Greetings from the LGBTQ+ Caucus team! We're in the middle of one strange summer and are all missing Pride festivities, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing for us to do! The election is fast approaching and we need every one of you to grab your ballot at www.votefromabroad.org if you haven't done so already. Every vote counts! Don't let your voice remain unheard.
We would like to welcome Fred Kuhr to the team. He’s our new Senior Reporter at Large and is a seasoned LGBTQ+ reporter. We are glad to have him on our team.
In this month’s newsletter, Betsy shares the history of our hard-won ability to vote. Alex gives us a glimpse into the work of radical feminist Jill Johnston. For our member spotlight, Nathalie interviewed the amazing Angela Fobbs, Chair of the DA Global Black Caucus and vocal activist who is working tirelessly to get out the vote, especially among those Americans who are not in the urban hubs of the world. Finally, Matthew sat down with Antonina Vykhrest, a queer activist whose work has taken her from Brooklyn to various parts of Europe and back again.
Also, congratulations to our own co-editor, Sarah, for being appointed Chair of the LGBTQ+ Caucus for Germany!
Betsy Ettorre & Sarah Fancy, Co-editors
Angela Fobbs, DA Black Caucus Founder: Encouraging Turnout Across the Globe
“I know that a better world is possible,” said Angela Fobbs, creator of the Democrats Abroad Black Caucus based in Germany. “We have to imagine something different.”
Just over twenty years have passed since Fobbs first moved to Frankfurt in the fall of 1999. Though she now teaches business English, Fobbs originally worked with the American military, at first under Bill Clinton, continuing through George W. Bush’s administration.
“It made me more radical,” she said. “I was always on the left [...] it just pushed me over the edge.”
Fobb’s involvement with Democrats Abroad began in 2016 after she learned of a local women’s march. In 2017, she was elected communications coordinator of Democrats Abroad Germany and worked with the women’s caucus. However, she found the lack of a black caucus disappointing.
The logical solution was to create one. She quickly found others willing to help and established a steering committee in August of 2017. Just two months later, the Democrats Abroad Global Black Caucus was up and running. Today, the caucus has 1600 members across the globe, and focuses on issues of “universal justice.” It seeks to engage with a variety of issues impacting African-Americans both domestically and abroad, such as the justice system, economic inequality, and subconscious bias. (Click here to read more about the Global Black Caucus).
Much of the caucus’s action is centered around encouraging African-Americans living abroad to vote. They’re assembling voters’ guides, working with African-American groups, and leaving “no stone unturned,” as Fobbs puts it. The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States have kicked their work on voting rights into high gear.
The caucus also partnered with WeGlobal, a University of Michigan-based research project that surveys African-Americans living abroad. They worked together on initiatives to get the vote out, and tell the stories of African-Americans across the globe.
The goal, as Fobbs sees it, is one where nearly all of the nine million Americans living abroad exercise their right to political engagement. In particular, there’s a need to reach out to Americans living in relative isolation, outside of major expat hubs.
“Getting the vote out is critical,” said Fobbs.
She’s also a member of the LGBTQ+ Caucus, and hopes to collaborate further and create events for Black LGBTQ+ individuals.
“I want young children of color to see adults [like them],” Fobbs said. Adults who “accept that you don’t have to be straight, that people will still like them.”
Ultimately, the soul of Fobbs’ activism comes from her desire to create a better world.
“I want everyone to have universal, unconditional human rights,” she said. “We all deserve to live our lives the way we want and to do the things we want.”
Radical change requires radical thinking. As Democrats across the country continue to fight (and vote!) for radical change, it can be inspiring to look to trailblazers who helped forge the path we travel today. One such person is the outspoken feminist writer Jill Johnston.
Johnston described her approach to feminism in her seminal work entitled Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution as, “…east west flower child beat hip psychedelic paradise now love peace do you own thing approach to the [feminist] revolution.”
Like her writing style, Johnston was a free-spirited cultural critic and feminist activist. Johnston was born in London in 1929 and raised in the US where she earned a bachelor’s degree from Tufts in 1951 and studied dance at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Johnston then moved to New York City, where she became a longtime journalist for The Village Voice, an acclaimed weekly newspaper primarily covering the creative downtown community.
