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U.S. Justice Department celebrates Pride

Attorney general says progress made, more work needed

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act protects LGBT people ‘from the most brutal forms of bias-motivated violence.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday emphasized the Obama administration’s progress on LGBT issues — particularly at the Department of Justice — while acknowledging more work is needed.

The attorney general made his remarks during a Justice Department reception commemorating June as Pride month. The event was coordinated by DOJ Pride, an affinity group for LGBT employees at the Justice Department.

During his speech, Holder cited the enactment of hate crimes protections legislation as among the major achievements for the Obama administration, noting the U.S. Code didn’t have a single line protecting LGBT people prior to the bill becoming law.

“Today, the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act — which the president signed into law last October — does just that, finally protecting our nation’s [LGBT] individuals from the most brutal forms of bias-motivated violence,” Holder said.

The attorney general also recognized the Obama administration’s recently announced reinterpretation of the Violence Against Women Act to include same-sex couples in situations involving domestic violence as another measure of progress.

Additionally, Holder mentioned the institution of a diversity management plan and the appointment of Channing Phillips as deputy associate attorney general for diversity, a newly created position.

Holder said these actions would help ensure the Justice Department can “effectively recruit, hire, retain, and develop a workforce that reflects our nation’s rich diversity — a department that welcomes and encourages the contributions of its LGBT employees.”

Still, Holder said more work remains to be done despite these accomplishments, although he didn’t mention any specific items the Obama administration has yet to address.

“Too many of the challenges that confronted the LGBT community 16 years ago — when DOJ Pride was founded — confront us still today,” Holder said. “Too many of the same obstacles that existed then remain for us to overcome.”

The attorney general was well received by the more than 100 Justice Department employees who attended the reception and received a standing ovation before and after his remarks.

Also offering remarks during the event were prominent LGBT people who were the first to hold certain high-profile positions within the Justice Department. Jenny Durkan, a lesbian and U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington State, emphasized the importance of the Justice Department’s mission within the federal government.

“We are the Department of Justice,” she said. “In all of government, we are the only ones whose name is also a mission, an inspiration and obligation.”

Durkan, the first openly gay U.S. attorney, said being openly gay can help “change hearts and minds” to make progress on LGBT issues.

She said studies and experience both show “the No. 1 thing” that can change a person’s views of the LGBT community is knowing an LGBT person.

“It takes acts of courage to come out to your family, to your friends, to your co-workers, but those acts of courage speak volumes,” she said. “It’s the single easiest thing that anyone of us can do to achieve equality.”

Sharon Lubinski, the first openly gay U.S. Marshal and who serves in the district of Minnesota, recounted her 1991 coming out story when she was serving as a sergeant in the Minneapolis police force to demonstrate the importance of being open about one’s sexual orientation.

Prior to that time, Lubinski said she was not publicly out and it affected police work when two gay men were murdered in a gay Minneapolis neighborhood. Lubinski noted that she had prided herself with her outreach to other minority populations in the city — including the black and Native American communities — but was unable to extend this outreach to LGBT people because she wasn’t out.

“At this point in time, in this critical point, when two gay men were murdered and I could have helped, I said nothing,” she said. “I said nothing and I was ashamed of myself.”

Shortly after, Lubinski made the decision to come out and made her sexual orientation public in a front-page article of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper. Lubinski said it was most difficult coming out to her colleagues, but added on that day she “never received so many hugs from police officers before.”

Recalling her experience becoming a U.S. Marshal, Lubinski said her sexual orientation wasn’t an issue either with the Justice Department or during the confirmation process before the U.S. Senate.

“What they were concerned about was my qualifications, my integrity and my ability to be a U.S. Marshal,” she said.

At the conclusion of the event, DOJ Pride presented its Gerald B. Roemer Community Service Award to David Catania (I-At Large), a gay D.C. City Council member, and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (D). Catania has been credited with leading the way to the legalization of same-sex marriage in D.C., while Gansler issued a legal opinion saying Maryland can recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

DOJ Pride also presented the James R. Douglas Award to Christopher Hook, the organization’s president and budget analyst for the Justice Department’s Justice Management Division.

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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: drag is ‘vulgar and lewd,’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Ruling ‘bristles with hostility toward LGBTQ people’

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J. Marvin Jones Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse in Amarillo, Texas (Photo: Library of Congress)

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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The White House

Harris to oversee White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Goal is to implement and expand upon legislation, executive actions

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, September 2023. (Official White House photograph by Lawrence Jackson)

The White House announced Thursday evening that President Joe Biden on Friday will establish the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The office will focus on implementing and expanding upon executive and legislative actions, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “to reduce gun violence, which has ravaged communities across the country.”

Serving under Harris will be Stefanie Feldman, “a longtime policy advisor to President Biden on gun violence prevention,” and “leading gun violence prevention advocates Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox.”

“Every time I’ve met with families impacted by gun violence as they mourn their loved ones, and I’ve met with so many throughout the country, they all have the same message for their elected officials: ‘do something,'” Biden said in a statement.

The president noted his signing of last year’s bipartisan gun violence prevention law, a flagship legislative accomplishment for the administration, along with his issuance of more executive actions than any president in history to address this problem.

Calling these “just the first steps,” Biden said the establishment of the White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention will “build upon these measures and keep Americans safe.”

He also urged Congress to do more by passing legislation requiring universal background checks, and baning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

In a statement, Harris said, “This epidemic of gun violence requires urgent leadership to end the fear and trauma that Americans experience every day.”

“The new Office of Gun Violence Prevention will play a critical role in implementing President Biden’s and my efforts to reduce violence to the fullest extent under the law,” she said, “while also engaging and encouraging Congressional leaders, state and local leaders, and advocates to come together to build upon the meaningful progress that we have made to save lives.”

“Our promise to the American people is this: we will not stop working to end the epidemic of gun violence in every community, because we do not have a moment, nor a life to spare,” the vice president said.

Then Vice President Biden hugs Brandon J. Wolf as he talks with family members of the victims and survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
Wolf, a Pulse survivor, was recently appointed National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
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