Tag Archives: LGBTQ

Great Scot!

October 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He began serving as the vice president of LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Heartland Pride last fall, but David Kerr hails from nowhere near Nebraska. The Glasgow, Scotland, native followed love to Omaha in 2013, and although his relationship ended, his business venture, The Tavern, blossomed in the heart of the Old Market. Today, Kerr jokes about printing cards to answer the daily question of how and why he ended up in the middle of America, but maintains he’s found a good fit in his adopted city.

“Omaha is hugely supportive of young entrepreneurs and business startups, and they have a sense of community here that you would never find anywhere else to nurture someone like that,” he says. Kerr prides himself on running an inclusive establishment that welcomes all; he’s even one of the first locally to offer gender-neutral bathrooms.

In turn, his business supports numerous nonprofits by serving as an event venue, participating in giving program Together A Greater Good (TAGG), and even directly supporting fundraising efforts. Kerr’s interest in giving back to the community began an ocean away, but one particular cause will always be close.

David Kerr

“Before I called Omaha my home, I volunteered for an LGBTQ+ organization in London called ‘The Albert Kennedy Trust,’ and they did some incredible work. And it really gave me an appetite to work for change no matter where I am,” he says.

The 1969 Stonewall riots are largely regarded as the catalyst that brought forth the U.S. gay pride movement. Heartland Pride’s official beginnings trace back to 1985. It’s a better world today for most LGBTQ+ people, Kerr says, but there’s still work to be done.

“Since then it’s remained crucial to our community to remain visible and proud. It’s easy to get complacent when we make strides,” he says. “For the gay community, it’s still relevant because honoring and celebrating our culture is still relevant.”

Dozens of countries around the world still criminalize same-sex activities, Kerr points out, and in eight countries death is a legal punishment.

“It’s important to remember the tradition of honoring those who went before us, the ones who were denied their human rights, and the ones who physically lost their lives as well. It’s important to still get out and be proud to honor those lives and shine a beacon of hope to people around the world. There are people who are suffering way more than people here in the United States,” he says. “We’re not acing it here by any means, but at least we’re making strides.

Allies should take notice, too, he adds. Locals may associate Heartland Pride with its annual June parade and surrounding events, but it’s also an important fundraiser for the nonprofit—run completely by volunteer efforts—whose activities include a scholarship program, a community action grant, and several youth programs.

“It’s obvious in this political climate that anyone’s rights can be called into question at any point by any government, and that’s not just true for the United States. Things are not static; they’re constantly moving, so we need to remain proud and visible so that no one ever does infringe upon our rights again,” Kerr says. “And that’s true for many communities, not just LGBT.”

Visit heartlandpride.org for more information about Omaha’s LGBTQ+ community.

This article appears as part of the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Tracking the Controversy

June 23, 2016 by and
Illustration by Jimm Wagner

America’s culture war has entered the most private of public spaces. Enactment of North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill—House Bill 2 (HB2), aka the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act—corresponded to a rash of similar proposals across the U.S.

The controversy is tangled in the history of federal anti-discrimination laws, Title IX, and local city ordinances. Supporters of gender-restrictive bathroom mandates have cited defense of women (especially girls in school locker rooms) as justification. Opponents of HB2 (and similar proposals) see a government-sanctioned affront to those who do not identify with their gender assigned at birth; they argue that transgender individuals have a right to use the restroom most closely aligned with their gender identity.

Omaha Public Schools told Omaha Magazine that the local school district remains determined to keep their schools safe for all students, including students of different genders. “Although this has come up on a national level, it certainly is not new to our schools. Our district has been responsive to our students for many years,” says Sharif Liwaru, director of OPS Office of Equity and Diversity.

TIMELINE

1964: The federal Civil Rights Act is implemented to stop workplace discrimination based on sex, religion, race, color, or national origin.

1972: Title IX—part of the U.S. Education Amendment of 1972—extends federal anti-discrimination requirements to public education and federally assisted programs

October 2010: Omaha fails to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance that would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to a list of protected classes.

March 13, 2012: Omaha City Council approves (by vote of 4-3) a controversial ordinance introduced by Councilman Ben Gray that makes it illegal to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

April 29, 2014: The U.S. Department of Education publishes a 53-page guidance for complying to Title IX. The document states: “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity” and “the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations.”

November 3, 2015: Charlotte elects a new mayor, Jennifer Roberts, who supports LGBTQ-inclusive changes to local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Feb. 22: Charlotte City Council adds LGBTQ protections to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.

Feb. 23: North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore calls for legislative action in response to the “bathroom piece” of Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance.

