reported on a suburban Houston family in Kingwood, Texas, that were being terrorized at their own home due to a flag they have flying outside their house. It’s not the flag, in particular, that’s causing them to be targeted, rather, it’s what the flag represents.
They said they fly the LGBTQ flag to show support for their children, but it has instead led to attacks, vandalism and name-calling by a gaggle of teens.
Dr. Luisa Montoya, the mother of a 12-year-old trans boy and a 17-year-old who’s non-binary, had put up the LGBTQ+ Progress Flag in October last year in a show of support for her kids. She told KHOU’s Lauren Talarico and Cory McCord that instead it led to attacks, vandalism and name-calling by a group of teens. Dr. Montoya said that the harassment is consistent and has turned violent lately. Some of the acts have been caught on video.
Homophobic school assault: family seeks justice & accountability
Some of those attackers had returned to school after serving their brief suspensions. The rest remain unpunished
INDIANAPOLIS – Officials at Arlington Middle School in northeast Indianapolis repeatedly failed to intervene when presented with reports that a group of boys had been targeting a 13-year-old lesbian student with homophobic harassment, the girl’s mother told the Washington Blade.
Jessica Todd said her daughter, Nadia, had been suffering this abuse for months when, on April 19, those boys — more than 5 but fewer than 10 — physically assaulted her at school, one warning: “you’re not gonna do nothing about it, we’re gonna do it again.”
Upon receipt of an incident report, no action was taken by adults at the school that might have prevented the subsequent attack on April 20, which sent Nadia to the emergency room and was committed in the same exact place on campus, a stairwell landing located outside the view of surveillance cameras.
Indianapolis Public Schools communications director Alpha Garrett, disputed the claims in an emailed statement: “Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) has investigated this incident and has determined — based on witness statements and facts discovered, which are much different than what had been alleged — that disciplinary action was not warranted. IPS affirms its support for all students and staff, ensuring a safe and inclusive environment.”
Contrary to the school district’s claim that no disciplinary action was taken, Todd said three of her daughter’s attackers were given brief out-of-school suspensions and kicked off the football team, punishments she believes were far too lenient.
The IPS Code of Conduct states that bullying, when a “Level 3” offense, may be handled with a range of actions including in or out-of-school suspensions, the latter to be followed with “a written corrective action plan that will include methods for changing behavior and the necessary supports to remedy the problem behavior.”
When bullying rises to a “Level 4” offense, reserved for “violations that seriously affect the learning environment or the safety of the student and/or others in the school and/or are legal violations,” options on the table include extended suspensions and referrals for expulsion and/or referrals to law enforcement.
By phone, Garrett told the Blade she was not in a position to provide any information on the attacks against Nadia beyond what was included in the statement and declined to address questions about exactly which claims the district disputes, the facts supporting its decision to not pursue disciplinary action, and whether punishments were, in fact, administered to the students involved in the attack.
She pointed the Blade to a school board policy adopted on April 27, “Reaffirming Support of the LGBTQIA+ Community,” which stipulates that “all people, particularly all students, must be protected by schools from bullying and discrimination based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. No student should experience any form of harassment or any unfair treatment while in the care of Indianapolis Public School District.”
Arlington Middle School’s Principal John Edge, Counselor Carole Stacker, and Title IX Coordinator Gradis did not respond to inquiries from the Blade about their handling of the bullying reports, nor did they address questions about how long they have been unable to monitor the space where Nadia was attacked, or the existence of possible plans to install an additional camera in the stairwell to better protect the students.
Clearly, Todd said, the students (including, of course, her daughter’s assailants) have long known, just as the school’s faculty and staff have known, that the area is unsupervised.
Today, Nadia’s right arm remains in a full cast to repair hairline bone fractures sustained during the assault, and she will soon begin treatment with a counselor to work through the trauma, which has left her withdrawn and unable to return to school.
“It’s heartbreaking, I look at her every day knowing that she’s been stagnant right now, not moving around, not even wanting to leave the house, because she doesn’t want people to ask her, ‘why’s your arm in a cast?'” Todd said.
“She’s avoiding everybody and I don’t like that. But I can’t rush my baby — I have to do it on her time.”
With the end of the school year approaching, “We’re definitely changing schools,” said Todd, whose added that her elder daughter was also bullied at Arlington. The family is now in the midst of moving out of the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) district, she said. Nadia “will not be returning to an IPS school.”
Due to her injuries, Nadia was pulled from the school sports teams where she had competed with some of the boys who for months had targeted her with homophobic verbal abuse on and off the field before attacking her in the stairwell.
“I think they were jealous, too, because my baby can catch a ball and run around,” Todd said, adding, “Hopefully, by taking time and healing, she’ll be able to return to sports next year.”
In the meantime, it was only because she refused to back down that Todd said school officials eventually ceded her request, or demand, that Nadia be allowed to take end-of-year exams in a classroom by herself rather than with the boys who assaulted her.
Some of those attackers, the boys whom Nadia was able to name, had returned to school after serving their brief suspensions. The rest, to her knowledge, remain unpunished, despite Todd’s suggestion for the administration to try identifying the other boys from surveillance footage of the top and bottom of the stairwell.
School officials did not respond to questions about whether the punishments administered to the boys who attacked Nadia were in line with those proscribed in official policy.
Even in the presence of an Indianapolis Public Schools coordinator, who was summoned for a sit-down with Todd, Nadia, and officials from Arlington a week after the attacks, Todd said the school failed to take even a modicum of accountability.
After walking them through the violent beating of her daughter, Todd said that Stacker, the school’s counselor, dismissively responded, “you know how kids are, they horseplay.”
Todd remembers, “I took my glasses off and I looked at her and I was like, ‘really?! That’s what we’re doing?!'”
Stacker did not respond when asked about her remarks.
During that meeting — which remains the only communication between the Todds and the school since Nadia’s assaults — Todd tried to explain that her daughter “cannot return back to the school, because if she does, she will be different. She will not be able to concentrate. She will be looking over her shoulders.”
Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the severity of the physical injuries she sustained, Todd said they told her Nadia’s absences would not be excused, that “every day she’s [not in school] will be counted against her.”
The Rainbow Youth Project joins their fight for justice and accountability
Todd said she informed an IPS school resource officer of her intentions to file charges against, at least, the attackers whom her daughter was able to identify.
He “did not take me serious at all,” she said telling her, that “he’s never been in this situation before.”
“And I was like, well, I’m sorry about that. But I take this very seriously.” she told the Blade she had responded.
With the formal complaint already filed with IPS police, even if the department continues to do nothing, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is prohibited from running parallel investigations or otherwise pursuing any law enforcement action in connection with the matter.
But a social worker on staff at the hospital had referred Nadia and Todd to the Rainbow Youth Project, which has since been providing and coordinating services for Nadia including legal counsel and mental health counseling. The Indianapolis- based national group works with LGBTQ youth under 19 and their families who are in need of assistance on a variety of fronts.
The group’s founder Lance Preston told the Blade, “when you see this child” and the injuries she sustained from this group of at least five boys, “it will break your heart,” he said. “She is a little girl.”
Christopher Cooper, an attorney on staff at the organization who serves as its director of legal and legislative initiatives, is working with the Todds and will be representing Nadia as they explore possible avenues for action on a number of fronts.
Cooper told the Blade that among these, “of course,” is the question of whether “these juveniles that did this should be charged” with a crime. “There’s always a lot of consideration that goes into that simply because you’re dealing with juveniles,” he said.
“But these injuries were so severe, requiring two trips to the ER, that I think that that action, you know, might be warranted.”
Separately he said, they may look at whether the school should have “stepped in and taken care of” the medical expenses to treat Nadia’s injuries at the hospital, which instead were paid by Todd and her ACA state-sponsored health insurance plan.
“Number one for us, though, from the legal side, is policy changes — implementing policies that are enforcing the alleged anti bullying policies of the IPS. If Indiana Public Schools had an anti bullying policy as strong as it is on paper, it needs to be that strong” in enforcement and effect,” Cooper stressed.
“Make sure that the school has cameras in the appropriate places because if you have more than one incident report in in one area, you might want to do something,” he added.
These measures could go a long way toward helping to reduce the likelihood that other vulnerable students, including those who are LGBTQ, will not experience the same abuse to which Nadia and her older sister were subjected at Arlington, Preston noted.
Rainbow Youth Project has worked with a number of kids from that same school, he said, LGBTQ students who were subjected to verbal harassment, including within earshot of teachers who in some cases did nothing to intervene or even laughed.
Asked to respond to the statement from IPS, Cooper said, “during my 27 years of practice, I have represented young people in 57 claims against public school administrations regarding serious allegations of bullying and the response from the school district is typical.”
“I have found it way too common for school systems to have a very strong anti-bullying policy on paper, but not in practice,” he said, adding, “Far too often the school staff will file these incidents as ‘confrontation’ or ‘horseplay’ or even ‘student conflict’ rather than what it actually is – bullying.”
Healing from the trauma of the bullying and physical assaults will be a process, a journey, for Nadia, but “she’s a powerhouse,” Preston said. “Yesterday, when I was talking with her, I told her, ‘I want you to understand you got a whole army behind you now.'”
Nadia’s mother, Preston said, “is relentless in her pursuit of justice for her daughter and relentless in making the school protect other kids.” He added, “I wish every mom in these situations were like her.”
Online hate, bullying worsens amid empty promises to stem flow
“I always tell people online hate is death by a thousand papercuts. It’s all the little things. You’re old. You’re ugly. Go kill yourself”
This is part two of a series looking at the cyberhate and bullying from a queer perspective. To read part one click here: (Link)
LOS ANGELES – Amid empty promises by social media companies to create safer and more inclusive platforms, online hate and harassment rates continue to rise to record levels.
Nearly half of all Americans having experienced some kind of online harassment and hate, many find themselves frustrated by a lack of government anti-hate legislation and enforceable social media guidelines to help eradicate this ever-growing problem.
What’s worse is that online hate speech has now been linked to physical hate crimes, with many physical and illegal acts of violence starting as seeds in the comment section.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations:
- Hate speech online has been linked to a global increase in violence toward minorities, including mass shootings, lynchings, and ethnic cleansing.
- Policies used to curb hate speech risk limiting free speech and are inconsistently enforced.
- Countries such as the United States grant social media companies broad powers in managing their content and enforcing hate speech rules. Others, including Germany, can force companies to remove posts within certain time periods.
A 2019 study by academics from Cardiff University’s HateLab has concluded that there is a direct correlation between social media hate against minorities and physical acts of hate and violence.
These studies and reports are among the many highlighting the real dangers of cyberhate lie beyond the platforms themselves, begging the question, what can be done to stop this?
Sepi Shyne, The first Queer Iranian female mayor of West Hollywood, told The Blade that two things need to happen to make the Internet a safe place again: Social media platforms need to take firmer action against hate, and laws on inciting violence need to be rewritten to consider online hate as a direct threat to a victim’s safety.
“I think these platforms need to come out very strongly against hate speech,” said Shyne. “It is very simple. Just take a stand for people. If their lawyers are saying this is protected speech, then as a corporation, they can take a stance. They can use their algorithms and all their technology and institute their community standards.”
“We also have to reconsider our laws about what is considered inciting violence because those laws didn’t consider social media at the time. When those laws were created, they were about people saying things in person and then asking whether or not it is probable that violence will ensue from that interaction. But now we have people on social media saying horrible things that do lead to violence.”
One small step in the right direction came in September 2022, when Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he signed a social media transparency bill (AB 578) by Assembly Member Jesse Gabriel, which will require social media companies to publicly post their policies regarding hate speech, disinformation, harassment, and extremism on their platforms, and report data on their enforcement of the policies. However, the bill is still in it’s early stages of implementation so it has not yet made a notable change in online hate regulation.
A Private Investigator’s Take on Cyber Hate:
Eric Nathans is CEO of Nathans Investigations, a Miami, Florida-based private investigation agency that focuses on cybercrime and cyber harassment.
He has gained his reputation from assisting a lengthy list of high-profile clients, tracking down harassers and stalkers who, at first, are able to hide their identities behind false usernames and email addresses.
People who turn to Nathans are often frustrated with social media platforms.
“You’ll go around in circles with Facebook or Instagram because they don’t really take it seriously just because of how much it is happening. It happens so often,” Nathans said.
