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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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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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Florida

Prominent LGBTQ+ activist found dead in Florida landfill

Diaz-Johnston was the brother of former Miami mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz & he led the fight for marriage equality

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Photo courtesy of Don Diaz Johnston

Police in Florida’s capital city confirmed that the body of Jorge Diaz-Johnston, 54, who had been reported missing was found in a Jackson County landfill Saturday morning.

Diaz-Johnston was last seen alive Jan. 3 in Tallahassee, more than an hour from where his body was found, according to a missing person notice released by police. Detectives are investigating his death as a homicide, a police spokesperson said.

Diaz-Johnston, was the brother of former Miami mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz. As an LGBTQ advocate he led the fight for marriage equality, he and his husband were plaintiffs in an historic 2014 lawsuit that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Miami-Dade County.

ABC News reported at the time that a South Florida circuit court judge sided with Diaz-Johnston and five couples suing the Miami-Dade County Clerk’s Office for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Florida dropped its ban on same-sex marriage in 2015.

His husband wrote in a poignant Facebook post; “There are just no words for the loss of my beloved husband Jorge Isaias Diaz-Johnston. I can’t stop crying as I try and write this. But he meant so much to all of you as he did to me. So I am fighting through the tears to share with you our loss of him.”

“We are heartbroken to learn of the death of Jorge. He and his husband Don were two of the brave plaintiffs who took on Florida’s anti-gay marriage ban and helped win marriage equality for all Floridians,” Equality Florida said adding, “Our deepest condolences to Don and Jorge’s extended family.”

Detectives urge anyone who may have information to call 850-891-4200, or make an anonymous tip to Big Bend Crime Stoppers at 850-574-TIPS.

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National

Bill prohibiting ‘gay panic defense’ clears New Hampshire House

New Hampshire could soon join over a dozen other states which ban the use of ‘gay panic’ as a defense

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New Hampshire State House (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Legislation prohibiting defendants accused of manslaughter from using the victim’s gender, gender identity or sexual orientation as a defense, which had died in committee during the 2021 regular session of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, was reintroduced this session and passed with a 223-118 vote last week.

House Bill 238, stirred up controversary from opponents who claimed that state statues already covered murder and manslaughter. During a Criminal Justice committee hearing last Spring, Rep. Dick Marston, a Manchester Republican, voiced opposition, saying that the laws already cover murder and manslaughter and that “there’s no way in heck that you’re going to be able to say ‘Well because he or she was some deviant sexuality that I’m not–‘”

Marston was cut off by committee chairman Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican, who gaveled him down and rebuked him for the derogatory language the Concord-Monitor reported

Later, the committee Republicans blocked an effort to move the bill out of committee alleging it needed more work and was not necessary because a jury could already strike down a similar attempted defense. The bill was then stalled in the committee, effectively killing it from being pushed further in last year’s session.

As the measure now heads to the state Senate, New Hampshire could soon join over a dozen other states which ban the use of the ‘gay panic’ as a defense.

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