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Sebelius promises to collect LGBT data in health surveys

Advocates call for transparency in devising questions

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Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius committed on Tuesday to start the collection of LGBT data as part of federal health surveys, although she said the questions that would be used to gather the information must be market-tested before they’re made part of any questionnaire.

During a news conference at the White House, Sebelius said in response to a question from the Washington Blade that the Department of Health & Human Services “fully intend[s] to collect LGBT data” through federal surveys.

“So it is definitely a commitment,” Sebelius said. “We will be adding data questions to the national health surveys. And right now we are looking at developing a slew of questions, market-testing them, coming back and making sure we have the right way to solicit the information that we need.”

Sebelius said including LGBT questions on federal health surveys has been difficult because the federal government hasn’t engaged in such data collection before and hasn’t settled on the right way to ask such questions. The secretary asserted the Department of Health & Human Services is market-testing questions to make sure they’re worded in the right way to collect the necessary information.

“The problem is that it’s never been collected, and what our folks came back to us with is we have to figure out — and we’re working with providers and advocates right now to actually market-test the questions — how to ask questions in a way that they elicit accurate responses, because collecting data that doesn’t give an accurate picture is not very helpful in the first place,” Sebelius said. “And there has been so little attempt, either directly to consumers or to parents or to anybody else, to ask questions about LGBT health issues that we don’t even know how to ask them.”

Although Sebelius expressed a commitment to include LGBT data collection as part of federal health surveys, she didn’t offer a timeline for when this market testing would be complete or when the questions would be included on the surveys.

To facilitate a better picture of the health of LGBT Americans, advocates have been seeking the inclusion of questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity on major federal surveys, such as the National Health Interview Survey and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

To gather data on sexual orientation, a survey could ask whether someone identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Another survey more focused on sexual health, such as an HIV survey, could ask about sexual behavior and whether the responder has had sex with someone of the same gender.

For gender identity, a survey could ask whether respondents identify as transgender; if someone has transitioned from one gender to another over the course of their lives; or ask about non-conformity, regardless of how the respondent identifies their gender.

Advocates are hoping that data obtained from asking these questions may help ascertain whether certain health problems affect LGBT people more frequently than others, such as mental health problems or alcohol and drug abuse.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, praised Sebelius in a statement for expressing her commitment to including the questions on the surveys and said the change is needed to address LGBT health disparities.

“It has been repeatedly demonstrated — including in a major LGBT health report issued just months ago by the Institute of Medicine —that LGBT people experience significant health disparities and that we cannot fully understand those disparities and how to address them until major health studies ask about our community,” Solmonese said.

Solmonese was referring to the report from the non-governmental United States National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine Report, published March 31, which found that researchers have insufficient data on LGBT people in health studies, prompting a tendency to treat LGBT people as a single homogeneous group.

Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, also commended Sebelius for making the commitment for LGBT data inclusion as a means to address health problems affecting LGBT people.

“There is an urgent need to address health disparities because LGBT lives literally hang in the balance,” Nipper said. “We’re pleased that HHS is moving forward on data collection for the LGBT community in federal health surveys. While not typically headline grabbers, LGBT data collection in federal surveys is critical to the ultimate well-being of our community.”

A number of LGBT advocates also called for greater transparency in the way that the Department of Health & Human Services devises the potential questions to obtain health data on the LGBT population.

Gary Gates, distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, called the commitment from Sebelius “fantastic,” but said questions on sexual orientation and gender identity “need not start from scratch.”

“We know a great deal already about how to measure sexual orientation and some recent studies have also highlighted promising approaches to measuring gender identity,” Gates said. “HHS now has a real opportunity to develop an open and transparent process as they assess how to best utilize this body of research to inform how they achieve LGBT inclusion in their data collection. That process must be transparent and involve experts from both inside and outside of the government as well as experts from the LGBT community.”

Nipper made similar remarks on the need for openness in the way the LGBT-related questions for the health surveys are developed.

“We encourage the secretary to take this directive and turn it into action in a transparent process that includes experts from both inside and outside of the federal government to implement it effectively,” Nipper said. “The sooner this happens, the sooner initiatives like Healthy People and the National Prevention Strategy will be able to adequately address the many health needs of our community.”

The National Prevention Strategy, a comprehensive plan aimed at increasing the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of their lives, was published last week by the Department of Health & Human Services’ National Prevention Council. The strategy recognizes that good health comes not just from quality medical care, but also from clean air and water, safe work sites and healthy foods.

