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Huntsman out, endorses Romney

Candidate backed civil unions, advocated for equality

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Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr., announced on Monday he was bringing to an end his bid for the White House, marking an end to the candidacy of one of the most pro-gay contenders in the Republican field.

In an address to supporters at Myrtle Beach, S.C., the former Utah governor announced he was exiting the race and throwing his support behind frontrunner Mitt Romney.

“I am suspending my campaign for the presidency,” Huntsman said. “I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama. Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Gov. Mitt Romney.”

The former Massachusetts governor wasn’t in attendance during the event, but said via Twitter, “I salute Jon Huntsman & his wife Mary Kaye. He ran a campaign based on unity not division, & love of country. I appreciate his support.”

During his announcement, Huntsman criticized the “onslaught of negative and personal attacks” that he said comprised presidential campaigns, adding they distracted from the common Republican goal of seeking new leadership for the country.

“At its core the Republican Party is a party of ideas, but the current toxic form of our political discourse does not help our cause, and is just one of the many reasons why the American people have lost trust in their elected leaders,” Huntsman said.

Much attention has given to negative Super PAC ads in the presidential campaign, including ones that attack on Romney for his treatment of companies he purchased as head of Bain Capital.

Huntsman announced his departure after he finished third place in the New Hampshire primary and took 17 percent of the Republican vote. Many observers said a strong showing the libertarian-leaning state was crucial for the moderate candidate to continue his campaign.

Leaders of gay conservatives groups had different reactions to Huntsman’s exit, but had similar takes on the inclusiveness the candidate promoted during his presidential campaign.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of National Log Cabin Republican, said Huntsman supporters — including himself — are “sad to see such a solid pragmatic conservative” discontinue his presidential bid.

“Governor Huntsman noted that America is more divided than ever and that we are suffering an economic deficit and trust deficit,” Cooper said. “Log Cabin Republicans concur, and for our nation to move forward together with new leadership and unite, the Republican Party must first unite. A big tent approach is necessary for beating Obama. Politics is about addition.”

Cooper was selected as among the D.C delegates to the Republican National Convention who was pledged to Huntsman.

According to Cooper, whether he and other delegates supporting Huntsman will stay committed to the candidate is in question and will be determined by the Huntsman campaign, the D.C. Republican Committee and the D.C. Board of Elections.

“In short, no one really knows at this point,” Cooper said. “Each jurisdiction is different, so there may be places where Huntsman and other former contenders remain on primary ballots.”

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, responded to Huntsman’s exit by praising the candidate for throwing his support behind Romney.

“Jon Huntsman knows what most Republicans know — Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee because he’s the best candidate to take on Barack Obama in the general election,” LaSalvia said. “I’m glad to see Gov. Huntsman’s endorsement today because now is the time for all of us to unite behind Gov. Romney to defeat Obama in November.”

LaSalvia had endorsed Romney in op-ed piece published in the Daily Caller, citing economic and tax policy as reasons to support the candidate. The endorsement was a personal one, and not on behalf on GOProud.

Huntsman’s campaign was distinct among other Republican candidates because he took a tone and adopted positions that were more pro-gay than other GOP contenders seeking office.

The candidate had expressed support for civil unions and supported the general notion of moving toward equality. Unlike other candidates, Huntsman made no commitment to back a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.

“I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality, and I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to reciprocal benefits,” Huntsman said during an August debate.

Still, there was limit to how far Huntsman would go. During a recent debate, Huntsman said he’s a “traditionalist” on marriage and thinks it “ought to be saved for one man and one woman.” Huntsman also said he thinks the Defense of Marriage Act “serves a useful purpose.”

Jerame Davis, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said Huntsman’s exit from the demonstrates that moderates have no place within the Republican Party.

“Jon Huntsman was far too reasonable and thoughtful for the GOP base, but his worst transgression was having served as President Obama’s Ambassador to China,” Davis said. “The last gasp of bipartisanship has escaped the lips of the Republican Party today. His exit signals the final retreat of reason from the Republican presidential nomination contest.”

Davis also faulted Romney for not appearing to accept Huntsman’s endorsement in person during the former Utah governor’s speech.

“Though expected, his tepid and tenuous endorsement of Mitt Romney was underscored by Romney’s decision not to bother showing up to receive it,” Davis said. “It seems Romney treats his electoral endorsers about as well as he treated the companies he demolished at Bain.”

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The White House

LGBTQ activists among Global Women of Courage Award recipients

White House ceremony took place Monday

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From left: First lady Jill Biden, Volha Harbunova and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Screen capture via State Department's X account)

First lady Jill Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday hosted the 18th annual International Women of Courage Awards ceremony at the White House.

A State Department press release notes the IWOC Award “recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality and the empowerment of women and girls, in all their diversity — often at great personal risk and sacrifice.”

The State Department since March 2007 has honored more than 190 women from 90 countries with the IWOC Award.

The process involves U.S. diplomatic missions overseas nominating a potential honoree from their respective host countries. Senior State Department officials who represent a diverse range of backgrounds and causes then select and approve the finalists.

Honorees after the IWOC ceremony will then participate in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program with additional programming in Los Angeles. Two of this year’s honorees — Volha Harbunova from Belarus and Myintzu Win from Myanmar — promote LGBTQ rights in their respective countries. Their bios that the State Department provided are below.

Volha Harbunova

Volha Harbunova, a Belarusian human rights defender, stands out among the 2024 IWOC awardees for her unwavering dedication to advocating for the rights of women, children, the LGBTQI+ community and other marginalized groups in Belarus. Her courage became evident in the wake of the fraudulent 2020 elections in Belarus when she organized women’s marches. Subsequently imprisoned by the Lukashenka regime, Ms. Harbunova endured psychological torture and death threats for assisting abused women while incarcerated.

Upon her release, facing the specter of continued repression, Ms. Harbunova sought refuge in Lithuania. In exile, she joined the cabinet of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian democratic movement. Serving as the Representative for Social Issues, her mandate includes advocating for the release of political prisoners and providing support to former political prisoners and their families. Additionally, she promotes psychosocial support to the Belarusian community in exile.

As the former head of the NGO Radislava, which was ultimately shuttered by the Lukashenka regime, Ms. Harbunova spent two decades pioneering activism in support of victims of domestic violence. Her organization operated one of the only shelters for children and women in Belarus.

Myintzu Win

Myintzu Win, a veteran criminal defense lawyer from Burma, is another standout among the 2024 IWOC awardees. Her advocacy extends to marginalized communities, including women, children, the indigent, persons with disabilities and the LGBTQI+ community. Ms. Win, a tireless defender of fundamental rights, has pro bono defended over 500 clients, overcoming significant obstacles in Burma’s legal landscape.

In her previous role as a legal advisor to the International Development Law Organization, Ms. Win’s dedication extended beyond individual cases. She focused on strengthening judicial capacity and empowering legal professionals in Burma. Today, her commitment to societal equity and legal fairness continues as she leads a legal aid team founded in 2017. The team imparts legal training to law students as pro bono lawyers, promotes public legal awareness of the rule of law throughout Burma and collaborates with freelance lawyers to provide crucial legal support to those in dire need.

The recognition of Volha Harbunova and Myintzu Win with the IWOC Award underscores the global importance of their efforts in advocating for justice, equality and the empowerment of the marginalized. As they join the ranks of previous honorees, their stories serve as an inspiration for women around the world.

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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