President Obama called on Americans to work toward a brighter future during a State of the Union address on Tuesday that hit on issues ranging from the economy, foreign policy and the environment — but lacked any substantial mention of LGBT-related policy issues.
In his speech before a joint session of Congress, Obama urged cooperation as he laid out a series of policy initiatives aimed at bolstering the nation’s standing both at home and abroad.
“As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful and the state of our Union will always be strong,” Obama said.
On the economic front, Obama outlined a blueprint built on four pillars: manufacturing, energy, skills for workers and a renewal of values.
Among the initiatives he identified were doubling tax deductions for high-tech companies that make products in the United States; creating a Trade Enforcement Unit charged with investigating unfair practices in countries like China; and proposing a Veterans Job Corps to encourage communities to hire veterans as cops and firefighters.
Obama also said he’d continue his pledge to work toward deficit reduction and make sacrifices in programs like Medicare and Medicaid in exchange for making sure millionaires pay at least 30 percent in taxes.
“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama said. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”
Foreign policy was also a major component of the speech. Obama touted the death of Osama bin Laden under his watch and the end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The president also said he “will take no options off the table” in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, although he prefers a peaceful resolution to the issue.
Coming off his decision to nix the Keystone Pipeline that would have carried oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, Obama acknowledged environmental groups by calling for alternative energy development.
“I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here,” Obama said. “We’ve subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough.”
But any reference to LGBT policy issues were absent from the speech. Obama only mentioned “gay” as part of a list of categories of people who could serve in uniform — a reference to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight,” Obama said.
A mention of LGBT issues wasn’t expected in the speech, although state advocates said an endorsement of marriage equality in the address could help with efforts to pass such legislation in Washington State and Maryland.
The president also faced calls to declare his intent to issue an executive order barring federal dollars from going to companies that lack LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies.
John Aravosis, who’s gay and editor of AMERICAblog, said Obama could have gone further in his speech to address LGBT issues.
“I didn’t really expect him to come out for marriage equality or even announce his support for an executive order on ENDA,” Aravosis said. “But at the very least he could have, should have, mentioned ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and recognized the two lesbians invited to sit with the first lady. It was far more understated than I think it should have been.”
The lesbians that Aravosis referenced were two guests that attended the speech in the first lady’s box with Michelle Obama after receiving invitations from the White House. The president made no mention of them in his address.
Lorelei Kilker, a 31-year-old analytical chemist from Brighton, Colo., was among a class of women benefiting from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s investigation of alleged sex discrimination at her former employer, the Western Sugar Cooperative. In October, those who were involved in the case received an award of $550,000, which was achieved through a cooperative process between the employer and EEOC.
The other invitee was 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 Blade reported in December on Wallace’s partner Kathy Knopf participating in Wallace’s “pinning-on” promotion ceremony.
Also in the address, Obama called for comprehensive immigration reform legislation and passage of the DREAM ACT, which would give young, undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they pursue military service or a college education.
“If election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country,” Obama said. “Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.”
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, commended the president for reissuing his call for immigration reform, but said that vision should be inclusive of binational LGBT families.
“The president laid out an eloquent vision this evening of an America where everyone plays by the same rules, and shares the same opportunities and chances,” Ralls said. “The tens of thousands of LGBT binational couples who live every day with the threat of separation, or are already separated or in exile, want nothing more than that.”
Under current law, straight Americans can sponsor their foreign spouses for residency in the United States. That option isn’t available to gay Americans seeking marriage-based green cards for foreign same-sex partners. Legislation known as the Uniting American Families Act would rectify this situation.
“It also time for the president to endorse, and call for the passage of, the Uniting American Families Act,” Ralls said. “The administration has taken important steps forward in recent months, including exercising discretion to keep some couples together. We’re prepared, and ready, to work with the White House to make that progress permanent, and pass UAFA, whether alone or as part of a comprehensive bill.”
LGBT groups on the right and left responded to the State of the Union speech in accordance with their political views.
Chris Barron, chief strategist of the gay conservative group GOProud, said gay and straight Americans alike know that policies like those Obama advocates for in his speech have been a disaster for the country.
