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Obama praised for jobs speech despite ENDA omission

President doesn’t mention lack of federal protections in remarks

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President Barack Obama addresses the joint session of Congress (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

LGBT advocates praised the initiatives President Obama set forth in his jobs speech Thursday night — even though his address made no direct reference to the lack of federal job protections for LGBT people.

Speaking before a joint session of Congress, Obama unveiled a $447 billion plan — dubbed the American Jobs Act — that aims to stimulate the economy through payroll tax cuts, tax breaks for companies hiring new workers, funds for infrastructure development and regulatory reform.

“The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities,” Obama said. “The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy; whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.”

Whether Congress will be able to pass Obama’s plan — or any jobs initiative — remains to be seen. So far this year, Congress and the White House argued until the absolute deadline to pass a resolution to keep funding the U.S. government for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, and again bickered until the last possible day to come an agreement to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and avoid default on the country’s financial obligations.

Questions also persist regarding Obama’s approach to paying for his $447 billion initiative. The president is calling on the congressional “Super Committee” established by the debt deal to come up with the additional deficit reduction needed to pay for the measure in addition to meeting an already established target of $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction.

One problem with job security that Obama didn’t mention in his speech was the lack of federal non-discrimination protections faced by LGBT Americans in the workplace. Firing someone for being gay is legal in 29 states and firing someone for being transgender is legal in 35 states.

Obama campaigned on passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — legislation that would bar such job bias against LGBT people in the public and private workforce — but the bill has languished for years and didn’t even see a committee vote in the last Congress when Democrats were in control of both the House and Senate.

No mention of ENDA or the lack of federal workplace protections for LGBT people was included in the president’s remarks.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the president continues to support ENDA, but the purpose of his speech was to address the larger jobs crisis faced by all Americans.

“On Thursday, the President announced that he is sending to Congress the American Jobs Act — a set of ideas supported by both Democrats and Republicans that Congress must pass right away,” Inouye said. “The purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: put more people back to work and put more money in the pockets of working Americans, including LGBT Americans. The President has long supported an inclusive ENDA, but Thursday’s remarks were about the American Jobs Act, and not everything we support.”

Despite the lack of any explicit mention, LGBT advocates praised the plan Obama unveiled on Thursday and said the policies would benefit all Americans — including LGBT people.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Obama’s proposals would be “very positive” for LGBT Americans and transgender people in particular.

Keisling said Obama’s proposal to offer a tax credit of up to $4,000 to companies that hire potential workers searching for a job for more than six months is particularly important to transgender workers.

“We are disproportionately likely to be among the long-term unemployed and disproportionately likely to have faced recessionary discrimination during this current downturn,” Keisling said. “So $4,000 job credits for employers who hire long-term unemployed and prohibiting discrimination against long-term unemployed will be especially helpful and important.”

Keisling said a specific mention of LGBT issues in the speech wouldn’t have been a relevant point for Obama during his remarks.

“It was not at all inappropriate that he did not specifically mention support for specific LGBT priorities,” she said. “It wasn’t that kind of speech.”

Selisse Berry, executive director of the San Francisco-based Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, commended Obama for setting a goal for businesses to be innovative leaders and said companies can achieve the goal by embracing diversity, including LGBT people.

“America’s most successful businesses are doing just that through their policies and practices,” Berry said. “And the president knows the importance of diversity as well, since this administration has taken concrete steps to end discrimination against LGBT people in the federal workforce.”

Following the president’s speech, the White House issued statements from more than 40 organizations and Democratic lawmakers praising the plan. One of the statements in favor of the proposals came from Mary Kay Henry, a lesbian and president of the Service Employees International Union.

“President Obama displayed the leadership America needs by laying out a strong agenda to get America back to work,” Henry said. “The proposals he outlined are an excellent starting point in the crucial effort to create good jobs now.”

Henry called on Congress to take action and said Americans are watching Republicans closely to see if they’ll “play politics” or take action to turn around what she called the national jobs crisis.

“The Republicans’ plan to further cut corporate taxes will do nothing to put Americans back to work, just as the recent record corporate profits have not led to job growth,” Henry said.

In another statement provided by the White House, Justin Nelson and Chance Mitchell, co-founders of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, spoke out in favor of Obama’s plan.

