The Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has impact on Pittsburgh's "Don't Ask, Don't Report" issues

Keeping up with “breaking” news on an significant legislative issue is tough, but we don't have the luxury of overlooking the big picture, especially when there is an intersection with federal and state/local issues.

There are two pressing federal issues -the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) and the passage of the Employment Nondiscriminaton Act (ENDA).  There are certainly other issues in play – repealing DOMA, warding off federal marriage amendment, extending domestic partner benefits to federal employees, ending the domestic partner benefit tax penalty, etc.  But DADT and ENDA are the most high profile issues and generally considered the best opportunity for the Obama Administration and the Pelosi leadership team to back up their promises to our community — to do the right thing.

DADT's local connection?  Good question. We don't have an organized contingent of local active or retired military tackling this issue.  We did have a brave (and well-written) op-ed piece written by CMU grad student Karen Mesko about the dehumanizing impact of the policy on her life. Certainly, there is a local impact, but it may not be high profile.

Plainly put, the Obama Administration needs to do something to show leadership on LGBT issues. We need to believe our leaders will *do* something, not just talk about it.  This starts with our President who has promised to be our “fierce advocate.”

DADT may not be “your” issue, but please don't discredit the power of how this issue unfolds over the coming months. Congress is ready to act; this is breaking down to a battler of wills between POTUS and the Department of Defense/Pentagon.  If Obama is not able to repeal this ban in 2010, the legitimacy of all other promises is up in the air. There is not a shred of factual data to show that holding up the repeal is about anything other than capitulating to bigotry. 

Everyone who gathered at the rally in Bloomfield should keep their eye on DC tomorrow and the day after.  I just read that the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network will be joining Get Equal and other groups tomorrow which is a significant step toward realigning the insider-advocacy groups with the grassroots.  Have you been watching the growing revolt amongst the grassroots organizations against the Human Rights Campaign?  The HRC is not containing the masses to stick with the Administration's time table on DADT and they aren't delivering to the LGBT base.  I predict systemic shifts in the LGBT community when we emerge from this.  Power and influence is spreading outside the Beltway/insider gays. This should be heartening to those in Pittsburgh who identify with the activists chaining themselves to the White House gates rather than attending power lunches with WH staff. 

What's up for debate is the “impact” of federal action or inaction.  Can we connect the dots between today's DADT rally in LaFayette Park and the Pittsburgh Friday night rally against local gay bashing?

We darn well should.  And if we don't, then we aren't doing our jobs as activists.  Gay bashing is a federally defined hate crime, but here in Pittsburgh we struggle with people feeling safe enough to report these crimes to the police.  Statewide, hate crimes protections are on the table in the House and the Senate, but I'm not sure we are helping people understand that all the protections in the world won't matter if we don't report the crimes.  At the same time, we need to strengthen the laws to send a message that the system is willing to engage the LGBT community.  The system needs to let the community know that the police will listen and take them seriously, not bash us further.

How do we generate that groundswell in Pittsburgh so we can transform the “Don't Ask, Don't Report” culture?

ENDA is another opportunity to see this intersection. The votes are there to pass the legislation which would protect our jobs, but there is momentum to strip the legislation of its protections for the transgender community.  Again, the HRC tacitly supported this exclusive version of ENDA, backing down when the grassroots swelled up in outrage in 2007.  The message is clear: all or nothing.  If we don't want a watered down version of the bill, the onus is on us, the LGBT community, to make the case for an inclusive version of the legislation.

I've been making that case and urging folks to contact Congressman Jason Altmire whose vote is unknown.  He's supported these issues in the past, but the need to reach out to him is immediate and urgent. 

At the same time, legislation to expand anti-discrimination protections in employment AND housing AND public accomodation is sitting in committee in the State House (HB 300).  A strong show of support from our federal delegation on similar legislation sends another strong  message to Western PA Democrats who are wavering on this issue — federal legislation sends a clear message that discrimination in the workplace does happen which can open the eyes of our local legislators. 

So what does ENDA have to do with a rally against gay bashing? Well, it wasn't the time to call for letters to our elected officials, but it was an opportunity to build some trust between the Pittsburgh insiders (inside Grant Streeters?) and the grassroots folks who made up the bulk of the attendees. 

In my opinion, it really does boil down to the issue of police response. The people who have access (Delta Foundation, Mayor's Advisory Committee, donors, advisors, etc) along with our elected allies (Peduto, Shields, Dowd, Rudiak, Lamb, Fitzgerald, Green, etc) can use their access to reach out in a legitimate and respectful way that values the grassroots folks who made it clear that they are ANGRY. Condemning them for the anger is fruitless. Asking them to be patient is futile. Tapping into the anger to provide leadership on an issue that matters to them is the way to build unity on the statewide and federal issues.

Think about this.  The bashing incident occured in the early hours of Friday morning. I heard about it and the planned rally at 12 PM when I was asked to help get the word out. By 9 PM that night, scores of people were on the ground. Why not tap into this grassroots energy in a constructive way and work in partnership on issues that impact everyone?

There really is no need for Grant Street meetings. For years, we've been having public meetings to talk about the fact that the police interaction with the LGBT community needs to be improved. We get it.  The facts are that people are being assaulted and the necessary contact with the police is not happening.  Throwing our hands up in the air because there are no police reports isn't going to make the streets a bit safer. Working with all of our allies to focus in on this breakdown in the system is a concrete response.  The time for meetings has passed.  The time for building bridges is nigh.

There is a need for a high profile Press Conference by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to condemn gay bashing, followed by actual reform in the police department.  Now, a meeting with Chief Nate Harper and the women who said they want to feel comfortable on the streets — that would be something.  A public statement from the Bloomfield Business Association alongside Ravenstahl alongside the community groups will send a message that Bloomfield does not condone these incidents.  We know there are many more allies than bashers.  We need those with power to step forward and forcefully condemn these assaults. 

Who among us has the ability to get that ball rolling? I don't think it can be done successfully until there is more bridge building between the Grant Streets and the grassroots.   

Let me be very clear. This is not about anyone doing something wrong (except the criminals). The Grant Streets and the grassroots all have something important to offer. This is about finding a new way of doing business that brings everyone to the table.  This is about meeting at Hoi Polloi one evening or Voluto or the Merton Center or any place that meets people where they are, rather than the City-County building.

See where I'm going with this?  Leadership by the White House on repealing DADT will reenergize the LGBT Democratic base.  Leadership on local issues, like gay bashing, could redirect the anger into action, but it is going to require stepping off Grant Street and meeting the community where they are — not where we think they should be.

Let's all roll up our sleeves, join hands and get busy.


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