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GOP at a crossroads as conservatives meet

Some optimistic party will evolve, embrace marriage equality

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Jimmy LaSalvia, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, GOProud, Florida, United States House of Representatives, Republican Party, GOP, gay news, Washington Blade
Jimmy LaSalvia, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, GOProud, Florida, United States House of Representatives, Republican Party, GOP, gay news, Washington Blade

Jimmy LaSalvia and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) are urging the GOP to undertake greater outreach to the LGBT community. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

As conservatives from across the country prepare to descend on D.C. for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, some Republicans are urging the party to reach out and welcome the LGBT community.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) — perhaps the most pro-LGBT Republican U.S. House member and co-sponsor of legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act — said in a statement to the Washington Blade that she hopes the Republican Party will reach out to the LGBT community.

“I am optimistic that the GOP will see the value of being more inclusive,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “More of my House colleagues need to come to the realization that establishing positive working relationships with the LGBT community in their districts is the right thing to do.”

It would be quite a turnaround for the Republican Party. The party lost the presidential election and seats in both chambers of Congress in 2012 after the standard-bearer in the election, Mitt Romney, campaigned on a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and said he opposed not only marriage equality, but civil unions.

Gay GOP groups have worked to spread the message that victory for the Republican Party means taking a more inclusive, “big-tent” approach.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said if the GOP doesn’t evolve to engage more with the LGBT community, the party will “hit a wall” and be unable to secure the support of not only gay conservatives, but young voters.

“What we’re looking at is a matter of addition-multiplication that can benefit the movement as opposed to subtraction-division, which will harm it, and ensure that we continue to lose elections,” Angelo said.

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, said the Republican Party needs to address gay issues because so many Americans know gay people and don’t want to cast votes for a party that opposes their interests.

“The gay issue is something that cuts across all demographic groups because politics is personal and everybody has a gay person in their lives, and so they think about how issues affect gay people,” LaSalvia said.

In last 13 years, LaSalvia counted two instances in which the leader of the Republican Party sought input from LGBT people: then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush’s meeting with the “Austin 12” in 2000 and then-GOP nominee John McCain’s interview with the Washington Blade in 2008. In October, Log Cabin also met with Romney at a Virginia farmhouse just before Election Day to discuss LGBT issues, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

The Republican National Committee is set on Monday to make public an internal review of Election 2012 and make recommendations going forward. It’s unknown whether the report will address the party’s relationship with the LGBT community.

Sean Spicer, a Republican National Committee spokesperson, expressed a sentiment similar to Log Cabin’s on the importance of inclusion, but took note of the party’s 2012 platform, which endorses a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“While the issues of our party are clear in our platform, Chairman Priebus recognizes that in order to grow our party we need to be a party of addition and multiplication rather than subtraction and division,” Spicer said.

On its face, CPAC represents the image of the Republican Party that has yet to embrace LGBT people. This year, an estimated 10,000 people are expected to attend the convention, which will take place from Thursday to Saturday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

Speakers at the event include rising Republican stars such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who’s expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and voted against LGBT-inclusive reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act as well as former Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who campaigned last year in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.

Others include Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who gained notoriety recently for his 13-hour filibuster in the Senate over Obama’s use of drones and authority to use them in the United States, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Neither GOProud, which was banned from the event in 2011, nor Log Cabin will be co-sponsors of the event, although social conservative groups, such as The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink will be in attendance.

Both groups told the Blade they didn’t actively seek to participate as sponsors during the event, but they also weren’t invited to attend. Angelo said Log Cabin was invited to participate in other CPAC-related events throughout the week, but opted not to attend.

Gregg Keller, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said in a statement to the Blade that GOProud — along with John Birch Society, an advocacy group supporting limited government — were barred in 2011 for reasons other than gay identity.

“The ACU Board voted in 2011 to not invite two groups to sponsor CPAC because of past disrespectful behavior toward conservatives and event attendees and that policy remains in place,” Keller said. “Although these organizations are not able to participate as sponsors, their members and supporters are welcome to purchase tickets and attend.”

