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Advocates see New York as a turning point in marriage equality effort

On July 24, New York will become the largest state offering same-sex couples the same rights in marriage as opposite-sex couples, more than doubling the population of Americans living in marriage equality states

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Empire State Building

Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors in time to see marriage equality passed. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

On July 24, New York will become the largest state in the Union to offer same-sex marriage, and in doing so, will change the landscape for marriage equality in America.

On Friday, with a close 33-29 vote, the Republican-controlled New York state Senate approved a marriage equality bill, matching language on the legislation agreed to between leaders in both houses. The bill was signed by same-sex marriage advocate Gov. Andrew Cuomo just before midnight, which sets the official date the law takes effect as July 24.

Evan Wolfson, President of Freedom To Marry, a national marriage equality advocacy organization, sees New York as a turning point in the effort to extend marriage to same-sex couples in the United States.

“It means that the number of Americans living in a state where gay people share in the freedom to marry is more than doubling from 16 to 35 million,” Wolfson told the Blade, Monday. “Because this is New York, people across the country and around the world are going to see and hear the stories that prove that families are helped and no one is hurt when marriage discrimination ends.”

“Over the next 18 months if we do our work right, we can hope to bring other states to the Freedom to Marry, from Maine to Oregon, and others in between,” Wolfson continued.  “But the key in all 50 states is to have the conversations, support the campaigns and continue the national momentum that New York has just boosted.”

Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and D.C., where same-sex marriages are currently licensed, make up approximately 5 percent of the U.S. population. However, with the introduction of New York at the end of July, 11.4 percent of American citizens will live in a jurisdiction that offers marriage licences to all couples, regardless of gender.

This does not include the 5.8 million residents of Maryland, which recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and the 81,406,229 who enjoy most or all of the same benefits and obligations as married couples in Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey and Nevada through Civil Unions or Domestic Partnership registries. Including these states brings the total number of Americans whose states officially recognize and protect same-sex relationships to nearly 40 percent.

With a jurisdiction the size of New York opening up the institution of marriage to all couples, same-sex partners throughout the country will likely be taking advantage of the new law, and the Empire State will become a top wedding destination for New York couples and couples from surrounding states alike.

Among those couples will be Carl Parker and Greg Wysocki of White Plains, N.Y. Parker 43 and his partner Wysocki 46, grew up in D.C. and until 2002, lived in suburban Maryland. They’ve been together nine years and now live in New York state, and both are eager to solemnize the relationship.

“We have a registered domestic partnership with Westchester County NY,” Parker told the Blade, “but plan on going to City Hall in White Plains as soon as possible to file for our marriage license. Our family and friends are so excited for us, they’re battling to be witnesses and a part of the ceremony. We are planning a larger even next year, since many of our friends are international and cant make it to New York in such short notice.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Duane, who is gay, was overjoyed at the bill’s passage.

“I want to commend the incredible leadership and passion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo who made good on his promise to make Marriage Equality the law in New York State,” the Senator said in a statement to the Blade on Monday. “I also want to thank my colleagues in the State Senate on both sides of the aisle, and in the Assembly, who took a courageous stand when it would have been far easier for them to turn away from what I know for many was a difficult issue.”

The law goes into effect on July 24, however, since that is a Sunday, couples are more likely to be able to get their licences on Monday, July 25. New York has a 24 hour waiting period after applying for the marriage license before the wedding can take place, therefore most likely, the first weddings will take place on Tuesday, July 26, barring special exceptions in cases where a judge waives the 24 hour waiting period, or County Clerks find a way to open on Sunday.

Of thirty Democratic Senators, only one voted against the bill, Ruben Diaz who, despite having a lesbian granddaughter, has been a strong opponent of marriage equality since long before voting against the failed 2009 marriage bill.

Of 32 Republicans, four voted for the bill, including Senators James Alesi, Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland and Mark Grisanti. Though the overwhelming majority of the 33 votes in favor of passage came from the Democratic side of the aisle, that four Republicans defected from their party, and that this bill was even allowed by Majority leader Skelos to come to a vote marks a sea change in the fight for extending these rights to more couples nation-wide.

The legislation included some amendments that would reduce the legal liability of religious organizations that refuse to solemnize any of the marriages that would be made legal under the new law. The amendments were added in the Senate on Friday, and before the Senate voted on the law, they were approved Friday afternoon by the lower house, which had already approved the bill 80-63 on June 15. The amendments would also allow non-profits affiliated with religious organizations to refuse to allow their facilities to be used in ceremonies related to same-sex weddings.

One major proponent of the law, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, released a statement on Saturday, the morning after the bill’s passage.

“Today’s passage in the New York State Senate of legislation recognizing the right of couples to marry regardless of their gender is a historic triumph for equality and freedom,” the statement reads in part. “New York has always been a leader in movements to extend freedom and equality to people who had been denied full membership in the American family.”

