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A Pride wish list for Obama

Advocates seek action on marriage, immigration, job bias

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President Obama (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

With Pride celebrations underway around the country — and the 2012 presidential campaign looming — many are pushing the Obama administration to take action on LGBT-related promises before time runs out on his term.

Executive action from the president is seen as the best — if not only — way to address the issues facing the LGBT community now that Republican control of the U.S. House has legislative progress unlikely for at least two years.

The Washington Blade asked several LGBT organizations for their views on the No. 1 thing they want to see from Obama before the end of his first term in office. Responses range from taking action to eliminate anti-LGBT bias in employment to taking steps to support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said an executive order from Obama prohibiting the federal government from contracting with companies that don’t have non-discrimination policies protecting their LGBT workers is a priority for his organization.

“We would very much like to see the president put in place an executive order that obliges federal contractors to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination protections,” Sainz said. “On the heels of a successful certification of [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] repeal, this would be an important priority for the president’s first term.”

An executive order barring government contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees has been seen as an alternative to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — legislation that would bar anti-LGBT bias in most situations in the public and private workforce — while Republicans are in control of the House. The White House hasn’t said whether Obama would be open to issuing such a directive.

Job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legal in 29 states and legal in 36 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.

Sainz also referenced the lingering “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law,  which prohibits openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military. In December, legislation was signed allowing an end to the military’s gay ban, but “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” won’t be off the books until 60 days after the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the U.S. military is ready for repeal.

Pentagon leaders have testified before Congress that certification could happen mid-summer. Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal have called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to signal the OK for open service before his retirement on June 30 because they fear waiting beyond that time would lead to extended delays.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, said the top action that his organization wants to see from Obama is an endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“Having the president embrace the freedom to marry clearly and authentically, explaining to reachable-but-not-yet reached Americans why marriage matters and how he came to support an end to marriage discrimination is the No. 1 thing Freedom to Marry wants to see from President Obama before the end of his first term,” Wolfson said.

Obama has said he’s “wrestling” with the idea of same-sex marriage, but has yet to come out in support of marriage equality and has said civil unions represent the best way to advance relationship recognition for same-sex couples.

White House spokesperson Shin Inouye issued a statement to the Blade recapping the administration’s LGBT-related accomplishments.

“President Obama is proud of the accomplishments he and his administration have made to advance LGBT rights,” Inouye said. “Working with Congress, we have passed and signed into law a repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and an inclusive hate crimes bill.

“Through Presidential Memoranda, the president has extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, and the Department of Health and Human Services now requires all hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to allow visitation rights for LGBT patients.  … These are just some of the many examples of the steps we’ve taken so far and we look forward to continuing to make progress in the months and years ahead.”

Other LGBT organizations had their own priorities on which they want to see Obama take action before the end of his first term.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said his organization wants a moratorium on the deportations of foreign nationals who are in legally recognized same-sex marriages with U.S. citizens and be eligible for marriage-based green cards for residency if not for the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Immigration Equality’s top priority for the administration is suspension of the deportations that are tearing LGBT families apart every single day,” Ralls said. “Our legal team is currently working with families, on both coasts and in the heartland, who will be separated before the summer is over, unless the Obama administration takes action now.”

Under current immigration law, straight Americans can sponsor their spouses if they’re foreign nationals for residency in the United States. That same path isn’t available to gay Americans in same-sex marriages because DOMA prohibits the federal recognition of their unions — leaving their spouses subject to deportation.

Ralls said “clear legal precedent” exists for halting these deportations and said the president should direct the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to take that action.

“The most fundamental freedom Americans should be able to count on is the freedom to share our homes, and our lives, with the people we love,” Ralls said. “The families we hear from every day need the president to act — not just before the end of his first term — but now. Every day that passes without any action means another family torn apart.”

Pushing the president to stop these deportations could be an uphill battle. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has indicated that Obama believes legislative action on immigration issues is needed — as opposed to administrative action — and “he can’t just wave a wand and change the law.”

Shannon Cuttle, director of the D.C.-based Safe Schools Action Network, said she wants Obama to guide anti-bullying and anti-harassment legislation with enumerated protections for LGBT students into passage. Pending bills that would address this issue are the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

“By the end of President Obama’s first term in office, many LGBT youth who have been inspired and looked up to his presidency with hope and change will come of age to be able to vote in the next election,” Cuttle said. “We need to make inclusive safe schools with protections for all students a priority such as with the passage SNDA and SSIA because without doing so we are failing the next generation of leaders of our country and community.”

