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70 groups call on Obama to endorse anti-bullying legislation

SNDA may see vote this year on Senate floor

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A group of 70 organizations is asking President Obama to build on his work against bullying in schools by endorsing legislation pending in Congress that would prohibit harassment of LGBT students.

In a letter dated March 7, the groups ask Obama to endorse the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, which would prohibit and harassment in public elementary and secondary schools based on a student’s actual or perceived LGBT status. No federal law explicitly prohibits harassment against LGBT students in school.

“SNDA would provide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT”) students with long overdue and much needed explicit federal protections against discrimination and harassment,” the letter states. “The legislation also protects students who associate with LGBT people, including students with LGBT parents and friends.”

The organizations — led by the American Civil Liberties Union — include LGBT groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, as well as other groups, such as the American Psychological Association, the Feminist Majority and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Religious groups, such as the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ also signed the letter.

Obama has said he’s committed to combatting bullying and harassment in schools, but has yet to endorse legislation that would explicitly prohibit the bullying of LGBT students.

The letter asks Obama to endorse SNDA so that it has the same level of support from the White House as other pro-LGBT bills, such as the Respect for Marriage Act, which Obama endorsed in June, or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“An endorsement of the Student Non-Discrimination Act would likewise be a clarion call for equality in our schools and better protections for vulnerable children,” the letter states. “And more importantly, it would make clear to all Members of Congress what the administration views as a necessary federal legislative solution to the serious problem of anti-LGBT discrimination and harassment in our nation’s public schools.”

Groups send the letter to Obama ahead of March 10, which will mark the anniversary of the anti-bullying summit held at the White House in 2011. The event was seen as the hallmark effort of Obama’s commitment to combat bullying in schools.

Ian Thompson, the ACLU’s legislative representative, said an announcement in support of SNDA on the anniversary of the anti-bullying summit would have significant impact.

“An endorsement by the administration on the anniversary of the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention would be a powerful statement from the administration that all students are entitled to an education unhindered by discrimination and harassment,” Thompson said.

Other anti-bullying efforts the administration has undertaken include holding the first-ever federal LGBT youth summit in June and issuing guidance informing schools they may be violation of federal laws protecting students from harassment on the basis of gender by allowing anti-gay bullying. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials have also appeared in “It Gets Better” videos.

Just this week, the Departments of Justice and Education, together with six private plaintiffs and the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, came to an agreement on a consent decree to resolve alleged bullying and harassment of students who weren’t conforming to gender stereotypes.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama supports the goals of the SNDA, didn’t offer full-throated support of the bill.

“Without speaking to the specifics of this letter, I would note that the President supports the goals of the Student Non-Discrimination Act,” Inouye said. “As the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered by Congress, we look forward to working with lawmakers to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment.”

SNDA is sponsored by gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in the House and Sen. Al Franken in the Senate. The bill has 156 co-sponsors in the House and 37 co-sponsors in the Senate.

The legislation may see action on the Senate floor this year. Franken, who offered then withdrew the bill as an amendment to education reform legislation before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, said he’d offer SNDA as an amendment when the Education & Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill comes to the Senate floor. The bill is unlikely to come up as a standalone bill in the Republican-controlled House.

Obama administration officials have been repeatedly asked about whether the administration is ready to support SNDA. During a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a response to a question from the Washington Blade that having law on the books like the Student Non-Discrimination Act would “certainly be helpful,” but stopped short of endorsing the bill.

“We have had conversations with various stakeholders on the Hill and spoken about that, and are carefully reviewing that particular proposal,” Perez said.

Another piece of legislation pending before Congress, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, or SSIA, also aims to protect LGBT students from bullying. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) in the House and Sen Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in the Senate, would require schools to adopt anti-bullying codes of conduct and submit to states data to the Department of Education on bullying.

ACLU’s Thompson said SSIA isn’t mentioned in the letter for the sake of having a more clearly stated request to Obama.

“While SSIA and SNDA have complementary goals, the bills do different things,” Thompson said. “Many of the organizations on this letter also support SSIA, but in order to have as clear of an ‘ask’ as possible to the administration, we decided to focus this particular letter on SNDA.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Lisa Ford Berry

    March 8, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    The reason I will never give up is the peer abuse driven bullycide of my son on his 17th birthday September 15, 2008. The reason I will never retreat, and the reason that I do what I do, and the reason I never and I mean never apologize for making people uncomfortable – my youngest son Michael Joseph Berry, you are forever missed and forever loved and I will forever remain your mom in this life and the next – I love you to the moon and back! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=123023637779685&set=a.122752301140152.30912.109654835783232&type=3&theater

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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