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GLAA submits testimony on Office of Human Rights
GAY AND LESBIAN ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE OF WASHINGTON
Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
March 4, 2005
The Honorable Vincent Orange
Committee on Government Operations
Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
Dear Mr. Orange:
Please let this letter serve as the official statement of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA) for the record of your committee’s February 25 Oversight and Performance hearings for the Office of Human Rights (OHR). I regret that I was unable to present this statement in person that day.
Founded in 1971, GLAA is the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization in the country. We will be celebrating our 34th anniversary with a fund-raising reception at the Barcelo Hotel on Wednesday evening, April 20. Among this year’s winners of GLAA’s Distinguished Service Awards will be Council Chairman Linda Cropp. You will be receiving your official invitation shortly; we hope you will be able to attend.
From the beginning, GLAA has been keenly interested in the vigorous enforcement of what is now known as the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 (DCHRA), one of our nation’s strongest and most comprehensive civil rights laws. Among our earliest victories -- even pre-dating the establishment of the current Home Rule Charter -- were the 1972 Board of Education resolution protecting students, teachers, and school system employees from arbitrary discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the 1973 enactment of Title 34, the direct predecessor of the DCHRA.
Our insistence on a vigilant and effective Office of Human Rights reflects the fact that federal civil rights laws offer few if any protections for gay men and lesbians who are victims of bigotry. While those who suffer discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability may seek redress of their grievances in federal courts or administrative agencies, lesbians and gay men here in the District of Columbia can only find justice through fair enforcement of our own laws.
One of GLAA’s proudest accomplishments in recent years was the re-establishment of OHR as an independent agency. Although OHR had been set up as an independent agency many years ago, it was submerged in the 1990s in a merger with another agency and systematically ignored and degraded. As a result of gross budget and staff cutbacks, OHR’s backlog of discrimination complaints exploded beyond any reasonable limits, forcing complainants to routinely wait for years before OHR could get around to handling their cases. GLAA led the way in protesting these shameful developments and in demanding both renewed independence and adequate budgets for OHR. Our efforts were finally rewarded several years ago when one of your predecessors as Chair of this committee, Councilmember Kathy Patterson, engineered OHR’s independence while boosting its budget. (By no coincidence, Councilmember Patterson was awarded one of our Distinguished Service Awards a few years ago in recognition of her leadership on this and other issues of crucial importance to the District’s gay and lesbian community.)
Mrs. Patterson was succeeded by Councilmember Jim Graham in providing outstanding oversight and advocacy for OHR and the cause of civil rights in the District of Columbia as chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino and Asian-Pacific Island Affairs, and Property Management. Mr. Orange, now that your Government Operations Committee has reabsorbed the responsibilities formerly exercised by Mr. Graham’s Subcommittee, we hope you will continue the Council’s laudable tradition of respecting civil rights for all our residents.
One of the major reasons we at GLAA were so eager to re-establish OHR’s independence was that we wanted the agency to be headed by someone with a proven record and commitment in the field of human rights. We think our expectations have been largely vindicated by the performance of the present Director, Mr. Kenneth Saunders, since his appointment by Mayor Williams two years ago.
As Mr. Saunders testified before your committee last week, the number of what he terms “aged” cases -- defined as the number of formal complaints pending within OHR for at least 270 days -- has declined from 341 when he became OHR Director in June 2003 to 205 as of the end of January 2005. The total number of pending cases, aged or otherwise, fell from 482 to 392 over the same span.
For added perspective, it was not so long ago when OHR’s total caseload was a staggering 750 to 800. It routinely took two and a half years between the time you filed your complaint and the time OHR issued a finding of probable cause. These delays and the many attendant horror stories relayed to us about OHR’s inefficiency if not indifference were so appalling that we had to discourage members of our community with seemingly legitimate complaints from pursuing a remedy through the Office of Human Rights. I cannot tell you how mortifying this was.
In contrast, the gratifying reduction of OHR’s backlog that we have seen during the entire Williams Administration reflects well upon all concerned: The leadership provided by Mr. Saunders and his predecessors Nadine Wilburn and Charles Holman, the dedication and professionalism of the OHR staff, and the solid budgetary support and aggressive oversight provided by the Council and the Administration.
