Want to Supercharge Our LGBT Inclusion? Call the NAACP

I have seen firsthand the power of collaborating with racial and ethnic civil rights leaders, but even I was surprised by how a small conversation with the head of the NAACP mushroomed into a milestone for LGBT health.
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I have seen firsthand the power of collaborating with racial and ethnic civil rights leaders, but even I was surprised by how a small conversation with the head of the NAACP mushroomed into a milestone for LGBT health.

It was early June when we talked. I was running around the Netroots Nation conference, obsessively checking my Twitter feed like everyone else to find out what was hot. I did a fast about-face when blogger Pam Spaulding reported that the head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, was hanging out in the exhibitor hall. I wanted to have a picture taken with him.

Why? North Carolina, of course. Yes, we lost the battle for marriage equality, but did you see the video from the head of their state NAACP chapter urging members to take a stand against legislation that curbs civil rights? Did you hear how many African-American faith leaders of all stripes stood up to support us? That was hot stuff.

North Carolina wasn't the only reason. In 1993 I was impressed when Rev. Jesse Jackson headlined a gala I organized. In 1998 I cheered when Coretta Scott King urged LGBT and civil rights groups to work together. In 2006 I cheered again as NAACP Chairman Julian Bond gave a rousing speech at the LGBT march. There are many reasons I wanted a picture with the head of the NAACP.

I ran down to the exhibit hall and spotted Mr. Jealous. He was more than happy to pose for a picture. I also asked if I could talk to him later about a big issue on the LGBT health front: namely the decision about whether the legal HHS definition of "health disparity populations" would be expanded to include us. Forget later: He wanted the details right then and just as quickly offered a letter of support from the NAACP. Yes!

Why do we want to be included in the legal definition of health disparity populations? Because it is funding announcements that really guide where we invest our health resources. For too long applicants have had to guess if funding announcements were open to projects with LGBT focus. Top-level HHS policy documents might prioritize LGBT health disparity efforts, but the peer reviewers making the real funding decisions may not have read them.

The Network for LGBT Health Equity at The Fenway Institute has already put out several briefing sheets urging funders to explicitly name LGBT in funding announcements. We liken it to cultural competency for funders; as long as we are still invisible, how do we presume to think we are now welcome?

Right now the legal definition of health disparity populations includes racial and ethnic minorities; rural communities; people with low socioeconomic status; and medically underserved populations. These are the groups explicitly named in funding announcements. If the definition were expanded, LGBT people would be listed alongside them. It's like putting a small rainbow flag up in a doctor's office: minor change but high impact.

I was unprepared for the events that would cascade from my short chat with Mr. Jealous. He recommended that we also contact the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR). Kellan Baker from the Center for American Progress offered to contact them, because their organizations have been collaborating for years. Kellan did a yeoman's job from here on, building the joint letter of support and managing the collaboration.

As a result I'm proud to report that the LCCHR just delivered a letter to HHS leadership urging LGBT inclusion in the legal definition of health disparity populations.

Why is this letter a big deal? Because we hopscotched from the NAACP to the LCCHR to their base of supporters. I read the list of groups who signed the letter with wonder: American Association of Retired Persons, American Civil Liberties Union, National Council of La Raza, National Council of Jewish Women, Asian American Justice Center, National Organization of Women, the Fair Housing Alliance... and of course the NAACP. In all, 33 national organizations signed on to support us.

Even better, they didn't just ask for inclusion in the definition. Those major national groups also stated their support for Institute of Medicine recommendations, namely increasing LGBT health career development resources, urging mainstream researchers to address LGBT issues, and improving data collection.

Thirty-three of the largest civil rights groups in the country are urging HHS to increase support for a range of our health issues. That is a milestone for LGBT health. That is also the power of one small conversation with the head of the NAACP.

This makes me wonder what else we can do together. Mostly it makes me hope we all don't just talk about but actively demonstrate how much we value this solidarity.

How? I've got my NAACP membership card. Have you?

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