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National news in brief: Oct. 29

Lesbian teen gets settlement, school board member incites furor and more

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School district ordered to pay legal fees for lesbian student

NEW YORK — A federal judge has ordered a Mississippi school district to pay about $81,000 in legal fees and expenses in a lawsuit filed by a lesbian student who was told she would be ejected from a prom if she brought her girlfriend, CNN reported this week.

The decision Tuesday by a federal judge may be the final chapter in the well-publicized legal battle between a lesbian teenager and the Mississippi school district.

The lawsuit against the school district in Fulton, Miss., was filed by the ACLU on behalf of Constance McMillen. The lawsuit was settled in July, and the school district agreed to pay McMillen $35,000 in damages and adopt a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. The July settlement was not part of the $81,000 payment ordered by the judge Tuesday.

The issue made national news after McMillen, the lesbian teen, was told by Itawamba Agricultural High School officials she and her girlfriend would be barred from attending the school-sponsored prom.

The prom was eventually canceled by school board officials.

At the time, support poured in for the teen. She served as the grand marshal for New York’s Gay Pride Parade, got a $30,000 college scholarship from an anonymous donor and a Facebook page called “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!” attracted more than 400,000 fans. (Photo on homepage is Constance McMillen)

Ark. school board member incites Facebook furor

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A school board member on the board of Midland School District in an area about 85 miles northeast of Little Rock, Ark., shared on his Facebook page that he would only honor spirit day — an event held last week in which LGBT people and their allies wore purple in memory of the recent gay teens who’ve committed suicide — if “they all commit suicide,” according to a Towleroad report.

“Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers committed suicide,” wrote board member Clint McCance. “The only way I’m wearing it for them is if they all commit suicide. I can’t believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves (sic) because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.”

In response to comments on his status update, McCance wrote, “It pisses me off though that we make a special purple fag day for them. I like that fags can’t procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other AIDS and die. If you aren’t against it, you might as well be for it … I would disown my kids if they were gay. They will not be welcome at my home or in my vicinity. I will absolutely run them off. Of course my kids will know better. My kids will have solid Christian beliefs. See it infects everyone.”

The Midland superintendent of schools and the principal of Midland High School did not return calls seeking comment. A Facebook page has been set up calling for McCance’s removal.

D.C. groups promote 2012 global AIDS conference

WASHINGTON — The leader of a Geneva, Switzerland-based organization sponsoring the 2012 International AIDS Conference, which is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C., joined local AIDS activists at a D.C. reception Tuesday to promote grassroots participation in the conference.

The reception, held at the John Wilson D.C. City Hall Building, was organized by the AIDS 2012 D.C. Community Coalition, which formed recently to encourage local participation in the AIDS conference.

The biennial conference is expected to attract more than 25,000 delegates from as many as 200 countries, including scientists, policy makers, and AIDS activists. More than 2,500 journalists also are expected to attend the event, according to the International AIDS Society, which sponsors the conference.

Elly Katabira of Uganda, chair of the Conference Coordinating Committee and president-elect of the International AIDS Society, welcomed D.C. government officials and AIDS activists attending the Tuesday’s reception. He encouraged the local D.C. area community to take part in what he called one of the most important conferences aimed at developing a solution to the international AIDS crisis.

Also speaking at the reception was Dr. Pierre Vigilance, director of the D.C. Department of Health, and Dr. Nnemdi Kamanu Elias, acting senior director of the D.C. HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and TB Administration.

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Office of National AIDS Policy Director Phillips: Congress must increase funding

‘Without congressional funding we can’t get there’

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The White House in 2011 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Harold Phillips, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), said Monday that Congress must increase funding to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including for programs designed around the lives and needs of Americans who are living with the disease.

“We have the support of the Biden-Harris administration, and we have the support at HHS, but without congressional funding we can’t get there,” said Phillips, who delivered his remarks during the AIDS United annual AIDSWatch conference in Washington, D.C.

Phillips echoed remarks by other speakers in calling for Congress to increase appropriations funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, but he also emphasized the importance of “making space for people living with HIV in other aspects of the budget.”

Consistent with the Biden-Harris administration’s focus on employing a whole-of-government approach, Phillips said stakeholders must understand that while “HIV is, yes, a public health threat,” the disease is also “the result of systemic and structural racism,” an intersectional problem requiring more than narrowly focused biomedical or public health responses.

Therefore, he said, these conversations about matters like HIV’s impact on Black lives, or considerations for aging folks who are living with the disease, must be held at places like the White House Gender Policy Council, the National Economic Council, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“When we talk about ending HIV as a public health threat,” Phillips said, “we also want to end HIV such that it’s not the defining characteristic for people living with HIV and that they can have access to housing, access to employment, good mental health and substance abuse treatment.”

Former ONAP Director Sandra Thurman with ONAP Director Harold Phillips (Screen shot/YouTube)

Under Phillips’s leadership, data on these considerations for those living with HIV/AIDS will be measured for the first time with ONAP’s rollout of new quality of life indicators in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Federal Implementation Plan.

