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Lessons from N.C. defeat

Did lack of money or wrong message lead to sweeping anti-gay marriage amendment?

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Chad Griffin, gay news, Washington Blade

Incoming HRC President Chad Griffin is one of two principal partners in Armour Griffin Media Group, which was paid to produce TV ads in North Carolina’s amendment fight. (Photo courtesy of AFER)

In the week leading up to the May 8 vote in North Carolina on a proposed state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, officials with the campaign opposing the amendment said they believed they had a shot at defeating it.

“We were on conference calls where they were saying we are in striking distance,” said lesbian journalist and commentator Pam Spaulding of North Carolina, who publishes the LGBT political blog Pam’s House Blend.

“The campaign was saying 11 points and closing — that we were knocking in half the gap every week that they started the final [campaign] assault,” Spaulding told the Blade.

According to Spaulding, at an election night gathering in Raleigh, campaign leaders and volunteers who worked to defeat the amendment were stunned when the State Board of Elections announced the amendment passed by a 61-39 percent margin.

“Were their numbers that far off or did they know the numbers and were not disclosing them,” Spaulding asked in discussing the information released by the opposition campaign to bloggers. “How could they be 21 points off?”

Officials with the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families, which operated the campaign opposing Amendment One, said the numbers they cited were from the polling firm Public Policy Polling, which showed support for the amendment down to 55 percent in the week before the election.

“There were a lot of polls, and they were all across the map,” said Stuart Campbell, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina and a member of the opposition campaign’s seven-member Steering Committee.

“We actually had internal polling back in January that showed close to 70 percent — around 67 to 68 percent — in favor,” he said. “So we actually do believe we moved it anywhere between seven and 10 points.”

In addition to Equality North Carolina, the organizations represented on the Steering Committee, whom officials said made all key decisions for the campaign, included the Human Rights Campaign; the ACLU of North Carolina; Faith In America; Replacements, Ltd., a gay-owned company that sells upscale dinnerware; Self-Help, an LGBT supportive credit union based in North Carolina; and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a North Carolina group that promotes progressive causes.

In late December or early January the Steering Committee retained the Los Angeles-based Armour Griffin Media Group to produce the campaign TV ads. Officials said the campaign retained the company months before they learned that Chad Griffin, one of the two principal partners in the firm, was to be selected as the new HRC president. Campaign finance records show the campaign paid the company $66,000 for its media work as of May 11, the close of the most recent campaign finance reporting period.

Campbell and campaign co-chair Alex Miller said the campaign built important alliances with progressive groups, LGBT supportive churches and religious leaders, and leaders of the African-American community that would benefit the LGBT community for years to come.

One of the most important developments, Campbell and Miller said, was the decision by the NAACP of North Carolina to come out against the amendment. Under the leadership of Rev. William Barber II, the state’s NAACP president, the historic black civil rights organization activated its chapters in counties across the state to speak out against the amendment.

Barber told the Blade that he believes a majority of black North Carolinians voted against the amendment despite claims by some media outlets that polls showed a majority of blacks favored the ballot measure.

Ray Warren, a former North Carolina circuit court judge who’s familiar with the state’s voting trends and demographics, said a review of the vote in most parts of the state showed that all of the state’s large cities and urban areas voted against the amendment. In what he called a dramatic contrast, all of the rural counties and nearly all of the suburbs outside city boundaries voted for the amendment.

Ninety-two of the state’s 100 counties voted for the amendment. Each of the eight counties voting against it included cities or urban-oriented towns with universities within their boundaries.

According to Warren, in a development rarely seen in the state, black and white voters appeared to vote alike, with majority white and majority black precincts voting for the amendment in rural and suburban areas. In cities and urban centers, majority black and majority white precincts voted against the amendment, Warren said.

Debate over campaign message

Brent Childers, gay news, Washington Blade

Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, said the campaign could have been more effective in challenging and refuting religious arguments used to support Amendment One. (Photo courtesy of Childers)

Some LGBT supportive observers wanted to know whether the message projected by the campaign opposing the amendment in TV ads and other media amounted to the best means possible to persuade voters to reject the amendment.

Marriage equality supporter Brent Childers, executive director of the North Carolina-based group Faith in America, which challenges what Childers calls the “misuse” of religion to deny rights to LGBT people, said the campaign could have been more effective in challenging and refuting religious arguments used to support Amendment One.

Still others, including North Carolina lesbian activist Mandy Carter, joined Spaulding in expressing concern that the opposition campaign mostly “de-gayed” its messages in TV ads by stressing the harms the amendment would have on straight unmarried couples.

Campaign officials dispute these claims, saying the campaign aggressively embraced its support for marriage equality for gays and projected that message through many campaign venues, including online videos as well as TV ads.

