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Equality Forum Day 1: From VIP Kickoff to the Margins

April 27th, 2009 2 comments

Imagine this life: You’re not safe at school. The very sight of you makes people uncomfortable, sometimes angry. Your family disowns you, but no one else will adopt  you or take you in for foster care. Without mooring, and unsure of your own identity, you turn to drugs and alcohol, perhaps landing in jail. You can’t find a “legit” job, so sex work becomes your “best” option. You contract HIV, or Hepatitis, but have no access to health care to pay for your treatment. Low-level bureacrats decide whether to honor your chosen gender on identity documents, making routine transactions an occasion for recurring humiliation.

This nightmare is reality for many transgendered people. Even the “mainstream” gay and lesbian community has only recently begun to wake up and recognize these realities. The National Transgender Panel — significantly, the first substantive program of this year’s Equality  Forum — was an energizing, often moving conversation about the legal, social, and political obstacles that block the full citizenship and dignity of the transgender community. Indeed, the story told  above was pieced together from the comments made by both panelists and audience members, whose input the panelists constantly sought — and received in effective abundance.

The panelists, themselves all members of the community, spoke authoritatively about legal issues (Benjamin Jerner); the national political landscape (Kathy Padilla) and the hugely complex public health challenges faced by this community (Ben Singer).

Perhaps because of my own interest in public health and the legal issues relating to it, I  found Singer’s presentation particularly compelling. He’s a smart activist who understands the need for data-driven results; as he puts it, if you’re not on the public health radar (and you get there by showing a problem affecting a population), you don’t exist. But the issues facing the transgender community are more than a “blip” on any morally defensible radar; they amount to an on-going emergency. A few of the sobering examples confronting this community will have to suffice here: (1) Violence against them is epidemic, and the situation becomes graver as the categories of oppression pile up. Thus, transgendered women of color are at the greatest risk. (2) HIV/AIDS are at levels otherwise associated with sub-Saharan Africa. (3)The community faces high levels of medical uninsurance, a problem connected to joblessness and homelessness, themselves endemic.

Against this backdrop,  many of the issues of formal equality that many of us (including your humble blogger) most often concern ourselves with seem less vital. Really, do you think people facing the kinds of issues I’ve just mentioned have marriage equality on their plate? Again, Singer:  “We talk more about these grand legal issues and not these other ones.”

But “these other” issues were thoroughly chewed over — by the audience. In a wonderfully  generous move, Singer invited the audience to answer a question about the kinds of problems routinely faced by transgendered youth. The answers should pain any person with a halfway developed sense of empathy. One young woman was thrown out of her home and not adoptable. A young man ended up abusing drugs and doing time in prison. Several regarded every day of school as a kind of torture. Of course, any kid growing up gay — or different in any way, really — can share painful experiences. But these really did seem different in kind, not  just degree.

“Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.”

Yet not all transgendered people are in the desperate situation Singer describes, and, for some at least, it would be very helpful if the state were to grant them basic legal rights, including the recognition of their marriage. Jerner discussed a case with which I’m familiar, in which the Kansas Supreme Court idiotically declared null a long-term marriage between an opposite-sex couple (where the wife had been born a male), thereby disinheriting the surviving spouse in favor of an evil offspring. Although I have a quibble with his reading of the case,1 his point about the need for legal remedy is sound.

The panel ran over time. The audience was large; about 100, I’d guess, many of them young, bright activists.  They didn’t seem to want it to end, and that’s not surprising. There was a great deal to be said. Afterwards, I had a chance to speak to Singer, Padilla, and moderator Joelle Ruby Ryan, a warm and gentle giantess who ran an open and generous forum. Singer and Padilla are very interested in the untold story of transgender activism (newsflash: Stonewall wasn’t the first time members of the GLBT community rose up in protest). Padilla showed me some of her materials, and I’m sure I’m only one of many encouraging her to turn these into a book, or at least a long article. In the meantime, I’m hoping to do a follow-up blog on this issue of the history of transgender resistance — with help from Singer and Padilla,  who are enthused, knowledgeable, and in possession of all kinds stuff that’s by turns really cool and very moving.

I couldn’t have asked for a better blogging assignment to get me excited about the rest of the week.

———

Before this amazing panel, Equality Forum kicked off, as always, with the VIP Party in City Hall. This year’s event was staged, aptly, in the grand Conversation Hall. Probably a couple of hundred folks were VI enough to have garnered invitations, and most of the people I spoke to were impressive leaders of various organizations, or were directly involved with Equality Forum.

Dwight Evans, the Pa. State Representative who received a distinguished service award for his legislative efforts on behalf of the LGBT community, is a gregarious man with an expansive view of equality and opportunity. His charter school has been around for more than a decade, and he’s been a consistent advocate for GLBT rights in Harrisburg, where  the political winds don’t reliably blow in a favorable direction. I enjoyed a brief conversation with him, in which he showed himself to be a member of a rare and beautiful species: the pol without affect. His view of equality? “You don’t have to convince me.” His acceptance speech spoke to the need to “get past typical barriers and walls,” and concluded, quite sensibly (yet somehow movingly) with: “Thanks. And let’s move on.”

Also effective was Mayor Michael Nutter, the poor guy stuck with a job that no reasonable person would have taken had he known of the economic collapse to visit the city within nanoseconds of his inauguration. On radio, he comes across as bright and logical, but a bit stiff. In person, he’s witty and relaxed – but just as compelling. The short: He’s on our side. And Equality Forum founder and Executive Director Malcolm Lazin, to whom I must give props for giving me this “forum” to blog about the event, closed the proceedings with an inspiring call to take part in this Sunday’s Equality Rally and March, linking these events to a courageous march here in Philadelphia forty years ago led by gay pioneers Frank Kameny and the late Barbara Gittings. Very effective — now let’s hope the event is the success it needs to be.

