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New hope for bi-national gay couples

ICE closes proceedings against gay Venezuelan national

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Henry Velandia (right) and his spouse, Josh Vandiver (photo courtesy Lavi Soloway)

LGBT advocates working on immigration issues are hoping the cancelled deportation this week of a gay foreign national living in the United States could be promising news for bi-national same-sex couples in danger of separation.

On Wednesday, Henry Velandia, a gay Venezuelan national, and his spouse, Josh Vandiver, a U.S. citizen, received formal notification from U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement saying the agency would no longer pursue deportation proceedings against Velandia.

After coming to the United States in 2002 legally on a visitor’s visa, Velandia faced potential deportation after he remained in the United States after his visa expired in six months.

To allow him to remain in the United States, Vandiver sought to obtain a green card for his spouse, whom he legally married Connecticut, through a marriage-based application. However, ICE had informed the couple the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, prevented the agency from issuing Velandia a green card.

On May 6, Velandia faced a hearing before an immigration judge, who could have ordered deportation, separating him from Vandiver for at least 10 years. However, Riefkohl halted deportation proceedings against Velandia because of a recent order that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued on the previous day to vacate similar deportation proceedings in the case for another New York same-sex bi-national couple.

The notification that the couple received on Wednesday closes the deportation proceedings and marks the first time ICE has administratively closed the such proceedings against the spouse of a gay U.S. citizen.

In a statement provided to the Washington Blade, Vandiver said the notification of the decision on Wednesday was “the second happiest day of my life, second only to the day Henry became my husband.”

“On Wednesday, Henry and I learned that the government was no longer trying to tear us apart and destroy our marriage,” Vandiver said. “Now we can start building our future together. This is the fruit of a hard-fought struggle over the past year to bring recognition to the terrible harm DOMA is causing same-sex binational couples.”

“Wednesday’s decision closing Henry’s deportation case is the first sign of hope that these deportations are finally ending and it’s our deepest hope that it has a positive impact across the country for all couples like us,” Vandiver added.

The new development has LGBT rights supporters working on immigration issues looking to the Velandia case and Vandiver to have an impact to help other deportation proceedings facing bi-national same-sex couples living in the United States.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, also said his organization intends to press the administration to make sure other couples that are facing similar separation under immigration law are treated the same as Velandia and Vandiver.

“We have married bi-national couples in places like Vermont, New York and California that are facing separation before the end of this summer,” Ralls said. “We expect that ICE’s message in Henry and Josh’s case is they are no longer prioritizing the deportation of gay spouses and we expect other couples to receive the same treatment.”

Lavi Soloway, a New York-based immigration lawyer who handled Velandia’s case, said the decision to close proceedings in this situation shows the administration has leeway to stop deportations in similar cases.

Soloway, founder of Stop the Deportations, said he plans to draw on the Velandia decision when he appears in a San Francisco immigration court on July 13 to stop the potential deportation of another foreign national, Alex Benshimol, who married his partner Douglas Gentry.

“It demonstrates the ability of ICE to use its prosecutorial guidelines to protect bi-national couples from being torn apart by deportation,” Soloway said. “The circumstances are very similar.”

But whether this case will have an impact on others remains to be seen. Gillian Anderson, an ICE spokesperson, confirmed that her agency filed a motion to close proceedings in the Velandia case, but maintained her agency continues to enforce the law.

“There has been no change in policy with regards to deportation cases affected by the Defense of Marriage Act,” she said. “Pursuant to the Attorney General’s guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the executive branch, including [the Department of Homeland Security], will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it or there is a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional.”

Observers say the decision to close proceedings in the Velandia case could be related to a memo ICE issued on June 17 listing situations in which enforcement agents may decide to exercise prosecutorial authority and dropped proceedings against undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

While the memo doesn’t explicitly offer protections to gay couples, it states undocumented immigrants with “family relationships” in the United States, or individuals with a “U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse” may be considered for discretion.

Ralls said the similar timing of the distribution of the memo and the decision to terminate proceedings against Velandia was noteworthy and said it could mark an “unofficial” change in administration policy.

