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Obama touts LGBT achievements at White House reception

POTUS pledges to be LGBT advocate as long as he’s president

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President Obama addresses White House Pride event attendees (Blade file by Michael Key)

President Obama pledged at this year’s White House Pride reception that he’ll continue to be an advocate for the LGBT community for as long as he’s in the White House, calling on attendees to dream big and “as openly as you want.”

“And as long as I have the privilege of being your president, I promise you, you won’t just have a friend in the White House, you will have a fellow advocate — for an America where no matter what you look like or where you come from or who you love, you can dream big dreams and dream as openly as you want,” Obama said.

The reception comes near the conclusion of Obama’s first term — and he wasn’t shy about touting his pro-LGBT achievements over the past three-a-half years, including repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and dropping defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court. Repealing the military’s gay ban got the most applause from the audience; the runner up was dropping defense of DOMA in court.

One other significant action by Obama was also included in his remarks: his recent endorsement of marriage equality.

“And Americans may be still evolving when it comes to marriage equality — but as I’ve indicated personally, Michelle and I have made up our minds on this issue,” Obama said.

Attendees fill East Room for White House Pride reception (Blade photo by Michael Key)

An estimated 500 people came to the event, which took place in the East Room of the White House. A military band welcomed guests. Attendees munched on hors d’oeuvres served on tables adorned with red and pink roses.

Those who came largely consisted of LGBT advocates from around the country and LGBT people who held important roles in the federal government. Among the attendees were openly gay members of the Obama administration, including Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, chair of the Export-Import Bank Fred Hochberg and chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley. Also on hand: Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California; gay actor Matt Bomer; and gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts.

Obama noted that his administration has seen many achievements on LGBT rights as he encouraged attendees to continue pressing forward

“After decades of inaction and indifference, you have every reason and right to push, loudly and forcefully, for equality,” Obama said. “But three years ago, I also promised you this: I said that even if it took more time than we would like, we would see progress, we would see success, we would see real and lasting change. And together, that’s what we’re witnessing.”

Another success that Obama mentioned was the lifting of the HIV travel ban. The president acknowledged this action has enabled D.C. to host the International AIDS Conference in July — marking the first time the United States has hosted the conference since 1990.

While touting his accomplishments, Obama said “we’ve got more to do” and identified two LGBT issues that he said still need to be addressed further: passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and bullying in schools.

“Americans may feel more comfortable bringing their partners to the office barbecue, but we’re still waiting for a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Obama said. “Congress needs to pass that legislation, so that no American is ever fired simply for being gay or transgender.”

The reception marks the fourth time that Obama has hosted a Pride reception at the White House. In each of the three previous years of his administration, the president has held a reception to commemorate June as Pride month.

This year’s Pride reception marks the first time openly gay service members participated while in uniform. A handful wearing uniforms from the various military branches could be seen mingling in the crowd, although they declined to talk to reporters during the event.

Josh Seefried, co-director of OutServe, was among the active duty service members who participated and said afterward he was proud to attend.

“I was incredibly proud to be there not only with the people we worked side by side with to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ but for the first time with my military peers as well,” Seefried said. “It was surreal.The president’s speech showed leadership from the top and I’m proud to call him my commander-in-chief.”

Numerous attendees told the Washington Blade at the event they were thrilled to receive invitations and show their support for Obama as Election Day approaches.

Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, said it’s important for the LGBT community to work to re-elect Obama after he took a political risk by coming out for marriage equality.

“I think it’s interesting that’s he taken such a major chance in support for this community, and I hope this community answers that challenge,” Segal said.

Mary Burns, executive director of the Indianapolis, Ind., based Indiana Youth Group, said she was “ecstatic” to attend the reception and doesn’t know anyone else who’s been invited to the White House.

“Just because we got invited, we’re celebrities in Indianapolis,” Burns said. “It’s very significant to us. We’re fighting a constitutional amendment [against marriage equality] in Indiana, and so the fact that we can come to the White House for a reception just says that the government isn’t all against us.”

Attendees at the event universally said they don’t believe presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would host a similar Pride event if he’s elected to the White House.

Michael Rogers, a gay D.C. activist and another attendee at the reception, said he doubts there would be any LGBT advances under a Romney administration.

“He’s so bound to the right-wing, especially in a first term that you just won’t see anything,” Rogers said. “You’ll see his social policy pushed off on some right-winger and [Romney will] care about destroying the economy. What they want to create is apartheid; they want to hold all  the money for the rich, white people when more and more the country is becoming people of color and more diversity.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the members of Congress who was in attendance, expressed satisfaction with Obama’s inclusion of marriage equality in his speech — but was particularly happy Obama mentioned a trans-inclusive ENDA in his remarks.

