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Illinois House passes civil unions, anti-gay app yanked, Skype marriage invalid and more

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Illinois House passes civil unions bill

WASHINGTON — The Illinois House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a civil unions bill by a 61-52 vote. The bill will now move to the state Senate. Gay state Rep. Greg Harris sponsored the bill.

The bill passed by the House would permit both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to enter into civil unions and receive the same benefits, protections, and responsibilities under Illinois law that are granted to spouses. If the legislation passes the Senate and is enacted into law, couples that enter into a civil union will not receive any rights or benefits under federal law. Illinois does not permit same-sex couples to marry.

The state Senate is expected to also approve the measure and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has already pledged to sign the bill. If the senate passes the bill, Illinois would join New Jersey as being the only states with a civil-union statute. Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont allow same-sex marriage.

“I think that this is a step down a slippery slope that leads me to someday have to explain to my children and grandchildren that no longer in America are we going to give the honor to a man and a woman in marriage,” state Rep. Ron Stephens told an Illinois Fox affiliate.

New York City slashes services to homeless youth

NEW YORK — The New York City Department of Youth and Community Development sent e-mails last week announcing that state and city budget cuts are forcing it to reduce its Runaway and Homeless Youth Services expenditures by nearly a million dollars next year and a further $700,000 in 2012, according to media reports. Some gay activists say LGBT youth will be disproportionately impacted by the cuts.

The Department said it will significantly reduce street outreach services by 50 percent next year, then eliminate them in 2012; drop-in services in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens will be reduced by one-third in 2011 and by another 23 percent in 2012. Another in Staten Island will be reduced by 10 percent in 2012. A 2008 report found that the city averages 3,800 homeless youth on an average night.

Since homeless LGBT youth make up 40 percent of the city’s homeless youth population, gay teens will likely be hit hardest. The Ali Forney Center and the Bronx Pride Center are both losing 50 percent of city funds that support their drop-in programs, which amounts to $185,000 of the $969,000 2011 cut announced Nov. 26.

“These cuts will devastate kids who are hanging on by a thread, struggling to survive alone on the streets,” Carl Siciliano, director of the Forney Center, said. “More youths will turn to drugs and prostitution and more will become HIV-infected and more will attempt suicide. I cannot believe hat the city of New York would be so neglectful of the most basic welfare of hurt and vulnerable children.”

Some city Council members said they recognized that budget cuts need to be made but objected to this decision.

D.C. officials declare Skype marriage invalid

DALLAS — D.C. officials have declared the online marriage of a Dallas gay couple invalid, according to Dallas Voice, a gay newspaper. Mark Reed and Dante Walkup said their vows over Skype last month while D.C. lesbian Sheila Alexander-Reid officiated from Washington.

The two have been together 10 years and traveled to the District to register their marriage but actually exchanged their vows with Alexander-Reid over Skype in a Dallas hotel conference room, the paper reported. The couple received notice by mail from D.C. Superior Court that the vows are void. The letter says the marriage couldn’t be certified or registered because all parties weren’t physically present for the ceremony. The letter, from D.C. Marriage Bureau Deputy Clerk Denise Johnson, says the ceremony must be performed in the District with all parties present.

“It was extremely disappointing,” Reed told the Voice. “We felt like we had covered our bases and all of the media out there was agreeing. No one was saying what we did wasn’t legal, so we felt very confident that we had succeeded and so it really was a kick in the stomach and it hurt.”

The two men said they are exploring their legal options. They filed a discrimination complaint against the Dallas Morning News for refusing to publish their wedding announcement but withdrew it upon realizing their marriage wasn’t valid.

iCondom launches in time for World AIDS Day

PARIS — A new iPhone application called iCondom launched this week in the U.S. and was available for a 48-hour free download on the Apple Store to commemorate the importance of prevention measures against STDs on World AIDS Day, which was Wednesday.

iCondom shows users where the nearest condom dispensers are to their location using a geolocation platform and Google Maps. It was launched in France in October in Paris and Marseilles. An updated version was launched in the U.S. this week in New York and Washington. Apple plans to expand it.

Washington has the highest U.S. HIV infection rates with 3 percent infected. The program geolocates about 140 addresses in the District in which condom dispensers can be found.

Apple yanks anti-gay application

LONDON — Apple has removed an anti-gay app from its App Store according to a report from Pink News, a British gay news outlet. Media attention reportedly prompted Apple to quietly take down the app, which was created by a Christian group.