Well, it’s late and I’m almost blogged out. But here’s a light moment from the Kickoff Party. Having just speared an unwilling olive after a too-epic struggle at the hors d’oeuvres table, I was standing near it (catching my breath), when a jovial fellow spun around and bumped into me. He was so apologetic that I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d sent my only olive spinning out of my hand and through the air. I was reminded of the Seinfeld “Junior Mint” episode, and only hoped that the escaped refreshment hadn’t had a similarly calamitous result. Alas, I believe (but do not know for sure) that it landed in a scoop of perfect, high hair — unknown to the “victim.” If so, I’d like it back. No questions will be asked.

  1. He says the court declared that transgendered people couldn’t marry anyone — I think that reading is possible but not compelled. The case is In re Estate of Gardiner,42 P.3d 120 (Kan. 2002).

Sex Crimes

April 11th, 2009 No comments

In Canada, a man is convicted of murder when two of the women with whom he had sexual relations later died of AIDS-related cancers. His crime was in knowing his HIV status, and then purposely withholding it while having sex. Does the punishment fit the crime? Not according to this commentator, one Sky Gilbert:

“I say that criminalizing HIV-positive men who fail to disclose to female sex partners only serves to disempower women…What happened to our bodies, our choice? Women are not —  under the law or otherwise — passive, mute playthings.

“Safer sex is about the liberating notion  that all people…are responsible to protect themselves by insisting on safer sex or to assume the risk that they may become HIV positive if they don’t.

“Aziga’s so-called victims could have chosen to insist on the use of condoms.”(emphasis added)

This analysis is naive and dangerous, and requires only a few sentences to demolish. But Gilbert makes other points in his essay that need to be taken more seriously. Let’s start with what’s wrong.

Gilbert falls prey to the fallacy of equating the political goal of gender equality with the reality, which is of course quite different. Many women have little or no choice in whether their male sex partners use condoms. How, I wonder, does Gilbert know that these women “could have chosen to insist” on the use of condoms? Was he there? Sexual power and dynamics are complex; if they weren’t the prevalence of HIV/AIDS would be much lower. Indeed, UNAIDS has identified the empowerment of women as one of the primary means of combatting this scourge. But that empowerment is a long way off for many of the world’s women. These women no more consented to sex with an HIV-infected person than a person living in a high-crime area “consents” to being killed by foregoing a bullet-proof vest while stepping out into the public sphere.

Nonetheless, this case is a cause for concern. First, were these women murdered? Under the Model Penal Code, murder requires the intent to kill or “extreme indifference” to human life.  It’s the second of these that might be argued here, but it’s a stretch. Sex is complicated, and often those infected with HIV are in denial about the likelihood they’ll infect someone else. (In this case, though, the defendant apparently convinced his victims that there was no need to use condoms; this hardly helped his defense.) Manslaughter would seem the more appropriate crime, because this requires “recklessness”: knowledge of a risk and conscious disregard of it. It’s easy to see how Aziga could fit this definition.

Gilbert ignores all of this, and makes the astonishing claim that the defendant’s actions shouldn’t be criminalized at all; for him, this is a public health issue. Well, it is. But sometimes public health embraces criminal as well as civil coercion. There is a risk, as he notes, that criminalizing the transmission will hinder prevention efforts, but I think that risk is minimal. Given the universal availability of treatment for HIV (in Canada, anyway), would people really choose not to be tested because of the remote chance they’d be prosecuted if they found out their serostatus and then had sex without telling their partners?

In fact, testing provides a good opportunity for education and intervention. Moreover, those who are receiving anti-retroviral treatment are much, much less able to transmit HIV to their partners, thereby reducing the likelihood of another Aziga case.

Does that mean that prosecutors should seek to punish every similar case? Probably not. These facts may have been outrageous, but it may also have been that undercurrents of racism had as much to do with the decision to punish Aziga, a Ugandan, as did the simple dictates of justice.

Comments like those issued by Sky Gilbert hardly shed light on a difficult topic.

Categories: HIV/AIDS, public health, race Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Lysistrata’s Daughters

March 27th, 2009 4 comments

In Aristophanes’ funny-through-the-ages play, “Lysistrata,” the title character (from Athens) leads a pack of determined Greek women in withholding sex from their husbands until these war-mongering hubbies cease the endless Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.

Although the play is often (justifiably) remembered for its ribald descriptions of the sex that’s withheld  (my favorite is a position referred to as “The Lioness and the Cheese Grater”) 1 and the windy oath by which sex is renounced, the play also contains a serious message about the toll war takes on the women and children left behind, who are at the mercy of the idiotic and childish decisions the men are making. Using what power they have, these powerful women put a stop to it.

The women featured in the following trailer are Lysistrata’s spiritual daughters:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uon9CcoHgwA

No, these women are not withholding sex (as far as I know). But they — Christian and Muslim together — have taken a courageous and dangerous stand against the violence that long wracked Liberia, destroying their families, children, and husbands. Indeed, the training of children soldiers was one of the most egregious of former President Charles Taylor’s many human rights violations.

Liberia now has its first female President, the Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Following the model of South Africa, she has established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try and heal the wounds wrought by decades of brutal civil war. Her leadership is helping to inspire her countrywomen to seize control of their nation’s destiny, pulling it from the whirlpool of civil war onto the solid ground of a functioning democracy.

The empowerment of women is often cited as one of the most potentially powerful tools in achieving global public health; most notably, in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has especially devastated sub-Saharan Africa. As the Liberian women are demonstrating, the prevention of disease can be but one part of a larger moral, social, and political agenda.

Long live Lysistrata!

  1. Aristophanes was apparently unaware that lions are carnivores, who would have little use for a cheese grater.