Many activists noted as crucial to victory the open collaboration between the various groups on the ground in New York. Some of the most visible groups on the front line of pushing public opinion and lobbying for votes were the Human Rights Campaign, as well as New York headquartered groups like Fight Back New York, Empire State Pride Agenda, and Freedom to Marry. Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry had played roles previously in other marriage victories, such as the victory for marriage equality in the District of Columbia, and worked in tandem with the state organizations to create an effective overall strategy.

“We congratulate everyone who worked so hard, with special thanks to Gov. Cuomo, to have New York join us in the District of Columbia as a jurisdiction that recognizes the rights of gays and lesbians to marry,” said Peter Rosenstein, president of Campaign for All D.C. Families. “The fight in New York shows that by working together with victory being the goal, rather than who can claim credit for the victory, LGBT organizations and their allies can be successful.”

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Police describe Wilton Manors Pride incident as ‘fatal traffic crash’

Pickup truck driver identified as 77-year-old man

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A screenshot from a video taken at the scene by Joey Spears. (Image courtesy of @pinto_spears, via Twitter.) Screenshot used with permission from South Florida Gay News.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday released additional information about an incident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

A press release notes a 77-year-old man who was “a participant who had ailments preventing him from walking the duration of the parade and was selected to drive as the lead vehicle” was behind the wheel of a 2011 white Dodge Ram pickup truck that struck the two people near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“As the vehicle began to move forward in anticipation for the start of the parade, the vehicle accelerated unexpectedly, striking two pedestrians,” reads the press release. “After striking the pedestrians, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into the fence of a business on the west side of the street.”

“The driver remained on scene and has been cooperative with investigators for the duration of the investigation,” further notes the press release. “A DUI investigation of the driver was conducted on scene and showed no signs of impairment.”

The press release confirms the driver and the two people he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus.

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue transported both victims to Broward Health Medical Center “with serious injuries.” The press release notes one of the victims died shortly after he arrived at the hospital.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which is leading the investigation, has not publicly identified the victims and the driver, but the press release describes the incident as a “fatal traffic crash.” The press release notes the second victim remains hospitalized at Broward Health Medical Center, but “is expected to survive.”

“While no arrests have been made, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department continues to investigate this incident and will not be releasing the names of the involved parties due to the status of the investigation,” says the press release. “The Fort Lauderdale Police Department asks anyone who may have witnessed this incident, who has not already spoken to investigators, to contact Traffic Homicide Investigator Paul Williams at (954) 828-5755.”

The pickup truck narrowly avoided U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade. Florida Congressman Ted Deutch was also nearby.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic accident that occurred when the Stonewall Pride Parade was just getting started,” said Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus President Justin Knight in a statement he issued after the incident. “Our fellow chorus members were those injured and the driver was also part of the chorus family.”

“To my knowledge, this was not an attack on the LGBTQ community,” added Knight. “We anticipate more details to follow and ask for the community’s love and support.”

Fort Lauderdale mayor initially described incident as anti-LGBTQ ‘terrorist attack’

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially described the incident as “a terrorist attack against the LGBT community,” without any official confirmation. Detective Ali Adamson of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Saturday confirmed to reporters that investigators are “working with” the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but stressed the “investigation is active and we are considering and evaluating all possibilities.”

“Last evening, at the start of what was to be a celebration of pride for the LGBT community and commemoration of our hard-won victories for equality, our community faced the worst of tragedies. The grief of our LGBT community — and greater Fort Lauderdale as a whole — is palpable,” said Trantalis on Sunday in a statement he posted to his Facebook page.

“I was an eyewitness to the horrifying events. It terrorized me and all around me. I reported what I saw to law enforcement and had strong concerns about what transpired — concerns for the safety of my community. I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away,” he added.

Trantalis added “law enforcement took what appeared obvious to me and others nearby and investigated further — as is their job.”

“As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control,” he said. “As a result, one man died, two others were injured and the lives of two members of Congress were at risk. My heart breaks for all impacted by this tragedy.”

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ACLU and Justice Department to jointly challenge anti-Trans laws

Recently passed anti-transgender laws in West Virginia and Arkansas violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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U.S. Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building (Photo Credit: GSA U.S. Government)

WASHINGTON – In court documents filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia and in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, the U.S. Department of Justice, in Statement of Interest filings, joined the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), arguing that recently passed anti-transgender laws in West Virginia and Arkansas violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The suits filed by the ACLU challenges an Arkansas law that bans gender-affirming care for transgender youth and a West Virginia law banning transgender youth from participating in school sports.

Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBTQ & HIV Project, issued the following statement responding to the Department of Justice submitting a statement of interest in two federal courts supporting transgender youth;

“Today’s filings from the Department of Justice send a powerful message that discrimination against transgender youth is not just wrong, it is also plainly unconstitutional. These filings from the Department of Justice confirm what we have been telling legislatures all year: Banning trans youth from sports and denying trans youth health care violates the Constitution and federal law. We hope that state legislatures finally get the message.” 

