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ENDA passage effort renewed with Senate introduction

Merkley backs exec order barring LGBT job bias

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Sens. Jeff Merkley (left) and Mark Kirk introduced ENDA in the Senate on Thursday (Blade photo by MIchael Key)

The junior senator from Oregon introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate on Thursday as he voiced support for an executive order that would bar the federal government from contracting with companies that don’t have their own workplace protections for LGBT people.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) endorsed the idea of an executive order an as interim alternative to passing ENDA during a news conference on Capitol Hill in response to a question from the Washington Blade after he announced the Senate introduction of the legislation

“Certainly, I share the perspective that it would be tremendous to accomplish this by legislation,” Merkley said. “But I also feel that this is a conversation that is going to reverberate at a number of levels. You have counties, you have state action and certainly, I feel, it’s a legitimate possibility, and I would support the president saying that contractors who are beneficiaries of federal funds should in fact practice non-discrimination, so I would support that.”

The executive order endorsed by Merkley has been seen as an interim alternative to ENDA passage while Republicans are in control of the House and progress on the measure in the lower chamber of Congress is unlikely. The White House hasn’t said one way or the other whether Obama would be open to issuing such a directive. Last month, Gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) also expressed support for the executive order.

However, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), an original co-sponsor of ENDA who was present at the conference, didn’t offer the same support for an executive order that was voiced by Merkley.

“I would just say when you have executive action without the statute, then quickly that would be wiped out by the next administration,” Kirk said. “The best way to go is a statute where you have a stable decision that can only be overturned by a subsequent act of Congress.”

Kirk also advised against an executive order because of what he said was a “tremendous of uncertainty right now” in the U.S. economy, which is still climbing its way out of recession.

“If we load executive order upon executive order, all which would be wiped out the day after the president of the other party takes power, you really haven’t advanced the ball much,” Kirk said. “That’s why the legislation is absolutely necessary.”

Merkley endorsed the executive order on the same day he introduced ENDA to the Senate, which as of the end of Thursday had 38 co-sponsors. The legislation would bar job discrimination against LGBT people in most situations in the public and private workforce.

Job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legal in 29 states and legal in 38 states on the basis of gender identity. More than 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have their own workplace protections based on sexual orientation and more than one-third on the basis of gender identity.

Merkley said passage of ENDA is necessary because the “right to work and earn a living” for all Americans — including LGBT people — is a “fundamental right.”

“It is essential to the success of an individual, it is essential to the success of a family,” Merkley said. “It’s certainly essential to the pursuit of happiness — that value that we place right up front in our Declaration of Independence — and it’s part and parcel of equality under the law.”

Kirk said his support for ENDA, which puts him in the minority among Republicans, fits his model of public service in the image of the late U.S. Senator from Illinois Everett Dirksen, whom Kirk described as a “strong national security conservative, fiscal conservative and social moderate.”

“It was Sen. Dirksen that clinched the deal on the [1964] Civil Rights Act,” Kirk said. “I see this legislation as in that tradition to make sure that our country is a country not of equal outcomes, which would be a Communist state, but of equal opportunities, and to make sure that everyone has that opportunity regardless of orientation.”

A number of LGBT advocacy groups issued a statements on Thursday praising Merkley for introducing ENDA and calling on Congress to take action to pass the legislation.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said ENDA passage is essential to ensure LGBT Americans have equal access to the American workplace.

“In today’s economy job security is important to all Americans, especially LGBT people who can be fired for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Solmonese said. “Passing ENDA is essential to ensuring that all Americans have an equal opportunity to work and contribute to this country’s economy.”

Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT Research at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, pointed to a 2009 Out & Equal Workplace Survey that found that 44 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have said they’ve faced workplace discrimination and at least 47 percent of transgender people have made the same claim.

“ENDA will help end this discrimination by requiring workplaces to make their hiring and firing decisions based on a person’s ability to get the job done, and not irrelevant factors such as their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Krehely said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, also reiterated President Obama’s support for passage of ENDA and noted the administration’s previous efforts in pushing for the legislation.

