Tag Archives: openly

Mourning after the massacre, forging ahead on pro-LGBT policy

It has been more than a week since the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. It is a surreal feeling, to mourn so deeply for individuals who I did not meet.

I am still reeling, like so many of us are, at the loss of life. Fifty, including the shooter.

They say some were straight allies.

They say the murderer may have been gay.

But we know the majority of the victims were members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa. — PHOTO: Courtesy
State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa. — PHOTO: Courtesy

They were from diverse backgrounds: black, brown, white, but we know the majority of them hailed from the Latino community. In fact, it was “Latin night” at Pulse and many went to dance salsa, merengue and bachata. They went to laugh and drink and be themselves. They were there to live their lives authentically.

I remember going to gay bars like Fannies, Dish, MONA’s and La Cage as a young twentysomething in Milwaukee. I wasn’t out anywhere but these safe havens. I had my first girlfriend at 22 years old. At Fannies, we could kiss, embrace and slow dance. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in any other public space, at that time.

My heart sinks when I think about the young victims who may not have yet come out to their families. I know the pain of not allowing my partner to hold my hand at the movie theater. I know the sting of having to avoid the question when asked if I was gay. And I’m angered to think of the hateful, vengeful, disturbed individual who stole that freedom from them because there is nothing like the liberty I have felt as an out, openly bisexual member of the LGBT community.

Although many elected leaders, spoke to the need for gun reform laws to be passed in the hours after the Orlando tragedy, I have to be honest and admit that the first thing to cross my mind was not gun reform. I support the need for gun reform, but my first thoughts went to LGBT policy, pro-equality and the anti-LGBT equality legislation that has emerged with a vengeance this legislative session.

I thought immediately of the anti-LGBT “bathroom bills” that we have seen introduced in state legislatures across the country. In Wisconsin, state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and his Republican caucus have been passionately advocating for this bigotry to become law.

Of course, I also thought of the pragmatic LGBT equality legislation that I introduced this session, along with my fellow out Democrats, state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D- Beloit, and state Sen. Tim Carpenter, D- Milwaukee, as well as many of our straight Democratic allies.

AB 816 would “clean up” the statutes to reflect the legality of same-sex marriage. Passage of this bill is needed, especially by same-sex couples who are trying to adopt their child, but 2nd parent adoption continues to be an issue for these families since our statutes have not been corrected to reflect marriage equality.

SJR 46 would finally remove the hateful language banning marriage equality from our state’s constitution. Our constitution was amended in 2006 and language was added banning same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships. Despite a huge victory in 2014 on marriage equality via the Supreme Court, this discriminatory language still sits in our state constitution, a stain on our history that many feel should be wiped clean.

AJR 117, a symbolic resolution, would recognize June as LGBT Pride month. I have worked, since coming out publicly in 2012, to get this symbolic resolution passed in the state legislature, but to no avail.

This session, after Wisconsin elected the first openly-gay Republican, state Rep. Todd Novak, Dodgeville), I was certain we would finally get this small, but important piece of legislation passed.

In the end, Novak couldn’t be counted on to support even this symbolic legislation and watched as his Republican colleagues killed not just this bill, but every other LGBT equality bill.

Still, Novak teaches us a good lesson: That it is not enough to be out in elected office.

Openly-LGBT elected officials must represent our community pro-actively by introducing LGBT equality bills and fighting hard against anti-transgender, anti-LGBT bills that we are seeing spring up across the country.

For my part, I plan to continue my work with my Democratic colleagues to push forward pro-LGBT equality policy. Passage of a state-level Employment Non-Discrimination Act, as well as policies addressing youth homelessness, suicide prevention, and health & wellness are at the top of my list as I move forward — an out, proud, openly-LGBT elected Democrat.

I know that none of this will bring back the 49 brothers and sisters we lost on Sunday morning, but my hope is that this work will help to combat the scourge of homophobia and help my fellow LGBT Wisconsinites to live their lives authentically, happily and safely. As my friend and fellow LGBT leader, Brian J., says so eloquently, “to not only survive, but thrive!”

