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New leader in fight to protect Md. marriage law

Levin ‘confident of victory,’ buoyed by recent polls

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Josh Levin, gay news, gay politics dc

Josh Levin will lead efforts to defend Maryland’s marriage equality law. (Courtesy photo)

Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the statewide coalition leading efforts to defend the state’s same-sex marriage law against an expected voter referendum, announced on April 11 that it has hired political strategist Josh Levin as the coalition’s new campaign manager.

Levin, 33, a Chicago native who has served as campaign manager for Democratic congressional candidates in Illinois and Ohio, will replace Sultan Shakir, who headed the successful campaign to pass the same-sex marriage measure in the Maryland General Assembly.

A statement released by the coalition says Shakir will become political director in the campaign to defeat a referendum seeking to kill the Civil Marriage Protection Act before it takes effect. Opponents of the law are currently gathering petition signatures needed to place it on the ballot in the November election.

“I’m thrilled to be part of the historic effort to ensure all families and their children have the same legal protections,” Levin said in a statement. “We have a number of advantages this election year, and the momentum is with us,” he said. “We’re confident of victory.”

Levin has served as campaign manager for several U.S. congressional candidates, including Tammy Duckworth in Illinois. He has also served as state director for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq in Illinois, a 2007 effort opposing President George W. Bush’s plans to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Levin also served as regional field director for the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean and later that year worked as field director for the get-out-the-vote effort in Wisconsin for Americans Coming Together, an independent “527” committee supporting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

“Josh’s campaign experience will be invaluable,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in a statement. “I’m confident voters this fall will come down on the side of human dignity.”

Marylanders for Marriage Equality also released on April 11 results of a poll it commissioned from Hart Research polling firm showing that 51 percent of Maryland voters support upholding the same-sex marriage law, with 43 percent saying they oppose it.

The poll also shows that nearly 70 percent of Obama voters and 30 percent of those saying they would vote for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney support marriage equality.

The poll was conducted March 18-23 among 604 Maryland voters. Marylanders for Marriage Equality did not release the poll’s margin of error.

In an interview with the Blade this week, Levin was asked what makes him confident that the Maryland marriage equality law can survive a voter referendum when same-sex marriage laws have gone down to defeat in all other states that have subjected them to a referendum.

“I think it starts and very nearly ends with 52 percent, which is what the polling says is the portion of the electorate in Maryland that supports marriage equality,” he said. “We have a majority now. We need to grow that and we need to defend it,” he said.

“And we need to take advantage of everybody who has said they’re on our side and is going to help us work on this,” said Levin. “And that’s members of our coalition – the group that hired me, that’s the governor and his commitment. And we will continue to work with the fact that public opinion has changed on this issue and changed quickly in the last two years in Maryland.”

When asked about how voters in California overturned that state’s same-sex marriage law in 2008 after early polls showed voters would uphold the law, Levin said, “I think we learn lessons from every campaign. I learn lessons from every campaign I’ve been a part of.”

He added, “In no way are we going to take anything for granted in Maryland. We’re working hard in communities all across the state because we have supporters in communities all over the state.”

Levin said the main theme Marylanders for Marriage Equality will stress in the campaign is the importance of families.

“We’ve got thousands of committed couples across the state in committed, stable, caring homes and we simply want to make sure that they’re recognized,” he said. “This campaign is going to be about those Maryland families, those gay and lesbian families and their kids and making sure that those kids have the same legal protections that the children of straight families have.”

Asked if same-sex families will be visible in the campaign, Levin said, “Oh yeah – the campaign is all about families. This is a campaign about marriage and marriage is about families. So yes, front and center.”

Following are excerpts from the Blade’s interview with Levin this week.

Washington Blade: Could you tell a little about the campaigns you’ve been involved with in the past?

Josh Levin: Yes, sure. I think the biggest and most relevant ones to us today are the ones talked about in the press release. I was working for Tammy Duckworth back home in Illinois in her congressional primary this year and then for Mary Jo Kilroy, who is a member of Congress from Ohio in 2010. So most of my background is in candidate campaigns, especially congressional campaigns. The bottom line is I’m a campaign type person.

Blade: Do you see similar issues that will surface in this campaign, which is not for a candidate but for an issue?

