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Obama earns mixed reviews on LGBT progress

Is the president our ‘fierce advocate’ or a disappointment?

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Once hailed as a ‘fierce advocate’ of LGBT equality, President Obama now inspires mixed reviews from activists. (Photo by Pete Souza; courtesy of the White House)

After 18 months in office, the harsh realities of politics and compromise have caught up to President Obama. Hailed as a champion of LGBT rights during the 2008 campaign, LGBT rights advocates now give Obama mixed reviews for his performance to date.

In a statement to the Blade, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said “there’s no doubt” that Obama has done more for LGBT people than any other U.S. president in history.

“Within the constraints of current law, he’s advanced policies that will vastly improve the lives of tens of millions,” Solmonese said. “Has change occurred quickly enough? No. The pace of change will never be quick enough for a community that is consistently denied their equality.”

Solmonese noted that LGBT people continue to face inequality on “a whole host of fronts” that could be remedied through legislative or policy change.

“But none of that obscures the fact that this president has and will continue to be our partner and advocate,” Solmonese said.

But Richard Socarides, a gay New York attorney who was an adviser to former President Clinton, has a very different view of Obama’s tenure. Socarides said there’s a “pretty strong consensus that it’s been a disappointing 18 months.”

Among Obama’s early disappointments, Socarides said, was the invitation to Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in California and staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, to give the invocation during last year’s inauguration.

More recently, Socarides said he was unhappy that Obama approved a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal compromise that “did not include a non-discrimination rule, nor even actual repeal.”

“When Obama took office, these were our priorities: open military service, a federal statute banning workplace discrimination, and repeal of federal anti-marriage laws,” Socarides said. “You tell me how we’re doing.”

Socarides also criticized the White House for failing to install a senior official whose primary responsibility is LGBT rights, much like the role he held in the Clinton administration.

“There is no gay person in Obama’s inner circle, period,” Socarides said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama ran on a commitment to bring change to all Americans — including LGBT people — and since taking office, the president has “taken many steps toward achieving that goal.”

Inouye noted the signing of federal hate crimes legislation as among Obama’s accomplishments for LGBT people and said the president looks forward to signing more pro-LGBT legislation.

“The president and his administration remain committed to achieving equality for all, and it’s clear that we’re moving forward,” Inouye said.

Two years ago, he issued an open letter during Pride month outlining his promises to the LGBT community.

“I’m running for president to build an America that lives up to our founding promise of equality for all — a promise that extends to our gay brothers and sisters,” Obama wrote at the time. “It’s wrong to have millions of Americans living as second‐class citizens in this nation. And I ask for your support in this election so that together we can bring about real change for all LGBT Americans.”

In the letter, Obama pledged to “place the weight” of his administration behind the enactment of hate crimes protections legislation and to pass a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Obama has sometimes been credited with having a role in the decision to advance the hate crimes legislation last year as an amendment to defense authorization legislation.

Progress on ENDA, on the other hand, has been stagnant. The bill remains pending before committees in the House and Senate and many supporters are concerned that lawmakers won’t take up the bill by year’s end.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, noted that Obama “exerted appropriate influence” in guiding the hate crimes legislation toward passage.

On ENDA, Keisling said the administration has been “as helpful as they can be” to this point, and she expects the president “will be a lot more helpful once it starts moving.”

At this point, Keisling said “there really hasn’t yet been much for them to do” on ENDA.

Keisling noted that for congressional hearings on ENDA last year in the House and Senate, the administration sent officials who provided “really great testimony” in favor of moving forward with the legislation.

“If the president had prioritized ENDA instead of, I don’t know, health care reform or financial reform or bank bailouts, we’d be better off, but he prioritized what he prioritized,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that when ENDA does start moving, the White House will be extremely supportive and will help get it done.”

Also in the letter, Obama promised to “use the bully pulpit” to urge states to treat same-sex couples equally in their family and adoption laws. He additionally advocated for the establishment of civil unions as the best way to advance rights for LGBT couples.

“But I also believe that the federal government should not stand in the way of states that want to decide on their own how best to pursue equality for gay and lesbian couples — whether that means a domestic partnership, a civil union, or a civil marriage,” Obama wrote.

