GLAA to Council: Honor Wanda Alston's memory, but not with statutory LGBT Office
Related Links

GLAA statement on death of Wanda Alston 03/17/05

Rosendall: Saying goodbye to Wanda Alston (Bay Windows) 03/24/05

Stories on Wanda Alston

GLAA's Agenda: 2004 on proposed LGBT office

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GLAA to Council: Honor Wanda Alston's memory,
but not with statutory LGBT Office

Jim Graham's response

GLAA's counter-response

March 31, 2005

Memorandum for D.C. Councilmembers

From:Richard J. Rosendall
Vice President for Political Affairs
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance

Subject:Possible memorials for Wanda Alston

We in GLAA joined the rest of our city in shock and grief over the murder of our longtime colleague Wanda Alston, whom we knew for many years before she became Mayor Williams’s liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. As we joined in mourning and eulogizing her, the presence of supportive friends, as well as the respect shown by Washington’s top public officials, has helped. Two weeks have not been enough time to work through our grief, or even to adjust our minds to the idea of her being gone. Nonetheless, discussions of an appropriate memorial to Wanda are already underway. We do not think it wise to make policy decisions of this sort in the midst of grieving, but as the discussions have begun, we find it necessary to register our views.

There are many ways in which we could fittingly honor Wanda’s memory. Given her personal journey and the circumstances of her passing, we could expand the city’s substance abuse treatment programs, and name a program or a treatment center after her. Given that one of her last projects was to help organize a group of ministers to oppose an anti-gay ballot initiative and to build bridges of understanding among religious leaders, we could carry on that vital work in her name. We could suggest to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit that its new headquarters (at whose dedication Wanda participated five days before her death) be renamed in her memory. This last idea, by the way, would best be pursued not legislatively but by consulting with the GLLU and MPD directly.

No doubt others will have other ideas for an appropriate memorial. There is one idea, however, that we oppose: the proposal by Councilmember Jim Graham, which he made immediately after the news of Wanda’s death, to revive his stalled bill to statutorily create an Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Affairs in her memory. We have opposed such an office all along, as we previously documented in our election-year policy paper, Agenda: 2004.

It may surprise some people to learn that the District’s leading gay rights organization, about to celebrate our 34th anniversary, opposes having a D.C. Office of LGBT Affairs, which was established by mayoral order last year after the Graham bill stalled. Let us therefore present our reasons.

After forty years of political successes by the gay community, which has seen gay people represented at all levels of government, this office ghettoizes our concerns into one political office. (Incidentally, the presence of GLBT people in cabinet-level positions did not begin with Wanda, but goes back at least to Richard Maulsby’s tenure as director of Mayor Barry’s Office of Cable Television.) By its nature, a centralized political office will seek to co-opt and marginalize independent community voices. The GLBT community is not well served by allowing our advocacy to be controlled by the government.

The inclusion of an advisory committee or commission, selected by the Mayor’s office, will further hamper political dissent by putting an official and partisan imprimatur on what will be presented as the community's goals and needs. This is illustrated by the fact that the agenda for the Mayor’s upcoming LGBT Citizens Summit is being controlled by the Mayor’s office. That event is therefore likely to be little more than a dog-and-pony show designed to push the Mayor’s pre-existing agenda, as has happened with similar gatherings in the past. Effective community activism has always been based on individuals and groups volunteering their time to specialize in a given subject matter, and then sharing that expertise with the public and public officials -- not on polls or plebiscites.

We believe in an approach to activism based on pushing for the equal treatment to which we are entitled as taxpayers and human beings, not on stoking and reinforcing our collective sense of victimhood. We do not need the government to create our community, or validate it, or organize it. We need the government to serve us. If it is not serving us, we will tell it so, and having some sort of ombudsman for that purpose is fine. We also do not object to a GLBT liaison, as long as the position is truly that of a liaison and not a gatekeeper who will seek to block or control citizen’s access to officials they may wish to contact directly.

The offices of Latino and Asian affairs are justified by the political and social marginalization in those communities caused by language and cultural barriers, and the consequent need for special efforts to ensure access to government services. By contrast, the longstanding political influence and visibility of the District's gay community were never better illustrated than by the many local luminaries who took part in Wanda’s own memorial service and funeral. The fact that we are already well integrated into the life of our city is further illustrated by the fact of our city’s two openly gay councilmembers and openly gay attorney general.

The gay community itself is highly diverse, of course, crossing all cultural and economic lines in our city. GLAA’s recognition of this is reflected in our long history of being the leading defenders of all the non-discrimination categories in the D.C. Human Rights Act – not just sexual orientation and personal appearance (the latter being the category that protects transgender citizens).

Service agencies such as the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit of the Metropolitan Police Department are another matter, precisely because their direct service orientation distinguishes them from political offices. Agencies and departments of the government that can provide specialized services such as police investigations or health care would be welcomed. There are of course no gay ways to pave a road, collect trash, or any number of governmental services.

What is needed – what has been fruitful in the past – is not a ghettoized office, but watchdog efforts by independent persons and groups that are not answerable to any politician. As has been shown by experience, the head of an Office of LGBT Affairs, being appointed and paid by the Mayor, inevitably serves the Mayor's interests first. Especially considering the under-funding of the city’s mental health and substance abuse treatment services, we see no reason to devote more of the District's limited resources to an inherently political office. We therefore continue to urge the D.C. Council to reject the legislation.

As to what Wanda Alston would have wanted: we are well aware that Wanda lobbied for the creation of the Office of LGBT Affairs. This was not the only issue on which we disagreed with her. Indeed, numerous friends and colleagues of Wanda spoke at her memorial service and funeral of the fights they had with her over the years. The fact that she was a fighter was one of the things many of us loved and respected about her. The history of the black civil rights movement was filled with intramural battles. The path to equality is not advanced by a pretense of unanimity. We do not think it would truly honor the memory of such a passionately committed activist as Wanda for us now to abandon our own strongly held views. Nor do we think it would honor her memory for anyone to attempt to steamroll legislation through the Council with emotional appeals.


Jim Graham's response

April 1, 2005

From:Jim Graham

To:Rick Rosendall; DC Councilmembers

Subject:RE: Honor Wanda Alston's memory, but not with statutory LGBT Office

Thanks for your message. As you will recall, this is legislation that I introduced and many supported a couple of years ago. I would say that Wanda was the strongest supporter of making this office a statutory office. She was deeply disappointed that it was not enacted. She then pressed the Mayor to create the office by executive order. But as recently as a couple of months ago, she had pressed me to continue the effort. Thus I am doing so. Bests CM Jim Graham

GLAA's counter-response

April 1, 2005

From:Rick Rosendall

To:Jim Graham; DC Councilmembers

Subject:RE: Honor Wanda Alston's memory, but not with statutory LGBT Office

We in GLAA, notwithstanding our great respect for Wanda and our sorrow at her passing, must urge all of you to evaluate the legislation on its merits, and to consider seriously our objections to it. We did not adopt our position lightly. We have devoted a good deal of thought to the matter, which we shared with you in yesterday's memo. We simply disagree with Wanda on this issue, and invoking her memory and wishes is not a persuasive response to our arguments. Our differences with her never prevented us from working with her, or vice versa, in a spirit of mutual respect.

On a related matter, we are glad at the support we have received for our suggestion that the MPD Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit headquarters be named in Wanda's memory, and we are optimistic that Chief Ramsey will give it his blessing.

Rick Rosendall

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