By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter-
David J. Narkewicz and Michael J. Bardsley squared off in a debate specifically for the LGBT community and its allies, amid the season’s first snowstorm on October 29th. The event, held at The State Room in The Center (35 State St., Northampton), was organized by Bet Power, Executive Director and Curator of the Sexual Minorities Archives, and Jean Sevarese, one of the co-founders of Out Books on Wheels. Around 40 members of the LGBTQ and allied community gathered to hear the two candidates talk about social justice and civil rights, especially as it pertains to the LGBTQ community, and to pose questions that might not be raised in a general debate.
“This forum on social justice and civil rights is very appropriate for Northampton which has a long progressive history,” said Narkewicz, who is currently serving as Northampton’s Acting Mayor. He cited many examples from the city’s history, including its involvement in the Underground Railroad and such notable activists as Sojourner Truth and currently Frances Crowe, who he said “leads by example.”
“Even in just the past two weeks,” he said, “the Transgender Civil Rights March, Occupy Northampton, Slut Walk Northampton, and Stand Up for Tibet have shown that the spirit of activism is alive in Northampton.”
“I can never know what it’s like to live an LGBT life,” the heterosexual Narkewicz said, “but I know exactly what it’s like to be a straight ally.”
Bardsley, a gay man who has been a visible figure in the LGBT community for many years, began with a recollection of a gathering of LGBT and allied people in 1995, after voters repealed the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.
“We were united because we felt we had a common enemy and our rights had been attacked,” Bardsley said. “Now here we are 15 years later and circumstances are different. The LGBT community-not so much the T part, but the LGB part of the community has become much more integrated and the T community has made some strides, with many more to go.”
Bardsley differentiated himself from Narkewicz as someone with a long history of working with the LGBT community as it struggled for civil rights. He also noted that despite Northampton’s recent history as a haven for LGBT people seeking acceptance and rights, other forces have made it more challenging for them.
“Many middle class people and families-both LGBT and straight-are finding Northampton to be an increasingly difficult place to live.”
A number of questions addressed economic disparities between LGBT people and their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts.
“We need to do everything possible to ensure there is no discrimination, to ensure that everyone has access to training programs,” Bardsley said.
When asked about the economic challenges facing the transgender community specifically, there were no simple solutions offered by either candidate.
“This issue of transgender people and employment is one many people don’t understand when they talk about this economy,” Narkewicz said. He said that strong leadership in the mayor’s office and city council could help to raise awareness. He also stressed the need for ongoing efforts to support LGBT rights legislation beyond the city.
“There is certainly much work to be done both on the state and federal level,” Narkewicz said. There’s DOMA. There are still issues of accommodation facing the transgender community.”
One audience member identified herself as a transgender woman from Florence who has been fighting for rights her whole life. She stated that she’d recently been told that she has no rights.
Narkewicz said that he didn’t know the details about her situation but that he’d be happy to talk with her later about how he could help. He said that he intended to continue to support the transgender civil rights bill before the Massachusetts state legislature, which would extend rights to transgender people across the state. He also said that, as mayor, he would continue to work with the city’s Human Rights Commission and the police department, when necessary, to resolve discrimination issues that arise for LGBT people.
“I’m going to disagree with you a little. You do have rights,” Bardsley told the woman. “The problem is that other people don’t recognize that. That’s what we need to change.”
A local teacher asked the candidates how they would aid transgender students in schools, who often have challenges around bathrooms, locker rooms and other gender spaces.
“That’s something we’re going to have to work on,” said Narkewicz. “I know in the Unitarian Society they have male and female bathrooms but they have ‘transgender’ on there as well so that their members are aware of this and know that it’s a welcoming place.” He suggested the city could look into options like that one to make schools feel safer for trans students.
“One part is policy,” Bardsley said. “The other characteristic that often gets overlooked is the person’s aspect. Does the person have a support system? Go to the person and find out what the person is comfortable with.
When asked about the role they would play in addressing same-sex domestic violence, the two candidates seemed to diverge.
“There are different dynamics with gay men or lesbians,” said Bardsley. “We have to look at the stress factors (in relationships). We also have to look at the fact that some lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people don’t feel comfortable accessing domestic violence services (intended for straight people). We have to look at that and have a dialogue about that.”
“The key is for training and education of law enforcement and justices,” said Narkewicz. He said that it takes education to change assumptions that domestic violence is male or female, which leaves police officers unsure how to proceed when they arrive at a scene to find two men. “I would be committed to working with our police department and our DA’s office to make sure they know how to address these issues.”
In closing, Bardsley stressed his accomplishments.
“Since my teens, I have been a foot soldier in the fight for civil rights and social justice,” he said, citing 33 years of experience as an educator and previous experience on Northampton’s City Council. “I have people skills. Over the course of my career, I have demonstrated courage, passion, creativity, wisdom, and integrity.”
“I’m running for mayor because I love Northampton,” concluded Narkewicz. “I care deeply for public service. I don’t know that these kinds of discussions and debates happen in every community. We have a great city and want to move it forward, but we have some challenges.”
On November 8th, Northampton voters will decide which of the two men will take the lead to address those challenges-and then the real work will begin.