A Victory for Marriage

Below are the reflections of Orelia Busch, outgoing Legislative Assistant for Women’s Issues / UUWF Clara Barton Intern, on the Proposition 8 court decision.  You can also read UUA President Rev. Peter Morales’ statement on the ruling at UUA.org.

Judge Vaughn Walker’s opinion in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, released on Wednesday, August 4, was a resounding victory for supporters of same sex marriage.  I can honestly say that I was surprised.  In the 24 hours between the announcement that the ruling would be handed down and its actual release, both sides were preparing their appeals, and it seemed like no one could even speculate on what the judge would say.


Members of Congress Commit to BGLT-Inclusive Immigration Reform

On July 15th, Taquiena Boston, Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness for the Unitarian Universalist Association released the following statement:

The Unitarian Universalist Association joins the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) coalition in urging the swift passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrants and their families. Our faith teaches us that we are all members of one human family. We stand on the side of love with all immigrant families to call for humane and comprehensive immigration reform.

A system that breaks apart families is itself broken. LGBT immigrant families are at extremely high risk for being denied basic rights and services not only because of their immigration status but because their families are not equally recognized by U.S. law. We will not be silent while families are separated. Same-sex couples should have the same opportunity as straight couples to prove that their families deserve to stay together. Transgender immigrants and travelers should be able to obtain documentation without undue questioning or harassment. We stand proudly behind our allies in the U.S. Congress who understand that the only way to fix our immigration system is to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes LGBT individuals and families.

The UAFA coalition represents more than thirty groups, including faith groups and organizations focused on immigrant rights, worker justice, and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The six members of Congress who spoke at the press conference included Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Mike Honda (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). They expressed the urgent need to change current immigration laws and called on their colleagues to help them pass comprehensive, inclusive immigration reform legislation before the end of 2010.

Also speaking at the press conference were Erwin De Leon, the immigrant half of a D.C. based bi-national couple, and Karen Narasaki, the president of the Asian American Justice Center.  Narasaki is a Unitarian Universalist who attends All Souls Church, Unitarian.  De Leon, whose husband can’t sponsor him for legal permanent residency in the U.S. under current immigration policies, spoke at the Standing on the Side of Love event on Capitol Hill in April.

For more information, see full press coverage of the event and read the joint statement released by the coalition.  To learn more about the UAFA coalition, please see the Immigration Equality Action Fund website.

UUA Presents Shareholder Resolution for Gender Non-Discrimination at Wal-Mart

Julie Skye, member of UUA's Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, at Walmart's Shareholders' Meeting

In 2008, the UUA filed two resolutions on Gender Identity Non-Discrimination: both companies already had sexual orientation in their policy but this resolution asked to include gender identity in its written equal opportunity non-discrimination policy.  6% of Wal-Mart shareholders and 16% of Verizon’s shareholders voted in favor of this protection for their employees.

The 2009 Shareholder Advocacy season saw 12% of Wal-Mart shareholders vote in favor of the same resolution. Progress…but I think back to the 2001 proxy season…when Home Depot changed its written policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation because of the efforts of the UUA endowment’s shares of Home Depot stock. Management had a change of heart after the proxy statements went out, and called the UUA…saying they had considered the negative reaction from their employees who had learned that Directors did not support the resolution. Terms and conditions were agreed on, and the UUA withdrew the resolution.

This is what shareholder advocacy is all about! Change that comes through management’s awareness of how their written policies affect the people that work for them. When management “gets it” through dialogue, discussion and diplomacy, everyone wins. Why does Wal-Mart gladly take dollars from customers without regard to that person’s gender identity, but stops short of giving their employees the dignity and rights that they deserve?

Why did the largest employer in the U.S. not get it…that the employees who gave so much to the success of Wal-Mart, deserved to know their employer “affirmed and promoted the inherent worth and dignity of every person?” Why would adopting a policy that gave employees a way to resolve conflicts through corporate channels not make sense?

With the history of previous UUA filings and my 18 months as a member of UUA’s Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, I drove the 2 hours from Tulsa Oklahoma to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to see, firsthand, what I knew was going to be a cross between a high school pep rally and a rock concert. I was going to present the UUA resolution that said how we interpret our gender identity, was our right, not a privilege extended to us by our employer.

The Wal-Mart staff member that helped me get settled, Beth, was as friendly and helpful as the other Wal-Mart folks. As the Annual Meeting kicked off, Jamie Foxx’s message was that Wal-Mart was an advocate for the working people; “You help people save money so they live better lives.” As Josh Groban, Mariah Carey, Enrique Inglesias, and Mary J. Blige performed in between the business parts of the meeting, the message was that these associates have had their lives transformed by this company.

