Online Extra: LGBT electeds sound off on COVID-19 in virtual town hall

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday April 30, 2020
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New York state Senator Brad Hoylman, upper left, participated in an online town hall April 30 with, clockwise, California state Senator Scott Wiener, Pennsylvania state Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, California Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, and Texas state Representative Julie Johnson. Photo: Screengrab
New York state Senator Brad Hoylman, upper left, participated in an online town hall April 30 with, clockwise, California state Senator Scott Wiener, Pennsylvania state Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, California Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, and Texas state Representative Julie Johnson. Photo: Screengrab

Six LGBT elected officials from across the nation came together in a Zoom town hall April 30 to discuss how the community should respond to the twin health and economic crises caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

"We know that COVID-19 has created problems for every community around the world, and we also know that our community, the LGBT community, is being impacted," gay California state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said as he began the town hall.

Joining Wiener were Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D), the first openly gay man ever elected as a state governor; lesbian California state Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton); gay New York state Senator Brad Hoylman (D), who represents some of Manhattan's queerest neighborhoods — Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen — in that state's upper chamber and who said he was a former law school classmate of Wiener's; Pennsylvania state Representative Malcolm Kenyatta (D), who is the first gay person of color elected to that state's Legislature; and lesbian Texas state Representative Julie Johnson (D), one of Dallas County's first LGBT lawmakers.

The state senators and Polis avoided clashing on the issue of whether states and the federal government should collect data on whether COVID-19 patients are LGBT, though it was clear they had different positions.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, many municipalities ask patients for data on their sex and race but not on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Wiener has been a full-throated advocate for greater data collection, going so far as to sending a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) asking for the state to do data collection on this issue, saying it will help chart how badly the community is affected by the virus.

"We have higher rates of upper respiratory issues and higher rates of illness and immunosuppression," Hoylman said. "And, in an economic crisis, it's always LGBT people who are the hardest hurt."

As per the B.A.R.'s most recent reporting, California is not collecting data on either question, but the city of San Francisco is collecting data on the gender identity of patients. The state of New York is not doing SOGI data collection, either, citing Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) in saying that the virus does not discriminate.

Polis, however, gave an explanation for the lack of data collection in the Centennial State.

"You run into the same issue here as anywhere," Polis said. "There's a lot of people (LGBT patients) in Colorado who don't want that info out there; less maybe than in Hell's Kitchen or Chelsea. While we love data, we don't want to ask people for data they are not comfortable sharing."

Wiener and Hoylman pushed back.

"We want it to be voluntary for people," Wiener said. "It's a social issue — we see it in the federal government, we see it in every state."

Kenyatta said that he intends to introduce a bill in Pennsylvania calling for SOGI data collection for COVID-19 patients.

"It's a continuing pattern of erasure happening on all levels of government," Kenyatta said. "In many cases, the worst thing that can happen to you is being completely ignored. ... When I introduce it, look it up on the Pennsylvania House website, steal it, and include it in your state."

Polis had to leave the call early, saying he hoped the legislators would "visit Colorado soon, when all is well." Wiener praised him as "a trailblazer to be a governor and a member of our community."

Health care discrimination

The topic then turned to a recent report that President Donald Trump's Department of Health and Human Services may soon change rules preventing discrimination against people in health care on the basis of their LGBT identities.

Johnson said that the issue is not new in her state: Texas Republicans have been trying to pass similar regulations to what Trump officials are proposing for the nation.

"There were a number of bills here by the Republicans that would allow people to refuse treatment," Johnson said. "Thankfully, we were able to defeat that. But elections matter. We're close to flipping the Texas House (of Representatives) and this state is dead-ass last in health care. There's always a huge gap and the LGBT community is really affected by that. We have a crisis here in Texas about health care affordability."

Hoylman said that LGBT people are worried about a field hospital set up in Central Park by Samaritan's Purse, a medical organization run by Franklin Graham, the son of the late-Southern Baptist minister Billy Graham, who has said as recently as last year that homosexuality is a sin that should not be "flaunted."

Volunteers at Graham's field hospital have to agree with his teachings on homosexuality.

"It's such a shame that because of the shortage of ventilators that we have to accept charity from a bigot like him," Hoylman said, before adding that the people working at the field hospital have had to sign papers that they will uphold New York non-discrimination policies.

Financial support

All of the legislators agreed on the need to support LGBT nonprofits.

Eggman said that lawmakers are going to have to make "tough decisions" with next year's budget.

Hoylman, apparently referencing a surplus of $21 billion secured by former Governor Jerry Brown (D), asked "doesn't California have a 'rainy day' fund?"

"It's pouring outside," Eggman said. "It's raining, it's pouring, the old man is snoring. We are lucky that we had that fund so that it's (the deficit) not going to be worse."

Johnson said that state support pushed by religious nonprofits in the state of Texas has had the unintended effect of supporting LGBT nonprofits, too.

"We need to make sure donors know that supporting LGBT nonprofits is more important now than ever," Johnson said. "It's so important that we step up and donate."

Wiener warned that LGBT nonprofits are going to have a very tough time and that both public and private sector support is crucial to their survival. Indeed, in California, 137 LGBT nonprofit leaders signed a letter to Newsom asking that he use federal money made available by the CARES Act to help support them.

"We built these structures to take care of our own community," Wiener said. "We built these ourselves, to support our community, and I'm worried we are going to see a huge number of LGBT nonprofits — who don't have large endowments, who don't have angel donors, who are reliant on events — close their doors."

Wiener is known primarily by many Californians as a lawmaker focused on the state's housing crisis. Hoylman said he often takes bills that Wiener introduces in California and "steals" them for New York.

Kenyatta said that the housing crisis has been made exponentially worse by the outbreak not just in Manhattan and San Francisco but around the country.

"If we don't figure out how to freeze rent, freeze mortgages, we're going to have a lot more housing insecurity in the near future," Kenyatta said. "(A solution) requires that elusive local, state and federal cooperation."

The meaning of LGBT pride

The legislators expressed sadness that many Pride festivities have been canceled or postponed.

Hoylman said he thinks people should take this time to reflect on the deeper meaning of LGBT pride.

"I look at this Pride as a more introspective one," he said. "One where we can think about the origins of pride. Less partying, more thoughtfulness."

Kenyatta echoed this sentiment.

"I don't think there's any replacing the pride we know and love," he said. "But I think that Hoylman hit the nail on the head. Pride started as a protest and after it's going to be more important than ever that folks on the margins are not ignored.

"All of the things we are talking about are pre-COVID issues," he added.

Johnson said that Pride Month this year should be used as a fundraising opportunity for nonprofits.

Hoylman, Kenyatta, and Johnson indicated that there were closeted LGBTs in their statehouses who were opposing equal rights.

"They're not out but they're there," Kenyatta said. "They are not here with us on these issues. ... That's the cowardice, frankly, of some of my colleagues."

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