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37 Senators call on Obama to sign ENDA exec order

Letter touts directive as way to protect millions of workers

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Jeff Merkley, Oregon, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade
Jeff Merkley, Oregon, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is leading a group of U.S. senators calling on Obama to issue an LGBT executive order (Public domain photo)

A chorus of 37 U.S. senators is calling on President Obama to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers amid increased pressure for him to issue the directive.

In a letter dated Feb. 14, first made public by the Washington Post’s Greg Sergeant, the group of 37 senators — led by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) — identifies themselves as supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and ask Obama to take administrative action against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.

“Issuing an Executive Order that includes sexual orientation and gender identity is a critical step that you can take today toward ending discrimination in the workplace,” the senators write. “By expanding protections for LGBT employees of federal contractors, you would be helping to ensure that all Americans get an equal opportunity to succeed and that federal taxpayer dollars are used to support companies with the best employment practices.”

In addition to Merkley, who has sponsored ENDA in the Senate, signers of the letter include longtime members of the chamber who’ve supported the bill, such as Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Senate Health, Labor & Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who pledged to move the ENDA legislation out of committee this year.

New faces to the Senate have also signed the letter, including Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), William Cowan (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only openly gay member of the Senate, is also a signer. No Republicans signed the letter, but an Independent, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), penned his name.

As noted by the letter, a report from the Williams Institute from February 2012 estimated such an executive order would protect an estimated 16 million workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But the report also estimates the pool workers who are actually LGBT within the 16 million is smaller, and between 400,000 and 600,000 people.

Shortly after the news broke on the letter from 37 senators, the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, a coalition of more than 210 civil rights groups, announced it had also sent a letter to Obama calling for the executive order.

The Feb. 14 letter, cosigned by the Leadership Conference’s CEO Wade Henderson and Executive Vice President Nancy Zirkin, recalls Obama’s inaugural address in making the case for the directive.

“The Leadership Conference agrees with your recent remarks in your second inaugural address that ‘our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,’ and believes that issuing an executive order to ban federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees helps promote equality for all individuals under the law,” Henderson and Zirkin write.

Since April, the White House has repeatedly said it won’t issue such a directive at this time and prefers a legislation approach to protecting LGBT workers against discrimination as opposed to executive action.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama continues to support ENDA in response to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the letters.

“The president has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and his administration will continue to work to build support for it,” Inouye said. “We welcome Chairman Harkin’s announcement that he will hold a vote on ENDA this year.”

However, the Washington Post reported on Sunday that Obama is thinking about reversing that decision if Congress doesn’t act. On Sunday, activists affiliated with the LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL held a protest in front of the White House calling on Obama to take action on the directive.

In a statement, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, reiterated his organization’s position that the executive order could provide immediate relief to LGBT workers as ENDA languishes in Congress.

“An executive order from President Obama would ensure that hundreds of thousands of LGBT federal contract employees could go to work every day without fear of being fired for who they are or who they love,” Griffin said. “I am grateful to these leaders in the Senate for speaking out on behalf of LGBT Americans who want nothing more than a fair shot at a job.”

The letter is similar to another letter that 72 House Democrats wrote to Obama in April calling on him to issue the non-discrimination directive. Shortly after the House members sent that letter, the White House first announced it wouldn’t issue such an executive order against anti-LGBT job discrimination at this time.

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The White House

Biden issues Transgender Day of Visibility proclamation

Statement comes against backdrop of anti-transgender laws

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President Joe Biden speaks at the Respect for Marriage Act signing ceremony on Dec. 13, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Joe Biden on Thursday issued a proclamation that recognizes the Transgender Day of Visibility.

“Transgender Day of Visibility celebrates the joy, strength, and absolute courage of some of the bravest people I know — people who have too often had to put their jobs, relationships, and lives on the line just to be their true selves,” reads the proclamation. “Today, we show millions of transgender and nonbinary Americans that we see them, they belong, and they should be treated with dignity and respect. Their courage has given countless others strength, but no one should have to be brave just to be themselves. Every American deserves that freedom.”

