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Two new lawsuits target DOMA

GLAD, ACLU argue no ‘legitimate reason’ for statute

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LGBT rights groups are continuing efforts to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act with two new federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the statute.

On Tuesday, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union filed two separate lawsuits against Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.

Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s civil rights project director, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters that the federal government has no valid reason to engage in the regulation of marriage.

“We think there’s no legitimate reason whatsoever for the federal government to take one group of people who are already married and treat them differently from every other married couple,” she said.

Bonauto added that the authority to determine who can marry in the United States has traditionally been left to the states and said DOMA is the only federal law in U.S. history “that puts the federal government in the marriage business.”

The cases contend that DOMA violates the equal protection rights of same-sex couples under the U.S. Constitution.

James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and AIDS project, said DOMA is unconstitutional because the U.S. government “defers to state’s determination of whether a couple is married in every single context except when the couple is a same-sex married couple.”

“In that case, the federal government pretends that the couple isn’t married, but instead are strangers one to the other,” Esseks said. “That’s discrimination, and it violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.”

The GLAD lawsuit, known as Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management, is pending before the U.S. District Court of Connecticut and was filed on behalf of five married same-sex couples and a widower who reside in Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Each of the plaintiffs was denied the federal benefits of marriage in one respect or another, such as Social Security or the right to care for a spouse under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Joanne Pedersen, 57 and a Waterford, Conn., resident, said she’s participating in the lawsuit because although she’s a retiree of the Department of Naval Intelligence, DOMA prohibits her from insuring her spouse and partner of 12 years, who has a chronic lung condition.

“The naval community treated Ann just like other spouses, except when it came to sharing my benefits,” Pedersen said. “We both have some serious health challenges, and Ann has chronic health issues that make working stressful and draining for her. But Ann can’t hope to retire because DOMA prevents us from sharing health benefits.”

The ACLU lawsuit, known as Windsor v. United States, is pending before the U.S. District Court of Southern District of New York and was filed on behalf of a New York resident who had to pay $350,000 in federal estate taxes to receive her spouse’s inheritance.

Edith Windsor was partnered with Thea Spyer for 44 years before Spyer died last year after a battle with multiple sclerosis. The two married in Canada in 2007 and their marriage was recognized by the state of New York.

“After Thea died, the fact that the federal government refused to recognize our marriage was devastating,” Windsor said in a statement. “In the midst of my grief at the loss of the love of my life, I had to deal with my own government saying that we weren’t a family.”

Now that the organizations have filed the suits, the U.S. government has 60 days to respond. The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment, but has previously defended DOMA against other lawsuits.

Esseks noted the Justice Department has a few months to answer. With regard to the ACLU lawsuit, he said “it’s too early to talk in any meaningful way” about the timeline for the case.

For the GLAD lawsuit, Bonauto said she hopes the case would be resolved at the district court level within 12 to 15 months. She said she doesn’t think the litigation would go to the U.S. Supreme Court before 2013.

The two new lawsuits come on the heels of other rulings by the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts in July determining that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro made the decisions in case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which was also filed by GLAD, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Following the district court’s decision to rule that part of DOMA is unconstitutional, the U.S. government appealed the cases to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, where the litigation is pending.

Bonauto said the additional GLAD lawsuit is necessary to continue to educate people about the “harms imposed by DOMA.” Additionally, she noted many of the plaintiffs in the Pedersen live in Vermont and Connecticut, which is in the Second Circuit, and wouldn’t be affected by a ruling in the First Circuit as a result of the Gill case.

“We are in a different federal judicial circuit here, so we have a chance to press once again the basic claim that DOMA is legally unconstitutional in terms of having a double-standard imposed only on gay and lesbian married couples,” Bonauto said.

If both the Gill and the Commonwealth cases reach the Supreme Court at the same time as justices take up the Pedersen case, Bonauto said she thinks the newer lawsuits could be combined with the older ones.

The filing of the lawsuits has inspired different reactions among advocacy groups that work on marriage. In a statement to the Blade, Maggie Gallagher, chair of the National Organization for Marriage, chided LGBT groups for continuing to challenge DOMA in the wake of Election Day results.

“After Tuesday’s election, in which gay marriage lost big, it’s pretty clear gay marriage advocates have failed to win the majority of Americans and so are turning once again to courts to impose views and values they’ve failed to persuade their friends, neighbors and fellow citizens to support,” she said.

But Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the litigation provides further evidence that DOMA is “not simply an abstract insult to the dignity of same-sex couples and their families — although it is indeed a deeply offensive law.”

“DOMA causes real harm to people like Joanne Pedersen, Ann Meitzen and Edie Windsor, denying them economic security, health coverage and other critical federal rights and benefits that other married couples take for granted,” Solmonese said.

One legal expert praised the GLAD and ACLU lawsuits for their potential in striking down DOMA. Nan Hunter, a lesbian and law professor at Georgetown University, said forecasting the outcome of any particular lawsuit is difficult, but said the way DOMA is challenged in these cases is “quite promising.”

“It allows the courts to rule on a law that changed the status quo by singling out only gays and reversing — only for that one group — the federal government position of recognizing all marriages that were valid under state law,” she said.

Hunter said the litigation strategy is similar to what was presented in Romer v. Evans, a 1996 case before the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned a Colorado ban on making gays a protected class in the state. Hunter recalled that in the Romer case, the high court “invalidated a state provision that singled out gays for having to meet a higher barrier in order to enact a civil rights law.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the name of James Esseks. The Blade regrets the error.

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LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls

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From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

“LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased”

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Florida State Capitol building

TALLAHASSEE – A Republican majority Florida House Education & Employment Committee passed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion Senate bill SB 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the Press Secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66%) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56% of transgender and nonbinary youth said it made them feel angry, 47% felt nervous and/or scared, 45% felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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California mom claims school manipulated child into changing gender identity

Jessica Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham & Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon with client, Jessica Konen (Screenshot Fox News)

A Northern California mother is claiming teachers in a small school district in the state manipulated her daughter into changing her gender identity and name in a legal claim. 

The claim, filed by the ultra-conservative Center for American Liberty on behalf of the mother, alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct” by the Spreckels Union School District, leading Jessica Konen’s 11-year-old daughter to change her gender identity and drive a wedge between them.

Specifically, the claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, names two teachers – Lori Caldera and Kelly Baraki – at Buena Vista Middle who, in addition to teaching, ran the school’s Equality Club, later known as UBU (You Be You). Buena Vista is a part of the district. 

It comes after Abigail Shrier, the author of a book widely criticized as anti-trans, quoted what the two educators said last year at the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference in a piece headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids.” Caldera and Baraki spoke about the difficulty of running a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in a socially conservative community. 

After the article was published, the teachers were put on administrative leave, and the district hired a law firm to investigate, which is ongoing. The UBU club was suspended. 

Spreckels is a town of about 400 people in the agricultural Salinas Valley, approximately 90 miles south of San Francisco

According to the complaint, Konen’s daughter began attending Equality Club meetings after being invited by a friend when she started sixth grade at Buena Vista. After attending one session, she decided it wasn’t for her until Caldiera convinced her to come back. At the gatherings, Caldera and Baraki held LGBTQ-centered discussions and introduced students to different gender identities and sexualities. 

During her time in the club, Konen’s daughter began exploring her own gender identity and sexuality, choosing to wear more masuline clothes. At some point, she decided to change her name and pronouns, which she has since changed back to her original name and pronouns. 

Konen said she was aware her daughter was bisexual but did not know she began using a male name and gender pronouns until she was called into the school when her daughter was in seventh grade. The meeting caught both Konen and her daughter by surprise – Konen’s daughter had said she wanted to notify her mother, but she did not know the meeting was that day. 

Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her. 

However, when Shrier’s article was published and circulated around the small town, everything changed. At this time, Konen’s daughter was again using a female name and pronouns.

In the leaked recording from the LGBTQ conference, Caldera and Baraki were discussing how they kept meetings private, among other things. 

“When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”

However, Caldera told the San Francisco Chronicle that the quotes were either taken out of context or misrepresented. According to Caldera, the stalking comment was a joke. She also defended their work, saying students lead the conversation and they provide honest and fair answers to their questions.
In addition, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association criticized the group bringing the lawsuit forward, according to the Associated Press: “We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities for their own political gain, which is evident in this complaint. The Center for American Liberty is concerned with pushing its own political agenda through litigation and has filed multiple lawsuits against various school districts and communities.”

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