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Democratic platform committee hears marriage equality testimony

Freedom to Marry pushes for plank endorsing gay nuptials

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The fight to include a marriage equality plank in the 2012 Democratic Party platform is heating up as one LGBT advocate drew on support from Democratic governors and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in testimony urging platform committee members to adopt such language.

Members of the platform drafting committee are holding a national hearing this weekend in Minneapolis, Minn., and hearing testimony from individuals seeking certain language in the platform. Among the witnesses Friday afternoon was Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, whose organization is taking the lead in pushing for an endorsement of same-sex marriage in the platform as part of its “Democrats: Say I Do” campaign.

Slated to speak on Saturday also in support of the language was Army Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, a lesbian New Hampshire guardsmen who has been diagnosed with stage-four incurable breast cancer, as well as Michael Macleod-Ball, the American Civil Liberties Union’s chief of staff in the Washington Legislative Office, who’ll speak about marriage and other LGBT and HIV/AIDS related issues.

In his prepared remarks, Solomon drew on the “evolution” that Obama completed on his way to endorsing same-sex marriage, but also made the case the Democratic Party as a whole has largely been responsible for advancing same-sex marriage, including Democratic governors like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

“The Democratic Party has a noble history of fighting for the human and civil rights of all Americans,” Solomon said. “Living up to that legacy, Democratic lawmakers have provided the vast majority of the support for the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples in states and in Congress, even as ending exclusion from marriage is now becoming a bipartisan cause.”

Speaking with the Washington Blade by phone after his testimony, Solomon said the inclusion of a marriage-equality plank is important to keep up “momentum” in the advancement of same-sex marriage.

“At first the effort itself made a lot of news because we were asking the party to go someplace where the president wasn’t yet,” Solomon said. “I think every step towards our end game of full marriage equality nationwide is important, especially with the U.S. Supreme Court likely to take up some major cases next session, so we want to keep building momentum in every single way.”

While committee members asked questions of others who presented testimony, Solomon said none were asked of him. At the same time, Solomon said no committee members expressed support for a marriage equality plank during the time he testified, but also didn’t express support for any other idea presented to them.

A handful of the 15 members of the platform drafting committee have already pledged to advocate for a marriage equality plank. In response to inquiries from the Washington Blade, three voting members — Carlos Odio, a Latino Democratic activist, Donna Harris-Aikens, the National Education Association’s director of policy and practice, and NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan — went on the record saying they’d unequivocally back such language, as did two non-voting members — Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Democratic National Committee Secretary Alice Germond.

But that explicit support isn’t held everyone, including a high-profile openly gay member of the panel who recently married his longtime same-sex partner. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who previously expressed lukewarm support for the idea of a marriage equality plank and he preferred language opposed to the Defense of Marriage Act, had at best an ambivalent take on marriage in the platform when asked about it by the New York Post.

“There may be a decision not to get into it a whole lot,” Frank was quoted as saying. “This is a strategic judgment.”

Solomon said Frank wasn’t present during the time he presented his testimony before the panel, although most of the committee was there, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Still, in his testimony, Solomon credited the lawmaker for assisting with a previous effort to include a marriage equality plank in the Massachusetts State Democratic Party platform and called him a “tireless advocate” in helping with the effort to preserve a 2003 court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

“Congressman Barney Frank was a tireless advocate, making the personal case to many, many state lawmakers,” Frank said. “I remember Barney telling one conservative state representative, a bit tongue-in-cheek, ‘What if I want to get married someday?’ Well, this year Barney did marry the love of his life, and there are same-sex couples in Massachusetts who have already celebrated eight years of marriage, to their great joy and the great joy of their loved ones.”

Solomon similarly praised Kennedy in his testimony for his support, drawing on a speech the late senator gave before his death in 2009 in which he said, “For all my years in public life, I have believed that America must sail toward the shores of liberty and justice for all. There is no end to that journey, only the next great voyage.”

Similar testimony is expected to continue later during the national hearing. Morgan, among the gay service members who are suing to overturn DOMA as part of a lawsuit filed by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, is slated to echo Solomon’s testimony in her remarks on Saturday. In February, Morgan met with staffers for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to urge him to discontinue his defense of the anti-gay law in court.

But Macleod-Ball is expected to strike a different chord in his testimony. According to a blog posting on the ACLU’s website by Ian Thompson, the ACLU’s legislative representative, Macleod-Ball will advocate not only for marriage equality language, but also an endorsement of the Respect for Marriage Act; an endorsement of the Student Non-Discrimination Act; and including language to end stigma and discrimination against those who are living with HIV/AIDS; and strengthened enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A general sense of optimism that Democrats will include a marriage equality plank in the platform pervades now that President Obama has endorsed same-sex marriage. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said earlier in this month in an interview with the Philadelphia Gay News that she “expect[s] marriage equality to be a plank in the national party platform.” Solomon and Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson have expressed similar confidence.

“I have every confidence this is going to happen,” Solomon told the Washington Blade. “I don’t see any red flags in front of us and I think today went just as planned, just as hoped for.”

The national hearing in Minneapolis is a prelude to a Detroit., Mich., meeting next month when the party’s full platform committee will discuss amendments before presenting the platform to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. in September.

Many Democrats have endorsed the idea of including marriage equality plank in the Democratic Party platform, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Senate candidates Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warrenfour former Democratic National Committee chairs and 22 U.S. senators.

Amid calls to include a marriage equality plank in the platform, the Obama campaign has issued a response, although without attribution and with a statement was later clarified to mean that it isn’t an endorsement of a marriage equality-inclusive platform.

“The President’s personal views on marriage equality are known. The President and the Party are committed to crafting a platform that reflects the President’s positions and the values of the Party,” an Obama campaign spokesperson said last week in an email to the Washington Blade.

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Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls

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From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

“LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased”

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Florida State Capitol building

TALLAHASSEE – A Republican majority Florida House Education & Employment Committee passed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion Senate bill SB 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the Press Secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66%) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56% of transgender and nonbinary youth said it made them feel angry, 47% felt nervous and/or scared, 45% felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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