Tag Archives: human rights

Bigot of the Week Award: September 6, Texas National Guard

6 Sep
Bigot of the Week:Texas Weak, Texas Pathetic

Bigot of the Week:
Texas Weak, Texas Pathetic

Thank you to my dear friend and LGBT ally, Jennifer Carey, and Arturo Schultz, for inspiring me to write about this week’s Bigot.  Despite the Death of DOMA, Texas wants to create its own laws and refuses to abide by the Supreme Court’s decision. Recent actions by the Texas National Guard refuse to treat LGBT people as equal citizens of the United States.  Yet again we see Texas on the wrong side of history.  Lest we forget the misogynistic Rick Perry beaten back by the amazing Wendy Davis.

Sadly, The Texas National Guard refused to process requests from same-sex couples for benefits on Tuesday,  September 3, 2013.  Despite a Pentagon directive to honor these requests, they tried to justify this discrimination by citing the state constitution’s ban on gay marriage. Interestingly enough, Maj. Gen. John Nichols, the commanding general of Texas Military Forces, wrote in a letter, …”the Texas Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, his state agency couldn’t process applications from gay and lesbian couples.”  However, in this rather convoluted state of confusion, he added that ” the Texas National Guard, Texas Air Guard and Texas State Guard would not deny anyone benefits.”  How to reconcile these statements is unclear. And incidentally, what about the rest of the LGBT population in Texas?

To my surprise and delight, National guard officials in Florida, Michigan and Oklahoma – all states that ban marriage equality for LGBT couples – said they will follow federal law.  I say with a great sigh, when will the rest of the South and the rest of country abide by Federal Law and work towards equality and equity for all LGBT people?

While I am able to enjoy and appreciate the steps towards progress, I cannot rest in that place. When do each of us actively work to stand in solidarity with all targeted people? When do we say enough to racism, homophobia, misogyny, and when do we pull together to eradicate poverty and look at a more equitable distribution of wealth?

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Social Justice and Presidential Medal of Freedom Honorees

12 Aug

2013PresMedFreedomSocJusThis year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Presidential Medal of Freedom  Awards, established by President John F. Kennedy.   For me, this year is particularly impressive because it is also the 50th anniversary of the Freedom March, which was organized by one of my personal heroes, Bayard Rustin, who has been celebrated several times on this blog.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.  While I am not going to address all 16 recipients, I would like to take some time to recognize a handful that I consider Heroes of the World.

Bayard Rustin: I am sad this is a posthumous award, but he so deserves to be celebrated and acknowledged.  Not enough people know that it was Bayard Rustin, close confidante to Dr. King, who worked with King on techniques for nonviolent resistance.  Rustin was an openly gay black man working tirelessly for civil rights.  I cannot fully articulate my admiration for this man.  Of course at the time he was working with Dr. King, it was illegal just to be homosexual.  Some believe that Rustin’s effectiveness was compromised because he was openly gay.  Unfortunately, Rustin started to worry that his integral part in the civil rights movement would undermine the efficacy of the movement and thus offered to step aside.  King supported Rustin’s move to step aside.  As much as I respect and honor Dr. King, I wish he would have shown more support for Rustin.  Let us not forget that it was Rustin that organized the March on Washington.

Sally Ride: Sadly this is also a posthumous award. The world lost a shining light last year when Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died from pancreatic cancer. She was only 61. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and physics from Stanford and went on to get a PhD in physics, studying astrophysics and free electron laser physics. She responded to a newspaper ad recruiting for the space program and became one of the first women in the program in 1978.

She became an integral part of the space shuttle program and in 1983 became America’s first woman and, at 32, the youngest American in space. Over her NASA career she logged over 340 hours in space. She was the recipient of numerous awards including the National Space Society’s von Braun award. She retired from NASA in 1987 but remained active in education and science. She taught physics at UC San Diego and was director of the California Space Institute. Ride’s most powerful legacy is Sally Ride Science, the program she launched in 2001. The mission of the organization is to

make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields. Our school programs, classroom materials, and teacher trainings bring science to life to show kids that science is creative, collaborative, fascinating, and fun.

