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Archive for the ‘Louisiana’ Category

When I was in New Orleans last week, a friend was kind enough to host me at his house one block off of Freret St. south of the universities. When I lived in the city a few years ago, this stretch of Freret St. was pretty much a dead-zone, off all of the main arteries with plenty of (relatively) affordable housing but few transit options and no amenities. So I when I arrived for Mardi Gras, I figured that I’d have to travel quite a bit just to get the basics.

But the area has turned into a testament to what can happen when people — officeholders, businesspeople, community advocates, and planners — come together to revitalize a neighborhood. In 2007, a need was clearly identified. Over the next several years, the local City Councilmember pushed through zoning changes, including a loosening of parking requirements. The business community collaborated with residents to identify what was actually in demand in the area, and coupled a vision of an hoity “arts entertainment” district with the basics like grocery stores, a friendly coffee shop, and an upscale cocktail bar.

New Orleans, LA – January 10, 2011 – District “B” Councilmember Stacy Head and Kellie Grengs of The New Freret (The Freret Business + Property Owners Association) have taken note of recent difficulties that businesses have experienced while locating in, or developing on, certain commercial corridors. Their response: “Choose Freret!”

The Freret commercial corridor between Jefferson Avenue and Napoleon Avenue is experiencing a rebirth. The surrounding neighborhood embraces additional commercial development and, in fact, invites modern architecture, increased density, and the loosening of parking requirements. Zoning laws were recently created to encourage arts, music and culture, including restaurants, galleries and live music, through the Freret Street Arts and Cultural Overlay District, which was passed unanimously by the New Orleans City Council.

Check out the website of the new district, which is pretty snazzy. A neighborhood that was essentially an auto-dependent food desert now has a high walkability score. Even NORTA’s infamous “mass transit” has significantly improved, with a bus line going right through the heart of the district and better signage and information that I witnessed first-hand. Yes, it’s just one data point in one city, but this is one of the most notoriously slow, cumbersome, and contentious city-business relationships anywhere. I’m sure there’s opposition and I’m sure I’ve missed some of the project’s negative effects, but as a visitor I was wowed.

The New Freret gives me optimism for New Orleans and other urban revitalization projects around the country.

UPDATE: Apparently the neighborhood association has a Facebook page, and they’ve published this post as evidence of their successes. Sweet! I will accept free food and drinks as kickbacks.

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Last summer when I was in Washington, D.C., I learned about the resurgent HIV/AIDS epidemic in our nation’s capital, something that most Americans have heard nothing about. It’s an outrage and a tragedy, and the fact that HIV is both preventable and treatable makes our inaction morally indefensible — and this is going on at the seat of our national government.

But the problem is widespread across the American South, and shouldn’t be forgotten. When I lived in New Orleans, I worked for the New Orleans AIDS Task Force (NO/AIDS) in their prevention department, and saw first-hand the impact that HIV has on individuals, families, and communities. I also saw how a hostile Louisiana state government actually cost people their lives, through discriminatory policies, bizarre Hester Prynne-style laws, and unexplainable shunning of federal funds.

So I’m glad to see that Human Rights Watch has released an excellent report detailing the state of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in neighboring Mississippi. This truly is a human rights issue, right here at home.

This 59-page report documents the harmful impact of Mississippi’s policies on state residents, including people living with HIV and those at high risk of contracting it. Mississippi refuses to provide complete, accurate information about HIV prevention to students and threatens criminal penalties for failing to disclose one’s HIV status to sexual partners. At the same time, Mississippi provides little or no funding for HIV prevention, housing, transportation, or prescription drug programs for people living with HIV, and the state fails to take full advantage of federal subsidies to bolster these programs. In Mississippi, half of people testing positive for the virus are not receiving treatment, a rate comparable to that in Botswana, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.

Take a look at the whole thing, and please watch this video below. Thanks to Human Rights Watch for bringing attention to an issue that’s been neglected for a generation.

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I’m back from New Orleans and still struggling with a post-Mardi Gras return to reality. I hope to have several posts on the Big Easy in the coming days, but I wanted to start with a simple observation: Mardi Gras parades make absolutely no sense.

The idea is that people line up on the side of the road in eager anticipation. Hundreds of thousands of brave souls descend on the city. Many veterans camp out (with tents, grills, the whole she-bang). Then they stand and wait, rain or shine. As traffic across the city is blocked and re-routed to the point of making driving anywhere virtually impossible, ridiculously over-the-top and expensive parade floats begin to assemble on their pre-determined parade route. People on the floats dress up in various types of costumes, normally with a French aristocratic style. Then the floats start rolling.

At this point, parade-watchers become crazed animals reaching up in the air for free Mardi Gras beads. The beads themselves are worthless (you can buy a pack of a hundred them in any store for pennies), and yet people stand for hours, arms aching, desperate to catch one. Grown men trample little girls in pursuit of The Beads.

Maybe at one point in time, this form of entertainment made sense. But even with Cable TV, YouTube, and a thousand other things pulling us towards our couches, people still maintain all of the Mardi Gras traditions. And to be honest, I had a blast. I didn’t know why I was standing in the rain watching a old man dressed as Marie Antoinette throwing me worthless plastic and enjoying myself. But the sense of community was overpowering.

No profound insights here, other than the fact that any policy predicated on human beings’ rationality probably is flawed to its core.

