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In reversal, same-sex marriage advocates playing offense

After years of fighting anti-gay forces, has the tide turned?

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The issue of same-sex marriage has returned to the national stage in an unprecedented way as numerous states throughout the country are seeing action on the issue.

In the past week, several states have seen developments on marriage. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law marriage legislation, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar bill that reached his desk. The Maryland House voted to approve marriage legislation by a vote of 72-67, clearing what is seen as the most difficult hurdle in getting the legislation to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk.

A surprise development in Hawaii was also announced on Wednesday. According to Hawaii News Now, Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) announced he would no longer defend in court a state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage against federal legislation, while Health Director Loretta Fuddy said she’d continue defending the amendment.

These actions come on the heels of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Anti-gay forces this week appealed the ruling to the full appellate court.

The issue is also at the ballot. Advocates in Minnesota and North Carolina are working to beat back anti-gay marriage amendments, while advocates in Maine are preparing to push the first ever pro-marriage equality ballot in their state.

Meanwhile, anti-gay forces continue threatening to take away marriage rights in New Hampshire through repeal legislation.

M.V. Lee Badgett, a lesbian professor of economics and director of the Center for Public Policy & Administration at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said she’s struck by “the tipping of the balance toward the proactive and positive side” of the debate on same-sex marriage.

In previous years, the issue of same-sex marriage has predominately seen activity in terms of anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives that — with the exception of Arizona in 2006 — have all been approved by voters, but that situation has changed.

“In four states, the marriage equality forces are on the offensive, with one new victory and others in sight,” Badgett said. “In a fifth, New Hampshire, the effort is more defensive to preserve an earlier win, and a sixth, Maine, is led by people determined to get back the right granted by the legislature but taken away by voters.”

Badgett, also research director at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted only two states, North Carolina and Minnesota, have situations “like the ‘old’ model” of efforts to institute a ban on same-sex marriage in state constitutions.

“That political progress is very likely to reflect a growing cultural acknowledgement that same-sex couples can have the same kind of loving, committed relationships as different-sex couples, so they should also have the same right to marry,” Badgett said.

The issue is already playing out in the 2012 presidential election as the candidates vying for the nomination have adopted positions against marriage equality as part of their campaigns.

Just after the marriage legislation was signed in Washington, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum made a campaign appearance in the state, saying Gregoire’s signature isn’t the “final word” and urging opponents of same-sex marriage to take action. Anti-gay forces have the opportunity to bring the measure to the ballot if they collect 120,577 petition signatures and deliver them to state officials before the June 6 deadline.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has taken an interest in the marriage issue as well. Prior to the New Hampshire primary, he said he supports the repeal of the same-sex marriage law in the state. Both Romney and Santorum have also decried the Ninth Circuit panel’s ruling against Proposition 8 in California.

But what about President Obama? Sixteen months after first saying he could “evolve” on the issue, the president has yet to publicly endorse same-sex marriage, despite other work his administration has done on behalf of same-sex couples, including calling for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and declaring the anti-gay law unconstitutional.

Last week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Air Force One that he wouldn’t weigh in on individual states’ actions on marriage and reiterated comments he previously made on the issue, saying Obama believes states should decide the issue and the president opposes taking away already established rights from couples.

“I would say only broadly, as I have said in the past, without weighing into individual states and their actions, that this president strongly supports the notion that the states should be able to decide this issue, and he opposes actions that take away rights that have been established by those states,” Carney said.

Pressed on whether Obama is still evolving on same-sex marriage, Carney said has “no update” on Obama’s views on the matter.

Richard Socarides, a New York-based LGBT advocate and former president of Equality Matters, said Obama should endorse same-sex marriage before Election Day.

“I do still believe it’s a good idea politically and I do still believe that he will cross that path and  end up announcing his official support for it, but beyond that I don’t have any serious predictions,” Socarides said.

Socarides said an endorsement from Obama would energize progressive Democrats in an election year and “remind them that he’s a president who stands strongly” with the LGBT community as well as increase the support among the majority of Americans who support same-sex marriage.

