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Gay Fla. lawmaker seeks to advance LGBT issues

Joe Saunders represents portions of Orange County in Tallahassee



Joe Saunders, Florida, Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade
Joe Saunders, Florida, Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade

Florida state Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando). (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

ORLANDO, Fla.—Gay Florida state Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) was a sophomore at the University of Central Florida in 2003 when two friends with whom he attended an off-campus party were attacked because of their sexual orientation. The police arrested the assailants, but Saunders said the immediate response at UCF “wasn’t as reactive as I felt like it needed to be.”

He wrote his first press release on the day after the attack, and later stood on a box outside the UCF student union with a sign in support of LGBT rights. The university eventually added LGBT-specific language to its non-discrimination policy. It also began offering domestic partner benefits to its employees.

“It was an outrageous moment,” Saunders, who was Equality Florida’s state field director before his election, told the Washington Blade during an interview at his Orlando office. “The police came. The triage moment happened, but the educational moment, the advocacy moment wasn’t generated. I just felt like I wanted to do something and help the broader UCF community understand that this thing had even happened, that in 2003 people were still being attacked because they were gay. I just thought that was crazy and that kind of anchored me and kind of set me on a path of advocacy that eventually got me to work with Equality Florida and turned me into kind of a political creature.”

Saunders and state Rep. Dave Richardson (D-Miami Beach) made history last year as the first openly gay candidates elected to the state legislature.

His partner Donald Rupe, who teaches in nearby Kissimmee in Osceola County, joined him on the floor of the state House of Representatives in Tallahassee on Nov. 20 during his official swearing in.

“Before that moment, nobody like me had stood on the floor of the House with a partner like mine and taken that oath, and i think that was really powerful,” Saunders, 29, said. “Certainly folks within the LGBT community understood how important that was.”

Saunders represents a large swath of northeast Orange County that includes UCF, Valencia College and Naval Support Activity Orlando. More than 30 percent of House District 49’s population is Latino, with a large Puerto Rican community in the city’s Union Park neighborhood.

He told the Blade he plans to sponsor a bill — the Competitive Workforce Act — that would add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to Florida’s non-discrimination and civil rights laws. Saunders also described a measure that would create a statewide domestic partnership registry as “a big deal” during the 2013 legislative session that will begin next month.

“We will find support for both of those bills,” he said. “How much support I think is certainly a question that kind of depends on how hard we all work, but there’s something different. It’s a different time to be doing work around LGBT equality.”

Saunders spoke with the Blade the day after Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his proposed $73.4 billion state budget that includes a projected surplus.

The governor hopes to earmark some of those additional funds to public education and health and human services projects, but his proposed 2013-2014 budget would cut funding to county health clinics. It would also not provide additional funding for mental health and substance abuse programs.

The Florida AIDS Drug Assistance Program in 2010 instituted a waiting list for those with HIV seeking access to anti-retrovirals because of statewide budget cuts during the recession.

The National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors noted nobody with the virus was on the waiting list as of Dec. 12, but Saunders stressed an online sales tax is one way to raise revenue to avoid future cuts.

“The HIV/AIDS community needs to be really vigilant about watching where those surplus funds go,” he said. “We obviously need to be thoughtful about the impact that health and human services will have on the HIV/AIDS community.”

Saunders conceded that the GOP-controlled legislature in Tallahassee “is a problem” when it comes to advancing LGBT-specific issues, but he said he remains optimistic.

“The Democrats really are a minority of voices and one of the things we have to break through is the stranglehold that the far right has on social policy anchored in the Republican Party, but there are a lot of young legislators this year,” he said. “I’ve already started talking with a bunch of them from the Republican Party who are just sort of — they don’t understand why we are even making a big deal about these issues anymore. To them, they’re almost there on marriage equality. When one-on-one with the door closed, there are some legislators who are ready to say privately I’d be with you on marriage. So when we start talking about a basic non-discrimination law or we talk about a domestic partnership policy, there’s work to do to even get those people into the process, but I don’t think it’s going to be as hard as some of us think it might be.”

He also spoke of the impact President Obama’s re-election – and his second inaugural address – would have on pro-LGBT efforts in Tallahassee. Saunders further recalled then-President George W. Bush’s support of a proposed federal constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman during his 2004 re-election campaign.

“The leader of the Republican Party of this country was going around, basically saying that there was something so wrong with LGBT relationships that we needed a federal constitutional amendment to protect ourselves from it,” he said. “A week ago the president of the country talked about Stonewall — and maybe more importantly he equated the movement to protect LGBT people and give our families every opportunity that everybody else does. He equated it to the same struggle that African Americans have gone through and women did when they were fighting for the right to vote at Seneca Falls, he talked about Selma, he talked about immigrant communities and the fight to make sure that those communities have access to opportunity. I think that the conversation is changing because people are understanding that while the struggle is different, the experience is different to be LGBT, at its core it’s a community that’s been denied opportunity and I think fundamentally Americans and Floridians sort of get that shouldn’t happen.”

