In an historic development, a federal judge in California ruled Wednesday that the Golden State’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco said an amendment to the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage, which voters approved in a 2008 ballot measure known as Proposition 8, violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses.
“Because Proposition 8 is unconstitutional under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, the court orders entry of judgment permanently enjoining its enforcement,” Walker wrote in his ruling.
The order also prohibits “the official defendants from applying or enforcing Proposition 8 and directing the official defendants that all persons under their control or supervision shall not apply or enforce Proposition 8.”
But Walker stayed his own order for an indeterminate length of time at the request of Prop 8 supporters in a separate ruling, pending an expected appeal of the case.
Voter approval of Prop 8 put an end to same-sex marriages that began in California in early 2008, when the state’s highest court ruled that gays and lesbians could not be denied the right to marry under the state constitution.
Same-sex marriage opponents said Wednesday they would take immediate steps to appeal Vaughn’s decision to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which could take a year or more to issue a ruling.
Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage have each vowed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if they lose at the appeals court level, a development that legal observers say could lead to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
Vaughn’s decision Wednesday followed a controversial 12-day trial in January in which he presided over arguments by supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage that drew international media coverage. He ordered a four-month break in the trial to go over a mountain of evidence before resuming the proceedings in June to hear closing arguments.
His 136-page decision released late Wednesday strongly rejected arguments by attorneys supporting Proposition 8 that same-sex marriage harms traditional marriage, procreation and child-rearing, saying those arguments reflect a “moral view” that does not justify a “state interest” in banning same-sex marriage.
“Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians,” he wrote. “The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”
He added that “because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.”
The ruling drew quick praise from many advocates of same-sex marriage, including Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry.
“Judge Walker’s decision will be appealed and litigation will continue, but what we witnessed in the clear light of his courtroom cannot be erased,” he said. “The witnesses, evidence and arguments all demonstrated what we’ve long known: exclusion from marriage harms committed same-sex couples and their families, while helping no one and the unjustified and unfair denial of marriage to same-sex couples violates the United States Constitution.
“The judge’s ruling reflects the growing consensus in courtrooms and legislatures across the country, and around the world, that there is simply no good reason to exclude same-sex couples from marriage.”
Several elected officials, including New York Gov. David Paterson, also applauded the ruling.
“I know that there is a long road ahead in the legal proceedings, but whatever the outcome I believe that the bedrock American principle of equal protection under the law must mean equal rights for gays and lesbians, and that such equal rights must include the fundamental right to marry,” he said. “Today’s decision is one important step in a long struggle, and that struggle must continue until equality is achieved.”
But the National Organization for Marriage, the nation’s leading group opposing same-sex marriage, called the decision a threat to “traditional” marriage in other states.
“With a stroke of his pen, Judge Walker has overruled the votes and values of 7 million Californians who voted for marriage as one man and one woman,” said Brian Brown, the group’s president. “This ruling, if allowed to stand, threatens not only Prop 8 in California but the laws in 45 other states that define marriage as one man and one woman.”
The case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, was named after Kris Perry, who, along with her partner of 10 years, Sandy Stier, was among two same-sex couples that filed the lawsuit to challenge Prop 8 on federal constitutional grounds.
Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, the other two plaintiffs, have been together for nine years. Neither of the couples married in California during the short window in which same-sex marriage was legal but said they joined the suit to enable them and other same-sex couples to fulfill their desire to marry from that time going forward.
In a development that angered supporters of Proposition 8, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democrat and long-time supporter of LGBT rights, refused to defend the ballot measure on behalf of the state. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger chose not to overrule Brown, placing himself in the odd position of being named the lead defendant in the case but taking no action to defend a state constitutional provision.
The state’s decision not to defend the law forced leaders of the campaign to pass Prop 8 to assume the role of defending it in court, with the pro-Prop 8 group Protect Marriage taking the lead.
The American Foundation for Equal Rights, a group created by California gay activist Chad Griffin to challenge Prop 8, initiated the lawsuit at a time when some legal experts and gay legal groups opposed such a challenge.
Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund was among the groups that considered challenging Prop 8 on federal constitutional grounds to be too risky because the case would likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which was expected to rule against same-sex marriage rights.
Support for the lawsuit initially was less than overwhelming within LGBT legal and activist circles. But the initial reservations — at least in public forums — appeared to vanish when American Foundation for Equal Rights leaders managed to pull off what some considered a stunning coup.
The group lined up conservative Republican attorney and acclaimed constitutional expert Theodore “Ted” Olson, a former U.S. Solicitor General under President George W. Bush; and esteemed litigator, law school professor and U.S. Justice Department attorney during the Clinton administration, David Boies, as the lead attorneys for the two couples in the case.
