Elizabeth Birch is the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign. Candace Gingrich is an openly lesbian activist.
Reflections by Elizabeth Birch and
As 2001 draws to a close, America's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community can look back on many significant gains. A marked increase in the number of employers offering domestic-partner benefits. Rhode Island's addition of gender identity to its non-discrimination law...and the happy end to a lawsuit challenging Maryland's non-discrimination law. Hawaii's and Texas' passing hate-crimes laws that cover sexual orientation. The successes were myriad and heartening.
But the GLBT community...along with the country...will forever remember this year for the Sept. 11 attacks and the terrible results that are still be played out in the world.
One of the many lessons America learned from Sept. 11 is that there were GLBT victims and heroes, with names and faces and ordinary life histories. Because so many in our community are now committed to living honestly, we had the privilege to learn about these brothers and sisters now that they are gone. Like many of those who died, they also left behind grieving partners, children, houses with mortgages, unpaid car loans, monthly bills...the same sad remnants of so many of the lives stolen by the terrorists.
One key difference for the survivors in our community, however, has been their inability to rely on the same safety net that has caught other surviving families. Because our laws and society don't recognize our relationships and our families, survivors from the GLBT community have had to fight for relief funds from the federal government and from some state and private agencies. They will never get the same Social Security and pension benefits other surviving families have received, and have taken for granted as their due. And if these GLBT families never put their legal houses in order, the survivors now face losing their homes, their children, their health insurance...their basic security.
The events of Sept. 11 made clear the power of living outside the closet. They also made clear how vulnerable the GLBT community remains.
As we look to 2002, remember that New Year's resolutions aren't all about quitting smoking or losing a few pounds. They can also be about taking the time to thank those who deserve it, protecting our loved ones and working to make a safer and more accepting world for generations to come. Here are a few suggestions:
... Write your will. Sept. 11 should be a wake-up call for everyone, but especially gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. Because the law does not recognize our families, it is imperative that we specify who will receive our money and possessions when we die. While many aspects of this planning revolve around couples and children, it is also important for single GLBT Americans, especially those who may not have good relations with their biological families. Other important documents to consider are powers of attorney, living wills and hospital visitation authorizations. For more information and sample legal documents, visit www.hrc.org/familynet.
... Come out to your healthcare provider. Being honest about your sexual orientation or gender identity can be a matter of life and death...or, at a minimum, essential to getting effective care and treatment. There is still much misinformation in the medical world about GLBT people and many stereotypes to overcome. By being out, you will help educate your doctor and ensure that you get appropriate care.
... Come out to your elected officials. Politicians can ignore us if they don't know we exist. You can take advantage of HRC's Action Network, pay a local lobby visit, or write a letter about an issue that concerns you. Not only will you be exercising your right to political action but you'll be assisting local, state and national organizations working on GLBT issues.
... Be a mentor. Many GLBT adults we've spoken to say that their coming out journeys would have been easier had there been an understanding ear. Contact your local GLBT youth group or community center to see how you can help. You can also pay a visit to your old high school's guidance counselors to share your experiences and explain the needs of GLBT students.
... Thank someone. Far too often, we only speak up when we're unhappy or disgruntled. Thank your mom for including your partner in family gatherings. Praise an elected official for voting your way on a piece of legislation. Thank the person who delivers food to your homebound neighbor living with AIDS.
... Remember the pioneers. Too many GLBT people have forgotten ( or never learned ) the history of our movement. We're quick to name the Ellens and Eltons as trailblazers because they're famous today. But what of Bayard Rustin, Phyllis Lyons, Del Martin and Frank Kameny? What about Barbara Gittings, Lisa Ben, Harvey Milk and Christine Jorgensen? Get to know the giants whose shoulders we...as well as Ellen and Elton...stand upon.
As a most difficult year draws to a close, we look back with gratitude to those GBLT Americans whose honesty has made all our lives easier and more complete. And we look forward to those whose openness will help effect the change we need to protect all our families.