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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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Mass. startup streamlining name changes for trans, non-binary residents

‘No. 1 legal need that trans folks have is identity documents’

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Kelsey GrunstraTre’Andre Carmel Valentine, MG Xiong, and Luke Lennon.

A guy in America wants to buy a truck. They save money. They have built up good credit. They find a truck in their price range. They go to the dealership to buy it, but when the dealership puts the guy’s name through the system no credit shows up.

The problem? That guy is trans and had recently changed their name. “Due to the name change, I was credit invisible,” Luke Lennon explained. “This can happen often for trans and non-binary folks who change their name.” The kicker? “That piece is not the same for folks that change their name due to marriage.” 

This is structural, not accidental, explains Lennon, who uses he/they/any pronouns. While name changes for marriage are accommodated by financial systems, “if you’re trans, you have to notify each creditor of your name change individually.” It is an equity problem: “For a community that already faces huge barriers to wealth building, this is a major issue.”

Lennon opted out of the truck. Without the financing options made available by good credit, the vehicle was outside of their price range. “I was getting just near predatory rates for loans at that point,” he says.

Truck dreams deferred. But he worried about people whose financial needs couldn’t be deferred, like needing a loan for medical care or housing. “For many, that could be a more high-stakes situation. It could put them in financial peril and result in more serious consequences.” 

Lennon had already thought about leveraging his tech and business background toward helping his community with name changes, but the experience in the car dealership cemented how vital the service was. So, they launched Namesake Collaborative, a program to ease the burden of name changes for the trans community.

Getting his name changed at all was a grueling process in Lennon’s home state of Massachusetts, one of the most trans-friendly states in the country. Paperwork was long, confusing, and expensive — a big difference from the Boston FinTech scene he worked for where digital health startups were automating “complex paper-heavy processes to make them easier for end users.” When he sought out that type of service for name changes, they were only for cis women changing their names because of marriage. 

Lennon’s instinct was in line with what trans advocates identified as one of the biggest needs in the state. MG Xiong, the program director at Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, shared that “the number one legal need that trans folks said that they have is their identity documents.” This comes from MTPC’s 2019 Comprehensive Needs Assessment Survey, but its need is mirrored nationally

“Filling out court forms is incredibly inaccessible to folks who are not looking at these types of forms on a regular basis or who do not have the knowledge of bureaucratic processes of court processes or legal language,” said Xiong. This stress does not include the fees, which can sometimes exceed $400 in Massachusetts. There is a patchwork of differing systems, forms, and expectations across jurisdictions, as Paisley Currah writes in his seminal book on the topic “Sex Is as Sex Does,”“the same individual has Fs on some state-issued documents and Ms on others.” 

All this trouble means that only 11% of trans people in the U.S. have all identity documents that correctly reflect their name and gender, per the National Center for Trans Equality. The discrepancy is not just annoying or disheartening — it can be outright dangerous. 

While MTPC’s small team raised money to aid in filing fees and led workshops to help, there was always more of a need than they could meet. So, when Lennon pitched a process that streamlined inaccessible forms, they jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. “It was a strategic decision for me to not try to take the traditional startup path,” he explained.

And their path was far from traditional. Instead of pitching to Venture Capital, the startup and non-profit duo drove around Massachusetts. Xiong explains that they and Luke went to “different community centers, bringing the services [directly] to the spaces that people are already in.”

Lennon had actually met the MTPC team at one of their workshops and appreciated the community building they fostered. He trusted the organization that had helped him with his name change to make sure the technology he was building would reach the trans community effectively.

After a beta period in 2021, Namesake launched as a website in 2022with input from community assessments. Despite being a tech startup, they kept it lower-tech. “We decided to operate on a no-code platform to be able to build something more quickly,” said Lennon. Since then, more than 500 transgender Massachusetts residents have used the program to complete gender and name changes. 

A huge part of the program was built on lessening the load of process: getting different forms in one location and being able to fill them all out online in one standardized process. But it also met the need in terms of access in other ways. “We are getting gratitude for the simplicity of it.” Xiong said. “That it uses common and accessible language. It defines what certain court language or legal language means.”

Namesake is on the cusp of a new iteration, which will make it more user-friendly through an app version. Lennon has partnered with Computost, a worker-owned software consulting co-op that understood Namesakes’ values.  

