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HRC president responds to Choi protest

Solmonese notes ‘frustration at the pace of progress’

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Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, jumped into the debate triggered this week by gay Army Lt. Dan Choi over whether LGBT leaders and organizations are doing enough to advance LGBT equality, saying there should be a place for different tactics and strategies, including civil disobedience.

In response to questions from DC Agenda, Solmonese disputed Choi’s assertion that a deep “schism” exists in the LGBT movement over tactics and strategy.

Here are Solmonese’s responses to our questions:

DC Agenda: Dan Choi told Newsweek that groups like HRC “do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder to elite society.” He also said there’s a “deep schism” in the gay movement over strategy and tactics. What’s HRC’s response to this?

Joe Solmonese: Any healthy and diverse social movement will have a diversity of voices and opinions. Individuals and groups will take different approaches based on their ideology, life experience and other sincerely and deeply held beliefs about the political process. This is not indicative of a schism, but rather a sign of vibrant engagement.

Differences over tactics are nothing new; they have been a part of the LGBT rights movement since its inception. While there are some differences over strategy and tactics, there is a wide and deep consensus about movement priorities — LGBT non-discrimination laws (ENDA, DADT repeal, education, housing, credit, etc…), hate crimes protections and relationship recognition (marriage, DOMA repeal, domestic partnership benefits, adoption). Again, some in the community dissent from one or more of these goals, but these objectives enjoy significant support across the LGBT community.

Quick facts on our work:

• Our recent efforts across the country, with particular emphasis on 103 priority congressional districts, have resulted in over 190,000 phone calls and e-mails to members of Congress.

• 2,500 veterans recently said in a survey they’re willing to take action to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

• Our members submitted over 1,300 letters to editors in papers in priority media markets.

• Earlier this month, HRC sent 275 of our members to lobby on the Hill in support of ENDA, DADT and other key legislation.

• Beyond the Beltway, our members conducted over 250 in-district lobby visits.

• In 41 cities, we held events that highlighted veterans who are opposed to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Over the next several months, we will conduct at least 20 more of these events.

• In May, we will send an even larger number of veterans to the Hill to lobby for repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.

DC Agenda: What’s HRC’s view on how, or whether, non-violent civil disobedience action — as Dan Choi and Robin McGehee of the new national group GetEqual.org are now calling for — fits into the overall efforts to advance LGBT rights that HRC is working for?

Solmonese: The beauty of our movement is that we have a dedicated community that is constantly searching for new and innovative ways to effect change in Washington and at home. Whether it be the actions last week or meeting with a senator in a district office, these are ways that our community continues to advocate for LGBT equality. Activism by Dan Choi and others has one common intent in mind that we also share: to advance equality in the fastest way possible. As we said last week, this is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play.

DC Agenda: Members of GetEqual.org, as you know, were arrested in the Washington and San Francisco offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a protest over what they say is Pelosi and Congress’s failure to hold a vote this year on ENDA. HRC has not included ENDA on its list of LGBT-related bills it expects Congress to vote on this year. What is HRC’s understanding of why ENDA hasn’t been scheduled for a mark up in the House and Senate and may not be voted on in the Senate this year?

Solmonese: The Human Rights Campaign and the entire LGBT community have worked hard over the last two years to build support in Congress to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). In recent weeks, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the lead sponsor of ENDA, has publicly stated on a number of occasions that he believes that the House should move ENDA in the coming weeks and that we can pass an inclusive bill. We agree. We also agree with Speaker Pelosi that ensuring we will win that vote and protect the bill from harmful amendments is a critical factor in timing of floor action.

DC Agenda: Dan Choi and others have suggested that mainstream LGBT groups like HRC are too accommodating to the White House and congressional Democratic leaders on issues like ENDA and DADT. What is HRC’s current count of U.S. senators on an up or down vote on ENDA right now? Can you release a list of which of the 17 Democratic senators who are not ENDA co-sponsors will vote for or against ENDA?

