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Bi-national gay couples file lawsuit targeting DOMA

Case follows administration’s refusal to hold green cards in abeyance

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A new lawsuit was filed Monday challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act — this time on the grounds that it discriminates against married bi-national same-sex couples seeking to remain together in the United States.

Immigration Equality, an LGBT advocacy group, filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on behalf of five gay couples. The law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP joined the organization in filing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, known as Blesch v. Holder, targets the inability of these spouses to secure residency in the United States through the marriage-based green card application process.

Americans in opposite-sex marriages can sponsor their foreign spouses for residency in the United States, but that option isn’t available to same-sex couples because of DOMA. These couples are at risk of separation if the foreign national is undocumented or if a temporary visa obtained for work or some other purposes expires.

“Because of DOMA, the federal government does not recognize the marriages of same-sex couples and, therefore, denies them the immigration rights afforded to other married couples,” the complaint states. “As a result, these couples live their lives at constant risk of separation.”

The five couples represented in the lawsuit are Edwin Blesch and his South African spouse, Tim Smulian, who reside in Orient, N.Y.; Frances Herbert and her Japanese-born spouse, Takako Ueda, who reside in Dummerston, Vt.; Heather Morgan and her Spanish-born spouse, Maria del Mar Verdugo, who live in New York City; Santiago Ortiz and his Venezuelan-born spouse, Pablo Garcia, who live in Elmhurst, N.Y.; and Kelli Ryan and her British-born spouse, Lucy Truman, who reside in Sandy Hook, Conn.

The complaint details the stories of each of the couples involved in the lawsuit. For Blesch and Smulian, the complaint notes that Blesch has been living with HIV since 1987. For 11 years, the couple spent six months in the United States and six month abroad to stay together.

However, according to the complaint, complications from HIV therapy as well as other health problems have begun taking a toll on Blesch’s health. As a result, he’s no longer able to spend six months in South Africa because it would be too far from his doctors. The couple has been spending much of their time in Canada, but Blesch’s Medicare doesn’t cover him in that country and he’s forced to return twice to the United States for care.

“Tim, heartbroken, could not accompany Edwin to his doctors (as he always does), fearful he would be denied entry to the United States during those six-month periods,” the lawsuit states.

Immigration Equality’s lawsuit is one of about a dozen pending lawsuits challenging DOMA. This week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals was set to hear oral arguments for two cases, marking the first time an appellate court has held a hearing on DOMA.

Executive director of Immigration Equality Rachel Tiven (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, said her lawsuit was a necessary addition to existing cases because no pending lawsuit focuses on bi-national couples.

“We worked closely in partnership with GLAD, Lambda, ACLU to determine what would make sense to protect the rights of people for whom their DOMA problem is immigration benefits, and really came to the conclusion that the time is now,” Tiven said.

Lavi Soloway, co-founder of Stop the Deportations and an immigration attorney at Masliah & Soloway, said the lawsuit will help draw attention to the plight of gay bi-national couples. He has no involvement with the lawsuit.

Still, Soloway expressed skepticism that the case would have any impact on the law because he thinks other DOMA lawsuits will reach the Supreme Court sooner.

“Certainly, bi-national couples experience Section 3 of DOMA in a way that is hard to compare to any other situation, but the reality is that this lawsuit will move through the federal judicial system for years and is unlikely to produce any immediate change,” Soloway said.

But the Immigration Equality case isn’t the first lawsuit to challenge DOMA on the basis that it’s unfair to bi-national same-sex couples. In September, a federal judge threw out a case filed by Handi Lui, an Indonesian native who was denied a marriage-based green card application.

Tiven said her organization’s lawsuit will be more successful than other immigration-related DOMA cases because it was filed in a different circuit that is governed by different case law.

“We filed in the Second Circuit because we believe that a DOMA challenge based on immigration need will succeed here and because all of the states in the second circuit are marriage equality states,” Tiven said.

The Obama administration announced last year it would no longer defend DOMA in court, and since then — following a vote of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group — the House general counsel has taken up defense of the law.

In the Immigration Equality case, the Justice Department is similarly expected to decline to defend DOMA, and the attorneys of House Speaker John Boehner are expected to come to the defense of the anti-gay law.

