Creating a Community
LGBT Grant County takes another step forward this month, opening a new community center.
by Elizabeth Rockey
When you move to a new area, what is the first thing you look for after your basic needs are met? Community. People fulfill this need to seek out those who are like minded by joining volunteer groups, attending a religious organization, making friends in a place of employment or just frequenting conducive locations. This need for community becomes even greater for people who are shunned by their families and oppressed by society.
Chaz Moreno and Rebecca Martin lead members of the LGBT community in Silver City’s 4th of July Parade.
In large cities, people have myriad choices. In rural areas like Southwest New Mexico, however, finding a community of like-minded people can be a challenge. For local members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, LGBT Grant County provides services, support and a sense of belonging. This month, an LGBT Grant County Community Center is scheduled to open at College Street Plaza in Silver City on August 1.
That event marks a major milestone in a 15-year journey that began with an art auction sponsored by the Grant County community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, questioning and their allies. After that initial fundraising event, the SouthWest Activities Network Society (SWANS) was formed. Recently the name was been changed to LGBT Grant County to make it easier for people in need to identify.
The local LGBT group has distributed over $40,000 to the community for various needs over the years. Many people have benefited from LGBT Grant County by receiving small scholarships, cash grants and money for emergency expenses.
The organization has also conducted a needs-assessment survey to ascertain the specific needs of the LGBT community in our area. The most pressing needs are: support for LGBT youth, support for people living with HIV, and the establishment of a LGBT Community Center to offer support and services. Some of these needs will be addressed through a 24/7 LGBT Grant County Helpline. Anyone can call (575) 956-7359 for information on local happenings, support groups, referrals to healthcare providers and general information.
"We want to make sure any LGBT person or ally can contact a trained volunteer who can help them," says LGBT Grant County President Ted Tufares. "We don't want anyone to feel isolated or alone. There is a community of people here to provide support and services."
Why is such local support so essential? According to a Human Rights Campaign survey, 52% of LGBT youth reported "their parents had or would disown them based on their sexual orientation." Obviously, if you don't have the support and acceptance of your family it is essential to find a community that fills these essential needs. Combine this with the bullying and cruelty offered up by peers and even teachers at school and a toxic environment is created for LGBT youth.
These youth grow into adults feeling they have no place in the community and are not wanted, loved or supported. Suicide rates for LGBT youth are more than double those for heterosexual youth, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. A recent study found that 25% of gay men and 20% of lesbians had experienced victimization as adults based on their sexual orientation. These adults reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, according to the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Such negative experiences contribute to an increased vulnerability for mental illness, substance abuse and suicide.
To understand LGBT issues and the need for community, it is important to understand the basic history of LGBT civil rights. Homosexuals have been discriminated against, arrested, beaten, raped and harassed by law enforcement and society at large for hundreds of years. A person could lose a job simply for being a homosexual. Places where homosexuals gathered were frequently raided by the police and brutality was rampant. Organizations formed to try to help make positive changes, but they were mostly underground and lack of media coverage on these issues meant the general public had no idea what the experience was like for LGBT people in the United States.
June 28, 1969 is the generally accepted start of the gay (LGBT) rights movement. When police raided an unlicensed gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, in New York City's Greenwich Village (as they had done on numerous occasions previously), they were surprised to come up against resistance. Riots lasting for days were triggered by the police harassment of gays. It marked a decided change in the attitudes of LGBT people who had finally had enough and began to fight back. One year later, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the nation's first Gay Pride parades were held in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pride events are now held yearly in June all over the world.
Up until 1973 homosexuality was classified by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a mental illness. Dr. Robert Spitzer provided data showing there was no clear link between homosexuality and mental illness, causing the APA to remove homosexuality from the diagnostic manual. This was a big step toward legitimizing LGBT human rights and advancing the gay rights movement.
The 1980s brought the AIDS crisis, to which the government was extremely slow to respond. Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates are that 650,000 people in the US alone have died from AIDS. But linking AIDS with gay men put it out of the minds of heterosexual people. It was a "gay" disease and therefore it was easier for heterosexuals to ignore.
During the AIDS epidemic it became apparent that LGBT couples have legal issues. Parents of people suffering with AIDS could block their long-time partners from seeing them in the hospital or from being involved in making any medical decisions. Parents who had disowned their gay children suddenly showed an interest as their children succumbed to the disease, barring their partners and friends from saying goodbye and assuring the patients' requests were met.
In 1993 President Bill Clinton enacted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, preventing gays from serving openly. The military has a history of dishonorably discharging military members who are LGBT. In fact, one study suggests the dumping of LGBT ex-military members in port cities may be why San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles became known places of refuge for LGBT people.
In 1996 Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), barring same-sex marriage. This affected more than 1,100 provisions of federal law, denying gay couples the right to federal benefits given heterosexual couples. Despite the passage of DOMA, in 2000 Vermont became the first state to allow same-sex civil unions; Vermont later approved same-sex marriage in 2009. In 2004 Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. Since then 13 more states have legalized same-sex marriage.
In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama. The act was named after two victims of especially horrific hate crimes. It requires the FBI to track hate crimes based on gender and gender identity and gives the Justice Department the power to prosecute crimes motivated by the victim's race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
The latest advancement to LGBT rights has been this summer's declaration by the US Supreme Court that DOMA is unconstitutional. Gay couples legally married in their states will now be granted federal benefits.
As for New Mexico, our state protects employees in the private sector and state and local governments from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and/or gender expression. Many experts believe New Mexico will legalize same-sex marriage in the next few years.
Everyone needs to find a place where they belong — a community of people who are supportive and like-minded. It is essential to everyone's growth and development to be accepted, which LGBT Grant County is helping to make a reality in Southwest New Mexico.
Elizabeth Rockey ia vice president of LGBT Grant County.
Call (575) 956-7359 for information.
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