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Advocates push Obama on education reform

Seeking bipartisan support for pro-LGBT changes

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President Obama addresses attendees at anti-bullying conference (Blade photo by Michael Key).

LGBT rights supporters are pushing for the inclusion of student anti-bullying and non-discrimination measures as part of upcoming education reform legislation as observers say bipartisan support and pressure from the White House are needed to ensure they’re included in any larger vehicle that makes it to President Obama’s desk.

Obama has identified reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, updated during the Bush administration as No Child Left Behind, during his State of the Union address as among his priorities for the 112th Congress and has been touring the country with education leaders — including Education Secretary Arne Duncan — to make the case for education reform.

Last week during a speech before Kenmore Middle School students in Arlington, Va., Obama noted support for updating No Child Left Behind in Congress and called on lawmakers to send him education reform legislation before the next school year begins in the fall.

“I am proud of the commitment by Democrats and Republicans in Congress to fix No Child Left Behind, to make this reform a reality — because they recognize education is an area where we can’t afford to drag our feet,” Obama said. “As Arne says, our kids only get one shot at an education, and we’ve got to get it right.”

Whether the 112th Congress can reauthorize No Child Left Behind remains in question as the leaders in the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate differ on what reform should look like. Even if passage can happen, many political observers have said Obama’s goal of passing education reform by end of summer is unrealistic.

Components of education reform that Obama has enumerated support for include implementing an accountability system that shares responsibility for improvement and rewards excellence; having a flexible system that empowers school administrators and teachers; and having a system that targets resources to persistently low-performing schools and ensures the most effective teachers serve students most in need.

But LGBT rights supporters are looking to No Child Left Behind reauthorization as as a vehicle to pass various bills pending before Congress that aim to combat bullying and discrimination against LGBT students.

In the Senate, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sponsors the Safe Schools Improvement Act, an anti-bullying measure, which, among other things, would require public schools to establish codes of conduct explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) is expected to introduce companion legislation in the House.

Similar legislation that aims to help LGBT students is the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Introduced by gay lawmaker Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in the House and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the Senate, the legislation prohibits public schools and school programs from discriminating against LGBT students.

Additionally, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act — sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in the Senate and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) in the House — would require colleges to establish policies against harassment.

The bill is named after a Rutgers University student who leaped off the George Washington Bridge in September after a video was posted online of him reportedly having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room. However, this legislation has a lower profile than either the Safe Schools Improvement Act or the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

LGBT advocates working to advance these measures say talks are already taking place on Capitol Hill to include them as part of No Child Left Behind reauthorization as discussions begin over passage of the larger vehicle.

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, confirmed talks have already started on including pro-LGBT measures as part of education reform.

“We and other groups have been talking to committee staff for quite a while about that possibility,” Gaylord said. “Throughout this Congress, we’ve been talking to committee staff and making sure they were aware of our hope of getting legislation included in ESEA reauthorization.”

Gaylord said he’s “hopeful” that the pro-LGBT measures will be integrated as part of No Child Left Behind reauthorization. In 2007, when Congress was undertaking a previous attempt to enact education reform, Gaylord said nearly the entire Safe Schools Improvement Act was included in the discussion drafts of Elementary & Secondary Act reauthorization.

“So there’s precedent for it,” Gaylord said. “To deal with issues of bullying or discrimination — it’s not as if that’s not what ESEA reauthorization would cover.”

A Republican strategist familiar with education reform, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it’s too early to tell whether education reform — LGBT-inclusive or otherwise — can make it to the president’s desk during this Congress, but expressed optimism about the effort.

“The good thing is that, obviously, Republicans and Democrats haven’t been agreeing on too much lately, but the one area where folks think there is a real chance for them to come to agreement is on education and what to do with No Child Left Behind reauthorization,” the strategist said. “If anything can get bipartisan support and get done this year, it’s probably that.”

With Republicans in control of the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, observers maintain that bipartisan agreement on inclusion of the pro-LGBT measures is necessary for them to stay on as a component of the larger bill.

One LGBT rights advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said staffers on the Senate HELP Committee have indicated that passage of No Child Left Behind reauthorization with LGBT inclusion will depend on support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I would say that they are hopeful, but realistic that the likelihood is almost entirely dependent on a bipartisan effort,” the source said.

A spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) deferred comment on the issue to the House Education & Workforce Committee, which didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment.

On the Senate side, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, is a co-sponsor of the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Justine Sessions, a committee spokesperson, said Harkin hopes to include the pro-LGBT measures as part of education reform.

“Chairman Harkin is a strong supporter of efforts to protect students against discrimination and bullying, and hopes to address these issues in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” she said.

