Archive for the ‘Reporting’ Category

Chagas: the Zika-like disease you don’t know

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Chagas is the third most common parasitic disease in the world, but most American doctors don’t know to look for it in the United States because it has been thought of as a disease that only happens in other places. The consequence are dire. For every 1 in 3 people who are infected, Chagas disease turns the heart into a kind of time bomb, and even thirty years after infection the person can start developing heart failure.  Although it’s a disease mainly found in Latin America, the CDC estimates that almost 300,000 people are infected in the U.S. alone.

I’ve been talking about Chagas since I was five years old and my auntie from Colombia was diagnosed with the disease. Recently, I started reporting and writing about the disease and the public health response. You can read about what I’ve been finding below:

MSNBC had me on the Melissa Harris-Perry show to talk about Chagas and also big pharmaceuticals.

I wrote for Slate on how a nonprofit beat out price gouging by big pharma and got the FDA to approve a medicine for Chagas.

Sen. Bernie Sanders called my story in the Atlantic on Chagas and racial health disparities a “must read.” You can find the story here.

I wrote for The Altantic about why Northern Virginia might be a kind of ground zero in the U.S. for Chagas—and how one patient and cardiologist have teamed up to change that.

Guernica magazine published my feature on the only clinic in the country devoted to treating patients with the disease.

Before a doctor in Brazil officially discovered Chagas in 1909, several media outlets in the U.S. reported the stories of people here being assaulted by the so-called kissing bugs.



Northern Virginia: ‘Ground Zero’ for Kissing Bug Disease

Monday, July 28th, 2014

First published at Note: USA Today, the Huffington Post, Washington PostLatin Times, the ExaminerWTOP 103.5 FM, and WFMY News 2 picked up the original story.

When Jenny Sanchez was pregnant, she asked her doctor in Virginia to test her for Chagas, also known as the “kissing bug disease.” She was worried about passing it onto her son and putting him at risk for heart failure one day. In Bolivia, where she was born and raised, expectant mothers were routinely screened for Chagas, but her American doctor had never heard of it.

“I thought maybe I was saying it incorrectly,” says Sanchez, a 44-year-old microbiologist for whom English is a second language.

But once Sanchez succeeded in communicating, the doctor told her to not worry. Chagas is transmitted by triatomine insects endemic to Latin America, not Virginia. Sanchez, however, knew the disease could live in the body for decades without producing any symptoms and could be passed from mother to child.

After giving birth to her son in 2002, Sanchez returned to Bolivia and was tested. The results were negative, but the experience got her thinking: How many other immigrant mothers—not to mention grandmothers, husbands, brothers and children—were living in Virginia without knowing if they had the deadly disease? After all, Bolivia has the highest rates of Chagas disease in the world, according to the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, and estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Virginia is home to more Bolivians than any other state in the country, including California and New York combined.

As it turned out, the first documented case in the United States of a mother transmitting Chagas to her baby would eventually happen in Northern Virginia in 2010.

The number of people with Chagas disease just outside the nation’s capital is small—about two dozen cases, according to interviews with local physicians—but doctors and experts say they wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were higher. Doctors, unfamiliar with the disease, are not routinely screening for it, and many patients tend to be undocumented immigrants without health insurance. While Chagas doesn’t pose a risk to the general population in the U.S., patient advocates, like Sanchez, believe the disease continues to be ignored because of its connections to poverty and immigration.

*  *  *

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 8 million people have Chagas disease worldwide, most of them in Latin America. The triatomines, or the so-called kissing bugs, live in the cracks of walls in rural houses made of mud and thatched roofs and they bite people at night, passing the parasite through their feces. The bite itself is painless, and many people never show any signs of the disease. A third of those with Chagas, however, develop heart disease or megacolon, and untreated, they die from what appear to be sudden heart attacks. An estimated 11,000 people lose their lives every year to the disease, according to the WHO.

Because of migration, patients with Chagas are showing up everywhere from Spain and Italy to Japan and Australia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300,000 people are infected with Chagas in the U.S. A clinic devoted to diagnosing and treating the disease opened at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles in 2007, and, according to the CDC, doctors in New York City and Georgia are screening patients who might have been exposed to the disease in their countries of origin.

Dr. Rachel Marcus, a cardiologist, believes Northern Virginia could be “ground zero” for Chagas disease, because of the volume of immigrants from Bolivia, where the disease is endemic. In 2012, she gave up her private practice to focus on patients with Chagas disease. If colleagues thought she would never find a patient with a tropical disease near the Beltway, they were wrong.

Marcus took a job at a cardiac ultrasound lab after leaving her practice, and one of the first patients to walk through her door was an immigrant who needed a heart transplant. He was from Brazil and told her the kissing bug was prevalent in his hometown.  When Dr. Marcus looked at his EKG, she knew he had Chagas.

“If you were to find that EKG from an area where Chagas is common, it’s diagnostic,” she said. American doctors, however, had never made the connection. She sent his lab results to the CDC, which confirmed that the patient had Chagas.

According to Dr. Susan Montgomery, who leads the epidemiology team at the CDC, American doctors started to hear about Chagas disease in 2007 when blood banks in the U.S. began screening for it and sending people letters informing them that they had tested positive and should see their physicians. Health care providers started contacting the CDC and they haven’t stopped. In a ranking of the common phone inquiries the CDC receives, “Chagas disease is always number two every single month,” Montgomery said.

In 2010, one of those calls came from Northern Virginia. Pediatric infectious disease doctors there were seeing an unusual parasite in the blood smears of a baby who’d been born prematurely. The mom was a 31-year-old woman from Bolivia, and the baby, who’d been born at 29 weeks, weighed slightly more than 4 pounds. He seemed to be fighting an infection, and doctors assumed it was sepsis and treated him with antibiotics. Then they saw the parasite and talked with the mom. In Bolivia, expectant women are usually tested for Chagas, and yes, she remembered. With her previous pregnancy, she’d been told she had Chagas.

“It’s not something that we think of asking right away,” said Dr. Julie-Ann Crewalk, one of the pediatricians from the private practice that handled the case. She and her colleagues have only had two diagnoses of children with Chagas, but, she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were higher and we’re just not seeing it.”

The newborn was treated for Chagas with medications distributed by the CDC, and by his first birthday, he was considered cured. Crewalk doesn’t know about the mother. While the CDC provides medication for free, it doesn’t have a curative effect for adults with chronic Chagas, and it’s hard, if not impossible, for moms with Chagas and no health insurance to see the doctors who would connect them to the CDC.

Sanchez decided to take action two years ago, believing that Chagas screening should be routine for expectant women from endemic countries—and everyone else. She talked to Doctors Without Borders and researchers of the disease, and eventually found Marcus. Last year, the two women began screening patients through the Bolivian consulate’s mobile health clinics.

In an initial screening of 66 patients, 29 percent of them tested positive for the disease. “If you took people from endemic areas like Santa Cruz and Cochabamba [in Bolivia], 50 percent were positive,” Marcus said.

One of those patients who tested positive was Sanchez’s own 69-year-old mother, María, who lives with Sanchez and her two children in northern Virginia.

*  *  *

María Frerkinj grew up in the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and she spent three months every year out in the countryside, where the kissing bugs, known as vinchucas in her country, lived in the cracks of houses made of mud and sticks. The moment the lights were turned off at night, the insects would run out from the crevices, but, María recalled that “people would say, ‘That bug doesn’t do anything.’” No one there knew about the connection to Chagas. When a neighbor or family member died of cardiac failure due to Chagas, people simply called it muerte súbito, or sudden death.

Kissing bugs live in the walls of mud houses in rural Latin America, emerging at night to bite their victims. Bruno Domingos/Reuters

A grandmother, María says she has times now when she feels her chest tighten for a few moments, and then it passes and her heart starts beating faster than usual. She needs an echocardiogram but doesn’t have health insurance, which Marcus said is the case for the majority of her patients with Chagas. Marcus is herself working with a donated EKG machine and has often paid out of pocket for lab work that can run up to $225 a patient.

Dr. David Wheeler, an infectious disease specialist in Northern Virginia, has seen about six or eight patients with Chagas disease in the last couple of years. He describes them as “Bolivian women in their 40s” who are otherwise healthy. Aside from a lack of insurance, the other problem, he says, is that patients don’t necessarily have savings in case they have adverse reactions to the medication and can’t work. One of Wheeler’s patients delayed treatment for a month. “She wanted to clean some more houses so she could save more money,” he said.