Law and Crime reported that in the West Virginia case filing, the Justice Dept. argued that House Bill 3293, which bans transgender athletes at public schools from competing in female sports at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level, violates both the Equal Protection Clause and  Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by the parents of transgender girl who said their daughter was unlawfully prohibited from trying out for the school’s cross-country track team because of the measure.

In Arkansas, the Justice Dept. backed an ACLU-filed lawsuit challenging a state law (Act 626) which bans gender-affirming health care for transgender youths. The DOJ also claims that state ban violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Law & Crime reported.

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Immigrant rights groups demand ICE release transgender, HIV-positive detainees

Letter notes Roxsana Hernández case

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The Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., is a privately-run facility that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to house some of its detainees. Eight immigrant rights groups have demanded ICE release all transgender people and people with HIV in their custody. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Eight immigrant advocacy groups this week demanded the release of all transgender and HIV-positive people who are in immigrant detention facilities.

Immigration Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, the Center for Victims of Torture, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Mijente and the National Immigrant Justice Center made the request in a letter they sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson on June 16.

“As you know, transgender and HIV-positive people are severely suffering in U.S. immigration detention facilities,” reads the letter. “Those who do not perish from mortally deficient medical negligence are regularly mistreated, isolated and sexually assaulted.”

The letter notes DHS “for years” has “attempted to create conditions of confinement that are safe for these historically disenfranchised minorities.”

“This has been a fool’s errand,” it says. “Under both Democrat and Republican leadership, DHS has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars attempting to overcome a simple and inevitable truth: It is not possible for the U.S. government to house transgender and HIV-positive asylum seekers safely. Every progressive policy, every well-meaning protocol and every specialized facility has utterly failed. This has to stop. It is in your exclusive power to put an end to this ongoing human rights atrocity.”

“What makes this situation even more intolerable, is that the vast majority of the transgender and HIV-positive people suffering in immigration detention fled to the U.S. to escape persecution and torture,” adds the letter. “To these asylum seekers, the U.S. is more than a symbol of liberty. It is one of the few places in the world where they may hope to build a safer future. And yet, by detaining trans and HIV-positive people in such inhumane and unsafe conditions, the U.S. government is subjecting them to some of the same kinds of mistreatment they sought to escape.”

The groups in their letter demand ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection “to immediately release all transgender and HIV-positive people in their custody” and “review its system for identifying transgender and HIV-positive individuals, and work with stakeholders to ensure that it is effective and safe.” The groups also seek the creation of a policy “that deems all transgender and HIV-positive individuals non-detainable.”

The letter notes the case of Roxsana Hernández, a trans asylum seeker from Honduras with HIV who died in a New Mexico hospital on May 25, 2018, while she was in ICE custody.

Hernández’s family in a lawsuit it has filed against the federal government and five private companies who were responsible for Hernández’s care allege she did not have adequate access to medical care and other basic needs from the time she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego on May 9, 2018, to her arrival at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run facility in Milan, N.M., a week later.

ICE in 2017 opened a unit for trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center. It closed last year.

A picture of Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV who died in ICE custody in 2018, hangs on a wall inside the offices of Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa, an LGBTQ advocacy group in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The letter also notes the case of Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans woman with HIV from El Salvador who asked for asylum in the U.S. in 2019 after she suffered persecution in her home country because of her gender identity.

Medina was in ICE custody at the privately-run Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., until her transfer to a hospital in nearby El Paso, Texas, on May 28, 2019. ICE on the same day released Medina from their custody.

Medina died three days later.

“She became worse, worse, worse,” Medina’s mother, Patricia Medina de Barrientos, told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador that took place a few weeks after Medina’s death. “She asked for help because she was a nurse, but they refused. She was denied help. There was no medical attention.”

Johana “Joa” Medina León, a transgender woman with HIV from El Salvador, died on June 1, 2019, at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, three days after ICE released her from their custody. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

The letter also includes testimonials from dozens of other trans and/or HIV-positive people who say they suffered physical abuse and survived sexual assault while in ICE custody. They also allege they did not receive adequate health care — including access to hormones and antiretroviral drugs — while in detention.

“Throwing LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum seekers into prison is cruel, expensive and dangerous. For transgender and HIV-positive people, it can even be deadly,” said Immigration Equality Policy Director Bridget Crawford in a statement. “In response to years of consistently documented abuses against the community, the government has implemented ineffective half-measures that have utterly failed. That is why we have demanded that DHS release all transgender and HIV-positive people immediately. No one should ever be locked into prison because they fled persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Doing so during a pandemic is a human rights atrocity.”

Immigration Equality is among the groups that have previously demanded ICE release all trans people who are in their custody. Advocacy organizations have also called for the release of people with HIV in ICE custody, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DHS, which oversees ICE, has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the June 16 letter.

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