“Barack Obama used tonight’s State of the Union to stoke the fires of class warfare,” Barron said. “It is clear that this president fundamentally doesn’t understand how jobs are created. Instead of taking responsibility for the failures of his presidency, he has instead decided to double down on his failed policies that will undermine our free market economic system that is responsible for making America the greatest country on the planet.”
Barron was at the National Press Club during the State of the Union address with former Republican presidential candidate and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who delivered the Tea Party response to the speech.
Jerame Davis, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said Obama’s speech was “a bold and clear vision for the future” and distinct from what he called the “tired and disproven schemes” advocated by Republican presidential candidates.
“Equality is a value at the heart of our movement and tonight, the president described a blueprint for America that is undeniably pro-equality — everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed and everyone should pay their fair share,” Davis said. “From a sensible and fair tax policy to rebuilding America’s infrastructure, the president’s blueprint for a lasting economy is exactly what our country needs to put millions back to work and make the American Dream a reality for generations to come.”
Yet another national LGBT group urged Obama to continue work on his LGBT advocacy.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said Obama should “urge his administration and Congress to work together to ensure that everybody — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — have an opportunity to offer their unfettered best to America.”
“This is a challenge right now, in a nation where the rich are getting richer and everyone else is struggling to tread water,” Carey said. “Many families are hurting, and LGBT families are just as vulnerable to economic hardship. The fact is, the state of the union for LGBT people remains largely one of inequality. In many parts of the country, we can still be fired from or denied employment for simply being who we are, and marriage inequality relegates our families to second-class status.”
Does a potential overturn of Roe imperil LGBTQ rights?
Some fear that Obergefell marriage decision could fall
The oral arguments before the justices of the United States Supreme Court had barely ended in the case brought by the state of Mississippi defending its law banning abortion after 15 weeks, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when alarms were set off in legal circles as some argued that Obergefell v. Hodges — the same-sex marriage decision — would be in danger should the high court rule to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler, appearing on NPR’s ‘Heard on All Things Considered,’ told host Mary Louise Kelly that there was a basis for concern over whether the court would actually overrule its precedents in other cases based on the questions and statements raised during the hearing by the conservative members of the court.
Asked by Kelly if she saw a legal door opening Ziegler affirmed that she did. Kelly then asked her, “Them taking up cases to do with that. What about same-sex marriage?”
Ziegler answered, “Yeah, same-sex marriage is definitely a candidate. Justices Alito and Thomas have in passing mentioned in dicta that they think it might be worth revisiting Obergefell v. Hodges – the same-sex marriage decision.
“And I think it’s fair to say that in the sort of panoply of culture war issues, that rights for same-sex couples and sexual orientation are still among the most contested, even though certainly same-sex marriage is more subtle than it was and than abortion was.
“I think that certainly the sort of balance between LGBTIQ rights and religious liberty writ large is a very much alive issue, and I think some states may try to test the boundaries with Obergefell, particularly knowing that they have a few justices potentially willing to go there with them.”
As almost if to underscore the point raised by Ziegler during the hearing, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor pointed out that the high court has taken and “discerned” certain rights in cases from the Constitution.
Along with abortion, the court has “recognized them in terms of the religion parents will teach their children. We’ve recognized it in their ability to educate at home if they choose,” Sotomayor said. “We have recognized that sense of privacy in people’s choices about whether to use contraception or not. We’ve recognized it in their right to choose who they’re going to marry.”
In following up the cases cited by Justice Sotomayor, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who was defending the state’s abortion law, whether a decision in his favor would affect the legal precedents in those cases cited by Justice Sotomayor.
In his answer to Justice Barrett, the state’s Solicitor General said cases involving contraception, same-sex marriage and sodomy wouldn’t be called into question because they involve “clear rules that have engendered strong reliance interests and that have not produced negative consequences or all the many other negative stare decisis considerations we pointed out.”
However, Lambda Legal Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director, Sharon McGowan had a different take and interpreted remarks by Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to mean that the decisions in Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized private sexual intimacy between same-sex couples, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down remaining bans on the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, would actually justify overturning Roe v. Wade.
In a publicly released media statement McGowan noted: “During today’s argument, Justice Kavanaugh suggested that two key Supreme Court decisions protecting LGBTQ civil rights—Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges—support overruling Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
‘To that we say, NOT IN OUR NAME. LGBTQ people need abortions. Just as important, those landmark LGBTQ decisions EXPANDED individual liberty, not the opposite. They reflected the growing societal understanding of our common humanity and equality under law.
