Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson mingled among a group of LGBTQ activists, advocates, and neighborhood-level elected officials last summer during a vigil in Dupont Circle in honor of slain transgender women. The death of Zoe Spears, a transgender woman killed on Eastern Avenue in Prince George’s County, was receiving a lot of attention, and the chairman was on the shit list of some in the LGBTQ community.

Days before the vigil, the Rainbow Caucus of LGBTQ Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners sent a letter admonishing Mendelson and the rest of the Council for ignoring their requests for an increase in city funding in the fiscal year 2020 budget. Specifically, the letter expressed disgust with the Council’s “refusal to provide even $1 in increased funding for the Office of Human Rights, and Office of LGBTQ Affairs that 15 organizations advocated for.”

As the sun set on the Friday afternoon gathering, and Mendelson started strolling away, Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby, a community center for LGBTQ individuals, called him out for what she and others in the community saw as a budget snub.

LL tweeted Corado’s statement, and shortly after received a call from the chairman, who left a voicemail pointing out that he left the vigil after being there for an hour and a half and that he didn’t hear Corado as he was leaving. (To be fair, Mendo appeared to be the only councilmember at the vigil. LL spotted staffers from other Council offices, though.)

“I hate to say this,” Mendelson said in the voicemail, “but they’re critical of the Council ignoring them, but … they did not do a very good job of alerting us to the funding needs. I was unaware of it until after the Council voted on the budget, and I regret that, but it’s hard to say we denied them when I was unaware of it.”

The chairman’s claims didn’t sit well with some who met with his staff earlier last year.

Multiple people who met with a staffer in Mendelson’s office say that they were told to make their request for more funding to Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, who chairs the Committee on Government Operations and has oversight of the Mayor’s Office on LGBTQ Affairs and the Office of Human Rights (OHR). They say Todd told them to go back to Mendelson, who chairs the Committee of the Whole and can move money in the budget wherever the hell he wants.

LGBTQ leaders are determined not to get the run-around this time.

In January, representatives from the Capital Pride Alliance, SMYAL, the Wanda Alston Foundation, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, the DC Center for the LGBT Community, and the ANC Rainbow Caucus started meeting with councilmembers and the mayor’s office to lay out their budget priorities. 

In a letter sent to Mayor Muriel Bowser last week, those representatives asked for more resources for workforce development programs, funds to address LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, a dedicated LGBTQ center with a $10 million price tag, and funds for OHR to relieve the backlog of complaints that have drawn the ire of local victims for years. (OHR’s director, Mónica Palacio, resigned this week.)

The letter also calls for $2.6 million more in grant funding to flow through the LGBTQ affairs office, $700,000 for LGBTQ health data collection, and $600,000 for transitional housing dedicated to LGBTQ youth ages 18-24 among other priorities that total $17.6 million.

“I think it’s a reach, but I think for the most part these are important things to get before the Council and add them to the debate,” At-Large Councilmember David Grosso says. “They may not get everything they ask for but they’ll probably get the majority of everything they need.”

Japer Bowles, an ANC from Adams Morgan and a member of the Rainbow Caucus, is cautiously optimistic.

“Everyone says they’re a supporter of LGBTQ issues,” he says. “And now we’re saying ‘put up or shut up’ and we’re giving the Council and mayor a chance to fulfill their promises.”

Grosso, who is not running for re-election but is one of the legislators who Bowles and company have met with this year, remembers last year’s snub well.

“I think last year they did bring their concerns to the Council, but for some reason their concerns were not elevated,” Grosso says. “It’s gonna take the full Council, and I think they were frustrated that Councilmember Todd did not put [more funds] in his [committee] report.”

Rewind to May 2019, when the Council huddled in the chairman’s conference room to hash out the budget before the vote: During that nearly 12-hour meeting, both Mendelson and Grosso asked Todd about the LGBTQ community’s requests for more resources for OHR, according to a video recording. Todd said he was unaware of such a request and therefore did not increase the budget.

This week, Todd acknowledged that he received a letter from the LGBTQ community in April 2019, shortly before the Council approved the budget. By that time, he says, it was too late in the process.

Todd says this year he’s “committed to taking a look at their priorities and working with the executive and the Council.”

For his part, Mendelson says the frustration expressed by those in the LGBTQ community was the result of “miscommunication and, um, not clear advocacy.”

None of the 12 current D.C. councilmembers are openly LGBTQ, which Bowles hopes will change in the next election. Ward 2 candidate John Fanning and Ward 7 candidate Anthony Lorenzo Green (who identifies as “same-gender loving”) would be the first openly LGBTQ councilmembers since David Catania and Jim Graham left in 2015.

Former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans was historically supportive of LGBTQ issues, and introduced a bill on the eve of his resignation-in-lieu-of-expulsion to provide financial support for D.C.’s Pride celebration. But scandal has since tainted his credibility. 

“I think he was a champion for anti-sodomy stuff and marriage equality, but we didn’t go to him to ask him to sponsor anything because there’s so many other issues [with his tenure],” Bowles says. “There’s an Ariana Grande gif, that’s like ‘thank you, next,’ and I think that’s where we all stand.”

For Sultan Shakir, the executive director of the LGBTQ youth services center SMYAL, one of the most significant requests is for $700,000 to fund a three-year pilot program aimed at helping transgender and gender nonconforming youths experiencing homelessness learn job skills. The program would include social support, counseling, and outreach to prospective employers.

Shakir points to an OHR report from 2015 that found 48 percent of D.C. employers prefered “at least one less-qualified applicant perceived as cisgender over a more-qualified applicant perceived as transgender.”

Shakir says that after last year’s snub, Mendelson’s office has been responsive to their requests and helpful in navigating the budget process.

“I would say no [Council] offices to my knowledge were willing to commit, largely because no one has seen the mayor’s budget,” Shakir says. “There’s been support expressed from offices we’ve met with, but the key thing is to ensure the community turns out and continues the engagement of the Council so these issues stay at the forefront as the budget process plays out.”