What remains, after the laser light show and the echoes of, “I can kiss away the pain” was as usual, the people that are affected by the work the UUA is doing to move the endowments of congregations all over the country in the direction of our values. Beth, my Wal-Mart guide, asked what the resolution was all about. She nodded as we talked about the fact that you should not be fired for the way you present yourself…for how you look, or dress. Being disciplined, reassigned, fired or not promoted because of who you were and how you looked…not how you did your job…was not right.

After I used the three minutes allowed to present the resolution asking Wal-Mart to extend these rights to their associates I received a polite applause, and took my seat. I felt a hand on my arm…and turned to meet John Wright, a minister at the UU Fellowship at Salisbury Maryland who works at Wal-Mart. With tears in his eyes, he thanked me for being there. He was overwhelmed by the emotions he felt as he heard that the CEO of his company announce that the UUA was presenting this resolution. The faith tradition he was devoted to had moved into his workplace, to model the values that we have come to take as second nature. He kept thanking me, and thanking the UUA for doing this work.  This work matters. It changes people’s lives. It allows the people of this country to be a part of changing how corporate America does business.

In the end, we received 14.6% support from shareholders…small, but moving in the right direction.  The Walton family has 45% of the stock, so until they move on this resolution, we’ll keep filing each year.

All of us…our children and grandchildren, will live in a better world because of the work the UUA does.

Julie Skye is a member of All Souls Tulsa, the UUA’s Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, and is a Registered Investment Advisor. She acts as a Family Back Office to 85 families and helps them organize, manage and co-ordinate all aspects of their financial lives including tax, estate and retirement planning. She has been doing pro-bono work with Foundations and non-profits for two decades and sees the connection between SRI and Social / Racial Justice.  Passionate in her belief that’ we can do well, while we do good’, she is Vice Chair of the All Souls Endowment Committee and offers seminars at the Sunday Emerson Forum titled “The Free Church Financial Forum.”

State Department Announces New Policy on Gender Change in Passports

Beginning June 10, the State Department is implementing a new policy that may make it easier for transgender people to change the gender listed in their passports.  Under this policy, anyone presenting certification from an attending physician that they have undergone appropriate treatment for gender transition will be able to obtain a passport reflecting their new gender.

With proper certification based on the statement of a physician, those who are still in the process of transitioning can obtain a limited-validity passport during their gender transition.  Previous policy listed sex reassignment surgery, a medical procedure that not all transgender people are willing or able to undergo, as a prerequisite for changing the gender on a passport.

The State Department announcement also directs all passport issuing officers in the United States and abroad to ask only appropriate questions to obtain the necessary information to determine the citizenship and identity of passport applicants.  Read the State Department’s announcement here.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – A Roadmap to Repeal

On Thursday night, May 27, two historic votes occurred that will pave the way for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the failed and harmful policy that bans bisexual, gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the US military.

The House of Representatives voted to include language that repeals DADT in the Defense Authorization bill that subsequently passed with a vote of 229 to 186.  On the same evening, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to include the same language in their version of the Defense Authorization bill.  These are crucial first steps towards a full repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, but the policy remains in place.  Service members are still being fired if they are found to be bisexual, gay or lesbian.  If you or someone you know is serving in the military, please read SLDN’s warning to service members.

The Senate bill is expected to be sent to the floor for a vote later this summer.  If the bill passes the Senate, both bills will be reviewed by a conference committee during the August recess.  The House and Senate will then vote on the conference report, which could conceivably put the Defense Authorization Act on the President’s desk by early October.

Public pressure to repeal DADT has gotten us this far, but we must keep it up if repeal language is to stay intact throughout this process.  In the run up to a Senate vote, the amendments could be weakened or stricken altogether by opponents of repeal.  Even if the amendments go through as part of the final bill, the President and Pentagon leaders must certify that the military is prepared for repeal.   They must show that the change in policy is consistent with current military standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruitment and retention.

The Pentagon is studying how to implement repeal and how it will affect service members and their families.  The decision whether or not to certify repeal will be based on the results of this study, which will be submitted on or before December 1, 2010.  60 days after the President transmits his certification to Congress, repeal of DADT will go into effect.

Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will not immediately allow for open service.  It does, however pave the way for the military to put policies and regulations into place allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.  Several top military officials, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, support full repeal and open service.

Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is only the first step to open and safe service for gay and lesbian soldiers.  The language in the Defense Authorization bills does not require the military to create policy of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  As a matter of precedent, the military sets its own non-discrimination policies and federal law has never done so – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, has never applied to the armed forces.  Discrimination and harassment in the military based on sexual orientation will take time and effort to eradicate, but last week’s victories present the best opportunity for progress towards this goal in the history of our nation’s military.

