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Could 2010 be ‘Year of the Gay?’

Large number of out candidates running for office

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David Cicilline, the gay mayor of Providence, R.I., is seeking a U.S. House seat in this year’s election. (Photo courtesy of Cicilline Committee)

The unprecedented number of LGBT candidates expected to seek political office this November could be setting up 2010 as the “Year of the Gay.”

A number of gay candidates are running for high-profile office this year. In addition to the three openly gay lawmakers in the U.S. House seeking re-election, several non-incumbent gay candidates are running for Congress.

Steve Pougnet, the gay mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., is seeking a House seat and David Cicilline, the gay mayor of Providence, R.I., is also running for Congress. Another gay candidate, Ed Potosnak, is running to represent New Jersey in the U.S. House. All three men are campaigning as Democrats.

Gay candidates are also seeking election to prominent statewide offices. In Massachusetts, Richard Tisei, a state senator, is in contention to become the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. In Connecticut, Kevin Lembo, a health care advocate, is seeking the Democratic nomination to become lieutenant governor.

Additionally, several LGBT people are seeking election or re-election in races at the local level. Notable candidates include Kathy Webb, a lesbian who’s running for re-election to the Arkansas State House; Jolie Justus, a lesbian who’s running for re-election to the Missouri State Senate; and Heather Mizeur, a lesbian who’s running for re-election to the Maryland State House.

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which backs qualified LGBT candidates for political office, has endorsed for the November election 68 candidates for federal and local races. That’s the highest number of candidates the organization has ever endorsed at this point prior to a November election.

Denis Dison, a spokesperson for the organization, projected the Victory Fund will endorse at least 112 candidates by the time the general election arrives. It would be more candidates than the organization has ever endorsed for a general election.

“When people see someone like [lesbian] Annise Parker win election as mayor of Houston, they question their assumptions about what’s possible, and I think that when people see other LGBT candidates succeed, they believe they can they can do it, too,” Dison said.

The potential for the election of so many gay candidates to office could make 2010 a milestone in terms of visibility for LGBT officials. Such a change would echo a political phenomenon from 1992, which became known as the “Year of the Woman.” At the time, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton’s victory was accompanied by the election of four female Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

Three of those women still serve in the Senate today: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Carol Moseley Braun, a presidential candidate in 2004, was also elected to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Never before had four women been elected to the U.S. Senate in one election.

Dan Pinello, a gay government professor at the City University of New York, said the 1992 election’s outcome was the result of greater attention paid to feminist issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Anita Hill hearings on Capitol Hill.

“Maybe the same thing is happening now in the LGBT community, given what’s occurred in the last decade or so around the issue, for example, of relationship recognition,” he said. “So there may be a correlation there in terms of there being events that spark attention to a particular community, and then, a decade or so later, it’s recognized enough to have members of that community be acknowledged publicly through election to public office in substantial numbers.”

Despite this potential for gay wins, Pinello said even if three LGBT non-incumbent candidates were elected to Congress, it wouldn’t yet proportionately reflect the LGBT population if, as some national exit polling data indicates, around 4 percent of American voters self-identify as lesbian or gay.

“Thus, in order to increase the openly lesbian and gay membership of Congress so that it would be comparable to the proportion of the population that is gay, you’d need about 18 more members, or an additional 600 percent,” he said.

Pinello was skeptical, though, whether wins for LGBT candidates seeking office in Congress this November should be considered substantial. He said a greater number of candidates would be necessary to make representation more closely reflect the American public.

“If there were like eight or 10 out there, and 435 total seats in the House, that would be notable,” he said. “That would be a dramatic shift, but I don’t know that anything short of that would be.”

Nonetheless, Pinello said every additional LGBT person elected to office would be a representational win, and called having known LGBT candidates running for office “a substantial statement.”

Noting the lack of LGBT representation in public offices throughout the country, Dison said LGBT people have a “long way to go” toward achieving representation in elected office, even if 2010 brings significant success.

“There are over half a million elected offices in the country and only 470 right now are filled with openly LGBT persons,” he said. “We’re still at the beginning of this effort to have our voices heard in government.”

But Dison said with so many LGBT candidates seeking office, 2010 could bring a surge in LGBT representation and predicted that a majority of Victory Fund-endorsed candidates would be successful in their races.

“Our win rate has fluctuated sort of between 65 and 75 percent over the last five years,” he said. “If that tradition holds, we’ll see roughly 70 percent.”

Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said his organization intends to help LGBT candidates win election at the federal level as part of their overall plan to help Democrats win races this year.

“There are some great gay candidates out there — some who are already in, obviously, some who are running,” he said. “We are in the process of fine tuning our election plan and we’re going to be launching that very, very soon in the next couple weeks.”

Mitchell said he’s planning a coordinated campaign with an online presence intended to engage people across the country, using a model similar to what was used for the election of Parker as Houston mayor.

“We had folks from all across the country calling with Stonewall folks from Texas, and we were responsible for about 10,000 calls in one day,” Mitchell said. “We want to do similar things for the candidates that we are focused on, and I’m sure that some of those LGBT candidates will be included in our races.”

Dison said so many wins for LGBT candidates would benefit LGBT Americans because it would help ensure the community’s voice is heard.

“When people are able to speak from an authentic place as an LGBT person, it really changes the debate in the rooms where the decisions are made on things that affect our lives,” Dison said.

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Virginia

Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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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.

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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

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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.”

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National

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

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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.

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