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On Monday, I heard that Rev. Grant Storms had been busted masturbating near a children’s playground. I wasn’t surprised, as I was familiar with Storms’ vocal anti-gay protests in Louisiana, and sadly, that’s how these types of stories usually end. I attended Southern Decadence this past September, nicknamed the “gay Mardi Gras,” and Storms and his crew were out on Bourbon St. with their bullhorns telling the revelers that they were going to Hell (after dying from AIDS). People in the northeast — save perhaps the brave people who staff abortion clinics — are simply never exposed to these types of mass public displays of hatred. Louisiana is really the epicenter of the anti-gay movement; Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, got his start in the Louisiana State Legislature.

Grant Storms: miserable even with confetti

Unsurprisingly, the story got picked up nationally. LGBTers around the country started to mock Storms as yet another in long line of bigoted weirdos and closet-cases, including Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, and George Alan Rekers. Dan Choi took to Twitter to pile on, as did many prominent LGBT bloggers. By far the most common argument I’ve seen is that Storms is a hypocrite — the theory being that if you don’t support equal rights for gays and lesbians, you really shouldn’t be masturbating near a park. Even Storms himself said he “understand[s] the hypocrisy.”

Honestly, though, I’m not sure if “hypocrisy” is the best way to describe this phenomenon. Assume for a second that you know you are gay, but you also hold extremely anti-gay political and moral views. Logically speaking, it is actually less hypocritical to stay in the closet. You disapprove of your own sexual orientation, so you hide it, and go about your business trying to take away the rights of those who are openly gay, unashamed, and demanding equal treatment. And if by “going about your business,” that includes jerking off in your van, that doesn’t really have to do with anything.

Without diminishing the repellent behavior of Storms, Rekers, Haggard, et al., I am increasingly troubled by another form of gay hyprocrisy — the prominent members of society who are living an actively gay lifestyle in the public eye but refuse to actually come out of the closet. We could all list a dozen or so celebrities who “everyone knows” are gay, but who have yet to publicly confirm this is the case. But why would you hide such a thing if being gay wasn’t shameful or embarrassing? And “privacy” only goes so far when you’re going to hardcore New York gay bars and attending gay parties with your boyfriend. If you’re going to host New Year’s Eve with Kathy Griffin and make jokes about balls, it’s probably time to say, “I’m gay.”

I don’t mean to pick on Cooper, because as I said, there are many more like him. But I’m concerned that the broader LGBT community gives these people a complete pass while coming down hard on closted anti-gay people who pretty clearly have mental issues. I was lucky; many people have truly terrible coming out stories and are therefore much more forgiving about each person going through his or her personal journey at a pace of their choosing. But I’m not sure how much longer that argument will suffice. Poll after poll after poll has shown that the most salient factor in someone’s support for LGBT equality is whether or not they are personally familiar with a gay person. If you’re going to join a campaign telling suicidal LGBT kids that “it gets better,” shouldn’t you, you know, tell them that you know personally that it gets better?

Obviously I’d rather there were more closeted gay people who are supportive of LGBT equality than bigots like Storms who are actively fighting against us. But I’m increasingly of the view that this is a classic case of the “free rider problem,” where generations past of gay activists have put everything on the line to get us where we are today — where someone can be rich, famous, going to gay bars, even marry their partner! — and still not actually come out of the closet. The problem is that the data about changing people’s minds doesn’t lie. People in positions of privilege who are living lifestyles that are only possible because of the strides of the LGBT movement should think about giving back. And all they have to do is say, “I’m gay.”

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What’s the most pressing gay rights issue on the agenda right now? If you ask the average American, or, frankly, a Development Director at a national LGBT advocacy organization, the answer will probably be same-sex marriage. And it certainly seems like the gay rights movement is on offense, after a historic victory on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and slow but steady progress on the relationship recognition front. The problem is that national media (and also gay donor) myopia has served to obscure some truly horrible legislation and legislators that are appearing in state capitols. I think progressives generally recognize that the pro-choice movement is under serious, constant assault — there was an outcry when the South Dakota “license to kill” bill was exposed. But on LGBT issues, there is complacency.

Just this past weekend, Louisiana State Rep. Jonathan Perry was elected to the State Senate. His claim to fame is that he proposed a law — in two separate legislative sessions — that would bar the state of Louisiana from issuing a birth certificate listing two parents of the same sex, even if both parents had legally adopted the child. The key here is that this legislation has no effect on the relationship of the parents — gay people cannot obtain a civil union, domestic partnership, or civil marriage in Louisiana, and the prospect of Louisiana granting any legal recognition of gay relationships in the short term is a pipe dream. This bill would have only harmed the child of gay parents, whose legal status may have been compromised in any number of situations, but most severely in the case of the death of one of his or her parents. This bill was literally an anti-adopted-child bill.  Perry’s views on homosexuality are so retrograde that he feels children of gay parents should be singled out and punished. When confronted with the consequences of his legislation, Perry went on the record to say that he didn’t care.

Despite the best efforts of my former employer, the Forum For Equality, Perry was elected by a margin of 52-48. Progressives need to wake up to the fact that while elderly white lesbians getting married in Connecticut is a beautiful thing that is long overdue, truly bigoted and powerful people in this country are out to do real harm to gay people and their children, right now. And they are winning elections. In general, there are some truly odious things going on in southern state legislatures across all issue areas. I’ll do my best to highlight them, but I think a structural shift in intellectual and financial resources is desperately needed.

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