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LGBTQ Discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa

July 14, 2017

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a panel with LGBTQ activists from Jordan, Kuwait, and Tunisia. Panelists shared their strategies, challenges, and lessons learned around LGBTQ activism in their home countries. It was a moving experience to be able to listen to the vivid stories from the speakers on the panel about their lived experiences being LGBTQ and living and working in the Middle East and North Africa.

One of the speakers was a civil rights activist from Kuwait and is a part of an effort that aims to promote constitutional awareness to the residents of Kuwait through various media outlets. He has worked on projects, publications, and campaigns related to civil and constitutional awareness. He does so by facilitating trainings and workshops. He talked a lot about how dangerous it is to be a gay man in Kuwait. He also talked about the ways that being a gay man and a transgender woman are similar and different. With regards to how they are treated and what is legal and illegal both groups are struggling against a system that wants to penalize them for being who they are. He talked about the violence against gay men from the public and government and the hate crimes and humiliation transgender women have to face daily. One thing that really stuck out to me was the story he told about a transgender woman getting her head shaven. As a trans person myself, the story really affected me and I felt like I was there in the story with them.

Another speaker was a Tunisian civil rights activist who has worked with different international NGOs on Human Rights issues. She has worked with international and local civil society organizations in Tunisia on implementing the constitutional rights of a fair trial and equality to all citizens. She was also a member of a coalition that drafted a report on the violations of human rights of the Tunisian LGBTQ community, which was presented to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. She is also a LGBTQ advocacy officer and advocates for the abrogation of the unconstitutional article 230 of the 1913 Tunisian penal code which punishes sexual intercourse between consenting same-sex couples, and for the ban of forced anal/rectal examination used to criminalize homosexuality. She shared information about the work happening in Tunisia to counter criminalizing being LGBTQ and legally allowing people to perform rectal examinations to “prove” homosexuality through protesting and bringing the issues to the government and the people. She said that after liberation, from the Arab Spring revolution, activism has sparked amongst the people and she is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for Tunisia.

The final speaker identifies as a queer Sufi Muslimah (to emphasize the female pronoun and divert from a male centered identity) from Jordan. Like the previous speakers she also works in development in Jordan. She is an organizer, and a writer for MyKali, the only LGBTQ online platform in Jordan. The magazine was blocked by the government in Jordan, and the MyKali team is trying to get it back online. A lot of what she spoke about was the experience of being queer in Jordan. She talked about how the focus of discrimination toward LGBTQ people in Jordan is mainly toward gay men. Transgender women are often overlooked or perceived as gay men; while, lesbian women are almost entirely ignored. She stated that in Jordan, they don’t see women as sexual beings and therefore are not concerned about them being lesbians. She also talked about how in Jordan people are a part of tribes, usually including your family, which helps results in a very low rate of homelessness. But, a problem is, that if you come out as LGBTQ there is a good chance you will be kick out and ostracized from your tribe.

As the event closed and I was taking in all the information I had just learned and all the stories I had just heard I started to see all the similarities in the stories these individuals shared. The specifics were different, there are a lot of cultural differences and the countries are all in difference stages of change after the Arab Spring revolutions – but what was clear was the dedication and passion of these activists to put the people and the issues first in front of their own safety to fight for what is right. From what I experienced all three of these activists have hope and optimism in the good of humanity and in the opportunity to give voice to the people and issues that have none. Every day in all of these countries (and in our own), there are violations of human rights and dignity taking place. These change makers have the courage, values and tenacity to move forward in the name of justice. Do we?

*Names have been purposefully omitted to protect the safety of the speakers as they travel home to keep up their work, especially because for them working towards LGBTQ justice is an arrestable offense.

 

By Camden Hargrove, field organizer, National LGBTQ Task Force

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Lobby, Listen, and Learn: Transgender Advocates Speak to Members of Congress about Freedom, Justice, and Equality

July 12, 2017

On June 9th, 2017 the National LGBTQ Task Force joined the National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE) and transgender advocates from across the country for Transgender Lobby Day.

