Escaping Russia for Canada…And Love

Elena is sitting in the cabin of her boat, her home, floating by the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her boat is too big to be anchored at the port, so they had to tighten it to rubber balls and stay on the sea. Just outside the cabin, I can hear Meg whistling, she sounds cheerful, although their situation has never looked so grim.

Meg and Elena do not despair, they never do. This is one of the things I learned from them during these past five months of talks.

I received Elena’s first e-mail in March 2017, the subject line read “Escaping Russia,” and the few lines tell the astounding story of two women who crossed two oceans and two seas on a sailing boat to defend their love.

Elena is originally from Ivanovo, a town located 155 miles east of Moscow, known in Russia as the “city of brides” due to being one of the major textile centers in the country, attracting predominantly female workers.

In a region where the disparity between genders is particularly large, the social pressure of settling down with a man and raising a family has always been particularly high for a woman.

At the time, Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda” law was not yet in place, but Elena already knew that being openly gay was not an option. “I didn’t need to have a law for me to know that my parents and anybody around me would not accept me the way I was,” says Elena.

Resigned to leading a predesigned life, Elena finished her studies in architecture, found a job, and was soon pressured to date a guy called Dima. Her days went by between home and work, in what externally looked like a perfect life.

Not able to confide in anyone in her small world, Elena took refuge on the Internet, where she started chatting with a Canadian woman called Meg.

“[Meg] can do everything: she is a musician, has a mathematical education, flies planes, and she already had a small sailboat back in British Columbia that she sailed around. To me, she was this incredible woman, she simply stunned me with what she could do and, of course, I loved her pretty much instantly,” recalls Elena.

As her chats with Meg intensified, Elena started drifting away from the path that she was blindly following, until one day the opportunity came to finally meet her.

In February 2006, Elena and Meg met for the first time. In order not to raise suspicions, Elena told everyone she was going to Kiev to meet a Canadian friend, practice her English, and see the opera. Supposed to last a couple of days, the trip turned out to be Elena’s final escape from Russia.

The happiness and excitement of finally being together was not meant to last long. After just a couple of days in Ukraine, Elena started receiving the first calls from home.

“Elena’s mother was phoning, and all of her relatives and her fiancé were sending her the most abusive text messages. I knew something was going wrong and I knew that there was some weird psychological warfare going on in the background,” says Meg.

Eventually, after many discussions over the phone, Elena’s mother declares herself willing to let Elena live her life, but not before having seen her one last time in Kiev.

Elena falls for the ruse and is ambushed by both her parents who had the firm purpose of dragging her back home.

“They grabbed me, held both my arms tight and brought me to a McDonald’s near the train station. My father slapped three tickets on the table and said, “You’re coming with us to Ivanovo.” That was their ultimatum for me, and it was the first time that I ever disagreed with them in my life,” recalls Elena.

As the fight escalates, security arrives and the four are escorted to the police station.
Encouraged by Elena’s mother, the police officers decide to leave Meg outside in the blizzard with a guard, in the vain hope that she would eventually leave.

When the doors finally open, Meg is introduced to an unfamiliar reality of bribes and threats with the constant reminder that “people like them” were not safe nor welcome in Ukraine.

“That’s how things were done, it was a very weird thing. I had never been denigrated by authorities before. I didn’t realize that I was less than a human being. I was filth to them, and I wasn’t used to that,” says Meg.

Rather than feeling discouraged, every obstacle in their way only amplifies Meg’s will to help Elena, and Elena’s determination to escape that world. The couple doesn’t surrender, not even when they realize that Elena’s passport had been taken by her mother, leaving them no chance to leave Ukraine.

Neither the embassy nor the police were willing to help them. It is only after some time in Ukraine that the couple finally manages to get Elena’s passport back through a friend of Elena.

“We had her passport, but her mother had probably told the police that her passport was stolen and being used fraudulently. There was no way she could get a visa for Canada, if Elena went back to Russia she would have been stopped at the border and handed to her parents, who had made it clear that they would have her treated for lesbianism,” says Meg.

With no other way to leave the country, the two decide to go to Turkey, where they would buy a boat to sail to Canada.

In the two months allowed by Elena’s visa for Turkey, Elena takes sailing lessons and Meg prepares the yacht for the 10-month-journey.

“It took huge preparations. The boat was, until then, only rented to people for a few days of sailing and we were taking it offshore and it had to deliver us to Canada,” says Elena.

After having crossed two seas and two oceans, the couple finally arrived in Victoria in April 2007.

“We had been fighting with North Pacific storms for months and when we arrived it was all very quiet. It was night, we simply parked the boat at the yacht club and there was nobody, that was the irony of it. We made such a huge journey for love but there was nobody to meet us,” says Elena.

The journey cost the couple virtually all of their savings; not supported by either of their families they were soon forced to sell Meg’s house, a house that she had been working on for years. More than ten years have passed from that journey, and Meg and Elena are living on the very same boat, working on contract jobs over the Internet and traveling the world, living every wanderlust’s dream — up until this summer.

Eleven years after fleeing Russia, Elena is still stateless; five years after applying, her Canadian citizenship has still not been granted and communication with immigration offices has grown increasingly muddled. This summer, while they were sailing along the East Coast of the U.S., Elena’s request to extend her travel documents was rejected five times, forcing them into a 1200 mile, non-stop voyage back to Canada.

Without a travel document, Elena is not allowed to leave Canada, but the boat will soon become too cold to allow them to stay.

“This boat was meant for the Mediterranean. It’s a tropical boat, it was not meant to be in such a climate. And there is no dock here with electricity because it is reserved for the yacht club members and it would be impossible to stay here. The previous winters we were in Los Angeles, California or Mexico. We were always in warm climates,” explains Elena.

The only two options available to the couple now is either for Meg to move south on her own to save the boat from the winter, or to stay there together and try to survive the winter in a boat with no insulation, heat, or electricity.

“We don’t want to lose our freedom, and we don’t want to lose the only thing we have left, which is this boat. I hope we can find a place where we can stay, that we can be citizens of the same country, have a right to travel, and not be threatened the whole time, with our safety being revoked, or Elena being deported,” says Meg.

Kissing On The Dancefloor of Horoom

The beats pulsing from techno music force the walls to shudder as smoky air dances through green support beams in the underground space. Dim stars seemingly sway across that dark dancefloor, but these are the cigarettes. Everyone is smoking.

This is Horoom, a secret underground queer rave in Tbilisi, a city that is known for its homophobia. It is a city that has a thousands-strong, anti-gay march on its main avenue every year. It is the capital of Georgia, a country where an estimated 91.5% percent of Georgians believe that homosexuality will never be acceptable, according to a 2009 study by the Caucasus Research and Resource Center.

This makes Horoom, a secret queer monthly rave, a radical space for queer people. It’s one of the only places in Tbilisi where queer people can express themselves and be safe.

“This is a place where you can be who you are. You can dance and no one will kick you,” says Beka Gabadadze, a young queer activist.

Horoom is located in an underground club in what used to be a Soviet era swimming pool. Looming over what used to be the edge of the pool is a DJ’s booth, the DJ himself is obscured by the flashing lights and fog, but the heavy techno is omnipresent.
Outside, people smoke cigarettes away from the noise and in slightly clearer air. To Gabadadze this is his favorite part of Horoom.

“There are many talks outside of the club,” he says excitedly, “Before, we [the queer community] didn’t have any place to interact outside of dating applications.”
Horoom is the first event of its kind in Georgia. Before Horoom, outside of NGOs, queer people had no safe places to meet, let alone have fun. Even to leave the house if you are gender non-conforming is difficult in Georgia. It’s part of what makes the rave such an important place for the LGBTQcommunity.

The raves are completely secret. In order to get in, you have to contact the organizers, who will then check your Facebook to make sure you are who you say and that you have not expressed homophobic opinions. They then send you a QR code that functions as a password. Once you arrive, there are two hulking bouncers in front of a metal gate. You give them the QR code and they check it. Only then do they let you in. When you first make your way in it does not feel at all like a rave. You have to walk past two gates with heavy security before you even begin to hear the music.

The security is necessary though. The second time that Horoom held an event, a right wing activist found out about it and rallied up around fifteen people who hurled abuse at the people entering. It was a minor disturbance and one that security very quickly took care of, but it showed why security is important.