When asked about the uptick in cybercrime, keeping PIs busy, Nathans told the Blade, “Between emails and phone calls, I probably get about twenty a week with the same exact issue. This is really a big issue.”
From cyber stalking to harassment to defamation from anonymous emails, Nathans has investigated the gamut of mysterious, aggravating and unpredictable cases around the globe.
“We deal with things on a daily basis that no one would believe,” said Nathans.
As an example, Nathans recounted the case of one particular OnlyFans model who was being harassed online. The male perpetrator would send this model everything from lewd remarks to graphic photos of his body. The model’s boyfriend enlisted Nathans help to find and stop these disturbing messages.
“Do you know how it turned out to be?” said Nathans. “It was the female’s father that was harassing her.”
Shocking stories like this one naturally spark many, many questions. The most obvious being how did the father think he could get away with something like this?
“People think they can be whoever they want,” said Nathans, explaining that the main issue with online harassment nowadays is that people find it easy to assume a new identity under fake usernames and what they think are anonymous email addresses.
However, in spite of these efforts at anonymity, Nathans has built a business on sniffing out these cybercriminals. While he would not disclose his methods for security reasons, he did say that he has found alternative and sometimes nontraditional means of identifying the guilty party.
“Things that people don’t usually think about is how I usually find them,” he noted.
Nathans explained that those who turn to him often know that cyber hate can lead to cybercrime.
“A real stalking will start online. I’m not a psychiatrist or a doctor, but I do believe mental illness is often involved. They want more and more of a response. They want a reaction. If they aren’t getting that online, they might show up in person.”
“I think it’s important to ask why this person has become a stalker. Often it is because they want a reaction because they are so awfully controlling.”
Of course, once a stalker does commit a physical act, different departments of the police get involved.
“My personal feeling is if there were stronger laws against all of this craziness, it would put a stop to some of these people.”
Queer influencers as prime targets
According to a study at the Williams Institute at UCLA, members of the LGBTQ+ community are nine times more likely to experience hate speech than non-LGBTQ+ people.
In a comment on GLAAD’s report on social media’s failure to stop anti-LGBTQ hate speech, Jenni Olson, GLAAD’s director for social media safety and author of the report, said, “The reality is, there’s very little transparency and very little accountability. And people feel helpless.”
With the evident targeting of LGBTQ+ people on social media and the nature of the platforms providing a deep window into the lives of internet celebrities, now is one of the most dangerous times to be an openly queer influencer. But it is also one of the most important times to stand out and stand up against homophobia and transphobia.
In light of the rising dangers for LGBTQ+ people around the world, three queer influencers shared their struggles with cyberhate with The Blade.
Amir Yass is a queer Muslim influencer who found his calling on TikTok when he started posting funny videos of himself over COVID. An avid advocate for queer rights, Yass often takes part in well-attended panels at the LGBT center and popular podcasts.
Yass has received a flurry of cyber hate, from messages shaming him for being queer and Muslim to comments telling him he will burn in hell.
“I will never forget one comment I got that said, ‘I can’t wait for you to come to the Middle East so I can throw you off the roof.’ I was in shock. I didn’t even know that was a thing.”
Sadly, Yass told the Blade that the ignorance and prejudice he experienced as a young Mulsim growing up in the conservative town of Orange County, CA, somewhat prepared him for this onslaught of hate.
“When I was in school, and 9-11 happened, they asked me to talk to the whole school about it. I was like, ‘I’m fifteen. What do I know about this?'”
“I developed a hard shell because that was the only way to deal with this. I’m a Persian, gay, fat Muslim. Growing up, my mom had a Hijab. I grew up fasting and praying. That all ‘othered’ me in so many ways. In a weird, very warped way, all of the prejudice I got growing up prepared me for all the hate I got on TikTok.”
Prepared by childhood though he might be, Yass admitted that the comments do get to him sometimes.
“I always tell people online hate is death by a thousand papercuts. It’s all the little things. You’re old. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re gross. Go kill yourself. They start to add up.”
“People assume I’m a celebrity when they see a video of mine get 13 million views and Will Smith duetting it. But I’m not. And regardless, I’m still a human being.”
When asked whether or not he reports the haters, Yass explained why he found appealing to the platforms themselves futile.
“I stopped reporting because nothing ever really happens. I notice that when I do report something, I get shadow banned. I’m not getting the views I should.”
Editor’s note: Shadow banning is a colloquialism for when a social media platform adjusts the algorithm so that any particular account does not appear in the feeds of as many viewers as before the ban. This results in content going unseen and is potentially harmful to those who rely on likes and views to maintain their brand, image, or message.
“I’ve responded to hate videos, and they (the social media platform) took my video down, saying it was me bullying that person. But the hate video was still up.”
Yass told The Blade that he, like Weho’s Mayor Shyne, wished the platforms would be more proactive about removing hate speech.
“I shouldn’t have to block someone who threatens to slit my throat. This should be taken down.”
But, ultimately, Yass has had to find the strength within himself to overcome the hate.
“In a video of four thousand comments, there will be one thousand hateful comments. I just stopped looking for the hateful comments. I used to look for them and actively pursue them. I would get into these battles of thirty-five comments. But now I just respond with, ‘Thank you so much,’ or ‘I love you so much.’ That kind of humor kind of works. Sometimes my other followers will step in to defend me too.”
Yass also said that while he sometimes is negatively affected by cyberhate, he refuses to allow haters to discourage him from being present and visible online.
“I’ve wanted to delete my account so many times. But why do I have to leave? Sometimes I think it’s important to take up space.”
Marsha Molinari is a transgender activist, actress, prominent restauranteur, and the host of the award-winning podcast Marsha! Marsha! Marsha! She uses her platform to interview prominent public figures and to spread messages of love and inclusivity.
Molinari has also been the victim of cyber hate, doxing (sharing of her address without her consent), and physical stalking.
“I always try to take it with a grain of salt, but it still gets to you,” said Molinari. “Words are energy, and they hurt. When someone is constantly hit with negative comments, that hurts. It just has to.”
“Even this morning, I was looking at a couple of posts, and they were saying things like, ‘Is this a man?’ and ‘You are a man.’ Just being hateful.”
Molinari told The Blade that a lot of this hate also comes from within the LGBTQ+ community. “It’s a form of self-hate,” she said.
“When someone has so much hate towards what you are doing, that might actually be a mirror for themselves and a hatred for themselves.”
Molinari shared a story of one cyberhater who harassed her for years with anti-trans slurs and DMs telling her that her way of life was “wrong.” This person then messaged one day out of the blue, apologizing and saying that they realized that they, too, had been LGBTQ+ all along but had not had the courage to admit it to themselves.
“They said they saw me living authentically, and that scared them. Later, after they had bullied me for so long, the way I live became an inspiration.”
“We see this with anti-LGBTQIA+ government leaders who pose these laws against the community, but meanwhile, they are messaging gay men online and dressing in drag. It’s apparent why these people are coming after the community. Their hate comes from a deep hatred within themselves.”
Molinari shared another story of her friend who identifies as a gay man but drew the line at supporting Molinari’s journey when she came out as transgender.
“He told me the way I was living was unnatural and wrong,” said Molinari. “I told him that is exactly what they used to say about gay men like him. I told him he needed to get on the right side of history.”
Over time though, Molinari learned to let the majority of hateful comments go.
“I used to feel the need to defend myself or explain myself. That caused me to be drained and to be thinking about those comments throughout the day. I don’t do that anymore. People will have their own opinions, and people will be awful.”
“Sometimes though, if it is someone who is consistent in their bullying, then they need to be exposed.”
In these cases, Molinari screenshots and reposts the hateful messages on her story for hundreds of thousands of people to see.
“Whenever I’ve reposted these comments, people have messaged me saying that they, too, have been bullied by this person. Or some people saying they know this person and never thought that they were like this.”
Molinari agreed that while self-love and advocacy are important, social media platforms could be doing more to keep their users safe.
“I think when people are telling you to kill yourself, that needs to be regulated more by social media platforms. There needs to be a higher authority that stops this from happening.”
GIGI GORGEOUS GETTY
Gigi Gorgeous Getty is a Canadian transgender YouTuber, socialite, actress, and model. On her channel, Gigi shares everything from personal anecdotes about her transition, marriage, and social life to her favorite hair, makeup, and fashion tips. Through her personability, she continues to be a relatable role model for many young transgender people.
Unfortunately, opening portions of her life to the public has also opened Getty up to hate.
“I think it’s inevitable when you put yourself out there and you are living authentically. This is especially true when you are sharing things that are unconventional. You get a lot of hate and ignorance directed at you.”
Getty told The Blade she was swatted at the age of twenty while living at her father’s house in Canada.
Editor’s note: “Swatting” is the act of prank calling the police as if someone were in direct danger either to themselves or others, thereby causing the dispatch of armed officers to the scene. The prank is far from harmless as it wastes valuable police resources and time, leaving the police unable to care for others who are in true distress. Swatting is a crime punishable by heavy fines and/or even jail time.
“Someone had called the cops and said I had a gun,” said Getty. “The police arrived, and I was handcuffed to the bed while they searched my room. It was horrible.”
After an investigation, they found the perpetrator – a fan of Getty’s who lived in a rural part of America and had no affiliation with Getty whatsoever.
“It’s really important to prioritize what you post,” warned Getty. “If you post where you are while you’re there, people will know where you are. If you can, try to post after the fact.”
“Just always be aware, maybe even hyperaware, that you are being watched. We all post for our friends and families, but at the end of the day, there could always be someone hateful watching.”
When asked how she deals with all the haters, Getty said that she has learned to ignore the bad and focus on the good.
“I used to be a big fan of blocking anyone who posted something negative about me. But now, after being openly trans for almost ten years, I just find that it’s mind over matter. You have to look at the positive. There could be one hundred positive comments and one negative one. It’s better to focus on all the good.”
“People can be so hateful. My husband sometimes takes healthy breaks from social media. I think that’s beautiful because he has the confidence to live his life happily and privately without needing the validation that social media gives to so many of us.”
Getty also shared a final message to anyone thinking of creating a hateful message or post.
“Just remember there are real people on the other side of that hate. Before you hit send, ask yourself if you could turn that hateful message into the opposite message of love. That is the message worth sending.”
This is part two of a series looking at the cyberhate and bullying from a queer perspective. To read part one click here: (Link)
Missouri rabbi says anti-trans policies threaten his children
“The thing I really wish people understood is that what I’m really scared of is the government coming to my door to take away my child”
SAINT LOUIS – Last month, the office of Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey temporarily removed its online form for members of the public to lodge “a complaint or concern about gender transition intervention” they may have “experienced or observed.”
Bailey had just issued an emergency rule proscribing gender affirming care in the state for minors as well as adults in Missouri, the most extreme restrictions on healthcare for trans people in any state.
Rabbi Daniel Bogard hesitated, at first, when the Washington Blade called for his reaction. “I never know what language to use.”
As a faith leader with multi-generational ties to St. Louis and its tight-knit Jewish community who is living in the home built by his grandfather, Bogard never imagined having to consider fleeing the state.
“My parents are here. My brother is here. We desperately, desperately want to stay here,” he told the Blade.
Bogard said because his trans son is just nine, the only gender affirming care he needs is haircuts and boys’ clothes. Still, he said, “the thing I really wish people understood is that what I’m really scared of is the government coming to my door to take away my child for following the best advice of doctors and therapists and professionals.”
So, it can be hard to find the right language.
“I’m a rabbi. So, I don’t say this lightly: This is what it must have been like to be a Jew in 1930 in Europe. It doesn’t feel real, and you can’t believe that it’s actually going to get worse – that they’re going to do the things that they say they’re going to do – and then it gets worse.”
Words that come closest to “accurately describing the totality of what’s being pushed in places like Missouri” – like “fascism,” for instance – are exactly those likeliest to be dismissed as hysterical, over-the-top, hyperbole, Bogard said.
Likewise with comparisons between the realities faced by trans Americans today and the treatment of European Jews leading up to the Holocaust, which can be even more difficult for some people to consider seriously on their merits.
“Look,” Bogard said, “I’m a rabbi. So, I don’t say this lightly: This is what it must have been like to be a Jew in 1930 in Europe. It doesn’t feel real, and you can’t believe that it’s actually going to get worse – that they’re going to do the things that they say they’re going to do – and then it gets worse.”
