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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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The White House

Biden administration uses IDAHOBiT to highlight LGBTQ rights support

WHO on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as mental disorder

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Biden administration on Tuesday publicly acknowledged the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

“Jill and I stand in support and solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people in the United States and around the world,” said President Biden in a statement the White House released. “We join with Americans across the country to reaffirm our commitment to the ongoing work of upholding human dignity for all people and advancing equality globally.”

Biden in his statement noted there “has been much progress” since the World Health Organization on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Biden also highlighted “we continue to witness disturbing setbacks and rising hate and violence targeting LGBTQI+ people in the United States and around the world.”

“This is wrong,” he said. “LGBTQI+ people are entitled to all the rights, opportunities, and protections that belong to every human on this planet. LGBTQI+ people are an essential part of families and communities—teachers, first responders, public officials, doctors, lawyers, front-line workers and friends who enrich and strengthen every single country.” 

“And make no mistake: Hateful legislative attacks against members of our own LGBTQI+ community cannot be tolerated in America or anywhere else,” added Biden. “They spur discrimination and can stoke violence. And they are rooted in the same ignorance and intolerance that we see around the world. Hate is hate—and all of us have a responsibility to speak out against hate wherever we find it.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday issued his own IDAHOBiT statement.

“The United States affirms today, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), that the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons are the same human rights to which all persons are entitled,” said Blinken. “As enshrined in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’”

Bliken further noted that “too many LGBTQI+ persons live under the shadow of discrimination, violence and fear.”

“Global data makes clear that the dehumanization of LGBTQI+ persons is systemic, pervasive, and often violent,” he said. “Homophobia, biphobia, interphobia and transphobia are deeply entrenched in societies across the world, including here in the United States. Countless persons are at extreme risk for being themselves.”

Biden shortly after he took office in 2021 issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad.

The administration last June appointed Jessica Stern as the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad.

The U.S. Senate earlier this year in a bipartisan vote confirmed Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank, as the first openly lesbian American ambassador. The State Department on April 11 began to issue passports with “X” gender markers.

The State Department on April 28 released a report that details the federal government’s implementation of Biden’s foreign policy memo.

“We remain committed to ending this intolerance. Everyone deserves to live with respect, dignity, and safety,” said Blinken in his IDAHOBiT statement. “The United States affirms that all LGBTQI+ individuals, couples, and their families are valid and valuable.”

Biden in his statement also referred to the report.

“By openly reporting on our own progress, the United States hopes to inspire other governments to take similar action to address the needs of their LGBTQI+ communities,” he said.

“To the LGBTQI+ community, my administration sees you,” added Biden. “We stand with you. And we will continue to defend human rights and dignity, at home and around the world.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović are among the other world leaders who have publicly acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ rights, and other U.N. human rights experts in a statement they released on Monday highlighted the plight of LGBTQ people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

“With the number of forcibly displaced persons continuing to rise, States, businesses and humanitarian and civil society organizations must invest in developing human rights-based policies and programs that take into full account the intersectional dimensions of forced displacement and sexual orientation and gender identity, fostering stronger collaboration and coordination among all actors responsible for the protection of displaced LGBT individuals,” reads the statement.

Advocacy groups around the world also commemorated IDAHOBiT.

“Today I want to thank my incredible team of Insight public organization who still works for LGBTQI+ people in Ukraine, saving life’s (sic) of our community during the war,” tweeted Olena Shevchenko, chair of Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ rights group. “We are here for equality.”

Sexual Minorities Uganda in a tweet said IDAHOBiT “is a significant day for the LGBTIQ+ community because it serves as a reminder of the ongoing violence and prejudice that our communities face.”

“The struggle for equality still continues,” added SMUG.