One of the main reasons that Horoom was founded was to give queer people a safe place to interact and meet each other. Tornike Kusiani, a queer activist and one the of the founders and organizers of Horoom, says that they were inspired by the Stonewall riots for LGBTQ+ rights in 1960s New York. Not because they believe that will Horoom will lead to riots, but because they think it shows how nightclubs can be a spot where queer people can meet and unite.


This is especially important now in Georgia. There is a rising anti-LGBTQ+ wave, which activists say was inspired by a similar wave in Russia. “LGBTQ+ issues and anything more or less progressive that is connected to sexuality is seen as an agenda coming from the West. It is basically how Russian propaganda echoes in Georgia,” says Natia Gvianishvili, the director of Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG), a Georgian rights group.


The Russian state banned “gay propaganda” in 2013 and since then Russian media has regularly claimed that LGBTQ+ activists are part of a foreign agenda attempting to destroy Russian traditions. This type of rhetoric has been readily picked up by the Georgian Church and many right wing politicians.


Gvianishvili thinks that both politicians and the influential Georgian Orthodox Church use homophobia is an easy way of gaining popular support and is often used to distract from endemic problems in Georgia.


“Aggression and frustration are accumulated in society because we are a poor country, because social issues are not solved, and because the government keeps feeding us lousy promises. That aggression is being used by government officials and the church for their own purposes,” she says.


“They find a target, and they channel this aggression towards that target. Usually the easiest target is LGBTQ+ people, because we’re quite a conservative society.”


This manifested violently in 2013 when a mob of thousands led by the Georgian Orthodox Church attacked a small group of LGBTQ+ activists demonstrating for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Dozens were injured. The crowd shouted insults at the LGBTQ+ people and hurled rocks at them as they tried to escape in buses. One priest took a chair and smashed in through the window of a bus. At least 28 people were seriously injured.


Since then the Georgian Orthodox Church has used the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia as a rallying point for homophobia. The Patriarch declared it “Family Purity Day,” and every single year, thousands march down Tbilisi’s main avenue to protect the sanctity of the family from “gay propaganda.”


And on a daily basis, using words that are associated with queerness is dangerous.


“I was walking in the street with my my partner and a man attacked us because he heard us using the word ‘heterosexual’ in our conversation,” says Kusiani. The man thought that if they knew what the word “heterosexual” meant then they must be gay and he pushed and kicked them for it.


All of this seems very far away in Horoom. On the dance floor, people come in and out of focus through the smoke. Boys with their mouths smeared in lipstick swirl by laughing, two girls make out in a corner, at the front of the room right by the DJ booth a trans woman sways back and forth mesmerized by the music.


But in another way, it is at the heart of Horoom. Outside of the club conversations about what it means to be queer are happening. Queer people are seeing each other in the thousands. Horoom is the site of drag shows and performance art – and each time it is growing.


“Through Horoom there will be a stronger, united community,” says Kusiani.


He says that already in Tbilisi, Horoom has almost become a secret word for queer. “If you meet someone who you think might be queer, you ask them whether you saw them at Horoom,” he says. It acts as an identifier, a code in a place where being publicly queer is simply not an option.


Even Kusiani himself is not fully out to his family. He explains that in Georgia, coming out publicly would not only have serious consequences for him personally, but for his entire family. “There would be aggression,” he explains, “Both verbal and physical.”


Even if coming out publicly is not an option for most people, coming to terms with yourself within the queer community is. Kusiani thinks that Horoom, because it is a meeting place for so many queer people, is helping with that.


“Because of the queer soul of Horoom, a lot of people who have issues are more comfortable with their identities now,” says Kusiani, describing how a friend of his who had always denied being queer had recently come out to him after meeting him a few times at Horoom.


Kusiani sees a future where Horoom is part of the foundations of a unified and thriving queer community.


“I want a stronger community in Georgia. I want people to be active and reflect more. I want more activists,” he says.

As Hateful Rhetoric Rises, Another Trans Woman Is Murdered

On early Monday morning, America’s anti-trans epidemic of violence hit Atlanta.

According to the Georgia Voice, the state’s LGBTQ newspaper, Tee Tee Dangerfield, 32, was shot multiple times in her car outside the South Hampton Estates apartment complex in Atlanta, Georgia. Major Lance Patterson of the college Park Police Department confirmed the death to the Voice. Patterson said that College Park Fire Rescue took Dangerfield to Grady Memorial Hospital, where she died.

Currently, police are unsure if Dangerfield’s gender identity played a direct role in her death and are still investigating. “At this time we don’t have anything that’s telling us that, but we’re not ruling out any possible motive,” Patterson said.

But no matter the motivation, her death is the 16th reported instance of a transgender person being killed in 2017 — with 13 those killed being transgender women of color.

Vaughn Alvarez, 30, a friend of Dangerfield’s, said that she had an “infectious” energy that made her very popular. The two met six years ago when Dangerfield and Alvarez occupied the same apartment complex in Midtown Atlanta. They shared a bottle of wine by their building’s pool.

Alvarez, who was from the suburbs before moving to Atlanta, was new to the gay scene and Dangerfield, who had not yet transitioned and was presenting male, took Alvarez under her wing.

“It was just sort of a natural friendship,” Alvarez said in a phone interview. “She taught me things, how to deal with relationships with boys, with gay friendships — with your girlfriends.”

Dangerfield’s death happened less than a week after Donald Trump announced on Twitter that transgender individuals would be banned from participating in the United States military. Also a few days prior, comedian Lil Duval declared on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio program, that he would murder a transgender woman who did not disclose her gender identity to him before sexual intercourse. The radio program had hosted transgender public figure Janet Mock only days prior in support of her book Surpassing Certainty, which “Breakfast Club” host Angela Yee was reading as part of her book club.

Several prominent members of the transgender community, including Raquel Willis, who spoke at the Women’s March on DC, pointed out the proximity between Lil Duval’s comments and Dangerfield’s death.

Dangerfield’s friends and family also remembered her on Facebook.

“I was blessed to know you and to have you in my life,” one person wrote. “To hear you were killed breaks my heart.”

Alvarez said Dangerfield had a unique style that often included elaborate hairstyles and an accessory, like a beret. Their friendship also revolved around Sundays spent at the the Vision Cathedral of Atlanta, an LGBT-friendly congregation where Dangerfield sang in the choir.

“I loved to see her worship,” Alvarez said. “Because it was very authentic, it was very real. She really loved God with all her heart.”

Sundays after church, they’d usually hang out and eat a meal together, but that routine was interrupted when Dangerfield got a job at Jackson International Airport.

The times she was able to attend, everyone loved to see her, according to Alvarez.

“You just never knew what you were going to get with her,” Alvarez said. “A lot of people aren’t authentic to who they are. People gravitated to her because that’s what they wanted to be. We want to be ourselves but we’re all scared.”

Serving Under Fear: The Trials of Being a Trans Soldier

Riley Dosh was woken up last Wednesday by a call from the BBC. The British broadcaster wanted to know what Dosh, the first out transgender person to graduate from West Point, thought about President Trump’s decision to ban trans soldiers from serving openly in the military. This was the first time that Dosh heard about the tweetstorm, a seemingly off-the-cuff decision that has thrown the armed forces into chaos.

But unfortunately, she wasn’t surprised.

Dosh found out in May that she would not be allowed to join the military after graduation. The 22-year-old was suddenly called into her superintendent’s office for a 7 a.m. meeting with her entire chain of command huddled around her. They passed around copies of a one-page memo they received directly from the Pentagon. It stated that Dosh didn’t have proper medical clearance to serve—she claimed which wasn’t true. The chief medical person at West Point, Dosh told INTO, had already given her a “clean bill of health.”

One short meeting effectively dismantled every dream she’d been working toward the past four years of school. And to add insult to injury, the memo referred to Dosh—who came out as a trans woman in 2016—by male pronouns.

“They decided not to commission me for political reasons,” Dosh said. “It was depressing and heartbreaking. I returned to my room and just broke down. But just 30 minutes later, I had a lecture on military history, a lesson for a profession I was not about to enter. That was really tough.”

