On an overcast day in late August, a line of homeless people gathered eagerly outside Sara D. Roosevelt Park in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Four volunteers were rapidly pulling backpacks out of a U-Haul and handing them to those in line. In just 45 minutes, the volunteers from Backpacks for the Street, a mobile nonprofit group that provides vital supplies to those without homes, handed off 165 backpacks — a new daily record.
“I think the need is growing more and more,” said Jeffrey Newman, 53, who, along with his husband, Jayson Conner, 44, started the volunteer group in 2018. “People are getting kicked out of the hotel shelters,” he added, referring to an emergency hotel shelter program that ended over the summer.
Newman, a retired businessman, said he runs Backpacks for the Street around the clock, while Conner, who works at a local restaurant, joins him on his days off. The couple decided to start the group after volunteering at a soup kitchen for several years.
Since then, the group has grown to at least 80 volunteers and has given out 32,000 backpacks stuffed with 50 items, including hand sanitizer, masks, toiletries and socks. The backpacks also contain a slip of paper with instructions on how to get vaccinated and a card with Newman’s personal cellphone number, so clients can reach him directly for help. The group also connects people with free programs available to the homeless.
“If we get out there and we show the people how to get to these organizations, these programs, show them what is out there, that is part of the solution to get them off the street,” Newman said.
Demand for help is surging, according to him. Since Covid-19 arrived in the city in March 2020, the group has given out 25,000 backpacks. But while the homeless are eager to grab up backpacks, some are less enthusiastic about getting a vaccine.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, a lot of confusion about vaccines, and trying to conquer that is a task unto itself,” Newman said.
To date, about 62 percent of adults in New York City are fully vaccinated, with an additional 7 percent receiving at least one dose, according to data provided by the city. But relatively few of the city’s estimated 60,000 homeless are fully inoculated despite free vaccines available at walk-in clinics and mobile vaccine centers throughout the city: At least 11,300 homeless New Yorkers (about 19 percent) have been fully vaccinated through the Department of Social Services’ vaccination efforts and the city’s mobile vaccination program through the end of August, according to spokespersons for the Department of Social Services and NYC Test & Trace Corps.
With so few homeless people fully vaccinated, Newman fears the worst.
“I think that we’re going to see a tremendous amount of homeless getting sick, if not worse,” he said, “more so because they don’t even know much about the delta [variant].”
New York City was already in the midst of a homelessness crisis before becoming ground zero for the coronavirus last year. To date, over 34,000 New York City residents have lost their lives to Covid, the majority of deaths occurring prior to the rollout of free vaccines in the spring.
The true number of homeless New Yorkers who have died from Covid is unknown. As of the end of February, the New York City Department of Homeless Services documented 113 deaths of homeless people from Covid, 101 of whom died in shelters. Newman said he suspects the actual number is probably much higher, with deaths among the unsheltered likely attributed to other factors, such as extreme cold. At least a dozen of his nonprofit’s regular clients died from the coronavirus, he said, including a few who were personal friends.
As the highly contagious delta variant spreads, now making up at least 97 percent of cases in the city as of last month, Newman is desperately working to educate the homeless about vaccines and get them to vaccination centers. But he said vaccine misinformation is running rampant on the streets, with many homeless believing vaccines are “some evil thing.”
So far, he and his husband have helped more than 160 individuals receive shots, driving them to nearby walk-in centers. But fighting vaccine hesitancy is tough, he said. To incentivize them, the group offers $25 McDonald’s gift cards, and volunteers share their own stories about getting the vaccine.
Newman, who is HIV-positive and vaccinated, said that sitting with clients and talking to them one-on-one about getting inoculated — showing them “I walk the walk, I talk the talk” — often persuades those who are fearful. And since the couple have developed a bond with their homeless clients over the years, many trust them.
The city is also working on getting more homeless vaccinated. According to Adam Shrier, press secretary for the NYC Test & Trace Corp, the mobile vaccination program began sending six vans to “canvas streets, subway stations and parks” at the beginning of September.
Newman fears it won’t be enough.
“It breaks my heart more than anything else,” he said, though he vowed to continue doing what he can to help.
Residents of Heber City, Utah, may not see rainbow banners waving along their Main Street during Pride Month, as they have in years past, but they’ll soon get an LGBTQ center to call their own.
Inspired by headlines about a controversial ordinance that may prevent advocates from installing Pride banners on city lampposts during Pride Month in June, the LGBTQ nonprofit Encircle announced that it will erect an LGBTQ resource center in Heber City. Encircle Heber, which will be just blocks from the public high school, will take the shape of a newly constructed house with a large gathering area, therapy rooms, a music room and an art room.
“The house, of course, is a safe space; it makes it feel like home, look like home, so that these individuals have a place to come every day and feel loved and accepted, maybe when they don’t feel at home in a school or church or even their own homes,” Encircle Executive Director Stephanie Larsen said.
Since 2019, the sight of rainbow flags on Heber City lampposts during June has ignited debate in the small, predominantly Mormon town, with some conservative residents viewing the banners as city-sanctioned “political” speech. In response to the backlash, the City Council passed an ordinance in August to restrict “political” banners and require that all banners on city lampposts get sponsorship from the city, Wasatch County or the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce. Because of the debate within the community over whether Pride banners are “political,” it’s unclear whether city officials will approve them this year.
“We call flags ‘political,’ yet behind every flag there is an individual who, I believe, those flags are sending a message of acceptance and love for those who are in the community who are LGBTQ,” said Larsen, whose organization has built LGBTQ community centers in three other cities in Utah.
While proponents argue that the ordinance is necessary to prevent potential hate groups from displaying their own banners, LGBTQ advocates claim that the ordinance is a thinly veiled attempt to ban rainbow flags from being publicly displayed in the city. Similar controversy over Pride banners flared in other cities last year, including Reading, Pennsylvania; Woonsocket, Rhode Island; Foster City, California; and Minot, North Dakota.
Heber City is far from the only community in Utah where Pride flags have stirred contention. For the last two years, the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Project Rainbow has rented out rainbow flags for $14 to people across Utah so they could stake them in their yards during the city’s Pride festivities. While the group staked about 1,400 rented flags in 2019 and more than doubled that number in 2020, many flags were stolen or vandalized, said the group’s founder, Lucas Horns. Horns estimated that 10 percent of the group’s flags staked across the state last year were stolen or vandalized, and he said the organization even got backlash on social media from people accusing it of “forcing their beliefs” on communities.
Heber City resident Allison Phillips Belnap, 47, is a lesbian, a suicide survivor and a former Mormon. She raised money in 2019 and 2020 to install the rainbow banners on the city’s lampposts hoping to show support for LGBTQ youths and to help curb the suicide rate of young people in Utah, where the youth suicide rate has tripled since 2017. She said it’s “so exciting” that Encircle, which provides suicide prevention services for queer youths, will open a center in Heber City.
“I think it’s going to create a space that hasn’t existed,” she said. “That’s going to prove very important as we support [LGBTQ] youth and try to diminish the negative mental health effects that have been happening in that population and the troublesome trends towards increased suicidality in that population.”
More than $350,000 has been raised to build the resource center, which is expected to open in the fall. In addition to therapy and suicide prevention services, the center will host “friendship circles” for LGBTQ youths and will also offer support to parents who need help understanding and accepting their LGBTQ kids, Larsen said.https://www.instagram.com/p/CIO_1WXBfZn/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=8&wp=1116&rd=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nbcnews.com&rp=%2Ffeature%2Fnbc-out%2Flgbtq-center-open-utah-town-embroiled-rainbow-flag-controversy-n1253779#%7B%22ci%22%3A0%2C%22os%22%3A717%2C%22ls%22%3A692.0000000000001%2C%22le%22%3A715%7D
Georgette Gomez, president of the San Diego City Council, was born and raised in the city she now serves, just 15 miles from the Mexican border that her parents, Eusebia and Miguel Ángel Gomez, crossed without documents in 1973. Her parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet and instilled in their daughter a dual sense of industriousness and hope.
“I don’t take that for granted that they left their own country, their own language, their culture, their family, just to create a better path for us, and when they came here it wasn’t easy,” said Gomez, 43, the youngest of three children. “This was not a welcoming country to them and still isn’t to immigrants.”
Immigrant rights is an issue that weighs heavily on Gomez, who is vying this November to become the next representative of California’s 53rd Congressional District.
“It’s something that I’ve been fighting for and will continue to push forward, to defend immigrants, to defend immigrant rights, to move this country to start addressing comprehensive immigration reform,” Gomez told NBC News.
Gomez, a Democrat, was elected to the city council in 2016 and unanimously appointed president two years later. In 2017, she introduced a resolution against President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a border wall with Mexico. The resolution was adopted by the council. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, didn’t sign the resolution but did not veto it either.
“The fact that I was able to get my Republican mayor to support it was pretty significant,” Gomez said, “and shows that I can push on critical issues that, at times, could be divisive.”
The candidate is passionate about affordable housing and protecting the most vulnerable citizens of San Diego, where soaring rents have made life increasingly difficult for the poor and working class. Gomez introduced an ordinance making it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters who rely on federal housing assistance, and introduced an eviction moratorium to protect renters during the Covid-19 pandemic — both of which influenced similar laws at the state level, she said.
“I’m very proud of that,” Gomez added. “Our state, our city, our nation should be inclusive of all our community members, and they should be allowed to live wherever they are able to find a home that they can afford.”
Gomez, a former community organizer for an environmental justice group, is also a champion for environmental protections. As city council president, she helped pass a policy that aims to move San Diego to 100 percent renewables by 2035.
The candidate is waging a tough battle against a fellow Democrat, Sara Jacobs, who worked for the State Department in the Obama administration and is a former adviser to Hillary Clinton. (In California, the top two candidates in the primary compete in the general election.)
A recent 10News/San Diego Union-Tribune poll put Jacobs ahead of Gomez, but Gomez has fought tough challenges before. In her 2015 City Council campaign, she narrowly beat Ricardo Flores, then the chief of staff to outgoing council member Marti Emerald,by less than 1,000 votes, “against all odds,” she said.
“We were able to build a strong grassroots campaign, and all of that, really, is in honor of my parents,” Gomez said. “They taught me that if you work hard, you push hard, and you get involved, and continue pushing to create a government that is accountable to all of us, then things change, and definitely that value, those principles, I always carry them with me.”
Gomez, who said she is queer, will be the first openly LGBTQ Latina in Congress if elected. She is part of a rainbow wave of at least 574 LGBTQ candidates who will be on the ballot next month, according to a new report by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer candidates. As women, minorities, and LGBTQ candidates fill the Democratic Party’s ranks, Gomez said there is an “opportunity to have a greater evolution in the party.”
“We need to ensure that we’re electing more progressives that are rooted in community, that understand and have lived through the issues that a majority of our constituents are living through,” she said. “That’s the way that you shape policies. … Our party also needs to understand and reflect those needs.”
A supporter of the Affordable Care Act and “Medicare for All,” Gomez supports making the U.S. health care system more affordable and inclusive. It’s personal for the candidate, who recently discovered that her own health insurance could deny her fertility coverage because she is in a same-sex relationship.
“We still have a health care system that is excluding our LGBTQ community needs, and that has to change,” she said, noting that transgender people can also be denied coverage for transition-related care.
If elected, Gomez said she is “extremely committed” to ensuring “we move forward progressive solutions.”
“I have the leadership to prove that I can move on issues that are normally divisive,” Gomez said. “And that’s the leadership that I’ll be bringing to Congress, and it will be standing against whatever Donald Trump continues to move forward.”
For over three decades, Stephanie Byers taught music and band at the largest public high school in Kansas. After seeing how decisions made by state lawmakers affected her students, she decided to trade retirement for politics.
“They saw a bottom line, a number that needs to be worked with, and didn’t think about what that means when a student is staring at a textbook that is being held together by duct tape because it outlived its usefulness and the district didn’t have the money to replace textbooks,” said Byers, who is running to be the next representative of Kansas House District 86, which includes much of Wichita.
A Democrat who ran unopposed in the primaries, Byers will face off against Republican Cyndi Howerton, a businesswoman, in the November election. While Kansas is largely a conservative state, Byers is a strong contender in Wichita, a progressive enclave that has historically swung left.
If elected, Byers has vowed to fight for increased funding for education and Medicaid expansion in Kansas, one of at least 12 states that have not expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act. She has also made civil rights protections a pillar of her campaign in a state where, according to advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, “there are currently no explicit, comprehensive statewide non-discrimination protections” for LGBTQ people.
When Byers came out as transgender six years ago, she was largely embraced by her students and colleagues, an experience that pushed her to become a trailblazer for trans educators in her school district.
“I realized that when I came out as a teacher that I was blazing the pathway,” she said. “A lot of public educators that are trans may not necessarily come forward and come out during their careers, because the fact that there’s the fear of prejudice is going to be there.”
As Republican-backed anti-transgender legislation — including much designed to keep trans students out of public restrooms and off sports teams — proliferated in statehouses across the country, including in Kansas, Byers met with school officials and spoke at community events to educate the public about gender identity.
Last October, she spoke out on behalf of trans educators and students at an American Civil Liberties Union rally outside of the Supreme Court, which at the time was hearing arguments in cases that would determine whether employers had a right to terminate workers because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2018, a year before she retired, Byers was named both state Educator of the Year by GLSEN Kansas and national Educator of the Year by GLSEN, the national LGBTQ youth advocacy organization with chapters across the country.
If Byers wins her election on Nov. 3, she will be the first out transgender lawmaker from Kansas. She is one in a “rainbow wave” of at least 574 LGBTQ candidates who will be on the ballot next month, according to a new report by Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for LGBTQ candidates. Byers said politicians who are transgender are seen as novelties, and that’s something she hopes to change.
“It’s a part of who we are. It’s part of our identity, but it’s not the only thing. There’s so many other things we are passionate about as well,” she said. “It’s just a matter of normalizing that enough that it’s no longer a thing, and … it’s just a matter of what can we do to serve the communities that elected us?”
The candidate, who grew up in neighboring Oklahoma, is a wife, parent of two adult sons and a grandparent of nine children. She’s a member of the Native American Chickasaw Nation and has deep roots in the working class. She said her father, a longtime U.S. Postal Service worker, and her mother, who served as national vice president to the American Postal Workers Union Auxiliary, showed her the struggles that working-class families face.
“I’m a parent, I’m the grandparent, and I know the challenges that families face at this time,” Byers said, “and that’s who I want to be a voice for — for those families that need somebody who stands up for them.”
For the past two years, residents in the small Rocky Mountain town of Heber City, Utah, have seen their main street bedecked with rainbow banners in celebration of Pride Month in June.
However, after the City Council voted for a controversial ordinance regulating banners, LGBTQ advocates said they fear the colorful displays will be a thing of the past.
“It feels like a slap in the face,” said Allison Phillips Belnap, 47, a local real estate attorney who raised $3,553 through a GoFundMe campaign to purchase and install the banners on city lampposts.
The new ordinance, passed in August, requires banner applications be reviewed by the city manager, with appeals submitted to the council for review. Any event or message promoted on the signage must be sponsored by Heber City, Wasatch County or the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce, and events must be both nonpolitical and nonprofit. Due to the ongoing debate within the community over whether Pride banners are “political” speech, and since the new ordinance bans political banners, it’s unclear whether city officials will approve them next June.
Heber City Mayor Kelleen Potter, the mother of two LGBTQ teens, opposed the ordinance.
“It has pretty much eliminated the option of private citizens funding banners and requesting them to be hung on Main Street, unless they are able to get sponsorship from the city, the county or the chamber, and that sponsorship means some financial sponsorship,” she said.
Prior to the ordinance, residents could apply to display banners on city lampposts for a fee of a few hundred dollars, so long as banners were noncommercial, according to Potter. Banners were approved by the public works department, and if public works had concerns about an application, they sent it to Potter for approval. Typically, banners advertise holidays and local events, such as Veterans Days and Heber Valley’s sheepdog competition, Potter said. No one questioned the process until June 2019, when residents saw their downtown adorned in rainbow banners for the first time.
A day after they appeared along Main Street, residents filled a city council meeting to voice divided opinions over them. While many were thrilled, others saw the rainbow banners as government-sanctioned “political speech,” according to Potter. She said city officials began receiving phone calls and emails from people who wanted to know if they could hypothetically apply to install flags with anti-abortion or anti-pornography messages, or with Ku Klux Klan or Nazi symbols, though no one actually applied to install such banners. Still, the inquiries sparked debate among city officials over whether an ordinance was needed to regulate them.
“No one ever gave me a specific example besides those that we could dismiss easily as hate speech,” said Potter, who had approved the Pride banners the past two years.
‘Are we the silent majority?’
Home to about 16,000 people, Heber City is a microcosm of how small towns across America are adjusting to evolving attitudes around gender and sexuality.
