At UN Conference, Domestic Workers Push for International Labor Standards

Originally published in In These Times on March 19th, 2015.
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Between March 9 and March 20, member states and global NGOs gathered at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York City to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, the key international policy document aiming to achieve gender equality. Coinciding with the conference, the Clinton and Gates Foundations released No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report, which traces women’s demonstrable progress in global health and education since 1995, as well as their insufficient gains in economic participation, leadership and security. Dignitaries, celebrities, and philanthropists gave speeches calling for “50-50 by 2030”—meaning full gender equality in the next in 15 years.

Mobilized at the conference was a group whose organized presence was simply non-existent two decades ago. Representatives from the fast-growing global domestic workers movement came to New York to pressure the international community for the ratification and implementation of labor standards that would impact more than 52 million domestic workers all over the world, 83% of whom are women.

Domestic Workers’ Momentum

The domestic workers movement is relatively young; their first international gathering took place not even a decade ago, convening in 2006 for a conference hosted by the largest trade union in the Netherlands. Three years later, at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, they formed the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), tasked with organizing for an ILO Convention that would protect domestic workers’ rights. Two years later, in June 2011, ILO Convention C189 was adopted—marking a watershed moment for the movement.

ILO C189 outlines clear domestic labor standards, calling for, among other things, a guaranteed minimum wage, freedom of association, the right to collectively bargain, abolition of child labor, protection from abuse and harassment, at least one day per week of rest, formal employment contracts, social security and maternity leave. The convention was adopted with 396 votes in favor, 16 votes against, and 63 abstentions; the convention went into effect beginning in 2013, and today 17 countries have ratified it.

“After 2011, we finally had a rallying point for which we could gather internationally and push this issue,” says Daniel Naujoks, a political scientist at Columbia University who attended the recent UN conference. “C189 made it non-refutable, not just a pipe dream. Now you had this strong international backing and normative framing.”

After the adoption of C189, the IDWN decided to evolve from a loose international network into a formal federation, organizing its membership base and drafting a constitution. By October 2013, the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) officially launched.

“Once things start to get really concrete, like with the passage of conventions, there becomes incentives for networks to form associations,” says Naujoks. “It is a legal entity that actually represents [domestic workers], whereas a network doesn’t really have representative functions.”

One of the IDWF’s central goals for this UN conference was to ensure that the implementation of C189 remained high on leaders’ agenda for the next 20 years. “We are talking about at least 52 million very poor working women without rights,” says Elizabeth Tang, the IDWF’s General Secretary who flew from Hong Kong to attend the conference. “If the government can at least implement this convention, that will be a very concrete achievement for gender equality.” Though there has been real progress made since C189’s passage in 2011, Tang says it is too slow, and too many governments still do not understand why they should take heed.

“We want things to look very different when we convene again in 2030,” says Barbara Young, a national organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group that represents domestic workers in the United States.

International Gains and an International Problem

Activists can point to some notable achievements since the passage of C189. For example, in 2013, Brazil adopted a constitutional amendment granting 6.5 million domestic workers overtime pay, unemployment insurance, pensions, and a maximum 8-hour work day. In Africa over the past few years, NamibiaZambia, Kenya and Tanzania all passed minimum wage laws for domestic workers. In 2012, Thailand passed a new regulation entitling domestic workers to at least one day off per week, in addition to public holidays, paid sick leave and paid overtime for work on holidays. The first Pakistani Domestic Workers Trade Union formed this past December.

“In Hong Kong, all domestic workers, including migrant workers, are covered by the same labor law as other local workers,” says Tang. “We are now trying to show other governments that it is possible to protect domestic workers like other workers, because in some places it is already happening.”

Though there is a country-by-country approach, given the global ramifications wrought through the employment of migrant labor, domestic workers’ rights are an international issue. The UN conference discussed the problem of “global care chains”—where people feel compelled to move from one (typically poor) country to another (typically richer) country to care for someone else’s children and aging parents—often leaving their own children and parents behind.