Since then, Dosh has held out hope that the Pentagon could “change its mind,” but the brewing battle over trans military service suggests her dream will remain deferred for now.

The tweet that changed everything

Thousands of transgender service members may get their own letter from the Pentagon after the Commander-in-Chief called for a sudden and widely unexpected ban on trans troops on Twitter. In a series of 9 a.m. posts, the POTUS claimed on June 26 that the government “would not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.”

He added that the Oval Office came to this decision following “consultation with my Generals and military experts.”

Despite this assertion, the announcement appeared to catch top officials off guard. James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, was on vacation when the president’s tweet was posted and allegedly had only been given 24 hours notice about the proposed policy. The Joint Chiefs of Staff hadn’t been notified at all, as CNN reported.

Although Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the trans military ban was “the product of consultation,” she didn’t appear adequately briefed during a Wednesday press conference to answer questions about it.

Trans veterans told INTO that they are terrified that the president’s off-the-cuff edict will return them to a time when transgender people were forced to serve in secret, terrified of being outed. The ban on trans troops serving openly was finally lifted last year, following years of incremental steps forward. Prior to that decision, service members could be immediately discharged if their gender identity were revealed.

During her 12 years in the military, Laila Ireland lived with that fear every day.

An army combat medic, she signed up to serve in the armed forces back in 2003—and would come out to close family and friends as trans in 2012. Ireland waited another year to start opening up about her gender identity at work. To her surprise, her fellow service members were “very supportive and understanding,” especially younger service members. Ireland chalked it up to “a generational thing.”

She claimed the problem, however, was her superiors.

“I was always asked if I was wearing makeup, and if I had female garments under my uniform,” Ireland told INTO. “I didn’t present as female, but my patients automatically thought that I was a woman. Maybe it’s because I have feminine features or because of the way I carry myself. Leadership would hear that and they would come into the room while I had a patient and say, ‘You can’t do that. You have to tell them that you’re not a female.’”

Claiming that she “isn’t the type to quit,” Ireland endured this harassment for more than a year before leaving in 2015 due to unrelated medical issues. What made this ordeal difficult is that it was “hard to even talk about what was going on” with superiors. There were absolutely no protections for trans members of the military, so she could be terminated for just speaking up.

“Who could I even talk to?” Ireland continued. “I couldn’t say it was happening.”

The cost of living a double life

Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011, that groundbreaking decision—which allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly—didn’t apply to transgender people. Joanna Eyles, a transgender veteran served from 1999 until 2005, said that the prohibition of trans troops was a regulation through the Department of Defense. Labeled as a “medical condition,” Eyles claimed that being transgender was “classified in the same category as pedophilia and bestiality.”

“It was a medically disqualifying condition,” Eyles said. “It was painful to be told that these feelings I had since I was a child was a ‘disease’ and a ‘mental disorder’—comparable to some of the worst things that a person can do.”

Estimates of the number of trans people in the military vary widely. The Williams Institute, a pro-LGBTQ+ think tank at the University of California Los Angeles, has estimated that 15,500 transgender troops are actively serving in the U.S. armed forces. UCLA also found that a fifth of trans people had served in the military in some capacity—making them twice as likely as members of the general population to enlist.

Meanwhile, a 2016 survey conducted by the RAND Corporation, one commissioned by the Pentagon, came to a different conclusion. They found that there were between 1,320 and 6,630 trans service members actively serving.

These discrepancies are a product the difficulty of collecting data on a population that remains burdened with stigma and fear, even as the military takes important steps forward. Denny Meyer, the national public affairs officer for the Transgender Military Veterans Association, pointed to the 1999 murder of Barry Winchell. Winchell wasn’t trans, but his girlfriend was. He was bludgeoned to death by a fellow service member with a baseball bat while he was sleeping.

Meyer, a gay man who enlisted during Vietnam, said that LGBTQ troops live with these worst-case scenarios in the back of their minds. He compared the feeling to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“You expect discrimination,” Meyer said. “You watch yourself. Regular PTSD comes from being in Iraq for 18 months where you could get blown up at any moment. Gay PTSD is the same kind of stress, realizing that your fellow troops could kill you for being gay or that your command could find out that you’re gay and kick you out suddenly.”

“You would have to go home in disgrace, if you live through the process of being kicked out,” he added.

Lara Americo enlisted in the Air Force when she was just 17, before she had the language to describe the gender difference she felt inside. But as she came to the realization of her feminine identity, the 32-year-old learned she would have to hide it. Raised in a military family, Americo tried to “be as masculine as [she] could be.” She lifted weights and trained as an MMA fighter. If Americo couldn’t have long hair, she shaved it bald instead.

This double life, she said, took a massive toll on her mental health.

“The depression was getting harder and harder to deal with,” Americo said. “I had to appear so masculine in front of everyone else that it was starting to take over to the point where I didn’t think I would live to see my next enlistment. I knew I wasn’t going to survive. I was going to take my own life if I stayed.”

To cope with the anguish of living a lie, Eyles sunk increasingly deeper into alcoholism. (A 2008 survey found that this is extremely common among members of the military—with nearly half reporting binge drinking in the past month) Every base, except for those stationed in war zones, has a liquor store on campus where troops can buy cheap booze—often two or three dollars cheaper than the market price. Another perk is that service members aren’t taxed for liquor.

Whiskey helped her to numb her pain, but it wasn’t good for much else.

“I couldn’t come out, so I drank,” Eyles claimed. “I’d show up late to work and get disciplined. Having to serve in an environment like the military and stay closeted is a horrible experience. I really don’t see how I made it through.”

Being shoved back into the closet

For the transgender troops who had suffered in silence for decades, last year’s announcement that the ban on open military service would be fully lifted was a lifeline—and it’s one that’s resulted in little fallout for the Pentagon.

Trump claimed during his Wednesday tweetstorm that allowing trans people to serve openly would result in “tremendous medical costs and disruption” for the U.S. armed forces. But numerous reports have shown that the price tag is minimal. RAND found during its 2016 study that medical costs would increase no more than $6 million a year, which amounts to .13 percent of the yearly military budget.

As the Military Times pointed out, the Department of Defense spends five times that amount on Viagra each year.

Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said that the until last week, the transition had “been going smoothly.” This process has included educating service members, including leadership, on transgender lives. Members of the military have begun to receive diversity training, where they learn to refer to trans troops by their preferred name and pronouns.

These workshops might also include primers on basic terminology, what words to use (e.g., “transgender”) and which to stay away from (e.g., “transvestite”).

Despite the president’s concerns that trans troops threaten unit cohesion, service members say being able to be accepted and affirmed for their true selves has brought them closer to their fellow soldiers.

Sage Fox, who claims to be the first transgender person to be allowed to serve openly in the military, knows what it’s like to have your job suddenly ripped away from you. A captain who had served in the U.S. Army Reserve more than a decade, she took time off in 2012 to transition. Fox didn’t think she would be able to return to her post and had planned for civilian life—going to grad school and starting her own business.

But after consulting their legal department, Fox said that her Sacramento base told her that it “doesn’t make a difference to us.”

That embrace, however, would be short-lived. Two weeks after shattering the military’s glass ceiling for trans service members, Fox received a set of official orders transferring her to individual ready reserves. She would be placed on inactive status, an administrative limbo Fox has remained in for four years. She claims that her battalion “refused to discuss” her removal, which she says was “against military policy and happened without explanation.”

“I was never given a reason,” Fox told INTO.

But Fox claimed that the support of her fellow service members never flagged—although they were initially shocked when she came back to work looking like a completely different person than the soldier they once knew. Her flaxen hair, which has since been dyed bright red to match her name, had grown long, revealing a naturally feminine wave.

“You were so masculine!” Fox remembers her coworkers saying. “I had no clue. But you know what? You were a great officer, and I’m happy to serve with you.”

Despite the president’s nebulous budgetary concerns, trans service members say that the real cost is the damage his proposed policy will do to those who believed that equality was finally coming. Although the military had initially set July 1 as the date that trans people would finally be allowed to enlist, Mattis announced in a June memo that the start date would be pushed back six months. The military, he said, needed more time to make incremental changes necessary to fully prepare for the transition.