“I believe we’re beginning to see some dots being connected that can lead us to the assumption that there is now an unofficial policy that the White House does not want to see these couples torn apart,” Ralls said. “I certainly hope that’s the case, and more and more, I think we’re seeing a gradual evolution leading in that direction.”

But Soloway said the new guidelines are similar to memos that were already in place even before the Obama administration emphasizing the deportation of criminals and others who would endanger the safety of Americans should be a priority as opposed to law-abiding immigrants or immigrants that have family relationships in the United States.

“So the June 17 memo is a clarification that really gives much more detailed guidance than we had previously, but there’s no departure in the June 17 memo from the existing guidelines,” Soloway said. “It just offers more examples and a little bit more guidance than what previously existed.”

Even with ICE agents allowed to exercise prosecutorial authority to discontinue deportation proceedings against gay foreign nationals in relationships with U.S. citizens, LGBT immigration groups are still seeking a blanket moratorium on these proceedings to ensure they stay together in the United States.

Ralls said the Obama administration has already set a precedent to suspend deportations of undocumented immigrants in relationships with U.S. citizens. In 2009, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano granted deferred action to undocumented immigrant widows who were married to U.S. citizens for fewer than two years before to their spouse’s death.

“They should receive explicit direction from the White House to [issue a moratorium], and we’re not going to step back from that call until we have an assurance that none of the families in this situation will be torn apart,” Ralls said.

Soloway said the memos on exercising prosecutorial authority are helpful and offers the U.S. government “the opportunity to do the right thing on a case-by-case basis,” but still isn’t the more clearly articulated moratorium that LGBT advocates are seeking.

“Nobody’s fate should be subject to the discretion of a specific ICE officer or agent,” Soloway said. “There should be a policy coming the administration that specifies that these deportations should be halted.”

The fight to obtain this moratorium could be an uphill battle. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has indicated that President Obama believes legislative action on immigration issues is needed — as opposed to a moratorium — and “he can’t just wave a wand and change the law.”

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. mrslarkins

    July 2, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Help!! We/I need an answer on this NOW so that my wife and I can return to the US from the UK once and for all. These are peoples lives here.

  2. Tim

    July 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Actually, he does have the magic wand so to speak, in that he can issue orders that stop the deportations or simply grant the immigrant partners American citizenship outright. I’m glad Obama’s administration is moving in the right direction, but like the issue of marriage equality, he appears to be dragging his feet and “Evolving” on the issue. We also can’t wait for the Republican controlled House to repeal the damn Defense of Marriage Act when a Democratic Congress couldn’t get the job done despite large majorities in both the House & Senate.

  3. Naomi

    July 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    We make it difficult for anyone who is a foreign national seeking to stay in this country legally especially of they are “different”, by whose standards “different” is, is beyond me. I do applaud this wonderful loving couple who fought so passionately and vigorously and all those who supported them.

  4. John John

    August 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Seriously, a president is more powerful on his 2nd term, if we elect him as president he will do it.. We just have to give him 8 years.. We gave old man Bush 8 years…. let’s give Obama eight years to fix Bush’s mistakes plus more… I am glad Obama is thinking about it, before just rushing and doing things in a quick hurry. Trust me we don’t want things to be overlooked… fyl

  5. Jenni R John

    April 11, 2013 at 6:25 am

    I need your help.

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Minnesota

Minnesota middle school principal ousted for displaying Pride flag

Critics ramped up attacks on the career educator- some compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students

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Screenshot via Marshall Public Schools, YouTube Channel

MARSHALL, Mn. — A former middle school principal in Minnesota who lost her job after displaying a Pride flag alleges in a federal lawsuit that the school system retaliated against her for supporting LGBTQ+ students.

Mary Kay Thomas filed the complaint against Marshall Public Schools in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota Tuesday after anti-LGBTQ+ middle school staff, parents, students and local clergy began efforts to remove the Pride flag that she put up in her middle school’s cafeteria in 2020 as a part of an inclusiveness effort.

According to the lawsuit, Thomas has been a teacher and principal for more than three decades with a long track record of success. She held the principal position at Marshall Middle School for 15 years, receiving contract renewals, pay raises and praise for her performance.