We are also pleased by Mr. Saunders’ performance in enforcing the Mayor’s Order on Uniform Language in Non-Discrimination Policies. As background, GLAA persuaded Mayor Williams to issue this Order in August 2000 after we found several instances where the non-discrimination policy statements issued by District government agencies failed to include sexual orientation and several other categories in the “laundry list” of classes protected by the DCHRA from arbitrary discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit. Sometimes these policy statements only included the list of federally protected categories, but other statements just seemed to be a random mix of locally and federally protected classes. The Mayor’s Order dictated that all such anti-discrimination statements issued by D.C. government departments and agencies would include the full list of 15 categories protected under the DCHRA.
When GLAA continued to find examples of inadequate anti-discrimination statements even after the issuance of the Mayor’s Order, Councilmember Graham convened oversight hearings in June and October 2002 dedicated to prodding the District government into full compliance. By the end of these very rewarding and illuminating hearings, it seemed that about half of all agencies were compliant. Although progress then seemed to stall for a while, we were delighted to learn during our recent meeting with Mr. Saunders that all but one agency are now complying with the Mayor’s Order. Credit for this accomplishment may be shared by Mr. Saunders with his Compliance Officer, Ms. Brittany Matthews, and with Mr. Robert Bobb, perhaps this Administration’s MVP, who lit a few fires to get the attention of some of the more recalcitrant or distracted District agencies.
There are still some problem areas within the District government as far as respect for the spirit of the DCHRA goes. We regret to report that historically, we have experienced far more troubles with homophobia within the District government than with prejudice against lesbians and gay men in the private sector. No agency has proven more difficult to work with in recent times than the Fire/EMS Department.
The Department’s casual tolerance for blatant homophobia and transphobia burst into public consciousness with their grotesque mishandling of the notorious Tyra Hunter incident in August 1995. After years of lawsuits and agitation, the Department agreed to overhaul its diversity training program to stress the need for Department employees to respect members of the gay, lesbian and transgendered community. Unfortunately, to this day we cannot receive verification that Fire/EMS has in fact implemented this comprehensive diversity training program; we have been met with resistance at every step.
Last year, GLAA did obtain copies of the Fire/EMS Department's taxpayer-funded diversity training documents and course manuals through a FOIA request after repeatedly being rebuffed by the agency's EEO and Diversity Management Director, Fredreika Smith. We were assisted in our FOIA request by D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti as well as by Councilmembers Catania, Fenty, Graham, and Schwartz. In the Instructor Manual (Series II "Preventing Sexual Harassment"), the National MultiCultural Institute observes, "The investment of participants in the training is often impacted by who promotes the training and whether upper management demonstrates a commitment to its success." We agree. Unfortunately, the agency has credibility problems. Its grooming policy has been challenged by the ACLU, and members of the agency's upper management are under investigation by the Office of Human Rights for alleged violations of sexual harassment and hostile work environment statutes with Ms. Smith herself being named in the case. The official in charge of an agency's equal employment opportunity and diversity management efforts ought to be advocating for those things, not resisting them and responding to community advocates with defensiveness and denial as Ms. Smith has done over a period of many years. That homophobia in the Fire Department has been an ongoing problem can be seen in the 1996 report on the subject from Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence, a link to which is provided below [see box at upper right].
Another issue we would like to call to your attention is the need for increased public education about the fact that our transgendered residents are already protected from many forms of discrimination under the “personal appearance” section of the DCHRA. Although several court cases have made this clear over the years, that interpretation is still not widely known among the general public. We have urged Mr. Saunders to look into initiatives that OHR might take to get this information across to the public, through posters or whatever. Mr. Saunders replied that he is eager to work with members of our transgendered community on this matter. Here, as in so many other aspects of enforcement of the DCHRA, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
We would very much like to meet with you in the near future, Mr. Orange, to discuss continuing and enhancing the Council’s role in ensuring strong support for civil rights for all residents of the District of Columbia.
Craig Howell, Chair
GLAA Human Rights Project
cc: Kenneth Saunders