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In contrast to Reid, Angle has said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” shouldn’t be repealed until the Pentagon has a chance to finish its review of the policy.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

Five transgender, nonbinary ICE detainees allege mistreatment at Colo. detention center

Advocacy groups filed complaint with federal officials on April 9

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(Photo courtesy of GEO Group)

Five transgender and nonbinary people who are in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a privately-run detention center in Colorado say they continue to suffer mistreatment.

The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the National Immigration Project and the American Immigration Council on April 9 filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Offices for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Immigration Detention Ombudsman and Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility on behalf of the detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver.

Charlotte, one of the five complainants, says she spends up to 23 hours a day in her room. 

She says in the complaint that a psychiatrist has prescribed her medications for anxiety and depression, but “is in the dark about her actual diagnoses because they were not explained to her.” Myriah and Elsa allege they do not have regular access to hormones and other related health care.

Omar, who identifies as trans and nonbinary, in the complaint alleges they would “start hormone replacement therapy if they could be assured that they would not be placed in solitary confinement.” Other detainees in the complaint allege staff have also threatened to place them in isolation.

“They have been told repeatedly that, if they started therapy, they would be placed in ‘protective custody’ (solitary confinement) because the Aurora facility has no nonbinary or men’s transgender housing unit,” reads the complaint. “This is so, despite other trans men having been detained in Aurora in the past, so Omar is very likely receiving misinformation that is preventing them from accessing the treatment they require.”

Omar further alleges staffers told them upon their arrival that “they had to have a ‘boy part’ (meaning a penis) to be assigned to” the housing unit in which other trans people live. Other complainants say staff have also subjected them to degrading comments and other mistreatment because of their gender identity. 

“Victoria, Charlotte and Myriah are all apprehensive about a specific female guard who is assigned to the housing unit for transgender women at Aurora,” reads the complaint. “Victoria has experienced this guard peering at her through the glass on the door of her form. Charlotte, Myriah and the other women in her dorm experienced the same guard making fun of them after they complained that she had confiscated all of their personal hygiene products, like their toothbrushes and toothpaste, and replaced them with menstrual pads and tampons, which she knows they do not need.”

“She said something to them like, ‘If you were real women, you would need these things,'” reads the complaint. “The same guard told them that they had to ask her for their personal hygiene products when they wanted to use them, stripping them of their most basic agency.”

Victoria, who has been in ICE custody for more than two years, also says she does not have regular access to hormones. Victoria further claims poor food, lack of access to exercise and stress and anxiety because of her prolonged detention has caused has made her health deteriorate.

The GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.

Advocates for years have complained about the conditions for trans and nonbinary people in ICE custody and have demanded the agency release all of them.

Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV, on May 25, 2018, died in ICE custody in New Mexico. Her family in 2020 sued the federal government and the five private companies who were responsible for her care.

Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans Salvadoran woman, on June 1, 2019, passed away at a Texas hospital four days after her release from ICE custody. Kelly González Aguilar, a trans Honduran woman, had been in ICE custody for more than two years until her release from the Aurora Contract Detention Center on July 14, 2020.

ICE spokesperson Steve Kotecki on Friday told the Blade there were 10 “self-identified transgender detainees” at the Aurora Contract Detention Center on April 11. The facility’s “transgendered units” can accommodate up to 87 trans detainees. 

A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring that all those in its custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments,” said Kotecki. “ICE regularly reviews each case involving self-identified transgender noncitizens and determines on a case-by-case basis whether detention is warranted.”

The complaint, however, states this memo does not go far enough to protect trans and nonbinary detainees.

“ICE’s 2015 guidance has some significant flaws,” it reads. “It fails to provide meaningful remedies for policy violations. It does not acknowledge the challenges that nonbinary people face when imprisoned by ICE and the lack of such guidance explains why the needs of nonbinary people are largely misunderstood and unmet.”

“Further, the language used to describe people who are TNB is not inclusive and does not reflect terminology adopted by the community it is meant to describe,” adds the complaint. “Although this list is not exhaustive, it addresses some of the primary concerns voiced by the complaints.”

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The White House

Francisco Ruiz appointed director of White House Office of National AIDS Policy

Former CDC official is first Latino to run office

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Francisco Ruiz, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. (Photo public domain)

Francisco Ruiz’s appointment as the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy has elicited widespread acknowledgment across various sectors.

