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First openly gay U.S. House reading clerk relishes role

Joe Novotny ‘tremendously proud’ to take prominent position



Joe Novotny, the first openly gay U.S. House reading clerk, reads bills, resolutions and messages from the president to Congress. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

It’s part of making history.

That’s part of the reason Joe Novotny enjoys his role as reading clerk for the U.S. House.

Just last week, he had the distinction of reading to House members Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) message announcing his intent to resign as chair of the Ways & Means Committee. That message, issued by Novotny, went through the media to reach people across the country.

Other milestones in which Novotny may soon take part could include the passage of health care reform — or the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“You just feel the energy when you walk out on the House floor,” Novotny told DC Agenda. “If there’s a vote, or even just a heated debate, if something’s happening — the feeling that you get from that room is probably unlike anything everywhere else that you could really describe.”

And yet, Novotny is making history simply by holding the job. The 34-year-old Chicago native is the first openly gay person to work as a reading clerk in the U.S. House. Charged with reading messages to lawmakers and having his performance broadcast across the world on C-SPAN, Novotny is one of the most visible figures in House proceedings.

“I’m tremendously proud,” he said. “I feel like it’s an opportunity to represent the community. When you think about the diversity in this House now — and the fact that we have the first woman speaker and we have the first African-American clerk of the House — this is sort of a Congress of firsts, so to be a part of that is a tremendous honor.”

As reading clerk for the House, Novotny is charged with reading messages to House members and ensuring legislative measures before the chamber are clearly articulated to lawmakers and the public. He also tracks changes to bills made on the House floor.

“As House reading clerk, you’re responsible for reading all the bills and resolutions that come up throughout the day — and so there are all these other letters that come and messages from the president, and so you are responsible essentially for reading and representing these people,” Novotny said.

Other duties for Novotny include delivering House-approved measures to the Senate and working with official reporters to transcribe remarks in case a House member wants them stricken down.

Novotny is one of two reading clerks for the House. The other reading clerk, Susan Cole, was appointed by Republican leadership. Novotny and Cole are under the jurisdiction of Lorraine Miller, the House clerk and chamber’s official record keeper.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed Novotny to his role in December, and he’s served in the position for six weeks. No newcomer to Capitol Hill, Novotny was a congressional page when he was 16. For 15 years, he was a staffer for the House Education & Labor Committee, most recently as chief clerk for the panel.

Now as someone who sits on the podium with the speaker or speaker pro-tempe as lawmakers debate bills, Novotny is one of the more visible figures in the House.

In a statement, Pelosi highlighted the importance of Novotny’s job and his qualifications for taking on the position.

“As reading clerk, Joe will be the voice of the House of Representatives and will play an integral role in the daily operations of Congress,” she said. “Joe brings his experience and professionalism from the Education & Labor Committee, and we are grateful for his service.”

Novotny said his sexual orientation hasn’t made his job any more difficult or impaired relationships with his colleagues.

“I’ve been very, very lucky that throughout my career on the Hill, I’ve always been met with people who have looked at me pretty much just at face value, and it’s never been an issue,” he said. “I’ve always been open about who I am and it’s always been met with understanding and respect.”

But one challenge Novotny has encountered in his new role is needing to recognize all 435 House members immediately.

“Basically you have to learn every single person by name and by sight,” he said. “If somebody’s coming up and you’re at the podium, you’re responsible for announcing who that member is as they’re voting at the end of the vote or announce their changes.”

Since his years at George Washington University, where he studied political communications, Novotny said he’s had an affinity for politics.

“I’ve always been fascinated by politics,” he said. “I think that people lose sight of the fact that politics is not just about policy, it’s about relationships.”

Novotny said people “use politics every day in our lives” in relationships with colleagues, loved ones and friends.

“So, I guess I’m fascinated by relationships that people have and how everybody uses politics in form or another,” he said.

It’s that fascination with politics that lead him to take a position as staffer on the House Education & Labor Committee under the supervision of Chairman George Miller. Novotny said leaving his old job to become reading clerk was “bittersweet” because Miller is “such a great boss.”

