Leading By Example
Connecticut Has Been a Pioneer in LGBTQ Rights – But There’s Always Room for Improvement
By Jane Latus
Forty-nine years ago this month, straight people probably didn’t know what to make of Connecticut’s first Pride Week. A Hartford Courant headline about “homosexual groups” seeking to hold a “Gay Pride Week” in the city was buried on page 25.
The quotation marks have long since come off Pride events.
Night and day: that’s the no-exaggeration comparison between then and now — as well as between “us” and “them,” “them” being the 33 states that have introduced anti-trans bills this year (and that was only as of April.)
LGBTQ community leaders say still-imperfect Connecticut is light-years ahead of other states. But they aren’t slowing down, not when the most vulnerable remain the most impacted: kids and people of color, particularly those who are trans or gender non-conforming. Here in Connecticut, laws have your back, they say. Implementing them, though, is another story.
“I think Connecticut is a really amazing place to live for a variety of reasons. We have really strong laws that protect and work for equality for LGBTQ people. Connecticut has been and continues to be a leader in equality.” – Patrick Dunn, executive director of the New Haven Pride Center.
“I know there’s always more to do, but in many ways, Connecticut has been a leader.” – Doug NeJaime, Yale Law School professor and a key author of a bill that would close a gaping hole in LGBTQ family law.
“Connecticut has been a leader in the nation in adopting LGBTQ-inclusive laws, including in employment, public accommodations, education, incarceration and beyond. However, notwithstanding its clear laws, GLAD Answers (our legal information line) continues to receive calls from people in Connecticut who face discrimination and exclusion from core institutions because of being LGBTQ.” – Jennifer Levi, director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project.
“Kids coming up now, kids are ok. Kids can have a future.” – the Rev. Aaron Miller, pastor, Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford.
“We’re fortunate in Connecticut to have the background laws; that’s huge. But there’s a persistent gap between the law and how it is enforced.” – Dan Barrett, legal director at ACLU of Connecticut.
“Generally speaking, people feel as though Connecticut is a safe space for our community, whether it is to live, raise a family or work. For the most part, I’d say Connecticut is a fantastic place for our community.” – State Rep. Jeff Currey, East Hartford
“Comparatively, Connecticut is way ahead of the curve. I have a soft spot in my heart for the school districts that stood up to [former Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos last year.” – Sasha Buchert, senior attorney for Lambda Legal.
“I am grateful that I live in Connecticut. Do I like the winter? No. [But] I feel protected. The leaders of the state think I exist.” – Tony Ferraiolo, advocate for transgender youth and director of Health Care Advocates International’s Youth and Family Program.
An Advocate for All
Ferraiolo will never forget how Gov. Ned Lamont stood up against DeVos – at great financial risk. In 2020, Devos threatened to withhold $18 million of federal aid because of Connecticut’s support of teen athletes competing on the team of their gender. Lamont’s reply to DeVos? “I just wish the federal government would just butt out on this subject. Leave our kids alone.”
Ferraiolo says he cried to hear that the governor believes he exists and matters. Buchert, too, says when she watched Connecticut school superintendents also stand up to DeVos: “Their fierce defense of trans people made me cry.”
Lamont says that when he replied to DeVos, “I just thought about being a dad. I want my kids to be loved, respected, and appreciated for who they are.” He adds, “I think my tone is important as governor, being welcoming, open, and honest, and I trust that approach trickles down and sends a message to our residents that we’re supposed to treat each other with respect, and look out for one another.”
That was the second time last year that state government stood up for trans residents. In 2020, the state Commission on Human Rights ruled that insurers must cover gender-affirming medical care.
Connecticut earns the highest scores from national LGBTQ rights organizations. But you’re forgiven if you forget all this progress in the face of the cruel onslaught elsewhere against transgender people, primarily aimed at removing their health care and banning trans girls from girls’ sports.
Not even a pandemic could distract legislatures from their obsession with attacking trans children. Lamba Legal, a nationwide advocacy for the LGBTQ community, reports more than 75 bills nationwide targeting trans youth were introduced in the past two years, as of April. According to the ACLU, 33 states introduced anti-trans bills this January through April.
