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DNC hiring of minister disappoints activists

Gay Dem officials defend Harkins, who opposes same-sex marriage



Derrick Harkins

‘My record clearly shows that I am a strong defender of the rights of all people, including LGBT people,’ Rev. Derrick Harkins told the Blade. (Photo courtesy of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church)

A minister opposed to same-sex marriage that the Democratic National Committee hired to reach out to people of faith says he’s a “strong defender” of the rights of LGBT people and supports civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

But same-sex marriage advocates say support for civil unions over marriage is unacceptable for the Democratic Party and that the DNC could have chosen among a number of prominent ministers that support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The DNC’s announcement in October that it had named Rev. Derrick Harkins, senior pastor of D.C.’s Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, to head its faith outreach program created an immediate stir when news surfaced that Harkins doesn’t support same-sex marriage and that he was incorrectly identified in 2009 as a supporter of D.C.’s same-sex marriage law.

“My record clearly shows that I am a strong defender of the rights of all people, including LGBT people,” Harkins told the Blade in an email exchange last week. “I consistently state, from the pulpit and elsewhere, that there is never a time when words or actions that dehumanize or marginalize any individual have a place in our life as a church and faith community.”

Observers in the religious press, including Christianity Today, have said Harkins is a generally progressive minister with strong ties to the Evangelical Christian community and black churches, attributes that could boost the Democratic Party’s standing with evangelical voters while shoring up support from black churches.

Although some LGBT advocates for same-sex marriage say they are disappointed and puzzled over the DNC’s decision to hire a same-sex marriage opponent for an important staff position, two prominent gay Democratic leaders have rallied to Harkins’ and the DNC’s defense.

Rick Stafford, chair of the DNC’s LGBT Caucus, and Brian Bond, former liaison to the LGBT community at the Obama White House and the current DNC national constituency director, released statements pointing to Harkins’ longstanding record of support on LGBT equality issues.

The two noted that while Harkins doesn’t support same-sex marriage, he supports full legal rights for same-sex couples through civil unions.

Stafford said in his statement, released by email, that it was Bond who “brought Rev. Harkins onboard at the DNC.”

In his own statement, Bond called Harkins “a progressive faith leader who supports the right of same-sex couples to equal benefits and equal protection under the law.”

Stafford, a longtime gay Democratic Party activist in Minnesota, said that “to mischaracterize Rev. Harkins’ views and demonize him as a roadblock to equality for LGBT Americans is not helpful to the ongoing effort of building coalitions in our journey to full equality.”

But a number of prominent LGBT advocates, including gay rights attorney Evan Wolfson, said the DNC’s decision to hire a minister opposed to same-sex marriage sends the wrong message to gays and their straight allies as the 2012 elections are fast approaching.

“The overwhelming majority of Democrats support the freedom to marry as do independents and growing numbers across the political spectrum,” said Wolfson, who heads the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry.

“The Democratic Party should be speaking out forcefully and forthrightly in support of the dignity and equality of all Americans and equal protection under the law, which includes the freedom to marry,” Wolfson said.

Asked if Rev. Harkins’ support for civil unions was an acceptable position for a DNC official, Wolfson said, “Does the reverend have a civil union?” When told that Harkins’ official biography says he’s married, Wolfson added, “Right, and for the same reason that marriage matters to people like him it matters to all of us, and that’s what equality does mean.”

DNC spokesperson Melanie Roussell, who said Harkins would not be available for a direct interview, arranged last week for Harkins to answer written questions submitted by the Blade.

When asked to explain his thinking on legal rights for same-sex couples, including civil unions versus marriage, Harkins suggested that his views were evolving.

“In my own journey, I am glad to be part of the ongoing dialogue that brings people of good will toward the goal of common ground, and to acknowledge that perspectives continue to change,” he said. “It’s worth noting that in the not too distant past, ‘traditional’ marriage was limited to same race, same religion, and same nationality. While theological debates may persist, the protections of the law, and the acknowledgement of the rights of same sex couples should be seen as just and fair.”

