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Mixed reviews for Obama’s State of the Union address

Speech mentions benefits for gay troops, but no overt call to pass ENDA

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Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade, Joint Session of Congress
Joint Session of Congress, gay news, Washington Blade, Barack Obama

President Obama delivered a State of the Union address that included a couple of LGBT references. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening, President Obama delivered the first State of the Union address of his second term that included one overt reference to gay people in addition to a veiled reference to the LGBT community as he highlighted other initiatives.

Obama’s most explicit gay reference came when he pledged to “do whatever we must” to protect U.S. troops serving the country overseas. At that point, Obama touted the extension of limited partner benefits to gay troops that was announced by the Pentagon a day earlier — possibly alluding to further benefits upon repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“As long as I’m commander in chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world,” Obama said. “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal treatment for their families — gay and straight.”

Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said Obama “was very clear” that gay service members and their families should be treated equally — but noted the work isn’t finished.

“To finish the task, the Supreme Court must strike down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” Robinson said. “Secretary Panetta’s successor must enact equal opportunity and non-discrimination policies that protect LGBT troops and ensure America’s military can attract and retain America’s best. And outmoded, obsolete policies that bar qualified American patriots who are transgender from military service must be eliminated.”

A less overt — but more forward looking — reference to the LGBT community came at the beginning of his speech when Obama alluded to gay people when talking about removing barriers preventing Americans from joining the middle class “no matter … who you love.”

“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth,” Obama said. “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, or who you love.”

That remark has been interpreted as a call on Congress to pass employment non-discrimination protections because the absence of such a law is seen as an impediment to LGBT workers reaching economic prosperity. Prior to the address, advocates were hopeful Obama would use the occasion of the State of the Union address to push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and pledge to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT job bias.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, was among those who interpreted the remarks as an allusion “to the need to outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans” — but called on Obama to take more action.

“First, the president should sign the executive order adding LGBT workplace protections to almost 25 percent of all American jobs,” Almeida said. “Second, he should encourage Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep his three-year-old promise to bring ENDA to a vote on the Senate floor for a long overdue vote.”

Almeida added he wants Obama to “explicitly call on both chambers of Congress to pass ENDA” in another speech sometime before the Senate vote expected this year.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, took a broader view.

“I think that it’s broader and more significant in that it includes kind of a broad sweep of the inclusion of gay people in the middle class,” Sainz said. “And so, it has everything to do with employment and opportunity and every hope and dream that LGBT have.”

Asked whether the language satisfies his previous call for Obama to lay out plans for the LGBT executive order during the State of the Union, Sainz said he thinks it falls short of that request, but said it’s still significant.

“I don’t think he necessarily speaks to it directly, but I do think that it is further evidence of … mainstreaming of LGBT people in all aspects of American life,” Sainz said.

The LGBT references build off the stronger references that Obama made during his inaugural speech when he invoked the Stonewall riots and said “the love we commit to one another must be equal.” In his three previous State of the Union speeches, Obama has also mentioned the LGBT community and talked about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Obama also made a reference to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic when he talked about the United States pushing to make progress in poorer countries.

The president hit on “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation,” then, diverting from his prepared remarks, said it’s “within our reach.” That term was coined by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of the Obama administration’s pledge to rid the world of the disease.

Kali Lindsey, director of legislative and public affairs for the National Minority AIDS Council, said in a statement Obama’s remarks are a call to action “to make AIDS this century’s polio.”

“This includes continued funding for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program,” Lindsey said. “It also means continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act in a way that meets the needs of those living with and vulnerable to chronic and communicable diseases, like HIV.”

Obama also made an implicit LGBT reference when he called on the House to pass the version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that the Senate had passed on a bipartisan vote just hours earlier. The Senate version of the bill has explicit LGBT language to help LGBT victims of domestic violence.

“Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago,” Obama said. “I urge the House to do the same.”

But an LGBT references was notably left out of Obama’s speech when he talked about the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform without mentioning the potential separation that bi-national same-sex couples face in the United States.

Instead, Obama talked about “a responsible pathway” to citizenship that includes a background check and learning English and fixing problems in the legal immigration system. Obama included gay couples in the plan he unveiled for reform.

The LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL expressed disappointment in the State of the Union address.

“As someone who would qualify for the DREAM Act and who is part of a bi-national family, I know first-hand that true comprehensive immigration reform must include LGBTQ families, a fair and just pathway to citizenship, and an end to harsh enforcement that separates families,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, GetEQUAL’s national field director.

Heather Cronk, GetEQUAL’s managing director, criticized Obama for not committing to signing an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT job bias for federal contractors — noting he announced other directives, such as one related to cybersecurity. She was among those who protested at the White House on Sunday over the non-discrimination directive.

“He had his pen out today to sign other executive orders — it’s incumbent on the LGBT community to ask why he decided to put that pen away before protecting 25 percent of the American workforce from workplace discrimination,” Cronk said.

Local members of the LGBT community were among the guests during the State of the Union. The White House invited Tracey Hepner, a lesbian Arlington, Va., resident and co-founder of Military Partners and Families Coalition, to sit with first lady Michelle Obama. She’s the spouse of the military’s first openly gay flag officer, Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith.

Also in attendance was Kelly Costello, a lesbian Potomac, Md., resident, who was invited by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act. Costello and her Peruvian native spouse Fabiola Morales, who married in Washington, D.C., are a bi-national same-sex couples fighting to stay together in the United States.

LGBT members of Congress praise address

While some advocacy groups were calling on Obama to take more action after the State of the Union address, LGBT lawmakers praised Obama when speaking with the Blade in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall after the speech.

Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said Obama’s LGBT-inclusiveness builds off the remarks that he gave on LGBT issues during his inaugural address.

“We started on the inaugural address,” Baldwin said. “We talked about the fact that the inclusion was poetic, and sort of weaving into the larger fabric of movements throughout our nation’s history. Today, I was pleased with the power of his language, especially with regard to seeing through the implementation of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and respecting not only the right to serve, but the right to full recognition for families and service members.”

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the only openly bisexual member of Congress, said she was pleased with the move to expand benefits for gay troops.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Sinema said. “I think the fact that not only did the Department of Defense take this action, but the president referenced it in his speech shows that there is widespread acceptance. Not only that, but this is not a controversial issue.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the first openly gay Asian-American in Congress, was seated next to Sinema in the gallery and said they nudged each other when Obama mentioned partner benefits for gay troops.

“I certainly applaud the president for not only mentioning it in his inaugural speech, but he also made a reference to LGBT equality in my first State of the Union,” Takano said. “What a thing that is, so I’m hopeful we’ll move forward in this Congress.”

One member of Congress who wouldn’t speak to the Blade about the State of the Union was anti-gay Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.). Asked whether she would provide a comment for the Blade, Hartzler replied, “Ah, that’s OK.”

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GOP majority city council to repeal LGBTQ+ law in Pennsylvania

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move […] This issue should not be politicized”

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Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Photo Credit: Borough of Chambersburg)

The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) will meet on Monday, January 24 for a likely vote to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

Opposition to the ordinance is led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. In an interview with media outlet Penn Live Saturday, Coffman said, “All of us that ran in this election to be on council we think we got a mandate from the people,” he said. “People we talked to when we were campaigning did not like this ordinance at all. I don’t know what the vote will be, but I have a pretty good idea.”

The political makeup of the council changed with the November municipal election, which ushered in a 7-3 Republican majority.

The ordinance, which extends protections against discrimination to gay, transgender or genderqueer people in employment, housing and public accommodations, was passed in October by the then-Democratic majority council, Penn Live reported.

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

Coffman told Penn Live that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

Penn Live’s Ivey DeJesus noted if Chambersburg succeeds in repealing the ordinance, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ inclusive law is revoked in Pennsylvania. To date, 70 municipalities have ratified such ordinances.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

Equality Florida quickly condemned the measure

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The Florida State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

The Republican majority Florida House Education and Employment Committee on Thursday passed House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23 percent lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Los Angeles Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85 percent of transgender and non-binary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66 percent) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56 percent of transgender and non-binary youth said it made them feel angry, 47 percent felt nervous and/or scared, 45 percent felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, the Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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NCAA adopts new policy amid fervor over transgender athletes

Sport-by-sport approach requires certain levels of testosterone

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NCAA, gay news, Washington Blade
The NCAA has adopted new policy amid a fervor over transgender athletes.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has announced it has adopted new procedures on competition of transgender athletes, creating a “sport-by-sport” approach that also requires documentation of testosterone levels across the board amid a fervor of recently transitioned swimmers breaking records in women’s athletics.

The NCAA said in a statement its board of governors voted on Wednesday in support of the “sport-by-sport” approach, which the organization says “preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.”

Although the policy defers to the national governing bodies for individual sports, it also requires transgender athletes to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections. The new policy, which consistent with rules for the U.S. Olympics, is effective 2022, although implementation is set to begin with the 2023-24 academic year, the organization says.

John DeGioia, chair of the NCAA board and Georgetown president, said in a statement the organization is “steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports.”

“It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy,” DeGioia said.

More specifically, starting with the 2022-23 academic year, transgender athletes will need to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections, the organizational. These athletes, according to the NCAA, are also required to document testosterone levels four weeks before championship selections.

In terms of jurisdiction, the national governing bodies for individual sports are charged determines policies, which would be under ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA, the organizational says. If there is no policy for a sport, that sport’s international federation policy or previously established International Olympics Committee policy criteria would be followed.

The NCAA adopts the policy amid controversy over University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas smashing records in women’s swimming. Thomas, which once competed as a man, smashed two national records and in the 1,650-yard freestyle placed 38 seconds ahead of closest competition. The new NCAA policy appears effectively to sideline Thomas, who has recently transitioned and unable to show consistent levels of testosterone.

Prior to the NCAA announcement, a coalition of 16 LGBTQ groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Athlete Ally, this week sent to a letter to the collegiate organization, urging the organizations strengthen non-discrimination protections as opposed to weakening them. The new policy, however, appears to head in other direction, which the LGBTQ groups rejected in the letter.

“While decentralizing the NCAA and giving power to conferences and schools has its benefits, we are concerned that leaving the enforcement of non-discrimination protections to schools will create a patchwork of protections rather than a comprehensive policy that would protect all athletes, no matter where they play,” the letter says. “This would be similar to the patchwork of non-discrimination policies in states, where marginalized groups in some states or cities are protected while others are left behind by localities that opt not to enact inclusive policies.”

JoDee Winterhof, vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the NCAA announcement the new policy was effectively passing the buck.

“If the NCAA is committed to ensuring an environment of competition that is safe, healthy, and free from discrimination, they cannot dodge the question of how to ensure transgender athletes can participate safely,” Winterhof said. “That is precisely why we and a number of organizations across a wide spectrum of advocates are urging them to readopt and strengthen non-discrimination language in their constitution to ensure the Association is committed to enforcing the level playing field and inclusive policies they say their values require. Any policy language is only as effective as it is enforceable, and with states passing anti-transgender sports bans, any inclusive policy is under immediate threat. We are still reviewing the NCAA’s new policy on transgender inclusion and how it will impact each and every transgender athlete.”

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