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Obama cheered at Pride reception

Family leave, hospital visitation changes announced

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During a White House reception keyed to Pride month, President Barack Obama said change begins not in Washington but ‘with acts of compassion — and sometimes defiance — across America.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Barack Obama encouraged LGBT people to stand up for their rights and who they are during a White House reception Tuesday where attendees greeted him with cheers and applause.

At a celebration commemorating June as Pride month, Obama commended the invitees for their work and said their visit was a reminder that the change he called for during his presidential campaign “never comes — or at least never begins — in Washington.”

“It begins with acts of compassion — and sometimes defiance — across America,” he said. “And it begins when these impositions of conscience start opening hearts that had been closed, and when we finally see each other’s humanity, whatever our differences.”

Unlike many of Obama’s LGBT critics, people at the Pride reception welcomed the president warmly with thunderous applause and cheers as he and Vice President Joseph Biden entered the East Room, where the reception was held.

An estimated 300 people were expected to attend the event, although the actual number in attendance appeared closer to 100 as the event took place.

According to people familiar with Tuesday’s reception, invitees were restricted to the heads of state equality groups, U.S. House members, LGBT people with compelling stories and a contingent of LGBT youth. The leaders of national LGBT organizations didn’t receive invitations.

During the event, Obama addressed two changes his administration is making to afford more rights to LGBT people and their families. The newly announced changes cap off a series of pro-LGBT changes his administration has made in recent weeks in apparent connection with June as Pride month.

The first change, formally issued earlier in the day by the Labor Department, sets new rules to reinterpret the Family & Medical Leave Act to include same-sex couples and their children.

“And in an announcement today, the Department of Labor made clear that under the Family & Medical Leave Act, same-sex couples — as well as others raising children — are to be treated like the caretakers that they are,” Obama said.

According to a statement from the Labor Department, the Obama administration reinterpreted the definition of “son and daughter” under FMLA to extend family leave rights to any worker who cares for a child, including the same-sex partner of a biological parent.

FMLA, enacted in 1993, allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to care for loved ones, or themselves, and allows employees to take time off from work for the adoption or the birth of a child.

Obama also touted recent actions by the Department of Health & Human Services following through on an April hospital memorandum. Obama’s order directed HHS to work on implementing regulations in which hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding must allow same-sex partners to have hospital visitation rights and the ability to make emergency medical decisions for each other.

The president said Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday sent a letter asking hospitals “to adopt these changes now — even before the rule takes effect.”

Following the White House Pride reception, the Department of Health & Human Services made public the letter that Sebelius sent to hospitals with the request for “voluntary support” until new regulations are published.

“Your actions could spare many patients the pain of being separated from a loved one during an admission to a hospital — often one of the most anxious times in their lives,” Sebelius wrote.

In addition to announcing new administrative changes, the president also renewed his call for legislative changes to eliminate discrimination against LGBT people.

Obama reiterated his call to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, citing his belief that LGBT couples “deserve the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country.” He also called on Congress to approve a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“No one in America should be fired because they’re gay,” Obama said. “It’s not right, it’s not who we are as Americans, and we are going to put a stop to it.”

Obama also called for an end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” citing recent congressional votes to repeal the statute and an upcoming vote in the full Senate on the defense budget bill to which repeal language is attached.

“We have never been closer to ending this discriminatory policy,” Obama said. “And I’m going to keep on fighting until that bill is on my desk and I can sign it.”

The president said the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal compromise Congress pushed forward is the best way to approach an end to the law because the measure allows the Pentagon to complete its review by the end of this year.

Obama said the review process is important not only to have the votes for passage in Congress, but to ensure “the change is accepted and implemented effectively.”

A number of high-profile LGBT Americans were at the reception, including some who’ve recently made headlines.