Sexual abuse regularly occurs during the migration process, and with the threat of being fired or deported, women are strongly discouraged from reporting abuse or seeking medical attention.

“We must end visa dependency on employers and husbands that undermine women’s safety and rights,” said Young in a speech at the UN. “We must advocate for clear and accessible pathways to citizenship that will allow all migrant women workers to come out of the shadows.”

The organizers hope to raise domestic labor standards and formalize interactions—ideally through written employment contracts. Currently there are few remedies, practically speaking, for domestic workers with grievances.

“Once [domestic work] is recognized as a ‘real job,’ then it will count as job experience,” says Naujoks. “And by formalizing it, it gives people a greater opportunity to opt out if they want to go somewhere else later. As long as it’s seen as informal work, it becomes very difficult to break into the traditional labor market.”

The tide may be turning for domestic workers, but serious challenges remain. Some are practical; there are questions about how to best implement and enforce the laws and conventions in a feasible way. However, with centuries of racial and gender discrimination, most challenges facing domestic workers are ideological.

“Domestic workers are mostly women, and people in general look down on what women do,” says Tang. “The other problem is race and ethnicity, because a lot of domestic workers are from indigenous and marginalized groups, so they are discriminated against.”

Moreover, there exists a widespread perception that many domestic workers are living in countries illegally and thus are seen as a less important political constituency to help. And the longstanding cultural opposition to seeing care work as formal labor remains.

“Some people always say, ‘Oh well this is a private affair,’” says Naujoks.

Progress in the United States

Barbara Young, who migrated from Barbados, worked as a domestic worker in New York City for 17 years. She began organizing for better labor conditions in 2001, while she was still a full-time domestic worker. Young joined with others to push for the nation’s first domestic workers bill of rights, which passed in New York in 2010. The historic law grants domestic workers—including undocumented domestic workers—time off, overtime pay, protection from discrimination and inclusion in local labor laws. Since 2010, three more states have passed similar bills, and Connecticut’s version will soon be headed to a Senate vote.

At the UN conference, Young pointed out that only 27% of U.S. employment visas are issued to women, and the majority who migrate through legal channels are legally dependent on their employers and husbands. This can, and does often, entrap them in abusive and exploitative situations with little or no legal recourse. Young called for the UN to help grant women “the right to report abuses and violations and for violators to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Unlike the majority of domestic workers around the world who are can form trade unions, most U.S. domestic workers are legally barred from joining unions. This is due to a clause in the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935, designed by Southern legislators to prevent African-American domestic and agricultural workers from organizing. Young tells me she believes removing this clause is their biggest organizing challenge.

Though the U.S. voted in favor of C189 in 2011, it has not ratified the international convention. Ideally, Young says, all sectors of the labor movement would unite together to push for U.S. ratification, but she notes the labor movement’s declining strength. The Department of Labor did announce in 2013 that it would begin to extend overtime and minimum wage protections to the majority of domestic workers; this is expected to go into effect later this year.

“Overall, we are on a forward trajectory, and the momentum is growing,” says Young. “Real recognition is there that we didn’t have 15-20 years ago.”

We know College Feminists Care About Sexual Assault. What About Abortion?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2014.
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In the past three years, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the United States than in the entire previous decade. At the same time,85 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence. While these two issues are not divergent, campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.

But the growing threats to reproductive justice—like the Texas law that could shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, and looming ballot measures in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could result in women losing their legal right to terminate a pregnancy—have catalyzed the ongoing efforts of national pro-choice organizations to invest in student leaders. Campus activist priorities and national women’s rights goals might finally be aligning—sort of.

For many students attending schools in East and West Coast states, the legislative efforts to restrict abortion access commonly found in red states can seem quite distant from their own daily gender struggles. Changing local culture around rape and sexual assault, on the other hand, seems far more urgent.