Last year, Mayor Wally Scott of Reading, Pennsylvania, canceled a Pride flag ceremony, calling the flag a political symbol. After criticism, he reversed his decision, and the rainbow flag flew over the city last June.
This past June, debate swarmed in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a town of about 42,000, after the town’s first Pride flag was relocated to what many residents considered a less visible location. That same month, officials in Foster City, California, a town of about 34,000, refused a request to raise a Pride flag outside the city’s municipal building in celebration of Pride Month. Councilman Sam Hindi told the Bay Area Reporter that doing so would open the door for hate groups to fly banners in the city.
Just last month, after some residents in Minot, North Dakota, voiced anger over a rainbow flag that was temporarily hoisted outside city hall, a lesbian council member came out publicly in fierce defense of the flag. Her speech was captured in a now-viral video posted online. Minot has since banned flags other than the American flag until it decides on an official policy.
Throughout Utah, rainbow flags are becoming common and increasingly controversial. Last year, Project Rainbow, a small Salt Lake City-based nonprofit, rented out rainbow flags for $14 that Utahans could stake in their lawns for the duration of their city’s Pride festivities. The group staked about 1,400 flags, and raised about $20,000, which it donated to local LGBTQ centers. The flags were not all well-received: The group received backlash on social media from people accusing it of “forcing their beliefs” on local communities, according to the group’s founder, Lucas Horns. Horns estimated that about 10 percent of last year’s flags were stolen or vandalized.
This month, for National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, the group staked 3,000 Pride flags.
“It does seem like there was an uptick in stolen flags and particularly vandalized flags,” Horns said in an email to NBC News. “A number of people found their flags torn or written on or even lit on fire, which I think speaks to a more emboldened hatred. But with that said, more people signed up for flags than ever before and were more excited about showing love and support to the LGBTQ community than ever.”
When Pride banners were installed along Main Street in Heber City this past June, there was less controversy than there had been the year prior, according to Mayor Potter. Still, residents took to the town’s local “Ask (Heber, Utah)” Facebook group to debate them. One mother expressed frustration over having to explain the meaning of the rainbows to her young children.
“As a Christian, our family believes that marriage is between a man and a woman. I’d like to think that there are other people in this valley who feel the same way. Are we the silent majority? If you still believe in Christian values, please speak up,” the woman wrote.
In August, after the second wave of backlash, the City Council voted to pass the banner ordinance. City Council Member Ryan Stack took to the “Ask (Heber, Utah)” Facebook group to explain why he voted in favor of the measure.
“By playing favorites and choosing only those banners it wants to see, a governing body engages in illegal viewpoint discrimination,” he wrote. “I supported removing the element of discretion by allowing only government speech on the banners. Yes — this prohibits private banners on Main Street. But it also protects the City in the stronger way to insulate it from potential legal claims when it comes to decisions regarding banner display.”
Heber City Council Member Mike Johnston, who also voted for the ordinance, told NBC News that it does not ban Pride banners, but is rather a way to keep out potentially hateful and divisive messages.
“If we decide — and I hope we will — that Pride is something we want to support, then we will do that as a city council, as elected officials, who are elected to make the decisions and take the heat,” Johnston said. “I think we’re big girls and big boys, and we can make those decisions, but it’s tough when you let anybody in the public submit banners to put up, and basically, they’re making a free speech statement that, ‘You have to let me do that, because that’s what you do, you let everybody do it, so you have to let me do it.’”
Political speech or symbol of inclusion?
Phillips Belnap claimed Heber City council members passed the ordinance to appease a religious minority who opposed the banners. She said the ordinance will likely prevent her from installing them next year, since it will require her to organize an event, such as a Pride festival, with financial sponsorship from the city, county or chamber of commerce.
“We’re not going to be able to get this council to sponsor a Pride festival or to get the county to sponsor a pride festival,” she said, referring to the ongoing debate over whether the banners are “political.”
She rejected criticism that her banners are political symbols. A lesbian who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as the Mormon Church) after multiple suicide attempts, Phillips Belnap said the banners were intended to reduce suicide among local LGBTQ youth.
Heber City resident Jamie Belnap, 41 (no relation to Phillips Belnap), whose 14-year-old son, Luke, is openly gay, said the banners “made us feel great” in a town where few LGBTQ people feel visible.
“Kids who don’t feel comfortable coming out yet, at least they know that our community is working towards being a welcoming place for them and that they’re seen and valued, so I know my son felt that way,” Belnap said.
Deeply conservative Utah has begun to warm on LGBTQ issues. In 2015, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed “the Utah compromise,” a law that made Utah the only solidly conservative state to pass some protections in housing and employment for LGBTQ people. Two years later, Utah became the first of eight conservative states to repeal a “No Promo Homo” law that prohibited discussing LGBTQ issues in schools. And this past January, it became the 19th state to ban conversion therapy for minors, a controversial practice that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It was the most politically conservative state to do so.
One reason for this shift could be a growing tendency among Mormon parents to embrace their LGBTQ children. In recent years, the Mama Dragons, an online support group for Mormon moms of LGBTQ kids, has grown to thousands of members. The group, which Mayor Potter joined after one of her own children came out, has pushed acceptance for LGBTQ youth among families in Utah.
Despite progress, Potter said many LGBTQ teens still feel isolated in Heber City.
“In a self-reported survey, 12 percent of our students at our high school report that they are somewhere in the LGBTQ community — that’s a lot of kids. And one of the top three issues they’ve identified are mental health issues, and so as we all bang our heads against the wall about how to help these kids, this was something that really was helping, because it created a more inclusive and accepting feeling,” she said of the Pride banners.
Three hundred miles southwest of Heber City, a similar controversy flared in the small desert town of St. George, Utah, where rainbow banners fluttered on lampposts along the town’s main thoroughfare last September.
Pride of Southern Utah, a local LGBTQ advocacy group, raised $6,100 to install the banners in St. George, as well as the towns of Cedar City and Hurricane. The banners promoted the group’s annual Pride Week festival, which is typically held in mid-September. After raising the money, the group obtained a permit to have the banners installed.
After they appeared, city officials received at least two informal inquiries from a white supremacist group and another group that wanted to display banners with President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” according to St. George Mayor John Pike. In an email circulated on social media that year, a St. George councilwoman referred to the rainbow Pride banners as “political statements,” unleashing a debate over whether a current ordinance surrounding public signage should be reevaluated. In response to the backlash, St. George put a moratorium on applications for lamppost banners until officials could revisit the city’s existing ordinance.
Because the Covid-19 pandemic forced the annual Pride festival to be canceled, the group has not applied to resurrect the banners this year, according to Pride of Southern Utah Director Stephen Lambert. But Lambert said he is confident that St. George officials will approve the banners in 2021.
On the topic of Heber City, Lambert said he understands the desire for an ordinance but also expressed concern.
“The real damage, I think will be if Heber [City] says, ‘Well, we’re just not going to do it, because we made a law that prevents you from doing this,’” Lambert said. “They need to figure out a way to keep out the riff raff and the negative and the hate, and keep in the people that need it.”
Despite the backlash against Pride banners, Phillips Belnap said the awareness they’ve created has helped encourage many in Heber City’s small LGBTQ community to come together. A local LGBTQ Facebook group that she started now has about 150 people, she said, and the local middle and high school have formed Gay-Straight Alliances clubs.
Jamie Belnap said her son was “very disappointed” by the ordinance but was also not surprised that it passed.
“I think it’s almost worse when the flags go up, and everybody feels seen and everybody feels like, ‘Oh, this is such a movement in the right direction’ … and then you see the backlash,” she said. And then to see the city give in to that backlash, she added, “That’s a pretty strong message — almost more so than if the flags had not been up.”
In 2017, Jon Hoadley came home one day to find his partner, Kris, sprawled on the bathroom floor.
“He was barely able to move, he had been throwing up for over 18 hours,” Hoadley, 37, told NBC News.
At the hospital, the couple received devastating news.
“The doctor comes in and says, ‘I think you have multiple sclerosis,’” he recalled the doctor telling Kris.
Hoadley said the constant headache of dealing with insurance companies and hospital bills since his partner’s diagnosis is a major reason he made affordable health care a priority in his campaign to represent Michigan’s 6th Congressional District.
“I’m not running to make history, I’m running to make change,” said Hoadley, a Democratic who, in addition to health care, is focusing his campaign on climate change and clean energy.