March 23: The North Carolina General Assembly passes HB2 (“the bathroom bill”). Gov. Pat McCrory signs the bill into law. HB2 restricts usage of public restroom facilities to people based on the gender listed on their birth certificates and prevents local anti-discrimination ordinances from protecting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

March 28: The ACLU files a federal lawsuit to overturn HB2 because of its unconstitutionality (failure to uphold the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment) and its violation of Title IX.

April 8: Bruce Springsteen cancels his concert in Greensboro, North Carolina. Springsteen’s protest against HB2 is mirrored in several other entertainers canceling North Carolina events to protest HB2.

April 12: Responding to criticism of HB2, Gov. McCrory signs an executive order preventing state employees from being disciplined or fired for being gay or transgender.

April 19: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which also presides over North Carolina, rules in favor of Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm. The transgender student—who was born female—sued the Gloucester County School Board for violating his Title IX right to use the boys’ bathroom facilities.

April 21: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says North Carolina must change HB2 for the league to hold its 2017 all-star game in Charlotte as scheduled.

April 27: NCAA Board of Governors adopts a new anti-discrimination process for all sites hosting, or bidding to host, NCAA events in order to “provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination.”

May 9: Gov. McCrory files a lawsuit asking federal courts to declare that HB2 is not discriminatory.

May 9: U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces that the Department of Justice is filing a civil rights complaint against North Carolina because of anti-LGBTQ language in HB2.

May 13: The Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Education issue guidelines insisting that public schools allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms corresponding with their gender identity.

May 15: Delegates to the Nebraska Republican Convention adopt a resolution calling for a Nebraska bathroom law akin to North Carolina’s HB2.

May 17: Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson objects to the Obama Administration’s (May 13) bathroom guidelines. In his letter, Peterson promises that his office will do “everything in its power to resist any attempt to unconstitutionally expand Title IX requirements.”

May 18: More than 200 corporations sign an open letter condemning HB2. North Carolina loses 400 potential future jobs when one signatory, Paypal, withdraws its plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte.

*Update after press deadline

June 21: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools revised its policy to protect transgender students in the classroom and comply with Title IX, in defiance of the state law, HB2.

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Against Transphobia

Facts and Figures of Marginalization

RISK FOR SUICIDE

Trans people suffer from an elevated risk of bullying, homelessness, and attempted suicide. According to a 2014 report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, 41 percent of trans people have tried to kill themselves at some point in their lives—compared to 4.6 percent of the total adult U.S. population.

SEX OR GENDER?

According to the World Health Organization, “Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

INTERSEX INFANTS

Most newborns receive gender assignments at birth. But not all. Newborns with ambiguous genitalia are deemed “intersex.” Sometimes intersex conditions do not become apparent until later in life, often around the time of puberty. According to the American Psychological Association, “experts estimate that as many as 1 in every 1,500 babies is born with genitals that cannot easily be classified as male or female.”

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To read more about the spectrum of gender identity in Omaha, see the current issue of Omaha Magazine: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/06/engendering-identity/. The author of the article, Dr. Jay Irwin, was profiled in the January/February issue of Omaha Magazine: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/01/trans-logic/

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TRANS › LOGIC

January 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Judging from mainstream media and culture, transgender issues are gaining traction. Yet, for many Americans, everything they know about trans people they learned from Caitlyn Jenner. Or Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black. Or the show Transparent.

Even with a Time magazine cover trumpeting “The Transgender Tipping Point” and Vice President Joe Biden calling transgender discrimination “the civil rights issue of our time,” there’s much more to understand about trans issues than popular culture or mainstream media teaches.

Luckily for Omahans, that’s where professor Jay Irwin comes in.

“Transgender is a large category including many different individual identities, but basically is someone who feels their sex assigned at birth is not descriptive of who they are in their gender,” he says.

Irwin, associate professor of sociology at University of Nebraska at Omaha, relocated from Alabama to Omaha in 2009. In addition to core sociology courses, Irwin teaches medical sociology and has helped with the intro of a LGBTQ study and sociology of sexualities courses.

JayIrwin2Irwin deftly engages and educates students while also making time to enlighten the Omaha community with involvement in groups like the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC), through which he and colleague Sofia Jawed-Wessel hosted The Science of Transgender, a 2015 UNMC-sponsored Science Café. Held in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, the talk covered preferred pronouns, the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, and using up-to-date language, among other issues.

“Language is a huge piece of self-identity,” says Irwin, explaining that many trans folks become empowered to better understand their own identities upon accessing the appropriate words to self-describe.

“Some people are threatened by evolving language, as if it’s a scary thing,” says Irwin, “but I think it’s a really cool thing because language is powerful. Giving young people the space to figure out who they are in the words that feel best—that’s how we build healthy adults.

“Gender is a fluid thing that changes over time and between cultures,” he says, citing evolving American gender roles in just the last 60-some years as one example.

