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Cicilline victory gives Congress 4th gay member

Gay Providence mayor wins House seat; Pougnet falls short in Calif.

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U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Rhode Island Mayor David Cicilline who won a Congressional seat Tuesday. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The election of an openly gay Rhode Island politician to the U.S. House proved one of the few bright spots on Election Day for the LGBT community.

David Cicilline, who’s gay and the mayor of Providence, R.I., defeated his Republican opponent, John Loughlin, a Rhode Island State Assembly member.

According to the Rhode Island Board of Elections, Cicilline won by taking 50.6 percent of vote in the state’s 1st congressional district while Loughlin earned 44.6 percent.

“I am thrilled to be the next Congressman from Rhode Island’s First District and so grateful to the members of the LGBT community who supported my campaign,” Cicilline said. “I look forward to going to Washington and fighting for the issues important to all of us — creating good jobs, protecting Social Security, working to fight global climate change and, of course, fighting for full equality for our community.”

Chuck Wolfe, CEO for the Victory Fund, commended Cicilline for his victory in a statement.

“Mayor Cicilline will be a strong advocate for all Rhode Islanders, but he will also be an authentic voice for the millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans who long for the day when we will be treated equally under law,” Wolfe said. ”We are enormously proud of him and grateful to Rhode Island voters.”

Cicilline’s election positions him to become the fourth sitting openly gay member of the U.S. House when the 112th Congress begins in January. He’ll succeed Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who’s retiring from Congress at the end of this year. Gay Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) all won re-election Tuesday.

The Providence mayor was favored to win because he was running in a Democratic stronghold and was a powerhouse fundraiser. According to Federal Election Commission reports, Cicilline raked in nearly $1.7 million over the course of his campaign.

Cicilline earned the endorsement of many national LGBT organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign and the Victory Fund.

In a statement, Michael Cole, an HRC spokesperson, said he’s “thrilled” that Cicilline will join the members of Congress who are openly gay.

“No doubt he will carry on the record of retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy in ensuring Rhode Island’s first district is represented by an effective congressman in promoting equality for all people,” Cole said.

Signs showed the race was tightening in the week before the election. While earlier polls showed Cicilline ahead of Loughlin by double-digit numbers, the lead dropped to single digits in some polls the week before the campaign.

The Loughlin campaign also engaged in what could be seen as gay-baiting in the weeks before the election. Loughlin ran ads emphasizing that he’s a husband and a father — possibly a reference to the fact that Cicilline is gay and single — and defended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during a debate.

The news wasn’t as good for other openly gay candidates seeking election to Congress. Both were Democratic candidates who faced the challenge of unseating incumbent Republicans in traditionally GOP districts during an election that was seen as a Republican wave.

Steve Pougnet, who’s gay and mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., lost his bid to unseat six-term incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.).

According to the California secretary of state’s website, with 445 of 624 precincts reporting, Bono Mack claimed 51.5 percent of the vote compared to the 42.1 percent of the vote earned by Pougnet. A third-party conservative candidate, Bill Lussenheide, won 6.4 percent of the vote.

Prior to the start of this Congress, Bono Mack had the support of many in the LGBT community for voting twice against the Federal Marriage Amendment. She also supported hate crimes legislation as well as a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

But the Republican lawmaker’s vote this year against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal earned the rancor of many LGBT people. Others in the LGBT community also flocked to Pougnet because his election would have made him the first person in a same-sex marriage and the first gay father elected to Congress.

Pougnet lost the race even though he managed to be on par with Bono Mack in terms of fundraising throughout much of the campaign. According to the FEC, the Democratic candidate raised nearly $1.7 million while Bono Mack raked in more than $2.2 million.

Both HRC and the Victory Fund had endorsed Pougnet in his bid and expressed disappointment in his loss on Election Day.

Cole said Pougnet’s loss is sad not just for his district, but for Congress because the body “needs more voices like him.”

“Pougnet would have been the first gay parent to serve in Congress but remains a leader in our community and a powerful force for equality,” Cole said.

On the other side of the country, Ed Potosnak, a schoolteacher and former staffer for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), lost his bid to unseat Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), a one-term incumbent.

According to the Westfield Ledger newspaper, with all but one precinct reporting, Lance claimed 59 percent of votes to defeat the gay Democratic challenger.

Potosnak’s chances of winning were widely seen as slim. Neither HRC nor the Victory Fund endorsed him in the race. Still, the candidate received an endorsement from the National Stonewall Democrats.

Michael Mitchell, Stonewall’s executive director, said Potosnak ran a “solid, clean campaign” that focused on education and business growth.

“As a teacher and small business owner, Ed knows firsthand the struggles of the constituents of the district, something that his opponent Leo Lance has forgotten, given that he spoke about jobs on the House floor for under two minutes during the entire 110th Congress,” Mitchell said.

In addition to Cicilline, the Victory Fund announced that more openly LGBT candidates won election to public office than in any other year. The group, which works to elect openly LGBT candidates, said at least 106 of its 164 endorsed candidates won their races.

Specifically, Victory Fund celebrated wins by Jim Gray as mayor of Lexington, Ken.; Nickie Antonio as the first openly gay member of the Ohio House; Marcus Brandon as the only out gay state lawmaker in North Carolina; and three newcomers in Maryland who boosted the state’s openly gay and lesbian delegation to seven.

