Jon Oliveira works on advocacy amid a pandemic

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Jon Oliveira, Director of Communications & Membership at Garden State Equality
Jon Oliveira, Director of Communications & Membership at Garden State Equality

Jon Oliveira, director of communications and membership, discusses changes at GSE

Amid a global pandemic, the community’s reliance upon one another looks a lot different than ever before. It is imperative that innovative ways to support communities are created and nonprofits around New Jersey are doing their absolute best to support their New Jersey family as thoroughly as possible. Social justice didn’t go into isolation, we did. Equality doesn’t have a stay-at-home order, we do. The work must continue. It’s nonnegotiable that we stay alert to the corruption in Washington and the ways it affects minority groups and LGBTQs.

Jon Oliveira, director of communications and membership at Garden State Equality, spoke about what he and the folks at GSE are working on during this time.

What does your work at Garden State Equality look like today during a pandemic?

Jon Oliveira: The pandemic fundamentally changed how we do our work and how we interact with our members. We’ve taken great strides to make sure that the work doesn’t slow down. For our Community Programs Team, who work with schools and healthcare and with older adults, we brought all of their community programming online, a weekly digital LGBTQ learning series where they’re typically out in the field training educators or healthcare providers.

Jon Oliveira, Director of Communications & Membership at GSE at Jersey Pride 2019
Jon Oliveira, director of Communications and membership at GSE at Jersey Pride 2019

Now we’ve brought all that online and rescheduling some of those things with hospital networks and educators over the next several months to make sure that work still continues to happen. On the legislative side we have several bills that we’re really keen on pushing over the next couple of weeks and months. Obviously, the legislature is laser focused on the broader issues of solving this pandemic and responding to both the public health crisis and the economic fallout that’s expected.

We have several bills, including our bill of rights for LGBTQ older adults, which would provide really important concrete protections for folks living in long-term care facilities. Also, surprisingly, in New Jersey it’s actually legal to discriminate in health programs and activities and in insurance on the basis of sexual orientation. So we have a bill that would add sexual orientation as well as gender identity into New Jersey’s law against discrimination.

We’re also looking at passing a bill that would mandate SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] data collection across state agencies so that we can track the effects of this in the coming years as it relates to health care, to housing, to unemployment, areas we know are disproportionately affecting the LGBTQ community. That data will be really important to make sure that we can direct critical state resources.

Some people call COVID-19 the “great equalizer.” Is this pandemic different for the LGBTQ community or minority groups than it is for others?

JO: One of our key partnerships is with the National LGBT Cancer Network, which has been at the forefront of representing the health and wellness component of COVID-19 as it relates to the LGBTQ community, advocating for very specific things to provide aid and comfort to the community. It also lets folks know about the increased health disparities within our community that make LGBTQ people more susceptible to the harsher effects. For instance, LGBTQ people are 50% more likely to use tobacco. We have high rates of cancer and HIV in our community. All of these things affect the respiratory system and immune system, and if you come in contact with COVID-19, your outcomes are going to be much worse, unfortunately. We signed on to a letter with the National LGBT Cancer Network last month, calling on elected officials and government to respond to these concerns within the community and spread that information. There’s also going to be additional announcements in the coming days.

One of the unfortunate realities that we work to tackle every single day in our health and wellness work is that LGBTQ people do not have the same access to health care. Whether that’s because they face discrimination when they’re consuming healthcare, or because they had a bad experience in the past, they’re less likely to seek out care or simply not have the funds or the means to be able to get insurance. There are lots of barriers in place that prevent LGBTQ people from receiving the best care that the average American or the average New Jerseyan does. That really, in addition to the health disparities, puts our community at much greater risk should they come in contact with COVID-19.

The 2020 election will make or break a lot of progress made in LGBTQ communities. Now that we’re focused on staying healthy and alive, what is Garden State Equality doing to support the upcoming election?

