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Key Senate races a focus for LGBT community

Pro-gay Dems face tough fights in Nevada, Wisc., Pa., Colo.

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On Election Day, many eyes will be focused on several key Senate races where lawmakers with a history of support for the LGBT community are facing tough challenges on the road to re-election.

By far the most high profile race in this group is taking place in Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is fighting for his political life against Republican Sharron Angle, a Tea Party candidate and former Nevada State Assembly member.

Several polls have Angle ahead of Reid by a few points. On Tuesday, Rasmussen Reports made public a poll that found Angle leading Reid by four percentage points among likely voters.

As majority leader, Reid is responsible for moving forward with pro-LGBT legislation in the Senate and would continue to decide the agenda if he wins on Election Day.

Reid has expressed support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A Mormon, Reid has also been critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ lead role in backing Proposition 8 in California, which ended same-sex marriage in the state in 2008.

Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said a win for Reid is important to the LGBT community because some would likely blame his loss on his leadership on LGBT issues.

“I have a feeling that’s where the Republicans will go with this, and it will be over ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ or it will be that he was too liberal,” Mitchell said. “And, of course, our issues in that moniker of ‘too liberal.'”

In contrast to Reid, Angle has said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” shouldn’t be repealed until the Pentagon has a chance to finish its review of the policy.

Angle has also said in a questionnaire that she’d refuse campaign contributions from businesses that have pro-gay policies in place. She has, however, reportedly taken contributions from political action committees to which such businesses have donated.

The Republican candidate is also known for having ties to an anti-gay party in Nevada in which she once held membership, the American Independent Party.

In 1994, when Angle was involved in the group, the American Independent Party published a 16-page newspaper ad insert calling for a state constitutional amendment permitting discrimination against LGBT people. The insert refers to LGBT people as “sodomites” and portrays them as “child-molesting, HIV-carrying, Hell-bound freaks.”

Despite Angle’s positions, one Republican LGBT group is looking forward to seeing Reid go because of the economic conditions facing Nevada.

Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the race in Nevada is “as much about voter distaste with Reid’s record as it is about the positions presented by Angle and her campaign.”

“Nevadans want a senator who will stand for their values and deliver for a state that has a 15 percent unemployment rate, not a legislator who is jockeying for legislation to favor the White House agenda first and foremost,” Berle said.

While enjoying general support among LGBT people, Reid has been criticized for not moving fast enough on pro-LGBT legislation.

Some supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal said he politicized a repeal measure in September by limiting the number of amendments that could have been offered on the bill once it reached the floor.

The Senate was unable to move forward with the legislation, and many senators said the amendment issue prevented them from voting in the affirmative.

But Mitchell said he’s “tired of hearing Republicans and other folks” blame Reid for the failure of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the Senate because he said the majority leader was doing his job by limiting the number of amendments on the bill.

“With the incredible obstructionism from the Republicans that were blocking every single bill almost,” Mitchell said. “There are like 420 bills that the Senate needed to pick up that the House passed. As majority leader, he needs to start to pull things together to try and get things through.”

Mitchell said faulting Reid for the failure of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Senate is “placing the blame in wrong place” and said “the blame is solely on the Republicans there.”

Another race of interest is taking place in Wisconsin, where U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is running against Republican Ron Johnson, a wealthy plastics manufacturer.

Many polls have Feingold trailing Johnson. On Tuesday, Rasmussen published a poll that found Feingold behind Johnson by seven percentage points among Wisconsin likely voters. Cook Political Report identifies the race as “leans Republican.”

Feingold is known for having long been a friend to the LGBT community. In 1996, he was among 14 senators to vote against passage of the Defense of Marriage Act.

In the current Congress, Feingold has co-sponsored ENDA and legislation that would end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Wisconsin senator also was responsible for an amendment to State Department budget legislation that would require the U.S. government to take more active role in LGBT issues overseas.

Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said Feingold deserves support from the LGBT community because he has long been a “progressive champion, broadly, and particularly for the LGBT community for years.

“I think that are so many issues in play out in the field that it is hard, I think, for LGBT people to see such a champion in a tough race,” Cole said. “It speaks to the difficult political environment that’s out there right now.”

