“Out and Proud” BART Directors lead virtual panel on LGBTQ issues for Pride Month

06.18.21

“Out and Proud” BART Directors lead virtual panel on LGBTQ issues for Pride Month

By MELISSA JORDAN
BART Senior Web Producer


More than 100 BART employees joined a noon-hour virtual Pride celebration this week, reflecting on BART’s leadership for LGBTQ equality with hope and optimism on the same day California reopened and lifted most pandemic restrictions.

The “Covid coming out party” of sorts featured two of the three LGBTQ BART Board directors who are openly out and proud, Rebecca Saltzman and Janice Li, along with allies like General Manager Bob Powers and Office of Civil Rights Director Maceo Wiggins. Director Bevan Dufty was unable to attend.

“It’s an exciting time right now,” said Saltzman, “to have so many people vaccinated, going back to their social lives, seeing loved ones, going back to the office, getting back on BART. It’s just an extra exciting Pride month this month.”

Customers are returning to BART, setting multiple days of record post-pandemic ridership in the past week. A 15-step “Welcome Back Plan” outlines the many improvements in store for returning customers. While there is no San Francisco Pride parade this year due to the pandemic, BART’s Diversity Employee Resource Group came up with the idea of a lunchtime panel discussion to celebrate progress and discuss work that still needs to be done.

What follows is a lightly edited summary of panelists’ answers to questions posed during the event.

1. Why do you think it’s important for people to know you’re an LGBTQ BART Board member?

SALTZMAN: Though maybe on certain parts of the budget, in keeping the trains running, it doesn’t matter … I think it does matter on some policies, not just in terms of how we understand what’s happening in our communities, but to have our communities feel it’s safe to approach us … They might not approach somebody else. I think it’s made a difference. We’ve been at the forefront on a lot of policy changes.

(She also acknowledged the work of former BART Board member Tom Radulovich, who at the time was the only LGBTQ director. Now there are three LGBTQ Directors out of nine total.

LI:  It depends what hat I wear. If it’s being on the BART Board and being out and being queer…  you probably want me to make sure I know budgets, and understand transit, and help guide this agency … The visibility of an elected official in this role is really important. When I was running for office, younger queer folks told me how important it was to see someone like me running for office. Part of it is, our identities, the communities we belong to, are a lot of times shortcuts for understanding … If you’re queer, there’s this shared understanding of that identity. When you have that shared understanding, it feels like there’s a more welcoming, safe space here.  It’s a safe space for you to be your full self when you’re at work and be proud of your identity.

2. A recent analysis found that LGBTQ adults and LGBTQ adults of color faced the highest rates of unemployment during the pandemic … LGBTQ adults, particularly of color, were also more likely than the general population to have had their work hours reduced due to the pandemic. Given the intersectional impacts of Covid-19 on different identities, what do you think the most important opportunities for allyship within the LGBTQ community are? What do you see as the most important ways for LGBTQ community members to advocate for and become involved in the fight for equity?

SALTZMAN: The issues are so massive, it’s so systemic, it sometimes feels to folks, what could I possibly do about it? Being an individual ally as a friend, as a coworker, as a family member, is really important too. Reaching out to your coworkers about issues that are coming up. If you see they’re having a hard time with something at work or in society, approach them, and see how you can be an ally. Having these discussions at the individual level are often the most important.

She pointed to the evolution of public opinion around same-sex marriage equality, noting that while court and policy changes were important, real change also happened on the ground as people began talking to the folks in their communities who are LGBTQ and seeing them married, seeing them with kids. Having those individual conversations is really important.

We need to all be ambassadors. If there’s something that’s making you uncomfortable, there are tools to address that. It’s a really hard way to step up and be an ally but it’s an important way. Watch the bystander intervention video (produced as part of the Not One More Girl campaign against gender-based violence) and be ready to help out.

It’s been really incredible to see more and more focus on addressing various types of inequities in our society … I think the work we are doing around policing and the Progressive Policing Bureau is incredibly important … Having the Ambassador program, the new Crisis Intervention Specialists who are being hired, I think it’s going to be immensely helpful.  It’s a huge thing we are embarking on. In terms of transit agencies in this area, we are the leader. Other agencies are looking to us. It’s really something to be proud of. What we’re doing is going to be a really incredible model for transit around the country and around the world.