Additionally, Socarides said anyone who wouldn’t support Obaman because he endorsed same-sex marriage wouldn’t support the president anyway in an election.

“He kind of has the worst of both worlds now because no one thinks he doesn’t support same-sex marriage, and the people who want him to be more vocal in this regard aren’t satisfied,” Socarides said.

LGBT advocates are also seeking help from the Democratic National Committee on the issue of same-sex marriage on two fronts: an endorsement of same-sex marriage in the Democratic Party platform, which will be issued in the fall, and financial resources to assist pro-LGBT advocates with ballot measures in the various states.

Last week, Freedom to Marry launched a campaign to encourage members of the Democratic Party platform drafting committee to adopt an endorsement of same-sex marriage in the document as well as support for measures overturning DOMA and opposition to anti-gay marriage amendments. As of Wednesday, the organization’s petition had 15,528 signatures.

The proposed platform language has already seen endorsements from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and, just this week, Emily Tisch Sussman, executive director of the Young Democrats of America.

During a news conference last week, Pelosi expounded upon her endorsement of adding marriage equality to the Democratic Party platform.

“What I, as one person, say that I support, is not necessarily what the consensus document of the platform is, so I was just talking about me when I said that,” Pelosi said. “In fact, in my platform in 1982, it was a midterm platform for our convention in California. We respected the definition of ‘family’ that worked for people, where they found their support, their loving system, and their opportunity to raise a family or to be a family.”

As for contributing money to the fight for same-sex marriage at the ballot, the DNC has made no announcement about financial contributions to pro-LGBT forces in states where it’ll be an issue. According to The Advocate, Jeremy Kennedy, campaign manager for the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families, had a meeting with DNC officials to ask for help in defeating the anti-gay marriage amendment in North Carolina, but hasn’t heard a response.

The DNC didn’t respond on short notice to the Blade’s request for comment. During an LGBT fundraiser in D.C. in October, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz told the Washington Blade she’d “certainly consider” spending money to combat anti-gay constitutional amendments.

In a separate interview in January, Wasserman Schultz deferred to the platform committee on whether same-sex marriage will be included in the Democratic Party platform, although she said she’s supports marriage equality.

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Puerto Rico

Two men charged with attacking trans Puerto Rican woman plead guilty to federal hate crimes charges

Alexa Negrón Luciano attacked with paintball gun before her murder

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(Bigstock photo)

Two men on Monday pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes charges in connection with attacking a transgender woman in Puerto Rico in 2020.

A Justice Department press release notes Jordany Laboy Garcia, Christian Rivera Otero and Anthony Lobos Ruiz “were out driving together” in Toa Baja, a municipality that is about 15 miles west of San Juan, early on Feb. 24, 2020, “when they saw” Alexa Negrón Luciano “standing under a tent near the side of the road.”

“The defendants recognized A.N.L. from social media posts concerning an incident that had occurred the day prior at a McDonald’s in Toa Baja,” reads the press release. “During that incident, A.N.L. had used a stall in the McDonald’s women’s restroom.”

“Upon recognizing A.N.L., Lobos-Ruiz used his iPhone to record a video of himself yelling, ‘la loca, la loca,’ (‘the crazy woman, the crazy woman’) as well as other disparaging and threatening comments to A.N.L. from inside the car,” it notes. “The defendants then decided to get a paintball gun to shoot A.N.L. and record another iPhone video. Within 30 minutes, they retrieved a paintball gun and returned to the location where they had last seen A.N.L., who was still at that location. Lobos-Ruiz then used his iPhone to record Laboy-Garcia shooting at A.N.L. multiple times with the paintball gun. After the assault ended, Lobos Ruiz shared the iPhone video recordings with others.”

Negrón was later killed in Toa Baja.

Laboy and Rivera pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a hate crime and obstruction of justice. El Nuevo Día, a Puerto Rican newspaper, notes a federal judge sentenced Lobos to two years and nine months in prison after he pleaded guilty to hate crimes charges last November.

Laboy and Rivera are scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 10.

They, along with Lobos, have not been charged with Negrón’s murder.

