Marriage Equality is Not the Only LGBT Issue
Between the marriage equality wins in New York State, Washington State and Maryland, and the recent federal endorsement of same-sex marriage by President Barack Obama, the LGBT community is riding high. But some wonder if the intense focus and fundraising around marriage equality comes at the detriment of other issues important to the LGBT community, like HIV/AIDS, transgender rights, gay teen homelessness and bullying, and immigration reform.
"My concern is that we will get federal marriage, which I think we will if we have a second term with Obama, and then all the money and interest flooding into marriage will dry up," said comedian Kate Clinton, a longtime activist whose partner Urvashi Vaid has headed major LGBT organizations. "Gay youth are worried about violence, HIV and bullying, and I sometimes worry that if we take our eyes off the prize, when we get marriage, everyone will just go on gay cruise and forget about everything else."
Indeed, for Megan Mulholland, a member of the grassroots group Queerocracy, the focus on marriage is already taking away interest from the issues of "everyday queers," who nevertheless have to continue battling economic issues, homelessness, HIV infection, social justice issues and transgender oppression every which way.
Guess What: HIV Infections Continue Apace
"There is a huge problem with LGBT activists and organizations being OK with the fact that [marriage] is the issue being supported by politicians and funders, when there are a lot more complex issues that need to be addressed," said Mulholland, who is active in ACT Up and helped organize their 25th anniversary protest on Wall Street in New York City in April. The march called for a financial speculation (or "Robin Hood") tax of 0.05 percent or less on speculative trades to end the global AIDS epidemic and provide universal healthcare.
"We need to send a message that AIDS isn’t over," Eric Sawyer, a founding member of ACT Up, said at the march. "Two million people died last year. Fifteen million people need AIDS drugs now; we need $24 billion. We need to tax Wall Street."
The battle against HIV infections and AIDS used to be higher on our agenda. While science now shows prevention could end AIDS in our lifetime, activists don’t see people getting fired up about it.
The funding needed to end the epidemic is just not there, said AIDS activist Michael Pikili: "If you look at the U.S. policy to create a generation free of AIDS, you have to put all your energy and resources into the upcoming generation." This means providing adequate health care and reproductive rights for mothers, to ensure that they don’t transmit HIV to their children. It also ties in to providing comprehensive sex education.
"Most queer kids come out at 14, and they should know what it means to safely have queer sex," said Pikili. "Sex education is given in a heteronormative way; the educational system is not properly structured to teach gay people what we need to know. Without this, there is no way we will have a generation free of AIDS. Right now, there are 54,000 new infections in the U.S. each year."
In several states, including New York, possession of condoms becomes state’s evidence when prosecuting prostitutes - hardly an incentive for sex workers to be practicing safer sex. In addition, people with HIV in several states are criminalized for not disclosing their status before having sex. "These problems are magnified when the community can’t access health care because of the closing of hospitals and clinics," Pikili added.
The epidemic of homelessness among LGBT youth is contributing to the alarming rate of HIV infection among groups of young people. "When queer youth don’t have the resources they need to survive, like beds and support," Pikill notes, "they turn to sex work for survival, and become subject to higher risks of HIV."
Epidemic of Bullying & Suicide Among Gay Youth
Despite outreach and education programs, media coverage and celebrities speaking out, anti-gay schoolyard bullies and parental rejection both continue to be widespread throughout the country. States like New Jersey and New York have passed tough anti-bullying laws that seek to provide students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying on school grounds, school buses and during school functions.
But it will take more than legislation to keep parents and guardians from kicking their child out of the home after he or she comes out to them. On March 9, prominent leaders in the fight against LGBT homelessness gathered in Detroit for the first White House LGBT conference on Housing and Homelessness.
At the conference, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Donovan revealed that while about seven percent of American youth identify as LGBT, more than 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. "LGBT youth experience more acts of sexual violence, are more at risk for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, and are more likely to become depressed than their heterosexual counterparts," said Donovan.
"Perhaps most troubling of all, the majority of young people surveyed report harassment, difficulty or even sexual assault when trying to access homeless shelters - the very places where they should start to feel safe."
Michigan native Theresa Nolan, the director of Green Chimneys, a New York City LGBT youth shelter, said the fact "that we were having a federal conversation here about LGBT housing issues can only shed an important spotlight on the fact that disenfranchised people, especially LGBT youth, are experiencing layers of trauma on top of each other."
Carl Siciliano, the director of another New York LGBT homeless shelter, the Ali Forney Center, agreed: "There needs to be a massive public education aimed at helping parents cope with and accept their gay kids, and a commitment to providing beds so these kids aren’t dying in the streets."
Once again, the specter of marriage equality sucking the air out of the room came up, with many LGBT adults having an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude about the huge problem of youth homelessness among our own kind. "I continue to be struck by the sense that LGBT youth are not fully sharing in the progress that our community is enjoying," said Siciliano. "I’m concerned there’s not a very well thought-out vision in the broader LGBT movement as to what our responsibility to taking care of our most vulnerable youth should be."
As an example, Siciliano points to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who nearly single-handedly managed to wrangle the state’s notoriously difficult Legislature to pass a marriage bill, while simultaneously slashing funding for gay youth by 50 percent. He also notes the irony in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s "stirring quotes about Obama’s embrace of civil rights for the gay community," at the same time as he proposes to eliminate $7 million of the $12 million in the city’s budget for gay youth. This would eliminate 160 of the 250 shelter beds that thousands of homeless kids vie for every night.
These politicians, while they should certainly be taken to task, may well only reflect what they see as the concerns of their gay constituencies. "The fact that it’s even politically possible for him to suggest something like that and at the same time speak about gay civil rights is not so much about him as it is about how we as a community prioritize our gay youth," Siciliano underscored.
As kids come out earlier, they face the heaviest brunt of homophobia, manifested in bullying, suicide, parental rejection and homelessness. "We have to move beyond the place where politicians can champion marriage equality while simultaneously hurting our kids," Siciliano said. "It is disgraceful that they are left out in the streets to suffer." To draw attention to these cuts, Siciliano and Nolan hold rallies like one last November that featured an LGBT youth advocate on the City Council and actress Ally Sheedy.
"I’m a mother, and the idea that there’s a parent who will kick a kid out of the house because of their sexual or gender identification makes me sick. It’s immoral," said Sheedy. "If you get kicked out of your home in the South or the middle of the country, New York is the last stop for you. These are our kids in our great city, and we can’t leave them lying on the street."