Wanda R. Alston is the first acting director of the Cabinet-level Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, which Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) created this month. She had been the mayor's adviser on those issues. Alston, who is on leave until November to work for the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), spoke by telephone with staff writer D'Vera Cohn.
QTell me about yourself and your background in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.
AIn the early '90s, I went to work for Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. I was an open lesbian looking for a job. I saw a correlation between women's rights and lesbian rights. It was based on the civil rights model. . . . I [also] got involved being co-chair of a local black gay and lesbian coalition, which at the time was the oldest one in the country. I was able to get involved with them and really work on local issues and see how irrelevant the black community was at the time in dealing with the white gay community.
Has that problem been fixed since then?
Since then, we have worked on issues together. One issue that transformed the gay and lesbian community is AIDS. It's one of the few issues that brought the classes closer together.
What are the major issues that you have to deal with?
Three major issues. We need to drive home the need to find a cure for HIV and AIDS. It is a paramount issue in the African American and Latino communities and a staggering issue among African American women and Latino women. The infection rate in D.C. is the highest in the country. We have to look at it from a different paradigm. . . . Here in Washington, we still are having a hard time talking about sex, period. This new office will help create an LGBT health specialist who will collect data not just on this disease but on what the health needs are.
The second issue is: How do we deal with our youth? I am working with our family court to deal with some of the issues around foster care and to find mentors for young adults who already self-identified as gay or lesbian. How do we find positive role models for them if they are having difficulty adjusting in society? And that relates to how do we deal with the treatment of gay and lesbian youth in our school system. Each year, I get calls about how youths are treated.
Thirdly, how do I do my job? I communicate with other liaisons in municipal government to make sure our issues are addressed.
Some groups have asked the mayor not to come full force for [same-sex] marriage because it could risk a backlash in Congress.
There is a serious backlash we could face at any time that could take away domestic partnership [rights]. They could . . . put into our home rule charter that marriage is defined as between a man and a woman.
The mayor is on a tightrope. He would like to make those decisions after the [November] election. Some of our [same-sex couples] have been married in Massachusetts.
Some of these issues may come to us if they . . . ask for tax benefits or other benefits that married couples have.
Some gay and lesbian activist groups have expressed concern that the city's HIV/AIDS Administration [in the D.C. Department of Health] is underfunded and poorly managed.
That has been the case with the allegations of the previous leadership. There is a new person, Lydia Watts, on board. We believe we can turn this corner. . . . I have confidence that she is the type of person . . . serious about eradicating the problems of that agency.
We also are getting less dollars. [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is stopping a lot of the prevention dollars we have counted on year in and year out.