Biden said “transgender Americans shape our nation’s soul — proudly serving in the military, curing deadly diseases, holding elected office, running thriving businesses, fighting for justice, raising families and much more.”  

“As kids, they deserve what every child deserves: The chance to learn in safe and supportive schools, to develop meaningful friendships, and to live openly and honestly,” he said. “As adults, they deserve the same rights enjoyed by every American, including equal access to health care, housing, and jobs and the chance to age with grace as senior citizens. But today, too many transgender Americans are still denied those rights and freedoms.”  

Biden notes “a wave of discriminatory state laws is targeting transgender youth, terrifying families and hurting kids who are not hurting anyone.”  

“An epidemic of violence against transgender women and girls, in particular women and girls of color, has taken lives far too soon,” he added. “Last year’s Club Q shooting in Colorado was another painful example of this kind of violence — a stain on the conscience of our nation.”

The full proclamation is below:

 TRANSGENDER DAY OF VISIBILITY, 2023 
– – – – – – – 
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA  
A PROCLAMATION
     Transgender Day of Visibility celebrates the joy, strength, and absolute courage of some of the bravest people I know — people who have too often had to put their jobs, relationships, and lives on the line just to be their true selves. Today, we show millions of transgender and nonbinary Americans that we see them, they belong, and they should be treated with dignity and respect. Their courage has given countless others strength, but no one should have to be brave just to be themselves. Every American deserves that freedom.

     Transgender Americans shape our Nation’s soul — proudly serving in the military, curing deadly diseases, holding elected office, running thriving businesses, fighting for justice, raising families, and much more. As kids, they deserve what every child deserves: The chance to learn in safe and supportive schools, to develop meaningful friendships, and to live openly and honestly. As adults, they deserve the same rights enjoyed by every American, including equal access to health care, housing, and jobs and the chance to age with grace as senior citizens. But today, too many transgender Americans are still denied those rights and freedoms. A wave of discriminatory state laws is targeting transgender youth, terrifying families and hurting kids who are not hurting anyone. An epidemic of violence against transgender women and girls, in particular women and girls of color, has taken lives far too soon. Last year’s Club Q shooting in Colorado was another painful example of this kind of violence — a stain on the conscience of our nation.

     My administration has fought to end these injustices from day one, working to ensure that transgender people and the entire LGBTQI+ community can live openly and safely. On my first day as president, I issued an executive order directing the federal government to root out discrimination against LGBTQI+ people and their families. We have appointed a record number of openly LGBTQI+ leaders, and I was proud to rescind the ban on openly transgender people serving in the military. We are also working to make public spaces and travel more accessible, including with more inclusive gender markers on United States passports. We are improving access to public services and entitlements like Social Security. We are cracking down on discrimination in housing and education. And last December, I signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, ensuring that every American can marry the person they love and have that marriage accepted, period.

     Meanwhile, we are also working to ease the tremendous strain that discrimination, bullying, and harassment can put on transgender children — more than half of whom seriously considered suicide in the last year. The Department of Education is, for example, helping ensure that transgender students have equal opportunities to learn and thrive at school, and the Department of Justice is pushing back against extreme laws that seek to ban evidence-based gender-affirming health care.

     There is much more to do. I continue to call on the Congress to finally pass the Equality Act and extend long-overdue civil rights protections to all LGBTQI+ Americans to ensure they can live with safety and dignity. Together, we also have to keep challenging the hundreds of hateful state laws that have been introduced across the country, making sure every child knows that they are made in the image of God, that they are loved, and that we are standing up for them.

     America is founded on the idea that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout their lives. We have never fully lived up to that, but we have never walked away from it either. Today, as we celebrate transgender people, we also celebrate every American’s fundamental right to be themselves, bringing us closer to realizing America’s full promise.

     NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 31, 2023, as Transgender Day of Visibility. I call upon all Americans to join us in lifting up the lives and voices of transgender people throughout our nation and to work toward eliminating violence and discrimination against all transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people.

     IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-three, and of the independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-seventh.
                                 JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.
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Kentucky

Ky. lawmakers override veto of anti-transgender bill

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear sharply critical of SB 150

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Students and transgender activists from across Kentucky made their voices heard on March 29, 2023, in opposition to Senate Bill 150 (Photo courtesy of the Fairness Campaign)

Both chambers of the Kentucky Legislature voted Wednesday to override Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto on Senate Bill 150 that would severely restrict the lives of transgender youth in the state.

The law will:

  • Ban gender-affirming medical care, including treatments that delay puberty, other forms of hormone therapy and surgery, for trans and nonbinary people under 18 years old. 
  • Require revoking the licenses of doctors who provide such services.
  • Tell public schools to block trans students from using bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
  • Allow public school teachers to misgender trans students.
  • Prevent public schools from allowing educational presentations that study gender identity or sexual orientation.
Governor Andy Beshear (Photo courtesy of Beshear’s office/Facebook)

Beshear stressed that the bill conflicted with his faith and noted the bill’s repercussions would include an increase in LGBTQ youth suicides: “My faith teaches me that all children are children of God and Senate Bill 150 will endanger the children of Kentucky.” Beshear also called it “too much government interference in personal healthcare issues and rips away the freedom of parents to make medical decisions for their children.”

In an emailed statement to the Washington Blade, Fairness Campaign Executive Director Chris Hartman reflected on the Assembly’s actions:

“While we lost the battle in the legislature, our defeat is temporary. We will not lose in court. And we are winning in so many other ways. Thousands of Kentucky kids came to the Capitol today to make their voices heard against the worst anti-trans bill in the nation. They are our hope for a Kentucky future that is more fair, more just, and more beautifully diverse and accepting than ever before.

I applaud the brave protesters who stood their ground in the Kentucky House gallery today before being removed by Kentucky State Troopers. Their chants and pain were heard by all in the chamber and were a necessary show of the grief and harm Senate Bill 150 will cause. Transgender children and their families in Kentucky are scared, rightfully so. We will do all we can to ensure they can continue to access the life-saving medical care they deserve.”

According to Hartman, “Brave, devastated protesters held each other in solidarity and chanted for 30 minutes in the House gallery before being taken out in zip ties by state troopers.”

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Tennessee

Tennessee queens brace for ‘drag ban’ law

All-ages drag brunch raises $3,500 for school gun violence prevention efforts

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New Beginnings owner Michael Trivette addresses the crowd at an all-ages drag brunch on Sunday, March 26. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Tennessee has passed a number of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, including a measure that criminalizes gender-affirming care for transgender youth and a law that could be used to stop all drag shows on public property or in the presence of anyone under the age of 18.

In response to the anti-drag law, the owner and staff at the Tennessee gay bar New Beginnings held an all-ages drag brunch fundraiser on Sunday, raising $3,500 to combat gun violence in schools.

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed Senate Bill 2, the so-called “drag ban,” into law on March 2, setting fines and even jail time for “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” in the presence of minors or on public property. The vague language of the new law, set to take effect on April 1 has advocates, business owners and entertainers concerned about how the law might be enforced.

“We don’t view the language of the bill as banning all public drag,” Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders told the Washington Blade. “But with that said, it is restrictive and it will embolden those who want to police and harass drag performances outside 18+ clubs. The implementation will be in the hands of law enforcement and district attorneys across the state and that is really where the potential for arbitrary enforcement comes in. In some of the larger cities, I do not believe that law enforcement or the district attorneys will view a drag brunch as a violation. I don’t speak for them, though. But in other parts of the state, the matter could be more complicated. Regardless of how one reads the text of the law, it will embolden groups who go around filming drag performances and take segments out of context.”