Roussell said Harkins could not respond to a question asking if he would support adding language to the Democratic Party platform next year backing same-sex marriage and calling on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which bans the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states that have legalized such marriages.

“It is inappropriate for any DNC staff member to comment on the party platform at this time,” Roussell said.

Harkins told the Blade in an email response that ministers he knows who supported the marriage bill pending before the D.C. City Council in 2009 “inadvertently” added his name to a list of clergy backing the marriage measure.

He said he was never contacted by members of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality to confirm whether he supported same-sex marriage. That was the group that compiled the list of clergy backing the law.

“I am certain that my name was inadvertently moved to the ‘confirmed’ category,” he said.

The list shows Harkins as the 93rd clergy person to be added to the 2009 petition declaring, “God is love and love is for everyone. In this spirit we raise our voices in the struggle for the right and freedom to marry” for same-sex couples.

“I count a number of the signers of the petition as personal friends, and all of them as colleagues in ministry, and take no exception to the fact that my name may have been included in initial discussions about potential signers,” Harkins said.

“But my signing the marriage equality petition would have implicitly taken our church toward a position on the issue without the benefit of the extensive consideration, and ultimately, congregational approval that would be needed for a decision as significant as this,” he said.

Nearly 200 ministers, rabbis and other clergy that supported the same-sex marriage bill agreed to have their names placed on the petition.

The D.C. Council passed the same-sex marriage law in December 2009 and then Mayor Adrian Fenty signed it a short time later. It took effect in March 2010 after clearing a required review by Congress.

Rev. Cedric Harmon, a member of the steering committee of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality and a leader among the city’s black clergy in support of the D.C. same-sex marriage law, said he was surprised and puzzled over Harkins’ assertion of opposition to same-sex marriage.

Harmon said he has known Harkins for many years and has worked with him on various progressive causes, including the development of sex education programs for the city’s historic black churches that called for acceptance of LGBT people.

“I know he personally had done a lot to move the conversation and dialogue around full equality forward, especially as it relates to sexual orientation and gender,” Harmon said.

John Aravosis, the gay rights advocate and publisher of America Blog was the first to report that Harkins’ name appeared on the 2009 list of clergy backing D.C.’s marriage law.

Aravosis took exception to Bond’s and Stafford’s assessment of Harkins, writing in an Oct. 28 posting that at least some in the LGBT community “were pretty upset that the Democrats would hire someone who doesn’t support our full and equal status as human beings.”

Lateefah Williams, president of D.C.’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, said the club has not taken a position on the DNC’s decision to hire Harkins. She said she had no immediate comment on the development.

Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., called the DNC’s action “a politically tone-deaf decision” that falls far short of what the Democratic Party should be doing in meeting its stated commitment to equality for all Americans.

“The Democrats are better overall than the Republicans by far, of course,” Rosendall said. “But that’s just not good enough. If the Democrats want gay voters to be strongly motivated in the coming election they need to stop being so hand-cringingly cautious in a way that this demonstrates.”

Rosendall said both the DNC and President Obama would gain more overall support in the 2012 election than they would lose by backing same-sex marriage. Obama has said he supports civil unions rather than same-sex marriage but that his position on the issue is evolving.

“It’s pretty clear to most folks who look at this that the people who are opposed to our equality are generally not going to vote for the president anyway,” he said.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said that while HRC is disappointed that the DNC’s new faith outreach director “is not a supporter of marriage equality, we recognize that Rev. Harkins is a strong supporter of many LGBT equality issues and we look forward to working with him on areas of mutual agreement.”


The White House

White House hosts roundtable with transgender youth

Friday was International Transgender Day of Visibility



Upwards of 1,000 people took part in the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in D.C. on March 31, 2023. The White House on the same day held a roundtable with young trans and nonbinary people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The White House said in a statement released Saturday said Presidential Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy “hosted a roundtable at the White House Friday about the joys, hopes and challenges that transgender children are experiencing.”

The roundtable took place on International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event occurring on March 31 dedicated to celebrating trans people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by trans people worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society.

