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Polis backs executive order barring anti-LGBT job bias

Gay lawmaker skeptical about ENDA’s prospects

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Rep. Jared Polis (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) announced support on Monday for an executive order that would protect LGBT people against bias in the workforce by prohibiting the federal government from contracting with companies that don’t have non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I would applaud that step,” Polis said. “I think that would show a lot of courage on behalf of the administration and demonstrate that they’re committed to moving to a discrimination-free workplace environment.”

The executive order endorsed by Polis during a Washington Blade interview has been seen as an interim alternative to passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — legislation that would would bar job discrimination against LGBT people in most situations in the private and public workforce — while Republicans are in control of the House and progress on the measure is unlikely.

Polis’ announcement comes as House introduction of ENDA was expected this week. Harry Gural, a spokesperson for gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), said his boss would announce when the legislation would be introduced on Wednesday, although the exact day for the debut of the bill isn’t yet final.

Polis has a dim view of the chances of passing ENDA — as well as other pro-LGBT legislation — for at least the next two years with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in charge of the chamber.

“ENDA had several Republican co-sponsors, but I don’t think it’s likely the Republicans will advance employment non-discrimination,” Polis said

In the meantime, Polis said supporters in Congress should try to educate the public on the issue of job protection and grow the number of co-sponsors for ENDA.

“Nationally, we just need to continue to educate other members of Congress and their staff on what it means,” Polis said.

As he dismissed the prospects of passing pro-LGBT bills during the 112th Congress, Polis said the LGBT community will instead for this period have to focus on beating back anti-gay measures.

“I think we’ll be playing defense,” Polis said. “Certainly there are members of the Republican caucus that want to go after and attack some of the progress that’s been made [in the few] last years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have to work hard to maintain that progress.”

Among the anti-gay measures that Polis said could emerge during the 112th Congress is revocation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and repeal of hate crimes protections legislation — both measures that were passed during the 111th Congress when Democrats had control of both the House and the Senate.

“Those are the two main pieces of progress that we made in the last [Congress], both of which nearly all the Republicans opposed,” Polis said.

Still, Polis expressed optimism about the Student Non-Discrimination Act — a measure he introduced earlier in March in the House along with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the Senate.

The legislation, which as of Monday had 103 co-sponsors in the House, would prohibit discrimination, including harassment, against LGBT students in public schools throughout the country.

Polis predicted the number of co-sponsors for the legislation would continue to grow and would see increased support from both Democrats and Republicans.

“I think it’s one thing that conservatives and liberals can agree on — people should feel safe in school,” he said.

Polis noted that supporters of the legislation have been pushing for its inclusion — along with the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a measure requiring schools to set up anti-bullying policies — as part of education reform legislation, or Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization, which President Obama has been calling on Congress to pass this year.

“It’s tied into the fate of ESEA reauthorization, and so if this Congress moves forward with reauthorization of the federal education law, I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to implement protections against bullying in the bill,” Polis said.

Still, Polis said he couldn’t at this point estimate the chances for the success of passing education reform — with or without anti-bullying or anti-discrimination language.

Polis said while the Democratic-controlled Senate intends to pursue broader education reform legislation, Republican leadership in the House is only “looking at a couple of changes rather than a full-out reauthorization.”

“It’s too early to tell whether the 112th [Congress] will issue major changes in federal education policy,” Polis said.

President Obama has yet to enumerate support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act, even though the Obama administration has taken steps to address bullying in schools, such as holding a summit on the issue in March. Polis said he hopes to work with the White House to obtain an endorsement for his bill.

“We’re working closely with the administration to fine tune these bills and help the administration deliver on its promise to reduce and end bullying,” Polis said.

Another larger vehicle that advocates are hoping to use to pass a pro-LGBT measure during the 112th Congress is comprehensive immigration reform.

