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Baldwin assigned to key Senate panels for LGBT issues

Committees have jurisdiction over ENDA, anti-bullying bills

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Tammy Baldwin, LGBT caucus, Democratic National Convention, gay news, Washington Blade

Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin has been named to key Senate committees on LGBT issues (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has landed seats on Senate committees that may address key issues that persist for the LGBT community in the coming Congress, including employment discrimination and school bullying.

In a notice published Wednesday, the Democratic Steering Committee announced it has selected Baldwin, who’ll be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate, to sit on four committees: the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee; the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee; the Senate Special Committee on Aging; and the Senate Budget Committee.

The Senate HELP Committee has jurisdiction over a key piece of pro-LGBT legislation — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — as well as the measures that would address school bullying known as the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over a pro-LGBT bill that Baldwin has long championed in the U.S. House — the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act — which would extend health and pension benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.

The notice states committee assignments for all Democratic caucus members, including Baldwin, were made during a Democratic Steering Committee meeting held on the same day. Additionally, the notice says these assignments are subject to approval by the full Democratic caucus and approval of an organizing resolution by the full Senate when the 113th Congress convenes in January.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, congratulated Baldwin on her selection to the Senate HELP Committee and pledged to work with her on the effort to move ENDA to the Senate floor.

“She has been a tremendous champion for workplace fairness, and we are thrilled that she will bring her powerful voice to the upcoming debate about whether all LGBT Americans deserve a fair shot at the American dream,” Almeida said. “We are optimistic this committee will debate and mark-up ENDA in 2013, and we will push for Senate leaders to move the bill from committee to the floor of the Senate for a long-overdue vote of that full chamber.”

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said his organization has “long appreciated” Baldwin’s leadership and looks forward to working with her on legislation related to LGBT students when she begins work on the Senate HELP Committee.

“The Democrats on this committee already unanimously support the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act and we anticipate maintaining that level of support in the 113th Congress,” Gaylord said. “Her dedication to creating safe schools for all young people is well-known, and as the first openly gay senator, she has a valuable voice and perspective to bring to this effort.”

Baldwin’s assignment to the Special Committee on Aging also has relevance to the LGBT community because that committee will work on reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE, has been pushing for an LGBT-inclusive reauthorization of that law.

Aaron Tax, SAGE’s director of federal government relations, said his organization looks forward to working with Baldwin in work with the Senate HELP Committee and the Special Committee on Aging.

“Senator-elect Baldwin has been a tireless advocate for LGBT older adults,” Tax said. “We at SAGE could not think of a better person to sit on the Senate HELP Committee and the Special Committee on Aging. We look forward to once again working with her on the re-authorization of an LGBT-inclusive Older Americans Act.”

The committee assignments have yet to be announced for the six openly LGB members of the U.S. House: Jared Polis, David Cicilline, Sean Patrick Maloney, Mark Takano, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Pocan. Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said assignments for new members will probably be announced next year, although the timing isn’t clear.

Baldwin’s transition team didn’t respond on short notice to request to comment on her committee assignments in time for this posting.

NOTE: This article has been updated to include a comment from Aaron Tax and a reference to the significance of Baldwin’s appointment to the Special Committee on Aging.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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Florida

Prominent LGBTQ+ activist found dead in Florida landfill

Diaz-Johnston was the brother of former Miami mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz & he led the fight for marriage equality

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Photo courtesy of Don Diaz Johnston

Police in Florida’s capital city confirmed that the body of Jorge Diaz-Johnston, 54, who had been reported missing was found in a Jackson County landfill Saturday morning.

Diaz-Johnston was last seen alive Jan. 3 in Tallahassee, more than an hour from where his body was found, according to a missing person notice released by police. Detectives are investigating his death as a homicide, a police spokesperson said.

Diaz-Johnston, was the brother of former Miami mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz. As an LGBTQ advocate he led the fight for marriage equality, he and his husband were plaintiffs in an historic 2014 lawsuit that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Miami-Dade County.

ABC News reported at the time that a South Florida circuit court judge sided with Diaz-Johnston and five couples suing the Miami-Dade County Clerk’s Office for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Florida dropped its ban on same-sex marriage in 2015.

His husband wrote in a poignant Facebook post; “There are just no words for the loss of my beloved husband Jorge Isaias Diaz-Johnston. I can’t stop crying as I try and write this. But he meant so much to all of you as he did to me. So I am fighting through the tears to share with you our loss of him.”

“We are heartbroken to learn of the death of Jorge. He and his husband Don were two of the brave plaintiffs who took on Florida’s anti-gay marriage ban and helped win marriage equality for all Floridians,” Equality Florida said adding, “Our deepest condolences to Don and Jorge’s extended family.”

Detectives urge anyone who may have information to call 850-891-4200, or make an anonymous tip to Big Bend Crime Stoppers at 850-574-TIPS.

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National

Bill prohibiting ‘gay panic defense’ clears New Hampshire House

New Hampshire could soon join over a dozen other states which ban the use of ‘gay panic’ as a defense

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New Hampshire State House (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Legislation prohibiting defendants accused of manslaughter from using the victim’s gender, gender identity or sexual orientation as a defense, which had died in committee during the 2021 regular session of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, was reintroduced this session and passed with a 223-118 vote last week.

House Bill 238, stirred up controversary from opponents who claimed that state statues already covered murder and manslaughter. During a Criminal Justice committee hearing last Spring, Rep. Dick Marston, a Manchester Republican, voiced opposition, saying that the laws already cover murder and manslaughter and that “there’s no way in heck that you’re going to be able to say ‘Well because he or she was some deviant sexuality that I’m not–‘”

Marston was cut off by committee chairman Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican, who gaveled him down and rebuked him for the derogatory language the Concord-Monitor reported

Later, the committee Republicans blocked an effort to move the bill out of committee alleging it needed more work and was not necessary because a jury could already strike down a similar attempted defense. The bill was then stalled in the committee, effectively killing it from being pushed further in last year’s session.

As the measure now heads to the state Senate, New Hampshire could soon join over a dozen other states which ban the use of the ‘gay panic’ as a defense.

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