“People don’t get it until they see it – even talking to queer folks and trans folks living in blue enclaves and blue states, they often don’t quite understand the extent of what is happening.”
A more recent analog, Bogard said, might be “the early days of Covid” when people often tended to behave normally, treating others who stocked up on toilet paper and cleared out their desks as paranoid.
The latest move by Bailey, however, should be concerning for everyone. “He had a form to get neighbors to rat out neighbors who are supporting their kids,” Bogard said. “That should terrify anyone who cares about democracy and cares about freedom and cares about religious liberty or individual liberty.”
Trans people in the state have been scrambling. “None of us none of us know we’re hearing,” Bogard said.
“There have been rumors that lifesaving gender affirming care will be available in Illinois, which at least for St. Louis is right across the river. Then we’re hearing from folks who [are] told by these Illinois organizations that unfortunately they believe they’re not going to be able to serve Missouri residents,” Bogard said. “I want to be very careful because these are secondhand things that I’m being told, right, but that’s where people are at.”
‘We need national Democrats to stand up‘
Behind the anti-trans policies in Missouri and elsewhere in the country is “this discourse, the demonization of trans people and trans bodies,” Bogard said. The “rhetoric of otherization and rhetoric that being trans is a social contagion, a mental illness,” he said, is going to be fatal. “People are going to die because of this.”
Bogard estimates he has traveled to Jefferson City (“Jeff City”), the state capital, about a dozen times this year “to lobby and to testify and to beg.” He added, “My mom, who has taken COVID very, very seriously, and hasn’t gone out, her first time really going out in public in an unmasked place was [when] she came down to Jeff City to testify this year, to lobby.”
“My grandma, God love her, all of 87 years old, was asking me the other day about wheelchair access – because she’s worried that she wouldn’t be able to walk in the halls of the Capitol to come down and testify for her great-grandson,” Bogard said.
Asked whether he believes the urgency is understood by elected Democrats, Bogard said, “Our Democrats here in Missouri have no power, I mean none, [but] they fight with every ounce they have for our kids.”
There are “so many incredibly heroic Democratic lawmakers who know this is true public service, people who get paid $29,000” per year to be a state representative even though they have no power, Bogard said. He noted his son has a photo of Missouri’s lone openly LGBTQ state Sen., Greg Razer, on his desk.
National Democrats, by contrast, often fail to fully understand that protecting trans rights is “the fight of our generation,” more consequential than a wedge issue exploited by Republicans to distract from meaningful policy debate, Bogard said.
The GOP “has chosen the bodies of trans kids to be the front for their war on democracy,” he said, “And we need national Democrats to stand up and do everything that they can.”
‘For as long as there have been Jews, there have always been trans Jews’
“It’s one of the beautiful parts about being a rabbi,” Bogard told the Blade, “is I can see that there are thousands of years of stories about trans Jews — there have always been trans Jews, because as long as there have been Jews there have been trans Jews because being trans is just another way of being human.”
"For as long as there have been Jews, there have always been trans Jews. Because being trans is just another way of being human. And there will always be trans Jews as long as there are Jews.” https://t.co/qMkvd1XFb4— Rabbi Daniel Bogard (@RavBogard) April 28, 2023
“We have incredible stories from the 1800s of Jews transitioning and being like, radically accepted in the shtetl in Ukraine,” Bogard said. “In 1977, the largest movement in American Judaism came out and endorsed rabbis officiating marriages that involve a trans person.”
He added that the Reform Movement came out in support of officiated conversions of trans people in 1990, and then published “an incredible position paper on human dignity of trans folks” in 2015 that would be “the best religious statement” on the matter if not for the new one released in 2023 “which goes 10 steps further.”
Bogard said anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ hate is closely linked to anti-Semitism. “When it comes to Jeff City, all of the legislators and all of the people testifying in favor of these bills are coming from deeply white Christian nationalist” enclaves.
He added that most — or close to the majority — of those “who are standing up for trans kids in our state capitol are Jews.” So much so that he said Saint Louis Episcopal Priest Mike Angell, struck by how many Jewish people were rallied in support of trans Missourians, called on his fellow Christians to “show up.”
Harry Belafonte, ‘King of Calypso’ & LGBTQ+ ally passes at 96
He used his fame and fortune for the public good throughout his extraordinary career. He became a powerful ally for those less fortunate
LOS ANGELES – A rainbow banner slung over his right shoulder proudly proclaimed the spry octogenarian a ‘Grand Marshal 2013’ of the New York City LGBT Pride March, joining another vibrant octogenarian, Edith “Edie” Windsor, who was also a ‘Grand Marshal 2013,’ that bright sunny June day.
Between the two of them, the honor was an acknowledgement of a long journey not only for LGBTQ rights, but for Harry Belafonte, the beloved African American actor, singer, humanitarian, and the acknowledged “King of Calypso” especially, an honored recognition of his decades of accomplishments and commitment to the civil rights movement and allyship to the LGBTQ+ community.
Thank you, Mr. B, for all of your years of mentorship, guidance, & lifetime of activism fighting for a better future for all of us. You will be missed by many, but your memory & impact live on. Rest in Power.— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) April 25, 2023
“Movements don't die, because struggle doesn't die.”
-Harry Belafonte pic.twitter.com/bCArTOtCC2
Born March 1, 1927 in New York, Belafonte was the son of Caribbean-born immigrants, and, growing up, he split his time between Harlem and Jamaica. Dropping out of high school in New York City to enlist in the U.S. Navy, he went on to contribute to the war effort from 1944 to 1945.
At the time, the military services were segregated. Belafonte, a Jamaican American, was assigned to Port Chicago, California, 35 miles from San Francisco.
During World War II, Black service members were not normally assigned to frontline fighting units. Rather, they were assigned mostly to supporting specialties. His job was to load military ships bound for the Pacific theater.
Just before Belafonte arrived in Port Chicago, California, a massive explosion took place, involving military ships loaded with ammunition. About 320 people were killed — two-thirds of them Black sailors.
“It was the worst homefront disaster of World War II, but almost no one knows about it or what followed,” he said.
Discharged in 1945, Belafonte returned home to New York City. He used his GI Bill benefits to pay for his acting classes at Erwin Piscator’s The New School Dramatic Workshop, alongside future actors Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, and what was to develop into lifelong friendship, actor Sidney Poitier.
He performed with the American Negro Theater while studying at the Dramatic Workshop. It was a singing role that resulted in a series of cabaret engagements, and eventually, Belafonte even opened his own club. In 1949, he launched his recording career on the Jubilee label, and in 1953, he made his debut at the legendary jazz club, the Village Vanguard.
He also appeared on Broadway in the 1953 “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” a performance that won him a Tony Award.
Belafonte’s first widely released single, which became his signature audience participation song in virtually all of his live performances, was “Matilda,” recorded on April 27, 1953.
With a lead role in the film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, Belafonte shot to stardom. After signing to the RCA label, he released Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, which reached the number three slot on the Billboard charts.
His breakthrough third studio album “Calypso” (RCA Victor-1956) became the first long-playing record in the world to sell over 1 million copies within a year. The album introduced American audiences to calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the King of Calypso.
Besides calypso, he also recorded blues, folk, gospel, show tunes and American standards from “The Great American Songbook‘ as it is known that included works from George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.
During the late 1950’s he performed during the so-called Rat Pack-era in Las Vegas. He and pianist Liberace, musician and singer Ray Vasquez, and singer Sammy Davis Jr. were featured at the Sands Hotel and Casino and the Dunes Hotel.
Belafonte also became television’s first African-American producer, and his special “Tonight with Harry Belafonte” won an Emmy award in 1960. It was during this time period that he became proactively engaged in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s including the1963 Freedom March in Washington, D.C..
Belafonte befriended the leader of the movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he maintained close ties until King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways.— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 25, 2023
In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings.
Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College.
I won’t forget…Rest well, sir. pic.twitter.com/31OC1Ajc0V
He was also friends with New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, often spending time with Kennedy during the latter’s run for the U.S. Senate and also during the 1968 presidential campaign, which ended tragically after Kennedy was shot in the kitchen pantry area at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. Kennedy died the next day on June 6, 1968, at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Prior to RFK’s assassination, on April 24, 1968, Belafonte interviewed Kennedy while guest hosting for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Belafonte refocused his efforts toward humanitarian causes, including joining with famed producer Quincy Jones and singer Michael Jackson on the USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” project on March 7th, 1985. Rolling Stone magazine wryly noted in its article about the recording and humanitarian fundraiser, that the 46 star vocalists who showed up may have formed the ultimate musical supergroup of all time.
First Lady Barbara Bush, standing in for her husband President George Herbert Walker Bush, presented the 12th Annual Kennedy Center Honors to Belafonte, along with his fellow honorees actress Mary Martin, dancer Alexandra Danilova, actress Claudette Colbert and composer William Schuman during a White House East Room ceremony on December 3, 1989.
Two years previously, in 1987, he was appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, replacing Danny Kaye as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. His appointment as Goodwill Ambassador came 27 years after then President John F. Kennedy appointed Belafonte the first member of the entertainment industry to serve as cultural advisor to the Peace Corps.
In 1994, he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton. He has also been awarded the Ronald McDonald House Charities’ Award of Excellence in recognition of his humanitarian work and the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award for 25 years of service to UNICEF.
In October of 2017 he was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom Medal by the Roosevelt Institute in New York, the citation reading in part:
“In the decades since, you have been involved in campaigns to fight apartheid and bring relief to the world’s poorest. You founded We Are the World, which brought together some of the
greatest talents in music to draw attention to and take on the scourge of famine in Africa. You
have always used your platform to call out injustice and violence and make sure we never
stopped believing that a more just, beautiful world was possible. Your voice—your life—has
been a beacon of hope, comfort, and inspiration to generations.”
Belafonte also served on the board of Americans for the Arts (formerly known as the American Council for the Arts) for many years. He has four children — Shari, Adrienne, Gina and David — and three grandchildren — Rachel, Brian and Maria. He lived with his wife photographer Pamela Frank who he had married in 2008.
“The world is a little dimmer today in losing such a legendary entertainer as Harry Belafonte but so much richer for having had such a tireless, lifelong humanitarian and activist for so many years. Rest easy, kind sir, after a job well done,” said Michael Weinstein, President of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
“Belafonte leveraged his considerable and deserved celebrity for a myriad of causes over his lifetime, including the fight against HIV and AIDS. It was both humbling and a privilege for AHF to thank and honor him in person for his lifetime of activism and compassion.”
In 2016, AHF honored Belafonte with its Lifetime Achievement Award during its “Keep the Promise” World AIDS Day Concert and March in Hollywood, CA.
Ever the activist, Belafonte, then 89, joined marchers for a brief but poignant portion of the march down Hollywood Boulevard.
The march commemorated the millions who have died of AIDS while also serving as a reminder to the world that of the then 36.7 million people living with AIDS worldwide, only 17 million had access to lifesaving antiretroviral treatment.
Belafonte received the AHF award during the concert that followed at the Dolby Theater featuring Patti LaBelle, Common, and others who also paid tribute to the humanitarian icon.
Harry Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up. He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style. Michelle and I send our love to his wife, kids, and… pic.twitter.com/g77XCr9U5b— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) April 25, 2023
The White House issued a statement from President Joe Biden on Belafonte’s death:
“Jill and I are saddened by the passing of a groundbreaking American who used his talent, his fame, and his voice to help redeem the soul of our Nation.
Harry Belafonte was born to Caribbean parents in Harlem, New York on March 1, 1927, when segregation was the order of American society. To our Nation’s benefit, Harry never accepted those false narratives and unjust boundaries. He dedicated his entire life to breaking barriers and bridging divides.
As a young man motivated to find his purpose, he became mesmerized by theater when he saw a performance of the American Negro Theater in Manhattan. As one of America’s original breakthrough singers and performers, he would go on to garner a storehouse of firsts—the first Black matinee idol, the first recording artist to sell over a million records, the first Black male Broadway actor to win a Tony award, the first Black producer to win an Emmy award, and one of the highest paid entertainers of his time, among other accolades.
But he used his fame and fortune for the public good throughout his extraordinary career. He became a powerful ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other giants of the Civil Rights Movement. He raised money and donated resources to post bail for activists jailed for acts of civil disobedience. He provided the critical funds to launch the Freedom Rides.
