A capitol affair

A capitol affair

Local LGBT activists visit the White House to discuss rural issues

BRATTLEBORO — Three local LGBT activists paid a visit to the White House on Dec. 2 for a meeting about advancing the progress of LGBT people in rural America.

Jonah Mossberg, Brattleboro-based farmer and filmmaker, said he received an invitation to the meeting via the email address associated with his film, “Out Here: A Queer Farmer Film Project.”

It came from the White House Rural Council, which was formed through an executive order in June, 2011, by President Barack Obama to “address challenges in Rural America, build on the Administration's rural economic strategy, and improve the implementation of that strategy.”

The first thing Mossberg did was forward the email to his friend, Green Mountain Crossroads Executive Director HB Lozito, and ask, “Should I go to this?” Mossberg said.

“I said, 'You should totally go!' then I asked, 'Can I go with you?'” Lozito told The Commons.

“When I got Jonah's message, I was on a bus [to see family] on Connie's fabulous bus line. It was the gayest day ever!"

Connie Englert, an out trans woman, is the founder and managing director of MAX Bus, a Shelburne Falls, Mass., based bus line legally recognized as LGBT certified by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Supplier Diversity Office of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Sartorial quandary

The next thing Mossberg said he asked himself was, “Oh f-! What do we wear?"

“That was everybody's number one question to me: What are you going to wear?” Lozito said.

Lozito received Mossberg's invitation en route to “visiting my grandma, and we had already planned to go to the thrift store. So she helped me pick out an outfit. She was very excited.”

Joining Lozito and Mossberg at the White House meeting was Emily Marker, a Green Mountain Crossroads board member.

“The nature of GMC is working with rural LGBTQ people. Nationally, not many people are doing that work. But we had this unique opportunity to all be in the same room,” Lozito said. “By nature of our geography we are isolated from each other.”

About 80 people, including students, community activists, and federal employees, attended the meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Building at the White House.

The half-day event included panel discussions, speakers, and breakout sessions on legal issues, the power of rural LGBT storytelling, tech tools groups can use for activism and organizing, and economic opportunities and barriers for rural LGBT people.

Participating groups included StoryCorps, the Human Rights Campaign, BiNet, the Human Dignity Coalition, LGBT Technology Partnership and Institute, the Fairness Campaign, the California Rural Legal Assistance, Creating Change Foundation, ACLU of Kentucky, National Center for Lesbian Rights, True Colors Fund, and the Trevor Foundation.

“I got to meet people I've corresponded with or had known about through their work,” Mossberg said - such as a representative from Proyecto Poderoso/Project Powerful, an LGBT migrant farmworker advocacy organization formed by California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.

“I can see some immediate opportunities for collaboration,” Lozito said.

Panels and presentations

Lozito and Mossberg attended a panel on civil rights and legal issues featuring an assistant to the president representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

“The folks on this panel drew a distinction between federal appointees and career lawyers working in the [DOJ]. The expressed perspective was that while we will collectively be facing many challenges these next few years, only a small percentage of the people working in the federal government are appointees who will be replaced with the new incoming administration,” Lozito wrote on the GMC blog, www.greenmountaincrossroads.org/blog.

Lozito noted the impression they got from the panelists was, “This is what we do: we stay here and we lock it down.”

“The DOJ panel was really encouraging. They told us how to contact our DOJ regional representative - because we need all the tools [to help us] right now,” Lozito said.

Mossberg said he enjoyed hearing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speak.

“He's a cabinet member, the highest ranking agriculture person,” Mossberg said. “He stuck around afterwards and I shook his hand and told him about Food Connects and our farm-to-school program,” Mossberg said, adding, “I slipped him a copy of my movie."

But, Mossberg said, “the coolest part was meeting people from all over the country. We met someone from Mississippi.”

Although Lozito said there wasn't enough time to make all the connections they wanted to that day, “it was really validating. We're doing really good, powerful, interesting, important work. And we know what's going on [for LGBT] people in this region.”

“It's a little bit of leverage and legitimacy, to have a higher-level invitation like this,” Mossberg said. “The White House staff encouraged us to use this platform, to take photos at this event to further our work,” Lozito added.

An energizing experience

In answer to what might be on many readers' minds - did they get to meet the president? - Lozito and Mossberg said, “no.”

“We didn't meet the vice-president, either, but we did meet Megan Smith, the Chief Technology Officer, [who is] a cabinet member and an out LGBTQ person,” Lozito said.

Attending this meeting “gives us more legitimacy and networking potential,” Lozito said. “This was energizing for me. November was so intense. But, there's lots of folks out there doing this and now we're more connected than before.”

Did Lozito or Mossberg get the sense from the event organizers and attendees that this was sort of a “last chance” for rural LGBT people to meet in the White House, at least for the next four years?

“There was no indication, but I would speculate 'yes,'” Mossberg said.

“There was a lot of uncertainty, but not much of it coming from the [meeting's] organizers,” Lozito said, noting the lead-up to the event seemed a little rushed, and “sneaking in before Jan. 20” might have been the reason.

“I don't know if I'd go to it” had it happened during the next administration, Lozito said. “I felt really welcomed” by the White House staff and event organizers, Lozito said, noting the vibe was “we want you here.”

“The quintessential queer experience is urban, and that's not my experience,” Mossberg said. “To be at the White House talking about the rural queer experience is an honor, really.”

Lozito noted the validation of being a member of the LGBTQ community, a group of people that has long been oppressed, “converted,” and victimized, and being invited to the White House, where the leader of the U.S. lives and works.

“We made it. We survived. Here we are, at the White House,” Lozito said.

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