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110 House lawmakers call for ENDA executive order

Democratic leaders, Republicans absent from letter

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Reps. Lois Capps and Frank Pallone (right) are among the 110 House Democrats calling on Obama to issue an ENDA executive odder (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Reps. Lois Capps and Frank Pallone (right) are among the 110 House Democrats calling on Obama to issue an ENDA executive order (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A total of 110 U.S. House members have signed a letter calling on President Obama to take action to protect LGBT workers from discrimination — although the letter has the notable absence of members of Democratic leadership and Republican lawmakers.

In a letter dated March 20, the lawmakers called on Obama to sign a much sought-after executive order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination protections for their LGBT workers.

“We believe that a fully inclusive America benefits us all and that sexual orientation and gender identity should never be used to discriminate in employment practices,” the letter states. “For that reason, we request that you make signing an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating in the workplace based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity an initial priority of your second term.”

A news statement accompanying the letter credits Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), the most senior openly gay member of the U.S. House, with leading the 110 House members in the efforts. In 2011, Pallone led a similar effort with Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) by circulating a letter that was signed by 72 House Democrats calling on Obama to issue the directive.

In addition to Polis, all six openly LGB members of the U.S. House signed the letter. The other five are David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, commended the House members who signed the letter for what he said was “speaking out to ensure American taxpayers do not subsidize discriminatory corporations where LGBT employees fear they will get fired for who they are or who they love.”

“It’s now time for President Obama to build on his impressive record and sign this executive order giving millions of Americans a fair shot to build a career based on their talent and hard work,” Almeida added.

The latest missive comes on the heels of similar letters that were sent to President Obama earlier this year. One was signed by 37 U.S. senators, the other was signed by 54 LGBT advocacy groups. In response to each letter, the White House has restated Obama’s support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would protect LGBT people against workplace discrimination.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, echoed a similar sentiment in response to the latest letter.

“Regarding a hypothetical Executive Order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors, I have no updates for you on that issue,” Inouye said. “The president has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and his administration will continue to work to build support for it.”

But the new letter from House members has notable absences. For one, no House Republicans are among the signers. Pallone’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on why House Republicans declined or if the lawmaker reached out to them.

The office of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who’s considered the most pro-LGBT Republican member of Congress, also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on why her name was not on the list.

Also absent from the letter are key members of House Democratic leadership. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) isn’t among the signers, even though she’s already on the record in support of the directive. In July 2011, Pelosi affirmed to the Washington Blade she would support an executive order protecting LGBT workers from workplace discrimination, saying “Yes, and yes. I think it is all long overdue.”

Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, said his boss supports the effort outlined in the letter, but as a rule doesn’t sign group letters because of her position as House minority leader.

“President Obama has demonstrated time and time again that he is committed to ending discrimination wherever it exists,” Hammill added. “Leader Pelosi supports this effort, but it does not diminish the need for a fully-inclusive ENDA law and a majority in the House to approve such legislation.”

Other members of Democratic leadership that are absent from the letter are House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose daughter came out as a lesbian in an interview with the Blade, as well as Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). Their offices didn’t respond to a request for comment either.

Another absent name is Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). Last year, she told the Blade she represents “as a member of Congress one of the largest, most vibrant, gay communities in the entire country.” Her office also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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Federal Government

Barbara Lee: PEPFAR is ‘more in peril’ than ever before

Congress has yet to reauthorize funding for Bush-era HIV/AIDS program

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) speaks about the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Sept. 22 said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is “more in peril” now than at any point since its launch two decades ago.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” said Lee during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference that took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

Then-President George W. Bush in 2003 signed legislation that created PEPFAR.

Lee noted PEPFAR as of 2020 has provided nearly $100 billion in “cumulative funding for HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and research.” She said PEPFAR is the largest global funding program for a single disease outside of COVID-19.

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

The panel took place amid the continued push for Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years. The federal government will shut down on Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last December at a World AIDS Day event in D.C. acknowledged HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact LGBTQ and intersex people and other marginalized groups. A new PEPFAR strategy the Biden-Harris administration announced that seeks to “fill those gaps” over the next five years includes the following points:

• Targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ and intersex people, women and girls and other marginalized groups

• Partnerships with local organizations to help reach “hard-to-reach” communities.

• Economic development and increased access to financial markets to allow countries to manufacture their own antiretroviral drugs, tests and personal protective gear to give them “the capacity to meet their own challenges so that they’re not dependent on anyone else.”

The Family Research Council Action in an email to supporters urged them to tell Congress to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.” Family Watch International has said PEPFAR “has been hijacked to advance a radical sexual agenda.”

“Please sign the petition to tell the U.S. Congress to ensure that no U.S. funds go to organizations that promote abortion, LGBT ideology, or ‘comprehensive sexuality education,'” said the group in an email to its supporters. 

A group of lawmakers and religious leaders from Kenya and other African countries in a letter they wrote to members of Congress in June said PEPFAR, in their view, no longer serves its original purposes of fighting HIV/AIDS because it champions homosexuality and abortion.

“We wrote that letter to the U.S. Congress not to stop PEPFAR funding to Kenya, but to demand the initiative to revert to its original mission without conditioning it to also supporting LGBTQ as human rights,” it reads.

Biden in 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.

American officials earlier this year postponed a meeting on PEPFAR’s work in Uganda in order to assess the potential impact the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act will have on it. The law, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on May 29, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Biden in his U.N. General Assembly speech last week noted LGBTQ and intersex rights and highlighted PEPFAR. Family Watch International in its email to supporters included a link to the letter from the African lawmakers and religious leaders.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated both the FRC and Family Watch International as anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

“[PEPFAR is] not about abortions,” said Lee.

HIV/AIDS activists protest inside house speaker kevin mccarthy (r-calif.)’s office in d.c. on sept. 11, 2023. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during the panel referenced Bush’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that urged lawmakers to reauthorize PEPFAR.

“The way he put it is no program is more pro-life [than] one that has saved more than 25 million lives,” said Power.

Power referenced the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization.” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said a failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken “our own foreign policy and diplomacy.”

“Once again the United States will be missing in action,” stressed Lee.

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Legislation Melanie Egorin and Kenny Kamson, a Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist, also spoke on the panel that MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated. 

From left: U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Nkengasong and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power discuss the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: drag is ‘vulgar and lewd,’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Ruling ‘bristles with hostility toward LGBTQ people’

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J. Marvin Jones Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse in Amarillo, Texas (Photo: Library of Congress)

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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