“But when Thomas decided to display an LGBTQ Pride Flag in the school cafeteria in early 2020, everything changed,” reads the complaint. 

Thomas refused to take down the Pride flag as critics ramped up attacks on the career educator. The lawsuit alleges that some even compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students. 

“Sadly, the Marshall School District has sided with these critics,” her lawyers wrote. 

What followed was an “escalating series of adverse actions” taken by the Marshall School District, said the lawsuit. She claims that the school targeted her by threatening her employment, conducting a “bad-faith” investigation, putting her on indefinite involuntary leave, suspending her without pay and putting a notice of deficiency in her personnel file. 

The complaint says that the deficiencies were “false, distorted, and/or related to Thomas’s association with members of the LGBTQ community.”

Thomas also claims that the District attempted to get her to quit by removing her as principal and assigning her to a “demeaning ‘special projects’ position.”

At one point, Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams, who is named as a defendant in the case, told Thomas he could “make this all go away” if she stepped down, according to the complaint. 

The school removed the Pride flag in August 2021 after settling a lawsuit brought by residents who opposed it. 

The Blade reached out to Williams for comment but did not receive a response. However, according to the Marshall Independent, Williams did release a statement on the matter. 

“Marshall Public Schools is committed to the education of every child and has strong policies and practices in place against discrimination, against both students and staff members. The school district is committed to creating a respectful, inclusive, and safe learning and working environment for students, staff and our families,” Williams said. “While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct. The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”

In addition, Thomas alleges that she resisted unwanted sexual advancements from school board member Bill Swope. She claims she told Williams about the sexual harassment.

As of Thursday, the school has not filed a response, and no hearing has been scheduled yet. 

Thomas is seeking a jury trial, damages and reinstatement as principal of Marshall Middle School.

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Matthew Shepard honored at National Cathedral

Daylong services held to mark his 45th birthday

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Matthew Shepard, gay news, Washington Blade
Matthew Shepard Thanksgiving and Celebration at the National Cathedral in 2018. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The parents of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a 1998 hate crime that drew international attention to anti-LGBTQ violence, were among those attending a day of religious services commemorating Shepard’s 45th birthday on Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral.

The services, which the Cathedral organized in partnership with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, included tributes to Shepard at the Cathedral’s St. Joseph’s Chapel, where his remains were interred in a ceremony in 2018.  

“Matthew Shepard’s death is an enduring tragedy affecting all people and should serve as an ongoing call to the nation to reject anti-LGBTQ bigotry and instead embrace each of our neighbors for who they are,” the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral, said at the time of Shepard’s interment.

“In the years since Matthew’s death, the Shepard family has shown extraordinary courage and grace in keeping his spirit and memory alive, and the Cathedral is honored and humbled to serve as his final resting place,” Hollerith said.

The first of the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard began at 7 a.m. with prayers, scripture readings, and music led by the Cathedral’s Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan. The service was live streamed on YouTube.

An online, all-day service was also held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. that Cathedral officials said was intended to “connect people around the world to honor Shepard and the LGBTQ community and pray for a more just world.”

The Shepard services concluded with a 5:30 p.m. in-person remembrance of Shepard in the Cathedral’s Nave, its main worship space. Among those attending were Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who have said they created the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue their son’s support for equality for all.

A statement released by the Cathedral says a bronze plaque honoring Matthew Shepard was installed in St. Joseph’s Chapel to mark his final resting place at the time Shepard was interred there in 2018. 
Following the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard, the Adams Morgan gay bar Pitchers hosted a reception for Dennis and Judy Shepard, according to Pitchers’ owner David Perruzza.

One of the two men charged with Shepard’s murder, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty to the charge after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty for him. The second of the two men charged, Aaron McKinney, was convicted of the murder following a lengthy jury trial.