Trump’s tweets would not only halt that plan indefinitely. It could set the military back decades, a reversal that trans troops cannot afford.

“This is not ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Kiesling said. “This is ‘You’re Fired.’ This is as many as 15,000 well-trained service members being told, “Go home. We don’t want your patriotism. We don’t want your service. We’re just throwing it out because the Commander-in-Chief can’t control himself on Twitter.”

Trans soldiers will keep fighting

Sources inside the White House claim that the president blocked transgender people from serving to fund his personal pipe dream of a border wall between the United States and Mexico. But Trump may find his effort easier said than done.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, who serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in a memo sent to military commanders last week that nothing has changed—at least for now. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,” Dunford said.

As of Monday, the Pentagon has yet to receive a formal mandate from the Oval Office.

Advocacy groups have stated that they will fight any action put forward by the Trump administration to reverse the year-old policy allowing trans people to serve. Peter Renn, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, told INTO that the LGBTQ+ legal organization would challenge the president’s proposed ban as a violation of the 14th Amendment. (OutServe-SLDN, an organization representing LGBTQ+ military personnel and veterans, announced it will join any such suit.)

“The Equal Protection Clause prohibits the government from engaging in discrimination against minority groups without adequate justification,” Renn said. “There is no such justification here.”

But trans people have fought for decades for their right to serve openly, and the service members and veterans INTO spoke with claimed that they would keep fighting. Although Dosh had planned on being a math teacher if she wasn’t allowed to serve in the military, the past week has made her into an activist.

Dosh didn’t get to eat until 5 p.m. on Wednesday because she’d spent her entire day highlighting the potential harms of Trump’s tweets, giving interviews to anyone who would listen. When she finally got around to thinking about food, her breakfast was a bowl of Ramen noodles.

Although Dosh plans to update her name and gender marker before re-enlisting (to avoid being called “sir”), the 22-year-old hopes her day will eventually come.

Before graduating in May, Dosh’s commander collected her classmates and explained that she wouldn’t be joining her peers in the military. Some already knew her story, while others were hearing it for the first time. As they gathered in an indoor football field on the West Point campus, the support in the circle was palpable. Her commander said that Dosh’s community would “still support” her, no matter what happened.

“One of the things they give us at graduation is commemorative second lieutenant bars,” Dosh said. “They hand them to you right after you receive your diploma. My commander was standing off stage congratulating all the people he was in charge of. I passed by him and he told me to hold onto these things—I still might use them.”

Meet the Fierce Texas Moms Standing Up for Trans Kids

For as long as she can remember, Melissa Ballard’s entire life has revolved around her faith.

Because her children were homeschooled, the evangelical church was where her family found community. The Ballards thought of the friends they made in their Dallas-area congregation as “like family.” They would hang out with other families from church almost every weekend, and their children even grew up in diapers together.

But when her son, Ashur, came out as transgender at the age of 12, everything changed. The homeschool group that Melissa was a member of told her that she was “going against God.” Slowly, her closest friends stopped returning her calls. Melissa and her family were shut out of the only community that they had. It became clear that she had only two options: support her son or force him into the closet in order to keep her relationships. She chose Ashur.

“We lost a lot of people,” Melissa told INTO. “When suddenly you’re cut off, it’s hard to deal with.”

The Ballards stopped attending church, although Melissa said that she continues to observe her Christian faith in private. Instead the family found community in an unexpected place: a therapy group for parents of transgender children. The circle started with 24 parents who began meeting after weekly sessions in order to continue the conversation. Many of the other parents in the group were like her: well-meaning, loving people who wanted help being the mothers and fathers their children needed them to be.

That group is officially called DFW Trans Kids and Families, a nod to its Dallas-Fort Worth home, but colloquially the parents are known as Mama Bears. Melissa explained the nickname matter-of-factly: “Mama Bears protect their cubs.”

The Mama Bears, who have been meeting now for two years, face their biggest challenge yet: This week the Texas legislature will meet in a special session to debate the passage of a bill that advocates believe would target their children for discrimination. After the General Assembly was unable to pass Senate Bill 6 during the 2017-18 regular session, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the legislature would go into overtime.

True to their name, the Mama Bears are ready for the fight.

The Rise of the Mama Bears

The DFW group began meeting outside the therapy circle two years ago — with potluck dinners held in members’ homes. Melissa compared it to a “social hour.” Parents would bring casserole dishes, share their struggles, and find the friends they might have lost during their children’s transition. Sometimes speakers would come and inform the parents on civil rights issues, explaining to them about the challenges their families might face in conservative Texas.

Slowly the group grew. From just over two dozen, its membership swelled to more than 200, and Melissa said that at least 100 more are unofficial members of the group. Many follow along on the Facebook page, posting everything that’s beautiful about their kids’ lives — and everything that hurts.

“We just recently updated our business cards,” Melissa said in a phone interview. “When you’re in this situation and you don’t know anything about it, you feel alone. I put: ‘You are not alone.’ So people would know that there are other people going through the same thing they are. You might be at a different stage, you might be further along the transition, or just starting out. But we all have been through it.”

The support that the Mama Bears offer couldn’t come at a more crucial time. SB 6, if passed, would have mandated that restroom access be limited to members of the same “biological sex.” That would have prevented trans students from using the bathroom that most closely corresponds with their gender identity in school.

But even before the special session convenes Tuesday, two bills have already been proposed that would pick up where the now defunct SB 6 left off.

Filed by Republican Rep. Ron Simmons, House Bill 46 and House Bill 50 would prevent school boards and government bodies from enacting policies protecting trans students. The latter, HB 50, is a clone of the so-called repeal bill passed earlier this year in North Carolina, following the yearlong controversy over its last bathroom legislation, HB 2. It would nullify all existing nondiscrimination laws passed by cities and local municipalities. HB 46 sets its sights on schools, making it illegal to set policies allowing trans students to use the affirming restroom.

It’s important to note that if either of these bills passed, it wouldn’t be against the law for trans people to use the bathroom that feels most safe and appropriate. But preventing any entity from passing laws in favor of the LGBTQ community will open trans students to harassment, discrimination, and even violence.

The Mama Bears already live this reality every day.

When Bella Kaplan’s son, Brenden, was a freshman in high school, his parents had to pull him out following years of bullying. Each of these incidents might seem small, but like a thousand tiny pricks of a needle, they leave bruises—ones that may take years to heal.

The first incident Bella could remember took place when Brenden was in the 7th grade. He was seated at a lunch table while all his friends were in line, filling their hard plastic trays with turkey and mashed potatoes. After they got their food, they all piled into an adjacent table and he got up to join them. At the time, Brenden’s friends knew him as a girl, but Bella said that he had always been a “tomboy.” When the girls played with dolls, Brenden was more likely to be found playing video games.

As Brenden walked toward his friends that fateful day, a classmate called after him from the table. He was holding a banana. “Here you forgot this,” Bella remembered the boy saying. “You know you want one.”

Brenden officially came out as trans when he was 14 and began to socially transition in the 8th grade. One day a female classmate overheard him instructing a teacher to use the correct name and pronouns and yelled that he was “disgusting.” She walked down the hallway, sharing her opinion with every single student she saw. It was like that nightmare where you walk down the hallway of your high school naked while all your peers point and laugh, but this was no dream.

Brenden didn’t go to class for a week after that, and after a failed attempt to fit in at another school, Bella enrolled him in homeschool.

“I tell him that we will always keep him safe, but the older he gets, the more he realizes that we may not be able to do that,” Bella said. “Being the parent of a transgender child in Texas right now is frightening. Our government is making people feel like they have permission to spew their hate.”

Many parents say that the fear they live with every day has increased over the past year, as bigoted hate in Texas aligns with a national backlash against LGBTQ rights. At least 20 states have introduced legislation targeting transgender people in 2017, and the Lone Star State is responsible for more than its fair share of discriminatory bills. A law passed in June would allow foster care agencies and adoption centers to deny placement to same-sex parents based on the providers’ sincerely held religious beliefs.

Donald Trump, who promised to be an ally to the LGBTQ community while in the White House, has done nothing to stem the tide of dangerous extremism. Since taking office in January, the president has consistently rolled back queer and trans rights. In February, the Departments of Justice and Education nixed an Obama-era policy advising schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their sense of self.