He lobbied against apartheid in South Africa, for the release of Nelson Mandela, and was one of the visionaries behind “We Are the World,” an innovative record released to raise millions of dollars to support humanitarian aid in Sudan and Ethiopia. For these and other humanitarian and artistic efforts he was conferred with a Kennedy Center Honor, the National Medal of the Arts, and a Grammy lifetime achievement award.
Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for human dignity will endure. He will be remembered as a great American.
We send our deepest condolences to his family and legions of admirers across the country and the world.”
Harry Belafonte was one of our favorite guest stars on The Muppet Show and a great friend to The Muppets. In his work on and off the stage, he helped us all to see one another clearly and truly turned the world around. We will never forget you, Harry! pic.twitter.com/euMQFDpvJj— The Muppets (@TheMuppets) April 25, 2023
Additional research and materials from the U.S. Department of Defense, The Kennedy Center Honors, UNICEF, the John F. Kennedy Library, the George Bush Library, the William J. Clinton Library, the George W. Bush Library, the Barack Obama Library, RCA Records, AFI, and The Recording Academy.
The eyes of LGBTQ Texans are upon Dade Phelan and the House
The Texas Senate has passed all of Lt. Gov. Patrick’s priority LGBTQ bills — What the House does next will impact queer Texans’ lives
By William Melhado & Alex Nguyen | AUSTIN – The Texas Senate has wasted little time this year passing every bill focused on LGBTQ Texans that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick prioritized. In fact, the Republican-controlled chamber has even gone further than its ambitious and influential leader asked.
With more than six weeks left in the legislative session, the Senate has advanced legislation that would restrict schools’ role in discussing the existence of LGBTQ people, block transgender kids’ access to treatments that major medical groups support, ban trans college athletes from joining the sports teams that align with their gender identity, and defund public libraries that let drag queens read to children.
That quick movement — and a flurry of other bills that could restrict how LGBTQ people live — has many Texans and parents of trans kids afraid that political winds fueling the Republican Party’s intense focus is about to turn into a tornado that makes Texas completely inhospitable.
“It’s feeling more and more like we’re just in a pressure cooker and the temperature keeps rising,” said Kay, the parent of a trans child who asked that her last name not be used because she fears being investigated for child abuse at the direction of state leaders. “Many of us are having to make really hard decisions.”
Texas Republicans have filed dozens of bills affecting LGBTQ people. Here’s what they’d do.
But these bills were always expected to sail through the conservative Senate over which Patrick presides. They now face their first — and perhaps only — uncertainty before reaching the governor’s desk: the Texas House.
Even though the GOP has also long controlled the lower chamber, it’s also where some of Patrick’s most socially conservative endeavors have met their demise in recent sessions. Yet a groundswell of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that’s taken root within the GOP makes it anyone’s guess whether the House will again act as the Senate’s foil.
And Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan isn’t offering many clues. Phelan declined to comment this month on his plans for the LGBTQ legislation, including plenty of bills originating in his chamber. That’s a far different public tact than Phelan took four years ago, when he was chair of the powerful House State Affairs Committee.
“I’m kind of done talking about bashing on the gay community,” Phelan told The Texas Tribune then. “It’s completely unacceptable. This is 2019.”
In the four years since, Texas’ political and social shifts have taken such divergent paths that predicting what happens next proves difficult. And as the leader of a Republican-dominated chamber, the political stakes for Phelan are much higher than when he made that comment in 2019.
Texas is home to more than 1.8 million people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. And 75% of Texans support anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, according to a 2022 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. LGBTQ people have seen dramatic gains in acceptance — and constitutionally protected rights — in the past 20 years.
Conservatives have sought to beat back that progress, painting LGBTQ people as “groomers” and pedophiles who want to “indoctrinate” children — which experts say are old anti-gay and anti-trans tropes. The Texas GOP platform declares “homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice” and opposes “all efforts to validate transgender identity.”
On Thursday, a coalition of more than 120 advocacy and faith groups publicly condemned the wave of bills targeting the LGBTQ community. Hours later, Democratic chairs of six House Caucuses, including the House LGBTQ Caucus, also released a joint statement denouncing the slate of legislation.
Queer Texans and advocates have said state leaders pushing these proposals are empowering people to target and stigmatize them.
“We do talk about it as a political shift but I do think it’s more than that. … We’ve also seen just an increase in the severity and, now, harassment and bullying and attacks on LGBT people in daily life,” said Rachel Hill, the government affairs director for Equality Texas.
Make no mistake: Phelan and the 149 other members of the House aren’t afraid to buck the state party platform or thwart Patrick and the Senate. Already this year, the speaker has eagerly waded into a fight with his Senate counterpart over how best to provide property tax relief. And last week, the House used a budget amendment to rebuke the Senate’s push to let parents use public money to subsidize private school tuition — a major priority for Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and the state party.
But Phelan in particular has to tread carefully, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Unlike the lieutenant governor, who is elected statewide by voters, the Speaker is elected by House members each legislative session. That means if Phelan thwarts a majority of representatives’ attempts to craft new laws, he could imperil his own speakership.
“He has to pick and choose his battles on red-meat legislation that comes down from the Senate,” Jones told the Tribune. “He can’t block it all.”
In 2017, buoyed by support from pastors and other social conservatives, Patrick led a crusade to restrict which public bathrooms transgender people could use. The so-called bathroom bill garnered national attention. Transgender Texans flooded the Capitol to testify against the legislation, and businesses vocally opposed it. Still, Patrick’s effort ultimately died twice — once in the regular session and once in a special legislative session — after then-Speaker Joe Straus, also a Republican, largely refused to negotiate with him on the proposed restrictions.
“Texans rejected name-calling and scare tactics, and as a result, we avoided a major mistake that would’ve cost our economy greatly and divided us unnecessarily,” Straus told business leaders in September 2017.
That was the fifth legislative term that Straus, a moderate Republican who was elected speaker with the help of Democrats, led the chamber. Shortly after the special session ended, Straus decided not to run again for his seat. But on his way out, the State Republican Executive Committee censured Straus for standing in the way of the group’s priorities, including the bathroom bill.
In the next election cycle, Republicans maintained their grip on state government, winning every statewide office. But in key races, they won by some of the slimmest margins in years. And Democrats took 12 Texas House districts from Republicans, giving them more seats than they’d had in a decade. The following legislative session saw far fewer bills aimed at LGBTQ Texans. And it also saw the Texas Legislature’s first LGBTQ Caucus, founded by five women in the House. It was in that climate that Phelan made his comments about not bashing the gay community.
Democrats went into the 2020 election confident that they’d gain even more ground. They needed just nine seats to wrest control of the House. But for all the hype, Democrats didn’t make a single net gain.
With their power entrenched, Republican lawmakers pushed beyond the bathroom bill in 2021 by filing legislation that would make it harder for transgender kids to access puberty blockers and hormone therapy, which are health care treatments that major medical groups and LGBTQ advocates say are vital to reducing increased mental health issues and suicidal ideation. Republicans also tried to expand the definition of child abuse to explicitly include providing children access to transition-related health care.
Many of those measures didn’t become law. But one did. In that year’s third special session, the House joined the Senate in to ban K-12 transgender student athletes from participating in the sports teams that match their gender identities.
That same year, Republican lawmakers also redrew political maps that fortified the GOP’s hold on state government for the next decade.
The new boundaries meant the vast majority of GOP lawmakers were practically guaranteed to win their general elections, and really faced potential threats to their power only in the primaries races where the most fervent party faithful decide who gets the nomination.
“You have a state Legislature that does not represent the population of the state, but instead has been drawn to explicitly favor members of one political party,” said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign.
According to Equality Texas, the Legislature has filed 140 bills that could harm LGBTQ Texans this session — almost double the number of similar legislation in all of 2021. But Texas is far from the only state where Republicans are pushing bills aimed at LGBTQ people. Restrictions and prohibitions on everything from drag shows to access to gender-affirming care for trans kids have been signed into law or are being considered in Republican-controlled states across the country. Legislation — and rhetoric — targeting trans individuals has particularly ramped up.
What transition-related health care is available to transgender kids in Texas? Here’s what you should know.
Joshua Blank, the director of research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said the topic of gender identity and trans rights is still a “very new issue” for many Texas voters.
“When you have a new issue like this, it’s often the case that the politics favor conservative positions because conservative positions traditionally emphasize maintaining or restoring or returning to the status quo,” Blank said.
Last month, former President Donald Trump declared in Waco at his first official 2024 campaign rally that “we will defeat the cult of gender ideology to reassert that God created two genders, male and female.”
Few of his campaign promises received the kind of vocal crowd approval as his vow “to cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity and either racial, sexual or political content on our children.”
During the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Michael Knowles, a far-right commentator, called for the “eradication” of “transgenderism” from public life, a popular idea among the far right.
Conservatives have sold their proposals as child safety initiatives, acting on fears that kids are being exposed to medical treatment or sexual content too early. But for LGBTQ Texans, that rhetoric affirms their fears that there’s another driving factor: bigotry.
Texas’ House Bill 1952 and Senate Bill 162 would block transgender and nonbinary Texas youth from updating their birth certificates with their gender identity. That would prevent young trans Texans from obtaining other government documents — such as those required for identification for education, traveling and employment — that match their gender they present to the world.
“These bills are effectively saying that your identity does not exist, that a trans identity cannot exist in the United States,” said Hill, the Equality Texas government affairs director.
LGBTQ advocates also worry that a key Senate bill would force Texas schools to ignore the community’s existence. The Senate’s sweeping education legislation, Senate Bill 8, is mainly aimed at allowing parents to use public money to subsidize private school tuition. Tucked inside, though, are severe restrictions on classroom lessons, campus activities and teacher guidance on sexual orientation and gender identity. It mirrors a Florida bill dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, but expands restrictions to 12th grade.
“Students deserve to be introduced to the beautiful diversity of our state,” Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez said last month. “Teaching young people about the lives of LGBTQ+ Texans prepares them for the real world by teaching them basic respect and kindness.”
Earlier this year, there were a few glimmers of hope for LGBTQ activists when they looked toward the House.
At the start of the session, Phelan suggested some of the LGBTQ-related bills — particularly the proposed ban on gender-affirming care for kids — would be sent to a select committee that was led by Kingsville Republican Rep. J.M. Lozano at the time. Weeks after that statement, leadership of that committee was handed off to Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson.
Chairs of the committees where bills are debated can heavily influence bills’ fate. Committee chairs have wide latitude in deciding which bills to consider — and whether or not to bring them up for a vote to advance them to the full chamber or sit on them and let them die.
But Phelan has instead sent some of the most high-profile LGBTQ bills to committees headed by Republicans.
That includes House Bill 1686, which would block hormone therapy and other transition-related care for kids. The legislation was assigned to the House Public Health Committee chaired by Republican state Rep. Stephanie Klick.
Klick didn’t sign on to the 2021 House legislation to ban puberty blockers and hormone treatments for trans kids. And during last year’s Republican primary for the North Texas district, her challenger David Lowe gleefully pointed that out.
“Apparently, I am the only one in this race who believes that child gender modification is child abuse and wants to stop it,” Lowe wrote in an April 2022 post on his campaign’s Facebook page.
Klick was eventually reelected — but not before Lowe forced her into a runoff. When she returned to Austin this year, Klick signed on as a joint author of HB 1686.
When the bill received a committee hearing, more than 2,800 people registered their position on it — the third-highest number of formal stances on legislation in more than 15 years. Only 97 supported it.
After almost 12 hours of listening to testimony — which many LGBTQ people say included misinformation and attacks on trans people — Theo Adams-Hernandez, a lifelong Texan who is trans, left before having a chance to share their story. Klick cut off testimony at midnight and fewer than 50 people were able to speak.
“It’s so isolating because how many other people have to go to the Capitol to testify for their life?” Adams-Hernandez told the Tribune. “It feels like forced vulnerability, forcing us to share our stories, forcing us to show that we’re human.”
Klick did not respond to questions from the Tribune.
When the upper chamber’s companion Senate Bill 14 first came to the floor, Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell offered to amend the legislation so that children already receiving puberty blockers or hormone therapy could continue accessing such treatment. While children who identify as trans in the future would not have access to the treatments, those who have found the care to be lifesaving would continue receiving it.
Campbell’s Senate colleagues approved the change. And she also received support from state Rep. Tom Oliverson, who authored the House’s companion bill, for her effort to “follow the science.”