Hoadley, now in his third term as a state representative, is challenging Rep. Fred Upton, a moderate Republican who has represented the southwest Michigan district since 1986. Traditionally a conservative stronghold, the district voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. In this presidential election year, though, moderate voters have the potential swing the district, which sits on the Indiana border.
Hoadley, who grew up in South Dakota, has been an LGBTQ advocate since he was a student at Michigan State University, and he is a member of the Michigan Democrat’s LGBT and Allies Caucus. If elected, Hoadley would be Michigan’s fist openly gay member of Congress. He is one in a “rainbow” wave” of at least 850 LGBTQ people who have run for office this election cycle, up from 700 who ran in 2018, according to the Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for LGBTQ candidates.
“This is a moment where we can show that we’re ready for some big change,” Hoadley said. “And, you know, at the end of the day, though, the fact that I would be the first LGBT member of Congress from Michigan, I think it’s an interesting footnote to history, but the thing that keeps me up at night is what’s on the line if we don’t make this historic change this year.”
“We absolutely need to get health care right,” he added. “We are in the middle of a global health pandemic and a health crisis.”
When it comes to health care, Hoadley said, it is “absolutely an issue that we need to be talking about in the LGBT community.”
“We need to be tracking the statistics, we need to be making sure there are strong protections from discrimination, and we need to make sure that we are funding appropriately interventions that will specifically help some of the challenges that our community faces more so than other communities,” he explained.
“It’s a reminder that though we’ve made progress, we have so much work to do,” he added.
In recent months, Hoadley has had to fight back controversy regarding his past. In August, the New York Post reported on 15-year-old blog posts Hoadley made when he was in college. In the since-deleted posts, Hoadley, according to the paper, “referred to women as ‘breeders,'” “discussed learning about crystal meth,” “described his sexual partners as ‘victims’” and “included a reference to a ‘four year old wearing a thong.'”
Hoadley, who publicly apologized for the posts in a Facebook videoon Aug. 10, accused the NRCC of purposely “twisting” the posts, which he described as “slang” and “jokes,” to “use homophobia to paint a powerful story that has been debunked long ago.”
“They’re trying to reach deep into these discriminatory stereotypes about gay men,” Hoadley added.
Last month, the LGBTQ Victory Fund condemned the attacks against Hoadley as homophobic.
Hoadley said he hopes voters in Michigan and beyond “realize how important their vote is this November.”
“There are so many people who will use the forces of cynicism, who will lie about the difference between the candidates on the ballot, who will tell lies through social media to distract,” he said, “and it is important that we stay focused, because we desperately need change in our country.”
When Charles Hughes and Richard Solomon began making plans in 2018 to open their own gay bar in New York’s historic Harlem neighborhood, they had no idea a pandemic would shut them down before they even opened.
“The first thing we thought was, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going to be out of business before we started this business,’” Hughes, 39, told NBC News.
But a global health crisis is not the only headwind their bar, Lambda Lounge, and the few remaining Black-owned gay bars in the United States are facing. Long before anyone had heard of Covid-19, these LGBTQ social spaces were dwindling across the country.
For more than two decades, gay bars, especially those owned by people of color, have been disappearing. Historically, these spaces were where the LGBTQ community gathered to find romance, make long-lasting friendships and engage in community activism. Throughout the 1980s, there were more than 1,500 such bars, a number that has declined steeply since the late ‘90s, with fewer than 1,000 existing today, according to a study published last year by Oberlin College and Conservatory professor Greggor Mattson.
The closures have had a disproportionate impact on bars catering to women and people of color: Between 2007 and 2019, LGBTQ bar listings dropped by an estimated 37 percent, and those serving people of color plummeted by almost 60 percent, according to the study. Though the reasons are not entirely clear, experts suspect the overall decline in gay bars is related to decades of skyrocketing rents and gentrification, which have disproportionately impacted small, Black-owned businesses; the emergence of online dating sites and apps; and circuit parties that rotate among venues, which have become increasingly popular among younger crowds.
According to online listings, there are more than 60 LGBTQ bars across the five boroughs of New York City, one of the metropolitan areas hardest hit by the pandemic, and many of these spaces are struggling to stay open. Of the city’s dozens of remaining gay bars, just two — Lambda Lounge and Alibi Lounge, both in Harlem — are known to be Black owned. Club Langston in Brooklyn closed last year after nearly two decades in business.
Since it opened in 2015, Alibi Lounge has become a sanctuary for LGBTQ people of color. In March, under city mandates, owner Alexi Minko was forced to temporarily shutter his bar and soon began to run out of money. A former lawyer who had poured his life savings into his business, Minko frantically applied for emergency aid through the government’s overwhelmed Paycheck Protection Program application, whose website he said continuously crashed.
Desperate for assistance, Minko reluctantly set up an online fundraising campaign for his bar. He was on the brink of ending his lease, he said, when donations suddenly surged. In only a matter of weeks, the campaign raised $165,000. While Minko eventually received a small loan through the government’s emergency relief program, he said the donations “absolutely saved my business,” as well as the idea that it’s possible for a Black gay man to open his own bar.
“My fear if Alibi had gone down is to instill in the young mind that, ‘Oh, why bother? We’re Black and gay, it’s just going to fail anyway,’” said Minko, who has since reopened his bar outside at limited capacity in compliance with New York City’s rules.
Earlier this month, Alibi Lounge was one of 10 LGBTQ-owned businesses to be awarded funding through the Queer to Stayprogram, a small business initiative from Showtime and the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group.
Access to ‘mainstream capital’
While the total economic fallout from the pandemic won’t be known for some time, August data from the business listing site Yelp found that more than 2,800 businesses had permanently closed since March in New York City alone, and a report published last month from the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit business group, said as many as a third of the city’s “230,000 small businesses that populate neighborhood commercial corridors may never reopen.”
The national picture is also grim, especially for Black business owners: A report released in August by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found the number of Black-owned businesses declined more than 40 percent across the U.S. between February and April, while white-owned businesses declined 17 percent.
In June, the Small Business Administration released a list of 661,218 organizations that received loans of $150,000 or more. It received racial and ethnic backgrounds from just 94,501 owners. Of those, 1,827 Black-owned businesses received loans.
Most of these business owners rely on personal finance and credit, and often lack relationships with banks, according to Cy Richardson, senior vice president for economics and housing programs at the National Urban League, a nonprofit that advocates for economic and social justice for Black Americans.
“Broadly, the notion of access to mainstream capital, that’s where the racial wealth gap is really exacerbated,” he said.
Those at the intersection of the Black and the LGBTQ communities have been particularly hit hard amid the pandemic, according to asurvey released last month by the Human Rights Campaign, which found Black LGBTQ respondents fared worse than both the overall Black population and the overall LGBTQ population along every economic indicator measured.
‘Envy of the wider gay community’
Scholars who study LGBTQ nightlife say the loss of Black-owned gay bars would be devastating. Historically, these bars have been havens for people of color, who have experienced discrimination in white-owned bars for generations, according to Eric Gonzaba, an assistant professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, who is writing a book about the history of gay nightlife.
Around the 1960s, gay bars began to sprout in metropolitan areas across the U.S. At the time, closeted white people didn’t want to be seen entering a gay bar where someone they knew might recognize them, so owners had a tendency to open these bars in predominantly Black neighborhoods. They would then often enact racist policies — including unfair carding measures and dress codes — to keep Black people out, according to Gonzaba, who said even up until the 1990s, some white bar owners would require people of color to show three forms of government picture ID to enter.
“These are places that were highly segregated for much of their history and are perfect examples of the inability for the LGBTQ rights movement to have a unified coalition into the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Gonzaba explained. He said even the Stonewall Inn, the once mafia-owned New York City gay bar that has become a symbol of the LGBTQ rights movement, “didn’t let a lot of people of color into the doors” (it has long since operated under new owners who do not engage in such discrimination). Since many gay bars in the ‘80s and ‘90s were where gay activists gathered to educate the community about HIV and AIDS, he said lifesaving information about the virus often didn’t reach the Black community.
Fed up, the Black LGBTQ community began to form its own house parties and unique social clubs in cities with large Black populations. Washington, D.C., alone boasted about 20 bars, nightclubs, coffeehouses and social gatherings that catered to a Black LGBTQ clientele, according to the Rainbow History Project, though it’s unclear if all were Black-owned and operated. Black gay activist groups used these spaces to educate patrons about HIV and AIDs and to organize around issues for racial justice. Perhaps the most epic among them, the The Club House, remained a popular D.C. haunt until it shuttered in 1990.