Olson, who had not spoken out on LGBT issues in the past, emerged as a champion for LGBT equality, saying the right to marry for same-sex couples was protected by the U.S. Constitution and should be a fundamental principle in U.S. law.
The two attorneys’ arguments and actions during the Prop 8 trial appeared to dominate the proceedings and prompted many legal observers to conclude that their side came across far stronger than the legal team defending Prop 8.
Olson and Boies argued during the trial, among other things, that Prop 8 violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Constitution’s Due Process Clause by “impinging” on fundamental liberties.
The two also argued that Prop 8 singles out gays and lesbians for “disfavored legal status” and thus creates “second-class citizens.” They also told the court the same-sex marriage ban discriminates on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.
Attorneys Andrew Pugno and Charles Cooper with Protect Marriage presented just two witnesses during the trial. The credentials of both witnesses as experts were challenged by the plaintiffs, and both supporters and opponents of Prop 8 thought the attorneys did a lackluster job of defending the marriage ban statute.
Vaughn, 65, who was first nominated for his federal judgeship post by President Ronald Reagan, became the focus of unexpected publicity when media reports disclosed in February that he’s gay.
Some gay rights opponents demanded he be removed from the case, saying he could not render an impartial decision. Other same-sex marriage opponents said Vaughn’s sexual orientation should not matter but accused him of being biased against the defendants in his procedural rulings during the trial.
LGBT legal groups and public opinion leaders, including newspaper editorials, disputed claims that Vaughn was biased and dismissed calls for him to step down from the case. Some noted that the judge had been criticized during his earlier years on the bench for handing down conservative, libertarian oriented decisions that in a few cases went against gay rights.
Gay rights attorneys familiar with the case said Vaughn’s strongly worded ruling overturning Proposition 8 on federal constitutional grounds lays the groundwork for striking down laws banning same-sex marriage in all states that have them.
But the attorneys noted that the other states won’t be directly impacted unless or until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Vaughn’s ruling. With the Ninth Circuit long considered to have liberal and progressive leanings, LGBT activists and gay rights attorneys believe they have the best shot at winning there.
According to Jenny Pizer, an attorney and same-sex marriage law specialist with Lambda Legal, if the Supreme Court does not reverse a favorable ruling by the Ninth Circuit, either by refusing to take the case or by upholding the appeals court’s decision, laws banning same-sex marriage in the nine states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction would likely fall.
In addition to California, the states in the Ninth Circuit include Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Should the Supreme Court uphold Vaughn’s decision, laws banning same-sex marriage in virtually all states – as well as the federal Defense of Marriage Act – could also be expected to fall.
“The federal Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and due process, including the fundamental right to marry, need to mean the same thing in every state in the union,” Pizer said.
“The ruling issued today concludes, and we think of course rightly, that lesbian and gay Americans have the same fundamental right to marry that heterosexual Americans have. And they should be able exercise that right to marry.”
Pizer noted that Vaughn cited repeatedly in his ruling two key Supreme Court rulings considered landmark breakthroughs for LGBT rights—Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned state sodomy laws for consenting adults in private; and Roemer v. Evans, which overturned a Colorado ballot measure that banned local jurisdictions within the state from adopting laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“The Roemer decision affirmed the liberty rights of gay people, which is at the center of the freedom to marry the person that you choose,” Pizer said.
She said the Lawrence decision, written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, established that “traditions and moral beliefs alone do not justify maintaining a discriminatory system.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and Judy Shepard, mother of gay student Matthew Shepard, whose murder in a 1998 anti-gay hate crime drew attention to LGBT rights, were among those praising Judge Walker’s decision.
The White House released a brief statement on the Prop 8 decision through spokesperson Shin Inouye.
“The president has spoken out in opposition to Proposition 8 because it is divisive and discriminatory. He will continue to promote equality for LGBT Americans,” the statement says.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), who is lesbian, appeared to sum up the views of LGBT civil rights groups and supportive members of Congress on the question of whether the courts should overturn a law passed by the voters.
“We live in a democracy wherein majority rule is checked and balanced by the guarantee of inalienable minority rights,” Baldwin said in a statement.
“This case, as it wends its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, presents jurists with fundamental questions about minority rights and majority rule. I believe Judge Walker got it right, declaring that denial of marriage rights and protections to gay and lesbian citizens violates the Constitution even if it reflects the will of the majority of Californians,” she said.
Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature
Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor
Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.
“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”
Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.
“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.
Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.
“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.
FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men
D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions
D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.
The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.
A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.
In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.
The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.
LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.
Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.
“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.
“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.
Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.
The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.
“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.
“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.
The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.
Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.
“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.
Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.
“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’
Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.
“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.
“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.
A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.
“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.
“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.
Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.
Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.
Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records
About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.
“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”
The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.
McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.
With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.
In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%). In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.
McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.
“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.
“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.
All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.
“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.
Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.
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