Sally Ride also wrote a number of science education books.  I am exceedingly grateful that I had the opportunity to have met Sally Ride.

Gloria Steinem: I have to say that Gloria Steinem is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a social worker.  Steinem is an icon of social justice for women, the LGBT community,  the disenfranchised and all marginalized and targeted populations. Steinem has dedicated her life to creating a level playing field for women, while at the same time embracing and working on issues for all marginalized peoples. In my humble opinion, Seinem’s voice is one of the most important in the 20th and 21st Centuries. My first reading of Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, spoke to me as a gay man and how institutionalized oppression can take its toll and how we must unite to speak our own truth. As most of you know, Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine and helped a culture learn about the power of words: Miss, Mrs. and Ms. I have heard Ms. Steinem speak three times and each time I left in awe and inspired. I don’t understand any of her detractors, for she speaks with such love and compassion. Listening to Steinem, one realized how fully she understands deep rooted patriarchy, misogyny, and oppression. I dare say, her detractors have never heard her speak, nor have ever read anything she has written. Yes, she supports a woman’s right to govern her own body–a controversy that would not exist if there were legislation trying to control what men could do with their bodies. I applaud Gloria Steinem for her courage and for her contributions to social justice, she encourages and inspires us all to understand more about the intersections of oppression.

Besides these personal heroes, three other honorees are particularly notable for their roles in social justice.
  • Oprah Winfrey has used her power and wealth to work hard for women’s rights and education; she is also a champion of the LGBT community. The fact that one of the most powerful, wealthy and recognizable people in the world is a woman of color is of great value in itself.  She is still creating an amazing legacy!
  • Sen. Daniel Inouye also receives a posthumous medal. He served nearly 50 years in Congress, elected when Hawaii became a state; he was the first Japanese American to serve in either chamber. During his long service he was a tireless champion of human rights, supporting civil rights for all including the LGBT community.
  • Patricia Wald is a well-respected appellate judge and a pioneer. She was one of the first women to graduate from Yale Law School. She was also the first woman appointed to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she later served as Chief Judge.  She also served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and currently works for the Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

It is truly wonderful to see such champions of social justice receive this great honor.

Hero of the Week Award, August 9: Judge Harvey Brownstone

9 Aug

HarveyI need to thank my friend Bruce for inspiring me to celebrate Judge Harvey Brownstone as this week’s HWA.  Brownstone, the first openly gay judge in Canada, had the great pleasure and honor of officiating the wedding of Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor.  You might recall that it was Windsor who was the plaintiff in the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the core of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — which restricted federal marriage benefits to opposite-sex married couples — as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Thank goodness we finally saw the death of DOMA.

Our Brownstone takes Tikkun olam  (Repair the World) quite seriously.  As a gay Reform Jew, Brownstone recounts:

I came from a Jewish community devoted to inclusiveness, helping one another, and fighting injustice—or, at least that’s what I thought growing up in Hamilton, Ontario.

Our Jewish community was filled with Eastern European immigrants and Holocaust survivors, and my father, a social worker who directed the Jewish Community Center, would bring affluent community members together to assist the newcomers with housing, furniture, clothing, and jobs.

While I do not subscribe to any religion, I have to admit that I wish more humans behaved in this inclusive manner and navigated the world through a lens of social justice.

It is important to note that Brownstone’s start was a difficult and painful one.  Coming from this social justice Jewish background, one would think his parents would have embraced their only child when coming out of the closet.  Sadly, this was not the case:

I decided to tell my parents that I was gay. We had always been close—I was an only child—and I anticipated that my father’s social work background, coupled with my parents’ strong Jewish values of “supporting your children no matter what,” would govern their reaction.