This year’s Transgender Day of Visibility was one of the largest in years.

Huge crowds gathered in cities across the U.S. in celebrations of visibility and protest as over 450 bills that target queer and trans youth are under consideration or have been passed by state legislatures.

“Transgender kids and their parents traveled to the White House from states that have attacked the rights of transgender kids, including Arizona, Texas and Virginia, and shared the devastating effects these political attacks are having on their mental health and wellbeing,” reads a White House readout of the roundtable. 

“As one round table participant shared, it feels scary when the politicians elected to represent you don’t care about your wellbeing. Families participating in today’s roundtable also highlighted that transgender kids can thrive when parents love and affirm their transgender children, and when transgender kids have access to the support they need at school and in their communities,” it notes. “Ambassador Rice and Dr. Murthy reiterated the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing up for the rights of transgender kids and their parents, and to challenging state laws that harm transgender kids. They also thanked the families for their unwavering advocacy and bravery in challenging these discriminatory laws.”

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Fla. lawmakers pass bill to expand ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Hundreds of students protested in Tallahassee



More than 150 students protest Florida's "Don't Say Gay" expansion bill in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 31, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Equality Florida)

On International Transgender Day of Visibility, hundreds of students from across Florida descended on the Capitol to protest the legislature’s fast-tracking of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda of book banning and classroom censorship and assaults on academic and medical freedom.

Buses arrived from Central and South Florida in a collaboration between high school, college and university students called the Student Unity Coalition.

Organizers marched the coalition from Florida State University campus into the halls of the Capitol building just as the House of Representatives voted 77-35 in favor of House Bill 1069, which would expand the “Don’t Say Gay” law’s censorship provisions through 8th grade, ban parents from requiring the school system use their child’s correct pronouns, and escalating book bans, allowing one person from anywhere in the nation to challenge a book in a Florida school, prompting its immediate removal pending a lengthy review.

“The students who mobilized in the hundreds today sent a clear message about the Florida they want to grow up in,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders. “They want a Florida that values freedom — real freedom. Free states don’t ban books. Free states don’t censor LGBTQ people from society or strip parents of their right to ensure their child is respected in school. Students and families across Florida are fed up with this governor’s agenda that has put a target on the backs of LGBTQ people. Shame on DeSantis’ legislative cronies for peddling more anti-LGBTQ lies on the House floor today and ramming through an expansion of the censorship policies that have emptied bookshelves across the state and wreaked havoc on our schools. Shame on them for ignoring the voices outside demanding a state that respects all families and protects all students.”

House passage of HB 1069 comes as last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law wreaks havoc on Florida’s schools and drives educators and families from the state. DeSantis’ Florida has become synonymous with the sweeping book bans that are targeting books with LBGTQ characters or Black history themes, including “The Life of Rosa Parks” and “And Tango Makes Three.” Students’ graduation speeches have been censored.

Rainbow Safe Space stickers have been peeled from classroom windows. Districts have canceled long standing after school events and refused to recognize LGBTQ History Month.

The rampant right wing censorship has exacerbated Florida’s exodus of educators, with vacant teacher positions ballooning to more than 8,000, and, according to a recent survey from the Williams Institute, has led a majority of LGBTQ parents in the state to consider leaving Florida altogether.

On Thursday, parents and educators held a joint press conference outside the House chamber to decry this legislation and other proposals that would strip them, their students, and their families of the rights to academic and medical freedom.

That same day, Republicans lawmakers rejected numerous reasonable amendments to House Bill 1069, including a Parental Rights amendment by state Rep. Rita Harris that would have allowed parents to write a letter instructing schools on what pronouns their child should be addressed with, a clarifying amendment from state Rep. Ashley Gantt that would have finally defined the term “classroom instruction,” which bill sponsor state Rep. Stan McClain acknowledged has been left undefined and vague, and a marriage equality amendment by state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby that would have struck outdated and bigoted sex education language that mandates instruction on the benefits of “monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

The more than 150 high school and college students who rallied in Tallahassee filled the Capitol rotunda just before 1 p.m. ET, with their chants of “this is what democracy looks like” temporarily interrupting a disinformation-filled rant by GOP Representative, and sponsor of the bill to criminalize medical care for transgender youth, Ralph Massullo.

