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What I Learned at the LGBT Media 2014 Convening


That’s me in the open leather jacket on the far right with my fellow reporter/bloggers after our tour of the White House early Saturday morning. For some reason I enjoyed the brisk winter cold before the storm. In fact, I didn’t really freak out or get brain freeze once all weekend. Well, maybe for a minute when it looked like we might get stuck in Washington, D.C., if that California storm that dumped so much needed rain shut down the D.C.—which it did just hours after I left for home. Only the crisis in the Ukraine got more attention.

One side bar: Autumn Sandeen, our trans blogger friend from San Diego, did not join our merry band on the White House tour. She was screened out by the Secret Service, which some of us, including Autumn, attributed to her celebrated arrest in uniform outside the White House gate when Get Equal protested "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" on April 20, 2010.

The LGBT Media convening is an annual confab sponsored by the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, in conjunction with the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and hosted and organized with thought and panache by Bil Browning, founder and CEO of The Bilerico Project.

Presumably the event was held in D.C. this year because of the upcoming 2014 mid-term elections—the Democratic National Committee (DNC) held its Winter Meeting on the same floor of the Capital Hilton. (DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is pictured with Rep. Jared Polis above.) President Obama spoke there Friday night, causing a traffic nightmare for those of us arriving late from outside D.C. But once POTUS was gone, things settled down to the usual flutter of seeing old friends, making new ones and getting ready for the weekend of tweets and chats and figuring things out.


Openly gay California Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez was among the California DNC delegation (pictured here with DNC and Stonewall Democratic Club stalwart Garry Shay, creator of the DNC’s Inclusion Rule). Pérez heard about the gathering through the DNC’s LGBT Caucus and was happy to meet many of the reporters and bloggers whom he reads online at the opening reception Friday night, Feb. 28. Pérez is running for State Controller, and if elected he’d be the first openly gay man ever elected to statewide constitutional office.

Pérez socialized and handed out rubber duckies—I don’t know why. He said he was introducing incoming openly lesbian California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins to members of the California congressional delegation on Tuesday in advance of their historic transference of power from the nation’s first gay Assembly Speaker to the nation’s first lesbian Assembly Speaker. No date has been set, but Pérez invited a number of us to the gavel exchange and swearing in, including Autumn Sandeen.


MSNBC anchor and foreign policy expert Andrea Mitchell was the keynote speaker at the reception and—knowing she was speaking to a roomful of journalists and bloggers—she confirmed that Russian troops had landed in the Crimea and entered the Ukraine. She said that President Obama was trying to “give Putin a way to back out” of the situation, which has since dangerously escalated since Friday. In fact, Mitchell is now in Kiev with Secretary of State Kerry to offer economic and technical assistance to the Ukrainian government.
 
Mitchell opened her remarks by sharing how difficult it was for a woman to be taken seriously as a radio reporter in Philadelphia in 1972. She told a story about covering gruff Mayor Frank Rizzo, who called her “Andy” and during a live radio interview said, “I’m so tough, I’d make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” Rizzo also apparently delighted in humiliating African-Americans on the front pages of the local newspapers and had unquestioned support for law enforcement, even when they were blatantly wrong. 

Mitchell said she was proud of how NBC News and NBC Sports “confronted” the anti-gay laws in Russia in covering the Sochi Olympics. “It’s obviously a question of human rights,” she said. And she discussed her live interview with Kerry, during which she asked about the dire situation for LGBT people in Uganda over the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which Kerry said was “contrary to fundamental, basic human rights.” Mitchell noted that the World Bank suspended a $90 million loan to Uganda over the anti-gay crackdown—and that more than 80 countries in the UN General Assembly have similar anti-gay laws. But, she asked, “when have you heard the UN speak out” about these human rights violations?

I told Mitchell about my interview with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-L.A., who serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. Schiff said one of the problems regarding U.S. funding to Uganda is that most of the funding goes to healthcare programs, including HIV/AIDS. However, if the U.S. does not sufficiently respond, foreign countries with anti-gay laws will assume the Obama administration is all hot rhetoric but will take no action. Mitchell said, “I know this is an issue for Kerry” but is probably not a top issue. The administration is in a “strange place” right now on a number of fronts—“don’t get me started on Syria.” She noted that Kerry called Uganda President Museveni (on Friday, Feb. 28) but she advised the LGBT group to keep asking questions and “keep up the pressure.”