LaSalvia responded by saying ACU’s stated reason for GOProud’s exclusion from CPAC is untrue.

“For two and half years we were under attack from anti-gay forces on the ACU board to keep us out of CPAC because we are gay,” LaSalvia said. “One of our board members called one of those anti-gay ACU board members a ‘bigot.’ He apologized, and they have used that incident as their reason to exclude us when the truth is they kicked us out because we are gay.”

Still, an unofficial event will be held on Thursday in the same building as CPAC that will highlight gay conservatives and tolerance, titled, “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet.” It’s hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and will begin at 6 pm.

Speakers on the panel include LaSalvia as well as CEI Chair Fred Smith; Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for The National Review; CNN contributor and noted supporter of marriage equality Margaret Hoover; and the Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin.

Despite the prominent anti-gay speakers at the event, CPAC is hosting no official panel with a specific anti-gay bent, or even one against same-sex marriage.

LaSalvia said he thinks social conservatives “are an important part of the coalition” that make up the Republican Party, but he doesn’t know what the future holds for conservatives who demonize gay people.

“And I’m not talking about people who oppose gay marriage; I’m talking about the ‘anti-gay-for-pay’ crowd,” LaSalvia said. “Because most Americans have gay people in their lives, they know that gays aren’t destroying America, they know that gays aren’t destroying civilization because gay people are in their families, and so they know better.”

Perhaps the most striking signal that the GOP is reconsidering its position on LGBT issues is a legal brief signed by 131 prominent Republicans calling on the Supreme Court to overturn California’s Proposition 8.

Signers of the brief, which was circulated by gay former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman, included Ros-Lehtinen as well as her House colleague Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.). The brief also included many individuals who worked on the Romney campaign — including David Kochel, Romney campaign’s Iowa strategist, who’s said support for marriage equality is “emerging as a mainstream issue” in the GOP — as well as Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who campaigned in support of Prop 8.

Angelo said the brief “really crystalized” a greater acceptance of gay individuals in the conservative movement that he said “has been happening for years.”

“There have been people who have been elected officials at the grassroots level — and people who have been prominent staffers — who have been personally supportive of gay individuals in the past,” Angelo said. “What’s happening now is they’re becoming more outspoken in that support, and there is a true debate that’s happening within the conservative movement on this issue, specifically of marriage equality.”

Additionally, the 2012 election — in which three states legalized same-sex marriage and another rejected a constitutional amendment banning it — has shaken up presidential candidates’ views on same-sex marriage.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, expressed support for same-sex marriage in an op-ed for the American Conservative, while former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich reportedly told The Huffington Post the Republican Party must accept the reality of same-sex marriage.

In a recent Fox News interview, Romney said he continues to believe marriage is for one man, one woman, but he’ll “respect” other views on the issue.

These new views have led observers to believe that positions on marriage could divide Republican candidates when the compete in primaries for the nomination to run for the White House in 2016.

Angelo said 2016 is a “long way away” and thinks how the marriage issue will play out among the Republican candidates will become more apparent depending on the Supreme Court’s upcoming rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA.

“Will Republicans breathe a sigh of relief if DOMA is overturned and Proposition 8 is overturned because the issues are off the table, or is it going to be something that the Republican Party continues to pursue?” Angelo said. “Any presidential candidate that the party would put forth would have to deal with these issues as a political reality.”

Angelo said the debate within the Republican Party on LGBT rights is the result of an absence of negative consequences after the legalization of same-sex marriage in nine states and D.C.

“I know a lot of people would rather that there would be no debate at all and the movement go from completely opposing same-sex civil marriages to completely embracing it, but that’s not how these things happen,” Angelo said. “I’m definitely a realist in that regard, but things are definitely moving in the right direction.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a comment from the Republican National Committee and a response from Jimmy LaSalvia on ACU’s stated reason for excluding GOProud from CPAC.

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The White House

White House hosts roundtable with transgender youth

Friday was International Transgender Day of Visibility

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Upwards of 1,000 people took part in the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in D.C. on March 31, 2023. The White House on the same day held a roundtable with young trans and nonbinary people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The White House said in a statement released Saturday said Presidential Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy “hosted a roundtable at the White House Friday about the joys, hopes and challenges that transgender children are experiencing.”