“A few years ago, there was a major rift in the Democratic caucus, and in the gay community,” Nadler said. “When we put a bill on the floor for ENDA, it was not inclusive, and you wouldn’t do that today. Compare that a few years ago to today, when the president specifically mentioned an inclusive ENDA, and the president specifically comes out in favor of repealing DOMA and in favor of marriage equality. That’s tremendous change.”

Some LGBT advocates used the occasion of the White House Pride reception to press Obama to take administrative action against workplace discrimination against LGBT people.

Jacob Tobia, a gay 20-year-old student from Duke University, sought to deliver a letter to Obama calling on him to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In April, the White House announced it wouldn’t issue such a directive at this time, but advocates have continued to press the administration.

Tobia, director of LGBTQ Policy for Duke student government, said he spoke briefly with the president following his remarks, but the message was taken by an aide.

“I don’t know if it’ll actually get to the president; I hope it will,” Tobia said. “But I shook his hand and got to say, ‘Mr. President, I wrote you a letter about the executive order, and I hope you’ll get a chance to read it.’ He said, ‘OK.'”

Tobia said he feels the executive order would help him personally because he resides in a state with no law protecting LGBT people against discrimination.

“It’s a very good possibility that I could be working in my home state and someone could give me my two weeks and say, ‘You’re fired,’ because I’m gay,” Tobia said. “With the job market the way it is, it’s really scary that I could be fired from my job just for being gay.”

The reception took place on the same day that Obama issued an executive order along the lines of the DREAM Act to protect young, undocumented immigrants pursuing college education or military service from deportation. According to the Associated Press, a few hundred young people rallied before the White House in support of the move before the reception started.

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North Dakota lawmakers okay regulation banning Conversion Therapy

This rule change will stop the vast majority of mental health providers in North Dakota from subjecting LGBTQ youth to conversion therapy

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Capitol Building of North Dakota in Bismarck (Photo Credit: State of North Dakota)

BISMARCK, ND. – The North Dakota House Administrative Rules Committee voted 8-7 on Tuesday, June 8, to authorize the rule proposed by the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, implementing new regulations prohibiting licensed social workers from subjecting LGBTQ youth to the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy.

The North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, which oversees licensing for social workers in the state, created the new rule which states that “it is an ethical violation for a social worker licensed by the board to engage in any practices or treatments that attempt to change or repair the sexual orientation or gender identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals.”

The West Hollywood based Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people, had worked with Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Josh Boschee, the National Association of Social Workers ND Chapter, the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, and local advocates like Elizabeth Loos to advance these critical protections for LGBTQ youth.

 “This rule change will stop the vast majority of mental health providers in North Dakota from subjecting LGBTQ youth to the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. This practice is not therapy at all— it’s abusive and fraudulent,” said Troy Stevenson, Senior Advocacy Campaign Manager for The Trevor Project. “There is still more work to be done in North Dakota, but this bold action will help save young lives. The Trevor Project is committed to an every state strategy to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy and North Dakota has proven that progress is possible anywhere.”

“Thank you to the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners for restricting licensed social workers in North Dakota from being able to practice conversion therapy! LGBT North Dakotans, especially youth, are safer now as you hold licensees responsible to the NASW Code of Ethics,” said Minority Leader Boschee. 

The proposed ban on therapist-administered conversion therapy in North Dakota was met with opposition by several of the committee’s most socially conservative members, the Grand Forks Herald reported.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, told the paper that he worries the new prohibition is limiting because it would prevent people seeking “some kind of treatment” from getting help. Bell said the rule is written so clients who are LGBT or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity are not inhibited from seeking care.

Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, said he’s concerned the rule would interfere with religious counseling, adding “there are some cases where people want to change.”

“There are licensed counselors that are also Christians, and basically my concern in all of this is that we’re telling the Christian counselors ‘you can be a licensed counselor, but you can’t practice your Christianity,'” Satrom said.

Satrom and West Fargo Republican Rep. Kim Koppelman said approving the social workers’ ban on conversion therapy is outside of the committee’s scope and ought to be scrutinized by the full Legislature.

Boschee, the North Dakota Legislature’s only openly gay member, told the Grand Forks Herald that he was disappointed in some of his colleagues for standing behind the “harmful” practice of conversion therapy and trying to muddy the conversation over what is a simple self-imposed rule for social workers. The Fargo Democrat said he was ultimately pleased that seven lawmakers joined him in upholding the proposed ban.

