Elijah Leigh has talked to many lesbian, gay, trans and queer youth of color who don’t feel comfortable being visible in public discussions with legislators and police because “they don’t trust authority or law enforcement.” So he sought to add their voices when a Congresswoman came calling.
Leigh showed up Thursday evening at a roundtable at the New Haven Pride Center at 84 Orange St. hosted by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro on how legislators can keep the LGBTQ community safe, in the wake of a deadly massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. On the last day of Pride Month, he and other LGBTQ leaders brought to the meeting with them the voices of the most vulnerable in their community, those who are disproportionately targeted not just by hate crimes or physical attacks but also by anti-queer laws and policies.
They talked as much about the people not present as about those who showed up.
“I want to be better equipped to fight on your behalf,” DeLauro told the assembled group of leaders. As national focus has turned to the safety of the LGBTQ community and the after the attack, “our job is to pick up on it” and move toward a system that will protect them, she said.
Pushing gun control legislation is a major part of that fight, she said. DeLauro was part of last week’s sit-in U.S. representatives held in the well of the House to demand Congress vote on proposals to ban gun sales to people on terrorist watch lists and to strengthen background checks for permit holders.
“Congress is an institution that responds to external pressure,” she said. Republicans pushing back on these issues “don’t want the country to move on the social issues,” she said.
Making the queer community feel safe is not just about passing new laws, said Anthony Crisci, executive director of Triangle Community Center in Norwalk. It also requires ensuring existing ones are fully implemented.
For example, some social service agencies discriminate against trans people (those who identify differently than their assigned gender) although Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy passed a law deeming discrimination based on gender identity illegal in 2011, he said.
Robin McHalean, executive director of True Colors in Hartford, pointed out that certain issues disproportionately affect subgroups in the LGBTQ community. Trans people of color face racism even in white queer communities. They are less likely to have access to resources, information or support.
An Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that includes trans people would be a major step in the right direction, she said. “We need to put teeth in the existing laws we have. This issue, like any other issue is intersectional,” affecting different groups in different ways.
McHalean pointed out that the Orlandp shooter targeted the gay nightclub on Latin night, when it was mainly full of Latino partygoers.
Turning back to the group, she said, “if we’re just looking at appearance, this is a pretty damn white group.”
“This is a very white room,” Leigh later noted, sitting just outside of the roundtable. He is an organizer for New Haven’s Pride Center.
He went through a quick list of some of the most vulnerable groups not present: Queer youth of color are more often over-disciplined in schools and funneled into the prison system. Trans people, especially those of color, are scared to go onto the streets and be mistaken for sex workers. Muslim queer people feel like they don’t fit in any part of the narrative.
“It’s easy to pull away from the authoritarian system,” because of its history of targeting queer people or forcing them into reparative therapy to “fix” their sexual orientations or gender identities, Leigh said.
Seth Wallace, who works at Yale’s Office of LGBTQ Resources, agreed that future discussions should include “the voices of people who didn’t come here.” That includes people with nonbinary or genderqueer identities, who don’t fit into the binary of male or female and are difficult for legislators to include when writing policies.
“We have to be innovative” in getting those people in the conversation, he said. “How can we invite them in a way that’s authentic?”
What are people scared of? DeLauro asked.
Wallace said he knows people doing sex work in New Haven who wouldn’t feel safe attending a meeting and explaining that. “It’s not just about gun violence,” he said. People are also tired of being used as poster children when “nothing is going to happen” to fix their problems, he said.
And that fear only increases if law enforcement is involved in the conversation, McHalean said. Many young people in trouble, “the last thing they would do would be to tell the cops,” she said, especially if they are queer or trans.
David Heath, LGBTQ liaison from U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly’s office, expressed surprise at the comment. He said he realized the gap in communication between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement was “wider than I thought.”
Heath said Daly is planning to organize a meeting July 20 between the two groups to “have a conversation” about how to improve their relationship.
DeLauro pointed out that some people in law enforcement “are never going to be trained” because they don’t want to. Others can be trained on interacting better with members of the queer community, but their “comfort level” is low, in part because of the cultural divide, including “what language to use.” Some people are “well meaning.”
But Josh O’Connell, executive director of the New Haven Pride Center, pushed back on the phrase “well meaning.” The center has done a lot of work training its volunteer staff and establishing guidelines to ensure everyone is respected, he said. “We need to understand when well meaning isn’t good enough either.”