New Beginnings is a ‘safe space’

New Beginnings owner Michael Trivette greets patrons at the bar. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

One place where drag thrives in the state is New Beginnings, a sprawling nightclub located in Johnson City. New Beginnings, founded in 1987, is the only full-time LGBTQ venue currently in operation in the Tri-Cities area that includes Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn., as well as Bristol, Va.

“We try to give the young people who come here something nicer than the circumstances they live in,” Mark, a New Beginnings bartender, told the Blade. “Many of these kids have never been on a plane, have never left the Tri-Cities area. We provide them with a safe space to be who they are and to experience the world: To see something of New Orleans or places outside.”

New Beginnings faces regular protesters and had an inauspicious beginning, according to Michael Trivette, who owns New Beginnings with his husband and extended family. He recounted to the Blade, “When we first opened up here in 1987, I was in the back parking lot painting stripes because they had to be marked for permits and a police officer came through and said, ‘I understand that you are putting a gay bar in here . . . you can just tell whoever that there’s not going to be no gay bar in my district.’ He said, ‘I’ll close it down.’ and this was before we even opened.”

Things have changed over the years as both New Beginnings and the LGBTQ community as a whole have gained wider acceptance, according to Trivette. 

Trivette tells the Blade that New Beginnings often holds a drag brunch around the time of TriPride, an annual event that rotates between Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City. The TriPride drag brunch is now in jeopardy given concerns around the enforcement of the new law.

“When TriPride had pitched [having Pride in Johnson City in 2023] to the city commissioners and the mayor, they spoke so eloquently of an event to bring all of the people of the Tri-Cities together in a unified moment where they could celebrate the diversity of different people. The mayor wrote this glowing letter,” Trivette recounted. “It’s just so wonderful to think of, this is where we were and now this is where we are.”

“But now, this is where we’re going back to,” Trivette added.

Trivette said there was even talk of moving TriPride from Johnson City to nearby Bristol, Va., across the state line, just to be safe. However, TriPride told the Blade they resolve to continue with plans for a September parade and festival in Tennessee.

“As it stands currently, TriPride intends to continue with the parade and festival in Johnson City,” TriPride Board President Melody Taylor said. “We will continue to have open communication with the city as well as monitoring how the new law is being interpreted and if or when anyone is charged. TriPride has always prided itself on being an all-ages friendly event and our festival entertainment has never been obscene and this year will be no different.”

Tenn. anti-drag law goes into effect on April 1

(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

“Of course we think it’s ridiculous,” Trivette said when asked what he thought of the new drag law. “I just truthfully have to wonder who saw what that made them feel compelled to go back to their offices and write this law about drag queens.”

Trivette continued, “You take a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class people and you talk about the good old days and how much better it used to be and you point your finger at a group of people and you blame them for your problems. And when you have an enemy, you have a focus.”

Kyelee Moffatt, mother, social worker and self-described “jack of all trades” at New Beginnings was blunt about her feelings concerning the anti-drag law: “I think it’s bullshit.”

Moffett elaborated, “I think it’s a lot of white, old men in Nashville making laws about things they know nothing about because they are being told things from people who are ignorant. They aren’t educated as to what drag is: it is a form of art. It is a wonderful form of entertainment. These people making these laws are afraid of them, the drag performers, because they are different.”

“I have fear for this law being interpreted in different ways to affect our trans community, especially,” she continued. “Especially with the recent ban on gender-affirming care for our trans youth in the state, I think that this is another way for politics and law enforcement to persecute our trans community. I’m afraid that law enforcement is going to target the trans community as well.”

“For me, it is reflective of laws in the 50s,” Moffett cautioned. “It’s just a huge red flag that our civil rights are being violated. I think we’re going backwards instead of forwards because, again, because people are afraid of what they don’t know.”