Unlike most LGBTQ bars at the time, Black-owned bars welcomed a gender diverse crowd, including transgender and gender-nonconforming people, according to Gonzaba. He said these patrons cultivated a unique music subculture in the 1970s composed of early disco and drag, and a “more sexually expressive culture” began to flourish.
“This is music that’s founded by African American and Latinx people in inner cities, parts of Chicago and Philadelphia and Washington, and dancing becomes normalized … and this kind of style of music and this kind of style of dancing that’s highly sexualized becomes the envy of the wider gay community,” Gonzaba said of this early disco era that would later give rise to house and electronic dance music.
“It’s the ability for clubs to be places of refuge and sexual expression and sexual exploration,” he said, that still lead people today to “think of bars and nightlife as a place to not just have a drink but to explore different avenues of one’s sexuality, and that’s hugely borrowed from Black culture.”
Where are all the Black-owned gay bars?
The number of Black-owned gay bars, currently and historically, is unknown, since there is no resource that specifically tracks them, and Gonzaba said many bars frequented by LGBTQ people of color have historically been white-owned. But business listings suggest there may not be many of them left.
In addition to Lambda Lounge and Alibi Lounge in New York, at least three others — Jeffery Pub in Chicago, Metro 2.0 in Jackson, Mississippi, and Jocks PHL in Philadelphia — are still in business.https://www.instagram.com/p/BzWSKlLBq7l/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=8&wp=1116&rd=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nbcnews.com&rp=%2Ffeature%2Fnbc-out%2Fblack-owned-gay-bars-are-dwindling-can-they-survive-covid-n1241100#%7B%22ci%22%3A0%2C%22os%22%3A877%2C%22ls%22%3A852%2C%22le%22%3A873%7D
In Chicago, the pandemic is threatening to shut down what might be the country’s oldest Black-owned gay bar. Jeffery Pub opened in the 1960s and has gone through multiple owners, according to the current owner, Jamal Junior. The businessman, who purchased the bar in the mid-2000s, was forced to temporarily close the pub in March under a city ordinance as the pandemic swept through the Midwest. He said the pub has not been able to reopen in compliance with city mandates because it lacks outdoor space.
“I’m just praying and hoping that we can survive,” Junior, 46, told NBC News.
Metro 2.0 owner Temica Morton is currently trying to hold on to what might be the only Black-owned gay bar in the South. Morton, a Jackson-based LGBTQ advocate, acquired the lease to the bar in February just as the pandemic struck the U.S. She invested her entire savings into Metro 2.0, which she said has been a popular venue for LGBTQ people of color of all genders since it opened in the late 1990s. But a seesawing series of shutdown orders from state and city officials left the businesswoman in “panic mode” as she struggled to figure out how to keep the bar alive. The bar temporarily shut down Aug. 5, and reopened in September at limited capacity after the shutdown lifted. Morton, 44, said she’s now “taking it one day at a time.”
Many Black-owned bars whose clientele was composed largely of people of color have shuttered in the past decade, including several in New York City alone, like Starlite Lounge, No Parking and Club Langston. Perhaps the most famous of the shuttered bars was Jewel’s Catch One, a Los Angeles venue known for its Black disco scene that operated between 1973 and 2015 under the ownership of lesbian Jewel Thais-Williams. And a decade before that, the community lost beloved bar Knob Hill in Washington, D.C., which operated between 1957 and 2004.
In 1990, after dealing with decades of discrimination at gay bars in San Francisco, where he moved in 1969, Rodney Barnette, a Vietnam War veteran, former member of the Black Panther Party and gay rights activist, opened his own bar. The New Eagle Creek Saloon, which operated under the slogan “A friendly place with a funky base for every race,” was forced to shut down after only three years due to rent increases that Barnette said he could not afford. But before it shuttered, he said the saloon served as a refuge for San Francisco’s LGBTQ people of color. Activist groups like Lesbians and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action (LAGADDA) gathered there to organize against racist carding policies in San Francisco and to educate the Black community about HIV prevention, he said.
“I call it a community center that served alcohol, that’s the way I describe it,” said Barnette, whose bar has been memorialized by his daughter, artist Sadie Barnette, in an exhibit commissioned by The Lab in San Francisco.
“People felt good,” he said of the saloon’s patrons. “You could walk in the bar, and know there wouldn’t be any discrimination against you, that you were welcome, that everybody was welcome.”
‘Everybody should be treated equal’
By the 1990s, Black LGBTQ activists and allies had successfully fought to end racist carding policies. However, a number of recent incidents indicate that racism still plagues gay nightlife.
In 2016, fury erupted in Philadelphia after a video shared widely on social media showed the owner of a popular gay bar using the N-word. A 2017 report issued by the city’s Commission on Human Rights found that women, minorities and transgender people felt unwelcome and unsafe in Philadelphia’s gay neighborhood for decades. The report recommended establishments and organizations in the so-called gayborhood undergo training for racial bias and hire more diverse staff.
In 2018, a group of Atlanta drag performers, all trans women of color, collectively quit their jobs at a popular gay club, Burkhart’s, after its white owner made racist posts on his Facebook page.
Last year, an email from a manager at Progress Bar, a gay bar in Chicago’s “gayborhood,” ordered DJs to stop playing rap music at the bar. “Anything vulgar, aggressive or considered mumble rap (including certain Cardi B tracks and newer Nicki Minaj) is off limits,” the manager wrote in a leaked message.
In June, activists gathered in front of 941 Saloon, a Pittsburgh gay bar, to protest dress codes they said discriminated against Black people.
In July, a picture circulating on Facebook showed a bartender at Number Nine, a popular gay bar in Washington, D.C., apparently wearing a “black face” Covid-19 mask. The management later posted an apology, claiming the bartender didn’t know the mask was racist.
Over the years, as wealth in the U.S. has become more concentrated, Gonzaba said it is not uncommon for multiple gay bars to be managed under a single owner.
“These bars are owned by wealthy, white men who often have many different establishments in the cities,” he explained.
Some bars, even if they don’t engage in discriminatory practices within their establishment, try to cultivate loyalty among white clientele through their branding, according to Gonzaba. For example, in 2012, a leaked email from a gay bar owner in Washington, D.C., revealed that he had requested an advertisement for the bar, which displayed a Black man, be replaced with “a hot white guy,” stating it was “more our clientele.”
Barnette, who now resides in Los Angeles, said that despite progress made by activists, LGBTQ nightlife still caters predominantly to white men.
“The overall gay white male community has not reformed into making it a point that everybody should be treated equal,” he said.
‘A responsibility to queer people of color’
In New York City, where Covid-19 cases have plummeted, bars and restaurants have been allowed to slowly reopen outdoors at limited capacity. Starting Sept. 30, restaurants will be allowed to reopen their indoor space at 25 percent capacity, though bar service will not be permitted.
In July, Lambda Lounge celebrated its grand opening with a “nice turnout” despite restrictions, according to Hughes and Solomon, 38, who set up their lounge outdoors.
“It was so nice,” Hughes said. “We had to literally stop people coming in so we could be compliant with Covid rules.”
While the couple said they did receive a small loan through the emergency relief program, they are unsure how long they will remain open without more assistance, especially as the weather cools and a possible second wave of Covid-19 could force the city to shut down bars and restaurants later this year. So far, they’ve raised nearly $6,000 through a GoFundMe campaign for their lounge.
Hughes said the ongoing stress is giving him migraines, and Solomon said it has been “hard to find optimism right now.” Their insurance premium has already increased by $1,000 a month due to the pandemic, they said, and they are not currently bringing in enough money to cover their rent and other expenses. Still, the men vow to stay open as long as they can.
“We have a responsibility to queer people of color to make sure that this place lasts, and it’s extremely difficult when we run into obstacles,” Solomon said, “but the glass is half full.”
Before Edafe Okporo founded New York City’s first and only shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees, he was wandering the streets of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a refugee with nowhere to go. Although he was homeless, Okporo was happy to be in the United States.
“Everything just changed when I stepped my feet into this country,” said Okporo, 30, an LGBTQ activist who fled his homeland, Nigeria, in 2016, “because there is an opportunity to dream of a better future, to have a path here as a gay man.”
Okporo grew up in Warri, a city in southern Nigeria. Not only was he poor growing up, but he also struggled with his sexuality. When high school classmates discovered that Okporo was interested in boys, he said, they outed him to his parents, who made him undergo conversion therapy.
Later, while attending college in Enugu, Nigeria, he arranged a meeting with a man he had met through a dating website. What he thought was a date, he said, turned out to be a “siege.” Once he was inside the man’s apartment, he said, a group of men jumped out of a closet and held him hostage while they stole money from his bank account.