Mitchell praised Feingold for sometimes being a maverick and said his loss would be “heartbreaking” because his voice is distinct among the Senate Democratic caucus. Earlier this year, the senator joined with most Republicans to vote against financial reform legislation.

“He doesn’t always vote lock step,” Mitchell said. “He’s very much a freethinker, and I think we’re seeing less and less of that in both houses actually.”

Still, an anti-gay label doesn’t fit Johnson. The Republican candidate said he would support repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the condition that the Pentagon backs an end to the law.

Last month, Johnson told reporters that he favors nondiscrimination, but wants to see the Pentagon’s report on how “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal would affect operations. He said if the report were convincing, he would vote to remove the statute from the books.

Berle said the Wisconsin race represents “a remarkable contrast” between a long-serving politician and “a businessman who knows what it takes to sign the front of a paycheck. Berle also commended Johnson for being willing to vote for repeal of the military’s gay ban.

“Johnson’s support for ending the failed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy is representative of a broad swath of Republicans throughout the country who favor open service,” Berle said.

In the center of the country, another race is playing out where the candidates have divergent views on gay issues.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is vying to retain his seat against Republican Ken Buck, a Tea Party candidate and district attorney in the state.

The race between Buck and Bennet is seen as among the closest in the country. On Monday, Public Policy Polling published numbers finding that, among likely Colorado voters, 47 percent support Buck and while another 47 percent support Bennet.

Buck has made several anti-gay comments throughout the course of his campaign. In a September debate, Buck said he opposes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal because he said the U.S. military should be as “homogeneous as possible.”

In another recent debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Buck said being gay is a choice and compared it to alcoholism.

“I think that birth has an influence over it, like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that, basically, you have a choice,” he said.

By contrast, Bennet has taken pro-LGBT positions since his appointment to his seat in the current Congress, such as signing on as a co-sponsor of ENDA and legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Cole said the choice for LGBT people in the Colorado race is distinct based on the positions of the candidates.

“You have Michael Bennet, who has been a strong voice for the community running against Buck, who just on ‘Meet the Press’ last weekend made his dangerous comments about LGBT people,” Cole said.

Mitchell also said a win for Bennet is important in Colorado because of statements Buck has made against gays as well as recent remarks against the separation of church and state.

“Ken Buck is little crazy, right?” Mitchell said. “His statement of separation of church and state … I think when you start to peel the layers down from that, I think that’s a pretty extreme view.”

But Berle characterized the Colorado race as “a referendum on the failed Democratic leadership” in the Senate.

“Coloradans are looking for a leader who will oppose out of control government spending and support economic policies designed to get the economy back on track,” Berle said.

Berle said Log Cabin “strongly disagrees with Buck’s belief that sexual orientation is a choice,” but recalled the candidate’s previous work as a prosecutor.

“We remember that this is the same man who as district attorney zealously prosecuted the murderers of a young transgender woman in 2008,” Berle said. “Despite our disagreements, this is evidence that Buck is willing to listen on issues important to gay and lesbian Americans.”

Another tight race is unfolding in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a two-term House lawmaker and former Navy admiral, is vying for an open seat against Pat Toomey, a former U.S. House member and former president of the Club for Growth.

A poll published Tuesday by Reuters/Ipsos found that race between Sestak and Toomey is a dead heat. Among the Pennsylvania adults who were polled, 46 percent favored Sestak in the election and another 46 percent supported Toomey.

During his time in the U.S. House, Sestak has been vocal in his support for the LGBT community and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He’s voted for hate crimes protection legislation as well as a version of ENDA.

In contrast, during his earlier tenure in the U.S. House, Toomey voted for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004 and a measure in 1999 that would have banned adoption by gays in D.C.

Still, Toomey said earlier this month during a debate he would back repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” if military leaders can ensure an end to the law will improve and not undermine its capabilities.

Berle emphasized support for Toomey based on the former U.S. House member’s “consistent voice for fiscal conservatism.”

“His message resonates with Pennsylvanians who are particularly annoyed with being represented by Sen. Arlen Specter who put his own career ahead of his constituents’ interests when he switched parties,” Berle said.

