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National news in brief: August 25

Chely Wright weds, Iowa teen killed in bias attack and more

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Gay country singer Chely Wright is no longer a ‘single white female,’ after marrying Lauren Blitzer this week. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Chely Wright marries partner in Connecticut

HARTFORD, Conn. — Country singer Chely Wright, who came out in early 2010, married Lauren Blitzer in a small, private ceremony at the Connecticut home of Blitzer’s aunt on Aug. 20, according to People magazine.

Wright met Blitzer shortly after coming out. The two women wore matching gowns by J. Crew Bridal and exchanged vows before both a rabbi and a Christian minister, reflecting both women’s religious beliefs.

Blitzer, who is Jewish, is the development director at Mitchell Gold’s LGBT religious civil rights advocacy group Faith in America. Wright — who speaks openly about her strong Christian convictions — sits on the organization’s Board of Directors.

George Michael announces split from partner

PRAGUE — Meanwhile, while on tour in Europe, gay singer George Michael announced mid-concert to fans that he and long-time partner Kenny Goss have been separated for more than two years, despite denying allegations on many occasions.

According to the Associated Press, Michael announced to the opening night of his “Symphonica” tour, “Kenny and I haven’t been together for two and a half years… It’s time to be honest.”

Iowa teen killed by attackers shouting ‘faggot’

WATERLOO, Iowa — A deadly mob beating of an Iowa teen will not be ruled a hate crime by police because of “bad blood.”

Though two friends witnessed 19-year-old Marcellus Richard Andrews being attacked by a large group of men and women who kicked and punched the defenseless teen while shouting “faggot” and feminizing the teen’s name to “Mercedes,” police blamed the attack on a longer-running feud, the Des Moines Register reported.

Police spokesperson Lt. Michael McNamee told the Register that the fight was unfortunate but not a hate crime.

“We’ve done multiple interviews and we have heard those allegations, but this was not because of his persuasion or the perception of his persuasion,” McNamee told the Register. “These were all people who knew each other, and there was some bad blood between the two parties involved.”

Civil rights groups across Iowa expressed outrage this week over the decision not to pursue hate crime charges.

Illinois college first to ask orientation of applicants

ELMHURST, Ill. — A private four-year college in Illinois will become the first in the nation to ask new applicants about sexual orientation to better understand the school’s population.

According to Campus Progress, an organization dedicated to studying LGBT populations on college campuses, Elmhurst will add the voluntary question to applications this year alongside other voluntary questions like religious affiliation.

“Being able to reach out to LGBT students intentionally will allow us to connect to students earlier, help ease the transition to college and provide valuable resources on campus,” Christine Grenier, Elmhurst College associate director of Admission told Campus Progress.

Justice Dept.: grant Edith Windsor estate tax refund

NEW YORK — In a brief citing the unconstitutionality of section three of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, the Department of Justice asked the Federal Court of the Southern District of New York to grant Edith Windsor’s requested estate tax refund, in Windsor’s case against the federal government.

Windsor — who married her long-time partner Thea Spyer in Canada — was taxed an additional $351,000 in estate taxes after Spyer’s death in 2009 because the federal government is compelled by the Defense of Marriage Act to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage. Windsor filed suit claiming the law is unconstitutional and requested to have the taxes refunded.

Last year the Department of Justice decided not to defend the 1996 law known as “DOMA” in court, but this marks the first time the Department has affirmed in a brief that cases such as Windsor’s should succeed due to DOMA’s unconstitutionality.

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National

Same-sex couples vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change

Williams Institute report based on Census, federal agencies

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Beach erosion in Fire Island Pines, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Savannah Farrell / Actum)

A new report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law finds that same-sex couples are at greater risk of experiencing the adverse effects of climate change compared to different-sex couples.

LGBTQ people in same-sex couple households disproportionately live in coastal areas and cities and areas with poorer infrastructure and less access to resources, making them more vulnerable to climate hazards.

Using U.S. Census data and climate risk assessment data from NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, researchers conducted a geographic analysis to assess the climate risk impacting same-sex couples. NASA’s risk assessment focuses on changes to meteorological patterns, infrastructure and built environment, and the presence of at-risk populations. FEMA’s assessment focuses on changes in the occurrence of severe weather events, accounting for at-risk populations, the availability of services, and access to resources.

Results show counties with a higher proportion of same-sex couples are, on average, at increased risk from environmental, infrastructure, and social vulnerabilities due to climate change.

“Given the disparate impact of climate change on LGBTQ populations, climate change policies, including disaster preparedness, response, and recovery plans, must address the specific needs and vulnerabilities facing LGBTQ people,” said study co-author Ari Shaw, senior fellow and director of international programs at the Williams Institute. “Policies should focus on mitigating discriminatory housing and urban development practices, making shelters safe spaces for LGBT people, and ensuring that relief aid reaches displaced LGBTQ individuals and families.”

“Factors underlying the geographic vulnerability are crucial to understanding why same-sex couples are threatened by climate change and whether the findings in our study apply to the broader LGBTQ population,” said study co-author Lindsay Mahowald, research data analyst at the Williams Institute. “More research is needed to examine how disparities in housing, employment, and health care among LGBT people compound the geographic vulnerabilities to climate change.”

Read the report

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Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden-Harris administration’s finalized Title IX regulations

New rules to take effect Aug. 1

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Screen capture: AP/YouTube)

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

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Michigan

Mich. Democrats spar over LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law

Lawmakers disagree on just what kind of statute to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride month in 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (House Bill 4474), a first offense would be punishable with a $2,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is six years in prison and a fine of $7,500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. State Rep. Noah Arbit, the bill’s sponsor, was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (House Bill 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (House Bill 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (Senate Bill 600) in March that includes much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from the Washington Blade to both Arbit and Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The attorney general’s office sent a statement to the Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBTQ-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70 percent from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and was due for a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

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