“Campus activism tends to be reactionary, and women are generally kept on the defense,” says Sarah Beth Alcabes, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hard to organize for coherent proactive action beyond the immediate threats we face. Maybe if campuses were safe for women, there would be energy for them to focus on places not in their immediate vicinity. But that’s not the case.”

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have filed an anoymous Title IX complaint alleging that the school failed its responsibility to ensure the safety of students when it allowed a fraternity to continue throwing parties even after police began an investigation into an alleged gang rape that took place at the frat house. One of the complainants says that the focus of leaders on her campus has been the enforcement of federal sexual assault laws for a simple reason: “There’s no equivalent to those sorts of laws for abortion,” she explains, “so the pro-choice movement doesn’t occupy the same place as gender-based violence on the college campus.”

But geographic distance from the most pressing abortion battles and political momentum around sexual assault prevention are only part of the story. Even in those states where access is regularly threatened, many college feminists have avoided tackling the issue of abortion directly—in part because the abortion debate is so polarizing, and in part because many campuses are unwilling to institutionally support such activism.

At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Sophia Dominguez, the president of the Texas Tech Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), says she believes that reproductive rights are an important feminist issue, but her group must “recognize the political culture of Texas and adapt [its] advocacy accordingly.” She says her peers feel “repressed in the ways in which to openly discuss and address reproductive freedom.” As such, Tech FMLA has been fighting Texas Tech’s rape culture, which students believe is a more immediate problem to tackle, even in light of the Texas legislature’s anti-abortion efforts.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE, a national campus organization committed to reproductive and gender equity, says that the leaders of many URGE chapters tend to focus on sexual assault because there is less official support for abortion work, even when a group is affiliated with a campus women’s center. “We might be able to push for more access to contraception,” Johnson says. “But the more the conversation centers around abortion, the more uncomfortable the administration is with getting behind it. Regardless of how people feel about abortion, when you talk about it, it charges an environment, and that’s the last thing campus administrators want.”

Several national organizations—the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and URGE—are trying to change these campus dynamics by building networks of college students who will advocate for reproductive justice and gender equality. While coordinated inter-campus solidarity is currently pretty minimal, efforts to build a larger college pro-choice infrastructure are growing.

But even with support from outside organizations, building a student pro-choice movement is tough. Molly Waters, a senior at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, works as one of NARAL’s campus representatives for the Choice Out Loud campaign, an effort to help millennials engage in conversations about reproductive rights.

“I don’t think abortion is the first thing feminist students would organize around, just because it’s so polarizing and has such a stigma,” Waters says. “I understand it. I myself am a Christian. I think a lot of people are more tempted to discuss birth control or general reproductive rights and not so much abortion rights.”

NARAL donates supplies to campus chapters, organizes conference calls between campus representatives in different states, and facilitates national communication through Facebook groups. Yet Waters observes that many students just seem to have a general lack of interest in political activity. “One thing that can be really frustrating is just how many people don’t want to protest or be active as much,” Waters says. “And that’s understandable; we’re in college, we have a lot on our plates. But there does seem to be a lack of energy for action.”

Kaori Sueyoshi, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, feels more optimistic. “The student movement here in North Carolina has been growing quickly with the Republican takeover of our state,” she explains.

In 2010, Republicans won the majority in the state legislature, and won the governor’s mansion in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted a controversial set of abortion restrictions, as well as a stringent voter ID law. In turn, over the past two years, college students across North Carolina have gathered together to network, strategize, and advocate for reproductive rights in their communities. Sueyoshi has been involved with Planned Parenthood’s network of campus activists, known as Generation Action, and attended the Youth Organizing & Policy Institute, a national student conference that Planned Parenthood hosts in Washington, D.C. “I think the national college advocacy movement is growing much stronger,” she says.

