Communities in Common

Out & Equal is proud to present a guest writer series, "Communities in Common." This series profiles observations, experiences and events of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of culturally diverse communities.

Q Wilson: Celebrating Black History Month | February 22, 2011

Q Wilson is a staff member of Out & Equal.

More often than not, when people hear the word ‘gay’ they think white middle-class male. Of course, the diaspora of the LGBT community is much more vibrant and diverse than that. As with many things in our society it’s the facts and figures that have been collected that speak for a group of people, even if it doesn’t include all of the people of a particular population.

Earlier this month I attended the Creating Change conference in Minneapolis. One of the workshops I had the opportunity to attend was Black Lesbians Matter, presented by the Zuna Institute of Sacramento, California. The information presented in the workshop was from the 2009 – 2010 National Black Lesbian Needs Assessment, a groundbreaking survey. This first of its kind survey is a broad brush overview into the lives of Black lesbians in the United States, by asking, who are Black lesbians? And what issues/concerns do we face?

The workshop included a panel, the majority of whom had worked gathering information for the assessment survey. The panelist included Francine Ramsey, Executive Director and co-founder of the Zuna Institute; Zandra Conway, Program Manager for the InterCity Services; Dr. Nita Mosby Henry, Founder/Director of the Kaleidoscope Project and Kaz Mitchell, Director of Circle of Voices. The panelists discussed some of the unique experiences, perspectives and priorities of Black Lesbians gathered through this survey’s data.

Nearly 1,600 Black lesbians responded to the survey. Here are just a few of the statistics gathered:
• 84% of respondents hold graduate degrees and maintain an annual salary of at least $51,000.
• 36% of the women responding are from the southern region of the United States.
• 69.5% of the women surveyed either have children or are planning to have children.
• 27.8% have experienced domestic violence in a same-sex relationship.

These statistics are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the information gathered. They will go a long way however, towards helping bringing more attention to and creating a clearer picture of the needs of the diverse populations that comprise our LGBT community. The information gathered through this survey shows what Black lesbians feel are the most important issues affecting their lives and families, what’s different from what we hear usually, as well as what is similar.

I hope to see the data gathered through this survey used often in the near future and perhaps be the framework for continuing to gather data from lesser represented populations in our community.

Adam Bad Wound | November 23, 2010

Adam C. Bad Wound is a sociologist of philanthropy and civil society, as well as a donor to Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. As November is National Native American Heritage Month, Adam shares his experiences and thoughts on LGBT youth in American Indian and rural communities.

I come from Montana’s Big Sky Country, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. I was raised near three rivers, with crystal clear waters and lush emerald banks, surrounded by ruby willows, under the warm golden sun, sparkling bright in the sapphire sky. My youth was precious, picturesque, and prismatic.

However, many of my hardest memories are of colorless isolation, as I struggled to find my identity in a world that seemed to be black-and-white in so many ways. At times, being a queer American Indian felt like the worst of all possible situations.

According to 2009 Census figures, there were approximately 3.15 million American Indians in the U.S., out of 307 million people – roughly 1% of the population. From 1999 to 2004 (when I was 19-24), American Indian/Alaska Native males in the 15 to 24 year old age group had the highest suicide rate, roughly 28/100,000, compared to 17.5/100,000 for white, 12.8/100,000 for black, and 9/100,000 Asian/Pacific Islander males of the same age. Furthermore, a 2007 study found that LGBT youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

Taken together, it’s hard for me to reconcile these figures, but easy to understand them personally. Geographic and social isolation were harsh realities of my youth, at times to the point of desperation. In light of recent cyber-bulling events, I can certainly understand how some youth – from any background – might feel trapped in a dark place.

To youth in American Indian and rural communities, I encourage you to remember that LGBT people come from everywhere. My journey has taken me from the mountains, to the plains, Great Lakes, Atlantic Coast, and Pacific Coast. I’ve come to know firsthand that LGBT people come from the middle of nowhere to the middle of San Francisco.