Prosecutors said McKinney repeatedly and fatally struck Shepard in the head with the barrel of a handgun after he and Henderson tied Shepard to a wooden fence in a remote field outside Laramie, Wy., on Oct. 6, 1998. Police and prosecutors presented evidence at McKinney’s trial that McKinney and Henderson met Shepard at a bar in Laramie on that day and lured him into their car, where they drove him to the field where authorities said McKinney fatally assaulted him.

Shepard died six days later at a hospital in Ft. Collins, Colo., where he was taken after being found unconscious while still tied to the fence.

In a dramatic courtroom scene following the jury’s guilty verdict for McKinney, Dennis Shepard urged the judge to spare McKinney’s life by not handing down a death sentence. He said that out of compassion and in honor of his son’s life, McKinney should be allowed to live. The judge sentenced McKinney to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the same sentence given to Henderson.

(VIDEO COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL VIA YOUTUBE)
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‘Very familiar’: Mark Glaze’s story brings into focus mental health for gay men

Experts see common story as LGBTQ people enter middle age

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Mark Glaze's death by suicide is bringing into focus mental health issues faced by gay men.

The death by suicide at age 51 of Mark Glaze, a gun reform advocate who was close to many in D.C.’s LGBTQ community, is striking a chord with observers who see his struggles with mental health and alcoholism as reflective of issues facing many gay men as they enter middle age.

Glaze’s story resonates even though much of the attention on mental health issues in the LGBTQ community is devoted to LGBTQ youth going through the coming out process and transgender people who face disproportionate violence and discrimination within the LGBTQ community in addition to a growing focus on LGBTQ seniors entering later stages of life.

Randy Pumphrey, senior director of behavioral health for the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Health, said Glaze’s story was “very familiar” as a tale of mental health issues facing gay men in the middle stage of life.

“You’re talking about a gay-identified man who is in his 50s, somebody who has struggled with alcohol misuse — or maybe abuse or dependence— and also depression,” Pumphrey said. “I think that there has always been a higher incidence of suicide for men in general in their middle age 50 and above, but this increases when you’re talking about gay men, and also if you’re talking about gay men who suffer with mental health issues, or substance use disorder issues.”

Several sources close to Glaze said his death did not come as a surprise. His family has been open about his death by suicide last month while he was in jail after allegedly fleeing the scene of a car accident in Pennsylvania and a long history of depression and alcoholism.

Pumphrey said Glaze’s situation coping with mental health issues as well as the consequences for his role in the accident, were reflective of someone who might “begin to perceive that this is an issue that they can’t get away from, or the consequences they can’t get away from exposure and that can lead somebody to a fatal outcome.”

“My experience is that there have been gay men that I have worked with over the years — particularly in their 50s and early 60s — it’s taken them a long time to recognize the severity of the problem, whether it’s their depression or their substance abuse, and then they find themselves in a very precarious situation because of shame, and so they may not necessarily seek help even though they need help.”

A 2017 study in the American Journal of Men’s Health found the prevalence of depression among gay men is three times higher than the general adult population, which means they are a subgroup at high risk for suicide.

The study found “scant research exists about gay men’s health beyond sexual health issues,” most often with HIV, which means issues related to depression and suicidality “are poorly understood.”

“Gay men’s health has often been defined by sexual practices, and poorly understood are the intersections of gay men’s physical and mental health with social determinants of health including ethnicity, locale, education level and socioeconomic status,” the study says.

The study acknowledged being male itself is one factor incorporated in addressing mental health issues in this subgroup because “regardless of sexual orientation, men can be reluctant to seek help for mental health problems.” Another study quoted in the report found 23 percent, less than one quarter of gay men, who attempted suicide sought mental health or medical treatment.

In addition to mental health issues facing gay men in Glaze’s age group, others saw his situation as a common story in the culture of Washington, which is notorious for celebrating and prioritizing success with little tolerance for personal setbacks.

In the case of Glaze, who had sparred on Fox News with Tucker Carlson as executive director of Everytown for Gun Safety, the threat of exposure and threat to his career may have seemed overwhelmingly daunting.

Steven Fisher, who knew Glaze since the 1990s and worked with him at the D.C.-based Raben Group, said one factor that contributed to Glaze’s condition was “he could only see upward in terms of his career trajectory.”