“To assault an innocent victim who posed no threat to the defendants for no other reason than her gender identity is reprehensible behavior that will not be tolerated,” said U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow for the District of Puerto Rico in the Justice Department’s press release. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously defend the rights of all people, regardless of their gender identity, to be free from hate-fueled violence. Our community must stand together against acts of violence motivated by hate for any group of people — we remain steadfast in our commitment to prosecute civil rights violations and keep our communities safe and free from fear.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, spokesperson for Puerto Rico Para Todes, a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, on Tuesday welcomed the guilty pleas. Serrano also urged authorities to bring those who killed Negrón to justice. 

“The time for total justice for Alexa is now,” said Serrano in a press release. “Her murder was a hate crime. Nobody doubts this. They falsely accused her, persecuted her, hunted her, insulted her with transphobic epithets, uploaded onto social media a video of them accosting her and they killed her. There are already three individuals who will serve time in federal prison for attacking her in a hate crime. That’s some justice, but not complete.” 

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Federal Government

Barbara Lee: PEPFAR is ‘more in peril’ than ever before

Congress has yet to reauthorize funding for Bush-era HIV/AIDS program

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) speaks about the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Sept. 22 said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is “more in peril” now than at any point since its launch two decades ago.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” said Lee during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference that took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

Then-President George W. Bush in 2003 signed legislation that created PEPFAR.

Lee noted PEPFAR as of 2020 has provided nearly $100 billion in “cumulative funding for HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and research.” She said PEPFAR is the largest global funding program for a single disease outside of COVID-19.

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

The panel took place amid the continued push for Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years. The federal government will shut down on Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last December at a World AIDS Day event in D.C. acknowledged HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact LGBTQ and intersex people and other marginalized groups. A new PEPFAR strategy the Biden-Harris administration announced that seeks to “fill those gaps” over the next five years includes the following points:

• Targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ and intersex people, women and girls and other marginalized groups

• Partnerships with local organizations to help reach “hard-to-reach” communities.

• Economic development and increased access to financial markets to allow countries to manufacture their own antiretroviral drugs, tests and personal protective gear to give them “the capacity to meet their own challenges so that they’re not dependent on anyone else.”

The Family Research Council Action in an email to supporters urged them to tell Congress to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.” Family Watch International has said PEPFAR “has been hijacked to advance a radical sexual agenda.”

“Please sign the petition to tell the U.S. Congress to ensure that no U.S. funds go to organizations that promote abortion, LGBT ideology, or ‘comprehensive sexuality education,'” said the group in an email to its supporters. 

A group of lawmakers and religious leaders from Kenya and other African countries in a letter they wrote to members of Congress in June said PEPFAR, in their view, no longer serves its original purposes of fighting HIV/AIDS because it champions homosexuality and abortion.

“We wrote that letter to the U.S. Congress not to stop PEPFAR funding to Kenya, but to demand the initiative to revert to its original mission without conditioning it to also supporting LGBTQ as human rights,” it reads.

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

American officials earlier this year postponed a meeting on PEPFAR’s work in Uganda in order to assess the potential impact the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act will have on it. The law, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on May 29, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Biden in his U.N. General Assembly speech last week noted LGBTQ and intersex rights and highlighted PEPFAR. Family Watch International in its email to supporters included a link to the letter from the African lawmakers and religious leaders.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated both the FRC and Family Watch International as anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

“[PEPFAR is] not about abortions,” said Lee.

HIV/AIDS activists protest inside house speaker kevin mccarthy (r-calif.)’s office in d.c. on sept. 11, 2023. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during the panel referenced Bush’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that urged lawmakers to reauthorize PEPFAR.

“The way he put it is no program is more pro-life [than] one that has saved more than 25 million lives,” said Power.

Power referenced the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization.” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said a failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken “our own foreign policy and diplomacy.”

“Once again the United States will be missing in action,” stressed Lee.

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Legislation Melanie Egorin and Kenny Kamson, a Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist, also spoke on the panel that MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated. 

From left: U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Nkengasong and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power discuss the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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