After Marriage, NY Activists Target GENDA, Immigration, Youth Issues

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Monday June 18, 2012

A panel of distinguished LGBT leaders came at The Center in New York on June 13 for "Now What? An Activist's Life After Marriage," a discussion about the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), homeless youth, immigration, education and bullying, presented by the Stonewall Democrats of New York and the Manhattan Young Democrats.

The panel, moderated by The Advocate's Julie Bolcer, featured Cathy Marino-Thomas, co-president of the board of Marriage Equality USA; Gay Men of African Descent Executive Director Vaughn Taylor; actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox; and Ali Forney Center Executive Director Carl Siciliano. An estimated 50 people attended.

"There is a president for the first time that supports marriage equality personally...[but] New York remains behind 16 others states that passed non-discrimination protections for gender expression and identity, we have LGBT youth who in a survey say they feel they don't fit in...and LGBT people of color are among those who are regularly targeted by the NYPD in stop-and-frisk traps," said Bolcer.

Activists agreed with Marino-Thomas that until we achieve federal recognition for same-sex marriage, the struggle is far from over. But all said that much more work needs to be done on other LGBT issues before we are granted the 1,138 rights that come with federal marriage.

This fact remains, despite a recent turn in support from the African-American community. Bolcer noted that after President Barack Obama expressed his support of marriage equality, a poll at NAACP in Maryland revealed that 55 percent of the Black community supported marriage equality -- a 180-degree turnaround from March.

Many of the panelists spoke to a long career in activism, several tracing it back to early work with the HIV/AIDS pandemic or with LGBT youth.

"In the '90s, I was working at a drop-in center for young kids, and I knew Ali Forney, one of the kids who was murdered on the streets," said Siciliano. "That really focused me on the activism I do now."

While Siciliano praised the widespread push of vocal and financial support for the issue of marriage equality, he lamented that no similar strategy and support existed to protect our LGBT youth, who comprise a disproportionate number of homeless kids living on the streets.

"In New York City, there are an estimated 1,600 LGBT youth and fewer than 100 beds," said Siciliano. "Last year, I saw this great movement with marriage equality and great leadership...and the mayor and governor were seen as our great gay heroes from on high. But last year, Gov. Cuomo cut the funding for gay youth in half, literally endangering the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Siciliano noted that as kids come out at younger ages, they face rejection from their families, upon whom they are economically dependent. When they are kicked out of the family home, they are utterly destitute. Because the LGBT community has not prioritized protecting its youth, these kids end up living on the streets.

Vaughn said that his work with a Brooklyn Gay-Straight Alliance had revealed to him that many LGBT youth of color work to pass for straight in their homes, the subway and in public, to avoid bullying. He pointed to the case of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, posted video on the Internet of him in a romantic situation with an older man.

"We never look at our responsibility as adults for creating these kids," said Vaughn. "And in Brooklyn immigrant families, if you are not straight, you must disappear. For these kids, marriage equality is a distant equality when they can't even take their date to prom."

While Marino-Thomas agreed that adults need to take responsibility for LGBT youth, she believed that marriage equality rights would ultimately benefit these youth.

"Marriage is not the beginning and ending of our equality," said Marino-Thomas. "But it has got to be the ultimate goal of our community. Federal recognition of marriage equality will help these kids. We need to lobby our elected officials at a federal level."

Cox pointed to similar inequalities in the transgender community. She looked at the case of Nikki Araguz, the transgender widow of a Texas firefighter who was denied his death benefits in two separate lawsuits. Wharton County Judge Randy Clapp ruled the marriage void, because Nikki was born a male and did not undergo gender reassignment surgery until several months after the marriage.

"There is a president for the first time that supports marriage equality personally...[but] New York remains behind 16 others states that passed non-discrimination protections for gender expression and identity," said moderator Julie Bolcer.

She also noted the case of CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman verbally and physically assaulted on June 5 on the streets of Minneapolis. She fought back and killed one of her attackers, and was charged with second-degree murder. Despite three similar attack cases in Hennepin County in which the charges were dropped, self-defense was never presented as an option.

This type of trans phobia makes the passage of GENDA legislation difficult. As Bolcer noted, the passage of marriage equality revolved around the "Golden Rule" argument of treating those as you'd like to be treated, and around the ideas of creating stable families. When it comes to the trans community, legislators get gun-shy.

"Elected officials say, 'Oh we passed marriage equality last year, and we want to see how that over before we pass GENDA.' That's what the mentality is," said Cox. "Ultimately, these politicians are only interested in protecting their jobs and getting money for their campaigns."

Cox said that a majority of New Yorkers were in favor of GENDA, and mobilization could help get it passed, if not for the fear campaigns fomented by the Right Wing. To this end, Cox added, a group of trans women of color go to Albany every week to educate legislators about the importance of trans issues.

But she also observed that until the larger LGBT community realized that trans issues were their issues too, this widespread mobilization could not occur. She pointed to gender expression as an example of a trans issue that is also an LGBT issue, citing the case of a butch woman who was prevented from using the ladies' restroom.

She also noted that during TSA screenings at airports, those people who present as feminine and do not fit the screener's definition of a female-bodied person would be pulled aside for a pat-down, which could be embarrassing. The majority of discrimination against LGBTs is based on gender expression -- the person not fitting the social norms for their gender.

"It is important to note also that it is about race and class," said Cox. "Like homeless youth and poor women of color, it is class warfare. The idea of supporting poor people of color is under attack. Until we address our own internalized racism, classism and trans phobia...we will not be fully united."

The idea of class warfare was also at the heart of the June 17 Stop-and-Frisk silent march in Harlem. Vaughn, who participated in the event with GMAD, said that the larger community needs to stand up together and say that this profiling will not be allowed to happen.

The issue is one of a shifted focus from resources to rights, said Siciliano. During the AIDS crisis, the community came together to raise money for research, medications and housing.

"We fought as a community for Ryan White funds, HOPWA funds, and there was a sense that we came together to face the crisis and make the resources come together," said Siciliano. "There was a shift in the mid-'90s to getting rid of unjust laws, and I applaud that, but we lost the discipline for fighting for resources. The fact that there is not a huge outcry shows how we are not focused on the needs of our youth."

Siciliano said that we need to push the funders of marriage equality to look at these other issues important to the LGBT community. Other panelists and audience members said that our elected officials also need to speak for our rights.

Melissa Sklarz, director of the New York Trans Rights Organization, brought up the mayoral candidacy of lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and while all agreed that they would not vote for her just because she was a lesbian, many supported her work, with GMAD's Vaughn saying Quinn had visited their program in Brooklyn several times and support their goal.

Conversely, said Cox, one shouldn't support a candidate just because they are a person of color, pointing to African-American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as an example of someone who does not advocate for the Black community.

The marriage equality win is undeniably beneficial, but if its result is to create complacency, it is tragic. In the end, all agreed that as a community, we need to push for more resources and legislation for issues other than marriage equality -- namely, resources for LGBT homeless youth, and protections for gender expression and identity.

"Trans activists stood up for marriage equality, and we need to go to Albany and stand up for GENDA," said Marino-Thomas.

Added Vaughn, "Remember, it was those gender non-conforming women who started all this for us at Stonewall all those years ago."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.