LGBT leaders say marriage is just one of several important issues this year

This past weekend approximately 3,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists descended upon Baltimore, Md., for a national advocacy conference, while a few miles away the Republican branch of Congress — which consistently resists pro-LGBT policies – gathered for a retreat.

Despite an absent House (Democrats were also at a retreat in Cambridge, Md.), about 300 of those LGBT activists occupied the Capitol last Thursday for the first federal lobby day associated with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s 24th annual Creating Change conference. The Senate was still in session.

“The Senate is not going to know what hit ’em,” said Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey, as scores of activists, from teens to seniors, walked through the metal detectors in the Russell Senate Office Building.

Various activists told The American Independent that the sit-down meetings with their representatives gave them an opportunity to let Congress know that many issues – beyond marriage equality – affect their lives and voting habits.

LGBT advocates speak to Senate aides at Creating Change's first lobby day, Jan. 26, 2012 (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force/Rebecca Lawrence)

Joshua Fontanez, a soldier from New Jersey, said he told his senator that, as a gay man, he wants his family to be able to live on his military base and receive the housing and health benefits heterosexual military spouses enjoy. Fontanez, who started his career as an infantry officer and then trained in special forces in Macedonia, said he worries about what will happen to his family if he dies in combat.

“I’ve done everything my government has asked of me,” he said.

One senator and several congressional aides met with a larger group on the third floor of the Russell building.

Among them was Alvaro M. Bedoya, chief counsel of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law Committee on the Judiciary, which is chaired by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

Franken has championed pro-LGBT legislation since taking office in 2009. Late last week, Franken, whose home state faces a vote on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage this November, released a video stating his support for marriage equality for all Americans. Last March, he sponsored the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.

According to Bedoya, the law would force public schools to take action if a student is suffering from harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, student clubs could not reject a student based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity if that club meets on school grounds and receives school sponsorship.

“Federal laws do not protect LGBT kids as they should, and Sen. Franken thinks that’s wrong,” Bedoya said. “There is a hole in the law, and LGBT people are in that gap.

“This is not one of those bills that will never pass,” he continued. “This bill can pass.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force years ago decided not to support pro-LGBT legislation unless it specifically protects rights for transgender persons, a move followed by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who last year made a commitment not to push through the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) without a provision about gender identity in the bill.

Like Franken’s bill, ENDA would create federal employment protections for LGBT people; under current law someone can be fired from a job based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, with no recourse.

“We’ll continue on employment non-discrimination, but it shouldn’t just be employment,” said Merkley, who ran on full marriage equality in 2009. “It should be retail. It should be housing. … It should be everything. And we will get there together, pushing forward”

Watch Merkley addressing LGBT activists at Creating Change’s lobby day:

Beyond marriage

The Student Non-Discrimination Act and ENDA are among a slew of federal bills that would expand protections for the LGBT community that tend to elicit less attention than marriage equality legislation in the media, in presidential debates and even within the gay rights movement itself.

Other bills the LGBT activists and lobbyists will be pushing in 2012:

  • United American Families Act
  • Paycheck Fairness Act
  • Including LGBTQ in the Violence Against Women’s Act
  • The Reauthorization of the Older American Act 2012
  • Extending federal unemployment insurance

It was this sentiment that shaped Carey’s “State of the LGBT Movement” address Friday, when she asked the thousands of energized LGBT advocates not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

The LGBT movement is not a movement for marriage only. It is a movement for the full dignity of our lives, for a transformed society. The challenge is, when the LGBT movement is framed by the media and seen by others as a single-issue, marriage-only movement, it limits what we can achieve. …

We cannot stop until the abuses of transgender immigrant detainees stop.

We cannot stop until our brothers and sisters who can now openly serve in the military can share their benefits with their spouses and until transgender people can choose to serve.

We can’t be fully free if after 30 years of AIDS, we know more about prevention and treatment than ever before but infection rates for gay and bisexual men — especially for men of color — are actually rising while funding and services are decreasing.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, is among the many activists the Independent spoke with at Creating Change who said that marriage equality tends to be most important among the more fortunate members of the movement, who might not face the same discrimination as LGBT persons living in poverty in less inclusive communities.

“Marriage equality is important,” Keisling said. “But so is saving people from being raped in prison. … There needs to be more responsible agenda-setting. If it was a choice between marriage equality or ending discrimination in homeless shelters, I would trade that in a minute.”

In the end, marriage was only one among many diverse issues discussed in workshops, lectures and caucuses during Creating Change, which began last Wednesday and concluded Sunday afternoon. Conference director Sue Hyde, who helped put on the very first Creating Change in 1988, told the Independent that each conference focuses on different issues, depending on where the movement stands. While conferences in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave much attention to the AIDS crisis and related stigmas faced by the LGBT community, this year issues related to religion and LGBT persons of color were given greater attention.

And it was the first time in 24 years that so many political officials stopped by to address the LGBT issues, according to Task Force staff. Throughout the weekend, several staffers from the departments of Health and Human Services; Labor; and Housing and Urban Development stopped by to answer questions.

Most notably, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced a new housing policy that will be officially introduced this week. Under the new rules, owners and operators of federally funded housing programs will be prohibited from denying housing on the basis of an applicant’s sexual orientation or gender identity and even from inquiring about an applicant’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Donovan was the first sitting Cabinet secretary to speak at Creating Change.

Also noteworthy were public appearances from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and First Lady Katie O’Malley. O’Malley, whose speech closed out the conference Sunday, has promised to sign legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland, if passed this year.

“Passing a law to protect transgender Marylanders from housing discrimination is the right thing to do,” O’Malley said, to massive cheers and applause. “Children should be able to live in a loving, caring, stable home that is protected under the law. … We seek to get [marriage equality] done this year.”

And despite her cautionary words, Carey can’t hide her enthusiasm for same-sex marriage, which is on the ballot in several states this year.

“I will fight like hell for marriage equality, and I am proud to be married to Margaret,” she said. “But progress for some is not progress for all, and we will not stop until we are all fully free.”

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