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Newly elected out House members talk LGBT issues

Takano wants Obama to revisit ENDA executive order

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The new LGB members of the House. From upper left clockwise: Kyrsten Sinema (photo courtesy Sinema), Mark Takano (photo courtesy Takano), Sean Patrick Maloney (Blade file photo by Michael Key) and Mark Pocan (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

The Nov. 6 election resulted in four new lesbian, gay and bisexual candidates winning seats in the House of Representatives and all eyes are now on them to see what they’ll do on LGBT issues upon taking office.

A number of new faces will join the LGBT representation in Congress: Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who’ll be the first openly bisexual member of Congress; Sean Patrick Maloney, who’ll be the first out congressman from New York; Mark Takano of California, who’ll be the first openly gay Asian-American in Congress; and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who’ll take lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s seat in the U.S. House.

Upon taking their seats, a total of seven LGB members will serve in Congress. The four new members will join Baldwin, who’s moving from the House to the Senate, as well as Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who last week told the Washington Blade he plans on taking the lead on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the next Congress.

While participating in training and orientation programs on Capitol Hill, each of the four of the new congresspersons-elect communicated with the Blade about initial plans they have for LGBT issues after being sworn in on Jan. 3 — despite the difficulty of moving any legislation forward in the Republican-controlled House.

Takano said he’s vying for a position of the Committee on Education and the Workforce because the panel has jurisdiction over ENDA and anti-bullying legislation for LGBT students.

“I know ENDA is reintroduced almost every session, and those are two parts of an equality agenda that I’d like to be able to work on,” Takano said. “I’m mindful that we have a Republican majority in the House … I want to spend time building relations with Republicans who might want to join in some aspects of an equality agenda.”

A public school teacher for 23 years specializing in British literature and member of Riverside Community College District’s Board of Trustees, Takano may have the experience that would land him a seat on the committee.

Takano also said he wants President Obama to revisit the idea of an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers, which the White House said in April Obama wouldn’t issue at this time.

“President Truman was right to stand on the right side of history when he used his executive powers to integrate the armed forces,” Takano said. “So will President Obama be when he uses his executive authority to bar discrimination in federal contracting against LGBT workers.”

Takano joins Maloney in saying the White House should rethink its position on the issue. The congressman-elect from New York told the Blade over the course of his campaign that he still wants Obama to issue the directive. Pocan said last year — before the White House said “no” — he backs the idea of an executive order.

For his part, Pocan said he’s more focused on getting his office and staff set up as he prepares to take his seat, but said he spoke with Polis about a possible new direction for the LGBT Equality Caucus — a group of House members committed to the advancement of LGBT issues.

“I did sit down with Jared Polis, and we had a good discussion about having the LGBT [Equality] Caucus pool some money and perhaps hire a staffer like some of the other caucuses do,” Pocan said. “That way we could hopefully be even more proactive on issues like ENDA, student non-discrimimation and some of the other bills that are out there.”

Maloney, a staffer in the Clinton White House, was more general when talking about initial plans on LGBT issues after taking his seat, saying his goal is to work toward full equality for the LGBT community.

“I want to continue the work I’ve done for 20 years to secure full equality under federal law,” Maloney said. “I think the most important thing is to work with my colleagues in the House to pass legislation across party lines, and keep focused on a goal, which is full equality under federal law.”

Asked if he could name any bills or initiatives he wants to spearhead, Maloney replied, “I don’t see it as my job to put myself in front of others who have already been working on these issues. It’s my job to support and work cooperatively with folks who’ve been in the fight for years.”

None of the new LGB members of the House were able to identify pieces of legislation for which they want to be chief sponsor or other initiatives they want to spearhead, saying it’s too soon in the process to know where responsibilities will be allocated.

Pocan noted the issues affecting the LGBT community are known and what remains to be decided is the best way to approach them over the course of the next few years.

“Clearly, we know some of the issues that are out there — whether it be ENDA, whether it be tax fairness, whether it be benefits for federal employees, other non-discrimination laws,” Pocan said. “I think it’s just a matter of now figuring out — having seven of us total — how can we best move those forward either through legislation and working with the president to issue orders.”

Sinema issued a statement to the Blade saying she’s “thrilled” the next Congress will be the most inclusive ever and she’s proud to be a part of it. On her to-do list is finding ways to work across the aisle on LGBT issues.

“The first thing I plan to do is what I did while serving in Arizona’s legislature — and that was to seek out members that I often disagreed with on important issues,” Sinema said. “It was through our authentic relationships and mutual respect that we found common ground on legislation that helped people. The challenge for Congress is to move past the harsh partisanship that we saw in the last term. This is a critical step in advancing policies that will strengthen and protect LGBT families.”

NOTE: This story has been updated to include a statement from Kyrsten Sinema.

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Virginia

Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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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

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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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National

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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