Connect with us


White House holds LGBT health summit

Officials hail LGBT progress at Philadelphia conference



PHILADELPHIA — The White House heard the concerns of LGBT people here during the first of a series of conferences aimed at allowing the Obama administration to engage directly with the LGBT community and highlight its achievements.

More than 300 people from 22 states attended the conference, which was focused on LGBT health, on Thursday in the Dorrance H. Hamilton Building at Thomas Jefferson University.

Obama administration officials touted their work over the past three years on health and LGBT issues. Conference participants asked questions of officials in a town-hall style format — many focused on transgender inclusion of the administration’s LGBT work — and participated in workshops on issues such as LGBT aging, youth and transgender health as well as the health care reform law and engagement opportunities with the administration.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius delivered the keynote speech and emphasized the purpose of the conferences was to allow the Obama administration to have greater engagement with the LGBT community.

“The goal of these conferences is to talk about some of the work that we’re doing that might be of interest to you in health, but it’s also a real opportunity … to listen, to have you share your ideas and your challenges and your struggles with us because that really helps us inform our policy each and every day,” Sebelius said.

The secretary invoked President Obama’s State of the Union address, recalling his emphasis on “fairness” as a core American value, and said this sense of fairness applies to LGBT people.

“We need to have an America that values everyone and has the same set of values and same set of rules for everyone,” Sebelius said. “And that belief means ensuring that LGBT Americans have the same protections and opportunities as their neighbors, as their colleagues, as their family members.”

Sebelius also emphasized the importance of the health care reform law. Among the LGBT-specific areas the secretary trumpeted was preventing insurers from discriminating against someone based on LGBT status, initiating data collection efforts on LGBT health and expanding to facilitate searches for health insurance plans covering same-sex partners.

The secretary also touted the insurance exchanges aimed at lowering costs to make health care more affordable.

“Every American in 2014 will have access to an insurance exchange, either run by the state or run by the federal government,” she said. “The only thing that the state can do is opt out of running it themselves, but believe me, right behind them, is us.”

Sebelius also addressed the administration’s effort to combat HIV/AIDS through the National AIDS Strategy, noting that half of all black gay men in urban areas are living with the disease.

“The result is more momentum behind domestic HIV efforts today than we’ve had for nearly a decade, and we’re only just beginning,” Sebelius said. “We think we have an opportunity … to look at a generation that will be HIV free.”

On Monday, Obama made public his budget request for fiscal year 2013, which includes an increase in funding for domestic HIV/AIDS programs, but flat-lined research programs and cut the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which is aimed at fighting AIDS overseas.

No mention was made about progress in research efforts to lift the Food & Drug Administration’s ban prohibiting gay and bisexual men from donating blood. HHS told members of Congress in July it was studying four areas to determine whether it could end the ban.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management and the most senior openly gay official in the Obama administration, delivered opening remarks at the event that catalogued Obama’s LGBT achievements, including repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and discontinuation of the defense of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

“I grew up in a time when it was OK to discriminate based on sexual orientation, when I could be kept from a loved one’s hospital bed, when I couldn’t serve the country I loved just because of who I loved,” Berry said. “Many of us in this room grew up in the midst of that fear and hostility, but thankfully the tide is turning.”

Berry cited the legal briefs the Obama administration has filed in cases against DOMA: both in Golinski v. United States and Windsor v. United States.

“I encourage you, if you’ve never read a legal brief, pick this one up,” Berry said. “It explains why discrimination based on sexual orientation is entitled to heightened constitutional scrutiny, and that is based upon the history that we have lived through and why they conclude — the president and the Justice Department — that Section 3 fails that scrutiny.”

Outstanding work on LGBT issues that the president wants to see accomplished, Berry said, includes removing DOMA from the books and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

After his speech, Berry told the Washington Blade that he couldn’t “go into any specifics” about forthcoming LGBT-related policy changes.

“The beauty of having over 200 LGBT appointees embedded across our government is that every day they’re making changes in regulations and forms and laws and working in policies that are making the future,” Berry said.

Berry deferred questions to the White House on whether the new initiatives would include an executive order requiring federal contractors to have LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies.

The conference also featured a panel of three HHS officials: Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging; Howard Koh, assistant secretary of health; and Ken Choe, deputy general counsel. Greenlee and Choe are openly gay.

During his remarks on the panel, Greenlee said she “must crow about” how HHS recognizes diversity within the LGBT community as it works on related issues.

“The people at HHS are sophisticated enough and committed enough to understand that LGBT is not a word and that each of those letters represents a different community,” Greenlee said. “As we do the analysis of our work, there are times that we stop and say, ‘What are we doing for the transgender community? Do we have anything for bisexuals? And lesbian and gay health are different issues.”

According to the White House, later conferences planned in other places throughout the country will focus on topics including — but not limited to — housing and homelessness, safe schools and communities, and HIV/AIDS prevention. An informed source said the next conference will take place March 9 in Detroit and will focus on LGBT homelessness.

Kellan Baker, a health policy analyst for the Center for American Progress’ LGBT research and communications project, attended the conference.

“It’s amazing that LGBT health is the first in this series of really groundbreaking events that the White House is doing, and it’s really exciting to have the secretary here to talk about all the great work that HHS is doing now and that they’re planning to do in the future,” Baker said.

But Baker identified one area of improvement that HHS could pursue: expanding the search option on to find plans that don’t exclude care for transgender people.

“I get a lot of questions about where to find lists of plans or policies that don’t include these exclusions,” Baker said. “Almost every single plan — including Medicare, most state Medicaid plans, most private plans, including those sold through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program — has exclusions that specifically target care for transgender people and make it impossible for them to get a wide range of care, including basic primary care.”

Laurie Young, director of aging and economic security for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, was also in attendance and said the conference was important because it enabled members of the LGBT community to voice concerns.

“I think it’s just stunning that everyday people get to stand up and talk about what they feel and talk about what they need, and the administration’s listening,” Young said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Howard Koh, assistant secretary of health, is openly gay. The Blade regrets the error.


Federal Government

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

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them



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.

Continue Reading

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



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.”

Continue Reading

U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff



trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

Continue Reading

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade