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Obama cements legacy as ‘fierce advocate’

But supporters look for more advances after stand against DOMA, Prop 8

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Citizens Metal, Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade
Citizens Metal, Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade

LGBT advocates applaud Obama’s Prop 8 brief, but still want more. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The relationship between the LGBT community and President Obama has arguably never been stronger in the wake of the administration’s decision to participate in the lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 — but advocates want him to continue that momentum on other LGBT issues.

On one hand, LGBT rights supporters are pleased with the Justice Department’s friend-of-the-court brief because it marked the first time the administration argued that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. On the other hand, some advocates continue to clamor for advances in other areas — in particular by signing an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination for federal contractors.

Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, was among those who said the brief signaled that Obama continues to lead on issues facing the LGBT community.

“In ways big and small, he continues to distinguish himself as a leader on issues important to our community.” Sainz said. “So, the truth is, I think the president has by filing this brief cemented his legacy as a ‘fierce advocate’ for LGBT people.”

Following calls from LGBT advocates, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli filed the Justice Department’s brief last week before the Supreme Court. It applies the administration’s reasoning for why the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional — namely that laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny – to California’s Prop 8.

While the brief focuses on the constitutionality of Prop 8, which is the question before the Supreme Court, the filing also has language suggesting that same-sex marriage bans in other states are unconstitutional. The brief observes that eight states including California have bans on same-sex marriage while offering domestic partnerships to same-sex couples with the same benefits of marriage.

During a news conference at the White House on Friday, Obama himself said the reasoning presented against Prop 8 in the brief may apply to other cases.

“Now, the court may decide that if it doesn’t apply in this case, it probably can’t apply in any case,” Obama said. “There’s no good reason for it. If I were on the court, that would probably be the view that I’d put forward. But I’m not a judge, I’m the president. So the basic principle, though, is let’s treat everybody fairly and let’s treat everybody equally.”

Richard Socarides, a gay New York advocate who was pushing for Obama to speak out against the constitutionality of Prop 8, said the brief reiterates Obama’s views that laws against gay people should be subject to heightened scrutiny, but extends the president’s views further.

“It’s having the president of the United States say for the first time in a legal brief to the Supreme Court that gays and lesbians have historically been discriminated against, and that they’re entitled to heightened constitutional scrutiny, and that in this particular case, they’ve been discriminated against,” Socarides said. “I do think it was a big victory for the community, so I think it was an important milestone and definitely a step forward.”

In addition to filing the brief, the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to grant the solicitor general speaking time during the oral arguments in the Prop 8 case – a move that wasn’t publicly called for by LGBT advocates. The Supreme Court has yet to respond to the request.

And the moves in the Prop 8 case are coupled with the Obama administration’s active involvement in the litigation against the Defense of Marriage Act. In recent weeks, the administration has taken action elsewhere.

The Pentagon has started the process for implementing certain partner benefits for gay troops. That action comes in the wake of the inaugural address in which Obama issued a national call to advance the rights of “our gay brothers and sisters.”

John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, said Obama deserves credit for filing the Prop 8 brief, but also criticized the White House for refusing to talk to about it before submitting it to the Supreme Court and filing it on the last possible day.

“Obviously, there was a hiccup in actually getting this brief,” Aravosis said. “It sort of appeared at the last minute. … Had they decided earlier to file a brief, they could have just gotten credit for it, but instead it became a controversy. They got credit at the end, but it still felt like it was begrudging support.”

In the wake of the filing, advocates say they continue to want more from Obama on LGBT issues and at the top of the list is signing an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.

HRC’s Sainz was among those saying the directive is next on the plate for LGBT advocates in terms of administrative action.

“The non-discrimination executive order definitely remains our top priority, so that is where we turn our attention to next,” Sainz said.

Socarides said he wants Obama to sign the executive order, but also wants Obama to push ahead with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act amid promises from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to advance the legislation this year.

“It’s past time for the president to sign the executive order extending non-discrimination provisions to federal contractors,” Socarides said. “I’m hoping that he will do that soon, and at the same time, continue to fight and actually fight more aggressively for ENDA, for federal legislation, and I think that we can flip the House Democratic in the next mid-term election, we could have a pretty good chance of getting ENDA in two years.”