Solmonese: There has been understandable frustration in the community at the pace of progress at advancing some of the pieces of key legislation that are important to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. We continue to press the president and Congress to live up to the promises they made to advance real, substantive equality for LGBT Americans. It is critical that everyone in the LGBT community and our allies engage in this effort.

All senators (or House members) who are not co-sponsors of ENDA, DADT or other LGBT bills are pursued as key votes needed in order to pass pro-equality legislation.

DC Agenda: If you choose not to release this list, please explain why you feel it should not be released at this time. Many activists feel they could better direct their lobbying or ‘direct action’ if they know which way their senators stand on ENDA. As far as I can see, HRC’s lengthy and detailed web site page on ENDA makes no mention at all of which lawmakers are for or against ENDA.

Solmonese: Members’ positions on ENDA are determined by their co-sponsorship of the legislation, a clear public statement or their vote. Ensuring we will win that vote and protect the bill from harmful amendments is a critical factor for determining floor action and timing. There are 17 Democratic senators and 39 Republican senators who are not cosponsors of ENDA. We must win 14 of these votes to get to 60 votes to overcome a potential filibuster. Unless a member of Congress makes a clear public statement, we do not assume we have their vote.

Direct action toward a member of Congress should be done after a careful analysis of that member’s position on the issue and, if they are not publicly supportive, after determining why are they not publicly supportive. This involves significantly more research than checking a web site. HRC works every day with individual activists and organizations in those states and districts that require the most intensive grassroots work. Every LGBT person who cares about these issues should lobby their House member and two senators. Even cosponsors must be asked to do more to bring these bills to successful votes.

DC Agenda: Robin McGehee of GetEqual.org says her group wants a vote on ENDA, even if there aren’t enough votes to pass it. What is HRC’s view on this? What are the pros and cons of having a vote on an important bill if you know in advance there aren’t enough votes to pass it?

Solmonese: An unsuccessful vote can be very harmful to an issue and prevent successful action for many years. In some cases, having the vote can be a useful marker. Particularly in regard to ENDA, bringing the bill to the Senate floor without very careful consideration could result in some incredibly harmful amendments, some related to ENDA and other anti-LGBT-related amendments. Harmful congressional votes can spill over into fights over state legislation and into state and federal court cases. In addition, it is unusual for congressional leaders to schedule votes that are expected to fail.

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Oklahoma

White House, national groups respond to nonbinary Okla. teenager’s death

Nex Benedict died after reported assault

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and national advocacy groups issued statements on Wednesday about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a high school restroom.

Benedict died on Feb. 8. According to ABC News, officials investigating the incident said they will be interviewing students and staff “over the next few weeks” and plan to share findings with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

The victim’s mother told the Independent that Benedict had suffered bullying over their gender since the start of the 2023 school year, shortly after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill to prohibit students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported at school,” Jean-Pierre said in a post on X. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, their friends, and their entire school community in the wake of this horrific tragedy.”

Calling Benedict’s death a “gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-trans hatred,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “We are reaching out to the DOJ, we are encouraging the community to speak out.”

Along with Robinson’s remarks, HRC’s Press Team included a link to the organization’s blog post about Benedict and a statement from Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the HRC Transgender Justice Initiative:

“Extremist anti-LGBTQ+ hate accounts, like online troll Chaya Raichik, the woman behind ‘Libs of TikTok’, who was recently appointed to Oklahoma’s library advisory board, are perpetuating a vile and hateful narrative that is permitting these types of public attacks,” she wrote.

State schools superintendent Ryan Walters, who last year called transgender youth using public restrooms “an assault on truth” and a danger to other kids, was responsible for naming Raichik to the library media panel.

“The assault on Nex is an inevitable result of the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory legislation targeting Oklahoma trans youth,” Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma wrote in a joint statement.

