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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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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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