Other requests include the appointment of an openly LGBT Cabinet member and holding in abeyance the marriage-based green cards for married bi-national couples until the Supreme Court makes a final determination on DOMA.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama remains concerned about LGBT issues and will continue to work on them.

“President Obama is proud of the strong record he’s established on LGBT rights, and he looks forward to building on that progress in the months and years to come,” Inouye said.

Aravosis said predicting whether the administration will follow the brief with other actions that benefit the LGBT community is difficult — but that doesn’t mean advocates should stop pushing for them to happen.

“People who aren’t necessarily working on your issues don’t understand that one fix does not address every problem, and they get sort of annoyed sometimes when we keep asking for more,” Aravosis said. “We keep asking for more because we don’t have our equal rights yet. Once we get full and equal rights, then you can complain that we’re asking for too much, but we have less than everybody else right now.”

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National

In first, gay Democrat and gay Republican face off in congressional race

GOP candidate was present at Stop the Steal rally

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Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic candidate, (left) is taking on George Santos, a Republican (right) in New York's 3rd congressional district.

The race in New York’s 3rd congressional district is seen as critical in the mid-term elections as Republicans are poised to retake the House and Democrats are trying to preserve their razor-thin majority. But the New York race holds another important distinction as the two candidates — Robert Zimmerman and George Santos — are openly gay, marking the first time out gay candidates from the two major parties have squared off in a House race.

In separate interviews with the Washington Blade, the candidates had markedly different takes on the nature of the historic first, with one saying his sexual orientation influenced his approach to politics and the other utterly rejecting its importance.

Zimmerman, a progressive Democrat and communications official who supports causes like LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, and gun reform, said being gay and closeted in his youth living on Long Island in the 1970s shaped his view of politics.

“I went to speak to an educator I trusted, and he suggested to me I try a doctor to make me better, because in those days, that was the path, conversion therapy,” Zimmerman said. “And I certainly didn’t do that, but it just reflects how isolating that period was, but I guess out of that period, that sense of isolation, it helped me to look at the world around me and see a lot of other folks who felt unseen and unheard, and it helped me find my voice that brought me to protest lines, brought me into political activism.”

The first protest for Zimmerman, he said, was in front of the Democratic Party’s headquarters. He’s now a member of the Democratic National Committee in New York. Zimmerman said his political activism also brought him to the office of his member of Congress, where he became a congressional intern and later a member of his senior staff.

Santos, a conservative Republican, downplayed the importance of being a gay congressional candidate and said he doesn’t make it an issue in his campaign, although he conceded,”it feels awesome that the opportunities are equal for everybody in this country.”

“It’s great to see that opportunities are equal to all in this country,” Santos said. “It’s always been that way. … So I don’t make it a campaign issue as far as I don’t campaign on that issue. It’s not a campaign issue for me. I think it’s a distraction, really about the real issues plaguing our country right now. I’d rather talk about that stuff all day long than talk about my sexual preference.”

Key issues for Santos, he said, were many of the same issues Republicans are running on as part of the 2022 mid-term elections, such as inflation, the cost of energy, and crime, which he said are issues that affect every American to varying degrees regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Although he downplays the significance of his sexual orientation, Santos would have the distinction if elected as the first openly gay Republican in Congress since the departure of former Rep. Jim Kolbe in 2009. Santos would also have the distinction of being the first openly gay non-incumbent Republican candidate elected to Congress.

Not exactly fitting the mold of gay members of Congress seen in the past, Santos has aligned himself with a conservative ideology. He has called abortion rights “barbaric,” and spoken favorably about the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Footage exists of Santos saying he was at the Ellipse for the rally with former President Trump that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Santos didn’t deny that he was present at the “Stop the Steal” rally, but said he “did not go” to the U.S. Capitol building on Jan . 6 and downplayed the significance of his presence at the rally.

