Monthly Archives: December 2009

Houston Elects Openly Gay Female Mayor

Here’s another cause for celebration during the holiday season: the voters of Houston, TX, have elected Annise Parker mayor. Ms. Parker is a lesbian, making Houston the largest city in the United States headed by an openly gay person. She touched upon the importance of the moment in her victory speech:

“Tonight the voters of Houston have opened the door to history,” she said, standing by her partner of 19 years, Kathy Hubbard, and their three adopted children. “I acknowledge that. I embrace that. I know what this win means to many of us who never thought we could achieve high office.”

With all precincts reporting, Ms. Parker had defeated Mr. Locke by 53 percent to 47 percent.

Throughout the campaign, Ms. Parker tried to avoid making an issue of her sexual orientation and emphasized her experience in overseeing the city’s finances [as city controller]. But she began her career as an advocate for gay rights in the 1980s, and it was lost on no one in Houston, a city of 2.2 million people, that her election marked a milestone for gay men and lesbians around the country.

Several smaller cities in other regions have chosen openly gay mayors, among them Providence, R.I., Portland, Ore., and Cambridge, Mass. But Ms. Parker’s success came in a conservative state where voters have outlawed gay marriage and a city where a referendum on granting benefits to same-sex partners of city employees was soundly defeated.

We congratulate Ms. Parker and the Houston residents who voted for her.

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Filed under Government, LGBT

G20 Protesters Claim Police Officers Sexually Assaulted and Harassed Them

Reports are emerging that a number of individuals who were arrested for protesting the G20 in Pittsburgh on Sept. 25 were sexually harassed and even assaulted by police officers. Although none of these individuals were actually charged, some report that they are still experiencing ‘aftershocks’ from the day because of the way the police treated them.

Carnegie Mellon student Casey Li Brander, for example, recalls hearing a male police officer say “Let’s get the hot ones out,” as she and 20 other women sat handcuffed inside a bus. Although charges against Brander were dismissed because she called 911 and reported that she was surrounded by police and unable to find an escape route, she was still arrested and taken by bus to State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh. She says:

“When I arrived at SCI, I was frisked really intrusively with five guys watching,” Brander recalls. The female guard performing the search “really lifted me up by the crotch one time, while I was trying not to cry,” as male officers laughed. “It’s totally not cool for five guys to be standing around, dissecting me with their eyes while I’m being felt up by the female guard.”

Another CMU student says:

[She] recalls her own frisking on the Cathedral lawn by a female officer. “The officer literally thrust her hands between my butt cheeks, between my labia, and was groping between my breasts from outside of the clothes I was wearing,” the CMU student writes in a statement sent to CP. “It felt like an intense sexual assault.”

Another student, Deidre Martinex Meehan, reports that officers took photos of her while she was frisked says that she later heard officers call women in the group derogatory gender-specific insults and announce as they walked by, “Two hot and sexy females coming through!” Still another student, Danielle Hauser, says that “I’m pretty sure I have post-traumatic stress disorder because I have had bad sexual experiences, and the way the police were dealing with us reminded me of that.”

Although the Pittsburgh City Paper reports that all of these instances were cases of “sexual harassment,” when an officer lifts you up by the crotch or thrusts his/her hands into your labia, it is unquestionably sexual assault. This form of violence results from and reinforces power disparities. These are blatant cases of human rights violations and are crimes against both the individuals and our community.

According to City Paper, the Greater Pittsburgh ACLU is currently seeking plaintiffs for potential civil suits, including those complaining of sexual harassment by police.


Filed under Pittsburgh, Sexual harassment

Remembering the Massacre at Polytechnique

Twenty years ago this week—December 6, 1989—Mark Lépine shot or stabbed 27 engineering students, mostly women, at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal after accusing them of being feminists. Of the 14 students who died, all were women. December 6 is now National Violence Against Women Day in Canada, in memory of the 14 women whose lives were stolen simply for being women. Catherine Porter has an article commemorating the ‘Montreal Massacre’ and reflecting on what the anniversary means for the future.

Porter writes that, of all of the school massacres North America has seen in recent years, like Columbine, Dawson College, and Virginia Tech, “The Montreal Massacre was different. Lépine had a specific target: women.”

He blamed them for his own failures. His suicide note listed other women he’d set in his sights: a politician, a union leader, and Quebec’s first female firefighter and police captain, among others. He’d settled for easier targets – the young women at Université de Montréal’s engineering school, who had the audacity to study for careers that still today are the domain of men….