“The president’s support for an inclusive ENDA is well established,” Inouye said. “It’s worth noting that last Congress, when [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] Acting Chairman Stuart Ishimaru testified on behalf of the Obama administration on ENDA before the House Education & Labor Committee, it was the first time that any administration offered its support for this legislation.”

Despite the enthusiasm behind ENDA, most Capitol Hill observers says the legislation’s prospects for passage during the 112th Congress are slim at best. Last week, Rep. Barney Frank, a gay lawmaker, introduced the House version of ENDA as he categorically said the legislation wouldn’t pass with Republicans in control of the House.

A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was pessimistic about the chances of passing ENDA even in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“The prospects for passing ENDA in the Senate during the 112th Congress are not great, unless there is a major push from President Obama,” the aide said. “The Senate is narrowly controlled by Democrats, who generally will support ENDA. But unless there are enough common-sense Republicans who can help bring the total to 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, ENDA won’t pass the Senate.”

Despite the challenges facing ENDA passage, the notable Republican support the legislation upon introduction could be a sign of hope. Three GOP senators — Kirk, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) signed on — have signed on as original co-sponsors.

Kirk said he’s hopeful that he can find enough Republican support for the legislation to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to end a filibuster if the legislation came to the Senate floor.

“I asked Sen. Merkley, ‘Let’s start this out very balanced with members that have reputations to be able to move legislation, and I think we’ve done that today,'” Kirk said.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said he talked with Kirk following ENDA’s introduction about finding sufficient Republican support to move forward with ENDA and was told “the votes are there” for passage.

“Our conversation was Senate focused, but could apply to the House as well,” Cooper said.

One possible strategy for passing ENDA in the Senate would be attaching it as an amendment to another legislative vehicle. Such a move could enhance ENDA’s chances for passage because standalone legislation could be vulnerable to hostile amendments on the Senate floor.

The anonymous Senate Democratic aide said ENDA would be fare better as an amendment on the Senate floor as opposed to standalone legislation because “any stand alone bills are tough to pass in the Senate these days.”

During the news conference, Kirk suggested that plans are in place to pass ENDA in the Senate as an amendment to another vehicle. The Illinois senator said he wants to move the legislation “as I’m now learning, hopefully by amendment.”

Following Kirk’s remark, Merkley said ENDA’s proponents have “no specific plans” to pass the legislation as an amendment to another bill at this time, but are on the lookout for potential opportunities to pass legislation that “may have trouble getting to the floor as a freestanding piece.”

Asked whether there would any candidates for legislation that would serve as vehicles for ENDA, Merkley replied, “If only I could forecast all the bills that are going to be on the floor.”

Whatever the prospects for pushing ENDA through both chambers of Congress, LGBT advocates are hoping for progress at least in the committee that holds jurisdiction over ENDA. Supporters of the legislation are already calling on Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an original co-sponsor of the legislation, to hold a hearing on the legislation during the 112th Congress.

Tico Almeida, a civil rights litigator at Sanford, Wittels & Heisler in D.C., said a Senate hearing on ENDA would allow LGBT victims of workplace discrimination a public venue to tell their stories.

“Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate [HELP] Committee, can and should organize an ENDA hearing during the upcoming year,” Almeida said. “He can and should call one or more transgender Americans to testify at that hearing,”

In response to calls for a hearing, Justine Sessions, a Harkin spokesperson, said is committed to working with Merkley and other co-sponsors to move the legislation forward.

Merkley said he’s spoken with Harkin about an ENDA committee hearing or markup and said he’s “working with him and committee staff about that direction.”

The Oregon senator recalled that in 2009, Harkin held the an committee hearing on ENDA in which Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, represented the Obama administration during the hearing.

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Biden administration to ban discrimination against LGBTQ patients

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The Biden administration announced on Monday it would enforce civil rights protections under Obamacare to prohibit discrimination in health care against patients for being LGBTQ, reversing policy during the Trump years excluding transgender status as a protected characteristic under the law.

The Department of Health & Human Services declared it would enforce Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in health care on the basis of sex, and begin to take up cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement the Supreme Court has “made clear that people have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex and receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

“Fear of discrimination can lead individuals to forgo care, which can have serious negative health consequences,” Becerra said. “It is the position of the Department of Health and Human Services that everyone — including LGBTQ people — should be able to access health care, free from discrimination or interference, period.”