Johnston was initially the paper’s dance critic. However, her column soon became a freewheeling weekly diary recounting her many adventures in the avant-garde art world of 1960s and 1970s New York City. Her writing brought her into contact with many of the great artists of the time — Andy Warhol, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin, and others.
During the 1970s, Johnston began championing the cause of lesbian separatist feminism. In Lesbian Nation, Johnston advocated for a complete break with men and male-dominated capitalist institutions. She defined female relations with the opposite sex as a form of collaboration and betrayal to true female liberation. While Johnston later softened on this vision of feminism, she argued that, “The centrality of the lesbian position to feminist revolution — wildly unrealistic or downright made, as it still seems to most women everywhere — continues to ring true and right.”
Though many may not agree with Johnston on every aspect of her thinking, Johnston’s originality and passion can serve as an example for us all to never accept oppression. She said, “Oppression is a worldwide interfamilial interstate intercontinental interpersonal phenomenon. It is a prime fact of a political structure… oppression is real.” But not all hope is lost. Johnston continues and wisely reminds us that, “An oppressed person becomes beautiful in the presence of a beautiful presence.” Let’s keep this in mind as we head to the polls this November and challenge the status quo in all its oppressive might.
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
That Greek civilization created a firm democracy based on equality around 500 BC is equivocal (1). Voters were male landowners, who voted annually for the political leader they wanted to be exiled, which meant that voting was a form of ostracism. If any "candidate" received more than 6,000 votes, the one with the largest number of votes was exiled. If no politician received 6,000 votes, they all remained. Since voters were only male landowners, the number of voters was small. Usually only very unpopular political leaders were ostracized or exiled (2).
Let’s jump forward in voting history to 1776, when our constitution pronounced that “all men are created equal.” As we know, that equality only applied to some. When America was a young country, only white men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. However, it could be argued that one of the strengths of our country is our ability to grow, change, and adapt. There were landmark changes in our voting system. For example, the “Civil War Amendments” following the Civil War. These were the 13th (in 1865, it abolished slavery), 14th (in 1868, it granted citizenship to slaves), and 15th (in 1870, it granted voting rights to slaves) Amendments. While civil rights and voting rights were extended to former slaves, numerous restrictions kept many blacks from voting until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Watch the film “The 13th”, directed by Ava DuVernay, to learn why large numbers of black people are still prevented from voting, even today). The 17th (1913) Amendment made U.S. Senators directly elected by popular vote rather than appointed. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
Some scholars have argued that in our contemporary world “voting is rivalled only by the market as a means of reaching collective decisions from individual choices” (3). That idea may reveal a major flaw in the struggle between American capitalism and American democracy. At the very least, it reveals an American bias vis-à-vis voting practices.
We decided to look further than our own ideas on voting and ask our own Bob Bragar (4), who is very involved in Democrat Abroad’s get out the vote (GOTV) activities about his ideas and experiences in this arena. One thing is clear for Bob – the role of the State is “to create a level playing field for voters.” As an American living abroad, Bob was very inspired when he came to Europe and first registered with DA for his absentee ballot. He said the experience speaking with the DA representative was “life changing.” Bob believes that the “way to get people to vote is to overcome cynicism.” He said, “Our votes do matter and it is the single most important right we can exercise as American citizens.” We need to know that “we do make a difference by voting.” He said we should “get friends and family to vote – make a voting party out of our voting.” He said “voting connects me to my Americanness. It is not materialist and racist. Rather it is deeply American.” Bob reminds us as those living abroad that “we are voting as citizens of our state - at least that is the deal since 1788 (i.e., the first quadrennial US election). You’re voting so your state will cast its electoral ballot in a decent way.” Bob continues, “Most states have a winner takes all in the electoral college and it flies against my sense of fairness. The single biggest problem we have is that winner takes all is the American way – alas…”
We agree with Bob, and as members of the LGBTQ+ Global Caucus, we remind our caucus members and all members of DA to make sure you request and return your ballot in time in this critical election year. Go to votefromabroad.org to request your absentee ballot now. If you want to get more involved to get out the vote, you can join the phonebanking team to contact DA members and support them in requesting and returning their absentee ballot.
