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EXCLUSIVE: Connolly to co-sponsor adoption anti-bias bill

Va. lawmaker denounces GOP moves against gay parents, abortion

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Rep. Gerry Connolly (photo public domain)

A Democratic congressman from Northern Virginia has pledged to co-sponsor an adoption non-discrimination bill in the U.S. House in response to a GOP effort in Virginia to allow adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective gay parents.

In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he’ll co-sponsor the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would restrict federal funds for states that allow for discrimination in adoption based on LGBT status.

“I think on the merits it’s a good idea,” Connolly said. “Bringing children into a loving home is the object here, and that’s irrespective of the sexual orientation of the adults in that home. Can they provide a climate of love and protection and nurturing? That’s what children need.”

Connolly’s co-sponsorship of the bill, whose chief sponsor is Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), brings the total number of supporters to 92. The bill has one Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). In the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand sponsors the bill, which has nine co-sponsors.

Connolly announces his support for the federal bill as the Republican-controlled Virginia Legislature has approved anti-gay legislation that would allow private adoption agencies to discriminate in placements conflicting with their religious or moral beliefs, including on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill is on its way to the desk of Gov. Bob McDonnell, who’s indicated he’ll sign the measure.

Connolly said he wanted to co-sponsor the federal adoption anti-discrimination measure “especially in light of this odious, reactionary legislation in Richmond.”

“I want to do everything at the federal level in my power to try to counteract it, and [the Every Child Deserves a Family Act] give us that opportunity,” Connolly said.

Connolly denounced the Virginia Legislature for passing the anti-gay bill — calling it a “big step backward” — as he more broadly criticized state lawmakers for pushing forward with what he called “reactionary bills,” such as a measure requiring women to have an ultrasound before they have an abortion.

“Imagine mandating a medical procedure, even though that it’s not medically indicated for political reasons,” Connolly said. “Frankly, it’s a totalitarian state.”

Connolly said the anti-gay adoption bill is “not far removed from that same phenomenon” and predicted the passage of both bills will “hurt the economic climate” of Virginia.

“Big employers do not like any barriers — discriminatory barriers — to their hiring, to their workforce, to their ability creatively to get their work done,” Connolly said. “It’s an enormous step backwards — very injurious to the economic interests of the Commonwealth of Virginia, to say nothing of individual liberty.”

If McDonnell signs either piece of legislation, Connolly said the governor would become “radioactive” if he decides to pursue national office — such as running mate to the Republican presidential nominee.

“Good luck in explaining that in the general election to the American people,” Connolly said. “You have compromised the individual rights of every woman in America, and, as the national trend is going in the other direction recognizing long delayed rights of gay and lesbian individuals in America, here’s the Commonwealth of Virginia going in exactly the opposite direction.”

Although Connolly has signed on in support of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, he also predicted the legislation would no see movement in Congress as long as Republicans remain in control of the House.

“Sadly, this reactionary narrative with respect to the rights of gay and lesbian individuals has taken hold among the Republicans nationwide, and so I fully expect that the House Republican leadership will do everything in their power to block this legislation from going to the floor,” Connolly said.

The Virginia Democrat isn’t the only member of the federal delegation who’s a co-sponsor of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) is also a co-sponsor. The office of the other Virginia Democrat in the U.S. House, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on the bill.

Spokespersons for the two Democrats representing Virginia in the U.S. Senate — Mark Warner and Jim Webb — have said the officials are reviewing the bill. Warner last week denounced the anti-gay adoption legislation as “mean-spirited” and “wrong” during a political event in Richmond.

Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council and among the chief advocates of the legislation, commended Connolly for signing on in support of the bill.

“We are thrilled with Rep. Connolly’s support and the support of a growing number of lawmakers for the the Every Child Deserves a Family Act,” Chrisler said. “They all understand that this issue is about the best interests of the 404,000 children in foster care in our country. The current laws and policies in Virginia and other states are a barrier to kids finding a forever home.”

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Oklahoma

White House, national groups respond to nonbinary Okla. teenager’s death

Nex Benedict died after reported assault

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and national advocacy groups issued statements on Wednesday about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a high school restroom.

Benedict died on Feb. 8. According to ABC News, officials investigating the incident said they will be interviewing students and staff “over the next few weeks” and plan to share findings with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

The victim’s mother told the Independent that Benedict had suffered bullying over their gender since the start of the 2023 school year, shortly after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill to prohibit students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported at school,” Jean-Pierre said in a post on X. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, their friends, and their entire school community in the wake of this horrific tragedy.”

Calling Benedict’s death a “gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-trans hatred,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “We are reaching out to the DOJ, we are encouraging the community to speak out.”