“There’s an indicator in there that’s self-reported quality of life,” Phillips said, which asks respondents to consider, “how do I feel?” This is important, he added, because people living with HIV may have positive lab results but still feel poorly.

Phillips advised those AIDSWatch participants who are slated to meet with members of Congress and their staffs after hosting a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday morning to “build a common bond” with lawmakers by emphasizing the human impact of the appropriations funding for which they are advocating.

An AIDS United spokesperson told the Washington Blade by email Monday that 187 congressional meetings have been scheduled for Tuesday.

Phillips also noted that while “conversations need to happen in Washington, there’s also conversations that need to happen on the state and local level,” where “we’re finding a level of hate and stigma and discrimination that’s on course to try to either stop our progress or take us backwards.”

Speaking before Phillips, Equality Federation Public Health Policy Strategist Mike Webb stressed the importance of policies under consideration by state and local lawmakers. “Our access to PrEP shouldn’t be based on a patchwork of laws by the states,” they said, and HIV-related legislative proposals in many cases would “add criminalizing aspects.”

Laws already on the books that “criminalize the transmission of, or perceived exposure to, HIV and other infectious diseases,” the Movement Advancement Project writes, “create a strong disincentive for being tested for HIV, and result in adverse public health outcomes.”

Phillips and the Biden administration have made modernizing or repealing those laws a top priority.

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Biden budget earmarks funds for HIV along with new programs for PrEP, hepatitis C

Budget seen as preview of Biden’s reelection campaign

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The White House in 2011 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The $6.8 trillion budget unveiled by President Joe Biden on Thursday includes increased investment in existing programs to fight HIV/AIDS, along with new initiatives to expand access to HIV prevention medications and eliminate hepatitis C.

U.S. House Republicans are expected to kill the proposal, which is nevertheless seen as a possible blueprint for the major themes to come in Biden’s expected reelection campaign.

Major focus areas of the plan include deficit reduction, increased taxes for the wealthy, and increased spending on the military and other endeavors to compete with China.

The HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute praised the budget in a press release Thursday, writing that it will “significantly increase the federal resources necessary to end both HIV and hepatitis C.”

The group’s president, Carl Schmid, said Biden “recognizes the historic role the federal government must play, and the investments needed to end infectious diseases.”

First, the plan would bolster funding for the Trump-era Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States initiative by $313 million, bringing the total to $850 million. Second, it would debut a “ten-year $9.7 billion nationwide PrEP delivery program” and a “historic initiative to eliminate hepatitis C.”

PrEP, or preexposure prophylaxis, is a medication regimen that reduces the risk of contracting HIV. According to the HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute, only 30 percent of patients who could benefit from the drug are taking it.

The new hepatitis C program “seeks to provide outreach, testing, and curative medications to the estimated 2.4 million people living with hepatitis C, many of whom are unaware of their infection.”

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Gov. Newsom: Calif. will not do business with Walgreens after decision to not distribute abortion pill

20 Republican state attorneys general threatened to sue Walgreens for offering mifepristone

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Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) announced on Monday that California will not do business with Walgreens following the company’s announcement of its decision on Friday to not distribute the abortion pill mifepristone in 20 states.

The move comes amid pressure from conservative lawmakers and threats of legal action against Walgreens and CVS from 20 Republican state attorneys general, who claimed in a Feb. 1 press release that selling mifepristone is “unsafe and illegal.”

Mifepristone is still legal in several of the states where Walgreens has decided to stop providing it in response to the specter of lawsuits from state attorneys general: Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and Montana.

Newsom’s office told NPR that California will review “all relationships between Walgreens and the state,” but declined to provide more specifics.

“California won’t be doing business with @walgreens – or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women’s lives at risk,” Newsom wrote in the tweet. “We’re done.”

“Elected officials targeting pharmacies and their ability to provide women with access to safe, effective, and FDA-approved medication is dangerous and just unacceptable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing on March 3.

“The administration will continue to stand by the FDA’s expert judgment in approving and regulating medications. And in the face of barriers to access and concerns about safety of patients, healthcare providers, and pharmacists, we will continue to support access to this critical medication within the limits of the law,” Jean-Pierre said.

Meanwhile, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas is expected to soon rule on a case challenging the safety of mifepristone that advocates for reproductive justice fear could lead to a nationwide injunction prohibiting the sale and distribution of the abortion drug.

Medical experts have slammed the Texas plaintiffs’ lawsuit, arguing that mifepristone’s safety and efficacy have been well demonstrated for years. Kacsmaryk, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, is nevertheless expected to rule in their favor.

“The plaintiffs who have no legitimate standing have hand-picked him to hear this case that has no merit because they know what they’re getting with Judge Kacsmaryk,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said last month.

Jean-Pierre addressed the case during a press briefing on March 1: “The decision would be unprecedented, as you know, and devastating to women’s health.  And we may find ourselves in uncharted territory,” she said.

“And so, we’re closely — closely working with the Justice Department and DHS — HHS on this, on how to be prepared for any range of outcome or potential outcomes,” Jean-Pierre added.

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