GOP Texas senators pull their support for allowing some transgender kids to keep receiving puberty blockers and hormone therapy
But within days, the head of the Texas GOP blasted the move.
“With this amendment, Texas is abandoning every child currently being abused,” tweeted Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi.
When the bill came back to the Senate for a final vote, Campbell abruptly abandoned the amendment — and in a party-line vote, her colleagues approved the broader version affecting all trans Texas kids.
With the exemption for some trans kids dropped, the state GOP praised the bill’s passage.
“Thank you to the Texas Senate, Lt Gov [Dan Patrick], Sen. [Donna Campbell] and the rest of the [Texas Senate GOP] members for passing SB 14 a strong bill that will ban gender modification and mutilation of children!” Texas GOP said in a tweet following the vote.
For months, Campbell has declined to answer questions about SB 14.
On Friday, Klick’s House committee advanced new versions of both HB 1686 and SB 14. The bills now require trans youth already receiving puberty blockers or hormone therapy to be “weaned off the prescription drug over a period of time and in a manner that is safe and medically appropriate.” The bills would also ban surgeries, though they are rarely performed on kids.
Meanwhile, a majority of House members have expressed support for blocking trans college athletes from joining the sports teams that align with their gender identity and prohibiting puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans kids. The early majority support for the proposals was striking given that lawmakers were slower to rally around them in 2021. The athlete ban has yet to receive a House committee hearing.
What happens next is hard to predict. The House has a little over a month to approve the Senate bills or pass its own versions of legislation.
State Rep. Jessica González, the vice-chair of the House LGBTQ Caucus, said the LGBTQ community — including everyday Texans, lawmakers and community allies — have been talking with the authors of the bills about the legslation’s negative impacts in hopes of slowing down the legislation.
But at the same time, conservative activists are lobbying lawmakers to send the bills to Abbott’s desk.
“I think that this is the right time, and we have the right people in place to make the protections happen for children and for women,” said Jonathan Covey, policy director for social conservative group Texas Values.
And even though the 2024 primaries are more than 10 months away and the legislative session isn’t over, grassroots Republicans are already talking about challenging GOP incumbents if they don’t deliver on the party’s priorities.
“The Texas Senate under Dan Patrick is getting it done, and the House will fumble under the leadership of Dade Phelan,” Julie McCarty, CEO of right-wing group True Texas Project, previously known as the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, said in a statement to the Tribune. “This all falls at the feet of the Republican State Representatives who knew Dade would screw it up but voted for him as Speaker anyway. We, as GOP voters, must hold those representatives accountable for such a major betrayal.”
Transgender Texans and doctors say Republican lawmakers misconstrue what science says about puberty blockers and hormone therapy
Caught in the crossfire are LGBTQ Texans and their loved ones, whose lives could be upended in any number of ways, depending on which bills pass.
“This is the reality some of us live in. We are not privileged enough to be able to just relax — we have to worry and it is just traumatizing,” said Kay, the mother of a trans child.
If Phelan’s 2019 declaration that he was tired of bashing the LGBTQ community was considered relatively candid for a lawmaker, Martinez is willing to be far more blunt to fill the Speaker’s public silence four years later. Especially when talking about legislation that would block trans kids’ access to health care treatments many consider lifesaving.
“If your reelection costs lives, is it really worth the price?”
Disclosure: Equality Texas, Human Rights Campaign and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
William Melhado, NIGHT GENERAL ASSIGNMENT REPORTER
Alex Nguyen, REPORTING FELLOW
The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.
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On a mission; Supervisor Horvath tackles homelessness
“We need to make sure we are better using the resources that we have by not investing in solutions we know do not deliver the results”
LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey P. Horvath (3rd District) is on a mission to end homelessness in Los Angeles County. She represents 10 cities and 26 unincorporated communities from West Hollywood to Malibu, Topanga to Chatsworth, and Pacoima to Santa Monica. Her district spans 446.08 square miles and is plagued by homelessness.
There are approximately 69,144 homeless people within the county, and that number is on the rise. 75% of those unhoused individuals do not have any form of permanent housing and are forced to wander from place to place, finding or making shelter wherever they can.
Six out of ten of these unhoused individuals are newly homeless – a reflection of the inequity between rising home prices and stagnant income levels that have left so many in California unable to make ends meet.
In January of this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency for the homeless crisis.
“The declaration has allowed us to do two things,” Horvath told The Blade. “First, we were able to accelerate hiring. We learned that in the Department of Mental Health, for example, it can take longer than a year for mental health professionals to be hired into the department. That is completely unacceptable. We need to hire people faster to do this work.
“Second, we were also able to expedite contracting. We learned from LAHSA that a contract could be touched up to 140 times before it is finally executed, and funding is able to reach service providers. Obviously, that is unacceptable. We are improving our contracting processes.”
The services Horvath are most concerned with are stable housing, access to mental health care, and providing economic opportunities to the underprivileged.
Horvath’s encampment resolution seeks to reduce unsheltered homelessness in partnership with local jurisdictions. She is behind several initiatives aimed at increasing interim and permanent housing placements by working in more streamlined collaboration with local partners and stakeholders.
To further ensure her dream of ending the homeless crisis, Horvath placed herself on the Board of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), “to hold them accountable for getting the funding and resources that are needed in the community, and they are delivered directly on the ground,” she noted.
LAHSA is the lead agency for the Los Angeles Continuum of Care, the regional planning body that coordinates housing and services for homeless families and individuals in the County. LAHSA coordinates and manages over $800 million annually in federal, state, county, and city funds for programs that provide shelter, housing, and services to people experiencing homelessness.
LAHSA says that over the past five years, the agency and its partners have made 84,000 permanent housing placements–enough to fill Dodger Stadium one and a half times. Last year alone, the rehousing system made 21,213 placements.
When asked whether there is any space in her district for the tiny home communities popularized by media as a quaint and convenient solution to housing the unhoused, Horvath said that tiny homes are not her preferred method of ending this crisis.
“There are some tiny homes that have popped up in the valley. I will say they are not everyone’s favorite form of solving this crisis. Some communities prefer not to have tiny homes, and I think that given the magnitude of the problem that we are trying to solve, I would rather implement solutions that are more scalable,” she said.
“There have also been some safety issues raised with tiny homes. I think we have seen, not even just in Los Angeles but in places throughout the country, that have tried to use this as a solution.
“We also often see when people are placed in interim housing like a tiny home, they find that they are in that housing solution longer than they expected. Tiny homes are not intended to be long-term solutions. They are supposed to be an interim place to get people off the streets and then into permanent supportive housing. It’s challenging to provide the supportive services that people need at a tiny home development. The wraparound services are what help people to stay off the streets. We want to stand up housing developments that accommodate the kinds of needs and services that people expect when they are coming off the streets and dealing with issues that have impacted them big homeless.”
Horvath explained that she prefers modular housing to tiny homes. This modular housing concept was used for a new development for veterans at 11010 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles in conjunction with the Weingart Foundation.
The Weingart Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency that provides individuals experiencing homelessness with essential tools necessary to stabilize their lives, secure income, and find permanent housing.
“We were able to use modular construction that allows houses to be constructed more cost-effectively in a timely fashion,” Horvath said of the 51-unit, 5-story development consisting of 50 fully furnished studio units and 1 two-bedroom management unit. The development is targeted toward seniors and senior veterans (55+) who are formerly homeless.
In an effort to stop people from losing their homes due to COVID and economic hardship, Horvath and the Board of Supervisors are working with the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs in the Principal Assistance Program, making sure that property owners who might be landlords, or, as the Supervisor put it, “Mom and Pop-style landlords” get the services that they need.
“We set up rental assistance programs for tenants and landlords to access so we are able to keep people and housing that they otherwise could not afford,” said Horvath.
Given the new laws attempting to outlaw the existence of the LGBTQ+ community in many Republican-controlled red states across America, young LGBTQ+ people flock to places like Los Angeles with little to no resources to avoid being persecuted for their identities.
When asked how the she intends to deal with the influx of homeless LGBTQ youth pouring into LGBTQ+ safe havens like Los Angeles, Horvath told the Blade that she is prepared to welcome them with open arms.
“We tackled this challenge a lot when I was the Mayor of West Hollywood. We saw a lot of people come to West Hollywood for exactly this reason, and we know that that is not unique to West Hollywood. It’s happening throughout Los Angeles County, so we are already providing those services to those who need them. Anyone who comes to our area will be met with support and care.”
Horvath also shared that she is looking forward to Pride month as another way to show her support for the LGBTQ+ community. She has co-authored a motion to have the Pride flag flown all over Los Angeles County during the month of June.
“We are very excited to be making sure that our support of the LGBTQ+ community is strong and visible,” said Horvath.
Access to Mental Health Care
Horvath’s initiatives supply mental health and substance use disorder services to unsheltered and sheltered persons by coordinating field-based services and reducing wait times.
“We must lead countywide with a system of care that supports and keeps people safe,” said Horvath. “I initiated my city’s request to have dedicated Mental Evaluation Teams (MET), which combine a clinically-trained social worker with a public safety professional to respond to relevant calls. I support further investment in behavioral health response teams for relevant calls, as well as coordinated responses with public safety professionals when needed.
“We must invest in establishing teams to meet people where they are with the relevant support and resources they need – including mental health services, addiction recovery, and job training – instead of leaving them to face the challenges of navigating through an endless bureaucratic process on their own. We must invest in solutions that take into account the root causes, rather than wastefully spending more public dollars without solving the foundational problems.”
Horvath also stressed that Los Angeles has historically used “redlining,” or racially and economically discriminatory practices, to stop the underprivileged from receiving services and care. Horvath explained that these practices have created pockets of poverty resulting from a lack of resources and economic opportunity.
“We need to overcome that history of redlining and racist development by connecting our communities, literally. We can do this through systems like our metro system, which is why I am particularly excited about the Crenshaw Northern extension connecting communities.”
According to metro.net, the Crenshaw Northern Extension project will fill a major gap in the Metro Rail network and create opportunities by connecting the Crenshaw District (a historically underprivileged Black-majority district), Mid-City, West Hollywood, and Hollywood.
Horvath pointed out that this would link Angelenos to health care services like Cedar-Sinai, and the various medical services on Olympic Boulevard.
“We also want to be making sure that we are bringing services and support directly into each and every community,” said Horvath. “So, making sure that we are bringing the County outside of itself to downtown and out into the neighborhoods where services and support are really needed.”
Horvath plans to “meet people where they are,” meaning there will be more diversity hiring so that care can be culturally relatable to those in need.
“We need to make sure that we are investing in communities where help is needed the most. We need to make sure that we are providing culturally competent services and care, so whether that is language appropriate, whether it is making sure that people are getting services from people who look like them and who have similar lived experiences as them, we need to expand the kind of services and support that we provide to make sure that we are supporting everyone where they are in their communities.
“We need to expand and intentionally hire some communities that have typically been left out of services like mental health care services and like the supportive social services that so many communities need, but often those opportunities have been limited to people who are already in certain communities, or who have been given certain opportunities. We need to break through and do better.”
When asked to name some communities where help is needed most, Horvath responded that communities in the San Fernando Valley and economically distressed areas like Pacoima and Sylmar have reached out, stating that they have felt unfairly left out of the type of care she is committed to spreading throughout the County.
“We also know that even in some of our wealthy Westside LA areas, there are still people who are struggling with poverty and with the affordability crisis that we all face, so we need to make sure that even in wealthy communities, or perceived wealthy communities, people who are struggling and need help get it.”
Horvath is also behind the County’s Economic Opportunity Grant Program (EOG) for small and micro businesses as well as nonprofits. EOG will award more than $54 million across 6,800 grants to organizations in Los Angeles County adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those seeking career guidance and help, LA County’s America’s Job Center offers free job training and career counseling, paid work experience, layoff aversion, and other employment resources.
LA County’s Homeless Initiative Budget is currently a $600 million proposed budget for 2023-2024. The stated goals for the budget are:
- Reducing encampments to bring unsheltered people indoors
- Increasing interim and permanent housing placements
- Ramping up mental health and substance use disorder services for people experiencing homelessness
Horvath is dedicated to tracking the allotted budget so that funds are received and used appropriately and effectively.