Additionally, the presidential candidate said he supported “complete repeal” of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does,” Obama wrote.

Obama has stuck to his position on same-sex marriage as several jurisdictions — such as Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and D.C. — have advanced marriage rights for same-sex couples. The White House has either said nothing in response to those developments or reiterated that Obama prefers civil unions.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York-based Freedom to Marry, said Obama has “taken some positive steps” in advocating for same-sex couples, but hasn’t “matched his actions to his words.”

Wolfson said Obama should be leading the fight to repeal DOMA legislatively through the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill pending in the U.S. House, and should stop urging judges to “rubberstamp” DOMA in Justice Department briefs defending the statute against legal challenges.

“And, most importantly, he should make the case to the American people that same-sex couples deserve fair and equal treatment under the law — using personal stories and appeals to values such as fairness, respect for commitment and the Golden Rule,” Wolfson said.

Another item that Obama mentioned in the letter is repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Late last month, Congress voted in favor of a compromise measure that would end the law after the Pentagon completes its study on the issue at the end of the year.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the White House’s endorsement of the compromise the week that Congress voted on it was helpful in finding the votes needed to advance the measure.

“The fact that the White House was willing to come out and publicly support a repeal plan and get the Pentagon to do the same was a critical element in getting that passed in the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Nicholson said.

Still, Nicholson said he didn’t know how involved Obama was in lobbying members of the House and Senate directly to vote in favor of repeal once the deal was reached.

Also in the letter, Obama pledged to work to address HIV/AIDS, arguing that “we do not have to choose between values and science” in working to fight the epidemic.

“While abstinence education should be part of any strategy, we also need to use common sense,” he wrote. “We should have age‐appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception.”

Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said he had mixed feelings about Obama’s track record on the matter.

“There have been a lot of positives, but there still needs to be greater attention in response and resources,” he said.

Schmid said Obama has followed through on his plans to confront HIV/AIDS through scientific means and has set out to eliminate “abstinence-only” sex education programs through the budget process.

But Schmid noted the abstinence-only sex education programs were reinstated by amendment in the passage of the health care reform legislation.

“It’s not in the appropriations bill, but it’s in the managerial program now, just like it was in the past,” he said.

Schmid cited the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act as an accomplishment regarding HIV/AIDS, as well as passage of health care reform legislation, which he called a “huge, huge, huge accomplishment.”

He said the White House was of limited help, though, in pushing to renew funding under the Ryan White Care Act.

“The administration was very slow in getting their principle and positions out on getting the Ryan White reauthorized,” he said. “They didn’t speak out and early enough. Ryan White is up for renewal in 2013 — right before all this health care reform kicks in. We’re going to need the administration’s support for the continuation of Ryan White after 2013.”

Noting a national AIDS strategy is currently being developed in the White House, Schmid said he hopes the plan will provide the discussion of homosexuality at appropriate ages in sex education programs because HIV is often transmitted through men who have sex with men.

Schmid gave Obama credit for lifting the travel ban that prevented foreign nationals with HIV from entering the country, although he noted this process began under the Bush administration with the passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief legislation.

Obama closed his letter by calling on people to step “outside our comfort zone” to win broader support for LGBT rights in places often considered homophobic, such as black churches.

“If we want to repeal DOMA, repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and implement fully inclusive laws outlawing hate crimes and discrimination in the workplace, we need to bring the message of LGBT equality to skeptical audiences as well as friendly ones — and that’s what I’ve done throughout my career,” Obama wrote.

In the letter, Obama noted that he spoke out against homophobia during the presidential campaign at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., where Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached.

Obama also spoke out against homophobia during a February speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C., a gathering of Christian evangelical leaders. And late last month, Obama spoke in favor of LGBT rights during his keynote speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s centennial convention.

Sharon Lettman, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said Obama has “absolutely” been faithful to his promise of speaking out in favor of LGBT rights in places that are sometimes deemed unfriendly to LGBT people.

“I’ve experienced it on a number of occasions in predominantly black or all black venues,” she said. “Even in his normal stump speech, he makes reference to his support of LGBT equality.”

