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Jarrett calls gay suicides a ‘terrible tragedy’

W.H. adviser speaks out against bullying at HRC dinner

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White House Adviser Valerie Jarrett at HRC dinner (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A top White House adviser on Saturday decried recent incidents of young gay men committing suicide as “a terrible tragedy” and promised the Obama administration would work to combat the school bullying that reportedly led to these deaths.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, made the remarks to an estimated 3,100 people during a speech at the 14th annual Human Rights Campagin national dinner in D.C.

Jarrett said the recent suicides of five young gay men who were bullied because they were gay, or perceived to be gay, has made those who hear their stories “shocked and heartbroken.”

“It’s a terrible tragedy,” she said. “And it has turned a harsh spotlight on an issue that often doesn’t get the public attention it deserves:  the struggles of LGBT youth, the enormous pain that too many experience as a result of bullying and the desperate, tragic decision by some young people who feel that their only recourse is to take their own lives.”

Jarrett said just prior to her remarks, she met backstage with Tammy Aaberg, the mother of one of the young gays who committed suicide, Justin Aaberg, as well the deceased child’s brother, Andrew. The 15-year-old Minnesota student reportedly committed suicide in September after he was bullied in school.

“We stand to recognize the courage that these two people and their families have shown by [being] willing so soon to share the story of Justin and honor his memory in the hope that no other mother or father or brother or sister will have to know their pain,” Jarrett said.

In his introduction of Jarrett, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also addressed the suicides and said leaders and institutions who decry homosexuality were to blame.

“There are billions of kids struggling with the sexual orientation or gender identity,” Solmonese said. “They are quite literally under attack by the people that they look up to … people who falsely perpetuate the idea that being gay is somehow unhealthy or immoral.”

Solmonese cited as an example of such statements Mormon Apostle Boyd Packer’s remarks last week against gays during a sermon at a general conference in Salt Lake City. Solmonese called the religous leader’s words “horrifying and irresponsible.”

The HRC president said he plans to deliver to the Mormon Church a collection of 100,000 letters and petitions condemning the remarks in an upcoming visit to Utah.

During her speech, Jarrett identified many of the initiatives that President Obama has taken to address the kind of bullying in schools that reportedly led to these suicides.

She said the president is committed to creating an environment in schools and other places throughout the country “that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Among the initiatives cited by Jarrett were the Education Department’s creation a task force on bullying and the reinvigoration of the department’s Office of Civil Rights activities against harassment in schools.

Jarrett also said protecting young people who are forced to leave their homes is important for protecting LGBT youth and cited the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s new national strategy to fight homelessness.

“It specifically addresses the needs of LGBT youth who are living on the streets because they have been ostracized by their families, friends, and community,” she said. “This includes figuring out whether it’s possible for these children to go home, and if they can’t, that we have safe and nurturing alternatives.”

Jarrett’s remarks in general were well received by attendees, who greeted her with applause when she entered the stage and throughout her remarks.

Lane Hudson, a gay D.C. activist who was in attendance at the dinner, said Jarrett’s remarks on bullying and suicides were “nice to hear.” Still, he maintained the president needs to speak directly on the issue.

“What is needed is for the man she advises, President Obama, to speak out publicly against the terrorizing that occurs in schools and on our streets, particularly to LGBT people,” Hudson said.

In addition to bullying, Jarrett also mentioned efforts on repealing on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Eyes have been on the Obama administration and whether it will pressure the Senate to pass repeal after an effort in that chamber to end the law failed last month.

Jarrett said ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a promise Obama has made “in no uncertain terms.”

“For the first time in history, the House of Representatives has passed repeal,” she said. “Now we’ve got to keep pushing the Senate to do the right thing and get this done.”

Solmonese also addressed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Senate failure to move forward on the issue last month. He blamed the inability to move forward with the legislation on “people who are fundamentally against any measure of LGBT equality” in the Senate.

“And one of them, who may have been our president, is Sen. John McCain,” Solmonese said. “His filibuster effort and his election year politics brought that long overdue justice to a halt for now.”

Solmonese maintained that another opporunity for the Senate to take up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal would emerge after Election Day in the lame duck. Many pundits have said the chances of the Senate passing the legislation at this time would be limited.

Still, Solmonese recalled repeated attempts at passing hate crimes legislation — recalling how LGBT activist Judy Shepard vowed to pass the law after earlier defeats — and suggested a similar path lay ahead in ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“It will be an uphill battle, and partisan divide and a cluttered legislative calendar are going to work against us,” he said. “But [be] rest assured that we will be guided by the words of Judy Shepard and we will stay at it until we win.”