Remember as Bob said, “voting is the single most important right we can exercise as American citizens.”
1. Robinson, E.W., 2011. Democracy beyond Athens: popular government in the Greek classical age. Cambridge University Press.
2. Cartledge, Paul, 2006. “Ostracism: selection and de-selection in ancient Greece” posted 20 July 2006, See: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/ostracism-selection-and-de-selection-in-ancient-greece
3. Campbell, A., Converse, P.E., Miller, W.E. and Stokes, D.E., 1980. The
American voter. University of Chicago Press. p. 3.
4. Bob Bragar is a long-time member of DA. He was a member of the DNC from 2012-2016; an elected delegate for Barack Obama at the conventions in 2007 and 2011, and superdelegate for Hillary Clinton (2015). He was Chair of DA Netherlands from 2007 until 2011, and also served as treasurer. He is currently legal counsel of DANL.
ANTONINA VYKHREST: QUEER HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE
I recently sat down with Antonina Vykhrest, to whom I was introduced through a mutual friend. As a child, Antonina immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, following the fall of the Soviet Union. Growing up in Brooklyn, her interest in the humanities led to degrees in political science and international comparative studies from Duke University and later a master’s in international law of human rights and criminal justice at Utrecht University. As a 2014 Fulbright Fellow, Antonina returned to Ukraine to be involved in addressing violence against women during armed conflicts rocking the eastern part of the country.
She has worked for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, cofounded her own NGO (ACCESS), and is currently studying at Harvard Business School’s MBA program to better understand the implication of tech and innovation in the social sector.
During our conversation, Antonina shared her experiences and views on returning to Europe as an American national, her role as an American living abroad, her identity as a bisexual woman, and why voting is a civic duty.
Matthew Piker (MP): Thanks for agreeing to talk. Could you start by sharing where you are from in the United States?
Antonina Vykhrest (AV): It’s my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation. So, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York to a Ukrainian family. But I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, a Southern seaport city on the Black Sea. I immigrated to the US with my family when I was eight years old.
MP: What made your family decide to move to the US?
AV: We moved in the mid-90s, a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed, and it was a very chaotic, painful transition for Ukraine at-large, from an era of communism to a [system] of hyper capitalism. Institutions failed; there was a lot of turmoil, crime, violence, and corruption. At that time, there were few opportunities to make an honest living. And my parents, being doctors – and who, in-theory, should have been OK – were not getting paid for months at a time. So, we came as immigrants looking for a more stable life and greater opportunities.
MP: Out of curiosity, did you already speak English?
AV: I did not! Not until we got to Brooklyn. Looking back, it seems normal because we were in an immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, and there were people with varying English language skills. But it was certainly a big adjustment and replete with a lot of stress for a kid who suddenly cannot communicate.
Russian is Antonina’s mother tongue. She also speaks Ukrainian and considers English her most fluent language, interchangeable with Russian. She also speaks French and Spanish at a professional level.
MP: What have been your roles working in international human rights, and what made you go back to school?
AV: I have been a Human Rights' Advocate or Advisor, as well as Project Manager, in terms of functional role descriptions. I also cofounded my own NGO. I came to the MBA program to understand how tech and innovation can be leveraged to address large-scale, complex global issues, and how the private sector plays a critical role when discussing transformation, be it environmental change, socioeconomic change, political change, etc.
MP: An interesting aspect of your journey is that you immigrated to the US as a child and then moved back to Europe as an adult. What enticed you to go back?
AV: It did feel like there was something closer to my origins when I went back [to Europe] and then stayed for the master’s program [in the Netherlands]. One practical reason [for going back] was because the US is not as engaged in international human rights, no matter the administration. The State Department, they put out foreign policies that guide the system forward, but we don’t hold ourselves liable to it. I knew I wanted to work in that field, but I felt there was a more genuine commitment to it on the European side; it made sense to go work for institutions based in Europe.
