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High hopes for Obama’s second term

LGBT advocates seek continued advances in coming years

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Barack Obama, inauguration, gay news, Washington Blade
Barack Obama, inauguration, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama will have two swearing-in ceremonies next week for his inauguration. (Public domain photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, USN)

Amid festivities from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, President Obama will officially begin his second term on Monday while LGBT advocates have high hopes for the actions he might undertake in the next four years.

There will be two swearing-in ceremonies for Obama. On Sunday, the president will be sworn into office by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Blue Room of the White House, where he’ll place his hand on the Robinson family Bible when he takes the Oath of Office. A public ceremony will take place on Monday at the Capitol Building, where Obama will place his hand on two Bibles: one from President Lincoln, the other from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Following the public ceremony on Monday, Obama will deliver his inauguration speech before an anticipated crowd of 500,000 to 800,000 people on the National Mall.ย The inaugural parade will begin at 2:30 p.m. and will proceed down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

The area for non-ticketed viewing is between Fourth Street Northwest and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, which can be enteredย on Constitution Avenue at 7th, 9th or 12th streets, N.W. and also on Independence Avenue, S.W. at 7th and 12th streets. In addition to the obvious closure of Pennsylvania Avenue,ย both the Third and 12th Street tunnels will be closed as well as the Memorial Bridge.

Obama begins his second term after noteworthy accomplishments for the LGBT community โ€” including coming out in favor of marriage equality and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” โ€” and expectations remain high for administrative actions to advance LGBT issues in the next few years.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said Obama “got off to really rough start” by taking some controversial actions โ€” such as withholding support for marriage equality and issuing a legal brief in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act that was riddled with anti-gay language โ€” but noted an “increasingly productive tone” by the end of the his term.

“If you look at the very early on rough start and then how far the administration and President Obama came within that four years, it is significant,” Carey said. “To go from in the very first months huge missteps around, in particular marriage, to his last year of this term coming out publicly as the first president in support of our marriages, it’s a huge shift.”

Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based advocate, said Obama “delivered in a major way” during his first term on LGBT issues, but will be expected to build on the progress right away at the start of his second term.

“All indications are that the president has the opportunity to very strongly build on a great first term record,” Socarides said. “Obviously, there was some tension along the way, but people feel good about what he was able to accomplish in the first term. But on the eve of the second term, the big issues are going to come up right away.”

Administrative action is seen as the way forward for many LGBT issues because the Republican-controlled House is expected to block any meaningful legislation from passing Congress.

The requests from the LGBT community are already well-established and many of them must be undertaken within a few weeks after Obama is sworn in for his second term. A list of some of the more prominent requests follows:

โ€ข the reaffirmation from defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel during his Senate confirmation hearings on Jan. 31 that he’ll support LGBT military families and extend partner benefits and non-discrimination protections upon the taking the helm at the Pentagon;

โ€ข the filing of a friend-of-the-court brief by the Justice Department before the Supreme Court prior to the Feb. 28 deadline to assert same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry under the U.S. Constitution as justices consider the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8;

โ€ข signing an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation to continue receiving federal awards, a move that would cover between 400,000 and 600,000 LGBT workers;

โ€ข the appointment of LGBT officials to prominent positions in the administration, such as Cabinet-level positions or G-20 ambassadorships โ€” particularly with prominent vacancies at the head of the Commerce Department, Labor Department and Department of the Interior;

โ€ข holding in abeyance the marriage-based green card applications of married bi-national same-sex couples to ensure these families aren’t separated before the Supreme Court makes a final determination on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

But Carey cautioned that some of the advances to come may be more low-key internal changes within the administration โ€” such as the inclusion of LGBT questions on the hundreds of federal surveys conducted each year.

“The results for those surveys determine the flow of money and the flow of attention from the federal government to communities around the country,” Carey said. “Currently, our community is basically rendered invisible when it comes to those surveys, which means that our community is not getting the funding for our community-based organizations, for youth services, for any number of services around the country.”

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, responded to calls for continued attention to LGBT issues by noting progress made in the first four years.

“President Obama is proud of the many accomplishments heโ€™s achieved on LGBT equality during his first term, and he looks forward to building on that progress in the months and years to come,” Inouye said.

Already, Obama was faced with a controversy over the choice of an inaugural speaker. ย In 2009, Pastor Rick Warren of the California-based Saddleback Church was selected to give the inaugural benediction โ€” and remained in place โ€” despite outcry over his support for Prop 8.

This time around, things are different. Pastor Louie Giglio of the Georgia-basedย Passion City Church said he wouldย โ€œrespectfully withdrawโ€ from the same duties after an anti-gay sermon from the 1990s came to light in which he advocated for widely discredited “ex-gay” therapy andย urged Christians to stop the โ€œhomosexual lifestyleโ€ from being accepted in society.