A transcript of the exchange between the Blade and Sebelius follows:

Washington Blade: Madam Secretary, I have a question for you on a different topic. As I’m sure you know, the absence of nationwide data about the LGBT community’s health needs and disparities has been a problem. Organizations want government assistance to address problems. The government insists on data to back up these requests, but the government won’t collect data, so the LGBT community remains stymied.

It’s public knowledge that groups have been advocating with HHS to address the data collection issue — specific things like including LGBT questions on the National Health Interview Survey and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

You and the president have been advocates for evidence-based decision-making. What’s the holdup here?

Kathleen Sebelius: Well, actually, it’s a great question, and we fully intend to collect LGBT data. The problem is that it’s never been collected, and what our folks came back to us with is we have to figure out — and we’re working with providers and advocates right now to actually market-test the questions — how to ask questions in a way that they elicit accurate responses, because collecting data that doesn’t give an accurate picture is not very helpful in the first place. And there has been so little attempt, either directly to consumers or to parents or to anybody else, to ask questions about LGBT health issues that we don’t even know how to ask them.

So it is definitely a commitment. We will be adding data questions to the National Health Surveys. And right now we are looking at developing a slew of questions, market-testing them, coming back and making sure we have the right way to solicit the information that we need.

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National

Texas to resume abuse investigations into families with trans children

“To be clear the Supreme Court has not directed Commissioner Masters & DFPS to continue investigating parents of trans youth for child abuse”

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In a statement issued Thursday, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) agency announced that it will resume abuse investigations into families with transgender kids.

“DFPS treats all reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation seriously and will continue to investigate each to the full extent of the law,” the statement read.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the DFPS statement, while not addressing the investigations into medical treatments for trans youth, indirectly indicated that these probes will now continue.

Current state law does not explicitly define gender affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy as child abuse. A DFPS spokesman did not comment when asked if the agency plans to continue investigating such treatments as child abuse, the Dallas Morning News noted.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that DFPS can continue to investigate families in the state who provide medically necessary care for their Trans children, excluding the parties in the litigation that brought the matter forward in a lawsuit filed in March.

In its decision, the court emphasized that neither Attorney General Paxton nor Governor Abbott has the power or authority to direct DFPS to investigate the provision of medically necessary lifesaving health care for transgender youth as child abuse. But the court limited the order blocking all investigations to the specific plaintiffs who filed suit.

Trans activist Landon Richie who has been deeply involved in the efforts to mitigate the anti-trans actions by Texas lawmakers and has led protests against the transphobic actions by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton told the Blade:

“To be clear, the Texas Supreme Court has not directed Commissioner Masters and DFPS to continue investigating parents of trans youth for child abuse. While the decision means now only the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit have protection, it reiterates that Attorney General Paxton’s opinion and Governor Abbott’s letter are not binding and not enforceable, meaning DFPS’s actions moving forward are at the discretion of Commissioner Masters only and not the state leadership’s directives. The Texas Supreme Court allowing for the district court to provide a temporary injunction is a good sign for people’s protection. 

It bears reminding families in Texas and around the country that today’s decision (and yesterday’s regarding gender-affirming care at UT Southwestern and Texas Children’s) reaffirms what we already know: opinions are only opinions and the people in power cannot abuse that power to abuse trans people. We know decisions can change at a moment’s notice and that this fight will take years, but to our families and communities under attack, please remain strong and take a moment to breathe. We’re in this together. “

An employee of DFPS who was a litigant in the lawsuit is represented by the ACLU of Texas.

Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas who is on the team representing that unnamed employee, said the state’s decision to reopen the cases is unfortunate and unlawful. He said his team believes that the high court’s decision removes any responsibility for Texans to report trans youth getting treatments, the Dallas Morning News reported.

“We are going to be closely monitoring what the agency does. We would encourage families that have any reason to believe that they have an investigation to seek legal help,” Klosterboer said.

“Abbott’s letter and Paxton’s opinion did not change Texas law,” he added. “Gender affirming health care is still legal in all 50 states.”

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Florida

“Don’t Say Gay” student leader says school stopping run for student leadership

Jack Petocz organized a state-wide student protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill & annoyed administrators suspended him

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Jack Petocz (Center) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government earlier this Spring (Courtesy of Jack Petocz/Facebook)

Jack Petocz, a Flagler Palm Coast High School junior, organized a state-wide student protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill this past March, and at his school, annoyed administrators suspended him.

On Tuesday, Petocz said that the school’s disciplinary action is now preventing him from running for senior class president.