I could not have been more wrong. My parents exploded. They felt shame (“What did we do to cause this?”) and embarrassment (“What will people say when they find out?”). One of the most painful things my mother said to me was, “I survived the Holocaust for this?”

It was immensely painful to know that I had caused my parents such anguish and turmoil simply by revealing the truth about myself. To me, being gay was no different than being right-handed or having brown eyes. I believed—and still do—that we’re born this way. But to my parents, being gay was a choice, a “lifestyle.” I had been taught that what Jewish parents want most of all is for their children to be happy. But I quickly realized that my parents’ definition of “happy” was what counted, not mine.

Fortunately, Brownstone and his parents had a great reconciliation and he was celebrated for the mensch he is:

I invited my parents to my law school graduation, and they proudly attended. That was the beginning of a rapprochement that, over the next five years, would result in a full reconciliation…

In the early ’80s the Jewish community didn’t get that we were all Jews. If the Holocaust had taught us one thing, it was that to the Nazis it didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, Reform or Orthodox—you would share the same fate. But in my experience, this startling reality was overlooked when it came to accepting Jews who were different than the norm.

Eventually I became Chutzpah’s president. And in 1985, I persuaded the board to engage as gays and lesbians with the mainstream Toronto Jewish community.

Again, I am not a religious human, albeit I am spiritual, I do love how Brownstone concludes his interview with ReformJudaism.org:

Put simply—and no one should understand this better than we Jews—civil rights are not just about the law, and they’re not just about rights; they’re about human dignity. We were all made in God’s image. When we discriminate against and hurt each other, we hurt God. And that is why—whether we’re gay, straight, or plaid—this issue needs to matter to us all.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 68 Years Later and History Forgotten

7 Aug

HiroEvery year on August 6 and 9, I feel some sadness as I reflect on the loss of so many lives.  I also reflect on why people fought in World War II. This year marks the 68th anniversary of the United States dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Yesterday, as I reflected back on WWII and the reasons for the war, I was not only saddened by the horrific number of lives lost in both the Pacific and European theaters, but I was most forlorn that many around the world seem to have forgotten why we went to war.

It is difficult not to remember the millions of Jews and all the Pink Triangle folk who were tortured and killed during the Nazi regime.  How sad that President Putin seems to be playing out history all over again by persecuting and imprisoning gay folk, as though WWII never happened.  Perhaps, President Putin never had access to a history book and thus never knew about the myriad human rights violations during WWII.

We entered the Pacific Theater only when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, never mind that they were killing thousands of Chinese before this.  People probably won’t want me to bring up the fact that here in the United States we kept thousands of Japanese Americans detained in interment camps, as well as Americans who “looked” Japanese. Sadly, we also set up interment camps for Italian Americans and German Americans.  My but we do love to “other” people and violate human rights.

It does not seem that long ago when I was watching 60 minutes at my step-mother’s house and they were showing the horrible effects of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 30 years after the bombings.  People were dying from leukemia caused by radiation poisoning from the atomic bombs.  For those who have not read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, I strongly encourage you to do so.

In the European Theater, we were trying to stop the unimaginable Holocaust and the 11 million deaths resulting from the Nazis. As a side note, one should mention that Rudolf Brazda died just two years ago.  Brazda is believed to be the last surviving man to wear the pink triangle — the emblem homosexuals had to wear and that were sent to Nazi concentration camps, most of them sent to their deaths.  If you have not watched the documentary Paragraph 175, I would strongly recommend you watch it.  President Putin certainly needs to watch this film!

We entered the war to fight back the cloak of Nazism and Fascism.  We considered ourselves to be better than the oppressors we were fighting.  The irony is palpable when you think about our government today and how we continue to marginalize and target certain populations. We still have so far to go around issues of racial equity, LGBT equity, and gender equity.