The weight of ignorance has been a difficult burden for parents of transgender children to bear.

After the White House repealed the Obama guidance, Rachel Adams Gonzales’ daughter, Libby, asked her mother something that she had never asked before: “Now that Donald Trump is president and so many people hate transgender people, how am I going to stay safe?”

Libby is just seven years old, and it’s already been a tough year for her. Although Rachel said that her daughter has never had a problem in her Dallas elementary school, a friend of the family took his own life this year. The deceased was transgender. When Rachel explained to Libby what had happened, she struggled to comprehend it—and kept asking if he did it “on purpose.” After the tragedy began to sink in, the young girl came to a conclusion: Life would be easier if she weren’t transgender anymore.

“She said to me specifically that maybe it’s not a good idea to be transgender because if she would just live her life as a boy, she would be safer,” Rachel said. “It’s heartbreaking as a parent to have to have these conversations. No seven-year-old should have to think about whether their life is going to be so bad that they want to end it—or that there are people in the world who are going to hate them because of who they are.”

Proponents of legislation like SB 6 claim that these laws are necessary to prevent sexual predators from targeting women and girls in public restrooms. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has also pressured the Texas Supreme Court to take up a case denying benefits to same-sex couples, has claimed that failure to act will give a “free pass” to rapists and abusers.

“This is not an LGBTQ issue,” he claimed during a March press conference. “It’s not a transgender issue. It’s about preventing a free pass to sexual predators who are not transgender.”

But contrary to Patrick’s claims, women and children have nothing to fear from using the restroom with girls like Libby. Since East Lansing, Mich. became the first municipality to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive public accommodations bill more than 40 years ago, there’s never been a single verified case of a transgender person attacking someone in a public restroom. Additionally, there’s never been a confirmed report of a cisgender person pretending to be trans in order to gain access to the opposite facilities.

The people most likely to experience violence in public restrooms are the very people these laws single out: transgender folks. More than 60 percent of all trans respondents reported being harassed or assaulted in a bathroom facility, according to a 2014 survey from The Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles, a pro-LGBTQ think tank.

While these laws portend to protect women and children, what they actually do is send a message to other students that trans children “aren’t like other kids,” said DFW member Valerie Hefner.

Valerie and her daughter, Ari, live in Sherman, which is about an hour outside of Dallas. Ari uses the nurse’s bathroom at school, a single-stall facility separate from her classmates. Valerie said that this has been devastating for her daughter. When you’re 12-year-old, the bathroom is a major focal point of your social life. While her female friends gossip, do their makeup, and talk about boys, Ari has to stand outside.

“Every time they make her go to the nurse’s restroom, it puts it into the children’s heads that she doesn’t belong there,” Valerie said. “Kids are very accepting as long as parents and teachers don’t make an issue of it.”

If sending the message that trans students are “different” permits people to treat them differently, that can have devastating consequences.

Chelsa Morrison’s daughter, Marilyn, almost walked out of her elementary school after her teachers wouldn’t stop asking her which bathroom she uses. When Marilyn came out as transgender during the 3rd grade, Chelsa told the administration that she would be using the girls’ facilities. That lasted “about two weeks.” One day a substitute teacher wouldn’t allow her to go the restroom, and then when Marilyn was finally granted permission to do so, the nurse’s office was locked.

This was the last straw for eight-year-old Marilyn. She was taunted during recess by three boys who said that they would never call her by a girl’s name. The two staff members assigned to playground duty failed to intervene, Chelsa said. But this was expected. When her daughter came out, the administration simply crossed out her birth name on school paperwork and wrote “Marilyn” over it in permanent marker. You could still see the old name underneath.

Marilyn couldn’t take it anymore.

“She was going to walk out the doors,” Chelsa said. “Had there not been a teacher behind her, she would have walked home. We don’t live far from school, but you have to cross some major roads to get to our house. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened.”

Why They Fight

If Texas lawmakers continue to introduce bills that parents say make it unsafe for their children to go to school, the Mama Bears will keep standing up for their kids’ rights.

Since the beginning of the 2017-2018 legislative session, DFW Trans Kids and Families has been a fixture at the capitol building in Austin, Texas. Parents with the group have organized rallies and protests, written letters to Congressmen, and spoken out against the onslaught of bills targeting their kids, which they say would make it nearly impossible for their children to lead a normal life. It’s challenging enough to be a kid without worrying where you’re going to go to the bathroom all the time.

“We want you to know who we are,” said Jo Ivester, who lives in Austin with her son, Jeremy. “This is what a family looks like with two accepting parents and a trans son. We are human. We are worthy of respect.”

Jo, like many moms in the group, has become a full-time advocate. The Ivesters have gone door to door at the legislature, shaking hands and letting the state representatives get to know their family. It’s important to “personalize the issue,” Jo told INTO. When the General Assembly was hearing arguments on SB 6, she showed up at 7:00 in the morning to give testimony and waited all day.

Many of the other parents in the DFW group didn’t get to speak until well after midnight, their children fast asleep as their names were finally called.

Jo believes that Republican legislators can learn a lot from listening to the stories of families like hers. Jeremy, who is now 28, wasn’t bullied like many of the other students in the group. His mother describes Jeremy’s childhood as “idyllic.” He had a close group of friends who would play at each other’s houses from morning until night, almost never separated. But when Jeremy hit puberty, his golden days were interrupted: Parents stopped allowing him to come to sleepovers, saying that it wasn’t “appropriate” for him to be there. His friends pulled away.

“His body went to war with him,” Jo recalled. Throughout middle school, Jeremy was trapped in between two worlds: He wasn’t one of the guys anymore, and the girls felt he didn’t “fit in.”

Jo’s son would find his community when he went off to college in Colorado, meeting friends who accepted him without question. But after Jeremy moved back home last year, she worries that the passage of a law like SB 6 would prevent him from finishing his education—or even getting a job. One of the bills proposed during this year’s legislative session would fine trans people $1,000 every time they use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. A second offense merits a $10,000 penalty.

“It effectively says that Jeremy has to choose between breaking the law and risking financial ruin or going into the women’s restroom and making other people uncomfortable,” said Jo, who is currently working on a book documenting her son’s journey.

The DFW parents have learned that when they make their voices heard, others listen.

Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney General, was one of the loudest voices fighting the since-repealed Obama guidelines on trans students after the best practices were enacted last year. He called the policies “illegal federal overreach,” filing an injunction in May 2016 to prevent them from being implemented. Amber Briggle, who is the mother of nine-year-old Max, invited Paxton over to their home in Denton to change his mind; much to her surprise, he accepted the invite.

Paxton arrived at their home last September with his wife, and the two families grilled out. Amber made kebabs and cornbread in the shape of Darth Vader. The Paxtons brought dessert. The attorney general stayed for two and a half hours, but Amber said that she was careful not to discuss politics around the children. She called it an “act of diplomacy.”

But when her son went to bed, Amber said that she “laid it all out there.”

“It’s your job to protect every Texan, and that includes Max,” Amber told him. “When the Texas legislature convenes this upcoming session, keep him in mind. The rhetoric coming out of his office hasn’t changed much. It’s still pretty transphobic. But I will say that I haven’t seen him give personal interviews on these anti-trans bills. Before the dinner happened, he was really outspoken.”

Although Paxton isn’t a member of the General Assembly and doesn’t have the power to enact policy, there are signs that the Mama Bears are winning hearts and minds in one of the nation’s most staunchly conservative legislatures.

Joe Straus, speaker of the Texas House, repeatedly opposed a bathroom bill during the regular session, claiming it would be bad for business. The Associated Press estimated that if North Carolina’s HB 2 remained on the books, the widespread corporate boycott—which included companies like Apple and Google—would have cost the state nearly $3.8 billion over the next decade. Ahead of the special session, IBM has already begun lobbying against further efforts to discriminate.

Although groups like the Conservative Republicans of Texas have called for Straus to be removed over his opposition to the bill, Straus isn’t backing down. The House Speaker recently told The New Yorker that he doesn’t “want the suicide of a single Texan on [his] hands.”

While lawmakers meet, yet again, to debate where their children should pee, the Mama Bears will do what they have always done: give a better home to kids who need it.