Democratic State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa represents the 8th Assembly District in Wisconsin.

Boy Scouts officially open ranks to gay youth Jan. 1

The Boy Scouts of America officially accepted openly gay youths starting on New Year’s Day, a historic change that has prompted the BSA to ponder a host of potential complications — ranging from policies on tentmates and showers to whether Scouts can march in gay pride parades.

Yet despite their be-prepared approach, BSA leaders were rooting for the change to be a non-event, comparable to another New Year’s Day in 2000 when widespread fears of digital-clock chaos to start the new millennium proved unfounded.

“My hope is there will be the same effect this Jan. 1 as the Y2K scare,” said Brad Haddock, a BSA national executive board member who chairs the policy implementation committee. “It’s business as usual, nothing happens and we move forward.”

Some churches are dropping their sponsorship of Scout units because of the new policy and some families are switching to a new conservative alternative called Trail Life USA. But massive defections haven’t materialized and most major sponsors, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches, are maintaining ties.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of fallout,” said Haddock, a lawyer from Wichita, Kan. “If a church said they wouldn’t work with us, we’d have a church right down the street say, `We’ll take the troop.'”

The new policy was approved in May, with support from 60 percent of the 1,400 voting members of the BSA’s National Council. The vote followed bitter nationwide debate, and was accompanied by an announcement that the BSA would continue to exclude openly gay adults from leadership positions.

Under the new membership policy, youths can no longer be barred from the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts or coed Venturers program solely on the basis of sexual orientation. However, gay Scouts will face some limitations.

“Any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting,” says one BSA document. “No member may use Scouting to promote or advance any social or political position or agenda, including on the matter of sexual orientation.”

Trying to anticipate potential friction, the BSA has distributed extensive explanations and question-and-answer documents related to the policy.

Some examples:

• Could a Scout march in uniform in a gay-pride parade? No, says the BSA. “Each youth member is free as an individual to express his or her thoughts or take action on political or social issues but must not use Scouting’s official uniforms and insignia when doing so.”

• How publicly active could a gay Scout be, in terms of gay-rights advocacy? The BSA’s reply: “While a youth member may acknowledge his or her sexual preference, that acknowledgment may not reach the level of distraction, which may include advocacy, promotion, or the distribution of information of a sexual nature.”

A frequently-asked-questions document anticipates that some objections might surface from parents — or Scouts themselves — in cases where a unit includes an openly gay boy.

Regarding shower and toilet facilities, the BSA says it is encouraging units to provide greater individual privacy, including moving away from the tradition of group showers.

“The adult leaders have the discretion to arrange private showering times and locations,” the BSA says.

Sleeping arrangements also are addressed, with specific decisions left to unit leaders.

“If a Scout or parent of a Scout makes a request to not tent with another Scout, their wishes should be honored,” says the BSA.

Haddock says “isolated pockets” of problems are likely to surface, but overall he expects adult leaders will have the skills to defuse potential conflicts.

There are about 1 million adult leaders and 2.6 million youth members in Scouting in the U.S. Of the roughly 110,000 Scout units, 70 percent are sponsored by religious organizations, including several conservative denominations that had long supported the BSA’s exclusion of gay youth and gay adults.

Among the major sponsors, the Southern Baptist Convention made clear its disappointment with the new youth policy, but left the decision on whether to cut ties up to local churches. An SBC spokesman, Sing Oldham, said it was not known how many churches have done so.

The biggest sponsor of Scout units – the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – commended the BSA for a “thoughtful, good-faith effort” to address a challenging issue, and said it would stay engaged in Scouting.

John Gailey of the Utah National Parks Council, the nation’s largest council, said its youth membership had increased from 74,148 in December 2012 to 75,863 this month.

Like the Mormons, the Roman Catholic Church has generally accepted the new policy. Many parishes will continue to sponsor Scout units, though a few have considered cutting ties.

The National Catholic Committee on Scouting posted a question-and-answer document on its website, delving into the intersection of Scouting policy and Catholic teaching.