Notables included Constance McMillan, the lesbian high school student from Aberdeen, Miss. who was barred from taking her girlfriend to prom; Janice Langbehn, a lesbian whose inability to see her dying partner in the hospital prompted Obama to issue the hospital memorandum; and Chely Wright, the country music singer who recently came out as lesbian and performed earlier this month at Capital Pride.

Also in attendance were Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), as well as gay Reps. Jared Polis (D-Pa.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Other attendees were high-ranking members of the Obama administration, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Tina Tchen, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Openly gay administration officials at the event included John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; Fred Hochberg, president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank; Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Brian Bond, LGBT liaison for the White House.

Tuesday’s reception capped a series of other events this week in various executive departments celebrating June as Pride month. These celebrations featured remarks from high-profile officials in the Obama administration, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

At the White House reception, the contingent of LGBT youth received special attention from Obama for what he said was bravely standing up for themselves and seeking visibility.

“It’s not easy standing up all the time and being who you are,” he said. ”But they’re showing us the way forward. These young people are helping to build a more perfect union, a nation where all of us are equal; each of us is free to pursue our own versions of happiness.”

Obama said the young LGBT people at the White House reception served as a reminder that “we all have an obligation to ensure that no young person is ever made to feel worthless or alone — ever.”

Among the LGBT youth present at the White House reception was Morgan Keenan, an advisor for an LGBT youth group based in St. Louis, Mo. known as Growing American Youth.

Keenan said prior to the president’s remarks, Obama met with 15 or 16 young people who identified as LGBT — including two young people who came as part of Keenan’s delegation from St. Louis.

“For the youth that I brought, it’s going to change their world,” Keenan said. “They’re going to come out of there different than when they went in, but I hope that he listens to them.”

People at the event — many of whom were donors and contributors to the Democratic Party — largely had kind words about Obama and the progress his administration has made on LGBT issues.

Estevan Garcia, a gay pediatrician and New York resident, said he came to the reception representing the Family Equality Council, a national LGBT family organization to which he noted he often donates.

Garcia said family issues are particularly important to him and his partner because he’s married and has three children. He described the president’s remarks during the reception as “right on.”

“We’re big supporters and have been for a while,” Garcia said. “We felt that he really is working behind the scenes a little bit to push our causes.”

Garcia said the advancement of LGBT issues is “a slow process” and he’s willing to give Obama “the benefit of a doubt” on the matter.

Similarly appreciative of Obama’s efforts was George Meldrum, a gay Democratic lobbyist and activist from Wilmington, Del.

“I like the direction he’s going,” Meldrum said. “I understand the nature of politics and I’m very patient, partly because of the nature of the work that I do. Politics is all about compromise.”

Meldrum, 62, commended Obama for making pro-LGBT changes through administrative action, which he said enables the president to move forward without going through the legislative system, where he might not find success.

“He’s saying the right things and I think he’s doing the right things,” Meldrum said. “His plate is very full. We’re one of the things on that plate.”

But one reception attendee who was critical of the Obama administration’s progress was Alexandra Beninda, a transgender D.C. resident and Democratic activist.

Beninda said the president’s remarks during the reception — as they were during his campaign — were “very hopeful and encouraging and all that,” but she’s seeking more.

“I do get feeling that a lot more could be done and wonder what direction we can point them in terms of trying to get things done,” she said.

Citing concern about the failure so far to pass ENDA, Beninda said current law is creating an environment where “people are getting fired from their jobs and being denied jobs on a daily basis.”

“Basically, what it comes down to is you have an administration and a Democratic Legislature that is allowing discrimination on a regular basis and not taking the right steps to do anything about it,” she said.

Beninda said she wants Obama to be “a lot more forceful” with Congress to prompt lawmakers to action on ENDA and other pro-LGBT bills.

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Texas

Anti-trans Texas Democrat loses primary to queer woman

Lauren Ashley Simmons defeated state Rep. Shawn Thierry

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Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry, picture from a public feed, and Lauren Ashley Simmons, picture courtesy of the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund.