The reception was held at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO against the backdrop of extraordinary murals representing the history of American working families. Shane Larson, Legislative Director of the Communications Workers of America delivered some powerful remarks about how the union movement believes the precept that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” But thanks to actions by Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, “the labor movement is struggling for its very survival,” certainly in the private sector. “The labor movement needs us,” Larson said, noting the long alliance between labor and the movement for LGBT rights, perhaps best exemplified by the labor vote that elected San Francisco gay Supervisor Harvey Milk, after Milk supported labor’s boycott of Coors Beer.

Larson (pictured with Pérez, a former labor leader who also talks about union contracts as LGBT job protections) explained how negotiated union contracts include same sex partner benefits and job protections, no matter in which state the company operates. Therefore, in anti-LGBT states such as Mississippi and Alabama, union contracts serve as mini-ENDAs for LGBT employees. Indeed, unions are an escape from poverty for many in the LGBT community, especially lesbians with children in the South. Larson said he was thrilled to see the poverty series by Lou Chibbaro (pictured) in the Washington Blade, based on data from the Williams Institute.

The all-day Convening on Saturday was less steeped in politics and more about how LGBT media can press the LGBT equality agenda—and how we must confront issues within the community as well—specifically the lack of understanding about and coverage of the intersection of race, transgender and bisexual issues. 

NLGJA’s Matt Rose kicked the day off with an interesting exercise where everyone was asked to use three words to describe ourselves and our preferred pronoun. The outspoken and smartly funny Faith Cheltenham, President of BiNet USA,
made it very clear that she was present and attention would be paid! (Cheltenham is pictured here from her Facebook page with Black Trans academic activist Dr. Kortney Ziegler, known as “fakerapper” on Twitter.)

She was the only bisexual at the meeting, until Robyn Ochs came in for her panel. And then we discovered that we don’t know what we don’t know unless we ask, as about a half-dozen hands went up when she asked who identified as bisexual. They included Gwendolyn Ann Smith, founder of Transgender Day of Remembrance and managing editor of genderfork.com who also identified as bi. “No one ever asks us,” Ochs said, assuming LGBT people to be either gay or lesbian. Thanks largely to Faith and Robyn, consideration of bisexuality became at least mentally interjected into almost every discussion—underscoring the previous dearth of bisexual visibility.  I think we all left with a lot more “bi” under our belts, so to speak.

Later Bil Browning told me that of the 74 registered participants, about 10 or 11 people identified as trans, making up about 15 percent of the gathering. About 20 percent of the group were people of color. At least two people—Mark S. King and Todd Heywood—identified as people with HIV/AIDS.

Paul Kawata, longtime executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council (pictured here with NLGJA’s Matt Rose), was also on a panel entitled “What We Don’t Want to Talk About: Radical Methods for Greater Diversity in Queer Journalism.”
 
The first panel was the incredibly useful “Mythbusters: Understanding & Deconstructing the Attack Lines of the Anti-LGBT Industry.” Media trainer Matthew Berger of Dezenhall Resources and Democracy Partners media messaging guru Joel Silberman opened the session with the proposition that LGBT bloggers and reporters will invariably be interviewed by the mainstream broadcast media and the key question they must first ask themselves is: “What is the most important thing I want people to hear?”

Presentation is also key in this “celebrity culture” so it’s important to know how to act. Silberman (pictured here with trans activist blogger Brynn Tannehill) suggested three key points to be camera ready: Stillness, smiling and simplicity.

“We’re in the culture-moving business,” Silberman said. “Culture is moving politics. … Acting ourselves is how we changed the course of gay history, and now, I hope, trans history.”

Nathaniel Frank, scholar at the Columbia University School of Law, and Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis joined Silberman for the “mythbusting” session.

Frank said to remember that “this is a long game,”  acknowledging that might be hard to hear. He focused on the myths about same sex parenting so prevalent in the religious right attacks attempting to “undercut equality.” His three points were to look at when and why the myths come up; look at what the research says; and figure out the best ways to respond. He said there is a lot of respected research on same sex parenting (such as this one from Gary Gates at the Williams Institute) showing that LGBT parents fair as well as heterosexual parents in raising children, and in fact, in some instances, do better.

”An unheard of scholarly consensus,” Frank said, “shows the kids are all right.” The kicker: none of the studies that purport to be about children in households “without a mom or dad” actually studied same sex parenting, Frank said, evoking a spontaneous outburst of laughter at the absurdity we must confront.

Frank said he is compiling much of the 100 peer-reviewed studies by 85 scholars from the last 30 years into one hub this spring or summer at Columbia Law School tentatively titled “What We Know” to counter the “disapproving myths made up by ideologues” such as the “fake gay research” touted by the religious right in the debunked Mark Regnerus “study.

Additionally, Regnerus said his Witherspoon Institute funders did not influence his study, but emails later proved otherwise. “They lied and they got caught,” said Frank. However, I later pointed out, that while the Regnerus study may have been debunked here (though it’s still to be presented in the Michigan marriage trial), it has been exported to African counties by anti-gay Christian evangelicals and has been used by Museveni and others in their crusade to stamp out homosexuality.

BTW, Frank noted that LGBT families are the only ones to be given a litmus test for parenthood.

Masen Davis (pictured here with Towleroad’s Michael Goff) said a lot of the successful pro-transgender legislation has been accomplished because trans advocates at the state and local level have flown “purposefully under the radar.” That includes staying away from the media for fear of a backlash borne of misunderstanding. But, Davis said, “those days are coming to an end” with the EEOC ruling and the uproar created after LaVerne Cox and Janet Mock felt disrespected by Katie Couric and Piers Morgan, respectively. Indeed, on Monday, the Huffington Post/Gay Voices pointed out that there is a new backlash to Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres’ joke about Liza Minnelli, which some feel was transphobic, while others thought it was more of a joke about drag.

Mainstream America, Davis said, doesn’t know who to listen to, doesn’t really know what “transgender” means, nor do they know someone who is transgender, which makes it difficult to imagine the difficulties for a trans person, unlike the greater degree of familiarity with gay people. “The average American has no mental template for what it means to be transgender,” Davis said.

Additionally, the LGBT community is not really unified over trans issues and that could result, Davis said, “in a world of hurt” if the LGB doesn’t join the “T” in the fight. The fight against trans folk is a fight against all LGBT people, Davis said. We were shown some really horrific but successful transphobic ads from the Anchorage, Alaska fight for Prop. 5, a measure to include sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination protections.


The literally cartoonish ad inaccurate ad evoked the fear of being fined or going to jail. But Silberman explained that the tag line "Anchorage is already a tolerant city. Vote No on Proposition 5" is what gave voters permission to reject the LGBT rights measure. 

“Americans hate bathrooms,” Davis said, and our anger about such inaccurate but “incredibly effective” ads “actually helps create fear and confusion. ... If we get angry, they don’t believe us.” So how do we combat that meme? “We do use the bathroom everyday, without incident,” he said.

One way to respond is to “validate their confusion” and then tap into their emotions with real stories—especially about trans youth of color with supportive families and communities. Visual representations of trans people are particularly important and effective in helping dispel myths. “People need to see us,” Davis said, “and when that happens, the myths aren’t nearly as powerful.”

“We need to use the word ‘transgender’ and we need to define it when we use it,” Davis said, calling for MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow to finally use the word 'transgender' on her popular news show.

Silberman was succinct: “When you don’t have research, emotions work,” said Silberman. “Acting ourselves is how we change history.”

Speaking of intersectionality, Lorella Praeli of United We Dream (pictured here with Haas Jr. Fund’s Matt Foreman) addressed the convening about immigration reform. Praeli was brought to the US from Peru at the age of 11 to receive medical treatment. After becoming an anti-bullying advocate, she joined the student immigration movement and came out as “undocumented and unafraid.” Her work with United We Dream played a key role in forcing the Obama Administration into giving a deportation reprieve and work permits to 1.4 million DREAMers through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Lorella graduated summa cum laude from Quinnipiac University with a BA in political science and sociology.

“We win when we speak truth to power,” she said, noting that 1,100 undocumented immigrants are deported everyday. “Obama says he can’t stop deportations. Yes, he can!” Obama, said Praeli, could extend DACA-like status to DREAMers “but he doesn’t want to. He’s choosing not to," which she said is a “political miscalculation.”

There was so much more discussed and hashed out at this year’s Media Convening—some of it very difficult. This is just some of what happened and some of what I learned, and BTW, that’s the best thing about being a blogger/reporter—you get to be a perpetual student and keep learning. If you want to read more about the convening, a number of participants tweeted (such as Huffington Post/Gay Voices’ Noah Michelson) about the panel discussions in real time, which you can find here. 


Finally, many thanks to the Host committee this year:
Bil Browning, Bilerico Project (pictured with Andrea Mitchell)
Trish Bendix, AfterEllen
Rebecca Juro, The Becky Juro Show
Daniel Villareal, Gay.net
Erin Rook, Source Weekly
Sarah Blazucki, NLGJA Vice President of Print and Online
Matt Foreman, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

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