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Gay diplomat presses LGBT issues at int’l conference

Guest focuses on hate crimes, Pride celebrations in remarks

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Michael Guest, former U.S. ambassador to Romania, headed a delegation during the human rights portion of an annual conference for the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A gay diplomat led a U.S. delegation at an international conference earlier this month that touched on the importance of LGBT rights as a human rights issue.

Michael Guest, former U.S. ambassador to Romania, headed a delegation of about 25 U.S. diplomats during the human rights portion of an annual review conference for the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. The review conference took place between Sept. 30 and Oct. 8 in Warsaw, Poland.

The Warsaw Review Conference was a primer engagement for trans-Atlantic countries to discuss human rights principles — including hate crimes against LGBT people and the freedom to association to have Pride celebrations across the globe — in anticipation of a later OSCE summit that this year is set to take place in December in Astana, Kazakhstan.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, Guest said that his sexual orientation made his designation as head of the delegation representational of the Obama administration’s stated principle that international LGBT rights are human rights.

“I also think that it made an impact with other delegations,” Guest added. “It was clearly a prominent feature of my biography, so there were a number of delegation members that come and it’s representative in their eyes as a sense of progress that an openly gay man would be appointed.”

Still, Guest said he thinks his 26-year service as a diplomat was the primary reason he was selected for the position and noted that during much of his career he focused on OSCE policy.

“I dealt with it at the time when all these changes were happening in Europe in 1989, 1990 and 1991 and when most of the commitments on fundamental freedoms and human rights were signed by the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union and the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe,” he said.

Guest attained notoriety in 2007 when he retired from the State Department in protest because it didn’t offer certain benefits — such as security training and free medical care — to the same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers. The situation has since been rectified by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, which took part in the review conference as an non-governmental organization, said the selection of an out gay man to lead the U.S. delegation was significant because previous administrations have been reluctant to incorporate LGBT issues in foreign policy.

“The United States in the past has been reluctant to address LGBT concerns within this forum,” Bromley said. “I think the fact that they selected Michael Guest as someone who is openly gay and works with organizations that promote issues on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was an important statement.”

The OSCE was established in 1975 after 35 trans-Atlantic countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, signed the Helsinki Accords and agreed to take part in annual meetings. During the Cold War, the OSCE served as a forum where the United States could raise human rights and security issues with Warsaw Pact countries.

But Guest said the tone of the conference has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to become less of an East-West dialogue and more of a pan-Atlantic conversation.

“It’s an opportunity to look at what has been done and is being done on human rights issues ranging from migration to freedoms of assembly and freedom of religion, to human trafficking, to capital punishment, to gender balance to hate crimes and intolerance — the whole range of human rights related issues,” Guest said.

During the course of the discussion on human rights, Guest impressed upon the 56 participating states in the conference the importance of inclusion of LGBT rights as human rights issues.

The former ambassador mentioned LGBT issues during his opening statement at the conference’s plenary session, including bias-motivated violence against LGBT people and the right to freedom of association at Pride celebrations. Such activities in Eastern Europe, where the conference took place, are often the targets of hostility and violence.

Guest lamented human rights abuses such as “when civil society assemblies are denied permits on spurious grounds, or police allow bigots to attack Gay Pride parades.” The former ambassador also acknowledged the United States has more to accomplish on human rights issues because “equality under the law continues to elude those of us who are gay or transgender.”

During a later discussion, Guest also appealed to governments in attendance to implement hate crimes protections measures and recalled his own personal experience as the victim of bias-motivated violence.

After a hostile non-governmental organization equated homosexuality to pedophilia and necrophilia at the end of the meeting, Guest responded that the connection was offensive and such inflammatory allegations can be responsible for hate crimes.

Guest told the Blade he raised LGBT issues during the conference because he believes they should be brought up in any comprehensive discussion of human rights.

“We raised it in questions of freedom to assembly, freedom of association and in the course of the discussions on hate crimes and tolerance,” he said. “We had some good news stories to tell from the standpoint of the United States, such as the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act and the overall trend in hate crimes going down, but the negative, of course, being that the reported number of LGBT hate crimes and hate crimes against immigrants has, in fact, gone up.”

