Fear wears many faces: The face of a young mother with MS, worried about the future of health care. The face of a recent college graduate, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who came to the United States with his parents at age four, worried about being deported. The face of a middle-aged transgender woman, living a life without legal protections, worried about discrimination in housing or employment because of gender identity. And the face of a young Muslim woman who wears a head scarf, worried that the stares she gets at the supermarket could at any moment turn into verbal abuse or physical violence.
Those were just a few of the faces in the standing-room-only crowd that packed a meeting room and overflowed into the hallway at the Hilton Garden Inn in Riverhead yesterday. Fear may have been the common thread in the room, but the strong desire to come together and stand united against perceived threats to human rights is what drew the approximately 150 people to the “Unity Town Hall.”
A panel of eight speakers addressed threats to health care, the environment, the African-American community, the immigrant community, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, the Muslim community and to women’s reproductive rights.
Rabbi Michael Roscoe of Temple Israel in Riverhead said he’s been “on the receiving end of antisemitism.”
Roscoe told the group to remember that bias affects everyone, because “when they come for somebody they come for anybody.” He recalled the words of prominent Protestant pastor and Nazi opponent Martin Niemöller, who said:
“When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”
“We’re seeing a climate and no one likes to see a climate like this one,” the rabbi said.
Ellen Neff of Greenport and a member of North Fork Women For Women Fund, spoke of decades of discrimination and activism on the North Fork. She asked for members of “my lesbian community” to stand up and be counted and the room erupted in cheers and applause as dozens of women in the audience stood, some thrusting their fists in the air.
Juli Grey-Owens of the L.I. Transgender Advocacy Council told the crowd that the president just appointed an anti-transgender advocate to head the office of civil rights at the Department of Health and Human Services: Roger Severino, who had been the director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.
Serevino’s appointment drew fire last week from human rights groups as well as the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, which denounced the pick, describing Serevino as “a longtime opponent of transgender equality in health care, military service, and access to public accommodations.”
Grey-Owens spoke about the lives and issues faced by the transgender minority.
“In New York, there is no state law protecting transgender and gender nonconforming people,” she said.
A recently released national survey of 28,000 transgender people, she said, found : 29 percent of transgender people living in poverty — twice the national average; 30 percent had been fired, denied a promotion or mistreated at work; 15 percent had been verbally harassed or physically attacked on their job; 15 percent were unemployed — three times the national average; only 16 percent reported owning a home, compared to 63 percent of the general population in the U.S; 30 percent reported being homeless at some time in their lives; 50 percent of the undocumented transgendered people reported being physically attacked.
“And it’s not surprising, given this data, that 40 percent of the respondents had attempted suicide,” Grey-Owens said.
“Our most important message is that transgender people are just like you,” Grey-Owens said. “We need love, respect and a chance for a safe and healthy life. We need an equal opportunity to be educated and become a contributing member to society,” she said.
“We’re a small community, but transgender people are part of every nationality, every race, every age group, every religion,” she said.
Fizza Idrees-Iqbal, a physician assistant, observed that “safety is a concern for many of our marginalized groups,” including Muslims.
“The Muslim community is one percent of the population but 10 percent of us are your health care providers. Chances are if you go to the hsotipal or doctor’s office you’re going to meet a Muslim,” Idrees-Iqbal said.
“Many of us, especially women who wear the head covering, face discrimination. There are days when I don’t have the energy to go to the grocery store and see the stares,” she said.
Lisa Votino-Tarrant of the L.I. Progressive Coalition spoke about how, before the Affordable Care Act, she had to choose between attending college or going to work so she could get health insurance.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said, referring to the decision Friday by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to withdraw the GOP American Health Care Act. She urged people to continue to call their federal representatives to register support for the ACA.
Leslie Wright of the Riverhead Planned Parenthood office said, “There is a consistent and gross misconception of who we are and what we do and because of that we are at risk of not surviving this administration.”
The House of Representatives has passed numerous measures aimed at denying Medicaid reimbursements for the organization because it performs abortions at some of its clinics. The American Health Care Act, the GOP “repeal and replace” bill, also contained such a provision. Federal Medicaid funding does not cover abortions.
The Riverhead Planned Parenthood office is “not a surgical center,” Wright said in an interview following the meeting. No abortion procedures are performed there. The office does distribute prescription drugs known as the “abortion pill,” which induces menstruation in the early weeks of the first trimester of pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood has been on Long Island almost 85 years, Wright told the crowd, drawing applause.
“We take care of tens of thousands of men and women every year, providing services including critical cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, HIV tests, prep services to help reduce the amount of people acquiring this terrible disease, contraception so people can plan their families and even prenatal services,” she said.
“We promote good health care, affordable health care and women’s rights. We promote gay and transgender rights. We work to combat rape, domestic violence and substance abuse, and to promote healthy lifestyles and healthy relationships,” Wright said.
She said she appreciated being included in the event.
“We’re stronger together than we are apart.”
The inclusion of Planned Parenthood sparked controversy at a local Catholic church where the event was initially scheduled to take place, prompting organizers to find a new venue.
The group’s presence yesterday also drew two men with anti-abortion signs, including a large color poster depicting a fetus, who stood at the entrance to the hotel parking lot.
Organizers of yesterday’s event asked attendees to sign a paper stating their agreement with four “principles of unity,” which include:
- supporting all community members who are in pain and fear for their safety, dignity and well-being;
- calling on local elected and appointed officials to ensure that all public institutions uphold the dignity and safety of all people;
- committing to collective and coordinated action to support friends and neighbors who remained threatened by hateful rhetoric; and
- committing to connect with and understand the life experiences of our fellow Long Islanders who are different from us and recognize their perspective in order to ensure collective dignity and respect.
Southold Town Councilman James Dinizio, a registered Conservative and a strong — and outspoken — supporter of President Donald Trump, was one of two elected officials to attend the meeting.
“I wanted to hear what they had to say,” Dinizio said afterward. “They didn’t say anything that upset me. I kind of thought it would be more political and it’s not,” he said. The meeting was sponsored by the town’s anti-bias task force, he said, “so I was concerned about it turning into a rally.”
Dinizio was happy for the dialogue.
“There’s nothing I heard that I don’t agree with,” the councilman said. “Now it comes to tactics. How do you accomplish these things?”
The other elected official, Laura Jens- Smith, president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School Board and a Democratic candidate for Riverhead Town Supervisor, said she thought the event was great.
“You need to have conversation and collaboration — and it makes for a stronger, better town,” Jens-Smith said.
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