The standard medication for Chagas is benznidazole. While it often cures young children and patients who have recently contracted the parasite, the results have been mixed for chronic adult patients. Some patients develop severe skin rashes, and Marcus said, “Everyone gets side effects,” including nausea. The drug ultimately only helps between 15 and 35 percent of the patients who take it, according to researchers, though a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in May found that it was still more effective than an anti-fungal drug that had showed promise.

Marcus has suspended treating patients with benznidazole until the fall, when the results of a 10-year study of the medication are released. The World Health Organization is one of the study’s sponsors.

Dr. Felipe Guhl, a molecular biologist at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, has been studying Chagas for 35 years and his team has been working on that 10-year study. In 1997, Guhl and his colleagues found the parasite responsible for Chagas in 4,000 year old mummies from the Atacama Desert in Chile. “The parasite is very successful. It’s been able to live with an enormous number of animals for millions of years,” Guhl said, adding that he’s enthusiastic about the benznidazole study. “It’s going to shed a lot of light on how effective the treatment is for adults with chronic Chagas.”

The FDA has not approved benznidazole for use in the U.S. Physicians like Marcus and Wheeler have to send patients’ blood samples to the CDC for diagnosis, and officials there provide free doses of benznidazole under investigational protocols. Marcus has been making house calls to dispense the medication to patients, and Wheeler was recently trying to track down his patient who had delayed treatment so she could increase her savings.

All these factors—Chagas patients’ lack of insurance, benznidazole’s side effects, and the need to go through the CDC—leave hospitals and clinics with little incentive to screen or treat Chagas patients, according to Marcus.

This pains Sanchez, who worries constantly now about her own mother and the many other people in her community who need to be screened. “People want to do the test,” Jenny says. At the Bolivian health clinics, people have said to her, “Chagas? Oh, yes, my tío has it. My abuela has it.”

Sanchez and Marcus have created the Latin American Society of Chagas, a Washington, D.C.-area group to advocate for screening, and they are turning their fledgling organization into an official nonprofit that can receive donations and grants. Last November, they testified on a Chagas panel at the Pan American Health Organization headquarters in D.C.

Both women are hoping that the CDC and public health departments in Virginia and across the country will do more to encourage testing, especially among immigrants from regions where the disease is endemic. According to Marcus, patients don’t have to start medication right away, but at least they will know that they need to have their hearts monitored frequently.

“We have the right to know if we are sick,” Sanchez adds.

This article available online at:

Prop. 8 Ruling Declares a New “Understanding of Gender”

Friday, August 13th, 2010

August 4, 2010, ColorLines

A federal judge in San Francisco overturned Prop. 8 today, declaring that gay men and lesbians have a constitutional right to get married and affirming that voters don’t get to determine the fundamental rights of a minority group.

The ruling — with its vocal support for the civil rights of gay men and lesbians — has left some racial justice advocates hopeful that national black and Latino civil rights organizations will now consider publicly supporting gay marriage.

The 136-page opinion (full document at end of story) from Judge Vaughn Walker notes that Prop. 8, which had defined marriage as between a man and a woman, didn’t stand a chance in court, or to quote him directly: “Proposition 8 fails to possess even a rational basis.”

Judge Walker found that Prop. 8 violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the constitution. The amendment singled out gay men and lesbians for different treatment and denied them their fundamental right to marry.

Marriage licenses won’t be issued to same-sex couples today, though. Judge Walker issued a temporary stay on his decision in Perry v. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That means the ruling can’t go into effect until the court hears arguments for why it should or should not let same-sex couples marry while the case is being appealed. It’s expected that the case will be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

In his opinion, Judge Walker noted that marriage was once limited to people of the same race and gave more rights to the husband—-two ideas that are now out of vogue. What’s changing with same-sex couples being allowed to marry, Walker wrote, is not the institution of marriage but “the understanding of gender.”

As Chris Geidner at MetroWeekly outlined, what actually matters from today’s court ruling is Walker’s findings of fact versus his conclusions of law.

During appeals the findings are less likely to be disputed because it’s assumed that the judge closest to the trial is the best, no pun intended, judge of the facts. What will be examined closely are his legal conclusions.

Here are some of the judge’s findings of the fact:

-Gay men and lesbians getting married “has not deprived the institution of marriage of its vitality.”

-Domestic partnerships “lack the social meaning associated with marriage”

-Prop. 8 places the force of law behind stigmas against gays and lesbians and suggests that gay relationship are not like hetero ones

-Campaign for Prop. 8 relied on stereotypes of gays and lesbians as inferior to heteros.

Judge Walker’s conclusions of law are what will be scrutinized on appeal:

-Gay men and lesbians aren’t seeking a new right under the Constitution. They just want to exercise their fundamental right to marry.

-They have the right to marry in part because the state’s never required marriage to be based on the ability to procreate.

-People can’t be excluded from marriage because of gender. “That time has passed,” the judge wrote.

-Tradition alone cannot be the a rational basis for a law. So it doesn’t matter that marriage has traditionally been between a man and a woman.

-Domestic partnership isn’t good enough. They don’t carry the same “social meaning as marriage.”

Rallies are taking place across California today and the country. In New York, a rally is expected from 7 to 9 at the New York City Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street.

Racial justice advocates have kept an eye on the Prop. 8 trial because the amendment basically said that a majority of voters can decide the fate of a minority group. Judge Walker’s decision turned that around. “Just because voters pass it doesn’t mean that it’s constitutional,” said Karin Wang at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Wang thinks that today’s decision will inspire more conversations about discrimination. “I do think the longer legacy of this decision is pushing the bounds on marriage equality in communities of color where I do think it is a very difficult conversation,” Wang said.

Alexander Robinson, the former executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a gay black organization, hopes that today’s court ruling will shift the internal conversations at national civil rights organizations like the NAACP and National Council of La Raza, which he says have shied away from supporting gay marriage because of their religious constituents.

“This will give those inside these organizations further ammunition to push their groups like the California NAACP to take an affirmative stance in support of our rights,” Robinson said.

The case will be appealed and is expected to end up at the Supreme Court, which according to the New York Times is the most conservative court in “living memory.”

“There is a real fear that if you pick the wrong court at the wrong time you might set back the issue,” Wang said. “It’s hard to undo the Supreme Court.”

Still, she added that there’s an equally good argument that “you just don’t know.”

Robinson is optimistic. “This is a train that we’re not going to stop and I’m not interested in slowing it down. In all of the histories of groups struggling to achieve equality there have been setbacks and major victories. We take them as we can.”

More Data on How Prop 8 Passed

Judge Walker’s decision came down a day after a new analysis was released by an LGBT group showing that Prop. 8, which banned gay marriage in California, passed in 2008 —- not because of black voters—-but because of white Democrats with kids at home.

As you may recall, Black voters were blamed for the loss of gay marriage in 2008. It was a misleading story about exit polls started by mainstream news outlets and immediately circulated. But according to David Fleischer, who heads the LGBT mentoring project in Los Angeles and led a team analyzing polling data from Prop 8, the black vote on gay marriage was the same on election day as it had been months before: the majority opposed it.

The people who were convinced by fear ads to oppose gay marriage were white Democrats who had kids at home under the age of 18. They saw those Prop. 8 ads featuring cute white kids saying, “Guess what I learned at school today?” and then revealing that they might grow up to marry someone of the same sex. Fleischer writes:

“In the last six weeks, when both sides saturated the airwaves with television ads, more than 687,000 voters changed their minds and decided to oppose same-sex marriage. More than 500,000 of those, the data suggest, were parents with children under 18 living at home. Because the proposition passed by 600,000 votes, this shift alone more than handed victory to proponents.”

And a slew of other people voted against gay marriage when they meant to vote for it. According to Fleischer’s team, these voters didn’t understand that a “yes” on Prop. 8 meant a “no” on gay marriage.

Becoming a Black Man

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Louis Mitchell expected a lot of change when he began taking injections of hormones eight years ago to transition from a female body to a male one. He anticipated that he’d grow a beard, which he eventually did and enjoys boasting about now. He knew his voice would deepen and that his relationship with his partner, family and friends would change in subtle and, he hoped, good ways, all of which happened.

What he hadn’t counted on was changing the way he drove.

Within months of starting male hormones, “I got pulled over 300 percent more than I had in the previous 23 years of driving, almost immediately. It was astounding,” says Mitchell, who is Black and transitioned while living in the San Francisco area and now resides in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Targeted for “driving while Black” was not new to Mitchell. For example, a few years before transitioning, Mitchell, now 46 years old, had been questioned by a cop for simply sitting in his own car late at night. But “he didn’t really sweat me too much once he came up to the car and divined that I was female,” Mitchell recalls.