“President Obama demonstrated strong leadership and clear vision addressing the joint session of Congress,” Nelson and Mitchell said. “While far too many in Washington, D.C. focus on the political horse race, the president shined the spotlight where it belongs; on the millions of Americans, many of them LGBT, who are working too hard to give their families a better life to read the latest poll numbers.”

Nelson and Mitchell took particular note of Obama’s plan to expedite payments to small businesses and to extend payroll tax cuts for these companies.

“As the president said, our recovery will not come from politicians but from businesses and talented individuals throughout the country, including those represented by the NGLCC,” Nelson and Mitchell said. “We agree that business owners need timely payments and tax incentives to pay their employees, hire new staff and invest in new opportunities.

Given the difficulties of passing ENDA with Republicans in control of the House, some LGBT advocates have been calling for an executive order that would prohibit the U.S. government from contracting with companies that don’t have non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers. Obama could take such action without concern over having to move legislation through Congress.

During his speech, Obama enumerated some initiatives he could take on his own accord without congressional involvement to improve the job situation — but an executive order for LGBT workers wasn’t among them.

“My administration can and will take some steps to improve our competitiveness on our own,” Obama said. “For example, if you’re a small business owner who has a contract with the federal government, we’re going to make sure you get paid a lot faster than you do now. We’re also planning to cut away the red tape that prevents too many rapidly-growing start-up companies from raising capital and going public.”

Additionally, Obama said his administration would work with federal housing agencies to help more people refinance their mortgages at interest rates that are now near four percent, which he said would put more than $2,000 a year in the pockets of American families.

Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, is among the LGBT advocates who have been calling on the president to issue such an executive order against LGBT job bias.

Even without mention of the directive, Socarides said Obama gave “a strong political and policy message.”

“It was a high-toned message and I think everyone in the LGBT community very much wants him to succeed at this, as all Americans do,” Socarides said. “And on jobs and labor issues, we will keep reminding him we still need federal protections for all LGBT workers, we still need ENDA, we still need an executive order on federal contracting. And we fully expect he will deliver for us on these, too.”

Joint session of Congress (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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The White House

Country’s first nonbinary state lawmaker participates in Gaza ceasefire hunger strike

Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner is Muslim

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Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner in front of the White House on Nov. 30, 2023, while taking part in a hunger strike for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The country’s first nonbinary state lawmaker last week participated in a hunger strike for a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip that took place in front of the White House.

Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner took part in the 5-day action alongside actress Cynthia Nixon, Virginia state Del. Sam Rasoul, Delaware state Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, New York State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, Michigan state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, former New York Congressional candidate Rana Abdelhamid, Muslim Girl.com Founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, Adalah Justice Project Director of Strategy and Communications Sumaya Awad and Linda Sarsour. The U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, Democratic Socialists of America, IfNotNowMovement, Dream Defenders, the Institute for Middle East Understanding and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee are the organizations that either participated in the hunger strike or endorsed it. 

“This is the place where you should be,” Turner told the Washington Blade on Nov. 30 while they were standing in front of the White House.

Turner is from Ardmore, Okla., and has been a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives since 2021. They are the first Muslim person elected to the Oklahoma Legislature.

“Oklahoma is no stranger to genocide, displacement, uprooting communities — beautiful, vibrant, vulnerable communities — just because they could,” said Turner, referring to the treatment of Native Americans in what became Oklahoma during the 1800s and early 1900s. “Specifically as a Muslim and as an Oklahoman it is my duty to be here.”

The hunger strike took place nearly two months after Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, launched a surprise attack against communities in southern Israel from Gaza.

The Israeli government has said roughly 1,200 people have been killed, including at least 260 people who Hamas militants murdered at an all-night music festival in a kibbutz near the border between Israel and Gaza. The Israeli government also says more than 5,000 people have been injured in the country since the war began and Hamas militants kidnapped more than 200 others.

Yarden Roman-Gat, whose gay brother, Gili Roman, spoke with the Washington Blade on Oct. 30 in D.C., is one of the 105 people who Hamas released during a truce with Israel that began on Nov. 24 and ended on Dec. 1.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says more than 15,000 people have died in the enclave since the war began. Israel after Oct. 7 cut electricity and water to Gaza and stopped most food and fuel shipments.