Today, as I remember all the lives lost specifically in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the current path of the governments in Russia and the United States, I shall endeavor to make a thousand paper cranes in the hope that our elected officials know history and know how to lead with compassion, integrity, and with the interest of the people guiding them, not just white heterosexual christians, but ALL of the people united in our differences and similarities.

Celebrating Harry Belafonte

2 Aug

BelafonteGiven the recent events involving one of my personal heroes, Harry Belafonte, and Jay Z (a staunch supporter of marriage equality), I thought this would be an appropriate time to celebrate a social justice hero.  Belafonte is known world wide for his entertainment career, but I have always had a much greater appreciation for his social activism.  Belafonte has used his celebrity to help and support Dr. Martin Luther King.  In fact, it was Belafonte who bailed King out of the now famous Birmingham Jail.  He also financed the Freedom Rides, and helped our Bayard Rustin organize the March on Washington.

Belafonte’s dedication to human rights is not restricted to the borders of the United States, although it is worth noting that Belafonte was one of a handful of people who vocally opposed the policies of the George W. Bush administration. This was during the Great Silence when practically NO ONE dared to question the administration for fear of being called unpatriotic.  One of Belafonte’s most famous admonitions addressed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and their implication in the violation of human rights under Bush II:

There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture.

Belafonte has fought against the neo-colonization of countries in Africa.  He has helped the fight against HIV and AIDS in South Africa.  Belafonte has dedicated his life to human rights and continues to interrupt oppression around the world.  He also expects all people to take action and stand in solidarity with all targeted populations. He was proud to serve as one of the Grand Marshalls of the New York City Pride Parade this year in recognition of his support of LGBT rights and marriage equality.

While I do not wish to get into the particulars around what Belafonte said and how Jay Z responded, I would like and hope that these two men can come together and have a conversation away from the public, as Belafonte has suggested. They both make good points — progress requires direct action and public figures with whom marginalized youth can identify.

Belafonte is not only a treasure for social justice but he holds institutional and systemic memory.  Jay Z is young and has enormous power and influence.  Imagine how powerful these two voices could be if united and how many of us would support them both to help celebrate counter narratives that challenge the dominant culture. If we want the world to change for the better, we need to look towards the solidarity of targeted populations coming together in numbers too big to be ignored.

Hero of the Week Award, June 26: Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage

26 Jul
Hero of the Week

Hero of the Week

Let my start this week’s award with a sincere thank-you to my friend Jay, a fierce supporter of LGBT rights, for pointing out these two powerful responses to a horrific situation. Russia is not known as a particularly friendly nation toward the LGBT community. In fact, it is more than just hostile. Years of oppression and occasional violent outbreaks have escalated in recent years. As more nations adopt marriage equality and LGBT rights are promoted by the United Nations, internal pressure has caused a real backlash, including lethal violence against gay rights activists and pride participants. This slideshow (which features some graphic results of violence) is a harrowing review of recent treatment of the Russian LGBT community.

Rather than provide courageous leadership to prevent this atmosphere, President Putin has encouraged and signed virulently homophobic legislation including an adoption ban and a “gay propaganda” law that is so vague it makes Tennessee’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill look like a coming out speech.  My, who knew that President Putin seems to be obsessed with us gays.  I’m a little scared.

Award winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein and journalist and provocateur Dan Savage have taken up the fight to demand international pressure on Russia and its leaders. With the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the opportunity to make a strong statement is better than ever.

Fierstein penned a powerful Op-Ed for the New York Times outlining Putin’s nasty legislative ways. He rightly points out that a gay athlete simply being out could result in arrest under the new propaganda law. Looking at the larger picture with his distinctive critical eye, he calls out the President and deftly demonstrates where this trend will lead.

