President Obama denounced GOP presidential candidates on Saturday for not speaking out against the booing of a gay soldier who asked a question on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during a recent debate.
Obama made the remarks during his keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign’s 15th annual dinner at the Washington Convention Center in D.C. before an estimated audience of 3,000 people.
In one notable portion of the speech, Obama took aim at Republican presidential hopefuls for not speaking out during a Sept. 22 debate against the booing of a gay soldier who asked a question about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” via video from Iraq.
“We don’t believe in the kind of smallness that says it’s OK for a stage full of political leaders — one of whom could end up being the President of the United States — being silent when an American soldier is booed,” Obama said. “You want to be commander-in-chief? You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States — even when it’s not politically convenient.”
Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the National Log Cabin Republicans, took exception after the speech to Obama’s criticism of Republican presidential candidates.
“President Obama’s focus on the booing at the latest GOP debate underscored his focus on politics over policy in his speech,” Berle said. “Such actions were quickly rebuked by Governors Huntsman and Johnson, after the debate, which was appropriate. His speech last night, much like his tenure as President, was more cheap shots and politics than substance on policy.”
The speech before HRC supporters could arguably be seen as a stump speech before the LGBT community as the Obama gears up his 2012 re-election campaign.
Obama enumerated five accomplishments he achieved for LGBT people in the first two-and-a-half years of his administration: passage of hate crimes protections legislation; issuing an order assuring hospital visitation rights for gay couples; lifting the HIV travel ban; repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; and declaring that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
Obama gave particular emphasis during his address to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was lifted from the books on Sept. 20 as the result of repeal legislation he signed in December.
“Many questioned whether we’d succeed in repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and, yes, it took two years to get the repeal through Congress.,” Obama said. “We had to hold a coalition together. We had to keep up the pressure. We took some flak along the way. But with the help of HRC, we got it done. And ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is history.”
Obama continued, “All around the world, you’ve got gays and lesbians who are serving, and the only difference is now they can put up a family photo. No one has to live a lie to serve the country they love.”
The audience warmly greeted Obama with cheers and applause. Attendees gave the president a standing ovation at least three times, including during his mention of bringing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to an end.
At one point, an audience member shouted to Obama, “Fired up!” The president immediately replied, “I’m fired up, too,” and continued his address.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, had particular praise for Obama while introducing the president and said his organization has accomplished “more in the last two years” than the previous seven.
“We must stand with those who have a history of standing with us and that includes Barack Obama,” Solmonese said. “No president has done more to improve the lives of LGBT people than Barack Obama.”
Some advocates were hoping that Obama would take the opportunity of speaking before an LGBT audience to endorse marriage equality.
Since last year, Obama has suggested he evolve to support same-sex marriage, although he hasn’t yet endorsed marriage rights for gay couples. The president offered no such support during his address.
John Aravosis, the gay editor of AMERICAblog, said Obama gave “the speech we expected, not the speech we deserved.”
“It was a safe speech, an election speech really,” Aravosis said. “He rightfully listed a number of excellent accomplishments, with the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal at the lead. But his term isn’t over, so what’s next? Marriage? An executive order on ENDA? … The president gave a good speech, but it could have been great.”
Obama also faced calls to publicly come out against anti-gay marriage initiatives that will be on the ballot next year in Minnesota and North Carolina. During his speech, the president didn’t explicitly mention these measures, but spoke out against efforts to enshrine discrimination in state laws and constitutions.
“There are those who don’t want to just stand in our way but want to turn the clock back; who want to return to the days when gay people couldn’t serve their country openly; who reject the progress that we’ve made; who, as we speak, are looking to enshrine discrimination into state laws and constitutions — efforts that we’ve got to work hard to oppose, because that’s not what America should be about,” Obama said.