“When I returned, the administration assured me that no further disciplinary action would be taken. A month later, they broke this verbal agreement and placed a level 3 referral on my record. Now, due to this high level of discipline, I am being prevented from running for senior class president. I am continuing to be punished for standing up for my identity and against widespread hatred.”

The suspension over the student walkout became a viral moment that propelled the 17-year-old into the national spotlight and into the national discourse over a spate of harsh laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

17-year-old Cameron Driggers, a student LGBTQ+ activist-organizer of the group Recall Flagler County School Board and co-leader of the walk-out, his friend’s suspension inspired him to create a petition on Change.org to pressure Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Greg Schwartz to rescind his seemingly arbitrary decision to suspend Petocz.

One protest at the school over its suspension of Petocz brought together a grizzled and proud Out gay U.S. Marine Corps veteran accompanied by his fellow vets, who alongside with Driggers and the other young adolescent activists protested in a rally in front of the school at the same time Petocz and his father were inside meeting with Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Greg Schwartz, hoping to get him to rescind his seemingly arbitrary decision to suspend Petocz.

Jack Petocz (with bullhorn) leads Flagler Palm Coast High School protest against DSG bill (Photo by Alysa Vidal)

Later on during the day Driggers posted to the Change.org petition the news that Principal Schwartz had backed off.

“Recall FCSB is pleased to announce that Jack’s suspension has ended and he is back on-campus. We are grateful for the thousands of people around the globe that shared, tweeted and protested in support of Jack, the organizer behind the state-wide Don’t Say Gay Walkout. Over 7500 signatures were collected on a condemnation of Principal Greg Schwartz’ conduct last Thursday. With Jack back on campus, Recall FCSB will continue to empower student leaders in and out of school,” Driggers wrote.

Principal Schwartz also committed to removing the ‘disciplinary action’ from Petocz’s school record.

On Tuesday, Petocz announced that Principal Schwartz and other school officials are barring him from running for an elected student office.

In response to the news, PEN America issued the following statement from Jonathan Friedman, director of the Free Expression and Education program:

“By going back on their word and imposing a red mark on Jack Petocz’s disciplinary record, the Flagler Palm Coast High School administration appears bent on retaliating against him for organizing the walkout against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. This is unconscionable. Jack exercised his right to protest as a citizen, and he led the walkout with the school’s approval. No student ought to be intimidated or punished by school authorities for their political speech, and the school already told him he would not be disciplined. This is especially troubling alongside news of other efforts to censor or intimidate students raising their voices for LGBTQ+ rights across Florida. The leaders of Flagler Palm Coast High School should remove this infraction from his record so that he can run for class president just like any other student.”

On Twitter, Petocz urged people to contact his school to get officials to reverse this latest decision.

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National

History making win- Out Lesbian could be Oregon’s next governor

“This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen”

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Courtesy of Tina Kotek

The Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday win by Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, who had announced her run for the governor’s seat to replace incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who is term limited last September 1st, 2021, positions her to become the first Out Lesbian governor in the nation should she win the general election in November.

Kotek’s win comes during an uptick in the elections nationwide as more candidates running for office identify as LGBTQ”. More than 600 LGBTQ candidates are on ballots this year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

According to the Victory Fund, at least 101 people ran or are running for the U.S. Senate or U.S. House – with 96 still actively running as of February 21, 2022. That marks a 16.1 percent increase in LGBTQ Congressional candidates compared to the 2020 election cycle, when 87 people ran.

Speaking to her supporters after it became clear she had won over Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, who was polling second among Oregonian progressives, “This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen,” Kotek said.

Republican state legislator Christine Drazan along with an independent candidate, Betsy Johnson are slated to be on the November ballot.

Last Fall when she announced her candidacy, she said, “I am running for Governor because I know that, together, we can reckon with the legacies of injustice and inequality to build a great future for Oregon.” She also noted, “Oregonians are living through a devastating pandemic, the intensifying impacts of climate change, and the economic disruptions that leave too many behind. We must get past the politics of division and focus on making real, meaningful progress for families across our state.” 

“A victory for Tina would shatter a lavender ceiling and be a milestone moment in LGBTQ political history, yet she is running not to make history, but because there are few people as prepared and qualified to serve as Oregon’s governor,” said Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Under Tina’s leadership, Oregon has led in passing legislation to improve roads and education, raise the minimum wage and ensure all residents are treated fairly and equally. As governor, Tina will make Oregon a role model for the nation.”

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