“I just don’t see how that’s relevant to this interview, and to what we’re doing in 2022,” Santos said. “I just really think the American people deserve journalists to really focus on the future. I really liked this interview to be about proposals and what I’m going to present in Congress come 2023 instead of looking at two years ago, and really reminiscing on that.”

Amid news stories of Republican candidates continuing to deny the outcome of the 2020 election, Santos indicated he wasn’t among them. Asked whether President Biden won the 2020 election, Santos replied, “He’s the president of the United States, I never contested that.” Asked whether Biden is president because he won the election, Santos replied, “Of course.”

Albert Fujii, spokesperson for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said the records of both candidates made it easy for the organization, which endorses openly LGBTQ people running for public office, to decide whom to support.

“Victory Fund proudly endorsed Robert Zimmerman because of his life-long LGBTQ advocacy, commitment to public service and fierce pro-equality and pro-choice vision for America,” Fujii said. “We believe abortion rights are LGBTQ rights and since our inception have always required candidates be pro-equality and pro-choice to receive our endorsement.”

Fujii added Santos never approached the Victory Fund to seek an endorsement. Gay Republicans have sometimes criticized the organization as being a partisan tool of Democrats.

Political outsiders have rated New York’s 3rd congressional district as “leaning Democratic.” Although some initial polling was favorable to Santos as Republicans had an advantage with inflation and gas prices being a major issue, the tide appears to have turned nationwide after the Supreme Court ruling against Roe v. Wade served as a wakeup call to the Democratic base.

Zimmerman said the ruling in the Dobbs case has stirred a high level of activism, predicting LGBTQ rights would be next on the chopping block due to the concurrence of U.S. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who called for revisiting the decision in favor of same-sex marriage.

“You’re seeing a level of energy and activism as a result of the Dobbs decision,” Zimmerman said. “That is truly unprecedented for a midterm election When you take away 50 years of protection for women, and people also understand that’s just the opening bid. They’re coming after our rights of the LGBTQ+ community next, and they’re coming after our rights in so many other areas. You’ve seen a level of engagement, coalition building, and activism that is really unprecedented.”

Santos, presenting a different take on the Dobbs decision, said he thought the ruling “was great” and “gave the states back its power of the Tenth Amendment.”

“I don’t think it affects us here in New York,” Santos said. “I do understand that there’s other states with different decisions, but that’s precisely what the Tenth Amendment does — it gives the rights back to the state so that on a more hyperlocal concentrated issue, the people’s constituency, get to pick what they think is best for them.”

Thomas’s concurring opinion in the Dobbs decision is also not a threat, Santos said, although he criticized it as an “unfortunate moment.”

“He had an unfortunate moment in a dissenting opinion that the majority did not sign on,” Santos said. “Clearly, that’s why it has no legal value. It’s nothing more than a legal essay. A legal essay written by a Supreme Court justice with — I’m just going to go out on a limb and say not the brightest moment in his career.”

One of the consequences of the Dobbs decision was the introduction in Congress of legislation knowns as the Respect for Marriage Act, which would seek to codify same-sex marriage into law regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court decides to revisit it.

Santos, asked whether he’s in favor of the bill, replied, “If the bill is put through committee properly? Yes.” Santos went on to say he had calls from Republicans about the legislation and told them it’s the law of the land and a matter of “if you feel comfortable supporting my right to marry my spouse of my choosing.”

“My only hang up with it is I really wish to give it more legitimacy and not leave any questions open for pundits on both sides of the aisle … let’s just get it passed,” Santos said. “I mean, I have no issue. Of course I’d vote for it.”

When the Blade pointed out he appeared to be leaving the door open to vote “no” based on objections of not going through the regular order of the committee process, Santos denied that was the case: “I didn’t say that. I just said I want it to be that way, so there’s no questions about it. I never in any instance suggested to you I would say ‘no.'”

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Congress

Rep. Mondaire Jones makes video of getting second monkeypox vaccine

Outbreak now disproportionately affecting Black men

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Rep,. Mondaire Jones made a video of him getting the second monkeypox vaccine. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), at a time when racial disparities in the monkeypox outbreak are becoming more pronounced, took a visible role Tuesday in embracing efforts to contain the disease, putting out a video of him obtaining a vaccine.