“What I think we need to do is make sure we are better using the resources that we have by not investing in solutions we know do not deliver the results,” Horvath told The Blade. “We really need to be holding ourselves accountable to tracking how investments are delivered. We are so focused on getting people off the street that we are not always clear about the long-term impact we have. We need to follow people through the system to make sure they are staying in housing and make sure they stay off the streets.”
FY 2023-24 Budget Highlights
The $609.7 million represents an additional $61.8 million over last year’s allocation of $547.8 million, an increase of 11%. It includes funding for:
- Wraparound supportive services for 22,130 permanent supportive housing (PSH) units, expanding the total inventory by 4,630 units, the County’s largest ever year-over-year increase. PSH serves people who have the most complex needs, including chronic medical and/or behavioral health conditions.
- More than $60 million in time-limited rental subsidies to quickly house people who have recently become homeless and offer them services until they can gradually take on the rent themselves.
- 5,029 interim housing beds to bring people indoors from encampments as quickly as possible. This is in addition to about 20,000 beds funded by LAHSA, local jurisdictions, and other County programs overseen by the Departments of Health Services, Mental Health, and Public Health, among others.
- Increased homelessness prevention measures, including a ten-fold increase in funding for “problem solving,” which helps people identify viable temporary or permanent housing and other resources.
- A 40% increase in funding for programs to help people gain stability as they secure housing. These can include services to help them secure benefits they’re eligible for, as well as employment and income support.
- The plan to reduce homelessness also relies on deepening collaboration with local jurisdictions, including the County’s 88 cities and local Councils of Governments (COGs). This budget includes $25.5 million to work with local jurisdictions to resolve encampments and co-invest in housing.
In addition to the FY 2023-24 budget of $609.7 million, the Board also approved $76.9 million to fund:
- A newly established ongoing Local Solutions Fund (LSF) that can be tapped by cities and COGs to help people move out of encampments and into housing in collaboration with the County. This year’s allocation is $20 million.
- An additional $5 million for the Cities and COGs Interim Housing Fund (CCOGIHS), which builds on an existing $10 million investment. Last year’s CCOGIHS allocation has already been awarded to seven projects so far to fund supportive services at interim housing sites.
- The Skid Row Action Plan, which aims to comprehensively address the needs of residents in Skid Row, includes interim and permanent housing, behavioral health and substance use treatment services, and more.
- The “Every Woman Housed” program, which is specifically designed to end homelessness for women and families residing on Skid Row.
- The RV Encampment program, which is committed to annually assist 300 people living in recreational vehicles to find safer housing solutions and to dismantle inoperable RVs.
- Specialized outreach to people camped in high-severity fire zones in unincorporated areas of the County.
LGBTQ kids kicked out with nowhere to go; Life on the streets
Kicked out, surviving by living on park benches & truck stops, these kids face a terrifying reality of discrimination, isolation, & violence
LOS ANGELES – With homophobia, bullying, harassment, and extremist hate on the rise, both from the government and civilians alike, queer youth of today are facing a torrent of obstacles leading to a devastating increase in mental health crises.
Even more devastating is the number of queer youth who are facing these challenges while homeless. Kicked out of their homes and living on park benches and truck stops, these kids face a terrifying reality of discrimination, isolation, and violence.
The Rainbow Youth Project a nonprofit based out of Indiana serves as a godsend for many of these LGBTQ+ youth. The organization provides mental health, financial, housing, services and counseling assistance to homeless LGBTQ+ youth under the age of eighteen across the nation.
Kicked Out with Nowhere to Go
Seventeen-year-old Rainbow Youth Project clients, KV from Monrovia, California, and Mayra from just outside Houston, Texas, shared their stories of living on the streets after their families kicked them out for being queer.
“I really thought my mom would accept me,” Mayra told The Blade.
Mayra’s mother, a devout Catholic, had always preached love and forgiveness to her two daughters, even electing to love and forgive her brother, who was convicted of murder.
“I thought if she could love her brother after murdering somebody, then she could love me too,” said Mayra. “But she told me I had a week to get out. In her mind, there was nothing he could do to change the fact that he murdered someone, but I could change the fact that I am a lesbian, and I was choosing not to do that. I don’t know why she made this about herself.”
Mayra was outed to her mother by a group of classmates, who conspired against her in a cruel ploy to get her to admit that she was a lesbian. They elected one female classmate to pretend to befriend Mayra. The girl falsely claimed to Mayra that she was a lesbian and encouraged Mayra to open up about her own sexuality. After a few weeks of this false courting, Mayra felt comfortable enough to admit to the girl that she was indeed a lesbian too. The group of students behind the ploy then took to social media to out Mayra in a post that would change her life forever.
Mayra’s mother, boyfriend, Grandmother, and extended family in the Harris County area all told her that they would continue to deny her any living accommodation or support unless she committed to regularly seeing a priest.
“It was basically conversion therapy,” Mayra said. “The priest actually came to the house and told me that I was living in sin and that my family could not love me because they could not love sin. He said I needed to come to him whenever I was having these thoughts to keep me from going to hell. He told me I was an embarrassment to my family.
“That night, I was up all night. I couldn’t sleep. I thought, You know what? She told me to get out, so I will get out.”
KV, who was living with his parents in Monrovia, California, at the time, was similarly outed against his will by a cousin who caught him “hanging out” with a crowd of gay youths at a pizzeria in West Hollywood.
“My cousin drove by and saw me sitting there at a table outside on the sidewalk. He got out of his car. He approached me at the table and asked me what I was doing there with all the ‘faggots.’ I had a rainbow bracelet on, and he asked me if I was a ‘faggot.’ It was embarrassing, so I walked away. He followed me, screaming and yelling at me that I was a ‘faggot,’ and that he was going to tell my dad and I was going to get my ass beat when I got home. Then he put me in the car and drove me home to my dad.
“He told my dad where he found me, and my dad asked me if this was true, and if this is where I was going in the afternoons and if this is where I’ve been hanging out on the weekends, with all the ‘fairies.’ I said yes, and he said, ‘So you’re a ‘faggot now?’ I said, ‘No, not now. I always have been.
“I looked at my mom, and my mom just kind of looked away. I don’t really blame her anymore. My dad was really abusive with my mom, so it would’ve been bad for her if she had defended me. So instead of standing up for me, she just looked away and walked out of the room.
“My dad picked me up by the neck of my shirt and dragged me to my room and handed me a little duffel bag, and told me I could only take what I could fit in the duffel bag. I told him I had nowhere to go. He told me he didn’t give a fuck where I went because I was not staying there. He was not going to have ‘fag’ living in his house.”
Life on the Streets
After Mayra’s last sleepless night at her mom’s house, she left with nothing but a bag of personal items and $116 in her pocket from her part-time job.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” Mayra told The Blade. “I couldn’t call any of my friends because everybody was making fun of me and threatening to beat me up. I just kind of hung out in the park for a couple of days. After a few days, I realized that was still my best option. I just fell into staying on the streets.”
Mayra took to sleeping in the bathrooms of truck travel stops, sporadically getting handouts of leftover food from restaurants such as Subway and Cinnabon.
“I stumbled into some other kids who were homeless,” said Mayra, “and they were telling me they had other options, not really shelters, but it was better than sleeping in the bathroom. Then they stole everything that I had, so I only had the clothes that I had on. I needed fresh clothes. I had to barter whatever I had to do to get what I had to have.”
After the altercation with his abusive father, KV left with his duffle back and caught a bus to West Hollywood.
“That was the only place I knew where to go,” KV told The Blade. “At least I felt safe there. From November 2021 until June 2022, I basically lived on Santa Monica Blvd.”
“The first thing I had to learn was safety,” said KV. “There are some pretty bad people out there. I got beat up a couple of times because I was in somebody’s space. It’s almost like a game. You have to learn the rules of the game like this is Joe’s space over here. Even if his stuff isn’t here, you can’t be in that area, or he is going to get mad. People don’t understand even if you are were living in a park, your space is like your house, and you can’t go into somebody else’s house. Learning that was kind of hard. I had heard about tent cities and all of that, but I was never really a part of it before.”
Going from housed to homeless in less than twenty-four hours, KV and Mayra quickly learned to navigate the new, dangerous environments. Like so many homeless youths, both Mayra and KV turned to prostitution as a means of survival.
“It was a tough thing, and I’m not proud of what I had to do to get the things I needed,” KV told The Blade. “But I think the thing that shocked me about it more than even me having to do this was how many kids were doing it and how many people were looking for it. I mean, people every day, every 15 minutes to 30 minutes, would come up to me looking for kids for sex. I’d be walking down Santa Monica or just sitting at a bus stop, and somebody would pull over and say, ‘What do you do for 50? What do you do for 20? That happens all the time.”
“One man asked if I lived in the park,” said Mayra. “I said, ‘kind of.’ He asked me what I would be willing to do to not live in the park anymore. I realized I was going to have to learn how to survive.”
At the truck stops along the freeways near Houston, Mayra often traded sex with the drivers for food, money, and shower tokens.
A Beacon of Hope
“Rainbow Youth Project saved my life,” KV told the Blade, who found out about RYP through a friend. “My goal was to get off the streets. I had had enough. Even after a week, I knew I had to do something. I called Rainbow Youth Project. I wasn’t expecting too much. I spoke to Brandon. Brandon asked me where I was, and I said LA. He said, ‘What if I told you we have a counselor we work with at UCLA that might be able to help you.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I ain’t got no way out to UCLA. No insurance, none of that stuff. He said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got you.’ The next day, he sent an Uber for me that took me up to see the counselor at UCLA. They already had an overnight package that had blankets and socks and underwear stuff that I didn’t have and a phone. And I’ve been in touch with them ever since. That was in June.”
Mayra’s counselor flew to her and gave her a phone, gift cards for food, clothing, and numbers for various volunteers at RYP whom she could call for whatever she needed.
“I told her I didn’t have money to pay for this,” recounted Mayra, “and she said, ‘You never have to pay me for anything. This is not a barter.’ When she said the word ‘barter,’ that’s when I knew she really understood.”
KV, who just finished his GED, plans to continue treatment for his trauma-related flashbacks, which are triggered by smells like certain colognes and often interfere with his productivity. Mayra, who says she feels her happiest when volunteering with animals, is currently training to be a veterinary assistant. Her studies are currently being funded by RYP.
Both Mayra and KV are now in stable housing thanks to Rainbow Youth Project and the nonprofit’s volunteers.
Eventually, KV acquired a guardian ad litem, although his parents did sign a legal guardianship over to his cousin in Riverside. Mayra was emancipated by the Harris County District Court.
Harsh reality of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness
LGBTQ youth are overrepresented among young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability in the United States. This elevated risk of homelessness and housing instability has detrimental effects on LGBTQ youths’ mental health.
A research report released in February 2022 by the Trevor Project revealed that 28% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives — and those who did had two to four times the odds of reporting depression, anxiety, self-harm, considering suicide, and attempting suicide compared to those with stable housing.
Key findings included:
Overall, 28% of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives.
- Nearly half (44%) of Native/Indigenous LGBTQ youth have experienced homelessness or housing instability at some point in their life, compared to 16% of Asian American/Pacific Islander youth, 27% of White LGBTQ youth, 27% of Latinx LGBTQ youth, 26% of Black LGBTQ youth, and 36% of multiracial LGBTQ youth.
- Homelessness and housing instability were reported at higher rates among transgender and nonbinary youth, including 38% of transgender girls/women, 39% of transgender boys/men, and 35% of nonbinary youth, compared to 23% of cisgender LGBQ youth.
- 16% of LGBTQ youth reported that they had slept away from parents or caregivers because they ran away from home, with more than half (55%) reporting that they ran away from home because of mistreatment or fear of mistreatment due to their LGBTQ identity.
- 14% of LGBTQ youth reported that they had slept away from parents or caregivers because they were kicked out or abandoned, with 40% reporting that they were kicked out or abandoned due to their LGBTQ identity.
LGBTQ youth who experienced homelessness or housing instability reported higher rates of mental health challenges, compared to their stably housed LGBTQ peers.
- LGBTQ youth who reported housing instability or homelessness had nearly two to four times the odds of reporting depression, anxiety, self-harm, considering suicide, and attempting suicide compared to those who did not report any housing instability.