Immigration Equality has called on the Obama administration to hold the marriage-based green cards of bi-national same-sex couples in abeyance — so they cannot be denied — until Congress or the courts act to repeal DOMA. Each time the organization has made the call, the administration has said it would continue to enforce DOMA as long as it remains on the books.

One of the couples involved in the lawsuit, Ryan and Truman, have asked the administration to make this change. In November, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote the Department of Homeland Security to ask officials to place on hold the couple’s green card application.

According to The Advocate, LGBT groups met with White House officials to January to discuss the possibility of putting the green cards in abeyance. But administration officials reportedly told LGBT rights supporters such action wouldn’t be taken.Case

Tiven said Immigration Equality filed the lawsuit because the administration’s decision left the organization no other option.

“We’ve been really working … for a year now to ask them to hold the green card applications for couples who are affected by DOMA and, after a lot of back and forth, they ultimately said ‘no,'” Tiven said. “So we really were left with no choice but to sue.”

Soloway said the administration has no reason not to take action to place the green cards in abeyance to protect bi-national same-sex couples.

“It is not a legally required position, it is a political choice,” Soloway said. “If they want to protect all LGBT families, then they could craft policy that would secure married bi-national couples in the interim period.”

While the administration hasn’t taken action to hold the marriage-based green card applications in abeyance, it has said it would include bi-national same-sex couples as part of an effort to take low priority cases out of the deportation pipeline by granting them prosecutorial discretion.

The criteria for being taken out of the deportation pipeline include a person’s ties and contributions to the community and family relationships, and administration officials have said these criteria are inclusive of LGBT families and same-sex couples.

But Soloway said these protections for bi-national same-sex couples are insufficient because, beyond speaking to media, the administration has never explicitly said this change covers LGBT families.

“We should not be fooled,” Soloway said. “There’s no expressed protection being provided under the prosecutorial discretion policy to lesbian and gay bi-national couples. It has worked in certain cases, but it’s far from consistent and it depends on individual ICE prosecutors understanding how to apply the guidelines.”

Moreover, Tiven said none of the couples in the lawsuit have received notification they would be taken out of the deportation pipeline as a result of this initiative.

According to Immigration Equality, Blesch and Smulian have one year of deferred action for a deportation hearing, while Herbert and Takako are applying for such action. Ryan and Truman as well as Morgan and del Mar Verdugo are able to stay together in the United States because of work visas.

“It doesn’t let them make any advance plans,” Tiven said. “In the [Morgan and del Mar Verdugo’s] case, they talked about having children, but have postponed that because they just don’t know what could happen.”

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Mississippi

Art used to spotlight people of color lost to AIDS in the South

National AIDS Memorial, Southern AIDS Coalition created Change the Pattern exhibit

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The National AIDS Memorial and Southern AIDS Coalition have announced a new initiative to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS among communities of color in the South. (Photo courtesy of the National AIDS Memorial)

The National AIDS Memorial has joined forces with the Southern AIDS Coalition to stage a series of art exhibitions and educational forums to honor Black and Brown people in the South who have been lost to HIV/AIDS.

The initiative, titled Change the Pattern, began in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday with curated quilt exhibitions, displays, educational forums, advocacy, storytelling and quilt-making, according to a press release from the National AIDS Memorial. A $2.4 million grant from the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Inc., funded Change the Pattern.

More than 500 hand-stitched quilt panels from the area were featured in what the National AIDS Memorial says is “the largest display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt ever” in Mississippi.

“By creating an empowering message and safe spaces for conversation, we can uplift, inspire and make progress toward ending the HIV epidemic, challenge cultural stigmas and continue the legacy of advocacy that the quilt represents,” said National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham in the release. 

Change the Pattern was announced in honor of Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day during the Southern AIDS Coalition’s annual Saving Ourselves Symposium that took place in August. 

The conference, which was heavily attended by LGBTQ activists from the South, featured 100 quilt panels, and attendees participated in quilt-making workshops to make new quilt panels representing their loved ones.

Interested LGBTQ advocacy organizations in the South were invited to apply for funding to support local quilt-making workshops in their communities so as to ensure that the legacies of Black and Brown people are captured through newly-sewn panels on the quilt through the Memorial’s Call My Name program, according to the National AIDS Memorial press release. 