Finally, although it’s been said many times recently, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Although our community is small, there are plenty of resources for support, online and offline. I’m thankful to have embraced my spirit for its natural way, in part by attending gatherings, researching information, and connecting online. Doing so might not change your immediate situation, but it might add a splash of color to a dark night.

Just remember: somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue.

More resources to support LGBT and American Indian LGBT youth include:

Two Spirits

International Two Spirit Gathering

A Thin Line

Facebook's Network of Support

The Trevor Project

It Gets Better Project

Make It Better Project

Genesis | November 19, 2010

Genesis is an Astronomy student at Mount Holyoke College who is currently working with NASA. On Transgender Day of Remembrance, Genesis reflects upon
discrimination in the workplace and his ongoing struggle to receive appropriate identity documents.

I recall receiving my school ID card during orientation at Mount Holyoke College and considering how the image would not match my appearance after beginning hormone treatment. Over time, I had to renew my picture and a male presentation was a source of suspicion to anyone who knew that Mount Holyoke College was an all-women’s institution. Upon graduation I sought to prevent a similar problem with my state ID.

That summer I lived in Maine and was searching for a job. After being stopped repeatedly in airports because my ID stated the “wrong” gender marker (I did not look female any longer) I realized that I would need a new ID in order to gain employment. I researched the DMV gender marker laws and found that, as is common with many states, I needed a doctor's letter confirming that I was transgender in addition to proof of gender reassignment surgery (GRS). As a 19 year old transman, I had no plans to go through GRS. But, without identification it was almost impossible to find employment.

I eventually found a job with a supervisor that didn't seem to notice the gender marker mismatch. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was wrong. For a grueling two months I was treated unfairly, spoken about inappropriately, and harassed based upon my gender identity. I never knew if I was treated this way because my supervisor disclosed my private information or because I didn't completely pass as male. Unfortunately, there were no state laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer individuals in the workplace at that time. Only recently did Maine pass anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ individuals. I quit and found a new work place.

I used an incorrectly marked state ID for years until Massachusetts changed its gender marker laws last fall. I immediately acquired state residency and a Massachusetts state ID with a gender marking of “M”. For the first time, my gender identity was correctly reflected on a legal document. It felt like coming out all over again and a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders. With a correctly marked ID, going through airports or making purchases with a credit card suddenly became so much easier. The stress of disclosing my transgender status, the fear of being denied service, and the possibility of being subjected to further security screenings disappeared. Next, however, I needed to acquire a United States passport.

At the time, American citizens were required to not only provide a doctor’s note and proof GRS but citizens were also required to legally change their name to a “clearly gendered name” in order to receive a proper gender marker on a passport. My legally given name—Genesis—did not fit the criteria. I was mortified as traveling outside of the United States with an improperly marked passport could be dangerous in many places.

Fortunately, this past June the US Department of State announced that GRS was not a prerequisite for passport gender marker changes. I'm currently in the process of acquiring mypassport and will have two correct and valid forms of ID that are so often required for various official documents, applications, and traveling.

I'm currently taking a gap year working as an intern at NASA Ames in the Bay Area while still being active from a distance with the Coalition for Gender Awareness, Mount Holyoke's gender student organization. Next year I'm returning to finish off my senior year and graduate with a BA in Astronomy and a minor in Theatre Arts.

My experience has taught me the importance of LGBTQ activism at all levels. High School outreach clubs, University organizations, and community LGBTQ centers contribute to making change. Thousands of individuals must contribute their hard work to make LGBTQ rights a reality. Everything from public policy advocacy to increasing visibility and awareness makes a huge difference. On this Transgender Day or Remembrance, remember to stay strong and give a moment to remember those whose sacrifices have brought us to where we are today.