The move is consistent with the executive order President Biden signed on his first day in office directing federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the furthest extent possible. Federal agencies were directed to comply within 100 days of the executive order, which is about now and a short time after Biden’s first 100 days in office.

The announcement with respect to Section 1557 comes on the same day as the hearing took place this morning in Bagly v. HHS, a case before a federal court in Massachusetts challenging Trump’s undoing of transgender protections under the law. An attorney with the U.S. Justice Department announced a new notice of proposed rule-making is coming with respect to Section 1557.

Sharita Gruberg, vice president for the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement the change “assures LGBTQ people that their rights will be upheld at the doctor’s office, vaccine sites, and everywhere else they seek health care and coverage.”

“The administration’s announcement that it will enforce these protections are a critical step toward addressing vaccine hesitancy among LGBTQ people, a population that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and seriously harmed by the previous administration’s attempts to permit discrimination against LGBTQ patients, Gruberg added.

The past three administrations have instituted policy on LGBTQ protections based on their interpretation of Section 1557. Each move had varying implications and directions for LGBTQ patients.

The Obama administration issued a rule in 2016 interpreting Section 1557 to apply to cases of anti-transgender discrimination and discrimination against women who have had abortions, which was consistent with court rulings at the time. However, that move was enjoined by a nationwide court order in Texas as a result of litigation filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The Trump administration, shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock, made final a regulation proposed last year rescinding the Obama administration’s transgender protections under Section 1557. Faced with criticism, the Trump administration defended itself by saying its move was consistent with the court order in Texas, although it seemed to ignore the decision from the higher court.

The new rule from HHS goes above and the beyond the Obama administration by instituting protections based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the proposed rule would be a new regulation entirely, or seek to modify the changes that were made in the two previous administrations. The Blade has placed a request seeking comment with HHS.

Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement the new HHS rule is a welcome change after the Trump administration rescinded protections for transgender patients.

“It’s unfortunate that such an obvious step had to be taken; the AMA welcomes this common-sense understanding of the law,” Bailey said. “This move is a victory for health equity and ends a dismal chapter in which a federal agency sought to remove civil rights protections.”

Discrimination in health care is an experience transgender people commonly report. The U.S. Transgender Survey in 2015 found one-third of responders said they had at least one negative experience in health care related to being transgender. Further, 23 percent of responders said they didn’t seek health care because they feared being mistreated and one-third said they didn’t go to a provider because they couldn’t afford it.

A Center for American Progress survey from 2018 had similar findings with respect to transgender people and patients with being gay, lesbian and bisexual or queer. Eight percent of responders said a doctor refused to see them because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, while 28 percent of providers said a doctor refused to see them because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Hospitals, especially religiously affiliated providers, refusing to provide transition-related care, including gender assignment surgery, is another frequently reported incident for transgender patients. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has filed litigation against hospitals under Section 1557 for refusing to perform the procedure.

Rachel Levine, assistant secretary of health and the first openly transgender presidential appointee to obtain Senate confirmation, hailed the HHS rule change in a statement.

“The mission of our Department is to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation. All people need access to healthcare services to fix a broken bone, protect their heart health, and screen for cancer risk,” Levine said. “No one should be discriminated against when seeking medical services because of who they are.”

Although the Biden administration’s announcement is a welcome move for LGBTQ advocacy groups, the change is not without critics.

John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who declares himself a supporter of transgender rights, said the policy could have unintended consequences, which he said has become evident in the British health system.

“[Transgender] individuals with a penis but no vagina are being asked to have medical tests on their non-existent cervices, while [transgender] persons with a vagina and cervix will not be asked, under new guidelines which appear to place lives at risk and encourage a physically impossible medical exam on organs which simply do not exist,” Banzhaf said. “And, carrying this absurdity to its totally illogical conclusion, a patient with a penis and a full beard was offered a cervical test because, despite his clearly masculine appearance and style of dress, he registered himself as being gender neutral.”

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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