Levin: I think so. Part of the reason I was hired is because we’re turning the page now to the ballot effort. And I think that my experience is running campaigns with budgets and a staff that we’re going to need like this one and getting everything lined up and moving in the right direction, which is the biggest thing we’re going to need going into November.

Blade: In the course of getting ready for this campaign, have you had a chance to look at past same-sex marriage campaigns that went to referendum in some of the other states like California’s Proposition 8 and the campaign in Maine?

Levin: Sure, and we have been looking at it. We’ve been looking at both what is successful for the folks on our side of the issue and where we fall short. We’re looking at what our opponents are likely to do and what we can expect in terms of opposition. But the great thing is sitting here in Maryland we have some momentum and we have good reason to be confident right now based on what we have seen in other places but especially the unique experiences here in Maryland.

Blade: Are you expecting any particular tactics by the opponents once they obtain the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot?

Levin: We’re aware of what has been done in other places, and we expect to see some of the same. There were some documents just a couple of weeks ago that lay out some of the potential strategy that our opponents might follow. But as I said, I think we have a base of knowledge that is going to be helpful to us because of that.

Blade: Is there a budget that the campaign has or do you know what the budget will be in order to wage a successful campaign?

Levin: I don’t think I’m ready to put a number on it but it is going to be significant. The folks who raised the legislative campaign were successful in raising money for that. And I think we’re going to need to go both that and beyond to be successful for the fall. We’re going to have to be out there organizing an awful lot of communities. We’re going to have to get our message out to an awful lot of channels. The governor has already clearly made a commitment. He was up in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago raising money for us. And we have great partners at the table who are raising money from their members and other folks across the state.

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Virginia

Va. businessman apologizes for burning of rainbow flag poster

‘Shocked and horrified’: Ashburn incident caught on video

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Organizers of an event where a Pride symbol was burned say the incident was a misunderstanding.

The owner of a Virginia technology company that hosted a private Veterans Day party on the grounds of an Ashburn, Va., brewery in which a company employee used a flame-throwing device to ignite a rainbow flag poster said the selection of the poster was a mistake and he and his company have no ill will toward the LGBTQ community.

The Washington Blade learned about the poster burning from a customer of the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, where the incident took place on its outdoor grounds. The customer made a video of the incident with his cell phone and sent a copy of the video to the Blade.

The video, which includes an audio recording, shows a man using a hand-held flame-throwing device to ignite the rainbow poster, which was hanging from a cable and appeared to be mounted on cardboard or a thin sheet of wood. Bystanders can be heard laughing and cheering as the poster is set on fire.

The poster consisted of a variation of the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag that included the word “love” configured from an upper white stripe on the rainbow symbol.

The customer who took the video, who has asked not to be identified, thought the decision to set the poster on fire was a sign of disrespect if not hatred toward a longstanding symbol of LGBTQ equality and pride.

Chris Burns, Old Ox Brewery’s president, shared that view, telling the Blade he and his staff were “shocked and horrified” when they learned later that a rainbow flag poster had been burned on the brewery’s grounds. Burns said Old Ox supports the LGBTQ community and participated in LGBTQ Pride month earlier this year.

He said the company that held the private party paid a fee to hold the event on the brewery’s grounds, but the brewery did not know a rainbow poster would be burned.

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC, the Falls Church, Va.-based technology company that organized the Nov. 11 party at Old Ox Brewery. “I can assure you that ZERO ill-will or offense was meant,” Reynolds told the Blade in a Nov. 24 email.

“We held a small private party for a few clients, which included a demonstration of Elon Musk’s Boring Company ‘Not a Flamethrower,’” he said in his message. He was referring to one of billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s companies that specializes in boring through the ground to create tunnels for cars, trains, and other purposes. 

“After so many being isolated during COVID, we wanted to have an event that was lighthearted and to some small effect, silly,” Reynolds said in his message to the Blade.

According to Reynolds, in thinking about what should be used for “fodder” for the flame-thrower, he went to a Five Below discount store and purchased items such as stuffed animals and posters, including a “Space Jam” movie poster as well as what he thought was a poster of the British rock group The Beatles.

“When I pulled the Beatles poster out of the tube it was instead the ‘Love’ poster,” he said, referring to the rainbow flag poster the Blade asked him about in an earlier email.