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that individuals who disclose a same-sex attraction are to be treated with the same dignity due all human beings … and also teaches that engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage is always immoral,” says the Q-and-A, concluding that the new BSA policy does not contradict Catholic teaching.

The ultimate decision on whether parishes would maintain or cut ties with the BSA was left to individual bishops. Several expressed cautious support for continuing in Scouting.

“As the new policy currently stands, I see no reason to prohibit our parishes from sponsoring Boy Scout troops,” said Rev. Kevin Rhoades, bishop of Indiana’s Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese. “At the same time, it is critical that we be vigilant on how this new policy is interpreted and implemented.”

One likely target of such scrutiny will be former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, scheduled to take over in the spring as the BSA’s next president. As leader of the Pentagon, Gates helped change the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning openly gay soldiers, and gay-rights groups hope he will try to end the BSA’s ban on gay adult leaders.

The new youth policy was approved during a BSA meeting in May in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Grapevine, near the Scouts’ national headquarters in Irving, Texas.

Texas has a long heritage of Scouting, with tens of thousands of youth members and many families claiming generations of Eagle Scouts. Among them is Gov. Rick Perry, who achieved Scouting’s highest rank growing up in the small town of Paint Creek.

The membership debate was closely followed by local Scouts on both sides; some carried signs and held rallies outside the meeting place. But in subsequent months, the debate has quieted.

Bill Helfand, scoutmaster of Troop 55 in Houston, said membership in his troop has remained steady at about 225 boys.

“We never considered sexual orientation, and I don’t think many troops really did,” Helfand said. “I don’t know whether we had Scouts who are homosexual. I don’t inquire … It’s not a matter of concern.”

Helfand said the membership debate, while closely covered in the media, did not extend into his meetings with leaders and parents, besides occasional discussion of the policy at camp-outs. He says he hasn’t talked to any Scout about his sexual orientation and doesn’t intend to.

“I know that this is something that people felt was a momentous turning point for Scouting,” Helfand said. “Everybody I know has made Scouting available to every boy who wants it, and that’s what we continue to do.”

However, some Texas parents and leaders have decided to switch to Trail Life USA, an alternative which declares itself “a Christian adventure, character, and leadership program for young men.” Among them is Ron Orr, a business consultant from the Fort Worth area who is signing up local units for the group.

So far, he said he has 25 groups “pre-chartered” for a Jan. 1 launch date in the territory covered by the BSA’s Circle Ten and Longhorn councils. That’s modest compared to the 39,000 Scouts served by the Circle Ten council alone.

Orr is part of a family with four generations of Eagle Scouts. His older son recently earned his Eagle rank and his younger son was on the verge of doing likewise. But Orr said he could not stand by after the policy change.

“As Christians, from a scriptural basis, we love all folks, but the scripture is very clear that being homosexual is a sin,” Orr said. “We’ve got to be able to hold a strong line and set a consistent example for our young men.”

Orr said his decision to cut ties with the BSA rested in part on the Scout Oath, which includes the admonition to remain “morally straight.”

Scott Scarborough of Lubbock, Texas, is helping Orr recruit Trail Life members in the Texas Panhandle, a mostly rural, conservative region. Scarborough said he offered to let his 14-year-old son stay in Boy Scouts and achieve his Eagle rank, but the boy elected to join him in Trail Life.

Orr and Scarborough said they didn’t consider themselves rivals to the Boy Scouts, though they’ve chosen a different path.

“Our tradition comes out of Boy Scouts,” Scarborough said. “We’ll never not honor that heritage.”

As athletes speak out, pro sports more gay-friendly

NFL punters are only seen on fourth down and heard from less than that. But with Minnesota voters weighing whether to ban gay marriage this fall, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has emerged as a high-profile gay rights champion – and a symbol of changing attitudes toward homosexuality in the sports world.

“I’d like to win some votes against the amendment,” Kluwe told The Associated Press. “It would permanently change the state constitution. Who are we to say we should decide what our children should do on this subject? If we’re not the generation to make gay marriage legal, why should we prevent our children having a say on the matter?”