Odessa Mann, a drag artist who headlines alongside a large troupe of performers in the only regular drag show in the Tri-Cities, met with the Blade before hosting Saturday night’s drag show at New Beginnings. Mann, a spirited performer who is equally animated when talking about the importance of drag, explained, “Drag has been such a part of everybody’s culture: Not just queer culture. It’s been a part of theater and entertainment culture for as long as entertainment has been a thing. And so, it just feels that it is very convenient that now they want to bring up an issue with it all of the sudden.”

“Queer celebration and queer joy has always been a riot and has been a political movement in and of itself,” Mann said. “You can marginalize us and push us to the outsides of the community if you would like to but we’re still going to celebrate and we’re still going to find joy in ourselves. And now they have a problem with that again. So it’s even more important to stay louder in our celebration, louder in our joy and make sure that those people know that we’re not going anywhere. You can make as many bills as you want to, but we’re going to still be right here.”

Odessa Mann leads the drag show at New Beginnings. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“With the current rhetoric being lobbed at the LGBTQ+ community not only in Tennessee but across the country we at TriPride feel our mission of providing a safe environment for our community to rejoice in being their authentic selves is more important than ever,” TriPride Board President Taylor elaborated in an email. “These hateful messages are intended to incite fear and push the LGBTQ community back in the closet, so to speak.  TriPride refuses to simply disappear and will continue showing the love, kindness, and pride that our community has. Our community has been fighting for our right to exist for generations and we will continue that fight as long as necessary.”

Every week of the legislative session, we have published campaigns against the discriminatory bills and we continue to do that,” Sanders of Tennessee Equality Project told the Blade. “We have helped numerous people meet with their legislators and helped people prepare testimony against the bills. We have to continue doing that because we still face an anti-trans student pronoun bill, a new anti-trans amendment to a bill about camps, and much more. In my 20 years of working on anti-LGBTQ legislation in Tennessee, this is the worst year yet. But the community has stepped up and keeps coming back to fight the bills.”

The all-ages drag brunch at New Beginnings completely filled the cavernous club with supporters on Sunday. Children danced alongside drag queens at the G-rated show. Singers serenaded the patrons with live music and a “wilderness fairy” read a story to the youth. It was a bittersweet gathering, as it was perhaps the last of its kind to be had for a while.

Mann thanked the audience.

“I really appreciate you seeing us for what we are. We’re entertainers, we’re here to bring joy, we’re here to bring light. That’s all it is,” Mann said. “And I’d like to bring a little light to the stage right now. All the spotlight has been on us and I’d like to put the spotlight on these little baby drag queens we got. I’ve seen some younguns’ and they’ve been dancing with us, honey. I know they want the spotlight.”

Mann then led a group of parents and children in a dance to the popular kids’ song, “Baby Shark.”

“We want to talk to you for a minute about what’s going on in our country, specifically our state,” Sister Lolo of the Little City Sisters told the crowd.

Sister Lolo, a member of newly formed local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence drag order, continued, “This is the last time under the new law that we as drag entertainers are allowed to interact with some of you. And they say that this law is designed to protect you, but we know that’s not the truth.”

“Now, we’re going to follow the law, because as good citizens we have to,” said Sister Lolo. “But we know the truth and you know the truth. We’re going to work together to change these laws. We’re going to stand for the truth. We are not going to be afraid. Because when we are afraid, they win. And when we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for the truth, we will prevail.”

At the conclusion of the brunch, Trivette announced that more than $3,000 was raised to combat gun violence in schools. He beamed, “there was a bar in New York that was being hassled by the police department there: They didn’t want to have a gay bar in their district. So they started harassing them. And at some point, a drag queen . . . and leave it to a drag queen . . . picked up a brick and threw it at the police officers. That was the beginning, that was Stonewall in New York and that’s what started gay Pride. And now today ladies and gentlemen . . . and children, we just threw a rock.”

Sister Lolo of the Little City Sisters speaks to the audience at New Beginnings all-ages drag brunch on Sunday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

CLICK HERE to see more photos from the all-ages drag brunch at New Beginnings.

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