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Senate confirms pro-gay U.S. ambassador to El Salvador

Aponte attacked by GOP senators for op-ed

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Mari Carmen Aponte (Photo courtesy State Department)

The U.S. Senate broke an impasse on Thursday to confirm a U.S. ambassador to El Salvador who had previously been denied the position in part of because of a pro-gay editorial she wrote in one of the country’s newspapers.

The Senate confirmed Mara Carmen Aponte, a D.C. lawyer and activist, to the role by voice vote after senators voted 62-37 to cut off debate on her nomination.

In December, cloture for nomination failed by 49-37 — short of the 60 votes needed to advance her nomination. Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) led the charge against her, saying an editorial she wrote in favor of LGBT rights was “hostile to the culture of El Salvadorans.”

Her op-ed, titled “For the Elimination of Prejudices Wherever They Exist,” was published on June 28 in La Prensa Grafica, a Spanish-language newspaper in El Salvador. The piece followed a call from the State Department to Foreign Services officers urging them to recognize June as Pride month overseas.

According to the Associated Press, Aponte wrote, ”No one should be subjected to aggression because of who he is or who he loves. Homophobia and brutal hostility are often based on lack of understanding about what it truly means to be gay or transgender. To avoid negative perceptions, we must work together with education and support for those facing those who promote hatred.”

But the op-ed was only one issue that Republicans raised about Aponte last year. The GOP also took issue with a relationship she had with an insurance salesman named Roberto Tamayo that ended in 1994. In 1993, a Cuban intelligence defector accused Tamayo of being a Cuban spy and trying to recruit supporters. However, Tamayo was later reportedly said to have been an informant for the FBI.

Aponte’s opponents accused the Obama administration of not providing enough information on her past. Democrats disputed the notion that enough information wasn’t available and that anything in Aponte’s FBI file should detract from her ability to continue to serve as ambassador.

At the time, Aponte was already serving as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador through recess appointment. But because she couldn’t get confirmed last year, her appointment expired on Jan. 3.

President Obama renominated Aponte for the position on Feb. 17. Her confirmation on Thursday means she can return to the position after being absent from the post for more than six months.

In a statement, Obama commended the Senate for confirming Aponte, saying she’s “been a highly effective advocate for the United States in El Salvador.”

“As an honest broker, she has helped advance programs and policies to enhance citizen security in El Salvador while weakening transnational crime links that affect our own national security,” Obama said. “Ambassador Aponte has also been a strong voice for democratic governance throughout the region. She should have never been forced to leave her post.”

All Senate Democrats voted “yes” on cloture for her nomination. Republicans who joined them were Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Following her confirmation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement calling Aponte “an exemplary nominee” and saying he’s “pleased that a few, reasonable Senate Republicans dropped their unwarranted opposition.”

“During her recess appointment, Ambassador Aponte was an outspoken advocate for American values and democracy, and a staunch supporter of U.S. private enterprise,” Reid said. “She persuaded the government of El Salvador to deploy troops to Afghanistan. El Salvador is the first and only Latin American country to send military forces to join our NATO deployment. And she reached an agreement with the Salvadorian government to open a new, jointly-funded electronic monitoring center to fight transnational crime.”

According to Reid’s office, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally called senators prior to to the vote to advocate for Aponte’s nomination in addition to White House staff. Reid also said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was instrumental in getting her confirmed.

Rubio, who was among the Republicans who voted against the Aponte confirmation last year, explained his decision to change his vote in a statement following the confirmation, saying the Obama administration has “addressed my earlier concerns about its Western Hemisphere policy” and Aponte “will serve our nation well in El Salvador.”

The Florida senator, another Tea Party favorite, also took a swipe at Reid, saying he was playing “divisive ethnic politics” over the nomination.

“Last December, I personally informed Senator Harry Reid that we had secured enough votes for her confirmation. Despite his claims to the contrary, today’s vote proves that, in fact, the votes were in place,” Rubio said. “But instead of giving her a vote, he decided to use her nomination to help the White House play divisive ethnic politics, particularly to try to divide two groups of Hispanics against each other. These are the tactics this administration increasingly uses, which have made it the most deliberately divisive presidency in modern times.”

A Senate Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, responded to Rubio’s accusations by saying Reid has been an “unflagging defender” of Aponte.

“He really went all the way in order to get her confirmed,” the aide said. “Sorry if Sen. Rubio has issues with [confirming] a qualified nominee, and he calls that ethnic politics. He really doesn’t understand the definition of that. He should have just voted for her the first three times — he voted against her — and we wouldn’t have been at this stage having to do this.”

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Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden-Harris administration’s finalized Title IX regulations

New rules to take effect Aug. 1

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Screen capture: AP/YouTube)

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

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Michigan

Mich. Democrats spar over LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law

Lawmakers disagree on just what kind of statute to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride month in 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (House Bill 4474), a first offense would be punishable with a $2,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is six years in prison and a fine of $7,500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. State Rep. Noah Arbit, the bill’s sponsor, was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (House Bill 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (House Bill 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (Senate Bill 600) in March that includes much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from the Washington Blade to both Arbit and Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The attorney general’s office sent a statement to the Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBTQ-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70 percent from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and was due for a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

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Indiana

Drag queen announces run for mayor of Ind. city

Branden Blaettne seeking Fort Wayne’s top office

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Branden Blaettner being interviewed by a local television station during last year’s Pride month. (WANE screenshot)

In a Facebook post Tuesday, a local drag personality announced he was running for the office of mayor once held by the late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died last month just a few months into his fifth term.

Henry was recently diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and experienced an emergency that landed him in hospice care. He died shortly after.

WPTA, a local television station, reported that Fort Wayne resident Branden Blaettne, whose drag name is Della Licious, confirmed he filed paperwork to be one of the candidates seeking to finish out the fifth term of the late mayor.

Blaettner, who is a community organizer, told WPTA he doesn’t want to “get Fort Wayne back on track,” but rather keep the momentum started by Henry going while giving a platform to the disenfranchised groups in the community. Blaettner said he doesn’t think his local fame as a drag queen will hold him back.

“It’s easy to have a platform when you wear platform heels,” Blaettner told WPTA. “The status quo has left a lot of people out in the cold — both figuratively and literally,” Blaettner added.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that state Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has led the Indiana House Democratic caucus since 2018, has added his name to a growing list of Fort Wayne politicos who want to be the city’s next mayor. A caucus of precinct committee persons will choose the new mayor.

According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the deadline for residents to file candidacy was 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. A town hall with the candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday at Franklin School Park. The caucus is set for 10:30 a.m. on April 20 at the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

At least six candidates so far have announced they will run in the caucus. They include Branden Blaettne, GiaQuinta, City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, former city- and county-council candidate Palermo Galindo, and 2023 Democratic primary mayoral candidate Jorge Fernandez.

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