“The thing about him is that he’s a little informal, and he likes to just be called by his first name,” Novotny said. “It’s never Mr. Chairman or congressman. He likes to be called George. So when you have that kind of relationship from the get go, you can really — you establish this great relationship.”

In 2007, Novotny was working for the committee when it sent the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the House floor. Lawmakers in that chamber later approved the bill.

“That was really a very, very proud moment for me to be a part of that, and actually, seeing that pass the House floor in the last Congress was great,” he said.

In a statement, Miller congratulated Novotny for landing his new position, recalling the former committee staffer’s years of service on the panel.

“Joe was an incredibly valuable asset to my staff for nearly 15 years,” Novotny said. “His unparalleled integrity and dedication helped our committee advance major policies that are making a difference in the lives of working families. I know Joe will bring the same level of enthusiasm, expertise and steadfast commitment of service to his new role as House reading clerk.”


The White House

Biden’s Pride month proclamation: ‘Our nation faces another inflection point’

States across the country have passed anti-LGBTQ laws



The White House was lit in rainbow colors following the Respect for Marriage Act signing in December 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Just as the 1969 Stonewall riots marked a transformational time for LGBTQ civil rights in America, the country now faces another critical inflection point, President Joe Biden said in the White House’s proclamation Wednesday honoring Pride month.

This moment is precipitated by the wave of hateful anti-LGBTQ legislation moving through state and local legislatures across the country and amid the escalating violence and threats of violence against the community, the statement notes:

“In 2023 alone, state and local legislatures have already introduced over 600 hateful laws targeting the LGBTQI+ community. Books about LGBTQI+ people are being banned from libraries. Transgender youth in over a dozen states have had their medically necessary health care banned. Homophobic and transphobic vitriol spewed online has spilled over into real life, as armed hate groups intimidate people at Pride marches and drag performances, and threaten doctors’ offices and children’s hospitals that offer care to the LGBTQI+ community. Our hearts are heavy with grief for the loved ones we have lost to anti-LGBTQI+ violence.”

Biden drew parallels between the “LGBTQI+ protestors” who “bravely stood their ground” against the law enforcement dispatched to arrest them more than 50 years ago and the youth organizers leading walkouts in response to discriminatory education laws, along with the “young people and their parents [who] are demonstrating unimaginable courage by testifying in state capitols in defense of their basic rights.”

The statement reaffirms the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing “proudly with the LGBTQI+ community in the enduring struggle for freedom, justice and equality,” chronicling some of the major steps the administration has taken on this front.

Biden highlighted his issuance, on his first day in office, of an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination, along with his signage last year of the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified protects for the rights of same-sex couples that might otherwise be jeopardized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority.

The statement then noted the administration’s moves to protect LGBTQ youth by ordering federal agencies to: Combat conversion therapy, “end the crisis of homelessness among LGBTQI+ youth and adults,” and address anti-LGBTQ discrimination in foster care.

Meanwhile, Biden said, the Justice Department is fighting against discriminatory laws targeting transgender youth, while the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have drafted rules that would better protect anti-LGBTQ discrimination “in healthcare, at school and in sports” and the White House is developing ways to combat online harassment and abuse that “disproportionately target LGBTQ people.”

Finally, the White House noted: Its rollout last year of the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for LGBTQ youth, who can now reach specially trained counselors by dialing 988 and then three; the administration’s appointment of historic numbers of LGBTQ appointees at all levels of the federal government; and its repeal of bans preventing trans people from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

From passing federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans via the Equality Act to addressing “the crisis of violence against transgender women and girls of color,” Biden acknowledged the work that lies ahead.

“This month and every month,” his proclamation concludes, “let us celebrate the pride that powers the movement for LGBTQI+ rights and commit to doing our part to help realize the promise of America, for all Americans.”

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Defense secretary orders cancellation of drag show at Nev. Air Force base

Event was to have taken place at Nellis AFB on Thursday



Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force Public Affairs)

A previously scheduled drag show to kick off Pride month on the sprawling Nellis Air Force Base, an advanced combat aviation training facility for the U.S. Air Force northeast of Las Vegas, was cancelled Wednesday according to a Pentagon official, after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stepped in.

