GLAA testifies against Office of GLBT Affairs Act
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GLAA opposes Office of GLBT Affairs Act

Testimony on Bill 16-0235,
The Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs Act of 2005

Delivered before the Committee on Government Operations

July 7, 2005

Good morning, Chairman Orange, Councilmembers and fellow citizens.

My name is Bob Summersgill. I am the treasurer of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C. (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization in the country.

We oppose this legislation and we are disappointed that Councilmember Jim Graham has introduced it, and that five other councilmembers have co-sponsored it.

We find the bill unnecessary, counterproductive, and condescending.

After forty years of political successes by the gay community, which has seen gay people represented at all levels of government, this office ghettoizes our concerns into one political office.

The presence of GLBT people in cabinet-level positions did not begin with Wanda Alston, but goes back at least to Richard Maulsby’s tenure as director of Mayor Barry’s Office of Cable Television.

By its nature, a centralized political office will seek to co-opt and marginalize independent community voices. The GLBT community is not well served by allowing our advocacy to be controlled by the government.

The inclusion of an advisory committee or commission, selected by the Mayor’s office, will further hamper political dissent by putting an official and partisan imprimatur on what will be presented as the community’s goals and needs. The advisory committee, according to the legislation, may only deal with issues that the Mayor delegates to them.

Effective community activism has always been based on individuals and groups volunteering their time to specialize in a given subject matter, and then sharing that expertise with the public and public officials -- not on polls or plebiscites.

We believe in an approach to activism based on pushing for the equal treatment to which we are entitled as taxpayers and human beings, not on stoking and reinforcing our collective sense of victimhood. We do not need the government to create our community, or validate it, or organize it. We need the government to serve us. If it is not serving us, we will tell it so, and having some sort of ombudsman for that purpose is fine. We also do not object to a GLBT liaison, as long as the position is truly that of a liaison and not a gatekeeper who will seek to block or control citizens’ access to officials they may wish to contact directly.

The offices of Latino and Asian affairs are justified by the political and social marginalization in those communities caused by language and cultural barriers, and the consequent need for special efforts to ensure access to government services. The gay community, other than when members are also members of immigrant communities, does not have linguistic or cultural barriers. The fact that we are already well integrated into the life of our city is further illustrated by the fact of our city’s two openly gay councilmembers and the attorney general.

The gay community itself is highly diverse, of course, crossing all cultural and economic lines in our city. GLAA’s recognition of this is reflected in our long history of being the leading defenders of all the non-discrimination categories in the D.C. Human Rights Act -- not just sexual orientation and personal appearance (the latter being the category that protects transgender citizens).

Service agencies such as the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit of the Metropolitan Police Department are another matter, precisely because their direct service orientation distinguishes them from political offices. Agencies and departments of the government that can provide specialized services such as police investigations or health care would be welcomed. There are of course no gay ways to pave a road, collect trash, or any number of governmental services.

Mayor Williams created the Office of GLBT Affairs through his administrative Order, as is his prerogative. We find it a bit embarrassing that an office of one and a half full-time employees serve at the same level as the Director of the Department of Health or the Chief of Police. It might be sensible to put the various constituent service functions under one cabinet level official, but not each one.

Where after all, can you draw the line? If each constituency that makes a claim to need a cabinet level office, on what basis will you say no? This bill creates a permanent office and opens the flood gates that will tie the hands of any future Mayor from managing his or her administration.

Why don’t the Ethiopians have an office? They, like other immigrant communities, certainly face more problems accessing government than gay people do. On what basis would you say no to any other small group who want their own cabinet level office? Aren’t they as deserving as GLBT people to the access and services of government?

It seems that the reason that this office is being created is not one of community need, but rather to assuage a well connected community that carries enough clout for politicians to cater to our needs, desires, and in this case, whims.

What is needed -- what has been fruitful in the past -- is not a ghettoized office, but watchdog efforts by independent persons and groups that are not answerable to any politician. As has been shown by experience, the head of an Office of LGBT Affairs, being appointed and paid by the Mayor, inevitably serves the Mayor’s interests first. Especially considering the under-funding of the city’s mental health and substance abuse treatment services, we see no reason to devote more of the District’s limited resources to an inherently political office. We therefore continue to urge the D.C. Council to reject the legislation.

Thank you. I am available to answer any questions that you may have.