Shining a light on unsung heroes

  • by Michael G. Pappas
  • Wednesday June 25, 2014
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A year ago, almost to the day, San Franciscans awaited with anxious anticipation the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban. On the eve of Pride, as those high court pronouncements echoed throughout every conceivable media, we as a community never seemed more liberated or united. We shared together in that euphoric moment, feeling, in a profound way, that we were both witnesses to and participants in the making of history.

Meandering through the masses at the Castro Street celebration of those high court decisions, I encountered local photographer Bill Wilson who shared a revelation, "I just photographed a mother and her infant child and it dawned on me, that child will never know a time when there was not marriage equality." A hopeful realization, I thought, yet I speak to so many 20- and 30-year-olds today, whose only comprehension of the isolation and shame of the closet and loss of friends and loved ones to the epidemic is limited to oral history passed down or academic study. Seen in that context, it's hard to help but feel that the human rights victories and liberties we celebrate today with revelry at Pride were fought, not only by today's activists, but by the heroes of previous generations, upon whose shoulders we stand.

Not the least among those heroes, laboring tirelessly to "increase equality, eradicate discrimination, and protect human rights for all people," are the commissioners, staff, and citizen leaders who, for almost four decades have served on the SF Human Rights Commission's LGBT Advisory Committee.

Past chairs include such luminary LGBT activists as Martha Knutzen, and transgender icons Theresa Sparks, the current HRC executive director, and Health Commissioner Cecilia Chung.

A microcosm of our community, today's LGBT Advisory Committee comprises of thought leaders from every sector. Lending minds and voices to the conversation are representatives from the nonprofits Trikone, Shanti Project, Larkin Street Youth Services, Out4Immigration, OneJustice, API Wellness Center, Family Violence Law Center, Transgender Law Center, Our Family Coalition, and Forward.US. Those nonprofit leaders stand shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the tech community, including a leader from Google's Gaygler LGBT Employee Resource Group. Add to the mix an advocate from the city's deaf community, members from the religious community, including an LGBT Mormon activist and a Lutheran pastor advocating for the homeless and transgender youth; an African American veteran activist who just finished his tenure on the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force; an HIV/Infectious disease specialist; leaders in immigration; the transgender community; a congressional staff person and an assistant district attorney.

An integral and vitally important component of the Human Rights Commission, the LGBT Advisory Committee provides community involvement and opportunity for in-depth study and exploration of issues, offers assistance and advice to the commission regarding discrimination against the LGBT communities, advocates for the civil rights of persons with AIDS/HIV, and educates our LGBT partners in advocacy about a diverse range of issues that impact our community.

Considered by many the unsung heroes of public policy making, the SF Human Rights Commission's LGBT Advisory Committee, workgroups and policy and social justice unit staff, over the years, have researched, deliberated, presented reports, and incubated policy measures that led to the drafting of such legislation as domestic partners benefits, the formation of the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force and, most recently, SF law enforcement agencies' decision to discontinue the use of condoms when prosecuting cases involving sex workers.

The LGBT Advisory Committee has never been shy to take on bold and controversial issues. Over the past decade the committee was responsible for the formation of a task force and held a public hearing on intersex issues, including the human rights aspects of surgeries performed on intersex infants in order to assign gender when the surgeries are not medically necessary. Both the advisory committee and commission urged the Board of Education to pass a resolution to establish a high school course on LGBT history, politics, and culture and commit to funding LGBT support services. It held panel discussions and community meetings to study bisexual invisibility and issued a report entitled, "Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations." Together with the commission it held a public forum on unrecognized families and issued a report "Beyond Marriage: Unrecognized Family Relationships." It initiated a resolution unanimously passed by the commission urging lawmakers and the governor to enact state Senate Bill 1172, making it illegal for state-licensed psychologists to practice "reparative therapy" on minors.

Current issues being addressed by the advisory committee's work groups include comprehensive immigration reform for impacted LGBTQ individuals and families; deaf and people with disability advocacy for LGBTQ individuals; keeping nonprofits serving the LGBT community in San Francisco; advocacy related to trans empowerment for immigrant trans women and trans women of color; research, advocacy and a policy review of the city's ID program and the program's impact on transgender residents with respect to name and gender change; and advocacy related to bridging the gap between the tech and LGBTQ communities.

Among the issues emerging from the commission's policy and social justice unit are the call for comprehensive transgender health care reform in the Healthy San Francisco program; the creation of a long needed LGBTQ youth citywide sensitivity training and cultural competency program required by an ordinance, on which we partnered with the Youth Commission; reports on human trafficking, anti-bullying initiatives and equity and inclusion of communities of color in the LGBT community. That unit is also working diligently to support efforts to develop policies and guidelines that would facilitate gender neutral bathrooms and public accommodations for transgender individuals.

Pride means different things to different people. For the SF Human Rights Commission's LGBT Advisory Committee, it is the occasion to recommit ourselves to laboring for and securing the rights and freedoms our community deserves. In sharing this brief overview of our work we invite you to join us in honoring those heroes who came before us by helping to write the next chapter of our exciting movement.


Michael G. Pappas is chair of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and chair of the commission's LGBT Advisory Committee.