Not a single one of the families who first joined DFW Trans Kids and Parents two years ago have dropped out, Melissa explained. There’s a good reason why: The parents rely on these meetings as a way to feel normal in a state that sends the message that families like theirs are freaks. Moms often invite each other over for late-night swimming and wine. When Libby Gonzales finally got her birth certificate changed, Rachel invited their friends in the group over for cake. The moms made burritos in the kitchen, and the kids hung out by the pool.

“When people first come into the group, we constantly hear: ‘I didn’t know something like this group existed,’” Melissa said. “We include people of all races and ages; single people, married people, and gay people. We are a very diverse group. We have a little bit of everybody.”

The people who need the group most, though, are children. Melissa said that many of the kids who seek out the group don’t have family to support them, which is sadly commonplace. Statistics from the Williams Institute shows that 40 percent of homeless youth across the United States identify as LGBTQ. In the past two years, Melissa claimed that she can’t count how many children have called her “mama.” It’s a label she wears proudly.

“We’re just doing what we need to do to support our kids,” Melissa said. “Our families are no different than anyone else’s.”

Gun Violence and the LGBTQ Community: We Must Fight Together

Last Friday, I joined the organizers of the Women’s March for a protest of the National Rifle Association (NRA) at their Virginia headquarters, which was followed by an 18 mile march to the Department of Justice.

Like the original Women’s March on Washington last month, this march was not about one single issue, rather it pushed much more broadly. Topics included gun violence in the US and the NRA’s reticence to defend a licenced black gun owner, Philando Castille. Perhaps most importantly, it was a reminder of the beauty of peaceful protest.

The march demanded three things: the removal of recent videos narrated by conservative talk radio host Dana Loesch, an apology for the videos, and an indictment by the Justice Department of the officer involved in Castile’s death.

Photographer Hunter Abrams captured the day’s action in all its glory.

Above, members from both the New York and D.C chapters of Gays Against Guns (GAG) meet for the first time. People often ask GAG why gun violence is an LGBTQ issue—a question that highlights just how many people don’t realize that gun violence disproportionately affects LGBTQ people.

The leading cause of gun deaths in the U.S is suicide, and the LGBTQ community has unusually high suicide rates. According to the The Trevor Project, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth, and 92% of transgender adults have attempted suicide by age 25.

LGBTQ people are also the most likely minority to be victims of a hate crime (The New York Times), a statistic that was tragically reflected in the Pulse nightclub shooting—the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

“Hands up, don’t shoot” has become a widely used slogan and hand gesture birthed as a response to Michael Brown being fatally shot by a police officer on August 9th, 2014. It continues to be used during incidences of police brutality. Here, a protester playfully combined the phrase with the ‘pussy’ hat that has become the unofficial symbol of the Women’s March and Trump resistance.

This sign, like the march itself, embodies the spirit of collective minority resistance that has arisen in the past few years.

Thanks to a crew of incredible teenage girls, orange has become the official color of the fight against gun violence.

After Hadiya Pendleton was shot in the back by a police officer who mistook her for a gang member from afar, people have begun using orange to honor her and others who have died under similar circumstances. The color is a reference to the gear worn by hunters in the woods to avoid being shot or harmed.

Now every year on June 2nd, thousands of Americans wear orange to draw attention to gun violence on Gun Violence Awareness Day.

As a social media coordinator at Gays Against Guns, I am constantly posting from rallies, marches and actions. People often tell me to “get off my phone and be present,” a narrative that I reject entirely.

The definition of a direct action is “any action seeking to achieve an immediate or direct result, especially an action against an established authority or powerful institution, as a strike or picketing.” How can we achieve a “direct or immediate result” if nobody knows what we’re doing? The power to broadcast our own actions without the the media’s filter—to tell our own stories—must never be underestimated.

So stop telling me to “get off my phone” :).

We have too often seen religion used as pretext for oppression, but at this march there was a liberal religious presence that was quite the opposite of oppressive and instead found power in using faith as a tool for social justice.

While the 95-degree weather required me to wear a hat, you can bet I would have worn my hot pink Kippah if weather had permitted!

I marched for a while with a pastor from Connecticut. He expressed his anger at those whose use the bible as an excuse for bigotry. Here, a women who marched besides us reiterated those words.

The pastor told me, “How they twist and turn the words, I will never understand. It is all right there…thou shalt not kill, thou shalt love thy neighbor. I believe the religious left has a place in the resistance and I will continue to show up.

National co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington, Tamika D. Mallory, spoke at the rally outside of the NRA headquarters before we marched. Mallory, who wrote an open letter to the NRA, said “We can’t be afraid. We are already dying.”

“There’s nothing more to lose, because we are already in danger every day,” she told the crowd.

The fight to obtain reasonable gun control and end gun violence can feel like a never-ending uphill battle. However, people still have tremendous power—even “superpower”—in their ability to vote. Here is a helpful guide to every member of congress and their stance on gun control.

Find out where your representative stands on gun issues — and fight back.

Love Wins in Malta: How a 98% Catholic Country Passed Marriage Equality

Malta has become the latest country to legalize same-sex unions on Wednesday when its Parliament voted—in a nearly unanimous decision—to extend marriage rights to all couples.

It’s a sign of how far the country, which banned divorce until 2011, has come that the lone dissenter was Edwin Vassallo, a representative for the right-wing National Party. Vassallo, calling the decision “immoral,” broke ranks with the rest of his nationalist cohort. Maria Sjödin, deputy director of the LGBT organization OutRight Action International, said that even the most staunch conservatives felt they were “on the right side of history.”

“Malta is lucky to have politicians that are ahead on the issue,” Sjödin told INTO. “Politicians have been brave and willing to lead in the way that politicians everywhere should be leading.”

The marriage equality victory in Malta is all the more impressive when compared to how other legislatures have voted on the issue, even countries viewed as international leaders on LGBTQ rights. Earlier this month, the German Bundestag passed marriage equality by a much smaller margin of 331 to 225. Even Prime Minister Angela Merkel voted against. When the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001, 59 Parliamentarians opposed it. Sweden’s legislature had 22 dissenters, while Belgium had 37.

Russell Sammut, a representative for Malta’s Allied Rainbow Communities ARC, claimed that the country’s sudden vote on marriage equality is proof that the tiny island nation is the most progressive on queer and trans issues in the world. Even prior to the win, Malta has topped Rainbow Europe, a ranking from ILGA-Europe on the continent’s most LGBT friendly countries for the past two years.

“Malta is number one when it comes to LGBT rights, and we all know that Europe is the leader on the issue,” Sammut said. “So that makes Malta number one in the world.”

This is a massive reversal of fortune from six years ago, when Malta legalized divorce for the first time. In 2011, it placed 33rd in ILGA’s yearly equality ranking. That put Malta behind countries like Georgia, Kosovo, and Bosnia, where LGBTQ people often face violence and discrimination. A recent report from Reuters found that many queer and trans Bosnians are still living in the closet.

On the front lines of equality

Despite recent gains, a culture of silence was the norm in Malta for many years.

The U.S. gay liberation movement is decades old, ignited by the Stonewall Riots of 1969, but Malta’s LGBTQ rights movement only began in the early 2000s—with advocacy groups like the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) and Drachma, a queer-inclusive religious group. MGRM, the country’s largest LGBTQ organization, was founded in 2001. That’s the same year the Netherlands passed marriage equality.

While homosexuality was decriminalized in 1973, ILGA executive director Renato Sabbatini said that it remained extremely difficult to be open about one’s sexuality in such a tiny country.

Numbering just 400,000 people, Malta’s entire population is roughly the size of Omaha, Nebraska. Many families have lived in the same town for generations. Walking to the store, you’re likely to be stopped by relatives, friends, and neighbors. Being out in such a close-knit culture means that when you’re gay, absolutely everyone knows who you are.

“The majority of LGBTQ people would stay in the closet,” Sabbatini said, “or they would enter a heterosexual marriage to keep up appearances.”

The sea of change on LGBTQ rights, according to Sabbatini, began with the election of a new government. After 25 years of conservative rule, the Labour Party won a majority of the vote in 2013, bringing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to power. Sabattini said that the “overwhelming” referendum against the prior nationalist regime showed that the Maltese “were ready to turn the page.”

