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Gay staffers take key roles in Obama campaign

From finance to digital initiatives, supporters working to win second term

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[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.]

Engaging in tasks from fundraising to digital initiatives to public outreach, President Obama’s re-election campaign staff is already hard at work helping to secure a second term in the White House — and many members of the LGBT community have high-profile roles in that effort.

The Washington Blade interviewed four gay and lesbian staffers who are working to re-elect Obama from the campaign headquarters in Chicago. This article is the first in a two-part series and features interviews with two of the campaign workers: Rufus Gifford, the finance director, and Teddy Goff, the digital director.

Barack Obama

President Obama’s campaign staff includes several high-profile gay members. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For Gifford, who’s gay, seeing Obama serve another two years in office is important because he believes the administration so far has been “two of the most productive years in American history.”

“I’ve been on board with the campaign in one way shape or form since January 2007 — nearly from the moment I met Sen. Obama,” Gifford said. “I was certainly a believer in him and his message and his politics, etc. So, I do believe that the last two years have been two of the very most productive years in American history. In my mind, truly, if we can get four more, think of how much more we can accomplish.”

Gifford said Obama’s accomplishments for the LGBT community — most notably “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal — are “obviously very, very personally important” to him. Still, Gifford also counts among the president’s victories passage of the economic stimulus plan and health care reform as well as ratification of the START Treaty, a nuclear-arms reduction agreement.

As finance director, Gifford overseas the funds raised for both the Obama campaign as well as a joint committee that raises funds between the campaign and the Democratic National Committee. It’s similar to his role as finance director of the DNC, which he occupied immediately before joining the Obama campaign, and his role in raising money for Obama in California during the 2008 campaign.

“Every morning I start the day with a 9 a.m. senior staff meeting with the campaign leadership,” Gifford said. “I am a huge believer that finance should never be siloed within a campaign.”

Gifford said he believes the campaign will be stronger and raise more money if he’s talking to the directors of the field department, the digital department, the tech department and the communications department.

In the second quarter, fundraising for the Obama campaign beat expectations. Obama raised more than $86 million for his re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which far outpaced Republican candidates seeking to oust him from the White House.

The third quarter numbers are yet to be made public. Media reports state that the campaign is expecting to rake in less cash because the president had to cancel fundraisers to attend debt ceiling negotiations with congressional leaders.

One difference that Gifford faces working with the Obama campaign in 2012 as opposed to his work in 2008 is the fact that he’s now separated from his partner, Jeremy Bernard, who serves as the White House social secretary.

In 2008, Gifford and Bernard were featured in numerous media outlets as a gay power couple and were named in Out magazine’s listing of the Top 50 power gays.

Gifford declined to comment on his separation from Bernard, but confirmed the couple split in 2009. Gifford’s current partner resides in D.C.

While Gifford manages fundraising for the Obama campaign, another gay member of the president’s re-election team, Goff, handles digital outreach efforts.

As digital director, Goff runs Internet communications for the campaign, which includes outreach via e-mail or social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“Our job in the digital department is to talk to millions of Twitter followers, millions of e-mail subscribers, millions of Facebook fans everyday, and that’s a viewpoint that I think is helpful even in helping shape and inform broader discussions about how we talk to people and how we build,” Goff said.

Goff, who’s 26 and gay, comes to the Obama campaign after his most immediate position working with Blue State Digital, a digital agency in New York. In 2008, Goff ran digital programs at the state level for the Obama campaign.

Goff’s commitment to see Obama re-elected stems from the president’s record over the course of two-and-a-half years in office, which Goff said is “without parallel in my lifetime or even my parents’ lifetime.”

“So for me, he’s every bit as inspiring and compelling a figure as I ever thought he was.”

The main priority for 2011, Goff said, is making sure existing Obama supporters have avenues to make their voices heard.

What’s the best online platform for the Obama campaign to connect with its supporters? Goff said “everybody’s different” in the way they want to interact.

“There may be one person who wants to hear from us via e-mail, and another person who wants to hear from us on Twitter, but our point of view is that isn’t so much what matters,” Goff said. “Most things come and go. This time, four years ago, Myspace was a really big deal. Now people aren’t talking about that so much anymore. The perspective that we try to bring to it is what’s the basic content that’s going to engage people, how can we shape a relationship that’s going to make them feel engaged and feel like a part of the family.”

But the fight to re-elect Obama in 2012 could be more of a challenge than it was making sure he won the White House in 2008. Recent polls have placed Obama’s approval rating at its lowest point during the course of his term. A few weeks ago, Gallup found that Obama’s approval rating was at 39 percent, marking the first time his approval rating had dipped below 40 percent.

