The U.S. Senate made history on Monday by confirming for the first time ever an openly gay male to serve as a federal judge.
By a vote of 80-13, the Senate confirmed J. Paul Oetken, whom President Obama nominated in January to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. A simple majority was required to confirm Oetken.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, praised the Senate for what he said was a “historic vote” in confirming an openly gay male to the federal bench.
“Confirmation of Paul Oetken serves as a role model for all LGBT people interested in serving on the judiciary and shows LGBT youth that hard work pays off,” Solmonese said.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, also commended the Senate for confirming Obama’s nomination in a statement, although he made no mention of the nominee’s sexual orientation.
“The president welcomes the confirmation of Mr. Oetken and is confident that he will serve the American people with distinction from the district court bench,” Inouye said.
Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said the LGBT community still has “a lot of ‘firsts’ to achieve” and the Oetken confirmation is “great news.” The Victory Fund has been advocating for LGBT appointments in the Obama administration through its Presidential Appointments Project.
“It wasn’t even two decades ago that openly LGBT people had a hard time even being considered for a presidential appointment, and some who got nominated faced fierce opposition in the Senate,” Dison said. “Today, more than 200 LGBT Americans have been appointed by President Obama, and more than 25 of those were nominated for Senate-confirmable positions.”
No Democrat voted against the Oetken nomination. The Republican votes against the nomination were Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jerry Moran (R-Ky.) James Risch (R-Idaho), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Senators who didn’t vote on the nomination were Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and David Vitter (R-La.).
Oetken is first openly gay male to be confirmed to the federal bench, but not the first openly LGBT person. U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts, an out lesbian who currently sits on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is considered the first openly LGBT person to sit on a federal court. She was appointed during the Clinton Administration.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled against California’s ban on same-sex marriage Proposition 8 last year, has also come out as gay. However, he only told reporters about his sexual orientation after he retired from the bench.
With only two openly gay people confirmed by the Senate to the federal bench, Solmonese said greater representation of LGBT people is still needed on the judiciary.
“The federal bench is greatly lacking LGBT diversity and with thousands of qualified LGBT attorneys in the [United States], there is no reason why the federal bench should not better reflect the composition of our country,” Solmonese said.
The Senate confirmed Oetken to the position after 30 minutes of debate in which senators from both sides of the aisle praised Oetken and encouraged senators to vote for his nomination.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who recommended the nomination to Obama, praised Oetken on the Senate floor for his excellence in legal work and the moderation of his views, but also made special note of his sexual orientation.
“As the first openly gay man to be confirmed as a federal judge and to serve on the federal bench, he will be a symbol of how much we have achieved as a country in just the last few decades,” Schumer said. “And importantly, he will give hope to many talented young lawyers who, until now, thought their paths might be limited because of their sexual orientation. When Paul becomes Judge Oetken, he will be living proof to all those young lawyers that it really does get better.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved Oetken unanimously by voice vote in April, also extolled how the confirmation of Oetken and said people should be proud of President Obama “for taking this critical step to break down another barrier and increase diversity in the federal judiciary.”
“All of us in the Senate can also be proud that Mr. Oetken was reported with the support of every member of the Judiciary Committee — Democratic and Republican — and will be confirmed by what I believe will be an overwhelming vote in the Senate,” Leahy said. “It is a sign that, as a nation, we have taken a new and welcome step on the path of ensuring that our Federal judiciary better reflects all Americans.”
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also spoke favorably of Oetken on the Senate floor — calling the nominee “qualified” and noting the nominee hails from his home state of Iowa — while encouraging other senators to vote for the nomination. However, Grassley didn’t mention Oetken’s sexual orientation on the floor of the Senate.
“I support this nomination and congratulate him on his professional accomplishments,” Grassley said.
Oetken has practiced law at Debevoise and Plimpton, and since 2004, served as associate general counsel at Cablevision. From 1999 to 2001, Oetken was associate counsel to President Clinton and specialized in First Amendment issues, presidential appointments, ethics, civil rights, and legal policy.
Additionally, Oetken served in various capacities as an LGBT advocate. The nominee has been involved with Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union. Oetken also co-authored a U.S. Supreme Court friend-of-the-court brief in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws throughout the country.
Oetken isn’t the only openly gay judicial nominee that the Senate has advanced closer to a position on the federal bench. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved by a vote of 14-4 the nomination of Alison Nathan, an out lesbian whom Obama also selected to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Another openly gay judicial nominee, Edward DuMont, has been nominated for a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to take up his nomination.
UPDATE: In a statement provided to the Washington Blade, Hagan, one of the senators who didn’t vote on the Oetken nomination, praised the Senate confirmation of the appointee.
“I applaud the overwhelming bipartisan support for the nomination of Paul Oetken to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Hagan said. “A great day for the LGBT community and the nation.”
Sadie Weiner, a Hagan spokesperson, said the North Carolina Democrat didn’t vote on the Oetken nomination because the senator was delayed while traveling by aircraft.
“On Monday, Senator Hagan was in Charlotte to speak to a camp for high-school aged young women interested in pursuing studies and careers in high technology industries,” Weiner said. “Her scheduled flight from Charlotte back to Washington was delayed several times causing her to miss the Senate vote on Judge Oetken’s nomination.”
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
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.
Matthew Shepard honored at National Cathedral
Daylong services held to mark his 45th birthday
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.
‘Very familiar’: Mark Glaze’s story brings into focus mental health for gay men
Experts see common story as LGBTQ people enter middle age
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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