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Right-wing media watchdog project launched

Equality Matters created by gay ex-conservative David Brock

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Former Clinton administration official Richard Socarides will head the newly created Equality Matters. (Photo courtesy Equality Matters)

Gay former conservative strategist and author David Brock, who changed sides in 2002 to become a champion of LGBT equality and progressive causes, announced the founding this week of a new initiative aimed at exposing “right-wing bigotry and homophobia wherever we find it.”

Brock said the new entity, Equality Matters, would be an arm of the progressive-leaning media watchdog group he founded in 2004 called Media Matters.

A statement released Monday says New York gay attorney and former Clinton administration official Richard Socarides would serve as president of Equality Matters. Lesbian journalist and Washington correspondent for The Advocate, Kerry Eleveld, was named editor of the project’s website, EqualityMatters.org, which organizers say will provide “news, opinion, and messaging” on LGBT-related issues in the media.

“Despite huge progress in gay rights in recent years, exemplified by the historic vote [on Dec. 18] finally striking down the ban on gay men and women from serving in the military, we are now living through a period of ferocious fundamentalism in the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” Brock said.

“Traditional conservatives and the Tea Party movement are united only in their contempt for equal rights for all Americans and a desire to return America to a 19th century idyll,” he said. “Equality Matters will not allow these latter-day ‘clerics’ to gain serious recognition by the media nor influence the policies that affect the lives of every American.”

A source familiar with Media Matters said the group and an affiliated entity, Media Matters Action network, raised about $23 million in 2010 in cash contributions and “long term commitments for 2011 and 2012.”

The New York Times reported that much of Media Matters’ funding comes from large contributions by wealthy liberal donors, including gay philanthropists.

The Blade source, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said the two entities yielded between $13 million and $14 in revenue this year. The 2010 figure disclosed by the source represents a significant boost in Media Matters’ revenue of $6.7 million in 2009 and $8.09 million raised in 2008, according to reports the group filed with the IRS in 2008 and 2009.

Socarides told the Blade Tuesday that Equality Matters would not have a separate budget and instead would operate under the Media Matters budget. He said Equality Matters, which would be based in the same offices as Media Matters at 455 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., would operate initially with a six-person staff, including him and Eleveld.

“We will draw on the Media Matters staff extensively,” he said. “And there are just under 100 people who work there. So we’ll have six people dedicated to just this and then parts of 95 others.”

According to Socarides, Equality Matters will not be involved in direct lobbying and won’t make campaign contributions – unlike existing LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

“Much like Media Matters already does on a broad range of issues, we will do news and information media monitoring,” he said. “And we’ll be a rapid response to any homophobic misinformation in the media or in political discourse. So part of our mission is to respond rapidly with smart and accurate information when the right wing – be it in media or politics – puts out misinformation.”

At least two activists involved with national LGBT groups said the launching of Equality Matters would likely trigger speculation among LGBT movement insiders about whether Brock and Socarides were seeking to step into the realm of other national LGBT groups that came under some criticism in the past year.

Expectations were high in January 2009 for significant progress on LGBT-related legislation as President Obama entered the White House and Democrats were in control of Congress, the two activists said. Although Congress passed an important hate crimes law last year with protections for LGBT people and last week repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” all other important bills remain stalled in committee. Among them is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which calls for banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The feeling among some of us is the established groups could have done more and could have put more pressure on the Democrats to do more,” said one of the activists.

But others, including gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), considered one of the leading advocates for LGBT rights in Congress, have said there were not enough LGBT-supportive votes in Congress to advance the other bills. Frank has said it is up to LGBT advocates to do the lobbying and advocacy work in the sections of the country, especially the so-called “red states,” where members of Congress oppose LGBT equality and won’t vote for pro-gay bills.

Socarides said he sees Equality Matters as a new force that will work with the existing groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which also specializes in media-related initiatives.

One gay activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned whether Equality Matters would be replicating the work of existing groups.

“Media Matters is fantastic at pushing back at conservative disinformation, and if they’re ramping up that function in the gay space, God bless,” the activist said. “But if they’re doing policy advocacy, plenty of people with vastly more substantive experience than Socarides are doing that pretty well, as the passage of DADT suggests. It’s not clear this isn’t a completely redundant vanity project, but I guess we’ll see.”

GLAAD, which has a budget of $7.95 million and a 48-member staff located in New York and Los Angeles, focuses on the positive portrayal of LGBT people in the media and in entertainment, according to its president, Jarrett Barrios.

“GLAAD fights defamation in the media from major outlets to small markets around the country,” Barrios said. “Some of GLAAD’s most visible work is in Hollywood, but much of our work is with journalists and news organizations to ensure accurate and responsible coverage of LGBT peoples’ lives and the issues that affect them.”

He said that unlike Equality Matters’ stated objective, GLAAD steers clear of addressing specific political and policy-making issues.

“I think our effort will be complimentary rather than overlapping with GLAAD,” said Socarides. “And in fact one of our core missions at Media Matters and at Equality Matters is to help other progressive and LGBT rights organizations fulfill their own missions.”

Now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been addressed legislatively, Socarides said Equality Matters plans to devote much of its resources to promoting same-sex marriage equality, both on the national and state level. He said the group would jump into the media fray as ballot measures seeking to ban same-sex marriage surface in the states.

He said Equality Matters would also push to advance legislation stalled in Congress to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage under federal law as a union only between a man and a woman and bars all federal programs – including Social Security benefits – for same-sex married couples.

“Despite our best efforts over the years to stiffen the spines of progressives in the face of unrelenting smears from the Republican attack machine, fearful progressives continue to cede the political field to right-wingers who are waging war against core American values,” Brock said in a statement. “We need to do more. Our new communication war room for gay equality, Equality Matters, will expose right-wing bigotry and homophobia wherever we find it, show that the real political vulnerability on these issues belongs to the GOP, provide desperately needed ballast in the media, and trigger progressive passion – so that our political leaders act on their convictions and fight for them,” he said.

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Virginia

Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Federal Government

Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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National

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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