The “Don’t Say Gay” expansion bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 1320, will move next to its final committee, Fiscal Policy.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Justice Department appeals federal judge’s ACA ruling

Decision impacts PrEP, other preventative health services



The Pride flag over the Justice Department's D.C. headquarters (Photo courtesy of the Justice Department)

Justice Department attorneys filed a notice of appeal Friday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that employers cannot be forced to cover specified preventive health care services under the Affordable Care Act.

Thursday’s ruling means that more than 150 million Americans on employer-sponsored health plans will lose some cost-free coverage for immunizations, contraception, cancer screenings and PrEP.

O’Connor’s ruling struck down the recommendations that have been issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force regarding the preventive care treatments provisions required by the ACA directing insurers provide at no cost to the patient.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement on the Justice Department decision to appeal:

“The president is glad to see the Department of Justice is appealing the judge’s decision, which blocks a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that has ensured free access to preventive health care for 150 million Americans. This case is yet another attack on the Affordable Care Act, which has been the law of the land for 13 years and survived three challenges before the Supreme Court.
Preventive care saves lives, saves families money, and protects and improves our health. Because of the ACA, millions of Americans have access to free cancer and heart disease screenings. This decision threatens to jeopardize critical care.
The administration will continue to fight to improve health care and make it more affordable for hard-working families, even in the face of attacks from special interests.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein decried O’Connor’s ruling saying:

“Stripping away access to preventive care will hurt tens of millions of Americans. These services are essential, and eliminating them will have dangerous consequences. While we expect this unconstitutional ruling ultimately will fail, the decision creates uncertainty and is a threat to public health.

“With this devastating ruling, a Trump-appointed judge placed the health of millions of Americans in extreme danger, based on an extremist political agenda. Undermining screenings and treatment for cancer, blood pressure, pregnancy, and mental health doesn’t just hurt individuals — it damages the health of the entire country,” California state Sen. Scott Wiener said.

“The effect of this decision on HIV prevention will be disastrous. In recent years, we’ve made incredible progress reducing the number of new HIV infections, largely because hundreds of thousands of people are now taking PrEP, an HIV prevention drug proven to be essentially 100 percent effective. This decision reverses that progress by allowing health plans to charge patients through the nose for this life-saving medication, raising barriers to access for the communities of LGBTQ people and people of color most at risk. Judge O’Connor will soon have thousands of new HIV cases on his conscience,” Wiener added.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, released the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a ruling from O’Connor:

“Judge Reed O’Connor, already having attempted to invalidate the Affordable Care Act as a whole in 2018, has once again issued a ruling that puts the lives of Americans in danger. Preventive care is essential in helping to screen for potential severe health conditions and attempt to mitigate them — this ruling affects screenings for cancer, diabetes, STDs, cardiovascular disease, and so much more.

More than 150 million Americans currently have private insurance with coverage for preventive care under the ACA, yet a partisan judge in Texas is attempting to single handedly rollback access to these basic health care services. Equality California is committed to ensuring that these critical preventive services remain in place for the health of all Americans. We expect an appeal of this decision immediately. 

Thankfully, most health plans in California are unaffected by today’s ruling because existing state law already requires health plans regulated in California to cover preventive services without cost sharing. Today’s ruling may affect a small subset of employer-sponsored health plans that are not regulated by the state.

Equality California is proud to be sponsoring legislation with Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur and Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, AB (Assembly Bill) 1645, which will strengthen existing law and go even further to ensure that Californians have access to essential preventive services, including STD screening and PrEP for HIV prevention. While right-wing judges and politicians are attempting to roll back our rights and inflict harm on LGBTQ+ people, California will continue doubling down to protect the health and safety of our communities.”

Read the notice of appeal here:

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