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Obama makes history at start of second term

In first, president includes gay references in address

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Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, inauguration 2013, gay news, Washington Blade
Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, inauguration 2013, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama made history by including gays and lesbians in his 2013 inaugural address in two references. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Marking the official start of his second term, President Obama on Monday included for the first-time ever explicit references to the LGBT community in a presidential inaugural speech — a powerful statement because of the symbolic nature of the widely watched speech as a reflection of the American spirit.

Following his swearing-in by Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts, Obama delivered the speech, which included many nods to his progressive base, including mentions of climate change, immigration reform in addition to a reaffirmation of the president’s earlier stated support for marriage equality.

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said.

Obama made another reference to the LGBT community when he included a mention of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which are seen as the start of the modern LGBT rights movement.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth,” Obama said.

inauguration 2013, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

An estimated crowd of at least 500,000 filled the National Mall to hear Obama’s speech. Spectators were bundled in coats and hats as they braved the cold winter temperatures. Still, the weather was more forgiving than during Obama’s 2009 inauguration in which bitter cold chilled those in attendance to the bone.

One LGBT advocate in attendance was Brenda “Sue” Fulton, a lesbian who serves on the board of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN. The newly married graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point said she was quite moved by Obama’s LGBT inclusion in the speech.

“When he went on to talk about marriage equality for ‘our gay brothers and sisters,’ four lovely young men in front of us cheered at the top of their lungs,” Fulton said. “I admit that I teared up. We’ve come so far this past four years; I can see all those young people in military uniforms on the platform and all around, and know that not only are some of them gay, but the others know it, and support them.”

Mentions of the LGBT community were part of a larger message in which Obama chose to set the tone for his second term by recalling past challenges the nation has overcome and issuing a call to come together to face the challenges of the present day.

“But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” Obama said. “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

No previous president has mentioned LGBT people during an inaugural address. In 2009, Obama didn’t mention the LGBT community despite promising a commitment to LGBT rights over the course of his first presidential campaign. Instead, Obama at the time made a reference to civil rights in general, saying the nation has “tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation” and “as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”

John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, said he was “impressed” with the way Obama reaffirmed support for the LGBT community and said it could have an impact on the gay-related cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In addition to mentioning marriage equality, an African-American president put Stonewall alongside Selma in one of the most important speeches of his presidency,” Aravosis said. “I think that’s hugely significant culturally and politically, and possibly legally as well – the Supreme Court was sitting right there, and they look to the culture and politics when considering decisions on major social issues, like the upcoming marriage cases. This didn’t hurt.”

But LGBT-inclusiveness at the celebration wasn’t just limited to mentions in the widely anticipated speech. Those who attended on the inaugural platform as Obama was sworn into office and delivered his speech included high-profile members of the LGBT community such as Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin and Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop consecrated in the Episcopal Church.

“Today, the POTUS moved beyond merely mentioning the existence of our community, to express his commitment to our full citizenship and respect for our love,” Robinson said. “There is no way to overstate the importance of his words and witness to our lives and our love. No, we haven’t ‘arrived,’ but we sure have come a long way down this road!  Amazing!”

Other speakers at the event made were gay-affirming in one way or another. The pastor who delivered the closing benediction for the service, Rev. Luis Leon, an Episcopal priest with the D.C.-based St. John’s Church, called for a blessing on all people — including whether they be “gay or straight” — in his closing remarks.

Luis Leon, Episcopal Church, gay news, Washington Blade, inauguration 2013

Rev. Luis Leon (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“With the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor,” said León.

Leon, who also delivered the benediction at former President George W. Bush’s inaugural in 2005, was a replacement for Pastor Louie Giglio of the Georgia-based Passion City Church, who withdrew from the role after the blog ThinkProgress revealed that he delivered a virulently anti-gay sermon in the 1990s. In contrast, Leon was one of the religious figures who helped in the 2009 push to legalize same-sex marriage in D.C.

Gay inclusion during the festivities also came in the form of the openly gay inaugural poet — the nationally acclaimed Richard Blanco — who recited a poem titled, “One Today,” which highlights unity despite differences among individuals in America.

“All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the ‘I have a dream’ we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever,” Blanco read.

In a statement, HRC’s Griffin commended Obama for the LGBT-inclusion in his speech and emphasized the importance of sending such a message in an inaugural address. HRC didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up request for comment on whether the organization helped Obama with the LGBT portions of the speech.

“By lifting up the lives of LGBT families for the very first time in an inaugural address, President Obama sent a clear message to LGBT young people from the Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains that this country’s leaders will fight for them until equality is the law of the land,” Griffin said. “As the merits of marriage equality come up for debate from state houses to the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a broad majority of Americans are standing up for liberty and fairness, the President’s unequivocal support for equality is a clarion call that all Americans should receive with celebration.”

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

They warn: “this book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students.”

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Advisory Notice (via Twitter)

A southwest Florida district put parental “advisory notice” on over 100 books, many of which are race or LGBTQ-themed. 

A great number of books in Collier County Public Schools, either digital or physical, now have warning labels writing “Advisory notice to parents,” according to an NBC report,

The label, tweeted by nonprofit free-speech-promoting group PEN American, states, “This 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 child’s education consistent with state law.” 

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. 

These measures, which Alves described as a “compromise,” happened after the district’s legal representative talked with the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group which initiated a “Porn in Schools Report” project last year. The report included a list of books that “promote gender self-identification and same-sex marriage” as well as titles that include “indecent and offensive material,” 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 “Don’t Say Gay” 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. 

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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.

“It is critical that we eliminate cost as a barrier to testing for monkeypox to ensure we can identify cases and prevent further spread,” Maloney said. “This 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.”

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 — where single digit monkeypox cases have been reported — 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 — real world studies are needed — 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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