“All I focused on was the ‘Love’ wording and not the rainbow and did not draw the conclusion that the poster was an icon that represents the LGBTQ community,” Reynolds said. “It was my own ignorance of not connecting the symbolism of the poster. If I had realized it was a symbol of the LGBTQ community, I would not have used it,” he said.

“I feel terrible, and I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for this mistake – not the Old Ox Brewery,” he wrote in his message. “Nobody at Old Ox had anything to do with this activity.”

Reynolds added, “Hate has no place in my heart, and I sincerely apologize for any offense that could have been drawn from what I now realize was poor judgement on my part. I simply didn’t correlate this poster with the LGBTQ pride symbol.”  

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Before Reynolds issued his statement of apology, Burns, the Old Ox Brewery co-owner, told the Blade in an email he was “saddened and upset” over the rainbow poster burning on the grounds of his brewery.

“We do not wish to benefit from this event,” he said in his email message. “Therefore, Old Ox is donating 100% of the revenue generated from the private event to GLSEN.”

GLSEN is a national LGBTQ advocacy group that focuses on education and support for LGBTQ youth. Burns said Old Ox Brewery also donated proceeds from a Pride month event it organized earlier this year to GLSEN.

LGBTQ activists and organizations contacted by the Blade said they were unfamiliar with the variation of the rainbow flag with the word “love” that was the subject of the poster burning incident. The poster is available for sale at Five Below stores in the D.C. metropolitan area for $5.

Small print writings on the poster show it is produced by Trends International LLC, which describes itself on its website as “the leading publisher and manufacturer of licensed posters, calendars, stickers and social stationery products.” The Blade couldn’t immediately determine who designed the poster.

 The video of the poster burning incident can be viewed here:

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Fairfax schools returns LGBTQ-themed books in high school libraries

Review found ‘no pedophilia’ in texts as critics claimed

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(Book cover insert courtesy of Amazon)

The Fairfax County Public Schools announced on Tuesday that following a detailed review by two committees appointed by school officials it has returned two LGBTQ themed books to its high school libraries that had been temporarily withdrawn after being challenged by critics who claimed they included sexually explicit content inappropriate for students.

The two books, “Lawn Boy,” a novel by author Jonathan Evison, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” which is described as an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe, each contain descriptions of sexual acts.

But supporters of the books have argued that they have won praise by literary critics and, while describing intimate relationships, they tell stories that do not fall into the category of pornography.  

Fairfax County Public Schools, the name used for the county’s public school system, on Tuesday said in a statement that a thorough review of the books by two committees consisting of educators, school officials, parents and some students found that neither book contained content that could be considered to depict pedophilia as claimed by some parents and others opposing the two books.

School officials announced they had temporarily withdrawn the two books from school libraries following a Sept. 23 meeting of the Fairfax County School Board where strong objections to the two books were raised by parents.

“Two books that were subject to formal challenge have been deemed appropriate for high school readers following a two-month review process and will be reinstated to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) libraries,” Tuesday’s statement by the school system says.

“The decision reaffirms FCPS’s ongoing commitment to provide diverse reading materials that reflect our student population, allowing every child an opportunity to see themselves reflected in literary characters,” the statement continues. “Both reviews concluded that the books were valuable in their potential to reach marginalized youth who may struggle to find relatable literary characters that reflect their personal journey,” the statement says.

The statement says the final decision to reinstate the books was made by Noel Klimenko, the Fairfax County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for its Instructional Services Department.

The two books have received favorable reviews in various literary publications. Both have received the American Library Association’s Alex Award, an annual award that recognizes the year’s 10 books written for adults that the association says have a special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.

“The robust committee process took place over several weeks and considered whether the books flouted regulations by being obscene or harmful to juveniles as defined by the Code of Virginia,” the school system statement says. “The members also considered the work in line with an excerpt from the FCPS Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook pertaining to possessing obscene visual imagery as defined in the Code of Virginia,” the statement says.

“After careful consideration, neither books were deemed to have fallen foul of these regulations,” it concludes.

The decision by Fairfax school officials to reinstate the two books came about six weeks after more than 425 LGBTQ students and allies from over 30 Fairfax County public high schools sent a letter to the school board and the school system’s superintendent urging them to reinstate the two books.