In his place, the committee has selected Rev. Luis Leon of the D.C.-basedย St. Johnโ€™s Church near the White House, to deliver the benediction. His church, which is often attended by Obama, is known for its pro-LGBT atmosphere. According to The Huffington Post, it hasย had openly gay, non-celibate priests and a gay bishop in addition to announcing this summer that it would bless same-sex partnerships and ordain transgender priests.ย Leon also gave the inaugural benediction for President George W. Bush in 2005.

Carey said replacing Giglio as the inaugural pastor โ€” as opposed to allowing Warren to stay on in 2009 while including gay Rev. Gene Robinson at another event hosted by HBO โ€” certainly “feels like” a promising shift in terms of the expectations of tone that will be seen from the Obama administration on LGBT issues over the next four years.

“It feels like it, and I hope that tone continues,” Carey said. “For the inaugural committee and the administration to reverse course on someone they had already publicly announced as a key participant of the swearing-in day, I think, was not only a significant victory for our community, but it absolutely showed that this administration has moved in its understanding that prejudice coming from the inaugural swearing-in podium will not be tolerated in this country.”

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Over 100 LGBTQ-themed books in a Florida school district labeled with advisory warning

They warn: โ€œthis book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students.โ€

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Advisory Notice (via Twitter)

A southwest Florida district put parental โ€œadvisory noticeโ€ on over 100 books, many of which are race or LGBTQ-themed.ย 

A great number of books in Collier County Public Schools, either digital or physical, now have warning labels writing โ€œAdvisory notice to parents,โ€ according to an NBC report,

The label, tweeted by nonprofit free-speech-promoting group PEN American, states, โ€œThis Advisory Notice shall serve to inform you that this book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students. This book will also be identified in the Destiny system with the same notation. The decision as to whether this book is suitable or unsuitable shall be the decision of the parent(s) who has the right to oversee his/her childโ€™s education consistent with state law.โ€ย 

Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which means to fight book banning, told NBC that she had a call from Elizabeth Alves, the associate superintendent of teaching and learning for Collier County Public Schools. In the call, Alves told her that the district added the labels starting in February.ย 

These measures, which Alves described as a โ€œcompromise,โ€ happened after the districtโ€™s legal representative talked with the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group which initiated a โ€œPorn in Schools Reportโ€ project last year. The report included a list of books that โ€œpromote gender self-identification and same-sex marriageโ€ as well as titles that include โ€œindecent and offensive material,โ€ as the group explained. 

Chad Oliver, the Collier County Public Schools spokesperson, on the other hand offered a different story. 

Oliver sent an email to NBC News and said, “Based upon advice from the General Counsel, we placed advisory notices on books about which parents and community members had expressed concern and in accordance with the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights Law (HB 241).” 

The law referred by Oliver is also known as the โ€œDonโ€™t Say Gayโ€ law.

According to PEN America, there are 110 labeled books in total, and the list greatly overlaps with the one Florida Citizens Alliance inquired about with Collier County Public Schools.ย 

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney introduces bill to make monkeypox testing free

Health insurers would be required to cover costs

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has introduced legislation to make monkeypox testing free to the public. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), amid the ongoing monkeypox affecting gay and bisexual men, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House seeking to make testing for disease free to the public.

Maloney, one of seven openly gay members of Congress and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement the measure, called the No Cost for Monkeypox Testing Act, would testing amid the monkeypox outbreak would be accessible to all.

โ€œIt is critical that we eliminate cost as a barrier to testing for monkeypox to ensure we can identify cases and prevent further spread,โ€ Maloney said. โ€œThis legislation takes the lessons we learned from past public health emergencies and protects those at risk of contracting monkeypox by making tests accessible to everyone.โ€

The legislation would require private health insurers as well as Medicare and Medicaid to cover the costs of monkeypox testing at no expense to the patients, either through deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance.

The bill introduction comes the week after the Biden administration declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency and the same it has issued new guidance to enhance to the accessing of existing vaccines doses amid criticism federal officials were too slow in distributing shots.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Centers for Disease Control seeking comment on the legislation. Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra said Tuesday the federal government has the capacity to conduct an estimated 80,000 tests each week.

Maloney has been representing New York’s 18th congressional district, but after redistricting is now seeking re-election in the 17th district. Amid controversy over a potential showdown between Maloney and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who’s Black, another openly gay member of Congress and the current representative of that district, Jones has since opted to run for re-election in the New York’s 10th congressional district. Maloney is now running unopposed in the 17th.

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Biden administration shifts monkeypox vaccine approach amid shortage

Health experts sees new guidance as mixed bag

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The Biden administration has changed its guidance on monkeypox vaccines to enhance availability amid the shortage.