And personally, I wanted to explore my roots and understand this part of the world to which I was connected. I wasn't as attracted to countries where I didn’t understand if I'd be doing more harm than good in, say, a post-colonial and imperialist set-up. If I was going to work in human rights, I wanted to have a cultural grounding.
MP: And as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, what has been your experience?
AV: Well, as a bisexual cis woman, being an American has given me more confidence in some ways. I mean, also, being a white cis woman who is rather fem in my appearance, I think that has privileges and is why I've generally felt comfortable in Western Europe, in terms of being open with a partner. I think it's also because I grew up in New York City, and I went to a college where there was infrastructure in place and a liberal-leaning population.
And from a human rights angle, I extrapolate [my identity]. I think that the US, one thing that we export well, is that we do have strong social justice movements in our history. And democracy, laws, human rights, these are muscles that must be exercised.
So, in looking at the queer movement, even though more recent – having worked with different human rights organizations around the world, they do take the US as an example. There is a lot of sharing of practices. Not to say that the US is the only source of it, but I think that going into Europe again, I felt solid. By solid, I mean comfortable using vocabulary and explaining structural change and having conversations with people who have varying degrees of homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, lesbophobia, etc. But obviously being a queer woman, it is a challenge when you travel to a country where there is violence, a lot of hate crime, and you learn to protect yourself as well.
MP: A lot of these issues are overlapping. How did you perceive moving throughout Europe within the various communities with which you identify?
AV: I speak about intersectionality more from the identity of a woman. I think in terms of being bisexual, there is certainly biphobia within the queer community. I've never experienced it in an aggressive manner, but there's invisibility with being a bisexual woman.
Because when I’m in a relationship with a woman, I embrace the fact that I am perceived as a lesbian. And I live a lesbian relationship. But if anyone asks, I don't represent myself as a lesbian because that overlooks a part of my identity, even if I have no problem with being potentially seen as a lesbian. And when I'm in a relationship with a man, I'm perceived as being heterosexual, and it's the flip side of it.
For me, it's about raising visibility of bisexuality because it's an identity that I embrace and can be vocal about. I think it pushes back within the queer community about certain assumptions, certain prejudices, that we're not really in or out. As in, we're halfway in the community, we're halfway out of the community – as if we have a choice. No, you are with whom you are at a particular moment.
But it also increases visibility for people outside the community. For them to understand that I have no qualms with my identity as a bisexual woman, that’s important. And it may make it easier for somebody who may not be in the same position as me to potentially, also, come out or be confident about being bisexual.
MP: While you are fortunate to have not experienced overt discrimination, has there been an issue that would consistently come up regarding your bisexuality?
AV: Within the queer community specifically...you know, I've worked with very committed advocates, who are strategic and have immense vision. I've engaged with organizations that focus their attention on LGBTQ+ women, and I think they're good at not showing biases. But it's in more casual conversations that this comes up. There's a slight dismissal, a joke or a jab.
I think the one big ask of LGBTQ+ advocates and allies could be that we ask for a constant reevaluation of how much space is being given to each group. Not that it needs to be equal, but I think it's a point of questioning whether or not someone is being left behind, or if there are certain biases that are not being questioned.
For example, it's applicable in the case of trans persons. They deal with a very different set of challenges and barriers that much of the community doesn't necessarily understand or deal with. There's been attention working on changing those biases and shining light onto them. But I'm not so sure it's the same thing for bisexual women. Not that the issues are comparable in terms of gravity, but there's not that level of recognition. So, the question ultimately becomes, is there a loss of cohesion if you are sidestepping a certain group and not fully leveraging these individuals as members of the community? I think that's something that could be given more thought.
MP: Before returning to the US, how was it being perceived as an American while moving throughout Europe?
AV: It's very country-specific to a certain degree. For me, I always saw it as a double-sided role. On the one hand, acknowledging that the US has done a lot to reinforce its national interests that have done damage to other countries, but on the other hand, also acknowledging that there is a lot of heterogeneity to us.