“It’s absolutely wild to think about what is happening to the Palestinian people in Gaza and in the West Bank,” said Turner.

Turner noted the war began two days before Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“By October the 10th, when the world was really seeing what was happening in Gaza,” they said. “So many people who had celebrated specifically Indigenous Peoples’ Day had also sided with the Israeli government over the indigenous people of the land.”

‘The death of civilians is absolutely horrible’

Turner in response to the Blade’s question about the Israelis who militants killed on Oct. 7 emphatically said “the death of civilians is absolutely horrible.” Turner added they “cannot stress enough that when we back people into a corner, we don’t know what will happen.”

“The truth of the matter is our governments, our governmental officials do not have to put people in a corner,” said Turner.

Turner was particularly critical of the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza after Oct. 7.

“I don’t think there’s any place where a government has the power to shut off right water, food, healthcare supplies, things like that,” they said. “It’s just in doing so against a population that has 2 million people … that’s not anyone looking for equitability or justice. That is genocide against its people.”

Turner noted Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt continues to publicly support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Turner told the Blade “when we oppress people over decades and decades … we cannot, we don’t get to cherry pick” or “we don’t get to tone police or however they are fighting back to be heard, to be, to live for vibrant lives.”

“We cannot tell oppressed people how to hurt out loud,” they said, specifically referring to Palestinian people. “We can create governments that care for people from a community standpoint who are thinking creatively about how we provide aid and support and we can ask our elected officials (members Congress, President Joe Biden, state and local officials) to teach truth. We can ask them to continuously make sure that we are providing the best care and understanding of the situations at hand. We can ask them to do a ceasefire to stop sending aid to the Israeli government and emboldening their military forces.”

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Climate change threatens LGBTQ resort communities

Provincetown, Cape Cod, other destinations face ‘existential’ challenge

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The beach in Fire Island Pines, N.Y., on New York's Fire Island has been the scene of extreme erosion in recent years. (Photo courtesy Actum Vice President Savannah Farrell)

As the world reckons with worsening impacts of climate change, some LGBTQ communities and destinations are grappling with the “existential” threat posed by the crisis.

The United Nations’ annual climate conference will take place in the United Arab Emirates through Dec. 12. LGBTQ climate activists, however, are concerned about representation at COP28 because the meeting is taking place in Dubai, which is in a country that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations.

President Joe Biden on Nov. 14 delivered a statement on climate change policy during his administration. Biden spoke on the American Rescue Plan, the Fifth National Climate Assessment, new transparency about the state of the country’s climate and more. 

Biden emphasized “advancing environmental justice for disadvantaged communities, because they’re the ones always left behind.” Evidence of this trend can be found in LGBTQ destinations across the country.

Julian Cyr, a gay Massachusetts state senator who represents Provincetown and other towns on Cape Cod, recognizes the state’s importance to the LGBTQ community, stating that “according to the Census, it may be the highest per capita density of LGBTQ+ people certainly in the United States, and perhaps internationally.”

Provincetown, a popular gay destination located at the tip of Cape Cod, is facing worsening storms as climate change advances. These storms reshape the natural environment as well as damage the built environment. A series of Nor’easters in 2018 flooded Provincetown, damaging homes, businesses and the town hall. 

“The climate crisis is … already forcing us to do a lot of planning and reevaluation of coastal resilience of our built environment,” said Cyr. 

All hope isn’t lost yet for Massachusetts destinations. 

Then-Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, in 2022 introduced the Climate Roadmap, which aims for zero carbon emissions by 2050. The state also is building the country’s first offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind. 

Cyr said citizens can push for climate change legislation by making the urgency known to their local elected officials.  

“This is truly existential for coastal, low-lying communities like those that I represent,” said Cyr. “It’s really important that constituents weigh in with their elected officials and make sure that they know that this issue is crucially important. I don’t know how we not solve this issue.”

Experts are seeing similar effects in nearby LGBTQ destinations, such as Cape Cod.

“One thing that we do see already is the effect of storms,” said Mark Adams, a retired Cape Cod National Seashore cartographer. “Those storms are the signal of sea level rise.”