Pride House Tokyo in Japan also acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

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The White House

WNBA players back petition for White House to ‘prioritize’ Brittney Griner’s release

Phoenix Mercury center detained in Russia in February

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Russian state TV has released a photo of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges in the country after Russian officials say cannabis oil was found in her luggage. (Screenshot)

The Women’s National Basketball Players Association has endorsed a petition that urges the Biden administration to “prioritize” WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release.

“It is imperative that the U.S. government immediately address this human rights issue and do whatever is necessary to return Brittney home quickly and safely,” reads the Change.org petition that Tamryn Spruill, a freelance journalist and author, created.

“The WNBPA and its members proudly join Tamryn Spruill, the creator of this petition, in demanding that lawmakers prioritize Griner’s return,” it continues. “White House and Biden adminsitration, we ask that you take action today—doing whatever is necessary—to bring Brittney Griner home swiftly and safely.”

More than 135,000 people have signed the petition.

Spruill on Saturday in a tweet said the WNBPA, a union that represents WNBA players, partnered with them and Change.org “in demanding that our elected officials work urgently to gain BG’s swift and safe release.”

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

The State Department earlier this month determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. A Russian court on Friday extended her detention for another month.

“The Russian system wrongfully detained Ms. Griner,” then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday during her last White House briefing. “We take our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens seriously.  And we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizens when they are subject to legal processes overseas.”
 
“Now, because the State Department recategorized her as wrongfully detained, it means that our Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs — it’s quite a title but a well-deserved one — is going to be overseeing this case and leading the effort,” added Psaki. “Because it’s a deliberative process and we know from experience of bringing other Americans home, we’re just not going to detail what those efforts look like at this point in time.”

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison.

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Wyoming

GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis issues ‘apology’ after transphobic comments during graduation speech

“My reference to the existence of two sexes was intended to highlight the times- times in which the metric of biological sex is under debate”

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Screenshot/University of Wyoming YouTube

During her speech delivered to the University of Wyoming’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education commencement Saturday afternoon, Republican U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis told graduates that “the existence of two sexes, male and female” was a “fundamental scientific truth.” 

The audience’s immediate reaction to her transphobic remarks were loud expressions of disapproval including jeering, boos, and demands she leave the podium.

The senator’s remarks came in the latter third of her twenty-minute address which had primarily focused on the critical need for teachers and in the fields of agriculture and other endeavors she noted were Wyoming hallmarks.

In a statement released by her office Sunday, a spokesperson noted that Lummis was apologizing to those who felt “un-welcomed or disrespected” by the comments.

“My reference to the existence of two sexes was intended to highlight the times in which we find ourselves, times in which the metric of biological sex is under debate with potential implications for the shared Wyoming value of equality,” the statement read.

“I share the fundamental belief that women and men are equal, but also acknowledge that there are biological differences and circumstances in which these differences need to be recognized. That being said, it was never my intention to make anyone feel un-welcomed or disrespected, and for that I apologize. I have appreciated hearing from members of the University of Wyoming community on this issue, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue.” 

An Assistant Professor in the University of Wyoming’s Sociology Program in the College of Arts and Sciences tweeted pointing out the graduate’s reactions along with the fact that the UW campus community had recently lost a Trans student to suicide, making the senator’s remarks more hurtful.

The university’s president also issued a statement Sunday expressing support for all members of the UW campus and community:

May 15, 2022

To the UW community:

On Saturday, the university celebrated spring 2022 commencement with a series of events that showcased the best of what makes us special: our students, our staff, our faculty and our ability to openly embrace and debate complex issues. One of our speakers made remarks regarding biological sex that many on campus take issue with. While we respect the right of all to express their views, from students to elected officials, we unequivocally state that UW is an institution that supports and celebrates its diverse communities that collectively make us the wonderful place that we are.

Thank you to the many students and families who celebrated with us this weekend. We welcome the incredible individuality and intellect of all our dynamic and diverse students and never want you to feel otherwise.

Sincerely,

Ed Seidel, President

Senator Cynthia Lummis’ remarks are at the 50:11 time mark:

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