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W.Va. voters elect first openly gay state lawmaker

Stephen Skinner will represent portions of Jefferson County in the West Virginia House of Delegates

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Stephen Skinner, gay news, West Virginia, Washington Blade
Stephen Skinner, gay news, West Virginia, Washington Blade

West Virginia Del. Stephen Skinner (D-Shepherdstown) is the first openly gay person elected to the state legislature. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Skinner)

A West Virginia lawyer on Tuesday became the first openly gay person elected to his state’s legislature.

Stephen Skinner will represent Harper’s Ferry, Shepherdstown and surrounding areas of Jefferson County in the far Eastern Panhandle in the West Virginia House of Delegates after defeating Republican Elliot Simon.

“It feels great,” Skinner told the Washington Blade on Thursday as he discussed his election. “Certainly we can recognize it is historic, but we also must remember that it’s about serving the constituents. This is about getting the votes from folks who have the same everyday problems as anybody.”

Skinner is among the hundreds of openly LGBT candidates across the country who won their respective campaigns on Tuesday. These include gay Florida state Rep.-elect Joe Saunders and Stacie Laughton, a Nashua, N.H., selectman who on Tuesday became the first openly transgender person elected to state office in the U.S. after voters elected her to the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Skinner, who founded Fairness West Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade there were what he described as “some rumblings about” his homosexuality “on the edges” during the campaign. He cited lesbian Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s historic election to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday as proof that voters are increasingly able to look beyond a candidate’s sexual orientation.

“We’re at a point in time at least in this part of West Virginia where if my opponent or outside forces had attempted to make it an issue, it would have backfired,” said Skinner.

Joe Racalto, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, applauded Skinner’s election. His organization will honor him, among others at its annual gala in Charleston, the state capital, on Saturday.

“History was made today in West Virginia,” said Racalto in a statement late on Nov. 6. “Delegate-Elect Skinner is proof that people should be judged by their ideas and vision, not who they love. West Virginians should be applauded for breaking this important barrier.”

Coy A. Flowers, president of Fairness West Virginia’s Board of Directors, agreed.

“On behalf of the nearly 40,000 West Virginians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and for the over 3,000 same sex couples who are raising children in this state, we are ecstatic that our community finally has a true seat at the table in the West Virginia Legislature,” said Flowers. “Finally, our legislative elected officials will be held accountable on issues of fairness and equality for all our state’s citizens.”

Skinner noted the economy and jobs were the top issues among his soon-to-be constituents during the campaign. He also said health care and increased traffic associated with an influx of new residents who often commute into the nation’s capital are also a concern.

“We’re just 65 miles up the Potomac [from D.C.,]” he said. “Development’s a big issue, but we also have gambling is an enormous issue because we derive a lot of our revenue from the Charles Town races. In my district we have two MARC train stations, so we have lots of commuters. Lots of folks work on the Hill and live out here. We’re constantly dealing with the issues of being a community that still retains a lot of its rural character, but is very connected into the D.C. metro area.”

Skinner added the district’s geographical isolation from Charleston and other parts of the state remains an issue.

“We feel very disconnected from the state capital,” he said, noting it takes him less time to drive to Manhattan and five other state capitals than it does to Charleston. “The issues in the rest of the state aren’t necessarily our issues — and vice versa. But we’re experiencing tremendous population growth and it’s sometimes from within in the state and for a lot of people they’re simply living here because it’s affordable housing and a great place to live.”

Home prices in Jefferson County are the highest per capita in West Virginia, while its population is statistically the most educated in the state. Skinner said there are also a lot of “folks who are forward thinking” in Jefferson County.

“We have to make sure the legislators in the Eastern Panhandle are making sure that we are able to have the data to show to the rest of the state the difference, but also that we are generating a huge amount of the revenues for the state,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are getting the correct amount back.”

Skinner said he and other LGBT advocates will continue to push for a bill that would add sexual orientation to West Virginia’s non-discrimination law. He noted he will also work with his soon-to-be colleagues in Charleston on the implementation of expanded Medicare coverage under the health care reform law President Obama signed in 2010.

West Virginia is also about to implement what Skinner described as an “enormous” reform of the state’s education system.

“Having more autonomy and less centralization in a state like West Virginia is going to be pretty important for our future success,” he said.

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National

Biden announces pardons for thousands convicted of federal marijuana possession

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana.  It’s time that we right these wrongs”

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(Photo courtesy of NORML)

President Biden traveling in New York state on Thursday announced that he was granting a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana.

Taking aim at federal conviction rates for marijuana possession, Biden noted in a statement released by the White House, “while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

This announcement by the president comes roughly a month before the midterm elections that will decide whether the president’s party can hold on to control of Congress. Democratic and progressive candidates have pushed the administration for action on this issue which which many Democratic activists have long called for.

The White House estimates will affect more than 6,500 people and in conjunction with his action today Biden is asking that all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses.

Statement from President Biden on Marijuana Reform

As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.  Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities.  And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.
 
Today, I am announcing three steps that I am taking to end this failed approach.
 
First, I am announcing a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana.  I have directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process for the issuance of certificates of pardon to eligible individuals.  There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result.  My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.
 
Second, I am urging all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses.  Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.
 
Third, I am asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.  Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances.  This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic. 
 