“Just as the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education rejected the lie of ‘separate but equal,’ the Supreme Court’s decisions in Lawrence and Obergefell appropriately overruled precedent where it was clear that, as was true with regard to race, our ancestors failed properly to acknowledge that gender and sexual orientation must not be barriers to our ability to live, love, and thrive free of governmental oppression. …
“These landmark LGBTQ cases, which Lambda Legal litigated and won, and on which we rely today to protect our community’s civil rights, were built directly on the foundation of Casey and Roe. Our interests in equal dignity, autonomy, and liberty are shared, intertwined, and fundamental.”
On Sunday, the Blade spoke with Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national LGBTQ+ legal organization that represented three same-sex couples from Tennessee, whose case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court along with Obergefell and two other cases.
Minter is urging caution in how people interpret the court arguments and remarks made by the justices.
“We should be cautious about taking the bait from anti-LGBTQ groups who falsely argue that if the Supreme Court reverses or undermines Roe v. Wade, they are likely to reverse or undermine Obergefell or Lawrence. In fact, that is highly unlikely, as the argument in Dobbs itself showed,” he said.
“The only reason Justice Kavanaugh mentioned Obergefell and Lawrence, along with Brown v. Board of Education, was to cite them as examples of cases in which the Supreme Court clearly did the right thing. All of those decisions rely at least as strongly on equal protection as on fundamental rights, and even this extremely conservative Supreme Court has not questioned the foundational role of equal protection in our nation’s constitutional law,” Minter stressed.
During an interview with Bloomberg magazine, David Cortman, of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist hate group, said “two things in particular distinguish abortion from those other privacy rights: the right to life and the states’ interest in protecting a child.”
Cortman, whose group urged the justices to allow states to ban same-sex marriages, said those other rights may be just as wrong as the right to an abortion. “But the fundamental interest in life that’s at issue in abortion means those other rights are probably not in any real danger of being overturned.”
But Cortman is of the opinion that there is little impetus among the court’s conservatives to take up challenges to those cases.
However, the fact that the six to three makeup of the high court with a conservative majority has progressives clamoring for the public to pay closer attention and be more proactively engaged.
Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, in an emailed statement to the Blade underscored those concerns:
“Reports and analysis coming out of Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization are extremely disturbing and represent a threat to our individual constitutional rights to privacy and autonomy. There is no ‘middle ground’ on what the Constitution guarantees and what was decided decades ago with the Roe v Wade decision.
“This is about liberty, equality, and the rule of law, not the political or partisan views of those sitting on the bench. The unprecedented decision to remove a constitutional right recognized by the Supreme Court 50 years ago would set back civil rights by decades. ….
“Abortion access is essential, and a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Bans on abortion are deeply racist and profoundly sexist – the harshest impacts fall on Black and Brown women and pregnant people and on our families and communities.
“If you think this decision will not affect you, think again: a wrong decision by the Supreme Court means you, too, will lose your bodily autonomy, your ability to own your own personal and community power. This is not just about abortion; it is about controlling bodies based on someone else determining your worthiness. This is a racial justice issue. This is a women’s issue. It is an LGBTQ issue. It is a civil rights issue. These are our fundamental rights that are at stake.”
Minnesota middle school principal ousted for displaying Pride flag
Critics ramped up attacks on the career educator- some compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students
MARSHALL, Mn. — A former middle school principal in Minnesota who lost her job after displaying a Pride flag alleges in a federal lawsuit that the school system retaliated against her for supporting LGBTQ+ students.
Mary Kay Thomas filed the complaint against Marshall Public Schools in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota Tuesday after anti-LGBTQ+ middle school staff, parents, students and local clergy began efforts to remove the Pride flag that she put up in her middle school’s cafeteria in 2020 as a part of an inclusiveness effort.
According to the lawsuit, Thomas has been a teacher and principal for more than three decades with a long track record of success. She held the principal position at Marshall Middle School for 15 years, receiving contract renewals, pay raises and praise for her performance.
“But when Thomas decided to display an LGBTQ Pride Flag in the school cafeteria in early 2020, everything changed,” reads the complaint.
Thomas refused to take down the Pride flag as critics ramped up attacks on the career educator. The lawsuit alleges that some even compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students.
