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Will Obama name LGBT appointees in Cabinet shakeup?

Berry, Hochberg discussed as potential nominees

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Fred Hochberg, Export-Import Bank, Human Rights Campaign, Washington Blade, gay news
Fred Hochberg, Export-Import Bank, Human Rights Campaign, Washington Blade, gay news

Chair of the Export-Import Bank of the United States Fred Hochberg is among the names discussed for a Cabinet-level position. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As President Obama makes his transition to a second term in office, talk has already begun about building on the excitement from Election Day successes for the LGBT community with additional milestones: the first-ever appointments of an openly LGBT Cabinet member and G-20 ambassador.

LGBT advocates see the planned exodus of many high-ranking officials from the Obama administration at the start of the second term as an opportunity for Obama to replace officials with high-profile LGBT appointments.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama has an opportunity “to represent the diversity of our great country” by appointing qualified LGBT people to high public office.

“Our community is rightly interested in the Cabinet and a G-20 ambassadorship,” Sainz said. “This president has been committed to ensuring that his administration is inclusive of all Americans and a second term gives him an opportunity to continue this progress.”

No president has ever appointed an LGBT person to the Cabinet before. Two individuals who already have high-ranking positions in the Obama administration have emerged as potential openly LGBT Cabinet members: John Berry as secretary of the interior and Fred Hochberg as commerce secretary. Berry currently serves as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Hochberg is chair of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

Berry has experience that would be relevant to heading a department charged with managing federal parks and natural resources. Most notably, he was head of the National Zoo in D.C. prior to his appointment as OPM director. Under the Clinton administration, Berry was assistant secretary of the interior for policy, management and budget and at the start of the Bush administration was director of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.

In addition to being head of the export credit agency for the United States, Hochberg also has a background that would make him a possible candidate for commerce secretary. Under the Clinton administration, Hochberg was deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration and later became the organization’s acting administrator.

An appointment of an openly LGBT person as U.S. ambassador to one of the countries in the G-2o, or countries with the 20 largest economies, would also be historic because no such nomination has happened before. However, three openly gay people have served as U.S. ambassadors. Former President Clinton made the first such appointment in 1997 when he named James Hormel as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Former President George W. Bush named Michael Guest as U.S. ambassador to Romania and President Obama named David Huebner as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.

Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said his organization continues to push for LGBT appointments at all levels of the administration as it has done since 2008 through the Presidential Appointments Project, a joint project led by the Victory Fund that serves as a talent bank for LGBT people seeking appointments in the administration.

“That obviously has been a great success,” Dison said. “The Obama administration has more out LGBT people than any other president — in fact, all presidents combined before him. So, we’re certainly going to continue with the project and making sure people understand that the project exists … and working with the White House Office of Presidential Personnel to make sure that they have the resources that we’re building here to provide those resumes.”

Dison said the Victory Fund has no specific goal for the appointment of an LGBT person to a specific office such as a Cabinet-level position or an ambassadorship, although he acknowledged such an appointment would be “absolutely” historic.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to a Washington Blade inquiry, “I have no personnel announcements to make.”

In addition to the appointment of LGBT people to the Obama administration, advocates are also mindful about the impact of Cabinet-level departures on LGBT issues. One such departure is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who’s expected to step down.

That position is important to the LGBT community because the defense secretary can implement openly transgender service and administrative changes to provide gay service members spousal benefits afforded to straight troops — which include joint duty assignments, issuance of IDs, use of the commissary and family housing. Health and pension partner benefits can’t be afforded to gay service members because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Zeke Stokes, spokesperson for the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said his organization wants Obama to nominate a defense secretary who has “an unequivocal commitment to fairness and equality.”

“Should it not happen before he or she takes the helm of the Defense Department, the new Secretary should immediately use his or her authority to the extent possible under existing law to provide support and recognition to gay and lesbian military families, who today are being treated as second-class citizens by our military,” Stokes said.

According to a report from the Washington Post published on Monday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, is being considered for the role of defense secretary. The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee voted against DOMA in 1996 and in recent years has been an LGBT advocate and has come out for marriage equality. Another name that has been floated is former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican.

Another departure that will be noted by the LGBT community is that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her most high-profile pro-LGBT act was speaking to the United Nations in Geneva last year against LGBT human rights abuses, telling LGBT people across the globe who feel isolated in their countries, “You have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.”