The President, top Pentagon leaders, and a majority of members of Congress support DADT repeal.  Those who believe that our military must reflect American values of dignity, integrity and honesty know that open service is the only way to allow all members of the armed forces to live out these values.  As advocates of full equality for bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender people, the UUA and its members are called to support all legislation that protects people from discrimination, violence and exclusion based on their identities.  Click here for more information on the UUA’s work to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Every Voice Counts for ENDA

Yesterday, I joined the GetEqual picket for ENDA on Capitol Hill. About 20 of us met on the corner just across the street from the Library of Congress and the Cannon House office building.  For about an hour, we marched around the block, watched by cops and protected by organizers and a legal observer.  We yelled our hearts out to all who could hear that we wanted to see ENDA passed and workplace discrimination made illegal in this country.

Seeing the effectiveness of actions like this can be hard for me, but feeling them isn’t.  As I marched and screamed, I thought of all of the privileges that brought me to Capitol Hill, my income, my education, and not least of all, the fact that not only do I have a job, but I have a job that encourages me to participate in such actions.  Not everyone is just as blessed, yet it should be their right.  Yesterday, I was screaming for everyone that has ever been fired, harassed and harmed in an unsafe workplace because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I screamed for transgender people all over the country who are fighting for their very right to exist and being denied jobs and human dignity for just having the courage to live into their truest selves.  Witnessing their struggle challenges me to use my gifts and talents to do the same.

As I marched, I saw more than a few people stare past us and continue on to wherever they were going in the same way that I’ve often passed pickets and protests.  One can grow a thick skin living in this town where change is slow and one’s voice is rarely heard through “official channels”.  But I also saw people smiling at us and nodding their heads to the beat of our chants.  People walked by in the black and blue suits of Congressional office staff and chanted with us as our paths crossed. Members of Congress passed us on their way to or from their offices.  We drew the attention of everyone on the block and people came out of their offices and onto the balcony of the Cannon House office building to see us.  I remembered that small groups of people can have an impact, even if it’s a loud and mostly symbolic reminder to those in power that we and the people we represent will no longer be silent and we’re not going away.

The UUA is part of a larger effort to pass legislation that upholds the human right to earn a living with dignity, and I am bound by my humanity, to play a role in that effort.You can make your voice heard by taking action today and emailing your elected officials about ENDA

Week of Action for Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Equality!

May 17th -21st is a big week in the world of BGLT activism and advocacy.  Equality Across America – known for the National Equality March – is sponsoring actions with local groups all over the country in commemoration of Harvey Milk’s birthday.  The Defense Authorization Bill for FY2011 will be voted out of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, and it remains the best hope for passing legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.  Rep. Patrick Murphy is still working to champion repeal in the House.

Our partners at ENDA Now are spearheading a national week of action to demand that the House of Representatives move forward with a vote on the Employment Non Discrimination Act.  ENDA has been stalled in the House for months while employees in many areas are losing jobs or being harassed at work because of who they are or who they love.

The week of action kicks off with a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, May 18th.  A rally is also planned for Tuesday outside of the San Francisco federal building where Nancy Pelosi has her local office.   BGLT advocacy organizations are asking their members all over the country to call Congress and demand a vote on ENDA immediately.  Even if you have taken action before, it is critical that your lawmakers hear from you again.  ENDA will only move forward if there’s enough public pressure, and that’s where you come in.

Please take a few moments today or tomorrow to call your Representative and tell the how important workplace fairness and equality are to your community.

If you want to get more involved, look for what’s happening this week in your community and connect with other equality activists at the Equality Across America website.

Stories from the Frontlines – Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Unitarian Universalist Joan Darrah is helping Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) launch their new media campaign, “Stories from the Frontlines: Letters to President Barack Obama”. Every day for the next month, leading up to House and Senate votes on the Defense Authorization bill, SLDN will publish a different letter to President Obama from a veteran who was impacted by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The Defense Authorization bill is the most appropriate and likely legislative vehicle for DADT repeal language to pass both houses of Congress and become law.

According to SLDN spokespeople, this campaign will “underscore the urgent need for congressional action and presidential leadership at this critical point in the fight to repeal DADT.” The letters will tell individual veterans’ stories as they urge the President to include DADT repeal in his recommendations for the defense authorization bill and to be a strong advocate for repeal with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Read Joan Darrah’s letter to President Obama, and take action today!

Day of Silence Recognized in Schools and Congress

Last Friday, April 16, hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and staff at schools and colleges across the nation held events for the Day of Silence. These events aim to draw attention to the silence faced by those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, as well as to help students and staff make their schools safer for everyone.