LGBT issues were also raised by non-governmental institutions at the conference, including the Council for Global Equality.

Bromley delivered a statement at the conference on behalf of his organization — as well as two European international LGBT right groups — that called for passage of hate crimes protections in other countries as well as the decriminalization of sodomy.

Emphasizing the importance of accurate documentation and effective prosecution of bias-motivated violence against LGBT people, Bromley said hate crimes won’t go away as long as countries have anti-gay statutes on the books.

“As a first step, we call on all participating states in the OSCE region to remove any laws that continue to criminalize homosexual conduct or identity or the public dissemination of scientifically supported information on homosexuality and sexual health,” Bromley said.

Bromley told the Blade that discussion of LGBT rights at the conference was significant because the U.S. delegation had only begun to bring up such issues last year after the start of the Obama administration.

“We’re very pleased to see that level of emphasis from the head of the delegation, but a number of other governments also spoke to the issue, so it’s certainly gaining ground and giving additional attention to LGBT hate crimes,” Bromley said.

The delegations from other countries and other non-governmental organizations at the conference responded to the U.S. delegation’s promotion of LGBT rights in varied ways. Guest said the session in which he spoke personally about hate crimes issues caused delegations from other countries to take note.

“It was a very quiet session,” Guest said. “People were listening very quietly, and a lot of people did respond specifically to what I said including non-governmental organizations. A number of delegations told us afterwards — either to me directly or others on the team — how that more personal approach really had resonated with them.”

Guest said a representative from the Catholic Church in Vatican City was among those that approached him afterward and mentioned that talking about hate crimes in a personal manner was “a way that we could build bridges.”

But Guest said the outcome was different for discussions of freedom of association and the right to hold Pride celebrations. The former ambassador speculated these talks made less of an impact on the delegation because they had already come up at last year’s conference.

“I think it’s just that because Gay Pride issues have come up before, there were some delegations that maybe expected it and maybe didn’t really reflect as much as might otherwise be the case,” Guest said.

So-called “ex-gay” groups and other organizations hostile to LGBT rights were also present.

Bromley said Redeemed Lives, a Christian ministry, spoke out at the conference about bias-motivated violence against “ex-gay” people for giving up what the ministry called a “homosexual lifestyle.”

“That was somewhat alarming to see a strong showing of ex-gay activists who were waving issues that were, as far as I know, not legitimate concerns,” Bromley said. “I don’t doubt that there could be violence directed at ex-gay individuals, but I never heard of any reports to that effect.”

Reparative therapy programs that seek to change sexual orientation have been widely discredited by major medical and psychiatric associations around the world.

A spokesperson for Redeemed Lives deferred comment to a statement the organization made at the conference, which was published on the OSCE website. In the statement, Mario Bergner, director of Redeemed Lives, stresses the importance passing legislation to protect the free speech of Christian academics and clerics to “teach the sexual morality of their faith traditions” so that they can help those with “unwanted sexual desires.”

“Such people include Christians with sexual addictions for whom freedom means living free of internet pornography, Christians with compulsive sexual behaviours for whom freedom is fidelity in marriage, and Christians, like myself, with unwanted same sex attractions for whom freedom is the self emancipation that comes through effective pastoral care or psychological treatment for homosexuality,” Berger said.

Bromley said the organization’s concern about hate crimes against people who identify as “ex-gay” is ironic because the Matthew Shepard Act already protects them.

“It would actually be covered under our current hate crime law because it would still be violence on the basis of sexual orientation,” Bromley said.

But the conference nonetheless provided a forum to discuss international LGBT rights as a human rights issue.

Guest noted progress was made at the conference, although he said more work is needed.

“I think there are moments like that where you feel that you are making headway in getting people to understand that these are issues that governments have to take seriously,” Guest said. “And then, there are other times where it seems to go right past — certainly on some the freedom of association things.”