Steve Loomis | November 11, 2010

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a "non-partisan, non-profit, legal services, watchdog and policy organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by" Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), "More than 13,500 service members have been fired under the law since 1994." Decorated servicemembers are among those who have been or are in the process of being discharged. One of those is Lieutenant Colonel Steve Loomis who was discharged under DADT from the Army after receiving two Bronze Stars (one for heroism), a Purple Heart, and four "Meritorious Service Medals." Lieutenant Colonel Loomis is now retired in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the President of the Bataan Chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights and is a graduate of the University of New Mexico with a Bachelor’s in Journalism. Loomis reflects upon his military service and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for Veteran’s Day.

When I enlisted in the Army in 1967 I did not yet understand that I was gay. As I came to understand and acknowledge my orientation, I realized it had no bearing on my ability to do my job, but that the Army felt very differently. I realized that my private life could not combine with my professional life.

I graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School and served in the Central Highlands of Vietnam at a time when it was unpopular to serve in our military. I earned two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, an Air Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge.

Back in the States in 1970, I could have returned to civilian life but chose to remain serving in command and staff positions in the Army Reserves and then returned to active duty. It was at this point in my career that I realized that I was gay. Numerous friends and associates, my group commander and even a general officer either knew or thought I might be gay. Yet, while my sexual orientation never prevented me from fulfilling my duties, my military career did prevent me from entering a long term relationship, something I always regretted.

After being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, I served as Chief of Military Education for the entire Army Reserves where I developed a school reservation system that saved millions of dollars. Then as a Division Inspector General, I developed and conducted one of the first unit surveys to clearly show that there was in fact a great deal of tolerance toward gays in the military but that women were adversely affected by the prohibition of gays and lesbians in the military. Nevertheless, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT) was passed as a compromise between President Clinton and Congress in 1993.

Soon after DADT was enacted, I was selected for a promotion to Colonel. On the night I was awarded a fourth Meritorious Service Medal, I came home to find my house on fire from arson. After saving my Labrador, Brig, I quickly realized that my home had been set on fire by a former partner who later said that he acted from fear of what the Army might do under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" if they found out that he was gay. It shook me with equal parts of anger and fear and I knew without hesitation that I would fight the Army’s effort to discharge me, no matter how difficult or isolating it might become.

The Army fabricated claims and discharged me in 1997—just five days before I was eligible for full 20 year retirement.

Although the Army later acknowledged that my investigation included "force, coercion or intimidation" without factual grounds, the Army refused to reinstate my retirement eligibility. It was, and remains, a tactic often used by the military in cases against gays and lesbians. Following this outrage I made the difficult decision to open my private life to the media and appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

We filed our case in the U.S. Federal Court of Claims and were the first to argue the unconstitutionality of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" following the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision. Our judge was conservative but we felt that if he adhered to the law we would win our case. After hearing the arguments, he ordered the Army to retire me with full back pay. It was a tremendous relief, but the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy remained in effect, and thousands of other Americans still serve under its draconian and debilitating shadow. Nine years after my discharge, I was able to move on and fight Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell from outside the Army.

My experience reinforced my understanding that we must judge every soldier, straight or gay, not by what they do consensually in private, but by how well they do their job and if they succeed in their mission. When equal rights to serve are extended to all members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, they will continue to be able to serve faithfully as they always have, but without the fear of jeopardizing their career as a result of who they are. The military will be better for it.

Pat Baillie | November 10, 2010

Pat Baillie joined Out & Equal after a distinguished military career and is dedicated to providing diversity education to employers and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees as Associate Director of Training & Professional Development. Baillie reflected upon her service and the impact of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" for Veteran's Day.

When I first enlisted in the military I planned on serving for 4 years before becoming a college professor, but my love of service resulted in a 15 year military career. I served during the Gulf War in a combat position and was highly decorated with an excellent military record. Today, people thank me as a veteran for my service and I want those grateful Americans to know how important it is to support the right for LGBT military personnel to come out.

When I began my military career, I knew that the military did not accept gays and lesbians. When asked if I were a lesbian, I honestly answered “no” because I identified as bisexual. However, it wasn’t long before it made no difference if I were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – I was not supposed to be in the military. 

For a time, I was lucky. I had mentors who taught me how to continue serving in spite of my sexual orientation. In turn, I regularly helped others avoid discharge or investigation.

