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GOP touts opposition to marriage equality at anti-gay summit

Speakers vow to preserve traditional marriage, attack Obama for pro-LGBT policy

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Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan at the Values Voter Summit
Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan at the Values Voter Summit

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Republican public officials — including the No. 2 person on the GOP presidential ticket — weaved opposition to same-sex marriage into their speeches during an annual social conservative conference in D.C. as they criticized President Obama’s policies and reaffirmed traditional values.

Speakers at the the 2012 Values Voters Summit, which was hosted at the Omni Shoreham Hotel by the anti-gay Family Research Council, addressed an estimated 2,500 attendees who cheered references to prohibiting marriage rights for gay couples and making abortion illegal.

Perhaps the most high-profile speech at the three-day summit came from GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who made a reference to marriage when touting the values of the candidate at the top of the ticket: Mitt Romney.

“We can be confident in the rightness of our cause, and also in the integrity and readiness of the man who leads it,” Ryan said. “He is a solid and trustworthy, faithful and honorable man. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best. Not only a fine businessman, he’s a fine man, worthy of leading our country and ready to lead the great turnaround we have spent four years waiting for.”

Ryan’s description of Romney as a “defender of marriage” directly lifts from the vice presidential candidate’s speech at the Republican National Convention when he gave Romney an identical distinction.

But the reference to marriage didn’t make up a significant portion of Ryan’s remarks. Abortion and the Obama administration’s decision to mandate birth control as part of health insurance policies were more salient.

“In the Clinton years, the stated goal was to make abortion safe, legal and rare,” Ryan said. “But that was a different time and a different president. Now, apparently, the Obama-Biden ticket stands for an absolute, unqualified right to abortion at any time, under any circumstance, and even at taxpayer expense.”

Twice during Ryan’s speech, protestors interrupted and shouted at the vice presidential candidate. The second protestor said something about Romney’s now infamous remarks that “Corporations are people, my friend” before being escorted out of the room. In a YouTube video posted after the speech of one of the protesters being taken away, she was shown decrying the corporate influence over the national political parties.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was also among the speakers at the summit and touted Republicans support “traditional marriage” because of the institution’s ability to keep people out of poverty.

Eric Cantor, Republican, House Majority Leader, Values Voter Summit

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“That is why we believe in traditional marriage, because marriage, more than any government program ever has or ever will, has lifted up people out of poverty, even those who felt there was no hope,” Cantor said. “Marriage has proven to be that formula which has been more successful at allowing for that pursuit of happiness. And that is why we stand tall and stand proud for traditional marriage.”

Cantor is among the members of House Republicans who sits on the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group and voted to take up defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court after the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the law.

Romney didn’t make a live appearance at the Values Voter Summit, but spoke to attendees via a recorded video. During the video, Romney talked about his commitment to social issues, saying his administration “will defend marriage, not try to redefine it.”

But Romney’s name didn’t often come up in speeches during the day — except for anomalies such as Ryan’s speech and the vice presidential nominee’s introduction by conservative pundit Bill Bennett — as others took the opportunity on stage to criticize Obama without praising the alternative candidate.

Wayne Besen, who’s gay and executive director of the Truth Wins Out, was in attendance at the summit and took note of the general absence of Romney.

“You’d think that Ronald Reagan was running with Paul Ryan,” Besen said. “There’s almost no mention of Romney except in Bennett’s speech. They’re really not enthusiastic at all.”

Besen also said the emphasis on defending marriage and supporting traditional marriage were coded ways for speakers to communicate to conservatives they don’t support the LGBT community.

“I wouldn’t call it quite red meat, I would call it perhaps a red meat appetizer,” Besen said. “[They’re] talking about supporting traditional marriage, but it’s not outright gay bashing. They’re clearly sending signals to their voters, but … they don’t want to look like they’re attacking LGBT people, and they’re intolerant.”

LGBT and progressive groups decried the event and said public officials were participating in a conference hosted by an extreme right-wing organizations. Earlier this week, several groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, sent a letter to public officials urging them not to attend, although the calls didn’t seem to have an impact on the schedule.

Michael Keegan, president of progressive advocacy group called People For the American Way, said in statement Ryan “sends a clear message” by participating in the summit that he’s “decided to embrace the entrenched bigotry advocated by the farthest of the far right.”