Kluwe, a colorful 30-year-old with political science and history degrees from UCLA, is known for his love of video games, for getting a perfect score on the verbal portion of the SAT test and for his liberal political views.

He agreed some time ago to speak out against Minnesota’s amendment and headlined a long-planned fundraiser against the amendment last week.

But Kluwe got a massive new audience for his views after he penned a blistering open letter to a Maryland state lawmaker who criticized another NFL player, Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens, for supporting gay marriage with the issue also on Maryland’s ballot.

“Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you or act different than you?” Kluwe wrote to Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. The full letter, posted by the sports website Deadspin.com, was laced with profanity and sarcasm.

Burns had written to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, urging him to restrain Ayanbadejo from speaking publicly on the issue. Kluwe said it was the assault on free speech, not Burns’ opposition to gay marriage, that angered him.

Burns did not return a phone call from The Associated Press. A Democrat and a Baptist pastor, he told the Baltimore Sun that “upon reflection” Ayanbadejo has the right to express his views.

In all, four states are voting on gay marriage this year. Minnesota’s vote is on a constitutional ban; in Maryland, as well as Maine and Washington, voters are deciding whether gay marriage should be legal.

“I’m just going to continue to voice my First Amendment rights and continue to support the cause,” Ayanbadejo said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

The incident evoked memories of a 1998 controversy involving the NFL and homosexuality, but with the roles reversed.

Back then, All-Pro defensive end Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers made national news by criticizing homosexuality and gay activists, first in a speech to Wisconsin state lawmakers and later in a full-page advertisement in USA Today. White died in 2004.

Pro athletes and team officials say attitudes have slowly shifted in a sports culture often seen as one of the last bastions of acceptable homophobia.

“We call it casual homophobia,” said Patrick Burke, a scout for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and founder of the You Can Play Project, which aims to increase acceptance for gay athletes. “Athletes will use slurs like ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘don’t be a fag’ without thinking about what they’re really saying. You might think it’s harmless, but for that young athlete in the corner who’s closeted, it’s a huge deal.”

No active athlete in the four most popular pro sports – football, baseball, basketball or hockey – has come out publicly as gay, according to the gay-oriented sports website Outsports.com.

“I’ve always called it the last closet in American society,” said Jim Buzinski, the site’s co-founder. “The fact that no player has ever come out while active, it shows you how entrenched that culture is.”

Some players have after retiring.

Esera Tuaolo, a retired NFL tackle who played for the Vikings from 1992 to 1996, came out in 2002, explaining he stayed quiet for years when he heard homophobic slurs or taunting in the locker room.

Minnesota Gophers basketball star Trevor Mbakwe joined Kluwe and Tuaolo at the Minneapolis fundraiser.

“To defeat the amendment, we need to aim our message at the independent and moderate, maybe Republican-leaning voters that just haven’t thought much about this issue,” said Tracy Call, an ad exec for Minnesotans for Equality, which organized the event.

Several sports figures say they were influenced by gay family members. Kluwe has a gay brother-in-law, “and I’d like to see him be able to get married someday,” he said.

Connor Barwin, a linebacker for the Houston Texans, has talked about his gay brother and his own support for equal marriage rights.

Burke, the NHL scout, had a gay brother who also worked in hockey management but died in a 2010 car accident.

NFL leadership has supported players’ right to speak out. League spokesman Greg Aiello said a statement issued a decade ago still holds: “As an institution, the NFL is a meritocracy that also places a high priority on tolerance and diversity … on that basis an individual’s sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant.”

In Baltimore, Ravens center Matt Birk said he thought the NFL was evolving toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. He declined to talk about his own feelings on gay marriage, but spoke out strongly in support of other players’ freedom to take stands. And he said he was “absolutely” willing to play with a gay teammate.

Some of Kluwe’s teammates were more reluctant to talk about it.

“I’ve just been mainly focusing on getting snaps to him. So I’ve stayed away from his media blitz,” said Cullen Loeffler, the Vikings long snapper who spends as much time with Kluwe as anyone on the team.