As for other ways to increase education, Saltzman, a big library fan, recommended the El Cerrito Public Library’s extensive LGBTQ section, where she gets inclusive books to read with her daughter. She mentioned a children’s book called “All Kinds of Families,” which uses animal characters to show the diverse range of family situations.

LI: These are a lot of systemic issues, whether it’s unemployment rates, or folks who are houseless, we know that those rates are higher for LGBTQ folks, especially the trans community. Covid-19 laid bare a lot of the existing inequities … Finding ways to put the marginalized community first as you make policy is always a good starting point. If you’re not sure, just start there.

If you make things more accessible for mothers, people with disabilities, low-income folks, you’re going to make it more accessible … for everyone.

The other thing is really educating oneself. My partner and I have been watching a lot of trans-related documentaries, we’re both cisgender folks. In a very day to day way, watch that bystander intervention video, use it in real life. A lot of people attend events, or give money, which is awesome, but take that to your day-to-day interactions if someone is being anti-LGBT, if you are a straight person, if you are an ally, step up and say something, don’t allow those interactions to be so pervasive. We know how hurtful they are. If they say that to you, just imagine what they say to an actual LGBTQ person.

(She recommended the film “Transhood” as a good starting point.)

3. What’s next for BART in terms of inclusion for LGBTQ employees and support for the Bay Area LGBTQ community?

LI:  It really comes down to hearing from our employees …  During the pandemic we as the board were extremely focused on just keeping BART running. We were hyper-focused on the budget. So now, we’re finally seeing our ridership return. I want to be out there in the shops and yards again. I want to be talking to our employees who are keeping BART running.

BHQ when it opens (the new BART Headquarters building at 2150 Webster Street, opening this summer) I really want to be out there again, talking to our employees who are keeping BART running, to hear from you about what we can do to make BART more inclusive, for LGBTQ employees and for everyone.

We’re going to open bathrooms, which is super exciting for our riders. We have to make sure we do that in a really good, inclusive way, whether it’s all gender bathrooms, or safe spaces for people to use the bathroom.  As we go through that we can really make sure that we are being LGBTQ inclusive and gender inclusive, that we’re doing it right.

Having virtual Board meetings has made it really helpful. I’ve been able to take a meeting from the East Coast. It makes these virtual events more possible for me, since I work a fulltime day job. That’s been really great. … At the end of the day, when you’re running a train system, nothing can really fully replace the in-person. But virtual events can add another layer of engagement on top of that.

(Li’s recently adopted senior rescue dog chimed in, named Dusty Buns, which she jokingly called “a very gay name.”)

SALTZMAN: As a BART director, we have really big districts. It was a challenge sometimes to represent my district well. There’d be one night with an event in San Leandro and one in El Cerrito, figuring out how to get to both without a car, it was a challenge.  I can’t wait to get back in person once it feels safe. I miss seeing folks in person.

(She mentioned a recent study in another part of the country that showed attendance at virtual meetings tended to be the same demographic as in-person meetings, largely white, wealthier, and older.)

I certainly have seen some increase in various types of diversity at our meetings since we’ve had the virtual option. The most obvious is more younger people in their 20s and 30s. They work full time jobs and they wouldn’t have been able to come in person at 9 am. They can listen to the meeting in the background, still be doing work, and when the item comes up for their item, they can speak on it.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to engage them outside of meetings. We know most people are not going to attend our meetings. Now that pandemic things are getting better, if we can be out in the stations, to meet them where they’re at, that’s really important.

4. How do you see the LGBTQ community moving forward post-pandemic? Are you hopeful for the future of this community?

SALTZMAN: I’m hopeful overall for the future. A lot of the optimism started being felt when my parents got vaccinated, and I got vaccinated, I’m still looking forward to kids being vaccinated. There’s so much this pandemic has brought to the forefront about inequities …  We have folks who were not employed, have been struggling to pay their rents or mortgages, and might be evicted next month when the eviction moratoriums end. The emergency continues. It’s on all of us to continue to elevate that so we don’t just kind of go on with life as normal. There’s still problems to solve and they’ve been made worse in the past year for some communities. We need to be thinking about that.