Adams said that as a result of rising temperatures and new, intense storms, he is also starting to see damaged ecosystems, unnatural migration patterns of local wildlife, and planting-zones moving northward. Adams told the Washington Blade these changing ecological relationships may mean an uncertain future for life along the coast: the self-sustaining lifestyle and seafood could be at risk as ocean acidification puts shellfish in danger. 

“If you can’t get oysters and clams, that would really change life on Cape Cod,” he said. 

In addition to the damage caused by storms, Cape Cod’s natural environment is also facing the threat of littering and plastic pollution. While the area’s beaches keep tourism alive, fishing gear and marine debris washing up on the shore are growing concerns for the community. 

Adams said this is where the choices individuals make to avoid plastics will make a huge difference in the future of these communities. 

“There are little choices we can make to get off of the petroleum stream,” he said.

A car in floodwaters in Miami Beach, Fla., in July 2018. Climate change has made Miami Beach and other coastal cities more susceptible to flooding. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Aspen Gay Ski Week adapts to warmer winters

Aspen Gay Ski Week was the first gay ski week, and it is the largest such event in the world, and is the only non-profit gay ski week.

Rising temperatures and short winters are growing concerns for destinations like Aspen, Colo., that depend on snow, according to AspenOUT Executive Director Kevin McManamon.

“As our seasons get shorter … we have to plan for the future,” McManamon said.

Colorado has also faced increased forest fires in recent years.

The Marshall Fire in 2021 devastated the state, destroying buildings and killing two people. Increasingly dry conditions feed into these fires, which will mean more impacts on humans, nature, and infrastructure.

McManamon nevertheless said he is optimistic about Aspen Gay Ski Week’s future due to the organization’s forward thinking. One such initiative is its involvement with Protect Our Winters, an organization that advocates for protecting the environment with the support of the outdoor sports community. 

“The cool part about being here in Aspen and having a great relationship with Aspen Skiing Company is that they are … on the leading edge of climate change,” said McManamon. 

Stronger storms threaten Fire Island

Fire Island Pines on New York’s Fire Island has been a safe haven for the LGBTQ community since the 1950s.

Fire Island Pines Property Owners’ Association President Henry Robin notes natural disasters cause more damage in the community as opposed to those that are across the Great South Bay on Long Island because Fire Island is a “barrier island.”

“When Superstorm Sandy hit, or when a Nor’easter hits, or a hurricane hits, the brunt of the storm is first taken by the Pines,” said Robin. 

Robin said “the Pines is thriving” just over 11 years since Sandy, but there is no climate change response. The federal government implemented a beach restoration project for Fire Island, and later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created an engineered beach for the Pines. 

Robin also formed three task forces — comprised of community members — to address local concerns, many of which were climate related, according to focus groups and a survey. Robin is also hoping to introduce recycling programs and solar energy to the Pines. 

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US announces additional sanctions for Ugandan officials

Anti-Homosexuality Act signed on May 29

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LGBTQ and intersex activists protest in front of the Ugandan Embassy in D.C. on April 25, 2023. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday announced sanctions against current and former Ugandan officials who committed human rights abuses against LGBTQ people and other groups.

“After Uganda’s flawed 2021 presidential elections, I announced a visa restriction policy targeting those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda,” said Blinken in a statement. “At that time, I implored the government of Uganda to significantly improve its record and hold accountable those responsible for flawed electoral processes, violence and intimidation.”

Blinken announced “the expansion of the visa restriction policy to include current or former Ugandan officials or others who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda or for policies or actions aimed at repressing members of marginalized or vulnerable populations.” 

“These groups include, but are not limited to, environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, LGBTQI+ persons and civil society organizers,” he said. “The immediate family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions.”  

Blinken added the U.S. “stands by the Ugandan people and remains committed to working together to advance democracy, human rights, public health and mutual prosperity.”  

“I once again strongly encourage the government of Uganda to make concerted efforts to uphold democracy and to respect and protect human rights so that we may sustain the decades-long partnership between our countries that has benefited Americans and Ugandans alike,” he said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on May 29 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.” The State Department a few weeks later announced visa restrictions against unnamed Ugandan officials.

The Biden-Harris administration in October said it plans to remove Uganda from a program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to trade duty-free with the U.S. The White House has also issued a business advisory for Uganda in response to the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

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