Transgender Lobby Day is a lobbying initiative spearheaded by the NCTE. It focuses on advancing trans-inclusive policies and opposing anti-transgender legislation across the country. Mobilizing people from all walks of life (and all degrees of lobbying experience), NCTE’s Trans Lobby Day 2017 brought together around two hundred activists from over thirty states and the District of Columbia, with the purpose of educating U.S. lawmakers on the needs of the nearly two million transgender people living in the United States. Also present at the event were speakers – including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Grace Dolan-Sandrino (a teenage transgender activist), and Raffi Freedman-Gurspan (NCTE Director of External Relations and former White House liaison).

During the day of action, I joined a group of about eight people – all Virginia residents – and met with members of Congress at Capitol Hill. The group I was with was made up mostly of transgender and gender non-conforming people. It also included some parents of transgender children, and trans allies. This group was made up of people who could speak to the trans experience across a wide spectrum of identities – and who did.

There is a massive difference between learning about trans people and learning from trans people. Storytelling, especially firsthand storytelling, can be tremendously powerful – and the people I lobbied with were more than capable of wielding that power. From the very beginning, the importance of transgender agency was clear: the event was organized by transgender people, for transgender people. There were absolutely allies present – but it was clear that trans voices were at the front and center.

Before meeting with members of Congress, we were equipped with fact sheets, statistics, business cards – all those things that one tends to associate with lobbying. At the heart of lobby day, though, was the determination of trans people to share their experiences. This was a potent persuasive tool: it’s one thing to read about discrimination, and another entirely to look someone in the eye and listen to their personal account of it. The people at that table – and the people who did the same in many offices across Capitol Hill – were making their voices heard in some of the highest offices in the land. This was a powerful statement: that the right to occupy these spaces as oneself could not be diminished or denied.

Kate Avery and other participants at Senator Tim Kaine’s office

I was truly honored to have been able to participate in this lobbying effort. Not only was it an incredible learning experience in the realm of political activism, but it has also helped me have a better grasp on the ways in which I express and understand my own gender identity. Listening to people own their identities with pride, and listening to them reclaim the sense of agency so often stripped from people whose stories are told for them – this was something special. I do not personally currently identify as transgender, but the pathway to both better allyship and to self-understanding the lobby day gave me was valuable. Lobby Day was not only about progress – it was about reclamation.

Trans voices are important. Trans voices have always been important, and will continue to be important. This isn’t a matter of opinion – this is a statement of fact. Trans Lobby Day was an incredible reminder of the power that trans voices have, and their importance within not only the LGBTQ community, but also our society. There is so much that we still need to do in order to ensure that all people have access to freedom, justice, and equality. Always, though, we must remember to center transgender voices, transgender stories, and transgender experiences in the steps that we take.

 

By Kate Avery, social media intern, National LGBTQ Task Force

Transgender People Face Irreparable Damage as a Result of the Broken Criminal Justice System

July 10, 2017

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The strength and resilience of incarcerated transgender individuals is beyond comprehension for many in the United States. “Fag,” “bitch,” “princess queen,” sissies,” and “queer,” were all used to demean, dehumanize, and downcast Miss Young and Miss Mardris, both trans women of color incarcerated in Illinois. While these jeers may be common place for many, the difference for them was that there was no escape and no recourse for the pair as their abuser was also their jailor.

Despite the danger it could place them in, the two spoke up, reported the incident, and filed claims in federal court against the correctional officer who verbally and emotionally abused them. Both Mardis and Young assert three types of claims against the correctional officer who verbally assaulted them: one based on intentional infliction of emotional distress, one for violation of equal protection, and the last for unlawful discrimination and retaliation.

After reporting the correctional officer to prison staff, both were placed in segregation where instead of having one cellmate they had an almost biweekly influx of changing cellmates, three at a time, which placed both in more danger. The two also faced more restrictions on the use of phones, washers, showers, and the day room. Upon their return to the general population of the prison, they generally remained in their cells in order to avoid their abuser.  In the face of all of this the two managed to file federal law suits on their own against the officer and continue to represent themselves.

