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U.S. officials dispute media reports on Uganda anti-gay bill

Embassy says legislation not yet out of committee

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Department of State, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. officials offered a different account about the status of a draconian anti-gay bill in Uganda on Tuesday, saying the legislation had yet to move out of committee and disputing earlier media reports and State Department comments by saying the panel is incapable of removing the infamous death penalty provision from the legislation.

In an email to the Washington Blade on Tuesday, an informed source at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala said the bill is still in committee. That contradicts media reports on the bill — which imposes a penalty of life in prison for homosexual acts — that indicated the Legal & Parliamentary Affairs Committee had reported out the bill last week.

Additionally, the embassy source, who asked not to be named, said that the committee can only compile a report on the bill for recommendations to the bill, and can’t make changes to it. That means the panel can’t take out the death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality,” which media sources reported was removed.

An earlier version of the bill defined “aggravated homosexuality” as someone with HIV engaging in homosexual acts, having homosexual sex with a minor or the repeated offense of homosexuality.

Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokesperson, affirmed on Tuesday when speaking with the Washington Blade over the phone that the legislation had yet to pass in committee.

“As with all domestic legislation, it’s up to the Ugandan Parliament to determine whether or not to move forward with a bill,” Thompson said. “The bill is currently in committee and has not yet reached the full parliament for consideration.”

On Monday, Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson, affirmed media reports that the bill had passed committee, saying during a daily press briefing, “Our understanding is that a version of the bill has now passed the committee in Uganda.” Thompson on Tuesday said Nuland may have misspoke when making those comments.

Thompson referred questions about whether the committee has authority to make changes to the legislation or take out the death penalty provision to the Uganda government. Additionally, she said she couldn’t answer questions about expectations for the timing of when the bill might pass out of committee and be taken up by the full parliament.

Advocates have said the vote could happen as soon as this week, but are hoping action is delayed beyond Dec. 14, when the legislative session ends.

Additionally, Thompson articulated previously stated concerns that the United States has with the legislation.

“The United States shares the concerns of several members of Uganda’s civil society and the Ugandan government’s own human rights commission, which determined the anti-homosexuality bill violates both Uganda’s constitution and its obligations under international law,” Thompson said. “Beyond that, we have serious concerns about the negative impact of the bill on public health interests in Uganda, including our concerns that it would undercut Uganda’s ability to fight HIV/AIDS infection and the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Thompson added, “We just note that as President Obama said in reference to the same anti-homosexuality bill in his comments during the National Prayer Breakfast, it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are.”

Following talks that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson had with high-profile leaders over the weekend in Uganda, Thompson said diplomatic outreach to the Ugandan government continues, although she wasn’t immediately sure whether these talks involve Carson or other diplomats.

“Even if Assistant Secretary Carson hasn’t spoken with them beyond that — I think right now he’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo — our diplomatic offices, they’re on the ground in Uganda,” Thompson said. “Even though I’m not there, I can pretty assuredly say that this is an issue of ongoing and continual dialogue between our government … and the government of Uganda.”

Thompson declined to comment on the response that Ugandan officials offered to U.S. officials, saying, “We generally don’t provide a play-by-play on our diplomatic exchanges, so I can’t tell you exactly what the Ugandans said to him. But this is an issue that is of great concern, of course, to the U.S. government because that doesn’t embody the principles that we extol across the globe, and they don’t live up to the universally accepted standards for human rights.”

In 2009, the Washington Blade reported that Carson met with President Yoweri Museveni about the bill and later had conversations about it on the phone. On both occasions, the State Department said at the time Museveni had pledged to block the bill from becoming law and would veto it if it came to his desk.

UPDATE: During the State Department daily briefing on Tuesday, Nuland corrected herself by saying the anti-gay bill hasn’t yet passed out of committee, adding she believes Museveni “took onboard” the potential negative impact of the bill during his talks with Carson.

The transcript of that portion of the briefing follows:

QUESTION: Do you have anything to add to what – the Uganda answer you gave yesterday? Has there been any more contact, do you know, between – since Ambassador – since Assistant Secretary Carson was there on this – the anti-homosexuality law?

MS. NULAND: Just a little bit more on Assistant Secretary Carson’s conversation: He did talk to parliamentary leaders and to President Museveni very directly about our concerns, the concerns of the international community. Our understanding is that President Museveni certainly took onboard the fact that this could have a serious impact on the way Uganda is perceived, the way Uganda is supported in the international community. There are many hoops for this thing to go through, as you know. I think yesterday we said that the bill had passed the parliamentary committee. My understanding is that’s incorrect. It hasn’t even gotten to that stage. So we just need to continue to highlight the issues.

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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