Now in a Black male body, however, Mitchell has suddenly been pulled aside for small infractions like not wearing a seat belt. When he and his wife moved from California to the East Coast, Mitchell refused to let her drive on the cross-country trip. “She drives too fast,” he says, chuckling and adding, “I didn’t want to get pulled over. It took me a little bit longer [to drive crosscountry] ‘cause I had to drive like a Black man. I can’t be going 90 miles an hour down the highway. If I’m going 56, I need to be concerned.”

The transgender community has experienced a boom in visibility in the last decade. Some of this has come about through popular culture, including the acclaimed 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry and more recently with Mike Penner, the L.A. Times sports columnist who came out as transgender and is now known as Christine. In recent years, there’s also been a growing number of memoirs, including The Testosterone Files by the Chicano poet Max Valerio, as well as more academic books on the subject, like The Transgender Studies Reader.

Just as key has been the work of trans people themselves, who have transitioned due to the more widespread availability of hormones and surgeries. Rather than passing as heterosexual, an increasing number of trans people in the last decade have identified as “trans” and begun support, advocacy and legal rights groups. The widespread use of the Internet and the new online social networks are also helping to break the isolation that trans people often feel in their own communities.
In Asia, Latin America and Africa, the place of transgender people is likewise changing. While trans women in many cultures have been marginally accepted, they have been largely confined to traditionally feminine roles as caretakers—a situation that is changing now in places like Ixhuatan, Mexico, where Amaranta Gomex, a muxe, or trans woman, ran for political office in 2003. In some countries, trans activists are going to court and winning key policies. In Brazil, a court ruled in August 2007 that sexual reassignment surgery is covered as a medical right by the constitution.

While it’s extremely difficult to say how many people identify as transgender, the National Center for Transgender Equality has estimated that about three million people are transgender today in the United States. It’s hard to say how many of those would be people of color, but one online group for Black trans people called Transsistahs-Transbrothas has about 300 members, and another group specifically for Latino trans men has 98 members.

In the last four years, there’s also been an increase in the number of people seeking top surgeries or removal of their breasts, according to Michael Brownstein, a well-known doctor specializing in gender surgeries in San Francisco. He does about four to six top surgeries a week, and he notes that while 30 years ago trans people would come to his office alone, they are now showing up with partners, siblings and friends for moral support.

These social and political changes have ushered in a time when it is increasingly acceptable for men and women to alter their physical bodies to match the gender identity they have on the inside. Left largely unexamined, however, has been the issue of racism and how men and women experience it differently.

Trans people of color are finding that they have an extremely different relationship to gender transition than white people. London Dexter Ward, an LAPD cop who transitioned on the job in 2004, sums it up this way: a white person who transitions to a male body “just became a man.” By contrast, he says, “I became a Black man. I became the enemy. “

While people of color clearly know that racism works differently for men and women, transgender people like Mitchell and Ward are getting to experience this from both sides of the gender equation.

Louis Mitchell is the type of man who immediately puts people at ease as he advises them about how cheap the housing is in Massachusetts. He calls himself “a big Black man” (he’s 5 foot 9 inches tall and 250 pounds). In 2006, after much soul searching, he began attending divinity school. Talking to Mitchell, it’s easy to imagine him in a pulpit. He’s simultaneously warm-hearted and sure of himself. He could sell a two-bedroom condo as easily as convincing a congregation to be honest with God.

Growing up in West Covina in Southern California, Mitchell attended church with his mother and devoured history books. At the age of 3 or 4, he knew that he was a boy, regardless of having been born into a girl’s body. He also believed that God created miracles. So he prayed that he would grow into a boy’s body when he reached puberty. That didn’t happen, much to his surprise.

At 18, Mitchell hitchhiked with a friend to Corpus Christi, Texas, where the legal drinking age was lower than in California. There, he met drag queens. While he didn’t know that male hormones were available to him, he felt hopeful for the first time. If the queens could be women, his thinking went, then there might be options for him to live as a man.

He didn’t know at the time that transitioning from one gender to another is not new to the Black community.

A Black transsexual woman, for example, was the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery at John Hopkins University in 1966, according to Joanne Meyerowitz’s classic book How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Avon Wilson’s transition in the late ’60s at John Hopkins marked a turning point for the transsexual community. It was the first time a medical clinic in the United States performed the surgery, and so while it remained rare to be approved for surgery, it was at least a possibility.

In the late ’70s, Mitchell went on to identify as a butch, even though he felt that he was masquerading as a lesbian. Then, 15 years ago, his friend began the process of transitioning to a male body.

“That lit a fire that I couldn’t put out,” he says now.

He met a few Black trans men at a conference but took many years to soul search about his own transition. He considered the consequences of transitioning, including the impact on his mother, who he’s very attached to, and the loss for him of his lesbian community.

He didn’t think too much about racism.

He already had a goatee without taking hormones and was used to being followed in stores. He had grown accustomed to women clutching their purses at the sight of him. So he was somewhat surprised about the changes that came after he began taking injections of the hormone testosterone—not just being questioned by cops, but also the emotional changes he felt.

Before transition, Mitchell recalls being “cavalier and reckless” about what he did in public and about his interactions with police officers. “I didn’t think about it so much,” he says about cops. “At some point they would find out I was female” and that would diffuse the situation.

Now, Mitchell finds that he doesn’t engage in small transgressions like jaywalking or spitting on the sidewalk. “I never know if they’re just waiting for something to happen to roll up, and I do not want find myself in custody. That would be just precarious and dangerous in so many ways.”

Prado Gomez, a 33-year-old Chicano who transitioned in 2001, describes the situation with racism and violence as a “trade off.”

“I’ll be able to walk down the street and not be raped, unless they know my status” as a trans man, he says. “But there’s a different kind of threat from men.”

Before transitioning, Gomez was used to being pulled over in the car with his brothers by cops in San Francisco. “Cops called me an asshole until they saw the F on my license,” he recalls, and small verbal fights on the street back then did not escalate. Gomez says that a guy would call him a “bitch” and leave it at that. Now, Gomez knows he has to be more careful. A small exchange of words could lead to more violence.

London Dexter Ward has also seen his life change because of the ways that racism is gendered.

“I do a lot of shopping online now,” says Ward, who got tired of being followed in book and clothing stores.

A 44-year-old police officer, Ward began hormone treatments in 2004 and transitioned while working for the LAPD, where he’s now an instructor at the police academy. The transition on the job was no small feat, since it meant moving to the men’s locker room and showers. But Ward’s coworkers and supervisors, like his family, accepted him. In typical men’s locker room humor, his sergeant created a penalty jar where the cops had to deposit a quarter if they talked about Ward and used the female pronoun.

Ward, like Mitchell and Gomez, felt that he had planned for just about every change that would come with transitioning. “What I did not prepare for was being a Black man,” he says.

He finds that people now look at him with fear in bars and restaurants where he once used to go for a good time. “When people are afraid of you, you stop wanting to hang out in those places,” Ward says.

Experiencing racism as a Black man, though, doesn’t necessarily give Mitchell and Ward a bond with their peers, who grew up in Black male bodies experiencing racism as Black boys and then men.

“It’s a matter of living for them, at this point,” Mitchell says. “It’s no longer some strange thing that they notice. It just is. It’s like gravity. I am a Black man, and therefore if something is stolen while I am in the neighborhood then I am a suspect.”

The racism that Black trans men experience is only part of the story, of course. Mitchell says his manhood is not about the racism he encounters. “It is more about integrity and a sense of being the truest person I can be,” he says, adding that his gender transition has been about “having my insides and my outsides match finally.” Rather than see himself as joining a group of men who are perpetual targets, he feels he’s joined a community of men that are strong but not ashamed of their tenderness.

Mitchell also finds that he’s in a unique position now to mentor young Black men. As someone who came of age in the lesbian community and has feminist politics, Mitchell jokes with Black boys who talk about “fags” and refer to women as “bitches.” He pulls the teenagers aside and uses a bit of reverse psychology, telling them that it’s ok if they’re gay. When the teens protest that they’re not, Mitchell says, “You have no respect for women, and you’re fixated on gay men. What am I supposed to think?”

Johnnie Pratt, who’s 48 and now lives in the San Francisco area, also jokes that transitioning brought some perks. Finally, he was taken seriously by the guys at Home Depot. Before transitioning, he says, “They’d be looking at me like, ‘Shut up girl.’ Now they want to talk to me.”

Trans men of color are finding that some things stay the same on both sides of the gender equation. Cultural expectations, for example, are hard to shake. As is common for Latinas, Gomez has raised his brother’s two children with his partner, Mariah, and is now taking care of his mom, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Gomez sees no contradiction in the fact that as a man, he bathes his 60-year-old mother.