There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US – more than anywhere else in the world – and there are a total of 6.7 million people under correctional supervision, including probation and parole. In 2010, 91 percent of those incarcerated were men. African Americans, despite only making up 13 percent of the population, accounted for 40 percent of the total incarcerated population. African American defendants also experience higher arrest rates due to increased police presence in their neighborhoods and higher sentencing rates than white defendants for the same crimes with the same criminal histories.

The data serves as the backdrop for the two plaintiffs out of Illinois who are representing themselves in court. Advocating for justice for incarcerated transgender people implicates the rights of incarcerated people of color, incarcerated sexual assault survivors, health care rights, and other social justice causes. To advocate for transgender individuals who have been incarcerated necessitates that one also advocate for racial justice if not only because of the inherit racial disparity within the prison population itself, they cannot be mutually exclusive.

According to the 2015 National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey, the largest survey of incarcerated LGBTQ people in the United States, respondents were over 6 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population. The report also found that every respondent had been strip searched, which is one example of sexual assault that they endure. Protecting trans people in prison requires changing prison culture and protocol to protect everyone in prison. Ensuring that transgender people are safe, have access to healthcare, and can be their authentic selves cannot occur in isolation without changing the larger systemic problems.

The American concept of incarceration does not work, from the chain gang to Rikers Island. Changing our policies of incarceration could help restructure American society. Removing non-violent offenders from prisons will lower the incarcerated population, allow for more targeted rehabilitation efforts, increase the safety of correctional officers and incarcerated individuals, allow for the state to invest in social care and education instead of correctional facilities, and prevent the ostracization of convicted individuals, allowing them to remain in their communities and with their families. Maintained at society’s expense, prisons do not reform, help, or educate the majority of those incarcerated.

As transgender women, the two individuals were first subject to a hostile environment by being placed in a men’s facility. Their wellbeing and safety were also placed in the hands of an individual who was hostile toward them and who disregarded and demeaned their identity. They then faced retribution for seeking a reprieve from their abuser by being placed in a transient unit that exposed them to crowded conditions and changing cellmates. In the aftermath of all of this, these individuals then had to maneuver through the legal system on their own.

In the last election cycle a number of politicians paid lip-service to the LGBTQ community and referenced human rights violations overseas as a motivating factor in intervening in foreign affairs. However, there is a danger that the trans community, especially trans women of color, face right here at home. In 2017 so far, 15 trans individuals–all women of color–have been murdered in the United States (in the time it took to write this piece the number has been updated four times). In spite of the dangers they face, Young and Mardris continue to overcome obstacle after obstacle to defend their right to be themselves. For the trans community, social justice advocates, and the country, the message from their case is clear: we will not be victims, complicit, or silent.

 

By Steven Johnston, Holly Law Fellow, National LGBTQ Task Force

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Capital Pride’s Inter Faith Service Showered with Stoles

July 6, 2017

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On June 6th, for the 34th year in a row, D.C.’s Capital Pride held its annual interfaith service. People from all faith backgrounds packed into Calvary Baptist Church to pray, love, support, heal, and gather together. The theme of this years’ service was “Reveal! Respect! Resist!” which was demonstrated and reflected by how attendees from all backgrounds came together for equality and justice.

The service was an auditory and visually striking night starting from the entrance. As people entered the sanctuary they were greeted with signs in English and Spanish declaring “Our Faith Doesn’t Discriminate.” Looking straight ahead into the sanctuary was a beautiful wooden alter with red, orange, and yellow paper birds hanging from a wooden overhang. Under the colorful birds, hung dozens of handmade stoles of all different fabrics, colors, and textures.