The campaign recruited a lesbian mother to appear in one of the three TV ads aired shortly before the election. Campaign officials told the media in a press release that the woman and her same-sex partner rely on the partner’s employee health insurance to provide coverage for their daughter.

But in the TV ad the woman isn’t identified as a lesbian. While driving a car with her child sitting next to her she says Amendment One would likely result in the loss of her daughter’s health insurance.

“[It’s] because we’re not married,” she says in the ad, referring to her partner. The partner’s gender isn’t mentioned.

“If you’re watching it on television there’s no way to know,” Spaulding said, referring to the woman’s sexual orientation.

Campaign officials said they believe the ad was effective in showing how the amendment would have serious consequences for unmarried couples, gay or straight, and it likely persuaded some voters to oppose the amendment.

In a series of interviews, pollsters, campaign officials, political analysts affiliated with North Carolina universities, representatives of LGBT advocacy groups, and LGBT supportive straight allies provided the Blade with a wide range of opinions addressing these questions.

Most agreed, however, that private polls commissioned for the campaign as well as polls conducted by other pollsters showed that a solid majority of North Carolinians oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. They noted that the same polls showed that a campaign and vote framed only around the question of whether gays should be allowed to marry would result in a certain defeat for the pro-marriage equality side.

Leaders of the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families said they chose an “evidence-based” approach of using the best possible research from privately commissioned polls to develop the message they ultimately used.

That message focused on how Amendment One goes far beyond banning same-sex marriage and, among other things, would ban civil unions for gay and straight couples. It could also lead to a wide range of harmful effects on all unmarried couples, gay and straight, and their children, the group stressed in its “messaging” campaign.

Advocates of this approach noted that an existing law in North Carolina already prohibited same-sex marriage and that an amendment to the state constitution doing the same thing was unnecessary.

Supporters of the amendment disputed that assertion, saying a constitutional amendment was needed to prevent a court from overturning the state’s existing law banning same-sex marriage. They noted that gay rights advocates had already filed at least one lawsuit challenging the existing gay marriage statute.

Political observers noted that after blocking a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage for years under Democratic Party leadership, the state legislature approved a proposal to place the issue before the voters in 2011 after Republicans gained control of the legislature for the first time in decades in the 2010 election.

Over the strong objections of many Democrats and some Republicans, supporters of the amendment worded it in a way that expanded its scope beyond just marriage.

Amendment One states, “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

The amendment adds, “This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”

Legal experts in the state have said the amendment’s definition of marriage as the “only domestic legal union” would place in jeopardy rights and benefits currently being offered to gay or straight unmarried couples, such as domestic partner benefits offered by private companies or local governmental entities like cities and towns, including health insurance benefits and hospital visitation rights.

The Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families cited legal experts who said safeguards against domestic violence might also be jeopardized by the amendment, with the possibility that a court could no longer issue a legal “stay away” order for a partner accused of physically abusing the other partner if the couple were not married.

“We saw that all these terrible things could happen,” said Stuart Campbell, executive director of the state LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina and a member of the Steering Committee of the campaign opposing the amendment.

Supporters of the amendment, led by the state group Vote for North Carolina Marriage and the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, said claims that the amendment would impact health insurance benefits, domestic violence protections or child custody rights were unfounded.

Campbell said the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families’ Steering Committee initially hired the LGBT supportive polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research headed by pollster Anna Greenberg. In an effort to get a second opinion, the Steering committee a short time later retained Lake Research Partners, another LGBT supportive campaign research firm headed by pollster Celinda Lake. Both firms have long-established records of helping to win elections for mostly Democratic candidates and progressive causes.

Lake was the pollster in the 2006 campaign opposing a proposed same-sex marriage ban in Arizona that was defeated by voters, the only such ballot measure to lose in more than 30 states across the country that voted on such a measure. Observers said the measure lost in Arizona because most voters disagreed with the additional restrictions it would place on unmarried couples, similar to the “harms” cited by opponents of Amendment One in North Carolina.

Two years later, Arizona voters approved a same-sex marriage ban that didn’t include the additional restrictions on unmarried couples.

Lake told the Blade that the North Carolina campaign stressed the harms Amendment One would cause to gay and straight unmarried couples, including the children of such couples, but it was not modeled directly after the Arizona campaign since the two states have different voter demographics and political traditions.

Lake said her early polling in North Carolina conducted to test different messages clearly found that a message of the potential harm Amendment One would cause for unmarried couples, gay and straight, children of these couples, and women threatened by domestic violence resonated with many voters. Among other things, a significant number of voters who planned to vote for Amendment One changed their position and stated in her poll that they would vote against it after learning about the amendment’s impact beyond banning same-sex marriage, Lake said.

