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Democrats in danger and playing defense

Pro-LGBT Senate allies Reid, Feingold, Boxer face tough re-election battles

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U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is one of several pro-LGBT lawmakers facing a tough battle for re-election this fall. (Photo courtesy of Reid's office)

Several veteran senators viewed as supportive of LGBT rights are facing tough re-election campaigns, prompting some activists and lobbyists to gear up for a defensive battle this fall.

Mike Mings, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s political action committee, said his organization is “certainly aware” that Democrats face a more difficult environment than in the previous two congressional elections.

“I think the Democrats were able to play offense in the last two cycles in a way that has created a different field today,” he said. “So, they’re [now] really looking at defense.”

Recently published polls brings into stark relief the troubling news for several incumbent U.S. senators. Rasmussen unveiled numbers last week showing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) trailing potential Republican opponents by double digits.

According to the polls, Reid would lose in a match with former Nevada Republican Party Chair Sue Lowden, 54-39; in a contest between Reid and former State Assembly member Sharron Angle, he trails 51-40; and in a contest against attorney Danny Tarkanian, Reid comes up short again, 49-42.

Viewed as an LGBT ally on Capitol Hill, Reid was involved last year in the decision to attach the hate crimes bill to the defense authorization bill and has often spoken in favor of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. military.

Also last year, Reid was the highest-ranking elected public official to endorse the National Equality March in D.C. A Mormon, Reid also reportedly criticized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for backing Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage in California.

Another longtime senator who could face an uphill re-election fight is Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.). A Wisconsin Public Radio/St. Norbert College poll published last week found him behind Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services who’s reportedly considering entering the Senate race.

In a hypothetical matchup, Feingold would lose to Thompson 45-33, according to the poll.

In 1996, Feingold was one of 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. Now a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and legislation to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Feingold introduced a resolution earlier this year to condemn legislation pending in Uganda that would institute the death penalty as punishment for those convicted of homosexual acts.

Also facing a tough re-election bid is Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). A poll published late last month by the Public Policy Institute of California found her in a dead heat with three potential Republican opponents.

According to the poll, Boxer would be essentially tied with former congressman Tom Campbell, with him leading 44-43. She would also be in a dead heat with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, with Boxer leading 44-43. Late last month, The Hill newspaper’s election forecasters moved the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.”

Boxer was also among the 14 senators to vote against DOMA in 1996. A co-sponsor of ENDA and of legislation to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Boxer last month introduced a bill that would allow same-sex domestic partners to have the same access to COBRA benefits as married couples in some circumstances.

Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s campaign manager, said the senator has “always expected a tough race” and has been “working for months to build a broad coalition of Californians from every background and walk of life.”

“With the active involvement of our supporters in the LGBT community and so many others, we will be able to reach out to the millions of Californians who will vote in November,” Kapolczynski said. “We need to do more to let California voters know that Barbara Boxer is focused on creating jobs and turning the economy around.”

The campaigns for Feingold and Reid didn’t respond to DC Agenda’s request for comment.

Mings said he couldn’t predict whether these senators would emerge victorious in their re-election campaigns. Still, he noted that they have an advantage because they’re incumbents, who traditionally fare better in elections.

“It’s not necessarily as big an advantage this year to be an incumbent as it is in other cycles, but it’s still [a] humongous advantage to be [an] incumbent, in terms of visibility, in terms of the organization and operations that they have, so I certainly wouldn’t count any of them out,” Mings said.

Hari Sevugan, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that it’s important for LGBT people to support these Democrats in their re-election campaigns because the party “values equality, inclusion and fairness.”

“From expanding partnership benefits in the workplace to lifting the ban on travel for those living with HIV/AIDS, from passage of hate crimes legislation to beginning to end [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] — we have worked to advance gay-rights in all corners of our society,” he said. “It’s not where we want to be yet, but we are moving forward.”

Sevugan warned “the progress we made could be lost” and “we could once again move backward” if Democrats aren’t re-elected or lose their control of Congress.

“We’ve seen what’s happened in Virginia where a Republican governor has taken the Commonwealth backward in history,” he said. “That is why we are committed to working with the LGBT community to elect allies that will continue to move the country toward fulfilling its promise of equality and justice for all.”

Mings said HRC has already given the maximum allowed donations of $10,000 each to Reid and Boxer to help them with their re-election campaigns. For Feingold’s race, Mings said HRC is waiting to see if Thompson will enter the fray.