A Pentagon source familiar with the matter told the Washington Blade that Milley informed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., that it is not Pentagon policy to fund drag shows on bases and the show needed to be canceled or moved off base. 

The issue over drag performances was a focus at a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this year on March 29, when anti-LGBTQ Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) demanded in an angry tone that Austin and Milley explain why drag queen story hours were being hosted on U.S. military installations. The Florida Republican mentioned bases in Montana, Nevada, Virginia and Germany.

In a highly publicized incident in May 2022, Stars and Stripes reported that the Commanding General of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany had a drag queen story time, that was to be held in honor of Pride month cancelled. 

According to Stars and Stripes, the 86th Air Wing’s public affairs sent a statement to a radical-right anti-LGBTQ news outlet in Canada, the Post Millennial, which had requested comment to its article about the event and also accused the Air Force of pushing a more “woke” agenda among servicemen. 

In a press release, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took partial credit for the cancellation.

Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall regarding the Air Force Library at Ramstein hosting a “Drag Queen Story Time” event for young children of servicemembers. 

Rubio urged him to cancel the event, discipline the staff involved in planning and hosting the event and respond to questions on whether other installations both at home and around the world have done similar events. Following receipt of Rubio’s letter, the Air Force canceled the event. 

“The last thing parents serving their nation overseas should be worried about, particularly in a theater with heightened geopolitical tensions, is whether their children are being exposed to sexually charged content simply because they visited their local library,” Rubio wrote.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, III, and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meet with U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on July 14, 2021. (Photo by Carlos M. Vazquez, Department of Defense)

A Pentagon official referring to the drag show at Nellis said Milley was visibly angry about the decision to host the event on base after being informed about it earlier this week.

The drag show was scheduled for Thursday, but Maj. Gen. Case A. Cunningham, the commander of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis was informed in the past few days that it must either be canceled or moved off base. 

On May 23, Gaetz sent a letter to Austin and Milley, alleging that the “pervasive and persistent use of taxpayer dollars for drag events,” had a June 1 Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., event scheduled.

Gaetz went on to write that “Nellis Air Force Base has announced a so-called ‘family-friendly’ drag organized by the Nellis LGBTQ+ Pride Council for June 1, 2023. In this latest outright attack on children, this event is being advertised as having no minimum age requirement.” 

In his letter Gaetz also demanded to know: 

  • Does the DoD feel it’s appropriate for children to attend a sexualized drag performance?
  • Why are base commanders defying your intent and direction by facilitating drag events?
  • If this event goes forward, whether on June 1 or a later scheduled date, please provide an explanation regarding your justification for why you allowed the event to take place.

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center, Nellis, in June 2021 the base had hosted a Pride month drag show titled “Drag-u-Nellis.” The spokesperson noted the 2021 show was intended to promote inclusivity and diversity. 

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Ala. extends ban on transgender female athletes to universities

Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed bill on Tuesday



Alabama Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday signed House Bill 261, which limits transgender students to playing sports in public colleges and universities only with “their biological sex assigned at birth.”

“Look, if you are a biological male, you are not going to be competing in women’s and girls’ sports in Alabama. It’s about fairness, plain and simple,”  said Ivey in a statement released by her office.

House Bill 261 was approved 26-4 in the Alabama Senate and 83-5 in the House of Representatives. In the vote in the House more than a dozen lawmakers abstained from the vote.

Ivey had previously signed legislation in 2021 banning trans female athletes from competing in K-12 girls sports. At the time she signed that bill the governor had noted that “Alabama remains committed to protecting female athletes at all levels and upholding the integrity of athletics.”

Carmarion D. Anderson-Harvey, Alabama state director of the Human Rights Campaign, said the legislation is part of a “systematic attack against LGBTQ+ people” in Alabama and elsewhere.

“In just two years, [Ivey] and extremist lawmakers in Alabama have passed four anti-LGBTQ+ bills. From dictating what bathrooms we can use to blatantly ignoring the actual problems in women’s sports, these politicians are making Alabama an increasingly hostile place for transgender people and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole,” Anderson-Harvey said.

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