The stoles in display are a part of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s “Shower of Stoles Project.” The project is a collection of over 1,200 liturgical stoles and other sacred hems representing the lives of LGBTQ people of faith. Martha Juillerat, a Presbyterian minister in Missouri, and her partner, also a minister, started the collection in 1995. Since then, faith leaders from 32 denominations and faith traditions,  6 countries, and 3 continents have donated stoles. Each stole contains the story of the LGBTQ faith leader who donated the stole, often times it is the story of a leader who has been subject to unjust policies, defrocked and/or excluded from service because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

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As the service started women played drums, piano, organ, and bells. The choir sang as leaders from many faith traditions proceeded into the sanctuary. It was a beautiful symbol of the respect and unity the faith traditions shared and their shared vision of resisting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and injustice. Religious leaders from the D.C. community shared prayers, songs or other words from their faith tradition all with the theme of “Reveal! Respect! Resist!”

After the service many people came up to the stoles to get a closer look and to read the stories. I had the opportunity to speak with a woman who had donated a stole years ago. I also spoke with people who were struck and affected by the stories they read on the stoles. It was a beautiful opportunity to watch and be a part of the community joining together.

Learn more about the Shower of Stoles Project, donate a stole, and request an exhibit at: http://welcomingresources.org/sosp

 

By Camden Hargrove, field organizer, National LGBTQ Task Force

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What we’re up against: A look at the Senate bill to repeal the ACA

June 29, 2017

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Last week the Senate made public a bill, the so-called Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 (BCRA), that would strip healthcare from millions of people and give a one trillion dollar tax break to the wealthy. The bill is even “meaner” than the ACA repeal bill passed by the House, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), and will leave 22 million people without insurance by 2026.

Public outcry against the BRCA forced the GOP to delay today’s scheduled vote on the bill, but the Senate is looking to vote on a revised version – yet to be released – as soon as Senators return from the July 4 recess. As a reconciliation bill, the BCRA is a spending bill that can be expedited through the Senate, requiring merely a simple majority vote and with limited debate time. The bill only needs 50 votes, since Vice President Pence, who would vote in favour of the GOP, would be called to break a tie vote in the Senate. There are currently 52 Republicans in the Senate. If the BCRA passes, the House could then vote on it immediately by utilizing the “martial law” rule, which permits the House to introduce, debate and vote on a bill without requisite time for representatives to read the bill.

The BCRA, in its current form, will:

  • Give states the option to get rid of Essential Health Benefits (EHB), allowing insurers to stop covering or significantly increase the cost of critical care. Out-of-pocket costs for maternity care, mental health care, prescription drugs and substance abuse services could increase by thousands of dollars. The Congressional Budget Office predicts 50% of states would waive EHBs.
  • End protections for people with pre-existing conditions and permit states to impose annual or lifetime limits on health insurance coverage. For the 1.1 million people in the U.S. living with HIV/AIDS, and for people with other chronic conditions or in need of high-cost treatment, these provisions could be life-threatening barriers to continuous treatment.
  • “Defund” Planned Parenthood by blocking federal funds from being used to reimburse care given at Planned Parenthood health centers. In doing so, millions of people, including thousands of LGBTQ people, would lose access to affordable and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services – including birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing, STI testing and treatment, and transgender health care.
  • Impose a nationwide ban on private insurance coverage of abortion, undermining the reproductive health options for lesbian, bisexual, intersex and gender non-conforming people, and transgender men, among others in the LGBTQ community who are able to get pregnant.
  • Reduce access to no-cost preventive services, including birth control, STI and HIV testing, and cancer screening.
  • Increase premiums, to the point where the Congressional Budget Office predicts that “few low income people would purchase any plan” at all. It is estimated that, under the BCRA, premiums will be 20 percent higher in 2018, and 10 percent higher in 2019.
  • End Medicaid as we know it: The BCRA will result in 15 million people losing Medicaid over the next 10 years. The bill will also end Medicaid expansion, effectively cutting health coverage for 11 million people. Most importantly, it will gut Medicaid spending by imposing per capita caps. This spending arrangement is predicted to cut Medicaid by $772 billion, with higher cuts than those proposed by the AHCA after 2026. The cuts will force states to choose between dipping into state funds or scaling back on healthcare services for society’s most vulnerable people. The corrosion of Medicaid proposed by the BCRA would impact the lives and wellbeing of 69 million low-income people, disabled people, seniors, and children, including 1.8 million LGBTQ people.
  • Mandate a 60-day ‘waiting period’ to penalize people whose health insurance lapses for over 63 days. This harmful provision differs from the BCRA’s predecessor, the AHCA, which permitted insurance providers to increase coverage costs by 30% after a lapse in coverage.

