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Key vote on LGBT student bill could come in June

Polis expects Senate committee vote on SNDA

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Rep. Jared Polis said he expects a Senate committee to vote on SNDA in June. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A crucial vote on a non-discrimination measure for LGBT students could take place next month when a key Senate committee takes up education reform legislation.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker who works on education issues, said Monday the Senate panel with jurisdiction over education reform is set to consider the Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization in June.

“It’s a very complex area of law, and it’ll begin with Senate markups in June as Chairman [Tom] Harkin has indicated he plans to hold,” Polis said during a conference call hosted by the Center for American Progress.

Anti-bullying advocates have been pushing for the inclusion of SNDA, which Polis sponsors in the House, as part of larger education reform. SNDA prohibits public schools and school programs from discriminating against LGBT students.

Polis predicted Harkin’s initial mark for Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization wouldn’t contain the pro-LGBT measures and suggested a vote would take place in committee to include SNDA in the larger bill.

“Although we don’t expect to see SNDA in the chairman’s mark of the initial bill, we are optimistic we can amend the ESEA because all but one of the Democrats on the committee are co-sponsors of the Student Non-Discrimination Act,” Polis said.

In the Senate, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sponsors SNDA. He’s a member of the Senate HELP committee, so any amendment to include this measure as part of Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization would likely come from him.

As of last week, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was the sole Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee who wasn’t a co-sponsor of SNDA.

But Stephanie Allen, a Hagan spokesperson, said her boss this week signed on as co-sponsor for the student non-discrimination bill.

Hagan’s co-sponsorship means Democrats on the HELP committee are unanimous in their support for SNDA. Additionally, her support brings the total number of SNDA supporters on the panel to 12, the majority needed for passage in committee.

Despite Polis’ remarks, Capitol Hill observers said the plan for proceeding in the Senate with education reform and SNDA haven’t yet been settled.

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said he’s also heard that Harkin wants to proceed with education reform in June, but plans for SNDA inclusion haven’t yet been settled.

“You hear conflicting opinions on how that’s going to move forward,” Gaylord said. “I would imagine in the next two weeks, we’ll learn a little more about what the real strategy is, but at the moment I still think there’s viewpoints about what’s happening.”

Spokespersons for Democratic senators wouldn’t confirm that plans are in place to amend the Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization to include SNDA during a markup in June.

Justine Sessions, a HELP committee spokesperson, was mum on the components that would be included in education reform as she acknowledged the committee is working on crafting a bi-partisan package.

“We are continuing to work to craft a comprehensive, bipartisan bill to reauthorize ESEA, and are not commenting on any specific elements of the legislation,” Sessions said.

Alexandra Fetissoff, a Franken spokesperson, said SNDA is a “big priority” for her boss, but plans for the legislation remain unclear.

“Right now the status of the bill is in flux and we’re still working very hard to get it included,” Fetissoff said. “As of today, every Democratic member of the HELP committee is a cosponsor of SNDA, which demonstrates its strong support in the committee. Beyond that we can’t comment on ongoing negotiations.”

Whether a vote on an amendment would also take place during the committee markup to include the Safe Schools Improvement Act, another anti-bullying bill, remains unclear.

In the Senate, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sponsors SSIA which, among other things, would require public schools to establish codes of conduct explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment.

Larry Smar, a Casey spokesperson, said plans to pursue SSIA in education reform are similarly not yet pinned down at this point.

“We don’t yet know what will be in the base bill,” Smar said. “Sen. Casey has urged Senator Harkin to include SSIA in the ESEA reauthorization. Since so much is unknown at this point I can’t get into exact strategy.”

SSIA doesn’t enjoy the same level of support in the HELP committee as SNDA, so adoption of the Casey bill as part of education reform may be more challenging.

Three Democrats on the panel aren’t co-sponsors of SSIA: Sens. Hagan, Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

Jude McCartin, a Bingaman spokesperson, said his boss sometimes supports bills even though he doesn’t co-sponsor them.

“Sen. Bingaman supports [and] hopes the reauthorization of ESEA contains strong anti-bullying [and] non-discrimination provisions, though at this point in the negotiations it is unclear what those might be,” McCartin said.

Adam Bozzi, a Bennet spokesperson, said his boss believes that SNDA is the best way to end anti-gay harassment of students.

“Sen. Bennet supports addressing bullying in our schools, particularly as it relates to GLBT students,” Bozzi said. “He believes the best approaches include the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which he has co-sponsored in the Senate.”

Given that Hagan, Bingaman and Bennett are co-sponsors for SNDA and voted in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal last year, their support for the SSIA is likely should the measure come up in committee.

Additionally, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was an original co-sponsor for SSIA, so his affirmative vote could make up for any single Democrat that doesn’t support the measure. Additionally, Kirk’s co-sponsorship may encourage other GOP members of the panel to vote in favor of the bill.

The extent to which the White House will lobby for passage of an LGBT-inclusive ESEA reauthorization package also remains to be seen.

The White House hasn’t yet enumerated support for either the SNDA or the SSIA, although it has called for safer schools as part of education reform without specifically mentioning anti-LGBT bullying.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the administration will work with Congress to produce education reform legislation that provides protections against harassment.