As talks have reportedly begun again on Capitol Hill related to immigration, LGBT rights supporters are seeking to ensure this larger legislation would incorporate language that would allow gay Americans to sponsor foreign partners for residency within the United States. In the 111th Congress, standalone legislation that would have had this effect was known as the Uniting American Families Act.

But Polis dismissed the possibility of passing comprehensive immigration reform for the next two years — with or without UAFA-like language — given the current makeup of Congress.

“I don’t see much hope for comprehensive immigration reform given the fact that most of the members of the current majority ran against it, so it’s unlikely this Congress,” Polis said.

Still, Polis said he welcomed the decision from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to hold in abeyance the deportation of foreign nationals who are seeking green cards through a same-sex American spouse, although he noted the limitation of this move.

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but keep in mind that those individuals would still be unable to work in this country and be unable to access various services legally, so it’s not really a solution,” Polis said.

Polis said he was unsure about prospects for another piece of expected legislation that would eliminate the federal tax on employer-provided health coverage for same-sex couples. In the previous Congress, the legislation was known as the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act.

With the GOP in control of the House, Log Cabin Republicans has said it would push for the legislation and has maintained it has a shot at passage because it relates to lowering taxes, an effort that Republicans traditionally favor.

Polis said he supports the legislation, but deferred to Republican leadership on the chances of the bill passing over the course of the next two years.

“I think it’s unfair that same-sex couples have disparate treatment, but you’d have to ask the question to the Republican majority to see if they support it,” Polis said.

On “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, Polis said he’s awaiting certification for ending the law as the Pentagon implements training for open service in the U.S. military.

The repeal law that President Obama signed in December allows for repeal only after 60 days pass when the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the U.S. military is ready for open service. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has called for expedited training to implement repeal more quickly in the armed forces.

Asked whether he thinks the training is proceeding at a satisfactory pace, Polis replied, “The proof will be in the pudding and we all look forward to the certification of the process — hopefully in the weeks or the very few months ahead when the policy formally is repealed.”

LGBT advocates have been calling on President Obama to issue an executive order that would provide explicit protections for gay service members who feel they’ve experienced discrimination in the armed forces. The White House hasn’t explicitly endorsed or rejected the idea, but has noted policy guidance stating that harassment or abuse based on sexual orientation would be unacceptable in the military.

Despite this call, Polis stopped short of endorsing such an executive order for the U.S. military.

“The military is not my area of expertise,” Polis said. “I’ve been on the board of the Air Force Academy for two years. I’m learning a lot more about defense issues, but I don’t really have an opinion on that yet.”

While expressing skepticism about the chances for  federal progress on LGBT issues in this Congress, Polis was optimistic about the prospects for a pro-LGBT bill in his home state of Colorado: a measure that would legalize civil unions.

“It passed the Senate and has the governor’s support, so hopefully it’ll pass the House,” Polis said.

Polis said lawmakers are pursuing civil unions instead of same-sex marriage legislation because no lawmaker introduced a measure to expand marriage in the state to include gay couples.

Obama hasn’t come out in favor of same-sex marriage, although in December he said he’s been “wrestling” with the issue. Many LGBT advocates have been calling on the president to continue his evolution and back marriage equality.

Asked whether support for same-sex marriage from the president would open the door for gay nuptials in Colorado, Polis replied, “I think the president’s journey is similar to the journey of many people here in Colorado. Many people aren’t quite sure what to think on this issue. They’ve come a long way from where they are or were a decade or two ago, and, of course, the younger generation is already there.”

“Just as the president is wrestling with this issue, many mainstream Americans are wrestling with this issue,” Polis added

Evaluating Obama’s work on LGBT issues as a whole, Polis said the president is “doing a great job” and emphasized Obama can’t enact legislation that members of the LGBT community have been pushing for on his own accord.

“Keep in mind that the president can’t initiate legislation,” Polis said. “It has to pass the House and the Senate. But with regard to his executive orders and his legal strategy — not defending [the Defense of Marriage Act] — I applaud his efforts. I think this administration has been working closely with the LGBT community on the issue of equality.”

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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