“I am the only one my mother trusts,” he says. “She sees here is this man, but she knows this man is her daughter.”

The experience with racism is flipped in some ways for Black trans women.
Monica Roberts, who’s 45 years old, transitioned from male to female in 1994. As a Black woman, she is happy to no longer be considered, as she says, “a suspect.” Since transitioning, she has not been pulled over for “driving while Black,” although she quickly adds that it has happened to a friend who is also a Black trans woman.
Roberts and her Black trans women friends have experienced something else since transitioning: “We’ve noticed a power shift,” she says. “Black culture is matriarchal-based…most of the leadership in the Black community is made up of very powerful women. There’s a lot of that in my hometown.” And so as Roberts transitioned, she has stepped into that role.

Roberts grew up in Houston, Texas and in the Black church. Her mother is a teacher, and she was surrounded by women who were historians and leaders in the community. She understood the influence of Black women. “You might have a minister up here pontificating on the pulpit on Sunday,” she says, “but the real power behind the throne is the women’s auxiliary that’s meeting on Tuesday.”
Her father, a local radio commentator, tried to groom Roberts for leadership as his eldest child. Yet, it was only after transitioning that Roberts felt able to take on such a leadership role. Perhaps it was due to the toll that living in the “tranny closet” had taken on her self-esteem. But Roberts also noticed a difference in the responses she received from other people to her leadership as a Black woman. She got positive reactions, she says, “because I was basically doing the traditional work of Black women in the community in terms of uplifting the race.”

In 2005, Roberts and other transsexual and transgender activists started the first conference for Black trans people. It took place in Louisville, Kentucky, where she now lives. She also writes these days for a local LGBT outlet, blogs at and is at work on a novel. In 2006, she became the third Black person to receive the Trinity Award, which recognizes people for their contributions to the transgender community.

Pauline Park also found that transitioning to become a woman of color altered her place in the world.

A Korean adoptee who was raised in the Midwest, Park, who is 46 years old, transitioned in 1997 but chose to not physically alter her body. She’s a founding member of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, which got city legislation passed to protect transgender people from discrimination in housing and employment. In transitioning from living as an Asian man to an Asian woman, Park found that she was finally able to have “the joy of actualizing something I’ve always wanted to be.” But she also finds that she has gone from invisibility to a visibility that is at time unwelcomed.

As an effeminate Asian male, Park says, “that tends to—if anything—put you in either invisibility or derision or ridicule or harassment. But if you’re perceived to be an Asian woman, what happens is the exact opposite, which is sexual interest and even harassment.”

Now Park finds herself at times the target of harassment on the subways in New York City, where she lives. Recently, when she got off the No. 7 train in Queens, she realized that she was being followed by a man. She didn’t know if it was because he saw her as an Asian woman or a transgender Asian woman. She ran home and slammed the door shut.

“I always wear shoes I can run in,” Park says.

She concedes she knew that Asian women were exoticized, but “it’s one thing reading about something in a book and another to be running down the street.”

Listening to Roberts, it’s hard to imagine a time when she wasn’t a leader. She’s adamant that Black trans people need their own spaces. For example, she says, there’s a lot of hostility in the white transgender community toward Christianity, and some of that is justified. But when it comes to Black trans folks, she says, it’s impossible to just walk away from the church. “You can’t leave out Christians if you want people of color” at a conference, she says. “We were all raised in a church.”

Roberts also highlights another small but important detail of trans life for people of color: there’s a level of animosity between trans women and men in the white community that doesn’t exist to the same degree in the Black community. Some of that is due to the fact that white trans women are often dealing with a loss of power in public life while white trans men are coming to positions of power and all its ensuing emotions and consequences.

It’s different for Black transsexuals, Roberts says. “There’s a lot of information sharing…They [Black trans men] can talk to us about being women, and we can talk to them about DWB.”

At the end of the day, Roberts also says, “People don’t see me as a trans woman. They see me as Black…and that’s the thing that people notice. The bottom line is, we’re Black first.”

Mitchell concurs.

“More than I’m a trans man, I’m a Black man,” he says. “Many of the things that I see in the world and many of the things that I respond to in the world have more to do with how I am treated as a Black man rather than how I am treated as a trans man.”

Young and Out: Anything but Safe

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Sakia Gunn was trying to get home.

She was 15, hanging out on the piers, laughing with the other kids, queer and colored, their teenage arms embellished with rainbow-colored bracelets. But the way home for queer kids is often littered with hateful words and other hazards, and so it was for Sakia in May of 2003. At a bus stop, a man stabbed her and fled. The girl bled to death in her friend’s arms.

In October of 2002, Gwen Araujo had also tried to go home.

She was 17, transgender, dressed up to celebrate the birthday of her namesake idol, singer Gwen Stefani. But Gwen never made it home from the party. A group of men beat her repeatedly with a shovel, strangled her with a rope and buried her body in the woods near a campground. Her killers went to McDonalds for breakfast.

Slain just seven months apart, the two girls became the fleeting poster children of homophobia turned to murder. Little though was said about the coincidence that the two teenagers—one a lesbian who loved basketball, the other a transgender girl who favored Shiseido makeup—grew up in Newark. Sakia in Newark, New Jersey and Gwen in Newark, California. The two places couldn’t be any more different.

The largest city in New Jersey and half an hour from downtown Manhattan, Newark is still best known for its 1960s riots. A black-majority city now, it is steeped in gang violence, Baptist churches and politicos desperate for gentrification. Schools observe a moment of silence a few times a year for their murdered students.

By contrast, Newark, California, is a middle-class suburb of San Francisco, a town with one main strip, liberal jargon and a population almost evenly split between whites and immigrants. It has Afghani restaurants, Mexican party shops and a large shopping mall.

Big city and small town Newark had one thing in common: Neither could offer Sakia or Gwen or any other queer colored child the safety of home.

Parents, teachers, and community activists agree that children are coming out at younger ages, but few cities have responded. For all the queer eyes in Hollywood, there was no gay center in either Newark, no visibility of queer life.

The murders of Gwen, who was Chicana, and Sakia, who was African American, were not isolated incidents.

In 2001, Fred Martinez, a Native American two-spirit teenager, was viciously beaten and left to die in a Colorado canyon. In 2002, two black trans girls, Ukea Davis and Stephanie Thomas, were shot 10 times in the head in Washington, D.C., and last year black trans teenager Nikki Nicholas was beaten and shot near Detroit. Violence against black queers increased across the country by 16 percent and against Latinos by 2 percent last year, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. The number of offenders who were African American and Latino (and one presumes being imprisoned) each increased by about 30 percent.

Since Gwen’s and Sakia’s murders, organizations have sprouted in both Newarks, along with marches, rallies, gay proms and sensitivity trainings for cops. Much seems to have changed and even more has stayed the same.

Newark’s mayor in New Jersey doesn’t return the local gay group’s calls about starting a gay center in the city. In California’s Newark, students made a video with a clip about beating up “the fags.”

As both cases go to trial, queer kids of color living in both Newarks talked about coming out and how communities can choose to respond.

Not in Newark, California
As a child, D’emond Sladen was resolved about his gender identity, and it wasn’t the black girl body he was born into.

Now 14, he has cut his shoulder-length braids, making the naps as short as any other boy’s. He wears thin silver-framed glasses and is shy at first. But he concedes that yes, he was surprised that last year his freshman English class voted his essay on being transgender “the best.” Some students have called him brave. That’s not how he feels though when walking alone with his dog.

“I don’t know if it might backfire,” D’emond says.

The same students who don’t comment on his gender identity at high school, he says, could change their attitudes on one of the Newark’s tree-lined streets.

Perhaps that’s what Gwen thought that night: that it had all backfired.

According to her mother and newspaper reports, she had been living as a girl since she turned 14, getting her nails done, finding in her Mexican family a warm acceptance. She had been pushed out of the local schools but no worries. She and her mom had talked: Gwen would find a job to help pay for beauty school. It was all working out somehow. She even knew these guys, Michael and Jose, who had taken an interest in her.

But on Oct. 3, 2002, they turned on her.

According to court testimony, the two men, who had had sex with Gwen, suspected her biological gender and attacked her with two other men at a house party. The other partygoers left the house, chalking it up to a guys’ fight. No one dialed 911, even as the men punched Gwen and hit her across the head with a kitchen skillet. She bled profusely, and they told her to get off the sofa because she was bleeding on it.

In her last hours, she must have thought of her mother, her sister, her brothers. She begged, “No, please don’t. I have a family.” The men beat her with a shovel and strangled her.

