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National LGBT community reeling from 4th teen suicide in a month

Rash of gay deaths inspires Ellen, Judy Shepard, others to speak out

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The U.S. LGBT community is reeling from a series of gay teen suicides that has inspired many community leaders to speak out on what is being called an epidemic of deaths inspired by harassment and bullying.

According to reports from several news outlets, Tyler Clementi, 18, leapt to his death Sept. 22 from the George Washington Bridge near his New Jersey college campus after classmates allegedly broadcast him in a same-sex encounter behind closed doors in his dorm room, and apparently invited others, via Twitter, to view it online. Regardless of his roommate’s alleged tweet, Clementi had apparently made no statement about his own sexual orientation.

Bruce Kaplan, prosecutor for Middlesex County, N.J., has filed charges against Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei for causing Clementi’s death. They’ve been charged under the state’s invasion-of-privacy laws and under the transmission and distribution of nudity and sexual contact laws, lesser charges. Ravi and Wei secretly set up a webcam in his dorm room and recorded him having sex with another male. Clementi did not know he was being filmed.

Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old in Tehachapi, Calif., died Wednesday after 10 days on life support after he hanged himself last week. Police say he had been mercilessly taunted by fellow students over his perceived sexual orientation.

Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself Sept. 9 at his Indiana home after years of reported harassment by students who judged him to be gay. Asher Brown, a 13-year-old in Harris, Texas, who had recently come out, shot himself in the head Sept. 23 after, his parents say, their efforts to alert school officials to ongoing bullying were not acted upon.

Many Americans also learned this week about Tyler Wilson, an 11-year-old boy in Ohio who decided to join a cheerleading squad that had been all-female. As a gymnast, he was interested in the athletic elements of cheering. He was taunted with homophobic remarks and had his arm broken by two schoolmates who apparently assumed him to be gay. He told “Good Morning America” that since returning to school, he’s been threatened with having his other arm broken, too.

The deaths have inspired many LGBT leaders to speak out, including Judy Shepard, mother of the late Matthew Shepard who was killed a decade ago for being gay.

“Our young people deserve better than to go to schools where they are treated this way,” Shepard said. “We have to make schools a safe place for our youth to prepare for their futures, not be confronted with threats, intimidation or routine disrespect.”

Ellen Degeneres spoke out on her show today saying she was “devastated” by the deaths and said the country had let these teens down. Even the usually snarky gay blogger Perez Hilton told MTV he was “beyond sad” and “crushed” by the deaths.

“Hearing about these kids that have committed suicide, the reaction as a gay adult is always, ‘God, I wish I could have talked to them for fifteen minutes or five minutes and told them it gets better,'” said gay sex columnist Dan Savage during an interview with ABC.

Gay kids are four times more likely that straight kids to commit suicide, according to a recent study Savage quoted, and nine out of 10 gay kids report being bullied.

Malcom Lazin, director of the LGBT group Equality Forum and a former assistant U.S. attorney, thinks Ravi and Wei should be charged with reckless manslaughter.

“THe willful and premeditated conduct of Ravi and Wei in planting a web camera and in distributing over the internet sexual intimacy is shocking, malicious and heinous,” Lazin said in a statement. “Equality Forum calls on the prosecutor to file murder by reckless manslaughter charges.”

LGBT youth contemplating suicide have been urged to immediately reach out to the Trevor Project, day or night, at 866-488-7386.

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The White House

Biden hosts Kenyan president, unclear whether anti-LGBTQ bill raised

Jake Sullivan reiterated administration’s opposition to Family Protection Bill

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Kenyan President William Ruto speaks at joint press conference with President Joe Biden at the White House on May 23, 2024.

The Biden-Harris administration has not publicly said whether it raised LGBTQ rights with Kenyan President William Ruto during his visit to the White House.

Kenya is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

Opposition MP Peter Kaluma last year introduced the Family Protection Bill. The measure, among other things, would impose the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” and would ban Pride marches and other LGBTQ-specific events in the country. Advocates have told the Washington Blade the bill would also expel LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Kenya.