Advocates are hoping that anti-bullying measures protecting LGBT students could find their way to Obama’s desk even with Republicans in control of the House. Obama has called for education reform legislation to reach his desk before the beginning of the next school year and LGBT rights supporters are seeking inclusion of SNDA and SSIA as part of this larger vehicle.

However, Obama hasn’t enumerated support for LGBT-specific protections as part of education reform, which would reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, although he’s said the larger vehicle should ensure safe schools for students.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, took a broader approach in what she wants to see from Obama by the end of his first term.

“It is very simple: President Obama needs to recognize our full lives and humanity,” Carey said. “That includes recognizing our families, our marriages, our right to serve openly, the immigration challenges facing LGBT people, as well as many other hardships caused by discrimination.”

Carey said the Task Force also wants to “see significant progress on additional policies” as part of the New Beginning Initiative coalition — a group of organizations working to enact policy changes within the administration — to ensure federal agencies are accommodating LGBT people.

Additionally, Carey said legislative priorities for her organization — LGBT-related or otherwise — remain a priority for her organization even with Republicans in control of the House.

“And while Congress is less-than-friendly terrain right now, we fully expect the president to exercise leadership in protecting Social Security and advocating for the DREAM Act and employment protections,” Carey added.

The full text of Inouye’s statement follows:

“President Obama is proud of the accomplishments he and his Administration have made to advance LGBT rights.   Working with Congress, we have passed and signed into law a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and an inclusive hate crimes bill.  Through Presidential Memoranda, the President has extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, and the Department of Health and Human Services now requires all hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to allow visitation rights for LGBT patients.  In other areas, the Department of Labor has clarified that the Family Medical Leave Act ensures that LGBT parents can provide care for their children in the event of illness; the State Department has taken steps to ensure that transgender applicants can obtain, under certain conditions, passports that accurately reflect their gender; and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed new regulations to ensure that housing programs are open to all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  On the issue of bullying of LGBT youth, the President, Vice President and other Administration officials recorded “It Gets Better” videos; the President and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention; the Department of Education issued guidance to support educators in combating bullying in schools by clarifying when student bullying may violate federal education anti-discrimination laws; and we continue to believe that students should learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying  and harassment.  The Office of Personnel Management, through its Equal Employment Opportunity statement, has clarified that gender identity is a prohibited basis of discrimination in federal employment. These are just some of the many examples of the steps we’ve taken so far and we look forward to continuing to make progress in the months and years ahead.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that job discrimination on the basis of the gender identity is allowed in 38 states. The Washington Blade regrets the error.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. rachelle

    June 9, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Yeah come on OBAMA, you have my vote if you repeal DOMA and enact the UAFA/RFA, otherwise I am afraid I am feeling as though democracy is officially dead.
    Do what you promised and do what is right!
    R

  2. Eric

    June 9, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    This article perfectly illustrates one of the most pressing problems for the LGBT community: lack of leadership around a common consensus on priorities. Each of our national organizations has its own agenda and by focusing on everything simultaneously we dilute our clout and resources.

  3. laurelboy2

    June 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Obama and I agree on one thing and one thing only, that “civil unions represent the best way to advance relationship recognition for same-sex couples.”

  4. kolos100

    June 10, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Immigration is not only the Hispanic issue. It is a priority for other minorities and nationalities. It is sad that Obama is listening to hate groups and racists, and not using his power that was given to him by Working People. Where is Democracy in that?! Or may be he doesn’t care about 4 million American citizen children who lost or about to lose one or both parents. He never cared about immigration reform. He lied to get to the White House, he lied to become a President. Obama has unresolved personal issues with his father leaving him and his mama. He only became a President to proof that his papa was wrong. Obama doesn’t care about people, he enjoys other people sufferings. Vote him out. Obama is just a miserable liar, who even cannot keep his word. Vote him out.

  5. kolos100

    June 10, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Immigration Act of 1986 blocked a lot of people from adjusting their status. Result: 11 million undocumented residents, 4 million American citizen children who leave in fear of losing parent or both parents, young students who a Americans without documents, spouses of American citizens who are being deported. Republicans enacted that Act to secure a supply of slave labor and ensure that there no way for the “slaves” to become legal. Republicans knew that people were crossing the border, bringing families, having children. They knew about that in 1990, 1991,…2000. What did they do? NOTHING. Instead of revisiting the Immigration Act and fixing it’s flaws, They did absolutely NOTHING. Republicans will fight tooth and nail against any legalization because they don’t want to be sued by former “slaves” for underpaid wages and inhuman working conditions. Too sad that Obama calls that a Democracy.

  6. Mark @ Israel

    June 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    The LGBT people should not be discriminated as they are also humans like all of us. Thus, Obama should fulfill what he promised. Hopefully, this will not be one of Obama’s broken promises.

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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