Saunders further acknowledged there is “a culture shift” occurring “even within the Republican Party” on LGBT-specific issues.

“There are some members in this legislature that are sort of done with the wedge issues that come from this,” he said. “They’re losing votes every year because they won’t let go of this idea that gay people shouldn’t be recognized in non-discrimination policies. So hopefully that takes us somewhere.”


State Department

State Department releases 2022 human rights report

Conversion therapy, treatment of intersex people documented



The State Department (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The State Department’s annual human rights report that was released on Monday details the prevalence of so-called conversion therapy and the treatment of intersex people around the world.

The report notes LGBTQ and intersex rights groups in Kenya have “reported an increase in so-called conversion therapy and ‘corrective rape’ practices, including forced marriages, exorcisms, physical violence, psychological violence, or detainment.” The report cites the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights that said “infants and children born with physical sex characteristics that did not align with either a typical male or female body were subjected to harmful medical practices for years in attempt to ‘normalize’ them.” 

A landmark law that extended legal protections to intersex Kenyans took effect last July.

The report notes “many reports of conversion attempts conducted or recommended by evangelical and Catholic churches” in Brazil, even though the country has banned conversion therapy. It also cites the case of Magomed Askhabov, a man from the Russian republic of Dagestan who “demanded a criminal case be opened” against a rehabilitation center in the city of Khasavyurt in which he and other residents “were physically abused and subjected to forced prayer as part of their ‘treatment’ for homosexuality.”

“There were reports police conducted involuntary physical exams of transgender or intersex persons,” notes the report. “The Association of Russian-speaking Intersex reported that medical specialists often pressured intersex persons (or their parents if they were underage) into having so-called normalization surgery without providing accurate information about the procedure or what being intersex meant.”

The report notes Afghan culture “insists on compulsory heterosexuality, which forced LGBTQI+ individuals to acquiesce to life-altering decisions made by family members or society.” The report also refers to LGBTQ and intersex activists in the Philippines who criticized former President Rodrigo Duterte after he “mockingly” endorsed conversion therapy and joked he had “cured” himself of homosexuality.

The report indicates “social, cultural and religious intolerance” in Kiribati “led to recurrent attempts to ‘convert’ LGBTQI+ individuals informally through family, religious, medical, educational, or other community pressures.”

Hungarian law “prohibits transgender or intersex individuals from changing their assigned sex/gender at birth on legal and identification documents and there is therefore no mechanism for legal gender recognition.” The report also cites statistics from the Háttér Society, a Hungarian LGBTQ and intersex rights group, that indicate one out of 10 LGBTQ and intersex Hungarians have “gone through some form of ‘conversion therapy.'”

The report notes then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government in April 2022 announced plans to ban conversion therapy based on sexual orientation in England and Wales. Activists sharply criticized the exclusion of transgender people from the proposal, and the British government later cancelled an LGBTQ and intersex rights conference after advocacy groups announced a boycott.

‘Human rights are universal’

Congress requires the State Department to release a human rights report each year. 

President Joe Biden last June signed a sweeping LGBTQ and intersex rights executive order. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the beginning of this year’s report notes the mandate directed the State Department to “specifically include enhanced reporting on so-called conversion ‘therapy’ practices, which are forced or involuntary efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, as well as additional reporting on the performance of unnecessary surgeries on intersex persons.” 

“Human rights are universal,” Blinken told reporters on Monday as he discussed the report. “They aren’t defined by any one country, philosophy, or region. They apply to everyone, everywhere.”

The Biden-Harris administration in 2021 released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad.

The State Department released the report hours before U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield hosted a meeting at the United Nations that focused on the integration of LGBTQ and intersex rights into the U.N. Security Council’s work.

Lawmakers in Uganda on Tuesday approved a bill that would further criminalize LGBTQ and intersex people in the country. Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in dozens of other countries around the world.

Activists in Ukraine with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since Russia launched its war against the country in February 2022 have said LGBTQ and intersex people who lived in Russia-controlled areas feared Russian soldiers would target them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The report’s release also coincides with Republican efforts to curtail LGBTQ rights in states across the U.S.

Volunteers with the Parasol Patrol, a group that protects children and young people from protesters at drag queen story hours and other LGBTQ-specific events in the U.S., at a recent protest. (Photo by Jon Farina)

The report notes LGBTQ and intersex rights advances around the world in 2022.

Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis and Singapore decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations last year. 

The report notes Chile’s marriage equality law took effect on March 10, 2022, but lists violence against LGBTQ and intersex people as one of the “significant human rights issues” in the country. Switzerland, Slovenia and Cuba also extended marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2022.

Jaime Nazar, left, Javier Silva with their two children shortly after they married in Santiago, Chile, on March 10, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The report cites the case of Brenda Díaz, a trans Cuban woman with HIV who is serving a 14-year prison sentence because she participated in an anti-government protest in July 2021. The report also notes several LGBTQ and intersex journalists — including Nelson Álvarez Mairata and Jancel Moreno — left the country because of government harassment and threats. 