A senior administration official on Wednesday did not directly respond to the Blade’s question about whether President Joe Biden would speak to Ruto about the Family Protection Bill — neither he, nor Ruto discussed it on Thursday during a joint press conference at the White House. The official, however, did reiterate the administration’s opposition to the bill and other laws around the world that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

A reporter on Wednesday asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during the daily press briefing about whether Biden would discuss with Ruto any concerns over “some authoritarian moves” in Kenya. (The International Criminal Court in 2011 charged Ruto and five others with crimes against humanity in relation to violence that surrounded Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. The ICC dismissed the case against Ruto in 2016, although the prosecutor said widespread witness tampering had taken place.)

“We’ve seen robust and vigorous democracy in Kenya in recent years,” Sullivan said. “But, of course, we will continue to express our view about the ongoing need to nurture democratic institutions across the board: an independent judiciary; a non-corrupt economy; credible, free, and fair elections.”

Sullivan added “these kinds of principles are things the president will share, but he’s not here to lecture President Ruto.”

“President Ruto, in fact, is somebody who just was in Atlanta speaking about these issues,” he said. “We will invest in Kenya’s democratic institutions, in its civil society, in all walks of Kenyan life to help make sure that the basic foundations of Kenyan democracy remain strong.”

U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman in March 2023 sparked criticism when she told reporters in Kenya’s Kajiado County that “every country has to make their own decisions about LGBTQ rights.”

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of the White House’s overall foreign policy. A State Department spokesperson in response to Whitman’s comments told the Blade that “our position on the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons is clear.”

“A person’s ability to exercise their rights should never be limited based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics,” said the spokesperson. “Governments should protect and promote respect for human rights for each and every human being, without discrimination, and they should abide by their human rights obligations and commitments.”

The White House on Thursday released a “Kenya State Visit to the United States” fact sheet that broadly notes the promotion of human rights and efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in Kenya.

• Promoting Human Rights: The United States and Kenya affirm their commitment to upholding the human rights of all. Together they stand with people around the world defending their rights against the forces of autocracy. Kenya and the United States commit to bilateral dialogues that reinforce commitments to human rights, as well as a series of security and human rights technical engagements with counterparts in the Kenyan military, police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at strengthening collaboration on security sector governance, atrocity prevention, and women, peace and security in Kenya and regionally.

• Continuing the Fight against HIV/AIDS: The United States and Kenya are developing a “Sustainability Roadmap” to integrate HIV service delivery into primary health care, ensuring quality and impact are retained. With more than $7 billion in support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) spanning two decades, Kenya has successfully responded to the HIV epidemic and strives to end HIV as a public health threat in Kenya by 2027. These efforts improve holistic health services for the 1.3 million Kenyans currently receiving antiretroviral therapy and millions more benefiting from HIV prevention programs, while allowing for greater domestic resources to be put toward the HIV response, allowing PEFPAR support to decrease over time.

Biden and Ruto on Thursday also issued a joint statement that, among other things, affirms the two countries’ “commitment to upholding the human rights of all.”

“Our partnership is anchored in democracy and driven by people,” reads the statement. “Together we share the belief that democracy requires ongoing work, and thrives when we commit to continually strengthen our democratic institutions.”

“This historic state visit is about the Kenyan and American people and their hopes for an inclusive, sustainable, and prosperous future for all,” it adds.

The White House said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Democratic National Committee Deputy National Finance Chair Claire Lucas and her partner, Judy Dlugacz, are among those who attended Thursday’s state dinner at the White House. Ruto on Friday is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department.

Ugandan officials sanctioned after Anti-Homosexuality Act signed

The U.S. has sanctioned officials in Uganda, which borders Kenya, after the country’s president in May 2023 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The White House also issued a business advisory against Uganda and removed the country from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows sub-Saharan countries to trade duty-free with the U.S.

Sullivan, Whitman and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are among the officials who joined Biden and Ruto at a meeting with CEOs that took place at the White House on Wednesday. Ruto earlier this week visited Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

The company announced it will invest $175 million in Kenya.

Coca-Cola on its website notes it has received a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index each year since 2006. The company also highlights it has supported the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the Trevor Project, and other “LGBTQI-focused organizations and programs in our communities.”