Lettman said as the first black president, Obama has a special role to play in educating black Americans about the LGBT community.

“He makes a point to always be inclusive,” she said. “He doesn’t selectively leave it out — not just in black churches, but in front of civil rights leaders and civil rights venues, like the NAACP convention, and other areas.”

Lettman said Obama is “definitely trying to paint a picture of one America” in his actions and his speeches.

“In so many ways, even in the progressive agenda, people don’t always select to include our community,” she said, “and I have to give him a lot of credit for making sure that he speaks with one voice about his support for LGBT equality.”

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The White House

EXCLUSIVE: Jill Biden to host White House Pride celebration

Event to take place on June 26

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First lady Jill Biden (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

First lady Jill Biden will host the White House Pride Month celebration on June 26, according to a press release previewed by the Washington Blade.

The party on the South Lawn will also feature a performance by singer, songwriter, actress, and record producer Deborah Cox and musical selections by DJ Trifle.

This year’s event comes on Equality Day this year, which honors the anniversaries of three landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that expanded rights and protections for LGBTQ Americans: Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down sodomy laws, United States v. Windsor (2013), which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which made marriage equality the law of the land.

The White House highlighted some of the “historic action” taken by President Joe Biden to “advance LGBTQ+ equality for the community,” including:

  • Signing into law the landmark Respect for Marriage Act which protects the rights of same-sex and interracial couples;
  • Appointing a historic number of LGBTQI+ and transgender appointees, including the first transgender American to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate;
  • Directing all federal agencies to strengthen civil rights protections on the basis of gender identity, resulting in agencies working to strengthen protections in housing, health care, education, employment, the criminal justice system, nutrition programs, and more;
  • Reversing the ban on open service by transgender members of the military;
  • Signing an executive order focused on LGBTQI+ children and families that directs agencies to address the dangerous and discredited practice of so-called “conversion therapy” and finalized rule-making that ends disparities that LGBTQI+ children and parents face in the child welfare and foster care system and protects against disparities in health care; and
  • President Biden continues to call on Congress to pass the Equality Act to enshrine civil rights protections for LGBTQI+ Americans in federal law.

Last year, the president and the first lady hosted the celebration, which was the largest Pride event ever held at the White House.

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National

65% of Black Americans support Black LGBTQ rights: survey

Results show 40% have LGBTQ family member

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(Logo courtesy of the NBJC)

The National Black Justice Coalition, a D.C.-based LGBTQ advocacy organization, announced on June 19 that it commissioned what it believes to be a first-of-its-kind national survey of Black people in the United States in which 65 percent said they consider themselves “supporters of Black LGBTQ+ people and rights,” with 57 percent of the supporters saying they were “churchgoers.”

In a press release describing the findings of the survey, NBJC said it commissioned the research firm HIT Strategies to conduct the survey with support from five other national LGBTQ organizations – the Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Family Equality, and GLSEN.

“One of the first surveys of its kind, explicitly sampling Black people (1,300 participants) on Black LGBTQ+ people and issues – including an oversampling of Black LGBTQ+ participants to provide a more representative view of this subgroup – it investigates the sentiments, stories, perceptions, and priorities around Black values and progressive policies, to better understand how they impact Black views on Black LGBTQ+ people,” the press release says.

It says the survey found, among other things, that 73 percent of Gen Z respondents, who in 2024 are between the ages of 12 and 27, “agree that the Black community should do more to support Black LGBTQ+ people.”

According to the press release, it also found that 40 percent of Black people in the survey reported having a family member who identifies as LGBTQ+ and 80 percent reported having “some proximity to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer people, but only 42 percent have some proximity to transgender or gender-expansive people.”

The survey includes these additional findings:

• 86% of Black people nationally report having a feeling of shared fate and connectivity with other Black people in the U.S., but this view doesn’t fully extend to the Black LGBTQ+ community. Around half — 51% — of Black people surveyed feel a shared fate with Black LGBTQ+ people.

• 34% reported the belief that Black LGBTQ+ people “lead with their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Those participants were “significantly less likely to support the Black LGBTQ+ community and most likely to report not feeling a shared fate with Black LGBTQ+ people.”