BY ERIN REED | Houston Democratic Texas House of Representatives incumbent Shawn Thierry was trounced in a primary runoff election on Tuesday.

Thierry was one of only a handful of Democrats across the country who broke ranks with her party and voted for a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth, delivering a lengthy and misinformation-filled speech in doing so.

After her anti-trans vote, queer union organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons stepped forward to unseat her, earning dozens of influential endorsements from party leaders and organizations. On Tuesday night, Simmons left no doubt about her victory: She resoundingly won by a 65-35 percent margin.

On May 12, Thierry voted to pass a gender-affirming care ban for trans youth, an exceedingly rare vote for a Democrat. In doing so, she spoke on the House floor, calling trans girls “biological males” and arguing that conversion therapy was the true solution to gender dysphoria.

She also voted against every amendment intended to mitigate the harm the bill would cause trans youth in the state. This led to a vote to censure Thierry by the Meyerland Area Democrats, who reported feeling betrayed by her earlier assurances that she was an ally to the LGBTQ community.

Thierry’s district, the 146th District of the Texas House of Representatives, is not a swing district. It includes predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Houston that tend to vote heavily Democratic. Previously, Thierry had beaten a Libertarian candidate by a 87-13 percent margin, with no Republican running in the race. Thus, whoever wins the Democratic primary in the district is likely to represent the district in the Texas House of Representatives.

Enter Simmons, a queer union organizer who ran in opposition to Thierry’s anti-LGBTQ votes and activism. In her announcement that she would be challenging Thierry in the primary, Simmons stated, “Our current representative has lost her way and now votes with Greg Abbott and Republicans to take away our rights, destroy our public schools, and hurt our kids.”

Simmons quickly garnered major endorsements, an uncommon feat for a primary challenger to an incumbent politician. Equality Texas, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, and LPAC, all significant LGBTQ organizations, endorsed her.

She also secured major union endorsements from the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO, and the Service Employees International Union. Additional support came from Planned Parenthood, Harris County Young Democrats, and Run for Something. High-profile congressional endorsements included Congresswomen Jasmine Crockett and Lizzie Fletcher, as well as former Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

In the lead-up to the election, which was quickly becoming a referendum on whether anti-trans politics could gain a foothold in the Democratic Party, Thierry did not tone down her anti-LGBTQ sentiment. She participated in “faith walks” with major local churches supportive of her stance and relied heavily on Republican donations.

When asked about her anti-trans votes, she called gender-affirming care “Black genocide.” Thierry’s statements were decried by major community members, including Diamond Stylz Collier, who leads the Texas nonprofit Black Trans Women Inc. Collier called the comments disgusting, stating, “We have an increase of trans people dying of violence around the country and a real-life genocide happening in other parts of the globe.”

As votes poured in on Tuesday evening, it became clear that Simmons would be the victor. She secured a decisive majority, with the district voting 65-35 percent in her favor over Thierry. Reflecting on her victory, Simmons stated, “Thanks to your amazing support, we all won BIG last night! We are so grateful, and so proud of the strong message this decisive victory sends to those who seek political gain by using bigotry, hatred, and fear: STOP. Thank you!”

Increasingly, anti-trans influencers are attempting to make inroads into left-leaning politics, a strategy that has seen mixed results internationally. In the U.K., for instance, the Labour Party has been notoriously poor on trans rights.

In the U.S., however, these efforts have met with far less success. Just yesterday in California, an attempt to place a gender-affirming care ban on the ballot was defeated. Similarly, in most states, Democrats have remained steadfast against anti-transgender legislation. Now, even in a conservative state like Texas, it is evident that there is little appetite within the party for sacrificing transgender rights, and doing so could jeopardize one’s political career.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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National

National LGBTQ blood donation drive underway

‘Summer of Giving’ campaign to promote awareness of new donor guidelines

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Gay men are eligible to donate blood after decades of being banned. (Photo by Belish/Bigstock)

GLAAD, which describes itself as the world’s leading LGBTQ media advocacy organization, and America’s Blood Centers, a national organization of community-based independent blood donation centers, announced on May 22 they have launched an LGBTQ supportive “Summer of Giving” national blood donation drive campaign.