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North Dakota lawmakers okay regulation banning Conversion Therapy

This rule change will stop the vast majority of mental health providers in North Dakota from subjecting LGBTQ youth to conversion therapy

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Capitol Building of North Dakota in Bismarck (Photo Credit: State of North Dakota)

BISMARCK, ND. – The North Dakota House Administrative Rules Committee voted 8-7 on Tuesday, June 8, to authorize the rule proposed by the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, implementing new regulations prohibiting licensed social workers from subjecting LGBTQ youth to the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy.

The North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, which oversees licensing for social workers in the state, created the new rule which states that “it is an ethical violation for a social worker licensed by the board to engage in any practices or treatments that attempt to change or repair the sexual orientation or gender identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals.”

The West Hollywood based Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people, had worked with Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Josh Boschee, the National Association of Social Workers ND Chapter, the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, and local advocates like Elizabeth Loos to advance these critical protections for LGBTQ youth.

 “This rule change will stop the vast majority of mental health providers in North Dakota from subjecting LGBTQ youth to the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. This practice is not therapy at all— it’s abusive and fraudulent,” said Troy Stevenson, Senior Advocacy Campaign Manager for The Trevor Project. “There is still more work to be done in North Dakota, but this bold action will help save young lives. The Trevor Project is committed to an every state strategy to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy and North Dakota has proven that progress is possible anywhere.”

“Thank you to the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners for restricting licensed social workers in North Dakota from being able to practice conversion therapy! LGBT North Dakotans, especially youth, are safer now as you hold licensees responsible to the NASW Code of Ethics,” said Minority Leader Boschee. 

The proposed ban on therapist-administered conversion therapy in North Dakota was met with opposition by several of the committee’s most socially conservative members, the Grand Forks Herald reported.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, told the paper that he worries the new prohibition is limiting because it would prevent people seeking “some kind of treatment” from getting help. Bell said the rule is written so clients who are LGBT or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity are not inhibited from seeking care.

Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, said he’s concerned the rule would interfere with religious counseling, adding “there are some cases where people want to change.”

“There are licensed counselors that are also Christians, and basically my concern in all of this is that we’re telling the Christian counselors ‘you can be a licensed counselor, but you can’t practice your Christianity,'” Satrom said.

Satrom and West Fargo Republican Rep. Kim Koppelman said approving the social workers’ ban on conversion therapy is outside of the committee’s scope and ought to be scrutinized by the full Legislature.

Boschee, the North Dakota Legislature’s only openly gay member, told the Grand Forks Herald that he was disappointed in some of his colleagues for standing behind the “harmful” practice of conversion therapy and trying to muddy the conversation over what is a simple self-imposed rule for social workers. The Fargo Democrat said he was ultimately pleased that seven lawmakers joined him in upholding the proposed ban.

Research: 

  • According to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 13% of LGBTQ youth reported being subjected to conversion therapy, with 83% reporting it occurred when they were under age 18. LGBTQ youth who were subjected to conversion therapy reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who were not.
  • According to a peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project published in the American Journal of Public Health, LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts in the past year.
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‘We’re still very much in the healing phase’

Saturday marks five years since Pulse nightclub massacre

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The interim memorial at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on May 31, 2020 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Saturday marks five years since a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

A remembrance ceremony will take place at the site, which is now an interim memorial. A number of other events to honor the victims will take place in Orlando and throughout Central Florida over the coming days.

“We’re still very much in the healing phase and trying to find our way,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.

The massacre at the time was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Nearly half of the victims were LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. The massacre also sparked renewed calls for gun control.

Poma told the Blade that she expects construction will begin on a “Survivor’s Walk” at the site by the end of the year. A museum — which she described as an “education center” that will “talk about the history of the LGBT community and its struggles and stripes for the last century or so … about why safe spaces were important to this community” and what happened at Pulse and the global response to it — will be built a third of a mile away.

“We really feel it is important to never forget what happened at Pulse and to tell the story of that,” said Poma.

Poma noted the onePULSE Foundation of which she is the executive director met with representatives of the 9/11 Tribute Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to discuss the memorial. Poma when she spoke with the Blade acknowledged the plans have been criticized.

“This kind of opposition is not unique to these kind of projects,” she said.