Lake described as historic the North Carolina campaign’s use of a TV ad asserting that Amendment One would harm children, saying it represented the first time a campaign opposing a ballot measure seeking to ban same-sex marriage has argued that such a proposal would harm children.

She noted that in all previous campaigns, supporters of anti-gay ballot measures argued that same-sex marriage would be harmful to children. In North Carolina, the campaign against the amendment turned the tables on the anti-marriage equality forces, opening the way for this “game-changing” strategy in future battles against ballot measures seeking to ban same-sex marriage, Lake said.

When asked why Amendment One passed by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin despite the use of the “unintended consequences” and harm to children strategy, Lake and others working with her on the campaign cited the campaign’s lack of sufficient funds to pay for more TV ads and their inability to begin airing the ads sooner.

Jeremy Kennedy, the campaign manager hired by the coalition Steering Committee to carry out the committee’s game plan, said more than 60 percent of the $2.8 million raised by the campaign came in during the last few weeks leading up to the May 8 election.

The three TV ads the campaign used didn’t begin airing until the state’s early voting had already started about 15 days prior to Election Day.

“I was surprised that the opposition campaign didn’t get on the air sooner,” said Wake Forest University political science professor John Dinan, who said he followed the campaigns for and against the amendment.

“To move voters you need to put on TV ads much sooner,” he said.

Kennedy said that in the last few weeks of the campaign, donors began to respond when some outside polls, including those conducted by the firm Public Policy Polling, showed the projected vote for the amendment dropping to about 55 percent.

“If we all had our way and we had early money we would have done several months of TV,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy, 34, is a native of Texas who moved to D.C. in 2007 to work on the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. After Clinton dropped out of the presidential race following the primary season in 2008, Kennedy took a job with the Human Rights Campaign’s field department in Washington.

In 2010 he moved to Maine to work on the gubernatorial primary campaign of Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, who won the primary but lost the general election to Republican Gov. Paul Lepage. Following that campaign, Kennedy went to work as a state field director for the Maine Democratic Party.

He next went to Rhode Island to work on the legislative effort in the state to pass a same-sex marriage law. The legislature changed course and approved a civil unions bill rather than a marriage law. Shortly after returning to Maine, which he considers his home state, Kennedy was recruited to North Carolina last December, where the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families hired him as campaign manager to work for the defeat of Amendment One.

One source familiar with the campaign said the Steering Committee awarded Kennedy a $5,000 bonus near the end of the campaign. Another source expressed concern that money for the bonus would have been better used to pay for additional media ads.

Campbell declined to confirm the amount of the bonus, saying it was a personnel matter that would not be appropriate to discuss publicly. However, he added, “It was not such a large amount that it would make a difference in the media campaign.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Jeremy,” Campbell said. “I think he did an excellent job. He ran the campaign that we hired him to run.”

HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz agreed with Campbell’s assessment of Kennedy.

“In everyone’s estimation – including ours – Jeremy Kennedy is a superstar!” Sainz said in an email to the Blade. “This campaign brought together a diverse coalition that left behind an infrastructure in North Carolina upon which we can build upon for progressive politics and gay rights.”

Sainz said that while the loss was a big disappointment, ballot measures banning same-sex marriage passed in the other Southern states by an average of 75 percent in past years. He said the 61 percent to 39 percent margin of approval of a gay marriage ban in North Carolina shows “amazing progress among Southerners and Americans in general on the issue of marriage equality.”

Approval by voters in Virginia of a state constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2006 by a margin of 57 percent marked the only Southern state with support for such an amendment at a lower percentage than North Carolina. Florida passed such an amendment with a margin of 62 percent in 2008. South Carolina approved a marriage ban amendment by a 78 percent margin of approval in 2006.

Campbell and campaign co-chair Miller said reports by some critics that the campaign ended with a significant surplus and that the campaign chose not to distribute yard signs to urge voters to defeat the amendment were not true.

The campaign distributed as many as 15,000 yard signs opposing Amendment One in mostly urban areas throughout the state, campaign officials said.

Miller said that the campaign’s finance report filed on May 21 showing a $92,317 surplus was based on incomplete data. Bills for media-related expenses and other expenditures had yet to be paid at the time of the report’s filing deadline. He said final expenses would be shown in a final, end-of-the-year report to be filed with the election board.

“We were pretty much down to the last penny,” he said of the campaign’s spending.

‘Mood is grim’

A 17-page memo that Greenberg sent to the campaign Steering Committee on Dec. 6, 2011, a copy of which the Blade obtained, says her polling found that a significant number of voters were inclined to change their vote from “yes” to “no” on the amendment after they learned of the potential harmful impact it would have, including its prohibition against civil unions and overall harmful effects on children.