But Cole also emphasized the distinction between Sestak and Toomey in the Senate race based on the Democratic candidate’s support for the LGBT community.

“You have Joe Sestak, the highest-ranking military officer serving in Congress, who is a staunch supporter of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, running against the guy whom Rick Santorum called ‘too conservative,” Cole said.

Similarly, Mitchell said a win for Sestak in Pennsylvania is important because the Keystone State is considered a “bellwether” for the rest of the country.

“It’s very middle of the road,” Mitchell said. “I think for there to be a win by Sestak in Pennsylvania softens the blow for some of the other races that we may lose.”

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National

Does a potential overturn of Roe imperil LGBTQ rights?

Some fear that Obergefell marriage decision could fall

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Protests outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1. (Photo by Cathy Renna)

The oral arguments before the justices of the United States Supreme Court had barely ended in the case brought by the state of Mississippi defending its law banning abortion after 15 weeks, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when alarms were set off in legal circles as some argued that Obergefell v. Hodges — the same-sex marriage decision — would be in danger should the high court rule to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler, appearing on NPR’s ‘Heard on All Things Considered,’ told host Mary Louise Kelly that there was a basis for concern over whether the court would actually overrule its precedents in other cases based on the questions and statements raised during the hearing by the conservative members of the court.

Asked by Kelly if she saw a legal door opening Ziegler affirmed that she did. Kelly then asked her, “Them taking up cases to do with that. What about same-sex marriage?”

Ziegler answered, “Yeah, same-sex marriage is definitely a candidate. Justices Alito and Thomas have in passing mentioned in dicta that they think it might be worth revisiting Obergefell v. Hodges – the same-sex marriage decision.

“And I think it’s fair to say that in the sort of panoply of culture war issues, that rights for same-sex couples and sexual orientation are still among the most contested, even though certainly same-sex marriage is more subtle than it was and than abortion was.

“I think that certainly the sort of balance between LGBTIQ rights and religious liberty writ large is a very much alive issue, and I think some states may try to test the boundaries with Obergefell, particularly knowing that they have a few justices potentially willing to go there with them.”

As almost if to underscore the point raised by Ziegler during the hearing, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor pointed out that the high court has taken and “discerned” certain rights in cases from the Constitution.

Along with abortion, the court has “recognized them in terms of the religion parents will teach their children. We’ve recognized it in their ability to educate at home if they choose,” Sotomayor said. “We have recognized that sense of privacy in people’s choices about whether to use contraception or not. We’ve recognized it in their right to choose who they’re going to marry.”

In following up the cases cited by Justice Sotomayor, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who was defending the state’s abortion law, whether a decision in his favor would affect the legal precedents in those cases cited by Justice Sotomayor.

In his answer to Justice Barrett, the state’s Solicitor General said cases involving contraception, same-sex marriage and sodomy wouldn’t be called into question because they involve “clear rules that have engendered strong reliance interests and that have not produced negative consequences or all the many other negative stare decisis considerations we pointed out.”

However, Lambda Legal Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director, Sharon McGowan had a different take and interpreted remarks by Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to mean that the decisions in Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized private sexual intimacy between same-sex couples, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down remaining bans on the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, would actually justify overturning Roe v. Wade.

In a publicly released media statement McGowan noted: “During today’s argument, Justice Kavanaugh suggested that two key Supreme Court decisions protecting LGBTQ civil rights—Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges—support overruling Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

‘To that we say, NOT IN OUR NAME. LGBTQ people need abortions. Just as important, those landmark LGBTQ decisions EXPANDED individual liberty, not the opposite. They reflected the growing societal understanding of our common humanity and equality under law.

“Just as the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education rejected the lie of ‘separate but equal,’ the Supreme Court’s decisions in Lawrence and Obergefell appropriately overruled precedent where it was clear that, as was true with regard to race, our ancestors failed properly to acknowledge that gender and sexual orientation must not be barriers to our ability to live, love, and thrive free of governmental oppression. … 

“These landmark LGBTQ cases, which Lambda Legal litigated and won, and on which we rely today to protect our community’s civil rights, were built directly on the foundation of Casey and Roe. Our interests in equal dignity, autonomy, and liberty are shared, intertwined, and fundamental.” 