On April 21, this year’s Day of Silence was recognized on the floor of the House of Representatives when Rep. Sam Farr of California expressed his support and his pride in cosponsoring H.R. 4530, the Student Non-Discrimination Act. He said:

Every day, students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered, as well as those who are perceived as being LGBT, are subjected to harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence. These actions are incredibly harmful to students and they also damage our educational system.

Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults participated in Day of Silence events around the country, and several of them shared their stories afterwards.

Ksenia Varlyguina, a teacher at Everett High school in MA, taught her first period class in silence and debriefed with her students at the end of day. Together, they discussed who is silenced in their school, how, why, and what they can do to change this. Of the day’s purpose, her student Rodrigo said, “I feel we have a long way to go before Day of Silence is really understood. People try to get you to talk and they don’t see the reasoning behind it; for me it’s to stop the discrimination that has been close to me for a chunk of my life.”

Sixteen-year-old Ben Walter, a of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois was inspired by all of the people wearing the rainbow ribbons that his student group handed out. He says, “It reminded me that though there’s a lot of negativity to this cause, there’s also a lot of people that do support it, I just might not be aware of it.”

Margaret Low, a UU seminarian from North Andover, MA, spoke to the students at Haverhill High School. She told them, “each and every person in this room, at this school, and in this community has a story to tell. Whether that story includes being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender … or whether it includes being straight … each of you is here for a reason.”

She went on to tell her own coming out story while honoring all those who must remain silent about their lives and loved ones. Margaret sees her own process of coming out as continual – it happens every time she tells someone about events in her daily life. She added that her partner, who serves in the U.S. military, does not have the same right:

My girlfriend wanted to join me here today to tell her story. She wanted to speak about her experience of coming out to her friends and her family … and she wanted to speak about serving in the Armed Forces under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. But she is not here, because the threat to her military career is too great to stand before you and be who she is.

Margaret shared some of her partner’s reflections on life under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:

I sit alone at military functions; therefore regarded as “not quite established” and definitely not as important as other people. I get bumped to the top of the list to do extra things because I’m not married, and don’t have children. …Someone else’s personal life is considered respectable; and mine is considered a crime. Denying who you are to society each day is enough; why must we do so, in order to serve our country … something the majority of people are unwilling to do. We’re not allowed to be proud of everything that we do, and everything that we are, because we are gay.

Margaret’s partner could be sick, injured or even killed during a deployment, and the military would not contact Margaret. This experience is common among LGBT soldiers currently serving in the military and their families. Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act are necessary to break the silence that still surrounds LGBT lives and communities. So is gaining equal access to health care, adoption, social services, civil marriage, and recognition of same-sex couples under comprehensive immigration reform.

A teacher at Haverhill said that Margaret’s story helped the students feel “okay to be themselves” and led them to share their own stories and struggles with their classmates. Those of us who are willing and able to tell our stories and lift up the voices of those who are silenced are obliged to do so until everyone, including all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, is equally protected by the laws of this country. As Representative Farr concluded,

Though many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocates, and their straight allies, were silent last Friday, we in Congress should never be. Our job is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

May it be so.

President’s Memo on Hospital Visitation Falls Short of Full Equality

On April 15, President Obama issued a memorandum supporting hospital visitation rights for partners of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons and other Americans who are admitted to hospitals and whose caregivers or closest companions are not blood relatives or a spouse. It requests that hospital staff and administration respect any advance directives about visitation and decision-making people had in place before an emergency or routine hospital stay. While this move by the Obama Administration clearly shows support for LGBT families, it’s far short of what people of all sexual orientations and gender identities deserve: full equality in all matters under law.

The fact remains that even with this memorandum, and other legal documents and advance directives in place, same-sex partners can still be excluded from hospital rooms and prevented from providing love and comfort to their sick and dying loved ones.

Over the past several days, many blogs have publicized the heart-wrenching story of Harold Scull and Clay Greene, an elderly gay couple from Sonoma County, CA. When Harold was hospitalized after a fall in 2008, the hospital barred Clay from visiting his partner of 20 years. In a further affront to human dignity, Harold and Clay’s lease was terminated by Sonoma County and their belongings were auctioned off. The county placed Clay in a nursing home against his will and separated him from Harold, who passed away three months after the fall without his partner by his side. All this happened despite the fact that the couple had wills, powers of attorney and advance medical directives all naming each other. The National Center for Lesbian Rights is currently assisting Clay’s attorneys in a lawsuit against the county, the auction company, and the nursing home.

Heartbreaking stories like Clay and Harold’s remind us that we have a long way to go before LGBT Americans enjoy their full and equal rights as citizens and members of society.

Please join our friends at GetEQUAL in calling on President Obama to step up and be a fierce advocate for LGBT equality.