“Coca Cola is proud of its history of supporting and including the LGBTQI community in the workplace, in its advertising and in communities throughout the world,” says Coca-Cola. “From supporting LGBTQI pride parades to running rainbow-colored billboards, Coca Cola has demonstrated its commitment to protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.”

Health GAP Executive Director Asia Russell in a statement to the Blade said Ruto “is choosing to align with anti-gender extremists and is allowing queer Kenyans to be put at extreme risk.” She also criticized Biden for welcoming Ruto to the White House.

“Biden is campaigning as an LGBTQ+ champion, but he is ruling out the red carpet for someone who is explicitly siding with the extremists,” said Russell. “It’s doublespeak on the part of the White House.”

Brody Levesque, Christopher Kane, and Sam Kisika contributed to this story.

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Federal Government

National Park Service clarifies uniform policy

Announcement has implications for Pride

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National Park Service rangers from the Stonewall National Monument march in the 2021 New York City Pride parade. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service’s Facebook page)

BY ERIN REED | The National Park Service on May 17 clarified its policy on employees wearing official uniforms to non-sanctioned events, which has implications for Pride events.

It’s unclear what triggered the clarification. A source at the National Park Service told the Blade in a statement that the uniform policy “has not changed,” but some LGBTQ employees report feeling betrayed and note that official Pride participation in major cities is uncertain as applications to participate in parades remain unprocessed.

The clarification comes amid increasing crackdowns on Pride flags and LGBTQ people nationwide.

The announcement was first disclosed in a memo to park service employees that did not directly address Pride but stated that “requests from employees asking to participate in uniform in a variety of events and activities, including events not organized by the NPS” conflict with park service policy.

The specific provision cited states that park service employees cannot wear the uniform to events that would construe support for “a particular issue, position, or political party.” Applying this provision to bar Pride participation drew ire from some LGBTQ employees who assert that LGBTQ Pride is not about an “issue, position, or political party,” but about identity and diversity. The employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also pointed out that the internal ERG guide allowed for participation in Pride events and that park employees had participated in Pride events with approval for years under the current set of rules.

In a follow-up, the park service stated that the ERG resource known as the “OUTsiders Guide to Pride” conflicts with its policy and that it is in discussion with ERG leaders to review it and similar documents.

Meanwhile, it stated that park service participation in Pride “could imply agency support … on a particular issue of public concern,” essentially stating that celebrations of LGBTQ employees would be considered an “issue of public concern” rather than a non-political celebration of diversity. As such, they determined that park service official participation in parades “should be extremely limited.”

Concern spread among some park service employees . They noted that the park service has participated in Pride parades across the United States for years under the same set of rules, including during the Trump administration, which notably cracked down on LGBTQ Pride in government agencies, such as at embassies abroad.

They also noted that Stonewall National Monument is run by the park service. Importantly, Stonewall National Monument’s founding documents state, “The purpose of Stonewall National Monument is to preserve and protect Christopher Park and the historic resources associated with it and to interpret the Stonewall National Historic Landmark’s resources and values related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights movement.”

One park service employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that multiple Pride parade requests are currently sitting on desks “collecting dust” for participation and representation in major city Pride festivities. When asked about the determination that Pride festivals are an “issue of public concern,” they said, “Pride is not political, it’s not a cause, you just are LGBTQ+. It’s a celebration of who we are.” They added, “Morale is just so low right now. There’s not a lot of fight left in us.”

The Blade reached out to a park service spokesperson to ask about Pride parades in major cities and whether the park service would continue participating this year as they have in previous years. The spokesperson stated that the policy “had not changed” and that “Previous interpretations of the uniform policy were inconsistent and, as you can imagine, approving participation in some events and not others could be seen as discrimination based on viewpoint.” They added that in-park Pride events have not been canceled and that community events outside of the parks that “directly relate to a park’s mission” could be approved. However, they did not indicate whether these events would include continued contingents in major U.S. city Pride parades and celebrations and could not be reached for a follow-up on this question.

Park service resources currently live on the site call for people to “Celebrate Pride,” citing Stonewall National Monument to state that “The LGBTQ experience is a vital facet of America’s rich and diverse past.” This resource emphasizes the importance of not rendering LGBTQ people invisible, stating, “By recovering the voices that have been erased and marginalized, the NPS embarks on an important project to capture and celebrate our multi-vocal past.”

