DOF 1st Annual Pride Celebration
Remarks by Commissioner Jacques Jiha
"Good afternoon! Welcome to the Department of Finance’s first official Pride celebration. You’re probably wondering: 'What took us so long?' Me too! But make no mistake: We are committed to creating and supporting a much more inclusive environment for the LGBTQ community at this agency.
Before we begin, let’s give a big round of applause to the people who worked so hard to bring us together today, including: Sonia Alleyne, Daneen Ausby, Jackie Gold, Erin Price, Claudia Sampson, Rich Suweidan, Karen Schlain, Aziza Taylor, Natasha Toal, Stina Trainor, and Howie Walvick.
Like most Americans, I have friends, family, and colleagues who are members of the LGBTQ community – and for some, acceptance and the freedom to be who they are is still a dream rather than a reality. I have one friend, in particular, who I have watched struggle all his life because of societal fear and ignorance. Where I grew up, there was a very strong stigma against being openly gay, especially for men and women of my generation and older. But as we have seen, change can come quickly when people stand against injustice, inequality, and discriminatory behavior.
In 1969, at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, there was a rebellion by dozens and eventually hundreds of LGBTQ people when the police harassed and attempted to arrest them simply for being with each other in a public place. Their rebellion birthed a movement that expanded not only across America, but across the world. Many of you will remember that in the 1980s, when the governments of this city and this great nation failed to respond with urgency to the AIDS epidemic, advocates had to fight for medical funding and against discriminatory treatment of people living with HIV and AIDS, all while struggling to bring comfort to those friends, family, and lovers who were sick and dying.
More recent protests have brought legislative protections: Hate crime laws, the end of military discrimination, and marriage equality. But as far as we’ve come, we have so much more to accomplish. There are still 30 states in which LGBTQ discrimination is NOT illegal. Legislative protection, however, is only part of the solution. We must also be open, receptive to, and respectful of people, even if they think, pray, dress, and love differently than we do.
Since this is our first official Pride celebration, and we are in our own small way making history today, I would like to address my remarks to history as well. The story of the LGBTQ community in New York City is the story of a great migration. As an immigrant, I can relate to that story. There have always been LGBTQ people in New York, most famously in places like Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Brooklyn Heights. But the community as we know it today did not begin to take shape until the Second World War. The war changed America in countless ways, but two in particular stand out: Women entered the workforce in great numbers for the first time, and people who would never otherwise have met were thrown together in close proximity: Blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, farmers and city dwellers. No one was more profoundly affected by this new proximity than LGBTQ people, who had previously been isolated from each other.
In addition to serving together overseas, they worked and socialized together in the nation’s great port cities, especially New York. After the war, while some went back home to the farms and small towns of their birth, hundreds of thousands more stayed in the city and built communities. They were more visible than ever before – and unfortunately, they were persecuted for it. Just as women were expected to return to the kitchen, gays and lesbians were expected to remain in the shadows. Soon the community found itself fighting a different kind of war, against discrimination. And for a long time, they were vastly outnumbered. But as with any great civil rights movement, the march to equality was advanced by a million acts of individual courage, both large and small.
Today I would like us to remember and celebrate the courageous acts of two women more than seventy years ago. Immediately after the war, a female sergeant named Johnnie Phelps was summoned to appear before her commanding officer: Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. She met with Eisenhower and his private secretary in Germany, where the general was overseeing the allied occupation. During the war, Sergeant Phelps had risen through the ranks of the Women’s Army Corps, better known as the WACs.
On that day in Germany, General Eisenhower ordered Sergeant Phelps to compile a list of every lesbian serving in the WACs. He said, “We’ve got to get rid of them.” Sergeant Phelps promised that she would look into the matter. But she also told Eisenhower that when she gave him the list, her name would be the first one on it. Before the general could say anything, his secretary spoke up. Actually, she said, the sergeant’s name might be second on the list, but my name will be first. Eisenhower canceled the orders and never brought it up again.
That story is powerful to me for this reason: Few of us will ever be called to risk our lives for a great cause, but each of us is called every day to live our values as truly and as courageously as we can. That means something different for each of us. But for all of us, it should mean that we embrace our differences and treat each other with goodness and decency, because it is such a great gift to be together at this agency, in this city, and on this earth, for the precious little time that we have.
And so, whether you are a member of the LGBTQ community or an ally, I would like to thank each and every one of you for living the values of this agency, every single day. LGBTQ people serve the city in every unit of the Department of Finance – in high-profile leadership positions, and behind the scenes. We see, honor, and value your contributions.
I am not only honored to be your commissioner, I am an ally. You have made us a better, more productive, and more welcoming place to work. Today, we celebrate what Pride Month stands for, but our commitment to making sure that we create a safer, more embracing environment is ongoing. I look forward to many more opportunities for us to commune, connect, share, and learn from each other.
Thank you, and have a very happy Pride."