On Sunday, the Blade spoke with Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national LGBTQ+ legal organization that represented three same-sex couples from Tennessee, whose case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court along with Obergefell and two other cases.

Minter is urging caution in how people interpret the court arguments and remarks made by the justices.

“We should be cautious about taking the bait from anti-LGBTQ groups who falsely argue that if the Supreme Court reverses or undermines Roe v. Wade, they are likely to reverse or undermine Obergefell or Lawrence. In fact, that is highly unlikely, as the argument in Dobbs itself showed,” he said.

“The only reason Justice Kavanaugh mentioned Obergefell and Lawrence, along with Brown v. Board of Education, was to cite them as examples of cases in which the Supreme Court clearly did the right thing. All of those decisions rely at least as strongly on equal protection as on fundamental rights, and even this extremely conservative Supreme Court has not questioned the foundational role of equal protection in our nation’s constitutional law,” Minter stressed.

During an interview with Bloomberg magazine, David Cortman, of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist hate group, said “two things in particular distinguish abortion from those other privacy rights: the right to life and the states’ interest in protecting a child.”

Cortman, whose group urged the justices to allow states to ban same-sex marriages, said those other rights may be just as wrong as the right to an abortion. “But the fundamental interest in life that’s at issue in abortion means those other rights are probably not in any real danger of being overturned.”

But Cortman is of the opinion that there is little impetus among the court’s conservatives to take up challenges to those cases.

However, the fact that the six to three makeup of the high court with a conservative majority has progressives clamoring for the public to pay closer attention and be more proactively engaged.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, in an emailed statement to the Blade underscored those concerns:

“Reports and analysis coming out of Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization are extremely disturbing and represent a threat to our individual constitutional rights to privacy and autonomy. There is no ‘middle ground’ on what the Constitution guarantees and what was decided decades ago with the Roe v Wade decision. 

“This is about liberty, equality, and the rule of law, not the political or partisan views of those sitting on the bench. The unprecedented decision to remove a constitutional right recognized by the Supreme Court 50 years ago would set back civil rights by decades. ….

“Abortion access is essential, and a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Bans on abortion are deeply racist and profoundly sexist – the harshest impacts fall on Black and Brown women and pregnant people and on our families and communities.

“If you think this decision will not affect you, think again: a wrong decision by the Supreme Court means you, too, will lose your bodily autonomy, your ability to own your own personal and community power. This is not just about abortion; it is about controlling bodies based on someone else determining your worthiness. This is a racial justice issue. This is a women’s issue. It is an LGBTQ issue. It is a civil rights issue. These are our fundamental rights that are at stake.”

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Minnesota

Minnesota middle school principal ousted for displaying Pride flag

Critics ramped up attacks on the career educator- some compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students

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Screenshot via Marshall Public Schools, YouTube Channel

MARSHALL, Mn. — A former middle school principal in Minnesota who lost her job after displaying a Pride flag alleges in a federal lawsuit that the school system retaliated against her for supporting LGBTQ+ students.

Mary Kay Thomas filed the complaint against Marshall Public Schools in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota Tuesday after anti-LGBTQ+ middle school staff, parents, students and local clergy began efforts to remove the Pride flag that she put up in her middle school’s cafeteria in 2020 as a part of an inclusiveness effort.

According to the lawsuit, Thomas has been a teacher and principal for more than three decades with a long track record of success. She held the principal position at Marshall Middle School for 15 years, receiving contract renewals, pay raises and praise for her performance.

“But when Thomas decided to display an LGBTQ Pride Flag in the school cafeteria in early 2020, everything changed,” reads the complaint. 

Thomas refused to take down the Pride flag as critics ramped up attacks on the career educator. The lawsuit alleges that some even compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students. 

“Sadly, the Marshall School District has sided with these critics,” her lawyers wrote. 

What followed was an “escalating series of adverse actions” taken by the Marshall School District, said the lawsuit. She claims that the school targeted her by threatening her employment, conducting a “bad-faith” investigation, putting her on indefinite involuntary leave, suspending her without pay and putting a notice of deficiency in her personnel file. 

