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Wednesday, Sept. 8, was a gray day in Washington. Among Mayor Anthony Williams’s announcements at that day’s routine press briefing were what flood preparations the city was making as expiring Hurricane Florence chugged northward. Through the windows, the slate skies offered an appropriate Day After Tomorrow backdrop, as Williams opined that this year’s volatile hurricane season was a forewarned byproduct of global warming.
A more optimistic meteorological phenomenon brightened the overcast Wednesday. The hurricane that wasn’t — at least not in Washington — was preceded by a metaphoric rainbow. Williams closed out his press briefing by announcing the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs.
“We’re raising the stakes here in the nation’s capital, establishing a cabinet level office to address the important concerns of lesbian and gay citizens,” Williams pronounced. “I’m proud to be establishing the office with Wanda Alston leading it.”
Alston has served as the “special assistant to the mayor on LGBT affairs” since 2001. That year, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) first submitted legislation to establish the office.
Since Alston has already spent the past three years as the mayor’s point person on gay issues, residents may wonder what difference the new office and Alston’s new title will make.
“The goal of the office is to ensure that the District’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents are fully integrated into the city’s civil and economic life,” says Alston, a lesbian. The new office, she says, is an indicator of the LGBT community’s evolution to a more prominent role in Washington, and Williams’s commitment to the community.
Gay D.C. residents involved with the creation of the office — which joins similar D.C. offices, such as the offices on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and Latino Affairs — also tout its necessity.
“[The office] has the potential of growing into a very important structure, internally influencing the D.C. government,” says Mario Acosta-VÃ©lez, secretary of the Gertrude Stein Democratic club, a local gay group. He also serves as vice chair of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights and is a member of both the mayor’s LGBT Advisory Committee and they city’s Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance.
“I believe that internal advocacy is always needed. The cabinet-level office gives [Alston] more stature and influence in policy making and process. That’s an important development,” he says.
A. Cornelius Baker, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the area’s leading HIV/AIDS service provider, and also a member of the mayor’s LGBT Advisory Committee, responded similarly to the creation of the new office.
“I think the most important thing is now we have an office that is made permanent that we can work with over the long course to ensure we’re improving the health and well-being of the LGBT community,” says Baker. “Despite how liberal the District of Columbia is, it has not — till now — been thoroughly committed to treating the LGBT community in the same way it treats all other demographic groups.”
As with Baker, community health is indeed on the top of Alston’s immediate “to do” list.
“The biggest change is that we’re working with the D.C. health director to get a LGBT health specialist on board,” says Alston, explaining that the specialist’s first job will be to collect data on the city’s LGBT community and make an assessment. “Data to look at the health of the whole [Washington, D.C.] LGBT community has never been collected before.”
Baker says he hopes the health data collected will guide the new office into the future.
“The assessment of how we’re doing should dictate long-term priorities,” Baker says. “It will give us information we don’t now have. We really need to look at how we’ll get the information that will tell us how the LGBT community is doing overall.”
Peter Rosenstein, another member of the mayor’s LGBT Advisory Committee emphasizes that the new data will deliver more than just figures.
“It’s going to be a required annual report,” he says. “That can have a tremendous impact in terms of funding for AIDS/HIV, women’s health issues, [and] drug addiction.”
Other items on Alston’s long-term list focus on families and businesses. She seems particularly excited about using her new clout to facilitate more LGBT involvement with the city’s foster-child population. Of the approximately 3,000 children in the system, Alston says the city’s Family Court has told her that about 100 could benefit from mentoring or foster-parenting from LGBT adults.
“We see this as completely positive for the children in foster care, who are high-risk or are self-identified [as LGBT or are questioning their sexuality],” says Alston. “The program is in its infancy. It’s for people who just want to serve as a mentor.”
Alston explained that the program she hopes to implement would resemble Big Brothers Big Sisters, though she said some participants may become foster parents, or even adopt children. And despite the early stage of the project, Alston says that it’s not too early for interested adults to contact her office.
On the business front, Alston says she will be working with groups like the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the Potomac Executive Network. One goal is to help LGBT business owners compete for D.C. contracts.
Alston says her office also plans to help LGBT-related non-profit organizations secure grants from the city.
All the city’s LGBT groups and individuals may be best served by a requirement that all D.C. government agencies assign a high-level point person to work with the new office, which can help the community members navigate through various layers of government bureaucracy. It requires that all D.C. agencies assign a high-level member to act as liaison to the LGBT Affairs office. Those inter-agency connections, says Rosenstein, will help members of the community deal with a range of issues like “housing, consumer affairs, permits for GLBT events, or GLBT businesses that may need assistance,” says Rosenstein. “It’s a major step for the GLBT community.”
The goals for the new office, says Alston, show that the District’s LGBT community is evolving in stature, becoming a full player on the social-political-economic scene. The message is that this office has not been created to protect an at-risk community, but to promote a vibrant one.
“Our community is looking beyond hate crimes [and] gender identity,” Alston says. “We still have homophobia and internalized homophobia, but I believe that the work the mayor has done in creating this office is a test of our ability to reach out to our community. I can’t do this without strong community support.”
Acosta-VelÃ©z says that that test can be applied to both the Office of LGBT Affairs and the community it’s designed to serve.
“It’s essential that we all work together to support [the office’s] development,” Acosta-VÃ©lez insists. “As the office develops into a more structured agency, it needs more input from the community. This is going to be a continuous process. Now is the time for comprehensive community outreach.”
If the job can be done, Mayor Williams says he’s confident Alston can manage it. After all, says Williams, “You can see Wanda’s impact as a strong woman. It used to be ‘GLBT.’ Now it’s ‘LGBT.'”