Greenberg noted in her memo that many voters who opposed same-sex marriage did not object to civil unions for gay or straight couples.

But unlike Lake, Greenberg stated the overall prospects for defeating Amendment One were not encouraging even when the “unintended effects” were spelled out to prospective voters.

“The mood is grim — and conservative — in North Carolina,” she said in the memo. “North Carolina shocked the country by delivering its electoral votes to Barack Obama in 2008. The world has since turned,” she wrote in the memo. “Half of this (special) electorate describes their feelings toward Obama in negative terms,” she added in discussing her poll findings.

A source familiar with the campaign, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said Greenberg made it clear she didn’t think a victory was possible for the opposition side. Instead, she recommended the campaign adopt a strategy that would educate voters and help their opinions in favor of marriage equality for a future campaign, the source said.

“We would not complicate this issue with a discussion of the impact this would have on straight, unmarried couples, despite the Arizona experience,” she wrote in her memo. “Voters’ moral judgment is not expended entirely on the LGBTQ community as voters here have problems with unmarried straight couples living together as well. An additional focus on straight couples does not make enough difference to justify muddying up your message,” she said in the memo.

She said her memo was based on a survey of 600 likely special election voters in North Carolina taken Nov. 16-21, 2011. She said her poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, found that 66 percent of the voters surveyed supported Amendment One, with 30 percent opposing it.

“More information and messaging reduced down the margin so by the end of the survey the support side leads by 24 points (59 percent favor, 36 percent oppose),” she said of the poll.

Greenberg’s adjusted poll numbers, reflecting the “messaging” that opponents used in the campaign, came close to the 61 percent to 39 percent outcome of the election nearly six months later.

Similar to Lake, Greenberg noted in her memo that opponents of Amendment One would need to invest in an extensive media campaign to educate voters of the harms the amendment would likely cause LGBT people and others.

Kennedy told the Blade that despite the fact that the campaign came close to meeting its $3 million fundraising goal, far more money was needed to educate voters that polls showed would switch from support to opposition of the amendment if they knew it went beyond just banning same-sex marriage.

Rev. Barber of the NAACP said the media were partially responsible for the lack of voter education.

“The folks who brought this forward framed it on whether you support gay marriage on religious grounds,” he said. “And the media fell for this. They should have made it clear that this was a constitutional amendment that would take away rights.”

He added, “The NAACP saw a dangerous pattern. We saw the rights of a minority being put up for a popular vote. The media never asked the right questions.”

Childers of Faith In America said he attempted but did not succeed in persuading the campaign to directly respond to attacks against same-sex marriage by religious groups and leaders. He said Faith In America, which was co-founded by gay businessman Mitchell Gold, believes the opposition vote would have been considerably higher if the campaign addressed the religion issue “head on” in TV and other media ads.

Childers noted that the campaign opposing the amendment, among other things, should have responded to religious leaders’ claims that same-sex marriage is against God’s will. The Rev. Billy Graham was among the religious leaders in the state to come out for the amendment.

When told that sources familiar with the campaign said campaign officials were reluctant to question or challenge voters’ religious beliefs, Childers said, “That’s one of the fallacies that frankly our own community have fallen prey to. Any person that has spent much time at all in a religious environment knows that religious teachings are questioned all the time,” he said.

“If you look at the voice of history it is crystal clear when it comes to misuse of religious teachings to justify prejudice and discrimination against minorities,” Childers said. “We have concluded as a society on a number of occasions that that is simply a moral failing as a society.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Matt

    May 31, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    As I recall, a poll showed that only about 20% of eligible voters cast a ballot. That would explain a lot. We need to motivate our supporters to vote.

  2. Jay

    June 1, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Claude Summers at glbtq.com blogged about how awful the campaign in California was. His main point was that the campaign ads that we put out emphasizing the collatoral damage caused by Amendment One and barely mentioning same-sex marriage was both a flawed strategy and also a duplicitous one. Our real concern was same-sex marriage and to pretend that we were mostly concerned about how it would damage children or unmarried heterosexuals was simply lying. Instead of defending same-sex marriage, and indeed saying that same-sex marriage was a good thing, we evaded the issue, in effect conceding that if Amendment One only banned same-sex marriage it would be okay. That simplified the work of our opponents. They just said that wasn’t true and that Jesus wanted you to vote against same-sex marriage.

    I am sorry to learn that Chad Griffin had something to do with this campaign. I was hoping that he would bring new energy and fresh thinking to the Human Rights Campaign. If his idea of effective campaigning is that used in North Carolina, please, please, please replace him at HRC.

  3. Wayne

    June 1, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    Another lesson is that, when polled, bigots lie.

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Utah

VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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