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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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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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Caitlyn Jenner releases campaign ad and social media reacts- ‘enough already’

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MALIBU – Former Trump presidential campaign manager Brad Parscale released the first campaign advert Tuesday for reality television celebrity Caitlyn Jenner who is running to replace California Governor Gavin Newsom in the recall election race.

The ad drew an immediate and overwhelmingly negative reaction for exasperated social media users, many who identify as LGBTQ, decrying the reality TV personality getting into politics.

Jenner, 71, who is Trans herself, had drawn a firestorm of criticism over the past few days after she was caught outside a Malibu coffee spot Saturday and made remarks to a reporter from celebrity tabloid media outlet TMZ, saying that she didn’t think it was fair to have trans women athletes competing in girls’ and women’s sports.

In Tuesday’s advert, Jenner claims to be a “compassionate disrupter” and offers to rebuild and reopen California while in imagery silently alludes that Newsom in conjunction with ‘big government’ has somehow destroyed the state.

“I came here with a dream 48 years ago, to be the greatest athlete in the world,” she says in the ad, noting her own history in the state. “Now I enter a different kind of race, arguably my most important one yet: to save California.”

Reaction to the ad has been brutal. (Sampling below)

Another challenger to Newsom also released a campaign video Tuesday Sacramento’s Fox affiliate KTXL reported.

California businessman John Cox, who has challenged Newsom previously for the governorship launched his Meet the Beast Bus Tour Tuesday morning at Miller Regional Park in Sacramento. Cox brought a live bear with him.

Throughout the news conference, Cox attacked Newsom’s handling of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, water management and strain on the power grid.

Cox lost the 2018 general election to Newsom by 23 points.

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National transgender military advocacy group elects new president

Bree Fram has been SPARTA member since 2014

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Lt. Col. Bree Fram (Photo courtesy of SPARTA)

SPARTA, the nation’s leading transgender military service advocacy organization, announced Saturday that it had elected Bree Fram as its new board chair and president of the organization.

She has been a member of SPARTA since 2014 and has served on the board of directors since April 2018, most recently as vice president. Fram is also a lieutenant colonel and astronautical engineer in the U.S. Air Force and will soon be recommissioning into the U. S. Space Force.

She is currently a student at the U.S. Naval War College with a follow-on assignment to the Department of Defense at the Pentagon.

“I’m honored and humbled to serve as SPARTA president on behalf of so many amazing transgender service member,” said Fram. “We will do our utmost to continue SPARTA’s a rich history of incredible dedication and progress. My heartfelt thanks go to the previous leaders of the organization, including Sue Fulton, Jacob Eleazar, Blake Dremann, and Emma Shinn, and all our members for the incredible achievements of the past eight years. Despite setbacks, their desire to make transgender military service possible is reality again as of yesterday as the new Department of Defense Policy went into effect.”

The immediate past president, Emma Shinn served through a challenging time as President Trump’s ban on transgender service went into effect in April 2019. Her leadership rallied the organization and ensured SPARTA remained dedicated to positive change.

With the January 2021 executive order from President Biden directing the Defense Department to re-implement open transgender service, she and the organization celebrated a major success that will benefit all members of SPARTA and the nation.

“Leading SPARTA for the past two years has been a tremendous honor and privilege,” stated Shinn as her time at the head of SPARTA came to an end. She continued, “I am confident that SPARTA will continue to help our military and nation recognize the value trans service members bring to the mission. I am thankful for the opportunity SPARTA has given me to work with leaders in the DoD, legislators, and partner groups to make open trans service a reality again. I look forward to continuing to work with this amazing group of people under Bree’s leadership. I am excited for the future of our organization and nation.”

In a press release the organization noted that Fram’s remarks highlighted the fact that SPARTA’s mission is not over. “Although transgender service members have already proven they belong on the battlefield and here at home,” she said. “We need to ensure they can’t be erased in the future by an administration set on turning back the clock. Beyond ensuring our members can thrive in their careers, my top priority is to ensure the opportunity to serve is enshrined in law.”

Fram spoke on additional goals for SPARTA during her tenure and listed the following:

·  Minimize the administrative burden and career impact of transition in the military

·  Advocate for inclusion of transgender voices in policy making

·  Push for inclusive policies regarding intersex and non-binary military service

“All Americans who are otherwise qualified to serve in the military should have the opportunity to do so,” Fram summarized. “This nation will be better and better defended with inclusive policies that enable the military to draw upon the best talent this nation has to offer.”

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