It was an event that changed the lives of students at school, and women around the country. We all had posters of those women on our walls. We went to commemorations. We walked the streets in Take Back the Night marches. We felt exposed to a hatred many of us hadn’t realized was festering – over the fact that we could work too, that we could study men’s subjects, that we could be good at it.

Although the Montreal Massacre changed the way that Canadians treated violence against women, misogyny still “festers.” Indeed, the anniversary of this event serves to remind us that violence remains a far more magnified threat for women all over the world, and that the gender dimension is still as prevalent as ever in school shootings and similar massacres. Despite Porter’s claim that the Montreal Massacre was ‘different,’ Lepine is not the only shooter to have specifically targeted women. Bob Herbert in his 2006 NYTimes op-ed points out that in two recent school shootings in the United States, a rural Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and a large public high school in Colorado, the shooters separated the girls and the boys, and then deliberately attacked only the girls:

In the widespread coverage that followed these crimes, very little was made of the fact that only girls were targeted. Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews.

There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime.

None of that occurred because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.

In 2009, this pattern remains. In a shooting spree in March in Winnenden, Germany, 11 of the male shooter’s 15 victims were female, and authorities believe the shooter deliberately targeted women. In August of this year, misogynist George Sodini shot up a women’s exercise class in Pittsburgh. As we remember the incident at Polytechnique, we must remember that the clearly gendered massacre is not an ‘isolated’ incident, nor is it outdated. Instead, it is another horrifying example of women and girls being attacked for one reason: the fact that they’re female.

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Update on Abortion Access in Healthcare Reform

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate voted to table an amendment to the healthcare reform bill, the language of which mirrored the restrictive Stupak-Pitts amendment attached to the House’s version of the bill. The Senate amendment was offered by Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, and seven Democrats, all male and including Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Bob Casey, voted to keep the amendment alive. Two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, voted to table the amendment.

This week, the Nation re-published WLP Special Advisor Kate Michelman’s article about the devastating impact that healthcare crises have had on her family. In a brief new introduction, Kate writes:

Other than the steady decline to be expected with my husband’s Parkinson’s disease, there is little change to report in our situation since I wrote about our family’s health care challenges in The Nation last spring. Costs continue to mount as his independence ebbs. Caretaking is my life. But what has not changed for us is not nearly as important as what has changed in the healthcare debate. A year ago, amid post-election euphoria, the healthcare debate seemed to offer real hope. A public option that would inject competition into the healthcare market and theoretically bring the cost of healthcare under some semblance of control seemed to be the most minimal reform Washington could conceivably offer a nation fed up with a system that was failing us. Today, a considerably diluted public option is flitting around the edges of the Senate debate as an extravagant idea that might, if enough deals can be struck, sneak through. Meanwhile, a group of House Democrats sacrificed women’s health by inserting restrictions on abortion broader than even the most ambitious Republicans could have imagined a year ago, and Senate Democrats may pursue the same strategy. The article below, which I wrote last April, is as relevant as ever.

The Senate vote also came as the New York Times published an op-ed by Rep. Bart Stupak, who, along with Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph Pitts, wrote the amendment restricting abortion coverage in the House version of the bill. He jumps through linguistic hoops, trying to assert that his language does nothing but uphold the Hyde Amendment which has restricted federal funds for abortion since 1976 and has had a disproportionate effect on low-income women.

The Stupak-Pitts amendment goes way beyond the Hyde Amendment. Women’s eNews nicely summed up the effects the Stupak-Pitts amendment will have on abortion coverage:

The amendment–named for Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa.–infringes on abortion access in three ways:

-  It prevents any government-run plan from offering abortion coverage, even if women pay for the service with their own premiums;

-  It prohibits participants in a proposed health insurance exchange from receiving abortion coverage if they also receive government subsidies available to low- and moderate-income earners;

-  It requires private insurance companies in the exchange to only provide abortion as supplementary coverage.

The practical result of the Stupak-Pitts amendment would mean “a new norm of exclusion” for abortion coverage, according to a recent analysis by George Washington University’s School of Public Health.

At the end of his op-ed, Rep. Stupak writes that the American people “do not want taxpayer dollars financing abortion.” On this, he is absolutely wrong. According to research conducted by the National Women’s Law Center this year, the majority of Americans do support abortion coverage in healthcare reform legislation:

Voters overwhelmingly support the broad outlines of reform and requiring coverage of women’s reproductive health services.  Seven-in-ten (70%) favor a proposal that establishes a National Health Insurance Exchange with a public plan option. If the reform were adopted, voters overwhelmingly support requiring health plans to cover women’s reproductive health services (71% favor-21% oppose).

