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Gill’s ‘stealthy’ activism to continue under new leader

Fordham maintains contact with former boss Mark Foley



Kirk Fordham (right) with his partner Mike Cevarr and their sons Lukas and Levi. (Photo courtesy Fordham)

The Gill Action Fund’s new leader promises to continue the organization’s brand of stealthy, behind-the-scenes activism.

Kirk Fordham, who was named March 1 as head of the Denver-based organization, said in a Washington Blade interview he envisions a “degree of stealthiness” for Gill Action under his leadership in addition to working openly in efforts to advance LGBT rights throughout the country.

“I think it’ll be a hybrid of some deployment of highly trained gay SWAT teams, as I like to call it, and some of us will just be working very transparently with the existing organizations that are already on the ground,” Fordham said.

One of the advantages of Gill Action compared to other LGBT groups, Fordham said, is being able to deploy small teams of activists to regions where “there may be a gap and there may be a need to effect change on a pretty rapid basis.”

“That will allow us to perhaps go into some areas deep into the heartland of this country where there may not have been a lot of focus and activity to advance either non-discrimination or marriage equality or anti-bullying legislation,” Fordham said.

Gill Action — founded by gay billionaire philanthropist Tim Gill in 2005 — has a reputation for secrecy. Fordham will start in his new position April 16.

The group has played a role, without seeking credit, in passing statewide pro-LGBT legislation in various states, including the marriage equality legislation in New York. After an initial 2009 vote on same-sex marriage in the state failed, Gill Action funded a campaign in the state, called Fight Back New York to unseat state senators opposed to marriage equality, which ultimately unseated three senators.

Asked whether Gill Action would seek greater engagement with the media as it undertakes new initiatives, Fordham said the level of public engagement would “depend on the project” the organization is pursuing.

“There are sometimes where it may be to our community’s advantage not to broadcast exactly what our roadmap and our strategy might be on a particular issue or particular state, but I don’t think there’s a desire to speak sparingly with the press because they don’t trust the press or they have a hostile relationship,” Fordham said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s such a strategic decision on perhaps the element of surprise.”

According to a 2008 report in The Advocate, Gill Action in the 2006 election directed $2.8 million in nationwide contributions through its OutGiving program to 68 candidates across 11 states, and 56 of those candidates won. One of the more controversial ads funded by the organization was deployed against former Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, author of the Federal Marriage Amendment. It depicted an actress dressed like her stealing a watch from a corpse in an open coffin, criticizing her for her vote on a tax for funeral homes.

Fordham said Gill Action will take a look at the broader map to determine places other than urban areas and states on the coasts to lay the groundwork “for cementing a better quality of life for LGBT people, even in the most conservative parts of the country.”

“Now that some of the lower hanging fruit has been picked, it’s time to start harvesting in less fertile territory,” Fordham said. “So, I believe, that we have literally millions of people that are living in states that have no protection whatsoever from workplace discrimination, relationship recognition and their schools. And so, I think, we want to start advancing some of those protections in places where they’re most needed.”

Fordham was reluctant to identify any particular areas where Gill Action would focus its attention, saying such decisions haven’t been made yet. But, asked whether Minnesota would be a place where resources could be directed, he said the state would be “high on the list of places that would be on our priority list.”

“My sense is that most Minnesotans are pretty fair-minded folks,” Fordham said. “So I think we’re going to be taking a very close look at that state as a horizon state where there are opportunities to make some progress.”

Assuming the anti-gay marriage amendment that will come before voters in the state in November is defeated, Minesota could be poised to legalize same-sex marriage if the Democrats take control of the legislature. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has expressed support for marriage rights for gay couples.

Growing up in a Christian and Republican family, Fordham said he also has experience with parents who initially were unhappy about his sexual orientation, but later came to terms with it, and he knows what it takes to change the hearts and minds of people like them.