The announcement says the campaign is aimed at encouraging “businesses to host blood drives and all eligible individuals to donate blood in support of the recent FDA eligibility changes that promote fairness and inclusivity in the donation process while maintaining the safety of the blood supply.”

The joint announcement was referring to the final revised blood donation rules issued in May 2023 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that replaced a previous policy requiring men who have sex with men to abstain from sex for three months before they would be eligible to donate blood.

The previous policy was among the gradual changes made by the FDA from its original policy in the 1980s of automatically banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood due to their perceived risk of HIV infection. LGBTQ activists called that policy discriminatory because it banned all gay and bisexual men from donating blood even if they were not as individuals at risk for HIV infection.

The new policy, adopted in May 2023, according to a statement released by the FDA, put in place a screening process that asks all prospective donors regardless of their sexual orientation to answer a series of individual, risk-based questions to determine their eligibility for donating blood.

The FDA statement said implementation of the new policy “will represent a significant milestone for the agency and the LGBTQI+ community” as stated by Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

“The ‘Summer of Giving’ is a celebration of the LGBTQ community and decades of work to remove the stigma too many potential donors have to endure,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis in the joint statement. “Removing discriminatory barriers and following facts and science will ease the critical national blood shortage,” Ellis said, adding, “This campaign sends a long-needed message that LGBTQ people are welcome and can generously contribute to their communities to help save lives.”

Kate Fry, CEO of America’s Blood Centers, said in the statement that her organization is proud to join GLAAD to promote the facts surrounding the FDA’s change in blood donor policy, which she said, “prioritizes the safety of the blood supply while bringing more equality to the donation process.”

Fry added, “The Summer of Giving campaign is a unique opportunity for individuals and businesses to donate blood and host blood drives in support of a new era of blood donor eligibility. Together we can help save lives during a time of critical need for the blood community.”

 The joint statement announcing the LGBTQ supportive blood drive says it would take place from May 28, 2024, through National Blood Donation Day on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2024, “in recognition of the critical need for blood donations during the summer months.” According to the statement, “Despite the ongoing demand for blood products, donations typically decline during this period due to travel and the lack of school-based blood drives.”

Under the revised FDA blood donation policy, as was the case with the previous policy, anyone who tests positive for HIV is not eligible to donate blood. The new policy includes these restrictions, which apply to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender:

• Any individual who has had a new sexual partner in the past three months and has engaged in anal sex in the same period is deferred for three months from the most recent sexual contact from donating blood.

 • Any individual who has had more than one sexual partner in the past three months and has engaged in anal sex during that same period is deferred for three months from the most recent sexual contact.

• Any individual who has taken any oral antiviral medication to prevent HIV (PrEP or PEP) is deferred for three months from the most recent dose. These medications may delay detection of HIV and result in false negative test results.

• Any individual who has taken any long-lasting antiviral medication by injection to prevent HIV (PrEP or PEP) is deferred for two years from the time from the most recent injection. These medications may delay detection of HIV and result in false negative test results.

• Any individual who has ever taken any mediation (i.e., ART) to treat an HIV infection is permanently deferred.

GLAAD and America’s Blood Centers say further details about the new FDA blood donation policy and to find the nearest community blood center, interested persons should access glaad.org/tag/summer-of-giving

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California

Effort behind Calif. ballot measure to limit transgender youth’s rights fails

Protect Kids California failed to collect enough signatures

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Protect Kids California CEO Jonathan Zachreson, right, with Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and an unnamed delegate at the California GOP convention in Anaheim, Calif., on Sept. 29, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Zachreson’s Facebook page)

The effort by the anti-LGBTQ conservative group Protect Kids California, headed by Roseville school board member Jonathan Zachreson, to collect some 550,000 valid signatures to place a transphobic transgender youth proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot has failed.