- 69% of youth who reported past housing instability and 68% of youth who were currently homeless reported that they had engaged in self-harm in the last year – compared to 49% of youth who had not experienced housing instability,
- 58% of youth who reported past housing instability and 62% of youth who were currently homeless reported having seriously considered suicide in the last year – compared to 35% of youth who had not experienced housing instability,
- 28% of youth who reported past housing instability and 35% of youth who were currently homeless reported a suicide attempt in the last year – compared to 10% of youth who had not experienced housing instability,
LGBTQ youth who reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability had higher rates of victimization, being in foster care, and food insecurity, compared to their stably housed LGBTQ peers
- LGBTQ youth who reported past housing instability or current homelessness had more than three times greater odds of ever being physically threatened or abused due to their sexual orientation or, among transgender and nonbinary identity, gender identity.
- LGBTQ youth who reported past housing instability or current homelessness had nearly six times greater odds of reporting that they had been in foster care at any point in their life.
- LGBTQ youth who reported past housing instability or current homelessness had more than three times greater odds of reporting food insecurity in the last month.
What can be done to address the problem
The Trevor Project report made several pragmatic recommendations that were echoed by RYP and others in the field who work with LGBTQ+ youth. In Los Angeles, Lisa Phillips, Director of Youth Services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said:
“The Los Angeles LGBT Center has always had a high demand for youth-oriented services, including emergency, transitional, and permanent housing—and we have not seen that demand falter. Unfortunately, as political attacks on our community escalate throughout all corners of the United States, we also don’t expect to see that demand go down anytime soon.
We understand that, like any other issue affecting the LGBTQ+ community, a holistic approach that caters to the dignity of the individual is urgent and necessary. That’s why the Center doesn’t just offer a place to sleep but also provides health and mental health care, substance use and recovery efforts, legal services, housing and job navigation, and, most importantly, community. We do not take our responsibility to LGBTQ+ youth lightly, and we are always proud to be leaders in the fight for a more equitable world for queer and trans people.”
The Trevor Project report outlined steps that could be taken:
- Preventing LGBTQ Youth Homelessness. Strong anti-discrimination policies in the workplace and strong anti-bully and harassment policies in schools can be effective in helping LGBTQ youth stay connected to school and employment, increasing their skills and future earnings, and making it easier for them to maintain stable housing. Additionally, since family conflict around youths’ LGBTQ identities is a driving factor in LGBTQ youth homelessness, developing family counseling or mediation programs may be effective at decreasing conflict and keeping LGBTQ youth in their homes and connected to their families. Special attention should also be paid to preventing housing instability among LGBTQ youth in foster care through case management and exit planning for youth exiting care.
- Increased Funding for Low-Barrier Housing Programs. More funding should be allocated for safe, low-barrier housing programs which can have an immediate positive impact on LGBTQ youth experiencing housing instability.
- Reimagining Shelter Services. One immediate action that housing providers can take to support LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness is to make sure that all shelter and housing facilities provide culturally competent services to LGBTQ youth.
- Improved Data Collection on LGBTQ Youth Homelessness. Better data is needed to understand the full scope and impact of LGBTQ youth homelessness in the United States. Questions about both LGBTQ identity and housing status should be added to population surveys of youth and young adults, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).
- Anti-Poverty Economic Policies. LGBTQ youth are impacted by their families’ and communities’ economic stability. Policies that combat poverty at the societal level will have a positive impact on LGBTQ youths’ access to safe and secure housing. Economic upheavals, such as what we are seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic, increase economic pressure on low-income households and make it even more urgent for legislators to tackle root causes of poverty in the United States to the benefit of LGBTQ youth, their families, and their communities.
Who gets saved? Ignoring the systemic abuse of LGBTQ children
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that one in four teenagers who identified as LGBTQ+ said they attempted suicide
By Karen Ocamb | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Easter was ashen this year after a legislative chamber full of knuckle-dragging Christian white supremacists in Tennessee expelled two young Black colleagues who created rule-breaking “good trouble” by calling for sensible gun control to protect children.
Republicans removed Reps. Justin Jones, 27, and Justin Pearson, 28, and unsuccessfully tried to remove white Rep. Gloria Johnson, 60, for “their adolescence and immature behavior” protesting in favor of gun reform after a school shooting in Nashville that left six dead, including three children.
“We called for you all to ban assault weapons and you respond with an assault on democracy,” said Jones during the floor debate to expel him.
Gun reform “is personal when you lose your friends, when you lose loved ones,” Pearson told the New York Times.
Johnson, a former teacher at Knoxville’s Central High School during a fatal shooting in 2008, told the New York Times about “the terror on the kids’ faces as they were running down that hill into my classroom.”
Before the mass shooting at a downtown Louisville, Kentucky bank that left four dead and nine wounded on Monday, April 10, the Gun Violence Archive counted 144 mass shootings in America from January 1 to April 8 this year, with at least 13 K-12 school shootings so far. The shooting at the pre-K- 6th grade Covenant School in Nashville was the deadliest mass shooting since the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, 2022 when 21 people, including 19 children, were killed by a gunman with a military-style AR 15.
Ten years earlier, on Dec. 14, 2012, the nation was stunned by the mass shooting at K- 4th grade Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut when a 20-year-old murdered 26 people, 20 of whom were children between six and seven years old. Last February marked the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where, on Feb. 14, 2018 – Valentine’s Day – a 19 year old used a Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II semi-automatic rifle to murder 14 teenage students and three adult staff members and injure 17 more, two of whom died by suicide later.
The massacres resulted in several promised actions and lots of gun reform activism, including the youth-led March for Our Lives movement. But when Florida lawmakers Rep. Jared Moskowitz and Rep. Maxwell Frost spoke with “GMA3” to mark Parkland’s fifth anniversary, they noted that the epidemic of gun violence remains. “Five years later, we feel like we’ve made some progress and then we were reminded that nothing has changed,” Moskowitz said.
“Children and teens are more likely to die by guns than anything else,” reads a March 29, 2023 CNN headline.
So, who’s protecting them?
We still have much to learn about the 28-year-old shooter who fired 152 rounds from legally purchased guns into the private Christian school in Nashville, killing 9 year olds Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, and school custodian Mike Hill, 61, substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61, and school administrator Katherine Koonce, 60.
No more Easters, chocolate bunnies or colorful egg hunts for them.
And as their ongoing political struggles underscore the vulnerability of democracy, we cheer on the “Tennessee Three,” their allies and supporters who have a right to their rage, born of love for humanity and frustration at the cruel ineptitude that perpetuates violence.
But there are other dead and injured children who also missed the spiritual and earthly joy of Easter this year — the thousands of abused kids who are out of sight and thus, out of mind, often tortured and murdered not by AR-15s but at the hard hands of their own families.
Too often the catalyst for that violence is the belief that the child is or might be LGBTQ.
Last month, on March 7, Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva, the mother of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos and her former boyfriend, were convicted of murder and of torturing Anthony and abusing two of his siblings in 2018. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta included the special circumstances torture allegation in the commission of a murder because the torture was so horrific – and recorded by the child welfare system set up to protect the children.
I reported on Anthony’s horrific fate after he told his mother he was gay. I also reported on the torture and murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was “suspected” of being gay, in 2013. In both cases, the boys lived in extremely abusive households but were singled out for greater abuse, though the reason “why” they were targeted has never been explained or explored — unlike the lengths to which law enforcement and pundits go to explain the motives of mass shooters.
The LA Times secured the grand jury testimony in Anthony’s case and did an extensive summary of the inexplicable failures by the County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). But the word “gay” is only mentioned once – despite a previous report that Anthony officially came out before his death. Promises to investigate homophobia appear to have faded into oblivion.
“Anthony Avalos came out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are now investigating whether homophobia played a role in the death of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy, a county official said,” the Times reported June 26, 2018. “Anthony was found mortally wounded at his home last week with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body. Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, revealed in an interview Monday that Anthony ‘said he liked boys’ but declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when.”
A subsequent long investigative piece by The Times noted the parallels between Anthony and Gabriel’s treatment throughout – focusing on the DCFS workers.
“Anthony’s case struck many people as having similarities to the 2013 death of another Palmdale boy, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, whose mother and her boyfriend were convicted of his torture murder,” The Times reported Sept. 4, 2019. “In the wake of Anthony’s death, the county issued a report saying the circumstances, while ‘horrible, heartbreaking and apparently brutal,’ were ‘very dissimilar’ to Gabriel’s death. But DCFS and grand jury records and interviews show striking similarities in the two deaths that occurred within a 15-minute drive in the Antelope Valley. In both cases, workers carried out superficial investigations and didn’t always follow proper protocols.”
To put it mildly. Los Angeles Magazine added a bench trial detail that underscores the dire need for deep and thorough reform: “During the trial, prosecutors also played a shocking recording of DCFS social worker Anna Sciortino, who was laughing and making jokes on an emergency hotline while receiving a description of Anthony Avalos’ abuse. In response to that, (Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, who was the lead prosecutor) stated, ‘DCFS needs to stop just going through the motions and actually start caring about our children.’”
So must the media. In reporting the murder trial conviction last month, Los Angeles Magazine reporter Jason McGahan wrote a gripping, intricate, painful and powerful story of not only the horrendous family backgrounds of the key actors in Anthony’s life – but also made the obvious-to-LGBTQs connection between Anthony and Gabriel.
“The similarities between the two murders were striking, although the details of this latest child slaying were in some ways even more gruesome and unsettling,” McGahan wrote. “This atrocity involved a ten-year-old boy named Anthony Avalos, who, like Gabriel Fernandez, had made the mistake of telling his family he might be gay. Like the Fernandez case, Anthony’s story was tangled in an infuriating jumble of fumbled interventions and botched opportunities that might have saved the boy’s life. Virtually every system set up to protect children like Anthony—from the L.A. County Department of Child and Family Services to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department—failed miserably. And, ultimately, fatally.”
McGahan also describes how the MS-13 gangster boyfriend came clean during interrogation about how he murdered Anthony.
“Over the course of several hours, Leiva came clean: how he tortured Anthony, slamming him into walls, beating the bottoms of his feet with belts, forcing him to kneel on rice and assume Abu Ghraib-style stress positions. He admitted that he had flown into a rage when Anthony tried to stand up for himself, refusing to kneel as ordered. He described how he’d grabbed him by his ankles and dropped him on his head over and over again until Anthony stopped getting up. And how he then fled the apartment in a panic,” McGahan wrote.
“Why Leiva was especially rageful during this particular beating isn’t clear,” he continued, “although Hatami believed it had a lot to do with Anthony telling his family earlier that day that he was gay. Leiva’s history of homophobia was almost as long as his history of misogyny. As for Heather, although she didn’t directly participate in the killing, Hatami believes she was every bit as responsible. She left Anthony unconscious on the floor for two days before finally calling for medical help.”
As I reported for the Los Angeles Blade on June 7, 2018: “In more than 800 pages of sworn grand jury testimony made public in August 2014, the extent of Gabriel’s tortured life was revealed, including the suspicion that he was abused because Aguirre thought the child was gay.
‘It was just like every inch of this child had been abused,’ LA County Fire Department paramedic James Cermak testified.”
Hatami told the grand jury that Gabriel “was abused, beaten and tortured more severely than many prisoners of war.”
In sentencing Gabriel’s mother to life in prison without parole and her boyfriend to death Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli said the torture and murder was the worst case of abuse he’d seen in nearly 20 years on the bench, abuse that was “horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil.” Lomeli cited evidence, such as bashing Gabriel’s teeth out with a bat and shooting BB pellets at him, saying that some might call the abuse “animalistic.” Except that animals don’t do that to their own family.
And THAT is why recognizing how being gay became a catalyst to the murder of these children is so important. McGahan asks: “Who killed this 10-year-old boy in the Antelope Valley? Why couldn’t anyone prevent it? And how does this keep happening, again and again?”
Because, unlike animals, our families, our society – even our own minds inculcated with self-loathing – torture us to death. Last year – April 4, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that one in four teenagers who identified as LGBTQ+ said they attempted suicide during the first half of 2021, according to the CDC’s first national survey of high school students.
And what we learned from the Gun Violence Archives is that of the 9,870 people who have died from gun violence so far this year, “[d]eaths by suicide made up the vast majority of gun violence deaths this year – 57.9%, the nonprofit gun violence tracker reports. There’s been an average of about 67 deaths by suicide per day in 2023. Of those who died from gun violence this year, 338 were teens and 60 were children,” according to ABC News.
We are among them. (Reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741 or call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386.)
