Connect with us


U.S. commission considers ways to stop anti-gay Uganda bill



U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Greater involvement from first lady Michelle Obama was one option discussed during a recent congressional hearing as a way for the U.S. to help derail a harshly anti-gay bill in Uganda from becoming law.

Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, was among the people who testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Thursday that Obama’s work against the international HIV/AIDS epidemic would make her a strong voice against the bill.

Johnson said the women’s caucus in the Ugandan parliament is supporting the legislation and opposition from the first lady — as well as President Obama — could influence women’s groups in Uganda to drop their support.

“I’m wondering if there is women leaders within the U.S. Congress — and perhaps the first lady herself — might be able to play some role in having discussions about the potential impact of this bill — not just on human rights, but on HIV prevention within the country,” Johnson said.

Julius Kaggwa, a leader of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights & Constitutional Law who came from Uganda to testify on the legislation, also said greater involvement from President Obama and Michelle Obama would be helpful in efforts to stop the bill.

“If President Obama and the first lady of the United States can engage more with our first family — especially in the area of HIV/AIDS, which is of great concern to us as sexual minorities — and the issue of human rights generally, I think that would be very, very helpful,” he said.

A stronger voice from the first lady and President Obama was one among several options considered to stop the anti-gay legislation that’s been pending the Uganda parliament since October.

Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the bill would, among other things, institute the death penalty for repeat offenders of the homosexual acts ban and for those who have homosexual sex while HIV positive. The harsh penalties for LGBT people in the legislation have inspired growing outrage and concern around the world, including LGBT activists in the U.S.

Karl Wycoff, deputy assistant secretary of state for East African Affairs (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Karl Wycoff, deputy assistant secretary of state for East African Affairs, testified that the State Department has been working to prevent the bill from being enacted into law even as the U.S. considers the country an ally.

“The introduction of this anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda characterizes just such a moment — one where we must say to our friends who’s friendship we value that together we must stand against injustice, and in this case, injustice against the LGBT community,” he said.

Wycoff noted how the White House in January issued a statement in opposition to the legislation and said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed concerns about the bill with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in addition to publicly opposing the legislation in two speeches.

“Our embassy … has been very active on this subject with representatives of the Ugandan government, with civil society, with local gay and lesbian groups and with others who press for this bill to be dropped,” Wycoff said.

Last month, DC Agenda first reported State Department officials had received assurances from Museveni that he would work to block the legislation from becoming law and would veto the bill should it come to his desk. But during the hearing, Wycoff declined to characterize publicly the discussions the State Department had with the president.

Witnesses also discussed efforts of activists within Uganda working to prevent the bill from becoming law. Kaggwa said local groups have been trying to stop the measure, but noted that persuading lawmakers to oppose the bill is difficult because of the country’s deep cultural beliefs against homosexuality.

Kaggwa said one of the best points for opponents to bring up about the legislation is how it would require Ugandan citizens to report on those believed to be homosexual.

“The element of setting a mother against a daughter, the element of setting a sister against a brother, is something that we all can identify with,” Kaggwa said. “These are the arguments that we are using. We should make this bill really draconian, that instead of bringing together families, instead of preserving family, as purported by people who are pushing the bill, it’s [separating] families.”

Following the testimony, lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who chaired the hearing, told reporters that bolstering the local effort in Uganda against the legislation would be one means for the United States to step up efforts against the bill.

“I do think it is important for us to listen and receive guidance from people on the ground in Uganda — not just thinking from afar what to do,” she said. “I think there’s probably additional ways where we can empower local activists, local voices in Uganda at the same time as we speak crystal clear our dedication to human rights for all [people] across the globe.”

Another option lawmakers are considering is revoking Uganda’s beneficiary trade status should the bill become law. Baldwin noted during the hearing that earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter to Clinton saying Uganda’s trade relationship with the United States would be revoked if the country’s parliament enacts the legislation.

While a number of strategies were put forth as ways to prevent the legislation from becoming law, one option witnesses denied as being an appropriate response was restriction of funds under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The program, also known as PEPFAR, is a multi-billion dollar initiative started by former President George W. Bush that provides treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries.

Christine Lubinski, executive director of the HIV Medicine Association, said the $1.3 billion that the U.S. spends in aid to Uganda is “too much of a day-to-day lifeline for too many people.”

“It seems like there’s significant other avenues to pursue; the HIV money would not be good one,” she said.

But Johnson said there could be other avenues to pursue with AIDS relief money if Uganda passes the legislation. He said PEPFAR money could be “channeled differently” to non-governmental organizations that would implement HIV/AIDS relief programs in the country.

Another concern raised during the hearing was whether international efforts would have an adverse effect on stopping the anti-gay legislation because of the country’s history under colonial rule.

Wycoff said attention from the international community has actually contributed to some efforts in Uganda calling for the passage of the legislation.

“Ironically, foreign criticism of the bill has in some ways bolstered internal support for the legislation as many Ugandans interpret foreign condemnation as interference in their internal affairs,” he said.

But Kaggwa said international concern about the legislation is helpful, so long as local opposition against the bill is heard just as strongly.

Julius Kaggwa, a leader of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights & Constitutional Law (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

“It is important that these local, indigenous voices are heard as heavily or as loudly as the international voices,” he said. “We believe that if that voice supplements our own voices, then we will be productive. But if the foreign voices are louder than ours, then I’m afraid that might have a counter-productive effect.”

Johnson said people opposed to the legislation are working to make sure both local and regional voices are heard against the bill, and that Obama could make the local voices stronger.

“I think that could be an aspect in which the administration could be more proactive in terms of talking to other African nations, and talking to the African Union, about making its voice heard on the legislation,” he said.

A number of Democratic U.S. House members spoke out against the bill during the hearing. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the commission, said the bill “is steeped in religious bigotry and homophobia.”

“I want to make it clear that there are many members in this Congress — both Democrat and Republican — who have deep, deep concerns about what’s happening in Uganda and are outraged by this draft legislation,” he said.

Baldwin called the legislation “an extreme and hateful attempt to make people criminals not because of anything they do, but because of who they are and who they love.”

She noted that 90 other U.S. House members joined her in signing a letter to presidents Obama and Museveni, requesting their strong opposition to the legislation.

“I hope that all Ugandans, and particularly those who are [LGBT], will hear the voice of this Congress state very clearly that we will not tolerate these types of human rights violations,” she said.

No Republican member of the commission attended the hearing. A Republican staffer for the commission didn’t immediately respond to DC Agenda’s request to comment on why GOP members were absent.

Continue Reading


Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber



The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

Continue Reading

Federal Government

Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU



Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

Continue Reading


LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls



From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

Continue Reading

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts