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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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California mom claims school manipulated child into changing gender identity

Jessica Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham & Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon with client, Jessica Konen (Screenshot Fox News)

A Northern California mother is claiming teachers in a small school district in the state manipulated her daughter into changing her gender identity and name in a legal claim. 

The claim, filed by the ultra-conservative Center for American Liberty on behalf of the mother, alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct” by the Spreckels Union School District, leading Jessica Konen’s 11-year-old daughter to change her gender identity and drive a wedge between them.

Specifically, the claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, names two teachers – Lori Caldera and Kelly Baraki – at Buena Vista Middle who, in addition to teaching, ran the school’s Equality Club, later known as UBU (You Be You). Buena Vista is a part of the district. 

It comes after Abigail Shrier, the author of a book widely criticized as anti-trans, quoted what the two educators said last year at the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference in a piece headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids.” Caldera and Baraki spoke about the difficulty of running a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in a socially conservative community. 

After the article was published, the teachers were put on administrative leave, and the district hired a law firm to investigate, which is ongoing. The UBU club was suspended. 

Spreckels is a town of about 400 people in the agricultural Salinas Valley, approximately 90 miles south of San Francisco

According to the complaint, Konen’s daughter began attending Equality Club meetings after being invited by a friend when she started sixth grade at Buena Vista. After attending one session, she decided it wasn’t for her until Caldiera convinced her to come back. At the gatherings, Caldera and Baraki held LGBTQ-centered discussions and introduced students to different gender identities and sexualities. 

During her time in the club, Konen’s daughter began exploring her own gender identity and sexuality, choosing to wear more masuline clothes. At some point, she decided to change her name and pronouns, which she has since changed back to her original name and pronouns. 

Konen said she was aware her daughter was bisexual but did not know she began using a male name and gender pronouns until she was called into the school when her daughter was in seventh grade. The meeting caught both Konen and her daughter by surprise – Konen’s daughter had said she wanted to notify her mother, but she did not know the meeting was that day. 

Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her. 

However, when Shrier’s article was published and circulated around the small town, everything changed. At this time, Konen’s daughter was again using a female name and pronouns.

In the leaked recording from the LGBTQ conference, Caldera and Baraki were discussing how they kept meetings private, among other things. 

“When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”

However, Caldera told the San Francisco Chronicle that the quotes were either taken out of context or misrepresented. According to Caldera, the stalking comment was a joke. She also defended their work, saying students lead the conversation and they provide honest and fair answers to their questions.
In addition, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association criticized the group bringing the lawsuit forward, according to the Associated Press: “We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities for their own political gain, which is evident in this complaint. The Center for American Liberty is concerned with pushing its own political agenda through litigation and has filed multiple lawsuits against various school districts and communities.”

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GOP majority city council to repeal LGBTQ+ law in Pennsylvania

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move […] This issue should not be politicized”

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Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Photo Credit: Borough of Chambersburg)

The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) will meet on Monday, January 24 for a likely vote to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

Opposition to the ordinance is led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. In an interview with media outlet Penn Live Saturday, Coffman said, “All of us that ran in this election to be on council we think we got a mandate from the people,” he said. “People we talked to when we were campaigning did not like this ordinance at all. I don’t know what the vote will be, but I have a pretty good idea.”

The political makeup of the council changed with the November municipal election, which ushered in a 7-3 Republican majority.

The ordinance, which extends protections against discrimination to gay, transgender or genderqueer people in employment, housing and public accommodations, was passed in October by the then-Democratic majority council, Penn Live reported.

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

Coffman told Penn Live that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

Penn Live’s Ivey DeJesus noted if Chambersburg succeeds in repealing the ordinance, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ inclusive law is revoked in Pennsylvania. To date, 70 municipalities have ratified such ordinances.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

Equality Florida quickly condemned the measure

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The Florida State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

The Republican majority Florida House Education and Employment Committee on Thursday passed House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23 percent lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Los Angeles Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85 percent of transgender and non-binary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66 percent) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56 percent of transgender and non-binary youth said it made them feel angry, 47 percent felt nervous and/or scared, 45 percent felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, the Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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