Gifford said he’s not in a position to say whether a win for Obama will be more challenging than it was in 2008, but asserted supporters will push on in the effort to claim victory.

Similarly, Goff said he doesn’t know if winning the White House will be more challenging for Obama in 2012, but said he expects the commitment of campaign workers would lead the president to victory.

The support that Obama will receive from the LGBT community in his re-election efforts remains to be seen. Significant milestones in LGBT rights occurred under his watch — most notably the passage of hate crimes legislation and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama also received praise earlier this year for dropping the administration’s legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

But other actions sought by the LGBT community remain outstanding — such as the enactment of employment protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The president’s lack of support for same-sex marriage riles some in the LGBT community as the fight to win marriage equality continues throughout the states.

Gifford said he’d tell anyone who says Obama hasn’t done enough on LGBT issues during his first term in office that “you cannot make the argument that this is not the most pro-gay administration in history.”

How can other LGBT people help who want to see Obama re-elected in 2012? Goff said those who are interested should check out the campaign website or participate in an on-the-ground field program that is being built in communities across the country.

“There are things for people who want to be involved only or primarily in LGBT issues,” Goff said. “We should have LGBT people do that, but also hope that LGBT people will get involved in the broad program and organize their community just like anybody else.”

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National

Texas to resume abuse investigations into families with trans children

“To be clear the Supreme Court has not directed Commissioner Masters & DFPS to continue investigating parents of trans youth for child abuse”

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In a statement issued Thursday, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) agency announced that it will resume abuse investigations into families with transgender kids.

“DFPS treats all reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation seriously and will continue to investigate each to the full extent of the law,” the statement read.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the DFPS statement, while not addressing the investigations into medical treatments for trans youth, indirectly indicated that these probes will now continue.

Current state law does not explicitly define gender affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy as child abuse. A DFPS spokesman did not comment when asked if the agency plans to continue investigating such treatments as child abuse, the Dallas Morning News noted.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that DFPS can continue to investigate families in the state who provide medically necessary care for their Trans children, excluding the parties in the litigation that brought the matter forward in a lawsuit filed in March.

In its decision, the court emphasized that neither Attorney General Paxton nor Governor Abbott has the power or authority to direct DFPS to investigate the provision of medically necessary lifesaving health care for transgender youth as child abuse. But the court limited the order blocking all investigations to the specific plaintiffs who filed suit.

Trans activist Landon Richie who has been deeply involved in the efforts to mitigate the anti-trans actions by Texas lawmakers and has led protests against the transphobic actions by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton told the Blade:

“To be clear, the Texas Supreme Court has not directed Commissioner Masters and DFPS to continue investigating parents of trans youth for child abuse. While the decision means now only the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit have protection, it reiterates that Attorney General Paxton’s opinion and Governor Abbott’s letter are not binding and not enforceable, meaning DFPS’s actions moving forward are at the discretion of Commissioner Masters only and not the state leadership’s directives. The Texas Supreme Court allowing for the district court to provide a temporary injunction is a good sign for people’s protection. 

It bears reminding families in Texas and around the country that today’s decision (and yesterday’s regarding gender-affirming care at UT Southwestern and Texas Children’s) reaffirms what we already know: opinions are only opinions and the people in power cannot abuse that power to abuse trans people. We know decisions can change at a moment’s notice and that this fight will take years, but to our families and communities under attack, please remain strong and take a moment to breathe. We’re in this together. “

An employee of DFPS who was a litigant in the lawsuit is represented by the ACLU of Texas.

Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas who is on the team representing that unnamed employee, said the state’s decision to reopen the cases is unfortunate and unlawful. He said his team believes that the high court’s decision removes any responsibility for Texans to report trans youth getting treatments, the Dallas Morning News reported.

“We are going to be closely monitoring what the agency does. We would encourage families that have any reason to believe that they have an investigation to seek legal help,” Klosterboer said.

“Abbott’s letter and Paxton’s opinion did not change Texas law,” he added. “Gender affirming health care is still legal in all 50 states.”

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Florida

“Don’t Say Gay” student leader says school stopping run for student leadership

Jack Petocz organized a state-wide student protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill & annoyed administrators suspended him

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Jack Petocz (Center) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government earlier this Spring (Courtesy of Jack Petocz/Facebook)

Jack Petocz, a Flagler Palm Coast High School junior, organized a state-wide student protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill this past March, and at his school, annoyed administrators suspended him.