She may be right. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Marlies Biesinger, co-president of the Vanderbilt Feminists, says that advocacy around abortion politics has never been a real priority for them. But for the first time, in light of the political buzz around Tennessee’s Amendment 1—which could give the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, full authority to decide the legality of abortion—the Vanderbilt Feminists have started to hold educational events to raise awareness about the ballot measure’s implications and push students to vote this November. And at Rice University in Houston, Rice for Reproductive Justice formed just last year to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and organize around a broad set of issues that inhibit reproductive freedom.

If threats to safe and legal abortion access continue to drive both college advocacy and the formation of relationships between student leaders, the questions then become: What can these activists actually do together? How, when anti-choice measures are primarily passed through state legislatures, can national advocacy play an effective role?

“The movement has shifted,” Johnson says, because anti-choice activity has moved from the federal to the state level. “For a long time there were lots of opportunities to engage on a national level. But we’re not going to mobilize people in Alabama to work on Texas. No matter how much noise you make, at the end of the day the elected officials only care how people are voting in their state and districts.” While broad-based online petitions exist, like those organized by Change.Org and Moveon.org, right now there just are not a lot of opportunities for pro-choice activists, in or out of college, to campaign on the federal level.

Despite the relatively limited array of federal policy opportunities, the need to mobilize and educate students about reproductive rights remains pressing. The All* Above All campaign, which is focused on lifting health insurance bans on abortions, is one possible avenue for students to pursue. “There’s just a real lack of awareness about what these abortion restrictions are, so we need to educate constituents and our elected officials,” Johnson says.

For Waters, the more progressive culture of her Missouri liberal arts college feels worlds away from the conservative southern Illinois town she grew up in, where mentioning abortion rights would “automatically make you a Satanist.” Coming to college and finding a new environment to educate herself, and later educate and agitate others, has been transformative. “You know, it’s taken a while for me to get there,” Waters says. “It takes a lot of education that many people just don’t usually have.”

Jewish Fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi Marks 100 Years Amid Sweeping Culture Changes

Originally published in The Forward on September 1st, 2013. 

Many kegs have been tapped since the night of November 7, 1913, when 11 Jewish students gathered at New York University to found the first official chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. Over the next 100 years, the organization, most commonly known as AEPi, would grow — from a small sanctuary for ostracized Jews into an influential international fraternity encompassing 177 active chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Israel.

“The story of AEPi is the story of extreme upward mobility,” said Marianne Sanua, an American Jewish historian at Florida Atlantic University and the author of “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities in the United States, 1895–1945.”

“AEPi is absolutely unique. They are the only historically Jewish fraternity to still hold on to their Jewish identity. They don’t hesitate to call themselves a Jewish fraternity, and they don’t hesitate to say they prefer most of their members to be Jewish.”

AEPi reaches more than 9,000 undergraduates worldwide, and boasts an alumni network of more than 80,000 men. Their challenges reflect many of the same struggles of the larger Jewish Diaspora: its relationship to Israel, the increasingly pluralistic society in which it exists and the extent to which young people outwardly identify with Jewish institutional culture.

In August, more than 1,400 students, alumni and Jewish institutional leaders gathered at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to commemorate AEPi’s centennial anniversary.

“The audience heard a very unequivocal message about what AEPi is and the values we uphold,” said Elan Carr, AEPi’s international president and supreme master. “And those values are Jewish continuity, tikkun olam, Jewish leadership and support for Israel.”

One attendee, Barry Magen, who owns a Jewish art company in Elkins Park, Pa., reflected: “The conference gave me hope. I really believe that their leadership development is unparalleled.”

AEPi’s rise to such prominence was always an unlikely story.

In the early 20th century, fraternities across the United States were powerful presences on college campuses — and they unabashedly shut their doors to Jewish students. This exclusion, according to Sanua, was accomplished through restrictive clauses in fraternity constitutions and gentlemen’s agreements. In response, Jews formed their own Greek organizations; by the 1920s, at least 17 national Jewish sororities and fraternities existed in the United States, including Alpha Epsilon Phi and Zeta Beta Tau.