“It’s just important to know that really what we’re trying to do is make sure what happened is never forgotten and those lives were never forgotten,” added Poma.

Poma on Tuesday declined to comment on the lawsuits that have been filed against her, her husband and the onePULSE Foundation in the wake of the massacre.

DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ policies overshadow anniversary

The Blade this week spoke with Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) and other activists and elected officials in Florida and Puerto Rico who were part of the immediate response to the massacre.

Equality Florida raised millions of dollars for survivors and victims’ families. CEO Nadine Smith on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview that Equality Florida in the massacre’s immediate aftermath pledged to honor the victims “with action by uprooting hatred at its source and from that time we have invested deeply in safe and healthy schools.”

“Schools are a shared cultural experience where the attitudes of ignorance and fear and animosity and violence towards others either get challenged or encouraged,” said Smith. “Five years later I look at how far this work has come and at the same time, I’m very aware of the backlash that we are facing, particularly in our schools with laws targeting trans youth specifically.”

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 1 signed a bill that bans transgender athletes from participating in high school and college sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The governor the following day vetoed funding that activists say would have funded programs for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a gay man who represents portions of Orlando, on Tuesday described DeSantis as “callous.”

“The governor’s actions are a reminder that five years after the attack at Pulse nightclub, we have a lot of work to do to push back against homophobia and transphobia,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith. “The Orlando community is very supporting and accepting of the LGBTQ community, but when you see what’s happening at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, you realize that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, associate director of Waves Ahead, an LGBTQ service organization in Puerto Rico, described the massacre’s impact in the U.S. commonwealth as “permanent in our collective memory.” Serrano also noted violence against trans Puerto Ricans remains rampant.

“We are now the epicenter of anti-trans violence in the U.S. and its territories,” said Serrano. “After five years, we still confront this hatred that doesn’t seem to stop. We will continue to fight until all of us are safe.”

the Pulse nightclub massacre, gay news, Washington Blade
A plaque in Third Millennium Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, pays tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Tony Lima, a long-time Florida-based activist who is currently CEO of Arianna’s Center, an organization that serves trans women of color in Florida, the South and Puerto Rico, helped organize vigils and blood drives in the days after the massacre.

“We knew how important it was to aid our family in Orlando in this immediate crisis,” Lima told the Blade on Monday. “Orlando and South Florida are intrinsically connected. We often share resources in nightlife, events, advocacy and a lot of the same people … so I think there was a natural synergy there.”

Lima, like Nadine Smith and Carlos Guillermo Smith, sharply criticized DeSantis for signing the anti-trans bill and for vetoing funds for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth. Lima also lamented the lack of progress on gun control.

A gunman on Feb. 14, 2018, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Lima told the Blade there have been two deadly mass shootings in South Florida in recent days.

“We have a huge problem when it comes to gun control in this country, and sadly five years later we haven’t made a whole lot of progress,” he said.

The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced sharp criticism from activists over his anti-LGBTQ policies. State lawmakers have also been criticized over their inaction on gun control. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Orlando’s support of LGBTQ rights part of ‘bigger call to action’

Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet is the senior specialist for inclusion, diversity and equity for the city of Orlando’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. He is also Mayor Buddy Dyer’s LGBTQ liaison.

Orlando City Hall on June 1 raised the Pride flag in commemoration of Pride month.

Sousa-Lazaballet noted the fountain in Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando was the colors of the trans Pride flag in commemoration of the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Orlando in 2019 became the first city in Florida to include National LGBT Chamber of Commerce-certified businesses in its municipal contracting and procurement programs.

“All of that is part of that bigger call to action, which is we want to honor the 49,” said Sousa-Lazaballet. “But we also want to with action by making the city an even more welcoming place for all.”

Sousa-Lazaballet, Carlos Guillermo Smith and Nadine Smith all told the Blade the way that Orlando, Central Florida, the country and the world responded to the massacre remains a source of pride.

“I think about how many messages there were in the aftermath that called on the worst instincts in people to be fearful of each other, to hate people as a group, to cower and to hide and I will never forget and have been changed by the Orlando community, how the nation and in fact globally people responded to the absolute opposite,” said Nadine Smith. “That is a light that I hold on to.”