The Cuban government also blocked the websites of Tremenda Nota, the Blade’s media partner on the island, and other independent news outlets. 

The full report can be found here:

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Miami hotel liquor license may be revoked over a drag show

State’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco targets business



Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami. (Photo by dennizn/Bigstock)

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is in the process of revoking the Hyatt Regency Miami’s alcohol license after the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation determined that the hotel’s affiliated James L. Knight Center had hosted “A Drag Queen Christmas” performed Dec. 27 with minors present in the audience.

The Knight Center is a major South Florida venue and has previously hosted the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. The venue’s main room can seat 4,600 people.

This is the third time the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which operates under the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has targeted a business that hosted a drag show.

A popular restaurant and pub in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood is also under threat of losing its liquor license. The R House identifies itself on its Facebook page as “the proud home of South Florida’s most popular weekend drag brunches.”

The July 2022 complaint filed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation asks for a final order that the R House restaurant is a declared a public nuisance and has its liquor license revoked. 

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the complaint was issued after a video of a recent performance at the bar’s drag brunch went viral. A topless drag queen wearing lingerie stuffed with money can be seen in the video attempting to dance with a young girl, who the DPBR estimates is “between three and five years old.” Twitter account “Libs of Tik Tok” originally found the footage on Tik Tok, posted by a user who wrote, “Children belong at drag shows!!!! Children deserve to see fun and expression & freedom.”

In late December “A Drag Queen Christmas” was hosted by the Orlando non-profit Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation on Dec. 28, filing a complaint alleging that children under age 18 were allowed to attend.

The complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic alleged the foundation violated Florida law in allowing for a person to “commit lewd or lascivious exhibition” in the presence of an individual who is less than 16 years old.

In this latest targeting of the show, which is a holiday-themed drag show that tours in 36 different cities and features stars from the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Insider webzine journalist Kimberly Leonard reported that the DeSantis administration officials accused the Knight Center of several violations, including a prohibition of “lascivious exhibition” before people younger than 16, mirroring the December complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic.

The department’s complaint said performers engaged in “acts of simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar, and indecent displays” that included:

  • Performers forcibly penetrating or rubbing exposed prosthetic female breasts against faces of audience members
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ prosthetic female breasts and genitalia to the audience
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ buttocks to the audience
  • Simulating masturbation through performers’ digitally penetrating prosthetic female genital
  • Graphic depictions of childbirth and/or abortion

Hyatt Regency Miami is allowed to keep selling alcohol until the department makes a final decision. The business has 21 days to request a hearing, Beth Pannell, spokeswoman for the department, told Insider.

Regulators had warned the facility to change how it marketed the show before it went live, according to a copy of the letter included in the complaint. The letter accused the marketers of putting on a performance that constitutes “public nuisances, lewd activity, and disorderly conduct” when minors are present.

News of this latest action was first reported by far-right conservative internet based outlet Florida’s Voice.

As more and more Republican states target drag shows, in just the past few weeks, Tennessee became the first to ban adult performances, including drag, from public spaces such as parks and schools. 

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U.S. Military/Pentagon

New VA mission statement recognizes commitment to all veterans

‘To fulfill [Lincoln’s] promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military & for their families, caregivers, & survivors’



VA Secretary Denis McDonough. (Screenshot/YouTube)

In a speech delivered Thursday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (WIMSA), located at the main entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in suburban Virginia, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the Department of Veterans Affairs has issued an updated version of its 1959 mission statement.

The new mission statement is: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”

As the VA secretary commenced his remarks, he honored several notable women in the audience including Brenda S. “Sue” Fulton, the assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs.

Fulton, is a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which was the Academy’s first class to admit women. She is an out lesbian and served as a founding board member of Knights Out, the organization of LGBTQ West Point graduates, and later worked with OutServe, the association of actively-serving LGBTQ military members and SPARTA, an LGBTQ military group advocating for transgender military service.

“Whenever any veteran, family member, caregiver, or survivor walks by a VA facility, we want them to see themselves in the mission statement on the outside of the building,” said Secretary McDonough. “We are here to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors — and now, our mission statement reflects exactly that.”

In crafting the new mission statement, VA surveyed roughly 30,000 Veterans. Among veterans surveyed, the new version of VA’s mission statement was chosen over the current version by every age group; by men and by women; by LGBTQ+ veterans; and by white, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and American Indian/Alaska Native Veterans.

In addition to two rounds of surveys, VA conducted dozens of small-group engagements with veterans to understand what was most important to them in a VA mission statement, then incorporated that feedback into quantitative research. The new mission statement reflects that VA serves all of the heroes who have served our country, regardless of their race, gender, background, sexual orientation, religion, zip code or identity.

The previous mission statement was: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.” The previous mission statement is posted in roughly 50 percent of VA’s facilities. Over the coming months, VA’s new mission statement will replace the previous version.

VA announces new mission statement, recognizing sacred commitment to serve all who served:

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