The app was based on the “Manhattan Declaration,” an anti-gay manifesto signed last year by Protestant and Catholic Church leaders that condemns same-sex unions as the “erosion of marriage.” Apple had originally given the app a 4+ rating, which indicates it has “no objectionable content.”

About 7,700 people signed a petition urging Apple to pull the app, which calls gay relationships “sexually immoral” and features a four-step survey that asks users if they agree with questions on same-sex marriage and abortion. Those who answer with pro-gay and pro-choice opinions get a failing score at the end of the test.

The petition said it wanted to “send a strong message to Apple that supporting homophobia and efforts to restrict choices is bad business.” Apple said it removed the app “because it violates our developer guidelines by being offensive to large groups of people.” The app’s creators e-mailed Apple CEO Steve Jobs to learn more about why their app was pulled but did not respond to a request for comment.

Judge rejects Family Council bid in Minn. lawsuit

MINNEAPOLIS — A judge has rejected an attempt by the Minnesota Family Council to intervene in a lawsuit challenging state law that bans same-sex marriage, the Minnesota Independent, a Center for Independent Media online newsmagazine, reported.

Three same-sex couples filed a lawsuit against the state of Minnesota earlier this year arguing that the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law in 1997 violates the state Constitution. The Family Council argued that it should be part of the lawsuit, in part, because if DOMA is ruled unconstitutional, it will cost them millions to fight same-sex marriage. The court said the group has no standing to defend DOMA, the newsmagazine reported.

“The Council’s alleged injuries would occur solely due to its sincerely held belief that principles rooted in its interpretations of religious texts are best for the well-being of children and families, and that marriage only between one man and one woman accords with these principles,” wrote Minnesota Fourth District Court Judge Mary DuFrense. “The Court certainly understands that the Council feels strongly about the social issue of same-sex marriage. Strong feelings, however, do not establish a legal interest in a lawsuit.”

The Minnesota Family Council attempted to enter the lawsuit with the help of James Dobson’s Alliance Defense Fund, an evangelical Christian legal group.

‘Hate’ designation irks gay rights opponents

WASHINGTON — The Southern Poverty Law Center last week labeled as “hate groups” several political and religious organizations that campaign against same-sex marriage and, the center says, engage in “repeated, groundless name-calling” against gays and lesbians, Washington Post reported last week.

The law center has spent four decades tracking extremist groups and hate speech. One of the groups named, Family Research Council, is accused of putting out “demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities.”

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Council, had several of his comments highlighted in the report. He told MSNBC host Chris Matthews he thinks homosexual behavior should be outlawed.

Council President Tony Perkins told the Post the designation is a political attack by a liberal organization.

“The left’s smear campaign of conservatives is . . . being driven by the clear evidence that the American public is losing patience with their radical policy agenda as seen in the recent election and in the fact that every state . . . that has had the opportunity to defend the natural definition of marriage has done so,” Perkins said in a statement.

“Earlier this month, voters in Iowa sent a powerful message when they removed three Supreme Court justices who imposed same-sex marriage on the state. Would the SPLC also smear the good people of Iowa?”

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, objected to his organization’s inclusion in the center’s report, the Post reported.

“This is about protecting marriage. This isn’t about being anti-anyone,” Brown told the Post.

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Should we vacation in homophobic countries?

Secret gay bar in St. Petersburg seemed unfathomable

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(Image by Askonsat Uanthoeng via Pexels)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The tiny rainbow light projecting onto the corner baseboard of the bar and tipsy people constantly belting out Mariah Carey karaoke songs clued me in. There was something unique happening here. It wasn’t until a gentleman with glittered cheeks approached me to say how fabulous my dress was that I suddenly clocked it. I’d unknowingly ended up in a gay bar in the middle of Saint Petersburg, Russia.

A flood of overwhelming joy first took over. Before coming to Russia on vacation, I knew all too well the discrimination and fear LGBTQ Russians lived in. A gay bar in Russia, even a secret one like this, seemed unfathomable, so being where people could unapologetically be out and proud — even if it was only in the compounds of these four walls — was emotionally profound.

But within seconds, dread took over. Were we all safe? If you didn’t know what to look out for, you’d assume this was just like every other neighboring non-gay bar — it wasn’t hidden or anything. I wondered what was stopping a homophobe, if they found out, from vandalizing the bar or doing something much worse.