There is no question that this bill will harm the LGBTQ community, and there is little doubt that the revised version will be just as harmful. Under the Affordable Care Act, we witnessed a 35% reduction in the un-insurance rate for low and middle income LGBTQ people between 2013 and 2017. More LGBTQ people had healthcare coverage than ever. But the BCRA threatens to reverse these gains. Cuts to Medicaid funding and eligibility will devastate access to care for LGBTQ people, who rely on Medicaid to a greater extent than non-LGBTQ people (40% of LGBTQ people compared to 22% of non-LGBTQ people). Undoing the protections provided by the ACA, such as bans on annual and lifetime caps or discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, will increase LGBTQ health disparities. Furthermore, the bill would undermine HIV prevention efforts, and threaten the lives of thousands of people living with HIV who will no longer be able to access lifesaving treatment. While the precise impact on the insurance rate of the LGBTQ community is not clear, it’s likely the outcome of the BCRA in its current form will be similar to the AHCA prediction: that 1 million LGBTQ people will lose healthcare coverage by 2026.

The BCRA has turned out to be yet another stage in the ongoing fight to protect the ACA and its benefits for the LGBTQ community. Whatever the GOP propose next, we must be resilient and continue to speak out in opposition against any bill that would do anything less than ensure access to comprehensive, affordable, and inclusive care for all.

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By Sabrina Rewald, Reproductive Justice Fellow, National LGBTQ Task Force

 

Why I joined the Equality March on Washington

June 22, 2017

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On Sunday, June 19, I joined the National LGBTQ Task Force in marching with the 2017 Equality March for Pride in Unity in D.C. to protest the current administration’s erasure of LGBTQ+ people. Tens of thousands of people showed up, all of different races, ethnicities, communities and backgrounds. It was the largest crowd of people I have ever witnessed in my whole life. Entire city blocks were coated in a sea of rainbow flags. What people wore ranged from extravagant costumes to sportswear and everything in-between. Despite the awful humidity and sun beating down on us, people showed enthusiasm and organization.

The Task Force was there with a contingent of over one hundred people. I had lots of fun volunteering that day. I helped with passing out flags, thousands of signs, and I even sprinted several blocks on one occasion. We took hundreds of photos and video footage of the thousands of people marching, including our contingent. The chants were passionate and clever. I was honored to march with an organization that was there for the LGBTQ community from the start of our movement.

We marched because although these past few years, the LGBTQ movement has experienced significant gains, there are still discrepancies to address. It is still legal in most states to discriminate in housing and employment opportunities on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression. Transgender women face a murder rate that is 4.3x greater than the national rate for cis-gender women, and the vast majority of victims are women of color. Forty percent of youth experiencing homelessness identity as LGBTQ and LGBTQ youth continue being kicked out of their homes by unsupportive families. Immigrants and Muslims are vilified and dehumanized by many politicians and elected officials, including President Trump.

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The anniversary of the Obergefell ruling is approaching. With that, it is important to remember that the work to secure full equality for all is far from over, despite being victorious in our campaign for marriage equality.

What are the next steps in our fight for equality? For one, we need to ensure our continued presence on the political stage. We cannot allow people to forget our existence and actively resist attempts to remove us from public discourse and silence us. We must also keep in mind that inequality is not limited to discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. An attack on any marginalized group is an attack on us all and we must remain conscious of that. We all have an important role to play in the work to advance equality. We should continue staying informed and resisting the Trump’s administrations attacks on freedom, justice, and equality.

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By Parker Toro, Social Media Intern, National LGBTQ Task Force

Racism and Homophobia: A Reflection on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 25, 2017
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Taissa Morimoto with National LGBTQ Task Force Holley Law fellows in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I spent most of my life pretending to be someone I am not.

