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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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National

LGBTQ groups largely praise Biden’s State of the Union speech

HRC president attended with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.)

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President Joe Biden delivers his 2023 State of the Union speech on Feb. 7, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

LGBTQ rights groups have largely praised President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech that he delivered on Tuesday.

“It’s our duty to protect all the people’s rights and freedoms,” said Biden. “Make no mistake: If Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it. Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity.” 

The Equality Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights law. The bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives in two previous Congresses, but did not come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate. 

“In re-upping his call for Congress to pass the Equality Act and protect transgender youth, the president is leading by example to expand freedom so no one is left behind,” GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis commented on Twitter. 

Likewise, Equality PAC, the political arm of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus, was committed to the president’s vision of a safer U.S. for LGBTQ+ people. 

“At a time where LGBTQ Americans, especially those who are trans, are increasingly under attack by right wing extremists, these [legal] protections have never been more dire,” remarked U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who co-chair Equality PAC. “We remain committed to working with President Biden and members of Congress to pass the Equality Act and enshrine additional LGBTQ rights into law.” 

The National LGBTQ Task Force in its response to the State of the Union noted how all of the issues on which Biden touched — Social Security, fair wages, Medicaid expansion, access to education, reproductive rights and police reform — have the LGBTQ community “at the center of all the issues.” 

“LGBTQ people are often disproportionately impacted because of the discrimination our community faces every single day. LGBTQ people are not fully able to participate or benefit from all that our country has to offer. For too many queer people, the American dream is out of reach,” said National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson. 

Research from the Trevor Project notes 36 percent of LGBTQ youth have reported they have been physically threatened or harmed due to either their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sixty percent of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it, and 89 percent of them said seeing LGBTQ representation in the media made them feel good about being LGBTQ.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson, who attended the State of the Union alongside House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), said “we appreciate that President Biden is making a point to focus national attention on this urgent topic and stand up for transgender kids, because we need our nation’s leaders to show up and prove that, collectively, we are greater than hate.” 

Log Cabin Republicans President Charles Moran had a far different take.

“Last night, all Americans heard from President Biden was a laundry list of expensive new spending bills and tired campaign slogans, couched between a series of lies about Republicans and the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, inflation is still wrecking American families, our debt is skyrocketing out of control, and nearly half of American families — including LGBT ones — are worse off financially than they were just a year ago,” said Moran in a statement. “Not surprisingly, we heard nothing from Biden condemning the woke, race-and-gender-obsessed forces coddled by his administration. LGBT conservatives are thankful that we now have a Republican House to put a stop to the Democrats’ radical policies and look forward to working with Republican leadership to advance our own pro-America, pro-equality and pro-freedom agenda.”

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Federal Government

Rachel Levine tackles bad information on COVID, gender-affirming care

Assistant health secretary is highest ranking transgender person in Biden administration

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Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a visit to one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Adm. Rachel Levine answered questions and offered insight about two of the most controversial healthcare issues of this decade, long COVID-19 and gender-affirming care.

Long COVID is the mysterious phenomenon in which patients endure debilitating, long-term effects from being infected by the coronavirus and gender-affirming care, treatments for transgender youth that are being targeted by lawmakers nationwide.

“Long COVID is real,” said Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the highest-ranking transgender official in the Biden administration. “We heard from patients who have suffered heart issues, lung issues, issues of fatigue and brain fog, after their COVID-19 infection. And we heard from providers at Yale who are forming a multidisciplinary clinic in order to evaluate and treat these patients.” 

In a public session held Monday at the Yale Law School, four of these “long haulers” shared their challenges with the admiral: Shortness of breath, pulmonary disorders, lifestyle and work limitations and disabilities that are hidden to most observers.

“Hearing the patients tell their stories is so meaningful,” she said, calling it a privilege to better understand the challenges they face.

“That helps us drive policy as well as research,” Levine said. 

