June 13, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
State advocates pleased with White House meeting

The White House (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Representatives from statewide LGBT equality groups expressed satisfaction with a White House briefing that took place last week in which Obama administration officials informed them about federal initiatives to benefit the LGBT community.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said attendees at the June 8 briefing were informed about recent administration policy changes that have affected LGBT people.

“We wanted to know what the administration accomplished recently, and what it’s planning on doing in the very near term, so we can relay the information back to educate the LGBT people in our communities,” Cherkasov said. “The second thing that was important to Equality Illinois is to take some of our priorities and our community’s priorities back to the administration, and say, ‘Here are concrete steps that we’re looking for you to take in the coming months and the coming year.’”

Among the federal accomplishments that officials discussed were coverage of LGBT individuals under the health care reform law, including non-discrimination protections, prosecutorial discretion initiatives aimed at keeping bi-national same-sex couples in the United States and a change enabling same-sex couples to file a joint declaration at customs upon returning to United States after being abroad.

The Equality Federation, a national San Francisco-based organization that works to support state LGBT groups, arranged the four-hour plus briefing amid Pride celebrations that are taking place in D.C. at around the same time.

An estimated 100 people from more than 20 state LGBT groups participated in the briefing, with some groups having as many as three representatives. Among the groups were Equality California, MassEquality, Fair Wisconsin, Equality Alabama, Equality Illinois, Equality North Carolina, Georgia Equality, Equality Texas, Equality Maryland and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition.

Rebecca Isaacs, the Equality Federation’s president, said the intent of the briefing was to ensure state LGBT groups were aware of the initiatives happening at the federal level.

One of the goals that Isaacs had prior to the meeting was examining which federal administrative policy changes could be replicated at the state level in places where legislators may be unwilling to enact pro-LGBT policies. Isaacs said movement toward this goal happened at the briefing.

“The first stage is people need to understand the changes that have happened,” Isaacs said. “I can be more specific when we figure out what policies, for what states. Some places may already have things very clearly laid out, but other places may not. Because we have so many states that have a long way to go in terms of LGBT equality, these are places that they can really look to.”

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the briefing after it took place. Prior to the event, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, confirmed the event was taking place but offered limited details. The briefing wasn’t open to the press or the public. An informed source said the administration told attendees it was confidential and advised them not to speak with the media after the event.

According to a schedule obtained by the Washington Blade, a number of Obama administration officials spoke before conference attendees on LGBT issues. At a welcome session, White House LGBT liaison Gautam Raghavan spoke in addition to Issacs. The initial session was set to last 15 minutes.

A subsequent series of briefings under the heading “Updates” had three sessions and three different speakers: “Bullying Prevention” with Deborah Temkin of the Education Department’s Office of Safe & Healthy Students; “International LGBT Human Rights” with Liz Drew, director of human rights and gender on the National Security Staff; and “LGBT Inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act” with Tonya Robinson, special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory affairs for the White House Policy Council.

Five sessions took place at the next series of briefings under the heading, “Implementing Policies on the Ground.” These were “Equal Access to Housing” with Kenneth Carroll, director of the Fair Housing Assistance Program Division for the Department of Housing & Urban Development; “Hospital Visitation, the Affordable Care Act and Spousal Impoverishment” with A.J. Pearlman from Office of the Secretary at the Department of Health & Human Services; “Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act” with Matt Nosanchuk, who’s gay and senior counselor at the Justice Department; “Customs Declaration Regulation, Immigration Prosecutorial Discretion Review” with Phil McNamara, executive secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; and “Family & Medical Leave Act” with Helen Applewhite, a senior adviser at the Labor Department.

After a break, the final briefing, titled “Update on Congressional ‘To-Do’ List,” was delivered by Jon Carlson, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

On the Thursday prior to the briefing proper, Isaac said a reception took place at the D.C. Jewish Community Center where Chai Feldblum, who’s a lesbian and serves on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, informed state advocates about the new interpretation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covering transgender workers in cases of workplace discrimination.

Clarissa Filgioun, Equality California’s board president, was among the attendees at the event and said she was taken aback by the level of engagement the Obama administration was prepared to offer LGBT advocates — something she felt wouldn’t be seen under a President Romney administration. Filigioun was the sole representative of her organization.

“I stepped into the meeting, and I really realized what the stakes are for the upcoming election,” Filgioun said. “Frankly, I feel we desperately need four more years of this administration to keep all this work going because I shudder to think what a Romney administration would mean for the LGBT community. I really sat there and I thought, my goodness, there’s no way that there would be this level of engagement with a Romney administration.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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