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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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Virginia

Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Federal Government

Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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National

LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls

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From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

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