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Will Senate address bullying in education reform?

Franken, Casey may offer pro-LGBT amendments

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Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Senate committee markup this week could present an opportunity to include LGBT anti-bullying measures as part of larger education reform legislation — although whether the panel will act remains unclear.

Starting Wednesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee will consider amendments and vote on legislation to reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, an extensive law that helps fund primary and secondary schools throughout the country.

President Obama has identified reauthorization of the law, which was last updated in 2001 during the Bush administration with the No Child Left Behind Act, as among his priorities for this year. At the onset of the 112th Congress, passage of education reform — and possibly LGBT-inclusive legislation — was seen as an area where where a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate could come to an agreement to take action.

LGBT advocates had been pushing for the inclusion of two-LGBT bills as part of education reform — the Student Non-Discriminination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, is sponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the Senate. It establishes sexual orientation and gender identity in schools as protected classes. The bill prohibits school activities receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating against LGBT students. Discrimination also includes harassment of a student.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act, or SSIA, is sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in the Senate. It would require schools receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct that prohibit bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The legislation would also require states to report data on bullying and harassment to the Department of Education.

Whether Franken or Casey will offer amendments based on these bills during the Senate HELP committee’s markup remains to be seen. The offices of both senators were non-committal on plans to offer them during the markup process.

Alexandra Fetissoff, a Franken spokesperson, said the senator is committed to SNDA but has yet to make a decision on the best opportunity to introduce the legislation before the Senate.

“He’s currently weighing his options — offering the bill to the committee or as an amendment when ESEA comes to the floor,” Fetissoff said. “He’s hopeful that SNDA will pass as he firmly believes it’s the right thing to do and he believes his colleagues will come to realize that.”

Should Franken offer the amendment during the committee markup process, he should have no problem getting the measure through the committee. All 12 Democrats on the panel are co-sponsors of the bill, which should give it majority support for passage. The legislation has no Republican co-sponsors.

April Mellody, a Casey spokesperson, similarly said plans aren’t yet settled on whether or not her boss will introduce SSIA as an amendment during the markup. She said Casey is “currently working with the other members regarding the amendment process.”

But Mellody said language in the chairman’s mark for the base bill already addresses bullying. Under a provision called Successful, Safe and Healthy Schools, schools receiving grants under the program must have student conduct policies that prohibit bullying and harassment, a key principle of SSIA.

Mellody said Casey is “pleased” with the provision, but would like to see language with enumerated categories that is explicitly LGBT-inclusive.

“Sen. Casey believes those policies should also include specific characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity, among others, as protected categories,” Mellody said.

Should Casey decide to offer SSIA as an amendment during committee, he could have more difficulty than Franken would if he offered up SNDA. Of the 12 Democrats on the panel, 10 are co-sponsors. Sens. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) aren’t co-sponsors of the bill.

On the Republican side, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is an original co-sponsor of the bill, bringing the total number of co-sponsors to 11. That could be short of the 12 votes needed for passage if the bill comes up during committee.

However, given that Bingaman and Bennett are co-sponsors for SNDA and voted in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal last year, their support for SSIA is likely should the measure come up in committee.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said plans remain “up in the air” over whether SNDA or SSIA will come up during the committee markup.

“We don’t know how this is going to turn out,” Cole-Schwartz said. “Certainly, we’ve been advocating on the Hill very strenuously for both of these provisions into the reauthorization, working with our allies in Sen. Casey’s office and Sen. Franken’s office.”

Cole-Schwartz said “it’s poignant” the markup would take place at the same time that the bullying of gay students who committed suicide has been in the news and around the same time as Spirit Day. On Thursday, millions of Americans are expected to wear purple as a sign of support for LGBT youth and to speak out against bullying.

“I think the Senate has a great opportunity to take advantage of this moment that we’re in and really do something to improve the lives of these young people,” Cole-Schwartz said.

If Franken and Casey were to move forward with these amendments, they would be doing so without explicit backing from the Obama administration. President Obama has yet to endorse either SNDA or SSIA.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the administration continues to support the goals of the bills, but stopped short of offering explicit support for them.

“We support the goals of both of these efforts,” Inouye said. “As the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment.”

UPDATE: An LGBT rights advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is the “obstacle” in including SNDA and SSIA in the education reform markup.

The advocate said Harkin isn’t opposed to the bills, but wants “a clean markup process” so education reform “can sail through” without opposition. Harkin co-sponsors both SSIA and SNDA.

“They want clean markup processes so that their bills can go through without opposition,” the advocate said. “So there’s kind of a dance and negotiation going on.”