On Tuesday, Petocz said that the school’s disciplinary action is now preventing him from running for senior class president.

“When I returned, the administration assured me that no further disciplinary action would be taken. A month later, they broke this verbal agreement and placed a level 3 referral on my record. Now, due to this high level of discipline, I am being prevented from running for senior class president. I am continuing to be punished for standing up for my identity and against widespread hatred.”

The suspension over the student walkout became a viral moment that propelled the 17-year-old into the national spotlight and into the national discourse over a spate of harsh laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

17-year-old Cameron Driggers, a student LGBTQ+ activist-organizer of the group Recall Flagler County School Board and co-leader of the walk-out, his friend’s suspension inspired him to create a petition on Change.org to pressure Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Greg Schwartz to rescind his seemingly arbitrary decision to suspend Petocz.

One protest at the school over its suspension of Petocz brought together a grizzled and proud Out gay U.S. Marine Corps veteran accompanied by his fellow vets, who alongside with Driggers and the other young adolescent activists protested in a rally in front of the school at the same time Petocz and his father were inside meeting with Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Greg Schwartz, hoping to get him to rescind his seemingly arbitrary decision to suspend Petocz.

Jack Petocz (with bullhorn) leads Flagler Palm Coast High School protest against DSG bill (Photo by Alysa Vidal)

Later on during the day Driggers posted to the Change.org petition the news that Principal Schwartz had backed off.

“Recall FCSB is pleased to announce that Jack’s suspension has ended and he is back on-campus. We are grateful for the thousands of people around the globe that shared, tweeted and protested in support of Jack, the organizer behind the state-wide Don’t Say Gay Walkout. Over 7500 signatures were collected on a condemnation of Principal Greg Schwartz’ conduct last Thursday. With Jack back on campus, Recall FCSB will continue to empower student leaders in and out of school,” Driggers wrote.

Principal Schwartz also committed to removing the ‘disciplinary action’ from Petocz’s school record.

On Tuesday, Petocz announced that Principal Schwartz and other school officials are barring him from running for an elected student office.

In response to the news, PEN America issued the following statement from Jonathan Friedman, director of the Free Expression and Education program:

“By going back on their word and imposing a red mark on Jack Petocz’s disciplinary record, the Flagler Palm Coast High School administration appears bent on retaliating against him for organizing the walkout against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. This is unconscionable. Jack exercised his right to protest as a citizen, and he led the walkout with the school’s approval. No student ought to be intimidated or punished by school authorities for their political speech, and the school already told him he would not be disciplined. This is especially troubling alongside news of other efforts to censor or intimidate students raising their voices for LGBTQ+ rights across Florida. The leaders of Flagler Palm Coast High School should remove this infraction from his record so that he can run for class president just like any other student.”

On Twitter, Petocz urged people to contact his school to get officials to reverse this latest decision.

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National

History making win- Out Lesbian could be Oregon’s next governor

“This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen”

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Courtesy of Tina Kotek

The Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday win by Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, who had announced her run for the governor’s seat to replace incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who is term limited last September 1st, 2021, positions her to become the first Out Lesbian governor in the nation should she win the general election in November.

Kotek’s win comes during an uptick in the elections nationwide as more candidates running for office identify as LGBTQ”. More than 600 LGBTQ candidates are on ballots this year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

According to the Victory Fund, at least 101 people ran or are running for the U.S. Senate or U.S. House – with 96 still actively running as of February 21, 2022. That marks a 16.1 percent increase in LGBTQ Congressional candidates compared to the 2020 election cycle, when 87 people ran.

Speaking to her supporters after it became clear she had won over Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, who was polling second among Oregonian progressives, “This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen,” Kotek said.

Republican state legislator Christine Drazan along with an independent candidate, Betsy Johnson are slated to be on the November ballot.

Last Fall when she announced her candidacy, she said, “I am running for Governor because I know that, together, we can reckon with the legacies of injustice and inequality to build a great future for Oregon.” She also noted, “Oregonians are living through a devastating pandemic, the intensifying impacts of climate change, and the economic disruptions that leave too many behind. We must get past the politics of division and focus on making real, meaningful progress for families across our state.” 

“A victory for Tina would shatter a lavender ceiling and be a milestone moment in LGBTQ political history, yet she is running not to make history, but because there are few people as prepared and qualified to serve as Oregon’s governor,” said Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Under Tina’s leadership, Oregon has led in passing legislation to improve roads and education, raise the minimum wage and ensure all residents are treated fairly and equally. As governor, Tina will make Oregon a role model for the nation.”

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