Ferraiolo, who counsels trans people and their families worldwide, has heard from several desperate parents in Arkansas whose children’s medical care is being halted by that state’s new law. “I sat here in silence and cried.”
Why the hate? Ignorance, he says. Why kids? Because attempts to roll back adult LGBTQ rights have failed, he says. “All I can say is, shame on them.”
Backlash tends to follow progress. “Visibility can come with a cost. When you’re not on the radar, people aren’t trying to pass laws to take away your rights,” Ferraiolo says.
And there’s always that someone around: the one who gave Dunn an eyeroll when hearing he’s a drag performer, and the one who burned Bethel’s Molten Java coffee shop’s Pride flag this April.
Connecticut’s climate is no accident
In Connecticut, it’s not news that a state representative is bisexual, a teacher is transgender, or the CEO is gay.
“Connecticut has a vibrant LGBTQ community, and a lot of resources. I find it’s a place I can put down roots and find community, and celebrate community. New Haven is one of the most important queer cities. Connecticut, and New Haven in particular, are fabulous places to be queer,” says Dunn.
This community didn’t appear magically. Visibility, over decades, is what it took: vigils, rallies, film festivals, drag shows, art exhibits and civil disobedience. It took the founding of the Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford in 1973, where four years later the pastor’s car was torched in a hate crime. It took courageous “first” people to come out. It took the work of many organizations, over decades.
For a small state, Connecticut has an abundance of medical providers that are focused on providing LGBTQ care. They began with AIDS activists and the Hartford Gay and Lesbian Health Collective — going strong since 1983. A by-no-means inclusive list: Middlesex Health’s Transgender Medicine Program, Anchor Health Initiative, Yale New Haven’s Pediatric Gender Program, the Gender Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and Health Care Advocates International in Stratford.
The climate here has made Connecticut a national leader of sorts. The Human Rights Campaign gives the state (and 18 others, plus Washington, D.C.) its highest score on its 2021 Statewide Equality Index. Criteria included anti-discrimination laws in: employment, housing, public accommodations, education, anti-bullying, second-parent adoption, transgender health care, name and gender updates on identity documents, HIV/AIDS criminalization, hate crimes and anti-conversion therapy.
Lambda Legal, the Movement Advancement Project, and other rights advocates also give Connecticut top rankings.
Connecticut gained national attention for being the third state to approve same-sex marriage. Not to downplay marriage and its domino effect on access to other rights, but many in the community are more excited about other laws.
To Dunn, banning conversion therapy was huge; he’s seen the lasting damage it’s done to friends.
To Polly Crozier, GLAD senior staff attorney, Connecticut was “really progressive” as the first state to require that incarcerated trans people be housed and treated according to their gender.
To many, it’s the easy ability to obtain identity documents with their correct names and genders.
“Connecticut has a proud record of being a leader on these issues,” says Lamont. “I believe we are in fact a state where you are free to be who you are and we have taken necessary steps to ensure everyone is welcome and respected wherever they may live or work in Connecticut.
“Connecticut takes a common-sense approach to a lot of these societal issues,” he says. “We ask the questions: does this policy treat people with respect? Is this good for our residents? Is it good for business? The answer is yes. I’ll be the first one to say I have had some understanding to do on my own on some of these issues, and I’ve listened to my children a lot to get their point of view.”
Legislation on the horizon
In one striking exception to its status as a leader, and one that is slated to be corrected by the time this magazine is in your hands, Connecticut does not provide LGBTQ parents with access to parentage through an “Acknowledgement of Parentage” form – the form used in hospitals to legally establish parentage.
The form is the most common way for straight, unmarried couples to establish their parentage, says Yale’s NeJaime. A state bill, called the Connecticut Parentage Act, would allow the same process for LGBTQ parents, plus would correct outdated terminology. Current law still refers to “husband and wife.”