The anonymous advocate said Franken and Casey are “really trying to negotiate their way” to include their bills in the committee markup, but no decision has yet made on whether they’ll offer those amendments.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: The committee markup process has been halted after objections from Republican senators. In committee, Harkin said he expects the panel to reconvene either in the evening on Wednesday or early Thursday.

A Harkin spokesperson, also speaking anonymously, responded to the assertion that the senator is an “obstacle” in including SSIA and SNDA in the committee markup by saying Harkin has “long supported efforts to ensure that all children feel safe and secure in our schools.”

“He believes that no student should be forced to endure harassment, discrimination, violence, bullying or intimidation for any reason, including their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the spokesperson said. “Chairman Harkin is an original co-sponsor of the Student Non-Discrimination Act and is committed to working with Sen. Franken, author of SNDA, and Sen. Casey, author of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, to ensure all students are given the opportunity to succeed free from harassment or discrimination.”

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Pennsylvania

Gay journalist murdered inside Philadelphia home

Josh Kruger’s death has left city ‘shocked and saddened’

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Josh Kruger with his cat Mason (Photo courtesy of Josh Kruger's Facebook page)

An openly gay journalist was shot to death in his Point Breeze neighborhood home in the 2300 block of Watkins Street in South Philadelphia early Monday morning.

According to Officer Shawn Ritchie, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department, 39-year-old Josh Kruger was shot at about 1:30 a.m. and collapsed in the street after seeking help. Kruger was transported to Penn Presbyterian Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 2:13 a.m.

Police said that Kruger was shot seven times throughout the chest and abdomen and that no weapons were recovered nor have any arrests been made. Homicides investigators noted that there was no sign of forced entry and the motive remains unclear.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement:

“Josh Kruger lifted up the most vulnerable and stigmatized people in our communities — particularly unhoused people living with addiction. As an openly queer writer who wrote about his own journey surviving substance use disorder and homelessness, it was encouraging to see Josh join the Kenney administration as a spokesperson for the Office of Homeless Services.

Josh deserved to write the ending of his personal story. As with all homicides, we will be in close contact with the Philadelphia police as they work to identify the person or persons responsible so that they can be held to account in a court of law. I extend my deepest condolences to Josh’s loved ones and to all those mourning this loss.”

WHYY reported Kruger had written extensively with bylines in multiple publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine, the Philadelphia Citizen, WHYY, and Billy Penn.

CBS News reported that Kruger overcame homelessness and addiction to work for five years in city government, handling Mayor Jim Kenney’s social media and serving as the communications director for the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

He left city government in 2021 to return to journalism, according to his website.

“He was more than just a journalist,” Kendall Stephens, who was a friend and neighbor of Kruger’s, told CBS News. “He was more than just a community member. He was somebody that fought that great fight so many of us are not able to fight that fight because we’re too busy sheltered in our own homes wondering if someone is going to knock down our doors and kill us the same way they killed him. The same way they tried to kill me. And we’re tired of it.”   

Kenney said in a statement that he is “shocked and saddened” by Kruger’s death.

“He cared deeply about our city and its residents, which was evident in his public service and writing. Our administration was fortunate to call him a colleague, and our prayers are with everyone who knew him.”

The District Attorney’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee issued the following statement:

“Many of us knew Josh Kruger as a comrade who never stopped advocating for queer Philadelphians living on the margins of society. His struggles mirrored so many of ours — from community rejection, to homelessness, to addiction, to living with HIV, to poverty — and his recovery, survival, and successes showed what’s possible when politicians and elected leaders reject bigotry and work affirmatively to uplift all people. Even while Josh worked for the mayor, he never stopped speaking out against police violence, politicized attacks on trans and queer people, or the societal discarding of homeless and addicted Philadelphians.

We are devastated that Josh’s life was ended so violently. We urge anyone who has information that could lead to an arrest and prosecution for Josh’s murder to contact the Philadelphia Police or the DA’s Office directly. LGBTQ+ Philadelphians experience violence of all kinds every day; few people used their platforms to remind powerful people in government of that reality as effectively as Josh Kruger did. Josh and the communities he advocated for every day of his life deserve nothing less than justice and accountability for this outrageous crime.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Lesbian mother from El Salvador released from ICE custody

Jessica Barahona-Martinez arrested on June 26, 2017

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(Bigstock photo)

A federal judge last week ordered the release of a lesbian mother from El Salvador who had been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017.

Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez and her three children entered the U.S. on May 31, 2016. A court filing notes she fled “persecution she faced in El Salvador as a lesbian, and because the government had falsely identified her as a gang member.”