The roundtable took place on International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event occurring on March 31 dedicated to celebrating trans people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by trans people worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society.

This year’s Transgender Day of Visibility was one of the largest in years.

Huge crowds gathered in cities across the U.S. in celebrations of visibility and protest as over 450 bills that target queer and trans youth are under consideration or have been passed by state legislatures.

“Transgender kids and their parents traveled to the White House from states that have attacked the rights of transgender kids, including Arizona, Texas and Virginia, and shared the devastating effects these political attacks are having on their mental health and wellbeing,” reads a White House readout of the roundtable. 

“As one round table participant shared, it feels scary when the politicians elected to represent you don’t care about your wellbeing. Families participating in today’s roundtable also highlighted that transgender kids can thrive when parents love and affirm their transgender children, and when transgender kids have access to the support they need at school and in their communities,” it notes. “Ambassador Rice and Dr. Murthy reiterated the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing up for the rights of transgender kids and their parents, and to challenging state laws that harm transgender kids. They also thanked the families for their unwavering advocacy and bravery in challenging these discriminatory laws.”

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Florida

Fla. lawmakers pass bill to expand ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Hundreds of students protested in Tallahassee

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More than 150 students protest Florida's "Don't Say Gay" expansion bill in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 31, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Equality Florida)

On International Transgender Day of Visibility, hundreds of students from across Florida descended on the Capitol to protest the legislature’s fast-tracking of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda of book banning and classroom censorship and assaults on academic and medical freedom.

Buses arrived from Central and South Florida in a collaboration between high school, college and university students called the Student Unity Coalition.

Organizers marched the coalition from Florida State University campus into the halls of the Capitol building just as the House of Representatives voted 77-35 in favor of House Bill 1069, which would expand the “Don’t Say Gay” law’s censorship provisions through 8th grade, ban parents from requiring the school system use their child’s correct pronouns, and escalating book bans, allowing one person from anywhere in the nation to challenge a book in a Florida school, prompting its immediate removal pending a lengthy review.

“The students who mobilized in the hundreds today sent a clear message about the Florida they want to grow up in,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders. “They want a Florida that values freedom — real freedom. Free states don’t ban books. Free states don’t censor LGBTQ people from society or strip parents of their right to ensure their child is respected in school. Students and families across Florida are fed up with this governor’s agenda that has put a target on the backs of LGBTQ people. Shame on DeSantis’ legislative cronies for peddling more anti-LGBTQ lies on the House floor today and ramming through an expansion of the censorship policies that have emptied bookshelves across the state and wreaked havoc on our schools. Shame on them for ignoring the voices outside demanding a state that respects all families and protects all students.”

House passage of HB 1069 comes as last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law wreaks havoc on Florida’s schools and drives educators and families from the state. DeSantis’ Florida has become synonymous with the sweeping book bans that are targeting books with LBGTQ characters or Black history themes, including “The Life of Rosa Parks” and “And Tango Makes Three.” Students’ graduation speeches have been censored.

Rainbow Safe Space stickers have been peeled from classroom windows. Districts have canceled long standing after school events and refused to recognize LGBTQ History Month.

The rampant right wing censorship has exacerbated Florida’s exodus of educators, with vacant teacher positions ballooning to more than 8,000, and, according to a recent survey from the Williams Institute, has led a majority of LGBTQ parents in the state to consider leaving Florida altogether.

On Thursday, parents and educators held a joint press conference outside the House chamber to decry this legislation and other proposals that would strip them, their students, and their families of the rights to academic and medical freedom.

That same day, Republicans lawmakers rejected numerous reasonable amendments to House Bill 1069, including a Parental Rights amendment by state Rep. Rita Harris that would have allowed parents to write a letter instructing schools on what pronouns their child should be addressed with, a clarifying amendment from state Rep. Ashley Gantt that would have finally defined the term “classroom instruction,” which bill sponsor state Rep. Stan McClain acknowledged has been left undefined and vague, and a marriage equality amendment by state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby that would have struck outdated and bigoted sex education language that mandates instruction on the benefits of “monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

The more than 150 high school and college students who rallied in Tallahassee filled the Capitol rotunda just before 1 p.m. ET, with their chants of “this is what democracy looks like” temporarily interrupting a disinformation-filled rant by GOP Representative, and sponsor of the bill to criminalize medical care for transgender youth, Ralph Massullo.