“The good thing is when you tell legislators about it, they’re surprised and disturbed,” says NeJaime. Yale Law School students, with help from GLAD and State Rep. Jeff Currey, drafted the bill and expects it to become law this spring. It would include unmarried, same-sex or non-biological parents, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
The bill would also benefit straight couples who have children through in vitro fertilization, says NeJaime. Otherwise, their only option is an expensive Second Adoption.
Currey says his next priority is to amend the state constitution to extend its anti-discrimination protection to LGBTQ people. “That would make us the first state to have gender identity and sexual orientation in its constitution.”
While other states are busy attacking trans rights, Connecticut typically approves six or so positive LGBTQ laws a year, with bipartisan support, Currey says. “We probably have the gayest agenda of any state legislature in the country.”
Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown says he expects that this year, Connecticut will become the first state to prohibit unnecessary surgery on intersex newborns and children. COVID-19 previously stalled the bill he introduced that would “prohibit any licensed health care provider from engaging in medically unnecessary surgeries on an intersex person without such person’s consent.” The bill flew through the Senate 34-0 early in 2020, but never got to a vote in the House of Representatives before the pandemic ended the session. Lesser says he will pursue its passage this year.
Despite the gains and progress, challenges remain in the state.
“It’s heartbreaking that Connecticut has such a huge population of LGBTQ youth who are homeless. It’s a huge issue in our state, worse than the rest of the nation,” says Dunn. At any given time, as much as 40% of the state’s homeless young adults are LGBTQ, compared to 15% nationally.
What keeps the New Haven Pride Center occupied, says Dunn, is homelessness, joblessness and lack of access to food. “LGBTQ people of color, they get the double whammy of racism. There’s always going to be work to be done. I don’t see an end in sight.”
Looking back, looking ahead
Ferraiolo, who grew up in Connecticut, says it’s a much-improved climate for gender non-conforming kids. “Now there’s definitely verbiage, so trans and non-binary kids hear that. There are places to go where they can be physically around their communities, which is uplifting and lifesaving.”
His employer, Health Care Advocates International, provides training to employers, schools and other groups, and offers free at-home counseling for family members. Ferraiolo is alternately encouraged and frustrated.
A Travelers vice president asked him to speak to a department to help support an employee’s transition. “I thought to myself, ‘What a wonderful world this is becoming,’” he says.
On the other hand, it has been 10 years since the state included gender identity in anti-discrimination laws, and he says many schools have made no plans. “The number one question parents of trans kids ask is, ‘What are we going to do about school?’ They shouldn’t be asking that question in 2021.”
He adds, “Connecticut has one of the most strict anti-bullying laws in the country, but schools have trouble implementing it. I can’t figure out why.”
GLAD’s Crozier calls policy implementation the difficult work. “Formal equality is so important. But how do you translate that to real life? How do you make sure every teacher is calling students by their preferred pronouns? That’s the work of everybody. That’s the work of the LGBTQ equality movement, to make sure policies actually translate into an inclusive environment.”
Says GLAD’s Levi: “Despite clear employment non-discrimination protections, we regularly hear from transgender people who can’t get a job even though they are highly qualified.”
“For example,” Levi continues, “we have received a number of calls from parents with students who have complained of harassment or mistreatment in schools and report that administrators have not been responsive to their raised concerns. We also know that, despite there being a clear law that should ensure medical treatment for incarcerated transgender people and appropriate placement, people are regularly denied care and placed in the wrong facilities. This is true for incarcerated adults. It is also true for youth in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.”
Miller of Metropolitan Community Church sees it this way: “We have work to do, but those laws, those laws shape our social conscience. The laws make people scramble to catch up.”
This year, the Human Rights Campaign says, “We anticipate continued attacks on transgender youth … We also anticipate seeing a resurgence in interest in passing religious refusal legislation.”
Says Lamont, “We need to keep up our progress. We can’t afford to go backwards here in Connecticut or anywhere across our country. The more we keep moving forward, the better it is for all of our families and children, no matter how they identify.”
A 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics study found that having just one supporting person in their life reduces the suicide rate of trans and non-binary children by 40%. Says Ferraiolo: “Be that one person.”