“We are deeply troubled by reports the school failed to respond appropriately to the altercation that preceded Nex’s death and demand a thorough, open investigation into the matter,” the groups wrote.

Their statement also notes the organizations’ lawsuit challenging Oklahoma Senate Bill 615, the bathroom bill signed by Stitt last year.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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Oklahoma

Nonbinary Okla. high school student dies after fight

Nex Benedict passed away Feb. 8

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Nex (Dagny) Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student, died from injuries suffered in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on Feb. 7, 2024. (Family photo)

Located in Tulsa County on U.S. Highway 169 six miles north of Tulsa’s city limits, Owasso, which is home to 39,328 people, is grappling with conflict and accusations after Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso High School sophomore who was nonbinary, died after a physical fight in a restroom at the school.

However, according to school officials there was no notification or staff awareness of the fight until the young student had been taken to hospital and later died. The Owasso Police Department is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the student’s death. 

According to the local newspaper, the Owasso Reporter:

“On Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to Bailey Medical Center by the parent of a 16-year-old Owasso High School student who allegedly had a physical altercation at the campus earlier that day, according to the police report.”

It states that no initial report of the fight was made to police prior to their admission to Bailey, although information was taken by a school resource officer at the hospital.

On the evening of Feb. 8, police were made aware that the student was rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead from a medical episode, the report states.

KJRH in neighboring Tulsa reported that a person knowledgeable of the events leading to the teen’s death, who claimed to be the mother of the victim’s best friend, told the station regarding the teen’s death:

“I think complications from brain trauma, head trauma, is what caused it,” she said.

The woman wouldn’t say the victim’s name but said Benedict was a sophomore. Bailey said the victim was outgoing and loyal once they got comfortable and was not afraid to be outspoken. The woman said three older girls were beating on the victim and her daughter in the girl’s bathroom.

“I know at one point, one of the girls was pretty much repeatedly beating [Benedict] head across the floor,” she said. That’s when [Benedict said] a teacher walked in and broke it up.

“[Benedict] couldn’t walk to the nurses’ station on [Benedict] own, and staff didn’t call the ambulance, which amazes me,” she said.

The woman told KJRH the victim’s grandmother, who [Benedict] primarily lived with, brought [Benedict] to the hospital after the fight. She said the victim was released that evening but was brought back the next day and died.

KJRH reached out multiple times along with other media outlets to Owasso Public Schools. A school district spokesperson responded saying there would be no comment “because this is an active police investigation.”

The Owasso Police Department also declined to comment except for noting investigators still don’t know if the fight was related to the teen’s death or if a separate medical issue was the cause. OPD said they’re waiting on the corner-medical examiner’s report before releasing more information.

Owasso Public Schools released this statement about the student’s death:

“The Owasso Police Department has notified district leaders of the death of an Owasso High School student. The student’s name and cause of death have not yet been made public. As this is an active police investigation, we will have no additional comment at this time. Further inquiries should be directed to the Owasso Police Department.”

“The district will have additional counselors at the school to provide support to students and staff beginning on Friday.”

On Feb. 15, after a service was held at Mowery Funeral Service Chapel, Benedict was buried at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Collinsville.

LGBTQ advocates and others are angered by the death, the misgendering in local media and the fact that the school district, which has been previously targeted by the far-right anti-LGBTQ extremist Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik, seems unable to grapple with anti-LGBTQ bullying.

Raichik was named to sit on an Oklahoma committee reviewing school library content by far-right leaning State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.

In 2022, Raichik targeted a now former Owasso 8th grade teacher for speaking out in support of LGBTQ students who lacked acceptance from their parents. That teacher, Tyler Wrynn, was labeled a “groomer” and a predator in social media posts.

According to LGBTQ advocacy groups, Raichik’s endless targeting only seems to encourage more violence against LGBTQ youth. 

Lance Preston, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, which has been working to assist queer youth in the state, posted a video expressing his frustration and anger over this death and the other anti-LGBTQ violence.

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