The application process opened on Sept. 15 with up to 35 eligible organizations receiving as much as $5,000 to support hosting local workshops. 

The first major Change the Pattern Quilt was founded 35 years ago as a visual representation of the need to end stigma and provide equitable resources to communities most impacted by HIV/AIDS, according to Southern AIDS Coalition Executive Director Dafina Ward.

“Change the Pattern is a call to action and change in the South,” said Ward. “Quilt-making has such a deep cultural connection in the Black community and in the South. The sharing and telling of these powerful stories through the quilt, coupled with advocacy and open dialogue, can help end HIV-related stigma and bring the stories of those we’ve lost to light.”

As the Change the Pattern initiative occurs, conversations about how to handle health epidemics within LGBTQ communities of color have become national topics, especially with the prevalence of monkeypox cases amongst Black gay men.

Despite earlier panic about the disease, the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in a report released on Wednesday said that individuals who were vaccinated against the disease were less likely to be affected over the summer compared to those who weren’t. 

The effectiveness and duration of immunity after a single dose, however, is not known, and few individuals in the current outbreak have completed the recommended two-dose series, according to the report. 

The most recent CDC data reports that 25,509 monkeypox cases have thus far been confirmed in the U.S. Only one death has been reported.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Doctor, transgender spouse indicted for passing information to Russia

Jamie Lee Henry first active-duty Army officer to come out as trans

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Jamie Lee Henry and their spouse Anna Gabrielian (Photos from social media)

A federal grand jury on Wednesday handed down an indictment of a Johns Hopkins anesthesiologist and her spouse, a doctor and major in the U.S. Army, with conspiracy and for the disclosure of individually identifiable health information related to their efforts to assist Russia in connection with the conflict in Ukraine.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland in a press release stated Anna Gabrielian, 36, and her spouse, Jamie Lee Henry, 39, both of Rockville, Md., both of whom had secret clearances, were attempting to provide medical information about members of the military to the Russian government.

Gabrielian and Henry met with an individual they believed to be associated with the Russian government, but who was, in fact, an Federal Bureau of Investigation Undercover Agent.

Court documents indicate Gabrielian told the FBI agent posing as a Russian operative that she had previously reached out to the Russian Embassy by email and phone, offering Russia her and her spouses’ assistance.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Gabrielian told the FBI agent that, although Henry knew of Gabrielian’s interaction with the Russian Embassy, she never mentioned Henry’s name to the Russian Embassy.

In the narrative released by the U.S. Attorney’s office, on Aug. 17, 2022, Gabrielian met with the FBI at a hotel in Baltimore. During that meeting, Gabrielian told the FBI she was motivated by patriotism toward Russia to provide any assistance she could to Russia, even if it meant being fired or going to jail. 

She proposed potential cover stories for her meeting with the “Russians” and stressed the need for “plausible deniability” in the event she was confronted by American authorities. Gabrielian also told the FBI that, as a military officer, Henry was currently a more important source for Russia than she was, because they had more helpful information, including how the U.S. military establishes an army hospital in war conditions and information about previous training provided by the U.S. military to Ukrainian military personnel. 

Henry identifies as a “transgender military physician” on their Twitter account.

Henry received public attention in 2015 after becoming the first known active-duty Army officer to come out as trans.

Henry was at one point a member of SPARTA, the nation’s largest nonprofit representing actively-serving trans U.S. servicemembers. A spokesperson for SPARTA, in an emailed statement commenting on the announcement of the arrest and indictment of Henry and their spouse told the Washington Blade:

“Transgender people are as diverse as the societies to which they belong. One’s gender identity neither increases nor decreases a propensity towards alleged criminal activity.”

As stated in the indictment, Gabrielian is an anesthesiologist and worked at Medical Institution 1 in Baltimore.  

Henry, a major in the U.S. Army who held a secret-level security clearance, is Gabrielian’s spouse and a doctor. During the time of the alleged conspiracy, Henry worked as a staff internist stationed at Fort Bragg, the home of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, headquarters of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the Womack Army Medical Center.

Gabrielian was scheduled to have initial appearance at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brendan A. Hurson. Henry is also expected to have an initial appearance today, although a time has not yet been set.

Full statement from SPARTA:

“SPARTA, a non-profit advocacy organization representing transgender Service members in the United States, is saddened to learn of the arrest and indictment of Jamie Lee Henry, an officer in the U.S. Army and a medical doctor.