Along with Robinson’s remarks, HRC’s Press Team included a link to the organization’s blog post about Benedict and a statement from Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the HRC Transgender Justice Initiative:

“Extremist anti-LGBTQ+ hate accounts, like online troll Chaya Raichik, the woman behind ‘Libs of TikTok’, who was recently appointed to Oklahoma’s library advisory board, are perpetuating a vile and hateful narrative that is permitting these types of public attacks,” she wrote.

State schools superintendent Ryan Walters, who last year called transgender youth using public restrooms “an assault on truth” and a danger to other kids, was responsible for naming Raichik to the library media panel.

“The assault on Nex is an inevitable result of the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory legislation targeting Oklahoma trans youth,” Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma wrote in a joint statement.

“We are deeply troubled by reports the school failed to respond appropriately to the altercation that preceded Nex’s death and demand a thorough, open investigation into the matter,” the groups wrote.

Their statement also notes the organizations’ lawsuit challenging Oklahoma Senate Bill 615, the bathroom bill signed by Stitt last year.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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Oklahoma

Nonbinary Okla. high school student dies after fight

Nex Benedict passed away Feb. 8

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Nex (Dagny) Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student, died from injuries suffered in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on Feb. 7, 2024. (Family photo)

Located in Tulsa County on U.S. Highway 169 six miles north of Tulsa’s city limits, Owasso, which is home to 39,328 people, is grappling with conflict and accusations after Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso High School sophomore who was nonbinary, died after a physical fight in a restroom at the school.

However, according to school officials there was no notification or staff awareness of the fight until the young student had been taken to hospital and later died. The Owasso Police Department is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the student’s death. 

According to the local newspaper, the Owasso Reporter:

“On Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to Bailey Medical Center by the parent of a 16-year-old Owasso High School student who allegedly had a physical altercation at the campus earlier that day, according to the police report.”

It states that no initial report of the fight was made to police prior to their admission to Bailey, although information was taken by a school resource officer at the hospital.

On the evening of Feb. 8, police were made aware that the student was rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead from a medical episode, the report states.

KJRH in neighboring Tulsa reported that a person knowledgeable of the events leading to the teen’s death, who claimed to be the mother of the victim’s best friend, told the station regarding the teen’s death:

“I think complications from brain trauma, head trauma, is what caused it,” she said.

The woman wouldn’t say the victim’s name but said Benedict was a sophomore. Bailey said the victim was outgoing and loyal once they got comfortable and was not afraid to be outspoken. The woman said three older girls were beating on the victim and her daughter in the girl’s bathroom.

“I know at one point, one of the girls was pretty much repeatedly beating [Benedict] head across the floor,” she said. That’s when [Benedict said] a teacher walked in and broke it up.

“[Benedict] couldn’t walk to the nurses’ station on [Benedict] own, and staff didn’t call the ambulance, which amazes me,” she said.

The woman told KJRH the victim’s grandmother, who [Benedict] primarily lived with, brought [Benedict] to the hospital after the fight. She said the victim was released that evening but was brought back the next day and died.

KJRH reached out multiple times along with other media outlets to Owasso Public Schools. A school district spokesperson responded saying there would be no comment “because this is an active police investigation.”

The Owasso Police Department also declined to comment except for noting investigators still don’t know if the fight was related to the teen’s death or if a separate medical issue was the cause. OPD said they’re waiting on the corner-medical examiner’s report before releasing more information.

Owasso Public Schools released this statement about the student’s death:

“The Owasso Police Department has notified district leaders of the death of an Owasso High School student. The student’s name and cause of death have not yet been made public. As this is an active police investigation, we will have no additional comment at this time. Further inquiries should be directed to the Owasso Police Department.”

“The district will have additional counselors at the school to provide support to students and staff beginning on Friday.”

On Feb. 15, after a service was held at Mowery Funeral Service Chapel, Benedict was buried at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Collinsville.

LGBTQ advocates and others are angered by the death, the misgendering in local media and the fact that the school district, which has been previously targeted by the far-right anti-LGBTQ extremist Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik, seems unable to grapple with anti-LGBTQ bullying.

Raichik was named to sit on an Oklahoma committee reviewing school library content by far-right leaning State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.

In 2022, Raichik targeted a now former Owasso 8th grade teacher for speaking out in support of LGBTQ students who lacked acceptance from their parents. That teacher, Tyler Wrynn, was labeled a “groomer” and a predator in social media posts.

According to LGBTQ advocacy groups, Raichik’s endless targeting only seems to encourage more violence against LGBTQ youth. 

Lance Preston, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, which has been working to assist queer youth in the state, posted a video expressing his frustration and anger over this death and the other anti-LGBTQ violence.

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