Adrian Tam, a 28-year-old gay Asian American son of immigrants, defeated a leader of the Hawaii chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, to become the only openly LGBTQ person in Hawaii’s Legislature.
Tam, a first-time candidate, took 63 percent of the vote against Nicholas Ochs.
“It feels really good to know that someone who is openly LGBT can win,” Tam told NBC Asian America. “There was a time when people like me could not win. I’m glad that I can bring that representation to the capital.”
Tam described what was a nerve-wracking election season, from trying to connect with voters amid coronavirus, to narrowly taking down longtime incumbent Tom Brower in the August Democratic primary, to facing an overwhelming amount of hate from Ochs and his supporters in the general election.
“It’s almost to a harassment level,” Tam said, noting that Ochs’ supporters bombarded his campaign’s social media to the point where the messages from his own voters were drowned out.
Ochs told NBC News he also faced harassing messages from Tam’s supporters and that he was disappointed the two didn’t get a chance to debate. He said that he is not racist.
Ochs’ campaign page was removed by Facebook in September for posts that violated the platform’s terms of service and community standards, local station KITV reported. He has been criticized in the past for offensive posts toward Black, Jewish and LGBT communities. Facebook did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Tam said part of his job now is to serve even those who directed hate toward him and his allies.
“I wanted our community to come together,” he said. “I wanted to let everyone know that I’m a public servant that will work with everyone. My office door will always be open to them and their families.”
Tam’s agenda includes recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, strengthening the nontourism economy and improving resources for the homeless. Hawaii has the third-highest rate of homelessness in the country, according to a 2019 study, and Tam says the problem is especially prevalent in his district.
“We needed new leadership,” Tam said. “It was time for change, and I wanted to step up to the plate.”
Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports LGBTQ people running for office, said that when there are no LGBTQ elected officials in a state, “it has consequences, both in policy and how young LGBTQ people view themselves.”
“Adrian will ensure LGBTQ people are considered and prioritized in the state capitol and will inspire more LGBTQ people to run and serve,” Parker said in a statement.
Tam reflected on the record number of LGBTQ and people of color elected to local and national government across the U.S.
“I’m glad that our Congress is slowly coming together and starting to look like the population of America,” he said.
Ivon Garcia, 26, grew up two exits from the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. Garcia was so steeped in Mexican-American culture and Spanish that Garcia “didn’t really conceptualize someone not knowing Spanish.”
At a young age, Garcia identified as nonbinary. But this got consistently swept under the rug by Garcia’s extended family, who was often hostile to anyone different.
“To me, Spanish and Mexican, Chicano, Xicano, Mexican-American culture has consisted of being a matter of ‘one or the other, otherwise not acknowledged,’” Garcia said. “There is so much unsaid, but still judged, because it simply doesn’t fit.”
It didn’t take long into Garcia’s teen years to realize that the pronoun “ella”—which means “her” or “she” in Spanish, did not describe Garcia.
“‘Ella’ communicated something to others that seemed so profoundly wrong,” Garcia said. “‘Ella’ was for my tías (aunts) and mother who I could resonate with but still felt a departure from. ‘Ella’ encompassed so much that I wasn’t, that I rejected it.”
So Garcia began to search for an alternative in Spanish, the way that “they/them” is used in English instead of “he/him” or “she/hers.” Garcia settled on “elle,” a still-emerging pronoun not used by many Spanish speakers.
As an alternative to “él” (he) and “ella” (she), Garcia says “elle,” which is pronounced EH’-jeh, gives them more agency in conversations with other Spanish speakers.
“‘Elle’ is a tool to me, a way to communicate something that I want, a way to test the waters and see if I can be me,” Garcia said.
Not mainstream—at least not yet
In recent years, activists and academics in the U.S. and Latin America have opened a dialogue about inclusivity in Spanish, a gender-defined language in which most nouns are assigned either a masculine -o ending or a feminine -a ending. The -e ending has become common as other gender-inclusive terms like “Latinx” and “Latine” grow in prominence.
As pronoun options for trans and nonbinary individuals become more recognized in the United States, linguists say a similar push can be seen in Spanish-speaking countries.
Mexican-American lexicographer and Amherst University professor Ilan Stavans told NBC Latino that he’s heard the “elle” pronoun used in progressive and academic spaces, but not so much in the mainstream yet.
“They resemble the efforts done in the United States to give that type of linguistic neutrality,” Stavans said. “They seem to me to be scattered.”
