By Joanne Cipolla-Dennis and Deborah Cipolla-Dennis
A sustainable community is in the eye of the beholder. An environment may be sustainable for many organisms, but not sustainable at all for others.
For example, apple trees find our upstate New York winters sustainable. However, mango trees do not. How does a community become sustainable not only for the majority of people, but also for marginalized populations? How do we ensure that all voices are heard in the planning, developing, and governing of our community?
A diverse sustainable community includes services that meet the needs of all residents. It recognizes that our differences should be acknowledged, considered, and celebrated. Those differences include a combination of sex, race, ability, national origin, age, education level, sexual-orientation, and gender identity. Each of these characteristics brings a perspective that builds our individual vision of sustainability. For example, a person that utilizes a wheelchair has a completely different perspective on public transportation than that of a person that is able to walk freely. A sustainable community for that person includes accessible sidewalks and buses.
In years past, laws and social norms have pushed our communities to require equal services and accommodations for different races, ability levels, ages, etc. These have occurred over time and many have resulted from long-fought campaigns and court battles. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Even though in 2015 same-gender couples won the freedom to marry in every state and territory (Obergefell v. Hodges), sexual orientation and gender identity are still excluded from the Civil Rights Law and in 28 states, people can be fired from their job or denied housing because of their sexual orientation. In New York state, sodomy laws were still enforced until 1980 (People v. Onofre et al). This kind of institutional discrimination directly affects the ability of LGBTQ+ people to be recognized as important members of a community. Therefore, in many communities our specific and different needs are not recognized and our opinions are neither invited nor respected.
How does a community become a sustainable and thriving environment for LGBTQ+ people and families? Governments, organizations, and systems change when LGBTQ+ people have leadership roles. This holds true for all marginalized communities. When our voices are heard at a leadership level, institutional discrimination is reduced and inclusion is increased. This happens because the perspectives of those living and dealing firsthand with the effects of discrimination are being heard.
There is much discussion in Tompkins County lately about housing. All of us want safe, affordable housing. However, there are additional challenges LGBTQ+ people face. Aging LGBTQ+ people struggle with finding long-term care facilities that consider our need for privacy and specialized healthcare.
The Fair Housing Act does not preclude discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, therefore many seniors choose to stay longer in their homes and suffer isolation, resulting in loneliness and depression. Sixty percent of the elderly are on disability so housing affordability is critical. In Miami, Florida, Carrfour Supportive Housing and the The Pride Center have teamed up to create The Residences at Equality Park. This subsidized project provides a LGBTQ+ senior living center for low-to-moderate income seniors with 34 of the units designated to those with disabilities. This type of housing development is needed in Tompkins County.
Another important aspect of a sustainable community is a thriving culture, including music, movies, books, gathering places, religious institutions, and so much more. Ten years ago, Ithaca had two gay establishments – the Common Ground and Felicia’s Atomic Lounge. Unfortunately, both of these have closed. This has left many in the LGBTQ+ community feeling like there is no place for us.
In June 2016, when 50 people were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, there was no place for us to gather; no place for us to comfort one another and express our fears and sadness. Planned Parenthood offers a drop-in center for LGBTQ+ youth once a week, which is very valuable, but is not nearly enough. TompkinsMi County needs a community center that can focus on the wants and needs of LGBTQ+ individuals and families. This is more than an organization; it needs to be a physical space for us to meet, work, and play.
Last weekend when staking out my tomato plants, I noticed one plant was lying close to the ground and wilted in contrast to the others that were vibrant and loaded with little green tomatoes. It had been forgotten and not fed or watered. This is a great analogy for the human race. If all people were nurtured and respected in the way that they need, think what a beautiful, diverse population we would have on this Earth.
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This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. To learn more about the organization, visit its website at SustainableTompkins.org. Joanne and Deborah are members of Sustainable Tompkins and founding members of Finger Lakes PULSE.