Michael Magidson, Jason Cazares and Jose Merel, all 24, went on trial this spring, accused of murder. A fourth, Jason Nabors, 21, pled guilty, reducing his jail time in exchange for testimony against his friends. But the trial ended after the jury deliberated for 10 days and deadlocked on whether the men were guilty of first or second degree murder. The case will be retried in May. In the meantime, Cazares has been released on bail.

The murder shook the small town of Newark.

Young people who had known Gwen protested at city hall and the town held a community meeting but left it at that, local activists say. So Paul Clifford, a white gay man, co-founded Not in Newark, a group of parents and community residents. They met monthly, crafted their demands and presented them to the city council last September.

In May, the council adopted some of the suggestions including changing Newark’s municipal code to comply with state law that forbids discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation in hiring and contract bids. In the spring, police officers were trained on how to respond to hate crimes and met with some of the town’s queer residents.

Patricia Skillen, president of the local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), recalls that at the training, officers were placed in small discussion groups and some asked why a gay person would put gay insignia on their vehicle.

“What’s the purpose for it?”

They were told that rainbow flags mean that LGBT people are proud of who they are, Skillen says.

It’s not exactly Stonewall, but it’s a start.

Because Newark is small, it is easier to change in some ways, says Clifford. Yet it also makes it easier that Newark is wealthy, that 71 percent of those who live there own their homes. Where other towns are responding to gangs or poverty, Newark has the resources for other problems. In the fall, city employees will also undergo sensitivity training, and Not in Newark has obtained funding to also train teachers and run local ads addressing self-esteem among queer kids of color.

These inroads, of course, have their limits.

Gwen’s mom, Sylvia Guerrero, has not been able to return to work and has been evicted from her home. She doesn’t shop for groceries in the daytime. She knows people still say that Gwen misled the men who killed her, that Gwen was “asking for it.” Guerrero holds many people accountable, including the town of Newark for pushing her daughter out of school. Students repeatedly attacked Gwen with rocks as easily as they did with vulgar words. She had a high absentee record as a student.

“Who would want to go to school if you were getting beat up?” says Guerrero.

By the time she was 16, Gwen was in a continuing education program. Then Newark refused to place her in any classroom, Guerrero says, putting the teenager on a waiting list. Harassment didn’t just come from students. School administrators had insisted Gwen use the boys’ bathroom, making her more vulnerable to assaults, Guerrero says.

For Alvyn Prasad, a 19-year-old gay Fiji Indian who graduated from the local high school this year, the murder and subsequent media coverage of queer issues hasn’t made it easier for his family.

“To them it was like, there is no gay Indian. This is all in your head. Stop hanging out with those friends,” says Alvyn. His mom has come around, entering counseling with him, but his father remains silent on the subject.

Alvyn came out as gay to his family after Gwen’s murder. He didn’t know Gwen but the two lived within two miles of each other. Her murder “scared the hell out of me,” he said. He found community with the Not in Newark group, but he had to quit his part-time job after a coworker chased him into the parking lot, calling him a faggot. The manager did not intervene, Alvyn said.

Two years after Gwen’s death, the harassment continues along gender and race lines.

Paul DeWitt, now a retired teacher from Newark Memorial High School, surveyed close to 600 of the school’s students last year and found that they heard name-calling based on sexual orientation 228 times a day and racism 275 times a day. In the spring, a student showed Kevin Bishop, an openly gay teacher at the high school, a video they were producing in a media class. One clip showed students, their faces covered with sweaters, saying “We should shoot the fags.”

By the time D’emond arrived at Newark High School, a year after the murder, students were focused on gender identity and not necessarily in a good way. “I was sort of scared,” he says. “They were wondering who was and who wasn’t [straight].”

Early in his first year though, D’emond also noticed the sign behind Bishop’s desk that read: “Let’s get one thing straight, I’m not.” It gave the teenager some ease and he joined the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance group.

D’emond also joined the track team last year though he was still relegated to girls’ bathrooms. He spent his first year of high school changing for gym class right after lunch when he knew the girls’ locker rooms would be empty.

Newark Pride, New Jersey
Jai is a homebody. It’s safer that way. “I don’t go out. I go to school. I come home. Me and Sakia were total opposites. She was the type to go out and hang out.”

The two were girlfriends at Westside High School in Newark, New Jersey and they weren’t the only ones. Jai, who graduated from the school and asked that her last name not be used, said people don’t talk about it but, “there’s like a huge crowd of gays in school.”

Sakia, a sophomore, liked basketball and wanted to play for the WNBA one day. She was living with her grandma and considered herself an aggressive (or AG) and Jai, her femme. Like many young people in Newark, Sakia boarded the Path train on weekends for “the Vill,” the West Village, Manhattan’s mecca of gay shops and bars. Not old enough for the bars, she hung out with friends on the piers along the Hudson River in Manhattan.

She was returning home with friends in the early hours of Sunday morning on May 11, 2003. At the corner of Broad and Market streets in downtown Newark, they were waiting for the bus. The police booth nearby should have been staffed but wasn’t.

A man in a white station wagon began harassing one of Sakia’s friends. The teenagers said they weren’t interested, that they were lesbians, and the man got out of the car. He tried to choke one of the girls, but the scuffle ended when he plunged a knife into Sakia’s chest and fled in the car his friend was driving. Sakia bled, dying on the way to the hospital. It was Mother’s Day.

Richard McCullough, 30, turned himself in later that week. The father of two children, he faces six charges, including murder, aggravated assault, and bias intimidation. He is being held on bail at the Essex County Jail.

The murder sent an unexpected ripple through Newark. If its queer youth had a tenuous acceptance with the city—never holding public rallies, always leaving for the Vill—Sakia’s killing ended that as an estimated 2,500 mourners, many of them young black lesbians, attended her funeral.

It also mobilized Laquetta C. Nelson, a black lesbian and veteran of the state’s Democrat gay organizations, to help form the group Newark Pride Alliance. Initially, she and the group tried to work with the city’s longtime mayor, Sharpe James, who said the city would staff the police booth where Sakia was murdered and also look into opening a center for the city’s gay youth.

While the booth is now sometimes staffed, the promise of a center hasn’t materialized. “I’ve written letters, gone down in person but no one can see me,” says Nelson. (The mayor’s spokesperson Pamela Goldstein didn’t return phone calls for this article.)

Like the city’s young people, who have a deep-rooted mistrust of institutions, Newark Pride has eschewed the mayor in search of its own solutions. They marched in the African Heritage Parade this spring, the first time the rainbow flag flew in that parade. At the end of the school year, they organized a gay prom for about 50 young people.

But the city largely remains difficult terrain for its queer youth.

“Publicly very little has changed since the murder,” says Adolph St. Arromand, program manager of Project WOW Youth Center, which largely serves young gay black men. “The administration, the public officials, are having trouble acknowledging that there’s gay young people walking the streets.”

In July, as several cops were shot by gangs, the city started a “Safe Havens” campaign whereby police and churches will patrol streets and provide after-school activities. It is unclear what haven it will offer queer kids since one Baptist reverend, Elijah Williams, said he’d treat those youngsters “like any other sinner.”

The little sinners have fewer places to go these days.

A popular gay party at Newark’s African Globe Theatre has ended, at least temporarily. The piers in Manhattan are not as welcoming either. The Christopher Street piers in the Vill where Sakia hung out have now been converted into a park. Rickke Mananzala, an organizer with Fierce, an organization of young queer activists of color in the Village, says the piers are under the enforcement of park police who are imposing earlier curfews, closing the pier’s public bathrooms and arresting organizers who give out safe-sex materials.

All of this drives the queer kids of color out of the area, says Mananzala. The sole drop-in center that once catered to these kids was shut down in the ’90s and reopened in another part of the city.

Back in Newark, Nelson is getting Newark Pride Alliance its nonprofit status so they can accept donations for their goal: the Sakia Gunn Community Center. Her vision is every teenager’s dream, queer and straight: a place to hang, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a place for anyone who feels different. But for now there is the tedious work. She needs to find an accountant for the organization and the grant money that would make the center a reality.

Jai though thinks a gay center won’t keep the kids safe because acceptance isn’t made of brick or mortar. It happens over time like it did it for the West Village, so that even the crackdown there is not a deterrent for kids.

“No matter what they do [in Newark], they’re going to go to New York,” she says. Why? “Because they think they’re accepted in the Vill,” she says, sighing, a bit exasperated. “It’s the Vill.”

Nelson, for her part, has faith in the idea for a center. Her deep soothing voice quivers when she says that the murder of Sakia and other young black lesbians and transgender girls are indictments of communities where the abuse of girls is still permitted and the reluctance to speak about queer life continues unabated.