And the challenges grappling the US itself, be it racism, very wide socioeconomic inequality in a country that is so rich, to how polarized the US is – sometimes people perceive us to be under-educated, backwards, and ignorant. Part of it is true, but it's a wide gap. So, I sometimes see it as my role to push back on ignorance.
I think when people have lived in the US they are more nuanced about how they describe the country. It's those who have never lived in the US or have never visited who speak in more stereotypical ways. I embrace my American background, with all its multiplicity, when I'm abroad. Not to signal status – I am comfortable saying I come from an immigrant Ukrainian family – but to double-down on the fact that the US is very diverse.
And if I'm able to have some familiarity and context about your culture and show you compassion, in that way I expect that from you, in return. I try not to sound nationalistic, but I think it's about providing a bit more complexity to round out certain views.
MP: Was there something especially difficult about living abroad for so many years? What made you return to the US?
AV: I'm rather adaptable, which has allowed me to change countries several times. I'm lucky to have friends all over, and we find ways to stay in touch; but we lose the proximity of certain relationships, and some of them do not sustain. The constant negotiation of shifting communities and losing relationships has been harder.
In speaking about being back in the US today, just before coming back I kept thinking, What are you doing? You've created this life in France, and now you're throwing all that away to move back. But I couldn't help feeling like, in Strasbourg (while working at the Council of Europe), which is a very quaint, provincial town where, strangely enough, European leaders and decision-makers convene monthly – that things had become complacent.
I needed more growth. I liked my job, but I couldn't see myself doing it for the next ten years. It was not moving as quickly as the rest of the world. But now that I've been away from Europe for a year, I definitely have a different relationship to it.
MP: How do you see the upcoming election? What are your thoughts on the issues taking shape?
AV: We are at a crossroads. There's a lot of crystallization; there's an understanding that things cannot continue the way they were. I don't think it's too idealistic to say that we've reached a new level of awareness of the legacy of slavery in the US. We're also seeing that the growing economic inequality is not sustainable.
If Trump were to be reelected, I think it would have severe implications for the US, on domestic issues and regarding the country’s standing in the world. It's already declined substantially. And some say that's a good thing. But if you ask people who work in diplomacy and human rights, they’d say it opens up space for authoritarian and oppressive views, and it would threaten global cooperation if the US were to be quickly withdrawn from these issues. The election will be important on both fronts! I'm guardedly optimistic.
MP: What was it like voting while living outside the US? Is there additional awareness that needs to be brought to overseas voting?
AV: In some ways in voting, you feel connected, at least for me. You're reinforcing your connection to a country. I see voting as a process of democracy, supporting a fundamental building block that has created a lot of stability for the US over the centuries. That feels important, for lack of a better word.
However, I think it's easy for someone living abroad to disconnect from the US, especially in the time of Trump, where there's one scandal, one ridiculous Tweet, one crazy development after another. And so many Americans don't take him seriously, so being abroad, it's difficult to focus on what is actually happening. That makes it harder to stay attuned and follow a political campaign.
MP: Last question: people who say that voting doesn't matter, perhaps specifically the younger population, what are your thoughts on that?
AV: I have very strong thoughts about that. I consider voting a form of civic engagement. A form of activism. A form of exercising your right. My response to someone who thinks voting does not matter is that you can only say that because you're very privileged. You are privileged to think that it doesn't matter because you haven't had to fight for it. And you have this privilege because others have for many decades fought for your right to have it, be it as a woman, as a minority, as a racial minority, or as an immigrant. Whatever way you want to slice it – even as a white male – it should never be taken for granted.
I think it's a very American view, where we're used to having a certain amount of stability, and we're used to a peaceful transition from one government to another. Whereas in other [countries] – democracy, the right to vote, people determining the policies of their government – it's never to be taken for granted given how many authoritarian regimes we see being reinforced.
And if you think voting is not something that makes a difference, you are already that frog sitting in a pot of water starting to boil. That's a red flag that democracy is on the decline, that you feel so privileged to have this view and voice it.