Iowa justices ousted

While celebrating the victories of openly gay candidates around the country, LGBT advocates expressed disappointment and concern after three state Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage rights in Iowa were ousted by voters.

The anti-gay group National Organization for Marriage spent $600,000 on TV ads and a statewide bus tour in an effort to remove the justices, an effort decried as an attempt to intimidate justices across the country.

“By their own admission, NOM’s Iowa strategy was about sending a warning shot to judges nationwide,” said HRC President Joe Solmonese. “NOM and its secret donors will continue to target judges around the country if they rule in favor of marriage equality and will foster an anti-gay, hostile environment in the process.”

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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Oklahoma

Nonbinary Okla. high school student dies after fight

Nex Benedict passed away Feb. 8

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Nex (Dagny) Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student, died from injuries suffered in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on Feb. 7, 2024. (Family photo)

Located in Tulsa County on U.S. Highway 169 six miles north of Tulsa’s city limits, Owasso, which is home to 39,328 people, is grappling with conflict and accusations after Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso High School sophomore who was nonbinary, died after a physical fight in a restroom at the school.

However, according to school officials there was no notification or staff awareness of the fight until the young student had been taken to hospital and later died. The Owasso Police Department is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the student’s death. 

According to the local newspaper, the Owasso Reporter:

“On Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to Bailey Medical Center by the parent of a 16-year-old Owasso High School student who allegedly had a physical altercation at the campus earlier that day, according to the police report.”

It states that no initial report of the fight was made to police prior to their admission to Bailey, although information was taken by a school resource officer at the hospital.

On the evening of Feb. 8, police were made aware that the student was rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead from a medical episode, the report states.

KJRH in neighboring Tulsa reported that a person knowledgeable of the events leading to the teen’s death, who claimed to be the mother of the victim’s best friend, told the station regarding the teen’s death:

“I think complications from brain trauma, head trauma, is what caused it,” she said.

The woman wouldn’t say the victim’s name but said Benedict was a sophomore. Bailey said the victim was outgoing and loyal once they got comfortable and was not afraid to be outspoken. The woman said three older girls were beating on the victim and her daughter in the girl’s bathroom.

“I know at one point, one of the girls was pretty much repeatedly beating [Benedict] head across the floor,” she said. That’s when [Benedict said] a teacher walked in and broke it up.

“[Benedict] couldn’t walk to the nurses’ station on [Benedict] own, and staff didn’t call the ambulance, which amazes me,” she said.

The woman told KJRH the victim’s grandmother, who [Benedict] primarily lived with, brought [Benedict] to the hospital after the fight. She said the victim was released that evening but was brought back the next day and died.

KJRH reached out multiple times along with other media outlets to Owasso Public Schools. A school district spokesperson responded saying there would be no comment “because this is an active police investigation.”

The Owasso Police Department also declined to comment except for noting investigators still don’t know if the fight was related to the teen’s death or if a separate medical issue was the cause. OPD said they’re waiting on the corner-medical examiner’s report before releasing more information.

Owasso Public Schools released this statement about the student’s death:

“The Owasso Police Department has notified district leaders of the death of an Owasso High School student. The student’s name and cause of death have not yet been made public. As this is an active police investigation, we will have no additional comment at this time. Further inquiries should be directed to the Owasso Police Department.”

“The district will have additional counselors at the school to provide support to students and staff beginning on Friday.”

On Feb. 15, after a service was held at Mowery Funeral Service Chapel, Benedict was buried at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Collinsville.

LGBTQ advocates and others are angered by the death, the misgendering in local media and the fact that the school district, which has been previously targeted by the far-right anti-LGBTQ extremist Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik, seems unable to grapple with anti-LGBTQ bullying.

Raichik was named to sit on an Oklahoma committee reviewing school library content by far-right leaning State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.

In 2022, Raichik targeted a now former Owasso 8th grade teacher for speaking out in support of LGBTQ students who lacked acceptance from their parents. That teacher, Tyler Wrynn, was labeled a “groomer” and a predator in social media posts.

According to LGBTQ advocacy groups, Raichik’s endless targeting only seems to encourage more violence against LGBTQ youth. 

Lance Preston, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, which has been working to assist queer youth in the state, posted a video expressing his frustration and anger over this death and the other anti-LGBTQ violence.

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State Department

Ned Price named UN ambassador’s deputy

Former State Department spokesperson is gay

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Former State Department spokesperson Ned Price, center, speaks at the LGBTQ Victory Institute's International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C. on Dec. 3, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield has announced former State Department spokesperson Ned Price will manage her D.C. office.

Thomas-Greenfield in a statement to Politico on Feb. 16 said Price’s “judgment and expertise will be a tremendous asset to me and the entire USUN team.” Price, who is gay, in a post to his personal X account acknowledged his appointment.

“I am grateful to (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield), (Secretary of State Antony Blinken) and my colleagues across the administration for the opportunity to help promote America’s interests and values in the U.N. and broader multilateral system together with our allies and partners,” wrote Price.

Price on Jan. 20, 2021, became the first openly gay State Department spokesperson. He stepped down in March 2023 in order to become a senior advisor to Blinken.

Price was previously a senior communications official for the National Security Council and worked at the Central Intelligence Agency.

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