“The Family Research Council and the American Family Association are not mainstream groups,” Keegan continued“The FRC frequently and falsely links homosexuality to pedophilia. The AFA has claimed that gay men were responsible for the Holocaust. Both have defended laws at home and abroad that criminalize homosexuality. These are not innocent differences of opinion; they are full-scale efforts to smear and denigrate LGBT Americans.

Affirmations of against same-sex marriage and attacks on Obama for his opposition to DOMA and support for same-sex marriage were a prominent feature of many other speeches.

Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp of Kansas

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas)

Rep. Tim Hueslkamp (R-Kansas), a freshman Tea Party lawmaker who this year submitted a DOMA amendment to the House floor, had stern words for the Obama administration over its refusal to defend the anti-gay, misstating the action the administration took by telling his audience Obama isn’t enforcing the law anymore.

“They’re using your taxpayer money to undermine marriage in court, after court, after court,” Hueslkamp said. “Last time I checked, the Constitution doesn’t allow a president to pick and choose … what law to enforce. They’re using those dollars, your taxpayer money, to undo your very values.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, co-chair of the Republican Party platform drafting committee, praised how the Republican Party includes language opposing same-sex marriage and his own state’s decision to adopt a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, saying the concept seems “foreign” to the Obama administration.

“We were very clear that we strongly disagree with a president who will not enforce the DOMA law to be able to protect traditional marriage,” McDonnell said. “We’ve already adopted that in the constitution of Virginia; in fact, every state – I think 30 of them now – that have actually voted in their states to protect traditional marriage have done so. And so embracing that concept as a national idea should not be a foreign concept, but it appears to be to this administration.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an anti-gay lawmaker who also introduced an amendment to House floor reaffirming DOMA, decried the administration’s decision to no longer defend the anti-gay law in court and its decision to allow same-sex weddings on military bases.

“They’re having them on bases throughout the world in places … same-sex marriage in direct offense to the Defense of Marriage Act,” King said. “This is an undermining of our Constitution, and the rule of law and the separation of powers.”

GetEqual protest at the Values Voter Summit web-sized image

Members of the LGBT activist group GetEQUAL protest outside of the Omni Shoreham Hotel during the Values Voter Summit. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Outside the hotel after the first day of conference, a group of LGBT protesters affiliated with the group GetEQUAL demonstrated against the conference over its anti-gay message.

In addition to a banner reading, “Your Values Are Killing Us,” protesters held up photos of gay youths who died in recent years in incidents related to their sexual orientation: Lawrence King, a gay California who was shot at age 15; Justin Aaberg, a gay Minnesota youth who killed himself at age 15; and Seth Walsh, a gay California youth who killed himself at age 13.

Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, a gay Tampa, Fla., resident and national field director for GetEQUAL, said protesters intended to demonstrates that the “values” espoused at the conference are responsible for the death of gay youths across the country.

“We’re opposed to all of the anti-LGBT equality beliefs that they have, including that in therapy and other things that not only hurt us, but really drive our youth to suicide,” Sousa-Rodriguez said.

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Oklahoma

White House, national groups respond to nonbinary Okla. teenager’s death

Nex Benedict died after reported assault

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and national advocacy groups issued statements on Wednesday about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a high school restroom.

Benedict died on Feb. 8. According to ABC News, officials investigating the incident said they will be interviewing students and staff “over the next few weeks” and plan to share findings with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

The victim’s mother told the Independent that Benedict had suffered bullying over their gender since the start of the 2023 school year, shortly after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill to prohibit students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported at school,” Jean-Pierre said in a post on X. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, their friends, and their entire school community in the wake of this horrific tragedy.”

Calling Benedict’s death a “gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-trans hatred,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “We are reaching out to the DOJ, we are encouraging the community to speak out.”

Along with Robinson’s remarks, HRC’s Press Team included a link to the organization’s blog post about Benedict and a statement from Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the HRC Transgender Justice Initiative:

“Extremist anti-LGBTQ+ hate accounts, like online troll Chaya Raichik, the woman behind ‘Libs of TikTok’, who was recently appointed to Oklahoma’s library advisory board, are perpetuating a vile and hateful narrative that is permitting these types of public attacks,” she wrote.