Ruiz, a distinguished figure in public health with a history of collaboration and strategic partnerships, assumes the role as the first-ever Latino to serve as ONAP’s director, underscoring a commitment to diversity and inclusivity in addressing public health challenges.

In response to his appointment, Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden underscored the Biden-Harris administration’s steadfast commitment to ending the HIV epidemic and enhancing the quality of life for people living with HIV. Ruiz himself acknowledged this sentiment, emphasizing that accelerating efforts to combat the HIV epidemic and improve the well-being of those affected remain a paramount public health priority for the White House.

Previously serving at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ruiz played a pivotal role in advancing national HIV prevention campaigns, particularly contributing to the goals of the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. Initiative. His experience in fostering strategic partnerships and ensuring sensitive prevention messaging has been noted as instrumental in reaching diverse communities across the country and in U.S. territories.

Ruiz in his new role will be tasked with accelerating efforts to end the HIV epidemic and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV. 

Guillermo Chacón, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS and founder of the Hispanic Health Network, expressed confidence in Ruiz’s ability to advance the national strategy to end the HIV epidemic.

“Mr. Ruiz is a respected public health leader and a fitting choice to ensure that the Biden-Harris administration meets the goal of ending the HIV epidemic in the United States and U.S. Territories,” said Chacón.

“Francisco Ruiz’s appointment signifies a renewed focus on addressing health disparities and promoting health equity, particularly for historically marginalized and underserved communities,” he added. “As a person living with HIV and the son of Mexican immigrants, Ruiz brings personal insight and professional expertise to his new role, ensuring that strategies to combat HIV/AIDS are scientifically grounded and connected with the experiences of those most affected.”

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Federal Government

FDA plans to lift ban on gay, bisexual sperm donors

Ban has been in place since 2005

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(Los Angeles Blade graphic)

The Food and Drug Administration is planning to lift its ban on sperm donations from men who have sex with men, according to a report in the Wall Street JournalThe report also says the FDA would simultaneously lift the ban on donations of other tissues and organs from gay and bisexual men.

The Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FDA could put out a draft of the new policy for public comment by the summer, with a final rule in place by the end of 2024 or early 2025.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the FDA would not confirm the Wall Street Journal story, but acknowledged that, “the FDA routinely reviews approaches regarding donor screening and testing for donors of human cells, tissues and cellular and tissue-based products (HCT/Ps) to determine what changes, if any, are appropriate based on technological and evolving scientific knowledge.” 

The FDA imposed the sperm donation ban on men who have sex with men in 2005, as part of an expansion on existing prohibitions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men which were meant to mitigate the risk that HIV could be spread through donations.

The policies stemmed from an erroneous belief that gay men were more likely to carry HIV, regardless of their individual behaviors and risk factors.

Last year, the FDA finally ended the ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, which had been in place since the early days of the AIDS crisis. The FDA now requires that blood donors are screened based on individual behaviors in a gender-neutral manner, in addition to the donations themselves being tested for HIV and other blood-borne illnesses.

Alice Ruby, executive director of the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley, says the lifting of the blood ban should provide a template for ending the sperm ban.

“I’m hoping it’s similar to the blood donation screening, where it’s based on behaviour, rather than being part of a population,” she says. “We test donors repeatedly for HIV as required by the FDA.”

The Sperm Bank of California has served many lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and Ruby says that she’s often told her clients would like a queer donor, to ensure that the biological father won’t be someone who disapproves of queer families. The ban removes that choice from would-be mothers.

The Sperm Bank of California has been opposed to the gay sperm donation ban since the policy was first proposed 20 years ago and has advocated in tandem with the National Center for Lesbian Rights for the policy to be scrapped.

“People are pretty unaware that the ban exists. I think there’s a lot of gay men who would be happy to contribute in this way, especially since a large number of people using sperm donation are LGBT couples and single people,” Ruby says.

Sperm banks across the country have been experiencing shortages of donor sperm, especially from donors of color. Opening the donor pool to gay and bi men could help ease the shortage. Ruby has told the Blade that the Sperm Bank of California has had to turn away gay and bi donors every week, up to 400 men in a single year.

When the FDA releases its draft policy around sperm donation, there will be a public comment period before the regulation is made final. Ruby says anyone interested opening up sperm donation to gay and bisexual men should submit a comment to support the change.

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