While always working to make the product more usable, Lennon is careful about keeping it more trans than tech. Lennon explains that the variability in the community is “often at odds with technology’s reductive approach to an ideal user profile or persona.”

The longer they work with Namesake, the more they are convinced, “I don’t think tech should ever be heralded as THE solution to anything, really.” He explains that their method of development is “using community-sharing knowledge in order to augment that technology.” 

Lennon explains that he is more concerned with making a community than a traditional tech product. “A strong community also requires breaking the binary of ‘giver and receiver,’ which runs counter to much of the startup folklore around serving customers.” However, they “have compassion for any trans or queer person trying to solve a real problem for our communities through tech.”

Looking forward, Lennon explains that Namesake is “focused on creating something more fluid and communal, something that will ideally evolve with the community and help folks feel less alone throughout the process.” 

(This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab through News is Out. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal.)

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Supreme Court rules to preserve access to abortion medication

Case is Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA

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The abortifacent drug mifepristone is marketed under the brand name Mifeprex (Photo courtesy of Danco Laboratories)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a much-anticipated decision against efforts by conservative doctors and medical groups challenging access to mifepristone, one of two pharmaceuticals used in medication abortions. As a result of the high court’s decision, access to the drug won’t change.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the court, reversed a lower court decision that would have made it more difficult to obtain the drug, which is used in about two-thirds of U.S. abortions. The ruling however was narrow in scope as it only addressed what is known as legal standing in a case.

SCOTUSblog senior court reporter Amy Howe noted that Kavanaugh acknowledged what he characterized as the challengers’ “sincere legal, moral, ideological, and policy objections” to elective abortion “by others” and to FDA’s 2016 and 2021 changes to the conditions on the use of the drug.

But the challengers had not shown that they would be harmed by the FDA’s mifepristone policies, he explained, and under the Constitution, merely objecting to abortion and the FDA’s policies are not enough to bring a case in federal court. The proper place to voice those objections, he suggested, is in the political or regulatory arena.

“Under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff’s desire to make a drug less available for others does not establish standing to sue,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision in this incredibly important case. By rejecting the Fifth Circuit’s radical, unprecedented and unsupportable interpretation of who has standing to sue, the justices reaffirmed longstanding basic principles of administrative law,” said Abigail Long, a spokesperson for Danco. “The decision also safeguards access to a drug that has decades of safe and effective use.”

The White House released a statement from President Joe Biden on Supreme Court Decision on FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine:

“Today’s decision does not change the fact that the fight for reproductive freedom continues. It does not change the fact that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago, and women lost a fundamental freedom. It does not change the fact that the right for a woman to get the treatment she needs is imperiled if not impossible in many states.
 
It does mean that mifepristone, or medication abortion, remains available and approved. Women can continue to access this medication – approved by the FDA as safe and effective more than 20 years ago. 
 
But let’s be clear: attacks on medication abortion are part of Republican elected officials’ extreme and dangerous agenda to ban abortion nationwide. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Republican elected officials have imposed extreme abortion bans in 21 states, some of which include zero exceptions for rape or incest. Women are being turned away from emergency rooms, or forced to go to court to plead for care that their doctor recommended or to travel hundreds of miles for care. Doctors and nurses are being threatened with jail time, including life in prison, for providing the health care they have been trained to provide. And contraception and IVF are under attack.
 
The stakes could not be higher for women across America. Vice President Harris and I stand with the vast majority of Americans who support a woman’s right to make deeply personal health care decisions. We will continue to fight to ensure that women in every state get the health care they need and we will continue to call on Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law — that is our commitment.”

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Amarillo, Texas, in a ruling a year ago, waved aside decades of scientific approval, ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration improperly approved mifepristone more than 20 years ago in 2000.

Kacsmaryk, appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, in his 67 page opinion wrote that the FDA’s two-decade-old approval violated a federal rule that allows for accelerated approval for certain drugs and, along with subsequent actions by the agency, was unlawful.

The suit, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, was originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the North District of Texas in mid-November by Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ legal organization.

Applauding Kacsmaryk’s ruling, Erik Baptist, speaking for the Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement: “By illegally approving dangerous chemical abortion drugs, the FDA put women and girls in harm’s way, and it’s high time the agency is held accountable for its reckless actions.”

Erin Hawley, a senior attorney for the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom who argued the case at the Supreme Court, said the opinion was “disappointing,” but told reporters in a press gaggle after the ruling that the explicit mention of conscience protections was a victory.