Stavans referred to a recent study by the Pew Research Center that concluded only 23 percent of Spanish-speakers in the U.S. have heard of “Latinx” and only 3 percent use the term to describe themselves. Stavans says he supports the move toward gender-inclusive language, but hasn’t seen evidence that it’s catching on on a large scale.
“The Spanish language is so gender specific,” he said. “There are 450 million speakers of Spanish throughout the Americas. It’s a very diverse and heterogeneous population.”
In her 16-student Spanish class, NYU associate professor Laura Torres-Rodriguez makes sure to give everyone the chance to share their pronouns. On the first day of school this semester, she asked everyone to put their pronouns in their screen-names — “él”, “ella”, or “elle”. Students in her advanced-level class told her it’s the first time a Spanish teacher has ever offered that to them.
“Teaching the use of the nonbinary pronoun in Spanish is I think crucial if you want all your students to feel safe and included,” she said. “I’m learning all the time and changing my teaching and speaking practices to better achieve this.”
Torres-Rodriguez says the problem of the “elle” pronoun catching on is more of a political one than a linguistic one, as with the -e ending, “you can easily have concordance between the noun and the adjective.”
“The use of the “elle” pronoun is to me an essential step in recognizing and including the experience of trans and nonbinary persons and to start exiting the gender binarism that generates so much social and political violence,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
Even for Garcia, the “elle” pronoun takes some getting used to for someone who has spoken and heard Spanish their whole life.
“Even to me, elle/elles is new, is a bit off-tune when spoken, and a splash of curiosity when heard,” Garcia said. “It’s a work in progress where I’m learning how Spanish, how my culture, how my identity, how my family will receive me, all of me, all the different aspects that encompass me.”
Chicago’s LGBTQ neighborhood is dropping its longtime nickname, “Boystown,” following a petition started by a local activist claiming the moniker lacks inclusivity and promotes bigotry.
“The Castro, Greenwich Village, West Hollywood, and many more. LGBTQ neighborhoods exist for all intersections of queer identity. Chicago’s is the only gendered nickname,” said the petition, which was addressed to the Northalsted Business Alliance.
Last week, the alliance announced that it would no longer use the nickname in its marketing campaigns when referring to the neighborhood, which sits on the city’s North Side. Instead, it will revert to the name Northalsted.
“While a personal identifier cannot encompass the full diversity of our town, the name Northalsted, signifies the place, its entire community & history, inclusively,” the alliance said in a statement.
In a survey conducted by the alliance, which had nearly 8,000 respondents, 58 percent favored keeping the “Boystown” moniker, and 80 percent said they did not feel unwelcome by the nickname.
“While an overall majority neither were offended by the name nor want it changed, those identifying as Lesbian, Transgender, non-binary and queer largely do favor a name change,” the statement said. “To acknowledge and welcome all members of the LGBTQ+ community, the chamber will discontinue using the name Boystown in marketing and revert to the long standing name Northalsted.”
The Boystown nickname has been in use since the 1980s to represent what the alliance said has historically been a safe place for LGBTQ people. In 1997, then-Mayor Richard Daley officially recognized the neighborhood as a gay village, the first such designation in the country, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came out as bisexual Monday in an interview with broadcaster Tamron Hall.
“You put it out there whether or not I identify as gay, and the answer is I don’t identify as gay, but I do identify as bisexual,” Gillum told Hall.
It’s the first time the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor in Florida has spoken publicly about his sexuality.
“Coming out as bi+ looks different for every person,” tweeted Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ civil rights group. “No matter the circumstances, all people deserve respect. @AndrewGillum sharing his story will no doubt help others who may be struggling with coming out on their own terms.”
Gillum’s supporters celebrated his decision on social media.
Gillum’s conversation with Hall on her new syndicated talk show marks his first sit-down interview since he was found inebriated in a Miami Beach hotel room in March with a man who had reportedly overdosed. A photo of Gillum unconscious at the scene was leaked. Gillum, who was not charged in the incident, spoke about the event that derailed his once-promising political career. He also opened up about his struggles with mental health and alcohol abuse after losing the 2018 governor’s race to Republican Ron DeSantis by less than 35,000 votes (less than half a percentage point).
“When that photo came out, I didn’t recognize the person on the floor,” Gillum told Hall. “That was not anything more than a person being at their most vulnerable state. Unconscious, having given no consent and someone decided to use a moment where I was literally laying in my own vomit.”
Rosa Diaz and her daughter were riding their motorcycles through rural Brawley, California, this year when they noticed a young person who appeared lost walking down the town’s main street. Diaz, who runs the only LGBTQ resource center for miles, sensed that the person might be in need of support.