SPARTA has long advocated for the inclusion and total equity for transgender persons throughout the United States uniformed services. Today, thousands are serving honorably and authentically at home stations worldwide.

The actions alleged in the indictment do not reflect Henry’s identity as transgender. Their alleged actions are those of an individual and should not be taken as a representation of transgender people broadly or transgender members of the military specifically.

All people in the United States are entitled to the same rights, including due process and the presumption of innocence in this case. SPARTA does not condone any actions alleged in the indictment and expects the process to play out fairly and equitably as it would for anyone accused of a crime.”

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The unvaccinated are 14 times more likely to contract monkeypox: health officials

Guidance updated to allow shots in places other than forearm

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U.S. health officials are celebrating data finding the monkeypox contraction is lower among people who are vaccinated.

U.S. health officials are celebrating preliminary data on the vaccine used in the monkeypox outbreak, which has led them to conclude eligible persons who didn’t get a shot were 14 times more likely to become infected than those who are vaccinated.

The new data, as described by health officials on the White House monkeypox task force during a call with reporters on Wednesday, comes as the overall number of new cases of monkeypox is in sharp decline, although considerable racial disparities persist in the remaining cases as Black and Latino people are overrepresented in the numbers.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, said during the conference call the preliminary data — collected from 32 states between July 2022 and September 2022 — provides an early shapshot of the effectiveness of the vaccine and cause for optimism on the path forward.

“These new data provide us with a level of cautious optimism that the vaccine is working as intended,” Walkensky said. “These early findings and similar results from studies and other countries suggest even one dose of the monkeypox vaccine offers at least some initial protection against infection.”

Walensky during the conference call admitted the data is incomplete in numerous ways. For example, the data is based on information on individuals who have obtained only the first shot as opposed to both shots in the two-shot vaccination process. (The data showing positive results from individuals who have only one shot contradicts previous warnings from the same U.S. health officials that one shot of the monkeypox vaccine was insufficient.)

The data also makes no distinction between individuals who have obtained a shot through subcutaneous injection, a more traditional approach to vaccine administration, as opposed to intradermal injection, which is a newer approach adopted in the U.S. guidance amid the early vaccine shortage. Skeptics of the new approach have said data is limited to support the idea the intradermal injection is effective, particularly among immunocompromised people with HIV who have been at higher risk of contracting monkeypox.

Not enumerated as part of the data were underlying numbers leading health officials to conclude the unvaccinated were 14 times more likely to contract monkeypox as opposed to those with a shot, as well as any limiting principle on the definition of eligible persons. Also unclear from the data is whether individual practices in sexual behavior had any role in the results.

Despite the positive data on the monkeypox vaccine based on one shot, U.S. health officials warned during the conference call the two-shot approach to vaccine administration is consistent with their guidance and more effective.

Demetre Daskalakis, the Biden administration’s face of LGBTQ outreach for monkeypox and deputy coordinator for the White House monkeypox task force, made the case that for individuals at risk obtaining a second dose is “really important.”

“So we see some response after the first [shot] in the laboratory, but the really high responses that we want to really get — that you know, level 10 forcefield as opposed to the level five forcefield — doesn’t happen until the second dose,” Daskalakis said. “So the important message is this just tells us to keep on trucking forward because we need that second dose at arms that people haven’t gotten the first should start their series of two vaccines.”

Also during the call, health officials said they would be expanding opportunities for vaccines as pre exposure prophylaxis, as opposed to practices in certain regions granting vaccines in their limited supply to individuals who meet certain criteria or have had risk of exposure.

The Centers of Disease Control & Prevention, officials said, is also updating its guidance to allow injection of the vaccines in places other than a patient’s arm.

Daskalakis said fear of stigma about getting a noticeable shot in the forearm after obtaining a monkeypox vaccine was a key part of the decision to issue the new guidance on implementation.

“Many jurisdictions and advocates have told us that some people declined vaccine to monkeypox because of the stigma associated with the visible but temporary mark often left on their forearm,” Daskalakis said. “New guidance from CDC allows people who don’t want to risk a visible mark on their forearm to offer a vaccine on their skin by their shoulder or their upper back. Those are areas more frequently covered by clothes.”

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