“That was the first time I realized that it’s not just that my parents were trying to prevent me from being gay,” he said, “but they were trying to protect me from such kind of persecution.”
Traumatized by the attack, Okporo spent the rest of college forcing himself to date women. He joined a church and even became a pastor. But after he graduated in 2014 — the same year Nigeria made same-sex relationships punishable by up to 10 years in prison — he decided he could no longer live a lie. He moved to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, where he helped found the International Centre for Advocacy on Right to Health, an LGBTQ rights organization and HIV clinic.
But Okporo’s activism made him a target. One night in 2016, alone in his apartment, he was startled awake by a loud noise. A mob, he said, was ramming down his door. They rushed in, dragged him into the street and beat him unconscious. Some good Samaritans found him, saw his ID card and carried him to the clinic where he worked.
“When I woke up in the clinic, I knew I had to leave Nigeria for me to be safe,” he said.
After fleeing to Dubai and then returning to Nigeria, he obtained a visa to attend the International LGBTQ Leaders Conference, organized by the Victory Institute, in Washington D.C. — a chance to seek asylum in the U.S., where same-sex marriage had recently been legalized and which he pictured as “a very accepting place.”
That image, he said, turned out to be different from the reality. Okporo approached an admission officer at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and explained that he was seeking asylum. He said the officer took him to an airport jail cell, where he was forced to sign deportation papers.
“The officer came and he put handcuffs on me,” Okporo said, “and drove me to the detention center in New Jersey.”
Okporo would spend five harrowing months in a detention center in Elizabeth. Immigration Equality, a group that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ and HIV-positive immigrants, connected him with a lawyer who helped him fight deportation in court. After winning his case, he was released from detention, but he had nowhere to go.
His only resource was a phone number advertised on a flyer tacked to the wall of the detention center. The number belonged to First Friends of New Jersey and New York, an organization that supports detained immigrants and asylum-seekers.
A volunteer picked Okporo up and drove him to a YMCA shelter in Newark, New Jersey. He used a computer at the public library to connect with a former colleague from the International Centre for Advocacy on Right to Health, who was living in Queens, New York. She agreed to let him stay with her for three months while he found work, first at a New Jersey-based catering company and then at a nearby HIV clinic.
But Okporo wanted to do more to help asylum-seekers and refugees like himself. He persuaded the leaders of the RDJ Refugee Shelter in Harlem — named after homeless advocate Robert Daniel Jones — to turn the shelter into a full-time transitional refuge for migrants fleeing violence and persecution abroad.
Housed in a former church, the shelter is New York City’s only full-time refuge for asylum-seekers and refugees. The 10-bed shelter has provided temporary housing for more than 80 migrants, said Okporo, the shelter’s director. The shelter also provides legal counseling and job assistance.
Under those restrictions, Okporo said, asylum-seekers would face more barriers coming to the U.S. than ever before.
“The pandemic has given the administration an opportunity to really close the door for a lot of the refugees and asylum-seekers who usually expect America to be that place of safety when they think about fleeing their countries,” he said.
Not everyone fleeing homophobic and transphobic violence abroad is from a country that criminalizes homosexuality, he said, noting that a majority of those housed in the RDJ Refugee Shelter who have received asylum are from Honduras and Jamaica. While sex between men is outlawed in Jamaica, same-sex activity is legal in Honduras. Still, LGBTQ migrants, particularly those who are transgender, face widespread persecution in both countries, Okporo said. Many non-LGBTQ migrants, he added, are fleeing war-torn regions.
All too often, LGBTQ asylum-seekers who make the journey across the border end up homeless, he said, because family and friends with permanent residence in the U.S. will not open their doors to them.
“Most of them face a kind of rejection even from their community in New York,” Okporo said. “The shelter provides them that space to be themselves even in New York City.”
Okporo, who has a degree in food science, considers himself lucky. Many asylum-seekers do not have the education or proper documentation to qualify for jobs or shelter, he said. Transgender asylum-seekers and refugees in the process of transitioning are especially vulnerable, he said, because they often lack documentation and frequently experience discrimination and violence in shelters.
“Knowing that New York is one of the most liberal places in the world and people are still subjected to such kind of persecution just makes me wonder where else in the world can LGBTQ migrants be safe,” he said.
Okporo is a finalist for the David Prize, an initiative of the Walentas Family Foundation that awards grants to New Yorkers who are making a difference. Okporo said that if he is selected, he will use the money to expand the RDJ Refugee Shelter, which subsists largely on grants and donations. He would also train faith leaders around New York City to use their churches, mosques and temples as places of refuge for migrants fleeing violence and persecution.
Okporo no longer feels the need to hide who he is.
“I have wanted to be open about my sexuality all my life,” said Okporo, who is unashamed to hold hands with his boyfriend, Nicolas, when they walk the streets together. “There is no way I’m going to hide it.”
“When I came to the U.S., I discovered that some states, they have laws that permit conversion therapy. I was shocked. … In the U.S., I thought that gay marriage had eliminated such kind of struggles,” he said.
“A lot of gay people in America after gay marriage think that it is over,” Okporo added. “It’s not over.”
CORRECTION (July 26, 2020, 11:30 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Okporo’s hometown of Warri. It is a city of more than 500,000 people in southern Nigeria; it is not a village.
Ever since Perriviia “Black Butterfly” Brown moved into her Memphis, Tennessee, apartment in 2015, she has been afraid to sit on her front porch. A Black transgender woman who is partially blind, Brown said she doesn’t feel safe in her neighborhood. She said she often deals with transphobic abuse when she ventures to the nearby grocery store.
“I just stay in the house and mind my business,” Brown, 46, told NBC News. “If I have someone come over, they just have to come over on the inside. I would love to entertain on the outside, but it’s … so violent out here, and you don’t know who likes you and who don’t like you, and you don’t know if they got a hatred against trans women.”
Despite her fear, Brown considers herself lucky to have a home. A 2018 Human Rights Campaign report noted that 41 percent of Black transgender respondents reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives, a rate five time higher than the general U.S. population.
“If you are experiencing the intersection of racism and transphobia that leads to social and economic marginalization without access to some kind of permanent housing support, it’s going to be very difficult to fight to try and access that stability that a lot of people in our country take for granted.”
But thanks to a recent campaign that has raised over $250,000 to build a small neighborhood of 20 “tiny homes” for Black trans women and nonbinary people in the Memphis area, Brown may soon own her own home — one with a porch where she can sit outside unafraid.
“Tiny homes” are a rising trend made popular with reality TV shows like HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters.” Seen by some as a path to affordable, minimalist living, tiny homes are pre-made studio structures, sometimes converted from sheds, that cost a fraction of the price of a traditional home.
The project is the brainchild of Memphis-based My Sistah’s House, which helps Black transgender women and nonbinary people access safe housing. The small nonprofit also helps individuals with bail assistance and the legal processes around transitioning.
In June, the group launched a GoFundMe page and quickly exceeded its $200,000 goal in a matter of weeks, according to My Sistah’s House cofounder Kayla Gore.
Since its founding in 2017, My Sistah’s House has provided temporary shelter to those in the Memphis area but has struggled to help them access permanent housing, Gore said. Many of the organization’s clients have been turned away from homeless shelters due to their transgender identity, she said, adding that long-term housing projects are necessary to lift the Black trans community out of an endless cycle of homelessness and poverty.
“It’s been super overwhelming to see the support that’s coming in so fast and so rapidly,” Gore said. She hopes the project will serve as a model for other advocacy organizations that want to help trans people own their own homes.
Homeownership is low among transgender people: The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, which included interviews with nearly 28,000 trans individuals across the U.S., found 16 percent of transgender respondents reported owning their homes, compared to 63 percent of the general public at the time.
My Sistah’s House is among a handful of trans-led, grassroots groups that are working to create long-term housing solutions for Black trans women and nonbinary people in the South.
In Atlanta, a campaign called the Homeless Black Trans Women Fund, organized by trans activist Jesse Pratt López, has so far raised over $2.7 million of its $3 million goal to create secure, long-term housing for Black transgender women. In Louisiana, Trans United Leading Intersectional Progress, or TULIP, is more than halfway to its goal of raising $400,000 to purchase and restore a six-bedroom house (to be named “House of Tulip”) that will provide a pathway to home ownership for trans and gender-nonconforming people in New Orleans.
