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Votes lined up in Senate committee for DOMA repeal

Kohl, Klobuchar voice support for Respect for Marriage Act

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has recently voiced support for DOMA repeal (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

New support for legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act assures that the necessary votes are in place for a favorable Senate committee vote on the measure as advocates maintain hearings should take place first before advancing the bill.

Last week, the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would repeal the 1996 anti-gay law that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, gained two additional co-sponsors: Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

Kohl’s support for the legislation is critical because he’s a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and would have a vote when the roll is called to move the legislation to the floor. Lynn Becker, a Kohl spokesperson, said the senator had previously considered DOMA a state issue.

Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), another member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has also said she’d vote for repeal of DOMA in committee, although she’s stopped short of co-sponsoring the legislation. Last month, the Minnesota Independent reported that the senator would back the Respect for Marriage Act.

In a statement provided to the Washington Blade, Klobuchar confirmed that legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act has her support.

“I would vote to repeal this law because I believe same-sex couples and their families should have access to the same basic rights, including hospital visitation and survivor benefits,” Klobuchar said.

The support from Kohl and Klobuchar means that the Respect for Marriage Act has at least 10 votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee — enough to advance the bill to the Senate floor.

The two Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee publicly came on board in support for DOMA repeal after the Courage Campaign, a progressive California-based grassroots organizing network, pushed the lawmakers to articulate their support.

Rick Jacobs, chair of the Courage Campaign, said his organization began eyeing important votes in the committee upon introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act in March.

“It was two situations where we had this idea … to have people tell their stories locally and to make sure … that these legislators heard that they all have constituents, supporters and donors who are affected by DOMA,” Jacobs said.

In Minnesota, Jacobs said the Courage Campaign circulated an online petition to encourage Klobuchar to voice support for the Respect for Marriage Act. After the initiative, the Minnesota senator said she’d support the legislation.

“We published a blog post on our Prop 8 Trial Tracker asking about her,” Jacobs said. “That got picked up by the Minnesota Independent, and together with folks in state, there was a little pressure put on, and within about a day, as I recall, a state senator had gotten confirmation that she would repeal of DOMA.”

Similarly for Kohl, Courage Campaign launched an online campaign to encourage his support for DOMA repeal. According to the organization, more than 1,000 people wrote to Kohl urging him to back the Respect for Marriage Act.

“We contacted our members in his state — we’ve got 7,000 — and they contacted him,” Jacobs said. “They gave us some really terrific stories and, again, last week, his state director contacted the local equality organization that we’re working with to confirm, to say, ‘Yes. yes, yes, we are going to be on board.'”

Despite having the votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee, imminent plans that exist for the Respect for Marriage Act in the panel are unclear. Erica Chabot, a Senate Judiciary Committee spokesperson, said she was unable to communicate with Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) during the congressional recess about his plans.

Advocates working to advance the legislation say hearings should take place before the bill is sent to the Senate floor to follow regular order and build additional support.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said “a tremendous amount of work” is needed before the Senate is ready to pass DOMA repeal.

“We are working with Chairman Leahy and other leaders to build support for the bill and we believe a hearing is a good first step to start that education process before decisions are made on tactics for passage,” Cole-Schwartz said.

Jacobs said he would defer to Feinstein’s judgment on when the time is right to hold a committee vote on the Respect for Marriage Act.

“I would defer to Sen. Feinstein, and I say that because I really do trust her on this issue,” Jacobs said. “She looked me in the eye in February — and I’ll never forget this — and she said, ‘I want to repeal DOMA.'”

Still, Jacobs maintained supporters of DOMA repeal “don’t have to sit still for two years” and said congressional testimony would be a big step because pro-repeal hearings have never taken place in the Senate.

Brian Weiss, a Feinstein spokesperson, deferred to earlier comments the senator made during a news conference in March upon introduction of the legislation where she articulated a sentiment similar to HRC’s.

Feinstein predicted that hearings would be held in the Senate Judiciary Committee, followed by a successful vote to report the bill to the floor.

“We use the regular order as much as we can and we can use it the entire way so that the hearings are held and no one can say we pushed anything through, so that everybody has a chance to express themselves,” Feinstein said.

Even if the bill is reported to the Senate floor, significant hurdles remain in passing the legislation. Ending a filibuster in the Senate requires 60 votes, so at least seven Republicans would have to vote in favor of ending debate on the measure. The Respect for Marriage Act as of Tuesday had no GOP support.

Further, the legislation is unlikely to see a vote in the GOP-controlled House, where U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has directed the House general counsel to litigate on behalf of DOMA in court.

To facilitate more support for DOMA repeal, Jacobs said Courage Campaign intends to have a grassroots volunteers in each state by early May and in each congressional district by the end of June pushing lawmakers to back the Respect for Marriage Act.

“We’re going to organize and organize and organize,” Jacobs said. “I assure you, we will see more senators getting on board.”

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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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