I was investigated at least 3 times during my military career. In my first assignment, I played on a women’s softball team that was called in for investigation on several occasions. Because I was an officer, I was never charged. I was investigated again while serving in Alaska. It is very challenging to conceal one’s personal life while living on a hill with the same 40 people for a year. Fortunately, that investigation was dropped when I left Alaska.

Following my service in Alaska, I served another 10 years in assignments requiring high security clearances. During this time, the military commenced a third investigation into my sexual orientation.. Throughout an investigation that spanned three years, I refused to answer questions specifically aimed at my sexual orientation, rather than lie. The investigation eventually ended in my favor, but at the cost of a key assignment that was needed to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Without this job, and the promotion,  I was at high risk of being kicked out of the military  without any retirement benefits.

It was at this point in my career that I placed my hope in President Clinton and the possibility that he would end discharges of LGBT military members. That did not happen, and on the day that President Clinton announced Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell I decided to retire. After 15 years, I had been too active about military equality and was too far out to continue serving.

I then swore to never go back in the closet and became a government contractor for 11 years. I spent most those years feeling like the only out person in my workplace. I found ways to advocate for my rights and created opportunities to educate others about the inequalities that LGBT employees face every day.

Today I am proud to work as the Associate Director of Training at Out & Equal where I have the chance to change the kind of workplaces like those where I had worked. I hear versions of my story repeated with each person’s unique narrative about being forced into the closet at work. I am able to tell those stories to organizations who are working to change this “climate of silence” with the hope of creating equal workplace for all. My war stories are not exclusive to combat but also include the suffering that I faced after not receiving government support for my family  because I belonged to the LGBT community.

On Veteran’s Day, I hope that grateful Americans understand that I was fighting for the right to be my authentic self. I couldn’t speak up in the military but I can speak up now and will continue to fight for equality every day until each of us can bring our whole selves to work. 

 

Amanda Keating | October 21, 2010

Amanda Keating recently joined Out & Equal's Communications Department. This piece was written in recognition of Ally Week as a reflection upon her experiences as a straight ally working in a LGBT organization.

Only a few months ago, my point of view on workplace discrimination was grossly under-evolved. I was a member of the straight community that believed that, while lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals should not be fired by employers because of sexual orientation; such individuals did not necessarily need to be out. This view, like that of most of the “mainstream” population, did not come from a place of intolerance but rather from a place of misunderstanding. I thought, “Sexuality has no place in a work setting. I don’t advertise my sexuality at work.” But what I did not realize is that, in fact, we all advertise our sexuality in every action, every day.

From constant heteronormative advertisements on the internet to gender-specific “professional” attire, the workplace perpetuates binary gender stereotypes in its very essence. And, if you subscribe to such clear-cut boundaries, then life is made noticeably easier for you. In our society, I am able to say the words “my boyfriend” freely and I always took that for granted. I wasn’t able to see the privilege that my sexual identity automatically bestowed upon me until I was lucky enough to be the minority in a predominately LGBT workplace.

Realizing that I was a minority, I suddenly recognized how my daily actions had enforced gender stereotypes, and therefore I deliberately altered my mannerisms. For the first time, I made the conscious decision not to put a photo of my boyfriend on my desk. I reasoned that, “I don’t need to brag about how much easier my life has been as a straight person,” when in reality I was afraid of being silently judged for not being a member of the dominant community in my workplace. I often referred to my boyfriend as “my roommate” when telling stories about my personal life and didn’t correct co-workers who joked about setting me up with people. In essence, I spent only a few months doing what LGBT employees around the world are forced to do for their entire lives: I denied my whole self at work.

Of course, after realizing how ridiculous it was to think that a workplace advocacy organization would judge me for my sexual orientation I became more honest, less vague and completely more comfortable. But, there is an important lesson to be learned that I need my fellow allies and non yet-allied straight individuals to understand. Each human being needs to be out at work because hiding is nothing more than a waste of time and energy.