She told her daughter to continue ahead, and Diaz made a U-turn.
“I asked her for her name,” and the person shared a male name, Diaz said in an interview. “I said, ‘Is there another name that you prefer?’ And that’s when she told me, ‘Well, I like Marilyn.'”
Diaz asked her whether she needed anything. “I need a new wig,” Diaz recalled Marilyn saying, gesturing to her worn clothes and hairpiece. Diaz gave her a business card, and Marilyn promised to call her after the weekend. Diaz’s team found her a wig, but the call never came.
“I didn’t know about Marilyn again until I was called regarding her death,” Diaz said.
Marilyn Cazares, 22, was found dead last month in an abandoned building in Brawley, about a half-hour north of the Mexican border. It has been a particularly deadly year for trans people — especially trans women of color. In 2019, 27 trans people died because of violence in total. In 2020, the number has already reached 25, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
In July alone, there were six violent deaths of trans and gender-nonconforming people across the U.S. — all but one of them trans Black or Latinx women — making it the deadliest month so far for this vulnerable community.
In the weeks following her encounter with Cazares in February, Diaz and her small team at the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Centertried to reach out to Cazares. But they didn’t have her last name or any other information about her. Since her death, family and friends have spoken out about a young woman who lived her truth despite being bullied, ridiculed and violated by members of her community. Her family said they believe her death was a hate crime.
Brawley police are investigating Cazares’ death as a homicide, and Diaz said the community is hungry for answers.
Mindy Garcia, Cazares’ aunt, told NBC affiliate KYMA of Yuma, Arizona, which serves the Brawley area, that her niece was “very brave,” “very outspoken” and “very loved.”
“She was very beautiful,” Garcia added.
An openly hostile environment
Diaz, who grew up in Imperial County, where Brawley is located, came out as lesbian in her 40s. She describes the area as one that at best lacks LGBTQ resources and at worst is an environment that’s openly hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer residents.
She started a support group in 2014 after she had nowhere else to turn for a sense of community — and people began turning up in large numbers.
“People who came to this group were telling me, ‘You know, we appreciate what you’re doing, but I need counseling, I need hormone therapy, I need artificial insemination,'” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for all of that.”
But within six months, she had founded the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center. She said she has had to “tread lightly” for it to be viewed as a reputable community organization. It’s still the only LGBTQ center in Imperial County, which includes seven cities and about 180,000 residents.
“This is where I began to hear stories,” Diaz said of the center. “Those who were a little flamboyant and very comfortable with themselves … they were considered to be crazy, weird, even evil to some extent.”
She said she’s certain Cazares experienced that kind of treatment in her short lifetime.
“According to what I heard from the family — and because I know my community — Marilyn or anybody that could appear as if they’re one gender but identify as another gender are ridiculed,” she said. “They are seen as people with a mental illness, or, you know, people that are not right.”
She said LGBTQ people in Imperial Valley are pushed out of their families, their churches and their communities. She also said Cazares’ death marks the second high-profile homicide of a Latina trans woman from Brawley, after the murder of trans teen Gwen Araujo in 2002.
“The community is angry, of course, because we know that trans women are being killed all over,” Diaz said. “A lot of people believe that these things only happen in big cities, and here, it has hit home.”
Diaz emphasized the need for LGBTQ education in communities like Brawley, where, she said, many residents are unaware of how their LGBTQ neighbors might struggle. Since her death, Cazares has been misgendered in the media — even by members of her family. But Diaz said her goal is to lead with education and information rather than attacks, especially for working-class people who are still learning.
“It’s a sad event,” Diaz said. “But it’s also an opportunity to really honor Marilyn and to let the family know: ‘We remember her like this, because this is who she was.'”
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, slammed the gay marriage ban and said Putin is a “threat to the human rights of all.”
“Russia is tripling down on its attacks on the basic human rights and dignity of LGBTQ people by adding constitutional prohibitions against marriage equality,” David said in a statement. “Putin and his administration used propaganda brochures leading up to the election promising a return to ‘traditional family values,’ using marriage between loving couples as a wedge to push through his nefarious agenda. It is shameful, manipulative and malicious.”
The constitutional amendment comes after decades of legal and social oppression of LGBTQ people in Russia.
In 2013, a federal law was passed criminalizing the distribution of materials that promote same-sex relationships to minors. After the passage of the measure, dubbed the “gay propaganda law,” the country saw an increase in anti-LGBTQ violence, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report. In 2018, the country banned Pride events, and in 2019, it took action to block LGBTQ groups from officially registering in the country.