Barahona-Martinez lived with her sister and other relatives in Woodbridge, Va., until ICE arrested and detained her on June 26, 2017. She was housed at two ICE detention centers in Virginia until her transfer to the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a privately-run facility the GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates in Basile, La., in October 2020. 

An immigration judge in November 2019 granted Barahona-Martinez asylum for the second time. The government appealed the decision and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which the Justice Department oversees, ruled in their favor.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana last month filed a writ for habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana’s Lafayette Division that asked for Barahona-Martinez’s release. U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty on Sept. 27 ruled in her favor.  

“Petitioner (Barahona-Martinez) ultimately argues that her prolonged detention violates due process; she moves that this court issues a temporary restraining order, requests release, a bond hearing, an expedited hearing and costs and attorney fees,” wrote Doughty.

“This court finds that petitioner has plausibly alleged her prolonged detention violates due process,” added Doughty.

An ACLU spokesperson on Monday told the Blade that ICE has released Barahona-Martinez and she is once again in Virginia with her children and sister. 

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State Department

State Department hosts intersex activists from around the world

Group met with policy makers, health officials, NGOs

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The State Department last week hosted a group of intersex activists from around the world. (Courtesy photo)

The State Department last week hosted five intersex activists from around the world.

Kimberly Zieselman, a prominent intersex activist who advises Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, brought the activists to D.C.

• Morgan Carpenter, co-founder and executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia

• Natasha Jiménez, an intersex activist from Costa Rica who is the general coordinator of Mulabi, the Latin American Space for Sexualities and Rights

• Julius Kaggwa, founder of the Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development Uganda

• Magda Rakita, co-founder and executive director of Fujdacja Interakcja in Poland and co-founder of Interconnected UK

• Esan Regmi, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign for Change in Nepal.

Special U.S. Envoy for Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer and Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine are among the officials with whom the activists met.

Zieselman told the Washington Blade on Sept. 21 the activists offered State Department officials an “intersex 101” overview during a virtual briefing.

More than 60 Save the Children staffers from around the world participated in another virtual briefing. Zieselman noted the activists also met with Stern, U.N. and Organization of American States officials, funders and NGO representatives while in D.C.

“The people we met were genuinely interested,” Rakita told the Blade.

Stern in an exclusive statement to the Blade said “the visiting intersex activists clearly had an impact here at State, sharing their expertise and lived experience highlighting the urgency to end human rights abuses, including those involving harmful medical practices against intersex persons globally.” Andrew Gleason, senior director for gender equality and social justice at Save the Children US, in a LinkedIn post he wrote after attending his organization’s meeting with the activists echoed Stern.

“There are many learnings to recount from today’s discussion, but one thing is clear, this is unequivocally a child rights issue, and one that demands attention and action at the intersection of LGBTQI+ rights, reproductive rights and justice, disability justice and more,” wrote Gleason. “Gratitude to the panelists for sharing such poignant testimonies and providing insights into what organizations like ours can do to contribute to the broader intersex movement; and thank you to Kimberly for your leadership and bringing this group together.”

The activists’ trip to D.C. coincided with efforts to end so-called sex “normalization” surgeries on intersex children.

Greek lawmakers in July passed a law that bans such procedures on children under 15 unless they offer their consent or a court allows them to happen. Doctors who violate the statute face fines and prison.

Germany Iceland, Malta, Portugal and Spain have also enacted laws that seek to protect intersex youth. 

A law that grants equal rights and legal recognition to intersex people in Kenya took effect in July 2022. Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory earlier this year passed the Variation in Sex Characteristics (Restricted Medical Treatment) Bill 2023.

Intersex Human Rights Australia notes the law implements “mechanisms to regulate non-urgent medical care to encourage child participation in medical decisions, establish groundbreaking oversight mechanisms and provide transparency on medical practices and decision making.” It further points out the statute “will criminalize some deferrable procedures that permanently alter the sex characteristics of children” and provides “funding for necessary psychosocial supports for families and children.”

“It’s amazing,” Carpenter told the Blade when discussing the law and resistance to it. “It’s not perfect. There was some big gaps, but physicians are resisting every step of the way.”

The State Department in April 2022 began to issue passports with an “X” gender marker.

Dana Zzyym, an intersex U.S. Navy veteran who identifies as non-binary, in 2015 filed a federal lawsuit against the State Department after it denied their application for a passport with an “X” gender marker. Zzyym in October 2021 received the first gender-neutral American passport.

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