“Malta wanted to get rid of the image of a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean with very conservative values,” he told INTO. “LGBTQ activists worked to change that, and the population responded.”

Over the past four years, the Muscat government has moved quickly on LGBTQ issues.

In 2013, the country allowed same-sex couples to enter civil unions for the first time. Two years later, Malta passed the “Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act,” a groundbreaking law that remains the only legislation of its kind. Among other things, it prevents doctors from performing surgery to “correct” the genitalia of an intersex child. In 2016, Malta became the first country to ban conversion therapy.

“To me, this really shows that Malta is very willing to listen to the organizations that advocate for LGBTQ rights,” Sjödin said. “When it comes to intersex rights and conversion therapy, not everyone knows these are problems. Politicians clearly have listened to what the community members are saying.”

Not everyone, however, has been on board with the rapid progression in LGBTQ rights.

A 2016 poll from Malta Independent found 25 percent of the public does not support marriage equality, a sizable minority. The local Catholic Church in Malta—where 98 percent of the country claims to be members of the faith—has come out against same-sex marriage. In a June homily for the feast of St. Nicholas, Archbishop Charles Scicluna claimed that government leaders can “do what [they] like,” but the definition of marriage cannot be changed.

“I can decide that a carob and an orange should no longer be called by their name,” Scicluna said. “We call them trees. But a carob remains a carob and an orange remains an orange, whatever the law says. And marriage, whatever the law says, remains an eternal union exclusive to a man and a woman.”

A group calling themselves “Maltese Catholics United for the Faith” took out a full page ad in the May 2017 edition of the Malta Today newspaper under the headline: “It’s Gay. But Not Marriage.”

“[T]he sanctity of marriage, between husband and wife, doesn’t grant a right to everyone to marry anyone,” the ad reads. “Nor does it grant a right to cynical political leaders to incrementally beef up their standing at the ballot box by promising or enacting gay marriage laws for the 1%. Same-sex marriage is unnatural. It runs against natural law as designed by God and handed down to us through every generation in our Maltese history.”

To its credit, the Archdiocese condemned that statement—saying the group was not affiliated with the Catholic Church or endorsed by it in any way.

Marriage isn’t an ‘abstract concept’

The contrast in opinion around LGBTQ rights was stark on Wednesday, as advocates and opposition groups gathered in Valletta, the country’s capital city. While LGBTQ community members rallied under a banner reading “We’ve Made History,” conservative forces blasted the bill as a Marxist conspiracy.

“We are here to defend what centuries of history, tradition, ethics, morality, philosophy, and science, that the proper place for society to be healthy and for children to be born, is one where marriage is built on the relationship between a man a woman,” Paul Vincenti, a spokesman for the right-wing group Gift of Life, told Malta Today during a Wednesday rally. “Communism never made it until the 1930s, and was reintroduced back into society in a subtle way using the vehicle of democracy and so-called freedom of speech.”

Opponents of equality marched on Castille Square holding signs like “Keep Husband and Wife” and “Mother Is Not Equal to Father.”

The latter sign takes aim at the marriage equality bill’s unique approach to inclusion. Rather than a single piece of legislation, it is actually a series of bills designed to make the country’s marriage laws “gender neutral,” as Sammut explained. Instead of “husband and wife,” legal partners will now be listed as “spouses” on marriage documentation. On a child’s birth certificate, the word “mother” will instead say “the person who gave birth.”

“I have a friend who is 50 years old and transgender,” Sammut said. “He was married, and he gave birth to children. Then he came out as a trans guy. His children call him dad, but their birth certificates call him ‘mother.’”

Sabbatini believes what has made Malta’s LGBTQ movement so effective is that advocates have consistently shown that these reforms aren’t merely an “abstract concept,” a matter of doing what is right and just. Because the country is so tiny, a majority of the population knows someone who is queer or transgender. That closeness makes the issue of equality very personal, one that touches nearly everyone’s lives in some way.

“The question is not ‘Should gay people marry?’” Sabbatini said. “It’s ‘Should John be able to marry Mark?’”

Despite the nearly unbelievable amount of forward movement in the past four years, Malta has a great deal of work left to do in order to catch up with the 21st century. The country is the sole municipality in Europe where abortion is illegal for any reason. Although Ireland bans terminating a pregnancy in most cases, the government allows exemption in cases where the life of the mother would be saved.

But Sammut claimed that there’s a big sign that progress is on its way: He’s already been getting immigration inquiries from LGBTQ people in other countries, including the United States.

Sammut runs, a tourism site for queer and trans visitors to the island. He said that he gets “three or four requests a month” about immigrating to Malta. There’s been a particular uptick in recent months from Americans who are “afraid of losing their rights” under the Trump administration.

Since taking office in January, the president has turned the country in the exact opposite direction of Malta—rolling back LGBTQ rights. Most recently, legislation was proposed to strip trans military members of medical benefits.

The 32-year-old, who came out when he was 16, welcomes to Malta anyone looking for a safe place where they can be themselves.

“You can live your life here,” Sammut said. “You don’t have to fear anything.”

The LGBTQ Community Needs Net Neutrality. Here’s Why.

Queer people have a lot to lose with the loss of net neutrality.

On Wednesday, several internet giants — everyone from Amazon to Etsy, Netflix to Pornhub — will be joining in a day of action to protest the FCC’s plan to dismantle net neutrality, a set of regulations that ensures that internet service providers can’t slow down certain sites or determine what content users can access with ease.

And a partisan internet could spell trouble for queer people, especially queer youth who use the internet as a vital safe space to explore their sexuality and gender identity, or to form support networks.

In a 2013 report from GLSEN titled “Out Online,” the organization that seeks to stop LGBTQ harassment and discrimination in schools outlined just how essential the internet has become in helping queer youth explore their own identities and form community. Their results found that 2 in 3 LGBT survey respondents reported that they used the web to connect with other LGBT people, with 3 in 10 saying they were more out online than they were in real life. For those who were not out in real life, half said they used the internet to connect with other queer people in the United States.

Their landmark report also showed that the internet is one of the primary places queer youth can access resources about their own bodies.

Given that, in 2015, only about one in ten millennials said that their schools’ health education curricula covered same-sex relationships, it’s no surprise that about 81% of LGBTQ youth use the internet to find out more information about themselves. The number is even higher for trans youth, 95% of whom have used the net to find out about their health.

Earlier this year when a YouTube algorithm snafu restricted a wealth of LGBTQ-themed content from users, queer content creators spoke about the importance that YouTube, and the internet in general, in creating queer communities.

“Kids who want to know about different orientations and definitions and about the history of LGBT people, etc, they can’t access that when their videos are being restricted,” YouTube personality NeonFiona told Gizmodo. “Restricting these videos makes it harder for these kids to find information they need and the community that they’ve been missing.”

And transgender youth have used the internet to create a storehouse of information and personal narratives about trans health including medical transitioning and more. YouTubers like Jamie Raines and Ashton Colby spurred frank discussions about transgender bodies through their content —and helped others do the same.

Queer people have sought each other online since the very beginning of the internet. In 1994, according to the book Virtual Culture, Wired issued a list of the top ten AOL chat rooms on the internet: three were for gay men and one was a space for lesbians.

In a 2014 Huffington Post blog, Indiana University professor Mary L. Gray said LGBT people will be “collateral damage” if the destruction of net neutrality allows internet service providers to determine what content people can see.

“Without Net Neutrality protections, content providers generating critical information would likely have to pay more to get their content into (and from!) the hands of LGBT people,” she writes. “That means [internet service providers] become the de facto gatekeepers controlling what content survives and what content falls by the wayside in the wake of a market-driven content tsunami.”

The FCC voted to rollback regulations in May and then take three months of comments either in support or against the proposal. On Wednesday, when internet retailers stand for net neutrality, they will also — perhaps unknowingly — be standing with LGBTQ youth, who without the internet would and could very well soon be in the dark.

Slumbr Camp Welcomed Everyone To The Gay Outdoors

From a shipwreck tattoo booth, an Andrew Christian swimsuit customization workshop designed by artist Raul de Nieves, or just drinking White Girl Rosè with co-founder and Internet celebrity The Fat Jewish, prideful partygoers found themselves entertained at every corner at Slumbr Camp.