Park Service employees have marched in uniform for years. According to the Bay Area Reporter, in 2014, Christine Lenhertz of the park service requested that a group of LGBTQ park service employees be allowed to wear their uniforms in the Pride parade. They were initially barred from doing so, prompting the group to file a complaint. She then sought a ruling from the Office of the Solicitor for the Department of the Interior, who ruled that there was no reason to bar her and other LGBTQ people from participating in uniform. Since then, many park service contingents have participated in Pride events.

The future of Pride parade participation with in-uniform park service employees is uncertain. While it appears that there will be some Pride events in certain national parks, such as Stonewall, external participation in major city Pride events seems to be on hold in at least some major American cities.

You can see the full response to the request for comment from a park service spokesperson here:

The NPS uniform policy has not changed. There are no restrictions on wearing of uniforms in NPS-organized in-park events. There has been no directive to cancel NPS-organized in-park events. Superintendents have discretion to approve park-organized events, which support park purpose and mission, and departmental mission, initiatives, and priorities (e.g., diversity, inclusion, climate change, and tribal engagement.) This would include many of the events planned to celebrate Pride month. 

Official NPS participation in community events that directly relate to a park’s mission can be approved by the park superintendent, provided it is consistent with applicable laws, rules, regulations, and NPS policies.

Last week, the service sent out a reminder about the uniform policy — specifically because there has been an in-flux of requests from folks asking to wear their uniforms for non-park service events. These requests run the gamut of topics, but could include weekend, off duty events that folks are of course able to do in their personal capacity, but not while wearing a uniform representing the federal government. Previous interpretations of the uniform policy were inconsistent and as you can imagine, approving participation in some events and not others could be seen as discrimination based on viewpoint. 

NPS employees represent a diversity of identities, cultures, and experiences, and we are committed to supporting all of our workforce. Like any large organization, we have a diverse workforce supporting myriad causes, and we welcome employees to express their personal support for various issues, positions, and political parties, provided they do not imply their presence or endorsement constitutes official NPS support for the same.  And, also like other large organizations, there are limits to what employees can do while on-duty and in uniform and seen as communicating on behalf of the NPS.

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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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The White House

Senate confirms Biden’s 200th judicial nominee

Diverse group includes 11 LGBTQ judges

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Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden at the White House on Jan. 5, 2023. (Screenshot via White House YouTube channel)

With the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of his 200th judicial nominee on Wednesday, President Joe Biden surpassed the number who were appointed to the federal bench by his last two predecessors at this point in their presidencies.

Among them are 11 LGBTQ judges, the same record-setting number who were nominated and confirmed under former President Barack Obama over the course of his two terms in office.

In a statement celebrating the milestone, Biden highlighted the diverse identities, backgrounds, and professional experiences of the men and women he has appointed over the past four years.

They “come from every walk of life, and collectively, they form the most diverse group of judicial appointees ever put forward by a president,” he said, noting that “64 percent are women and 62 percent are people of color.”

“Before their appointment to the bench, they worked in every field of law,” Biden said, “from labor lawyers fighting for working people to civil rights lawyers fighting to protect the right to vote.”

The president added, “Judges matter. These men and women have the power to uphold basic rights or to roll them back. They hear cases that decide whether women have the freedom to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions; whether Americans have the freedom to cast their ballots; whether workers have the freedom to unionize and make a living wage for their families; and whether children have the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.”

The LGBTQ judges who were confirmed under Biden include Beth Robinson, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal court of appeals, Nicole Berner, the 4th Circuit’s first LGBTQ judge, Charlotte Sweeney, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal district court west of the Mississippi River, and Melissa DuBose, the first Black and the first LGBTQ judge to serve on a federal court in Rhode Island.

Echoing the president’s comments during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted Biden’s appointment of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“We’ve confirmed more Hispanic judges circuit courts than any previous administration,” she said. “We’ve confirmed more Black women to circuit courts than all previous presidents combined.”

Jean-Pierre added that while these milestones are “great news,” there is still “much more work to be done.”

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