Absent coverage for women’s reproductive health services, majorities oppose reform. If reform eliminated current insurance coverage of reproductive health services such as birth control or abortion, nearly two-thirds (60%) would oppose the plan and nearly half (47%) would oppose it strongly.

Even in the face of opposition arguments, majorities support requiring coverage of abortions under reform.  After hearing strong arguments both for and against covering abortion under reform, two-thirds (66%) support coverage, agreeing that health care, not politics, should drive coverage decisions. A majority of voters (72%) reported that they would feel angry if Congress mandated by law that abortion would not be covered under a national health care plan.

Congress is certainly hearing from that majority of voters right now, which explains the rejection of the anti-choice amendment to the Senate bill and Rep. Stupak’s defensive (and untrue) op-ed. Moving forward, we will continue to work to ensure that abortion coverage is not carved out of healthcare reform efforts and thank those legislators who are not willing to throw women’s basic reproductive healthcare under the bus. You can take part by thanking your senators, if they voted to table the amendment, or explaining to your elected officials why the Stupak-Pitts amendment goes further to restrict women’s access to abortion than any previous legislative effort.

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Filed under Abortion, Equality, Government, Health insurance, Politics, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

New Report Suggests ‘Campus Culture of Secrecy’ Stands Between Sexual Assault Victims and Justice

The Center for Public Integrity has released a new series of reports which argues that college women who are sexually assaulted often find themselves facing a campus culture of secrecy, where it is difficult to report the assault and take action. The Center, an investigative journalism organization, based its conclusions on a survey of 152 crisis services programs and clinics on or near college campuses and interviews with 48 officials familiar with the college disciplinary process and 33 women who reported being raped by other college students.

Barriers include the fact that “many victims don’t report at all because they blame themselves or don’t identify what happened as sexual assault.” The fact that sexual assaults on college campuses are underreported is compounded by the fact that , when they are reported, criminal justice authorities frequently “shy away” from such cases, and approach them as if they were a “he said/she said” situation, rather than treating it as a legitimate crime. Such barriers, writes Kristin Lombardi, a co-author of the study, often “leave [the victims] victimized a second time.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that in Pennsylvania, “226 forcible sex offenses — most in residence halls — were reported in 2007 by 542 post-secondary schools as required under the federal Clery Act.” However, S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus Inc., adds that this figure is likely only a “small fraction of the scope of the problem,” because of challenges such as peer pressure and ignorance as to what programs are available for victims.

Although the university system is obviously not aiding victims in the way it should, some attempts are being made within the Pennsylvania government to address this problem. Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, is trying to win support for legislation that would necessitate rape and sexual violence awareness programs for all students entering a Pennsylvania college or university. Conklin introduced the legislation in 2007, but it did not become law. Introduced again this year, it passed the House with 196 in favor in May and is now in the Senate Education Committee.

While passing this bill would certainly be a step in the right direction, as education is always the first step to a greater awareness, universities need to be held responsible for doing more than just informing their students about the prevalence of rape and sexual assault on college campuses. Victims of sexual violence need to be taken seriously, and not shamed into silence or off-the-record negotiations with dorm administrators. Furthermore, students who perpetuate sexual violence need to be held accountable for that violence, which does not mean a slap on the wrist, or a ‘warning.’ Sexual violence is a serious crime; it’s about time people start treating it that way.

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Filed under Pennsylvania, Rape

Irish Abortion Law Under Scrutiny

abortion laws mapNext week, the European Court of Human Rights will hear arguments about whether Ireland’s abortion laws violate women’s human rights. Current Irish law outlaws legal access to abortion, making an exception only to save a pregnant woman’s life. Because of this strict law, thousands of women have had to travel to the neighboring United Kingdom to obtain the abortions they need.

The case will be brought before the court by three women who say that their health was endangered by having to make the trip to the UK. The health issues that were implicated by their pregnancies included ectopic pregnancy, where the fetus develops outside of the uterus, and undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

As the map above shows (click it to enlarge), legal access to abortion varies greatly in different regions of the world. While individual countries make their own laws about the procedure, it is essential to women’s equality. Banning the procedure doesn’t reduce the number of abortions; it increases the number of unsafe abortions which can lead to infection or death. We hope that the court will recognize that abortion is a fundamental right and that Ireland’s law will adjust accordingly.

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Filed under Abortion, Reproductive Rights, Women's health