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What's Next: A look at the present and future of Wash.'s LGBT movement

Four dynamic leaders weigh in on social justice issues

REP. LAURIE JINKINS: She believes one of the most important things an LGBT person can do is to simply "come out." Photo credit: Winter Teems

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Some recent spring-cleaning found my Washington United for Marriage yard sign mangled and waterlogged under my front porch. The bright green and white lettering had worn and by the looks of it you might think that it was five years ago, not five months ago, that Washington voters made history by becoming the first ever to make marriage equality law by popular vote.

Washington United's historic win came just eight months after landmark legislation that saw legislators from all over the state - and both parties - vote to pass a marriage equality bill and a devoutly Catholic governor sign it into law.

Both the legislative action and the following campaign were designed and driven by LGBT and ally public officials, organizations and activists who had been preparing for these monumental events for decades.

Shortly after the victory at the polls, Dec. 6 marked the first day marriage licenses began to be issued to same sex couples and the two weeks that followed saw local and social media explode with many of the most beautifully triumphant wedding photos many of us had ever seen.  

However, three months into 2013, those same sources have reminded us all to often that Washington's LGBT community still, in many ways, finds itself marginalized in schools, hospitals, neighborhoods and workplaces throughout the state.

Now I'm a fairly engaged ally, so when a neighbor whom I had asked a few months ago to post a Washington United sign on his lawn recently hollered across our street "so Zach, what's the next fight for LGBT folks around here," I was shocked to realize that I actually didn't know. I told my neighbor that I'd have to let him know.

However, people like me don't set the agenda. I'm a local activist who likes to doorbell, wave signs and repost social justice essays on Facebook. So this wasn't a question that I could just go home, ponder and think up an answer to.  Instead, I went to those who already knew it.

In the weeks that followed I spoke with four dynamic leaders who are on the front lines of the LGBT civil rights movement in Washington: State Representative Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma), State Representative Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo), Equal Rights Washington spokesperson Josh Friedes and Tacoma activist Justin Leighton.

I learned that there is no one goal in particular like marriage equality that is up next for LGBT activist and allies, but a host of issues, both legislative and cultural, that need to be addressed by our state's public policy makers as well as school administrators, churches and health insurance companies.

What's Next In Olympia?

Turns out, there is a lot of work still to be done in Olympia. The leaders I spoke with had no trouble rattling off five to 10 ways that our state government could, and should, better serve the LGBT community.

Each of them noted that many of the most pressing state issues for Washington's LGBT population are not community wide concerns - like marriage equality was - but rather more specific issues that seek to address the marginalization and disenfranchisement of LGBT sub-communities. 

One of the first mentioned by each of them was bullying in public schools, an issue that lawmakers have been addressing in recent years but continues to plague public schools and disproportionally harm LGBT youth. 

"We need to ensure that our schools are safe for LGBT kids," Liias - who at 31 is already a highly regarded LGBT and environmental leader in Olympia - told me, "by continuing to focus on bullying prevention statewide."

"It's great that we have laws that make it clear the state will not tolerate bullying, but what is now needed is funding of Safe Schools programs and suicide prevention," explained Friedes, who played in integral role in advocating for marriage equality in Olympia and leading the Washington United campaign.

All four leaders also highlighted healthcare as an area where discrimination is still common and much reform is needed.

"Transgendered Washingtonians don't have full health care parity," pointed out Liias. "Many insurance plans and employers don't cover the medically-necessary treatments that are required for full participation in society."

Jinkins, the state's first out lesbian to be elected to the legislature and a longtime LGBT leader in Pierce County, explained to me that healthcare reform is a great example of how some of the potential new policies that stand to most benefit the LGBT community will also be those that benefit most, or is some cases all, Washingtonians. 

"The Affordable Care Act provides us with the opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage to 300,000 more Washingtonians while still saving state dollars," she shared. "Much of our (LGBT) community is currently without health coverage, so the expansion will result in huge improvements for us.

"Likewise," she reflected, "We need to keep a close eye on coverage for HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and reproductive health services, which have special importance to the LGBT community."

Each also noted that services for the homeless are vital, especially for LGBT youth. "Up to 40 percent of the homeless youth in Washington are LGBT," Leighton to me. "That's a staggering statistic that many people are unaware of."

Friedes suggested that the strategies used by progressive lobbyists and citizens used to advocate for LGBT needs in Olympia must evolve to mirror these new forefront issues.

"Much of the past," he explained, "has been about creating laws setting rules and standards, what should now follow is the funding needed to change cultures and educate.

"Aside from AIDS/HIV most of our advocacy has been for legal rights, now it's time to demand our slice of the budget pie," added Friedes.

What's Next In Our Communities?

Despite all of the issues to address in Olympia, Jinkins, Liias, Friedes and Leighton all assured me that there is just as much work to be done in communities all over the state. The main task, they explained, is continuing to educate.

"Our work in Pierce County is more about cultural issues than passing laws," said Jinkins. "There are still people afraid to be out at their workplace for fear of being fired.

"We must continue to create an environment where people feel safe being out and contributing to our community as an out LGBT person," she continued.

Leighton, one of Tacoma's most dedicated political activists, believes that one of the great firsts of the Washington United campaign in Pierce County was to kick start education, dialogue and activism in suburban Pierce County.

"One of the smartest things our local leadership decided to do was hold community meetings in Puyallup, Lakewood and Gig Harbor, cities that have never had a meeting of such kind," he recalled.

Friedes also stressed the importance of educating suburban and rural communities about LGBT issues and culture, reminding me that if one were to subtract all of the voters living in Seattle and Tacoma marriage equality would have failed by a wide margin.

It is very important, he insisted, that urbanites living in Washington's two progressive cities not forget what it's like for the LGBT community in the rest of the state.

"There is a real difference between paper rights and climate," said Friedes. "Cultural change doesn't only happen by passing and enforcing laws.

"In many ways we have to continue the education process as if we had lost the election," he added.

Friedes and Jinkins both stressed the continued importance of the LGBT community telling their individual stories and coming out to their friends, family and co-workers.

"If we learned anything from the marriage battle it is that our stories are our power," Friedes reflected. "We have a lot of stories still to tell and many people we still need to talk to."

Jinkins reinforced what many LGBT leaders have believed for more than 50 years, that the most powerful thing an LGBT person can do is to simply "come out" and be open about their orientation and/or gender.

"When friends and family, neighbors and co-workers can relate these abstract issues to somebody real, somebody they know and respect and love, that's when hearts and minds are changed," she explained. "It's far more persuasive than any advertising campaign.

What's Next Nationally?

While all four of the leaders I spoke with were eager to discuss local and state activism, all four also emphasized that marriage equality has only been achieved in a handful of states but that 2013 may be turning point nationally.

"The most significant policy issues faced by the LGBT community are federal at this point," explained Jinkins. "The U.S. Supreme Court's opinion on marriage equality, which will be issued in June, has the potential to have a profound impact." 

In addition to marriage equality/repealing the Defense of Marriage Act there are many other issues that LGBT leaders hope will be addressed soon at the Federal level, including immigration reform and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

What Do I Tell My Neighbor?

The list of important challenges to be met by LGBT activists and lawmakers is a long one, and my conversations only scratched its surface. But it was made clear by each of the leaders I talked with that I might have hollered across the street to my curious neighbor - "whatever fires you up!"

The important thing, I learned, is that activists stay engaged in educating and advocating on behalf of the issues that move them and that stand to improve the lives of our LGBT family members, neighbors and friends in Washington, nationwide and the world.

With so many ways to plug in I'll be challenging myself to pick at least one, and hoping my neighbor does the same.

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