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LGBT immigration group takes part in White House meeting

Group seeks to aid bi-national couples as issue moves to the spotlight

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Rachel Tiven, Immigration Equality, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Tiven, Immigration Equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Executive Director of Immigration Equality Rachel Tiven took part in immigration talks at the White House. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Finding a legislative solution to ensure same-sex bi-national couples remain together in the United States is receiving renewed attention as an LGBT immigration group took part in White House talks on Tuesday on comprehensive reform.

President Obama held two separate meetings at the White House on Tuesday to encourage support for his vision for comprehensive immigration reform, which includes — as laid out last week in his plan — a provision that would enable gay Americans to sponsor a same-sex foreign partner for residency in the United States.

The meeting in the morning was with 16 immigration and progressive groups, such as the AFL-CIO, the Center for American Progress, the National Council of la Raza, the National Immigration Forum; the meeting in the afternoon was with 12 business leaders, such as the Goldman Sachs Group, Yahoo!, Deloitte LLP, and the Coca-Cola company.

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, was among those who participated in the meeting with progressive groups and was the sole LGBT group at the table.

“I think it was really an affirmation of the strategy that Immigration Equality has developed over many years, which is that we wanted to be just as much the LGBT group at the immigration table, as we had already become the immigration group at the LGBT table,” Tiven said.

While straight Americans can sponsor their foreign spouses for a green card through a marriage-based application, gay Americans are unable to do the same because of the Defense of Marriage Act and because they cannot marry in many places within the country.

Tiven said she sought additional comments from Obama on bi-national same-sex couples during the meeting beyond the plan he presented last week, but wouldn’t elaborate because of the off-the-record nature of the discussion.

“I think what’s notable is the president is a busy guy, he doesn’t waste time, so he is committed to LGBT-inclusion because he believes it moves the bill forward,” Tiven said. “The advantage to pushing immigration reform forward is to include LGBT families, so that LGBT people can bring the political power that we brought to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, to the landslide on marriage equality that we saw on Nov. 6 and everything else that we’ve accomplished over the past couple of years to comprehensive immigration reform.”

A White House spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on what was said during the meeting about the inclusion of bi-national same-sex couples in immigration reform.

Although Obama has called for the inclusion of bi-national couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform, a Senate framework made public last week by a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” doesn’t include such language. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the Democrats involved the discussions, said the issue of bi-national couples hasn’t yet come up in talks, although Republicans involved have been resistant to the idea — most notably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who’s called inclusion of the language a “red herring.”

Nadler reintroduces UAFA

On the same day as the White House meeting, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) reintroduced into the U.S. House, as reported by the Washington Blade earlier in the week, standalone legislation that would enable gay Americans to sponsor “permanent partners” of the same-sex for residency in the United States.

“Our Constitution guarantees that no class of people will be singled out for differential treatment – and LGBT Americans must not be excluded from that guarantee,” Nadler said in a statement. “Moreover, any serious legislative proposal for comprehensive immigration reform absolutely must include gay and lesbian couples and their families.”

The legislation has the same degree of bipartisan support that it enjoyed at the end of the last Congress. Reps. Charles Dent (R-Pa.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) are original co-sponsors. Other supporters are House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), immigration reform advocate Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) as well as the openly LGB members of the House: Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.).

“Discrimination of any kind, including against same-sex marriages, has no place in our nation,” said Hoyer in a statement. “I am proud to stand with Representative Nadler as he reintroduces the Uniting American Families Act to ensure that our laws protect and treat committed bi-national same-sex couples with the respect they deserve.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he plans to reintroduce companion legislation in the Senate at a later time. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) has indicated he’ll introduce next week the Reuniting Families Act, family reunification legislation that includes language for bi-national couples.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Madison Reed

    February 6, 2013 at 12:08 am

    As half of a bi-national couple myself, I hope people like Ms. Tiven understand and realize the nearly impossible predicament that many bi-national couples find themselves in, as they are not able to obtain legal marriage easily or at all. Plus, years of economic and financial hardship, and anxiety from forced separation caused by DOMA has wreaked havoc on us. We've lost good paying jobs, seen our businesses and careers go south because we had to give priority to our loved ones separated from us; we've developed health problems from stress, and so on. My guess is that most bi-national couples have not been able to marry, and most of them are not living together in the United States, because the United States imposes too many barriers to anyone who wished to visit.

    The greatest possible gift could be that once things are set in motion, that our applications could be expedited and made easier for those couples known who have already been waiting in line for years. In fact we have not even been permitted to get into line!

  2. Melanie Nathan

    February 6, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Quite a shame that the only LGBT group to be invited =is the group that messed up the strategy for LGBT binationals in the first place. Surele other LGBT groups should have been represented? That said Tiven must take the blame for veering the LGBT immigration equality off course back in 2009 when we had a huge opportunity to advocate during the lame duck Congress consisting of majority in House, Senate and Presidency for UAFA as a stand alone Bill. Bottom line to be in a position now where the bipartisan group of Senators has excluded binational same-sex couples in indicative that her strategy has turned us into the inevitable political pawns in this senseless game. Thank goodness for President Obama, hopefully he will stick by us and refuse to sign a bill that excludes us. Where are the rest of the LGBT groups on this issue – why were you not there? AH , yes of course – ownership by Immigration equality licensed to hijack the strategy..

  3. Robben Wainer

    February 6, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    I feel the global community can teach us that gay marriages are a personal matter. That they are completely legitimate in all assessments of family life and marriages. The gay community is international, I feel the LGBT community will be able to take pride one day in welcoming all forms of compliance with American Citizenry and be able to stand tall in the face of confrontation, and say that the family they raised was partial to homosexual activity, with a complete account of the socialization that was involved.

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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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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