But Kluwe said the private response from Vikings players and management has been positive.

“For me personally, what I’m seeing is guys who are willing to live and let live,” Kluwe said. “They don’t really care about it, and at the end of the day when we’re in the locker room, it’s what can you do to help us win on Sunday?”

Repeal of ‘don’t ask” is a major step forward

Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military is a step toward equality, advocates say, but a fight for other social changes such as gay marriage still lies ahead.

The Senate voted Saturday to end the 17-year ban on openly gay troops, overturning the Clinton-era policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The House has already approved the legislation to repeal “don’t ask” and President Obama has vowed to sign it into law next week.

“It’s one step in a very long process of becoming an equal rights citizen,” said Warren Arbury of Savannah, Ga., who served in the Army for seven years, including three combat tours, before being kicked out two years ago under the policy. He said he planned to re-enlist once the policy is abolished.

“Even though this is really huge, I look at it as a chink in a very, very long chain,” he added.

Supporters declared the vote a civil rights milestone.

Aaron Belkin, director of the California-based Palm Center – a think tank on the issue – said the vote “ushers in a new era in which the largest employer in the United States treats gays and lesbians like human beings.”

For thousands of years, he said, one of the key markers for first-class citizenship in any nation is the right to serve in the military, and Saturday’s vote “is a historic step toward that.”

Repeal means that for the first time in U.S. history, gays will be openly accepted by the military and can acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being discharged. More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law. Before that, they had been explicitly barred from military service since World War I.

The change won’t take immediate effect, however. The legislation says the president and his top military advisers must certify that lifting the ban won’t hurt troops’ fighting ability. After that, there’s a 60-day waiting period for the military.

Some supporters of the repeal traveled to Washington to witness the vote, including Sue Fulton, a former Army captain and company commander who is spokeswoman for Knights Out, a group of 92 gay and lesbian West Point graduates who are out and no longer serving.

Driving home to North Plainfield, N.J., the 51-year-old Fortune 500 executive said she thinks the repeal will have an effect on the civil rights of gays in America.

“As more people realize that gay and lesbian citizens are risking their lives to defend this country, perhaps they’ll be more willing to acknowledge gays and lesbians as full citizens in other ways,” she said.

Conservative organizations said the vote didn’t reflect the sentiments of rank-and-file military members and should not have taken place so close to the end of the current session of Congress.

“The issue that really disturbs me more than anything else is that legislation that’s controversial tends to be done in lame-duck sessions when a number of the elected representatives are no longer accountable to the people,” said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council.

The Massachusetts Family Institute blasted Senate Republicans, including Sen. Scott Brown, who broke rank with their party on the vote.

“(They) made a vow not to vote on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ until the budget was resolved and they broke trust with the people,” said the group’s president, Kris Mineau. “In doing so, they not only have put special interests above fiscal interests but also have put our troops at risk during wartime.”

In New York, home to one of the nation’s largest gay communities and a gay pride parade whose grand marshal this year was an openly gay, discharged serviceman, 28-year-old Cassandra Melnikow glanced at a news ticker in Times Square announcing the repeal and said: “Excellent! It’s about time.”

“I don’t see what difference (sexual orientation) makes in the fighting military,” said Melnikow, a public health researcher. “What’s the big deal?”

Laura Schlessinger denounces ‘don’t ask’

On Dec. 2, Laura Schlessinger delivered a surprising four-minute rant defending the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

The infamously anti-gay, right-wing radio host called the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy ridiculous and call for its elimination. Schlessinger said gays have always their country side-by-side with straights without any harmful repercussions and they deserve our gratitude for it. Click here to listen to the audio.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which has often been critical of Schlessinger, praised her for the support.

“Of course we’re glad she’s on the right side of this issue,” GLAAD said in a statement. “She has a powerful platform that could definitely help change a few hearts and minds. Which is exactly why it’s dangerous when she uses that platform to use hurtful language. And it’s why she’ll only be free from our criticism when she stops defending her choices to use vile words to demean entire communities.”