Equality California has refocused and powers that be have noticed

BY SETH HEMMELGARN  |  Equality California, the statewide LGBT political advocacy group, has expanded its mission and has taken a more aggressive stance on a variety of issues that have given the agency renewed life.

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Shortly after Rick Zbur joined Equality California last year, he pledged to refocus the statewide LGBT advocacy group.

For years it had been closely aligned with the marriage equality movement, and after the recent legal victories, some had questioned whether the organization was still relevant.

Just over 12 months later, Zbur has responded with a more muscular stance to a variety of issues, from immigration to health care access.

The shift was particularly noticeable when the group harshly criticized several LGBT and Democratic members of Congress who voted in favor of tougher screening of Syrian refugees.

The 289-137 vote November 19 in favor of HR 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, “was a victory for ignorance and fear,” Zbur said in a news release shortly after the vote. “We are deeply disappointed that the list of ‘ayes’ included members of California’s congressional delegation, including members who have been champions of LGBT civil rights, and several LGBT members of Congress outside of California. … As LGBT people we understand the effects of public antipathy and discrimination, and as a civil rights organization, we have a responsibility to stand up against policy decisions that are unthinking and unfeeling responses to popular anxiety.”

In a recent interview, Zbur said the stance is in line with the expanded mission statement EQCA adopted shortly after he became executive director.

The mission statement’s three priorities include “full equality and acceptance for LGBT people inside and outside California,” addressing health disparities, and “achieving a fair and just California and society,” Zbur said.

“The way we view our role is a voice for the LGBT community and advancing civil rights for all communities LGBT people are part of,” Zbur said. ” … The Syrian refugees include a disproportionate number of LGBT people, and based on the kinds of conditions they’re facing in the Middle East, it’s in line with our mission.”

Zbur also said EQCA has 800,000 members, and it has communications capacity that other groups in the state don’t.

His comments on the House vote drew attention especially because of three out Democratic Congress people who supported the act: Sean Patrick Maloney (New York), Jared Polis (Colorado), and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona).

None of the three responded to the THE PRIDE LA‘s requests for their reactions to EQCA’s statement.

A news release from Maloney didn’t offer any clarity on his support for the legislation.

“I have faith in our system, and I don’t believe these refugees – the overwhelming majority of whom are women, elderly, and children – threaten our communities or national security,” he stated. “So instead of slowing the program or pausing it, the [Obama] administration should agree to immediately certify refugees if they pass the current extensive screenings and we should all refocus on actual threats.”

Sinema’s statement explained her position more plainly.

The legislation “strengthens the refugee vetting process so we can continue to shelter those in need and keep our homeland safe from terrorism,” she stated.

Local LGBT advocates are pleased with EQCA’s new direction.

“I love it,” National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell said in an interview. “I love seeing what EQCA is doing. I think in many ways it feels very familiar. I think this is the role of LGBTQ civil rights social justice political organizations, to recognize that LGBT people are everywhere. While there are issues that impact in a greater way LGBT people, every issue is an LGBT issue, and beyond that, I feel like we should be a voice as a community for justice, and inclusion, and humanity.”

Kendell noted the popularity of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose ambitions haven’t been hindered by his blatant xenophobia.

EQCA and other LGBT organizations “really being fierce about a larger full justice frame is so important, because this country needs a counterweight to all the toxic hatred and vilification of vulnerable people,” she said.

Zbur took over at EQCA not long after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in California, and just months before the court ruled all states must recognize marriage equality.

He said many asked whether, after the marriage battle, “more affluent donors” would support the intersectional work, “and the answer that we’ve found is, ‘Absolutely yes.'”

When he joined the organization in late 2014, he said, it had “ended up raising and spending $2.2 million. It was one of our smallest years ever.”

With help from grants, individual support, and other sources, EQCA, which also includes the educational arm the Equality California Institute, is set to have a budget of $4.4 million for 2016.

Gay Supervisor David Campos said, “I think they’ve done an excellent job under Rick Zbur’s leadership in making the point that even though we had the victory with marriage, we still have a lot of work that needs to be done in the LGBT community, and looking at the other issues disproportionately impacting the community,” including immigration and health care, “I really feel they have done an excellent job of setting the agenda for the next phase of the movement.”