“Housing really is this first thing that is such a necessity for people to be able to access all of these other things,” according to Dylan Waguespack, co-founder of TULIP and public policy director for True Colors United. “If you are experiencing the intersection of racism and transphobia that leads to social and economic marginalization without access to some kind of permanent housing support, it’s going to be very difficult to fight to try and access that stability that a lot of people in our country take for granted.”
‘There’s so many roadblocks’
The low rate of homeownership and high rate of homelessness for transgender Americans are connected to the disproportionate discrimination, unemployment and incarceration they face, which can all cascade into a cycle of poverty, according to advocates.
Rebeckah Hill, a Memphis-based rapper, is familiar with this cycle of poverty. A Black trans woman who has experienced homelessness on and off since her early 20s, she has been unable to get her name and gender updated on her government ID, find a stable job and secure housing, or even build the credit necessary to qualify for her own home.
“I can’t get into an apartment now,” she said. “I’m 31 years old. I’ve never had my own place to stay.”
Black trans people have an unemployment rate more than three times that of the general population, and half of these individuals reported “feeling forced to participate in underground economy for survival,” according to a 2018 American Psychological Association report. When people turn to the “underground economy,” which includes sex work and drug sales, they then risk going to jail or prison, and a criminal record is often another barrier to obtaining long-term housing. According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, the rate of Black trans women who were incarcerated in the course of a year was 10 times the rate of the general public.
In May, Hill was incarcerated on a pending drug case. After a week in jail, she was bailed out by the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter and My Sistah’s House, which also helped her find a room in a temporary rental. Having a felony on her record, she said, has made it difficult for her to qualify for public housing and climb out of the cycle of poverty.
“There’s so many roadblocks,” Hill said. “It makes my head hurt.”
A landmark Supreme Court ruling issued last month found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discriminationbased on sexual orientation and transgender identity. While the decision was welcome news to LGBTQ advocates, Gore noted that many Black trans women still lack access to quality education and job training that will help them begin a decent-paying career that would in turn allow them to qualify for an apartment or mortgage.
“A big portion of the folks that we serve participate in survival sex or sex work, therefore, they don’t have verifiable income,” Gore said. “So that’s the reason that they can’t get housing or they’re underemployed, in a sense that they don’t necessarily have access to equitable jobs that will provide them an income that is enough to obtain stable housing.”
Currently, federal law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in private housing, and at least 25 states do not have state-level protections against such discrimination, according to Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank. While an Obama-era rule protects transgender people from discrimination in federally funded housing, the Trump administration announced it intends to reverse this measure, which could result in trans women being assigned to men’s homeless shelters.
Trans women who cannot access stable housing often seek shelter in hotel rooms, according to Hill, who said hotel managers often turn them away “because we’re automatically assumed to be sex workers.”
Even when trans people meet the requirements to qualify for an apartment, they frequently report dealing with discrimination from housing providers, advocates say. According to the 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 19 percent of respondents reported being refused a home or apartment, and 11 percent reported being evicted due to their gender identity or gender expression. A 2017 Urban Institute study that relied on paired testing found that housing providers were less likely to tell transgender people about rentals. The study found that rental seekers in the Washington, D.C., metro area who told housing providers they were trans were less likely, on average, to be informed about available rentals than those who didn’t.
When Brown applied for her Memphis apartment five years ago, she said she presented as a man to avoid any potential discrimination.
“It made me feel nervous, it made me feel like I’m doing something wrong, and it made me feel like I was an outcast,” she said. “I had to play the role that they wanted me to play, the role to just give me a place to stay.”
Recent studies indicate that the lack of access to secure housing and employment often puts Black trans people at a dangerous crossroads where they are vulnerable to violence. Between January 2013 and July 2020, Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, has tracked at least 180 cases of trans and gender-nonconforming people being violently killed in the U.S., with trans Black women accounting for approximately 70 percent of the deaths.
The violence Black trans women endure is directly related to housing insecurity, Gore said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemicwill likely exacerbate the situation.
“That’s because we’re trying to maintain our housing, so we’re doing things that may be a little risky in order to survive and make sure that we do have housing,” she said.
Hill knows this violence firsthand. “I’ve been stabbed in my chest. … I have been shot. I have been through a lot,” she said.
At the end of June, Hill became homeless again after her landlord raised her rent. But through My Sistah’s House’s tiny-homes campaign, Hill hopes to soon have a house to call her own.
“I still have an opportunity to do what it is that I want to do,” said Hill, who hopes to build a career as a musician. “Stability right now would be overwhelming for me. I’m crying now, because it feels so good and sounds so good.”
Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a federal bill that would broadly modify existing civil rights legislation to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit, but the law has been held up in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In the absence of federal protections that would make it illegal for both private and federally funded housing providers to discriminate on the basis of gender identity, including homeless shelters, there is no universal safety net that protects Black trans people from the cycle of poverty, advocates say.
“We’ll never be able to eliminate discrimination; it will happen,” Waguespack said. “What we do need is recourse for people who experience it; we need access to justice for those folks, and we need federal, state and local dollars to be moving to folks who are actively working to make housing solutions available to communities that experience this kind of discrimination.”
‘We might have our own town’
My Sistah’s House is currently in negotiations to purchase a plot of land in the Memphis area, where the 20 tiny homes will be installed, according to Gore. The next step, she said, is to purchase the homes (at about $10,000 each) and work with a contractor to ensure they meet building codes. The group also plans to raise additional funds to complete the homes’ interiors and furnish them.
“If it’s successful, we might have our own town in a minute,” said Gore, who hopes to have the project complete by the end of 2020.
In the meantime, Brown imagines how her future tiny house will be adorned: pink and white siding with a black butterfly painted on the side, a rose bush and a swing where she can sit on her front porch with friends.
“Having my own key, just turning my own door into my own home,” Brown said of what she looks forward to the most, “and sitting outside on the porch enjoying the fresh air and the butterflies and just smelling fresh air and freshness and freedom that I can own my own home.”
Brooklyn’s last remaining lesbian bar, Ginger’s, sits on a busy avenue that cuts through the borough’s gentrified Park Slope neighborhood. Over the past two decades, it has endured 9/11, the Great Recession and skyrocketing rent, but owner Sheila Frayne is unsure it will survive COVID-19.
“Realistically, I’m saying maybe this is the end,” Frayne, 53, told NBC News.
In compliance with citywide guidelines for nonessential businesses, Frayne locked the doors of Ginger’s on March 15, two days before St. Patrick’s Day and what would have been the bar’s 20th anniversary. Through the darkened windows, she peered at the shamrock decorations that still hung on the walls and started to cry.
“The bar business is recession proof — it’s not pandemic proof, though.”
HENRIETTA HUDSON OWNER LISA CANNISTRACI
“It’s really sad, because women-owned businesses are hard anyhow, and women-owned bars are unheard of,” Frayne said. “Usually, they have somebody backing them or something like that, but I did do it by myself, and it’s just blood, sweat and tears to get where I did and keep surviving.”
Ginger’s Bar is one of three lesbian bars still standing in New York City, and one of just a handful left in the entire country. With most, if not all, of these establishments forced to temporarily shutter due to the coronavirus pandemic, their future is uncertain, with several facing the potential of permanent closure.Last call for lesbian bars?
The number of lesbian bars in the United States has always been far fewer than those primarily catering to gay men, even though statistically women are more likely than men to identify as LGBTQ. The peak came in the late 1980s with an estimated 200 lesbian bars across the country, according to a study published last year by Greggor Mattson, an associate professor of sociology at Oberlin College, but the number is now estimated to be 16. These venues include Henrietta Hudson in New York City, My Sister’s Room in Atlanta, Wildrose in Seattle, Walker’s Pint in Milwaukee and Gossip Grill in San Diego.
The decline in the number of lesbian bars is part of a broader trend of LGBTQ bars shuttering across the U.S. Throughout the 1980s, there were more than 1,500 such bars, but that number has been steadily declining since the late ‘90s, with less than 1,000 existing today (with the lion’s share of them catering mostly to male or mixed-gender crowds), according to Mattson’s study. These closures, however, have not happened equally: Between 2007 and 2019, an estimated 37 percent of all LGBTQ bars shuttered, while bars catering to women and queer people of color saw declines of 52 percent and 60 percent, respectively, according to the report.
Mattson said even the closure of a single gay or lesbian bar can be a particularly acute loss for a community.
Since the gay liberation movement began in the 1960s, many of these bars have served as the nucleus of America’s “gayborhoods” — refuges where people could organize, raise funds, meet friends and find romance. Mattson said even the closure of a single LGBTQ bar can be a particularly acute loss for a community.