“When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Inouye said.

Gaylord said the White House has expressed support for the anti-bullying policy, but hasn’t been visible in working to pass LGBT-inclusive education reform.

“What they might be doing behind the scenes, I don’t know,” Gaylord said. “I suspect one possibility may be that they’re waiting for stronger signals that this is really moving forward and, again, that could all become clear in the next week or two because it does seem like there’s some new activity happening.”

But the biggest challenge in passing LGBT-inclusive education reform legislation is ensuring that the enumerated protections meet majority approval in the Republican-controlled House.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chair of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, has said he envisions education reform as a series of smaller bills as opposed to one larger piece of reform legislation.

Last week, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) introduced the first of these bills: the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act. The bill proposes to cut 43 education programs, many of which were already defunded in the final FY-2011 budget agreement signed into law by President Obama.

Alexandra Sollberger, a spokesperson for the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, was non-committal in response to an inquiry on whether Kline would be open to pro-LGBT elements in education reform.

“We are holding ongoing discussions with minority committee staff on the content of these bills,” Sollberger said.

But Sollberger said any provision dealing with safe schools would come up last in Kline’s plan for education reform legislation.

“The education reform bills will each address a different theme, such as flexibility, teachers, and accountability,” she said. “Any efforts to address safe school issues will likely come into play with the accountability legislation, which is likely to be the last piece of the puzzle.”

Polis said SNDA advocates in the House will work to build the number of co-sponsors for the legislation to enhance its chances for passage as part of education reform.

“Our work in the meantime … is to simply increase the number of sponsors and show that this piece of legislation will have among the top number of sponsors and supporters than any other legislation for ESEA,” Polis said.

As of deadline, the legislation has 132 co-sponsors — including two Republicans — which is more than the bill had in the last Congress when Democrats were in control of the House.

Another pending bill that would help LGBT students is the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require colleges to establish policies against harassment.

Polis said the legislation is focused on higher education so wouldn’t be part of Elementary & Secondary Act reauthorization.

“It wouldn’t be included in ESEA,” Polis said. “That’s just the K-12 grade piece, so it would be a different area of federal law.”

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Federal Government

Barbara Lee: PEPFAR is ‘more in peril’ than ever before

Congress has yet to reauthorize funding for Bush-era HIV/AIDS program

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) speaks about the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Sept. 22 said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is “more in peril” now than at any point since its launch two decades ago.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” said Lee during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference that took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

Then-President George W. Bush in 2003 signed legislation that created PEPFAR.

Lee noted PEPFAR as of 2020 has provided nearly $100 billion in “cumulative funding for HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and research.” She said PEPFAR is the largest global funding program for a single disease outside of COVID-19.

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

The panel took place amid the continued push for Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years. The federal government will shut down on Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last December at a World AIDS Day event in D.C. acknowledged HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact LGBTQ and intersex people and other marginalized groups. A new PEPFAR strategy the Biden-Harris administration announced that seeks to “fill those gaps” over the next five years includes the following points:

• Targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ and intersex people, women and girls and other marginalized groups

• Partnerships with local organizations to help reach “hard-to-reach” communities.

• Economic development and increased access to financial markets to allow countries to manufacture their own antiretroviral drugs, tests and personal protective gear to give them “the capacity to meet their own challenges so that they’re not dependent on anyone else.”

The Family Research Council Action in an email to supporters urged them to tell Congress to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.” Family Watch International has said PEPFAR “has been hijacked to advance a radical sexual agenda.”

“Please sign the petition to tell the U.S. Congress to ensure that no U.S. funds go to organizations that promote abortion, LGBT ideology, or ‘comprehensive sexuality education,'” said the group in an email to its supporters. 

A group of lawmakers and religious leaders from Kenya and other African countries in a letter they wrote to members of Congress in June said PEPFAR, in their view, no longer serves its original purposes of fighting HIV/AIDS because it champions homosexuality and abortion.

“We wrote that letter to the U.S. Congress not to stop PEPFAR funding to Kenya, but to demand the initiative to revert to its original mission without conditioning it to also supporting LGBTQ as human rights,” it reads.

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

American officials earlier this year postponed a meeting on PEPFAR’s work in Uganda in order to assess the potential impact the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act will have on it. The law, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on May 29, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Biden in his U.N. General Assembly speech last week noted LGBTQ and intersex rights and highlighted PEPFAR. Family Watch International in its email to supporters included a link to the letter from the African lawmakers and religious leaders.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated both the FRC and Family Watch International as anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

“[PEPFAR is] not about abortions,” said Lee.

HIV/AIDS activists protest inside house speaker kevin mccarthy (r-calif.)’s office in d.c. on sept. 11, 2023. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during the panel referenced Bush’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that urged lawmakers to reauthorize PEPFAR.

“The way he put it is no program is more pro-life [than] one that has saved more than 25 million lives,” said Power.

Power referenced the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization.” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said a failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken “our own foreign policy and diplomacy.”

“Once again the United States will be missing in action,” stressed Lee.

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Legislation Melanie Egorin and Kenny Kamson, a Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist, also spoke on the panel that MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated. 

From left: U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Nkengasong and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power discuss the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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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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