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Mormon leader’s lesbian descendant running for Congress

Claudia Wright forces runoff against five-term incumbent

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The lesbian great, great granddaughter of an early leader of the Mormon Church is attracting LGBT support in her bid to represent Utah in Congress.

In what could be an uphill battle, Claudia Wright, a retired high school teacher, is seeking to steal the Democratic nomination from five-term incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) in a primary election set for June 22.

Wright said she pursued a run against Matheson because she was displeased with his opposition to health care reform legislation, and doesn’t think he is accurately representing voters in the congressional district.

“As this became a gerrymandered district, his attitude was he’d have to move further to the right, but he’s now further to the right — especially on things like health care — he’s now further to the right than [Republican Sen. Bob] Bennett was,” Wright said. “I think he’s too far to the right to represent most of Utah.”

Wright forced a runoff in the race after Matheson failed to secure 60 percent of the vote from delegates at the Utah State Democratic Convention on May 8. Matheson received 55 percent of the vote; Wright received 45 percent.

This marks the first time Matheson hasn’t received enough support from delegates and has faced a primary runoff, according to the Utah-based Deseret News.

Wright said she believes she can beat Matheson in the primary because she’s focusing on issues of concern to Democrats and Republicans. She cited as two priorities public financing of campaigns and reform eliminating “too big to fail” safeguards for banks.

“I think that does appeal to moderates, and I think it does appeal to independents,” she said. “So I think I have a really good shot at perhaps getting the nomination and also winning in the fall.”

An out lesbian, Wright has been in a relationship for 13 years with Stephanie Pace, a retired college professor.

Wright said she has a limited portfolio in LGBT activism, but she contributed to the Utah Pride Center when it first opened in Salt Lake City and is a member of the Human Rights Campaign. She’s received support from a number of LGBT groups and associations within Utah, including an endorsement from the Stonewall Democrats of Utah Caucus.

Bruce Bastian, a gay billionaire philanthropist known for supporting many LGBT organizations, also has thrown his support behind Wright.

Wright has the distinction of being the great, great granddaughter of Brigham Young, an early leader of the Church of Latter-day Saints. He became church president in 1847. Wright said while that lineage may be impressive to people who live outside of Utah, “it’s not unusual” among people within the state because Young was known to have 55 wives and many descendants.

“So about every fourth person in the state is Brigham Young’s descendant,” she said. “Outside of the state, that sounds like a really big deal; inside of the state, it doesn’t get you very far.”

Wright, who said she was a Mormon but now doesn’t belong to any organized religion, is critical of the Mormon Church’s tenet that “sexuality is entirely choice.”

The church is recognized as having played a significant role in backing anti-gay initiatives, most notably Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage in California in 2008.

“I felt very out of place, first, as a single women, and then, as a lesbian, later on in the church,” she said. “I haven’t been an active member of the LDS Church in over 20 years.”

Still, Wright said she doesn’t “have any animosity” and that members of both sides of her family subscribe to the Mormon faith.

“I think eventually they’ll have to come around — just like the Catholic Church will, the Baptist Church will, and the Methodist Church will over time,” she said. “And they will. They’ll come to understand the issue better.”

Matheson is known for having a mixed voting record on LGBT issues during his tenure in Congress. He voted in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 and 2006.

The lawmaker voted in favor of hate crimes legislation and a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, but he also voted in favor of a motion of recommit to kill ENDA.

Still, Matheson was vocal in his support last week for legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Before voting in favor of the measure, he spoke on the House floor in support of it.

“Anyone who’s willing to put on this country’s uniform and put his or her life on the line to protect our freedoms deserves our respect and should not be subject to discrimination,” he said. “Repealing this flawed policy is an important way for us to show that respect.”

But Wright said she considers Matheson’s vote on the matter — as well as his co-sponsorship of an environmental bill — a way to appease more liberal voices in his district.

“He is trying to win back some of the environmentalists that endorsed me and he’s trying to do the same thing with the LGBT community,” she said. “I think he’s having limited success with both of those.”

Overtaking Matheson in the primary could be a challenge for Wright as his financial resources dwarf the amount she’s raised. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Matheson had more than $1.4 million in cash on hand, while Wright had about $9,000.

Wright dismissed the funding disparity, saying she’s “running a very different campaign” from Matheson.

She said “a lot of people” are working for her campaign across the state on a volunteer basis and would support her plans to go “town by town, county by county through the state” to compete with Matheson on the grassroots level.

“I can’t compete with him in money,” she said. “He’s always going to be able to afford more ads on TV and more ads on the radio, and I hope to do this person to person.”

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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