“The old folks figure that if you don’t address it, it’ll work itself out or it will go away,” says Nelson about being queer. “But that’s not reality of what’s happening to our people.”

Sex And Race Play

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Mollena Williams is gregarious, the kind of woman who makes a point of saying, “How are you today?” to the Walgreens cashier. She has a short afro and laughs easily. She works as an administrative assistant and at night, she pens her theater performances. She is also a masochist.

Williams is part of San Francisco’s BDSM community (shorthand for “bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism”). By definition, a masochist receives pleasure from experiencing certain types of pain. By her own account, Williams loves pleasing her partners. That might mean a whipping. It might also mean obeying her partner’s commands or being called a “slut.”

Her partners aren’t strangers. Like non-BDSM people, she expects to feel a connection and develop trust – enough to submit to a partner for the hour or the day or the week that they agree to. And she, in turn, expects a lot. Her partners have to be comforting, quick thinking, and treat her like the princess she’s always felt herself to be.

Contrary to popular notions, BDSM is not about abuse.

It’s consensual and trusting and people refer to it as “play” (as in “I want to play with you”). The point of BDSM is not sexual intercourse. In fact, when Williams recalls her first experience as a masochist seven years ago, she says she met her partner, a white man, at a bar and “fell in love at first sight.” They made their way back to his hotel. “For the first time I felt someone could see who I really was.” And that was someone who found it erotic to be a submissive to her partner.

In recent years, Williams has added another element to her repertoire as a masochist. She’s begun to engage in what is called “race play” or “racial play”—that is getting aroused by intentionally using racial epithets like the word “nigger” or racist scenarios like a slave auction.

Race play is being enjoyed in the privacy of bedrooms and publicly at BDSM parties, and it’s far from just black and white. It also includes “playing out” Nazi interrogations of Jews or Latino-on-black racism, and the players can be of any racial background and paired up in a number of ways (including a black man calling his black girlfriend a “nigger bitch”). “White master seeking black slave,” however, seems the more popular of the combinations.

Race play is considered on the edge of edgy sex, but workshops on the subject are becoming standard fare at kinky conferences as people like Williams become comfortable with publicly speaking about it. Like any practice making its way into public conversations, the workshops include everything from personal testimonials to theories on why people of color are getting aroused by what some would see as just racism.

Like any controversial sexual activity, race play has its critics. In May, the title of a workshop at a BDSM conference had to be changed after protest over the original name, “Nigger Play: Free at Last.” Williams herself has been the subject of several e-mails from people of color who, while enjoying BDSM themselves, accuse her of self-hate and recommend she enter therapy.

But Williams doesn’t seem self-hating. If she is, then she’s pretty darn happy talking about her writing and desire to find a good man.

If race play is not about hate, then what is it about? What does it mean for a person of color to be aroused by words like “nigger” or “spic”? For the people that I talked to, it’s made them neither freaks nor Uncle Toms.

Teaching Race Play

There are about as many ways to engage in BDSM as there are theories for why it arouses. For some, BDSM is having your boyfriend yank your hair and mumble a word like “whore” during sex. For others, it is whips, chains and hot wax—all done in public before an audience in a space that ‘s been converted to a dungeon.

Psychologists from Freud on down have speculated on BDSM’s appeal. Perhaps the most common perception is that it’s a way of working through childhood trauma. But some say it’s more akin to psychological theater where you abandon your mundane life role (all those responsibilities!) and act like a master or slave, for example. Still, others conjecture that BDSM alters body chemistry or proffers a spiritual connection.

In his coauthored book, Bound to Be Free, Dr. Charles Moser has put out what might be the most sensible theory, calling BDSM just another type of relationship. It’s consensual and erotic, he writes. People find it erotic to act like they have complete control over another person (or pretending that they give up control). It also has its own rules: people ideally agree at the outset what the limits are.

Needless to say there are countless conferences, Web sites and parties, all of which loosely make up the “BDSM community.” It was at one such conference in May that Mike Bond was to present “Nigger Play,” a workshop on using the word “nigger” as part of race play.

But a small public outcry from fellow kinky people, many of them people of color, on several electronic listservs devoted to BDSM resulted in a change to the more demure, “Dancing with the Devil.” Ironically perhaps, people did not seem to object to the content, just to the word “nigger” being in the title.

Mike Bond, who declined a phone interview and answered questions by e-mail, is a masochist. He is a black man and emphatic that race play “is not a message about all of black kind.” He doesn’t suggest that all black folks enjoy what he does, but he writes, “I have been floored when people have criticized me by saying [that] not everyone agrees with my fetish. So what? Not everyone likes cheese. ”

During his workshop, Bond told the audience about his own history. He first considered race play when a partner asked if it was humiliating for him as a black man to bow before her, a white woman. He hadn’t thought about it before. “But if that made it more embarrassing, ” he said, “then I was all for it.”

On the panel with Bond were three white women he has played with in the past. They emphasized that race play isn’t about hate. For one woman, calling Bond “nigger” was just another bad name that aroused him. But another woman, who is Jewish, said it took time and encouragement to be able to relax with race play.

After the talk came the demonstration: A woman dressed in a business suit and planted in the audience heckled Bond, then grabbed him by the collar and threw him down, all the while yelling about what gave Bond the right to criticize “her people” (rednecks).

As arousing as that scene might be for some, it is downright repulsive for others. After all, racism was institutionalized as social, economic and legal practices, in part, through rape and the white domination of black sexuality.

Chupoo, who is a black woman and declined to give her last name, says it point blank: “I can’t do race play because I have people in my family who had to submit to that, where they had no choices. It’s too close to home for American black people.” Race play makes her think about her grandmother who had to sleep with her employer, a doctor, so her children could have healthcare.

Chupoo is not anti-BDSM. In fact, for seven years, she’s been a submissive in a master-slave relationship with a black man. She’s delighted, for example, when in an erotic context, he calls her a “bitch.”

“I can accept other people are able to rise above their sexism,” she says, adding, “The race thing is really a lot deeper. I guess it’s easier for me to deal—he understands that we have a partnership … I feel like my master respects me. I cannot imagine feeling that with someone around race play. ”

Those who engage in race play are quick to say that they keep politics outside of their bedroom (and dungeon). But their own relationships to race are telling.

Chupoo sees race as central to her life; Mollena, not as much or not in the same way. Chupoo refuses to do BDSM with anyone who’s white and she says that when someone at a BDSM party ignores her partner, or pretends to not know his name, it’s disrespectful and has to do with racism. For Mollena, it’s most often the other person’s problem, and she’s had relationships with white men.

Whatever trajectory brought the two women to these different conclusions, it may also inform what they do in the dungeon, making race play either titillating or disturbing.

The Turn On

Many presentations on race play, if not all, follow a similar format: personal history, explanation of race play, demonstration and time for questions and answers. The explanations vary.

Vi Johnson, the black matriarch of BDSM, has presented on race play at kinky conferences and she believes the appeal is different for each person. “When you’re being sexually stimulated, you’re not thinking that what’s stimulating you is a racist image, ” she says. “You’re just getting turned on.”

So, for some, she says, race play is about playing with authority and for others, it might be humiliation.

Sexuality and SM educator Midori, who is Japanese and German, often presents her theory that humiliation in BDSM is linked to self-esteem.

Take the woman who likes it when her boyfriend calls her a “slut,” Midori says. Perhaps the woman internalized the idea that “good girls don’t,” but she enjoys her sexuality. Because the boyfriend sees her in all her complexity, Midori says, when he calls her a slut, “he is freeing her of the social expectations of having to be modest.”

That’s different than having some stranger (and jerk) calling you a slut. The stranger doesn’t see the full woman. It’s similar with race play, Midori says. By focusing, for example, on a black man’s body, while he’s bound as a slave, she’s bolstering his own perception of himself as strong and powerful.

Of course, race and gender have a different history. So does that make it easier to play with the word “slut”? Midori tells me to not take it the wrong way but it’s a question of my youth. She’s known women of other generations, for whom the word “slut” is painful to hear.

Her workshop demonstrations have included full auction scenes mimicking those of the Old South. In them, she is the plantation mistress inspecting a black man for “purchase.” He’s in shackles and “I slap him on his face and push him down on the ground, make him lick my shoes,” she says, emphasizing that she only does the demonstration after the “psychological” talk.

The audience’s reaction?

“Everything from horror to sighs of relief to uncomfortable arousal to validation to hooting and hollering, including people walking out.” Midori stresses again that race play is “advanced play.”