Countering that self-loathing is seeing positive images and media coverage of our real lives. I was greatly distressed, therefore, to learn that Maer Roshan, the editor-in-chief of Los Angeles Magazine, has been fired by the new owners. Maer was the first and may be the last out gay editor-in-chief at LA Mag. He created their first LA Pride issue – the magazine that touts itself as being all knowing about the cultural core of Los Angeles had never seriously acknowledged LGBTQ pride in this way.
Maer also assigned LGBTQ-related stories and worked with writers like me – and I’m sure Jason on Anthony’s story — to tell a fuller story of not only our community but how we fit or don’t fit into the grander scheme of things. The fact that he was fired so the new guys could go in another direction – towards celebrity covers – and they fired the gay guy who revels in all things fashion and celebrity – sounds like something else is going on.
No new guy would have put Anthony Avalos’ story on the cover, let alone given Jason room to write such a mesmerizing story that suggests homophobia is as abusive and fatal as we know it to be – including towards kids. At a time when MAGA Republicans have vociferously and unabashedly declared a culture war to erase us – Maer stood in the breach. Where he takes his light next, I will follow.
Karen Ocamb is the former news editor of the Los Angeles Blade. She is an award-winning journalist who, upon graduating from Skidmore College, started her professional career at CBS News in New York.
Ocamb started in LGBTQ media in the late 1980s after more than 100 friends died from AIDS. She covered the spectrum of the LGBTQ movement for equality until June 2020, including pressing for LGBTQ data collection during the COVID pandemic.
Since leaving the LA Blade Ocamb joined Public Justice in March of 2021 to advocate for civil rights and social, economic, and racial justice issues.
As threats swell, Cincinnati’s drag performers pushback
“I try to come out and do things because, as a queen, people look to me and my fellow drag performers for hope, for guidance”
CINCINNATI – In the crowded back room of Good Judy’s – an LGBTQ bar in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood – drag queen Stixen Stones appeared from behind a black curtain, dressed in transgender pride colors. Her outfit prominently displayed a message: “I am not a crime.”
Stixen Stones, a 31-year-old transgender woman, then went to center stage, mouthing the words to a recording of Andrea Gibson’s poem “Your Life.”
With an intense stare and expressive motions, she descended a makeshift runway that split the crowd before returning to the stage. Her castmates piled in the narrow doorway that hid backstage to get a peek of the performance.
The crowd was silent as the speaker played: “They’re going to keep telling you/you are a crime of nature./And you’re going to look at all of your options/and choose conviction.”
“That poem has always spoken to me – just the way that it describes trans joy,” Stixen Stones said in an interview after the show. “It gives me hope whenever I listen to it because it’s like, you really can have this really beautiful life that you get to choose, even though you’re gonna deal with some hardships.”
It was a chilly Saturday night last month, and Stixen Stones was co-hosting what she called a “trans trauma night” with fellow Good Judy’s performer Kiara Chimera – a night that put the political landscape for queer people at center stage.
In recent years, state legislatures across the country – including in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana (parts of each state make up the Cincinnati metropolitan area) – have filed, advanced and, in some cases, passed legislation targeting LGBTQ people, namely transgender youth.
And 2023 has been no exception.
The American Civil Liberties Union is tracking at least 430 anti-LGBTQ bills nationwide this year – ranging from transgender healthcare bans to limits on how LGBTQ issues can be discussed in schools, like in years past.
“It kind of puts us back in Stonewall territory,” Stixen Stones said.
This year has seen a sort of evolution in legislation targeting queer people, LGBTQ and legal experts said, with an influx of bills targeting drag performers as conservatives rail against drag story times – where drag artists read children’s books to kids. It’s a development that has heightened fears in the LGBTQ community, of which drag is an integral part.
“I think they’re using [anti-drag legislation] as a smokescreen, as a distraction to push something even more gruesome [anti-transgender legislation] that will literally impact lives,” said P.H. Dee, a 34-year-old drag queen in Cincinnati.
As more and more anti-LGBTQ bills are introduced, experts said, right-wing extremists have felt emboldened – increasingly targeting the LGBTQ community with hateful rhetoric and violent demonstrations.
“It’s hard to ignore,” said Vanta Black, a 23-year-old nonbinary drag performer in Cincinnati. “I feel like I would be ignorant to just be like, I’ll go play dress up and nobody’s going to be bothered by it.”
‘It’s come a long way’
Cincinnati, positioned in the southwest corner of Ohio, has taken big leaps in LGBTQ equality over the last decade, according to the Human Rights Campaign – the largest LGBTQ organization in the country. As has Covington, Kentucky, the Queen City’s neighbor on the other side of the Ohio River.
Since 2012, the HRC has released its Municipal Equality Index, which assigns scores – from zero to 100 – to cities based on how inclusive their laws, policies and services are.
In the report’s first year, the HRC gave Cincinnati a 77 – scoring particularly low, 0, in the “relationship recognition” category for lack of a domestic partner registry as same-sex marriage was illegal on both a federal and state level. Columbus, for comparison, scored a 12 in the category that same year.
However, it wouldn’t be long until Cincinnati received perfect 100s from the HRC, 2015 being the first year the city did so – and it has continued the streak ever since.
Covington, on the other hand, was added to the list in 2015 – coming in with a 57 overall score. It took the Northern Kentucky city longer to climb up to a perfect score, achieving it in 2020 and again in 2022.
“Cincinnati, it’s come a long way in the last 10, 15 years, and it’s definitely more progressive than it was,” said Jake Hitch, director of communication for Cincinnati Pride. “I think we still have some room to grow, but it’s definitely progressed.”
Cincinnati’s drag scene has also seen a similar evolution, Stixen Stones, who describes her drag as alternative, said.
“It’s definitely changed a lot,” she said, adding: “I think we’re really seeing a lot of diversity – I mean, we can certainly use more diversity, but I think we are a really creative and diverse group here in Cincinnati.”
She added: “On any given night, no matter where you go, you’re gonna see a lot of different types of entertainers, depending on which bar you go, and I love that.”
Vanta Black, who is new to the city’s drag scene, shared a similar sentiment: “We just have a very unique drag scene. It’s very open. There are a lot of different places where people can find where they belong. It’s not just one type of drag that’s validated here.”
Still, the city’s – and country’s – progress is being overshadowed by the legislation aimed at LGBTQ people.
“It’s been 50 years [since Cincinnati Pride started], and things have progressed so much,” Hitch said. “But then these bills get introduced, and it feels like we’ve taken two steps forward and two steps back.”
In early March, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed the nation’s first bill restricting drag shows. The signing came after a 1977 high school yearbook photo appearing to show Lee in drag surfaced online – the governor called a reporter’s question about the photo “ridiculous.”
The legislation, which was set to go into effect on April 1 before a federal judge placed a temporary hold on it, bans “adult cabaret entertainment” – including “male or female impersonators” – from public property or in locations where minors can view it. The original bill was amended to define adult cabaret entertainment as “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors, as such term is defined under present law.”
“There’s some commentary suggesting that this means that some drag may actually be protected, so long as it’s not falling into the legal category of obscenities,” said Ryan Thoreson, an assistant law professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. “But I think what’s worrying about a lot of these bills, even when they’re amended that way, is that they have an enormous chilling effect, with performers not knowing what is and isn’t permissible with law enforcement.”
Supporters of the bill claim that the legislation is necessary to safeguard children. In an interview with CNN, one of the legislation’s lead sponsors, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Republican, clarified that the law “is not targeting any group of people.”
“It does not ban drag shows in public,” he said. “It simply puts age restrictions in place to ensure that children are not present at sexually explicit performances.”
But others see the legislation as vague, unnecessary and a violation of the First Amendment. Though the word “drag” is not in the bill – and some legal experts think the law, as written, does not apply to drag as they know it – many are uncertain about how the law will affect Pride parades, drag performances, and even transgender and nonbinary people.
And the Tennessee law is similar to legislation introduced in at least 14 other states, including Kentucky.
“Some of [the anti-drag bills], on their face, purport to really only go after performances that are sexual in nature,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the HRC. “But the way that they’re written is going to have a chilling effect on all drag performances, particularly where a minor is or could be present.”
Warbelow did make it clear that most of the bills targeting drag performances are not “done in such a way that an average trans person walking down the street in the middle of the afternoon would need to be fearful that these laws could be used against them.”
Kentucky, a state where Cincinnati drag performers often work, saw its own bill targeting drag performances – written similarly to Tennessee’s law. After Republican lawmakers in the state’s Senate passed the legislation, it died in the House after not receiving enough readings before the veto period.
Still, P.H. Dee – who often crosses the Ohio River for performances – said, “it’s terrifying that this is getting the traction and the attention that is.”
According to the ACLU, Ohio has introduced four anti-LGBTQ bills – none aimed at drag performances. Indiana, similarly, has introduced bills aimed at the LGBTQ community, 18, but not drag.
But that doesn’t mean they won’t.
“Almost any state is at risk of seeing a bill like this,” Thoreson said, adding that “there are lawmakers in, I think, every state who are at least interested in making a political name for themselves by introducing these types of bills.”
‘It certainly can happen here’
Though many anti-LGBTQ bills don’t become law – 91% of such legislation failed to become law last year, according to the HRC – LGBTQ advocates and right-wing extremism experts said hate groups, like the Proud Boys, could be seeing the legislation as a sort of license to target drag events.
“I think that the legislation gives cover to these groups,” said RG Cravens, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, adding that “politicians certainly are lending credibility, lending that kind of legitimacy to these, many times, violent actions.”
And it’s more than politicians, Cravens said, “there’s a right-wing media environment that mobilizes these groups.” That includes Fox News host Tucker Carlson and popular social media account Libs Of TikTok, among others.
Last year, there were at least 124 anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting specific drag events, according to GLAAD – the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy group.
In December, right-wing groups – including the Patriot Front, Proud Boys and White Lives Matter Ohio, all of which are classified as hate groups by the SPLC – protested a drag queen story hour in Columbus. Some donned bulletproof vests and carried military-style assault weapons, while others flashed Nazi salutes. The event, which was meant to build literacy and promote inclusivity, was canceled.
“Columbus is a much more progressive city than Cincinnati is, so if it can happen there, it certainly can happen here,” P.H. Dee said.
Earlier this year, white supremacists violently protested a drag storytelling event outside of Akron at Wadsworth’s Memorial Park while shouting racist and homophobic slurs. The event, “Rock-n-Roll Humanist Drag Queen Story Hour,” did proceed as planned, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.
The events came after a mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that killed five people. Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, who is currently on trial for the killings, ran a neo-Nazi website, according to a detective’s testimony.
Though there has been no documented anti-LGBTQ protest in Cincinnati recently, the drag performers who spoke with the Blade said they feared the threat of one.
“Over time, especially as some of these laws start to pass, we are really seeing a future in which queer spaces can be targeted, and queer people can be targeted, more than they already are,” Stixen Stones said, adding that “it’s scarier when the government is kind of giving the OK.”
On March 19, P.H. Dee hosted a Dolly Parton-themed drag brunch in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Dressed in a yellow fringe dress and bleach blond wing, she held the mic and delivered a speech about the state of the country for LGBTQ people – serving, especially, as a call to action for allies.
“[LGBTQ people] are our own echo chamber, right,” she said in an interview. “It’s really up to the allies to do the outreach because they just kind of have to be that middle person, that conduit that helps the people who don’t see our humanity, see our humanity.”
Stixen Stones also spoke about the importance of allies in the fight against anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“It’s really an ally’s job to speak out for us to the people that we can’t reach,” she said.
“We, as queer people, are kind of being asked to do the work,” Stixen Stones added. “I don’t have a problem doing the work of calling people and speaking out and educating people, but –especially right now – we need our allies to come around us and help us with this and help us fight because we’re fighting every day.”
Still, in many ways, the LGBTQ community looks to local drag performers as leaders, Vanta Black said.
“I also try not to live in fear,” they said. “I try to come out and do things because, as a queen, people look to me and my fellow drag performers for hope, for guidance.”
They added: “We are public figures in the community – I think a lot of people forget that. So if I’m too afraid to go out, people will follow suit. And I don’t want people to be afraid.”
It’s that toughness, one that many queer people exude, that continues to give P.H. Dee hope.
“The resilience of the queer community is probably one of the most beautiful parts of us,” she said. “That is what we have had to learn how to be.”
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