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Gay Fla. lawmaker seeks to advance LGBT issues

Joe Saunders represents portions of Orange County in Tallahassee

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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.”

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The White House

Francisco Ruiz appointed director of White House Office of National AIDS Policy

Former CDC official is first Latino to run office

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Francisco Ruiz, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. (Photo public domain)

Francisco Ruiz’s appointment as the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy has elicited widespread acknowledgment across various sectors.

Ruiz, a distinguished figure in public health with a history of collaboration and strategic partnerships, assumes the role as the first-ever Latino to serve as ONAP’s director, underscoring a commitment to diversity and inclusivity in addressing public health challenges.

In response to his appointment, Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden underscored the Biden-Harris administration’s steadfast commitment to ending the HIV epidemic and enhancing the quality of life for people living with HIV. Ruiz himself acknowledged this sentiment, emphasizing that accelerating efforts to combat the HIV epidemic and improve the well-being of those affected remain a paramount public health priority for the White House.

Previously serving at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ruiz played a pivotal role in advancing national HIV prevention campaigns, particularly contributing to the goals of the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. Initiative. His experience in fostering strategic partnerships and ensuring sensitive prevention messaging has been noted as instrumental in reaching diverse communities across the country and in U.S. territories.

Ruiz in his new role will be tasked with accelerating efforts to end the HIV epidemic and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV. 

Guillermo Chacón, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS and founder of the Hispanic Health Network, expressed confidence in Ruiz’s ability to advance the national strategy to end the HIV epidemic.

“Mr. Ruiz is a respected public health leader and a fitting choice to ensure that the Biden-Harris administration meets the goal of ending the HIV epidemic in the United States and U.S. Territories,” said Chacón.

“Francisco Ruiz’s appointment signifies a renewed focus on addressing health disparities and promoting health equity, particularly for historically marginalized and underserved communities,” he added. “As a person living with HIV and the son of Mexican immigrants, Ruiz brings personal insight and professional expertise to his new role, ensuring that strategies to combat HIV/AIDS are scientifically grounded and connected with the experiences of those most affected.”

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Federal Government

FDA plans to lift ban on gay, bisexual sperm donors

Ban has been in place since 2005

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(Los Angeles Blade graphic)

The Food and Drug Administration is planning to lift its ban on sperm donations from men who have sex with men, according to a report in the Wall Street JournalThe report also says the FDA would simultaneously lift the ban on donations of other tissues and organs from gay and bisexual men.

The Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FDA could put out a draft of the new policy for public comment by the summer, with a final rule in place by the end of 2024 or early 2025.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the FDA would not confirm the Wall Street Journal story, but acknowledged that, “the FDA routinely reviews approaches regarding donor screening and testing for donors of human cells, tissues and cellular and tissue-based products (HCT/Ps) to determine what changes, if any, are appropriate based on technological and evolving scientific knowledge.” 

The FDA imposed the sperm donation ban on men who have sex with men in 2005, as part of an expansion on existing prohibitions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men which were meant to mitigate the risk that HIV could be spread through donations.

The policies stemmed from an erroneous belief that gay men were more likely to carry HIV, regardless of their individual behaviors and risk factors.

Last year, the FDA finally ended the ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, which had been in place since the early days of the AIDS crisis. The FDA now requires that blood donors are screened based on individual behaviors in a gender-neutral manner, in addition to the donations themselves being tested for HIV and other blood-borne illnesses.

Alice Ruby, executive director of the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley, says the lifting of the blood ban should provide a template for ending the sperm ban.

“I’m hoping it’s similar to the blood donation screening, where it’s based on behaviour, rather than being part of a population,” she says. “We test donors repeatedly for HIV as required by the FDA.”

The Sperm Bank of California has served many lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and Ruby says that she’s often told her clients would like a queer donor, to ensure that the biological father won’t be someone who disapproves of queer families. The ban removes that choice from would-be mothers.

The Sperm Bank of California has been opposed to the gay sperm donation ban since the policy was first proposed 20 years ago and has advocated in tandem with the National Center for Lesbian Rights for the policy to be scrapped.

“People are pretty unaware that the ban exists. I think there’s a lot of gay men who would be happy to contribute in this way, especially since a large number of people using sperm donation are LGBT couples and single people,” Ruby says.

Sperm banks across the country have been experiencing shortages of donor sperm, especially from donors of color. Opening the donor pool to gay and bi men could help ease the shortage. Ruby has told the Blade that the Sperm Bank of California has had to turn away gay and bi donors every week, up to 400 men in a single year.

When the FDA releases its draft policy around sperm donation, there will be a public comment period before the regulation is made final. Ruby says anyone interested opening up sperm donation to gay and bisexual men should submit a comment to support the change.

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State Department

Russian activist meets with US global LGBTQ, intersex rights envoy

Aleksander Voronov visited the State Department last week

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Aleksandr Voronov from Coming Out, a Russian LGBTQ rights group based in St. Petersburg, met with Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, at the State Department last week. (Photo courtesy of Stern's X account)

A Russian activist last week met with the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights at the State Department.

Jessica Stern on March 29 posted to her X account a picture of Aleksandr Voronov of Coming Out, an LGBTQ advocacy group that was previously based in St. Petersburg.

“I was honored to host Coming Out activist Aleksandr Voronov at the State Department,” said Stern. “Russia’s transgender ban and designation of the so-called ‘LGBT movement’ as extremist undermines the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Russians. We stand with all LGBTQI+ persons.”

Voronov told the Washington Blade he “gave her an update on the situation with LGBTQ rights in Russia.” Voronov said Stern “was very supportive and unbelievably kind.”

The Kremlin over the last decade has cracked down on LGBTQ rights.

The Russian Supreme Court last November ruled the “international LGBT movement” is an extremist organization and banned it. The Moscow Times on March 31 reported authorities in Orenburg, a city near the country’s border with Kazakhstan that is roughly 900 miles south-southeast of Moscow, arrested a gay bar’s owner and charged him with “extremism.”

Voronov fled Russia and now lives in Lithuania. 

“Most of the organizations and public activists, such as me and the organization I lead, were forced to leave the country, but continue working ‘in exile,'” Voronov told the Blade. “Most openly queer-places were closed during last months; but there are still lots of activists, organizations and of course ordinary LGBTQ individuals in Russia who are still there, and will be staying there. And we try to support them as much as we can.”

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