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Melissa Harris-Perry discusses voter suppression, marriage

Tulane University professor’s MSNBC show began in February



Gay News, Washington Blade, MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry (Photo courtesy of MSNBC)

MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry stressed during an interview with the Washington Blade last week that voter suppression efforts continue to impact transgender Americans.

“They don’t look like what their photo IDs are,” she said from New Orleans. “So if they are self-presenting in front of an election official and they have an ID that says male or female and they’re sort of gender self-presenting in a non-conforming way, of course you end up with the possibility of shame or embarrassment or not being believed to be who you are.”

Harris-Perry had been scheduled to moderate a town hall on voter suppression and discrimination during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual Legislative Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. on Sept. 20, but she remained in New Orleans after Hurricane Isaac destroyed her home late last month. Harris-Perry further stressed that another problem for trans voters who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery face is they don’t have birth certificates with names and gender markers that “are not informative of what their current life is.”

“All of those things impact the ability of people to have the kind of state-issued ID that is allowable in a lot of these states around voting,” she said. “And so the idea that a person would be a perfectly eligible American citizen who has an opinion about voting and is kept out of it because of those sorts of issues — it goes to the heart of helping us understand that these efforts are really voter suppression efforts, not efforts to keep the election process above board.”

Harris-Perry further credited Rev. Al Sharpton with bringing the issue of voter suppression to mainstream cable news. She applauded “The Nation” and other progressive and LGBT media outlets for their coverage of the issue, but Harris-Perry said that the broader conversation around it remains what she described as particularly narrow.

“Part of it is we get stuck in a historical framework around Jim Crow and our memory of Jim Crow or what we think Jim Crow was about was primarily about keeping black folks from the polls. And that’s both true, but also insufficient,” she said. “It also had the effect of keeping old people out, people without education, folks without resources of all kinds. It had a huge impact among poor whites in the U.S. south. I think we haven’t had a clear enough understanding of just how broad suppression is, how many different groups it impacts. And we have talked about it primarily as a race-based issue in order to keep black folks from voting from the black president. That is undoubtedly part of the story, but it’s also only part of the story. And I do worry that we keep ourselves from having a truly broad-based coalition that we could have if we were clearer about the impact that on women who marry and change their names, and the impact that this has on queer voters and the impact that this has on students as well on poor people, people with disabilities, older folks and black and brown people. It’s actually massive what these efforts to do in terms of limiting our democracy.”

Harris-Perry said she has a better understanding of the issue and its specific impact on trans people because she said her gender non-conforming niece frequently confronts questions when she presents herself as male, but her student ID lists her gender as female.

“Because I am tuned into that, I have a sense of it but I don’t think that it has been part of our civil rights framework to say wait a minute yes, race is important here, but here’s how race is at the intersection of all of these other identities as well,” said Harris-Perry. “We’re only just kind of getting to the back end of the third wave of the feminist struggle. So part of it is ignorance, but that’s only part of it. The other part of it is for many folks they are actively homophobic and disinterested in whether or not these sort of suppression efforts impact LGBT communities and as a matter of political strategy they think talking about it is a bad idea for building the coalitions they hope to build for social action. So the fact is there are four communities and black communities who are certainly happy to take it too far or are maybe insufficiently motivated by knowing that their fellow citizens who are gay and/or queer are also impacted by this. It just doesn’t move them politically.”


LGBT issues a frequent topic on Harris-Perry’s show

Harris-Perry has frequently discussed LGBT-specific issues on her eponymous show since it began in February.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, appeared on an hour-long segment called “Being Transgender in America” in April alongside author Kate Bornstein and trans New York City Council candidate Mel Wymore. Harris-Perry also interviewed Dr. Scout of the Fenway Institute’s Network for LGBT Health Equity in Boston who proposed to his girlfriend, Liz Margolies of the National LGBT Cancer Network, during the White House’s LGBT Pride month reception.

Harris-Perry also appeared in a video for the Human Rights Campaign’s Americans for Marriage Equality campaign in June. She said she has been a part of the movement for nuptials for same-sex couples “for a long time,” but she conceded she has what she described as a “deep ambivalence about marriage as the driving policy issue” after the repeal of the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers.

“My husband is a civil rights advocate in the area of housing and we just see how important the state laws are in housing and education and in employment are and what a deep material impact they have,” said Harris-Perry. “Sometimes marriage feels symbolic comparatively to the impact that those kinds of material policies have on people’s lives. And so in certain ways, even though I’ve always been an advocate of marriage equality because anything else seems patently discriminatory and unfair, it hasn’t been important. And of course I support that, but here are my big issues of these other things.”

She said remarrying changed her perspective.

“I’ve been married and divorced. My joke was that divorce had cured me of marriage and part of why I had a lot of resistance to marriage at the top of the equationI felt like it was sort of pushing that there’s only one kind of family and all of that, but then I made the decision to remarry and the fact is that’s all that i had to do. I just one day I decided I wanted to be married to my life-partner and I did,” said Harris-Perry. “I never had to justify it or explain it. I never had to petition anyone about it and in fact I experienced almost exclusively positive repercussions rather than any negative ones (and by that I mean from other people.) And it was such a reminder of how profound a privilege it is to be able to make decisions that are profoundly personal without the interference of government. We live in Louisiana where people cannot marry, and yet we could. It was such a reminder of how important that is, how important privacy is to our sense of equality and humanity that it became an even more deeply personal issue.”


Black voters “not going to be punishing” Obama over marriage

Harris-Perry spoke to the Blade less than two months before the presidential election. Voters in Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota will also consider same-sex marriage ballot measures and a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban nuptials for gays and lesbians on Election Day.

She stressed that she feels that black voters will continue to support President Obama in spite of his support of marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“It is completely clear to me that African American voters are not going to be punishing this president for this position, even if they are not in agreement with him on marriage equality,” said Harris-Perry. “He is not going to lose black voters. There’s been no evidence of the president losing African American support.”

She added she feels Obama’s position has actually caused others within the black community to evolve on the issue — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Board of Directors passed a resolution in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples less than two weeks after the president publicly backed it during an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts. Hip hop mogul Jay-Z and rapper 50 Cent subsequently backed the issue.

“It’s a signal to queer communities that this president is in a position where in a second term he will back-up this evolution in personal opinion with an additional evolution on policy,” said Harris-Perry. “Certainly with compared to his opponent, the choice is exceedingly clear now and there’s no doubt from that my perspective that’s helpful. This is a president who’s going to go down in history no matter what. From the moment he’s elected he was going to be in the history books, so let’s be in the history not on the side of the restriction of civil rights. It doesn’t really go that well for anybody, ever.”

Harris-Perry, who commutes to New York from New Orleans on the weekends for her show, remains a political science professor at Tulane University. “The Root” last week named her it’s most influential black person between 25-45, but she stressed living in the Big Easy and particularly in the city’s poor and predominantly African American 7th Ward helps her keep things in perspective.

“I said, ‘oh man that’s so great,’” said Harris-Perry, referring to “The Root” designation. “And I have been all over this city today and talked to a dozen people — everybody from the insurance adjusters to the woman I bought my pants over at the White House Black Market, and none of those people have any idea that I have a TV show. They do not care. And it is really lovely and humbling and extremely important to continue to live in a world where the things that matter to people are real-life issues rather than fame or status.”

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Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber



The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Federal Government

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



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



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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