One of the reasons BART has been a leader on so many LGBTQ issues, it’s come from BART employees. Come to us. You are the eyes and ears of BART. if you think there’s something more that we can do, let us know. We are your allies, we are your advocates. Tell us if things are off.

LI: I want to be optimistic, but there are definitely a lot of things that are cause for concern. Anti-trans, discriminatory bills have flooded states across the country, along with voter rights bills, changing who can vote, and we know that it will be black and brown folks, along with LGBTQ folks, who are going to be discriminated against by those bills.

That does bring a lot of cause for concern when we look to the future. We know how much the pandemic has affected small businesses, especially queer spaces. There’s been a lot of change. I would like to think that this change, this ‘we’re in it together,’ is really real, it’s not fake.

Throughout the panel discussion, two of BART’s top leaders – General Manager Powers and Office of Civil Rights Director Wiggins – weighed in to support and champion BART’s history of LGBTQ advocacy.

POWERS: I am very proud to serve as the General Manager of an organization that takes great pride to ensure our LGBTQ employees feel welcomed, respected, valued and safe. We are continuing BART’s long tradition of supporting LGBTQ rights throughout the Bay Area.

Powers noted specific policy changes BART has made to walk the walk.

  • With the passage of California’s gender recognition act, we have revised our policies to include a third non-binary gender for applicants and employees to be able to self-identify accordingly. That’s very powerful.
  • BART has been providing medical coverage for employees’ same-sex partners long before laws were passed. BART took that initiative.
  • We successfully worked with the BART Board to pass a policy prohibiting District-funded travel to states that have anti-LGBTQ laws. We’re not going to support those states.

We’ve come a long way to support our LGBTQ employees, but we know that job is never finished. Events like what’s happening today are so very, very important. We need to keep an open dialogue with our employees. It’s important to me that we continue to strive to keep BART’s policies and practices up to date so LGBTQ employees are treated fairly and equitably.

The other area – we are in business with a lot of folks from the Bay Area, through partnerships with the consulting community, the contracting community, with community groups. When I’m out there, when we go out to do a Request for Qualifications or Request for Proposals, we can articulate our core values and make sure within the parameters that are set forth, we can articulate our values and where we’re coming from and what we want to see. We want to try to identify opportunities where we can engage the LGBTQ community.

it’s looking encouraging out there. I think a lot of the rest of the country learns from the Bay Area about inclusivity and about everybody being welcome. I’m very encouraged by where the Bay Area is and where it’s headed, where BART is and where it’s headed.

WIGGINS: A big part of what we do is communicating what the organization values to the people who seek to do business with us, and making sure they live those same values. They are our agents.

We’ve been sharpening the tools in the toolbox. When the larger firms engage with BART, we want to make sure the smaller businesses, the more diverse business, are not left out. If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.  The answer is hard work and dedication to the craft of creating opportunities for firms that want to work with us. The firms are out there. 

I’m optimistic about it, I’m also concerned, because it’s been disturbing event after disturbing event for what seems like forever now. It will be good to get back out into our communities in the Bay Area.  Being ready for, after we have that time to reconnect, people coming back to the business of business.

There’s always opportunity for more growth, and we can always be better at it. It’s such a powerful time for members of the LGBTQ community.  We’re right on the cusp of whatever our new normal is going to look like. Its’ really up to institutions like BART to play their role and set the tempo and the table for the community, for what we value coming out of Covid, to celebrate the freedom coming out of it, but also recognize the dark times we’ve come out of together. Hopefully that will be something that draws our BART community even closer together.

In case you missed it: For an in-depth look at some of the trailblazing early LGBTQ employees at BART, visit our archive for this story, photographs and video from 2018, when BART received the Equality Trailblazer award from Equality California in recognition of the agency’s inclusion of the LGBTQ community.