“This was their peak,” Sanua said. “Many of them went out of business during the Depression, or merged with one another.”

Additional attrition ensued in the 1960s and ’70s. Prompted by new civil rights legislation, colleges cracked down on such discriminatory practices as restrictive clauses in the constitutions of both non-Jewish and Jewish fraternities. The Vietnam War also contributed to the shifting milieu; liberal college students rebelled against authority as a whole and the Greek system — which they perceived as a conservative, hidebound institution.

“In America there was a general mood that fraternities were undemocratic, socially exclusive and destructive,” Sanua said.

The 1980s, however, brought a return to tradition, as well as Greek life’s revival as a vaunted campus symbol. “AEPi reaffirmed their commitment to Jewish identity while other historically Jewish fraternities were heading in the opposite direction,” Sanua said. “They also recognized that they likely could not compete with historically gentile fraternities.”

“We’re very proud that we stood our ground [in the ’80s] as a Jewish fraternity,” Carr said. He believes that committing to AEPi’s core values and history was the right decision not only “with regards to assimilation and loss of connection to Israel,” but also because staying true to what he calls “their brand” helped to ensure long-term success.

Today, AEPi’s challenges look very different.

“While our students don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism in nearly the same way as our founders did, they do face threats in terms of delegitimization of Israel — a place that is very special to our organization,” said Adam Maslia, AEPi’s Howard M. Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming.

It was after the second intifada that AEPi really began to tackle Israel advocacy from an institutional level. “We knew then that if being the last remaining Jewish fraternity means anything at all, it must mean that we are going to stand and support the Jewish people, which is the Jewish state,” Carr said.

But while AEPi’s leaders frame Israel activism as a fraternal mission, the extent to which individual chapters see themselves as pro-Israel advocates varies considerably.

“AEPi at Berkeley is pretty much the hub of the mainstream pro-Israel community,” said recent college grad Isaiah Kirshner-Breen, who now lives in Washington. “They’ve been always very active at organizing people against [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], both in 2010 and this past spring.”

“Israel programming isn’t a huge thing for us, although every AEPi brother did show up for Israel Day,” said Jacob Plitman, an AEPi brother at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re rather culturally Jewish. We do a Seder, we all end up going to services. We’re Yom Kippur Jews.”

“Our school doesn’t really have an active Jewish community. We don’t do much with Israel,” said Michael Zysman, an AEPi brother at Bentley University, Mass. “We have a lot of non-Jews in our chapter.”

Certainly, non-Jews still pose a challenge for AEPi. While the group’s mission statement defines it as a nondiscriminatory fraternity, it also calls for efforts to “develop leadership for the North American Jewish community.”

Several students who asked for anonymity said that the recruitment goals of AEPi national versus those of local chapters are often divided.

“Nationals doesn’t really encourage you to recruit non-Jewish members, but we will actively recruit them if we think they will fit in with us,” said one student from a university on the East Coast.

Another college student in the Northeast admitted, “I think we tell Nationals we’re 75% to 80% Jewish but we’re probably more like 60%.”

Virgil Doyle, a non-Jewish student who served as president of Johns Hopkins’s AEPi chapter, embodies how much the fraternity has evolved over the years.

“I came to college with a pretty good idea I wanted to join a fraternity as a social thing, and AEPi just happened to be the group of guys I most identified with. There are enough people in the fraternity who are very involved in Jewish life around campus that me not being a part of that directly wasn’t something that I really worried about.”

The rise of AEPi has also begotten the rise of what is known as “APES,” an off-campus and unofficial AEPi spinoff. “When AEPi gets kicked off campus [for violating rules], they automatically [lose AEPi status] and have to become APES,” explained Ryan Erfer, an AEPi brother at Emory.