The Biden administration, amid criticism it was slow to act on the monkeypox outbreak and still not meeting the demand for vaccines as the number of cases continues to grow, has announced a shift in guidance for implementation of the shot in an effort to enhance availability.

As the estimated number of monkeypox cases in the United States reaches 8,900, top health officials announced the new move on Tuesday as part of a decision by Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra to issue a determination under Section 564 of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to justify emergency use authorization of vaccines. The announcement follows up on the Biden administration’s announcement last week declaring the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency.

Becerra said in a conference call with reporters the 564 determination and change in approach to vaccines would “boost and strengthen” the Biden administration’s response to monkeypox, which has overwhelmingly affected gay and bisexual men, and “safely accelerates and multiplies our supply of effective vaccines by up to fivefold.”

“Today’s action also reaffirms HHS and this administration’s commitment to using all available resources and capabilities to end the monkeypox outbreak and provide the best possible care to those suffering from the virus,” Becerra added.

The new vaccine approach, which may may be considered minor to non-medical observers, would change injections of the JYNNEOS vaccine from the subcutaneous route (delivery of the vaccine under the fat layer underneath the skin) to the intradermal route (delivery of the vaccine into the layer of skin just underneath the top layer). In theory, that would allow for greater accessibility of monkeypox vaccines as it increases the number of doses from each vial of vaccine.

The change was made amid criticism the Biden administration failed to meet the demand for vaccines during the outbreak and geographic inequity as certain metropolitan areas of the country have more access to vaccines than other places.

As The New York Times reported last week, the Biden administration has faced criticism for not moving quickly enough in acquiring and distributing vaccines, including bulk stocks already owned by the U.S. government manufactured in Denmark by Bavaria Nordic now being given to other clients.

“The government is now distributing about 1.1 million doses, less than a third of the 3.5 million that health officials now estimate are needed to fight the outbreak,” the Times reported. “It does not expect the next delivery, of half a million doses, until October. Most of the other 5.5 million doses the United States has ordered are not scheduled to be delivered until next year, according to the federal health agency.”

Biden officials, nonetheless, touted the numbers of vaccines and tests in response to monkeypox as a positive, acknowledging the 1.1 million vaccines being made available as well as delivery of more than 620,000 of those doses, deployment more than 15,000 courses of the monkeypox treatment and increasing the country’s capacity to administer tests on a weekly basis to around 80,000. Meanwhile, officials also promoted the change in approach in vaccines as means to allow greater accessibility to the shots.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, promoted during the conference call the use of intradermal injections and said they’re “often used for TB skin tests and have been used for other types of vaccines.”

Although Walensky conceded some health care providers “may not be as familiar with intradermal administration” as they are with subcutaneous injection, she said CDC would make additional guidance materials available, including a clinician alert message to the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials, outreach to key clinician partners and an education resource video. The change in guidance, Walensky said, is for vaccine implementation in adults, but children โ€” where single digit monkeypox cases have been reported โ€” would continue to receive vaccination in the traditional subcutaneous approach.

But health experts aren’t responding with overwhelming praise to the decision to change the guidance on vaccine implementation from subcutaneous injections to intradermal injections, expressing concerns the new approach may be insufficient.

Jennifer Kates, director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, was among those saying the change in guidance on vaccine approach was a mixed bag and told the Blade more data is needed to evaluate the effectiveness.

“As we saw with COVID, using these authorities in the context of public health emergencies is an important strategy,” Kates said. “In this case, this step will significantly expand access to vaccines for those most at risk. However, there remain questions about the effectiveness of this approach โ€” real world studies are needed โ€” and challenges to translating vaccines into vaccinations.”

Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation & Research (CBER) at the Food & Drug Administration, was asked during the conference call with reporters to respond to concerns the change in guidance was insufficient and downplayed the novelty of implementing the vaccines through the intradermal route as “not at all new.”

“In fact, the reason why the Bavaria part of this equation comes from the fact that in Germany, this vaccine was given intradermally originally, in an effort to replicate the original version of the smallpox vaccine,” Marks said. “It’s been given to thousands of people intradermally, so this isn’t the first time it’s been done.”

Walkensky said the intradermal vaccine approach has been implemented amid policies among localities to implement a one-dose approach to the JYNNEOS vaccine through the subcutaneous route. (The D.C. government is one of the jurisdictions that had enacted a one-dose approach amid a vaccine shortage.) There is not data, Walkensky said, to support that approach and “in fact, if anything, there are data saying that that is not protective enough.”

“So by using this alternative strategy of intradermal dosing, not only do we have more doses, but we actually allow people to get two doses in a way that shows immunologic response that’s superimposable from the subcutaneous dosing,” Walkensky said. “So we have more doses, and in fact, we have the ability to doubly vaccinate people so that they get the protection that they need.”

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