New York City has witnessed the country’s largest rise and fall in lesbian spaces — with about 200 opening and closing over the last century (including bars, cafes, bookstores, and community centers), according to Gwen Shockey, creator of the Addresses Project, a digital tool that tracks the city’s lesbian venues. Shockey said New York saw a wave of lesbian bar openings in the the ‘70s and ‘80s, likely bolstered by the surging feminist and LGBTQ rights movements of the time and the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, which made it illegal for banks to deny loans on the basis of gender. This trend, however, didn’t last, with the following decades seeing closures amid soaring commercial rents in metropolitan areas and alternative ways for queer people to meet each other, like dating sites and apps.
Shockey said the loss of additional brick-and-mortar spaces dedicated to LGBTQ people, particularly for women, would be tragic.
“There’s nothing like sitting in a safe space that’s controlled by queer people, and having a conversation, dancing, interacting,” she said. “It’s just so valuable, and it’s so liberating, and it’s enabled me to come out and to find a life for myself.”
In the last five years alone, iconic lesbian bars such as Sisters in Philadelphia and The Lexington Club in San Francisco permanently shut their doors. In New York City, at least 11 bars and clubs frequented by lesbians and queer women have shuttered since 2004, including One Last Shag, Meow Mix and Crazy Nanny’s. Bum Bum Bar, which had been the only lesbian bar in Queens, officially closed last year.
While there are only three lesbian bars left in all five boroughs of New York City — arguably considered, along with San Francisco, to be the queer capital of the U.S. — online listings show there are more than 80 venues catering to gay men or mixed-gender LGBTQ crowds in the city.
In America’s heartland, there are few bars that cater to the gay and lesbian community. Walker’s Pint, Milwaukee’s lone lesbian bar and perhaps one of just two left in the entire Midwest, temporarily shuttered in March after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers ordered nonessential businesses to close. With help from her bank, owner Elizabeth “Bet-z” Boenning said she managed to receive a modest loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program — just enough to cover expenses for about three months. If her bar doesn’t reopen, she said it would be a devastating loss for the local community.
“Women don’t have a place that’s for women other than the Pint, really,” Boenning said, noting that her Milwaukee business is surrounded by several bars that cater to gay men.
In Washington State, only one lesbian bar remains: Wildrose. Owned by Shelley Brothers since 1984, it has managed to survive sky-high rents in Seattle’s gentrified Capitol Hill neighborhood. In mid-March, as COVID-19 swept through the city, Brothers temporarily closed her bar. If she’s unable to reopen, she said it would be more than the loss of a historic watering hole.
“It’s like a bar in a community center,” Brothers said. “We’ve always just tried to provide a safe space for women to come.”Systemic funding issues
Many attribute the loss of lesbian bars to the high cost of opening and maintaining a bar, as well as the systemic difficulty women often have in acquiring financial support.
“If you look at any funding statistics, they always show you that women-owned businesses get even less than male-owned businesses, or that 4 percent of venture capital goes to women,” said Pamela Prince-Eason, president and CEO of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).
The pandemic is likely exacerbating the problem. Millions of small businesses throughout the U.S. have been unable to access assistance through the $2.2 trillion emergency relief package passed by Congress at the end of March. Even before the emergency relief program ran out of money in April, several bar owners interviewed for this story said they were unable to apply for assistance through the online application, which they said routinely froze or crashed, and most of these owners said they lacked relationships with banks that could help them.
While the federal stimulus was meant to help small mom and pop shops, $243.4 million worth of payroll loans went to publicly traded companies, because language in the bill opened the door for many to apply. Within WBENC’s network of more than 16,000 women-owned businesses, less than 1 percent received aid through the first round of stimulus, according to Prince-Eason.
Currently, about 12 million of the 32 million businesses (less than 4 in 10) in the U.S. are owned by women, and the majority of these are small businesses, according to WBENC. Even fewer businesses are owned by LGBTQ people — about 1.4 million, according to theLGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.
If the next round of stimulus leaves out many small businesses again, Prince-Eason said much of the gains made by women-owned businesses — which saw a 58 percent increase over the last decade — are likely to be reversed. “Which is very depressing and demeaning and painful for all people affected,” she said.Online fundraising efforts
As lesbian bar owners nervously await government assistance or the green light to reopen their businesses, and negotiate rent payments with their landlords, many are launching fundraising campaigns to raise money for their overhead costs and their employees.
Boenning — whose Milwaukee pub has been closed since March 17, on what would have been the city’s popular St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl — recently raised $3,695 for her Walker’s Pint staff. “I don’t know what else to do for them,” she said.
Nightlife workers stuck at home — bartenders, barbacks, bouncers and performance artists — whose income depends largely on tips, wonder when they will be able to work again. Many who have been unable to get unemployment through their states’ overwhelmed unemployment systems grapple with an uncertain future.
“One day we’ll feel pretty good, and the next day we’ll feel terrible,” Jo McDaniel, a manager and bartender at A League of Her Own in D.C., said. “It’s a real struggle personally to keep my mental health above water.”
A League of Her Own and its brother bar, Pitchers, both owned by David Perruzza, managed to raise over $8,000 for staff. Neighboring Washington, D.C., lesbian bar, XX+, managed to raise about $4,000 for staff after not receiving government assistance.
“I’m trying to do all the legit things by applying for this, applying for that, and never get any word about when you’re going to get a grant or if you should get a grant,” XX+ owner Lina Nicolai said, “and so it’s very uncertain.”
Cubby Hole, a popular hangout for queer women in Manhattan, raised over $48,000 for staffers after owner Lisa Menichino was unable to retrieve federal aid. Even with tens of thousands raised, she’s not sure she will be able to sustain her bar through the fall without emergency assistance. “It’s been really scary,” said Menichino, whose monthly expenses total more than $10,000. But she is not giving up hope.
“I’m going to find a way to keep this bar open,” she said. “I have to. It’s like an icon. It means so much to so many people. Even if I have to go into my personal finances, I will.”
My Sister’s Room in Atlanta is the only bar that serves lesbian and bisexual women in Georgia, and possibly the entire Southeast. Owners Jen and Jami Maguire are raising money for staff by selling T-shirts online. They applied for emergency aid but haven’t received any. They’re hopeful, but also worried. If the pandemic stretches into October, when Atlanta holds its annual Pride celebration, it would be “very catastrophic,” Jen Maguire said.
“We just want to do what we can to get everybody back to work, but not at the sake of someone losing their life for someone to make some money,” she said. “Safety is number one.”
Many bar owners question how to reopen once the pandemic is over. Typically, people gather in bars whether times are good or bad, Henrietta Hudson’s owner, Lisa Cannistraci, said. Her bar remained open through a number of hard times, including 9/11 and the Great Recession, but she sees this new era of social distancing as an entirely different crisis to navigate.
“The bar business is recession proof — it’s not pandemic proof, though,” Cannistraci, who has raised over $6,000 for her staff, said. Her insurance policy doesn’t cover damage from pandemics, she said. And while she applied early for all the government aid she could, she hasn’t received any assistance.
“I did everything,” she said, “and there’s nothing — crickets.”
With New York City Pride events postponed indefinitely and Ginger’s Bar shuttered until bars and restaurants are allowed to reopen, Frayne is suffering a devastating loss of revenue. For the first time in 20 years, she’s unable to pay rent, and her insurance policy doesn’t cover her pandemic-related losses. She applied for government aid, she said, but hasn’t received any. She worries about her staff, who she said have been unable to file applications through New York City’s paralyzed unemployment system.
So far, Brothers has managed to raise over $36,000 to keep the Wildrose afloat for the time being, but she said it won’t last long. Her annual $30,000 insurance policy doesn’t cover pandemic-related losses, though she said she still has to foot the monthly insurance bill. And her application for emergency aid has gone unanswered. Not knowing the future of Washington state’s last lesbian bar weighs heavy on her.
“It’s minute to minute, basically. It’s up and down. You’ll be all filled with hope, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so horrible,’ and then, ‘OK, we can do this,’ and then ‘Oh, God, this is horrible.’ It just goes back and forth,” Brothers said.‘A stronger economy that includes all of us’
Last week, Frayne returned to Ginger’s Bar to collect the mail that had piled up since she shuttered it in March — mostly bills, she said. Without assistance, she wonders if Brooklyn’s last lesbian bar will ever reopen.
“I mean, after 20 years, do I really want to owe a ton of money with rent and insurance to open a business again?” she said. “I worked too hard; I’m getting too old for it. I don’t know if I can do that again.”