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Byrd ‘evolved’ on LGBT issues

Despite mixed track record, W.Va. senator was beloved



Sen. Robert Byrd, who died Monday after serving six decades in Congress, slowly moved from opposing to backing several LGBT civil rights bills. (Photo courtesy of Byrd’s office)

U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died Monday after serving a record 57 years in the U.S. Senate, evolved from a socially conservative Democrat who opposed nearly all LGBT civil rights initiatives to an elder lawmaker who backed several important pro-gay bills.

“I think you can say that he moved forward and started to understand the basic humanity of all 
West Virginians, including LGBT West Virginians,” said Stephen Skinner, an attorney who serves as president of the board of the statewide LGBT group Fairness West Virginia.

Skinner, a native West Virginian who said he spoke with Byrd many times over the years, acknowledged that the senator said many “bad things” about LGBT-related issues.

But Skinner joined many political observers in West Virginia to remember Byrd this week more for the massive infusion of federal funds and resources he secured for his state that resulted in economic development and jobs for residents long plagued by poverty.

“I would say he was universally beloved, including by the LGBT people in the state, whose affection for him often override most of his decisions” on LGBT-related issues, Skinner said.

“Everywhere you go, we were all affected by what he did. And everybody believes he did so much for the country that everything he did for the state was deserved,” said Skinner.

Allison Herwitt, director of legislative affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, pointed to HRC’s congressional scorecard ratings for Byrd, which range from a low of 13 of 100 for the 108th Congress to a high of 60 two years ago in the 110th Congress, the most recent rating.

HRC gave him ratings in the 25-to-35 range in most years beginning in the 1990s. The ratings are based on votes, stances and attitudes toward LGBT- and AIDS-related issues.

“Over the years he’s had a very mixed record on LGBT equality,” Herwitt said.

Among other things, Byrd voted in 1996 for the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. That same year, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have banned most private-sector employers from engaging in employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In a lengthy floor speech during the Senate debate on DOMA, Byrd cited how some historians linked the decline and fall of the ancient Roman Empire to homosexuality.

“But when it came to being there for hate crimes and on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ he voted for equality and moving forward,” Herwitt said. “And so he is one of those people that, over the course of his political career, he certainly has evolved on our issues.”

Byrd voted last year for a hate crimes measure that authorizes the federal government to prosecute crimes that target people for their sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure became the first LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill to pass Congress.

Earlier this year, Byrd supported a compromise provision to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a close vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Capitol Hill sources said Byrd’s staff on the committee helped draft the compromise language that was credited with persuading enough members of the panel to pass it.

Byrd’s position on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was less clear. When same-sex marriage opponents proposed the Federal Marriage Amendment before the Senate in 2004, Byrd voted to end a filibuster backed by Senate Democratic leaders, who sought to block the measure from coming up for a full vote.

A motion to end the filibuster failed by a vote of 48 to 50; two senators were absent at the time of the vote. Sixty votes are needed to end filibusters.

Some observers considered a vote for ending the filibuster a sign that senators supported the amendment. But Skinner said members of Byrd’s staff told him that Byrd “opposed messing with the constitution” on matters of same-sex marriage and planned to vote against the amendment if it reached the floor for a direct vote.

A gay former member of Byrd’s staff, who spoke this week on condition of anonymity, said Byrd was a strong advocate of full debate on important issues before the Senate. The former staffer agreed with Skinner’s assessment that Byrd, a recognized constitutional scholar, would likely have voted against the same-sex marriage amendment in a direct Senate vote.

“I don’t think he understood gays,” said the former staffer. “It was not part of his social lexicon. Yet it was clear that there had been an evolution on gay issues.”

Herwitt said Byrd appeared to have been influenced by the greater visibility of LGBT people in his home state and throughout the country.

“I think as the country evolves on our issues, so do peoples’ understanding of what LGBT equality means for people,” she said. “I’m sure in the beginning of his career, when people weren’t out and living open and honestly, it was different. As he made it through the end of his career, he was working on Capitol Hill where people who are working for you and working for other senators are out and openly gay, so I think that also has an impact.”



Miami hotel liquor license may be revoked over a drag show

State’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco targets business



Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami. (Photo by dennizn/Bigstock)

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is in the process of revoking the Hyatt Regency Miami’s alcohol license after the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation determined that the hotel’s affiliated James L. Knight Center had hosted “A Drag Queen Christmas” performed Dec. 27 with minors present in the audience.

The Knight Center is a major South Florida venue and has previously hosted the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. The venue’s main room can seat 4,600 people.

This is the third time the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which operates under the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has targeted a business that hosted a drag show.

A popular restaurant and pub in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood is also under threat of losing its liquor license. The R House identifies itself on its Facebook page as “the proud home of South Florida’s most popular weekend drag brunches.”

The July 2022 complaint filed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation asks for a final order that the R House restaurant is a declared a public nuisance and has its liquor license revoked. 

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the complaint was issued after a video of a recent performance at the bar’s drag brunch went viral. A topless drag queen wearing lingerie stuffed with money can be seen in the video attempting to dance with a young girl, who the DPBR estimates is “between three and five years old.” Twitter account “Libs of Tik Tok” originally found the footage on Tik Tok, posted by a user who wrote, “Children belong at drag shows!!!! Children deserve to see fun and expression & freedom.”

In late December “A Drag Queen Christmas” was hosted by the Orlando non-profit Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation on Dec. 28, filing a complaint alleging that children under age 18 were allowed to attend.

The complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic alleged the foundation violated Florida law in allowing for a person to “commit lewd or lascivious exhibition” in the presence of an individual who is less than 16 years old.

In this latest targeting of the show, which is a holiday-themed drag show that tours in 36 different cities and features stars from the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Insider webzine journalist Kimberly Leonard reported that the DeSantis administration officials accused the Knight Center of several violations, including a prohibition of “lascivious exhibition” before people younger than 16, mirroring the December complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic.

The department’s complaint said performers engaged in “acts of simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar, and indecent displays” that included:

  • Performers forcibly penetrating or rubbing exposed prosthetic female breasts against faces of audience members
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ prosthetic female breasts and genitalia to the audience
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ buttocks to the audience
  • Simulating masturbation through performers’ digitally penetrating prosthetic female genital
  • Graphic depictions of childbirth and/or abortion

Hyatt Regency Miami is allowed to keep selling alcohol until the department makes a final decision. The business has 21 days to request a hearing, Beth Pannell, spokeswoman for the department, told Insider.

Regulators had warned the facility to change how it marketed the show before it went live, according to a copy of the letter included in the complaint. The letter accused the marketers of putting on a performance that constitutes “public nuisances, lewd activity, and disorderly conduct” when minors are present.

News of this latest action was first reported by far-right conservative internet based outlet Florida’s Voice.

As more and more Republican states target drag shows, in just the past few weeks, Tennessee became the first to ban adult performances, including drag, from public spaces such as parks and schools. 

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U.S. Military/Pentagon

New VA mission statement recognizes commitment to all veterans

‘To fulfill [Lincoln’s] promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military & for their families, caregivers, & survivors’



VA Secretary Denis McDonough. (Screenshot/YouTube)

In a speech delivered Thursday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (WIMSA), located at the main entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in suburban Virginia, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the Department of Veterans Affairs has issued an updated version of its 1959 mission statement.

The new mission statement is: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”

As the VA secretary commenced his remarks, he honored several notable women in the audience including Brenda S. “Sue” Fulton, the assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs.

Fulton, is a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which was the Academy’s first class to admit women. She is an out lesbian and served as a founding board member of Knights Out, the organization of LGBTQ West Point graduates, and later worked with OutServe, the association of actively-serving LGBTQ military members and SPARTA, an LGBTQ military group advocating for transgender military service.

“Whenever any veteran, family member, caregiver, or survivor walks by a VA facility, we want them to see themselves in the mission statement on the outside of the building,” said Secretary McDonough. “We are here to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors — and now, our mission statement reflects exactly that.”

In crafting the new mission statement, VA surveyed roughly 30,000 Veterans. Among veterans surveyed, the new version of VA’s mission statement was chosen over the current version by every age group; by men and by women; by LGBTQ+ veterans; and by white, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and American Indian/Alaska Native Veterans.

In addition to two rounds of surveys, VA conducted dozens of small-group engagements with veterans to understand what was most important to them in a VA mission statement, then incorporated that feedback into quantitative research. The new mission statement reflects that VA serves all of the heroes who have served our country, regardless of their race, gender, background, sexual orientation, religion, zip code or identity.

The previous mission statement was: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.” The previous mission statement is posted in roughly 50 percent of VA’s facilities. Over the coming months, VA’s new mission statement will replace the previous version.

VA announces new mission statement, recognizing sacred commitment to serve all who served:

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Mich. governor signs statewide LGBTQ rights law

‘Bigotry is bad for business’



Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 16, 2023, signed an LGBTQ rights bill into law. (Photo courtesy of Whitmer's office)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act on Thursday, which expands basic protections for the LGBTQ community.

The measure, Senate Bill 4, was sponsored by openly gay state Sen. Jeremy Moss who less than a year previously had been shot down by the Republican majority as he attempted to have a non-binding resolution to recognize “Pride Month” adopted by the Senate.

In her signing remarks, Whitmer noted: “In the words of Detroit native Lizzo, it’s about damn time! Bigotry is bad for business. Come to Michigan, you will be respected and protected under the law.”

“As Equality Michigan celebrates this historic step forward, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Generations of activists have inspired us to fight for justice and equality for all LGBTQ+ Michiganders, and our community has been working to update our state’s civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in every single legislative session since Elliott-Larsen was first adopted,” Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said in a statement. “We applaud Gov. Whitmer for signing this bill into law, and are humbled by this pro-equality legislature that made amending ELCRA a top priority. Senator Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jason Hoskins introduced this legislation and championed it all the way through to the finish line.” 

“The victory we have today in Michigan is a great one, but it’s also one we don’t take lightly at this moment. Let it not be lost on us that this privilege, however hard-earned, is a unique one that exists amid a nationwide political assault on LGBTQ+ people, especially trans and non-binary youth, and their families,” added Knott. “There are over 400 anti-trans bills moving across state legislatures in the US, twice the amount introduced last year.”

“This bill being signed into law is a beacon of hope and sends a powerful message of acceptance to LGBTQ people across the nation. At the Trevor Project, we work every day to protect the lives of LGBTQ youth, and days like today prove that in generations to come, both their legal and lived equality will no longer be fodder for political debate,” said Troy Stevenson, director of state advocacy campaigns for the Trevor Project. “Our research shows that having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among LGBTQ young people by 40 percent. We applaud the elected leaders, advocates and Gov. Whitmer for making this a reality, and affirming the dignity and rights of LGBTQ Michiganders by codifying these protections into law.”

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