Gay disaster victims the subject of new HRC awareness campaign for emergency workers

The nation’s largest gay-rights group has chosen South Florida to launch a program making emergency management workers more sensitive to the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender disaster victims.

“Not only is South Florida prone to major storms that often become disaster situations with forced evacuations, it’s also home to a large population of LGBT people and families,” said Charles Joughin, deputy press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.

HRC has posted online a seven-page booklet, “A Cultural Competence Guide for Emergency Responders and Volunteers,” that describes different scenarios in very basic terms.

“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people make up a diverse community,” reads the brochure. “Members of the LGBT community come from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, religious traditions, and geographic regions. Identification and participation with the LGBT community can also change across the lifespan.”

Joughin explains why HRC started with the basics: “Poll after poll shows that American people are comfortable and supportive of LGBT people, but the fact is that there are many people who have never met an LGBT person or LGBT families. We think it’s important to start this conversation from the ground up.”

The program began to come together after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. A transgender woman, displaced by the storm, ended up being jailed on criminal trespassing charges for twice using a women’s restroom in a Texas shelter.

“Somebody complained and she got arrested for using the wrong restroom,” said Brian Moulton, HRC’s legal director. “She spent a night in jail. It was a traumatic episode for her after having a traumatic episode in the hurricane.”

The brochure, developed with input from American Red Cross, begins by defining “who is LGBT.” The section tries to bust stereotypes by concluding “some people may not outwardly identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but may be in a same-sex relationship.”

A section is devoted to discussion about LGBT families, same-sex couples and single gay people raising children.

“If two women come into a shelter with children, those women and their children should be treated as a family,” said Robin Maril, HRC’s legislative counsel. “Preventing that family from receiving services as a family, questioning the women about their relationship — questioning the women about their relationship in front of their children — it can be extremely damaging after a disaster situation.”

The HRC booklet also refers to “chosen families.”

“These are usually made up of a group of close friends who fill the traditional role of the nuclear and extended family. These are especially common for older LGBT individuals who came of age at a time when rejection by biological family was common.”

Other topics: assisting people with HIV (including associated patient confidentiality issues); keeping LGBT people safe from bullying and harassment; and being respectful to people who don’t identify with — or present themselves as — their birth-assigned genders.

The directors of South Florida’s emergency management offices say they’re open to working with HRC.

“I certainly want them to be sensitive to the needs of [the gay] community,” said Broward County Emergency Management Director Chuck Lanza. “Any guidelines would be helpful. And we would shepherd it through.”

“It certainly seems appropriate, something that would be needed,” said Miami Dade Emergency Management Director Curt Sommerhoff.

Irene Toner, director of Monroe County’s Emergency Management Division, seemed surprised a booklet like this is still needed.

“My staff and myself understand those issues,” said Toner, assuring that discrimination against a gay family “wouldn’t be tolerated” in a Keys shelter.

“It shouldn’t be tolerated any other place,” she added. “Whether it’s the traditional husband-wife family, or husband-husband or wife-wife, it’s the same. It’s still family.”