Among the explicit plans of action that Obama stated during his speech were outstanding promises from his 2008 campaign that he pledged to accomplish, including legislative repeal of DOMA and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“I need your help to fight for equality, to pass a repeal of DOMA, to pass an inclusive employment non-discrimination bill so that being gay is never again a fireable offense in America,” Obama said.
Attendees at the HRC dinner hailed Obama and said the lack of announced support for marriage equality during his address isn’t as significant as other aspects of his speech or his accomplishments for LGBT people.
Gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) said Obama described LGBT issues during his address with an authenticity that “really is breathtaking.”
“He is singularly the most important president we’ve ever had when it comes to the advancement of rights for the LGBT community,” Catania said. “And his remarks here are so authentic. I believe who we saw is the real Barack Obama — someone who knows the importance of equality.”
On Obama’s lack of support for marriage equality, Catania said, “I hope that as we go forward, he find it in his next term in his capacity to openly support marriage equality — not just drop the defense of DOMA. But this is not the time to be diminishing his remarks. What he has done is nothing short of breathtaking.”
Mike Manning, a bisexual cast member of MTV’s “Real World D.C.” in 2009, said he heard exactly what he wanted to hear from Obama and had an exchange with the president after the speech.
“I don’t get star-struck with celebrities, but with Obama, of course, I did,” Manning said. “The only thing I could think to say to Obama was ‘Hey Obama, you’re awesome. He said, ‘Thank you. You’re awesome.’ So now I can die happy. The President of the United States said that I was awesome.”
On Obama’s position on marriage, Manning said, “I like the way that he’s letting the nation evolve with him on his views. My opinion is that Obama has always been supportive of same-sex marriage, but the fact that he is letting the nation evolve with him is very smart.”
Manning continued, “The way Obama handles things, he has a process for everything, and he’s very smart at planning things out. Like for his repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ he didn’t just sign an executive order, he actually took the time to get people on his side, and I think that’s what he’s doing right now with marriage equality.”
Bil Browning, the gay founder and editor-in-chief of the Bilerico Project, was less impressed with the president and wanted to hear more during his remarks.
“It effectively listed all of his accomplishments, but I found it a little lackluster and was hoping for less of a campaign speech and more for a celebration or an acknowledgment of how far he’d exactly come on our issues,” Browning said.
Browning said he’d like to see Obama publicly support marriage equality, but acknowledged he doesn’t know “if coming to a constituent dinner is the proper place to announce a big change policy, that he’s changed his position on marriage.”
Other notable attendees at the HRC dinner were D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and former second lady Tipper Gore. Gay administration officials John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director, and Fred Hocherg, head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank were also there. Lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who recently launched a campaign for a U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made separate addresses during the dinner.
No protesters were seen outside the Washington Convention Center prior to the HRC dinner. Demonstrators often protest Obama at the LGBT events in which he participates for his lack of support of marriage equality and HRC for allegedly being an elitist organization.
Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEQUAL, said protesting the HRC dinner “wasn’t a priority and didn’t seem strategic.”
“We’re focused on building a grassroots movement that can demand full federal equality for LGBT Americans — and with limited resources, we have to be discerning about how to direct the energy of GetEQUAL’s organizers,” Cronk said. “Since we decided that protesting at the event wouldn’t actually help us build that uncompromising and unrelenting movement, we’re staying focused on where we can have an impact.”
UPDATE: This post has been edited.
VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty
Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights
A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.
The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.
“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.
Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.
“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”
Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.
Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.
“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”
In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.
Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.
“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”
The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.
Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.
Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.
Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.
“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”
Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody
Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1
A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.
An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”
ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.
“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”
The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”
ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.
“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.
Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.
Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.
The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.
ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’
Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.
Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.
The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.
Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.
“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”
Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”
“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.
ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”
“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”
An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.
A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”
“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”
Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’
Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service
For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.
“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”
Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday
“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”
As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”
The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.
Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.
“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”
Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.
Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.
“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”
Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.
“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”
The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.
The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.
Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”
“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”
Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.
Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”
Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.
Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”
“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.
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