“I was very active,” said Hannah Hurtenbach of Wethersfield, Conn., a 30-year-old registered nurse who was diagnosed with post-COVID cardiomyopathy, cognitive brain fog and pulmonary issues. “I loved hiking and being outside. I was constantly on the move and now I barely leave my couch. I barely leave my house and I can’t really handle even a part time job now when I used to work full time. So that has been really difficult at age 30 to be facing those sorts of issues that I never really anticipated feeling.”

Hurtenbach told the Washington Blade she appreciated Levine’s visit.

“Sharing my experience today with the admiral was probably one of the more highlight moments of this experience,” she said. “Knowing that the federal government is taking action, is paying attention, and listening to these stories means more to me than anything else, and especially knowing that what I’ve gone through over the last couple of years can be led and used into the future research and help others just like myself.”

A woman named Christine told the Blade that even though she is so impacted by long COVID that she needs assistance to walk and has to pause as she speaks because of her shortness of breath, she felt attending this event was worth all the struggle to get there.

“I’m so glad I came. I learned a lot from hearing from the others,” she said, who like her are trying to recover from long COVID.

Levine told the Blade that so far, she herself has not contracted COVID, and that she is double-vaccinated and double-boosted. With the president announcing the end of emergency COVID declarations on May 11, she said the administration is pushing Congress to approve extra funding for long COVID and other related needs. But how can she expect to get that through a House of Representatives full of anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and COVID-deniers, including in GOP leadership?

“Long COVID is real and we hear you,” she said. “We plan to engage Congress to talk about the funding that we need. And we’ll continue to work. We do have to get past misinformation in this country, but we are here to give the correct information about COVID-19 and long COVID, and we’ll continue to engage Congress on that.”

Hurtenbach expressed disappointment in those colleagues in healthcare who came out publicly in opposing vaccines and mask mandates.

“I just wish they had paid better attention in school and learned more of the science,” the nurse said. “I wish they would trust the science that they are supposed to be promoting for their patients as well.” 

Following Monday morning’s public meeting, Levine held a private session with long COVID patients and Yale doctors, researchers, counselors, physical therapists and other providers. Then in the afternoon, the admiral spoke at another event, held at Yale Medical School: “A Conversation on LGBTQI+ Health and Gender-Affirming Care.” Although it was closed to press, Yale Asstistant Professor of Medicine Diane Bruessow attended the event and shared with the Blade what Levine told those gathered, which is that she remains positive and optimistic. 

“I think over time, things will change, and things will get better,” said Levine, adding the caveats, “I don’t know if they will get better everywhere in the United States. I also don’t know if it’s going to be quick. I think the next two years will be really, really hard.” Especially with more than 270 anti-trans pieces of legislation moving their way through state legislatures.

“But I am going to stay positive. I’m going to think that over time, things will improve,” Levine said, pledging that both she and the Biden administration would do everything they can to help families with trans kids. “I think the tide will turn.”

Levine: Long COVID is real

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National

Patrons of The Eagle NYC robbed of thousands

NYPD investigators believe the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones and funds once they were incapacitated

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The Eagle NYC (Screenshot/YouTube)

The New York City Police Department, (NYPD) confirmed that a series of robberies committed at The Eagle NYC, a Chelsea gay leather bar last Fall, had the three victims losing thousands of dollars after the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones.

NBC News Out correspondent Matt Lavietes reported the three men, who were in their late 30s and 40s, visited The Eagle NYC, on separate nights in October and November and were each robbed of $1,000 to $5,000, according to the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information. 

No arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing, authorities said.

Capt. Robert Gault of the city’s 10th Precinct, who spoke about the incidents at a police community council meeting last week, told NBC News that NYPD investigators believe the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones and funds once they were incapacitated.

“What we think is happening with this scheme is they’re being lured away from the club, maybe to say, ‘Hey, you wanna come with me? I got some good drugs,’ or something like that,’” Gault said. “And then, once they get into a car to do whatever it is that they’re going to do, at some point or another, they don’t know what happened when they wake up.”

Criminals use facial recognition to patrons at NYC gay bar:

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