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Harkin endorses executive order barring LGBT job bias

Directive seen as interim alternative to ENDA passage

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The leading Senate Democrat on labor issues on Monday announced support for an executive order from President Obama mandating that the U.S. government contract only with companies that have policies barring job discrimination against their LGBT workers.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement provided to the Washington Blade that he would back such a directive as he continues to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — legislation that would bar job bias against LGBT people in most private and public workforce situations.

“Everyone deserves a fair chance to earn a good living, judged by their talent, ability and qualifications free from discrimination,” Harkin said. “Workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is reprehensible, which is why I am a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).”

Harkin continued, “While I remain hopeful for the passage of ENDA, I would strongly support an executive order from President Obama that makes clear government contractors cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity, just as President Roosevelt did seventy years ago when he made clear discrimination based on race, color, creed or national origin was impermissible. Every American deserves equal treatment on the job, period.”

The senator was referring to Executive Order 8802, which President Franklin Roosevelt signed in 1941 to prohibit discrimination on race, color, creed and national origin in the federal government and defense industries. In 1943, Roosevelt broadened the coverage of the directive to make it applicable to all government contractors.

Numerous presidents since Roosevelt — including President Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson — have updated the initial executive order to give it more teeth and mandate that government contractors take affirmation action to ensure workers are employed without regard to race, color, creed or national origin.

An executive order barring government contractors from job discrimination against LGBT people 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.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to the Harkin statement that he couldn’t speak to the proposed executive order while maintaining that President Obama is committed to ENDA.

“The president also continues to examine steps the federal government can take to help secure equal rights for LGBT Americans,” Inouye said. “While I can’t speak to this specific proposal, we’ve already taken steps such as extending benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees and ensuring equal access to HUD programs, and we hope to continue making progress.”

LGBT rights supporters praised Harkin, who has served in the Senate since 1985 and long been known as LGBT rights supporter, for throwing his support behind the executive order.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said his organization welcomes the endorsement from Harkin on the directive and his continued support for an ultimate legislative solution to end LGBT workplace discrimination.

“Chairman Harkin continues to be a leader on an inclusive ENDA and we appreciate his support for an executive order that would require non-discrimination policies among federal contractors,” Cole-Schwartz said. “As we continue to build support for ENDA, an executive order is a strong step toward ending workplace discrimination.”

Tico Almeida, a civil rights litigator who handles employment discrimination cases at Sanford, Wittels & Heisler in D.C., said Harkin’s position as chair of the Senate HELP committee makes his announced support “the most important endorsement thus far for the proposed executive order for federal contractors.”

“Once the executive order is in place, it will be enforced by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who is committed to LGBT civil rights and has placed a strong priority on enforcing workplace protections,” Almeida added.

Richard Socarides, president of the LGBT rights group Equality Matters, said Harkin’s statement in support of the order shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“Tom Harkin, for whom I worked, has long been a strong supporter of LGBT employment protections, so I’m not surprised that he would support a presidential executive order in this area, especially when a divided Congress makes the legislative outlook cloudy,” Socarides said.

Socarides worked on Harkin’s 1992 presidential campaign and was his political director in the U.S. Senate in 1992 after the senator dropped his bid for the White House.

Despite support for administrative action, issuing the executive order wouldn’t have the same reach or impact as ENDA passage because the directive would only affect government contractors. Still, some companies that don’t contract with the government could be expected to follow the lead of businesses that do if the president issues such an executive order.

Harkin’s endorsement of such an order means he joins Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker on the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the sponsor of ENDA in the Senate, who have also voiced support for the directive.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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Oklahoma

Nonbinary Okla. high school student dies after fight

Nex Benedict passed away Feb. 8

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Nex (Dagny) Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student, died from injuries suffered in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on Feb. 7, 2024. (Family photo)

Located in Tulsa County on U.S. Highway 169 six miles north of Tulsa’s city limits, Owasso, which is home to 39,328 people, is grappling with conflict and accusations after Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso High School sophomore who was nonbinary, died after a physical fight in a restroom at the school.