Poma echoed Nadine Smith.

“We hope that our goal is to create that beacon of light that can come out of such darkness,” said Poma. “Darkness is a really dangerous place to get stuck in and so while we all wish what happened on June 12 never happened, it did and it’s now our moral and social responsibility to do something with that and that for me is creating light and change from what we all endured.”

A mural in Orlando, Fla., in the months after the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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Senate passes bill designating Pulse as a national memorial

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry.”

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Washington Blade file photo by Michael K. Lavers

WASHINGTON – In a rare bipartisan move, a bill that designates the former Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida a national memorial was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

Florida’s two U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced Senate Resolution 265 recognizing the fifth anniversary and honoring the 49 victims of the mass shooting attack on the Pulse Nightclub June 12, 2016.

Companion legislation authored by California U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA), and also Congressman Darren Soto’s (D-FL) House Resolution 49 that passed by voice vote on May 13 was also passed by the Senate.

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry. We’re proud of the bipartisan coalition of Florida Congressional leaders for leading the effort to recognize this hallowed ground as a national memorial site.,” Brandon J. Wolf, the Development Officer and Media Relations Manager for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida and a Pulse survivor told the Blade. “Our visibility matters. May the 49 lives stolen never be forgotten. And may we always honor them with action.”

Wolf was inside the club at the time of the shooting and lost his two best friends, Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew (Drew) Leinonen, who were among the 49 murdered during the rampage. Wolf had managed to escape but the event has forever left him scarred.

Since that terrible night Wolf has been a force for advocacy in gun control and LGBTQ equality rights and is a nationally recognized leader in those endeavors to include by President Joe Biden.

“Pulse is hallowed ground and what happened on June 12, 2016 must never be forgotten. ” Wolf added.

Florida’s Senator’s both released statements:

“The terrorist attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub was a heinous act of violence and hatred against members of the LGBTQ community,” Marco Rubio said. “Forty-nine innocent lives were lost on that horrific day. As the fifth anniversary approaches, we must continue to honor the memory of those who were taken far too soon. And while work still remains to root out evil, I am inspired by Orlando’s continued resiliency, pride, and strength.”

Rick Scott, who was Florida’s governor at the time of the mass shooting said, “Nearly five years ago today, our state, nation, the City of Orlando, and Hispanic and LGBTQ communities were attacked, and 49 innocent and beautiful lives were lost. It was an unspeakable tragedy,” he said. 

“An evil act of terrorism designed to divide us as a nation and strike fear in our hearts and minds. But instead, we came together, and supported each other through heartbreak and darkness, to preserve and rebuild. Today, we still stand strong, together, to remember the 49 young lives lost that tragic day and honor their memory with passage of our resolution and our bill to establish the ‘National Pulse Memorial.’ It is my hope that this memorial will forever serve as a tribute to the victims and a reminder for us all to always stand for love and kindness over hate and evil in this world.”

Although the United States Senate marked the upcoming fifth anniversary by honoring the victims and shooting survivors with passage of the legislation which now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature, in Florida, Repuiblican Governor Ron De Santis has taken a different tack.

Last week, DeSantis vetoed funding for LGBTQ programs from the state budget including money earmarked for mental health programming to support survivors of the Pulse Massacre, to house homeless LGBTQ children, and for Orlando’s LGBTQ Community Center. 

Brandon Wolf (L) speaking with Florida Governor DeSantis (R) at PULSE Memorial 2019 (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

These actions following his signing a bill on June 1, the start of LGBTQ Pride month- an education bill amended to include a previous stand alone bill, specifically targeting transgender girls and young women, banning them from playing on female sports teams.

“Let’s be clear about what this is: Governor DeSantis has declared war on Florida’s LGBTQ community.” said Wolf. “Before the 2019 Remembrance Ceremony, Governor DeSantis stood on hallowed ground, steps from where I escaped the building in 2016, and promised me that he would always support those of us impacted by the Pulse nightclub shooting. Today, almost two years later to date, he vetoed mental health services for us. I will never forget.”

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