For some, the APES designation is seen as a punishment, since they are no longer recognized as an official chapter. Yet other chapters opt for APES status voluntarily. Two years ago, when the AEPi chapter at the University of Pennsylvania faced a two-year probation for violating pledging rules or disaffiliating altogether, they chose to “go APES.” Some argued it carried a “cooler” appeal, particularly since the Interfraternity Council is powerless to regulate them.

“APES tends to have a reputation for throwing parties that don’t adhere to the rules,” Erfer said, referring to the fraternity’s national reputation.

“‘Jewish bros’ is a real thing, those people exist,” Plitman said, referring to a contemporary pop-culture category of young men. “APES are the Jewish bros.”

Despite all this, AEPi continues to grow. Although it’s impossible to predict the future contours of the American Jewish community, the men of Alpha Epsilon Pi will quite likely play a role in shaping them. As Doyle sees it, “We probably have more discussions about the Middle East and Israel than the average Hopkins Greek male.”

North Carolina’s Amendment One

Tomorrow, a shameful amendment will be voted on by the state of North Carolina–and will likely pass according to all the latest polls. This amendment effectively alters the state’s constitution and will not only make it illegal for same-sex couples to be recognized in the state of North Carolina, but due to the wording of the legislation, will also ban any other type of “domestic legal partnerships” such civil unions and domestic partnerships.

This is the official language on the ballot:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

I have friends at UNC who have been doing some amazing work to protest this amendment. But the fact is, that while universities like UNC and Duke tend to be socially liberal, the majority of the state is full of voters with religious and conservative beliefs that make them support laws like this.

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Josh Orol, a sophomore at UNC protesting the amendment on campus

Proponents of the amendment point to states like New York and Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is legal and argue that if those couples then moved to North Carolina expecting certain legal rights, complicated issues would arise. By banning same-sex couples, they no longer have to deal with such hypothetical issues. As Representative Paul Starn said, “They’re going to bring with them their same-sex marriages. They’re going to want to get divorced” and have custody issues decided, he said. “We’re not equipped to handle that.”

Supporters also say that because this issue is so sensitive, it should be decided by the voters themselves, not by a handful of legislators.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of N.C. Values Coalition, argues that a popular vote on the amendment is the “right thing to do” and it is more democratic when it allows everybody to vote. Fitzgerald adds, “The people of North Carolina want to determine for themselves how they want to define marriage. They don’t want activist judges doing it for them.”

In fact, this is entirely misguided and incorrect.  It is no wonder the NAACP is so involved in this issue and opposed to this amendment. You don’t leave minority rights up to majority vote. Schools were not de-segregated because of a popular vote. Constitutionally enshrined protections are supposed to be immune to this type of thing. These people will receive different benefits and privileges because others voted that to be OK. Think about the implications and the precedents this sets for our country.


Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have come out against the amendment.
Obama’s statement said, “While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the record is clear that the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples.”
Clinton argued, “The real effect of the law will be to hurt families and drive away jobs.”

People are insisting that this ban will hurt businesses. Many people will no longer be able to receive the work benefits from the state that they once were able to, so it might dissuade people from working there. They also believe it will hurt all sorts of families, including heterosexual couples, by threatening insurance and benefits for unmarried couples and their children.

A high number of voters are expected to vote tomorrow because this issue invokes faith and religion, two historically major motivations in voter turnout. There have been 30 marriage amendments already in place in the United States, and only one, in Arizona has been defeated. However, that was in 2006, and then in 2008 it was reworded and passed.

This is increasing evidence of a growing polarization and ideological divide in our country as more and more nationally report support for same-sex marriage. In 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent. Today, 47 percent are in favor and 43 percent opposed, according to a new Pew Research poll.

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Social media activism from a friend’s facebook at UNC

The best thing at this point we can hope for is for enough people to become educated on this issue, and then work together to strongly oppose it. We should not allow for such important issues like human rights and freedoms to be left up to a popular vote.

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photo credit: blog.pflag.org

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photo credit: pamshouseblend.firedoglake.com/