In a press release on Tuesday, the deadline set by the California secretary of state, the group claimed it had gathered more than 400,000 signatures, falling short of the requisite threshold number for inclusion on the ballot.

Protect Kids California submitted the proposed ballot initiative — presented as the “Protect Kids of California Act of 2024,” last September. The proposed ballot initiative would have:

  • Forced outing of transgender youth to their parents, ensuring that trans kids cannot have safety or privacy in schools if they are not ready to come out to family. Often these policies also include violations of privacy for the student when they discuss their gender identity with school counselors.
  • Banning of transgender youth from sports that match their gender identity, stigmatizing them and often forcing them out of sports altogether. Notably, these provisions typically fail to differentiate between high-stakes elite competitions and casual middle school teams. They also generally don’t provide for pathways to participation like hormone therapy, a method that has been researched and employed to address concerns of potential “unfair advantages” in competitions. California, which allows youth to access gender affirming care, will have youth who never underwent the puberty of their assigned sex at birth who would also be banned under this provision.
  • Banning gender affirming care for trans youth shown to be lifesaving. Gender affirming care is associated with a 73 percent reduction in suicidality and over 50 studies assembled by Cornell University show its benefits. California is one of several states that has recently moved to protect transgender youth and their medical care, and such a restriction would impact a large number of transgender kids in the state.

“We are relieved that anti-LGBTQ+ extremists have failed to reach the required signature threshold to qualify their anti-transgender ballot initiatives to the November 2024 ballot. Equality California will continue to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ youth everywhere, and push back against any and all efforts by extremist groups who seek to discriminate against them,” said Equality California Executive Director Tony Hoang. “To every LGBTQ+ youth in California: Know that you are loved and valued.”

The anti-LGBTQ group placed partial blame for the failure on California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who the group had sued over the title and summary he assigned to its ballot measure that would strip rights from trans minors.

The Bay Area Reporter noted the Liberty Justice Center filed a lawsuit on Feb. 13 in Sacramento County Superior Court on behalf of Protect Kids California that alleged Bonta’s personal beliefs led to a biased title and summary. Therefore, the center contended the ballot measure proponents should be given 180 additional days for signature gathering without discounting signatures already collected.

“Respondent [Bonta] has demonstrated that he personally, and in his official capacity, is opposed to any kind of notification by a public school to a parent or guardian that his or her child is exhibiting signs of gender dysphoria when the child asks the school to publicly treat him or her as the opposite sex with a new name or pronouns, and to allow the child to use the sex-segregated facilities of the opposite sex,” claimed the groups in their lawsuit.

But a Sacramento Superior Court judge sided with Bonta in a ruling that was first issued tentatively on April 19 and was made final on April 22. Judge Stephen Acquisto ruled that Bonta’s title and summary are accurate.

“Under current law, minor students have express statutory rights with respect to their gender identity,” Acquisto stated. “A substantial portion of the proposed measure is dedicated to eliminating or restricting these statutory rights … The proposed measure would eliminate express statutory rights and place a condition of parental consent on accommodations that are currently available without such condition.”

“The proposed measure objectively ‘restricts rights’ of transgender youth by preventing the exercise of their existing rights. ‘Restricts rights of transgender youth’ is an accurate and impartial description of the proposed measure,” Acquisto added.

The attorney general’s office has some leeway when it comes to determining ballot titles, the judge noted.

In a statement provided to the Bay Area Reporter on April 24, after news that the decision had been made permanent, Protect Kids California attorney Nicole Pearson stated, “The mental gymnastics used to justify this prejudicial title and summary are not only an egregious abuse of discretion that entitles our clients to an appeal, but a chilling interpretation of law that jeopardizes the very foundation of our constitutional republic. We are reviewing our options for an appeal of these clear errors and will announce a decision shortly.”

Additional reporting by the Bay Area Reporter.

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