State schools superintendent Ryan Walters, who last year called transgender youth using public restrooms “an assault on truth” and a danger to other kids, was responsible for naming Raichik to the library media panel.

“The assault on Nex is an inevitable result of the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory legislation targeting Oklahoma trans youth,” Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma wrote in a joint statement.

“We are deeply troubled by reports the school failed to respond appropriately to the altercation that preceded Nex’s death and demand a thorough, open investigation into the matter,” the groups wrote.

Their statement also notes the organizations’ lawsuit challenging Oklahoma Senate Bill 615, the bathroom bill signed by Stitt last year.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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Oklahoma

Nonbinary Okla. high school student dies after fight

Nex Benedict passed away Feb. 8

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Nex (Dagny) Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student, died from injuries suffered in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on Feb. 7, 2024. (Family photo)

Located in Tulsa County on U.S. Highway 169 six miles north of Tulsa’s city limits, Owasso, which is home to 39,328 people, is grappling with conflict and accusations after Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso High School sophomore who was nonbinary, died after a physical fight in a restroom at the school.

However, according to school officials there was no notification or staff awareness of the fight until the young student had been taken to hospital and later died. The Owasso Police Department is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the student’s death. 

According to the local newspaper, the Owasso Reporter:

“On Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to Bailey Medical Center by the parent of a 16-year-old Owasso High School student who allegedly had a physical altercation at the campus earlier that day, according to the police report.”

It states that no initial report of the fight was made to police prior to their admission to Bailey, although information was taken by a school resource officer at the hospital.

On the evening of Feb. 8, police were made aware that the student was rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead from a medical episode, the report states.

KJRH in neighboring Tulsa reported that a person knowledgeable of the events leading to the teen’s death, who claimed to be the mother of the victim’s best friend, told the station regarding the teen’s death:

“I think complications from brain trauma, head trauma, is what caused it,” she said.

The woman wouldn’t say the victim’s name but said Benedict was a sophomore. Bailey said the victim was outgoing and loyal once they got comfortable and was not afraid to be outspoken. The woman said three older girls were beating on the victim and her daughter in the girl’s bathroom.

“I know at one point, one of the girls was pretty much repeatedly beating [Benedict] head across the floor,” she said. That’s when [Benedict said] a teacher walked in and broke it up.

“[Benedict] couldn’t walk to the nurses’ station on [Benedict] own, and staff didn’t call the ambulance, which amazes me,” she said.

The woman told KJRH the victim’s grandmother, who [Benedict] primarily lived with, brought [Benedict] to the hospital after the fight. She said the victim was released that evening but was brought back the next day and died.

KJRH reached out multiple times along with other media outlets to Owasso Public Schools. A school district spokesperson responded saying there would be no comment “because this is an active police investigation.”

The Owasso Police Department also declined to comment except for noting investigators still don’t know if the fight was related to the teen’s death or if a separate medical issue was the cause. OPD said they’re waiting on the corner-medical examiner’s report before releasing more information.

Owasso Public Schools released this statement about the student’s death:

“The Owasso Police Department has notified district leaders of the death of an Owasso High School student. The student’s name and cause of death have not yet been made public. As this is an active police investigation, we will have no additional comment at this time. Further inquiries should be directed to the Owasso Police Department.”

“The district will have additional counselors at the school to provide support to students and staff beginning on Friday.”

On Feb. 15, after a service was held at Mowery Funeral Service Chapel, Benedict was buried at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Collinsville.

LGBTQ advocates and others are angered by the death, the misgendering in local media and the fact that the school district, which has been previously targeted by the far-right anti-LGBTQ extremist Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik, seems unable to grapple with anti-LGBTQ bullying.

Raichik was named to sit on an Oklahoma committee reviewing school library content by far-right leaning State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.

In 2022, Raichik targeted a now former Owasso 8th grade teacher for speaking out in support of LGBTQ students who lacked acceptance from their parents. That teacher, Tyler Wrynn, was labeled a “groomer” and a predator in social media posts.

According to LGBTQ advocacy groups, Raichik’s endless targeting only seems to encourage more violence against LGBTQ youth. 

Lance Preston, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, which has been working to assist queer youth in the state, posted a video expressing his frustration and anger over this death and the other anti-LGBTQ violence.

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