However, according to school officials there was no notification or staff awareness of the fight until the young student had been taken to hospital and later died. The Owasso Police Department is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the student’s death. 

According to the local newspaper, the Owasso Reporter:

“On Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to Bailey Medical Center by the parent of a 16-year-old Owasso High School student who allegedly had a physical altercation at the campus earlier that day, according to the police report.”

It states that no initial report of the fight was made to police prior to their admission to Bailey, although information was taken by a school resource officer at the hospital.

On the evening of Feb. 8, police were made aware that the student was rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead from a medical episode, the report states.

KJRH in neighboring Tulsa reported that a person knowledgeable of the events leading to the teen’s death, who claimed to be the mother of the victim’s best friend, told the station regarding the teen’s death:

“I think complications from brain trauma, head trauma, is what caused it,” she said.

The woman wouldn’t say the victim’s name but said Benedict was a sophomore. Bailey said the victim was outgoing and loyal once they got comfortable and was not afraid to be outspoken. The woman said three older girls were beating on the victim and her daughter in the girl’s bathroom.

“I know at one point, one of the girls was pretty much repeatedly beating [Benedict] head across the floor,” she said. That’s when [Benedict said] a teacher walked in and broke it up.

“[Benedict] couldn’t walk to the nurses’ station on [Benedict] own, and staff didn’t call the ambulance, which amazes me,” she said.

The woman told KJRH the victim’s grandmother, who [Benedict] primarily lived with, brought [Benedict] to the hospital after the fight. She said the victim was released that evening but was brought back the next day and died.

KJRH reached out multiple times along with other media outlets to Owasso Public Schools. A school district spokesperson responded saying there would be no comment “because this is an active police investigation.”

The Owasso Police Department also declined to comment except for noting investigators still don’t know if the fight was related to the teen’s death or if a separate medical issue was the cause. OPD said they’re waiting on the corner-medical examiner’s report before releasing more information.

Owasso Public Schools released this statement about the student’s death:

“The Owasso Police Department has notified district leaders of the death of an Owasso High School student. The student’s name and cause of death have not yet been made public. As this is an active police investigation, we will have no additional comment at this time. Further inquiries should be directed to the Owasso Police Department.”

“The district will have additional counselors at the school to provide support to students and staff beginning on Friday.”

On Feb. 15, after a service was held at Mowery Funeral Service Chapel, Benedict was buried at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Collinsville.

LGBTQ advocates and others are angered by the death, the misgendering in local media and the fact that the school district, which has been previously targeted by the far-right anti-LGBTQ extremist Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik, seems unable to grapple with anti-LGBTQ bullying.

Raichik was named to sit on an Oklahoma committee reviewing school library content by far-right leaning State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.

In 2022, Raichik targeted a now former Owasso 8th grade teacher for speaking out in support of LGBTQ students who lacked acceptance from their parents. That teacher, Tyler Wrynn, was labeled a “groomer” and a predator in social media posts.

According to LGBTQ advocacy groups, Raichik’s endless targeting only seems to encourage more violence against LGBTQ youth. 

Lance Preston, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, which has been working to assist queer youth in the state, posted a video expressing his frustration and anger over this death and the other anti-LGBTQ violence.

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State Department

Ned Price named UN ambassador’s deputy

Former State Department spokesperson is gay

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Former State Department spokesperson Ned Price, center, speaks at the LGBTQ Victory Institute's International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C. on Dec. 3, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield has announced former State Department spokesperson Ned Price will manage her D.C. office.

Thomas-Greenfield in a statement to Politico on Feb. 16 said Price’s “judgment and expertise will be a tremendous asset to me and the entire USUN team.” Price, who is gay, in a post to his personal X account acknowledged his appointment.

“I am grateful to (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield), (Secretary of State Antony Blinken) and my colleagues across the administration for the opportunity to help promote America’s interests and values in the U.N. and broader multilateral system together with our allies and partners,” wrote Price.

Price on Jan. 20, 2021, became the first openly gay State Department spokesperson. He stepped down in March 2023 in order to become a senior advisor to Blinken.

Price was previously a senior communications official for the National Security Council and worked at the Central Intelligence Agency.

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