• 92% of Black people in the survey reported “concern about youth suicide after being shown statistics about the heightened rate among Black LGBTQ+ youth.” Those expressing this concern included 83% of self-reported opponents of LGBTQ+ rights.

• “Black people’s support for LGBTQ+ rights can be sorted into three major groups: 29% Active Accomplices, 25% Passive Allies (high potential to be moved), 35% Opponents. Among Opponents, ‘competing priorities’ and ‘religious beliefs’ are the two most significant barriers to supporting Black LGBTQ+ people and issues.”

• 10% of the survey participants identified as LGBTQ. Among those who identified as LGBTQ, 38% identified as bisexual, 33% identified as lesbian or gay, 28% identified as non-binary or gender non-conforming, and 6% identified as transgender.

• Also, among those who identified as LGBTQ, 89% think the Black community should do more to support Black LGBTQ+ people, 69% think Black LGBTQ+ people have fewer rights and freedoms than other Black people, 35% think non-Black LGBTQ+ people have fewer rights and freedom than other Black people, 54% “feel their vote has a lot of power,” 51% live in urban areas, and 75% rarely or never attend church.

Additional information about the survey from NBJC can be accessed here.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Club Q shooter sentenced to life in prison for federal hate crimes

Five people killed in 2022 mass shooting in Colo.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. (Justice Department YouTube screenshot)

Anderson Lee Aldrich, 24, formerly of Colorado Springs, Colo., was sentenced to 55 concurrent life sentences to run consecutive to 190 years in prison after pleading guilty to 74 hate crimes and firearms charges related to the Nov. 19, 2022, mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ establishment in Colorado Springs.  

According to the plea agreement, Aldrich admitted to murdering five people, injuring 19, and attempting to murder 26 more in a willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated attack at Club Q. According to the plea, Aldrich entered Club Q armed with a loaded, privately manufactured assault weapon, and began firing. Aldrich continued firing until subdued by patrons of the club. As part of the plea, Aldrich admitted that this attack was in part motivated because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of any person.

“Fueled by hate, the defendant targeted members of the LGBTQIA+ community at a place that represented belonging, safety, and acceptance — stealing five people from their loved ones, injuring 19 others, and striking fear across the country,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Today’s sentencing makes clear that the Justice Department is committed to protecting the right of every person in this country to live free from the fear that they will be targeted by hate-fueled violence or discrimination based on who they are or who they love. I am grateful to every agent, prosecutor, and staff member across the Department — from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, to the Civil Rights Division, the ATF, and FBI — for their work on this case. The Justice Department will never stop working to defend the safety and civil rights of all people in our country.”

“The 2022 mass shooting at Club Q is one of the most violent crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community in history,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The FBI and our partners have worked tirelessly towards this sentencing, but the true heroes are the patrons of the club who selflessly acted to subdue the defendant. This Pride Month and every month, the FBI stands with the survivors, victims, and families of homophobic violence and hate.”

“ATF will not rest until perpetrators like this defendant are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). “I hope today’s life sentence brings at least some peace to the victims and survivors of this senseless, horrific tragedy. That this sentence should come during Pride month reinforces how far we have left to go before all communities, including all LGBTQIA+ communities, are safe here. It also shows how far ATF and all our partners will go to ensure hatred does not win.”

“The defendant’s mass shooting and heinous targeting of Club Q is one of the most devastating assaults on the LGBTQIA+ community in our nation’s history. This sentence cannot reclaim the lives lost or undo the harms inflicted. But we hope that it provides the survivors, the victims’ families, and their communities a small measure of justice,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Our message today should be loud and clear. No one should have to fear for their life or their safety because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Justice Department will vigorously investigate and prosecute those who perpetrate hate-fueled, bias-driven attacks.”

“Hate has no place in our country and no place in Colorado” said Acting U.S. Attorney Matt Kirsch for the District of Colorado. “I hope that today’s sentence demonstrates to the victims and those connected to this horrific event that we do not tolerate these heinous acts of violence.”

The FBI Denver Field Office, Colorado Springs Police Department, and ATF investigated the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alison Connaughty and Bryan Fields for the District of Colorado and, Maura White of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division prosecuted the case.

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