After all, Russia approved a legislation in 2013 prohibiting the distribution of information about LGBTQ matters and relationships to minors. The legislation, known as the “gay propaganda law,” specifies that any act or event that authorities believe promotes homosexuality to individuals under the age of 18 is a punishable felony. According to a 2018 report by the international rights organization Human Rights Watch, anti-LGBTQ violence in the country spiked after it passed. The bill perpetuates the state’s discriminatory ideology that LGBTQ individuals are a “danger” to traditional Russian family values.

A recent poll indicated that roughly one-fifth of Russians want to “eliminate” gay and lesbian individuals from society. In a poll conducted by the Russian LGBT Network — a Russian queer advocacy group — 56 percent of LGBTQ respondents said they had been subjected to psychological abuse, and disturbing reports of state-sanctioned detention and torture of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous Russian region, have surfaced in recent years.

Considering this, it was no surprise that most of my gay friends refused to come on vacation with me to Russia. In our everyday, gay people don’t march around with a gay Pride flag so homophobic Russians would probably never be able to tell which tourists are gay. However, many LGBTQ people will never travel to Russia or any other homophobic country for one logical reason: Fear.

Unfortunately, many exotic locations abroad are dangerous territory for the LGBTQ community to be in. Physical safety isn’t guaranteed in countries like Nigeria, Iran, Brunei and Saudi Arabia where same-sex relationships are punishable by the death penalty. Not to mention the numerous transgender people who’ve been detained and refused entry to similar countries — even when it’s only been a layover! However, an alternative reason why someone may refuse to vacation in a homophobic country is having a conscience.

When you pay for accommodation, nights out and sightseeing tours, your money doesn’t just reach the hotel staff and waiters pockets — you’re also financially supporting that country’s government. Money talks so not giving homophobic countries tourism puts pressure on them. Ethically, why would anybody ever want to support a country through tourism that treats their LGBTQ community like dirt? Homophobia shouldn’t be shrugged off simply as a local “culture.”

Other LGBTQ people firmly embrace the right to go anywhere they choose, and that choosing to go gives them power. Homophobic countries still have closeted LGBTQ folks living there running underground gay spaces and groups. Is turning our back on the wonderful people and beautiful culture of a new place turning our back on their gay community too? There are countries where gay marriage is legal and trans rights are progressive, but abortion laws remain backwards. Do we boycott these countries too? And, how do we collectively define what a homophobic country is? Is legalizing gay marriage a requisite? Gay marriage is still illegal in Thailand when it is one of the most gay and trans-friendly countries in the world.

Increasingly the line of what is “right” and “wrong” erases all grey areas. Morality and activism — particularly when politics is involved — is never straightforward. The biggest surprise about Russia was how my own stereotypes I’d picked up from the media weren’t always true. Saint Petersburg in Russia is far more liberal and gay-friendly compared to rural Russia but the fact still stands that my bisexual friend and I actively chose to go to a homophobic country for pleasure. In an ideal world, anybody of any sexual orientation or gender identity would be able to vacation wherever they want but that’s sadly not reality. In the meantime, the wanderlust LGBTQ community will go on gay cruises that guarantee safe refuge or put civil rights and ideological differences aside to experience the world’s natural wonders and incredible cultures.

Ash Potter is a writer and radio host.

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FDA approves injectable PrEP to reduce the risk of sexual HIV infection

Manufactured as Apretude, it will be available to at-risk adults & adolescents who weigh at least 77 pounds & have tested negative for HIV

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FDA headquarters, Silver Spring, MD (Photo Credit: U.S. government/FDA)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday that the agency had approved the first injectable treatment for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV.

Manufactured under the name Apretude, it will be available to at-risk adults and adolescents who weigh at least 77 pounds and have tested negative for HIV immediately beforehand the agency said in a press release.

By granting its approval, the FDA opens up the option for patients to receive the injectable drug instead of a daily HIV prevention oral medication, such as Truvada.

“Today’s approval adds an important tool in the effort to end the HIV epidemic by providing the first option to prevent HIV that does not involve taking a daily pill,” said Debra Birnkrant, M.D., director of the Division of Antivirals in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This injection, given every two months, will be critical to addressing the HIV epidemic in the U.S., including helping high-risk individuals and certain groups where adherence to daily medication has been a major challenge or not a realistic option.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, notable gains have been made in increasing PrEP use for HIV prevention in the U.S. and preliminary data show that in 2020, about 25% of the 1.2 million people for whom PrEP is recommended were prescribed it, compared to only about 3% in 2015.