“If he does, obviously, that changes our calculation quite a bit,” Mings said. “We need to step in and make sure that we’re engaging our membership in Wisconsin as much as possible to help [Feingold].”

In addition to moving to protect senators, Mings said HRC donated the maximum of $5,000 last year to many vulnerable allies in the U.S. House who are part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline Program.

“We don’t support all of those folks because some of them are pretty conservative Southerners or just conservative Blue Dogs, but we did make endorsements of a lot of those folks in late 2009 and made PAC contributions to them to try and help them with early money to boost their early financial filings,” Mings said.

Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, said his organization for now is focused on field work that seeks to persuade key senators to vote in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and is “still trying, where we can, to mobilize in support of ENDA, expecting a vote in the House in next couple weeks.”

But around mid-to-late summer, Rouse said HRC will “pivot big time and shift all of our resources” to re-electing supporters in Congress, especially in the Senate.

“Clearly it’s going to take a few months to really flesh out, but our membership is already being messaged that our No. 1 priority this fall is going to be to re-elect our friends and mobilize our members as much as possible,” Rouse said.

Rouse said HRC will be as “strategic as possible” in determining the best way to support its allies, but it’s too early to say what exactly the plan will be. Rouse noted that polling data for these races is still early and many states still have primary elections.

“What is clear right now is that we’ll be spending the significant amount of our resources on defense and protecting our friends and making sure that they’re back there in 2011 and beyond,” he said.

Even with HRC’s field team working to re-elect these senators, Rouse said it’s important for LGBT people to look to themselves to ask what they’re doing to help in the election.

“One can discuss and look at the polls about where Harry Reid is, how’s he doing, and what’s going on, but the fact of the matter is we need to make sure that anyone we know that lives in Nevada is working as hard as they can to help re-elect Harry Reid,” Rouse said. “So we can ask those questions, but we really have to ask, ‘What are you doing to make sure that Harry Reid gets re-elected? What are you doing to help make sure Barbara Boxer gets re-elected?’”

Rouse said it’s important that LGBT people are visible and working to help the re-election of congressional supporters.

“Once we’re in full election mode, we need to be there on the campaign trail supporting our allies and working really hard to be visible in helping them be re-elected because they will remember that we are there,” he said.

But could incumbent lawmakers become victims of political apathy among LGBT people if legislative priorities like ENDA and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” don’t move this year?

Michael Cole, an HRC spokesperson, said LGBT voters are “certainly” looking to this Congress for “action on pressing equality issues” and will be mindful of this progress as November approaches.

“That being said, there are a number of pro-LGBT champions up for reelection this year who have the record to deserve whole hearted support from the community,” he said.

But Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director for GOProud, a gay conservative group, said LGBT voters should carefully consider whether to support incumbent lawmakers this year.

“There [are] a lot of issues that gay people care about and there isn’t a single one of those Democrats, in my opinion, who have done anything that I would deem worthy of re-election,” LaSalvia said. “So ask yourself as a gay voter, ‘Well, what have they done that I agree with?’ And I’ll bet you that gay and lesbian [voters] can look at any of those senators and say, ‘You’re fired!’”

Should enough Democrats lose their seats this fall, control of either chamber of Congress could switch hands. Republicans would have to take 10 seats in the Senate and 41 seats in the House to regain control of both chambers of Congress. Such a loss of control would recall the 1994 election, when Republicans retook control of the House and Senate during Democratic President Bill Clinton’s first term in office.

LaSalvia said it’s too early to tell whether Democrats will lose control of Congress this fall, but noted that the situation would become clearer as the year progresses.

“I think it’s way too early to tell, but certainly they would lose seats, and all signs [show] gains by the Republicans,” he said. “I think that we’ve got a long summer ahead of us and the electoral picture and landscape will be a lot clearer when we get to September.”

Mings said he didn’t think Democrats would lose control of Congress because not enough seats are in jeopardy, but he noted that polling and fundraising numbers indicate the party will lose some seats.

“So the thing that’s important to remember is that a lot of people were caught off guard in 1994, and that’s something the Democrats are not going to let happen this time,” he said. “They’re really making sure that their folks are prepared for a really tough, brutal, expensive election and they’re out there really trying to show that their candidates are doing that.”

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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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