Some LGBT advocates were unhappy with the remarks Jarrett gave on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and said they didn’t demonstrate a sufficient commitment from the administration to end repeal this year.

Hudson said placing responsibility on the Senate to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t enough from the White House.

“She needed to commit to the White House making a major effort to end the ban once and for all,” she said. “She came nowhere close to that.”

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, had been pressuring Jarrett to meet with gay veterans prior to her speech to talk about efforts in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Following her remarks, Nicholson said he’s pleased she focused on bullying as opposed to a describing litany of accomplishments, but still expressed dissatisfaction with the White House on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“We reiterate that we still do not feel strongly supported by this administration’s record of action so far, and that we still want her to meet with true gay military advocates to talk about those ‘no uncertain terms’ she mentioned when referring to the president’s promise on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ our community’s top legislative agenda item of 2010,” Nicholson said.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Mike

    October 11, 2010 at 12:59 am

    The Human Rights Campaign and the Obama Administration are a disaster for the gay community. We have waited long enough and it is time to abandon HRC and the Democrats…..watch the movie “Milk” again and see if HRC doesn’t act like the establishment gays in that movie.

    • Ty

      October 12, 2010 at 2:57 am

      grow up! You sound like a petulant child who hasn’t gotten his way. If the HRC and Obama Administration are disasters…then what are the republicans that are holding up the bill? And please stop comparing people to movie characters. Why don’t you spend some time making life uncomfortable for the republicans that are holding up the bill instead of complaining like a wuss? No rights in this country have been easily gained…and with the help of HRC and the current administration, we’re closer to getting this law repealed than ever before. What did the last administration do for you….let me answer that: They took us (gays and straight) to war…and when they had the perfect opportunity to use the war as a vehicle for dismantling DADT…THEY DIDN’T! People like you need to learn who your enemies really are…The HRC and the Obama Administration aren’t perfect but they are not our enemies!!!

  2. Bill

    October 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Mike, I agree with you. Our rights will come from the courts and not from pursuing a legislative agenda. That’s why I make monthly debit contributions to Lambda.

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National

Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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Colin Powell, leaving mixed legacy on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ dies at 84

Key figure once opposed gays in military, then backed review

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gay news, Washington Blade, Colin Powell, gay marriage
Colin Powell leaves behind a mixed legacy on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Colin Powell, the first ever Black secretary of state who served in top diplomatic and military roles in U.S. administrations, died Monday of coronavirus at age 84, leaving behind a mixed record on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The world continues to grapple with the pandemic and the public grows increasingly frustrated with its persistence as many remain unvaccinated despite the wide availability of vaccines. Powell was fully vaccinated, according to a statement released upon his death. Powell reportedly suffered from multiple myeloma, a condition that hampers an individual’s ability to combat blood infections.

Rising to the top of the military as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell supported in 1993 Congress moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

During a key moment congressional testimony, Powell and other top military officials were asked whether or not allowing gay people in the military would be compatible with military readiness. Each official, including Powell,” responded “incompatible.” Congress would enact “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that year.

Things changed when President Obama took office 15 years later and advocates for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were eager to claim Powell’s voice among their ranks. After all, Powell was highly respected as a bipartisan voice after having served as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing Obama in the 2008 election.

After the Obama administration in 2010 announced it would conduct a review of the idea of allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, Powell came out in support of that process. Advocates of repeal called that a declaration of reversal, although the statement fell short of a full support for gay people serving openly in the military.

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” General Powell said in a statement issued by his office, adding, “I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.”

Congress acted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the policy was lifted in 2011. At the time, Powell was widely considered a supporter of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and publicly counted among supporters of repeal, although the Blade couldn’t immediately find any statements from him to that effect.

In 2012, Powell had similar vaguely supportive words on same-sex marriage, saying he had “no problem with it” when asked about the issue.

“As I’ve thought about gay marriage, I know a lot of friends who are individually gay but are in partnerships with loved ones, and they are as stable a family as my family is, and they raise children,” Powell said. “And so I don’t see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married.”

The Blade also couldn’t immediately find any statement from Powell on transgender people serving in the military. After the Obama administration in 2016 lifted decades-old regulations against transgender service, former President Trump issued a ban by tweet the following year. President Biden reversed that ban and allowed transgender people to serve and enlist in the military in his first year in office.

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