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LGBT staffer group returns to Capitol Hill

‘We’re going to be building relationships’

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Members of the newly re-launched LGBT Congressional Staff Association intend to focus on networking and behind-the-scenes policy work. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Openly gay staffers on Capitol Hill could find new opportunities to network and advance pro-gay legislation now that an LGBT staff association has returned following a period of dormancy.

The group, named the LGBT Congressional Staff Association, seeks to facilitate communication among LGBT staffers working for members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Scott Simpson, deputy press secretary for Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), officially took the reins of the organization Monday after dues-paying members voted him and other new board members into leadership roles.

In a Blade interview, Simpson, who’s 26 and gay, said the organization plans to take a low-profile approach to advance the needs of LGBT staffers and advance pro-LGBT policy in Congress.

“We’re uniquely positioned to work with a targeted audience and work with however many hundreds of Hill staffers we can find,” he said. “We’re not going to be out there trying to get the [Washington] Post to quote us or anything; we’re going to be building relationships.”

The group’s re-launch comes after an earlier version of the organization was founded about 15 years ago.

Simpson said the group — previously known as the Gay & Lesbian Congressional Staff Association — was founded to draw attention to the presence of LGBT staffers on the Hill.

“It was a very big deal, at least for us, on the Hill when it got started,” Simpson said. “It did a lot of good stuff for visibility at the time when there were some congressmen who outright said, ‘We would never hire a gay staffer.’”

Simpson said the LGBT Congressional Staff Association responded at the time by having press conferences to “show that there are actually LGBT people” who work on Capitol Hill.

In recent years, Simpson said the organization had the appearance of being dormant because it was continuing a commitment made when it was founded of protecting the identities of members who weren’t openly gay.

“They wanted that soft influence on policy and they wanted to protect the identities of their staffers, and that doesn’t lend itself to being the most vocal organization,” he said.

But Simpson said LGBT staffers on the Hill in recent months wanted to give new life to the organization, to make it more open and “continue on with the legacy of breaking barriers” that emerged when the association was founded.

Simpson said the group has been in the process of being reinvented for the past three to six months and, as part of its re-launch, tweaked its bylaws and took on the LGBT Congressional Staff Association name.

New goals for the organization include developing a web site and forming a women’s caucus that will have its own specific programming.

The organization’s membership varies widely depending on how it’s counted. Simpson said there are about 50 dues-paying members, but 400 are registered on the group’s e-mail list. One task the organization is considering, Simpson noted, is some type of “census” to determine how many LGBT staffers work on the Hill.

Simpson said the number of LGBT people working as Capitol Hill staffers might surprise those living outside the Beltway. He also noted that LGBT staffers “don’t line up with any particular caucus,” and can be found working with either Democratic or Republican members.

“There are a lot of LGBT staffers on the Hill and that’s a strength that we can tap into,” he said.

Some established and notable LGBT staffers comprise the LGBT Congressional Staff Association board. Diego Sanchez, who’s transgender and senior legislative adviser to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), will serve as policy director for the organization.

In a statement to the Blade, Sanchez said he’s honored to be the first openly transgender board member of the re-launched organization.

“The new bylaws and my corporate career expertise in diversity management will let me lead and work with my staffer colleagues to fortify how current laws and issues affect us and to repair any gaps to enrich the lives and careers of current and future LGBT people working on the Hill,” he said.

Group will work to influence LGBT policy

Simpson said the organization would work to influence LGBT policy matters related to bills on Capitol Hill, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

He said he wants to network with LGBT staffers to educate them on the issues and expand the number of co-sponsors on those bills.

“We’re going to be doing training and education on that,” he said. “We want to make sure that we are connecting and networking as many of these gay staffers in every office, in every party across geography to know what’s up.”

Simpson said one bill his organization is particularly pushing is the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act. The legislation would make same-sex partners of federal workers eligible for the same benefits available to the spouses of straight workers, including health and pension benefits.

Repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, a move that would allow the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, is another issue in which Simpson said his organization would be involved. With same-sex marriage now legal in D.C., he noted that many LGBT staffers are able to marry and want the federal benefits associated with marriage.

“Those directly affect our members because the federal government is prohibited from recognizing the validity of our relationships,” he said.

Additionally, Simpson said a goal of the organization is advancing the careers of LGBT staffers so they can serve in positions that give them more influence to move pro-LGBT legislation through Congress.

“If a job opens up that someone wants, we’re going to get together to use our network as a group to figure out how we can best get the person in this position, if they’re qualified for it,” he said.

But group activities won’t be all work. Simpson said networking opportunities would also include recreational events, such as happy hours.

“A lot of it is getting together and going to happy hours, just meeting and greeting, even in a non-drinking setting, believe it or not,” he said.

Elected officials have been helping re-launch the LGBT Congressional Staff Association. The openly gay members of Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — have sponsored the organization as an official staff group.

In a statement, Baldwin said she’s proud to sponsor the organization because LGBT staffers work in many capacities on the Hill for members of both parties.

“I’m very pleased to support this new iteration of the LGBT staff association,” she said. “In addition to serving as a networking and social group, this organization will help us advocate for more equitable policies in and out of government.”

Simpson said the out members of Congress aren’t technically eligible to become members of the organization because they aren’t staffers. Still, he noted that their sponsorship makes the group able to use the U.S. House web servers and e-mail system.

“If not for them, the organization wouldn’t exist,” he said. “If we need anything, we go to them because they’re our members.”

Simpson said he expects the LGBT Congressional Staff Association to have a collaborative relationship with the Gay, Lesbian & Allies Senate Staff Caucus, the affinity group for LGBT staffers working in the U.S. Senate.

Among the events in which both groups would plan joint participation are social and educational activities as well as marching in the same contingent next month during the Capital Pride parade.

“I’ve been talking with them,” Simpson said. “They’ve been helping us organize this newer reinvention for a while, so we’ve been very close.”

Alex Levy, co-chair of GLASS and legislative aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said his organization is “thrilled” to have the opportunity to collaborate with another LGBT group.

“They have lots of energy and it looks to be a dynamic leadership team, and we intend to work collaboratively with them to work for the interests of LGBT Hill staffers,” Levy said.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Richmondboi2011

    May 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Oooo…that one in the back with the blue tie is all Clark Kent looking…yum!

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

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.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

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.

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Federal Government

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

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

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 speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

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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