Historically this kind of scapegoating is used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from their failing policies, and no doubt this is what’s happening in Russia. Counting on the natural backlash against the success of marriage equality around the world and recruiting support from conservative religious organizations, Mr. Putin has sallied forth into this battle, figuring that the only opposition he will face will come from the left, his favorite boogeyman. Mr. Putin’s campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain taken straight from the Nazi playbook. Can we allow this war against human rights to go unanswered? Although Mr. Putin may think he can control his creation, history proves he cannot: his condemnations are permission to commit violence against gays and lesbians.

Savage, citing Fierstein, demands attention and action as well. He wrote a nice piece for Slog promoting a boycott of Russian vodka. This strong, simple statement is something that millions can participate in and requires none of the business or political leverage that other trading blocks might.

That one of the most powerful nations in the world does nothing to protect its LGBT citizens is appalling. That its president actively works against them is even worse. International attention and pressure are critical, and the United States should lead the way. Thank you Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage for leading the charge.  President Putin is carving his legacy and it looks so very similar to that of Uncle Joe Stalin and Hitler.  Some may remember that Hitler said Germany would not enforce the genocide of the Jews and of Gays for the three weeks during the 1936 Olympics.  Now Putin has said Russia will not enforce the bloodbath of persecuting the LGBT community during the 2014 Olympics.  How sad to see history repeating itself.

Black History Month 2013: Carolyn Robertson Payton

6 Feb

CRPaytonToday we honor and celebrate a pioneering psychologist, Carolyn Robertson Payton. She was also the first woman and the first person of color to serve as Director of the Peace Corps, appointed by President Carter. Born in Norfolk, VA in 1925, she came into a family that placed a high value on education. She attended Bennett College for Women, a Historically Black College, and credited the experience with helping foster her confidence in her abilities as a woman. She established a scholarship fund at the school late in her life.

She attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison for her MS in clinical psychology. (Ironically, the commonwealth of Virgina paid for her education under its “separate but equal” program since no university there would admit African Americans into such a program.) Her Masters’ thesis challenged a recently adopted intelligence test as inaccurate for minorities. This dedication to fairness was a hallmark of her entire career.

Payton spent the 1950s teaching psychology and pursuing further degrees. She became an assistant professor at Howard University in 1959 and earned her EdD in counseling and student administration in 1962. She joined the Peace Corps in 1964, using her clinical background to develop tools to help volunteers prepare for their assignments. She became Country Director for the Caribbean in 1967. In 1977, she became Director of the Peace Corps. Sadly and strategically, President Nixon had created ACTION as an umbrella for many social service organizations of the federal government (The Peace Corps’s history is not one of social justice). The director of ACTION routinely pulled volunteers out of other countries after they had developed useful skills to assign them to other jobs in the U.S. Payton resigned in protest.

As Director, I could not, because of the peculiar administrative structure under which the Peace Corps operates, do anything about this situation. As an ex-director, I am free to sound the alarm.

As a result of her actions, President Carter issued an executive order recreating the Peace Corps as an autonomous agency.

Payton returned to Howard University where she served as Dean of Counseling and Career Development and later Director of University Counseling Services until her retirement in 1995. She was an active member of the American Psychological Association (APA), focusing on the social implications of the work of her profession. She published the seminal paper “Who will do the hard work?” in 1984, arguing that psychology divorced from ethics and social responsibility would become a bankrupt discipline–much like the current field of social work today!

In her service to the APA, she served on many committees and task forces including the Committee on Scientific and Professional Ethics and Conduct, the Task Force on Sex Bias and Sex Role Stereotyping in Psychotherapeutic Practice, the Committee on Women in Psychology, the Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, and the Policy and Planning Board. She was particularly concerned about the organization’s code of ethics, demanding that it maintain a focus on fundamental human rights.

The current code (APA, 1992) appears to have retreated from prioritizing this humanitarian stance. Ethnic minorities, women, gay men, and lesbians have reason to be apprehensive about the apparent downgrading in importance of psychologists’ declaration of respect for the dignity and worth of the individual.

She died of a heart attack in 2001, leaving behind an impressive legacy of support for human rights and dignity.

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