“The Supreme Court was crystal clear that pro life doctors do have federal conscience protections, even in emergency situations,” Hawley said. “So that’s a huge win for the pro-life cause. The Supreme Court clearly said that our doctors are entitled to those federal conscious protections that are based on their religious beliefs.”

The case now returns to the lower courts, and the dispute over access to the drug likely is not over. 

SCOTUSblog also reported that Nancy Northrup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, praised the decision but conceded that the dispute could continue even after Thursday’s ruling. She, too, noted that the three states “could still attempt to keep the case going, including taking it back up to the Supreme Court,” and she warned that access to mifepristone “is still at risk nationwide.”

The Hill notes that for instance, the same district court in Texas that originally ruled against the FDA said a group of three red states—Missouri, Idaho and Kansas— can intervene in the lawsuit.

“I would expect the litigation to continue with those states raising different standing arguments than made by our doctors,” ADF’s Hawley told reporters.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, emailed the Blade the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a unanimous ruling by the United States Supreme Court:

“We appreciate today’s unanimous decision to uphold access to the abortion drug mifepristone, authored by a conservative Justice. This ruling reinforces the critical importance of maintaining accessible reproductive healthcare and highlights the necessity of safeguarding these rights from baseless legal attacks.

However, it is imperative to recognize that the Court should never have accepted this case. The so-called Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine lacked the standing to initiate this challenge. Moreover, federal conscience exemptions already exist for healthcare providers who object to offering abortion-related care. 

Medication abortions involving mifepristone constitute the majority of abortions in America, including those sought by LGBTQ+ people. Our community understands the necessity of bodily autonomy and the right to make decisions regarding our own medical care, including reproductive care. Patients deserve access to the medications they need, and providers should be able to deliver that care without unwarranted interference from extremist courts or politicians.   

Attacks on abortion do not end with this decision; millions of people nationwide are still unable to get abortion care and abortion opponents remain focused on their end goal of a nationwide abortion ban. 

Equality California will continue to work with our legislative partners in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., as well as organizational allies, like Planned Parenthood, to help protect and expand access to abortion and reproductive healthcare.”

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McBride clears Dem field, poised to become first trans member of Congress

Primary opponent drops out of Delaware race

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Sarah McBride (Washington Blade file photo by Daniel Truitt)

Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride has become the Democratic frontrunner for Congress after her primary opponent dropped out of the race. This sets up McBride to possibly become the first transgender member of Congress if elected in November. 

Eugene Young announced on Wednesday he suspended his campaign for Delaware’s At-Large congressional district, leaving McBride as the only Democratic candidate running for the seat. Young’s announcement leaves Republican challenger Donyale Hall as McBride’s only obstacle to the House of Representatives.

As the new Democratic frontrunner, McBride is slated to win the strongly Democratic state’s sole House seat, which is currently held by Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester. Blunt Rochester is leaving the House to run for Thomas Carper’s seat in the Senate who will be retiring at the end of the year. 

According to McBride’s campaign, she has raised more than $2 million and does not appear to be slowing down. Not only could McBride become the historic first trans member of Congress, but her campaign has raised record-breaking amounts — more than any candidate for an open congressional seat in state history.

McBride currently holds a seat in the First State Senate District of Delaware and has used that momentum to mobilize her supporters.

LPAC, an organization that works to get LGBTQ+ women and nonbinary candidates elected to public office, has endorsed McBride’s run for Congress as well as her past campaigns. LPAC’s Executive Director Janelle Perez released a statement regarding McBride’s path to the House.

“LPAC is thrilled that Sarah McBride has cleared the Democratic field and is on a clear path to making history in November as the first out trans person ever elected to the U.S. Congress,” Perez wrote in her statement. “This did not happen by accident: Sarah has actively cleared the field by building an undeniably formidable campaign, connecting deeply with voters and out-raising every candidate in the field by a longshot.”

Other candidates have until July 8 to enter the race, although that is unlikely given McBride’s fundraising advantage and growing momentum. 

“It is no surprise to me that Sarah has reached this point — she is a compassionate leader who truly cares for her community and has a tangible impact on everyone around her,” Perez added. “This is a groundbreaking moment for LGBTQ+ representation in our country and I know that Sarah McBride will make an incredible member of Congress.”

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