The “Don’t Say Gay” expansion bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 1320, will move next to its final committee, Fiscal Policy.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Justice Department appeals federal judge’s ACA ruling

Decision impacts PrEP, other preventative health services

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The Pride flag over the Justice Department's D.C. headquarters (Photo courtesy of the Justice Department)

Justice Department attorneys filed a notice of appeal Friday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that employers cannot be forced to cover specified preventive health care services under the Affordable Care Act.

Thursday’s ruling means that more than 150 million Americans on employer-sponsored health plans will lose some cost-free coverage for immunizations, contraception, cancer screenings and PrEP.

O’Connor’s ruling struck down the recommendations that have been issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force regarding the preventive care treatments provisions required by the ACA directing insurers provide at no cost to the patient.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement on the Justice Department decision to appeal:

“The president is glad to see the Department of Justice is appealing the judge’s decision, which blocks a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that has ensured free access to preventive health care for 150 million Americans. This case is yet another attack on the Affordable Care Act, which has been the law of the land for 13 years and survived three challenges before the Supreme Court.
 
Preventive care saves lives, saves families money, and protects and improves our health. Because of the ACA, millions of Americans have access to free cancer and heart disease screenings. This decision threatens to jeopardize critical care.
 
The administration will continue to fight to improve health care and make it more affordable for hard-working families, even in the face of attacks from special interests.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein decried O’Connor’s ruling saying:

“Stripping away access to preventive care will hurt tens of millions of Americans. These services are essential, and eliminating them will have dangerous consequences. While we expect this unconstitutional ruling ultimately will fail, the decision creates uncertainty and is a threat to public health.

“With this devastating ruling, a Trump-appointed judge placed the health of millions of Americans in extreme danger, based on an extremist political agenda. Undermining screenings and treatment for cancer, blood pressure, pregnancy, and mental health doesn’t just hurt individuals — it damages the health of the entire country,” California state Sen. Scott Wiener said.

“The effect of this decision on HIV prevention will be disastrous. In recent years, we’ve made incredible progress reducing the number of new HIV infections, largely because hundreds of thousands of people are now taking PrEP, an HIV prevention drug proven to be essentially 100 percent effective. This decision reverses that progress by allowing health plans to charge patients through the nose for this life-saving medication, raising barriers to access for the communities of LGBTQ people and people of color most at risk. Judge O’Connor will soon have thousands of new HIV cases on his conscience,” Wiener added.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, released the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a ruling from O’Connor:

“Judge Reed O’Connor, already having attempted to invalidate the Affordable Care Act as a whole in 2018, has once again issued a ruling that puts the lives of Americans in danger. Preventive care is essential in helping to screen for potential severe health conditions and attempt to mitigate them — this ruling affects screenings for cancer, diabetes, STDs, cardiovascular disease, and so much more.

More than 150 million Americans currently have private insurance with coverage for preventive care under the ACA, yet a partisan judge in Texas is attempting to single handedly rollback access to these basic health care services. Equality California is committed to ensuring that these critical preventive services remain in place for the health of all Americans. We expect an appeal of this decision immediately. 

Thankfully, most health plans in California are unaffected by today’s ruling because existing state law already requires health plans regulated in California to cover preventive services without cost sharing. Today’s ruling may affect a small subset of employer-sponsored health plans that are not regulated by the state.

Equality California is proud to be sponsoring legislation with Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur and Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, AB (Assembly Bill) 1645, which will strengthen existing law and go even further to ensure that Californians have access to essential preventive services, including STD screening and PrEP for HIV prevention. While right-wing judges and politicians are attempting to roll back our rights and inflict harm on LGBTQ+ people, California will continue doubling down to protect the health and safety of our communities.”

Read the notice of appeal here:

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