Advanced players have had their reservations. Master Hines, a black man, joined the BDSM community in the early 1990s. He’s a sadist who’s more than comfortable flogging his white submissive. But with race play, “I thought I’d feel like I was being racist. I thought it was very extreme.” He changed his mind when someone likened it to people playing out a rape fantasy. In that case, he wouldn’t consider that person a rapist because reality and fantasy are different.

While most workshops focus on black and white, every color line is up for grabs. Williams facilitated a workshop in Washington, D.C., three years ago where a Mexican friend helped her. When it came time, she mentioned “wetbacks” and her friend who was sitting in the audience burst out, “What’d you say bitch?” The scene that followed was an erotic struggle, verbal and physical, between him and Williams. When he had her down on the floor, he barked, “Now what? Now what bitch? ”

“Now we stop,” she replied, and they both started laughing and hugging. Williams adds that even for kinky people, the race play is still so new that it’s important for them to know that she and her partners are real friends.

Williams stresses the emotional care in race play. Because it is psychological, “no one knows that you’re hurt,” she says. So, she advises seeing it before trying it and having a go-to person for comfort after engaging in race play. She reminds the audience to think carefully before doing it in public. “You’re putting your reputation on the line—are you prepared for that?”

The Reality of Play

A curious thing about race play is that it is pursued by people of color but often consumed by whites.

The BDSM community is largely white, so those watching a public scene are more often than not white people. And the community itself is not free of racism. Chupoo sees this evidenced in the men who approach her. “I get more white sub[missive] men hitting on me than anything else,” she says. They’re hoping she’ll be a big, black dominant woman. “It’s their thing. It’s their racist fantasies of what black people are.”

Bond has had similar experiences but he and others note that the white people they do race play with are not racists. “Truth be told, you have to get a white woman to like you before you can get her to beat you or call you racial names, ” he says.

However, discomfort in saying the word “nigger” during race play doesn’t make someone racism-free.

A related concern is the relationship between the sex industry, much of which operates on race as fetish, and those who do race play. But white men flying into Havana for morena prostitutes reduce those women to racial and gender stereotypes. It’s not a consensual relationship (or any kind of relationship). They don’t have to consider that woman’s needs. By contrast, Williams only does race play with about four people she’s come to trust.

Still it is tricky matter, race play.

Williams says that in considering a partner for it, you have to ask yourself, “Do you know in your guts of guts that [racism] is not their point of view?”

Even knowing the answer to that, she says, you have to be ready for that moment, that quick second perhaps in which you might find yourself doubting the person’s motives. It’s like wondering if a boyfriend would cheat, Williams says. The moment should ideally pass quickly but if it doesn’t, she says, “Are you ready for that moment?”

$916.50 Later, Cabby Finds He Was Taken for a Ride

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

It was a gamble. Alaaedien Abdelgwad, who drives a taxi, knew that much. But he also believed in good fortune and took the risk.

At 4 a.m. on Wednesday, he agreed to drive a young man from Grand Central Terminal to Wellsville in upstate New York. Mr. Abdelgwad figured out that the fare for the 285-mile trip would be $916.50. That was two weeks’ pay.

Mr. Abdelgwad had just moved into a new apartment, and he has a fiancée in Egypt whom he wants to bring to New York.

”I said, ‘If I’m lucky, I’m going to get the money,’ ” he said. ”If I’m not lucky, I won’t get the money, and you never know.”

After seven hours, Mr. Abdelgwad pulled into Wellsville, which is about a two-hour drive from Buffalo. The young man, Jeremy Hartman, 23, of Eureka, Ill., disappeared without paying after heading to his girlfriend’s house. The police found him later in a nearby apartment.

Mr. Hartman was charged with a Class A misdemeanor and could face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, said Jeffrey Monroe, a patrolman with the Wellsville Police Department, who found Mr. Hartman.

Mr. Abdelgwad said that when he picked up Mr. Hartman, the young man acknowledged that he did not have any money, but he insisted that his girlfriend in Wellsville would cover the cost. Mr. Hartman gave the cabdriver a state identification card to hold until he paid the fare.

”To make money, I have to take risks,” the soft-spoken Mr. Abdelgwad said yesterday at his home in Astoria, Queens. He had been so trusting of Mr. Hartman that he even lent the young man some cash at a rest stop.

”I gave him money for food and drink. $15,” Mr. Abdelgwad said.

He didn’t lose faith then, he said, nor when they reached Williams Avenue in Wellsville and Mr. Hartman disappeared.

But if Mr. Abdelgwad was not alarmed, the neighbors were: they had never seen a New York City cab pull up their street.

”This is making me nervous,” one resident recalled telling her husband. ”What is that yellow car? It’s got writing on it!”

After she figured out what it was, said the woman, who refused to give her name, she called the police, who found Mr. Hartman an hour later in the apartment of his girlfriend’s friend.

Mr. Hartman told the police that he had driven his own car to New York from Illinois to meet a woman he had met online and who lived in Wellsville. But he had gotten lost and ended up in Times Square, he said. His car had broken down, but officials were not sure yesterday where the car was.

Mr. Hartman’s family told the police that he had been missing since Saturday.

Mr. Abdelgwad said he drove back to Manhattan on Wednesday and went straight to work. He worked until 2 a.m. and made $60 for the shift.

”They say that I’m foolish man,” he said. ”No. I just try to be a good man.”

New York City Blackout of 2003

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

In 2003, a blackout hit New York and about seven other states in the Northeast and Midwest. This was my reporting from Manhattan where people were desperately trying to get home.

Rob Latoff tried to get a ride to New Jersey by waving a $50 bill at the Lincoln Tunnel and having his 9-year-old daughter smile at passing cars.

”We need to make sure they see Becca. They’ll stop for a kid,” said Mr. Latoff, who is from Cleveland, Ohio, and had brought Becca for her first trip to Manhattan. Mr. Latoff’s brother, Sean, of Madison, N.J., was with them. They needed a ride across the river where they were sure they could get another ride to Madison.

But no car stopped for the two men and Becca, who were at the 40th Street entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel along with hundreds of others waving and showing money for rides to New Jersey. People screamed their destinations: Bayonne! South Orange! East Orange! Any Orange!

The situation became so tense at one point that a driver told people he was not going to New Jersey. A police officer screamed, ”Yes you are going to New Jersey! Don’t tell me you are not going to New Jersey! You are going to New Jersey!” Four people crowded into the driver’s black Cadillac.

”Moving vans are big,’ said Mr. Latoff as he waved his money at the cars. ”We’ve seen a lot of people get into those.”

Rebecca Hoda, 29, of Jersey City was being more cautious. People had actually offered her a ride, but she said, ”If they’re too eager, you wonder. I’m just trying to be cautious.”

”I just don’t want to get in with anyone,” she said, clutching her purse. She was looking for a car with a female driver. ”Somebody that looks nice.”

Tax Day Puts Undocumented Immigrants in a Special Bind

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Janette and her husband, Juan, have a continuing argument about taxes. It is not about who is keeping track of the receipts or who should call the accountant. They are undocumented immigrants, and what they cannot agree about is whether to file an income tax return.

Once a middle-class professional in Peru, Juan now works in a restaurant in Nassau County. Fearing prosecution, he insisted that his and his wife’s name be withheld. He argues that filing taxes would expose his undocumented status. Janette, who works as a housekeeper and a baby sitter, counters that filing a return would show that they are paying their way.

So Janette has filed tax returns since they arrived in New York two years ago. Juan, who is paid off the books, has not.

”I tell him, ‘Look at my sister who’s single,’ ” Janette said. ” ‘She’s filing taxes. And you? You have a family, and you’re not filing.’ ” Juan remained skeptical and told her the taxes she paid were ”lost money.”

While it is the law that undocumented immigrants must file returns, deciding to tell the government details of earned wages and deductions is a hard decision for many.

If they are paid off the books, reporting to Internal Revenue Service often means having to pay taxes. If they are using a fake Social Security number to work, their employers could learn about it. Filing also means running the risk of alerting the government to their whereabouts.

Despite those risks, filing has its benefits. One is the chance of receiving a refund. Another is paying toward Social Security benefits that they may be eligible for in the future. For undocumented immigrants who frequently have no official record of when they entered the United States, the Form 1040 can provide a record of how long they have been in the country and proof that they have abided by at least one law. That proof can be helpful if they eventually legalize their status, immigrant advocates say.

José D. Pérez, a tax preparer at Circulo de la Hispanidad, a community organization in Hempstead, N.Y., who helped Janette file her taxes, said he encouraged undocumented immigrants to file. Of the 250 people who filed their taxes through his organization this year, he said, he estimated that 70 percent of them were undocumented immigrants.