“We saw that in him and it had me very concerned because I felt like he might end up in a place that wasn’t good once he left Everytown, and that’s tragically and sadly what happened,” Fisher said. “I think he just had trouble adjusting to what is usually a roller coaster ride, I think, in people’s careers, especially in the D.C. world.”

Along with Glaze, Fisher has worked on gun issues for Everytown, which has been a client of his since 2015 after he worked for them in 2012 after the Newtown shooting.

Compounding the challenges that Glaze faced is a culture among many gay men focused on sexuality, which prioritizes youth and appearance and presents problems as those qualities start fading when men enter middle age.

Fisher said another factor in Glaze’s condition was social media, pointing out public perception about his identity was important to him.

“If you look at his social media — I think this is instructive to the rest of us — a lot of the comments are about how Mark was so good looking and he was charming, and he was so smart and so funny,” Fisher said. “That’s all true, and that’s why he was very appealing to many people, but those qualities don’t really tell you everything about a person. In fact, one could argue they’re superficial in a way, and people have to remember people are more complicated than what you see on social media.”

One issue for gay men facing mental health issues as they enter middle age is they don’t have the same resources as those available to LGBTQ youth, who have been more of a focus in terms of mental health issues in the LGBTQ community.

Among the leading organizations for LGBTQ youth is the Trevor Project, which has resources and a hotline for LGBTQ youth facing mental health crises.

Kevin Wong, vice president of communications for the Trevor Project, said his organization would be receptive to an older LGBTQ person who calls the hotline, but ultimately would refer that person elsewhere.

“If an LGBTQ person above the age of 25 reaches out to The Trevor Project’s crisis services for support and expresses suicidal thoughts, our counselors will listen, actively and with empathy, and work with them to de-escalate and form a safety plan, like any other contact,” Wong said. “However, our organization has remained youth-centric since its founding and our volunteer crisis counselors are specifically trained with younger LGBTQ people in mind.”

Much attention is focused on the coming out process for LGBTQ people, a time that can upend close relationships — as well as reaffirm them — and a process more commonly associated with youth.

Ilan Meyer, senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said data is scant about suicide rates among LGBTQ people, but information on suicide attempts shows they tend to be at a heightened rate for LGBTQ people as they go through the coming out process.

“What we do know is that there is a connection with the coming out period at whatever age coming out happens,” Meyer said. “And so, we see a proximity to coming out whatever age that happened, we see the suicide attempts proceeding and after that.”

Suicide attempts, Meyer said, are much higher for LGBTQ people than the population at large. The self-reported rate of suicide attempts in the U.S. population as a whole, Meyer said, is 2.4 percent, but that figure changes to 20 to 30 percent among LGBTQ youth, which about to 10 to 15 times greater.

Black and Latino people, Meyer said, have been less likely to make suicide attempts in their lifetimes, although he added that may be changing in recent years.

With the primary focus on mental health issues elsewhere in the LGBTQ community, Glaze’s death raises questions about whether sufficient resources are available to people in his demographic, or whether individuals are willing to seek out care options that are available.

Meyer said whether the resources for suicidal ideologies among LGBTQ people are sufficient and what more could be done “is the the million-dollar question.”

“It’s definitely not determined by just mental health,” Meyer said. “So many people have depression, but they don’t attempt suicide. And so, then the difficult thing is to find the right moment to intervene and what that intervention should be.”

Meyer said much of the focus on mental health is on a person’s last moments before making a suicide attempt, such as making suicide hotlines readily available, but some of the stressors he sees “are more chronic, ongoing things related to homophobia and the kind of experience that LGBT people have as they come to terms to realize their sexual identity.”

Pumphrey said another factor in mental health issues not to be underestimated for almost two years now is “dealing with the COVID and loneliness epidemic,” which appears to have no immediate end in sight with the emergence of the Omnicron variant.

“There was always this piece of sometimes the experience of being in your 50s and early 60s…we talk about the invisibility factor,” Pumphrey said. “But when there’s just this sense of being disconnected from community, especially in the early days of the pandemic, and kind of being locked down, I think that just raised the risk.”

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