“When I first came out, they sent me these Focus on the Family books and tapes and magazines,” Fordham said. “They were praying everyday that I would see a path back to heterosexuality. Now that I’ve been with my partner for 23 years, we’ve adopted two kids, they welcome us as part of the family. They’re a perfect case study of how conservative Republicans who happen to be people of faith can come around and change their attitudes.”

Fordham lives in Coral Gables, Fla., with his partner, Mike Cevarr, and their two sons, Lukas and Levi. The family will relocate to Denver when Fordham takes the helm of Gill Action.

A lifelong Republican, Fordham currently serves as CEO of Everglades Foundation, but has had experience working for several GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, even some with anti-gay records. He also worked for former Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned after a scandal involving male pages in 2006. While still a college student, Fordham worked for James Inhofe of Oklahoma, then a member of the U.S. House. He’s also worked for Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida.

Fordham said he “absolutely” plans on reaching out to Republican lawmakers to influence them on LGBT issues and he knows “how to speak their language.”

“Once you move past the first and second-tier states where you have Democratic legislatures and friendly Democratic governors, the list of options starts to get more difficult, we can either wait and hope that someday, those states will have Democratic elected officials that are friendly, or we can start having a conversation with those currently elected Republican leaders in legislatures that have Republican supermajorities,” Fordham said.

Fordham has received congratulations on his new role across the board from groups like the Center for American Progress, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force as well as praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and pro-LGBT Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Still, skepticism remains that Fordham will be able to bring change within the Republican Party.

Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, said Fordham is qualified for the position, but questions how effective he can be with Republicans on LGBT issues.

“I take issue with this idea that because he’s a Republican, he can influence Republican votes because that’s utter nonsense,” Besen said. “Republican votes that are not coming our way has nothing to do with the arguments we’re making; it has nothing to do with a lack of effort. It has everything to do with the religious right as the Republicans’ most powerful constituency. They will do what’s necessary to please them.”

Although Fordham has worked for numerous Republicans, his most infamous former employer is former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who resigned in 2006 amid media reports he sent inappropriate messages to underage pages on Capitol Hill. Fordham was chief of staff for Foley after having worked on his campaign in 1994. While working for Martinez as the scandal broke, he helped broker agreements with the media on the story and testified before the House Ethics Committee on the issue. Foley later came out as gay.

Reflecting on the Foley scandal, Fordham said it was “one of the great crisis-management experiences” of his life and “a disappointment” because Foley was popular and well-regarded in his Republican caucus.

“It’s a perfect example of how someone through some reckless and irresponsible actions can flush down the toilet a promising political career,” Fordham said.

While working as chief of staff for Foley, Fordham said he had no knowledge of his boss sending inappropriate text and instant messages, but knew that he was engaging with pages and younger staffers.

“What I saw was the same kind of behavior you see among some heterosexual members of Congress: spending time socializing with on the floor of the House or in the halls of the Capitol, paying an inappropriate amount of attention to younger staffers or pages,” Fordham said. “Although that kind of behavior isn’t criminal, it’s certainly something that I thought crossed the line for a member of Congress as far as how they ought to conduct themselves.”

Fordham said he told the Ethics Committee everything and the steps “I took to try to influence my boss’s behavior,” saying the report that was produced in the end was favorable to him. According to media reports, Fordham had informed the staff of then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert about Foley’s behavior, but no action was taken.

Although they didn’t speak for a year after the event, Fordham says he now maintains a personal relationship with Foley and they have periodic phone conversations. Foley is based in West Palm Beach, while Fordham resides near Miami.

“I think he’s trying to rehabilitate himself and he’s now engaged in the community up there,” Fordham said. “We talked about the potential of him running for mayor of West Palm Beach. I gave him my best advice, and in the end, he decided not to run. So, I still hear from him once in a while, but I do believe in forgiveness and redemption for everyone, even when they break the public trust and do things that we consider really bad behavior.”


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Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber



The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Federal Government

Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU



Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls



From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

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