As awful as the dislocation caused by Hurricane Katrina and government neglect in the aftermath has been for millions of people, survivors who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered or who have HIV/AIDS are facing the added stress of prejudice, some of it enshrined in law.
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, hardest hit by Katrina, have constitutional bans on recognizing same-sex relationships and the U.S. government has a Defense of Marriage Act, all making it virtually impossible for surviving gay partners to be accorded any validity by government relief agencies.
In Texas, Arpollo Vicks, a transgendered woman, was arrested in an evacuation shelter at Texas A & M in Bryan on September 4 simply for taking a shower. She was held for fives days at the Brazos County Detention Center. Advocates were able to get the school to drop charges and she was released.
The National Center for Transgender Equality is working with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Lambda Legal Defense on a guide “for making evacuation shelters safe and welcoming” for people of transgender experience.
About 8,000 people with HIV/AIDS have been displaced by Katrina and the flood, the Associated Press reported. The New Orleans AIDS Task Force is now working out of the Montrose Clinic in Houston, a facility that serves the LGBT community in that city’s leading gay neighborhood. In some shelters, such as the Houston Astrodome, people with HIV are being referred to other clinics to pick up a month’s supply of medications.
Lambda has established a national toll-free hotline number—866-542-8336—for survivors who experience discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV/AIDS status.
“Tragedy does not discriminate and neither should relief agencies,” said Lambda’s executive director, Kevin Cathcart. Lambda, working with other advocacy groups, made some strides in changing policies at relief agencies and state governments in the wake of the 9/11 catastrophe four years ago, but that was in the more liberal Northeast.
Lambda is asking gay and lesbian centers near the areas affected by Katrina to distribute their flier “outlining forms of discrimination” that may be faced by LGBT survivors as well as those living with HIV in these extreme circumstances, including mistreatment at shelters, denial of HIV medication or care, denial of services based on status or partnership, demands that they provide documents to prove their relationship when non-gay people are not, discrimination based on religious prejudice against gay people or those with HIV, mistreatment in foster care, and denial of the “right to handle the affairs of a deceased loved one.”
CNN reported that gay people seeking to locate their domestic partners “are being turned away by both local aid organizations and federal relief,” and that FEMA is citing DOMA as the reason.
In the presence of Texas Governor Rick Perry this week, the Rev. Dwight McKissick, a Baptist minister, said Katrina was sent to “purify our nation.” He added, “This may have nothing to do with God being offended by homosexuality. But it possibly does.”
The Austin American Statesman reported that Perry, who heard the minister make the remarks at two events, “didn’t object.” His spokesperson said the governor, himself the object of widespread rumor online of being a closeted homosexual, “sure doesn’t do public critiques of what every speaker says.”
Rev. Fred Phelps of God Hates Fags Ministries in Topeka, Kansas, said, “Thank God for Katrina. New Orleans, symbol of America, seen for what it is—a putrid, toxic, stinking cesspool of fag fecal matter.”
New York gay activist Tom Smith offered an alternative religious explanation, perhaps in facetious response to Perry, McKissick, and Phelps.
“It is clear that all the states hit by Katrina have passed anti-gay marriage bills and are unwelcoming to strangers,” he said. “Clearly God doesn’t like homophobia.”