Jones, who is one of two openly gay Black members of Congress, is shown in the video outside of Westchester Medical Center’s drive-through clinic in Westchester County, N.Y., saying he just received his second dose of the monkeypox vaccine.

“Monkeypox is hitting LGBTQ+ communities of color particularly hard,” Jones said in a tweet. “The most effective way to stop the spread is to get vaccinated and to talk about it — to overcome stigma and misinformation. I did my part and got vaccinated. You should, too.”

The video comes out as racial disparities persist in the monkeypox outbreak, even though the number of new cases overall is beginning to decline. In the week of Sept. 4, Black people represented 41 percent of the cases and Latinos represented 27 percent, while 26 percent were white and three percent were Asian, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Jones, who had represented New York’s 17th congressional district, was unable to obtain the Democratic nomination to run again for Congress after redistricting in New York and is set to leave at the end of his term.

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State Department

Blinken speaks at U.N. LGBTI Core Group event

Gathering took place on eve of U.N. General Assembly

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday spoke at an LGBTQ and intersex rights event that took place on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly.

Blinken in his remarks at the LGBTI Core Group, a group of U.N. countries that have pledged to support LGBTQ and intersex rights, noted the meeting took place at “a time when the movement for equality is showing some encouraging momentum.”

He pointed to the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual acts over the summer in St. Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda. Blinken also noted the Vietnamese Health Ministry’s announcement last month that it no longer considers LGBTQ people to be sick. 

“At the same time, for that progress, which is real and which is worth underscoring, we know that people worldwide continue to experience alarming levels of violence, discrimination, isolation,” said Blinken. “Risks are the highest for people with disabilities, people of color, refugees and LGBTQI+ women. Transgender people are often denied access to legal identity documents that reflect their names and gender markers. Intersex people, including minors, continue to be subjected to unnecessary surgeries without their consent.”

Blinken further stressed that members of the U.N. LGBTI Core Group and countries around the world “have work to do to ensure that LGBTQI+ people have the same rights, the same protections as all other people.”

“Defending these rights is central to the health of our democracies,” he said. “Any system where some groups are treated as ‘less than’ simply because of who they are is fundamentally flawed.”

President Joe Biden in February 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy. The White House four months later appointed Jessica Stern as its special envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights overseas.

The State Department in April began to issue passports with “X” gender markers. The White House’s efforts in support of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad now includes marriage equality in countries where activists say such a thing is possible through legislation or the judicial process. 

Blinken in his speech noted Biden in June issued a sweeping executive order that, among other things, prohibits the use of federal funds to support so-called conversion therapy. The ceremony, which occurred during the White House’s annual Pride reception, took place against the backdrop of the passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and efforts in several other states across the country to curtail the rights of transgender students. 

“Standing up for LGBTQI+ people is a top priority for our administration,” said Blinken.

Blinken also referenced the 1969 Stonewall riots.

“Everything we’re doing builds on the work of literally generations of advocates who have — and still are — risking so much to put LGBTQI+ people and their rights on the map,” he said. “And I have to say, as I read the history, learn the history, hear of experiences, I’m quite in awe of generations of advocates who have done so much to put us where we are today. The work we’re doing is only possible because of the work they did — but not only the work they did, the courage that they showed.” 

“The 1969 protest at the Stonewall Inn marked a turning point in our nation’s struggle for LGBTQI+ rights and helped galvanize the global movement,” added Blinken. “This is something that is seared into the memories, seared into the consciousness of so many of us.  And particularly for me as a native New Yorker, it’s something that I have seen and been inspired by for many, many years.” 

Blinken further noted “Stonewall is also a stark reminder of all the places worldwide where people are still subject to abuse simply for being themselves.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir; Permanent Brazilian Representative to the U.N. João Genésio de Almeida Filho, Peruvian Foreign Minister Cesar Landa Arroyo, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt and OutRight Action International Executive Director Maria Sjödin are among those who attended the event alongside Stern and Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ and intersex issues.

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