However, there remains significant room for improvement. PrEP requires high levels of adherence to be effective and certain high-risk individuals and groups, such as young men who have sex with men, are less likely to adhere to daily medication.

Other interpersonal factors, such as substance use disorders, depression, poverty and efforts to conceal medication also can impact adherence. It is hoped that the availability of a long-acting injectable PrEP option will increase PrEP uptake and adherence in these groups.

The safety and efficacy of Apretude to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV were evaluated in two randomized, double-blind trials that compared Apretude to Truvada, a once daily oral medication for HIV PrEP.

Trial 1 included HIV-uninfected men and transgender women who have sex with men and have high-risk behavior for HIV infection. Trial 2 included uninfected cisgender women at risk of acquiring HIV.

Participants who took Apretude started the trial with cabotegravir (oral, 30 mg tablet) and a placebo daily for up to five weeks, followed by Apretude 600mg injection at months one and two, then every two months thereafter and a daily placebo tablet.

Participants who took Truvada started the trial taking oral Truvada and placebo daily for up to five weeks, followed by oral Truvada daily and placebo intramuscular injection at months one and two and every two months thereafter.

In Trial 2, 3,224 cisgender women received either Apretude or Truvada. The trial measured the rate of HIV infections in participants who took oral cabotegravir and injections of Apretude compared to those who took Truvada orally.

The trial showed participants who took Apretude had 90% less risk of getting infected with HIV when compared to participants who took Truvada.

Apretude includes a boxed warning to not use the drug unless a negative HIV test is confirmed. It must only be prescribed to individuals confirmed to be HIV-negative immediately prior to starting the drug and before each injection to reduce the risk of developing drug resistance.

Drug-resistant HIV variants have been identified in people with undiagnosed HIV when they use Apretude for HIV PrEeP. Individuals who become infected with HIV while receiving Apretude for PrEP must transition to a complete HIV treatment regimen.

The drug labeling also includes warnings and precautions regarding hypersensitivity reactions, hepatotoxicity (liver damage) and depressive disorders.

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FDA slow in responding to calls for end to ban on MSM tissue donors

‘Scientific evidence does not support these restrictions’

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Tammy Baldwin, gay news, Washington Blade
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is a lead signer of the letter to the FDA. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As of early this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had yet to respond to a Nov. 29 joint letter by 52 members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate calling on the FDA to end its policy of restricting the donation of human tissues such as corneas, heart valves, skin, and other tissue by men who have sex with men, or MSM.

The letter is addressed to Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. The FDA is an agency within the HHS.

The letter says the FDA’s restrictions on MSM tissue donation date back to a 1994 U.S. Public Health Service “guidance” related to the possible transmission of HIV, which stated that any man “who has had sex with another man in the preceding five years” should be disqualified from tissue donation.

“We also call your attention to the broad consensus within the medical community indicating that the current scientific evidence does not support these restrictions,” the letter states. “We have welcomed the FDA’s recent steps in the right direction to address its discriminatory MSM blood donation policies and urge you to take similar actions to revise the agency’s tissue donation criteria to align with current science so as not to unfairly stigmatize gay and bisexual men.”

The letter adds, “In fact, a recent study in the medical journal JAMA Ophthalmology estimated that between 1,558 and 3,217 corneal donations are turned away annually from otherwise eligible donors who are disqualified because of their sexual orientation, an unacceptable figure given widespread shortages of transplantable corneas.”

The letter continues, saying, “FDA policy should be derived from the best available science, not historic bias and prejudice. As with blood donation, we believe that any deferral policies should be based on individualized risk assessment rather than a categorical, time-based deferral that perpetuates stigma.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the nation’s only out lesbian U.S. senator, and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) are the two lead signers of the letter. All 52 signers of the letter are Democrats.

Among the others who signed their names to the FDA letter are four of the nine openly gay or lesbian members of the U.S. House. They include Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Richie Torres (D-N.Y.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.). 

Also signing the letter are D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). 

In response to a Dec. 21 email inquiry from the Washington Blade, FDA Press Officer Abigail Capobianco sent the Blade a one-sentence statement saying, “The FDA will respond to the letter directly.”

The statement didn’t say to whom the FDA would respond or when it would issue its response.

https://neguse.house.gov/imo/media/doc/FINAL%20-%20Letter%20to%20FDA%20and%20HHS%20on%20Corneal%20Tissue%20Donations.pdf

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