Other accomplishments include providing global benefits to LGBT employees and diplomats representing the country overseas and leading a department that has spoken against LGBT human rights abuses overseas, such as the proposed anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda. But she’s among a few high-profile Democrats who hasn’t publicly endorsed marriage equality.

The Washington Post report from Monday said Obama is considering naming Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as Clinton’s replacement. Kerry is another name that has been floated for the position.

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National

Senate passes Respect for Marriage Act

Bill approved by 61-36 vote margin

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(Public domain photo)

The U.S. Senate voted 61-36 on Tuesday to officially pass the Respect for Marriage Act, a historic piece of legislation that is expected to soon become law after members in the U.S. House of Representatives sign off on a bipartisan amendment added by their Senate colleagues.

Designed as a vehicle to mitigate the fallout if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority guts the constitutional protections for marriage equality, the bill was narrowly construed — in part to help guarantee that it withstands potential challenges from conservative legal actors.

Nevertheless, the Respect for Marriage Act is a landmark bill that has been backed by virtually every LGBTQ advocacy organization in the country. The legislation repeals the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act while enshrining into law substantive protections for same-sex couples.

Regardless of whether or how the high court might decide to revisit the marriage question, the Respect for Marriage Act will protect the federally ordained rights and benefits that have long been enjoyed by married gay and lesbian couples. And should the court pave the way for conservative states like Texas to renew their bans on same-sex marriage, the law will require them to officially recognize and honor those that are performed in jurisdictions where they remain legal.

Despite earning broad bipartisan support from lawmakers in the House, which passed its version of the bill this summer with an overwhelming majority — including votes from 47 Republican members — the Respect for Marriage Act faced an uncertain future in the Senate.

Conservative members in the chamber’s Republican caucus argued the bill would jeopardize religious freedoms, concerns that a group of five bipartisan senators sought to allay with an amendment that, among other provisions, clarifies the right of religious nonprofit organizations to refuse “any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

Writing the amendment were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who was considered the driving force behind the bill’s passage through the Senate.

Several Republican senators proposed additional amendments that — per a narrow procedural vote before and another shortly after the Thanksgiving break — were not put up for debate, thereby allowing the Respect for Marriage Act to clear the Senate with Tuesday’s vote.

Barely surpassing the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority with one extra “yea,” the Senate’s passage of the bill came despite the best efforts of conservative opponents who had run coordinated campaigns to erode support among GOP members.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris each issued statements shortly after Tuesday’s vote.

The president celebrated the “bipartisan achievement” by Congress, writing: “For millions of Americans, this legislation will safeguard the rights and protections to which LGBTQI+ and interracial couples and their children are entitled. It will also ensure that, for generations to follow, LGBTQI+ youth will grow up knowing that they, too, can lead full, happy lives and build families of their own.”

Harris wrote: “The Respect for Marriage Act ultimately stands for a simple principle: all Americans are equal and their government should treat them that way. Today, we are one step closer to achieving that ideal with pride.”

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also praised the victory.

“Today, a bipartisan group of 61 Senators made clear that this country will not roll back the clock on marriage equality,” said Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the Equality Caucus. “The Respect for Marriage Act is a crucial safeguard for LGBTQ+ people whose lives have been forever changed by Obergefell v. Hodges and Americans who are in interracial marriages thanks to Loving v. Virginia. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court declared marriage equality as the law of the land. Today, the Senate ensured those marriages will continue to be protected.”

LGBTQ groups celebrate the win

“Diverse faith traditions across the nation came together to demand respect for LGBTQ+ Americans – we staked our ground and refused to let this opportunity slip away, ” said Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, president of the Interfaith Alliance, in a statement Tuesday.

“The  LGBTQ+ community has faced ongoing deadly violence, legislative assaults and constant threats — including the deadly shooting in Colorado Springs barely one week ago,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement from the organization.

“Today, with the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate — a historic moment that marks the first federal legislative win for LGBTQ+ equality in over 10 years, since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — the 568,000 same-sex married couples in this country can breathe a sigh of relief that their marriages will be protected from future attacks,” said Robinson, who yesterday began her tenure as the first Black queer woman to lead America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis responded on Twitter and in a statement, writing: “As so many LGBTQ people face uncertainty and harm on the state level and extremists on the Supreme Court vow to reconsider the landmark Obergefell decision, this victory will provide comfort and security to millions of people and their families.”