Bipartisan support could emerge for the Safe Schools Improvement Act because Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is an original co-sponsor for the legislation. A former House member, Kirk has said in the lower chamber of Congress Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) could be an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

For the Student Non-Discrimination Act, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is a GOP co-sponsor on the House side. The Senate version doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor. The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act doesn’t have a GOP co-sponsor in either the House or Senate.

The sources said Kirk’s support for the Safe Schools Improvement Act could be used to leverage support from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee, for inclusion of the bill as part of the larger vehicle.

Gaylord said additional GOP co-sponsors for the standalone pro-LGBT legislation would help bolster their chances of success as part of education reform.

“I just think more Republican support for these bills will obviously be important, particularly in the House,” he said.

The Republican strategist said leadership from Senate Democrats “saying that this is something important” is needed to ensure LGBT anti-bullying and non-discrimination language are included in education reform.

“You’re also going to need to demonstrate enough Republican support on the House side that Republicans are able to allow it to end up in the final package,” the strategist said.

LGBT rights supporters also say that pressure from the White House and explict endorsements of the anti-bullying and non-discrimination from Obama are important to ensure they’re part of larger legislation.

Support for those measures from Obama would build on the anti-bullying conference that the White House held this month to shed light on harassment of students and devise ways to mitigate bullying against students — both in schools and online.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the president supports “the goals” of the pro-LGBT bills and wants to ensure students are free from harassment as they pursue their studies.

“This year, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Inouye said.

Gaylord said he welcomes the steps that White House has taken against student bullying and harassment, but noted the president has yet to voice explicit support for the pro-LGBT bills.

“The administration has not yet called for passage of either [the Safe Schools Improvement Act or the Student Non-Discrimination Act] by name, so that is sort of the next step,” Gaylord said. “Now would be that time that we would really anticipate the administration to step up and be even more specific in their support for legislative vehicles.”

The anonymous Republican strategist said “there’s no question” anti-bullying efforts are a priority for the Obama administration, but the extent to which the president will fight for passage of legislation remains to be seen.

“That has not been translated into support for specific legislation, so I think the jury’s still out on the degree to which the administration will advocate for this particular change — whether they’ll advocate for it all or whether they’ll advocate for it specifically as a part of this education revamp.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the House version of the Student Non-Discrimination Act doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor. The Washington Blade regrets the error.

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Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden-Harris administration’s finalized Title IX regulations

New rules to take effect Aug. 1

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Screen capture: AP/YouTube)

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

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Michigan

Mich. Democrats spar over LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law

Lawmakers disagree on just what kind of statute to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride month in 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (House Bill 4474), a first offense would be punishable with a $2,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is six years in prison and a fine of $7,500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. State Rep. Noah Arbit, the bill’s sponsor, was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (House Bill 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (House Bill 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (Senate Bill 600) in March that includes much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from the Washington Blade to both Arbit and Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The attorney general’s office sent a statement to the Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBTQ-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70 percent from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and was due for a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

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Indiana

Drag queen announces run for mayor of Ind. city

Branden Blaettne seeking Fort Wayne’s top office

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Branden Blaettner being interviewed by a local television station during last year’s Pride month. (WANE screenshot)

In a Facebook post Tuesday, a local drag personality announced he was running for the office of mayor once held by the late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died last month just a few months into his fifth term.

Henry was recently diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and experienced an emergency that landed him in hospice care. He died shortly after.

WPTA, a local television station, reported that Fort Wayne resident Branden Blaettne, whose drag name is Della Licious, confirmed he filed paperwork to be one of the candidates seeking to finish out the fifth term of the late mayor.

Blaettner, who is a community organizer, told WPTA he doesn’t want to “get Fort Wayne back on track,” but rather keep the momentum started by Henry going while giving a platform to the disenfranchised groups in the community. Blaettner said he doesn’t think his local fame as a drag queen will hold him back.

“It’s easy to have a platform when you wear platform heels,” Blaettner told WPTA. “The status quo has left a lot of people out in the cold — both figuratively and literally,” Blaettner added.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that state Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has led the Indiana House Democratic caucus since 2018, has added his name to a growing list of Fort Wayne politicos who want to be the city’s next mayor. A caucus of precinct committee persons will choose the new mayor.

According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the deadline for residents to file candidacy was 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. A town hall with the candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday at Franklin School Park. The caucus is set for 10:30 a.m. on April 20 at the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

At least six candidates so far have announced they will run in the caucus. They include Branden Blaettne, GiaQuinta, City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, former city- and county-council candidate Palermo Galindo, and 2023 Democratic primary mayoral candidate Jorge Fernandez.

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