Creating a safe place for your LGBT co-workers to be out does not equate to creating a forum to discuss the taboo subject of sex. It equates to creating a safe place for your co-workers to develop closer relationships with you by including every aspect of their selves. It creates a safe place for everyone to present diverse experiences and points of view. Most importantly, being honest about one’s whole self allows one to shine and excel without fear of judgment.

If anything needs to be communicated to the straight community, it is this: take a step back one day and realize how easy it is to be straight, and then start making it just as easy to be gay.

 

Sarav Chidambaram | August 15, 2010

Sarav Chidambaram is an independent filmmaker and Out & Equal Summit attendee. Sarav shares his thoughts on being lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender community in India and his recent visit there earlier this year.

Indian Independence Day was celebrated on August 15, 2010.

The LGBT community once lurked in the dark corners of streets, parks, bars, and other hidden places in India. Millions of men and women married in accordance with their family’s choice and were forced to live inauthentic lives. The Indian LGBT community didn’t feel they had the choice to tell their families who they really were. But in the past few years, the LGBT community has been getting more visibility within the Indian sub-continent. The internet boom provided people with an increased social awareness while the prevalence of HIV/AIDS caused organizations to work with communities that were previously forced to live on the fringes of society.

Today, Pride marches and other community and social justice events are organized regularly in major cities including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, New Delhi, Bangalore. However, this progress is just the tip of the iceberg for a country which has the second largest population in the world. As India moves toward capitalistic tendencies the divide between rich and poor grows which creates additional struggles for the LGBT community which is represented throughout different demographics.

On July 2nd 2009 the New Delhi High court delivered a historic judgment to amend a 149 year old colonial era law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal code, decriminalizing private consensual sex between adults of the same gender. LGBT communities in India and abroad welcomed the news with jubilation. In reality, Indian society’s attitude towards gays cannot be changed overnight, and it will take decades before we achieve the dream of full equality.

The grim reality of ongoing intolerance surfaced in February as Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras of Aligarh Muslim University was wrongfully filmed having consensual sex in his own home by rogue journalists claiming to be the University’s “Moral police”. The University suspended Siras merely because he was homosexual. Many months of trials, shame, and heartbreak led to the distinguished scholar’s death. While some claim his death to be a suicide, others believe it to be a murder. For this tragic loss of life, the difference is meaningless.

I had wondered how the LGBT community feels and how changes in the law in India might be changing attitudes there. I had the chance to find out this past April. I returned to India eager to screen my documentary film “It’s my life – A South Asian Queer Story” at the first Mumbai Gay film festival. Before the screening I went to a nearby café where a stranger introduced himself to me as Tahir and asked if I was a film festival delegate. I replied that I was screening my film to which he responded by whipping out his cell phone out to show me a picture of himself in a dress. He said, “please make a movie about me”. I was struck by the irony of being there to tell a story through film, and found myself the audience of many stories just like Tahir’s. This encounter was evidence to me of change, and that is the essence of life: learning about others through their stories. And, we all have unique stories to tell.

Tahir was not the first person hungry to tell his/her story to the world. There were many Tahirs, during the film festival and since. From cab drivers who claimed that gay couples do not exist in Mumbai to married men who were searching for gay lovers. Their stories were endless, they were real and each individual was compelled to share them. I was often moved to tears when I heard each story and was reminded that no one is leading a “perfect life.”

While in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to share that the South Asian LGBT community in the West is struggling as well. There are always new challenges for LGBT communities in Western countries, although it may have been shocking for many in India to hear.

I am looking forward for the next chapter for the LGBT community. The life journey continues; time can only go forward and it cannot go backward. Each individual has a purpose in life— perhaps my purpose is to hear these stories and help them be heard.

I hope that the movement for LGBT equality will grow and support the needs of the people. Perhaps the LGBT movement in India will evolve into something unique rather than blindly adapting to a model from the West. None of our brothers or sisters should be forcibly married to the opposite gender. And ultimately, I hope that the future generations don’t need to run away to a foreign country to save themselves from the social obligations—like I did.