While undocumented immigrants are breaking the law by working in the United States, on April 15 they are like everyone else who earns an income. So in 1996, the I.R.S. started issuing individual taxpayer identification numbers to undocumented immigrants and foreigners earning money in this country. The agency has issued about six million identification numbers since the program began; it does not know how many went to undocumented immigrants. In 2000, the agency collected $305 million in taxes from people using the identification numbers and refunded a sizable amount of that, $271 million.

Janette’s income varies between $300 and $600 a month. She paid a few hundred dollars in taxes last year, although it was hard to do, she said, especially since their young daughter has asthma and requires costly prescriptions.

”My contribution is small, but I want the government to know,” Janette said. But, for most workers whose employers do not withhold their taxes, the possibility of having to pay is another reason to avoid filing.

Since he is paid off the books and would have to file as a self-employed worker, Juan is sure that he would have to pay. He works six days a week, making $400 in a good week.

”How am I going to pay taxes if I can’t buy a pair of shoes for my daughter?” Juan said. He said his wife was able to pay her taxes chiefly because he is the one who pays the bulk of the family’s bills.

Janette conceded that she did worry, at first, about filing taxes. ”I thought it was a strategy for the government to know about us,” she said. ”I was afraid to put us in danger.” She asked for advice from immigration lawyers before deciding to file.

Bruce Friedland, a spokesman for the I.R.S., said tax information was not routinely shared with the Homeland Security Department or the Justice Department unless there was cause, although information would be shared if a taxpayer was being checked in connection with terrorism.

If officials find that immigrants have fake Social Security identification, the workers can be in trouble. Mario, who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, works at a restaurant using a Social Security number that he bought from a friend, and he received a W-2 Form with that number but filed his taxes with the taxpayer identification number he was issued. I.R.S. officials said that discrepancy might cost him his refund and expose him to officials’ questions, but tax preparers working in immigrant communities say that has not happened often. What is more likely to happen, though, is that an employer will be notified that the Social Security number is fake and then fire the employee.

”That worries me,” Mario said. He expects a refund of more than $2,000 this year: ”It made me happy because that’s my money.”

Besides refunds, paying taxes also demonstrates ”good moral character,” said Dan Smulian, director of training and legal services at the New York Immigration Coalition. Anytime an undocumented immigrant tries to become legal, through sponsorship or an amnesty program in the future, he said, ”you have to show that you’re not going to live on welfare.”

Having a good record matters to Janette, who said she was also filing in case she eventually becomes eligible for Social Security benefits. Her earnings during her years as an undocumented immigrant would count toward those benefits.

Still, Juan is suspicious. ”You live here without security,” he said. Federal immigration officials might come tomorrow and order him to leave, he said. But he also admitted to a fear that other Americans may share: ”Not filing and them coming after me, that worries me.”

(Note: The original story used the words “illegal immigrants” per NYT policy. I’ve changed here to “undocumented immigrants.”)

Immigrants frustrated by laws that take kids from home.

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Maria arrived at the Bronx foster care agency carrying fruit juice and potato chips for the weekly two-hour visit with her children. She waited anxiously by the elevator. Usually, she brought tortillas and other Mexican foods for the children, but this day in spring 2001, she’d been rushed.

Maria, who asked that her name be changed in this story to protect her in court, had spent the morning talking with her social worker. Maria is one of a growing number of Mexican parents in New York City losing their children to the foster care system. In her case, she is caught up in a spiral intended to prevent women and children from violence.

The elevator door opened, and Maria’s 7-year-old son rushed into her arms. She kissed his face and thick, dark hair and hugged her 6-year-old daughter.

The children’s foster father handed Maria her youngest daughter. With a brown plump face and an open smile, the baby is a tiny version of her mother. Now 18 months old, she was taken into foster care just three months after her birth.

They were taken into foster care in 1999 when her husband was accused of sexual abuse by a relative. Maria herself was considered an accomplice for not having prevented the alleged crime. Although the charges against her husband were dropped, her children have not been returned.

Holding the baby, Maria began asking, “Don’t you remember Mommy? A kiss for Mommy?” The baby smiled and looked around for her siblings, while Maria buried her tear-stained face in the baby’s blue jacket.

This was not the family life Maria had envisioned when she left Guerrero, Mexico, eight years ago.

Maria’s situation is repeated many times in New York City’s Mexican community, where a largely undocumented population has grown dramatically in the past 20 years.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Mexicans are the largest undocumented group in the United States. In New York City, the number of Mexicans grew from 62,000 in 1980 to an estimated 200,000 in 2000, according to the Department of City Planning.

In East Harlem, the growth has led residents to rename 113th Street “Little Mexico.” It is this same East Harlem that in 1999 had the highest rate in Manhattan of children taken into foster care, according to a report released last summer by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.

Because of their status as undocumented workers, parents like Maria have a harder time meeting the administration’s mandates—its requirements before children can be returned to their homes.

“The immigrant status is the real barrier for these families. It sets them up to not get their kids back,” said Ilze Earner, one of the founders of The Immigrant and Child Welfare Project in East Harlem. “On the top of that, you get the stereotypes that these families can’t take care of their kids.”

New York City is not the only place with a boom in the Mexican population. Throughout the Midwest and Southeast, a jump in the Mexican community has led to situations similar to that in East Harlem. In Nebraska, where the meatpacking industry has attracted Mexican migrants, the idea of “a stable home” has, in some cases, resulted in mandating that Mexican parents who are residents become citizens before having their child returned.

“Why would you require someone to be a citizen to get their kid back? It’s not legally justified,” said Milo Mumgard, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.

Maria said she has not thought about her documentation status, only her three children.

“I haven’t been able to sleep. I haven’t rested,” Maria said. Holding a wet tissue, she recounts the evening police officers and social workers took her children. “The children started crying,” Maria said.

“They kept saying, ‘Mommy, don’t let us go! We’re scared of the police!’ I promised them that wherever they’d be, I’d get them back.”

Representatives of the Administration for Children’s Services emphasize that the department does not want to separate families. It is simply responding to calls usually received from schools, police officers, social workers and hospitals.

Family and child welfare advocates, however, have a different version. In New York City, a number of highly publicized cases in which children died in their homes changed how the administration handled reports of child abuse and neglect.

“They’re responding to pressure from the press,” said Daisy Vasquez of New York City’s Puerto Rican Family Institute. “Before they used to warn. Now they don’t think twice. They take the child and then investigate. They are investigating for a year, and the children are out of the family for a year and a half.”

For Maria, 24, getting her children back has been difficult. Parents who are undocumented workers and often employed for low wages are required by the city to meet the same criteria for housing and child-care as parents entitled to government assistance. Maria learned that if she wanted her children back, then she had to leave her husband and find employment and suitable housing on her own. She had never worked outside the home.

“It’s setting people up for complete failure,” said Earner, who has also witnessed children not being placed with relatives who are themselves undocumented.

Caseworkers argue that undocumented relatives do not provide a stable home. Undocumented immigrant parents are also often suspected of wanting to take the children out of the country, even though they usually do not have the resources to do so.

The first days after the separation were the hardest, Maria said. She was not given a phone number for the foster care family and had no way of contacting her children. “I spent time crying, wondering if they had gone to school, if they had already eaten,” Maria said.

Maria did meet the administration’s mandates. She left her husband, got work at a butcher store and rented an apartment in East Harlem with a city housing subsidy not based on immigration status.

“I’ve done everything they told me and still I don’t have my kids back,” Maria said.

In family court, Maria’s only legal representation has been the court-appointed lawyer. Last December, the city’s Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel released a final report stating that lack of adequate legal representation was the most critical issue for parents in family court.

“It’s an economic question,” said Esperanza Chacon, the emergency services coordinator at the Tepeyac Association, an organization for Mexicans that is funded in part by the New York archdiocese. “It’s really easy for people to fall into this.”

Maria is increasingly afraid. Once children have been in foster care for 15 months, the city can begin terminating a parent’s rights and offering the children for adoption. On June 22, she was due back in court. The move to adoption is part of federal legislation former President Clinton passed. It is meant to prevent children from lingering in foster care. The Administration for Children’s Services reports that the number of adoptions has almost doubled in the last four years.

Maria, who continues praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe and attending Mass, is becoming more desperate. “I’m losing my mind. In this country, if you’re not crazy, they make you crazy,” she said.

At the end of a weekly family visit in the Bronx, Maria carried her youngest daughter outside where the foster care father hails a cab. The baby is scheduled to see a speech therapist soon. She rarely speaks, opting instead to point with her fingers. On the street, she pointed to a low tree branch in someone’s yard. Maria whispered to her in Spanish and they lingered by the tree.

The cab pulled up, and there was a flurry of kisses and hugs. Maria squeezed the baby one last time.