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National news in brief: April 22

N.Y. groups join forces in renewed marriage fight; video footage from Prop 8 battle unleashes controversy

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Cuomo to help with marriage campaign

NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pledged support for a same-sex marriage bill in his state that gay activists hope will help overcome Republican resistance, the New York Times reported this week.

Under the supervision of the governor’s staff, the groups intend to raise more than $1 million for a media blitz, hire a powerful political consultant close to the Cuomo administration and deploy field organizers to the districts of more than a dozen key lawmakers to drum up support, the Times reported citing interviews with those involved in the effort.

In contrast to their failed drive for a marriage bill two years ago, the advocates envision a short, disciplined and intense run-up to a vote in the legislature, raising the prospect that gay couples may be allowed to wed in New York by early summer. The hope to avoid the mistakes and miscommunications of 2009, when those lobbying for same-sex marriage sent conflicting messages, misjudged the opposition and won far fewer votes than they had predicted, the Times story said.

After passing in the Assembly, the bill was defeated in the Senate, 38 to 24. Four gay rights groups — Empire State Pride Agenda, HRC, Freedom to Marry and Marriage Equality will form a single organization called New Yorkers United for Marriage. Two Democratic senators who voted against the bill in 2009 have since departed, replaced by supporters of the bill. Advocates now need to attract six more senators to ensure its passage. So far, they are focusing on about 15 lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, whose votes could prove pivotal, the New York Times said.

Marriage foes intervene in Prop 8 trial controversy

SAN FRANCISCO — The federal judge who presided over the Proposition 8 trial is under fire from Christian conservatives for showing a three-minute videotape of the trial on the lecture circuit, the Los Angeles Times reported this week.

The sponsors of the 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage have asked a federal appeals court to order retired Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled against Proposition 8, to return the videotape so it can be put under lock and key. The Associated Press reported that several media organizations are joining lawyers for two gay couples in urging a federal appeals court to release the tapes. The 13 organizations, which include the AP, argued in a motion filed Monday with the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals that the videos are court records and the First Amendment requires them to be open to the public.

Lawyers for ProtectMarriage, the Proposition 8 campaign, have told the 9th Circuit that Walker’s use of the video recording “defied” the U.S. Supreme Court, violated his own court order sealing the video, flouted various court policies and amounted to judicial misconduct, the Times reported.

Walker, who presided over the 12-day trial in San Francisco last year, initially planned to videotape the proceedings for public viewing. But ProtectMarriage objected and took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 along ideological grounds against cameras in the courtroom. The high court’s conservatives said the Proposition 8 trial was unsuitable for broadcast because witnesses might be intimidated or suffer retaliation. Walker relented but permitted videotaping for the court’s use and for viewing by an overflow crowd in another courtroom.

Gay students warned to ‘act straight’ after attack

ROCK HILL, S.C. — The attack of a gay teenager by a group of men at a Rock Hill, S.C., gas station has some Winthrop University leaders warning gay students to “act straight,” according to a report from WBTV, a news agency in the region.

The warning comes after 19-year-old Joshua Esskew was beaten by a group of at least eight men at the Spot Convenience Store on 990 South Cherry Road on April 9.  Esskew believes the attack happened because he is gay. The attack has sparked an investigation by the FBI and the York County Sheriff’s Office, who are hoping to identify the men who attacked Esskew.

Images of the attack, which was caught on surveillance video, have been released to the public, in hopes of identifying the men, WBTV said. Esskew said he was walking to the gas station when someone yelled a derogatory anti-gay comment at him. Words were exchanged and when he turned back around, someone hit him in the head with a 40-ounce malt liquor bottle. He was then beaten by at least eight men for nearly 15 seconds, being kicked and punched by the group.

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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: drag is ‘vulgar and lewd,’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Ruling ‘bristles with hostility toward LGBTQ people’

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J. Marvin Jones Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse in Amarillo, Texas (Photo: Library of Congress)

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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The White House

Harris to oversee White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Goal is to implement and expand upon legislation, executive actions

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, September 2023. (Official White House photograph by Lawrence Jackson)

The White House announced Thursday evening that President Joe Biden on Friday will establish the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The office will focus on implementing and expanding upon executive and legislative actions, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “to reduce gun violence, which has ravaged communities across the country.”

Serving under Harris will be Stefanie Feldman, “a longtime policy advisor to President Biden on gun violence prevention,” and “leading gun violence prevention advocates Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox.”

“Every time I’ve met with families impacted by gun violence as they mourn their loved ones, and I’ve met with so many throughout the country, they all have the same message for their elected officials: ‘do something,'” Biden said in a statement.

The president noted his signing of last year’s bipartisan gun violence prevention law, a flagship legislative accomplishment for the administration, along with his issuance of more executive actions than any president in history to address this problem.

Calling these “just the first steps,” Biden said the establishment of the White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention will “build upon these measures and keep Americans safe.”

He also urged Congress to do more by passing legislation requiring universal background checks, and baning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

In a statement, Harris said, “This epidemic of gun violence requires urgent leadership to end the fear and trauma that Americans experience every day.”

“The new Office of Gun Violence Prevention will play a critical role in implementing President Biden’s and my efforts to reduce violence to the fullest extent under the law,” she said, “while also engaging and encouraging Congressional leaders, state and local leaders, and advocates to come together to build upon the meaningful progress that we have made to save lives.”

“Our promise to the American people is this: we will not stop working to end the epidemic of gun violence in every community, because we do not have a moment, nor a life to spare,” the vice president said.

Then Vice President Biden hugs Brandon J. Wolf as he talks with family members of the victims and survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
Wolf, a Pulse survivor, was recently appointed National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
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