Friday, October 18, 2013

Whence from victory? EqualityMaine looks at the next five years

Published in Out In Maine

Having secured marriage equality last year and bade farewell to longtime executive director Betsy Smith in September, the state’s oldest and largest LGBT political advocacy organization is at a point of serious transition. Smith, who had been active with EqualityMaine for more than two decades and led it since 2002, left the organization at a high point in its existence and in her career. The group’s staff and budget grew significantly during that time, and won important legal and legislative battles, including protecting LGBT Mainers from discrimination, establishing domestic-partnership rights, and winning on marriage twice (once in Augusta and the second time statewide), Smith has also left EQME with a five-year strategic plan, a set of projects the organization has already begun to tackle.

After years of primary attention on marriage, EQME staffers spent the months following last November’s victory thinking about the future. They interviewed dozens of people, got 700 responses to an online survey, and conducted multiple focus groups to determine what to accomplish next, says Ali Vander Zanden, the group’s political director and interim executive director. “People understand that we’re not done yet,” she says.

While there’s a lot yet to get going, Vander Zanden says those next steps are “starting to take shape.”

Moving forward, EQME will focus on four key demographics: young people, rural residents, elderly Mainers, and transgender people. The basic goal is clear: “We’re going to take the legal victories that we’ve won, and we’re putting those into people’s daily lives,” she says.

Starting young
A 2011 survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that “the vast majority of LGBT students in Maine regularly heard homophobic remarks, sexist remarks, and negative remarks about gender expression.” Specifically, 97 percent of students heard other students use the word “gay” negatively; 87 percent heard homophobic remarks (such as “fag” or “dyke”) regularly. The survey has a nine-point margin of error, but even with that caveat, the numbers are startling.

The survey goes on: “3 in 10 were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) based on their sexual orientation and 1 in 10 was physically assaulted (e.g. punched, kicked or injured
with a weapon) based on the way they expressed their gender.

And a great many students never reported those incidents: 46 percent never told school staff (of those who did, only 44 percent “said that reporting resulted in effective intervention by staff”) and even more — 58 percent — never told a family member.

The survey shows young LGBTQ Mainers are “living their lives in fear,” Vander Zanden says. (It’s worth noting here that while many nationwide polls suggest improving tolerance and understanding for LGBTQ people among young Americans, those polls most often involve people who are 18 and older; many school bullies are younger than that.)

Of course, she notes that not every kid is a perpetrator, but a few is enough — and often bystanders don’t step in to halt the abuse. Vander Zanden also observes that at least some of the kids bullying others are likely to be victims themselves, in other circumstances; they’re just passing along the behavior they’ve received. “Those children don’t know sometimes the harm that they’re doing,” she says.

The target of EQME’s efforts in this area include its longstanding support of school civil-rights teams, where young people can show leadership in a safe environment. There’s also a new element, of working more directly with school employees.

“We have this new anti-bullying law” in Maine, Vander Zanden says, which strengthens protections for students suffering bullying, and requires schools to train staff to prevent it, and actively address it when it happens. So EQME will be training school teachers and staff about LGBTQ bullying specifically, in a way that coordinates with other training sessions on bullying in general. Vander Zanden says the organization wants to ensure that schools have resources and know-how to follow the new law.

Beyond the cities
Organizing support for rural Mainers who identify as LGBTQ is another major initiative, which will build on the statewide marriage-equality victory in 2012.

In that effort, marriage supporters held as many as 250,000 personal conversations with friends, family members, and neighbors about the issues. As we’d all hope, what those conversations showed is that “people want to do the right thing,” Vander Zanden says, especially once they’ve made a personal connection. But also unsurprisingly, “there are a lot of people who have never thought about this from the perspective of an LGBTQ person.”

Vander Zanden, who grew up in Southwest Harbor and started her work with EQME as a rural organizer, acknowledges that the live-and-let-live ethos of New England rural life may lead some people to either ignore or be quiet about their support for LGBTQ neighbors, simply out of respect for their privacy, or a wish not to draw attention to something the LGBTQ individuals themselves may not be highlighting.

But that can still lead to situations where an LGBTQ relationship isn’t publicly acknowledged, such as a conversation at a local store in which a straight ally doesn’t ask about a lesbian friend’s partner in public. Vander Zanden says that can lead to the LGBTQ person feeling unsupported
in the community.

Nevertheless, “we’ve seen that people’s attitudes are changing,” she says, attributing that in part to the personal conversations aspect of the marriage campaign. Another effort, particularly in rural areas, has involved approaching community members and asking them to put their names in newspaper ads as public declarations of support for LGBT rights (and marriage equality in particular). Hundreds, even thousands, of rural Mainers have taken part.

She says the effects are measurable. In 2009, marriage equality lost 73 percent to 27 percent in Aroostook County, for example. In 2012, the citizen’s initiative did better; it still lost, but the margin was better: 66 percent to 33 percent.

Vander Zanden calls that “encouraging supporters to come out as supporters,” and describes it as “just good old community organizing.” The group will expand its push in this direction with a new position just created for rural organizing.

An aging population
Maine is the state with the oldest average age in the nation (42.7 years old, according 2010 Census figures), and LGBTQ people face some common aging issues, as well as a fair number of quandaries straight elders don’t.

They still have to sort out choices about retirement communities, assisted-living facilities, and finding new or additional health-care providers to address changing health conditions. But at every turn, LGBTQ elders have to navigate the coming-out process all over again. One concern Vander Zanden highlights is about home health-care workers who might not be supportive of their patients’ LGBTQ identities. To get the care they need and still feel safe in their own homes, “some people are actually having to choose to go back into the closet,” Vander Zanden says.

Another aspect of helping aging LGBTQ Mainers involves ensuring that health workers are asking the right questions and doing the right screenings — as when dealing with HIV-positive people, who are now living much longer (as long as 30 to 50 years post-diagnosis, with aggressive therapy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

In fact, CDC projects that by 2015 “more than half of all HIV-infected Americans will be over 50 years old.” The organization also notes that 17 percent of new HIV diagnoses are in people 50 and older.

(Also working to address these issues is a Maine chapter of Services and Advocates for GLBT Elders, which was founded earlier this year; see “When I’m Sixty-Four,” by Deirdre Fulton, Summer 2013.)

Still working: transgender rights
Transgender issues remind us all that “we haven’t won everything there is to win,” Vander Zanden says. For example, many insurance plans don’t cover medical services related to people’s self-identification as transgender. Some private employers do carry insurance that offers surgery, hormones, and gender-identity mental-health counseling, but it’s not required by law.

EQME will help people understand what rights transgender people have under Maine law, as well as training trans allies (in connection with Maine Trans Net; see “Trans Explosion” by Lisa Bunker, Fall 2013). “We all need to become better allies,” Vander Zanden says.

In that vein, EqualityMaine will continue to support the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which will at some point come under consideration by the full US Senate, having been approved 15-7 by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions back in July. This proposed law specifically includes protection for trans people as well as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, from being fired (or not hired in the first place) simply for their gender identity or sexual orientation. And it will fight for LGBTQ interests in Augusta, including fighting a proposal by state Senator David Burns, a Whiting Republican, that would dramatically expand people’s, and companies’, ability to discriminate or otherwise exempt themselves from many state laws, simply by claiming the law violates their freedom to
practice religion.

In the short term, Vander Zanden will lead the organization and the search for its new executive director, expected to be hired in January — just in time for EQME’s 30th anniversary. Even that many decades in, and with as much progress as LGBTQ Mainers have seen, there’s more to do. “We’re still having the conversation about what’s next,” Vander Zanden says.