“Sadly, the Marshall School District has sided with these critics,” her lawyers wrote.
What followed was an “escalating series of adverse actions” taken by the Marshall School District, said the lawsuit. She claims that the school targeted her by threatening her employment, conducting a “bad-faith” investigation, putting her on indefinite involuntary leave, suspending her without pay and putting a notice of deficiency in her personnel file.
The complaint says that the deficiencies were “false, distorted, and/or related to Thomas’s association with members of the LGBTQ community.”
Thomas also claims that the District attempted to get her to quit by removing her as principal and assigning her to a “demeaning ‘special projects’ position.”
At one point, Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams, who is named as a defendant in the case, told Thomas he could “make this all go away” if she stepped down, according to the complaint.
The school removed the Pride flag in August 2021 after settling a lawsuit brought by residents who opposed it.
The Blade reached out to Williams for comment but did not receive a response. However, according to the Marshall Independent, Williams did release a statement on the matter.
“Marshall Public Schools is committed to the education of every child and has strong policies and practices in place against discrimination, against both students and staff members. The school district is committed to creating a respectful, inclusive, and safe learning and working environment for students, staff and our families,” Williams said. “While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct. The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”
In addition, Thomas alleges that she resisted unwanted sexual advancements from school board member Bill Swope. She claims she told Williams about the sexual harassment.
As of Thursday, the school has not filed a response, and no hearing has been scheduled yet.
Thomas is seeking a jury trial, damages and reinstatement as principal of Marshall Middle School.
Matthew Shepard honored at National Cathedral
Daylong services held to mark his 45th birthday
The parents of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a 1998 hate crime that drew international attention to anti-LGBTQ violence, were among those attending a day of religious services commemorating Shepard’s 45th birthday on Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral.
The services, which the Cathedral organized in partnership with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, included tributes to Shepard at the Cathedral’s St. Joseph’s Chapel, where his remains were interred in a ceremony in 2018.
“Matthew Shepard’s death is an enduring tragedy affecting all people and should serve as an ongoing call to the nation to reject anti-LGBTQ bigotry and instead embrace each of our neighbors for who they are,” the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral, said at the time of Shepard’s interment.
“In the years since Matthew’s death, the Shepard family has shown extraordinary courage and grace in keeping his spirit and memory alive, and the Cathedral is honored and humbled to serve as his final resting place,” Hollerith said.
The first of the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard began at 7 a.m. with prayers, scripture readings, and music led by the Cathedral’s Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan. The service was live streamed on YouTube.
An online, all-day service was also held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. that Cathedral officials said was intended to “connect people around the world to honor Shepard and the LGBTQ community and pray for a more just world.”
The Shepard services concluded with a 5:30 p.m. in-person remembrance of Shepard in the Cathedral’s Nave, its main worship space. Among those attending were Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who have said they created the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue their son’s support for equality for all.
A statement released by the Cathedral says a bronze plaque honoring Matthew Shepard was installed in St. Joseph’s Chapel to mark his final resting place at the time Shepard was interred there in 2018.
Following the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard, the Adams Morgan gay bar Pitchers hosted a reception for Dennis and Judy Shepard, according to Pitchers’ owner David Perruzza.
One of the two men charged with Shepard’s murder, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty to the charge after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty for him. The second of the two men charged, Aaron McKinney, was convicted of the murder following a lengthy jury trial.
Prosecutors said McKinney repeatedly and fatally struck Shepard in the head with the barrel of a handgun after he and Henderson tied Shepard to a wooden fence in a remote field outside Laramie, Wy., on Oct. 6, 1998. Police and prosecutors presented evidence at McKinney’s trial that McKinney and Henderson met Shepard at a bar in Laramie on that day and lured him into their car, where they drove him to the field where authorities said McKinney fatally assaulted him.
Shepard died six days later at a hospital in Ft. Collins, Colo., where he was taken after being found unconscious while still tied to the fence.
In a dramatic courtroom scene following the jury’s guilty verdict for McKinney, Dennis Shepard urged the judge to spare McKinney’s life by not handing down a death sentence. He said that out of compassion and in honor of his son’s life, McKinney should be allowed to live. The judge sentenced McKinney to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the same sentence given to Henderson.
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