Irwin also notes that researchers increasingly understand sex as a social construct. 

“We’ve made up what these boxes are. These don’t have to be the only boxes,” he says. “Biology is much more complicated than just female bodies and male bodies.”

Irwin says the current approach at UNO is “We need to respect everyone’s identities if we want them to do their best.”

That means using language that resonates and doesn’t distract, letting people self-define, and embracing the broad variety of identities represented on campus. 

“If we really want to do best by our students, faculty, and staff—and allow them to do their best work—then we need to reflect and welcome who they are as people,” says Irwin.

Taking that to a community-wide level, Irwin worked with the Professional Transgender Resource Network (PTRN) on GenderWorks, a sold-out 2015 conference striving for the “advancement of transgender care in the heartland,” which educated people from medical, mental health, education, and legal fields on what it means to be trans and how their profession can best serve that community. 

Irwin’s academic career began like that of many a student: Undecided and looking for just the right groove of study to settle into.

“I changed my major seven times,” he says, adding that he considered areas including music, social work, and even post-Soviet Union Russian health, before gravitating toward his current field.     

“I was increasingly interested in sexuality and gender, from both academic and personal perspectives,” says Irwin, who himself transitioned in his 20s.

While Irwin’s now very comfortable with his identity, he has previously feared discrimination like losing employment—a common, legitimate worry for many trans folks.

“My first year at UNO, I didn’t try to hide it, but I wasn’t upfront, which felt really inauthentic,” says Irwin. “I just gradually started talking about it more and more. UNO’s been great and my department has been 100 percent awesome and supportive.”

However, Irwin acknowledges that with issues of rampant transphobic violence and unemployment, not all trans people can be as open. 

“I know people in Omaha who cannot be out at work because they will lose their job. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, it’s about what’s safe and comfortable for each person,” he says.

Irwin adds that it’s important to build relationships with trans people before bombarding them with questions about their identity and experience. Even then, he says, it’s crucial to give the same respect you’d offer anyone and not ask questions invasively. 

Irwin, for example, is not just a trans man. He’s a music-lover, foodie, Doctor Who enthusiast, friend, husband, father to four “fur babies,” and so much more. 

While there’s always more to learn about trans issues, Irwin believes Omaha is doing pretty well.

“The typical person here is pretty open-minded and willing to listen,” he says. 

What’s more, Irwin is very hopeful for the future.

“Our young people are out there advocating for themselves in a way that consistently impresses me,” he says. “With nuanced understanding of the world and recognition of intersectionality, they’re building an environment where they can fully develop and explore who they are.”

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Ferial Pearson

December 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ferial Pearson knows what it is to be an outsider. Born in Kenya, she is an ethnic Indian, and a Muslim. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, her family was no stranger to prejudice. Kenyans of Indian descent are a minority, and most Indians are Hindu, not Muslim.

Her mother was born in a hut. No one in her family had gone to college. Pearson’s grandfather saved money for much of his life so that she could get a degree. Despite this, her family regularly opened their home to strangers if they needed a place to stay.

Pearson is an instructional coach and clinical practice supervisor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before that, she taught English at Omaha South High School. Many of her students were outsiders—immigrants, LGBTQ, low-income. Moved by the tragic 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Pearson challenged her students with a question.

Do modest acts of compassion have the power to change a person’s life?

Her students reacted and banded together in taking on the guise of the “Secret Kindness Agents.”

Anonymous acts of random kindness became contagious, and Pearson chronicled the results in a book, The Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change The World. Inspired by a classmate suffering from juvenile diabetes, Pearson allowed the class to decide that every dollar from book sales would be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She told the story last year in a TEDxOmaha talk.

“That’s just the way I was brought up,” says Person. “If there is a need in the community, it is your responsibility. Whatever we have…whether it’s food, shelter, whatever…that’s a privilege. And we have to give back. It’s the Kenyan way.”

As a noted teacher, mentor, adviser, and advocate, Pearson’s passion for inclusion has been felt by a broad array of often disparate constituencies, ones whose common thread is that of “outsiderness.”

In 2010, she received the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year Respect award. The next year she was the recipient of RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award. In 2014, Pearson was named one of Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees. This year she was the grand marshal of the Heartland Pride Parade.

She has also given her time to the Avenue Scholars Foundation, the Freedom Writers Foundation, and serves on the board of Inclusive Communities.

“I think of my community as my family,” Pearson says. “You can sit in a classroom and have all the resources possible. You can have the best teacher possible. But if you are hungry, if you are scared, if you do not have the vocabulary, if nobody read to you when you were little, if you’ve experienced trauma…how are you going to concentrate on what is going on in that classroom?”

Search Secret Kindness Agents on YouTube to learn more.

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