Research: 

  • According to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 13% of LGBTQ youth reported being subjected to conversion therapy, with 83% reporting it occurred when they were under age 18. LGBTQ youth who were subjected to conversion therapy reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who were not.
  • According to a peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project published in the American Journal of Public Health, LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts in the past year.
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‘We’re still very much in the healing phase’

Saturday marks five years since Pulse nightclub massacre

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The interim memorial at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on May 31, 2020 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Saturday marks five years since a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

A remembrance ceremony will take place at the site, which is now an interim memorial. A number of other events to honor the victims will take place in Orlando and throughout Central Florida over the coming days.

“We’re still very much in the healing phase and trying to find our way,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.

The massacre at the time was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Nearly half of the victims were LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. The massacre also sparked renewed calls for gun control.

Poma told the Blade that she expects construction will begin on a “Survivor’s Walk” at the site by the end of the year. A museum — which she described as an “education center” that will “talk about the history of the LGBT community and its struggles and stripes for the last century or so … about why safe spaces were important to this community” and what happened at Pulse and the global response to it — will be built a third of a mile away.

“We really feel it is important to never forget what happened at Pulse and to tell the story of that,” said Poma.

Poma noted the onePULSE Foundation of which she is the executive director met with representatives of the 9/11 Tribute Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to discuss the memorial. Poma when she spoke with the Blade acknowledged the plans have been criticized.

“This kind of opposition is not unique to these kind of projects,” she said.

“It’s just important to know that really what we’re trying to do is make sure what happened is never forgotten and those lives were never forgotten,” added Poma.

Poma on Tuesday declined to comment on the lawsuits that have been filed against her, her husband and the onePULSE Foundation in the wake of the massacre.

DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ policies overshadow anniversary

The Blade this week spoke with Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) and other activists and elected officials in Florida and Puerto Rico who were part of the immediate response to the massacre.

Equality Florida raised millions of dollars for survivors and victims’ families. CEO Nadine Smith on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview that Equality Florida in the massacre’s immediate aftermath pledged to honor the victims “with action by uprooting hatred at its source and from that time we have invested deeply in safe and healthy schools.”

“Schools are a shared cultural experience where the attitudes of ignorance and fear and animosity and violence towards others either get challenged or encouraged,” said Smith. “Five years later I look at how far this work has come and at the same time, I’m very aware of the backlash that we are facing, particularly in our schools with laws targeting trans youth specifically.”

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 1 signed a bill that bans transgender athletes from participating in high school and college sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The governor the following day vetoed funding that activists say would have funded programs for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a gay man who represents portions of Orlando, on Tuesday described DeSantis as “callous.”

“The governor’s actions are a reminder that five years after the attack at Pulse nightclub, we have a lot of work to do to push back against homophobia and transphobia,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith. “The Orlando community is very supporting and accepting of the LGBTQ community, but when you see what’s happening at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, you realize that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, associate director of Waves Ahead, an LGBTQ service organization in Puerto Rico, described the massacre’s impact in the U.S. commonwealth as “permanent in our collective memory.” Serrano also noted violence against trans Puerto Ricans remains rampant.

“We are now the epicenter of anti-trans violence in the U.S. and its territories,” said Serrano. “After five years, we still confront this hatred that doesn’t seem to stop. We will continue to fight until all of us are safe.”

the Pulse nightclub massacre, gay news, Washington Blade
A plaque in Third Millennium Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, pays tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Tony Lima, a long-time Florida-based activist who is currently CEO of Arianna’s Center, an organization that serves trans women of color in Florida, the South and Puerto Rico, helped organize vigils and blood drives in the days after the massacre.

“We knew how important it was to aid our family in Orlando in this immediate crisis,” Lima told the Blade on Monday. “Orlando and South Florida are intrinsically connected. We often share resources in nightlife, events, advocacy and a lot of the same people … so I think there was a natural synergy there.”

Lima, like Nadine Smith and Carlos Guillermo Smith, sharply criticized DeSantis for signing the anti-trans bill and for vetoing funds for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth. Lima also lamented the lack of progress on gun control.

A gunman on Feb. 14, 2018, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Lima told the Blade there have been two deadly mass shootings in South Florida in recent days.

“We have a huge problem when it comes to gun control in this country, and sadly five years later we haven’t made a whole lot of progress,” he said.

The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced sharp criticism from activists over his anti-LGBTQ policies. State lawmakers have also been criticized over their inaction on gun control. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Orlando’s support of LGBTQ rights part of ‘bigger call to action’

Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet is the senior specialist for inclusion, diversity and equity for the city of Orlando’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. He is also Mayor Buddy Dyer’s LGBTQ liaison.

Orlando City Hall on June 1 raised the Pride flag in commemoration of Pride month.

Sousa-Lazaballet noted the fountain in Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando was the colors of the trans Pride flag in commemoration of the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Orlando in 2019 became the first city in Florida to include National LGBT Chamber of Commerce-certified businesses in its municipal contracting and procurement programs.