Prior to the weeklong vote, the Russian LGBTQ Network issued a statement calling into question the motives of the long list of referendum proposals.
“The main purpose of adopting series of amendments to the constitution is to keep in power a current government and Russian President,” the group said. “We consider other constitutional changes artificial to gain people’s attention.”
For Fabliha Anbar, 20, her LGBTQ identity is an important part of her social and academic life. She’s out to friends, on social media and at her progressive university, where she founded the South Asian Queer and Trans Collective. But last month, when her campus closed due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Anbar returned home — and back to the proverbial closet.
“Having to go home and act a certain way 24/7 is a means for survival,” said Anbar, who asked that the name of her university and hometown not be published. “That can be straining emotionally and extremely damaging.”
For the past six weeks, Anbar has been self-isolating in a small, two-bedroom house with her parents, whom she said she doesn’t feel safe coming out to.
Anbar’s situation is not unique. Since schools across the U.S. started to close in mid-March to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, LGBTQ advocates say a number of queer youth and young adults have lost crucial support systems and have been forced to self-isolate with unsupportive family members.
“They may have had to go back in the closet if they were out at school. If they had support from a GSA or an LGBTQ club or group at school, they don’t have that anymore,” said Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights group.
Kahn said she’s particularly concerned about those “who are in overtly hostile environments,” saying, “It could put them at risk of physical or emotional abuse; it could force them out to the streets.”
‘Students might feel isolated’
Danushi Fernando, the director of LGBTQ and gender resources at Vassar College in New York, said a number of students with whom she works “voiced their concerns” about returning home when the campus announced it would close last month.
“We are super aware that there are people who are not able to go back to their homes because either they’re not safe, or students aren’t out to their families,” she said.
After discussing this situation with the university administration, Vassar opened up some dorms on a case-by-case basis to students who felt unsafe leaving.
But for some of those who did leave — thinking their departure would just be for an extended spring break — living back at their parents’ house has been uncomfortable or isolating.
“There are lots of times that students might feel isolated,” she said. “There are students who have reached out like, ‘Do you know of anyone in Idaho that I could connect with?’”
As for Anbar, she said she’s been hosting virtual programming and support groups over Zoom, joined by people from all over the world, for the South Asian Queer and Trans Collective. If she’s within earshot of her parents, she said she has to be careful.
“It does get kind of scary,” she said. “That’s why I make sure to be very careful about the words that I choose. I usually take advantage of the language barrier between me and my parents. I say things like ‘queer’ rather than ‘lesbian.’”
When speaking to her parents, she said she describes the South Asian Queer and Trans Collective, the organization she dedicates so much time to, as a “feminist collective,” which she said “isn’t entirely wrong.”
‘Stuck at home with abusers’
In the weeks following school closures, child abuse and neglect hotlines, like the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, reported an inundation of calls and texts from young people newly confined to unsafe environments.
“A lot of these young people are stuck at home with abusers,” Daphne Young, the organization’s chief communications officer, said. “College kids are coming home from school and have to re-enter the home with perpetrators.”
Young said LGBTQ youth and adolescents have consistently been among their callers.
She also noted that the financial strain caused by the pandemic has the potential to make bad environments even worse.
“Whatever was the stressor or the discord between the family, you now have compound trauma,” Young said.
Like Childhelp, The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people, reported a steep increase in the number of youth and young adults who have reached out to its 24/7 hotline.
The New York-based nonprofit published a white paper last month outlining the “serious implications” the COVID-19 crisis could have on the mental health of LGBTQ youth. The organization cited the physical distancing, economic strain and increased anxiety related to the pandemic as being among the most worrisome problems.
“LGBTQ young people … are already at risk of discrimination and isolation, which can impact their mental health,” Amit Paley, the organization’s CEO, said last month in an interview with MSNBC. “For a lot of LGBTQ young people, the main sources of support that they get are at their schools, at clubs, at community centers, at physical spaces that they no longer have access to. … Not being able to connect with some of those really important, positive influences in your life can be extremely challenging for LGBTQ youth right now.”
‘An opportunity’ for parents
Two thirds of LGBTQ youth hear their families make negative comments about LGBTQ people, and only 1 in 4 feel like they can be themselves at home, according to data from the Human Rights Campaign.
“If you’re that kid, whether you’re 6 or 12 or 18, that changes dramatically how you feel in your own skin, how you can thrive or not in your family,” Kahn said.