I often found myself having to carefully choose which parts of my identity I presented, rarely existing in a space where I comfortably felt all of who I am: a queer East Asian-Brazilian American woman.

Growing up in a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood meant that assimilation was necessary for social survival. Assimilation is a different experience for each person, but for me, it entailed not eating during school hours, laughing at racist jokes, and not engaging in perceived East Asian stereotypical interests. Assimilation essentially took the form of misdirected hatred towards myself.

For too long, I was deprived of important parts of my culture because of comments made by classmates and because I feared being bullied. When I indulged in parts of my own culture, I was ridiculed and shamed. Yet as white people began to appropriate and immerse themselves into East Asian culture, it was considered en vogue. This trend continues tirelessly. Chinese-American food blogger Clarissa Wei said it best: “In a weird turn of events, people were making money and becoming famous for eating the things I had grown up with and had been bullied for.”

I heavily relied on my being Brazilian to combat the assumptions and stereotypes I experienced daily. When people asked, “What are you?” or “What language do you speak,” I told them I was Brazilian and spoke Portuguese. I would briefly revel in the satisfaction of their disappointment with my answer and their lost opportunity to discuss their trip to Japan or show off the two Mandarin words they know. They proceeded to do so anyway.

The internalization of shame of my identity grew significantly when I came out in high school. I experienced even more instances of microaggressions, though the form of harassment shifted from being bullied to being eroticized as an East Asian woman and fetishized as a queer woman. While walking down the school hallway holding my girlfriend’s hand,  boys would yell at us, egging us to kiss in front of them.

Despite the ongoing harassment, once I came out as queer, I immersed myself in the LGBTQ community. I did everything I could to do all things queer. Unfortunately, I experienced microaggressions from white LGBTQ people as well. Among LGBTQ white folks, I would get questions such as, “Do you speak Asian?” and comments such as, “You are going to be my new best friend, my Christina Yang.” Instead of challenging them, I put up with their ignorance because I believed they were supporting me in ways my East Asian community never had.

Although I consciously chose to be a part of a community that I felt was largely racist, the alternative was choosing a community that I felt was largely homophobic. I did not feel like I had meaningful options.

My experiences are not unique. I know I am not alone in feeling that my identities clash with each other throughout daily life. According to a national survey of LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islanders (API), 89% of respondents agreed that homophobia and/or transphobia is a problem in the broader API community and 78% of respondents agreed that API LGBTQ people experience racism within the predominately white LGBTQ community. Many queer API growing up or living in the U.S. have felt like they don’t quite fit in with any group.

It is likely that I would have never recognized how similar my experiences were to others if I had not attended the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in 2017. During the day-long racial institute for LGBTQI API people, I sat among some of the most beautiful, brilliant people. I realized that, in a single day, I had met more queer API people than I had met in my entire life. And, contrary to what I had been taught my entire life, I realized that I can choose my family.

The portrayal of a monolithic API experience is dangerous and isolating. For decades, it led me to believe that I did not belong to the API community – that my experiences were too different and not relatable. But, meeting so many queer people with diverse histories and experiences at Creating Change inspired me to live authentically.

For me, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM) is about celebrating those differences. Though most API have experienced racism and microaggressions, our experiences are infinitely diverse.

AAPIHM is about shattering the shame and becoming my authentic self, even if it often runs amiss with feelings of familial obligations and expectations that have been instilled in me. It is about coming to terms with the fact that I will always love my family who does not accept a huge part of who I am. But, I am tired of feeling as if I must choose one part of my identity over another.

AAPIHM is about how my identity has shaped my experiences growing up in the US. I want to celebrate it by acknowledging the racism that still exists in this country. For me, AAPIHM is about learning our collective history in this country and using it to become a better advocate. This year, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is about coming home to myself.

thumbnail_taissa-morimotoBy Taissa Morimoto, Policy Advocate, National LGBTQ Task Force.

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