Finally, even as federal and state regulation of marijuana changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales should stay in place.
 
Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana.  It’s time that we right these wrongs. 

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Local

Comings & Goings

Conner promoted to manager of Scott Circle Communications

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Robert Conner

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected].

Congratulations to Robert Conner, promoted to manager of Scott Circle Communications. On his promotion Conner said, “I’m proud to be promoted to manager of Scott Circle Communications. Our clients are all mission-driven. I am fortunate to use my expertise to help clients communicate complex and urgent information to the public in order to help people learn about new research relating to their health, and the society around them. As an activist fighting for equality and LGBTQ causes, my daily work at Scott Circle Communications aligns with my overarching life goal of using communication to benefit the greater good by writing clearly to bridge misunderstandings.” 

Conner previously worked at SKDKnickerbocker in D.C. Prior to that he had been an intern in the office of Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).  He has had a number of speaking engagements with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and received a bronze Bulldog Award for Best Media Relations Campaign 2022. He served as chair of the volunteer engagement committee of the Human Rights Campaign in Greater Philadelphia.

Conner earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.

Congratulations also to Christopher Rudolf who joined Atlantic Shores Sotheby’s International Realty in Ocean City, Md. Rudolph is a licensed Realtor in Maryland and Delaware specializing in the beaches and coastal areas of Worcester County, Md., and Sussex County, Del. He said, “I have been assisting buyers and sellers of real estate in our area since 2015. I thoroughly enjoy helping people achieve their dreams of coastal property ownership. The Maryland/Delaware seashore is a very cool place that I like to call home, and teaching people about the history and attractions of the region is a lifelong passion of mine.”  

In addition to real estate in the warm months, Rudolf works part-time as a manager at The Kite Loft of Ocean City. He was appointed to the Ocean City Board of Zoning Appeals in 2013 by Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, and recently was elected chair of the board.  

He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Salisbury University in Maryland.  

Christopher Rudolf
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Africa

Human rights groups condemn victimization of LGBTQ, intersex people in Zambia

Country’s Catholic archbishop backs anti-gay campaign

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(Photo courtesy of LGBT Zambia's Facebook page)

Human rights organizations and activists have condemned the continued victimization of LGBTQ and intersex people in Zambia.

Anti-LGBTQ and intersex sentiments have been gaining momentum in recent weeks, including Dr. Brian Sampa’s #banbeardtobeard campaign in relation to gay couples. Alick Banda, the archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lusaka, and other Zambian religious leaders have also echoed these sentiments.

“In the last 12 months, we have witnessed an increase in the number of incidents and events that promote LGBTQ tendencies contrary to the laws of Zambia and our Zambian culture. Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of incidents of sodomy where boys and men are raped by fellow boys and men with impunity,” said Banda on Sept. 25. “We have witnessed several cases of sodomy and homosexuality on the increase in our society much to the displeasure and disapproval of the general public. Unfortunately, the law enforcement agents and the president who took an oath to protect the Constitution seems to be paying a blind eye. The question that begs an answer is, is it by design or by default.”

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in Zambia.

President Hakainde Hichilema last month reiterated his government does not support LGBTQ and intersex rights in response to Sampa’s protest.

The Global Interface Network, a global NGO that promotes safety and inclusion for all people of faith and especially for people who suffer discrimination because of their sexual orientation, criticized Banda’s comments.

“The statement by the archbishop has the potential to further escalate violence and we are deeply concerned for the wellbeing and safety of members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in Zambia,” said the Global Interface Network in a statement it released on Sept. 26. “Religious leaders are the shepherds of their flocks and have a responsibility to provide guidance, care and support to the faith community. Although we understand that for the Archbishop of Lusaka, same sex sexualities and non-normative gender identities are unfamiliar, we do not believe that it is appropriate, especially in a context in which people are already marginalized and subjected to violence and discrimination, for the archbishop to put his stamp of approval on further violence.”

The Global Interface Network in its statement encouraged Banda and the country’s Catholic Church “to enter into a process of fellowship and discernment alongside 2SLGBTQIA+ people of faith and skilled dialogue facilitators in Zambia and to collectively grow in the mission to offer compassion, care and love to the most vulnerable.” 

“The people of Zambia, just as it is the people of the African continent, deserve an opportunity to see humanity beyond heterosexuality,” it said. “That opportunity has the potential for a reclamation of the African people’s history of dealing with diversity, an opportunity of understanding beyond the common narrative of dehumanization.”

Mino, a Zambian LGBTQ and intersex activist, said Sampa has been sharing misleading information on his social media platforms that has influenced religious leaders and others across the country.

“The leader of this ban homosexuality movement has jumped from one cause to the other without success and unfortunately, this has seen him get heavy backing from people who share similar religious views. The whole thing has not been objective, the information he is disseminating is highly inaccurate, and full of untruths about 2SLGBTQIA+ persons. Sadly, the church and in a way the State has also jumped on this bandwagon,” said Mino. 

“Nevertheless, despite the current situation facing the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in Zambia, it is my hope that this opens a balanced dialogue of issues of sexuality and gender,” added Mino. “People must have accurate information on who we are as people and begin to see us as human beings with lives, families, interests, jobs, struggles, just like any other person as currently the 2SLGBTQIA+ community has been reduced to being only sexual beings and cannot be seen beyond that.”

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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