The Pride Liberation Project, a coalition of LGBTQ and allied students in Fairfax County, organized the joint letter.

“Student representatives from over 30 schools, including nearly every high school in Fairfax County Public Schools, have signed this letter, and many of us are students of color, low-income, gender expansive and not out to our families and communities,” the letter states.

“We are writing to ask you to reject calls to remove Maia Kobabe’s ‘Gender Queer’ and Jonathan Evison’s ‘Lawn Boy’ from Fairfax County Public Schools libraries,” the letter says.

It points out that “hundreds of books in our schools already depict heterosexual relationships and physical intimacy,” and says singling out LGBTQ themed books with similar stories of intimacy for rejection is unfair.

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Transgender Zimbabwean woman in Md. wins asylum case

Mattie Tux Horton lives in Rockville

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Mattie Tux Horton, right, with her lawyer Ankush Dhupar in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Mattie Tux Horton/Facebook)

A transgender woman from Zimbabwe who lives in Rockville won her asylum case in late October after living in the U.S. for the past five years. 

Mattie Tux Horton was represented by Ankush Dhupar from the Los Angeles law firm Paul Hastings LLP.

“I feel at ease,” said Horton. “Although a lot is going on in the [United States], it’s [significantly] different compared to where I’m coming from.”

Horton said that she now considers the U.S. to be her home. 

Although she has been living in Maryland for a while now, receiving asylum stripped away the anxiety associated with returning to Zimbabwe had the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency denied her request. 

With protection from the U.S. government, Horton gets to live in a safe environment and without the vile treatment she encountered in Zimbabwe because of her transness.

In her hometown of Bulawayo, Horton faced constant public humiliation and was once fired from her job as a graphic artist because of her dress presentation, according to an interview she did with Medium. 

She was attacked by a violent group of men in 2014, and was outed later that year following a holiday trip to South Africa, according to the interview. 

This incident garnered media attention and The Sunday News, a Zimbabwean newspaper, published an article in which it misgendered Horton throughout the entire piece. 

This prompted Horton to apply for a U.S. visa so she could attend an LGBTQ leadership conference in D.C. and remove herself from the cacophony in her town.

The Sunday News later ran a story about Horton’s departure in which they misgendered her again and referred to her as a “transgender man” and “alleged gay.”

Horton arrived in D.C. in December 2016 and began her asylum process there. 

While visiting a friend in Los Angeles, she connected with the city’s Human Rights First chapter that referred her to Dhupar, who represented her pro bono. 

Dhupar is a labor and employment law attorney at Paul Hastings LLC and he volunteered to work on Horton’s case as part of his firm’s partnership with Human Rights First to do pro bono LGBTQ advocacy work.

Horton’s asylum was his first ever immigration case.

While the legal underpinnings of immigration were new to him, Dhupar did not struggle to situate his modus operandi because of how compelling Horton’s case was.

“I always referred to the facts of the case because the law is geared towards helping situations like [Horton’s] where someone fears for their life in their home country,” said Dhupar. 

Dhupar also added that Horton’s case was a prime example of why the asylum process exists.

Horton submitted a psychological evaluation in February 2021 that would expedite her asylum case and grant her an interview notice sooner than usual. 

At that point she had lived in the U.S. for more than four years, but she still had to wait a couple more months before she was called for an interview. This caused Horton to feel trepid about whether her case was strong enough. 

“I went through depression and had psychological breakdowns,” said Horton. “I have friends who were called in for an interview months after moving here and didn’t have to wait five years [like I did].”

This hurdle, however, gave Horton and Dhupar adequate time to build an indisputable case. The two built a personal relationship that kept them vigilant despite the abounding uncertainty. 

“She was a perfect advocate for herself and took the initiative to make sure the case did not fall on the backburner,” said Dhupar. 

Now that she has won her case, Horton is taking time to relish on her recent success. 

“I’m going to take a breather,” she said.

She also plans to secure full-time employment in 2022 and build a makeup brand. Horton currently works part time as a steering committee member — a role she says is fulfilling — at the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project- Transgender Law Center.

There, she links Black trans and gender nonconforming individuals to education, employment, legal and healthcare resources.

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