“Today’s bipartisan vote in the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act is a proud moment for our country and an affirmation that, notwithstanding our differences, we share a profound commitment to the principle of equality and justice for all,” reads a statement from National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon.

LGBTQ Victory Institute President Annise Parker said, “This landmark piece of legislation protects the marriages of millions of LGBTQ Americans who have not slept well for months, wondering if our marriages would be dissolved by an activist court. While the Respect for Marriage Act is undoubtedly one of the most important pro-LGBTQ laws ever passed, it does not require states to grant marriages to LGBTQ couples. Until then, our fight is not over.”

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District of Columbia

D.C. Rainbow History Project launches Trans History Initiative

$15,000 D.C. government grant funded project

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C.’s Rainbow History Project announced it has launched a new project called the Trans History Initiative “to better integrate the often-under-represented histories of trans people into RHP’s existing programming.”

In a statement announcing the new initiative, the LGBTQ history group says it has been awarded a $15,000 grant from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs to fund the project.

“The Trans History Initiative will help RHP deepen its connections with the Trans community through expanded efforts to preserve the history and cultural contributions of Washington-area trans communities,” the statement says. “The Initiative was developed with RHP’s trans members, trans community pioneers and trans board members,” it says.

The statement says the grant will enable Rainbow History Project to hire one or more coordinators to “build on four exiting RHP programs: collecting oral histories; preserving archival documents; tracking timelines and historic places; and hosting public education panels.”

According to the statement, the new trans initiative is in keeping with Rainbow History Project’s long-standing mission.

“Since its founding in 2000, RHP’s mission is to collect, preserve and promote an active knowledge of the history, arts and culture of metropolitan Washington, D.C.’s diverse LGBTQ communities,” the statement says. “RHP strives to ensure that its collection, volunteer corps and programming reflect and represent the full diversity of those communities.”

The statement also points out that due to longstanding bias and discrimination faced by transgender people it has been difficult to obtain information about their lives and accomplishments.

“Unfortunately, many trans people often left behind little record of their lives — and personal histories that do exist are often scrubbed of an individual’s trans identity by society or even their own families,” said Jeffrey Donahoe, RHP’s director of oral history.

“This revisionism, both unintentional and intentional, makes it difficult for the broader community to understand and empathize with the struggles and successes of the Trans community,” Donahoe said in the statement.

“The Trans History Initiative will counter this revisionism by giving another platform for trans people to tell their stories to the broader public,” he said. “We need to ensure that trans narratives are not lost to the ravages of time but preserved as part of the historical record.”

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State Department

U.S. diplomat says negotiations to release Brittney Griner have stalled

WNBA star remains in Russian penal colony

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In remarks published Monday, Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow, told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency that talks to free jailed Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan were continuing through the “designated channel.”

During the long ranging interview covering a variety of subjects, Rood was asked if she intended to visit the imprisoned WNBA star who is serving time in a Mordovian prison.

“Of course, we are going to do this as soon as the Russian authorities give us permission to visit Brittney Griner in the new colony where she was recently transferred,” the American diplomat responded and in answer to a follow-up question regarding Griner’s status. “As far as we understood from talking to her, she is healthy and doing as well as can be expected in her difficult circumstances.”

RIA then focused on the negotiations asking for some of the details including the possibility of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout being included in the “exchange list” in the potential prisoner swap deal between the Russian and American authorities.

“I can say that the United States continues to discuss with the Russian authorities through special channels the issue of the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.  As we have already said, the United States has submitted a serious proposal for consideration. We finalized this proposal and offered alternatives. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has so far received no serious response to these proposals, ” the U.S. chargée d’affaires answered.

“However, I would like to emphasize that the main concern and the first priority of the U.S. Embassy is to ensure the well-being of the American citizens who are here. And the situation is not limited to the names of those who are mentioned in the media headlines — a number of American citizens are kept in Russian prisons. We are extremely concerned about the condition of each of them, and we continue to follow their affairs very closely and support them in every possible way,” she added.

RIA then asked: “What did you mean by ‘serious response’ from Russia? Moscow has repeatedly stressed that the negotiations are being conducted through professional channels … What does the American side mean by “serious response”?

Rood answered telling RIA; “I mean, we have made a serious proposal that reflects our intention to take action to free American prisoners. We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal.”

“By ‘serious answer’ do you mean consent?” RIA asked in a follow-up question.

“I mean an answer that would help us come to an agreement,” she answered.

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