Working with several immigrant rights groups and a grant from the California Endowment, EQCA has completed work on a cultural competency training module for health care clinics and professionals in the Central Valley that work with undocumented immigrants, whether or not they’re LGBT.

“We want to improve the lives of communities LGBT people are a part of,” Zbur said, not solely LGBTs.

“LGBT people are still part of families that are undocumented,” he said. “… We are a civil rights organization, and part of being a civil rights organization is being a part of and a partner in the broader civil rights movement.”

Zbur added the program was “so successful” that the California Endowment asked EQCA to expand it. His organization is looking at taking its efforts into the Inland Empire, East Los Angeles, and possibly Orange County, while also continuing to work in the Central Valley.

EQCA’s stronger stance on immigration was also made clear when it joined several other groups in submitting an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans programs, which allow some undocumented immigrants to have temporary legal residency in the U.S. Several states have filed a lawsuit over the programs, and their implementation has been blocked.

“These programs directly impact millions of people who have grown up here, paid taxes here and raised their families here – including hundreds of thousands of LGBT people in California alone,” Zbur stated. “Bringing undocumented immigrants into the full social, economic, and civic life of our communities is not only just and fair, it simply makes economic sense.”

Along with immigration, EQCA is continuing other work that it’s long supported, including protections for California’s LGBT school students.

The nonprofit is working with state education officials on a program to create a safe and supportive schools equality index. Among other things, the index will help see if schools statewide have programs that “adequately support” LGBT students, Zbur said.

Absent legislation, he said, one thing advocates can do is “put a spotlight on districts doing well and those not doing well, with the goals of improving programs that are in place in the school districts.”

Along with the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center, EQCA is also heading the Transgender Education Project, which is meant to boost acceptance and understanding of the state’s trans residents.

EQCA’s legislative scorecard is expected soon, and should include victories such as Assembly Bill 959, which is designed to reduce health disparities for LGBTs through data collection. The bill, authored by Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and signed into law in October by Governor Jerry Brown, requires government agencies to gather sexual orientation and gender identity data whenever other demographic data is collected.

The nonprofit is working to develop more bills.

With funding from the Elton John Foundation, EQCA is crafting a bill that would modernize HIV laws.

“One of the things that is a key objective for us will be a bill that will modernize the criminal statutes that relate to transmission of HIV,” Zbur said. Current laws “make transmission of HIV a felony,” which is “really different than the way other similar diseases are treated.”

The regulations result in “stigma and misuse of laws in targeting people with HIV,” he said.

Zbur hopes the eventual legislation, which doesn’t yet have an author, “will be used as a model for the rest of the country.”

EQCA is working to keep the legislation pipeline going in other ways, as well.

Its institute is convening its second annual Fair Share for Equality meeting December 15 in Los Angeles to bring together progressive organizations, public policy makers, and others “to discuss and identify priorities for legislation and budget advocacy for the LGBT community,” Zbur said.

The Elton John Foundation is also supporting EQCA’s work to develop a public education campaign “aimed at the LGBT community about the benefits of PrEP and access issues” related to pre-exposure prophylaxis, he said. That campaign will likely launch in the first part of 2016.

One of the organizations EQCA plans to reach out to on the project is the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

In a statement to the B.A.R., SFAF Senior Vice President James Loduca said, “The debate on PrEP is over and it’s great that organizations with resources and reach like EQCA are joining the education effort. We know that there’s a big need for sex-positive, judgment-free messages around PrEP for prospective users, especially transgender men and women, Latino and African-American men, and those looking to conceive children with their seropositive partners.” Additionally, he said, “Recent studies have shown that there is also a dire need to inform doctors about PrEP.”

Suzy Jones, a self-identified gay woman who served on EQCA’s board from 2011-2015, said in an interview, “This whole new direction is something that I strongly supported as a board member and was a huge advocate of even before Rick was on board.”

Jones added, “I joined the board because I wanted to get more involved, but also, as an African American woman, I wanted to make sure as we carried out this important work of ensuring …LGBT people had the opportunity to survive and thrive in society, that diverse voices were able to participate, that our voices would be heard and be part of this effort to ensure full equality.”

—  Seth Hemmelgarn is a regular contributor to THE PRIDE LA and an assistant editor at the Bay Area Reporter.




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