The complaint says that the deficiencies were “false, distorted, and/or related to Thomas’s association with members of the LGBTQ community.”

Thomas also claims that the District attempted to get her to quit by removing her as principal and assigning her to a “demeaning ‘special projects’ position.”

At one point, Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams, who is named as a defendant in the case, told Thomas he could “make this all go away” if she stepped down, according to the complaint. 

The school removed the Pride flag in August 2021 after settling a lawsuit brought by residents who opposed it. 

The Blade reached out to Williams for comment but did not receive a response. However, according to the Marshall Independent, Williams did release a statement on the matter. 

“Marshall Public Schools is committed to the education of every child and has strong policies and practices in place against discrimination, against both students and staff members. The school district is committed to creating a respectful, inclusive, and safe learning and working environment for students, staff and our families,” Williams said. “While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct. The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”

In addition, Thomas alleges that she resisted unwanted sexual advancements from school board member Bill Swope. She claims she told Williams about the sexual harassment.

As of Thursday, the school has not filed a response, and no hearing has been scheduled yet. 

Thomas is seeking a jury trial, damages and reinstatement as principal of Marshall Middle School.

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National

Matthew Shepard honored at National Cathedral

Daylong services held to mark his 45th birthday

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Matthew Shepard, gay news, Washington Blade
Matthew Shepard Thanksgiving and Celebration at the National Cathedral in 2018. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The parents of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a 1998 hate crime that drew international attention to anti-LGBTQ violence, were among those attending a day of religious services commemorating Shepard’s 45th birthday on Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral.

The services, which the Cathedral organized in partnership with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, included tributes to Shepard at the Cathedral’s St. Joseph’s Chapel, where his remains were interred in a ceremony in 2018.  

“Matthew Shepard’s death is an enduring tragedy affecting all people and should serve as an ongoing call to the nation to reject anti-LGBTQ bigotry and instead embrace each of our neighbors for who they are,” the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral, said at the time of Shepard’s interment.

“In the years since Matthew’s death, the Shepard family has shown extraordinary courage and grace in keeping his spirit and memory alive, and the Cathedral is honored and humbled to serve as his final resting place,” Hollerith said.

The first of the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard began at 7 a.m. with prayers, scripture readings, and music led by the Cathedral’s Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan. The service was live streamed on YouTube.

An online, all-day service was also held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. that Cathedral officials said was intended to “connect people around the world to honor Shepard and the LGBTQ community and pray for a more just world.”

The Shepard services concluded with a 5:30 p.m. in-person remembrance of Shepard in the Cathedral’s Nave, its main worship space. Among those attending were Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who have said they created the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue their son’s support for equality for all.

A statement released by the Cathedral says a bronze plaque honoring Matthew Shepard was installed in St. Joseph’s Chapel to mark his final resting place at the time Shepard was interred there in 2018. 
Following the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard, the Adams Morgan gay bar Pitchers hosted a reception for Dennis and Judy Shepard, according to Pitchers’ owner David Perruzza.

One of the two men charged with Shepard’s murder, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty to the charge after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty for him. The second of the two men charged, Aaron McKinney, was convicted of the murder following a lengthy jury trial.

Prosecutors said McKinney repeatedly and fatally struck Shepard in the head with the barrel of a handgun after he and Henderson tied Shepard to a wooden fence in a remote field outside Laramie, Wy., on Oct. 6, 1998. Police and prosecutors presented evidence at McKinney’s trial that McKinney and Henderson met Shepard at a bar in Laramie on that day and lured him into their car, where they drove him to the field where authorities said McKinney fatally assaulted him.

Shepard died six days later at a hospital in Ft. Collins, Colo., where he was taken after being found unconscious while still tied to the fence.

In a dramatic courtroom scene following the jury’s guilty verdict for McKinney, Dennis Shepard urged the judge to spare McKinney’s life by not handing down a death sentence. He said that out of compassion and in honor of his son’s life, McKinney should be allowed to live. The judge sentenced McKinney to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the same sentence given to Henderson.

(VIDEO COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL VIA YOUTUBE)
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