“All of that is part of that bigger call to action, which is we want to honor the 49,” said Sousa-Lazaballet. “But we also want to with action by making the city an even more welcoming place for all.”

Sousa-Lazaballet, Carlos Guillermo Smith and Nadine Smith all told the Blade the way that Orlando, Central Florida, the country and the world responded to the massacre remains a source of pride.

“I think about how many messages there were in the aftermath that called on the worst instincts in people to be fearful of each other, to hate people as a group, to cower and to hide and I will never forget and have been changed by the Orlando community, how the nation and in fact globally people responded to the absolute opposite,” said Nadine Smith. “That is a light that I hold on to.”

Poma echoed Nadine Smith.

“We hope that our goal is to create that beacon of light that can come out of such darkness,” said Poma. “Darkness is a really dangerous place to get stuck in and so while we all wish what happened on June 12 never happened, it did and it’s now our moral and social responsibility to do something with that and that for me is creating light and change from what we all endured.”

A mural in Orlando, Fla., in the months after the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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Senate passes bill designating Pulse as a national memorial

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry.”

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Washington Blade file photo by Michael K. Lavers

WASHINGTON – In a rare bipartisan move, a bill that designates the former Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida a national memorial was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

Florida’s two U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced Senate Resolution 265 recognizing the fifth anniversary and honoring the 49 victims of the mass shooting attack on the Pulse Nightclub June 12, 2016.

Companion legislation authored by California U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA), and also Congressman Darren Soto’s (D-FL) House Resolution 49 that passed by voice vote on May 13 was also passed by the Senate.

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry. We’re proud of the bipartisan coalition of Florida Congressional leaders for leading the effort to recognize this hallowed ground as a national memorial site.,” Brandon J. Wolf, the Development Officer and Media Relations Manager for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida and a Pulse survivor told the Blade. “Our visibility matters. May the 49 lives stolen never be forgotten. And may we always honor them with action.”

Wolf was inside the club at the time of the shooting and lost his two best friends, Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew (Drew) Leinonen, who were among the 49 murdered during the rampage. Wolf had managed to escape but the event has forever left him scarred.

Since that terrible night Wolf has been a force for advocacy in gun control and LGBTQ equality rights and is a nationally recognized leader in those endeavors to include by President Joe Biden.

“Pulse is hallowed ground and what happened on June 12, 2016 must never be forgotten. ” Wolf added.

Florida’s Senator’s both released statements:

“The terrorist attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub was a heinous act of violence and hatred against members of the LGBTQ community,” Marco Rubio said. “Forty-nine innocent lives were lost on that horrific day. As the fifth anniversary approaches, we must continue to honor the memory of those who were taken far too soon. And while work still remains to root out evil, I am inspired by Orlando’s continued resiliency, pride, and strength.”

Rick Scott, who was Florida’s governor at the time of the mass shooting said, “Nearly five years ago today, our state, nation, the City of Orlando, and Hispanic and LGBTQ communities were attacked, and 49 innocent and beautiful lives were lost. It was an unspeakable tragedy,” he said. 

“An evil act of terrorism designed to divide us as a nation and strike fear in our hearts and minds. But instead, we came together, and supported each other through heartbreak and darkness, to preserve and rebuild. Today, we still stand strong, together, to remember the 49 young lives lost that tragic day and honor their memory with passage of our resolution and our bill to establish the ‘National Pulse Memorial.’ It is my hope that this memorial will forever serve as a tribute to the victims and a reminder for us all to always stand for love and kindness over hate and evil in this world.”

Although the United States Senate marked the upcoming fifth anniversary by honoring the victims and shooting survivors with passage of the legislation which now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature, in Florida, Repuiblican Governor Ron De Santis has taken a different tack.

Last week, DeSantis vetoed funding for LGBTQ programs from the state budget including money earmarked for mental health programming to support survivors of the Pulse Massacre, to house homeless LGBTQ children, and for Orlando’s LGBTQ Community Center. 

Brandon Wolf (L) speaking with Florida Governor DeSantis (R) at PULSE Memorial 2019 (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

These actions following his signing a bill on June 1, the start of LGBTQ Pride month- an education bill amended to include a previous stand alone bill, specifically targeting transgender girls and young women, banning them from playing on female sports teams.

“Let’s be clear about what this is: Governor DeSantis has declared war on Florida’s LGBTQ community.” said Wolf. “Before the 2019 Remembrance Ceremony, Governor DeSantis stood on hallowed ground, steps from where I escaped the building in 2016, and promised me that he would always support those of us impacted by the Pulse nightclub shooting. Today, almost two years later to date, he vetoed mental health services for us. I will never forget.”

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