By Betsy Ettorre & Sarah Fancy
Welcome to the second issue of the Democrats Abroad LGBTQ+ Newsletter. Before we get going with the content of this month’s edition, we need to be clear about the focus: DA members as well as members of the DA LGBTQ+ Caucus share in the public outrage over the killing of George Floyd and countless other African Americans at the hands of police. We condemn the institutional racism embedded in American society and the, at times, corrupt, biased criminal justice system in our society. We know that the history of police and policing in the United States can be traced back to slave patrols (Vitale, 2017). After the Civil War and during Reconstruction up to the middle of the 20th century, the creation of state-sanctioned racial segregation used policing as a means of guaranteeing the safety of (white) property while enforcing a racist society founded on anti-blackness (Du Bois, 1935). Racism and racialization (i.e., the concerted effort to propagate racist ideas and actions in society) continue to show how we treat and value African American life in the United States.
Our history of policing and anti-blackness is deeply intertwined with ongoing racial capitalism, increasing militarization, and white nationalism, which have formed the conditions that we are experiencing and fighting against today (Graduate Students Workers of Brown University, 2020). Over the centuries, police brutality has played a key role in oppressing African Americans and people of color. But at this moment in history, the current civil unrest can also be deeply connected to the racial disparities exposed by the coronavirus crisis.Read more
When the color of your skin is seen as a weapon, you are never unarmed
I want to preface by stating that I have respect for law enforcement. I understand the sacrifice they face every day by putting on that uniform and badge to serve the community. There are officers who swear an oath to protect neighborhoods and do so honorably: the “good” officers. However, the “good” police officers seem to remain silent when “bad” officers participate in misconduct, due to the “Brotherhood” mentality. For this reason, we must all be willing to share our experiences and ask the “good” officers, “Why won’t you help change the reputation that has hovered over law enforcement for centuries?”
Since 1963, the Los Angeles Police Department motto has been “To Protect and Serve.” Who are they serving? Who are they protecting? In 2018, I did not feel as if I was being protected by the individuals who swore to do just that. Instead I felt terrorized and feared for my life.
I was living in Hollywood, CA. I had just returned from a trip abroad and I was feeling sick. I decided to drive to the closest Kaiser hospital off Sunset. It was a Friday night, and I didn’t want to be out so late, and I certainly didn’t want to lose my parking spot - parking is terrible in LA and I had a BMW at the time. But I drove anyway, down Sunset Blvd., enjoying a warm night.Read more
For this month’s article, I had originally intended to speak to several LGBTQ+ organizations in France to learn about what projects they are working on in the midst of Covid-19. My meeting with the Spokesperson of the largest one, Inter-LGBT’s Clémence Zamora Cruz, happened to take place a few days after the murder of George Floyd. This tragic crime shifted the tone of our time together, and I have therefore decided to focus the article on Clémence, who has graciously allowed me to share her story as a trans woman, immigrant, and activist.
Her words have been translated from French. Additions by me are in italics.
Clémence Zamora Cruz (© Ayalu Tik)
Clémence Zamora Cruz (CZC): “I was born in 1975 in Puebla, Mexico, assigned male at birth. I grew up as one of six children. At the age of four, I fled to New York City with my mother, who left my father because of abuse. We stayed in the US for eighteen months before returning to Puebla, but the time there made me aware of gender and identity. We were in a working-class neighborhood with many trans women and sex workers.”Read more
Bringing Together Progressive Americans Across the Globe
“France for Bernie is my political and organizational home,” said John Esteban Rodriguez, a researcher, interpreter, English teacher, and progressive activist based in Marseilles, France.
Photo taken in Marseille, at a racial justice march. Courtesy of John Esteban Rodriguez.
After an early childhood in Colombia, Rodriguez moved to Savannah, Georgia at the age of seven. He later earned a B.A and an M.A from the University of Georgia in literature, spent a year in Jordan learning Arabic and working with refugees, then moved to Washington, D.C to work at an immigration law firm. Eventually, Rodriguez’s desire to further pursue social sciences earned him a Fulbright fellowship to Paris’s School For Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in 2017, and he’s been in France ever since.Read more