The mayor of Providence, R.I., last weekend announced he is running for Congress, making him one of several openly gay candidates slated to be on ballots this fall.
David Cicilline, who’s served as mayor since 2003 and was the first openly gay mayor of a state capital, formally declared Feb. 13 that he wouldn’t pursue another term as mayor and would instead seek the congressional seat that will be vacated at the end of the year when pro-LGBT lawmaker Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) retires.
In an interview with DC Agenda, Cicilline said he wanted to pursue a run to represent Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district because of the economic hardships his state is facing and Washington’s slow response in addressing the issue.
“Over the past 18 months, it has become very clear to me that Washington has really lost sight of what is happening to the hard-working middle-class in cities and towns across this country,” he said.
Rhode Island has been hit particularly hard by the recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for the state in December 2009 was 12.9 percent, putting it just behind Michigan and Nevada among states with the highest unemployment.
“People are sick of reading about hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on bank bailouts and hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on bailing out the Big Three car companies, and they do not feel like Washington is doing anything to improve their lives,” he said.
Cicilline said he’s heard “every single day” about families in his home state who are concerned about whether they can “keep the job that they have, whether they can be able to find work, or whether they can afford their rent.”
“I think what we need in Washington, what I really bring to this work, is [a] very practical problem solving approach,” he said. “That’s what mayors do. We sit around, we sit down and try to bring people together who have divergent views and deal with the hard issues and fashion solutions to come up with answers to address problems every day.”
But Cicilline isn’t the only Democratic candidate seeking to represent his district in Congress. William Lynch, who recently stepped down as Rhode Island’s state Democratic Party chair after 12 years, also announced on Saturday his candidacy for the seat.
In a Sept. 14 primary, voters in Rhode Island’s first congressional district will decide who will be the Democratic nominee for the general election. The winner of the primary will most likely take on John Loughlin, the Republican candidate whom the GOP seems poised to nominate.
Loughlin is an Army veteran and Rhode Island State House member who has had notable success raising money. According to the Federal Election Commission web site, Loughlin has raised more than $246,000 for his campaign.
As a gay man, Cicilline said he’s “very, very committed” to supporting legislation and issues that would “affect my community and provide for equality at every level of state, local and federal government.”
“I think when you get elected to any office, you bring to that office your — who you are,” he said. “All of your life experiences and who you are as a person contribute to the way you look at issues, the issues that you care about.”
Cicilline said he would vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Uniting American Families Act, as well as back repeals of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.
While saying he would as a member of Congress step up to support the LGBT community, Cicilline said he didn’t think his sexual orientation would provide any additional challenge for him in his campaign. He noted that his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue in his runs for mayor.
The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund hasn’t yet determined whether to endorse Cicilline in his run for Congress, although the organization had endorsed him in previous mayoral bids and his campaign this year for a third term as mayor.
Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesperson, said the process by which the organization determines its endorsements is the same for candidates in all races, but that evaluating whether or not to endorse Cicilline will be “a little bit of an easier load” because the organization is already familiar with him.
“We have endorsed this candidate multiple times; it’s not like we have to get to know him,” Dison said. “It’s a matter of doing the work on the ground and talking to local politicos and party leaders and things like that — just to make sure that we have crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s before we endorse.”
Dison declined to comment on whether the Victory Fund and the Cicilline campaign have held any conversations about an endorsement.
Cicilline said he’s looking for both the Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign to endorse him in his bid for Congress.
“They’ve endorsed me for both of my previous races — the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund — so I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I hope to be endorsed by both organizations in this campaign,” he said.
Cicilline’s candidacy means he’s joining other gay candidates who are pursuing a run for Congress. Steve Pougnet, who’s gay and mayor of Palm Springs, is seeking to oust incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) to represent California’s 45th congressional district.
Should Pougnet succeed, he would be the first openly gay person who’s legally married with children to serve in Congress.
The Victory Fund has endorsed Pougnet, making him the only non-incumbent, openly LGBT person the organization has endorsed in a run for Congress.
Dison said the Democratic Party is looking at this seat as a possible pickup, but it’s too early to determine whether Pougnet will be in a good position to beat Bono Mack in November.
“Nobody’s really in the thick of it yet, and that’ll become clear later on, but he’s been a fantastic fundraiser so far for a non-incumbent, so there’s definitely hope there.”
According to the Federal Election Commission, Pougnet has raised more than $563,000 for his campaign and Bono Mack has raised more than $992,000. While Pougnet is behind in fundraising, challengers typically raise less than incumbents.
Andy Stone, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Pougnet is doing what’s needed to mount a serious challenge to Bono Mack this fall.
“Mayor Pougnet is aggressively raising the necessary funds and it’s clear that Congresswoman Bono Mack is already feeling the heat from this formidable challenger,” he said.
Pougnet has been heralded as a supporter for LGBT causes and as a strong fundraiser for the campaign against Proposition 8 in California. When same-sex marriage was available in the Golden State in 2008, Pougnet married 118 couples in his capacity as mayor of Palm Springs, more than any other mayor in the state.
Still, some perceive Pougnet as running against a pro-gay Republican. Bono Mack voted twice against the Federal Marriage Amendment and has supported hate crimes legislation as well as ENDA.
Another openly gay candidate seeking a seat in Congress is Ed Potosnak, a former staffer for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and public school teacher who’s running to represent New Jersey’s 7th congressional district.
Potosnak, currently the only Democratic candidate running for the nomination in that district, said he’s pursuing a seat in Congress because of the economic hardship that many people in New Jersey face.
“For me, what really prompted me to run for Congress is the fact that I’m not a career politician,” he said. “I’m someone who has really lived through struggles of the middle class, and I think that real world experience positions me well to address the problems that our families are facing.”
If elected, Potosnak said he’d support ENDA and UAFA, as well as repeals of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA.
Still, Potosnak is running in a district that Republicans have won consistently since 1980. And the one-term GOP incumbent he’s challenging, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) voted in favor of hate crimes legislation last year and is a co-sponsor of ENDA.
But Potosnak said the LGBT community shouldn’t support Lance because the lawmaker has been unhelpful in the struggle to win relationship recognition in New Jersey.
“As a state legislator, before he came to Congress, he didn’t support civil unions and he also is undecided on whether it should be repealed in the state,” he said. “He’s also undecided on whether there should be a constitutional ban or a definition of marriage between in a man and a woman.”
The Lance campaign couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the lawmaker’s position on relationship recognition.
Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, said his organization wishes Potosnak good luck “in a very challenging district.”
“Garden State Equality has made endorsements in federal races,” Goldstein said. “We target districts, based on not just issues, but also electability.”
Since Potosnak has only recently declared his candidacy, his fundraising numbers aren’t yet available on the Federal Election Commission web site. Lance has already raised nearly $584,000 for his campaign.
The incumbent gay lawmakers in Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — are expected to seek re-election. Dison said he didn’t know whether the three House members would have any difficulty in retaining their seats.
“I just have not studied the races and seen what the position is,” he said. “We’re preparing for that eventuality, of course.”
Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature
Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor
Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.
“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”
Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.
“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.
Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.
“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.
FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men
D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions
D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.
The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.
A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.
In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.
The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.
LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.
Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.
“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.
“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.
Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.
The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.
“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.
“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.
The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.
Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.
“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.
Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.
“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’
Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.
“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.
“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.
A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.
“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.
“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.
Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.
Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.
Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records
About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.
“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”
The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.
McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.
With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.
In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%). In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.
McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.
“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.
“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.
All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.
“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.
Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.
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