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Lesbian who fought workplace discrimination ‘honored’ to attend SOTU

Kilker to join handful of guests in first lady’s box

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Lorelei Kilker (left) with her partner Sara Nelson (photo courtesy Kilker)

The invitation to witness the State of the Union address on Tuesday alongside first lady Michelle Obama came as a surprise to a lesbian analytical chemist who last year fought alleged workplace sex discrimination.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, Lorelei Kilker, 31, of Brighton, Colo., said she learned she was invited to attend the speech upon receiving a call from a White House official on Sunday.

“It was a Sunday and the middle of the day,” she said with a laugh. “They left a message on my phone from someone who said, ‘This is the White House.’ I was very shocked. I didn’t think that anything like this would happen. I was honored and shocked.”

One of a handful of guests that have been selected to sit in the first lady’s box in the House gallery, Kilker will watch President Obama deliver his speech at 9 p.m. before a joint session of Congress.

Kilker described the feeling of being able to sit next to first lady Michelle Obama to watch the president as he gives his speech as “overwhelming.”

“You see the president and you see the first lady on TV,” Kilker said. “You recognize them, but I never in a million years would have thought I would have the opportunity to see them in person. It’s pretty great.”

Kilker said she’ll be traveling to D.C. with her partner of three-and-a-half years, Sarah Nelson, who’s 33 and works at Dick’s Sporting Goods. They have two children, ages four and seven. However, Kilker will be attending the speech on her own.

The message that Kilker hopes to hear from President Obama on Tuesday night: “getting America back together, becoming united.”

Asked whether she’d like to hear something from Obama on LGBT issues, such as an endorsement of same-sex marriage, Kilker replied, “I think that that’s important. There have been steps, but we need something stronger.”

What would Kilker want to say to Michelle Obama if they have an opportunity to chat? Kilker said she’d commend the first lady for being an admirable person.

“The only thing I would say to her is that I think she’s a positive and strong female role model, and the Obama administration has done a lot for civil rights as opposed to other administrations,” Kilker said.

Kilker was invited to attend the State of the Union address after she received monetary relief in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case that investigated alleged sex discrimination she faced at while employed at the Western Sugar Cooperative.

According to an EEOC statement from when the case was resolved in October, EEOC found Western Sugar denied women training and promotions, gave them less desirable work assignments and segregated positions by gender at its Ft. Morgan, Colo., facility. Additionally, the company allegedly denied year-round employment and paid lower wages to women.

Western Sugar has denied any wrongdoing and maintains it’s an equal opportunity employer, but agreed to resolve the matter through EEOC’s reconciliation process.

But Kilker contends that women “had certain jobs they were allowed to have, and there were certain jobs that they were not allowed to have.”

“The jobs that women had were mediocre, they paid less,” Kilker said. “There was really no opportunity for advancement. The male jobs were higher-wage, promotions, things like that.”

When she tried to enter one of these “male jobs,” Kilker said she was repeatedly denied the opportunity despite her record.

“The management would come up to me and promise me that they were going to do this, they were going to do this,” Kilker said. “Then, they would go back and say, ‘No we’re not going to do this. No we’re not going to this. We changed our mind.”

Additionally, Kilker said management at the company singled her out for sexual harassment that made her “working life miserable” until she eventually quit her job.

“My family received phone calls saying that I was doing sexual activities in order to do jobs, and things like that,” Kilker said. “It got pretty disgusting.”

Kilker said the discrimination she faced was the result of her gender and not her sexual orientation. She said she doesn’t believe her former employer knew she was a lesbian.

On the grounds that the alleged discrimination was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kilker filed charges on behalf of herself and other women at the company.

As a result of arrangements that were achieved through a cooperative process between the employer and EEOC, Kilker and others involved in the class-action case received $550,000 in relief. Further, Western Sugar agreed to remedial relief such as training for all employees and appointed an internal representative who’ll report to the EEOC to monitor the company’s employment practices for the next three years.

Kilker said she received “the majority share” of the $550,000, although she couldn’t recall the exact portion of that amount she received.

“I was so happy,” Kilker. “It had taken so many years that I just had kind of gotten to the point where I was over it. And then, the investigator at the EEOC really got into it, and it was just amazing how far they came with that.”

According to the White House, EEOC has obtained almost $50 million in monetary relief through administrative enforcement for victims of sex-based wage discrimination since the creation of the President’s Equal Pay Task Force in January 2010. Additionally, EEOC obtained changes to workplace practices that benefit more than 250,000 workers, and filed five cases including sex-based wage discrimination claims.

Although EEOC was able to resolve the issue, Kilker said more advancements are necessary to protect workers against discrimination.

Kilker said she supports the idea of Obama taking action administratively to bar discrimination in the workplace. Some LGBT rights advocates have urged the president to issue an executive order preventing federal dollars from going to companies without LGBT-inclusive workplace non-discrimination protections.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Kilker said. “It’s just another step in the right direction, and that’s what we need.”

But Kilker won’t be the only LGBT person attending the State of the Union. The other lesbian invitee is Air Force Col. Ginger Wallace, who’s 43 and lives in McLean, Va. She’s currently training to deploy to Afghanistan in the spring through the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program.

The Washington Blade reported in December on Wallace’s partner Kathy Knopf participating in her “pinning-on” promotion ceremony, the first reported instance of such an event happening with a same-sex partner since the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

On Tuesday, Wallace told the Blade that she and her partner are “honored and humbled” to represent LGBT people and families who’ve served in the armed forces.

“We’re just amazed that we were chosen to do that,” Wallace said. “We’re just humbled to represent this unique section of people. There are really are a lot of exceptional gays and lesbians who serve in our military.”

If she has an opportunity to speak with Michelle Obama, Wallace said she’d thank the first lady — as well as second lady Jill Biden — for their work leading the national campaign called “Joining Forces,” which was launched in April to support military families through public service outreach and partnerships.

“They have worked tirelessly to increase support for military families, ensure that military families are taken care of,” Wallace said. “That’s important work, especially today. After 10 years of conflict, 10 years of deployment — that’s taken its toll.”

Wallace said she hopes Obama during his speech will the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as one of the accomplishments of his administration.

“I hope it is highlighted as a success, and I think, more importantly, I hope it is received by the audience as a success,” Wallace said. “I hope this is seen as the success I think the administration thinks it is.”

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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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