After hours on the pool deck, people were invited to take a break and lounge around the island as the iconic Pavillion was turned into a Summer Camp formal.

That night, guests were surprised by an appearance by Drag Race runner-up Peppermint, who also served a live performance of her original music. And between her sets, there was a special performance by GRAMMY®- winner Macy Gray.

As the party went deep into the night under a field of balloons and disco lights, the legendary DJ Honey Dijon kept the energy high after arriving from a performance in Paris just the night before.

Those who decided to be overnight campers were treated to a recovery brunch poolside the next morning. Items like fresh mints and croissants that help all of us recover from any damage done by drinking too many Absolut and sodas were provided to help bring the weekend to a delicious close.

As people boarded a ferry and then a chartered bus to take them into the city to keep Pride going, many scored gift bags from brands like ASOS and Dollar Shave Club (who ensured that a clean razor was available to freshen up).

While this year’s now infamous annual Pride party was different compared to last year’s at the Standard Hotel, one thing stayed the same: Everyone had an unforgettable time.

Ireland’s First Openly Gay Prime Minister Is a Big Deal—But Not in Ireland

Ireland has made history again.

Leo Varadkar was elected the European nation’s first openly gay prime minister after winning his party’s election on Wednesday. Making Varadkar, the openly gay son of an Indian immigrant, poised to be just one of a handful of openly LGBTQ politicians to lead a nation—a short list that includes Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel and Iceland’s Johanna Sigurdardottir.

But while Varadkar’s history-making moment has made international news, there’s one place it hasn’t been a headline: his own country.

Before Varadkar joined the prime minister race, he came out publicly during the 2015 campaign for marriage equality, when Ireland became the first-ever nation to legalize same-sex unions through popular vote.

“I am a gay man,” he told Dublin’s Radio 1. “It’s not a secret. […] It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

But since coming out, the former Minister of Health’s sexuality has barely been mentioned in mainstream media coverage—even during the election. Brian Finnegan, the editor of Ireland’s only LGBTQ newspaper, Gay Community News, told INTO during a phone interview that it wasn’t a story at all until the week of the party vote.

“The reason it’s not a huge story here is that the Irish people don’t really care about what their politicians do in the bedroom,” Finnegan said. “They really care more about their policies and what they stand for.”

With Varadkar’s sexuality being treated as a non-issue, LGBTQ activists in Ireland say that represents a major step forward for a country that has made significant strides in equality in quite a short amount of time. A country with a long history of discrimination.

When openly gay lawmaker David Norris ran for president in 2011—a symbolic position in Irish politics—he was the target of a smear campaign that destroyed his run for office.

Norris, who spoke over the phone with INTO prior to last week’s election, claimed that the media told “every conceivable kind of lie” about him. They alleged he was a blind alcoholic and a pension fraud. Even worse, his opponents spread rumors that he was a pedophile who advocated parents have sex with their children.

“I was attacked by the media, and a large part of it was homophobia,” Norris said. “It was a different lie every single day. I kept a dignified face in public, but I was devastated personally.”

Norris, who would later sue for defamation, claimed that critics of his campaign would make jokes on the radio where they imitated the noises that he would make while having sex with children. Someone even created a fake website trolling his campaign, and a message on the homepage read: “Hello, my name is David Norris. I’m a homosexual. A homosexual is someone who interferes with little boys.”

The 73-year-old politician, who has been working for equality for five decades, has watched his country, where homosexuality was once illegal, become an international leader in LGBTQ rights. Norris, who was first elected as an independent senator in 1987, challenged the country’s prohibition on same-sex relations the following year. Although the European Court of Human Rights sided in his favor, homosexuality wouldn’t be formally decriminalized until 1993.

On top of this, the 1922 Censorship of Publications Act allowed the government to target LGBTQ news publications, frequently serving to stifle any positive representation of the community.

“We had this aura of criminality that infected and pervaded every single aspect of Irish society,” said Tonie Walsh, founder of the Irish Queer Archive. “All aspects of male homosexuality were considered taboo and illegal. It stopped mainstream Irish society from engaging any of our concerns or our fears.”

“It was extremely repressive and quite frightening,” Norris added. “If you were exposed as gay, you could lose your job, and you could be put in jail.”

Many LGBTQ people fled Ireland in the 70s and 80s for countries viewed as more accepting—like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Finnegan left for London in 1985, where he discovered a world of gay bars and drag queens he didn’t know existed; many of these spaces had been forced underground. Walsh stayed in Ireland, where gay people would remain silenced throughout the 80s and often persecuted.

Walsh and his boyfriend were kicked out of a bar in 1981 for holding hands, but there was nothing they could do about it because LGBTQ people were still not protected under Irish law, and the police wouldn’t pursue cases of anti-gay violence or harassment. You would be laughed out of the station.

“It was not a pretty time to be gay or lesbian,” Walsh said. “The endemic homophobia was shocking. I cannot overstate that.”

When Ireland’s first Gay Pride Week was held in 1980, there weren’t enough people to march. Attendees handed out pink carnations and fliers reading, “Gay liberation is your liberation.” With thousands coming out for last year’s Pride event, it’s clear the country has taken that message to heart in the years since.

When homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, there was an “explosion in gay culture across the island” during a time of rapid economic growth. Once LGBTQ people were allowed to live openly and freely, it not only helped with visibility of the community but also led to the first financial boom in Ireland’s history. Known as the “Celtic Tiger,” gay bars began to operate openly, even popping up in smaller cities outside the major metropolitan areas.

But what’s often lost in this conversation, Walsh explained, is that Irish people had long been supportive of the country’s LGBTQ population. The laws passed by the federal government at the time, however, did not reflect that acceptance.

“Change comes dripping slowly in this country, but people have been ready for a gay prime minister for several years,” Walsh said. “It’s like most societies. The population at large tend to be ahead of their political masters.”

When Ireland first allowed legal recognition for same-sex couples in 2011 with the passage of civil partnership laws, but a poll conducted the same year showed overwhelming support for full marriage equality. Seventy-three percent of respondents told Sunday Times/Red C that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry, while 53 percent were strongly in favor of the idea.

When equality finally went on the ballot in 2015, it passed with a 62 percent majority.

And befitting this recent wave of progress, Varadkar’s win was a similar blowout: He won with 60 percent of the vote.

In Ireland, prime ministers are elected not by the public, but by members of the majority party in the legislature. Varadkar, a member of the center-right Fine Gael, lost the vote among rank and file members. He was heavily favored, though, by party leadership to succeed former Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who announced his retirement earlier this year. Those upper members make up 65 percent of the final tally.

Norris, put through the political ringer just six years ago, was touched by Varadkar’s landslide victory.

“In my generation, we didn’t know there were any other gay people,” Norris said. “That is a universal phenomenon of people of my age group. There were absolutely no role models whatsoever. To have a young, handsome politician who is widely respected by all parties, that’s a great thing. It says to a young person, ‘Yes, you can have a career in politics if you want. You can be successful. You can even be prime minister.’”

After the June 2 vote, Varadkar, however, had a few hurdles to clear before officially being named PM.

Following election from within the party, the Prime Minister’s win must withstand a vote of the full parliament, one scheduled to take place next week. This ratification process is usually a During a Wednesday vote, Varadkar won by a margin of 57 votes to 50 — and with 47 members of parliament abstaining from the vote. He was swiftly sworn at a confirmation ceremony in Dáil, the lower house of the Irish legislature located in Dublin.

In addition to becoming Ireland’s first openly gay PM, Varadkar will also be the youngest. He’s 38, making him also the most junior leader in European Union. France’s Emmanuel Macron is 39.

As much as Varadkar’s victory is a sign that Ireland’s LGBTQ community has broken the political glass ceiling, it was a smaller moment that reminded Norris just how far the country had come. Days before the election, he witnessed a gay couple strolling across O’Connell Bridge, a popular tourist spot in Dublin’s city center, arm in arm. Norris said that he often spent so much time fighting for equality that he didn’t get to enjoy the benefits for himself.

But three decades after gay men were kicked out of public spaces for doing nothing more than holding hands, the fruits of his labor was solace enough.