Jon Oliveira, Director of Communications & Membership at GSE at Jersey Pride 2019 on the right. Christian Fuscarino, GSE Executive Director - left and Abby Maisonave in center
Jon Oliveira, director of communications and membership at GSE at Jersey Pride 2019 on the right. Left: Christian Fuscarino, GSE Executive Director; center: Abby Maisonave

JO: It’s really difficult right now to know where it will be in a couple of weeks or months as it relates to this. I think one thing is for sure it’s not going to be the normal election. We most likely won’t be going to rallies or knocking on doors and having face-to-face interaction with voters. As we’ve done for many of the recent election cycles, we’ll be very engaged in terms of endorsements of candidates, we’ll be supporting through our digital program, and also making sure that we can get folks registered to vote.

What is something positive that has come out of the COVID-19 crisis in your communities and in your work as an organization?

JO: Maybe this isn’t a complete positive but since the pandemic began and we had the stay-at-home order in New Jersey, our phone and email has been going off the hook. Members in the community are leaning on us for support, helping to connect them with important resources. We’ve received countless calls about housing, employment, even folks who are facing harsh conditions in incarceration. It’s humbling to receive those calls because it tells us and shows us that the community knows that they can rely on us. We’ve done our best to facilitate positive outcomes in all of these individual cases, to make sure that these folks can get access to the resources they need and to make sure that the law is protecting them, that they’ve encountered issues. That has been one really uplifting thing that we’ve been able to do right now. Folks across the state are in great need of help and support right now and we just feel really lucky that we can be here to serve them. We’ve always been here as a resource for the community. Folks need us now more than ever. We’ve been very, very intentional about making ourselves as accessible as possible and following through on helping those in most need.

What will Garden State Equality be working on after quarantine?

JO: We are doing our best right now to make sure that the work we’ve been doing continues in full force. Obviously, we’ve had to make some changes in how we do our work and how we communicate with our members. For all intents and purposes, our community programs are still happening. Our legislative work is still advancing. We’re talking to our key partners around the state in schools, healthcare, and government every single week. When we do get on the other side of this, I think it’ll be a very smooth transition for us in terms of getting right back to it.

With Pride season on the way, many events are postponed or canceled. What is something you can share with our readers who need a healthy dose of hope?

JO: As you know, Jersey Pride unfortunately has been postponed until October. We also got word today that New York City Pride has been canceled outright. That’s obviously very disappointing and disheartening. But as a community, we’ve been through a lot of pain, a lot of trauma, over the last several decades. We’ve always come out stronger for it. In lieu of having an in-person Pride in New Jersey, I can’t say specifics yet, but we are planning some pretty exciting things. We’ll have more to announce on that in the coming weeks.

Great! How could we find that information?

JO: The best way to keep in touch is on our social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also sign up for emails on our website at gardenstateequality.org.

Is there any other message that Garden State Equality would like to share with our Out in Jersey magazine family?

JO: New Jerseyans see everything happening across the state right now. Small businesses are being closed down. People are losing their jobs. The economic impacts of COVID-19 are also hitting nonprofits. March was the lowest fundraising month we’ve had in four years. We have a pretty good reserve set up that will hopefully keep us for the next couple of months. But we don’t know how long this is going to last. And it’s not just us; all of our partners across the state who are doing important work like the Hudson Pride Center, the Pride Center of New Jersey, and many others are going to be impacted in the same way. We want to make sure that all of these organizations who are serving our community are still here when we get on the other side of this. The most important thing that anybody could do right now is to be a friend to these organizations and if financially able to do so, contribute what you’re able to. It’s unfortunate, but I think nationally what we’re going to see is some of the organizations that fight for us won’t survive this.

We need to stand together right now.

gardenstateequality.org

Johnny Walsh
Johnny Walsh is Out In Jersey’s special features editor. He is a pianist, writer, and entrepreneur who has performed in over 20 states and two countries. Johnny is passionate about human rights, creativity, and the arts, and longs for the sentiment of social justice to flow through his writing.